Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Greetings

Merry Christmas Friends!

It was strange to be walking down the street yesterday, with the sun blazing and the strange sounds and smells of Africa surrounding me and realize, "Oh, yeah, it's Christmas!" In some ways it was such an easy day, because it didn't feel like Christmas, and so I didn't often dwell on the fact that I was a zillion miles away, in a strange country, where they don't even know it's Christmas, and in other ways it was a difficult day, because when I did stop to reflect on it, I realized what I was missing and felt sad. Our Christmas morning started with us opening the care packages we had received from friends and family: lots of food and seeds from my Mom, sauce mixes from Andrew's mom, British chocolate from Nicole, soups and chocolate from the Study Abroad Office in Berkeley, and books and candy from the Strongs. It was nice having something to open on Christmas morning, although I think I've never had such edible gifts before! After eating some blueberry muffins, we headed to the internet café and then the market, where we bought food for our dinner. I didn't do such a shabby job. We had stuffed fish, stuffing (a care package from old volunteers), butternut squash, green beans, mashed potatoes, apple pie, and goat. Yes, goat. I actually abstained from the goat because I find it way too stringy and the sight of an entire leg of goat sitting on the counter kind of bothered me. Anyway, that was our Christmas! Very uneventful for the most part, but not as bad as one could expect. The last time we were out of the country for Christmas was a couple of years ago, and we were fortunate enough to be in Vienna, where we went to a ballet and had a nice dinner.

I hope everyone else had a much more festive Christmas than we did, and know that we spent quite a lot of time thinking to ourselves, "I wonder what so and so is doing for Christmas?"

We are going to the capital, Bamako, next week for three weeks for more training. That means that theoretically I'll have access to internet everyday, but I'm sure the other 65 volunteers have other plans for the three computers we have.

Has anyone seen The Golden Compass yet? I've heard mixed reviews on it and I'd love someone's opinion on it. Looks like I'll have to wait until it comes out on DVD. I already ordered Harry Potter 5 on DVD from Amazon. Should be here in a couple of years…;) We do have a Region 1 DVD player here at our state capital, and we've spent the last couple of nights watching episodes of 24 almost incessantly. It's nice being able to escape sometimes.

Time for Andrew to speak, because he's been getting complaints that he's too quiet: Hi all! I don't remember if this was mentioned in the last e-mail, but we're helping the school headmaster, Lamini, get funding from the US Embassy to rehabilitate a building to be made into a library, computer room, and conference room. If we get funding, I'm sure this building will do a lot of good for the community. Currently, they begin learning Bambara when they first start in school (about 6 years old), then they learn French (8), and then English (11), but the instruction isn't the best, and there is no good way to reinforce the language because they don't have books (including textbooks), and almost no one speaks anything but Malinké unless they have to. Our hope is that with a supply of books, they'll be able to reinforce the language learning and be able to say more than just, "Good afternoon, fine thanks." This project will also help those in the 9th grade learn some computer skills (computers hopefully to be sent by Malians from this village who have moved to France). And maybe best of all, it will provide a place where the students can study at night. This is really important because the girls spend all of their daylight hours at school or doing chores, which explains why in a class of 120 there are only 20 girls (1 teacher, 1 small room). Add to this that the parents don't encourage the girls to learn (why should they? They're going to be married to a 30 year old (or older, we've seen as high as a 60-year-old's third wife) and pregnant before they're 15, why do they need to know French, or math?). So our hopes are that the girls will be able to study at night, do better in school, and go on to high school and university. This is important because with better education, they are more likely to have fewer but healthier children with a higher standard of living.

So what can you do about this? You can send books! Nothing too advanced, but they don't have to be baby simple either. Sending one or two books doesn't cost a lot (especially in a padded envelope) and can make a world of difference in a village where Nicole and I literally have the only reading books in any language. French/English dictionaries, old French textbooks (they can learn English from them, kind of), Learning English books, children's stories in English (like the Dick and Jane books), books dealing with farming would be relevant to them, but they also want to know about life in the Western World: cars, motorcycles, dinosaurs, space, science, cowboys and Indians, war, soccer, kung-fu, whatever. They are almost entirely Muslim, so children's books with Muslim or black protagonists would be awesome (they are always surprised to hear that there are Muslims and black people in America). Encyclopedias. How-To books. Science experiment books (old lab manuals). Books about appreciation of nature and animals! Books about health, STDs, AIDS, malaria, nutrition, the importance of having few children.

