Friday, January 30, 2009

Big City Lights and a Return to Camp Mali

Pulling into Bamako after my first four months at site, even Bamako seemed cosmopolitan. Traffic lights, cars everywhere, supermarkets, bars, and even a patisserie with café au lait. I had come to Bamako a few days before my Peace Corps In-Service Training began to attend a meeting about a USAID education project and just soak up Bamako and the presence of other volunteers.

The PC training was held at Tubani So, Peace Corps’ training facility – a sort of Camp Mali, complete with cafeteria and dorm-like huts. Its both an incredible sanctuary – no one calling you “toubab!” wireless Internet, meat twice a day and the occasional cake after dinner – and an alarming change from village life. All of a sudden I was surrounded by Americans 24 hours a day, speaking English constantly, to have a jam-packed schedule when I’m used to days where I struggle to maintain some sort of routine and schedule (which often consists of things like 6:30-7AM: sweep; 7-7:30: listen to the BBC).

IST was chalk full of sessions on all kinds of technical topics – farming and selling sesame; traditional medicine; starting an association; excision. There were also visits from NGOs and development organizations like the Millennium Challenge Corporation and USAID; briefings from the embassy and a visit from the Ambassador (who conceded that she had never, ever considered doing the Peace Corps, much less riding in a bush taxi); a trip to the Malian department of health that creates the posters that are hung in health clinics (Why? Who knows?).

For the final week, our Malian counterparts were invited to Tubani So to attend training with us. All of a sudden, Tubani So was overrun by almost 200 people. And of course, it was during the coldest week of cold season, with temperatures dipping into the 60s and a serious lack of blankets. My own homologue, Aissa, arrived wearing five layers of clothing. The addition of our homologues to the mix caused utter chaos. You know those things, in terms of protocol, that you take for granted? Like standing in line, taking a piece of paper and passing it down the line, speaking in turn, and not licking the spoon that everyone uses to take sugar (or even using utensils to begin with). To most Malians, these rules that are so implicit to our every move are utterly foreign. And so, dinner was a mad rush to edge your body closest to the serving bowl, training sessions were over laden with disorder, and Tubani So was filled with Malians shocked and confused by the odd behavior and overwhelming number of 70 Americans all in one place. So many computers! So much English! Pizza? Disgusting! Pancakes? Blech!

Aissa was shocked to learn that I had more than one girlfriend and we spent more than one evening doubled over in laughter at the antics of Toubabs. But when I told her that the Peace Corps director is coming to visit our village next week, she about had a panic attack. There was such fear in her eyes at the idea of the DIRECTOR of the Peace Corps, not just a toubab, not just an American, not just the director, but also a WHITE MAN. Despite trying to calm her and having one of my Malian colleagues impress upon her that Mike Simsek was only coming to meet people, to see my village, to see the work the previous volunteer had done, to see what I might do, Aissa squeezed shut her eyes and shivered. The next morning, she called our village immediately – everyone must prepare: The Patron Ba, the Director of Peace Corps Mali is coming and everything must be clean, clean, clean! Because Aissa has it in her head that if Mike spots any dirt, anything out of place, if there’s not a good chair for him, he will tell everyone, tell it to the moon, that our village is dirty, unwelcoming, who knows what he would say. Cause those toubabs sure are crazy.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tea Time

Back in village, I’ve been indulging in one of my favorite Malian pastimes. Tea hopping. Malians drink tea constantly. But it’s not any tea, and it’s certainly not a cup of tea that you grab on your way to work. This is Chinese green tea, served in shot glasses, in three rounds, with massive amounts of sugar, and sometimes boiled with a hint of mint. The first round of tea is quite strong, and throughout the three rounds, which could take as little as 30 minutes or last as long as 3 hours, the tea gets progressively sweeter, becoming more and more like sugar water. Tea is an art form here, and everyone wants the honor of making and serving the tea. Except me. Because pouring the tea is a complicated process of getting just the right amount of foam in each shot glass, lifting the teapot ever higher while never spilling a drop. It’s an integral part of Malian life, and while many families may not have enough money to purchase medicine or provide their children with nutritious diets, everyone has enough money to buy tea and sugar every single day.

So if I have a particularly slow day and am wondering what to do with myself, the solution is simple: tea hopping. I start out at my counterpart’s house, since she often starts drinking tea early in the afternoon, and boils it quite quickly since her father in law is most certainly addicted and is quite grumpy until he’s had his three shots. From there, I can wonder through the village, chatting and drinking tea with friends and neighbors. If I’m lucky, I might find someone who’s drinking dableni, or hibiscus tea, instead, a delicious variation. Others serve the tea with peanuts. It’s how we pass cool mornings, hot afternoons, starlit nights. When I’m talking on the radio, I know that my friends and neighbors are fanning the charcoal and setting a teapot on the fire. When I finish my shout outs and leave the radio station, I can be certain that there will be a cup waiting for me when I get home.

