Thursday, December 31, 2009

Poverty in the Country versus Poverty in the City

In America, there exists a class of the relatively well-to-do who make a point of quitting their stressful jobs in the city and retiring to quaint villages in the Berkshires or Vermont, locales rural enough that they can afford acres of forests and fields accessible only by dirt road, where they can renovate an old farmhouse into an interior-decorated mansion and live the life of a gentleman farmer – but close enough to civilization that they can still get the Times delivered to their doorstep. Out in the country where the cost of living is cheap, a successful professional with a decent-sized nest egg can escape from the consumerist alienation and impersonality of metropolitan life, and instead bask in the freedom to chop wood in the morning, fish in the afternoon, read poetry and criticize after dinner. Such country gentlemen have no real need to till the land– for the rest of their lives they can eat off of the interest from their savings accounts and the dividends from their mutual funds – though it is nevertheless obligatory that they wear flannel and work boots, bide their time farming and hunting so as to justify their bucolic residence, to demonstrate to the locals that despite their former careers as urban professionals they are in fact country boys at heart.

When I think of the “rural splendor” that I know so well – the land of bed & breakfasts, ski chalets and gourmet country stores, the kind which my parents aspire to retire to – sometimes I can’t help but laugh a little. Without the influx of money from Wall Street and all of the sub-industries patronized by the titans of finance (e.g. psychiatry, real estate), those ski lifts could not operate and those cute little bed & breakfasts would go out of business. The “country” which I knew was really no such thing; it was really an extension of the New York suburbs.

I think of this façade of the American country lifestyle when I bike far down the road out of Sanadougou. The roads out of this village will forever remain unpaved, glorified cow paths - not because any retired doctors or lawyers want to preserve the aura of a Norman Rockwell painting, but because at no point in the foreseeable future will the subsistence farmers of the local Minianka tribe ever generate enough tax revenue to justify the construction of a real road. But in truth this Minianka village doesn’t really need a paved road; they don’t have to commute to work, they travel to distant markets more for pleasure than for necessity, they can produce all of the commodities they truly need to live from the fields immediately adjacent to the village.

A term which repeatedly comes to mind is autarky: a term usually applied to the economics of states policies, autarky means the quality of being perfectly self-sufficient. Autarky entails one must grow all of one’s food in order to live, it means zero participation in external trade. It is the absolute individualist extreme of the local food movement. Even the most radical of American brown bread-eaters find this ideal easier to profess than to actually live by; when he spent his year “in solitude” sowing the bean fields along Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau relied heavily on purchased dry goods, he regularly supped at the Emersons’ dinner table and his mother even did most of his laundry. If Thoreau had indeed spent all of his days practicing perfect autarky, he would been so occupied with the constant drudgery of manual agriculture that he would have never had the time to study his tomes of Greek philosophy and Latin poetry, to travel to Concord every other day to catch up with current events, to meander through the woods and contemplate Nature and the Higher Law. Even the first proponent of the “back to the land” movement farmed not because he really had to, but as a pastime to round his hours from a life of contemplation.

The concept of the “back to the land” movement is absolutely untranslatable in an anomalous nation where 68 percent of the population lives in the country and – even more – 80 percent of the work force is employed in agriculture due to seasonal migration from the cities. This is a society which has been living off of this land for untold generations, and it most likely will be until the end of time. These fields which the villagers of Sanadougou hold in common and manure and plow and plant and weed and harvest are truly all they have. The vast majority of their land is dedicated to the production of millet – the basic cereal crop which constitutes about 90 percent of their total caloric intake. A significantly smaller portion of the fields are planted with corn and rice, which require so much water that they can only be successfully grown in the rare floodplains. Land too barren for cereal cultivation is planted with peanuts and beans to add a smattering of protein to the Minianka diet and rejuvenate the poor soils with nitrogen. Less than 1 percent of the cultivated fields are fenced in to act as vegetable gardens, and all of the remaining land is left for grass and weeds to grow wild for the grazing of cattle, sheep and goats. The Miniankas’ land – worked by their own calloused hands with only the simplest of hand tools – is the source of all of their food and the better part of their very modest wealth.

This is not so much the case in Sanadougou – which is really a rural town of roughly 4,400 persons, but if I bike only a few kilometers outside of the town limits I pass by a few solitary huts. These are occupied by men who found their family concessions to be so crowded that they decided to leave the village altogether, build a hut kilometers away from any human improvement. Like Jacob in Canaan, the Minianka tribesman who digs a new well to slake a new family outside of his father’s village is founding society anew. From the perspective of a subsistence farmer, this decision makes economic sense; land is allotted by the dugutigi according to use and geographical proximity, and to escape the orbit of the village and stake out virgin fields means that they can cultivate many more hectares and increase their yields with little to no competition. Though to live so far outside the village means that the enterprising settler can only go to market on rare occasions, he cannot possibly live off the profits of commerce, his family must be essentially self-sufficient and farming enough millet, maybe a little corn and peanuts to feed themselves unaided.

