Monday, December 29, 2008

Bobaraba! Bobaraba! Bobarabababababa!

It has been noticed by one of my loyal readers that this blog has been disproportionately focused on Malian anal-cleansing and farting practices to the detriment of this nation's proud heritage of song and dance. I agree that this is indeed a problem, and yet I feel that it would be a tragedy if Zacstravaganza were to veer from its focus on one of the most pressing issues of our time: the butt.

Lo and behold, in the Obamanian spirit of reconciliation, it turns out that one of the most popular dance crazes to sweep the Republic of Mali as well as the rest of West Africa is the "Bobaraba" In Bambara, the slang term for the butt is bobara - literally, the 'poop gourd' (in a land where Tupperware is prohibitively expensive, dried gourds are customarily used to hold anything and everything). A Bobaraba is a 'big poop gourd', or rather, a really big butt, a J.Lo booty if you will. And according to traditional West African ideals of beauty, to have a few extra pounds of fat on you is demonstrative of ample food supplies and promise as a potential mate - here to have a Bobaraba is considered quite... ahem... sexy.

And as consequence, everyone from Gao to Manantali is getting down and shaking their Bobaraba.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Calling All Soapmakers!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Mali, I am doing my part to improve water sanitation on the village level. Due to the utter lack of infrastructure, the vast majority of Malians have nothing to wash with other than well water often contaminated with giardia, amoebas and other parasites transmitted via the fecal-oral cycle. This is among the reasons– and without a doubt the most easily preventable one – why juvenile diarrhea is endemic and 25 percent of all children in Mali die before age five. It is also the reason why I would like to enlist American pharmaceutical companies such as Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Jergens, Proctor & Gamble or Estée Lauder to help fund the construction of hand-washing stations at Mali’s public schools.

Here in Mali the most widely-practiced sanitary practice is that people wipe with their left hand and eat with the right. After going to the latrine and before eating people will rinse their hands with tin can full of water, but when one has fecal germs on their left hand and they just get it wet and mush it around with their right hand, and then they pass the can of now-filthy water to the next person to “wash” their hands, it kind of defeats the whole purpose. Add the fact that Malians eat with their right hands from a communal food bowl, and it is not very difficult to understand why giardia, amoebas, cholera and dysentery are so widely transmitted.

The most feasible, cost-effective means for Malians to mitigate disease transmission and improve health conditions is something quite simple: washing one’s hands with soap. It doesn’t sound very profound, but the Malian Ministry of Health has invested a good deal of its resources organizing adult education programs and broadcasting public service announcements to persuade her citizens to undertake this basic hygiene practice. It should be any easy task. Soap is cheap and readily available; most Malian women are in some way, shape or form involved in the collection of shea nuts or the cooking of shea nut butter which is used to make soap.

Malians use soap made from their shea nuts to wash clothes and dishes, but oddly enough very few people use it to wash their hands. Animist beliefs shared by many Muslims and Christians extol the benefits of washing one’s hands with only water to protect against malevolent spirits, and many people believe that using soap would render them vulnerable to sorcerers’ evil spells

Though a number of Malians are trying to do away with these superstitions and espouse modern sanitary measures. Karitie Sanogo teaches his first-grade students how to conduct basic hygiene practices like washing their hands. To Westerners this might sound like condescension, but when most adults believe in the black magical qualities of soap the fact is that the only way majority of Malian children will ever be taught to protect themselves from fecal-oral diseases is through the public school system. Sanogo explains that he tries in earnest to teach his first-grade students the virtues of soap, but it is difficult to instill modern hygiene in impressionable minds when they cannot even practice their lessons into their daily routine at school.

There are brand new latrines at the elementary school, but there is no place for the students and teachers to wash their hands when they are done. So the headmaster would like to construct a hand-washing station. A hand-washing station would consist of two plastic barrels with spigots raised to a reachable height for children by a concrete structure. Most importantly, each station would be made with a soap dish so that every time a child walks from the latrines back to class they would have an obvious and unavoidable opportunity to wash their hands with soap.

The most difficult aspect of projects like this is not their construction per se, but rather their financing. If I wanted to build just one or two of these hand-washing stations, I could acquire funds from U.S. A.I.D. or the U.S. Embassy. Though what I have in mind is on a somewhat larger scale. There is a program known as the Peace Corps Partnership which allows Volunteers to work on projects financed in whole or in part by private individuals, NGOs or corporations. In this sense capitalism is not just a means unto itself but can be used as a means to humanitarian ends.

I would like to petition one of the aforementioned corporations to establish a fund for Peace Corps Volunteers to construct hand-washing stations throughout Mali, or even Africa at large. Much of this shea butter cooked from Malian harvests is consumed locally, and in recent years Western companies have begun to purchase Malian shea nut butter to manufacture gourmet soap, moisturizing cream, shampoo and conditioner. I would like to argue that those companies which earn hundreds of millions of dollars of profits selling shea butter products have an ethical obligation to invest a negligible fraction of those profits into promoting the hygiene of those populations at the bottom of their supply chain.

Even from the rational self-interest of a profit-maximizing firm investment in hand-washing stations is beneficial in that they are meant to create a whole new generation of consumers of soap. The fact that tens of millions of people in Mali and elsewhere actively refrain from washing their hands with soap should be seen as a lost consumer base which can be captured with a bit of public education and investment in simple sanitation infrastructure. Even if the company does not sell its products in Malian markets, the good publicity which such a humanitarian campaign would engender could certainly help to establish a favorable reputation among socially-conscious consumers.

This is a win-win proposal which would benefit both soap producers and the people of Mali. So please, if you happen to work for a company that makes shea butter soap, shampoo or moisturizer, or if you know anyone who does, please drop me a line. There are a number of Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali who would like to put together a joint venture.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Keynesian Inklings at the Meat Sandwichtigi

When I told my hosts that I was heading to Bamako, they thought that I was going to find money. During dry season when the earth is baked into barren rock, the farmers of Sanadougou often go to the big city to find some sort of income. Now is cold season – the prime time of year for growing fruits and vegetables and other such garden products which can actually be sold for profit – so all of the farmers are staying put in village.

The people of my village talk about going to Bamako as though it’s a magical place where banknotes grow freely between cracks in the sidewalk and the roads are paved with cheese. Bamako is a city of roughly a million persons who are engaged in much more commerce and than the rest of the country as a whole, and it is certainly much more built up than the rest of Mali, but half of Mali is uninhabitable desert and the other half is arid Sahel which receives just enough moisture to grow millet part of the year and build huts out of mud bricks.

Awaiting minor surgery on my big toe, I limp down an unpaved street in search of breakfast. Even in one of the most built up neighborhoods of the nation’s capitol, this is Mali – so farmers pull reluctant sheep and goats along Bamako’s dirt roads. On this particular expanse of dirt there is a shack where a guy named Modibo sells meat sandwiches with onions and hot pepper sauce. There is a regular crowd of men of all ages who seem to sit there all day.

As I sit down at the counter, the elder statesman of the block lets me know that I eat beans.

“No, you eat beans, and then you fart stronger than the mighty hippopotamus!”

Riotous laughter ensues, which means that this Tubabu is accepted among equals.

The topic of discussion at the sogoduminikeyuro (meat eating place) is poverty. Fantanya is always the topic of discussion. The men all tell me that they are all looking for work, or if they have work that they are looking for more. Poverty in the Malian city is much different than in the country, because in the farming villages people are poor but even a man without any money can work the millet fields enough to have to for dinner. In the city like Bamako there is the landless, propertyless class of the employed workers who mope around all day doing nothing but drinking tea and driving down the price of labor.

“Hey, bean eater, do you know anywhere I can find some work?”

I explain that I am not from around here, that I myself work in a little village in Ségou Province where I’m teaching people how to treat wellwater and dig soak pits to rid the streets of wastewater.

“If you pay me, I’ll dig whatever you want.”

I explain that I am organizing my townsfolk to do these things, but that I’m not an entrepreneur and there’s no money in it for anyone. It’s a shame though, because when I said that I was trying to put together a construction project it sure piqued the attention of these guys at the meat sandwich stand.

As I continue hobbling down the dirt street I am appalled by the sickening stench of raw sewage. I realize that I am nearing the source as I limp past a bunch of sanitation workers tilling in the sewer ditches. It is an unenviable position – these sewer ditches are nothing more than concrete troughs on either side of the road built with just enough of an incline so that the algae-crusted wastewater inside can flow at a glacial pace towards the treatment plant. Every so often enough sticks and leaves and garbage gets strewn into these sewer ditches that they clog up and the runoff water full of shit and piss flows out onto the street and into people’s homes. That’s when the sanitation workers have a job to do – they have to climb into those sewer ditches and wade in slime up to their waists to dig up all of the decaying muck which is causing the logjam. The revolting odor is the methane produced by months of underwater anaerobic decomposition which is now being released into the air en masse.

Though the sanitation workers are covered in other people’s urine and excrement and Allah knows what else and they are going to stink of it for weeks, they are in a position enviable to the men sitting at the meat sandwich stand - they have jobs. In a city with few factories and many, many people looking for money, dredging sewer ditches translates into a steady income which can buy enough food so that your kids’ stomachs aren’t distended from malnourishment. Many people in Mali wish they could find a job like that.

It’s hard to understand why more people don’t have jobs like this. The first thing that the Westerner usually notices when walking around cities and even small villages is that the streets are full of garbage and debris and cow shit and donkey shit. Some streets I’ve walked through seem like passageways through the Fresh Kills landfill. There is more than enough work to be done in the waste management sector to cut the unemployment rate a few percentage points.

