Less is More (more or less)

Since I arrived in Mali I’ve come to realize that most things here are completely different from the life I know back home. People here emphasize community and family while back home we tend to emphasize individuality and small families (if we choose). Time is money in America whereas here many men spend much of their lives content just hanging out with their friends sitting, chatting, and drinking tea. In our markets we emphasize competition while here they emphasize cooperation.

In Mali there is only a vague concept of mainstream Malian culture. Most people here identify themselves with their ethnic group (Malinke, Peule, Bambara, etc.) and try to live their lives accordingly.  Life isn’t this grand melting pot where cultures blend together.  Some people say America is a fruitcake with different chunks of ethnicities.  Then mainstream white culture is kind of like the cake that permeates it all. In Mali, life is more like a mosaic where all sorts of different ethnicities live in close proximity with each other but without a predominant culture.  People are both aware of their distinct cultures but at the same time able to live in relative peace.

It makes me wonder if my own life is a fruitcake or a mosaic. I think I’m just too idealistic about humans and believe in a world where we can all just live together. While culture is important, it doesn’t necessarily define who we are. There was a man who once said that all men were created equal, but how many of us truly believe that? What would we do as a human race if we all actually believed it to be true? I am not advocating we need to be one big happy human race but that we need to learn to respect one another and our differences.

I have finished my time in Mali and the most important thing to me is the relationships I have built. I didn’t do it for the glory and I definitely didn’t do it for the money. I guess I just wanted to do something real with my life instead of waiting for life to happen to me. The past two years have helped me to assess who I am as well as the man I want to be. My circumstances and relationships will change but the lessons I have learned won’t.  One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn is that less is more.  I got off the plane and almost immediately I’m overwhelmed with choices.  I don’t really know what the future holds but I need to have the confidence that when the time comes I’ll be able to make the right decisions.  Life is so much better when things are kept simple (although as humans we are wont to make our lives more complicated than they should be).

I have had to say goodbye to too many people and I appreciate being sent off with style (although perhaps the shot of off-label Chinese liquor wasn’t such a good idea).  I had an awesome time at the airport but it’s time to leave Mali for now.  May God increase the blessings we receive and make tomorrow better than today.

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5 Reflections on My Time in Mali

I have less than a week left of my service here in Mali and thought I would offer 5 reflections on my time here.

1. Peace Corps will change my perspective on life forever.

From the moment I met people in Philadelphia during staging my life was changed.  People dressed weird and were from all over the country and were just different from people I know back home, yet these were the same people coming to Mali with me for two years.  Then upon arriving in Mali I started hanging out with actual Africans and was seeing what life was like on the other side.  I used to think in this box and think that I had to live my life step by step and there was no room for deviation or improvisation.  Now I find myself at odds, constantly thinking unconventionally trying to find innovative solutions to routine problems.  I have a different perspective on things and really question whether or not someone/something is keepzing itz realz.  Being here has given me more of an appreciation for being open and honest.  I’ve played the game and the game hasn’t changed, but also found that I don’t really like playing games at all.

2. I almost died several times.

I remember the first time I was at the Kita stage house by myself in the back home barely able to move.  I was dizzy and didn’t really know where I was when I called Dr. Dawn and she told me that Peace Corps transport would come pick me up.  8 hrs later a truck comes to get me and by that point I’m at the verge of passing out.  It turns out that I had giardia (for the first time).  I would endure malaria a few times, multiple bouts with every sort of stomach illness, and even have a seizure (due to mefloquine/Larium) that would get me medically evacuated to The States before I finished my service.  I no longer think that I’m immortal but at the same time I’m much more in tune with my body than I ever was.

3. What is the point of development?

I’ve read books for and against development.  I’ve read books for aid and against aid.  Peace Corps has been working in Mali for 40 years and I really wonder if the type of work that volunteers do here has changed at all.  I think teaching people to wash their hands is as relevant 40 years ago as it is today in some villages, which is sad.  A lot of development work focuses around stomping out malaria, HIV/AIDS, or economic development, but I wonder if people want us here, and if people do want us here and we’ve been here for 40 years doing work, are we doing the right kind of work?  I’ve seen what’s been done in Mali and I just wonder if what’s been done has been effective or if maybe we just need to try another approach.

