Saturday, March 19, 2011

First Impressions of Site Visit

This is a post that is composited of selections from my journal over the first few days I was at site visit.

12 Mars 2011 5:00 PM
HOLY COW I arrived three hours ago and I have to write this all down before I forget! After about five hours on a bus, my homologue, Oumar, stopped the bus in the middle of a field, where his friend met us on a moto. They rode slowly ahead of me while I pedalled furiously through the sand and pebbles, away from the main road, to my village. After about 20 minutes of passing scrubby brush, empty fields, and forest, I heard the distant yet distinctive sound of a balafon, the traditional wooden and gourd xylophone so prevalent here. I was so nervous! A million thoughts were running through my head: Is this what I expected when I started my application two years ago? I hope I like it- this village is going to be my home for the next two years. I can't believe this is happening! Will I be happy? Disappointed? I had no idea what to expect, or why I was panicking. I was so hot and dusty and sweaty and foreign that I was certain that upon arrival they would think I was ridiculous. Who am I kidding? I'm from America and I've been planted in the middle of the bush in West Africa. What about that is not ridiculous?

We rode in to the shade of a big tree and the party started. Women brought me a chair and cool water (it was so hard not to chug it all, however, the fear of West African microbial nasties held me back). Then, some dude rode up on a moto with a giant, panicked turkey in his lap, who was squawking these terrible, concerned squawks. Oh shit. I kept thinking, "Are they going to kill it in front of me? Mental note: act like you see turkeys die all the time." Though the turkey was cradled in the lap of the woman sitting next to me for the next hour (much panicked squawking), luckily, they didn't kill it in front of me. I can't be sure, but if they did end up slaughtering it, I assume I will eat it for dinner tonight. Hmm.

The men, women, and children danced to the balafon and drums for over an hour. The elder women did special music and dance. They had gourds covered in a net of cowry shells which they shook to a chanting rhythm. Each came up to greet me, and as they did, they knelt in front of my and touched the ground with the gourd. The dugutigi [chief of village] made a speech, which was translated into French for me. He welcomed me warmly and thanked me for coming to help them. We danced some more (that was hilarious for them). The men stood on one side of the crowd and the women on the other. I was really so touched by the whole thing. I welled up a little at the thought that these people are seeking a better life through a partnership with me, not just a huge organization like the United States Peace Corps, but me, Chelsea Barker, a complete stranger to them, their language, their culture. It's overwhelming to think about it.

Eventually Oumar realized how tired I was and showed me to my house, which is amazing, btw. It has three rooms with cement floors. I have three windows. The rooms are huge. My courtyard has lots of space, a hammock, a and a moringa tree! It even has a pea vine the provides shade from an overhang. I can't wait to get some furninshings. My negen looks good, too. So far, so good.

8:31 PM
Lonely. Took a nap, got a million Bambara phrases messed up and I haven't met my host family yet. I see how PCVs get so lonely. Tomorrow should be interesting. No sacrificial turkey for dinner? Confused.

13 Mars 2011, 6:48 AM
Slept alright, but damn, it's hot. It makes me lethargic.

10:48 AM
Formally met the dugutigi and junior dugutigi. Both are ancient men with no teeth but they seem nice. I've eaten about ten mangoes since being here. Thank goodness Oumar bought some for me on the way in, otherwise I'd be really hungry without them. My village is pretty, rather picturesque. Lots of mud-brick buildings, thatched roofs, chickens, sheep, goats, guinea hens, and even some ducks and a pig. It's spread out and not exactly flat. I can see that erosion is a big problem here.

15 Mars 2011, 7:28 AM
Last night I drank tea with the schoolteachers (who speak French). I asked them why the women were cutting down brush, and not the men, since it is very hard work and men are stronger (something they were adament about telling me earlier). They thought for a moment and said, as if solving a riddle, "Ahhh, yes. Women must fetch firewood because it is part of preparing food, and that is women's work. It is very good." I immediately retorted, "No, it's very good for you because that's hard work!" They laughed. I don't think they understood my indignation. I also tried to explain to them american football, and they thought it was rugby, and then they thought it was cricket. Trying to explain Maryville College's powderpuff football tradition was just freaking hilarious.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cultural Values

Today was a joint session between trainees and homologues. In it we identified predominate values significant to our respective cultures, Malian or American. Here's a short list of both, in no particular order.

