Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I actually had a remarkably American Thanksgiving. 4 turkeys, stuffing, 12 pumpkin pies and canned cranberry sauce. Not to mention the wonderful company of a good chunk of the Peace Corps Mali volunteers. All in all things remain very well. I’m currently in Segou, waiting for the grant money to arrive so that I can purchase the initial batch of cool season garden seeds to be sold in Sokolo. I couldn’t say the wait is entirely a drag. Lying around surfing the Internet definitely has a strong appeal here in Mali. Quick rundown of what’s been happening with me: firstly, I had my inaugural biking mishap. I was riding along the canal in Sokolo, one handed carrying a cup of soaked beet seeds, when I decided shifting was a novel idea. Needless to say I ended up swimming among the lily pads faster than a Malian women can provide her crying baby with a teat, which it must be said is quicker than you might imagine. This all occurred under the watchful eyes of about 50 of my village women. I have yet to live it down. Plus, I imagine I’ll have a hard time getting a good beet harvest planted as such. Secondly, the first ten minutes of soccer with my new soccer ball, sent by my wonderful father, resulted in a popped ball. An overly ambitious village boy cranked a shot, sending it way wide directly into a thorn bush. Luckily everyone was excited enough to finish playing for the day with a completely deflated ball. Thirdly, I feel absolutely amazing right now, as I made the first of the Fair Trade Single Origin Hatian Bleu coffee my mother sent me in a package. I don’t think any coffee drinker can truly appreciate the richness of flavor of simple drip coffee until you have drunken extremely sweet, watered down Nes Cafe for four months. Finally, I have just finished the Harry Potter series and feel that I may be ready to start dabbling in some actual literature, although what an ending. A++. My father just sent me a good foundation. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, just shy of 1000 pages with extremely small print, and two books about the history of Mali, Sahara and Timbuktu. Things at site have been quite good, although my garden likely succumbed to the blazing sun yet again during my Thanksgiving vacation. I think I’ll have to give up aspirations of a healthy garden while I continue to have the urge to escape village life periodically to eat “American” food and use the internet. Rice harvest is just wrapping up at site, which should bring back the daily soccer games. People have been a little too pooped to play very often this past month. I’ve been thinking about writing a short story directly translating Bambara into English. For instance a typical morning conversation between to men might go as such: Musa: You and the morning. Bakary: My mom. You and the morning. Was the night peaceful? Musa: Peace only. Was the night peaceful? Is the family well? Bakary: Peace. No problem at all. Musa: No problem at all. Bakary: Absolutely no problem at all. Are you well? Musa: My mom. What happened before, was that good? Bakary: Yes. Very good. I left. Musa: You left? Already? Bakary: Yes. I must go and wash myself. Musa: Alright. Well, say it to them. Bakary: They will hear it. May the day be peaceful. Musa: Amen. Anyways, you can see it’s quite funny when you directly translate it, as it is when you directly translate any language. My mom is a translation of “N ba.” This is the response to many phrases including: You and the man (I ni ce) and you and the moring (“I ni sogoma”). The woman’s response to you and the man is “my power” (N se). Well so long for now. I will likely write again soon as I may be stuck here in Segou for a few days waiting for some money. Shucks.
So it's really not that cold. Although the other night I did put on the Irish wool sweater I brought until a constant stream of sweat finally confirmed that it was probably around 65 degrees out. It must be said though that the break in temperature has been quite refreshing. There are now, for instance, moments in the day when I'm not sweating. A lot has happened since the last time I wrote. We had a fun little Halloween get together in San, a smaller city in Segou region. The night was a constant battle for ipod priority, as the PCVs found themselves divided into too musical camps. Those who really enjoying the deep bass lines, vulgar lyrics, and gyrating hips of gangster rap and those who are more interested in doing that awkward white person running-in-place dance move, shaking cropped hair to Bowie or the Talking heads. I'll let y'all speculate on which side of the fence I was sitting on and actually how often I was forcing my music taste on others. All it all it was fun and eventually everyone was united into a "pants-off-dance-off." Oh yeah and Obama is our new president! Righteous. I headed to Bamako with a few friends to watch the election and had a great time drinking coffee and watching t.v. all night. In other more African sounding blogging, things have been great at site. I'm almost done with the entire Harry Potter series, which is quite the escape from speaking Bambara all day. I just jump into the wonderful world of magic. My garden was going really well, it liked my urine, until I left for the Halloween/Election break and my deaf neighbor watered it to death. I do assume this is probably a better death for a plant though. Especially since the alternative results in scorched leaves, crusted earth. I'm in Segou for a few days doing my first proposal for project funding. It is not my own project but instead and extension of the previous PCV's. Essentially a small grant is given by Millenium Challenge, the American organization here to boost Mali's food production and development, to purchase quality garden seed in Segou to sell up in Sokolo. The Malians seem to have a hard time pooling money for a venture such as this, but it does appear that the last project is quite effective and perhaps sustainable. The Bambara is coming along quite well, but I've finally eaten all the toh I can. The play dough consistency finally did my appetite in the other night when I attempted to force some down when I was feeling a bit nauseous. Well until another time. Hope all is well.
