Meeting Mr. President

The night before I was so bored out of my mind, I read the U.S. Constitution. I learned about the founding fathers- facts you don’t really learn in high school U.S. History. Little did I know that the next morning I would be awoken by my Malian Jatigi mother announcing that the Malian President, ATT, would be coming to my small little village on his way to the regional capital.
I stood in line, wore a tee shirt bearing his face and greeted my village people (not those, haha). Then, like a strike of thunder, a convoy of police and special forcesmen came to organize (kind of) the parade, drums and music, and ensure that there was no security issue in my village prior to the president’s arrival. Then, he came. People cheered, danced, and gathered around this man, who looked nothing like the pictures, to shake his hand. i was one of them.
While I pictured myself having a conversation with him about Peace Corps and perhaps a photo, it was only picture in my head that never came to fruition. I shook his hand, he said hello and patted a baby on it’s head. He moved on.
It wasn’t one of those ‘Invictus’ moments. We would not converse or plan out a great strategy to unify a country during football season. I would go back to my mudhut waiting for the time to make dinner and read more books. However, it will be an experience I will never forget.
Maybe one day, I’ll meet Obama.

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22 and 9/11

After turning page after page of A Million Little Pieces, I decided to get out of bed on the day that would be my my first birthday in Mali, and my 22nd.

“I ni Sogoma”, a voice called. My Jatigi, Brahima otherwise known as “Papa”, lured me outside to witness something extraordinary. Ten baby ducklings had hatched outside our concessions. Fluffy yellow and black balls of father waddling in line in and out of the cesspool in front me. I watched them for a while. For years, since i was younger, I always wanted to have a pet duckling.Friends of mine can attest to the fact that I have a rubberduckie collection.

Then the flurry of calls. While I have trouble with my phone and the lack of power it retains, it was such a boost to hear a few messages from those I left the states close with and still am and those I have grown close with over the last few months.

That day went along pretty boringly, though. I was still in village. I decided to take a short bike ride and enjoy the scenery and read some more. There’s not much to do at site- no bar, no English speaking friend but at night, the stars accompanied me.

As I looked up, wondering if I could see the milky way, something normally I think I see but can’t really differentiate from clouds, I knew that in New York, I would not be able to see all the constellations as I did at that moment. While I have decided, however, that there is still no place that has brought me as much peace and as beautiful as Surprise Lake Camp, this was truly a beautiful moment. Then, I went inside and put on mosquito repellent with deet to escape Malaria.

As I try to lay asleep, wind storms up and finally think”I will sleep tonight”, but sadly, at around midnight, my plastic from my roof breaks spilling a load of muddy dirty water all over me, my bughut, and possessions in proximity. Apparently, when you cover up leaks with plastic, leaks still happen- accumulate, and then weigh something…who knew?

I moved my soaked mattresses, changed in the pitch dark and then proceeded to try and sleep in my sleeping bag liner to protect myself from the mosquitoes and termites that inhabit my hut. I thought the worst was over. I was wrong.

At 3:3oam, the plastic in the other room I had moved to in my two-room mud sanctuary, had also failed. Muddy water hit a second time. I moved back into the other room again and slept diagonally staring at the next section of plastic in that space praying to the thatch roof gods that it wouldn’t happen a third time. It didn’t but it probably will happen at some point.

Despite this, I am not breaking down. I am dealing. There is nothing else to do but wait until tomorrow at the bureau to hear from my APCD about the repairs and hope my bike isn’t stolen. I made sure to take my valuables with me.

I want to take the opportunity to thank all of those who called or left me messages on facebook wishing me a Happy Birthday. It feels better to know people still care and know that I still exist despite the fact that I’m on another continent.

On that note, “holy crap”, I’m on another continent. I had my 22nd birthday- 8 more until thirty. It’s practically crazy. I can’t believe it has been a year since we went bowling off Bedford and that I’ve grown so much and loved more than I thought I would. I’ve developed a list of personal and professional goals. We will see if it happens. I’m trying to do everything “dooni dooni” which in Bamabara is ‘little by little’.

On another note, being in a Muslim country where there is known Al Qaeda territory up north on 9/11 made me think deeply about that day 9 years ago. I can still remember smelling the stench of burning bodies and rubble. The tales of people in my neighborhood running across the Brooklyn Bridge. Candles on the stoop. Flags hanging house to house and murals honoring the victims. The weeks looking for survivors. I smoked two cigarettes in honor of the victims and in honor of those that helped.

