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, September 27, 2009

My first few weeks as a PCV at Site

So I am in Bamako for the weekend. It was an adventure getting here on my own for the first time. I have to take a car ("bush Taxi") to Kati which means they stuff it past capacity. 4 in front, 4 in middle row and 3 in back, 4 on the roof. It started pouring rain so I felt really bad for the Malians on the roof. The car broke down after going through a sizable puddle for an hour. At one point everyone besides me and the older man had to get out and push the taxi through a river basically. Once I finally got to Bamako I ended up getting on the wrong transport and had to call a PCV three times...This was all compounded by a fever and cold I acquired in village with little sleep the night before. But I arrived around 11:30 after leaving at 6AM and had a chicken sandwich and fries for lunch and then ice cream later :):)

Bamako is a little overwhelming after being in village. Here is a bit of what an average day has been like:

6AM- Wake up with roosters and wind up alarm clock and go for 5-8k run (Sundays-20k)
7AM- bucket bath, sweep house (the mudd and stick ceiling is really dirty...not to mention cricket, spider, and termite infested)
7:30AM- corn porridge for breakfast in my house
8AM- language tutoring in the three room school house in my village
9AM- language class abanna(over) and sit for an hour with my teacher, listen to BBC on his radio, and chat. We are becoming really good friends. He is also a pretty good teacher. Mostly been reviewing parts of the language structure that I didn't understand during PST.
10AM-return home, eat a granola bar
10:10AM- Do various work: shell corn, baseline surveys, and measured all the wells in my village
12PM-12:30PM- lunch. Usually Tao, or a corn kus kus with a red, oily sauce
12:30PM- More work (baseline surveys, some tea drinking, more surveys, chatting)
6PM- Fetch water from the well with my own well bag and carry it back on my head (luckily the well is only a block away but it has earned me some brownie points)
6:10PM- Bucket bath #2. I've come to look forward to thee
6:30PM- Sit with landlord aka "Jatigi", chat and wait for dinner to come
7:00PM- eat dinner (either tao or a corn siri again)
7:30PM- hang out and chat with family for a little while
8:00PM- eat another granola bar or bread and mayo if it is Thurs-Sat since I have bread from market day
8:10PM- write in journal, write letters, prepare for language lesson, sometimes read a little
10/11PM- Bed time!

I think I did some sort of timeline like that before so sorry if it is repetitive. That is like everyday except market day on Thursdays. I've come to really look forward I bike 10k to my site mate's village around 9:30AM and spend the day at the market, shopping and eating good/better food :) They have bread and street food (meat!). I purchased more cooking supplies, another trunk, a table, and chairs. It all gets transported back ON bike, usually my jatigis since his bike rack is bigger which as an experience.

Otherwise, there have been a number of big ceremonies in my village in just a short amount of time:
1. Jama-naming cermony/circumcision for girls and boys
I did some intense dancing with only the women who would run to each concession, dance and pour buckets of water and smear mudd on each other. They had belts made of bottle caps that jingled and funny hats. At one point this woman dressed up as a witch doctor type smeared ash all over my face as part of some initiation, I think...I didn't understand their singing. But needless to say it was a lot of fun even though it reinforced that I can't dance.
2. Tabaski-the end of Ramadan where they usually slaughter an animal and eat a lot
This was actually not much of a celebration in my village both because they are very poor and 1/2 catholic. My teacher did give me some goat and rice and it was delicious!
3. Funeral- Unfortunately the same day as Tabaski there was a death of a 15-20 year old boy. I spent several hours sitting and mourning with the women; some were crying and it was a very somber occassion. I am not sure the cause of his death
4. INDEPENDENCE DAY(Sept. 23)-Mali gained independence from France in 1960
There wasn't much of a celebration in my village but apparently there are parades and parties in Bamako. There was a big soccer game that all the kids went to but I wasn't told about. The night before there was a dance that I went to for 20 minutes but it, sadly, got rained out.

As I said I have been working on the WATSAN surveys with my homologue. It is going extremely well though the WATSAN situation is pretty dire in my village. I will post more once I total the results. But we have done over half the househouds in my village (31 of the 45) in 4 days and usually this takes 2 months! He also said we are going to do the closest small village too. I hope my homologue's work ethic reflects that of the community...ni allah soona (god willing)

So altogether I am having a great cultural experiences and integrating well into my community. I try to be as outgoing as possible and I think my language is improving. I have not had much time to read and relax but I like to keep busy. I'm sure a lot of that will come later. I will probably not be back to Bamako (so internet or cell access) for another 3-4 weeks. I will try sending out lots of letters tomorrow if I get to the post office in time! Thanks for your continued support!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

N ye wolonteri kura ye!! (I am a new volunteer)

So as most of you know, I was sworn in as an official PCV on Thursday, September 10th at the American Embassy. Thank you for all of you that congratulated me on FB!

