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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Half way there...

So I have been back in Mali a little over a month now. Wow, the time is going by fast! Now I only have a month left in village and a few days in Bamako. I am sure that will go even faster. Things have been going really well after an initial adjustment to the food and climate. I think it takes me longer to adjust as I get older. Had an incident where I almost fainted in the market and spent that night in the fetal position in my bug hut thinking I had Malaria though I took my malaria medicine that night and started on an anti-diarrheal that the USF travel nurse luckily convinced me to fill before I left and I was fine within a few days.

The first two weeks I was really busy with evaluating the literacy project that African Sky has been funding in my village. I arrived earlier this year so I was able to see the literacy teacher, Elizabeth, in action which was great. I wish I could be there for the full 5 months since there is still some Bambara I have yet to learn and I mix a lot of the French and Bambara spellings. I evaluated each of the 35 students and was really proud of a lot of their progress. Several of the girls where relatively younger (early teens) who had never went to school since their father’s wouldn’t let them and had made a lot of progress in just one year.

Though ofcourse there were a few students even after two years that still could not write the entire alphabet by memory and that was frustrating but then I had to remind myself that these women that are over 30 years old and never have set foot in a classroom cannot learn what we did in Kindergarten in two 5 months stints separated by 7 months, 3 days a week. They even have to be taught how to open and write in a notebook and how to hold a pen. The fact that they can still write even 10 letters of the alphabet, their names, and numbers and read a few words is a lot. It just goes to show that literacy training takes years of work just like primary school so I am very happy that African Sky is continually funding this project and we are looking to build a literacy center for the next, 2015 school year that will start in January.

We had a big celebration at the end where those that passed the test to be able to write and read the alphabet, their name, and numbers received fabric and we all showed up in matching outfits to talk about the importance of literacy, dance, and eat and dance some more. It is really a great motivator for the students and helps attract new students for the next year.

During those first few weeks and up until now I have been busy conducting ethnographic interviews on Shea butter and its importance to the women here, their families, and in local traditions. These are usually 4 one hour sessions with each woman where I spend about 10 hours transcribing each interview. I have been learning a lot about the importance of Shea butter and also how much women contribute to the household.
Just this past week, the Shea harvest has begun and I have went out to collect nuts. I hope to make some of my own butter again to bring back to the states. I’ve been taking a lot of pictures and videos with my new Fujifilm 100xs.

So the plan from now on is to collect and transcribe as many ethnographic interviews as I can before I leave. I will still weigh shea nuts, firewood, and butter as before to calculate the amount of firewood needed in the process and the butter yield. I’ve already taken a sample of the waste water from extracting the butter to be analyzed to see about its’ use as a fertilizer. As well as plan for the literacy center construction. So enough to keep me pretty busy but it is still a bit more of a relaxed pace here than when school is in session at Tampa.
I’ve been able to get a lot of reading done (finished the Hunger Games series) which has been really nice. I love reading books and most of graduate school has consisted of reading scientific journal articles which can be exciting but it isn’t the same as a book you can’t put down for hours on end and that leaves you with a sort of reading “hang over”/depression since the series is over and there is no more. I usually read in the evening before bed.


I’ve been sticking to my running plan and had a good 8 mile run this morning. It was a taper week after an 11 mile long run the week before. I run about 4 times a week and bike twice a week to the markets. I’ve been keeping up with the physical therapy exercises and only have minor soreness in my hip every once in a while ::crosses fingers:: Thus, I decided to register for the Detroit Free Press marathon in mid-October. Next week is a 13 mile run and I hope to add a speed work out so hopefully the hip will hold up. I already have my sights set on an Olympic triathlon at the end of September but we will take it dooni dooni (Bambara little by little) for now. I am running mid to lower 9 minute pace so not as fast as before but it has been great to be able to run again after those 5 months of torture where I didn’t know if I would be able to run again.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

I ni faama. First post after over two years...

I ni faama blog! It has been a long time, almost two years since an update. I was hoping to have my formal website and blog up before I left for Mali though journal submissions, moving, and visiting family in Michigan before I left sort of postponed that a little. I am back in Mali for about 10 weeks (arrived June 3rd, leave August 6th) for more research and also continuing work with African Sky. It is great to be back. It always feels like not that much time has passed (I was last in Mali June 18th-August 2013) though there are usually more babies and some new buildings.

So far security wise, Mali seems about the same or better despite continuing tensions in the North of which there have been more Peace talks recently in neighboring African countries. The Malians themselves seem more confident and set that Mali should not be divided (look how well that worked for Sudan...). When I arrived at the airport, there were two new additions: heat scanner and finger print machines as well as a few French troops. There are some areas blocked off by either the UN or French military in Bamako that were not before.

