Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Serious Town Meeting

I had my third wat/san committee meeting today. It was definitely the most substantial, but at the same time I also found it to be full of oddities. On paper an American would think the first and second meeting to be highly productive and meaningful (and they were, somewhat). But in a Malian village context, meeting number three has been the real "fish head in the bowl of peanut sauce" so to speak. Here's what I mean:

Meeting 1: About 50 people show up including the village chief, the council of elders, the imam, several men and women from each section of the village, and even a few folks from another community down the road. We talked about what the new committee would do and discussed the need for a list of names of people from every "quartier" to serve officially on the committee. Pretty nice right? Big turnout. Made some progress for a first meeting... on paper.

Meeting 2: About 1/4 of the people named to serve on the committee show up. Not a big deal as I understand it is farming time and people have work to do. A bunch of others show up though. We discuss changing out meeting venue to a different location to help facilitate future training sessions. We also go over how to treat drinking water with bleach and get a little distracted about pump problems, which was a topic scheduled for the following week.

Meeting 3: By far the lowest turnout of all the meetings. Maybe 15 people total. We were at out new venue, an adult training center build by the regional agriculture extension agency, which is hardly ever used. It's a one room school house complete with a chalk board and desks! And no one bothered to tell me about this virtually unused resource until about two weeks ago!

When I arrived to set up for the meeting I find that a team of laborers was using the building as their sleeping quarters while they were building a kindergarten & playground next door.

Aside: I'm a bit flabbergasted. I live in a village in the po-dunk middle of nowhere. The main form of transportation is ox cart. Several dozen kids a year die from easily preventable diseases such as diarrhea. Milk is a luxury. There is no running water or electricity. Despite the presence of a school most residents can't read... yet some NGO has decided that what the village really needs is a playground. Seriously?

We gently moved the workers things to the side and clean the place up for the meeting. We wait for about 30 minutes for everyone to show up. Then, suddenly my counterpart gets up and actually starts leading the meeting. Usually when it comes to this sort of thing he wants me, the guy who no one can understand, to lead. But no, he takes charge and we actually got things accomplished, albeit nothing I had scheduled for the day. The meeting went something like this:

"Alright. It's our third meeting. We're having trouble getting people to show up, we haven't picked officers or assigned committee jobs to anyone yet and we're not going to get anywhere if we keep having meetings and just wait for the day when everyone finally decides to show up."

"So. Who's gonna be president? How about you Bakoray? Everyone okay with Bakoray being president?" (Quiet mumbling) (Sure.) "Okay. Bakoray is president. Now who's gonna be vice president. They'll be in charge if Bakoray can't be here... and it has to be a woman. Anyone opposed to Mbai being VP?" (Quiet mumbling) (Sure) "Okay. Mbai is VP."

And so it went.
Secretary - person who writes things down
Treasurers - people who count the money
Town Criers - the person who makes talk
Auditors/Fee Collectors - people who test the treasurers
Pump Monitors - people who guard the pumps

When it came time to pick the pump monitors we first put forth names and then someone suggested that these people should be folks that actually use the pumps regularly. So then we went back and edited our list.Then we talked about what the monitors would do to protect the pumps. Things to look out for included:
-Kids trying to see how hard they can slam the pump lever
-People washing clothes or dishes at the pump (Don't wash your dirty laundry in public they cried)
- People bathing at the pumps (Again, keep your dirt at home people!)

(And yes, I see all of these often)

At this point the meeting had gone for an hour and a half and it was about lunch time. We dismissed for the week with the homework assignment of getting those who were absent to show up next time. I say meeting number 3 was the best because we actually got something meaningful accomplished. It was led by a local in a local context, and done in a way that everyone understood what their job was.

Negative Nancy

(written 11-11-10)
Today marks a 10th consecutive day at site. Ever since getting back from the US I've been in a rather chipper mood and have found myself in an uncharacteristically optimistic attitude regarding my current situation. However, I think this run of positiveness is finally beginning to fizzle... something, to be honest, that I'm not too broken up about given my identity as a pessimist. One of the many things I've discovered in PC is that after 10 days at site I "hit the wall" so to speak. I'm ready to go back to the warm embrace of Segou... if for no reason other than it's possible to get a salad almost any time of the year.
So. In any case. I'm at day 10. I'm losing my optimism. This is how my day has gone thus far (it's about 2 pm)...

