Friday, September 24, 2010


Were I live, its flat. Sometimes green, sometmes brown, usually both, but always flat. Charm, certainly, is a realative activity and one is taught to find beauty in where they are, not were they would like to be. Thats a fine thought to have, sipping mimosas on the veranda of your summer villa in monaco, less attainable in south sahelian Mali. Forgiving all the charms and virtue of the Bamanan peoples with whom I live, the landscape here is droll, monotoneous, scrubby and largely devoid of anything you might call a "feature".The earth itself wanders very little in any direction but out and away. Topographically speaking, the land ululates witht the cadence of a disallusioned branch manager, running through some requisite quarterly report. Fluara, generally so eager to diversify its station in life, seems here to have taken on the resplendent beauty of a poorly landscaped Burger King, and there isnt even any handicapped parking. The avian population here IS stunning at times. Brilliant, opalecent hues of blue and purple, like oil slicks on fresh asphalt, reds so intense, no ink/paper affair could do them justice, they vibrate against the blue of the sky. Its like a darwinian bra burning, nature aschewing the usual schtick of finding some kind of symbiosis between animal and enviroment and just sort throwing some stuff out there to see what sticks. As out of place as these birds seem, they are a welcomed addition. Otherwise it would be like living on a lite-brite board with out any pegs. like the birds, even many of the military and gendarmiere seem randomly out of place here, as they all choose to were arctic blue camoflauge in a land practically seething with those classic jar head camo colors seen on films, tv and monroe doctrine adherents alike. Although I did here that it snowed once in extreme northern Mali back in 1960, so, maybe there are just preternaturally prudent? Ultimatly, things being as they are, a rut was bound to form. I have spent the better part of my fiirst peace corps year ambiling around the same 300 kilometer radius, knowing better, but still giving in to assumption that this country wanted to choke the life out of my creative heart. This is not a place for dreamers dear friends, survival is terrestrial. I have known about the north, its there of course and is a place of great fascination with Volunteers, Malians and the general, niche culture craving public alike. Nowhere is Niche culture more aptly defined than in eastern Mali, home to, among others, The famed and often incorrectly mythologized Dogon people.
The area known as Dogon country is rich with history and myth( both of the self aggrandized and outsider variety) and is often misinturpreted entirely in the process. Dogon people were not the origional homesteaders here, rather a group of people called Tellem came first, and they built their villages into the side of the high sweeping cliffs that define the areas topography, they are also responsible for some of the earliest know sub-saharan handicrafts ever found. The Dogon tell stories of transmagorification, pygmies and giants and other Tellem-centric fiction with reverence to the earlier population. Currently, most Dogon have moved down from the cliff dwellings they inherited and begun to cultivate the deforested earth below, many converting to christianity or islam in the process and being largley appropriated by the more "conventional" western part of Bambara land. A great effort is made by outsiders ( see: whitey) to preserve the Dogon culture, or even to turn the Dogon on the the broader reach of the mythologies they hold dear, and to, of course, espouse the economic virtues of an esoteric belief system. This is not a new trend either, for decades, pre tourism, the largley untouched Dogon poeple have been infiltrated by westerners in jodhspurs and pithe helmets seeking knowledge or a byline for some serial adventure rag. As early as the 1930's A french anthropologist named Marcel Griaule, came to the area to try and obtain and explain a bit of the Dogon's mythylogical ethos. The most enduring, and obstensibaly the most culturely defining (to the west at least) idea that Griaule took away from the animist preachers and chiefs in Dogon was the seeminlgy inexplicable and exacting knowledge that they had of certain celestial bodies that modern science wouldnt find for centuries after the presumed inception of the Dogons knowledge. Allow me to digrees and briefly explain the myth of the Dog Star.
Sirius, aka the Dog Star, is the brightest visibale star in the sky, and its alleged that for centuries the Dogon knew that. Thats no great shakes, its been there since we were primordial goo, and any one who developed a tropic vertabrae could look up and see it. What does cause interest is that these priests and chiefs also told Griaule that Sirius was not one but three stars, The bright, visable main star being orbited by two smaller stars that are completely invisible from earth. Known as Pa Tolo and Emme Ya respectivly, there existance wasnt confirmed by modern science until the late 1920's when the tiny but Uber-dense Pa Tolo was classified as a " white dwarf", one of the heaviest objects in the sky. The grand polemic however, is how on earth did these ancient and isolated peoples know so much about stuff that was most certainly not on earth? In 1977 Robert K. Temple wrote an (in my opinion) entertaining and contoversial book about the subject, postualting that these ancient Dogon were in fact visited by an extra-terrestial race who imparted this knowledge to them, though, clearly just for kicks or the yet to develope occult book industry. Temple says, intruigingly enough, that the ancient egyptians were also visited by the same "space men" 5000 years ago, sighting that at exactly that time, the egyptians, who also associated sirius with a diety, switched there calendrical system to start on the first day that Sirius re-appears in the spring sky after being invisible for the three winter months. These space travelling informatio-nauts apperently began life, in Dogon lure, as an amphibious diety named Nommo. potentially his amphibiean nature is a parable for the terrestrial/intersteller road trip these space know-it-alls took. Of course skeptisism abounds and people naturaly assume that the dogon some how garnered this knowledge from an even earlier and more intrepid westerner than Griaule, though it is food for thought and a large part of the Dogon allure. Its a large part of why pseudo adventure seeking tourists come to trapse around the hills for a few days a year, and It was at least in the back of my mind when I finally made a trip norht of San this week to see for my self.
