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April 2011
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June 2011

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, writes from the Peace Corps in Mali:

I'm heading back to site this afternoon with Tabatha on the bus, so it will be probably a month before I am back on email. I should be in Bamako on June 11 or 12.

It was good seeing people, buying lots of junk I can't get in village or in Niena, having internet, drinking beer, but I do miss village life a little.

I do look forward to our calls, so that is definitely part of my entertainment.

The lactating donkey was in Djiallkorobugu, and it was in pain because its baby had died but it was still lactating. That donkey was in the compound, because we were in the suburbs. Now that I'm in the village they at least keep the bigger animals nearby but not in the compound proper, which is nice.

Children also play with razor blades and busted batteries.

Tubab translates literally as Frenchman, but they use it for any white person. But sometimes just to have something to say I'll correct them and say, Nope, I'm American. Kids chant in when you walk down a street in a city. In village they at least just chant my name, which is actually a lot nicer. We get special treatment because we're guests in this country, and because they know we are delicate flowers in constant peril of wilting or dying here.

I do think I'll do some good projects here.

Hangover 2

2 stars out of 5

How ironic to be reviewing this film the same week as Tree of Life. Talk about moving from the sublime to the ridiculous. This basically a remake of the first film, with the same plot and different details. It is clever and moves so fast you almost don't notice how hollow and stupid the whole enterprise is. Yes, I laughed, but sometimes I laugh when someone burps inappropriately too. If you loved the first film to death, or you have a mad crush on one of the actors, nothing I can say will stop you from going. But don't say I sent you. A gifted young musician cuts off his finger in a bar in Bangkok. Now THAT's funny! As Samuel Johnson reputedly said of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, "It is useless to criticize an unresisting imbecility."

Neal Vitale Reviews: The Tree Of Life

2 stars out of 5

Writer/director Terrence Malick's films (Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The New World) appear with the frequency of comets and are greeted similarly, as solemn portents. We are in auteur territory with Malick, as he tackles BIG issues - in The Tree Of Life, the beginning and end of mankind, forces of nature, the consequences of choices, living with guilt, blah, blah - and does so with glorious imagery and grand, sweeping vision. But his work unfolds in languorous fashion (a stupefying 138 minutes here), and much is left for the viewer to interpret and to try to stitch together into some semblance of coherence. While I applaud the scale and scope of The Tree Of Life and the beauty of several sequences, I can't shake the overwhelming sense of self-indulgence that neither entertains nor enlightens.


French Burqua Ban, Political Notes, Dan Grobstein File

A friend asks if this is a good idea or a slippery slope: French face veil ban comes into forceVeiled protesters arrested as controversial law banning women from wearing niqab or burqa in public is implemented.

Notable in politics this week:

Dan Grobstein File

Mali Journal

My older daughter M is serving in the Peace Corps in Mali. This week she has access to the Internet, so this is a very long entry. You can catch up on past entries here

May 18
Right now I am in Bougani at an Internet café. There is not an official house here, but there is a transit house. They just started renting it, so they haven't gotten all the amenities yet, but there are beds with mosquito nets, which is one of the most important things.

I got a really nice long email from T, the volunteer who I have replaced in N'tjila, on Facebook. She offered a lot of advice and also historical context for what she achieved and where she failed.  She offered social and professional advice.  Corresponding with her alone has made this trip into the city worthwhile, but I have also stocked up on luxury items such as: more Nutella, corn flakes, Pringles, and a big mirror.  I also did some fun shopping and got some earrings (tuareg design), some fabric (orange and red and white) with a peacock drinking out of a fountain, and a necklace.  The market here, like the city itself, is bigger than Niena (my banking town), but not as big as Sikasso (the regional capitol).  Obviously, there is electricity and Internet here.  The electricity has gone off a couple times, but never for too long.  I had one nice meal (chicken and plantains!) at the hotel piedmont which is just down the road from the house.  I even had a beer, unheard of in village.

It is my friend Josh's birthday in a couple of days, so he will be coming in as well.

