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.

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