Disclaimer: This blog does not reflect the opinions and policies of the Peace Corps, the University of South Florida (USF), the U.S. government, or the government of Mali

Sunday, May 24, 2015

My Ironman Texas Race Report

I don’t know exactly when I made completing an Ironman one of my lifetime goals. It had been over four years and it was when I saw a youtube video or special on Bill Hoyt and his paraplegic son. He competed in marathons and ironmans by pulling his son on a raft during the swim, riding with him on his bike, and pushing him on the run. It was really inspiring. Upon returning from the Peace Corps in the fall of 2012, I started training and racing in triathalons, hoping to eventually build up to an Ironman.

On May 16th, 2016, race day had finally come. My alarm went off at 2:30AM in the Hilton Garden Inn in Woodlands, Texas. I got up and fixed my usual breakfast of cereal, soy milk and fruit then I went to work on getting my water bottles ready with carb and electrolyte powders. I had packed all my special needs bags the night before as well as the nutrition that would need to go into the gear bags I had dropped off the day before. Let’s just say, I used a whole loaf of bread and most of a jar of peanut butter and jelly. I was done getting everything ready a little early but tried to keep thinking what it was I may have forgotten or put in the wrong bag. I sat on the bed and drank coffee and watched CNN with my Dad.

My Dad and I at the transition area the day before race day
We left the hotel to walk the mile to the transition area so I could add my water bottles and nutrition to my gear bags. Transition was still a mud fest that had broke my flip flops the day before so today I was smarter and just went bare foot. 

The mud in the transition area broke my 3 year old, dollar sandals from Mali. 

I almost put my bike nutrition in my run bag but then realized it at the last minute. Then I made a pit stop to a porta potty as I was super hydrated and my Dad and I followed the crowd heading to the swim start (yesterday we got lost following people though luckily everyone knew where they were going race day).

I got my body marked, 1063, with permanent marker though I had wished they were the cool stick on tattoos. All of the body markers sounded very excited about their job. I dropped off my special needs bags and then my dad and I found a spot near the American flag at the swim start to wait. It was still very dark when we got there though it got light relatively quick.

The swim start at around 6AM

After the national anthem, I headed over to the rolling start and found the sign with 1:20-1:30 (my goal swim time, a little ambitious). It was pretty far in the back. The cut off is 2:20 and swimming is my weakest though I had gotten a lot better thanks to my coach and Tuesday long course swim work outs. For once I was feeling pretty confident about the swim as I had done a practice, 1,000m swim the day before and though the water wasn’t the best quality (very turbid), I was happy it wasn’t salt water with waves and the course looked relatively straight forward.

Me at the swim start representing USF and Aeropro

6:40AM, the gun went off and the crowd slowly started moving. I was pretty dazed that the moment had finally come. 

The pros starting the swim off

I walked into the water and started swimming more on the outside to avoid the crowds. It actually was not too bad since it was a rolling start though every once and a while I would have someone swim almost on top of me or I would bump into someone. I got into a comfortable rhythm, trying to make long smooth strokes and site. I took it one buoy at a time and I probably went out a little too fast. At about 1500m the buoys turned from yellow to orange which made me really happy. At times I would sing to myself, “another one bites the dust”. At 1.5 miles, I started getting somewhat angry at the people in wet suits passing me/climbing on top of me, all slimy like. The water temp was 81 degrees so the race was wet suit “optional”. People could wear them but they wouldn’t be eligible for awards or qualifying for kona (Ironman world championships in Hawaii) and they had them start after everyone else had entered the water, thus the faster ones were climbing over us slower ones. 

At around the 2nd mile, I was a little tired and ready to be done. The last 0.4 seemed to go on forever 
though we got into a narrower section of the man made lake and it was motivating to see people on the sides cheering and holding signs. My watch hit 2.5 mi and I was still a little ways from the finish. Swimming on the outside may not have been the best idea. I started getting emotional at the finish that I had completed the first leg of the ironman within the time limit. Volunteers helped us up the ladders then up stairs through transition. 

Me at the swim finish

I jogged a bit and then they had me shout out my number and a volunteer handed me my bag. That was great as I was worried I would need to search for it. I headed in to the crowded changing tent though a volunteer immediately got me some water and they were asking what I needed. I was starting to realize what people said about volunteers being amazing was true.

I scarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and stumbled through putting my biking clothes on. I carried my shoes and got my bike (unfortunately there were not that many bikes left as I was one of the slower swimmers). I got really muddy but they had kiddy pools with then muddy water to rinse our feet and a young boy held my bike for me as I rinsed and put on my shoes and socks. Then I was out of transition, and mounted my bike and was off. It was so nice to be on the bike and done with the swim.

Picture of me during the 112 mile bike

The first 30 miles went well and I was on pace, about 17-20 mph. I regretted not peeing in transition and kept holding off each water/food stop to try to make good time. I was passing more people than were passing me which was nice. I also realized that I had put my bike shorts on backwards and the butt padding was in the front, oh well….I think finally at mile 40 or so I stopped at a porta potty and it was glorious. I also got more water.

It was at mile 50 and into the third quarter of the 112 mile bike that I started to feel a bit fatigued and tired. My heart rate and pace dropped. Though I had most of my nutrition and such on me, I decided to stop and chug some water and get a banana when I got my special needs bag. I started eating every half hour instead of every hour and started to feel better. I think I had not eaten enough after the swim and bonked. The third section of the bike was the toughest for sure. There were a lot more hills and it was windy. At times I was going under 15mph. Overall, the course was pretty nice and forested. We went through some parks and it was all one loop. There were points where we were next to a lot of traffic/cars which I didn’t particularly like but that is unavoidable. After half way through the bike and the rest of the race, I really wanted a tooth brush. My teeth felt coated in sugar.

Another picture of me during the bike

I mostly used my watch but I also liked seeing the signs every 10 miles particularly at mile 90 and mile 100. The last 12 miles like the last 0.4 miles of the swim went on the longest and I was counting every mile. By that time I had picked up the pace and the last 3 or so miles was downhill which was great. I started getting excited and emotional to be done with the second leg and most of the race and to get to my favorite part of triathlons, the run! 

Me at the end of the 112 mile bike

I finally got to the dismount and someone yelled out my name “Colleen” which surprised me and I saw my friend Kevin from Peace Corps with a camera in my face then my dad. I didn’t think I looked that great for a picture and felt bad I didn’t stop to talk more but the bike already had taken me too long so I rushed to transition. They took my bike for me and then a smart volunteer told me to take off my helmet to help me cool off.

Kevin's picture of me at the end of the bike

I did a light jog to the changing tent after grabbing my gear bag and then hit the porta potty ( I wouldn’t make the same mistake as after the swim). I was moving a bit slower at this transition and enjoying the ice water. It was nice to get in fresh clothes though I was a bit sun burned and chaffed in random areas. I made sure to spray on some sunscreen though didn’t know how good it would do as I was covered in sweat. I had a volunteer help with my back and then liberally applied Vaseline under my Aeropro jersey that I had picked out specifically to wear for the race but had a tendency to chaff me under the arms. I put on my favorite visor (from the Key West Half iron distance race) and my compression socks which were difficult to get on.

And then I was off! The first 9 miles (the course was three loops) went great. I was on pace or faster…probably too fast and the crowds were amazing as promised. My favorite cheer section that was one of the first where very fit guys in speedos were dancing and giving out high fives. 

Cheer section: fit guys in speedos

There was also a hippy station which people dressed like hippies, beating trash cans that was pretty awesome. One station had a guy dressed in an Ironman costume like Robert Downey Jr. and then there was the guy in a red speedo that had me smack his ass on the second lap around mile 11. I really enjoyed the signs. I wish I could remember all of them. “Remember, you paid for this”, “Run like snot”, “You smell horrible”, “Don’t trust that fart”, “You run better than congress” were a few token ones. A lot of people were just day drinking and cheering people on. There was a particular crowd by a road crossing with a policewoman and she was dancing too every time I saw her. I felt they should be tired too. It was amazing how the ironman race united the community, volunteers, family, and friends. My own Uncle who I hadn’t seen in over 8 years drove 4 hours to see me finish! At some points I felt guilty for spending all this money particularly after being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa but the Ironman is so much more than about spending lots of money on bikes, equipment, and race registrations and that was definitely evident at the race. It is a journey for both the athletes, their family, friends and the community.

