Friday, February 26, 2010

Solar Pump Repair and Maintenance Project

In 1998 the World Vision NGO financed the installation of a solar pump system in the town of Sanadougou. The aim of this project was very straightforward; in this growing market town of more than 4,000 people where the bulk of the population regularly suffers from giardia, dysentery and worms inadvertently contracted by drinking from unsanitary wells, public health could be drastically improved with access to potable drinking water. World Vision hired Bamako contractors to build a groundwater pump, and two water storage towers to be powered by an array of solar panels. The contractors built a pump-serviced livestock-watering trough in the adjacent vicinity of the complex as well as 7 tap posts strategically-located throughout the town; altogether, there are 17 taps – 3 of the posts have room for 3 individual taps while the 4 other posts have only 2 taps. As promising as this system might have been at the onset, the entire system is now essentially useless due to lack of maintenance and necessary repairs. In response to these pressing needs, the Sanadougou Water Committee has petitioned their Peace Corps Volunteer to help them institute a plan to repair and reorganize the entire system.

The solar panels, the pump and storage towers are perfectly fine, but the entire system as a whole is seriously malfunctioning due to breakages at the livestock watering trough and in a way-station in the metal pipe connecting the water pump to the taps in the Filablena neighborhood. These parts cannot be shut off and flow at the maximum rate at all times.

The ever-flowing watering trough and broken way-station overload the capacity of the entire system, directly exhausting the supply of potable drinking water and often leaving the taps dry. Even when there is water left for human consumption the water pressure is significantly diminished, which allows for rust to develop and diminish water quality. Furthermore, the perpetually-flowing components create vast puddles of standing water which serve as a fertile environment for mosquito breeding. Note that the picture above was taken during dry season on a day when most of the overflow had evaporated in the 105-degrees Fahrenheit heat – during cold and wet season, the puddle of overflow from the livestock-watering trough expands almost all the way to the leafless tree in the center-left of the photograph.

The Water Committee has analyzed these broken parts and they have given them to local plumbers to try to weld them back together, but the plumbers have returned to say that these parts are beyond repair; Peace Corps Assistant Water and Sanitation APCD Adama Bagayoko has analyzed these parts as well and independently concluded that the only course of action is to purchase entirely new components. I apologize that I am unable to find the English translations, but specifically, the parts we need are (in French): une ventousse, un compteur, une vanne, un raccord union, une coude MF, un reducteur, une vanne p26, le clapet vapere. We plan on buying these broken parts from the Bamako suppliers SETRA, and we will hire the local welder Smeila Fané to reassemble the malfunctioning parts and weld them onto the rest of the solar pump system. To our understanding, there is no evidence of malfeasance or negligence for the broken parts – this is merely repair which should be expected in such a large system after 12 years of running and is now long overdue.

However, even if we were to replace the broken components at the livestock-watering trough and the way-station, this solar pump system would still be operating well below capacity and with little benefit for public health; only 3 out of 17 taps are currently operational. The problem with the taps is that they are simply too easy to break; children are used to pumping water with the vertical pump handles with such strenuous work that they have to jump up and down to obtain water, and though the horizontal handles to the tap system can be opened with the flick of a wrist, this is a point which apparently has not been conveyed as children have broken all of the tap handles.

Though the direct cause of this problem was of course the children themselves, this result was inevitable when World Vision built this system with the flimsiest, most fragile handles available. And since these little pieces of metal are now gone, the entire solar pump system is now effectively useless, completely wasting the charitable donations of well-minded humanitarians to the tune of about a million dollars. Well, to be fair, it wasn't a total waste - now for a million dollars the cows of Sanadougou could drink better-quality water than their human masters.

Since the townsfolk of Sanadougou cannot access the potable drinking water provided by the solar water pump, they resort to unsanitary, uncovered wells for their supply of drinking water. These traditional wells – which are really little more than holes in the ground – are home to vibrant populations of worms, snails, amoebas, giardia cysts, and in some cases even frogs and fish. In some locations – particularly during rainy season – these unimproved wells are directly polluted with wastewater and contaminated with human fecal matter. The fact that the people must fall back on such substandard water sources is the prime reason why giardia and dysentery are endemic in this community, and why diarrhea is after malaria the most common preventable cause of infant and child mortality.

Of the 3 taps that are functional, they are functional only because certain individuals have put in their own money to buy their own private taps with locks; one being the tap shared by the Peace Corps Volunteer, the doctor and kindergarten teachers, and the other two are adjacent to mechanic shops where they are used to clean motorcycles with potable drinking water. What differentiates the sites of these taps and the other are the functioning ones are used exclusively by a small number of relatively wealthy people who are both willing to spend money on clean water and also confident that their resources will be used almost exclusively by themselves with few (if any) free-riders. Asides from the tap managed by the Volunteer, the two other functioning taps provide little public health benefits to the population as this potable drinking water is used almost exclusively for cleaning motorcycles. As regrettable as this situation might be, it aptly demonstrates the universality of a saying from the American West, that “water flows uphill towards money”; as the rest of the community pays nothing, they are unable to obtain potable drinking water even from the tap system installed next to their homes at great cost.

When World Vision built the solar pump > tap system a decade ago, the NGO agreed to finance the totality of the initial startup costs only because the Mayor agreed that the citizens of Sanadougou would pay for maintenance and operating costs on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, such payments never happened since the taps were free for all to use and break anonymously; and since no one at le Bureau de la Mairie or the Water Committee could possibly know who was and who was not drawing water from the taps, they could not change anyone; without any accrual of maintenance costs, the system of course degraded into oblivion.

