“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.