Monday, April 23, 2012

The Final Final Blog Post

You thought it was over….but it’s not. After reading through my last blog post I realized that it was obnoxiously boring and void of any deep thinking.  This, of course, will not do.
Impact on Mali
Obviously on a personal level I am upset that my time in Mali was cut short and that I was unable to have the experience that I was expecting, but most of my thoughts lay with the people of Mali.  As Mali enters one of the worst food shortages the country has ever seen, they are also being faced with instability in North and a dramatic drop in foreign aid.
 Over 200,000 Malians have been displaced because of the Tuareg/MLNA/AQ-IM activity in the North.  These families are crammed into their relative's houses and struggling to find any way to make an income.  Those who chose to stay in their homes in Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao are facing harsh conditions with the implementation of Sharia Law and purging of any western influences.
 Though vital humanitarian aid has not been cut, all other foreign aid has. When managed properly, foreign aid can lift an entire country out of the slums.  When skills are transferred and systems are created, foreign aid has the ability to alter a country’s path.  Unfortunately, when that process is stopped mid-stream a lot of the progress that has been made disappears and when the aid workers (and money) finally come back they are starting back at square 1 or 2 and as a result, progress is delayed. * 
*I am going to clarify this paragraph a little bit because I want to make it clear that I am 100% confident that Malians have the ability to survive without the help of foreign aid.  This is not a superiority; the small African country needs western developed nations sort of idea. The reality is that at this point in time Mali is dependent on foreign aid and many Malians have built their lives around it. This not only includes the matrone whose healthcare clinic is funded by X country, but also the Bamako shop owner who caters specifically to western aid workers.  If the aid programs were allowed to run their course without interruption, they would eventually be able reach their end goal: to no longer be needed. The mass exodus of foreign aid caused by the coup may be a bigger blow to everyday Malians than the coup itself.

“Change Your Mind”
Though I don’t think I have discovered all of the ways that Peace Corps has impacted me, here is a small list of things I have noticed:
·      Time seems to go by faster- I think living without electricity, internet, and other modern amenities really forces you to find entertainment in simple things and appreciate just watching time pass.
·      I don’t care about a lot of the things I used to stress about- This may be due to my recent exhaustion, but a lot of the small (and some of the big) things just don’t bother me anymore.     
      When the plans I make go askew (sidenote: google the word “askew”)…who cares? Now there is just room for something better to come along.
·      People are good- I have always believed that people are innately good (some have just been more negatively influenced than others), but I think meeting Malians and watching them interact with each other has really reinforced this idea.
“Don’t Know What You Got Til it’s Gone” (Except, I Kinda Did)
·      The Shooting Stars
·      The Peace Corps Camaraderie
·      Toh (haha, just kdding)
·      The people, the people, the people
·      Market Days and Bargaining
·      Designing Dresses for the Tailor to Make
·      Long afternoons Drinking Hibiscus Tea with My Neighbor
·      Joking Cousins (great way to make instant friends)
·      The Ease with which Malians Laugh

