Tag Archives: Mali

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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