It truely was a magnificent and perfect day. The embassy actually has American grass in it (totally unsustainable but cool...) and automatic flush toilets. Most all of the PCTs dressed in fancy Malian clothing, myself included. It was purple of course! (pictures to come soon). The ceremony was very nice and included speaches from our PC country director, the US Ambassador, a representative of the Malian govt., and PCT speeches of each language we learned. Justin gave a speech in Dogon! We took an oath to obey the constitution, protect, and serve.

It felt similar to graduating HS/College. I felt extremely happy and proud to have made it through training and to become an offical PCV. It still is taking some getting used to.

Afterwards we went to the American Club where I watched a movie, ate a delicious lunch (cheeseburgers were consumed along w/ chocolate mousse), swam in and slept by the pool. Pure Heaven! Closer to the evening we went to a hotel in Bamako where we had rented some floor space. I was in a room with 5 mattresses on the floor and 12 people, which was fine since we were out to some clubs in Bamako until 3AM. I danced the night away...and had a blast!

So what is next?
I leave for my site on Tuesday!! A lot of people left this morning already which was actually pretty sad. Our class has really become a family/support system. But we will all see each other at the end of Nov. for Inservice Training (IST) which will be much more technical and some language.

Today I went shopping in Bamako to buy some things for my new site. I am the first volunteer so I need to get EVERYTHING including a mattress, stove, and pans. They have stores called "Tubab Stores" that are like a mini Meijers. I find it difficult to go to those stores now with so many choices. I get overwhelmed. Also, things can be expensive. A rolling pin costs the equivalent of $60 when a wine bottle/nalgene will work just fine.

I will buy a lot more at the market in my site mate's village and also get furniture (chairs, bed frame, and table) made their. I'm going to try to live as frugally/close to Malians as possible though I have a gas stove... I'm still trying to figure out how often I will cook for myself and how often I will eat with my family.

The next two months will be spent getting to know my community, conducting a baseline survey of WATSAN and gender, studying Bambara with a local language teacher, and conducting some participatory assessment tools to get to know my village's needs. I'm both excited and nervous! I probably won't have internet access for another 3 weeks, so a bit less than the past 2 months have been.

Thanks again for all your support! I received package #3 billibilliba (BIG in Bambara) which had TONS of goodies (granola bars, drink mix, magazines, wash clothes...) I think I am set for another 6 months! I'm going to have fun packing tomorrow and Monday ;) I can't replicate the original packing job... Also received a letter from Adam and package from Ana. THANK YOU! I have not received any other mail (that means you Dad...don't know what happened to your letter :/) Some of you should be getting letters if I can purchase stamps.

Almost there!

My apologies but this post is sort of random on some last sessions we had before swear-in.

WATSAN in Mali
On Wednesday the WATSAN volunteers had a field trip in Bamako to: the Direction Nationale de L'Hydraulique (DNH), CREPA (Centre Regional Pour L'eau Potable et L'assainissement/ Regional center for portable water and sanitation), and Deptartment of water and sanitation (DNACPN). This was an extremely informative trip and we learned more about how the government of Mali enforces and promotes water and sanitation. I was impressed at the level of organization and legislation that DNH and DNACPN have.

CREPA is seperate from the government and is a non-profit WATSAN organization in 17 West African countries. They provide training and funding for wash areas, latrines, hand washing stations, sewers, etc. We get to visit their site where they have ECOSAN latrines during In Service Training (IST) at the end of November. I am really excited!! ECOSAN latrines have seperate urine collection, compost in the pit, and the wash water runs into a garden.

One of our last sessions as PCTs really stuck out to me that I thought I would share. It was referring to a book on development called Two Ears of Corn. One of our cultural trainers was sharing what he learned from the book through his PC service. The book talks about approaching any development by: starting simple, starting small, and nuturing enthusiasm. These seem obvious but many NGOs, development organizations, and PCVs fail to do this again and again. I plan to read the book in my first two months of site. I think a lot of these steps are what I am going to have trouble with since I like to be productive and get things done. Our first 2 months at site we are not allowed to do any funded projects since we are supposed to integrate into the community and learn the language more. Also, here is a significant quote from the novel that resonnates with PCVs:

"It is only when we have spent all day stooped over while transplanting rice in flooded paddies, [or] when we have raced into the familiy courtyard to rescue drying millet from a sudden rain...that we can come to speak the villager's vocabularly, understand their priorities, and fathom their wants. And it is only then they will truely come to trust us."

