Saturday, March 10, 2012

Graduation Day

March 8th

On my way to my friends place in village and I noticed that the place was completely empty, not one person in sight. Very strange considering it’s a Tuesday at 3pm where normal village traffic fills the street, the small shops, and small hangers where the usual topic of discussion is under way while the tea is brewing over some hot coals. But nothing. Doors are all closed with motos and bikes taking the people’s spots where they would usually sit under their hanger, lost amongst their chatter. So finding no one to talk to I head to the end of the road where I find one person, Yacouba, sitting listening to the radio as he tends to the grinding machine which Mado runs during the day. I grab a seat and greet Yacouba who is a jolly guy, tall and slightly more rotund than your usual Malian but a guy with the biggest smile when you greet him and an all around humble guy. I ask Yacu what is going on today and why there’s no one in town. He explains to me that there is a “Quran Jigi” today and that everyone is in the Numu’s area for the ceremony. The Numu ethnic group are blacksmiths, making knives, hoes, and anything else requiring metal, which explains why their work area is adorned with furnaces, anvils, gigantic pliers, and 8lb sledgehammers. A “Quran Jigi” is when students of the Quran school achieve a certain level and then are deemed ready to become leaders in the Islamic community, able to take on students who would study under them. A big deal in Mali as it is predominately Muslim. And this event doesn’t happen every year from what I gathered. From time to time there is a “Quran Jigi” and never on a regular basis. So my curiosity and my status as a visitor in their lives, I trek my bike over to the event to see whats the deal.

Upon arrival, there are about 300 people gathering under the Neem trees, encircling the selected few who are being honored, those few wearing nothing but all white robes sitting on prayer mats. The men have encircled the new graduates while the women are off to the side in no particular order, looking on from their positions. People are in chairs, sitting on benches, on prayer mats, the elders being the closest to the action while the age range gets younger as you move farther away. I am called over to sit with my friend Yaya who is on the outer edge of the circle. I take a place on the bench and look on, figuring out what every mannerism means by the guy in the all yellow robe, with a red checkered scarf donning a white cap who is speaking through a microphone. I try to pick up what he is saying but only receive bits and pieces as the output of the mic sounds like a drive-thru window speaker at Del Taco.

After struggling to understand what is going on and going through my own assumptions on what is happening, I turn to Yaya to gather some more info. My questions are standard, “whats going on, who is that guy, who are the guys in white, when does this happen, where do these people come from, etc” and receive all that I need. That these few students, the youngest being all of 13 from what I gather, are leaving the Quran school and becoming “teachers” of the Quran, that this happens once and a while, that “that” guy is the leader of the celebration, and that some of these people come from as far as Mopti to attend this event. After I know all that I want and can know of the event, I sit and watch, understanding as much as I can and enjoying what is happening before me as only here can this event happen in this way, in Mali, in my village with people who I’ve shared more than a year of my life with. Its pretty cool!

After what seems like blessings to end the ceremony, people are chosen to help distribute gifts to the patrons of the event. As they walk around with large aluminum bowls filled with small biscuits, a millet dough cake that I can’t describe or determine a close relative to one we can find in the States, and tamarinds they hand you what ever they grab, a mélange of goodies for everyone. I eat the millet dough cake immediately, don’t get any small biscuits, and stuff the tamarinds in my pocket for later. As the guys with the bowls walk around giving out the Quran Jigi goodies to everyone, others are giving 100CFA to old men who’ve attended while another guy gathers cola nuts, which are offerings given to the graduates. After everyone gets their take home goods, the food starts to arrive and you can sense an anticipation in the crowd. Everyone eyes the food, hauled in by enormous bowls carried by two people. The chatter is sporadic, people stand to see what’s provided today. The duty of dividing up the food rests with a few people who separate it into smaller bowls to be passed amongst the mass. At this point I am hungry, however knowing how everyone will wash their hands and the tussling of positions around the bowl just to get my hand on a single grain of rice is I deem not worth it. And to my surprise, I am right. As soon as the bowl enters the vicinity where I am in, people rush to dip their hands in the bucket of water in order to get a good spot. The hand washing is absurd, no soap and pretty sure 40% did a mock wash, putting their hand in the bucket but not in the water. Clever. I am invited to eat and I politely decline saying that I am full. I peek at the bucket and its gray, so no thanks. Around the bowl people are squatting, a half squat, and standing just to get a bite to eat. It’s a free for all and I am a spectator, but happy to not be in that mess. I look around and eye people grabbing a big handful and leaving with it, to save for later. Others are more ingenious and bring plastic bags with them to take some back home for their kids. The funniest and most clever technique came from another friend of mine, also named Yaya who is involved in the school and is a man of his late 40’s or early 50’s. He comes out of the fray with a gigantic smile on his face and a huge lump in his shirt. He has taken at least two handfuls of food and put them in his shirt, carrying it like a child who just got a bounty of candy and has no bag to hold them in. Its great to see from Yaya, a little humor in the matter. After the meal everyone disperses and heads home. I walk back to my bike and head home to go play soccer at the school while thinking about the Quran Jigi, what it was like and how great it was to see. Also knowing confidently that I wasn’t going to get sick from not eating the food, always a plus.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dogon Country

