Thursday, October 28, 2010

All those yesterdays...

Like an old Malian bicycle, our long journey is slowly coming to a hault. Last week we purchased almost 300 pounds of rice and slaughtered a cow to feed the village of Tongo and other dignitaries as we celebrated the opening of the Tongo Schoolhouse. The paint wasn't quite dry but that didn't matter to the people of Tongo they wanted to celebrate. We rented a Bush Taxi and picked up all the volunteers in the area, my host family, and some random old man (who promptly grabbed the mike and started spitting rhymes).

As we approached Tongo we could see hundreds of people lining the road and clapping to welcome us.
As we descended the Bush Taxi we were pounced upon by the entire village calling our name and smothering us with blessings. After shaking hundreds of hands we were lead to our seats where we were asked to give a speech. We weren't expecting to speak but Mary got up and gave a very stirring speech about the merits of sustainable design and existentialism (In Bambara).

We then presented our counterparts with Chiwaras, which is the Malian equivalent of a really nice bowling trophy.

I don't know if you know this but Malians are very long winded, and if there is a microphone and an audience it is almost impossible to stay awake. Luckily I found a young man to act as my personal thought bubble....

After the speeches they began the music and dancing while Mary and I tried to get the children to hold up "Thank You" signs. We figured it would take about 2 minutes. How hard could it be to line them up and tell them to hold up the signs. True to form the task took about 30 minutes and oddly enough it wasn't the children that were having trouble figuring it out, the teachers wouldn't get out of the way.

We then made our way to the "Cafeteria" for lunch. I think they thought it was Monday because they were serving red beans and rice.

I was then presented with a gun. I didn't have the heart to tell them that I couldn't take it on the plane.

Then things got serious as we had to say goodbye to Tongo and the people who have been our family for more than three years. Always the volunteer, I continued to teach Malians about America by introducing them to something they had never seen before...

The Hug

As we headed back to the Bush Taxi we were mobbed by the village, each person wanted to thank us and shake our hands.

As we pulled away the entire village was waving to us as they faded into the horizon. I smiled to my self as I realized that finally after all that time...

...I could take that hot ass shirt off!

Oh yeah, I guess you want to see the school.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

T minus 48 days

It's been a while since I've posted anything on here. The last few weeks have been eventful yet very boring as I countdown the final days here in Mali. I have seen my 3rd group of new volunteers arrive in Segou and ask the same questions we all asked 3 years ago. I have been replaced by a young lady who will be working at the health center in my village. My hope is that she will continue some of the work I had started with NOMA and the Cleft Palette surgeries. I am sure she will figure it all out soon enough, she definitely lucked out with being place in my old site, I am pretty sure I had the greatest host family in Mali.

So, now I am living in the regional capital in an apartment with electricity and running water which, after some serious arm twisting, will be paid for by you the taxpaying public of America. Thanks, but next time spring for an AC why don't ya. The school is wrapping up as we speak. We are planning a painting party very soon to put the final touches on the school and add some color.

I wanted to share something that I found very interesting. The other day I was on a bus heading north and I noticed a billboard for Maggi. Maggi is a food seasoning that is sold and very widely used throughout Mali. It is produced and distributed by Nestle. Anyways, as we passed the billboard I read it without thinking and chuckled to myself at the difference between the two worlds I have lived in. The billboard said, " buy Maggi and win!...3rd prize is 100 new cell phones!, 2nd prize 10 new motorcycles!, 1st prize a trip for you and a guest to attend the Hajj in Mecca!" The Hajj is a pilgrimage that all Muslims, if able, should make to Mecca. I sat on the bus for the next hour imagining what an equal billboard in America would read. "Snickers wants to send you to Nazareth!", "Snap into a Slim Jim in Jerusalem!", "Enjoy Pepsi in Galilee!". I have no editorial comments here, I just thought it was interesting.

Ok, I am currently at 48 days from departure of Mali. I have been searching for jobs in NOLA and reapplying to Law Schools, but honestly I'll probably be working at the movie theater on Vets. when I get back. I think I'll look pretty good in a little vest, but if anyone knows of a really high paying and prestigious job that requires no real skills except for a sarcastic sense of humor please forward the address to me here in Mali. Well, that's all for now I will be talking more about the school with some photos soon. Have a good weekend and if you send care packages this week they will probably arrive before I leave, Just saying...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Well, we are back in Mali after a couple of weeks trekking across West Africa. Here was our original plan:
Step 1- Get on a bus to Ghana
Step 2- Get off the bus at the beach in Ghana
Step 3- Relax (10 days)
Step 4- Return to Mali.