Confident that I wouldn’t find much of a Christmas celebration in my own village, I headed up to Mali’s Dogon country for the holiday, where I met up with over thirty other Peace Corps volunteers. Since cold season started around mid-November, I’ve watched as countless four-wheelers and buses carrying white tourists passed through my village, making their way up to visit the cliffs of Dogon. Most people in my village are confused about why white tourists are interested in visiting Mali, much less why they would want to walk up and down cliffs for several days. Nonetheless, I was sent off from my village with snacks for the journey and many benedictions for a happy holiday and safe return.

I traveled up to Dogon with another Peace Corps volunteer, Joelle, and we were able to quickly hop onto a bus heading in that direction, making friends with two wealthy Malian girls listening to music on their fancy Razor phones. In addition to the driver, Malian buses normally carry 3-4 additional operators, whose main purpose is to lean out of the door and call out the destination of the bus and the price, in our case “Sevare! Keme naani! Sevare!” If someone actually responds to their cries and wants to get on the bus, one of the men (and they’re always men) jumps out of the bus and practically pushes you back inside. Meanwhile, the driver, desperate not to lose a second, has already started the bus again, and the busmen must run to jump onto the bus before it moves on again, searching for new passengers. In addition, these men also are responsible for controlling the countless vendors who swarm the bus at every stop. But perhaps their most important duty is keeping the driver supplied with tea. After all, one shouldn’t be deprived of tea only because one is on the road! Luckily, while picking up Joelle and I, the busmen were also able to pick up charcoal, tea, and sugar. As our bus made its progress across the Sahel, the busmen fanned the charcoal and carefully poured out sweet cups of tea, washing the cups out of the window.

Once there, it was easy to see why so many tourists make the long trip out. We spent three days hiking through the cliffs, each night in a different village in our mosquito net tents under the stars, and my god, those cliffs were gorgeous. The cliffs themselves are reminiscent of what I imagine Utah might look like. But what makes the Dogon cliffs so spectacular is that there are whole villages carved into them. The villages are ruins from long ago, but of course no one really knows when. They are high up in the cliffs, and the Dogon people now believe that these ancient peoples were able to climb up to their houses because they spoke a sacred language that allowed them to scale the cliffs like lizards.

Today, the Dogon people live in villages nestled into the cliffs, or at the base of the cliffs. In general, the Dogon, because of their isolation, have largely maintained their animist beliefs. This means that you can’t exactly meander all over Dogon villages by yourself. Instead, unless you know the village well, you better be with a guide, or else risk walking into sacred areas, or areas that are forbidden to women. They still perform masked dances, and unlike in my village, the sounds of drumming are frequent. But the villages are often so isolated that their water source might be as much as a mile away; village children might have to scramble down an entire mountain to get to school; and each Dogon village speaks a different dialect, meaning that at market or when they get together, Dogon from different villages actually speak Peulh together!

Returning to my village after the holiday, I found myself in a situation I had not expected to encounter. I expected that I might be more knowledgeable about America, about the West, about the world than many Malians; that I even might be more knowledgeable about West Africa. But I never expected to know more about Mali than other Malians. It feels very strange to be teaching Malians about their own country, but I found myself riddled with all sorts of questions about Dogon country upon my return. I guess it should be no surprise when most villagers have never left our region, know nothing of Bamako. But how could I not look at my host’s wife – a woman of more than thirty years, a member of the chief of the village’s family–in wonder when told me that she had never, ever left our village of 3,000 people?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Guinea Hen Just Isn't the Same as Turkey

With Christmas just around the corner, it couldn’t feel less like the holiday season to me. No carols on the radio, and there’s certainly no snow on the ground, although the temperature does drop during the night to as low as 70 degrees these days. I walk outside in the morning to find my neighbors bundled up in secondhand ski jackets, hats, and even gloves. Banta, the old woman who shares my compound, won’t come out of her house until the sun is already high in the sky. When I caught the cold that is spreading like wildfire through my village, my counterpart, Aissa, blamed my t-shirts. Despite the 80-degree weather, she was sure I would not have gotten sick if I had only dressed like her, wearing 3 layers with a shawl clutched tightly around her.

So maybe the Christmas spirits not really in the air, but we have been celebrating. Everyone had been talking about Tabaski for months. Once Ramadan was over, it was the holiday everyone was waiting for. The trucks passed through my village more and more frequently, piled high with sheep heading to Bamako to be sold to wealthy families. All the tailors were busy, adding finishing touches to new outfits so everyone could be in their finest for the fete. Women walked around with plastic bags on their feet, waiting for the henna designs on their feet to soak in. Girls sat around for hours braiding their hair, weaving in bangs and buns and updos. The men talked about how much meat they would eat and who had bought the largest sheep. Family members returned to their villages from jobs in Mali’s cities, from Burkina Faso, from Guinea-Bissau, where many men find work during Mali’s long dry season.

