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.