Monday, January 3, 2011

Weekend Update

I apologize (sort of) for the lack of recent blog posts, however here is a brief synopsis of what life in Mali-la has been like as of late. For beginners, the holiday season arrived in Mali about a week before Thanksgiving. Tabaski (sp?) is the biggest celebration of the Muslim calendar and everyone who is anyone (except pork eating, beer drinking Christians) bought numerous sheep to slaughter and eat.

The celebration itself was pretty fun. After a large community prayer session in the market, everyone returned to their respective households and began three days of sacrificing and then grilling goats and sheep. I spent the time with my homologue's family, where I helped off the sheep, grill the meat, and drink gallons of tea. Overall the three days was a lot of fun; extended family members from across the country came in, there was lots of music being played, and everyone more or less just enjoyed each others company.

The most amusing part of this time, however, was that Malians are very much like Americans when it comes time to party down. For one, everyone is pissed off the day before the event actually begins as they run around frantically cleaning, cooking, and preparing for all their guests. Then, during the actual event, everyone splits their time either showing off all the new things they bought for the holiday (fabric, boom box, sheep) or secretly confiding in the toubab (me) about how they spent to much money, blah blah blah etc… Just like America. And by the end of the event, everyone is just ready for the guests to leave and for life to return to normal. The whole ordeal was essentially a three day thanksgiving.

Following this, the holiday season ended for Malian Muslims, but not for the Americans living in Mali. Those of us that are San Kaw came together and had a big thanksgiving dinner at our regional house. We had to cook commies instead of turkey, but other than that all the food was more or less how you would expect it to be in America. Everyone ate too much, got merry, and generally had a good time. For those of us in my stage who are still relatively new to Mali (and to post college life) it was a great way to spend the first major holiday away from home.

In early December the entire stage returned to our training center at Toubaniso for two weeks of “intensive” in service training. When a large group of Americans who haven’t seen one another for three months are suddenly brought together, the best and worst come out of everyone. Highlights of the two weeks included trips into Bamako, a good friend of mine falling 20 feet off a bridge onto solid ground and somehow being ok (he is now known as Bridge Kid), and not hitchhiking dump trucks late at night on our way back from “The Trashpile”, the drinking establishment closest to our training center.

Low lights, however, included actually attending sessions, dealing with the Toubaniso negens (one of which collapsed) and fighting for food when all our counterparts arrived for the second week of training. Malians do not understand portion control if they’re not all eating together out of a communal bowl.

I spent an extra day after training exploring Bamako with some friends, then bused back to San with a fellow San Kaw to spend Christmas at our house. It was 95 degrees outside, so it felt a bit more like July than Christmas.

After Christmas a few of us went down to Sikasso to go hiking and sleeping at some waterfalls. Sleeping on top of the falls with no civilization for miles was very, very rad. And we made an inappropriately large fire with some trees the river had washed down for us.

Lastly a large group of us met up in Segou for new years. I managed to redeem myself from swear-in night, and instead of being the first to bed, I was the last. At 5am I was, somehow, on the physical roof of our hotel, looking out over Segou and listening to the morning call to prayer. It was a great way to bring in the new year/be tired enough to actually sleep on transport the next day.

Now it’s back to site for the month. My radio show will be in full swing, the baby weighing program is finally starting to document some growth (and loss) with the babies involved, and we’ll be gearing up to start some soak pit and latrine projects during hot season. All in all it was a great month of traveling around the country, and while I’m sorry I don’t provide more posts on a regular basis, Mali doesn’t exactly have wireless everywhere you go. Also, this post wasn't very funny because my ability to grasp the English language is declining at an alarming rate. Cheers.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Evacuate the Dance Floor

My apologies for not getting this post up sooner, but on September 22nd, 2010, I judged a Malian dance contest. Yes, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Malian independence from “Les Frogs,” my village hosted a dance contest for fifteen local villages.

The day began with me and Mapha being some of the first people to arrive at the event. It was set to start at 0830; it started at 1100. Originally we had sat in the middle of the front row of chairs under the main hanger. Slowly, however, we were pushed to the side as more and more important people appeared. The Mayor, Dugutigi, organization heads, Sous-Prefet- all arrived to take part in the festivities and “needed” to sit in the front row. Eventually I was seated well off to the side, but still sort of in the front row. Great place to put the judge.

As the event got going villages and ceremonial groups began filtering in. There were the Elders, the Malian Boy/Girl Scouts, the different dance troupes, and the traditional militia. The Malian traditional militia is a group of Malian men dressed up in leather outfits, firing powder rounds out of out of old ass single barrel shotguns. And they are crazy. They fired these whenever and however they chose during the event. Middle of a speech? Fire them off. Dance group performing? Better run into the middle of their set and fire your gun in the most animated fashion you can. Sometime their guns would jam and they would be abusively jeered by the crowd until they could redeem themselves. One of the younger boys even had a sawed-off shotgun he couldn’t control when fired. More than once it became a projectile entering the crowd.

