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.

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.

Mali Journal

M, our older daughter, is in the Peace Corps in Mali. She had Internet this week as well:

I'm in Bougani. There was a Halloween party here last night. Tomorrow I'm going back to village.

Costumes worn by other volunteers last night: A lot of Mario Kart characters, the characters from "It's not gay if it's a 3-way" SNL video, Osama Bin Laden, Bill and Ted from Bill and Ted, The Fresh Prince and Carleton, Dick in a Box SNL video reference, a crayon, three lady gagas, one of whom was the tallest guy in country in drag, a jellyfish (Tabitha), Malian flag (me), Aladdin and Jasmine, a couple mummies, a convict, one of the guys who stands on the side of the road here selling phone credit while wearing a bright orange vest, a couple of Fulani cow herders, etc. I thought it summed up my generation and Peace Corps at the same time.

The ride from Sikasso to Bougani was awful. We rented a bush taxi to take all 17 of the volunteers in Sikasso there for the Thanksgiving meeting to Bougani, which should really only be a 3-4 hour bus ride. If we rented a van to ourselves though, so the thinking went, we wouldn't have to make all the unnecessary stops to pick up people on the side of the road, and we wouldn't have to deal with the smells and noise that come from Malian public transport. Unfortunately the van that some of the girls though they'd rented never showed up, and then by the time another one was found and convinced to pick us up it was after noon, so we were travelling during the hottest part of the day, plus they charged more than they were supposed to, plus they ended up stopping along the way anyway to pick up dried cow hides, which smell pretty bad normally, but smell even worse when piled on top of your van in the sun in a huge stack, and we also picked up a random Malian woman and her child. So it saved us no time, was not any more comfortable and we didn't roll into Bougani until around 5. Most people here had already started drinking, but all we wanted to do was shower and change. I'm glad we got a hotel room, because the house did look packed. A lot of people had bug huts on the roof of the stage house. As we were waiting for dinner at the hotel restaurant the party moved over to the hotel. It was a fun evening. Around midnight a lot of the volunteers started to couple up though, and the dance floor became a lot less fun, although still amusing. I sat outside and talked with a friend M1 who I met at the 4th of July, who was in homestay with Tabitha, and M2 from my stage. It was considered an early night for a Peace Corps party, but I was happy to be going back to my room at 1:30 and asleep by 2.

Today I went with T to Build On, an American NGO that builds schools here. They built a school in her village, but the roof is leaking; they thought maybe sending someone to complain in person would get them some attention. It seemed to work, and the lady spoke English so there was less ambiguity than if it had happened in Bambara. Then we stopped at a particularly good fabric store and I got some fabric with eight balls, and some other fabric with a couple laying in bed looking out a window at the sun and a palm tree. I'm thinking maybe I'll hold onto this fabric and we can take it to Niena together when you come so you can see the whole process of getting something made. We went over to the house expecting a bunch of hung-over out of towners to still be around, but they'd all actually gotten up early and left for Bamako.

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali. She had access to the Internet this weekend:

I’m in Sikasso for a meeting about Thanksgiving, which we host here in Sikasso since we have the most food of any of the regions. I dropped off the Velveeta and taco spices as long as I’m here, and I’m picking up R’s two last outfits at the tailor. Then on to a Halloween party in Bougani. I’m going to be going dressed as the Malian flag because I had an outfit made for every day use but it turned out more cartoonish than I’d expected so I think that it’ll make a good costume.

There were a couple scorpions. One was in my negen at night, and scurried into a corner when I shined my flashlight in. I’ve been waiting for that to happen, since it has happened to T a bunch of times at her site 14 km away. The second scorpion my little deaf buddy S, three or four years old, found one amongst my moringa seedlings, and he squealed until he got my attention and then pointed it out. He’d scared it into a corner and I had my host sister D come and kill it.

