Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An Extraordinary Journey

This past weekend would have marked the one year anniversary to my arrival in Mali and the start of one amazing, unforgettable journey- a journey that began with 23 wide-eyed, nervous strangers in a D.C hotel and ended (albeit in tears and heartbreak) with a plethora of relationships and lifelong friends all bound to a country, culture and people we have come to love. Here is the breakdown of the experience that taught me that life can take an unexpected turn at any moment, and you shouldn’t take for granted the time that you do have. Life is too short not to follow your dreams and be happy.
On Thursday, March 22nd, I woke up in my mud hut to the BBC World Radio breaking the news of a coup d’état and overthrow of the Malian president and government by a military junta. Unable to access any further information, I continued my day waiting for updates via cell phone. A mere 48 hours after the coup, all volunteers were told to consolidate to our respective regional capitals. We begrudgingly left our villages, confused and angry for the disruption to our projects, plans and lives. We arrived with questions and confusion. The media, Peace Corps, and frankly most of the world had been blind sighted by the sudden events and upheaval. Mali was considered Africa's model democracy. With the democratic presidential elections only a month away, this event seemed untimely and unnecessary.  As our access to information expanded and came flooding in, we found out that in a matter of hours, the government had been overthrown, the constitution suspended, the national television and radio station seized, a nationwide curfew enforced, and all borders closed.
The days of consolidation were spent checking the news constantly and obsessively. Every Peace Corps and U.S Embassy email and text message was evaluated and scrutinized as we attempted to decipher our ominous fate. While we rode the emotional rollercoaster of optimistic highs (returning to site) and dreaded lows (the fear of evacuation) as best we could, there is nothing that can really prepare you for the gut-wrenching news of an impending evacuation. That the peaceful, simple life you were leading will suddenly become a big mess. It is a change that happens so suddenly and with such immediate effects, that you are left numb and in shock. After forty years of uninterrupted service to the people of Mali, Peace Corps was evacuating. And it was not a decision made lightly. We left the country with ECOWAS sanctions going into effect- a result that led to major disruptions to the banking sector, closing of the borders, depleting supplies of gas, limited public transportation, and increases in prices in food and other supplies. It was decided that Peace Corps could not reasonably expect to function and provide at least minimal support to the Volunteers.
For many of our Malian friends and counterparts in our communities, our evacuation was difficult to understand. The fighting, protests, and minimal violence has been, even now, contained almost entirely to the capital, Bamako. Literally nothing has changed in my village. This season’s wedding ceremonies are coming to a close, and as the first of the heavy rains begin to fall and nourish the dry, arid land, preparations for the next farming season are being made.
Exactly one month after the coup d’état, I returned home. It has taken some time for me to recover both physically and emotionally from my time in Mali. I came home exhausted-tired of being frustrated, tired of crying, and tired of saying goodbye. While everyday is a little easier, it is still difficult to accept that while I can return to the comforts of home, my Malian friends and family are stuck to face the harsh repercussions of the coup d’état, repression in north and the food crisis in the Sahel.

Our amazing country director wrote to us saying that he had a strong hunch that a number of us will find work, research, or other projects or activities that will one day soon bring us back to Mali. I can only hope that I am that fortunate, because there is definitely something addictive about Malian culture and hospitality. It is a place that changes you forever. Mali is one of the top twenty poorest countries in the world, but their culture, values and traditions are extremely rich. They withstand extreme hardship with the largest and brightest smile you have ever seen. They take you in as part of their family, change you for the better, and teach you valuable lessons. During our Close-of-Service conference, one of our counselors compared Mali to our first love.  And it is true. It is a great love-a love that I will never forget and always have.

My host sister and her two daughters. Pure happiness. I will miss you.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I’m sitting on the balcony of the stage house in Bamako, and it’s beautiful outside. I’ve spent the past few days in good company with all of the good food and TV/internet every deprived Peace Corps Volunteer craves. And I have six more days of it! …but the thing is I don’t want it. I miss site.

I have been gone since last Monday. First to my Regional In-Service Training in Kita, then to Bamako to see a dear friend home, and now I have to wait around to get a mole removed. It is most likely nothing serious, but I can never be too careful as melanoma is in my family. I know that being out for health reasons is completely legitimate, and with all the physical and mental stress that comes with this job, my health has to come first. BUT, I can’t help but feel guilty for being away; feel like I am not doing enough, not doing all that I can to help these people and this place that I have come to love.  Site guilt plagues many volunteers, and it is something that, for me at least, is always luring in the background. I will most likely have to deal with these feelings till the end of my two years, feelings of uselessness and inadequacy, like I am letting my village down. Some days these fears cloud my mind completely and are usually compounded when I am away from site. So, today just happens to be one of those days.

