as i am.

"…but soil is a refuge for dispersed seeds."


Becoming Settled

Posted on by chrissy

“Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952

My days are filled with nothings: small moments stringing together the short hours that lead to days, to weeks. My triumphs and my failures pass unnoticed by all except myself, because they are to be expected. I slowly etch out an existence in this almost-desert of bare dirt waiting patiently for rain, for planting, for harvest.

It has been four weeks and I can still get lost in my tiny village. The pathways outline irregularly shaped compounds and will-be gardens, all slowly being rebuilt, readying themselves for rain. I walk slowly on the paths I do know, ensuring I do not walk aimlessly into someone’s compound, protecting myself from the awkwardness of uncertainty.

My role in village is slowly evolving; the further I push myself out, the more crutches I find to lean on. I arrived helpless, almost infantile in my inabilities. I was frustrated by my helplessness, and frustrated by my frustrations. My village knew of my infancy and dutifully made sure I was never alone, never without assistance. My primary babysitter was Seydou, and when he was unavailable, other arrangements were made.

My meals came consistently three, sometimes four times a day by a random rotation of women I struggled to identify. For a week I was given chickens, their warm knobby legs handed to me, then taken away to be slaughtered and cooked elsewhere. It was a Bambara custom of hospitality I very much enjoyed.

I was assigned a host-sister, or rather she was assigned to me. Soon to be emerging gracefully from teenage awkwardness, Shittan (SHEEtan) was soft-spoken, calm, and calculated. She was tasked with bringing me water from the pump, washing my buckets, and sweeping my courtyard. I did my best to lighten her load; I surely did not need a maid. However, I hoped to learn from her, and thought perhaps she could learn from me, eventually. I saw an opportunity, at least.

I spent my first hours and days going where I was told, politely listening to a consistency of conversation I could not understand. I let each day unfold itself around me until it was completed and started over again. But in this passivity, I still asserted my independence, slowly slowly. On my third day in village, much to the amazement of villagers, I did my laundry myself. Water was brought to my courtyard for me, but I sat under the shade of my gwa scrubbing the morning away until my clothes hung triumphantly on the line in the sun. Though the villagers could see I was clearly capable, they still shook their heads, puzzled as to why I would not just give my clothes to Shittan to wash for me.

My fourth day in village I was loaded on a horse cart with a heap of things and women and Seydou. We rode in a bumpy clump for an hour and a half through the brush to the Djeli market, the closest market to my village. The road was almost whimsical as a steady stream of horse and donkey carts reminded me of how I imagined the Oregon Trail as a child: a mass exodus of wagons heading West. My thoughts wandered, but they always came back to the reality that these women rode an hour and a half each way each week to stock up on things unavailable in village.

As the days passed, I struggled to develop a routine, and strike a balance between interaction and quiet aloneness. Some days I counted the hours and minutes until I could justify indulging in the relief of my afternoon nap. Some days I gave it up entirely in exchange for continued interaction with villagers. My levels of patience and frustration ebbed and flowed with the passing of the moment. My eventual routine started simply with a morning walk. Seydou began working in the fields in the mornings, giving me time to wander on my own, away from his assisting eye. My first walk led me to one of my host moms, although I did not know that at the time. She asked where I was going, and I told her I was just taking a walk. She said, ‘Ok, lets go,’ and we walked to the outskirts of village and looked at the future site of our family’s garden. At the time it was just a freshly built well surrounded by nothing.

After the schools were closed due to a teachers’ strike, I spent the afternoon with a clump of kids in my courtyard, writing down the names of all the wives and kids and kids of kids of everyone in my host family, my counterpart’s family, and Seydou’s family. I wrote and I wrote, and I confirmed things with Seydou that evening. My first goal in village was learning people’s names, and I was struggling. Again and again I would ask, and the name would leave my mind as quickly as it came. My frustrations were building until that night I counted the names I had written for the three families, and got to 120.

Some days I was too frustrated to converse. Many of my conversations were as follows:

Malian: Tomati lksdjflksjdkfjkld
Me: Huh?
Malian: Tomati lksdjflksjdkfjkld
Me: Huh?
Malian: You don’t understand?
Me: I don’t understand.
Malian: …You don’t understand?
Me: No…
Malian: …I SAID…to-ma-ti… lksdjflksjdkfjkld.

And yet, with every struggle, a redemption. One morning, my host-sister-in-law Hawa, who is roughly my age with two adorable kids, came over to greet me. She told me she would soon be going to the garden, and joked that I should go with her. I said ok, and she smiled and said she’s be back soon. After a while, she was back, smiling, perhaps testing the waters of how far the toubab would go. We walked to the pump, then to the garden, where my newly identified host-moms were already working on building a fence around the future garden. They set me in the shade on a water jug and let me watch, amused with my presence, but with no intention of letting me work.

