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!