Continental Drift

January 18, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 6:09 pm

Right after I last posted, my parents arrived for the holidays! I spent the ten whirlwind days they were here whisking them around Bamako, and then around Mali all the way to Dogon country.  It was quite the visit, and I haven’t known quite how to explain it. Then I realized that it wasn’t my trip to Mali to describe, it was really my parents’ experience of something new to them, so I asked my Dad to write up his own version of the story.  That guest entry will be coming up toute de suite.

Of course with the trip description out of the way, it means I no longer have any excuse for not writing about post trip news.  So what has been going on in Sikoroni in early 2010?  This answer is really that everything has been happening at once, to the point that I feel much more overwhelmed than I did even during my first bleary-eyed days here.  Suddenly, we are right in the run-up to starting Action for Health (I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying so), and suddenly four new Americans have arrived.  My life here up till now has certainly not been boring, but it has been basically slow paced and with a general abundance of time for most activities.  Suddenly being put into work hyper-drive while having triple the normal number of Americans around has been rather a shock to the system.  So when I talk to you, the proverbial reader, and you ask me what my normal day is like, it is rather hard to answer.

Instead, I can give you some examples.

There are the days of extreme culture shock, like the day I returned to Sikoroni after more than a week of parental luxury.  After pools, air-conditioning and (most importantly) real showers, it was tougher than I expected to head back up the hill to Pig Corner and step into the smelly nyegen for a bucket bath.  Then came the pleasant surprise that though it felt like I had been gone far longer than a week, coming back felt like coming home.  Already, it was such a different arrival than my first one in October, where everything was foreign and unfamiliar.  When I arrived with my suitcases this time, Fanta wanted to hear about my trip, Tata was immediately in my room demanding candy, and Papa wanted to play peek-a-boo.  The only thing that was different was that one of the scrawny sheep had become a New Year’s Eve feast, and now the lonely mate complains even more loudly whenever you disturb its sleep.

Then there are the Sikoroni days, when I start to feel a bit like I have a real life here.  Like last Sunday, a perfect weekend day.  First, I stopped by a wedding across the street at my neighbor Penda’s house.  It was early times and no one was dancing or singing yet, but the bazin was certainly shiny and colorful.  It was great to see Penda, an old traditional healer who I usually see surrounded by herbs in the small shack she uses as her place of business, all dressed up.  Then a leisurely breakfast at Diallo’s, complete with his amazing condensed milk-nescafe-latte, and a quick visit to his uncle, the tailor, to discuss some clothes he is altering for me.  I spent only a short time at the office, and all of it was productive—Devon and I were finalizing the survey about health actions that I have been preparing.

Then it was time to meet some Malian friends, guys we’ve met through Devon’s boyfriend, who were coming all the way up to Sikoro for a visit.  Bamako born and bred, they had never been in this neighborhood and they seemed pretty astonished that we actually lived here.  As soon as they arrived at my house, Devon and I realized that we were terribly unprepared Malian hosts: we had no sodas to offer and no food to force on them.  I resorted to some Hershey’s kisses that I’d been stockpiling since my parents’ visit, and Devon went out to the boutique to rectify the soda situation.  We hung out and chatted for a few hours, chatting being the preferred social activity of pretty much everyone I’ve met here.  After they left to go home, we were back and forth between my house and the wedding to visit people from the neighborhood and do some more chatting.  To top it all off, I watched Mali’s first game in the Africa Cup of Nations against Angola with Devon and her host family.  After an entire game spent losing to Angola 4-0, Mali came back in the last ten minutes to score 4 goals and tie it up.  The streets went wild with fire-crackers, speeding motos, honking cars and dancing children.

Then there are the days of crisis and catastrophe.  Like Tuesday, when I tried to start my survey.  I was supposed to meet two CHAG members to start the survey at 10AM, but I didn’t receive the completed Bambara translation until 10AM, at which point the printer ran out of ink, at which point the cyber café where I went to print ran out of staples. Since the idea behind the program is that the families cannot pay cash for their healthcare but that they can pay with their participation, this was originally supposed to be an informal conversation with each family to decide what sort of Health Actions they will contribute.  Instead, through discussions with the Americans, the MHOP staff as a whole, and the CHAG, the actions had become better specified and the information needed from the families had changed.  The day before it was supposed to start, we realized that if certain activities were going to be health actions, we needed baseline data on those actions.

Suddenly, I was sitting in the courtyard of family #74 watching Moustaphe and Savanné struggle through the somewhat haphazard survey, and realizing that I had not prepared for what this had become.  The day went from bad to worse when I realized that I hadn’t followed proper research protocol by speaking to every mother living in the compound, and it seemed like the world was ending when I realized that meant we would have to return to these same families to ask the same questions again to all the other women.  I felt so incredibly useless as the families remarked over and over again that our project is always coming in to ask them questions, but that they never see any benefits from the program.  I felt personally responsible for every (in truth, unavoidable) delay we’ve faced along the way since this program was conceived, and as if I had no right to go into these families and impose on their time to ask all these questions.  In short: it was a day of feeling like a failure.

And then there is the day like today.  After having fixed the questionnaire and finished surveying about half the families, I feel more grounded and ready to deal with the results going forward.  I’m still stressed out by all the newfound responsibility that comes from being face-to-face with the families who have a real need for this program to work, but I know that they will best benefit from a well organized program, which means completing this survey.  I took some time this morning to read, blog and edit pictures from the trip before heading down to the office to prep for the CHAG meeting.  The meeting was much more satisfying than usual, with a pretty frank discussion of what it means to do volunteer work and then a heated debate over what to do about families who used to live in the program’s target family compounds, but have moved since the baseline survey was completed.  This was community participation at its best, with everyone sharing opinions and engaging with each possible proposition.  No unanimous conclusion was reached, and the decision will in part be decided by financial feasibility.  But everyone had a chance to look at the difficult issue: if families move to other parts of Sikoroni after we have already promised children free care, do we or don’t we have a moral obligation to maintain their participation in the program?

And so there you have it, nothing ever goes simply normally here.  But I’d rather weeks with a little bit of fun mixed with a little bit of crisis, than weeks that all ran together and stayed normal and the same.  I suppose that’s how I ended up in Mali to begin with.

1 Comment »

  1. Brava for this detailed description of your recent days. Helps to understand the ups and downs of this kind of work in detail, complète with children, social évents, and struggles. Clearly it is both joyous, at times, and complicated, mostly.

    Comment by EFF — January 19, 2010 @ 12:59 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: