Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Serious Town Meeting

I had my third wat/san committee meeting today. It was definitely the most substantial, but at the same time I also found it to be full of oddities. On paper an American would think the first and second meeting to be highly productive and meaningful (and they were, somewhat). But in a Malian village context, meeting number three has been the real "fish head in the bowl of peanut sauce" so to speak. Here's what I mean:

Meeting 1: About 50 people show up including the village chief, the council of elders, the imam, several men and women from each section of the village, and even a few folks from another community down the road. We talked about what the new committee would do and discussed the need for a list of names of people from every "quartier" to serve officially on the committee. Pretty nice right? Big turnout. Made some progress for a first meeting... on paper.

Meeting 2: About 1/4 of the people named to serve on the committee show up. Not a big deal as I understand it is farming time and people have work to do. A bunch of others show up though. We discuss changing out meeting venue to a different location to help facilitate future training sessions. We also go over how to treat drinking water with bleach and get a little distracted about pump problems, which was a topic scheduled for the following week.

Meeting 3: By far the lowest turnout of all the meetings. Maybe 15 people total. We were at out new venue, an adult training center build by the regional agriculture extension agency, which is hardly ever used. It's a one room school house complete with a chalk board and desks! And no one bothered to tell me about this virtually unused resource until about two weeks ago!

When I arrived to set up for the meeting I find that a team of laborers was using the building as their sleeping quarters while they were building a kindergarten & playground next door.

Aside: I'm a bit flabbergasted. I live in a village in the po-dunk middle of nowhere. The main form of transportation is ox cart. Several dozen kids a year die from easily preventable diseases such as diarrhea. Milk is a luxury. There is no running water or electricity. Despite the presence of a school most residents can't read... yet some NGO has decided that what the village really needs is a playground. Seriously?

We gently moved the workers things to the side and clean the place up for the meeting. We wait for about 30 minutes for everyone to show up. Then, suddenly my counterpart gets up and actually starts leading the meeting. Usually when it comes to this sort of thing he wants me, the guy who no one can understand, to lead. But no, he takes charge and we actually got things accomplished, albeit nothing I had scheduled for the day. The meeting went something like this:

"Alright. It's our third meeting. We're having trouble getting people to show up, we haven't picked officers or assigned committee jobs to anyone yet and we're not going to get anywhere if we keep having meetings and just wait for the day when everyone finally decides to show up."

"So. Who's gonna be president? How about you Bakoray? Everyone okay with Bakoray being president?" (Quiet mumbling) (Sure.) "Okay. Bakoray is president. Now who's gonna be vice president. They'll be in charge if Bakoray can't be here... and it has to be a woman. Anyone opposed to Mbai being VP?" (Quiet mumbling) (Sure) "Okay. Mbai is VP."

And so it went.
Secretary - person who writes things down
Treasurers - people who count the money
Town Criers - the person who makes talk
Auditors/Fee Collectors - people who test the treasurers
Pump Monitors - people who guard the pumps

When it came time to pick the pump monitors we first put forth names and then someone suggested that these people should be folks that actually use the pumps regularly. So then we went back and edited our list.Then we talked about what the monitors would do to protect the pumps. Things to look out for included:
-Kids trying to see how hard they can slam the pump lever
-People washing clothes or dishes at the pump (Don't wash your dirty laundry in public they cried)
- People bathing at the pumps (Again, keep your dirt at home people!)

(And yes, I see all of these often)

At this point the meeting had gone for an hour and a half and it was about lunch time. We dismissed for the week with the homework assignment of getting those who were absent to show up next time. I say meeting number 3 was the best because we actually got something meaningful accomplished. It was led by a local in a local context, and done in a way that everyone understood what their job was.

Negative Nancy

(written 11-11-10)
Today marks a 10th consecutive day at site. Ever since getting back from the US I've been in a rather chipper mood and have found myself in an uncharacteristically optimistic attitude regarding my current situation. However, I think this run of positiveness is finally beginning to fizzle... something, to be honest, that I'm not too broken up about given my identity as a pessimist. One of the many things I've discovered in PC is that after 10 days at site I "hit the wall" so to speak. I'm ready to go back to the warm embrace of Segou... if for no reason other than it's possible to get a salad almost any time of the year.
So. In any case. I'm at day 10. I'm losing my optimism. This is how my day has gone thus far (it's about 2 pm)...

Last night we had a noticeable dip in temperature to officially kick off cold season. It was down in the upper 70's and I was told a few dozen people in village just about froze to death in their houses despite sweatshirts, parkas (yes, parkas), and blankets. Meanwhile I spent the night comfortably outside with nothing but a t-shirt and pajama pants and a table cloth. (What? You were expecting a cashmere wool comforter? I'm in PC.) I slept wonderfully... until 4:30 am when the call to prayer of air-raid siren loudness went off as it does every morning...
I went back to sleep until 6:30 am, when the cooking and baby crying noises coming from next door were too much to ignore. I breakfasted on cornflakes with warm powdered milk and a cup of "Liption"... which you should never confuse here with "tea". Pas la même chose I tell you!

Anyway, at 7 a woman politely invited herself into my front yard to ask for some bleach. At least she asked instead of telling me to give her some, but as I was feeling miserly this morning I told her to go buy her own bleach. After reminding me how poor she was I went back inside and resumed listening to the BBC.

After the BBC I got dressed for the day, brushed my teeth ("Lipton" will stain your chompers kids), cut myself while shaving, and then left the house. On the short trip from my house to the butiki (50 meters) I discovered termites had decided to take up residence in the wall of my latrine. I also saw a little girl peeing in the middle of the street and I almost got run over by one of the many young men around here who choose to ride their motorcycles without actually paying attention to where they are going.

At the butiki (50 meters later) I got the morning greetings and hand shakes out of the way and helped myself to a bowl of peanuts. As I was munching away I noticed a little boy to my left about 4 or 5 years old trying to play "paper shredder" with an old cigarette package and a discarded razor blade. Nothing to worry about there... Then one of the sheep from next door wandered over and helped itself to the bowl of peanuts before being shooed off. Oh, those sheep. A bit later I noticed an empty plastic tube that said "effervescent codine". I asked the shop keeper what the stuff was (even though I knew) and he said it was medicine for malaria. I guess you could use codine to relieve the fever or splitting headaches that can come from malaria... but it certainly won't cure you... But hey, at least you don't need a prescription for it in Mali even though it said right on the packaging in big, bold letters "by prescription only".

Later on I decided to take in some dusty air from a different part of town, so I went for a walk to my buddy Sala's butiki. There I ran into my counterpart as he was toying with a fluorescent light fixture powered off a car battery. I hadn't seen one in village before, so I asked what the fixture was called. The response I got was "ampule" as he pointed to the bulb. "Yes", I said, "But what is that?", pointing to the actual fixture. "Ampule", he said. "But there are two things and they aren't the same", I said. "Well, it's all 'ampule'", he said. Now I'm trying to figure out how you would explain changing an "ampule" in an "ampule"...

After my counterpart left another guy showed up that I've seen before, but I have no idea what his name is. He asked me how my American friend is and when he is coming to village. I had no idea what he was talking about as I've never mentioned a friend coming to visit. To solve this riddle I tried to get some more specific information. "Who?" "What's his name?" Unidentified villager's response: "You know. Your American friend." Oh. Well that clears that up. For a second there I wasn't sure if he was talking about the only other person in America that I happen to know, or another Volunteer. After several long seconds with a dumbfounded look on my face the conversation took a different direction.

...Which is when a woman showed up at the butiki and exclaimed, "Ah! The Tubab speaks Bambara!" and then right in front of me she turns to Sala the butiki owner and asks, "What's his name?". Ok. Seriously? I've been in Koila for 14 months now. I'm the only white guy. How haven't you learned my name yet? And how exactly do you think I've gotten by thus far in a community that only speaks Bambara? Come on woman! Use that gray mass between your ears that Allah gave you! The worst part is... I get this from someone probably every other day! Still!

After that I resigned myself to going back home to get some work done, but not before buying one of several kinds of "biskiti". They don't have names, one is jut more expensive than the other, so you say the price you want. I''d be like going to the bakery to buy a donut, but instead of saying "I'd like a honey-glazed", you simply say "Donut. Seventy-nine cents". Sometimes I'm amazed that I can communicate here at all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monetary Musings

(Written 11-11-10)
It's a little less than a week until what I consider to be the Islamic equivalent of what Christmas is for Christians... What is known as Seliba (big prayer) here. I personally haven't been very preoccupied with it because I've actually been "working" lately, but "Seli" is being referred to more and more as the day approaches. As I believe I've mentioned in previous posts, one of the main things you do for Seliba is buy a big male sheep and eat it. Sheep are to Seliba what turkeys are to Thanksgiving.

But Seliba isn't what I want to bring up. I want to highlight something near and dear to the hearts of most Americans... something according to Malians we white people (stereotype) have in great abundance... Money! And I want to begin with my conclusion... That compared to the world I'm presently living in, yes, Americans generally do have money coming out of their ears, noses, and places the sun doesn't manage to find regularly. Sure, we Americans have all heard this before, but I'm under the impression that it doesn't truly resonate. In fact, I'm certain that after you read this it still probably won't. I mean, it's taken me 16 months of being here to realize what I'm about to say. Ok. Here goes.

