I’ve spent the past month away from site so it feels great to be back. It’s nice to see that all my stuff is still here and everyone is either doing the same or better than before. I spent the first few weeks of December at training and then went up to Bandiagara where I spent my Christmas hanging out by the pool up there. I then went on a day hike through Dogon Country and then visited Mopti where I investigated the plastic bricks they manufacture up there. I also hung out a little bit in Sevare where I learned (and mastered) the game of world domination, Risk. I came back through Bamako and made my triumphant return to Kita yesterday relatively happy and healthy.
Right away I jumped back into my work and have discussed my restaurant idea with my women’s group. We are very close to submitting our proposal. Meanwhile the women of the cooperative are fired up and ready to go. All we have to do now is finish up the proposal and wait for the funding to come in to start in sh’Allah. The president of my women’s cooperative, Sabou Cisse, is awesome, and always tells me that the hardest part about doing any sort of business in Kita is starting. I am starting to see why. It requires a lot of planning to make sure you get it right the first time. Hopefully we’ll have a building up and ready to serve by early Spring.
Something has changed in me. I can’t quite figure it out but I feel different. I feel much more comfortable with my language skills (thanks Abdoulaye!) and I’m feeling more and more like my old self: abrasive, witty, and right 95% of the time. Damn it feels good to be a gangsta. Thanks to everyone who sent packages! You will never know how much it means for me to receive something to remind me of home, but more than that I appreciate the letters of support. It’s difficult being here but every time I open a package I’m reminded of why I am here and it encourages to stay, at least for another month.
Before I left for training in Bamako I had the chance to work with some people to help their businesses. The president of my women’s cooperative, Sabou, has a son named Yacouba, or Yacou for short. He came to visit his mother but to also develop a massage cream using Si Nafa’s Shea butter as he held onto 250 KG of Shea butter in Bamako. Originally his idea was to crush up eucalyptus leaves and mix it into the butter. Fortunately for him I saw what he was doing and stopped him. I would prefer to extract essential oils from eucalyptus leaves and mint leaves to add to the Shea butter but since we don’t run a very sophisticated operation I suggested we make a sort of eucalyptus mint tea instead so we did. We gathered a bunch of eucalyptus leaves and bought some mint leaves from market and brewed some tea. By adding it to the Shea butter and mixing it in slowly enhanced the Shea butter by making it smell better and when rubbed into skin it gave a nice sheen and tingly feeling (most likely due to the mint). After developing a few other formulas Yacouba decided that my formula was the best and he took it back to Bamako. In the past month he’s sold 100 KG of eucalyptus mint Shea butter massage cream! I’m very proud of him and happy that things have worked out.
Another story is about making peanut clusters. While in Bamako I went with my friend Jeremy to the gas station late at night. He showed me these peanut bars and told me he loves them. I thought to myself, Kita is the peanut capital of Mali, why can’t we make them there? Apparently it’s a Senegalese treat. Anyways one day while at the stage house one of my friends Jess (who I do the radio show with) brought back a bunch of peanuts. Not wanting them to go to waste I decided to try out my idea of bringing peanut bars myself. I shelled the peanuts and roasted them in their skins. After I roasted them I added water, lots of sugar, and some milk powder. After it boiled down a little it achieved this syrupy caramel consistency. I rolled them into balls (as it was easier than making squares) and let them set. I drizzled them with cinnamon powder. The end product was a ball of chewy, sugary, peanutty goodness. I thought this idea could work in Kita. But who could I work with to make these sweet treats? Immediately I thought of Fili Coulibaly.
