Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Talk of the town Tuesdays: Almamy Moussa Traoré

Welcome to a new series on Jennifer in Mali!  Talk of the Town Tuesdays where I'll interview friends, colleagues and near strangers to give you a better idea of what my life in Bamako is like and, more importantly, what Mali is like!  Enjoy and please leave comments with questions!!

Not only is he dashingly handsome (and married) he's smart, too!

Name:Almamy Moussa Traoré
Age: February 7, 1980
Marital status: Married
Occupation: USAID/PHARE Information and Technology Coordinator

During my first weeks at USAID/PHARE, I flitted around from office space to office space trying to find my place. While meeting and greeting colleagues and looking for an open spot to set-up shop I met Almamy and asked if there was any room in his office. After relocating a few dusty computers and arranging some errant cords and keyboards in cubby holes along the back wall, I found my new 'office.' A shared space for internet routers (Almamy), and a work space for Sah Cissé (leader of the madrassa – Koranic school - portion of USAID/PHARE's project), our little annex is a cement rectangle measuring 9ft x 18ft. And while it may be small, there's nothing little about the work that gets done here!

Almamy Traoré attended public elementary school in Bamako before entering private high school where he passed the baccalaureat. He then went on to attend the National School for Administration (L'école Nationale de l'Adminstration) where he spent a year studying economics and management. In September 1999 Almamy received a scholarship to continue his studies in Tunisia in technology. He stayed in Tunisia (coming home for summer breaks) for 6 years before moving back to Mali in the summer of 2005. Here's an interview so you can learn some more about him!:

Where were you born?
I was born in Bamako but my family is originally from Sikasso.

What made you interested in technology?
I've always naturally been drawn to technology. It's like how Brazilians naturally love soccer; I've just always loved fixing broken things. As a kid I always fixed broken televisions and radios, VHS players and antennaes. Now, I fix broken networks and printers!

What do you like about your work with USAID/PHARE?
I love the satisfaction from working with people and helping them solve their problems. When someone has a problem in the office, for example with a printer or with a network that is down, I'm the person they come to. I find great satisfaction in solving these kinds of problems. I also take great pride in my current job that, in some small way, I am a part of a program working to help develop my country. If I had stayed in Tunisia after school ended, I would not be here now helping to install networks and CVFs (Centre Virtuel de Formation – virtual training centers) in IFMs (Institut de Formation de Maitre – Teacher training colleges) throughout Mali. I feel needed here at the office and I like that. It's a real opportunity!

What's your favorite place in Bamako?
I like cultural spaces. Places like Espace Bouna, and Savannah where I can listen to live music and eat good food. I don't really like clubs or places like that.

What's your favorite city in Mali and why?
If it's a matter of where to live: Bamako. Everything is in Bamako! But if it's for a city that I would like to get to know better and visit more, that would be my native city of Sikasso. Sikasso has the best weather and food options in Mali.

What's great about Mali?
I love the hospitality of my country. It's rare to find it anywhere else and it's what made me come back to Mali after my studies in Tunisia. While I could have stayed and worked in North Africa or gone on to France or maybe even the United States, I missed the generosity of my country and wanted to come home.

What's your favorite Malian proverb?
Dͻ bé du don, dͻ bé do bah dͻ dͻn.
Some people know some things, others know something else.
(You can't know everything, someone else will always know more.)

Final comments?
Whenever you can do good for others – it's something you should do without reflection. Life is fleeting and you never regret helping someone else.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lebanon and love: you can't find either in the market!

Find image source and info on Lebanon here
I arrive at Beirut Rafic HaririInternational airport at 2am on Saturday after a series of delayed and missed flights and collapse into bed with thoughts of the Mediterranean Sea in my head. Later that morning Monica* leads Therese, another former PC Mali volunteer, and me downstairs and uphill to buy breakfast. Monica explains the options available for my manouche, or breakfast pizza, along the way: cheese, spices, spinach, meat... and I find myself salivating at the thought of my imminent meal. We arrive at the bakery a few minutes later and are warmly greeted by a man behind a white formica countertop. He welcomes us to Lebanon and specifically Chaouiye, the village we are in, before turning on the half-moon gas oven behind him and beginning to prepare the dough for our manouches. “Is this your first time going to a wedding in Lebanon?” he asks as he spreads the thin circles of dough on the prep board before him. Therese and I nod that it is. “Il n'y a rien commen un mariage au Liban!” he continues. There's nothing like a wedding in Lebanon!

