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.