Thursday, May 29, 2008

M is For Mali

First, let me apologize for being so grouchy in my last email. Nicole + no mail – food= very grouchy. But you all responded so nicely that I was left guilty for weeks afterward. I hope this email is more informative and better humored than the last.

So I have lots of little cultural lessons for you guys today.

Lesson 1: Gravity doesn't exist for Malian women. Malian women wear a pagne, which is a long piece of rectangular fabric that they kind of tuck in around their waists like a towel. Amazingly, this works for them. Not only do women make these stay on, but they can walk in them, they can carry water on their heads wearing them, and they can pound corn and other foods in their giant wooden mortars (which is quite a work-out, let me tell you). And they do this all while still wearing their pagnes. I, on the other hand, am a complete goon with a pagne, even though I have mine made with strings attached so that I can securely tie it to my waist. That said, the clothing is probably my favorite cultural quality of Mali. Every store sells fabric, often in crazy and beautiful patterns, and tailors abound in every village (mine has no less than four, which is a little ridiculous since we can't even get someone to sell bread regularly). The other great thing about Malian women is that they are immune to basic rules of fashion. You know the one where stripes and plaids don't mix? Here in Mali, anything goes. Women will wear any number of patterns at the same time, and somehow still look amazing. I hope some of the photos I've sent have helped demonstrate that fact.

Top students receiving gifts of shoes

Lesson 2: Killing animals is very, very gross. I went to my first sacrifice last week. No, not human! When someone dies in my community, especially if they don't actually live in my village but somewhere else, a member of their family will hold a sacrifice in his/her honor. This is much, much better than a funeral because there's none of that wailing and tearing of the hair. Instead, everyone gets together and they give out these tasty little rice-sugar balls, and they kill a cow. This is disgusting. I watched them pull out all the poop from its intestines and place them not-too-far away from the rest of the body. Gross. They then distribute the meat to close(r) friends of the family. We always get some meat since we're foreigners. You can be sure I cooked ours very, very well.

Lesson 3: You must dance at weddings. I went to my first wedding a couple of weeks ago. It's fun but very stressful. I didn't arrive until the celebration started, so I don't know how the actual wedding part really works, except in theory. Usually the couple goes to the mayor's office and signs a paper, which is the "official" wedding, and then they go to the mosque and do the "religious" wedding, and then there's a big party. At the party, there is a group of women who dress in men's clothing and carry hoes (the tool, silly) and pretend to smoke cigarettes and dance around. It's comical, but I have yet to see the men who dress like women running around in pagnes. The procession of party-goers moves around the village playing music and dancing. Their version of dancing is this: While someone is playing the drums, two women (no more, no less) run out into the middle of the circle and dance all crazy-like. Then they leave and another pair runs out to show her stuff. I, of course, and completely terrified to dance and usually cower toward the back. They usually try to bring me in but I'm pretty resilient. What disturbs me most is how sensual the dancing is. It's a lot of butt-shaking, and seeing 9 year old girls doing it is a little bothersome. I'll try to bring you some videos when I'm home. After the dancing, someone carries the new bride, piggyback, to her new home, and everyone follows. The couple enters into the hut and someone fires three gunshots into the air (we always leave by this point because we feel it's kind of dangerous). That's the signal for the honeymoon to start, which lasts about 7 days. During this time the women doesn't leave her hut except to go to the bathroom. And usually the party continues every night until the seven days are up. After that, the bride can move into her own hut, where she'll only be visited by her husband a couple nights a week, depending on how the schedule is divided among his other wives (he can have four).

Lesson 4: Malians want money to take their photo. We were on the bus yesterday to come up to Kayes, when we passed four Fulani women who were in the process of walking the 70km to the nearest "city." They came running after the car, with these huge bundles on their heads. Fulani women are an ethnic group from the eastern, deserty region of Mopti. They are really distinct in their culture, language, and appearance. They are the cow herders of Mali, and are somewhat nomadic. Also, Fulani women are said to be the most beautiful in Mali, but the different ethnic groups don't really mix with them, probably because of their language. Anyway, this was my first time to see a real, ethnic Fula women. I was amazed. They all had very pale skin, lots of scarring on their faces, and at least three giant gold hoped earrings in each ear. They also had a poofy afro at the very front of their head, while the rest of their hair was braided into three braids, two of which dangled in front of their ears, the last at the back of their head. There clothes were all different as well, but mostly they were a mix of bright patterns thrown together. They have really brazen, beautiful head scarves that I can't find anywhere to buy. Their language is really beautiful, musical and high pitched, unlike the Malinke that sounds like someone speaking with a mouth full of rocks. They all wore about 6 bracelets on each arm, all the same pattern. I actually bought a bunch of those bracelets last time I was in Bamako, as souvenirs for you all back home, but I had no idea they were Fula bracelets. They all carried smaller bundles in their laps, and when they unwrapped them, I saw a bunched of handmade, multi-colored bowls stacked one on top of the other. Each bowl help something different, like money or herbs. Anyway, so we picked up the four of them. A minute later, two more flagged us down. Two minutes pass and we cram another three women in. I now know what a clown car is like when it's being filled. It was crazy! I talked to a couple who seemed to understand Bambara, and it was mostly fun even though one of the older women offered a younger woman as Andrew's second wife. However, when we got to the town, I asked to take their photo and they said I had to pay them money for it, so I didn't get a photo. But it was still fun meeting them!