Some general base facts first. The majority of Malians survive on subsistence agriculture. They grow their own food, raise their own animals for food and labor, and sell what they can to have some source of monetary income. I believe the AVERAGE farming household rakes in a whopping $250 a year (don't quote me on that). Not month. YEAR. Less than a dollar a day. The majority of that money comes all at one time when crops are sold. And that's for the family. Not the individual. Ok. $250. Remember that.

Now let's switch gears to something near and dear to my heart as a civil engineer / water sanitation extension agent / whatever I am in PC. Pump repair! I've been trying to stress for a year now the importance of maintaining the pumps in my village to the residents. This means collecting user fees to fix the pumps when they break or wear down... Which does happen because the kids beat the snot out of them. By my calculations each of the four most commonly used pumps in village need repairs ranging from $100 -150 immediately and $200 -300 for long term use. That's anywhere from half to a full years total income for a household to fix each pump. Think about that in US terms.

At present I'm doing some prep work in Kolomy for the projects I want to do next year. We want to build two new wells there because Kolomy only has one, yes one, functioning water source during the hot season for the whole village (~ 700 people). Kolomy has two pumps that are currently broken. In a setup meeting I had there the other day I told the village leaders they need to get at least one of the pumps working again before we start construction on these new wells because I am concerned that the combined demand of an entire village's water needs AND the amount of water that is required to mix and cure concrete for the new wells will cause the one functioning well to go dry, which would leave the village with a total of zero water sources during hot season.

I estimated that the cheaper of the two pumps to fix would cost about $120... which comes out to a per household contribution of about $1. After doing this very simple math on my very sophisticated looking calculator one old man at the meeting cried out "One dollar! That's impossible!", whereas other people in attendance didn't seem to be so shocked.

Now, like most Americans, $1 doesn't seem like hardly anything. In fact, to me, this man's outburst translated as "One two-hundred-fiftieth of my annual income! Never!", which seemed rather silly to me. It felt like he was just trying to put up an artificial tantrum to make the white guy feel bad so he would give the village an even bigger hand-out. But then I got back to Koila and had several conversations with people about Seliba and how they are unable to buy a sheep this year. A sheep after all goes for about $50 - 60, which is an enormous sum for a family only pulling in $250/yr. This made me realize that here, in Koila, $1 really is a lot of money.

When you start adding everything up, that $250 has to buy everyone in the family clothes, shoes, school supplies, cooking supplies, food, tools, medicines, and take care of things like taxes and land lease agreements for using farm land. And when you think about a Malian household... A husband, one or two or three wives, five or six kids... suddenly $1 is a considerable amount of cash.

The other day I took my laundry over to the neighbors to be washed and apparently left a 1000 CFA note ($2) in one of my pants pockets. My neighbor's wife found it while washing the pants and put the money aside, intending to give it to me when she returned my clothes, but somehow lost it. My neighbor said she was so upset that she cried for much of that evening thinking that I would be very, very mad with her because of the loss of so much money. That's how valuable $1 is here... and I just shrugged it off thinking "I've got plenty more of those back at the house." To me, that in essence sums up the American and Malian view of money in relative quantities.

Of Water, Mud, & Fate

I'm gearing up for my final "push" in PC. My last project . It won't begin until next February or March, but planning must happen now in order to secure project funds and to make sure that my villagers get all their ducks in a row. I assure you the former is infinitely more simply than the latter.

I'm happy to say that despite all of the frustration that plagued me last year during my well project the overall result was a resounding success. Surrounding villages are now requesting me to come build wells in their communities and the lessons learned last year are now serving to make me better prepared for this upcoming project.

What is this project you ask? Well, as of this moment it looks like I'm going to make an attempt at building four wells and 25 latrines. All in about three months. This might not seem like a lot to the average, industrious American, but consider that each of the wells I built last year took over three weeks to construct... and these new wells will be deeper and in more difficult soil conditions. And, on top of the wells, 25 latrines is nothing to sneeze at. I figure if we end up doing all the work that has been proposed I will be employing two masons on an almost continuous basis for 90 days. This is not common where I'm at. By the end we will have cast over 4,300 concrete bricks by hand, moved over 55 cubic meters of gravel over 12 km with nothing but donkey and ox carts, and dug up over 80 cubic meters of earth with nothing but shovels, picks, and buckets. If those units don't mean anything to you... it's a lot. Especially when you consider none of the work is being done with mechanized equipment. It's like my own little version of building a pyramid or something.


I think it's also worth while to provide some more commentary on water availability in my area. My village, Koila, seems to have found itself in an area of Mali with an uncharacteristically high groundwater table. In wet season water is only about 2 meters below the surface. In hot season 5 or 6 meters. On top of that, the soil is sandy clay or loamy clay, so it is very stable when you are digging a well. People can dig wells quickly and easily and only have to include a thing concrete lining to shore up the walls of the well in many places. The result: there is a well in roughly 75% of the 250 household compounds in Koila.

The situation in Koila, however, is in stark contrast to the realities in villages just down the road. In Kolomy, water is at a depth of 15 meters in hot season. That's three times what it is in Koila. That translates into three times as much time, money, and effort into building one well. In another village, Chanty Were ("where-eh"), you have to dig down 8 meters and the soil is sandy and unstable. This translates to a slower, more rugged construction process that also means a much higher cost per well. These higher costs mean fewer water sources have been developed in those villages, and therefore people have to go much further every day to collect water. In Chanty Were there are four wells and one pump for roughly 600 people. My guess is Koila has about 200 wells and 6 pumps for about 2500 people. Who has more access to water? You do the math...


Something I also found amusing is that Kolomy is getting two new pumps. That in itself isn't noteworthy, but I find the situation to be of interest and yet another example of how ridiculous things can be here at times. For starters, let me point out that Kolomy already has two pumps. Both are broken. The village is responsible for repairing these pumps and at present hasn't done anything with them for some time. Now an NGO (name unknown to the villagers) has sent a drilling team to the village to put in two new pumps in other sections of the community. This confounds me. Why would an NGO decide to give new pumps to a village if that community is presently demonstrating that it is incapable of taking care of the ones it is now responsible for? Would it not make more sense to first organize the village and get it's members to maintain it's own infrastructure first, not to mention make sure the community knows what NGO you are?...

The thing is though, I see this all the time. I'd venture to say about 50% of the time my inquiries into who funded/built something is usually answered with "?". (Granted, it is hard to keep up with all the names given the number of NGOs operating here.) I find that the only reason a name is put forth the other 50% of the time is that someone had the brilliant idea to leave a sign behind to remind everyone who was responsible.

The most amusing part about the Kolomy pump story thus far, however, is that the drilling team has been trying to cover a distance of approximately 10 km for the last 4 days and has failed in epic fashion. I was returning to Koila from my market town the other day and ran into a caravan of 5 vehicles, including a drill rig on the road past my village on it's way to Kolomy. They had totally obstructed the one lane road and were just getting the drill rig free from a deep, muddy pot hole when I pulled up. I followed the trucks as far as Koila and watched them attempt to continue on to Kolomy. Apparently they got close enough to see Kolomy's school (where one of the pumps is being put) before having to turn around because the road (more like a path between millet fields) was too muddy. The caravan thus turned around and spent the night in Koila.

The next day they got up and decided on a different, much longer route to Kolomy that followed "better" roads, but would first take them through Babugu, Sama, Dioro, and Tibi before finally getting to Kolomy... A journey of about 35 km. However, somewhere between Koila and Babugu the main drill rig again got stuck in mud, but this time they couldn't get it free. This now meant that a large tractor, bull dozer, or other large and typically unavailable machine would need to be brought in to get the drill rig free. Two days later it still wasn't free. Talk about a delay. And to think... they could see the drill site at one point before having to turn back.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Celebration, A Farewell, and A Pig Roast

The last few days have been the end of an era in PC Mali. Two third-year Volunteers (Kyle and Mary) are finishing up their last days of service this week, so to celebrate their successes and departure we've had a few things scheduled the last few days. The main event was the opening of the school at Mary's site that they both have been working on for the past few years. They invited all the other Volunteers in the Segou area to come and party at Mary's site for an afternoon with the rest of her village. But before I jump right into that, let me go back a bit and give some background details.

Kyle and Mary both came to Mali over three years ago. Kyle actually got here several months before Mary, but had to go back to the US for a while after breaking his leg soon after arriving... yet he came back. They ended up being placed about 20 km apart and got to know eachother fairly well during the first year of their service while doing projects at their own sites. Then somehow they got this crazy idea to build a school at Mary's site, and an entirely new kind of PC experience began for them both. They initially planned on having the school designed and built by the end of their two year service commitment, but after countless delays, miscommunications, unkept promises, lack of local government support, and challenges in acquiring funds they have had to stay in Mali for over three years to see the successful completion of the school.

To celebrate, Kyle and Mary and about a dozen other Volunteers jumped in a minibus and set out on a Sunday morning for Tongo, Mary's village, for an afternoon celebration with her village to officially open the new school... despite the fact that it's still being painted and the mayor's office hasn't purchased desks yet. Mary wasn't expecting a large turnout... Maybe her counterpart, some village elders, and the mayor of the local government district.

