Friday, November 28, 2008

A Big Whoopsie...

Well, I finally did it. I knew it was the cardinal rule, but I got comfortable and I got lazy.

See, I’ve found a way to make to more palatable. There is a tiny red pepper that they grow locally. They dry it in the sun, and grind it into a powder. It burns pretty fierce, which is exactly why it is perfect for eating with to. If all I can taste is the burn of little red peppers, I certainly can’t gag from the taste of to and snot sauce. So I’ve gotten into the habit of loading up the pepper at dinner time.

My host mom usually keeps this red-orange wonder-powder in a small can with holes poked in the top (a basic, homemade shaker). Since the shaker is primitive, and the pepper is crushed by hand, the shaker sometimes operates at less-than-optimal effectiveness. Furthermore, since I’m eating to, my right hand is usually covered in some combination of gloppy to and snotty sauce. I always reach for the shaker with my left, so as not to glop or snot the shaker itself – cause that’s gross.

Well this particular night, the to was particular gloppy, the sauce particularly snotty, and the shaker particularly ineffective. The only option in that circumstance is to open the can, reach in with a finger, and manually sprinkle the pepper on this West African deliciousness. I had a choice, go in with the gloppy, snotty right, and get glop and snot inside the shaker (not to mention get pepper helplessly caked on my hand), or go in with the clean, dry left. I wash with soap before meals (and make them do it too), and it was dark, so I made the call to go in with the left.

The first time, nobody noticed. The second time, something about it caught my host-mom’s eye, and she immediately let out a long string of fast, incomprehensible Malinke. I couldn’t understand her, and it wasn’t immediately clear that she was talking to me, so I went in for a third dip. Well, that finally did it. She stood up from her bowl, grabbed the shaker, and continued with the high-pitched gibberish. I swear my Bambara is better than that, but I couldn’t make out a single word in her two-minute long discourse. I got the point, and can’t imagine how sheepish I sounded apologizing.

She handed the shaker back to me, and told me to get back to eating. She demonstrated the proper, right-handed technique, and told me to do the same. My hands were still cover in glop and snot, but I was trapped. Not wanting to prompt another Malinke lecture, I did exactly as she showed me.

I grabbed a little bit of that fiery powder between the glop caked onto my right hand, and rubbed vigorously to get it to fall onto my bowl of to. Convinced that I had done all I could, I dug in for some to, then dipped it into the sauce, then brought it to my mouth. I was already red with embarrassment, but this turned me into a different, more painful color of red. I reached for a water bottle to find it empty. I hiccupped. Tears beginning to pour from my eyes, I resorted to the only option left. I dug in one more time for a tremendous handful of that tasteless glop, skipped the sauce, and went straight to my mouth. I repeated that a couple times, and though it took a little while, it did eventually calm the burn.

… best to I’ve ever had.

Quick Update...

First I should apologize for being away much longer than I intended. I got sick and was useless for a little while, and then went back to Narena for awhile, then on a bike tour. The bad news: you haven't heard from me. The good news: there's plenty to talk about.

It kinda scares me how things are feeling so much more normal now. The food doesn't even make me flinch; the language is getting easier; Bamako is still dirty, but no longer crazy to me; public transport is scary enough that it should never feel normal, but doesn't really faze me anymore. My life here is beginning to find rhythm. Here are a few bits of recent news and adventures:

1) I was sick. How one gets a cold when it's a million degrees out is beyond me, but there I was. I did manage to get a couple nights in the air-conditioned Peace Corps medical unit out of the deal. They have hot showers, a four-burner stove, and an unbelievable video library. I took full advantage.

2) My village is burning things. They're burning the trash pile behind my house. They're burning the grass around the village. Everything is burning. I am told that they do it now, at the end of rainy season, so that it burns before the end of dry season, which could be disastrous. This has not helped the aforementioned sickness, but it's getting better.

3) Last week I went on a bike tour. Our caravan travelled 85 kilometers to visit seven villages over a week. The Malians were all impressed - they don't understand the concept of exercise for fun, and so assumed that we were all pretty miserable the whole time. I tried not to mention to my American friends that I've ridden that far in a day, though I think sometimes my impatience gave me away. We stopped in each village to do presentations on entrepreneurship, health, and government. One village greeted us with an amazing traditional ceremony. We were presented goats and chickens, were incredibly well-fed, and almost never were allowed to chip in for the food. Again, the ability of Malians to welcome complete strangers overwhelmed me, and made me love this place a little bit more. Also, I was the official photographer for the event, which was at moments like National Geographic, and at moments more like "Save the Children". I wish I could share all the photos, but internet here is finicky.

4) My caisse (village micro-finance bank) is doing research to pilot a new loan program that I think has tremendous potential to help small-business owners. Since the caisse is my most consistent job, I am helping them to make it work. In presenting the new concept, our national director, in a string of French and Bambara, used the English term "cashflow". I came to know and love that term in real estate, and my job over the next two years will largely be to teach people how that works. It can only have been dumb stinking luck that brought me into this project in this location, as the Peace Corps was unaware of this project's specifics. I feel sufficiently lucky to be in a place that matches my knowledge so well with the needs of my community, and am excited to see what we can do with it.

5) A number of Peace Corps volunteers met in Bamako for election night. We were hosted by a lovely ex-pat with a beautiful home, CNN, and a large projection screen. The first polls closed on the East Coast around midnight here, and continued on through the morning. When Obama spoke in Chicago, it was nearing dawn in Bamako, but none of us went to bed. Most of my family and friends know how it has pained this politics nerd to miss this election, and I was thrilled to get to watch it in all its glory on November 4th (happy birthday, Mom).

