Friday, June 26, 2009

On a Marrakesh Express

There are few things more unpleasant than Malian hot season. At this point in the year the village of Sanadougou is close enough to the Equator that it receives such direct radiation, the Sun beats down with such intensity that I cannot even look outside without my sunglasses on – the reflection from the sand is practically blinding unto itself. During hot season the temperature rarely dips below 100 degrees; often times the thermometer hovers around 110. Here it is just flat, sandy scrub in all directions with no body of water, no topography of any kind; pressure in the air is fairly uniform in all directions, so there is no wind to blow the sweat off your brow. The heat just sits on top of your head and refuses to ever go away. April is more or less dry hot season, so the entire Sahel is kind of like a big unpleasant sauna. But by May the rain clouds are starting to form so it is not only 110 degrees but also as humid as the cavities between the folds inside Rush Limbaugh’s ass crack.

I am not exaggerating when I say that it is a full-time job merely surviving in this climate. Human beings sweat so much that we have to be constantly drinking water simply in order to not die of dehydration. Even the water is hot. I drink about 12 Nalgenes full of hot water a day – and even then I still get massive headaches because I'm dehydrated.

This time of year, people just sit under the shade of their gwa and try their best not to melt. No one has any desire to get off their ass and do anything. Watering a garden would be downright futile. Nobody can do any work, because it’s no matter what they do it's just too……… fucking………hot……………

My Malian neighbors spend their time escaping the Sun's wrath under the gwa brewing pots of boiling hot tea and sugar.

“Madu, you drink tea?”

“NO!!!!! Get that shit away from me!!!!!”

Hot season sucks.

And if I thought that hot season couldn’t suck any harder, the night guardian at the clinic across the street from me shot my kitty cat with a colonial-era musket and ate him.

A mere seven days after the Assassination of James Brown the gardens of Xanadu were graced by a visit with Dr. Dawn – the Peace Corps Medical Officer – on her scheduled annual site visit. She seemed to be concerned for my mental health.

“Zac, you haven’t let go of this cat thing. It’s time for you to move on.”

She was right. There were few worse strategies force coping with the wanton slaughter and consumption of my kitty cat then to wallow at the scene of the crime, especially in this Allah-forsaken weather where one is so busy sweating one’s balls off and struggling to remain alive that it is nearly impossible to experience any semblance of joy.

So I packed my bag and got on a plane to Casablanca!

I was supposed to meet my family at the airport – at which time they would have for me a new functional debit card. Though due to a malfunctioning hydraulic system, my family’s flight from JFK was canceled. And of course the Moroccan currency exchangers did not have the slightest interest in trading for Malian francs. So for my first hours on Moroccan soil I was penniless, hungry, and shit out of luck.

But somehow or another my mom got Iberian Airlines to feel an enormous amount of pity and they whisked me to a luxury Casablanca spa and hotel with air-conditioning and a flat-screen TV and a toilet and a bidet and a steam bath and unlimited room service so long as I promised to never badmouth Iberian Airlines all over my blog. And I stand by my vow. When Iberian Airlines’ flights are grounded by hydraulic malfunctions, they treat you like a king.

As this grimy Peace Corps Volunteer has not had a proper shower or bath in almost a year now, I dawdled in this soapy, shampoo steam bath of bliss for at least an hour. When I was done there was a manifest ring of sludge around the bathtub.

And then I stepped outside onto the asphalt-paved street and walked along the concrete sidewalk and re-immersed myself into modern cosmopolitan existence. I sat down at the café with the morning edition of Le Monde and poured over the editorials as I sipped a carafe of red wine and a cappuccino and ordered a big hunk of lamb steak, as bloody and rare as the chef will agree to serve it, smothered in peppercorns. Only current or former Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived in villages of mud and sticks and eaten a steady diet of millet goop could ever understand just how amazing this felt…

Morocco is the most amazing country I have been to on the African continent thusfar(3 out of 54). Unlike Mali or Burkina Faso – which are landlocked agglomerations of various tribes which often have nothing in common besides the fact that they were once governed by the same French colonial magistrate – al-Maghreb is actually a nation-state of 34 million people with a sort of cultural coherence. Yes, in addition to the Arab majority there are distinct minority groups here such as the Berbers, the Gnaoua (black Moroccans) and Jews. However, since this is such a highly tolerant society there has been such intermarriage and exchange among the various subcultures over the years that now most Moroccans speak a patois of Arabic and French with a little Berber. And of course, this culture had their share of influence from the Spanish, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, and - judging by the indigenous redheads - the occasional Viking raiding party.

What I enjoy about this country so much is that it is hard to pigeonhole into a greater region. In America, one would say that Morocco is in “the Middle East”. My Egyptian Arabic teacher would say that Morocco is in “Africa”. My Malian neighbors would say that Morocco is in “Europe” (it’s halfway to Spain)! All are kind of correct in that since it is located on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar, and pretty much all maritime traffic in and out of the Mediterranean had to dock in either Tangier or Casablanca to trade for supplies at some point in time, Maghrebee culture is a deliciously cosmopolitan hodgepodge of East, West, North and South. And the result is a culture which mixes the best of all worlds.

The most conspicuous thing about Moroccan culture seems to be that men between the ages of 18 to 100 spend every afternoon at the café sipping mint tea. No women are ever present at the cafés unless of course they are serving the men. I thought this was kind of cool until I was joined for the second leg of my journey with my feminist friend – after that, I came to see the light that of course, the café is a bastion of misogyny and sexism. Nevertheless, at more gender-neutral establishments one could be treated to a constant smorgasbord of olives, couscous, spicy bean soup and crock pots full of goat and lamb and cumin and turmeric… but you know what? I’m really bad at this Condé Nast culturati fluff – I’ll leave that to a blogger with a significantly greater estrogen quotient than myself.

This blog isn't about art and dance and cuisine. It's about manly things like CONCRETE and PLUMBING and SEPTIC TANKS and SHIT. Yeah, that's right.

So here's my take on Morocco: Morocco is so incredibly awesome, not just because of the olive oil and couscous but because between 65 and 1.8 million years ago the European and African plates collided. The result of this tectonic confrontation were the High Atlas Mountains - which were pushed with enough force to reach heights of 4,000 meters. At this altitude moisture that just happened to be traveling along in the air, minding its own business, got interrupted by these ginormous mountains and so the moisture condensed and actually formed clouds - which often saturate to a point that they actually conduct precipitation. Many peaks of the High Atlas Mountains - such as Toubkal, the very highest mountain in all of North Africa (pictured below)- are so cold and receive so much moisture that that water falls as snow or otherwise freezes into snowcaps last until mid-August.

By the time that I and my parents and my sister went hiking around Toubkal in mid-June there was still a little bit of snow left. If you squint and block out the glare from the Sun you might be able to see some patches out in the distance. Yeah, there they are... Eventually enough solar radiation gets absorbed by those snowcaps that they melt and flow downhill, forming little mountain streams. Those mountain streams serve as the lion's share great of the Berbers' water supply for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigation.

The higher up we went, naturally the less vegetation there was on these mountains. Much of the valley was just full of boulders and scree; Allah did not create many prime plots for farmers or pastoralists in the High Atlas Mountains.

However, back in how many days of yore some Berber shepherds decided to pick up a bunch of heavy rocks and throw them across the mountain streams. Eventually these rocks caught enough sticks and leaves that they formed modest pools - which bit by bit accumulated enough organic matter to create a fertile humus. And grasses grew in the moist soils where they never would have otherwise among the rocks and the shepherds created for themselves prime new places to lead their goats to graze.

In some places the Berbers had gathered so much soil and were able to control the water levels so well that their rock walled-in areas would be fertile - but not flood - and grow figs and cherries and apricots in the alpine terrain.

For thousands of years this rock wall technology was pretty impressive. But then sometime in the 20th century the World Bank came in with some cement bags and fancypants engineers and created permanent, concrete irrigation canals to divert a smaller, more reliable fraction of the mountain streams so as to improve agricultural yields and simultaneously preserve the natural habitats of some of the endangered fauna which call Toubkal National Park their home.

I could totally build something like this... a piece of cake!

Yeah, political science majors from Amherst College know all about building big concrete-looking canal things...

Check out how the Berbers took a hill on something like a 45-degree angle, built ridges and then with a diversion of this irrigation canal built a cascading, multi-tiered garden plot.

And here they have diverted naturally-flowing mountain stream waters to fill a clothes-washing basin.

And since that water was once in solid form mere hours ago and is probably around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, some Berbers used rubber hoses to divert the canals further, poked holes around one loop of the hose, and created a 100-percent sustainable, gravity-powered refrigerator to chill water and soft drinks for hikers passing by their village.

All of these infinitely awesome water systems are - along with olives, couscous, turmeric and traditional Berber lute music - among the reasons why I am in love with the nation of al-Maghreb and I think I might have to live there for at least some part of my life... or at least become filthy rich and buy a villa in Chefchaouen like Robert Plant.

You might think, "Yeah, and now when you get back to Sanadougou you can build a snow cap > irrigation canal > natural refrigerator system there too! (sigh)...

Unfortunately, the village where I live in Mali is as topographically interesting as Sarpy County, Nebraska - none of these things could ever happen there.

... So until a major tectonic plate collides with the vast Malian interior, it looks like I'll be concentrating on solid and liquid waste management from now until the Mahdi returns...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On the Jewish Question

the very appropriately-named David Nice: Madu, if you don’t mind me asking, I have a very important question.

Madu Sogoba:
Fire away.

D: Why are the Jews so clever?

M: Um… I’m not really sure what you mean by that.

D: You Jewish people, you are all so clever! Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein – all Jews!

M: That’s… incorrect. Copernicus and Galileo were Catholics – Copernicus studied astronomy under the Polish Church, and the Pope excommunicated Galileo from the Church because he said that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Galileo and Copernicus definitely weren’t Jewish.

D: But Einstein! He was a Jew!

M: Yes, Albert Einstein was certainly a Jew. He fled from Germany when the Nazis came to power, and then when the State of Israel was founded a lot of Jews there wanted Einstein to be the first Israeli President.

D: OK, so the Jewish people are only the people of Einstein. All clever! There are no dumb people among you – why is that?

M: No, that’s not true at all. There are lots of Jewish people who are really, really dumb; for example, the fanatics who are stealing Palestinians’ farmlands to colonize the West Bank – even most Israelis think that the settlers are frickin’ morons.

D: So except for Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the Jewish people are for the most part very clever, more clever than other people. Why is that?

M: I’m still not exactly sure what you mean by that. Do you mean “clever” as in intelligent, or “clever” as in scheming and mischievous? The former I would take a compliment, but the latter could be construed as somewhat malicious.

D: No, no… not crafty like weasels… I mean that you Jewish people are all so clever, you have discovered how to make complicated things such as the atomic bomb. We have not the atomic bomb in Africa – we have neither the tools nor the scientific knowledge. Only the Jews could build such an enormous weapon out of tiny, little atoms. How do you do it?

M: I don’t know how to build an atomic bomb.

D: What do you mean - you don’t know how to construct an atomic bomb? But you Jews invented the thing!

M: If I knew how to make an atomic bomb, do you think I would be digging shit holes here in Mali?

D: OK, you, Madu Sogoba, do not know how to build an atomic bomb. But you Jews can do so many other things, difficult things which other peoples cannot – Therefore you are all so clever. You have found so many ways of making money! So many ways of finding power! If only we Bambaras could have found these ways!

M: Alright, that is kind of true. We Jews do have disproportionate weight in the diamond district, the banking sector, Wall Street, Hollywood, journalism, psychiatry, dentistry and orthodontics… Much of that is because for millennia we have been shut out of official government power, and so the Jewish people place great emphasis on professional education of our children so that we can find lucrative careers in the private sector regardless of the whims of the King.

