Saturday, December 26, 2009

An IST summary

December has been a bit of a blur. It seems like yesterday was November and now December is almost over. I’ve spent the last three weeks away from my site, mostly at Tubaniso for two weeks of In-Service Training (IST). The rest of the time was spent getting to the training center and relaxing for a few days in Segou after the training. Right now I’m in Segou and have every intention of spending my Boxing Day in a hotel room watching English Premiere League soccer games all day. It’s going to be awesome. But now for a summary of IST.

Unlike Pre-Service Training (PST), IST has been more focused on technical training and overviews of how PC Mali administration works. The first week of IST was just for the new Volunteers that came over with me in July. The second week also included the Malian counterparts from our respective villages. Since I’m in the Water/Sanitation sector, my technical sessions included topics such as: digging wells/ well masonry, well masonry repair, India-Mali pump repair, treadle pump irrigation, cistern construction, drip irrigation, hand washing station construction, latrine pit construction, latrine superstructure construction, and a field trip to see rainwater harvesting tanks and composting latrines.

All the training sessions were very helpful, but sometimes they could be a bit frustrating. A lot of the sessions were “hands-on activities” where we actually built the things we were talking about. The frustrating part was when our Malian counterparts were around. There is clearly an American way to do things and a Malian way to do things. In my opinion the American way is faster and better. But that also might come from the fact that the Malians were learning a lot of this stuff for the first time, whereas the Americans already understood what was going on for the most part. Something as simple as laying out a rebar grid 15 cm on center for a latrine floor slab was incredibly complicated for some reason…

During one of the days that the counterparts were around we had a bunch of booths set up to show off different kinds of income generating activities (IGAs) that could be done to help families generate more income. These included making soap, sun-drying fruit, mud-dying cloth, making shea butter, and making neem cream (natural mosquito repellent). My counterpart was really excited about everything and was scolding me for not writing everything down. He saw a lot of value in what was being demonstrated. I didn’t (sorry PC). The reason being that I am here do water/sanitation work AND come up with something in that field to do my Master’s report on. I think IGAs are a great thing if you can get them to work… but that’s the tough part. Getting them to work. Sure. I could teach people how to make soap and dry fruit and what not. What I’m not so sure I could do is find a place or a demand for people so sell their products. I’m not sure how to explain this to my counterpart. Suffice it to say, I think I am going to focus on water/sanitation stuff for now.

Lastly, I want to talk about something that has once again reminded me that I’m in Africa. A few days ago I went on a field trip to look at rainwater harvesting systems and composting latrines. Both of these systems were providing limited if any actual positive benefit. Mostly because the people using them didn’t fully understand the technology. Aid agencies just came in, dumped this stuff on a community and then left. This happens all the time over here. On the way back from the field trip our bus had to stop because there was a sheep in the middle of the road that had either been hit by a car or fallen off the top of a bus. It wasn’t dead, but it had some pretty serious head injuries. Our driver got out and pulled it off the road, and then someone in our group decided that it would be a good idea to bring the sheep back with us and cook it up for dinner. So… we ended up eating half-dead road kill that night. Friends, I’m in Africa.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Q & A

This is a Q&A session that was inspired by my former high school French teacher. Apparently students in her classes are reading my blog and they came up with a bunch of questions for me. I figured that the questions and my answers would work well on this blog as well, so here they are.


1. Knowing you are making improvements for the village, how do you think the villagers will remember you like they have the other people who volunteered before you?


Based on what the villagers have told me about past Volunteers, they will probably remember whatever "quirky" behaviors I exhibit as well as any major projects I am able to finish. I am frequently reminded by the villagers that the Volunteer before me had a three-room school built for the village. I've been asked repeatedly what exactly I'll be doing. The villagers have also told me about some of the previous Volunteers habits including: keeping a flower garden, running every day, and having people from the US come visit... all of which are uncommon here.

2. What do you miss most from home? Specifically, do you miss the convenience of meals or maybe a specific food?

I miss a lot of things. Refrigeration. Electricity. Toilets. Indoor plumbing. Being here has helped me appreciate fresh fruit and veggies in an entirely new way. I also miss being able to drive... especially a motorcycle. They're everywhere here, but PC forbids Volunteers from operating motor vehicles. Probably just as well since the traffic situation here can sometimes be described as less than optimal.

3. Would you consider going to Africa again and are there some things you will change in your life when you return to the U.S.?

I wrestle with that question often. Some days I love it here. Some days I hate it. However, I find that while my frustrations remain the same I am continually finding new things to appreciate/enjoy about being here. Officially, the jury is still out. Regarding life changes, I plan to eat tons of fruits and veggies to make up for lost time. I'll also try to be more connected with the world around me because I'm realizing more and more that the way I live(d) in the US does affect people in other places.

4. Is that part of Africa safe? Have you encountered any dangers or have there been areas you have purposely avoided for that reason?

Much of West Africa is fine, but there are certain places within different countries that are best if avoided. Mali is considered to be one of the most stable democracies in Africa. With that said, Al Qaeda is active in the northern part of the country (in the Sahara). Peace Corps does not allow Volunteers in the northern half of the country for that reason and the US State Department has issued very strict travel warnings for the area for all Westerners. In the last few months there have been major incidents of terrorism/violence in Niger, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Guinea... all of which neighbor Mali or are near by. Though, rest assured moms, Peace Corps is very aware of these situations and does everything possible to prevent Volunteers from ever getting into a dangerous situation.
Given my current location, I do not feel unsafe, but I am aware that the security situation here is not the same as in the US. The scariest things that have happened to me are almost getting run over by a cow cart and having to ride my bike down single lane dirt roads with giant semi-trucks going the other direction. A little unnerving. I also try to avoid stepping in the open sewers and have been successful so far, although some of my friends have not been so fortunate.

5. How many kids are getting a good education over there? Are most kids just running around, playing games outside, or are they in school learning?

Most kids go to either a public government school or a private Islamic school, although some parents do not send their kids to school (particularly girls). Most students make it up to sixth grade, with a smaller portion finishing high school and an even smaller portion going to college. A high school diploma here carries the same amount of weight as a college degree in the US. For example: the language tutor I have here never passed twelfth grade, but is the second highest ranking teacher at the school in my village. I would say in general, more kids in urban centers continue on to high school compared to those in villages... mostly because there aren't high schools in the villages, so students from villages are essentially going to boarding school when they reach high school.