My 9 minute miles turned into 9:30 which then turned into 10 minute miles. I was mad at myself for already being behind my target 12/13 hour pace, probably, and was thinking how unrealistic it was. It helped that there were water stations almost every mile and a half. Ice water, Gatorade, coke and eventually chicken broth. There were even some spectators giving out pickles. I made sure to drink a lot, remembering the ironman training weekend where I had felt really dizzy at mile 4 of a 10 mile run after a 100 mile bike. Luckily I had trained in the FL heat which was the same as it was in Texas (probably 88 at the time I was running) but my body wasn’t having it. I started dumping a lot of the water on my head to cool off and taking the cold-water sponges. Luckily after mile 15 or so, it started getting later and cooler but my pace was still well above 10. The 2nd and 3rd laps were really tough. I tried to keep moving the whole time though I started walking through the aid stations to better consume water. I forced myself a few times to eat bites of PB&J but I was tired of them and tired of sugar though I did eat some oranges and drank some coke at a few stations. I started getting nauseous around mile 19 or so and feeling a little dizzy.  

At one point, a guy was trailing me when I thought he was trying to pass. He said he was sorry and was using me to pace as I had a good pace. I thought I had an awful pace but it was a nice compliment and company for 2 miles before he had to stop. I could only mumble out “good luck” though I wish I had tried to convince him to stay with me. At the end of 1st and 2nd laps, I could hear the announcer say “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” as I passed the finish and couldn’t wait to get to that finish.

The last 6 then 4 miles were really rough though the last two, I felt better since I was in the home stretch and could push the pace a little bit closer to 10 minute pace at least. At the last half mile, I really pushed it and I sprinted the finish even though I felt that wasn’t the most polite as I passed three people clearly taking their time to enjoy the finish and get a good photo. I don’t know where I found the energy but I had envisioned that finishing shoot, lined with people cheering for months even years and the moment was finally there. I was half choking back tears for the last half mile. 

Me at the finish of the Ironman (14:02 was my time since I started the swim later in the rolling start)

The volunteers had to stop me as I was well past the finish line. They had a separate volunteer for each person who crossed the finish line and he handed me water and kept asking if I was okay. I was still feeling a little dizzy/sick to my stomach but I was elated to be finished. I got my medal and took the picture and thanked my volunteer.

Finally got my medal!

Then I realized that I had not given a rendez-vous point for my Dad, Uncle and friend to meet me. Another thing to add to the list for Ironman #2 (n’shallah but not for a while). I called my dad a few times on stranger’s cell phones but could barely move. I sat on a curb and laid in the grass. Eventually they came to the finish. 

Post race, could barely move

I saw my Uncle Bob for the first time in 8 years but couldn’t hug him since I was disgusting. I eventually went to get my food though I wasn’t exactly hungry. I did scarf down two pieces and eventually three of pepperoni pizza and a coke. 

Me with my Dad and Uncle Bob

It was a long walk back to the car for sure and then I had to get my bike out of transition. I barely even had the energy to shower but I did when I got back and I was seriously craving ice cream so my Uncle Bob got me a mini ben and jerrys from the hotel J I tried staying up and chatting with my uncles and friend but eventually passed out.

The next day I was overwhelmed by a back log of facebook messages, posts, text messages, and phone calls from family and friends congratulating me on the race as I had been overwhelmed in the final weeks leading up to the Ironman. My best decision in Ironman training was getting a proper bike fit and coach (Roy Foley with Aeropro coaching) who designed my training plan and had group work outs I could participate in. The team had been so supportive throughout my training and especially before and after the race. I couldn’t have completed the ironman without my family and friends. My family helped me emotionally and monetarily. My Nana supported me early on in cross country and track by always picking me up from practice and going to every one of my races/meets. It was great to have my Dad at the race and he helped with the road trip from Florida to Texas and back. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Half way there...

So I have been back in Mali a little over a month now. Wow, the time is going by fast! Now I only have a month left in village and a few days in Bamako. I am sure that will go even faster. Things have been going really well after an initial adjustment to the food and climate. I think it takes me longer to adjust as I get older. Had an incident where I almost fainted in the market and spent that night in the fetal position in my bug hut thinking I had Malaria though I took my malaria medicine that night and started on an anti-diarrheal that the USF travel nurse luckily convinced me to fill before I left and I was fine within a few days.

The first two weeks I was really busy with evaluating the literacy project that African Sky has been funding in my village. I arrived earlier this year so I was able to see the literacy teacher, Elizabeth, in action which was great. I wish I could be there for the full 5 months since there is still some Bambara I have yet to learn and I mix a lot of the French and Bambara spellings. I evaluated each of the 35 students and was really proud of a lot of their progress. Several of the girls where relatively younger (early teens) who had never went to school since their father’s wouldn’t let them and had made a lot of progress in just one year.

