Brotherly love

Brotherly love
With so much family in one household, you've always got plenty of playmates.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sex, Marriage, and Romance

What is life like for a woman in the village of Koyan? She grows up spending most of her time farming, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her little siblings. She goes to school, but she finds it boring and discouraging; her teacher ignores her and she flunks out by fifth grade. She finds joy in playing with her younger siblings and selling fruit in the market so that she can buy fried dough for ten cents to bring home to her siblings. She dreams not of being an astronaut or a pop star but of having a rich husband who buys her things and raising many children, her boys going on to make lots of money and her girls going on to find rich husbands of their own.

At 16, her father announces she will marry a 22 year old farmer in the next village over who’s a distant relation of hers. He’s cute, but he’s not rich. He’ll make an average husband. When she leaves her parents and her siblings to move to her husband’s house, she cries. She’ll still get to see them anytime her husband lets her leave the house for a few days to go visit, probably once every couple of months. In her husband’s house, she’s not so much under her husband’s rule as that of her mother-in-law. She wants to go on birth control but her mother-in-law won’t let her.

She feels ambivalent about her husband. Sex is a duty. They never have conversations; their main interaction involves him assigning her chores like fetching his bathwater and sweeping the house. At first she’s very unhappy but gradually she develops friendships with the other women in the house (her husband’s brothers’ wives) and her status rises as she gets older and has her first child.

No man has ever told her he loves her; nor has she ever told anyone she loves them. Love is not something she daydreams about; instead she thinks about her children growing up to be rich and building her a large house and buying her beautiful clothes.

She has probably never seen her husband naked. He enters her house in the dead of night and has sex with her as she lies on her bed, awake or asleep, then leaves.

After the birth of her second child, her husband decides to take a second wife. He doesn’t tell her; instead she hears about it through village gossip. She feels jealous, and yet she knows that a second wife will mean less housework for her. When the younger woman comes to live with them, she treats her pleasantly but they never become friends.

As an American, it is easy to pity the women (and men) of Koyan for the lack of romantic love and good sex in their lives. And yet, you have to look at the bigger picture: their society does not place an emphasis on romance or love; in fact I’ve never heard anyone in my village make reference to either of these concepts unless I raised them. They’re simply unimportant to them. For the people in Koyan, marriage is about having children and running a farm. And no one ever gets divorced.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the To

As the days lengthen and the heat beats down ruthlessly on the fields of Koyan, with their time freed up by the lack of farming activity, more adults are becoming literate, more kids are learning English, and I finally feel almost fluent in Bambara and able to pull eight buckets of water from the well without resting. It’s a good feeling and sometimes I almost forget about the 110° heat – but not quite.

Having spent a year and 10 months in Mali, I’ve grown to love the joyfulness of the children, sitting under the stars at night with no TV – just chatting, laughing, and dancing, the heartfelt string of greetings that starts every encounter, business or personal, waking up with the sunrise and the roosters, learning to truly appreciate water, the excitement of the first big rain after six months of drought, and the way I’ve been incorporated into the community as if I had been born here after only two years.

At the same time, I’m ready to leave. I was raised to be an efficient, on-time, motivated, detail-oriented, cleanliness-loving, individualistic person and these traits don’t always serve me well in Koyan. I hope to take some aspects of Malian culture with me when I return to the States: the greater friendliness and openness, the value of family and children, the value of group consensus in decision-making, and the appreciation of and refusal to waste material goods and food, but I look forward to leaving many aspects behind: meetings that start an hour late, the attribution of all outcomes, both good and bad, to God’s will, a man’s ability to beat his wives, a mother’s ability to beat her children, a teacher’s ability to beat his or her students, polygamy, the seat of village power residing in a group of old men, resistance to improved health and sanitation practices, and, last but not least, my daily bowl of to, which does in fact taste more less like a foot.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why Are Malians So Happy?

I’m not the first volunteer to remark that, despite what I consider extreme conditions of poverty, lack of opportunity, and poor public institutions, my friends and host family in the rural village of Koyan seem on average much happier than my friends and family in the States. The people in Koyan know they’re poor, they know the government doesn’t provide them with the services it should, like a school with well-educated teachers, and they know how hard it is to find a job in Mali – and yet they smile more, laugh more, dance more, and are more resilient to the travails of their daily lives than almost anyone I know in the States.