6. How is the crime rate in Mali? Can it be scary to be there sometimes, or do you feel safe?

In terms of violent crime, I don't think it is as much of a problem as in the US. Regarding "soft crime", corruption is a big problem here. It is not uncommon for police to give people a hard time because they want a bribe, even if no crime has been committed. Theft is also a problem, but also much more of a grey area because there is a much more communal attitude towards possessions here. Pick-pocketing is common in the capital, Bamako.

7. How has this experience affected your relationship with your family? Do you think about them often?

Being away I think has brought me closer to friends and family. Having a "life line" to the US is good for mental health.

8. What's hardest for you: speaking, reading, or writing French? How do you improve yourself?

The hardest part is all three (mostly speaking). When in village I speak Bambara, so I'm only using French when in my banking town or other big city. Its difficult to keep French fresh in my mind. I've been trying to teach myself French while in village and practice speaking several times a week with a language tutor. All the teachers here speak French, so they make good tutors.


9. What are you going to miss from there when you come back home?

Probably being able to buy more rice and sauce than I am able to eat in one sitting for about 50 cents... I'll also miss the friendly, social atmosphere of village life. Everyone looks out for everyone else. People are better connected here overall.

10. Would you do this again somewhere? Another African country, or maybe a Central American one?

Don't tell anyone from Mali, but I wanted to go to Central/South America for Peace Corps, so the answer is yes, I would go somewhere else. However, I don't think I would do it "again"... at least not right away. When I finish PC I'd like to work on getting a job, a house, and 2.5 kids so I can finally become a real "American".


11. Funniest thing that's happened to you?

I'm not sure how funny this is to other people but I found it amusing... I went into my market town a few weeks ago to have a soil probe made. This is simply a long, thin steel tube with a handle on one end and a slit about the width of a finger cut along the length of the tube. You push it into the ground and when you pull it back up you can see what the soil is like. Trying to explain this to Malians was extremely difficult as I didn't have the technical vocabulary to describe what I wanted and after I drew a picture of it they still had not idea what the crazy white guy wanted to do with a steel tube that had a big chunk cut out of it. Our discussion was carried out first in Bambara, then a bit of French, and after a while a guy showed up who spoke a bit of English. Sentences were being spoken with words from all three languages. It was a mess, but I got what I wanted. It reminded me of a scene from an episode of "I Love Lucy" where they have to work out a problem in about five different languages.

12. With the Malians constantly sharing and working together, are there ever fights or disputes?

Yes. And I would say that when they do fight it tends to be much more "in your face" than American fighting. However, once people say what they have to say, things calm down and everything goes back to normal. I've never seen any adults physically fight, but kids to hit each other sometimes.


13. Is it hard to transition to the new lifestyle? What are some of the things you still just dont understand about the culture?

Yes, it has been difficult not only because a lot of the everyday comforts found in the US don't exist here, but also because there is a lot of stuff that I don't understand. I don't understand why people don't measure anything when building a house. I don't understand how little value is given to a person's time. I don't understand the logic of taxi drivers. They charge per person, not by distance traveled, so one person traveling across town costs $1, but four people in one car doing the exact same thing costs $4. I could say quite a bit here, but I'd probably just end up ranting, which isn't very becoming.


14. Was there a point where you realized that you had to let go of whatever feelings you had of maintaining your previous lifestyle?

Yes. I had to make the decision to let go of my previous lifestyle when I decided to join Peace Corps. I'm not in the US anymore and don't live in a large city here, so the realities of a Western lifestyle simply don't exist. There's no choosing. With that said, it is nice to import little parts of America to my village in the form of my Ipod, books, and care package items.


15. What do you do as far as entertainment?

My "entertainment system" consists of a 30 gb Ipod, laptop speakers, and a shortwave radio. Since there are so many aid agencies supported by foreigners here there are a lot of English radio stations broadcasting over short wave. I usually switch off between listening to the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Canada International. I also read a lot and am making a pathetic attempt at teaching myself how to play guitar (I picked one up from a departing Volunteer).

16. How do you keep a laptop/iPod for personal use? In other words, how do you keep them charged?

First off, I keep an Ipod at site with me, and will be keeping a laptop at the PC office in my banking town (it's currently in transit from the US). To keep the Ipod going I charge it every time I'm near a computer and I also have a little device that runs on rechargeable batteries that will recharge the Ipod. I do have to ration Ipod use, so I usually listen to my radio. Some Volunteers here use portable solar panels, but so far I haven't found a reason to have one... plus, they can be problematic.


17. What were your first interactions with the natives like?

Awkward. Lots of greetings and introductions. Some joking... And a decent amount of staring as I'm the only white guy around.

18. What role does modern technology play with Africans today?

Modern technologies exist here. Cars. Motorcycles. Cell phones. Satellite TV. Computers. Refrigerators. This stuff is much more prevalent in cities, where there is electricity. In my village there are quite a few men who have motorcycles and cell phones and a small handful of people who have TVs. There is even one guy with a satellite dish. In village most electronics are run off car batteries which are charged every night by a gas generator that is kept at the butiki (corner shop) in town. People use modern technology when they can afford it, but a lot of people have a difficult time affording to feed their families, so technology usually gets the back seat. This is an agrarian society for the most part, so everyone farms. Almost all farm work is still done by hand with a hoe and a plow that is pulled by cows. Tractors or mechanized farming equipment of any kind is a rarity.

19. You spoke of a volunteer who suddenly left because the cultural shock was too much. How was the change for you?

The change was hard, but less difficult than the first time I was out of the US (in Bangladesh). The thing that bothered me the most (and still does) was how people get your attention here. If they don't yell "hey" outright they will make a "tsst" sound that to Americans is considered very annoying/offensive. I was also bothered by the scoldings I would get from people for not "greeting" them every time I saw them.

20. What is(are) the best age(s) to enter into the Peace Corps?

All ages are good. People coming right out of college are great because they have a lot of energy. People who have been working for a while and do PC as an older person are good because they bring experience and wisdom that young people don't have.

21. Do you feel pressure knowing that you are there to help the people? Do you feel like you need live up to previous Volunteers who have been there?

Yes. People at my site are always telling me good things about the previous Volunteers. I'm always worried that I need to live up to expectations set by the people that were here before me. Sometimes I find myself doing things that I don't want to do in order to build good relationships with people in town.

22. Did you have to learn the language just by living with the people or did someone teach you while you were there?

My first two months in Mali were made up of what Peace Corps calls "pre service training". I lived in a homestay village (not the place I live now) with several other new Volunteers as a way to become integrated with the culture. Peace Corps had a Malian stay there as well that spoke English and every day we had language class for seven hours. Since then I've been working with one of the teachers in my village to help me learn more. I am speaking mostly Bambara here, but we use French as an intermediate language because my tutor doesn't speak English. My French is still pretty shaky, but I have a French/English dictionary so we're able to make things work very slowly. I learn new words and phrases every day.

