Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Caught in a Coup


“Soldiers are attacking the palace. They want to arrest the president.”

It happened last Wednesday afternoon as I was at my neighbor’s house talking about the new American club we had just formed at his school.

It had been an unusually productive week, after coming off a string of unusually rampant illnesses that seemed to follow one after the other and left me the majority of the time huddled down in or not too far from my nyegen. The last few weeks were hindered by everything from a foot infection to amoebas to shingles, with various other aches and ailments thrown in the mix. I would be lying if I said I had done anything at all other than stay in my house whimpering, and occasionally finding the strength to limp down the street to the boutique I always hang out at.

“Amadou, mun b’I la? I fasayara.”

The hard thing about being sick isn’t that you’re in pain or uncomfortable, but there’s a mental aspect to it. It’s stressful, and when I’m stressed I tend to not eat as much. I had noticeably gone from skinny to emaciated.

“Wallahye, ne man kene. Ne tun dalen don tile bee.”

A typical Malian custom is to say a blessing or whenever someone is sick or has other problems and so I was blessed thoroughly.

“Allah ka nogoyake. Ka bana ban pew.”

It wasn’t just the sickness that was stressing me out. One thing that had slowly begun to develop and occupy my time was inspired a couple weeks ago at the CSCOM. It was a Thursday, which means baby weighing and vaccination day. We generally have a mother come in each Thursday carrying a bony, half- starved, alien baby to remind us all of the persistent and overwhelming presence of malnutrition. That day there were three.

“This is ridiculous. Why are there so many?”

The doctor at the CSCOM, Dr. Coulibaly, and I had been wanting to start up a project with the CSCOM, but despite numerous possibilities, there’s just not much you can accomplish when money is non- existent. It’s indescribably frustrating to watch week after week these babies coming to the CSCOM to go through the usual routine and walk away with a week’s supply of corn powder and plumpy nut, which in all likelihood, they’re not even going to eat because the rest of the family is just as hungry and corn powder makes for a lot better eating than millet.

Malnutrition is a big problem in Bankass, but it’s really only a result of a myriad of other problems compounded together. There’s no one source for malnutrition, and trying to attack it head- on is like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. Environmental deterioration, striking poverty, lack of education, complete lack of family planning, gender discrimination and repression, horrible sanitary practices, are all feeding the flames. It’s depressing to think that for every one woman that brings in her child there are likely a dozen more that weren’t able to make it. How can one poor, unpaid, under qualified, 23- year old college grad hope to take on such an immense task?

They tell you during training that the small stuff we do have the biggest impacts. We’re charged with finding ways to make positive changes that are sustainable, meaning they continue long after we’ve gone back to our a/c, cars, flat screen tv’s, pillow-tops,  “I’ll pick something up because I’m too tired to cook” lifestyles. Back to our reality, where Africa with all its hardship and adversity exists only in the news. It’s hard not to be skeptical about what you’re doing here. I doubt I’ve made any changes that lasted more than a few hours. Malians may be uneducated, but they’re not stupid. Anything I bring to them they either already know or are currently doing. Development work isn’t simple and straightforward, like throwing money at a community to help build a new school and then take off before realizing that the education system here sucks and there aren’t any good teachers. It’s about giving people the knowledge and skills to do things themselves, something by which success can only be measured in small increments.

That day at the CSCOM without formulating a real plan I told Dr. Coulou that I had an idea for a project we might be able to do. The hospital in Bankass has a couple of trucks they use for who knows what. I told Coulou that if we could get permission to use these trucks to go out to all the villages we could do animations and weigh babies to try and get a foothold on the malnutrition situation. The CSCOM has dozens of sacks of corn powder and plumpy nut that we could bring to these people who can’t make it to us. The idea was partially inspired by the fact that the CSCOM already goes out to random villages every week to give infants vaccinations due to mothers not being able to make the trip into town. He was all for the idea, and I would only need to get funds for gas and a per diem for the workers. He said we would talk to Dr. Guindo at the hospital when there was time.

But when we finally got around to going it turned out Dr. Guindo had left for Segou and wouldn’t be back until Monday. As it was the following Thursday, I just went ahead and started all the paper work for the project. I also had time to do a porridge demonstration for baby weighing day at the CSCOM which went pretty well. The next day I called my supervisor Claudine to tell her about the project idea and ran into a hurdle. She told me there’s no money left for malnutrition projects, and if I wanted to do something it would have to be with either family planning, or HIV/AIDS. At first I was discouraged. I talked to Dr. Coulou and told him we would need to switch the project to either family planning or AIDS. He said that family planning would be perfect since the region of Mopti just launched a family planning promotional campaign and a bunch of government admins would be coming to Bankass on Monday for a big ceremony. To incorporate this new change didn’t alter any of the logistics of the original project. I just emphasized the importance of family planning in the report, and how it leads to so many other problems, including malnutrition. All we needed now was a confirmation by Dr. Guindo about using the truck.

When Monday came I went to the ceremony which lasted all of 2 hours in the late morning. All the women’s associations were there and they all took turns dancing in a big circle in from of a little amphitheater across from the hospital. They were followed by a procession of nearly a hundred men on horseback and then a few dozen Dogon hunters firing their incredibly loud homemade rifles. I was sitting up on the stage with all the other health workers and government officials. A few different reps gave the typical importance of family planning speeches and then it was over. Dr. Guindo wasn’t back yet from Segou so I took the rest of the day off and went home.

