Monday, October 10, 2011

October in Mali

As October moves its way through Mali, I’m enjoying the changes it brings. Most noticeably, the rain has stopped its daily badgering of the region. Now it hardly rains at all- perhaps once a week, if that. In fact, we’re entering a mini-hot season that buffers the rains and the onset of the cold season. I’m not sure how cold is cold in Malian terms, but I can assure you even if I’m shivering I’ll prefer it to the misery of hot season.

Blessedly, this time of year is guava season. I didn’t even know there were guavas in Mali, so that was a delightful surprise to spot them in market. They little, cheap, and so perfect for snacking. The pink ones are my favorite. Buying eight of them for 200 CFA (about 40 cents) seems like highway robbery. But I don’t set the prices, I just binge on them.

Another change I’ve noticed is my Bambara. I am still struggling with it, as is to be expected, but I can tell that it has improved. Others have noticed, too. The schoolteachers who left for the summer but are now back for the start of the school year have told me that it’s gotten much better since they left. I try to practice as much as possible, but it’s nearly impossible in my village.

That’s actually something that’s been on my mind lately. My attitude about Peace Corps and site has been less than peachy in the past two weeks. I think a big part of it is that I am having a very hard time communicating with my villagers. As I’ve written before, Senufo is their first language, Bambara their second, French their third. For most, Senufo is their only language, their Bambara is on a scant comprehension level, and their French is limited to “ça va?” Peace Corps trained me in Bambara, the language that is spoken most widely throughout Mali. That means they placed me in a village in which very few people can actually speak with me. Though my homologue, host family, and friend Mamu can speak Bambara, they are the only ones in my village I know of who do so fluently. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. There are a few older men who speak it, and I believe one other older woman named Koro who does as well. Word has is that she’s literate, too. But by and large, my greetings, questions, and explanations are met with blank stares and laughs. This makes me feel incredibly lonely, stupid, and useless.

I have picked up the greetings, blessings, and important phrases in Senufo. I know that it means a lot to my villagers that I can say those things, because they automatically warm to me when I do. But beyond that, I’m lost. Apparently, the Peace Corps used to teach Senufo to trainees, but they stopped because it was not useful. Senufo is not only a very difficult language to learn (it's all tonal, and not even in the same family of languages as Bambara), but it also varies by village. That means that when I visit my friend Elizabeth (~20 km away) or my friend Helen (~11 km away), my greetings and blessings don’t necessarily make sense to them. So, teaching a standardized Senufo is impractical if not impossible. Therefore, Peace Corps trains us Senufo volunteers in Bambara, knowing that at least our homologues will speak it. My homologue speaks really great Bambara, but no French, so I only use that when I’m in bigger towns.  The problem is that we don’t work or talk exclusively with one person in village. In fact, we’d suck as volunteers if we did. Our job is to get to know the village, make friends, create lasting connections, thereby better understanding their feelings, and problems to better help them. From what I've heard with most people in a similar situation, there are more people in their villages who speak Bambara than there are in my village who speak Bambara. Things like education (the kids are taught in Bambara and French up until fourth or sixth grade, French after that) and the proximity to the gudiron (the paved road) and cities are major influences.

Anytime there are two or more of my villagers gathered, they speak Senufo. This includes my weekly men’s and women’s groups. I start in Bambara, and then my homologue, Oumar, translates. This begins a lively discussion in Senufo, of which I can understand nothing. I end up tugging on Oumar’s sleeve to translate. Sometimes he does, sometimes he waits for a break in the conversation. This can go on for literally hours. This is incredibly frustrating, because I end up staring off into space and feeling silly. I mean, I came to help these people, to live and work and be one of them. Hell, I am one of them- I eat with them, care for their children, tend their fields, dance and mourn with them. And yet, I can’t sit down with my friends and discuss the soccer game, talk about Sanata’s mystery illness, inquire about traditional practices and their opinions on development. All of that is lost to me. I can sit and drink tea all I want with my family, but I can never jump into a conversation. I miss the nuances of relationships. I’m a fly on the wall, but unfortunately, I’m deaf.