6) The new US Ambassador hosted a number of Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars for Thanksgiving dinner. You should all know that I have been roughing it, but I still can take full advantage of copious amounts of good food. There was turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans, and yams. I topped it off with two pieces of pumpkin pie (we were only given one, but you know me and dessert). The Ambassador was a lovely hostess, and I went home thankful for my Uncle Sam, who made the whole thing possible. I wanted to steal a cocktail napkin as a souvenir, as they were printed with the seal of the United States of America (so was my wine glass, and my plate), but alas they were bussed before I could stash one.

Those are the major points. I'm trying to get more blog posts written, because there is indeed a lot to share, and because I'm about to disappear into village until almost Christmas. Wish me luck!

Meet Mai

I met Mai on a bad week. Just days before, I was heartbroken to attend the funeral of a 21-year-old who died giving birth. It happens, and it's really sad, and it disturbed me to see how quickly people moved on. I concluded that they had no choice, but it had me in a funk for days.

That was the scene when one afternoon I stumbled upon this beautiful child with wide eyes and a strong grip, who can't talk yet, but who babbles enough that I'm sure she has things to say.

Bambara is sometimes inexact, and it took a number of tellings before I grasped the overwhelming nature of Mai's story.

Apparently within moments of giving birth, Mai's mother dropped her into a well. She fell about twelve feet, into the ground water below. Her mother left her there.

I assume it was minutes or hours, and not days later that someone walking by the well heard Mai crying and went to investigate. He successfully pulled her out of the well, and took Mai in as his daughter.

I took a few moments to ponder the odds of Mai's survival. From the fall itself, to the fact that wells are sufficiently full of chilly water that a newborn should either drown or freeze inside one, contemplating how she survived made my head hurt. With all that against her from her first moments in the world, she is a perfectly normal, beautiful little person. She now has a mommy and a daddy that love her, and one white boy who secretly plots to smuggle her home to America in my... er his... backpack.

The story is really no more complicated than that. There's not much to do but acknowledge how truly awesome it is and then move on.

It's true that life everywhere is often fragile, random, or cruel. But sometimes it's equally surprisingly and randomly resilient and beautiful. It's more magnified here, but the basics still hold.

I've had moments when I wasn't sure if I could handle facing that duality on a daily basis. Then Mai, the girl who was found in a well, came along and somehow assured me I would.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Profile: Diarra Kone

I have waffled between calling Diarra my landlord and my host-dad. I pay him rent and therefore he is, in fact, my landlord. But I also eat dinner with him every night, and we often drink tea together after dinner, making him something significantly more. If I ever have a problem - things often don't work here the way I expect them to - Diarra can usually fix it.

At fifty-seven years old, Diarra's body could easily be seventy-five. He began working in the fields when he was very young (his own recollection places it somewhere between seven and ten). Every year since he has spent a considerable amount of time doubled over, face close to the ground, working a short hand tool called a "daba", which has the blade of a hoe, but the short handle of a hatchet. His hands are rough and calloused, his feet cracked and hard. He can’t see very well, but I only know because sometimes he fumbles a little when he reaches for a glass of tea, and I think he struggles to recognize faces as they approach him. From up close, his eyes are visibly clouded with something that I'm sure, in the States, would be treatable.

At his age, he only makes the four-mile walk to his field a couple times a week. The rest of the family goes out at least double that. When he does go, he returns hot, dehydrated and weary. I always know when he's been out because he's much less jovial over dinner, and excuses himself to rest before tea is done. One day I went with him, and despite doing about half the work that he did, I returned in similarly poor shape.

Most days, Diarra can be found sitting in the shade in front of his house, greeting neighbors as they pass and occasionally shooing away chickens or goats that are getting close to the night's dinner. He enjoys a good belly-laugh, and his gift for finding comedy in daily occurrences allows him to sneak one whenever he can. His three-year-old grandson, Mamadou, is one of his continuing sources of pleasure and entertainment. I suspect there is nothing he would rather do than to pass the day drinking tea and talking with Madou. I often watch with glee and a hint of longing for my own grandfather as they compete to tell each other tall tales.

He speaks French at least as well as I do, which never surprised me until he told me he had never been to school. "Not one day in my life," he said.

One evening, as we sat waiting for dinner, I was feeling particularly curious about the details of this man's life, and so I asked. He has been married three times. His first wife died about seven years ago, he tells me with a hint of tenderness that is rare in a culture where marriage is more an economic arrangement than a life partnership. When I ask about his second wife, he asks if I know the term "divorce". It's uncommon here, and when he doesn’t come forward with the details, I allow him to leave it at that. His third wife, Sayon, is twenty-eight. Just to be sure, I ask if any of these marriages overlapped. He replies that they did not and, as if to assure me, he asserts that he never really understood how one man could provide for more than one woman and that many children.

I follow that line to ask him about his children. He has had ten - all by his first wife. I live with two of them, one twenty-one, and one nineteen. When I ask about the rest, he gets quiet. It's a fact of life that a lot of times kids don't make it here, and I assume that Diarra's family is no exception. I wait for him as he holds his head in his big, calloused hands, and assume he's trying to put a timeline on what must have been major events in his life. Six of them died before age five; "Sumaya," he says - malaria. Every illness here is malaria, but it's never a bad guess. "The other two?" I ask, praying that they are working in Bamako, or cab drivers in Europe. One, a boy, died at thirteen, he says. The other, a girl, died about five years ago, at seventeen. He takes a moment and looks me in the eye. "Ça, me derange," he says. I can't tell if his eyes are teary or just the usual cloudy.

