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