Last night we had a noticeable dip in temperature to officially kick off cold season. It was down in the upper 70's and I was told a few dozen people in village just about froze to death in their houses despite sweatshirts, parkas (yes, parkas), and blankets. Meanwhile I spent the night comfortably outside with nothing but a t-shirt and pajama pants and a table cloth. (What? You were expecting a cashmere wool comforter? I'm in PC.) I slept wonderfully... until 4:30 am when the call to prayer of air-raid siren loudness went off as it does every morning...
I went back to sleep until 6:30 am, when the cooking and baby crying noises coming from next door were too much to ignore. I breakfasted on cornflakes with warm powdered milk and a cup of "Liption"... which you should never confuse here with "tea". Pas la même chose I tell you!

Anyway, at 7 a woman politely invited herself into my front yard to ask for some bleach. At least she asked instead of telling me to give her some, but as I was feeling miserly this morning I told her to go buy her own bleach. After reminding me how poor she was I went back inside and resumed listening to the BBC.

After the BBC I got dressed for the day, brushed my teeth ("Lipton" will stain your chompers kids), cut myself while shaving, and then left the house. On the short trip from my house to the butiki (50 meters) I discovered termites had decided to take up residence in the wall of my latrine. I also saw a little girl peeing in the middle of the street and I almost got run over by one of the many young men around here who choose to ride their motorcycles without actually paying attention to where they are going.

At the butiki (50 meters later) I got the morning greetings and hand shakes out of the way and helped myself to a bowl of peanuts. As I was munching away I noticed a little boy to my left about 4 or 5 years old trying to play "paper shredder" with an old cigarette package and a discarded razor blade. Nothing to worry about there... Then one of the sheep from next door wandered over and helped itself to the bowl of peanuts before being shooed off. Oh, those sheep. A bit later I noticed an empty plastic tube that said "effervescent codine". I asked the shop keeper what the stuff was (even though I knew) and he said it was medicine for malaria. I guess you could use codine to relieve the fever or splitting headaches that can come from malaria... but it certainly won't cure you... But hey, at least you don't need a prescription for it in Mali even though it said right on the packaging in big, bold letters "by prescription only".

Later on I decided to take in some dusty air from a different part of town, so I went for a walk to my buddy Sala's butiki. There I ran into my counterpart as he was toying with a fluorescent light fixture powered off a car battery. I hadn't seen one in village before, so I asked what the fixture was called. The response I got was "ampule" as he pointed to the bulb. "Yes", I said, "But what is that?", pointing to the actual fixture. "Ampule", he said. "But there are two things and they aren't the same", I said. "Well, it's all 'ampule'", he said. Now I'm trying to figure out how you would explain changing an "ampule" in an "ampule"...

After my counterpart left another guy showed up that I've seen before, but I have no idea what his name is. He asked me how my American friend is and when he is coming to village. I had no idea what he was talking about as I've never mentioned a friend coming to visit. To solve this riddle I tried to get some more specific information. "Who?" "What's his name?" Unidentified villager's response: "You know. Your American friend." Oh. Well that clears that up. For a second there I wasn't sure if he was talking about the only other person in America that I happen to know, or another Volunteer. After several long seconds with a dumbfounded look on my face the conversation took a different direction.

...Which is when a woman showed up at the butiki and exclaimed, "Ah! The Tubab speaks Bambara!" and then right in front of me she turns to Sala the butiki owner and asks, "What's his name?". Ok. Seriously? I've been in Koila for 14 months now. I'm the only white guy. How haven't you learned my name yet? And how exactly do you think I've gotten by thus far in a community that only speaks Bambara? Come on woman! Use that gray mass between your ears that Allah gave you! The worst part is... I get this from someone probably every other day! Still!

After that I resigned myself to going back home to get some work done, but not before buying one of several kinds of "biskiti". They don't have names, one is jut more expensive than the other, so you say the price you want. I''d be like going to the bakery to buy a donut, but instead of saying "I'd like a honey-glazed", you simply say "Donut. Seventy-nine cents". Sometimes I'm amazed that I can communicate here at all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monetary Musings

(Written 11-11-10)
It's a little less than a week until what I consider to be the Islamic equivalent of what Christmas is for Christians... What is known as Seliba (big prayer) here. I personally haven't been very preoccupied with it because I've actually been "working" lately, but "Seli" is being referred to more and more as the day approaches. As I believe I've mentioned in previous posts, one of the main things you do for Seliba is buy a big male sheep and eat it. Sheep are to Seliba what turkeys are to Thanksgiving.