What else can you do? You can participate in the Give 1 Get 1 program done by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). This non-profit has designed a laptop that only costs $180 and is designed specifically for children in the developing world. The way the program works is that you buy two and one gets sent to you, the other to a kid somewhere in the world (they choose). You get to deduct the price of one from your taxes. If you or your company buys more than 100, you can designate where they go (like the above address). Check it out at Hurry up, offer expires December 31st!

I'm also working with the mayor trying to bring electricity to our village. There are currently solar panels and a few diesel generators, but nothing city wide. One of the things I really like about my job is that I can just walk into the mayor's office and talk to him about stuff. He likes to hear how things are done in the US, and my suggestions for how things can be done here. Unfortunately he also likes to hear how I'll be paying for all of that…. But at least I get to be mayor vicariously. Most of my work involves finding local solutions and trying to get people to adopt them. The closest analogy I have is this: They are stuck in a hole that has all of the things needed to make a ladder. I've been sent down the hole to help them build that ladder so that they can get themselves out of the hole, and all they want me to do is call in the magic White person rescue chopper that will solve all of their troubles (until they fall in the next hole). This analogy is strengthened by the holes they dig in the ground looking for gold.
Woman pounding quartz to get the gold

Oh the gold… They brought out this huge 40 lbs quartz rock, cleaned it off, and pointed excitedly at the tiniest sparkle of gold (no more than a speck), which they will extract by using hammers to smash the rock into smaller rocks, using a metal mortar and pestle to smash that into powder, panning out the gold, and then smashing the powder into even finer powder to get every last speck. It's ridiculous, but understandable when you think of the American gold rush. And instead of being carpenters, blacksmiths, leather workers, gardeners, they are gold seekers, hoping to strike it rich. I was shocked when I had a conversation with some Malians who thought I was there to start up a new mine, that I was prospecting, and that I was going to need a lot of labor so why didn't I hire them already? I had to explain that it is forbidden for me to earn money here, and that gold is the farthest thing from my agenda.

We'll be going to Bamako in a week for more training, and when we come back, I'm hoping to continue working on getting my village to use the Jatropha oil for electrification and live fences to protect their fields and gardens. I'll also be working with the school to start a school garden and a tree nursery to grow some shade trees for the new middle school that is being built. I'm also hoping to start up bamboo cultivation (they've cut all of theirs down), and start up firewood and construction wood plantations. Also hoping to spread the word about the Morenga Olifera tree that has tons of vitamins and proteins.
Moringa trees in our garden

We recently celebrated the Muslim holiday of Tabaski (Seliba in Bambara). We had clothes made and dressed up all nice (pictures included) and spent the day at our Host Mom's house, not really doing anything. We did eat a lot of meat, which is traditional. We went around greeting the village chief and other friends, and I did Highland dancing for the first time in probably two years (I couldn't walk the next day).
Our garden is growing. It has been a good experience, really getting to know the trials and tribulations of the gardener here. We have bamboo fences that stop the goats and sheep and cows and donkeys from walking on and eating our garden. We are going to have a well dug so that we don't have to haul water in buckets on our heads 100m so that everything has enough water. We are working on pesticides so that the locusts and caterpillars stop ruining our crops. Little by little and now we have some lima beans (many eaten by bugs) and lettuce. Once the well is dug, we will plant all of the wonderful, lovely seeds that you guys have sent, thanks!
Prescribed fires are a big thing here and I'm really excited to be learning what I'm learning. When asked about whether they like them or not, the Malians invariably give me one of three answers: 1) they're good because they get rid of the old grass so new grass can grow quickly, thus increasing food for domestic and wild animals, and burning fires when its cool doesn't kill the trees and gets rid of the grass that would bring fire to the village; 2) they're bad because they burn down the trees and then the rain doesn't come; 3) they're bad because the burn all the grass and then the animals don't have anything to eat. I will say that it is forbidden to set brush fires after January 10th because by then the trees are too dry and the chance of a crown fire are much greater. This is theoretically enforced by heavy fines and peer pressure but I've heard it doesn't always work. I would personally answer #1 above and wish the same would be done in Southern California. Because of the straw roofs, fire is a very serious issue here. Last year there was a fire that burned down 90% of the village! I'm hoping to work with the Mayor and Eaux et Forêts (Water and Forests) to come up with a plan for when a fire does happen in the village, and hopefully to set some rules about setting fires and burning yard waste (like having buckets of water in case the fire gets out of hand).

