I started writing this post in early October to explain my setup in the village. I’ve tried to update some of the details but for the most part all of these things haven’t changed.
Many of you have been calling me and asking me “So what work are you doing? What’s you’re project?”. Even other volunteers who are in more organized environments in urban centers will ask “What’s your partner organization like?”
So here’s the deal. For the first 3-6 months Peace Corps just wants you to work on your language skills and integrate into your community. Sure, you can start cooking up some awesome project ideas but in the past volunteers will think they have an good idea for a project and it ends up failing before they even leave the country (womp womp). PCV’s end up doing secondary projects aside from their primary project so a failed project doesn’t mean that they didn’t improve their community in some way and there is always the element of cultural exchange that I’m sure is beneficial for both sides.
For people that are out in the village, depending on the size there may or may not be a partner organization. Peace Corps gave us a “Community Assessment Tool” (CAT) with a bunch of questions for us to ask at the school, the local maternity clinic/health center (they are called CSCOM), the market, the closest microfinance institution, etc. One of the volunteers in the city said they didn’t know if they would be able to finish all of it before our In Service Training in November. For me, the CAT represents some sense of structure that I can add to my weekly routine which until last week, had none. Now I can plan to go to the school, etc to keep myself busy. Otherwise my daily routine has become to go running some mornings and then go into the village and see what’s happening and ask to help. Some mornings I decide to take it easy but things just come up. The other day I was making French fries in my house for breakfast (because I felt like it ok) and then some kids came by to knock on my door. I was feeling pretty tired that day and I was hoping they would eventually go away but they were very insistent so I finally came to the door and they told me they were going out to the fields to “husk” the ginger- remove the green part. I am making up this term because I don’t know how to refer to it. That seemed appealing so I asked them to wait a bit and I headed out with them. By the time I got back I was late for Bambara tutoring. Some afternoons the kids will ask me to “sebennike” which means “to write” in Bambara. This all started the day that my solar panel was being installed (the day after I arrived) and a bunch of kids were in my compound hanging out. One of them had a stencil so I figured I’d bring a paper and pen out for them to use the stencil. Ever since then kids will ask me “Kalisi are we going to write today?”. It was pretty annoying before because I had to provide the pen and paper and there would be a 10 to 1 ratio of children to pen/paper. Now my counterpart lent me a chalkboard so I bring the chalkboard out and hand each child who wants to write a small piece of chalk. I’ve tried to practice writing numbers with them but some of them are SOOO bad at it. I will draw a 2 on the board and their version will look like a 2 rotated 90 degrees to the right. They’ll turn to me with eager eyes looking for and ask “Is that right?” and I want to say “What is that? If I can’t tell what it is then no its not close” but I don’t have sufficient Bambara to be that mean yet.
Counterpart/Homologue: Our counterpart is basically our work partner and/or community host. It is the person who will be facilitating introductions with the rest of the community. If you are in a more organized work environment this may mean your counterpart (homologue in French) may be more of a supervisor than a partner. Ideally you have a counterpart and a host family which are separate. Peace Corps does this so that if for whatever reason there are problems with one of these parties you don’t end up damaging all relationships at once and so that you have a wider circle of support when you are adjusting. For me my counterpart’s family is basically my host family because I eat lunch and dinner with them.
Getting water: There is one pump in my village for all 350 people. It is about 200 meters away from my house. I have a large plastic trash bin where I keep water so I don’t have to get water each day. I usually have to fill it up every 3-4 days. What happens when “ji banna” (water finished)? Well that means I have to go ask Mamineta for help- she is part of my actual host family (while I don’t have meals with them they still help me get my water and I drop to drink tea sometimes). Either that or I ask some 8-10 year-olds to help me get water. Depending on the size and quantity of the buckets/containers I have and how many people are helping me it will take 2-3 trips to fill up my bin. I have to allot at least 40 minutes to this process because if I go to the pump when it’s not so hot around 4:30 then I can expect there to be a lot of women waiting to get water.
One day when had almost ran out, I went looking for Mamineta to ask her to help me carry the water. As I walked around the village my posse of children grew bigger. I spotted her and asked if she could help me and she said she would come over in a bit. But then I figured I had 2 buckets so I could get started- myself carrying one and one of the older kids another. We took the buckets and headed to the pump which was pretty busy. There are only women at the pump- by that I mean little girls, adolescent girls and grown women. You take off your shoes before stepping up to pump the water. They all rotate doing this. When the kids or young girls do it you just see them jumping off the ground with the pump. As I walk towards the pump I get the usual stare down from some of the girls. They are all surprised when I say I can indeed pump water and when I carry the bucket on my head back to my compound it is amusing to them. Sometimes I feel like I’m a village clown/entertainer and I just accept that role instead of getting mad that they laugh at everything I say and do. Instead I’ll think “Let’s put on a show today. Come right over here to watch the toubab (term used to refer to French people but they call anyone who’s not black that) try to carry water on her head!”
