Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Promised Land

Coby wants to escape to Spain. It was the first thing he told me when we met.

I'm not from Spain, I tell him, but good luck!

Where am I from? he asks.


America would be okay too, he decides, and could I help him get there?

What do Coby and countless other young men in my village and across Mali want to escape from? From poverty and a future without hope. These young men are so sure that there is no possibility of money or a job in Mali that they are willing to risk their lives to leave.

Mothers hand me their babies and tell me to take them home with me to America. Women offer to be my servant in exchange for a new life in America. Men propose marriage.

We spend hours and hours arguing over whether or not Coby should leave. He argues that there's no money to be found in Mali. I argue that he'll spend all the money he's earned on food and lodging and a ticket back to Mali, since he's sure that he'll come back. But I can't change Coby's mind. He knows he'll return with money filling his pockets, cash spilling out to build a new, concrete house and cell phones galore and meat for every meal of the day for the rest of his life: He's seen it.

Okay, well, when you press Coby, maybe he hasn't actually seen it. But he's heard about it alright, and he'll make it to Spain or America whether I help him or not. His wife, Little Banta, sits nearby holding their second child in her arms.

Coby does not speak Spanish or English. He speaks just enough French to make Banta think he's taking on airs (C'est ça!), and he's trained to grow millet and peanuts. He's not sure what kind of job he'll find in Spain, but he's sure there will be something. Maybe he'll clean someone's house, maybe he'll clean the streets. He's sure there must be jobs which toubabs think are beneath them, and he's probably right.

He doesn't know yet how he'll get there. A friend just left for Spain, but he left after his family had seen him off at the airport in Bamako, a visa and all the security that comes with it tucked into his pocket. Coby's route won't be quite so direct. Maybe he'll go up through the Sahara or across to Senegal and then take a boat from there. He's heard the stories of failure too, and there are a lot more of them. There are stories of the boys that died in the desert or the sea, stories of boys found by the police and sent straight back home, stories of boys who came home with nothing.

Coby relegates these stories to the back of his head. The story he believes in is the one of the boy who made it. It is the story of the boy who crossed the harsh desert and the high waters and landed in the world of money and opportunity. He stayed in a house with a countless number of his countrymen, found a job and before he knew it, his pockets were filled with money and he was heading for home.

I am always arguing with Coby, always coming up with reasons why he shouldn't leave. And there are many arguments to be made. But Coby keeps arguing back. And at a certain point, I run out of arguments and just have to look down and sigh. Who am I to argue over whether Coby should stay in Mali when I myself won't stay? Because, for all the hardships and pitfalls an immigrant might face, there will always be the possibility of making it big and striking it rich. And when you're not even making a dollar a day, the idea that you could make a dollar an hour, regardless of all the expenses and hardships you might face, is pretty enticing.

At a particularly weak moment, I admit to Coby that I might feel the same way had I been born a Malian citizen. I love Mali and I truly believe that for the most part, people are doing okay here. I also know, however, that the developed world is pretty darn nice. And that Mali's path to getting there, while progressing daily, is a long one.

At the end of Ramadan, a couple Peace Corps friends came to visit my village. Frustrated by my refusal to help him, Coby turned to Jennifer, dite Djellika Coulibaly, for help. When Djellika asked Coby why he wanted to go to America, he looked at her as if she was one light bulb short. Duh, there's tons of money in America. "Right," Djellika said, "because money grows on trees in America." Her voice dripped with sarcasm and we all laughed.

A few weeks later, Coby is again arguing with me about leaving for the West. "Fine. Pack your bags," I say, "but on second thought, maybe you should wait a bit. There's an economic crisis in America and there's not much money to be had."

Coby scoffs. "Djellika said money grows on trees in America."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Climate Change and Development

When I sit under the big tree in my compound, swatting away flies, reading the latest Newsweek or Times magazine that has made its way to me, the economic crisis seems worlds away. The floods in the Philippines are difficult to imagine as I look up at skies that have not let down rain in over two weeks, despite the prayers that are sent up every morning at the mosque. When I read about the quickening impacts of climate change, however, a pit forms in my stomach. It's scary and terrifying and a solution feels far-off and unreachable.

I tried to talk to Banta about the seriousness of the effects of climate change to ease my own fears. I explained it to the best of my ability in Bambara: there are bad things in the air; the world, every single country, will get hotter; animals will die; water will dry up; the ocean will warm and the fish will die. If we don't do something to fix climate change, I said, we will be in serious trouble.

Banta responded by laughing and laughing. She untied and retied her head wrap, mussed in her fit of laughter, and recrossed her legs at the ankle. If God wills it, she told me, then, well, so be it. I looked around me, musing over her reply. I saw the sand that our mat rested upon. I saw the buckets of water pulled from a well that will be dry by December. I looked out towards the fields, empty of farmers, who were helpless as they waited for rain to soak the millet and send its stalks shooting high into the sky. And I felt the heat, a heat so all encompassing that all I could do was lay my head down, move as little as possible, and wipe the sweat away time after time.