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Development work is very frustrating. As we’ve learned from the literature, just giving them something never works in the long run. To make changes, you have to show them how to solve problems by themselves through experimentation. This is really hard because most of the people are convinced that if they just had lettuce seeds, if they just had a tractor, if they just had electricity, all of their problems would be solved, if only they could find someone to give it to them. They are convinced that the solutions to their problems are ‘out there’ in the world of NGOs and white people. Little by little, we have to show them that the solutions that really are out there won’t work until they reinvent them. That the solutions they come up with can work just as well. That they, not anyone else, have the power to solve their problems. One big cultural difference that we’ve noticed is the following: in individualist America, the phrase ‘not my problem’ is common, whereas the equivalent here is ‘your problem is my problem.’ Culturally, they are used to others helping out when there is a crisis. After all, the community needs to take care of itself. We, however, are used to fixing our own problems.

We're Still Alive!

Happy Turkey Day! I hope you all enjoyed your delicious turkey and cranberry sauce. We managed to track down a turkey for our own impromptu Thanksgiving celebration here in our regional capital, Kayes. I'm sorry we've been out of the loop for the past two months. We've been very busy at our new site, Dialafara. It's beautiful there, but life is a little difficult. Overall though, we're having a great time. Our house is finally starting to feel like our house, which has boosted our spirits considerably.
We've planted a garden, which was mostly destroyed by errant animals, but what's left is now safely behind a fence. A garden is much needed because there is a significant lack of vegetables in Dialafara. The community is very fatalistic, assuming that any garden they plant will just be destroyed, so they don't even bother with gardening. That means that we're forced to stock up on canned corn and other veggies while we're in the capital, or face eating okra every meal. Since I can't stand okra, we pay $3.00/can and try and make it last through a month before returning to buy more. I can't wait until our garden is ready to give us carrots, tomatoes, and lima beans!
Lamini in our garden

So gardening has actually consumed a good part of our life, and
we spend a lot of time trying to make it work. Therefore, if anyone wants to send us seeds, we'd gladly welcome them! They're cheap, and really easy and inexpensive to send, so it'd be a great Christmas gift!

Andrew would like to offer his MALI CHALLENGE to all of you. For one week, try and do as many of the following. Afterwards, report back to us letting us know what was hard, what was easy, and what you gave up on.
1) Pick one favorite rice dish and eat only it for lunch and dinner every day. You can only add meat on one day.
2) Only electricity that can be used is flashlights, t.v. (pick one channel), phone, and radio
3) Only running water that can be used is toilet and the outside hose to fill up buckets
4) Go out of your way to greet each of your neighbors twice a day. Ask after their family and how they slept. Do the same with as much of your extended family as possible (phone is OK).

So when
we're not gardening, what do we do? Well, I spend a little time at the clinic, mostly observing the tiny staff overwork themselves. I like working with the matrone (a trained midwife), but she's usually too busy to babysit me. She has done over 300 prenatal consultations this year, with about 20 births a month, and she does monthly baby weighing and vaccination sessions for not only Dialafara, but seven surrounding villages. In her spare time she gives presentations on the radio and goes door to door to follow up on malnourished kids and make sure the women are following their prenatal regime. And she does this all by herself. And she only gets paid $60.00 a month! She doesn't complain, even though the clinic is literally falling down around her and she has no equipment to do her job properly. She told me about a night where two women were in labor at the same time. She only has one (broken) birthing table, so one woman was on that while the other gave birth on the floor. Fanta, the matrone, went back and forth between the two women with her kerosene lantern. Despite her circumstances, she's only lost 1 or 2 babies this entire year during the delivery process, which is quite an accomplishment. I'm going to be working on getting her funding for some new materials, and hopefully a new clinic. In January, there will be an opportunity for anyone in the U.S. to make donations for specific things, such as mattresses, lights, or birthing tables, so keep that in mind this Christmas!
Baby-naming ceremony

In addition to my time at the clinic, I've been doing a couple of presentations to the community. Last week I did a presentation on AIDS to 150 school kids. I was really nervous, but everyone says I did great. Andrew made me some really great posters for the event. I'm also supposed to be working on my language, so Andrew and I spend a couple hours a day with our language tutor, Lamini.
We kept up our Bambara for a while, but have now switched to French. It was really frustrating for me because I spent two months learning Bambara, and the women in my community mostly only speak Malinke. Rather than try picking up an entirely new language, we decided to try and perfect our French, since everyone that we work directly with speaks French anyway. Lamini is really great. He also speaks very good English, and he's the director of the school, so we have lots of good contacts with him. He's also one of few people in the village who hasn't asked us for money or food or something else. Sometimes I feel like we are being taken advantage of. He helps us out with lots of personal things too, such as helping establish the garden and coming to check on us when we are sick. He is here in Kayes right now because we wanted him to experience an American holiday with us. He's also Christian, so we will probably spend Christmas with him.

