Sunday, May 3, 2009

Oh how we love the neighborhood boys...

Every time we do any kind of work in our concession, we have spectators. One of our concession walls is not solid concrete but rather has beautifully crafted columns so that we can have a view of the Senegal River. While this wall gives us a good view, it also gives all of the neighborhood children a good view, of us.

Over the past months, we have been making an uncountable number of new friends. At first, we had a few groups of regular neighborhood boys who would bang on our door and yell out 'Oumar' or 'Fatim' until one of us came to greet them. Usually, all they wanted was a handshake and a smile. (We have created complex, multi-step handshakes with many of the neighbors, mostly Oumar's doing.) Although, there were a few who would desperately try to come into our concession (even pushing past our handshake) to take a peek into the white people's house or pick a few limes off our tree. For the most part, the neighborhood children know that they are not allowed into our concession without a verbal invitation.

Lately, the neighborhood children have become wise to the fact that our open concession wall is a better place to greet us from than the closed front door.

One day this past week, both Steve and I were sitting in our concession knocking out our laundry when one of the group's of neighborhood boys walked by. At first, they just called out our names and greeted us. Next, we went through the ritual of them asking us for mangos and us promptly telling them that the mangos on our tree were not yet ripe. (I am sure at some point they also asked us for some water, to use our bathroom, and if we have any chewing gum, all some of their favorite strategies to try to come into our concession.) Then, they decided to show Steve all of the lizards that they had recently caught, only a 25 CFA a lizard (6 cents). Steve informed them that he was good (on lizards) for the moment. It was the first time the neighborhood boys have tried to sell us anything. We had to ask them to let us take a picture.

While this picture is priceless, it may have been a mistake to break out our camera around them as today they have added 'asking us to take a picture of them' to their repertoire of demands.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Regular Morning

I am not sure such a thing as 'a regular morning' actually exists for Steve and I... but I would like to try to describe some of our more regular activities during the previous cold season in Mali. (Since we have now entered hot season, our regular activities have changed a little, but especially work wise they remain relatively the same.)

As for now, Steve and I are lucky in that none of our immediate neighbors own any roosters or donkeys and that our house is not directly next to a mosque's tower (call to prayer). Thanks to the lack of noise, most mornings, we wake up naturally around 7:30 or 8:00. To wake up a little, we may read a chapter or two of our latest book or we may get straight to work. Unless one of us is unusually busy, we usually take turns preparing breakfast. A typical breakfast consists of either an egg sandwich (most mornings) or a peanut butter (maybe with jelly or honey) sandwich. On the weekends, we may make oatmeal, pancakes (from scratch), or buy pâtés (pastries filled with meat and vegetables) from a vendor on the street. (Also, talking about being lucky, some volunteers live in villages without eggs, without bread, and/or without peanut butter. We are incredibly lucky to have all three available to us.)

Some mornings, after breakfast, if we haven't taken a bucket bath the night before, it is time for bathing. In the cold season, the water is fairly cold, so all water for bathing must first be heated on our gas, three burner camping-style stove. (In contrast, most Malians heat their water for bathing over either a charcoal or wood fire.) After we fill the bucket with the heated water, we pour the water over ourselves with a plastic cup like a make-shift shower. We are now both experts at using only one bucket of water to wash ourselves.

On some mornings, Steve is off to work first, since he has a 15 to 20 minute bike ride to his service. Although, for the most part, morning bike rides are actually extremely pleasant and refreshing due to the cooler morning temperatures. I also bike to work. Usually as I bike, I shout out greetings to all our neighbors who are out and to all of the regulars that I normally pass in the mornings. While work at the maternity (the part of the community health center specifically for maternal and infant health) at the community health center should begin at 8:00 AM sharp, many of the women, both workers and patients, do not arrive until closer to 9:00 AM. As long as I make it to the community health center (CSCOM, the French acronym) between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, I will have made it to work before work starts. I spend my mornings working with the infant nutrition program. I usually work with one of two different nurses and many trainees, as we weigh and measure every child under the age of five. After the measurements are taken, we must record them, check the status of malnutrition, and give counsel to the mothers as necessary. (In my opinion, all infant nutrition programs in Mali are of utmost importance, as one in five children under the age of five will die of malnutrition or a malnutrition related illness.) On the two busiest mornings at the maternity (Monday and Thursday), I give a relevant health talk to the women who are waiting for services (in French and my counterpart, a midwife, translates the information into Bambara). Aside from regular health consultations (with the doctor), the community health center has a daily vaccination program (where my counterpart works), nutrition program, and gives pre-natal and family planning consultations. Depending on the day, work ends anywhere between 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM (the latter on the busiest two days), although the doctor's services are always available.

