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.