Mali: Land of Sand

The road to Timbuktu

Ah, Mali. Gate to the mighty Sahara, keeper of Tuareg culture, home to the largest mud structure in the world. I'm not exactly sure why I wanted to go to a country whose greatest claim to fame was that it held the largest mud structure in the world, but heck, that's got to be a lot of mud, right? Everything I'd heard of Mali made it sound so empty and desolate, I had to investigate and see what was really there--which mostly turned out to be a lot of emptiness and desolation. But also all that other fun desert stuff, like camels and Tuaregs and magical nights under desert stars and even a few cactii. So even though my friend Lisa and I had just finished two satisfying but gruelling years in Senegal being deprived of modern conveniences, only to go to a country even more (WAY MORE) lacking in everything, we had a really fantastic time. Well, until she almost died. But that's another story.

Both of us were a little hesitant about going to Mali, since the embassy had sent us warnings not to go near Timbuktu due to rebel activity and highway banditry, and of course the only reason we were going to Mali was to say we'd been to Timbuktu. The thought of spending 10 days in this unknown, dusty, poor desert country without even going to Timbuktu wasn't so appealing, so we thought, well what the hell. We'll go anyway. Our trip began in the Dakar (capital of Senegal) airport, where we met 3 other Western travelers, and after a brief chat we were all quite relieved to know we weren't the only idiots out there going to Mali in the hottest of the hot season when all guidebooks say DON'T GO. Did I mention we were in an airport? This is because, given our options, Lisa and I decided to splurge and fly to Bamako (capital of Mali). Option 1 was taking a bus: a 5 day nightmare that usually ended in disaster somewhere near the border. Option 2 was the train: some German friends we met went to the train station to ask at what time the train was arriving, and the woman said, "oh I have no idea," and they said "but it's a train," and she said, "well it depends on if the train derails or not today." So, we flew.

Interestingly enough, this was a Muslim airline flying from one Muslim country to an even more Muslim country, and they served pork on the plane. And NO ONE KNEW! Lisa and I watched with slack jaws as the very devout but unsuspecting Muslim passengers shoveled the pork quiche in their previously untainted mouths.

Anyway, two of the Westerners we met in Dakar were Canadian, and we all wanted to see the same things in Mali, so we kept traveling together, and that way we could sort of pretend we were Canadian, too. Bamako was about the size of my high school football stadium, so we left town the next day. For the horrific bus trip that ensued, see entry "Mali and the Bus of Doom." It ended with us stranded in a bus station at 4am, exhausted, miserable, hungry, cramped, a day late, frightened, and quite, quite sure that if all transportation in Mali was like that, there wasn't a chance in hell we were going all the way to Timbuktu. But as chance had it, there just happened to be a guy in the bus station who had a car and driver for rent, and after two hours of negotiating, the car was ours! And even better, it was a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser, possibly even the Eddie Bauer edition. The four of us piled in and took the smoothest ride of our lives to the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Salt caravan coming from the Sahara

I don't think I've emphasized just how difficult it is to get there if you don't have our luck. Once you get to Africa, and get to Mali, and get to Bamako, and get to the base town Mopti, taking hell-buses or train wrecks the whole way, then the true difficulty begins. Since Timbuktu is so remote (and frankly uninteresting), hardly any public cars go there. So you have to wait days just to get a seat in a packed, ancient Land Rover (the terrain is too rough for anything but a Land Rover). We met a couple girls who had waited two days on the side of the road, and another group of Peace Corps volunteers whose trip had taken 17 hours from Mopti (ours took 6). And of course, they drive like hellions, so your chances of surviving the trip are slim at best. Not to mention the reputed bandits and rebels the whole way. But, you do have can take a camel (at least six days of excruciating pain and boredom) or a boat (three days of having to poop over the edge and sleep on a rice sack).