The next day however, I managed to see him and he said it would be no problem for us to use his truck. Almost five days of waiting and he didn’t even ask what it would be used for. As soon as he heard I wanted to do a project with it he was all for it.

That afternoon I went with Damango, my neighbor, to his school. He is the director of a one- class private highschool that has only been running for about three months. I had mentioned to him before my idea of starting up an American club that I had heard of other volunteers doing, and it really excited him. Since the school was new, it hadn’t yet formed any other clubs and he thought it would be great for the kids. My plan was to just give a small introduction and tell kids to pick a day when they would like to meet. I didn’t want it to be a real formal class just something to help them practice their English and learn about America. That afternoon, a teacher had called Damango and told him he had to go buy millet for his family in one of the nearby villages. Since nothing else was planned for that period I was invited to come along and get things started. What I wanted to be a short 20 minute presentation turned into a full blown 2 hour performance. By the end it felt more like we had started up a student government than an American club. We had elections for 8 official positions and 6 activity chair positions. Each of the candidates had to stand and give a one or two sentence explanation in French why they wanted to run for that position. It was really interesting to see them talk in front of their other classmates. Malian education is based off a system of mindless repetition and memorization. Kids don’t ever get to express what their thinking creatively, and many of them struggled to find the words for their speeches. They would be having a short ten day break starting Thursday, so I told them to go home and think of things they would want to talk about.

So things we’re starting to pick up at site, by Wednesday I was feeling better and finally made it out to start playing basketball again. I decided I would go into Bandiagara the following morning to send in my project proposal now that everything was square. But when I got back from basketball that evening there was excited discussion about something going on in the capital Bamako.

“U b’a fe ka president mine.”

“What’s going on?” I asked. There had been a concern growing over the last few months about conditions in the north of the country where Taureg rebels have been causing chaos. Every week there’s been a new update on the fighting and never good. The last week they had taken an important military base outside of Kidal, at a place called Tessalit. I assumed that this was the topic of the conversation, until I heard that there was a coup d’etat in the making.

I’m starting to believe more and more in chi.  Whenever things start going good something will come along and ruin it all. There’s a balance between these good and bad things that happen to me here that are hard to ignore. Malian television and radio were taken over by the military and off air, so the only information we had was through phone calls with people there.

“Everyone is indoors because the soldiers are firing guns in the streets.”

At about that time I got a text from both the Peace Corps and US Embassy telling people to stay out of Bamako due to civil unrest. Of course everyone is confused about why the hell this is going on. Mali is an exceptionally peaceful country in a region of Africa that is consumed by violence. It’s really a beautiful mystery how things work out here.

We stayed glued to the tv nto the early morning. There’s no electricity, but we have a gas generator running. The only Malian station is off air, but we have a satellite dish and can get France 24. The only news to them at the moment was a terrorist attack in France. Some kid fresh from an Afghani terror camp went on a killing spree. Meanwhile, another coup has just happened in West Africa.

I was too excited to sleep, so I read until I faded off. The next morning everyone was really tense. There had been a full blown coup, the president was in hiding after his palace had been torn apart. I headed to the station to catch a car to Bandiagara and all of a sudden became really worried. Everything seemed ok here, but I didn’t know how things were in Bandiagara. There could have been chaos. I call the regional coordinator in Mopti and he tells me to stay put. A couple hours later we get a confirmation text from Peace Corps that said everyone should remain where they are until things get sorted out. The rest of that day and the next I stay within eye sight of my house. The news isn’t good. Panic in Bamako as mutineers loot the streets and fire into the air. The country is locked down until the 27th. The airport and borders were closed. But in Bankass none of that is felt.

Friday afternoon, after a full day of nothing happening, I decided to go across town to play ball. I stopped by Dr. Coulou’s place and told him what’s going on. I was worried that if things got any worse I might get evacuated, but I didn’t tell him that. I told him that I was finally going to Bandiagara the next day to turn in that report. Then I headed over to the court. As I was pulling up on my bike I got a Peace Corps text. We were being consolidated in Bandiagara the next morning and would have to stay there until told we could go back, or forced to leave. I told everyone that I was leaving for a few days until things settled down.

I made it to Bandiagara last Saturday, and am still here Tuesday. The banks and airport have finally opened today which is a good sign, but there’s still no official government body. We can’t go back until an agreement is made making the country a democracy again. Until then we are under military rule. Who knows when that is going to happen? I don’t feel like it will be too much longer. There’s still the issue with the rebels up north who are gaining more ground every day. The coup leader says that it all happened because the president wasn’t doing enough to keep their soldiers alive up there. The general public agrees, but a coup’s a coup, and very rarely will it look good to other nations, especially when democracy has been developing so quickly here.

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks and it just keeps going. Mali’s problems are piling up, but there’s hope in the people. As long as they keep it together and don’t start turning to violence, it will be over soon.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Hey You, Tubabu!

