Monday, August 17, 2009

Our African Vacation

Sorry for the lag in updates, but just pretend I'm still in Africa and keep reading...

Andrew and I decided once the school year was over that we would rush to go on a mini-vacation to Burkina Faso and Ghana. You may remember that we'd had this trip planned for over a year, but hadn't taken it because we were so busy at the school. After finals, we decided it'd be worth it to finally do it.
Crowded bus station in Bamako

Beginning of the trip (that's why I'm still smiling)

Maybe we'd been spoiled by getting rides with the gold miners in our area, but we hated the transport through Burkina into Ghana (note to everyone: don't ever try to cross West Africa by land). It took 12 hours on a crowded, un-air conditioned van to reach the Burkina border. There we had to go through all the visa procedures, baggage inspection, and general slowness in stamping things. Also, for those of you who think that traveling by Greyhound is rough, at least there are bathrooms on the bus. For our trip, the driver would randomly stop on the side of the road and people would climb over baggage, animals, and small children (all piled in the aisles of the bus) to run outside and do their business on the side of the road. Despite being a Muslim country, let me say that modesty doesn't really exist when you want to make sure the driver doesn't leave you behind because you're squatting behind a bush and he can't see you. Andrew and I had a rule that only one of us could pee at a time; the other would stay on board and make sure that the bus didn't pull away before we were done. Peeing on the side of the road is actually preferable, in my opinion, to using one of the rare public toilets at bus stations along the way. If you've ever seen Trainspotting, think of the toilet Ewan McGregor uses in the pub and you'll get a pretty good idea of what those toilets are like. While these toilets usually have a door (which sometimes even closes/locks/is tall enough to cover you), the general condition means that you don't go in unless you absolutely have to. Of course, on a 12-24 hour bus, I didn't often have a choice. But thankfully my African saviness meant that I was always prepared for these unusual experiences. First, always hold your breath while in the toilet. Second, always carry toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and water. Third, never set anything, such as a purse or jacket, on the ground. Finally, don't make eye contact with the other people sharing the toilet with you; it just makes it weirder. Probably the worst part of this is that you have to pay for the experience.
Luggage in the aisles, though nicer seats than most buses

Ghanan border

After we crossed the border, it was about 3 hours to Bobo-Diolassy, where we debarked for a couple of hours to await our connecting bus to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. At Bobo, we managed to make it to a Peace Corps house, where we showered, checked email, and ate a yummy dinner with other volunteers. We then caught a late night bus into Ouaga, arriving aroun 3:30am. This made it difficult to find the Peace Corps house where we were supposed to stay, and we ended up having to pay the cab driver lots of extra money for driving all over town looking for it. But we finally arrived and slept for a couple of hours before checking out Ouaga in the morning. Burkina seemed a little more developed than Mali, and more people spoke French. But the capital was larger and harder to navigate, and more expensive. We had a typical bureaucratical incident at the immigration office. At the Burkina border, we paid $20 each for a temporary transit visa, with the idea being that we could get it extended, for free, once we reached the capital. This is, of course, just a scam to get you to pay the visa fee again when you come back through. We went to the immigration office and were told it would take several days to process the visa, which didn't jive since we were planning on going directly to Ghana the next morning and then passing back through Burkina in a couple of weeks. So of course we had to pay another $20 each when we came back through since we didn't have time to get the visas renewed. Grrr.

The bus to Ghana was a nicer bus, with air conditioning, comfy seats, and really bad Ghanaian soap operas playing the entire trip. We were thankfully going to the north part of Ghana, so we didn't have to spend 28 hours from Ouaga to Accra, the capital of Ghana. Instead, after a pleasant 7 or 8 hours, we arrived in Tamale, where we checked into another Peace Corps house. Our first impressions of Ghana were that it's more developed than Mali, even in the poverty-stricken north. Streets were paved, electricity was mostly reliable, and they sold frozen chocolate milk for only 5 cents everywhere, which to me was the crowning achievement of Ghana. I can't tell you how delicious it was.
Bus to Mole National Park

From Tamale we took a pretty horrible, crowded public bus to Mole National Park to go on a safari. Despite the overpriced lodging and food, the animal visibility was awesome. We walked out of our hotel room to see baboons, warthogs, and red monkeys playing around. We saw lots of those animals all over the park, and some elephants, too. Our sights were limited to those four species, but I have to say, baboon butts are funny no matter how many you see in one day.