As our minibus rumbled down the red gravel road into Tongo we were met with an amazing surprise. Hundreds of children and every man and woman of Tongo were lining the road up to the school along with the mayor, a rep from the governors office, dozens of people from other villages, education officials from Segou, and anyone else who had gotten word of the celebration that day. As Kyle and Mary got out of the minibus they were met with the hundreds of children chanting "Bashi-ba, Mali, Bashi-ba, Mali", and a 12-shotgun salute from the local bush hunters. (Bashi-ba being Mary's Malian name.) There was singing and dancing and speeches and picture-taking and lunch. The chief even donated a whole cow to be slaughtered which is a pretty big deal. It was a truly wonderful way for a Volunteer to close out their service and say goodbye to their community.

And to celebrate Kyle and Mary's last days in Segou we had a pig roast (one of Kyle's favorite things to do). It was truly a team effort that took much of the day. Various people were sent throughout the city to buy a pig, lots of charcoal, rebar and chicken wire for a grill, ingredients for bbq sauce, sodas and other drinks, and food for other dishes including baked mac & cheese, deviled eggs, tortilla chips & salsa, and Funfetti cake. As these supplies slowly trickled in other people were put in charge of building a fire pit and grill rack, roasting the pig, making the food, washing dishes, watching movies, eating the food, and fixing the sink in the kitchen that got clogged.

We had wanted to roast the pig with an apple in it's mouth, but it apparently died with a last wish to have a mouth that refused to open. After several hours of contemplation over a bed of hot coals the pig was ready for the dissection table. After cooling down a bit, half a dozen Volunteers gathered around the kitchen table that had been covered with a black plastic sheet and ceremoniously and unmercilessly ripped the pig limb from limb in an effort to extract every piece of delicious, juicy meat from the corpse. All the heat from the fire had loosened up muscles in the head, so after it was removed from the spinal column... and after the tongue had been pushed to the side, we finally got the apple in the mouth! Now, several hours later, after everyone has consumed more food than is healthy in a day, it is dark as we all sit and try to digest the day's plunder and the kitchen table has been left outside as a greasy mess piled with bones, pig fat, and a head with an apple stuffed in it's mouth like some kind of ripened ovary gag. I'm sure when the night guard shows up to keep us all safe he's going to wonder if he shouldn't have come sooner...

Kyle and Mary are the last people to be leaving Segou this year. We've already seen the departure of several others including Megan, Monica, Markham, and Therese. They will all be terribly missed. A new chapter in my PC experience has now begun as I have become an "upperclassmen" of sorts. It feels funny. But regardless of titles, I still have to get up in the morning and clean up the fire pit and figure out what to do with the pig head...

MALI: Mystical Amazing Land of the Inscrutable

Another Volunteer mentioned the other day that Malians know about things like mermaids, vampires, etc. To verify this I recently asked my village counterpart if there were any magical beings in Mali. His response was an emphatic "yes". Apparently there are a whole host of spirits wandering around as well as mermaids, vampires, and leprechauns. (I have a feeling these concepts are still strongly tied to remnants of animist beliefs that are still widely prevalent here.)

So... spirits. I've been told they're all over and you typically can't see them, but if you see a small whirlwind... that's actually a spirit making it's way through the neighborhood. A lot of times they will "possess" people or try to scare people.

Evidently mermaids aren't the friendly, topless half woman / half fish creatures that Walt Disney would have us believe. Depending on who you ask they live in rivers, oceans, and possibly even ponds or wells. They're quite unfriendly when it comes to humans and are known for taking away people's air while they're swimming, which leads to drowning. My counterpart says its very dangerous to swim in bigs rivers or oceans as that's where most mermaids are. Apparently these harpy-fish never went on play dates with Ariel.

The vampires in Mali do not originate from Transylvania. Rather, they come from the Sikasso region of Mali and northern Côte d'Ivoire, which is where, I've been told, they prefer to stay. (Don't worry mom, I'm not at risk of attack by vampires in my current location.) They tend to stay in trees and will descend down on people and then kill them and drink their blood. Not entirely sure if they can change into bats or not. People don't know a ton about them in Segou since they're not up here.

Leprechauns seem to be the worst of the bunch, and the most understood in my corner of the country. They're really short, have dark skin, beards, may have backwards feet, and can't really be seen by people. They only come out at night and love to jump out and bash people on the head as they travel on roads. And... if you are lucky enough to catch one they will give you lots and lots of things and lots of money. My counterpart says he's seen one or two before and knows someone who caught one once and now is really rich. He also refuses to leave village at night and has forbidden me from traveling on the road to my market town once it's dark out.

I've explained to my counterpart that I think he's totally full of crap and that these "beings" only exist because he thinks they do. His response was to say that the Volunteer who lived in my village in 2006 went up to Bankass once and while there another Volunteer and a bunch of other people saw a giant spirit on the road that was scaring the tô right out of people. "So there!" he declared. My retort was that in America lots and lot of people swim in the ocean every day and we haven't found any mermaids yet, nor has anyone drowned as a result of a mermaid... to which my counterpart replied, "How is that possible?!"

So, either spirits, mermaids, vampires, and leprechauns don't exist, or they are just as geographically uninformed as most Malians and haven't figured out how to get to America yet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Complex Answers to a Common Question

I'm sitting in Terminal 2E at the Paris - Charles de Gaulle airport right now, trying to distract myself so the eight hour layover doesn't take so long on my way back to Mali. There are some American girls to my right who appear to be in college. One is wearing a bright yellow shirt and those black spandex pants that make any woman's features appear favorable. To my left there's an assorted mix of Africans who I presume are on their way to Togo based on the destination displayed on the screen for Gate 42. I'm in for an exciting day of people watching as there are two international flights scheduled to depart from my gate before my own. And there's no use trying to sleep for any of those eight hours thanks to the combination of the PA system going off every ten minutes giving the same security alert and the fact that whatever interior designer chose the seating accommodations for this terminal managed to pick chairs that are anything but a pleasant sitting experience.

And can I just take a moment before I get to the real topic of the entry to mention one of my airport pet peeves? Ok. So you know when you go to the airport and you're by yourself and you're not exactly interested in sitting next to a bunch of strangers. You've got a long wait before your flight because you got to the airport early or you have a layover and all you are interested in doing is finding a quiet place to sit and be by yourself for a while before you are herded back on a plane and stuffed in a seat in between a bunch of people you've never met before... who may possibly carry an odor based on the culture they come from. You pick a spot that is sufficiently far away from the next waiting passenger and get comfortable. You're happy. Then some guy walks up and sits down right next to you even though there are literally hundreds of other seats to choose from, and he's listening to an Ipod with the volume turned up so loud that you have no trouble hearing his music over whatever you happen to be listening to on your own Ipod. I HATE THAT!!! Seriously dude, take a different seat on our otherwise entirely unoccupied row and leave me alone!

(Hey, what do you know. That guy must have read my mind. He just got up and went to go board the plane to Togo. Excellent.)

Ok. So the reason I'm in CDG is I'm on my way back to Mali after two weeks back in America. I hadn't planned on going back to the US while in PC, but my sister had a baby and I figured it would be nice to be around for the arrival of my parents first grandchild. My sister also had the amazing foresight to schedule her baby's due date around the time of my own birthday, which also happens to be my favorite time of year... Fall. When all the trees have decided to get dressed up and look decent for once. I got to see parents, siblings, in-laws, grandparents, friends, professors, and the family dog. It was great.

However, one thing that everyone asked me (with the dog as an exception) was what is something that I like/enjoy about Mali. That should be a pretty simple question to answer, yet I had great difficulty with it. In fact, at first I really didn't have an answer. My reply was: "nothing". Sure, that's not entirely true, but nothing seemed to jump out at me. And while I felt like that was (and is) my truthful answer, I didn't like giving it. It made me feel like a downer. An un-happy person. I felt like I was telling people that I was living in a situation without any enjoyment. And now, after two weeks in the US and an eight hour plane ride, I think I have a better answer. Although, it's still not all sunshine and rainbows.

So, what do I like about Mali? That is a simple question with a complicated answer. From the things I've experienced across Mali as a whole (so far) some of the things I like include: bogolan (mud cloth), traditional music (djembes, balafons, and STRING INSTRUMENT), and the incredible friendliness of the people. However, I rarely ever experience the first two things things. There are no artisans in my village, so there's no bogolan, and people don't know how to play musical instruments let alone make them or have money to buy them. What I'm saying is the things I like most about Mali are the exceptions to what is normal about my Mali experience. Most of what I encounter on a daily basis may be amusing at times, but mostly I'm indifferent to it.

I can't really say I like the food. Most Americans I know don't particularly enjoy eating bird seed (millet), and rice and peanut sauce is alright, but not if you eat it for dinner every night of the year. The cloth used for traditional clothing is neat, but I'd never wear a traditional Malian outfit. I am not a fan of the hot, flat Sahel. They don't play any traditional music on the radio near my village (only bad pop music that uses the same drum machine beat for every song). The mint tea is pretty good, but I don't drink it because the water is contaminated. Etc, etc, etc. These are the realities of everyday life for me. I don't dislike them, but I don't necessarily enjoy them either. Much of what is around me simply "is", and that's where I leave it.

