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.