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.