Later, I go back to my French-English Dictionary to make sure I understood "derange", but "upset" doesn’t quite do it justice. I wonder if there are words in any language for that.

Election Special: Malian Punditry

My host family was particularly interested in an issue of Time magazine that my mom sent me, so I handed it to them to check out. I was struck by the way they looked over it. They were unable to distinguish the ads from the stories, and navigated different texts, sizes, and graphics in a way that seemed totally unnatural to me. Without exposure to mass marketing on a regular basis, they are "fresh" in a way that Americans could never be. Long before American children have the skills to actually read a Time magazine, they can navigate it in ways that are more organized and predicable.

I could barely contain my amusement and delight when they turned to the election coverage that was packed into Time's pages. Having never been subjected to the 24/7 barrage of worthless election coverage provided by much of the American media, and with only the candidates' pictures to work from, I thought they summed up the themes of the election well.

Our discussion of American electoral politics went as follows:

John McCain...
Dad: "His hair is all white. He's really old."
Me: "Yeah - he's seventy-two."
Dad: "Wow, he's ancient! America can't have a president who's that old."
Me: "... yeah."

Barack Obama...
Dad: "This one's a little kid."
Me: "Well, he's forty-seven."
Mom: "But he looks so young. And handsome."
Dad: "He's black."
Me: "Yeah, his Dad is from Kenya."
Dad: "But how can America have an African president?"
Me: "Well, his mom is American, and he was born in America."
Mom: "Yeah, he's not really black."

Sarah Palin...
Dad: "Wow - she's hot."
Me: "... yeah."
Dad: "Maybe she will be my second wife."

Joe Biden...… did not appear in this issue of Time

*Special thanks to my Mom for sending the magazines. Also thanks for the Oreos. One night, I locked myself in my house with a book and ate the whole box in you honor.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Quick Update...

I'm in Bamako to go to the bank, and internet is scarce, but here are a couple morsels of life in Narena while I have a second:

1) It's watermelon season. When I discovered this, I split a watermelon with another volunteer for dinner, accompanied by the necessary seed-spitting contest. I also brought one home to my family the other day, and we dug in with reckless abandon. After about fifteen minutes of quiet interrupted by occasional slurping, there were six sticky, smiling faces and a whole watermelon had been demolished. I am hoping to make a habit of this, as watermelon is significantly tastier than to.

2) I am starting to learn the names of people around town. The mayor has a small grandchild (at least I think he's a grandchild... these things are harder to sort out than you might think) whose name I asked for the other day. Their response sounded like "nahmbadr wahn". Go ahead... say it out loud. That's right, this poor child with a large, funny-shaped head has a nonsensical English name: Number One. Hearing them botch English in a big way in the middle of streams of Malinke is an unending source of pleasure for me. Some of my readers may also appreciate the unintended Star-Trek reference (Mike, Dad, this one's for you).

3) Ramadan is over (see previous post about the feast). People in my village are tremendously more affable now than they were when I arrived. Good thing, because that was rough.

4) I found an afternoon card game in the middle of town under the hugest Baobab tree I've ever seen. About ten men gather there every afternoon to play a fast-paced game that I still don't understand. There's about two hours of play, characterized by lots of arm-flailing, table-hitting, finger-pointing, and loud disagreements followed by high-fiving and back-slapping. For now, I just watch. It is going to be a great way to get to know people, and to learn some colorful language.

5) I'm starting to appreciate some of the people here on a personal level. My host dad (or landlord) is a really cool old man, and I spend most nights after dinner drinking tea with him, and shooting the breeze. He reminds me a lot of my grandfather, and we enjoy each others' company despite the communication barriers. I always leave laughing, and feel a little bit like I've just been to Texas. Hopefully more on him another day.

There's plenty more to say, but that's all the time I've got for the moment. I'll be back to Bamako in early November to watch the election results roll in through the night. I should have time to write then.

Until then...
- D

The Feast Of Ramadan

Ramadan ended with a big feast that reminded me of a cross between Thanksgiving and Halloween, but with the stress of Christmas. It's officially a three-day feast, but the days of the feast get decidedly less intense as they progress. Everyone goes home, and public transportation the day before the feast (which I foolishly took) was packed with tired, stressed out people.

Since the month of Ramadan is all about fasting, the feast is, well, about feasting. On my way out of Bamako the day before the feast, I saw a large number of four-legged creatures slaughtered on the side of the road. I'll spare you the details, but rest easy that I'm not a vegetarian yet.

We ate non-stop the first day, consistently the second day, and a little more normally on the third day. This was the first time since I've been there that my host family has bought meat. Not a morsel was wasted, and we all enjoyed it thoroughly.

The kids all go around finding adults to sucker into giving them money. They start by showering you with a series of special blessings: "may you have many years, may you have many wives, may you have many children, my you have many grandchildren, may they all live forever..." This goes on long enough that it starts to feel a little ridiculous. At the end, you're supposed to give them some small amount of money. The kids make a business of this. Just like I used to map out the best neighborhoods for Halloween, they map out their richest relatives and acquaintances, and prioritize their precious time over the three day holiday. I think there's a run on candy at the general store in the following week.