Andrew is spending his time getting to know people in the village so that, instead of performing gardening demonstrations to start a school garden, he is hooking up the director (Lamini) with other people who know how to garden. Hopefully, this will be more sustainable and continue after
we leave. He is also going to try to slow deforestation on three fronts: promoting mud stoves instead of three rocks, which should reduce the amount of wood burned, promoting improved methods of charcoal making instead of just burning wood, which will also reduce the amount of wood burned, and promoting firewood plantations, which should reduce the strain on the local forest, make the women's daily firewood gathering venture less painful, and possibly create income for some people. He will also be working with a tourism group, trying to promote the benefits of ecotourism (sustainable, environmentally and culturally responsible, promoting local economy, not just 'nature tourism'). He is also trying to promote the use of jatropha oil to generate electricity (in a diesel engine). He wishes that solar power could provide enough electricity to the village, but the panels are too expensive to support an entire village. He is also going to work with women's associations to help them sell good Shea nuts to make that shea butter that's in your skin cream. But all of that is in the future. For now, he is dropping hints of his plans and trying to find key people to work with.

I don't want to disappoint anyone, but
we aren't living in mud huts. We were supposed to be, but the condition of the huts was really poor (even for mud huts), so we asked for different housing. We have a two bedroom cement house with a large veranda, tin roof, and a huge yard. We even splurged and paid to have electricity put in! Well, by electricity I mean a light in each room hooked up to a car battery. We take the battery to be charged by a solar panel every two weeks or so. Still no running water, but I don't mind so much (we have, however, installed a spigot into a bucket, which works almost the same). I just heat some water for my bucket bath each day.

We have a kitten! We weren't going to get one, even though there was a litter available at our training site right before we left. We refused them, but when we arrived in Kayes, this adorable tabby followed us inside the house! We couldn't refuse her, and when you see the photos, you'll understand why! Her name is Arya, because she closely resembles a character from the series, A Song of Ice and Fire. We have a lot of fun with her.

We would really appreciate it if you all sent us a couple seed packets! I think growing our own garden is the only way to survive here since there aren't any fresh vegetables really.

Some more culture differences here: The women laugh every time they see Andrew carrying water on his head. That's supposed to be a woman's job. But he does it since I do all the cooking, and besides it's a little awkward for me to carry those big buckets. I think some of them think I'm not such a good wife for allowing him to carry water, but perhaps others wish their husbands were as equally minded.

Also, despite their claims that they have no money, and therefore don't have any means of helping themselves, people are surprisingly reluctant to do things that would earn them money. Case in point: We asked the carpenter to make us a table when we first arrived in Dialafara. It would take him no more than a day to do so. Yet it still isn't finished. When we went to see him last week, we found him sitting around looking for gold instead. I don't think I can describe how fruitless that process is. Everyone in the village is gold crazy. They walk 5-15 kilometers out of the village, drill (by hand) huge holes in the quartz and then cart off the big pieces back home. Then they hammer off smaller pieces, and then pound it into powder in a big metal mortar and pestle. Then they sift it with water. If they're lucky, they get a tiny smidgen of gold dust. It's a ton of work for practically nothing (they get about USD 560 per troy ounce instead of the current USD 800). Yet offer them a real job, with guaranteed money, and they'd rather take the hard way, on the desperate hope that they might strike it big. It's very frustrating.

I think that's all for now. I should be back in the capital in three weeks, because I have some reports to file. I look forward to your emails! I really want to hear what's happening in the "real" world!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Site Visit to Dialafara

So Nicole and I went to our site in the Kayes region. It took us a couple days to get there (had to take the long way around, stay overnight, bad roads, etc) but we finally got there. We were there for all of 4 hours, talking to the mayor and dugutigi (chief); trying to work out our housing situation (the house they had provided was unfinished and utterly lacking in privacy). Luckily, we managed to find a much better house with a big yard, privacy, and the contract has been signed!

