Posted by: kristinej | May 28, 2013

Arrival

I arrived safely in Accra on Saturday and was met at the airport by a taxi driver who took me to get cash and a phone and brought me to the apartment where I’ll be staying when I’m in Accra. Monday was a holiday (African Unity Day) so today is my first day in the office. I’ll post more today or tomorrow!

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Posted by: kristinej | May 22, 2013

May 22nd, 2013

A lot has changed since my last blog post almost three years ago.  After recovering from my adventuresin Mali, I moved to Washington, DC, where I spent two and a half years working with the international development firm Social Impact.  I conducted project evaluations, traveled to Liberia for a short trip, and booked lots and lots of flights for other people.  This past fall I started my Masters in International Development Policy at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, and this summer internship in Ghana is the fulfillment of a program requirement.  You can read more about the work I’ll be doing in the “About Kristine” section.

I also followed the news from Mali closely as a coup occurred and the country fell into conflict and instability.  I wrote a short piece about it for my school’s public policy review, though I have many more personal thoughts on the issue which I will perhaps share at a later time.

I arrive in Accra this Saturday, but it will probably take me a few days to get settled before I can write my first update.  In the meantime, I’ve posted a few pictures from my Liberia trip last spring.  Though I didn’t see much of the country beyond the drive from our hotel to the office and back, I still found it fascinating to be in a country so recently emerged from civil war, where recovery and progress are evident every day.

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Posted by: kristinej | July 20, 2010

Home

Well, after 15 hours in the air and over 30 hours in total transit time, I am back home in Iowa.  It was an emotionally and physically exhausting few days leading up to and including the trip home, but I am excited to be back.

Even after having spent a year here, I was still learning new cultural customs up until the last day, this time with how people say goodbye.  In addition to having a goodbye/birthday dinner with my host family and the other volunteers, I also spent Friday and part of Saturday going around Yirimadjo and saying goodbye to women from our program and other people I know.  While in the US a goodbye is usually just composed of “I’ll miss you” and maybe a hug, here it is a little more involved.  Some observations:

–       It is appropriate for people to give you gifts when you are leaving.  I received a wooden wall hanging, sandals, and fabric. When someone gives you a gift, it is appropriate for your friends to thank the person on your behalf, even if they weren’t present when the gift was given.

–       While you would normally never shake hands with your left hand, when you are going away for a long time you offer each other your left hands as a way of saying that you hope you will see each other again.

–       Some blessings you might give or be given: You respected me, may God respect you; May God never make me ungrateful to you; May we continue to see each other; May there be peace behind me.

–       It is also appropriate for both parties to ask for forgiveness, sometimes through a third party.  Even the other day I was telling the boutique owner that I was leaving soon and he said, “Forgive me.”  I was thinking, “I don’t even know your name, but ok, you’re forgiven!”

Everyone kept asking me if I would be back, which was a hard question to answer, but I usually just told them that I didn’t know but that I hoped I would be able to come back sometime.

While I have already been immensely enjoying the comforts of American life, I know that I will definitely have moments of reverse culture-shock.  I think the hardest part will be getting used to the faster pace of life and all of the excesses in our society. At the same time, having lived a year without most of the things we are so used to having, I am that much more grateful for them.

Now that I’m back, this will most likely be my last post.  I’ve enjoyed writing this blog this past year, and thanks for reading!

Posted by: kristinej | July 9, 2010

July 9th

Sorry for the increasingly infrequent posts – there has been a lot going on and yet nothing that seems particularly blog worthy.

Last week Moise, my Malian work partner, had a dinner at his house for all of the volunteers.  He raises rabbits, so he killed one for us and we had that over couscous.  It was delicious, though I just put any unrecognizable parts to the side and lost my appetite a bit when Amber pointed out one part and said, “I think that’s a testicle.”

Becky left on Thursday and then Ari and Jessica, our executive directors, arrived on Saturday, so the team has been switched up a bit.  It has been busy since they got here – lots of meetings both within the team and with organizations in Bamako.  Despite this I’ve still had some time to do my last bit of shopping, and next week I’m planning to have a small birthday/going-away dinner with my family and the volunteers.  Then I’ll be flying out next Saturday evening!

