Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year!

This Christmas my friends and I headed North for a three day hike through Dogon country. Getting there involved a 600k journey in four parts.

The first was a two hour ride in a dangerously top-heavy commuter bus (also preceded by an inexplicable three hour delay at the gar). Second, we had four hours of sustained discomfort spent inside a 10-passenger van with at least twenty other people. Third, once we reached the halfway point, we boarded a bus with bench seats which were spaced just far enough apart to accommodate any passengers who might happen to have no legs (there were none that day). The bus was only in motion for two of the four hours we spent on the road. The driver had to make two stops because the brakes kept failing. Luckily we were in the hands of some very resourceful mechanics who were able to make the necessary repairs using nothing but a lighter and a plastic bag. We spent a night in Sevare and then took a relatively comfortable bush-taxi ride to Bandiagara.

The next day our guide, Seikou, took us out to what is known as Dogon country, a 100-mile escarpment dotted with age-old communities whose ancestors once took refuge on the slopes of the cliff to defend themselves against Islamic slave traders. Seikou helped us climb down the cliff face and led us across the sandy pathways connecting each village.

We stopped in several villages along the way where Seikou explained some of the animist rituals and traditions that are still alive today. Every village apparently has at least one resident tortoise that the women sit on while they cook. When the food is prepared, the turtle is served first and, until it approves, no one else can eat.

We were also able to get a close look at the remnant dwellings perched on the cliff itself. While the houses are uninhabited, the mud brick structures are very much intact. In most of the villages, the cliffs actually hang over the houses below, protecting them from the elements. According to our guide, the locals still use some of the existing buildings to store grain if the harvest is good and they need more storage space. We were able to duck inside some of the houses and peer into some old burial sites embedded in the rock.

On Christmas eve we stopped in Telli where we met up with some other voluteers. We indulged in perfectly roasted mutton and calabashes full of locally brewed beer. By nightfall the stars were shining brightly and the cliff seemed to loom overhead like a slow moving shadow.

On Christmas day we hiked another 12k, stopping along the way to browse the artisans markets and marvel at some beautifully irrigated vegetable gardens (I may have been the only one marveling). We spent our final night in a small Christian village on top of the escarpment where we were treated with good food, millet beer and a spectacular view.

Finally, we rang in the New Year in Bamako where, instead of any kind of organized, municipal firework show, a chaotic scatter of amature bottle rockets and firecrackers lit the sky at midnight.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Tabaski!

November 6th was Tabaski or "Eid al-Adha" (Festival of Sacrifice); locally known as “Seliba”.

Around 8:30 that morning, I put on my finest Malian outfit and rode my bike to a small hill in the center of the village. The whole community was there, laying prayer mats in four long rows, trying their best to avoid getting dust on their freshly cleaned holiday robes. The men stood idly, greeting one another in low, somber tones. The women were all seated in the rear rows, trading gossip and quelling screaming babies.

My homologue led me to a small cluster of houses in front of the clearing where everyone was gathering. The Imam and a few other men were waiting for the ceremony to begin. A narrow path leading to the congregation had been cut through the tall grass behind the houses. They must have been waiting for me because, as soon as I arrived we began marching down the path. My Jatigi (host father) led the procession, chanting in Arabic and counting prayer beads in his right hand. The path opened into the clearing where everyone was standing shoulder-to-shoulder, facing East. A large sheep was tethered to a tree in front of the clearing, braying loudly and, no doubt, fully aware of its role in the ritual that was about to start.

As the Imam unrolled his prayer mat, I squeezed into the front row. I could hear suppressed laughter from the women in the back row who thought my flashy, 1970s revival fabric looked a little strange on a Toubab, which, I think, was an unfair observation because, while I did indeed look a little ridiculous, everyone else around me was wearing equally eye-catching threads to the ceremony. To be fair, a man in the row behind me wore a robe made entirely out of fluorescent-orange fabric embellished with a silver reflective material along the seams. Also, a number of the women were wearing matching, Christmas tree-inspired dresses embroidered with gold sequence and red ribbon.

