Friday, June 10, 2011

"Working" in the fields with my host mom

A big part of my job this first three months at site is what Peace Corps calls "integrating." We're supposed to spend time with our host family and homologue and the community in order to learn about our villages and Malian culture. Integration is really important to our future "success"-- earning our neighbors' trust and being present at all events great and small allow us to have services that positively affect our communities and create great projects. Or so we're told. So, in the spirit of integration, I decided that I wanted to spend a full day with my host mom, Miriam. She works really hard and feeds me three times a day, so I figured I would show a little gratitude and spend a day learning about what a real Malian woman does.

I started by asking her if I could go with her to the forest, or to work in the fields with her, since she does that every day. The rainy season is coming (it's pouring as I type this, and the cool air is SUCH a treat!) and people are preparing their fields and transplanting and sowing seeds. In my village, it's mostly corn, millet, cotton, peanuts, and hot peppers. As much work as my mom has to do in a day, I thought she'd be happy to have the help. Much to my surprise, she came up with several ways to keep me from working with her. When I figured this out, I was angry. "HOW do they expect me to help them if they don't want me to work with them?! I'm an ENVIRONMENT volunteer! I HAVE to work in the fields with them!!!!" I often complained to my friends and family at home. But then I realized that however frustrating, my mom wants me to like my village and be happy and she knows that Ameriki women are NOT accustomed to the day of a Malian muso (woman). She was protecting me, so I have come to appreciate that, as much as it's frustrating for a Type A fresh-off-the-plane PCV. Still, I kept asking, and kept getting shut down.

Her first strategy, which was rather clever, was the response "we're not transplanting until it rains." Well that makes sense, I thought. It's pretty near impossible to get Sikasso earth to move unless it's wet- it's incredibly dry and crusty and sandy. This excuse worked for quite awhile, until once I asked her over dinner what she had done that (rain-less) day.

Me: Hey Miriam! How are you? How's your family? How's your husband? How are you children? Did you have a peaceful day? Great! What did you do today?
Mom: I worked in the rice field.
Me: Wait, what? That's field work! Why didn't you tell me?!
Mom: *shrugs, smiles, passes me a baby, walks away*

And that's pretty much how all of my attempts to be a Malian muso went. Now that I had caught on to her blatant omission of the truth, she employed a second strategy: telling me that she was going to the forest and not the field. Tricky, Miriam. When she would offer that response, I always assumed she was doing some animist stuff in there. The Senufo people are mostly animist and very secretive, for the most part, about all of it. Besides, there's plenty to do in the forest to keep people busy, even if it's not fetish-related. She could be doing any number of things, such as gathering leaves for sauces, collecting nere (a bean-pod thing filled with a yellow cake-y powder used as a natural seasoning), looking for shea nuts to make soap, or helping her husband search for wild ginger to use in toh sauce. So, when she fed me that line, I didn't push the issue. (If it really was animist stuff, that would have been awkward for her to explain that I couldn't tag along.) It wasn't until maybe two weeks later (it's embarassing how slowly my brain works sometimes) that I figured out that "going to the forest" is code for "going to work in my field which are located in and around the general forest area." Oh, cool, Miriam. I feel so integrated when you fib to me!!! Needless to say, I got a little feisty with her.

But before I put two and two together, I gave up for a little while. I was really put off, to be honest. My homologue had done some shady work related to the meetings I was trying to hold, (western work style ≠ Malian work style), and my own family was keeping me from doing the very work that would not only help me integrate, but gain a better understanding of my role in the community, how my village operates, and just give me something to do besides read the entire works of Tolstoy in a sweltering mud brick hut, day after day. It made sense to me, at least, but I couldn't figure out why no one else had the same logic.

So, I started asking anyone who would listen that I wanted to go to the fields and work. Men, women, old, young... anyone. Almost universally they'd say "when it rains," and I'd roll my eyes because that meant "never gonna happen, Chels." Many of them grabbed my hands, examined them, told me they were too smooth, and said I'd get blisters because I can't work. PLAYA PLEASE. How do you explain the kind of work that Americans do? How do you make a Malian understand that just because I don't hoe acres by hand with a tool from the freaking Iron Age that I have held a job since I was 16 and went to school at the same time? There are no blisters to prove that. It was frustrating. This is a topic that is very hard to explain to rural Malians because the word "work" is rather one-dimensional to them.  That is just the way it goes.