Bear with me as I bemoan in hopes that it will ease my mind.

I miss running after Hamadi my 1 ½ year old little brother who has just begun to speak. His first word was my name.

I miss joking and chatting with my grandmother, Nandi, after dinner every night.

I miss Yah, my 12 year old best friend who comes over every evening to help me water my garden after which we get all sticky and messing eating a papaya.

I even miss my elderly neighbor, my togoma (someone who shares the same name as you) Sira who gives me a hard time about everything.

I miss the simplicity of it all: waking up at dawn, going to bed with the setting sun and filling the in-between spending time with some really amazing people in a truly wonderful place.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Improved Cook Stoves

Fuelwood comprises the main source of energy for a vast majority of people in Western Africa. Specifically for the women of my community, one of their main daily tasks- cooking- takes a lot of time, effort and wood. It is the women's job to travel en brusse to chop and collect the firewood. Everyday, I see women carrying bundles of wood stacked on their head and donkey carts full of firewood trekking through thte village. However, the current practice of harvesting and collecting this resource is not only exhausting but also wholly unsustainable and is contributing to deforestation of the local area.

This is the typical Malian three stone cooking method.

To prevail over the Three Stone Fire, the Improved Cooking Stove aims to save cooking time by increasing efficiency and to reduce the volume of smoke emission. To improve on the three stone fire requires an insulated combustion chamber. By forcing the heat to scrape against the sides of the cooking pot will improve the heat transfer and help reduce the amount of firewood needed.

Before and After!

This is my friend Jamie and an finished improved stove

A great variety of modifications can be implemented to improve the effectiveness of a stove; ranging from additives to the mud to the physical proportions of the stove itself. The biggest difficulty I have had is convincing the women to agree to the one door model. They are not pursuaded of the effectiveness and prefer to be able to control the heat of the two pots. Therefore, I have adapted the model to allow for two doors while still preserving and improving the efficiency.

This is an example of the adapted method
The women are really excited about the stoves. I even have a waiting list!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pics of the month!

A montage of this past month:

Want to make some lunch?

First you pound the millet


Then you sift it

Cute kids of the month: Hamadi

And Fatoumata

Want to make a house? First you need to make the bricks which are a nice mud/straw mixture...

Make some more mud to stick the bricks together...

Here is the layout/foundation

 And make the roof out of some bamboo pole and straw. So all you really need is some mud, more mud, some bamboo, and maybe a little more mud and voila, you have a house!

The afternoon activity...

Hair Braiding

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's make some soap!