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Evacuation 2012

Well, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind to say the least.  Instead of combating hot season with a juicy mango, I am currently sitting on my front porch in lovely Schaumburg, IL wrapped up in my fleece blanket. It is surreal to be back in the US.  A lot of RPCVs say that when they return to America after their service, they go through a reverse-culture shock.  I do not believe I was in Mali long enough to experience that, but it is certainly surreal to be back and to think that a week and a half ago I had no idea I would be here. 
But why exactly are you back Kelsey? Valid question.  After the Coup D’état my fellow PCVs and I spent 10 days in consolidation at our regional capitals while Peace Corps, the US Embassy, and the State Department monitored the situation in Bamako and in Northern Mali.  That time period was both stressful and enjoyable.  It was stressful to read headline after headline of bad news: The MLNA Along With Ansar Dine and AQIM Have Seized Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu; ECOWAS Has Imposed Sanctions on Mali and Neighboring Countries Are Closing Their Borders; Former President ATT Yet Show His Face; Sharia Law Now Reportedly Being Enforced in Northern Mali… These were the headlines we were reading every night when the power came on.  And though I never felt physically unsafe, the unpredictability and instability in Mali was scary.  Consolidation was enjoyable because it was 10 ten days I got to spend with some of my closest PC friends.  We watched movies, tanned, and cooked meals together.  I am almost sad to report that I became a lot closer with my Koutiala girls (and boy) over that time period because now we are all heading out in our separate directions.
            On Monday April 2nd, I was permitted to return to my site.  I visited my homolouge, Adama, and chatted with my neighbors.  The next morning Peace Corps asked us to return to our consolidation points.  After throwing whatever I could fit into my backpack, I hopped on my bike and rode with my sitemate to the main road where we caught a sutrama into the city.  Things in the Koutiala house were tense that night.  The call for reconsolidation made everyone feel uneasy and we knew it was just a matter of time before the shoe dropped.  Sure enough, at about 9pm an email from our country director with the subject line “Evacuation” showed up in our inboxes. 
            The next day we took the 8 hour trip to our training center in Bamako.  We spent four days at Tubani So “preparing for evacuation”.    We were permitted to take trips to the bank to close our accounts, the American Club to swim, and the Bureau to take care of any administrative type things.  This was the first time that ALL the Mali Peace Corps volunteers were together and despite the circumstances, it was a pretty neat experience; all 188 of us sleeping under the stars at night and finding ways to kill time during the day. 
            On Sunday we took a chartered plane to Accra, Ghana and spent a week at Le Palm resort participating in a Transition Conference.  Staff from DC was flown in to help us cope with the situation and make plans for our next steps.  For some people taking the next step meant directly transferring to a new country, for others it meant going home and re-applying, and for others it meant starting their post- Peace Corps life. I opted out of transferring (Georgia or Armenia didn’t sound like good fits), the option to re-apply is still open, but I think it is most likely that I am part of the third category.  For now, I am volunteering at Tammy Duckworth For Congress and sending my resume to anyone who will take it.  I know it will be hard to cope with the lack of my blog entries in your life, but I am confident you will survive. But seriously, thank you to everyone who kept in touch during my 6 month adventure. And to my fellow PCV's,  even though our time in Mali and with each other was cut short, we formed some amazing friendships and I can't even begin to imagine what two more years with you all would brought.  Kamben soni.
I'm going to miss these girls. - Accra, Ghana

Friday, March 30, 2012

Is This Real Life?

I have been asking myself that ^ question for the last week.  Seriously, is this real life? Am I really living in a country where the democratically elected government has been overthrown by a military junta? Have I, a 21-year-old girl from the Chicago suburbs, really been caught in the midst of a Coup D’etat?

Ok, enough with the disbelief.  (Except, of course, if you had no idea that Mali had a coup, in which case I would suggest reading a few news articles before continuing).  I do not have a lot of wisdom or information to bestow upon you, but I do have some thoughts…so bear with me.

First things first, I am safe. Peace Corps and the US Embassy have been doing a wonderful job executing their emergency response plans.  I am currently being housed with 9 other volunteers waiting for further instructions. We have been spending our week in “lock-down” trying to keep sane.  Our time has been spent: cooking (Guac, Spanish Tortillas, Taco Salad, Pasta, Mango Tart, and more), watching West Wing, shopping for possible souvenirs (just in case), painting murals at the Women and Children’s Hospital, and discussing the many “what if” possibilities.  We have also been taking turns going crazy; I think my day is coming up soon.

