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.