When Tabaski finally arrived, we ate and ate and ate. So many sheep to kill, and so much meat to prepare and eat before it went bad. With no refrigerators, everything had to be consumed immediately. My host family cannot afford meat during the year, and all of a sudden, there was so much meat that I received, in addition to huge bowls of rice and sauce and heaping piles of meat, a plastic sack filled with meat. When your stomach was full enough to burst, you left your compound to greet all your family and friends, to wish them a happy holiday, another good year, health, children, money, or, in my case, luck in finding a husband. “May your blessing come true,” I would respond out of politeness, only leading to quick offers to point me in the direction of the most eligible men.

After three days of feasting and greeting, the holiday was finally over and it was back to business as usual. As dry season starts to really set in, business as usual is starting, more and more, to mean sitting around or spending the day in whatever nearby village has its weekly market. Mondays in San, Tuesdays in Bankma, Wednesdays in Fangasso. Peanuts have been shelled and sold, all the millet is harvested – only those who garden vegetables are still in the fields. Women’s daily work continues of course, but men who do not seek out work in cities or neighboring countries and are not lucky enough to have a post at the health clinic or the mayor’s office are left to sit by the roadside, chewing kola nuts, watching the buses go by.

For me, though, my work is starting to pick up. Suddenly I find myself with meetings to attend, expectations and demands from my village for an expansion for our library and a budget for our radio, and, most occupying of all, a burgeoning malnutrition program that I find myself charged with. And of course to add a flair of drama, there are the constant complications of village politics. I feel as if I was born yesterday and am constantly two steps behind in trying to figure out who gets along with whom, and why Moustapha and Adama have entered into their latest feud. At the health clinic, it’s men against women, with me as a somewhat androgynous position. Not so low as a Malian woman, but still not credited with the capabilities and benefits of being a man. At the library, the director embarked on a spontaneous month long strike. However, he did not inform anyone of the strike, hoping instead that the village authorities would notice he was on strike and recognize the importance of the radio. I was the only person who noticed. And at the radio, the director is refusing to use the new accounts book bought by the treasurer, believing the proposition of a new system of keeping track of accounts to be an insult to his ability to manage the radio.

I wish I had someone in my village whose opinion I completely trusted too. But as of yet, I haven’t found that person who will give me a straightforward, unbiased account of the situation. Everyone is invested, and more and more, it seems that it’s family first. I thought I had found that person a couple weeks ago. Adama is a hardworking guy – he moved to Tene five years ago, and quickly became indispensable to Tene’s development projects. He is married with one wife and four kids, and supports himself primarily by selling gas to the motorists in our village. He is also the director of the radio, a position that is currently unpaid, although the radio personnel do receive occasional motivational payments. Adama had often told me how hard it is for him to support his wife and family, and condemned other men who took multiple wives without the financial means to support several wives and countless children. He’s a passionate advocate of education, blaming the lack of education, girls marrying too young, and teenage pregnancies for many societal problems. And so I was shocked to learn that Adama is in fact engaged to be married to his second wife. How could he support her? My shock turned to dismay when I found out that his fiancé was a girl no older than 16, still in school, who gave birth to his child last month.

Most of the men in my village tell me that if they didn’t take additional wives, there would be all kinds of old-maids running around Mali, with no man to support them. I argue back that if that was the case, why would 40 year old men need to look to 15, 16, 17 year old girls as their second or third wives? So far, I have yet to win this argument. My friends are sure that there must be either far less women in America, or else an awful lot of women are real lonely without a man.

When faced with so much blatant sexism – one friend informed me that everywhere, men always work harder than women; another told me it’s natural for men to dominant woman – it often seems odd to me that most of my friends are men. But it’s usually the men who are more educated, speak some French, who have a better idea of where I come from, whose lifestyle is more similar to mine (most women my age are terribly busy with laundry, cooking, pounding millet, pulling water, selling street food to try to find the money to buy their kids a pair of shoes or supplement their diets with some protein, and taking care of at least 4 or 5 kids). And so on Tabaski, I ate surrounded by men, sharing my bowl with men who made jokes about why I wasn’t outside eating with the women. I worry that my ambiguous status negatively impacts my relationships with the women in my village, with the wives of the men with whom I spend my time. It’s a precarious position, and like a politician, I want the support of all Tene’s constituents.