Breakfast pizza! aka manouche!

Monica, the bride-to-be, invited her out-of-town guests (14 in all) to arrive a week before the wedding to sight-see in Lebanon and to get a chance to know one another before her nuptials to her fiancee, Samer, whom she met in Segou while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali (her host mom, Nema, and mine, Annie, were buddies at our regional trainings and we spent Easter together one year). While Monica and Samer, who manages the Auberge hotel in Segou, took care of last minute wedding preparations like meeting with the DJ and the florist the week before, her guests loaded into a 30 passenger tour bus each day to take care of touring Lebanon!

Saint Preri resort on the Mediterranean Sea
On Monday we slip into our bathing suits and sandals before heading to the rocky beaches of Santa Preri in Jbeil, a resort hotel and beach just outside of Beirut. For $12 we have access to the pool, beach chairs and large, yellow umbrellas set out seaside. We unload our beach bags and slather on sunscreen before ordering lunch (a Greek salad, frankfurter and fries for me!) and relaxing on lounge chairs under our umbrellas on the rocky, and windy, beach.

Moussa's castle

Tuesday morning we load back into the bus for some active touring (not that I minded lounging seaside eating hot dogs!). Moussa's Castle, our first stop of the day, reminds me of the wax museums found along the boardwalk in Virginia Beach except that this tourist treat has a cute history. Our second stop of the day is the Beiteddine palace which was built in the early 1800s by Emir Bechir Chebab II. Housed inside are ancient mosaics and modern meeting rooms and outside are small, open-air gardens with towering cedar trees and neatly manicured shrubbery. Aside from our group of 14, we share the grounds with a handful of tourists and a large troop of pre-teen Lebanese girls attending an English-Arabic school who are here on a field-trip. A few shyly approach Therese and I in the garden to practice their English and ask a few questions. “What is your name?” one of the girls asks. We answer and the girls giggle shyly into one another's shoulders. “Those are pretty names,” they say. We thank them, ask their names and return the compliment. We step forward to continue on our way and swiftly dodge their peculiar follow-up question of “Are you rich?” by saying the bus is waiting for us, we must go!
Street-side hookah in Byblos
And go we must! The cedars are waiting! Our last stop of the day is the cedar forest – home to the symbol of Lebanon. After our bus driver, Mahair, expertly navigates the narrow lanes that are the main thoroughfares in Lebanon, we arrive at the park limits and pick up our guide at the entrance to the park. He has the most endearing broken English of anyone I've met and starts every sentence with “I like and love to...” As we enter the cedar forest thick fog envelops us like a bath of silver soup and our guide asks us to remain silent for one minute as we experience the woods. At the end of the minute he stops us, smiles largely and exclaims “I like and love to make hiking with you all!” In the forest we see cedars ranging in age from a few weeks to over 2,000 years. At the end of our short hike we are all giddy with the beauty of the forest and the fresh, mountain air. But Mahair does not let us linger for long at the edge of the forest, “Monica and her family are waiting!” he says.
'Home' again, we freshen up and head from Monica and Samer's condominium to Samer's brother's condominium below. The tables are laden with appetizers; artichokes in garlic butter, salmon bites, hummus, pita and crudites, stuffed grape leaves and little meat pastries. Dinner doesn't get started until late, around 10, and we all convene around the table after talking outside to get down to the business of eating. Then, someone turns the music on the stereo up and suddenly there is a dance party! I return to my seat after the round of mid-dinner dancing and Assad, Samer's father, waves me over. I lean in from the other side of the white plastic table which groans under the added weight of meat and chicken kebabs to hear what he has to say. When I get close enough Assad lifts his glass tumbler, ice cubes clinking against one another in an amber bath of Johnny Walker Red Label Whiskey, and smiles. “Mabruk!” he shouts, “to Monica and Samer!” Cheers!

