Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Obama Administration is Already Thwarting Germ Transmission in Mali... and Injuring my Prostate

So every day that I am walking through the streets of Sinsina, it takes me maybe half an hour to get from one place to another only a block away - because in Mali, you have to greet every single person you walk past and have an extended conversation inquiring about the status of every individual member of their family. Since most men have multiple wives, and all women have many, many, many children, this takes a very long time. How are you? And your wife? And your other wife? And Bagary? And Bintu? And Adama? And Moussa? And Salif? And Umu? etc. etc. etc. If you walk past someone and don't have this conversation - even if you just had it with them 15 minutes ago - then people will think that you are extremely rude. And thus I have the same conversation maybe 100 times every day. Its endearing that the Bambara people are so sociable, and at times I wish Americans would care so much about their neighbors, but when you really have to go to the bathroom in a very explosive manner and there are a dozen women sitting in the street cooking millet between you and your designated bodily waste receptacle area who all want to know about each and every one of your 13 siblings, this institution of Malian culture is often very... inconvenient.

And also, while I am standing there in the musty road greeting people, every 20 paces or so I am mobbed by a crowd of children. And they all want to shake my hand. It wouldn't be so terrifying if kids' hands weren't as a rule absolutely filthy all the time. You see, the kids in my neighborhood really like playing with dirt, mud, dried cow pies and dead animals. This one kid was taking a whiz on the side of a wall, sees me, and comes over squealing with delight that he was going to have a chance to shake my hand. Ew. And if I didn't, then he would tell everyone in town how rude I was - so I had to think of a really crafty solution.

Hm... I eat food with my fingers. Little kids' pee on his fingers, transmitted to my fingers - Bad. What part of my hand never goes in my mouth... Um... My knuckles! Hey, I wonder how Barack Obama's speech in Denver went last night? Mmm... Barack Obama... THAT'S IT!!!!

So, I taught the little kids in Sinsina about Barack and Michelle Obama's "fist bump", otherwise known by FoxNews as a "terrorist fist jab". "This is how the new President of America shakes hands! He only touches other people's urine-free knuckles!"

So now all the kids know that if they want to shake hands with me, they have to punch my fist. The kids really seem to love it, because the Tubab is letting us punch him! This is ten times more fun than handshakes! It worked really well, until a mob of kids are punching my fist giddily and one 3-year-old girl 2 feet shorter than all of her peers joins in in. And she runs over and punches me right in the balls.

I did my best to explain in Bambara that Barack Obama doesn't punch people below the belt. Only Republicans do that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Two Years of Arabic Save My Jewish Face

At first when the Peace Corps told me that I was going to Sub-Saharan Africa, I was slightly bummed because I thought that my two years of sleepless night spent studying Arabic vocabulary would therefore come to nil. However, I was quite content when I later found out that I would be living and working in Mali, a culturally diverse mélange of West African, Islamic and French cultures across the Sahel plains and Sahara Desert. For the most part I have only really been using my French and Bambara tongues. My Arabic has only helped navigate Allah’s blessings which are wished upon me each day, the instructions on Saudi-built water pumps, and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ubiquitous presence in the form of posters, hotels and LibyaOil stations now that he is no longer a pan-Arabist patron of terrorism but a pan-African nationalist sugar daddy of trickle-down economic development.

Last night my Arabic finally came to practical use. And it involved the worst of ethnic stereotypes related to people with my distinguishing features – even more sinister than those pertaining to my butterscotch-colored skin. It involved my nose.

So this week was time for my site visit in Diaramana (it will be explained in more detail in a future prior post). But public transportation in Mali is very limited and unreliable, so in order to travel from the Peace Corps training compound at Tubaniso to my pastoral paradise and vice versa I had to spend a few nights at L’Hôtel Joliba in Segou, the capitol of my local Segou Province. Segou is a fairly large city for Malian standards – about 100,000 people – but my presence was fairly limited to this strange parallel universe which is Le Quartier Touriste. This little neighborhood which consists of my hotel, another hotel, a half-dozen upscale bars and restaurants feels like many things, but it does not feel like the country of millet farmers that is Mali.

