Monday, September 29, 2008

Order of Mission Number 0079

After long, harrowing weeks of training I have officially become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now that I can speak Bambara, eat with my hands, control my bodily functions in terrains thought to be inhospitable to man, after proving that I can successfully thwart Mali's ubiquitous street beggars, little kids with grimy hands, parasite-laden mangoes and sword-wielding Damasheks, I am ready to finally go out and do some work in water sanitation development.

To mark the transition from Peace Corps Trainee to Peace Corps Volunteer, I along with my stage of 73 new recruits swore in during a big fancy ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako. Broadcast live on Mali's solitary television station after the daily installation of the Brazilian soap opera which dominates the daily lives of the entire nation of Mali, apparently this was a big deal.

I took the following oath of service (cue The Battle Hymn of the Republic):

I, Zachary Mason, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I take this obligation freely, and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps, so help me God.

What makes the Peace Corps undoubtedly the most badass agency in the federal government is that I can carry out such a solemn oath on national television dressed like this:

I, Peace Corps Volunteer Zachary Asher Mason, have been ordered on a mission. I am not kidding. I have in my hands a piece of paper which says that I have been assigned Ordre de Mission Number 0079, which is to work with the Malian Ministry of the Environment and Sanitation on the National Campaign to Control Pollution and Nuisances, working with the Office of the Mayor of the Commune of Sanadougou.

Mission Number 0079 will be a very dangerous mission which is why they have chosen only the hardiest of Volunteers with demonstrable skills in the maintenance of water pumps and sanitation infrastructure, foreign languages and fomenting revolutions of the heart, revolutions of the mind and revolutions of the bowels. In the African Theater of the Global War on Paludisme I can expect to face many evildoers whom I must vanquish wherever they may lurk. And thus I have been trained to defend myself, the Malian people and the Constitution of the United States of America from such foreign enemies as








and of course Malaria

This mission, which I have chosen to accept, will be a test of physical will and the strength of the spirit. There is no guarantee that my mission will succeed. There is no guarantee that I will make it back in one piece. There will be only instant coffee. But we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

May Allah bless America with many wives and with many cows.

Monday, September 15, 2008

More Fun With Racial Identity

Segou, Segou Province

Due to our long, sad history of racial oppression, segregation and discrimination, In America it is essentially verboten for a white person to at all acknowledge the race of a non-white classmate, business associate or anyone but your best of friends - unless they bring up the topic of race first, or you are walking out of the latest Spike Lee joint in which case it is expected.

And so in America, it is particularly rude to address someone by their race or ethnicity. To my understanding, to call the attention of a perfect stranger by shouting the name of their race is reminiscent of the days of slavery and Jim Crow when Southern gentlemen would tell the "boy" to shine their shoes. For example, if a white person walking along 132nd Street in the year 2008 were to purchase a hot dog from an African-American street vendor, the polite thing for the Caucasian customer to do would be to ask, "Excuse me, sir, may I please buy a hot dog?" and go about the transaction as if there were no racial difference at all between the two parties. It would be frowned upon for the white person to say "hey, black man, gimme a hot dog!" It would even be rude to call his attention with "Hey, hot dog vendor!" because to address someone by their profession would be to disrupt the natural foundation of equality upon which our casteless society was supposedly built.

That is why I think I have such a difficult time adjusting to the sheer literalness of the Bambara language and Malian culture. Here, it is quite customary for people in the market to say Tubabu, e be nka concon san - "Hey white French person, buy my cucumber!" Here in Mali it is no different than saying "Hey you with the blue shirt." Though every time I am addressed as Tubabu I cringe as a little bit of my liberal conceit of racial nonexistence is punctured by the inescapable fact that most people in Mali think of me as first and foremost a white person with oodles of money, and secondly that I am a Frenchman gallivanting around his former colony.

When I am at my village where people know my name and that I am an American who is there to work, it is not so bad. When in Sinsina or Sanadougou, if someone calls me Tubabu I politely tell them that my name is Madu and the next time they remember. But here in the bustling metropolis of Segou, only a handful of people know me, and so my racial identity precedes me by a full city block. In no other place have I ever before been made so conscious of my race. It is kind of like how I had never been made so aware by the society around me of the fact that I possess a Y-chromosome until The Elements of Style gigged at Mount Holyoke College.