23. Do you really stop at every persons house on the way home to say good night?

No. I would have to say good night to about 3,000 people if I did that. But greeting is a very important part of the culture here. Every morning I greet my work counterpart, the shop keeper down the street (I eat dinner at his place every night), and the village chief. I do the same thing at night. I also have to go through this process with just about everyone that I encounter on the short walk between each of these people's houses.


24. Was is difficult to pick up a tribal language along with French and English? What is your favorite word in the tribal language that you have learned?

As I said, I speak mostly Bambara here. It's not a tribal language. It's spoken extensively in Mali and in neighboring countries. Its easy and difficult to learn this language. The grammatical structure is very simple, but all the words have about 37 different meanings depending on how you pronounce them and by what context they are used in. My favorite word in Bambara is "ka jigi", which means "to get down". For example, if you're riding on a bus and want to get off you would say "N ba fe ka jigi" which literally means "I want to get down". It reminds me of the Will Smith song from a while back "Gettin Jiggy With It".

25. Do they respect you there, or do the villagers see you as an outsider and just another "rich American" ?

Yes and yes. I am given a ton of respect here. I'm usually the first one served at meal times. I am always given a chair to sit in (chairs are not common in village). People go out of their way to help me out when I need something. But, since I'm white I obviously have a lot of money. Right? Never mind the fact that I don't get a wage for being here and I'm up to my eyeballs in debt from college... People are always telling me to give them my stuff. They do it jokingly, but it does get annoying after a while. When people say stuff like this I always ask what I will do after I give them whatever they asked for and they simply reply that I will buy a new one because I have lots of money. The underlying implication being that I have money because I'm a white American.


26. Was the change over difficult? (coming from materialistic America, to Mali)

Kind of. When you want something there is usually only one or two options available at the store... if you can even find what you are looking for. I've gotten so used to this after being here for five months that now when I go into some of the nicer western supermarkets in Bamako I literally can't make up my mind when there's more than two types of cookies to choose from. The idea of having several options is overwhelming.

27. What has been the most significant difference between Mali and the United States? How long did it take you to adjust?

I've been struggling to put my finger on the answer to that question ever since I got here and I still don't think I have a good one. I'm working on it though. It took me probably three months to get really comfortable with my situation here, but I'm still making adjustments every day.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Windows Into a Different Culture

This video is a few sections of the prayer ceremony during Tabaski (Seliba). The whole ceremony (which included the slaughtering of a ram) lasted about 20 minutes. I think the video gives a pretty good idea of what it means to pray as a Muslim.
video


This video captures a "discussion" between relatives on the second day of the Tabaski celebration. We had just finished eating and people were serving cafe', which is a special treat here. I'm not sure what the dispute is over exactly, but I think it had to do with either how much beverage certain people were getting or in what order certain people were served. I think the video shows a good example of what most Malian arguments are like. It appears to be a lot more serious that it really is. Notice too, that the people who are initially speaking leave after they have said what they need to say and after a mediator steps in. And then the mediator is the one who starts yelling. It's like the argument is transferable. Also notice that while there are always a few people yelling at eachother, all the others are coming and going and laughing/smiling at the people arguing. This is a sign that what seems like a heated argument from a Western perspective, is nothing serious at all.

video

Festival of Sacrifice

...also known as Eid al-Adha, Tabaski, or in Bambara: Seliba. The Festival of Sacrifice is a Muslim celebration of the remembrance of the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to God (also found in the Bible). This is a rather big celebration in the Muslim world and carries the same kind of weight Christmas does in the Christian world. The Festival lasts three days and almost everyone takes the days off from doing work.

On the first day everyone gathers for a prayer service in the morning, and at the end a ram is slaughtered by the imam in front of the entire assembly. After the ceremony, every family returns to their own household, where the male heads of the household slaughter their own ram and whatever number of male goats are required to provide enough meat for the family for eating during the next two days and as gifts for friends. My estimation is that on the first day of Seliba, at least 200 rams and probably another 300 or so male goats met their end all within about an hour of eachother just in my village alone.

The animals are slaughtered, the meat washed and portioned, and then the men immediately start grilling the choicest portions for consumption. After a first round of meat everyone switches gears and eats a lunch typically of rice and sauce. Then you go back to grilling meat. At this time groups of kids from other families start to show up and present special Seliba greetings (not unlike Christmas caroling), for which they are usually given portions of uncooked meat to take back to their families. Groups of women will also go around and provide special greetings, for which the customary gift is a small amount of money. The remainder of the day is spend hanging out and socializing.

On the second day the family again gathers in the morning for a large meal, and then a round of cafe`. The rest of the day is spent socializing. At about 4 pm all the young men in village bring out their (or their dad's) motorcycles and proceed to zoom through the village in a loop at incredibly irresponsible speeds. Any number of imaginable positions are assumed for riding in order to impress the crowds that come out to watch. Mothers keep their toddlers from being run over. Men clap and cheer for wheelies. There is even a small parade where men stand in the back of a cow cart and throw little candies. The cows are draped in the most elaborate, oversized prayer mats. There are also a few young men dressed up in ridiculous outfits riding donkeys with guns strapped to their backs. The donkeys get startled by the motorcycles racing past them on crowded, narrow streets. At some point a yound motorcycle driver will misjudge the stability of the sand he is driving on and lightly run into a wall for several feet, before gently crashing, picking up his motorcycle and his dignity, and then continuing on. The general cheer is so great that when a motorcycle eventually does run into a small child, allegedly breaking the kid's arm, the mood isn't spoiled. The parents simply make a splint for the arm out of pieces of wood and some cloth. No doctor or pain meds needed as this is Seliba and the doctor isn't in town anyway (he's back home in another village celebrating with his family). Day three is a repeat of day two.

Everyone has special clothes made out of expensive fabrics. The women and girls have their feet dyed with something like henna and their hair done up with only the best fake hair extensions money can buy. Make-up can even be spotted.

It truely was an amazing experience.

Harvesting Millet

In the Midwest corn and soy beans are a big deal. I’ve now transitioned to a different agriculture setting where millet and rice are all the rave. The harvest season is in full swing at the moment, with millet being the first of the two crops to come in. For those of you who don’t know what millet is, it’s a plant that’s in the same family as corn (I believe), and is probably most commonly found in bird feed in the US. Here’s what it looks like…













I thought it would be fitting to describe the process by which millet is harvested. I’m somewhat amused with some aspects and I think it sheds light on certain intricacies of the culture here.