I know a lot of people have been reading my blog this past year, and as I’m wrapping things up I would love to know who all has been reading.  So, if you have been following my blog, I would love if you could post a message or send me an email just saying that you’ve been reading and maybe what the most memorable post was or the most interesting thing you learned from the blog.  Thank you!

Posted by: kristinej | June 30, 2010

June 30th

I decided that I wanted to get Malian henna done before I leave in a couple of weeks, though I may have chosen otherwise had I realized what an ordeal it was.  I went to Cailey’s house to get it done, since it was the lady who does Cailey’s host mom’s henna.  She started by splitting white tape into long thin strips, which over the next two hours she then arranged on my feet and left hand in very intricate designs, while I lounged on the cot.  I seriously felt like I was getting some sort of medical procedure done.  After that she mixed up the henna powder with water and coated my feet and hand with that, then wrapped them up in black plastic bags.  In Mali you only get your left hand done because you eat with your right hand.

I then had to leave the henna on for at least two hours and so couldn’t walk or go anywhere during that time.  Apparently sometimes people sleep in it, which would have been a much better idea, but oh well.  When we removed the plastic bags after over two hours, we then had to scrape the dried henna and all of the tape off, which took quite awhile.  At this point the design was a light rusty color, so the last step was to add another mixture of these little crystals, ash, and water to blacken the design.  While the henna itself is all natural, this mixture is not (it smelled like ammonia) and is certainly not good for you at all, but I hadn’t really realized that before starting and it was a little late to go back by then!  Since it was getting dark I was in a hurry to leave, so we took off that mixture perhaps a little prematurely because not all of the design had blackened.

So, the next morning I went back and we put the toxic mixture back on again to try to darken it more, and it worked somewhat though the design on my feet is now a rainbow of black, green, and rust-color.  Even so, the design is very well-done and the Malians absolutely love it.  It should stay for about 2-3 weeks, which is perfect because I don’t really want it on when I get back to the US.

Posted by: kristinej | June 23, 2010

June 23rd

My last few weeks here in Mali will be characterized by two things: Goodbyes and the World Cup.

The World Cup started on June 11th, and though Mali isn’t part of it, the whole country is still watching.  Since not everyone has electricity, every afternoon and evening you will find groups of men sitting outside huddled around a tv.  I’ve only watched a couple of games since the action is not that exciting on our little tv that cuts in and out, but it’s still hard not to get caught up in the excitement.  My younger host brother and I have found something to bond over as he keeps me updated on the latest scores and matchups.  And if you’ve watched even one game you’ve probably heard the song from the Coke commercials at least ten times – it’s pretty funny hearing my siblings trying to sing along with the English lyrics, although my host dad, who speaks some English, does a pretty accurate rendition.

With Becky leaving on July 1st and me on the 17th, we decided to have a joint going-away party at our office for the whole Project Muso team.  We were expecting about 60 people, between our core team, the community health workers, and the education facilitators.  Since everyone was expecting a big party, we bought a sheep and 30 kilos of rice and had some women prepare the meal for us.  Despite a rain storm that morning almost everyone came and we got to show off our fancy basin outfits and take lots of pictures.  And aside from some minor stresses (the rice was 2 hours late, people complained that there wasn’t enough meat, and some neighbor women came by and demanded a huge bowl of rice) I think that everyone had a good time.

We will probably still have another small party at Nana’s house (Moise has offered to kill a few of the rabbits he raises) and I plan to have a small birthday/goodbye party for my family right before I leave.  In addition, our American directors Ari and Jess will be coming at the beginning of July, so these next 3 weeks are sure to be full of activity.

As for how I feel about my impending departure, it will be sad to say goodbye to so many good friends, knowing that I will probably never see them again, but I am excited to see my family and friends back home and am definitely ready for air conditioning, a comfy bed, and a steady supply of vegetables.  I have been looking for jobs in the DC area and will hopefully be moving there in the fall, but before then I have a wedding to attend and lots of people to visit, so I’m also excited for that.