Unlike the Vermont country gentleman who might grow a few tomato and basil plants on his windowsill, what the Sanadougou subsistence farmer produces in his fields in November and December is literally his food for the year. Depending on the size of his family and the success of his yields, that millet should be able to allow his wife(s) and average 7 children each a bowl of porridge in the morning, a batch of goopy toh with leaf sauce at lunch, and whatever toh is left over to be reheated for dinner. In a good year, the Malian farmer should be able to harvest enough millet for his family to eat on 365 days. But even in a good year, the granary’s stores will be mostly depleted during the months leading up to the next year’s harvest; during this time which is known as “hungry season”, your typical Malian farmer’s family will reduce their consumption to one meal a day, they will even cut down on how much they themselves eat at that solitary meal as the granary depletes to almost nothing. And this is in a good year – in the year after a drought, “hungry season” begins months earlier and its privations become ever more severe.

The traditional Minianka economy contains some modest diversification which stabilizes the ravages of drought. Everybody raises cows, sheep, goats, chickens, guinea hens or some other animals which of course they can slaughter and eat themselves; though a side of mutton can only go around for a few days, hence it is far more economical to sell that sheep in market and use the proceeds to buy a few more weeks worth of millet. They farm market gardens and a few cash crops too, but in a year when the population is suffering from scarcity of millet – which is relatively drought-resistant, that year’s harvest of cash crops will be even more underwhelming. In a year of drought, a rural community like Sanadougou becomes desperate for outside sources of money in order to fill the family food bowl; trades become significantly more important, the young men of the village will be sent far and wide in search for work in order to send remittances back home. The problem is that in a year when a single province, the entire country or even all of Africa is hit by drought, the young men of every other village have the same idea – and after the harvest season there really aren’t any jobs to begin with.

The Commune of Sanadougou is inhabited by about 16,000 persons; 4,400 in the town of Sanadougou proper, the rest in a few dozen smaller villages like Wintigili and Kashienso which comprise of only 400 to 1,000 persons, and about a hundred isolated families as described above who decided to live alone in absolute autarky. The degree of each family’s respective self-sufficiency tends to be inversely related to the size of their village; in smaller villages of only a few hundred people, no family can provide their daily food needs through any occupation other than subsistence agriculture. Over time, enterprising individuals tend to find some sort of niche to fill in the local economy; one man who is particularly competent in the art of bicycle repair will develop such a reputation for his skills that he becomes the village’s go-to man for broken chains and punctured tires. Another man who buys a lot of cigarettes in the city might do the math and – instead of buying individual cigarettes for his own consumption – decides to buy whole packs of cigarettes and resell the individual cigarettes to his neighbors. In even the most basic societies it is only natural for individuals to differentiate their labor in some fashion which maximizes their own income and the efficiency of society as a whole. However, since so very few trades are lucrative enough to obviate farming for personal food consumption, any job specialization and commerce in goods or services is decidedly secondary to subsistence agriculture.

In this Commune of 16,000 persons about 12,000 are children, and even though children begin to provide vital labors in the house and in the fields at a young age, according to Western definitions of market economics they will be discounted from the labor force. So from a labor force of about 4,000 adults in this entire Commune, most have some sort of skill in addition to mere agriculture. Some men are handy enough with a sewing machine that they are known as tailors, a few men have practiced their woodworking skills to the extent that they are known as carpenters, and there is even one man in Sanadougou who has figured out how to build a small electric circuit attached to a light bulb and carve a small wooden casing that he is known as the torosidlala: “the flashlight builder”. But none of these men could live off of their trades alone. Even the Mayor, the directors of the schools and all of the teachers – all who enjoy generous government salaries – still farm millet, corn, rice and peanuts during the rainy season in order to feed their families.

As overwhelming as the poverty of Mali’s villages might be, it cannot compare to the concentrated desperation of Mali’s cities. In rural villages and towns like Sanadougou, people are poor because the bulk of their economic activity consists of farming their own food and they only barely participate in the market economy. Though there are no fields to farm in a densely populated city, so urban dwellers have to pay for all of their food – they have to participate in the market economy in order to live. Participating in the market economy is remarkably difficult in a country whose overall economy is all but defined by subsistence agriculture.

The rapid population growth of Mali’s cities is truly a bizarre phenomenon. In the demographic history of the world, urbanification of entire societies usually coincides with either the expansion of commerce or the rise of concentrated production, factories and industrialization. Yet in Mali there are only a handful of factories; there is the Comatex textile mill in Ségou, the CMDT mill in Koutiala, there is a fruit juice bottling plant in Bamako, etc. Even using a liberal definition of the term “factory”, there are less than two dozen factories in this entire country of 13 million people. What little industrialization that does exist here is very, very basic - the kind of extremely low-tech factories which are little more than a concentration of the cottage industries, the primordial species of industrialization which could have existed in England in the 1800s.

The establishment of these factories has been a great achievement in Mali’s dialectic of economic development, introducing this market to the world stage in a way beyond the extraction of raw materials. There are now multiple thousands of Malians who can truly be described as “industrial workers” – who get paid wages not just in the agricultural off-season, but as a full-time vocation – a revolution in personal finance. Though in macroeconomic terms, the population of industrial workers hardly registers – they are even dwarfed by the 5 to 10 percent of Malians who make their living as nomadic herders and traders.

