Saturday, January 30, 2010


The phrase "this is Africa", or "TIA" is mentioned here from time to time. I find it hard to explain exactly what these three words mean, but I think that the following examples will paint a picture of the spirit of TIA. Also, keep in mind what I describe is not indicative of every single person or place on the continent. If anything, they're just funny stories that seem to recur when I'm around. Also, I can sometimes be a bit dramatic with my sarcasm...

Sports Announcers
The Africa Cup of Nations is going on in Angola at the moment. Mali participated, but was eliminated in bracket play. Naturally, when the team was playing, everyone around here was really excited and large groups could be found congregated around TVs and radios whenever there was a game being broadcast. Thanks to French colonization, all national broadcasts are done in French. However, not many people in village speak French, so the local radio station by me rebroadcasts the games in the local language, Bambara. How they do this is somewhat interesting...

There are two guys who sit in the radio booth and watch the game who speak both French and Bambara. They forward the events of the game on over the radio to listeners. There is often a lot of semi-dead air time followed by exuberant exclamations by one or both men who literally yell into the mics as loud as they can when something exciting happens. In American terms it would be like someone watching a basketball game on TV with the volume down and dictating what was happening to someone else in another room... and doing so with a lot of personal celebration included in the commentary. TIA

Water Tower
I learned the other day that some time in the future my village and the neighboring village are supposed to be getting a water tower and several distribution lines put in, courtesy of the local government. Nobody knows when, but someone already came out and drilled a borehole and installed an India-Mali pump for the time being.

As a civil engineer I'm rather intrigued by decisions that have been made thus far in this project. The borehole was put in on the north-east corner of my village in the middle of a field next to the main road that passes on the outer east side of town. Also, the other village that the future tower is supposed to serve is located south-west of my village, i.e.. on the exact opposite side of town and about 2 km beyond. Thirdly, the borehole appears to be located in one of the low spots in the area (granted, it's pretty flat overall).

Why is this interesting to me? The fact that there's currently a pump on the borehole doesn't seem to mean much as it is nowhere near any houses, so the only people getting water from it are the people using that field and passers-by on the road. Also, it would have made more sense to me to locate the borehole/tower between the two villages, thus necessitating less pipe, which translates into less cost for distribution. Lastly, it's a fairly common practice to locate water towers at locations that are "up hill", since the towers rely on gravity to do all the work. Putting one in a low spot is slightly counterproductive.

I will admit, I haven't talked to anyone who is actually responsible for this project so I do not have a full understanding of why things have been done the way that they have been thus far, and I am not aware of the exact plans for the future. However, at first glance, to me it looks like someone decided these communities should get a water distribution system and then paid a well driller to go out and poke a hole in the ground... not really giving much thought about the specifics. The reason I have this first impression is because stuff like that has happened here before. TIA

Making Change
Often in village people need change back when they buy something. This might seem like a simple endeavor, but when one or both people involved in the transaction do not have a lot of math skills this can become tricky. Sometimes there can be lengthy discussions about one's total bill and the perceived amount of money that should be returned from the larger denomination first given. These disputes are often settled by bringing in a third or sometimes fourth party to help smooth out the numbers. TIA

Unwanted Business
I was in a boutique the other day trying to buy eggs or powdered milk or something, but was unable, because the shop keeper had stepped out for a few minutes. Rather, I should say the head shop keeper. There were two other people at the boutique who "worked" there that, in my opinion, should have been able to sell me what I wanted to buy. They told me that I couldn't buy anything right now because the shop keeper wasn't around and that I should go to another shop. When I asked why they couldn't sell me stuff they simply told me to go somewhere else. This sort of thing has happened to me several times here in different places. I think it might have something to do with the previous paragraphs subject. TIA

Family Planning
Women here have a lot of kids (on average 5 or 6), and men have a lot of wives (2 or three is desirable in many places). There is a perception here that having a lot of kids is good. As a result, the head of household (typically a man) has a lot of mouths to feed. I've had conversations about this with people before and asked them if they thought that they would have more disposable income if they had fewer children. Everyone questioned pointed this out as being fairly obvious. Then I asked if people thought that many Malians are poor. Again, this was considered obviously. Then I asked why, if people recognized that having fewer children would result in few "bills", did they continue to procreate so vigorously. The responses were either a shrug of the shoulders or a reminder that having a lot of kids was a good thing. Personally, I think reducing the number of births per woman here would be a good thing on many levels... but then again, as is the case in most agrarian societies, the more hands you have harvesting the better. Right? TIA

It's Not Broke. Don't Fix It
When I first moved to my village I noticed that the water pump by my house was in disrepair and mentioned this to the people responsible for the pumps health and safety. They said that the pump wasn't "broken" and in any case there wasn't any money to fix the pump at that time. Now the pump has completely ceased to fulfill its primary purpose: to lift water.

What I didn't understand when I first got here is that things don't need to be repaired until they stop functioning in every possible capacity. Sure, when I first arrived in village the aforementioned pump had ball bearings with no balls in them, a head cover that was so warped and bent that it was allowing the pump piston to smash into the head of the cylinder, and no washers on the handle axle in order to prevent horizontal handle movement which resulted in a complete stripping of the threads on the axle... but it still produced water. So yeah, while none of those things kept the pump from producing water, they all caused more destruction of other parts of the pump, so now much of it has to be replaced or refabricated, resulting in a much, much higher repair bill than if individual parts had been taken care of when they failed.