D: What king? There is no king in America! You have President Barack Obama! Jews in America have no reason to fear no king.

M: It’s a figure of speech… But it’s based on fact. Throughout history from Egypt to Babylon to Persia to Greece to Rome to Spain to Russia to Nazi Germany – we Jews have traditionally been held as slaves, banished to distant lands or systematically murdered in government-orchestrated extermination campaigns. That’s why we have been perpetually migrating from country to country all over the world in what we call the Diaspora. Maybe we Jews have had to become particularly clever as an evolutionary adaptation?

D: But here in Mali there is no king! Here the people are free to be any religion they want! But before you I have not met one Jew. Why have the Jews not migrated to Mali?

M: Actually, some did. Perhaps as early as the 12th century Jewish merchants traveled from Morocco to trade in the fabled markets of Timbuktu, and they eventually carved out a monopoly over the overland trade route. Some Jewish merchants eventually left members of their caravans behind in Timbuktu to establish ties with local gold and salt retailers. When the King of Spain declared in 1492 that all of his Jewish subjects had to either convert to Christianity or leave his kingdom, many Sephardic Jews left for Morocco and some continued south and found refuge with the existing community in Timbuktu.

D: But I hear nothing of these Jews of Timbuktu! Why have I not met them?

M: Well, at first the Malian Emperor like his Moroccan counterpart accepted the influx of Jewish merchants and their financial know-how with open arms. But within the year of 1492 a new Emperor Askia Mohammed assumed the Malian throne - like the Spanish king, Emperor Askia Mohammed dictated that the Jews must convert or flee.

D: What did they do?

M: Most of the Jews of Timbuktu converted to Islam, and their descendents have acted as practicing Muslims ever since.

D: No, Muslims should pray as Muslims, Christians should pray as Christians, Jews should pray as Jews! Why did the Timbuktu Jews not continue the Jewish religion?

M: Then they would have been exiled to the Sahara Desert where they would have probably died of dehydration - Or the Emperor would have had them killed. So they practiced Islam for many centuries - and told their children about their true identity only in secret. Only now some of them are beginning to practice Judaism in public once again.

D: Very clever, those Jews!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Assassination of James Brown

Straight-up – being the one non-Bambara tribesman in Sanadougou and being constantly watched and gossiped about and petted and accosted for my bicycle and my underwear all day, every day, 7 days a week is emotionally and spiritually exhausting. And it is even more frustrating and damaging to one’s sense of self-worth when I go walk over for a friendly chat with the dude for whom I just built 3 brand new, cement nyegens complete with soak pits and feeling all bright and optimistic and accomplished and he screams at me for being a “nasty, greedy Tubabu” because I won’t give him U.S. A.I.D.-financed cement to line his entire house and I walk home flustered and fed up and not a single person in this entire town can relate.

But who needs people when James Brown and Snoop Doggy Dogg are waiting at home to play with me? Even on days when my homologue thinks I’m useless and my jatigi thinks I’m lazy and the entire village thinks I’m a stingy bastard, my doggy and kitty think I’m the best person in the whole wide world and Snoop rolls over so we can play the “kick me in the face” game and James climbs up my shoulder and rolls into a huggable, purry furball and at least some creatures on this planet appreciate my existence. And everything is alright.

So the other night I was sleeping in my tent in the papaya patch when I was woken by a deafening BOOM as though a car had backfired just outside my garden. Though I didn’t think anything of it and rolled back to sleep.

The next morning I couldn’t find Jamesy… I went over to my jatigi’s house – James had recently been spending nights with their ladycat – but he wasn’t there either. I was told to go to the house of Seydou Cafa – the night watchman at the clinic across the street. Maybe he knew where James was...

