Friday, July 16, 2010

Fever Pitch

The vaccination Tata received on Tuesday didn't account for her fever. Wednesday morning, I stopped by Soté's house on my way to the well. I found Soté dressing three-month old Tata and spraying her with perfume.

Tata is Soté's sixth daughter. It is fair to say that everyone had been praying that Tata be born a boy. Soté has yet to give birth to a son, and her husband, Lahmine, married his second wife, Bébé last year. When Soté gave birth to her fifth daughter, Banta told me Soté was close to tears. The pressure was on, and I'll admit to being worried about what Soté's reaction would be when she gave birth to Tata in late April.

Maybe its how pretty Tata is. Maybe its her straight(ish) nose. Maybe its that Bébé gave birth to her first child -- also a girl -- last month, so Soté feels vindicated: finally she's proved that its not just her that gives birth to girls. I don't make the baby, Soté keeps saying, Allah does. Whatever it is, Soté adores Tata as if she were her first daughter, not her sixth.

So when Tata wouldn't stop crying on Tuesday and Wednesday and her skin grew oh-so-hot, Soté was worried. It didn't help that Soté was on cooking duty. Later that morning, I stopped by the family compound to find Soté rushing around, trying to get lunch ready, Tata screaming in the background. Soté had laid Tata down on a mat inside the house (imagine pounding millet with a sick baby on your back), but Tata was now willing to cooperate. I picked Tata up and rocked her in the shade, trying to ignore how hot her skin was.

That evening, I walked back to Soté's, lighting my way with my headlamp. The last moon I'll see in Mali has risen, but its just a sliver yet. Tata was still crying, but there were louder cries in the compound now, too. Lahmine's goat was sick. A small black goat Lahmine bought a couple months ago to fatten up and resell, the goat was weaving around the compound, squealing with horribly. Lahmine sat with his flashlight, eyes on his goat.

Tata kept crying and Soté passed her to me. All day she spent cooking, but she needed to start another fire: it was her night with Lahmine and she wanted to serve him something special.

Lahmine got up and walked over to the goat, examining her. He reached into his pocket and then forced medicine down the goat's throat. She screamed louder. He hadn't found the time (or money) to take Tata to the doctor yet, but there was medicine for the goat.

But Lahmine seemed to relax a little after giving the goat the medicine. He reached over and touched Tata's forehead. She is hot, he said. We sat talking quietly, Soté busy poring water and setting the evening's tea on its charcoal fire.

the goat's cries were weaker now. They had lost some of their desperation. Lahmine got up when he realized the goat had wandered outside the compound. He came running back inside with her, yelling at his daughter to bring him a knife. The medicine had hurt instead of helped, and Lahmine was in a hurry to kill the goat before it died. If he didn't cut the goat's head in time, the meat would be inedible.

The knife wasn't sharp, but it is big. It makes a dull sawing noise, but finally the goat's head is off.

Lahmine left with the goat and Soté sighed. I knew it was too much medicine, she said. Tata had fallen asleep in my arms and Soté picked her up. Her fever was down a bit and she was sleeping soundly.

We waited for Lahmine in the darkness. Soté brought out his food and began pouring the tea. We waited.

Monday, July 5, 2010


For two years, I have tried to become the perfect Malian women. I wear Malian clothes and cover my shoulders and knees. I refuse help at the well and convince myself that I can carry just as many buckets of water home as the women dropping their well bags into the dark hole beside me. I take pride in the perfect pattern left in my compound after I sweep the leaves and trash from the dust every morning. I have learned to cook every Malian dish and ignore the smoke of the wood fire. I know to kneel to give someone water and I think nothing of rising to give my chair to a man. I've worked hard to become the perfect Malian women, but as I near the end of my time in Mali, I've realized this: I don't want to be the perfect Malian woman.

I don't want to have to give up my chair every time a man approaches out of duty. But its not just because I want the good chair as much as the man I give mine up to does. The physical work is exhausting. I don't carry a baby on my back while pulling water, I don't pound millet, I take vitamins every morning and am just 24 years old. Even so, I can feel the strain in my arms and back. But its not just the physical wear of being a Malian woman. I want to travel outside of my home without first having to obtain permission from my husband. I want to have a career. I don't want to worry about whether my husband will take another wife or whether I will give birth to a son.