One of our murals on food groups and maternal health

It is frustrating for all of us to be couped (haha, get it?) up here without any idea about where we may be next week.  From what I have heard (and please remember the Peace Corps rumor mill has been on overdrive since all this started), there are 3(ish) possible scenarios:

1.     Things will be peachy and we will get to go back to site and complete our service

2.     We will be evacuated and be placed in another country to finish our service

3.     We will get sent back to America and get an “interrupted service”

 The overall feeling here is anxiety.  One minute we are feeling confident that Mali will resolve its issues and that we will be heading back to site tomorrow and the next minute we are discussing where a military helicopter could land to evacuate us (we have a little dramatic flair too).

The bigger picture is the impact of this whole ordeal on the Malian people.  They literally had their democratic freedom ripped out of their hands overnight.  And, on top of losing that political freedom, they are also facing increased threats from rebel groups in the north who are taking advantage of the current instability and, just today, seized the city of Kidal. The irony of the whole situation, of course, is that the coup took power to help ensure democracy in Mali and to protest the Malian Government’s inability to deal with threats in the north. . . ummmmmm?

If the coup does not step down in the next 72 hours (as the International Community and ECOWAS has demanded), the Malian people will be faced with a very difficult situation.  Bordering countries have promised to shut borders and cut off Mali’s money supply.  As a country that produces only a small portion of what they consume, these economic and trade sanctions will have a devastating effect on everyday Malians who rely on gas from Ivory Coast, food from Burkina Faso, etc. 

The situation is certainly ever-changing and though I have no idea what the next few days will bring, I am hopeful that the Malian people will not be overlooked by their government and the international community.  I will do my best to keep you updated and, as always, if you would like more specific information please feel free to email me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mali; My Own Personal Sauna

