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.