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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bye bye Village, Hello Bamako

So I have officially moved into Bamako as of August 16th. As I mentioned before, I will be extending for a third year in the capital of Mali to serve as the PC Volunteer Leader in my region and work in a WATSAN Women’s Cooperative in Bamako. It was difficult leaving village and has been an adjustment living in the city but I think this year will end up going by very fast.

The Sunday before I left village, my community had a big farewell ceremony for me. We couldn’t invite the whole village since they wouldn’t be able to provide food for everyone (each committee I worked with pitched in the equivalent of $20 and I bought the sheep ~$60). There were over 70 people including the WATSAN, Garden, and Shea committee officers, the village chief, the mayor, his wife, and the people that work in the mayors office, teachers from Torodo I worked with for teaching English, two representatives from PC, my replacement, my site mate, people originally from my village that live in Bamako, and people from the neighboring village I worked in.
The program included speeches from each association, the mayor, village chief, etc. The village presented me with a “Chiwara” statue which symbolizing hard work which was very special for me. The mayor also gave me a framed certificate of appreciation for my work. They reserved the last speech for me and I was pretty nervous to give a speech in front of that many important people let alone in Bambara but I think it went well and I gave key people that I worked with in the community each certificates. It made me realize how far I have come in two years with language and integration. I described in my speech how I had changed and how I felt I owed them more than they did me. How though life is difficult in Mali there is the community, family, and happiness.

The whole event put some of my accomplishments in perspective since near the end of leaving I felt that there was so much more to do and so many things I should have done but you only have so much time and resources available. It seems that finally after you figure things out and have good language skills, you need to leave. After all the speeches we took many pictures and planted 5 trees thanks to my site mate’s project that has been growing trees to sell (he is an environment volunteer). They had me plant a Baobab tree which can get very large and they said even 100 years from now they will call it “Mariam ka Zira” or my (Malian name) tree when they cut the leaves which are rich in vitamins for their sauces. Altogether, I know the day will be one of my most cherished memories in Mali.

I was lucky to be able to overlap with the volunteer that will be replacing me (PC usually tries to have a series of three volunteers in a community). I helped her during site visit in the middle of her training, and I stayed a few days after she was installed into my village to help explain the village and the work I had done. She seems like a really intelligent and motivated person and (Ni allah soona) she will do a great job. I told her I am always available to her for any help and we will also be teaching the women how to make Soap at the end of September.

After the farewell ceremony and market day on Monday, I took a more permanent trip to Bamako on Tuesday, August 16th. We visited my apartment in the afternoon to sign the lease and there were some issues with squatters still in the apartment and it was filthy. I found it pretty quickly there isn’t as much of an expectation to move into a clean apartment. After we paid for the cleaning products, the guard cleaned that afternoon and it looked much better the next day when I officially moved all my stuff and went to the Women’s cooperative to announce that I would start work the next week.

The apartment is pretty simple: two rooms (bedroom and a living room), a bathroom (with a real toilet and a shower), and a storage room that is my kitchen. I have electricity, running water, and fans which are all pretty exciting. It is in a small “complex” with only about 7 other families who are mostly from Cote D’Ivore but speak pretty good Bambara. My apartment is on the second floor which is fun for taking my bike up and down but good airflow). I bought furniture and a mini fridge from a volunteer in Bamako that will be leaving so I feel pretty spoiled with that and a store next to me with cold sodas, bread, Malian spam, etc. every day.

My apartment is in a section of Bamako on the outskirts since that is where the women’s cooperative is that I will be working. It takes me about an hour and a half in public transportation to get to the PC office. This makes things a little challenging since it is an expensive cab ride if I am coming back late and my apartment is off the main road and it is unpaved and almost impassible as well as dark but I’m sure I will get a schedule worked out.

COFESFA (Cooperative of Women for Family and Health and Sanitation)
The first week I spent most days at the cooperative’s office. Since it is August, most people are on vacation so there is only the secretary and accountant. I have mostly just been getting to know the office and asking a lot of question of the secretary to get to know the cooperative and their history.

1989-The cooperative was started by 16 women who had graduated from University but couldn’t find work in Bamako. At that point the trash collection system in Bamako was basically non-existent though money for the service was taken from peoples taxes. They did a feasibility study and determined there was a need and willingness to pay for trash collection services. The cooperative was granted two dumpsters from UNIFEM for their business. They spoke to the governor but he said they would not be able to charge for services that people were being taxed for so the Women kept being persistent but, in the mean time, transported sand from the river to make money.

