Adventures in Mali!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

Before I left for Mali, I heard Peace Corps described as “the toughest job you’ll ever love”. Boy is that true. From language barriers to cultural differences to being a replacement volunteer to staring starvation in the face to feeling completely inept and useless to loneliness and homesickness to anemia, giardia and heat rash, the last two years have been far from easy. But, I gradually came to love Kourouma and saying goodbye this past Friday was also far from easy.

The last few weeks at site just flew by. I had so much to do – baby weighings, giving away lots of random things, saying goodbye, etc. Unfortunately rain kind of affected my leaving and saying goodbye to everyone. We had a party planned for last Tuesday night. There was going to be food in the late afternoon, and representatives from all ten villages in the commune were going to gather at the Mayor’s office to eat together and give the Mayor a chance to explain that my two years were up. Well, this is rainy season. At about 4 pm I went to my homologue’s concession to see how the food preparation was going. They already had a huge pot of sauce and a smaller pot of vegetables cooking outside over a fire. I was only there for about a minute though when it just started pouring. I honestly have not seen a rain as big as the one that came that Tuesday. My homologue and some of her friends who had come over to help cook put the rice in the sauce, even though it was raining. By the time the food was ready and the rains had slowed down, half of the village was flooded. So there was no way that the meeting at the Mayor’s and the dance party could happen. No one from any outside village would have been able to travel. We still divided up the food among the Mayor’s concession, Doctor’s office and Village Chief’s concession and moved the dance party to Wednesday night. Well, what do ya know, Wednesday night it poured again! I was beginning to think that Allah just didn’t want me to have a going away party. On Thursday I was pretty stressed because it was my last full day in Kourouma. That morning I hung out with Ninon and Zeini, the two Foh teachers who helped me paint the World Map. They had come to Kourouma to drink tea and chat for a few hours before I had to leave. They also gave me a chicken as a parting gift. That afternoon I spent several hours at Maminatta’s house to see her family and this friend of the family’s who had come from another village just to see me off. I was so nervous that it was going to rain again, but the sky stayed clear and that night we were able to have the party. The instrument played was called the “dununba” which is basically just a giant drum. There was one guy who held that drum, along with several other guys who played smaller percussion instruments. There were also two women who sang. It was a typical Malian dance, with a number of people forming a circle in the center. I danced for one song which lasted about 10 minutes. It was fun because by the time the song was over, there were probably about 70 people in the circle. Unfortunately we weren’t able to have a meeting at the Mayor’s office, as the food had already been cooked on Tuesday and people were a bit unsure of the schedule of events. As a result of that, there were quite a few people, especially from out of town, but some older folks in Kourouma as well, whom I didn’t get to say goodbye to. About half-way through the dance though, Solika and I went to the center of the circle and gave a speech about my leaving, and I was able to give lots of blessings and say thanks to Kourouma as a whole as well as some individuals. By midnight I was exhausted and went on home, in order to wake up before 6 am and finish packing. Friday morning, I had been up for about 5 minutes when some people started stopping by to greet. First to come by were Maminatta’s husband, Madou, and his friend Amadou, on their way to the fields. When they started giving blessings, I just couldn’t help but start crying. Malians are really uncomfortable about crying though and so these two men awkwardly stood up to leave. After they were gone, this kid Brehima, who is about twelve years old, came by. I had given him a straw hat the day before, and he was wearing it when he came to greet me on his way to the fields. He said that my leaving was really not good with him. He said that he had not been able to sleep the night before because he had been thinking about me leaving. And then he gave me a bag of peanuts. Of course that set me off again! Over the course of the morning, many other people came by to say goodbye, several others setting me off again, and all of them just telling me to not cry, which doesn’t help. Several other people came with small gifts as well, all of which were really meaningful. One lady came by with two giant bushels of onions. I ended up being honest and saying that I couldn’t take them on the plane with me; so she took them back and gave me a few coins instead! A neighbor teacher, Diamouthene, brought me mud-cloth hat which was made in his hometown. He said to give it to my mom. Another woman gave me some fabric of this year’s September 22 Malian Independence Day. And my favorite gift: Maminatta and her husband gave me a copy of Thomasi’s birth certificate to give to his namesake! I ended up riding my bike one last time to the main road, and four other people came on two motorcycles with all of my luggage. It started raining again as soon as I had left Kourouma, and by the time I got to the main road, I was soaking wet and covered in mud. It took about two hours for a bus to come by but luckily the sun came out. Solika, Maminatta and her little Thomasi had come on one moto to see me off and they waited with me until the bus came. When the bus came, we had to run to haul all of my stuff on top and I was only able to say quick goodbyes. Driving away was certainly surreal. Even now, I don’t know if it’s hit me that I won’t be going back to Kourouma (at least not for several years).

