Tag Archives: Host Family

And Thus Begins Chapter 3: Mali

29 Nov

So, I have attempted now on 4 separate occasions to start this post, but each time it has failed. This experience is not conducive to my prior writing style, so instead of doing this like I had in Morocco and France, I intend to keep a journal while here, and then edit parts into blog posts for all you wonderful people who still have regular internet access and modern amenities.

1 month in and only at blog post #1. It’s funny how a lack of modern amenities can make a pastime start to seem more like a chore. Step 1: Write in journal. Step 2: Find “reliable” internet. Step 3: Read Journal. Step 4: Write blog post in my increasingly deteriorating English while I continue to lament the fact that I can’t understand the Bambara of anyone in my host community.

As you can see, what started as a cathartic activity in Morocco has shifted into a category closer to work. But, at the same time I have to keep reminding myself that sharing these experiences with those I care about most was the true underlying desire to start this off in the first place.

So, anyway, about this “Mali” place…

Today it finally hit me that I was here. Yes, I know I have been in country for just under a month, and now, today, I finally mentally arrived. I say this because during the last few weeks I felt as though I have been in a dream, floating through my life as I know it, but expecting at any point to wake up and realize that I hadn’t yet begun the journey. I could process and retain information, but my mind had not come to the realization that the environment with which I was interacting was not just a product of itself (Please take that last statement at face value, this is not the place for further philosophical discourse).

Today, however, was unique. I used my broken Bambara to explain to my host father last night that I wished to spend my day off from school working in the fields with him (working: watching him work, making tea and performing simple tasks once every 45 minutes). We departed this morning, and as I made tea under a tree and learned how to irrigate a field using a pump and a well, something came over me, and stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly my brain had reengaged with my body and I realized that “I am actually in Mali, in the Peace Corps, learning how to irrigate a field.” It took a month, but I think I am officially here.

Now to recount the events of my 29 day dream…

The breakdown of the past month goes something like this: 1 week orientation, 3 weeks of homestay/language training. Nothing of any noteworthiness occurred during my first week here, other than the stark realization of everything that I was going to miss most about the life I left behind in the states, and the ensuing struggle to accept this new and drastically different lifestyle.

Highlights:

–  I now have a beard and am debating how far I will attempt to take it.

–  My bathroom is now a roofless brick enclosure with a cement hole in the ground.

–  I officially hate any and all donkeys on sheer principle (due to their 4 am, well, really all day howls that sound as though they are in immense amounts of pain).

Looking back through my journal, I get the feeling that I didn’t arrive here mentally until today due to a processing backlog. When so much changes so rapidly you fail to process quickly enough to keep up, and in the process revert to your college years: more work then you have the time for, so everything gets done later than anticipated.

Now, on to something you really want to hear about: food.

I’ve been relatively pleased with the food here, considering that as a non-tourist I don’t have a whole lot of say over my food choices, and my food options tend to be limited in a small village. Most mornings begin with a piece of bread (I’m relatively sure nothing other than baguettes exist in this country) filled with fried or boiled eggs, and sometimes peanut butter. They use about a quart of oil in everything they fry and every sauce they make, making my use of olive oil at home seem sparing, and also makes the fried eggs just a touch bit gross at times.

Lunch is usually rice or pasta with a peanut or tomato-based sauce and random pieces of gristle, bone and meat I assume were at one point an animal. It’s a decent set up, but starch seems to be an overwhelming dietary staple here. Dinner doesn’t tend to differ much from lunch with only the substitution of potatoes, sweet potatoes (looks just like a regular potato but has a sweeter flavor, and they are awesome) and the occasional yam. Fried plantains and onions add a little color every once and while as well.

Anything that is legitimately cold here tends to be a relatively hot commodity (pun unintended). Refrigeration is hard to come by, so a cold soda is a wonderful thing to stumble across when in larger towns. The options are relatively limited (Coke products and more local brands tend to dominate), but a cold soda is a nice luxury to indulge in from time to time.

Diversity of food here is very much dictated by the seasons and regions, but this place is much more green than I think most people give it credit for, writing it off as a giant chunk of desert with no real diversity in diet. Although the north is more arid, it’s not quite what many people assume: Mangoes and Watermelons are dirt cheap and all over during the correct season and vegetable gardens are quite common. Even more diversity exists in fruits and veggies, but I honestly am not well versed enough to speak on this issue, though I will be sure to address it in later posts in much more detail.

Speaking of misconceptions, let me dispel a couple other ones that were flung my way during the months I was preparing to make my move here:

All Malians are poor, and therefore they are all going to want to steal my nice stuff

Mali is amongst the ten poorest nations in the world. Food security is a major issue even though most of the economy is based in subsistence agriculture. And, on top of all of that, a less than stellar rainy season prior to our arrival has hurt crop yields significantly that are going to need to sustain Mali until next year. So yes, I do witness extreme poverty, and extreme poverty does tend to lead to increased crime rate.

BUT

I have been living in a small village within Mali with my things under lock and key, but at no point in my stay thus far have I legitimately feared that any of my personal belongings were in danger. Many people may be poor here, but communities are communities. If you live in a community of 2,000 people, everyone knows everything about everything, and immoral acts don’t fly. Socioeconomic disparity does not essentially dictate theft, and vigilance in any situation is an effective deterrent.  So no, I can safely say that I don’t feel as though any of my personal belongings will be stolen if I follow the same safety precautions I did in Morocco.

