Monday, April 23, 2007

Segou, Mali versus Aspen, USA

In my continuing effort to communicate my experience here in Africa, I am going to describe some of the differences between here in Segou, Mali and where I last lived in the states – Aspen, Colorado. You would be hard pressed to find two more opposite places on earth.

I am adjusting - but being that I came from such a different environment, it hasn't always been easy. Aspen and Segou are worlds away and getting from one to the other involves flying almost to the other side of the planet.

For one, Aspen has topography. There are mountains over 14,000 feet high surrounding the nearby valleys. The sun sets hours before it would have without the mountains. In fact, the only time you really get good sunsets is during the summer when the sun sets straight down the valley. Segou, on the other-hand, is completely flat with not even the slightest undulation of terrain detectable to the eye. In essence, you see as far as the curve of the earth lets you. There is the potential for a great sunset every day... well just the potential. Half of the year, the air is so dusty that almost an hour before the sun even reaches the horizon – it has already disappeared in haze. Normally, particles in the air and a clear line of sight to the horizon would make for great sunsets. Only here, the dust is so extreme, it just blocks out the sun entirely. When they happen though, they are great – as you can see from my many pictures.

For technically being in a desert environment, Aspen has a bountiful amount of fauna compared to Segou which, really is in the desert (and yet not in the desert when comparing to other places in Mali farther north). Aspen has forests with a huge range of trees covering the mountains and hillsides. During the fall, the mountains display a beautiful palate of green, yellow, and red with all the shades in-between. Mountain wildflowers cover the hillsides. Aspen also has a wide range of wildlife. There are bears, deer, rabbits, mountain goats, mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, all sorts of rodent type creatures and birds such as chipmunks, squirrels, eagles, hawks, ducks, penguins, polar bears, humpback whales, leprechauns, unicorns, etc. (Ok, every one but the last five). In any case, a lot. Segou on the other hand has just a handful (pun intended)... All I can think of are lizards, rats, toads, scorpions, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, ants, termites, amoebas, schisto-carrying snails, hookworm, and a large assortment of desert birds.

Both places have a 'rainy' season – Aspen technically even has a monsoon season from late June to September. In Segou, the rainy season is similar – from June to late September. The biggest difference is that when it isn't rainy season in Segou, it does not precipitate at all, not a drop of anything that would even liberally be considered falling moisture. Thus, from October until the beginning of June, Segou gradually becomes dryer and dryer and dryer until the point that you start getting full fledged 'dust' storms when the wind blows (that, yes, block out the sun and limit your sunset viewing opportunities). The wind can get especially bad at night. So bad in fact that I've woken up, after sleeping outside, with a full layer of dust covering me from head to toe. It is so thick that you would have thought my skin has turned a reddish-brown color – either that or I hadn't taken a shower in a few months and had been rolling around in the dirt street every day. You might suggest: why don't you sleep inside? Well, it is too hot! The relentless sun turns my cement brick house into an easy bake oven so I have to sleep outside.

This dry season is accompanied by a hot season from late February to June (when it is still pretty dammed hot – just now slightly less so and with rain). I've experienced temperatures I had only read about in books or seen as breaking a century old record on the weather channel for Phoenix, Arizona... no... actually, I don't think it even gets that hot there. Highs here during the hot season can reach up to about 52 degrees Celsius – that's 125.6 degrees Fahrenheit! Luckily, this year, it hasn't gone up quite that high – so far just (yes, just) 45 C or 113 F.

The heat here was the one thing that really concerned me before coming. I felt I would be able to deal with everything else but was afraid how I might react to the heat. Well, I'll have you know, it is fucking hot! I'm dealing with it while I count down the days until the rainy season – when it supposedly starts to cool down at least a little bit. During the days, I drink five to six liters of water. At night, I take a shower right before getting in bed and when I'm done, I just go straight to bed. I'm talking straight to bed – I don't even bring my towel into the bathroom anymore. In lieu of a towel, I bring a sheet into the shower to drape over myself when I do lie down. By about an hour later I'm completely dry – including the sheet – so if, or rather when, I wake up, I go take another shower repeating the whole process again. Last night for instance, I got up and took a shower three times and still had a crappy nights sleep. This all wouldn't be too bad if I could at least take a nap during the day but it is so hot that if I do doze off from exhaustion, I wake up in a pool of sweat. To compensate, I starve myself of sleep during the days, get a few nights in a row of poor sleep – thus, by every third night or so, I am so tired I actually sleep through the night with only having to get up once to take a shower.