I guess for the adults of the community, this is a cute thing. I, however, get hit up for money by kids I don't know on a nearly daily basis. It doesn't happen all the time in my village, because once they know me, it's decidedly more difficult for them to shamelessly ask me for money for no reason. Nonetheless, it happens often enough that I've developed strategies and vocabulary to deal with it. Because of the feast, kids who normally leave me alone suddenly found me to be a great target (which I wasn't quite ready for on the first day).

The Peace Corps encourages us to participate in festivals, ceremonies, and other cultural events as a way to integrate into the community. But I took a moment to ponder the lasting consequences. In a small village, what happens if word gets out that the white guy is giving money away? I decided to sit this one out.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Roughing It...

I'm in Bamako to catch up on some good food, friends, and news from home. There's so much to say about my new home in Narena. Here's a rapid-fire account of my new living arrangements:

1) For move-in, the Peace Corps sent someone to help me figure out the basics of water, food, etc before leaving me alone in the middle of nowhere. My installer helped me get a lease signed with my landlord (not because my mud house require a lease - it's a ridiculous American rule that Peace Corps requires). As they were talking, my installer asked what the previous volunteer's arrangements were for meals. My landlord replied that breakfast and dinner with the family every day was included as a part of the rent. That arrangement isn't particularly surprising - except that my rent is about thirty bucks a month.

2) There used to be electricity to my house, but the line got cut down (still am not sure I've gotten a straight answer as to why). I may pay to have the wire replaced, or I might buy a solar panel. For now, my evening tasks are accomplished by lamp light, which I actually find kind of warm and comforting. I charge my phone at the mayor's office, and my ipod and computer currently lie unused.

3) I have a gas stove, but have not been able to open the valve - for now I just eat "to". Pronounced "toe", it is a substance with the consistency of play-doh, the color of cement, and a nutritional value that I imagine is only somewhat more than the aforementioned items. This delicacy is eaten from a common bowl, with the hands. It is dipped in sauce that is usually made with okra, and which has popularly been termed "snot sauce" by PCVs here. The first time I had it, I seriously wasn't sure I could keep it down. Now, I can eat it when I'm hungry, but it is decidedly un-tasty.

4) My sister, Annie, once asked "if their houses are made of mud, what do they do when it rains?" Well, let me tell you... in Keleya, one morning I woke up to find that our cooking hut had fallen down. Half of it just cracked, and from there simply crumbled. In Narena, it rained really hard one day, and my walls starting oozing in places where they are thin. By oozing, I mean that water from the outside had soaked through the wall, and was resulting in dried mud on the inside turning into wet mud. In the worst spots, this newly-wet mud was actually starting to creep slowly from it's rightful place on my wall towards the floor. The next day, as we were repairing said thin-spots, I learned that it's not just mud that they use in the walls, it's mud mixed with cow poop. Gross, yeah, but I guess once it dries it's not so bad.

5) It's Ramadan, and people are pretty useless. It's been really frustrating trying to find anything to do over the last couple weeks. They don't eat or drink all day, and then stay up eating and drinking (water) all night. It's hot. They're hungry, and tired, and dehydrated and grumpy. Not a pleasant combination. So for now, I've been reading for about half the day, and trying to find things to do for the other half. This works out okay, since my head turns mushy after a half day of speaking languages that aren't english.

On the less rough side of things:

1) I can find a pretty decent variety of fresh fruit here - though in different varieties than I'm used to. Oranges here are green (but still called oranges). Most of the bananas never turn yellow. You eat them when they're green, before they turn brown. I have banana trees in my yard, which I'm very much looking forward to eating (the bananas not the trees).

2) Fresh bread is available daily in town, and for just plain white bread is some of the best I've ever had. It's chewy and buttery and warm if I buy it in the morning. It's amazing with chunky Skippy and Nutella.

Joking Cousins

There are really only a handful of last names in Mali, and many of them can trace their heritage back to the great Malian empires that most of us just glazed over in our history classes (Ghana, Mali, Songhai, etc).

Through some long and complicated historical process (that also isn't really written down), a national joke has developed in Mali whereby every family name is joking cousins with another.

As a Kone, I mostly joke with Traores, but also joke with the Coulibalys and a few others. When they meet you, people usually inquire about your last name to ascertain if they are your joking cousin. If they are, then you are free to say terrible things about each others' family - such as "Traores are donkeys"; "Traores are toads"; or "Traores eat beans" (because beans make you fart, and let's face it - farting is universally funny). Other variations on the theme include the less-creative but still totally acceptable, "Traore bad, Kone good," and the historically-insensitive, but somehow still funny, "Traores are my slaves" (I'm not yet culturally integrated enough to be comfortable with that one).

This is a ubiquitous part of the culture. I probably find new joking cousins at the rate of a couple a day, and maybe a dozen when I go to market. I have two joking cousins at the mayor's office, and we say bad things about each others' families when we greet every morning. It's especially nice for me, because it allows for instant ice-breakers, and people are additionally amused that the white boy is in on the whole thing.

It amuses me that this joke is the same every time, and is still just as funny. It's kinda like mom jokes, or "that's what she said" jokes. Ironically enough, the only thing off-limits within joking cousins is peoples' moms... go figure.

I can only imagine that this all arose out of a troubled past, in which these relationships were somewhat-less joking. From here, it seems like a brilliant way to bridge ethnicities, brush over historical rivalries, and prevent conflict. One can't help but wonder if this system might have helped my dear European ancestors.