Baalbeck, me and Monica

Wednesday morning we head northeast to Baalbeck where we witness incredible Roman ruins and the set-up of another festival venue. Throughout the country we see preparations for concerts and festivals as Lebanon gets ready for the height of tourism in July and August. During tourist season some of the 14 million Lebanese that live outside the country (4 million live in Lebanon) come back to tour their home country along with tourists from other countries curious to see what Lebanon has to offer. On the way home from Baalbeck we visit the Ksara vineyards where we partake in a wine tasting and tour their subterranean (and natural!) cellars.

High noon at Baalbeck

On Thursday we head to the Jeitta grotto where we are not allowed to take photographs inside but let me tell you, it was incredible. Stalactites and stalagmites dating to the Ice Age hang from the ceiling and grow from the floors of the caves – at some places the distance over 300 feet between them! It is like walking into a secret mountain filled with frosting covered whale teeth and cauliflower growths the size of cars. Maybe that's not appetizing but it was glistening and gorgeous. After lunch nearby we head to Byblos, an ancient Roman port surrounded now by kitschy tourist shops and high-and-low end shopping where I find the perfect book for Monica in a cute little shop about what it means to be a Lebanese woman. Not that she needs any help – she is truly a stunner wedding gown or not! Walking around Byblos I feet like I am on the New England coast with a bluer water source and the smell of hummus and olive oil in the air. The classic beauty of the place makes it hard to leave!

Roman ruins at Baalbeck

Thursday night we gussy up and load into the bus yet again – but this time to head to Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East! Tambourines, drums and a functioning microphone make for a lively excursion to the capital and the bachelorette party leaves nothing to be desired – except we could have stayed longer!

We spend Friday recovering from the night before and hanging out at Monica's in-laws, chez Nadia and Assad, who are lovely hosts. I enjoy spending some one-on-one time with Monica – it's her last day as a single lady – as we walk around the village and greet folks here and there and have tea with the mother of a friend. With the warmth of the people and interest in others, it's like being in Mali, there's even a goat tied under a raised porch!, except with more alcohol and more clouds of cigarette smoke in your face.

Saturday morning it is go time! I spend about 4 hours at the hair salon (mostly hanging around and watching the goings on, snapping shots of Monica and her maid-of-honor, Shauna) before we rush back home around 2 to throw on our wedding attire and meet the photographer at a monastery nearby for Monica's portraits with her family. Samer surprises us all by showing up for the session after about 15 minutes and then we get another surprise of a stretch BMW limousine that shows up to take Monica's friends and family to the wedding. We're classy guests!!

my favorite portrait

After receiving guests at Samer's family's home, Samer's family comes to present Monica with a traditional set of jewelry and take her to the church. Her father and father-in-law-to-be escort her downstairs and around the corner to the family's church (with a population of 14,000 Beit Chebab is also home to 14 churches!). A marching band and flame breather announce Monica's arrival, no big deal! :)

The ceremony is elegant – Beit Chebab has never seen a more magnificent bride, that's for sure! After greeting all the guests and taking portraits with close family and friends we head to the reception area at a restaurant about 10 minutes away. Leaping dancers announce the arrival of the bride and groom along with floor fireworks and pulsing Arabic music. Bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey grace the head and foot of each table and the guests, over 150, snack on labneh, homemade mozzerella, hummus and meat pastries before Monica and Samer arrive. The wedding cake, 6 tiers (!), is eventually cut around midnight – and with a sword! – after hours of dancing and eating. The crowd clears out soon after and everyone in our group of visitors shakes their heads and says to one another how we've never been to such a good party.