Days like this are visual reminders of the logic of the production function; There is an overabundance of jobless laborers who would gladly shovel shit for a day’s wages. There is more than enough garbage and waste lining the streets of Mali to create public demand for sanitary services, there are more than enough raw materials, tools and labor to generate productive economic activity. But with inadequate public expenditures and inadequate foreign direct investment, there just isn’t any capital to make it happen. That is why all of those potential sanitation workers and all of that garbage are for now going to sit idly by the side of the road.

Living By Ethiopia's Sewage Canal

As much as Mali could use some work on its water sanitation, conditions in Ethiopia's capitol city are much, much worse.

Chickenshit on the Chesapeake

Here is an interesting story explaining the problems in maintaining the ideal supply of chicken poop. Though chicken poop is among the world's greatest known organic fertilizers, no one really likes to transport poop across long distances, so without a vibrant local agricultural sector to consume all of this chicken poop it becomes a rather noxious form of water pollution.

Zac Fends Off a Prokaryotic Attack!

Tonight I find myself in the Peace Corps Medical Unit after undergoing a serious operation. I had to be brought to the hospital so that a surgeon could save my limb from a very grave injury. I had an ingrown toenail.

Back in the States where it is cold most of the year and CVS is open 24 hours a day, an ingrown toenail isn’t such a big deal. But in Mali, where I walk or bike anywhere I go in open-toed sandals and sand and dirt and dust is flying everywhere and by the end of each day my feet are caked in a brand new layer of filth, an open sore is an invitation to the African continent’s mighty bacteria. Here infections get really nasty really quick.

To illustrate how much more severe the simple flesh wound becomes in the tropical climate, a fellow Volunteer recently had a whitehead on her upper lip and so she popped it – the next day, the broken skin gave way to such a ghastly infection that her lip swelled up to the size of her nose.

When I had realized that part of my big toenail was protruding under my skin, I first thought that it was nothing that I couldn’t treat myself with my pocketknife, tweezers, bacitracin and time. But after a week had gone by and I was limping around village with my big toe wrapped in duct tape and it got so bad that a withered, pigeon-toed old man told me that I was walking funny, I decided that it was time to get on the next van to the Peace Corps Medical Officers.

The whole procedure went rather quickly. Within the span of 90 minutes Dr. Dawn Camara drove me to the podiatrist where they laid me on a bed, washed my foot with iodine, and then they stuck a needle in my swollen big toe and it hurt like a bitch because they were juicing it with anesthesia and the podiatrist told me to look away because I couldn’t feel a thing and snip snip snip there was a little bloody mess but they cleaned it up, stitched my toe back together and wrapped it up in gauze et ça, c’était fini!

With everything said and done, I have nothing but glowing reviews for the health care provided to Peace Corps Volunteers. Even though I am in one of the most remote, undeveloped countries in the world, my doctor did a damn good job of saving my big toe from becoming gangrenous and getting amputated. And the best thing about this treatment is that I don’t have to pay a cent out of pocket because – though the operation was carried out by a private, top-rate Malian podiatrist – my health care and all of my medications are subsidized 100 percent by the United States government.

The moral of the story is that if the United States government can provide me with such good health care in Mali, without sacrificing value of service and without me having to wait on any lines, then I think that the United States government can very easily provide health care of a comparable quality to each and every one of her citizens on American soil. Also, especially if you are living in the African bush, never ever cut your toenails too short or you will be sorry.

PS. This is why I am in Bamako and will have regular Internet access for the week. If you arrange a time, I can go to the bar and talk to you on instant messenger!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Second Wave Feminism and Toilets

With the enormous chasm between the cultures of Mali and America, it is quite difficult to describe the status of Malian women with the terminology of Western feminism. If 15-year-old Kimberly were to be married off to a Fundamentalist Mormon who already has three wives to his name, a conservative Catholic soccer mom in Baton Rouge would shudder in disgust at such degradation of women. If Peggy Sue from the mountains of Kentucky were to spend her life toiling in the kitchen, illiterate and barefoot, feminists chatting over soymilk lattés in a Northampton coffeeshop would probably say that she is repressed by the traditional gender roles of a misogynist culture.

In Mali, however, such conditions are the norm. Here most women spend a good part of their lives barefoot in the kitchen, pounding millet while with a baby strapped to their back and another on the way. Upon matrimony most Malian women explicitly consent to their husband’s taking of additional wives. Only a small minority of women will ever complete a high school education and very few have a skilled trade of their own.

The conventional status of women here would make the average American woman shudder – and I have yet to mention genital mutilation. Though as much as normal gender roles are quite different in Mali from what I know in the Northeastern blue states, I would caution anyone from making a sweeping moral judgment; one cannot evaluate the condition of Malian women without taking into account the economic realities of the world’s third-poorest nation.

Let me introduce you to Bintu – an archetypical Malian woman. Bintu was born to a large family of millet farmers in Sanadougou where she has lived her entire life. For a couple of years Bintu went to the elementary school down the street, but by the time she was 10 she stopped going because as the eldest daughter she had to take care of her younger siblings while her mother went to the fields. At age 18, Bintu was married off to a peanut farmer on the other side of town. Now 30, Bintu has since has given birth to eight children – six of which have managed to survive the onslaught of diarrhea, malaria and general malnutrition. She will probably have only a few more now that her husband has taken a second wife.

Bintu hardly has a moment’s respite from the daily labors of raising a family of ten in a subsistence agricultural economy. Every morning she wakes up before dawn to draw water from the well, and then she will retreat into the smoky air of her wood-fired kitchen to cook millet porridge for her family’s breakfast. Then she goes out to the fields to collect firewood and leaves from the baobab tree to cook a more gelatinous porridge called to (pronounced like the appendage) for lunch. At lunchtime her husband will come back with a cart full of peanuts, which Bintu will spend the rest of the day shelling. Then she will go back into the smoky kitchen to cook another batch of to for dinner. After drawing more water from the well to clean the dishes, she will go to sleep and wake up to another day of more or less the same work around the house and adjacent fields.

At age 50 Bintu will die of respiratory infection from having spent half the hours of her waking life inhaling the harmful tars and particulate matter of wood smoke. Except for the occasional trip to sell her peanuts at market in the next village over, she will have never left Sanadougou.

Despite these common tales of woe, there is much to praise about the status of women in Mali – even according to the narrow lens of Western social theory. First Wave Feminism is an established fait accompli; compared to other majority Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia or Iran, Mali is eons ahead in terms of political equality. Upon independence from French colonial rule in 1960, the Republic of Mali borrowed from her mother country a republican ethos of equal political rights for both men and women. As long as there has been a Malian state, women like men have been constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote, to serve on juries and to hold public office, and discrimination based on sex has been prohibited by the Constitution. Seeing that the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution is limited to voting rights, Malian women have arguably greater de jure equality than their counterparts in America.

At this point in time, I would be inclined to classify Mali somewhere on the cusp of the Second Wave of Feminism. There are many women here who generate income of their own outside the home – a typical business operation consists of a lady sitting on a stool in the street directly in front of her home selling fried doughballs with fish sauce. Out of all seriousness, this is the height of commerce in an ordinary rural village – in the countryside there are very few factories and offices to speak of. In those urban centers like Bamako, Sikasso, Ségou or Koutiala there is a small but growing population of university-educated women who hold jobs as secretaries, teachers, accountants and even the occasional doctor, lawyer or engineer. Though in a country where the vast majority of men work on the family farm, the issue of women in the workplace is barely a blip on anyone’s radar.

As to Third Wave Feminism, well… (gulp) let’s just say that Mali is an overwhelmingly Islamic country. Though West African Muslim societies are generally more open and tolerant than their Arab counterparts, the Qur’an is very clear about what will happen to sodomites when the Mahdi returns. Though I would not describe Malian society as being particularly hostile to homosexuality – it’s more like most people do not know what homosexuality is. I am told that there is no word in Bambara – or Senaful, Fulani or Minianka for that matter – for a man who loves a man or a woman who loves a woman.

It would be fair to say that the prevailing attitudes on gender and sex in Mali are an ocean and a continent apart from those in the United States. Yes, many men here view women as inferior subordinates. But then again, so do a number of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Southern Baptists in Montgomery – and their wives enjoy much greater opportunities to find employment. Male chauvinism is without a doubt an obstacle to the realization of the needs of Mali’s women, yet their most immediate problems are not so much products of misogyny as much as they are symptoms of a completely underdeveloped subsistence agricultural economy where daily life has not changed all that much since the Iron Age.

Whereas traditional gender roles seem like bizarre anachronisms in America’s postindustrial metropolises, here in Sanadougou they actually make a lot of sense. Since so much labor goes into the production of each meal, it is completely unfathomable that an individual could live off the land without the help of a family. Here on Bintu’s farm, someone has to be hoeing, sowing and reaping the millet fields and someone has to spend all day sorting the grain from the chaff and pebbles, pounding the grain into an edible powder, and fanning the fire in the smoky kitchen – there are not enough hours in the day for one person to do all of these tasks themselves. The law of comparative advantage says that the pregnant woman with a baby on her back should be excused from more strenuous work and assigned to the lighter work of the hearth.