Nicole and baboon


After Mole we had a tough decision to make: should we skip the middle of the country to race to the capital in order to see Barack Obama speak in Accra? Okay, it wasn't that difficult a decision. We hopped on an overnight bus and twelve hours later arrived in Accra. Unfortunately it was again, 3:00 in the morning, and we ended up crashing on the tile floor of a hotel room where a bunch of other volunteers were staying. After about three hours "sleep," we gathered our stuff and tried to find a taxi to take us to a cheap hotel with beds. Because of Obama's visit, all the streets were closed, and even the taxis couldn't go anywhere! We spent 30 minutes desperately wandering around (me whining and teary the whole time; I don't do well on little sleep) before we discovered the Christiansborg Hotel, which had cheap rooms (with beds!). We spent a little time trying to explore, but we couldn't even get to the Peace Corps office because the roads were closed. We finally met up with some other volunteers who helped us get there. The PC admin peeps tried to tell us we couldn't go see Obama, because we weren't on the pre-approved guest list. We decided to go to the embassy (who had organized the event) and try our luck there. After several hours of being denied, they finally allowed us to go after everyone else had left. Still, they had reserved a section for PC and embassy workers, so we were really, really close to the stage. Air Force One was in the background, ready to escort Obama back to the U.S. He and President Mills arrived and each delivered a short speech. Pres. Obama made several references to the good work of Peace Corps, which was one of the few times I felt pride in what I was doing, and then he talked about how he admired the work Ghana was doing to develop, but that development was still their responsibility, and that while the U.S. would support them, that it was up to them to change their future. That short speech made me proud to have voted for him, as it so closely echoed my own realizations about development in Africa. He and the First Lady walked the line, and I came close to shaking his hand, but Americans can be rude no matter what country they are in, and all the tall people decided to stand in front of the short people and hog the good views (Andrew was a sweetheart and stood in the back while I tried to squeeze in the front with the other tall people).

Yay for Peace Corps!

Air Force One

You wouldn't believe how Obama-crazy Africa is, especially Ghana. All the publicity they produced made it seem like he and Pres. Mills had just signed some super important treaty that allowed Ghanaians to immigrate to the U.S. It was crazy. He was only there for 23 hours, and I couldn't help but think that Ghana could have better spent that PR money on, you know, developing the country. But I guess there's something to be said for raising the morale, and improving U.S. relations with Africa.
President Obama and President Mills

After Accra, we headed to the Green Turtle Lodge on the beach. We had heard a lot of hype about this place from other volunteers, but they were pretty booked, really far out of town, and it was overcast most of the time we were there. To top it off, they didn't have any seafood (still trying to figure that one out), no fruit juices (Andrew gently pointed out that there were pineapples, oranges, and coconuts in abundance...didn't make a difference to the bartenders), and a severe shortage of alcoholic drinks, despite their expansive drink menu. Overall we were really bummed, and totally ready to call it quits after three days. What was supposed to be the highlight of our vacation
was instead pretty crappy.

Turtle Beach

After the beach, we took a bus to Cape Coast to see the old slave fort, where Obama had recently visited. It was very eerie and moving, and offered many interesting facts about slavery (suprisingly a small percentage of slaves ended up in the U.S.; over a 1/3 went to Brazil alone, a 1/3 to the Carribean islands, and the other 1/3 was spread throughout the Americas, with 2 million ending up in the U.S.).

Cape Coast Castle
On the ramparts

Obama Plaque

A note about ordering in a restaurant in Africa: don't ever expect things to be on the menu. I couldn't believe how difficult it was to find seafood in Ghana, but even basic things like beef were often not in stock at the moment. And after reading beautiful drink lists, it was so disappointing to find they didn't have any. Ghana is a Christian country, so alcohol was, in theory, available throughout the country. It just wasn't great alcohol.