The vibe there is very Casablanca. Neither I nor any of the other Tubabs patronizing this oasis of Western comforts are really there to see Segou itself, but we are there en route to other places. This applies to the Peace Corps Volunteers trying to get to our sites, some of the few USAID consultants venturing outside of the Bamako metropole to improve the roads and build a new airport, dreadlocked Italian hippies who don’t speak a single indigenous language but thinking that they can revive the economy by teaching Malian kids to play soccer, and of course many French tourists who are there to see the hippos in the Niger on their way to the mosque at Djenné. While in limbo in anticipation for our rides to Somewhere Elsewhere, we wait. And wait. And wait.

And we shuffle from one café to another and drink a lot of black coffee. In this insular bubble from Malian reality the Tubab society is very brackish – you see the same white people over and over. After all, asides from the proprietors of the businesses which cater to Tubabs, there are very few Malians who can afford 4,000 CFA for a brick oven-baked pizza. For someone who is training to integrate into rural Bambara society, I felt like such a member of the neocolonial bourgeoisie that is was quite unsettling.

Of course, there is an entire population of people who feed off of the captive Tubab audience. There is an entire class of Rastafarian-looking fellows who are hawking beaded necklaces, wood carvings and other such souvenirs. It is kind of ironic, because there are multiple Peace Corps Volunteers in Segou whose entire job is to promote the nascent tourism sector which provides much-needed jobs to these artisans. But they can’t tell the difference between the French tourists who come there with wallets stuffed with money precisely to buy such tchotchkes and us Peace Corps Volunteers who are working to stimulate their economy, but don’t actually have any expendable income to do so ourselves. So when I tell them that I don’t have any money, they accuse me of being “a liar” and “a racist.” Every white person in Segou is here because they want to buy useless conversation pieces!

The reason my Arabic finally came to fruition was borne out of one tourist leech who is referred to by the Segou Peace Corps folks as Doujanber al-Damashek. Actually, I am the only one who calls him that – most simply refer to him as “Box Man.” Doujanber al-Damashek is a friendly Tuareg man, an overly friendly Tuareg man donned in traditional green jalabiyya and headscarf who stands outside of any of the handful of establishments where white people might be holding his inventory: a sword, and a box. Every time we walk out of the bar, Doujanber is waiting for us with a big, toothy grin and he unsheathes his sword! He doesn’t speak a word of French or Bambara, and he knows that we don’t speak Damashek, so he just communicates via the universal gesticulations of capitalism. “Oooo… shiny! You must certainly want to buy it!”

Other times we are slowly downing our cheap beers and Doujanber al-Damashek walks up to our café table and plops his box down in front of our faces. He tries to tell us the same two items over and over again, so we know his routine by heart. Some PCVs have fun with this; they put on an affected look of astonishment and exclaim “Oh my, a box! I bet I can put things in it! Wait… do you think it has drawers?” Doujanber al-Damashek opens and closes each of the box’s threes drawesr individually. “Wow, the box does have drawers! I’ve never seen anything like it!” I’m more polite, so I just pull out the linings of my pockets and shake my head in exaggerated sorrow.

Last night I walk over to the bar of L’Hôtel Joliba to pay for my pizza, and Doujanber al-Damashek is sitting there sipping a Fanta, taking a break after a long night of trying to sell his wares. His turban is untied, lying in a ball on top of the bar – clearly Doujanber is there to unwind after yet another day of no takers for his scimitar, or his box.

I actually take my wallet out – a rare occasion, and fiddle with the many large bills the Peace Corps gave me for three days food and lodging. Doujanber is obviously staring at my money. He is to my left, so his view of my side profile allows Doujanber to take in my expansive, Semitic nasal cavities.

Doujanber actually says something – in Arabic, assuming that this Tubab obviously won’t understand. "عندك فلوس! عنت يحود!" But thanks to Fulbright Scholars Naglaa Mahmoud, Heba Arafah, Bouchra Lif and all of the staff at the Five College World Language Program, I understood that utterance crystal clear: “You have money! You are… a Jew

