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

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.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

36 Bracelets, 36 Life Lessons

On September 6th, I put on my 36th bracelet signifying my 36th month in Mali, West Africa. It was common place amongst many female Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali to add a bracelet each month of their service. Though PCVs were evacuated from Mali following the Coup d’Etat in March, I returned to Mali to finish my research and continued the bracelet tradition. 

Serving in Mali has taught and reinforced many life lessons for me. I thought it prudent to write at least one down for each month I have spent in Mali. The lessons may not exactly correspond to the month and some lessons were learned over several months or years. 

First Year

1. Poverty has many levels.
2. Somethings just don’t translate.
3. Patience is a virtue.
4. Doni Doni (Literally small, small in Bambara or little by little. A commonly known proverb is "little by little, the bird builds its nest)
5. Three cups of tea, or more like three thousand…
6. Being full is a wonderful feeling.
7. You can live on very little and still be happy.
8. Small, slow, simple.
9. Development isn’t easy.
10. Practice what you preach.
11. Walk a mile in their shoes.
12. I’m proud and lucky to be an American.

Second Year

13. It is amazing what you can learn in a year.
14. Mmm…Mayonnaise is delicious.
15. Kalan nafa ka bon (Education is very important).
16. Things can always get worse.
17. Take things one at a time.
18. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver).
19. Bee ani I ka baara ye (Everyone and their own work).
20. We all make mistakes. It is what you learn from them that matters.
21. Kuruni menna ji o ji la, a te ke baama ye. (No matter how long a canoe stays in water, it will not become a crocodile)  
22. An bee ye Adama den ye (We all are Adam's children)
23. Baara ye timinaja ye. (Work is/is about/requires courage)
24. Behavior change is hard/ near impossible.

Third Year
25. Appreciate what you have in life, and stop focusing on what you don’t have.
26. Diyen ye sogomada caman ye (Life has many mornings)
27. Monitoring and evaluation is essential to project continuation and success.
28. Shit happens
29. Learning a new language is a process that you can’t do in a day or even a year.
30. The importance of family
31. Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.
32. Seli diarra, an kenema y’a ke.(The holiday was good, we were healthy)
33. Bambara proverb version of “you can lead a horse to water”: You can put the chicken in the coop, but you can’t make it turn around.
34. Look up at the sky once in a while, it is pretty amazing.  
35. N’shallah (God willing)
36. I bora I ka so, I nana I ka so (You left your home, you come to your home)