Friday, October 23, 2009


Just wanted to share a couple pictures of some of my villagers from the end-of-Ramadan feast.

I mentioned last year that for this feast, all the kids get dressed up in the afternoon, walk around town looking for unsuspecting adults, and then give them a number of blessings. For this dubious service, they expect a financial contribution to their pockets. I gave in a couple times this year. Here's one group...

This little man, Solo, is the youngest of the mayor's sixteen children (that's by my own, unofficial count). He's for sure one of daddy's favorites, and it's easy to see why...

Another of the mayor's family, Burama, often quizzes me about his favorite rappers, Aykon, Snope Dog, and a number of others whose names I can't decipher...

There are a number of children in village who are incredibly afraid of my white skin. This one's mother insists on me taking photos of her anyhow...

And finally, I never got all of them together, but there was a whole family of kids running around with these shirts. I would bet that Barack Obama is the top-selling clothing brand in Mali right now.

A follow-up on "Desertification"

My "Desertification" post described a number of themes common throughout Africa. Natural resources are more valuable than human ones (labor, invention, etc). Resources - in this case, wood - are often extracted with little regard for the environmental impact. The communities are too poor to stop said extraction, leading both to a loss of their natural resources, and to environmental difficulties down the road.

In this case, the specific environmental impacts concerned are significant. At the very least, they lose the wood with no compensation, causing people to have to go farther and farther for firewood (which they require daily for cooking). But potentially worse, the impact expands to include desertification, which can lead to crop failures and food shortages.

And the village ends up dealing with the consequences because they don't have the power to stop it.

Except when they do.

And so it came to pass that, after the election of a new mayor (not the gentleman mentioned in my story), the commune of Narena began seizing charcoal by the truckload. All illegally harvested, all headed for Bamako. It came in to the mayor's office over a series of weeks, and sat there for days - a warning to all other would-be wood-bandits. After discussions with the community, the mayor's office sold it themselves, returning the proceeds to the commune.

It was a rare victory for good governance in a place where victories are hard to come by.

And I thought you'd like to know.

sorry guys...

I've been away from the blog for too long. It's partly because I've been busy; since my last post, I've been to America, trained Peace Corps Mali's new volunteers, and increased the amount of work I'm doing with my mobile bank. It's partly because sometimes I have so much to say that it doesn't fit neatly into a blog entry. It's partly because as my Bambara gets better, my English actually is getting worse, and my writing feels sloppy. And it's partly because this doesn't feel new to me anymore, and there is therefore less to say.

Not to mention, as one dear reader put it, it's partly because I just look so good rocking that Obama shirt, I didn't want to cover it with a new post.

And while those are all halfway decent excuses, I must acknowledge that it's largely because I just haven't done it. So please excuse.

Now, on with the show...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Maison des Artisans

On Monday, I had the great pleasure of celebrating the inauguration of a meeting and training center for my artisans' cooperative. It took a lot of hard work in the hot African sun with no power tools and a number of other barriers. We celebrated with a ribbon-cutting, and one very large sheep.

In truth, I deserve very little credit for their success. The project was conceived and funded with help from my predecessor, Pete (who was on hand for the inauguration), was built by the masons in the cooperative, and was managed superbly by the president of the cooperative (who happens to be the cooperative's only female member).

I am proud of them for what they have accomplished, and glad to be a part of the team. I hope the energy around our new building will translate into classes and collaboration and better business managers.

It was great to celebrate this milestone, and I look forward to many more with them. But there's lots of good and exciting work still to be done.

... and in case you were wondering, I am indeed wearing a shirt made of Barack Obama fabric.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Desertification is a big word that I learned in that fancy private school I went to.

It means that the Sahara is growing. By some estimates, the sand is creeping southward by fifty kilometers every year. I don’t think anyone knows for sure whether it’s caused by global warming, or amplified by human activity. Some years some scientists say it’s getting better. That’s all subject to debate.