With this history in mind, the Sanadougou Water Committee unanimously resolved to 1) replace the broken taps and 2) begin a payment program so that the Committee will be able to garner revenue to finance inevitable maintenance and repairs in the future. The Committee decided that they cannot do only one of these things, they must do both at the same time. And in this way they will capitalize on the opportunity granted them by the need for repairing the solar pump system to fundamentally overhaul its use under the guidance of the Water Committee.

First of all, we need to get new taps that cannot break so easily. After children broke the last tap next to my house I bought a new tap with a hole through the handle so that it can be locked by the user. By limiting the access to this tap to the holder of the three keys, only I, the doctor and the kindergarten teachers next to me could get access to potable water. However, the doctor and kindergarten teachers were really bad about locking the tap after using it. And even when it was locked, children would come to the tap and try to open it – though they could not access water, they could break the handle in trying. After six months, even this tap deteriorated to the point that it could no longer be used.

A month ago I bought another new tap which can only be opened with a key – though unlike the previous model, the key goes directly into the head itself and there is no external handle at all. In other words, there is really no external part on this tap that can be broken by children. What is more, there is only one key to each tap – which means that responsibility unambiguously falls on him or her to maintain it and that they cannot pass the buck to someone else. This model seems promising enough to serve as a model for refurbishing the remaining 14 taps which are currently useless because their handles have been broken off.

Having showed this new tap to the Water Committee, we agreed that we must pair the repairs of the broken livestock-watering trough and way-station with the replacement of all the broken taps with new lockable taps with keys to ensure that the human population can have a sustainable supply of potable drinking water. As my homologue Sidiki Sogoba jokes, “Otherwise, we would spend a lot of money to help only the cows.” And this is the crux for our plan to reorganize the solar pump > tap system. Part of Sanadougou’s community contribution will be to purchase 17 new lockable taps at 3,000 CFA a piece, and these are going to be paid for neighborhood by neighborhood. Likewise, since each tap comes with exactly one key, the Water Committee is going to decentralize the daily operation and maintenance of each tap neighborhood by neighborhood.

Under our plan, each individual tap will be the responsible of exactly one person to whom the Water Committee and village chief – in consultation with the neighborhood – will assign the sole key. For example, the tap post in the neighborhood of Jigila has room for two taps, so we will assign the key to one to the butigitigi whose shop is directly adjacent to the tap post and the other key to a woman next door. Since water collection is primarily the duty of women in Malian culture, we are going to emphasize the assignment of keys to women whenever possible. Very rarely do men ever draw water, so only in circumstances such as this where there is a man who can in fact be counted on to always be next to the tap will we assign keys to men. The Committee agreed that the key criteria in assigning keys should be individuals’ proximity of their home to the tap, reliability of being at that location at any given time, maturity, ability, responsibility, trustworthiness, and of course their interest in volunteering for such a duty. We also agreed that persons of great importance in this community e.g. the chief of the village, the Mayor, the imam and the pastor should expressly not be assigned keys, for their other duties would make them unreliable to be in the vicinity of the tap at all times.

The kletigi – “holder of a key” – would be a position of great responsibility and great power. They have to be willing to open the water tap for all people at all times, to make sure that children to not play with the taps, and to moreover keep a record of who draws water from that tap and how much. Ultimately, the crux of the position of kletigi will be to collect money from every person in the neighborhood who draws water from that tap. The Water Committee agrees unanimously that we have to establish some sort of a payment system to pay for the maintenance and operational costs of the entire solar pump > tap system so that the next time that a pipe leaks or a tap needs replacement, the Committee will have money on hand to pay for any necessary repairs. In so many words, the Sanadougou Water Committee understands that potable drinking water is a valuable commodity that cannot be procured for free, and thus they have taken it unto themselves to transform this useless, broken-down NGO “cadeau” into a functioning utility that bends to the laws of market economics and finance its maintenance and operating costs through user fees.

The Water Committee still needs to work out how exactly they are going to conduct the payment program. There is one camp in the Committee that argues that people should pay a small price i.e. 5 or 10 CFA for every bucket of water so that payment is perfectly conditional to use; another camp in the Committee argues that such a scheme would be impractical to implement and so water tap subscribers should pay a flat monthly rate. The eventual payment policy will probably allow for users to pay for water either by the bucket or by a flat monthly rate. One area of agreement is that on every market day the Committee should assign one kletigi to man the taps next to the market so that they can draw water and collect money from all of the market vendors and customers who would otherwise consume water as free-riders. Each individual kletigi would be responsible for keeping accounts of how much money they collected from each individual and to forward those user fees to the Treasurer of the Water Committee. Another issue that has yet to be decided is whether the kletigi’s should receive any compensation for their work, for the Committee acknowledges that their duties can be an inconvenience, and I voiced wariness that any individual kletigi might pocket user fees which are meant to pay for maintenance and repairs.