It fazed me for a couple of seconds, for I had to process the slur which I had just heard and I haven’t heard or made a substantial sentence in Arabic in months . The recognition of being accused by an angry Muslim man with a sword at his hip for hindering his business with my ancestry caused a certain, instinctual flight-or-flight response in this Son of Israel. The collective memory of my people instructed me that to tell the truth would only lead to certain martyrdom to prove a completely unnecessary point, and so I preferred the survival technique used by birds which ruffle their feathers and raise their wings to demonstrate that they are simply too big to mess with... kind of like Levi Eshkol during the Six-Day War. In a similar fashion, I had to demonstrate that I was both intellectually and spiritually bigger than this simple Tuareg. The adrenaline from my pituitary gland shot straight to my adrenal gland, which in turn spurred my cerebrum into overdrive to summon the choicest of obscure political Arabic vocabulary words from the folds of my outer lobes. And then I turned towards Doujanber al-Damashek, gave him a look of most blithely disinterested hauteur and my tongue whipped out the greatest triumph of linguistic skills in the totality of the life of Zachary Asher Mason

"لا, ليسة أنا يحود. أنا مركسية لا اعتقد ان في الوطنية ,لأن فقط الفاشيون مثلك يؤمنون به الوطنية. لا احد يشتري الاطار الخاص بك إنشءاللة."
No, I am not a Jew. I am a Marxist. I do not belief in nationalism, because that is only for Fascists like you. Allah willing, no one will ever buy your box

Doujanber al-Damashek was so dumbfounded by this Tubab from New York speaking the language of the Prophet that he dropped his non-alcoholic Fanta all over the barroom floor

Ever since, Doujanber al-Damashek no longer asks me whether I want to buy his box, or his sword

The moral of this story is that everyone should learn to speak Arabic - especially Jews

Friday, August 15, 2008

Global Warming > Africa's Desertification

If global warming hasn't yet hit home enough for you to cut your personal carbon footprint, install solar panels on your roof and convert your Jeep Wrangler into a grease car, here are a few articles which highlight just how bad greenhouse gas emissions, if unchecked, are going to absolutely annihilate precipitation levels and the water tables of Africa. At this rate, global warming is projected to reduce flows on the Niger River - the lifeblood of Guinea, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria - by roughly 33 percent. If the Niger River dries up, and the Sahara Desert overtakes the greater part of Mali, even relatively lush agricultural plains like Segou Province are going to soon look like Timbouctou Province - vast expanses of uninhabitable, uninterrupted sand.

Mali and the respective nations depending upon the Niger River are doing something about it - and as proof that the World Bank is not the absolute epitome of evil, Robert Zoellick is doing something at least to help conserve the river.

You can find out pretty much everything there is to know about global warming and the rapid desertification of the African continent here:

If you are an investment banker from Connecticut, droughts might be an unsightly eyesore if your country club can't use their sprinkler to keep the 8th hole pleasing to the eye; if you are a millet farmer in Mali struggling to grow enough grain to feed your eight children, a drought means that soon you will have zero children. I emphasize, the brunt of global warming is going to fall on the backs subsistence pastoralists and herders in the Sahel countries bordering on the Sahara Desert; Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

You see, climate change has happened in the past; in fact, it is the reason why the broad northern expanse of Africa is now the Sahara Desert in the first place. Believe it or not, back in the day like in 8000 B.C. what once served as the desert backdrop of Tatooine was lush farmland where humans consumed water freely with crocodiles and hippopatomouses

And gradually, due to the kind of organic, completely meterological and unanthrogenic climate change, that lush savannah became the Sahara Desert.

Back in 8000 B.C. when people worshipped cats and thought that rains could be augured via the ritual slaughter of goats and less politically desirable people, there was nothing that people could do to avert the dessication of Africa and the expansion of the Sahara. The only change in that cataclysmic shift in human population was the advent of the Pharaohs and the birth of classical Egyptian civilization.

And if we don't reduce our wanton fossil fuel consumption culture dead by at least 80 percent by 2050, all of West Africa up to the Atlantic coast is going to be uninterrupted desert. One day archaeologists are going to go to the house where I live in Diaramana, dig out my dogeared copies of the work of Al Gore, my itty bitty solar panel, and say "It seems as if some humans at least understood that they were shooting themselves in the foot... but they kept on shooting themselves in the foot!" Those future archaeologists will probably be refugees from the erstwhile nation of the Maldives which has since been inundated by the Indian Ocean

But now, decades after the American people demonstrated our capacity to liberate Europe AND Asia, defeat Communism, send men to the Moon and even manufacture Dippin' Dots - the ice cream of the future - it's time to start doing something about global warming. No, signing an online petition and forwarding it to all of your friends is not going to halt the expansion of the Sahara Desert. Calling your Congressman to do something about it is only going to consume more electricity. It's time for all of us First Worlders to get off our fat asses and figure out how to minimize our energy consumption, particularly our fossil fuel energy consumption.