Posted by: kristinej | June 9, 2010

Dying Fabric in Mali

Just came across this slide show the BBC did about fabric dying in Mali. It has some good pictures:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/8079457.stm

Posted by: kristinej | June 4, 2010

June 3rd

As the one year mark approaches, it has been weird to see the landscape, the weather, and the fruit and veggie selection all return to how I remember it being when I first got here.  The kids will soon be let out of school for the summer, which means no more of the quiet mornings that I had gotten used to since October.

Nothing too exciting has been going on here, I’ve mostly been spending my free time reading, chatting with friends, or knitting gifts for people.  I’ve also had the occasional pool, hamburger, and trivia day at the American Club, which is always fun, though our Project Muso team doesn’t put up the best score.  It’s hardly fair when we’re competing against Embassy employees who passed the Foreign Service Exam!

We have a new volunteer coming in who will be replacing Becky when she leaves July 1st.  Amber is also a Peace Corps volunteer and so has already spent 2 years in Mali.

The issue of race has come up in various ways during a couple of recent conversations.  The first was with my host sister, who one evening asked me to put lotion on her back.  I first asked what it was and she confirmed my suspicion that it was skin whitening creme.  I already knew that a lot of Malian women use this creme, and I knew that at least at some point Assou had used it because she once told me that the scars on her arms, that a lot of Malian women have, were caused by the creme.  I didn’t know that she still used it, though, and when I asked why she still did if she knew that it was dangerous and caused scarring like that, she said that if you stop using it your skin actually becomes blacker than it was originally (don’t know if that’s true) and that besides, most Malian women think that lighter skin is more beautiful.  She said even her naturally lighter-skinned friends use it to become even lighter.  I didn’t ask her if that perception of beauty had anything to do with the colonial legacy in Africa, but it’s definitely a possibility.

At the same time, and I explained this to her, white women in the US actually try to get darker skin by sun bathing or using tanning beds or even cremes, even though we know that we could get cancer doing it.  So in some ways it seems the same, and it seems hypocritical to judge them for using whitening cream. I don’t think she realized that the sun makes our skin darker, so I held up my arm to my stomach (the color difference is a bit shocking!) and she seemed surprised.

The second conversation was with Nana and some members of her family.  Becky and I were trying to explain to them why we don’t like the word “toubab” and Nana said, “Well, we can’t tell Americans apart from French apart from Russians apart from Chinese…ok, well we can tell the Chinese because of their slanted eyes…but we can’t tell the rest apart so we just call them all toubab, and it’s not meant to be an insult or anything.  It’s like in the US, you probably can’t tell a Malian from a Nigerian, so you would just call them African.”  We agreed that we probably couldn’t tell them apart, but because of our history of racial segregation, and because we are such a diverse country, we also can’t just call someone African or black to their face, as if that’s their name.  They then asked if we saw a group of Africans walking down the street, what would be say to them.  I said, well, if we even greeted them at all, we would just say, “Hello,” not “Hello, Africans,” which is what they would do here.

That is one thing about Malians – they are very blunt and don’t bother glossing over obvious things.  For example, on the sotrama the guy taking your fare might say to an old woman, “Here’s your change, musokoroba (really old woman).”  That seems rude to me, but here that’s actually a sign of respect.

Or, as another (though not-so-respectful) example, the other day our sotrama passed by a larger woman waiting for a bus and our ticket taker said, “There’s no room for her, she’s too fat.  I can only fit someone skinny.”  Later, when the car was emptier, we picked up 2 rather large women, and one of the men in the car said, “Prendticket, I thought you said you weren’t going to pick up any fat people?”  Right in front of those women!  They smiled good-naturedly, but I think I would have wanted to punch him the face.  Although that’s not to say that similar things haven’t happened to me:  I once had someone doubt that I could play soccer because “You’re fat, how can you run?” or another time someone informed me that I was less likely to get malaria from mosquito bites because I was fat.  Just one in a string of endless lessons on patience and humility…I’ve learned that it doesn’t really help to get mad because they think they’re complimenting you and get upset when they realize they’ve really offended you.