Typically, our mornings are the busiest part of our day, which is fine by me because it is also the coolest part of our day. Around 12:00 PM and sometimes as late as 2:00 PM, we conclude our mornings at my counterpart's house (also our host family), Zeinabou, for a lunch of rice and sauce. We circle up around the communal bowl and dig in with our hands just like our host family.

As you can see, our mornings (most of the time) in Mali while different from the US are not all that different. We wake up, work, lunch, play, repeat, 'A bana' (In Bambara, it is finished).

Monday, April 6, 2009


We made our first (of I am sure many) trip to Yelimane for Mark's 34th birthday. Yelimane is a medium sized town in the north of the Kayes region not far from the border of Mauritania. Our friends Mark and Sam were thoroughly surprised at our arrival in that they were certain no one would ever visit Yelimane. For only $8 a person (and an extra $2 to sit in the front seat), we took the four hour bush taxi ride to Yelimane. At about hour two, we saw a troop of baboons crossing the paved road near a watering hole.

We weren't in Yelimane long, when we realized we were basically in the Sahara. It felt dry hot and there was a lot of warm, sandy wind. Each of the two mornings we were there, we went on long walks around the city to see the sights. While there were some trees, they were definitely sparsely planted (water is hard to come by in Yelimane). Our second morning, we climbed a large hill on the outskirts of town and could see Mauritania off in the distance.

It was definitely nice to meet everyone in Mark and Sam's Yelimane life. We ate some delicious bashee (millet grain, finely ground until it resembles sand) with their host family, the Imam's house. Aside from the welcoming people in Yelimane, my favorite part was the beginning of a battle of the sexes Euchre tournament (as of now 3 to 3, all tied up).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What I Miss the Most

While there is much I do not miss about life in the United States, there are a few things I would not mind having again after Peace Corps service. (Naturally, I miss the relationships, my family and friends.) From my experience, the average Malian family lives without many of the amenities that many of us take for granted in the 'developed world.' For example, many Malians live without electricity and at times a proper water source (water sources: tap water, pump water, well water, river water). Therefore, the average Malian family does not have a refrigerator, stove, oven, dishwasher, water heater, washing machine, air conditioner or computer, many of the 'amenities' that we have come to know as commonplace in our daily lives.

After much thought and while Steve may disagree, I miss access to a washing machine the most (at least for today). While every volunteer may have their own strategy for cleaning their laundry, I thought I would share mine. To begin, I first fill up two buckets with water, one for washing and one for rinsing (for many volunteers this step also involves fetching the water). I normally put half of a handful of powdered soap into the wash bucket. While I can normally wash four or five shirts in the same wash bucket, I can only wash one pair of pants before the color of the wash water is below my standards. For some reason, in my opinion, a pair of pants gets quite a bit more dirty than any other article of clothing. While you can find wash boards in Mali, I have found that rigorously rubbing a bar of soap across the clothing and then rubbing the clothing together does the trick. (Yes, you need good upper body strength for this.) After all of the stains are visibly gone, I dunk the article of clothing in the rinse bucket, wring it out, and hang it on the clothes line. (For many, after the space on the clothes line is full, tree branches, concession walls, or the ground are also acceptable places to dry one's clothing.) Now here's where I miss the washing machine... the process is tolerable, perhaps even a little enjoyable (with my iPod) when it is only one bucket's worth of laundry, but after two or three hours, I am usually exhausted.

For the record, I would guess the top three amenities Steve misses most (in no particular order) are air conditioning, refrigerator, and the internet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How I Met Rouge Keita


During the month of January, we were in Bamako for our Peace Corps technical training. During the three weeks, I learned a lot including how to make soap and jam and how to construct a solar dryer for fruits and vegetables. I could not be more excited to implement this new knowledge.

Our first free Saturday afternoon, Therese, Mark, Steve and I decided to walk to the nearest village for some refreshments. Upon arrival in Samaya (a village a few kilometers from Tubani So, the Peace Corps training center), we were pleasantly surprised by a new patron at the establishment. Off to the side of the main building, there was a live, full grown chimpanzee with a chain around its waist connected to one of the branches of the tree it was swinging from. We had frequented this establishment several times, but this was our first encounter with one of the local's chimpanzee. Naturally inquisitive, we went over to meet the men sitting near the tree and to meet the chimpanzee. It was interesting how the men treated the animal as a pet, a friend. One of the locals wanted all of us individually to introduce ourselves and shake the chimpanzee's hand. We were informed that the chimpanzee's name was Rouge Keita and that he has lived in Mali, just down the street, his whole life. When I reached my hand out to greet him, he swung his legs and twisted them around my arm before shaking my hand. Surprisingly, his grip was impressively strong. Although Steve is an animal lover, I could sense his hesitancy with Rouge. I mean, after all we were hanging out with a powerful, wild animal.

