Thursday, March 3, 2011

Would You Steal a Loaf of Bread?

About six weeks ago I went to Ghana, via van, for a tennis tournament (see last post for details).  It was a last minute trip and I had not gotten the proper visas to enter either Burkina Faso or Ghana.  It’s an empty, helpless feeling standing in front of a border official as they flip through your passport searching for a visa that you know isn’t there. 

Before they looked up to meet my eyes I knew the conversation that was coming.  They were going to firmly tell me that I’m not allowed in their country, followed by an intentionally drawn out pause, unless I pay some ridiculous last minute fee. 

To pay for last minute visas and other amazingly related fees added up to about a month and a half of my Peace Corps salary.  Something I simply couldn’t afford to pay.  Fortunately, I was traveling with the national team and they agreed to pick up the tab.

To experience such difficulties while traveling with an American passport forces me to think about what it’d be like if my passport was a different color.

I worked in the Maldives, a country composed of a tiny collection of islands south of India, for about a month a few years ago.  I was shocked at how many Maldivian employees kept asking me about the validity of these online visa lotteries they were hearing about.  All they had to do was send in some personal information and a credit card number (assuming they had one) and they could be a big winner of a British or American visa.  They might as well send some cash to a Nigerian Prince while they’re at it.  But this is how desperate they were to gain access to another part of the world.

This train of thought inevitably leads me back to home, the good ol US of A.

To share with you my motivation for this post I’m going to refer to an article from The Economist,  December 2010.  The article is about Mexican illegal immigration into the US and follows the path of a couple different families across the border and describes their lives working as undocumented workers on the farms of Southern California. 

For much of the time it just felt like another article trying to make me feel guilty for being born American, but then I came across an interesting study.

One of the biggest complaints in regards to illegal immigration is that they’re stealing American jobs.  In an attempt to acquire some empirical data for this claim the United Farm Workers (UFW) created a campaign called “Take Our Jobs”, which invited willing Americans to join the manual farming workforce of approximately 1 million comprised mainly of Mexicans.  In tough economic times 3 million people visited the site, but 40% of the responses were hate mail.  Out of these 3 millions visitors only 8,600 expressed any real interest in actually attempting this work but they made lofty demands for high pay, health benefits, relocation allowances and other benefits associated with American jobs. 

Personal side note: there’s no way our food would be as cheap as it is if we were paying every farm worker competitive pay and health benefits.

Interesting conclusion, in late September, after a summer of this campaign trying to give jobs back to Americans, seven, not seven hundred or seventy, seven American applicants were actually in the field picking crops. (or three according to

Immigration policy is one of those topics that you try to avoid when making casual conversation.  It never fails in quickly igniting emotional responses, which believe it or not, I feel are totally justified.  Show me two American parents that wouldn’t mind if their jobs were taken by illegal immigrants making it difficult for them to put food on the table for their kids.  Or to have a medical system overrun by non-American citizens driving up the cost of their health care and dragging down its efficiency.  Most American parents will do what they have to do for the health and well being of their children, I know I would.

But the problem is, that’s not just an American quality, it’s a human quality.

As a mother or father, brother or sister, wouldn’t you do almost anything to help a family member who is starving or needs medical attention but has no way of getting it?  If you can say yes to that question then why are we surprised when we see citizens from other countries doing the same?

Like I said before, this is not a simple issue, and everyone wants the best for their families.  I’m not saying let’s throw open the gates and let everyone run into the land of plenty, but I am saying we should keep an open mind when new policies are introduced regarding immigration.  Ignoring the problem or building higher walls will not deter the parent of a child in need.

The author of that Economist article drew many parallels between today’s Mexican immigration and that of Oklahomans fleeing the dust bowl of the 1930s depicted famously in John Steinbecks historic novel “The Grapes of Wrath”.  

These American parents did whatever they had to do for their families and we can expect these Mexican parents to continue to do whatever they have to do, for as Steinbeck wrote: “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?  You can’t scare him-he has known a fear beyond every other.”

Migrant farm workers

Fields of tears

They came to America illegally, for the best of reasons

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, sorry, what were you saying?

A year ago I went with our Malian tennis team, by van, to Ghana.  It was the worst travel experience I had ever had and swore to never do it again.  That promise was ringing in my ears as I stepped onto that van again a couple weeks ago, to head back to Ghana.

As we were leaving Bamako, with my back already sticking to my seat, I rationalized;  I’m a year wiser and tougher, this won’t be a big deal. 
The most vital additions to this trip were 1) a seat change, 2) peanut butter and jelly 3) ear plugs 4) a wash cloth and 5) travel pillow (rookie mistake last year).

A few hours passed and I truly felt as if I had evolved.  I have a bit (a bit) more language to use with the kids and I busted out a deck of cards and taught them old maid and crazy 8s.  Laughter filled the van, magic was in the air and there wasn’t any room for the heat!

