Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Site Visit

I had an entry all prepared and ready to go in my ususal format, but I've decided to scrap that plan today and be a little more "organic". Things are going well right now. I'm back at Tubaniso after a week visiting my site. Things are going well at the moment and I'm not sick, which is amazing because every time I come back to Tubaniso I seem to catch something. Hopefully I've beaten the curse forever.

I'm very excited to become a real PCV. Right now I'm a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee), but will become an actual Volunteer on Sept. 10. At the moment all I am interested in is getting the next few weeks out of the way so I can move in to my final location.

Speaking of which... I really like my site. I was afraid I wouldn't, and on the way there I thought for sure I wouldn't, but then I did. How about that. My site is definitely in "brusse" (the country), and definitely in the Sahel. About 10 km before arrving to my village all I could see were rice fields in every direction and probably one tree for every square mile of land... Rrrrggg. However, after a bit I noticed a group of trees on the horizon. My village.

Let me now tell you how much better my village is than your village. Mine has lots of big, huge, old trees everywhere, a new school, a new CSCOM (medical clinic), a three story mosque in my backyard, and great people. The streets are really narrow, and concessin walls really high, so you can't see down any road more than 50 ft at a time. I feel as if I'm in a maze... and I like it.

Here's the skinny on my house. Three room ranch with one full bath (negen). One kitchen, one bedroom, one "rumpus" room. At least two windows in each room. The structure is made out of mud, but all the walls are coated in cement mortar, and the floor is concrete. I have my own concession, so for the first time I'm living by myself in my own house. My "yard" is very small and has no shade whatsoever, but I'm planning on building a shaded porch. Since there's no plumbing, I have to get water from the India-Mali pump located about 200 meters down the street.

I do my banking about 80 km away in Segou. To get there I have to bike 15 km (about 1 hr), and then take a bus taxi for 2 hours to get into town. There's no such thing as "just running to the bank". I'm more than ok with this, however, as Segou is the bestest ever.

Segou was one of the old French regional capitals. The streets are wide, decently maintained, and fairly clean. There's not a lot of traffic and it's relatively quite. Since Segou is in the middle of the country, it's a great destination for tourists, so there's a lot of Europeans coming through. There's even a "tourist district" with nice hotels and stores to buy Western goods... and everything is in walking distance.

Peace Corps has a voucher system set up so that when I go into town to do banking I can stay overnight at one of the hotels. The hotel PC has an agreement with has both airconditioned rooms with private bathrooms, and a dormitory with a community bathroom. Our vouchers are for the dorm. The hotel also comes with a bar, restaurant, and tv with all the European soccer games. Perfect. Going to Segou is like taking a little mini-vacation every now and then.

Peace Corps also has a bureau (office) set up in Segou for the PCVs. There's no staff person there. It's just a single, large room with a bathroom. There's some couches, a computer, kitchenette, and small library of books and dvds. In the future, most of my Internet communication will originate from the bureau.

Now I'm back at Tubaniso and once again into the daily grind of training. I'll be here for a few more days, then I'll spend close to two weeks back in homestay. After that I'll be back to Tubaniso for a few days before swear-in. Time seems to be going by quickly now.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

One Month Milestone

The last two weeks at homestay have been full of little life lessons. Now I'm back at Tubaniso and just passed the one month mark of being in Mali... Only 26 more to go...
Per usual, I have a lot of information to dispel. Please peruse the proceeding pronouncements.

  • Health Update
  • Language & Grammar
  • English is Ridonkulous
  • Weather Report
  • The Money System
  • My Site!
  • General Reflections

Health Update
In my last entry I mentionted my first “true experience” with Mr. D. Well, the day I got back to Soundougouba the PC Medical Officer gave me a call and told me I had amoebas... they're the ones that called Mr. D and invited him over. I'm not a health expert, but I've been told that amoebas are basically more advanced cellular organisms than bacteria. Thus, they are harder to kill. What does that mean? It means that you can't use regular antibiotics to kill the little buggers because they'll just use their little flagella and swim away from the meds (or something like that). The solution: more powerful meds. Basically the stuff you take to get rid of amoebas is killing them, but in the process, also kills a little bit of you as well, so it's anything but a pleasant experience. My advice to anyone back home... don't get amoebas. They may seem harmless, but it's just not worth it. And for those of you who are interested in getting amoebas and what to know how... just mix a little poo into your beef stroganoff at dinner and you'll be all set.