Amartya Sen writes in Development As Freedom:
. . . [D]eprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible . . . It is thus important . . . to favor the creation of conditions in which people have real opportunities of judging the kind of lives they would like to lead. (Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor, 2000.)
Does this apply to my friends in Koyan? Have they adjusted their desires to what they see as possible – so that they don’t expect to make a decent living, always have a full belly, or have all their children survive – and can’t be disappointed when these seemingly universal desires aren’t fulfilled?

I recently had a conversation with my host mom, Sitan Kane, in which I explained to her the rights American women have in the divorce process and generally the different American norms regarding marriage. To Sitan, divorce is an impossibility because if she were to divorce her husband, her four children would remain with him. And while she certainly complains about her husband’s philandering to me, she doesn’t see it as a reason for divorce; she accepts it as a relatively normal aspect of a Malian marriage. So when I told her that if she was an American woman and she divorced her husband because he was cheating on her, she would almost certainly have custody of her children, she was quite shocked and more convinced than ever that she’d like to move to America.

Sometimes I worry that I am planting a dangerous seed in the minds of Sitan and her younger co-wife Mama, that I am making them unhappy in a marriage they don’t have the means to change. But then I think, as Sen claims, that it is more important that these two women have the ability to judge the kind of lives they would like to lead than that they be ignorantly satisfied with their current situation. As Sen writes, I believe Mama and Sitan have adjusted their expectations to the possibilities available to them. Therefore, it is possible to see their happiness as a product of a world view in which the ideal of womanhood involves obedience, hard work in doing household chores, conformity, and having many, many children. Based on this worldview, it is easy for Malian women to be happy since they spend their lives doing household chores, obeying their husbands, and bearing and raising numerous children.

What I have tried to do is to expand Sitan and Mama’s world view by showing them the possibility of a different ideal of womanhood: that a woman can be her own master. It’s too late for these women to change their marriage; my hope for them is that they do not have so many children that they don’t have time for anything other than raising them and that they take the initiative to start small businesses that will give them some degree of independence from their husband. Unfortunately, I think that their first priority is having a lot of children and they’re willing to give up their ability to gain financial independence for the sake of reaching this goal. Sitan and Mama were brought up in an environment in which child-bearing is what women’s lives are all about and it’s very difficult to change that mindset now. I hope that it will be different for the younger generations, especially now that girl’s education has become more of a priority.

So I may have lodged a little speck of dissatisfaction in Sitan and Mama’s minds, but I can’t do much to change their ultimate happiness, which they get from their children and their place in the community. If you’re going to talk about the happiness of Malians, you have to talk about community. Each individual has his or her own well-defined role in the community, which is organized along gender and age lines, and thus fits into the functioning of the whole like a well-fitted cog in a machine. Malians reap an extreme amount of joy from friendships and family relationships and they get to spend a lot of time with their friends and family, so they tend to be happy. And yet still, I have to believe that if they were more fully conscious of the rights they were being denied (the right to not have one in five of your children die, the right to clean drinking water, the right to a year-round food supply, etc.), they wouldn’t be this happy. There’s a way in which they know that they’re screwed compared to the rest of the world, but it doesn’t register with them on a daily basis; they’ve adjusted to their situation.

So what is the moral of this story? First of all, it is a valuable activity to try to expose Malians to different ways of living and to teach them the basic human rights that they’re being denied, even if it may cause them to become slightly less satisfied with their lives. Secondly, development work is important because, even though Malians may seem satisfied with their current situation, the ultimate goal of development is not to make people feel good, but to enable people to choose the kind of life they want to live.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Malian meetings, Zan Diarra

The school management committee meetings are theoretically scheduled to begin at 8am. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a meeting that started before 9, and meetings have been known to start as late as 10:30. Yet the on-time mentality has been so well drilled into me that I continue to be the only person who shows up to meetings at 8. The people in Koyan have a strong sense of the importance of everyone being present for a meeting (a fascinating example of how democracy works best on a micro level) and also have a great deal of patience, which is why we wait around and chat until everyone shows up to start the meeting.

The way meetings proceed is very unorganized: someone will bring up a topic, it will be discussed, someone will bring up another topic, and so on. Another very democratic aspect of life in Koyan is the way Malians form consensus in a meeting. When an announcement is made, each person repeats the announcement to the person sitting next to them, a kind of way of making sure everyone is on the same page. The same goes for making a decision. Everyone must have their say, or else a decision will not be taken. The committee consists of eight men and two women. The women talk less than the men, but when a decision is being made the men insist the women give their opinion.