March 7th 2012
I know your hands are trembling with excitement, it’s been a month since you’ve heard from me and you are hoping that my return to the internet world will help to fill the awful void that has developed in you. I will do my best to meet (or even exceed) your expectations. Pictures!!!!!
The Not-so Secret Garden
My entire village grows fruits and veggies on large plots of land around the edge of village.  Each of these plots is surrounded by a fence (made of stalks and branches) and the inside is divided into individual family gardens.  My homolouge, along with the rest of my village, spends most of his mornings in the gardens.  Over the past few weeks, I have visited a few times to say hi and “work”.  Stepping into the gardens is a truly amazing experience, after being surrounded by dirt, dirt, and more dirt, seeing the luscious greens of the gardens feels like a refreshing glass of cold water. Speaking of water, there are wells dug all over the gardens and every one of them has someone hunched over the hold pulling up bucket after bucket of water to throw on their plants. The lack of rain and hot temperatures in this country makes it easy to see why they have trouble feeding themselves, but they are working hard to combat that. 
During my tours of the garden, I noticed a pattern. Everyone grows the same 4 things: onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and tobacco. A few people also grow garlic, lettuce, and potatoes. I think one of my long-term projects is going to be convincing some of my neighbors to diversify their gardens.  On market day, 50+ people are selling piles and piles of tomatoes and onions, but there are never any coconuts, plantains, or avocadoes, even though I know those item are sold in nearby markets…something to work on.
One of my best friends in village is a 50-something year old woman named Sali. Sali is in the Woman’s Association and is best known for her rice and sauce stand on market days.  I’ve been eating lunch with Sali every market day for the past 2 months and a couple of weeks ago I asked her if I could help cook and sell.  She was very excited and spent the next week telling anyone who would listen that her and I were going to cook together. So, next market, I arrived at Sali’s stand “early” in the morning (7, I think) and was put straight to work peeling potatoes. A couple of minutes later, Sali made me a cup of coffee (“because Americans like coffee”) and we took a break from our work to stare out at the empty marketplace.  It was a surreal moment, here I was in the middle of Mali enjoying a peaceful coffee break…Anywho, Sali let me add ingredients to the sauce, stir, peel onions, squish potatoes, and count the raw meat pieces (ew!).  At about 10:30, Sali made up a big bowl of rice and sauce so that we (Sali, Sali’s real helper, and me) could eat before the crowd. And, Whew! Does Sali’s stand get a crowd! I felt like a waitress in a sports bar during the Superbowl.  Not only do people come to the stand to eat their meals, but other sellers also have standing orders that get delivered to them all over market.  Trying to follow Sali’s orders of “Deliver this to the tomato seller, next to the bread seller, behind the metal worker” was a difficult task and I was often left wandering around market with a plate of food until someone flagged me down.  That was my first week…I’ve worked at Sali’s stand for 3 market days so far and now I am allowed to portion out the rice and sauce, take orders, and collect money.  I have a lot of fun hanging out with Sali and her helper all day and the customers love chatting with me, it’s been great for my bambara.
But, the BEST part is that I am teaching Sali bookkeeping so she can keep track of her expenses, income, and profits. We bought a little notebook and are keeping track of all the money she spends on ingredients and the amount she brings in each market day.  Hopefully soon I’ll be able to convince her to start saving money, or open an account at the bank, or maybe even expand her business. We will have to see what the books say in a few months.
 Though most Malians refuse to talk about money, Sali has been telling everyone about her profits and expenses and now other women have told me that they want to start book keeping! Yay.
The Best Malian Question
This section is not meant to make fun of Malians, but rather to demonstrate the contrasts between Mali and an information-laden America.
“Is there sun in America?”
Believe it or not, I have been asked this by multiple completely serious Malians.  It always makes me chuckle a little, but at the same time, it is a little sad. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Mali and the US exist on the same planet.
Random Events
·      I got to experience another shea processing day!
·      I’m expanding my cooking arsenal. I can now make flour tortillas, chicken noodle soup, and a tasty banana dessert.
·      One of my next-door neighbors is in 9th grade and learning English. One evening he showed up at my door and asked me over for dinner and a tutoring lesson. He is a very dedicated student and it’s a lot of fun writing on their big chalkboard and trying to teach English with my broken bambara.  The lessons have become a weekly staple.
·      Recent Books: The Red Tent (as suggested by my Mommy), The Lost Symbol and Deception Point by Dan Brown, The Audacity of Hope (Time to get re-energized about my candidate), Harry Potter 1-7 (…I know), The Fountainhead (What liberal Democrat hasn’t read Ron Paul’s favorite conservative philosophy book?)  
Some Deeper Thoughts
Being in Mali has brought a lot of things into perspective, but I think the most important thing I have discovered is that where you are born and to whom plays a major role in determining your life’s path. This realization had brought up questions about free will and destiny.  I think that I do still believe in ones ability to make decisions, but it seems clear(er) to me now how truly insignificant the choices we can make are.  So much has already been determined for us before we are born (country, culture, genetics, family, and maybe even religion) and any decisions we make after that are always within those parameters. I’ve always believed that everything is connected (like a row of dominoes, each decision effecting the next), but I’ve never applied that theory so far back as to say that EVERYTHING is connected to the circumstances that were chosen for you before you were able to make decisions for yourself.
Yep, Mali affords a lot of time to sit still and think.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Malian Blizzard: February 6th, 2012