Monday, September 15, 2008

quick update...

I'm leaving for Narena tomorrow morning. Ack!

The last few days have been busy with wrap-up, preparing, and partying. There is so much that I have to say that I haven't yet found the time to type and post to the internet. Over the next few weeks, I should have loads of time, and daily access to power. I hope to package some of the stories from my journal into my blog as a way to pass the time. Unfortunately, there is no internet in Narena, so I'll only be able to post every couple weeks when I run into Bamako.

In the meantime, I must admit that I'm tremendously nervous for this upcoming transition. Until my language and relationships are up to par, I expect that this will be the most challenging part of my service. I will be more isolated even than I expected (though relative to other volunteers I'm about average). For anyone who is considering calling or sending letters, the next ten weeks would be a really good time.

My own fears of isolation aside, I go into this time deeply convinced of my mission here. I have seen just enough to understand how things work here, and where they fall short of really working. I think I know just enough to be able to do something about it. I know it will only work if I gain the trust of the people I work with, and if I work by their side to find workable solutions for their challenges.

Thanks to everyone who's checked in. Even if I haven't had the time to respond, it helps me to know that I'm not doing this alone. Please keep doing it, and I will get back to you individually over the next couple months.

Thats all for now. Wish me luck, and be in touch.
- D

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Great Power Crisis of 2008

The town of Keleya has power for exactly four hours every night. It kicks on at seven, just as darkness falls, and it goes off at eleven, when most of the respectable citizens of Keleya are already in bed. Most families use it to power a fluorescent light or two, to charge their cell phones, and to watch the eerily ubiquitous Brazilian soap opera through a black and white snow.

Just for background: most Malians have never seen a microwave. I have seen one refrigerator in Keleya, and suspect that a second may exist. If you want power during the day, you have to run it off a car battery. When it rains, the power usually goes out.

Needless to say, it came as no surprise when the power didn't come on one night during a rainstorm. I was a little more surprised when the power didn't come on the following night under a clear sky. By the third night, I was laboring to formulate questions in Bambara to understand what was causing this (and when/how I might charge my dying phone).

My host dad told me that the power company is run by the local government (Mali has decentralized almost all its services to better serve its people, so almost all relevant government is local). As the price of gas has gone up, the government has been unwilling to change the price it charges for power. Apparently the power company ran out of money to buy gas. I related to my host dad that the same thing happens with our power regulators in America (though they never run out of money). He got a kick out of that.

Further digging revealed that the actual cause of the outage was a little more complex. It's the rainy season right now. Everyone's time is being devoted to farming, which is an with a "hopeful" payoff in the future. All other economic activity basically ceases so people can feed themselves, so people simply don't have any money. Paying for power that they have already consumed is, frankly, not a priority. On top of that, the government has never cut power to any individual customer. There are a number of people in the village who are three months or more behind on payments. The government continued to run the generator until it had no more gas and no more money with which to buy gas.

Last Friday, many of Keleya's men met at the schoolhouse to discuss the problem with the mayor and the power commission. They decided not to buy any more gas until people's accounts were caught up. My host dad said that should take a few days, now that the urgency was apparent.

It turns out that there are workarounds for pretty much all their power needs. There are a couple families with other access (small generators or car batteries), and they are currently charging about a dollar each to charge cell phones. At night everyone uses oil lamps.

Taking host dad's word for it, I assumed the power would be back on shortly, so I let my phone's battery run down. The night before I left about a week later, we were still using the oil lamps. For now, the village of Keleya sits in the dark as a minority of families uncomfortably continue to hold the village's power system hostage. Everything else is just as before.

As for me, I was irked to be without a phone for a few days, but I couldn't help being glad for some more starry nights.

It turns out that the great power crisis of 2008 isn't that great a crisis after all.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Leaving Keleya: Another Beginning's End

I am back to Tubaniso after wrapping up my training in Keleya. There's so much to share, and I hope to find time to write more before Friday's Swear-In. I am excited to finally, officially become a PCV, but nervous for the hard months that lie ahead. More on that later...

I suppose this was exactly the purpose of training, but I am a little upset that I just got used to life in Keleya as I was getting ready to leave. My language was just getting good enough that I could ask more complex questions (and understand the answers if they were given to me in small bites). I no longer simply accepted things I didn't understand, and frankly, many things that originally appeared nonsensical made sense once I understood their context.

The day before we left Keleya, the village had a gathering in our honor - if everyone weren't fasting for Ramadan, it would have been a party. Many of the village's more prominent figures were in attendance, and all of the host families were invited. Our training group wrote a short speech to thank the village for their incredible hospitality. With the help of our language teachers, we translated it into Bambara, and I had the honor of delivering it on everyone's behalf. Without telling my host family that I would be delivering the speech, I tried to make sure they would be coming.

Like most events here, the details of our party were somewhat sketchy. We had at least one false-start when the mayor's office failed to get word to the appropriate elders. Even on the morning of the party, I was unsure exactly who would be doing what when, and tried to make sure my family would be ready to run over.

Much more quickly than I had anticipated, the village elders shuffled in to the schoolyard and sat against one wall. I hurriedly found a small child and dispatched him to my house, telling him to find my dad, and giving him a short message to carry. As everyone got settled for the meeting, I became antsy, looking around the corner every time I heard a moto pass. The host families each got a chance to tell a story about their trainee, and to thank them for their contribution to the family. As they continued around the circle, I tried to keep from showing my disappointment.