My reason of course for going north was in a way more logical, if not productive, as I set out with a group of friends to paint a large world map on a school house wall in a frinds village. The world north of San unfolded for me in a more dramatic way than I am used to things unfolding here in mali, in that there was a note of drama to be had at all. The lanscape slowly begins to pitch and swell and grow even more barren in the process, undulations and grades develope in the distance and like megalithic mammals, sleeping on the horizion line, the cliffs spring up from the eroded no-where. The first large town north of San, is Severe. economically well to do by malian standards, with a few hotels and a large NGO prescence, its mainly a pass through kinda place, on your way to Bandiagara. Bandiagara is a tourist town in the same way that an airport is your final destination. there are ample francophone lodging options and an overabundence of eager street hawkers, selling pap, or profering a ride to which ever of the well worn tourisim friendly Dogon towns you clearly want to see. I try everyday to integrate myself as best I can with my host nation, and though I am well aware that I will never, ever, be mistaken for a malian, I still make great strides to play to the illusion. Heading north and hitting Bandiagara was a new challenge in itself because the very idea that I had ever made the effort to integrate was lost on the people there, and rightfully so. I am white, and I am, in turn, made of money and thus gulibly there to spend it on there wears and services. Knowing better, and with thicker skin, we were largley able to get around Bandiagara without to much hassle. hitting the peace corps friendly hotel swimming pool and hiding out for the night in the stage house. In the morning, the caravan rolled out towards my friend Sara's village; Peleni. 37 kilometers from the center of Bandiagara, it feels like the end of the line, isolated and remote. They ( the denizens of peleni), like most Dogon, speak a language that only they and there imidiate neighboors understand. While you can aknowledge the existance of a "Dogon Language", conceptually, in reality, its a shattered dialect, strewn around the Dogon plateau, and an imidiate challange in navigating the area if thats all you happen to speak. Sara happens to speak dogoso, the local dialect as well as french so, with that and ample bambara, we did alright. The World map was fun. After three days of griding, lots of squiggely lines, and with a loyal and loud audience of children, we had a large, colorful, well heeled world map on the wall. A drippy latex equivlent of the Malian aviary scene, its a strong splash of light and color the dull beige landscape, and with any luck the children will find a perspective on there place in the physical world, we literally put them on the map. On the third day, our last, we met Saras friend Issa. We had heard about Issa before we met him. As a youth he tried to take, on foot, a pilgrimige to mecca, many thousands of miles east of his home in mali. On crossing the sahel Issa arrived in Chad, a country at the time, fraught with civil war. he was given the choice to stay and fight for the rebel cause or to die on the spot. with an obvious pentiant for self preservation, Issa stayed, and for more than a decade, he was fed amphetimines and alcohol, armed and drugged and kept fighting in this tawdry rebel militia. After finally making it home to Mali, or at least the border, he was denied entry into his own country as he lacked the proper paper work. despite his story and the his ability to speak fluent Bambara, and Dogoso, he was arrested and sent to jail in Bamako. today Issa lives on the outskirts of Peleni in one of the most palatial and fascinating homesteads I have seen. A snaking labryinth of streams and tree lined passages warp and weft through his compund, hand dug wells 20 feet wide that you simply walk down into to gather water. Papaya, banana, shea, mango, all represtened in this arborial wonder land. a thick sweet shade exisits around most of the grounds, under the canopied gardens. Issa also happens to grow a large crop of a certain "medicinal herb".....dont make me explain it anymore specifically than that, It was rather intersting to see in that nascient state. Funny, in america, those who move to the suburbs are usually noted for there ability to go un-noted, conformity being the rule, while if you find your self living on the outskirts of a Malian town, its in large part becuase you avoid what would be considered decent, traditional Malian behavior, in favor of something more progressive. Issa certainly fits that latter billing. What began as a casual visit with Issa turned into a very long, very spectacular Dogon hike, the variety of which people pay well for, though this one was free. We planned that morning to leave for a leisurly hike through some nearby hills, though upon hearing this, Issa was eager and happy, in the warm, hospitable Malian way, to show us around. After clumping through flooded fields and neck high grasses we reached the foot of the hills surrounding Peleni. They really just happen, these cliffs, they Jutte out of flat green nothing and they look like layer cakes of ancient rock. slabs upon slabs of pale orange and brown, mushed up, becoming cliff face and providing the neccessary ledge and levy for the ancient inhabitants to build their stone houses. You come onto them almost by accident, these houses. Their conglomerate parts cut from the same cliffs and dales that surround them. After clammering up the stepped ciff face you round a corner, and under the eave of a slab, built into the rock walls are small hovel like stone dwellings. large enough only for sleeping, or squating in some cases, they offered nothing more than marginal shelter. The cliffs were chosen, to my knowledge, for the the elements of fortification inherent in living bivouaced to the face of a rock, but they stand today as a strange and elemental nod to the diversity of mans intent and the relativity of the lives we choose to lead, or are lead to. As well as living up there, they naturally of course, died up there and were subsequantly buried up there. Many of the largest structures are graves, or really just storage facilities for bodies that become bone and decay. theres a notable stench to some of these, though hard to explain, as none of the graves are remotely. Like their odor, "fresh". We found bones, and even a few skulls laying haphazerdly on the ground, as obvious and un disturbed as a childs imagination, though far more tangible. That speaks to the sheer isolation of these places, these bones wernt placed here for photo opps and ropped off, they wre simply there and had been for a long time. We bounced around some more on the cliffs, agog at the vast, sweeping vistas that these hill top encampents offered. It as been said that nothing fortifies the human spirit like a sweeping vista, speaking to all that is possible and all you posess in both mind and spirit. Having spent the last year at slightly above sea level, i'll second that notion, observing that there is still infact a world out there capable of enchanting and changing those who get to see it.
We left Peleni the next day on a typically rickety Malian bus, and after a 37kilometer, Five hour trip, we made it back to Bandiagara. Back to the peace corps bubble, street food, hawkers, bus schedules and mosquito nets. All things that, only a weak earlier had rounded out my opinion of Mali, or maybe just the life I lead here, though, after climbing high above that, looking down and around at a greater world, these old hang ups and signifiers seem to fall away. Relagated to a few frayed ends of the long, knotted history and taut, exciting reality that is the north, that is...Mali.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

miss me?

