as i am.

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

   

Thoughts and Events As of Late

My resettlement after three short weeks away is harder than anticipated. The existence I had carved out for myself in my first two months is revealing the naive assumptions on which it was based. The change of seasons has left me scrambling to adjust to a new-found solitude in a village deserted by day, as I quickly realize the world I left is not the world to which I return. Farming season has begun.

The men and teenage boys and girls go to the fields shortly after breakfast while the six women who cook fill their mornings with laundry, working in their gardens, susuing, and cooking to. When the to is done, they carry it to the fields and work there the rest of the afternoon. They return home in the evening to accomplish all their nightly chores of cooking, susuing, sweeping, etc., after which they go to bed exhausted, knowing it will all start over again in the morning. The majority of kids venture into the forest tending cows, sheep, and goats, ensuring they don’t devour any field crops. A handful of younger girls, perhaps 8 and under, join the rest of the family in the fields tending to the younger kids and babies while their mothers work. Women too old to work in the fields collect shea fruit, which they will later turn into shea butter and cooking oil. As you can imagine, few have time to spare chilling with the toubab.

Thus, I stumble along with my adjustments, often failing to find people where I hope to find them. I repeatedly show up at the susulike yoro only to find empty kolons with traces of millet freshly powdered. I finish my evening chores and venture next door for the evening, only to find an empty compound, as no one has returned yet from the fields. When they do return, they are busy with chores until well after dark, as the workload which previously consumed an entire day now waits patiently to be accomplished in the margins.

Yet in the midst of this village-wide increase of physical labor, I increasingly find myself seeking the quiet confines of my concession. I suppose it’s to be expected after three weeks away, but it’s frustrating none the less. In the evenings as Shitan’s work day spills over into the night, I feel nothing but guilt recounting my relaxing day of reading and walks in the brush. It’s been five days and I’ve done nothing remotely productive. I’m overwhelmed by my village and my supposed capabilities for change (or lack thereof). Where do I begin?

***

I went to Zana yesterday for a fete. Zana is home to one of my closest toubab neighbors, Jim, and is surprisingly easy to get to. The path winds through craggly baobab trees thickly surrounded by shrubs before skirting the edges of millet and peanut fields and depositing you in, as Jim said as we approached, “the greatest village on Earth.” I suppose I could argue the point, but it’s a nice sentiment none the less.

Two circles of balafons and drums serenaded the evening complete with dancing, picture taking, and snack foods sold by village women. Dance parties are in no way my favorite Malian activity, and by nightfall Jim and I had retreated to his house for the luxury of English conversation.

Not wanting to ride back after dark, I spent the night, and would have left first thing in the morning if not for a rainstorm cooping us inside at first light. Halfway through breakfast, Jim’s cat squeezed through the crack in the door sopping wet and muddy, carrying an intelligible bundle in her mouth. She hurried across the room into Jim’s bedroom and Jim quickly rose to see what she had caught. He disappeared into his bedroom, mumbling at the cat not to put her prey on his bed and then reappeared with a smile, “Wanna see a newborn kitten?” he asked.

Indeed, curled on Jim’s bed was Jim’s cat Chaya and snuggled up against her was a muddy clump of gray and white fuzz, looking disoriented with its eventful morning. Before long, Chaya brought in two more kittens in the same fashion.

As the rain trailed off into a damp, muddy, dripping mid-morning, I rode home contented with my outing and selfishly pondering kittens.

***

Mali is giving me trouble today. The night air is swollen with humidity, suffocating all those who attempt sleep. On top of that, a thin veil of clouds is amplifying the light of the almost-full moon, and village kids have overtaken the normally empty night streets to fill the moonlit corridors with their rambunctious presence. In Mali, sleep is a privilege, not a right.

Yesterday, I was finally somewhat productive. In the morning, I rode my bike to visit Hawa’s dad Brahman at the gadrone to inquire about purchasing some woven baskets for storage. I was assured two could be made by Saturday.

Brahman is a tiny man; his over-sized white t-shirt conceals his tiny frame, as does his abundant energy. He bounces around his tree nursery with such enthusiasm, I returned home feeling energized myself. I ate a small lunch, then made my way out to my family’s fields. I wanted to help.