Posted by: kristinej | May 24, 2010

May 24th

For the past two months or so, no college students have been going to class because the professors are on strike.  Apparently they are petitioning for a pay raise that would make their salaries equal to that of professors in neighboring countries.  In the last couple of weeks public high schools have also been shut down by a teacher strike, which is particularly serious for students in terminal who will be taking the Baccalaureat in June, whether they have been attending class for the last month and a half or not.  As of right now, when the strike ends the students will be make up the classes lost during summer vacation, but according to my host sister, if the strike continues too long, then the entire school year will be considered annulled, and all students in Mali will be forced to repeat the year, even if they attended a private school and completed the entire year.  I thought the strikes in France when I was there were annoying, but in Mali where so few people have access to education, I find it really sad that even those who are lucky enough to be in high school and university are being prevented from continuing their studies.

My host sister is one of those university students who has not had class for the last 2 or 3 months, and last night she was sharing some of her thoughts on the Malian school system with me.  She explained that school in Mali is hard for students because it is conducted in French, whereas Bambara is the language spoken in the home, so students often have a very hard understanding the subjects they learn in school. They are forced to just memorize things, without ever truly understanding what it is they are repeating. And even though they spend 12 years in school speaking French, many students who take the Bac at the end of their high school career can still not express themselves well in French.

I had heard that some schools are now starting to teach in Bambara, so I asked Assou about this.  She said that public schools do now teach the first few years of school exclusively in Bambara, but she actually didn’t think this was good because French is a much more useful language for advancing in your career or studies, and so children who do not start learning French at a young age will be even further behind.  She thinks the biggest problem is that the teachers are not well trained, and also that students, and Malians in general, are lazy.  She included herself in that category, saying that Malians are always tired, but are never actually doing anything.  In her opinion, the older generation of Malians are much better educated because they were taught by the French colonialists.

When I told her that we don’t really have strikes in the United States, she was a little surprised, but then said that yes, “those Americans over there are serious.”  This is an opinion I’ve heard from other people too, who say that Americans work hard, and that when they decide to do something they just do it and don’t waste time getting started.  Overall, I think it’s a difficult situation because until students have well-trained, engaging teachers they will not be interested in putting a lot of effort into their studies.  In addition, I imagine many students become discouraged and think that it’s not worth finishing their studies because it may still be hard to find a job when they finish, or more often, they need to start working right away in order to support themselves and their family.

One other interesting thing about Malian universities is that not only do you not have to pay to attend, but you can actually get scholarships that will provide you with a stipend while you are in school.  I think that the only criteria for these scholarships are that you maintain certain grades.

Posted by: kristinej | May 17, 2010

May 17th

An exciting thing happened to me the other day: a Malian said that I eat very well with my hands.  Considering how much my host family laughed at me when I first got here, I consider this a very good compliment.  Granted, I’m still not perfect (some sauces are definitely harder than others), but I have far less rice landing on my feet, falling down my bra, or sticking to my elbow.

The first session of our education classes is coming to an end, which is hard to believe since it seems like they were just starting.  The themes that our participants covered over the past four months included human rights, democracy, and problem resolution, and I’ve had conversations with a number of people about what they’ve learned or what changes the classes have prompted in their lives or their communities.  Here are a couple:

– Several participants have told me that learning about the rights of the child was really important to them because before they had made their kids do chores that were too hard for them, like taking the hand push cart to go fetch water.  Now they realize that kids shouldn’t be made to do hard physical labor like that.  Additionally, they now realize that kids are people too who have their own opinions and intelligence, and so they spend more time sitting and chatting with them and less time yelling at them.

– Others have said that learning about religious tolerance was important because as Muslims they had avoided interacting with Christians, but now they don’t have a problem hanging out and talking with them.

– In another instance, 2 wives (to the same husband) appparently wouldn’t even talk to each other before the classes started, and now they walk to class together and get along much better.

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