Celebrating Thanksgiving in Mali

You may remember reading my post last year after I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with the U.S. Ambassador to Mali, Gillian Milovanovic.  Although my experience this year was far less Westernized, it was certainly a Thanksgiving celebration to remember.

I, along with about 75 other Peace Corps Volunteers, traveled to Sikasso, a city in southern Mali, to celebrate together.  The volunteers in the Sikasso region did a fantastic job planning a “home-cooked” meal for us on Turkey Day.  We stuffed ourselves with many of the traditional dishes (Mali-style) including turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, and pie.  One of the highlights of the day was teaching several lingering Malian children how to say “Happy Thanksgiving.”  I would say, “Aw be mun fo bi?” or “what do you say today?” and they would say something that sounded like, “Pappy Fanksgibing!”  It was cute.

On Friday we sat by the pool at a local hotel and dinned on Mali-style soft tacos.  Saturday, we headed to a village about one hour from Sikasso called Woroni and camped out by the waterfalls.

Although it was not as wonderful as spending time back in Kentucky with my friends and family, sharing this holiday weekend with my Peace Corps family was a treat.

You can see photos from camping at the waterfalls here.


International Volunteer Day

“International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development is a chance for individual volunteers, communities and organizations to promote their contributions to development at the local, national and international levels. By combining UN support with a grassroots mandate, International Volunteer Day is a unique opportunity for people and volunteer-involving organizations to work with government agencies, non-profit institutions, community groups, academia and the private sector.”

-The United Nations

International Volunteer Day was celebrated throughout the world on Monday, December 5, and Peace Corps Mali took part in the festivities that were arranged in Bamako to celebrate the day.

This year’s International Volunteer Day was particularly special for Mali, as it inducted its first group of volunteers into a newly-developed volunteering program which will send Malians to villages in the Koulikoro, Sikasso and Kayes regions of the country.

To kick off the day, a swearing-in ceremony for these Malian volunteers took place at the convention center in Bamako and I, along with several other Peace Corps volunteers and staff, attended the event.

During the swearing-in ceremony, several volunteers representing some of the international volunteer groups gave a short speech about their experiences in Mali and discussed the importance of volunteerism.  A Returned Peace Corps volunteer (RPVC), who is now back in Mali serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer spoke on behalf of Peace Corps Mali and wowed the crowd with her excellent Bambara skills.  In her remarks, she talked about her experience serving in a small town in the Segou region. 

While she spoke it became clearer to me why Peace Corps has such a good reputation in Mali.  Of all the speakers, she was the only one to address the crowd in the local language.  Her stories of service showed that she had respected the community in which she was living, while also pushing the envelope.  Sitting in the audience while she was speaking, I felt a sense of pride – I felt honored to be representing Peace Corps and its development philosophy.

Despite my great respect for Peace Corps and what we as volunteers accomplish in our communities, I think this new volunteering program presents a unique opportunity for Mali. 

Note: I am not sure of the specifics of the program and, frankly, the Malian government might also still be determining the details, but it seems that the program will be very similar to that of AmeriCorps and will call on Malians to serve their country for an extended period of time.

Unlike Peace Corps volunteers and other foreign volunteers, Malians who volunteer in Malian communities will be able to integrate within weeks, as they will not encounter the cultural and language barriers that we all do.  It also seems that the advice and trainings provided to communities by the Malian volunteers may be more easily received, as the information will be exchanged between two Malians, rather than coming from a Westerner.

It was exciting to see this group of young Malians pledge their time and talents to help make Mali a better place.  I have noticed that the concept of volunteerism, as we in the west have defined it, is not often found in Mali.  This is likely due to several key differences in our culture and the realities of our societies. 

For example, the culture of Mali is very communal in nature.  Although it isn’t called volunteerism, Malians – especially those in small villages – help one another with daily tasks, lend each other food and shelter and share resources amongst themselves on a regular basis.  Secondly, wealthy Malians usually don’t have a responsibility to give back to their communities in the way we expect our wealthy to, because they are likely supporting a very large, extended family with the money they have earned.  Lastly, Mali is a country that is flooded with volunteers, NGOs and government programs and these more formal volunteerism programs often have the face of a foreigner.  Without examples of their neighbors serving in unpaid, volunteer roles, it is hard for many Malians to imagine themselves doing so.

After the ceremony, I joined a group of other PCVs at our booth to answer questions and hand out information about our work.  When the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré (A.T.T.), made the rounds, I was there to give him our annual report and a Peace Corps lapel pin – which he put on right after we gave to him!

Later in the afternoon, all of the volunteer organizations gathered together for a football match.  My team consisted of Malian volunteers, UN volunteers, British volunteers and Japanese volunteers.  I played soccer on a grass field for the first time in Mali (I usually just have to make do with dirt and sand), and my team was victorious in a shoot-out!  

Ultimately, the day was a fantastic celebration of volunteerism.  You can check out pictures from the day here.

Si Feereke (Selling Shea)

My women’s association held their regular monthly meeting on November 23 with the intent of making some critical decisions about the sales strategy for their butter, which has already been produced, and the soap that they intend to make in the coming months.

The first success of this meeting was that it started only 20 minutes after the scheduled start time!  I’ve discovered that telling them the meeting starts “sogoma da fe” or “in the morning,” rather than assigning a start time of 10 am, gets them to the meeting right around 10 am.  It’s amazing how something so small can make such a big difference!

As I mentioned in a previous post, there were three batches of shea butter in the end – one, which was made on October 6 with the full group, one which was made on October 6 by the group that went rogue, and one which was produced on October 13.  It turns out that having these three separate batches actually worked in our favor, as the quality of the three batches was not consistent. 

In making shea butter, combining differing qualities of butter brings down the overall quality of the batch.  So, if the rogue group had combined their butter with the other batch that was made on October 6, we would have had a lot of mediocre-quality butter, rather than one excellent batch and one batch of poor quality.

I saw the situation that we found ourselves in as an excellent teaching moment.  At the meeting, I had about a kilo of butter from each of the three batches.  Without attaching names to the batches, I sent each around for the women to look at, smell and taste.  It was very clear to them that these three batches were of different quality.  Then, I posed the question, “Nin si tulu, bee kelen ye wa?” or “Is all of this butter the same?”  The question was met with a resounding “ayi” or “no.”

The next question that I asked of them was, “Ni aw taara sugu la, aw be nin si tulu san songo kelen wa?” or “If you went to market, would you buy these for the same price?”  Again, a unanimous “ayi.”

Our next step was to talk to each group to see what they had done to make the different qualities of shea butter.  I revealed the names of the villages whose women had produced each batch of butter and let them take the floor.  It was quickly discovered that the group with the best butter had, in fact, done everything correctly – good nuts equal good butter.

Through this exercise, the problems of the other groups were easy to identify.  One group’s nuts were not dry enough because they were leaving them out during rains, rather than bringing them in to stay dry.  The women talked through the issues themselves, and drew on their experiences from the technical exchange in June to support their ideas and give examples.  Seeing this constructive feedback happen within the organization gave me great hope for the future.  If the women understand these concepts, they can continue their work seamlessly with or without me.  This is a small, but very important victory.

After the quality control discussion concluded, and everyone pledged to follow all of the steps in the coming year, to ensure uniform quality across the organization, we moved on to a discussion of pricing.  This is what they came up with:

  • Because shea butter soap can be made with butter of lesser quality, we decided that the third- quality butter should be used to make soap. 
  • It was decided that the second-quality butter would be sold by the kilo in small plastic bags for 1,250 CFA (about $2.50). 
  • The first-rate butter, which is of impeccable quality, will be saved until early 2012 to be packaged in plastic tubs and sold for 1,500 CFA – 2,000 CFA depending on the price of the packaging. 