Obama on the Mind

I headed up to Djenne nervously sporting my Obama pins for November 4th. Djenne is a popular tourist destination in Mali due to a huge mud mosque, but I rode up to Djenne in a mini-bus full of venders from my village heading to Djenne’s market. Typical of buses from my region, the bus was overloaded to an extreme, with all the venders’ wares piled twice as high as the bus on the roof, and the inside equally packed. I had been given a pot of privilege, in the front seat, but of course, the front seat was not only mine to be had. I shared it wit three other passengers, and as we kept stopping over and over to pick up more passengers, despite what looked to me like an already overflowing bus, I found that there were four of us sitting in the front seat and three more facing us, sitting on the dashboard.

A friend of mine is a volunteer in Djenne and had made friends with a Swedish hotel owner there, who had agreed to let us watch the elections on the BBC at her hotel. The day of November 4th, walking around town, we were easily spotted as Americans, and Malians would call out to us asking what we thought the results were or wishing us luck. When we triumphantly skipped home in the morning at 6am after just watching Barack’s speech, the congratulations were already upon us. It was as if we were the ones who had pushed Barack to victory, although, I am shamed and infuriated to report, only one of us had actually received her ballot in time to vote for Obama, despite the fact that we are here in Mali on the behalf of the U.S. government.

Back in my village, I had never expected that my Malian friends could be as excited about Barack’s victory as I. But they were. I continued to receive constant congratulations on the victory, and one friend, every time he entered my concession, would cry “Vive Obama!” Several more were intent on planning a celebratory party that unfortunately never came to pass but was a constant theme of discussion. I never thought that their expectations for Barack would be higher than mine. But they are – my friends are sure that Barack will bring peace to the world and solve all Africa’s problems and just save the world in general, and I find myself worrying that my president will disappoint them. Everyone wants to see the pictures of Barack in my Newsweek’s, to hear the latest on how Obama (commonly and affectionately referred to as “Obamba”) is starting to get things back on track.

However big of a star Barack and his family have become in America, I’m beginning to get a small idea of what fame is like right here in Tene. In my village, there is no bigger star than me, and I am reminded of it every minute.

There are no paparazzi, but there is the village gossip train. Somehow it seems that the whole village knows about my every move, from how much water I use daily to what I buy at the corner shop, to what time I go to bed and whether I received a phone call last Tuesday. Just the other day, a friend of mine started laughing about a story she’d heard about me refusing to cross a road that had become a rushing river one rainy day. It hasn’t rained for a month, but stories of me are always circulating.

But the worst was when I found out that even the people I drank tea and walked around town with were under scrutiny, and that, just like a celebrity, my star would rise or fall depending on how I chose my friends. I had gone over to my counterpart, Aissa’s house for tea, when she sat me down for a serious talk. My neighbor, Kadia, is the second wife of the mayor, and a boisterous and outgoing character. We made friends early on, when we ran into each other both walking to the Independence Day celebration, and ever since, Kadia has taken me under her wing, taking me to greet people around town, and inviting me over for tea whenever she’s not busy in the fields. I’ve always been aware that Kadia is rather meddlesome and definitely in some people’s business, but it hadn’t occurred to me just how much until Aissa told me that she and my host, Lahmine and his wife and family, were now in a heated battle with Kadia, and it was ruining my reputation to be seen spending so much time with not only an enemy, but also with a woman who puts her nose where it doesn’t belong.

What had Kadia done? Lahmine and his wife, Soté, have six daughters and no sons, and apparently Kadia strongly pushed Lahmine to take a second wife, largely based on the fact that Soté seemed incapable of bearing sons. Undoubtedly, Soté was quite offended and upset by Kadia’s intrusion, and Soté and Kadia ended up getting into a big fight, which, as the story goes, ended with mush pushing and hitting and many, many broken calabash bowls and the stalemate that exists between Kadia and Lahmine and his family to this day (it may interest you to note that yes, Lahmine did take a second wife).

The consequences of this for me mean that I am not to spend any time with Kadia. I can say good morning to her from across our compound walls and ask her about her day, but I am no longer to accompany her around the village or accept an invitation for tea. The fact of the matter is that my relations with Lahmine and his family are of the utmost importance, and it has also been made clear to me that all the authorities and highly respected villagers are watching who I’m spending my time with, so I’d better be choose my friends wisely. But how odd to have to choose your friends like this in order to be a successful volunteer! And, really, how difficult, when you have no way of judging and assessing social status and character in a social environment so different from the one you’re used to. (You may disagree with my choice to follow orders and ditch Kadia, but I believe if you were in my place, you’d do the same. It is not my place to question the existing social order in this way at this time, over this, nor is it acceptable for me to provoke conflict for the sake of making a point. Here, I am a member of my host’s family and I am in allegiance with them).

So how does everyone know what I’m doing every second of the day? Well, there is always, always, someone watching. How the white woman washes her dishes, brushes her teeth, does her laundry, and sits in her chair are all burning questions easily answered by watching me whenever I step outside of my little mud house. Little kids and old men and women – no one is above spending a good ten minutes (at least), watching me over the concession walls.

