Monday, February 8, 2010

Festival sur le Niger

Yesterday was the last day of the Segou Music Festival. It's the second largest festival in Mali after The Festival In The Desert (which traditionally happens outside Timbuktu... in the desert). It's one of the major tourist events in Mali and people come from all over the world to enjoy the sights and sounds. Fortunately for me, I call Segou my "second home" in Mali, so I've been able to experience all the festival has to offer and see the before and after effects it has on the city.

The festival is "small" by US standards, but very unique. The main stage is set up on a barge on the Niger River. There are pavilions set up for various vendors and aid groups. An exhibition hall displaying art from all over the world. Cultural exhibition tents where different ethnic groups perform dances. Beer gardens.

One of the main differences that stood out to me was the aggressive tactic adopted by the street vendors. Some have booths set up in the festival. Some walk around inside and outside the festival grounds. Some have booths set up outside the festival (so they don't have to pay a booth fee). They don't wait for you to come to them. They come to you. "My friend, you buy my postcards". "Bonjour Monsieur, you see my nice cloth". "Ttssstt. I have the marijuana. How much you buy?" (For the record, I didn't buy "the marijuana". It's illegal)

The street vendors sell all the typical stuff you think of. Wooden carvings. Drums. Earrings. Necklaces. Bracelets. Clothing. Turbans. Ridiculous inflatable animals that come from China. CDs. Sunglasses. Postcards.

There are also a host of women set up outside the festival grounds on the side of the roads selling street food. Common items include fried egg sandwiches, seasoned grilled meat sandwiches, or assorted veggies, fries, beans, etc. Conditions are less than sanitary by US standards. I ordered a grilled meat sandwich the other day. The lady took the meat which was on metal kabobs, put it on the bread, then dipped a spoon into a bowl of raw meat to get some of that tasty raw meat juice for extra flavor. Why did we bother to cook the meat again?...

Inside the actual festival ground there is plenty to see. During the day its mostly just exhibition stuff. Tribal dances. Local musicians. Food. One day there was a boat race on the river using traditional pirogues (canoes). The race was done in two heats. In the first heat two of the five boats sank during the race because the 20 or so men in each boat were paddling so furiously that they inundated their vessels with water. In the second heat there was a boat with a bunch of white foreigners. Of course their boat sank about 20 yards before the finish line. The crowd loved it.

The tribal dances were pretty neat. Lots of different masks and costumes. One group was demonstrating what appeared to be a ritual dance that men do before going out to hunt. They all had shotguns which were loaded with blanks and every now and then one of them would fire a gun in the middle of the crowd. Sure, they were using blank shells... but still, it was a little unnerving at first.

People attended the concert from all over the world. There were plenty of Malians, which I hate to say surprised me a little. I initially thought the crowd would have been composed mostly of foreigners, but actually the majority of people were nationals, which was nice to see. Of course, there were plenty of people from France, Great Britain, the US, and other parts of Europe as well. I also ran into several Peace Corps Volunteers that had made their way from Ghana and Benin. There might have been some Togo folks as well. I can't remember. There were also people from many other West African countries in attendance. This truly is an international festival, even if its not super huge in terms of attendance.

However, there were enough people in town to completely take down the telecommunications infrastructure of the city. For two or three days you couldn't make calls, send texts, or get on the web. A lot of the foreigners were freaking out thinking that something was wrong with their phone in particular. Some of the local Volunteers graciously explained that this problem was a city wide phenomenon, and not isolated to particular individuals.

The nicer restaurants and hotels in the area also changed things up a bit for the festival. Strangely, room prices went up a bit. Restaurant menus also got a lot shorter to make things easier on the cooks. My favorite place in town, lovingly referred to as "The Shack", reduced its menu down to two items. Fish or Beef. No salads. No sandwiches. When my friends and I inquired if we could order from the "regular menu" since we are regulars to this particular establishment and the cook knows us, we were greeted with a rather Seinfeldesque Soup Nazi "no soup for you" response. Clearly the goings-ons of the festival are a source of additional stress for local businessmen.

One thing I found especially interesting about the past week was the placement of one particular beer garden outside the festival grounds. There's not a lot of real estate available on the side of the roads in town, so one intrepid individual thought he would set up a beer garden in the middle of a round point intersection. The concept of having people come to the literal center of a poorly lit, busy intersection median to consume copious amounts of fermented drink seems less than wise to me. But then again, this is just one man's opinion.

In all, I would say the festival was a success. Everyone I was with seemed to have a good time and there was plenty to see and do. So in conclusion, if you happen to be in the Segou area in early February... come check out the music festival. It only costs about $US 140 for all four days for foreigners.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Some Things Are Different In Mali

Here's a bunch of random thoughts/observations I've had over the past few weeks.

Hazards of Traveling to Work
I was going out to the fields the other day to help one of my neighbors harvest his rice. We rode out together in his cow cart (village version of carpooling). Now normally in the US the typical hazard associated with going to work is a car accident of some sort. Not as much so in village. No... the big risk is getting cow diarrhea all over your foot when you let your legs dangle over the front of the cart... right behind the cow... Fortunately I anticipated this risk and kept my legs up. My neighbor was not as lucky.

Garden Frustrations
Most people here do not have gardens. Why? Because the idea of a flower garden is a rather silly notion when all your time is taken up toiling away in the fields or doing other manual labor all day. Plus there are no sprinkler systems for watering plants. The village version: a rope, a bucket, and a well. Veggie gardens are an equally futile endeavor as the biological equivalent of a lawn mower, manifested in the form of a herd of goats, is ever present and devours anything in its path.

