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.

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