of blogs and men

Hi everyone, welcome back. It dawns on me, that, in a world already over saturated with blogs and worse still, over saturated with people eagerly willing to treat the very idea of a blog as though it were the golden spined volume of some lost and cherished epic from days when people wore burlap and ate bear paws, that my blog has gone the way of so many inspriational and fantasticly leather bound editions of the past. In short the demands on the modern blogger by the salivating and clearly opinion starved masses is tatamount to some act of religeous prostration, daily flaggelating the keyboard in hopes of just one glance of the pixilated, 12point divinity that has informed there lives for so long. If I sound a bit self-importent there, its merely an inverse projection of the reality that I daily live here in Mali. That wouldnt be to imply that things are not going well over here. On the contrary, I am more comfertable here than I have been at any point in the past and having just now hit the one year mark, it seemed like a good time to remerge from the ether of blogosphereic obscurity and explain away all the lost weeks and months of blog free livin'. You see, its true that people want a blog, they like to read about all the kooky adventures befalling a peace corps volunteer, specifically one they know and love. But there comes a point when, even for a suburban white kid from america living in rural west africa, life just stops being all that terribly kooky and kinda just becomes real. Or, rather, some vauge semblanceof reality paste's itself on to the flimsy miasma of life here that I accept everyday. To exalt every little thing that I do here would have started to feel like, in this case, like a bit of a shame, because at the end of the day life here pretty much just goes on, which I find preferable to the alternative. As some of my doe eyed fellow bloggers have taken to doing, I too could describe waking up to golden sunrises and floating out to the furrowd, angel kissed fields on the most magical and inspiring donkey cart man has known, sowing gods own millet seeds whilst cherubian malian children dance and sing in tiny concentric circles of pure love. I could tell you about cool malian nights sitting around the sacred hearth drinking the sweet tea of life and discovering the depth and richness of the malian ethos, talking about love and war, politics and the crux of humanity. I could spin it tighter than a spider spins her web, but at the end of the day that would be a bit like guilding the millet stalk because in reality, my reality, mali aint like that. The fields are hot, the donkey carts, rickety, the children, often to emaciated to be cherubian in any context, sing racial epithets and swarm like bumbelbees, and the conversations rarely verge to far away from bean jokes and the repeted explination that the moon here is the same one as in america, only that it gets here first. I dont mean to sound cynical, I am not, and I do in fact like mali on the whole, if anything, I am now wide awake to this place, and its for this reason that I find bloggin so hard. I dont want to know who you bummped into in the checkout line at the wal mart today, or who looks good on dancing with the stars this season, and thus, I probaly find it hard to talk about the 1,798th time that I have explained why I am not married and how I oh so desperatly hope that allah will give me many wives in the near future.
Thats a little bleak I know, but its just an abrupt push into realism that I have come to cherish. Mali is the thrid pooerst country on earth and wears that distinction on its tattered sleave. But there are finer points, places that very nearly push me back into realms of the fantastic and for the sake of balance, ill describe just such a place now. Its called Manantali, thought the name is irrelevent, its situated in mali's extreme west on the Bafing river. Getting to Manantali is alot harder than it otherwise needs to be. begining in bamako on the infamous truckbus, a flatbed truck with a big box type construt on the back with seats. Truck bus is a neccesity becase the last half of the trip, or around 5 hours worth, are on something that is graciously called a road, in that, a road is a clearing through an other wise inpasable area. Our trip out there was uneventful, in the Malian sense of the word. It did rain for severel hours, and if you were like me, sitting next to the unclosable windows, you'd have been drier had you jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed. That wasnt so bad, rather cold, but at least I wasnt drenched in sweat which was the only other forseeable alternative. I had heard of the places virtues from the volunteers who live there, three people whom I now call the luckiest son's of bitches in the peace corps family. You come into Manantali on a cliff, high craggy exposed rockface hills surround the green, realativly lush vally that the old and ''new'' city sit in. The view is nearly epic, ill say, and vast. It's sort of lion king style, all that you see will one day be yours young simba. As thought the curtains have been drawn back on the very idea that beauty can exist in Mali. the centerpice of this vast expanse of newness, and beauty is the dam. I know very little about the historical logistics of the dam other then that a few years (decades?) ago, Germans came and decided to dam the Bafing. Hydroelectricity drives the region and keeps this otherwise isolated and unreachable area alive and relevent. There is one odd if not unfortunate tertiary expression of the dams otherwise virtueous existance in the region. The NEW city. Manantali, like all of mali is a mud and thatch kinda town. Their house's are largley round per regional asthetic mandate, but otherswise, just like the rest of the country. Just imagine a fiscally well to do German dam worker willingly living in a ramshackle malian burg whilst working on high level hydroelectric generation projects. That was apperently unthinkable to them and so they built there own city. The NEW city, a stucco, brick and mortar, manacured, landscaped and well paved similacrum of a droning suburban nightmere, as close an aproximation as Mali can muster under the guidene of xenophobic european overseers. Your likely to find a wall mounted AC unit in this part of town which, across the board, is a sign of wealth and prosperity in a country of plastic fans. Worse still is that, allegedly, there was a rule in place, No black people allowed. it was apperently Mali's first ''gated community.'' and kept that way until most of the dam workers had left the area. now, as the towns been reclaimed by malians, one cant help but marvel at the ghosts and signifiers of days gone by when they wernt even allowed to walk the very streets they live on. Even as nice as the new city is, it does still at times resemble a low rent housing project in america somewhere, the kind of place you lock your doors to drive through. The aminities are nice, some well stocked boutiqe's, an 'american club' with a swimming pool and a weight room, tennis courts and street lights, but its otherwise a very divisive place, full of contridiction. drawing similarities between my neck of the malian woods and manantali wood be like riding a tricycle in the tour de france. its beauty is vast. the peace corps stage house sits litteraly on the river, a small steep bank is all that divides the yard and the water. hippos frequent the area around the house and can be seen lazing in the water as clear as a high gloss national geographic photo. Monkies with with baby monkies on there backs live in the canopy of eucylyptus and neem trees that shade the area and giant, colorful lizards roam the underbrush. being about a kilometer back in the woods gives the peace corps house manantali the kind of isolation that people pay for when vacationing. I wont say that I wasnt a little bitter, all things being random and thus equal, MAN did I get the short end of the stick!! really though its just nice to know a place lile that a country like this. As i move foward, now approaching a series of ''lasts'' my last this or that in mali as the months tick by, rest assured that while I am an open book, willing to experience all that Mali has to offer me, well... dont hold your breath because until they pave the streets in gold, were still walking through the mud.