Y'know how I reduced my carbon footprint? For starters, I moved to Mali. Here I am not connected to any electric grid. I get 95 percent of my transportation done by foot or bicycle. Fyi: I have in my possession exactly 4 appliances: my cell phone, camera, iPod and the computer that I use to update this nifty blog. I am living the dream of the Digital Age. And I can get all the energy that I need to power these babies with my little baby Solio panel. Oh wait - I lied... I also have a flashlight which is powered with my hairy hands. And I have gotten used to the stultifying heat - I just deal with it. When I think of my coworkers at a progressive Manhattan office wearing winter jackets to work because the air condition was kept at a crispy 55 degrees, I think that the amount of electricity that people spend on thermostats is absolute insanity.

While people with hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in the developed world wait for The Government to do something about retooling America's energy infrastructure (I wouldn't hold my breath) people in Africa are taking the private initiative to increase their standard of living and resist the advancing Sahara Desert. My next-door neighbor in Diaramana is a doctor who makes what would be considered below the poverty line in America, and he has a big solar panel which he uses to power his 21st century luxuries like his cell phone, television and refrigerator. Ladies and gentlemen sitting in your air-conditioned splendor in the States, if you have any disposable income and all, it's time to buy solar paneling for your roof, for your backyard, for your neighbor's roof. Solar panels are beautiful, functionally, symbolically and aesthetically! They make great birthday presents! Buy a solar panel today!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Tubab Like Me

In the de facto class segregation of the United States of America, I have not had many opportunities to be overtly consciuos of my race. After all, though I put "white" on my census forms, never before have I ever felt really white. I mean, honestly, what the fuck is white culture? Playing golf, eating mayonnaise and wearing those stupid salmon-colored pants? I don't do any of that shit. I come from Russian, Polish, Hungarian Slavic stock, I identify with fellow ethnic Jews, musicians and earthy hippies. Ok, so my freshmen and sophomore years I accepted Hadley Arkes' invitations to the Colloquium on the American Founding - which is pretty much the whitest thing I've ever done. But I found that if being white consists of dressing up in a stuffy suit and listening to people who have had boring missionary sex exactly 2.3 unmemorable times wax philosophically about their bizarre fixation on weird, kinky sex and its compatability with Platonic-Aristotelian ethics, then I have very little to identify with white people.

Ergo, I do not think of myself as white. I think of myself as a Jewish democratic revolutionary.

But here in Mali, I am white, uptight and out of sight. Here people who do not know my name as Madu Doumbia #5 call me "Tubab" - which is a derogatory term like "honky" or "cracker", only it is even worse because it specifically refers to the French. You see, unlike us Americans who should be grateful to France for bestowing upon us le Marquis de Lafeyette, victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and the Statue of Liberty, Mali suffered under the cruel, exploitative colonial occupation of the French from 1880-1960. Granted, "Western Soudan" as it was then known, was subject to considerably less direct exploitation than more convenient colonies like Algeria for nothing more than the Bambara tribes were a long distance up the malaria-ridden Niger River. The French tried to play the role of "mission civilatrice" here with a system of Francificating and pacificating "Western" schools, and so many generations later Bambara still fear white people coming to their village because the last time that happened back in the day they took everyone's kids by gunpoint. During the First and Second World Wars there was also a lot of involuntary conscription of military-aged men.

So when I'm walking around the village of Sinsina and little kids start crying because they see my very obviously non-Bambara face, it's not because I did anything particularly wrong. They're crying because they heard stories about the Tubabs who came here 50 years ago and stole grandpa away. And thus I am the recipient of the blame for something that I did not do, something that my parents and my grandparents did not even do, but something that a race of people whom I do not even really identify with, a race which has only over the course of the past 30 years begun to accept the most Islamophobic and Arab-hating of my people as members of their exclusive country club, did before my parents were even biologically capable of conceiving me. But then again, as anyone who has ever been to Israel/Palestine, Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia might know, ethnic conflicts of the past are not dead; in fact, they're not even past.

Let's just say that its very discouraging integrating into Bambara society when all the collective sins of White People are held against me.