I have become so accustomed to the crowds of children chanting Tubabu! Tubabu! that I have learned that in order to make it into a positive experience, I must seize the opportunity for cross-cultural education. When people call me Tubabu, I like to demonstrate the absurdity of the social construction of race by turning social conventions upside down. So when a kid runs up to me and points and proclaims "You are white!” I now announce with equal gusto trying to mimic their every intonation, "And you are black!" What follows is an awkward pause during which I want to believe that they realize the inferior quality of their conversational skills, and I hope that every time I do this it brings us a step closer to a post-racialist, post-nationalist global society.

When more business-oriented adults bring up my race, there is only one direction that that conversation could possibly be heading; Tubabu, wari di ya - "White French person, give me money!" So when people say that to me now - which is maybe every 5 or 10 minutes - I like to say Farafin, wari di ya - "Black person, give me money!" Often they think that I didn't understand so they ask me again, and I repeat, "Yes, I am white and you are black, so you should give me money!" The response I get is a puzzled look of astonishment as though I have traveled back in time, reversed the course of history to institute the Bambaras’ military occupation and exploitation of the French, and forever altered the space-time continuum. They often think that I am severely mentally ill and leave me alone.

It is particularly difficult in the market though when I am clearly purchasing food to put in my mouth and other people would prefer that I purchase food so that they can put it in their mouth instead, such as when I am buying a meat sandwich and a hoard of eight or ten garibu surround me and shove their plastic buckets in my face chanting Tubabu! Wari di ya! Tubabu! Wari di ya! as though it is the Qur’anic trope which they are supposed to be learning that week. For such sticky situations I need to come up with real humdingers in order to clear my path, so now I often employ a line like:

Sisan n be sogo san. N be fe ka denmisen fitini sogo dun. N be se ka wari di e ma, nka folo n ba fe ka e bolo ni e sen ta, oko n be na u dun.

“I am shopping for meat now. I want to eat little children meat. I can give you money, but first I must take your arms and legs, and then I will eat them!”

After that, the little beggar children usually put their hands in the air and run away screaming – which makes me think that I’m making full use of the novelty of my perceived racial identity.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Zac Mason in the News!

The major international newsmedia is beginning to take notice of Zac Mason's glorious tour in the name of the Global War on Paludisme! And by major international newsmedia, I mean The Lewisboro Ledger - circulation 328, 2 cats and 1 cocker spaniel:

Mason to Join Peace Corps in Mali

I believe that the chest-thumping, call-to-arms imagery of public service upon which The Lewisboro Ledger decided to dwell almost cancels out my reprehensibly dirty hippyishness which The Boston Globe showcased in their otherwise favorable coverage of yours truly last year:

Students Switching Activism to Boardroom

... though juxtaposed, I think that the two give a good impression of what I'm all about.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit

The vast majority of Bambara that I hear is so matter-of-fact that after my 4-year sentence in the ivory tower, the meaning of the words which I hear often amount to cognitive dissonance. People often come up to me with such conversation starters as "I heard that yesterday you went to the store and bought some rice" Mm hmm "I heard that you bought rice, and then you ate it." People don't really do subtlety here. Likewise, the Bambara language is kind of like the Newspeak spoken by the comrades of Oceania in 1984 as it is so astonishingly literal. A restaurant is a duminikeyouro - or "eating place"; a moustache is nukoroshi - "under nose hair"; a vegetable is a nakofen - "garden thing."

As you can probably imagine, the Bambara sense of humor is also quite literal

Most people in Mali cannot read at all, let alone get their hands on high literature or poetry. So about 99% of any conversation with any Malian is going to circulate about their daily activities; hoeing the millet field, herding sheep, chopping wood or brewing tea, etc. Very few things of any humorous quality ever occur... unless, of course, you are fond of consuming a certain nitrogen-rich legume.

The funniest thing in Mali is a biological activity, a chemical reaction of sorts. Over the course of breaking down food, the human digestive tract produces a byproduct of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane, a gaseous emission characterized by the unpleasant odor of butyric acid, hydrogen sulfide and carbonyl sulfide. Though undesirable to the tastes of the human olfactory nerves, the emission of these gases tend to result in a vibration of the anal sphincter which causes a pleasurable sensation for the aural receptors.