Today, two planes zoomed and banged here in Segou forcing me to tremble. It seems that over time, while I haven’t really told anyone this, I am still greatly fearful of another attack such as the World Trade Center. I was shaking and afraid that something was happening here- an all too realistic possibility if something politically went awry, especially as an afterthought to what is happening in Florida recently.

I hope that we can overcome the hatred, discrimination, and resentment from what has happened and work towards a better future.

Stay tuned for more blog postings. I’ll try to post when I can despite the lack of amenities. Mail/Letters/Packages are greatly welcome and help keep not just me but the other volunteers .

Thanks and see you soon.

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Officially a Volunteer

If I thought the previous posts represented a crazy month, I have been proven wrong. Since my last post, it’s been an emotional roller-coaster for a number of reasons including personal relationships, lack of contact with friends and family, and experiencing site for the first time.

Site visit was pretty miserable- not going to lie. (Please do not worry- I will deal with all of this and you shouldn’t call OSS with frantic worries). I knew I would not have electricity or running water ut when I got there, my house was a wreck. The cement was just laid so it was wet inside and out, i had no screens and only one window. There were leaks in the mud and thatch roof and wasps making nests in my hut. I could not eat for a few days to a week and was very weak. Walking 5k in the hot sun each way to a market without water doesn’t help, lol. These problems, some of which are still persisting, will be solved and while frustrating, I still want to be here but I did have my weak moments and did make an early termination plan. it does not help that now we are at installation after we have sworn in and many of the problems still need work or cannot be worked on until the rainy season- will update more on the physical housing situation. What I do know, however, is that if I can live in a small mudhut with two room in the third poorest country in the world, I can do anything.

Let’s back up though:After my site visit, we went back to the training center for more technical sessions including working with my team’s agriculture product boutique to help him organize his accounting and expenses. We built such a great relationship and I hope that he does well. He has great potential and has established social relations and a good reputation in the community which goes a long way here. Social relationships are the key to respect and success here. People take care of each other here- we are all family.

You might call some of the benefits of social relationships here as nepotism, which realistically, it might be. But, it is admirable how much people care for each other. It is culturally appropriate to say “Na duminike?” to offer someone food if you are eating. Usually, they will say “N faarah” to decline politely or just take a bite. These relationships are predominantly based on age, gender, and last name (last names here such as Traore , Coulibaly (a ka nit!), Diarra, etc) or ethic category.

Besides Malians taking care of each other, we have a peace corps family. I think I’ve already said this but my home-stay village members and i are very close. Like any family, we have our disputes but all in all, we stick up for each other and I’m happy I know them. In particular, after i was going through my own personal emotional problems, they helped me and still are helping me through it.

Being finished with homestay, we got to invite a family member to a mediocre dinner planned by peace corps. We gave out gifts and thank yous to the training staff and certificates of appreciation to our families for dealing with our crap for the last two months. I felt like a proud parent at a graduation and took many pictures of my host dad.(I will try to post pictures relating to all of this information)

Then, it was swear-in. I got a tailor to custom make an outfit that would look pretty fly at the ceremony. They came out great. However, I thought that the bleeding problem was resolved when my language coordinator took it and said it would be treated so the dye wouldn’t run. Unfortunately, it wasn’t fixed and we had a sanji (a motherfreaking huge storm) and I wound up like the girl from charlie and the chocolate factory who ate the blueberry.

Everything was purple. I saturated the SUV backseat – now purple. I had purple all over my hands. I bumped into people slightly and spilled purple on them. A chair at the Embassy is now purple. i was afraid we would have to shake the Ambassador’s hand and I’d have to tell her, televised to all of Mali, that i could not do it for fear of turning her and her white jacket the tint of plum. It was pretty hilarious. Luckily, we didn’t and I managed to strip myself of my bleeding cloth and scrub myself down Gattica style in a hot shower at the American club where we relaxed by the pool and drank jack and cokes in celebration.

Later on, we went to the hotel, relaxed, escaped to a different room larger but smelled terribly in the bathroom and slept five to a room. We partied at the club near by and ate chinese food- yes, chinese food. No general tso or pork fried rice but it was pretty decent for Mali in hunger season and pretty reasonable in price.

In short, we celebrated and got to experience Bamako for the first time as true volunteers- taking taxis and not being treated like adolescents. It was nice but also it was scary. Here, in Segou, a less overwhelming city in Mali, it still feels scary at times but we are getting the hang of it as we shop for pots, pans, mattresses, and other household items. Bargaining for them gets fun but it is SO exhausting.

As I wait until tomorrow to go to my site and be installed, i hope the repairs to my house will be finished or at least better. My expectations are low and I’m disappointed for the unnecessary hitches but this is a part of the difficult experience and I just have to be patient.

