After reading some of the other volunteers’ blogs I realized you guys got the short end of the stick in terms of blog writers lol. In my defense, I, as well as many of the other volunteers didn’t have a place in our homestays where we could “get away” to write. I did have my own room but that place was so poorly ventilated that I tried to avoid it as much as possible. Sometimes I didn’t even sleep in there- I would set up my bug hut in my little porch area which I was super lucky to have. The only times it was comfortable sleeping inside was when it had rained. I am now in my permanent site where I will be for the next 2 years and my house there is much better ventilated thank god.
I want to clarify something that I may not have explained well earlier. The first 3 months I was in Mali I was staying with a family close to Bamako and doing Pre-Service Training. I am now at my permanent site which is in southern Mali. When I say “my homestay family” I am referring to the family that lives close to Bamako. They are the family with the adorable children. When I say “my host brother” I am referring to the father in this family. I refer to his wife as my host sister because she is 24 and it feels strange referring to her as my host mom even though she was basically that- she was the one who cooked for me and would take me to the tailor, etc. When I say “my host dad” I am referring to my host brother’s father.
I’m having a hard time explaining life here in blog entry format so for now I’m going to group things into categories/lists to explain important differences here or to recount certain experiences I’ve had there.
Western women are considered a “third gender”. This was a pretty weird concept to me when I first heard it from a veteran Peace Corps volunteer but now that I have been here for a few months I have become more familiar with it. As a Western woman, I enjoy the privilege of easily interacting with both genders. I am afforded some of the privileges Malian men enjoy but at the same time it is not strange for them when I do tasks that are delegated to the women such as cooking, doing laundry, and getting water. They think it’s really funny when the guys try to do this.
One of the privileges I enjoy is eating with the head of the household. Husbands and wives in Mali do not eat together. The women in a household will eat together from the same bowl and in my experience the husband eats by himself. This varies household to household. Small children will sometimes eat with the husband. With my homestay family, I would eat with the women and children or get my own plate for during lunchtime when my host brother wasn’t around but if he was there I would always want me to eat with him.
The other night I attended a meeting in the village to discuss getting a water tower with the helpf of an NGO. The NGO would be covering a little over half of the cost but the village had to make up the rest. All the men were gathered to discuss and I was the only woman at the meeting.
Blessings: Blessings are a huge deal in Mali and there are SOOO many of them for each and every occasion. You will generally get one blessing if you are simply greeting someone and several if it is a special occasion. There are blessings for the morningtime, evening time, baby naming ceremonies, festivals, weddings, trips, etc. Blessings begin with “Ala ka…” and the response is “Amiina” (which means “Amen”). Sometimes I won’t even know what kind of blessing they are giving me but if I hear “Ala ka..” I know to say “Amiina”.
Tea time: Malians drink tea all the time. You will see them preparing tea with a charcoal stove in the morning, after lunch and late at night. They drink green tea imported from China or make hibiscus tea which is super good. When you sit down to have tea they will make 3 rounds you will be there for at least an hour.
Joking Cousins: A social lubricant used to ease tensions between members of different groups. Your last name dictates who you joke with. My last name is Traouré so I joke with Diarra’s. Coulibaly’s joke with Keita’s. You use this “joking relationship” when you’re at the market; if you have the same last name as the seller they will generally give you a better price. If two people are having a conflict and they find out they are joking cousins they will end the conflict.
Some of the jokes you can say to each other are:
- “You are my slave!” Slavery doesn’t have the same connotation here that it does in the US so they can laugh about it. I think most of us Americans are still pretty uncomfortable with this joke.
- “You eat beans!” This makes Malians laugh without fail. Why? Because beans make you fart and that is hilarious to them. Sometimes when they say it to me now I say “yes I love beans they’re super good for your health”. It’s actually more of a compliment to tell someone they eat beans because that means they can afford them.
- “You are my grandson.” Older people are highly respected here so being someone’s older relative means you have more authority and respect.
Carrying Buckets on your Head: You will see women carrying the craziest items on their head. Heavy tubs of water, a bundle of sticks, large bowls, sacks, etc. I tried carrying some water the other day; you generally wrap a small bundle of fabric on your head to give it a cushion. I was already very impressed by the ladies but I have a newfound respect from trying to do it on my own. I want to try to keep doing it and maybe I will finally correct my slouching tendency!
This practice, however, can also be very dangerous when women are walking on the side of the street. The load on their heads is generally so heavy that they cannot turn their heads to see if a car or motorbike is coming close to them. One of the volunteers said he saw a motorcycle hit a woman like this. Thankfully he said she wasn’t badly hurt.
Ideas/Attitudes that have changed since being here:
- Indulge/treat myself whenever possible.
It probably sounds really ironic that I have learned to treat myself while simultaneously removing myself from all modern conveniences but when you don’t have ready access to fattening ready-made foods 24/7 you don’t need to restrict yourself as much. If someone made cake, I’m not going to think twice about whether I should or shouldn’t, it is going in my mouth. Also, everything is relatively cheap so if I see a fabric I like I generally buy it. I was accumulating too much fabric at one point so now I am waiting to have an occasion before I buy fabric.