I have slowly been coming up with a list of parts of Mali that I will miss. This is in random order and I know I’m forgetting some things, but here it is nevertheless:

-The sky – extraordinary sunrises, sunsets and starry nights
-kids both screaming my name out of sheer joy and running in terror
-friendliness of the people, including five minute long greetings with folks you barely know
-Senoufo and Bambara
-my favorite Malian foods: dege, basii, and rice with peanut butter sauce
-getting so much reading done (86 books and a gazillion sudoku puzzles)
-tea sessions
-sights, sounds and smells of market
-walking down a road and seeing cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens and guinea fowl all together
-balafons, kora, gita and dununba instruments
-joking cousins and bean jokes
-being in an animist village with cool fetishes
-30 cent avocados
-the expressions “Ehh Allah!” and “de!”
-being around so many cute babies all the time
-seeing outrageous clothing that the owner can’t understand: I once saw a shirt that read “Girls Gone Wild Film Crew” and another shirt with a girl’s face that said Christina Aguilera underneath – except the face wasn’t Christina Aguilera’s; bright sparkly hats and other 80’s clothing worn by young adult males
-freshly boiled cows milk with a spoonful of sugar
-going to greet for a couple hours and coming home with tons of onions and more peanuts than could feed a herd of elephants
-Dege-making sessions with Maminatta
-Beautiful fabrics and clothing – colorful basin complets for women and boubous for men
-being able to wear flip-flops year round
-other PCV’s: Mexican nights; movie marathons; true appreciation of a good cold “Flag” beer; occasional splurges on $5 hamburgers topped with egg, fries, mayo and ketchup; people who are going through the exact same thing as you and with whom you can relate
-the sound of women susu’ing (pounding with mortar and pestle) at daybreak
-having 30 kids come by at once to greet (and then promptly chasing them out – my limit is about 5 at a time)
-Djenebou: a little girl obsessed with collecting trash. She would bring me buckets of water in exchange for old bottles. She would ask just about every day if I had any new bottles. For the entire first year I thought she was incredibly annoying. After a while though I came to respect her persistence!
-eating with hands out of a communal bowl (except for spaghetti which is never easy to eat, even with fork and knife)
-going to sleep by 9:30 pm
-my Malian name, Awa (which means Eve) and nickname, Gafu
-one’s trash is another’s treasure: being able to give away broken flip-flops, old cardboard boxes, Newsweek magazines, etc.
-little Oumou and “B”: the two severely malnourished girls with whom I worked with the most. By the time I left, they were no longer in the red or severely malnourished zone (although they were still scared of me). If I had even a tiny bit to do with their weight gain, that makes my entire service worthwhile.
-old men and women who give ten blessings in a row and some of whom still go out into the fields every day
-shooting stars just about every night as I fell asleep under my mosquito net tent
-kids yelling “bon-SOIR Toubabou” at 9 am
-the people of Kourouma: especially Maminatta, Kalilou and Solika

For those who continued to read my blog up ‘til now: Thank you! I really appreciated the comments and I’m glad I could share part of my experience with you. Now I’m off to Egypt for three weeks before heading home to North Carolina, just in time for beautiful fall weather!


Monday, August 3, 2009

My pet hedgehog

Well, another month past. I celebrated my 24th birthday on July 9th in Kourouma. I know many reading this will roll their eyes, but turning 24 was quite scary! For some reason it just feels much older than 23. One reason for my fears may be due to Malians constantly telling me that I'm old and should be married with kids by now! Alas. I had an easy-going birthday. I invited Solika, Kalilu, and Nyiere over for banana cake after dinner. That morning though, Solika said that we should have chicken at the party. I said that I would give him money for it if he would buy and prepare it. Surprisingly he agreed, and at 8 pm he showed up at my house with a chicken. I thought there was no way he'd have it ready in time for us to eat that night, but he slit the throat, heated water to pluck it, plucked it in literally 3 minutes, pulled out a super sharp knife and had it perfectly chopped up in about 2 minutes and had it cooking with onions and garlic in another five. It was delicious! Kalilu, Nyiere and Bakary, a boy who always walks me home after dinner at my Homologue's house, were also there and we ate and paid tribute to Michael Jackson by listening to some of his greatest hits off of my mp3 player. Just goes to show; Malian men can cook, they just don't.

