Friday, April 15, 2011

Swear-In and Installation!

Lots has happened over the past week and I want to talk all about it (is there ever anything I don't want to talk about at length? Hah) but here in Sikasso, we share a powergrid with Cote D'Ivoire and since it's the hot season and they are relatively unstable at the moment, my electricity and internet accessibility are at their mercy. Without further ado, the last week and a run down of the next few:

Swear-In: In a word, incredible. For starters, it was held at ATT's PRESIDENTIAL PALACE which was a first for Peace Corps Mali. It was held there to celebrate 40 years of Peace Corps in Mali and Peace Corps as well as Mali's 50th anniversaries. ATT presided and even gave a little speech! In it he said that if he were American, he would join the Peace Corps. That was really touching. It was absolutely incredible to be able to look at a man sitting in the same room as you and think "that man led a revolution that freed an entire nation." I got goosebumps just thinking about it. The palace was beautiful, too: it was on top of a hill that overlooked the whole of Bamako. There was even air conditioning and running water (but no toilet paper, Malians have got to get on that train). When I raised my right hand to pledge a vow to serve the nations of Mali and the United States for two years, I got goosebumps again. I still can't believe that I'm a real Peace Corps Volunteer now. It blows my mind that I'm actually doing this after thinking about it and wishing for it for so long. Here's a link to the press conference.  After the ceremony we had a light reception outside where I promptly ate about seven chocolate eclairs and had some delicious hibiscus ginger tea. Then, we all went back to Tubaniso (the training center) and had a nice dinner (french fries and chicken) and got ready to leave in the morning.

The next day we got on buses to go to our regional capitals. I played a fun game with my friends called Malian Roulette. It's a really simple game. All you have to do is make a decision to do something in Mali that may or may not result in a situation that is preventable under normal circumstances. On this particular day we played Malian Street Food Roulette. It was really fun and really tasty, but unfortunately, I lost. How do you lose Malian Roulette? Well, you make the bus driver stop every twenty minutes until you stop losing. Welcome to Peace Corps Mali. You win some, you lose some, but there's always tomorrow. :)

Once in Sikasso, we did some protocol, such as meeting the regional governor, and did some shopping for our houses. It was nice to have a few days to get to know the city, the other Volunteers who are already serving here and also just to relax before going to site. I am getting installed tomorrow in a Peace Corps vehicle, since my site can't be accessed by public transport. I'm excited and nervous to actually begin my service. I know that it's going to be a difficult two months at site especially because my Bambara is not that good and my Senufo is non-existent. I am going to try my hardest to stay at site as much as I can in the first two months so that I can make good connections, get better at Bambara, and learn more about what my projects will look like. I have vague ideas, but I'm really looking forward to understanding how I can help my village specifically. I hope I can discern some goals by the time I go back to Tubaniso for In Service Training.

Thanks again to everyone out there who is reading this, especially my Maryville professors, friends from New Hartford, Mrs. Bartolozzi, and the Peace Corps hopefuls who are looking for a better insight into this crazy life. I appreciate it all! I should be back to Sikasso in a few weeks to do some banking and to check email, et cetera. Until then, enjoy your running water and refrigeration and think cooling thoughts for me. Hot season's not a joke, y'all. :) K'an ben sooni!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Just FYI I Chopped All My Hair Off

Yep, it's true. And here's why.

I remember when I found out that I was going to Africa that my dad asked me if I was going to buzz my head. I thought that it would be super cool if I did that, but I hesitated. I liked my hair. It was finally growing out and I no longer had awkward bangs, (which was a huge accomplishment and a long time coming, thank you very much). So long story short, I didn't touch it. I didn't think I needed to. However, I now recognize I was just telling myself that because I didn't have the courage to do it.

Upon arriving to Mali I saw that so many girls in my stage had short hair. They looked really cute, and I was a little jealous that they had the chutzpah to cut their hair. My friend Michaela (who has an adorable short-do) encouraged me to take the plunge, but I mostly brushed it off until one morning this week. I was taking a bucket bath and couldn't get all of the soap out of my hair. I knew it was going to look ridiculous and greasy for the rest of the day, and that really irritated me. At the same time, Michaela stepped out of the shower next to me, practically radiating with her cute, clean pixie cut. So I decided then and there that I was going to stop vacillating and get my hair cut.

