Worthwhile Project

My daughter has been working for a long time for "a non-profit seeking to empower Malians by translating and publishing "Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook" in Bambara. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali. Most of you who read this blog can't come to the fundraiser, but you can go to the website and donate. And if you can come, the African food will be unlike anything else you've ever eaten.



End of the Mali Journal

My older daughter has been evacuated from Mail in the middle of her term as a Peace Corps Volunteer because of the coup which topled the democratic government there. While it is possible the junta will quietly hand power back to a civilian government,  it is also possible they won't, and the Peace Corps doesn't take chances, so 186 people got their time cut short. M has decided to return to the United States and should be back next week. She is reachable now by email and phone in Ghana.

Mali Journal

M older daughter, M, is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, where they just had a coup. She checks in on March 26:

So, we remain consolidated. The borders opened up this morning, so I hear, and the airport is opening up today with the first commercial flights going out this evening. There's some big meeting in Abidjan where regional leaders are going to make some demands of the junta as preconditions to normalized relations. The AU (African Union) has condemned the coup along with everyone else.

Everything here in Sikasso remains calm. It sounds like things have calmed down in Bamako as well. No gunfire anymore, and the cars that were earlier taken by marauding soldiers have actually been returned to their owners. The banks and post office are open today.

We've only been in Sikasso for three days, but there's a lot of people and not much space. As long as the power stays good (it did go off for about 8 hours last night) people can retreat into their personal laptops, but when it goes off people have to look up.

We've had two very nice team dinners though. The night before last was pad Thai and spring rolls, and last night it was breakfast for dinner (eggs, pancakes, and hash browns).

At least since we're allowed to leave the house, everyone tends to go out at least once a day for a walk down to the market. Yesterday I ended up buying fabric (alarm clocks, military, and education themed). We also watched Beauty and the Beast together after the power went out, but M's computer's battery died right as the Beast was transforming into a ... what? Now I'll never know. I spent all morning yesterday here in the back bedroom typing up my journal and watching episodes of Mob Wives while eating granola (surprisingly good) from the Tubab [foreigners'] store. In the afternoon we played Boggle. Today will probably look exactly the same.

[Consolidation has been lifted, but for security reasons, Peace Corps has asked that posted details be left vague. And so they shall, for now]

One good thing is that it rained last night, which cooled everything off. It actually rained well into this morning, and it is still cloudy now. It pretty much has to burn off this afternoon though, because two cloudy days would be unprecedented for this time of year. Normally the mango rains are just quick bursts of storms, not lingering affairs.

Maybe we'll play Trivial Pursuit today instead of Boggle. Or maybe both. We'll see what happens with the power.

Basically, I'm fine. I'm still anxious, but I have media to watch, books to read, friends to play games with, plenty of food and soda, and even recreational shopping if I don't spend too much time thinking about the fact that I might not get to bring what I buy back with me.


Mali Journal

My elder daughter, M. is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali.

I sent this email to her friends:

Most of you have probably heard by now that the democratically elected government of Mali has been overthrown in a coup d'états by a group of army officers. I have spoken twice with the Peace Corps emergency desk. Both times I was told that every volunteer in Mali was safe and accounted for, although they could not be specific about M. On Thursday, the Peace Corps issued a "standfast" order, which meant no one was supposed to leave their village. Peace Corps volunteers in Marlow's area were "consolidated" on Friday. This means they have left their villages and are in a regional capital. When I spoke to the Peace Corps, they asked me to minimize the information I put out, for the safety of the volunteers. So, I'll just let you know she's safe. No decision has been made whether to move to the next stage, evacuation.

On Saturday, March 24, we got this:

I've holed up in the back bedroom where I'm staying. It isn't the first best or even the second best room, but there are many people closer to [here], and some people even got caught here and haven't had a chance to go back to site. I'm really happy that I at least got this news while I was at site so I could pack up my belongings. It is weird because I don't know for sure that I'm not going back to site, but I had to assume that was the case when I was packing.

The house isn't as crowded as I thought it would be because some people got stuck in Bamako or Bougani when we got the holdfast announcement. There's maybe 15 people. We're still kind of on top of each other though since no one has any reason to be here besides sitting around and waiting and speculating.

I didn't get any of the Peace Corps texts or the embassy texts, but yesterday I was going to visit Y's mother's village Jomana, which is 7 km behind T's village of Djambugu. So we stopped by her village on the way in and on the way out. The bike ride was about 20 km one way. Jomana was nice enough. The people were friendly. They overfed me. We had a dance party. I just posted a bunch of the pictures on Facebook. The men in the family that was hosting us for the day do wood carving of Malian basic cooking utensils, so I watched them do that while we sat under a couple of mango trees. As we were leaving they gave me a chicken and a pretty hefty sized bag of rice. When we stopped by Djambugu with less than two hours to go before sunset, Tabitha told me we had gotten the order to consolidate tomorrow, i.e. today. We decided to meet at the main road a bit before 9 am to try and catch the first buses in. I had more questions so we talked for awhile. Y was getting impatient, and sure enough, we did have 14 km left to bike, but I couldn't help but squeeze all the news possible out of T who not only got the texts but had called some other volunteers already in cities and gotten updates. We did end up biking into village after dark, which isn't my favorite thing.