Day #1

Our guide, Hassinni, drove us out to this bedrock of sandstone, far as the eye could see which blanketed the entire floor upon which we stood. A huge discrepancy between the elevation we were standing on and the ocean of sand with trees dotting the landscape until they could not be individually identified. He then dropped us off to walk down the cliff we were on, giving us a longer lasting and more enriching hike down to the valley floor. This gave us a sense of how big everything is and how small we fit into it. The wind raced passed us as we descended foot by foot towards our first town. The sandstone glistened like smoothed glass in the sun, showing its age in eons due to water erosion. Once we got to the bottom of the cliff you could see the scope of our descent. Rock walls a few hundred feet high at its best with streaks marking where waterfalls start and end in the rainy season. Our first town was nice, home of a volunteer. We then walked 3km to the next village to see the swellings in the cliffs. Back in the day, dogon people would hide from the Islamic movement and created these villages in the cliffs. Free standing houses and granaries with a network of walkways that connect families to families, this enclave housed many Dogon’s from the persecution of Islam. So long ago that at one time, vines hid this village from sight like a green, living and breathing opera curtain which concealed this village from oncoming invaders. After touring this village in the cliffs, walking in the footsteps of the last inhabitants centuries before, passing the house of the spiritual leader in the village, touring the village hospital, and seeing the remains of hunting trophies still proudly displayed at the hunters house, we moved on to another village that was a few miles away.

Walking along the trail, every step leaving an imprint in the sand as we follow along the base of the cliffs, the redness of the sand, a saturated hue of orange that stains the landscape and gives it its character. Trees are few and thin, offering little relief from the relentless sun. We glance up at the cliff, stout in length and size, appearing as if it’s moving towards us inch by inch, looming over us. At certain places you can see the tiny enclaves of the people thousands of years ago who called the shelves hundreds of feet up the face of the cliff home. They were a race of people that were pygmy in size who somehow managed to climb up to the slots of the cliff where they made their houses way off the deck. Amazed by how they could exist this way but gave my imagination something to simmer on during the long hike.

We get to Ende where we pass the night, looking at the sea of stars, picking out the ones we know and the ones we just learned about thanks to Cheryl and her star chart.

Day 2:

We rise early and eat breakfast consisting of bread, jam, milk, coffee, and tea. We head out for a day trip to the remnants of a village up on the cliff. We see similar structures here with the exception of a grave high in the cliff where they would hoist the dead up to this cave opening with a rope and seal it with mud. After touring the village we purchased some items from the women’s association who make indigo cloth and headed out for our next camp. Along the way we meet people on the road, greet them “hello” in their dialect, (Ay waa na), and smile as our paths cross, our cultures acquainting each other. One sour spot, the village with the pushy kids selling things, the one portion that could have been avoided from our trip. It’s a reminder that giving things away to people does tend to have some negative effects and the kids of the village were used to getting things from visitors year after year. We meet other people; pass through small villages some only consisting of ten or less people until we get to our ascent of the cliff. We start our climb up the stone layered trail heading between the opening of two massive cliff formations. We reach the gorge between the two formations to only be awarded by a fully functioning, lush, beautiful garden. Fern gully in the middle of one of the hottest places on earth, the garden is filled with onions, tomatoes, and eggplant, all being fed by an underground stream. Well organized, it looks unreal. They water by taking two gourds, one in each hand, fill them with water, and walk to their plot where they disperse the water in a fan-like shape using their hand over the gourds opening. It’s beautiful and more impressive that they are dedicated to succeeding. The time and effort they spend in this garden was truly inspiring and the people being so humble and friendly, a memorable experience. We climb to the top where we reach the village built on the rocks. This village is segmented into three parts, Muslims, Christians, and Animists who worship the earth and nature and its connectedness with the person spiritually. We drop our bags at the camp and go hike to the top of the cliff where we will catch the sunset. Along the way we stop in a hunter’s house where on display are his trophy pelts, baboon, another kind of primate, and some ring-tailed cats, with baboon skulls. Also on display are his many guns, decorated with wear and hunting stories of ages hunting in the bush. In his compound there is also a live monkey tethered to a post. When we greet him, he presents a gourd of millet beer (called Chimichama) to us. We drink some and as a welcoming gift he gives us a liter and a half of the stuff. Really nice! We hike to the ridge, rock all around us, its features smooth and sharp bending around each corner like molten taffy, until we reach the edge of the cliff, 30 minutes from sunset. The cliff runs to the west for miles as the bottom drops below us extending for endless miles to the south. No range in sight as its flat, for a very….long....way. We stay to see the sunlight dim on our second day before heading to camp. We pass the night under the veil of stars, finish the millet beer, while the cool desert wind wraps around the rock formations, silencing the rest of the village around us.