Africa time is real, therefore Africans are lazy which is obviously why they are suffering

Yes, Africa time does exist, it is not a myth.

BUT

I live with a host father who looks like he is easily 70 (though he probably is younger), and every day he leaves for the fields at 8 am, comes back for lunch before leaving for the rest of the evening. And when I mean every day, I mean every day. Monday through Sunday. And after seeing him teach me how to irrigate a field, I can say without a doubt that he does not just drink tea out in those fields, he does back-breaking work that would make me desperately need a chiropractor. As far as I’m concerned there is much more to this story than blatant generalizations, and although this place runs on its own time, there is much more to it than meets the textbook. Although, since I am working in Small Enterprise Development, I’m sure I will spend time discussing this issue in the future.

The all being said…

I get the feeling from the volunteers here I have met that this experience is going to be a difficult and humbling one, and worth every moment. This makes moving out of you comfort zone in a study abroad seem like child’s play.

Until next time…

(K’an b’en)

See you later

Addendum 11/29/11: My first experience with Malian soccer ended in a small flesh wound. Soccer in Mali is a full contact sport, something I will most definitely keep such things in mind in the future. I’m quite fine and healthy, but something to keep in mind during future games.

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Culture Shock

20 Jan

I’ve decided over many hours lost in thought that the best way to approach this blog will be to write about my personal experience here, and the wide range of emotions, situations and observations I make while I am here. I want to provide for you a firsthand account of what living in North Africa is like. I could bore you with musings about Gender Theory, and Islamic History, but I think my time would be much better spent describing my journey through the emotional roller coaster of true “culture shock.”

I’m attempting to type this entire monologue out on a computer with a European keyboard, with Arabic characters dominating any extra space on the keys. What I find humorous, is that this is the easy part of the day. I’m not sure, however, what I expected. Throw a white middle class kid from Upstate New York with next to no travel experience into the “third world” with feeble (at best) language skills, and chances are “easy transition” are not the words that are going to come to mind.

Culture shock.

It’s a term many of us have become familiar with at one point in our life. Whether it’s our move to college, our move with our family to a new city, new environment, new school, or even our first apartment, all of us feel this phenomenon at one point or another, and, depending upon how set we are in our ways, it can range from simple to the most challenging ordeal of your life. I myself have felt this emotion now three times in my life. When I first left for SUNY Geneseo, when a transferred to Boston University, and right now, as I struggle with my European keyboard and French prompts. I know the feeling all too well now. The homesickness, the loneliness, the sinking feeling and sheer helplessness that can accompany it, especially when you realize you’ve only just begun. I won’t lie, I loathe the feeling, but like all times past I will emerge from the other side of this struggle stronger, wiser, and confident in my decision. The new friends and the swell of emotion when you make your return home can be the most amazing and rewarding feeling of all.

Again, nothing truly worth having is ever easy.

The challenges of Morocco, however, pale in comparison to any I have experienced before. No longer am I just trying to make new friends and adapt to a new academic environment. In Morocco I am trying to do that, while at the same time learning to use a partial Turkish toilet, showers with direct heat that are only to be used every few days, utilize a printing situation that, yes, is even worse than BU, all while living with a family I can barely communicate with in a city I don’t know. I feel as if I have reverted to the age of 3, gesturing and using the few words I know to convey my points, and only grasping 10% of conversations. My French has come in handy, but I often struggle to find the words, or meanings I need. I understand that I have just painted a picture of a frightening world, a hostile world that one of sound mind would avoid, but this is only half the story. Although life here is far from easy, it is not bad.

I wake up every morning to my 14 year old host brother using the computer, finding it impossible to not just smile when I see his expressions. I eat breakfast lunch and dinner without utensils, and usually from one plate. As I eat, I am surrounded by lively conversation that breaks into French from Darija randomly, as I try to recognize one more word than I did the day before. My right three fingers on my right hand remain perpetually yellow from the saffron in so many of the dishes. The local Berber population may make this “the fake Arab world,” but this is still very much the Muslim world. 5 Times a day the low roar of the call to prayer reminds me of where I am, acting as a constant reminder of my location. Daily interactions with people who cheer on my feeble attempts at Arabic, or roll their eyes at my feeble French make every conversation an interesting one, and the beggars and drug dealers just round out the pack. I never know what to expect on my walks, and being one of 20 white people in a 3 mile radius of my house, it’s always funny to see someone like me on the streets of the Medina. Somewhere between watching Oprah with my host mom and speaking to her in broken French, playing games with my host brother in broken Darija/French/English, and smiling to my host grandmother and not understanding more than 5 words she says, I begin to think that I will one day be at home in this Medina, and will hope to one day return and show others everything I have learned.

As you may be able to tell from this post, the sheer mass of this past week or so was overwhelming, and I have yet to wrap my head around it. I could already write a chapter of a book on all of the events of this past week, and I know I have only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. I will follow up this post with one on some of the more interesting stories I have experienced so far, but if there is one thing I could say to sum up my experience so far, it’s this: Words only scrape the surface of an experience like this, and only after experiencing it yourself, can you fully grasp the breadth, rewards, and struggles the experience brings. And, if I were to make a prediction, it’ll be worth every second, good and bad.

Maasalama (Goodbye)