I started my girl’s soccer team. First I had to have a bunch of meetings with the secondary cycle school (7-9th grade) director, and then even after that he no-showed the first day of try-outs because he went to another village. He stopped by in the evening to apologize, and we started the next day. Basically I’m just going to the PE classes, and one of the teachers, named W, is running the girls through a scrimmage while I watch and write down the names and likely positions of the better girls. The girls do show some talent. So far I’ve seen the 8th grade and half of the 7th grade. They seem to go through puberty between 7th and 8th grade, because the 8th graders were much bigger and stronger and more assured. The 7th graders were a lot more emotional and did a lot more pushing and shoving. I wrote down 7 names for the 8th grade and 4 for the 7th grade. I have some definite defenders, and a possible goalie. My dream team is going to be 22 girls, and will probably get divided into a varsity and JV should I ever get it together for us to visit other schools for games, like Niena and Dugukolobugu, which have secondary cycle schools for sure, but I’m not sure if they have girls’ soccer teams. The girls are ridiculously happy to be given access to a soccer ball, the field, and jerseys. They play a little like 5 year olds in America, since they’ve never actually been coached. It is, as Dad used to say, “bunch ball.” They all run to the ball in a tight pack, and occasionally the ball gets out and a couple of the faster girls run with it for awhile by themselves. I got the jerseys from Peace Corps, but I had to buy the ball myself. I bought it in Niena from a guy who turned out to be a former homologue himself. I bought the nicest ball he had, which makes it the nicest ball in village, if not the commune, and girls (!) are using it. I’m revising my expectations of what I can accomplish as a coach, but I think even if I just get them together a couple of times, they’ll be happy, and if we actually play games, they’ll be happy just to get to travel to another village.

I started my work in Sibirila, the village in the mobile bank with the best record so far. The meeting went well, and we implemented the changes, and everyone liked them. We’ll see if any problems crop up long term.

We had another meeting in N’tjilla with all three of the villages. It ended up being a pretty long affair. It was supposed to start at 9 am, but we didn’t get everyone until around 10:30, which is standard, but it is something we addressed at the big meeting. There were a bunch of the usual small errors. Nothing malicious, people here just have a slim grasp on numeracy and literacy so problems occur, but it is hard to communicate the errors because of the level of my Bambara combined with their insecurity with basic math, so everyone involved tends to get frustrated.

The Sunday before last I brought my little sister B with me to Niena for market day. She is nine years old. I’d been teasing her about coming, figuring she’d never get excused from all of her chores, plus she has no money, but I guess I took it over the edge because she got ready to come with me and my homologue came to ask me if I’d really take her. Since she’d taken a bath and put on her nicest going to market princess dress I couldn’t very well say no. She rode out on the back of my bicycle the 7 km to the main road, then I paid her fare on the bus into Niena. I bought her a couple of sodas, a pair of earrings, and some gum she wanted to sell at school. She was having the time of her life. We always do a lot of walking in Niena, because T and I have errands at the post office, the bank, the market, the tailor, etc. Then we go hang out at A’s old house since we have the keys until the new volunteers come in January, actually they are arriving right now, but they won’t be done with training until January. T and I bought a deep fried chicken for lunch to take back to the house. As we were ripping into it and sharing it, T made a disturbing discovery. Maggots. Lots of them. Little tiny white worms that were very much alive. The meat was cooked all the way through, so it wasn’t intestinal worms, plus you tend to get those through a fecal-oral route and don’t actually see them in the food. That was actually the reassuring news when we called the Peace Corps doctor. Since B was there, there was no way the news wasn’t going to get back to village. I was worried that I’d get in trouble for not only spending a ridiculous amount of money on food, but for also being stupid enough to get cheated in the process. We did take the remains of the chicken back with one of the neighbors and demanded our money back, which was returned grudgingly. When we told the story to people were more sympathetic than mocking. I had been cheated by a not very nice lady, they agreed. Food sellers here if they don’t sell something one day will just take it home and then re-fry it to re-heat it the next day. And since there’s no refrigeration, bad things can happen inside. Ewwwwww. Obviously, I’m never going to that chicken lady again. It was almost disturbing how nonchalant the explanation was, so this obviously happens all the time. At least I did not get sick afterwards, nor did T , nor did B , and it barely put a wrinkle in B ’s day. Still the best day ever. The maggots just made for a fun story for her to tell friends.

