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.