1991-The governor agreed to pay the women the tax money allotted for trash collection and they started their business. They were also granted some money to help with educating women on water, sanitation, and hygiene. The cooperative members would collect the trash and drive the dumpsters themselves in the morning and come back in the afternoon to individual households to hold talks about these issues.

1993- Young men in the area the cooperative was working in noticed that they could make money by collecting trash instead of sitting around all day and making tea. Thus, the governor did not renew the Women’s contract and gave it to the young men in the area. In the mean time, they went back to transporting sand and some of the women would be hired by projects for sensitizing communities on water, sanitation, and hygiene issues but business was slow.

1995-Present- The cooperative received major funding for the UN and a foundation in Luxembourg and they sold the original dumpsters for larger ones and built their office. They began work in outside villages of Bamako including building pumps, two hospitals, working in slums outside of Bamako, and were turned over the management of a center for HIV/AIDs. They also received several volunteers from Canada annually.

They still continue trash collection and also own three public latrines in Bamako, sell water at two taps (one of which is working), work in surrounding villages, and offer cleaning services for offices (has been difficult since the companies/government, doesn’t always pay for their services).

So far I am very impressed with this cooperative and I think that there needs to be more of these such cooperatives and organizations in Mali that are founded and managed by Malians instead of people from other countries (yes, I know that means PC). They have two major project ideas that have not received funding but seem like very good ideas: one is to sort the trash they collect and turn it into compost which they would apply to crops and sell and the other is to have a center for women that have had early pregnancies and provide literacy and small business training so they can support their children.

Working with this more “advanced” cooperative compared to the village committees where only a few people could read and write is certainly be different and I will need to find how I can help though they seem to already have great ideas and practices. They said that soon I will go out with the dump trucks and see the trash collection in action (sadly, I’m excited about this) as well as visit the public latrines and their work outside of Bamako.


As for the PCV Leader position, I will be slowly incorporating those responsibilities as I adjust to Bamako and get to know operations at my cooperative. I will be providing support for the WATSAN sector and PC trainings as well as peer support to fellow volunteers.

Part of why I extended for a third year was to continue my research towards my PhD which I have three topics developed and have written draft reports: 1) Human and Embodied Energy in Shea Butter Production, 2) Hand washing Monitoring, and 3) Latrine Usage in schools. I will also be taking an online class in Biostatistics and going to Tampa for a week to defend my PhD proposal during my month leave in December.

Overall I am very excited for the work I will be doing. It has been a little difficult adjusting to living in Bamako. I was so focused on making sure all projects were closed and everything was prepared for my replacement that I didn’t really think of the next chapter in my service. This first week I have missed my village. Electricity and running water aren’t worth the constant “Toubab” (white/french person) chants from children and adults alike as well as people always speaking to me in broken french, traffic, people asking for money, and spending a lot of money myself. Sometimes I wish I had a shirt/sign on my head that said “I lived in a village for two years, I speak Bambara, and I have no money.” I know it is just because I miss my host family, work partner, and friends from village and I don’t have a host family in Bamako yet. As time goes on, it will get easier.

So I think that should catch everyone up on things and I now I should be able to update more often since I have more internet access. My third birthday in Mali is coming up (August 29th) and it’s hard to believe but I will be 25 (quarter of a century). My Aunts, grandma, and mom sent me two packages which I have been waiting to open until the “big” day. I also went to a smaller city outside of Bamako for a Harry Potter party and finally watched the last movie (so good!). There is another Colleen in PC Mali and it is her birthday on Tuesday so we shared a funfetti cake which was really nice 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The end of Risky Business (in Mali)

Lunar Eclipse
There was a lunar eclipse on the night of June 15th (sorry, those in America didn’t get to see it since it was still daylight) and I think it will be one of my most memorable nights in village. I heard about the eclipse several weeks ago but totally forgot until about 5PM that day at which point I got up and told my host father “kalo be datugu shuena” (tonight the moon will be covered since I didn’t know the word for eclipse). Accustomed to my primary school (or maybe at least 6th grade now) bambara, he understood. There is no word for eclipse in bambara but they refer to it as “jakuma ye kalo mine” or the cat took the moon.
They were in awe that I could predict such an event and sure enough we watched the moon closely that night. At first we didn’t think the moon had come out but realized it had already been eclipsed (the eclipse started at 5PM and the sun sets at 7PM). We were probably the only family to know there was an eclipse in my village but later the rest found out. Since they think the cat took the moon (cats are sort of regarded as “shubaka” or sorcerers here) the children in the village gather together and must make lots of noise or risk the cat never returning the moon. At least 50 children toured the village and sung a song about the cat stealing the moon while I explained how an eclipse “really” happens to an avid audience though I think I prefer their explanation.

