Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Celebration, A Farewell, and A Pig Roast

The last few days have been the end of an era in PC Mali. Two third-year Volunteers (Kyle and Mary) are finishing up their last days of service this week, so to celebrate their successes and departure we've had a few things scheduled the last few days. The main event was the opening of the school at Mary's site that they both have been working on for the past few years. They invited all the other Volunteers in the Segou area to come and party at Mary's site for an afternoon with the rest of her village. But before I jump right into that, let me go back a bit and give some background details.

Kyle and Mary both came to Mali over three years ago. Kyle actually got here several months before Mary, but had to go back to the US for a while after breaking his leg soon after arriving... yet he came back. They ended up being placed about 20 km apart and got to know eachother fairly well during the first year of their service while doing projects at their own sites. Then somehow they got this crazy idea to build a school at Mary's site, and an entirely new kind of PC experience began for them both. They initially planned on having the school designed and built by the end of their two year service commitment, but after countless delays, miscommunications, unkept promises, lack of local government support, and challenges in acquiring funds they have had to stay in Mali for over three years to see the successful completion of the school.

To celebrate, Kyle and Mary and about a dozen other Volunteers jumped in a minibus and set out on a Sunday morning for Tongo, Mary's village, for an afternoon celebration with her village to officially open the new school... despite the fact that it's still being painted and the mayor's office hasn't purchased desks yet. Mary wasn't expecting a large turnout... Maybe her counterpart, some village elders, and the mayor of the local government district.

As our minibus rumbled down the red gravel road into Tongo we were met with an amazing surprise. Hundreds of children and every man and woman of Tongo were lining the road up to the school along with the mayor, a rep from the governors office, dozens of people from other villages, education officials from Segou, and anyone else who had gotten word of the celebration that day. As Kyle and Mary got out of the minibus they were met with the hundreds of children chanting "Bashi-ba, Mali, Bashi-ba, Mali", and a 12-shotgun salute from the local bush hunters. (Bashi-ba being Mary's Malian name.) There was singing and dancing and speeches and picture-taking and lunch. The chief even donated a whole cow to be slaughtered which is a pretty big deal. It was a truly wonderful way for a Volunteer to close out their service and say goodbye to their community.

And to celebrate Kyle and Mary's last days in Segou we had a pig roast (one of Kyle's favorite things to do). It was truly a team effort that took much of the day. Various people were sent throughout the city to buy a pig, lots of charcoal, rebar and chicken wire for a grill, ingredients for bbq sauce, sodas and other drinks, and food for other dishes including baked mac & cheese, deviled eggs, tortilla chips & salsa, and Funfetti cake. As these supplies slowly trickled in other people were put in charge of building a fire pit and grill rack, roasting the pig, making the food, washing dishes, watching movies, eating the food, and fixing the sink in the kitchen that got clogged.

We had wanted to roast the pig with an apple in it's mouth, but it apparently died with a last wish to have a mouth that refused to open. After several hours of contemplation over a bed of hot coals the pig was ready for the dissection table. After cooling down a bit, half a dozen Volunteers gathered around the kitchen table that had been covered with a black plastic sheet and ceremoniously and unmercilessly ripped the pig limb from limb in an effort to extract every piece of delicious, juicy meat from the corpse. All the heat from the fire had loosened up muscles in the head, so after it was removed from the spinal column... and after the tongue had been pushed to the side, we finally got the apple in the mouth! Now, several hours later, after everyone has consumed more food than is healthy in a day, it is dark as we all sit and try to digest the day's plunder and the kitchen table has been left outside as a greasy mess piled with bones, pig fat, and a head with an apple stuffed in it's mouth like some kind of ripened ovary gag. I'm sure when the night guard shows up to keep us all safe he's going to wonder if he shouldn't have come sooner...

Kyle and Mary are the last people to be leaving Segou this year. We've already seen the departure of several others including Megan, Monica, Markham, and Therese. They will all be terribly missed. A new chapter in my PC experience has now begun as I have become an "upperclassmen" of sorts. It feels funny. But regardless of titles, I still have to get up in the morning and clean up the fire pit and figure out what to do with the pig head...

MALI: Mystical Amazing Land of the Inscrutable

Another Volunteer mentioned the other day that Malians know about things like mermaids, vampires, etc. To verify this I recently asked my village counterpart if there were any magical beings in Mali. His response was an emphatic "yes". Apparently there are a whole host of spirits wandering around as well as mermaids, vampires, and leprechauns. (I have a feeling these concepts are still strongly tied to remnants of animist beliefs that are still widely prevalent here.)

So... spirits. I've been told they're all over and you typically can't see them, but if you see a small whirlwind... that's actually a spirit making it's way through the neighborhood. A lot of times they will "possess" people or try to scare people.

Evidently mermaids aren't the friendly, topless half woman / half fish creatures that Walt Disney would have us believe. Depending on who you ask they live in rivers, oceans, and possibly even ponds or wells. They're quite unfriendly when it comes to humans and are known for taking away people's air while they're swimming, which leads to drowning. My counterpart says its very dangerous to swim in bigs rivers or oceans as that's where most mermaids are. Apparently these harpy-fish never went on play dates with Ariel.

The vampires in Mali do not originate from Transylvania. Rather, they come from the Sikasso region of Mali and northern Côte d'Ivoire, which is where, I've been told, they prefer to stay. (Don't worry mom, I'm not at risk of attack by vampires in my current location.) They tend to stay in trees and will descend down on people and then kill them and drink their blood. Not entirely sure if they can change into bats or not. People don't know a ton about them in Segou since they're not up here.