As I look at my plan now I realize how naive I was to believe it could be that simple. Here's how it really went.

We left Bamako at 6 am on a Wednesday afternoon heading to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. We chose a nice bus company by Malian standards, it had A/C, assigned seating, and very loud speakers. As luck would have it, the seat they gave me was behind a broken seat, which meant that I would spend at least 15 hours with a Malians' head practically in my lap. I tried remedying this by tying the mans' seat to the one in front of his but eventually the string stretched and there he was back in my lap again. I finally remedied the situation by shifting my legs into the aisle and sitting "Thinker" style for most of the trip. We crossed into Burkina with no problems, however they told us that when we arrived in Accra we were to get our visa stamped by the embassy there or we would have to pay almost 200 dollars to pass back through Burkina to get to Mali. We said no problem, we wanted to visit Accra anyways, we had heard there was a movie theater there and Mary was really excited to see Toy Story 3. We finally made it to Ouaga, after a 3 hour delay in Bobo, around four in the morning. Extremely tired we laid out turbans on the dirty, oil stained floors next to a pile of blown out tires and tried to fall asleep.
I was awoken by the sound of a chain link fence rattling open and the bus station began to come alive with activity. We struggled to get up and I finally made it to the ticket window to inquire about a bus to Kumasi, Ghana. We were told the bus left a 9 so we had a few hours to kill. Mary opened her computer and to our amazement this dirty bus station in the middle of nowhere had WiFi. We killed some time looking up maps of Ghana and checking the news. Finally our bus driver honked his horn and it was time to get going. We loaded onto the bus and left the station. The bus was practically empty and we each had our own bench that we could stretch out on. I fell asleep and woke up a few minutes later when the bus pulled into the local market. People started filing on the bus taking up our cherished space until once again we were crammed together like sardines. We finally left Ouaga around 10:30 headed for Kumasi, Ghana.
We reached the Ghana border several hours later and were once again taken into a separate section and asked questions about our travel plans and our work in Africa. We got our stamps, walked out towards the bus and exchanged our money. Our next stop was the customs area where the border guards looked us up and down and then sent through without checking our bags. We boarded the bus and headed towards Tamale. When we arrived in Tamale the bus stopped so people could go the bathroom and stretch. It was here that I encountered a mythical woman I had heard tales of for some time in Mali. I saw a great light in the distance, and a figure approaching me. Shielding my eyes from the bright light I saw what was causing the explosion of light. It was a huge metal bowl being carried on a woman's head, inside the bowl...Fried Chicken!
Now, this might not be a big deal to you in America where chicken is plentiful and each one is the size of a Volkswagen, but in Mali chickens are rare, expensive, and very very malnourished. My first instinct was to tackle this woman and make off with her chicken, but I knew this wouldn't wash because I could see that the bus driver was still squatting in the bushes making a fast get away nearly impossible. I instead decided to purchase some. It was delicious. I believe my entire Peace Corps experience would have been totally different if I could walk down the street and pick up a couple pieces of fried chicken. The bus driver finally got back to the bus and we headed off to Kumasi. We arrived around two in the morning and hassled with a taxi driver to take us to the only hostel we knew of in the city. It turned out to be a dump but the bed was clean and the water was clear so it wasn't that bad.
We awoke early the next morning and headed to try and find a bus to the coast. We finally found the bus station and bought our tickets. If you've never been to a bus station in Bamako, Mali then you won't appreciate what it was like to sit in a clean and nice looking bus station. I bought an ice cream sandwich and a Snickers bar for the ride and I was starting to really love Ghana. The bus pulled up and we got into a line (In Mali there are no lines, just a mad dash for a spot) and waited as the man took our tickets. The bus was air conditioned and comfortable. We made it to Cape Coast where we found sausages on a stick and more fried chicken.