Monday, November 30, 2009

shotty observations, poorley transitioned from previous blog

Its difficult to call the Malian approach to hygiene an approach, accepting rather that a skirting or diversionary effort would be a more apt description. including myself amongst the population, I say that WE live in villages clogged with sewage, animal waste, and other such unsavory detritus and that WE live comfortably amongst these things because WE don’t know better. The discrepancies between what a Malian considers ritually hygienic, and acceptable in terms of care, and disposal of waste are vast. This is a group of people that wash themselves regularly, stopping at seemingly any and all occasion to poor water on their feet, and hands out of small, plastic, tea kettle-like pots called salidaka’s. swishing water in their mouth and spitting to finalize the gesture ( and all Malians are excellent spitters) they perform this act seemingly 5 or 6 or more times a day in addition to a full bucket bath taken before dinner. The behavior borders on idiosyncratic, almost quirky. No trip on public transport would be complete, it seems, without the driver stopping to wash and swish at any opportune time. This isn’t a behavior limited by any class, or gender stipulations, men women and children all do it, and all with the grace of the seasoned performer as though it were a survival trait, a line well rehearsed to the point of being inseparable from other biological process. Assuming, as they say, that cleanliness IS in fact next to godliness, than Malians are scrambeling to rent a time share in the big man’s neighboorhood. They wash so compulsively it almost seems a subconscious resignation to the fact that while there skin may stay damp and anointed, there terrestrial realm is in shambles. I mean no degradation by simply pointing out that the sanitation services we enjoy at home and almost come to take for granted, aren’t even fleeting notions here, they are completely absent and unacknowledged. I have only been here for 6 months, granted, but I have never, not even once, seen a Malian pick up a piece of trash in any feigning effort at cleanliness or beautification. I suppose that’s not to say it doesn’t happen but there’s no precedent to do so. It becomes easier at this point to start to make a lot of connections relating to the presumed stagnation or ennui inherent in the capacity to want for change here. Rural Malians live by the notion that subsistence farming and Allah’s divine intervention are really the only necessities in their lives, and not necessarily in that order. It is true and noble, the efforts which Malians put into their own survival, indomindable spirits all, though Imagine what you or someone like you would do if you found a small child, three or four years old, wandering un-attended around the streets of your town playing with an empty pesticide pump or a used dropper syringe, yet that’s a familiar site in a rural village. Substitute the aforementioned garbage with any other of the myriad varieties of garbage that one might find on the ground and that’s a typical and readily ignored scenario in the country. How then do Malians avoid what you would assume would be a rampant and constant influx of disease. It’s not necessarily true that they do. Figures ARE misleading as to the average life span. It is low in Mali but saying simply that, at 28, I am roughly middle aged here isn’t quite accurate. The average Malian woman has 7 children. For a morbid, yet oddly practical reason they do so because the infant death rate here is so high. This is a fact largly responsible for skewing the figures on average life span which I believe stands at 53. Allah of course wills that a child be taken from a mother, usually because of poor nutrition or disease, with disturbing frequency. There is in fact a tradition of not naming a baby until 7 full days, presumably to justify the effort. There is also the thought here that of course the more kids you have the more help you’ll have in the fields. Like I said, morbid, yet oddly practical or at least adapted to the stark reality of their situation. In strange similarities, the functionality of the Malian health care infrastructure mirrors our own in seems each in our own ways, we are making health care difficult and almost nonexistent for the poorest amongst us. A staggering majority of Malians will sooner visit an herbal, natural healer before seeing a ‘’modern doctor’’. The primary motivating factor there is the cost, that and possibly a misguided or ornery assumption that the expenditure isn’t worth it if Allah has willed otherwise. This being the case, many people, specifically women and children, go untreated because the husband refuses to pay for treatment, weather he’s nodding to gods will or simply not willing. These aren’t unusual cases, though it should be noted that those with the money or the foresight do seek western style medicine if they can. I think it’s worth noting as well, that I am aware of only one case of malaria in my village. ( accepting that there could be many more) the odd thing about this particular case is that the child who has contracted the disease lives in one of the villages richest families, a family that can afford med’s though rarely are the right meds given. Headache pills, expectorants, stomach medicine, pain relievers all meted out, all seemingly as a cure-all for those with the money to buy in. Most average sized villages have a ‘’medical unit’’, with a ‘’doctor’’ though the medical training of many Malian doctors in dubious at best. As well, every week at the average market you can find the medicine man, or multiple men, with carts or tables full of off brand….very off brand, medicines that people can buy. pills, powders, syrups and creams, The packaging is usually comically bad with limited instruction on how to use the medicine, and I know that the instructions are limited because they are often in English, a difficult language for the average rural Malian to read, or understand! I am unsure of how many illnesses have been perpetuated by bad packaging or general lack of information, but I have personally been offered Ben-gay to both eat and put on an open wound, and I have been asked what a desiccant package was and whether or not one was to eat it. These were western meds left behind in my village by visitors and I have no Idea how long they were being misused before I was approached. I was approached by a traditional healer with these meds, pleased at having acquired something exotic, and obviously foreign. Traditional healing in Mali IS generously acknowledged by the government, with money being put into researching both the actual healing properties of the plants used, and the proliferation of the medicine’s produced, making them more available to the average Malian, in fact, the average malian goes first for herbal, natural drugs, nearly 80% of the time over western style meds, and mostly out of neccessity . In Bamako, and regiona capitals, there are gonernment funded labs devoted to the research and usage of these plants, and a concerted effort id being made to amiliorate the practive of using herbal meds. This is a relatively progressive effort by the government, when you stop to imagine a time in which the US government would explore the validity of herbs over pharmaceuticals. Having yet to get a lot of solid information about what plants are actually being used, and not recognizing any myself, I have had several concoctions, teas mostly, made from boiled plants, sugar is always added, and they are usually tasty, most seemingly aimed at some variety of stomach ailment. I have seen traditional healing take on an even more ritualistic and hypothetical tone. I have seen sick children brought to my host father, a healer, and smeared in a loose grid pattern, with shea butter, all the while the healer’s mouth making tiny patting, or puffing motions, as if to expel the illness or draw it into himself. With no verification as to whether there was any subsequent change in the child, I am left to simply assume on blind faith that what’s practiced, works. This position I think, is the only position that most Malians can comfortablly take. Faith based medicine. Faith as medicine or a culture of practiced faith, with a faith in cultural practice. Malians do most things out of neccesity first, and personal care is no exception.