A couple of times in my meandering I found my way to a neighbor’s garden. She was also named Hawa, and was one of the few people I had seen with plants growing in her garden already. After a couple visits of greeting her and asking her the names of different plants while she laboriously pulled water from the well and watered her seedlings, bucket by bucket, I set down my nalgene and grabbed a bucket. She twisted effortlessly through the evenly spaced seedlings as I scuttered behind, the water splashing a little out the side of the bucket as I went. It felt so good to be helpful, proving I am not quite as useless as I may seem.

To bring me back to reality, Koniba, a teenage girl in Seydou’s family, came to chat one afternoon. Our conversation was brief, at best, and after our awkward silence, Koniba suggested we take a walk. Instinctively, she checked my jug of water and saw that it was almost empty. Thus, we headed to the pump. Her one year old brother/nephew/cousin was strapped to her back, quietly observing the world around him. We got to the pump and I was allowed briefly to pump water before Koniba took over. Soon, we were on our way, as Koniba balanced 20 liters of water on her head, a baby on her back, and gracefully walked the ten minutes back to my house with me. I thanked her as profusely as I could muster in Bambara, and she said she’d be going home. I told her I thought I would take a bath, and she turned around, filled my bucket with water, and carried it to my nyegen for me. While her actions were tremendously sweet, I wondered how long it would be until I could be self sufficient.

After my bath, as the sun was edging closer to set, I left my house feeling restless and pent-up. I walked to Adama’s house (my host dad) to see what was going on there, and found some women cleaning millet. I chatted for a while and shortly I was on my way with Hawa and Jelica to the susulike yoro (susuLEEkay yoro; millet pounding place). They pulled me up a stool, and I watched and chatted. It felt good to be present. Afterwards, I returned with them to Adama’s house and hung out for the rest of the night. I have returned every night since.

I mark this night as the first turning point in my relationship with my village. No longer were the nights of sitting awkwardly at my house waiting for a rational time to kick people out and go to bed. I was free to stay or go as long as I liked, and this revelation was revolutionary. This was the beginning of my routine.

I have made a habit out of visiting the susulike yoro most evenings. I pass it off as ‘going for a walk,’ and then hover until they give me a stool and instruct me to sit. I stay and talk and greet those who pass. I humor them by pounding millet occasionally. My arm strength is not up to par yet, but they assure me that by the time I return to America I will be a pro.

Most nights, I sit at Adama’s house and stare at the stars, while Hawa sits next to me with the girls while La, the nine-month old, tries to get into trouble. I can’t tell if they sit because they feel obligated, or if they would be sitting there with or without my presence, but sometimes, the family gets to talking and laughing and joking with each other, and they are in their element, and it’s as if I wasn’t there at all.

Coinciding with my new routine, Hawa mysteriously hurt her hand and was unable to do her normal work for a few days. Unused to having such free time, she found me, the only other woman in village with nothing to do all day, and we hung out. The beginnings of a friendship have started. Not only that, but the other women from the susulike yoro (all part of my extended host family) have started coming over to greet me and to chat. It feels nice to have ‘friends’.

Simultaneously, Shittan decided it was time to wean me off of her support. One evening, she asked if I had water, and I told her a little. She said “Well, lets go,” and we went to my house and got my water jug. She told me to grab my bike, and despite the fact I was wearing a skirt, I did as I was told, not having the guts to tell them I had to change into pants before I could go. I rode successfully to the pump with Shittan and Koniba. They pumped my water for me and strapped it to the back of my bike, but I rode it successfully home.

The next day, I was determined to get my water myself, now that I was shown how. I decided to go at 4:00, before school got out. Little did I know this was the time students pumped water into buckets they brought from home and cleaned the school and the yard. As I approached the pump, roughly 50 students were crowded into the ten by ten foot pump area, and as many as possible took turns filling my bucket. I went to my bike and strapped it on as I had seen Koniba do the day before, and rode off to a chorus of “Ce n’est pas possible!” mutterings, and left behind an astonished mob of school kids in awe of their toubab. Now I get water daily; sometimes with help, sometimes not.

I am beginning to feel adjusted. I am beginning to feel like part of a community. I am making connections of who belongs where and I am learning names. My life is a continuation of ups and downs, but the mountains are gradating into hills, and I am becoming settled.


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  • About Me:

    I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Mali for two years promoting sustainable agriculture and environment development.

  • Address in Mali:

    Christina Scheller
    B.P. 02
    San, Mali

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  • What I’m Reading

    King Leopold's Ghost - Adam Hochschild
  • What I’ve Read

    High Tide in Tucsan - Barbara Kingsolver All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren Half the Sky - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization - David R. Montgomery Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee The Education of Little Tree - Forrest Carter The Rodale Book of Composting Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver The History of the House of Representatives - Robert Remini East of Eden - John Steinbeck Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin The Imperial Cruise - James Bradley