Sunday, March 20, 2011

bazin training...

So I’ve been sitting on this story for a long time, and for no particular reason. But just the other day, I was inspired to finally write it down.

Work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is really hard. Things in village that work don’t need your help, and things that don’t are really difficult to solve. If it was easy, somebody would have done it already. I think that most volunteers leave after two years with little certainty that their work will continue to positively impact peoples’ lives in village.

I feel that way about the bank I worked with in Narena; I feel that way about the cashew project. They’re both good ideas, and I gave them both everything I had, but it’s hard to tell if they’ll end up making a lick of difference in the long term. Some projects just fade away.

But I think it’s fair to say that my last project before leaving village is a winner.


With about six months left in village, after months of flailing for answers on a number of projects, I was approached by a group of women led by my closest work-partner and adopted mother, Rokia. There is a traditional fabric called bazin (pr: ba-zahn), that is dyed in a rather-involved process. They wanted to learn to do it, and they wanted me to help them.

At first it sounded really frou-frou, and I balked at the idea. ‘Rokia and her friends want me to supply them with outfits,’ I thought. I would do no such thing.

But saying ‘no’ isn’t an option in Mali. I had to convince them that it was a bad idea, or give them enough homework to drown them in procedure. So I shrewdly told them that if they wanted me to support the activity, they would have to show me that it would be profitable. I explained profitability to them, and gave them a long list of questions to answer. I made them define – among other things – the necessary materials, the size of the local market, their competition’s practices, and their sales strategy.

I didn’t hear from them for a couple weeks, and figured that was probably the end of that.


So one afternoon I’m sitting at Rokia’s. She’s almost certainly trying to convince me that I’m hungry, because that’s what adopted Malian mothers do. And she tells me that the women have done their research, and they’ve answered most of my questions. She wants to go to Bamako in the next couple weeks to price materials, and wants me to come with them.

I can’t say no.


The market in Bamako is helplessly packed and winding and disorganized, but Rokia has a brother of some sort that has a shop, and he loans us a helper for the day to navigate the mess. We talk to the people who sell the raw fabric; we talk to the people who sell the dyes; we talk to the ladies who sell finished bazin in large baskets on their heads. Rokia judiciously takes notes. I take it all in, adding only a few questions. I insist that Rokia talk to at least two sources for all materials: sometimes people in market lie.

Back in Narena, Rokia puts this all into an excel spreadsheet (I taught her that, btw), and with some help she’s able to tell me exactly how and why she’ll make a profit dyeing bazin.

Not only is she right, she’s displaying all the tools I’ve taught her over countless hours of one-on-one business coaching. I don’t think there’s a person here in whom I’ve invested more time, and I’m thrilled to see it all coming together.

Me having set the bar high, and her having cleared it, the ball was back in my court. But also, I was running out of time in village; with rainy season coming and all the work that entails, soon nobody would have time for this. My window was short.

By a stroke of luck, there’s a good trainer who’s a friend-of-a-friend, and the vast majority of my project plan could be plagiarized directly from Rokia’s business plan (already conveniently organized in an excel spreadsheet).


About six weeks later, we’re right back in that teeming mass of humanity that is the Bamako market. We go back to the people we’d interviewed, this time with cash. We buy enough fabric and dye to make nearly eighty outfits. We buy washbasins and gloves and facemasks.

Over ten days, these nine women come every day. They come early, and leave at dusk with homework. They actively participate, and work through some fairly difficult hands-on practicum. I told them that if they wanted it that bad, they’d have to commit to showing up no matter what. Most of them have kids and husbands at home, and they have to get up early to do the day’s cooking and chores. Many of them have never been to school. Most of them have infant children strapped to their backs all day long. One of them is eight and a half months pregnant (I am charged with making her sit down often).

These are the kinds of people whose stories and lives and kindness all come together to overwhelm you. I am, frankly, humbled that the universe has conspired to give me the chance to help them.

I promise myself that one day I’ll write about them.

And write I shall, but that’s for another post.


Here we are eight months later, and I’ve been gone from village for awhile. Upon returning from my visit to America, I call Rokia to tell her of an upcoming fair, and to see if she wants to come sell her bazin. She doesn’t have much in stock, but with only a couple days notice, she commits to coming. She brings four of the women together, and they do the work in a day. Two days later I’m standing next to her at a table filled with fabric and bursting with color.

Throughout the day, she sells most of what she brought, again judiciously noting every sale into her notebook. At the end, she adds it all up and asks me to check her math. After paying for her materials and transport, she’ll be bringing home nearly a hundred dollars to split between the women.

In a place where most people will work all day in the sun for two bucks, I am prepared to categorically declare success.


Here’s a few photos from the training…

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

happy birthday to...

So yesterday, Peace Corps turned 50. I celebrated it with a strategic planning session for Peace Corps Mali, and a dinner party hosted by a former volunteer.