Step 1: Knock the millet stalks down into rows.

Step 2: Use a small hand blade to cut the heads off the stalks (where the grain is)

Step 3: Bundle and bind the stalks together to be used as animal fodder during the hot season when nothing grows anywhere.

Step 4: Take the heads to a threshing floor where the millet will be removed from the heads

Step 5: Call in a large truck (think dump truck) to drive in circles over the heads to accomplish said threshing (in this situation the truck is referred to as a “millet grinding machine”, not a “dump truck” as its German Mercedes-Benz mechanical engineers would have envisioned).

Step 6: Gather the grain into 100 kg (220 lb) sacks, which are then carried by a single man to a cow cart, hauled into town, and then again carried by a single man from the cart to the farmers house or grain silo (made out of mud of course).

Step 7a: If the farmer has a silo, first place a tarp on the ground and then dump the millet out of the sacks onto the tarp. Remove the straw roof from the silo. Then take large bowls, fill them with millet, and hand them to someone standing on an old oil drum (acting as a step ladder) who dumps the millet into the grain silo.

Step 7b: When the silo looks like it’s about to be full but you still have 10 or 15 sacks left remaining to be stored, continue to empty them out onto the tarp. Then take a ten minute rest, eat some spicy peanut butter and millet flour balls, and put all the millet you just dumped out back into the sacks they arrived in and carry the sacks into the house adjacent to the tarp. For this two people are allowed to carry one sack.

Step 8: The following day, gather straw and a bucket of water. Lay the straw over the millet at the top of the silo. Use the water and a hand hoe to make mud and then spread the mud over the straw. This will create that precious “freshness seal” that’s all the rave these days. (If you’re wondering how you get the millet out, there’s a door in the wall towards the top for later access.)

Step 9: Put the roof back on the silo.










(millet photos taken from : womensnutritiontips.com & merliannews.com)


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One Man, Multiple Disasters

We've had a bit of a shake up in town the past few days, and it's affected my local shop keeper (Madu) most of all.

The first unfortunate event involved Madu's prize winning ram (male sheep) and a 100 kg sack of millet. Apparently one afternoon the ram decided he'd take a little stroll across the street and have a mid-afternoon snack from one of the millet sacks in a storage shed. Sadly, the ram knew not his own hunger and fell over dead the next morning. Apparently if sheep or goats eat too much millet it can kill them. This is a well understood phenomenon here. The thing that makes this a big deal is that rams are really valuable here. And big ones are really, really valuable. Madu's ram was one of these. Apparently it was worth at least 50,000 CFA, which is enough to buy a donkey cart. In village terms, this was a serious investment that went totally bad.

The second thing worth noting happened the day after the death of the sheep and involved quite a few more people and created a much bigger scene. I was sitting under the big tree next to the boutique like I do most afternoons, and had oddly enough chosen this particular day to try to put together a photo montage of the "running of the bas". I was sitting in a chair next to the road with a few other people when a passing cow cart decided to break up the general tempo of the day. As it was passing me, the driver decided to whip one of the cows, who chose to suddenly veer right towards me. Since the cart was moving somewhat quickly, the cows couldn't stop when they realized they were heading straight for a wall, several people, some chairs, a sack of sugar, and a motorcycle. The cart ended up doing a 180 degree turn, running over a chair and the motorcycle in the process. I had to get up and jump over the wall the avoid an intimate situation involving cow horns that I wasn't keen on experiencing.

When I got up from toppling over the wall there was a chair and motorcycle under the cart, people were gathering around and yelling (of course), and the driver of the cart was about 100 feet down the road, laying on the ground... either examining several people's flip flops or getting kicked. It was hard to tell. There was a lot of dust.

The motorcycle and chair belonged to Madu and were severely damaged. Apparently he was fortunate enough to also get to pay for their repairs... not the cow cart driver. Madu's salidaga (water pitcher thing) was also done-zo. I mentioned to someone next to me that I thought cows were bad and pointed out that the salidaga had "died". People thought this was hilarious, so now every time people see me at the boutique they tell me cows are bad. I respond by asking for a knife so I can go cut cow throats. Best joke in town right now.

I also happened to be feeling somewhat ill during the timeframe of these events. I guess they say bad things come in threes... (I feel better now, btw).

I blame this stuff on the fact that the dugutigi (chief) was out of town at the time. He was in Bamako, seeing someone off on their pilgrimage to Mecca I believe. It just goes to show - when the dugutigi isn't around to run his village, everything goes to hell.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thankfulness

I've begun doing my "baseline survey" for my village. This involves going to all the households in the village (about 150 to 200 I've been told) and asking a series of questions I've made. One very vague question I've been asking is "What problems are in the village and how can people fix them?".

While there have been some variation in answers, so far there has been a common theme from almost everyone I've talked to thus far. First, they all laugh and say there is no money (even though people can afford cell phones, motorcycles, and radios). Second, they say there is a lack of food.

While I am still getting hung up on the no money thing, I find the no food answer to be even more interesting. Why? Because everyone in this village is a subsistence farmer in some capacity. Every person in the village dedicates at least some time to the production of food. I haven't finished my survey, but I'd say 90% of the village men would call themselves outright farmers. How then, could there be a lack of food?

This is something I can begin to explain, but cannot completely comprehend as the phenomenon doesn't really exist in the US anymore. Sure, there are years of drought and years where crops go bad, but have you ever gone to the pantry or fridge and been hit with the reality that there is no food? Not because you couldn't afford to go to the store and buy some, but because all the food in town simply ran out.

Maybe it's just coincidence, but I find it rather interesting that I am having this revelation shortly before Thanksgiving. I've always understood what Thanksgiving is about, but I've come to realize that I wasn't totally aware of what I was thankful for. There is so much more meaning now that I'm living in a place where having enough to eat is a daily concern. People here tell me everyday how much better America is than this place and the sad part is they don't even know half of what's really available in the US. I truly am thankful and hope that as Thanksgiving approaches, you who are reading this, will also find some new understanding of what it means to be thankful for what you have.

Narrating How to Build a Hangar (patio awning) for Your House

Step Zero

Enlist your village counterpart to help you out as he's walked the Earth for 50 plus years and has built quite a few of these over the years.

Step One

You purchase the necessary materials. These include long and slender logs to be used as support poles and cross beams for the actual “roof”, which consists of weaved grass mats, and string to hold the mats to the beams. The columns need to form a “y” on one end to hold up the beams.