- Feeling guilty about “being rich”.
I expected to feel super guilty about everything because that’s how I felt in Senegal. There were always talibe (begging children- it’s a complex tradition, they are not just begging because they need money). In my homestay town/village, since I wasn’t living in the city I didn’t have to deal with people constantly asking me for money. We also didn’t have access to more expensive food items and the ones that were available were cheap enough that the locals could buy them so I didn’t feel bad. A lot of this had to do with the fact that the homestay family I was with was doing pretty well. I got boiled eggs every morning so they were using all the money Peace Corps was paying them to feed me on me. This wasn’t the case for other volunteers.
In my current village, where I will be for the next 2 years, I am dealing with guilt. I am super self-conscious about people seeing how much I spend on phone credit or seeing me buy expensive foods such as potatoes. I’ve moved a lot of my items into my bedroom because if I have people in my front room where my stove is they will look around at everything I have and I can assume they are telling other people in the village about it.
- Food processing is AMAZING!
I know we tend to demonize processed foods in the States but here food processing is amazing! It preserves value and makes out of season items available ALL YEAR! I know you guys can’t fully appreciate that but it’s a pretty great thing.
I thought garbage disposal was a problem in developing countries. I no longer think that. In fact I think that the fact that our garbage is so efficiently removed makes us prone to producing more because we don’t see how much we’re throwing away. I’m not advocating for shittier garbage removal systems but I am saying we produce WAY too much waste on a daily basis.
- Recycling in Mali: You’d be surprised how recycling works in Mali. For glass, they keep the bottles to get discounts on their next order. For plastic bottles, they will wash them and reuse them by refilling them with juice that they then sell. And they use plastic bags to light coal fires. I know you’re thinking “Tell them its bad” but that plastic bag is going to end up in a heap that will get burned later anyway so I’m fighting the inevitable.
- You just end up being more creative here. You don’t get “durable”/quality plastic bags or packaging very often so if you get something that isn’t a cheap plastic then you are going to reuse it. For example my “powdered milk can is going to be a very useful container once I’m done with it.
- I would rather have good wifi than running water.
We tend to have to certain order of amenities we prioritize as “necessities” in the U.S. I thought running water was up there but after being here and not having running water I really don’t think it’s a big deal. I’d honestly rather have wifi access than running water. Above wifi access I would put having a fridge. Seriously fridges change your life. I find myself wishing I could have a fridge so I could eat baked potatoe with sour cream.
This was something I wrote in late July when I was doing Pre-service training and living with my host family which I absolutely adored.
It’s crazy how fast we adapt to new environments. I did not expect to feel as comfortable as I do here or to feel as attached to my host family as I am. It’s the moments when seeing something that would have been normal in the US seem weird that I realize just how fast all this craziness has become my new norm. I’ve been so used to seeing women breastfeeding their kids and not covering up at all because boobs aren’t that big of a deal here that today when I saw a baby with a bottle I was like “Woah that’s weird”.
There are also moments when I’ll think there are very little differences between Malian and American families and then I’ll see something that reminds me I’m in Mali and that things that would not be ok in the US are fine here. Today my host brother asked his daughter, Worokia (4), to bring him hot tea. This entails carrying a metal teapot that is on a coal stove and pouring it into her dad’s cup. She knew to find a cloth to hold the hot teapot and she did it all just fine but watching the whole thing I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. In the US you would never even let a 4 year old near a stove and I feel like that whole thing could’ve gone soo wrong.. she could’ve burnt her hand grabbing the teapot or spilled it and burnt herself but it was fine. You’ll also see kids with knives pretty often but disclaimer here the knives here are kinda shitty so you won’t cut yourself so easily. I wonder if and how my parenting approach will be affected by this experience. Seeing kids are capable of more than we give them credit for sometimes makes me think that giving them more responsibilities will make them rise to the challenge.
As I may have mentioned a lot of the men here have multiple wives. Wealthier men will tend to have a higher number of wives so at one point I started associating wealth with more wives. The other day a fellow volunteer was telling me about his rich uncle and I was about to ask “how many wives does he have?” and then I realized how ridiculous that was.
Awkward moments/Culture Shock
- One of my host brothers from my homestay family was married the weekend after I moved in. My host sister/host mom Fatoumata offered to take me to the “konosu” (translated to “Marriage house”) to see his new wife. It looked like an abandoned complex and inside the room was his wife laying on a mat under a mosquito net. It seemed like a really weird honeymoon and I felt pretty weird that she took me there.
- One of my host brothers suggesting I breastfeed his niece. WTF WTF WTF. Let me provide some context here. For one breastfeeding with your boobs out in the open in NOT a big deal at all. It really should be like everywhere because how annoying that you’re trying to feed your child and you have to worry about your boob showing. Anyways, having a baby other than your own suck on your boob is also not uncommon at least among close family members from what I’ve observed. I noticed that my host niece’s grandma will sometimes try to breastfeed her. I guess she is just using the original pacifier. I also saw one of the baby’s aunts try to breastfeed her. I’m using the term “breastfeed” to refer to them giving them their boob to suck on. Anyways I was still a little offended/taken aback when he suggested that.