Monday, December 19, 2011

First Impressions about Site

We just finished site visit, our first opportunity to meet our host community as well as see where we’ll be and what we might be doing for the next 24 months. My immediate reaction to spending four full days on site is that I have been well matched with my community. As placement sites in Mali go, mine has more amenities than most. I do not have the stereotypical Peace Corps placement in a remote village which is accessible only by hours of bumpy bus rides followed by a long sandy bike ride. My city is right off of a main road. I am within easy walking distance of a post office and bank with an ATM. I have full cell phone coverage since there is an antenna a few hundred meters from my apartment. Many of the trainees in my stage have to walk, bike or take public transport a significant distance to have access to these resources. My physical living conditions are also quite good compared to what some of my friends have. I live in a three-room apartment with a bathroom, electricity and sometimes running water (hopefully the running water will become more predictable).

Having visited site also means that I now know my mailing address for the next two years! If you’d like to send me a letter or package, please address it to:

Sean Cochrane
Volontaire Corps de la Paix
BP 3 Niono, Mali
West Africa

Once I get on site for good I’ll be missing everyone even more, so keep in mind that no reason is too small or insignificant to drop me a line.

The people in my community are welcoming and I definitely don’t get bothered as much as I might in a smaller village. It is normal for tubas to be given a lot of special attention, especially from children, since many Malians have never a person who isn’t black (excluding the not insignificant population of albinos in Mali). Of course there are simply more people in the city so I stand out a little less. 53,000 people is a pretty decent size for a Malian city. It is by far the biggest city north of regional capital in Segou, and as such it is a bit of a crossroads. However, the main reasons is that other toubabs who work for NGOs pass through the city from time to time and several generations of volunteers have completed service in the city. There are also many people who come to Niono from the surrounding rural communes (a subdivision of a region) so there is already some relative diversity present.

Many of the people are indistinguishable from those at my homestay site next to Bamako, however if one pays attention one will notice much more variation in skin color, facial structure, and dress. Some of the rural communities in the region are quite isolated and have maintained a lot of old traditions. I would guess that among the people living in the city there is significant mixing of ethnic groups through marriage, but I would be surprised if there is little of that in the surrounding communities.

The most apparent example of a difference in dress is the jalamugu, which is a kind of turban or head wrap worn by men, which I’d say maybe one out of every eight to ten men wear. I haven’t yet asked anyone if there is a cultural significance to it or whether it is purely functional. The owner of the butigi next to my house has shown me to put one on though, which is surprisingly simple. My guess is that its purpose is solely functional in that it protects the wearer from sand and sun. However given the current cool temperatures, I think some people may also wear it for warmth.

Speaking of temperature, the norm is about 95-100, at midday, which is quite cool and comfortable compared to a few weeks ago. The temperature should continue to drop before it starts warming up at the start of hot season. At night I use a wool blanket for warmth and I keep the doors and windows of my apartment closed to keep my body heat in. However with the windows in three rooms and given that my apartment is on the second floor, it should ventilate quite well in the hot season which will start early next year. Before then, through January, the current chill should get even colder. In fact this stage is lucky, since the stage before us is set to experience three hot seasons during their service, whereas we came in just after hot season so we will only have to experience two.  

That’s all for now – tomorrow morning we head back to homestay (we are now between three homes: Tubaniso, homestay, and site) where we’ll stay until Christmas. We should receive an updated schedule soon with more info!