But I manage. Adults in Sinsina treat me with more respect, and they all know that my name is Madu Doumbia #5. Though a lot of kids still come up to me when I'm trying to study my Bambara flashcards, "Tubab! Tubab! You have a camera! Take a picture of me! Give me candy!" There is nothing more emasculating than being thought of as another stupid Tubab with nothing to offer more than my bank account. I look at them really menacingly at them and ask "What is my name?" And if they say Tubab one more time, then I go right for the Achilles' heel of any naked child - the armpit - and tickle them until they call me by my real fake name. So far it has worked - none of the kids in my 'hood call me Tubab anymore.

But its when I go to the city that I really get it bad. The only white people other than vicious colonialists whom the Malians have ever known are rich, stupid white people who come on buses to see the mosque of Djenne and the erstwhile capitol of Islamic culture-turned-dusty small arms trading post that is now Timbouctou. So except for when I'm in Sinsina where people know what us Peace Corps Trainees are all about, i.e. whenever I go to Bamako, people are very, very friendly - because they think that I might give them money. Beggars are really aggressive here, because unlike American beggars they aren't looking to buy drugs to get high - they want to buy food so they don't starve to death. And they're used to French-looking i.e. white people feeling collective guilt for the years of colonial occupation and handing out money. They go right up to my face and in either French or Bambara say "Money! Money!" And they do not go away until I tell them Allah m'a son; i.e. Allah will give you money if you pray harder.

Though everyone mistakes me for a big, stupid tourist, unlike the tourists, oilmen and the Embassy staff, Peace Corps Volunteers as a rule are very poor - we eat what the peasants eat, only with enough additional nutritional content so that our teeth don't rot out. I don't feel any white guilt towards the ubiquitous beggars in Bamako because 1) I don't have any money to give them; 2) I'm spending 2 years improving their country's water sanitation infrastructure, also with no money. I have become so quickly accustomed to Malian nutritional poverty that I have come to eat anything that I can get my hands on (which is also the reason why I ended up in the Bamako Peace Corps Medial Unit for the night a few weeks back - I learned my lesson that I should be more discerning as to what potentially parasite-laden fruits I put in my mouth)

Likewise, many Malian businessmen are also used to white people being really rich, really stupid, and really manipulable. It is hard knowing when you're getting ripped off; for example, I bought this really awesome shirt for 2000 West African francs - about $4.73, which I thought was a steal. Later I found out that if I were not white, that same taylor would have charged me more like $500 francs, or slightly more than 1 dollar. The standard of living in Mali is really, really low, and so prices are so low that my Western orientalist mind cannot confound how cheap life really is.

Thankfully, over the past month I have learned enough Bambara that I can actually haggle at the markets now. My Jewish mother would be proud. Hey Mom! I can bargain in another language for things that are already dirt cheap!!!! Malian merchants are used to being able to rip off stupid Tubabs, but what they're not used to are Tubabs who actually speak their language. I can now say things to the effect of I am not a stupid Tubab. I live in Mali, and I do not have money. If you give me stupid Tubab prices, I'm giving my money to the guy next to you who sells the same bootleg merchandise. So far, the few times I have pulled that one out, the merchants have caved and lowered their prices 75% to what actual Malians pay.

As my Bambara slowly improves and I can talk about more high-level subjects than my food preferences and bodily functions, hopefully people will treat me more as an individual person than as a generic Tubab. Perhaps one day the friendlier kids who come up to me saying "Bonjour! Bonjour!" will realize that I'm not from goddamn motherfucking France. I'm from America, dammit, and I'm not white, I'm a self-hating Jew. I do not yet know how to explain Marx's theories about post-nationalist proletarian consciousness as espoused in The Jewish Question, but in time I suppose that that too will come, donne donne.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Le Coup d'Etat en Mauritanie

So I have just been receiving numerous inquiries from my comrades on the homefront about my well-being vis-a-vis the recent coup d'etat in Mauritania. I am flattered by your concern and impressed by the fact that you are now amongst the very select group of Americans who can locate both Mali AND Mauritania on a map, and also know that they are next to each other. But do not worry; 1) what happened in Mauritania is really not that big of a deal - coups happen in African countries all the time, and this one was a particularly clean operation; 2) contrary to popular belief, countries in Africa are actually different, and the political situation in Mali is totally fine; 3) even if something did in fact happen in Mali which were to endanger my safety and security, the United States government provides for its own. Scroll down a few blog posts to the map of Western Africa - take note that Mali and Mauritania are, like, totally different countries!