A few hours later, I had the shortest hair I had had since I was about three years old. To my credit, I neither styled my hair like a bowl cut nor was wearing androgynous clothing (thanks Mom, for letting me get those out of the way early in life). I loved it. I still love it, and I'm so glad I did it.

I think that for many girls, and for me particularly, I felt as though I needed long hair to feel pretty. I resented that so much. I mean, after two months in Mali, slowly but surely the little things that I used to do in the US to keep up my appearances, such as putting on make-up or shaving my legs regularly, had fallen by the wayside. It's not like I'm lazy, but sometimes, things like that just don't make sense here. Interestingly, I could come to terms with those concessions, but I was really struggling about what to do with my hair. I finally realized that not only is this the perfect time in my life to do something this extreme (I have two years to grow it out if I end up deciding it's not for me), but I needed to learn how to feel pretty without something so prototypically feminine. If I can feel beautiful and self-confident while I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer with short hair, I can feel beautiful and self-confident anywhere, at any time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Meet Alima

Meet Alima.

Alima is my ten year old host sister. She, in many ways, has been the single most influential factor in my Malian experience so far. From the day I arrived, giddy, nervous and immensely curious, Alima took it upon herself to be my guardian. Her gentle but enormous smile and bright eyes watched my every move. She corrected me when I used my left hand. She brought me to the pump to get my water every day. She spoke slowly and clearly and corrected my bumbling Bambara no matter how many times I messed it up. When school began she walked me across the village until I knew where I was. She came back each afternoon to walk me home. She checked on me in my room, sat with me and smiled at me when I was beginning to doubt my sanity, or when I was afraid of finding a scorpion. When I temporarily lost my solar charger, she walked me around the village in the hottest part of the day and helped me ask my neighbors if they knew who had "borrowed" it. She was a fantastic little sister.

Not long before leaving my homestay, I was talking with Alima about something related to school. She showed me her notebook and I noticed that her math scores were not so good. "Alima," I mock scolded. "You need to do your homework!" Smiling, she turned to a fresh page and pointed to my pen. She waited. When I realized that she wanted to do homework, it kind of blew my mind. What kid wants to do extra homework? Okay, I thought. No problem. Let's see what kind of math she's been working on. That's when things got sticky. Alima was doing addition, and it was not looking good. So, I wrote down a few simple problems. It didn't take much time to notice that she couldn't add. She could count as high as I wanted, but when I asked her what 5 + 7 was, she couldn't come up with an answer. From then on, at lunch and dinner we'd sit together and work on various problems: adding, subtracting, the concept of the ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands places. She was trying so hard, but it was clear to see that the Malian education system had failed her.

One afternoon I asked her what she wanted to be when she got older. "A French teacher" she promptly replied. "Great," I thought. I can help her with that. "Let's do some translation from French to Bambara," I suggested. Alima began to read a paragraph from her textbook, but something wasn't clicking. I had a sickly hunch in my stomach, so I asked her to read a line from a paragraph farther down. After an embarrassing short silence, she said, "I can't." She had memorized the text at the beginning, but had no idea about the rest. She didn't even know what she was reading. I realized that Alima was illiterate. Illiterate. Later, I couldn't even say it out loud to myself. It tasted like a dirty word in my mouth. Sure, I knew that the majority of my acquaintences in Mali would be illiterate, that millions worldwide cannot read or write, but for some reason, I couldn't believe that my Alima could be in that population. This realization was simply heartbreaking. Honestly, I wanted to cry. Alima's infallible, she's fearless, she's my protector. She's my ten year old little sister. How could I possibly do anything to help? I mean, it's not like she's dying or anything, but literacy is clearly not something she was learning in school ( especially when the teachers are on strike all the time) and she won't be learning it from her parents, who are also illiterate. Even if she was going to school regularly, she'd never have time for homework because of all of her household responsibilities keep her busy well past dark. Her teachers were not going to give her extra tutoring or special attention in such big classes. She faced so many barriers.I felt so deflated, so useless, so embarrassingly privileged.