Zan Diarra is the vice president of the school management committee and my assigned work partner or ‘homologue’ in the strange terminology of Peace Corps Mali. He is short but muscular, wearing a dirty, torn old suit that he farms in and a crocheted prayer cap. His eyes are very small, dark, and penetrating. He is the man who, before I moved to Koyan, siphoned off some of the money given to him by Peace Corps to buy my windows and doors, leaving me with termite-eaten, falling apart windows and doors that my host dad had to replace out of his own pocket. But Zan is smart and occasionally motivated: he attends every meeting, knows some French, and is good at leading a discussion. He’s very good at telling people what to do but less good at listening – a bit American in this way!

Zan has attended many, many NGO-sponsored trainings over the years – on sanitation, on health, on farming, on accounting, on democracy, and so on. This is why it is so depressing for me to go to his house, which is composed of four small mud buildings and an outhouse surrounding a narrow courtyard. The courtyard’s ground is made of dirt and is always strewn with chicken feces, peanut shells, dirty kids’ clothes, and old plastic bags, flies swarming over the putrid area. Zan has three wives, the oldest of which is about 45 and the youngest of which can’t be over 25. Whenever I go to Zan’s house, his wives always seem down-trodden, exhausted and slow to laugh. This is unusual: I am normally surprised at how happy Malian women are in spite of their lower position in society; in Zan’s case, his wives are tragically as I’d expect them to be in this kind of sexist society. I suspect that Zan beats them. He also has an absurd number of children: I’m not sure how many, but I would guess at least 20. He is exactly the person in Koyan who should have a clean home, treat his wives well, and have fewer children since he’s educated! But somehow these trainings have not registered with him. At the same time, he is very motivated to work on improving the school in Koyan and realizes the importance of sending his kids to school.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Starting my Second Year

October and the beginning of November are the mini hot season in Mali, following the heavy rains and preceding the sanity-saving cool season that begins at the end of November. The days are hot and humid, the sky free of clouds and the landscape getting browner every day. In the late afternoon a slight cool emanates from the forest and sneaks into the family compound by night.

It is peanut time. Days are spent in the field gathering the dirty little root nodules, still dangling from their clover-like plants, nights waste away as everyone in the family from the toddlers to the musokorobas (old women) cracks open the tough shells to get out the sweet nuts, piling them up in a basket for roasting, or simply popping them in their mouths for dessert.

My host dad, Fablen Jara, told me something very disappointing recently. He said that before the desks arrived in Koyan, many people in the village gossiped, saying that I was useless and had done nothing to help the village, but that once the desks came they were ashamed. It saddened me to hear that people talk this way about me. First of all, I feel like this is how you talk about a foreigner, not your friend and neighbor, which is what I’d like to think I am to the people of Koyan. Secondly, they don’t recognize the value of the work I do that doesn’t involve a huge amount of money coming into the village: the Bambara literacy training, the afterschool groups for kids, the organizational training for the school management committee, the soap-making training, the water sanitation education. Is this because of their background, the fact that they’re farmers who never went to school so they’re oriented towards tangible things and they can’t understand the importance of knowledge? Or is it because so many NGOs have come into the area and given away schools, hospitals, chickens, seeds, school supplies, etc., so this is what they have come to see as the proper role of an NGO?

Some Peace Corps staff members from Bamako recently came to Koyan and conducted an appreciative inquiry, which is a means of deciding what the most helpful development project is for a community by discussing the community with community members. I learned that what they really want to work on, in addition to getting a new school building, which we’re already working on (they will apply for funds from the U.S. Embassy Self-help Fund), is to get a grain mill, so that the women can grind their millet in a machine instead of pounding it by hand, which takes hours. I think this could really help the women of the village, hopefully freeing up more of their time for studying literacy and doing income-generating activities like soap-making and developing a shea butter cooperative. At the least, it will make their lives a little easier, giving them a break from the intense physical labor they engage in every day just to run the household. However, I’m worried this is another big money project, where the village will get something that may very well break in a few years and which they may or may not be able to raise the money to get fixed.

