Friday, December 10, 2010


I realize that I didn't clarify. The reason I'll have access more regularly is because there are internet cafes in San, which is either a 1 hour drive, or a 3 hour bike ride from my site.

Before leaving my site, I finally felt comfortable with the community. Before language IST, I did not feel integrated and that bothered me, but after another 2 weeks, I realized that the community did understand what I wanted to do and why I was there. I can't say that I was fully integrated, but my days were packed with meeting with people, chatting, and making time for cooking. Whereas at the beginning I felt overwhelmed with boredom and felt slight animosity from certain people, particularly kids who wanted (and didn't receive) gifts, I felt a lot more at home and it was very nice to be back. I had begun to eat a lot more with Ede Haidara (the man who I adopted as my host dad) and his family who accepted me as their son, and having adopted a dog, I felt really comfortable. I did unfortunately have to leave the dog back in Nioro, and I'm sad to say that less than a week ago I got a phone call saying he had died after eating something weird.
The kids were much more agreeable when they realized that I was there to stay and that I really did want to work with them. Actually, they began helping me out with things. One time there was a kid who stole a pen after coming over for tutoring, and the other kids saw him using it in class, so they stole the pen back and gave it to me the next day.
Actually, one day two girls came up to me and told me there was a guy who wanted to break in an steal some of my stuff (this was when I had first gotten to Nioro). So, rather than get scared, I decided to diffuse the situation. I asked them the name of the man who wanted to break in, his name was LK. I asked them where he lived and if they could take me there. I followed them to his house and began chatting with him and his siblings and his aunt. After a couple hours of chatting about nothing in particular, I told him I had to go. So he walked me back to my house and insisted that I was his great friend and that we had to chat more often. From then on, he was very happy to see me and never tried to break in.

The work I was doing in Nioro:
My primary work was integrating into the community and improving my Bambara. But every day I went to the CAP (an organization established for helping the schools with organization) and hung out for a bit. There I found a French version of the Koran, so I started reading that. Otherwise, occasionally I would go to a school or two and chat with the director. One of the schools, I was working with to help them enclose the school and I was planning on painting a world map. Monday-Friday I was having kids over for tutoring, and Saturdays I had English teachers come over in order to form an "English Club for Teachers" to improve teacher solidarity and English pronounciation. Interestingly, the teachers in Nioro were not very close and were actually competing against one another. Malians love demonstrating their knowledge, and if they can speak English, they do so in order to show other Malians that they are more educated. So teachers do not have the same friendships as in the States. We were working on pronounciation because Malians have never learned English from an English speaker, and so their pronounciation is terrible because the teachers they learned from didn't have the knowledge to teach them properly.
I had also found an organization called the Association for the Sustainable Development of Niorodu Sahel, which was an incredible find! I was super excited to find them because this was exactly what I was trying to do. It was also run by the richest and most involved citizens of Nioro and so they were willing to spend a little more to create change. One of the things they wanted to do was become sustainable as an organization. This is extremely important, because it's very difficult to continue funding something when you don't see results yourself, and it is frustrating and unreliable to constantly ask NGOs and external organizations for funding. Therefore, I was very supportive of this. But what they wanted to do was start a modern restaurant, which is a really good idea since there are no restaurants in Nioro, but I tried pointing out to them that restaurants are very risky and it would take a long time before they began to see a profit. Although it will help, they should start with something smaller. So I met with some of them individually to propose a hookah cafe. I figured this would be a good idea because it incorporates everything that Malians already do, and add a certain degree of novelty. Malians already, 1) sit around not doing much, 2) chat, 3) smoke... a lot, and 4) drink tea... even more than smoking, and 5) I had been talking to a lot of young people, and they were complaining that they did not have a location where they could go to hang out. Hookahs are significantly less expensive, more easily maintained, and there aren't any in Nioro, but I have seen some in Bamako. The demand is there, and the novelty of hookahs would attract the young crowd. So I thought this could be a cool enterprise that I could guide them through and try to develop to support this group. Not sure yet if they followed through, but I really hope that they don't give up on it because I'm not there anymore. There was also a member of the organization who wanted to start a fish farm, which is an excellent idea because there aren't any rivers around and so fish is very hard to come by if it isn't dry, and even then, it's very expensive.
Another guy I met was extremely enthusiastic about 2 things: planting trees, and building sink pits. Sink pits are holes that has certain stones in them that help absorb water that drains out of the nyegens (bathrooms), which cuts down on standing water (reducing the mosquito population and the transmition of malaria) and human excrement in the streets (usually nyegens drain out of the house and into the streets). He is currently applying for a PCV but I was really looking forward to working with him. I was also trying to get him and a school director together to plant trees in the school yard because the school doesn't have any shade and all the trees the school director tries to plant get eaten by the animals since the school isn't surrounded.
Please understand that the amount of work I was doing or had planned is very unusual, and none of it had come to fruition. My ability to speak French was the reason I was able to express myself and properly understand the needs of the community. Generally Peace Corps volunteers do not begin significant work in their first 3 months at site, and although I was working on the ground work, nothing had actually gone beyond discussing it with the appropriate people.

Leaving Nioro was definitely a mixed blessing. I left a place that was very welcoming and had an awesome energy in terms of development and wanted to improve their city and came to a very quiet town that everybody has said is lazy and unmotivated. I have to learn another language and restart completely. But, I do get to restart, and Nioro wasn't perfect. I was isolated from other volunteers and in a very conservative Islamic culture that sometimes pushed my patience when getting into religious discussions (which I tried to avoid, but was impossible). The Bobo people are a bit more reclusive, but that could also be because it is so much smaller. Definitely looking forward to getting to know the site and get started. But before I do, I'll be going to Dogon country for Christmas, and then Segou for New Years. This is resulting in a bit of what we call "site guilt", but I know that I want to spend Christmas and New Years with volunteers since it will be my first Christmas/New Years away from home. Also, going back to site for a few days and then leaving, and then going back to site for a few days, and then leaving is extremely difficult for the community because it confuses them and does not make it look like I am serious about working with them.

Also, if anybody is interested in my post a while back about first world countries and companies making third world countries dependent on them, read the book Confessions of an Economic Hitman, and/or An Economist's Tale. Good books that kind of go into what I was talking about with Malians being dependent on NGOs, only I was talking more about a psychological and cultural dependency rather than strictly an economic dependency. Oh, and if anybody wants a souvenir with Barack Obama's face on the front let me know. There are backpacks, belts, duffel bags, cookies, flip flops, all with Obama's face on the front. And if you didn't know, Obama is Malian, he is also Fulani (an ethnic group), he is Muslim and he is president of Africa and the world.... according to Malians.