As the car begins the subtle incline into the rocky Falaise, you can look out the window from my cramped little corner seat in the back and see flat plains stretching off into the horizon. The sun is starting to set, and the high cliffs cast a dark shadow across the land below fading further in the distance. The sky’s hazy, just enough to keep out the stars, but the moon is already out, creating a tranquil twilight of the fading sun and luminescent moon. Twenty minutes or so have passed since leaving the gare in Bankass, heading for Bandiagara; a short, routine trip that never seems to yield to prediction. You can’t predict in Africa.
It took two hours of waiting for a bus to roll in from Koro. Usually there are buses in by 4, but I showed up early and left late. It pulled up next to the only ‘restaurant’ in town, conveniently located at the bus stop, and everyone piled out to eat. Kind of an early dinner, or late lunch, but they still had a ways to go before getting to Djenne, and I would be sharing their company for a short leg of the trek. The arrival of the next two vehicles shortly after attracted the girls selling cakes and boissons, as well as the garibu, begging for anything. Tubab, ca va? I stand and wait, having a brief conversation with one of the passengers headed for Djenne, a teacher traveling back for the start of school. Soon everyone piles in and we head out.
                I’m not sure how many people are crammed into this delivery truck turned pedestrian, but the makeshift wooden benches are packed with people, along with any available floor space. Factor in those topside and there are easily 30 people with their luggage loading down a vehicle slightly larger than a mini- van. There are three hanging onto the ladder on the back door, a man, a boy, and a woman. They are laughing with each other as we move along and climb their way up top. The man winks at me and points to the women and laughs, following her up the ladder. The rest of the riders are a typical mix of Malian public transportation users, mainly Malians. Old men, little babies and everything in between. Conversations in several languages are occurring at once. It’s not easy to understand Malians when they’re talking to each other. I can only pick out key words and then guess the topic. As we leave Bankass, I put in my headphones and gaze out over Africa.
As our vehicle slowly climbs its way towards the top of the cliff, you look and see the vastness of the world reaching up to the darkening sky. It isn’t a breathtaking landscape portrait, but looks more instead like the vast stretches of land down a Texas highway. Suddenly I’m not so sure it isn’t. The road curves and from the corner of the window a man appears, walking along in the same direction uphill. His clothes are dirty and he’s wearing a locally made beanie with some obscure year sewed large print into the cloth and a crudely made hoe is draped over his shoulder. Not too far ahead his dog is leading the way. It’s at first glance surprising to see someone walking along the road so far from anything, but soon a herd of goats guided by their Fulani herdsman is passed, and then a donkey cart driven by two Dogon boys wearing their funny looking hats. They’re all heading the same direction towards to setting sun at the top of the plateau. That puts an end to the daydream and I wake up again in Africa.
                There’s not too much traffic, except for a few motos passing by in the opposite direction. Down below, a pair of headlights appears to be taking a winding path along the darkness of the plains and into the foothills. A short while goes by without much occurrence as the glow from the lights behind grows larger. The other truck pulls up and you can see that it’s completely full. There’s a kid riding on top of the luggage, and as they approach to pass he sits up on his knees and spreads his arms out wide. They are caught up with soon enough, and the car comes to a stop behind the other along the side of the road. An be jigin ka seli. It’s 18:15, and time for prayer. Everyone bails out with their mats and I take a seat. Others use the opportunity to visit the bushes. An ka taa. Ten minutes later we’re off again. The sun disappears and it becomes another night in Africa.
 After about 15 minutes I look up and see an orange glow in the direction we’re heading. It’s obviously a fire, most likely burning trash. But the light grows, and you can see the fire is a lot farther off than it appears and a lot bigger. We stop short of Bandiagara, behind a line of cars and motos which have pulled up to the end of the bridge crossing into town. The fire’s on the road, and there’s a large group of people gathered who’ve abandoned their cars to watch. A kera chogodi? I cross over the bridge on foot, and ask what’s going on, but it’s plainly seen that a gas truck ignited. I can’t take the road into town, but I cross the bridge and make my way down the steep embankment on the other side. I slip and bite it hard. There’s a back way to the house, and I stumble my way there. The power is out, but it makes it easier to watch the fire over the treetops from the roof. I can hear the dull roar of a crowd coming from the direction of the fire. Mixed in are the usual sounds of braying donkeys and crying goats. It sounds like Africa.
                Since then, the power’s come back, and I’ve been able to write this short story of the trip I took today. Four of my fellow volunteers are here for the weekend and they’ve filled me in on what happened. Apparently, hot coals lit by some tea drinkers ignited the fuel tanker as it was unloading at the service station. The driver saw it catch, jumped in the truck and took off away from the station, almost making it to the bridge before the whole thing went up. I’m told no one’s hurt. They had to call in a spill crew from Mopti over an hour away to come clean it up.
                I’ve become used to the unpredictability of African life. The most mundane tasks, like shopping or a short trip into town can turn into an adventure. The only thing you have control of here is how you respond to the situation. Sometimes it can really test your strength of will. I’ll admit I do daydream of home at times, but despite my occasional feelings of homesickness I feel like there’s a lot more I can learn out here. Time’s going by fast and everything’s slowly changing. You can’t help but to see the world from the African perspective. Coming out here has given me a chance to step back and look at life from a different angle. Instead of everything coming right at me, I feel like I’m watching from the side as my life passes in front of me. Back home, I was only concerned with what needs to be done next, but it’s not the same here. Life’s much more indirect and disorderly. It just happens. Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing if I had stayed home. My life up to now had been designed for a specific outcome. After coming here I’ve realized all the limitless possibilities that exist. There’s so much more to life than what happens next.
                Work at site is like that. I don’t exactly have a job, but I do little things around town when the opportunity arises. With the CSCOM I’ve been doing porridge demonstrations. There’s another NGO called Marie Stopes that is working there as well. The rep comes in on vaccination days and talks to the women about family planning and birth control. It’s a difficult topic in a Muslim country since the Koran prohibits contraceptives, but it is completely necessary when you can’t afford to feed your other 12 children. The only way to decrease the child mortality rate here is to decrease the birth rate. My morenga garden was attacked by sheep. They ate everything, but hopefully it will all grow back. The women at the CSCOM water them for me every morning. We spent a couple days pulling up all the weeds and grass that has grown up to keep the sheep out, but to no avail.
                The funding for my well covering project finally came in after three months of waiting around. I’ve ordered the covers but they won’t be ready for a few weeks. The next step is to pull up all the wood from the two wells that we want to renovate. Then hire a mason to come construct them. No one’s in a rush to get things done quickly, which is nice because I can take my time with it. There’s no deadline.
                Last weekend we had another polio vaccination campaign. I went out into the bush on Thursday morning after getting the wells measured for their covers. That day it rained. I remember because it’s the second time since I’ve been here that I’ve woken up to rain outside. It made the trek out to the villages easier. It’s scary riding on a moto through deep sand and is easy to wipe out. You have to go really fast to make it through. Wet sand is easier, but there is the occasional puddle to avoid. We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon walking through two small villages vaccinating kids. It’s tiring work. We ate lunch in the first village and headed over to the second. All in all we probably saw around 350 kids in these two villages, but I wouldn’t doubt if there were less than 60 adults. These villages are completely different from Bankass. They’re only 10km away but life is so much harder. Village life is filthy. Kids are covered in dirt and other stuff that looks like dirt. When I got back home that evening I was sick and threw up, just from spending the day in village. It’s hard to believe that these people live the same exact way they did centuries ago. The only improvements to village life has been the introduction of cell phones, which don’t get signal, and motos, although most people still walk or take a donkey cart to market.
                Bankass played a basketball game against Bandiagara last week as well. I’ve been playing the last couple months and am officially part of the unofficial team. We didn’t win but it was a really good game. The final score was 50- 46. Since then we’ve been trying to make our team the official Bankass club, but we keep getting turned down. It’s all a matter of money; the city doesn’t want to sponsor us, so they keep coming up with excuses for why we can’t be an official team. They claim we need a board of individuals to run the team, which we found, and then we needed a copy of statutes and regulations, which we’ve made. I don’t see how we can get turned down again. We have a lot of support from the people so I have a good feeling. Basketball is my daily exercise and helps me unwind at the end of the day. If we become official we’ll be able to travel all over the country playing.
                That’s about the gist of it.  I’ve got more things planned for the future that should be fun. Check back for more later.