But among the locals, there is no such debate. They tell me that is that desertification is happening. They tell me that every year feels a little hotter than the last. They tell me that every year, the sky gives a little less rain, and the ground gives a little less food. The vegetation is thinning, and the desert continues to creep.


I live in a small town on a good road, not that far from Guinea, and not that far from Bamako. Bamako is a densely populated, highly underdeveloped capital city. In Bamako, there are banks and restaurants, air conditioning and power. But the vast majority of Bamakoans eat meals that have been cooked over fires. Fires that are made with wood. Wood that doesn't grow in Bamako.

In fact, that wood comes in from all over the region. It comes in big trucks that are loaded with thousands of sacks of charcoal. In Bamako, those sacks of charcoal are sold for a lot of money, and some even continue further north, deeper into the sand.

The other day, sitting at my bus stop with one of the candidates in the mayoral election (he lost), I watched as four men loaded one such truck until it was brimming with charcoal. I listened as the man-who-would-be-mayor told me how much he hated watching those trucks leave Narena. He estimates they go at a rate of five a day. At that rate, he calculates that Narena's way of life will be threatened within one generation.


A few weeks ago, there was an important meeting at the mayor's office. People came early and sat waiting for hours as parties from far-flung border villages trickled in. Representatives came from Guinea.

As is often the case, I was completely in the dark, and had to ask for an explanation. This is what I got:

Away from the road, nobody has bothered to mark the boundary between Mali and Guinea. Every village knows that it is in one country or the other, but the space between villages is a kind of no-man's land. Or, perhaps more appropriately, every-man's land.

In one such every-man's land, a small international incident has broken out. It's over wood. Men just like the ones who cut wood in Narena to sell in Bamako have been operating further south as well. Apparently, some have gone too far into every-man's land, and the small Guinean village next door has begun to push back.

By push back, I mean that they have taken prisoners and torched houses. Natural resources are serious business anywhere in the world, and this is no exception. The mayor's office staff tells me that similar circumstances sparked the war with Burkina Faso twenty years ago. Everyone takes this meeting seriously, and it is the first of many. Patrols are set up to try to keep the peace.


The man-who-would-be-mayor tells me that he doesn’t know what else to do.

The commune has issued ordinances against the cutting of wood destined for Bamako, but it is filled with legal and logistical holes. Besides, who’s going to enforce it? There is a tax on trucks of charcoal – a little over a hundred bucks each. My own back-of the-envelope guess says it needs to be ten times that to make any difference.

As I get ready to leave the bus stop, I realize that he isn't done talking. It's rare that someone who knows the history and complexities of a problem like this also has the time and the patience to explain it all to me. I let him finish.

"Sure," he says, "they make good money cutting all that wood and hauling it to Bamako. But most of them don't live here, and when the wood is gone, so are they. And my children will be left impoverished because of it."

Friday, April 24, 2009

A day in the life...

I've been getting lots of questions about my work. Looking at what I've written here, I realize that I've written very little about it, though it takes up a tremendous portion of my time. It's hard for me to know where to start - how to explain that I'm in charge of a lot, but not in charge of anything? How to explain "mobile banking" that doesn't include internet and cell phones?

I thought it might be best, at least to start, with a blow-by-blow of a day in the life.

One quick note for journalistic integrity: not all days are this busy. This particular sampling makes me look like a model volunteer. Which I am. Some days.

At 6am I get up. I'm the last one in my concession awake. A bucket of water sits outside my door for bathing. I start some tea on my gas stove (the Malians cook over fires), and run to shower. It's well water, and in the seventy-degree morning chill, it’s fantastically refreshing.

At 7am my bike is packed, and I step out to greet my family. Diarra greets me with the same complex set of questions and blessings as every other day (ending with my favorite, "May God find big money for us to put in our pockets"). I respond with an especially enthusiastic "Amen" to that one. I am going on collections today.

