Sunday, March 28, 2010

Tool Time - Home Edition

It seems like it's been a while since I've discussed the regular goings-ons of village life.

When I first got to Mali it was rainy season. This meant most people were out plowing and planting fields. December was cold season, which meant harvest time.

Now it's hot season. How hot? Over 105 degrees Fahrenheit every day. A cool dip into the 80s at night. At this point it hasn't rained consistently since early October, so it's been pretty dry. Everything is brown. Rivers and ponds have significantly shrunk or disappeared altogether. There is no agricultural activity aside from herding cows. Dust abounds. Sun is abundant when not obscured by the aforementioned dust clouds.

What do people do you might ask? This part of hot season might be more appropriately labeled "home improvement" season. It's all about fixing up or building houses...Unfortunately it's a little low tech for Bob Vila or Tim Taylor.

How does "house building season" work exactly? Well, first you need to hitch up a team of cows to your cart, head out to the fields and bring back a couple cart loads of nice, clayey soil. Then grab a couple of old oil drums, fire up that trusty cow cart, and head out of town to the irrigation canal for the rice fields and grab a few barrels of water. (You do this by simply backing the whole cart into the canal... water up to the cows noses.) When you get back into town, start making mud. Add some straw to the mud. Then grab your favorite brick mold and start making mud bricks like it's 1999 and there's about to be a firesale on home masonry to get ready for the Y2K glitch.

Stack the bricks and let them dry in the sun. Once dried, make some mud mortar and begin making the walls for your new house, concession enclosure, negen, shower area, sheep pen, or ice hockey arena. (The thermal properties of mud bricks are truly astounding. What an R-value!) When it's time to start thinking about a roof, find some large cross beams and throw those on top of the walls. Then lay a dense latticework of two-inch diameter sticks across the beams, coating the entire ensemble thoroughly with about a foot of mud. Let dry. (If you've got some extra cash laying around you can splurge on a tin roof.)

If you're not building a new house you'll probably still be interested in doing some fix up work. You'd be surprised at how easily a house made out of sun-baked mud can come apart once it's endured a few rainy seasons. Solution: some mud and a mason's trowel. Apply a liberal coat of mud to whatever wall or roof is in need of some patch work. Then find your favorite shady spot and drink tea for the rest of the day.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Here Fishy Fishy Fish

I want to start this entry out by paying tribute to those prodigal sages of wisdom... Bert and Ernie. How else would generations of Americans have learned about the necessary equipment for bath time or the most effective strategies for catching fish?

Last week I spent a few afternoons and an evening at my "site mate's" village helping to build a fish pond and soak pit. But first, to clarify, my "site mate" is in a village about 12 km from mine. She's the closest Volunteer to me, so we see each other fairly often, thus the term site mate.

The Volunteer that was at her site before her had arranged to have an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) student chapter from the University of Pittsburgh come and build a large fish pond in the village. They have visited the village a few times already, but last week was their actual implementation trip. They had an excavator and front end loader brought out from Segou to have a 120m x 30m fish pond dug in the middle of the village. It was like playing with giant toys in a giant sand box.

The point of the fish pond is to create... well... a pond to raise fish in. The village will then sell the fish at market or use it as a food source.

I'd say overall the project was a success, but there were a few snags along the way. The front end loader showed up a day late and then after a few days of work broke a large pin that prevented the machine from doing what it does best... picking up
copious amounts of soil.

Once that was fixed the translator that was working with the EWB students told us that there was a bit of a conflict in the village. Apparently the village chief and elders had approved areas of land to be dug up for the pond that other village members did not want disturbed. Fortunately this land was included in the portion of work that had been filed under "we'll get to it if we have enough time", and there didn't end up being enough time, so the land was left undisturbed. Just goes to show that community politics in Africa work the same way as they do in the US.

I ended up doing a bit of "consulting work" with the professional engineer that was with the EWB group while visiting the project and helped the group design and put together a soak pit. It ended up being a slow sand filter that drained into the fish pond, but who's really keeping track of specifics? In any case it ended up being a very "frumbling" experience.

