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!
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