So I stormed in demanding answers when I am greeted by my kitty James – he was hanging from Seydou’s gwa with his head chopped off, skinned to dry for that evening’s sauce. The logic of what had happened that night became all too apparent:

1. I am hungry. (Given)
2. Look… a Cat! (Given)
3. BOOM! (Chain Rule 1, 2)

I went ballistic.

“What’s the big deal?” Seydou asked, “It’s just a cat.”

“That’s not just a cat – that’s my cat you killed!!! You stole my cat and you can’t give it back!!! So now you have to pay up.”

“Whatever – I’m sorry. It will not happen again, insh’allah.”

“No, that’s not going to cut it. You just killed an expensive cat. I vaccinated and treated that cat, and it cost 5,000 CFA. I’ll give you a choice; either you pay me 5,000 francs right now, and while you’re at it give me a goat for good measure so I can kill one of your animals and eat it too – or else I’m going to explain to the Commandant that you’re a lunatic who hunts other people’s livestock with a shotgun on the clinic grounds in a crowded neighborhood 80 meters from where I sleep and 100 meters from where the Commandant and his wife and his children sleep.”

Unlike litigious Americans such as yours truly, Bambaras shy from using the official legal system and instead use their own traditional form of settling grievances. There is kind of an adversarial trial before the dugutigi (the village chief) who resolves both parties’ claims. This was actually a big deal; in an agricultural society, livestock theft is one of the most serious crimes which one can commit. If a Bambara steals another Bambara’s cow or sheep, the thief is usually pressured by his elders to compensate the victim in currency or in kind.

Though unbeknownst to me at the time, even in the extralegal Bambara trial using informal laws and informal procedures, the plaintiff is generally expected to employ an extralegal lawyer. Usually people have the eldest male of each respective adversary’s family do all the negotiating – and so I should have delegated responsibility to my jatigi Karitie Sanogo. For yours truly – former Mock Trial lawyer, material witness for a real-life courtroom disposition and citizen of the U.S. of A. where 23-year-olds are just as full members of society as their real fathers – it never occurred to me that I should employ someone else to redress my own grievances. Thus by stepping into the dugutigi’s gwa to act as my own counsel, I apparently disrupted the gerontocratic social order and already had one strike going against me.

Nevertheless, I put forward an argument based on what I felt was incontrovertible logic:

1. Individuals are granted by their Creator a natural right to Property. (Bourgeois Capitalism)
2. “To steal” is to take another person’s Property without their consent. (Definition)
3. If an Individual steals another Individual’s Property, the Thief must pay the Victim in order to re-establish the State of Nature. (Bourgeois Capitalism)
4. I had a Cat. (Given)
5. My Cat cost 5,000 francs. (Given)
6. I never told anyone that they had permission to take my Cat. (Given)
7. Seydou killed my Cat and his wife is preparing it for dinner. (Given)
8. Therefore, Seydou stole my Cat (Chain Rule [1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7])
9. Therefore, Seydou must give me 5,000 francs. (Chain Rule, Bourgeois Justice [3, 5, 8])
10. And a goat. (Revenge)

The dugutigi agreed wholeheartedly with my proposition. However, Seydou had a right to defend himself.

1. I am the Night Watchman at the Clinic. (Given)
2. The Night Watchman is equipped with a Shotgun in order to protect the Clinic. (Given)
3. Therefore, it is my solemn duty to protect the Clinic as well as myself with my Shotgun.
(Chain Rule [1,2])
4. Evil Sorcerers exist, and they wish to do us harm. (Incontrovertible Fact)
5. Evil Sorcerers can take the form of Cats. (Incontrovertible Fact)
6. While guarding the Clinic last night, I saw a Cat. (Given)
7. Therefore, the Cat which I saw could have been an Evil Sorcerer in disguise.(Chain Rule [4, 5, 6])
8. Therefore, there is no way that I could have known that that Cat was not an Evil Sorcerer. (The Law of Epistemological Positivism [6, 7])
9. Therefore, it was my solemn duty to shoot that Cat with my Shotgun in order to protect the Clinic from Evil Sorcerers. (Chain Rule [1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8])

The dugutigi gave much credence to Seydou’s defense. “He’s got a good point there, Madu – what if your cat was a sorcerer?”