What was Timbuktu like? Hundreds of years ago it was famed as a city of gold, a center of great learning and knowledge, an oasis of greatness in the middle of the desert. Today it is...not quite so impressive. But we still had a wonderful time. Lisa and I had carried a bottle of champagne from Senegal to toast our arrival if we ever made it. After our champagne toast we tried to walk around town, but the heat was so intense, we made it about 10 feet outside of the hotel before having to turn around and sleep three hours under a fan. Timbuktu is small, the streets are all thick sand, the buildings are old and crumbling, but there are several ancient mosques and sites, and there's certainly a feel of being in the last place on Earth. It's also about the least touristy place on Earth. We thought there'd be tons of restaurants and hotels and travelers, but nope. Just a lot of sand. We only spent one night there, but that night we sat out under the stars at the Tuareg encampment near our hotel, drinking tea with the nomads and listening to their tales of crossing the Sahara on camel. The one and only employee at the hotel cooked us a delicious bread and meat-sauce dish, and we fell asleep very, very contented.

Djenne mud mosque

We made it back to Mopti in one piece, and continued with the Canadians to Djenne, home of the UNESCO World Heritage site, the giant mud mosque. It's what is sounds like: a huge mosque made entirely of mud and re-mudded every year. In fact, the whole town was made of mud, and it was so old and un-modern that I think Jesus would have looked out of place there. It was incredible. You know how you always wonder what it would be like to go back in time and see how people really lived? Well, go to Djenne.

A Dogon cliff village

Our next adventure was a three-day trek in Dogon country. Mali is pretty much the flattest, most desert-like country you could imagine, but there is one giant, thousand foot cliff that runs about two hundred miles across the country. The Dogon people have made their homes in the cliff, and live today much as Fred Flintstone. We visited many of these villages on our trek (trekking up cliffs in 140 degree weather is not advised in the guidebook), and it was a shock how primitively the people lived, even to us seasoned Peace Corps volunteers (and Canadians). I mean, I thought MY village was primitive! If you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the past, and are magically transported to Djenne, then wish to go even further into the past, and you might end up in something like modern-day Dogon country. It was absolutely fascinating. The people were warm and friendly, shared their millet beer with us, and always offered us smiles. Each night we camped out on the roof of a basic hostel, because it was too hot to sleep indoors. My favorite memory was touring a village and finding some children having a blast using a slick rock face as their playground slide. Here's one of the Canadians trying it out:

Thus ended our Mali adventure. Oh wait...the near death part. How could I forget. (rest of story to come...)


So, I haven't written in quite a while, but a lot's been happening. Never a dull moment when you're done with Peace Corps and bumming around Africa til your money runs out! Lots of good stories to tell, of Mali, and Timbuktu, and Morocco; you'll laugh, you'll cry, but at a later date cause I'm too tired to write it all tonight...

In today's news, it's my birthday! Yay. 25 years old. My grand plan was to triumphantly return home as the sun sets over the Asheville airport, poignantly arriving on both my birthday AND Mother's Day, and eat a delicious home cooked meal and entertain all with my tales of Africa. Instead, I am at the Marriott Inn next to the airport in Cincinnati. Surprise! Flight delays! It turns out I won't get home til tomorrow, just plain May 14th, not even ONE holiday, let alone TWO. However, I would like to take this opportunity to fully express how much I love America (in particular, its excellent customer service). Let me expand on this point by citing examples of the last two times my travel plans went wrong:

Exhibit One: MALI and the BUS OF DOOM

Now, I realize that there are always delays and cancellations and that's just a part of life, be you in West Africa or California...what's REALLY telling about how well a country is run is how it deals with its delays and cancellations. So, let me describe a horrific tale of pain and desperation that is the normal Malian bus experience. My friends and I reserved tickets in advance, but when we showed up, our bus was delayed twice, and then just canceled. No apologies. They even got angry at US. So we found another bus that was supposed to leave at 9am, and actually left at 2pm. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours, and it took 14. No apologies. In fact, around midnight the bus just 'decided' to switch destinations entirely, and instead of going to the town of Mopti we'd all bought tickets for, went to Burkina Faso! I mean, it's a completely different country!! So they kicked off everyone going to Mopti (which was, of course, everyone) on the side of the road in the pitch black darkness somewhere in the Sub-saharan wastelands. There were lots of men with guns just standing around. And it smelled strongly of bodily functions. The four of us Western travelers contemplated seting up camp for the night, but managed to flag down another bus and hitch a ride on to there at 4am, stranded in the sketchiest bus depot I've ever seen, down by the river.