Today we are going over all of the security policies in detail. If there were actually a spate of nationwide violence in country, e.g. a nationwide political conflict which were to endanger foreigners such as yours truly, then an awesome motherfucking jacked SUV with the red white and blue Peace Corps logo, equipped with a 2-way radio to communicate with the US Embassy in the case of the phone network being shut down, and air conditioning is going to pick me up at my site, then they are going to drive me to the US Embassy compound (which looks like a yuppie military fortress), and then all US Peace Corps personnel will be airlifted out with Foreign Service helicopters. If the roads are down, then a helicopter is going to land in the closest field to my mud hut and pick me up right then and there. I have never seen these helicopters, but supposedly they exist. Such operations were carried out in recent months for Peace Corps Volunteers in Cote d'Ivoire during their particularly violent coup d'etat, as well as in Kenya during the spate of Kikuyu/Luo violence.

But this is just hypothetical for me at the moment. I wouldn't count on me being evacuated out anytime soon. Going against the grain in Africa, Mali is a functioning multiparty parliamentary democracy. There has not been a coup d'etat in Mali in 16 years, which for African means that Mali is really, really stable! The current president Amadou Tumani Taure is an independent who is pretty well-liked amongst most significant factions in the country, he is on good terms with the military, and thus there is little reason to suspect a coup here anytime in the near future.

Though there is violence in Mali's northern Timbouctu and Kidal provinces due to the on-again off-again Tuareg rebellion, this conflict is relegated to these obscure desertous provinces which consist of little more than sand, rocks and populated only by the occasional Tuareg camel train, and I am explicitly forbidden from going there anytime soon. I repeat, the Peace Corps has selected sites for Volunteers under the strict criteria of being absolutely safe from any and all political violence. I am doing water sanitation, which is going to entail digging wells, building water pumps, treating water systems, and digging irrigiation systems - it would be pretty stupid to assign me to anywhere where armed Tuaregs exist - a stretch of desert inhabited only by the occasional nomad camp. I am being sent to Segou province, which is a lush region where people farm millet, rice, fruits and vegetables. There are no Tuareg rebels on camels patrolling my peaceful Shire.

But, if in fact Malian society spontaneously implodes and there is a violent conflict between the millet farming and cucumber farming factions, then rest assured that I will be ferried to safety via a jacked Peace Corps SUV and a Foreign Service helicopter - which I am told exists... somewhere.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Gentle Giant is Incensed

In Mali there are few things which can let make you angry, or else you're not going to last very long. The men laugh at the fact that I carry Nalgenes of water (that is women's work). The women yell at me for 10 minutes about my wives when I tell them "No, I do not have any wives" and it is obvious that I do not understand 80% of the words coming out of their mouthes, and then they continue to ask me the same questions about my plural wives - only louder. The kids still pet my hairy arms and my hairy feet like I am a zoo animal. And my 2-year-old adopted sister Fatim is visibly scared by this strange white person living in her concession and so she cries and covers her eyes every time I walk past. It is... frustrating, to say the least.

The things which help me through the day right now are my guitar, The Beatles, Aerosmith and Meat Loaf, and a nalgene full of those 2-for-a-dollar gummi peach rings and Swedish fish. So mostly I stay sane by strumming and singing British Invasion love songs and glam metal power ballads, which has helped me and the other Tubabs (Bambara for "whitey", "honky" if you will) earn a reputation for being musical at all times of the day.

I used to have a bag of jelly beans which my mom tucked into my guitar case with love, and I enjoyed them very much (Thank you Mom. I love you!). But one day I came home to realize that there was a veritable superhighway of ants leading in and out of my hut - the ants found my stash of jelly beans.

... which leads me to the single most frustrating thing about living in Mali: bugs. Bugs are a part of one's daily life, and there is no escaping them. Kids are just so used to the ever-present flies that they don't even bat an eyelash when they are eating the spittle around their mouths, noses and eyes. And there are also of course mosquitoes, many varieties of ants, spiders, crickets, centipedes, millipedes, etc. Though this is more of an issue when you are outside - which is most of the time, even when you go inside that is no respite. I share my house with at least the first 4 species mentioned.