On Sunday morning I collect my suitcase and carry-on and carefully close the heavy door to Monica and Samer's condominium as to not wake the other friends and family sleeping on couches and rented beds inside. I make my way downstairs where I buy a manouche from the bakery nearby and hail a cab that will take me to the airport and away from Lebanon and back to Mali. I situate my handbags on the torn floorboard below me and munch happily on my cheesy manouche while the Beit Chebab mountainside unfolds behind me and the Mediterranean Sea and glimpses of Beirut peek out ahead. The taxi driver, Benghara Kassir, starts some small talk and we go through the same conversation I imagine every taxi driver and their client has on the way to an airport. The who, what, where, when and why of my 10-day vacation abridged into a mere 10 minutes for a man whose face I won't remember but whose words I won't forget.
Happy couple!
Did you have a good time?” Mr. Kassir finally asks after I finish a rambling paragraph listing all the sites we visited and some exciting details of the wedding. I reflect for a moment and decide to anticipate his response, and what I heard from guests at Monica and Samer's wedding and from other folks in shops and on the street: “Il n'y a rien comme un mariage au Liban!” I say, in all honesty. Benghara nods his agreement and adjusts a small bouquet of fresh wildflowers in a ceramic vase that is attached to the dashboard while continuing to navigate the winding, and nearly empty, road to Beirut on this early Sunday morning. He takes another moment before he begins to speak and when he does it is not what I expect. “Fancy weddings and fireworks are great and make for a memorable event. But there is something more important than all of that and which lasts long after the night is over and the guests have gone home: Love. Do you know love?” he asks, as though it is a word I have never heard before, perhaps an emotion I have never known. I nod that yes, I do. “Love,” he repeats solemnly, “it's not something you can find in the market.”
First dance, don't you love her braid and the flowers?
Mabruk to you, Monica and Samer! Thank you for showing me the best time in Lebanon and letting me share in the first day of your new life together as husband and wife. Congratulations on finding something in one another that you can't find in any market anywhere in the world!

First dance, complete with floor fireworks
I took a lot of pictures while in Lebanon, see below for a selection (divided by theme) from the trip:
See more pictures from the wedding here
Take a peek at folks getting ready for the big day here
Check out some of Lebanon's sites here

*Monica is a friend of mine from PC Mali. We were both environment volunteers from the same group, or 'stage', in July 2008 and we both continue to live in Mali though in different regional capitals.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Out of Village: Annie and Christine take on Bamako, Mali

Can you say Diva?  Why, yes, I can.  Grobinaid!!

Before moving out of village last September I spent more than a few nights talking with Annie about what my new life in Bamako would be like.  Electricity?  Running water?  Fans and/or air-conditioning?  The fantasy list of possibilities was endless!  Annie was my host-mom in village and not only nurtured my muddled Bambara to coherency with her patient enunciation but also my belly with rice, porridge, and toh – the staples of Malian cuisine 'en brusse'.   A true surrogate mother who has become a truly cherished friend. I can't insist enough on the integral role Annie played in my language acquisition and social integration as an off-the-boat-and-into-the-bush Peace Corps Volunteer in middle-of-nowhere-Mali, West Africa from 2008-2010. Her gentle demeanor, unique role as the only literate woman in our village and willingness to open her mind and heart to new experiences (I'm finding this is a singular trait the world over) all merged together to set the stage for success in both our working and personal relationships. Can you tell I kind of like her??

As I packed my belongings – pots, pans and tchotchkes accumulated over two years in a dusty, mud hut – into a Peace Corps car on my last day in village last summer, I made Annie promise she would come visit me in the Spring – the time of year when her work load is lightest and when people from village often emigrate to larger cities before returning in May or June to begin field-work with the rains. “Ni Allah sonna-ma,” she replied. If God is willing.