Our cultural trainer told an interesting anecdote that I thought I would share:
A man fell down a well/pit and he can't get out so a missionary walks by, hears the man's cries and drops a bible down the well. Next, a NGO (non-govt. organization) worker walks by and throws some money down the hole to the man. Lastly, a PC volunteer walks by and then runs away...only to come back an hour later with his/her backpack and mosquito net tent. The PCV jumps in the hole with the man and says "I'm here to live with you."

Over the last couple days I had the pleasure of meeting some fullbright scholars in Mali. Fulbright is a grant you can get to do research in a developing country for a year during your doctorate. The two students we met seemed really impressive. One was studying the history of art in Mali and the other was studying political activism in Mali. The girl researching political activism also had done research on feminism. I took down her contact information and may meet with her soon.

On Wednesday we also got to meet with Ambassador to the US in Mali which was cool. She talked a little bit about the foreign service and her background. It felt a bit like Model UN meeting her and asking her questions related to her position/duties. I, ofcourse, was in dork heaven! (Thanks Chisnell...) However, I don't think the foreign service is something I am going to consider but it is a facinating career.

I don't know if any of you have heard but there has been a big political debate and rallies going on in Mali (all peaceful). The president was trying to pass a law amending the family code to give women more rights where they would no longer be required to obey their husbands and the marriage age would be moved up to 18. This has met significant resistence and their have been massive demonstrations in Mali against it so it has come under reconsideration in their parliment. If you are interested about reading more here is a link to the article on BBC.

Lastly, on Wednesday our stage (PCT class) had a talent show. I played America the Beautiful on my clarinet to open and I was in "Soudouguba Stomp". The people in my homestay village put together a little percussion ensemble and "performed" a two minute piece starting with the call to prayer and me pretending to run to the Negen and use the sallie daga (tea pot with water=Malian toilet paper) then banging out quarter notes while others joined in on nalgene bottles, buckets, and plates. We also did a little beat box that included some bambara phrases. It was really fun and WE WON the talent show. I really miss band sometimes and was glad to practice and perform even if just for a joke. Other performances included a circus act with hoola hoops made of WATSAN tubing and juggling oranges, bango playing, guitars, and acapella Toto "I missed the rains down in Africa..." Altogether a great evening. Everyone paid some money before hand and we got cokes, popcorn, and pringles.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Homestay Banna (Homestay is finished)

This past Sunday I returned from our last homestay and language training (Weds Aug. 26-Sun. Sept.5, 11 days). Everything went pretty well and it was a bittersweet depature. Here are some of the highlights:

RAMADAN (Sunkalo)
Right now, most Malians are practicing Ramadan since they are mostly muslim. Ramadan is basically a month of fasting. You wake up around 5:00 and eat a huge breakfast before sunrise and then do not eat or drink water until sunset (some people go longer) which is around 6:45PM. They still go to the farm during the day as well. They also pray 5 times a day. It is quite a sacrifice. They do tend to be crabier and go to bed early.

Some volunteers fast as well even if they are not muslim to share in the cultural experience... so I decided to try it but my family only let me do it for two days. They were worried about me losing weight and I wasn't praying so they said it didn't count. I probably won't have a chance next year since my host family at site is catholic but that is fine.

PHAST (Participatory Hygiene and Sanitation Transformation)
After a few days at homestay we practiced some participatory, community assessment tools for Water and Sanitation on some members of our homestay village. Basically PHAST is a progression of exercises to help teach and plan health water and sanitation practices and technologies. It includes lots of pictures (I colored some of mine in with the crayons I brought) and interactions. Even asking people how they eat poop (fingers, fields, flies, food, fluids).

It went pretty well though we didn't get a lot of people and it rained really heavily; making it hard to hear each other. Most of the participants in Soundouguba knew what were good and bad sanitation practices and technology. For instance they know they should wash their hands with soap but they say they are "not accustomed to it". Also, the most difficult part is that they would lie about having soak pits or children wearing sandels or defecating in fields unless you called them out on it. Malians in general don't like to answer questions negatively so you need to keep things open ended. Hopefully they become more honest when you are better integrated.

I am excited to start the activities in my village though it may not be until after the first 3 months and I potentially form a water and sanitation committee. Other volunteers have also done the activities in schools which I think is a great idea.

