Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mali Says Hi

Well, we've been here in Mali almost nine months, and I guess for some of you that's too long because everyone else seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. No emails, no letters, not even a comment on Facebook. I understand that it's hard to keep in touch sometimes, but for goodness sakes people, will it kill you to write a quick email saying "hello"? Sorry to be so testy, but it's extremely difficult to live in a technological void for five weeks and then return, full of hope, to the internet cafĂ© and post office only to discover…nothing. We're dying for news of the rest of the world! How are the primaries going, which Hollywood couple has filed for divorce, what new scandal is shocking the rest of the world? Sometimes even the mundane news is like a little beacon of hope for us. It reminds us that even while we live in the third poorest country in the world and deal with HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tribal (verbal) warfare, at least somewhere in the world there's stupid, non-life-impacting things taking place. So take five minutes out of your busy lives to drop us a line. The person who brings us the most interesting or amusing piece of trivial news will win a Malian prize.

Okay, enough scolding. What have we been up to? For me, almost nothing. Andrew is the perfect volunteer, and works even on the weekends (Me, bitter? Nah). I occupy myself with the everyday things, and by the time I am free to do actual work, it's too hot to breathe. Basically, our day is as follows:

7:30am: Wake up, probably because some obnoxious guinea fowl have flown into my yard and are making a ruckus. Or because the neighbor kids are shouting my name over the wall that divides our houses. Since we sleep outside now, it's impossible to avoid either.
8:00am: Already drenched in sweat, I take a cold bucket bath shower, the first of many throughout the day.
8:30-10:00am: Make breakfast and tea. Usually breakfast is oatmeal or porridge or mangoes.
10:00-12:00pm: Wash dishes in a bucket of cold water. Sweep floors and patios with a witch-like broom without handle. Fill water filter with pump water, then fill clay drinking jug with filtered water to cool it down. Make bed, shaking out all leaves, sticks, and dead (or live) insects that have accumulated during the night. Take out compost, burn paper trash, and clean up garden a little.
12:00pm-1:00pm: Go to "store" to buy things for dinner. This usually includes onions, flour (sifted to get out bugs), and if I'm really lucky, the butcher will be selling cow meat. It only happens about once a week, and I have to get there early to avoid getting the nasty parts, such as intestine, tongue, testicles, and other parts you only see in biology class.
1:00-1:30pm: Greet everyone, their mothers, and their goats. Every person I meet on the street greets me this way, and then I follow up with the same questions:
Good morning!
Did you sleep well?
How is your family?
How are your children? (They say this one even though they know I don't have kids)
Your husband?
Your cat? (Kids especially like this one because they think it's hilarious that anyone would willingly keep a cat around.)
Where are you going?
What are you buying?
What are you going to cook?
You can cook???
Have a good day!
Greet Oumar (Andrew) for me!
Needless to say, it takes quite a while to complete this exchange with everyone I meet on the street.
1:30-2:30pm: Eat lunch. Usually roasted goat meat, leftover rice, or mangoes.
2:30pm: Shower #2.
3:00-5:00pm: Nap during the hottest part of the day.
5:00pm: Shower #3.
5:00-7:00pm: Cook dinner. Usually spaghetti, rice and sauce, soup, stir-fry (when I have vegetables), or mangoes.
7:00-10:00pm: Read, knit, play cards, entertain cat, be entertained by cat, and contemplate doing actual work the next day.
10:00pm: Go to bed.

Honestly, that's a pretty typical day. Half the time I can work in a couple hours of real work in there, but it's hard when all the little stuff takes so much time. And everything in Mali takes a lot longer to accomplish. Think about just getting water! It is 100 yards to the pump, where there's always a long wait to get water. Then there's the physical labor of pumping the water, putting it onto your head, and walking back to the house, usually spilling quite a bit of water on the way. And just imagine how much water we need: dishes, cooking, laundry, drinking, bathing (did you see how many showers I take a day? I would melt if I didn't.), and watering the garden. I can't actually complain since it is Andrew's responsibility to get all the water. I handle the rest of the domestic duties. But mostly it's my lack of desire to get anything health related done. I'm still in limbo in terms of switching to the education sector, and my clinic doesn't really have anything for me to do right now. All the children in my village are vaccinated, people come to the clinic all the time, everyone has a mosquito net, and giving hand-washing demos doesn't work. People know they should be washing their hands with soap. They can recite to you all the reasons why they should do it, but for them it's not worth giving up their culture for better health. What can one do?? What they really want from me is to find funding for a new maternity and hospital, which really isn't part of Peace Corps but it is something they really need. Of course, it's nearly impossible to find $50,000 for the construction. I have been putting a bunch of stuff together for the fall semester at the school. Since they are in the last trimester there isn't much I can do at this moment. But in the fall the students will be required to complete community service in order to graduate. This will help meet the needs of the community and even give new skills to the students, especially those who want to work at the mayor's office or the hospital. For those students it will be more like an internship.

