Saturday, March 22, 2008

The New Year

Finally, New Years capped what seemed to be a marathon of holidays starting with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – sure, they’re spread out over two months but they strung together like a never-ending procession of fêtes. While each one is individually fun and a great opportunity to catch up with distant volunteers, they also tend to be cumulatively draining with a sense of relief accompanying their termination. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with other volunteers and celebrating our holidays but being that I’m placed in the regional capital, the “celebrations” tend to drag on to the entire week (or longer) in which they occur and make it hard for me to step back into my work and life in Segou with Malians. This is not to say that once these festivities finished I was able to do this but…

So – New Years: various regions tend to compete for hosting the various holidays and Segou staked its claim on the 31st of December. PCVs came from as far away as Gao, Kayes, Sikasso, and Nara covering just about every corner and distance possible to convene on the centrally located city of Segou. In addition to New Years, it doubled as a sort of house warming party for Kathy’s new house on the edge of the Niger. I will spare you the details but all told, there were copious amounts of dancing, slim doses of sleep and lots merriment had all around.

Of course, my claimed ability to jump back into work and life with Malians after all the holidays would have wait a bit longer – my family arrived on the 6th of January. The preceding months had seen many calls and emails back and forth with my family – ironing out as many details as is possible to a West African country, which is a scant few. With their visit coinciding with the final preparations and lead up to Segou’s biggest tourism event of the year – The Festival sur le Niger at the beginning of February – I had also been working hard to allow myself to step out of the fold of things while traveling with my family.

I’ll leaving you hanging here and write you a full account of their trip for the next post. Y’all come back now ya hear!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Video from mass

Sorry, couldn't get this to load on the last post...

Long overdue Christmas post

For Christmas, another volunteer from the Segou region invited a bunch of us to her village – a small uniquely Christian village in a sea of Islam. She stayed there for Christmas last year and had a wonderful time so thought it’d be nice if 10 toubabs decided to show up.

To get there however, Kathy and I decided we would take the opportunity to visit another volunteer along the way – Emily. We’re always saying we’re going to go out and visit their sites and genuinely want to but for one reason or another don’t get around to doing it. The plan turned into biking out to see Emily and then from there onto Christy’s village. On the face of it, it seemed pretty straightforward and simple but in reality and practice not so.

We embarked on December 23rd from Segou early in the morning with our bags bungeed to our bikes, plenty of water and just plain happy to finally be getting out to see a friend’s village. The trip started out simple enough just heading south on a fairly leveled dirt road; there was no traffic to navigate – indeed, we only past two motorcycles the entire 45km/28miles (not including the various donkey carts and a few other bicyclers).

While cruising along over the gradually undulating road, about half way there, I managed to kick a rock with my right foot – only problem is it was a pretty big rock. You wouldn’t know it by looking at it, kind of like an iceberg in the sea: most of its mass concealed beneath the road. The rock did not budge so much as a millimeter and my toes suffered as a result. Kathy and Emily pulled over with out me having to explicitly ask – the loud crack and resulting scream told them enough. After sopping up the blood, trimming some excess skin, cleaning out all the dirt and gravel and taping up my three leftmost toes – the shade of a nearby tree was calling – not too mention my throbbing foot – and we decided this was a perfect time for a rest (pictured). Needless to say, I took it easy the rest of the way. Just as the heat was almost becoming too unbearable and the punishing headwind was threatening to blow us backwards, we pulled in to Saminé a little after 1pm.
After some deserved lunch, showers and naps (me in the hammock :-) we strolled around Saminé visiting Emily’s homologue (counterpart), host family, etc. spending time at each to have tea and chat. Emily’s house was in the center of town (pop ~1500?) with a small concession, a nice little garden, and plenty of trees for shade - altogether making for a pleasant little house. We did a little bike maintenance (pictured), found a perfectly sized watermelon and yet again relaxed a bit before having dinner with Emily’s homologue. After a lively discussion about constellations, shooting stars and other celestial topics, we called it an early night and went off to bed for our 7am start tomorrow.

Not knowing exactly how far or precisely the route from Saminé to Bla, our next destination we set off. About 4 km later, we arrived at the Bani River and found a fisherman to ferry us across. Being that the river is so low (it hasn’t rained since October), the boat couldn’t come directly up to the shore – leaving me little choice but to hitch a piggyback ride with Emily to avoid having to redress my toes (pictured). We paid the fisherman 250 CFA each (about 50 cents) and continued towards our destination. We learned from two other Malians that joined us across that Bla was about 55km/34miles from Saminé over some very sandy tracks (and through what was pretty much the middle of no-where but in Mali that is assumed).

They lead us through the winding trails to their destination and pointed us in the direction we needed to go. We passed the odd Malian here and there – each thoroughly surprised to see someone biking past let alone a white person. Shortly after leaving the river, the grueling headwind returned – add the deep sandy path and you get a very tiring bike ride. Completely spent, we finally pulled into Bla around 3pm and promptly ordered some cold sodas and lunch before finishing the 8km/5miles or so to Kamona, Christy’s village.