4. Development in Mali should focus on education even though development is a moving target at best.

Having lived with and talked with many Malians here it’s clear to me that the biggest obstacle to development is education.  Education is the reason why it doesn’t matter how many formations you hold or demonstrations you perform, most people will just stick to whatever they were originally taught and not deviate for fear of the consequences.  Education is why women are scared of frogs and people believe in genies and why the only reason why anything happens is because God willed it.  I have this theory that it’s difficult for many Malians to think about more than one thing at a time.  It’s because the schools focus so much on rote memory that those who graduate become nothing more than a bunch of automatons.  The creativity is literally beaten out of them.  The reason why NGOs and even Peace Corps haven’t focused on improving education is because it takes time.  At the end of two years a volunteer can’t say “look at what I built” or “look how much more the can produce” or “look at how much more money this person is making.”  All they can say is “Look at all that these kids learned.”  You can’t just swoop in like most NGOs and dump some money, education requires a commitment.  It’s complicated by the fact that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide an education for these kids, but the people who are expected to provide a good education for these kids are the same people who went through this broken system.  Breaking the cycle requires a paradigm shift and a focus that most organizations aren’t willing to do.  C’est la vie.

5. What is the mission of Peace Corps and does it still hold true 50 years later?

I’m constantly wondering about my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Is it to provide technical assistance, is it to give people a bunch of money, or is it to serve as an ambassador for the US?

Maybe it’s a little bit of everything.  Although the goals remain the same the means to achieve these goals have changed.  If the first volunteers could see us now they would all be shocked.  We all come in with cell phones (iPhones even), accessing the Internet is not so far-fetched, and most of the people we know here (even some in small villages), have cell phones themselves.  I think everyone has different reasons for joining The Peace Corps and everyone has a different idea of what they want to accomplish.  Whereas back in the day recruiting might have been difficult, nowadays there is a huge backlog of would-be volunteers but their demands are also much more specific.  Before it was “send me wherever”, now it’s more like “put me in a medium-sized site with Internet and a group that wants to work on gender and development issues for 14-16 yo girls.”  To accommodate such individuals Peace Corps needs to expand the program and include more offerings but doing so dilutes the effectiveness of the program.

I came to Mali naive about how change the world.  I leave Mali a more pragmatic and hardened man, albeit without any regrets.  The way I see it, if I can come to Africa, serve two years with relative success, then leave with my health more or less intact, then there’s pretty much nothing I can’t do.  Mali, it’s been real but I bid you adieu.  See you next time, Space Cowboy!

Top 5 Reasons I Can’t Wait to Go Home

These past two years have been amazing and will probably define who I am the rest of my life.  Everything that happens now will be relative to my experience in Mali.  A part of me is sad to go because I don’t know the next time I will see many people here and yet another part of me is happy to go home again.  Below are the top five reasons I’m looking forward to going back home (FYI some of these items are tongue in cheek in case it wasn’t obvious.)

5. Eating food that probably won’t make me sick

I’ve pretty much had every food-borne illness you can possibly get while being a volunteer in Mali so it’ll be nice to go home and eat food that I enjoy and probably won’t give me amoebas.

4. Not being poor all the time

For the first year of my service it actually cost more to fly us over here than it did to pay for our monthly living allowance.  We only get paid a couple hundred dollars a month but in Mali it’s a lot of money.  Sometimes I get into arguments with people when haggling a price, usually for a taxi.  I’ll argue to get a cab fare for 750 CFA when the only fare people will give me is 1000 CFA and I’ll wait until I get a cab for the “right price” only to realize I only saved 50 cents.

3. Not sweating nonstop

Especially when I first came to Mali I would just be constantly covered in sweat.  I would sit down, break out my fan, and just sit there without saying anything.  Back in homestay I would fan myself to sleep only to wake up half an hour and do it again until the sun rose and I just forced myself out of bed.  It’ll be nice to go a gym that’s blasting with A/C while I’m trying to break a sweat.

2. Family and friends

Being able to see everyone and try to live a “normal American” life will be a stark contrast to this African life I’ve been living the past two years.  It will be quite novel and I’m looking forward to being able to see my family when I want to and hang out with friends when I want.

1. Food, duh

I can’t wait to go to the supermarket and buy some eggs, take them home, and crack an egg just so I can stare at the yolk stay together.  When I crack the eggs here the yolks always fall apart, probably because the chickens here are so malnourished.  I want to eat Korean bbq and make a sandwich and eat some lasagna.  So yeah, looking forward to going back.

I will be back home July 8 so see everybody soon!

Why Do We Fight?

