M, my older daughter, is a Peace Corp Volunteer in Mali. She wrote this early in March:
The combination of the end of the harvest season and the not quite beginning of hot season means that people have some free time and some money and are interested in doing projects. Of course, I came during this window last year, but I didn't get permanently to village until April, and then hot season was revving up.
I did a hand-washing mural at the secondary school with T. It is just two hands and some soap and a selidaga, but since most people here "wash" their hands by rinsing them in a communal bowl of water, which of course just spreads the germs down the line, it is suggesting more than one behavior change. I asked the Director for two weeks beforehand if he could help me find two students who can draw who could help with the mural. He said he'd look, and he said he'd look, but I don't think he ever did. In the end, he told me none of the students could draw or paint, and that he himself would help me. On the one hand, that wasn't at all what I was looking for, but when I tried to draft some kids and young adults on my own, I did hit a wall of resistance. There is a habit here of claiming you can't do something up until you're an expert, because if you claim to be able to do something and you suck at it, people will laugh at you and make fun. So again and again I was told "no, I can't draw." Do you want to help me anyway and try? "No, I don't think so." I think if I'd been more authoritative and ordered someone to come, they would have come, but I still haven't gotten used to that style of dealing with kids. The mural was a good learning experience in that way, and also in regards to the logistics. I should have allowed two days, one for the background, and one for the actual design. We ended up spreading it over two days anyway, but I hadn't planned for it. Y also helped. He wasn't as good as the Director, so there are some drips of black from the border, that instead of cleaning up and framing the mural now make it look a little more amateurish. There's no such thing as perfectionism or OCD here though, so I'm happy with the results.
I did my second ameliorated porridge formation in Numula, the Fane quartier. Attendance was sparse to begin with, but as women were sent around to fetch other women the crowd grew. We did it on a Friday because now is gold mining season as well (the river's water level is less hazardous again as what little rain we got is evaporating), and Friday is the only day you can be assured good attendance because the women aren't at the river. It went reasonably well. We brought L around to do the cooking demonstration. B was our "host" for the day. L and B, both sassy women, actually heckled me during the presentation, which obviously wasn't great. As I was telling women they shouldn't give babies under six months anything other than breast milk, L asked me what a woman who can't produce milk should do. M told her to shush, I'm not a doctor, and am giving general advice. That woman should go to a doctor rather than give her child milk or nido. Then when I was suggesting forms of protein you could add to porridge to make it more nutritious for an older baby, B scoffed derisively. "Oh, fish? Of course! We should give fish to our children." Fish is expensive, meat is expensive, beans are expensive, peanuts are expensive. Because there wasn't enough rain this year, everything is expensive, and people don't have that much money to boot. But still, part of is budgeting and prioritizing. Nutrition doesn't even register as a priority. They take the kids right from breast milk to kaboto, and rarely "waste" meat on kids. This is why they don't grow to their full height, and it also stunts mental acuity. M asked B to go to her house if she wasn't going to be helpful. She snorted, but left before too long. She had work to do at home anyway. It was nice to feel supported. At the end of my presentation, L made the porridge with the bean powder I'd brought and some tamarind juice, milk powder, and sugar, and when it was time to hand it out, there were even more women. Y actually made some of the women recite what they had learned from my speech, and the recipe for ameliorated porridge before they could take any. He wanted to exclude the women who hadn't sat through the whole presentation, but that was impractical.
I bought a bunch of the furniture for the library with the Director in Niena. The carpenter we went to had lots of apprentices and new his stuff. The cost ended up being more than I'd expected because I'd way underestimated mosquito screens for the windows and ceiling repair, but the guy seems to do good work, so that just means a few less books I can afford on budget. Just by coincidence the mayor of my commune also showed up at the carpenter while we were there, and I thought he was going to yell at me or something for not including him in the process, but he had just come because he is building a "modern" bakery on the edge of Niena, he seemed amused by the library project, not offended at being left out of the loop. Hopefully he won't sabotage me.
I visited the neighboring village of Panguru because one of the women there has been asking me to come for quite some time. It is 5 km away, so we spent all day there. We greeted, then slept in the shade, then other people came to greet us. I saw women making traditional cotton thread, and I want to do that myself. It requires some big brushes to clean the cotton which you can't get in Niena, so I'm going to try to get them here in Bamako. I thought we were going to meet with the women's association, but there was no pressure since it was the first time I'd actually been to village.
I made big strides with the bank over the last two weeks. I summed up the meeting we had with M and D in September. There were some agreements we had made about people coming to meetings on time and repaying their "loans," which people weren't following up on. I also wanted to start a Board of Directors, but I wanted the books to match the money in the safe before we did that. I did a big reckoning of the books and the money over the last couple of weeks, and finally the Saturday before I left to come here, I got everything to match. So now we are starting with a clean slate. It feels like it has taken a full year to get to this point, but I guess it has only been since September, my goal was to have us at this point before you guys came, but eh, by local standards, March is basically December.
I wanted to have a soccer practice, but one of the teachers got married on Thursday, which is the day that the Director lets me do whatever silly thing I want to do with the kids, but of course nothing gets in the way of a social ceremony. The teacher that got married is named "teacher" in English because he is the English teacher. The woman he married is referred to mainly as "teacher muso" (teacher's woman). So I thought they were already married. They live together and have two kids, but I guess now it is official. Some of the teachers in training put together a mock English lesson on a blackboard that said "I love you S! You are my life." And after the ceremony they had the bride read it and sign and date it. It was actually pretty cute. Normally there's nothing that personalized in a ceremony at the mayor's office.
