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October 2011
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December 2011

Mali Journal

Thanksgiving went really well. 85 people signed up on Facebook and 86 people attended. A couple of straglers game today just for the Mexican food.

Wednesday everyone started arriving. The newest stage is at Tubaniso for pre-service training, and the last stage to get sworn in is there for in-service training, so this holiday was just Team America and the Kennedys and the couple of third year Risky Business and the Honey Bunches of Oats (hobos for short). D is leaving on the 9th for America after three years here. He is the one who came to help me with my bank. My homologue will be sincerely sorry she won’t get to see him one last time. We went out together Wednesday night to the Mamelon hotel and bar. There have been three birthdays over this holiday week, so we have pretty much been celebrating someone’s birthday every night.

Thursday we got up early to cook. I helped with the stuffing and the fruit salad. Basically I just filled in chopping when needed. I think my bigger contribution was keeping the prep areas clean. Since we did some of the prep work outside the flies were especially bad. I moved the garbage away from the kitchen, mopped up, did dishes etc.

I think it was the first broken window rule, since I kept it clean for the first couple of hours, other people maintained it after I stopped. With 40 people in a house that normally has around six, I’m surprised at how clean we’re keeping it in general. (There are also 30 people at a missionary hostel, and the remainder scattered around apartments and houses here in the city.)

We went to the venue around 4 for dinner. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, gravy, fruit salad, apple pie and pumpkin pie. There were eight turkeys and three ducks. They were butchered a little haphazardly, as is the rule here, but they were moist since they’d been deep fried. The mashed potatoes were a disappointment, but I didn’t think they were actively awful as some volunteers did. Green beans and gravy were good. The stuffing was, I think, the stand out. Apparently last year it was a disaster, so we paid extra attention to it this year. There was waaaaaay too much fruit salad, but it was good before it got too soupy (too much watermelon I think). The pies were a little under-seasoned either with cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice, and the apple pie wasn’t sweet enough. But, hey, we had pie, so that was nice. I had a bartending shift with T that ran during the flip cup tournament. There was also beer pong. So it was kind of like Thanksgiving at a frat house. In the evening we all went out to a club that had been rented out for the occasion so it was just PCVs, and then of course when I got home from the club I got to talk to you guys.

Going out a bunch of days in a row, plus socializing in general with this many people started to get exhausting today. I had intended to help with the guacamole, but I just sat with some of the other PCVs watching episodes of the Big Bang Theory, Arrested Development, The Office and Modern Family until it was time to go to the pool. The pool was nice, but there was no shade in the actual pool. So you had to choose water or shade. I probably got too much sun today as a result. We used shwarma wrappings for taco shells, we had 16 pounds of meat flavored with the taco seasonings and cayenne mom sent (delicious), refried beans, Spanish rice, Velveeta (thanks again, this was probably the biggest hit of the day even though the only “cooking” we did with it was heat it up into a nacho sauce), guacamole and salsa. The overall effect was satisfying Mexican, and we had people serving the food rather than making it a free for all, so unlike last year everyone actually got some of everything. Tomorrow there is a trip to the waterfalls that I am going to skip, because I did that trip for the 4th of July and don’t need to do it again. Some people are going to start heading back to site tomorrow, so it’ll be a little less crowded here which will be nice. I’m going to stay in Sikasso until KJ comes back from Portugal, and then we’re going back to my site together which will be fun. I haven’t seen her since IST. I was treasurer for this whole affair, so tomorrow I’m going to fill in the spreadsheet with the half-assed receipts I made people write out if they were taking out money for cooking or club nights or firewood or whatever. We made a bit of change off this whole thing, which is satisfying. We’re going to put it towards something nice for the house.

Old Testament and OWS/Elizabeth Warren

I went to a Thanksgiving service this week  and was struck by the reading from Deuteronomy (not even that wimpy socialist Jesus, but the real Old Testament God):

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth...

Sounds like the bible supports Occupy Wall Street and Elizabeth Warren to me. I know even the Devil can quote scripture, and I don't plan to sell my daughters into slavery, but still...

Political Briefs

The Muppets

4 stars out of 5
They're back. And despite the nasty rumors you may have heard about the lack of respect for the Muppet canon, this film is as faithful to Jim Henson's vision as Miss Piggy is faithful to Kermit. The humans, as usual, are the cartoon characters (heroes and villains) and the Muppets are the lovable well-rounded creatures. They still think they are human. They are still sweet and innocent--so much so that in order to create "evil" muppets, the writers had to create "Moopets," a semi look-alike tribute band. Which means the other characteristic of the Muppets is intact. Like the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the movie contains slapstick and fart jokes for the little ones and sly irony and movie references for the adults. My daughter and I were among the few, but not the only, adults there without children. This is family entertainment for all ages. Don't miss Mickey Rooney! Credits where credit is due: director James Bobin helmed Jim Henson's characters in a screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel and Chris Cooper.