I am very looking forward to working here. The Tamboura Cliffs run along the road between Kayes and Kenieba and they are absolutely gorgeous. My job is to work with a new hotel that is starting up. I'll be working with ecotourism and gardening and reforestation and fire management and environmental education and its going to be loads of fun. This one car ride has changed my life. It has openned up an interest, a career path, that I never imagined: ecotourism! I'm really excited to get started. I've done enough tourism to know what is (un)appealing to tourists, what is fair and beneficial for the community, and what is environmentally okay. I can forsee myself coming back from the Peace Corps and spending the rest of my life in ecotourism. I can envision going to grad school to study it. I'm so excited to have basically the whole Tamboura Cliffs to myself. I'll be a John Muir and wander all over it, discover its hidden treasures, learn all about the ecosystems, and establish a tourism program that preserves it. I know my hopes are set too high, and I need to make sure to not do this all myself but to let the Malians do it so that it will continue when I leave, but there's so much good I can do!

For those of you wanting to check this area out, you can see the cliffs on Google Maps. Go to Mali, then to the very west, almost in Senegal. There's a road that runs from Kayes to Kenieba (south) and if you look along that road, you'll see the cliffs. They run for at least a hundred miles, and they're pretty tall (unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any information online) and all Lonely Planet has to say is that Kenieba is surrounded by a picturesque escarpment. This in no way encapsulates the beauty.

So since returning from my site, I've been learning what I can about ecotourism. Also, I'll be working a lot with Shea Butter production. Shea Butter comes from this area (West Africa) and can be found in almost all beauty products. More on that later. My language is coming along. Its amazing to see how well I can speak in Bambara after a little over a month of instruction.

Thanks to those who sent us packages. Even the _crappy_ books are blessings! (thanks emidala). For the record, bubble mailers sent normal post arrive the quickest, safest, and cheapest. Thanks to those who sent us mail! Hopefully the return letters will arrive safely.

We 'celebrated' our first wedding anniversary. Hard to believe its been a whole year. I wish we could have done more, but we'll make up for it in a few years when we're out of Africa.

Anyone wanting to come visit us, the best time will be in early 2009, after I've set up a great tourism program. You can join the herds of people flocking to my site. Lots of great birding opportunities too!

Peace Out!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Baby Weighing and Porridge Demonstration

Weighing babies

I finally feel like my time here is useful! This week I conducted a porridge demonstration and a baby weighing in my village. Not only was I able to conduct the session in Bambara, but I weighed 52 babies!!! That's a lot to do, especially since I was really the only one doing it. My friend was feeling really sick, so she just wrote down weights for a while. It was exciting but also it made me very nervous. It's hard to try and tell a mother she isn't feeding her baby properly when not only am I a white person from a completely different perspective, but I'm not a mother myself. Regardless, I feel like the majority of their mothers were genuinely interested in improving their child's nutrition, and maybe some of them will take to heart what advice I gave them.
Growth chart

It's so hard to describe how poor Mali is. It's the 3rd poorest country in the world, and even prior knowledge of that statistic wasn't enough to prepare me for the poverty I witness everyday. My host siblings run around with no clothes on, no shoes, most of them have huge distended bellies, and some of them are so sick I almost can't bear to look at them. Yet despite this, Malians remain such a friendly and warm people, who never miss an opportunity to offer any person their hospitality, even if food is scarce. They all watch out for each other; the children are communal, and even if parents seem to be absent, there is always an adult somewhere, watching out for them. And the children are so independent that they almost don't need watching over. My little 6 year old sister Mamine is constantly "bamu-ing" her two month old cousin. (Bamu-ing means she carries his tied to her back as she fetches water, cooks, and takes care of the animals). At the same time there is so much supervision lacking! I see my siblings chewing on batteries, playing with dead animals for lack of other toys, and urinating and defecating wherever they want. These are behavior changes that I will be working on, but it's SO hard. I can't even express the struggle I face everyday as I see someone in my village doing something that I know will lead to another parasite, another bout of malaria, or another physical deformity.
Preparing the porridge with Emily