And as to those very, very many babies, the fecundity of Mali’s women is the upshot of many causes. First of all, contraceptives and birth control are expensive. Secondly, even if such methods were more readily available, devout Muslims heed Allah’s exhortations to be fruitful and multiply and the woman with the most offspring commands great respect in her community. And most of all, for traditional village women to have many children is the pre-capitalist equivalent of having life insurance and a pension plan with diversified holdings – if Bintu’s husband were to suddenly die, or if she were both to live long enough that she becomes too old and frail to work, at least one of those children will be able to put food on the table.

In Mali the current debates in American feminism seem a world away. Can a woman support a family of five and simultaneously serve as Vice President? If Bintu has to attend meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then no one would be able to cook to and leaf sauce for her husband and children. Should civil marriage rights be extended to same-sex couples? Here, the definition of a feminist is a woman who does not allow her husband to marry multiple wives. Abortion? A surefire way to have nightmares for a month is to imagine how that operation might be conducted in a country with neither bathtubs nor clothes hangers…

That is not to say that a feminist movement does not exist in Mali. It does, but like all other democratic movements in this young Republic it is taking baby steps towards progress. The typical American hockey mom in the year 2008 has not been cognizant long enough to remember a time when homemakers were expected to prepare tea and cookies without the luxury of supermarkets, refrigerators, dishwashers or Tupperware. But their grandmother’s generation would remember that these wonders of modern consumerism were the essential ingredients without which Betty Friedan would have never found the time to read the newspaper and be active in civic causes beyond the P.T.A.

Right now the Malian feminist movement is largely occupied with achieving a comparable level of material comfort. Just as Lenin wished to bypass industrial capitalism to transform Russia’s feudal agrarian economy directly into a post-capitalist industrial state, Malian women are toiling to improve the household economy so that the Second Wave of Feminism can come about prior to running water or electricity. Like most things in Mali, change is coming about little by little.

For example, gas stoves. In America they are rustic antiques, but in Mali they are on the cutting edge of consumer technology. For a woman to own such an item means that they save hours a day which would have otherwise been spent collecting and chopping firewood. A gas stove also frees them from the confines of a smoky kitchen thereby vastly improving their pulmonary health, perhaps tacking on a few years to their life. Gas stoves, however, will forever remain beyond the means of women who have enough trouble paying for food. So some advocates of women’s health in Mali are beginning to espouse culinary practices which are easy on the lungs and also free of charge, such as recipes which can be cooked in the noonday sun or – a truly ground-breaking innovation – cooking outside.

Nevertheless, the most revolutionary tool in the dialect of Malian Second Wave Feminism is without a doubt the toilet. You might be wondering what a toilet could possibly have to do with equal rights for women, but this simple apparatus has more to do with equality of opportunity than you might imagine.

It’s not so hard for me to imagine, because every morning the kids in village have to pass my house along the road to the primary school. Every so often when I am brushing my teeth and watching the procession go by, a kid will stop and drop his pants or lift her dress and defecate on the other side of my fence.

Villages in countries like Mali are lucky if they have a building reserved solely for the education of their children. They are even luckier if they have a public latrine near that building. You see, even if there is a school in town does not mean that every child is going to attend class, because as they grow older children in Mali have other duties to attend to such as watering the garden, letting the cattle out to graze, and menstruating.

Yes, menstruating – it is embarrassing enough to go through puberty as is, and it is even more embarrassing when the butigi doesn’t sell tampons and the only place where they can find privacy is in their family’s latrine on the other side of town. Especially in schools where there is no bathroom on the premises, or even if there is a bathroom there is only one for a class of fifty and no lock on the door, the arrival of a girl’s first period often means the end of their academic career.

A toilet changes that whole equation. Not necessarily a flush toilet like the one you might be accustomed to, but an improved cement outhouse appropriate for a rural village without central plumbing. One of these thrones happens to be built next to the brand-new schoolhouse down the street from me – and it is reserved just for girls. That means the schoolgirls of Sanadougou might just be able to fight against the odds and achieve full literacy, go on to high school, maybe even acquire a skilled trade. A toilet for girls does not mean that everyone who uses it will necessarily be able to read and write and it certainly does not guarantee future employment – but it provides the infrastructure necessary so that girls can at least stay in school through adolescence.

Karitie Sanago, the principal of the Sanadougou school district, is quite grateful for the new latrines constructed next to the elementary school. He tells me that last year girls made up only 35 percent of the elementary school class rosters. But since this school year is the first that there has ever been a toilet for girls, a number of female students who never even finished elementary school have decided to give it another shot. This year, girls make up approximately 45 percent of the student body; the gender breakdown is still nowhere near absolute parity, but now that there is a toilet for girls it has been significantly narrowed.

His wife Durcas spends most of her day sorting rice and tending the fire to cook three meals a day – but she is also one of the few women in town with a lycée education, fully literate and fluent in French. This puts Durcas in a position as one of Sanadougou’s civil society elite; she runs the local women’s group and serves as an advisor to the Mayor’s Office. “What we need in Mali is a reason for women to want to learn”, she tells me, “because so many women think that they will never be able to do anything but cook to.”

In our free time I am teaching Durcas how to type with my word processor and how to make spreadsheets with Microsoft Excel. At the moment the Mayor’s Office is trying to put Sanadougou on the electrical grid, but my hope is that one day when they have computers, Durcas will be the only person in a hundred villages who can digitally manage the public finances.

A Discouraging Moment

When people meet this strange white man with aviator sunglasses and hydrofoil sideburns, it is clear that I am… from out of town, so one of the first questions I am always asked is “Where are you from?”

“America”, I say, “in a village near the city of New York”

“Oh, New York! I know of that place!” they reply, and then scan their memory to remember how exactly they know of it. Then they ask me in a jovial, getting-to-know-you tone, “Was anyone in your family killed on September 11th?”

Thankfully, no. But at this point the conversation always comes to a somber lull. In America and especially in New York, anyone other than Rudy Giuliani has a hard time making small talk out of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. But with the hyperliteralism of the Bambara tongue, subtlety does not quite exist in Mali. As much as I would prefer for them to ask me about the Yankees, Broadway or the Museum of Modern Art, the only one of New York’s landmarks they could possibly know is the former World Trade Center.

One time I was hiding from the noon-day sun brewing tea with a group of men and I had to suffer this horrendous dialogue once again. I have had this simultaneous conversation starter/ender more times than I can count, but this time it really touched a nerve. Directly beforehand, the person with whom I was speaking had asked me about my religious affiliation.

“Tell me this – who told your family not to go to work on September 11th?”

My blood curled. The cruder instincts in me wanted to strangle this particular individual brewing tea before me, shove his face into the glowing embers, and then pour that teapot of boiling water down his throat so he could never utter such obscenity again. But then my superego chimed in and reminded me that I am in the Peace Corps – we are strongly discouraged from committing in acts of violence, no matter how deserved they may be. Peace, Zac, think of peaceful methods of conflict resolution such as the art of Reason and Negotiation. It took me a while though, because at that moment the impulsive option seemed rather appealing.

I simply informed the casual anti-Semite sitting in front of me that no such warning was ever issued to the Jewish community of the greater New York metropolitan area, and that many Jews, in fact, were killed on 9/11. I explained to him that the assertion is absurd on its face, for Osama bin Laden is quite open about his intent on killing Jewish civilians throughout the world.

“But Sidi told me that…” Sidi is an illiterate peanut farmer who lives down the street.

I framed the problem like this: I am from New York – Sidi has never strayed more than a donkey cart’s ride away from his village; I have read the 9/11 Commission Report from cover to cover – Sidi cannot read; I am a New York Jew – Sidi would not know what a Jew was if he clocked him across the face with a bottle of maneshevitz.

In the end I think I won. Though throughout the conversation, I could not help but eyeball that boiling teapot.

There really isn’t much more to this story, in truth it’s not much of a story at all other than a cautionary reminder that even in perhaps the most moderate, pro-Western of countries in the Islamic world, the vilest of anti-Semitic slander is disseminated with the greatest of ease. I can’t really blame the people who fall for it, because they have no source of information other than gossip and hearsay garbled a hundred times down the telephone line.

I feel that I can rightly blame those few demented, self-fashioned journalists and educators who use their power over the minds of men to give credence to such malicious lies. But the sad truth is that sick minds like these have existed since the days of Pharaoh, they always will, and there’s nothing anyone can do to make them go away. But there is plenty that can be done by Israel, the United States, and especially the American Jewish community to dilute their message and undermine their credibility.

From Senegal to Syria to Pakistan to Indonesia, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims grow up in stifling poverty with little to no access to public education. In many countries the only opportunity that many Muslim youth will ever have at receiving a free education or a secondary education of any form is the madrassa system funded by wealthy Arabs from the oil-rich Gulf States. Despite the awful press they have received in past years, there is nothing inherently wrong about the madrassas – they are in essence no different than Catholic boarding schools. But if there is a madrassa in a given city teaching its garabouts to believe in a global Zionist conspiracy, then that is probably the only semblance of an education they can ever hope to get.

I must admit that when it comes to the most politicized madrassas which propagate such hateful screeds, it might be the only time that I will ever agree with Paul Wolfowitz: the United States and the rest of the industrial powers must embark on massive campaign to finance public education in the Islamic world. This money need not be slanted towards the ideological indoctrination in free market democracy but the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, for that alone is enough to allow students to develop opinions of their own and bust the madrassas’ near monopoly on public opinion.

Furthermore, the State of Israel has a great role to improve this current state of affairs. At the present, there is no sign of an Israeli presence in Mali – which is a shame, seeing that all things being equal Mali remains one of the most tolerant of Muslim countries, the Malian people are unanimously supportive of international development efforts, and the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré is avidly embracing any and every foreign government which offers such aid. Israel more than capable of financing a modest assistance program and I can’t think of one good reason why it has not done so already.