Good news though is that I visited the Peace Corps office today and they are accepting applications for Peace Corps Response Volunteers for the Sikasso region starting as early as this September!! Since we were evacuated in April 2012, there have not been any new volunteers and many of the staff had to be let go at the PC office. A 41 year old program, shut down in a matter of weeks. However, this is a good sign and may even mean full, new two-year volunteers could return next year!

I have really enjoyed reconnecting with the women from the Water and Sanitation cooperative I worked with in Bamako, COFESFA. They are an amazing group of women that founded their own cooperative after graduating from University and not being able to find jobs. Hoping I can finish the work I started on their compost project sometime after the PhD.

It will be nice to get back to village, see everyone, give them pictures (particularly the professional ones from www.lylehansen.com), and start on research (as well as get away from French soap operas that are always on televisions here). However, going back to village won't quite be the same as my close work partner and friend, Jean-Claude, passed away last year suddenly from pancreatic cancer and the village chief also died. Though I was there for Jean-Claude's funeral, it will truly set in when I return. I also recently heard that my host father's wife, Jeneba, has become blind from some sort of disease. She acted as my mother throughout my two year service particularly in those first 3 months and year where she taught me how to wash clothes, fetch water, garden, farm, etc. This is very sad news but I hope there may be some way she can get treatment in Bamako. Unfortunately, this is the reality of life (and death) in Mali. Last year, I remember giving my close friend, Alima, a picture of her and the daughter she named after me. She quickly turned the photo over, and averted her eyes, she said that she had died.

Though, not to be too sad, the wives of the Zeala school director and one of my close friends in market both had babies and I bought them some baby clothes from the states that I hope they appreciate. It is hard to judge what size to get since I'm sure the 3-6 month sizes of American babies are much larger than those for Malian children.

So what exactly will I be working on research wise? I plan to complete collecting ethnographic interviews (2 hour, detailed interviews with different types of questions) about the importance of Shea butter to women and their families in Mali. Shea butter is a process primarily controlled by women in Mali and the profits usually go directly to food, clothes, and school fees for their children. After taking a few anthropology courses, I'm trying to use these more qualitative methods to add to the other parts of my research that are more quantitative (mapping the Shea butter belt across sub-Saharan Africa and calculating the production potential, weighing nuts and fire wood to determine Greenhouse Gas emissions from the Shea butter process, and an overall life cycle analyses of the Shea butter process for the human and material energy). I also
hope to collect some samples of Shea wastewater for analysis. Yes, that is all a mouth full. Hoping to finish with my PhD in Civil Engineering by the end of 2015 (n'shallah).

As the Assistant Director to African Sky I will also be evaluating the literacy project there, now in its' second year. We will also have a celebration for the women for their hard work over the last 5 months, learning to read and write in the local language. We are hoping to build a literacy/community center in Zeala so that the women will not be exposed to the heat and dust as much under a hangar during the hot season. So, the executive director, Scott Lacy (who will also be visiting Mali this summer), and I will be trying to get this project started and maybe even making some bricks while I am still in country.I hope to be updating twitter, facebook, and this blog while I am at site since I had an electrician friend help me purchase a solar panel set up that I can hopefully charge my computer with... Good thing I brought the one that is mostly dying anyways if it doesn't work (everything is backed up).

Wow, that is a lot more than I anticipated writing. I am leaving in less than 6 hours to get the early transport to village. I always get overly excited and nervous before going back to Mali and then to village. Thus, I don't get that much sleep and I also trying to get in all the internet and electricity before I leave...

I also am easing back into running while in Mali after my five month injury since my half iron race in Key West January 24th. After much physical therapy, and having dye injected in my hip and an MRI, I was diagnosed with a labral tear in my right hip (a tear of the cartilidge in my hip joint/socket). Usually the only way to treat this is through surgery since there is not enough blood flow to the area for it to repair itself. They said I had a thin enough tear (1-2mm thick but 7 mm long) that the doctor did not recommend surgery which may do more harm than good. This tear was most likely caused by biking with aero bars though running aggravates it too. I may have damaged it a long time ago with a fall as well.

I went back to the physical therapist after this diagnosis to get new exercises for the injury and we're hoping to strengthen the muscles in the area so as to hold the hip joint in place. It has been a very slow recovery. But I have gotten back to running over 6 miles with shorter and shorter recovery times afterwards. So I am hoping to build slowly and get back into distance running...::crosses fingers:: Unfortunately, there is no ice readily available so I really need to be careful not to aggravate it. I am also taking a number of natural supplements to help specifically with this type of injury in addition to a daily vitamin. I have ibruprofen as well.

Well that should cover it for now. I also have a nice, new camera. Sorry no pictures yet but the internet is very slow... May need to wait for my return, though it would help to break up this block of text. Thank you all for reading and your support!