Monday, September 28, 2009


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…

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Farewell Electricity

I leave for site tomorrow. I’m a little nervous. Tomorrow I’ll either sink or swim. Hopefully all the language training in the past two months actually sticks with me.

I have a few things to cover in this entry, the first of which is an address change. If you plan on sending me something (mail or package… and I wish you would), please disregard the address I had posted previously and use the following:

Matt Seib, PCV

Corps de la Paix

BP 117



West Africa

(If you accidentally send something to the old address, don’t worry, it will still get to me, but it will take longer.)

I want to dedicate this paragraph to all things cycling. My primary mode of transportation here is a Peace Corps issued Trek 3500 mountain bike. It’s already been used for two years by another Volunteer, so it doesn’t shift into some of the gears, but that doesn’t stop me from looking like a bad ass every time I go whizzing past another donkey cart loaded with who knows what. I must say, there is something rather satisfying about traveling by bike over distances usually accomplished in a short car ride. Not only do you get some exercise, but you have a lot more interaction with your community. That and it just feels good to use the most efficient mode of human transportation ever mass produced. Hooray for bikes! Hooray for cyclists!

This part is for future Peace Corps Volunteers or people interested in spending a large amount of time overseas. I want to talk about shopping overseas – something I touched on in my last entry. I will begin by mentioning the lesson: “You can get almost everything you need in country.”

What do I mean? When you get accepted into PC and get a country placement, you will be sent a packet of information that contains all sorts of stuff on the country you will be in… including a packing list. You are also told that you can only bring two bags… with a weight limit of 80 lbs total (or something like that). I know when I packed I was under the assumption that I would have to bring everything I would need to survive for the next two years with me. I want to dispel that myth for posterity.

You can get some version of whatever you want or need while you are here… it just might not be up to the comfort standards of America. What do I mean? You could bring your favorite style of journal with you for the next two years, or you could buy notebooks at the boutique. You could bring a ton of clothes from home, or you could buy cheap western clothes here (thus dressing more like a Malian while maintaining western fashion). You could bring comfort foods, or you could buy them at an ex-pat store. The point I am trying to make is that you can pack very light and still be comfortable when you get here. Some of the few things that you can’t get that I would recommend bringing include: Ipod, headlamp, multi-tool, water bottle, digital camera, and rechargeable batteries. You can even get solar panels here if you’re willing to pay for one... and they’re not that expensive by US standards. My point here is to make it easy on yourself. Don’t bother dragging all kinds of stuff half way across the world that you can just buy with your Peace Corps allowance when you get here…

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Beginning of the End…

Well, I’m officially a Volunteer now. I’m struggling with what to talk about because a lot has happened since I last wrote, but not much of it seems rather exceptional. The novelty of being here has worn off and nothing seems to be too surprising.

Swear-in went without incident. We got to the US embassy in the morning, took a bunch of pictures of eachother, and then began the ceremony. Some Malian officials spoke, the PC Mali Country Director said a few things, the US Ambassador gave a speech, and then several newly sworn in Volunteers gave short speeches in several of the languages found in Mali. The whole thing took less than two hours. Aside from the ceremony, one of the coolest parts of the morning was being able to see the inside of a US embassy. I’ve always wanted to go in one.

The rest of swear-in day was filled with food, fun, and dancing. We spent several hours at the American Club for lunch, the pool, and movies. After that we went to a hotel on the other side of town, had dinner, and then went to a bar for a few hours… finally finishing off the night at a dance club. We didn’t get back to the hotel until after 3 am!

There was a bit of unexpected commotion at the conclusion of the evening when the car taking me back to the hotel was stopped by the police. The officer wanted to see the ids of everyone in the car. Then he wouldn’t let us go without paying a bribe. Lame!

While at the bar we fulfilled a PC Mali tradition… The naming of the stage. Every year the new group of Volunteers (a stage) is given a name by the previous year’s stage. Our stage was given the name “Risky Business” because when we first got to Mali everyone was concerned with doing things by the book, but as the training period progressed, people started taking risks and doing things that would be out of the comfort zone for most. Therefore, the previous stage decided that we were all about business… just risky about it. It’s a great name. Everyone loves it.

Now I’m in Segou waiting to be installed at my site in a few days. Until then I’ve been forced to stay in a nice hotel, eat good food, and do nothing but read and go shopping for things I’ll need at site. It’s been rough. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

In the last day or so I’ve been taken around by a PC staff worker and been introduced to many different officials in charge of various offices for the Segou region. We met the governor, commandant of the gendarmes, commandant of the police, head of the regional health center, head of the Office du Riz regional office, the guy in charge of the Malian equivalent of the EPA for the region, among several others. Now I just need to meet all the people in charge of similar duties at the local level for my village.

I did some grocery shopping this afternoon in preparation for my move to site. I was able to scratch up macaroni, oatmeal, Nutella, honey, powdered milk, oranges, grapefruit, cucumbers, spaghetti, and a few other things. You can find almost any sort of food that is common or familiar in the US… you just have to be willing to pay the price. The other problem is not having refrigeration. I could buy a dozen eggs… but I’d have to eat them all in a few days. Same thing with things like jelly, butter, cheese, fruits, meat, etc. Everything has to be purchased and consumed the same day. This becomes challenging when all the things I want to eat are in Segou… and I live 80 km away. Most things won’t survive the trip. When I go to site I’m going to do a little experiment and see how long different kinds of fruits last before they spoil. Then I’ll be able to shop more wisely.

I was finally able to get some pictures onto Flickr. Follow the link to check them out!