On my way out of town, I stop by my butiki (Bambara for the French "boutique") for fresh bread – I didn't have time for millet porridge on my way out. I head West, towards the Guinea border, and a small village called Bayan. The air is fresh and the sky is clear - it's going to be a hot day. In five miles of riding, I see only a couple cars. Just before getting to Bayan, I stop to put on my dress shirt. It's not quite freshly pressed, but I'll look professional when I show up.

The mobile caisse in Bayan turns three weeks old today. They have four clients, two collectors, and me. I missed their collection last week, and spend the first half-hour reviewing their books for mistakes - we have a ways to go. As I review the errors with the collectors, I congratulate myself for resisting my American impulse to push for more clients at the beginning.

Our clients each put away twenty or forty cents a day. On a weekly basis, that comes to a buck and change. My collectors diligently gather all of it, recording it in the clients' books, and in their own. Each client invites us to sit and talk. We give in once.

Collections done, we go back to do the day's accounting. With four clients it's a breeze, but I'm certain they couldn't do it with twenty. My target for them is forty (they don't know that). There are thirty dollars in the caisse. So far, so good.

They invite me to stay for tea. It's ten, and I'm not excited to go back in the heat. I agree to the first round (they always have three). They offer me peanuts, cigarettes, mangoes, and kola nuts. I refuse only the cigarette. After the second round of tea, with the sun getting high, I tell them I have to go. They lodge mild objections, but tell me they will allow it. They walk me to the street.

Back in Narena, I immediately take a bucket bath. I don't bother drying off - it's pointless. Aside from eating, the next four hours are spent avoiding the sun, and putting wet pieces of cloth over myself as I lay in my hammock. I make no attempts to work. Thinking makes my head hurt.

I have another bucket bath at three to cool down before the big ride to Solabuguda. There's a meeting at four, and I ride hard for thirty minutes in the stifling heat to get there. I've asked the Peace Corps for permission to ride a moto on these trips, and today's ride makes me curse the bureaucracy still "processing" my request. My head pounds when I get to Solabuguda. My partners, who travel by moto, were to pray at four and then leave. They make it around quarter to five.

The meeting is to explain the mobile caisse to potential clients in the villages. We already have two collectors and a dozen clients (mostly men), but after a year, the village's initial enthusiasm has not turned into people saving money. I've asked my partners in the village to make sure women are well represented at this meeting. At many village meetings they're not excluded, they're just not asked to come. Some show up. I repeat my motto “small changes” as I notice them sitting behind the circle of men, as is customary.

They ask lots of questions - about fees, withdrawals, and security; about who calls the shots, and how their collectors are compensated. All things I expected, all things that should have been clear a year ago. In a mostly illiterate society, there are no glossy brochures to advertise, only word of mouth. Misperceptions grow exponentially. I constantly repeat myself.

With the meeting over, I confirm the details of our first collection. Everyone agrees it was a good meeting, and we may have some potential clients. I'm excited for what my next visit holds.

My job there done, I hop on my bike and ride back to the main road, turning west into the setting sun. A cool breeze rushes past me as I push it into high gear, glad to have made it through another day, not at the office.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Yesterday, we buried my host sister's three-week-old daughter.

Her name was Fatoumata, and she was, of course, beautiful.

The details of her death are still too raw for me to share.

Among those she left behind are: her mother, Nana, who only cries when nobody's looking, and her twin brother, Lassina, whose odds of survival increased with her passing, but remain daunting.

And me, who is trying to find sense and meaning in something that simply has no reason.

I am sad, but mostly angry - and I hope this marks the low point of my service.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A follow-up on stars

There's always more to say than there is time to say it, and especially so this time. This trip to Bamako was almost entirely business, but I couldn't leave without sharing this story:

So the other night, like many nights, I'm hanging around and chatting with my host family after dinner. With no television, internet, or electricity, it's not like there's much else to do.