The existence of a few thousand industrial jobs cannot justify the size of Mali’s obscenely overpopulated cities. The one-mill city of Koutiala has a population of 75,000, the economy of Ségou which is powered by another mill and a budding tourism industry has 90,000, the cotton capitol Sikasso is home to 114,000, the capitol of Bamako can boast over 1 million inhabitants.

Despite the recent nascence of a few full-fledged factories, Mali is not an industrial economy. In a country where 80 percent of the work force is involved in agriculture, it makes sense that the vast majority of all commerce consists of trade in raw agricultural goods. Just as the majority of rural monetary income comes from farmers coming into the cities to sell their cereals, fruits, vegetables and livestock, about half of the urban economy consists of women who buy that produce and resell it to urban consumers. There is very little value-added in the urban economy; most foodstuffs are sold in urban markets exactly as they were picked, the level of urban value-added consists on the level of a woman who buys rural firewood for 200 francs, shea oil for 500 francs and sweet potatoes for 1,000 francs, she lights a fire, chops the sweet potatoes and over the course of a day sells a batch of sweet potato fries for 2,000 francs of revenue and 300 francs profit. As simple as it is, such a modest means of production is advanced in comparison to the bulk of urban trade.

With only modest industrialization and hardly any value-added, Malian cities are essentially communities of middlemen who buy rural produce and sell it to the government officials and industrial workers, who buy imported cell phones, cassette players, knock-off watches, counterfeit medicine and Goodwill clothing to sell to the country farmers, and of course they make most of their money selling their bootleg merchandise to each other. Even the merchant class suffers from a devastating lack of diversification; every butigi sells exactly the same brands of tea, cigarettes, chicken boullion and canned sardines; every street vendor walking around with trays of the same knock-off watches buys their merchandise from the same central wholesaler. The only way for merchants to profit in this bazaar economy is to drive a hard bargain, the only way for the mercantile class to get rich is to exploit the monopsonistic market and pay the illiterate, innumerate country farmers pennies for their cotton, and then dupe those same ignorant customers to pay the wholesale price for imported luxuries many times over.

What industrial jobs the urban economy could rationally justify have already been taken with waiting lists hundreds of names long, those few successful commercial niches have been emulated and replicated dozens of times more than their merchandise could ever demand, and yet the urban population continues to swell. Part of urban population growth is organic – industrial workers and merchants reproduce too, but the population growth owed to the fertility rate is overshadowed by young men from country villages who are enticed by the allure of the good life promised in hip hop music videos, disillusioned by the prospects of a future in millet cultivation, and flee to the cities to “find money” and make it big in the modern commercial economy. There are no job openings awaiting them, so the young rural exodus tends to make their own employment; the most common schtick is to buy a sheet of 12 phone cards for 11,800 francs and sit on the street waving their cards in passerbys’ faces to hawk them for 1,000 each; others buy 100 francs of tea, 75 francs of sugar and 50 francs of charcoal, and they cook up a pot by the bus station to sell 12 individual shot-glasses of tea for 50 francs each. If they can make friends with the right people, a strong young man can rent a handcart so that he can ferry heavy merchandise from the trucks to the shops and vice versa – the pooshpooshtigi is a perfect personification of the bazaar economy, for he contributes no value to any products, he profits by simply moving goods from one place to another.

The unemployment rate in this country stands at 30 percent, but since every self-employed country farmer is unclassifiable for the purpose of market economy labor statistics that means that the unemployment rate only defines the urban economy, that means that 1 in 3 Malian urbanites has no job to justify their residence in the city. When you look at what counts as “employment” – any sort of income generating activity at all – the official unemployment figures are truly astounding. A lady who sets up a little street stand selling fried dough balls counts as “employed”; the youth who go around with their portable shoe-shine stations are “employed”; the men who buy sheets of 12 phone cards for 11,800 francs and resell them for 1,000 francs each count are also “employed”. An official 30 percent unemployment rate translates into an urban population of roughly 600,000 adults who cannot even buy a six-pack of Kleenex to resell, a lumpenproletariat class of 600,000 men and women who serve no purpose in a capitalist economy but to leech off of economically-productive family members, take advantage of religious charities, and ultimately drive down wages for those who are productive members of the work force.

When in a Malian city, it’s not very difficult to spot these economically extraneous members of the lumpenproletariat; they are the hoards of men congregate around the television to watch soccer matches all Monday morning and afternoon, they are the dozens of men who sit around at the hardware store which only employs one or two, who spend all day sitting around sipping tea, making small talk and adjusting their iPhone ring tones. And of course, the reserve armies of the unemployed also consist of the blind, disabled, schizophrenic and just plain lazy who sit on the street all day imploring pedestrians "to be pious Muslims".

The expansion of the urban population and its bazaar economy does count toward economic growth, for the more people who break away from subsistence agriculture means more people who have to purchase food, who have to sell something in order to live. Economic activity goes up. More people earning and spending pecuniary wealth means a greater total value of final goods and services purchased in a market economy: a higher GDP – the statistic which all but defines economic development to most businessmen and government officials. According to the methodology used by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and USAID, the exodus of the Malian country’s youth to its overcrowded cities is considered progress towards a modern market economy.

