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.