Monday, March 5, 2012

February News

I have spoken before about my Peace Corps experience not being the
"typical" one where the volunteer is immersed in a tiny and remote
village with little means of communication. This distinction is
important to me, since it signals a key aspect of the development
dynamic, namely the migration from rural to urban settings. The city
is a different environment from a village, but this does not mean it's
necessarily anything like how Americans think about cities.

As much as I would like it to be my own personal refuge at some
moments, my apartment is not by any means isolated from daily Malian
life. Yesterday after getting back from my weekend of biking to
Markala (we biked over 100km), I opened my windows and immediately
received a phone call from my Bambara professor who lives a few
hundred meters away. I had carefully chosen my route to avoid passing
by his house since I knew he would want to chat and I was simply too
tired to do so. He said he saw me open my window and wondered if I'd
gotten back safely. While I appreciate the thoughtfulness, it's a
little disconcerting for an American to feel like he's been watched in
such a close way, and especially tiring to have to deal with it after
an exhausting weekend. My windows are small and out of the way, so
it's hard not to feel like he was eavesdropping on me. Volunteers in
village know this feeling very well and in fact in most cases we are
all being watched, followed, and talked about most of the time. In
reality this is a mix of normal Malian culture and the fact that we
are guests in the community (thus people watch out for us and take an
interest in us even more), nonetheless it is challenging to adapt to.

Directly below one of my other windows is the concession of a family
which has recently acquired a rooster to compete in noise level with
their young children, noisy cooking, radio and television (in order of
loudest to most quiet). The rooster beats them all handily, since it
tries to wake me up every morning almost exactly an hour before I want
to be up. What could be more inconvenient? Once I'm awake I can't
ignore the rooster anymore, and there's not enough time for me to just
lie there until I fall back asleep. Current solution: earplugs.
Long-term solution: Patience: someday the family will kill and eat
that rooster. I will be very happy when this day comes. If I'm lucky,
they may even invite me over for dinner that night. Take that,
City life generally involves more animals than I anticipated. It is
not the stereotypical African wildlife; it's more of the garden
variety of banal and annoying creatures. My neighbors have a horse
they keep outside their house (fun fact – the Bambara word "so" means
both horse and house). Rabid or simply unruly dogs attack donkeys at
night. No matter what's going on, the donkeys cry all the time. There
goes one now. Sheep bleat. The ram kept by my neighbor in our
courtyard stands around looking uncomfortable, relieving itself
frequently and copiously. Cats will infrequently and creepily dash
across my path while I'm walking home at night. Lizards crawl up the
screens on my windows and get shot by boys with slingshots who cook
and eat them. Doves land on my windowsills and pick at my screens.
I've seen mouse tracks in my apartment and I could swear I've heard
them squeaking in the walls at night. Chickens walk all over the
place, begging to be kicked. On our ride to Markala we saw our first
hawks gracefully swooping over the fields searching for prey. Bats fly
around at night (fun fact – the French word for bat is chauve-souris,
literally bald mouse). For the moment frogs (considered witches by
some Malians) are notably absent. In my homestay village frogs were
absolutely everywhere and they had the habit of getting run over by
cars. The dirt roads were covered with flattened and dried out frog
skins. Welcome to my adopted ecosystem.

Now that I'm getting into a better groove with Bambara I am less
stressed out by the fact that I use French so much to communicate
here. I'm beginning to see it enrich my conversations more than serve
as a crutch. This makes me happy because speaking French is one of my
favorite things to do. While not much of an indicator because Malians
have some pretty wild opinions sometimes, it always makes me smile a
little when people say that they assumed I was French because of my
accent. In addition to using both languages all day I take time out to
study French and Bambara on my own each night and this practice has
been paying off.

Work at the sewing center is going well and has recently improved due
to the return from a nearly month-long absence of the main sewing
instructor, Drissa. Unfortunately his younger brother was involved in
a moto (motorbike/dirtbike) accident and broke several important bones
in his body. Accidents like this happen to someone I know or know by
extension with alarming frequency, and explain why Peace Corps Mali
has forbidden us to ride on motos. This is a challenge for some
volunteers because motos are by far the easiest, cheapest (usually
free because the driver is your friend or family member), and
sometimes only way to get around in Mali. They're also just plain fun
– some of my best travelling memories are on the backs of motos, so
it's not hard to see why some volunteers give in despite the rules.

The work that I have been involved in at the center has, to make a
long story short, required much planning and will likely not bear
fruit for some time. The more I learn about the center and how it
operates the more the numerous challenges become clear (a very good
thing, since it means I am pacing myself enough to get a more complete
picture of the realities before I act). It is also becoming evident
how much I need to focus as much on making my impact on the center
sustainable. The current situation of the center is precarious from a
financial and human resources standpoint and I want to make sure that
when I leave it can continue to function for many years to come.

With time I'm also appreciating more complex aspects of Malian
culture. My name, Ceyiri Diarra, is an interesting case in point. My
city is filled with my joking cousins, namely Coulibalys, Traores, and
a few other families. This is in contrast to my homestay village,
where Diarras were the majority. Here I am relentlessly teased about
my name and the usual jokes are made – I am a bean eater, the joker in
question is my father, he "made" (literally fabricated, much as the
story goes that God made Adam out of clay, or in the more modern
version, mass produced me in a factory) or I am his slave. This last
joke is remarkably free of ill-will considering Mali's history of
colonialism and slavery. In this context, many people encourage me to
take a "real," or "good," name, notably a Muslim one such as Mohammed.
Muslim names are common here. The interactions I most enjoy, however,
are when someone appreciates, rather than jokes about, my Malian name.
These people see my name as a source of history – Diarra is an
original Bambara name, and thus predates many others names/ethnic
groups in the region. Some people reserve much respect for it. Others,
however, see it as "uncivilized." Diarra is essentially a synonym
(sounds almost identically to the word) for "Jara," which means
"lion," in Bambara. Those who like Diarras say "Jara kolo ba kari!"
literally "Lion, breaker of big bones," a compliment. On the other
hand my joking cousins poke fun at me for being an "animal," and
living in the bush/jungle, "Jara be kungo kono," which in this context
is considered pejorative.

Quick security note: All is well and safe here on site. The most
recent Touareg rebel attack to be on our radar in Segou region was up
in Diabali, over 100 km North of my site. We often see military
convoys heading up North to reinforce security and on our bike ride to
Markala we saw two pickup trucks with mounted machines guns on the
back. It is an infrequent enough site to make us do a double-take, but
nothing to cause much concern since there have been no violent
incidents so far South. It is widely accepted that there is no chance
of violence descending as far down as my site, and last time I
discussed the situation with Peace Corps administrators it was clear
that there was very little chance of a site change for me and my
friends nearby. The other day I heard again the comparison saying that
Mali is the size of the states of California and Texas combined.
Considering that around half of that total area of Mali is the Sahara
desert puts some of the current security challenges in the country
into perspective.