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:
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.
SOAK PIT AND WASH AREA
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.
NEGEN CAVE IN
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.