as i am.

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

   

Progress

Rainy season came and went with the disinterest of a fickle friend. Despite this disinterest, the village trudged along with endless fieldwork, transforming the surrounding countryside from vast expanses of dirt sprinkled haphazardly with shea trees to towering seas of millet and sorghum. This sea of tropical grasses engulfed the periodic tree trunks and left their dark green heads bobbing at the windswept surface like ducks on the water.

While the village toiled life into the fields, the world itself seeped green from all its forgotten corners. Again and again paths attempted to be overtaken by weeds and forests filled in all empty spaces with knee high grasses and eccentric climbing vines. This sepia-toned dry land momentarily verged on lushness.

My life gained two focuses during this season. The first was praying either for or against rain as it convenienced me: Please don’t let it rain tonight; it’s too hot to sleep inside, versus Please let it rain this afternoon; I want an excuse to sit inside and read all day. The sky rarely obliged me. The second was devising excuses to keep myself out of the fields. I felt guilty not being productive when my family possessed infinite energy for the backbreaking labor of subsistence farming. However, my joining them in the fields was generally more burdensome than helpful as I was not instinctively part of their well-oiled machine. I was slow, often had to have my work checked over by others, and always needed directions of where to go once I completed weeding a row.

Luckily, it was not challenging to find a wealth of other, more independent tasks to fill my days. I started a garden and a compost pile. When I noticed my seedlings where drooping in the hot mid-day sun, I dropped everything and collected sticks and straw from the brush with which to build my seedlings a tiny shade shelter. This first venture of gathering led to many more as I gathered sticks for my bean trellis and dried leaves for my compost pile.

As I kept myself sufficiently busy to stay out of the fields, my social life depended entirely on meals. Venturing to sit with the women as they susued [pounded millet into a flour with which to make toh] was often my only social activity of the day. Thus, it was an adjustment when my family stopped cooking toh twice a day everyday. All of a sudden, a flip switched and we were eating toh for lunch, followed by rice and tigadegena [peanut butter sauce] one night, followed by beans the next night, followed by toh, followed by bashi [Malian couscous]. Such variety was shocking compared to the monotony I’d become accustomed to—and it was delightful.

I asked Hawa what happened that we became so fortunate to have a variety, and she said that with the increased work of farming, they were cooking less time-consuming meals more often. Cooking rice, one only had to pick the rocks and bugs out of the rice, wash it, and steam it. This is compared to toh, which six women had to susu the millet, followed by multiple women helping to stir before it was done. This way, at least some days, the women who weren’t cooking could accomplish other tasks in the twilight that remained when they returned from the fields.

For me, however, it meant spending entire days alone with my thoughts, only to find empty kolons [mortars] in the evenings, and a diminishing social life. I started sitting near the kitchen at dubala [my family’s central home where the elders live] with whoever was cooking, not just out by the kolons. It also encouraged me to spend mornings at dubala while toh was prepared, instead of just evenings. This new adjustment to life required recalculating again at the beginning of August with the start of Ramadan.

Little in my days changed with Ramadan. I still kept myself sufficiently out of the fields. As the majority only ate one big meal at the end of the day, toh was again guaranteed for lunch and dinner everyday. Lunch was cooked for the elderly (those over 50, perhaps), the young (under late teens), and expectant mothers, and it was now cooked early. Since everyone was up by 5 to eat porridge before the sun, toh was also finished early, arriving at my house around 10 instead of closer to 12 as before. I also tried to avoid eating toh more than once per day, so this new schedule encouraged me to get up early and tell whomever was cooking that I’d be making myself lunch.

The biggest impact of Ramadan, though, occurred in the evenings. Previously, the majority of the family ate lunch and dinner at dubala (unless they ate lunch in the fields). I, however, was not allowed to eat there and ate dinner with Shitan at dukurala [my immediate host family’s house] while everyone else ventured across the neighborhood. Now, for reasons unknown, the whole family came to dukurala to break fast and eat dinner. At 7:00, when the sun was set and the melodic prayer announcing day’s end infiltrated the dusk air from each family’s radio, we all gathered to eat moni [millet porridge], which was followed closely by toh. Shitan and I were given a separate portion, but I certainly felt more included with the whole family filtering in and out.