One thing I really want to do with the kids is get them involved in photography. I want to get a hold of some disposable cameras and have Amy, another volunteer with an M.F.A. in Photography, teach the students how to take photos. Then the photos would be developed and the community would offer prizes to the best photos. I also want the Natural History Museum in L.A. to display some of the photos in the Interact room. So if anyone wants to help out with a specific project, send us some disposable cameras! I think it's an interesting project because you'd be amazed how Malians view their own world. Their concept of beauty is so different from ours, and the things they find important are amazing to see.

I'm still planning on coming home for a visit at the end of June, and will welcome any visitors and/or offers of ice cream. I plan on spending most of my time eating my way through all the restaurants in southern California, so be sure to see me at the beginning of my visit before I gain too much weight. And if you were planning on sending me a care package, feel free to send it to my grandmother and I can carry it back with me to Mali.

Andrew plucked/skinned a chicken. This guy randomly came to our house and sold us two chickens. We'd never seen him before, nor have we seen him since. How he knew we'd buy it, I don't know, but I'm glad he came. We had absolutely delicious chicken cacciatore. Normally, the chicken here is really tough but this was tender, so maybe the secret is not boiling the chicken in water and lighting it on fire to get the feathers off.
Our garden is withering. We had a well dug on Feb. 4th. The well was dry by Feb. 24th. We will have it re-dug in mid-April, after the water table has fallen a bit more. There is another well not too far away and Andrew gets 12-20 buckets a day to water our onions, beets, and carrots. He also has a small garden of baobab and Moringa because the leaves are super healthy to eat.

Andrew is almost never at home anymore. He's always going out into the forest to measure shea trees, or biking 6 miles to see his homologue and work on a dying banana plantation (well dried up), or driving around with another NGO to visit all of the villages in our county, making maps. As if this isn't enough work, he's also taught the students how to compost and is starting a tree nursery to grow shade trees for the new school.

Our library hasn't gone anywhere. The embassy still hasn't taken a look at the applications, which were due in December! But THANK YOU to LEANN who sent 10 perfect English books, and to others who are in the process of sending books (like Erica with 130 lbs!!!). To give you an idea of the perfect English book: Dany and the Dinosaur. If you can find books with the reading level number, we need lots of 1's, some 2's, and maybe a few 3's. Leann also sent a book called This is San Francisco, which perfectly captures San Francisco. There's another This is New York that would be nice. A Texan, Baptist missionary dropped off three books as he was passing through, pretty nice of him. Already, the students are reading the books and their English is improving.

Speaking of improving English, Andrew and I are going to start doing English lessons in mid-April with the mayor and other adults. We're going to focus on dialogues and getting them to stop saying "small small" when asked if they speak English. Anyone with suggestions about teaching English, or learning English, are welcome.

White Man's Burden
is a very interesting book talking about why the $2 trillion spent on aid hasn't ended poverty, hasn't cured hunger, hasn't even come close. In short, big grand sweeping plans like the Millennium project should stop with the big grand sweeping plans and focus on something specific (instead of ending poverty, their goal could be distributing $4 mosquito nets to 85% of children in Africa). Also, it advocates using free markets for aid. Let those in need find the product they need. A great example: my village could do wonders with the XO laptop (an NGO called One Laptop Per Child has created a $200 laptop to give to every child), but we can't get one, I can't even buy one for my village, because they want big grand sweeping plans: for the Malian government to buy a million of them and give them to all the students, and the NGO is finding out that the governments won't buy them, so One Laptop per Child has become No Laptop per Child. So frustrating.

My friend, Emily, came down for a visit. She thought Dialafara was beautiful with its cliffs. The village was laid back. We dyed Easter eggs with some Malian teachers. We went bushwhacking to see a cave in the cliffs. She brought fresh vegetables and we ate well. She brought a relief from boredom when Andrew is out working..

One of the three married couples dropped out of Peace Corps. They were having a tough time adjusting to city life (where nobody knows your name), being called "Whitey" all the time, being confused for tourists, feeling like their work didn't make a difference. The husband applied to law school and was accepted, but they decided to stick it out. Then family members started getting stick and with all that straw, the camel's back broke. We will miss them dearly and I hope we can keep up our relationship when we're done.

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