Monday, February 28, 2011

Less Than Exciting

I'm in Bamako for a few days to get some paperwork done and to do a one day training module on hand-drilling boreholes for water wells. So far I've used my time effectively by going to the bar, paying the PC medical officer a visit to poop in a cup, having a conversation with a staff person in which I failed to find any logic, and watching two documentaries that recently came out. "Gasland" and "Restrepo". The first is about the terrible detrimental effects gas exploration is having on the environment in the US. The second is about a platoon of US soldiers that were deployed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, said to be one of the most deadly places on earth.

As you can imagine, neither of these documentaries do much to create a mood of happiness and joy. Rather, they are much the opposite, and present a message of how ridiculous and terrible humanity can be sometimes. It got me to thinking about my present situation and the world in general.

Let's start with sugar. It's something most people in the past few hundred years have come to enjoy, and the story is no different in Mali. In fact, sugar is actually produced in Mali. You can take a drive a little over an hour north of my village and find yourself in massive sugar cane fields, which is a little weird when you first see it after seeing much of the rest of the region. Anyways, the point I'm trying to make is that up until fairly recently, even though sugar was literally produced just up the road from me, all the sugar sold in my village (a lot btw) actually came from other African countries or continents (Brazil mostly). This was because the imported sugar was actually selling at a lower price, and this would still probably be the case if merchants and other interests in Mali hadn't finally sat down and discussed that it might make sense for the country to consume something it was producing itself rather than have it shipped over from South America. Something about that just doesn't seem right. I know it all comes down to economics, etc., but still... And the thing is stuff like this is happening all over the world with lots of different things (mostly commodities).

Moving on... how about foreign aid. I have to be honest, but as an aid worker myself, I'm really starting to loose faith in the system. We in the West are so caught up with having measurable results and concrete examples of work done that I think we've lost focus. We now go for what looks good, not what is actually doing any good. What do I mean? Every project funding proposal or report I've had to fill out here always asks in meticulous detail how many kids, women, men, community leaders, goats, etc. that my work is engaging. Yes, it's good to have statistics and keep track of things, but I think all aid organizations really care about saying these days is things like, "We've distributed 100,000 mosquito nets in the past 5 years" or "We've educated over 50,000 women on the importance of early childhood nutrition". Yeah, they want to help people, but it's also about who has the biggest bragging rights. I'd like to know how many of those mosquito nets are actually being used and how many mothers actually make any serious attempt to provide their children with more nutritious meals. It seems that once the aid is distributed, the organization responsible feels their work is done, and doesn't pay much attention to the aid's actual effectiveness or retention.

A perfect example... A major NGO in my area recently built a new road to connect several villages in order to improve transportation of goods and to link up several health clinics that they've built in recent years. At several points along the road there are culverts or paved depressions for water to cross over or under the road during rainy season to prevent the road from washing away. They also planted thousands of trees along the road so that eventually they will provide shade and a wind break. Since then several people have thought it would be a good idea to intentionally drive their ox carts over all the trees, repeatedly, which are now obviously destroyed. And, no one uses the culverts or paved depressions. They literally drive off the road and go around them. I find that fabulous. And as a side note icing on the cake... all the health clinics are supplied with a product called Plumpy Nut, which is intended to be distributed for free as a dietary supplement for severely malnourished children, but at least in my village the doctors don't distribute it and eat it themselves... but I'm willing to guess the clinic's supply inventory simply shows that the product is being consumed, which of course to the funding agency means that they've just helped X number of malnourished children.

I'll even take a turn to be critical of myself. I was recently talking with one of my sisters who inquired what exactly I was up to these days in village. I explained that I am building several wells and two dozen latrines, both of which are lined with concrete bricks to keep them from collapsing. My sister then asked if this is work that will be continued once I am gone. I unfortunately had to admit that I don't think so. It's not because the villagers I am working with don't see the merit of lining a latrine or well with concrete so it doesn't collapse on them... they just don't see any value in prioritizing how they spend, or more importantly save what little money they are able to earn. The result is that most likely no one in village will utilize the construction techniques I am introducing simply because they will never save up enough money to do it themselves. I am essentially teaching people how to fish who never have any intention of buying a fishing pole. But at least the kinds of structures I am building will have a significant impact on the community for the next decade or so, which is a bit of a consolation.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm more mad at myself...