And let me also say that I haven't seen the things that most tourists come to see in Mali: Dogon country and the elephants in Hombori (and to a much lesser extent the Hippos in Manatali). I'm sure once I've had a chance to experience some of those things I'll have formulated a different answer to the question in question.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Un-Necessities of Life

Recently there's been a lot of hub-ub in the news about some cranky old white guy down in Florida named Terry Jones who woke up one morning and thought it would be a good idea to burn Qur'ans as a demonstration of his faith in Christianity. Whereas the 50 or so people that follow this curmudgeon found his proposal to be full of all kinds of good merit, most people around the world were under the impression that this demonstration of paper's ability to burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit would be better suited if some other feedstock could be substituted as fuel. Generally speaking, when you live in a country that is already in a sticky situation with a group of people professing belief in a religion that makes up about 1/6 of the world's population, it's a good idea to NOT do something that is going to exacerbate those circumstances by lets say... oh... desecrating the written record of all they hold to be true in life and in the realm beyond.

And by the way... where were all the books for that proposed barbecue going to come from? Wouldn't Mr. Jones first have to go out and either buy (more likely) or steal (less likely, being a "true" Christian) a bunch of copies? Wouldn't that mean that by spitting on Islam he would first have to support it by purchasing books that were most likely produced by a business that operates in support of Islam? I find that kind of funny.

Ok. But so what? What are the real implications from all of this for me. Matt. The guy writing this? Here's the "so what":

I'm currently working in a country where Islam is kind of a big deal. I get woken up every morning, not by roosters or my alarm clock, but from the blaring sound of the call to prayer at 4:30 am. If I'm traveling anywhere in late afternoon the bus will undoubtedly stop so people can pray. Daily, people ask me to go to mosque with them and pray. You can't find pork most places. I could say more, but I think you get the idea.

And not only is Mali a Muslim country, but it comes with two varieties of people. The well-behaving ones, and the poorly-behaving ones. Sadly, the poorly behaving ones happen to be men who have started a little boys club called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They even have secret little club houses up in the Sahara Desert in the northern part of Mali. If you haven't heard of them, they're the guys who have been kidnapping westerners in Niger, Mali, and Mauritania over the past couple of years and bringing them back to the desert to hang out (not a lot of folks in the desert to hang out with typically). And when they're not actively kidnapping people, they're talking about doing so, or being mad at the French for spoiling all their fun after an attempted rescue mission of an abducted Frenchman.

This makes certain parts of Mali a less favorable destination than others for people like me... A white Christian from the US. I consider my neck of the woods (rice field really) to be safe an free of un-do-gooders by the way (don't worry mom). But here's the kicker... there are Americans in lots of other places around the world where the majority of the local population is Muslim and the local sentiment towards people from the US is less than cordial. So... when you're overseas in a place like that, it is not exactly welcome news to hear that folks back home have decided to pick a fight with people you call your neighbors or you local shop keeper or your barber or the guy cooking your food. You're making what is already a difficult situation for a lot of American ex-patriots an even more difficult one.

Alright. Conclusion. In the most politically sensitive way I can think of I'd like to give a shout out to Terry Jones and friends...

Dear Terry,
I find your epiphany to burn a certain religious text to be... unhelpful, not in my best interest, bad for America, silly, petty, stupid. Have a nice day.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Drumming for Tips

I went out to eat in Segou yesterday with all the new Volunteers being placed in the Segou region. After waiting over an hour for our food to arrive, we still didn't have what we ordered, but a band showed up and started playing Malian music. One guy was on a balaphone (like a xylophone), and three others were playing djembes (drums) of different shapes/configurations. After a while the "lead singer" of the band pulled out a plate and started mingling with us in an effort to collect tips (it worked).

It's hard to distinguish because of the poor video quality, but what the guy is doing is actually pretty cool, although subtle. First off, he's playing so fast that the camera can't pair up the sound with the motion of his hands. Second, in the middle of the video he's able to play while balancing the tip plate on his head. Lastly, towards the end of the video he's able to make the djembe produce different sounds even though it looks like he's hitting the djembe the same every time.

Listening and watching to the band was a nice distraction from the fact that it took almost two hours from the time we ordered until we actually got out food. I feel as if there should be a band situated near most things in Mali to make the incredibly long waiting time for most daily tasks seem to pass more quickly.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hypochondriacs Beware

Some of you may have forgotten that on top of being in Peace Corps, I am also in grad school at the moment at Michigan Tech. I'm working on my Master's in environmental engineering and am doing my research while in Peace Corps. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do my research on, but I think I finally have something to look into at least. My idea is to look at drinking water quality from a bacteriological perspective at different sources and points of use to determine if aid agencies should promote source technology or point of use treatment.

So far my "research" has included sampling water at different sources (bore hole pumps and hand dug wells) and points of use (household clay pots) to test for bacteria. I'm using a very simple test medium (3M Petrifilm) which detects total coliforms and E. coli. To do a test you simply apply 1 ml of water onto the petrifilm, let it sit for 24 hours in a warm place, and then count the number of "dots" that show up on the film. Each red or blue dot indicates a CFU (colony forming unit), red for total coliform and blue for E. coli. Each CFU is typically made up of many, many individual bacteria cells.

In the US, the EPA water quality standard for municipal drinking water is 0 cfu/ml (ie. nothing!). We Americans have decided that the water coming out of the tap should be pathogen free. How nice.

The results for water in my village thus far are nothing to celebrate. I tested 3 pumps, 6 wells, and 45 household clay pots. Every single sample I took was contaminated except for two of the pumps. Most with a bacteria count over 100 cfu/ml. Many were over the detectable limit of the petrifilms.

The pictures below are of three different samples that were tested. "P4" is from one of the pumps. It's clean. No bugs to be found. "L2" is a well. Lots of nasties. "HL11" is a household clay pot. Bunches and bunches of yuckiness. The two contaminated films both have over 400 cfu/ml.

If you're wondering why there are air bubbles on the contaminated slides... that's because the bacteria on those films have been gorging themselves on growth media and are now belching and farting out waste products all over the place. (Coliform bacteria aren't known to be the tidiest organisms, which is why we don't want them in our drinking water.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Confounding Methods of Shopkeepers and Toddlers

I got up the other day in Segou and like every other day decided that I wanted breakfast. The remedy to this problem was quite simple. I could go to the patisserie next door and buy a pastry for a dollar, or I could walk down the street to the nearest full service boutique and grab some yogurt, eggs, powdered milk, and bread for less than a dollar. I opted for the less costly, more diverse option that morning and headed to the boutique.

When I get there I grabbed a sachet of strawberry Yoplait out of the fridge outside and then headed inside for the rest of my supplies. It was 8:30 am, and per usual, the boutique owner was in a semi-comatosed state of utter stupidity. I don't know if he was dropped on his head repeatedly as a child (possible), has a substance abuse problem (unlikely), or if his brain cells are slowly being destroyed from the fumes of the gasoline drums stored in the back (probable), but getting this guy to do anything with any sort of urgency or intelligence is on the same level as attempting to have a donkey do cartwheels.


Me: I want 2 eggs.
Him: Here are your 3 eggs.
Me: I said 2.
Him: ...

Me: I want a really small packet of powdered milk.
Him: This one? (holding 20g packet)
Me: No. Smaller. A really small packet.
Him: This one? (holding different 20g packet)
Me: No. Really, really small.
Him: This one? (holding 100g packet)
Me: No!!! Super, teeny-tiny, miniscule in size small!
Him: This one? (holding 5 gram packet)
Me: Yes!!!

Me: I'm done. I want to pay.
Him: (blank stare)
Me: Hey. Give me my change.
Him: Huh?
Me: Change.
Him: (gives me my change)


When my stimulating conversation with the shop owner was just about over I started to feel some kind of liquid dripping down the back of my leg. I though maybe I had backed into something in the overstuffed boutique and had spilled something. To my surprise, what I found behind me was a girl of about six holding a little boy less than a year old who had no pants on and was pissing all over me. Needless to say I was very angry (pissed if you will) and wanted to do something terrible to those children. However, common sense thankfully got the best of me and I realized that it was pointless to be mad at a kid who was too young to even know that he was pissing, let along all over the back of my leg. Instead, I stormed out of the boutique, went home, changed, and had breakfast in a bad mood.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I am Shiva, Destroyer of Hair

It was a rainy day in Segou today, so I thought it would be a good time to get a hair cut. I've only had my hair cut one other time in country so far, and the experience was fine, so I figured if I went to the same place I'd come home a happy customer. That was fatal assumption number one.

Since I can't really explain how I want my hair cut in Bambara and the barbers here don't cut white guy's hair too often, my strategy in the past was to just point at one of the soccer players on a wall poster and say "do that". Last time I got the "Wayne Rooney". This time I was going for more of a "Steven Gerrard" look.

At first the barber had the right idea... except instead of bringing the clipper up to cut, he brought it down my head, which is a terribly inefficient way to cut straight hair. It's like trying to cut wet, matted down grass with a lawn mower. Doesn't work well. But, after a while "the look" started to take form. However, when nearing completion I pointed out that one side of my head was still longer than the other.

Instead of simply repeating the procedure he had been following up to that point, he chose to use an upward cutting motion this time, which left a giant divot on the left side of my forehead. I now had more of a "crater" look going on. There's no way a pair of paramecia sharing a brain cell wouldn't have been able to figure out why I was displeased with the result. Yet the barber seemed dumbfounded as to why I had become so disgruntled after what he had just done.