-Group concensus: all decisions are made my input of family members, but then ultimately decided by the chief of the family. If people disagree, they talk about it until they are all of the same mind
-Greeting everyone you see
-Respect of elders
-Significance of social ceremonies, such as naming ceremonies, funerals, and weddings: village life stops and everyone attends
-Hospitality, welcoming of guests
-Respect of all religious beliefs
-Families and familial hierarchies
-Men and women have different roles
-Men are the chief of the families and villages
-Appropriate dress based on one's age, gender, and marital status
-Eating together from the same bowl reinforces familial love and reinforces the strength and unity of family

-Independence, personal freedoms
-Success, being goal-oriented
-Creativity, innovation
-Democracy (participation, differing ideas)
-Human and animal rights
-Arts, aesthetics, beauty, entertainment
-Convenience, comfort
-Directness/ being able to speak one's mind

This is just a short list of the cultural values that were mentioned, but I really liked the perspective that this brought to the group. We come from different backgrounds, and our cultures dictate how we act and percieve others' actions. As co-workers and neighbors my homologue and I will encounter situations that confuse, offend, or differ from each others' interpretations of the same thing. I learned today that not only is that okay, but it is to be expected. By understanding underlying cultural values and assumptions, we can then begin to understand the motivations and reasons for specific behaviors that we witness or encounter.

I thought this was a good place to start to reflect on my own ideals, values, and cultural forces that shape my own behaviors and opinions. I know that this list of American values by no means encompasses the great diversity that exists among us, but it's a good starting point. I encourage you all to take a few moments and reflect upon your upbringing, your passions, your dislikes, and your own values. Do they influence the way you behave? Do they perhaps dictate your perceptions of others' actions? I noticed that even as I participated in the activity this morning that I was disagreeing with my fellow American trainees. This is because we were all raised by different families in different places who place value on different things. I think it will help me to remember this as I become more immersed in the Malian culture, and particularly in a working relationship with my villagers and homologue. One of our cultural manual states (paraphrased), "Personal differences play as big or greater a role in cultural proceedings." It's a good lesson, no matter where you are and who you encounter. I leave for my site visit tomorrow morning. I'm excited and nervous. Wish me luck!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Site Annoucements and I'm Really Cool All Of The Sudden

Hello everyone! This is the most exciting news since I've arrived: I GOT MY SITE ANNOUNCEMENT! I finally know where I'm going. I get to visit it this week, too. I am thrilled with it. I am in the Sikasso region. I know I shouldn’t have set an expectation, but in terms of being an Environment Sector Volunteer, but living in Sikasso is like hitting the jackpot. Sikasso gets the most rain and therefore grows the greatest variety of produce and field crops. One can easily access such God-given wonders such as pineapple, avacados, and grapefruit. I’m pretty much ecstatic. I've met my homologue, and he seems nice, but we ran out of things to say in the first 30 seconds.

Chelsea: Hey! You're my homologue!
Oumar: Hello! How are you? How's your family? How's your family in America?
Chelsea: They're great! How are you? How is your family? How are your wives?
Oumar: Great!
[awkward silence, Chelsea nervous giggles]
Oumar: So, I'm going to go drink some tea.
Chelsea: Yes, me too.
Oumar: Okay bye.

My was described as having the perfect mix between being rural and urban, since I can easily access the regional capital yet still live in a village of only 870 people. I will apparently be farming cotton and working with a women’s group that wants to start gardening. I may also be working with cashew fruit/nut production. You are asking yourselves, “Does Chelsea know anything about farming cotton or growing tree nuts?” Good question, readers. I asked myself the same question. Here’s what I came up with: 1) There was a cotton gin at the plantation where my brother got married this June. I don’t really remember what it looks like, so I’m out of luck there. 2) My good friend Stephanie made me a drink she made up called a Cotton Gin. It was tasty and pink. However, I’m in a Muslim country, so that doesn’t help either. 3) Ah, yes. Once, in high school, I had a cross country race next to a cotton field in Alabama. I remember it looking like tiny patches of snow stuck on branches. I immediately felt guilty (since I’m white I guess) so I wonder what farming cotton with actual Africans is going to do to my southern pride. Eat your heart out, Robert E. Lee. As for the cashews, I have no clue how to grow them, but I know that the nut is often discarded since they’re really difficult to extract from the case that they grow. Oftentimes people don’t know that there’s even a nut in there. You can read more about them here. I am hoping to partner up with some of my Small Enterprise Development or Health Education friends because the nuts can be very lucrative and nutritious.

