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!