We finally made it to Takoradi around 6 pm. and the Ghana-Uruguay game was starting. The streets were filled with flag waving Ghanaians blowing whistles and the now famous Vavuzelas. We avoided the soccer stadium where thousands of people had gathered to watch the game on a huge screen. Riot police lined the streets as motorcycles and cars whizzed by blowing their horns and cheering for Ghana. It was exciting and kind of frightening at the same time. I began thinking this could either be amazing or turn really bad in the blink of an eye. We settled into a nice restaurant with a patio to watch the game. It was a good game and it was exciting to be in Ghana as the team scored its goal and looked to be heading to the semi-finals. When Uruguay tied it up their was a sense of uncertainty in the air, but when Gyan finally lined up to take his penalty kick everyone was on their feet ready to scream. The moment he plunked it off the cross bar it was as if someone had just stuck a knife in a car tire, and you could feel their air escaping from the atmosphere. By the time the guy from Uruguay dribbled his last free kick into the goal the entire continent was silent. They knew that it was back to their lives of toil with no hope for another Ghana victory. The town became eerily quiet as cars strolled down the street, the flags tucked away the whistles silent.
Now What? We decided to press our luck and try to make it to the place we were staying that night. We only knew its name and had some vague directions scribbled on to a bank receipt. We finally found a small van to take us to Agona Junction where would then have to find a taxi to the beach. On the ride to Agona, we found out that Ghanaians will repeat anything you say and this includes yelling pancakes over and over again. During the chanting I was certain a girl had stolen my toothpaste and after some stern looks and detective work I let her off with a warning(I found it the next morning in my bag). When we arrived in Agona it had started to sprinkle and the taxi drivers were not being cooperative. We finally found one that would take us for 20 Cidi, which we found out later was the going rate. We quickly discovered that our driver was drunk, which didn't help the fact that we had no idea where we were going and the road was horrible. After about 30 minutes of driving us, what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, I pulled out my knife certain that at any moment we were going to pull into a field where he was going rob and kill us. But finally we passed a sign that said, "Green Turtle Lodge" and I put my knife away. We pulled into the lodge and could hear the Atlantic ocean pounding the shore just feet from us. It was now after midnight, we stumbled into a room a fell asleep thinking about waking up to the sound of the ocean.
We awoke and checked in to a hut we had reserved before making our way to the dining area to have breakfast. The lodge is run by an English couple and the menu reflected this. We split french toast, beans on toast, eggs, sausage and orange juice. It was worth the 30+ hour bus trip. The beach was beautiful and secluded. Flanked to the left by a palm tree covered point, and on the right a tiny fishing village built on a rocky cliff. It was just what I had hoped for, no one bothering us trying to sell things, no one screaming "Tubaboo", no one. We tried the Ocean and after being in the desert for 3 years I realized how much I had missed the water. It was extremely rough and I swallowed at least a gallon of sea water, but it was great to be in the water. We settled onto our blankets and enjoyed the sun as we read and napped. The trip was turning out nicely.
After a few days, we decided to pull up stakes and head to Cape Coast to see the slave castles and the Kakoum Rain Forest. The castles were haunting and beautiful. We stood in the windows and doorways overlooking the beach trying to imagine the huge slave ships waiting to load their cargo. The castles still stank of death, pain, and misery. We planned on visiting a couple, but the experience was too much and we decided to scrap the second castle. We made our way to the rainforest where Mary and Jess hiked and walked among the tree canopies. I waited down below, my ankle not cooperating with the climbs. We spent another night in Cape Coast and decided to head to Accra to get the Burkina visa sorted out.
We got off the bus from Cape Coast and headed straight for the Burkina Embassy knowing that we would be stuck if we couldn't get things worked out before the weekend. The Burkina people were very rude and basically told us to piss off. They wanted their 175 bucks and they didn't care about anything else. We told them we were under the impression that we could get our transit visa stamped for 20 dollars, but they said this was not so and to either pay or get out. We got out. We then headed to the Peace Corps bureau in Accra thinking that maybe they had someone who could help us figure things out.
In Mali there is a Man called Sylvain who has connections at the embassies and can usually answer any questions you have. We arrived at the bureau and were taken to the security officers office, who then sent us to the Administrators office. We walked in and greeted a young woman who was sitting barefoot behind a very large cluttered desk. We explained our situation and she basically told us she wouldn't help us and that we should contact Mali. I asked to use her phone(assuming this wouldn't be a problem because it is our tax dollars that pay the phone bills and I am sure they place international calls pretty regularly) she smirked and then spoke to me as if I were a twelve year old child, "Ok what you need to do is take some initiative and go buy a new phone card that works in Ghana, contact Mali...They do know you're here right?" (insinuating that we went AWOL) At this point I was about three seconds from hopping over her desk and ripping her little nose ring out, instead I laughed and in my most sarcastic tone said, "Thank you ma'am you've been very helpful". We left the bureau and began calling embassies checking visa prices. We were tempted to go through Cote D' Ivoire despite the travel warnings issued by the American embassy. However, after discussing we decided that buying the Ivorian visa and a bus ticket was almost the same price as flying. We figured it was worth saving us a 30 hour bus ride, so we purchased 3 tickets from Air Ethiopia. We paid for a direct 3 and a half hour flight from Accra to Bamako. We decided to live it up in Accra; went to the movies, went to the grocery store, ate chicken wings at a sports bars, and hollowed out pineapples only to fill them with ice cream, bananas, and chocolate syrup. We were enjoying ourselves and without the 30 hour bus ride ahead of us we were spending money like it was going out of style.
By the last day in Accra we were down to 30 Cidi. We had been kicked out of our room and were forced to rent one bed which we all sat on while we waited for the hours to tick by until our 2 am. flight. At around 8 we said ,"screw it let's go get Lobster" A brilliant idea! We grabbed all our bags and walked to a nearby seafood restaurant. At this point I was done with food, I ordered a bottle of water gave them my money and said, "You can have my lobster too". We sat in the restaurant for a good 30 minutes before we decided none of us really wanted lobster. At this point we walked to the road and flagged down the first cab we saw.
The airport in Ghana is deceptive. From the outside it looks like a fully functional airport with a competent staff. Well, it isn't. We arrived and sat in a food court where we shared a couple sandwiches(some where between the lobster restaurant and the airport we got hungry again) and played cards waiting for our check in time. We finally checked in and made our way to the gate. Gate C is just a long rectangular room with a few windows and one door at the end. There are no screens listing flights, there is no help desk, nothing. I think the common practice is to follow the people who are dressed like they are going to the same country as you. This is exactly what I did. I found my target and shadowed her. She proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. She got up and made her way out the door, by the time we got outside and onto the tarmac she was gone. We stood there looking a 3 planes, all their engines were running, they all had stairs attached, and they were all being boarded. I checked the tails, no Ethiopian, we walked to a plane and I showed the man my ticket and asked if the plane was going to Bamako, he said yes so we boarded. The captain came on and said, "good evening ladies and gentleman our first stop will be in Freetown, followed by Conakry, Banjul, and Bamako." Where the hell is Freetown? It's in Sierra Leone. We landed in Sierra Leone and it started storming, so we sat on the runway for 6 hours until the rains stopped. Then we went to Conakry. Where the hell is Conakry? It's in Guinea. Then on to Banjul, Gambia and finally Bamako. I watched the whole take-off/air mask thing 4 times and began to mock the poor steward. The flight had taken 15 hours. Better than 30 but not much. We had been in 5 countries in one day. When we arrived at the Bamako airport the heat struck us like a wall, the disarray felt familiar, the cab was horrible and we had to push it to get it started, it was good to be home. As we crossed the Niger I saw a twinkle on the road and a woman walking along the shoulder. My heart leapt when I thought it was the mythical chicken priestess, it turned out to be a woman selling mirrors. It was a long strange journey that took us to countries I never thought I would visit. We ate a lot of great food, spent a lot of money, and had a great time. What else could you ask for in a vacation?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