When the dancing got started it was damn cool. Everyone crowded into a huge circle with the music on one side and a massive dance area in the middle. Each village came up one by one and put on a “dance”. Clearly dance is in parentheses because not everyone actually danced.

One village, for instance, just did karate (Malians love karate?). Others though had masked dancers, dance troupes, matching outfits- clearly they took it all very seriously. It was especially awesome when the drummers would get a good beat going and the place would lose its mind. Instantly huge impromptu dance parties would erupt, with people literally leaping out of the crowd and onto the dance floor. Even the old men would spring up, run out there, and break it down with their cane.

Hands down, however, the best part of the day went to the village that put on THE puppet show. They literally tied two people into a sheet and onto a straw mat with boards on one side for support; the other side of the sheet (outside) was a bunch of hand puppets. The crowd then picked them up, started a drum beat, and began dancing with these people up in the air. The puppets, meanwhile, were going insane thanks to the Malians inside. The Malians did all sorts of movements with these suspended individuals, however when the straw mat was suspended completely upside down and the puppets and puppeteers kept rocking, that’s when they truly won.

The event ended with the judges tallying up the winning scores. The scoring was a bit odd, though, since myself and the two other judges just stood in a circle off to the side and yelled arbitrary numbers for each village. Very effective, let me tell you.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A New Bubble

For this post I’ve provided a few observations regarding the similarities and differences between the “Elon Bubble” and my new “Malian Bubble.” If you haven’t been to Elon you probably won’t understand some of this.

Both bubbles have populations hovering around 5000; if you included all of Elon you would roughly have the size of the town where I live. Both have similar population dispersions, with lots of people present in certain areas at specific times of day.

To get around my site you travel mostly on small dirt paths amongst buildings made of bricks (mud bricks). There are the also the main transportation arteries, roughly the width of a road but are in actuality creek beds that flash flood in heavy storms (really cool to see).

The oaks of Elon have become giant palm trees. Equally picturesque, these trees dot the skyline of my site. There are no cushmans to vigorously clean at night, however there are giant fires of trash that ultimately serve the same purpose. While Elon spends great amounts of time on their pristine lawns, Malians sweep their dirt concessions at least three times a day and make it look exceptionally clean (not joking, you can make a dirt floor look really nice).

Greeting here is much different from Elon. Instead of staring at the sidewalk or your cell phone or straight ahead in the most unnatural way possible, you must greet everyone here. I literally have to make an effort to greet every person I see, every place I go; sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s exhausting. But if I don’t greet everybody I hear about it from everyone else for the next 24 hours. Add to this the fact that Malian greetings are much longer and intricate than Elon nods (“Hi, good morning, did you have peace last night? And your family? And your friends? Peace, Peace, Peace, are you good, what is new, may you have peace, May god give us a good day, you eat cats, peace be”).

I’m a minority here, so frankly that’s different from Elon. And instead of living by the popular bar (1/2), I am by the popular mosque (1/2). It should be noted that the Christian church of course fills the roll of Lighthouse; though it offers some great weekly specials (equal-ish social status, monogamy, the divine right to consume beer) it only seems to occasionally draw a marginal crowd at best.

Instead of BMWs there are NGO Toyata Land Cruisers that pass on the way to Mopti. Former family sedans become mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, and the occasional horse drawn cart that offer a taste of the local people (Bamanan, Bobo, Peuhl).

My roommate (concessionamate) is Banta, an older woman who is hilarious, awesome, and slightly crazy. The other day she came out and slapped a chicken to the beat I was butchering on my guitar (chickens make a very amusing noise when you hold them upside down and slap them). We jammed for a few minutes, then killed and ate her instrument.
In general music here is always played too loud to a point that you can’t actually make out many of the words (similar to Jiggaman).

There is peanut sauce, but no Dan Thai; To, but no Harden; The market butcher on Saturdays, but no roast beef from Acorn. All of these similarities and differences have been amusing and I’m sure there are many I’m forgetting to list. If you are in the former bubble, have a beer for me; I don’t frequent the church.

More specific stories to come soon-ish.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Speak Small Small

Hello Friends, I apologize for the long delay in updates to the blog, emails, and other forms of communicative media. Summer Camp (training) ended, and having passed all of my exams I am now living and beginning to work at my site (the closest PCV is 25k away, not too bad). My site is just east of the city of San (look it up on the map); given Peace Corps Security rules I can’t post the name of my town on my blog as of now, but if you shoot me an email or ask my parents you can find out where exactly I live. In a few weeks I’ll include some better, humorous posts about how life is going. However, this is serving just as a brief update now to the Peace Corps adventure.

