Thursday, September 9, 2010

new beginnings...

ala ka here k'i nye


So I am officially and unmistakably moved out of my village. Tuesday was the big move. Here's what's new...

I extended with Peace Corps for another year. That means I'm here until October 2011. Yikes!

I moved into an apartment in Bamako. It has running (cold) water, power, fans, a bathroom, a kitchen counter and sink, balcony, and tile floors. I'm on the third floor of a pretty new building. Below me are a convenient store, two tailor shops, and a Senegalese restaurant. I'm already making friends, mostly at the restaurant (I know where my bread's buttered).

I have two work assignments...

First is with Oxfam, working in their Savings for Change program. They set up groups of 20-25 women who save money and lend it to each other (with interest). This encourages savings, facilitates entrepreneurship, and helps guard them from the worst shocks of life in Mali (sickness, crop failure, etc). Oxfam has scores of agents around the country supporting hundreds of these groups. Among other things, my mission is to facilitate partnerships between these agents and Peace Corps volunteers on the ground, who have a lot to offer each other.

click here for a video clip promoting the Savings for Change program

Second is at the Peace Corps bureau, where I'll be supporting other volunteers and staff in various projects. It's pretty broad for the moment, but once I get into it I think there are some exciting opportunities.

And that's what's new.

another apology...

a kera fama ye...


So here I am again, apologizing to my readers (who I'm finding out are more numerous than I once thought) for not writing in decidedly too long.

The last few months were so jam-packed with goodbyes that I've had trouble keeping up with other parts of my life. I am now in a place with regular internet, and will try to clear the backlog of updates and blog themes in the coming days and weeks.

So, sorry it's been so long, and thanks to the people who have convinced me to stick with the writing. This time it'll be better.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


ala k'a ban pewu...


So I got malaria.

Despite unwavering devotion to my prophylaxis and near-religious use of my bed-net, I came down with severe headaches and mild fevers last week. I identified it very quickly, and was tested the next day. It took two rounds of medication to knock it out, but I've been malaria-free for a few days now, and will head back to village in the morning, inshallah.

All things considered, I had a pretty mild case - it helped that I got testing and treatment immediately.

I think this is a good moment to mention that I live with people who consider malaria a fact of life. Of course, they have the advantage of genetic and developed immunity that I most certainly do not. Rainy season (now) is when malaria is most prolific, and it is paired with the heaviest workloads. While I had the luxuries of daily medical attention, top-notch pharmaceuticals, and an air-conditioned house, many people I know have to work in the field through days or weeks of malarial fevers. Needless to say, I'm counting my blessings.

Thanks to everyone who sent get-well wishes - it's always nice to know that my village in Ameriki is thinking of me.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


So the cashew training happened, and since nobody in America has any idea what a cashew looks like, I’ve decided to take this opportunity for a little show and tell. Apologies, but my witty prose will be largely absent from this post.


It turns out that the delicious cashew nut that we know in America comes attached to a delicious fruit, which has a sweet, but mildly astringent taste. These fruits only last a couple days after they’re removed from the tree, which is why you can’t buy them in your local supermarket. The fruits pictured below are already beginning to go bad…


In our training, we learned how to press the juice from cashew fruits with the medieval-looking gizmo below. Once pressed, the juice can be boiled to a syrup, which if bottled correctly, can preserve for up to a year…


The nuts come attached to the top of the fruit, and are encased in an impossibly hard, mildly toxic shell. That’s why Malians, who have been living in close proximity to cashews for at least a century, aren’t familiar with the delicious nut that we have come to love in America. (Note: it didn’t occur to me until too late to take a picture of the fruit and the nut while attached – if you’re really interested, click here)…


To release that toxic business and soften the shell for cracking, the nuts are steamed in the contraption below. For those who are thinking this cooking setup is rather Flintstones-esque, you’re right. Almost all village-Malian kitchens look like this…


Cool the nuts and dry them in the sun, and then it’s time to get cracking. For the sake of a free shoutout, the gentleman pictured in the picture here is the president of the cooperative that brought this whole thing together, and a dear friend. He deserves credit for the making of cashews in Narena – and frankly a lot more than that (see previous post where I talk about him introducing the cucumber). Also - the white guy featured below is yours truly…


Some other steps follow – there’s a ‘skin’ inside the shell that has to be removed, and then the cashews are roasted, salted, packaged, etc. All of which leads to the beautiful sight featured below – roasted, salted, packaged cashews, ready for sale. I should note that within only a couple days of the training, all our cashews were sold-out. That puts money in peoples’ pockets, bodes well for the future of the project, and makes me a very happy business-development volunteer…


And here are the people who did it…

sheep update...

