Sunday, February 20, 2011

Different, Sometimes Difficult, Never Insurmountable

I've completed 13 days of my homestay so far. Tonight, I'm back at the training center for a few days to do some technical training and to mentally recharge. It's good to be back! A lot has happened in the last 13 days, too much to explain here, so I'll do my best. Here's a rundown of a typical day.

I wake up around 6, sometimes earlier. My host mom and aunts are busy preparing breakfast, fetching water, tending to babies, starting fires. The donkeys' brays or the roosters' calls usually rouse me fisrt, though. At around 6:30 one of my host aunts/my mom knocks on my door. I give her a bottle of my filtered water so she can make my tea. I avert my eyes because it's impolite to greet someone before washing your face in the morning. I take my bath behind a mud wall with a  cup and a bucket. It's refreshing and it makes me feel clean. Once I'm dressed, I sweep my room and study while I wait for breakfast. I usually have a sweetened rice porridge with a partial loaf of french bread with either french fries, mayonaise, or fried plantains. I walk to class with another PCT, Matt, to the rear of the village where we have class in the shade of a mango grove. There are three students in my class: Matt, Rebecca and myself. Sometimes we do cultural or technical training, as the six of us in the village are all in the environment sector. So far we've planted tree seedlings and started a few test plots in a garden.

During lunch I eat, rest, play with my host siblings, or study. In the evenings I go to the pump to get my bathing and drinking water. They laugh at me when I don't carry it on my head and they laugh when I do and it inevitably spills all over me- I must look ridiculous, I can't blame them for laughing. I'm usually laughing harder than all of them. Yep, I'm the toubab (white person) with the bucket on her head and a gaggle of children behind her. I go home, take another bucket bath, journal, and hang out and practice Bambara with my host aunts, uncles, siblings and parents.

My family, by the way, is awesome. My concession (the area in which we live) consists of four brothers (my dad is the eldest) and their four wives (in my situation it's one per brother, but Islamic law allows up to four, FYI). There are roughly twenty kids between them, though it's hard to be sure. They move around a lot. I consider them all to be my host brothers and sisters and all the adults to be my parents. Everyone is really great about being patient, repeating themselves, and giving me space. They are funny and very caring. I was pretty sick this week with both gastrointestinal-related illness and strep throat (of all the things to get in Africa...seriously) but they took great care of me. My mom even made me special tea for my throat. I think that between adjusting to the liberal use of pure MSG, lots of palm oil and moving to a desert climate really did a number on me. No worries, I'm fine now (thank you, Peace Corps MedKit for having strong antibiotics!).

The title of this post, "Different, Sometimes Difficult, Never Insurmountable" has been a mantra for me these past few weeks. Malian culture and living amongst very poor people has its challenges, both logistically/physically and psychologically, but I am doing well. I am doing my best to keep a positive attitude. I can be overwhelming if I think about all 27 months of service at once, but I'm taking baby steps. It's working so far. Very slowly I am speaking and comprehending more Bambara. I'm sure I will face rougher illnesses and more intense homesickness and/or culture shock, but overall, I'm proud of myself for the shape I'm in. Life is good.

Sorry for the length, but like I said, a lot has happened. I'll be around the internet for a few more days so I'll do my best to stay on top of communication!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

HOMESTAY ahmahgahhhhh

It's about 7:55am here. In about ten minutes or so I'll load my pack, water filtration system, mosquito net, ALL of my PC manuals and my pillow on a bus. Six of us are going to be living in the village of Tieguena (chay guh nuh) for the next 8 weeks. I will meet my host family today, meet my fellow villagers and have Bambara class in the afternoon, which brings me to the reason why I am quickly blogging this morning.

I think I've learned my first lesson already. Yesterday we found out our homestay sites. I was all geared up to learn a minority language (they're totalllyyyyyy way cooler than just Bambara). I was convinced I would be because I tested well enough in my French. However, when they called my name, it was for a Bambara site. I have to say I was a little disappointed. I was also tripped out on Mefloquine, so that could have been part of it. Regardless, I realized that it doesn't matter what language I learn; it doesn't make a difference. I'm still working for the same organization. Besides, it's not like I'm going to use Bambara when I leave Mali, let alone a Dogon dialect or Malinke. I learned that having no expectations is the best way to go about this job. I can't be let down, and I may even be pleasantly surprised. It's a hard lesson to learn for someone as Type A as I am. How do you tell yourself not to hope? With practice, and by learning the hardway I am nervous about meeting my host family today and becoming truly immersed in Malian culture, but I am going to try to remember this as I'm freaking out because I have no clue why they're laughing at me. It's GOING to happen, haha. I hope I can handle it.

Everyone says this is one of the hardest days. DU COURAGE!!! I'll be back to teh internetz on the 20th for two days. I would LOVE to have a letter by then... :) Only kidding.

But really.

Okay k'an ben!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tubaniso and Zumanabugu

Tubaniso is where I currently am, the Peace Corps training facility a few kilometers south of Bamako. Zumanabugu ("Home of the Dove") is the compound of huts, latrines, water spigots, and bonfire pits where we all live. My life right now is pretty awesome.