After eating, women would set out around twenty containers ranging from small pots to larger buckets in a mass next to the two oversized buckets of moni. Each container’s lid was placed neatly beside it and each container was methodically filled with porridge before being taken to various corners of my family to be consumed in the pre-dawn morning. And then, as quickly as the mass of family was assembled, they ate and dissipated, the elders leaving to pray the young leaving to finish their chores, and leaving me in quiet darkness before I slipped off to bed.

And while the summer passed quickly and seemingly uneventfully, I became increasingly close with my host family. I spent mornings and evenings at the susulike yoro [millet pounding place] with the six women charged with cooking for the family. The susulike yoro was situated outside of dubala in the shadow of the microfinance building, across the street from Mamu’s house (though not the Mamu in my family, she does, confusingly, come susu with us sometimes). Six solid wooden kolons sat in the dust in the triangle created between the union of two paths and the microfinance building. From here I could not only converse with my friends while they worked, but also watch much of my neighborhood pass on any given night.

In the evening after a sluggish and unproductive day, I waited for the women to return one by one from washing the millet, a step in the middle of the susuing process. The air was humid and still. The orange-tinted evening cast a happy glow on the dull mud structures that surrounded me. I sat on a tiny bench, perched perhaps five inches from the ground, my knees folded up near my chest, and from there I watched the village settle into its evening routine.

One of my Aunt Fatumata’s teenage sons sauntered up the path towards me. Most teenage boys were too cool to show much interest in the village toubab, but as he passed he gave me a handful of hot roasted peanuts. I thanked him and as he continued towards dubala, Jelica approached, a calabash of freshly cleaned millet resting against her hip.

“Where’d you get the peanuts?” she asked and I gestured in Fatumata’s son’s direction. Jelica glanced up in time to see him disappearing into dubala and smiled playfully. “What’s his name?” she asked, knowing her question would stump me. I smiled embarrassingly, and admitted I did not know. “Ishou. His name is Ishou. He’s Fatumata’s son,” she informed me.

“I knew he was Fatumata’s son,” I said, trying to redeem myself. After six months in village, I should have known all my host cousins’ names.

“What about her other son, the one that just came back? Do you now his name?” she quizzed me.

“…Brahman,” I mumbled hesitantly, hoping that was his name.

“Yes, good,” she praised.

“There are just too many kids,” I said, shaking my head. It was a formidable excuse.

Jelica poured her millet into the kolon and picked up the heavy mahogany pestle, shiny from years of use. She rested one end of the pestle gently on the millet, and leaned the other end against her shoulder.

“Yes, Fatumata has a lot of kids,” Jelica agreed.

“Fatumata, Sali, Hawa, Ba Hawa, Na…” I said, working my way through the older women in my family.

Jelica laughed. “Yes, they all have a lot of kids. “Fatumata has … 10, Sali has … 8, Ba Hawa … 9 with one on the way…” she counted out on her fingers trying to keep track of each woman’s kids.

I shook my head. “Yeah, that’s a lot … too many.”

Mamu and Jenaba approached, each with calabashes full of millet and I watched as they too poured their millet into kolons and started susuing. I could tell Jelica was amused by our conversation and I listened as she rehashed the entire thing to Mamu and Jenaba. It was a common habit among Malians to repeat verbatim conversations they’d had with me. When she’d caught the others up to speed, she turned to me and joked, “I’m going to have a lot of kids—I’m going to have 15.”

“Fifteen?” I asked, feigning shock. “How are you going to buy them all clothes and school supplies?”

“I’ll garden. I’ll make a lot of money gardening.”

“Really?” I said skeptically.

“You don’t think so? How many are you going to have?”

“Two, most likely,” I said, speaking up slightly to be heard over the thud, thud, thud of susuing. With a slight bend at the knee, each woman sprung the pestle as high as she could reach above her head, before slamming it precisely in the middle of the kolon and repeating this action indefinitely. They were perfect cogs in a well-oiled grinding machine.