So it’s time to fess up – I didn’t want to tell you, but you're all grown-ups, so here goes… my sheep died.

We had bought her from someone who lives on the other side of town. Since her family is there, she would run off to spend her days with them, and we would go to pick her up in the evenings. After awhile, she started coming back on her own, and it never really bothered me that she didn’t want to hang out with me during the day. Besides, I have work to do, and there’s only so much entertainment to be gained from a sheep.

But her family lived on the other side of the street, and one day about six weeks ago as she was crossing to come home in the afternoon, she was hit by a moto. She made it home, but died that night, leaving us to care for her one-month old lamb.

Yes it was sad – especially to see her hurting in the last hours, and to hear the baby cry for a number of days with unmistakable emotion. She had become a part of the family, and shall be missed.


Not to minimize the loss, but some humorous moments followed.

A day after she died, it became clear that we were going to have to do something to keep the baby fed. At one month, he was not even close to weaning.

And so that morning I walked out of my house and into my family’s courtyard to the sound of a sheep screaming bloody murder. Host mom had ahold of its neck, host sister its back legs. They both looked at me with an embarrassed smile – like I had caught them, hands in the cookie jar. It took me a minute to figure out that they were not so much torturing this sheep as feeding the lamb.

So every day, we set millet chaff out for any four-legged passersby – of which there is no shortage in Narena. The cows, goats, and man-sheeps were quickly chased away. The woman-sheeps were allowed to stay for a moment, then cornered, then pinned.

Anyone who has ever kept animals can tell you that chasing them is potentially frustrating, but undeniably fun. The whole family got in on the act – partly because our lamb needed it, but mostly because it was hilarious to try to track down these passing sheep, grab and pin them so that the baby could eat. And success came quickly; with the whole family in on the act, the baby ate numerous times daily, and grew at a surprising rate.

We tried not to tell too many people – after all, this is not far removed from stealing. But after awhile it became impossible to hide what we were doing. Unfortunately, word also got out among the village sheep, and they stopped coming around.

But as luck would have it, by then the neighborhood kids had witnessed the thrill of feeding our orphaned lamb, and became more than willing participants – thus multiplying our forces, and increasing our coverage area tenfold.

We would sit around drinking tea, and occasionally an out-of-breath four year old would run into our courtyard, addressing my host-mom, “Sayon, we got one!” At which point Sayon would jump up, hurriedly grab the lamb, and run over to wherever the kids had pinned some poor, unsuspecting passerby.

The lamb, named Senidia, has mostly moved on to big-sheep food and powdered milk, and occasionally people-food and sheep’s-milk when he gets lucky. He now follows my host-mom to the morning market to buy vegetables, and is the darling of the neighborhood.

He is doing just fine, but it took a village.

Monday, March 22, 2010

it's a boy!

By popular demand, I bring you my baby sheep (lamb, if you prefer), at about two days.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

bits of life

Just a couple little bits as I’m on a one-day swing through Bamako:

1) My last post garnered a lot of check-ins from friends and family, for which I am tremendously grateful. It’s nice to know someone’s still paying attention. I also received more than one gentle correction on my use of the phrase “baby sheeps”. Yes, they are “sheep”, not “sheeps”. Also, a “baby sheep” is more properly called a lamb. “Baby sheeps”, therefore, are lambs. Thank you to the English majors and shepherds (lambherds?) among you. Extra points for anyone who can tell me definitively if the owner of one sheep qualifies as a shepherd. Does the title necessitate an entire herd, or can one be a herder (a herd?) of a single sheep? I only ask because, as of this writing, there are still no baby sheeps. My family says “any day now”, but they’ve been saying that for like a month, which kind of calls their credibility into question.

