Friday, March 16, 2012


I think all Mali PCVs will agree that kids are both a saving grace and also a menace during their service and honestly, half the time they are both at the same time. It is impossible to integrate in a village without getting to know the kids. In Malian society, if you spend time with kids, their parents will immediately like you, as a matter of fact, they are almost required to like you according to their culture. Not only is getting to know the kids important to gain their parent’s respect, but if you don’t earn the respect of the kids themselves then they will torment you non-stop, and they are tireless in this regard. You get called toubabou constantly and they never seem to learn your name, they peep through the window when you’re asleep, they mock you, and ask you for your clothes and for money. There are many times when even after earning their respect, you wake up early one Saturday morning, go outside, and find that they are in the process of picking all the un-ripe vegetables in your garden essentially destroying all the hard work you put in for the past 2 months. But these early frustrations are easily made up for when they become your close friends and stop by to chat. One of my most notable conversations was when another volunteer was over and we spent over an hour talking about martial arts and convincing the kids that the other volunteer was a ninja. Also, in Malian culture you can choose anybody that is younger than you and send them to get you food or tea or just about anything you want. Although you can do this any time, when you know the kids, they do it a lot more willingly and quickly. So, when you are hanging out reading on a lazy weekend and you don’t want to get up for breakfast, you can call a kid over and “ci” (send him on a mission) him to get you something. On bad days, all it takes is for kids to do something silly or get a baby to sit on your lap to brighten your day. Every volunteer probably also has a story about winning over a baby or small child. When meeting a baby or child for the first time, and Malians think it’s hysterical, they are frightened by white people and cry whenever they see one. Naturally, this leads to a game where the mother turns the baby around to face you, at which point the baby cries and the mother laughs and comforts it until it stops crying. Then she turns the baby around again, the baby cries, the mother laughs and so on and so forth. Volunteers try really hard to win children over and make them stop crying. Depending on the age of the child, this can be really challenging.

My host family in Tominian often have people over, but one woman, Lavielle, is almost like a daughter to them. She’s a teacher in a nearby village but she comes over once a month to visit and whenever she comes over she brings her one year old daughter, named Mami with her. For the past year and a half, I have been trying to win over Mami. I tried making faces at her, I tried tickling her, I tried picking her up and nothing seemed to work. It was always the same scenario over and over again: I would walk in the house, greet everyone, call our her name, and as soon as she saw me she would bury herself in her mother’s lap and everyone would laugh. Then, after a couple minutes, she would forget I was there, crawl around, see me, and start crying… and everyone would laugh. My first breakthrough was a couple months ago during watermelon season. Mami loves watermelons. So every time I came over for lunch, I would take a small piece of watermelon and hand it to her, always trying to get her to crawl a little bit closer to me than the last time. Very suspiciously, she’d reach out as far as possible without leaving her mother’s lap to grab it. These were very minor victories but it seemed we couldn’t make any more progress. After watermelon season came papaya season. Mami likes papayas less than watermelons, but she was still willing to make a small effort. Then one day, I waved as I was leaving, and she waved back. Encouraged, I went closer, but she hid again, clearly hoping that by waving I would leave faster, rather than come back. Finally, during the currently waning carrot season, about a week ago, I hopelessly held out my hand for maybe the hundredth time, and this time, she greeted me. Everybody in the house was so happy and laughed so much that she started smiling and did it again. During the past few days, not only do I look forward to having lunch with my host family, but I look forward to playing with Mami and watching her laugh with everyone whenever she grabs my hand to say hi. Actually, she went from hiding to smiling and bouncing a bit when I come by.


Mami finally wants to hang out.
Daniel - He comes to hang out every once in a while.
The one on the left is one of my favorite kids. We can't actually communicate because she only speaks Bomu, but she understands Bambara so we get by.

Everybody was dressed up for Christmas.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This is an article an RPCV Dan Evans posted on his facebook and agree with what is written. Although there is financial and social disparity in Africa, there is also great potential. There isn't a single answer or a single problem, and in reality it tends to be a vicious cycle that involves cultural and social impasses. In Peace Corps, we try to emphasize hand-washing, talking about AIDS, and other problems that can be solved either with an increase in knowledge or a behavioral change. Unfortunately, I find that more and more we sound like a broken record. Just about everybody knows and understands the arguments given by NGOs and foreigners about hand-washing. When people go in and explain hand-washing, people do it right and give many explanations. Malians know the key words and phrases that will make development workers happy or that will get UNICEF to provide funding (I once barely suppressed laughing at a Malian who submitted to me a proposal to have food and gifts given for an event teaching about AIDS and child sex trafficking in my area - it sounds bad, but although I agreed with the AIDS issue, it was clear that the man I was speaking with knew exactly what to include to get funding especially because although sex trafficking may be an issue in some parts of Mali where there are gold mines and such, I know for a fact that sex trafficking is not an issue where I am, some 500 km or more from any gold mine). It's funny when people try to provoke a response from me. They will say things like, "I plan on marrying 4 wives. Is that bad?" or "I want 10 children per wife". They say these things because they have experience with other development workers who get excited or angry and try to change their minds. For me, as long as it's cultural, I tell them that it's not a problem and that they should invite me to their wedding or baptism. But with issues like hand-washing, I try to explain to them my reasoning.
Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend (the accountant at the IFM so clearly educated) about hand-washing and tried to explain to him that water wasn't enough. After a long debate, with me saying that in the past the death rate was higher, at a younger age, and him saying that as long as children lived past the age of 10 they survived until 100 we clearly weren't getting anywhere. So I asked him why people die early now and he said it was because of all kinds of new diseases that occur because of living closer together and brought by foreigners. Some of this was true, but the idea that malaria was new and the fact that they say malaria for almost all illnesses because it's so common frustrated me. The decisive factor was using his own cultural ideas to my advantage. I told him, "Ok, say I'm wrong, malaria is brand new to Mali along with a crazy number of diseases that were never around to kill or weaken your ancestors, but NOW, there are all these crazy diseases, and they cannot be washed away simply with water, and maybe they didn't need to protect themselves before but clearly now things are different and soap is necessary." I felt bad putting it this way because I felt like I was lying, but it at least put things into perspective for him.
I also might have just uninstalled my director's keyboard on his laptop... so I need to fix that. I'll finish this post later...