Step Two

You gather tools. These include an axe for trimming logs and an iron rod that is flatted like a screw driver at one end to serve as a post digger.

Step Three

You begin building. It is essential that you do not do the following before actually beginning construction: a. measure the mats to figure out the best configuration and workable dimensions, b. use information from “a” to determine appropriate spacing of posts and beams. You will figure this all out as you go.

Step Four

After you begin setting posts you realize you didn’t get enough, so you go get more. Once all posts are established you spend several hours putting up and taking down various beams until they fit together in a cohesive fashion. Remember, you are working with logs that are essentially tree trunks with the branches chopped off. No two are alike and you are forbidden from making them all a uniform length to help ease the process of construction.

Step Five

You put on the roof matting. The job will have to remain incomplete, however, as your forethought to NOT measure anything in advance has necessitated that you go back to the market town next weekend to purchase more matting as you made the frame too big for what you initially purchased.

Step Six

Enjoy your mostly competed hangar for a few days until you can head back to market and get supplies to finish the job.

Fable (motivated by true events)

This is a slightly embellished recounting of events that took place on 7 November, 2009.

I was sleeping outside, on the patio in front of my house in my bug net tent, as is my usual custom, when at roughly 1:30 am I was awoken from a pleasant sleep. The impetus for this nocturnal disturbance was a dog several houses down making known his situation at the time. Since I’m quickly becoming a seasoned linguist (currently speaking English and learning Bambara, French, and old man gibberish), I was able to make out that the dog somewhere in the distance was saying “Hey, hey… hey”, which as anyone who understands the universal dog tongue can tell you is slang for “I found something I deem interesting enough for everyone to know about!”.

The dog was referring to the night sky. The moon was especially bright. It was as if night was simply a black cloth spread over the entirety of the daylight heavens, with all the stars being minute gaps between woven threads and the moon being an exceptionally pronounced hole that was letting the sun through with all it’s fury. It was almost as if a dim version of daytime had descended. I could understand why the dog might be concerned by this as there is undoubtedly a proper time for both night and day.

However, after a few shouts from dog number one, a second dog joined in, officially making it a canine conversation. Again, given my newfound abilities as a linguist I was able to determine that dog number two was offering some reassurance to dog number one that the night was functioning properly and that what he was experiencing was simply an evening of exceptionally intense solar radiation in the form of lunar illumination. Dog number two then added that he had found something interesting as well, due mostly to the exceptionally bright moon. A cat.

After a brief exchange the two dogs decided it was best to do some further investigating into the exact whereabouts and activities of said cat… who up until this point had chosen to remain silent in hopes that dog number two had mistaken her exact position.

When it became clear to the cat that dog number two was no fool, and after realizing that things were becoming more dire for herself every moment, the cat decided to break silence and said in the most forceful and shrill British manner cat is capable of, “I wish to make my sentiments fully known in the most animated language possible. Proceed one step closer and I shall raise up a most unwelcome ruckus for you, my unwelcome pursuers!”, which in American English roughly translates to “Get the hell away from me, you dogs!”. (What a cat with a British accent was doing in a village in the middle of rice fields in Mali is beyond me, but I swear it’s true.) Unfortunately the cat didn’t realize her own vocal capabilities and ended up creating a ruckus anyway.

Apparently there was a rooster not too far off who turned out to be a rather light sleeper for a rooster, and until this point had been in sound slumber. The outcry from the cat brought the rooster abruptly out of its deeply lucid attitude, and in his startled state discovered that is was fairly light out. Thinking he had overslept, the rooster quickly made fast his roosterly duty and took a deep breath, stretched his neck forward, cocked his head to one side, and bellowed “Wake up everyone!” and then continued to do so as it appeared that all his fellow roosters had also been sleeping on the job.

All the other roosters in village, being a tight knit group, awoke quickly and joined in with the wakeup call. Soon the whole village was aware that morning had unexpectedly arrived at 1:30 am instead of the usual 6 am.

The quickly assembled wakeup call soon had the rest of the dog community going. Conversing about the continuing rooster call, the dogs conducted a surprisingly well organized discussion in which dogs number one and two informed the rest of the group regarding the situation with the moon and the cat and the probable cause of the rooster rambling. The dogs then inquired as to whether the cat, who was in their opinion responsible for the whole mess, had been apprehended. Then as a unified group, attempted to explain to the misinformed roosters what was really going on.

Despite the fact that West African roosters don’t speak West African dog, it didn’t take long for them realize that the dogs knew something they didn’t. Apparently one of the roosters then took the time to examine the sky more carefully and realized that the stars were indeed poking through the blanket of night. Once the roosters were of one mind apologies were meekly uttered and everyone settled back in to repeat the drill several hours later at the appropriate time. No one is sure where the cat ended up… probably for the best.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bike Ride Sampler

video

This is a compilation of scenes from a bike ride I took in the area surrounding my village. It starts in on a road that is basically a dike between two rice fields, then moves into millet fields, back to another dike, into the village neighboring mine, then back to more millet fields, finally finishing up with my own village and the road to my house.
Along the way you see several interesting things including: rice fields, millet fields, irrigation control structures (dikes and flood gates), mud brick houses, carts being pulled by donkeys and cattle, kids playing with old bike tires, animals being herded, and the village "town hall" right at the end (it's under the giant tree).

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Mali Cuisine Review

I've never read an article on food before, but here's my attempt to be food critic. Village cuisine in Mali revolves around a few major themes: thing from the field, things from the garden, and things from around town.

Things from the field include:
rice, millet, peanuts, beans, corn, mangos, oranges, watermelons, onions, potatoes.

Things from the garden include:
okra, tomatoes, green bell peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, papaya, sweet potato, cassava, lettuce, melon, and garlic.

Things from around town include:
chicken, goat, sheep, cow, fish, eggs, pasta, seasonings, sugar, powdered milk

The food scene in Mali has both a good and bad side - two seemingly opposing forces fighting for purposes good or evil. The raw foods listed above are typically combined to make different dishes. Mali is a mono "dish" culture, so unlike the US where you eat several different things during a meal, in Mali the meal is one thing.

Forces Fighting for Good

Rice and Sauce
Universally likes by all. Typically consists of copious amounts of steaming hot rice, which is smothered in one of several sauces. The most common sauces use peanuts or onions as a base ingredient, but sometimes something related to soy sauce will make an appearance. All are made from scratch.

Pasta
...Can be found in two manifestations: spaghetti or macaroni. The proper nomenclature for both in Mali is "macaroni". No tomato sauce required. All that is needed for an excellent dining experience is a cube or two of the universal Malian seasoning "Maggi". Maggi is essentially a bullion cube style powder.