Though ofcourse there were a few students even after two years that still could not write the entire alphabet by memory and that was frustrating but then I had to remind myself that these women that are over 30 years old and never have set foot in a classroom cannot learn what we did in Kindergarten in two 5 months stints separated by 7 months, 3 days a week. They even have to be taught how to open and write in a notebook and how to hold a pen. The fact that they can still write even 10 letters of the alphabet, their names, and numbers and read a few words is a lot. It just goes to show that literacy training takes years of work just like primary school so I am very happy that African Sky is continually funding this project and we are looking to build a literacy center for the next, 2015 school year that will start in January.

We had a big celebration at the end where those that passed the test to be able to write and read the alphabet, their name, and numbers received fabric and we all showed up in matching outfits to talk about the importance of literacy, dance, and eat and dance some more. It is really a great motivator for the students and helps attract new students for the next year.

During those first few weeks and up until now I have been busy conducting ethnographic interviews on Shea butter and its importance to the women here, their families, and in local traditions. These are usually 4 one hour sessions with each woman where I spend about 10 hours transcribing each interview. I have been learning a lot about the importance of Shea butter and also how much women contribute to the household.
Just this past week, the Shea harvest has begun and I have went out to collect nuts. I hope to make some of my own butter again to bring back to the states. I’ve been taking a lot of pictures and videos with my new Fujifilm 100xs.

So the plan from now on is to collect and transcribe as many ethnographic interviews as I can before I leave. I will still weigh shea nuts, firewood, and butter as before to calculate the amount of firewood needed in the process and the butter yield. I’ve already taken a sample of the waste water from extracting the butter to be analyzed to see about its’ use as a fertilizer. As well as plan for the literacy center construction. So enough to keep me pretty busy but it is still a bit more of a relaxed pace here than when school is in session at Tampa.
I’ve been able to get a lot of reading done (finished the Hunger Games series) which has been really nice. I love reading books and most of graduate school has consisted of reading scientific journal articles which can be exciting but it isn’t the same as a book you can’t put down for hours on end and that leaves you with a sort of reading “hang over”/depression since the series is over and there is no more. I usually read in the evening before bed.


I’ve been sticking to my running plan and had a good 8 mile run this morning. It was a taper week after an 11 mile long run the week before. I run about 4 times a week and bike twice a week to the markets. I’ve been keeping up with the physical therapy exercises and only have minor soreness in my hip every once in a while ::crosses fingers:: Thus, I decided to register for the Detroit Free Press marathon in mid-October. Next week is a 13 mile run and I hope to add a speed work out so hopefully the hip will hold up. I already have my sights set on an Olympic triathlon at the end of September but we will take it dooni dooni (Bambara little by little) for now. I am running mid to lower 9 minute pace so not as fast as before but it has been great to be able to run again after those 5 months of torture where I didn’t know if I would be able to run again.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

I ni faama. First post after over two years...

I ni faama blog! It has been a long time, almost two years since an update. I was hoping to have my formal website and blog up before I left for Mali though journal submissions, moving, and visiting family in Michigan before I left sort of postponed that a little. I am back in Mali for about 10 weeks (arrived June 3rd, leave August 6th) for more research and also continuing work with African Sky. It is great to be back. It always feels like not that much time has passed (I was last in Mali June 18th-August 2013) though there are usually more babies and some new buildings.

So far security wise, Mali seems about the same or better despite continuing tensions in the North of which there have been more Peace talks recently in neighboring African countries. The Malians themselves seem more confident and set that Mali should not be divided (look how well that worked for Sudan...). When I arrived at the airport, there were two new additions: heat scanner and finger print machines as well as a few French troops. There are some areas blocked off by either the UN or French military in Bamako that were not before.

Good news though is that I visited the Peace Corps office today and they are accepting applications for Peace Corps Response Volunteers for the Sikasso region starting as early as this September!! Since we were evacuated in April 2012, there have not been any new volunteers and many of the staff had to be let go at the PC office. A 41 year old program, shut down in a matter of weeks. However, this is a good sign and may even mean full, new two-year volunteers could return next year!

I have really enjoyed reconnecting with the women from the Water and Sanitation cooperative I worked with in Bamako, COFESFA. They are an amazing group of women that founded their own cooperative after graduating from University and not being able to find jobs. Hoping I can finish the work I started on their compost project sometime after the PhD.