Not my photo, but it gives a good idea of how Fulani women look

Alright, now on to work-related stuff. I've actually been really busy! Which is probably why I'm in such a good mood now. First, I did a program with my matrone (midwife) and malnourished children in my village. We weighed 59 babies and then chose 8 who were a little underweight. None were severely malnourished. Then we went to their homes and asked them to participate in the program. The 8 women came to a meeting a week later, as well as 2 others who heard about the program and wanted to join. We gave the kids a de-worming medicine, to facilitate their growth during the program. We asked all the women to bring a kilo of either peanut, corn, or millet flour. The next week, we started the program. For 12 days, the women came to the matrone's house and we made an ameliorated porridge and gave a presentation on different health topics everyday. We talked about birth spacing, eating a nutritious meal, preventing malaria, and other things like that. Andrew helped out and did presentations on Moringa (a really nutritious tree) and mud stoves to reduce firewood consumption. The program is great, but I ran into a couple of problems. First, not all the women came everyday. It was really frustrating but there wasn't anything I could do! Also, we ran out of flour, and I asked the doctor to give us more, and he refused because our program wasn't a part of the clinic, which is total BS. He also didn't want the matrone to participate because he said it wasn't part of her job description. Because he said she still had to at the clinic every morning, we had to hold the meetings in the evening at 3:00pm instead of during the morning, which was hard because the kids were supposed to be drinking the porridge throughout the entire day. And then the matrone left the village two days before the end of the program, so I had to do the last two days on my own, which sucked because the women only speak Malinke, and I only speak Bambara. But two of the four kids who came the last day had gained a little weight, so I guess it was a success??

Rehabilitation Program with women

In addition to that program, I started an English Club. Every week students come and we discuss a different topic in English. The books Leann sent were great for this because we can read a short story in English, which also gets them interested in books. We've done numbers, where we taught them "Go Fish;" geography, where we listened to the Beach Boys' "California Girls" and talked about US regional stereotypes; family, where we made Mother's Day cards; and seasons. I'm always looking for different ideas, so if anyone can think of one, let me know. We're doing animals next week. With all the books Glenn and Maggie have sent us, we should have a great starting place for future club meetings.

English Club: Playing Go Fish

We've also been teaching English, but we only have one student. Lots of people approached us and asked us to teach, but they never showed up to any of the classes, despite all the reminders they received (fliers, radio announcement, door-to-door) so we've given up on them.

Our library project is going to be funded! At least, the US Embassy in Mali has agreed to fund it, but they are still waiting for the funds to arrive from the US, so nothing has been started yet. But now that we have so many books, even if we can't get the building made, we can get some bookcases and keep them in the staff room for the students to use.

Speaking of books, if anyone wants to help out with library, you can do this: Go down to your local bookstore and buy one book in French. There are tons of English books so French is really what we need right now.

You can also mail anything else you want there, and I will take it back to Mali with me when I come to visit, which is in one month! I will be arriving in L.A. on June 26 and leaving July 9. I will make time for anyone who wants to see me, especially if you offer me lunch or ice cream. Or a movie. God, I'm so out of the loop in terms of movies! June 28th will be the annual Independence Day BBQ at the Wallaces (which is actually why I chose to visit in June) so if you're in the area, come hang out!

One note on sending donations to Mali: School supplies aren't really useful. The students have very few supplies that they actually need. They all have pens, pencils, and special notebooks. Sending bic pens and pencils is great, as that's what they use here, but as there are 500 students, it's a little hard to choose people to whom we can distribute supplies. Don't send notebook paper, as the teachers won't accept it for homework or tests, and art supplies are too few to be distributed equitably, although great for teachers who want to create illustrative posters. I do use them for English Club, but if you send markers and stuff, even giving them to the best students in the school has its pitfalls. The students don't know what to do with stuff like that, and the one time we had them use markers, they wrote all over each other with them. For school, what they really need are textbooks, because there aren't enough for all of them, or they are out-of-date. But it's difficult to help with that, so sending (French) books is really the best way to help out the students, to keep them reading and learning outside of school. We had a teacher send us flip-flops, which is something all students want, but we could only give them to the girls who had better than a C average since we only had 25 pairs, and it wasn't great for the little general stores trying to sell their flip-flops.