I don't particularly like the cities here or traveling, so I think I'm going to spend a lot of time at site.  Being able to see T on Sundays in Niena and having my weekly calls with you guys and hopefully dad's letters soon will keep me sane enough I think.  It is still early days and I haven't actually seen rainy season yet, so all this could change.

We all go back to Bamako for in-service training in mid-June which may be the next time I have email.
(In a recent telephone conversation, she said it was hot AND muggy, but that the Bambara language spoken in her part of Mali has no word for humidity.)

May 19

When I first arrived at site, I was told we were going to meet with the doctor at the CSCOM (hospital/community health center). It turns out there is a national USAID-Malian government program to get a mosquito net for every person in Mali. On the US side it is known as the President's Anti-Malarial Campaign, and all the bushels of 50 nets had the State Department seal and Obama's signature, so it seemed legitimate.

Apparently as part of the campaign USAID had specified that if there was a Peace Corps volunteer in your commune they should be included. I tried to demure and say that I really wasn't supposed to be doing anything until I learned Bambara and the lay of the land, but the doctor insisted in impeccable French that I would be nothing but an asset, then he described the process of enumeration (basically a locally done census by number of people in a household performed by the relais - volunteers in villages that don't have official medical care to help on campaigns such as this or to administer polio vaccines, as they did the next week), distribution, and recordkeeping.

It all seemed straightforward, and he even gave me a handout. You could tell it was written and designed by USAID even though it had the Malian Health Ministry as a header. It seemed like a good opportunity to get to know neighboring communities and stay busy, so I eventually relented and we became co-supervisors of the project for the Commune Wateni.

We immediately went from our meeting to a meeting with the relais to describe the process to them. Baba, the doctor, explained everything in Bambara and occasionally looked to me for confirmation in French, or when there was a question from one of the relais he would translate it for me to answer first and then just confirm my answer. I thought everything was running smoothly, but then when it came time to hand out the documents it turned out the doctor was in Sikasso for training, and I had to run the second meeting myself.

I did it in a mix of Bambara and French, and although none of the relais could speak French at the same level as Baba, I was able to recommunicate what we'd discussed in the first meeting.

We went out to several neighboring villages, both for the survey and a couple days later for the net distribution. It seems like the two other villages I will be working with most are Sibirila and Bougelaba (All of M’s important villages are on this Google Map), they are both on the same "main" road as my village. In the end there were a couple of hiccups, but nothing major and all in all I would say it was a success, but it did expose me to the level of illiteracy and the lack of numeracy in the local population here. I'm already seeing that as one of the biggest concerns in terms of what is meant to be my primary work with the mobile bank.
* * *

My homologue’s kids live in Bamako except one, my host sister who is probably 20 and 8 months pregnant. Her husband lives in Paris where he works at a restaurant and sends money back, which makes them relatively well off in the village. She was BFF with the volunteer before me, so sometimes I think I catch her looking at me longingly willing me to learn Bambara faster so we can chat more easily. She speaks French, but obviously prefers Bambara.

The father is a bit deaf and mainly just sits around the compound listening to the radio, chatting with friends, or reading a small book in Arabic. I have three host brothers who do chores for me and get tasked to escort me to various events. The oldest is married with three kids of his own, probably early 20s, then there is the middle son who is in his teens and is more interested in playing music on his cellphone or playing soccer than talking to me, which is fine, I don't lack for attention. Then there is my most frequent helper, who fetches the water from the pump and fixes my bike, and was my escort for the party in Fugani, which ended up running until after dark, so he rode on the even shittier part of the road shining a flashlight on the slightly better part of the road for me for what might have been 5km, that was the only time we really talked because he only speaks Bambara. All of my host brothers are actually sons of the father’s younger brother who is a tailor and also lives in the compound. A second brother living in the compound has smaller boys as well. My actual host father doesn't live anywhere near us, but he is younger than my homologue's husband, though probably still in his 40s, so he does house repair for me and biking, and was responsible for taking me around to greet all the old men - chiefs of the quartiers, village chief, and just his friends. I haven't spent much time in his compound yet, but the women there weave baskets and do pottery, so that might be a fun place to hang out for a couple days.
* * *