2) On the phone the other day, my father noted that he had checked the temperature in Bamako the other day. Until he barged in with his internets, all I knew was that it was “stinking hot”. Apparently, we’re hitting 107 daytime, and at 2am one morning (my time), he checked to find it was still 90. I don’t want to whine, because it’s about to get a lot worse, but its probably ten degrees hotter inside my house. For a second, I thought I was just being a wimp, but then Mali’s national press carried a story about how this is the hottest beginning of March on record. In reality, this means that nobody goes to bed before midnight because it’s too hot to go inside. Also, I do absolutely nothing between lunch and 4pm, which if you ask me is a perfect nap-time window, except that it’s infringing on actual work. To be honest, except for the sleeping thing, it’s not yet intolerable… more whining to come.

3) In Mali, we have cashew fruits. I know, most readers are more familiar with the delicious cashew nut, but it turns out that in its natural state, the nut is encased in an impossibly-hard, un-tasty knob on the end of a juicy, delicious red or yellow fruit. In fact, I didn’t recognize said fruit as “cashew” until another Volunteer explained it to me. Anytime I’ve told Malians about cashew nuts, they look at me like I have three heads. When I tell them what we pay for said nuts in Ameriki, five heads. I’m hoping to do a training on how to extract, package, and sell said nuts. Cashew season is in full-swing, so I’ll need to hurry.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

some updates...

I realized that it's been forever since I gave an update as to what and how I am doing. Without trying to catch everyone up on the last year of my life, I'll try to hit some high points, rapid-fire.

1) I just got back from a much-needed vacation in Senegal. Despite a few run ins with pick-pockets, thieves, and corrupt policemen and border officials, I really enjoyed Senegal. For those who are worried, the pick-pockets got nothing, nor did the corrupt border officials (besides a few hours of my life). And I only parted with a couple bucks to get away from the shady policeman - well worth the story, imho. Dakar was beautiful and cool (as in not hot) and very metropolitan - a huge difference from Bamako. I also went south of Dakar to sit on the beach for a few days and get fat and tan. Mission accomplished.

2) Here we are at the very beginning of another hot season. I fell apart in the last hot season, and can only hope the lessons of last year make me more comfortable this time. Sleeping is getting hard already, and this won't end until June.

3) My two-year service technically ends in September, though I have been exploring options for a third year. It's not confirmed yet, but seems likely that I will still be here come October. That is if hot season doesn't kill me first.

4) My mobile bank has been in trouble for awhile now. There's a lot of demand for the services, but not enough qualified people to run it. It's kinda my job to get people qualified, but all the people I can find are very busy supporting their own families, and many of our best workers have fallen away from the program. It's disappointing, but I am currently looking for ways to dissolve the mobile bank while preserving some of the better-working parts. It promises to be difficult, and a little messy, but I'm glad we're doing it now, in an orderly fashion, and while I'm available to help troubleshoot.

5) My artisan's cooperative is finally starting to take off. Meetings have become more regular and more productive. We have formed smaller subgroups (masons, carpenters, tailors, fabric dyers, etc.) and are starting to identify strategies for each subgroup to help themselves and each other. It's really rewarding to see my Malian counterparts begin to coalesce around a shared vision, and to step into the active leadership roles. I can't express how thrilled I am that this is working.

6) I started working with a rock-star gardener in my town. He claims to have introduced the cucumber to my town in the 1980's, and likes to recount how he had to teach people that cucumbers should be eaten raw, not boiled for hours like most other Malian food. In the early days, he had to give a few people's money back. Now cucumbers are a seasonal staple. He has also had some luck introducing carrots, and is now trying with green onions. I have really enjoyed working with him, and we have started a number of projects. My favorite is cultivating basil, which grows like a weed here, but nobody realizes it can be eaten. In the next few weeks I'm planning to make pesto for him and my host family. We are also joint-teaching improved tree-planting methods and urine fertilization (only mildly more complicated than "pee on your plants"). He's really brilliant, and frankly I think he's teaching me more than I can teach him, but it's been fun for both of us, and I'm finding that to be most important anyhow.

