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.”

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In Autopilot

A few days ago I was at my womens’ cooperative when my contractor asked me to come check out the inside of the restaurant so I followed him.  Unfortunately I didn’t see the plank in front of me because my visibility was limited by my hat and ended up smashing my nose into it.  After I regained consciousness I wiped off my nose and headed towards my language tutor’s house.  Whilst there I got a little light headed but powered through it and got through lunch.  Since then I’ve been kindof feeling out of it though….

Today I came back in to Bamako so I could attend a food security meeting tomorrow with this guy from Dakar, Daniel Annerose, as we’re trying to explore a partnership to implement market information systems as part of our food security strategy here in Mali.  The idea is that we have Peace Corps volunteers en brusse who can help collect real market prices for fruits/vegetables/grains and send that information to a central server (in this instance it would be Manobi in Dakar) which would automatically spit out a report that farmers/middlemen/buyers can receive on their cell phones daily.  Doing so theoretically should increase the price farmers can get, decrease prices buyers pay, and reduce profit margins for middlemen but increase volume.  People should be able to respond to the price signals and the system would become more efficient naturally, at least in theory of course.

So that’s tomorrow but today I went running around all of Bamako looking for restaurant supplies.  It took me an hour to get to the grand marche because of traffic and when I finally got there the prices I was getting for some things was just ridiculous.  It’s times like these I miss just going to Target and I’m in and out.  But here you have to greet the sellers, negotiate a price, negotiate some more, and just pray you’re not getting screwed over, and if you are then you move on to the next guy and repeat.  It was around noon time in the high heat, I hadn’t eaten all day, and I was just getting so frustrated dealing with these guys so I just ended up leaving.  I was with one of my women and sent her to see her family in Bamako until tomorrow.  I’ll try buying stuff again.  After that episode I needed a win so I met up with one of the guys here who helped me look for a fridge so I was able to find one for cheaper than I budgeted.  It’s not a new fridge but it’s a Whirlpool which is sweet I guess.  I also picked up a few fans so all I really have left to do is buy the rest of the stuff for the restaurant, oh yeah, and a tv and a stereo system. Hopefully I’ll take pictures of the restaurant when it’s complete and post them online.

In other news I skyped my Worldwise School, Ms. Oertel’s class down in C-ville the other day.  It was a lot of fun talking to all these young, intelligent, impressionable kids.  It’s also crazy to think that here I am in the so-called developing world and I’m still able to speak to kids halfway across the world.  It’s pretty cool and the ability to make those kinds of meaningful connections shows you the true meaning of progress.  Keep the questions coming!  If any of you have any questions for me please feel free.  I’d love to share everything I can.  Less than one week to Barcelona!

What Happens Next

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….

The Hourglass Effect

I think that a lot of the problems I see in Africa development-wise is not for lack of funds per se but perhaps it’s because the organizational structure in Mali is shaped like an hourglass. There are many government officials and obviously they carry a lot of clout. It seems like the rest of the country is more or less farmers/commercants. There is a huge gap in the middle where industries and businesses and universities and all that good stuff should be, but there isn’t. In the short run the solution is to give people business ideas that aren’t too much of a stretch but in the long run unless the government/aid organizations/Bill Gates invests in education none of the progress that’s made will ever gain traction.

I Won’t be Home for the Holidays…..

This has been a crazy year. So much has happened it’s hard to just recap everything in one convenient blog post. I guess all I can say is that life is a strange and wondrous thing. We should all live our lives to the fullest because if not, then what are we living for? I’ll be visiting Dogon Country for Christmas and who knows what I’ll do for New Year’s, hopefully something fun. The honeymoon is definitely over but I hope that over the next two years I will have left Mali knowing that I have helped at least a few people, in sh’Allah…. Merry Christmas everyone.

My Peace Corps-Mali Packing List

After having spent some time here I remembered that I had kept a detailed list of everything I had packed for my trip here. I think one of the hardest things about packing is not knowing what kind of situation you’re going to be walking into. There are some people here who live in literal mud huts in the middle of nowhere without electricity or running water. I had packed thinking that I most likely would be having electricity. Below you’ll find everything I packed more or less. I hope it helps those of you who are getting ready to depart and for the rest of you it gives you an idea of what I have with me. Keep in mind that if you contact most companies they will offer some sort of discount for Peace Corps volunteers. I got my Chacos for half off.

1 internal frame backpack (Osprey backpacks are sweet)
1 rain jacket (Sierra Designs Hurricane)
1 messenger bag
1 pair of Chacos
1 pair of running shoes
2 pairs of jeans
3 pairs of khakis
2 pairs of khaki shorts
2 pairs of gym shorts
2 pairs of swim trunks
2 hats
10 pairs of boxers
10 pairs of socks
5 t-shirts
1 hoodie
2 towels
1 headlamp (Black Diamond)
1 LED flashlight
2 memory sticks
1 iPod nano (iPod nanos are better for Mali because there are no moving parts for the dust to mess with)
1 converter (2 prong European plug)
1 digital camera
10 rechargeable batteries/charger
1 GSM cell phone (you can buy phones in-country or just bring an unlocked GSM phone)
1 pair of speakers (iHome capsule speakers)
10 zip-lock bags
10 mechanical pencils/refills
10 zebra pens
5 composition books
1 swiss army knife
2 decks of playing cards
2 nalgene bottles
2 rolls of duct tape
5 packs of index cards
pictures
1 bottle of Shampoo/conditioner
1 Deodorant
10 razor/extra blades
1 body lotion
1 sunscreen
1 multivitamins
1 claritin
4 packs of wet wipes
2 nail clippers
1 heat rash powder
20 Knorr dry sauce mixes
1 gym bag
1 alarm clock
1 blanket
2 pillowcases
1 pair of good scissors
1 map of the US and 1 map of the world
1 french-english dictionary
1 calendar
Posters
1 mosquito tent (Tropic Screen II is larger than the REI Bug Hut 2 and I think the zipper is better too)

Stuff I wish I brought with me:
pillow (Malian pillows suck)
Nice pair of headphones (I like listening to music with a lot of bass and these iPod headphones just don’t cut it)