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Why do we fight? Whether it is with internal or external forces it is our desire to fight that pushes humanity forward. I’ve been pondering the question if humans are inherently bad or good and come to the conclusion that more than anything else we find ourselves fighting FOR something. Be it for our lives, for love, or sometimes for the so-called greater good we like to think we are always fighting for something. More often than not we don’t start a fight for a cause, but we are just ordinary human beings placed in extraordinary circumstances. We tend to idolize some men for their bravery or valor but such is history. It’s the winners who decide history and so, for example, someone like Christopher Columbus crossing finding America accidentally is considered a great explorer but we observers of history overlook the death and destruction he inflicted upon The New World and its former inhabitants and instead we honor him every year with a holiday in his name and perpetuate revisionist history. We fight because that is all we can do and some may even believe it’s something we were born to do. It is something that is hard-wired in our core. There are “good” bad people out there and “bad” good people too. At the end of the day we’re all just human beings. We try the best we can.

Over the past two years I’ve experienced extreme poverty. People here live in mud huts and they sit around in darkness at night because they have no choice. I’m one of the “lucky” ones where I have a concrete house with a tin roof and electricity but my case is more the exception than the rule. Even then, my friends who have visited me will attest it’s not super cush. Most volunteers live in mud huts with thatched roofs in the middle of nowhere. Children here routinely die of preventable diseases because most people are too ignorant to believe that it was anything but God’s will. Instead, those more educated are forced to stand by idly while their children die because they can’t afford the medication. It’s difficult to stand by and watch this happen around me without asking why. There are people in this world who are so rich they don’t know what to do with their money. Then why do people continue to suffer? In a logical, sensible world wouldn’t those people who have money and those charged to govern be able to do something about the poverty and suffering that exists? Some, like Bill Gates, have tried to use their billions of dollars to help those least fortunate. Yet his efforts continue to fail. People who are suffering revise their expectations on life and become fatalistic, believing there is nothing they can do to change their circumstances, so why bother. Or, worse yet, there are many villages in Mali who have NGOs swoop in and tell them they want to save them so they build them a school. These same villages then start to believe if they ask for something long enough there will be some magical “toubabs” who will come in and just give it to them for nothing. There is no motivation, no incentives, only dependency. I remember walking through my town one time when this man showed me an e-mail. He told me Bill Gateshad sent him an e-mail telling him that he was going to give him lots of money. I took a look at the message and from the misspellings, poor grammar, and lack of credibility that it was just another Nigerian scam. But to this man he felt like he was Charlie holding the golden ticket. It was difficult but I had to tell him the truth and even after I did he wouldn’t believe me, while his friends just laughed on. How do you tell someone there is no Willy Wonka, no Chocolate Factory?

We delude ourselves into believing our twisted logic because reality is what we choose it to be. Somewhere along the way we lose our sense of right and wrong and the only justification for our actions is our individual happiness. We go through the moral gymnastics to get to where we need to be. We start out in these defensive positions and end up flinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. We lash out like abused animals because we know nothing else. We’ve forsaken the very thing that will save us: logic and reason. Instead, we cling to any sort of rally cry that appeals to our emotions, and when it goes too far we wonder how we got there in the first place.

At what point in our lives do we learn to fight for something WORTH fighting for? How do we justify our actions? Some may cling to religion, doctrine, or ideology but ultimately it comes down to a strong sense of self. Know thyself. Only when we know who we are can we start to move forward, can we try and fulfill our true desires. In the end I know I am a simple man with simple needs. I’m not trying to be the richest or most famous person in the world. I just want to live a life worth living. I hope that when I leave Mali I’ll be able to continue to help the people who have had a significant impact on my time here. I think there are a lot of people in The States who look for a way to “help” people and end up blindly giving a donation to some random charity each month. For most people this scratches that itch to help someone but then again the majority of that donation goes toward paying for overhead costs of the organization. So even though you think your $20 a month might be going towards helping little Soumaila’s education the reality is that only a fraction reaches him (it’s an exaggeration but still, who knows really?). It’s important to look for charities where your donation goes directly towards the people you are trying to help. For us Peace Corps volunteers taxpayer money pays for us to be here so the funding we request through Peace Corps Partnership Project (PCPP) goes 100% towards different projects geared at helping our communities. I don’t know if it’s a better model than traditional NGOs but it’s an alternative to just blindly giving. I’m not advocating not giving to charities but it’s okay to ask questions.

My time in Mali is quickly coming to an end. I have less than a month before I close my service. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I came here to help some people, until I can’t anymore, then I’ll go home. I’ve had a great time here and am one of the fortunate ones who don’t have to wait ten years to know that I’ve made a difference. Today I went to show my women’s cooperative the label I designed to help them sell Shea butter more competitively but while I was there my supervisor, Sabou Sisse, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, recounted past volunteers who had more trials than tribulations. She told me that when I leave that the new volunteer has to be someone like me but we both know that’s impossible. What I’ve done for these women’s lives, especially Sabou, will be hard to duplicate. I was trying to convince one of my friends who was changing sites to come to Kita but after she had seen all I had done she was intimidated to step into my shoes. It was quasi flattering but it makes me wonder what kind of volunteer will be charged with picking up where I left off. I’m going to miss certain things about Mali but it’s time, and like Diddy said, “I’m coming home.”

