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.