I had a pet for four days this past month - a hedgehog! After vaccinations in this other village, Solika and I went to greet his girlfriend's family. The father pointed out a hedgehog skin drying on a post. Apparently, a mama hedgehog was walking through the concession one night with her baby walking behind her. Some kids killed her to eat, leaving the baby. The skin was hers, and the father went to get the baby to show me. I held it but it was curled up in a tiny ball because it was scared. The family said that I should take it home to raise, so we got a plastic baggie, poked some holes in the side, and put the hedgehog (I named him Sidiki) inside for the ride back to Kourouma. When we got to my village, I put Sidiki in a big wash basin with some millet and crushed peanuts. He got used to me and would crawl around on my arm, but I became bored with him pretty quickly. Unless you're a masochist, hedgehogs aren't exactly good pets for cuddling. After a few days, I gave him to this little boy, Jean, who really wanted to raise him. The next morning, Jean came to my house and said that Sidiki had escaped from the box that they had put him in. I thought it was probably better, since Sidiki wasn't very happy living in captivity. About a week ago though, Jean came to my house again and said that he saw Sidiki again - he hadn't even left the concession. I asked if he had taken him and let him loose in the fields, and Jean said no. I'll let you guess what Jean did with Sidiki instead.

The last week in July was spent working on a World Map in Foh, a village on the main road about 18 km from Kourouma. As Foh is part of the Kourouma commune, the school director, Zeini Traore, saw the World Map that I did last year and had been asking me for about a year if I could come do one in his village. I went for 9 days total and got some good biking in going to and from Kourouma. It's a good thing that I got so much biking in because Zeini and this other teacher who helped out a ton with the map, Ninon Traore, fed me well! Rice with good sauce and meat pretty much every day; peanuts and hard-boiled guinea fowl eggs for snacks; cold soft drinks and hibiscus juice; enough cups of Malian tea to put me in sugar shock. After learning that I drink beer, they even bought me a beer two different days! One day, we had a pre-lunch snack of goat meat. I was full and offered the last piece to Zeini. Ninon, a big, jovial guy said "No! You need to eat it so that when you go back to Ameriki, people will say, 'Eh, Awa, you got fat!'".

Rainy season is in full-swing. While I'm glad that it's not as hot, there are several downsides to rainy season. One: mangoes are finished, and I can't express how sad I am. Two: clothes take forever to dry. I washed a bunch of t-shirts the other day and hung them out to dry. About an hour later, a pre-rain wind storm came and blew them off the line into the dirt. After cleaning them yet again, I put them inside to dry which took two days due to the humidity. Three: pretty much everyone is out in the fields all day every day, so it's really hard to greet. On Friday morning, I didn't have anything to do and decided to walk around town. I went to a couple of concessions and was able to say hello to a bunch of women who were on their way out to the fields. I finally decided to go to a concession where this old man lives, because he is blind and thus surely would be home. I got to his house and what do you know, he was out in the fields! Apparently he just knows the earth so well that even though he can't see, he can feel what needs to be weeded and what needs to stay. Amazing!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Abdoulaye Obama

I've had a lot of small, random experiences throughout the last month, some of which I'll describe now. First of all, the soak pit project is complete! We had enough money left to build a well soak pit, which is much more work than nyegen soak pits because the amount of water is so much greater. The pipe needs to be much longer, the pit itself needs to be about four times larger than nyegen pits, and a sediment basin needs to be dug in order to catch excess mud and keep it from filling the main pit too soon. The well soak pit was supposed to be completely constructed while I was at COS conference in Bamako, because as soon as rainy season begins, everyone will be in the fields all day every day and won't have time for other work. Unfortunately the concession where we were to build the pit took forever digging the hole and didn't finish getting rock to fill it until last Saturday, well into June. Last year, rainy season was already in full swing by the end of May, but it was late this year. We began constructing the pit last Sunday and finished Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday morning, the first big rains came and by Friday, farming had begun. We finished the soak pit just in the nick of time!