“NO!!!!! I know for a fact that my cat could not cast magic spells. If Seydou believes thinks that he should shoot every single kitten that walks his way because it might be a sorcerer, then he is delusional and insane and he should not have a job which entails holding a shotgun at a health clinic!!! Witches and wizards are not real and they cannot be valid reasons for slaughtering other people’s animals!!! You know what? Maybe Seydou’s cow is a sorcerer!!!! I should kill his cow!!! And maybe his goats and his sheep are all sorcerers too!!! If Seydou’s defense is valid, then I should be able to shoot all of his animals and eat them to protect myself from evil spells!!!!

Unfortunately for my case, the dugutigi also believes in witches and wizards – hence he let Seydou’s defense stand.

“The night watchman had good reason to believe that his very life could have been in danger of black magic, he shot your cat out of sincere self-defense. So Seydou must not give you a goat to slaughter as you demand… However, since you now surely want a new cat and you want to vaccinate it too, Seydou must give you 5,000 francs to cover the cost of cat medicine.”

But the important issue to me wasn’t the money; I wanted Seydou to pay 5,000 francs merely to make his reckless behavior really, really expensive and hopefully to deter his assassination of future cats. What mattered to me is that now my life in the peaceful gardens of Xanadu is lacking a huggable, squeezable furball to curl up next to my pillow and purr me to sleep.

Though this tragedy concludes with a happy ending of rebirth and renewal; within hours of this fiasco, in such an insular village where my nail-clipping habits are considered juicy gossip, every man, woman and child in Sanadougou knew about the untimely assassination of my feline friend who would so often follow me and climb up on my shoulder to accompany me around the hood. James Brown was a Sanadougou celebrity in his own right, and his presence was immediately missed. And by the afternoon the community poured out in sympathy and dozens of people offered me brand new kittens to offset my loss.

I accepted one baby kitten, and his name his James Brown II.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Enter the Poopopticon

The best course I ever took in college was Professor Bumiller’s Regulating Citizenship. The syllabus itself wasn’t every impressive– it was mostly composed of elementary political writings of Locke, de Tocqueville, Thoreau and Martin Luther King which I had read in high school. But what made this course so enlightening was the format and location of our class: once a week ten “outside” students from Amherst College drove down Route 9 to meet with ten “inside” students in the visiting room of the Hampshire County Jail.

The “inside” students were not hardened criminals but guys who happened to have been given a bad deck in life and royally screwed up, but they deserved a second chance. “Camp Hampshire” – as it was affectionately known by those who had made it through the meaner penal regimen at State – provided a community-based rehabilitation program, offering residents drug counseling, psychotherapy, G.E.D. certification, training in carpentry, quilting, and seeing-eye dog training. Through the course of their stay residents were incrementally allowed more and more freedom of movement, culminating in the final stage when they resided in quarters outside the sealed gates of the central compound and could essentially walk in and out as they pleased and vans would drive them off the facility grounds so they could work part-time jobs. The overriding purpose of this entire scheme was to “re-socialize” those whom society had apparently failed the first time around, so that the next time graduates of the Hampshire County could re-enter conventional society with marketable skills, find a decent job and conduct themselves in a lawful manner.

The most tantalizing class was the day when we discussed Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment, namely, his analysis of Jeremy Bentham's ideal reformatory: the Panopticon. According to this scheme lawbreakers should be reside in a ring of transparent cells ringed around a central guard tower so that guards could monitor all prisoners at all times. Every sinner would be conditioned into good behavior by the sight of the ever-present guard tower, for it would always be much too obvious to the prisoner that his every behavior could be monitored. Whether or not there was actually a guard in the tower conducting surveillance at any given moment was irrelevant – the individual prisoner could never know. And so he would have to assume that he was in fact being watched in perpetuity as though by the all-seeing eyes of God. The convicted criminal would thus have no choice but to adopt self-discipline and learn to conduct himself with upright character and morality at all times.