He then attempted to correct his colossal error and ended up shaving my hair all the same length in a buzz cut. Now I was mad. I could have done what this guy did blindfolded with my non-dominant hand after consuming copious amounts of alcohol, but apparently I decided to bike to the barbers in the rain and pay full price for work that I wouldn't even tolerate for my dog back in the States. AAaarrrgg!

Poisons and Perplexities

A known fact about modern agriculture is that most farming operations these days rely on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Even in a subsistence agriculture society like Mali where manure and other organic refuse is hauled out to fields every year, inter-cropping with nitrogen fixating plants is practiced, and the majority of fields are still plowed with a team of oxen does modern agricultural chemistry reside. In my neck of the woods the primary products being used are herbicides and urea based nitrogen fertilizers for cultivating hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice.

There are several problems with modernizing subsistence agriculture. The biggest of which, in my opinion, is that the farmers are illiterate. Illiteracy only prolongs the other problems I've noticed which include over application of agricultural chemicals, overuse of land (nothing goes fallow), and poor soil conservation practices. People aren't able to educate/inform themselves.

The over application of chemicals results in higher costs to the farmer and a degradation to local ecology in the form of groundwater/surface water contamination and the promotion of algal blooms and other water flora which degrade water quality in surface waters. Water contamination from nitrogen fertilizers can lead to blue baby syndrome, which is pretty tough to catch when all the babies here have dark skin to begin with. Degradation of water quality in surface waters reduces fish populations, which diminishes available food supplies and a good source of protein.

Overuse of land and poor soil conservation practices go hand in hand. Overusing land depletes the soil of organic matter and nutrients, which makes growing more difficult in subsequent years and increases the reliance on synthetic organic fertilizers. Lack of organic material in soil also leads to soil loss and desertification caused by winds blowing away the remaining inorganic minerals. Poor soil conservation is manifested by farmers not constructing wind rows or erosion barriers to prevent soil from being carried off fields by wind or storm water.

***These are not problems specific to developing countries either. The US deals with the same things, but educated farmers and stricter, enforced laws mean these problems are much less common.

I recently had a conversation with my counterpart about spraying herbicides on fields. My concern was that people were applying excessive amounts of herbicides on their fields, which I felt could lead to groundwater contamination. (The fields which are treated are flooded for several months after spraying, and the waters from those fields help recharge the aquifers in and around my village.) At first my counterpart basically laughed at the idea, but when I started asking him where all the well water came from and made the link between rain water, irrigation waters, and groundwater recharge I saw the light click on in his mind. When he understood he said he thought everyone in village should stop drinking well water and only get drinking water from the pumps in town. I then had to calm him down by pointing out that if there was a significant problem a lot of people would be getting sick, which isn't happening, although this doesn't mean that people could still be at risk in the area.

It's funny. People here know that herbicides and pesticides are dangerous chemicals. They buy them in bottles of highly concentrated liquid or granules, which they then mix with water and apply with a hand sprayer. They wash their hands with soap after spraying (but not after pooping?....) and try to keep people away when they are using the chemicals. However, they don't wear gloves, boots, eye protection, or a face mask when spraying (which is indicated on all the packaging with pictures), and they let kids play with the empty containers after they've been rinsed out with water. They also use/mix all the chemicals the same way even though they come in different concentrations. Of course most people don't know this because the directions are in French of English, which they can't read even if they did understand those languages. I've even seen some people using herbicides in hand sprayers that are intended to be applied with an airplane.

I'm also a little miffed that people can't make the connection between a herbicide being bad for a person and an insecticide being bad for an animal. My counterpart's dog had open wounds on both ears the other day that were covered in flies. To "help" the dog out he wanted to dust the dog's head with an insecticide used to kill flies and other household creepy-crawlies. He seemed to have no idea that this might not be the wisest course of action.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Rainy Friday in Village

We've had a decent dry spell in village considering that it's supposed to be prime time for rain. The last few weeks have brought clouds, wind, lighting, and thunder, but no rain. This means most people have been sitting around a lot waiting for the rains to show up so they can plant millet.

Fortunately on Friday Allah decided to ease the people's disgruntlement and sent rain. Not the righteous fury that usually shows up... but a nice, long, soaking rain that started at 2 am and went until 2 pm. Now everything is wet, muddy, and damp. But at least the crops are finally getting in.

However, the rain has annoyingly found it's way back into my house through the roof again. I woke up to a small puddle and gobs of mud on the floor. This means that once again I'll have to go borrow someone's tree-trunk-turned ladder, climb up on the roof with a bucket of dirt and stop around barefoot to pack the mud roof down, hoping all the while the "soft spot" that has developed isn't too soft. One thing American and African cultures share in common is a desire NOT to come crashing through one's own roof into the living room.

I've also discovered that I'm going to have to fix the hangar/awning in front of my house. This is the same hangar that, as you may recall, was built by my counterpart without doing any measuring or strategizing before hand. As a result, the crossbeam that supports most of the weight of the roof is terribly undersized and is now sagging considerably under the weight of all the rain that the straw roofing has soaked up. My front door only opens half way without me having to push the hangar up. So, at present I've had to add additional reinforcement in the form of some leftover pvc pipe and a stack of bricks. Doing so has reduced my fear of the whole thing coming crashing down in front of my door, which would leave me trapped inside.

Waking up on a rainy day is something I enjoy here because it means that I have some extra time to myself in my house to read, clean, write, or do whatever I want without feeling like I have to mingle with people in the community right away. It's like a snow day. However, this Friday was an exception. At 8 am a neighbor came over to inform me that a baby naming ceremony was happening across the street. There was no backing out of this invitation even if I wanted to because the celebration was for someone in my "family", the chief was there, and it was directly across from my front door so everyone knew where I was and what I had been up to that morning. Just once though I wish I would be informed about these things before they actually started. I need time to get my party ensemble together and run down to Walgreens to by a "congratulations" card before I can show up... obviously.

In any case, I threw on some nice clothes and a rain coat and went across the street for the celebration. I slipped my way through the mud and arrived just in time to hear the end of the blessing which was being given by the imam with six fingers on one hand. After the prayer I found a place to sit on the ground (like everyone else) inside a tiny little room right in front of the chief and right next to a guy who works at one of the mills in town and has the middle finger on his right hand broken so he's always "flipping the bird". Fortunately that gesture doesn't mean anything here.

Once the "cafe" had been brought out, and after someone fished the leaves out of it, and after it had been spilled all over me by kids attempting to pass cups all over the room, we had a meal. Effectively lunch at 9 am. All the kids and young men left to go eat elsewhere, so I essentially got to eat at the "big kids table" with the chief, which was really a communal bowl on the floor.

After the meal I decided to venture over to the butiki to see what everyone else in town was doing. (Butikis being the main social gathering point in village.) I found the rest of the kids and young men from the baby naming ceremony. They were waiting for their food to be brought to them. Apparently the butiki was serving as a satellite celebration site.

The young men ate at the butiki and the kids ate at a house next door. At the butiki several huge bowls of rice were brought and men gathered around them under the awning of the shop. Some held empty rice sacks over their heads to block rain that was leaking in through holes in the plastic that covered the butiki awning.

Apparently there was a mixup with the food and the kids ended up with a giant bowl of scalding hot rice, but no bowl of sauce to put on it. After waiting patiently for several minutes they decided to take matters into their own hands and came parading out into the muddy, rain filled street carrying the bowl of rice and making a lot of noise. The young men asked what was up and the boys replied that they had no sauce and were going in search of some at the neighbors. I assume they found what they wanted because the noise died down soon thereafter. I think the closest American equivalent would be a cake showing up at a birthday party without frosting and all the young party-goers deciding to take matters into their own hands by hauling the cake all over the neighborhood until they discovered frosting.

Additional Language and Culture Notes

As I've said before, a big part of Malian culture is greetings. I think I've also made mention of my thoughts about how Bambara as a language seems to be a lot less complex than English. As a result, this seems to provide opportunities to mix things up when I get bored giving the same greetings all the time. My site mate, Therese, who is just finishing up her two years here recently remarked that she spends roughly 39.8% of her day greeting and sometimes she can't help but be inventive to keep things interesting.

So... Standard greetings are typically as follows. There's a lot to say and people usually speak quickly, which means you have to be on your A game if you want to be sharp about it.

"Good morning. How was your night?"
"Was the night peaceful?"
"How are the people of your house?"
"Is your father well?" (Then mother, wife, kids, siblings, etc)
"Are you well?"
"Is there peace?"
"There aren't any problems?"

Then you interject statements of goodwill. Since I'm white the ones people say to me are usually related to money.

"You and wealth."
"You and rest / easy times."
"You and work."
"You and a long time." ("It's been a while.")

I have to give a reply to all of this and offer it back to whoever is greeting me, and vice versa. When it's feeling like a particularly slow day and I need to entertain myself I'll add a few extra greetings for good measure.

"How are your cows?" (Then chickens, donkeys, sheep, and goats.)
"Is your motorcycle well?"
"There is peace in your pit latrine?"

...To which people reply with:
"How is your notebook?"
"Is your pen well?"
"There are no problems with your bicycle?"