Third Year

So it is finally official with my medical clearance, I will be staying another year in Mali. I will be changing sites from my village to the capital, Bamako and working with a women’s water and sanitation cooperative and serving as the PC Volunteer Leader (PCVL) for the Koulikoro region. In these last months in village I find myself really excited for the change and nostalgic. I know I am going to really miss my village however much Bamako is appealing for electricity, running water, and the food. The most challenging things for me in PC have not been related to lack of amenities which have become second nature after two years so while it is a comfort it isn’t a necessity. But at least I will have internet more to update my blog though I need to think of a way to reengage my previous audience…I think writing more often will be part of that.

Things I will miss about Zeala:

-Runs in the early mornings just around or to other villages to greet people
-Market days with my site mate eating bruchettes for lunch (my only meat for the week) and frozen juices (probably not that sanitary)
-Living with my host family that have been so easy going and gave me space during my service at the same time supporting me especially in those early stages with basically no language skills
-Drinking tea and chatting for hours with my homologue. He has really become a close friend.
-My language tutor and the director of my school. We also have long conversations about Mali, politics, education, etc.
-Rainy days in my mudd hut reading or just watching the storm from my window
-Nights during cold season spent by the “camp” fire
-Cutting okra, shelling peanuts or beans, etc. for hours

COS Conference
June 22-24 what was left of the Risky Business training stage met at Hotel Residence Bouna for our Close of Service Conference. Though the hotel didn’t have a pool, very warm food, or water pressure it still felt like luxury with air conditioned rooms, meat at every meal, and two pause cafĂ©’s a day (tea and pain du chocolat!). The hotel aside, I really enjoyed the time to spend with people from my training class whether I spent a lot of time with in my service or not still had a deep connection because of our two years of service together. It was a little sad that it was our last time to probably all be together in a group. We had sessions on resume writing, interviewing, applying to grad school, life after Peace Corps, etc. Though these sessions didn’t necessarily apply to me since I will officially be spending a third year in Bamako and I have at least two years ahead of me in grad school when I return to the states to get my doctorate it still was an excuse to update my resume and get motivated for my future. We heard from an impressive panel of RPCVs (Returned PCVs) who have basically never stopped working abroad since then. I asked them how they made the decision to continue to work internationally since I still haven’t really decided on that one but I guess it is not such a black and white decision.
It is hard to believe that my two years of service is over so I am glad to be pursuing another year here since I’m just not quite ready to leave.
At the end of the conference we had a prom which included a flash dance and the announcement of prom king and queens (there was a tie for queen at which point we did a dance off but decided since we were in Mali it was appropriate for the prom king to be polygamist). Though I do have an extra year left it is going to be difficult without my fellow Risky Businessers to share it with.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Finally, A Post!

So, once again, it has been a long time since I have written and I apologize. Things have been really busy with the project that many of you helped make possible. The only things left of the project are one soakpit, 4 latrines, and mosquito net distribution. Though we are not quite on schedule, much has been accomplished in the past several months: the pump structure was destroyed and built anew, a pump training was held with five people from my village and two from a neighboring village, 15 soak pits and 6 latrines were built, and, most recently, 81 mosquito nets were purchased.

Overall this project has been a valuable learning experience for my village and I; bigger than we anticipated. My village and the WATSAN committee worked extremely hard throughout this project but, ofcourse, “fien tunbe yoro dow la” (there was wind in some places). So I guess I can break it up into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good
-All the cement arrived on time and under budget
-All the village showed up to pick up good quality sand we purchased in a nearby village about 6 miles away. About 20 donkey carts made 4 trips in two days to collect over 200 wheel barrows of sand. It was a long way and a heavy load. PETA may have something to say about using pregnant donkeys…
-The soak pits have been a big hit and relatively easy. People have noticed a difference and constantly remark in the amount of mosquitoes.
-Most everyone on the WATSAN committee shows up each week for 2-3hour meetings on project updates and makes plans for moving forward.
-Everything was basically on schedule except for the latrines
-I learned a lot from the pump repair training held by a person from Zeala that had worked for the National Hydraulic Agency.