This week’s tale is a tale of change, bandied about over campfires and funeral pyres around the world for eons. A tale of woe, a tale of mystery, and surprise. A tale of inadequate insulation. As we wander our sunny village streets and draw grimy water from our wells, as we tell just one more bean joke under the stately Malian sun, it stalks. Behind the papaya tree, gold and green in a pale afternoon sun. Seeping in through the cracks in our houses or the cracks in my resolve. Insipid and yet obvious, proud and un yielding this monster of consistency, this creature of habit looms, lays in wait until her number is drawn. And according to the “Year of cute kitties” calander I’m looking at, the time is neigh. to the accustomed yet ill equipped Malian or worse still the incredulous volunteer, this behemoth of change strikes with more shock and awe than a George Bush themed weapons rodeo, eliciting a unison and universal cry across the arid sub-Saharan plain…..NENE BE NENE BE!! That means its cold people! And surly you mustn’t doubt that I am as shocked as you are. Mali and her ‘’seasons’’ can be loosely classified around what’s going in or coming up out of the ground. We do have ‘’wet season’’ and wet it is, rain in torrential and steady bursts, relative to the 7 months of the year when it doesn’t rain, It can seem pretty damp. There is also ‘’ hot season’’, and no that’s not some kind of passive aggressive Malian irony, there is a time of year that is decidedly hotter than the rest, temperatures I’m told top off at around 120 degrees. (Ill spare mentioning that that is farenheit, if it were Celsius we’d all be dead.) Yet this does leave room for the inevitable fall from grace, or stumble into absurdity that is ‘’Cold Season’’. It’s a relative term to be sure, with day time highs still hovering in the mid eighties, but at night, when she strikes, well…you just don’t see it coming.
I sleep outside. I sleep outside in a bug tent, placed on top of a foam mattress. This is preferable to sleeping inside in as much as my house has the exact physical and thermodynamic properties of a large pizza oven, the kind found at your trendy bistro, or lunch time hot-spot. Sleeping outdoors is a presumed and practiced necessity for anyone living in West Africa during at least 7/10ths of the year. The heat lulls you at first in to a false sense of calm, tempting you to believe that the air you breathe knows not from cool. How could a cruel and unforgiving sun yield so much of its power to orbital shift and particle deceleration. How could it get so damn cold this close to the equator? I heard it was coming…’’its coming’’ they said, that’s what I heard. Yet, having forgotten that a certain potent patent clerk’s theory of relativity was not also relative in its application, I was rendered mildly unawares as to the extremes to which these desert-esque environs can swing. I awoke one night unsure of the source of the restless, sleepless hours past, when I realized I was cold. A novelty at first, and one I took note of with fine accord. “ahhh cold season huh, livin’ the life here’’ yet several more restless hours later, sweating profusely under two heavy wool blankets (I might mention now that we were issued wool blankets and a great laugh was had by all… at the time) I dared not expose my skin to the sub-sixty degree weather outside at risk of a mild chill, the shivers, or worse..Being uncomfortable! Huh, I guess it is all relative.
Ok, ok trust me it’s colder than it sounds. We Americans, even ones of southern origin are tempered by a deciduous climate and longer, more resolute exposure to cold, so you’d think that after weeks of stifling heat, that a night in the fifties (just guessing at that temp) would be a welcomed relief, and as the evening cools, it is.
I wandered into Kalifa’s compound, around 7:30 for my usual night time glad hand, how’s the family type visit, but Kalifa wasn’t in his usual spot, brewing tea from a plant he calls ShokoroJe, or ‘’old white bean’’. The kids, sitting on an old animal skin, studying introductory biology in French by oil lamp and seemingly unfazed by the tempature, being shirtless and full of guile, directed me to the door of kalifas room. The entrance was draped over with a thin, pale blue cloth, embroidered with maroon stitching. I pulled it back and went inside. Kalifa lay bundled up under a floral print fleece blanket, next to a small metal cook stove, the glowing orange embers casting a pallor over the room. “Kalifa, good evening” “ahh Sidiki, good evening, my health might not be good” “oh, Kalifa, you sick, I’m sorry!” “no, no I’m not sick, but I might be later, it’s SO cold!!’’ well, as I had trotted over in a t-shirt, enjoying the sudden cool down from the heat of the day, I was struck with a strong sense of empathy and a false sense of security that I would regret later that night. I wished Kalifa well, and left quickly, my mind alive with possibilities. How cold will it get? Am I weak? Am I ready? Those kids didn’t seem to care, should I? Am I going to get sick? I hurried home to batten down the hatches, changing into long sleeves and pants, gathering blankets, and a light sleeping bag, I huddled into my tent, ready to brave the arctic night, but I only ended up fighting off the far less pleasant feeling of being sweaty hot and chillllllly cold at the same time. Ok, so I am still tinkering with the arrangement, less wool here, another shirt there, maybe I’ll get a stove like kalifa’s, I may even sleep inside, like a doughy pizza, waiting to crisp! Egad… weather wreaks havoc on the psyche, especially when you don’t see it coming.