I hate to say it, but Jerusalem should emulate the example being set by Muammar el-Qaddafi. They should open up an Israeli Embassy in Bamako and make a good first impression by embarking on a spending spree to finance the construction of new schoolhouses. If the Livni cabinet could allocate a minute fraction what is spent on subsidies for the building of new settlements in the West Bank to send Israel’s famed water engineers to Mali, they could do for Islamic communities bordering the Sahara what investments in irrigation have done for horticulture in the Negev Desert. Were the Israeli Foreign Ministry to become as visibly involved in West African development programs as say, Luxembourg, one cannot help but think that the soft power influence would deprive local anti-Semitism of oxygen and maybe even establish a few more moderate Islamic allies to prod Palestinian cooperation in a future peace process. If only…

I should quit while I’m ahead. Next time someone asks, I’ll say I’m from Chicago.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Malian Perspective on President Obama

Though Barack Obama has yet to take the oath of office as President of the United States, it seems this election has already made immeasurable progress in America’s standing with the rest of the world. Why do I think this? Because people tell me so.

Now when I walk down the street, people randomly come up to me and say "thank you". Thank you for what? “Thank you for voting for Barack Obama! America used to be very bad, but now you are my friend!”

Despite the general disapproval of our foreign policy in the Middle East and our occasional kooky outbursts of Christian supremacy, every Malian I talk to has an effusive attitude towards America per se. A common conversation starter here is “America… it is… Good!” I try my best to explain in Bambara income inequality and xenophobia, but it seems that nothing will shake the belief that America is a virginal exception to the Old World tradition of colony and empire.

Though Malians have their doubts. A general rule of thumb is that the more literate a Malian is and the more they identify themselves with Islamic culture, the more likely they are going to have an ax to grind with America. If they can pronounce “Abu Ghraib”, I brace myself for an uncomfortable feeling of personal responsibility for the collective sins of my countrymen. Unlike most governments in African history, America is a democracy whose faults cannot be ascribed to one man – if the government does something bad it is all the people’s fault.

No one in Mali other than President Toure has ever actually met George Walker Bush, but they know enough about the archetypical Tubabu to have a very negative view of him. “Joje Boosh is racist!” I am told, “Joje Boosh kills Muslim people in Iraq and Palestine because he thinks that Jesus is the prophet and Muhammad is a liar!” We have eight years of serious damage to control.

Some people have a few kind words to say about the incumbent administration, “Joje Boosh buys chemicals to kill mosquitoes and kill malaria banakise – but he wants us to become Christians because he thinks that Islam is a terrorist religion!” I do not know how much of these views are formed by al-Jazeera a few madrassahs removed, how much they are simply products of homegrown prejudice, or how much they are based upon an objective analysis of discernible reality. But I can say for sure that the negative attitude towards the President who said that America was fighting “a crusade” is somewhat related to generations of Malian interaction with well-meaning missionaries whose handouts have been laced with ulterior motives.

But no matter how many bones they can pick with America, all eyes light up upon the mention of Barack Obama. “Barack Obama… is… Good!”

Part of it is simply because Barack Obama is black… well, he’s actually half black, but he’s more black than any other President of the biggest most powerful white country in the world. Also, many Malians believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. You see, unlike America where calling someone a Muslim is tantamount to slander, in Mali it is a praise of a person’s ethics and morals. In an Islamic country, boys are regularly named Hussein after the grandson of Muhammad who rebelled against the Umayyad dynasty’s tyranny and injustice.

Some people here have an interestingly self-interested perspective on Obama’s victory; “Now that America has a black skinned president, America will give more money to black skinned Africans!” When I am told this I explain that yes, the Obama-Biden ticket did in fact pledge to increase the budget for foreign assistance – some of which might be allocated to Mali’s irrigation projects. But the understanding assumes more of an iron law of wages, “The black president is going to take money from the racist white people and give it to his brothers and sisters in Africa!”

Other people have a more comprehensive understanding of the history of American race relations. “You Americans used to own slaves from Africa, and then you freed the slaves. But you were still racist for many years…” I am lectured by shriveled old men. “But now you have a black President, and Barack Obama is going to smack the racists hard like a dirty old donkey!” Right on, brotha (terrorist fist jab).

I think there might be something a little more profound to what has happened, something with a connection to what I am doing here right now which I am still digesting. I think that after eight long years of insularity and fear of foreign-sounding Muslim people, America is – like Kevin McAlastair and the furnace in his basement – not afraid anymore.

I think that what America just did has something to do with why I left my comfortable, air-conditioned existence in New York and decided to spend the next two years living in a mud hut in a village of peanut farmers who eat millet porridge with leaf sauce and pray to an almighty Allah whom I can only begin to comprehend. I think that maybe it has something to do with the fact that instead of sitting by myself all day behind a locked gate, I have finally worked up the courage to invite my neighbors over to my garden to sip hibiscus tea and tell me their life stories. And the more that I hang out with the people in my village and listen to their fart jokes, the less anxious I feel about locking my gate all the time.

I think most of all, it has something to do with the fact that I spend each day walking the dusty, filth-ridden streets of my village, walking into people’s yards and simply having a chat about developing water infrastructure. People here think that their village is dirty and crumbling, though for years they have had the tools and the capacity to improve it. It just seems as if everyone has just always accepted malaria and gastrointestinal disease and poverty as immutable constants – and if anything could be done about it, it could only be done by white French people beyond their control. My job in the Peace Corps is really to explain to people that they don’t have to sit idly as they wait for the Messiah to return, that they have always had the power to change things themselves, so let’s turn off the boob tube, get off our butts and get to it.

If anything, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has demonstrated to the people of Mali that change is, in fact, possible.

As I explain in Bambara, “Owo, an be se.”

Yes we can.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Revolution of Rising Expectations

November approaches. Operation Sphincter Plug trudges into its second month. It seems as though my campaign to rid Sanadougou of water-borne diarrhea is going to be a long, hard slog. The more I realize that so few people have any means of measuring the depth of their well water with the metric system, I now measure the man of the household’s forearm and tell them to measure their wet rope with the relative unit of “arm-lengths”.

The further I travel into the murky depths of the Malian fecal-oral cycle, the more I realize how incredibly primitive is the system of English units. It is a system intended for people who do not understand the concept of abstract scientific constants. The only reason why I need to teach this very limited system of measuring things in relation to one’s arm is that I am trying to teach well treatment to a largely illiterate population whose grasp of mathematics is more or less confined to counting. In a society where the decimal point is comprehended only by a select elite, this system makes sense. Though it boggles my mind that the United States of America – the most powerful, most wealthy, most technologically-advanced society in the history of human civilization which has split the atom, sent men to the Moon, and decoded the human genome – still measures things in relation to a 12th century English monarch’s foot.

The wide, deep chasm between the material conditions of technological development and the actual understanding of that technology also continues to baffle me. This most directly hits home when I spend each day maintaining the village water pumps – but people would rather drink from their murky wells. Modernism and medievalism coexist like corn and beans.

My favorite case study is that of my new all-time favorite technology: solar pumping. A few years ago a French NGO recognized that during each dry season a significant portion of Sanadougou’s respective herds of cows, donkeys, sheep, goats and pigs would die from dehydration, and that the seasonal water shortage posed an acute problem for this agricultural economy. And so they decided out of the goodness of their hearts to build a solar pump. This fascinating contraption pumps excess groundwater from the rainy season to two storage towers about 20 meters high; during dry season it gradually releases a stream of water into concrete troughs for the farm animals to drink. As the name suggests, the pump and release system is powered by its own array of solar panels programmed to track the Sun’s direct radiation.

The people of my village understand very well that during dry season when the streams and ponds dry up, they should herd their animals to the watering trough. But they apparently don’t really get what those shiny blue metal things are. I realized this when I biked over to inspect the solar pump the first time early one morning to discover that the chain-link fence surrounding the solar array was draped with some lady’s laundry – blocking the most direct of the sun’s rays. I was eventually able to find the owner of the offending laundry and tried my best to explain to her that a solar array is not a very good place to hang her clothes.

“But my dresses and blankets are wet”, she protested. “If I do not put them on the fence, they will not dry.”

It’s not as though the people of Mali are completely sheltered from the outside world. Even in my remote village, everyone gathers around the family television set which shows them images of the Western life of running water, credit cards, the Internet. Imaginations are surely whetted by these general concepts and they really want these great new things, but they have difficulty understanding that progress comes gradually; e.g. that before they can build a swimming pool they should concentrate on treating their drinking water, that before I can teach them to speak English they should focus on the alphabet. History books call this “The Revolution on of Rising Expectations.”

I have come to learn about the boundless optimism of my neighbors very well as I go door to door and ask people about how we can work together on local development. What I have in mind is to building covers on wells and digging pits next to people’s latrines as rudimentary septic tanks.

One old lady says to me, “you should build an airplane.” I thought this was hilarious… until I realized that she wasn’t laughing – she was dead serious.

“If you build an airplane, then we can sell our peanuts in France.”

Trying my best to not be impolite, I asked her who – if I indeed built this airplane - would drive it all the way to Charles de Gaulle International Airport.