I see this daily struggle, and then I look at the other 77 volunteers serving here. It never ceases to amaze me how selfless and good-intentioned their sacrifice is. Regardless of their reason for joining the Peace Corps, the fact that they still remain says something about the goodness of their characters. Only one person has willingly gone home. Another was sent home after she was drunk in public, and two others have been separated for medical reasons (one had mental problems his first day here, and the other broke his ankle a week ago). That's a surprising number of people who have lasted even this long, after 6 long, difficult weeks. To be honest, part of me thought I would be home by now, and there's still a part of me that isn't sure I can handle this for two years. But the majority of my spirit remains dedicated to helping these people live their lives more fully. When we all swear in in two weeks as official volunteers, I know it will be an emotional time, but by no means the end of our struggle here in Mali. For some it will be harder, having to finally be on their own, away from the support we have gained from each other. For some, like myself, I think it will be easier. Our purpose for being here will finally be realized, and for me, having control over how I live my life will be paramount to my experience here. But I know it will still be very, very difficult.

Which is why I am so grateful that I have such kind, thoughtful, amazing friends back home. Your emails, your letters, and your packages make a bad day disappear. I can't tell you how it feels to struggle through a difficult day, trying to make a difference, and then to find that someone back home has sent me a few words of encouragement (or in the case of Laura, a few morsels of nourishment!). The simple act of filling out a postcard and dropping it in the mail makes everything else seem trivial. Thank you all so much, and I hope you will continue to write to us and wish us well. Please know that we think of you all every single day, and your support makes all the difference in our work here.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Return from Site Visit

Andrew and I just returned from seeing our permanent site, Dialafara, which is in the region of Kayes, very close to the Senegalese border. Our village is surrounded by the Tamboura Cliffs, a 100 mile long escarpment of beauty. It's very green, there are waterfalls, and chimps at the top! We haven't seen them yet, though, because the cliffs are really high up. Our village has about 1,900 people, but the community seems a little unsure of our role there. First, they keep comparing us to the previous married couple who lived there, and it's hard for them to understand that we are different people. They wanted us to live in these tiny mud huts, which were in disrepair, and in the middle of someone else's compound, which means no privacy whatsoever. We finally convinced them to move us to this cement house with its own private yard where we can garden. They are making the Peace Corps rent it though, because it's technically private property. They also think we will eat every meal with them, and I had to dispel that idea real quick. I'm not interested in starving to death!
The clinic where I'm working seems okay, but I think most of my work will be going door to door giving health presentations and arranging baby-weighing days. Andrew has a much cooler job. He gets to work with Tamboura Tours and help them develop ecotourism around the cliffs. I'm going to help by doing environmental/wildlife education with the children. His sounds cooler but as my supervisor said, "You'll be saving babies while he plays with the chimps!"

Unfortunately, I don't know that much more about my site because we were only there for four hours. The lack of adequate housing meant we couldn't stay overnight as planned. We had to begin the very long, bumpy journey back to the regional capital to stay at the Peace Corps house that night.

Public Transportation!!! I never believed it would be this bad! We took a 10 hour bus out of Bamako to Kayes and it was horrible. First of all, someone bought our tickets for a 6:30 bus and made the driver "promise" to wait until 7:30, when we showed up. Of course, the driver was gone by the time we got there, so we had to chase the bus about 40 minutes out of Bamako and hop on where it had stopped for a rest break. The bus was completely full by that time, so a lot of us ended up sharing seats with Malians, carrying our huge bags on our laps or in the aisle. Talk about a safety hazard. Then it started raining, and it took the bus 3 hours to go over a 50km stretch of unpaved road! We were lucky the rest of the trip, because we took P.C. vehicles to and from our site but we were almost unlucky. The nearest volunteer to us (only 85km south) had to take the "bus" up from his site to Kayes. We should have been on the same bus, because it stops in our village, but we had already left. Anyway, it left at 9:00am, broke down three times on the road, and the final time was around 9:00pm and since the headlights stopped working the bus stopped permanently and everyone slept on the side of the road. Thank goodness he had his cell phone and he called the PC and they went out and picked him up. Apparently the rainy season is the only time the road is bad, because the rain and the trucks turn the road into a muddy, rutty mess. We just aren't leaving our site for three months every year...

In other news, this Saturday is our one year wedding anniversary. I'm a little sad because we won't be able to celebrate in any way. I wish we had cake. :( If I had a way to cook I might be able to whip something up that has chocolate in it, but that doesn't seem possible yet.