That is until the old maid became annoying and the heat overbearing and everyone retreated to their respective corners of the van.  This is where big number 1 came into play.   Our driver and the main Malian coach, Bouare, sat up front, and the kids thought they were doing me a favor last year giving me the single seat next to the door.  Not so much.  There’s no room to stretch out and the window was (still is) broken so it slides open on it’s own which means waking up to a heated sand blaster to the face.  

No more!

I moved on up to the two combined seats on the other side which felt like a penthouse.  I was living large, had a place to put my water bottle and could close the window.  Simple pleasures.

I was drifting in and out of a very damp afternoon nap when I saw something on the floor.  It looked like someone spilled something like milky oats.  I looked back and one of the girls had her head between her knees and the other two looked worse for fear of what they knew was coming.   I asked if we needed to stop, they said no, (Malians don’t cave easily to not feeling well) so in the meantime I leaned back against my window. 

It wasn’t two minutes later that a second course of those milky oats sprayed all over my right calf along with an even coat covering the center of the van.  I was shocked, the driver and Bouare noticeably upset and the boys were laughing.  It was strange. 

We pull over in the next village, pay some kid a nickel to go to the well and get a bucket of water and in true Malian form everyone gets out the way and watches the girl who got sick clean up the van.

I was still positive; it was going to take more than some projectile vomit to turn my spirits.

Aside from construction and expected delays the rest of Mali wasn’t too bad, which  brought us to the Burkina Faso border.

Rewind a week, I didn’t want to go on this trip.  I asked to stay back and keep training the kids at the academy (and yes, I was slightly terrified of the trip), but the powers that be insisted I go even though we didn’t get the proper visas in advance and said that they’d even pay.  Big mistake.

Burkina Faso is just a drive through country on this trip.  We did know that visa prices had gone up for BF to about $120.  The guys at the border were not up for any small talk when they saw I had no visa, they said a visa at the border is $200 and there was no way around it.  

There was a stalemate that lasted way too long.  A “normal” African border crossing takes anywhere from 30 to 215 minutes and we were heading towards the latter.

Finally, we were in.  Paid way too much to cross an imaginary line and enter a place with no discernable difference to the place we just “left”.

We spent more on my visa in Burkina then we did on the gas to cross the country, figures.

We spent the night in Bobo, pronounced as it looks.  It was around midnight when we realized we hadn’t eaten since that morning.  No one seemed to mind so this is where number 2 stepped up big, PB and J for dinner and it was magical.  We actually sprung for a little motel type place that had a shower right next to the bed, another unexpected luxury.

The next morning I was excited.  A great six hours of horizontal sleep and we were hitting the road.  What I missed during the border meeting the day before was that we had to get something else approved at an office in Bobo.   We went to four different offices, always getting pawned off to a different one, driving all across town to finally be told that we need to get the stamp at the Burkina embassy in Accra, Ghana.  That ate a good two hours of the morning, now a late start, that’s more like it!

Hello Ghana!

Last year I paid something like $25 for my Ghana visa in advance, so we were thinking maybe double that at the border. 

It was a Sunday, so as we walked into the barren office where the three “officers” on duty were sporting dirty t-shirts and sandals.  The man who seemed to be in charge had his shirt pulled halfway up and rubbed his belly as they watched some horrible soap opera.   I have no sympathy for these African soaps, they are absolutely horrendous, I could take my three year old canon point and shoot, three friends and some Mac editing and make a series 10 times better.  I digress.

The men barely notice we enter and it feels like they want to wait for a commercial.  They start shuffling through our passports and begin the paperwork.  My English and blue passport pull a little weight and they kind of sit up in their seats a bit.  It doesn’t take long for them to notice that I have no visa for Ghana.  They say I can’t enter the country, dramatic pause, unless I buy an emergency visa.  I was seriously for the da da daaa sound effect from somewhere. 

Ok, we knew this was coming, “how much?”  It takes him some time and he looks around which makes me think he isn’t trying to remember how much it is, rather how much he can get from us.  “One hundred and fifty US, and you have to pay another $50 for a guide to Wa (pronounced as it sounds) to get it officially stamped”.


A couple hours later our guide shows up and we're off, another run of the mill 150 min border stop. 

Wa wasn’t that far, maybe 100-115 miles, except that it’s all a dirt road obstacle coarse with washboards that rival LL Cool J in his prime.

Number 2 and 3 on the list made this 2.5 hour trip in the middle of the day bearable.  Malians love to really rock out so the ear plugs helped drain some of that out and dousing the wash cloth with luke warm water and cleaning up a bit made a remarkable improvement.

In Wa our chaperone took us to some offices where we were introduced to his superior.  I wonder sometimes if rank in some of these militaries directly correlates with bribe soliciting abilities.  