Friday, November 13, 2009

a short note on reflective surfaces and markets

Those of us with an over arching sense of self and adherence to vanity, despite salient physical attributes to validate such behavior, may find life in peace corps Mali difficult. Those of us who harbor secret perfectionist leanings and are usually reticent to expose a learned skill or behavior until internally justified or approved may find life without mirrors a challenge. This begs the age old question like a poor man’s shoes need a polish: why? The answer is simply this; I CANT SEE MYSELF. Allow me to digress a moment to construct the backdrop for this puddle deep problem. I live in a small African village; I spend my day integrating myself into the friendly confines of this community in which I have been placed. Communication being key to integration, and speaking being tantamount to communication, I find myself daily, efforting to chat up the locals with my multitude of limited ways and means. I rise with the sun, I drink tea, and I note that the sound of a sheep braying is the dumbest sound on EARTH!!. I venture out of my mud house and around my village, trying to enjoy the simplicity and honesty that a tiny brusse village can deliver like few places on earth can. Yet as I lumber out and around the gridded, waste clogged streets, it seems as though somebody else comes out with me. From where my head usually sits, his feet look like mine and he wears my clothes. His gate is as steady and rightward leaning as mine, and his wants and needs seem equally as lofty and dire as mine. Yet, when he opens his mouth (as small as mine) what comes out isn’t mine. As if on the road from my inner dialogue to my larynx, a cloaked gang of simbionese liberators have hijacked my intent, and clearly in the late stages of Stockholm syndrome, my words agree with their captors and tumble out armed and shooting, like patty Hurst with a thesaurus. Yet they are shooting blanks, in other words, I talk dumb. It would be prudent at this point to remind the reader that I have been here a mere 105 days (who’s counting) and should feel proud of what I have accomplished, linguistically speaking (redundant?) Though I can’t help but loose myself to this sly, Bambara slinging avatar. Maybe it’s my penchant for visual stimulation, or 27 years spent in a flashbulb culture, whatever the case, I find my village notably lacking in reflective material. I admit to a certain level of vanity, possibly the fault of my Libran nature, and I suppose there’s irony in having the revelation that your sense of self is tied up in your reflection, reflected back to you through a lack of reflective surfaces. Whatever the case, I find that at the end of the day I am challenged to find new ways to reconnect myself with…myself. I forget what I look like and I can’t see my lips move, I can only hear the voice of the dullard saying ‘’my head goes bad’’ or ‘’ I buy people tonight’’ in dry, staccato bambara, and I am left I bit estranged. An affliction that will pass, or something to pass the time, I am not sure, but as long as this other me leaves my house every day, bumbling bambara, wearing my cloths and walking like I do, shouldn’t he at least like to know whether or not to wipe his nose or pick sorghum out of his teeth too.