A good friend of mine from college is currently working on developing a logo and packaging for the products, which can be printed in Mali and used for years to come to give the “Si Teriw” products a professional look (thanks, Heather!).

We wrapped up the meeting with tea and bread, as usual, and scheduled our next meeting, which will take place Thursday, Dec. 15.  At this meeting we will be weighing and packaging shea butter in plastic bags for sale.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the sales go, as it appears that the women will likely at least double their profits from last year.  I have a feeling 2012 is going to be a great year for Si Teriw!  More to come…

On Women in Mali

It’s worth noting that I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time, but have always put it off in order to further assess my ideas, challenge my assumptions and give Mali another shot at proving me wrong.

But, a recent issue of Newsweek that was sent in a care package (thanks, Lizzie!) has given me reason to write now.  The issue, dated September 26, 2011, bears the title “Where Women are Winning – The Best and Worst Countries for Women.”

While skimming the table of contents, I noticed that Newsweek pulled together a global women’s progress report for this issue, and I instantly wondered where two countries fell in the rankings – the United States and Mali.  My assumption was that the United States would be in the top ten, but not in the top five (we’ve come along way, but certainly have room to improve) and that Mali would fall somewhere in the bottom ten.  Upon flipping to the report – on page 26, for those who have access to the magazine – I saw that my assumptions were correct.

On the page titled, “The Best Places to be a Woman,” the United States was ranked number 8, with an overall score of 89.8 on a scale of 100.  This score was determined by assessing the country in the areas of justice, health, education, economics, and politics.  The comment given was, “compared with Europe, the U.S. has poor family-leave policies and reproductive health services. But in school, girls are soaring.”

Turning to the page titled, “The Worst Places to be a Woman,” I was saddened, but not surprised that Mali was ranked the 5th worst place in the world to be a woman, with an overall score of 17.6 – in the company of Afghanistan, Chad, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo in the bottom five.  The comment read, “The majority of women have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM); there is no pending legislation to ban the practice.”

Although the comment about FGM is true and incredibly disturbing (more to come on this in a bit), I find the individual scores for each area incredibly interesting and worth discussing.

Among the bottom ten, Mali ranks higher than only one country in the area of education (25.8), and that country is Chad, which received a score of “0.”  Could education be the key to improving the status of women in Mali?  After living here for more than a year, I would say improved education among both boys and girls would be an excellent place to start.

In politics, Mali has the highest score (49.8) amongst the bottom 10, likely due to the number of women in political office here and the appointment of a female prime minister within the last year.  This shows us that the status of women is not totally dependent on the number of women holding political positions.  Progressive men and women alike must be in power to ensure gender equality in policymaking, and these policies must then be enforced to create lasting change.

In health, Mali received a score of less than 30, compared to the U.S., which received a score of 92.8 for this category.  Certainly a woman’s health has a direct effect on her ability to succeed.  On a daily basis, I see women who are unable to go to the doctor due to the cost, I meet pregnant women who aren’t going to prenatal consultations, and I watch sub-par health care being provided to women and girls at the local health clinic.  Without health, how can women – or anyone, for that matter – thrive?

I see this report as an interesting assessment of progress across the globe, and I encourage you to check it out, along with similar reports produced by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank.

But I’m assuming you are reading this blog for insights from someone living and working in the field, rather than a regurgitation of facts and figures.

So, you’re probably wondering, what is life like for a Malian woman?

I hate to disappoint, but I don’t know. And I never will know, because I, just like you, am not and never will be a Malian woman. I can’t tell you how she feels to live her entire life in a society where women are seen as unequal to men.  I can’t tell you what it’s like for her to be told that school is no longer an option, because a man with three other wives has claimed her as his fourth.  I can’t tell you how she feels about her life experience, having no access to information that would suggest a life lived in any other way.

The perspective that I can provide, is that of a western woman who is thankful everyday that I was born in the 8th best place for a woman to live, rather than the 5th worst place for a woman to live.