Luckily, I have a bodyguard who shoos away anyone especially troublesome and nosy, or the kids who really would just like to spend hours with their noses pressed up against my door. Her name is Banta, and she’s the old woman who shares my compound. The village kids live in fear of being seen by Banta when all they’re hoping for is a quick peak at me. I’ll see them tiptoeing around Banta’s house, shoulders pressed against the wall and ears pricked in an effort to hear whether or not Banta may stir. Banta encourages me to do as she does if she’s out and unable to protect me from the thirsty swarms – grab a branch off the lonely tree in my compound, and run after them, threatening a whipping. I have, clearly, flatly refused to do so, but Banta continues to lecture me on the proper stroke of the stick in order to most effectively scare the kids out of the compound.

Banta, however, is not able to protect me from everyone, and the attention comes from all directions. Just recently, I was hit on in a most inappropriate manner by the sous-prefet of my village. Commonly known as the “Commandant,” Sekou Boundy is the highest-ranking government official in our commune, the closest American equivalent I can think of would be a governor. He’d always been a bit overly friendly and had many times invited me over (opportunities I had always side-stepped), and given me a hard time for not spending more time with him. He signaled his interest in me by shaking my hand in a particular way, in which, you scratch the other person’s hand with your middle finger. I cannot describe the chills that went through me upon him doing so (the highest-ranking official in the village!), nor my frustration when I told my Peace Corps supervisor, who happened to be visiting me to see how I was doing at the time, and she insisted it must have been an accident. Fame is not all fun and games.

I saw my star brighten a couple weeks ago, when I made my radio debut a couple weeks ago. Tene has a local radio station established with the help of the last Peace Corps volunteer in my village. Part of my job while I’m here is to give health animations out over the radio, which only runs from about 8PM to 11 or 12AM every night, depending on how long the solar batteries last. I had gone down to the radio station just to hang out with the guys working there, but before I knew it, they’d convinced me that I’d just get on air briefly to greet the village and introduce myself. But after doing just that and having a bit of a tortured chat with the broadcaster, in which I was forced to admit at one point that I couldn’t at all understand what he was saying, Adama, the broadcaster turned to me and said, “Okay, Samouhan, so what would you like to tell Tene and the commune about being healthy?” My eyes must have look so betrayed looking back at him! I had told him again and again before we got on air how poor my Bambara was, how it was absolutely impossible that I give a health animation that very night, and yet…! Here he was demanding one. And so I mumbled something about washing your hands with soap and keeping clean. Adama was laughing hysterically at me and after we got off air, he said, “You really can’t speak Bambara, can you?!” No kidding, Adama, no kidding.

Somehow, my dismal Bambara did not distract from an ever-expanding fan base due to my radio debut. For weeks afterwards, people were still complimenting me on my radio emission and when I wasn’t on air the following Sunday, there was much disappointment. I would go over to people’s houses only to listen to them mimic exactly what I had said on the radio. Well, maybe that means the message about washing your hands with soap is really sinking in? Now of course, everyone and their mother wants me to give them a shout-out on the radio. Everyone wants the inhabitants of the 80 kilometers that the radio station broadcasts to know that they are a very close friend of the toubab muso, the white woman.

There are perks to being a celebrity, however. Like being offered a chair to sit in wherever I go, and sometimes little kids will come over to my house after school and curtsy and say “Bonsoir, Madame,” over and over as they bob up and down. And then, just a couple days ago, I was waiting to catch a bus into San on the side of the road outside of the clinic I work at to meet up with other Peace Corps volunteers for Thanksgiving. I had been waiting for about a half an hour for a bus to come by (there is no timetable), when the Chief of the clinic came out to tell me that they’d had to call the ambulance from San to come pick up a woman in labor. Twenty minutes later and I was still there and the ambulance had arrived. The Chief motioned me over, and settled me into the front seat of the ambulance for a speedy ride into San! And what grandeur! The whole front seat to myself, we whizzed by the over-weighted buses and made no stops for more passengers or to let street venders hop onto the bus to screech what they were selling. Although I must admit that my delight in the fast ride in was shaken a bit when we arrived into San and only slowed down to 80 kilometers as we sped through the crowded and narrow streets of San. Was it really any more dangerous than a slow bus with a driver who can barely see for all the people and goods in his bus? Probably not.

Steamy and Sweaty

The last few weeks have been spent settling into my mud hut and learning the different roads that wind through my village. I introduce myself over and over again, despite my growing belief that people secretly already know my name, and only ask me to introduce myself as a way of forging conversation. Everyone wants to meet me, to talk with me, to have me visit. One woman came to my compound complaining that I hadn’t visited her: I had no idea what her name was or where she lived. Slowly, I’m beginning to remember faces, if not the countless names.