A year ago I learned that Seliba is as much a sacred occasion as it is an opportunity to show off and express a little fashion solidarity. After the morning ceremony is over, women and children march around the village in their best clothing to greet the men. The men give candy to the children and blessings to the women in return. It’s very similar to Halloween, except instead of parading around in scary costumes, people don their most sumptuous outfits*. As far as I was concerned, I fit right in.

The Imam led us in prayer and we bowed in unison according to the chants and cadences I learned during Ramadan (I prayed with the community everyday during Ramadan and fasted on Fridays). At the end, he announced that the slaughtering of the ram commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience before god (and if you remember the story, god stops Abraham and gives him a sheep to sacrifice instead).

Several men wrestled the beast to the ground and the Imam knelt over it, mumbled a blessing and sliced its throat. The congregation suddenly rose and broke into a crowd to trade handshakes and benedictions. Between the legs and feet of the men standing around the sheep, I could see spurts of blood gushing from the squirming animal in a series of frothy, rhythmic hisses. Many people touched the growing pool of blood with their index fingers and tapped their foreheads three times. I did not.

They said the blood would prevent headaches for the next two years and I thought about all the hangovers and stress migraines I might suffer between now and the end of 2013. I figured it wasn’t even worth it to entertain such superstition and denied several bloody fingers that were ready to make an application. Besides, the blood showed up as a darker shade of black against their dark skin and I figured it might look a little more alarming against mine. I also had an inkling that they were all just trying to mess with me (as Malians are wont to do).

On another note, I think the whole fetishized blood thing comes from a local animist tradition that predates the arrival of Islam in Mali. While Kalibene is considered one of the more devoutly Muslim communities in the area, its interesting to see what fragments of the past are still alive for this community in particular…or maybe they were just messing with me…

The rest of the day played out like any other holiday in Mali. We mostly just sat around, drank tea and ate a lot of rice. The food wasn’t much better either (something most holidays in America tend to imply). The only real difference between everyday food and holiday food is the addition of meat, which is gamey and, often times, still harry. It’s also accompanied by other parts of the animal that I am not used to eating (or seeing) like the intestines, testicles, and stomach. Perhaps the biggest difference between eating meat here and eating it in America (besides the frequency) is that you always know what part of the animal you’re eating before it enters your mouth. Unlike the questionable combinations of ground beef and filler in a hamburger or even the pristine appearance of a raw tenderloin from the grocery store, prepared meat in Mali provides many clues as to its origin; namely in the form of fat, bone and connective tissue still clinging tightly around a small sliver of muscle.

Also, for Malians, the word for meat, “sogo”, includes almost everything except the hooves and the hide. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been chastised for spitting a chewy glob of fat on the ground or for throwing a bone away before sucking out the marrow. Luckily, the least appetizing part of the animal is left for the children. They make their own fire and roast the skull themselves before scooping out hot chunks of brain with their fingers. They offered me a bite but, unlike the unusual sheep blood ritual, I was certain they weren’t messing with me.

*Instead of “trick or treat” to demand candy, the children say, “Sambe, sambe!” Last year, I explained to the kids that, in America, when a household doesn’t give out candy upon request, a “trick” is in order. I regret telling them some of those good old-fashioned Halloween tricks because this year I ran out of candy and, as a consequence, found a bag of smoldering feces on my doorstep.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Try, try again...

I'm going to try this blogging thing again. This time I promise to stick to the basic blogging format: short simple reports about my daily life. It has taken me a year to realize that blogs are meant to be mundane disclosures about everyday encounters and not long, fully enclosed narratives designed to captivate an audience. Also, now that a year has gone by, things in Mali are starting to appear familiar to me; routine, normal. But then I think, as I'm out in the fields, picking peanuts with my friends and avoiding snakes and scorpions lurking in the brush, that maybe all the boring and tedious everyday activities I do here aren't quite so boring for folks at home.

In the last few months I've developed a keen interest in vegetable gardening; friends call it an obsession. I came into Peace Corps with a sketchy vision of what my living situation would be like. That vision included, along with a whole mess of other exciting artifacts that might satisfy one young-man's naïve search for authenticity, a vegetable garden. It took me until a few months ago to realize just how difficult it is to dig and maintain a garden, particularly here where there is no such thing as a garden hose or a spading fork. There is also no supply store where one might find ready-made compost, seed flats, pesticide and commercial fertilizer. Also, not to mention, I had little or no gardening experience to speak of.