The Descendants

4 stars out of 5
When I see a movie with friends, we normally agree. But in this case I was the odd man out. I went to see The Descendants with seven other adults, all of whom were left cold while I was overwhelmed. Director Alexander Payne worked from a screenplay he wrote along with the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on Kaui Hart Hemming's novel. George Clooney was good as the trustee for a large Hawaiian land trust, but his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, were the real breakouts here. The story shows him trying to be a father after his wife ends up in a coma following a boating accident. In my book, this is a performance that should have all the leads clearing space on their mantle for a certain gentleman by the name of Oscar. On top of the good acting, there is the scenery. We vacationed in Kauai last year, and it was amazing. We went to all the places show in the film, including the beach.

Dan Grobstein File

  • U.S.   | November 23, 2011
    Who's on the Line? Increasingly, Caller ID Is Duped
    Regulators are hearing more complaints about "caller ID spoofing" or "call laundering" by telemarketers. 
  • Rae Jones (@MsRaeJones) More violence in one day of shopping than all of the #occupy events. And people wonder what is wrong with this country.
  • Score Another One For The Blockheads
    The GOP has refused to allow President Obama’s Medicare/Medicaid program head to even get a vote in the Senate, threatening to filibuster every attempt, and that means a year after his recess appointment, Donald Berwick is out.
  • Goodbye to rail station platforms?
  • And the states that reliably vote Republican are the ones that get the most back from the federal government for each $1 they send to Washington. But at least it isn't "those people" who are getting the money.
    They're All On The Teat
  • U.S.   | November 27, 2011
    California Bullet Train Project Advances Amid Cries of Boondoggle
    The state's leaders have rallied around a plan to build a rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, in the face of seemingly insurmountable political and fiscal obstacles.

  • Mali Journal

    My older daughter is in the Peace Corps in Mali: she had Internet access this week:

    There’s still no Internet at the house. I cornered M, our regional coordinator, this morning and said I’d do anything I could to help make Internet a thing we could have again. He assured me he was on it and we might even get it today. I’m just hoping it happens this week.

    So the last three weeks weren’t necessarily my most productive, but they were generally more positive feeling than the month of October when nothing seemed to be going my way. Seliba or Tabaski was at the beginning of the month. It takes a couple days for people to prepare, and then the celebration itself is basically three days long, so nothing gets done for awhile on either side of it. I’d heard different things from different volunteers and also from my homologue about what to expect, but it actually seemed a little more low-key than seli fitini or the end of Ramadan.

    The big selling point for this holiday is that everyone who can afford to, i.e. the male heads of households, kills a sheep. B, my homologue’s husband, is like the lead old man for three households, his own two wives and kids and then the two younger brothers and their three wives and kids. So B did the actual cutting of the sheep’s throats. I asked if I could watch, and they were thrilled as always that I wanted to take some pictures.

    After the morning prayers at the clearing by the side of the road (the mosque is too small for a capacity holiday crowd including women and children) we rushed back to the compound for the slaughter. I was the only woman present. The younger men handled the sheep, dug a hole for the blood, and picked leaves off a nearby tree to stem any arterial spray (which I had actually been wondering about when I chose my angle for picture taking). B muttered some blessings over the animals and slit there throats so the blood filled the hole. I expected to feel something while watching, but really I was just excited at how much meat that meant we were going to have to eat for the next couple of days. I felt bad about not feeling bad, but meat is so rare in village, I couldn’t help but feel happy.

    I went home to change and missed the skinning and beheading of the animals, but came back in time for some of the butchering. The rest of the day young boys on bikes crisscrossed the village delivering meat from one family to another. I gave the meat I received directly to my homologue for cooking since I didn’t want to handle it. The best meat preparation involved a mustard and vinegar sauce and what basically amounted to a bbq grill. It was delicious. The meat stewed for a long time in the sauce was also good. I think I may have over done it, because they were surprised at how much meat I ate. Apparently T, the volunteer before me, showed more restraint.

    One day we went to Numula, the farthest away quartier where my people, the blacksmiths named Fane, live, to greet B, my homologue’s best girlfriend. She hadn’t warned her that we were coming even though we planned to stay there all day because it is a long walk from our compound, so the lunch wasn’t very good.

    I made what is probably my most hysterical joke to date in Bambara as we were walking to Numula. After we’d been walking for about half an hour I asked my homologue if we weren’t actually walking to Dugukolobugu, which is 7 km in the same direction. She thought that was hilarious and told everyone when we arrived what I’d said.