I don't recall exactly, but somehow we get on the subject of NASA. My 28-year-old host mom, Sayon, who is the least educated adult in the family, asks what it is. I pondered for a minute how I might explain space explanation, satellites, and other NASA creations. I don't have words for those things in Bambara, and I suspect she doesn't either. So I tell her that they make things that fly. They can fly really, really high, and go really far. Yes, higher than airplanes. Yes, sometimes they put people in them.

She nods, and immediately I know that my first attempt didn't quite deliver the impact of "exploring outer space". So I tell her that one time, they made an airplane that flew to the moon, and that a man got out and walked around.

She looks up, ponders it for just a moment, and then looks back at me and asks, "Like at night?"

* * *

... I know its good for a laugh. Hell, I laugh every time I think about it. But I hesitated to post that story. In America, if I had that exchange with a non-child, I would consider them incredibly, hopelessly stupid. I know that in releasing this story into the wild, I risk caricaturing Malians in a way that mocks them.

In approaching Malians in their own environment, and on their own terms, I can appreciate the ways that they are smarter than me. Indeed, nine times out of ten it is "this guy" who asks the juvenile questions. When I go to work in the garden, I am usually assigned a seven-year-old, who makes sure I am pulling the right plants, and then adds insult to injury by working circles around me.

But after months of wondering what they see when they look at the stars, I'm finally starting to get it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

short and sweet...

A few rapid-fire items for your reading pleasure (all three of you)...

1) Cold season is over. It's not hot season yet, and daily temperatures are "only" in the high nineties or low hundreds. Yuck.

2) With the heat comes the mangoes. I had a couple the other day that ripened early, and they were fantastic. In my town, the fruit is still green, but the trees are sagging from their weight. I have to watch my head as I walk around town, because some of them are low enough to bop me. I'm told that at the height of mango season, they go for roughly a penny each in my town - if you're too lazy to pick your own.

3) I'm trying to build a mango dryer to take advantage of the "hundred mangoes for a buck" ridiculousness that is coming. I've asked around town and nobody here believes me when I tell them you can dry mangoes. When I tell them how much we pay for them in America, they're utterly appalled.

4) I bought a hammock and strung it up in front of my door, under the banana tree. It's hand-made, and I paid about five bucks for it to be made and installed. My host family is convinced that I got ripped off - I mean, that could buy five-hundred mangoes. In its first week, my hammock was host to four naps and the reading of one entire book.

5) Despite all the nap-taking, book-reading, hammock-laying, and mango-dryer-making, I am actually getting a few things done here that more directly relate to my job. Right now we are constructing a building for the Artisans' Cooperative. It's going slowly, but we now have walls, and the roof will go on in the next couple weeks. I am quickly learning that Americans spend way too much money on tools when pointy rocks would do. My biggest problem is trying to convince the members of the cooperative that the most important part of the building comes in using it after it's built. Again, progress is slow.

6) We're in the middle of dry season, and until the rains come again, the earth is too cracked and dry for any real farming, so people around town have lots of time. Many are going to the gold mine that is about ten kilometers outside of town. They work all day in the heat, and it's extremely dangerous. For a day of mining, they can usually find a little less than a tenth of a gram, which fetches about two bucks. I'm convinced they're getting ripped off by the local buyers, but don't know enough to be sure.

7) Tomorrow there is a traditional ceremony that officially opens the gold mine for the year, complete with masks, divinations, and the consumption of at least one cow. Yes, I'm going. Yes, I'm bringing my camera. Hopefully I'll get the pictures up for your viewing pleasure next time.

8) My twenty-year old host sister had twins over the weekend. She intended to go to a hospital in Bamako to give birth, but she didn't know it was twins, and therefore didn't really guess that she would deliver early. She delivered at the maternity in Narena. It sounds like everyone is healthy - I'm going home to check it out and meet them.