It was kind of awkward, because after doing all the elaborate greetings and saying what a great time I'd had all day in Jomana I had to tell my homologue and host family that I'd be leaving in the morning and might never come back, which in America would obviously be the story you would lead with. I took my bucket bath and came back for a quick dinner with them, but then I had to go to pack. My house was kind of a mess, so I cleaned while I packed. If I don't come back, and they go into my house, I want them to think I always lived neatly, although it doesn't really matter here. I packed two big bags full of Malian clothes and presents and souvenirs from Mopti and Dogon and my bag full of electronics and toiletries and said mental goodbye to everything else I might never see again. Most everything I left I wouldn't need in America anyway.

This morning was awkward because I didn't know if it was our last goodbye. I'd only gotten about three hours of sleep, waking up with the first call to prayer and unable to go back to sleep. I only ate half my bowl of oatmeal because my stomach was tied up in knots. The Malians aren't very demonstrative, but M did call everyone over to actually say goodbye to me rather than to yell at me from across the compound. And then B shook my hand with his left or "dirty" hand, which is an insult, such that I would have to come back at a later time so he could apologize. Basically it means you have to come back. Then everyone else followed his lead and offered me their left hands. Even the little two year old twins unwittingly played along. They just like greeting me in general with either hand. They gave blessings that the war in the North would end and that I wouldn't go to America just yet and for my safe return to village.

I left up all the decorations, and left all my food sealed up, in case I really am just gone for a couple of days...

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. This week she went to Dogon country:

I tried to find a map that shows where we went, this one kind of does it:


The spellings they go with are Bandiagara, Djiguibambo, and Kani Kombole, and Telly doesn't look like it's on the map (look under Bandiagara for the smaller village names).

We timed our trip so that we could come up taking the Peace Corps shuttle. So we caught the shuttle at 8 am on Friday. There were six of us in the car and it was crowded, but still preferable to public transportation. We stopped for 10 minutes in Segou and 5 in San, but otherwise it was pretty much a straight shot. We didn't get into Sevare until around 5. We took showers, cooked some pasta, and I was pretty much done for the day. The others stayed up and watched a movie. So, basically I saw nothing of Sevare, but I hear there's nothing really to see. The next morning we took the shuttle again at 8 am to Bandiagara. Even though that trip was only a little over an hour, so we had the whole day here, we mainly just stayed at the Peace Corps unofficial stage house, with trips out for breakfast and lunch, and dinner we actually had delivered! And it was pizza! One of the host dad's of another volunteer runs a restaurant near the stage house. Not bad at all. I took several long naps. It is amazing how tiring a full day in a car can be. This got us good and rested for today.

Today our guide picked us up at 8 am, and shockingly, he actually showed up at 8 am, with the car, as promised. We found out the night before we were probably overpaying by approximately $10 a person for this tour, but I think the guy earned it. The first village we went to was Djiguibambo. There was menstruation hut, an animist temple, a couple of mosques, a couple of churches, a lot of low-slung meeting huts, and a lot of kids who followed us around. These kids were harmless though. The kids in Bandiagara are ruthless about asking for money, presents, or candy, and they get in your face. Also, in our one day of barely leaving the house in this city, I saw a pretty brazen show of public drunkenness at 9:30 am, which combined with the over-entitled kids makes me happy my service isn't up here doing tourism, which was my initial hope coming into Mali. Anyway, the village was cute, and the people were thrilled to have us. Our guide passed out kola nuts to the appropriate village chiefs and old people along the way so that no one could complain about us. The second village, Kene Komboli, actually has a Peace Corps volunteer, although we didn't see her during our visit. The highlight here was a camel, and we got our first glimpse of the houses built into the cliffs. The guide said the houses on the cliff used to be more practical when there were still wild animals roaming this area, but now that the animals are gone, the people are happy to live on the valley floor, as it is much easier. The third village was Telly, which was the overall highlight. That's the place where we got to go up into the abandoned cliffside village. We saw the place where they used to sacrifice humans, and some animist paintings and sculpture-esque wall design. It wasn't all that hot today, but it was certainly much nicer in the shade of the cliff, and the guide pointed out that when it rained, the cliff used to protect the village. There's also a layer of even older (1000 year old?) dwellings above the Dogon houses.

Oh, wow, New Mexico cliff villages really do look a lot like Dogon cliff villages. Crazy.

So, there were three spots on the cliff that we were told were sacred. One was forbidden for us to go take a close look at, and they still actively worship there, they change the wall paintings at a huge festival every six years at a festival that lasts a year and moves down the escarpment from village to village. Each village dances and paints for a couple weeks then it moves on down. The two spots we could see though were more miraculous feeling than spooky, because they were both places where water was coming out of the cliff. One was a place where women were supposed to bring their newborns to be baptized, and the other was the spot for sacrifices.

We went to Mopti. I bought a bunch of turban cloth. They had a bunch of different colors so I just went crazy. Some I'll wear, some I'll probably give as gifts when I get back. I also bought a little jewelry. I also got some Dogon hats. My friend J lives in Mopti, so he helped show us around. We also went on a boat ride. It was pretty, but an hour was more than enough. People are super aggressive up here. This is the off season and they didn't get that many tourists during the actual tourist season so they jumped at the sight of white people. Everything we did we were the only ones doing it. We were the only ones at the restaurant. We were the only ones doing a pleasure cruise. We were the only ones buying crafts. It is sad, and a little off putting.

Mali Journal

M, my older daughter, is with the Peace Corps in Mali. She wrote an extra long journal entry this month. It starts like this:

I did a bunch over these last couple of weeks.

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.

You can read the whole thing here.