According to my worldview and the experience I’ve had here, Newsweek is right – Mali is one of the worst places for women to live. The education of girls isn’t valued and, in the classroom, girls are out numbered 5, 10 or even 20 to 1. Young girls are subjected to the brutal cultural practice of female genital mutilation for fear that they might otherwise be promiscuous.  Women have little to no say in the selection of their husbands, and often find themselves joining one or more other wives in their new home.  On average, women here have 7 children, and often start their families in their teenage years.  Due to cultural norms, women carry out labor-intensive household chores from dawn to dusk (and usually before and after) with little or no help from their husbands.  Take a deep breath…

Against all of my will, I’ve accepted the fact that this is the reality and in two years of service I won’t be able to change the fabric of Malian society.  What I haven’t accepted, is that this must always be the reality and that change isn’t possible.  As they say here, “dooni, dooni” or little by little.

Recently a trainee in the new group of volunteers asked what experience we had with FGM and how we went about working to change this practice in our villages.  My response was that although I have very strong opinions about the practice, I only feel comfortable talking about it when asked directly.  I told her that there are campaigns being run by international NGOs and local Malian organizations which have the tools, language skills and resources needed to push this movement, but that even with all of these resources and all of this education, the practice is driven by the elder members of the community and my opinion on the matter will likely not change their strong beliefs.  They know that westerners don’t do it, and that we disagree with the practice. As far as I can tell, they also have no intention of changing their tradition to make “us” happy.

Her response was, “But aren’t we supposed to be agents of change?”  And, yes, we are, but a sea change of this scale cannot be carried out during any volunteer’s two years of service in Peace Corps.  This change comes from years of pushing both from outside the country, as well as from within its borders.

Take, for example, the women’s rights movement in the United States – women in the late 1800s decided that we deserved the right to vote, and the struggle for true gender equality continues today.  For more than 100 years, we have been taking small steps to improve the lives of women and to improve our society as a whole.  If small steps are being taken here in Mali now, the road ahead will certainly not be short and easy.

So what is our role, as agents of change, in this slow process?

My advice to this trainee was to seek out the people in her community that want to be local advocates for progress and plant in them seeds of change.  As members of the community who are seen as neighbors, rather than strangers, they have the ability to foster and grow the ideas and replant them in others, both during our two years of service and for many more to come.

My personal strategy has been to identify people that are willing to have an intimate, respectful dialogue rather than throwing around these conversations with community members who are unfaltering, illogical and unwilling to change.  I’ve found that conversations with these stubborn individuals prove to be incredibly frustrating and degrading, and do nothing but further separate me from my community.

Ultimately, I hope that my living here provides women, men, girls and boys an opportunity to discuss differences and talk about ways in which they can initiate change here. I hope that men and women in Mali and throughout the world come to the realization that gender equality is good for societies as a whole and that no country can reach its full potential while leaving behind half of the population.  I hope that Malians notice that the places where women have rights, access to good health care and a quality education, and a roll in political life, are places where the economy is growing, the populations are thriving and life is better for men and women, alike.  I hope that my work with my women’s association will provide the women of the group with income that is theirs to keep and will provide them with even a small bit of economic power in their homes.

My goal here is not to try and completely change the society in two years, but to push the envelope and empower the people who will be here for years after I leave.  The men and women that are pushing for progress across Mali are fighting a tough battle, and they need encouragement and reassurance that their work is worth it.  This is their country and only they have the ability to make long-lasting, meaningful change.

So, I must say “Bravo” to Newsweek for dedicating a full issue to women’s progress, or lack there of, in the world.  Seeing the issue pushed me to write about this topic, which permeates my everyday life in Mali.  I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, as well.  Feel free to leave a post here and, when I’m within reach of the Internet, I’ll be sure to follow-up.

Seli Ba

This year’s Tabaski, Seli Ba, Eid al-Adha (take your pick of names for this very important holiday!) was a really enjoyable few days.  You may remember my post from last year, which explained the meaning behind this holiday, but if not, the BBC Web site provides a good explanation of the religious significance of this feast which is the, “festival (which) remembers the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son when God ordered him to.”