“Me”, the shoeless, toothless farmer replied, “I have driven a boat many times.” To understand this statement, in Bambara the word for “airplane” is pankuru – literally “jumping boat.” Every few months the farmers hear a high whistle as they are hoeing their fields, they look up and see this metal thing flying across the horizon. In the logic of the Bambara language, but for the fact that one goes in the water and one goes in the air, a Boeing 747 cannot be fundamentally all that different from a wooden canoe. After all, there is no means of ever knowing, because I can guarantee that the shoeless, toothless farmer with maybe $100 to her name will never ever set foot upon an airplane.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, especially when this boundless optimism and desire for change is the manna upon which the Peace Corps feeds. But it’s a difficult sell trying to channel this dreamy liberalism into a passion for eradicating diarrhea and cleaning the streets of shit and piss.

Slaughtering Saddam Hussein the Halal Way

Note: Nouhoume is a Muslim butcher, and so the laws of halal are a very important part of his daily life.

Nouhoume: Madu, why did America slaughter Saddam Hussein on Tabaski?

Madu: Um… What?

N: The day that America slaughtered Saddam Hussein, it was the feast of Tabaski. That was very, very bad.

M: …First of all, Americans didn’t kill Saddam Hussein. American soldiers caught Saddam Hussein, and then they gave him to the government of Iraq. When Saddam Hussein was executed, he was executed by Iraqi people.

N: Don’t give me lies for little children – everyone knows that Iraq is America’s slave. If America tells Iraq to dance, Iraq dances. If America tells Iraq to kill Saddam Hussein, the slave does what his master says.

M: I can’t argue with that. But what is Tabaski?

N: Tabaski is a day of feasts when all Muslims cannot work. We slaughter sheep as a sacrifice to Allah, and then we eat the sheep meat that Allah does not want.

M: So why was it bad to kill Saddam Hussein on Tabaski?

N: For Malians, Tabaski is a day of feasts and celebration with your family. It is the most joyous day of the whole year. Imagine that you are Saddam Hussein and you want to be slaughtering sheep for Allah and eating sheep meat with your wives and sons and daughters – But no! You are slaughtered instead! You would be very sad.

M: Yes, but… if I were Saddam Hussein and I was going to be executed, I would probably be very sad no matter what day it was… and you might be the only person who has ever felt sorry for Saddam Hussein.

N: Also, on Tabaski you are honoring Allah, and so you must choose the best of your sheep as a sacrifice. Saddam Hussein was clearly not the best sheep of the flock, otherwise it is a dishonor to Allah.

M: When Iraq – and America – executed Saddam Hussein, I do not think that the ethics of halal butchering were taken into account.

N: Madu, America should never slaughter Saddam Hussein on Tabaski again – you explain that to the American government.

M: … The next time that America catches Saddam Hussein, I will tell the government to slaughter him after Tabaski.

N: You promise?

M: I promise.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Operation Sphincter Plug

If you read any literature from the United Nations, World Health Organization, etc. the most widely-used statistic to measure the development of water sanitation infrastructure is the “percentage of the population with access to clean water.” My village of Sanadougou has one water pump which filters out particulate matter, guinea worm larvae, amoebas and giardia cysts – so according to UN/WHO criteria, 100 percent of Sanadougou’s 4,426 inhabitants have access to clean water. And so now everyone is parasite-free and perfectly healthy and there is nothing left for me to do here.

… Just kidding. The Japanese foreign aid agency which funded the construction of the primary school in town was certainly benevolent and forward-thinking in their construction of a water pump and filter next door. So when elementary school kids are thirsty they can drink clean water, and so can I and the few people whose houses are right next to the filtered water pump. But water is surprisingly heavy, and to draw a bucket of water every time you have to take a drink, cook a meal, clean the dishes, do laundry or water the garden, and carrying 50 pounds of water on your head for any distance is an onerous, tedious task. Asides from the cluster of families whose houses are in the direct vicinity of the school, very few people in Sanadougou ever bother to walk all the way to the pump and back.

I would say that 95 percent of the people in town drink well water. And when I say a well, I don’t mean a raised cement-brick structure with a cover and a pulley. When I talk about a well in Mali, I usually mean a hole dug in the ground with water in the bottom – slightly discolored water which looks like the pond you swam in at summer camp. Most people have their own well in the family compound, which means that it is situated on the dirt floor probably equidistant from the kitchen, the chicken coop and the donkey stable. So when your typical Malian is thirsty, the nearest woman drops a bucket into the hole in the ground, pulls it up and drinks whatever is inside. Sometimes people just crouch down in the nearest mud puddle, cup their hands and slurp up the contents.

Hence even though everyone in Sanadougou technically has “access to clean water” provided by the most state-of-the-art Japanese-built pump, if people prefer to drink from their neighborhood mud puddle, the concept of water sanitation here is really little more than a figment of the imagination of some bureaucrat sitting in an air-conditioned office in Geneva. And likewise, it is not very difficult to understand why diarrhea is after malaria the most lethal cause of infant mortality in this country. Some nights when I can smell the telltale sulfur wafting in the air, if I can gauge the direction from which the wind is blowing I can tell precisely which of my neighbors has giardia – my olfactory hypothesis at this point is approximately 70 percent of the good people of Sanadougou.

Some old, dead white guy once said that “Politics is the art of the possible.” My mission over the next two years is to design and implement an affordable and feasible plan to reduce the number of people in this village suffering from water-borne diseases, and methinks that the most doable stratagem within my reach for reducing the number of children who die from dehydration before their parents carry their tiny bodies to the clinic next door in vain is to concentrate on combating diarrhea. The threat of HIV/AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis, African river blindness, and even Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb pales in comparison to the threat to Malian well-being posed by diarrhea, and so it is this doer of evil towards which I am for now concentrating my labor. And so I call my current campaign Operation Sphincter Plug.

I am absolutely anal retentive (pun intended) about what I drink, so any drop of water which gets anywhere near my mouth – unless it was previously in a boiling teapot – comes first from the Japanese water pump, then I filter it again with my own personal two-tiered charcoal filter to be doubly protected against undesirable water-borne organisms, and then I treat it with an ample dose of chlorine bleach. If the Republic of Mali could purchase one of these babies at maybe 50 bucks a pop for each and every one of its 11 million concitoyens, then cholera, dysentery, amoebas, giardia and every single malady which leads to juvenile diarrhea and infant mortality would plummet. However, the World Bank’s inflation-paranoid lending policy has commanded that Mali keep government spending to an absolute minimum – thus no such program could conceivably exist so long as their development policy is restricted to the free market orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus.

I could also organize the farmers of Sanadougou to put aside all of the profits from their peanut and cotton harvests from now on, spend none of it on food and medicine and instead put those profits away in one of the local banks which does not give out interest, and pray that maybe 80 years from now there will be enough accumulated enough capital to construct a new water pump in the center of the village. If this plan works, then the World Bank would be very pleased as the invisible hand of capitalism develops without government interference.

Accepting the fact that people are going to drink from their wells until a more convenient source of water appears in their family courtyard, and acknowledging the cruel realities of my financial constraints, the first forward offensive of Operation Sphincter Plug to eradicate juvenile diarrhea in the village of Sanadougou has been rather modest. Since I can't buy everyone their own personal two-tier charcoal water filter, I am endeavoring to replicate the chemical reactions which occur in the bottom tier of my charcoal water filter: chlorine bleach treatment, a method which works against microscopic pathogens but not larger parasites like guinea worm. I am spending most of my time now going door to door and talking to housewives about how they can treat their well water with chlorine bleach available at any every butigi (the Malian equivalent of a bodega).

Though the concept of microscopic pathogens is not widely understood – many people believe in witches and warlocks – there is a Bambara term banakise which means “bad seeds”. Nobody seems to know what these “bad seeds” are or where they come from, but they are undoubtedly very, very bad. Every Malian I talk to accepts that banakise - whether created by nature or by black magic - can cause sickness. I am never going to be able to get people to stop believing in sorcery, but I’m not a missionary and I don’t care if people believe in ghosts or goblins or the Easter Bunny so I’m not even going to try. Without challenging people’s beliefs or skimping on the science, I explain that chlorine bleach kills the banakise. So far people seem to be receptive to the idea, and they are much more receptive to my suggestions in regards to treating water with chlorine bleach than they are to washing their hands with soap.

I am also trying to teach people how to treat their wells each month with a larger amount of bleach, and this is tremendously more difficult as it involves math. In order to treat well water with the appropriate amount of bleach, one must first ascertain the volume of water in the well. As anyone who has ever taken a junior high school geometry class could probably figure out, this entails measuring the diameter of surface, measuring the depth of the water with a rope tied to a rock, and calculating the volume of a cylinder. Using the Bambara words for “depth” – dunya - and “diameter” - fie, one calculates the volume of well water with the formula
V = d x [π ( f2 / 4)].

Some people in town can understand this concept very well; i.e. people who use math on an everyday basis such as the math teacher, the doctor, carpenters. But the majority of people in Mali are illiterate. I don’t mean illiterate as in people who get their news from the graphs in USA Today – I mean illiterate illiterate, as in people who sign their name with an “X” - if they even know how to hold a pencil. Though the schools in Sanadougou are free of charge, many people simply don’t go because their family needs them to herd cattle and till the peanut fields, and therefore illiteracy is simply a fact of life. In a society where the ability to read and do math beyond simple arithmetic is quite rare, to many people the expression: V = d x [π ( f2 / 4)] is absolute gobbledygook. And so I am engaged in the tedious process of doing the calculations for every family's well and writing a table so all that they have to do is measure the depth of the well water.