I will say that the human body is amazing and can adjust to just about anything. Being that I came from Aspen which exists on the other extreme of the temperature scale, I'd say I'm doing pretty well. Somehow, my body has reached a compromised equilibrium and I'm getting through the hot season – I just can't wait till it's over.

As you might have gathered, Malians have never experienced snow. Sure, they might have seen it in some kung-fu movie but even then they don't really understand what it is and how it feels. Snow is so beyond anything they have ever experienced that they can hardly comprehend the qualities of snow. One might infer that it is cold from the fact that everyone they see in the movies around snow are wearing jackets. Only, Malians wear jackets when it is 70 degrees outside – still wearing wool hats when it is in the upper 80s. So cold isn't really a good way to describe “cold” to a Malian, not at least in the sense that we would be considering. The best I've been able to do is have them picture the ground covered in ice (they never even ask the question if it is slippery since they've never been around enough ice at once to realize that if you walked on it you might slip). As you might imagine, when I tell them I used to teach snowboarding they have a difficult time understanding exactly what I'm talking about. Mali is landlocked so they also don't have a concept of ocean waves let alone surfing as a comparison. They don't have skateboarding since all the roads are dirt. There are no ice rinks to talk about sliding around on. Nor, as I said before, are there any mountains – so telling them I teach people to surf down slippery ice rinks that are tilted just doesn't work. I've shown them pictures of me standing on the top of a mountain with my snowboard but then when they see another with me holding a snowball in my hand they get all confused. They're like, “What?! How are you holding that white disc? And why are you wearing those funny things on your hands?” I've had some good cultural exchanges let me tell you. Still, I don't think I've really been able to communicate fully what it is like to live in a cold environment where it snows. Just like I couldn't really grasp what it would be like living somewhere with 125 degree heat; they can't grasp living in a place where it snows and gets to be 20 degrees below zero.

What I have described so far are just natural environmental factors. I haven't even gotten into the differences regarding wealth or lack there of. Aspen is frequently rated as the most expensive place to live in the United States putting it near the top of the most expensive small community category worldwide. Last time I remember seeing the ratings was almost ten years ago when the average price of a home was 1.5 Million dollars. Since then, prices have only gone up. There are not only many millionaires with homes in Aspen, but there are a few billionaires too. Aspen has countless restaurants where dinners could easily cost over $100-200 a person and still more where you could buy a bottle of wine for over $1,500 or more. Basically there is money everywhere.

Mali's situation is more than just slightly different. Mali ranks 175th out of 177 on the United Nation's Development Index and 102nd out of 102 on the Human Poverty Index. That means Mali is the third poorest country in the world and dead last for having the worst poverty out of developing or under-developed countries. Only two away from the bottom and last. Think about that for a moment and what that means. How many other countries out there would you consider as being “poor?” Quite a few I'm sure and before I ever came here, how many of you had even heard of Mali let alone could have found it on a map? I had heard of it and would have been able to place it in West Africa, but certainty didn't know anything about it – only after I received my assignment to come here did I realize the famed city of Timbuktu was located here.

Ok, so Mali is poor. What does that mean exactly? How is it that they are rated so low on the UN's Development Index? I took a look at the numbers from the UN DI and HPI on Wikipedia as well as a few from the CIA’s Factbook.

Mali’s GDP per capita is only $998 – less that $1,000 a year. If you do the math, that comes out to $2.73 a day. Adjusted for the wealthy, 72% of Malians earn less than $1 a day.

The average life expectancy is only 48 years old. If I was an average Malian (which I couldn't possibly be just from the fact I've gone to university), I would be over half way through my life right now. Malians have a 37.3 % chance of not surviving past the age of 40.

