So I’ve been sitting on this story for a long time, and for no particular reason. But just the other day, I was inspired to finally write it down.
Work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is really hard. Things in village that work don’t need your help, and things that don’t are really difficult to solve. If it was easy, somebody would have done it already. I think that most volunteers leave after two years with little certainty that their work will continue to positively impact peoples’ lives in village.
I feel that way about the bank I worked with in Narena; I feel that way about the cashew project. They’re both good ideas, and I gave them both everything I had, but it’s hard to tell if they’ll end up making a lick of difference in the long term. Some projects just fade away.
But I think it’s fair to say that my last project before leaving village is a winner.
With about six months left in village, after months of flailing for answers on a number of projects, I was approached by a group of women led by my closest work-partner and adopted mother, Rokia. There is a traditional fabric called bazin (pr: ba-zahn), that is dyed in a rather-involved process. They wanted to learn to do it, and they wanted me to help them.
At first it sounded really frou-frou, and I balked at the idea. ‘Rokia and her friends want me to supply them with outfits,’ I thought. I would do no such thing.
But saying ‘no’ isn’t an option in Mali. I had to convince them that it was a bad idea, or give them enough homework to drown them in procedure. So I shrewdly told them that if they wanted me to support the activity, they would have to show me that it would be profitable. I explained profitability to them, and gave them a long list of questions to answer. I made them define – among other things – the necessary materials, the size of the local market, their competition’s practices, and their sales strategy.
I didn’t hear from them for a couple weeks, and figured that was probably the end of that.
So one afternoon I’m sitting at Rokia’s. She’s almost certainly trying to convince me that I’m hungry, because that’s what adopted Malian mothers do. And she tells me that the women have done their research, and they’ve answered most of my questions. She wants to go to Bamako in the next couple weeks to price materials, and wants me to come with them.
I can’t say no.
The market in Bamako is helplessly packed and winding and disorganized, but Rokia has a brother of some sort that has a shop, and he loans us a helper for the day to navigate the mess. We talk to the people who sell the raw fabric; we talk to the people who sell the dyes; we talk to the ladies who sell finished bazin in large baskets on their heads. Rokia judiciously takes notes. I take it all in, adding only a few questions. I insist that Rokia talk to at least two sources for all materials: sometimes people in market lie.
Back in Narena, Rokia puts this all into an excel spreadsheet (I taught her that, btw), and with some help she’s able to tell me exactly how and why she’ll make a profit dyeing bazin.
Not only is she right, she’s displaying all the tools I’ve taught her over countless hours of one-on-one business coaching. I don’t think there’s a person here in whom I’ve invested more time, and I’m thrilled to see it all coming together.
Me having set the bar high, and her having cleared it, the ball was back in my court. But also, I was running out of time in village; with rainy season coming and all the work that entails, soon nobody would have time for this. My window was short.
By a stroke of luck, there’s a good trainer who’s a friend-of-a-friend, and the vast majority of my project plan could be plagiarized directly from Rokia’s business plan (already conveniently organized in an excel spreadsheet).
About six weeks later, we’re right back in that teeming mass of humanity that is the Bamako market. We go back to the people we’d interviewed, this time with cash. We buy enough fabric and dye to make nearly eighty outfits. We buy washbasins and gloves and facemasks.
Over ten days, these nine women come every day. They come early, and leave at dusk with homework. They actively participate, and work through some fairly difficult hands-on practicum. I told them that if they wanted it that bad, they’d have to commit to showing up no matter what. Most of them have kids and husbands at home, and they have to get up early to do the day’s cooking and chores. Many of them have never been to school. Most of them have infant children strapped to their backs all day long. One of them is eight and a half months pregnant (I am charged with making her sit down often).
These are the kinds of people whose stories and lives and kindness all come together to overwhelm you. I am, frankly, humbled that the universe has conspired to give me the chance to help them.
I promise myself that one day I’ll write about them.
And write I shall, but that’s for another post.
Here we are eight months later, and I’ve been gone from village for awhile. Upon returning from my visit to America, I call Rokia to tell her of an upcoming fair, and to see if she wants to come sell her bazin. She doesn’t have much in stock, but with only a couple days notice, she commits to coming. She brings four of the women together, and they do the work in a day. Two days later I’m standing next to her at a table filled with fabric and bursting with color.
Throughout the day, she sells most of what she brought, again judiciously noting every sale into her notebook. At the end, she adds it all up and asks me to check her math. After paying for her materials and transport, she’ll be bringing home nearly a hundred dollars to split between the women.
In a place where most people will work all day in the sun for two bucks, I am prepared to categorically declare success.
Here’s a few photos from the training…