In case you're not familiar with that term - it's a hybrid between frustrating and humbling. Frustrating because I was trying to get a bunch of unskilled village volunteers to help dig trenches, lay pipe, and move large amounts of soil and sand. They had no real concept of how the thing we were building would actually work, but still let us know that what we were doing wouldn't work. That was frustrating. So much so that after I while I just decided that everyone around me was an idiot and there was no point trying to explain anything. All I needed to do was coldly direct people to do what I wanted.

Fortunately my site mate had the presence of mind to tell me to stop being an ass-hole to her villagers and explain what was going on. This was humbling, but she was right. What's the point of doing a bunch of development work if you're not going to get the people who are using it to understand what is happening? There isn't one.

And for those would-be engineers out there... remember this fundamental truth. Water is lazy. It prefers going down hill. I'm not sure if that bit of knowledge just isn't understood as well here, or if people think they can just will the unlikely into happening, or if people are just wearing really unevenly souled shoes... but the idea of laying pipe so that water would flow though it in the desired direction took a bit of talking through.

The true test of success for this project won't come for about a year though. The water for the pond will come from the rains in a few months. There is some concern that a berm that was put in around one end of the pond will limit the amount of water that will get to it. There is also a concern about water quality. This pond will be a very tempting place for women to come wash clothes and animals to come drink. The soap from clothes washing and manure from animals could saturate the stagnant water with nutrients, which could cause algal blooms, which would result in depleted oxygen levels in the water, which would result in a poor living environment for the fishes. Only time will truly tell.

Friday, March 12, 2010

My First Project or The Most Annoying Sound Ever or How I Found the Son of a Bitch

This entry is the story of my first funded PC project. Before I get too far though, I should preface with this background information... Last year in one of my grad school classes that was specifically designed to prepare for PC my professor walked into the room, turned on the projector, and put up a slide that said, "Every village has a son of a bitch. Your job is to find out who that person is.".

My first PC project is a combination of hand pump repair and soak pit construction. The hand pumps are India/Mali Mark II and are about 20 years old. I think they were put in back when the Malian government was involved in a massive pump installment campaign funded by the World Bank. There are four pumps in my village. One was broken when I arrived. One broke in January.

To paint a better picture, the hand pumps are really important for the village. Most people have a hand-dug well in their compound or nearby, but many of these wells go dry during the hot season. Also, these wells are not lined or protected from contamination, so the water from them is often not safe if not treated... which no one does here. The hand pumps go much deeper into the shallow aquifer in the area, thus providing a constant source of water throughout the year and the water at these pumps is also much safer to drink.

If you don't know what a soak pit is... its basically a big, covered hole that water drains to so that it can soak into the ground without being a nuisance to the public in the process. A lot of people do their laundry at the pumps, and there is always water spilled when people fill buckets, which results in large pools of standing water next to the pumps. The soak pits are being built to get rid of this water to help "clean up the streets". (For those of you who care, the "soak pits" for this project are actually small drain fields that use a sand backfill and perforated pipe because the soil in my area has consolidated clays and a high groundwater table.)

As I said, when I arrived in my village in September 2009 one of the pumps was already broken. When the second one broke in January 2010 the village and I decided to remedy the situation. After several meetings with key village members we came up with a plan. The village would pay to have a pump repairman come from Dioro to look at the pumps and provide an estimate of the cost for repairs. I would then write a grant proposal to PC for money to fix the pumps and buy materials for the soak pits. The village would contribute some money for the pumps and labor and materials for the soak pits.

When the pump repairman came in late January he was able to assess the situation pretty quickly. He was even able to fix the pump that had been broken since I had arrived. Turns out a $0.25 link for the pump chain was missing. The repairman fixed the problem on the spot. This is something the guy in my village that is in charge of the pumps (pump tigi) could have fixed on his own... but he didn't. I asked the repairman if he would disassemble the whole pump to make sure the actual water lifting mechanism (piston) was in good shape, but he told me that since the pump was now lifting water everything was fine. He didn't need to take everything apart.