The infant mortality rate is 11% before they’re one year old and 24% die by the age of five – one if four. To compensate for the high death rate, Malian women on average have over 7 children – that is the second highest fertility rate in the world. This creates a slew of problems I’m not going to get into.

70% of Mali's economy is based on agriculture but 65% of the land is classified as desert or semi-desert leaving only 3.76% as arable land – less than 4% can be farmed. This confines much of the economic activity to the limited area irrigated by the Niger River. For that economy, 81% are illiterate (over 15 years old and unable to read and write) leaving them economically handicapped in the society. This is not helped with Mali’s Gross Enrollment Ratio being only 35% - this means only 35% of people who should be in school are actually in school (including primary, secondary, and tertiary).

The government is so low on resources that over 78% of the national budget comes from foreign aid and grants. This has left Mali incredibly indebted to foreign governments – Mali currently spends more money on interest payments than it does on heath and education combined.

That is just a very brief synopsis of the statistics, but any way you look at it, Mali is poor and quite a world apart from Aspen. I was going to write more but I’ve got to go. Until next time! Oh, and I just added a few things to the sidebar of my webpage so check it out!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Film festival in Segou

I am currently assisting Malians in the very initial stages of creating a film festival here in Segou, Mali. Essentially, the mission of the festival will be to provide an opportunity for Africans to watch films either made by African film-makers or on subject matter related to Africans. While attending the Festival sur le Niger in Segou, this past February, it occurred to me what a great venue Segou could be for a film festival. I decided to pursue the idea further and recently went to the biggest film festival in Africa, FESPACO, in Ouagadougou, Burkina-Faso to do some research and talk to film industry professionals. The overall response was very positive, and I was able to make many useful contacts. Preliminary research, talking with local Malians and brainstorming with film industry professionals has reinforced my initial idea that Segou is an ideal candidate to host a successful film festival.

The premise to the festival would be thus: Africans rarely have the opportunity go to the cinema because they are often living in poverty and do not have the disposable income to go to the movies – let alone afford basic health care, education, etc. The primary goal of starting a film festival in Segou would be to provide locals the opportunity to watch films, especially films made by Africans or depicting African-related themes. After the festival is established, a longer-term goal would be to create educational opportunities for Africans to make short films (often a jumping-off point to a film career). Eventually, the festival would expand to start screening films one night a week throughout part of the year (e.g. Sunday nights from November to February) further broadening the local community's access to films. All of this would be aimed at promoting cinema as an art form and method of confronting social issues in Africa.

The site for Segou's already well established Festival sur le Niger would serve as the film festival's main venue – thus, the films would be screened on a floating barge while people sit on the edge of the river to watch. Segou's two other movie theaters would be used to further expand the festival's reach and screen more films.

I am currently seeking suggestions on how I might go about getting this off the ground, people I should talk to, organizations I should contact, things I should do/think about, etc. African Cinema is on the springboard to worldwide popularity, and the recent Hollywood releases of Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland have only furthered interest in African issues. The film Les Fespakistes by Francois Kotlarski and Eric Munch, filmed at FESPACO from 1999-2001, profiles all the film-makers who were there during those years with their films. In this film, they depict the extreme challenges of African film-makers in creating and financing films. It explores the struggles African Cinema faces – few can afford to go to movies, and many of the theaters have closed resulting in a limited venue for the African market. And this market - the African people - is what the films are intended for. Essentially these are the issues the Segou festival would aim at addressing.

Most festivals offer some sort of financial prize to the winner(s). Initially, this would be difficult for the festival in Segou to offer. I propose forming a partnership with a well-established film festival where the winning film(s) could be screened as the grand prize. This would offer exposure to the winning film(s) and provide publicity for both the Segou festival and the partner festival. Ideally, the partner festival could additionally provide some logistical and educational support.

I am currently working with the Ministry of Tourism and hopefully will be working with the Ministry of Culture to start this project. My counterpart, the regional director of OMATHO, is very excited to explore this idea and really thinks it could happen. The two initial challenges we have identified will be finding funding and finding Malians to take ownership of running the festival. I do not consider myself a film expert by any means, but truly feel this festival idea could become something great.

I gladly welcome any ideas, suggestions, or questions you have that could help this project attain its full potential.

Where I've Been...