But Seliba isn't what I want to bring up. I want to highlight something near and dear to the hearts of most Americans... something according to Malians we white people (stereotype) have in great abundance... Money! And I want to begin with my conclusion... That compared to the world I'm presently living in, yes, Americans generally do have money coming out of their ears, noses, and places the sun doesn't manage to find regularly. Sure, we Americans have all heard this before, but I'm under the impression that it doesn't truly resonate. In fact, I'm certain that after you read this it still probably won't. I mean, it's taken me 16 months of being here to realize what I'm about to say. Ok. Here goes.

Some general base facts first. The majority of Malians survive on subsistence agriculture. They grow their own food, raise their own animals for food and labor, and sell what they can to have some source of monetary income. I believe the AVERAGE farming household rakes in a whopping $250 a year (don't quote me on that). Not month. YEAR. Less than a dollar a day. The majority of that money comes all at one time when crops are sold. And that's for the family. Not the individual. Ok. $250. Remember that.

Now let's switch gears to something near and dear to my heart as a civil engineer / water sanitation extension agent / whatever I am in PC. Pump repair! I've been trying to stress for a year now the importance of maintaining the pumps in my village to the residents. This means collecting user fees to fix the pumps when they break or wear down... Which does happen because the kids beat the snot out of them. By my calculations each of the four most commonly used pumps in village need repairs ranging from $100 -150 immediately and $200 -300 for long term use. That's anywhere from half to a full years total income for a household to fix each pump. Think about that in US terms.

At present I'm doing some prep work in Kolomy for the projects I want to do next year. We want to build two new wells there because Kolomy only has one, yes one, functioning water source during the hot season for the whole village (~ 700 people). Kolomy has two pumps that are currently broken. In a setup meeting I had there the other day I told the village leaders they need to get at least one of the pumps working again before we start construction on these new wells because I am concerned that the combined demand of an entire village's water needs AND the amount of water that is required to mix and cure concrete for the new wells will cause the one functioning well to go dry, which would leave the village with a total of zero water sources during hot season.

I estimated that the cheaper of the two pumps to fix would cost about $120... which comes out to a per household contribution of about $1. After doing this very simple math on my very sophisticated looking calculator one old man at the meeting cried out "One dollar! That's impossible!", whereas other people in attendance didn't seem to be so shocked.

Now, like most Americans, $1 doesn't seem like hardly anything. In fact, to me, this man's outburst translated as "One two-hundred-fiftieth of my annual income! Never!", which seemed rather silly to me. It felt like he was just trying to put up an artificial tantrum to make the white guy feel bad so he would give the village an even bigger hand-out. But then I got back to Koila and had several conversations with people about Seliba and how they are unable to buy a sheep this year. A sheep after all goes for about $50 - 60, which is an enormous sum for a family only pulling in $250/yr. This made me realize that here, in Koila, $1 really is a lot of money.

When you start adding everything up, that $250 has to buy everyone in the family clothes, shoes, school supplies, cooking supplies, food, tools, medicines, and take care of things like taxes and land lease agreements for using farm land. And when you think about a Malian household... A husband, one or two or three wives, five or six kids... suddenly $1 is a considerable amount of cash.

The other day I took my laundry over to the neighbors to be washed and apparently left a 1000 CFA note ($2) in one of my pants pockets. My neighbor's wife found it while washing the pants and put the money aside, intending to give it to me when she returned my clothes, but somehow lost it. My neighbor said she was so upset that she cried for much of that evening thinking that I would be very, very mad with her because of the loss of so much money. That's how valuable $1 is here... and I just shrugged it off thinking "I've got plenty more of those back at the house." To me, that in essence sums up the American and Malian view of money in relative quantities.

Of Water, Mud, & Fate

I'm gearing up for my final "push" in PC. My last project . It won't begin until next February or March, but planning must happen now in order to secure project funds and to make sure that my villagers get all their ducks in a row. I assure you the former is infinitely more simply than the latter.

I'm happy to say that despite all of the frustration that plagued me last year during my well project the overall result was a resounding success. Surrounding villages are now requesting me to come build wells in their communities and the lessons learned last year are now serving to make me better prepared for this upcoming project.