Then, when it came time for the repairman to get paid the pump tigi told me to pay. I said that the village agreed to pay for this (meaning the pump tigi). After a bit of "back and forth" the pump tigi finally paid the repairman, but not before I was pretty annoyed.

After the repairman left I had more meetings with my village counterpart, the village chief, the pump tigi, and other key persons in the village. I laid out a plan for fixing the pumps, building the soak pits, and how we were going to pay for all of it. Everyone signed off so I went to Segou, wrote a project proposal, submitted it to PC, and waited for the funds to show up from USAID about five weeks later.

During the waiting period we had a little work to get done. The village agreed to contribute the rest of the money needed to pay for the pump repairs. They did not have the cash readily available for this. The plan was for my work counterpart and the pump tigi to go ask each household that used the pumps for money to pay for the repairs. I expected to encounter some problems with this, so for two weeks before the pump repairman was scheduled to come back I asked my counterpart if they had collected the money. At first the answer was "We'll collect it tomorrow". Then after a while the answer was "Yes"... for several days in a row.

A few days before the pump repairman was scheduled to return my counterpart told me the pump that had been fixed during the repairman's first visit was broken again. When I went to examine it, it felt as though part of the pump cylinder was broken... something the repairman did not look at during his first visit because "everything was fine". The next day I went to Segou to get the PC funds to buy pump parts and soak pit materials.

When I returned to village I discovered that some preliminary work that the pump tigi was supposed to have done before the repairman came back was not finished. This delayed the repairman's arrival by a day.

The day the repairman finally came started off well enough. It was a cloudy morning, so it stayed cool longer than usual. While waiting for the repairman to arrive I overheard my counterpart asking everyone he encountered for money to fix the pump. Obviously the money he said was on hand to pay the repairman was not, in fact, on hand. I didn't worry too much though as it has his problem for not collecting the money beforehand despite a two week barrage of interrogation by myself.

While waiting I also went all over town making sure things were ready and that all the pump parts were accounted for. (When we took the pump apart to look at it we never put it back together and stored everything at someone's house). I discovered that some important bolts were not with the rest of the parts. When I asked the pump tigi about these he told me I needed to buy new bolts. I asked where the old ones were, but got no answer. This conversation was cut short by the arrival of the repairman.

We quickly got to work and had the first pump working again in about an hour. Miraculously the pump tigi showed up with the bolts I had asked him about... I could tell that he had come from his house. My guess is he wanted to keep them for himself.

When we had finished work on the first pump I told the repairman that the pump he had previously fixed was broken again. He agreed to take a look at it, so we went across town and took it apart. We discovered that the pump cups inside the cylinder had come unscrewed (this is unusual). No parts had failed. They had just come undone.

After tightening everything up and putting everything back down the well borehole we discovered that the plunger was not going back down after being pumped. This was a problem. Solution: disassemble the entire pump for a second time, go to the exact place where we had tightened everything, and replace two rubber pump cups that were a little "stiff".

During this process the repairman had gotten grease all over his hands from the pump chain and I had to suggest to him that he wash off his hands before handling the internal parts of a pump that provides drinking water to lots of people. Some things are just not as obvious to some as they are to others.

When we had finished, the next logical step was for the village to pay the repairman (pump tigi's job). The pump tigi told me to pay. I said that the village had agreed to pay. The pump tigi told me that the village was getting all the sand needed for the soak pits and that paying the repairman was too much... that I should pay.

I had just heard the most annoying sound in the world. The sound of a man 50 years+ complaining and refusing to do what he agreed to. This may not sound like a big deal, but in a culture where most people are illiterate, your word is your contract, and this guy was breaking the terms of our deal and essentially telling me it was my fault.

After going back and forth with this (in front of the repairman) I realized I wasn't going to get anywhere and needed to seek a higher authority. We ended up at the chief's house and interrupted a meeting he was having. The pump tigi did all the talking. Parts of the conversation I didn't understand, but at first they wanted me to pay the repairman right then and the village would pay me back a few days later. I said no deal. I told my side of the story. The chief then told the pump tigi he had to pay the repairman.