133 days and counting until I leave Mali and return to America. It is a strange feeling, to be both excited and terrified. Everything I own is in just a few boxes in my father's attic. Upon returning I will have to acquire a car, cell phone, computer, clothes, suits for job interviews, and probably a place to live. As I calculate the amount of money I will leave Africa with, I figure I have about 3 months before things get really tight. But after living in Mali for three years I will just be happy to live off the dollar menu and sit in air conditioning for a few months. But as always everything will work out and if there is one thing I have learned in Mali, it is patience and the ability to occupy vast amounts of time doing not much more than reading.
I am extremely happy to announce that the "Tongo Schoolhouse Project" has officially broken ground and the foundation is being laid as we speak. Last Tuesday the truck of materials and custom designed doors, windows, and roofing panels arrived from Bamako. We spent most of Wednesday counting every screw, paintbrush, and nail in the shipment to make sure we received everything we paid for. We returned to Segou to make copies of receipts for both Peace Corps and Build On and to have a celebratory dinner downtown. There is now a construction supervisor and two mason teams working in Tongo. We have handed the reigns over to Build On and can relax for a little while. So, Mary and I thought the most appropriate thing to do at this point is leave Mali and go sit on the beach for a week. Tomorrow we are going down to Bamako to pick up our passports and hop on a bus to Burkina-Fasso. We will then try to find a bus to Accra, Ghana and then make our way to Cape Coast. There is a beach resort there where you can sleep on the beach for a couple dollars a day. After 3 long years all our hard work and begging is finally paying off. I would like to thank everyone again who contributed to the project and hope that you will be pleased with the school when it is completed. It will be a school like no other in the entire country of Mali.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