It therefore came as no surprise when I received a telephone call from her this past April via Esayi – Annie's husband, my former host-dad and chief of the village – and learned that God indeed was willing for her to visit me. After sharing greetings with Esayi, Annie came on the line. “Djelika?!” she shouted. I could picture her standing under their millet-stalk hanger, the only place Esayi's phone gets service, the phone on hands-free and Annie craning her neck as she spoke and then turning her ear as she listened. I imagined the subtle, crackling sound of termites eating through the branch supports above her and from which Esayi's phone always hangs, a ceaseless soundtrack to accompany the production of village life. “Can I come to Bamako the last Thursday of the month?” she asked. “Of course!” I replied. “And stay until the end of the month?” she went on. I quickly pulled up the iCal feature on my MacBook, “that's only two days, Annie – I sure hope you'll stay until the end of the month!” I shouted back, forgetting my phone was neither on hands-free nor hanging from a millet-stalk hanger. “Not the end of April, Djelika, the end of May!” she hollered back. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “that's quite a bit longer!” After a moment's pause and reflection I followed my gut, which doesn't usually fail me in matters of sustenance or sensibility, and agreed. “Come on down Annie, n be I kono!” – I'm waiting for you!

Annie and Christine, Annie's 3 year-old daughter, transitioned seamlessly into my Bamako lifestyle. Working a 9-5? No big deal, Annie knits through it. Braving cramped, public transport with a toddler? Annie holds on tight and keeps her cool. House parties with raucous dancing? Annie knits right through it while Christine takes a nap. And her only commentary on the party afterwards, aside from insisting that she loved every minute? “Why was that old man dancing like he was a young guy?” “Annie!” I exclaimed, “Old guys have got the right to boogie, too!” She hasn't met my father!

Having Annie and Christine around also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my pace of life. While I feel fully present in my life here in Bamako and love most minutes of it, sometimes I give myself a headache thinking about all the little things I would like to do; I think that's a problem folks have all over the world (or is that a by-product of my being raised in a capitalist society?? oy vey!). Before my routing would look something like this: Work's over – I'll go for a run! And since I'm heading home on the Sotrama maybe I'll stop and pick up some groceries. Well, while I am in market why don't I head over and sift through some thrift-store finds? Oooh, look at that! A shiny new store-front.... You get the idea! (after reading through that and all the references to purchases I'm going to have to go with my un-scientific labeling of being a by-product of a capitalist society) Having a grown woman and toddler in tote made me re-evaluate all those little stops along the way. Those errands had to wait during Annie's visit or I just worked to plan better so I wouldn't exhaust either of us.

Annie and her family also count themselves among the 4% of people that identify as Malian Christians (while googling 'Christians in Mali' I found this.  Maybe dated but still interesting!). My friend Ryan is also a devout Christian, along with a colleague at work, Catherine. Both invited us to join them for services while Annie was in town and we gladly accepted. Catherine's church was a Nigerian Protestant service with a sermon delivered in English, translated simultaneously into French and Catherine stood behind Annie, Christine, Ryan and I to translate it, also simultaneously, into Bambara. That's a lot of languages. And a lot of shouting for each one to heard. And there was near constant drumming/keyboarding/banging of other musical devices. Let's just say, Nigerian Protestant churches in West Africa are not for the faint of heart – or eardrum.
A photo-op on the grounds of the National Park - I like the man posing in the background, too
The week after, we visited Ryan's church which felt just like our village church despite being in the heart of the city (sort of – Kalabancoura, a neighborhood on the other side of town, is quite a haul from where I live!). Annie even found a friend from her childhood, another woman with whom she sang in the choir, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years! Leave it to Annie to make the social network of Mali even smaller! Afterwards we lunched with Ryan's host family on beans, bread and boissons which was just the icing on the cake. I sometimes do get overcome, in a good way, when I get to share in all these special moments like visiting your friend's church for the first time. Even more special when you throw Annie and baby Christine into the mix!

And talk about a mix! I lived next door to Annie and Christine for two years. But living next door to someone and living with someone isn't quite the same. Fortunately for me, living together was even better. Take for instance the opportunity to introduce Christine to watercolors. She liked painting the floor better than the paper (duh, Jennifer!) and then was more interested in pouring water from one jar to the next (duh, Jennifer!). Annie included toddler training 101 as part of her package stay. Christine convinced me that while toddlers are precious – at this time in my life they are definitely better left to the professionals!