But, honestly, I miss the US so much. Staying at the hotel with A/C and a hot shower is a tease. This is why I would love for people to call me more and send letters /packages. I know people are busy but it can feel like out of sight out of mind. Here, a month isn’t a month- it’s a year. A US work week and then weekend breaks up the time. Here, at site, there is no escape. It’s difficult to get over things and push through issues emotionally because everything gets compiled. There are no distractions from it despite a hectic atmosphere and activity. sometimes, it can feel that I’ve lost my identity- not wearing the same clothes, eating foods, seeing friends, normal routine activities, not being able to show my full personality or communicate what i would like to say in English because Bambara, despite my passing of the exam, is not specific like English. This is why I think many of the other volunteers seem a bit melancholy or jaded. Not sure, though. i do know they are awesome¬† and they are willing to help us out with everything we need. What is weird to think about is that in a year, I will be able to do the same. Maybe even in April when the next stage swears in.

Lastly, our stage name is ‘Team America”. Despite safety concerns and being a group of 80, not one person has gone home and our training staff has stated we are their best stage or one of the best ones they’ve had. We are strong. I know we will do well here.

Thank you for bearing with the month long hiatus. The lack of internet and time to actually write puts a strain on updating but it is best if there is no news because it means I’m working and being productive instead of being on a computer while I’m here in Africa. However, I am close to Segou and will be here frequently so who knows. I appreciate you checking back and being a part of this journey.

Stay tuned! (and check out my revised wishlist for packages and the NEW MAILING ADDRESS and PHONE NUMBER)

Dan :)

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A Site To Be Seen

On Sunday, approximately 40 Peace Corps Trainees, including myself will depart with each of our homologues to check out our sites for the next two years- I will be in a village of 3,000 people near Segou (I’m not allowed to post the exact name for security issues). I will eat with the chief of the village and have no electricity. More details to come as I learn them.

Last night, we found out exactly what towns and villages we will be working with, our specific community goals, and who will help us to integrate over the next few months until IST (In-Service Training).

There is much to do, however. Questionnaires, more inoculations, sessions of safe travel, language enhancement, strategies for dealing with common stresses such as being called a Tubab all the time (which means French person) apparently or unwanted sexual advances. I cannot express how many times I’ve already been asked if I was married (I furulen don? or¬† Mousso b’i fe? in Bambara) by mothers on behalf of their daughters. Fortunately, I have yet to commit to giving a dowry just yet, haha.

Ok, well, it is late and I need to sleep. However, I appreciate your patience on these blogs. I realize my frequency is very different from when I started this blog but that is only because of access to internet. More details to come for sure.

Oh! and I’ve revised my top ten wishlist- take a look!!!

I miss you all especially linguine.

Best,

Dan

A la ka su here caya

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Mudhut Homestay

Living in a small village in Mali is very different from New York City to say the least. It has had its ups and downs, but overall it has been a very positive experience.

One confession: It is freeing not to be plugged in to a computer or a phone 24/7. I am active during the day because at night all I have is a kerosene lamp. Coned has not reached B. Village, the small settlement in which I am living here in Mali for the next 10 weeks.

I have been renamed a Malian name: Lasine Coulibaly. Each ethnic group in Mali has what is called a “Joking Cousin” which acts as entertainment and a peacekeeper amongst different ethnic groups. For instance, because I am a Coulibaly, people will joke I am a “bean eater” and I can retort with “you are a donkey” or “I ye Fali ye” in the local language of Bambara, a quasi patois of French that I am learning 7 hours a day, every day. I need to become intermediate mid in order to qualify for swearing in as an official volunteer on September 3, 2010. Language lessons can be a bit tedious but I feel I am getting the hang of it and getting to speak more each day with my host family.

Bambara is not all I am learning. There are many cultural differences in Mali such as covering your knees (that’s rig, I can’t wear shorts in Africa unless I am plying sports or riding my bike), using only your right hand (I am a lefty) because the left hand is dirty- you use it to wipe when you use the “negin” the outside bathroom that you squat to deposit goods, where creepy crawly things come out of at night. One hopes that it might be covered and separated from the area you take a bucket bath in (that’s right, a bucket bath- no shower!) but it is pretty refreshing because you realize how little water you need to actually clean yourself and you get to bathe under the clear sky and beautiful stars. Another cultural point is that you GREET everyone. “I ni Sogoma” (Good Morning) then “N ba i ni sogoma” for men or “N se i ni soma” for women and it is a sign of education and respect to greet, especially elders. There are more lines but I’ll spare you the entire shpeal and reserve more cultural aspects and gender norms for a separate post.