I have debated the merits of buying a mirror for weeks now. A luxury item some would say, even, I admit a bit silly. Though it does make me wonder at the nature of perception and I certainly marvel at the loss of self I often experience by simply not being able to confirm, after a weak Bambara day, that my nose is still creased in the front or that I should have gotten braces a long time ago. What stops me from buying a mirror then? Now would be a good chance to describe Dougolo. This is the name of my market town, and this is where I spend my Saturdays. I wake up, early as usual, and trot over to Kalifas house (host dad) and wait there while we ready ourselves to bike to market. It’s about 9k away, but takes usually more than an hour to get there since the caravan I travel in runs an average age of about 65 (kalifa left without me last week and I went alone, but that’s neither here nor there.) We set out from village around 8am, the mornings are cool, especially now, but the road is long. It’s more of pass than a road really, in most places craggy, sandy, sometimes smooth surface rock exposes and it feigns at being paved. We amble northward, towards dougoulo, them on their uniform, cerulean blue, fixed gear, banana seat bikes, me on my elaborate, clearly ‘’not local’’ Peace Corps issued trek mountain bike. We don’t rush, we…we can’t rush really, so we don’t. Sometimes a bike chain falls off and we stop to place it back on the worn toothed gears that have made so many trips to market already. Maybe we slow to donkey carts blocking the road, or people, it’s a busy stretch of ‘’road’’ on market mornings, maybe we get stuck in the sand; the myriad reasons why patience is virtuous in Mali manifest themselves on market day. We arrive at the market which is usually still groaning to life, vendors setting out their wares, hanging tarpaulins and plastic to block the sun. Kalifa usually has some variety of business to attend to so we agree to meet at our usual spot, the herb seller at the front of the market. Take a moment now to picture a farmers market in the United States, A brusse African market is absolutely nothing like that. Barring the universal idea of capitalism, removing goods from circulation, there are few similarities to what you may have come to accept as ‘’a market’’. Brusse markets, mine specifically, are sprawling, hectare swallowing, gladiatorial thunder domes of buying and selling. Loud, chaotic, stinky (only by the fish sellers) and remarkably well functioning, they are charged with a special energy that is uniquely African. You can find basically everything you need in Dougolo, if it’s grown and eaten in Mali it’s probably there. If it’s cheap and made of plastic, it’s probably there. There’s a man selling large cook pots, he spends all day painting them silver with aluminum paint. There are rows of women frying dough in large vats, the sickly sweet smell of hot Shea butter and millet dough assail you as you walk in. Tea, shoes, dried fish, fabric, meat, potato’s everything that becomes essential to life is available here, even…..mirrors. Ok, essential? No. Shiny? Yes. I could buy a mirror. You can find them in dougolo, large, wood framed yet overpriced, and serious transportation risk, my bike being a bit of a rough ride as my perineum will tell you. And who knows, maybe this country will change me, redirect my sense of perception and allow me to look inward, move my gaze away from that blank wall were I have already hung the nail, and re-focus it on my potential; unseen, but always assumed. Or maybe ill crack (no pun intended) and overpay for that shiny, reflective piece of mind.