Day 3:

Early wake up. We eat breakfast and head out ton our last day in Dogon Country. Our guide takes us along the ridge, over and through passages marked by the evidence of last year’s harvest season. The rock is barren minus a tree or dried grass that has found a home on a flat section of rock. We tour another village that’s on and made of rock. We see a traditional animist house, sacrificial places forbidden by anyone under the age of 60yrs and to all women, and special houses for women who are menstruating, isolating them from the rest of the village. Its believed that when they are having their period, it is bad luck for anyone to touch her or vice versa if she were to touch anything or anyone. Once we pass through, we reach the cliff edge where we start to make our descent to the lower floor of Dogon Country. We travel through this massive crack, walk across a crevasse using tree trunks with steps carved into them, pass a burial with human remains still in it, and descent hundreds of feet by way of a trail that was built using stones. We make it down and pass through a village that was abandoned just a couple of years ago. Once on the floor plain we make it to the camp for lunch while we wait for our Dogon taxi, a wagon pulled by a cow. We load the wagon with our bags and head back to the car with some people riding on the wagon while others walked behind. It’s the peak of the day and the sun is relentless. The walk seems longer than when we first started our hike a few days ago, but village by village we inch closer to the car that awaits us to take us back to Bandiagara. After 3 ½ hours of hiking, 15km+ of trail through rock and sand, we make our way back to the car, our express way out of Dogon. As we leave by way of the single lane road on top of the bedrock, you see Dogon slowly fade away out of sight until it is concealed by the ridge. Descend down the same road to reveal a truly mystical place still woven in the history of their culture, one that even Mali to this day has yet to discover.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bed of woso at night

A few days ago while doing field work, I had one of those moments that revived a past memory, a fond one which occured almost a year from the time the event happened. What conjured up the memory was while my host brother and I were planting sweet potato in the field. After a full days work involving cutting meters of sweet potato vine, a copeous amount of meters, into 3 inch pieces to plant, we were headed home by way of a donkey cart. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was making its way down when a case of De ja vou hit me.
Last year, 3 months into my service and new to Malian life, I embarked to collect sweet potatoes, "woso" in Bambara, with my host brother Titeh. We started mid-day and cultivated woso until dusk, filling the donkey cart full to the brim before starting our journey home at least an hours ride and well past sunset.
As we rode home, night fall came, the changing of the guards over the horizon. I watched as the sun hid and receded past the trees, until it was half way between sky and earth, giving off the last remnants of its warm glow before the cool shade of the moons light fell upon the terrain, bidding farewell to the sun for the day. We gradually moved along the road, cut between fields on either side and visibly prominent under the moons glow. The trees were black silhouettes on a cool blue backdrop and with each passing minute the stars would appear as if turned on by a switch, one by one.
Once the sun completely disappeared to night, the stars revealed their full prominence in the sky. No planetarium could compare to the sight and feel of a sky littered with thousands of stars in the middle of rural Africa, pulsating through the night. I remember laying on a bed of woso in the donkey cart, gazing up at the scene above me, captivated past the point where woso jabbing into my sides failed to bother me. The Milky Way here is unbelievable, stretching from end to end in the sky, a ribbon of soft and white streaks of stars and dust cast overhead. I lost track of time while being cast in the middle of an ocean of stars.
As we made our way past houses it was pitch black out. You only knew it was a segment of town by the sounds of children playing, a goat or donkey crying, pounding of millet with a mortar and pestle. And you could see a house here and there because of the light from their mud stove, illuminating the walls of their compound, trees, people, ground, well, and all that comprised their living environment. You could only make out what the fire from the stove showed you. I had this feeling that I was on some ride at Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean to be exact, moving along slowly at that part where you pass the Bayou Restaurant at the very beginning of ride. I just sat and observed my surroundings, rocking to and fro with the movement of the cart along the uneven road. The sounds of birds, crickets, the village and all its sounds in the background while visually I'm seeing life before my eyes and feeling how sight and sound come together in perfect harmony. It was beautiful and during that donkey cart ride back home, I was fully absorbed in the moment, completely free of all other thoughts and attachments that are with me most of the time, and time slowed down allowing me to enjoy by the second where I was and why I'm here.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Life goes on...