And then I'll offer some statements of goodwill that are specific to what a person is doing... so "You and work" becomes:

"You and washing dishes"
"You and getting water"
"You and fixing a motorcycle"
"You and selling things"
"You and drinking tea"
"You and sitting"
"You and driving an ox cart"

You can do this with whatever a person is doing. For example: you and reading my blog. To which you reply "Nba" or "Nse" depending on which set of chromosomes you drew at the conception lottery.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The reason we have OSHA in the US...

While I intend on finding some kind of desk job when I finish up with PC, in the past I've had a fair amount of work experience in the realm of non-desk job / OSHA regulated stuff. If you don't know (or have forgotten), OSHA stands for Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It's Uncle Sam's workplace watchdog that makes sure people aren't chopping their fingers off or running people over with forklifts when at work. I do feel that OSHA is a good thing, but often times people in the construction, manufacturing, and risk averse industries feel that OSHA rules with a heavy hand. There are often complaints that OSHA's regulations are overly conservative or completely unnecessary, and having worked in the construction and engineering fields, I can understand these complaints.

But I also see why OSHA is a good thing. Take Mali as a case study for example... People using grinders and welders without any kind of protective equipment. People lighting cigarettes off the arc of a welder. People working in unventilated spaces or in excavations that haven't been shored up. No closed-toed shoes. No helmets. No guards on machinery with exposed moving parts. I see a lot of people with massive scars from severe wounds on hands, arms, legs, and feet.

As I've mentioned before, my latest project has been well construction. I've found that on top of teaching the villagers a new method for well construction, I've also had to dedicate a fair bit of time to safety lessons... even concepts that seem fairly obvious to me. For example...

- You shouldn't lower heavy objects into a well directly above someone standing in the bottom of the well. What happens if you drop the heavy object?

- You should make sure that the rope, poles, and beams you are going to use to lower someone into a well can actually support the weight of the workers.

- You should use a rope when going up and down a well shaft, instead of trying to play "Cliffhanger" by scaling directly up and down the loose earth wall of the well.

- You should anchor your rope to something that won't move instead of having someone hold it while a person dangles suspended several meters above the bottom of a well shaft.

I also had a bit of a scare recently with the second well I built in village. My counterpart and a mason were working in the well about three meters above the water surface and 2 meters below the top of the well. My counterpart had been doing some strenuous work in the well and was standing on top of the bricks making up the well lining, in between vertical strands of rebar sticking up about 2 feet out of the bricks. All of a sudden he stopped talking as if to catch his breath, was quite for a few moments and then slumped over between the vertical rebar and the well wall. He fainted. For a second I was seriously freaking out. My counterpart is in his 50's and I thought he was having a heart attack or something.

Fortunately he became conscious soon after, but was pretty weak for a while. The mason in the well, another laborer and I had to pull him out of the well so he could recover. He could have easily been seriously injured by falling onto one of the vertical strands of rebar or by falling into the well where he could have broken something or potentially drowned before anyone would have been able to pull him out.

My counterpart is fine now. I suspect that he was just very dehydrated, low on electrolytes, and... old. I think he forgot that he can't do things like he did when he was in his 20's.

Apparently workers fainting in wells is not uncommon in Mali either. In many places the water table is several dozen meters below the surface, which means men are working in enclosed, unventilated spaces. They end up fainting because air isn't circulating to the bottom of the well fast enough and the workers end up using all the oxygen and pass out. This was not the case for my counterpart, who was only a few feet below the surface.

But the lesson here is that well construction has very real risks and can be dangerous. I've heard stories in the past of people not putting any merit into safety and having a well cave in on workers, resulting in severe injury or death. I find that it is impossible to to eliminate all potential hazards in a workplace, but at least in the US we are very aware of workplace safety. In Mali it's not on the horizon of consideration. I've been here for a year and still don't even know the word for "safety" in Bambara.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Well Construction Video

Here's a little video showing all the key steps in the construction of my first well project in April.

First we had to cast all the concrete bricks by hand. Ox carts brought sand from the river 10 km away and we used buckets and shovels to mix the concrete on the ground before casting the bricks over a period of about two weeks. At the same time we had two guys dig the well down to the water table, and once there we constructed a cutting ring in the bottom of the well using rebar, bricks, and concrete.

After waiting a week for the concrete to dry, we continued to increase the depth of the well by digging earth out from underneath the cutting ring, which would slowly sink down as soil was removed. We managed to gain an additional meter of depth before we had to stop because soil conditions became unfavorable. We then started lining the well with the concrete bricks and backfilling between the bricks and the exposed well wall. The final step was to cast a cover for the well which would prevent debris, animals, or kids from falling in and contaminating the water.

Along the way we had several things to watch out for. Of main importance was getting the cutting ring level before we started laying bricks so that the well shaft wouldn't end up crooked. Then we had to make sure all the bricks were placed snugly together to maintain the circular shape of the shaft so not to compromise structural integrity. Vertical rebar was incorporated through the entire well and people had to be very careful not to injure themselves getting in an out of the hole. The bricks also presented issues. For instance, I found a snake curled up in the midst of the brick pile one day. Also, no one wore closed toed shoes, so everyone needed to be careful not to drop anything heavy on their feet.

There were challenges and frustrations throughout the project, but the work is done, and now the village school has a safe and reliable source of water for the kids.

I should also mention that my "job" in all of this was to help get funding, organize the project, and introduce the construction technique being used (build technical capacity). I had a guy come in from Bamako to teach the villagers how to do the work, but apart from the trainer, everyone else in the pictures was doing this kind of work for the first time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup

The biggest thing to happen in the international soccer community in the last four years is going on at the moment if you haven't heard. It's kind of a big deal, yet somehow Americans still refuse to embrace this, the favorite sport of the world, en masse. This is a part of my own culture I don't understand. To me the "true" American way would be to get thoroughly invested in the world of soccer and completely dominate it, to the frustration and consternation of all others.

World Cup fever, unsurprisingly, has also made it to rural Mali. Despite the fact that I live in a mud house, take bucket baths outside, use a pit latrine with no roof every day, have to carry water to my house, and don't have electricity, I can still ride my bike to the edge of my village and watch all the World Cup games via satellite TV powered off solar panels and car batteries at the doctor's house at the village health center. I find strange paradoxes like this a lot out here...

Obviously I'm cheering for the US and my other favorite teams. I even have a little US flag to wave around when the Etats Unis are playing, which the villagers think is the most amusing thing since someone decided that humans could actually be amused. It's that popular.

When I'm not cheering for the US, I'm rooting for one of the teams in my "World Cup Bracket", which unfortunately had to include North Korea. Uhh! That, or I'm going for teams that I generally consider to be good or have good players. Interestingly this has led me to cheer mostly for teams from Europe and South America. This is in stark contrast to the Malian philosophy of World Cup enthusiasm.

Sadly, Mali didn't qualify for the World Cup. (But they did send a referee squad which ended up shafting the US out of a goal against Slovenia... Coulibaly!!!) Therefore, the locals have had to choose other countries to adopt as their own for the next few weeks. I'll give you a hint... the World Cup is in Africa for the first time.

That's right. They're supporting the African teams. If the team is all black players, they've got the confidence of Mali behind them. It doesn't matter if the team is considered "good" or not. Apparently hope and magical fairy dust are all you need for success. And since magical fairy dust doesn't exists, it's not surprising (to me) that out of the six African teams in the Cup this year, only one is going to make it past the initial group stage.

Needless to say, I get a lot of playful harassment when I cheer for a team opposing a one of the African nations. They tell me that I'm African now, so I have to support African teams.

I find this somewhat interesting. It seems that my soccer enthusiast friends and I will support teams that we regard as good, or the team of our nationality. Race or skin color or geographic location doesn't really play into it. I like Uruguay as much as I like Spain for the same reasons that I don't like South Africa or France. This concept is starkly in contrast to the general order of things here, which is to first cheer for anyone who is the same racially.

The viewing experience is also a bit different compared to the US. Since televisions are few and far between outside the city (literally, satellite even more so), any working television usually draws a crowd. I'm usually watching a game with 30 or 40 other men, who are all packed closely together in order to see what's happening on the 17 inch screen. If anything interesting were to happen... say a shot in the general direction of the goal, or a cross that happens to find no one... there are wild outbursts of enthusiasm. Hands raise up and wave frantically in the air. Sounds of high pitched screaming. A collective leaning in towards the TV. Yelling "Goal" even if the ball sails 18 million miles over the net. And then after the moment of excitement is over there's a nice long group discussion in which everyone simultaneously expresses their opinion on what just happened and then people start yelling at each other if they think it was a bad play. Sure, this is kind of like how a sports bar feels in the US, but without the alcohol and a lot more animated.

Grinds My Gears

I've tried to keep all my posts up this point as positive as I can. Sure, I hint at things and mention my frustrations, but I've been trying to paint everything is a positive light. Not today. I've got a few annoyances to share, which I feel is appropriate to write about now that I've been here for a year.

You know what grinds my gears about Mali...

When kids see me and they stop what they are doing and start jumping up and down yelling "Too-baa-boo" over and over and over and over and over and over.

When I'm riding my bike in the city and someone sitting on the side of the road starts yelling at me come over to him for no other reason than I'm white.

When people tell me to give them my stuff.

When people tell me to go into my house and get the loads of cash I obviously have... or to send home for money for them.

When I try to take a bus between cities and I hear the baggage handlers tell each other to charge me a lot for baggage because I'm white.