While I may have overlooked some (not so) minor details, I was not discouraged. In fact, encountering all these obstacles only emboldened me. I checked out a food security toolkit from the PC library, which had a comprehensive guide to "Biointensive" vegetable gardening. I read that book cover to cover at least five times; that is, five times over the course of six months during which time I made many, many armature mistakes. Now, I think I'm getting the hang of it. I build two neatly layered compost piles under a tree near my house; I made two seed flats out of a plastic water jug; my hands are rough and callused from working the soil with local farming implements; and my youthful endurance has made it possible for me to water my 100 square foot plot with nothing but a watering can, a 30 liter jug and, at least, five daily trips to the village pump. This last detail will become more complicated once I add another 100 square foot plot to my backyard in December; a time when I can't count on the rain to provide any relief for my aching shoulders. Luckily, (I think) I know a thing or two about gravity fed drip irrigation.

The most surprising thing about my new hobby is that I never get disillusioned or tired after all the hard work (even if my plants suffer an occasional assault by chickens and goats that find a way though my fence). I don't get discouraged. I just want more. I think daily about the possibility (or inevitability) or transforming my living space into a literal oasis; about how I can go beyond the creation of a simple backyard garden and fill every sunlit corner of my concession with some form of vegetation: spices growing along the walls, flower pots flanking the entrance, exotic vines climbing my gua (thatch hangar), rosemary and mint garnishing the windowsills, papayas and mangos hanging heavily from branches reaching into the backyard...

My dream may never be fully realized. Plants can only grow so fast and I will be long gone before my infant trees bear any fruit. Still, I suppose that's not the point. All this work seems to be an end in itself for me (though I suppose it has to be since the yields of my first attempted garden were hardly impressive).

On another note, before anyone accuses me of wasting my time being absorbed in a hobby, gardening is as much a work-related activity as it is a cathartic experience. In December I’m going to help the women in my village develop a community garden. Hopefully they will be as excited about gardening as I am…but I doubt it. People around here get too enthusiastic about all the austere notions I see in growing plants: self-sufficiency, hard work, resourcefulness, patients, contemplation etc. I think they live these ideas everyday without really knowing it, whereas I am experiencing these things, if not for the first time, in a whole new way.

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Work

After months of planning and waiting, my first funded project is finally underway. In early February my proposal to construct 51 latrines and repair one pump was approved by USAID. Three weeks later $4012.25 was sent to my bank account. Getting money was remarkably easy…maybe too easy. I had some initial worries that, perhaps, the community contribution was too small or that the project was way too big and ambitious for a village of only 800 people. I was anticipating a barrage of questions by my superiors in Peace Corps and I fully expected that my project would be scrutinized by USAID. But none of this happened. I was already aware that project money tends to flow freely through nebulous pathways in the developing world, but I didn’t realize just how little oversight I would encounter when I started applying for funding. Without receiving any “heads up” that my project funding was approved (that is, outside of a one-sentence e-mail forwarded by a third party to my inbox) the money simply appeared in my bank account one day. As I rode a bus back to my site with $2000, in cash, stuffed in my backpack, I began to understand why there are so many opportunities for corruption in Africa. In the end, I’m glad the money arrived quickly and without any hassle; I just didn’t expect to be so unquestionably trusted.

Before the money arrived, I conducted a series of demonstrations to ensure that everyone involved in the project would be capable of building each latrine to my standards. The first latrine slab demo was stressful but, all frustrations aside, it was very productive. I wanted to make sure that everything was constructed correctly; strictly by the book. That way, any inevitable corner-cutting could be kept to a minimum.

