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).  

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