The task at hand was essentially weeding the fields with a tool called a daba. Dabas are sort of like hatchets: a piece of metal wedged into a wooden handle, but instead the blade of the daba goes perpendicular to the handle, allowing one to slice off the top of grass and other assorted weeds amongst the millet. The millet was only a few inches tall, so it was a lot of work to differentiate the millet from the grass (since millet is a grass itself). My family was happy I was joining them, though they were overly amused with my clumsy farming technique. I struggled to keep pace with them as we worked our way through the rows. My twenty or so family members worked like a well-oiled machine, as I struggled to know where to go next after each row was completed. I felt like I was being more of a burden than a help. As evening approached, though, my family thanked me profusely, and I returned back with the women as they prepared themselves for their nightly chores.

*

It’s unfairly hot out. I started the night inside because it feels like rain and didn’t want to have to move my bed later. However, after only an hour of damp, sweaty sleep, I’ve moved outside for the relief of half a degree. The night air has never been so still, the only thing that moves is the sweat that rolls down my face as I write. This is not fair.

***

And so it was my religion that the rains did come, and in such torrential fashion did they. I woke up exhausted from a night lacking sleep, and the world was clouded and gray. Despite my fears of getting rained on, I returned to Brahman’s as instructed to pay him for my baskets. He showed me my two perfect baskets woven with such care, large enough for me to sit in if I tried. One would house dirty clothes and the other extraneous belongings that currently had no home. Too large to be attached to my bike, the baskets would travel to my village on a horse cart later in the evening.

“Now come look at my trees,” Brahman said, our business at hand now completed. I followed him as we wove through the bushes, drawn by a passion and excitement few hold for their life’s work. He showed me his fields of eucalyptus and other trees I couldn’t identify. He then showed me with disdain where cows had destroyed whole trees and explained he lacked the means to build a chain-link fence.

As we walked back to his house, he pointed out the blackening sky in the direction of my village. “You’d better hurry home before the rains come!” he advised and I quickly departed. I rode against a fierce wind, determined not to get caught in the storm, and as I rode I considered the problem Brahman presented to me: he needs a fence. This was the first problem I had found that seemed to have a simple solution. While I could probably apply for a grant to fund a metal fence, I hesitate to resort to that, as I am leery of the fine line between charity and development. But another solution surfaced: we could build a live fence. This fence would be made of thickly planted trees, dense enough that cows couldn’t penetrate, and seeing as trees are Brahman’s life’s work, he would be fully capable of maintaining such a fence. If one tree were to die it could be replaced with the seed of another tree, eliminating the danger of a fence breaking and Brahman not having the means to fix it. It seemed perfect.

I made it home within fifteen minutes to spare before my world was shrouded with rain so thick and heavy I could barely see the edge of town. Thank you for holding off long enough, oh rain. And then came the thunder so loud I worried for my house as it shook from the sound. What a splendid excuse for lounging in my house alone all afternoon. The rain has been roaring on for two hours now. The water has let up some, but thunder still cackles in the distance. It’s not over yet.

***

I started my garden today, quite arbitrarily on this tenth day of July. Planted sunflowers, eggplant, and ground cherries (what are ground cherries, you ask? I’ll let you know if they turn out.) I’m surprisingly nervous in this endeavor as I’ve never had my own personal garden before. I read and reread my seed packets before planting, standing in the middle of my postage stamp of barren dirt trying to envision it a garden. I planned and planned and finally had nothing left to do but plant. So I did. And now I wait, and pray something good comes of it.

***

I wonder if the adrenaline rush of a scorpion sighting will diminish over the next two years? It’s probably for the best that it doesn’t and I must say I’m impressed with the speed of my reflexes right now. I was trying to clean my house, only to turn and see one scurrying towards me, stinger up, ready for attack. To its detriment, it lost the battle badly as I instinctively beat it with the broom in my hand until its translucent body was almost one with the cement floor.

Of course, once the fight was over, I had to stop cleaning because despite my triumph, the possibility of encountering another one has pushed me outside into daylight where I’m free from harm. Sigh. What a life.