There are other, cheaper ways to make women’s lives easier and provide them with more free time. The first on my list would be for them to have less children. I do work on family planning education, but it’s not something people get really excited about or want to work with me on. This is the real challenge of being a Peace Corps volunteer: you are working on behalf of the village, so you really have to work on the projects the village wants you to work on, but at the same time you think you know better and want to work on other projects. Of course if people aren’t receptive, your work is pointless. Is it paternalistic for me to work on projects I perceive as good, but villagers don’t really care about? I think it is. But I have had a lot more education than them. This is something I struggle with here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rainy Season

1. Rainy Season

They wake up at 5 everyday to farm. Eyes encrusted with sleep, even the 6 and 7 year olds are up, looking for a daba*. The procession to the fields begins: the grandma and grandkids, husband and wives. Around 11 a girl will come with a giant round bowl full of millet mush and steaming leaf sauce. They’ll rinse their dirty hands in a bowl of well water and scoop giant handfuls of mush into their mouths. They’ll farm again until afternoon, then return to the household, tired, proud.

It is easy to understand why Malians believe so strongly in God. If it rains in just the right way, they’ll have a good harvest and enough food for the next year. If not, by May or June of next year they’ll start to go hungry, eating smaller portions and less meals. In a way, they have much less control over their own lives than Americans do. As they say, it’s in the hands of Allah. When their babies die, it’s in the hands of Allah. When their men get severely injured in motorcycle accidents, it’s in the hands of Allah. I’ve never heard anyone in my village blame the more logical causes of their poverty – colonialism or the present incompetent government. They either say “there’s no money here” as if it were a static, unchangeable event or “it’s up to God”.

There is one person in Koyan who gets it: Babo Kulibaly. She’s also the most devout Muslim I know. She would be fasting now for Ramadan but she has a heart condition. She is the matriarch of my host family: she claims to be 55 years old (no one really knows how old they are here) and has 5 children and 10 grandchildren (so far). She gets that what’s missing in Koyan are creativity, dedication, and critical thinking. She’s noticed that I’m very different from the 22-year-olds in Koyan and it’s not just that I’m white or can speak 3 languages – it’s that I show up to meetings on time, participate actively, and even plan and come up with ideas for meetings. She’d never seen a 22-year-old like that before – those kinds of qualities are rarely found in Koyan and if they are, it’s normally in a middle-aged man.

There’s just something about Babo. When I first came to Koyan, she asked me to teach her how to make soap. I organized a soap-making training and now she is running a successful soap business and saving the profits for future community development projects. The dedication and stubbornness she has shown in getting other community members to work with her on this project and working through the kinks in the business are unprecedented in Koyan. And it was Babo’s son, Nfabilen, who came up with an exciting idea for the money we had left over from the desk project: for the School Management Committee to buy party chairs and start a chair rental business.

How do you change a culture from one in which respect is bestowed based on age, wealth, and gender to one in which respect is bestowed based on competence? How do you get people trained either to take orders (women and children) or to give them (men) to function in a democratic way? These are some of the key problems we face in Koyan.

*Farming tool made from a short piece of wood with something like a narrow shovel head attached to it, used for weeding.

2. Desk Project Update

I just got off the phone with my exuberant host, Nfabilen Jara, to learn that the desks are safely on their way to Koyan. I am currently stuck in the Peace Corps volunteer transit house in Bamako with a sprained ankle, unable to make it back to Koyan to see the action. Yesterday the second shipment of desks was supposed to arrive in Koyan, but the road was so muddy that the truck had to stop in Ngalamadiby, a village 5km away from Koyan, and store the desks in that village’s school. Today the villagers of Koyan will haul their donkey-carts with their sad, undernourished donkeys and wobbly wheels to Ngalamadiby and trek back to Koyan’s small mud-brick school with the shiny new desks.

There have been some exciting new additions to the project due to the fact that we found a desk-maker who makes desks for $80 instead of our original projected cost of $90 and the fact that the currency conversion rate worked in our favor. In addition to the 45 desks, 3 teacher’s chairs, and 3 teacher’s desks originally planned for, we are also building a director’s office and equipping it with 2 file cabinets, 2 tables, and 2 chairs. What we’re really excited about, though, is an idea that my host Nfabilen came up with: to buy a large number of the chairs that people here rent out for parties. These will be useful when the School Management Committee or Student Parents Association holds large meetings; more importantly, it will enable Koyan’s School Management Committee to run a business renting out the chairs. With their own small business, the Committee members will have a new source of funding for future projects and will gain valuable business management skills, as well as providing a service to the community (because people in Koyan love to party!). With the leftover project funds as well as a $100 cash contribution from the School Management Committee, we were able to purchase 46 party chairs.