However, the increase in the monetary incomes of young Malian men does not necessarily translate into a higher standard of living. A wise urban-dweller could save his money to buy shoes, mosquito nets and medicine for all of his children, he could invest in a new well, fencing, seeds and farm tools so that his family in the village could plant a market garden – or he could blow it all on an iPhone. Judging by the facts that every young man who sojourns to the city to find work returns to Sanadougou with a brand new cell phone, and that their families are suffering from illiteracy, malnutrition, giardia and malaria at the same rates as those families whose men stay in village, it would be difficult to say that this economy receives any real benefit from the demographic exodus to the cities. But no one needs to worry about grinding poverty so long as they can distract themselves with the opiate of Akon music videos…

What is worse, the growth of Mali’s urban population to the detriment of rural development renders the entire economy more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capitalism. A man who works in the fields and grows what he eats might not earn a lot of money, but at least he will have millet in his granary; even the poorest of farmers with not a franc to their name can at least work enough to eat. There is no such guarantee in the city – an urban-dweller has to have money to buy food, and in an economy with 30 percent employment there is a great paucity of opportunity for monetary income. The lumpenproletariat is faced with the choice of resorting to theft to eat or starving to death – or moving back to the country.

Progress is on the March!

Now that the harvest is complete, work on the Tonto Secondaire Cycle nyegen project is in high gear. I spoke with the three classes and bluntly explained that the American people have just bought them 400,000 francs worth of cement to build them decent latrines, and if they're not going to go to the fields and gather all of the sand, gravel and rocks for free then nobody will, and they will forever be shitting in the bushes. "An be fe ka aw deme, nga ni aw te na barake, aw ba fe ka boke kenema."

Within a week, the Secondaire Cycle student body all took time off their afternoons and weekends to drive their families' donkey carts to the fields, and now we have all the gravel and rocks we could ever need. Still having trouble with the sand somehow...

So now the brickmasons have been able to make more bricks, and the Tonto Youth Association made up of young men in their teens and twenties is providing the bulk of the labor. When I was last at the construction site 48 hours ago, the latrine pit and foundation had been completed. Now we need to build the soak pit, the latrine platforms, and then we can start building the walls of the latrine houses.

Though that's not to say that this project has been bereft of headaches. Our original plan was to build two latrines - one for boys and one for girls. And so I bought two doors - one for the boys' latrine and one for the girls' latrine. But then the Director of the school protested that there wasn't a completely separate latrine for the faculty (himself and two other teachers). So now my masons have acquiesced and have decided that we must be able to build three latrines with the materials purchased to build only two. All of the bricks are already done and made, and we I asked where the 3rd door is going to come from, and they told me "You are going to buy it!" I explained that I've already spent every last penny in project funds and that if they insist on fundamentally changing the project at the last minute then that's fine and dandy but they're going to have to finance all of the amendments out of their own pockets, and they said that they will...

May Allah grant us the will to succeed on this nyegen project!!!


Monday, December 21, 2009

Chappy Chanukah from Sanadougou!

Madu Sogoba: So you see, Little Boy, thousands of years ago a very mean tyrant was trying to kill all the Jews – as usual, and all the Jews thought that we had only one day’s worth of oil to fuel our lights. But to our surprise we had a full eight days of oil! And so that is why every year we Jews celebrate the Festival of Lights which we call “Chanukah” by lighting a new candle each evening! And since we have so much oil remaining, we make little fried potato cakes! And we play games and win prizes!

Little Boy: What kind of games?

Madu Sogoba: Like Dreidel!!! So the Jews, we make these little toys which we call “dreidels”, and four people sit in a circle and we each take a small pile of peanuts. Peanuts!!! You Malians are gonna love this !!! So you spin the dreidel, and depending on which side it lands – Gimel, Shin, Nun or Hay, you win peanuts in different ways.

I roll first…. I got Shin, you I put a peanut back in the pot. Now it’s your turn!

Little Boy: … What’s this?

Madu Sogoba: Gimel!!! That means you win all of the peanuts!!! All 20 peanuts are yours!!!

Little Boy: … Are you kidding me? My dad’s granary is full of thousands and thousands of peanuts. This amounts to chump change.

Madu Sogoba: Yeah, but you won 20 peanuts!!! You won!!!

Little Boy: This game sucks.

Madu Sogoba: Um… Maybe I could go buy a bag of milk candies and play with those?

Little Boy: How bout you take some serious money, break it up into large coins like 500 franc pieces, and we gamble for some real cash like all the men do! That would be motherfucking dope!!!

Madu Sogoba: Little Boy, you know that I can’t encourage gambling…

Little Boy: Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, you self-righteous, two-timing piece of shit!!! You can't take me for your little chump!!! You just told me that you lost and I won, bitch, so cough up some serious motherfucking cash!!!

Madu Sogoba: Y’know what, Little Boy? I’m trying to share my cultural heritage and you’re trying to turn it into yet another way of skizzeling me for moolah… I’m going home to play with the only people in this village who have no interest in currency…

Snoop! Jamesy! Let’s celebrate your very first Festival of Lights! Let’s play dreidel!