I like the spiders. Spiders eat mosquitoes, and mosquitoes try to eat me, so in perfect Machiavellian logic spiders are my friends.

But I. hate. crickets. They are the worst. I live in a house with a tin roof, so right about 2:30 AM when I am asleep the male crickets get all aroused and want to get their sexing on and start singing to let prospective females know how big they are, it reverberates all throughout my little domicile and I have to know all about it. And when I have just plodded through a long, tiring day of learning to speak Bambara and make bricks, and I have undertaken a de facto 2-year vow of celibacy, the last thing I want to think about is how certain animals in my house want to reproduce. And so I have instituted a strict policy in my house: if you sing, and your name is not Zac Mason/Madou Doumbia #5, then you and all of your brethren shall meet a swift and certain death. No judge, no jury. If there are not human love songs but insect love songs being sung in my hut, then everyone is going straight to the motherfucking executioner.

I have become very good at killing bugs. Killing mosquitoes is easy - I can just grab them in my hand. I have learned to catch flies in my hand too; they are attracted to light, so if I shine my headlamp on my hand long enough and keep it very still they will eventually land on my palm at which time I squish them like Pat Morita before the Japanese invented chopsticks. For crickets, the least leathal but the most hated of all creatures which share my hut with me, my preferred weapon is a flyswatter which I inherited somehow.

When I am woken up at ungodly hours by these insects who want to sexile me from my own mud hut, though I am in the Peace Corps a certain primordal urge for death and vengeance surges through my arteries. (cue the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). I turn on my headlamp. Then in all fairness I announce my policy - in Bambara, so I can practice - so that the crickets have an opportunity to alter their ways. "My name is Madou Doumbia #5, and I am a specialist in Water Sanitation. If you continue to sing, then prepare to die."

Usually the crickets don't accept my offer for reconciliation, and so I go into a killing rampage. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Every last motherfucking cricket in my motherfucking mud hut is pulverized into motherfucking cricket pulp.

And then my blood lust is content, and I can go back to my Methloquine-enhanced dreams in peace, insh'allah.

In the morning I wake up, and all of the crickets and whatever other bugs I killed that night are no longer there. I don't know which of my strategic bug allies carried away my kills, but I don't care. All I know is that somewhere someone is content with a full belly, and somehow my floor and my walls are clean.

Little by Little A Bird Build's His Nest


As the Bambara proverb says, "donne donne, little by little a bird builds his nest." That quite aptly describes my first month as a Peace Corps Trainee.

I have mastered the art of conducting my basic life functions in the absence of running water, electricity, toilet paper. If provided with access to a stable supply of food, Sudafed and chlorine tablets, I find that living without the creature comforts of Western civilization isn't so bad after all... it's kind of like camping, only with chickens, sheep, cows and donkeys.

After a month of linguistic shock therapy, I am now able to verbalize my basic life functions in halting Bambara. During my first few weeks of living in Sinsina, my only interaction with my non-Francophone host mothers consisted of rather awkward conversations; e.g. "Bucket!" "Water!"

But now I can actually say function as a human being in Malian society.

I knew that I had hit a milestone when I was able to string together this masterpiece: "N ye keni dun, ni loriebulu ye sigi keni kono. N tese ka a laje, ni a barisa n ye a dun. Koffe, a tarra yan; a barisa n ye fono la fali caman kerefe. fali ye n laje."

For those of you who have yet to pick up the Bambara tongue, "I was eating rice, and there were leaves in the rice (for flavoring). I could not see the leaves, so I ate one and it was lodged in my throat. So I vomited next to many donkeys. The donkeys were watching me."

Other masterpieces by yours truly, which unto themselves might shed some light on my daily life in Mali thusfar;

"Kunun su ye fono nka sheo kono. n be n ko ni sheola ni nka loofah. n te n ko fe ni sheola bi sogoma."

"Last night I vomited in my bucket. I wash myself with that bucket and my loofah. I do not want to wash myself with that bucket this morning."

"Ayi, n te ebolo fe. e ye kalo ebolo kono."

"No, I do not want to hold your hand. You sneezed in it."

"Ayi, Tupac sara."

"No, Tupac is dead."