Packages and letters are great. I may not go into Niena every week, but probably at least every two weeks, while email may be once a month. The radio station is also in Niena, where T and I are discussing getting a show. We might also try to do a take your daughter to work thing there because it would be more accessible for our girls than Sikasso or Bougani. We have to find some professional women for them to shadow first, preferably in an office. I read a lot each day. I read before bed and sometimes during midday nap time if it is too hot to sleep. Nothing is going on then anyway. Sometimes I study Bambara then, but that can be draining.


There is no typical day really yet.

Sunday is market day in Niena, so I've done that a few times. Wednesday is market day in N'tjilla so we also stop by there in the afternoon. I haven't been yet, but Saturday is market day in Bougelaba. I have been to three festivals, one for hunters, one for the coming rainy season/harvest, and one which turned out to be more of a big fishing trip than a festival.

There is a lake about 15 km away in another commune that they only fish once a year. People come from all over the region to participate. The lake is at its smallest because it is the end of the dry season and people wade in with baskets which they stab into the murky water and then check through a hole in the top if there are any fish that got trapped that they can pull out. They also had five pointed spears for randomly stabbing the water. It certainly didn't seem efficient.

Some people did really well, and some just came back exhausted with nothing to show for it. It was the hottest I've ever been. I didn't wade into the lake because I'm afraid of shisto [Schistosomiasis or snail fever)]. An old lady gave me a parasol, without which I may have died.

The hunting festival involved all the hunters from the commune coming together with some of their more impressive kills for dancing and eating. The most impressive dead animal in the pile was a huge wild boar. It must have weighed 300 pounds. Its throat was slit and it was separate from the pile of smaller bush kills. Also most prominently on display was an antelope head. Some day I'll share the pictures with you, I swear.

The farming festival was the most performance-based. A dozen young men dressed as gazelles in headdresses and straw skirts slunk around the circle being directed by three old men dressed as a hunter, a farmer, and a wily old gazelle or maybe an animal spirit. As I tend to go to these things with brothers who don't speak French, plus they tend to very loud, I don't always have a full grasp on what is going on.
* * *

It is really hot right now, so mainly you try and stay out of the heat in the middle of the day, and otherwise drink a lot of water and sweat a lot. Find shade when you can, because I often wake up sweating first thing in the morning. I get up early because my tin rough turns my hut into an oven as soon as the sun is up.

The food here really does suck. And I know I'm eating a thousand times better than anyone else in village. Everyone else eats to and sauce, sometimes rice and sauce, on special occasions couscous and sauce. Some of the sauces are awful, some ok, and some delicious, but there is just a lot of repetition.

Because I'm a tubab [a nickname for foreigners; they call them "Tubabs," a term derived from "two bob," the standard fee British colonialists used to pay for odd jobs. A "bob" was the slang term for a shilling in pre-decimal British money.] I get unheard of luxuries like bread, pasta, potatoes, meat and beans, but that really only adds a little variety.

When I go into market day in Niena it is mainly to find vegetables and things like potatoes which we can't get in village. My favorite sauce for rice has switched from peanut (tege dege) to onion (yasa). I have it better than most volunteers. My sister really is a good cook and I enjoy eating in my homologue's compound. It is just hard to get excited about smoked fish even though I know it is a luxury. T assures me the vegetables and fruits get bigger and better during rainy season, which is almost here.

Speaking Bambara all day is exhausting, and it turns out a lot of people in my village speak Ghanakan, which is another dialect all together, which while somewhat frustrating, makes me feel better about not understanding conversations with women and old people since I figured out that is what is going on. It is kind of like learning Mandarin and then spending a summer in Shanghai.

The toilet is a hole in the ground with a wall around it for me, called a negen. For everyone else in my village, however it is just a walled in area for peeing and bathing, and if you need to do anything else you go out to the bush or the fields. Obviously this is a huge water and sanitation concern and I want to at least try to address it during my 2 years, even though it is out of my sector.