Snoop: How’re we supposed to spin that thing? We don’t got no opposable thumbs, jerk…

Madu Sogoba: Well… we can light the candles to commemorate the eight days of oil we miraculously hoarded in times of yore!

James Brown II: We’re also terrified of fire!!! That shit’s just an accident waitin’ to happen!!!

Madu Sogoba: … Peanuts?

James and Snoop: We’re carnivores.

Madu Sogoba: I almost forgot, I got you both a special treat at the market!!! Dried fish, and pieces of goat bones that still have slivers of meat on them!!!

James and Snoop: Yayyyyyyyyyy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

James Brown II: Hey Madu, we’ve managed to scrounge up some presents of our own!!!

Snoop, whip out that gift you been hidin’…

Madu Sogoba: You found a gift for me? How thoughtful! What is it?

Snoop: A boner!!!

Little Red Doggy Boner: (boink!)

Madu Sogoba: Snoop, that’s… disgusting. And it’s not even special – you give me a boner every day, even when it’s not Chanukah…

Snoop: You said I give you a wut wut?

Madu Sogoba: Every day, every time I so much as call your name, you give me a boner.

Snoop: He he he he he... You said... he he he he he...

James Brown II: So Madu, do most dogs give you a gift like this?

Madu Sogoba: No, no dog but you, Snoop!!! You give me a boner all the time!!! Chanukah or no Chanukah, 365 days a year you’re the horniest horn dog in all of West Africa, and you just pop boners left and right. I say “Snoop, eat your dinner” – you get a boner. I say “Snoop, go home” – you get a boner. Especially when I roll you over and check you for ticks, you get an enormous boner. It’s really gross, so please cut it out.

James Brown II: So you’re not impressed by Snoop Dogg’s Chanukah present? You’re gonna hurt his feelings!!!

Madu Sogoba: Well then, no offense Snoop, but I don’t think I can accept your present.

Little Red Doggy Boner: So… I take it I’m not welcome… Fine, I can take a hint… (slurrrrrrrrp)

Madu Sogoba: And good riddance!

James Brown II: Don’t forget – I got you a present too!

Madu Sogoba: As long as it’s not your own genitals, let’s see what it is...

James Brown II: I got you a headless chameleon!!! There’s still some good meat left on the haunches!

Madu Sogoba: Thank you!!! That’s… just what I’ve always wanted!!! How did you know?

James Brown II: Had a hunch!!! And y’know, sometimes when ya gotta hunch ya just gotta make good on it!!! So I gotcha a headless chameleon!!! When I originally caught it, the thing had a head and all… but I was hungry and I couldn’t help myself!!!

Madu Sogoba: Nonetheless, it’s the thought that counts, and I really appreciate it. In’i che kosibe!

Snoop: You too, buddy.

Madu Sogoba: But you know what I could really use from both of you? So that everyone back home can vicariously extend their Chanukah greetings?

Snoop: No, what?

Madu Sogoba: A tummy rub!!!

Dedicated to: everyone in Ameriki. I miss you all very, very much.

May Allah grant you a Chappy Chanukah, a Merry Christmas, and a Joyous Kwanzaa.

May Allah grant you a New Year of peace, happiness, and many cows.

May you eat many beans!!!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Emancipated from the Smoky Kitchen by the Power of the Sun

This scene might look like just another day in the life of a Malian housewife. But in fact, this is far from a portrait of mundane drudgery - rather, this scene captures the quiet struggle of women's empowerment and feminist revolution.

You see, something is missing from this picture - were it to capture the quotidian labors of the average Malian woman. Deborah Dao cooks her family three square meals a day - a responsibility which in this economy requires nearly constant preparation and cooking. Most women spend all day pounding millet, mixing the batter, chopping firewod and fanning the flames to cook their family's toh, but here there is no burning hearth, no fire, no smoke.

On a closer look, you can see that Deborah is cooking with a solar oven - a wonderful appliance made by local carpenters with their own wood and just a few imported materials which harnesses solar radiation to collect heat energy.

If Deborah prepares her family's lunch early in the morning and places it in her solar oven, by noon it's ready to eat. And she is free of the tedious labor of fanning the flames for hours at a time.

Now that she no longer has to spend all morning in the smoky kitchen inhaling the noxious fumes and tars of wood smoke, Deborah can occupy her time with various cottage industries. She makes shea butter, soap, liquid soap and incense to sell at market and earn money for herself and her children. On this day, she is sewing garments for her neighbors; a Westerner might think that Deborah is still relegated to traditional "women's work", but here in Mali, most women are too busy fanning the flames of the hearth to engage in much income-generating activity - most taylors are men. Deborah, on the other hand, is the only female taylor in the entire Commune of Sanadougou.

"Anka cencen a kodogon."

Three months after this project officially began on paper, we have finally broken ground on the Tonto Secondaire Cycle nyegens. The blacksmiths have dug the majority of the latrine pit - though not all of it, and the brickmasons have made 516 bricks.