I spend my days trying to build some kind of routine out of days that could stretch out forever. These first couple months are mainly a time for me to try to get to know my village before I start any projects. This strategy makes a lot of sense – I can’t possibly know what’s needed until I’ve gotten to know what’s going on here. But it’s difficult not to have a schedule, so I’ve been trying to create a bit of structure for myself, even if all it entails is leaving my own compound to drink tea in the afternoons with my neighbors.

There were a couple parties in the last couple weeks. The first was the celebration of Mali’s Independence Day on September 22nd. There was a celebration at the Sous-Prefet’s office, where griots sang, and all the important officials spoke. I was also introduced a number of times, but, thank goodness, was not asked to speak. After the ceremony, we all trooped over to the mayor’s house for a big feast, but, it being Ramadan, no one could eat any of the huge platters of food, except me and the few Christians present.

The next party was a real celebration: the end of Ramadan. When I came back from my morning run in the fields one morning to find all the village awake, dressed in their finest clothes and buzzing everywhere, I realized that the moon must have shown itself after I had gone to bed the night before: Ramadan and a month of fasting was over. The party continued for three days, but the first day was the most fun. No one went to work (in the fields or at the health center or at the mayor’s office), and everyone spent the day eating and going around greeting friends and wishing them another good year. I went around with Banta, the old woman who shares my compound in the morning, and she seemed to delight in showing me around to all her friends. The greetings consisted primarily of about one million blessings, of which only about two of them I could understand. Maybe next year I’ll have mastered them.

After the end of Ramadan, things have been getting back to normal. Everyone is in a better mood and drinking tea again in the afternoons to pass the time. It’s a busy time in the fields though – rice is ready to be harvested, corn, millet, watermelon, and oh, the peanuts!! Fresh peanuts, boiled peanuts, roasted peanuts, I’m eating them all. I went over to my homologue, Aissata’s house one day to find piles and piles of peanut plants unearthed and spread over her compound. We spent the afternoon pulling the peanuts off of the plants.

I’m beginning to worry about the information I give out about America. I get so many questions about what life is like in America, and no matter how I try to explain about how big America is and how things can be very different depending on who you are, or where you are, I’m afraid that everything I say is taken as the absolute truth. And of course, there’s no one to either back up or contest what I say. Some of the questions are funny – as almost all the questions about winter in America are. Aissa, for example, told me that in school she’d learned that when an African gets off the plane in America or France in the winter, they immediately turn to ice! And so many people are shocked that in America men can only have one wife, or even that America and France are not the same place. But when the questions are about the fields and farming in America, I find myself struggling along – for what do I really know about agriculture in the U.S.?!

I’ve found a few people who I can talk politics with, including Bocar, the vaccinator at the health center. As you may remember, I was promised a bike by Peace Corps, but still haven’t received one, due to budget constraints or a hold up at customs, no one’s really sure. When Bocar asked where my bike was, I said, “Listen, Bocar, There’s an economic crisis in America.” And, oh, Bocar just started laughing hysterically. He listens to the radio a lot, and agrees with me that Obama had better win. Aissa, on the other hand, did not take the economic crisis so lightly. When I was explaining it to her, she immediately began to worry about what it would mean for developing nations, a serious concern for all of the developing world and certainly Mali, a country that relies heavily on foreign aid.

Its reliance on foreign aid is obvious: all of the community buildings (mayor’s office, schools) have been built by foreign NGOs; the mosquito nets and anti-malaria treatments given to pregnant women are provided by USAID. The aid is expected by the community, and the disappearance of it would be disastrous.

In other news, I may have contracted scabies, which is pretty gross. My body is covered in hundreds of bites, and the nights have been pretty miserable. But I just got my scabies lotion, so hopefully in no time at all my skin will once again be as good as gold.

I feel like I’m making friends. Like when I go to the market on Saturdays (when the village’s population swells by what feels like 500%), and people I’ve met call me over to see what I’ve bought. Or when I’m walking through the village and there are compounds where I know people’s names and feel comfortable walking in and sitting down for 10 minutes or three hours. Step by step.

Preparing to Walk Into the Wild (Or at Least the Brush of Mali)

[For the past two months, I’ve been in training to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. Training consists of language, cultural, and technical training. For the most part, I’ve been living with a homestay family in a village named Banankoro just south of Bamako (Mali’s capital), and every couple of weeks, I return to Tubani So, the PC training center, where I’m reunited with the 70 other trainees who signed up to be here with me.

I lucked out in my placement with a host family – not only is my family educated so they all speak French and I can actually communicate with them, but my father is a teacher and my mother is a nurse so we have more money than most families meaning that I eat really well. And most importantly, they were incredibly welcoming to me. My mother would examine my feet every night for mosquito nights, tell me how to sit so that I would digest my food properly, and decide whether I should bathe with hot or cold water.]

