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.