Mali Journal

[My older daughter, had email briefly last week and checks in from Mali, where she is serving in the Peace Corps]

My trip back from Bamako to village was more exciting than I might have liked. I took CMT, which is the nice bus (it costs a little more, but doesn't stop to pick people up at the side of the road, it just stops at the major bus stops, which doesn't sound like much but it makes things a lot more bearable), and yet somewhere between Bamako and Bougani we hit four cows. One was hit but was able to run off into the bush, one was killed instantly, one got caught in the grill in the front, and one got stuck under the bus. We pulled over to the side of the road, and the driver of the bus asked the passengers if anyone had a machete to kill the injured but still living cows, and of course, several people were prepared to help, even while wearing their nice traveling outfits. I think the problem was just that they had ten year old boys tending the cows, and they didn't get them across the road fast enough, plus the bus was probably going to fast. When the Fulani (cow herding people) adults finally showed up the men were sullen and the women were more obviously grief struck. We had to stand around on the side of the road for an hour or two while the bus employees, Fulani, and fancy passengers argued loudly. A military guy showed up and another CMT employee showed up to add their opinions. Eventually they loaded one of the dead cows into the luggage compartment (ew), and we finally headed into Bougani. In Bougani we went to the cow owner's house and the passengers had to sit in the bus for a couple of hours while the driver and the owner negotiated the blood price for the cows. I'm not sure how the negotiations ended, it's not like they made an announcement, but eventually we got on our way, and I was into Dougoukolobugu (the village at the main road where I leave my bike) by 4:30, so I was able to bike into N'tjilla before dark, which was the only thing about my day that was time sensitive. I'd meant to catch the 7 am bus, but I'd caught the 10 am because I'd gone out with some other volunteers the night before and didn't feel like getting up at the crack of dawn. I beat myself up about that for a minute as we were waiting by the side of the road, but luckily it is still cold season, and I had enough water, so it wasn't terrible.

I finally made some progress with my girl's soccer team. We held a meeting to thank everyone for trying out, and I thought we were going to announce the team members names, but the PE teacher decided that would discourage the girls who did not make the cut, so we just talked about the team in general terms. Luckily I had prepared some remarks ahead of time aside from the list of names I'd written up. The next week we had our first practice. It went well. Five or six of the girls didn't show up, so we pulled girls from the audience to play, and I myself played for the first half. The general level of play was better, since all of the girls on the field were the best of each grade, but they still followed the ball around like a group of 5 year olds in America. There was also a lot of hand balls and obstruction penalties. I think even though they generally know the sport, they don't really know the rules, so I decided to hold a second meeting to cover rules and positions. I spent a couple of days preparing my remarks for the meeting because a lot of it isn't normal vocabulary for day to day, and a lot of the time the PE teachers would just use the French expressions for the soccer terms, and although the girls nod along like they know what he's saying, I was pretty sure they weren't actually following. Only 12 of the 22 girls showed up for the meeting, but it turned out that they had that afternoon off for school for the Prophet's baptism holiday, so I was lucky any neighboring villages stuck around at all. This is the kind of thing it would have been nice if someone had told me about before hand when I asked if I could have the meeting that day, but they never do tell you until the day of. Anyway, the smaller audience was actually easier to address. W, the PE teacher, did a great job of taking my stuttered half-nonsense and turning it into understandable Bambara. We brought in a soccer ball and demonstrated throw-ins, obstruction, and other things. I tried to make it interactive, asking questions to make sure they were listening, and although they were hesitant to answer me, they would eventually talk when W insisted on them talking. He also added a lot of good stuff about feminism and leadership that I hadn't even necessarily said. I had a little spiel about teamwork and camaraderie, but he turned it into metaphors about family and medicine that I think were more digestible for the girls. I'm not sure if he's going through the motions for my benefit, or if he really believes what he's saying, but either way as long as he says it enthusiastically in front of the girls, the effect is the same. And to be fair, he seems sincere.

We only had one bank meeting. I want to do another big overview of the books and count the money in the safe to see if it has gotten any farther off since the last time we did that, which was at least six months ago at this point. We really need to be doing that quarterly at the least, if not monthly.

The last two weeks were the Prophet's birthday and baptism. They were both celebrated with midnight Koran readings by a visiting imam. I didn't go to the late night readings, but both were also followed by afternoon readings, which I happily dressed up and attended, even though I didn't understand any of the Arabic and very little of the Bambara, due to the crappy quality of the AV. The twins in my homologue's compound are my new BFFs. They've been walking the last couple of months but they're finally really stable, and they're also starting to try to talk. They've seen all of the other kids greet me and give me five, so now they are thrilled to be able to do that too, even though they obviously don't understand what they're doing.

I went to a CGS (basically school board) meeting. They were changing up the board. The School Director and Mayor's office representative basically just appointed the people. I thought there were going to be "elections," but no. When I asked my homologue about that, she thought it would just cause arguments and hurt feelings to vote. W actually nominated me for a position supporting le scolarization des filles. I thought that was sweet, but the Director rightly pointed out that job should go to a community member and that my job as liaison from the Peace Corps was keeping me plenty busy.

We are in-between cold season and hot season, so it has been both extremely hot and extremely cold these last couple of weeks. I think the extremely cold days were probably in the 60s. When I got into Sikasso this weekend there was apparently a air-quality warning for the cold days (the wind kicks up a lot of dust which is bad for people with asthma, or really anyone), which is too bad, because I did a bunch of stuff on those days since it wasn't insanely hot.