Hard Boiled Eggs
Usually seasoned with Maggi and added to a plate of "macaroni". A special treat in village.

Cucumber, Bread, & Dressing
This dish appears rarely in the average cook's weekly repertoire, but is a welcome change from routine. Preparation includes first peeling several cucumbers, then slicing them in half, and then slicing the halves into quarter inch thick semi-circles. These are put into a bowl and then liberally covered in a vinaigrette dressing consisting of vinegar, peanut oil, and possibly some salt. To consume, take a small piece of break and pinch it around several pieces of cucumber and enjoy.

Beans
Similar to pinto beans, but not made into a paste as done in the Mexican kitchen. Cooked several hours until soft, a little peanut oil is then added.

Sweet Potato Fries
Exactly when they sound like, only the sweet potatoes here are white, not orangey.

Corn on the Cob
It's not sweet corn and it doesn't come with salt or butter... but it's delicious. After being husked, the cobs are put directly onto hot coals. Then the kernels start browning it's time to eat. Corn on the cob is more of a snack food and not very common where I'm at.

Peanuts
Fresh. Roasted. Shelled. Salted. Combinations of these. There are several ways to enjoy Mali's favorite legume. Eaten as a stand alone snack, with tea, or in peanut sauces.

Millet Couscous
Tastes almost exactly like couscous made from wheat. Usually flavored with peanut oil, peanut sauce, or onion sauce.

Fried Dough
Known as "gato", this is a simple dough made of flour and water which is then fried in a pot of peanut or shea oil. Sprinkle some sugar on top and you're all set. Who needs Krispy Kreme?

Mini Crumpets
It's called ngomi ("n-go-mee"). Essentially this is a mini pancake that behaves like an untoasted crumpet. They're cooked in oil, but not fried. A great breakfast food.

Forces Fighting for Evil

Sardines, Bread, & Dressing
Not a sandwich. Sardines and vinaigrette dressing are in a bowl and then scooped up with bits of bread in the same manner as the cucumber dish mentioned earlier.

Moni ("mo-nee")
This is a type of porridge typically eaten for breakfast. It consists of millet flour made into balls the size of small peas which are suspended in a solution of millet flour, water, and sugar. Much of the time milk is included, but the milk is sour. Consuming this concoction is like drinking something chunky with the viscosity of lite syrup... and it tastes terrible thanks to the sour milk.

Siri ("see-ree")
It's rice porridge made out of rice, sugar, and milk. It would be great if it wasn't for the fact that once again, the milk is sour.

Bread and Mayonnaise
A breakfast food. I won't even begin to describe my feelings regarding this culinary abomination.

To (as in "dough")
Typically made from millet (but also can be from corn or rice). It has the consistency of Play-Doh or cold Malt-O-Meal (when hot). Eaters typically grab a sticky handful and then dip it into a bowl of either okra or fish sauce. Each sauce is equally undesirable, not to mention that the To itself is like eating a tasteless, sticky something. The okra sauce is lovingly referred to by English speakers here as "snot sauce", given its color and consistency. The only thing worse than freshly prepared To is day-old To that is reserved after it's had some time solidify further and contemplate its existence overnight before meeting a final destination.

Meat
Meat is actually on neutral ground as it can be good or bad depending on how it's prepared, what part of the animal it came from, and how old the animal was when slaughtered. Goat is the most common meat in village, followed by sheep, cow, and finally chicken. The reason for this being that since there is no refrigeration, any animal slaughtered has to be consumed that day or the meat spoils. Goat works perfectly because there's enough meat for a family and a little left over to sell. Sheep and cows are bigger animals, so they are typically reserved for large feasts. Chickens just aren't very common in village and thus are eaten with little frequency. I should also point out that eating meat in general is not very common and considered a special treat.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Transport Story

This is the story of an experience I had trying to get back to my village about two weeks ago. I should begin by explaining the method of motorized transport in rural Mali. It’s referred to as a bashé… essentially a large van (15 passenger equivalent in US)… only they usually seat 20 to 25 people. Each seat has been sized for about 75% of the average person’s posterior and seats are arranged in rows of five across. It’s a hot, crowded, dusty experience. Some of the really old bashés only have seats around the walls of the vehicle as the center is used to carry cargo… anything from giant rice sacks to baskets of fresh fish, to sacks of fresh animal skins. There are openings on the sides of the bashés, but usualy no window glass.

I got to the bashé gare (bus depot) in Segou shortly after 11 am. I found the bashé I needed to take and immediately had my doubts. It was by far the worst looking bashé I have seen thus far in Mali. Upon approaching the section of gare it was located in I thought to myself, “I hope I’m not on that bashé”. But it was the only vehicle going my way, so I paid the fee and waited for the bashé to leave… something that could potentially take hours as there is no set departure times for anything here.

About 20 minutes later we were moving… but rather slowly. Shortly after departure we stopped at a gas station and waited for more passengers for another half hour. Once we finally got moving again and out of town I thought things would be smooth sailing the rest of the way… the problems were only just beginning.

For starters, the bashé was basically a steel box on wheels. Whatever suspension was intended for the vehicle was no longer present. This became painfully obvious when we left the paved road and began our 60 km treck across the worst road in the world.

Why is the road so bad? It’s a dirt road slightly sloped above the existing terrain. The road receives heavy traffic on a daily basis, and because of the rainy season, the road is heavily rutted is most areas and partially washed out in others. The combination of bad road and lack of suspension meant a bone-jarring ride for two hours.

To avoid the perils of the road, however, many drivers choose to drive next to the road, where the ground is flatter and free of pot holes in most places. However, in some places the actual road is better, so the driver of my bashé was constantly criss-crossing between the road and the “shoulder”. Doing so added a particular zest to the ride as the bashé went up or down a noticeable incline every time the switch was made. The sensation this produced was as if the bashé was going to tip over…

The icing on the cake was that the roof of the bashé directly above me was extremely rusty. This meant every time we hit a bump (roughly every 30 seconds) small pieces of bashé came raining down on my head. The cherry on top of the icing was that this bashé had a particularly fussy engine. Once we got off the paved road we were stopping every few kilometers to add water, tighten something down, or clean out some hose. It appeared to me that the main problem must have been a horribly deteriorated head gasket and or crack in the engine block. The engine was constantly losing power (probably lack of compression because of bad gasket) and we were laying down a white smoke screen and frequently backfiring.