The last weeks in homestay village were comfortable, falling into an easy routine: peanut butter and bread after my morning bucket bath; class: lunch; making tea with my family and gossiping or stumbling over my broken phrases in Bambara’ more class and sitting around with my teachers, laughing about cultural differences or making hibiscus tea; home to take my bucket bath before the soap opera started followed by dinner; and then more gossiping and tea and cards before I brushed my teeth and tucked under my mosquito net for the night.

It’s rainy season, and we’ve had lots of rain, and even one chilly afternoon when the wind was blowing and I shivered under my rain jacket. My room had perpetually wet spots from the roof leaking, and getting to school without getting wet (or, more importantly, some horrible disease that had grown in the standing water) was more than impossible. One cooler night felt like the perfect temperature to me but my family was freezing and bundled up in their cold-weather clothes (which for my youngest sister, means soccer cleats on her feet). The discussion turned to how cold it gets in America, and my sister turned to me and said, “Samouhan, isn’t it true that in America, when snow falls on you it kills you?”

For the most part, it’s still been quite hot, and one very hot Saturday afternoon, I was having lunch with my host mother inside the house, where we could escape the sun a bit (unlike my room, built with a tin roof which attracts the sun and makes me bake and sweat every second, my family’s house is concrete and quite the cool respite). It was still hot though, and my mother, not satisfied with my assurances that I was quite fine, began yelling for my brother Sylvain to come into the room. Sylvain came in and started fanning me. For the entire meal. Imagine me – already eating the best of the family’s food, sitting on one of the coveted chairs, a well-off American in Mali – being fanned by my Malian younger brother.

I’ve become good friends with one of my language teachers, Augusta. We have fun speaking French together, playing with her daughters, and she’s taught me how to make gnomi, a Malian snack/rice pastry and the tea that Malians drink in three rounds, in tiny shot glasses with lots of sugar throughout the day. She also shares my passion for the Malian soap opera Au Couer du Pèche and takes me to the tailor to advise me on what looks good and is appropriate for me to wear: i.e. “Non, Samouhan, only Ghanaian women would wear something that short!”

Another of my language tutors, Oscar (both Oscar and Augusta are Christian, thus their Christian names), burst out laughing when we were walking home from school together one day and I greeted a family we passed. When I asked him what was so funny, he informed me that Malians find my voice hilarious – when I speak, many people think I must be joking, apparently. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that my Bambara accent must be pretty hysterical too.

I’ve also had a bit of technical training, which has largely consisted of learning how to make ameliorated porridge, oral rehydration system, and this important distinction between American and Malian cultures: In Mali, washing your hands does not mean washing your hands with soap. What’s more, washing your hands with soap is understood by many to wash away all good luck. As a health volunteer, my job is to improve the health of my community, mainly through activities like baby weighing and doing animations for my community on different health topics. While I plan to do these things in my village – one of the big projects my village wants me to start is animating on the local radio station—I also am lucky in that I can be involved in a number of different, non-health related activities. My first three months in Téné will be centered upon getting to know my community, learning about the needs of my community and how I can fit into those needs, and improving my Bambara, since I won’t be too good on the radio if I can’t understand the questions of the people who call into my show!

My Bambara is improving though. The best feeling is when I learn something in class and then go home and understand what someone’s saying. Like when I was home one day and a visitor was over and I spoke to him for a few minutes in my limited Bambara, and then he turned to my mother and they began jabbering so fast I couldn’t keep up. Until I heard my mother say, in relation to me, “A hakili kadi. Cinen don,” meaning “She’s very smart, it’s true.” Or, on the one day that I walked out of my compound wearing my hair down and passed a construction project, on the day after I had learned adjectives, and could hear all the men saying I was pretty. My steps in language learning are slow but moving forward. At my permanent site in Téné, I will continue to learn Bambara, but this time without a teacher who speaks English, or even someone who is trained as a teacher.

Leaving Banankoro, my homestay village, was hard. I’d become so comfortable with my family and I’d gotten used to my routines and grown to love my long walk over the hill to school every morning. I loved that every day I would do something to cause someone in my family to say “Oh, Samouhan, you didn’t really do that, did you?” or, “Agh! Samouhan!” when I did something outrageous or surprising like tell the visitor to quit calling me “Toubab muso” (white woman). I’ll miss playing cards with my brothers and watching the soap opera – none of my neighbors seem to have a television in my permanent site. I’ll miss how well I eat and the fact that my family has an indoor bathroom, which may not have functioning plumbing, but at least I can take my bucket shower in there when it’s pouring down rain.

My sister, Kiki, is coming to have dinner at Tubaniso, the PC training center, on Thursday, though, which will be fun and will help me feel like I’m still in touch with my family.