How’s Mali?

It’s strange being a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s such a rich and crazy experience that there are very few people who can truly understand what it means to be a volunteer. The volunteers who were here in Mali when they started sending volunteers here 40 years have completely different experiences from those of us who are here now. The world is changing and so too is Mali. This might be one of the few countries left in the world where volunteers can come for the “real Peace Corps experience.” Even though I roughed it for a few months during my training I can’t say that I live like how I imagined. I don’t live in a hut in some village far away from paved roads. Instead I live in a town with a few paved roads, my house in concrete with an aluminum roof, I have electricity, and I have running water. It doesn’t compare to anything back in the States but here it’s pretty nice.

Over the course of two years people have asked me different questions. Before I left it was “are you ready?” I don’t think anyone’s ever ready for this experience. I remember the first time I was dropped off in my training village. It was a completely immersive experience that was sink or swim. So I dove in head first and luckily I had a great family who took care of me, I picked up the language pretty quickly, and things ended up fine. But it was still scary as hell. Then the question changed to “How’s Mali?” Mali is hot, dry, and there’s very little here. People are super friendly and once you get used to it it’s pretty much like life back home (although the breaking-in period can take a while). There are things that used to surprise me like the way women would just whip out their boobs and feed their babies, the children barely old enough to stand who have babies strapped to their backs, and the donkeys that are just wandering around but now it’s just a part of daily life. It don’t phase me no mo. I wonder if that’s a good thing……Now the question has moved on to “So what are you going to do now?” I’m coming to the end of my service. My time has had its ups and downs. I’ve seen and done some crazy stuff here I would never do back in the States. I look at the space my women’s cooperative occupies and see how it’s transformed into this really cool, productive area. When I talk to the president of my women’s cooperative, Sabou, I’m really encouraged to see how much she’s changed. She’s really asserted herself and is starting to lead and understand what so many “smarter” people fail to see, the easiest path to development is through rapid economic growth. By helping her and the women’s cooperative to take advantage of opportunities in Mali I’m trying to help them help themselves.

So what’s next? I don’t know. We’ll just see what God wills and I’ll go with the flow.

The Role of Information Technology in Development

The world we live in today revolves around the collection and use of information.  Whether it’s checking our e-mail, surfing the internet, or buying things online we live continually connected lives.  One of the most prominent and exciting companies out there is facebook which boasts over 500 million users around the world, or roughly 1 in every 13 people.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I came in to this whole thing thinking I would be living in a hut for two years without a cell phone and farming for my own food.  How surprising it is now that I am here with a cellphone (like most people in Mali), I have access to the internet through a satellite internet connection at our regional transit houses, and I routinely skype my parents back home.  Speaking to previous volunteers who traveled through Kita we talked about how much things have changed so although the progress is not as quick as we’d like, things are in fact changing.  As little as five years ago volunteers in Kita didn’t have cellphones and many of the roads in and to Kita weren’t paved.  Today I can get from Kita to Bamako in 3-4 hrs whereas before it could have taken an entire day.  Even in my work I find it important to use the Internet as a way to research new ideas and share about my experiences here in Mali as well.

Upon coming to Mali one of the things that was clear to me from the beginning was a lack of institutional memory.  From the beginning we volunteers try to find as much as we can about Mali and when we get here we are dying to find out about where we’ll be placed and so we want to learn as much as we can about our sites as well.  But when it comes down to it we all receive these little packets with bits and pieces of information and some times volunteers are placed in sites that are new so the information is even more scant.  Volunteers do many projects and when they’re finished with the projects they file some sort of report about how it went but many times these are not available to the volunteers themselves.  Volunteers may even find some really cool articles/manuals, etc. on the Internet but most of the sharing of information that happens is from one volunteer giving it to someone else.  To remedy the situation we looked at different ways to share information and eventually we settled on using Google Docs.  Google Docs is a way volunteers can easily upload, edit, and download files online so the idea is that we will be able to share relevant information with each other.  Additionally it’s a way for program staff to add their knowledge and documents to a searchable database.  By making more relevant and quality information available to volunteers it allows them to be better equipped to address the specific challenges and needs of their communities.