A little while later, we were all sitting around enjoying one another's company, when the locals spending time with Rouge decided to walk him around the concession. They brought Rouge over to where we were sitting and he immediately jumped onto the chair next to Therese. The locals told us that Rouge liked soda and could also smoke a cigarette, to which we all expressed our disapproval. While sitting next to Therese, one minute they were shaking hands, the next he had pulled Therese's hands into his mouth. At that moment, one of the locals pulled him away to chastise him. He did not actually bite down on Therese's fingers, it was more like a play bite, but enough to shake her up. Not thinking clearly, shortly after Therese's encounter, I decided to play a little with Rouge.

On my way to the restroom (actually a rudimentary outhouse), I reached out to shake Rouge's hand and he did the same thing to me. Before I knew it, with all his strength he had pulled my right hand toward him and my right hand up to the knuckles was in the chimpanzee's mouth. Immediately, one of the men watching over him pulled him away to chastise him. But, just like Pete (my cat from home), Rouge was good at the play biting game. Actually now in retrospect, I am not sure why I was so afraid of Pete's play biting game, it is much more frightening with a wild animal. As if I didn't learn from my mistake the first time, with the encouragement of the local Malian, I decided to shake Rouge's hand again as an 'I'm not afraid of you' thing. Again, before I knew it, he had pulled me toward him and grabbed at my necklace, only he missed my necklace, grabbed my shirt and pulled off a button. At this point, I made it clear to all the Malians that yes, I am afraid of Rouge Keita. They all chuckled a little, but insisted that I give it one more try. After a few minutes, I finally decided to try playing with him one last time. We held hands, jumped up and down together, stuck our tongues out at each other, and my favorite making kissy faces at each other. Every time I would pretend to give him a kiss on the hand, he would smile from ear to ear and shake a little like he was laughing. While I think chimpanzees are incredibly smart and extremely like us, they are still wild animals, not pets, and I am freaking afraid to be up close and personal with them.

What I Will Find In 2009


I spent the first week of the new year in Kayes, before traveling to Bamako for a Peace Corps training. Since some of our friends, fellow volunteers, were in town, all the women, Ashley, Sam and I walked to 'Restaurant MacDonald' for the only item on the menu, a chawarma plate, Malian-style. (Of course, we brought dinner back for our significant others.) After dinner, we dropped Ashley at her apartment, then Sam and I continued along one of the main roads (one of the only paved roads in Kayes).

When I am out and about in Kayes, I try to greet everyone. So naturally, as we were walking, I greeted two older women sitting on the side of the road. After greeting, the older of the two women motioned for me to come closer. She was sitting with both of her hands in her lap in a way that I could tell she wanted to show me something. As I came closer, she slowly opened a piece of tattered cloth that contained a small pile of shells. Immediately, I knew she wanted to read my fortune. (Just the week before, Amy, another volunteer, told me about how she had her fortune read by shells in Dogon.) Without hesitation, I sat down in the chair next to her and explained to Sam that I would just be a minute. Right next to the woman, there was a white bucket with a lid (like the ones that contain paint), she began throwing the shells onto the lid of the bucket like she was rolling dice. It took both Sam and I to try and decipher the woman's mixture of Bambara and French words in the exact same sentence, but we managed to understand at least four parts of my fortune. According to her, (and pertaining to my not so immediate future) I will find two children, a boy first and then a girl. In 2009, I will find a lot of work. I will find a lot of money. And most importantly, I will find a good year. (Ironically, Sam received the exact same reading as me except she will find a girl first and then a boy.) It only cost me 50 cents to find out that I will find all of these good things. (Yes, the woman continuously used the verb to find during my reading.) I can't wait to see what I will actually find in 2009.

Friday, January 16, 2009

New Years in Dialafara!

This year for New Years, we decided to go visit some of our friends, Andrew and Nicole in Dialafara. Dialafara is a small town about 250 km south of Kayes. We left on the 31st. The Peace Corps driver for the Kayes region, Vieux, gave us a lift, which is good because the road sucks (have you noticed a theme with our travel stories yet). Anyways, the actual New Year night was relatively uneventful. We played some cards and talked. Natalie and Nicole went to sleep early. Me and Andrew forced ourselves to stay up until midnight. We lit off some firecrackers at midnight with a couple of Malian guys. It seemed that the Malians thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The next day we took a walk and worked on Andrew and Nicole's garden and their new chicken coop. Their chicken coop was pretty cool, they made it out of mud like many of the Malian houses. I helped put in the roost (I learned what a roost was just before this) and Natalie helped to rip up straw for their bedding.