I apologize for our slow pace, but mind you the past few months have been the most important months of farmwork for the entire year - as this is when everyone harvests their millet, corn, rice and peanuts, and this is when the men sell their cotton to the CMDT textile mill in nearby Koutiala. I'm told that the pace will pick up over the next few weeks as the harvesting work finishes pyu pyu. This has been inexpressably frustrating to bourgeois capitalists like myself who will never truly understand that all of the well-diggers and brickmasons and blacksmiths with whom I am working are first and foremost subsistence agriculturalists who live and die by the rhythms of the seasons - and that there are, in fact, things more important than building toilets.

Among the greatest inexplicable difficulties in this project has been the procurement of sand. There's sand in every direction as far as the eye can see, but somehow it isn't making its way to the construction site like my local counterparts promised it would. And since they have yet to procure 100 cart-loads of sand, 30 carts of gravel, 12 carts of rocks, the brick-masons can't finish their job, the house-building master masons and their apprentices can't build the latrine structures, and I feel pretty useless. The upside of all this is that I'm on page 1108 of Les Misérables...

To give you a taste of just how frustrating it is to organize a project like this, in Minianka-Bambara society hardly a single decision can be made without unanimous consent of all the village elders. So last Friday I told the head mason that we needed about 70 more cartloads of sand, and he told me to come back on Thursday. So on Thursday (yesterday) they assembled all the old men to inspect the work site. After 40 minutes of debate and deliberation, they came to the conclusion: "There is not enough sand."

If all goes well, we should have all construction completed in late January or February.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ala ka Tabaski Numan Numan di An Ma!!!


According to the Islamic calendar, from the 10th to the 13th of the Dhu al-Hijjah approximately 70 days after Eid al-Iftar - the small feast celebrating the end of fasting during Ramadan - comes Eid al-Adha, the great feast celebrating the New Year and the piety of the first prophet Abraham.

If you paid attention in Sunday School, you would remember that the story in Genesis of how Abraham was herdig his flock of sheep up a mountain one day and all of a sudden a bush erupted into flames, and this burning bush told him that he must kill his son Isaac in order to demonstrate his absolute devotion to the Almighty. The first monotheist obediantly returned to the mountain with Isaac and was prepared to slay him as ordered - when at the last moment the angel Gabriel descended and told Abraham that the slaughter of his son was unnecessary, for his piety was indeed proven. Instead, Abraham slaughtered a sheep.

The Muslim faith has made a minor adjustment of Abraham's name to Ibrahim, and the Hadith emphasizes his relationship with Hajar and their child Ishmael, attributing to them a number of additional feats - namely the constructon of the Kaaba and the founding of Mecca. Though Islam teaches this parable of Ibrahim's devotion virtually unchanged from its portrayals within Judaism and Christianity. Within Islamic practice, Ibrahim's example is re-enacted each year as the patriarch of the family slaughters a sheep himself.

First, the whole family wakes up before dawn and dresses in their very best clothing to pray with the entire Muslim community in the mosque - or since attendance is so much greater than usual - at an outdoor square. Even in a country as poor as Mali, it is customary for those families who can afford it to purchase a brand new outfit of the finest fabrics. And at dawn they recite the Takbir:

Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar الله أكبر الله أكبر الله أكبر
lā ilāha illā Allāh لا إله إلا الله
Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar الله أكبر الله أكبر
wa li-illāhil-ḥamd ولله الحمد

Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest,
There is no deity but Allah
Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest
and to Allah goes all praise

Once the solemnities of Eid al-Adha are complete, by around 10:00 the families return home to get busy with the re-enaction of Ibrahim's sacrifice. If they haven't raised it from birth, they have bought a sheep weeks if not months ago and have been fattening it up ever since. Like turkeys before Thanksgiving, the price of sheep skyrockets during the weeks leading up to Tabaski. Not every family can afford a sheep though, so is acceptable to sacrifice instead the next-most-valuable animal at their disposal; probably a goat, or in more desertous regions a camel.

I graciously accepted my homologue Sidiki Sogoba's invitation to join him in the ritualistic slaughter of his family's sheep. Not only was this the first time that this Jewish infidel has ever participated in an Islamic sacrament, but it was an educational opportunity to learn about how one takes a living, breathing animal and turns it into lunch and dinner according to the code of Halal.

Much like the Jewish laws of Kashrut, Halal emphasizes cleanliness and mercy for the animal as central attributes of a pious slaughter. First Sidiki and I thoroughly washed our hands with soap. Then Sidiki recited a litany of prayers to sacrifice this sheep in the name of Allah. And with his sharpest knife he slit the sheep's throat so that it would die as quickly as possible with the least amount of suffering. Then we waited a while for all the blood to flow out of the aperture, for the consumption of blood is strictly haram.

I am told by the web-savvy lady to my left that I should not post any pictures of the act of slaughter, for that would classify as pornography and put the future of Zacstravaganza in legal jeopardy.

"You mean people get off to this shit?!?! That's fucking weird."

"Well Google Analytics says that the 4th-most recurring search term which has brought people to your blog is "Bobaraba AND Big Butt", which can only mean that a significant number of horny Malian men who hang out at Internet cafes looking for some bootylicious videos to download to their iPhones have mistakenly stumbled across your site!"

"Well, they must be pretty disappointed when they find out that I'm a white boy and that I have no pictures of butts here - just what comes out of them!"

