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 