There has been a lot of corn, cotton, and peanut harvesting going on the last couple of weeks. They have little parties where people sit around in a circle and shuck corn or take peanuts off the plant or shell them. Sometimes I participate, sometimes I just watch. There was also a guy with a mobile grinding machine who came from a neighboring village and went quartier by quartier grinding shea nuts for butter. That was the most entrepreneurial business I’ve seen in Mali so far. Brilliant. That’s a service that is in definite demand, and with a machine and a donkey he saves the women the trouble of having to carry the goods in both directions to the stationery machines, or the actual work of grinding. I also had a small Halloween party in village the last day before I left. It was a hybrid Halloween-Easter. L helped me hide the candy around the compound, and then when the kids came back from their break from school they all ran around and looked for it. I would have liked to exclude some older kids, but they were just as excited as the little kids, so I couldn’t say no to them. There was chewing gum, lollipops and coughdrops which pass as candy here. After the candy was found we made mango juice from a Nestle packet, which advertises itself here as having lots of vitamins and is beyond the normal price point of a Malian family, so a nice treat. I used the face paint and stencils and temporary tattoos and stickers mom sent to tattoo the kids until I got to tired and sweaty to deal with them anymore, then I made them all go away. I think it was a success over all. I am bringing the decorations mom sent with me to re-use in Bougani along with the cocktail napkins and face paint.

So, lots of ups and downs these last three weeks. The break came at the perfect time. There’s no internet at the house, which is super annoying, but yesterday T and I went to the Mamelon hotel and restaurant and I was able to have a couple beers with my beef and plantains and internet, and things started to seem more doable again.

Mali Journal

My older daughter M is in the Peace Corps in Mali. She has been in Sikasso and Bamako, where she has Internet access. She has written:

I don't like going to Bamako, but there are some things you can get there that you can't get here in Sikasso. T has to go for her mid-service medical review (which involves samples from not one but three stools, I can hardly wait until it is my turn!), and I agreed to go with her to Bamako if she came with me to Sikasso first. She found a tailor here that is better than the one we use in Niena, though not as reliable. I decided to have the fancier fabric I got for one of R's outfits done here, and I found a nice blue and black material for the "western" style photo you sent, so we'll see how he does with Tubab designs as well. I was also hoping to talk to M, but I spent yesterday on the computer during his office hours, and today he might be in Bamako. I wanted to see if I could get him to help me translate some soccer vocabulary from English to French and Bambara. I'm not sure if there are proper soccer vocabulary words in Bambara, they probably just use the French since they didn't have soccer before the Tubabs came, but I was hoping to confirm that before my team meets for the first time.

School started yesterday, Monday. I'd been asking when the first day was going to be for months and couldn't get a straight answer, it turns out that was because the parents didn't know. It gets announced on the radio for the whole country. I was asking my host sister B if she was excited to go back to school to start learning again. She told me she was excited to go back, but that she wouldn't be learning, she would be farming. I thought she was joking, but no, my homologue confirmed, the first couple of days they bring dabas (hand held hoes) and brooms (bundles of straw without handles) to school to reclaim the school grounds from the elements which have had free reign all rainy season/summer. Once the school itself has been reclaimed, they'll probably do some work in the teacher's fields, weeding or harvesting, depending on what needs doing when, and then they can start lessons. Assuming no one needs a new chicken coop or work done on a compound wall. It is not exactly back to school as I remember it.

When M came this last week to visit we started to discuss the waste management situation in village. My homologue didn't seem to think there was a problem, but I'm going to talk with someone from Wat San when I'm in Bamako, hopefully, to figure out how I can approach breeching the topic again.

T and I played around with garage band on the Mac in the stage house today, and I don't think we'll have any problems recording our radio show. The problem is more finding a time when there is no one else in the common area so we don't get embarrassed speaking in front of other volunteers. The first script we've prepared is basically just "What is Peace Corps?" Then we'll play some music. The second one will probably be nutrition or hand washing. Riveting topics, I know.

The four major cash crops they are growing in my village are millet, corn, rice, and cotton. There's also peanuts. There's more tomatoes available again. Also fruit is starting to come back, so there are oranges, bananas, watermelon and papaya in Niena, if not actually in village. Here in Sikasso there is everything. T and I bought potatoes, eggs (not available in village because of a combination of guinea fowl and chicken diseases that have swept our area), and green beans for dinner tonight. Last night caterpillars were an option at the street food vendor we went to, but I passed in favor of spaghetti and beans.

September 22nd was  Malian Independence Day from France. Since we're the commune capitol for Commune Wateni, we had the big party in the area. There was a bike race and a karate demonstration, with people from Niena. My host brother D took second in the bike race, thanks to a crash that happened somewhere along the course that took out the top two riders. There were a couple really little kids who entered, for some unknown reason. They didn't do all the laps, but one of them got the same prize as the adults.