                Missing everyone!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Down to Business

           It’s been almost a month since my last post, so I’ll give a quick update on things. After IST in Bamako we were left to go on our own. It was the first time I truly felt on my own since coming here. From the beginning we had always followed some sort of schedule. Now we live by our own schedules. So, following IST a few other volunteers and I caught a ride back to our homestay sites to visit our families. It had been several months since I last saw everyone and they were really glad I came. We stayed one night and headed back into Bamako. It would have been a nice trip had I not lost my phone on the way there. Not having a phone here is both stressful and liberating. You really feel cut off from everyone. I went phoneless for a few days after that, partially because I was too lazy to go buy a new one, but in a way I’ll admit I liked the feeling of being cut off and left to my own means. I stayed a night at the stage house in Bamako one night and caught a cab to the bus station early the next morning where I made the 7am up to Severe. There are a lot of bus services here, but Africa Tours is my favorite. They have a/c and  a free meal which in my opinion is worth the 20$ for a 10 hour bus ride. After getting to Severe, instead of staying the night I caught another transport to Bandiagara and stayed the night there. I headed back to site the next afternoon.
                We didn’t wait long to start working. A few days after getting back I met with the mayor and we worked up a budget for fixing a few of the wells. None of them have covers and two of the most commonly used are simple holes in the ground. I’m currently working on typing up the request for funds from USAID. It’s a very tedious job. I’ve been doing other small things around town as well. The other day I made porridge for the women who brought their babies to be vaccinated at the CSCOM, and gave a small animation on infant nutrition. Animations are a main part of what I do. Sensitizing people to health problems in the community is the best way for me to help out. I also have a small tree nursery going full of Morenga. I find ways to keep busy.
                Sometimes, though you just have to find an excuse to relax and do something fun. Recently I’ve started playing basketball at the school. Every afternoon there are about 20 people that come out to play so we shoot around and then play a game. There is a surprising amount of good ballers out here. I also try to read as much as I can. We have quite the library here in Bandiagara so there’s a lot to choose from. I’m currently reading a collection of C.S. Lewis books. I just finished The Great Divorce and moved on to Miracles. I’m also reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong. Most volunteers have a lot of time to read and go through several books per week. I’m not a fast reader and like to take my time with books. I really only have time to read at night and in the mornings. I usually fall asleep to reading.
                There were a few celebrations the last month. For the 4th we celebrated a lot of people’s birthdays as well, including my own, in Bandiagara. It involved drinking beers poolside, and making cocktails out of gin and bis-hop (hibiscus juice). Then we went to a hotel to eat and dance. Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday cards and packages. You are awesome!
                That’s about all for now. Thanks everyone for your continued support and prayers.