It will be nice to get back to village, see everyone, give them pictures (particularly the professional ones from www.lylehansen.com), and start on research (as well as get away from French soap operas that are always on televisions here). However, going back to village won't quite be the same as my close work partner and friend, Jean-Claude, passed away last year suddenly from pancreatic cancer and the village chief also died. Though I was there for Jean-Claude's funeral, it will truly set in when I return. I also recently heard that my host father's wife, Jeneba, has become blind from some sort of disease. She acted as my mother throughout my two year service particularly in those first 3 months and year where she taught me how to wash clothes, fetch water, garden, farm, etc. This is very sad news but I hope there may be some way she can get treatment in Bamako. Unfortunately, this is the reality of life (and death) in Mali. Last year, I remember giving my close friend, Alima, a picture of her and the daughter she named after me. She quickly turned the photo over, and averted her eyes, she said that she had died.

Though, not to be too sad, the wives of the Zeala school director and one of my close friends in market both had babies and I bought them some baby clothes from the states that I hope they appreciate. It is hard to judge what size to get since I'm sure the 3-6 month sizes of American babies are much larger than those for Malian children.

So what exactly will I be working on research wise? I plan to complete collecting ethnographic interviews (2 hour, detailed interviews with different types of questions) about the importance of Shea butter to women and their families in Mali. Shea butter is a process primarily controlled by women in Mali and the profits usually go directly to food, clothes, and school fees for their children. After taking a few anthropology courses, I'm trying to use these more qualitative methods to add to the other parts of my research that are more quantitative (mapping the Shea butter belt across sub-Saharan Africa and calculating the production potential, weighing nuts and fire wood to determine Greenhouse Gas emissions from the Shea butter process, and an overall life cycle analyses of the Shea butter process for the human and material energy). I also
hope to collect some samples of Shea wastewater for analysis. Yes, that is all a mouth full. Hoping to finish with my PhD in Civil Engineering by the end of 2015 (n'shallah).

As the Assistant Director to African Sky I will also be evaluating the literacy project there, now in its' second year. We will also have a celebration for the women for their hard work over the last 5 months, learning to read and write in the local language. We are hoping to build a literacy/community center in Zeala so that the women will not be exposed to the heat and dust as much under a hangar during the hot season. So, the executive director, Scott Lacy (who will also be visiting Mali this summer), and I will be trying to get this project started and maybe even making some bricks while I am still in country.I hope to be updating twitter, facebook, and this blog while I am at site since I had an electrician friend help me purchase a solar panel set up that I can hopefully charge my computer with... Good thing I brought the one that is mostly dying anyways if it doesn't work (everything is backed up).

Wow, that is a lot more than I anticipated writing. I am leaving in less than 6 hours to get the early transport to village. I always get overly excited and nervous before going back to Mali and then to village. Thus, I don't get that much sleep and I also trying to get in all the internet and electricity before I leave...

I also am easing back into running while in Mali after my five month injury since my half iron race in Key West January 24th. After much physical therapy, and having dye injected in my hip and an MRI, I was diagnosed with a labral tear in my right hip (a tear of the cartilidge in my hip joint/socket). Usually the only way to treat this is through surgery since there is not enough blood flow to the area for it to repair itself. They said I had a thin enough tear (1-2mm thick but 7 mm long) that the doctor did not recommend surgery which may do more harm than good. This tear was most likely caused by biking with aero bars though running aggravates it too. I may have damaged it a long time ago with a fall as well.

I went back to the physical therapist after this diagnosis to get new exercises for the injury and we're hoping to strengthen the muscles in the area so as to hold the hip joint in place. It has been a very slow recovery. But I have gotten back to running over 6 miles with shorter and shorter recovery times afterwards. So I am hoping to build slowly and get back into distance running...::crosses fingers:: Unfortunately, there is no ice readily available so I really need to be careful not to aggravate it. I am also taking a number of natural supplements to help specifically with this type of injury in addition to a daily vitamin. I have ibruprofen as well.