I can't believe I've been here for only a few days-- I was in the US (at home!) just a week ago. It seems implausible. Since then, I have made 63 new friends, learned Bambara, peed and pooped in a hole in the ground, eaten with my hands, listened to the call to prayer, and met my first Malians. The structure of training keeps us busy, so I apologize for not posting this sooner. I will try to give you a run-down of my days and then a brief overview of what's next.

We have breakfast from 7-8 (french bread, butter, jam or peanut butter). I like to have hot chocolate with it. Then we go to training sessions. We've discussed culture, language training, diversity within the PC, homestays, and our first Bambara lessons. We have lunch, then more sessions. Yesterday for lunch we ate in the traditionally Malian style; communal, around a big bowl or rice and cabbage and goat. We have LCFs, or Language and Cultural Facilitators who are Malians themselves.They speak their own ethnic language, Bambara, and also French. They are basically hired to teach us how to become Malian. They hold sessions, do skits, and answer questions. It makes us feel like kindergarteners because they have to hold our hands for everything and we ask "Is this right?" or "Comment dit-on..?" about a billion times a day. They are the most gracious and patient people I have ever met. Emphasis on the patient. They will also be moving to our homestay villages with us to teach us and help us communicate. I love them. They are amazing.

I will go out to my homestay village in a small group of volunteers with an LCF on Tuesday! I'm excited and terrified. I am practicing my Bambara greetings (i ni sogoma!) and blessings and reviewing cultural rules. I can't wait to get my host family and my Malian name. At homestay, I'll eat with my family three meals a day and go to class for 8 hours for 6 days a week. We get Sundays off. We'll all come back together to Tubaniso as a stage (pronounced "staahj") once every 10 to 12 days.

My first impressions of Mali are very, very, positive. Literally everyone smiles and greets one another. Even the guards like to help us practice our Bambara. It's hot and dusty here (95+ each day), as we are nearing the onset of the hot season (it will get much hotter)! Also, the mango season is coming soon. This is a good thing. I am coping remarkably well with the insane jet lag, long days, and Mefloquine. Mefloquine is my prophylaxis, or my anti-malaria medication. It's giving me mild paranoia, the shakes, and wicked trippy dreams, but nothing intolerable. I hope that's the worst of it; I certainly have the mildest of the side effects compared to my colleagues. We had an entire session on Malaria yesterday, and it doesn't sound fun, but it shouldn't be a problem because I'm going to be awesome about taking my drugs.

I know I didn't include mailing info yet, so here it is! I will be at the following address for the next 8 weeks or so. Things to know first: If you're mailing letters, number them. Send small packages with nothing expensive inside (it will be stolen). If you're sending a post card, put it in an envelope, as they tend to get lost. If you're sending chocolate, (ahem), double ziplock it so it doesn't leak when it melts. Generally expect small envelopes to take about 3 weeks and packages to take 6 or 7. Packages should be sent through DHL. Things I would love: packs of baby wipes, chocolate or any American candy I can give to the kids here, hand lotion (I forgot it, and there is A LOT of hand washing here- a good thing), probiotics, and pictures of home. I'm sure I'll add to this later.

Chelsea C. Barker
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 85
Bamako, Mali

I'll try to post again before I leave for homestay. We're having a cultural festival in about an hour! I'll get to buy fabric for my first Malian clothes, eat Malian food, listen to Malian music, and of course, dance and get to know my fellow Stagemates better.

k'an ben!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ready or Not

... HERE I COME!!! The time is here, my friends. I cannot believe it. After years of wondering, waiting, hoping, imagining, today is the day. I fly out tonight for Paris, and I will be in Bamako in just a day later. I have met some amazing people here at Staging in DC. We're already so friendly. It's so nice to be around people who understand your motivations and believe in the organization and the importance of the work that Peace Corps does. I have lots to say (as always) but I will try to keep it concise, as my time is short because the buses taking us to the clinic are on their way.

1) I got to see some fantastic people while I was here in DC. THANK YOU to my dear friends Robbie, Chris and Nour for taking time out of your schedules to track me down in Georgetown and give me some last minute hugs. This meant the world to me. Also, thank you to Mike and Jan for taking me to a delicious dinner for my last night in DC. You guys topped off the entire day, and your generosity and kindness are unparalleled. Thank you for treating me like one of your own.

2) At staging yesterday, the DIRECTOR of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams and the Ambassador of Mali were surprise guests! It was such a neat surprise. Both are incredibly intelligent men who thanked us for our service. It was the first time in years that both people came to a staging. It's obviously really rare for that to happen, so it was neat. I asked Director Williams about the recent 20/20 piece regarding female sexual assault. He gave a good answer, and we were able to talk about it some more before we ajourned for the day. Cool experience.

3) I had a great last night in a warm, big, comfy bed with multiple pillows. The hot shower this morning was divine. On a walk this morning I actually stopped and stared at some snow. I think I shall miss it.

That's about all I have for now. I will have my phone until about 10 tonight when I depart, so if you want to say goodbye, you should call today. The buses are here! Love to you all. Here I go!