I was not planning to write another blog entry this week because you all got 2 entries 2 weeks ago and I’m worried about spoiling you.  They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, so, following that logic…the less I write, the more interesting it will become.  Clearly I’ve decided to throw all that out the window in the hopes that I have developed enough loyal followers that I no longer need to worry about courting readers. 
            It’s the second day of my 1st ever Malian dust/wind storm and being confined to my 2 room hut has made me go a little crazy….er, I mean stir-crazy.  A dust/ wind storm is exactly what it sounds like; strong gusts of wind pick up dirt and blow it everywhere.  My village is covered in an orange haze and everyone is shut up in their houses. PS: It has also dropped into the low 60’s, which means that the Malians who are venturing out are doing so in full winter jackets that probably once belonged to someone living in Alaska. (Every market has toubab piles where you can buy old western clothes for 150cfa). Of course, I’m sitting here in my Butler hoodie, leggings, and long skirt, so I can’t really judge the Malian for being “cold”, but you can!
            I would like to devote the rest of this entry to a topic more serious than the weather.
Food Security in Mali
Food security is a hot topic in Mali right now for many reasons.  First of all, the rainy seasons over the past few years have been very bad, resulting in low crop yields.  Secondly, EVERYONE in Mali is a farmer and relies on agriculture for a large portion of their income.  Even teachers, mayors, and people that live in cities have plots of land that they harvest to either sell or feed their families.  The third reason why food security is such a topic of discussion is that we are quickly approaching hot season, a time period not only known for mangoes and 120 degree temperatures, but also skyrocketing food prices and empty stomachs.  Aid organizations have renamed this time “Hungry Season” and have also predicted this year to be one of the worst hungry seasons Mali has seen.  So, how did Mali get into this mess and why is it that people go hungry during hot season?
            Food security is a cyclical problem that is caused by a fluctuating supply of food.  The major crops in Mali (rice, corn, millet) are harvested during the rainy season (August- October) and should ideally be stored and sold consistently throughout the year.  Unfortunately, the low crop yields over the last few years have forced farmers to sell off the little they were able to harvest by December or January because they needed the money.  This means that by the time April and May roll around (hot season), there is a very limited supply of food left (which, we know from the laws of supply and demand, forces prices to rise) and farmers (aka EVERYONE in Mali) also have a very limited supply of money left. The result of this is…well, hungry season.  You may be thinking, “Golly Kelsey, this sounds pretty bad, what is Peace Corps Mali doing to help out?"
            Well, I am glad you asked: PC Environment volunteers are helping farmers plant certain crops together to help produce larger yields.  Water and Sanitation volunteers are helping to build irrigation systems and digging new wells.  Health volunteers are working with local clinics and teaching families how to ameliorate porridge to make it more nutritious.  SED (that’s me!) volunteers are working with local associations and institutions to find and develop “income generating activities” that can supplement a family’s earnings during rough times.
            As I was speaking with my association’s president the other day, I learned that they have been taking full advantage of the fluctuating food supplies and prices. In October, when food prices are cheap, they buy bags and bags of grains, store them, and then when hungry season begins and food prices skyrocket, they sell the grains for a profit.  They are playing the market!!! I almost feel like I am not needed…  I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the effects of hungry season in my village and report back.
            Well, I hope you learned something or at least found some entertainment in this unplanned entry.  After this weekend I will probably be offline until around St. Patrick’s Day, but as usual, emails, letters, and phone calls are much appreciated.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Put A LIttle Gravel in My Travel