Another fantastic thing is that I am riding my bike! I learned in September and this is the first week I’ve ridden a bike or in Bambara “negeso”. We ride from village to village visiting the other trainees, sometimes 3k away from where we are on rocky roads with puddles. I am going to be slick on even paved roads when I come back to the states. From this, I’ve also lost 5lbs in the last 13 days. I hope it continues, hopefully not from Mr. D though (our euphemism for Diarrhea or malnutrition).

Okay, well, it’s almost bedtime for me but I will post more on all these things some point soon. We are very busy here with training sessions and activities so it is difficult to get away. However, my contact information is located on the contact page and I posted my phone number on facebook.

I would love letters and pictures from friends and family. In fact, if people would like to send me anything, the address is on the contact page as well. Expediting is probably best seeing as it takes a long while to get anywhere here. Items that would be super helpful:

Mosquito repellent with deet, mac and cheese in box, clif bars, nytimes sunday, flyswatter, magazines, usb with new music, other snacks, logic puzzles, and marlboro 27s.

Thanks ya’ll. Tune in for more later on!

A la ka su here chaaya, by which you respond: Amina

(A night blessing)

-Dan

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I’m so ecstatic that Peace Corps doesn’t have the rule: “You don’t talk about staging” because then I’d have nothing to blog about.

The holiday inn in Philadelphia was intimidating. People surrounded me that I knew only from a picture on 4shared. The carpet had the pattern of those weird optical illusion pages and when you looked at it in concert with the wallpaper, the room seemed to move in and out like the tide. Pretty trippy.

Icebreakers and sharing followed Peace Corps history and skits about Core Expectations. It was a relief to find out how nervous and anxious everyone was and that I wasn’t alone. People ask you what you’ll do in Mali and you just picture yourself isolated in the heat eating nothing but millet and talking to your goat. It’s really a black hole. We still don’t know where we will be placed – but it is OK because we are making friends and becoming a ‘family’. I miss everyone already (especially Linguini) but I know it will be okay. It will be a fantastic experience and while I’ll try to keep my nausea subsided from the nerves that still persist, I am trying to keep an open mind and try as hard as I can to push through.

One thing I will say is that there is a difference between patience and dealing with poor time management that could be better. Waiting for shots for several hours in a room with nothing to do wasn’t my idea of a good time so early in the morning. We could have slept in or taken a shower. However, it did give my group a great time to be bored together, play the “haha” game laying on our stomachs and work together to untie our ‘human knot’. I did have fun and my fellow soon-to-be volunteers are people I am relieved to be around.

Speaking of that, don’t you just love how the PC screens its volunteers. I know for a fact that none of these people are all about drugs or drinking or have been to prison and they are all goal-oriented ambitious and intelligent people. They have experience, drive, and most importantly – a personality. They have a sense of humor and I know that we have something in common- we are crazy enough to join the Peace Corps and go to Africa for two years. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Ok, so I want to get off this computer to talk to the airline agent to get a window seat. I had some technical errors and setbacks here (like my zipper on my luggage breaking) so check-in wasn’t exactly smooth, but it’s working itself out.

oh, and just so people know. I think I’m going to need new chacos sandals, mine have a broken strap in back.

If anyone is sending anything, try writing “God Bless” or “God is watching” as people say it might deter theft a bit since Mali is 90% Muslim. And don’t label as high cost or valuable- increased risk of theft. To contact me, go to the contact page and all the information is there.

Stay tuned for details on the flight and first days of training. Frequency of blogging will change.

Btw, philly cheesesteaks rock!

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Pre-Staging Fascination at the Station

So, it’s staging here in Philly. So far, I made my way (exhausted) to Philly from packing and a metro-north snafu involving confusing train schedules. Anyway, I got here. Peter from USS picked me up from the Acela train and we had pulled pork sandwiches. what a delight! The only terrible attribute of the trip was sitting next to this guy on his ipad, laptop, and bluetooth at the same time on some kind of conference. Slow Torture. I think he thinks he is important in some kind of way.

Train people are fascinating albeit this one man. I love eavesdropping and I love watching. For instance, on my way down from Cold Spring, I spent my time listening to the exciting stories and lives of these lawyers. Unusually, they weren’t useless- in fact, one is doing a class action lawsuit against BP. One of his Pro Bono works turned into this great tale regarding chief cardiologist surgeons saving his wife’s life. You just had to be there. It was like Friends but without the laughtrack.

Besides this, staging has been interesting and I will let you know all about it later before we depart. Which, btw, is from JFK. I know, I know. I just came from NY with 80lbs of luggage to Philly. Crazy right?

Stay tuned.

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