A Whole New World

Currently back in Tubaniso for IST (In-Service Training). From now on, I'll have more regular internet access because my world was essentially flipped upside down about 4 weeks ago. I received a call roughly 4.5 weeks ago telling me that the American Government had lowered the limit of operations for Peace Corps staff. This meant that they believed Nioro du Sahel to be too far North and that they would have to change my site, which was an incredible shock to me. I had spent 2 months trying as hard as possible to integrate into my site and was really getting to know the community when I got this call. Basically, they believe that Al Qaeda is too active in Mauritania and since I was a half hour drive from the border, they decided to move me for security issues. This happened at a time when I was finally getting work done and feeling like a part of the community. I was mentally prepared to stay there for 2 years, and all that changed in the matter of minutes. They let me stay until Tabaski or Seliba (literally big party as opposed to selifitini which is little party which occurs after Ramadan) in Bambara. I had gotten to know some of the Sherif's family really well and insisted that I stay because there were a lot of foreigners coming into town to celebrate and I really wanted to see how it happened in a conservative Muslim town. So I got to celebrate with my host family. The way they celebrate this holiday is by killing a goat, cooking the meat in various ways and feasting for the next 3 days. Everybody makes jokes about how they are going to eat meat until they have diahrrea, which is funny until it actually happens to you. Now I am in the Segou region, near the city of San. I also have to learn Bomu, the language of the Bobo people who are primarily farmers. I have changed my name again, it is now Motien Diarra, which means "the man who does not lie"/"the man who only tells the truth", which I figured would help me earn trust in the community. Most people that I met wanted me to take on the last name Diassana, which is the last name of the people who founded Tominian (my new site), and the name of the currently dugutigi. It also means leader, but I already get a lot of people calling me leader or important person, and so I really don't want to perpetuate that thought and so I kept Diarra. Also, Diassana is a very Bobo name, and currently, I can't speak Bomu, so by keeping Diarra I'm trying to demonstrate that I am not fully Bobo and that I can speak Bambara... kind of.
So in reality there is an obscene amount of information I want to post, so I'll post little bits at a time.
Now, if you want to mail things to me, please mail them to:

Mario Romero
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 75
San, Mali

I am now significantly closer to other volunteers and it is absolutely true when they say that every Peace Corps volunteer has a different experience. Already, in the 2 weeks I was at my new site, I have had an entirely different experience and developed a new perspective on Mali as a whole.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The People I've Met

Since I’ve been in Mali, I’ve met a lot of different people. Since I greet just about everybody I pass by in the street, I meet some interesting people and some that are not so interesting. Some just ask me for money, some pass by me just after greeting, and others are genuinely interested in why I’m in Mali, what I plan to do, and where I come from. Daily, I pass by store owners, butchers, street food vendors, tailorers, taxi drivers, bums, imams, bread sellers, the entire market, students, many people who have jobs I don’t recognize, many others that I question whether or not they actually have a job, and quite a few that actually tell me they don't have a job.
One of the more memorable people I’ve met in Mohammed Mahoud Haidara. The last name Haidara implies that he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He lives across the street from my concession and has a store connected to his own concession. We chat often and I’d say I hang out more with him and his son than anybody else. Knowing him has led to more than I would have realized before. He had told me many times that Boue Haidara was a Sherif (I hope I spelled it properly). This means that he is an Islamic leader. It turns out that he is the most prominent Islamic leader in all of Mali, Mauritania, and essentially all the countries around Mali. One day I was having a bad day and I spent almost all day in the house. I came out to hang out a bit and Mr. Haidara flags down a car. He introduces me to this guy named Cheik Haidara, a direct son of the Sherif, and tells me that he spent time in the States. After talking about where I was from, I find out that he’s a wolverine and did both his bachelor’s and his master’s degree at the UofM. He spent 15 years in the States and is currently working in Bamako. The only reason he was in Nioro was to visit his father, or his “old man” as he liked to put it. So for the next week we’d hang out for a few hours at night. I took the opportunity of knowing somebody who spoke English to propose going to meet the Sherif himself. I put on the duloki-ba (literally large shirt, but it’s the robe that the Moors wear) that the Hairdaras gave me and met one of the most influential religious leader in Mali. I essentially just told him who I was, what I was doing and that I had come just to greet him and tell him that I was there. He seemed very happy with that and told me that I was now under his protection and that if I had any questions or any problems, to come talk to him and he would help me out. I expected him to give off a presence or an aura, but he felt like a regular 75 year old man. He was very calm and reserved and very tolerant. It seemed that he would legitimately answer any questions with understanding and never get offended. But it was the people around him that were taking in every word he said, that had this constant awe when around him, and could not wait to have the honor of speaking to him that demonstrated the respect and influence he carried. I had never been in front of a religious leader and was very nervous because I didn’t want to make any cultural mistakes and really didn’t know what to ask although I was assured many times that he wouldn’t get offended and would be more than willing to ask anything I wanted.

I’ve met a guy that only speaks to me in Spanish. He claims to have been to Spain and lists off the cities where he was, but everybody says he’s crazy. The weird thing is that I’ve been focusing so much on Bambara that even though I understand everything he is saying, I can’t think of words or respond in Spanish (rather embarrassing). Another guy I’ve met that everybody says is crazy is this guy who thinks he’s a king. He comes to the store across the street every afternoon and hangs out with Mr. Haidara. While there he likes to mumble to himself, often talking about how all the vendors at the market stole everything from him and that they refuse to compensate him for their wrongdoing.
I have met Fulani, Bambara, Moors, people from Mauritania, Ghanaians, people from the Ivory Coast, Senegalese, people from Burkina Faso, a Frenchman, a Belgian, people from every region of Mali, a Prime Minister, the U.S. Ambassador to Mali at swear-in, and lots and lots of kids.

Working with the CAP, I’ve met a lot of mayors and even more school directors. Every year the Prime Minister of Mali goes to a different city to make a big show of starting the school year. This year he chose Nioro. Although we didn’t get to have a prolonged conversation, I did get to meet and shake the Prime Minister’s hand, which was pretty cool and he seemed genuinely pleased that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

One time, during my first week or two at site, two girls came to my concession and told me that there was someone planning on breaking in to my house to steal my tv. I responded by telling them I didn’t have a tv and why would be want to rob me? They didn’t really have an answer and my Bambara wasn’t good enough so they just repeated that he said he was going to break in. So I asked them what his name was and where he lived. Then I asked if they could take me to his house. Once I got to his concession I walked in and greeted everybody and we just started chatting. We talked for the next 3 hours and then he walked me back to my house and said that we were good friends and had to talk again. For the next week or two I made a point of stopping by his house every once in a while to chat and brought him tea once. My original plan had been to confront him and ask him why he wanted to rob me, but he never brought it up and I realized that there wasn’t really a point so I left it alone. But just by going over and meeting this guy I was able to diffuse a situation that could have led to a lot of frustration, a really scary night, and possible later isolation in the community depending on my reaction and how easy it was for him to break in.

The social culture here essentially forces me to greet many people every day. For the most part it’s integration and just trying to get to know the community, but every once in a while, someone says something or is part of an organization that I will work with in the future, or that I understand is necessary to my safety in a foreign community. When I tell the people here that we don’t greet strangers in the states just in passing, they always comment on how lonely it is. We always seem to be running around in the States so it’s hard, but you never know who you’ll meet just by saying hi.