Well that should cover it for now. I also have a nice, new camera. Sorry no pictures yet but the internet is very slow... May need to wait for my return, though it would help to break up this block of text. Thank you all for reading and your support!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

There and Back Again

I am writing this blog from my Grandma’s house since I returned to the United States on Tuesday, November 27th. My last month in Mali was very busy especially the last two weeks having to say goodbye to everyone. In the last month I was finishing a lot of surveys for my research on handwashing, shea butter, and food security. Also was busy with projects that Zeala will be continuing after I leave courtesy of African Sky (a small NGO created by a previous Mali-PCV who is not a university professor in anthropology) which include a Cereal Bank and Literacy Project and potentially a new school. Details on each are described below: 

The cooperative will start with a pilot cereal bank by buying three tons of grain and storing it to sell in the hungry season at a reduced market price. This is to help with problems of food security since many families run out of grain for various reasons (poor harvest, early selling of their grain stocks, etc.) in the months of May and June right at the beginning of the intense farming season where they need the most energy. A cereal bank in the village will ensure that the grain in village will stay in village and that they will have easy access to buy grain instead of having to find and pay transport in the neighboring markets. The president of the cooperative offered a house of his and we already cemented the floors and walls to prevent rodents and other pests. The plan is if the pilot is successful to eventually build a nicer building.
This picture is in Zeala where they are preparing the house where the grain will be stored. Mixing concrete for the floors to prevent pests from destroying the grain.

African Sky is also helping to fund literacy classes for women in Zeala since only three women out of over 300 can read and write in village which makes many tasks difficult (running associations, selling in the market, even using a phone, etc.). My homologue’s wife, Elizabeth, will be the literacy teacher. African Sky already funded her to attend a month long certification in Bamako. Since then we have had 30 women sign up for classes but will probably have upwards to 40 which will be divided into two classes: beginners and intermediate for those that have had some schooling or literacy classes before. We have already purchased all the materials: blackboard, benches, notebooks, pencils, erasers, etc. Classes are to start in January after the harvest and end in May before the cultivation period.  
A picture of Elizabeth and I with her certificate. She is now a certified literacy teacher in the main local language in Mali.

African Sky hopes to build ten schools in Mali made of compressed mud bricks (see this awesome website about the technology by the architect kinijalan). Zeala is planned to be the third construction site. The last week I was in Mali, Elizabeth and I visited Markala just north of Segou where the first school was close to completion. The bricks are beautiful even to the eye of non-engineers or masons. A press was imported from India and the bricks are made with clay and a small amount of concrete. Certainly preferable to concrete bricks since they are both cheaper and better for the environment (concrete is very energy intensive and contributes the equivalent amount of CO2 for each kilogram of concrete produced).  

The primary school in Markala (near Segou) made of compressed mud bricks. The compressor used to make the bricks is imported from India (the red machine under the tarp in the front).

Compressed mud bricks made with clay like soil and a small amount of concrete.

The rest of the Markala visit, though only two days, was very inspiring and a great way to spend part of my last week in Mali. We visited two women’s associations that are conducting literacy classes thanks to African Sky to learn from their experiences before we start are own. The Malian project coordinator in Marakala, also a former PC homologue, was a simply amazing, dedicated and hard working man. He also is fluent in English and teaches English in the local High School. I visited his class and got a chance to talk to his students in English. We mostly just did a question and answer session. I was blown away by some of the students English levels. They also asked very sort of Taboo questions for Mali such as: What does a girl do in America if she gets pregnant while she is in school? Is there discrimination in America? Is it true that there are homosexuals in America? Of course there were the usual questions of: Is it easy to go to America? Are you married? Do you have any kids? (A 26 year old unmarried woman with out any kids is very rare) For once I didn’t feel afraid to answer the questions frankly and honestly since I usually have a fear of being culturally inappropriate but both I had come to realize that Mali isn’t as conservative a muslim country as others would have them seem and I knew that I would not be coming back to Markala in the near future. At the end of the two hour class that just flew by, we had the customary photo shoot and all the students wanted to take a picture with me on their phones. 
A picture of me with an English class in Markala.

The class left me feeling optimistic for the future of Mali with all the intelligent and curious students. It also left me a little sad since it would be great to work with those students as a volunteer to improve their English and expand their world view but it was time for me to leave. It was a sort of sadness/remorse I felt throughout my last several months in Mali. I was finally comfortable enough in the local language and culture to really do anything I wanted such as Life Skills clubs for girls talking about sensitive topics such as teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDs, and general sexual education. I was finally able to overhear and understand most all conversations between Malians which before I could only pick out some words and phrases. This advance in language I think was helped by the fact that I was on my own and without PC as well as the ethnographic interviews I had to conduct and transcribe word for word. Since I didn’t have other volunteers to call, text, and hang out with in Bamako I never really spoke English and spent a lot more time with Malians. 