There were several key differences between this year’s Seli Ba last year’s.

First and most exciting, was that this year I could concession-hop on my own, because I have friends here!  It’s a really good thing that the holiday stretches over three days, because there weren’t enough hours in just one day to visit everyone I wanted to visit.

Secondly, when I went to visit with friends, I was able to carry on conversations with all of them.  Always-improving language skills have proven to be my most valuable tool for success here, both socially and professionally.

Lastly, my list of blessings nearly doubled in size this year.  The Malians truly can’t get enough of blessings and they love it when I know them (and when I go freestyle, too).

Although there were differences, many things also remained just the same as last year. Three rams were sacrificed at my host family’s concession and a copious amount of meat was consumed.  My sugar intake, via shots and shots of tea during the three days, rivaled that of a five year-old let loose on his Halloween candy stash.  The kids rocked their fresh new clothes and hit up houses with a shower of blessings in return for small change and candy.  The women of the village worked from sun up to sundown to prepare the best food they know how and the men sat around with nothing to do but drink tea.  I pulled out my trusty Malian dress outfit and made my rounds, greeting and blessing as many people along the way as possible.

It is all of these things that I will miss next year when I’m back in the States.  Perhaps I’ll be able to track down some Malians to celebrate with, or will be able to convince a group of returned Peace Corps Mali volunteers to partake in a celebration for old time’s sake.  One thing I know for sure, this time next year, I’ll be flipping through the photos in my Seli Ba 2011 folder and reminiscing about the biggest fete of the year in Mali.  Check out my pictures here.

The New Trainees are Here!

A new group of trainees arrived in Mali on October 30 and I, along with the other PCV trainers, greeted them at the Peace Corps training center fresh off the plane.  Unlike my training group, which arrived in the wee hours of the morning, this group of trainees arrived at the training center via the crowded, vibrant streets of Bamako in the mid-afternoon.  As they stepped off the buses, you could see a variety of emotions in their faces – excitement, exhaustion, anxiety – which were accompanied by silent profanities and cries of exhilaration and despair.

After a quick briefing on training center logistics and a latrine usage demonstration (ha, ha!), the trainees enjoyed their first, “I don’t think we’re in America anymore,” meal at the center and headed to their huts to sleep off a 24-hour travel-induced hangover.

I certainly don’t envy the trainees, as I remember pre-service training (PST) being both exhausting and challenging.  The goal for the trainees during these first two months in country is to learn as much as possible in a very short amount of time.  I remember sitting in language class during PST thinking I was totally catching on, just to go back to my homestay family and not understand a word that was being said.  I remember having so many questions about culture and norms and getting answers that led me to even more questions.  I remember so many of my assumptions I had about Mali and Peace Corps service being challenged during PST. I remember PST feeling like an eternity.

But despite all of these memories, I have found myself being nostalgic watching the trainees and listening to their words of enthusiasm and concern.  Perhaps it’s because I now feel like I’m on the fast track to the end of my service and wish I could have more time.  Or maybe it’s because I remember how exciting it was to be learning so many new things during that time.  I also think that I crave their sense of optimism and naïveté – more than a year of service certainly wears on a volunteer’s spirit.

More than anything though, I think I’m just excited for them – that they, too, will get to experience Peace Corps volunteer service (with all its delights and irritations).  It’s awesome that they will get to learn in the same way I’ve learned and live in the same crazy way that I’ve lived.  They are at the beginning of an incredible journey and it’s invigorating to be there with them. I’m looking forward to helping them during PST and celebrating their accomplishments with them before I leave Mali.

I’m splitting this PCV trainer role with another volunteer from my group, so I will be spending most of my time with the trainees in December, during the second half of their program.  Until then, I’ll be at site, working with my women’s association, visiting the health center and, without doubt, drinking lots of tea.  I’ll keep you posted on the trainee’s progress and highlight any moments I find particularly interesting, insightful or just plain funny.