For those who care, I am reading Harry Potter for the second time since the copy my grandmother sent me arrived yesterday! (:)) I read it the first time using a friend's copy, but I practically inhaled it (it took me exactly 8 hours) so I was really excited when my own copy came. I'm almost finished with it (again) so hopefully it will clear up some things. I really liked it, but the "afterward" really irritated me. It was too "tied up." But the rest was good although I totally thought she killed off the wrong people. It was almost unnecessary.
Anyway, I'm back to Famana, my homestay site, for more rice and peanut butter sauce, but this time I am armed with the goodies Laura sent me, so I shouldn't lose any more weight (I've already lost about 12 pounds).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Week #???

Hey Friends!

I've completely lost track of time here since I've been on West African International Time (W.A.I.T) which about sums up everything that happens here in Mali, including transportation, classes, and even shopping. Everything takes probably more than twice as long here than in the glorious U.S.

I have to admit, I had a really bad couple of days about two weeks ago. For three days, I didn't want to leave my room, eat, bathe, or talk to people. I was feeling pretty down about the food (which is still the same malo ni tigedegena or rice and peanut butter sauce) and the feeling that my every movement is scrutinized by kids and adults alike. Everyone always wants to know what I'm doing, where I'm going, and they kind of look at us as a sort of entertainment. They are always trying to get us to sing and dance and they ask us to help with household chores just so they can crack up when we don't do them right. I know in my heart that they don't mean anything by it, and that my family genuinely cares about me and really likes me, but it was a hard adjustment to make. Thankfully, after a couple of days, the coolest thing happened to me: a snake found it's way into my room!

I'm sure to most people (including Nana) that doesn't sound all that great, but it was actually really neat for me. Not only was it something new and exciting, but I got to share my interest in reptiles with my host family which stopped them from killing a harmless animal (it wasn't venomous). Andrew actually picked it up with gloves and put it back outside. I'm attaching a photo of the little guy. Somehow that snapped me out of my funk and I was able to get on with my life. Malians have interesting fews of animals: snakes and frogs are big no-no's here. One night after a big rain Andrew and I went out and caught these huge frogs and everyone was laughing and thought we foreigners were being very silly, but entertaining. Until Andrew tried to get a Malian to hold the frog. To them, frogs are dangerous because they can jump inside you and steal your soul!
Our Language Prof who lives in the village with us is amazing. He does a good job of making sure we are as comfortable as possible, and he's become a great friend to the five of us in our village. The other night before we returned to Tubani So, we had a mini-party, and somehow we all ended up telling ghost stories under his hanger. Once it started raining and thundering, he let us move into his house where we continued to tell stories until about 1:00am. Then he walked everyone home and made sure our windows were locked (we were all terrified at that point!). His name is Moussa and he's pretty neat.

Tomorrow Andrew and I are making the long journey to our permanent site. We are traveling by public transport to the regional capital, Kayes, where we will spend the night. The next day, we will drive down to our banking town where we will learn our way around. Finally, after another night's stay, we will drive to our site where we will spend two days learning about our jobs and our new community.

Our Peace Corps swear-in date is September 20th, so we've only got a month left of Pre-Service Training, of which only two more weeks is spent at homestay. I can tell you, I will miss my little village of 415 people, especially some of my younger siblings, like Mamine, who is only 6 but follows me everywhere. My family really takes care of me. The other night I made "American" tea for my family, and as I got up to give the tea glass to someone, all the little children crowded around me, spilling the boiling tea on my foot. The adults immediately chased the kids away, and came running over to offer advice and give medicine (thankfully my toe didn't fall off!). For the next couple of days they kept asking me if I was okay. They are very concerned that we are safe and healthy and happy.

Our language has gotten much better, and we can actually hold conversations with people. We just had a mid-PST language test, and I and Andrew scored just one level below the level we need to swear-in in September. My evaluator said the only reason I didn't pass then and there was because we just hadn't covered one of the topics required to pass the exam. So we're feeling pretty great about our language, especially since no one else in our village passed that high.

We went into Bamako yesterday and had pizza and cheeseburgers and banana splits! It was amazing. And there was this huge supermarket where we bought snacks and food.

Thanks so much to those of you who have sent us care packages! So far we have only received Laura's package (the cereal bars aren't too squished!), but I know some of you have sent other things. Apparently it's cheaper and quicker to send bubble mailers rather than boxes; sorry about the late info!