It became clear to me that the pump tigi had not collected the money needed to pay the repairman and therefore was not able to pay. It was important for me not to give in at this point, so I simply sat down and chatted with the repairman while the pump tigi went door to door to collect the money.

I was annoyed and incredibly embarrassed. The pump repairman ended up having to wait for an hour to get paid. That's not cool.

Obviously, after all this transpired I was more than a little upset with the pump tigi. He had balked at every stage of the project and tried to get me to foot the bill for things twice. Later that same day he even had the nerve to tell me that the next time I went to Segou I need to buy him new sandals. He wears size 11 incidentally. Ladies and gentlemen... I have found my village's "son of a bitch".

The worst part is I know I have to work with this guy in the future. He is an important person in the village and my counterpart hangs out with him all the time. There is no way I can avoid dealing with him and because he is much older than me I can't "bust his chops" so to speak without causing more problems for myself. I talked to my counterpart about this and told him that he needs to intervene the next time something like this happens and he agreed.

But, the good news is everything worked out. The pumps got fixed. The repairman got paid. The village paid their share. I was able to show that I can't be bullied into just throwing money at the village's problems. And... I found the son of a bitch.

Friday, March 5, 2010

WAIST (introduction)

I just got back to Segou after taking a two week excursion through western Africa. The purpose: WAIST (West African Invitational Softball Tournament). For those of you who have never heard of WAIST, which is basically everybody, it's an event that happens every Presidents Day weekend in Dakar, Senegal. Expatriates from all over West Africa come for a few days of softball, good food, social networking, and possibly to attend a conference. Traditionally, Peace Corps Volunteers from most West African countries participate along with several other groups that are based out of the Dakar area. Most PC countries have so many people show up that they are able to field several softball teams. PC Mali had roughly 90 people attend, with three teams participating in the tournament.

Typically PC Volunteers will remain in Senegal for a few days after WAIST is officially over in order to soak up as much of the ocean air as possible. Plus, the bus ride to Dakar is anything but a pleasant experience, so most people need a decent amount of time to recuperate before heading back home.

I'm breaking this entry up into parts, otherwise it would be enormous. This way you can get through it all in bits.

WAIST (pt 1) - Bamako

The origination point for the majority of PC Mali Volunteers going to WAIST was Bamako. Since we had roughly 90 people going, we had to rent out one entire tour bus and filled half of another. This may not sound like a big deal, but when you have to cover 750 miles of poorly paved roads, cross an international border, and endure a bus without air conditioning or a lavatory, you want things to be as simple as possible. Having a chartered PC-only bus meant we could stop whenever we wanted/needed, and in theory we would get to Dakar faster because we would not be stopping along the way to try an find more passengers.

The buses were scheduled to leave at 6 am, which meant everyone needed to be at the bus station at about 5 am, which meant everyone had to come in the day before and spend the night in Bamako. Some of us decided to go to a restaurant near our new bureau called West African Fried Chicken (hole in the wall KFC of Mali) for dinner and then went around the corner for soft serve ice cream before getting a few hours of sleep. Others decided to just stay up all night, have a few drinks, and then sleep for much of the anticipated 30+ hour bus ride.

When it came time to head to the bus station, we called a taxi at 4:30 am and were on our way. Interestingly, my car got "lost" for a little bit on the way to the station. The bus company we were using was called Sonef. When our taxi came to a stop we found ourselves in front of a gas station called SNF. Needless to say our taxi driver was confused as to why we wanted to go to a gas station at 4:30 in the morning and we were confused as to why our taxi driver brought us to a "bus station" that had no buses. Nonetheless, it was a situation remedied easy enough.

WAIST (pt 2) - The Journey to Dakar

I was on the PC only bus. It looked great from the outside, but the inside was not so great for one small reason. The seats had been intended for someone no taller than four feet, weighing no more than fifty-five pounds. Or so it seemed. And the seat backs were positioned at almost a ninety degree angle. Also, there were three seats on one side of the aisle, two on the other. Needless to say this bus was not the shining example of cross-contiental luxury touring. We were crammed in like sardines.