That's not all. If you think that it might only be difficult to explain the concept of measuring volume in cubic meters, try explaining the concept of what a meter is. Few people besides carpenters even have any means to make a precise measurement - a peanut farmer who makes the equivalent of 400 dollars a year has little reason to invest in a meter stick. So for many families, I have actually made them meter sticks by simply taking a flat board or pole and copying the hashmarks on my own.

At this rate, I will have explained the treatment of well water with chlorine bleach to every household in Sanadougou in one year; if everyone to whom I teach this practical water sanitation method actually employs it, maybe - just maybe - the number of kids in this village who die from diarrhea-induced dehydration will decrease. Now if only I could convince everyone to wash their hands with soap...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ini Che a Sanadougou!

Note: official directives from Washington prohibit me from revealing my true location on the Internet for terrorists and other such evildoers to see - and so I will affectionately refer to my village from here on out as "Sanadougou". All of the material here is true, though the actual names of places must be changed to protect the innocent.

The first few months of living at site are kind of like first-semester freshman year. I am not really expected to just plop down and start digging wells; first I have to spend most of my time getting a feel for my new village, putting my home together, just drinking tea and chatting with my new neighbors. And like it was that first semester, it is quite overwhelming trying to learn all of these new names. Everybody in Sanadougou’s last name is Sogoba, and apparently the Sogobas have some ancient blood rivalry against the Doumbias who previously named me, and hence I have been rechristened Madu Sogoba. In the Bambara tongue, Sogoba means “elephant”, or literally “big meat” – which I find to be quite flattering. Also, there are twenty other Madu Sogoba’s in town, so I am known as either Madu Sogaba #21, Madu Sogoba the Fat and the Hairy, or simply “The White Guy.”

Sanadougou is a village of roughly 4,000 people, which for Malian standards makes it a fairly large town. It is also the Chef de la Commune - which is the equivalent of a county seat - so the good news is that there are a lot of people who want to work with me. In addition to the traditional gerontocracy there is a formal Office of the Mayor, and significant public facilities like a health clinic, a kindergarten, an elementary and a junior high school, a public library and a bustling market on every sixth day. Sanadougou is a mostly Muslim community with four mosques, but there is also a significant Christian population which maintains a vibrant church. Everybody wants the new Peace Corps Volunteer to help out at their respective workplace.

Like most other villages in Mali, pretty much everybody here is engaged in farming in some way, shape or form. Right now is the tail-end of rainy season – the only season that people can grow the staple grains of millet, rice and corn, so my neighbors are very busy. As people are done harvesting their staple cereals, they dry them in the sun and stock their granaries for the rest of the year, and since it is nearly impossible to grow water-intensive grains the rest of the year, Malian farmers rotate their fields to cultivate vegetables and fruits which can be grown with much less rainfall. Now the markets are starting to teem with a lot of okra, yams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, this thing called nkoyo which is like a really bitter pepper, hot peppers, and of course a plethora of beans. Sanadougoucaw also grow bananas, plantains, yellow melons, watermelons, oranges, lemons, mangoes, papayas, guavas, pomegranates. And in terms of animals, they raise chickens, guinea hens, pigeons, rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, and pigs! After eating plain rice and millet for the previous two months, the abundance and variety of food makes me very happy about my site selection.

My village is in a very wet region near the border between Ségou and Sikasso provinces. In economic terms, that means that the townsfolk of Sanadougou have so much water during rainy season that besides growing millet and okra for their personal consumption and trade with their neighbors, they can also grow Mali’s main cash crops: cotton, peanuts and shea nuts. The end result is that some rich European or American people are buying clothes, candy bars and shampoo made from their raw materials, a little bit of those profits come back to where they belong. In addition, the market in Sanadougou (which is large enough to allow for a real division of labor) is significantly larger than that in my homestay village Sinsina (which seemed to be more reliant on subsistence farming). Though people from very small villages also come to the Chef de la Commune market town to sell their goods, that little bit of additional income which results in living right next to the big market makes a difference. For a country where per capita income hovers around $400 a year, Sanadougou is relatively prosperous (emphasis added on relatively).

It is really baffling to me how economic development works in Mali. The vast majority of kids walk around barefoot and will inevitably contract hookworm because their parents can’t afford to buy shoes. And though the public schools are free they are not obligatory, and so most people in Mali are illiterate because their parents decided it would be in the family’s financial interests for them to work in the fields instead of going to school. But it seems that everybody has a cell phone – even if they will never make a business call they can play Space Invaders. And a surprising number of people have found it within their means to purchase a television set so they can watch these awful Brazilian soap operas dubbed into French – even if they do not understand a word of the dialogue, they still love to watch their televisions. The concept of keeping up with the Joneses exists in Mali too, but unfortunately it gives disproportionate weight to expensive entertainment technology instead of basic expenses on health and education… just like in America!

The most obvious problem here in regards to water is that, asides from rainy season, there is simply not enough of it. During dry season – so-named because there is absolutely zero precipitation – many men sojourn to the large cities in Mali in search of work. Dry season through the end of the grain harvest at the end of rainy season is known as “hungry time”, because the only food to eat is whatever dried grains and vegetables are stored in the granaries. In the long run I would like to try to do some work in regards to water storage so that people might be able to have more water for their immediate drinking and washing needs, maybe even water a small kitchen garden during dry season – but this would be a very technical undertaking which would require some major financial investment.

My town could use some work in regards to water sanitation. There are no toilets in rural Mali, only a basic latrine called a nyegen which is literally a walled-off area inside each family’s concession with two holes; a deep hole in the ground where people poop, and a hole on the bottom of the wall (hopefully but not always the lowest point in the nyegen) where people should try to aim their pee. Unless a family lives on the periphery of the village, the pee-hole of their nyegen leads to the street – which means that there are many, many algae-filled puddles of sewage trickling out into the dirt roads where people and animals walk. I have a feeling that I am going to spend the bulk of my time over the next two years working to minimize the amount of raw sewage festering in the streets of my village.

A less discernible but even more profound water-related problem in Sanadougou is that of disease transmission. You cannot see it directly – if you are eating dinner with a family and they hand you a cup of water, it probably looks crystal clear. But after spending a day at the local clinic watching parent after parent in tears carrying their delirious or even comatose children, it is apparent that there are some potent disease vectors in the neighborhood. The sole doctor for this Commune of 16,000 people tells me that the most grave health issues here are diarrhea and malaria – both of which fall into my field of water sanitation because the many microbes which cause diarrhea are transmitted through untreated water and poor sanitary practices, and malaria is spread by the Anopholes mosquito which breeds in standing water. The two most deadly causes of infant mortality in Mali are also the most easily preventable, so my job is clearly set before me. If I can make even the tiniest dent in the incidence of either malady, then I will be very content.

That is all for now, but be prepared for future updates. And remember: just as this blog is fully interactive, you can help me implement the directives of Mission Number 0079 from the comforts of your air-conditioned cubicle! Though the Peace Corps is training me well and provides vast resources of technical manuals, I appreciate any suggestions you might have - and it doesn't have to be water-related, and if your idea is within my ability, then I just might do it and tell all of the loyal followers of Zacstravaganza just how wonderful of a person you are. Epidemiologists, doctors, carpenters, welders, farmers and agronomists – I am all ears!

Upholding and Defending My Own Constitution

In more personal terms, upon my arrival the dugutigi (village chief) let it be known that I ate was to be adopted as a son by a teacher Karitie and his family who live down the road from me. This arrangement could not possibly be any better for yours truly. Karitie speaks fluent French, so he is able to teach me the nuances of Bambara quite well. Besides being the best cuisinière in town, his wife Durukas is also one of the most educated and informed women whom I have met thusfar in Mali – she is an advisor to the Mayor. Their sons Kam and Jafete and their daughter Diko act as my teachers as well; they are helping me navigate Malian youth culture, to fully appreciate American hip hop and Jamaican reggae, and with the their help I have received the worst haircut in my life – I should have known it was a bad sign when la coiffure muttered “I’ve never given a white boy a haircut before.” So in conclusion, I tried to make lemonade out of this lemon of a situation and I shaved my head.

… But I digress. So I reiterate that during the first three months at site I am supposed to take it slow and get a feel for the community in which I am living and working – I’m not just plopping down here and starting to dig wells willy-nilly. Even without constructing a new water pump, merely getting my own house in order and understanding what is going on here is difficult enough for the time being.

My number #1 priority at the time being is to carry out the first imperative of Mission Number 0079 and maintain the Constitution of Zachary Asher Mason. I reiterate that with all of the mosquitoes, flies, ants, beetles, termites, hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms, centipedes, millipedes, crickets, cockroaches, praying mantises, amoebas, giardia cysts, lizards and other organisms who would like to feed off of yours truly and my own supply of nourishment, this is no simple undertaking.

At this incipient stage of my existence as a member of Malian society, my modus operandi has been heavily influenced by the strategic thinking of George Kennan. As the Red Army had ensconced its dominion over Eastern Europe by the conclusion of hostilities in 1945, Kennan realized the futility of attempting to roll back the Communist bloc by sheer force and the dangers which such overreach could impose on America’s immediate national security interests. Likewise, I believe that I must first focus on the maintenance of my direct interests in surviving through September 2010, and even if I do nothing more than strive incessantly to preserve my own health and to contain the spread of water-borne diseases to my own person, the worst that can happen is that the strength of my example will rub off on my neighbors so they might improve their sanitary practices in kind.