World Fair
Last Monday Pamela and I biked about 20-25 km to another PCVs village to help with a project. Over the past few months some pcvs in the area have been drawing maps at different schools and as part of the project, they wanted to talk with the students about what things are like in other countries. During this trip we visited 2 schools and the 5 PCVs each talked about 1 country (I just tagged along and was the designated photographer since they all had been working on this presentation for a while).  The kids learned about Russia, Mexico, Italy, Cameroon, Brazil, and India.  After the PCVs finished speaking we let the kids try Mexican food and Cameroonian food that we had prepared. The kids loved it and so did the teachers. I can’t wait to start working with my school.
I’m a dork, and have really wanted to explain the currency system here in Mali, but I was nervous about scaring off readers. Now, I feel like you are all locked in… so here it goes.  The Malian currency is called CFA (say-fah) and it is about 500 CFA to $1.  The money system here is interesting and also absolutely ridiculous.  In the US, if someone tells you your total is 5 dollars, you hand over a $5 bill, in Mali, if someone tells you that your total is 5 (duru), you hand over a 25 piece.  If your total is 10 (tan), you give a 50 piece, 20 (mugan)-a 100 piece, 100 (keme)- a 500 piece. Get it? Hint: you multiply by 5. This concept is easy enough especially when you just think of it like 50 (bi-duru) is the name of the 250 piece or 40(bi-nanni) is the 200 piece.  The CFA coins come in: 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 250, and 500.  Just to give you an idea of what a mugan or keme can buy:
25- a handful of fries
50- a pile of tomatoes
75- 1 egg
150- 1 loaf of bread
200- Lunch of rice and sauce
250- Soda
500-1 kilo of rice
Now that you have the change down, lets move on to the bills. There is a 1 mil (1,000), 2 mil, 5 mil, and 10 mil…there’s probably more, but it’s impossible to break a 10 mil so I can’t even imagine a 20.  Now, I know that you want to start multiplying by 5 again, and you will, but you have to be patient. A 1 mil is called: 100-2 (keme-fila)…if this was a math problem it would look like this: 100 x 5 = 500 x 2 = 1,000 or 1 mil. So, following this logic, 1,500 would be 100-3 (keme-saaba), 2,000 would be 100-4 (keme nanni) and so on. Now I have 1 more wrench to throw in there.  5 mil is not, as you may think, 100-10 (keme-tan), it’s actually called 1000-1 (wa-kelen) and 10,000 is….1000-2 (wa-fila). Here are some examples of costs in big bills:
1,000- public transport from my village to Koutiala (30ish km)
1,500- Tailor to make a full outfit (not including fabric cost) or 6 rolls of TP
1,600- fabric for a skirt
6,500- 1-way bus ticket to Bamako (approx 7 hour trip)
20,000- bed frame
137,000- my monthly paycheck
So now that you are an expert at Malian money you should be able to decipher this:
Wa Kelen ni(and) Keme Saaba, ni Mugan, ani Duru
The first person to put this in number form gets a letter on some awesome Malian stationary.
First of all, thank you for dutifully skimming that last section, though, if you didn’t look close enough you missed a chance for a prize. Anywho, as you can tell I currently have internets and seeing as my village does not even have electricity, I am guessing you have reached the conclusion that I am not currently at my site.  On Friday morning, I left my house at about 6:30 am and biked the 4km to Pamela’s village.  We left her house around 7am to start on our journey to Koutiala.  The bike ride was not eventful, but I will paint a picture for you anyways.  The first 8.5 kilometers of our trip is on a sand “road” and takes almost 45 minutes. I am not sure how many of you have experienced riding a bike through sand, but let me tell you, it’s not super fun.  When you are driving a car and there is water on the road you hydroplane, when you are riding a bike and there is a pile of sand under you…you also hydroplane (or sandoplane?). I am not very coordinated on a bike to start with, so there were certainly some close calls that resulted in me jumping from my bike as it fell over. (No worries Mom, I always wear my helmet). Once we get to the main road (lovely lovely asphalt) it’s somewhere between 25-30 km to Koutiala and takes a little over an hour.  The route is pretty scenic (for Africa). Lots of fields and oddly shaped trees with villages sprinkled around.  The scariest part of the trip is the 20ish minute ride through the center of Koutiala to get to the Stage House.  Traffic laws in Mali are limited (or non-existent) and bikers share the road with motos, cars, huge trucks, pedestrians, street vendors, and donkey carts.  It is absolute madness.
My two days in Koutiala have be spent: cursing at the electricity for being out more than it’s on, skyping with family, watching West Wing with LeeAnn, walking around Koutiala, visiting another volunteer’s workplace (they make awesome bogolan things, like purses and cards), making sangria, pizza, and taco salad, and gossiping with my Koutiala-kaw.
Most volunteers come into to Koutiala once a week to check their email, buy things at the big market, and see each other.  I will probably come in every other week or once every 3 weeks.  I may continue to bike for now but once hot season and rainy season begin, it may be best to just bike to the main road and catch a bus or sutrama (like a van) into the city.  During my time at site I will try to write a few paragraphs every week so that when I am in Koutiala I can inundate you with blog entries (like this weekend!).