Exhibit Two: America and the Complementary Overnight Bag

So compare above story with what happened to me tonight. I don't mean to sound whiny about Mali, I mean, I didn't really expect to find stellar customer service in Africa. I only mention it to illustrate how borderline-absurdly wonderous American business can be and how often we take it for granted. So, my flight was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight to North Carolina. The airline pilot came on the intercom about every 10 minutes to fully explain the situation, apologize profusely for the delay, and see if the flight staff could be of service in any way. Once I got to Cincinnati, not only did Delta get me a free night in a hotel suite complete with kitchen and whirlpool, a free shuttle there and back, and vouchers to buy as much Ben and Jerrys and Bacardi as I could handle, they gave me a complementary overnight bag, complete with (I've listed everything for all my friends still in Senegal who will never believe it): T shirt, toiletries bag, shaving cream, razors, french-milled soaps and the like, hairbrush, Qtips, laundry detergent, and the icing on the cake, an APOLOGY NOTE! And a CANDY WELCOME BAG! And free microwave popcorn for my microwave! WTF??! This is amazing to me. This is almost more than I think I deserve for just getting bumped on a flight. I really would have been happy with a comfy airport couch to spend the night on. But who'd turn down all that? I mean, if you can't spend your birthday with those you love, second best is to spend it lounging in your king-sized bed watching movies and getting toasted on Bacardi, courtesy of Delta!

Last Day

Ah, the end of an era. I am now officially moved out of my village. The last donkey cart has been loaded and set off into the sunset. On my final day, my friends Anne and Shannon (thank her for the photos) came with me. It was charmed from the start; our bus from Kaolack, usually crammed full of snotty children, vomiting babies, chickens pecking your feet, goats bleating in your ear, and two fat cheb mamas on either side of you, was shockingly and orderly filled with German tourists. The luggage had been stacked with precision care. Each tourist maintained their personal space and spoke in polite, indoor voices. I knew immediately this was one trip I wouldn't end up getting peed on.

So when we made it to my village, we were unusually refreshed and in good spirits. Children who usually taunted us from a safe distance were polite for the first time. We began the rounds, visiting every compound to say goodbye. The village had pooled money and bought me a "charming" (ahem) bubu and plastic flip flops and dressed me up to look like the Chiquita banana lady. I went around handing out kola nuts and candy. It was overall a big hit. Everyone pretended to be shocked I was leaving. They said nice things like I was destined to marry rich and have many children. My two best friends in the village who had moved away several months happened to be back visiting. My cat showed up after a long absence and I got to say goodbye. Ah, I begin to choke up thinking back on it. It was a touching goodbye. (I mean the whole village, not just the cat).

I'll just wrap things up by saying that in all the emotional hubub, we forgot to drink water in the 110 degree scorching sun, and after 5 straight hours in direct sunlight we returned to Kaolack, probably 90 percent dead. I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to make it. It took me 3 days to be able to fully move again. But I guess the good thing about a heat wave here is, I'M GOING HOME TO NORTH CAROLINA WEATHER!

Some pictures of my latest projects, the veggie garden mural and chalkboard, and the school garden well:


The Good and the Bad

Let me start with the good news. I'm in Dakar for my Close of Service conference, which means basically I am finished!! Just a few babies to kiss, kola nuts to hand around, and I am outta here. My village has been talking for months about the going away party (dancing, check. drumming, check.) they are going to throw for me. Don't confuse this with generosity; they'll make me pay for everything. But the thought is there I suppose. I had been envisioning sneaking out at the crack of dawn before the chickens wake up and alert everyone to my presence, but I agree now it's best to have a real ceremony, and it will be nice to hear lots of speeches about how great I am. Not that I really am, but Senegalese are known for their over-the-top flattery. The volunteer before me was an older, retired woman who had lots of personal money and no grandchildren, so when she left she handed out bicycles. BICYCLES. This is what my villagers are assuming they'll get when I leave. However, I will be giving out nuts instead. I intend to get away with this by laughing it off, as everyone keeps talking about what a great sense of humor the Senegalese have. I don't know if they'll give me a going-away present. A volunteer who finished and left when I came to country was telling me that her family tried to give her a goat to take back to America and share with her family. She explained goats aren't allowed on a plane. Her villagers patiently explained that that's why you tie the goat on TOP of the airplane. I don't know what eventually happened to the goat.