The school year is officially over. The sixth and ninth graders each have big exams at the end of the year, passing into 2nd cycle school and lycee, respectively. The sixth graders had their exam at the end of May. The week of their exam, I painted a large map of Mali on one of the school walls, across from last years World Map. Three other volunteers came to Kourouma to help, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Turns out that on the sixth grade exam, the students were presented with a blank map of Mali and had to fill in the major regions and rivers. I saw one of the teachers afterwards and he said that apparently, a couple of students were struggling on that section of the exam - so they walked outside, looked at the freshly painted Mali map, and returned to the test! I couldn't believe it. So glad that my work here is helping some Malian students cheat!

Speaking of the school, my teacher friend, Amadou Cisse, is now a father. His fiance just gave birth to a baby boy in Sikasso. Now, Amadou is the guy who is completely obsessed with President Obama. What is his son's full name? Abdoulaye Obama Cisse! When he first told me, I assumed that the Obama was an unofficial nick-name. But later Amadou came over to show me the official birth certificate. And sure enough, Abdoulaye Obama! I had heard that President Obama has lots of namesakes being born throughout Africa, but I hadn't seen it first-hand yet.

A few weeks ago, I returned home after dinner at my Homologue's house to find a black, lobster-sized scorpion in front of my front door. At first I thought it was just a plastic toy, set out as a cruel joke. Then I remembered that there is no Toys-R-Us in Kourouma where kids can stock up on the latest gag gifts. I hesitated for a moment, contemplating a course of action. I didn't want to try and kill it with my flimsy flip-flops, but the scorpion was blocking the entrance to my house where I could have gotten a sturdier smashing device. Finally I just decided to get my neighbors, who came over and beat it to death with a stick. They said that the big ones like that don't kill people or anything if they sting, it just hurts. Their reassurances unfortunately were not enough to keep me from fretting all night about scorpions getting under my mosquito net tent and stinging me to death!

While things have been going really well in Kourouma, there is never an absence of frustration. About a month ago, I went to visit little Oumou, the severely malnourished girl who never got breast milk because her mother is a student in Sikasso and after giving birth, left Oumou in the care of her grandmother. As I was talking with the grandmother, Fatima, she told me that Oumou's mother, Selimatou, recently had another baby! The father of this baby is different than Oumou's father, but is from Kourouma as well. Shortly before I spoke with Fatima, Selimatou had brought the new baby to Kourouma, left it with the father's family and returned to Sikasso. When I heard this, I was livid. The irresponsibility and immaturity of Selimatou (and both of the fathers) is dumb-founding. Now she will have not just one, but two daughters who could have but will not have received breast milk. I went to visit the new baby a few days after the conversation with Fatima, and while she's doing okay, the father is spending a lot of money on expensive milk powder. The father's mother, who is the primary caretaker, is very stressed out, having a newborn to care for all of a sudden. Oumou is now walking and has gotten a few teeth, but she isn't talking yet, is over two years old and pretty much refuses to be held by anyone but Fatima (she is absolutely terrified of me).

A few weeks ago, I was walking home in the late afternoon and passed Nyiere, a guy who works at the CSCOM. He asked if I was going to get water. I said yes and then asked if he wanted to help. He jokingly said, "oh yeah, bring two buckets and I'll carry one". So I did. When he saw me approaching with the extra bucket, he burst out laughing, but when I thrust it into his hands and made him walk to the pump, he became visibly more and more embarrassed. He did end up carrying the water all the way to my house (amid laughter by some kids playing soccer) and then quickly put it down and literally ran away so I wouldn't make him get more. Since then, when I've asked if he wants to help get water, he replies with a quick and firm "no". It was really funny, but also kind of sad. Men simply refuse to do simple chores here, because it's the woman's job, case closed. People still comment on my dad going to get water when he was in Kourouma, and that was almost a year ago!
Well, I guess that's about it. Good luck to Emma and Alex who are being sworn-in as Ukrainian Peace Corps volunteers on Thursday!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Soak pits galore!