***

I rose before the dawn: everything was set out, ready to go, except for me. I watered my garden while waiting for the water for my oatmeal to boil. I methodically checked the list I’d made the night before to ensure everything was packed. It was. I quickly ate my oats, strapped my bag to the back of my bike and slipped out of village before most people had left their compounds.

The wind was in my favor as I biked first 7k to the , then 18k to San, for a total of 25k. I stopped a few times for water and teetered on wobbly knees when I arrived, but I made it all the way to San on bike. This is revolutionary.

While I think most of my athletic accomplishments are due to a strong will and not athletic ability, this new-found skill improves my life greatly. No longer will I have to wait for transport, sitting uncomfortably by the side of the road flagging any vehicle willing to stop. No longer will I hitchhike against my American conscience because no other vehicles have passed in the previous hour. Now, I may leave knowing roughly when I will arrive, leaving me in control of my travels, and hopefully no longer waiting endlessly for transport. Life is good.

***

I sit in the mornings with my back to the eastern wall of my compound; woven straw mats raise up behind me, protecting me from the morning sun. This morning I sat as I always do, enjoying the hot millet porridge when the kids of Seydou’s family stopped by. They settled in a clump on my reclining wooden chair like a flock of birds descending on their perch. Eight or more easily sat on the chair, with the others squatting around the base, all of them fidgeting, readjusting themselves, flickering excited smiles, happy to give the toubab her morning greeting.

I looked back at them, smiling as well, trying to decipher their Bambara until finally I made out one word: kaba, corn. I was puzzled, I had no idea what they could be talking about—I hadn’t seen corn I my village yet. We struggled further into our conversation, and I gathered another word: san. San, like the city, I thought to myself. Maybe they’re talking about corn in San. But that doesn’t seem right.

After a few more rounds of misunderstandings they finally pointed behind me to the east and said, “Bougourie, sanJI be na, an be taa so.” [RAIN is coming, we’re going home.] My brain quickly recalculated the words, and it dawned on me they meant kaba nogo, literally dirty corn, but together meaning storm clouds. Confusingly, in my village, they have a tendency to drop the nogo.

The kids rose in unison and scampered away, leaving me chuckling at the constant confusion of a contextual language. I got up to inspect the kaba, only to find a blackening morning sky. Not more than five minutes later, it was black as dusk and we were in the midst of a glorious storm.

My garden will be happy with the rain. I planted beans on Tuesday and they’re already sprouting and it’s Saturday! Oh, the excitement of a seed realizing its potential.

***

And then it was August.

The rains still haven’t ‘begun’ as I understand they’re supposed to, despite our glorious storm the other day. Anxiety is almost visible in my village as fields lay half planted and villagers wait for rain to continue their work. Everything in this tiny town hinges on moisture at the right time to ensure food for the next year. These farmers lose big if the gamble of farming isn’t in their favor.

And yet life continues, albeit dryly.

Hawa stopped by today, visibly sick, complaining of stomach pain. She carefully folded her rigid body in thirds on my wooden recliner. She took off her headscarf, untwisted it, and let it fall over her face as if it had the power to cover up more than just her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I’m not feeling well,” she said, one eye peaking out of its hiding place. “My stomach hurts. Do you have any medicine I can take?”

My heart sank. “How does it hurt?” I asked.

“It hurts,” she repeated, her voice flat, emotionless. I tried to discern if she was nauseous, had a fever, cramps, indigestion—each of which a different type of stomach pain—but my Bambara wasn’t sufficient for those kinds of specifications. With a sigh, I lied that I didn’t think I had anything to help her.

What kind of person has free, replaceable medicine and doesn’t share with a sick friend? My conscience ached with my decision, but I knew it was the right one. First of all, I’m not a doctor, and don’t want to seem like one to my village. Second, there’s no way I could supply medicine to every person who needs it, and if I tried, I would surely run out when I needed it for myself. Third, it’s entirely unsustainable. My community is poor, but not destitute. If someone is sick, medicine needs to become a priority, and if I provide pills for free, people will become reliant. Often, it is not that people absolutely can’t afford things, they’re just smart enough to take advantage of handouts when given. And part of my job is to teach my village that I did not come to give handouts, but that doesn’t make my lie any easier, and I still question the morality of my decision.

   

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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
    WEST AFRICA

    Click here for tips and information on sending letters and packages.

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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