...This Bus Is CLEAR

-I returned to my village to discover that a man had been murdered. I still haven't gotten the story totally straight, but this is what I have so far. 3 men went out to their fields to do some work because the rains are coming early this year. Two of the men were from my village of Cinzana and the third man was someone passing through working odd jobs. For some reason they were arguing about shoes. (when I say shoes I mean really cheap flip flops not Air Jordans or Bruno Magli's) Apparently one of the two men from Cinzana had hidden the third mans shoes. I guess they thought it was funny, the third man didn't. After an argument and brief scuffle in the field the stranger headed back to Cinzana to gather his belongings and continue his search for work somewhere else. The man with whom he had an altercation sought him out in the courtyard across from my house and brandished both a club and machete. Well, the third man managed to get both the club and machete away from him and...I am sure you can figure out the rest. The stranger fled the scene and was found the next day, in a village called Kondja, hiding in a tree. This is the first murder I have been aware of in my three years in Mali, and it is odd to find myself involved in a situation in which I didn't know how to act. That night a mob of lantern toting villagers passed my hut hunting a crazed murderer armed with a machete. Just another crazy night in Mali.

-So, after an interesting visit to Cinzana Mary and I climbed aboard a Bittar bus heading to Segou. We almost got on a Bani bus, but it was loaded with goats. (A little word to the wise, don't get on a bus with a roof packed full of goats, and if there is no other option, don't sit by the window) We found a seat near the back of the bus between two older gentlemen and a handful of chickens. We greeted everyone and we began moving. About 10 minutes later in the middle of nowhere the bus stops and picks up 2 women. The older woman was dragging a girl, of about 20, onto the bus. The younger woman's head was covered in a bright orange sheet and all you could hear were loud chants and screams coming from under the covering. I didn't even give this a second thought and continued to read my book. (I have spoken of a numbness before, and it is something you couldn't understand unless you've been in a foreign developing country for a long period of time. Things like animal slaughters on moving buses, children playing with knives while cooking over huge pots of boiling grease, mass circumcisions, people poohing on the street, etc...don't even bother you after a while, because you know if you think about one thing you have to process everything you have seen and that would take months of serious therapy.) A few moments later I noticed the young lady wasn't singing any longer and I noticed the old man sitting next to me had moved. I heard rumblings from behind me and turned to see what was going on. I turned to Mary, "Hey I think there's an exorcism going on in the back of the bus." The old man was now leaning over the girl picking her up by the chin and slapping her forehead, while he and the other passengers were screaming, "Djene Djigi! Djene Djigi! " (Leave Devil!) I had to chuckle to myself, there was no way this was happening. Only in Mali could they have mobile Exorcisms, and I get in trouble for not wearing a bike helmet. I mean what are the chances that not only was I on a bus with a possessed girl but also a licensed exorcist. The odds are staggering! After a few choruses of "Leave Devil" we made it to the police checkpoint. The exorcism is still going on in the back of the bus as vendors get on to sell phone credit and silly hats. I tried a hat on and it looked ridiculous so I decided against it, opting instead for an orange soda. Honestly, whats a good exorcism without refreshments right? Just then a soldier got on the bus and walks straight up to me asking for my Passport. He doesn't even glance in the direction of the religious ceremony in the back as he holds my passport upside down and examines it. He must of thought it was OK because he handed it back and we continued on to Segou. The last time I saw the bus it was on the Markala road heading north and the chants of "Leave Devil!" fell out the windows. I got on my bike, put my helmet on, and headed for the office. "Time is on my side" played through my headphones as a tail wind pushed me forward to the next crazy experience in Mali.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Not bad for government work...

I was told by someone who reads my blog, "I have a suggestion, less text more photos." So, here are some pictures and descriptions of the work I have been doing over the last 2 and a half years.

The Tongo School Project

The Tongo School focuses on sustainable design and environmentally friendly building techniques. Cement is the main building material used in most Malian schools. Because cement is not produced in Mali, it must be shipped in from Cote d'Ivoire by truck, which makes cement a very expensive component of the budget. By using a technique called compressed earth bricks, the amount of cement utilized in the Tongo School project is less than 25% of the average school. We have also incorporated an innovative rainwater harvesting system into the design, which during the rainy season, will be able to collect as much as 4200 gallons of water to be used for garden irrigation during the dry/hot season. This project has taken over two years to get funded but is finally underway and should be completed by the time we leave Mali. We have partnered with an NGO called BuildOn to help with fundraising and overall supervision of the project.