The first leg of our trek went smoothly. We made it to the bus company's station in Kayes in about eight hours. It usually takes over ten. Then our bus broke in Kayes and we had to wait two hours while repairs were being made. Of course, no one at the bus company told us this. They just pulled the bus to the side of the road, opened the hood, and started pulling pieces out.

When moving once again, it took about ninety minutes to reach the Senegal border. First we had to get our passports stamped to leave Mali, and then stamped to enter Senegal. At the border town in Senegal the bus broke down again, which delayed our journey another hour.

At this point it was starting to get dark and people were starting to think about dinner. We drove for another two hours or so before stopping in Tambacounda for food. Everyone was tired, hungry, and a little crabby from being on an uncomfortable bus all day, but still in relatively good spirits. Not for long.

Before going any further I should say that when traveling overland in West Africa it is advised to keep your wits about you. Always make sure you know where your valuables are. People get pick-pocketed at bus stops and there are many instances of people having stuff stolen out of their carry-on bags by other passengers after they have fallen asleep on a bus.

Since we had the whole bus to ourselves we let our guard down a little. When people got off the bus in Tambacounda they left valuables on the bus in plain sight. Who wouldn't? We all knew eachother. It was safe. Or so we thought.

After having been stopped for about 20 minutes something weird happened. All of a sudden about a dozen Senegalese men started sprinting down a dark alley next to one of boutiques we were stopped in front of and were yelling. Obviously this startled all the Volunteers. We quickly realized that these men were in pursuit of a thief. This could mean trouble as vigilantism is still common here.

A few minutes after the commotion started one of the bus employees started yelling at us (PCVs) while holding two backpacks from our bus. We soon discovered that while people were out using the bathroom and finding food, a thief had gone onto our bus, grabbed a few bags off seats by the door, and then took off. He dropped two bags, but got away with one. The scary part is that there were people sleeping on the bus when this happened.

Obviously this changed the mood of the evening. We had to call the police. File a report. Delay our journey another two hours.

We travelled almost non-stop for the rest of the night and got into the Dakar area the next morning about 9 am. At first the general mood was not good. The edge of Dakar is a dirty, industrial wasteland without much vegetation and a Philip Morris factory. The mood of everyone on the bus was "we spent over an entire day on a bus to come to a place that looks worse than Mali?". We didn't realize that our journey wasn't quite over.

After a few hours in really bad Dakar morning traffic we made it to the ocean side of town. Our opinion quickly changed. Tall buildings. Paved streets. Urban vegetation. Developed oceanside properties. Clean streets. Sidewalks. Piped sewers. It felt like America.

Our journey ended 28 hours after it began, at the front door of the Club Atlantique (American Club) in Dakar, where WAIST is held. We scrambled off the bus, grabbed our bags, grabbed a cold beer, changed into swimming suites, and jumped into the most beautiful pool that has ever existed.

Side note: When I took a little "rinse off shower" before going into the pool the water that swirled down the drain was brown. When it came out of the shower head it had been clear. It gets dusty out there on the open road...

WAIST (pt 3) - Dakar & WAIST

The softball tournament covered three days, had a social and competitive league, and was held on four different fields all located around the Club Atlantique. All the PC teams were in the social league. Why? Because the purpose of WAIST is not only to play softball, but also to to get intoxicated while doing so. At least that's the philosophy of most Volunteers. Everyone involved, including staff at the Club Atlantique, knows this, which means everyone has a good time.

The beer was donated and sold at a reduced price. The profits go to help local non-profits in Dakar. Delicious American food including hot-dogs and Doritos were all the rave. There was even a boy scout troop selling baked goods to raise money.

PC Senegal helps arrange homestays for all the "out-of-town" Volunteers. About half the Volunteers who showed up got to stay at the homes of various expatriates. The other half were put up in two large houses a short walk from the softball fields. This was great because it meant no one had to find a hotel during WAIST.