And now, the next step in my adventure is about to begin:

On Friday, I will swear in at the U.S. Embassy as a real, live Peace Corps volunteer (provided I pass my language test this afternoon, that is). And then…and then, I head out to my village. All alone.

I’m excited and nervous. Excited to finally settle in and unpack. To get started, make friends, begin to feel comfortable in my village, Téné. Nervous because I’ll be the only American/English speaker/outsider in my village, because I still don’t really speak Bambara, because I won’t have a routine and don’t really know what I’m going to do when I get there.

In fact, for the first three months at site, we’re not really supposed to do much. Rather, I will use my first three months to continue learning Bambara and get acquainted with my community. Sure, maybe I’ll weigh some babies, but I won’t start any major projects until almost February, which makes me feel like a bit of a lame duck, not to mention that I’m worried about how I’ll fill my time.

Wish me luck!


My host family can’t believe that my big brother isn’t married yet. Especially an educated and successful science teacher like Johnny.

They also can’t believe I’m not married, and my sisters have taken it upon themselves to find me a husband. Their serious, number one pick is Madu, an eligible bachelor who has just finished his studies. They like to tell me how smart he is, and then bemoan the fact that he hasn’t been able to find a job since he finished university. “You can take him back to America with you,” they say brightly, as if they’ve suddenly lit upon perfect solution for everyone: Madu will be able to find a job, and I’ll have someone to look after me.

My host mother stays away from my marriage plans, but she has designs for everything else in my life. She decides what kind of water I should bathe with (fresh from the well or hot water that has been heated), and after I’ve taken my bucket bath and we’ve watched Couer au Peche (a remarkable Brazilian soap opera dubbed in French that we – and half of the village who comes to our compound to watch the show on a black and white tv run off of a car battery), we sit down to dinner together. Except the sitting is a rather elaborate process. I must sit just so (à la africaine, she calls it), with my legs at an angle I can never get quite right, my back supported, my left hand in my lap, and my right hand primed for eating.

And she really wants me to be primed for eating. Her goal is to fatten me up as much as possible – a guest who has been treated well should only leave fatter, and she constantly demands that I eat more, more, more. Even after telling her I’m full, thanking her for the food, and moving towards the sali dega to wash my hands, she’s handing me an entire fish that she demands I eat, never taking no for an answer.

I seem to be improving. The other night, she told me she was truly content: I had performed a “tour de force” on my dinner! I did feel quite proud too.

My family is Bomu, a minority ethnic group in Mali, and they’re also Christian, meaning that our family is quite small. With only 7 people in the compound and one wife, my family dwindles in comparison to neighboring compounds with four wives and over 20 people. The Bomu people are known for having pets, really caring for their pets and loving them as creatures, which is not too common in West Africa in general. We have one dog, Wilfred, and when I arrived, there were two new kittens, tiny little “bêtes” as my father called them. They wandered around meowing constantly, and one of them soon took a liking to me, and me to him. He would follow me around the compound mewing, hoping for a pat and making even a bit of my powdered milk.

One night, during the showing of Coeur au Peche, right after Octavio had been wrongly convicted of murdering his own father, there was a commotion in the street, Wilfred was barking and growling rowdily, and everyone ran out to investigate. I stayed where I was, curious as to how the evil and newly wealthy Barbara would react to Octavio’s conviction. From the street, there came cries of “Jackuma…Jackuma!!” (“Cat…Cat!!”), and my stomach did a little flip. Something had definitely transpired between Wilfred and my new friend, but I was wary to run out and see. That night, the kitten did not follow me around, and I couldn’t spot him anywhere in the compound. A few nights later I finally got up the courage to ask my family: Did Wilfred eat the kitten? Yep, he sure did.

When I’m not with my family, I’m at school, desperately hoping to learn a bit of Bambara so I can figure out what my family is saying about me. I’ll hear my name, Samouhan, mentioned in conversation over and over, but with so little grasp on Bambara, I have no idea whether I’ve made a huge cultural faux-pas, or whether my family’s just plotting when Madu should come over next to seduce me.

However, the chances of me learning what it is they’re saying about me seem slim. In comparison to the other PC villages, where trainees spend up to 7 hours in language class, I spend maybe 2 hours trying to work on my Bambara. My teachers, Oscar, Brahima, and Augusta, enjoy long breaks up to an hour or even two, taking time to make tea, and discussing the regions of Mali too much to focus on language as much as we should be. It makes for fun and slow days hanging out with the teachers, but my language skills are suffering. How am I supposed to conduct an entire meeting, lecture, or radio show about health issues in Bambara? Hopefully language lessons will quickly improve.

I received my site assignment for the next two years today. I’ll be living in a village of about 4,000 people in the region of Segou, about 50K from the city San. Whoa. It’s a lot to digest, especially when I still have so many questions. Like – will there be cold Fanta for sale? I’ll find out in about a week and a half when I head out to visit my site for a week.