Foucault and Mill were quite relevant to the daily lives of every single “inside” student, for though they enjoyed a liberal degree of freedom at the Hampshire County, they were self-disciplined into good behavior by omnipresent video cameras which were linked to live-feeds into the central guards’ surveillance room. An “inside” student pointed at the silver orb hanging from the ceiling,

“We know what da Panopticon is all about! Here we gotta stand in line cuz we is bein’ surveillanced every single minute of every single goddamn day!

This experiment in academia has proved to actually be quite useful in my real-life experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer trying to promote water sanitation in Mali. Here the biggest public health issue I’m dealing with isn’t a crime as defined by any legal code, but an act so heinous that it is treated with the palatable euphemism “open defecation”; i.e. children shitting all over the public school grounds.

Every single day when I walk to Karitie and Durcas’ house for lunch, I walk past the Première Cycle. The sanitary infrastructure on this schoolyard is actually quite impressive for a rural town in Mali; there is an India/Mali pump so that the students and teachers can drink clean, filtered water at all times, and there are three sets of latrines – one of them brand spanking new. The kids know how to get their water from the pump – sort of – but it is quite apparent that they do not quite grasp what they are supposed to do with these latrines. In one hour I sat with Durcas under her gwa and counted 14 kids who actually ventured inside the nyegens and do their business, 11 children who defecated in back of the nyegens, and 8 of them who just dropped their pants and shamelessly pissed in the middle of the schoolyard.

“Durcas, this just doesn’t make any sense. It actually takes more effort for these kids to walk behind the nyegens than it does for them to walk inside the nyegens. Why on Earth do they insist on expending more energy to shit and piss outside?”

“Je ne sais pas! You have done everything that you can possibly do to tame these nasty children. You have organized the student government to properly clean the inside of the nyegens on a weekly basis…”

“ – But the problem here is what kids are doing outside the nyegens that’s so unsanitary.”

“You have even trained your puppy Snoop to tackle nasty children he sees pooping…”

“ – But ever since Snoop maimed Bobacar’s sheepling in the fields I’ve had to keep him chained up all day.”

“Then there is nothing more that you can do.”

“But there is! I’ve been trying to get Karitie to let me teach his students just one class on how to go to the bathroom – but he still won’t let me… Speaking of the Devil, here he comes right now! Karitie!”


“Watching these kids shit so near the water pump day in and day out is simply intolerable. What do I have to do for you to let me teach these kids a lesson in proper defecation?”

“I have already told you that you should beat these nasty, nasty children. Here in Mali when children are misbehaving that is what we do – we rip a switch from the tree and spank their butt until they cry! Unless you teach my students that there is a price that comes with pooping outside, and that that price is a very painful beating, I refuse to let you step foot in my classrooms.”

“I still don’t want to tell these kids that I, personally am going to beat them – some of these 8 and 9-year-olds are my best friends in this entire village! I’m sure there is some way that we can compromise...”

So that afternoon I put on my General Patton face and went from class to class to lead a stern conversation on personal hygiene and sanitation. I greeted all the students, greeted their teachers and after a little small talk abruptly broke the ice; “I have to poop” and squatted down in front of the blackboard as though I were going to do it right there in front of the class. “Do you think that this is a good place for pooping?”

“NO!!!” (Asking questions always catches the kids off guard, they are so used to being lectured at)

“OK then… How about I poop here behind the teacher’s desk? No one can see me!”


“Is it ever OK for me to poop or pee inside the classroom?”


“Why not?”

“It is DIRTY!!!”

“That is correct! Pooping or peeing in public places with lots of people is the dirtiest thing in the world! And that is why I am very mad . Today I watched 19 children poop and pee outside the nyegens. Do you think that pooping and peeing outside in the schoolyard is OK?”


“Do you know what diseases you can get from people pooping and peeing outside?”

Answers included “Malaria!”, “Headache!”, “Coughing!” even “AIDS!”