The Bad
-Getting ripped off: Shipping the pipe and rebar was about $30, way overpriced…This resulted in me throwing a hissy fit at the car station which resulted in only $1 off. When my homologue and I arrived to buy the sand the guy we originally talked to said he can’t sell it by the wheel barrow and we have to pay for a big silo which we did not budget for. We then went to the guy next to him and convinced him to give us the original deal.
-Groups were not coordinated properly for when the mason was in village to rebuild the pump structure so few people showed up to work after the first three days except for one family. I would often be doing hard labor and when the women also didn’t show up for watering the concrete, I would make many trips to the well myself. This resulted in work stretching 6 extra days outside the budget and me being very discouraged. This was a very difficult time for me but I made my disappointment very clear to the village elders and committee so that this does not happen with the next volunteer.
-Pump rules were created and read at a meeting with the elders with things such as not wearing sandals inside the pump structure, not jumping to pump water and breaking parts, not eating inside the pump walls, not giving animals water right next to the pump so that they urinate and defecate in the area, etc. In the beginning this seemed to all fall on deaf ears and people continued with their old practices though they would shout my name when I came to the pump and quickly take off their sandals and stop jumping…This was very frustrating since the pump was repaired like new and I guess I expected a rapid behavior change. I worked with the committee and we continued to reiterate the rules at village meetings and members would watch the pump more closely to educate villagers. Lesson learned: Behavior change is difficult and can not change over night.

The Ugly
-The mason I was given by Peace Corps to repair the pump structure was illiterate and not very skilled outside of building walls. Thus, not everything turned out like the plan I drew, some things aren’t very level, and places do not drain properly. However, it works…so far. We’ll see in several years but the proper cement mix ratios were used so that concrete should last for a long time!
-We found during the pump repair training that the neighboring village’s pump both did not have a plastic lining so would bring up dirt from inside the forage and that the major pump piece replaced by a project last year was a old piece (the new one was probably sold and the Malians working on the project probably pocketed the money). I ended up applying for $500 from Water Charity to replace the pump part but, really, the village needs a new pump. Without the plastic lining, the water is not up to quality and the mud gets into the pump parts and breaks them early. It was really upsetting to see the corruption in projects in Mali especially having to do with something so essential to life, water.
Here is a link the project if you would like to donate: http://appropriateprojects.com/node/631

It is important to note, and something made really evident to me through this project, that other projects/NGOs have created a dependence in villages that they will do and provide everything making community contribution and labor difficult to coordinate. I thought a lot about this during the project and whether community contribution will lead to project sustainability or not. Really, these are services the government should be providing anyways. Though they may be working to give equivalent to 33%/25% of the project total, a project is a project and it is still a discount. That does not automatically ensure future community buy in and maintenance. However, as Malians say “little by little, the bird builds its nest.”

I’ve been working with the officers of the shea association to plan for a training on how to make soap in September and to purchase a grinding machine for shea nuts to alleviate the work of pounding or traveling to the next village to use their machine. There is a machine in village but it is constantly breaking down and has management issues, including people stealing money. We plan to provide intense training on machine operation and maintenance. They have already cleared a field to farm in rainy season so they can get extra money for their association.

I’m still continuing to work with the food security committee in my village. Meetings are basically every two weeks with everything else that is going on. We have been working on a comprehensive, food security plan to improve the situation in my village. Basically July-September families run out of grain from last harvest and have to buy it at expensive prices on credit. They also have begun clearing land for a community farm and hope to store their harvest in a cereal bank next year so they can provide grain to those that run out during the difficult months.


So I have not said much on the progress of the Women’s garden project that I started last year. We’ve encountered many setbacks with finding dependable well diggers (we are now on our fifth and he stills asks for money all the time though we have not reached water yet). The rock inside the wells is very difficult to dig. We have decided to put all our money into just trying to get water when the rest was supposed to pay for concrete well tops and seeds. The time is ticking down until rainy season and when the project really needs to be closed. I’m crossing my fingers and saying many blessings in Bambara. I will let you know what becomes of the current fenced in area with two, 10 meter deep holes in the ground.
Overall, this project has been very wearisome for me and the women who have put in many hours of labor pulling dirt for the well diggers. Some of the previous well diggers that just stopped showing up or basically lied about money they were “spending” for digging materials were even from my village. Project money here is often seen as a free for all or never-ending which makes Malians ask for more than what they would work for for another Malian by factors of 2-100 and change their price half way through working. A lot of times I think of America’s tax dollars or the donations from hardworking people to help those less fortunate and how that money is regarded. This is not an obligation for other countries and they work for the money as well. Then I just think of the women in the association and the work they have put in above their contribution and know why it is worth it.