The day we did PHAST in our village was also my first birthday in Mali. I am now the ripe old age of 23...and things feels exactly the same. Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes. My inbox was successfully inundated with FB wall posts. I waited to open two birthday cards that my mom, Nana, Aunts, and Sara-Jane sent. They happened to be the ones you can record a message in, or in this case the Happy Birthday song. It was a real treat to listen to their voices so far from home.

Birthday activities included "good ol' American Saladay"...which is when all of our homestay trainees get together for good food (shish kabobs, salad, cucumbers, tomatos, fried eggs, melon, cokes, and...this week there was laughing cow cheese from Bamako :):)) Later we went to the next village for more celebration. Overall, a great day :)

The day after my birthday we had a field trip to the Malian museum in Bamako which was actually really nice and we got to see some African artificats, masks, and cloth. Other volunteers chose to go to the "zoo" where you can apparently poke a dead manitee...guess I will need to visit!

After the museum visit and some delicious food at Broadway Cafe (another cheeseburger and coke float!) we returned to our homestay villages and I went for a 2 hour run in the light drizzle. I had rice patties on one side of me, green and lush, and a canal on the other side. It was amazing and now I know I can run distance in Mali :) Though I did see a 4-5ft long black snake in the middle of the road which was a bit scary.

After several more days of language training we constructed a soak pit and wash area for a family in our village to pratice. A soak pit is used to infiltrate excess wash and latrine water into the ground instead of the street. A simple soak pit for a single family is about 9 ft deep (don't worry the family dug the hole), 3 ft in diameter filled with rocks, and has pipes running into it from the latrine and wash area. It is covered with plastic and earth at the end.

The wash area is basically a cement slab with a drain/pipe that goes into a soak pit so that the wash water from dishes and clothes doesn't just pool in their concession (courtyard). I posted some pictures online (finally got a chance...internet is fast at 4AM) if you would like to see. I'm excited to build wash areas and soak pits in my village if that is what they decide is important and are willing to contribute labor and rocks.

The night before the soak pit construction and the following several days it seemed that rainy season had arrived and the streets turned into rivers. This also apparently did not bode well for one of my homestay family's latrines (the one that I use ofcourse) since the wall caved into the pit and rendered it useless. Luckily this was on the last day since the other latrine was a bit less improved.

So it was bittersweet having to pack and leave my first family and home in Mali. It seems like they get the short end of the stick from PC since they have to put up with us (we are a bit high maintenance...) but don't get the benefits of having a volunteer. Sure they get paid and a room fixed up but that seems small compared to how much time and effort they spend helping us learn the culture and integrate. Thus, it was sad to leave but I was happy to be done with homestay and closer to becoming a volunteer and going to my actual site. I plan to come back and visit though since my homestay village is pretty awesome. A lot of volunteers return from time to time to their homestay villages.

The morning I left we took lots of pictures together (even with the family cow). I gave them gifts I had brought and sent (MI picture book, softballs!, mini frisbees, a few American dollars, Malian cloth, sugar, tea, charcoal, bracelets). We went through the MI picture book and they really liked seeing all the pictures of big buildings, bodies of water, snow, and farms (there was a pumpkin patch).

Upon deptature, I made my actual host mom and togoma (woman who cooked for me) cry which is really rare in Mali (it is culturally inappropriate to cry in public besides funerals). A lot of my family shook my left hand with theres (you may remember me saying it is culturally inappropriate to do things with your left hand since that is the "dirty hand"). This is actually a sign of respect meaning you must come back to right the wrong of shaking with the left hand.

We returned to Tubaniso on Sunday and took our final culture and technical tests. On Monday we had our final language tests. We have to test at a certain level (intermediate-middle) to become volunteers. Most of you reading this know that I don't like tests so this was quite a stressful experience for me. Luckily I had M&Ms and oreos left over to console me after I failed at the scenario of reserving a hotel room in Bamako for my parents.

After coming to terms with my performance, and realizing that I am still going to be a volunteer but I may need to stay an extra week at Tubaniso for language training; the teacher who administrated my test said that he accidentally taped over it and I needed to do it again. This kind of sucked but I did much better the second time around. I found out today that I indeed achieved INT-MID!! So life is good.

So on Thursday all of us Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) will be taken to the American Embassy and sworn in as volunteers and become PCVs. We also get to spend the night and celebrate in Bamako. I am extremely excited and can't believe the day is almost here! Thanks again for all your love and support to get to this point.