Burned corn is the big snack right now. I didn't love it the first handful of times, but now I think it is great. It is exactly what it sounds like. They just drop an ear of corn onto the same charcoal they use for heating up tea or cooking the family meals. Now that the corn is ripening in the fields you can just send out a kid to pick a couple ears and bring it back if you are hungry. Some of the kids don't always know which fields they should take from though, so I've seen a kid get beaten for taking from the wrong stalks. It is nice to have a readily available snack food in village again.

I've been at site awhile, so it is hard to focus on just one event. I've had visitors, there have been social and national celebrations. It has been both rainy and extremely hot.

We went to Comme Chez Soi, the nicest place I've been in Bamako so far. I'd take you guys there, but I hear the Radisson is actually the nicest place in town period, so we'll just stick to their restaurant while we're in the city. After the happy hour, we went to a bar where drinks were served out of one of the vans/bush taxis that are omnipresent here. It was cute, and also obviously run by a foreigner as it had colorful prints of Malians on the wall, the tables were made from drums or wheels, and there were masks used as light fixtures, and it had some of the cleanest western bathrooms I've seen in this country (with toilet paper! and mosquito netting on the window! and soap at the sinks!) It was nice being here for my friend A's birthday, even though his big party is actually next week which I'll be missing. Everyone I went out with last night was 23-25. On average, I didn't feel too old though.

Mali Journal

M, my older daughter, is a Peace Corp volunteer in Mali. She had access to email last week:

September 6
Today was a full day of training on the shea industry. We had a panel discussion on the politics of Malian shea with public and private sector players (they tried to do it in Bambara but didn't last more than one question before it switched to French), and sessions on marketing and cost-benefit analysis. We are supposed to write a business plan for a made up scenario in groups. [From the last entry: The last day of Ramadan here is called Seli fitini, small prayer holiday. They celebrate with everyone actually going to mosque in the morning for a big prayer session, and everyone who can afford it gets new clothes, and then people go around and greet each other and give blessings. Kids roam around in big groups in a Halloween kind of jovial atmosphere. They offer blessings in exchange for coins and candy.]

I got coins ready because T had warned me about it the weekend before, but then I spent that day in the Doctor's compound with my host sister D preparing dinner (she was, I was reading a New Yorker), so he was the one who had to hand out coins for the kids. The only kids I gave coins to were B, S and W (three girls from my homologue's concession). I gave them a mugan (100 CFA, about 20 cents) to split between the three of them, and that was considered a generous gift.

We ended a little early in the afternoon, so I went back to our hut and read Game of Thrones for an hour and then watched movies on my laptop, since I have electricity and therefore can. Electricity is great.

There is some talk of going into Bamako for dinner and ice cream tomorrow. We'll see if that pans out. I decided not to bring running shoes because I was already bringing so much other junk here, and the sessions all day are so tiring, but we've had a little more free daylight time than I expected, so now I kind of regret that decision. Oh well, nothing for it now.

September 7
Men and older women tend to pray five times a day, whereas kids and younger women often don't. You can pray wherever you are, but of course it's better if you can make it to the mosque all five times. They divide up where the men and women pray, sometimes men inside women in the courtyard if it is a small mosque, which many are here. You just have to face Mecca and have a prayer mat. Since most people don't have watches here, and there's no electricity for the call to prayer in village, they just kind of guesstimate the times.

We have a CSCOM (brousse hospital) and a Maternite. We have the primary Doctor B paid for by the government for the whole rural commune, and a secondary doctor paid for by the community. We also have a pharmacist, not sure who pays for him. We also have a primary Matrone, a Monique (from the book Monique and the Mango Rain) if you will, and then she has an assistant as well. I think there might be a second Maternite somewhere in the commune, but we're the main one. That's way more medical staff than the average village, again, because we are the commune capitol.

I can't believe it is the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend. Some volunteer here pointed that out, but I'm sure they're pointing it on TV left and right there.


Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Mali. She's in the capital for training this week, and so has access to e-mail:

It is nice to be back around English-speaking folks. I stayed up past midnight last night just chatting with friends, while at site the latest I ever make it is maybe 10 pm. L and I are hut mates again, as we were for pre-service training and in-service training. This time it is just the two of us though, so it will probably be a little quieter than with three or four. There are only 20 of us total doing this training, but there are other volunteers and staff who are either coming to the training center, or who we are going to see on field trips.