PS: We all know I am a terrible cook and lack any culinary skills.  Below is a list of things I have access to in village or in Koutiala (or have had sent from ameriki) and I would LOVE to hear some of your recipe ideas…
A 3 burner gas stove, 1 non-stick pan + spatula, 1 pot + ladle, a knife
Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, potatoes, macaroni, canned tuna, mayo, eggs, bread, olive oil, vinegar, regular oil, bananas, peanuts, Bouillon cubes, canned chicken, various spices, tomato paste, flour, salt, sugar, avocados (soon), mangoes(soon), salami, laughing cow-type spreadable cheese, margarine, gravy mixes, rice. That’s all I can think of now.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Brousse Life

Well, it’s Sunday January 22, 2012 and I just unceremoniously slipped on my 3 months bracelet (I put a new beaded bracelet on every month I am here).  I am currently sitting on my “patio” with a cup of chai tea enjoying my favorite day of the week. At home, my Sunday routine mainly involves coffee, Meet the Press, and a solid book, but this morning I went to visit my neighbor at her street vendor stand (she brings a table and bench and puts them on the side of the road and then makes a fire and starts cooking), changed my bike tire (all on my own), and cooked up some hard boiled eggs.  Exciting, I know. What have I been up to?
Photos: :)
Market Day
We have market day every 6 days in my village and there have been 2 since I arrived 10 days ago. Vendors come from surrounding villages and even Koutiala to sell their tomatoes, potatoes, onions, fabric, jewelry, cookware, plastic everything, fried foods, rice and more. There are also different skilled labor men, like tailors, metal workers, tire fixers, and even a guy with a solar panel who charges cell phones (best find ever!). Pamela ( a volunteer that lives in the next village) and I have established a routine of going to market at 11, buying a cold coke and then perusing the fabrics and jewelry. ( I got awesome fabric this week; purple and lime green!) When we get hungry we wander over to Sali’s rice and sauce stand (my homolouge’s wife) and she gives us generous portions of rice and peanut sauce for 100 CFA. After some people watching, we head back into the chaos that is the center of the market and we survey the 40+ women selling veggies and decide who has the best looking tomatoes and cucumbers and buy from her.  Though it’s crowded and hectic and it takes up to 10 minutes to get change back because the sellers never have any and have to go searching the market for someone who can make change, the overall market experience has been good. I’m pretty sure the whole market knows my name because it’s constantly being shouted by the women and children who run to greet me.
Dumini (Food)
After talking about the market this seems to be a good time for a food discussion. How to describe Malian food…luckily I only have to eat it once a day? I eat lunch with my host family and most days that means toh. Toh is exactly as gross as its name suggests. It is ground millet (or corn, which is better) that is cooked somehow to give it the consistency of rubbery mashed potatoes with a thick film across the top. You take a scoop, dip it in sauce, and try not to gag as you force it down. Ok, maybe I am being a little dramatic…maybe. Needless to say, I eat as little at lunch as I possibly can. For breakfast I have been making oatmeal or eggs (if I can find the egg man…more on that later). Dinners have consisted of tomato and cucumber salads, macaroni and tuna, potatoes with onions and garlic, or egg salad. Most of you know that I lack any sort of cooking skills, so my ability to whip up these meals without electricity and only a Leatherman and 1 pot is pretty impressive…I think.
My main service for the next 2 years is working with the Woman’s Shea Association in my village that is part of a larger shea union based in Koutiala. I will be observing their activities for the next few months, but I know that one of the main things they want to help with is becoming more efficient both with time and resources.