The PC countries represented at the tournament included Senegal, Mali, and The Gambia. There was also a "refugee" team made up of Volunteers that had been evacuated from Mauritania and Guinea that are now serving in one of the other countries mentioned. A small group from Benin also came to watch.

When we weren't playing softball, people hung out at the pool or went exploring in Dakar. Several people ended up coming to the conclusion that if Dakar were a beer, it would be more like "Africa Lite" than anything else. I felt like I was in the US. Nice stores. Big buildings. Western restaurants. A fancy ice cream shop that would have no problem competing with Cold Stone in the US.

One day I went to Goree Island. It's an old colonial remnant that has a fort that used to be used in the slave trade. Very cool place. If you're ever in Dakar, go there. My last night in Dakar I went to a place called the Almadies for sea food. It's the farthest point in continental Africa. Not super-awesome, but while eating dinner the ocean swells were so large that they were washing up onto the patio of the restaurant I was at and began washing chairs and tables back out to sea. That was interesting.

The was a lot of stuff to like about Dakar. Fresh fruit stands everywhere. Clementines. Mellon. Bananas. Apples. Etc. Better organized boutiques. Decent transportation system and road conditions.

WAIST (pt 4) - The Gambia

While at WAIST I stayed in one of the PC Senegal houses with about 30 other Volunteers, some of which were from The Gambia. When I mentioned that I was thinking about going to The Gambia after WAIST for a few days they mentioned that they had some extra seats open on the bus they had chartered back to Banjul. One thing led to another and a whole bunch of Mali Volunteers ended up in The Gambia for a few days, myself included.

Most Mali Volunteers ended up staying at a PC transit house in Banjul, but I was in a group of four that stayed at a Gambia Volunteer's house. It was great. She took us all over the Banjul area. We went to the beach, fish market, and an old growth forest that has wild monkeys that will come right up to you. We also went to a toga party, ate at a nice restaurant, and cooked for ourselves a few nights.

Some things to note about the Banjul area are as follows. There is one kind of beer in The Gambia: Julbrew. The supermarkets are better than those in Mali, but not as nice as Dakar. One supermarket is actually called "Safeway", but I don't think there is a connection with the US chain. Since it was colonized by the British, everything in The Gambia is in English! I had the best burger yet in West Africa in Banjul. There is a mini-mart in Banjul that the Gambian Volunteers call "Wal-Mart" because it sells all American goods. Ironically they use Wal-Mart bags, but most of the stuff they sell is actually from Aldi. Most of the touristy stuff and everything I have just mentioned are not found in Banjul, but in the area immediately to the west, called Kombo.

One of my favorite things to see was a restaurant we went to that had a balcony overlooking the fish market. It was the definition of kitsch. Not a single inch of wall space was left un-occupied. Fountains. Giant wooden sculptures. Christmas lights. Large mirrors. You could even buy a lot of what was on the walls. It put places like Applebee's to shame. None of it followed any particular theme.

The beaches were fantastic. Lots of clean sand. Warm water. Only problem was the presence of several dozen "bumpsters". These are young men in their late teens, early twenties that are essentially gigolos. They run up and down the beach and solicit the tourist women. Usually they come up and try talking to women, but sometimes they'll just stop near you and start doing push-ups or something masculine...

Our PC Gambia host liked to joke that the Volunteers unofficial motto is "PC Gambia, where change is a problem". This is meant to play off the fact that no one is ever able to make change for purchases. It's also an interesting parody off of Obama's campaign slogan... "Change we can believe in".

WAIST (pt 5) - The Return

When it came time to say goodbye to The Gambia I had several days of travel ahead of me. Most of the Volunteers from Mali that went to Banjul chose to retrace their steps through most of Senegal in order to get home. The group of four that I was part of decided to go "up country" through all of The Gambia, then up through the back half of Senegal to Tambacounda where we got back on the main road to Bamako.

We set out from Banjul at 6 am with two Gambia Volunteers who were going back to their sites up country. We got on the ferry in Banjul and crossed to the north side of the Gambia River where we hired a "sept-place" (seven seater station wagon) to take us to Basse, the a main town on the eastern end of the country. We lucked out and got a really nice car. Most sept-places in West Africa have been operating about 10 years longer than is physically possible. They truly are a modern marvel.

