Continental Drift

October 31, 2009

Africans Don’t Need Sunglasses and Other Words of Wisdom from Mali-Week 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 11:04 pm

My general incompetence discussed in my last post not only leads to chuckles from Malians, it also means that they seem to constantly need to share their own knowledge with me to help overcome my ignorance.  Sometimes, this is very useful. As in, when they tell me to move because if I stand there my skirt will catch on fire from the brazier that is boiling water. Other times, I am skeptical of its veracity.  Really, why wouldn’t Africans need sunglasses just as much as I do? The sun is just as bright where they are standing. They’re just used to making do without, perhaps.

Considering the fact that I am supposedly here because I have skills and information to offer the project that Malians would not have, it is sometimes disconcerting to be constantly reminded that I know nothing.  But, on the other hand, the idea behind MHOP is the need for community engagement in community problems for that very reason: we Americans don’t know the whole story over here.  To explain: though much of our programming here is health related, the ultimate goal behind the Mali Health Organzing Project, is getting the community of Sikoroni-Sourakabougou involved in making changes in their own situation.

A primary example of this is the program I’m working on, called Action for Health.  Action for Health is a new approach to health financing.  Instead of the user-fee system currently in place in Mali, in which patients are required to pay for healthcare no matter how limited their financial means, we are proposing an action fee system.  A health action could be participating in a community cleanup or mosquito net treatment day, voting in local elections, signing up a family member for the women’s literacy program, just as a few examples.  In exchange for performing three health actions a year, all children under five in our target families will receive free treatment for the four diseases that cause 90% of under five mortality in Mali: malaria, Acute Respiratory Infections, diarrhea, and malnutrition.  The immediate goal is to provide much needed access to care in order to prevent and treat avoidable maladies.  But through this process, we are working to organize the community so that it will develop the capacity to work out these problems for itself.

Obviously this is the greater goal, for the non-immediate future.  For my immediate future here in Bamako, the first step is getting the program running.  That means, primarily, getting ready to send the Community Health Workers out to begin their visits to target families.  The Community Health Workers are the individuals who will be interacting with the families, providing health education, and physically escorting families with sick children to the clinic.  This is another innovative part of the program, as community health workers are not usually as direct a link between community and clinic.  But we believe that by accompanying children who need care, Community Health Workers are empowered as health decision makers and also increase uptake of services.  Our Community Health Workers have already been selected and have undergone a preliminary training, but there is still a lot to do on my part before they can begin their work.

Like finishing the clinic.  MHOP’s part of the construction is almost finished, which means that painting began last week.  This initiated a long debate over paint colors, which required informing me of much information I was obviously lacking, a few pearls of wisdom of which I will share with you here.

The first is one that I hope is not true.  We were told that obviously the clinic interior walls had to be painted a dark red, not the soothing white or light blue we had suggested.  This, of course, is because you need dark red to hide the blood.  Oh dear. We never really received an answer as to what blood, exactly, was expected, but we were sufficiently disturbed to agree that the bottom parts of the walls ought to be painted a dark blue, with the upper parts light blue.  It looks lovely now, and hopefully will remain bloodstain free, especially since we made sure to purchase washable paint.

The second words of wisdom come from the construction foreman.  “You must tell Obama that he must raise the dollar,” he says, “this weak dollar is just no good.” Living abroad, I tend to agree with this, but I’m not sure that it is particularly in my control.  If any of you are in positions of influence on U.S. economic policy, perhaps you can help me with this.

The third words of wisdom came from the clinic painter.  We did not start off our relationship on a great note, as when I arrived the first thing he said to Madoo (Malian name of Alex Ruby, an MHOP colleague) was that I was not as pretty as our other colleague Fanta (a.k.a. as Alex Harsha), who had come by the clinic the day before.  Slightly offended, I was extremely surprised when he asked me to marry him about 45 minutes later.  I reminded him that he didn’t think I was all that attractive, to which he responded, “The other one is more beautiful, but it is you that I love.”  This was even harder to come up with a response to so I asked him was he in the market for a wife.  He is, it turns out, looking specifically for an American wife.  “Oh I see,” I said, “You just want an American wife so you can get a visa.” “No,” he said, “I want an American wife who wants to come and live here in Mali.  She can go back and forth if she wants, but I have never been there and I never will.”  When I tried to convince him that the States aren’t so bad and that he might even like it there, he told me my favorite words of wisdom that I learned all week.

“Why would I go over there, when here I make two dollars in a day* and I can eat for two days on that two dollars.  There, I might make twenty dollars in a day, but that’s only enough for one meal. There, you earn a lot but you also spend a lot just to live okay. Here, I can live well.”

And so I was forced to reflect on what it means to live well, a question that everyone has been pondering since at least Plato.  We had this conversation on the veranda of the clinic, drinking extra strong Malian tea made on top of a tiny charcoal broiler, while he used a series of makeshift tools to mix and apply the paint.  To our left was a giant trash heap—covering what ought to be a soccer field for the local youth group, and to our right a dilapidated taxi struggled up the hill over the collection of rocks, dust and mud that constitutes the road to Sourakabougou.  The foam mattress tied to the roof is the only kind of mattress I have yet to see in Mali, and I can vouch for the fact that they are not that comfortable.  Buying a box of granola at the Western style supermarket would cost $12.  But the painter can eat several large filling meals for his two dollars, and save enough to buy more than just the essential items to furnish a house, even if to my eyes the items are all flimsy and poor quality.  Even though when I walk in as a newcomer from big city America, having running water and paved streets would be a necessity for living well, who says you can’t do so in a dirty slum?  Why go back to the states where you make more money, but you have to spend so much more?


*Approximate currency conversion.  He really said 1000 francs (CFA) vs. 10000 francs. The dollar is worth approximately 440 CFA at the moment.


1 Comment »

  1. There could actually be something to the sunglasses thing. I recently learned that cheetahs (or is it leopards…I can never remember) have black stripes running below their eyes, like tears, in order to cut glare which would have reflected off their fur and into their eyes. I’ve also seen cricketers paining dark lines under their eyes, apparently for the same reason. So perhaps having dark skin would help. One for mythbusters perhaps 🙂

    Comment by Oli — January 10, 2010 @ 9:07 am | Reply

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