I'm trying to start a theater competition in my region for the students. I want all the students to perform skits related to health topics and present them at the capital for a prize. The problem is that PC messed up and used up all the funds for projects until 2009. I have to find some way to pay for all the students to travel to the capital to perform their skits. I'll let you know if there's anyway you guys can help.

We've had sporadic rain here, which is nice, because it's HOT. I don't even know how hot it is here because our digital thermometer fluctuates between 106-117 degrees. I don't think it's actually that hot, but you never know. I'm excited for rainy season to start because I want to try growing things again in our garden.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life... or so the saying goes.

What if he already knows how to fish?
What if he can't afford the line or hook (rods are out of the question)?
What if there's nowhere to buy line and hooks?
What if there are no fish due to overfishing?
What if the fish are endangered?
What if the river is polluted and the fish are poisonous?
What if he gets attacked by mossquitoes and gets malaria while waiting for fish?
What if he goes to the next step and starts dynamiting the river for fish?
What if the fish don't taste good?
What if his wife doesn't know how to cook/clean fish?
What if he fishes, to the exclusion of farming, and thus has nothing to eat?

what if, what if, what if...


Teachers of Dialafara

Nicole and I waited up all night for our fellow volunteer, Vanessa, to arrive from Kayes. Due to breakdowns, she didn't get in until 5 am (4 hours late). The bus guys tossed down this huge rice sack and we were stunned. A whole rice sack; wow? We thanked Vanessa and wished her a good journey (at least 2 more hours to Kenieba). We went back home, got some sleep, and then called over the headmaster (director and teacher of the middle school) and openned up the 'present.' Nicole was happy to count the thirty flip flops and notebooks, pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers, rulers, scissors, paper, binder, markers; and thai dolls. The headmaster smiled from ear to ear. We thought about how best to distribute this in a fair, but encouraging way. We talked about spelling and geography bees, jeopardy, giving them to good students, etc. The headmaster decided that the flip-flops would best be given to the girls who had at least a C average, as that number closely matched the number of flip-flops. The top three students of each class were given the notebooks and pens and pencils. The art supplies have been left in the teachers office for the teachers to make illustrative posters for the students. The loose-leaf paper will be used for the math classes to do their sums. The difference in American and Malian paper styles is a little unfortunate, but they are happy to work around that. The rest of the pens and pencils will be given out at the beginning of next school year, because if they were given out now, they'd be lost or misused, and they will nicely reinforce the 'grade ceremony.' Among those photos, I included some images from the 'grade ceremony' from the second trimester (it was in March or April). The teachers gathered all of the students and invite the parents (of whom only a pitiful few arrive) to announce the grades that the students received on their finals. It was striking for Nicole and me because they also say the comments like 'very bad student, student talks in class, misbehaves' etc, and the rest of the students laugh. We're working with them to try and change this to a more positive, inspiring ceremony. The inspiring part is when they
announce the top three of each class, and the top girls, and pass out notebooks and pens and pencils to them. We're still trying to get some sort of competition going for the thai dolls and other supplies, but its totally new territory for the teachers, so it will take some work.
Top girls receiving their flip-flops

Award/Punishment Ceremony

Top Students of the Year
Let me talk about the school. In Dialafara, there is an elementary and middle school (grades 1 to 9). The school itself used to be grain storage buildings, but throw some cement on the wall, paint it black, and you've got a school. Each room is about 15 ft x 30 ft and holds anywhere from 70 to over 100 students, crammed together 4 to a desk where there should only be 2, leaving the tiniest path for the teacher to slip through to get to the front where the black board is. Since this is the only middle school in the county, students come from all over (as far as 40 miles). They have to stay with a family in Dialafara because there is no transport to the villages. When school is done for the season, they walk the 10+ miles back to see their parents. It's hard to keep the students coming when home is so far away, especially the girls. Each class is only about 25% girls. Unfortunately in our village, education is not much respected, so the girls come to class to look pretty among the other girls, not so much to learn. They usually cannot speak French, even though the teachers mainly talk in French, and they've theoretically been studying it for the past 7 years. To be sure, there are girls who try really hard and do well in school. But it is really hard to stay in middle school when you get married and have a baby. The girls who stay in school are very lucky to have parents who understand its importance (after all, ten cows and $300 to marry your daughter is much more lucrative than school).
Students three to a desk