Finally, we have cell phones! My number is 002233308572 and Andrew's is 002235584722. You just dial the number exactly like that and you can reach us if you need to. Unfortunately, we don't have cell reception at our site, so we will only be able to make or receive calls once a month when we go in for banking.
Killer crazy turtle at Tubani So

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Reflections on Homestay

So Nicole and I have finished our first week and a half living with an actual Malian family. Here are some notable highlights:

  • I have been renamed Umaru Kone, and Nicole is Mamine Kone.
  • We are learning Bambara, which is spoken by 80% of Malians. It's a pretty easy language to learn, especially compared to those learning Fulfulde and Dogon.
  • Our language class is awesome. We have a great teacher and great classmates. We have great fun saying weird things. N'ye kaletigela ye (I am a trouble maker).
  • They don't have words (or wonder, it seems) for different stars or constellations. To them, it's just lolo (star) and kalo (moon).
  • Living without electricity is easy, because at night we have kerosene lanterns and flashlights (AA and C batteries are readily available).
  • Pooping in a hole in the ground looses its appeal real quick
  • I think that the food is pretty good. It's just a bit too repetitive (rice for five days straight gets a bit boring).
  • You can't beat 9 mangoes for 20 cents.
  • Working in the field is fun, but hard. I was using a daba (kind of like a hoe but with a 2 foot long handle) to clear out the weeds between cornstalks. My family definitely understood me better after farming (why is this guy here? he doesn't farm, just goes to this guy's house all day).
  • Kids are kids no matter where you go. We had fun making sounds with our tongues. They love Old MacDonald and Go Fish and when I dance.
  • It appears that everyone eats a lot. We are never able to finish the food that they give us (Nicole, me, and one of our host dad's sons eat together out of a big bowl using our right hands). Unfortunately, protein is scarce so there are lots of carbohydrates (rice, millet, potatoes, spaghetti, beans).
  • Big conversation topics are food and poop.
  • Our host family is really nice. I'm very glad to be here and can't wait until I can speak Bambara and have meaningful conversations
  • I've done a lot of reflection on how our countries are different. Here, it is okay to beat wives and children, which is bad. But on the flip side, Mali didn't invade Iraq. Malians have a lot of checks to prevent conflict, like joking cousins. The joking cousin idea is a fabulous one. For example, all Traores eat dogs. (They don't really, but these jokes help keep everyone lighthearted). Also, I'm not allowed to fight with a Traore, or a Dembele, or a Dumbia, or a Koulibaly, but if I need someone for conflict resolution, I can use one.
  • Polygamy is the norm here, as well as really large families. While this isn't great for the world's population, it does create really fun, caring families. Family life is really important here, so while they have hardly any material possessions, they are rich in familial love.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Homestay Weeks 1-2

Andrew and I are back from the first two weeks of our homestay visit. We'll be at our training site for three days before we head back to our families.

We are living with the Kone (pronounced Cone-ay) family. My name is Mamine, or Maimouna, or Maimou, while Andrew is Umar or Umaru or Zan. The crazy thing is that everyone has the same name, and there are several different nicknames for each name. This makes things very confusing. I am one of four or five Mamines in my family alone! Our Bambara is coming along, but it's complicated by the fact that our village speaks a slightly different dialect and they aren't very informed on what we learn everyday, so it's hard for them to speak in a way that builds on what we learn each day.
Our house in Famana

The living conditions are okay, but it's hard to get used to not having electricity or running water. The most difficult thing for me is the food. Our family feeds us the best they can, which means rice. Every day. Almost every meal. It is gotten to the point where I can't even look at rice without feeling sick to my stomach. Our Language instructor finally spoke with our family and we have been getting different things now, like beans and spaghetti noodles. That helps, but I'm dying for some American food. That said, if anyone would like to send us hot chocolate packets, apple cider packets, parmesan cheese, cookies, candy, or other snacky foods, I will be eternally grateful, as well as full. :) It would be especially great since we got a huge pile of PC mail today, and Andrew and I didn't have a single piece of mail. I didn't realize that I was even looking forward to mail, but out here something as small and insignificant as a postcard makes my day after 13 days of living with people who don't understand a word I say. So in two weeks, when I return here again, I expect emails and actual mail! I'm excited about receiving HP7 which my grandma sent to me. Apparently packages only take about 2 weeks right now to get here.

Okay enough lecturing.

We went to the market the other day and bought 9 huge mangos for $0.25. And that was without trying to really barter. I also had a tailor make me a dress and a headscarf for $1. Andrew says to check out his Livejournal for more news.
Our little sister, Mamine

Okay, I need to go. I will try and email again in the next couple of days when there aren't 80 people waiting to use the computers as well.

Nicole aka Mamine