When Aissa is happiest with me, she gives me the following blessing: May Allah give you a good husband, one who has money and does not bother you or beat you. I want to hope for more than that in my husband.

As I prepare to leave, I would like to say goodbye to my village comfortable in the knowledge that my friends and family here are living good, full lives, and that I can feel comfortable leaving to live my own good, full life. For the most part, I do believe those in my community are doing just fine. They are making money and love, working and playing, laughing and crying, eating and drinking. But what makes saying goodbye so hard is that I know that the life I will be returning to is full of opportunities many of my Malian friends would jump at, if only given the chance.

Its not just the opportunities I'll have, its the security my American family and life provide. Security is perhaps the biggest difference pushing its way between me and my Malian friends. Their lives are much more volatile than anything I have experienced, with little to fall back on. I had a reminder last week when I purchased four 100-kilo bags of rice to give to the four families who have kept me happy and fed over the past two years. Each bag cost about $70 and was loaded onto a small cart and sent to each family's house. How would you feel if someone gave you a 100-kilo bag of white rice? Adama couldn't believe the rice was for him and insisted that the boy who had brought the rice take it back and away to its true owner. Finally understanding it was meant for him, he spent the afternoon vrooming around on his moto, going too fast. Aissa couldn't stop looking at the huge sack, a smile breaking out on her face. And Banta -- she thanked Allah that she wouldn't have to worry where her next meal would come from this year.

It all comes back to this: I don't want to be the perfect Malian women. And if I don't want to be a Malian woman, then I know something is not right. Something is not fair. I will leave my village in a little less than a month sure that the lives my Malian friends and family are living are good, full lives. I will also leave knowing that they deserve much more.

Every evening, before it gets dark, I bike over to Aissa's and, after pulling her water, head out over the hill to the next village on a run. As I near the neighboring village, I run into three or four women. These women have spent the entire day, under the sun with no shade, bending over piling rock pebbles one after another into a pile that will be bought for construction work. Its back-breaking work, and everyday, it hurts my bones to see it. Yesterday, sweaty and tired after my run, I told Aissa about the pebble women and how it breaks my heart everyday to see them working so hard. She looked at me quizzically. They're making money, aren't they? she said.

I remember meeting a professor who travels yearly to Mali early on in my time here. He said he teaches an African studies class, and that every year, his students wonder if Africans are living simpler, happier, less complicated lives than Westerners. I was unsure how to respond to the professor when he asked for my opinion, but now the questions seems almost laughable. Lives are different here, but the stresses and joys people experience are the same. There is just as much gossip and stress, even if there is also more time to sit and drink tea. The Malian life in my village is not a simple one, as much as we might wish it was.

*Please remember that the sentiments in this blog are based on one experience in one village in Mali and do not represent the wealth and opportunities of many Malians (including women). After all, it always comes down to access to opportunity and wealth, doesn't it?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Portrait of a Patriot in Mali

I haven't been able to watch any of the World Cup games in my village, soccer being an activity exclusively reserved for men. When the games are on, all the men congregate at the different televisions around town, and I sit with Sitan or Banta, wondering what the score might be and keeping an eye out for Adama's moto for news of the results.

But Saturday found me in San for the America v. Ghana game, and a couple other volunteers and I walked over to the neighborhood bar to watch the game. Bars are also male-dominated in Mali -- in fact, during our training, Peace Corps reminded the male volunteers over and over again that the only African women they would find in bars would be prostitutes (many of whom are Nigerian women who have been trafficked here). Every single one of them. San is a bigger town, however, and although I wouldn't like any of my colleagues or friends from my conservative Muslim village to see me in a bar, its fairly acceptable for us to frequent the bars in San.

As Esther and I walked to the bar, I couldn't figure out which team to support. My own country or the last African team still in the game? Either win would be a victory in my book, but I knew how depressed my Malian friends would be if Ghana lost. Everyone had set their hopes on the Ghanaian team.