We also took a little walk around the area. I saw these pretty cool parakeets and planned to take a major hike the next day. The next day we set off on our hike with a few bottles of water, cameras, and a couple of oranges. Andrew was quite the guide. He knows an incredible amount about the different trees and wildlife. It was really interesting. Anyways, after a while, we started to hear a strange barking noise. Andrew informed us that the noises we heard were baboons. We all decided that it would be a really good idea to head towards the baboons. All of a sudden Natalie yells out to us, “I see them!” No way! I have a bit of trouble seeing them because I wasn't wearing my glasses and I had to search for them through a 200mm telephoto lens on my camera. I managed to get a couple pictures before they scurried off though.

Of course, at that point we decide, let's climb the mountain and follow them! So I have to say, right now I am in the middle of reading The Lord of the Rings, and our journey totally reminded me of it the whole way. First we had to wade through this ridiculous high straw which was well over our heads. This continued most of the way up a large hill which was full of large rocks. It was pretty slow going. Eventually we made it up to the top after a bit of rock climbing. The baboons were long gone, but we did manage to see them again on a distant cliff. They were clearly watching us. Andrew and the baboons did a bit of communicating through barking at this point. It was pretty funny. They were barking back and forth as if they were really talking. We found a cool rock wall which had these amazing holes and things in it that made for perfect and easy rock climbing. I was pretty pumped about it, as I'd recently read through a few Outside magazines. It really was amazing and even Natalie seemed to enjoy it. I couldn't help but think that this could potentially be a great new hobby. Andrew informed us that the cliff was clearly formed by running water and surely if we continued on, we would come to a waterfall and hopefully it doesn't run through the cliffs so we can see it. This seemed like a pretty good idea, so we walked along the cliffs until finally, we heard the sound of running water. It wasn't much, but it was definitely a waterfall.

The types of trees there were really cool too. They had these huge root systems which hung into the water. We hung out at the waterfall for a while and had a bit of snacks and cooled off some. After some time, we decided we would try a different route back. We thought it would be a good idea to follow the waterfall down to the ground again. We should be able to rock climb down...I mean...we've been climbing up and down rocks all day. It should be no problem. We came to a point where we were forced to climb up and there was a little bit in the beginning that was steeper than vertical. This posed two problems. One, we couldn't see above the overhang, so we weren't really sure how far we had to climb, and two, once we got over the overhang, you were pretty much committed to keep on climbing. Natalie told me that she would do it if I would do it. With that, I decided to go first. I managed to make it over what seemed like would be the hardest point without too much trouble. Unfortunately, a couple steps up, I grabbed onto a rock and started to pull myself and realized that it was loose. This definitely freaked me out. I pulled the rock off and tossed it over my shoulder where it smashed into a thousand pieces far below. Unfortunately, I realized that this was a pretty bad idea because at that point I realized how high up I was and what was going to happen if/when I fell. I started to freak out and shake a bit uncontrollably. I know the chances of me actually falling were probably pretty slim, but at that point, I seriously considered the fact that I may be climbing to my death. It was then that I realized that Natalie was about to climb up to my point. I told Natalie and Andrew that I was having second thoughts about this route (actually I think I said I was totally fucking scared out of my mind). We all agreed that I should climb back down. Easier said than done. Basically, my plan was to crouch down, get the best hand grips I could and swing down with Andrew guiding one of my feet to a spot where I could place my feet. Of course, moments before the actual “swinging” took place, I started to chicken out. It was at this same moment that my hands started to slip and I realized, I've got about 5 seconds until I fall down, so I better drop down now. The swinging didn't really take place, but luckily Andrew more or less caught me and I thanked him profusely. At that point I said that we are turning around and going exactly the same way that we arrived. Eventually, we made it back and I shouted out “Eureka!”, which I never say (or think), but for some reason it felt appropriate at the time.

Anyways, that night we finally bought the chickens for the chicken coop. Two males and two females. They are pretty interesting. It's so weird that chickens go completely calm when you hold them by the feet. Also, their legs are really warm and fuzzy. I always imagined them to be cold and scaly.

That night we looked at the stars, you have never seen so many stars in your life. I learned quite a few constellations from an old Boy Scout manual that Andrew had around. I also decided that instead of rock climbing, my new hobby could be astronomy.