I survived my first Ramadan. I didn't try to fast, because they include drinking water as part of fasting, and there is no way I could go from sun-up to sunset without drinking. I drink at least 2 liters of water each day during daylight hours, if not three or four or five. It is really hot here. I don't know how they do it, and especially how they fasted and went out into the fields. A lot of people were more grouchy or touchy than usual, and T pointed out, and I then observed, people were much more likely to get into fights. The hardcore don't even swallow their own saliva, they spit it out. So that was lovely for a month. And people weren't mean about my not fasting, but they were definitely inquisitive. So every time I took a sip of water or ate something in public at least one person if not more would ask me why I wasn't fasting. I tried a number of answers, "I'm Christian." "I'm American." But my host sister told me to stick with "I can't." I think everyone liked that answer best because it made me seem weak and them strong, and it was the truth, so that's what I stuck with for the month.

The last day of Ramadan here is called Seli fitini, small prayer holiday. They celebrate with everyone actually going to mosque in the morning for a big prayer session, and everyone who can afford it gets new clothes, and then people go around and greet each other and give blessings. Kids roam around in big groups in a Halloween kind of jovial atmosphere. They offer blessings in exchange for coins and candy. I went to a dinner party at the doctor's house (the bowl of raw chicken in my pictures) with my host sister Djenebou. We also went to two balafon (Malian xylophone) parties the first and second night (pictures of people standing in a circle with people dancing in the middle). It wasn't actually as crazy as it had been built up to me by volunteers who had been here a year, but it was fun. And now everyone can eat again during the day, so they are back to being more mellow.

I did a lot of reading this last month, I read the biography of Latin, which I would only recommend to someone who is really interested in Latin, or has a lot of free time. The author obviously loved the topic and was excited to be sharing, but it was a little repetitive. And now I'm more than half way through the first book of the Game of Thrones, which dad sent.

I got a Bambara intermediate book which I have started studying too. I've taken away only a couple of new words so far. The format sucks, and my copy is falling apart, but I'm happy to have some new learning materials, since I definitely feel like I've plateaued. And one thing I do hate about getting together with a bunch of other volunteers, is I can't help buy compare our Bambara levels, and everyone else seems so much farther along. I make excuses for myself like I don't hear much Bambara at site, because most people speak Ghanakan when they aren't speaking directly to me, and I haven't met with a tutor in over three months. I'm more introverted naturally so I don't just start conversations with strangers.

Mali Journal

My older daughter M is a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Mali. She had access to the Internet this week, so here's the latest:

So, I've been reading Monique and the Mango Rains at site, about a volunteer who served in Mali at some point in the past when volunteers were not only allowed to ride motorcycles, but were given them by Peace Corps. She was a health volunteer and worked at a maternity. Her experience is incredibly easy to identify with. I think I've recommended several books already, but if you want to know more about what my day to day looks like, go ahead and read this book, but subtract the boyfriend, change Miniaka to Ghanakan, and ignore all the birth stuff which I'm happily not dealing with in my own service. I have been starting every other sentence since I got together with T yesterday morning to take the bus in with "Well in Monique and the Mango Rains, ..." She's being a good sport about it though. Since everything I can verify is right on, I assume the stuff I haven't personally experienced yet, like conversations on excision, are also accurate.

On a side note, while I was doing some self-tutoring with my Bambara-French, French-Bambara, French-English dictionaries at site I made an unfortunate realization. I was reading a story about blacksmiths, since I myself am a blacksmith by last name, and so while I was in the "numu" (blacksmith) section of the Bambara-French dictionary, I confirmed that numuke is a male blacksmith, who can make anything out of iron or other metals, but also who performs circumcisions... and then sure enough numumuso right below it is a basket weaver or someone who does pottery, but who also performs excisions. Ouch. I go around proudly proclaiming myself a numumuso all the time. Now I'm going to twinge a little when I do it. Another book I finished this week was The Race for Timbuktu I think Dad might like this one. It is a series of historical accounts of British explorers, most of whom die on the coastline of Benin or Nigeria, but it also follows the one explorer who successfully makes it into the heart of Mali, before there was a Mali obviously. Most of the novel is reconstructed from correspondences either by the explorers themselves, or the Colonial Office in Tripoli, and it is full of dry British wit. It is a fascinating story of intrigue, which might actually be slow-paced when read in America, but here it seemed to skip right along.

This week I had terrible hay fever. I took some Benadryl, but then I ended up just sleeping through a couple days. When it rained that cleared the air and I could breathe again.