The most gratifying success came after Brahma, the mason who I hired to manage the project, suggested that there was no need to separate the twigs and dust from the sand before mixing it with the cement. This was clearly untrue but, even if the sand was relatively clean, I needed to set a good example and emphasize the importance of sifting the sand, particularly when it would be used to build critical components like a latrine slab. I’ve noticed that pleading with my Malian counterparts never really changes their minds. They don’t respond well to begging and it’s difficult to make a pointed, rational argument when your vocabulary is reduced to that of a four-year-old. When I want them to do something or if I want to stress the importance of something, it is far more effective to do so sarcastically. So when Brahma decided he wanted to skip a step, I didn’t argue. I simply stepped back, raised my palms to the sky and said, “Fine, the slab could collapse but at least I won’t be the one shitting in that latrine”. We were building our initial slab for the president of the Water and Sanitation committee I set up in Kalibene. The president eyed me suspiciously before looking back at Brahma, whose credibility as an expert mason began to wane in his eyes. The president, pretending as though he didn’t hear me, said, “You know, I know someone in the neighboring village who has an excellent sand sifter…”

In all likelihood, everyone knew that the slab probably wouldn’t break because the sand was dirty and, even if it did, it certainly wouldn’t collapse abruptly and spell certain death for the president. However, the mere suggestion that such a nightmare scenario could occur as the result of such a silly error was enough to make them change their minds. Now, with that idea firmly planted in their minds and the standard for a proper slab set (a standard reinforced by the W/S president), I felt assured that the project would end without any disasters.

After the demonstrations were over, I still had a few concerns about the project: Will we finish before rainy season? Will people continue to build the latrines to my standards, even when I’m not there to supervise? Will there be enough money in the budget?

These worries, and others, were completely moot by the second week of the project. Since the day I purchased materials, the entire community has been working single-mindedly to finish what I started. As of today, all of the pits have been reinforced and covered. Now, all they have to do is build walls around the slab and install soak pits. Also, even with a few unanticipated costs (i.e. the rise in the cost of materials due to the situation in Ivory Coast), the project still might finish under budget. The project has been so successful that I was asked to give a case-study presentation at this year’s in-service training conference for all the volunteers and homologues in Sikasso. My project is now the model example for the entire region.

I’m lucky to have such a motivated community. In the weeks leading up to the beginning of the project, latrines became something of a status symbol in Kalibene. You’re not cool unless you have a latrine and you risk being labeled as “disgusting” if you continue to defecate in the cornfields. Getting people to assume this attitude required a lot of time and effort but I mostly credit “Community Led Total Sanitation” (CLTS) for the transformation.

In November, some UNICEF trucks and buses arrived from Kadiolo, a nearby city. Health workers assembled at least 100 villagers from Kalibene and led them in a three-hour long formation to assess residents’ sanitary habits.

A large map was drawn on the ground and villagers identified landmarks in Kalibene (the chief’s house, the maternity clinic, the pumps etc.) with twigs and rocks. When the map was established, one of the workers wasted no time getting to the point: “Who’s brave enough to show me where they take a shit everyday” (This is an exact quote, loosely translated from Bambara. I’m convinced that the vulgarity was intentional and designed to abruptly redefine the boundaries of public discussion). The question was startling and foreign. Bowel movements aren’t exactly the number one topic of conversation and people were hesitant to answer.

Eventually, after thirty minutes of coaxing, one brave volunteer spread a handful of yellow sand over a small area on the map. The ice was broken. Emboldened by the first man’s confidence, at least 50 other people stood up, one-by-one, to disclose the location of their own personal “sacred grounds”. In no time, the map was riddled with tiny piles of yellow sand. The issue was undeniable, clear and nauseating.

That day, five men stood up and openly announced their intentions to build a latrine in their concessions: “I’m going to build mine next week!” “I’m going to build mine tomorrow!” “I’m going to build mine right now!” Lucky for them, I knew exactly how I could help.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Another thing that doesn't fit my narrative...

(do yourself a favor and read the previous post if you haven't already). After the dugutigi died, his oldest son was unceremoniously selected as the new village chief (he knew he was going to inherit the position soon enough). The new dugutigi has two twin girls. One day, I jokingly asked him which one was older. His response was interesting and I was surprised he even had a serious answer to begin with.

He definitively considered the girl who had exited the womb first to be younger than the one who came out second. This was contrary to the answer I was expecting. I mean, clearly the one who "entered the world first" should be considered the oldest, right? His explanation was that, in the womb, the older child gave deference to the younger one, allowing the younger twin to exit first as a matter of courtesy.