I woke up feeling great and eager to hit the fields and do some farm work. For the past couple of days, I've felt under the weather which has prevented me from helping out in the fields. It's been frustrating because everyday people pass my house and ask me to go to the fields and help with farm work where in I explain that I'm not feeling well and I can't go with them. As much as I would like to help them out, I feel that I'd be mostly on the sidelines watching as they work. The condition prevented me from working but I knew they would head to the fields if they had the same thing I did. They work, sickness or health, rain or shine. If they have a fever, cold, flu, headache, any ailment that would require someone else to use a sick day, they work through it without showing any signs that it bothers them. This makes me feel inadequate, a softy, not being able to work even though I'm sick. I dont want them to see that weakness and assume I'm lazy. I want to prove my worth and to show them I can work even the tough work of farming.
I headed out to the field at 9:30am-ish which is really late to start farm work. Most start their work at 6:30 or 7am, ready to put in a full days work. I plan to work until 12pm or 1pm then call it a day knowing I cant last a full day. I arrived to the field and noticed two jobs being performed. First, 2 men were applying chemical fertilizer to the cotton rows. They asked if I wanted to help and I said "no thanks", not wanting to expose myself to the fertilizer which was multi-colored, granular with a lusty presence. So I grabbed my hand hoe and helped the women weed the beds already full with sprouting cotton plants. We all took a row, 20-30 meters long and started to weed, being cautious not to cut the immature cotton plants. It takes some time to weed properly and efficiently with a steady pace. The hand hoe is a serious tool consisting of a metal blade up to 6 inches wide lodged into a wooden handle, making it a perfect tool to rake anything that is in its path. But it has no mercy for things you dont want to rake, like plants you intend to grow or your foot, which I've seen some nasty wounds as a result of a hand hoe strike. But Malians are surgeons when it comes to effectively working with a "daba", exhibited when I watched them weed before I started my row to learn a little technique. I observed how they raked around a cotton plant, a good radius around it before moving closer to the plant, at times running the daba within millimeters of the plant, never damaging it. This precise method of weeding also was the most efficient for the time it took to weed. A definite skill that would take me time to learn. I started my row, working slow at first and being observant of the cotton plants to not cut them. As I started to get the hang of it, the process of weeding became familiar and I felt as though I was in a groove. Though much slower than others, my pace was good and the weeding was good for government. However by 12pm my back was aching. You are bent over the whole time weeding shuffling your feet along the row as you rake the ground never standing until you take a much needed break. Since I'm not used to this type of work, my back was telling me no more. As I observed for another hour under the shade of a palm tree, they continued working showing very little signs of the 7 hour morning they were putting in. Plus this is one day as its probably been a few days consecutively of doing this work. It was a humbling day of work and I left early with the utmost respect for them and what they do to provide food for themselves.
After taking a bath and eating something, I reflected on what a good day it was in the field. I got a few good hours of manual labor and enjoyed the company of some really good people, the whole time joking, laughing, and sharing time with them. A productive day that I could build on in the future. I was in good spirits until we had a tragedy occur in my commune that changed the mood for the rest of the day. A little girl died today, about the age of 1 1/2 to 2 years old. She was the daughter of the eldest man in our commune with the beautiful name of May. Her mother whose name is Janet, same as my mom at home, is one of the sweetest women in the commune, always has a warm greeting to give you when she sees you. May for a while has been sick and from what I've learned has always been sick since she was born. The volunteer before me remembers her being sick all the time as well, her legs thin and frail never allowing her to walk or stand. Her face was grown so you couldn't really tell her age and she always had a cough with her. She was a beautiful girl with big brown eyes that greeted you when there were no words to speak. The day she died, I had just seen her a few hours earlier. Janet and May had gone to the doctors in another town and returned the day before. I greeted them outside my house and I remember May asleep on Janets back, comfortable and quiet. She then woke up and was hungry as I was saying goodbye before heading into town. Not long after when I returned did I get the news that she had passed. I went to the eldest mans house to pay my respects.
As I arrived everyone was in silence, I sat down quietly and observed my surroundings. Everyone was quiet, barely saying a word. Women were sitting together all with somber expressions. Emotions are few in Malian culture. I've seen anger and laughter before but never sadness as crying is not expressed and at time not tolerated. But all this was exhibited this day as the women consoled each other, especially Janet. They were preparing the body for burial which a few were in charge of as the rest of us watched, gathering our thoughts. You could tell that this wasn't foreign to them, that it has happened before. They know what to do and with every step its a reminder of past events. While this was happening, the men dug the grave in the field. The area is located in the field where they have currently planted corn for the harvest. Weeks ago I noticed a plot untouched, overgrown with weeds. By this time all the fields were tilled and waiting to be sowed for the harvest. I asked why this plot was the way it was. They answered that its the place where my commune buries their deceased children. The person who I asked had buried one of their daughters there a few years ago. Once things were in order, the pastor said a few words before laying May to rest.
Visitors who came stayed until way into the night showing their support. Days after things are back to normal as life goes on here in Mali. It's a reality that death is always around, but everyone lives their lives to the fullest and making the best of the day. No one dwells long on what happened and life is still going. Fields need to be tended to, animals fed, houses organized, etc. Emotions aren't non-existant, but come and go, never to linger. It's the best way to cope and move on and to keep enjoying life each day at a time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