It gave me a rare chance to reflect on my service in a greater context. Here’s the things I’m thinking about:

- While we call this ‘service’, it has been a tremendous opportunity for me. Though certain obvious sacrifices are involved (mostly the lack of cheese), I consider it a classic case of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to be here. I have learned so much about the world and my place in it, and those are things I could not possibly do in the comfort of the place I call home.

- Looking around at my fellow volunteers, I’m trying to put fifty years and 200,000 volunteers into perspective. Volunteers learn to speak to people in their own language, which implies that we care about them and respect them. Volunteers work from within communities in ways that most aid organizations and charities can only dream of. To their communities, volunteers represent and embody the energy and promise of America – beliefs in freedom and equality and hard work. Around the world, volunteers reach people in ways that nobody else does.

- America is a big place, and I get how it came to be that many-to-most Americans never leave the country. But the world is getting smaller, and our lives are tied to that of our neighbors in so many more ways than before. We see it in business and communications and economics and environmental issues and in politics. Whether we like it or not, a smaller world will mean a slightly different way of living for everyone. Having bridge-builders like Peace Corps Volunteers will make those transitions easier.


So today I’m sending a shoutout to President Kennedy and the 200,000 people he inspired to answer his call to service of our country and the world. I don’t think Peace Corps has ever been more relevant to the lives of ordinary Americans than it is today.

And on Peace Corps’ 50th birthday, I’m especially proud to be a part of the tradition.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

why i'm still here...

So the months of October and November were hard. After leaving village, beating malaria, and saying goodbye to the bulk of my friends in Peace Corps, I figured a quiet few months spent focusing on my work would be good for me.

But then my computer was stolen out of my apartment, setting my work back by weeks, shaking my trust of Malian character, and irrecoverably losing a treasure trove of photography. When I was mugged a month later, my disposition turned sour and stayed there. For the first time in over two years, I seriously weighed the option of going home.


Around that same time, I went out with a research team to visit Saving for Change groups in Western Mali. It was a good break from Bamako and served as a reminder of the myriad reasons I love Mali.

As we rolled up in many villages, we were greeted with drums and dancing. Our arrival was a break from the ho-hum routine of village life, and was therefore an excuse to party. Many of our hosts used their group funds to get spiffed up in matching outfits; some even killed animals so that we could share traditional fried rice with meat (in villages that are too small to support a butcher, meat is reserved for special occasions or religious celebrations – generally only a few times a year). It was a good reminder of the overwhelming graciousness of Malian hospitality.

Our interviews with SfC groups demonstrated again the program’s effectiveness in empowering women to gain financial control of their own lives, with tremendous rippling impacts in their self-confidence and other undertakings.

It was in one such interview that I met Tene.

Tene is what we call a Replicating Agent. When SfC first goes into a village, it’s with a paid agent from outside the village, who we’ve selected and trained and equipped. But thereafter, groups are to be trained by a Replicator like Tene.

Illiterate, about forty years old, and mother of eleven, Tene fits the profile of most of our Replicators. She was picked by her village because she’s smart and motivated; for most Replicators, this is both a tremendous honor and a burden.

That day, we attended a meeting with one of her seven groups. I admired her quiet confidence as she explained the saving procedure to this fledgling group. She patiently coached the group’s President and Treasurer as they attempted to run through the process for the first time. When they got it right, Tene led them in the SfC-hallmark 1-1-3-3-1 clap.

That day, my team’s mission was to evaluate the Replicators’ Guide, which is a pictorial instruction manual that guides people like Tene through the ten-meeting process of establishing a new savings group.

We pulled her aside for question-and-answer after the group meeting, and discussed her challenges as a Replicator.

Tene’s seventeen-year-old daughter is literate, and helps her to prepare for sessions. With seven groups, she spends about half of every day on SfC. She is not paid.

After a few minutes, Tene began to open up about the difficulties of being a Replicator. She hasn’t been to her peanut field in two weeks; one of her children has been sick, and between SfC and household work, she doesn’t have time for much else. Her husband is displeased, and thinks she should stop her work as a Replicator and spend more time at home. As we talked, she tended to her youngest, who is still breastfeeding. Tension was obvious in her face and her posture.

So when I asked her why she keeps committing to new groups, I was surprised by her sharp answer.

She knows how valuable this program is because of how much it’s helped her; when other women ask for help starting a new group, she can’t possibly refuse. And besides, among those groups of women, she’s respected. Her role has given her a chance to use her talents to impact her village. She has gained self-confidence and status in the village.


On our way out of the village, we made a point of visiting her family. I shook hands with her daughter, who seems every bit as brilliant as her mother described. I told her husband how impressed we are with his wife’s work. She’s talented, and her work helps other people a lot. It must be hard to have her away from home like that, and I appreciate his sacrifice and understanding in allowing her to be away that much.

Tene looked on with watery eyes.