While I have used the example of my pump here, this stuff happens all over. Garden fences, cars, motorcycles, chairs, walls of houses, well casings, generators, roads, doors, etc. It's not fixed until it's broken. Got it? I'm discovering that the concept of preventive maintenance is not well understood here. TIA

Dryer Sheets
You know how people in the US will use dryer sheets to make laundry nice and soft and fluffy and smell nice? We don't have those here. We don't even have clothes dryers. We have a precursor technology... the clothes line. And when that is not available, bushes, trees, and solar panels. Yes. Solar panels. They're great for hanging clothes on... apparently.

I have a lady down the street wash my clothes for me. She hangs them up to dry on a line in her concession (compound). It's been windy here recently. The other day she washed my clothes in late afternoon and then hung them to dry before starting to cook dinner for her family. Because her "kitchen" is upwind of the clothes line, and because everyone here cooks with wood, my latest batch of laundry had that ever-popular "just come out of the wash" smell of wood smoke. Mmmmm. Love it! But at least they're clean. TIA

As everyone knows, this stands for "fix or repair daily", or "found on roadside dead". While I've only seen one or two actual Ford vehicles in Mali, I see a lot of 25 year old Mercedes-Benzs masquerading as FORDs. An example is the minibus I take to get from Segou back to Dioro every time I return to village. When I pull up to the bus station I will typically find my bus waiting with the hood open or on a jack stand with a wheel taken off and one of the front control arms being worked on. This of course is normal and doesn't stop anyone from loading stuff onto the bus or sitting it it while it's up on a jack. I guess it's comforting to know that the bus is being fixed before we leave as opposed to in the middle of the bush where there aren't as many people around to help push. TIA

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Circular Reasoning With Chickens

There are many kinds of domesticated animals in Mali. Sheep. Goats. Horses. Dogs. Cats. Cows... and Chickens. There are chickens running throughout the villages of Mali, but for some reason its impossible to find chicken eggs. This has been a source of frustration for me as I enjoy eggs and they are one of the better sources of protein available, but I have to bring them in from my market town... 17 km away, because you literally can't find chicken eggs in village. You'd have more luck searching for a needle in a haystack.

I decided to ask a few questions to figure out why this is. After all, there are chickens all over the place... They have to come from somewhere. I decided to interview my language tutor. He usually has pretty succinct answers to my questions.

Q1: Why doesn't anyone in village sell eggs?
A1: People can't find the eggs. The chickens run all over and we don't know where they lay. Plus, most people want to eat chicken meat, not the eggs.

Q2: Why do people let the chickens go wherever they want?
A2: They have to look for food (i.e. trash).

Q3: Couldn't people make simple pens for the chickens? That way they could sell eggs for people who want them and fatten them up faster?
A3: Sure. But then people would have to feed the chickens.

Q4: Why don't people what to feed their chickens?
A4: They eat the trash.

Conclusion: People can't find eggs because the chickens aren't penned up. They aren't penned up because they are looking for food. They are looking for food because people don't feed them. Because people don't feed/coop up their chickens they can't find the eggs.

My point to this story is that when I point out something to people here that I think could be done better they will acknowledge that making a change would offer an opportunity... but it would mean doing things differently than they've been done in the past... and that is not going to happen. At first I was tempted to think that this proved a stereotype of the ignorance and stubbornness of people living in rural villages, but then I realized it proved a different stereotype... It proved that people everywhere are unwilling to change a situation that they have become comfortable with.

Geography is Harder-est

Discussing anything physically located outside of Mali is difficult in village. Why? Because not many people here have seen a map. The idea that the world is round is still pretty groundbreaking to some folks. As a result, most villager's idea of how the world is laid out is somewhat misguided.

Here are the basics. Black people live in Africa. Arab people live in northern Africa/ the east. Mecca is to the east in Saudi Arabia. China is east. White people typically come from France, Spain, or America. Where these latter three lie out in space is a bit of a guess. Also, there is only one America. There is no Canada, United States, Mexico, or North/South America. There is only one America... and it's big and it's where all the money is. Everyone knows that.

On a few occasions, when trying to explain that "America" is made up of many countries and peoples, I've been told that those are just "regions" in "America". South America is pretty much an enigma. When I've brought up places like Brazil, Venezuela, or Columbia, people typically shake their head in an understanding manner and say "Ah yes, Brazil", which means they have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

Sometimes even the basics get mixed up. The Africa Cup of Nations (soccer) is going on right now and has been one of the major talking points in town. Keep in mind... this is the AFRICA Cup of Nations. The countries only come from one continent. A man of about 50 the other day asked me if Angola is next to "America". I honestly didn't know what else to say other than "No, America is not in Africa... it's over there (pointing northwest)", which of course was met with an "Ah yes, Africa".

I just want to say thank you to every teacher who has ever given a geography lesson. You have made the world a less confusing place for some of us.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Village Traffic

This is a stop motion video I put together of the traffic passing by the intersection near my house. The infamous cow incident is included. Enjoy. (music by Spoon)