Another side note, this one about Christianity: Ghana is the most Christian place I've ever been. I doubt even Vatican City is this religious. Every boutique, restaurant, and vendor has some catchy Christian name like: The Lord is my Shepard I Shall Not Want Bar, God is Great Hair Salon, Jesus is the One True God Car Repair. Then you balance that against someplace like the All Sex Inn, and it gets really weird. We went on a canoe ride and this guy spent the whole time trying to convert us to Christianity, which was amusing but a little annoying after the first hour. (If you think I'm making this up, I understand. It's something you truly have to see to believe).

After Cape Coast, we went to Kakum national park, where we walked on 100 feet high walkways above the rainforest. It was freaky. I about had a nervous breakdown and only made it through all seven bridges because some German lady talked me through the last couple and kept me from freaking out. Andrew of course wanted to run across the bridges and bounce around.
Treetop Bridge

We then headed to Kumasi, just to break up the long trip back to Mali and hang with more volunteers. Kumasi was very busy, and it was fun hanging out with other volunteers. Then we took a horrible, crammed bus from Kumasi to the border, about 9 hours. There, we slept on the side of the road, were attacked by mosquitos, and waited forever for the damn bus to let us back on so we could cross the border. Of course we had to pay for another damn visa, which hurt our already dwindling supply of cash, and by the time we got into Ouaga we were too late to catch the nice bus back to Mali. Instead, we had to spend the night in Ouaga, and were kicked out of the Peace Corps house at 11pm and told to find a hotel since the house was booked with Burkina volunteers, who get priority. This was super annoying, especially since they woke us up to tell us to leave. The next morning, we bought what we thought we decent seats on a bus to Mali, but got hoodwinked and had to switch companies in Bobo, which meant we were on the worst bus in the world for about 20 hours. It was so painful. The seats were broken, tiny, really uncomfortable, and they of course oversold it and overpacked it, so people were sitting in the aisles on top of luggage, so we were like little sardines. To make things worse, the bus stopped every five minutes and the windows didn't open so it was stifling the whole way, and they never stopped to let us get dinner. I have no shame in admitting that I spent most of the trip quietly crying in my seat. For me, that trip was a culmination of my African experience: Painful, uncomfortable, and completely non-sensical. It hurt so bad to think that while you can partly blame Africa's poverty on colonialism and foreign interference, Africans are direct contributors to their misery. It would be easy to say that they have lower standards than us, and that those conditions are fine for them, but I've never met anyone who likes the way things happen in their country. Yet they sit there quietly. They don't bother to try to change their lives. Its fatalism, in that they believe that's just the way things are, and its an unwillingness to accept responsibility to help themselves; instead Malians believe that its the responsibility fo the French, or other foreigners to fix things in Mali. I won't get into it much here, since I'll be sending out another email soon once I feel emotionally stable enough, but I wanted to give you an idea of how bad the transport is there, among other things.

After the worst 20 hours of my life, we arrived in Bamako at about 3:00am. When we finally arrived at our hotel, they wouldn't let us in because I'd left our tickets at the PC office. I told them I would get them in the morning but they refused. So we had to walk to another hotel where we finally got some sleep. After about 4 hours of sleep, I headed to the Medical office to do my blood and urine tests and my end of service physical. On July 23rd, I flew from Bamako to Paris to Salt Lake to Ontario, where I was so happy to have a hot shower, a warm bed, and logic back in my life. I'm still struggling with emotional issues right now, and it's especially hard being here without Andrew, but I can't tell you how happy I am to finally be home.

I hope to see some of you soon, and keep your eyes open for a "Reflection on Mali/Peace Corps" in the upcoming days.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Last Weeks in Village

My host sisters KaDi, Sata, and Fatim

Our last few weeks at site were busy but somewhat uneventful. I spent a lot of time going through my things, giving away anything I didn’t want to neighbors and students of mine. I have a feeling the community will thank me more for giving away clothes than for anything else I did in Mali. We had final exams, which were somewhat of a joke. Here’s an example of a 7th grade Civic and Moral Education exam:

1. This man was arrested, along with his wife, outside the presidential palace on March 26, 1991. What is his name?

2. This man is the president of the most powerful country in the world. What is his name?

3. This large, West African country has a city named Segou. What is the country, and its capital?

4. What day did you begin the 3rd trimester of the school year?

Despite these insanely easy questions, almost all students completely bombed this test. They also had the nerve to tell me during the test that the questions weren’t fair because they hadn’t studied the subjects in class. Even I knew all the answers. The first one should have been easy, because Mali has only had, say, 3 presidents in its entire history, and the one in question was actually a dictator that was ousted by the current president. On top of that, there are streets everywhere in Mali named after the date of his overthrow. My favorite answer for this one was: Andrew Wallace and his wife Lassina Diarra (the teacher, actually a male). As for the second question, despite Obama mania here, most students seemed to think that the Malian president was the most powerful person in the world. For question three, even Andrew’s parents could answer that one, since they’ve been to Segou, seeing as how it’s in Mali. You’d think that with only a few countries in West Africa to begin with, that would have at least given them a clue. Nope. Lots of kids think its Brazil. Not a single person out of 103 students was able to answer the last question. Everyone just wrote the day’s date.

First, it’s really disappointing to even see stupid questions like that on a final exam, and second, that the students couldn’t even answer the really easy ones. But you have to try to see the humor in it. For example, on my health test, when asked to describe the role the testicles play in the male body, one student wrote: “The testicles on a woman are varied and live in chateaux (castles).” When asked to define fertilization, one student remarked that it was a “very serious disease for women to have.” Obviously, in West Africa it is a serious disease, especially if you’re passing on those genes. Sorry to be mean, but it’s so frustrating to think about how much I worked with the kids for an entire year, doing everything in my power to make things as straightforward as possible, and 90% still didn’t pass the test. It was infuriating, because I used all the same questions from previous quizzes I’d given throughout the year, so it should have been easy for them.

Lamini, the headmaster at the school, did a lot of work to give us a going-away party. There was a boys vs. boys soccer game, followed by girls vs. girls. Each team represented either me or Andrew, and both my teams won. I got to give the opening kick! After the games, my theater group presented several skits for the village, including one on health, one making fun of Muslim men during prayer time, and one imitating me in class teaching. It was really sweet and touching and made me feel good, because the students themselves decided to put something together before they even knew there was going to be a party. I have to say that’s probably the best example of someone taking initiative I’ve seen my entire time in Mali. After theater, Andrew and I presented certificates to the students who had done a good job during the year. This was a completely new idea to them, and everyone loved it, including the mayor and the doctors from the village. The kids were so happy, and it was a big change from what normally happens. Usually the teacher just reads out everyone’s grades at a public meeting, and the kids who do badly basically get ridiculed in front of everyone. This seemed to work better, and maybe some kids will try harder next year, especially since now they see that you don’t have to be one of the top three in the class to be recognized (we gave out Most Improved, Best in Subject ____, and Best Behavior awards as well). After certificates, we hosted a spaghetti dinner for about 30 people from the village. Everyone complained that I didn’t put enough salt in the sauce. Which just goes to show that Malians will complain about everything. Later that night, after the dinner, the kids had a dance party.

The girls' football team who fought (and won!) for my honor

Andrew giving out student awards

My last week or so was spent trying to get everything organized and packed. I managed to fit my stuff into two bags, though one was overweight and I got charged $65 to bring it back. My neighbors cried the morning I left, which was really uncomfortable. Malians don’t usually cry; even at funerals it’s a “fake,” dramatic cry. But these people actually did. And there’s nothing I could do about it. My car was waiting and I was trying to say goodbye, but my neighbors wouldn’t even look at me. We didn’t really cover this in cross cultural training. We did cover how to answer the question, “So when are you coming back?” but even that training didn’t really help me. I tried, as kindly as possible, even joking about it, to tell them that I wasn’t planning on coming back except maybe when Andrew and I have kids and we want to teach them to eat their vegetables, because, you know, there are starving kids in Africa (I only ever saw 1 or 2 starving kids, but that’s because Mali doesn’t have a lot of the problems the rest of Africa has).

Peuhl Sheep Festival

I’ll end this update for now, because I will give a vacation update and a general Peace Corps update in later emails, and I don’t want you guys to get too bored. In the meantime, enjoy these photos.

Me, Lamini, and Andrew at the airport