    After Tabaski I biked to T’s village, Djambugu, to hang out for a couple days. Her gas tank is leaking so she couldn’t cook on her gas stove, and she likes to cook for herself so we had to cook over charcoal, which really is a slow process and makes you appreciate what the Malian women do every day. T’s host mom was also suffering from Malaria bad enough that she had to get driven by moto 7 km to the nearest CSCOM twice a day for quinine shots. It was weird seeing her looking like death, dragging herself around. (She is better now.) The first day I took some pictures of a dead hawk that a hunter in her village killed, as well as her three pet ducks, and some monkey skull balls in her neighbor’s compound. T’s village is probably half if not a third the size of mine. It is only two quartiers, no CSCOM [hospital], no maternity, no commune offices, but there is a primary school. The people seem very motivated to work, and her homologue is great. But right now it is harvesting season, and everyone was out in the rice fields during daylight hours, so the town was basically empty, except for kids running wild. The second day we went down to the river.

    Near T’s village the river is basically the natural barrier for the Ivory Coast. You have to bike for a couple hours, but the border is right over there. That’s where our young men take their cows for the hot and dry seasons, and it is where manufactured goods of any quality come from, since they have ports. There is a guy who lives by the river, he is ethnically Siamon which is like the Sikasso version of Bozos, who ferries people across. He took us across just for the hell of it. We did not even get off the canoe type boat, just watched him unload the other passenger and his moto, then he took us back. It was a fun excursion, but it was hot, so it was basically the only thing we did that day until I biked back home.

    A couple days later Lasina, B’s younger brother passed away. He has been sick since I’ve lived in N’tjilla. He started out able to sit outside his house, but for the last couple of months he hasn’t been able to even do that. He has been completely bed ridden, unable to feed himself or go to the bathroom. So it wasn’t totally unexpected. A lot of his kids had come back in the last couple of months to say farewells, but when he actually died it was a huge deal. Everyone from village came over, and all of the relatives from Bamako came running. The old man passed away around 8 in the morning, and some Bamako family managed to be there by the funeral at 3 pm. That really means dropping everything with no warning. We already had some family in town because of Tabaski too. People trailed in through the rest of the evening and the next two days too.

    We had already decided Tabitha was going to return my visit that week, and I think the timing ended up being good because there was an intimidatingly large number of people in my homologue’s compound, and me having my “little friend” come visit kept me entertained and out of their hair. We went to the market on Wednesday, but with all the people in my compound mourning, there was no one at the market, which isn’t normally that big to start with.

    Between the holiday, the Director of the Secondary School also getting severe malaria, and the old man dying, all of my plans on working on the library and girl’s soccer team got delayed. I had also been talking with my homologue about making ameliorated porridge (the idea being they already make corn, rice and millet porridges, so if we can just get them to add some protein powder too like peanut or bean powder, and best case also some fruit, iodized salt, and moringa powder, they could be making a more complete, nutritious meal). Basically kids here for the most part aren’t starving, but they’re fed pretty much exclusively carbs. The same goes for adults really. They don’t know thing one about nutrition. They know fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat are expensive, so they basically don’t buy those things but sell them when they get their hands on them. So I had a whole nutrition spiel I wanted to give, and then the old man died and I didn’t think I’d get to do it, but we ended up doing it Saturday afternoon. It turned out well. The women only kind of paid attention to the nutrition lesson, but they all paid attention to the recipe, and the ameliorated porridge turned out delicious. Perhaps it was too delicious because a lot of the moms ate it themselves rather than giving it to their kids, but it was hard to begrudge them since they were all also breastfeeding, and therefore arguably needed the protein as well. Some kids got some porridge, and maybe if the mom’s like it enough that means they’ll be more likely to cook it again someday, and then someday the kids might get to eat some. I’m just glad I got something productive under my belt for the three weeks.

    Now I’m in Sikasso for Thanksgiving. It is going to be an extended break from site. I’m going to play it by ear. I’m excited to see a bunch of people from my stage who didn’t come to Halloween in Bougani, but I’m sure Thanksgiving itself will be chaos, so I’m excited also to see who sticks around for a couple days afterwards to hang out, or maybe I’ll try to go to Segou or Coachella if people are going there.

    Financial Fitness Forever

    Paul Merriman  manages $1.5 billion of other people's money, has a well-respected  investment podcast, and appears on TV to advise about investing. He's also had the good sense to use a writer, long-time Seattle Times business reporter/editor  Richard Buck, to help him come up with the words (excerpt here) that go around his charts and graphs. [Disclosure: Richard and I worked together at the Associated Press in Boston]. Buck gets a "written with" credit  for Financial Fitness Forever. I consider myself a fairly sophisticated investor; I know from bond yields, maturity profiles and rates of returns. Unlike a majority of Americans, I know a stock from a bond and am not appallingly ignorant about finance. I give myself an A or B, rather than a C, D or F. But only the fool thinks he knows everything, and this refreshingly breezy and readable book contains solid advice that matches my experience and could reasonably be expected to help anyone invest more intelligently and knowledgeably. Perhaps I understand and appreciate the book because Richard and I have two things in common: we were both business reporters (I worked for the Oregon Journal), and we were both interested in finance as kids. He subscribed to an investment newsletter; I actually subscribed for a year to the technical investors' bible, the Value Line Investment Survey, which was definitely overkill for a 12-year-old with $100 to invest.