I found out my library project got approved, but I won't get the money for another week. There is some chance it is there, but when I went to the bank this morning the ATM was broken and the line was ridiculous, so I wasn't able to check on my account.

I also went this morning and met with a female seamstress (most tailors here are men) who might do training in Bougoulaba if we decide a sewing machine is actually something that would help their women's association. I got the prices and idea of how the training would actually run.

Since I've been in Sikasso I've been hanging out with a lot of the new stages. My stage is The Kennedys. T is from Team America. The stage before her was Risky Business; others are Honey Bunches of Oats (Hobos for short), and the Belushis I believe. The new stages are the Goodfellas and the Madhatters. In other countries they just give the stages numbers. I'm not sure why Mali decided to give the stages names instead. I like our name, but I don't love all the others. Oh well. I don't love how crowded the Sikasso house is (dirty dishes, noise, no toilet paper, slow internet, etc.), but the individuals are nice enough. I went out with them one night to a couple of the local bars. And then yesterday we hung out the Hotel Maisa pool. The weather was unbelievably pleasant. This morning I went to the market with T and we went a little too crazy on fabric, but what the hell. It makes me inordinately happy. We also got green beans, potatoes, and eggs for dinner, which we'll be starting shortly.

We had meetings this afternoon about Take Your Daughter to Work Day, which we are probably going to hold in April, and our in-service training in May. I made some arrangements for our March trip to Dogon country, so the next couple of months are starting to fill up, plus I'm in the process of planning my possible Senegal, Cape Verde, Morocco trip with in May...

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is in the Peace Corps in Mali. Here's her version of our Christmas visit:

I got access to the car and driver, Mo, on the 21st so I could start running errands before my family got there. I went to Azar and the Fourmi where I bought all the food for every meal my family was going to be eating for all 4 days. It was heavy on canned foods, which I know was bad for dad’s cholesterol problem, but it was hard to get around since I wanted to keep my family from all raw vegetables and fruits the whole time they were in country. I also stopped by Mali Chic (a boutique of Malian crafts I have been meaning to check out for some time), the suguba (big market) and Artisana, and Vietnamese food for lunch. None of these things would have been impossible to do without a car, but it was so much nicer to do them with a car. Everything went smoothly, but I didn’t get eggs, bread, or water until after my family arrived.

The Bamako Radisson was insanely nice. I took many showers, and enjoyed watching CNN international coverage of the death of Kim Jong-Il and the ascension of Kim Jung-un. I could have read about it later, but it was great to be able to see all the footage of the North Koreans wailing in the streets in real time. It turns out only Mary Horn and Tabitha were staying at the stage house, since everyone else who was going to leave for the holidays had already gone or their families had already come in. I thought it would probably be a zoo. I’m still happy I got the hotel room, because even though I like both of them, it was nice to have my own space. I also ordered room service like crazy. There were only three waiters, and they seemed more than amused that I could speak Bambara. They all had to speak at least a smattering of French and English, but they were thrilled to switch to Bambara.


December 22nd

My parents arrived at the airport at 9pm. I got there early with Mo and ordered a coffee at the Broadway Café express so we could sit at an actual table to bide our time. It felt like my family were the last people off the plane, in part because my mom veered off at the last minute to use the bathroom before they emerged from security, but I was just happy they were all there and made it through security without problems. I’d been having a minor panic attack that day thinking I hadn’t emphasized to my father the importance of bringing their up to date WHO cards with proof of Yellow Fever shots, but it turns out the expediter he used for their Mali Visas double checked all their documents before they left, and they had everything they needed. Everyone was in surprisingly good spirits and had high energy for just having come off one domestic and two international flights. They did long lay-overs in both NYC and Paris, which I guess really helped.

With Mo there, getting them out of the airport quickly was a breeze. He ran to get the car and bring it around as soon as I saw my family. We drove straight to the Radisson Bamako without incident. I gave everyone the clothes I’d had made for them, and the other little presents I’d picked up in the previous days and months. We made a plan to meet for breakfast the next day in full Malian regalia and parted ways for the evening.


December 23rd

Everyone but me ran a little late for breakfast, but that was fine since we weren’t in a rush. Everyone looked great in their Malian clothing. It felt a little weird to be wearing it within the Bamako Radisson, since there were other white people there, and all the Malian staff were dressed in western-style clothes, but all the Malians in the restaurant loved it. They all greeted in Bambara rather than French and told me how great everyone looked. One waiter even got so excited that he brought out his camera and asked to have pictures taken with us. Someone asked if we were going to a wedding, and I told them no, just to my village.

We went to Mali Chic and my mom and sister got some jewelry, of a quality much better than anything else in Mali, and I bought some bougalan (a scarf and an elephant), and mom got some little baskets. We took pictures with the masks outside, and again I fielded compliments on everyone’s outfits from every Malian who saw us. My family got their first taste of joking cousins, as everyone faked distaste that such a handsomely dressed family should be Fanes (blacksmiths), when obviously we should be Fulani or Bambara.

We picked up 24 bottles of water, 30 eggs, and 10 loaves of bread and headed towards N’tjilla a bit after noon.

We stopped in Bougani and did a little impromptu picnic next to the car in the shade while Mo wandered off to find a rice and sauce lady. We attracted a crowd of kids, obviously. I gave my family a lesson in Malian child crowd control, and the okay-ness of handing your trash to a child as if it were an actual gift. They took our empty water bottles and used Vache Qui Rit wrappings with pleasure. My mom got a good picture of some of the guinea-fowl-selling 10 year olds.