Fili is the person who helped me find my house during my site visit and someone who is very familiar with Peace Corps and what we do. She is also a merchant who sells beans, rice, and pasta. She speaks Bambara and French and is very intelligent. So I invited her over to the stage house right before I left for training so I could show her how to make peanut clusters. She brought a bag of peanuts and I had the sugar/milk powder. This time around I showed her how to make caramel. Caramel is pretty simple. All you do is heat sugar constantly pushing it towards the center of a thick steel pot until it achieves a light brown color. When it achieves the consistency/color you want take it off the heat and put it in an ice bath to stop it from cooking. Voila caramel! I proceeded to show her how to make it but this time around she roasted the peanuts. I didn’t know how to get the skins off but she figured out a way to skin the peanuts by using a Malian technique. Eureka! Meanwhile I made my syrup/caramel concoction and once we put the two together once again we had our peanut clusters but this time they were crunchy, skinned, and even better. Call it peanut cluster 2.0. We worked out the cost to make the peanut clusters and determined that for every 8 peanut clusters we sell she would make a profit of 150 CFA! She would spend 250 CFA on materials and sell them for 400 CFA. We discussed the price (50 CFA per ball) and her customers (children at school) and then I went off to training. I saw her today and she told me kids love them and who wouldn’t? They’re salty, sugary, crunchy goodness. Here’s something else I did…..
After we finished making our first batch of peanut clusters it turns out there was some leftover caramel. We ended up dumping it into a small container where it hardened. I didn’t really know what to do with it so I decided I would try to make caramel popcorn. I took the hunk of hardened caramel and threw it back into the pot. I added water and melted it down. Eventually it became caramel sauce. My friend Dina aka Dizzle made some popcorn and then Voila! Caramel popcorn! Perhaps the first ever in Kita. Needless to say it didn’t last very long with other volunteers in the house. I remembered they sell bags of popcorn at our training center in Bamako and so one day I approached the head of the kitchen, Gordon, with my idea.
I’m not sure how much the kitchen staff gets paid but can’t imagine it to be very much. All of them are very hard working and sacrifice much for our volunteers. One thing they do to supplement their income from Peace Corps is they sell bags of popcorn for 100 CFA per bag. For your average Malians this might be a little expensive but for us volunteers we gobble it up. They might put out a tray full of popcorn in the afternoon and by dinner it’s all gone. So why not add a new product in caramel popcorn? I showed him how to make caramel and caramel sauce. It was the first time I had made real caramel so it took two tries but we eventually got it down. He made some popcorn and we drizzled the sauce on top and mixed it in. He loved it! So we bagged up the rest and put it out for sale. At this point most of the volunteers had left but there were still some people left. I told him to sell each bag for 400 CFA. This is probably an absurdly high price but I figure the demand for popcorn, especially caramel corn, would be high with volunteers so much so that they would still pay 400 CFA for it. I was right. By the end of the day all the bags were gone and he learned first hand the laws of supply and demand. The next day we made some more but this time I had him show his assistant how to make it. It was really cool seeing someone I taught teach someone else how to do something. This time we put it out for 300 CFA as Gordon thought the price was a little high. It didn’t matter. It still ended up selling out. I told him the real trick was selling it when the new batch of volunteers come in. He better watch out. There’s 85 new volunteers coming in.
So it goes. I think ultimately Malians are very resourceful and there are some very intelligent Malians out there. Sometimes if all we can offer is an idea, that’s good enough. No one expects us to save the world (or at least I hope not) but what we can do is help a little bit here and there. Maybe I am the boy at the dike, but maybe if more of us held back the water long enough, then it would be enough. Let’s be real. This world is not going to save itself and God knows the large multinational corporations/organizations are not going to save us either. If this world is to be saved it will be because of many people working independently to make things a little better, not the UN. Let me break it down even further. Ideas purported by assclowns like Jeffrey Sachs (author of books like The End of Poverty and Common Wealth) just don’t work. Is the most efficient way to end poverty using organizations that aren’t working and throw more money at them? If we halve poverty (which is an arbitrary measure) by some arbitrary date (2020 perhaps?) by increasing spending on poverty issues by some arbitrary amount ($150 million) will that solve the real underlying problems? Go back to your cushy air-conditioned castle and think about it some more. If we’re to make a difference it will be by providing better information to people to make decisions for themselves and teaching them things they want to know, not things we want them to know. Sometimes all we can do is do what we can, and then have faith that everything will be alright. One love….