Monday, June 20, 2011


My new house
Rainy season has finally come. It usually rains at night after I’ve gone to sleep. It’s still unbearably hot inside and I sleep outside in my bug hut, but I’ve trained myself to wake up right before the rain hits. The wind usually picks up strong, meaning I have about 2-3 minutes before it starts pouring down, plenty of time to throw everything inside. Although it’s steamy, there’s a nice draft that comes in right underneath my door when it rains, making it easier to fall asleep. Inside I usually wouldn’t bother sleeping in the bug hut. My house is fully equipped with screens on each window and screen doors. It does a great job of keeping out the mosquitoes, but I’ve been having a problem with scorpions. I’ve killed two really big ones in the last month inside my house. That’s enough to keep me in my bug hut even when I sleep inside. The pounding of the rain on the tin roof of my house makes for a hard time falling asleep, even with earplugs.
                The start of rainy season means the start of planting for Malians. The crop of choice up in Bankass is millet. It’s one of the few things that will grow here. Every day I get up and run through the endless millet fields along a path that leads to the smaller villages surrounding Bankass. It’s going to be a sight when the crops come up. Except for the Falaise to the north, Bankass is pretty much sand as far as you can see. The rain packs the sand down, making it easier to ride my bike through town. It also really helps cool the place down and settles the dust in the air. Climate wise, it’s very pleasant, but there are a few downsides to all the rain. This is mostly because the water doesn’t drain anywhere. It just sits and forms huge puddles- breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Kids play in these huge trash-filled puddles, a majority of which contain runoff from the latrines and wash areas. Rainy season is not a very healthy time.
                The last two or so months I’ve been at site getting adjusted. I’ve developed pretty good relationships with the people at the CSCOM (health center) whom I’ll be working with and I have a few groups of friends that I spend time with every day. Bankass is really organized and efficient with their health care system. They have a lot of well trained, motivated people who get things done. It’s a relief knowing that I’ve got such good support and access to a bunch of resources. In some ways though, it can also be intimidating. Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of pressure on me to make a huge impact on the community, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is a really slow process and it involves helping people make a bunch of small behavioral changes that will eventually lead to improved health and an improved way of life. Bankass is a fairly large city, and the actuality that I will be able to help everyone is low. In fact, I plan on doing a majority of my work in the smaller surrounding villages.
                There are a few really cool things I’ve discovered about Bankass. The market every Tuesday takes place at a massive stone building. In no way does it fit in with the rest of the city, which is entirely made from mud. I heard it was built by an Italian NGO a while back. I have no idea what it was originally intended for, but during the week women sell things there and on Tuesdays there’s the big market. During the dry season, Bankass also hosts horse races in the fields outlying the city. I managed to go to one once. There were literally hundreds of horses all decorated in Dogon styles. The ones being raced were ridden bareback around a long dirt track. It was pretty wild. The day I went was especially dusty and a lot of people were covered in turbans. I also had to wear ones to keep from breathing all the dirt and keep it out of my eyes.
                I’m back in Bamako right now for a couple more weeks of training. We’re basically leaning ways we can get our ideas set into motion and how we can apply for grants for our projects. I’ve been approved for moto training, which will make it much easier to get around to all the villages. PC vols were at one time all given motos, but due to certain liability issues, they banned us from using them. Two other volunteers and I were granted special permission given our situations at our sites. The morning after I got back in town there was a half marathon that went from the PC office in downtown Bamako, through the city and back out to the training center on the outskirts.  It was my first half marathon and I ran a cool 2hr 20min. Not a horrible time despite getting lost and going about a mile in the wrong direction. Last night we took a bus downtown and had a fun night out. There’s a new ice cream parlor in Bamako, the only one in all of Mali, that we all stopped at before splitting up to do our own things. I visited a few bars with a large group of people and ended the night at a dance club. It was nice having a night like that after the last few months. Today we had a soccer match against some Canadian volunteers. It rained right before so the field was a nightmare. We let our Malian trainers play with us, which might have been a mistake. The final score was US 3 Canada 4, with all seven goals scored by Malians. It was a close game; the last goal was scored in the final minute from mid field. Despite our loss everyone had a great time playing in the mud.
                It rains a lot more here in Bamako than up in Bankass. Up north it rains maybe 1 or 2 times per week, but its rained every other day since I've been here. Everything is so much greener. There are also a lot more bugs. I’ve caught a tarantula a couple times sneaking into my hut. Not cool for someone with an intense fear of spiders. I’ve heard the Falaise is beautiful during rainy season when a lot of waterfalls are formed over the cliffs. I’m looking forward to seeing that. I watched a BBC show called Human Planet recently. There’s an episode about ethnic groups who live off the desert. They picked a Dogon village called Bamba not very far from me and showed a ritual festival they hold each year that just recently passed. I had heard about it the day before but I wasn’t able to go. It involves thousands of men standing on the banks of a dried up lake getting ready to run wildly into the water to grab whatever fish they can. It’s something that’s done in villages all throughout Dogon, but this particular village is the biggest and most known. There's only a glimpse of the village but it's enough to give you an idea of what it's like here. If anyone liked Planet Earth, Human Planet is even more fascinating.
                That’s all I have for now. You’ll hear from me again hopefully in a few weeks. Happy birthday Mom and Grandma! And Happy Anniversary to my parents! Also, Happy Father’s Day dad! I’ll talk to you soon.