"This might just be a coincidence, but still, if I were you I wouldn't put any actual pornography on your blog..."

So I will leave the pornography of carnivorous violence to be portayed by your own respective imaginations. here is our sacrifice to Allah, after the immediacy of the spectacle of Ibrahimic imagery:

All of Sidiki's children are rapt with the occasion. They look so serious not because they are unhappy, but because so few Malians have a full set of teeth that the local custom is to put on one's sternest face for photographs.

Sidiki cuts a hole underneath the skin around the sheep's butt and starts blowing so that the skin and fat will expand and hence become much easier to remove.

Now the skin can be peeled off as effortlessly as orange rinds.

We skin all the way to the sheep's neck and knees, where the extremities are all chopped off. The sheep's head will be cooked as a special treat, but the hooves have so little meat on them that they are enjoyed by the dogs. We hang the central carcass neck-side down under the gwa to let the remainder of the blood and the icky digestive juices to fall out. Not wishing to have my Tabaski best soiled with bile, I stand back.

Then its time to remove the internal organs!!! Though these aren't going into the garbage or the gravy - we're having the heart, the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, the stomach and the intestines for lunch!!!!

I enjoy munching on the liver and kidneys, and the heart is extremely rubbery yet delectable. However, I absolutely refuse to eat the digestive organs. You only need to take one look at the tripe and intestines to understand why.

But for those of you who have never butchered a sheep before, here Sidiki is pulling out the long intestine.

Just an hour ago, this intestine belonged to a living sheep who was happily munching on grass. So upon the time of that sheep's sacrifice, that grass had been digested and was traveling along the intestine for nutrient intake until evacuation. So Sidiki has to cut up a bit of intestine and blow out all the liquid shit.

All of the organs are thoroughly cleaned - especially the intestines. And then Sidiki's little brother and my namesake Madu Sogoba chops them up into bite-size pieces. Notice how enraptured little Aminata is at a bowl full of more meat than she has ever before seen in one place at one time.

Then Sidiki' second wife Haoua cooks all the organs into a peanut butter sauce to be served over rice. These Sogobas eat exclusively millet with oil and dried bottom-feeder fish about 350 days a year, so she is making a concerted effort to get the job done perfectly.

I apologize that I don't have any pictures of the finished meal - my hands were so sticky with peanut butter sauce that I didn't dare touch the camera. Like the act of this sheep's killing, its consumption must also be portayed only in your imagination. But let's just say that it was as delicious a sacrifice unto Allah as the slaughtering of that sheep was a spectacle worthy of adaptation into a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Organic Pesticide" an Oxymoron is Not


James Brown II: Hey Man! What’s the matter?

M: I spent six weeks hoeing and irrigating and fertilizing this garden plot so I can till this hard, rocky soil into something useful. And I had my parents send me seeds all the way from America so that I could plant zucchini and butternut squash. And then I spent the past ten weeks weeding and irrigating and fertilizing even more so that I could get a solid yield. And I did – I had more than a dozen squashes growing just about ready to be harvested. And fucking bugs got into them and laid their larvae in my squash!!! And now they’re all wormy and all that work I did was just a big WASTE of my life!!!

JBII: So whatcha gonna do about it?

M: Well, for starters I’m going to say FUCK this ‘back to the land’ shit and I’m going to go to law school and get a real job ripping people off for some big multinational corporation and make a gazillion dollars so that I can buy a big mansion with a fully-stocked a wine cellar so I can souse myself into oblivion and forget about this Third World development nonsense.

JBII: Take that BACK!!! That’s the most profane thing I’ve ever heard come outta yo mouth!!!! Whatever happened to dreaming the impossible dream?!?! Whatever happened to “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”?!?! Whatever happened to yo soul and everything you believe in?!?!

M: I dunno, James. All those beliefs of mine have been taking a rather severe beating lately.

JBII: So bugs got in yo squash – big whup!!! When you look at all the other problems everyone in this village’s got, your gripe looks rather tame!!!

M: Yeah, well all those sick, poor, illiterate farmers in Sanadougou have better squash yields than I do because they spray commercial pesticides over their gardens. They even call it “poison”! There’s no way that I’m going to spray “poison” all over my food, so if it comes to a choice between eating vegetables laced with poison or just not farming vegetables altogether, I’m going to choose the latter!


Al: This choice which you pose between conducting sound practices of organic agriculture and maintaining the security of your vegetable crops is a false one, for there are indeed proven methods of reducing crop spoilage which eschew artificial chemicals harmful for human consumption.

M: Al, you are absolutely the last anthropomorphic household appliance that I feel like talking to right now. Seriously, just keep that Whole Foods shit for your Norwegian hippie friends and leave me alone!!!

Al: Zachary, your attitudes of obduracy and militant anti-intellectualism are striking in their resemblance to the GOP obstructionists in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with whom I cast blame for the apparent failure of the upcoming Copenhagen summit. There exist cost-effective means of restructuring your garden so as to protect your squash from harmful pests, means which require no sacrifice in agricultural output; in fact, though the entail new financial expenditures at the onset, in the end they will foster a more sustainable economy which creates more produce of better quality.

M: Like what? Paying someone else to do all my farming for me?

No, you can implement more secure agricultural methods yourself. Tell me Zachary, have you had any pest problems with your tree crops?

M: No, my oranges, lemons, papayas and bananas are just fine. Worms have only gotten to my zucchini and butternut squash.

Al: Well, the distinguishing variable between your tree fruits and your squash is clearly that whereas the former are raised more than a meter off the ground, the fruits of the latter are so heavy in proportion to their weak mother plant that they sit directly on the topsoil – which is inhabited by worms, ants, beetles and just about every herbivorous insect on the African continent. If you were to apply a heavy layer of mulch above the soil and particularly beneath the plants in question, it would have an appreciable deterrent effect on the majority of these undesired species and protect your squash for human consumption.

M: Where the fuck am I supposed to get mulch? The nearest Home Depot is 5,000 miles away.

James Brown II: Hey Madu!!! What about all of your corn-farming neighbors? This time a year the streets of this village are just full of cornhusks!!! They’re just gonna burn ‘em!!!

Though the application of all mulch impedes weed growth and moderates the soil’s temperature and humidity, organic mulch brings the additional benefit of directly improving soil quality¸ for when organic vegetable matters inevitably break down, their composite nutrients rejuvenate the soil and aid in the creation of fertile humus.

M: I think that can be very easily done…


M: Alright, I’m finished. Now I can sit on my ass and read about politics.

Al: Zachary, if you are indeed serious about protecting your garden crops from herbivorous insects and annelids, the mere application of organic mulching will not suffice. In addition, I would advise that you apply a batch of organic pesticides.

M: Organic pesticides? That’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one – almost as bad as “corporate culture” or “military justice”. I already told you, I’m not eating fucking poison!!!

Al: Your presumption of logical coherence in this instance is as unfounded as it is fallacious; there is a wide assortment of strong acids found in locally-grown foodstuffs which are so extremely unsavory to the pests in question that they will eschew any vegetable matter which they would otherwise find to be delectable. All you need to do is go to market and buy a large quantity of garlic, hot peppers and soap.

First, you take a bucket and fill it with approximately five liters of water.

Chop up three or four cloves of garlic. Do not worry about the skins, because this mixture is not intended for human consumption…

… then mash the garlic up with a mortar and pestle. Garlic cloves are composed of mesophyll cells which contain alliin – a cystein-base, sulfur-rich amino acid, and vascular bundle sheaths containing alliin’s counterpart alliinase. Alliin and alliinase react spontaneously, hence they must be separated by the garlic’s cellulose walls. Though upon slicing and mashing, alliin and alliinase mix to form a sulfenic acid which condenses to form thiosulphinates, particularly allicin – this is the compound which gives garlic its distinct flavor.

M: So I’m taking all of this delicious garlic and throwing it on the ground so no one can eat it? Though I haven’t chopped any onions, I’m starting to tear up…

Al: That is precisely the point – though the olfactory nerves of the species homo sapiens have gradually evolved to have a favorable reaction towards allicin, the sensory organs of insects and annelids have developed precisely the opposite response and thus this organisms are innately programmed to avoid this compound. However, we could make a dramatically more effective pesticide if it contained the acid capsaicin - the active ingredient in the species Capsicum frutescens.

M: What?

Al: In colloquial terms, organic pesticides would be most effective if they contained the acid of chili peppers.

M: NOOOOO!!!!!!!! Don’t tell me I have to throw away my delicious chili peppers too!!!!!

Al: If by “throw away” you mean “to waste”, you are categorically mistaken. This garlic and pepper acid could be more accurately described as being invested in your zucchini and butternut squash crops, for in the absence of allicin or capsaicin your crops would remain vulnerable to pests.

So take a handful of hot peppers, cut them into small pieces and mash them with the mortar and pestle like you did with the garlic.

Now take a ball of soap and shave about half of it into fine gratings. This must be added to the pesticides so that they will make a foamy lather which will adhere to the applied crops.

Add water and wait at least an hour for all of the acids and soap to disperse into a fairly homogenous mixture.

Now if you take a sponge and lay just a modest amount of pesticide to the garden crops in question – especially the flowers and fruits, then the vast majority of insect, annelid and even mammalian, reptilian and ornithological pests will be so thoroughly dissuaded by the acidic taste of your zucchini and butternut squash plants that they will not eat them. If you apply such pesticides consistently, the larger species might even learn to avoid any such crops planted in your garden in the future as an acquired behavior.

So basically organic pesticides work the same way as when I’m cooking and I feel really greedy and don’t want to share my food with anyone. I know that Malians hate vegetables, so when I’m feeling greedy in village I make myself big salads and eggplant with cumin and no one even asks me to share. And when I’m with other Americans I cook myself weird-ass foods like curry spaghetti which freak out all but the most intrepid eaters. Likewise, just as much as garlic, hot peppers and soap are amongst my most favorite of things, if I add them to my squash then I don’t have to share with bugs!

James Brown II: That’s why all your food is so spicy I can’t touch it?!?!?! Asshole…

M: Don’t give me that attitude – it’s not like you were going to eat my eggplant in the first place. Here, have some dried little bottom-feeder fish from the polluted Niger River…