7) I bought a sheep. Her name is Rokia, and she was an investment - a joint venture, if you will. The deal was that I would buy her, my host mom would take care of her (since I know next to nothing of shepherding), and host mom would get all the babies. Host mom has taken these duties quite seriously, and Rokia has become a part of the family. All the women at the morning market now know Rokia because she follows Sayon (host mom) to market and back every day. It's pretty cute, and the whole town regularly asks me how my sheep is doing. I've been away from village for a couple weeks, but there should be baby sheeps by the time I get back. Pictures to come (inshallah).

There's plenty more to say, but I think I've said enough for the moment. I'm back to Narena this afternoon - wish me luck.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

gold rush

So I've been meaning to publish this for a really long time, but had trouble uploading the photos, and I didn't think I could do the story justice without.

Almost a year ago now, I went down to the mine. There are a ton of mines throughout Mali, and trade in gold was responsible for the rise of many of Mali's empires in the past. Indeed, the city of Timbuktu gained its legendary status as a center of the gold trade in the 14th century. Today, Mali's mines come in a couple flavors - we have the highly-producing mines, which are usually taken over by European (or South African) companies and highly mechanized; the moderately-producing mines that bring in miners from all over the country, but do not produce enough gold to bring outside investment; and the community mines, which act as a significant income supplement for locals who usually live less than a day's walk from the mine, but don't produce enough to bring the more serious prospectors.

These places have rules, mythologies, and spiritualities all their own. In many ways they remind me of the legends I heard in grade school about the California gold rush. For the mechanized mines, and more producing local mines, whole towns pop up on the outskirts of the mine, with basic services like bakeries, restaurants, and hotels. This year's hotspot is the Dagala mine, about fifty kilometers on a bad road from Narena. Hundreds (maybe more) of men and women have left town to try their luck.

The mines are loosely organized, and for a small fee anyone can prospect there. You keep what you find. Apparently at Dagala, the success of a site is measured in how many motos the gold will buy. Obviously, not everyone can just up and leave town, and thus the smaller local mine remains active as well. Most women, who simply don't have the strength to dig all day long, will go to wash the dirt from the mine in search of few flecks of gold (a technique similar to the panning methods I learned in fourth grade). My host mom does that fairly regularly, and a day's work usually yields about a tenth of a gram, which she can sell for about two bucks.

In search of some greater understanding about the operation of these places, I went to the small Djelibani mine, which many of my villagers walk to daily. I chose a day when they were giving a sacrifice to open a new section of the mine (As a sidebar: in my rather uninformed opinion, it really shouldn't qualify as a sacrifice if you're going to eat it, but I'm not in charge). The atmosphere was that of a prayer service - about a hundred and fifty men (women don't do sacrifices) were seated on the ground, and the important ones were all given a chance to speak.

I've left out the photos, but they sacrificed a bull, consecrating the site of the new mine.

After that, they arranged themselves in lines, with about fifteen feet between people. And sat on the ground.

Then they raised their picks and struck the ground, loosening the soil until there was enough to fill a bucket, which they dumped a few feet away. Pick to dirt, dirt to bucket, bucket up out of the well, dump a few feet away, lower bucket back down, pick to dirt, repeat.

And they kept digging... At Djelibani, they have to dig about fifteen or twenty feet before hiting groundwater (in the dry season). At that point, they tunnel between wells, in search of veins of gold. Sometimes they find some, sometimes, they don't. Then they find a new place to sit on the ground, and do it again.

To address some of the crazier points of this occupation, allow me to elaborate...

It takes about a week to dig fifteen feet. In the best stories of Djelibani, one well can wield up to fifty or a hundred dollars worth of gold. At Dagala (where yields are measured in motos), they have to go much, much deeper - I've heard twenty meters, which takes about two months. The work is brutally hard (see shoulders of the gentleman above). They often have to pick their way through boulders. Most of this happens in the hottest part of the year.

Not to restate the obvious, but twenty feet is a long way down (not to mention twenty meters). For a person to get into these holes, they use no elevators, mechanical contraptions, or even ropes; they simply put their back against one side of the well and their feet in front of them, against the other side of the well. Then they slowly walk their way down. It's the same to get out.

There are no engineers for this process, and the mines often collapse. Most collapses happen long after the people have left the mine, but there are really no guarantees. Two years ago a collapse nearby killed dozens of people. They tell me that the next day, everyone was back at it.