So, the bad news. A friend and I were mugged a few weeks ago and my purse was stolen with money, camera, phone, etc. It wasn't the end of the world. But it does mean no more photos on the blog. I need a camera rather badly to take final picture of my village and pictures of my travels to Mali and Morocco, but I intend on being with other Americans most of this time and they've agreed to take photos and give me copies. I know I could have gotten mugged anywhere, but being so close to the end of my service, it sort of pushed me over the edge a little. Silver lining: my host family freaked out when I told them, cried their eyes out (Senegalese are like Chuck Norris. They never cry), and have been cooking me good food and giving me my space ever since. This mugging was actually the only down point to an otherwise fantastic softball EXTRAVAGANZA. Every year for a long weekend 25 softball teams from all over West Africa (mostly Americans, like embassy workers) gather at the American Club in Dakar for a social tournament. Social means beer on the field is ok and you can dress like pirates. There were Peace Corps teams from Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Gambia. There is also imported snack food like Doritos and Nerds. I ate about 200 hotdogs. My team, Kaolack Region, did the best of all PC Senegal teams and actually came in 4th overall. No thanks to me, of course, though I did get put in a few times when we were clearly loosing anyway. There was an awards banquet the last night, with raffled prizes. Now, for the whole weekend I practically hadn't seen a single Senegalese person, was eating FunDip, and speaking English. So I was a little shaken out of my false sense of home when at the raffle another PCV won "His Weight in Water." And everyone clapped like mad. Ummm...WHAT? This country is so dry and so poor that even diplomats get excited about the chance to get 150 lbs of free WATER? You had to drive to a warehouse in the suburbs just to pick it up!! What on earth would you DO with all that water?? It's only worth about 12 dollars anyway! In the end though the free Sushi Dinner prize was won by the man who owned the Sushi Dinner restaurant, so he traded for the water.

Well I believe I have my travel plans set, and it looks good. Really good. I'll finish in Senegal April 16th, fly to Bamako, Mali (more exotic to go overland, but that means 3 days in a schoolbus from 1930, sleeping on the side of the road, and getting peed on by goats strapped on top) and spend 10 days exploring the ancient cliff-dwelling Dogon country and Timbuktu. Of course, Mali is huge and basically roadless so once we get there, there'll still be plenty of horrific bus travel/traveling with livestock. Then, fly back to Dakar, and on to Morocco! This is the creme de la creme of the developing world. There's Pizza Hut. As well as beautiful mountains, desert, and beaches, delicious food, camel treks, Arabian spas, exotic music, and lots of things to buy. And it's cheap. I feel like it will be a nice transition to still be in Africa, but enjoy it.

More news to come in the next few days...

After Peace Corps!

I dread writing this entry. But I know I’m going to get asked a million times what I’m doing after Peace Corps, so here’s my best shot. With two months left, I feel as though I should have some sort of “plan.” And yet, not really.

My original goals for after my service were:
Be hired into a well-paying, rewarding job with a respected international conservation organization.
Get a Master’s in Environmental Management.

Now, my goals are:
get healthy.
get a car.