After finally receiving the project funds, the School Management Committee held numerous meetings to evaluate and re-evaluate our action plan. I was really proud of the new ideas that the committee members came up with to make the most out of the project funds and their professionalism in conducting the meetings. In the rainy season, it is not easy to hold a meeting since everyone is busy farming and the rain makes the road very difficult. The committee members trekked through the mud again and again to ensure the success of this project.

I greatly look forward to the start of the new school year in October, when the students will get to use their new desks. Last year there were 180 students in the school; this year the Committee expects there will be 250. Some of the old desks will be moved to the adult literacy center, which is badly in need of them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Year in Mali

It’s a hot, humid day. I hear the weather’s about the same in New York, but here this weather is a way of life. The humidity signifies the rainy season: a season of hunger, work, and deprivation. This year’s staple crops have been planted (millet, corn, peanuts, and beans) but won’t be ready for harvest until September at the earliest and last year’s crops are running out fast. Families scrape by using whatever means they can: some are lucky enough to have relatives in Bamako who send them a little cash, some sell their livestock, some have enough profits from their vegetable gardens to buy grain. Does this mean people are depressed and worried about their families, tired and visibly distressed? Not at all. People don’t expect to have more food than they need to get by and their bodies and minds are used to it. Life continues at its usual lackluster pace – people farm together, eat together, chat, laugh, and dance. I would never have known that this was ‘hungry season’ in my community if it wasn’t for the food security survey I conducted for the Peace Corps. I’m sure there’s a sense in which people are suffering, but it’s subtler than what we’d expect – the inability to buy a new pair of shoes, getting a little skinnier than you were before, having to put off paying your kid’s school fees for a couple months. For an American, this would cause a great deal of stress and anxiety; Mali is different. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adult in my village look stressed or anxious.

I’ve been in Mali a year and three days now. It is a Peace Corps cliché that volunteers enter as typically individualistic, efficient, work-driven, consumption-loving Americans and leave having learnt about what is really important in life - family, friendships, and community. Is there a causal relationship in the fact that poor communities often have a stronger sense of community and family values? I’m sure there are a number of contributing factors, including being in a rural location, having an economy based on agriculture, and others, but in general it seems to me that there is a sense of family and community that exists here that is hard to find in developed countries. When I walk down the dirt path that forms the main thoroughfare in my village and every single person spends at least five minutes inquiring into the well-being of my family, my health, and my garden, I know I’ve come a long way from Manhattan. I feel a sense of contentment sitting in my host family’s yard with three toddlers on my lap, eating a disgusting bowl of millet porridge, complimenting my host’s wife’s cooking, and seeing how happy it makes her that I haven’t felt before.

This is not to say that I don’t crave the satisfaction of work accomplished and American efficiency: this is a pleasure you largely have to relinquish in a country where a meeting may be re-scheduled three times before it comes to fruition (due to unforeseen events such as births, deaths, and rain).

The rain here comes as a revelation. The first rain was in mid-June (before that it hadn’t really rained since September) and it felt like the sky was falling. The clouds grew dark and heavy, then opened up in a relentless downpour. You have a new relationship to water after 8 months of drought.

Do we have to give up some community and family ties in order to develop as a capitalist society, valuing the individual, the worker above all else? I’m not sure. My village has very little specialization. Everyone farms, everyone raises animals, everyone builds their own house, everyone engages in the entire food production process. All these are cooperative endeavors and the family members work together on them, divided along gender and age lines. Farming employs everyone and I think there’s a deep satisfaction the family gets from doing this work together.

It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around things here – I rarely have access to the kind of quiet environment I need to sit and process things. Even now, in Bamako, I’m sitting in a volunteer transit house in a room full of chatty Peace Corps volunteers. In Mali, you’re never alone. This has been wonderful for me, but makes it hard to reflect. I know I’ve only conveyed a sliver of my experiences here, but I hope it gives you some idea of what it’s like.

Lastly, I want to announce that we successfully raised $4,234 or 2,258,161 fCFA to provide Koyan’s elementary school with 45 new desks to seat about 135 children. Thank you so much to everyone who supported this project! I can’t wait to tell my village that we can start getting the desks.