More homestay pictures

Rocks outside Soundougouba. These in particular I liked becasue they overlooked the whole village, so it was a great place to read or write in my journal. Unfortunately I always forgot to bring my camera.
The mosque at the edge of town.
Wotoro (cart) pulled by a fali (donkey)
Fanta and her daughter Kadri.
Kids in the family.
Part of my room. My water filter on the right, shoes, plastic bowl with food (one of the rare days I was given food in my room, probably because it had rained), the plastic bucket in the corner was where I would put the water to take bucket baths.
Quick run in the morning.
Ryan! My running buddy.
There are 4 volunteers in our stage that graduated from the University of Michigan. All of us are in the education sector. Also, our country director is a wolverine, so of course we had to leave our mark :)
We painted this world map mural in one of the schools in Baguineda Camp. Although it may not last forever and may not seem effective, the people here have very little understanding of the world outside of their village. They believe that there are only 5 continents (Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas). As purely an image, it demonstrates how much more is in the world and that Mali is just a small part of that world. For the most part, Malians know their village and Bamako, but otherwise have no concept of the world.
Another image outside my door.

Pictures from homestay - Soundougouba, Mali

The soccer field. Play the game "where's the goal post?"
My host family - my host dad, his first wife sitting down, and his second wife on the left.
My nyegen!
Daow. This is one of my host brothers. I hung out with him a lot and we chatted in French. He's at the University of Bamako studying pre-law and owns a store in a town nearby. When I asked him what he wanted to do getting his degree, he wasn't sure, but thought maybe he would either study more, keep working in the store, or work in the fields. His older brother has a degree in marketing and now owns a few hectacres of corn field.
Everything a Malian woman needs to pound millet, toh, and shea butter.
The girls eating dinner of toh and okra sauce.
This is my host dad's mother, Tieman (my host dad's father) Diarra's 1st wife. She hangs out under her gwa all day and takes care of the little girls. My room is in the back left of the picture.
Kadi is Fanta's daughter, in her terrrible twos, has been learning how to pound since she could walk, and probably the chubbiest baby in Mali. Fanta is 17 years old and her husband died while she was still pregnant with kadri.
My host dad's house is the white one and his wives' house is on the right. They aren't so much houses as they are sleeping rooms since everyone just spends time outside.
The water pump
Normally breakfast wasn't this good, but I had to take a picture of this one where Ryan brought over an egg sandwich with fries and oranges. I also included a full pack of 10 gazelle tea packages, the best tea in Mali according to my host family.
What I see outside my window. Including my 5:00am alarm clock, the family donkey...
The Michigan bear studying Bambara with his water bottle
My bed under the mosquito net.
Baby goat
The kids of Soundougouba during the full moon.
This is what I like to call the full moon rabbit costume. The kids get underneath and dance around going from concession to concession getting small change and snacks. Kate (the other volunteer in the picture), and I got under the rabbit at one point and danced around a bit.

Rocks by Soundougouba

Sunday, October 17, 2010


School started!!!! I was so excited! I was asking every kid I met if they were going to school. I have found out a few things that is extremely disheartening. In Nioro, only 16% of all students who took the DF, which is the high school entrance exam, actually passed. This means that 8th grade classes are going to be even more packed than usual and for a large number of these students, it was their second time attempting to get into high school, which means that unless they go to private schools they are officially out of the Malian school system and have to find jobs which are already almost non-existent. When I found this out, I had my first moment of shock and realization that I might really not be able to do anything substantial. I couldn't really believe that it could be so low. I heard this during a meeting with all the school directors and the CAP and had to mentally remind myself that this is why I was here and that if I joined the people that thought it was hopeless and wouldn't bother adding the drop of water, then the glass would never become full anyways. Unfortunately, it's so hot here, sometimes that drop of water just evaporates haha. It was rough to hear, but it just means that I have a lot to do, and I've already started by creating a sort of tutoring session with students in my neighborhood. One of the toughest parts of this was that I'm trying to gain their respect and show them how to properly behave when they're in my house so that they can learn effectively and efficiently. I've only been doing this for about 2 weeks, but there are some kids that are really motivated. Eventually I'm hoping to turn this over to actual teachers who will take on the role of supervising the students while the older students help the younger ones. This will allow a precedent where students come to reinforce their knowledge, help each other out and study outside of class. The thing is, is that the children here really are motivated. For the most part they want to learn. They are tired of their parents telling them they are good for nothing. They see education as a means to get out of their town and move on to a better life, and they see that reading and learning is fun. I remember when I first learned to read all I wanted to do was devour books. I also remember when my brother first learned how to read, and I hadn't yet, I was confused and frustrated with the fact that he was being boring and reading all the time instead of playing with me.
The teaching/tutoring has been entertaining and frustrating. From what I've been able to see, the way they learn is almost entirely about memorizing lines and phrases, without necessarily creating an association to what it means. Because there are 70+ students per class, the teacher can't focus on a single student or the meaning behind what they are instructing. So one thing I've been doing is asking "why" to everything I do. Also, my parents sent me some Sudoku books, so I've been using the easy puzzles to get them to think using logic and reason. This requires a lot of patience and having to explain things over and over again. I'm not sure how to explain that they don't have analytical skills or association from one subject to another, but I see it most often with regards to math problems and when I teach them English. Interestingly, even though their learning method has always been memorization, they have an extremely low retention rate. I think that might be because of the lack of reasoning. They don't seem to understand why things are the way they are. They just accept them. Similar to the way they accept things in the Islamic religion without understanding the true purpose behind it. There have been some fun parts, such as when, in the middle of talking, one of the students jumped up and said "You know what we want to do!! We want to sing the Malian national anthem!" This was when we were working on the pronunciation of "How are you?". So for the next 2 minutes they stood up with their hands over their hearts and sung the Malian national anthem. Very entertaining until they told me to sing the American national anthem.
Before school started I went to a few of the schools to find out what kind of issues they were having. For one, it was several things. This is in the very religious district so parents have very little interest in formal education and believe that it's just colonial brainwashing that will drive them away from a strict Islamic lifestyle. So the parents are not very involved in getting their kids to school and many of them are against their daughters going to school. The school director has been talking about how parents aren't motivated and don't really care and stated this as one of his major concerns and frustrations. Without parent involvement, kids don't go to school and the school board is financially static. Another problem was that the school wasn't surrounded by a wall. Now cloistering a school may not seem like a pressing concern, and I personally didn't think much about it. But, when you are trying to plant trees because the students don't have any shade when they go outside in 100+ degree weather and the saplings keep getting eaten by roaming sheep, goats, and donkeys, and also when motos fly through the school yard because they think it saves them time, and when the kids get distracted by things outside, surrounding the school becomes a relevant concern. The other thing is that there isn't a good water source near the school. The only source is a pump (which isn't very sanitary because it hasn't been treated) about 400ft away. While I was there I joined in with the kids to help surround the school with rocks we found in the area so that the motos wouldn't come in. I expect that if I went back today they would already be gone, or the drivers decided it wouldn't actually damage their bikes and now drive over the rocks. Fortunately the school director is very good and very motivated. He doesn't seem to give up and tries to plant trees annually, tries to get parents involved, and has a good relationship with his teachers.