Early December some women in my village expressed interest in making soap. Making soap is something that all the women can and do make by using oil from a nut that grows locally. However, they were most enthusiastic about making the "good stuff": Kabakuruni which they use to wash clothes and also toubabou sahuna (literal translation: white man's soap). But, since their work with the harvest was not finished we decided to address the idea in the new year.
You are probably asking yourself, "Does Taz even know how to make soap?" Honestly, I had only seen it been done once during one of our trainings but other than that all I had were a handful of recipies. It seemed simple enough, so I was willing to commit as you should really jump on any idea/project that your village is genuinely interested in as it increases the likelihood of it being sustainable. If they want it to succeed, they will make it happen...but not without a fair share of bumps in the road. This is Peace Corps after all.
I took the opportunity to address the women again when they were all gathered for another meeting held by a local NGO. The floor ended up being all mine as the guy never showed up which turned out to be foreshadowing for what I was to experience. I found out that the women weren't solely interested in learning how to make the soap; they wanted to start a small business and generate income for themselves. Therefore, taking things slowly, I gave the women the task of assembling their group and choosing a President, Treasurer and venders by our next meeting in one weeks time.
On the date of our meeting, my homologue and I waited for approximately 45 minutes before I resigned myself to the fact that no one was showing up, so I went in search of some answers. The response I received: "We forgot." Every single one of them. When working with illiterate people in a culture that has no sense of or need for time, this is a common result. If it weren't for the daily radio communication, I'm sure that my village would be oblivious to the day and date and would honestly be none the worse for it.
I could very easily have reminded the women the day before, but in the back of my mind I think I wanted to test them. To see how dependable and accountable they could be. Since that was a total fail, I decided to start over-- clean slate, no expectations. Since this was my first "project," I figured that we, the women and I, would be learning along the way.
With the small group that I could rally together that morning, we decided who would head the positions (which were met by many objections and essentially forced upon the women because they all shy away from any responsibility of importance which I think is due to their lack of education), decided that they would contribute the 12 litres of shea oil as they can produce that themselves at zero cost, and finally decided on a date and place . Everything seemed to be in order.
However, when I returned from my trip to Kita where I bought the rest of the ingredients (peanut oil, lye, and honey) we were met with another little bump. The formation was to be in 2 days time; however, the machine to grind the shea nets had not yet arrived. It had gone travelling to the surrounding villages (there is maybe one machine for our 4 village radius) and wasn't due to return in time for our formation. Not a huge bump, so we just pushed the date back.
FINALLY, the morning of the formation arrived, and thankfully, so did the women!! At first they trickled in each bringing their contribution, 1 litre of shea oil per woman. We soon had the 12 litres needed, but they kept coming until we had collected 29 litres of shea oil. Compared with the 8 women that I rallied that first failed meeting, this was a vast improvement and more than I expected. I was pleased that so many women were committing. We began the formation with my homologue and I explaining and instructing the women who would then perform the tasks. Its really quite simple to make soap: mix the ingredients together, stir continuously in one direction till it begins to set, pour in the mold, ABANA. So, where did I go wrong!!?? We were stirring for an hour, two, almost three hours and the mixtures were not hardening. It should have taken less than an hour. As time moved on, I slowly became deflated. I was responsible- it was my first project and it wasn't working. I felt like I had dropped the ball. Its a horrible feeling that hits you right in the gut.
I tried to stay poised and figure out a solution, but it was the women who saved the day. They took charge and figured out the problem. As it turns out, it wasn't completely my fault, but most importantly our work was salvagable. I had bought the 2kg of lye needed; however, it seems that I had been deceived and taken advantage of in the market. I bought the lye for 1000 cfa- 500 cfa per kilo, but talking to the women at the formation, 1 kg should cost 800 cfa. I was ripped off. I paid more and received less because I am white. This happens all too often actually. It is assumed that the white person has money so their prices will be inflated.
It took another day for us to acquire the correct amount of lye, so after releasing all the control to the women (which I should have done from the get-go), we finished 2 days later. Even though there were more than our fair share of bumps in the road, I think that I can call this a success. Even when I was ready to claim defeat, the women continued to praise the soap we were making. Their positivity kept me from breaking down, and in the end they were right. The soap turned out great. So great that the women of the formation bought half of the stock right off the bat! As soon as we set the prices, they went grabbing at it. AND, the rest of the product was sold in a day and a half! SUCCESS!!

First the women melted the shea tulu by the fire

Mixing the oil, lye, and honey for the Toubab Soap
The soap is in the mold!
The women hand-molding the Kabakuruni

Final Product!

With the money made from this first round, the women are going to be able to continue production and even have profit left over. Making soap here is very lucrative! The women are motivated and excited, and so am I!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Images from this past month at site...

One of the men in my host family standing by some recently harvested millet- the main staple of the Malian diet.

After the millet is harvested, the men "gosi" or hit the millet to release the grain from its shell and then the women have to sift it.

A little extra height...

Since I am not a skilled Malian farmer, I am appointed babysitter. These are two of my little boys, both around 1 yr: Jangoba and Hamadi

One afternoon, I conducted an art class with my second graders. They were so excited when I gave each of them a piece of colored construction paper and a selection of crayons to use. They were even more floored when I told them they could take it home!

My class with their masterpieces. (A special thanks to Judy Cooley for sending the supplies)

I started painting a world map in one of the classrooms as part of my attempt to "beautify" the school. I'm hoping that these murals will motivate and entice the kids to stay in school- something I hope they can be proud of.

During my in-service training, we were introduced to a miracle tree that can help combat malnutrition. The Moringa tree is already well known and used throughout Africa but has not caught on in Mali as of yet. Four months after planting, the leaves are ready to be harvested, dried in the shade, and then pounded into a powder to be added on top of your meal. 100 grams of the powder has 7 times the Vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the Vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the Calcium of milk, 3 times the Potassium of bananas, and approximately the same amount of protein as one egg. Since the harvest has been poor this year due to the dismal amount of rain we received, it is especially important that the villagers atleast receive these important nutrients during hunger season. Here, my homologue and some of the villagers are standing with some of the pepinieres that will be transplanted once they have sprouted.

Some of the little girls next door had a blast playing with my dirty soapy water after I was done doing my laundry. When you don't have a lot to play with, anything can be fun!