Monday, September 7, 2009

End of Training

I'm in the last week of training. On Thursday all the PCTs will swear in as PCVs... assuming we all pass our language proficiency exams. I just got word that I passed mine. What a relief!

Yesterday was bittersweet for many people as it was our last day of homestay. We said goodbye to the Malian families who have hosted us for the past two months and all the people we’ve met up until this point. There was a lot of hand shaking and a certain heaviness in the air that comes from sadness associated with the departure of friends.

I don't really have any crazy events to talk about this time around, but I thought it would be a good time to go over a few cultural things I've noticed lately and say a few things about swear in and the end of training. Also, I'm writing this entry on a fellow PCTs “Eee PC” and I must say... while its small and portable... it's too small and portable. I can't type to save my life on this thing! But it works, so I'm thankful.

I also want to mention that I am currently not sick, and haven’t been for some time now. I know my last entry or so said I was ill, but indeed, there are medicines to be found in Mali. I’ve been getting some emails recently saying things like “hang in there, even though you still aren’t feeling well” … etc. Yes, PCVs get sick here, but we are able to remedy illnesses easily and quickly in most cases… so mothers, rest assured.

End of Training
I’m sure I’ve said this before somewhere, but I think it bears repeating. You go through three months of training in PC. In PC Mali you do two months worth before “swearing in” as a Volunteer, and then one month of “in service training” between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We finish up our pre-service training on Wednesday and swear in as Volunteers on Thursday this week.

This final week has been filled with proficiency tests in things like culture, safety and security, health, technical work, and language. We just had our language proficiency tests today. Everyone was a bit nervous about failing. The reason being that if you fail, you have to take a week of intensive language tutoring and then get tested again… or you may not be allowed to swear in. Granted, PC wants you to pass and will do whatever it takes to get you to pass, but it’s still a stressful situation. I did pass my test though… so that makes the score Matt 1 : Bambara 0.

Swear In
As I said, Thursday is swear in. Everyone will get dressed up in nice American or Malian clothing, go to the embassy, meet the ambassador, and then take an oath regarding serving the US abroad. After that and a lot of picture taking we check into a hotel, and then get down to celebrating. Apparently we’ll be going to several places around Bamako enjoying good food, good friends, and good times.

The Culture of "Mine"
What I want to talk about is what I'm going to refer to as America's "Culture of 'Mine'". Of course I'm talking about the emphasis people from the US put on personal possessions. This idea doesn't translate well to Malians. It's hard for me to explain in a way that makes sense, but I'll try by starting with a case-study.

Case-Study: Give Me Your Ipod
Like most PCVs, I brought an Ipod with me. It's been a lifesaver. I love my Ipod. So do Malians. They want one too. In fact, they want MY Ipod. Several people at my homestay have told me that when it came time for me to leave, I should give them my Ipod. When I asked why, they simply said because they didn't have one. This didn't make sense to me on several levels, so I investigated further. Here's the abridged dialouge:

Malian: When you go, you will give me your Ipod.
Me: But if I give you my Ipod, then I won't have one.
Malian: Yes.
Me: How am I supposed to listen to music?
Malian: You will buy a new one.
Me: Where? There's no place to buy an Ipod in Mali.
Malian: You will have one sent from the US.
Me: How will I pay for it?
Malian: With your money. All Americans are rich.
Me: Actually, that's not really how it works.
Malian: Why do you Americans not like to give your things to other people?
Me: Because they are our things. If we give them away, we won't be able to enjoy them. We won't have anyTHING.
Malian: (confused look) So you won't give me your Ipod?
Me: No.
Malian: In Mali, everyone shares everything.
Me: Ok, but I'm leaving this place and going somewhere else. How can I share my Ipod with you if we live six hours apart?
Malian: (confused look) So thats a "no"? You won't give me your Ipod?
Me: No. It is my Ipod.

We went on to talk about how in Mali it is common practice for people to ask others for things. A person who is asked to give/share something apparently is under no obligation to actually give/share said object. However, it seems to be that said person better have a pretty good excuse or you come off as being extremely selfish.

This is where things don't translate to me. In the US we share things, but under normal circumstances friends don't usually ask eachother to give personal items. You borrow something, or go out and buy your own. A person who doesn't have a particular item doesn't approach someone who has the item and expect that person to give them whatever it is they lack... all loosely founded on the basis of "I need that, so you should give it to me".

I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to complain or downplay Malian culture. Just explaining things through my American perspective. What I have described speaks volumes about the communal attitude of Malians and the willingness of people to help those around them. People are not afraid to simply ask others for things. To me it says something about the spirit of cooperation that is found here. Everyone helps everyone when they are able, not just when it is convenient to do so.

I might be sayng something edgy here, but I think a lot of the difference has to do with poverty. Mali is a poor place. The US is a rich place. It seems that in a rich society, everyone needs to have their own stuff. It's not simply about accumulating possessions, it is what is inferred about you if you don't have your own stuff... you're poor. And you don't ask people for things because that infers that you can't afford to get that thing on your own... which goes against the American dream or self-success.

This is not the case in Mali... a poor place. Everyone here knows they are poor. People in my homestay told me this everyday. The understanding here seems to be that since everyone is poor, teamwork is necessary. Amadu might own a shovel. Suma might own a bucket. Brahman might own a pick. None of them has the tools necessary to dig a well, but together they do... so people work together... on everything. It's strange if they don't. There's no embarrassment in admitting that a person doesn't have something. It's just another opportunity for people to work corporately.