Friday, October 30, 2009

crumpets be damned

Dear reader, months have passed, days continue to elapse……..daily, as my time in the Peace Corps rolls on. With brief concession to my near fanatical devotion to bad blogging, I have returned and would like to make amends by offering you this rambling summery of my thoughts, observations, and emotions during those tepid and largely computer free days. As of my last entry I was still laboring away my home stay village, and as I’m now nearly a month and a half into life at site, ill spare you the gritty, and largely uninspired details of those final home stay weeks. And as I am sure that you’ve all no doubt graduated to a more advanced and informed blog reading populous, having by your own acknowledgement, followed many of my friends to their sites and shared their experience in their well maintained and frequently updated blogs, ill simply skip ahead, as though I’d never left you.
September 14th: a day that should have tipped its cap to infamy…a day spent instead, in the relative abyss that was Tubaniso on ‘’off to site day.’’ Why? Because I didn’t go. I didn’t bored the gana bus with the other newly minted volunteers, I didn’t go to san, my regional capital to await installation at site and the prodigious beginnings of life ‘’en brusse’’. I stayed at tubaniso eating rice and wandering its well manicured grounds, imagining, wistfully, what that place used to look like, when it was full of people and I complained that there were too many people there. I was asked to stay behind to attend a meeting regarding the amelioration of the Shea butter making practices in my new village, and attend I did. In the limited, if not quaint bambara that I possessed at the time, I smiled and nodded my way through a conversation with my Shea butter counterpart in her Bamako home office with the aid of my gracious and able friend Nicole, Nicole of ‘’I’m replacing a peace corps megastar’’ fame. Ill spare you the details of the meeting, as I couldn’t understand a word anyone said, but it’s this linguistic netherworld that kept me in Bamako’s friendly environs for four extra days. Thinking that life in peace corps had been a breeze, the week having been spent at bars, eating ice cream, and waking up late (0700) I steeled myself for the hammers drop, the trip to site looming after this stuttering and calorie packed few days . I awoke on the floor, Spanish tile no less meaning I was still in Bamako, at 0500 on some anonymous Tuesday morning during September, Ramadan, A Muslim high holy the traditions of which I won’t defame by attempting to explain, and left the house of the friend who’d graciously allowed me to catch a taxi outside his house before dawn so as to find my bus to site. I assumed he was probably there and would have wanted to wish me well as I rode to the bus gare to claim my reserved ticket to San, Mali. Once at the station, early by a couple hours, especially by Malian standards, I claimed my ticket, stood there, met a young architect, a student of that noble profession, who kindly humored my attempts at conversation and helped me find my bus. Malians by nature are wholly kind and curious and often eager to help someone as obviously lost and incapable as myself. The ride started well, we even left on time, actually on time, at 0800. We pulled out, freedom, on to the beginnings of a new life at site, in Mali, in the bush, yeah…oh…wait ok were stopping to get gas, ok, yeah were moving now…ye…oh yeah I guess that tire should have been changed before we left....anyway here we go… yeah here we go. And once out of Bamako, go we did. The ride itself was uneventful enough, Malian music videos on TV, the man next to spitting into a bag every few seconds (I said I wouldn’t attempt to explain Ramadan’s traditions……) and ten hours later I’d arrived in San. I stuck around for a night and in the morning went to site. Installation day involved being shuttled around my region, meeting cercle chiefs, NGO’s and the gendarme before taking the brusse road (brusse road being something not quite a road, not quite not a road) that meanders a dozen kilometers into to Samabogo. The name of the village means elephant mud, as apparently there were elephants there eons ago before they wised up and went in search of water or better cell phone reception. After a brief delay to fix a gaping hole in my roof, especially annoying during the final days of rainy season, I was finally at site, to stay, to integrate, to become, all the while trying to answer the question, What the hell does that mean. They warned us well enough: you’ll spend your days wandering around, drinking tea, chatting, greeting, being unspeakably bored, and often wildly in love with the idea that this crusty, dusty mudville is you new home for two years. Daily life at site doesn’t veer to far from that well worn course and to mixed effect I DO spend my days chatting: ‘’ will you go to the fields today? ‘’ ‘’that’s good’’ ‘’ yes, it’s true, I am learning slowly ‘’ ‘’ now I go to wash, hmmm oh, yes, we do have a moon in America’’ I Do spend my days drinking tea, that potent and liquefied embodiment of the Malian ethos. They pour in rounds: Death, Life, and Love, each sweeter than the next, each a reason to push through to something else, tasty and familier. Over tea, green and charged with sugar, life moves on, by, and around you. Its all talk, or no talk at all, its universal, sugary and important. Time spent with people, next to people, near another human is an idea bound to being Malian and it’s the jumping off point from which I spend a day learning how to become part of the community that has embraced me. There are inherent challenges in these humbling and beguiling days, when we wake up to begin again what we started the day before. To begin a day wanting only one new word nesting in your vocabulary at days end, for the chance to share one genuine laugh or knowing glance with someone, to be understood. We find ourselves reduced to infancy, learning how to express ourselves, toddlers with an adult sized sense of self. It would be bombastic, if not an awkward display of hubris to say that we are re-inventing the wheel every day, but we are re evaluating the cyclical nature of the human condition, the things that drive us. Those things that kept you going at home, that defined your days are ultimately rendered useless here; those are the things that strip away. We strive as humans to find a common ground, bound by inherent truths about who we are and what it means to be here, these pursuits are always filtered through our own self imposed mental caste, a series of access points into the psychology of our environment, we seek a symbiosis with this place which we find comfortable, yet when a physiological need for harmony becomes a selfish conceit, as it’s want to do, we become inebriated by the illusion that we are somehow adept at navigating the human condition. It’s our specific type of regeneration that has kept humanity as the most vocal, destructive and capable organism on earth for millennia, and it’s the same process that allows us to formulate a cadre of mental jiggery to protect ourselves, intuit, brag, defend, and ask for extra fries. I feel as though I am often left wholly exposed, these eloquent adaptations gone, any rational notion of defending myself or dancing a verbal jitterbug around a taut or charged exchange has fled to the higher ground of my newly challenged sense of self, ground to far afield to be of any use. It’s a new ‘’me ‘’ I’m cultivating in a powerfully familiar way. Being given the chance to look over walls I have built and to sift through those things I have gathered around me to define and protect me has enlivened my senses, brought great joy, infuriated me beyond reproach, and allowed me to re connect with a human spirit I had marginalized through wrote conditioning. To be awake at site is to engage in a constant process of regeneration, shed, and re build, learn to redefine and explain, play with the idea of my place in the world which is an idea that becomes more malleable every day. and of course drinking all the tea i can stomach

Monday, July 27, 2009

the day to day. in brief

hi everyone, blog blackout for a bit because of Homestay. homestay for the uninformed is sort of like an incubation period. we volunteers are grouped off 6, 7, 8 or so to a group and scattered around greater (much greater) Bamako at a series of villages, living with individual host families and taking language and cross cultural classes all day. I am studying a language called Bambara and after only 8 days i would say i feel good about my chances. So a typical day at home stay will certainly vary from a typical day at my permenant site, my real 2 year home, but its a good training ground so heres a typical day.

5:45/6:00: wake up. mali is a musilm country and the call to pray from the vilage mosque assure that i start y day
6:00...:wash, we dont have running water or electricity, so i bath out of a bucket in the confines of my pit toilet walls
7:00: i eat with my family, ussually a rice porridge, out of a commual bowl with big ladel spoons

8:00 go to class, 3 and a half hours of language classes, bambara, and after that my brain hurts. my day is carried out in three languages, french, bambara and english and my brain is working hrad to keep up

11:45 go home for lunch, communal bowl again, but this time i eat with my hands, usually rice with a sauce, and maybe some gristely meat.
AFTERLUNCH: TEA. the malians lover there tea, ussually green, and usually with an unholy amount of sugar...unholy! in fact that put a bit too much sugar in almost everything the eat, and dental hygine isnt at a premium here, they still smile alot though

2:30, tea/siesta is over and back to class til 5ish, then back home. dinner in the dark with the family, its dark here by 7:30, what with the equater so near, and that makes dinner my favorite meal, i eat with my hands and as a novice to this art i prefer the relative aninimity of night to worknig on the learning curve.

after dinner i usully hide out from the malarial mosquitos and study a bit in my room. often i am asleep by 9 and back at it the next day.

my days are peppered with lengthy greetins in bambara, the wailing steel echo of the call to prayer, wich i have grown to sort of like, lots of sun, really a feat for the senses. i go to sleep prossesing alot of sensory information and i dream very vividly . life is good at home stay and although it may sound somewhat dull, everything is sort of new again and sometimes it feels like i am relearning to walk.