Electricity: I have a solar panel that is supposedly powerful enough to allow me to have a fan running the whole night during the hot season. I have 5 months till the hot season comes so I have not bought a fan to be able to verify this yet. It is connected to a car battery. As we are not in the hot season, I currently use it to charge my laptop and my phone. I have a light in both rooms of my house as well as a light for my porch area and my bathroom area but lately the power has been running out so I have to try to budget the power.
Food: The first week I hadn’t had a chance to do all my shopping so I was relying on my counterpart’s family for most of my meals.
Breakfast is siri or moni which is made from millet or maize. They look like porridge. They are mixed with powdered milk and sugar so there are some nutrients there.
Lunch and dinner are usually rice with sauce and some fish but sometimes we will have porridge for dinner. My counterpart always puts the fish on my side of the bowl but I never feel right eating all of it and I get tired of picking out the fish bones so I usually just eat half of what he puts on my side and then I edge the rest towards him.
Sometimes I’ll get toh. It is a little hard to describe this, it is like a “corn gelatin” that will take the shape of whatever container you place it in. It is made from millet or maize and is a main staple of the Malian diet. It is usually eaten with an okra sauce that has the consistency of snot/slime (that is the best way to describe it). When I first had this I was really scared that I’d be eating it all the time at my site but I haven’t had to eat it with that sauce too often. At my site if I do eat it it is with a red spicy sauce not the green snot sauce. The crazy thing is at times I have started craving it. Maybe I just want a break from rice sometimes. The picture on the right is toh.
I have started making breakfast for myself but I still go to my counterpart’s home for lunch and dinner. Sometimes I will cook snacks or dinner for myself. This was really hard to do in the beginning when I did not have a table. I want to dedicate an entire blog to explaining cooking in Mali without a counter or sink. Oh also I have a gas stove which seems to be a big deal out here. The women in the village all cook with wood fires from what I’ve seen.
Furniture: Some volunteers are moving to sites that have had previous volunteers so some people have some furniture in their homes. My house is completely new so I had to buy everything. Another volunteer who’s been here since February helped a lot of us order beds so I got a queen size bamboo bedframe and mattress as well as bamboo shelves. I also got 2 chairs but that was pretty much it for the first month.
I was very lucky with my homestay family because as I’ve mentioned before the large majority of them spoke French. While I tried to use my Bambara whenever possible, I could always fall back on the French when I needed. Sometimes I would test out a new phrase in Bambara and my host sister wouldn’t understand me so she’d tell me to say it in French. All this to say that while I felt I was learning Bambara well what I wasn’t learning was coping skills for when people don’t understand you and vice versa.
Here in my village they speak Joula which is VERY similar to Bambara. Another volunteer who is very good in Bambara explained the differences in Bambara and Joula to me. They use different words for beans and chicken and their form of past tense is also slightly different but it has not been a difficult adjustment. I still can’t understand everything people are saying half the time but that would happen whether people were speaking Bambara or Joula.
What was really frustrating in the beginning was sometimes I’d ask an “or” question and the response I would get was a head nod.. which is no response at all .
I’m pretty luck in the fact that my homologue speaks French. He taught himself how to speak French which is really impressive. And its really nice to be able to let my brain rest from the Bambara for awhile when I talk to him but it is SUCH an amazing feeling when you finally manage to communicate with someone in the language that you just started learning 5 months ago!! It feels like the Red Sea is parting.
My counterpart left for a few weeks after Seli Ba/Tabaski to do a pilgrimage to a city in western Mali. The first few days of trying to communicate with his wife who doesn’t speak French were really hard but with each day we started understanding each other a little more. Now I’m starting to be able to communicate with more and more people in the village who before I could only greet.
Service in my house is super bad. I’ll usually get some service early in the morning or late at night but during the day I cannot make calls or get any data there. If I want to make a call or receive Whatsapp messages I need to go out by the soccer field (which is just a dirt rocky field) or behind my house. This changed 2 weeks ago when I decided to test out the reception in the hill behind my house. Pictures on Facebook actually load there and I can make Whatsapp calls! This hill is a godsend because whenever something is bothering me I need to talk to someone about it so this discovery means I’ll be able to destress more easily and I will be more connected to family and friends. =)