With regards to informal education, this has been a challenge to watch and not react. Malian families are big. According to Shariah law, men can marry up to 4 women. Any children that your brothers or sisters have you refer to as your children and your friend's children are basically your children. Anybody is allowed to reprimand any child that they see doing something wrong. This can be anything from a verbal scolding to beating the child with stick. As a result of such big families, the children take care of themselves. They do whatever the parents tell them to do, they eat what the parents give them, but when it comes to general day to day things, the kids help each other out. Parents don't have time to explain things and properly discipline their children for something they've done wrong. So they resort to the quickest way of punishment they can think of, which is to either tell the kid he/she is stupid and good for nothing, or hit them and scream at them. Watching this is not fun. But of course I can't tell a parent that they are wrong and ruining their child or that this will mean their child will beat their children in the future. There are several reasons why I can't do this: 1) My language isn't good enough, 2) if I did I would be the crazy Toubab who thinks that he knows better would therefore alienate myself from the community, 3) they were beaten by their parents and this is all they know, plus they are angry with the fact that they were beaten before and take it out on their kids, and 4) "it isn't bad to beat your kid, it's necessary because things here aren't the way they are over there and just talking to these kids isn't enough, they only understand if they are hurt, and anyways, this will make them fear you and respect you so that they won't do it again" - Local Malian. Unfortunately for this local Malian, I had just been told by his son a few days before that one time he was hit by his dad and then immediately did the same thing a few hours later just out of spite.
I remember, before I left I had a conversation with my good friend, Denise Rowe about disciplining children. Denise was a Child Behavioral Psychology major a the University of Michigan. We had a mutual friend who said that as a kid, her parents had a track outside their house and the way they punished her was that they would make her either run or walk laps. I thought it was a pretty cool idea because it was a good way for the children to stay active and use up that pent up angry energy to vent. Even walking allowed the child to think about what had happened. She disagreed and said that any punishment had a backlash and consequences contrary to the intentions of the parents. She said instead, the parents should get their children to open up by talking to them, getting them to explain their feelings and really understand why it was that what they did was bad. She said that making them exercise as punishment would actually make them resent exercise and dislike it in the end. I've thought a lot about this and I think I agree, especially with the style of informal education I've seen here. I have never been against physical abuse towards kids, but this has really shown me that it is almost completely ineffective and only causes a perpetual cycle of pain, anger and frustration. More about informal education later.

One things that I found out, which I will expand on in the future, is that when a conservative culture such as Nioro crumbles, it collapses completely in an extremely shocking way.

For Whom the Imam Calls

Ramadan started while I was in Nioro during site visit. This means that all Muslims must fast, so they can’t eat, drink water, smoke, or drink tea which is really funny because this might be the hardest part for them. Not drinking tea makes them jittery and some were irritated during the first week or two before they got used to not being constantly caffeinated. Other than eating breakfast at 4 in the morning before the sun goes up, life goes on as usual. The women still pound millet, corn or shea, do laundry, cook, fetch water, and take care of the kids all day. The men still go out to the fields, and as difficult as I thought it might be, they sit around and take naps even more than before (I think a result of not drinking tea). At around 6:30 or 7:00pm, the Imams on the radio begin to announce the end of the fast. The women break out the monni (millet cooked in water with lime juice and sugar). I think that this is to cut the thirst, because with enough lime juice it is refreshing. A few times they had a ginger juice which was good, but rather spicy.

After the bucket bath, my host father dresses in a nice full length boubou and sits down in his new bamboo recliner. He listens carefully to the radio and although it doesn’t show, I know his stomach is pounding, his head is light from dehydration, and I can almost visualize his thumb striking the lighter while his fingers itch for the feel of a cigarette to rest lightly between them. The air explodes with the sound of prayer as the sun dips slightly behind the horizon. Every concession has a radio tuned in to the same program, and the mosque’s sound system begins the chants that proceed the break of fast. After ensuring that the men have everything they need, the women can finally sit down for a few minutes. The children are eating, and the food is ready, they only have to wait for my host dad to grunt or say a barely intelligible word for them to get the bowl and set it in front of his chair. After going to mosque one more time, the family will stay up late, sometimes until 2:00am before going to bed. The whole time they eat corn on the cob, monni, and whatever has been prepared. Then they wake up at 4:30am to eat before the sun rises again.

The month of fasting ended when I got back to Nioro as a volunteer. It was pretty fun because everyone enjoyed their day off by killing a sheep, roasting it and spent the whole day eating and drinking tea. The kids also go around and bless everyone wishing them a good year for them and their family and in exchange you give them a little gift. This is the only time I have given a gift, but I still avoided giving money and only gave them little things I had brought specifically to give as gifts such as pencils or stickers (they really didn't like the stickers and found them boring). Ramadan is really an awesome month. It really helps the Muslim community understand what it's like for a large portion of the world. Many people do not have the luxury of eating all day or even eating 3 full meals a day. So for a month the Islamic community joins these people in fasting and understanding what it's really like not to have food or water in their stomachs for a whole day. Of course some people cheat and just about everybody has a day or two where they are very irritable, but for them it's spiritual and brings them closer to their families and every human being in their community. They create the support network of understanding that nobody else is eating or drinking and help eat other through the day.


In Kayes for Language In-Service Training. This means that I come in to my regional capital for a week to work with one of the Peace Corps language trainers and get to take a break with some other PCV's. Besides this, I'm technically not allowed to leave my site until December. But I'm taking advantage of it to post here and update myself on world news/Michigan football/respond to e-mails.

I'll be posting 2 or 3 blog posts to cover my absence and not to make one single post too long. This will cover different topics individually although with my line of thinking they'll probably get intertwined, but I'll try to keep things separate and organized.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I split my post into 2 so that it was more manageable. This is something I've been meaning to talk about, but don't forget about the previous, more day to day post I made just seconds before.