Entertainment is chatting, reading, listening to the radio, watching local soccer games, walking to the butiki (store) to buy stupid little things, talking to you guys on the phone, texting, eating mangos, going to festivals or dances, but mainly it is sitting in the shade and watching whatever the kids or animals are doing.

There are goats, sheep, donkeys, cats, dogs, and guinea fowl in some combination in every compound. And in anticipation of rainy season the cattle are coming back from Ivory Coast with the young men they send out into the bush to tend them.

Haven't seen the shea association yet, I think that is going to be a post rainy season thing. I think the mobile bank is going to be much bigger in my service, and I have been to several meetings for that and am starting to get the ropes and also spot the challenges.

25,000 Big Macs, Bin Laden Details, Ambigously Gay Duo, Dan Grobstein File

Friends write to note: Fond du Lac man to eat his 25,000th Big Mac and Detailed story of Bin Laden mission

If you like the Ambiguously Gay Duo on SNL, check out this episode. Like so many SNL skits, it is a one-joke concept stretched. I still love it, and this is the best... episode... ever.

Dan Grobstein File

Ashland/Redding Recommendations

I mentioned last week that we had driven from Portland to San Francisco/Orinda. If you've ever taken that drive, you know that Ashland, Oregon, the home of the Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon College, is a lovely little town that is almost exactly half way in between; five hours south of Portland, five hours north of San Francisco. We stayed at:

Ashland Hills Inn & Suites
2525 Ashland Street
Ashland, OR 97520-1478
(541) 488-1783

Clean rooms, very spacious, well-appointed. About 500 yards off the freeway (and visible therefrom), yet also only a few miles from downtown Ashland. We have been staying there for decades (under a variety of names), and have never had a bad experience.

We arrived late, at 8pm, and were cruising downtown looking for dinner. Although we pulled the restaurant  out of our hat (that is, cruised down the main drag and picked a place that looked cute and clean), it turned out to be an excellent choice.

Pasta Piatti
358 East Main Street
Ashland, OR 97520-1833
(541) 488-5493

Vicki had the vegetarian pizza, I had the amazing duck with figs, and a (literally) breath-taking appetizer, the roasted head of garlic.

Sunday was Mother's Day. We decided to leave Ashland after only a light snack and have brunch near Redding. Consultation of  Google via my iPhone, using the search term "Sunday Brunch" produced this restaurant:

The Riverview Wedding & Event Center
4422 Gover Rd
Balls Ferry, Redding, Ca 96007

On the down side, it is about 8 miles off the freeway via a pretty but twisty and curvy route. On the upside, it is right in the middle of two branches of the Sacramento River, and eating outside there is utterly amazing (I'm not sure they even have inside seating). The food was good. They also have a bar, if that matters to you, but don't order the Ramos Fizz; ours was undrinkable. At least you can't mess up a Mimosa. Oh, and the wait staff was among the most cheerful I have ever experienced.

Groundhog Day Article

Mike Burtner writes:

I read of your interest in the link between 'Groundhog Day' and Buddhism and thought you might appreciate this article.  It is over a year old now, but I did not see it noted in either your blog or your compendium of articles about the movie.
In Depth With ‘Groundhog Day’s’ Ned Ryerson, Actor Stephen Tobolowsky
The point I found most interesting is the assertion by Tobolowsky that Harold Ramis envisioned Phil's time in the loop to be around 10,000 years.  That's the first time I've heard that figure, and it doesn't seem to be in Danny Rubin's work, but it is an interesting idea.
I work out of my home and usually have a movie or TV show on.  I wonder what it would be like to watch 'Groundhog Day' every day for just one year? Now, with Netflix and a smartphone, I would always have the movie available, even when traveling.  It might be that, through contemplation of the concepts and daily reinforcement, that daily ritual could have a totemic effect on my own navigation toward perfection.  Or at least an interesting blog topic.