The chekoroba (literal translation: old man) next door, who is too old to go out to the fields to farm, spends the day weaving baskets out of bamboo.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This just about sums it up...

This past week has been a rollercoaster of emotions. My stage and I are currently in the throes of our In-Service Training where we are learning all about project design management, funding, budgeting and other practicum. After our three month lockdown at site, many of us arrived motivated, inspired, and ready to mobilize as we are finally allowed to start executing projects after these two weeks of training. However, as each day passes I feel the weight of the expectations (mine, my village's and Peace Corps') press heavily on my shoulders. We all desperately want to make a difference- a tangible difference- but are lost as to where to even begin. As I continue to try and reconcile with these feelings, I stumbled across a Huffington Post blog article that sums up these woes better than I am able to at this moment:

What The Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure
Volunteer life bursts with cultural faux pas, fruitless projects and second guesses. For two years, I felt like the joke was on me. Even on my best days in Senegal, the sudden scream of "toubab," a taunting word for foreigners, reminded me that my cheerfulness was jinxed, my presence perhaps unwelcome.
In West Africa, I confronted the toubab version of myself, a self previously foreign to me that was lethargic, cynical and at home with failure.
For a long time I hesitated to admit that I felt incompetent as a Peace Corps volunteer. I felt that if I expressed my suspicion that I was inept, it would confirm criticisms that the program itself is irresponsible and presumptuous. I signed up largely because I saw myself as a go-getter and I wanted a challenge. I have a childlike loyalty to getting things right; I lack a cleverness for bullshitting. Yet these traits, from which I had previously derived strength, became the source of my immense heartbreak.
I did extra work in my demonstration garden only to find out later that agriculture agents resented me for it. I had lengthy, optimistic conversations with a village chief about starting a community garden only to discover that I misread his reaction and that he was, in fact, against the whole endeavor.
When a project faltered, I wondered if I should blame the cultural difference or my language skills, my lack of expertise or my accidental impropriety. I never knew for sure.
And yet, seeing my confidence unravel was helpful. Maybe everyone needs a period in their lives when they barely recognize themselves.
The story that Peace Corps volunteers like to tell -- and Americans like to hear -- is one of urgent and awe-inspiring work. Americans like to feel that at least someone is out there fighting all those incomprehensible African problems.
This narrative is too simplistic.
As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary, some still find it hard to put a finger on what exactly the program achieves. There are both quantifiable yields, like number of wells dug and trees planted, and unquantifiable gains, like the intimate bonds volunteers make with people all over the world.
One benefit of the program that is never trumpeted (and likely never will be) is that it produces a group of young Americans who understand failure.
Americans, especially the variety who join the Peace Corps, are raised to believe that hard work pays off. We come from a place where the phrase, "We'll meet tomorrow at 5," means, "We'll meet tomorrow at 5" -- where you put a stamp on an envelope and it gets delivered.
"Failure is not an option," according to the locker room poster likely brought to us by the same people who birthed "Impossible is Nothing." Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that's why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it.
We all have failures, yet we bury them in the folds of our pasts as curious gaps in our résumés and cryptic replies to direct questions. If we are unable to emerge triumphant, our failures eat away at us.
My Senegalese comrades are less brittle. They admit freely that their lives are full of fiascoes, delays and disappointments.
When I asked locals in Pulaar how work was going, I didn't often hear: "Oh, just fine!" Instead, the response was a more honest, "I'm trying, little by little." It seems to me that growing up with unpredictability has better equipped the Senegalese people to persevere in the face of real obstacles.
The same barriers Senegalese people manage to climb over regularly ended some of my projects. When I tried obtaining a grant for a women's farm, the land rights had to first be legally transferred to the women themselves. While the paperwork lingered in a government office, I foolishly kept preparing for the project that would never be, blocking off months in my calendar that I would devote to it. Meanwhile, the women moved on, continuing their own, smaller version of the farm they wanted. They knew not to rest their hopes in government offices and the men who shuffle within them.
I don't mean to give the impression that Peace Corps volunteers don't accomplish anything. We do a lot of the things other aid organizations do, but our version is less grandiose: We hold small-group trainings on childhood nutrition and organic pest control. We help small businesses grow, often through a series of one-on-one interactions. Our hyped-up expectations of success are often quashed--we learn quickly that smaller is better.
I survived two years in the Peace Corps. My proudest accomplishment during my time in Senegal, one that can't be expressed on a résumé, is how much I grew up.
I now know that no occupation, despite my generation's obsession with passion-following, is without compromise or disappointment. And I know that failure, despite its negative connotations, takes practice.
Maya Lau