“Close… but not quite. Who here has heard of dysentery, cholera or schistosomiasis?”

This very unscientific survey made me think that absolutely no one in the subpopulation of Sanadougou most likely to fall ill to these wretched maladies had heard of them previously. That was a very frightening thought. So for each class I drew a diagram of the water pump on the schoolyard all the way down to the water table.

“Here is a schoolgirl named Aminata Sogoba. She is drinking water from the water pump. Do any of you know how other students might make Aminata sick?..

Pooping and peeing outside in the schoolyard, of course!”

So I drew a highly exaggerated diagram of how diseases are transmitted via open defecation and urination – the Bambara language doesn’t take very well to metaphors or similes, so I had to make my diagram as straightforwardly literal as possible.

“…So you see, when Aminata drinks water contaminated with Bakary’s poop she has a good chance of getting sick with giardia or dysentery or even cholera and she might even die because Bakary took a dump too close to the water supply. Who here has had diarrhea in the past month?”

Everyone raises their hand.

“There’s a good chance that you had diarrhea because your classmates have been pooping all over the schoolyard and their poop somehow got into your mouth. Either their poop went directly into the drinking water, or it got on a soccer ball – which someone picked up with their hands – and then they picked up a pencil – and then you shared that pencil – and then you put your finger in your mouth. Every time that children poop out in the schoolyard it gives you a greater chance of getting sick… So does anyone here want to get a really bad case of diarrhea again?”


"Does anyone want to get other people's poop in their mouth?"


“So what do you think we should do with dirty children who poop outside and put nasty disease seeds in the drinking water?”


“You all should know that Karitie says that I should beat children who dirty the schoolyard with their poop. But I will not, I cannot do that. There are 428 of you and only 8 teachers and 1 of me – we adults can’t watch you when we have to work. Though since all of you go to school here, and it is you the students’ responsibility to fill the water jugs with clean drinking water and to clean the nyegens, it is now the job of each and every one of you to make sure that no one poops outside... You’re going to have to learn to discipline yourselves! So what are you going to do the next time you see kids pooping in the schoolyard?”


“Wow… that sounds like pretty awful punishment… and you all have wonderful imaginations. Though violence is horrible, and I do not encourage you to ever hurt anyone - but pooping near the water pump is even worse because it hurts many more people in ways that you cannot see. I would prefer that the next time you see kids pooping outside you teach them why they are spreading diseases and threatening other people's lives... But remember, Monsieur le Directeur thinks that kids who poop next to the water pump he drinks from every day should be beaten..."

"So in conclusion, next time that you have to poop or pee, where must you go?”


“Thank you, my good friends. May Allah grant you a day of peace and happiness.”

After visiting all eight classrooms in the Sanadougou Première Cycle; 1) I finally got the break I had sought for so long to teach these kids about water sanitation and fecal-orally-transmitted diseases; 2) Karitie got the warning he wanted that open defecation in the schoolyard shall result in corporal punishment; 3) Not once did I ever have to say that I would personally conduct any of these beatings. I was able to draw from these students own mouths that not only is shitting and pissing in the schoolyard absolutely intolerable, that it is an epidemiological hazard and a personal offense to the entire student body and faculty, and – the icing on the cake – that the students themselves would personally beat their peers who threatened them with disease and even death by depositing their waste in the vicinity of the drinking water pump. I think that this compromise worked out fairly well.

And of course the best way to judge a utilitarian policy would of course to measure its tangible results. Before my discussions on water sanitation roughly 2 out of every 3 students were shitting and pissing outside on the streets, in the schoolyard, next to the nyegens, anywhere but inside the nyegens. But since I introduced this strict new waste management policy and cooperative disciplinary regime, open defecation has come to a screeching halt. In the two weeks since neither Karitie nor Durcas nor I have yet to see another child drop their pants in the open.

They seem to have internalized the discipline of sanitary defecation out of fear of peer punishment as though they were policed by the all-seeing eyes of Allah.