I am so frustrated with the degree of dependency that this culture has! Everything has been given to them by NGOs, government aid, and people coming to “help out”. Not only this, but this is compounded by their colonization. They have become so dependent on foreign and external aid, that they are almost incapable of helping themselves. Money is necessary to help people, but unless something remains sustainable by the local community, it basically becomes pointless once said organization or people leave. Every time we go to an organization that is working in the education sector, they are always talking about how they are getting funding from external sources whether it’s an NGO in Italy, France, the US, they think that their solutions are based in financial support from outside Mali. I understand that Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, and I’m not arguing that financial aid isn’t necessary or doesn’t help, but when a country has become so saturated with external funding that their very first solution to a local problem is to try to find a partner NGO in another country that can fund any project, they cannot be considered an independent country. Mali may have gained it’s independence 50 years ago, but it is currently just as dependent, if not more dependent on external powers than it was under French colonization. I asked someone at Soundougouba what he would do to try to make a difference in Mali, and he said that his dream is create an orphanage program that would take children off the streets of Bamako and have them work. When I asked him who would provide the infrastructure and food for these orphans, he talked about an NGO in Italy. If I could have expressed myself in Bambara, I probably would have exploded about how he’s perpetuating a system that is keeping Mali in a state of submission and dependency. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I don’t, so I had to calmly and slowly explain a simplified version of my feelings in French so that he would understand. This mentality of being given things can be directly shown in the fact that the kids sit there and demand gifts.
This is what I like about the Peace Corps system. The volunteers are placed in a country where they are given language lessons, taught to “Teach people to fish for themselves, not give them fish” and live among the people they are helping while receiving a stipend that is the average for the country. All of this done with the intention of creating a sustainable organization or program that the locals have expressed desire to initiate and continue. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system, but it’s much better than religious missions or NGOs coming in for a few months, building a well, not teaching the locals how to fix the well once it breaks, or throwing money at a problem where half of it disappears in the maze of corruption. (I know NGOs do a lot of good, and so do missions, but when the sustainability doesn’t exist, then the solution is temporary.) If money and external aid could help a country like Mali develop without the locals being invested and helping themselves, the billions of dollars and resources that have been thrown at the country in the past 50 years would have made Mali one of the top developed countries in the world. But as it is, there is still a huge food security problem, not even half the population can read and write, and sanitation/health issues are a major concern.
(I'd like to know people's opinions on these things.)

Also, when I bring up cultural issues. Please do not think that I dislike the culture or that I'm not integrating. I'm just stating differences that to me are difficult to relate to. I've always felt that I come from a rich cultural background and that I've had friends from all over the world, so I have never had trouble relating to people. So when I come to a country (and this also depends on the region of Mali) that does not have a strong food culture (they don't even like their "national" food: toh), there are almost no visuals besides henna and fabric (part of this could be a result of the Islamic faith ensuring little representation of Mohammed and such), and no reading/writing, I have been a bit thrown off. I'm using this blog to explain how it is as bluntly as possible, which may make people think I am not enjoying myself or that I feel like I will be ineffective. I only write this because I haven't realized how blunt I've been until I started receiving e-mails and I want everyone to understand that what I say about the country here does not necessarily reflect how I interact with the people.

With that happy note, I hope you enjoyed my novel, and now I’m off to homestay. Give me a call if you want more in depth news about my site visit/travels around Mali.
Messages/e-mails are always really fun, even if it’s something like: Went to the movies today, saw X Movie. Actually that would be sweet, because I have no clue what movies are out right now. Or how sports are going.

Also, congratulations on getting your driver's license Isabelle!

I'll be back in 2 weeks.

Site Visit

First of all, there are a lot of things to talk about, so I’m going to try to keep the site information brief and tell a few stories instead. I know this blog is long, the next post I find to be the most important thing I have to say.
Fortunately, I got to take Peace Corps transport up to my site, which meant that I got to take extra luggage up without having to put it on public transportation, which I’ll have to do when I fully install. My site buddy (a previous volunteer who knows the area) names Alyssa Mouton was awesome and showed me around the areas that she knew, but since she had only been to my site to visit a fellow PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer), she only knew the market area where the previous volunteer lived. However, it was extremely relieving how comfortable she felt as a woman in a large city, and also very comforting to have her there when my housing situation went awry. Basically, my housing was a complete fiasco. Just a quick note: Peace Corps is excellent about finding people housing and counterparts to work with… I just fell through the cracks. Anyways, my house wasn’t ready (I was about to stay there for 5 days) because it wasn’t clean, not up to Peace Corps regulations, and occupied…. So, they found me another place while they told the entire family to move out, which, apparently they hadn’t paid rent for over a year, but I didn’t come here to displace families.
Long story short, my 5 days at my future 2 year site was rather chaotic but is currently being taken care of and I will have a place to live that is secure and up to Peace Corps regulations within the next 3 weeks which is when I swear in, become an official volunteer, and then move to my site for the next 2 years.
Ok, so I know that details are warranted. My first thing is that my site is pretty cool. I understand that I might have said, and will say things that make it sound negative, but there are many things that factor into that appearance through words. First of all, I expected a small village. All the programs I had considered or thought about were around this thought. I was chosen for my site for very legitimate reasons, I understand and agree with them. I am looking forward to living there and I plan on doing the best I can to improve their education system among other things. First of all, the site is not pretty. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just isn’t attractive. The land in incredibly flat, very sandy, shrubs thrive (at least in the rainy season), very little grass, and some trees. There is river that goes through the Northern part of town, but we’re in the rainy season… and it’s still barely a creek (and creek is the wrong word, because that makes it sound cute, and green, but it’s just sand). The streets aren’t paved, there is a big market, and very few multi-story buildings. Essentially, imagine Ann Arbor without the greenery, all the houses are made of mud and not more than 1 story, and the streets are all mud except for main street. So it feels like a very large, slightly disorganized sprawl. I will be living in a private walled concession with my own house of 4 rooms (one of which is a bathroom), a separated kitchen, and a separated single room. I have 2 trees within the walls of my compound, and some dirt where I plan on making a garden with lots of vegetables.
City life is very different from my small town of Soundougouba. First of all, I have electricity and running water (internet is supposedly at the new high school, but since school isn’t in session right now, I can’t really use it). I don’t have to greet everyone, but I am the really weird white guy, so I say hi to as many people as possible in order to make friends and establish more security. I know I said last time that my Bambara might be useless. This was much to strong, and I understood that when I wrote it. I was just frustrated at the time, but although French is the “official” language, Bambara is the “national” language, and even if they don’t speak the language, they understand what I’m saying. My favorite part about this city is actually the fact that there aren’t only Bambara people here. There are Sonninke, Bambara, Malenke, Fulani, Moors, and Mauritians. All have their own features, language, and dress that I’m starting to learn to recognize. Definitely excited to start dressing like a Moor, because their fabric designs are awesome! Anyways, all kinds of different cultures coming together and once I get language down, I’m going to have a field day. I was extremely happy to find out that I can understand a good deal of Bambara as long as I know the context. If I know where the person is going with their story or what they are trying to tell me (which when I meet people it’s almost always the same 4 or 5 questions), I can respond appropriately. And many people speak French and they all think I’m French. I actually made a point of when people spoke to me and I had the ability to speak in Bambara, I would. This way, they would understand that I understood them and was willing to meet them halfway/speak their language and not only were they more receptive to that, but they were more friendly. Of course, usually this led to me saying, I only speak a little Bambara, and as the conversation progressed, we would switch to a mixture of Bambara and French. So I answer anything I can in Bambara, and use French as a crutch, which hopefully won’t stunt my Bambara. Anyways, as I said, there are an incredible number of cultures here, and so my homologue told me that my name, Tieman Diarra, was too obviously from the Segou region, and that I would have to get a new name. So I told him to start listing first names. He couldn’t think of enough, so I decided that I would go with Shek. This is a much more Muslim name and since the city is more conservative and Muslim, I thought it would be appropriate. Most of the people I speak to know me as Tieman, but now I’m using both names.
But!!!!! Then I was hit with an amazing idea. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to implement it because I thought of this the last day and didn’t get to introduce myself enough. My new name, it sounds very Arabic, I know, but bear with me, it’s basically perfect. My new name, is now Saiph Diarra. This only means something to a few people back home, but it’s one of the best names ever regardless of what people working at the planetarium might think, it’s an awesome name that means “The Sword”. I mean, thinking about it, being a Peace Corps volunteer, and the fact that Diarras are known as lions, the most appropriate name would be Mebsuta (the outstretched paw), but I’m a big fan of Saiph. Plus, it’s a sweet star that is part of the Orion constellation. So, we’ll see, I’m not 100% sure I’ll keep it because so many people know me as Tieman now, but whatever, it’s all good.
Also, you know how I spoke about joking cousins? Well, my favorite is the Traore – Diarra relationship. Maybe it’s just because it was the first joking cousin I learned about, but they seem to have an exceptional joking attitude towards one another. My favorite joke, which is a huge hit among Malians, is that Diarra (known as the lion), is a walaba (very strong lion), and that Traore is a jakuma fitini (very small cat). This is an awesome way to gain someone’s friendship and one that I exploit as often as possible.

Please excuse the typos, I wrote this rather late last night.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Soundougouba Round 2

So guess what!!
I just found out where I'll be spending the next 2 years of my life! And it turns out, that it's in one of the hottest, if not, IS, the hottest place on earth! I'm off to the Kaye region of Mali! Unfortunately, I can't blog about where I'm actually going to be due to Peace Corps regulations, but I am willing to tell people individually, actually, many of you will probably already know by the time you read this, but I don't have everyone's e-mail groups, so please request it from me if you are really curious. The crazy thing, is by public transportation, the closest other volunteer will be about a 6 hour bus ride. It's not that I'm out in the middle of nowhere, it's just that I am that far removed from other sites. I have been told that there will be 2 health volunteers somewhere on the way from Bamako to my site, but probably not any closer to 3 hours away. Pictures of me riding a camel cannot be too far in the future, also, I need good camel names just in case the opportunity arises where I either need to name a camel or buy one, so feel free to let me know. Another thing, I spoke to my homologue today (this is the guy that is assigned to be my initial contact when I get to site, so he's basically like a host dad but he doesn't take care of me, just make sure I know someone there), and he speaks English which is nice, but I really want to speak to him in French or Bambara so that I can practice. But he told me that I will most likely have to learn Sonninke or Fulani... which means that the past 5 weeks of Bambara lessons were almost useless in the sense that I will have to restart. I mean, they weren't useless because for the most part people will have a working comprehension of Bambara and I'll be able to use my Bambara when I'm in other parts of Mali, but I'm still not too happy about having to start all over again.
Also, I'm kind of stealing this idea from another trainee. But, just a challenge to those who are reading this. Throughout your day, try to focus on and remember the number of different things you read. This could literally be anything from this post, a newspaper article, your phone settings, the ingredients on the back of a cereal box, street signs, books, etc... I had mentioned in my previous post that the education system in Mali is pretty bad and that the number of literate/educated people is very low. To give you an idea, in the village I live in called Soundougouba, on average, I read about 3 things that are not either my book, my notes/Peace Corps papers. One of these, is the name of my host dad which is written upside down on the inside of my screen door for when it was delivered to the family, another is a sign that says "Attention!" to warn about the speed bump as you come into the village from the north (I read this on on my way back to school, so it should count as 2), and the name of my host dad again written on the donkey cart which is in my concession. Occasionally I pass or notice the faded lettering indicating the name of the road where my host family lives. Other than this, I read my bambara notes, my phone every once in a while, my book(s), the names of the artists on my ipod, and Peace Corps notes on NGOs in Mali. Oh! and when I had a bout of diahrrea, I read the package of the pepto bismal pills they gave us from our medical kit, that was very exciting.

Rain is probably my favorite thing ever right now. Whenever it rains, I can finally cool down, and it feels good. I did find a great spot on the rocks overlooking Soundougouba, that is well shaded. On my way to this spot, I startled an owl from it's tree. Very big white spotted owl, not sure what species but it was gorgeous and seeing it fly was pretty awesome. For the most part Mali is very flat. The terrain is very rough, with almost no grass and mostly rocks and sand. Shrubs and certain trees have no problem growing, but it's just a tough place. I don't mean this in a negative way, I was just asked about the terrain and there isn't any other way to describe it. Near Soundougouba, and apparently in other areas near Bamako, there are there rock outcroppings formed by large boulders. Not sure how to describe these because they aren't gradual slopes, but rock suddenly jutting upwards. The rock is been shaped into boulders by the rain, so it makes for good for climbing.

Starting a short story/graphic novel with an artist from the UofM that will be titled "Negen Man".

Off to bed, I'll post more tomorrow.

Friday, July 23, 2010


So I go back to homestay tomorrow afternoon. The visit to Tubaniso was short but excellent. It was a great chance to talk to the other trainees and exchange stories. Personally I've really enjoyed my experience, but others have been having a tough time dealing with their host families. We've had some good sessions including cross cultural, security, and health talks.
I'm living in Soundougouba, which is about an hour and a half northeast of Bamako.
One thing I forgot to mention last night, is that I get woken up every morning at 5:00am because of a cacophony of sounds. About 15 feet outside my door, is a family of chickens with their rooster who starts going just before 5. The donkey, who likes to sleep next to the chickens, then starts braying at around 5:30, and it seriously sounds like it could be dying. Then the mosque begins calling everyone to prayer around 5:45, so all these sounds are going at once. For all of you who know me to sleep in and never wake up so early, this is my explanation. So Kristen, the next time you want to wake me up from a happy sleep at 7:00am, just remember to bring a chicken, a donkey, and a microphone, and I will very happily grab breakfast with you. I also think the donkey has it out for me, because he brays whenever I step out of my room, and whenever I'm eating breakfast. Then as soon as I glare at him he stops and bares his teeth a little bit.
Anyways, things are good. Toilets are a hole in the ground, everything is made out of mud brick, including my room, which combined with a tin roof, makes it almost literally an oven.
Family culture is interesting. The men have almost all the power and the kids follow the adult's lead in this sense. Mali is apparently the most illiterate country in the world, and has extremely low rate of education, particularly for women. Chores/jobs for men and women are almost strictly defined. As of now, it's been a challenge getting my own water, and it's completely out of the question for me to do my own laundry. At site, I'm planning on doing my own laundry and cook my own food to demonstrate that men can also cook and do laundry, regardless of what they might believe. I've already gotten into very calm, simple conversations in French about marriage. The men are allowed to marry up to 4 wives, but they laugh and appear very confused when I ask (knowing the answer) whether or not women are allowed to have more than 1 husband. To them, this is incomprehensible and rather amusing for me. Malians have the most amazing sense of humor. Literally everything is funny to them. Actually, they have this culture called "joking cousins" where different family groups are allowed to make fun of other, specific families. As a Diarra, I have free reign to make fun of any Traore, Coulibali, and quite a few others. This is an amazing form of conflict resolution and social lubricant. Basically, it works like this: I greet the person, they say hi back, and then I can tell them that they eat beans, and fart a lot, or that they speak donkey language. I can even tell them that they are stupid or that they should change their name, and all they do is laugh and insult me back, which is hilarious. Often, if a couple is having marital problems, one of the joking cousins will go over and joke with the husband or wife in order to calm them down or diffuse the situation.
Anyways, they are some of the most welcoming, happy people I have ever met, and all they do is laugh at just about everything I do or say whether it's right or not. I'm kind of like a pet, which is entertaining... for now. They tell me when to sleep, they tell me when to wash myself, they tell me when to eat, the kids pet my arm hair, they yell my name all the time (probably the kid's favorite past time), and they bring me a chair every time I want to sit with them. It's pretty funny.
Also, they absolutely love frisbees. I threw one, and they get super excited and chase it, and squeal. Even the boys my age squeal like little girls, duck out of the way and jump around. It's really funny.