On a happier note, as some of you may know, this year is the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps and 40th Anniversary of PC in Mali. The major celebration we had was that the swear in of this years stage was at the president’s residence. He gave a very encouraging speech about PC even stating that if he was an American he would be a PCV. It was great to get the chance to meet an African president (a democratic one…at least for now. Election in 2012) . The security was sure a lot different from what it would be for Obama. We didn’t even have to do a security check and afterwards the president, Amadou Toubmani Traore (ATT) walked amongst the PCVs and staff as we mobbed him for pictures. He provided tasty treats, pop, and dessert! I , unfortunately, wasn’t lucky enough to get a picture with ATT.
It is interesting thinking back to how service in the PC was in the beginning compared to now; without cell phones or internet. Though I sometimes feel very disconnected from America and my family and friends at least my correspondence with them can be online every 3 weeks instead of writing a letter and waiting over a month to two months for it to get there and then get a response.

It is hard to believe that in two months I will have been in Mali for two years. So much is different and easier from when I arrived, not least of all language. So much is easier but as you may have read from above, there are many challenges. Already at meetings we are planning for when I won’t be here and mentioning “the next volunteer” and how I’m “taa tow” or on my way out. The time really went by fast and it is going to be really difficult to leave. I will provide you more updates on my plans for next year soon.

Thanks for reading if you got this far! I apologize if I may have seemed negative towards the project and development in Mali in general. This does not mean I think my time here or the project has been a waste or that aid should be ceased. At times I catch myself noticing the sanitation differences in my village and it really gives me a sense of fulfillment but I find as an American or just me it is easy to spot the imperfections/faults.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An be ka baarake (We are working)

So things are going well with the Zeala WATSAN improvement project and so many of you helped make possible. 5/15 Soak pits are mostly complete, we have started one latrine, all materials have reached Zeala (which is not easy or cheap), and we have made the bricks for the pump. We are behind schedule with the soak pits and latrines but on time for the pump. We hope to get a mason in the next two weeks to fix up the pump structure. I've really been enjoying site and have gotten back into the grove. Everything is moving so fast!

Here is a link to some pictures I posted on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2900244&id=13705312&l=2283fb1bb6

Hope to post more later!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ne taara, Ne nana ( I Left and I'm Back)

So, it has been ages with a formal update. I swear it is on my New years Resolutions...Need to get on that. I was writing a paper for my research, I swear.

This will be a quick update but I just got back from being home in Royal Oak, MI for three weeks minus the two days I was stuck in Paris due to weather and cancellations. Though when I finally got in my family was dressed in christmas hats and gave me balloons, flowers, and hugs. It was amazing to be back with Family and America is amazing. I gained 12 pounds and the time flew; most of it was spent eating. It was a white Christmas and I helped decorate my Mom's tree with snowflakes and listen to Christmas music. I was truly in the Holiday spirit. I went to Wings and College Hockey games, Outback twice, hot tub night once, Frankenmuth, and more. My first meal was nachos and a vanilla milk shake :) Though I talk mostly about food it was about being back with family, catching up, and really just picking up where we left off.

It all feels like a different world now and it is not easy coming back. I know once I get back it will be great to see everyone in my village again, go running in the mornings and start work on projects and such but part of me still is back home and I seemed to have left more when I went back. Sometimes I wonder why I am here with the family and life I have at home. It would certainly be easier and make more sense. On the car ride to the airport they all said to thank my Malian host family for welcoming me and keeping me safe, and it really meant a lot that they are willing to support and even be proud of my crazy ways. I feel bad for not shedding tears of joy coming back, or tears of sadness leaving to go back, but it didn't mean those times were any less emotional but I am crying now and miss you all.

Before I even got home my project was completely funded which was the best Christmas present I could have ever asked for and I think all of you that donated to the cause. You all were extremely generous to those in need at the Holiday season. Hopefully PC will be sending me your addresses sometime soon so that I can write proper thank yous. Send me your name and address to ccnaughton@gmail.com and it will get there quicker. I will certainly post updates on how the project goes. I'm sure it will not be without delays or frustrations but will be of great benefit to the people of Zeala. Some have even started getting their parts of the community contribution while I was away.

Otherwise, I had fun with building handwashing stations with people in my village, celebrating Tabaski again, teaching english to a group of 32 once a week, painting a world map with fellow volunteers, conducting a baseline survey in the next village, organizing and running the IST Half-Marthon and more. More updates on those in the next update which will hopefully be before Valentines Day.

Thanks again for all your kind support, donations, e-mails, letters, prayers, etc. I could not do this without my friends, family, and friends and family of friends. If ever you find yourself in Mali, you are all welcome. Aw Bismillah!