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.