In Bambara, this chemical-physiological process is a verb/noun known as boci. The etymology of the word is quite fascinating; bo is "poop" and a ci is an errand that you would send your kid brother on, namely a message scrawled in pen on a piece of scrap paper. And thus the Bambara word for the verb "to fart" literally means "to send a poop message."

Boci is without a doubt the funniest thing that has ever happened in the history of the Republic of Mali. One might argue that it is the only funny thing that has ever happened in Mali, because there is really only one joke in this country. There is no build-up, no body, no punchline. It's a short and simple one-liner that goes like this:

E be sho dun
"You eat beans!"

This is funny, of course, because it is widely understood that after eating a dinner of beans - which is literally a big bowl of beans flavored with a great heap of oil and maybe a little fried onion - one tends to boci more often than usual.

As this is the only joke ever told in this country, it never gets old. People tell it over and over and over and over again.

There are a few variations;

E ye sho duna ye!
"You are a bean eater!"

If you want to be really literal - which is the way things are done here, but makes for awful delivery to American ears - you can say:
E be sho dun, oko e be boci!
"You eat beans, and then you fart!"

I know a number of different of recipes for beans, so when I tell them to people they go absolutely wild. People in Mali assume that I or anyone with a cursory understanding of Mexican cuisine is a regular George Carlin;
E be sho dun ni keni, jaba ni foronto!
"You eat beans with rice, onions and hot peppers!"

If you are in a generous mood, you can invite your neighbor over and say:
Bi su e kakanka na n ka so barisa n muso be sho tobi. Oko an be se ka sho dun ni boci nyongofe!
"Tonight you should come to my house because my wife is cooking beans. Then we can eat beans and fart together!"

There are, in fact, no non-bean-related jokes ever told in the nation of Mali. There is one joke which can be told which does not address beans directly, but is clearly derived from the subject. You see, there is an entire clan - the Coulibalys - who are known for their great skill and pleasure in the cultivation of beans. To call someone a "Coulibaly" whether or not they are indeed descendents of that line denotes of course that they undertake in a certain activity and all of its olfactory and aural consequences. It would be like having in Ireland a given number of clans, e.g. the McDonalds, the McGregors, the McAlastaires and the McCunes, and the McCunes are known throughout the land for their frequent and vicious farts. Coulibalys are infamous up and down the banks of the Niger River for sending urgent, powerful poop messages for all to hear.

Other than beans and farts there is nothing to joke about in Mali, because nothing else is funny.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Some Thoughts on Ramadan

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, an independent service agency with the mission of
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Fatim: Madu, today is the first day of Ramadan! Did you fast today?

Zac a.k.a. Madu: No.

F: Did you pray at the mosque?

Z: No.

F: Why not?

Z: I'm not a Muslim.

F: You are not Muslim? Then you are a Christian?

Z: No, I am a Jew.

F: A Jew? What is that?

Z: Well... in the Qur'an it talks about how first God gave his message to Abraham and Moses, but their people did not heed it. I am one of those people.

F: Eh?!?! You do not heed the word of Allah?!?! Then you are an infidel.

Z: Yes, I suppose so.

F: You should not be an infidel, because then you will not go to Heaven. You will go to Hell.

Z: How can I go to Heaven?

F: First, you must be clean. You are not clean, because you have hair all over. You must shave your beard, your moustache, your sideburns, your head, you must shave the hair on your arms, your legs and your chest.

Z: Eh... if I have to shave all of my hair then I will be itchy. In comparison, Hell cannot be so bad...

F: No, you must shave your hair. Why do you white people from America have so much hair?

Z: Well, it's complicated. Originally, my family lived in Russia. It is very cold there. But my family came to America in the 19th century because the czars were conducting pogroms in the Jewish shtetls...

F: Your family is not in Russia. Your family is in America.

Z: ... Nevermind. I have so much hair because it is very cold in America.

F: You should shave your hair because Hell is very very bad. You do not want to go there. You must be clean. And you must fast, and you must pray.

Z: My family is Jewish. We pray and fast, but we only fast for one day.

F: You only fast for one day?

Z: Yes, it is called "Yom Kippur."

F: You can only fast for one day because you are fat.

Z: Yes, I do not like to fast. I prefer to eat.

F: Are you going to fast tomorrow?

Z: No.

F: Why not?

Z: I am not Muslim...

And that is what we call a "cross-cultural exchange."