The most difficult aspect of maintaining my own health is not the direct hazards of any non-humanoid organisms per se, but rather excluding myself from what water sanitation extension agents refer to as “the fecal-oral cycle”; in other words, how germs get from your poop to your mouth. In Mali, certain cultural practices make this mode of disease transmission rather facile.

As spelled out in the classic Sanitation Without Water – a must-read for anyone interested in the anthropology of anal cleansing,
“A basic distinction between people is that some are ‘washers’ and some are ‘wipers’. There words refer to how people clean themselves after they have excreted. Washers use water, wipers use some solid material like grass, leaves, paper, sticks, corncobs, mud balls or stones (Winblad and Kilama, 1985).”
The vast majority of Malians are what Winblad and Kilama would categorize as “washers”, and though most adults have had extensive practice with the plastic teapot method, from time to time even the most experienced washer inevitably gets a little bit of poo on his or her finger.

If everybody here ate from their own separate plate from their own separate utensils, this would be no big whup; but the traditional method for Malians to eat their meals is for everybody in the family and any guests to share from the same common food bowl – and everyone eats with their hands. And so it is not very difficult for the layman to understand why the fecal-oral cycle is such a common means of disease transmission, particularly for such illnesses which result in the symptom of messy diarrhea which will inevitably get all over one’s fingers such as cholera, dysentery, giardiasis and amebiasis.

The fecal-oral cycle could be easily discontinued if those who suffer from nasty diarrheal disorders were to wash their hands thoroughly with soap after taking a dump and again before eating from the communal food bowl. And that is why every time I sit down to eat from Durukas’ bowl of delicious rice with peanut butter sauce, yams or beans, I see to it that everyone eating with me washes their hands like it’s their job – because it actually is my job.

The very simple practice of washing one’s hands with soap is without parallel the easiest, cheapest, most effective means of reducing the transmission of potentially fatal diseases; however, many people are still reluctant to do so. As continued in the literary masterpiece Sanitation Without Water,
“In all cultures there are taboos surrounding defecation practices. Your enemy, if he gets hold of your faeces, can cause you great harm. Evil spirits may live in the pit… Religion may even lay down rules for cleaning after defecation (Winblad and Kilama, 1985).”

Many times when guests come to dine at Karitie and Durukas’ house, they are taken aback when I tell them to wash their hands with soap. It’s not an economic issue – everyone has soap to clean their clothes and their dishes, for soap is widely available and easily affordable. Pretty much every woman in Mali is involved in the collection of shea nuts and cooking them into shea nut butter soap.

Washing one’s hands with soap is more of a problem of superstition. You see, in Mali people are accustomed to washing their hands with only water, for soap is thought to wash away one’s luck. More specifically, I was told by one man who was reluctant to soap up his hands that if he did, then he would render himself vulnerable to the shubagaw – sorcerers who could then curse him with evil spells. He then lifted up his right hand curled in deformity, explaining that sorcerers wishing him ill transformed into bees and stung his hand to cause its present condition.

I cannot articulate in words just how frustrating it is to try to explain germ theory and disease transmission to someone who believes that sickness comes from magic spells.

So when put on the spot, I have to be blunt, "Today you were working with your father's cattle all day long. And the last time you took a dump, maybe a little bit of your poop got on your hands. You cannot see them, but there are little pieces of poop on your hands. If you dunk your hands in water, all you're doing is getting the little pieces of poop wet. I don't want to eat poop, so if you want to eat with me you have to wash your hands - with soap. I want to see bubbles."

I understand that it is a sensitive topic - nobody likes to talk about ingrained cultural practices regarding fecal matter when they are sitting down to eat. But my host family is on my side, so when push comes to shove they tell their guests that the village wanted a Water Sanitation volunteer for a reason, and that I am right - and that they should wash their hands with soap when they're dining with me or not.

I try my best not to be patronizing, especially with adults. But I don't want amoebas living in my gut, so sometimes spelling out the fecal-oral cycle in graphic detail is necessary when it comes to preserving and upholding my own constitution.

Puttin da Izzle to da Drizzle, Shizzle

Nouhoume: Madu, do you know Snope's telephone number?

Zac/Madu: Who is Snope?

N: Snope Doge Doge is the hip hop singer.

Z/M: Oh, Snoop Doggy Dogg! Yes, I listen to his songs on the radio from time to time.

N: Madu, you think that Snope Doge is the biggest owner of women?

Z/M: I... don’t know. I think that Snoop Dogg is only a singer.

N: Yes, Snope Doge sings hip hop songs, but he also owns many, many woman. He has many wives! Also Snope Dog has many girlfriends and many prostitutes!

Z/M: I suppose you are correct.

N: Snope Doge is a polygamist. Only Muslims can own many women. Christians can only own one woman. Therefore Snope Dog is a Muslim!

Z/M: I don’t think that Snoop Dogg is a Muslim. He can't be a Muslim - I think that he likes to drink alcohol – in fact, one of his songs is about how he likes to drink an alcoholic beverage called “gin” and also fruit juice at the same time.

N: Snope Doge is a Muslim because he owns many wives, but he also drinks alcohol in addition to his prostitutes and so he is a bad Muslim. Snope Dog also smokes many drugs all the time!

Z/M: Yes, that is true.

N: Do you have Snope Doge’s telephone number?

Z/M: No, I don’t. I listen to Snoop Dogg sometimes on the radio, but I don’t know him personally.

N: Yes you do know Snope Doge! You are from America! Snope Doge is from America! You are of the same people! You must have his phone number!

Z/M: … Not exactly. Snoop Dogg lives in Los Angeles, on the "West Side" of America. I come from New York, on the "East Side" of America. Los Angeles and New York are very far apart. That is why I have never met Snoop Dogg.

N: Which singers of hip hop songs live in New York?

Z/M: In New York there is 50 Cent, Puff Daddy, Chuck D… actually, DMX lives in the village next to my village

N: If DMX lives next to yours, then you must live in the black African neighborhood of New York.

Z/M: No… um… I don’t live in the black African neighborhood. I come from a little village and unfortunately most people who live there are white. My village is not big like New York City, it is small like your village. It is so small that in my village some people farm cows and horses.

N: DMX is a farmer in your village?

Z/M: I doubt it. Maybe he has a dog, maybe he grows some plants in his garden. But DMX is definitely not a farmer.

N: What does DMX do in your village?

Z/M: One time my friend saw him filling his car at the gas station. He was also buying some malt liquor.

N: DMX is a very rich man. He does not work at a gas station.

Z/M: DMX doesn’t work at the gas station. He was just filling up his own car. In America, we would say that he is “keeping it real.”

Not Letting The Light Go Out

Eliezer: Madu, you will go to church today?

Zac/Madu: No.

E: But today is Sunday, and on Sunday all Christians go to church. You should go to church today.

Z: I am not Christian. I am Jewish. We’ve been over this already.

E: I do not understand. You do not pray at the church, you do not pray at the mosque. So where do you pray?

Z: I… um… I pray at my house - alone… all the time.

E: You should not pray alone. You should pray with the Christian s every Sunday.

Z: In the holy book of the Jews - which you call the Old Testament, it says that you can pray with other people and it is also okay to pray by yourself.

E: How do your Jewish peoples pray?

Z: Some very strict Jewish people pray only in the language of the ancient Hebrews. They pray at the synagogue together, but the men sit in the front and the women sit in the back. They are called "Orthodox".

E: Do all Jewish people speak Hebrew?

Z: No, I sure don't. There are some Jewish people who pray together at the synagogue Hebrew and in English, and the women can sit with the men. They are called “Conservative” or “Reform.”

E: Is that how you pray?

Z: No. I am the only Jew in Diaramana, so there is no one who can do Jewish prayers with me.

E: Then how do you do your Jewish prayers?

Z: Well… um… at nighttime when I am all alone sometimes I burn some incense, and I light a candle. Then I read the Torah, or I sit on the ground and think very hard about whether I am doing the right things in life, about people in Mali and in America, and I try very harder to think about everything in the Universe all at once. When I pray I do not say a word, I only think. Sometimes when I pray I listen to Ravi Shankar on my iPod. Sometimes while I pray I lie on the ground and stretch my body.

E: You white people are very strange.

Z: Yes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Order of Mission Number 0079

After long, harrowing weeks of training I have officially become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now that I can speak Bambara, eat with my hands, control my bodily functions in terrains thought to be inhospitable to man, after proving that I can successfully thwart Mali's ubiquitous street beggars, little kids with grimy hands, parasite-laden mangoes and sword-wielding Damasheks, I am ready to finally go out and do some work in water sanitation development.

To mark the transition from Peace Corps Trainee to Peace Corps Volunteer, I along with my stage of 73 new recruits swore in during a big fancy ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako. Broadcast live on Mali's solitary television station after the daily installation of the Brazilian soap opera which dominates the daily lives of the entire nation of Mali, apparently this was a big deal.

I took the following oath of service (cue The Battle Hymn of the Republic):

I, Zachary Mason, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I take this obligation freely, and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps, so help me God.

What makes the Peace Corps undoubtedly the most badass agency in the federal government is that I can carry out such a solemn oath on national television dressed like this:

I, Peace Corps Volunteer Zachary Asher Mason, have been ordered on a mission. I am not kidding. I have in my hands a piece of paper which says that I have been assigned Ordre de Mission Number 0079, which is to work with the Malian Ministry of the Environment and Sanitation on the National Campaign to Control Pollution and Nuisances, working with the Office of the Mayor of the Commune of Sanadougou.

