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.

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.


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 : &