“Si Teriw” Shea Butter Production 2011

“Si waati sera” (Shea time has arrived)!

This year, the women in my shea butter association decided to split the production between a couple of days rather than trying to make it all at once – a process which proved to be exhausting last year. At the September meeting of the association, after a short break for planting season and Ramadan, the women set two dates for production – October 6 and October 13.  The villages were split between the two days and the arrangements were made regarding time, location, food preparation and “si gosilaw” (shea butter beaters).

I arrived at the first location on October 6 around 9 am and was excited to see that the women had already begun the time-consuming, labor-intensive work of processing the shea butter.

In reality, their work started much earlier than the morning of October 6.  The transformation process started several months ago, with the women walking through the fields in the early morning hours to search for fallen shea fruit.  After collecting the shea fruit, the women then removed the meat of the fruit to expose a nut.  This nut was then boiled to ensure the kernel inside the nut will produce the best quality shea butter.  After the nuts were boiled and dried, the shells were cracked, leaving only the shea kernel, which was dried extremely well, pounded into a powder, and made into a paste by a machine.  This all happened before the women arrived at the “Si baara yoro” or shea work place. Because good nuts make good butter, this time-consuming process is vital to making a quality product.  Through several workshops and a couple of years of practice, the women of “Si Teriw” have adopted these techniques and I was proud to see that they showed up with eight large buckets of high quality shea kernels collectively.

Upon my arrival at the processing location (a small open space situated between rows of millet, under the shade of a large shea tree) the women were adding water to the shea kernel paste and letting it “sunogo” or sleep.  After sitting for a bit, the by-hand beating started, and I was again in awe of the incredible strength and endurance of Malian women!  You can see all of this in photos here.  I even took a crack at the butter beating, but my 2 minute stint was put to shame by the women of the group who can easily be bent over a bucket of separating shea butter for more than an hour.

After a full day of work, with breaks taken only for lunch, praying and tea, the women were left with excellent liquid shea oil that would cool over night and present itself as first-rate shea butter the following day.  I was so proud of the women for their hard work in collecting shea nuts, the attention they paid to the painstaking process of boiling and drying the nuts, and the intense physical labor they endured to complete the shea butter transformation.  At the end of the day, I gave them a little pep talk, with the help of my language tutor (!), to let them know how excited I was about their progress and how I knew they would continue to succeed for years to come, “Ni Allah sonna ma,” or “if God wills it.”

Although I was incredibly excited and impressed with the women of the association, no good Peace Corps story comes without a “but.”  While this production was going on in village, another group of women from the association decided to “go rogue” and produce their shea butter without the help of others from the association.  I believe the main reason they decided to make butter on their own terms was that they felt left out of the decision-making process, because they didn’t attend the meeting when the dates were set and they weren’t informed of the decision within a timeframe that they felt was appropriate.  My question to them was, “Why didn’t you just ask someone what you missed at the meeting?  If you miss a meeting, it is your responsibility to follow-up and see what you missed, right?”  Although I could tell this argument made sense to them, they chose to be stubborn and go it alone.  Luckily, we were able to talk through the situation with all of the involved parties and it appears that it will all work out in the end.  This situation demonstrates that stubbornness is truly human flaw that wreaks its havoc the world over…

The second official round of shea production took place on October 13, and its success certainly rivaled the first production day.

Now that all of the shea butter has been produced, it appears the women nearly doubled their production numbers from last year.  They are planning to sell the butter at local market after the height of the shea butter season in order to realize a greater profit.  At our next meeting, on November 17, we will be discussing a shea butter sales strategy, setting the prices for varying levels of quality, and developing a soap making schedule for the coming months.

It is hard to believe that this is my last shea season with the women of “Si Teriw.”  Next year, I will only be in-country for the collection portion of the process.  But based on the progress the women have made as an association and their dedication to making and selling high-quality shea butter and soap, I foresee great successes for them next year and for years to come, ni Allah sonna ma.