This anecdote struck me as interesting, especially since both theories are equally ridiculous! Infants who have never seen the light of day have no notion of courtesy. Likewise, what temporal difference is there between the inside and the outside of the uterus? The first relies on a customary logic while the other is grounded in the arbitrary notion of an apparent beginning. These are both, of course, not serious postulations concerning the proper age of the child, especially since Malians rarely keep track of their own ages and never celebrate birthdays. But it does seem to provide a little (naive) insight into the ways that each culture filled the ambiguous logical void left in the wake of my initial question. There's no veritable answer and yet it seems both cultures have collectively formulated a playful explanation with respect to their own unique priorities and assumptions.

N bora so, n nana so

I'm nearing the end of my first three months at site; a time when the question "What the hell am I doing here?!" tends to peak in volume and intensity. Africa has been exceptionally kind to me. I haven't suffered any life-threatening illnesses, the locals offer me nothing short of devoted friendship, the food is tolerable (though I'll never eat squirrel again), and my Bambara shows signs of improvement. I even found a local store that gets regular shipments of expired Snickers bars. But I don't mean to imply that there aren't frustrations. Indeed, I devote a lot of energy to being pissed off. Language barriers, limited contact with home, almost no privacy and a never-ending supply of unusual encounters are all reliable sources of frustration that, collectively, move the simplest tasks and the most surmountable obstacles into the realm of near impossibility. Most of all, I miss my friends and family. It's difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that, even in my absence, time in America continues. I was shocked to realize that the lives of my friends and family continue to move along their normal (though never predictable) trajectory--even when I'm not there as a witness. Marriages, birthdays, graduations, celebrations and tragedies happening in America are now, for me, distant events that I can only experience through descriptive reproductions in e-mails (keep them coming) and phone calls (I could always use more of those). This thought and the excessive amount of free time I have to reflect on my own loneliness, boredom and disillusionment makes the almost unthinkable prospect of going home even more attractive.
Still, I think I'm in this for the long run. There are highs and lows to being a Peace Corps volunteer but they have a tendency to "level out" as time goes on. I've developed a strange habit of categorically declaring my days "good" or "bad" around 2:30pm everyday; a near-arbitrary assessment that is inevitably reversed by 8:00pm. On decidedly good days, I feel free, the world is rich with possibility and I'm convinced I could stay for a third year. On bad days I feel like an accomplice in my own capture, ready to charter a West-bound luxury cruise across the Atlantic. However, it seems like, as I get acclimated to my new surroundings and my role here begins to take shape, while the highs aren't quite as high, the lows aren't nearly as low.

Back in August (wow, it's been awhile since I've updated this thing) I moved to my site in Kalibene. Installation was a little rough. I was, of course, last on the list to be installed and by the time my luggage was removed from the top of the truck, it was already pitch dark and raining. The circumstances were particularly irritating because my installation occurred during Ramadan and I had to work with a handful of impatient Malians who were itching to break their fast. Almost everything I owned was heavy with rainwater. My bike and bed frame (handmade with bamboo and cowhide!) made it out okay but my clothes and my mattress (basically an oversized sponge) required a few days in the sun. I'm happy with my new house. It's, essentially, a two-room version of my old house, only slightly larger. Kalibene has never hosted a volunteer so the house was built only a few months ago. The mud brick walls are freshly set and the wooden crossbeams aren't termite-ridden. I have my own latrine and bathing area and there's a small shed-like structure apart from the rest of the house, which will eventually be my kitchen. My total living living space is enclosed within a four-foot wall. Since goats and chickens seem to have no problem getting over the wall, I suspect it was constructed to prevent more annoying pests, like children and donkeys, from pressing their noses against my screen door or rooting through my trashcan. Getting my house set-up was a slow process made even slower by the fact that I hardly spend any time inside of it. Part of the reason is the heat: Malians build their houses out of the same materials they use to make their ovens. However, for the past few months, I've spent a lot of time getting to know everyone in my community, shaking hands with local leaders, town mayors and village chiefs. I'm often introduced by my homologue, Luckman Sangare, who is an extremely well-connected individual in the area.

A few weeks ago I started my baseline survey. I've been busy visiting families and asking questions about their sanitation practices and their water sources. I'm not even halfway finished with the survey but I already have a good idea about what Kalibene needs; namely, latrines. Kalibene is a village of 800 people and I've only been able to find about seven latrines (two of which are collapsed). To put it plainly, my job for the next year is to 1) find out where people are shitting, 2) find out why they're shitting there and 3) teach them how to build latrines they can shit in.