I am not, by any means, a teacher, but I tried my damndest. It was hard. French is her second language, and Bambara is my third. On top of that, I was leaving for good in less than a week. By the time I left, she knew how to write the alphabet, and she could identify most of the sounds that each letter made. She could do simple addition and subtraction and correctly say the names of the sums and differences. She could not sound out words, she could not read. Alima is still illiterate, and probably will remain so.

I know that this is a sad story. I know that illiteracy is an enormously widespread problem and that one American can't teach a Malian girl to read in a week. I know that, and that was not what I was trying to do. In the end, I hope that Alima was inspired by my encouragement to find a way to continue her studies somehow. I hope that her parents can somehow afford to send her to high school when the time comes. I mostly hope that she doesn't end up like a lot of Malian girls do: married young with the promise of a lot of children and hard labor.

Now that I've moved out of homestay and as I prepare to move to my site, I will likely not see Alima for a long time. I hate knowing that with a little more time, maybe I could have done more. I hate that she might never learn to read. Stories like Alima's are why I'm here. I will meet many more Alimas in my life and my service here, and I hope that I actually can do something significant enough to improve their lives.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Written Wednesday, March 30th 2011
That about describes my mood for the past few days.  I’ve been kind of sick with a general malaise, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is. It could be any number of things really, and at this point I’m not really interested in diagnosing so much as getting over it. It’s not even being sick that I care about, actually. I can get over symptomatic discomfort, but it’s just mentally taxing. I find myself thinking of home a lot. It’s hard not to when you’re not feeling 100%.
Once I start thinking of home, it’s so easy to let myself mentally escape elsewhere. I think about being in my own bed, not laying in a pool of my own sweat, not bloated all the time, not constantly dehydrated, not sleep deprived. I imagine that I’m enjoying a comfortable environment with food that is easy to digest and full of vitamins and iron. Once I let myself go there, it’s water under the dam and the visions just flow into my head, one right after the other. It is so easy to picture myself in this crazy, perverted, romanticized version of life in America. I see myself doing a hundred different things: going to grad school, living with my friend Jenna, hanging out with my siblings, eating ice cream at all hours of the day, working at Tribe One’s garden and doing Freedom School for a second summer, taking a road trip around the country to see my extended family, going back to work at Overlook Farm for Heifer Project International, moving to southern California, WWOOFing through France and eastern Europe… basically doing anything but being in the present. I mean, those things are neither as good as I’m imagining them to be nor entirely even possible—Why am I doing this to myself? It’s kind of like torture.
I realized after a while of this that these thoughts come so easily because I have no ties here. Everything and everyone I know and love is in America and specifically, NOT in Mali. It’s so easy to forget that this adjustment is temporary. It’s easy to forget that I WILL make Malian friends, and soon. It’s easy to forget that my language skills will improve and that I will learn to feel comfortable in this culture that feels so foreign. Integration will happen, and it will be good when it does. But I can’t rush it. I keep reminding myself not to get too far ahead of myself or compare myself to my peers. Every day I have the feeling deep in my brain that this is where I need to be right now. I’m on my way to doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing with my life, and knowing that comforts me when I get down on myself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Oumou’s Baby