April was spent planning for and beginning construction of over 100 soak pits throughout the 10 villages of the Kourouma commune. A soak pit is basically a big hole in the ground, filled with sand, gravel and rock, with a pipe entering it from the water source. In our pits, the pipe led out from nyegens. The idea of soak pits is to reduce the amount of standing water, and thus decrease the number of mosquito breeding places which will decrease the risk of malaria. Soak pits also eliminate the smell that comes from the pools of standing water. For anyone who donated money to help buy the materials, thank you! Another idea for this project was simply to introduce the idea of soak pits as an easy way to eliminate standing water. In my village, I had to buy more piping because so many people wanted a soak pit after we built the first ten! I got to make several trips to Sikasso and my market town to buy supplies. One day, I had a rice sack with 170 meters of black plastic inside strapped on to my bike. Another day I rode with 12, one-meter long PVC pipes. Despite the cumbersome loads, having all that stuff on my bike made me feel like a true Malian. I'm ready now for a basket full of goats or sheep to strap on!

The Ciwaara, or dancing bush, fetish came out a couple of weeks ago, which I always love watching. One of my friends came from Sikasso to see the fetish, and I think that having two toubabs caused quite a stir. The tallest fetish chased after us a number of times, and even though I know it won't hurt me, being chased by a 7-foot tall bush-like creature is slightly frightening nonetheless!

On the night of April 27th, I had a birthday party for my mom with several teacher and CSCOM friends. Back in January, I happened to mention to this silly guy who works at the CSCOM, named Nyiere, that my mother's birthday was the 28th. He got really excited and said that when the time rolled around, we'd have a party for her. I thought that he would forget, but about a month beforehand he brought it up again, and continued to talk about it every day after that. Of course he wanted food, and not just any food, but meat, and of course since he is a male, he can't help cook it; so at about 7 pm, his girlfriend and one of her friends came over and we made spaghetti in meat and tomato sauce. The meat took forever to cook, and we didn't finish completely until 10pm. We took the food over to some other teachers' house and ate and listened to music (Akon and Michael Jackson). I was a bit annoyed with the whole food situation, but it turned out to be fun. Nyiere and this teacher who we call Cisse sang a very interesting version of Happy Birthday, which I was able to capture on my camera. We also took about 30 other random pictures, on of which is below.

I had a conversation about arranged marriages with Maminatta the other day. She herself did not want to marry her husband. She wanted to marry a Bamako guy, but once her family decided that she would marry her current husband, there was nothing she could do about it. Her old sister, Awa, has a 13 year old daughter. Awa's family had planned to marry her off to a concession across town, but the head of that concession, who is probably around 70 years old, does not want her to marry one of his sons. He himself wants to marry her! Of course I was very disturbed by that, and asked if Awa, the mother, agrees with that. Maminatta said that whether Awa agrees or not won't make a difference, because Awa's husband has agreed to the arrangement. He is the head of the family; therefore it is his decision.

We were busy with baby weighings toward the end of April. In one village, Zagneguebougou, I weighed a 2 year old girl who was only 5 kilos, or about 10 pounds. I told the mom that she needed to take her to the CSCOM, but I figured she wouldn't. Lo and behold though, a few days later, the woman and daughter, along with the father, stopped by my house on their way to the CSCOM. They were able to get some extra advice from the doctor, along with some multivitamins and other substances to help her grow a bit. I was really happy that the woman listened to me and that they took the time to come to Kourouma. I told the father several specific calorie-dense foods to give her occasionally, and he genuinely seemed like he was going to heed my advice.

That's what I've been up to in Kourouma (that and devouring the entire Twilight series - yeah, I know I'm not 12 years old. The books are addicting). This past week was our COS (Close of Service) conference in Bamako. It was good to see the folks who I came to Mali with (52 out of about 81 are still here), although I also had to go ahead and say goodbye to some folks as well. My COS date is August 27th. It's hard to believe that I only have three months left in Mali. Time flies!

Friday, March 27, 2009

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

I have yet to get past page one of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for the past six months. The first sentence rings true though in Kourouma right now. It is the best of times because…mangoes are here! My impatient waiting for the last few months has finally come to an end. Unfortunately however; with mangoes come the worst of times: hot season. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that there are beads of sweat covering my face from 8 am to 8 pm and it is steadily in the 90’s.

I am in Sikasso after spending over four weeks at site. The reason I stayed in Kourouma for so long was so that I could do a HEARTH, a twelve-day program with women who have malnourished babies. There were twelve women and babies in this HEARTH. We came together every day to prepare an ameliorated porridge together, to then divide and feed to the kids, and discuss different health topics, such as the food groups, weaning, diarrhea, malaria, and family planning. The women themselves provided corn, peanut, soybean, millet and rice powder, and we also added Moringa tree powder every day, along with bananas, mango or papaya almost every day. The idea for ameliorated porridge is to include all three food groups (here we emphasize only three: protection foods such as fruits and veggies, construction foods such as protein and dairy, and energy foods, mostly carbs) and use local ingredients so that the women will hopefully continue to make ameliorated porridge even after HEARTH is over. I weighed the babies on the first and last days, and while there were a few who didn’t gain weight, no one lost weight. Despite attendance issues (on average about eight women showed up each day) and time (we were to meet at 2 o’clock each day but usually didn’t start until 4) I am overall very pleased with how HEARTH turned out. Hopefully the women now understand the importance of ameliorated porridge in getting a variety of nutrients into their babies, and now are more educated on different health topics. For me personally, it was great to get to know a group of women whom previously I recognized through baby weighings but wasn’t on a first-name basis with.

One piece of exciting news is that Maminatta had a baby boy on March 18th. I was honestly very worried about her pregnancy because she already has a herd of kids and her youngest, Sanata is only a year and a half old and underweight (she’s not walking on her own yet). Now that she’s had the baby though, I think things will be okay. And guess who the baby is named after – my dad! After she delivered, I asked how they would name the baby (a couple of her kids were named by the Imam and other kids were named after family members). She said that her husband’s older brother who is chief of their concession would pick out the name. She said the baby might be named Lamine, after her husband’s father who just died two weeks ago. Then she said that if that didn’t happen, I could think of a Christian name for him. I said that I would have to think of some names, and she said, “Well what’s your old man’s name?” I said Thomas and she said, “Thomasi Traore – that sounds pretty good.” Almost everyone I know with a Christian name has an “i” at the end, for example Moniqui and Ivertti. So Maminatta asked her husband who asked his older brother and there is now the first Thomasi in Kourouma and probably all of Mali. I feel honored that she would think to name the baby after my family.

There have been several deaths and thus plenty of greeting to do. In early February I greeted at a Sarakati (held seven days after the person dies) for an old Muslim man who owned a butiki that is right across the street from my homologue’s house. I got there at about 8 am and sat on a mat with some other women. The men were clustered together in another part of the concession. We sat for about forty-five minutes; some women chatting, others silent. At one point a man walked around with an offering basket for people to make small gifts, and later on women walked through passing out hard candies. Communal bowls of rice and sauce were also dispersed, but I followed some people and got up to leave as rice and sauce early in the morning wasn’t very appealing to me.

I wrote earlier that Maminatta’s father-in-law, Lamine, died a few weeks ago. He was Animist, so funeral greetings were slightly different. He died on a Wednesday afternoon and beginning Thursday morning, men from the concession began playing traditional instruments such as drums and a guitar-like instrument. I went to greet at noon and there was a line of people slowly dancing in an area next to the concession, led by the musicians who were wearing mud cloth outfits. Towards the back of the line were Lamine’s daughters, their clothing covered in mud. I asked Maminatta why they were covered in mud, but she just said that it was tradition for the daughters of a deceased Animist male to cover their clothes in mud. The line of people entered the concession, where the musicians stopped to play for a group of old men. They took a brief break and then continued playing music and dancing until late afternoon.

A few weeks ago a young pregnant woman came to the CSCOM from another village. When I saw her she was clearly in severe pain with malaria. She was put in a bed and attached to an IV. That afternoon, when I walked into the CSCOM concession to get water, I was surprised to see about twenty old men sitting on mats next to the pharmacy and in another cluster, a group of old women. I asked around and learned that the pregnant woman had died and a group of men had already taken her to the edge of village to bury her. Some women placed buckets filled with water outside of the CSCOM so that the men returning from the burial could wash their hands. I sat for a few minutes, offered blessings, then got my water and went home. As soon as I got home, a wind storm blew up. I stood in my kitchen, watching the CSCOM entrance through the crack between the wall and door. Pretty soon, a group of men returned from the burial site, and I could just make out their outlines as they struggled to walk through the heavy winds. As I was watching them bend down to wash their hands, I wondered if the woman’s husband was among them; the man I had given a blessing to that very morning, that his wife and unborn child would get better. Tragic deaths like that are so common in Mali that they’re not even a huge deal. It’s amazing to think of differences like that between here and the US.