We arrived at the bar to find a mix of Malian and Ghanaian men already settled in. At first, the banter was friendly. But after Ghana scored its first goal and the men had downed a couple of beers, the environment began to change, and my sentiments with it. As the men grew drunker and more obnoxious, suddenly, I knew which team I wanted to win: America. They shouted and swore at America. One man put his face in front of Brad's, blocking his view. Ghana is going to win! He shouted. Ghana is the best! Ghana is a rich country, he continued, much richer than here -- there is everything in Ghana, he said, refusing to move. I had walked into the bar prepared to support Ghana, but as the game came to a close, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate for America to score again.

It was an experience not singular to Saturday's game. While I have never thought of myself as being particularly patriotic, whenever I am confronted by critiques of America and the West which seem unfair to my ears, I am immediately ready to claim that America is the best country on earth. I go so far to the other side that my words astonish even me. And yet sometimes I feel that taking such a contradictory point of view is the only way I can impress upon my community that we toubabs are not who they think we are. I adore Mali, but I don't think I have ever loved America as much as I do while living so far from her.

Tell me Americans don't know how to work, and I will swear that no one works harder.
Tell me Americans hate black people, and I will insist that racism is close to extinction.
Tell me Americans never say hello to each other, and I will assure you that we greet every stranger who walks by.
Tell me Americans are all rich, and I will do my best to persuade you that we all sleep on the street and starve.

Okay, maybe I don't go to quite such extremes, but its close. When I get that patriotic urge, there are two impulses going on in my mind.

The first is a feeling of defensiveness. I am the only American to stand up for not only an entire country, but also all of the Western world. I am also being evaluated by people based on their identification of me as an American and Westerner. So if someone says all Americans are wealthy and can afford anything, that means I can too. If someone says all Americans hate black people, that means I do too.

The second is a frustration over the incredible stereotypes that exist of Americans and Westerners in general. I can imagine that Africans would feel similar frustrations faced by Americans who assume that there are zebras and elephants running through their villages every day, that every African is beyond poor, and that they all practice voodoo.

After the soccer game ended, Brad and I walked out to the jeers of the those celebrating Ghana's win in the bar. We jokingly said we would support whoever played against Ghana in the next round. The impulse to be so defensive and patriotic is a fascinating one to me. Its an impulse that I can't quite believe I've experienced the next day. And its easy to see how powerful that impulse could be if you let it take over.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Postscript: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Yesterday, Dr. Mary Alleman from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and Dr. Tounkara, who works with the World Health Organization (WHO) here in Bamako, spoke to a small number of Peace Corps volunteers assembled at Tubani So, the Peace Corps training center not far from Bamako.

This Friday, health workers all over the country will head out door-to-door to begin yet another polio vaccination campaign. The CDC and WHO are working in cooperation with the Malian Ministry of Health in hopes to eradicate polio in Mali. Since 2008, Dr. Alleman reported, polio has begun to surge in West Africa. Starting in Northern Nigeria, it has now reached all the way up the West coast of Africa north to Mauritania, frustrating health workers internationally who had thought they were close to eradicating polio completely in Africa.

When polio cases began to pop up in Mali in 2008, health organizations took the cases seriously and the door-to-door campaigns began in a hope to contain and stop the spread of the virus.

But what about routine vaccinations? Why have they taken a back seat, while polio vaccinations have stormed ahead, irregardless of the cost and burden it places on local communities. Why were Malian health centers suddenly without access to the vaccinations vital to preventing outbreaks of other diseases, like measles, yellow fever, and tetanus?

Dr. Tounkara stood up to answer my questions. In 2009, he said, Mali's partner organizations and donors stopped buying Mali's vaccines in the expectation that Mali could now handle the financial burden of buying vaccines on its own. However, that same year, the cost of vaccines went up and Mali was unable to pay for enough vaccines to cover the entire country, leading to the lengthy shortages we experienced in my village.

This year, Dr. Tounkara said, Mali has been able to pay in full and the shortages should be over.

They haven't ended in my village, I said. The system is breaking down, and its terrifying to watch.

Dr. Tounkara took down the name of my village and promised me to look into the problem. I hope he finds some answers.