No matter how many times I try to understand family structures in Mali, there are times when I'm completely surprised and dumbfounded, Left wondering how the family trees are so confusing. Its structure is somewhat similar to our American structure but a few tangents linked to Mali being predominantly Muslim in religion changes the whole dynamic of what you think a family tree might be. Case in point, in Mali, men are allowed to marry up to four wives depending on financial and social status. The more money a man makes the more wives he marries. Though they can marry up to four wives, its more common for a man to have two wives than four as he has to be well off to support the wives and the children they bear. In chatting with families and asking the number of children they have, from my calculations a woman will give birth to an average of 7 children during her marriage. I've met some women who have given birth to 10 to 12 kids, for one woman. I always comment to their husbands that "they are much stronger than men are" which is true in more than one way. So a man has two wives and lets say each wife has 10 kids, so 20 kids in total. Now those kids when they get old enough to have kids will have children that might be close to the ages of some of the kids that are born between the parents, usually the kids from the second wife. So lets create a scenario that I encountered: *names are altered....slightly :)*

John marries Sue and has 8 kids with her. They all range in ages and some are boys and some are girls. They have been married for 35 years and had all of their kids at the beginning of their marriage. My friend, Ringo, is the third eldest and he is now 27 years old. His parents John and Sue love him very much. Ringo married his wife, Mary and between them they have 3 kids, ages 6,4, and 2. The 6 year old boys name is Rich. John. having acquired some wealth. decided to marry a second wife, not that he didn't like Sue anymore, but now he financially could so he did. Sue didn't object because Allah grants that a man can have more than one wife so its a common thing. After 25 years of it being just John and Sue, John married Peggy and now it is John, Sue, and Peggy in one house. John and Peggy have been married for 10 years and have 5 kids together. One of their sons is 6 years old, named Augustus. Now Rich, Ringo and Marys son and Augustus, John and Peggy's son are good friends and play together every day. You would think they were brothers because they are both boys at the age of 6 and you wouldn't think there was anything other than that. Maybe cousins but its a little more complicated than that. In actuality, Augustus is the uncle of Rich and quite possibly is a few months younger that Rich. How can this be? Well it starts with the second marriage of John and the children he has with Peggy since he had 8 kids with Sue, his first wife. My friend Ringo being one of them technically any kids that John and Peggy will be Ringo's brothers and sisters, no matter how young or old they are. So Augustus is Ringo's bothers making Ringo's son Rich, Augustus nephew. You would never know unless you delved into the family history.

This same instance happened with two of my friends, both named Yaya. I've known them for almost a year now and just yesterday I realized they were related, the younger Yaya being the uncle of the older Yaya. This is a bit complicated, but no where near as difficult as when a man will call his siblings kids his own kids. I'm completely lost when this happens because his family just multiplied by three.

Recently I've been in the field helping plow the soil. Rainy season is here and that means the growing season has started. My village grows cotton, millet, corn, peanuts, rice, and beans during this season with most being consumed by households as their stable food source. The cotton they sell as a cash crop is a big income generator when done right. In the field they till the soil by a plow pulled by cows. This sled weighs at least 100 pounds and gets a little squirmy when you leave it to chance. It will dance around and plow anything in its path. Its relatively simple, you hold the plow to till a strait line until the whole field is done. But holding a strait line is difficult as at times that plow has a mind of its own sometimes. You walk back and fourth hitting every square inch. Its hard work but rewarding to know you plowed the field by hand. After we plant the seeds, but because the rains haven't come yet we are waiting and praying for them to come. Lets hope soon as their food source for the year relies on it so lets pray for rain.