Leprechauns seem to be the worst of the bunch, and the most understood in my corner of the country. They're really short, have dark skin, beards, may have backwards feet, and can't really be seen by people. They only come out at night and love to jump out and bash people on the head as they travel on roads. And... if you are lucky enough to catch one they will give you lots and lots of things and lots of money. My counterpart says he's seen one or two before and knows someone who caught one once and now is really rich. He also refuses to leave village at night and has forbidden me from traveling on the road to my market town once it's dark out.

I've explained to my counterpart that I think he's totally full of crap and that these "beings" only exist because he thinks they do. His response was to say that the Volunteer who lived in my village in 2006 went up to Bankass once and while there another Volunteer and a bunch of other people saw a giant spirit on the road that was scaring the tô right out of people. "So there!" he declared. My retort was that in America lots and lot of people swim in the ocean every day and we haven't found any mermaids yet, nor has anyone drowned as a result of a mermaid... to which my counterpart replied, "How is that possible?!"

So, either spirits, mermaids, vampires, and leprechauns don't exist, or they are just as geographically uninformed as most Malians and haven't figured out how to get to America yet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Complex Answers to a Common Question

I'm sitting in Terminal 2E at the Paris - Charles de Gaulle airport right now, trying to distract myself so the eight hour layover doesn't take so long on my way back to Mali. There are some American girls to my right who appear to be in college. One is wearing a bright yellow shirt and those black spandex pants that make any woman's features appear favorable. To my left there's an assorted mix of Africans who I presume are on their way to Togo based on the destination displayed on the screen for Gate 42. I'm in for an exciting day of people watching as there are two international flights scheduled to depart from my gate before my own. And there's no use trying to sleep for any of those eight hours thanks to the combination of the PA system going off every ten minutes giving the same security alert and the fact that whatever interior designer chose the seating accommodations for this terminal managed to pick chairs that are anything but a pleasant sitting experience.

And can I just take a moment before I get to the real topic of the entry to mention one of my airport pet peeves? Ok. So you know when you go to the airport and you're by yourself and you're not exactly interested in sitting next to a bunch of strangers. You've got a long wait before your flight because you got to the airport early or you have a layover and all you are interested in doing is finding a quiet place to sit and be by yourself for a while before you are herded back on a plane and stuffed in a seat in between a bunch of people you've never met before... who may possibly carry an odor based on the culture they come from. You pick a spot that is sufficiently far away from the next waiting passenger and get comfortable. You're happy. Then some guy walks up and sits down right next to you even though there are literally hundreds of other seats to choose from, and he's listening to an Ipod with the volume turned up so loud that you have no trouble hearing his music over whatever you happen to be listening to on your own Ipod. I HATE THAT!!! Seriously dude, take a different seat on our otherwise entirely unoccupied row and leave me alone!

(Hey, what do you know. That guy must have read my mind. He just got up and went to go board the plane to Togo. Excellent.)

Ok. So the reason I'm in CDG is I'm on my way back to Mali after two weeks back in America. I hadn't planned on going back to the US while in PC, but my sister had a baby and I figured it would be nice to be around for the arrival of my parents first grandchild. My sister also had the amazing foresight to schedule her baby's due date around the time of my own birthday, which also happens to be my favorite time of year... Fall. When all the trees have decided to get dressed up and look decent for once. I got to see parents, siblings, in-laws, grandparents, friends, professors, and the family dog. It was great.

However, one thing that everyone asked me (with the dog as an exception) was what is something that I like/enjoy about Mali. That should be a pretty simple question to answer, yet I had great difficulty with it. In fact, at first I really didn't have an answer. My reply was: "nothing". Sure, that's not entirely true, but nothing seemed to jump out at me. And while I felt like that was (and is) my truthful answer, I didn't like giving it. It made me feel like a downer. An un-happy person. I felt like I was telling people that I was living in a situation without any enjoyment. And now, after two weeks in the US and an eight hour plane ride, I think I have a better answer. Although, it's still not all sunshine and rainbows.

So, what do I like about Mali? That is a simple question with a complicated answer. From the things I've experienced across Mali as a whole (so far) some of the things I like include: bogolan (mud cloth), traditional music (djembes, balafons, and STRING INSTRUMENT), and the incredible friendliness of the people. However, I rarely ever experience the first two things things. There are no artisans in my village, so there's no bogolan, and people don't know how to play musical instruments let alone make them or have money to buy them. What I'm saying is the things I like most about Mali are the exceptions to what is normal about my Mali experience. Most of what I encounter on a daily basis may be amusing at times, but mostly I'm indifferent to it.

I can't really say I like the food. Most Americans I know don't particularly enjoy eating bird seed (millet), and rice and peanut sauce is alright, but not if you eat it for dinner every night of the year. The cloth used for traditional clothing is neat, but I'd never wear a traditional Malian outfit. I am not a fan of the hot, flat Sahel. They don't play any traditional music on the radio near my village (only bad pop music that uses the same drum machine beat for every song). The mint tea is pretty good, but I don't drink it because the water is contaminated. Etc, etc, etc. These are the realities of everyday life for me. I don't dislike them, but I don't necessarily enjoy them either. Much of what is around me simply "is", and that's where I leave it.

And let me also say that I haven't seen the things that most tourists come to see in Mali: Dogon country and the elephants in Hombori (and to a much lesser extent the Hippos in Manatali). I'm sure once I've had a chance to experience some of those things I'll have formulated a different answer to the question in question.