I also went to Bougoulaba twice this last couple of weeks. They are the biggest village in the commune, 7 km further off the main road behind N'tjilla. I met with the women's association, the dugutigi (village chief) and the youth association. The women's association meeting went well, but I had to ask for a follow up meeting, because they were requesting a sewing machine and lessons on how to use it for their younger women members, but only the old ladies showed up for the meeting (since they don't have child rearing and cooking responsibilities anymore and have the luxury of being able to sit around all morning waiting for me, talking to me, then just chilling under a mango tree). I said I really needed to talk to the young women if I was going to submit a project on their behalf. They ended up choosing women between 20 and 35. The second meeting went reasonably well. I was more prepared for the second meeting, because I thought at the first meeting they would have lots to say to me, but they didn't have much to say beyond the initial request, so I knew at the second meeting I'd need to have more of an agenda. The youth association was however a bit of a disappointment. The president didn't come, but the secretary and treasurer did, and they asked me for a new school, a new maternity, or a new road. I had to tell them that wasn't really what I do, that those type of projects were better done by an NGO or the government. M was scandalized that they didn't have projects that involved working with me, that they were just asking for stuff. She dismissed them pretty quickly, "offering them the road" before they even asked for it. She then loudly complained to the remaining women about them and how they didn't get it. She would repeat this rant over and over again to anyone who would listen over the next couple of weeks. Saturday before I came here, the president showed up at my house, having made the 7 km ride on his moto to ask for a second audience. This time he had three income generating activities that included getting a soldering iron so they could make basic repairs on chairs and bikes, building a granary so that millet farmed by the association could be stored for sale when the prices are higher, and investing in sheep in the pre-Ramadan season to be fattened and re-sold during Ramadan. This is more on the level of what I can help them with.
I went to an Artisans Association meeting this week. They want help with a formation on bougoulan (mud cloth dying). I'm not sure they are very serious or committed though. This was their first meeting since 2010. They say they collect dues, but they don't have much in their caisse and when pushed they said they haven't collected in awhile, but will start again. The meeting invitation (written in overly formal French) said the meeting would start precisely at 8 am. So of course we showed up at 9, and the meeting started at 10.
Sibirila, the little village we visited to see M2 whose baby had died, has a women's association that has asked to meet with me about gardening too. People are starting to approach me! All of a sudden I can see a year just flying by.
We met with the radio station in Niena again, and they were supposed to play our pre-taped shows on Saturday. In the whirl of everything else I forgot to tune in, but hopefully they actually played it.
I did a hand-washing demonstration at the middle school last Thursday. Around 250 kids attended. We met with them class by class, so there were four classrooms worth of kids. If you do the math, those are big classes. I had my prepared remarks in Bambara, which the Director than repeated and elaborated on. There was one elaboration that I let slide that I probably shouldn't have. When I listed the diseases that you could get from not washing your hands with soap, he added malaria to my list. They really have no idea what causes malaria here when the answer is so simple. They all have it though, and they blame any protracted illness on it, and some of the symptoms (throwing up, diarrhea) or similar to ones you can get from fecal-oral diseases, so I just let it slide. Plus it would have been a loss of face for the director if I'd corrected him in front of his students, and also a big distraction. It did make me think I should do a malaria formation later though. No you don't get malaria from dirty hands. No you don't get malaria from eating too many mangoes. No you don't get malaria from working too hard in the fields. It turns out at least part of the reason attendance was so good was that the kids who didn't attend were going to have to dreg out the overflowing negens (latrines). Ewwww. I didn't ask where they were going to move the waste to. The Director assured me they would wash their hands with soap afterwards.
A five year old kid, S2, died in the neighboring Sangare compound two weeks ago. They don't know what he died of. He was fine in the evening. He complained of a neck ache and went to bed early, but he didn't sleep and cried all night, then in the morning it sounds like he was in a coma, and by the afternoon he was dead. When I had to go over to give the death blessings I actually started to cry as his mother was telling me that it was Allah's will. After some initial wailing at a child's death it is considered unseemly for the mother to appear too sad, but obviously she was, and she couldn't say anything except "What Allah gives, Allah takes away." They work so hard, and death is so omnipresent, and it was just too much. It also sucked that instead of going with me herself, M sent me over with H to do the blessings, so I was in the midst of Ghanakan speakers, and what little eloquence and understanding I have in Bambara is much less in Ghanakan, so this already painful conversation was even more stilted and awkward, and therefore frustrating for everyone involved. Sigh. Two of his brothers, O and C (old man), got sick around the same time. O got sick enough that he actually ended up in the CSCOM this last week. I didn't go to greet him immediately, because it sounded like he was in bad shape and I didn't think I could take seeing him like that. We went the next afternoon when he was "much improved," but his eyes were still swollen shot and his limbs looked painfully puffy. I don't know if they gave him steroids at the CSCOM or if that was the disease. It didn't look great though. A couple days later though he was walking around, eyes open, responsive to speech although not talking himself. His aunt brought him to our compound to greet. I don't know if he was ready to be greeting, but I'm sure they wanted him to collect as many blessing as possible, and also show that whatever sorcerer's curse of Allah's will wasn't taking a second son in as many weeks.