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


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

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.

...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.

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.

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 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.