At the president's house for the swear- in ceremony
Dogon horses


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Quick Update

Hey guys,

It's been a while since my last post, and a lot has happened in the last couple of months. PST ended and I've finally moved out to my site for good. As of right now I only have limited internet time, so this will be a bit short. We're having it installed at our transit house in Bandiagara, where as before I've had to go to a NGO office and share with a bunch of different people which doesn't do much to boost the connection speed. Anyway, site's going really well. It took me a few weeks to develop a routine that I really like, and I've been meeting a ton of people. Being a volunteer in a big city like Bankass is a much different experience than living in a small village. Another volunteer that moved to a small village just outside Bankass, about a km away has a completely different lifestyle than I do, and I could walk to his house in 10 minutes.
      My routine is fairly stable now. I wake up about 6am and go running. I have two different routes I take depending on how long I want to go for. One goes way out into the bush on a sandy path for about 3k, the other follows one of the two roads out of Bankass and heads towards the Falaise. I usually go about 5k to the next village off the main road and then head back. After that I bathe and make breakfast for myself- eggs and bread I bought the night before and some tea with powdered milk and sugar. Then I clean up and get ready to go to the CSCOM at about 9am. I ride my bike through the sandy streets for about a mile to get there. It's not far, but the thick sand makes it a good workout. I could take the main road, which is out of the way a bit, but that would involve stopping to greet a hundred people on my way and Malians get really offended if you don't greet them, so if I'm in a hurry, I take the least populated paths. I'm at the CSCOM until 1230, where I just sit and talk to people. I'm not allowed to do any medical procedures, and even if I could they wouldn't need me to. There are a bunch of employees and they keep things locked down. So I just greet people and talk to them, drink tea and eat peanuts. I'm just starting to trust my language enough to begin doing presentations. I've been going around the city with my homologue doing a baseline survey of different families in each of the 8 neighborhoods. It just consists of a list of basic health questions I came up with to get an idea of what the community would benefit from. I've noticed that people don't understand anything about nutrition here, which is probably why there are so many cases of malnutrition. Family planning, water sanitation, and malaria are widely understood. Unfortunately people don't always practice these things or take measures to prevent malaria, mostly for monetary reasons, but at least they know that they should. Another huge issue is hand washing with soap. That is going to be a major issue that people don't take seriously, although if you asked they would say that they do. As you've probably guessed, people don't use tp here, so there's really only one other option. If there's no soap involved, it can cause huge problems. The popular Malian belief is that you can't see it, it's not there, so water is good enough. I plan on teaching the women's group here how to make shea soap so that they can sell it at the market. But since there's really no problem with availability of soap, it's all a matter of getting people to understand why it's so important.
         The remainder of my day is spent trying not to die of the ungodly heat. I go chill with my homologue and his family for lunch and take a nap in a hammock under their shade tree. It's impossible to keep from sweating constantly. My one solace is the overpriced ice that's shipped in every day from Bandiagara. I've never been more in love with ice than when I came to Bankass. I go hang out with other random groups of people after it cools off a bit, and drink more tea. My tutor moved his family into my compound this week, and they speak passable english so I end the day with them. We just had electricity installed and so every 2 days for 2 days, from 7pm- 12am, I get to watch french dubbed brazilian soap operas, soccer, and whatever pirated movies we have available. My tutor, Damango, has over 100 pirated dvds that are sold everywhere here. each dvd has at least 10 movies on it. The other night we watched the Dark Knight in french.
         Internet times up so I have to go. There's so much more crazy stuff I'll post later, along with some pics. Thanks for reading. Love you guys,


Thursday, April 7, 2011

It's Going..