I delivered a near-flawless speech (...I think...) to the village of Keleya, but it felt a little empty showcasing my best Bambara without my family there.

The next morning, my departure came early. I packed the meager contents of my hut as my host brother fried up an egg for me. By the time I was packed and fed, I had just a few minutes to walk around the concession and say goodbye to my extended family before I had to catch the bus. Of course, I saved Senidia (Dad) for last, and Madou (bro) and a whole entourage of people carried my bags for me. As I made the rounds, it was hard to communicate the gratitude and connection I feel towards these people. "Thank you very much" didn't quite do it. There are a number of scripted Bambara blessings that help to fill the gaps, like, "may your journey be easy," or, "may we see each other again." I also had prepared a couple phrases, like "I will miss you."

After I said goodbye to host dad, I realized that I hadn't seen my host sister, Waraba. I called out to the concession, and she walked out from behind wherever she had been hiding. All I could get out was "thank you very much" before tears gathered in her eyes and she turned and walked away. Under my aviators, I cried too.

I hardly cried at the airport when I said goodbye to my real family. I don't know what happened, but I cried leaving Keleya. It surprised me.

Less than two months ago, these people were just faces I didn't know with names I didn't recognize. Their customs, their food, and their lives made little sense to me. For much of the time I was with them, we communicated in hand gestures. But when it came time for my speech, I wanted my dad to be proud of my Bambara. I felt like a second grader in a school play when he didn't show up.

Less than two months ago, they were foreign to me, and I to them. When the time came for me to leave, I was saying goodbye to family.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Scattershot Update

So I'm officially more than halfway through training. It's been almost all language training to here, but we're starting to do more project-specific work, which is the exciting part of my job. Then again, if I can't talk to them, all the good ideas in the world end in my head.

I spent the last week at my soon-to-be home in Narena. There's a volunteer there currently, so he showed me around the town. I met all the people he works with, and it was nice to get an inside view of the town from an English-speaker. After a week of talking with him and getting his help in introducing me to the community, I am convinced that I will find friends there, and that the work remaining there is good, important, and utterly doable.

My host family there is small. My dad, Diarra (pr: jar-ruh) has lived a hard fifty-two years, and farmed probably since he was seven. He has had a number of wives, and I can't tell what the story is exactly, but he only has one now. I suspect that she is younger than me, but was too shy to ask. Dad has had ten kids, but only two of them are living - again, it's clear that he's lived a hard life. Drissa, his son, is about fifteen. Nana, his daughter, must be in her early twenties. She has a son, Mamadou, who is a good-hearted four-year-old that shows some classic signs of having been raised by a young mother and no father. Also, Diarra's nephew, Seydou moved in a few years ago when his father died. The bunch of them live in my concession (we share a courtyard, but live in a number of separate houses or huts).

My house has two rooms (about twelve feet square), a cement floor (most Malians just have dirt), mud walls and a high tin roof. It's small, but it will be mine alone, and it's enough that I won't get claustrophobic. Besides, most of life here happens outside, so I won't spend that much non-sleeping time there anyhow. There is a guy in town who runs a generator for a few hours every night, and for about ten bucks a month, I get power between dusk and bedtime to power a light and to charge my phone or ipod.

The town has a number of characters that I am sure will bring me endless amusement. The mayor, barely speaks above a whisper but is always listened to. The janitor is a poorly-informed, but highly opinionated former military man who tells stories that could not possibly be true. The bus-station man is a gregarious man who always sees me coming from hundreds of yards away, and spends the ensuing time thinking of ways to jokingly insult me (luckily, I'm on to the game, and learned very quickly to start firing at him before he can open up on me). The sous-prefet (a political position between mayor and governor, for which I don't really know a good American equivalent), is a tall, gregarious man who always has funny thing to say, but doesn't really inspire confidence in his intellect... reminds me of a number of politicians at home. I definitely look forward to getting to know these characters, and to introducing them to you.

Over the next few weeks, my training will be more focused on Small Enterprise. Already, I've been really impressed by what the volunteers here have accomplished. I am looking forward to getting underway. Obviously still enjoying training, but also looking forward to getting to work.

I'm back to Keleya tomorrow morning for the home-stretch of training. I'll be back to the internet in three weeks for updates. And I promise that I will figure out a way to upload photos (which are beautiful) before I leave for site mid-September.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Clocks, Currency, and Stars

The other day, an eight-year-old looked at my watch and said, in French, "thirty-seven". I clearly lack the language skills to disavow him of the idea that "thirty-seven" is an appropriate way to read a watch, so I just smiled and nodded.

After dinner the other night, I had a conversation with my host dad about economics. First of all, Senidia (pr: sen-juh) is a reasonably well-educated man. He holds an important political position just under the mayor of Keleya. He speaks French at work, and often surprises me with how well he speaks English. However, on this night, some holes in his education became clear when he asked me the following: "I always hear about how the dollar rises and fals. The CFA (currency here) never rises and falls, why is that?" I tried to answer his question, but again, I don't think my language was good enough to explain the gold standard to him, or to convince him that the CFA actually does rise and fall.

After my meager and stumbling answer, he followed up with: "In the US, there is so much wealth, but still people are poor - why doesn't the US just print more money for them?" It's a good question - one that I remember my mother struggled to explain to me in my youth. Without giving a lecture on Latin American economic history, I tried briefly to explain the complexity revealed by his probing. Unfortunately I think my attempt to equate currency markets and commodities like mangoes fell well short of insightful. I was frankly taken aback at the seemingly uneducated nature of his reasoning because the rest of the time Senidia is a tremendously able-minded man.