We got into village before dark, but still pretty late in the afternoon. Everyone was there. It seemed like the whole village was there to greet. The kids helped us carry all the food and luggage inside, and I broke out the Christmas decorations for my American and Malian families to hang up on the Moringa trees in my yard. That kept it from being too awkward initially. I excused us by saying we were tired from the road and that everyone wanted to bathe, and that we would cook our own dinner, and everyone cleared my yard. However, I was the only one who actually wanted to bathe. My family was weirded out by the idea of bathing with a bucket in the negen. I made a fancier than normal version of my pasta with cheese. Every meal we made I made sure we had enough extra for my homologue, and D, or whoever they wanted to share it with since so many people were staying at their compound to greet my family.

Things were slightly awkward with Mo. Obviously, there are no restaurants or hotels in village. I’d warned my homologue repeatedly that there would be a driver coming with us and that he would need to eat and sleep somewhere. She had seemed to understand, and said it wouldn’t be a problem, but then when we were actually there, she started asking me where he was going to sleep and what he was going to eat, as if these were new problems. I just turned the question around to her, and she finally agreed that D would cook for him and he could sleep at V’s compound. The next day we didn’t even need the car since we were going to walk around greeting, so he spent the whole day drinking tea and yaala-yaalaing with the men folk or sitting at S’s moto repair area. While I wanted him to be comfortable, my main focus was my family, so I didn’t pay too much attention to how he was doing, figuring he’d sort it out himself. He’s from Segou, and now lives in Bamako, so I think he was a little out of his element in village, but he never complained.

As we were finishing dinner my homologue came in. When I tried to give her food she took it back to her compound to eat, too embarrassed to use a fork in front of my American family, and then the former mayor and a bunch of the ladies who had come from farther away quartiers and even neighboring villages came into my compound to greet again and chat. We discussed the schedule for the next couple of days, including the dance party the next afternoon. One of the old ladies did a dance so my family would understand. When my family started yawning they took the hint, which wasn’t even necessarily meant as a hint, and excused themselves.

I gave the big bed to mom and Rae. I thought it would be too small for mom and dad. Dad got my single mattress and the mosquito net I got from the USAID campaign, and I slept next to him in my exercise room in my bug hut with my sleeping pad. No one was entirely comfortable, and no one slept well for the whole visit, but it was the best I could offer. I think my family would have had trouble sleeping in village under any conditions. Dad felt claustrophobic under the mosquito net. The night is incredibly dark with no ambient light. The donkeys braying and the 5:30 am call to prayer can be disturbing if you’re not used to them, and then there are all the birds that come out as soon as the sun rises. Everyone kept up good energy the whole time despite everyone complaining about not sleeping.

Christmas Eve

The old men, including the dugutigi and former mayor, came to our compound to greet us first thing in the morning. It was pretty incredible. They brought in two mats and gave us rice and a chicken. There was lots of greeting, and lots of saying how excited they were to have my family visiting and how happy it made them. I probably should have come up with some set response, but I did my best to stumble through an equally nice response from my family about how happy they were to be there, which my homologue fixed up for me. The whole pattern of having someone say something to someone else to say to someone else to say to you worked to my advantage because my homologue was the conduit in both directions, so I wasn’t forced to talk directly to the old men or to have to understand them directly.

We then spent the whole morning greeting in Maserena, Kumela, and at the school. I hadn’t bought kola nuts for the old men, so I gave out cash instead. We saw the old men who had been too old to come to us, and greeted everyone my homologue told us too. My family started to see the pattern with the joking cousins as everywhere we went I was asked to introduce my family, who I had named Oumou (R), Worokia (mom), and Braman (dad). I gave them all the same last name as me, Fane. And since we were visiting Diallo and Sidibe-heavy quartiers, everyone insisted they change their names to become Fulani. Y was beaming with pride when they started to learn to say “ayi” on their own without my prompting and repeat that they were Fanes.

We did tours of the CSCOM with Bakkary, maternite, the women’s literacy center where we hold the bank meetings, and the butiki so they could see the cabine and meet Chaka.

We went back to my compound for lunch of bread and nutella or cheese, and mom and dad took naps while Rae and I sat up reading magazines and chatting.

In the afternoon we had our dance party with the old women. Y came at first, but he left after awhile and Dad was the only guy. Everyone was a good sport about getting up and dancing. The women sang songs specifically about my family. Dad got two songs dedicated just to him, as an important old man. We took a bunch of pictures. Rae wore the ridiculous sequined outfit I had made for her, which she ended up leaving behind with me, understandably so. I’m glad she had the balls to wear it to the party though. Several of the women asked her to give it to them. It was a little over-wrought for a village party, but she wore it well.

When the old women asked for the road, we went back to my compound to make dinner and take baths. I had bought a bunch of green beans and carrots in Bamako, so we did have some food that wasn’t from cans. We made falafel and couscous, and I also bought some chick-pea paste and we made some humus too. I was pretty happy with all of the meals. It is the best I’ve consistently eaten in village.

D was sick, so she wasn’t very active during the whole visit. When we went over to the compound to make s’mores, I had to request that she come out and join us. The s’mores were a success. Dad started freaking out a little when he remembered that gelatin, an ingredient in marshmallows is made from pigs. We proceeded anyway. The kids loved them. I didn’t have graham crackers, but I’d bought butter cookies for the occasion. When one of the marshmallows fell in the dirt you could see the kids wanted to grab it anyway, but one of the adults stopped them. My family excused themselves early, and I stayed to chat a little longer and make sure everything was going well, that everything was going as smoothly as it seemed to be. We smoothed out the few wrinkles that needed smoothing out, and then I excused myself as well.


