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.