One could pose the question of moral hazard in this situation; e.g. “The NGO built this solar pump system on the premise that the village would provide maintenance indefinitely thereafter – why should a foreign development agency pay for the maintenance costs that the villagers agreed to pay themselves?” I can commiserate with this argument; however, it is overlooking a number of important facts: 1) the Mayor's Office which made this original agreement and the Water Committee that wants to revamp the solar pump system are completely separate entities; 2) the World Vision NGO originally built this entire system with easily-breakable taps completely inappropriate for public infrastructure in an African village; 3) the NGO completely dropped the ball in organizing a payment system; 4) the village has never had any experience repairing or maintaining a running water system before. Not to be paternalistic, but the NGO must have had unreasonably great expectations that the Mayor’s Office could be able to effectively manage this complex system without any background experience and without any guidance, training or even suggestions. From my own experience, I can say that World Vision made an enormous mistake by entrusting this responsibility to the Mayor's Office and not the independent Water Committee, because in a rural village it is the traditional, informal government that actually wields all substantial power over public infrastructure - and the Mayor is really just a figurehead who gets paid to be everybody's friend. And le Bureau de la Mairie in question frankly has no genuine interest in managing the public drinking water system. As the Committee explained to me, it was precisely in the Mayor's best interest to just yes the NGO about instituting a payment system and do nothing once they packed up and left, because whereas presiding over a giant new cadeau and not asking anything of anybody is a boon to re-election (even if it evenually falls apart without maintenance), asking the people to pay for public services with user fees or taxes is decidedly not in the best interest of any self-interested public office-holder. Yes, eventually the Water Committee and le Bureau de la Mairie have to be able to eventually manage this system entirely by themselves – but in the meantime, now that one of the two groups has put forward a proposal to get serious about organizing these waterworks and fix what is broken, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to match their own repairs with $483.72 to rebuild a functioning system requisite for sound management.

Altogether, this project will allow the Sanadougou Water Committee to take the long-neglected solar pump system and overhaul it into a functioning water utility, re-organizing it with respect to market forces to benefit the public good. It will respond to the Committee’s desire to repair and reorganize the waterworks by raising funds through the Peace Corps Partnership to pay for new parts for the broken livestock-watering trough and way-station. The Committee will pay for the transportation of the materials from Bamako to the village of Sanadougou, they will hire a local plumber to assemble the parts and a local blacksmith to weld the necessary pieces together. They Committee will also raise money from the villagers to purchase new, lockable heads for the 14 broken taps. And the Committee will follow up by instituting a payment system – probably monthly for certain subscribers, daily for all others, so that they can gain the necessary revenues to pay for maintenance and operating costs in the future. Even after the initial repairs are complete, we will spend the rest of my service working to strengthen the Committee’s accounting and budgeting skills. And if this works out, the Sanadougou Water Committee should be able to build the capacity to effectively manage the solar pump and tap system indefinitely without any need for further foreign intervention.

If you are interested in making a financial contribution to repair and maintain the people of Sanadougou's drinking water infrastructure, click here. This project should be on the Peace Corps Partnership website within a few weeks.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dongiliw Chaman Chaman Chaman

My mind has for so long been mired in the muck of Malian culture that it is sometimes difficult to transcend cognition to more beautiful and lofty matters such as religion, literature, fashion and sculpture. My writing has become so accustomed to dredging the worst of the worst of this culture that I almost feel that any words of praise and adulation might come across as… well, less than sincere. I truly hope that that is not the case, for though I am perpetually surrounded by poverty and ignorance and disease and malnutrition and shit and piss and garbage and general human misery, there in fact is joy in this society. As poor as their standard of living might be, Malians take their celebrating much more seriously than we do in America; maybe it is because they actually know what true suffering is, maybe it is because life expectancy is so short and death is such an ubiquitous element of existence that people understand that they have to make their short lives worth living while they still have the chance. And that is why if there is anything worth genuine praise in Malian culture, it is the vibrant tradition of song and dance.

Though before I get ahead of myself, out of bad habit I must first dwell on that which is truly awful about music in Mali. And there is quite a lot.

To begin, the very medium of music is quite archaic. In America, we have all but converted the products of the musical recording industry to purely digital form; everybody relies so exclusively on their iTunes and iPod that we have even made the compact disc – the reification of digital music into a tangible thing – obsolete. In Mali, people are still listening to cassette tapes.

In some ways, cassette tapes are an appropriate technology because there is so much sand and dust flowing through the air during dry season and people listen to their music almost exclusively outdoors that a CD collection would inevitably get scratched into oblivion – cassettes are more durable in this climate. They are also a lot cheaper. And a lot of recording companies based out of Accra, Abidjan and Dakar understand their consumer base and continue to manufacture the recordings of local artists in cassette form. This feels so very retro to me, for I can’t even remember listening to a cassette, I haven’t even owned anything that would play a cassette for the past 10 years. The last time I ever bought a cassette was in 1997, the summer after my last year of elementary school when I plopped down my weekly allowance for a single of Puff Daddy’s tribute to the slain Notorious B.I.G., "I'll Be Missing You".

If you can remember that far back, during the penultimate years of the 20th century CDs had so dominated music sales that cassette tapes were already on their way out; no new cars were being assembled with tape decks, no one but broke 5th-graders were willing to buy such inferior products that couldn’t jump tracks and had to be rewound after listening, anachronistically-titled “record stores” had accumulated so much of this unwanted inventory that they couldn’t sell it at any price.