Anyways, it's been fun. I'm observing a lot, and I hope this is satisfying everyone's curiosity. I know I didn't include specific stories, but you can take my word for it that I've been having a good time.
I do have a lot of time to think because I still can't quite communicate, so I've been thinking a lot about the education problem here in Mali. As an education volunteer, I do feel overwhelmed because there is so much to fix. I know I can't solve everything, and I don't expect to, but regardless, I really hope that the programs that I begin will become self-sustainable after I'm gone. At this point, that's just about all I can hope for, and the Peace Corps definitely emphasizes celebrating the small victories and that what we're really here to do is be the catalysis that will eventually result in larger developmental changes. Development takes a really long time, and 2 years in 1 village is far from enough, but we'll see how it turns out.
Staying positive :)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Back at Tubaniso

Back from my 1st 2 weeks at homestay. The Malian people are phenomenal. Everyone is extraordinarily welcoming and you really are a king, which makes me uncomfortable, but at the same time provides me with incredible security. This will probably be a rather short post for everything I have to say, but I'll post longer tomorrow.
So, first of all, I agree with Kristen about the soap thing and alientating my host family, but there are a few things that work in my favor. First of all, these families choose to have me there, the Peace Corps pays them well to take care of me, feed me, and put up with all the cultural/language faux-pas I make. They themselves were trained to recieve me and understand that I am very susceptible to diseases that they can brush off due to the fact that they've lived with the bacteria all their lives and their immune systems are equiped to deal with it. So they agreed to follow certain regulations in order to have me, and part of these included washing their hands. Also, I apologize and understand that some are culturally supersticious, but they do wipe with their left hand, and I refuse to contract some kind of permanent or potentially serious disease because of this. One of the objectives of the Peace Corps is to provide health education and teaching them to wash their hands is an easy, effective, and straightforward method of minimizing the spread of bacteria.

Anyways, homestay is awesome. A typical day involves me waking up at 5:45am, going for a 3-5 mile run with other trainees. Then I get back, greet the members of my family starting with the oldest woman. I live in a concession with about 100 people. I only have to greet those who are older than me, but it still takes me about a half hour. I have been given a Malian name, and I've been named after the father of my host father, so my name is Tiemen Diarra (pronounced Che Man Jarra) and basically means "man" which is really funny because I'm the only male trainee at my homestay. Diarra is the last name. Tiemen had 42 grandkids, all of which live in my concession, and some of which have children of their own. So then I take a bucket bath - water is pumped from the well into a bucket, then I take a cup and pour the water over me little by little. Definitely an experience haha. Then I go to my room, change, then they bring my breakfast, which involves a loaf of bread, some coffee, and a rice pourridge. Then I go to school. The children walk with me, usually holding my hand and asking to carry my backpack. Due to the village mentality, it's rude not to greet people, so the 5 minute walk to school usually takes me 20+ minutes because I have to say hi to everyone, ask them how their night was, how their family is, and then answer the questions right back.
Then I have class from 8-12, go back, have lunch, then usually I'll sit and talk with the women and have tea, sometimes taking a nap and/or a bucket bath. Then I go back to class from 3-5. I come back, then my day loses it's routine. Sometimes I get the soccer ball or the frisbee and play with the kids, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I just sit and chat. I'll take another bucket bath, go out and hang out with my host dad until around 8:30 or 9 when we have dinner. Then I sit around while the children teach me Bambara vocabularly or I speak in French with some of the older kids. Then I go to bed sometime around 10-10:30.

Anyways, that ended up being longer than I thought it would. I'll make sure to post again tomorrow, and I'll be using my computer so I'll actually be able to type quickly.

If you want to reach me, apparently you have to type 011 or something before doing 223. I'm not sure if international texts work, but give it a try if you want. Also, it is A LOT cheaper if you call my cell phone using skype - also, with skype, you don't need to put in the 011.

I did get sick, it's actually a pretty funny story, but feeling much better. Peace Corps takes excellent care of me. I'll make sure to include more details tomorrow.
Also, my phone is charged again, and I'll be keeping it on all day.

- Mario Felix Tiemen Romero Diarra... among other things.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Phone Number Correction

My Orange phone number is actually

Leaving in a few hours.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's All Good

I realize my last post wasn't very detailed, but the internet is frustratingly slow and only gets worse as more people get online at once.The Peace Corps works like this: Essentially, the mission is to help the people of the country where they are staged to become self-sustainable while creating a degree of understanding between both Americans and the people they serve. As a result, there is a 3 month training session where the first 4 days involve being in Tubaniso, the Peace Corps training center in Mali, which is about 45 minutes outside of Bamako, the capital of Mali (I can't remember in which direction, but I want to say south...east?). After the 4 days, which I complete today, I will be going to a site, I don't know where yet, to stay with a host family (this is called the Home-stay period), where internet will probably not be available, and electricity is questionable. From here, I'll be going to and from Tubaniso and my Home-Stay site, spending 2 weeks with my host family, and 3-4 days in Tubaniso. At the Home-Stay I'll be taking language classes for about 7 hours a day and just learning the culture with the family. After this 3 training period, we swear in and officially become Peace Corps Volunteers. Then we go to our actual site, about which I again, know nothing about. From there, I'll be living by myself with a neighboring family assigned to me for the next two years.
We've been given a medical kit (which includes, but is not limited to, cypro, gauze, band aids, neosporin etc...), a bug net, a water filter, malaria medication, and a cocktail of vaccinations (Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Rabies, Hep A, Hep B etc...) and still more to come. Fortunately, I already had some of these so I'm in and out of the medical hut rather quickly.
I have been assigned to the education sector, which used to be where volunteers directly taught the local community. However, last year this focus changed when Peace Corps joined up with USAID. Now, my objective is essentially community development, which means I will be working with the community, such as the mayor's office in order to organize programs (that will hopefully become self-sustainable once I'm gone) that are oriented towards women's education (there's a big gender social disparity issue in Mali), youth education, and other things like that.

I've been playing soccer for the past two days, definitely a lot of fun, and also started playing soccer-volleyball with the clothes line as a net. We have been able to watch the World Cup on a really small tv. It's pretty funny to see 20+ Malians and tubobs (the Malian word for gringo) watching on a tv screen that is maybe twice the size of my computer screen. I'm extremely excited for the finals, because neither the Netherlands nor Spain have ever won the Cup, and both are going to be going all out. Both are awesome teams, and although I think Spain might be the more well rounded team, I think I'll be cheering for the Dutch to get their first win, they deserve it so much and have beaten some really good teams. On another note, it's crazy that so many South American teams made it to the quarterfinals, and only Uraguay barely made it out. By the way, the Malians hate the vuvuzelas, and they have a very strong culture of joking, so they get a kick out of us giving them a hard time about how they have bad referees.

Food here isn't bad, but I can't say that it's very flavorful or varied. We often feel lucky if we find a piece of meat in the sauce. Lots of potatos, some bananas, and lots of grains. Also, the method of eating is interesting. What they do, is they place a communal bowl (men eat out of one bowl, women eat out of another) on mats. You then sit on the mat, without shoes, and ONLY using your right hand, you reach in and grab the rice. Then, you ball the rice up in your hand (it usually has a sauce), and lick your hand to put the ball of rice in your hand. Sucking your fingers is polite because it shows that you like the food.
Also, one of the few things that makes me nervous, is that they believe that washing your hands with soap makes you lose all your luck, or that it makes the food taste bad. Fortunately, the Malian people are extremely receptive to guests and apparently treat them like kings, so we will basically have the highest status in the household. I am planning on asking my host family to wash their hands by explaining (probably through gestures unless they speak French), that I am not only here to partake in their culture, but to show them a part of mine, and in the same way as they pray 5 times a day, it is essential, and extremely important for me that not only do I wash my hands with soap before eating, but that they do as well.

It should be a really interesting experience tomorrow, because my only Bambara skills involve the greeting (which is extremely long, and must be done to everyone in the room unless there are too many), thank you, please, and the few soccer terms, such as "out of bounds" and "goal", I managed to pick up while playing around.
The training here is awesome, and extremely comprehensive. The language training is easily the best I've ever had even though I've only had one language class so far. Part of this is because Bambara is a purely spoken language, but also because the teachers have the time and the hands on experience to teach us. I also realized one of my mistakes when I was trying to teach myself some Bambara in the States. When I was there, I was trying to memorize the words by thinking of it's relationship with the English word (this is what I did with my Italian class and it was easy), but of course this would have forced me to learn the entire language through memorization because there is absolutely no relation to any of the languages I know. So what I did, not sure how yet, is that I changed my thought process to compartmentalize the words and phrases I was learning as the words and phrases that they were and not what they translated to in English or French or Spanish or whatever. This was an awesome epiphany, and I'm hoping to use it later.

If you want to reach me, I have 2 phone numbers here (I'll have a different SIM card in according to where I get service). My Orange number is 70010997 and my Malitel number is 66346209 and the country code is 223. If you call me, it won't cost me anything, but be careful because it could get expensive. I don't know if international texts work, but if you want, feel free to give that a try. I should be up tonight if anyone wants to try calling.

It's a very long post, but quite a bit has happened, and I probably won't be able to blog for the next 2 weeks, so I'll make sure to keep a journal, because this is when the real experience begins, and it's going to be crazy!

P.S. Timbuctu is off limits for now, because apparently an Al Qaeda group has declared that they will kidnap Americans in Northern Mali. All good for now, won't go up any time soon.

Monday, July 5, 2010


Already spent a few days at the Peace Corps training center. Spent 4th of July at the America club. Very hot and humid because it's the rainy season. Went with a group of volunteers on a 3 mile run this morning. Getting more vaccinations and our bikes today. We are living in mud huts, which stay really cool during the night and most of the day, but for the most part I only go back to the hut to grab something I forgot. Slowly picking up some Bambara and learning where to put the emphasis on syllables. We go to our homestay on the 8th, where we are living with a host family and essentially on our own except for language/cultural classes.
Just finished lunch, time to get more shots.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Just landed in Paris. 10 minutes of free internet. I leave for Bamako in about 3 hours.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Hup Holland!

HUP HOLLAND! Netherlands wins 2-1, go Orangje! It was a bit of a dirty game, but they were pretty equally matched and it looked like the Netherlands just managed to get the edge. Anyways, as sad as it is to see Brazil fall, the Netherlands deserve a World Cup win after all these years.

Leaving Philly

Leaving Philly today, went out and had a philly cheese steak and probably the last beer I'll be allowed to drink for the next 3 months. From here I'll be taking a bus to New York, then fly to France at 11:00pm, hang out there for a few hours and then take a flight to Bamako (the capital of Mali). Should arrive around 8:00pm their time.

There are 80 trainees in my group and slowly getting to know some of them. Lots of michiganders, and at least 5 wolverines so that's pretty cool.
Staging involved getting some basic knowledge about what we should encounter for the next few days, and a lot of getting to know one another and what everybody plans to accomplish/are anxious to encounter.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thank You

This is my last night in Ann Arbor, and I just wanted to thank everyone that has gotten to know me and who I've met these past four years. All of my friend are amazing, and your friendships are something that I will never take for granted and has helped me get through even the most difficult times. There isn't much I can't do with the friends I've made and I realize that wherever we go and whatever we do, we'll always be able to pick up right where we left off. I can't begin to express how much the UofM has changed my life in the best possible ways.

Anyways, it's very late, and I have to wake up in just under 4 hours, so I should probably be in bed, but thank you to everyone who has been supportive of my decisions and been there for me. I originally planned on thanking everyone individually, but I realize that this blog post would be incredibly long. So special thanks to:
Dr. Kat Brown
Dr. Jason Yaeger
Dr. Eric Nielsen and Sungjin Park
Dr. Matthew Hull
UofM Fencing Club - Best club ever and easily one of the best decisions I ever made was to join this club, it's led to great friendships and amazing memories. Keep up the good work.
HSSP people (extra special thanks to 5th Kleinsdale, there will never be a hall like ours, freshman year was phenomenal, and regardless of what JFB says, it's always getting better, 909 was just an example of the awesomeness in the future) "To good times and no bad memories!"
Of course, my family is to thank for all the support they've shown me in all my decisions, I feel very lucky and could not ask for anything for from anybody.
Stay Saiph everyone.

With love and service for the maize and blue, see you in two years,
Go Blue!
- Mario

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


This is a test to see how this blog works. Getting ready to go to Mali with the Peace Corps. I leave July 1st for orientation in Philadelphia. Very excited.