That nothing ever happens "on time".

That community leaders in my village make agreements with me all the time that they don't keep.

That I have to greet everyone all the time... or I'm a jerk.

When people come to the bureau in Segou looking for the tailor shop next door and then can't figure out why there aren't any sewing machines in our room.


When people say "bon soir" (good evening) to me at 7 in the morning.

When my counterpart laughs at me when I explain to him that something that he or others in the village are doing is bad for reasons that seem quite obvious to me (not washing hands, not treating water, not beating kids or wives, not using safety equipment in dangerous situations, having dozens of people share the same drinking cup, the advantages of plates and forks, to name a few).

When people continue to speak to me in French when I tell them I only speak Bambara or English.

When people tell me to get them papers and money to go to America.

When people give me a blank look when I tell them Spain and America aren't connected.

When kids poop in the street outside my concession gate.

The wait at the bank (minimum 3 hours).

Street vendors who try to sell me stuff because they think I'm a tourist. (I am not their friend, which they claim with some insistence)


That my counterpart asks me every day if I want to eat some of his moni (millet porridge), which I hate and refuse to eat... and he knows it.

That people will pick up a large spoon and start eating with it when 10 seconds earlier it had been entirely covered with flies.

That bad rap music and pro wrestling are a big portion of the American pop culture that makes it over here.

That my counterpart's radio seems to have two settings... off, or deafeningly loud. He lives next door.

Most music played on the radio.

The lady that tries to see me bread every time I go from Segou to my village... and I NEVER buy anything from her.

That when I try to buy things at most corner stores it often seems that me trying to give the shop some business is more of an annoyance to the shop owner than anything else. Apparently I've interrupted them from the whole lot of nothing they were doing beforehand.

That no one ever has change! (shops, market, bars, taxis, etc.)

Animist Dancing

I stayed in another Volunteer's village a few days ago and got to experience an animist spiritual ceremony. I guess I would say it was what most people probably think of when they imagine what African ceremonies might look like.

The ceremony took place at night in a large, walled-in courtyard. In the middle of the yard was an open dancing area about 20 feet square. All around this people were seated at least three rows deep on the ground and on chairs or benches. On one side of the open area there was a animist leader/guru/shaman seated in a large chair with several layers of cushions. He was wearing a tunic made out of what looked like white burlap or rough cotton and had scenes hand painted on it. On another side of the area there were some singers, a sound system, and someone playing some kind of wind instrument. In the middle of the open area five men were playing different kinds of drums (all standing).

The drummers would play songs that started out somewhat slowly and then built in intensity to a final peak, and then stopped. After a few minutes break the whole thing started over again.

During the songs men and women would go over to the guru, crouch down, touch his foot with their right hand, and then walk around the perimeter of the open area in a crouched stance holding their right hand out to the feet of all the people seated around the edge of the area. After circling the edge of the area these people would then walk around the circle standing up doing a little dance (think conga line). When the music would begin to pick up in tempo the line would break up and people would move to the center of the open area and begin to dance in one place.

At this point I think they were supposed to be being inhibited by an animist spirit. Their feet would remain on one spot while the rest of their body would whirl around and contort wildly... to the extent that women's head scarves would come flying off. (Think whirling dervishes) After a while if someone else wanted to come in, they would approach someone on the dance floor and touch them on the ankle. The dancer would then stop, walk back into the crowd, and the new person would take their spot.

Some people were "overtaken" more by the spirit than others. Sometimes when a person would get "tagged out" they wouldn't stop dancing. When the music stopped people would have to almost carry the person off the dance floor because they seemed to have lost control of their own body.

The music was really good and it was neat to see people practicing a spiritual element of their lives that is so different from either Christianity or Islam. It was strange and unfamiliar and different.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kids in Mali

This is for a young student out in Washington state somewhere who wants to know what kids in Mali look like. Sorry the photo quality isn't the best.

Pic 1: A group of girls (sisters and cousins) in their nice clothes for Tabaski
Pic 2: A bunch of boys doing their best karate poses (karate is HUGE here)
Pic 3: Kids at school. The cloth around the girls waists are their "backpacks"
Pic 4: Two sisters, Worokia and Kaja

Monday, June 14, 2010

People Migration

I'm going to state something obvious. Ready? People in Mali are poor. Not all, but most. If you didn't know that already, please, by all means continue to live in a bubble of isolation and ignorance.

Now for something less obvious... What does it mean to be poor in Mali and be able to support oneself?

I had a conversation with my dad last night about the economy and job market back home. He pointed out that things in the US are still not good and lots of people still can't find work or are in danger of loosing their jobs. In addition, promises made by politicians to improve the state of economic affairs still haven't been realized by the masses. Officially the unemployment rate in Wisconsin is at about 10% and Michigan is about 15% right now. The overall rate is about 9.5%. In reality those numbers are probably much higher, but have been "massaged" based on how the statistics are reported/interpreted. However, he also pointed out that despite this, the US still is much better off than a place like Mali. With that said, I thought I would provide a little explanation of the job situation in Mali.

Officially, the unemployment rate in Mali is 30%, although to me this number is about as arbitrary as saying that the global temperature will rise by 2.1 degrees over the next 10 years because there has been a 4.6% increase in the number of Big Macs consumed in the last 36 months. It's basically meaningless. Why? Because something like 80% of the population busies itself with subsistence agriculture or nomadic herding for much of the year and then struggles to find something else to do when not engaged in their primary occupation.

If you are a man born in a village, you are most likely destined to be a farmer. You start herding animals about 10 minutes after you learn to walk and then start working "full time" in the fields after 5th or 6th grade. From June to September you cultivate and plant fields. Then from November to March you harvest your crops and sell what you can at market. From April to June there isn't much to do, so you either make repairs to your house or try to find other work.

Since you're a farmer living out in the sticks there's not a lot of jobs to be found in village and not a lot of money to be paid if you could find something. Therefore, you pack a bag, wave goodbye to family and friends, and head to Bamako or a regional capital to find work for a few months. As you are essentially uneducated, you have no valuable work skills. Also, everybody else has had the same idea, so there's more workers than there are jobs. This means that you are limited to very simple jobs that don't pay well because employers don't have any trouble filling employment vacancies. If you do find a job, it will probably be something like unskilled construction labor, pushing a hand cart for local deliveries, selling bottles of water or juice on the street, or loading and unloading trucks. And it will only pay about $2 a day if you're lucky.

You'll probably be living with a relative or family friend or may possibly pay to board at someone's house. You live as meagerly as possible so that you save all the money you can for when you return to your village for the next planting season. If things are really bad, you may even move to Ivory Coast and try to find similar work in one of the port cities and the send money back home. This migration of people makes it very difficult to establish official population and employment statistics because people are constantly moving back and forth between city and village.

Also, there are no government services to act as a safety net. No social security. No health insurance. No unemployment benefits from the government or employers. No retirement funds. No occupational safety regulations. You're on your own. If you can't find work, well that's just too bad. And if you get injured and can't work... I guess you should have been more careful when using a grinding wheel without any safety glasses...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

When The Rains Come Down

Rainy season is almost upon us. Hopefully a drop in temperatures will also be included in the bargain. Unfortunately, I also have it on good authority that there will be a rise in humidity and a topographical transformation in which the landscape will become much more muddy.

Rain in Mali is not like rain in the US. Rain here takes it's job much more seriously. It doesn't just simply roll in, provide a light sprinkle to moisten the area, and move on. No. It barges in like a woman scorned. All wind and dust and lightning and thunder and water in intense volumes. Heaven hath no fury like a Malian rainstorm.

In its wake the land is temporarily transformed. Hills are left cut with deep gullies. Village streets turn to chocolate pudding and are inundated with water. (It gives new meaning to "taking the high road".) Every depression becomes a shallow pond or lake. Because the land is so flat, the stormwater simply has no place to go to, so it remains where God has deemed it appropriate to fall.

When it's raining, everyone obviously stays inside. Ordinarily, this is the place to be during a storm, but what do you do if your mud house with a mud roof develops a leak? Well, then you enjoy the rain's company indoors and try to dodge the globs of mud that will inevitably be dropping from the ceiling every so often until the rain stops. Then you wait for your roof to dry out for a bit, find a ladder, get on top of your house and walk around barefoot until you find the "soft spots" where the roof is slowly caving in from the inside. Then you pile fresh dirt over the soft spots and stomp it down with your feet as you feel the wood beams holding the roof up underneath you flex up and down with every forceful application of your foot.

The arrival of the rains also means the start of the new farming season. The first serious rain the other day meant a complete shift in daily village life. On Tuesday everyone was busy making repairs to their homes and relaxing under shade trees drinking tea. After the rain finished on Wednesday morning all the men had their work clothes on and were out in the fields ploughing the soft soil for planting. Since all cultivation is done with a team of oxen and a steel plough it is important to capitalize on the time available so that the rains can be maximized.

In my part of the country the first thing to be planted is millet. Then peanuts and rice. Several people in my village have told me that I should get a plot of land and farm rice this year. I told them that probably wouldn't be such a great idea since I don't know how to farm rice and I don't own any farming implements. That and I just don't want to. I've got more important things to do like read a book or stew in frustration when no one comes to meetings I've organized. But then again... I can't be that mad as now they're all out trying to grow enough food to feed their enormous families and earn a small amount of income for the remainder of the year.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hostels, A Case Study:

Most hostels offer private rooms at a high price and dorm style rooms for a low price. Typically the dorm rooms have four to eight beds in them, meaning if you travel alone or in a small group you're likely to have some roommates wherever you go. I had my first experience staying in a hostel dorm room by myself in Bern... and it left a lasting impression.