The epic saga of work in village continues. Last year at this time I built a soak pit (small drain field) which epically failed, and so, not to be outdone by hardpan Malian clay, I soldiered on and built a much bigger, more expensive, "stick that in you pipe and smoke it" soak pit that is lined with bricks and is essentially way over done. I figured my work there was complete, but fate had another idea and decided to clog the pipe leading from the water source (a pump) to the pit with small bits of straw that are presently blowing all over village. My solution to this problem was to cover the inlet of the pipe with a wire screen... but it just got clogged with animal hair. Things at this point were starting to get a bit ridiculous.

So... my latest solution to the infiltration dilemma was to construct a settling chamber that would be all at once straw proof, animal hair proof, and child proof. In order to make such a chamber, I enlisted the help of the guy who is supposed to be in charge of the pump. On Friday I asked him what day we could do the improvements. He said, "Monday morning at 8 am". I said, "OK". Sunday night I double checked with him and confirmed Monday morning at 8 am. His reply was in the affirmative. Monday morning at 7:55 am I arrive at his house so we can get work started only to be informed that he had gone to Segou for the day. I don't know why I didn't just plan for this to happen because it seems to occur every time I try to schedule anything. I'm not so much mad at the guy as disappointed in myself for not having figured out this little Malian cultural quirk by now.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

S is for SIDA

This past week a bunch of Volunteers and I from the Segou region jumped in a mini-bus and took a 5 hour ride to a fellow Volunteer's site in Dogofry, north of Segou. She had organized an AIDS awareness bike tour and asked other Volunteers to come up and help spread the good news about a terrible disease.

An AIDS awareness bike tour works exactly how you would imagine it to. A bunch of people jump on bikes and ride around to different villages and talk to people about sex, condoms, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome... or SIDA as it's known in French.

Ok. It's actually a bit more elaborate than than. Here's how ours worked. The bike tour lasted four days. Each day our group of nine Volunteers visited three different villages. We biked to each location, with most villages typically being three or four kilometers apart from each other. To help facilitate communication a DJ (and his sound equipment) came along. We also had a health extension agent (doctor-ish person) who explained what AIDS was, an actual doctor who tested people for HIV, and a Volunteer counterpart. (All people involved were Malian except the Volunteers.)

For each village our small parade of 10 bikes, 2 motorcycles, and a hand tractor and cart laden with sound equipment and mobile medical unit (a Coleman tent) would roll in and draw as much attention as possible. After setting up the sound equipment and med tent the DJ would blast music and some of the Volunteers would get up and start dancing, which had the effect of getting even more people's attention. After a decent crowd was formed the presentation would begin. We all introduced ourselves and then the extension agent would ramble on and on and on about what AIDS is and how people get it. Then there would be a small break with music where Volunteers would dance again to entertain the crowd. Then the counterpart would do a small skit demonstrating how AIDS "sickness" affects a person's immune system. Then more dancing and a song in the local language which had a chorus that simply repeated the words "SIDA sickness is bad" over and over and over. Then a question and answer time. Then we would pack up and leave. The whole time people who wanted to be tested for HIV could do so at the med tent.

I think over 200 people ended up getting tested for HIV and only one person came up positive. Not exactly numbers indicative of the "AIDS epidemic" that is supposedly ravaging Africa, but then you have to take into consideration that Mali does not have a terribly high incidence of AIDS and the area where we did the testing is fairly rural and not near a major transportation route (although one is being built in the area right now). So, its not surprising that we didn't find a lot of cases, which is something to be thankful for, and hopefully with a better understanding of the disease people in the area will be able to prevent it from becoming a major health problem.


I thought I would also share some observations we made while on the tour that most people found rather funny.

As most people know, the first rule about sound equipment is that you never put a microphone in front of a giant speaker. And the second rule is much the same... you never put a microphone in front of a giant speaker. So imagine our amusement (and frustration) when every time our "professional" DJ set up his sound equipment he insisted on placing his massive speakers about 15 meters apart, facing each other, with his mixing station and microphone directly in between. The result was feedback so terrible it would have made any amateur sound person in the US seem like a triple Ph.D in electrical and acoustical engineering. And of course any suggestion from we, the foreigners, went unheeded because why would we know more than the "professionals" who do this kind of thing for a living?

As most people who have been to a developing country know, most unwanted clothing from developed countries usually go to places like Mali to end their days. And for whatever reason, a lot of old clothing from the US in particular makes it to Mali. At one of the villages on the tour there was a woman wearing a black t-shirt that had the words "F*** & Forget" in giant pink lettering on the front. We all thought that rather ironic given the topic of the presentation. Equally as funny was that the woman and everyone around her had no idea what the t-shirt said since no one understands English, but would probably have been just as offended by the shirt's message as when the extension agent showed a condom to one of the villages we visited..