PST is finally coming to an end. It’s been a long two months. Actually it feels like these last two months have flown by, but each day seems to drag on forever. I’ve starting living on a week by week basis instead of day by day. I feel like larger increments of time go by faster. The last couple of weeks at homestay I lost track of time all together and every day just melted into the next. During PST we’ve at least been able to keep a loose grasp on time since our schedules are pretty rigid, but in Africa, it’s hard to stick to a schedule. That’s probably why most Malians base their concept of time on the seasons. We are currently approaching the end of the dry season, which is split into cold and hot. The heat here every day is like during the hottest days of summer in Texas. That’s another reason why days seem so long. It’s really hard to motivate yourself to get things done.
                We all left our homestay villages on Sunday morning. It was really sad event, having to say good-bye to our host families who we all got really close to during the short time we were with them. Knowing that we probably won’t ever see them again made it that much harder to say good-bye. Two days before we left they had a small celebration to send us off. It basically consisted of all of the Malians gathered in a circle and making us dance in the middle. After all I’ve been through, it’s safe to say I have little to no inhibition at this point, so dancing in front of a hundred laughing Malians and making a complete ass of myself is now a part of everyday life. I’m really going to miss Mountugala. I felt like I really fit in there. Part of me wishes I could stay there and work, but Bankass is an amazing city and right on the border of Dogon country, which is one of the most beautiful regions in all of West Africa. Its beauty is not just in terms of natural landscape, but the rich history and culture of the Dogon people. Life is more modernized now throughout Mali, but cultural heritage is still strong and probably nowhere more so than in Dogon.
                We went to a museum in Bamako a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t very big, but we saw some interesting stuff. There were a lot of masks from different regions, including Dogon masks, which looked really cool. There was also a textile exhibit, which may sound boring, but Malian clothing is starting to become an interest of mine. I like going to different markets and trying to find really unique fabric designs and get outfits made. So far I’ve had two complete sets done. Fabric is really cheap, about 6 dollars for 5 meters. The museum was part of a big park in the middle of the city. It was the first time I saw lush green grass in 2 months. After the museum we visited the American club for a few hours to swim in the pool and drink a few beers. The beer of preference here is Castel. It’s not good, but given the situation, I can’t complain.
                Finding things to do is never much of a chore. During homestay I would go to class from 8am to noon, then come home, eat lunch and read/ take a nap until 3. This is during the hottest part of the day, and trying to take a nap inside is like slowly roasting in brick oven, so I would find a nice shady spot in the courtyard, spread out a mat and pass out. Then class would start back up from 4-6. Class really regressed the last week since it was too hot to focus and we had pretty much covered all major points by then. Afterwards I would go to the soccer field and play until sundown, then head home take a bath and eat dinner. I’d usually sit around the house for a couple hours after dinner and people would come over and we’d talk and make tea. Sometimes I would go walk around visiting people. Mountugla was usually really quiet at night, but people stayed up late. Usually Malians don’t sleep the whole night. Instead they either go to sleep really late or just take long naps. I always went to sleep pretty early.
                Right now as I’m writing this it’s thundering outside.  I hope it rains soon. Afternoon rains here are really nice, although very rare during the dry season. Everything cools off and it gets nice and windy. It’s a good break from the steady heat. Sometimes we get a dust storm mixed in, which isn’t very pleasant. The other day I was taking a bath outside at my homestay site and I saw huge dark clouds coming in that I thought was a thunderstorm. I was quickly trying to towel off when the winds kicked up and I was consumed by a cloud of dirt. It’s funny how the storm didn’t even faze the rest of my family. They stayed outside cooking right through the worst of it while I finished drying off in my room. I ate inside that night.
                Reading and writing have proven to be great ways to kill time. I always feel guilty when I substitute language study for other outside interests, but I’m sure I would go crazy if I didn’t take up any hobbies. Language is really frustrating. Some days my language is on and I can talk to everyone but then I do a complete 180 and feel like I’ve forgotten it all. I’m actually trying to learn two languages at the same time, French and Bambara. One thing I’ve noticed in learning these languages, is that English is by far one the most diverse and colorful language in the world. French is fun to speak but difficult and Bambara is extremely limited as far as vocabulary when compared to either English or French. I like it, but trying to convert from English to Bambara is literally impossible since it’s such a simple language. While most of the men here speak French, the kids are raised speaking Bambara, and the women usually don’t go to school long enough to become fluent in French. In all likelihood I’ll be learning at least some sort of Dogon dialect as well. This is life. [C’est la vie] {dinyetige be}.
                That’s about all for now. Next week is the big swear in day. I leave for Bankass the day after. Moving all my stuff out there is going to be exciting. There’s really nothing like being out on your own in a foreign country trying to negotiate transport in a language you can hardly speak on an overcrowded, hot, smelly, bush taxi with several armloads of luggage, then ride 100 km to site sitting next to a couple goats as you pray that it doesn’t break down in the middle of nowhere or that all your stuff doesn’t fall off from the mass of junk piled on top of the roof. It’s thrilling.
                I’ll try to write in the next couple of months while I’m at site. I won’t have internet access so I don’t think I can make any posts, but I will have cell service.



Update: It did rain, and it was awesome!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sorry for the Wait

So I know you have all been anxiously awaiting my latest post, but I haven't had internet access the last month. Rest assured, I wrote a blog entry a few weeks ago but I never got a chance to post it so here it is. I'll post an update in a few days.