In my second year I have to do something about the distribution of drinking water in my village. Kalibene has two working pumps (one has been broken since March and the locals don't have money for a repair) but since everyone lives so far apart, many people have to walk about two kilometers to get water while others only have to walk 100 meters. But I probably won't be building a new pump. Building a new pump is difficult and expensive and, unlike most villages, the houses in Kalibene are widely separated by farmland. Even if I had $10,000, regardless of where the new pump is installed, only a handful of people would be helped since all of the households are located so far apart from one another.
I certainly have a lot of work to do. I'll think I'll talk more about my work in a later post when I'm a little more certain about my role in the community.

About a month ago my dugutigi (village chief) died at age 80. The day before, I visited the old man and offered some blessings. I entered his small hut and the heat was stifling. The chief lay naked with a sheet covering his torso as his two sons fanned him off with old newspapers. The man was a complete skeleton and I was told he hadn't eaten anything in days. The scene was strangely symbolic. A small cluster of bats was hanging directly over the dugutigi's bed though no one, except me, seemed to notice. The air was thick with the specter of death and it was undeniable that the end was near. It was sobering and tragic to see such an old man die, especially one who knew so much about the history of Kalibene and Mali in general. There's a proverb here that says, "Seeing an old person die is like watching a library burn to the ground."

After easing a brief, village-wide panic incited by some confusion over exactly who had died (the dugutigi and I share the same name), I rode my bike to the funeral. Bikes and motorcycles filled the chief's concession. Everyone from Kalibene and hundreds of people from neighboring villages came to pay their respects. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits (funerals here are more like celebrations than somber occasions) and the chief's wife was the only one who seemed to carry a fixed expression of solemn resignation. My homologue and I approached the body which was protected from the sun by a makeshift tent made out of white sheets. The local Imam washed the body, carefully scrubbing the limp arms and legs with a religious vigor. The chief looked much as he did the day before.

I was allowed to the see the body and the hole it was to be placed in but I wasn't allowed to see the burial itself. I was told it would have been too crowded, which is true, but I suspect there were other religious reasons barring my presence. Every man in the village marched down a narrow pathway to the grave site. The chief's body was wrapped in a white linen sheet and carried overhead on a thin wooden stretcher made earlier that day.

While the men buried the body, the women made massive amounts of rice and peanut sauce. Two cows, three goats and a few chickens were slaughtered that morning so there was plenty of food to go around. When the men came back, I realized just how much of a sanitation nightmare this event was turning out to be. My Peace Corps training as a water and sanitation volunteer has made me extra sensitive to instances of poor sanitation but this situation was disgusting by any standard. While I made a point of washing my hands before eating, I was forced to eat out of the same bowl with three men who had just buried a dead guy (they merely cleansed their grimy fingers with a slash of water). Also, after eating, I mindlessly accepted a dried fig from the Imam (I felt culturally obligated to eat it at the time). In addition to the fact that I shouldn't be eating unpeelable fruit without first soaking it in bleach water, I had eaten a fig handed to me by the Imam who, moments before, was scrubbing the dugutigi's corpse. I, of course, only considered this after the fig was fully digested. This seemed to go beyond a mere transfer of bacteria. My body had thouroughly absorbed the residues of death among other things.
The entire ordeal was rarely accompanied by even an ounce of sadness. Since the dugutigi was so old, everyone probably saw his death coming. Indeed, after we ate and the praying was over, people hung around to chat, drink tea and tell jokes. I've never attended a funeral before but this event wasn't at all similar to my idea of what a funeral should be. People were in such a good mood that stories and jokes about the deceased seemed to be without sensible limits. I introduced myself to a man who I've never seen before. I told him my name was Seydou Berthe (the same name as the dugutigi). The man's eyes widened and he laughed as he turned to the crowd of people drinking tea. "Look everyone!" he said. "Seydou isn't dead, he just turned into a white guy!" Everyone laughed hysterically and I, not knowing what could possibly be considered inappropriate at this point, smiled nervously and slinked away.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aw bismillah

Alright. I realize this is all way overdue and probably a little lame but I want to make an honest attempt at “blogging”. This post is just to get everyone up to speed since I’ve been here a month and I haven’t really told anyone anything yet.