Christmas Day

The next day we went to Niena to see the market, and everything else there. I wanted a Malian chaperone to go with us in case anything weird happened. I didn’t expect trouble, but I also didn’t know what to expect because I’d never gone into town with a car or with my whole American family. I asked M if she wanted to come, but she demurred saying she didn’t have any money so going to the market would be torture because she wouldn’t be able to buy anything. I asked D if she wanted to come, but she had to spend all day cleaning and cooking the guinea fowl that I’d bought to help celebrate Christmas (for my homologue’s family and myself not my own family since I didn’t want my own family eating any local meat prepared in village, even by D). My homologue started to see that I was fishing for someone to go with us and offered up B (9 years old), and then M2 (16 year old boarder in her compound). That worked. They put their market best on and hopped into the back of the car and we were off.

We wandered through market early before it was too crowded. I showed them fabrics, and food, and the Fane area where I leave my stuff when it gets too heavy, where they sell water cisterns, little ceramic stoves and baskets. M2 helped me haggle on some nice fabric to give to Ysince we’d given M1 a bunch of American presents in front of him, and I could tell he was kind of miffed all he got was a shirt, even though it was a really nice shirt my mom had picked out. Then we went to the tailor and I had mom and R help me go through the design books to pick a design for my paint and paintbrushes fabric. They decided on a ruffled design inspired by one of the old lady’s outfits from the dance party the day before. R got more into the right spirit, mom wanted me to do something under-stated. We stopped by the post office where the post master and Mo got into a tiff about where he parked the car, but everyone shook it off quickly enough.

We were back before 1 for lunch and naps.

In the afternoon we drove to Sibirila. I liked the idea of showing my family another village, even though I’m sure it largely looked identical to N’tjilla to them. Everyone was thrilled to have us there. We greeted and greeted. I’d wanted to go to Sibirila rather than Bougoulaba because M3 had just had her baby a week and a half before, and I thought I was going to miss the denkundi (baptism) because I was in Bamako. When I got back though I heard from my homologue they hadn’t had it yet because the child was small. I don’t know if that means premature or sick, but I still wanted to greet her and the baby. We greeted in the first quartier in Sibirila, and O insisted we join him for some beans. I begged off for the rest of my family, and my homologue helped me explain that they weren’t eating village food, but I ate some myself. Lots of women were working on shea butter, and men were working on cotton, so there was plenty to take pictures of. It wasn’t till we got to M3’s quartier that O told us the baby had died that morning. I’d had my sister and mom practice denkundi blessings, which were now irrelevant. I gave money to my homologue to give to M3 rather than the baby wrap and soap we’d brought, which seemed insensitive to give and I offered my two funeral blessings. M3 looked sad and tired, but she did a good job of playing the host anyway, as M4’s wife did the day I greeted her the day after her baby died. It was an unintentional good lesson for my family in the harsh realities of Malian life.

On the way back we stopped at the school so I could show my family the future library. The school director was still at another village for a boy’s soccer game, but Teacher got the key and let us in.

We cooked dinner, same as the night before, and B brought over my servings of guinea fowl. I think she brought enough for me to share with my family in case they changed their minds, but I just ate it all myself. I had also bought onions, oil, vinegar, and mustard for D so she could cook it in the same grilled delicious way she had made the lamb for Tabaski. While it was delicious, I did not offer it to my family.

After dinner we set off fireworks I had bought in Niena the week before. I decided we’d just do half of them, and I’d leave the other half for them to use for New Years while I was in Paris. The doctors were there, as was the former mayor. I thought V or A or D, one of my host brothers, would do the honors of setting off the fireworks, but the doctors were eager to do it, so I gladly let them. Some of them were much more powerful than I’d expected, and one of the most powerful ones they set off upside down, while another got aimed straight into a mango tree. All the women, and my American family, and myself, ran as far away as possible from the doctors while they were setting off the fireworks, but I think it was a success. Everyone liked the sparklers too. While it seemed dangerous, no one got hurt, and I got some great pictures. Not exactly a normal Christmas tradition, but whatever, it was fun.


Dec. 26

Mo slept in, so we got a slow start to the morning, but not too bad. We went to Numula fitini to greet Yakuba’s people. We stopped by the mayor’s office on the way, and greeted M4 and his wife.

The Fanes gave us a bunch of cute little baskets and ceramic stoves. It was the first time my family was surrounded by Fanes, so no one asked them to change their last name, although they did get told they had to stay and couldn’t leave that afternoon.

We also visited Numula ba, where the boys were loading the cotton from the magasin into the big orange container left by CMDT.

My family was starting to get the pattern of greeting, just as we were finished doing it.

We went back to my hut and gathered up all the luggage and packed up the car to go. We were going to be in Bamako ridiculously early, but that’s what my dad wanted. We headed back to the Radisson, because as far as I know it is the nicest restaurant in town, and they have tigedegena (peanut sauce) and yassa (onion sauce) on the menu, so at least my family got to try those local specialties once, in a sanitized environment, on plates, with forks. We ended up getting a room for the afternoon. While extravagant, it was nice to take showers and naps and use the internet and electricity.