I have now been a PCV for just over a month. I'm currently spending a few days in the region capital of Segou, Segou. Here I have been eating all the food it is impossible to find at site, swimming at the two pools in the ritzy hotels, flirting with two volunteers from Belgium and watching movies. It has been a nice break, although things at site have been quite nice. Within Sokolo I have found the bare minimum of the things I need to have a happy two years. I can play soccer with the locals around my age. We play on the dirt courtyard of the school. There is a large well on the right side of the field which makes for an interesting obstacle for the mid fielders. Everyone plays in "yorow" or jellies and the organization reminds me a lot of a team of 7 year olds in the states, moving around the field in a large pack, heads down with no real concept of where the field ends or begins aside for the school buildings that border a large section. Some of the kids have amazing touches. We actually have a few shops that sell cold sodas. I found a few friends to spend the evenings with, listening to Malian music and drinking the overly sweet tea they are all so fond of. Also, I recently got electricity in my mud hut. I get one light and an outlet from 7 pm until around midnight. It has helped immensely to keep the roaches at bay in the lighted room, although as soon so the lights cut out you can here them slowly emerging out of the roof. I have also planted a small garden, tomatoes, melons, peppers, and I purchased basil, eggplant, carrots, salad and a few other varieties of tomato seeds this week in Segou. I'm fertilizing with my own urine, which I have been collecting a large plastic jug. Apparently it is a very cheap (obviously, although my urine my be a little more expensive since I drink so many Fantas) and effective nitrogen fertilizer, diluted to 1 part pee pee to 3 parts water. I've prepared a few of the natural pesticides, which don't seem to be as effective as I hoped although the garlic and hot pepper one does have a nice smell. Other than that I have been "yala yala" -ing, or walking around, within the village trying to work on my Bambara and meeting all the people I might be working with in the future. The Bambara is coming pretty well. For instance, I successfully talked my way out of paying an exorbitant fee for running stop sign on my new bike. Oh yes my bike. I recently received my new Trek from the Peace Corp, just in from the States. It's shinny and bright red, which of course receives a ton of attention around town. All in all things are very good. I'm happy most of the time and have been able to read more books than I ever thought I would want to. I'm off to site tomorrow until Halloween when I'll go to San and then to Bamako to watch the election. Miss everyone at home almost as much as I miss good food, you cannot conceive of how many different ways they find to eat rice, rice powder, nearly powdered rice, rice, rice porridge yum yum. Feel free to call anytime as I'm living under the cell phone tower, 2234780057.
My time in Tamala has come to end after just over two months. I spend a week back here at Tubaniso before swearing in as an official Peace Corp Volunteer on Friday at the American Embassy in Bamako. The embassy itself is an ostentatious eye sore on the outskirts of Bamako. It is large, marble and easily visible from miles off. They have a phenomenal football/soccer field where X-Pats meet numerous times a week for a wide array of American athletic activities. My home stay pals and I made the 30 km jump up to the Embassy last Sunday for the flag football verses the marines, only to discover that was the first Sunday the football had ever been canceled. This actually in some ways ended up being a blessing in disguise, as we were able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, weren't stuck carrying sweaty clothes all over Bamako for a day, and could immediately begin the most important task of the day: going to the tailor to have our suits made for swear. The four Tamala boys, John, Joel, Lucas and myself, all made the decision to skip the typical traditional Malian garb, normally purchased by future PCV for the swear in ceremony, and were measured for matching three piece suits that without any question will make us look like the best men of some prestigious X-pat. Modeled after a picture our one female Tamala volunteer, Monica, had in an US Weekly of Brangelina, standing next to Jolie in nothing less than Versace or Prada, Pitt looks dashing and sophisticated. While we were told that we were engaging the services of the the most accomplished Malian tailor in Bamako, I have a sneaky suspicion that more than likely we will end up looking more like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. Soon the jury will be in the as we travel to Bamako today to pick up the suits. All in all, they are running us around $70 or 35,000 CFA. I'll pick it up today after a supply chain session on chicken production in Mali.
So, I went to my future home for two years. It was pretty nice, although it's essentially in the middle of nowhere and a little hot. The edge of the Sahara is close to Sokolo. Luckily an extensive canal system keeps a plethora of water on tap for extensive rice cultivation. The previous PCV I'm replacing is a hilarious character and provided me with ample initiation into my life there. His chicken project is still in the works and I assume I'll do some continuation with that in first months, and hopefully there will be some eggs to be had.
My living situation is interesting to say the least. I have my own house with three rooms in a concession with a family. My direct neighbor is a deaf man who is entertaining most of the times, although he has a habit of bringing me very sweet, hot tea after I've brushed my teeth and usually after I'm asleep. Sticking the hot stick cup under my mosquito net and beckoning to me in what I think no one would call an inside voice. I think I'll have to work to establish some boundaries that were never really established in the previous PCVs service. Also my roof has a tendency to leak when it rains. All in the site is exciting, if not a little daunting (although probably any rural village in Africa would be a little daunting). It was made abundantly clear to me that my Bambara has as a good ways to come before I'll understand most of my daily interactions, but it has only been around a month.