After all this writing of death, I shall finish with a more humorous story. There isn’t a lot that shocks me anymore in Mali, but a few weeks ago I saw something that I just couldn’t get over. I was hanging out with this funny old woman named Ma, who likes to annoy me by only speaking in Senoufo when she knows perfectly well that I can’t understand. At one point, this little girl named Biba, who is about five years old, walked up. She was crying softly and Ma called her over. She hugged Biba to her and Biba leaned her head against Ma’s chest. Slowly, Biba reached her hand down Ma’s shirt collar, pulled out a sagging (milk less) breast, and proceeded to suck/chew on the nipple for about five minutes. Now I’ve seen babies or toddlers suck on a grandmother’s breast before, but never a child as old as Biba. I asked Biba if she wasn’t old, and Ma just laughed, pulling out her other breast and explaining that there was indeed, no breast milk there!

I hope everyone is happy and content in the US of A. I want to send a shout out to Emma and Alex who are about to depart for Peace Corps Ukraine - please keep our mother in your prayers that she doesn't have a nervous breakdown what with all of her kids out of the country at the same time! Also, GO HEELS - sweet 16 woo!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


It’s 10 am in Sikasso, and I’m still cold! For the past three weeks, I’ve been wearing long skirts at site, sleeping under a wool blanket and heating my bath water. Every evening at my homologue’s house, we gather around a small bonfire. I have a clock in my house that measures temperature - it usually reads in the low 70’s, which isn’t that cold, but is certainly not hot. I love it!

I’ve just spent two and a half weeks at site, after my long vacation to the States. Going back to Kourouma after such a long time wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. Yes, a lot of people told me I’d been gone for a long time, yes some people told me I’d gained weight, but other people told me that my skin looked really good which was a nice compliment. There was of course lots of news to catch up on, mostly deaths. One old man who had died was the chief of one of the major fetishes, the Waara fetish. Forty days after a person dies, there is an event called a Sarakabo, where community members gather in the concession of the deceased in order to greet their family. For this man’s Sarakabo, the Waara fetish was out the entire day. At around 1 am on the morning of the event, I heard gunshots, drums and singing which lasted until late morning. The fetish came out again in the afternoon and stayed out until evening. After dinner, my homologue and I walked over to watch. I’d seen the Waara fetish several times before, but it never ceases to hold my attention. There were a bunch of women and men dancing in a circle. Some of the men were wearing the traditional outfit of white shorts and no shirts. Many were holding burning branches. My homologue had her six month old baby strapped to her back, and at one point when a guy holding a bunch of burning sticks started walking toward us, she turned around and sprinted fifty yards down the road. It was one of the funniest things I’d seen in a long time.

There was another Sarakabo which took place for a young woman who had died of malaria. I didn’t know her, but am friends with her father and a couple of other people in her concession. When I went to greet her father, he and about seven other old men were sitting in a room. They offered me millet beer and were just hanging out. A couple men had spools of cotton and were sewing shirts. A couple men were trimming branches to weave into mats, and a couple men were sleeping. After I left the concession, I went over to Maminatta’s to hang out with her. I told her about cremation and she was shocked. The thought that someone would have their body burned was just inconceivable to her. In Kourouma, if someone dies, they are wrapped in white and buried immediately. There is no viewing. Visitation occurs immediately after the death and later at the Sarakabo. We also got on the subject of suicide. Maminatta was also interested to learn about this, and then told me that in Mali, if an old man or woman dies, and one of their children is extremely unhappy; they can ask the dead parent to kill them, and then they’ll die as well.

A few days after getting back to site, I went to visit another friend whose name is also Maminatta. She had a little girl, Wassa, who was about a year and a half old. Wassa was underweight and had attended a porridge-making session last Spring. When I got to Maminatta’s, I casually asked how Wassa was doing. Maminatta hesitated and said that Wassa had left. Not really thinking, I asked where she had gone. Maminatta said that she had died. Apparently she had malaria, although I’m sure the fact that she was malnourished didn’t help. Although Wassa was scared of me and wouldn’t let me hold her, I knew her well, and so her death was harder to hear about than any other child’s deaths that I’ve heard about since coming to Mali.
I spent one week at the school, wrapping up HIV/AIDS animations. I want to turn my focus now to family planning, as teen pregnancy is a major problem in the commune. One day, I had started speaking with one of the 7th grade classes but they would not settle down and listen. The 2nd cycle school director walked in holding a rubber strap. I thought he was just going to threaten the students, but he walked over to a boy and gave him a quick swat on the head. Then he turned to a girl who was talking and smacked her one, two, three times on the back with the strap. Some of the kids around her were kind of smiling and laughing, so I thought it must not hurt that bad, but when I looked at the girl, she had tears running down her face. So yes, there are a few differences in school discipline between the United States and Mali.