And all of a sudden, the sacrifices I make to be here seemed pretty insignificant. Working with and for amazing people like Tene just might be one of the most important things I ever do with my life, and by that I am honored, driven, and humbled.

And it’s for people like her that I have chosen to stay.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

new beginnings...

ala ka here k'i nye


So I am officially and unmistakably moved out of my village. Tuesday was the big move. Here's what's new...

I extended with Peace Corps for another year. That means I'm here until October 2011. Yikes!

I moved into an apartment in Bamako. It has running (cold) water, power, fans, a bathroom, a kitchen counter and sink, balcony, and tile floors. I'm on the third floor of a pretty new building. Below me are a convenient store, two tailor shops, and a Senegalese restaurant. I'm already making friends, mostly at the restaurant (I know where my bread's buttered).

I have two work assignments...

First is with Oxfam, working in their Savings for Change program. They set up groups of 20-25 women who save money and lend it to each other (with interest). This encourages savings, facilitates entrepreneurship, and helps guard them from the worst shocks of life in Mali (sickness, crop failure, etc). Oxfam has scores of agents around the country supporting hundreds of these groups. Among other things, my mission is to facilitate partnerships between these agents and Peace Corps volunteers on the ground, who have a lot to offer each other.

click here for a video clip promoting the Savings for Change program

Second is at the Peace Corps bureau, where I'll be supporting other volunteers and staff in various projects. It's pretty broad for the moment, but once I get into it I think there are some exciting opportunities.

And that's what's new.

another apology...

a kera fama ye...


So here I am again, apologizing to my readers (who I'm finding out are more numerous than I once thought) for not writing in decidedly too long.

The last few months were so jam-packed with goodbyes that I've had trouble keeping up with other parts of my life. I am now in a place with regular internet, and will try to clear the backlog of updates and blog themes in the coming days and weeks.

So, sorry it's been so long, and thanks to the people who have convinced me to stick with the writing. This time it'll be better.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


ala k'a ban pewu...


So I got malaria.

Despite unwavering devotion to my prophylaxis and near-religious use of my bed-net, I came down with severe headaches and mild fevers last week. I identified it very quickly, and was tested the next day. It took two rounds of medication to knock it out, but I've been malaria-free for a few days now, and will head back to village in the morning, inshallah.

All things considered, I had a pretty mild case - it helped that I got testing and treatment immediately.

I think this is a good moment to mention that I live with people who consider malaria a fact of life. Of course, they have the advantage of genetic and developed immunity that I most certainly do not. Rainy season (now) is when malaria is most prolific, and it is paired with the heaviest workloads. While I had the luxuries of daily medical attention, top-notch pharmaceuticals, and an air-conditioned house, many people I know have to work in the field through days or weeks of malarial fevers. Needless to say, I'm counting my blessings.

Thanks to everyone who sent get-well wishes - it's always nice to know that my village in Ameriki is thinking of me.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


So the cashew training happened, and since nobody in America has any idea what a cashew looks like, I’ve decided to take this opportunity for a little show and tell. Apologies, but my witty prose will be largely absent from this post.


It turns out that the delicious cashew nut that we know in America comes attached to a delicious fruit, which has a sweet, but mildly astringent taste. These fruits only last a couple days after they’re removed from the tree, which is why you can’t buy them in your local supermarket. The fruits pictured below are already beginning to go bad…


In our training, we learned how to press the juice from cashew fruits with the medieval-looking gizmo below. Once pressed, the juice can be boiled to a syrup, which if bottled correctly, can preserve for up to a year…


The nuts come attached to the top of the fruit, and are encased in an impossibly hard, mildly toxic shell. That’s why Malians, who have been living in close proximity to cashews for at least a century, aren’t familiar with the delicious nut that we have come to love in America. (Note: it didn’t occur to me until too late to take a picture of the fruit and the nut while attached – if you’re really interested, click here)…


To release that toxic business and soften the shell for cracking, the nuts are steamed in the contraption below. For those who are thinking this cooking setup is rather Flintstones-esque, you’re right. Almost all village-Malian kitchens look like this…


Cool the nuts and dry them in the sun, and then it’s time to get cracking. For the sake of a free shoutout, the gentleman pictured in the picture here is the president of the cooperative that brought this whole thing together, and a dear friend. He deserves credit for the making of cashews in Narena – and frankly a lot more than that (see previous post where I talk about him introducing the cucumber). Also - the white guy featured below is yours truly…


Some other steps follow – there’s a ‘skin’ inside the shell that has to be removed, and then the cashews are roasted, salted, packaged, etc. All of which leads to the beautiful sight featured below – roasted, salted, packaged cashews, ready for sale. I should note that within only a couple days of the training, all our cashews were sold-out. That puts money in peoples’ pockets, bodes well for the future of the project, and makes me a very happy business-development volunteer…


And here are the people who did it…