There is really no way to backfill these things once they are dug, and sheep and cows occasionally wander into the mine, and fall into a well. Very rarely, children do the same.

Needless to say, I was blown away by my visit there. My most striking realization, however, was that this is one of the better economic opportunities available, at somewhere between two and eight dollars a day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

god's will...

I can still recall my introduction to “god’s will”, sitting in a panel discussion of entrepreneurs during Pre-Service Training. A talented tailor, and seemingly equally-talented businessman was asked about his selection of a fantastically visible location for his shop. He thought about it for a moment – as though he hadn’t considered it – and replied that it was simply “god’s will” that he have a great shop in a great location on a busy road. You could practically hear the collective eye-roll of eight hard-charging, highly-educated Americans as we tried to unpack that bit of nonsense.

As we continued through training, it came up so often that it stopped surprising us. As business-development volunteers, we came to teach entrepreneurship, planning, organization, and analysis. It has often seemed that these things are exactly opposed to the popular conception of “god’s will”. It’s become so cliché that, among volunteers, we use phrases like “inshallah” (Arabic for “god willing”) and “ni ala sonna” (Bambara for the same) with that now-familiar sarcastic eye-roll.


The end of hot season is like a sneeze that just won’t come. The heat is relentless, the air is thick. Every day you look skyward, certain that this is it – it can’t build up any more. Every night over dinner, everyone expresses absolute certainty that it can’t last another day. I’m confident that if rain doesn’t come this week, I’m quitting. Sleep is fitful at best.

For me it’s just about escaping the heat; for them, it’s a lot more. If the rains come early, everyone has to make a gamble – do we plant early, and hope it isn’t a false start, or do we wait a couple weeks and maybe miss valuable weeks of the growing season. If the rains come late, or not at all, what happens then? In this game there are no safe bets, and the stakes are high.

The end of rainy season is much the same. The millet is tall (sometimes twelve feet or more), but the grain isn’t quite ready for harvest. Last year’s grain is probably gone; food is scarce, expensive. Things are starting to dry out. In this state, pests are a tremendous threat to the nearly-ready crops. A high wind right now could knock out a whole year’s worth of food. Fire could do the same.

At these times especially, it is absolutely palpable in this community of subsistence farmers – the whole village is holding their breath.


Now that I’ve seen one whole sky (or rain, or year, depending on your translation), I can see how each of these moments effects all the others. I can remember asking last year how Diarra felt about the harvest. His response was a half-hearted “it’ll do”. It’s hard to tell in moments like that if people are just being modest, or concealing the fear that it won’t.

Throughout the year, we spoke rarely of the family’s grain stores. Once or twice, Diarra expresses to me how he’s glad to have guests – he always has some family member staying for weeks or months – but that his grain stores are diminishing faster than he had hoped. Somehow they always manage, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. I could see the desperation in his eyes.

They’re my family, and so when I returned from America, I bought a $40 bag of millet (100 kilos), telling them it was a gift from my American family to my Malian one. The next day, Diarra told me he hadn’t slept that night – that each moment he had one eye on that full sack of grain, pondering his luck. He later told me that at that moment, the family didn’t have two weeks worth of grain (and about five months to go before the harvest). 100 kilos of millet makes a lot of to, but it doesn’t last five months, and they ended up taking corn on loan from a family member to fill the gap. In those last weeks before the harvest, we ate a lot of corn.


This year, Diarra invited me to come view the harvest, “Wolo, you must come to my fields – I want you to see it.” Despite being an incredibly busy Peace Corps Volunteer, I was thrilled to lug my camera the couple miles to their fields for a guided tour.

Knowing the story of last year, I was a little afraid to ask: How much millet did we harvest this year? How much last year?

It turns out that Diarra’s eyes had kept him away from the fields last year – time in the sun causes tremendous dryness and headaches, and he does his best, but he’s getting old. This year he felt a lot better, and was able to go to the fields regularly. Last year’s harvest was 350 kilos (he knew he was lying with “it’ll do”). This year, with pride, he tells me that we’re sitting on about 1,000 kilos.

Thrilled, I tell him, “That’s great, Diarra, good work.”

Modestly, he replies, “It was God’s will.”

I can’t disagree.


a ton of millet