Anyway, I finally got sick of my ignored integration attempts and cornered my mom one day.
Me: Hey, Miriam. What are you doing tomorrow after breakfast?
Miriam: Going to the forest.
Me: Okay that's fine, can I please come with you?
Miriam: *laughs*
Me: No, I'm serious.
Miriam: No, you can't. Your hands--
Me: *cuts her off* GREAT! Come by my house after breakfast and I'll go with you.
Miriam: Ummm okay?

So, the next morning, I'm ready. I feel like a kid going to her first day of summer day-camp. I have my hat on, my water bottle filled, my sunblock slathered, and I'm ready. Or so I think I am. I should have seen it coming when my mom showed up, sat down, and tried, yet again, to keep me home.

Miriam: Tintio [my Malian name], you can't come to the forest today.
Me: WHY?
Miriam: *hesitates* Well, THE SUN (big arm gestures) will be there! It is very hot and it will hurt your white skin (grabs my arm to show me my white skin) and you cannot go.
Me: *trying to curb the growing tone of rudeness and impatience in my voice* Miriam, the SUN (big arm gestures) that is in the forest (points arm in the general direction) is the SAME SUN (gestures, big ones) that is AT MY HOUSE EVERY AFTERNOON MAKING ME SWEAT. ALL BY MYSELF. I AM GOING TO THE FOREST WITH YOU.
Miriam: *laughs*
Me: Great, glad that's settled.

So, after a few more minutes of awkwardness and a sunblock demo to illustrate that my white skin would indeed be spared, we were off. This is about the time I figured out that "going to the forest" was code for field work. Had I understood this code earlier, I'd have realized that having only one liter of water and no work gloves was going to impair my ability to work effectively. "Oh well," I thought. "They don't expect much of me anyways, so things can only get better for me from here."

We walked for almost an hour in and out of fields and the forest before we reached an expanse of level, treeless ground. Eventually, 11 more women showed up with their babies, young children, bowls of rice and toh and water and dabas (aforementioned farming implement ca. 900 AD). I learned a LOT about being a Malian muso that day. The field, which was approximately 100 meters by 30 meters, was hoed in a matter of perhaps 3 hours, by hand, in the heat of the day. I originally estimated (albeit before the 11 women showed up) that it would take about four days to get ready. Just kidding. Another lesson I learned was that just because I came to the fields didn't mean I was going to get to work. I was stopped roughly every four minutes by one of a woman who would snatch my daba away, examine my palms for the slightest signs of a blister (which weren't there), and demand that I go take a break with the bajillion babies and toddlers who were playing and sleeping in the shade. When I came back to work, they asked me to bring water to all the women. Thus I effectively didn't do much "field work." This kind of mirrors what my friend experienced in his village. He was hoeing away when an ancient Malian man rode by on his bicycle, saw his clearly inexperienced daba work, TOOK the daba from him, and finished his row before getting back on his bike and pedaling away. All of this without a word. Kind of hilarious, but kind of embarrassing.

Though getting to the fields was the goal, I learned several things along the way. First, that my family really does care about me and wants me to be happy in village. Second, that Malians have weird senses of humor. Third, that I have a LONG way to go before I can feel like I've earned my integration. Finally, the I am SUPREMELY glad I was born an Ameriki muso and that the life that my mom leads is not one that I would want for myself. Malian women work incredibly long, hard days, and for relatively little (by American standards) in return. I will probably go to the fields with my mom again, but this time, with a greater appreciation for Miriam's efforts. And trickery.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Peanuts: A Revelation

If you knew me before I moved to Mali, you probably knew that I HATED peanuts. Most or all peanut products, actually. And I should tell you that before I came to Mali I was legitimately concerned at the prospect of making peanuts a major part of my diet, since they're everywhere here. The truth is, I've never liked peanuts. I can remember eating PB&Js as a kid and thinking that they tasted funny. As I got older my friends would joke that I had a sixth sense for finding the source of anything remotely peanut-smelling from a ridiculous distance. Whether I just didn't like peanuts or I actually have a small allergy to them, I couldn't stand to be around them. In college, my cross-country teammates would look at me as if I had two heads when I routinely turned down a customary pre-race breakfast, a banana with peanut butter. Once, I scared a freshman at an early morning practice by demanding that whomever was eating the peanut butter crackers I smelled had to stop immediately. Poor freshman. She didn't know. On a camping/volunteer trip with my college, I toted around my own jar of Nutella while everyone else lived off PB. At school, sometimes I'd bring Nutella to the cafeteria for my morning toast. I mean, maybe I'm crazy for Nutella as much as I disliked peanut butter, but you get the idea. Up until very recently, peanuts and I were not on good terms.

