Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Wormhole into the 12th Dimension

Sometimes I cannot help but feel as though I was walking down the street one day, minding my own business, when I accidentally slipped into a wormhole, traversed 12 dimensions through space-time and wound up somewhere on this planet but eons back in the dawn of human civilization. In the year 2009 I live among a village of Bambara farmers who live and die according to the whims of the rain spirits, who use primeval methods to till the land with simple hand tools, who build their most complicated structures out of mud and rocks and sticks. A short walk away from my hut is a thatched mud hovel where old men gather in the middle of the night, slaughter a dog and drink its blood to impart the wisdom of the animal spirits. The inhabitants of this village tell me that they are an advanced society – they look down upon other tribes which are known to conduct ritual human sacrifice.

It is though I have gone back in time to 8,000 B.C. – but somehow these Bambara villagers got a hold of cheap Chinese-manufactured televisions which transmit these messages from an alien civilization 12 dimensions and 10,000 years in the future, and they grasp the basic concepts of the aliens’ advanced technologies.

These alien peoples on the television set do not have to farm because they have these paper boxes they put in a big plastic box, they push a button, and then food comes out! One craggly old man is convinced that we Americans have so much money because we have invented machines where we push buttons – and the machines give us money!

The farmers in my village know of these things such as “Jumping Boats” which every couple of months fly over their fields and cause everyone to stop what they are doing, crane their necks up and stare. These “Jumping Boats” are peaceful, but some of those farmers know that others exist which are divided into the subspecies of "Jumping Boats Which Jump to the Moon”, “Jumping Boats Which Kill Arabs” and “Jumping Boats Which Fight Other Jumping Boats”.

“One day we will have these things too”, I am told by my most optimistic neighbors. But these developments are spoken of in the future tense, the far future tense - as in “One day we will have commuter rocket ships to Mars” – the developments which America and Europe conducted in the 20th century are for all intents and purposes science-fiction for the village of Sanadougou in the year 2009.

There are times when everything I try crashes and burns and I feel that Western interventions are intrinsically doomed and we should let the Bambara society remain unblemished in its natural state. I think of when Homer Simpson stuck his fork in the toaster and with a loud zap found himself transported to the Cretaceous Period. Homer recollected the ancient wisdom which Grandpa Abraham Simpson passed on his wedding day, “If you ever go back in time, whatever you do, don’t step on anything. Even the slightest change can alter things in ways you can’t possibly imagine.”

At first Homer tried his best to heed Grandpa’s message and tiptoed carefully around the dinosaurs, conifers and ferns. But then he heard a "crunch" and realized that as hard as he tried he squished a beetle. And then as mosquitoes start to bite, he slaps them, and in a rage Homer knocks down a few trees and clobbers a giant sloth. When the toast finally pops out of his magic toaster, Homer returned back to his kitchen in Springfield – but the ripples which he created in the space-time continuum have completely altered existence as he knows it!

The purpose of this analogy is that in all honesty I don’t feel that I have been doing all that much “work” in the 20th century American capitalist, sitting in a cubicle making copies sense of the word. I don’t feel that I have changed much of anything at all. But consciously or not, I have stepped on a lot of things, and I have swatted many a mosquito. And according to the chaos theory, even the smallest of ripples of energy can cause a chain reaction which gathers momentum and accelerates and transforms into a giant tidal wave of societal-institutional change!

It is really quite difficult for yours truly – straight from the ivory tower where “economic development” refers to a web of complex macroeconomic issues like globalization, trade deficits and currency exchange rates – to come to terms with the fact that none of those things have much bearing on day-to-day life in a subsistence agricultural society. Here where the majority of a family’s caloric intake is derived from fields which they hoe, they seed, and they harvest, one can go an entire lifetime without trading in a market economy.

And in such a fashion, over the centuries there has been progress in Sanadougou. Here in an isolated backwater which has seen so little change in its means of production over the past countless millennia, the introduction of new seeds from faraway lands has constituted major “economic development”. From time immemorial until about 1880 people in this village really only grew millet, rice, peanuts and onions. About a hundred years ago the French colonial Commandant exhorted the villagers of Sanadougou to farm cotton. Though as le Commandant and his family tired of the monotony of indigenous staples, the colonial bourgeoisie imported for their own use cabbage, cucumbers, garlic and beets, as well as New World crops like corn, squash, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. At some point in time the colonialists shared some of these exotic foods with their servants who liked them so much that they kept the seeds and began to grow them too. In the 1970s General Moussa Traoré brought to the Malian people yellow melons which now bear his name.

So now the Bambara people are still by and large subsistence agriculturalists, but they now subsist on a slightly diversified number of crops. The change has been modest indeed, but the Bambara apparently like it so much that they have continued the practice themselves – that is what we call “sustainable development.”

After four months at site, I have learned that the problems of disease and poverty in my village are overwhelmingly vast and I want to actually shake things up for the long run. And so I am thinking small – microscopic, unicellular, nano-level small…

(...To Be Continued!)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Let There be Light unto Xanadu!

When I signed up for this gig, at first I was kind of apprehensive about housing because most Malians live in mud huts that collapse every rainy season. But my mud hut is awesome! A nice Christian NGO which once operated in Sanadougou built this structure for their employees, and so I have a bedroom, a kitchen, a mud room, a walk-in closet, and a completely empty room reserved for silent meditation. It is the perfect place for me to slowly lose my marbles over the next two years.

For the first time in my life, I think I should thank Jesus.

Just as Jesus gave me a home, he also gave me a tropical fruit and vegetable garden. As I gradually integrate into this community of subsistence agriculture I am learning to take care of my own plot of millet, corn, beans, okra, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, oranges, bananas, papayas and guavas which the Son of God gave me as a house-warming present. It is my own little plot of organic paradise. God has bestowed unto me water and firmament which brings forth grass and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind. And it is good.

Nevertheless, my homeboy upstairs was quite erratic when it came to bringing forth light. Between the hours of 10:00 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon the blistering African Sun is so strong that even the Malians do not dare leave the shade of their gwa – which is an overhang made out of sticks and millet stalks and palm fronds. I presume as punishment for all of those things I said about Him not existing and all back in my bar mitzvah sermon, God has punished me by leaving my yard completely bereft of shade. So I told God to go screw Himself and I built my own gwa and I tied a hammock underneath so I can hide from the noonday sun and read the works of Nietzsche just to spite the vindictive son of a bitch.

Just as He is overly generous with the Sun’s rays when they are needed least, God is rather stingy about letting there be light when I most need it – like when I wake up in the middle of the night and realize there’s a chameleon crawling on my mattress. I was able to go for months without direct current, and I have a headlamp so it’s not so bad. But the second time my semi-naked self woke up to a chameleon which somehow got inside of my mosquito net and had to catch it under my sheets in pitch blackness I decided that enough is enough. I want electricity.

One problem: the rural Malian village of Sanadougou is not yet connected to anything resembling a power grid. Many people have televisions to watch the god-awful Brazilian soap opera which dominates all cultural life between 7:00 and 7:30 P.M., and there is an interesting system going on here where people power their televisions with car batteries. There are a total of 3 cars in a village of 4,428 persons, but everyone seems to have a car battery.

So I went to the market and bought my own car battery, some wires, alligator clips and with the help of my friend who happens to moonlight as an electrician I set up a functioning circuit for a fluorescent light bulb. And I had light to read at night for about a week. And then my battery died. I was told there were two means readily available in town to recharge it:

Option 1: I could pay someone a day’s worth of food money to rev up their gasoline generator. I ruled out this option because I am earnestly trying to divorce myself from the fossil fuel economy which is a primary cause of America’s stagnation, funding terrorism, causing the aquatic genocide of the coral atoll nations of Kiribati and the Maldives, and driving the polar bear to extinction. Also, I would prefer to eat for a day.

Option 2: I could become a member of the church which has a solar array on the roof to power their loudspeakers with which they let the congregants charge their batteries on off-days. This option is completely renewable and environmentally friendly, so I actually considered it. But as grateful as I am to Jesus for my tropical fruit garden, Hell is going to freeze over before Zac Mason becomes a member of a church.

In so many words, I was told that if I wanted to charge my car battery, I would have to accept either Jesus or Petroleum into my life. Though as much as I want electricity, I do not value a charged battery more than my spiritual independence.

This was on the back of my mind one noon as I was sitting under my millet stalk gwa perusing through the Book of Exodus and reading about the Hebrews’ construction of the Pyramids to satisfy the vanity of a single earthly man. As I pondered Pharaoh’s enslavement of my people to labor in the sweltering Sun, I remembered that even though the Egyptian potentates thought themselves to be gods among men, even they believed that there was one deity in their pantheon supreme above all: Ra, the god of the Sun. I thought that maybe if I want to take ten steps forward to spiritual freedom, maybe I have to take a step back to Bronze Age polytheism. And that is how I decided to become a Sun worshipper.

So I went to the hardware store in the big city and bought my own 50-watt photovoltaic solar panel. Never before have I possessed an electrical appliance of such spiritual and political import. Before I had a little Solio which is fine for things you might bring on an extended camping trip like a cell phone, an iPod, a GPS locator. But this 50-watt solar panel is the real thing; I can use it to charge batteries, to power up fluorescent light bulbs, to power my computer – I could even blast a fan if I so desired. There isn’t a single comfort of the Electric Age that I could realistically want that I can’t power with my solar panel. In honor of my favorite advocate of renewable energy, I call him “Al”.

Now one of the first things that this born-again heliotheist does every morning is place my buddy Al in front of the powerful, direct radiation of the early morning Sun. I kneel before Ra in supplication of his dominion over my electrical consumption and also photosynthesis for Jesus’ papaya patch. And as I go about the day I adjust its angle ever so slightly to compensate for the rotation of the Earth. O Ra, bless me with sustenance! O powerful Ra, bestow unto me energy!

The next time a chameleon finds its way into my sleeping place, I can flick a switch and say “Let there be Light!” and squash it much easier. What is more, not one penny of my money ever has to line the palaces of the House of Saud ever again.

Back in the U.S.A., so-called “realistic” businesspeople tend to pooh-pooh the potential of solar energy as a silly gimmick and that the best we can hope for change in the energy market is find more oil in America. Such “realistic” individuals also told me that instead of joining the Peace Corps I should get a real job for a serious company like Lehman Brothers. Just to prove all of those naysayers wrong, from now on I am going to avoid at all costs charging my car battery, my light bulbs, my computer, my iPod or any other appliance with even a single electron released from the breakdown of fossil fuels. Even this blog is now powered with solar energy. From this point in time until the year Infinite I shall derive my electrical sustenance from the daily supplication of the Sun god Ra.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can suck on my photovoltaic generator.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Snoop Dogg is in My Gwa, Yo

While I was down and out it it turns out that my jatigi's bitch had been feelin like a hot tamale at the midnite hour if y'know what i mean so she was sneakin out and messin round with this other dog and after she had gotten her freak on eventually her tits started getting all big and swollen. The bitch had got herself knocked up. Two months later she goes out to the fields and no one knows where the bitch is at and so we think she's gettin her freak on again. But uh uh the next day she comes back with a litter of puppies.

One of those dogs is my dog. His name is Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Snoop might only be two months old, but he knows how to kick it back and keep it real. He spends most days suckin on his bitch's titties and gettin crunked.

After a long day of work he spends the rest of the day chillin with his homies.

And then he goes back to suckin his bitch's titties. When it comes to T&A, Snoop is all about the T, yo.

If you cross Snoop the wrong way, I'd watch my back if ya know what I mean cuz he is known to tear a motha's face off.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Get On the Good Foot!

(this story works best when read along with the prescribed musical accompaniments)

There comes a point in every Volunteer’s service between 1 and 4 months after being installed when culture shock finally takes its toll. Culture shock is defined in the Peace Corps Wellness Handbook as “the psychological disorientation people experience when they live abroad for an extended time in a culture quite different from your own.” In a remote Islamic agrarian society on the edge of the Sahara Desert, this was kind of inevitable.

Initially everything in Mali is new and exciting. But once it settles on you that your life for the next two years shall entail communicating in a very different language, being either sick and/or injured, pumping all of your own water by hand, the constant feeling of living under a microscope, being accosted for everything you own, the swarms of children chanting Tubabu! Tubabu! Tubabu! Tubabu!, donkeys crying, the call to prayer at 5 A.M., the heat, the dryness, mosquitoes, filth flies, sand storms, etc., there comes a point when even the most indomitable of spirits gives way.

The Pollyannaish reaction is to tell oneself “But I’m making a difference!” Though as I walk the dusty, filth-ridden streets of my village each day I realize that the kids with grotesquely distended stomachs down the street are probably going to die within the next year because their mothers will never cook food with any nutritional content and that no matter how hard I try I can only make the tiniest of dents in the poverty and disease which will remain facts of life in Mali for the foreseeable future.

I can’t put my finger on exactly which straw it was which broke this camel’s back. Dealing with all of the above day in and day out eventually led me to lock the gate, hole up in my hut and not want to talk to anyone for a long time.

In a nutshell, that is what culture shock looks like.

The ability to deal with stress in a healthy, non-self-destructive manner is as necessary to human survival out here as is the ability to prepare food and water. Escapism is usually a good remedy, and for that I have the Lord of the Rings trilogy and an impressive collection of Phish bootlegs. But as much I enjoy alternate realities, at the end of the day the streets of Diaramana are still strewn with human waste, people are still drinking from mud puddles, and the sulfurous clouds of giardiasis gas still waft through the air at night.

Thankfully I brought with me a miniature rinkydink guitar and a two year supply of strings so that I can express myself by strumming blues riffs and crooning tales of woe. Even if I cannot rid the world of evil, I can vent by singing about it. I know the whole neighborhood can hear me, so it is to the good fortune of all parties that I am the only one who can understand a word of my crude lyrics.

Even so, spending two years moping in human misery and fantasy novels was a recipe for disaster and I knew it. What I needed to abate my spiritual loneliness was something of this world that would radiate joy and happiness into my life.

During my bad case of the I-Live-in-Mali-and-There’s-Garbage-Everywhere-and-Nobody-Understands-Modern-Germ-Theory Blues I rode my bike to the mud hut of my teammate Nicole. Nicole is a good source of succor for she has been here more than a year and has gone through all the same things I am dealing with and she has been featured on Malian state television for somehow being able to cook gourmet cuisine out of the few things sold in a rural butigi. This time I came over she happened to have acquired a pair of four-week-old kittens.

At Nicole’s house I was feeling abnormally sweaty and disgusting (a level of disgustingness which you can only imagine) and I took off my t-shirt to lie down and bask in the wind. One of her kittens took the initiative to climb up on me and had a joyous time playing with my forest of chest hair and quickly tired himself out and sprawled out on my belly to take a noonday nap. I’ve never really been fond of felines, but as this huggable, squeezable fur ball was purring and making little kitty snores on my belly, I was converted.

“He’s all yours if you want him”, Nicole offered.

And with that, he was mine.

The next week Nicole biked over to my hut with my brand new kitty cat in a basket. For the first and only time in my life (my dad is deathly allergic) I became a cat person.