Also, I’ll be learning A FOURTH LANGUAGE! Yes, that’s right, I’ve won the Peace Corps lottery and I’ve been placed in a site that primarily speaks a minority language. I am actually really excited about this opportunity, but nervous, too. Senoufo is apparently unrelated to Bambara (they’re an ethnicity from northern Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, and western Burkina Faso) but it is the most widely spoken language in my village, according to my site information. I have been assured that I will have a private language instructor, as well as one to continue my Bambara. I will use my Bambara, but apparently some men and a good portion of the women don’t speak it (because they haven’t gone to school) and I can’t really do anything without talking to women. So, I’m optimistic about it. Apparently, other volunteers in the area have picked it up, so there’s hope. I’ll write more about my site after I see it! I can’t wait.

The Other BIG news: our swear-in, when we officially become Peace Corps Volunteers, is set for mid-April at the US Embassy in Bamako. That’s cool, but the really exciting part is that our after party is going to be hosted by….wait for it….. THE MALIAN PRESIDENT AT  HIS PRESIDENTIAL PALACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ATT, as he is affectionately called, has agreed to host a gigantic American party in honor of PC Mali’s 40th year anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. This is a big deal. This makes me feel really important, which is why I feel really cool all of the sudden.

As always, I appreciate all of your well wishes and support. (And thanks Mom, Uncle Mike, and Carolyn for the letters/package!)
Love, Chelsea

Homestay Part II

So, I'm back! Part II of homestay is gone already. I can't believe how quickly it passed. It was a good two weeks, and I'm ready for what's next, but first, a few words about my homestay. It is awesome. I didn't have the chance to live with a host family in Reunion, but I'm so glad I get the opportunity here. I am seeing a side of cultural integration that’s enlightening and intriguing. In the past two weeks I've gotten somewhat better at Bambara, and now I can speak in very limited full sentences. Bambara is not a complex language, but that actually makes it very difficult. For example, many of the words are homonyms, or they're very similar to words with entirely different definitions. It kind of reminds me of German in that you can just tack on words to other words to make new, more specific words. For example, my bike is a "nekeso" or iron (neke) horse (so <-- also the word for house!), or fruit is "yiridenw" or children (denw) of the tree (yiri). The word for condom is fukulan, or “very special hat.” I find it both charming and annoying, depending on the temperature, how much sleep I got, my emotional state, etc. It can be frustrating, but I've only been learning it for a month, so I'm not stressing it. It’s coming dooni (slowly). 

Something I learned about my family: my moms are involved in a women's association seeking to get grant money from Oxfam to improve the schools in Tieguena. The proposal looks good to me, but of course I’m biased. They want to sell goods like food stuffs and clothing as well as collect garbage/recyclables. They are hoping to provide for more teachers and scholarships for girls to go to school. Though they are barely literate and have over 20 children between them, my moms are intelligent ladies. If asked, each will tell you of the hardships Malian women face: they are less likely to attend school, let alone go to high school or university, which is rare in small towns. They are often married off at the age of 18, though it's not unheard of to know 15 year old brides. One can imagine, then, their long lives of childbearing. Two of my moms have seven children (both estimate their ages to be in the early to mid-40s), one has three, and the other is expecting to give birth to her fourth child this month. They are the most hard-working people I have ever encountered. 

On a more positive note, the kids in my family are hilarious. They are a constant supply of laughs, frustrations and (lots of) snot. They love me and they help me by speaking slowly and showing me the nuances of Malian living. I help them with their French homework in exchange. My moms have asked me to take the babies back with me, and it breaks my heart. Although they are laughing when they suggest it, I know that they would absolutely let me if I said yes. Here is a picture of one of the twins, Fatouma, crawling away in utter terror (for the 37th day in a row) because of my white skin. 

Also, a picture of my house at homestay…

…and village! We like to plan paintball courses, point out possible Zombie Apocalyse Safe Houses and futuristic movie sets. As you can see, Tieguena has a lot to offer, aesthetically speaking.

For those of you playing Bingo: Chelsea in Africa Edition, you can mark off Multiple Marriage Proposals from Different Men In One Day, Offending People Without Knowing How or Why, and Being Forced To Dance to Traditional Music In Front of Lots of People Because It's Funny to See a Toubab Do That. It's the little things that make me laugh, and when I laugh, I count it as a good day.