We had a big mobile bank meeting on Friday. It went reasonably well. Since the ladies have been making change out of the safe we now only have very large bills, which makes it hard when people want to take money back out.

M, my Malian boss as the head of Small Enterprise Development, was supposed to come for a quick visit on a drive between Bamako to Sikasso to visit another volunteers service but he sent me a text the day before, Saturday, saying he wasn't going to make it after all. I was pretty disappointed. When I had talked to him in Bamako he had sounded very enthusiastic about helping me with the library project which I have, for the most part, abandoned for now since I couldn't get the school director excited about it. M, as a child, was in a household with a Peace Corps Volunteer. Their volunteer read all the time, and M's dad saw that, and assumed reading must be important, so he always made books available to his kids, who went on to not only finish high school, which is already a huge achievement here, but also to go on to college, virtually unheard of, and then go on to get a further degree in America, the rarest of the rare. So literacy has a special place in M's heart. M is almost magical in his ability to clear obstacles away, so I was excited to have him come to village. I had spent whatever time I was able to breathe and move preparing my hut and my yard to entertain, even if he was only going to drop by. Nothing was wasted per se, since cleaning my living space was needed after the long stay in Bamako, but I still felt deflated when I got the text. He did say he'd come later though.

Since he didn't come, I was able to meet up with T in Niena for market day on Sunday. We got the keys to A's old house last week, and we had the neighbors weed the yard. The house is perfectly empty, but it is nice to have access to a clean negen and a shady place to wait out the hottest part of the day. Extremely nice. We took naps, read, and I used the occasion of being in a quiet place with reception to actually call some other volunteers I have fallen out of touch with and who I didn't see in Bamako.

I've already bought toilet paper, "cheese" (vache qui rit), nutella and oatmeal here in Sikasso. I'm hoping to go fabric shopping and hit up the ATM again. I'll have nothing to do Saturday but goof off, and Sunday T and I are going to hit up the market (Sunday is market day here too, on a x20 level from Niena) and grab produce before getting on the bus to go back to village. There are crazy things here you can't get in Niena like fresh green beans, potatoes, coconuts, and avocados. The biggest challenge is going to be not overburdening myself to the point I can't bike my loot back in the 7 km.

Last night T and I made honey-mustard carrots, green beans and mushrooms (from a can, but still, mushrooms!), and rosemary potatoes. Everything was a bit off since the ingredients weren't exactly American, but I was very happy with the results.

Mali Journal

M, my older daughter, is serving with the Peace Corps in Mali. After several weeks away, she once again has Internet access. She's been without internet access for a while, so she has a lot to say:

Since the fourth of July I have been working with my homologue [host] on the mobile bank. By Malian standards we've been working pretty intense hours, i.e., a couple hours a day a couple days a week. I asked for all of the client books (121 for N'tjilla, 99 for Bougoulaba, 49 for Sibirila) to be brought in, and all of the bigger bugs (accounts, loans, etc.) so I could compare them all against each other. I like dad's phrase of "forensic accounting." That seems to accurately summarize what I've been up to. N'tjilla's books were 1/3 full of errors since Katy left, Bougoulaba's were 1/2 full of errors, and Sibirila had less than 5% mistakes. N'tjilla has the most people working in village on the bank, but the attendance at meetings is erratic. I think Bougoulaba needs a review of the systems and also at least one other person working there. I'm still hoping to have a meeting in the next couple weeks with the regional coordinator, M, and an older volunteer (in Mali years) who helped set up the bank originally, D.

I was going to go to the internet cafe to write to you guys, because there is only one computer here at the house, and it is D2’s private laptop, which she lets other people use, but which I didn't want to fight over if other people were going to be here, but D2 and T headed out to market, so I'm here by myself. The Bougani informal transit house is coming together nicely. Little by little, or dooni dooni, of course, but that is the way here. The bunk beds have sheets and mosquito nets. The negen wall has been raised so that you can hear less noise from the neighbor's negen on the other side of the wall, and the little work area/office has been rigged up with a table, pillows on the floor and fabric on the ceiling for a "Morrocan" theme. There's also an oven in the kitchen and a bookshelf with a decent selection of books and magazines brought in and exchanged by other volunteers. I just picked up Monique and the Mango Rains, which I've been looking for a copy of for months, by a volunteer here in Mali in the 80s. I also got a half dozen books from T when I went to visit her on Thursday in D'jambugu.