The three of us made 10 toubabs – likely the most ever to visit Kamona. We caught up on various happenings with the other volunteers and enjoyed the novel opportunity to have pork for dinner. After distributing some candy canes and other various baked Christmas goodness sent over from home, we got dressed up and went to midnight mass. (Kathy took the video above the following morning.) One of the main reasons we came was for the huge dance party after midnight mass but after biking about 108km/67 miles – bed and sleep were calling. Good thing I had earplugs (not that I really need them – I was so tired) but getting up to go to the bathroom around 4am, the music, easily heard throughout the village, was still blaring.

Christmas day, we were treated to improvised French Toast and even some maple syrup (although it was from Vermont…). We went around and choose our white elephant gifts – me of course ending up with the maple syrup. Around what I think was about 10am we dragged ourselves to mass. Shortly after it started, ten toubabs, funnily dressed in Malian clothing, made their way to the front of the church… somehow we’d volunteered to sing some Christmas carols?! It was a thoroughly embarrassing affair.

The rest of the day was spent lounging about, eating more pork and attempting to find cell service in the field behind Christy’s house on what seemed to be a continuously moving 1 square foot of coverage. We roasted some marshmallows around a campfire and reflected what was for most of us, a second holiday season away from home.
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Photo album from Dogon trip #2

Dogon Country - Chris's village

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dogon visit #2 last December... (I know it was a while ago...)

Wow… so it has been over three months now since an update. Sorry about that – I feel like I am always saying something about how long it’s been when I write a post... Anyhow, here goes.

Overall life has been good and in fact, now that I’m reflecting on the time since I last wrote, I’ve stakeholders in the area for a three day meeting to set individual, sector/organizational, and universal goals relating to tourism in Dogon Country. Everyone there was a Director, President, Owner, Founder, Chief, or Mayor of this or that – essentially all the big wigs which is something that has never happened… ever. It was great to participate and see everything come together (being that Peace Corps is one of the stakeholders, under International NGOs – i.e. World Ban actually done a fair few things. Back in the middle of December (I know, I know – December!) I was invited to forum in Dogon Country near Mopti put on by the GSTA (Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance). They were kicking off a five year + project bringing together all thek, US Forest Service, etc.).

It also was an opportunity to meet and hang out with some of the new volunteers (or at least they were new back then, hardly so anymore). I got along well with the Anthony, artisan volunteer in Mopti-ville, and Chris, natural resource management volunteer in Dogon; afterwards, we all decided to take a little trip out to Chris’s site. His village is right on the edge of the cliffs… his house has a view out over the lower plains! Beautiful. I’m quite jealous. (I’m writing this off-line now, but I think I put up some photos a while back from that little excursion. If not, I will get some up shortly – just check out my photo albums.)

When I envisioned my Peace Corps experience, I originally thought I would be placed in a small village like his (maybe 500 people) where I could really become part of the community – not in a 100,000+ regional capital where I’m just another toubab (white person). Sure, he doesn’t have electricity or running water and has a hole in the ground for a bathroom but when else do you have the chance to live like that for two years?

Quick story – “Dogon Country” was the first thing I ever heard about Mali. As some of you might remember, the spring before I came over here I went travelling around Central America, which is where I was when I found out exactly where I was going for the Peace Corps. This was a big deal. The way the application process works with Peace Corps, you don’t find out where you’re going until way into the applications process. I can only compare it to applying to college but with the twist of having applied to over a hundred schools and having the decision made for you… just waiting for that one envelope in the mail, oh and for me this ‘process’ took almost 2 years!

I was in Antigua, Guatemala right after Semana Santa (the holy week around Easter – almost 2 years ago! Wow.) I’d just found out (the letter was mailed home and my mum emailed me the response) and was out with some friends celebrating. I ran into a former PC volunteer from Benin and when I told her where I was going she got so excited! She started raving about this place called Dogon Country in Mali and how wonderful the people there are and how incredibly beautiful the landscape is – I think she said she’d been there at least 3 times, which now that I’m here is quite a feat considering how far away Benin is from Mali.

I had done a small report on Chad way back in 5th grade so had an idea where Mali was in West Africa but other than that, I was totally in the dark. Now all I knew was relatively where it was and that there was this mysterious place called Dogon Country there. I was hooked – I was determined to be placed in Dogon Country and do my service there. Unfortunately, due to realities on the ground, my qualifications and past experiences, they had a more suitable site for me in Segou… but I still have that enigmatic notion of Dogon Country in my head and have taken every opportunity to go there (3 times so far).

Anyhow, while at Chris’s site we walked around enduring endless greetings with his villagers and explored some of the surrounding cliffs – even stumbled upon some ancient gravesites in the cliffs that no westerner has probably ever discovered. I plan to go back and visit Chris this June or July and spend a week or so walking from his village north along the fallaise seeing how far we can get. For now though, we are planning a trip to escape the hot season that is just revving up here in Mali – overland down to Guinea and into Sierra Leone. More details to come so stay tuned.

Where I've Been...