I’m three weeks into PST and everything’s going well.  It’s really freaking hot here and getting hotter. After arriving here in Mali on the second we had a weeks’ worth of informational classes at the training center outside the capital Bamako. Topics varied from personal health and safety to cross cultural integration and culture shock adaptation. The training center, dubbed Tubaniso, is really nice. All the huts have electricity and fans, though we rarely spend time in them. There’s about sixty of us trainees. Almost everyone is in their mid- twenties, but there are a few older ones mixed in. Our stage is made up of three groups: health, environment, and small economic development. Everyone is getting along pretty well. The second night we had a small bonfire and a few people broke out their guitars. The first week definitely countered my expectations in terms of simple luxuries. Decent food, showers, and basketball and volleyball courts made for a smooth transition.
                The second week in I moved to my homestay site to start language training. I’ve been living with a host family the last 2 weeks. As you can probably imagine, it can at times be very frustrating. The language barrier is difficult to deal with, but we’ve found other ways to communicate. My family is incredible, and they’re extremely welcoming and accommodating. My host dad is the village Iman, and I have 3 brothers and a sister. They range in age from 15 to 21. My oldest brother is who I spend most of the time with outside of our formal language classes. There are constantly people at our compound conversing with the Imam which gives me a good opportunity to practice the language. I’m learning Bambara, the most widely spoken language outside of French. It’s been a rough two weeks as far as language acquisition goes. You have good days and bad. I can tell people in the village are getting anxious to have conversations with me but it still takes me a while to form a complete sentence. By this point I think they are expecting me to be able to talk to them so it’s frustrating on both ends.
                The village itself is decent sized for its location, as it’s about thirty minutes outside the capital. It’s set pretty far apart from the other homestay villages. There are 7 other health trainees there with me. Compound sizes vary. Mine is relatively big compared to others, and there aren’t as many people living in it. It’s completely walled off, and there are three separate mud structures. The Imam lives in the main room, where he also holds his discussions, his wife daughter and son stay in a separate structure. My oldest brother and I each have our own rooms in the same structure apart from the others. There is also are a few other kids that occasionally stay with us as well as a drifter who has been sleeping in the storage room for about a week. I’m not really sure what goes on after 9pm because I’m usually too tired to stay up so I don’t know for sure who all stays there. In the center of the compound is a single tree surrounded by sand where I do a lot of studying. We also have a donkey in courtyard. The nyegen( toilet)  is located in the corner up some stairs. The village mosque is right next door to our compound. I’ve developed a habit of waking up right before the first call to prayer at 5:00 and then again at six. My earplugs manage to block out all sound except for the mosque loudspeaker, which is deafening even through the earplugs. I don’t have class until 8am every day so I sleep in until 7. My brother usually makes me an egg sandwich and coffee after I wash. One of the religious customs is to not speak in the morning until you wash your face. I usually eat all my meals with one of my brothers, and my host dad has been eating with the other guest. We eat out of the same bowl with our right hand. It took a while to get used to but my appetite hasn’t decreased at all. Bathing is also a little different here. I take a bucket bath in the same area where the nyegen is in the late afternoon, which may sound awful but it really grows on you. It’s impossible to stay clean. There is constantly dust being blown around and its really hot so when you sweat the dirt sticks to you. Malians bathe several times throughout the day. I always look forward to my bath after class. The village, and Mali in general is covered with trash and open sewage is everywhere. There are also random donkeys, chickens, sheep, goats, etc. constantly roaming around. My market is really small but fully stocked with a variety of fruits and veggies. There are also a few buteegees around where I can get everything else. A nice thing about staying with a host family is I don’t have to do anything for myself. All my meals are made and I never have to do laundry. The only thing I have to focus on is getting the language down. Since we are right next to the mosque we are constantly visited by other villagers on their way to or back from prayer. They tend to stop by and wash their feet and faces before they go to the mosque.
                One thing interesting about Malian men is they really enjoy drinking tea. They’re constantly making it over a coal fire throughout the day. From about 11am to 4pm its really hot and no one does anything. They all sit in the shade taking little shots of tea. They always invite me to join them if I happen to walk past. It’s loaded with sugar so it’s not bad. After morning class ends at noon I head back to my compound for lunch and usually stop and sit with a group of guys hanging out under a hangar. They like to test out my Bambara skills. Another really amazing aspect of the Malian culture is called Joking Cousins. There are only a handful of Malian last names and they like to make fun of each other. Back when Mali had a caste system, each family had a specific job that they were known for. Now people with these last names are freely made fun of by joking about the name and what they used to do. There are also some very generic jokes that are completely dull by American standards but Malians find them hilarious. For example, one person with a certain last name can joke with his cousin by calling him a donkey or some other animal. The other person will repeat this in turn and it doesn’t ever get old. This apparently keeps people from getting into fights or arguments. The Malian people in generally are extremely chill. They sit around drinking tea and call each other donkeys or bean eaters. They especially find it funny when I joke with them. What’s great is you can joke with just about anyone as long as you know their last name. Greeting here is also a huge thing. It’s actually a requirement, or else people get offended. At a minimum, you have to tell them hello or good day, and how they are doing, even if you are just passing by. If its someone you know, you have to also ask them how their family is doing and then individual members of their family. They then ask you the same questions. Greetings can get really long. They like to throw in a few blessings as well. Sometimes people greet each other for over a minute before they even start a conversation. I usually don’t have to formally greet younger people and can get by with just a ko ki nyi, which is basically the Bambara version of what’s up?. They respond with doni, which has a lot of meanings but for this situation would be not much.
                I have another class session in the afternoon for 2 hours then head home. I usually bathe and then hang out around town with my brothers. One of them works as a tailor and is trying to teach me to make my own clothes. We play a lot of soccer as well. I’ve walked all over the town and know where everything is. The kids at first used to call us Tubabu, which is the Bambaran word for French person, but now they all know my name and have switched over to calling it incessantly. My host dad gave me the Malian name N’tji (in- chee) Konate the first day. We’ll usually eat around 7:30 and then sit around listening to the radio. Occasionally I bust out the ipod speakers and play some American rap music for them which my brothers and their friends really like. Probably the only good thing about the hot season is that the mangos are about ready for harvesting. We have mango trees all over the place so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve got another 2 months at homestay and then it’s off to my site where I’ll be working for 2 years. I don’t know exactly where that is yet but I have an idea. The next two months will be more devoted to my sector training along with more language. I’ve been at the training center since Sunday for more informational meetings. Tomorrow we go back to our villages so everyone is trying to write emails, update blogs and skype, so the internet is really slow. It’s been a nice change of pace. We should get another break in a couple of weeks when I can do another post.


My room's the one on the right