I more or less spend every day hanging out with my Malian friends, drinking tea and working on my language. A few times a week I work at my local health center where I’m running a malnutrition/baby weighing program, as well as help with the vaccination days and anything else they need. I’ve managed to establish a pretty good daily routine (I have an amazing running route), and while there have been the typical ups and downs per usual for the Peace Corps, everything is going really well and it’s been an amazing experience so far.

Life is much better as an actual PCV than as a trainee. More fun, more freedom, more experiences, etc… I have some very amazing stories lined up that I will begin posting soon, along with lots of pictures. I haven’t had my computer at site with me for these past few weeks, and when I’m in San with the other PCVs of my area we prefer to frequent the bar over the internet cafĂ©. But the stories are there, and more are coming. You can also shoot me an email to my Gmail account if you care for a less politically correct assessment of my surroundings. So yeah, it looks like mid to late October the blog should be back in full swing and the funny stories will return. Cheers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sportscenter's Top Ten

Something that I’ve found I miss quite a bit is being able to watch Sportscenter’s Top 10 each day when I get up and before bed. Not the whole episode, just the last 10 minute highlight reel (even better on Friday’s, for the Not Top 10). In that spirit, then, I’ve decided to make this post a brief top ten of occurrences in Mali that otherwise would probably not get a full length blog post.

10- African Bush Taxis. Look them up on the internet. They are green. They go too fast. There are no seatbelts. There are only wooden benches inside. You negotiate a lower price by telling the driver he is a bean eater and his compatriot is a hard-boiled egg. They are the best place to make new friends and work on your language skills. Most repairs are done on the fly with rope and a mallet at 60mph while you swerve to avoid other bush taxis. And they make you wonder why the D.C. Metro can’t manage to be more efficient. Or exciting.

9- The Stars. The moon gives off a surprising amount of light, so you really only get the most amazing stars on the nights when it’s absent. However, on these lucky nights you can see satellites, the Milky Way (I think), shooting stars, and bats (which apparently don’t exist, they are simply “night birds”). It is incredibly peaceful to sit outside and watch them, especially when the theme song to Titanic is on in the background on repeat and the children are humming along both out of tune and rhythm. As long as the mosquitoes aren’t biting too badly, it really is pretty awesome.

8- A lack of Silverware. Eating with your hand and spilling all over yourself is actually quite enjoyable. Try it.

7- Gladiator Children. Being a celebrity in my village (TOUBABU, TOUBABU!!!), the children can spot me from a great distance and always come running, regardless of what I’m doing. This includes when I’m biking at great speeds, as they seem not to mind throwing their bodies in front of my tires or attempting to grab onto the back and get violently dragged down the sewage filled road. Each morning they find great pleasure by watching me eat breakfast in silence, and each evening they violently beat one another for the privilege to carry my bike helmet into my room. I always reward the victor, and give the “thumbs-down” to the losers. And then we all play soccer in the road till dark.

6- Killing flies. The last thing my parents gave me before I left was a pair of fly swatters, telling me to “be ready for the flies”. It’s on flies. I kill at least 30 of you a day (not an exaggeration) and yet you still continue to win the battle of getting into my food, drink, and mouth when I’m not paying attention. I taught my host sister how to use the other swatter, and now we have contests to see how many we can off in a certain period of time. I’m batting a .242 right now; Tarri a .345.

5- The Fairly Odd Parents. The family I live with is a riot, nothing more and nothing less. We make animal noises (usually donkey) at one another to communicate and greet. My host mom sings a song to my face which I’m pretty sure is about how stupid I am. My host dad makes me call my mom bald each time we’re together. They think the moon landing was fake, but swear people live on mars. And though they use their left hands as toilet paper, they got very offended when they found out I spit my toothpaste into the nygen (toilet) and asked me politely to stop. Now I spit in on the ground in the middle of my compound and the children play in it. No big deal, I love them all haha.

4- Photos. Photos from home are much appreciated and very helpful. Malians love to see them, and they certainly get you through a rough day. Thanks to my dad, quite a few of you who are in photos with me on facebook are also posted on the walls of my hut. Send some more if you don’t think you’ve been included yet, or have some particularly fond memories from a night none of us remember.

3- Letters. My family has been writing me letters which have been incredibly inspirational. Should you feel the desire to write one, I’ll write one back to you in response. I keep them all in order in a binder. It’s rather old fashioned, but there are certain values technology will never replace.

2- An African Playground. Behind my house, as I get towards where some of my other Banankoro friends live, are miles of single track dirt roads just begging to be ridden by someone on a mountain bike. I often take the long way home each evening after class just for 30 minutes of stress relief and time to think about nothing else than what’s in front of me as I go tearing through the fields. And don’t worry Dad, I do my best to avoid repeating the California incident (knock on wood).

1- Soccer at Toubaniso. On the brief and infrequent occasion we’re back at our training center, a group of us get together and play soccer each evening after work and class. Guys, girls, Peace Corps kids and hired cooks; we all come together and for one hour each evening stop what we’re doing and play on a field of compact dirt, rocks, ant hills, and the rare clump of grass. The games put us through the physical paces while simultaneously relaxing us. While we usually communicate in at least three different languages during the matches, we all come together for the love of the game and the brief hour where we get to take a brake from our responsibilities and make the most of a West African evening. This earns the number one spot every time.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Harry Potter to the Rescue

Obviously spending three weeks out in the bruce will lead to many interesting stories. One is especially worthy of mention above the others. And thus I present the night of the living dead.

The first day I returned to homestay I found out that one of my homestay mothers had passed away. Though I had never met her (she had been in the hospital in Bamako for a number of months) it was still a sad but fascinating occasion to see a Malian/Muslim funeral. The following day, the day of the service, she was buried within the required 24 hours, there was a big dinner, and lots of people from across the town and region were in our concession. Now begins the “story”:

Around 8:30 I was sitting with my host brother (Alu) in the middle of the compound, talking, watching the starts, etc… Suddenly one of the daughters (age 14) near the entrance begins screaming and shaking. She falls to the ground wailing and one of the older men attempts to try to pick her up and move her towards the nearest room. At first this appears fairly normal, it being the day of a funeral and all; however, as the screaming continues it begins to steadily increase in intensity and noise. Now more people have gathered around and are trying to drag the girl into the nearest hut, presumably to quiet her down. In the process of all this my host brother explains to me in French that the girl is “sick in the head” and that each full moon they know she’s getting sick/having an episode because the screaming begins.

At this point she is now surrounded by adults who are physically dragging her across the ground. As Alu explains, and is apparent, she is literally not her normal self in this state. Clearly some form of mental disorder (name??). They manage to get the girl onto her feet and she attempts to run towards another one of the rooms in the compound. Apparently thinking she is running herself into her own room, the adults momentarily release her. Mistake.

She goes running, and shrieking, full speed out of the compound and into the Malian night. At this point all hell breaks loose. My host brother, along with five or six other guys, go sprinting out of the compound and down the road, all clearly freaking out. My host brother has such amazing speed and agility (he hurtled two chairs and three children on his full speed exit of the compound) that someone needs to sign him to the Redskins. Hello new free safety.

The men chase her down about a block away, tackle her in the middle of the road, and drag her kicking and screaming back to the compound. Full moons are bright enough that you can see all of this in the dead of night, no problem. She is taken into one of the bedrooms and they (six men) proceed to wrestle with her as they attempt to bound and gag her to the bed. All the while she is screaming bloody murder.

Suddenly, however, the screaming changes. Now the men start yelling. And come flying out of the room into the courtyard. And what follows them? AN ENTIRE STOVE OF HOT COALS. It explodes on the ground as everyone, myself included, dive for cover from the burning embers. Apparently the zombie daughter had managed to break free and was sending all objects she could get hold of out the doorway and towards the rest of us. With a momentary pause in the dangerous projectiles (though not the screaming), the men charge back into the room like a swat team as the women frantically run around trying to put out the small fires on the ground.

More screams from all parties involved. After about five minutes it finally gets quiet (I think the gag held) and my host brother comes back and sits down with me. He explains that she gets like this everyone now and again, is very sick in the head, and that it’s sad that she is completely removed from herself (which it is). I then proceed to ask him how they got her to quiet down…

His answer? Well, it seems that when she gets like this they run and summon the local witch doctor, who comes and performs brief but highly effective “spells” on her. No exception in this case, and I watched as the witch doctor later left the compound and slunk off into the night. The following day I saw him walking with our local wizard down the main road. Who needs a hospital when you've got Harry Potter?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

They Don't Exactly have Sportscenter in Africa

Probably the hardest part of the transition to Mali has been the loss of regular information to which we are all accustomed. No tv, internet, newspaper, etc... Topics such as where Lebron went, what the Skins have done wrong now, and various other non sports related news issues are no longer available to me. Though I hope to get a radio at my site in September so I can listen to the BBC, the only real information I get about the outside world comes during my two days with internet once or twice a month. With that being said, shoot me an email or a facebook message if there is anything of major interest that you think I should be made aware of when I manage to get internet. This way I don't have to sift through three weeks of news to find one or two stories of interest.

Also, I'm sorry to all of my friends who I haven't been able to be there for since I'm out of contact in Africa. One of the most frustrating and real aspects of the Peace Corps is that in order to work to better our communities here, we have to make sacrifices with our communities at home. I've always been someone who wants to be there for my friends, and so for those of you who I have not/can't be there for, I'm sorry. Know that I am thinking about you.

Back into the countryside till sometime in mid August. Be well and be safe. Cheers.