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).