Also, as a supplement to the disclaimer at the top of this site, it’s important to note that the following description (flowery and tasteless as it is) isn’t all that accurate; not for lack of effort but because few words can describe just how strange and wonderful this place is. If you want to find out what I mean, send me your mailing address.


The airport was quiet and either side of the terminal was sparsely populated with jet-lagged passengers waiting for their connection to arrive. Each of us probably made somewhat of a spectacle, whimsically spending the last of our $140 allowance on all the modern niceties we would soon live without: “my last cheeseburger”, “my last issue of the New York Times”, “my last premium coffee”, “my last cold beer?” I even found myself craving a variety of indulgences that I’ve never been in the habit of consuming: “Coca-Cola!” “McDonalds!” “Cigarettes!” This hedonistic compulsion continued and actually evolved to include increasingly novel items, particularly when we made a brief layover in Paris: “I can’t believe this is going to be my last Choux à la Crème!”

(As it turns out, with the exception of McDonalds, you can find all of that stuff here if you look hard enough. Also, as a former French colony, Mali has no shortage of Choux à la Crème).


Upon exiting the plane, I got my first breath of moist African climate as it clashed with the cold, sterile air inside the cabin. It was dark and a number of uniformed men hastily directed the foreign passengers onto a large bus waiting at the bottom of the mobile staircase. The airport employees wasted no time in confusing me and every other American now tightly packed inside the retired commuter bus. For reasons that no one has been able to explain, our trip amounted to nothing more than an immediate U-turn across an adjacent gravel pathway, a cumbersome journey that took no less than five seconds. We were immediately shuffled off the bus and into the baggage claim area where a mob of over 300 people crowded around a single conveyor belt that was only capable of producing one piece of luggage every five minutes.

We were then loaded onto another bus which took us to Tubaniso, an agricultural research center donated to the Peace Corps by the Malian government. The staff showed us our rooms (a series of brick huts with thatched roofs and, surprisingly, electricity) and introduced us to the latrines (fascinating facilities that, perhaps, deserve their own post at a later date). That first night seemed to carry on forever and those sleepless hours in the sky started to catch up to me. The last thing I remember from that evening was waking up in the middle of the night to pee. The latrine wasn’t far from my hut but the path was dark and the only available light came from a small florescent bulb attached to a distant tree. I kept my eyes fixated on the ground and moved quietly. Pouring through countless outdoor survival guides did nothing but establish the illusion that deadly exotic insects were conspiring against me, lurking underneath my every footstep. But the ground was barely visible and, in the obscure glow of that single light bulb, I could only make out the silhouettes of fist-sized rocks dotting the pathway. As I strode closer to the latrine, the rocks started moving. I walked faster and they started jumping. I ran. I ran so fast that I almost failed to notice that those gravity defying rocks weren’t rocks at all—they were frogs. I ran faster. What followed was an energetic chain reaction of leaping reptiles, a collective panic (myself included) inspired by the frantic pounding of my own footsteps.


The first week of training ended quickly. After a lot of “cross-cultural training”, maybe two technical sessions and an hour-long sprinkle of language tutoring, a convoy of white land cruisers were arranged to take us to our respective homestay sites. Equipped with a 100-word description of my site and the limited capacity to say “hello”, “goodbye” and “I feel sick” in Bambara, I went off to Kabe with seven other volunteers.

Out of the ten or fifteen homestay sites selected by Peace Corps, Kabe was, by far, the least accessible. About 60k outside of Bamako, we turned off the main road and traversed a 7 kilometer stretch of mud and dirt. I’ll spare some details here but the roads are pretty horrible in Mali (especially during rainy season). I can now appreciate the reasons why Peace Corps spent so much extra money to equip their vehicles with enormous treaded tires and exhaust snorkels.

