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.