One of the ways in which information technology can aid development is by keeping track of projects that are running and by collecting and sharing results of projects.  Development is most definitely an art but we must have a way to scientifically record data and results.  Many organizations and individuals want to laud their efforts and on one wants to admit that a project was a failure but people need to be bold and try new things knowing full well there is a high chance of failure and when projects do fail they must understand why.  There are many NGOs that come up with brilliant ideas sitting at their desk in an air-conditioned office in DC but when they go and actually implement the project they realize the project may not be appropriate.  It’s important to identify the need and then try to create a solution, not the other way around.  Furthermore there are just so many NGOs in Mali.  There may be hundreds of NGOs but since many don’t communicate with each other regularly there’s a high likelihood of redundancy or worse off one NGO trying to implement a project in a community where it has already failed without understanding why.  It’s difficult for Malian ministers because how do they tell an NGO “I’m sorry, Saves the Children is already doing that so you can’t….?”  The Malian government will never turn down an NGO or project that wants to pump money into the economy but there needs to some way to regulate the activity that goes on in this country and the easiest way is if the NGOs could coordinate their efforts together.

The world is changing rapidly.  We live in a world where artificial intelligence is not science fiction but very much reality.  Revolutions with people crying out for freedom and democracy are lighting up the world.  Everyone is connected now through phones and the Internet.  Where does that leave Mali?

Si Nafa Women’s Cooperative

Si Nafa means “the benefits of Shea.” The women’s cooperative was started over twenty years ago and although headquartered in Kita consists of over 15 villages in and around Kita. When I first arrived their primary activity was to produce Shea butter and produce “Bogolan” fabric. Through my time here I have worked with them to come up with other revenue streams and hopefully become better organized. From the beginning it was clear that Sabou was the key to any success with the women. It is structured such that most of the women are worker bees while Sabou is the queen bee. All the women listen to everything she has to say. When I came here I saw there were a lot of women who really didn’t do much and just hung out at the center. Maybe they didn’t have anything to do, maybe they were just taking a break, or maybe they were looking for something to do. Either way Si Nafa’s primary activity of producing Shea butter was an activity that only took a few months out of the entire year. Meanwhile they had the space located in the center of market all the time. After coming up with several ideas and discussing them with Sabou we decided to build a restaurant. A restaurant would serve several purposes: 1) provide the women with a new revenue stream by taking advantage of their ideal location in market, 2) provide work for some women, 3) allow the women’s cooperative to use profits to fund other activities. It’s been about half a year since we started operations and so far it’s been very encouraging. We’ve settled on the people who work at the restaurant and they’ve been able to get into a rhythm and we have actual customers who aren’t Tubabs like myself but most of the people who go to the restaurant are locals so in that sense the activity is sustainable. Because of the restaurant they have electricity at the center now and they are even generating a small profit.

Another idea I had was to start a magasin de stockage which is essentially a granary. The concept is I would use funds to construct a place to store the grain and use funds to purchase the initial grain as well. In Mali price fluctuations are predictable so prices for grain are low at harvest (around January) when grain is abundant and the price increases in August during hungry season. It’s possible to buy grain at 200 CFA/kilo during harvest and if they only store the grain and wait until hungry season to start selling they can sell it for upwards of 400-500 CFA/kilo. In a country without investments or a commodities market this (along with cattle raising) is the next best thing. It helps the women’s cooperative earn a very good return with not that much work while providing a service to the community since demand far outstrips supply when it comes to grain during the hungry season. The hope is they would use the money they earn to buy more grain for next year while using profits to either help women directly or invest in other activities.

Other than that I won’t really have much more time to do much else. I will try and spend the rest of my time trying to get people better organized. Operations are based in Kita but the organizational structure is almost nonexistent. I will try and bring in a trainer (basically a consultant) to come in and tell them what steps they need to take moving forward. Everyone in Kita is very smart but a lot of it is street smarts and they lack the managerial skills needed for a large network such as Si Nafa. My hope is that she’ll be able to come in and highlight what’s important so we can start working toward a better managed organization that has the power to actually help its constituents from the ground up.

Maybe the West’s approach to development is far too simplistic. We tend to think of everything in dollars and only ask “more or less.” Money at the end of the day is just one tool that can be used to combat extreme poverty. It’s the easiest but we tend to discount the value of things like good education and access to good information, perhaps those things ironically cost too much time and money. If I had to do my service again maybe I would have just worked at a local school teaching a class to young kids about finance and accounting. Because when it comes down to it we have different tools at our disposal that aren’t inherently good or bad but it all depends on how we use them.