Mali has already lived through many effects of climate change. It's a hotter country than it was when Banta was a girl. There are fewer animals for men to hunt, no elephants to trample the fields, no lions to scare the villagers into hurrying home before the sun sets due to desertification and rabid hunters. The sun is stronger and the rain comes less and less. Even though the Malian government now owns a couple of planes to seed the clouds, it is not enough. `Banta has told me that as a child, her father didn't have to do anything to his fields to get a good harvest -- no fertilizer or compost -- the soil was that good. The trees are running out, cut down for the fires that burn from early in the morning until late at night, heating porridge and millet, rice and sauce. Wood is more and more expensive, but people will continue to shell out more money. It's still significantly less than a gas stove, like I've got. Every week, a truck stops to pick up bag upon bag of charcoal. The truck is loaded so that I am sure its wooden sides will burst and charcoal will spill out across the road as it travels north towards Mopti. The charcoal will be used to heat the tea that men and women will drink across Mali. Plastic litters the roads and piles up in ditches.

After market day, one of the local women's associations sweeps up all the trash and lights it afire, the smell of burned plastic hanging in the air long after. The rivers are polluted and although fishermen on slim and colorful pirogues still dip into the water in search of a good day's catch, the fish they come back with are smaller and smaller in size and number. And while there may be fewer cars on the road here than in a developed country, the cars here do not exactly get great mileage for every liter of gas. The color and smell of the exhaust they send into the sky is sickening, especially since many, truckers especially, leave their vehicles running for hours on the side of the road, afraid that the car or truck will not manage to start again if they turn it off.

There are no great changes being made. The cars will continue to run. The women will still light their fires every morning. The trees will still be cut and the rivers will be fished, even if no one bothers to replenish the forests or rivers. The people of the village are resigned to the changes, powerless in the shadow of God's will.

How does change begin? We in the West believe we can, and should, influence change. It is our responsibility to tackle the problem of climate change, just as most believe it is our responsibility to help push developing countries forward.

My job here is a small one: to teach villagers to practice healthy behaviors, like washing their hands with soap; drinking clean water; proper weaning; preventing malaria and diarrhea; HIV/AIDS testing. If villagers are willing and motivated to accept some of these behavior changes, individuals will experience positive changes. Banta washes her hands before she eats and is sick less than she was before she began the practice. More women are feeding their babies ameliorated porridge. Sitan started birth control after her last baby was born, convincing her husband that it would benefit the entire family. Fewer girls and women wash their dishes in the drainage ditches that fill with rain water mixed in with donkey, horse, and human excrement. A few have had the courage to be tested for HIV/AIDS.

These are small achievements. They have significant impacts on individuals, even families, but they will not push Mali into the developed world. The reason Mali is locked in poverty is not due to the fact that villagers refuse to wash their hands with soap. It's a part of it, perhaps, but it is not the cause. It is a part of the solution, perhaps, but it is not the freeway to development.

We Americans have embraced behavior change as a way to push back the effects of climate change as well, although a large number continue to barge around in hummers and laugh off the effects of climate change. We try to use less water. We remember to turn off the lights as we leave the room. When we buy a new car, we go hybrid. Some of us bike or walk to work. We start gardens on rooftops and use alternative energy sources as a portion of our energy use. These are good and important changes. Their adoption does make a difference, but it is small and incremental.

The solutions to climate change and development lie in policy and infrastructure, law and government. For these are big problems which demand broad and powerful solutions.

Until governments and leaders finally agree to make the plunge, however, behavior change is all we've got. I do not have control over whether the Malian government chooses to invest in better roads and education. I have no say in the government's laws on trade and human rights. But for the next year, I will have the chance to teach a few more people how to stay just a little bit healthier.

So keep writing your Senator. Make your shower short. Carpool to work. Set the recycling on the curb. Turn off the light. Behavior change is difficult anywhere, be it Mali or America. It seems to be catching on a bit in the States -- it's become chic to be green, and hopefully it will soon be the new in-thing to wash your hands with soap in Mali. But as Americans, we are lucky in that we often feel empowered as individuals to make a difference. We believe that our vote matters and that our Senator should listen to what we have to say. Many Malians in my village feel powerless in the services (and lack their of) they receive and with the government they have. If there's a problem, unless they are in a position of power, it is doubtful that they will approach the Mayor or a government official with their concern. And so the power rests with God, up high and out of their reach.

If you're voice is ready and practiced, use it. Raise it and sing out loudly. The Malian voices are just warming up.

Babes Being Born: In honor of Maaike's Upcoming Birth!

It's a busy time for births in the village, and Aissa is up all night assisting at birthings. Women tend to show about about 20 minutes before the baby is about to pop, rather than rushing to the clinic as soon as their water bursts. Thus the reason why quite a few women end up giving birth in donkey carts on their way to the village. Women also tend to go into labor at night, which I insist is due to their refusal to give birth while there is still water to be pulled, laundry to be done, and food to cook.

Moustapha with his first son with his second wife, Nana. Bakary is named for his mother's father, but goes by Baba. Moustapha became the toast of the town after both of his wives gave birth on the same night within one hour of each other! Both boys.

This is Mamy, Adama and Sitan's fourth child. Several weeks after giving birth, Sitan told Adama that I had told her that birth control was a good idea and requested permission to start on it. He granted permission.
Little Banta, with Old Banta's second great-grandchild, Bakoro, who has grown to be the fattest Malian babe I've ever seen.