About halfway down the dirt road we apparently ran out of gas, so the driver left us in the middle of the road and walked back to the last town we passed through to get more fuel. (I think it’s also worth mentioning that the “gas” can up until that point was being used as a water jug, so the driver just emptied it out and went to fill it up with fuel. Water is the fuel tank anyone?) Once we got gas the engine was still acting up and didn’t have enough power to get us up the slightest incline, so we had to get out and push start the bashé – “Little Miss Sunshine” style.

The straw that broke the bashé’s back came about 3 km from our final destination. The bashé broke down for probably the 15th time, but rather than do any repairs, the driver just told everyone to get out and walk the rest of the way. Besides – it was time for afternoon prayer, so after unloading my stuff the driver got out his prayer mat and did his thing right there in the middle of the road.

It ended up taking over five hours to accomplish what would normally be done in two and a half… and we didn’t even get all the way there.

100 Days +

I’ve officially passed the 100 day mark. It’s funny. It doesn’t seem that long. I’m finding what most Volunteers say about time to be absolutely true… days drag on forever, but weeks and months seem to fly by.

A Day in the Life

Now that I’m settled in I thought it would be a good idea to explain what a typical day is like for me. The way I explain this is going to seem very much like I live by a very regimented schedule, but I assure you, it is widely and often deviated from due to the “tell people about things at the last minute possible” style of scheduling that exists in village culture.

My day usually starts at 5 am with a 30 + minute call to prayer from the mosque directly behind my house. It’s still dark out, so I usually don’t have any trouble falling back asleep until I get up for good no later than 6:30, but sometimes the steady “kluck-kluck-kluck” of the generator for the mosque doesn’t shut off right away and keeps me distracted from sleep for a while. Once awake, step one is to put away my sleeping mat, bug net tent, and other bedroom accessories that migrate outdoors with me every evening. It’s too hot to sleep inside my house, so I sleep outside in what I’m convinced is God’s gift to humanity… the bug net tent. It’s truly a testament to human ingenuity, know-how, and man’s sheer desire to hold insects everywhere at bay.

(Note to future PCVs… bring a bug net tent. Don’t think about how much is costs – just bring one. I didn’t, and was fortunate enough to get one from another Volunteer who was finishing her service… but not everyone can be so lucky.)

After getting my “bedroom” back indoors, it’s time for a shower outdoors… in the negen. After washing the night off it’s time for a breakfast of cinnamon oatmeal and only the finest gourmet Brazilian instant coffee and powdered milk. Instead of reading the paper or checking my stocks, I tune into the BBC World Service for an hour while I eat and straighten up the house from the previous night’s intense reading sessions by kerosene lamp light. Whatever sustenance I gain from eating breakfast is somehow magically doubled in potency with the accompaniment of the BBC. Keep up the good work BBC. VOA (Voice of America)… first of all, where are you most of the time, and when you do show up… why aren’t you as good as the BBC?

With my morning rituals now complete I head down to the butiki to greet the butikitigi (shopkeeper), Madu, and whatever other gentlemen happening to be around, and then head around the corner to greet the dugutigi (chief). With greetings now taken care of, it’s time to hike out to the women’s garden with a rope and bucket and draw water from one of the wells in the garden to keep my precious green beans and chives alive. The rest of the morning is usually spent sitting in a chair under a big tree next to the butiki and simply waiting for lunch time to arrive. I distract myself during the waiting period by studying language, reading, or journaling.

Lunchtime is a very delicate operation and usually requires at least two hours to be done properly. First, lunch is prepared on my gas stove. It’s basically a three-burner Coleman-style camp stove, only the gas tank is the size of gas tanks for grills in the US. I eat macaroni noodles everyday with varying seasonings. (A really good day is a combo of tomato paste and Italian seasoning.) Some small dessert usually follows. I masticate with the soothing voices that can only be found on the BBC. After such an intense activity as cooking and THEN eating, I’m tired, so I take a nap.

The afternoon includes more sitting in a chair under a tree, and then towards evening it’s time to head back out to the garden to water my plants some more. Watering now completed, it’s time for a run and a trip to the pump to get more water for drinking, bathing and cooking. Early evening is spent cooling off from the run, bathing, and then doing some reading before going to have dinner at the butiki with Madu. Following dinner, it’s back to the dugutigi’s to say good night and then short stops to all the neighbors houses on the way back home before finally going to bed.

It may not seem like there is a lot of “work” going on, but there is… it’s just subtle. Right now my job is to learn the language, get to know the community, and build relationships with people. Right now I’m doing a lot of observing, listening, and speaking (very poorly and with difficulty). In a few weeks I’ll be doing a lot more “work” in the garden, and going around to all the households in the village to conduct a survey to help me better assess the water and sanitation needs of the community.

Water Consumption

I have to say, water conservation takes on a whole new meaning when you don’t have a tap right in your house. In the US it’s all about saving water in order to save the environment (and money). Noble reasons. I find that in Mali water conservation is more about reducing work. Water at the pump is free, so there’s no economic incentive to save water, and there’s really no concern of the pump going dry, so the environmental aspect is lost as well. But let me say, when you have to carry 15 liter buckets of water weighing over 30 lbs a distance of more than 120 meters, you start to understand water conservation. I used to use a whole bucket of water for one bath. Now I can get two baths out of one bucket. See what I just did there? I saved myself time and sweat labor. Let’s hear it for water conservation.

Washing Clothes

I don’t wash my clothes in Mali… I have my neighbor’s wife wash them for me. I love it. Besides, she does a way better job than I ever could. Of course, I provide the necessary buckets, soap, and financial compensation. It just feels weird having someone do my laundry for me… but at the same time it feels great!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Potpourri

This entry is basically a sample platter of wonderfulness. Now that the hype is over… here’s what’s been happening lately.

Disclaimer: Almost everything in this entry is meant to be read with a sarcastic tone. I’m not complaining. Just pointing out some of the things I find amusing about my present situation. Please read and enjoy. Don’t be offended, and don’t think I’m insulting anyone. I’m not. This is just how things are.

Life in the Village

I’ve just completed my first ten days at site as an official Volunteer. That time was spent doing a number of wonderful things. These included celebrating the end of Ramadan (finally I can drink tea with everyone in the afternoon again!), going to a baby naming ceremony (denkundi), seeing a funeral procession for a dead baby, taking casual walks through my village, seeing my counterpart’s rice fields, visiting the giant women’s garden, seeing the school, looking down a number of wells, and going to the main local market.