Mo looked refreshed too when he came to pick us up. He had also obviously enjoyed having water and electricity again. His phone had died in village because he had nowhere to charge it, which I overheard him tell several people who had obviously been trying to call him for days, and he looked well-scrubbed too.

I hadn’t realized just how nervous everyone had been in village, although I’d had an inkling, but when we got back to the Radisson, it was like everyone sighed a huge sigh of relief. They made it. No major illnesses, no major injuries, no one was offended by their decadent American or Christian ways (uncovered hair, celebrating of Christmas, etc.). Success.

We caught our plane to Paris no problem. The airport was much less intimidating than I remembered it from eleven months ago. I’m still not thrilled about flying in by myself on my return from Paris, but now I know I’ll manage.


Mali Journal: The Family

My wife, my daughter and I also wrote up our impressions of Mali:

Paul wrote:

On my fourth and final night in Africa, I was walking the 20 steps across a courtyard from a three-room mud-brick building with a tin roof to an open air space. In the United States the brick hut would be called an outhouse or privy, but in Mali, the landlocked Francophone West African country that once ruled Africa, it is now known as a Nyegen. On the way to the Nyegen, I doused my flashlight and looked up at the sky. So close to the equator, the constellations are mostly unrecognizable, but I could see the Milky Way. (1) I had an unusual experience; although I had read the phrase many times, it was the first time I had experienced the emotion, complete with the cliché adjective: I swelled with pride. M is living a quotation, “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” (2) She is a Peace Corps Volunteer. Her presence here validated every parental decision we ever made.

Paul and V and wrote:

 She has suspended her life and livelihood to serve the 1,200 people who live in N’tjilla, a commune capital that has no running water or toilets, no electricity, no cellphone service, Internet, and –probably hardest of all – no privacy. As a visitor, your biggest problem quickly becomes the lack of toilet. (See the viral video, you poop in a hole) She has also had to redefine her identity from a privileged American to the only white person among 1,200 poor black Africans who continue to pursue a life style which has hardly changed for centuries. Everything about what she is doing is amazingly selfless, especially when you consider the grim statistics. There is no way to calculate a precise statistic, but whether her chance of success is 0.1%, 1% or 10%, the odds are against her. She is putting everything she has into initiatives involving shea butter, a mobile bank, hand washing and sanitation in general, library, and starting a girls’ soccer team. The thing is - the Peace Corps invests capital, but not the usual kind that builds dams and roads. It is human capital, and the Peace Corps’ goal is to invest human capital to change behavior, because that is the only change the will be lasting. We wish her God Speed.

We spent two days and three nights in N’tjilla, 118 km west of Bougani on National Route 7, then hang a left and drive 7km on a dirt road. Her “Quartier” is on your left. NR 7 is in pretty good shape for an African road, since it has been recently repaved by the Chinese; they are investing heavily in the country because they plan to exploit its natural resources. We rented a car and driver for the week, which increased our mobility.

We got an up close and personal look at the world as it was before electricity, in a place with no ports (and so, no access to whale oil). Unlike 1930 rural America, there are LED flashlights, but the cost of batteries restricts their use. The lack of artificial light means everyone is up at dawn, hits it hard all day and is in bed shortly after sunset. In village, this time of year, that yields a 12 hour day, from 6am to 6pm. It was so dark in M’s hut at night that we literally could not see our hands in front of our faces.

The mosquito netting activated Paul’s claustrophobia. The netting is, however, also a good idea to keep out the creepy crawlers like scorpions and snakes. If we were in the first world in that situation, we would have slept outside in a chair. In Africa, that’s a bad idea. It was also deadly quiet, in a way that very few places in the first world are quiet; the nearest regular traffic is 7 km away (and even the regular traffic in Mali isn’t much), and there are no planes flying overhead, not motors on refrigerators, no fans or furnaces. An occasional animal (and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a donkey go off at night), but that’s it.

The people follow a relatively relaxed form of Islam, as demonstrated by their tolerance of our decision to decorate M’s Moringa tree with Christmas tree bulbs; in fact, the villagers helped. They do pray five times a day, and now that the mosque has a solar/battery powered PA system, you can really hear the 5:30 am prayer call. If you miss that, chances are that you won’t miss the elaborate and repetitive bird calls that immediately follow; it is a riot of sound.

It is a very different society. There is an elaborate greeting ritual and if you are visiting from America you must go around, “Yaala Yaala,” and, at the very least, greet all the elders, starting with the males, of course. It is the job of the small children to carry around chairs for the guests because they – the chairs, not the children - are in short supply. For the occasion of our visit, M gave us African names: R was Oumou; V was Worokia; Paul was Braman; M had been given the name Fatoumata on arrival nine months earlier; all these names are from the Koran. Because she had already been adopted into the Fane family, the name of her host family, we also became Fanes (blacksmiths). The other major clan we visited, the Diallos (cow herders), kept insisting we were Diallos instead. This was a constant source of amusement. Another joke was to call the other clan “bean eaters.” We were constantly entertained by their sense of humor and their friendly, good spirits. V had worried that it would feel very strange, even threatening, to be a white in a black county (something she had experienced travelling alone in Kenya).

M had beautiful native outfits for us to wear when we arrived, particularly for greeting. It solved our need to have clothes for the 90 degree days in Mali before we went to Paris which was 35 degrees when we arrived there a few days later. M has had many outfits made there because the designs on the fabrics are beautiful and fun. She has one with a black Jesus on it, another with symbols like “@,” another with hands one black and one white hand shaking, etc. It is definitely one of the best things to buy there and the different outfits and designs make the villages very colorful. R’s and V’s outfits were abstract patterns with matching scarves to wear around our heads (women are expected to cover their heads) and Paul’s had red ducks on it.