While depositing my things in my room after dinner I discovered several things. I had been assigned to a room with six beds (three bunks). The first set of bunks was occupied by a college couple from Colorado. The second by two girls from Austria who spoke minimal English. The third belonged to me and a guy that wasn't around at the time. I discovered, however, that he had found my bed a convenient place to let his wet laundry dry... which was a nice welcoming touch I have to admit. As I had just run into a cute Australian my mind was elsewhere focusing on trying to get back downstairs so I could get a drink with her, so I didn't think much of it.

The next morning I woke up in a rather unusual, but effective way. I was on the bottom bunk and the unknown guy above me apparently needed to be up early to go who knows where. After rummaging through his stuff (waking me and the Austrian girls up) he left to go down the hall to take a shower. I promptly fell back asleep.

When I woke up again I had a bit of a surprise. The unknown guy was back from the shower and collecting some of his things from the bunk above me. This meant that he was literally standing right in front of my face. He was also quite naked. "And a good morning to you too, sir", I wanted to say. Instead I decided to roll over and think of more pleasant things such as my dog dying or eating a jar of mayonnaise.

Moral of the story: A hostel might have more to offer than it advertises...

Vacation: Survival Tips and Musings from Europe

I just got back to Mali after a much needed three week vacation to Europe... The place Eddie Izzard refers to as "where the history comes from". I had an amazing time and fell in love with Switzerland in particular. My only regret is that I can't speak German, otherwise I probably wouldn't have come back... Here are a few stories and highlights from my trip. Be amused, entertained, or informed. You'll probably get a bit of all three.

The genesis of this trip began with the prodding of my friends Julie and Steph wanting to visit me and have an excuse to go to Italy. They also managed to drag our friend Sam into the mix, and so we made plans for nine days in Italy. After I did the math I realized it made sense to stay in Europe as long as possible since it is still quite hot in Mali at the moment. So, I decided to make my dollar/euro/CFA go as far as possible. I made plans for an additional five days on my own and six days with a friend, Paige, who I had met at Tech last year. One of her roommates, Alex, also came along. They had both been studying in Helsinki this past semester.

My time in Italy included stops in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Cinque Terre. I won't bother listing everything that we saw. Just think of everything typical of Italy. We did that.

Favorite part of Italy:
Hearing a priest perform mass at San Miniato al Monte on a hill overlooking Florence and then going to dinner at a wine bar down the hill just outside the old city wall.

Tips on Italy:
If you buy a Gelato, don't expect to be able to eat it in the shop unless you pay for a table. Tap water doesn't exists in Italy, it's a myth. Be quiet while in the Sistine Chapel or you will be loudly "sshhh-ed" by the Vatican guards. Try the house wine. Not all gnocchi is created equal. A menu may translate something to English as "sweet pepper" when it should actually read "spinach". Even with a railpass, you still have to pay a 10 euro seat reservation fee for the good trains. Your hostel room might not be close to the hostel office, so wear walking shoes. Your hostel may or may not change your sheets/towels every night if the room even comes with them. Toast in a bag - embrace it.

My favorite part of the trip took place in the magical land of hope and wonder that the locals have dubbed Switzerland. Snow capped mountains, forests, rivers, lakes. Integrated transportation that incorporates bikes, buses, boats, trains, and trams! And because of the difficult terrain... amazing feats of engineering! The longest, deepest tunnel in the world! Flow control structures on rivers that act as weirs for the drainage of entire mountain valleys! Mandatory separation of municipal waste (paper, plastic, metals, glass, organic/compost, other)! Fine chocolates! The list could go on forever.

I spent time in Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, and Zurich. I couch surfed for the first time in Lucerne and met some great people. One of my hosts was a civil engineer, another a chef, and the third a conference organizer for international pharmaceutical companies. I got to talk about nerdy engineering stuff, eat great home-cooked food, and learn a lot about Switzerland, Europe, and the other places they had been to.

Tips on Switzerland:
You can rent bikes for free in most major cities for up to four hours. With a rail pass you don't have to make seat reservations for any trains. They prefer Swiss francs, but a lot of places will also take euros or even dollars! English is widely spoken, so fear not unschooled American travelers who don't speak French, German, or Italian (all national Swiss languages). Weird fountains are everywhere. Things cost more, but like anything, a higher price usually indicates better quality, which is what the Swiss are all about. You can't throw a stick and not hit a watch store.

I spent time in Munich, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and was in Frankfurt for about 2 hours. Among other things I went to a castle, saw a concentration camp, hiked around in the Black Forest, went to a few beer gardens, and had more bratwurst, schnitzel, potato pancakes, and sauerkraut than is healthy for one person in such a short amount of time.

Tips on Germany:
Despite being famous for cars, the Germans have truly embraced the bicycle. They're everywhere and sidewalks are divided into pedestrian and bike lanes. Make sure you're in in the appropriate one or the consequences could be disastrous. In the Black Forest area, make sure to try Black Forest Cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte). Germans do pain au chocolat better than the French. You can order beer by the liter (~ 2 pints). Sauerkraut is a winter food, making it difficult to find in warm months. If a menu lists an item, but precedes it with the prefix "mega", the menu is not joking. Example: "mega-schnitzel" comes as a large plate of fried potatoes that is overlaid with a plate-sized schnitzel. The Germans don't mess around when it comes to meals.

I spent less than 72 hours in the French Republic, but hit all the important stuff. By that I mean I went to Strasbourg and Paris. Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament (European Union) and Paris has been described to me by a Frenchman in Segou as "the only real France". I saw all the famous stuff in Paris and added the Paris Sewer Museum into the mix. That one is a "must see" and "must smell" if you ask me. I took a ride on a high speed TGV train to get from Strasbourg to Paris, but in the best of French traditions it broke down three times on the way. Despite this, I did manage to become one of the fastest moving objects on the planet at the time for about an hour when the train did manage to reach an average speed of over 280 km/h (175 mph).

Tips on Europe:
If you order a "coffee" you are not going to get not so much coffee as you are going to get the thought of a coffee in the American context. Rather, you will get a shot of expresso that will last about 4 seconds. If you order a "water" you are going to get a bottle of water that has gas in it... not a glass of tap water. This you must specify. If staying in hostels, bring a lock and bedding as some places only provide these at an additional cost. Don't be surprised if you get incredulous looks from people that are sitting in your assigned train seat when you ask them to move (Italy especially). You can spot a Canadian backpacker in Europe a mile away as they all have Canadian flag patches on their packs. I assume this is to done to identify themselves as persons who will freely give out hugs and good-natured accompaniment as I think it is genetically impossible for a Canadian to be of an ill disposition.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Interesting Short Stories and Excerpts

Food Security
One of the biggest problems in Mali is food shortages across the country despite the fact that the majority of society is involved in subsistence agriculture or commercial farming. One of the nights Shaka (the tech trainer) was in my village he decided to take a walk around the edge of my village. When he came back he mentioned that he was amazed at how much farmland there was in the area and how big our community garden is. He remarked that he was baffled at the fact that Mali experiences food shortages every year despite the amount/potential of food production. When I ask him to explain why he thinks this is he makes a hand motion to indicate the villagers and then points to his head and says, "no good". His point was that the farmers are capable of producing enough food for themselves and city dwellers, but don't understand the economics of farming or how important it is to store grains.

A Slithering Surprise
During the brick making process for the school well we ended up stacking the bricks into a large block for curing and so that it would be easier to spray them with water. When it came time to put them into the well we had to brush off excess concrete and dirt from each brick before carrying them to the well hole. While picking up one of the bricks I discovered a snake several feet long that had made its home between two bricks. I asked Shaka to take a look at it and he said to stay away. I had no idea if it was dangerous or not, but we both decided to err on the side of caution and not find out. So, I grabbed a nice long piece of rebar and effectively made sure there was one less snake to be found in the world. And if it's any consolation to the snake, it wasn't personal... it just gave both Shaka and I the hibbly-jibblies.

A Work Ethic Story
There are many times when Mali is a very confusing, frustrating place for me. One of the things I don't quite understand is the work ethic of villagers. When they do work, they do so with incredible vigor. However, actually getting men to come out of the shade where they have been drinking tea often proves to be very difficult. For example... My counterpart won't work in the afternoon. And he won't try to look for other people to work in the afternoon either... because people don't do work in the afternoon... apparently. Also, if there is a wedding... you get the day off. And since everyone goes to everyone else's wedding, you get a lot of days off. The same is true of baby naming ceremonies and funerals. All said and done, I'm surprised any work gets done in village most days. Clearly this is a work to live culture, not one in which people live to work. You are not defined by what you do, but simply by your existence and your interactions with others.

This is difficult for me. I come from the upper mid-west. A very German sort of place where what you do with yourself is important. You live to work. Productivity is valuable. Time spent sitting around with friends not "doing" anything is viewed as time wasted... and there's nothing worse than wasting time in America.

In village there is very much an attitude of "We'll get to it... eventually". I operate more under the premise of "Let's get to it now".