It seems rather unfair, and it is. I’m not the only volunteer who has this issue. Many volunteers in the Sikasso region have this issue. In fact, my friend Jordan Brown had this same issue where he got placed in Guatemala. Trained in one language, fluent in another, unable to use either. Peace Corps does offer reimbursement for additional language courses past what is provided in Pre-Service training, and I’ve spoken with some of the former Senufo teachers who are willing to start teaching me. But honestly, what am I to gain from it? I can already say the important stuff. And I know I won’t be working in Senufo, since as soon as you leave village you can speak Bambara. Plus, I speak French, so I can always work in that once I am dealing with Peace Corps staff or city-based organizations. I may as well just spend my time with Bambara, since it’d be foolish to think I could learn to be conversational in both Senufo and Bambara in the 18 months I have left. What I’m after is the conversation, the intimacy of truly being someone’s friend. And I know I can’t reasonably achieve that. In Bambara, possibly. But not in Senufo. That saddens me.

So, what to do? Well, bitching about it here kind of makes me feel better. And now you know a little bit more about my service and my experience. I believe I will speak to Peace Corps about this issue at some point or another. The bottom line is, I love my village, and I’m not going to leave it. But I know that I could be more effective, happier, better integrated in a village where the majority of people spoke and understood Bambara. It’s a fact that I get more practice in Bambara OUT of my village than when I’m at site. Which leads to another issue: site guilt. I hate being away, but it’s so much nicer, so much easier TO be away, that I don’t want to go back and be the deaf fly. Or go back and read another eight books in seven days. To quote Jordan, “I didn’t join the Read  A Book Corps.” It’s incredibly frustrating.

But all of this begs another question: who deserves a Peace Corps volunteer? The village who can’t speak a lick of Bambara but has women practically begging to help them earn income, or the village who speaks fluent Bambara and Bambara alone, yet doesn’t pay attention to the PCV who wants to help them develop? Because the reality is, both of those scenarios exist in Peace Corps. It’s hard to say which is a better scenario. I see why PC puts us in villages like mine, but I can’t help but wonder how much happier I’d be, how much more I could achieve and discuss if I could only converse.

I didn’t come here to work at a job where I had to check something off my list or add another line to my resume. (Cue the violins) I came here to make a difference in the lives of others, no matter how small or intangible it may seem to me. Even if I never complete a “project,” build a maternity or install a pump, teach women to empower themselves or show them how to make a healthier porridge for their children, talk about women’s rights or best practices for chicken-raising, I will have had an impact. And when I am sitting in a meeting when I can’t understand a thing, I’ll just have to remind myself that I’m deaf but not invisible.

Sorry for the whining. I’m done now.

SOME REALLY HAPPY NEWS: I got a puppy! Meet Scout!

She’s freaking cute, right? I’m such a proud momma. She’s the pup of one of my site mate’s dogs. Six weeks old, loves hard-boiled eggs, exploring, peeing, and sleeping. She’s a lot of responsibility, duh, but I enjoy the challenge. And it’s a nice way to pass the time. Already I feel less lonely. I am looking forward to training her and having her as a running buddy and just another body to have around (feel free to send puppy stuff!). Malians are actually quite afraid of dogs, and don’t understand why Americans talk to them like they’re babies, feed them food that’s better than what they feed their children or pet them. Well, I do all of the above. Case in point: when I got her, she was really cold being away from her littermates and mom, so I wrapped her on my body. Yup. Just like an infant.

She’s absolutely charming and a lot of fun. I haven’t slept through the night in weeks, but she’s totally worth it. People ask me all the time if I’m going to take her back to America. I mean, I’m thinking about it, but it’s way too early to say for sure. Although, working in Scout’s favor is the fact that people in my village eat dogs. Regularly.

Food for thought.