We left the north bank relatively quickly and drove up country for about six hours to Basse. Along the way we passed through about twenty police check points, which in my point is utterly ridiculous. About 45 minutes before our final destination we had to cross back to the south bank of the river. Here the river was much narrower and the ferry much less sophisticated. So basic in fact, that we actually had to pull the ferry across the river by hand with a steel cable. The "ferry" was basically a large pontoon that could carry two cars. In Basse we had dinner and stayed the night at a PC transit house.

The next morning we were up at 7 am and in a crappy, old sept-place by 8 am. We drove for about an hour before reaching the Gambia/Senegal border. Here, again, we had to get out passport stamped to leave and enter. All the locals had their bags searched for drugs at the Senegal post. The white people were apparently carrying invisible "we don't need to be searched" cards that we weren't aware of.

(Exhibit A: A typcial sept-place)

Now in Senegal, we had to change sept-places in Velingara. We ran into a bit of trouble when the guy in charge of the car tried to charge us a huge amount of money for each of our bags and wouldn't budge on the price. Then, amazingly, an English speaking Gambian that we had never talked to before (and was in our car) came to our rescue and got in the car drivers face, laid down the law and got us a fair price for our baggage. It was sweet. Our next stop was Tambacounda. You'll remember this is where the bus had been robbed on our way to Dakar.

When we got into town we told our driver we wanted to go to the bus station that would take us to Kayes (in Mali). He didn't know where it was, so he pulled off on the main road next to a taxi and let us out. We told the taxi driver the same thing and negotiated a price. The car started taking us back the way we had come. Then it turned and we started running parallel to where we had been dropped off. Then the car turned again and we came out exactly where we had been picked up. The car went about 200 ft down the road to the exact spot where the bus had previously been robbed. The taxi driver had played us for out-of-towners. What the crap!

We tried shaming the guy by telling all the people at the shops along the road what had happened. They all just kind of shrugged... Apparently they all knew the driver. Also, we had not been dropped off at a bus station, but rather a gas station. This was somewhat troubling, but some guys said they would get a bus for us. This might sound weird, but it happens everywhere in West Africa, so we weren't worried.

The remainder of this section is scripted out, or it would be very confusing...

Us: We want a bus to Kayes.
Guys: Ok. There is a bus to Kayes in an hour or a bus direct to Bamako in five hours.
Us: We want the bus to Kayes. No, Bamako. No Kayes.
Guys: Ok. While you wait, come to our friends house. The taxi will take you there and back and only charge for the return trip.
Us: Sounds shady. No thanks. We'll eat lunch here and wait.

...a bit later.

Us: Where's the bus?
Guys: Down the road a bit. The taxi will take you. The only want one million dollars to take you a few blocks.
Us: Thanks. We'll walk.
Guys: Ok. We'll show you the way.

...walk a little bit. Arrive at someone's house.

Guys: Ok. Have a seat.
Us: Where's the bus. It's supposed to leave in ten minutes.
Guys: The ticket guy is coming. Have a seat.
Us: Where is the mother-f-ing bus?
Ticket Guy: You want tickets?
Us: Yes. But where is the bus. Its supposed to leave in less than five minutes.
Ticket Guy: It's coming. It will be here in four hours.
Us: Four hours? The bus to Kayes? It leaves now.
Ticket Guy: These are tickets for the bus to Bamako. It goes through Kayes though.
Us: We're outa here!

...walk to the main road. Guys follow us.

Guys: Come this way. The buses are over here.

...we follow, quite annoyed. We come to a bus that we had passed on our way to the random dude's house.

Us: Does this bus go to Kayes?
Bus Driver: It goes to the border. We leave in five minutes.
Us: Good enough. We'll get something else there. (We just wanted to leave Tambacounda at this point)
Bus Driver: It's 5000 CFA per person for this bus.
Us: The ticket sign next to you says it's 2500 CFA per person.
Bus Driver: Not for you.
Us: Horse apples! Cows dung! Bull shit it does!