Two years and even three are too short to enact real change or to adapt to a new culture and language. It should be a partnership that lasts a lifetime. That is why I am so thankful with this partnership with African Sky that I will be able to continue working in Zeala and helping them develop. I have so many ideas beyond the school including a library, rainwater catchment, a water system, etc. I am hoping this can be a lifelong partnership and learning experience. I would like to make Zeala more of a grassroots, small scale Millennium Development Village; a center for development research. 

One of the hardest parts of my last days in Mali was leaving the women at the cooperative where I had felt like their collective, adopted daughter. Though we were not able to complete our work together, I was always welcome back to their office and I stayed with a woman at her house the week before I left. They are amazing women and their cooperative and NGO are examples of what Malian development should look like; created, run, and operated by educated Malians (in this case, all women!). On the Friday before I left they put together an amazing lunch for me with special Malian dishes (cucumber salad, fried potatoes and plantains, fish, and water melon). They also gave me a leather purse engraved with my name and tons of jewelry. I really didn’t know what to say.   In the end one of the women and my homologue from Zeala drove me to the airport for one last good bye. Through all this I did not find myself crying since I know I will be coming back. 

So after only two days of being home, everything has been going very well, no reverse culture shock depression yet. I am sure I am in the honeymoon stage of being back home and being with my family again. Though I do just have this surreal feeling where I don’t really believe I am back and, for that matter, for a significant amount of time yet. It hasn’t sunk in. Mostly I just see everything in a new, shiny light: the paved streets, all the nice cars, the cleanliness of everything, the size of the houses, the food, etc. All the things I took for granted before and probably will again after I have adjusted, though I don’t want to. I have this nagging feeling that I should be doing something. In Mali I wake up at 6AM and the day goes through 9 or 10PM where I am constantly moving or doing something. It is hard for me to relax, I feel guilty. 
A picture of me and my Mom at National Coney Island in the first several days that I was home.

So many people have been asking me, what’s next? I will be returning to University of South Florida to finish the coursework for my doctorate which will take me at least until May 2014 if not longer. I may return to Mali for some data collection this next June 2013 but depends on what my adviser says and the security situation there. I am excited to go back to school again and take classes. Before I was a little burned out  but now I am refreshed and ready to go back though I know the first semester will be an adjustment after three years of not really working my brain in that way.

The new house I am renting with two other Civil Engineering PhD students in Tampa.
I hope to still post on this blog about my experiences being back in the state, analyze my research, write my dissertation, and as I move forward with the African Sky projects in my village (I hope to return in Mali this summer for 1-2 months to see their progress first hand and collect more data for my research).  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What Mali Has Taught Me About Education

A month into the school year in Mali, I have decided to devout a post to education in Mali and its importance in general to development. I came to Mali, a water and sanitation volunteer, and my undergrad was in Civil Engineering. In the five sectors in PC Mali (education, environment, health, small enterprise development and water and sanitation) there was always a friendly competition of which was the “best” sector or most needed. Of course volunteers in each sector think that they are more important to development than the others, but as you go through your service you realize the importance of each sector to development. One sector that I realized the importance of that I have taken for granted in my own life is Education.


At first I thought, well how can you study if you don’t have clean water to drink or you are sick since you lack proper sanitation and don’t wash your hands with soap? This is true but how can you maintain a pump when you have had no education on how to repair it? Even if you are taught how to repair a pump, it is a lot different teaching people who are illiterate and cannot write down all the parts of the pump and, thus, have to memorize all the parts and their function. It is also difficult for the water and sanitation committee to manage the funds collected to maintain the pump with limited people who can write who paid money and how much money they have in the bank. The list of examples goes on, but in the end, work in water and sanitation or any sector for that matter would be a whole lot easier if more people were educated, even just being able to read and write.

I have really come to cherish something so simple as being able to read and write, something I have really taken for granted, as a given really since most everyone in the U.S. knows how to read and write. But here in rural Mali, those people are few and cherished. They are often overwhelmed with having to write for all the committees that NGOs have formed in the village. When I am writing on flip chart paper at meetings women marvel that I can write in Bambara, a language I just learned these past several years and that they have been speaking their whole lives. Even those that can write always are surprised by how “fast” I can write. Even school children read and write painstakingly slow. It is because even though they study in school afterwards they don’t practice; few do their homework, libraries are few and far between not to mention computers and the internet. Some of my best memories are going with my Nana to the bookstore and choosing from the thousands of books. I can’t imagine a childhood without reading though that is a privilege of few in the world.