Actually, I do still have pretty substantial goals. I’ve just realized that applying for grad schools and/or respected jobs is not possible from a mud hut. Also, the more I think about it, the more I want to take advantage of this unhindered time in my life to visit family and friends, such as those who got married and to who’s wedding I did not go (Rachel. Allison.), get a whole new everything (my entire wardrobe is full of holes and mice pee stains, my computer broke before I even left, I never even had a car), and maybe eat a few truckloads of vegetables. So when I completely my service April 16th, I hopefully plan on traveling around West Africa for a few weeks, visiting my friend Jerome in France for a little while, coming home to WNC for the summer and getting a part-time job or taking pre-requisite grad school classes and visiting people on the weekends. After the two years I’ve had here, just sitting in a comfortable chair and eating a taco would make me ecstatic, let alone beginning my professional career. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned here is not to be in any rush. Focus on enjoying life, no matter what you are doing. Oh, don’t worry, I still have my exotic schemes…my latest plan is to sail around the world for 8 months getting paid to visit far-off lands and write about it. Don’t go thinking I can’t do it, didn’t I just spend 2 years the only white person in a remote African village! But actually, I am looking forward to settling down sometime in the next year, I’d like to start a master’s program in 2008. My work here has exposed me to a lot of different career fields, and what I’ve learned has drastically influenced what I want to do in life. Instead of sustainable development (unbelievable riddled with corruption, moral dilemmas, insecurity), I’ve found that the only interest of mine that’s held up under all the tests is nature conservation.
So, I’ve been doing as much research as I can when I get a chance to go to the internet cafe, but I’d also like you as you all for your input. Have you come across any relevant grad programs I should check out? Or heard of an interesting organization I should apply to? Or a nice part-time job for the summer? I appreciate your suggestions, you people in the “real” world, and I will see all of you before you know it!

Quaint Evening Stroll + Cobras

So, around sunset every evening I take a nice half hour to hour jog through the bush. It’s my most serene, contemplative time of day. Yesterday however, I got a few miles out on my usual bush path and ran into a raging bushfire of true Bambi magnitude. To be honest this came as no surprise, as I could see the smoke from miles away. I figured it was safe enough to run anyway and turned back only, to my chagrin, when I saw actual flames across the path. It may strike you as odd I’m casually running about while fires rage nearby…nah. It’s pretty much the norm by now. And the more I got to thinking, the longer the list grew of horrific dangers I came across pretty much daily on my ‘peaceful’ jog. Here’s a couple:

Monkey Poachers
120+ Heat
Vomiting Fits (thanks to giardia)
Green Mambas
Flash Floods
Thorn Thickets
Getting Lost in the Middle of Nowhere After Dark Where There’s Not One Damn Light
Explosive Diarrhea (again, giardia)

Just to give you the idea that NOTHING in Africa is simple. Nor easy. On a more cheerful note, here I am cooking rice and fish.

Tam Xarit

Now, I do not profess to know the origins of Halloween. I seem to remember some early church tale of settlers and witch burnings and All Hallow’s Eve…I may be completely off the mark, but I do know this: it did not originate in my Senegalese village. So tell me this, why the hell are all the village children dressing up in costumes and face paint, leaving their homes after dark, and going from hut to hut asking for candy and other small treats from village adults?? This is the hundreds’ year-old tradition of Tam Xarit, the Muslim New Year as practiced in Senegal. Bears a suspicious resemblance if you ask me. I think some struggling anthropology grad student would have a field day with this one. There are a few ways it differs from Halloween as we know it however. First of all, every kid basically dresses up the same, wearing clothes of the opposite gender (suppressed transsexual tendencies?), and painting their faces white with ash (I’m not even going to venture a guess there). Second, instead of a trick, they reward you with a disturbingly chaotic sort of dance if you give them a treat. Third, instead of Snickers bars and Reeses, they are usually given such thrilling treats as millet, rice, sugar cubes, or one cheap cracker per child. And yes they are grateful for it unlike our spoiled children of America.