As it turns out, the association recently collected a bunch of shea nuts and they waited for me to move in so I could help with processing. Last Tuesday morning Pamela and I (my village invited Pamela so she could see the process and also because they want to team up with her village's association) were picked up by Sali and brought to the association's building to meet the women and start working. The association is made up of about 30+ “older” women.  Older is in quotations because the women do range from late 30’s- 50’s, but in Malian society, even the 35 year old women are already grandmas and treated like elders. Sali and Howa (love her, she is the association President) explained to us that we were going to turn the shea nuts into oil, let it harden over night, and then she was taking it to Koutiala the next day. Now you may (or may not) be asking yourself: How on earth do you turn shea nuts into oil? Well…
1.     Grind shea nuts up using giant machine in town.
2.     Continuously stir, punch, and abuse these crushed nuts while alternating adding hot and cold water.
3.     Eventually (read “After a very, very, long time) the shea begins to develop an airy mousse quality and turns from a dark shade of brown to white (magic).
4.     Wash white moussey shea 3 times for high quality goods.
5.     Boil to a liquid oil.
6.     Let harden overnight and voila, you have a cream that can be used as a base for soaps and lotions.
Our entire day was a lot of fun and these women are hilarious; singing, dancing, chasing each other (lovingly) with sticks, and of course gossiping. Since the work takes most of the day, a few women stayed at home and cooked for everyone. While the oil was cooking, we all ate zame together, drank tea and relaxed.  The next morning Howa brought me to see the finished product and gave me a jar to use on my feet!
Here are a few kind and key people I have met in village:
            My Host Dad or Jatigi
            Super sweet man who has dark framed glasses and yells at me for having a small stomach.  He does the most random work; some days he is pulling the stems off of dried hot peppers and others he is making (yes, making) rope from the threads of old rice bags.
            Egg Man
            There is a guy in my village who sells eggs, but he is the worst business man in the word because he is never at his shop. He is only significant because in the hours I have spent waiting for him I’ve made friends with:
            Butiki Owner and Butcher
            The butiki (like a store that sells salt, soap, macaroni…) owner is very patient with me and even has bought eggs from the egg man and saved them for me! The butcher, and I use that tern lightly, is a funny guy who grills a sheep or 2 a day and sells the meat, but he mostly sits around and drinks tea with the butiki owner.
            Mama is my 28 year old neighbor and my new best friend (in Mali). She is a doctor but is taking time off to raise her 2 daughters. Her 2 sisters and some of her brother’s kids live with her. I’ve gone to hang out with Mama almost every afternoon. We drink tea, play with the kids, and I practice my bambara and teach her English.  Mama has a wonderful laugh and is always sending her siblings over to check on me or shoo away the multitudes of kids that I tend to attract.  There will be many more stories about Mama to come.
Thoughts and Worries That Go Through My Mind Daily
·      Is my food cooked thoroughly?
·      Do I have enough drinking water?
·      Did I use enough bleach to clean x?
·      Is my food sealed up so mice, lizards, etc can’t get it?
·      Is my mosquito net tucked in?
·      Is the stove gas off?
·      Are my solar lamps charged?
·      Do I need to pull water from the well?
·      No, really, is the gas off?
·      AHHHH!!! Huge lizard!
·      Am I being social enough?
·      Did I put on sunblock? Take all my vitamins? Is it Malaria Medicine Monday?
·      Will I have to pee in the middle of the night?
·      Have I swept enough? (no, you can NEVER sweep enough)
·      I wish those bulls, sheep, kids, donkeys, and/or chickens would SHUT UP.
·      Have I done something productive today?
·      Did I get at least 1 source of protein today?
·      Is the egg man there? (doubtful)
·      Have I eaten my weight in carbs today? (Most likely, yes)
·      What is the appropriate number of squares of toilet paper?
·      3 times is an acceptable amount of wears before washing…yeah?
·      Is that a tan line or dirt on my feet?
·      Is 7:30 too early to go to bed?
·      Is my phone angled correctly so I have service?
·      Eating Nutella out of the jar is normal…right?
·      Please no toh. Please no toh.
·      Just 1 more trashy/comedic novel, then I promise I will read something with substance.
·      Seriously, is the gas off?