The end of Ramadan celebrations were not exactly what I expected. I was anticipating some giant feast with clowns on stilts and Ferris Wheels and the whole nine yards. Instead, for three days in a row everyone even remotely related to my village host family all gathered together in the morning and had a huge meal. Not a feast. Just a lot of food. A cow was slaughtered for the occasion, which doesn’t happen very often.

On the third day the meal was finished off with café. I say café and not coffee because you simply can’t call it that. Café is instant coffee with sweetened condensed milk, but it’s probably about 60% hot water, 5% instant coffee, and 60% sweetened condensed milk. No, the math doesn’t work here, but that’s convenient since neither does the idea of “coffee”.

The baby naming ceremony was kind of neat. Denkundi (den-koon-dee) literally means “give a baby it’s head”. Traditionally, a newborn is not given a name for several days or weeks. When the time comes, a special ceremony is held in the morning where everyone gathers and an elderly person (usually a woman) announces the baby’s name (chosen by one of the parents). Later in the day there is usually a small meal for all those invited to the celebration.

Fortunately enough, I was invited to the meal and got to witness my very first goat slaughtering. It was kind of ironic actually. I discovered a new phenomenon in the process. I call it the “my, that’s a nice looking goat” phenomenon. It seems that every time I go somewhere and notice a goat tied up by itself I end up thinking to myself, “my, that’s a nice goat over there…”. Shortly after I have this thought the goat in question is usually led away to become my next meal.

What A Nice Goat

For those of you interested, I am now going to describe the goat slaughtering process. You can skip ahead if you don’t like this kind of thing, but I think it’s good to know where your food comes from.

Step 1: Have one person lay the goat down and hold the legs. Have a second person hold the mouth closed to keep the goat from bleating and…Slit the throat… and do it like you mean it. Make sure you get all the way through the wind pipe and start tickling the spine with the serrated edge of your knife. Pull the head back and let the animal bleed out.

Step 2: Let the goat bleed out for several minutes. During this time you can go have tea, munch on some peanuts, and chat with friends. Don’t worry about the twitching legs of your now semi-decapitated goat… he’s not going anywhere.

Step 3: With the goat resting on the ground, legs up in the air… Make incisions around each of the goat’s ankles and then make incisions from the ankles along the inside of each leg. Bring these incisions together on the underbelly of the goat. Now start peeling back the skin.

Step 4: When you can’t peel the skin back any more with the goat lying on the ground, get a piece of rope and hang the goat off a tree branch by its hind legs. This way you can get the rest of the skin off without getting the flesh dirty.

Step 5: Make an incision from the anus along the underbelly all the way to the middle of the chest. Remove internal organs and put them in a bucket to be cooked later on.

Step 6: Start removing flesh from the body. The meatier parts are along the rear legs and lower abdomen. When you can’t cut meat off the skeleton with ease anymore, take what’s left of the body off the tree, lay it on an old piece of corrugated tin, and begin dividing up the rest.

Step 7: Put everything into one pot and cook for several hours.

Step 8: Consume with caution. Not only are there chunks of pure meat in the pot, but there are also bonier parts… like sections of spine or chunks of leg. It’s best to take a “nibble” approach when eating goat with your rice and sauce.

Village History

I found out a few days ago that my village has had five Volunteers in the past. The first guy came in 1983 and apparently was fantastic. I was never told what he did for the community, only that he was great and they had a huge feast when he left. The second guy came in 1990 and only stayed for a year. Apparently he stayed in his house all the time and at the 12 month mark went to Bamako and never came back. Didn’t tell anyone he was leaving. The third guy lasted only six months in 1995 because of a severe case of homesickness. The fourth, a girl, who came in 2004 did a lot of work in the village. She got a huge women’s garden started and had several wells installed for watering it. I hear about this person all the time from people in my village. She was popular. The fifth, also a girl, came in 2006 and helped the community build a second school building… and did work in the women’s garden.

Work Potential

I’ve been talking with my counterpart and the dugutigi about what kind of work they want me to do in the next two years. Already, they have stated that they want me to help make improvements to the women’s garden and get a new well dug at the school. Essentially this means I know what I’ll be doing for the next two years already… I just need to do some research on the best way to move forward and then start finding ways to bring money into the community for building materials.

Women’s Garden

What is this women’s garden I’ve made mention of several times already? Very simple. It’s a giant garden that is run exclusively by women in the community. When I say giant, I mean that it’s a piece of land well over the size of a football field that is divided up into small plots about 7 or 8 yards long by 3 or 4 yards wide. The women can grow whatever they want in their individual plot and can do whatever they want with the produce. They can use it to feed their own family, or try to sell what they grow at the market to make some additional money for the family. It’s a great way to help empower women by generating income that goes directly to each woman… not her husband.

Village Meeting

I got to sit in on a joint meeting between my village and the one neighboring who shares our school. They were discussing, among other things, when school would start for the year and also took care of some administrative issues relating to the school. Apparently some people had to get some things off their chests because about an hour and a half into our three plus hour meeting things started to get a little out of control. The meeting went from being very calm, where people raised their hands and waited to speak… to everyone yelling at everyone, people getting up out of their seats and walking around, people restraining each other. Lots of angry faces. Fingers were wagged… and wagged some more.

It was funny though. During the time of outburst and anger, no one ever set foot on the mats that the village eldgers and dugutigis were sitting on. They yelled at them, but there was still a boundary that they wouldn’t cross. At one point during the commotion, my dugutigi got a call on his cell phone, literally got up, walked off to the side of a bunch of shouting people, and had a brief conversation. When finished, he went back to his place, laid down, and proceeded to let people yell at him for a while longer. I’d be lying if I said that I understood what was going on, but at the same time I definitely could tell that the way everyone was acting was completely normal and that when the meeting was over everyone would instantly be friends again as if nothing had ever happened… and sure enough, that’s exactly how it turned out.

Running of the Ba(s)

Every evening at dusk I hang out with a bunch of guys at the butiki (shop) nearest my house. We lounge around on chairs under large trees, drink tea, and chat about whatever. This butiki is located along one of the main roads in town and at dusk all the young boys are busy bringing their herds of animals back in from the fields. This produces something I like to refer to as the “Running of the Bas” (“baa-z”), which is not all that different from the Running of the Bulls in Spain.

The word for goat in Bambara is “ba”, which is ironic because that’s the sound they make. At dusk every night hundreds of bas are herded past the spot where I drink tea and it’s always hilarious to watch. Animals running everywhere, then stopping to pee and poo in the middle of the road. Motorcycles getting caught up in the fray. Boys chasing after with sticks swinging and voices yelling. Who needs American Idol when you could have this every night for 10 minutes…