I was able to spend a few days in Segou, our regional capital which is really nice accommodating city. Here, we met the current PCVs who all are a pleasure to hang out with, although they had some interesting stories to tell about the real PC life here in Mali. We all stayed at the Hotel Djoliba, a really nice hotel on the PC dime. We got our first pizzas, pools, ice cream, and hamburgers in Mali. Segou is about 6-9 hours from Sokolo and I assume I'll be heading down there once a month or so to use some of the Hotel vouchers we recieve every quarter. I head back to Tamala in a few days for our last stint at home stay. After 20 days there, assuming we progress enough in Bambara, we will swear in as actual Peace Corp Volunteer and leave behind our current lowly trainee status. I probably won't post much until I swear in, but all is good and I have lost 12 pounds.
So my site assignment is to the village of Sokolo in the Segou region of central Mali. The area is characterized by an intensive canal system and a lot of rice farming. I'm replacing a current volunteer there, who worked to start a egg project with a local women's group. I don't really know much more about it. We go to site visit August 7th and stay for a week so I will know a lot more soon. I didn't get pictures up mainly because I couldn't figure it out. We come back to Tubaniso in a week so hopefully I can get some one to help me then. I return to Tamala today to continue our language and tech classes. Best wishes to everyone.
The internet is finally back up at Tubaniso. The server was fried by a lighting strike two days before we returned. Then it was unbearably slow for the first 8 or so hours as every volunteer rushed into the hanger with their laptop. We have been back at Tubaniso since Sunday and have once again been subjected to long days of sitting on our rumps.
The homestay has been a relatively painless experience so far. I live in a compound which is a large courtyard area surrounded by around ten low, adobe rooms where everyone sleeps. The courtyard area is left for livestock predominately. Cows, goats, chicken and sheep can be heard at all hours of the night. My host father is Issa Coulabaly. My new name is Bakary Coulabaly. Issa has around 7 children with his sole wife Fatamata. Issa's two brothers also live in our compound, resulting in a total of around 20 children who all find me verying interesting. We have Bambara language classes twice a day, unless we travel down to Kobe for our environmental sector tech class. The Bambara is coming dooni donni as they say and I get along really well with everyone in my family. The food has a times been difficult to adjust to, although usually it consists of solely carbs mainly macarooni and the only really trying meal was a healthy portion of tripe. My intentines have managed to hold pretty strong, which probably has a direct relationship with why I feel my homestay has been painless. There are 4 other trainees living in Tamala with me, Jon, Lucas, Monica and Joel and so far we all are getting along wonderfully. Some have not been so lucky at times on digestive front. Our language trainer is a true pleasure and is pushing us along at a quick clip.
Tonight I promise to put up some pictures so that you can get a little taste of Tamala. The hanger is pretty busy right now making the internet slow. I miss eveyone at home although Africa has not been as uncomfortable as I was expecting. The people here are very warm and inviting and the landscape is often breath taking. Anyone in my village will patientely talk with me as I test out my toddler-like vocab after class. I've been drinking a ton of the tea they make here, which is both really strong and really sweet. Sending all my love back states side. Also I have a cell phone. Anyone can call if they feel obliged. The number is some country code followed by 478-0057. Pictures coming this evening.
We have arrived in our training center, Tubaniso, just outside of Bamako in Mali. The accomidations here are a little different from the plush, overly AC-ed rooms of the Holiday Inn in Historic Downtown Philly. Everything is amazing here! According to our cultural integration handbook, I assume I am now in the first stage of culture shock. This is when everything is exotic and wonderful, mainly because we are still within the sheltered world of the PC compound. Last night was the first rain. It poured, waking everyone and nearly tearing the door off the round, mud hut I share with two other PCTs, Peace Corp Trainees. This afternoon we have our first formal class in Bambara, the local language. I'm having a blast and will add some photos later tonight.
My dad just set this blog up for me. I have to admit for a long time it has been a mode of communication that I have been essentially opposed to, the digital noetic killing decent writing and all that. But, it is nice to see pictures I took up on the internet. These photos are from a last supper I had at my mom's house in Raleigh, NC. My brother, sister, father, mother and aunt were all in attendance, and there were far fewer tears shed than I had expected. Tomorrow, I head to Philadelphia for my "staging" event for the Peace Corp before I am deployed to Mali for my two years of service. I'm a little nervous. My french is horrible and I managed to lose my passport and my credit card in the matter of two days. This could be seen as a bad omen, however I'm staying positive. Perhaps, this is simply my subconscious shedding my material possessions so that I can more easily integrate into my new reality in Mali. More likely, I have been indulging in the some of the sweet fermented fruits of American life too much and am some how being disciplined. Either way I depart with a light heart and lofty aspirations.