My host uncle and I grafted some trees yesterday. Grafting is the transfer of one trees genes to another by cutting and mending the branches. The purpose is to pass the good genes on to a tree that has already started to grow speeding up the germination time. Its a cool skill to have and my host uncle is very familiar with it. He is not a botanist or arborist by any means but he knows how to graft and that is all that matters. He can graft mangoes and these pear-apples, ensuring that the best fruit will be produced year after year.
Rainy season is here but it is coming slowly. The village is a little tense because they haven't been able to put the seeds in the ground to start growing their food. Hopefully the rains will come soon and the growing season will start. Until then, say a little prayer for the rains.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A run into my market town

It’s a Monday and I am ready to head to my market town to meet up with my friend and to take care of some business in town. The morning started off great. I woke up early, around 6:15am to the sound of millet being pounded in big mortars with equally as big of pestles at the hands of women who pound millet with ease time and time again. They wake up before the sun rises to get the day going for everyone, men and children, thus making sure that the house is well organized in the morning and breakfast is cooked. So they start the day way before anyone else does. The sound of millet being pounded gets me before the rooster does. After getting myself prepared for the day, I eat my usual breakfast, oatmeal with millet powder, peanut butter, powdered milk, and honey, coffee, and a multi-vitamin, breakfast of champions, I set out to ride 12km to my market around 7am. I leave this early because I want to arrive at the bank before 8am to get a good spot in line because any later will guarantee at least 2 hours of my life sitting in the bank waiting to be called upon. The bank has two window tellers, though only one bank teller at all times which makes things go incredibly slow. To put it in perspective, when was the last time you waited in line at the bank just to withdraw 20 dollars? Or to deposit a check? Never. But this is the banking system in Mali. The bank company I use does have ATM’s at some branches, however there is no ATM at the branch in my market town. Just my luck. When that day comes, I’ll be dancing in the streets. Until then, it’s a race against time and everyone else that has to do business at the bank. I check my bike to make sure its up to code for the ride and I take off down the dirt road toward town.

The ride is pretty and the temperature is cool. During the hot season you can beat the heat in the early morning for a pleasant ride. I am making good time, greeting people along the way on the road who are going to town in order to sell goods they have. Most have a thing called “sebe”, which the fruit of a palm tree. Malians anticipate its arrival and love it when it comes in. Personally, I don’t care for it. It has a bitter taste and there is no real attraction to it that I can find. But they have donkey cart’s full of “sebe fruit” to sell. I wish them luck by saying a few blessings as I pass them on the road. During my ride, about half way I start to feel sick from something I am not sure about. It came pretty sudden with body aches and a head ache. Mentally I didn’t feel sick so I kept riding to town and told myself that later I would rest to pass it by. I am getting close to town when I look at my watch and notice that it’s close to 8am and I am still 15 minutes away from the bank, at least. My goal of being there before 8am is gone and I pedal faster to get there as soon as I can. Whizzing through town, people greeting me on all sides, passing donkey carts full of various items, motos approaching me from behind and in front of me, I set my sites on the bank through 20/20 tunnel vision. I arrive at the bank and no surprise, the bank is full with at least 40 people in front of me. Some are not in the bank though, they left there cards as place markers and went into town to do some other business and will return before they are called upon. Good thing is that if they are not present when the tellers calls their name, they are skipped, making the line go faster. But all I can do is put my card down, take a seat, bring out my reading material, and be patient knowing I will be in the bank for at least a hour. I am prepared, I’ve brought a book that I am about to finish so in the time I have at the bank , I can realistically finish it. The book is called The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. Its an account of the first exploration into the canopies of the redwoods in Northern California, home to the last groves of redwoods in the world. These trees are considered among the tallest trees in the world and some of the oldest living organisms in the world. It follows the story of a few botanist and arborists who are in search of the worlds tallest trees and their quest to find the ultimate tree, the king of the forest while discovering a vast and diverse micro climate 30 stories in the tops of these redwoods. If anyone has ever seen the redwood groves, you know how spectacular these trees are and how small we are compared to their size. If you haven’t seen them, take a trip up the 101 highway and you’ll be amazed at the size of these trees and how they are the last remaining remnants of what used to be the dominant tree species in the North American continent before climatic change and intensive logging reduced their size to only 1% of what their numbers used to be. They only grow in the North West, in sparse areas from Northern California to just inside Oregon. A wonderful book that I recommend special thanks to the person who sent it to me way back in December. You know who you are.