I reiterate, I’m not really a cat person – never before had I known cats to have anything resembling a personality. But this particular kitten is something else. My kitten wants to climb on my shoulder and accompany me wherever I go. He rolls over because he wants a tummy rub every 15 minutes and he paws me awake in the morning because he wants to wrestle. My kitten likes to start fights with the other kittens down the street and he clobbers the shit out of them every time. He likes to catch geckos and chameleons and smack them until they are just about dead and eat them alive. And yet he too recognizes the tragedy of underdevelopment and cries sad soul ballads every night. I was thinking maybe I’d call him Sam Cooke or Otis Redding…

I walked down the road with my kitten on my shoulder to meet my host family, who promptly picked him up and inspected his gonads. “He is a man cat”, my jatigi pronounced, “All the other cats in the neighborhood are woman cats. One day all of the new baby cats will look like yours.”

Then and there I knew that my kitten’s name had to be James Brown, because he is destined to be a sex machine.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mmm… West African Night Adder!

The whole zoo animal phenomenon is usually aggravating in that my most mundane activities constitute the talk of the town. When people I hear the word on the street about myself, it pains me to think that there’s nothing more interesting to talk about. Did you hear that Tubabuke shaved his under-nose hair today? No, that’s not what I heard - I heard that he shaved his under-nose hair AND his chin hair!

Though the zoo animal phenomenon has its benefits - apparently me hobbling down the streets and teaching people how to treat their wells is the biggest thing that has ever happened in Sanadougou since Ibrahim’s donkey had the hiccups. I have so many appointments that I have a two-week long waiting list. So when I come to people’s concessions they are very excited, and oftentimes they want to show their appreciation by offering me some sort of food. Not just any old toh, but real delicacies like guava or honey. I feel guilty accepting presents from people who have next to nothing to their name, but refusing a gift is a huge insult and so I have to accept it. I usually repay the generosity by coming back the next day with a box of tea – which in Mali is considered veritable manna from heaven.

Due to the effort that goes into raising livestock or hunting game, the greatest honor one could ever receive in Mali is a gift of meat. It’s difficult to just give someone a piece of meat to put in their pocket, so usually it is already cooked and waiting for me to eat it in their presence. That is not necessarily a good thing, because the meats which people eat here are sometimes exotic, and when bush meat has been cooked it is often very difficult to discern which animal it once was. Dog and cat are not uncommon. Often I am handed a bowl of charred bones that looks like highway wreckage from the Driver’s Ed instructional video Red Asphalt III. It was once a bird, I think… and it would be a dishonor for me to not give it at least a little nibble.

This one time I was offered some meat I inquired of its origins, and the answer was a Bambara noun I did not know. What I did know was that the meat placed before me definitely included a long, oddly familiar-looking rodent tail – it looked a lot like the mouse my cat dragged back home, only much larger… Eventually I realized that I was being offered a roast of sewer rat (this was one of the few gifts I have had to politely decline).

The most interesting thing I’ve been offered so far has been a West African night adder. This particular serpent had been slithering around Sanadougou biting people left in right and was attributed to the death of at least one child and two goats. Since the nocturnal viper would attack his prey at night – and that is usually when I do my well treatment lessons, during this killing spree everyone would tell me to stay in my house. One night the man of the household I was due to teach that night was walking back from the field and spotted the homicidal snake – by a good stroke of luck he happened to have his machete on him. He snuck up behind it and with a few swift strokes it was decapitated.

About 20 minutes later, I walked in the concession and Daoudaou was peeling the skin off of this full meter-long snake that had been terrorizing the village for weeks. By the time we were done with our water treatment lesson, his wife had sliced it up into little morsels and sautéed it in hot pepper sauce. Snake meat is like a double slab of ribs with two rows of chewy, gamey meat on either side of the spinal chord that seems to never end. But the infamy of this kill only made it all the more enticing - it was though I had been invited to dine on filet of Karla Fay Tucker.

Daoudaou was keen to ask me, “Do people eat snake meat in America?”

“Um… no.”

“Why do you not like snake meat?”

“It’s not that Americans don’t like snake meat, it’s just that snakes in America are very small and there isn’t any meat. If we had West African night adders though, I’m sure we would eat snake meat all the time.”