 With all the groundwork laid by M, we felt immediately included – part of the clan. M amazed us with her command of Bambara, the language of W. Africa, after only 9 mos. there. She spoke easily and naturally in directing our driver, haggling in the marketplace, greeting everyone, joking with the villagers, etc. There is much to be said for visiting people in their own element. Americans deprived Africans of their dignity in the US, but Mali is their own and it shows in their relaxed attitude and acceptance of us when we get to know them (because they do not share our unfortunate American history). We will not forget Mariam and Yakuba who are respectively her host mother and father. Mam is lovely, quiet and dignified, yet approachable. Yakuba is outgoing and helpful and also a talented handyman who does repairs on M’s hut. He led us as we visited various important groups. We met Djenebou, the lovely and shy 20, Jennabu, year daughter of Mam who has a 6 month old daughter (Adam). She is married to a man who works in a restaurant in France and sends money back to her. We met Lala who was immediately friendly and eager to teach us Bambara. We planned to visit Mineta who had just had a baby. We were informed at the last minute that she had lost her baby that morning. Mineta was upbeat and friendly and little mention was made of her loss as is the Malian way. Loss of old people is mourned more openly, but little importance is given to the death of a baby. Batauma is an eight year old girl who works for the host family which has more to offer her than her own family. She carries Adam around on her back all day as she does other chores. She will even fetch water for M and make the very short trip to M’s hut with food, etc. M is particularly fond of Batouma and sometimes takes her places like the local marketplace and buys her small gifts. Musokoroba (which means old lady) was the most fun of all when we went to a dance put on in our honor. She is provocative and in your face (they call her crazy, but she is not; she has “tude”) as lead musician in a three lady combo. She seemed to make up the lyrics as we went along. There is a circular line dance that ends with those who are brave enough to go into the center and dance very fast with your posterior out. The four of us took turns doing this, including Paul who was the only male present!

M has the greeting ritual down pat; Paul learned the all- purpose “N’ba” response which amounts to “I hear you,” while V and R responded “Nse” – the female equivalent. Works OK for most things, but sounds silly if they just asked where you are going or how old you are. R worked much harder on speaking Bambara which thrilled the dozens of people we greeted over two days. They repeatedly asked her to stay, offered a marriage partner (one man literally said he had many cows!), and V was once offered a new husband. Some women offered to change places with R; R would stay and she would go back with us as Paul’s second wife. (??) All this was done tongue in cheek, with a lot of humor.

The village grows cotton, corn, millet, sorghum and shea for cash. Of course, people who grow commodities are the bottom of the economic food chain, getting very little return for their effort. Among her projects, M is trying to help people further process the shea butter, so they can earn a higher profit. Although she spends time working on other things, her main focus is on economic development and literacy. God knows the people of Mali need it.

Paul notes his general impression of Mali: it sees a country mired in hopelessness, disease and early death. Escape is difficult, if not impossible, especially for women. Even education is not a ticket out. However, R pointed out that these are people who have nothing, yet are willing to share it and seem generous to a fault to those who visit briefly. V adds that even might be said that is has utopian characteristics: the immediate clan embraces everyone so the raising of children is shared and widows continue to be active members, and if one has a skill you need, it is offered without cost. The lack of technology means that socializing is everything so that people are close. Okay, sometimes too close. M’s hut is at the entrance and we had constant visitors looking over her wall, especially from the children. The women carrying a lot of wood invited V to fetch wood in the Broussey (bush) and then laughed knowing this was probably not one of her skills. Ordinarily, M tells us, there is not so much interest in what is going on at her hut now that she is one of them. And yes, they get into each other’s business as people typically do in a small town. But we were impressed by the seeming lack of loneliness and lack of emphasis on materialism and, of course, modern technology which although is out of lack of money, it emphasizes more important human values.

Paul’s mother, who had a rotten Great Depression experience, frequently pointed out to him that her family was dirt poor, but scarcely noticed because everyone around them was poor too. In a country plagued by illiteracy and innumeracy and the other trappings of the first world, there is precious little to which you can compare your life (like North Korea, except the starvation may be less in Africa). They are basically operating a co-operative, socialist, non-money economy at the village level. Apparently, you can run a society on the basis of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” if you are poor enough. P feels the rigid gender roles of the country mean they are wasting half their population. (3)

  P’s footnotes:

1 Very little light pollution in West Africa (see the famous shot from space of the world at night). I grew up in Portland, where the street lights wiped out the sky. Orinda, where I live now, doesn’t have street lights, but Oakland 10 miles away and San Francisco 25 miles away more than make up for it. I did see the Milky Way 20 years ago when we camped in the Trinity Alps in northern California, and four years ago on a walking tour of the upper Yosemite Valley, but this seemed even brighter than that. (return)

2 I first heard the quotation in a LBJ speech on March 31, 1968, when he announced he was not running for re-election. “Of those to whom much is given, much is asked.” I was so impressed, I used the phrase in my MIT application essay. As viewers of the PBS documentary “Secrets of the SAT” may recall, there is video of me advising M to use the phrase in her UC application essay. I heard it was from the bible; before the Internet, I tried to use a concordance to find it, but was not successful. Since then, I have discovered it is in Luke 12:48; the King James version is, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (return)

3 That’s my opinion; I’m Paul Schindler. (return)