On my last page, I am called up to the teller. Perfect timing! Finished my book and now its my turn to do bank stuff. I am out in 2 minutes, feeling satisfied that I knocked out a book and that the major time consuming chore of the day is over. I head over to my friends house where we chat a little while before I take off to run a few more errands. I head over to Mali’s Department of Forestry, wanting to meet the director and to ask a few questions while leaving my name with him for future consideration on any work involving re-forestation of the surrounding areas. Basically to get acquainted with the Department and to offer my services. However, I just missed him so I will have to come back another day. Though I did meet his wife, wonderful woman. A gentle face with a warm smile, stout in stature with loads of hospitality, she answered all of my questions and was extremely helpful. I still wasn’t feeling well so she brought me some cold water to drink which soothed my aches and cooled my temperature from the heat. I bid farewell to Tabitha and headed back to my friends house where I slept for 4 hours to shake my ailments.

After my nap, I gathered my things because it was getting close to when I had to leave. My ride is at least 35 minutes so I want to be sure to beat the sun before it goes down. I said my good bye to my friend and headed to get some food before the ride. While picking up some water, I was approached by a man who spoke English as he greeted me. This is somewhat of a rarity so initially I was excited to greet him. Not much farther into our conversation, he said he wanted to show me something. Out of his satchel he pulled out a newsletter that looked very familiar. To my surprise, they were Jehovah’s Witness newsletters, “Awake” and “The Watchtower”. I am familiar with these from my time at college where the very same messengers would find you and talk to you about God’s message, handing you these newsletters to read while trying to entice you to come to their meetings. Come to find that this guy was from Nigeria and that he spoke English pretty well, well enough to convey the same message that I heard from others who where the same messengers in the states. We talked for some time but out of the corner of my eye I could see an ugly looking mass of cloud building behind me, not a good sign when I have a 12km bike ride ahead of me. I bid the man farewell and set off to ride back to my village, hoping to beat the coming storm.

I was pedaling hard and fast, still feeling under the weather, but wanting to get a good head start on the rain that was in count down mode on when it was going to arrive. Each time I rode a few hundred meters, I would look back to see where the cloud was and how much longer I had before I would be engulfed in it. This cloud had some serious teeth on it. Draped in rain, it was shadowed by a cloud of dust in front of it that was moving low and fast ready to blanket everything in its path with a layer of sub-Saharan dust. I was making good time by normal riding standards, but I could see that there was no way I was going to out ride this one. There was a window where I could beat it but my legs, not even Lance Armstrongs legs, could have beat what was coming. I got to the 8km marker when in from of me I could see things going south quickly. Trees, the sky in front of me, all turned into a wall of dust with the ground moving debris at 30/mph. I could see where the point of my entry into this zone of chaos would start and braced for impact. I had enough time to pull my shirt over my mouth and nose and say “here we go” before I felt the full brunt of a sudden sand storm. Then like that, I was bombarded with sand that pelted any exposed skin I left out. I had no goggles to protect my eyes and the best thing I could do was glance to one side to avoid a full frontal of sand on my face. The wind would slow my ride suddenly with every gust of wind no matter how hard I peddled. It wasn’t headwind that I was fighting but wind coming from all directions, swirling in all directions pulling me and pushing me at will. My vision was obscured as the cloud of dust got thicker every meter I rode deeper into it. It was a dust hell and all I wanted to do was get home and in doors before the rain came. That last 4km was grueling, one I wouldn’t like to repeat, but I finally made it home where closed all my windows and doors and passed out until it was time to eat dinner. Good news, hot season is over, rainy season has arrived. Halleluiah!!!!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Market Days