Students start learning to read and write in Bambara, one of the national languages. They grow up speaking Malinke, which is almost Bambara but not quite (more different than American English and British English, but the same idea). The learn to sing the national anthem; to raise and lower the flag, to march in step. They use chalk and little black boards to do their lessons. In 4th grade they begin learning French. They must pass a test called the BAC to graduate from 6th grade. From there they go to middle school, where the classes are mosty in French, except for the English class. In middle school, 5 teachers teach them math, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, geography, English, French, history, drawing, music, and civic and moral education. Each class lasts about 2 hours long once or twice a week. The teachers do their best, but with 70 students, you can't give students the attention that they need. So the good students sit up front and learn and the teacher often calls on them when they raise their hands, snap their fingers, and say 'me, me, me sir;' and the disinterested students sit in the back and zone out. The teacher used to have more control when he could threaten them with a beating, but now that's against the law, and mostly not done. It's also difficult when there is only one textbook for every 4 students, so much class time is spent writing on the board what is written in the books. Since the students don't get enough attention, many are unable to pass the compositions (tests) at the end of each trimester, so they repeat the class. Most of the students in 9th grade are around 17. To go to high school, they have to pass the DEF. The closest high school is in Kenieba, 40 miles away, but most students who go to high school go to Kayes, the state capital, 100 miles away, or Bamako, the country capital, 400 miles away.

But I have painted a bleak picture of school. The teachers get together everyday and eat lunch together, talking about their classes, about the soccer game last night. They laugh all the time. The students play soccer, or sit around and drink tea when they aren't busy with chores. They know that school is important. Some of them have plans to be doctors, English teachers, soldiers. Others are content to graduate and help their family at the farm. Most everyone is happy. They have the same feelings as American students. Some dread that first day, others can't wait for it. There are the students who cram hard before the test, and others who study the whole time. The students are happy when they get good grades. There are the students who don't care, about anything. There are prankster students and teachers-pets. The setting may be different, but school is essentially the same.

My recommendation for future school donations would be pens, pencils, sharpeners, art supplies for teachers to make posters, money for textbooks, French and really easy English books, pictures of American life (classroom, farm, supermarket, parking lot, school yard, nature, city, animals, transportation). Donations are easier to distribute (though probably not to collect) at the beginning of the school year than at the end. But any aid at any time is always welcome. I think Peace Corps is a great way of getting the aid away from the capital city, which gets more than its fair share.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I am discouraged. Maybe because I haven’t been working as much as before (it’s too hot and my work will naturally pick up again when rainy season starts). I am frustrated with Malians and with Mali. I am getting to the point where I feel like all international aid is pointless. We come in with our great ideas, with our perfectly workable solutions, to help because they need help, they say they want help, and we’ve got the means to give it. What happens to all those great ideas, movements, solutions? Nothing. Countless years spent trying to propagate the mud stove: a free solution, possible throughout the world (ingredients: mud, rocks), greatly reduces fuelwood consumption which is good for the environment and means less work for the women who have to go get wood. This is a great solution, but I’m hard-pressed to find these mud stoves. The idea was brought to Mali in the 70’s, so this isn’t a new idea. I was trained how to teach the villagers to make them, but it’s the villagers who can teach me. They can tell me how great they are for the environment, for the families, everything. Yet they’re hard to find. Why? The rain destroys them, they can’t be moved, they need airflow, whatever. I’ve heard tons of excuses. The answer is that the women of my area cook with three rocks, period. There are also metal stoves, hourglass shaped, that are the same thing as the mud stove, but it costs $4. I can imagine a guy going around: “It slices, it dices, and your kid won’t get burned every other day!” Yes, a fancy solution to this simple problem, one that makes them financially invested in its success. These are more popular, you can find them in more households. But can you find them in use? They cook with three rocks, period. No matter how great the solution, it won’t work without a corresponding behavior change. Examples like this abound: Nicole’s ameliorated porridge, hand washing, charcoal making, miracle trees, micro-credit, gardening projects, improved this, improved that, NGO for the development of the support of the bla bla bla. It hasn’t worked.

Malians have to reinvent the wheel. They have to do this themselves. The entrepreneurs need to step forward, take their NGO-financed risks, and solve this problem themselves. They’ve been given a solution to every problem, except for how to change their behavior, how to change their culture.

Yes, change their culture. It is their culture that prevents them from washing hands, from using improved stoves, from cooking more nutritiously, etc. Until there’s a cultural change, there’s nothing we can do, and nothing we should do. When we come in with these solutions, we prevent them from enacting this change. Oh, they can’t change their culture! Culture is sacred, it’s what makes them who they are, unique! For a comparison, think about how the US is changing its car culture in response to global climate change. Cultural change is possible, and it isn’t a bad thing. Culture isn’t static. It has to change in order for survival. That will be the subject of my next post, hopefully tomorrow.