What is this project you ask? Well, as of this moment it looks like I'm going to make an attempt at building four wells and 25 latrines. All in about three months. This might not seem like a lot to the average, industrious American, but consider that each of the wells I built last year took over three weeks to construct... and these new wells will be deeper and in more difficult soil conditions. And, on top of the wells, 25 latrines is nothing to sneeze at. I figure if we end up doing all the work that has been proposed I will be employing two masons on an almost continuous basis for 90 days. This is not common where I'm at. By the end we will have cast over 4,300 concrete bricks by hand, moved over 55 cubic meters of gravel over 12 km with nothing but donkey and ox carts, and dug up over 80 cubic meters of earth with nothing but shovels, picks, and buckets. If those units don't mean anything to you... it's a lot. Especially when you consider none of the work is being done with mechanized equipment. It's like my own little version of building a pyramid or something.


I think it's also worth while to provide some more commentary on water availability in my area. My village, Koila, seems to have found itself in an area of Mali with an uncharacteristically high groundwater table. In wet season water is only about 2 meters below the surface. In hot season 5 or 6 meters. On top of that, the soil is sandy clay or loamy clay, so it is very stable when you are digging a well. People can dig wells quickly and easily and only have to include a thing concrete lining to shore up the walls of the well in many places. The result: there is a well in roughly 75% of the 250 household compounds in Koila.

The situation in Koila, however, is in stark contrast to the realities in villages just down the road. In Kolomy, water is at a depth of 15 meters in hot season. That's three times what it is in Koila. That translates into three times as much time, money, and effort into building one well. In another village, Chanty Were ("where-eh"), you have to dig down 8 meters and the soil is sandy and unstable. This translates to a slower, more rugged construction process that also means a much higher cost per well. These higher costs mean fewer water sources have been developed in those villages, and therefore people have to go much further every day to collect water. In Chanty Were there are four wells and one pump for roughly 600 people. My guess is Koila has about 200 wells and 6 pumps for about 2500 people. Who has more access to water? You do the math...


Something I also found amusing is that Kolomy is getting two new pumps. That in itself isn't noteworthy, but I find the situation to be of interest and yet another example of how ridiculous things can be here at times. For starters, let me point out that Kolomy already has two pumps. Both are broken. The village is responsible for repairing these pumps and at present hasn't done anything with them for some time. Now an NGO (name unknown to the villagers) has sent a drilling team to the village to put in two new pumps in other sections of the community. This confounds me. Why would an NGO decide to give new pumps to a village if that community is presently demonstrating that it is incapable of taking care of the ones it is now responsible for? Would it not make more sense to first organize the village and get it's members to maintain it's own infrastructure first, not to mention make sure the community knows what NGO you are?...

The thing is though, I see this all the time. I'd venture to say about 50% of the time my inquiries into who funded/built something is usually answered with "?". (Granted, it is hard to keep up with all the names given the number of NGOs operating here.) I find that the only reason a name is put forth the other 50% of the time is that someone had the brilliant idea to leave a sign behind to remind everyone who was responsible.

The most amusing part about the Kolomy pump story thus far, however, is that the drilling team has been trying to cover a distance of approximately 10 km for the last 4 days and has failed in epic fashion. I was returning to Koila from my market town the other day and ran into a caravan of 5 vehicles, including a drill rig on the road past my village on it's way to Kolomy. They had totally obstructed the one lane road and were just getting the drill rig free from a deep, muddy pot hole when I pulled up. I followed the trucks as far as Koila and watched them attempt to continue on to Kolomy. Apparently they got close enough to see Kolomy's school (where one of the pumps is being put) before having to turn around because the road (more like a path between millet fields) was too muddy. The caravan thus turned around and spent the night in Koila.

The next day they got up and decided on a different, much longer route to Kolomy that followed "better" roads, but would first take them through Babugu, Sama, Dioro, and Tibi before finally getting to Kolomy... A journey of about 35 km. However, somewhere between Koila and Babugu the main drill rig again got stuck in mud, but this time they couldn't get it free. This now meant that a large tractor, bull dozer, or other large and typically unavailable machine would need to be brought in to get the drill rig free. Two days later it still wasn't free. Talk about a delay. And to think... they could see the drill site at one point before having to turn back.