All this got me to thinking about how people can be looking at exactly the same thing and can think or believe entirely different things about what they see.

The next night, the power went out. (Yes, they have power for exactly four hours every night in Keleya). On a clear night with no moonlight and no artificial light for miles, I finally glimpsed the stars I had always imagined. I saw the Milky Way in a depth and quality that brought new meaning to my understanding of "galaxy". I imagined that this was the way the Greeks saw the sky when they all drank into the night and told stories about the constellations. I saw Venus, Earth's nearest neighbor, in all it's green twinkling glory. I saw a satellite slowly tracking across its orbit, and a shooting star burning up on its way toward earth. I saw Scorpio, the Big Dipper, and the North Star.

Then I looked around at the faces beside me. I wonder what they see when they look at the stars.

My Assignment: Narena

I got my assignment. For the next two years I'll be living in Narena. It's a medium-sized town of about 5,000 people (I'm still trying to figure out how they classify these things). It's on the road from Bamako to Conakry (capital of Guinea) less than 60 miles outside of Bamako and within spitting distance of the Guinea border. Apparently it's about two hours from Bamako by public transport, which is making many of the other trainees jealous (an extreme example being my friends Peter and Tim, who are about 25-30 hours away).

I will be working with a microfinance institution in Narena. They have just started a mobile-banking program in which "tellers" visit some of the smaller villages around Narena to collect deposits from members on a regular basis. Since there are no banking institutions here, banking money is a completely new concept to most people. This system allows people to build up some savings to cushion against the hard times (drought and sickness are most likely), or to fund larger business purchases. The mobile bank specifically is a way for people to learn the virtues of banking in a more hand-held way. Apparently the average deposit amount is roughly twenty cents.

I have been tremendously interested in microfinance since college, and since being here I've been so deeply convinced of the need for financial literacy among a population where many to most can't read, but almost everyone has some form of informal business. From selling excess crops to owning storefronts, and from women who sell mangoes on the street to those who make a living in shea butter, entrepreneurship is a necessity for survival here. A little education on marketing, feasibility, and calculating profit will go a long way here. This is decidedly important work, and I am very excited to get to the point that I can make myself useful.

I am headed to visit my new site next week, so I will have more to say on the topic in about ten days.


I'm back to Tubaniso for a couple days. Here's the update:

I've been training in a village called Keleya. It's a town of about 3,000 people on the road from Bamako to Abidjan (port city, in Cote d'Ivoire). There are eight other PC Trainees with me in the village. We each live with a host family, most of whom are related in some way. Our two language instructors are also living there while we're training.

In Keleya, I live in a mud hut with a thatched roof, in the concession of the village chief, whom I have been named after: Wolo Bagayoko. Since I kind of stand out already (maybe its my bright, gleaming personality), the whole town knows who I am. I consistently get called to when I walk around town, "Wolo, Wolo..." which is better than what some of the other PCTs get, "Tubabu, tubabu" (meaning foreigner, and generally chanted by children under the age of ten). It's a lot like college in that I stop to greet dozens of people in transit to and fro.

The people here have welcomed eight of us into their homes, though it is clear that we are more a project for the entire village than simply for our homestays. Most people don't speak French, and only a handful speak any English. On the day of our arrival, the village elders welcomed us with drums and dancing, short-lived though it was. Since then, I have hardly had an uncomfortable moment, though getting used to some of the cultural peculiarities has been difficult.

I have been there a while now, but allow me to share a bit from my journal (only slightly edited) from early in my stay:

Essentially, I am a two year-old. I eat and I sleep, and I disappear to class for large chunks of the day. I don't really communicate with them beyond basic functions that can be conveyed through pointing and simple hand gestures. My wimpy American immune system requires that they treat my food and water differently. When I eat with my hands (as they do), I get food on my face, on my clothes, and on the ground. The novelty of all this means that there are new mechanics to everything that used to be simple in my life: eating, washing, shaving, bathroom-ing. They specially cook my food. Either as a guest, or as a man, it is entirely inconceivable that I would ever make my own food or fetch my own water. They always rearrange the chairs to give me the best one, and my host-dad sorts the meat so that I get the best cuts (by his standards, which I can't quite make sense of yet).

All this is to say the following: I have come here as an American with my incredible education and lots of good intentions about how I will help them. It is humbling to be in a position where I am so unable to provide even my own basic needs and functions. As much as I have to offer them, I am absolutely worthless until I can learn to communicate and to function under these conditions. Furthermore, as poor as they are, they have welcomed me as a guest, and have provided for me luxuries they do not even allow themselves. As is true in many teacher-student relationships, it is sometimes hard to know who is gaining more.


Hey all, more on my life soon, but I wanted to check in for the benefit of all the moms out there. There was a coup d'etat in Mauritania yesterday. Not to diminish the seriousness of the situation, but apparently the army did it with their Toyota pickups with mounted guns. With these war machines, they took over the radio and TV stations, and then walked into the Presidential Palace and arrested the President. Not a shot was fired, and most people in Nouakchott (that may be a terrible spelling) didn't know it had happened.

For those of you who didn't run to a map already, the Eastern sands of Mauritania border the Western sands of Mali. There are no guarantees, but for the moment things there appear calm. Peace Corps and US Embassy personnel are on alert, but aren't hurrying out of the country. Given the relative calm in Nouakchott, I don't foresee this conflict spilling across the sand and into Mali.