All grown-up and putting on big-girl shoes!
While having Christine in tote could be a handful and I was constantly reminded of my own actions (Djelika taara! Djelika is leaving! Djelika kora! Djelika just took a bath! Djelika be sigi! Djelika is sitting!) it was also pretty heart-wrenchingly sweet to have her around all the time. I would do my make-up in the morning and have a little chocolate-ball shadow by my side asking me to do the same on her. After getting home from work one day I sat down on my terrace to relax and chat with Annie. Christine was, as I should have known, alarmingly quiet before she wandered out to join us on my patio. “I tun be min Tini?” I asked. Where were you? Before she had the chance to respond I noticed light pink splotches all over her chest and cheeks. Poison ivy, you may wonder? A bizarre rash? I followed Christine inside to show me where she had been and saw that she had, very carefully, squeezed all my cream blush onto a powder brush before marking herself with it. She even put some blush on the mirror in case it was feeling pasty. Make-up artist in the making!

Another most-precious and eye-opening event was when we visited the FrenchCultural Center for a Sunday night movie. They played a documentary on the ocean which, even for someone raised by the ocean like me, was pretty spectacular. Imagine for a moment Annie and Christine who have never left Mali (and rarely the 20km radius surrounding their village) and whose interaction with ocean-related paraphernalia has been, I am pretty confident to say, limited to none. But Annie is a tough cookie to impress and is pretty consistent with keeping a nonplussed demeanor. Skype? No big deal, talking on the computer with folks in another country and being able to see them is normal. My mango cutter that takes the messy work out of pitting and slicing one of the most-delicious products Mali has to offer? Of course someone would invent that. But the ocean – I knew I would get her with the ocean! She kept her eyes glued to the (really large) screen for the duration of the documentary. And Christine? She spent the whole time yelping, “Jege taara! Jacoma taara!” – There goes a fish! There goes a cat! on my lap while I tried to explain, in Bambara that those furry creatures (polar bears, seals, and not-so-furry penguins) aren't cats.  But by the end of the documentary I had to let it go. After all, who am I to say a seal is not a cat – those whiskers are deceptive! And do you know how to say polar bear, seal or penguin in Bambara?... Me either!

While I worked during the day, Annie would take my park pass and spend her day in the National Park of Mali across the street. I would meet her and Christine for lunch (rice and sauce and hibiscus juice – ginger juice for Annie) and finish out my afternoon at work before we would head home.

There are many things I am thankful for about her visit but none more than the quality time I got to spend with Annie talking about nothing and everything all at once and also the chance for her to get to know, through observation and sometimes conversation, my Bamako friends. And while living in Bamako with electricity, running water and fans is wonderful – it's sharing this life I am living here with others that makes it truly special. Abdoulaye, Massa, Valerie, Ryan, Alys, Jamie, Laura, Aissata, Bobo, Aissetou, Annasoura, Sonja, Gael, Kevin, Massaran and everyone else we hung out with – thank you so much for letting Annie and Christine into your lives! She loved every minute we all spent together – whether you could communicate with her or not!

On one of the last nights of her visit Annie and I were walking to a photography club meeting at the Comme Chez Soi, an overcast sky hanging low above us, when she called my attention to the barely-visible moon hidden behind a layer of stratus clouds. “It's already a quarter moon?” she asked as she shook her head. “In village, you never miss the rising of the new moon – it's always so dark out just before it appears,” she continued. How sweet, I thought. How nostalgic! The wide open plains of village, the sweeping skies, scores of stars on a jet-black backdrop – of course she would miss these things being in light-and-air polluted Bamako where you are lucky to see a handful of stars and the new moon each month. I nodded empathetically as she spoke, “I miss the dark nights and the starry sky, too,” I said. “Miss the dark nights?” she replied with a confused look on her face as though I had suggested we were walking on the paved streets of America rather than the packed-dirt paths of Bamako, “but here you don't have to search for your flash light or fumble around for pots. I don't miss the dark nights, I just said you couldn't see the moon!” I laughed at myself for assigning more meaning to Annie's words than she intended and we began to talk about other things. I asked, “So do you think you'll come back to Bamako to visit me next Spring?” “Ni Allah sonna-ma,” she replied. If God is willing.

See some more pictures from Annie and Christine's visit here!

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