Language & Grammar
I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of Bambara from a grammatical angle, but there's still a lot more to learn. No w I need to work on building my horrible, horrible vocabulary. Some aspects of studying the language have proven to be very entertaining. For example, there are approximately 19.3 root words to the entire language, from which all other words are formulated. There are basic words for every day things like water or salt, or opening (door/mouth).

Here's a little language lesson for everyone. The word for salt: koko. The word for water: ji. The word for opening (typically when referring to a door or one's mouth): da. The word for ocean: kokoji, or salt water. The word for beach: kokojida, opening to the sea. With this sort of nomenclature you can easily give something a name that has never existed in Mali before by simply stringing together already known root words. This is completely counterintuitive to English, where we have specific words for everything... sometimes multiple words for one thing depending on it's size, orientation, preparation, or other noteworthy condition. Example: automobile. In English we have: truck, sedan, station wagon, coupe, van, convertible, mini-van, sub-compact, etc. In Bambara they have “mobili”. That's it.

English is Ridonkulous
Aside from comparing Bambara and English, I have come to realize how incredibly difficult it is to learn English compared to many other languages. Our grammar structure is different. We have different pronunciations for our vowels, but don't use accent marks. The way certain sounds are generated have variable spelling. There's about 18 different ways to say the same thing and not use slang. We have words for everything! For you English-as-a-second-language people out there... props to you.

Weather Report
We're in the middle of the rainy season right now and there hasn't really been much rain. A lot of the people I've been talking to thus far have remarked on how dry it has been this year. This is bad on a couple of levels if things don't change. First, it means that the growing season is not going to be as long this year. Second, it means that there won't be as much groundwater recharge, so come next dry season, a lot of wells are probably going to dry up.

In terms of temperature, when it does rain the temp does drop... and it's great. I never knew 75 degrees F could feel so cold. I actually have to cover up at night now much of the time because I'm cold.

The Money System
The money system here is a little hard to grasp at first. On the surface it seems quite simple. The exchange rate is about 500 CFA:$1 US. This makes it easy to put a dollar figure on things. Where it gets tricky is when you have to buy anything. Why? Because 1 CFA is such a small monetary increment, they don’t even make currency in that denomination. The smallest coin made is a 5 CFA piece. This means that the monetary system is calculated at a fifth of anything’s actual value in CFA. Confusing? Let me explain.

Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 250, & 500. Bills in 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000. Since the smallest coin is a 5 CFA piece, instead of saying that costs 5 CFA, you say it costs 1 “coin” essentially. Thus with coin denominations you actually say 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 40, 50, 100. Same for bills. This means that every time I go to buy something I have to attempt to ask the price, ask the person to repeat it for me, then do math in my head to take the number give and then multiply it by five to get the actual value in CFA, and then decide if the price is right. I can understand why the money system is like this, but it still doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

My Site!
I got my site placement on Monday! I'll be living in a village of about 3,000 people, located about 80 km NE of Segou, which is one of the largest cities in Mali. The Niger River is in the neighborhood and most of the people in town cultivate rice on subsistence farms. Apparently the area is extremely flat and almost totally devoid of trees. This means the area is prone to flooding when the Niger crests its banks.

I've been told that I'll be working with “Office Riz Segou” (basically the Segou office of rice cultivation) and that some of the things I can expect to work on include:
India/Mali pump repair Pit latrine construction Soak pit construction Water delivery for a women's garden Hand washing/hygiene promotion Organizing income generating activities for women's groups

I'm really excited about all the potential projects that can be done at my site. There have also been two PCVs at my site in the past already and both the PCVs and the community got along well. This is good news for me as it means the community will already be familiar with my reasons for being there... so hopefully I won't have to convince them that I'm not a spy... The one thing that I'm a little bummed about at the moment is the lack of trees.

I also got a chance to meet my Malian counterpart today. We said “hi” and exchanged names. His name is Yacouba and he appears to be in his 40s. He's a rice farmer. That's all I know at the moment. More to come once we get to know each other.

General Reflections
A lot has happened in the last month. I’m starting to build relationships with other PCTs and PCVs. I’m getting to know Mali. I’m getting every intestinal malady offered. I’m enjoying myself when I feel good, but the world seems awful when I’m sick. I wonder why…

On some levels I’m regretting having come to Mali… here is one of the not so obvious reasons. Being in a situation where you’re often sick and can’t communicate and are totally reliant on others for your well being necessitates a certain transformation in personal attitude. There is no such thing as a pessimist in Mali. Thus, a well established part of identity is slowly dying. Will I turn completely to the “dark side” and become 100% optimist? Probably not. But honestly, I think this sort of change isn’t a bad thing.