There's a story on the Peace Corps website for those who don't trust my interpretation of the events. Link here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Zumanabugu - Camp Mali

I'm writing this in my hut at almost midnight. I'll post it tomorrow, but we're playing a wicked game of assassins, and I think I might get taken out if I walk alone to our training center where there's internet.

I am currently residing in a hut with a thatched roof. Furniture includes three beds (all taken) and one small card table. But it has a fan (yay electricity), and screens on the door and windows for malaria prevention, which I'm all about (I took my pills, mom). It's been too hot to sleep many nights, but I've managed to get a few hours - I think the body takes what it needs to function. It feels humid enough that it might rain tonight, which would be really nice because that cools things down, so I can sleep. Oh yeah, it's rainy season... we got a storm the other night that blew our metal doors and windows open and shut all through the night. Family and former roommates will not be surprised to hear that I slept much better through the noise than through the heat.

All of our training has been centered around getting us ready for homestay. Basically, for the next nine weeks I'll be staying with a family within a hundred km of Bamako. These brave hosts have been trained to treat us with kid gloves, and not to expect much of our Bambara - or of our manners (yes, there are manners even when you eat with your hands). There will be a handful of Trainees in my village, and one trainer, who will meet us every day for eight hours of language and cultural training.

I'll come back to the training center about every ten days for a quick check-in, and then back out again. Expect some good stories then.

A couple bits for news and notes:

First, I spent a ton of time before departure practicing French - mostly because I was annoyed that I could hear my American accent (living in France trained me well). My french accent came back, but the African accent rolls "r"s like "d"s. In some sentences, it sounds exactly like Spanish, which is quite confusing since I'm becoming quadrilingual now (I may have just made that word up). There went some weeks of my life I'll never get back.

Second, I wanted to write yesterday, but the power went out. No power, no internet. Tonight, I wanted to do my laundry (yes, by hand), but the water stopped running. No water, no laundry. Welcome to Africa.

rapid fire, 3 - Flying over the Sahara was incredible. Might as well have been Mars.

4 - I ate rice with my hands today. Easier said than done.

*bridge*: I've never washed my hands so much in my life.

5 - The infamous "wiping situation" is not nearly as difficult once you understand the mechanics. Squatting over a hole is still no fun.

Finally, an interesting morsel: We're doing cultural sensitivity training. The Trainees were asked to list some stereotypes of Africans. Our Malian trainers were asked to do the same for Americans. Then we swapped. Near the top of both lists: "dirty". I'm sure I don't have to explain to my dear readers why it made our list, but I was interested to hear that they thought the same. See, they wash for prayer five times a day. We wash decidedly less - at least so far. We each think each others' "wiping situation" is less effective. The verdict's still out for me.

There is so much to tell, but I don't want to go too long. For now, we've been kept inside the Peace Corps compound so as to not get overwhelmed or overrun by what lies beyond the walls. My first venture out begins Tuesday, and I'll be back in twelve days or so. Expect to hear from me again around then (hopefully I'll figure out how to post photos then too).

Making friends

*I wrote this a couple days ago, but couldn't find any internets by which to deliver it. Sorry for the delay...

I dooni diarra n ye...

After 24 hours of travel, I finally made it safely to Tubani So, the Peace Corps training center just outside of Bamako.

A couple quick stories...

I made a point to use my last flushy-swirly in the Paris airport. Goodbye, running water.

As we were all getting on the plane in Paris, a Malian man looked at me and asked (in French) if we were all going to Bamako. After responding that we were, I got to talking with him - slowly and in French. Knowing Malian people are generally have a sense of humor, I asked him if he had asked about us going to Bamako because he thought he was getting on the wrong plane. He responded with a big smile that there are never that many "toubabs" (Bambara for white folks) on that flight. I knew I was in.

The kid on the plane next to me was about 11 (and Malian). I helped him to figure out the in-flight entertainment system. When he finished his lunch, he gave me his Mars bar. Amarain, my first Malian friend.

Most of the Malians on the plane (and some of the white folks, which surprised me), were not familiar with the airplane lavatory system. I was waiting in line once, and the woman in front of me couldn't figure out how to push the door (the foldy one) to get inside. I helped her. When the flight attendant walked by, he noticed that I was waiting and tried the door, which, since this poor woman couldn't open, she certainly couldn't lock. That was awkward. The flight attendant locked it from the outside for her. Then when she was done, I could hear her struggling to get out. After discovering that throwing her weight against the door was ineffective, she finally figured it out . When I got in there, I found the ashtray loose in the sink. Now that I think about it, it does look strikingly like a door handle.

I've gotta run, so I'll stop there for now. So far so good.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Ready to go

So I leave in 48 hours, and I've been meaning to post on here for days now, but there's been so much to do.

At this point, my bags are more or less packed, my goodbyes have mostly been said, and I have only to eat good food and be antsy for the next couple days.

Thanks to all my amazing friends, many of whom made tremendous effort to send me off in style. To all those who have taken me out over the past few weeks and months, and who have offered their support and prayers, it has meant so much to me.

I hope that I can keep in touch with everyone to a reasonable level through this shiny new blog, and email and stuff. As many of you already know, mail and telephone where I'm going will be at best inefficient.

I know this isn't the most artful of posts, but I've got to get something up here so you all know I'm serious about this thing. I'll write more when there are things to say.

In the meantime, I'm still taking all the prayers I can get. Just about time to hit the road.

Much love,