Mission Number 0079 will be a very dangerous mission which is why they have chosen only the hardiest of Volunteers with demonstrable skills in the maintenance of water pumps and sanitation infrastructure, foreign languages and fomenting revolutions of the heart, revolutions of the mind and revolutions of the bowels. In the African Theater of the Global War on Paludisme I can expect to face many evildoers whom I must vanquish wherever they may lurk. And thus I have been trained to defend myself, the Malian people and the Constitution of the United States of America from such foreign enemies as








and of course Malaria

This mission, which I have chosen to accept, will be a test of physical will and the strength of the spirit. There is no guarantee that my mission will succeed. There is no guarantee that I will make it back in one piece. There will be only instant coffee. But we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

May Allah bless America with many wives and with many cows.

Monday, September 15, 2008

More Fun With Racial Identity

Segou, Segou Province

Due to our long, sad history of racial oppression, segregation and discrimination, In America it is essentially verboten for a white person to at all acknowledge the race of a non-white classmate, business associate or anyone but your best of friends - unless they bring up the topic of race first, or you are walking out of the latest Spike Lee joint in which case it is expected.

And so in America, it is particularly rude to address someone by their race or ethnicity. To my understanding, to call the attention of a perfect stranger by shouting the name of their race is reminiscent of the days of slavery and Jim Crow when Southern gentlemen would tell the "boy" to shine their shoes. For example, if a white person walking along 132nd Street in the year 2008 were to purchase a hot dog from an African-American street vendor, the polite thing for the Caucasian customer to do would be to ask, "Excuse me, sir, may I please buy a hot dog?" and go about the transaction as if there were no racial difference at all between the two parties. It would be frowned upon for the white person to say "hey, black man, gimme a hot dog!" It would even be rude to call his attention with "Hey, hot dog vendor!" because to address someone by their profession would be to disrupt the natural foundation of equality upon which our casteless society was supposedly built.

That is why I think I have such a difficult time adjusting to the sheer literalness of the Bambara language and Malian culture. Here, it is quite customary for people in the market to say Tubabu, e be nka concon san - "Hey white French person, buy my cucumber!" Here in Mali it is no different than saying "Hey you with the blue shirt." Though every time I am addressed as Tubabu I cringe as a little bit of my liberal conceit of racial nonexistence is punctured by the inescapable fact that most people in Mali think of me as first and foremost a white person with oodles of money, and secondly that I am a Frenchman gallivanting around his former colony.

When I am at my village where people know my name and that I am an American who is there to work, it is not so bad. When in Sinsina or Sanadougou, if someone calls me Tubabu I politely tell them that my name is Madu and the next time they remember. But here in the bustling metropolis of Segou, only a handful of people know me, and so my racial identity precedes me by a full city block. In no other place have I ever before been made so conscious of my race. It is kind of like how I had never been made so aware by the society around me of the fact that I possess a Y-chromosome until The Elements of Style gigged at Mount Holyoke College.

I have become so accustomed to the crowds of children chanting Tubabu! Tubabu! that I have learned that in order to make it into a positive experience, I must seize the opportunity for cross-cultural education. When people call me Tubabu, I like to demonstrate the absurdity of the social construction of race by turning social conventions upside down. So when a kid runs up to me and points and proclaims "You are white!” I now announce with equal gusto trying to mimic their every intonation, "And you are black!" What follows is an awkward pause during which I want to believe that they realize the inferior quality of their conversational skills, and I hope that every time I do this it brings us a step closer to a post-racialist, post-nationalist global society.

When more business-oriented adults bring up my race, there is only one direction that that conversation could possibly be heading; Tubabu, wari di ya - "White French person, give me money!" So when people say that to me now - which is maybe every 5 or 10 minutes - I like to say Farafin, wari di ya - "Black person, give me money!" Often they think that I didn't understand so they ask me again, and I repeat, "Yes, I am white and you are black, so you should give me money!" The response I get is a puzzled look of astonishment as though I have traveled back in time, reversed the course of history to institute the Bambaras’ military occupation and exploitation of the French, and forever altered the space-time continuum. They often think that I am severely mentally ill and leave me alone.

It is particularly difficult in the market though when I am clearly purchasing food to put in my mouth and other people would prefer that I purchase food so that they can put it in their mouth instead, such as when I am buying a meat sandwich and a hoard of eight or ten garibu surround me and shove their plastic buckets in my face chanting Tubabu! Wari di ya! Tubabu! Wari di ya! as though it is the Qur’anic trope which they are supposed to be learning that week. For such sticky situations I need to come up with real humdingers in order to clear my path, so now I often employ a line like:

Sisan n be sogo san. N be fe ka denmisen fitini sogo dun. N be se ka wari di e ma, nka folo n ba fe ka e bolo ni e sen ta, oko n be na u dun.

“I am shopping for meat now. I want to eat little children meat. I can give you money, but first I must take your arms and legs, and then I will eat them!”

After that, the little beggar children usually put their hands in the air and run away screaming – which makes me think that I’m making full use of the novelty of my perceived racial identity.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Zac Mason in the News!

The major international newsmedia is beginning to take notice of Zac Mason's glorious tour in the name of the Global War on Paludisme! And by major international newsmedia, I mean The Lewisboro Ledger - circulation 328, 2 cats and 1 cocker spaniel:

Mason to Join Peace Corps in Mali

I believe that the chest-thumping, call-to-arms imagery of public service upon which The Lewisboro Ledger decided to dwell almost cancels out my reprehensibly dirty hippyishness which The Boston Globe showcased in their otherwise favorable coverage of yours truly last year:

Students Switching Activism to Boardroom

... though juxtaposed, I think that the two give a good impression of what I'm all about.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit

The vast majority of Bambara that I hear is so matter-of-fact that after my 4-year sentence in the ivory tower, the meaning of the words which I hear often amount to cognitive dissonance. People often come up to me with such conversation starters as "I heard that yesterday you went to the store and bought some rice" Mm hmm "I heard that you bought rice, and then you ate it." People don't really do subtlety here. Likewise, the Bambara language is kind of like the Newspeak spoken by the comrades of Oceania in 1984 as it is so astonishingly literal. A restaurant is a duminikeyouro - or "eating place"; a moustache is nukoroshi - "under nose hair"; a vegetable is a nakofen - "garden thing."

As you can probably imagine, the Bambara sense of humor is also quite literal

Most people in Mali cannot read at all, let alone get their hands on high literature or poetry. So about 99% of any conversation with any Malian is going to circulate about their daily activities; hoeing the millet field, herding sheep, chopping wood or brewing tea, etc. Very few things of any humorous quality ever occur... unless, of course, you are fond of consuming a certain nitrogen-rich legume.

The funniest thing in Mali is a biological activity, a chemical reaction of sorts. Over the course of breaking down food, the human digestive tract produces a byproduct of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane, a gaseous emission characterized by the unpleasant odor of butyric acid, hydrogen sulfide and carbonyl sulfide. Though undesirable to the tastes of the human olfactory nerves, the emission of these gases tend to result in a vibration of the anal sphincter which causes a pleasurable sensation for the aural receptors.

In Bambara, this chemical-physiological process is a verb/noun known as boci. The etymology of the word is quite fascinating; bo is "poop" and a ci is an errand that you would send your kid brother on, namely a message scrawled in pen on a piece of scrap paper. And thus the Bambara word for the verb "to fart" literally means "to send a poop message."

Boci is without a doubt the funniest thing that has ever happened in the history of the Republic of Mali. One might argue that it is the only funny thing that has ever happened in Mali, because there is really only one joke in this country. There is no build-up, no body, no punchline. It's a short and simple one-liner that goes like this:

E be sho dun
"You eat beans!"

This is funny, of course, because it is widely understood that after eating a dinner of beans - which is literally a big bowl of beans flavored with a great heap of oil and maybe a little fried onion - one tends to boci more often than usual.

As this is the only joke ever told in this country, it never gets old. People tell it over and over and over and over again.

There are a few variations;

E ye sho duna ye!
"You are a bean eater!"

If you want to be really literal - which is the way things are done here, but makes for awful delivery to American ears - you can say:
E be sho dun, oko e be boci!
"You eat beans, and then you fart!"

I know a number of different of recipes for beans, so when I tell them to people they go absolutely wild. People in Mali assume that I or anyone with a cursory understanding of Mexican cuisine is a regular George Carlin;
E be sho dun ni keni, jaba ni foronto!
"You eat beans with rice, onions and hot peppers!"

If you are in a generous mood, you can invite your neighbor over and say:
Bi su e kakanka na n ka so barisa n muso be sho tobi. Oko an be se ka sho dun ni boci nyongofe!
"Tonight you should come to my house because my wife is cooking beans. Then we can eat beans and fart together!"

There are, in fact, no non-bean-related jokes ever told in the nation of Mali. There is one joke which can be told which does not address beans directly, but is clearly derived from the subject. You see, there is an entire clan - the Coulibalys - who are known for their great skill and pleasure in the cultivation of beans. To call someone a "Coulibaly" whether or not they are indeed descendents of that line denotes of course that they undertake in a certain activity and all of its olfactory and aural consequences. It would be like having in Ireland a given number of clans, e.g. the McDonalds, the McGregors, the McAlastaires and the McCunes, and the McCunes are known throughout the land for their frequent and vicious farts. Coulibalys are infamous up and down the banks of the Niger River for sending urgent, powerful poop messages for all to hear.

Other than beans and farts there is nothing to joke about in Mali, because nothing else is funny.