When we arrived in the village, all 800 residents were waiting near the entrance to welcome us. As our bags were being unloaded, the village elders greeted us. Luckily the deafening drum and xylophone arrangement was enough to drown out the clarity of my words, allowing the locals to conveniently infer intelligible phrases—even when there weren’t any. The dense mob consumed our vehicle and we were totally enveloped in a blur of clapping hands, dancing legs and wide eyes. I could see my backpack and guitar case floating over a sea of outstretched arms. My luggage sank abruptly before becoming objects of a frenzied competition. Eventually, an eager few won the dubious privilege of carrying my shit.

The celebration continued with a series of dances (performed almost exclusively by Kabe’s new guests) and an exchange of translated greetings and benedictions. Our group offered the Dugutigi (village chief) ten cola nuts and the village gave us two live roosters (tomorrow’s lunch). We were introduced to our host families and quickly sent off to our new homes.

My new home is located at the far Northern edge of Kabe, nestled between two expansive fields of sprouting millet. My house was built using an unusual blend of local resources and modern utilitarian design (no doubt mandated by Peace Corps specifications). The walls are made out of creped, mud brick and the floor is a cracking slab of concrete. It is a near-perfect cube except for the top, which is covered by a slanting sheet of corrugated aluminum. The door is made out of rotting wood and other materials that were probably left over after the roof was finished.
I was impressed and also a little disappointed. I think I would have preferred to have a round hut with a thatched roof just like everyone else. Also, as if I had to be even more of an exception, my house was the only structure equipped with a lock; mine happened to be an oversized deadbolt made in the good old USA.

After my belongings were secured inside my “hut”, I sat in the concession with my new family. A note on what I mean when I say “my family”: The entire Samake clan lives together in a tight cluster of huts and my present company grew to include my host father, his two wives, their children and a vast array of grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—at least eighty people who are all related in one way or another (I’ve been living there for over a month now and I’m still confused about their tangled family tree).

The children gathered around my chair, competing for a glimpse at their new, remarkably pale toy. My host father was sitting next to me and a cozy six inches of moist air separated our faces, which, by now, were both twisted in mutual curiosity. Everyone spoke quickly and all at once. They were trying to tell me something. They kept repeating what sounded like the English word “self” but every other word seemed to bounce off my stupefied expression and fall lifelessly to the ground.
Then, a stern whisper sliced through the unintelligible noise, opening a space for one brief moment of clarity: “You are Salifou Samake.” It was my Malian name, bestowed on me minutes earlier by the Dugutigi (I guess I just wasn’t paying attention). Given the context, English was the last thing I could have expected to hear. Things became even more bizarre when I discovered the source of the utterance. It was a thirteen year old boy with, apparently, a very elementary understanding of my native tongue. It was only after I said, “You speak English?”, that I realized just how elementary his understanding was. Panicked, he responded, blurting out the extent of his vocabulary in a rehearsed, monotone voice: “Hello-fine-thanks-how-are-you-no-thanks-I-don’t-like-fights-I-have-a-lot-of-shopping-to-do”.

So far, homestay has been wildly productive both linguistically (total immersion is super effective) and culturally (total immersion is endlessly frustrating). The days are filled with highly structured language sessions as well as quality time with my family. Quite a bit has happened since that inaugural day in Kabe but the details are sketchy and because, at the time, I had almost no frame of reference that would have allowed me to comprehend those first few weeks, I’m not even going to attempt an exhaustive description (i.e. my journal entries dated between July 9th and August 3rd are a series of overexcited, semi-intelligible ink splashes). I can, however, report clearly on the present.

A week ago I visited my permanent site; my home for the next two years. Starting in mid-September, I will live in a remote village that dangles about 100 kilometers below the city of Sikasso, making me the Southern-most volunteer in Mali, just a bike ride away from the Ivory Coast.

There. Now you’re all pretty much up to speed. I think in the future I will have more opportunities to update my blog but you’re not likely to see a day-by-day account of my daily life here (that would be boring). Instead I will try to write thematically about my work, the people, food, wildlife, transportation, language, humiliations, victories, tea, weddings, magical trees, taboos, music, nyegans, gardening, strange encounters, the value of water, hospitality, livestock etc. The only things I’m not allowed to talk about (as per my contract) are politics and other volunteers (see my “supplement to the disclaimer at the top of this site”).

Also, please ask questions. I’ll be happy to entertain ANY curiosities (it’s also a good way to see if anyone is actually reading).