Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Fishbowl (and some fish food)

Every day I have a few thoughts that I think I would like to write
about on my blog. Making the transition from catching these thoughts
when I have them and remembering them to actually writing them down
has not been easy so far. One consideration is that to keep the
charges on my currently-unknown electrical bill down and facilitate my
integration on site I've been using my laptop as little as possible.
Another fact of life here is that I'm exhausted by the end of most
days and don't have much energy for writing. Nonetheless I've recently
been thinking that my regular access to internet means I have a
responsibility to facilitate learning on behalf of my family, friends
and everyone else back home. My daily life here promotes greater
understanding of Americans on behalf of Malians, but I have an unusual
opportunity among volunteers to facilitate the inverse exchange as
well.

Here nothing more than stepping out my front door means I am
facilitating culture exchange, as every interaction I have with my
community is an opportunity for them to learn more about me and my
culture. This occurs through conversation but just as often through
Malians' observation of my daily routine. Before and during training I
worried that it might be too stressful for me to feel the pressure of
representing my country in all my interactions Volunteers affirm in
writing when they join Peace Corps that they are prepared to represent
their country 24/7. So far it is easier than I anticipated. This is
aided by the fact that on my site I feel that people are receptive to
my individuality as well as my nationality (or more often "Western"
origin, since at first glance my nationality is not evident). It's not
difficult to explain to people in my neighborhood that my country is
large and not all people are alike. They seem to get that I am not
like all Americans and all Americans are not like me. I believe that
being in a city promotes this broad perspective on their part, whereas
I know some volunteers in small villages who struggle much more with
this issue. I still struggle, however, with the fact however that most
people in my community believe that there is only one climate zone in
the United States (and it is cold) and that there are 52 states (I
blame this on the fact that on maps of the United States Alaska and
Hawaii often appear tacked on separately in a corner).

If it is not overwhelming it at least becomes tiring to live in the
proverbial fishbowl knowing that each and every one of my actions is
being watched and judged. I think that this is a common experience
among volunteers, especially in countries where it is hard for
Americans to blend in. On my very short walk to work it is normal to
have "toubabu!" yelled at me several dozen times, a constant reminder
that I can never pass by unnoticed and that I am most often being
lumped into a much larger category than I would like to be (after all
I am an American, and we do like our individualism). My primary
response to this is to relieve whatever frustration I feel by gentling
reprimanding the speaker for not greeting me while they lump me into a
general category. They say the equivalent of "good morning" to
everyone else in the community, so why shouldn't they do the same with
me? I compromise with them by allowing "good morning, toubabu!" to be
an acceptable way to hail me. This in fact is not too far off the mark
of what is culturally acceptable among Malians, because it is not
necessarily impolite to reference people's origins while greeting
them. A much longer post on the politics of identity in Mali should
follow here, but it will have to wait until later.

I frequently notice that behavior which would be considered normal
among Malians (not talking much around meal time, for example) is not
considered normal when it is my behavior. I expect this to ease a
little once I am no longer looked upon as much as a guest but instead
am more integrated into my family and workplace. Nonetheless, I think
it also reflects a general struggle to engage in successful
perspective-taking. In other words most people have a hard time
imagining themselves in my position, a not unsurprising fact were it
true, since few Malians have had the chance to travel to a community
so drastically different from their own as my home community in the
San Francisco Bay Area is from my community here in central Mali.
And now for one of the quick anecdotes I have been meaning to write
down: Late last week I came back to my compound to find the Traores, a
family of three living below me, cooking dinner outside. I asked what
they were making and the answer was "shi tumu." After a few minutes of
attempted description (aided by the fact that I knew that the Bambara
word "shi" means "shea," referring to the shea tree) I was still
unable to fully understand what they were making. It looked like a
fried seed pod, and I actually wondered if it might be similar to
tamarind. At the same time it also looked rather like it could be a
caterpillar, which I tried to inquire about, but that idea didn't
communicate well. Once I had got one in my mouth and started chewing
it, however, I became increasingly suspicious that this delight might
have been a critter someone had plucked off of the side of a shea
tree. While swallowing Mr. Traore confirmed for me that it was,
indeed, an insect. Fortunately the taste wasn't all that bad, and we
continued to have an animated conversation about how good they were
and how they are considered the "fish" (protein staple) of the Sikasso
region of Mali. It took me three months but I can now cross eating
exotic insects off my list of things to do in Mali.