As my group and I approach our 1 year Anniversary in Mali, its a time of reflection on what we have experienced, emotions that first gripped us as we exited the plane in Bamako, the feeling of everything being way over our heads when we first set foot in home stay, the reality of my service the first day in site where i will spend 2 years in, the joys of new and exciting experiences, struggle with language, you know, everything I'm trying to sum up in a nut shell that in the end does no justice to 11 months in this beautiful country. I try and reminisce on everything but it's harder to do, at least specifically to each and every detail. Memories come in waves, there at the present that feel as if you are reliving it again only to pass while leaving its essence on the tip of your mind. To think of my service so far is almost a blur as time seemed to lap week after week. Someone once told me that "days are long but weeks are short". Never new how true that was until i started to be more involved in my village where time is only measured by the people you meet and grow with, enjoying times of work and good company as you chat about the day. Plus traveling around to meet up with other volunteers or trainings make time pass by as you finish one training only to come across another. But times where you appreciate how far you've come along in Mali are when you reflect on a simple experience and think about how you viewed it back when you first saw it. As we passed a market, a normal sized not-out-of-the-ordinary market, at first glace it is mayhem which we have grown accustomed to, just a market. But thinking about when we first arrived and reflect on the whole market experience, you pick out the ingredients that give the market its wild and unique character which always keeps you on your toes while enticing your intrigue at the same time.
You know when the market is coming to town. Buses upon buses arrive at the market place filled to the brim with people from all neighboring villages willing to transport their numerous goods for one full day of business and trade. Along with the merchants the buses are equally packed with the very goods they sell: Sandals and shoes of every kind, color, size, and material, some plastic and some leather, fruits and vegetables which vary depending on what is in season, clothes that are from such places as Good Will, Salvation Army, and companies equally as involved in second hand clothes that come from European countries. Plastic containers of all shapes and designs, electronics that are literally a dime a dozen, and fish that occupy a few rows in the market. How you can find this section you only need to follow your nose. When you enter, the throngs of people are gradual going in and going out. Some have beat the late rush and finished early getting only what they need before the rush comes in. You pass food vendors that sell plates of rice and sauce or snacks of different kinds that you nibble on through the market. The smell of oil being fried is overwhelming though and nauseating at first. You have fried sweet potatoes (great snack), fried flower dough balls called "pate", a french word, rice with peanut sauce or tomato sauce (not the Italian kind you think of when you get pasta), and "furufuru" which is rice cakes fried. As you can tell, oil is a stable substance in Mali that is incorporated with all kinds of food. Fruit is available, mangoes, papayas and bananas at the moment for your choosing. You browse through the food area and start to reach the edge of the market nucleus where the real market happens. Market jargon picks up in content and volume, people bargaining, men yelling at cart boys to help shuttle things through market, women being stern with their kids who help them sell things in market by walking around to sell stuff. Its a mesh of words that only a market can speak. Before entering, you must prepare for it because it is overwhelming. A lot of people and a language you are still grasping can distract you too easily and then you are at the mercy of the market, a good way to kill a day without really accomplishing what you want. So a list to stick to is a wise idea but of course, room for whatever comes your way allows freedom to experience the unplanned. So a hit list in your pocket, you travel through the isles, dodging people, walking and scanning each vendor at the same time. You, like driving a car, always keep one eye on the road because something could be heading your way. In this case, a motorcycle zig zagging through the isle. These isles are not wide by any means, about the width of a side walk. They honk and go about the pace of a person walking but still feel the need to weave through a packed isle comprised of old men, women, and kids. A hectic scene that still puzzles me on why you would drive a moto in the market. Carts that shuttle heavy items like sacks of millet and grain that reach over 100kg's bulldoze through isles. Its a wide cart that shows no mercy for feet and shins as it wedges through the crowd. While walking down isles you greet venders you've seen every week, the causal "hi, hows your family?, did you sleep well? and your market?", all normal conversations in market. It takes literally 30 seconds to greet the vendors your familiar with but a hundred greetings in a day and well, your exhausted. But greeting and meeting the vendors is wonderful because you get to know them, a little about where they come from and how they are. It brings me back to swap meets back home and how the best part of going to the swap meet was meeting the people there that showed up every weekend to sell what they had. They came from all demographics and all social backgrounds and just talking to them they would always have something to share with you. You didn't necessarily have to buy anything, it was all about greeting the person, Larry from Irvine with a wife and 2 kids, or Martha, who resided in the same place for 30 years. You meet these people and connect with them just by going to their place and saying "hi". Same goes in the Malian market as you have your "people" that you connect with in which you have built a loyalty to. Like Isetu Coulibaly who is a wonderful woman that makes street food to sell at the market. I like visiting her every day and just saying "hi", joking with her and seeing her warm smile is a great way to start the market. Walking around i try and get everything that is on the list. I try and chat with as many people i can but energy wears out and i then i bee line to what i need. The market is energy draining and there is only so much energy to keep me going. Before long, I have everything i need and make my exit, seeing Isetu before i hop on my bike and go back to site only to return next week to go back again.
As i walk through market, i think of the first time i went to market, actually to the first time i saw the market from the window of the bus. I thought about how crazy it looked, a maze of confusion which would take full advantage of me. Hesitation of the unknown would grip me at just the sight of the market. It was just a lot of things i didnt understand in a country that was much different from mine. Though with time i found that similarities are found if you look and let things come. The cross cultural experience isn't gained if you dont see for yourself. Everyday is a constant reminder of finding something new without the pre determined idea of what it could be. There are still many things i would like to see or experience but have been hesitant to come around to doing them. But there is still time and all i need to do is go with my instincts and let the experience come to me.