...after much protesting.

Bus Driver: 2500 per person.
Us: That's what we thought!
Luggage Guys: It's 500 CFA per bag
First group of Guys that brought us to the bus: It's 1000 CFA per bag!
Us: It's 500 CFA for all the bags put together!!!! Gaaaah!

When we finally got on the bus we were so furious we could hardly speak. We just wanted to be moving. We kept looking out the windows to make sure our bags had actually been loaded on the bus. We had survived being ripped off by a taxi, a run-around by some dudes who just wanted to hang out with white people for an afternoon, a bus driver who tried to rip us off, luggage handlers who tried to get money out of us, and the malice of the first group of guys who tried to get the baggage price even higher in order to collect a "finders fee" for brining us to the bus in the first place.

Evidently fate had gotten wind of our good fortune from the morning in Velingara and sought to even things out in the afternoon.

We made it to Kayes that night without much more trouble, spent the night in Kayes and made it to Bamako the following evening where more fun was in store.

WAIST (pt 6) - Back in Bamako

When making it down the home stretch to Bamako someone called us and said there was trouble in the city and that we should be careful when we arrived. Apparently that afternoon a sotrama (bus) driver was shot and killed at a gendarme checkpoint in the city when his vehicle was stopped and he tried to flee. This upset the other taxi and sotrama drivers in the city and they started to strike. The reason we were called is that apparently a Volunteer had been in a taxi that was stopped and he was removed from the taxi by angry demonstrators. (He was fine.) We ended up having a PC car come get us at the bus station to avoid any potential problems because it was dark when we got into town. We stayed at the PC transit house in Bamako that night.

The next morning I tried to get back to Segou with a few other people. We couldn't find taxis hardly anywhere, and the ones that did stop for us would not cross the river to the other side of town where all the bus stations to Segou are located. We went to the PC bureau to see what was going on and got some not-so-good news. We were told that no taxis were crossing the river. Most taxis and sotramas were striking to demonstrate "solidarity" for the driver that was killed. Some taxis that were striking were preventing large buses from leaving the city by blocking the roads at the edge of town. Some PC staff members had seen people throwing rocks and police using tear gas. I personally had seen a truck full of police in full riot gear with face masks, body armor, and shields the night before.

Since a decent amount of people wanted to leave the city, our safety and security officer got a PC van to take a handful of people, including myself, to the edge of town to try to find a bus leaving the city. No luck. In fact, it ended up becoming a rescue mission of sorts. Several PCVs had been near the bus stations that morning and got on buses that were eventually stopped at the edge of town by the protesters. They were stranded out there with no way to get back in town. We went and got them. One of the guys said people had stopped his bus by running alongside it, opening the luggage bays, and pulling out baggage. They almost started throwing rocks at the bus. He said he could also see char marks on the pavement where people had previously been burning things in the street. Obviously not the best situation ever.

So, we concluded that we would just have to wait out the strike in Bamako. No one knew when it would be over. I might only last a day. Might be a few. Who knew... The worst part is that it meant that we could go to the American Club, have burgers and cold sodas, go swimming, and watch movies. We were roughing it for sure. The strike ended that night and I was in Segou the next day by lunch time.

At this point I better clear up a few things for all the mothers out there who are by now pulling their hair out. Yes, there was a strike. Yes, someone died. Yes, there was civil unrest for about 36 hours. However, the incident was limited to only a few areas in Bamako and only concerned public transportation. People in private vehicles were left alone. Probably the biggest problem was that since no one was able to leave the city via public transport (what most Malians use), all the hotels filled up, so the city had a little less elbow room than usual. The areas where people were causing trouble were well known and easily avoided, so Volunteers were not in danger and the PC staff did what it could to ensure Volunteer safety. When I was in the PC car that day I went through most of the city and didn't see problems anywhere I went, but I did see a lot of extra police out, which indicated that the local government was taking steps to handle the situation. Everything is now back to normal.