A week and a half ago, I decided to take a little trip. Halloween was coming up, and besides making sure everything was organized, things were going smoothly at site. So, I packed up some clothes, packed my bug hut and went to San. It turns out Mali is an amazing place to find or make clothes for a Halloween costume. There are fabric stores everywhere and tailors that can make anything you want. On top of that, there are stores selling old clothes so you can find all kinds of qwerky things, kind of like a bunch of large goodwill stores which we call “Dead Toubab Stores” (There is a box or a set of drawers at each stage house that we call “Dead Toubab” too because people leave clothes they don’t want while they’re still in country or that they leave behind for other volunteers once they end their service). In San, I looked around for some semi-fancy fabric for Tabaski, took it to the tailor and told him I’d be back in a week to pick it up. Then I went trawling through the old clothes and found myself cheap black slacks and since I couldn’t find a ruffled shirt, I settled for a red lace-up shirt, perfect for a pirate costume. At the stage house, I picked up a pirate hat from the house’s Dead Toubab (I can’t imagine how many Peace Corps Mali Halloweens it’s seen), and grabbed the sword I had bought last Christmas in Dogon country. The next day I jumped on a bus, sword, pirate hat, and all, and rode out to Bamako. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and got a good bus (last time I went to Bamako it took me 11 hours), so 6 hours later, I was in the Bamako stage house meeting up with 3 other guys to go to a town called Siby 2 hours south of Bamako where there’s some good climbing and a tall rock arch. In the morning, we grabbed climbing gear from the rental place and hiked up to the rocks overlooking the town.
For the next couple days we climbed around the rocks. Although I really enjoy rock climbing, I’ve never had a chance to climb outdoors on real rocks. Routes had been set up by some experienced climbers before so all the anchor points were in securely and all we had to do was set the rope to the top anchor. On the last day, we decided to repel, because even though the view from the top of the arch was excellent, there was something amazing about being suspended 50 feet in mid-air.
Halloween was fun. A large group of volunteers went to Bougouni where we invaded a local hotel with crazy costumes. I can only imagine what the Malians were thinking when they saw everybody going down the street as Lady Gaga or every character in Mario Kart. Lots of fun, and made me look forward to Thanksgiving.
Tabaski in a nutshell: Tabaski, also known as Seliba in Bambara (big party) is to celebrate the day when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son to him. So Abraham took his son off to demonstrate his devotion and loyalty to God. Then, just before he was about to sacrifice him, God switched his son with a ram and so Abraham sacrificed the ram. Now, every year for Tabaski, Muslims kill a male sheep to show their loyalty to God. So Saturday I went to the town of Bla to celebrate with my homologue’s family. Sunday morning my homologue went to the mosque and as soon as he got back, we changed out of our nice clothes and took pictures with the sheep. He had bought one recently, and the second he had bought almost a year ago and tied up in his backyard to let it grow and fatten. With his younger brothers and his son, they dug a small hole, held down the sheep and cut its throat, letting as much blood as possible out into the hole. Then, we set the sheep aside and let me help to skin it. After setting the skin aside to dry, we removed all the organs, and butchered the rest of the animal. Together with Youssouf, my homologue, we grilled the liver, kidneys, lungs, and other insides as the first course/snack. While we were grilling, the women were preparing rice, boiling meat, and cleaning the stomach and intestines to be eaten later. So then we snacked on liver, and sheep ribs and all the good stuff. After that we sat around and drank tea for a bit before lunch was ready. Once everybody was completely full from eating more meat, we drank more tea. During the first day of Tabaski (there are technically 3 but the 1st is the biggest), you are expected to go greet everybody in town that you know. So for the next 5 hours or so, I biked behind Youssouf’s motorcycle as we went from concession to concession greeting, including the head of the Peace Corps education sector Yaya Bouare who is originally in Bla. By the time we got back it was night, and so we had a some dinner, another couple cups of tea, and I went to my friend Max’s place to crash for the night.
While all these adventures were happening, things were busy at my site. Reminder: I’m working on a subsidy program where the parents of students pay 1000 CFA per month and community donations cover 700 CFA per month to allow the student to eat a meal 4 days a week all month long.
30 more students decided to participate in the lunch subsidies so we now have over 120 students split into two groups eating lunch together. Community interest is growing and so we are getting more and more donations including the Conseil du Cercle, who are technically in charge of the middle schools, who have pledged to cover half of the cost for the year. I’m not sure if they will actually give that much, or have that much to give in the first place but I am hopeful. For a while, I was feeling like a sell-out because I was going to have to rely on a local NGO to help fund part of it, even if it was only $60 a month, but if the Conseil du Cercle actually provides the funds that they were talking about, then I won’t have to. Also, I realized that I wasn’t selling out, I was just buying myself more time to wean the program off of NGOs and turn it over to the community little by little. By involving the NGO, I would be giving myself more time to find local donors and prevent being thought of as a liar, which I have to say I was very much afraid of. I originally didn’t expect so much interest so quickly. I was prepared for 50 at least, and knew I would have to scramble to find the rest. When I saw that 95 had already paid, I was very nervous until people started expressing how much they wanted to help. With that knowledge, I knew I could go climbing and go to Halloween without stressing too much (the Prefet had offered $100, which immediately covered the first month). When I was gone I heard about the additional 30, but also heard about an local organization donating another $100, giving me even more than enough time to either make sure money was coming in from the big donors or to find other means. Regardless, the worst thing I could do was promise something and not be able to deliver. Not only would this destroy the project but it would damage any reputation I had, preventing me from doing the majority of what I had planned in the future.
If you want to know how we avoid corruption, here it is: Money is given to a representative (at this point basically only me but will include other soon) and these donors are given a receipt. The money is then put in a bank account. The bank account belongs to the CAP (commune school organizational body government run) and the CGS (school board), but they cannot actually remove money. For money to be removed, the cantine (restaurant-ish place) women have to go see the CAP treasurer, who writes out a check for the amount of money that needs to be withdrawn according to the number of students eating at her cantine (this is tallied by the school directors when the children bring him their parent’s money). Once the CAP treasurer has written the check, the cantine owner takes it to the CGS treasurer, who then signs the check. Now the cantine owner can go to the bank to make the withdrawal.
The next couple months aren’t supposed to be that busy, but since I’ll be doing a lot of traveling, I have to cram that much more into the time that I’m here. I also have internet at site now, and I’m on almost every day, but it’s not fast enough for me to use gchat.