“Two kids?” they all laughed. “That’s it?”

I explained some of the expenses involved in raising kids in America. I calculated some prices for them and after the initial shock of how expensive things cost in America, they agreed I probably shouldn’t have too many kids.

Jelica set down her pestle momentarily, resting it again on her shoulders, and said, “Really I don’t want that many kids.” She was roughly the same age as me and already had four. “After Baba [the youngest] I’m done,” she said and resumed pounding. Mamu finished up and returned to dubala to bring her fresh millet flour to Hawa who was cooking dinner. Jelica and Jenaba turned their attention to their work and I sat and reflected on what was already one of my longer and most successful conversations in a language I had only started learning six months prior. I hesitated before asking my next question, knowing I was only asking to see what they’d say. We had settled into our respective silences when I asked, “Why do women have so many kids?”

Jelica stopped susuing and asked me to repeat my question. With a smile, I did, and her response was not what I was expecting: “Because they don’t take medicine. There’s a shot you can get, and if you get it, you don’t have kids. Some women get the shot, some women don’t.” She’d brought up birth control, a topic that felt somewhat taboo in my rural village.

“Can you get it in N’Torosso?” I asked. N’Torosso was the next village over and the location of the nearest doctor.

“Yeah, you can get it there.”

“Do they have this medicine in America?” Jenaba asked between pounds.

“Yep, lots of women take it.”

“That’s how they have so few kids?”

“Yep,” I said. The happy glow of early evening had faded; the surrounding buildings had slipped into shadow without my noticing.

Jelica squatted down, resting on her upturned heels, and sifted the millet flour, flicking her wrist back and forth in a motion equally as innate as the pounding. “Is our medicine the same as yours?” she asked.

“Yep, we have shots. We also have pills and other things, but they all work the same.” She seemed impressed that they were all the same. “Why do some women not take it?” I asked.

Jelica shrugged. Jenaba answered, “Some men don’t want their wives to take that medicine.”

“Why not?” I prodded.

“I don’t know. They don’t understand. They don’t have to pay for things. Women pay for clothes, shoes, school supplies. If they’re sick, women pay for medicine.”

With a smile I asked my next question, not noticing my host dad approaching until I’d already asked it. “What do men pay for?” I asked.

“Nothing!” Jelica and Jenaba said without hesitation. Their one word held in the air for a moment, until my host dad came into their lines of sight. He was smiling, signifying he had heard the last few lines of our conversation as he approached. We all laughed knowing their answer was not entirely truthful. Baba continued past us to dubala without saying a word, but on his way back, he added, “Bougourie, men do pay for things.”

Jelica and Jenaba acquiesced and listed the men’s responsibilities: millet, animals, dishes, furniture, things around the house.

“In America,” I told them, “Both men and women pay for things for their children.”

Jelica and Jenaba sifted the last of their millet and gathered their calabashes to bring to Hawa. The evening was slipping faster into night, and with it, storm clouds were gathering in the Eastern sky. Before leaving, Jelica turned to me and said, “Bougourie, after two years, you will stay here.”

“What?” I asked.

“After two years,” she repeated matter-of-factually, “you won’t go to America. You will stay here.”

“I have to go to America,” I said meekly. I knew there were no good responses to her statement.

“Why?” she asked.

I hesitated. The truth was so complicated, far beyond my Bambara skills. Leaving America, I could console people with, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back in 2013.’ The prospect of leaving my Malian friends held no such reassurances. “My family’s there,” I said, one reason among many.

“Don’t you have family here?” she asked, referring to my host family.

I smiled. “I do … but if I stayed here, I don’t think my mom would agree. I am an only child.”

“True,” she paused, then said, “Then you will come visit?” I nodded. “And when you get a husband, you will bring him too?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said. I was touched.

I walked back home in the gray almost-night, with storm clouds approaching behind me. Tonight, however, it could rain all night long, and I wouldn’t be phased. I felt progress, real progress, which was something I hadn’t felt in months. And it felt great.

   

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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