The village behind T’s on the road going away from the main road is Toefula (sp?), there is now a family of four Frenchmen living back there. The husband is French, the wife is Scottish, and the kids are very international, in that they've been raised in a combination of those two countries, but also Saudi Arabia and Morocco, at the very least, possibly other places as well. The husband is C and the wife is M2. They are working on an eco-friendly gold mining enterprise. Apparently instead of dumping toxic chemicals into the rivers, their method for extracting the gold from other rocks and minerals using centrifugal force gets out 92% of the gold instead of 96% or something like that. They are having trouble finding investors, so they are here trying to prove that it actually works, and that it really is much better for the environment. Anyway, they have had T over for lunch a couple of times, or have given her rides if they run into her on their little shared back road (they have a truck, several motorcycles), and they suggested that if she wanted to invite some other volunteers over, they'd have a little party for us. So on Thursday I biked over to T's house in the morning (14 km), took a bucket bath, and then C and his son picked us up, and we got D2 at the bus stop on the side of the main road and headed back to their house. Three of their Malian staff and his wife were waiting for us, with beer and chicken and some root vegetable that wasn't potatoes. The lunch was delicious, and the beer was an unexpected pleasant surprise, since that is impossible to get in village, and actually not readily available in Niena either. One of their Malian staff figured out whose house you could buy it from on the down low. We played cards, a Malian game called 151. The conversation ranged from English to French to Bambara, and although I couldn't follow every conversation 100%, I think I was one of the people present who could follow most of the conversations (the Europeans couldn't follow the Bambara, the Malians couldn't follow the English, and the Americans couldn't follow the French). It was nice hearing pretty French French as opposed to West African French. I've only been to the river once near my own village, and that was during the heat of the day, this was at sunset, and it was very pretty. Also, the water has definitely gotten higher and faster flowing, despite our not having gotten tons of rain, I guess what little we've gotten, or what they've gotten up river has been enough to make a difference.

I like doing the long stretches in village because you can get more work done, and I really don't love travelling within the country on the buses, but it can get depressing. Even when nothing goes wrong per se, it is just a hard life. If you do any gardening or farming, your back hurts. If you are a little too nonchalant with what you eat, you get sick. If it rains, the roads quickly turn into muddy rivers. Everything is just low level stressful, all the time. And sometimes it adds up. And sometimes things actually go wrong, which is of course even worse.

I went out with some of the women from my compound to plant peanuts. You just dig a little hole and put a shelled peanut in it. I was obviously moving slower than the women who knew what they were doing. One of the children wanted to help but none of the women wanted his help, so I let him help me, but instead of putting one peanut in the little holes I dug he'd put in 5 or 8, and then cover them with dirt before I could fish out the extras. Then he'd laugh maniacally for ages. He seemed so happy, I didn't have the heart to be too stern with him.

I also went to watch the Fane (my last name here) women fire their dagas (water jugs and clay stoves). They build a big bonfire around the pottery, and then when it dies down to ashes they pull the pottery out, harder than it went in I guess. Obviously there is no kiln here. I think the sun-drying they do beforehand does a lot of the work of solidifying them too. Afterwards, since I was in the Fane, or blacksmith, section of town, I sat with some other women and watched them weave baskets. Apparently the female equivalent of being a blacksmith in this country is pottery and basket weaving. It is actually pretty cool to watch, and it is also nice to see someone in village doing something to add value to a product and then sell it on the local market, either in village or in Niena, since most people just sell raw goods with no improvement, and thus no ability to charge for their time and labor. The women making the baskets also made more tea than I've ever seen anyone else in village drink, which I think was a status symbol showing that they do in fact have disposable income.

[Question: When will you return to power and the Interet]

I'll probably be coming back in late August for a mural painting thing at a local school. The roads have also gotten noticeably better in the last couple of months as they've finished construction, so instead of 2 hours it takes something more like an hour or an hour and a half to get from Dugukolobugu to either Bougani or Sikasso. Three weeks seemed like a long time to be in village, but I think I'm going to try and make that my average. I'm spending this whole next week in Bamako, so I think I'll be ready to go back when it's done.

[How is numeracy in Mali?]

Some can do the basic addition in their heads, but they use calculators for most things. Most shops or stalls at the market will also have calculators, because if there is more than two numbers, they really don't trust themselves to do it mentally. I guess the average person working in the service industry in America wouldn't be trusted to do it in their head either.