White People Can't Dance

I typically don’t like to give out money to my villagers, as it gives them the wrong idea about why I’m here, and also leads to battalions of people beating my door down to ask for cash. I try to please them in other, non-monetary ways. I found the ultimate village appeaser: tribal dancing. If I put on a bu-bu and wiggle around and kick up sand and do weird things with my hands, it’s like I’ve just bestowed on them all brand new TV sets. It literally makes them that happy. African dancing is by no means “normal.” You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like if a fat scarecrow was walking on hot coals while being attacked by killer bees, while wearing lingerie and covered in a blanket. Clearly I look like a complete idiot trying to mimic this. I don’t even feel any shame over this; there’s no way ANY white person is going to come close to mastering the moves (I’ve seen some brave souls try, but sadly, fail). But I figure, hey, if I can make a whole village THAT ridiculously happy by making a fool out of myself every once in a while, why the hell not. Last week was a traditional wedding ceremony. For weeks, my family asked me if I’d attend. The day of, giddy with anticipation, they prodded me as to whether I’d dance, to which I replied a cool “wait and see.” I made my appearance at the party, fashionable late as the sun sunk low on the horizon, dressed in an ice-blue lace bu-bu (a few tomato sauce stains discretely hidden), making my way among the crowd as non-chalantly as a single white person in a sea of black skin can. Immediately, a ripple of excited whispers cascaded through the crowd…WOULD she? WOULD the toubab dance? I bided my time, casually photographing the other dancers and making chitchat. My every move was followed by hundred of eager eyes. I made as if to leave—heard an audible gasp of angst—and turned back, kicked off my flip-flops, and made my way to the dance arena. Excited cries rung out. She WOULD! She WOULD dance! The drummers started up, I jumped around a little, hit random stuff, picked up sand and threw it—the usual—and the crowd went wild. Usually only about 2 minutes of this is enough to make them happy. Then they clap like mad and laugh and laugh and laugh but assure me I can dance like a pro (oddly, I sense no sarcasm in this), It’s only women allowed, but my male counterpart said he snuck around the back of the fence with the village chief to see if I had what it took. He’s in awe now, leading me to believe that there’s really no elaborate African style or rhythm at all, it’s just rolling your eyes back and acting like you’re possessed. And I know what you’re all thinking. And the answer is NO. I will NOT perform an African tribal dance for you when I come home. So don’t even bother asking.

Visit of the Big Cheeses

I should explain the title. Few people in Senegal speak English, but those that do seem to have truly bizarre beliefs about colloquial terms we use. Nearly everyone insists, vehemently, that all bosses and important people are by and large refered to by Americans as “Big Cheeses.” I went to a fortune teller once with my language teacher, who translated the soothsayer’s interpretation of scrambled chicken bones into “You will have 2 children, a girl and a boy, own your own car, return to Senegal to visit, and marry a Big Cheese.” Anyway, that is what I had visit last week in the village. A Big Cheese and an even Bigger Cheese, meaning the Peace Corps Director of Senegal, and a Peace Corps Financial Director from Headquarters in DC. Sleeply little Ngekhokh doesn’t get many international diplomats nor people of distinction, so they were quite pleased with the news. The PC staff were coming to celebrate/inspect our grant project, building gardening sites. I am happy to report that work has actually, miraculously, occurred. The well digger has completely finished both wells, the village men gathered an unprecedented three weekends in a row to repair the barbed wire fence, and women have already been fertilizing and measuring their gardening plots. All this progress makes me heady with success. The water in one well is of a very high quality. The water at the school well, however, is a little salty, but we did a watering test and our seeds sprouted, so we’re going to give it a shot. Both wells were “named” after me, Megane, which is actually a renault car, but I’ll go with it. Senegalese have a bizarre custom of naming inanimate objects after a person. People constantly ask you to give them things, like the shirt or earrings you’re wearing, or your house. To which the normal reply is “Tudd naa la ko.” Which roughly translates to “Hell no, but how about if I name them after you?” So I have pants named Lira, a shovel named Roger, you get the idea. Anyway, since we get few important visitors, my village wanted to make a real big deal out of their visit. Also, they were genuinely pleased with the project, and sincerely wanted to thank me and let my administrators know how happy they were with me. I’ll admit, I was really touched. They set up a loud-speaker system, drummers and dancers, and rented plastic tables and chairs, and held a little ceremony under a big neem tree. My American Big Cheese bosses came, and a half dozen people (including myself) gave a little speech about what my time in the village had meant. My counterpart and best friend said they’d never dreamed an American with everything going for her would give that up to live in the desert among them and try to improve their lives, and that through my work with the school and the grant project, I had made a huge, long-term impact on the village, though it may seem like only a small achievement to me. It was very heartfelt and kind. Between the grant and all the tribal dancing, I’m sitting in a pretty good position in the village, and with only 2 months left I’m hoping I don’t do anything to accidentally mess that up. I’d like to leave on a good note.