Now that I have elaborated on how Mali has taught me the importance of education in development, I’ll move to the education system in Mali. Honestly, sometimes when I think about all the things that need to be done to improve the education system in Mali, I find it hopeless. Even if your village is lucky to have a school with some teachers, those teachers are probably under qualified (can’t even speak the national language, French, that they are supposed to be teaching in) or have a low work ethic. With rare monitoring of teachers, some will spend a whole day drinking tea under a mango tree or go off to Bamako while their students sit in class waiting for them to write something on the chalk board for them to copy down. This is ofcourse not to say that there are not good teachers in Mali, but from my experiences they are the exception to the rule.

The teachers aside, and I don’t think I can even go into the government, but parents who often have not studied themselves can’t help their kids with their homework and often do not ensure that their kids are doing their homework or getting good grades. Before I mostly found fault in the parents, government, and teachers but there are problems with the students themselves though much of it would be helped if some if not all those three were working correctly. This year, two kids in the families I have become close to (Fatomata and Wuye), both in primary school, decided, themselves, to stop going to school. Their parents tried to force them to go to school by dropping them off but they would return home or hide. I even tried to talk to the young girl, Fatomata, who would have to repeat fifth grade. I told her she would regret not going to school later in life, but she would not even talk to me. I have heard many similar stories in village this year. Many parents are discouraged that they buy school supplies and pay fees but their kids to not take education seriously and do not know anything. I tell them to have patience and to monitor their children’s progress in school but often with so many in the household and not being educated themselves, this is difficult.

The secondary school, in a village over 4 miles away, is a whole other matter. The parents must purchase expensive bikes for their kids to bike to and from school often twice in the day to come home for lunch and go back. I bike there myself once a week to go to market and it is a hilly ride and extremely hot during the hot season from March-June. Those that don’t bike back, often go hungry since their parents don’t have money to give them to buy lunch and food here is difficult to pack “boxed” lunch. They can rarely afford bread, let alone peanut butter and jelly.  

With the school being so far away and not being an enclosed compound, it is very easy for students to skip school. Attendance records are not well kept by teachers and even if they are, there is no phone call home of “why hasn’t your child come to school for the past week?” and the parents see them leave and come back everyday so they assume there are going to class.

In all this I have not touched on girls education. My host father in the neighboring village said that boys study more than girls and perform better in school. He is trying to send his daughters to school but they are not performing well so why should he not just keep them at home instead? He said all the girls that are sent to secondary school in Torodo end up pregnant.

This year I felt I have failed my younger host sister who also shares my name, Mariam. She also was part of the first girls camp that our area volunteers organized in a larger city. Mariam is about 15 or 16. I’ve seen her grow from a skinny, little girl into a young woman that all the boys in village flirt with and this may be the reason her father has decided to marry her off this year before she gets herself pregnant. When I asked why Mariam wasn’t going to school anymore, her father said she had failed out of 7th grade for the second time and they would not let her repeat a third time. I felt I could have done something, maybe made sure she did her homework or ask about her grades but I was “too busy” and how could I help her now if she had not studied well in the past six grades? Now it is certainly too late. And even out of the ten girls that went to the two girls camps, I only know of four who are still in school. Next time I organize a girls camp, I must make sure that those girls progress in education are monitored well after the camp is over.

My host brother Issa also stopped going to school last year, he was in third grade and couldn’t even write his name. My other host brother, Moussa, who is 7 years my junior was in ninth grade and could not do addition when you had to carry the one. He thought that America and the U.K. were the same. He has since failed out of ninth grade and is looking for work in Bamako. I helped teach an English club to ninth graders who had been studying English for two years and didn’t even know how to say “Good Morning” and “how are you?”

The Millennium development goals are mostly concerned with insuring universal primary education (a goal which they are falling short of) and increasing girls enrollment. I have learned it isn’t just enough to enroll kids in school but we must ensure the quality of the education they are getting. Yes, they going to class but how are they performing? Can they read, write, and count? My work partners daughter is in fifth grade and can’t count to 40 in french.

I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture. Mali certainly has to start somewhere and I know the education system will improve but there is not one magical solution and it will take time which does not help many of the children I have come to know in Zeala.