Written Sunday, March 27th 2011

Upon returning to homestay I found out that my mom (I guess technically she’s one of my host aunts) had her baby! Mom and daughter are doing well. Here are a few things that I learned about pregnancy, birth, and babies in Mali:
1)      Never reference the pregnancy to the pregnant woman. Apparently I committed this faux pas by asking “Is that your fourth [kid]?” while pointing to her swollen belly. Well, it was mostly a rhetorical question in my opinion. I mean, she was nine months pregnant; I thought it was an obvious yes. However, even at nine months, women deflect the question or lie about it. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s kind of humorous to see a very pregnant woman deny that she’s pregnant. I guess we tiptoe around the question in the States until it’s really obvious, but not to the degree that Malians do. Luckily my moms have a great sense of humor and recognize that I have no concept of Malian pregnancy mores, so it was no big deal. They laughed about it. They laugh a lot at me, actually.
2)      There are lots of babies here. I’m pretty sure this is Baby No. 21 for my family’s compound, but just to drive home the point, an anecdote: Oumou recently told me that this is her fourth girl. This confused me, as I thought she had an eight year old son, Daramani. It turns out that he’s not actually hers. He’s from her husband’s previous relationship (scandalous!), so she can’t really count him as being her son, even though she’s raising him. Okay, so I say, you have Miriam and Salimata and now this baby, so who is your fourth daughter? So she tells me that her firstborn, a daughter, was given to her husband’s sister because she only had boys and wanted a girl. My first thought was WTF you gave your kid away?! My second thought was why would you want more kids, specifically a girl? I thought girls had less value to a parent because they eventually get married and leave the family. Wrong-o. Girls are preferred because they do housework (boys are not responsible for anything around the house). Cooking, cleaning, firewood fetching, water fetching, child wrangling and selling goods at the market are all responsibilities of women and girls. So, if one raises a gaggle of boys, all of these tasks fall to the mom. I can see how she would want a daughter to help out. I asked Oumou if she was sad that she gave away her first born. She replied, “Of course not. I knew that I would have many more.” That shocked me a little.
3)      Maternal care in the third world is really bad. Oumou had her baby in a hospital in Bamako. Unfortunately, she was surprised with the sex of the baby because she had been told by the ultrasound technician that it was a boy. For this, I asked my teacher to help translate. Apparently the techs are so poorly trained that they made the mistake. This is especially significant for Oumou because she has no boys of her own. Since Daramani technically isn’t hers, he is not obliged to take up the traditional responsibility of a son, which is to care for his parents in their old age. So, Oumou would like a boy as a sort of insurance policy, I guess. Having a boy for Baby #4 would have meant two things: first, that she would be taken care of should Daramani shirk responsibility, and second, she could stop having children. She told me she wasn’t too disappointed because she likes girls and the baby is healthy, but I think her husband was disappointed (in her?) a little. Explaining the concepts of X and Y chromosomes and eggs and sperm (in French or Bambara) is way above me. Beyond that, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to explain that if someone’s going to receive blame for the sex of the child, it should be the man, not the woman. Gender roles are very clearly defined in Mali. Though I usually relish in challenging expectations of any kind whenever possible, I just didn’t feel like family planning and concepts of gender equality were appropriate topics to discuss at this point in my service.  I hope that in the future, as I integrate better and become more comfortable with my Malian friends and family, that gender roles and family planning are things I can talk about.
4)      Babies are nameless for a while.  So, maybe you’re wondering why I haven’t given you the name of Oumou’s Baby #4. This is because in Mali, babies are named at a ceremony held one week from their birth. Since all children belong to the father, they usually name them themselves, or the imam at the mosque takes a name from the Qur'an. Anyway, in this situation, Oumou’s husband let her name the baby even though it goes against the tradition I just described. I think letting women influence the name of the baby is becoming more common. She was named Haari (haah-REE), after Oumou’s mother. The naming ceremony, called “denkundi” or “child head shave” is a pretty cool ceremony. As you can probably guess, the baby’s head is shaved on this day. The hair on their heads from birth is considered bad luck. Some people put it in a small bottle and attach it to a string of beads around the baby’s waist as a sort of talisman. (On the same note, some people save the umbilical cord and use it for medicinal purposes if the baby falls ill- I don’t know details, but hearing that grossed me out a little, not going to lie.) I did not witness the actually shaving, but here’s what I did see. About fifty men showed up in the morning after returning from the mosque. That’s when the name is announced and a sheep is slaughtered. The men traditionally give money to the parents and then everyone eats. The women prepared and served about 20 kilos of beans. In Mali, it’s bad luck to enter someone’s home while they’re eating beans and not eat some. Imagine an ancient Malian lady, my grandmother, chasing my friends down with a bowl of beans and watching over their shoulder as they sheepishly and hurriedly ate a handful of beans at 7 in the morning. It was pretty funny. They are serious about their beans in Mali. In the afternoon, the women all show up in their best outfits and either give money, soap, or fabric to the mother. Then, they drum and sing and dance and give blessings to the mother and baby. A popular one translates to, “May the baby not die early.” The ceremony was really beautiful, and I felt so privileged to be a part of it. I’m so happy for Oumou that she and Haari are doing well. Here is a picture at the ceremony: