Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Importance of Manicures

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship through the service of American Volunteers abroad. The Peace Corps has three goals:

1.       To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2.       To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3.       To help promote a better understand of other people on the party of all Americas.

I know that I haven’t been here for that long, but as I re-read the goals of the Peace Corps, I realize that I have been able to touch on all of them in some small way since arriving in Mali almost seven months ago. For example, I recently finished a community assessment tool that has identified some of my village’s biggest needs and will help me direct my work. I have also been trying to stay dedicated to Good Golly Miss Mali and posting frequently, as it is very important to me to let my family, friends, prospective PCVs, and strangers experience this adventure with me. That takes care of Goals 1 and 3. Goal 2, I feel, can be rather tricky.

Many times I have felt like I end up taking on a preachy tone when I say “Well, in America, we are successful because men and women work together” or “In America, my dad and my boyfriend and my brother help with cooking and cleaning” or “Yes, we also have poor and starving people in America.” America, for many foreigners conjures images of endless opportunity and unimaginable wealth. While it is true that the wealth of even some of the poorest in America is beyond the comprehension of my Malian friends, I often feel like I can’t really convey what I want Malians to understand about life in America. I usually use American examples to show men that they shouldn’t oppress their wives and daughters, or to demonstrate the differences in labor and work. (The fact that I’ve had a job to earn my own money since I was sixteen is sometimes incomprehensible to Malians- even if it was rollerskating around and serving fat people tater tots). These conversations can be overwhelming. I also get the impression that I lack the appropriate tact at this point in my language learning to use this information as a teaching tool rather than something to shame or amaze Malians. That is why sometimes, it is easier to achieve Goal 2 with nailpolish.

Thanks to the wonderful care packages of Niki Schrock, Brenda Burton and my Aunt Jane Hunt, I have a robust supply of insane shades of vernis, French/Bambara for nail polish. I change the color on my hand or toes usually every few weeks, and the women in my family’s concession never fail to notice. They point and smile and ask, “Can you paint my nails?” “OF COURSE!” I always say, welcoming the chance to chat with the women, give them a little break from their drudgery, and make them smile.

They only paint their left hands because they do everything with their right hands, the “clean” hand. 
These Nailpolish Parties usually attract dozens of people, including little kids and even a few curious dudes. What I enjoy is watching them pick out the craziest combinations of shades and colors that tend to be clashing to my American eyes, but just awesome to them. Neon green and pink and pale orange? Purple sparkles on top? Why the heck not?! I think it’s really nice to paint their nails for them, because it’s a rare form of pampering that they never receive.  I remember joking once in homestay that I was going to facilitate cultural exchange through manicures and pedicures. I never, ever got manis or pedis in the US, but it’s a practice I’ve picked up here to help me feel pretty even when I’m actually quite gross. I never really expected nail polish to be such a fun opportunity to bond with the women in the village, but it has been great. I’ve never seen grown women smile and blush like these women do after a fresh coat of paint. Their reactions kind of remind me of when little girls twirl around in a fluffy dress. Seeing that giddy, “I feel pretty!” smile is really a treat. Some days, for this fact alone, I think I get more out of it than they do.

I know that nailpolish seems so trivial, so frivolous, so useless, so unabashedly feminine and privileged. It’s probably not what John F. Kennedy had in mind when he designed the Peace Corps goals so many years ago. But it’s fun. It helps me build confidence and relationships with my lady friends. Someday, when I talk to these women about big or controversial issues, like empowerment, gender differences, or family planning, I will rely on the friendship and trust we have first and foremost to earn their respect and their ears. I feel like no matter what my service turns out to be, I’ll always be able to take twenty minutes, paint about forty people’s hands, and share a moment. And sheesh, even if all it does is make people smile and let us share a girly giggle, so much the better.
I let them paint my left hand, which is why I’m sporting neon red, royal blue, yellow, peach, and orange. Only in Mali!


I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I’m doing in Mali or what projects I’m hoping to start. Ah, good questions. By and large, Peace Corps gives you a free pass for the first six to eight months and tells you to focus on language acquisition and cultural understanding. To be honest, now that I’m approaching the seven-month mark, I can tell you that I’ll be working on those two things for the rest of my service. Although I don’t feel that great about my Bambara, and my Senufo is still only in the Greetings and Blessings stage, I felt ready to start looking at service from a work-related standpoint.

At IST (In-Service Training) our homologues come to our training center for a week to learn about PACA. PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) is a multi-day group process that enables the facilitators (PCVs and their homologues) to identify the needs, problems, assets of a community in a way that emphasizes the importance of contribution from individual groups within the village. For example, Oumar and I took five days to do our PACA, one day for each of the four groups (young men and young women and older men and older women) and one day with everyone together.

The activities we did with each group included a village map, a schedule of their daily routine, a schedule of their yearly calendar (separated into hot season, rainy season, and cold season), a list of the community’s assets, and their perceived problems that prevent them from developing. 

On the fifth day we brought all of the groups together. It was a rainy, awful day, and I was convinced no one would show up. Rain tends to change things here, and for the most part, people stay put when it really starts coming down. But you know what? My village pulled through and about 40 people from each of the groups showed up. First, I talked about what we had done with the individual groups, then I talked about Peace Corps’s development philosophy.

 I took my time with it, because it is very, very important to me to make sure that my village knows that Peace Corps does not do handouts. We are not here to build buildings for them or give them school supplies or finance huge projects. Our mission is capacity building. Malians may be poor, but they are not helpless. And I told them this. I told them that I only have two years here, and I can’t do everything, but that I can help them with a few things. And I straight up said that I can’t build them a doctor’s office or a road connecting them to the highway. I told them that Oumar is a huge resource, and that after I leave, he will be able to continue this work and even do PACA in other villages to help them realize their own potential. I could tell that some people were expecting me to say I was going to vaccinate their herd of cattle or drill new pumps for free, and that they were disappointed and confused. Angry even. However I also saw people nodding their heads, agreeing with me as I said that this village can change itself. I know it was a huge pep talk, and more pomp than substance. I’m just beginning, I have to remind myself. I still need to prove myself to these people and earn their trust and respect. But I’m not going to continue without making sure they know that I’m NOT going to act like a lot of other NGOs that have already influenced their idea of what foreigners do in places like Mali. If that means people are less willing to work with me, that’s fine. Because I know that there are people in my village who understand what Peace Corps is doing, and they want my help. They want to learn. I’m here for those people.

After my talk, our activities with the big group moved into something called pair-wise ranking, where we make a grid of the village’s collective list of blockages to development. Then, by voting one against the other, we discern their priorities. In my village, here’s how the voting went:
1.       Lack of water (Too few pumps that break too often, not enough wells)
2.       Doctor’s Office (It’s far away and the health relay in the village does not have a big enough selection of medicine)
3.       Road (Practically impassable in the rainy season, makes it difficult to get to the doctor or maternity in the case of emergency or childbirth)
4.       Children’s school supplies (This is actually an issue of gender, though it doesn’t look that way at first. Since women are not allowed to handle the family’s money, the men spend it on what they want, and school supplies are usually not high on their list. This issue came up, as you can probably guess, in the women’s group meeting. This highlights the fact that women have very little economic opportunity and therefore services to women and children, like school supplies and medicine, are often don’t get purchased).
5.       Sick Animals (They die and farmers don’t know why)
6.       NcƆngƆ (rhymes with “cocoa”) (Called the Tiger Nut in English, a sweet ground nut that is one of the main crops in my village. They want access to a better market and training on how to transform it to make secondary products, like ncƆngƆji, which is like a sweet milk that comes from it)
7.       Poor Soil (Yields are not as high as they used to be)
8.       Adult Literacy (We actually have a trained teacher in village who taught weekly classes. Women made up the majority of the classes, but they stopped happening before I arrived. I’m still trying to find out why they stopped; I’ve heard that the teacher stopped coming, but I also heard that the women stopped coming because their husbands stopped letting them out of their houses at night, which could be why the teacher stopped holding the classes… I’ll get back to you).

It’s an interesting list, once it’s all compiled. I can’t help but wonder if some of the problems that came out of the women’s groups ended up at the bottom because of the way voting was done. We did it all in one room, all together. Oumar insisted that the women wouldn’t be afraid to vote in front of the men, but I am not too sure that they were able to vote freely without the influence of the men’s presence. Either way, I plan on addressing all of these issues in the men’s group and the women’s group that are going to start meeting at my house once a week. I told Oumar that gender issues were a priority for me, and that I’d need his help talking to the men. We’ll see how that turns out.

After this, we did something called a Problem Tree, where we took the problem with the highest ranking (water) and talked about its causes (the roots), and possible consequences and solutions (the branches and fruit). I learned that although I live in the region with the highest rainfall in the country, the water table is below the bedrock, which is why wells go dry or are just plain impossible to dig. That’s why they need pumps. Also, the three pumps that exist are over 20 years old. I’m starting to understand. I anticipated that they’d rank water first, so I did a little research. Pumps are expensive, and I told them that if they wanted one, they’d have to do the fundraising for most or all of it. I really hope that happens. It would build such confidence!
 Anyways, I just thought it would be interesting for you all out there to see what kinds of issues my village has identified as roadblocks to their development. Some issues are easier to fix than others, some  are way beyond my scope of power (building a road?!), and some require the hardest work yet: behavior change. I am utterly daunted by the idea of bringing up equality in marriage with the men in my village. It’s not that I’m afraid to do that, I just know that they will all think I’m crazy. They will say that I don’t understand them, and I’m trying to change their culture. I know this, because I’ve already heard this. I’ll do it anyways. But really, who am I kidding? There isn’t even equality in marriage in America, let’s be honest. And I do not believe for a second that after two years I will leave a village in perfect, gender-respecting harmony. Behavior change is one of the hardest tasks of a Peace Corps Volunteer, yet it is the most influential achievement in a community’s development, in my opinion.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed when I put it all in perspective: I am here for twenty more months. I live in a village where the women literally kneel in the presence of men. Peace Corps has been in Mali for 40 years, and we’re still trying to convince people that washing their hands with soap is a good idea. And I’m a young, white, unmarried, childless foreigner who can hardly speak their language. All signs point to What The Hell Are You Thinking, You Crazy Girl. But I know that if I can bring up these issues and plant the seeds, perhaps just a few people will hold on to those ideas. And maybe someday, there will be a tangible improvement in the lives of my villagers. But I also know that it’s more possible than not that I won’t be around to see it. Doing something like PACA is devastatingly deceiving: sure, I can get different groups to work together for a few hours, and even identify potential projects. But there is so much work to be done, so little time, so many opportunities for utter and irrevocable failure.

 I guess I’d better get started, and give it hell.