I'm hopping a bus back to town in an hour, so I'd better get moving. There's always so much more to post, and so little internet with which to post it. Until next time...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Liar Liar

It is customary here to invite passersby to come eat with you if you are eating. The appropriate response is invariably some form of “I’m full,” or, “Gee whiz, I just ate, but thanks!” Before I understood the rules, there were many occasions when I offended people by not “inviting” them to eat with me

Similarly, on an almost-daily basis I get invited to go to the fields with someone, which usually goes something like the following:

Them: “Tomorrow, let’s go to the fields together to cut millet.”
Me: “Sounds good, but... ooh, I’m all booked up for tomorrow. How about the day after tomorrow?”
Them: “Okay, that sounds good.”
Me: “Ooh… I might be busy that day too, but definitely the day after that.”
Them: “Okay, see you then.”

Anytime I have been in Bamako, people ask me where their present is (bread is a popular one). That goes something like this:

Them: “So you were in Bamako - how is everyone there?”
Me: “They’re all great, and they all said to say hi to you.”
Them: “Where’s my present?”
Me: “It’s coming.”
Them: “Okay, great.”

If I’m feeling creative, or trying to entertain a crowd, the following ensues:

Me: “You see, it was too big for me to put in my bag, so I hired a donkey cart and driver to bring it here. I’m sure it will be here soon.”
Them: “Great, so tomorrow?”
Me: “Maybe… for sure by the day after.”

If they’re persistent, two days later they’re back at it:

Them: “My present hasn’t come yet.”
Me: “It hasn’t! That’s unbelievable! The donkey cart driver must have run off with it. I’m so sorry.”

Another popular one is for people to ask for my stuff. I’m a little less crafty with that one, because it’s hard to separate the people who are just kidding from the ones who are simply shameless. They often ask for my watch, my glasses, my water bottle, or my shirt.

In that circumstance, I have a variety of distasteful options. If I’m pretty sure they are actually kidding, I can call their bluff (I’ve not yet gotten my shirt fully unbuttoned, but I’ve come close). I can pretend to not understand what they said for long enough that they simply give up – though someday soon that one won’t work anymore. Finally, if I’m pretty sure they’re not kidding, or if I’m simply sick of them (I’m a volunteer - not a saint), I can tell them that I’m not giving them my watch because I don’t like them, and if they want one like it, they should get a job. I try to avoid that last one, but hey, we all have bad days.

For the most part, it’s all cute and playful and fun, and it’s great language practice. The trouble is that I’m starting to know people enough that they’re not all kidding anymore. I’ve been invited to tea a number of times recently (the correct response is always “Yeah, this afternoon sounds great”), and clearly offended people when I stood them up. I’ve gotten so accustomed to blowing people off that I’m doing it out of habit now. They’re forgiving, but that’s particularly damaging for a new guy who’s trying to make friends.

Dogon Christmas

This was my first Christmas away from home. I got a couple phone calls from home to "check in" (as in, "we hope you're not hungry, alone, and crying in your mud hut this Christmas"). To be honest, I was a little concerned too - despite my fierce independent streak, my family is important to me, and there's no time like the holidays for feeling far away. It was really nice to hear from family and friends, and I certainly appreciated all the love sent from various corners of home.

But in the end, I had a fantastic - if unconventional - Christmas with a number of Peace Corps volunteers in Dogon Country. We celebrated Christmas with roast pig and millet beer, and hiked for a few days around the cliffs. For those worried about the condition of my soul out here in Muslim-land, you'll be glad to know that I found a Church for midnight mass. Though the language was Dogon (I speak Bambara), and the mass was quite foreign, there were a handful of volunteers there, so it still felt comfortable.

The Dogon people have an incredible history. About a gazillion years ago, Tellem pygmies lived in the cliffs, which were replaced maybe half a gazillion years ago by the Dogon people. Apparently they lived in peace together (the Tellem in the cliffs, and the Dogon just below), which is evidenced by the average height of the Dogons. Because of their inaccessibility, they were incredibly insulated from the various empires that conquered other parts of Mali over the centuries. That preserved their culture and way of life through some very tumultuous times, and makes it a window on the past for tourists adventurous enough to make the journey.

In one of the villages, a man who is older than dirt sits at the entry. I was told that he is the oldest man in Dogon country, and that he is one hundred and six years old. In a country where nobody knows their birthday (even now), I doubt that this guy is actually a hundred and six, but for a moment, lets give him the benefit of the doubt. He has lived through two world wars and a cold war. Since he was born, the airplane, the radio, the telephone, the computer and the internet have come into the world. I looked at his gnarled hands and feet, imagining the life that he has lived. Not only has most of the last century not affected his way of life - I'm not even sure if he's aware of it. For a few minutes, I wished I could speak Dogon.

The Dogon people are known for their incredibly intricate doors and masks, and for their unlikely dwellings. I can't do them justice in words, so here's a few images to help:

... this is a people-sized house

... a classic model of Dogon door

... mask dance - one of the highlights

... this guy's mask is like twelve feet tall - he touched it to the ground in front of him and behind him, and whirled it around like a helicopter - it was pretty unbelievable


The Peace Corps requires that we stay close to home for our first three months of service. For me, that ended on the twelfth of December. Within days, I was packed and on a bus, headed northeast, towards Djenne and Bandiagara.

The whole day's journey getting to Djenne was, in a word, harrowing. I was once woken from something like sleep when the cargo door (previously under the bus) flew past my window. It stopped the bus for at least an hour as close to the middle of nowhere as this adventurer has ever been, but wasn't anything that bubble gum and bailing wire couldn't fix.

There is also a "transfer" to get into Djenne at a fork in the road where everyone's a bandit and I was the only white guy. The more upstanding of those bandits threaten tourists with the possibility of having to spend the night on the side of the road to cajole them into paying exorbitant sums for a half-hour car ride. The game there is to get out as quickly as possible without having to pay your life's savings to do it. Though I didn't end up resorting to hitchhiking, I can't say that I didn't consider it.

Since I was officially on assignment as a photographer for the Djenne Office of Tourism, I got a couple "extras" that many tourists don't get. Also, in a place that's accustomed to tourists, my Bambara helped me to get around in ways that impressed even me.

Djenne is known for its incredible mud mosque, which is reportedly the largest mud building in the world. The town has a long and incredible history as an important stop in the trans-Saharan trade, then rivaling Timbuktu as a center of Islamic learning. After only a few hours in the city, its long Muslim tradition was palpable.

One of my favorite things was a tour of the Djenne-Djeno archaeological site. I was accompanied by the archaeologist who opened the site in the 1970's, and who has made it her life's work to begin to understand the people who once lived there. Djenne-Djeno was the site of the original fishing village which quickly grew into a trading hub and subsequently moved across the river to the town's current site. The ground there is literally covered in pot shards that easily date back hundreds of years, and the few feet under the ground are filled with clues about the evolution of trans-Saharan trade, and the societies that occupied all ends of that trade when it was central to human civilization. Having a personal, guided tour with unlimited question and answer with the world's foremost expert on the site was a real treat.

The other, obvious highlight of my Djenne tour was the mosque. Since I was "on assignment", I went to the mosque one morning well before sunrise to document it as the sky changed colors. I stood in the refreshing morning chill and watched as the mosque changed from a barely-visible silhouette against the night sky to a deep red as sunrise hit it's face, and then faded to it's natural mud color. It's always beautiful, but in the eery stillness I was able to sit in the center of Djenne, unbothered by the usual players who are invariably looking for tourists' money. I heard the beautiful, lilting call of morning prayer that acts as the town's alarm clock. I saw the comings and goings of the mosque as the truly faithful shuffled in for morning prayer.

Because of its isolation and the people who refuse to leave tourists alone, Djenne is a punishing place to be an outsider. But in that still moment, it was apparent to me why people brave the drive, the heat, the sand, and the kids to sit in front of this building of mud and appreciate its beauty and the human history it represents.

... the mosque at sunrise

... inside the mosque