My mom maintains that my deep hate of peanuts started in infancy. As she tells the story, she had left my older brother, Evan, in charge of me (rookie mistake). From the next room, she hears my three-year old caretaker sing "One for me! One for you! One for ME and one for YOU!" As my mom thinks to herself, "Hmm, now that doesn't sound right..." Evan is popping peanuts into my gorgeous cherub cheeks while he munches away on his half of the jar. By the time my mom figures this out this is going down, my face is red, I can't breathe, and there are so many peanuts in my mouth that my cheeks are puffed out. I mean, I understand that Sesame Street was teaching about sharing that week, but I still don't know whether this act was in the spirit of altruism or was he plotting to reclaim his stolen only child status. (This isn't the only time he tried to finish me off- telling me he'd "catch" me as I "flew" from the top of the stairs was original but poorly executed, as I escaped with nothing more than a dislocated elbow). We'll never know, but I think this early exposure to the dangers of peanuts certainly didn't do anything to help my future aversion to them.

Right before I came to Mali, I had the privilege of spending a few days working in the gardens of Blackberry Farm, an upscale resort in Walland, Tennessee. There, my friend Jeff showed me my first peanut plant and encouraged me to try an un-ripened one, straight from the gorgeous black earth of East Tennessee (oh how I miss Tennessee!). I was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted like a fresh cucumber, probably allowing to its high water content. It was my first positive peanut experience in recent memory. Little did I know that this was the foundation for a revelation that I never expected to find:

I believe I have finally come to terms with the fact that maybe I don't hate peanuts any more.

Here in Mali, there is a popular sauce called tigedigena (literally "peanut butter sauce") that is commonly served with rice for lunch or dinner. When I first tried it at homestay, I expected to have to choke it down out of politeness, but I ended up really liking it. Even more recently, I spent an entire afternoon cooking tigedegena from start to finish with my host family. First, my sister, Bintu, and I shelled and sorted peanuts. This took about an hour or more. Next, my second host mom, Jata roasted them in a big, rounded cauldron over a fire. Next, she used a giant mortar and pestle (called a "susu", absolutely essential to Malian food preparation) to make a course, chunky peanut butter. After that, she used a grinding stone and a smoothed piece of wood to run the raw peanut butter over the rock. This made it into a fine paste. The rest of the afternoon and evening were dedicated to making the actual sauce. In the end, it was really delicious, and I didn't get sick from it. Making tigedegena took a lot of physical labor and effort. It made me appreciate just how much work and energy and time it takes to prepare meals from scratch.

Now I eat peanuts whenever I can get them. I still get headaches from time to time when I'm eating them or I'm around them, but perhaps I can eat them now because my body recognizes that I need the protein. Thankfully, my dislike of peanuts is nowhere near as bad as it used to be. I wouldn't say that I love them, but I at least like them enough to eat them regularly. My family farms them, so I'm excited to see what other ways peanuts are prepared here. In case you're inspired, the recipe for tigedegena is below:

1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
2 medium yellow onions
1 cup or so of any or all of the following: carrots (coined), eggplant (cubed), shredded cabbage
1 or 2 hot peppers
1/2 kilogram (about a pound) of fish or chicken, if desired
4 fresh tomatoes, chopped OR 1 tablespoon tomato paste, mixed with some water
1/4 cup oil
3 heaping tablespoons of peanut butter
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
salt to taste

Grind cumin and pepper together, set aside with the bay leaves. Cut the onion and pound into a paste in a mortar and pestle. In a large pot (or a cauldron over an open fire, if you have one), cook the fish or chicken in the oil with the onion. Add the cumin/pepper/bay leaf mixture. Add the tomatoes and a half cup of water OR the tomato paste mix. Cook five to ten minutes. Use about a liter of water, and rinse the mortar and pestle well to get out the tasty onion remains. Let the pot come to a boil. Add the peanut butter, veggies, and crushed garlic (mortar and pestle works well with this too). Add salt (or Maagi powder, which is pure MSG, if you really want to get authentic with it) to taste. Cook well (45 minutes or so?) until the oil rises to the top. It goes the best on a bed of white rice, in a communal bowl, eaten using only your right hand.

Let me know if any of you try it!