So naturally, like all of the unsellable surplus American corn and wheat and clothing, all of those cassette tapes somehow made it to Mali. And it’s like someone dropped and shattered a magical Tamagotchi and so the entire country was cursed to be forever stuck in the year 1997. When the teenagers of Sanadougou decide to hold a dance party at the bane-of-my-life dongeyuro the World Vision NGO built across the street from my house, I could almost swear that I’ve unraveled the very fabric of the space-time continuum and found myself at my 6th-grade dance at the John Jay Middle School cafeteria at 4:00 in the afternoon in 1997. Current hits in Sanadougou include “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” by the Backstreet Boys, “You Make Me Wanna” from the new teen-heartthrob Usher, Mariah Carey’s “Honey”, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” from the Space Jam soundtrack, and of course, the song for which you needed to find your own Jack or Rose to awkwardy slow-dance to: Celine Dion’s anthemic “My Heart Will Go On”.

I thought that maybe the locals understood this phenomenon when I waltzed in on a bunch of men sitting around and drinking tea to “A Candle in the Wind”.

“So, I guess you guys are still bummed about Princess Diana – what with everything she did for Africa and all… right?”

“… Who?”

“Oh… I guess not…”

What makes it all the more horrendous is that Malians only listen to a certain genre of cassettes from the 1996-1997 era. If you remember, there were some pretty groundbreaking cassettes coming out around that time from Sublime, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Ben Folds Five – but no, no cassette mogul would ever imagine selling such a decidedly non-bootylicious album like OK Computer to the decidedly booty-philic Malian people. When Malians listen to music, they want to put on something they can bump and grind and catch a nice piece of bobaraba to – like Los Del Rio.

A couple of months ago the doctor next-door to me decided to splurge on a big, 7th-hand stereo complete with radio and tape deck, and no tape deck would be complete without a cassette to play upon it – so Dr. Dembele decided to buy his family a stereo and a cassette single of the Macarena. To my knowledge, Los Del Rio was a strictly ad hoc act, so the B-side was of course the Christmas remix of the Macarena. And the Dembele’s next door blared their sole cassette single on repeat for the next five days straight.

To understand just how bizarre this was from my perspective, the only conceivable reason why anyone would listen to such a horrendous track would be so that they could re-enact the equally-horrendous line-dance of the same name. But Dr. Dembele’s wife is a pampered, well, a doctor’s wife who never has to do a day of physical labor for the rest of her life – they have a servant girl who draws all the water and does all the cooking and cleaning. So Mrs. Dembele is a very rotund woman of about 500 pounds whom after 18 months of living next door I cannot recall a single instance that I have seen her standing up. And they have a 28-year-old daughter who also does not cook, does not clean – which in this country means she’s an unmarriageable old maid – and weighs in at a slightly lesser 380 pounds or so. And these two portly women just sit on their stools all day drinking milk and fanning themselves – and blasting the Macarena over and over and over and over and over again. Of course, they are never doing the Macarena - for that would require standing up. To my good fortune, however, the actually tape within a cassette degrades after 14 years, so by the morning of the fifth day it was revolving at about 6 times the normal speed like Alvin & the Chipmunks singing the Macarena – until eventually the darn thing finally snapped beyond repair, Hamd’allah.

Malians with any sort of money available tend to splurge on more modern technologies – I specifically do not refer to those Malians who can afford modern technologies, but those who have the mathematically necessary sum of money to their person. As I often rant, it is perfectly common for a Malian man who would never shell out 2,500 CFA to buy a mosquito net for his 16 malnourished, barefoot children to go to the city for a dry season to find money and blow 500,000 (more than twice the average annual income) on an iPhone. An iPhone is not used for making calls or looking up stock quotes – Malian men blow all of the money that they have to their name for these devices so they can watch bootylicious pornography and the crassest of hip hop music videos; Akon is a favorite because he is Senegalese and legally polygamous, while American rappers Jay-Z, Nelly, Lil Wayne and “Cinquant Cent” not far behind. It makes perfect sense that this hyper-macho culture where men are men and women are chattel property is still drawn to those songs with the very most misogynist rhymes; for example, men in my town are really into the DMX hit “What These Bitches Want”:

Aiyyo!! Dog, I meet bitches, discrete bitches
Street bitches, slash, Cocoa Puff sweet bitches
Make you wanna eat bitches, but not me
Y'all niggaz eat off the plate all you want but not D
I fuck with these hoes from a distance
The instant they start to catch feelings
I start to stealin they shit
then I'm out just like a thief in the night
I sink my teeth in to bite
You thinkin life, I'm thinkin more like - whassup tonight?
Come on ma, you know I got a wife
and even though that pussy tight I'm not gon' jeapordize my life
So what is it you want from a nigga?
I gave you, you gave me - BITCH, I blazed you, you blazed me
Nothin more, nothin less, but you at my door
willin to confess that it's the best you ever tested
Better than all the rest, I'm like - Aight girlfriend, hold up
I gave you, what you gave me Boo, a nut"

Of course, no one in this town knows enough English to make sense of these lyrics – I can only surmise that the sheer chauvinism and misogyny of tracks like are just so overwhelming that they can transcend all language barriers and make male listeners of all cultures feel that their penis is nine feet longer by Tralfamadorian telekinetic brain wave communication. How else can one make sense of the popularity of English lyrical recordings with little to no musical content whatsoever in decidedly non-Anglophone Africa?

This influx of American rappers is completely understandable in this rapidly globalizing hip hop culture, but it is kind of funny how much of a following more teeny-bopper acts like Lil Bow Wow and Usher have among grown adults. This phenomenon is not confined to strictly African-American teeny-boppers; many-a-time I have stifled laughter as I witnessed big, macho Crip wannabes at the bus station grooving to a Hannah Montana music video. Or this one time I was in a café in Ouagadougou and at the next table over was a guy dressed like an American “gangsta” - part South Central gang member, part Prohibition-era bootlegger with a fedora hat, saddle shoes and spats, rolling like a mean badass. This macho gangsta hustla hunched over his beer to hypnotized by his iPhone production of S Club 7. Of course, this only testifies to the isolation and gross lack of education in this culture, for only to the completely illiterate and ignorant can Disney Channel fare be considered such a fascinating spectacle of moving shapes and colors – but the sad truth of social injustice does not in any way detract from the humor of grown adult men being enthralled with bubblegum manufactured for the exclusive consumption of 10-year-old girls… from 1997.

What is so difficult for me to comprehend is that - belying the fact that younger crowds prefer sleazy American hip hop and cheesy Radio Disney pop - Mali does in fact have a long and proud musical tradition. When I say this, I do not mean that I cannot understand that Mali can produce good music; in fact, I mean quite the opposite - traditional Malian music is so good that I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would prefer Lil Bow Wow and Aaron Carter.

The Bambara, Minianka, Malinke, Dogon, Senaful, Songraï, etc. never developed their own tongues as written languages, so for the millennia before Arab and French expansion the histories of West African kings and nobles were recounted exclusively through the oral tradition of the griot. A griot is a musical storyteller who recounted history through song, and what differentiates a true griot from any mere singer is that to be a griot one must be descended from a caste of griots – kind of like how Woody Guthrie transmitted his canon of songs chronicling the struggles of the American people to his son Arlo Guthrie who then transmitted them to his own son Krishna Guthrie, ad infinitum… Accompanied with a djembé drum, a lute, xylophone or a goni – this primordial stringed instrument with 6 strings though no frets – the oral history of the griot is really the basis of Malian music. What began as mere oral historiography evolved donné donné into what would eventually be known as the Malian blues.

The Malian blues is exactly what it sounds like; it is composed of tales of the pain of daily life – illness, death, drought and famine, unrequited love, jilted lovers, etc. Like the Bambara language itself, the lyrics to Malian blues are usually painfully literal – imagine if Robert Johnson were a subsistence farmer living off of a drought-plauged patch of sandy soil. And a lot of it is quite decent. However, I am really frustrated by goni-derived Malian blues. There is a butigitigi in town who plays the goni and he always invites me bring my guitar and jam with him – but it is sometimes tiring always playing in the same one key because my accompaniment is limited to repetitive permutations of the same 6 notes. Malian blues started getting really good when gonis developed frets and became guitars as we now know them. And that is why music critics credit the Malian blues tradition as a direct progenitor of the African-American blues – and by extension, soul, funk, rock and roll and its infinite derivative genres.

If you want to hear some classic Malian blues, I would suggest downloading anything by the late Ali Farka Touré – who is considered the godfather of the guitar-driven line of this genre. Touré was a Songraï from the small village of Niafunké in Timbouctou province who started with the goni but eventually started playing a modern guitar mixing the traditional style of the griots with what a listener like you should recognize as the blues; as Martin Scorsese describes his sound in a recent documentary, when listening to Touré one can hear “the DNA of the blues”. Ali Farka Touré garnered the moniker as the “John Lee Hooker of Africa”, and was truly the first Malian musician to develop a sense of crossover appeal with Western audiences, even winning Grammy awards in the World Music category. In 1994 Touré collaborated with American roots guitarist Ry Cooder on a duet album Talking Timbuktu and with African-American blues singer Corey Harris in 2002’s Mississippi to Mali. Anyone interested in Malian blues must start with a survey of Ali Farka Touré’s solo and duet albums.

If you like what you hear in Ali Farka’s blues, the next logical step would be to check out the works of his son 29-year-old son Vieux Farka Touré. Vieux Farka Touré is no nepotistic hack like Lisa Marie Presley; I would compare him more to a Ziggy or Damian Marley who does a fairly decent job of continuing the sound of his legendary father – especially because some of his more upbeat tracks are distinguishably influenced by reggae. And Vieux is already making inroads with American audiences – he recently played a tour of U.S. college campuses, even made it onto the Bonnaroo 2009 lineup.

Other, more traditional griot-like Malian bluesmen include Afel Bocoum, Habib Koité and Toumani Diabeté. I am told that the latter played a duet set at the last Bonnaroo with the innovative classical banjoist Béla Fleck - if anyone can help me track down a bootleg of this set, I would greatly appreciate it.

Though he is sometimes lumped in the same category as the aforementioned artists, I would like to set Salif Keïta apart. First of all, his biography is all the more fascinating; Salif Keïta is the direct descendent of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keïta - thereby making him royalty. However, this young prince was born an albino - making him not only royalty but a social outcast in this superstitious culture that sees the pigmentally-challenged as sources of bad luck and macabre fetishry. So Salif Keïta - turned out by his royal family, violated the traditional Malian caste system and became a singer - a profession designated solely for the lower caste which exists but to record the Keïtas' history. After directly rebuking the existing social order, Salif Keïta's choice has been clearly vindicated by the people as he has taken the Malian blues, electrified it, added a backup band and produces a stage show that is unequivocally glam rock. If Ali Farka Touré is the "John Lee Hooker of Africa", then Keïta's unique sound and stage presence makes him more like the African David Bowie.

Perhaps the most universally-appealing crossover act from Mali would be the married couple Amadou et Mariam. They met at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind where the bonded over a common interest in music - decades later, they are performing their fusion of Malian blues, soul, reggae and funk playing at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza and becoming perhaps the most commercially successful act to ever hail from this country. Rolling Stone recently pegged Amadou et Mariam's Dimanche à Bamako at #90 of their top 100 albums of the past decade - albeit, not a Grammy like père Farka Touré, but for a blind man and a blind woman from Mali that is quite an achievement. Even if you haven't the slightest interest in traditional Malian blues, you will probably enjoy the spaghetti and butter of this country's musical fare.

As the role of the griot has been almost exclusively held by men, very few women have burst out onto this specific genre of Malian blues per se. Though a number of female singers such as Nahawa Doumbia and Oumou Sangaré have gained popularity playing more modern pop acts. I'm somewhat indifferent to their music, but I really admire Sangaré's social activism and outspokenness on women's rights - and a number of her songs directly protests topical oppression in the form of polygamy and genital mutilation.

I feel that I owe a shout-out to the Gaoan Songraï guitarist Baba Salah, because I was totally blown away by his psychedelic Slash-like shredding at le Festival de la Niger. However, I would hold out on buying any of his recordings. Salah has two, and this awed fanboy made the mistake of blowing two weeks of food money on them. Apparently Baba Salah is taking the analogy of Mali's very own Cheap Trick - an act that puts on an astounding stage show, but records albums so tame, watered-down and saccharine bland that they are absolutely unlistenable. Until he puts out a concert bootleg, I would wait to see him shred in the flesh.

And last but not least, I must extol the killer Tamashek group Tinariwen. If there is one group in this country that I would recommend spending your unemployment insurance check on at at the iTunes music store, it is this troup of self-described "poet guitarists and soul rebels from the southern Sahara Desert". The only reason I didn't put them on the top of the list of Malian musicians to hear is that, well, the members of Tinariwen would be loathe to hear anyone refer to them as "Malian". They are Tamashek rebels who think of their nomadic people as a state unto itself, the Bambara-dominated state in Bamako as alien a regime as the French colonialists, and yearn to estabish an "Islamic Republic of Azawad" out of the Sahara frontiers of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Their collective biography is just as captivating as their music. Ringleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib originally hailed from a small village in the Tamashek northern frontier, but when the Malian Army clamped down on the Tuareg uprising in 1963, executing Alhabib's father and destroying almost the entirety of his family herd, young Alhabib began a multidecade exodus from refugee camps, nomad trains across the Sahara, training with formal militant insurrectionists and even the Libyan Army. But Ibrahim Ag Alhabib preferred to use a more peaceful weapon of revolution - making his own guitars from scraps and bicycle break wires and gradually accumulating a troupe of like-minded freedom fighters. Today, the group known as Tinariwen travels the Sahara heartland and the world singing of Tamashek nationalist consciousness, a life of exile and exodus, freedom, homesickness and all but calling for the militant secession of the historical Tamashek homeland. Get your hands on the albums Imidiwan, Aman Iman and Amassakoul as soon as possible.

And if its still in stock, the cassette single of the Christmas Macarena remix.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Nouhoume: Madu, what is it like in America?

That is a very difficult question to answer… I don’t quite know where to start…

Is there millet in America?

M: Not really. It is so dry here in Mali, so it makes sense for Malians to grow millet. But we have a lot more rain in America, so we can farm a lot of wheat and corn and rice instead.

N: Do you farm peanuts in America?

M: Yes, we have lots of peanuts! Particularly in the American South, there are lots of peanut farmers. In fact, peanuts are such an important staple of the American economy that there was one peanut farmer who went on to become President!

N: Do you have the Moon in America?

M: Um… well, the Moon isn’t in America per se… but we can see the Moon from America, if that’s what I assume you meant.

N: But America is so far away!

M: America is indeed far from Mali – but we can see the Moon in America too, because the Moon is just as far from America as it is from Mali. (grabs a soccer ball for reference) You see, Mali is to the East of America, and the Earth rotates counter-clockwise from the West to the East, so though we are both seeing the same Moon from both countries, in New York we can start to see the Moon about five hours after it can be seen from Mali.

N: What about the stars?

M: We can see most of the same stars in America. But America is further North than Mali, so there are some stars of the Southern sky that you can see here but we can’t in America – and there are some stars in the Northern sky that you can see in America but not in Mali.

Do you see that thing between the stars that’s a different color than all the rest? It looks red.

N: Yes. Why is that star red?

M: It's not a star at all! It's another world revolving around the Sun just like Earth! It is called Mars. After the Moon, it is the closest body to our planet.

N: What about the Sun? The Sun is so much bigger!

M: Yes, the Sun is much much much bigger than Mars, but it is also much farther. If the Sun were as close to Earth as Mars is, then the whole world would be much too hot for us to live!

N: Are there any people there?

M: No, it is much too cold on Mars for any people to live there. And though there is air there, it is not like the air here on Earth - if we were to go to Mars we would not be able to breath... But a few years back America sent some machines to Mars that can drive around and take pictures and study the rocks on the Martian surface. They are still there today.

N: Wowwwwwww...

So Madu, why are all of those stars in a big line there?

M: That, Nouhoume, is what we call "The Milky Way".

You see, there is this force called "gravity" which attracts any two objects in the whole Universe towards each other. Gravity is attracting you to this soccer ball right now, but both you and the soccer ball are so small that you don't move towards each other. But Earth is really, really, really big - and you are so much smaller, and that is why you stay on top of the Earth. Even though the Moon is big too, Earth is a lot bigger, so the Moon is attracted to the Earth. The only thing big enough and close enough to Earth to attract it is the Sun - that is why Earth revolves around the Sun once every 365 days.

Stars work the same way. Gravity pulls stars towards each other if they are big enough and close enough, and when they get really, really close stars will rotate around each other as well! Eventually, millions and millions of stars start revolving around each other and make a big spiral like this (draws a spiral galaxy in the dirt). That is what we call a "galaxy".

Our Sun - our star - is revolving around with other stars in a spiral like this. Our star is on one of the arms of the spiral, which is why we can see so many other stars. When you see all of those stars clumped together in that big, thick line called "The Milky Way", those are just more stars in the same arm of the spiral that ours is on.

Most of the stars that we can see are in our own galaxy, but there are billions and billions of other stars in their own galaxies. We can see some of them, but it is very difficult because they are so far away.

N: Wowwwwwww.....

Madu, can you see all of these things in America too?

M: Yes, America and Mali are both on Earth, you see, so like I explained most of the things in the night sky that you can see here we can see in America too - but not all of them.

N: Madu, I have another question.

M: Shoot.

N: Do you have fire in America?

M: Yes.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Dirty Little Secret

Sanadougou is a religiously diverse society by Malian standards. If asked, about 80 percent of the population would identify as Muslim, 20 percent would call themselves Christian. And in addition to the globally-established creeds to which all Sanadougoukaw will profess, there is a long and proud tradition prior to any of these religions which is truly more fundamental to local spirituality. The Christian pastor in town calls it “une réligion paganiste”, others might object due to the lack of any formal god or gods in this belief system and refer to it as a mere “animist practice”, monotheist chauvinists might impugn it as a mere “fetishist cult”. Whatever it is, the ancient traditions of the Minianka subgroup of the Bambara tribe are not what you would assume to find in a country that considers itself monotheistic.

The first inkling of Bamana tradition I could glean was when I and saw a guys at market selling a strange cornucopia of snake skins, monkey heads, dead parrots and ram horns, etc. At first I thought these wares were mere hunting trophies, but in fact, they were fetishes endowed with spiritual powers. The powers attributed to each individual fetish are generally those attributed to the living animals; e.g. the head of a West African night adder could be channeled to inflict harm upon an enemy, a dog’s paw could augment a woman’s fertility, cowry shells can be used to divine the future and the hair of a white man can aid its holder to find great wealth and love. Devout Muslims and Christians might cite the parable of Ibrahim to condemn such idolatry, but they have to really know who they’re talking to because a lot of people who regularly pray at mosque or church also invoke the power of fetishes in the privacy of their own homes.

When people conduct the Bamana tradition they do not “worship” the fetish, it certainly could not be defined as “polytheism” because they are not “deifying” the late monkey or parrot as something beyond this world. The most proper term to describe this tradition would be “animism”, because they are attributing spiritual properties unto objects of this world. Magic has a great deal to do with it, but the kind of white magic practiced by the likes of Dumbledore and Sabrina Spellman. Whatever you do, don’t call it “witchcraft” – because unlike one who supplicates fetishes for benign magic, a shubaga is one who conjures the fetish spirits and black magic powers for malicious ends.

Though when you see all of these juju skins and claws at market, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the rest of the animal. Usually the fetishtigi gets their hands on their wares by the vagaries of hunters’ success, but every January they are guaranteed a new shipment of inventory after the annual N’yaa ceremony. Like most celebrations in Mali, there were no formal invitations mailed out or even uttered, but those in the know just happen to know. One afternoon last January I heard a hypnotic drumming, balaphone (xylophone) and singing out by the market area; I asked Karitie what the celebration was all about, and he told me “Les paganistes font leur sacrifice!”

“… Quel sort du sacrifice?” I asked.

Les chiens et les poulets!”

So last year I spent the annual sacrifice ceremony at home guarding my puppy from the clutches of the local witch doctor. But this year I planned in advance and chained Snoop Doggy Dogg up within the confines of my chain-link fence so I could attend without fear. I was told that I probably wouldn’t want to show up until after dinner, because until then full participation in the ceremony is mandatory to all attendees.

Asides from all the singing and dancing, the centerpiece of N’yaa is the slaughtering of dogs and chickens and the ritualistic imbibement of their blood. As the head fetishtigi explained, men must drink the blood to obtain the animals’ power and good fortune for the next farming season. This year was a particularly poor harvest, so the villagers of Sanadougou were willing to sacrifice many more animals than usual: 10 dogs and 30 chickens.

I could almost understand the transubstantiation of dog power into human power, but I had a difficult time stomaching the chickens. “Seriously, chickens are small and weak. I can’t imagine getting a lot of power by sacrificing a chicken.”

“You’re right – that is why we sacrifice 30 of them.”

So I fortunately missed out on the actual slaughter and blood-drinking rites per se, but I stuck around for the beer-drinking rites. By nightfall there were still drums banging and trance-like tunes on the goni, tin can guitar and balaphone and drunken old men doing this clumsy Moonwalk-like dance. And a grizzled old woman sold me an empty Seltzer bottle full of chimichama – home-brewed, millet beer. It looks and tastes like what I imagine apple juice would taste like if it was left to ferment and sour; it’s nothing that I would pay more than a little nominal change for just to say that I partook in a local cultural experience. I wouldn’t even drink it to get drunk for cheap – chimichama is only about 2 percent alcoholic content and the rest is barely-palatable deadweight water.

That doesn’t mean that the hardly-alcoholic qualities of chimichama prevent the local men from getting drunk – they just have to drink an obscene amount of it. They fill 10-liter jugs with this cheap home-brew and chug it all as fast as possible – they would use a beer bong if only American frat boys would join the Peace Corps en masse and show them how to make one. And since there is so much water to alcohol in this millet beer, the N’yaa celebrators pee like broken fire hydrants. Even before I had arrived, the ceremony grounds were full of shitfaced old men stumbling around looking for a good place to take a whizz, a lot of them passed out in the positions they fell in, a lot of them passed out stinking of the 98 percent of chimichama that their bodies no longer had any use for.

About the entirety of N’yaa celebrators would probably identify themselves as Muslim – a good deal of them will also slaughter a sheep as well at Eid al-Iftar and Eid al-Adha, but even an infidel like me cannot fathom how a bunch of old men who gather to drink dog and chicken blood and invoke the power of fetishes and get trashed on millet beer can say with a straight face that they belong to the pointedly austere monotheist religion that is Islam. Muslim doctrine here is generally more liberal than it is elsewhere in the Islamic world, but a religion which is can be summed up in the Shahada that “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” cannot be so liberal that it can also incorporates explicitly animist sacrifice and idolatry. This is less like someone who calls themselves Jewish eating a bacon cheeseburger and watching The Charlie Brown Christmas Special than it is like someone who calls themselves Jewish regularly attending mass and receiving Communion and praying to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

When you contextualize the founding of Islam in the 7th century and grasp that Muhammadd and the original jurists of Islam were developing their belief system at roughly the same time that the militant wing of Islam was busy expanding the Caliphate into North African territory, it makes sense that the writing of certain laws was just as much political as it was religious. For example, the code of Halal prohibits Muslims from the consumption of alcohol, the consumption of meat that was sacrificed in the name of pagan gods or idolatry, and it very explicitly prohibits the drinking of blood – i.e. it is forbidden for Muslims to partake in animist sacrifices like N’yaa. Though they might not have had the rites of the distant, isolated Bambara tribe in mind at the time, the Islamic jurists of a millennium ago knew enough of world religions to craft a law of hygiene and cleanlinesss directly and intentionally incompatible with the practices of takfir Arab, Persian, Turkish and African tribes.

I must reiterate the fact that very few Malians would publicly identify themselves as a follower of these rites; it is by no means a secret, but asides from the association with drunkenness and obvious reasons the attendees would like to keep the fact to themselves. The various tribes of the Sahel have spent millennia conquering and enslaving their neighbors, and once Islam arrived between the 10th and 12th centuries many clans converted as a guarantee of freedom – the Qur’an specifically forbids Muslims to enslave fellow members of the Umma but leaves idolaters and deniers of the faith to the whims of unregulated capitalism. Though chattel slavery does not really exist in southern Mali anymore (it does in the northern Songraï and Tamashek lands), Bambara, Minianka, Fulani and Malinke tribesmen alike find it at least in their social interests to publicly present themselves as Muslims – even if they drink millet beer, pray to fetishes, sacrifice dogs and chickens and drink their blood.

Yes, there are some Malians who still conduct ritualistic human sacrifice. To my understanding human sacrifice is significantly rarer than the sacrifice of dogs or chickens, but it is not as rare as it should be. People generally sacrifice other people for the same reason why they sacrifice monkeys or sheep, only this is considered to be a very dark practice associated only with the most evil of evil sorcerers. Albinos are in great danger of being targeted for human sacrifice as their abnormally-pigmented appendages are thought to bring good luck and a dismembered albino head is thought to be able to reveal the future like a really morbid Magic 8-Ball.

Apparently human sacrifice is most common amongst the Bobo tribe of northern Ségou province – a tribe which is distinctly more animist than the rest of the country. In recent years there have been a few Volunteers posted in Boboland who were solemnly warned that a very important festival coming up – though no one could tell when exactly this festival would be, and that when the festival occurred it was absolutely important that they stay in their house and never go outside especially at night because… well… no one would say... But the villagers would continue to reiterate emphatically that during the week of this ceremony they must never go outside. Donné donné villagers started to explain more and more about this mysterious festival until the Boboland Volunteers respectively decided it was time to pack up their bags and move to a different site.

Human sacrifice is allegedly confined to the most isolated, very least cosmopolitan and most animist villages where the rule of law and modern civilization don’t have too much sway. But there was even a human sacrifice-related incident pertaining to a Volunteer posted to a small village on the road to the Peace Corps training center Tubaniso – so close to urban culture that one could get there from Bamako by taxi. So this female Volunteer developed a close friendship with a spinster neighbor, and one day she realized that she hadn’t seen Bintu for a very long time. She was worried, and so she asked all of her other friends in village “Hey, do you know where Bintu is?”

For weeks she couldn’t get a straight answer; some villagers said that Bintu just got up and left, others said that she was “traveling”. Over time the villagers decided to level with their adopted Volunteer;

“Bintu is never coming back… because we sacrificed Bintu… and we ate her.”