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.


  1. It sounds like you're having a great experience so far! I'm sad I was in Asia and didn't get a chance to see you before you left. I'll probably try giving you a call through skype sometime. Hope you're doing well!

  2. ahhh! thank you for the detailed update. It's funny that they gave you Cipro....and really interesting that they do not wash their hands. However, I would be really careful about asking them to do so because what if they start having bad luck after? You def don't want the family to start to dislike you. What is the time difference over there? I miss you tubobs -- have fun over the next two weeks!!! (I want pictures)

  3. Our friends from the health department would have a heart attack! Think: Joan of Arc! and smile.

    I can understand the Malian point of view with the soap, since they eat with their hands. If the soap is too fragrant (usually cheap soap) or does not smell good, that is a problem. See what kind of soap is available and affordable over there. Is it expensive? Could be a matter of changing soap or its provenance (I know it's probably not easy, but let's think about it a little). If the soap is imported and "imposed" to them, it cannot be a positive addition and not part of the culture. However, If soap is made on site with natural products that are known from them, it could be easier to introduce. If the culture does not include fragrance, it is also a problem. Originally soap does not have fragrance, and most of the time when fragrances are added, they are from plants and flowers that grow in Europe or western countries, Asia, etc... If there is not a similar smell in their culture (like rose, jasmine, etc.. which I doubt), they cannot associate it to something nice, or memorable or known or significative.
    See if this little analysis helps, or if I am completely off.

    Thinking about you while harvesting the raspberries in the vegetable patch!
    Hope you could have a glimpse on the final game of the World Cup.
    Bises. Maman