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.