There are a couple of young teachers in Kourouma who are huge fans of Barack Obama. Anyone who regularly listens to the radio knows who Obama is, but these two men absolutely love him. I gave each of them an Obama sticker to put on their motorcycles, and an Obama/Biden poster to hang in their house. They were really excited about these gifts. On January 20th, as I was returning to my house from the water pump, I heard “Awa” and then “O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A” and turned to see one of the teachers, Amadou, looking over his concession wall and pumping his fist in the air. I went over and he and the other teacher, Coulibably, were listening to the inauguration ceremony on the radio. They switched it to an English station so I could listen for a few minutes. I know there are some concerns about the pressure that people in African countries may place on Obama, but the enthusiasm of these two men was fun to see nonetheless!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Here’s looking at you, kid.

I like the movie Casablanca, but after spending fifteen hours in the city I can safely say that I will never live there! It’s a fairly clean city with little trash, and it’s located right on the Atlantic coast, with a beautiful beach. The second largest mosque in the world (next to Mecca in Saudi Arabia) is there and it is stunning with doors and other decorations made from tiny, colorful mosaic tiles. There are many patisseries and shops, reminding me of Paris. The traditional Moroccan food that I tried was also very tasty. But then there was the traffic. I thought Bamako traffic was bad – not compared to Casablanca. There are a gazillion cars on the road, all rushing and never really paying attention. I have never been more scared for my life!

Overall my day in Casablanca was good. I was there on layover from New York to Bamako (I spent three weeks in North Carolina for the Christmas season). On the flight, I was sitting next to a Moroccan woman named Souad who had lived in South Carolina for ten years but was going home to spend three weeks with her family. When she heard that I had a fifteen hour layover in Casablanca, she basically took me under her wing and suggested that I go home with her. We met her parents and two siblings at the airport and the six of us squeezed into her father’s tiny car for the forty minute drive to the city. They lived in a nice apartment with a view to the ocean. Her mom made enough breakfast to feed an army, consisting of crepes and honey butter, hard-boiled eggs, homemade English muffin-type things with cheese, and lemon bunt cake. After the meal I took a three-hour long nap and awoke to a heaping plate of couscous with vegetables and a glass of buttermilk. Needless to say I had my fair share of traditional Moroccan food. That afternoon, Souad and I walked to the coast, went to see the mosque, and wandered around the shops downtown.

My fear of the traffic was justified that evening when I got in a taxi to go to the train station. It was dark at that point and drizzling. I was sitting behind the driver and there were two other passengers in the car. At one point we ended up in the middle of a busy intersection (I don’t know how). There was one car parallel to us on the right side, thus blocking the driver from being able to see cars driving toward us from the right. The taxi driver inched forward at first and then must have thought we were in the clear, and pushed harder on the gas to go forward. Unfortunately we were not in the clear and a car ran into the side of our taxi. I hit my head a little bit and the lady sitting next to me hit hers pretty hard, but luckily no one was injured. I got out to see a big dent on the right side of the car and then caught another taxi as quickly as possible and kept my eyes shut for the rest of the drive to the train station. The second taxi got there safely and I got a train to the airport. So now I can not only say that I’ve been to Casablanca, but that I was in a car accident in Casablanca!

Right before boarding the plane to Bamako, I was suddenly switched to first class which was pretty awesome. The seat was roomy and we got a three course meal, including a cheese sampler consisting of brie and two other types of cheese. I ate every bite of the cheese, anticipating the only available cheese in Mali: Laughing Cow which has a consistency similar to plastic. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t incredibly eager to get back to Mali. When the plane landed though, and I started hearing more Bambara and seeing familiar sights, I was happy. I’m not looking forward to my immediate return to site where I already know for a fact that I will be bombarded with comments on how long I was gone and how much weight I gained, but after settling in, it will be good to be at my house and see my friends. It was great to see some of you over Christmas. I truly had a wonderful time catching up with family and friends, eating lots (avoiding rice, corn, potatoes and pasta when possible), listening to and singing carols, going to the Winston-Salem Candle Tea, playing on the Wii, running outside in cold weather, and hiking in the mountains. Happy New Year!