Unconventional Tourists
I rode my bike 17 km to the market recently. On the way I was stopped by a French couple in a Land Rover camper (yes, camper), trying to find their way to Djenne, a major tourist attraction in Mali that's a short 150 km from my village... straight through the bush on roads cut through fields by cow carts. A short time after the French couple I came across three white guys on motorcycles fully decked out in gear. It appeared that they were going across Mali "the back way" with motorcycles.

Some people in village inquired about my habit of cooking for myself everyday. They wanted to know how I did this. I said I used a gas tank. Then I told them that in the US people don't buy tanks of gas... it gets piped straight into the house for cooking AND heating. They found this incredible, especially the part about heating one's house. Then I explained that water goes straight to everyone's house as well. Villagers conclusion: America is a good place.

Today I was in Segou for the annual music festival. I was with some other PCVs and on our way into the festival grounds we bought some food from a girl near the festival entrance. After a few hours we went back to the same stand to buy the exact same food item. This time the girl's mother was there and the price had doubled... that's what I call sudden inflation. Curiously, our appetites were quelled with the adjustment in price.

Deja Vu
While at the music festival I sat down at a pavilion with a few other people for a while to soak in the atmosphere of the festival. About every 3 minutes another vendor would approach our table trying to sell something. Post cards. A shoe shine. Leather goods. Knives. Some would even come back later trying to sell the exact same stuff. I wonder if many foreigners end up buying things after the second attempt...

Advertising Strategy
My friends and I also noticed some advertisements for a particular brand of beer while at the pavilion where we were seated. There were signs plastered all over the place. They would have been impossible to avoid. We were intrigued because we had never heard of this brand of beer before, so asked if we could have some to try. Ironically they didn't sell that particular beer. They just had lots of ads for it, but sold something else.

Soap Box

I already wrote this entry once, but scrapped the first draft after putting more consideration into what I wanted to say. This article isn't about Mali. It's about the US. I'm probably won't end up writing something entirely cohesive, but that's because how I feel and what I think aren't in complete agreement. Once again I find myself waffling.

I watched a documentary entitled "Food, Inc." this morning. It had the familiar message that big corporations are the devil and the system is corrupt and bla bla bla. However, it also offered some constructive criticism. I suggest watching it if you have some spare time.

The main points of the film included:
1. The American public's general lack of any understanding of where their food actually comes from or what's in it.
2. The increasing consolidation and control of the American food industry by a few large multinational conglomerates.
3. The blurring of the lines between corporations and government regulatory agencies due to personnel from each moving from one to the other.
4. The increasing impotence of government regulation on industry due to court decisions ruling in favor of corporate interests.
5. Government agriculture subsidies favoring certain major cash crops which has resulted in virtual insolvency for local farmers.
6. Corporate abuse of intellectual property rights in order to attain almost complete control of an industry, which then results in little or no competition in the market place.
7. Corporations taking advantage of and abusing immigrant workers.
8. The disparity between immigrants, companies, and the government. Corporations bring immigrant workers to the US, but it is the workers who are punished for entering the country illegally, not the companies that brought them here or employed them.
9. The food industry's insistence on combating new problems that arise with new, advanced technologies instead of simply solving the root problem. (i.e. giving cattle massive amounts of antibiotics instead of improving the diet of the animal)
10. The un-sustainable nature of a globalized food industry that is totally dependent on oil and does not promote local production or distribution of products.
11. The unfairness and ease of bringing forth a lawsuit inherent in the US legal system that essentially favors whoever is able to afford long legal battles (i.e. not small farmers or workers).
12. The poverty created in foreign countries due to US agriculture subsidies. Farmers in other countries are unable to sell their own crops in their own countries because government subsidies allow American farmers to sell their crops below production costs.
13. The fact that it is now much more expensive to eat healthy than eat poorly, which causes the poor to become unhealthy and sick, which in turn creates a whole host of problems including more poverty, reliance on government aid, healthcare issues, etc.

So what am I trying to get at here? I feel conflicted. My heart says that what we are doing is wrong. My mind wonders how we can "right" all the "wrongs" and still have things like food availability, low food costs, food variety, and the convenience that is currently enjoyed. To me it seems that in order to "right" the "wrongs" we have to adopt a more socialist attitude, but at the same time I like the independence I have with a more capitalist attitude. I guess I'm wondering if there is a way to combine the two. You know... Social capitalism. Capital socialism. Suffice it to say I don't have the answers and I'm left scratching my head wondering where the time warp portal is that will take me to that magical land of hope and wonder where everything I want is possible simultaneously.

In any case, I find myself turning to what is quickly becoming my favorite phrase: "Be the change you want to see". I'm also learning that doing this means not always taking the easy route or going with my first choice. By being the change I want to see I force myself to consider the long term future and think about where I (and everyone around me) am headed, and that has caused me to do things I might not have otherwise. Do you think you, the reader, can do the same?

If you're interested in what I've been talking about and want to learn more, or want to study the message of the "flaming liberals" in order to defeat them, check out the following documentaries:

Food, Inc. (food industry, politics, social justice)
The Future of Food (food industry, corporate greed)
Flow (water crisis)
King Corn (everything you ever wanted to know about the corn industry)
The Corporation (unsavory corporate practices/policies)
What Would Jesus Buy? (problems with American consumerism)
Roger and Me (negative affects corporations can have on communities)