Monday, October 6, 2008

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.

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