His superior was nice enough, except that his exchange rate made the $150 dollar visa more like $190.   But how do you argue with an officer about his exchange rate, plus, his office had air conditioning, so he must have been pretty important.

So that was Wa. 

We drove until about 3 am that night to a city named Kumasi.  Our driver pulled up on a sidewalk on the main road under a street light and slept for a good 3 hours. 

At 6 am we shoved off and headed to Accra, the capital of Ghana. 


This wraps up the highlights of the first half.  The return trip was pretty routine.  We got in a wreck in Kumasi, argued on the side of the road for an hour then waited another five hours to get a side mirror replaced.  Then we found out the guys in Burkina only gave us a single entry visa, even though they knew we were just driving through and then coming back ten days later, so you know, the usual stuff.

In the end, after the projectile vomit and border issues, it was all worth it.  In longer than any of the other coaches at the tournament could remember, a Malian won the boys 16 and under.  By winning the tournament Seydou now qualified to go to the African Cup in April held in South Africa. 

Here’s to roadtrips!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Death and Coping from Across an Ocean

While living in Mali for nearly a year and a half now two relatives of mine have passed away. 

It was over a year ago when I received the first email from my Aunt Connie about  her son, Klayton.  He was a marine and after having served in numerous posts around the world he was stationed in San Diego.  He was a newlywed, having met his wife in the Philippines, and was eagerly awaiting the finalization of her citizenship allowing her to join him in San Diego.  Not long after living back in the US he began having severe back pains.  Numerous trips to the doctor revealed that he wasn’t dealing with a nagging muscle strain rather he had an aggressive cancer that had eaten away one of his vertebra. 

Over the following weeks in-depth tests told us what we all were afraid to hear, the cancer had spread throughout Klayton’s upper-body.  The prognosis was bleak, but he fought hard through some extremely intense treatment. 

How an extremely fit 25 year old marine in good health became overwhelmed with an extremely aggressive cancer is another story.  
(A link to an article written about Klayton:

I exchanged a few emails with Klayton around this time and his spirits were high.  He brushed off what he was going through and asked far too many questions about me.   I was coming to San Diego only a few months later in February for my sisters wedding so we made plans to get together for dinner with our significant others.

That date never came.  Klayton died early in the morning two days after Christmas with his father and his wife by his bed.

The last time I was with Klayton was at a family barbeque at his parent’s home.  I hadn’t seen him since he joined the marines and when we spoke that day I almost didn’t recognize the man he had become.  Part of me will always think of him as my little cousin, this rough and tumble ball of energy always moving, not this well composed incredibly kind man I saw before me.  He was so very content yet had so many plans for the future.  I was, and still am, so proud to call him my cousin. 

Dealing with death…  There is no easy way to handle this process.  Read all the books you like and think you’re prepared, but once it happens the finality proves to be more intense then any recreation you could have planned for.

The news of Klayton’s diagnosis was overwhelming.  He’s my younger cousin, a marine, a newlywed, he’s just starting his life, this can’t be real.  I believe that it is therapeutic to be with family and friends during these times.  People who are all in the same boat and can try to cope together.  My situation was different. 

Klayton’s mother was doing everything she could to inform family members of updates via e-mail, as well as researching possible treatments and making sure Klayton was getting the best care there was.   I read these emails from across an ocean in a tiny computer lab surrounded by people I barely knew.  Fortunately, I had my girlfriend to talk with when I felt like talking or just to sit with me when it all felt like too surreal of an experience to comprehend.

About a week and a half ago I got a phone call from my father.  I just finished lunch and saw that it was an international call so I excused myself and excitedly took it.  The moment I heard his voice I knew this wasn’t a casual call.  Very recently my grandma had been suffering from flu like symptoms but they escalated one night and she was rushed to the hospital.   I don’t have all the details but it seems that after an emergency surgery they discovered cancer throughout her body.   She regained consciousness after the surgery and was cognizant as family from around the state rushed to the hospital as the severity of the situation was apparent.

She wasn’t able to speak, but I’m told she was able to squeeze the hands of her loved ones as they gathered around to offer what they knew to be their final good-byes. 

My grandma died in that hospital bed surrounded by family.

I’ll remember her for always being there.   She never seemed to be in a hurry or needing to be anywhere else.  She’d sit and listen to you, quietly nodding, for as long as you could talk. 

She was a beautiful example of what it means to be silently strong.  She was never going to talk your ear off but she was always there with a cute little smile and her hands crossed gently across her lap.  That night they rushed her to the hospital she was doubled over in pain, but she managed to get dressed and put her make-up on.  She had convictions and she lived by them, until the end.

Death is a part of life; an undeniable fact, that people awkwardly recite in times like these.   I’m not claiming there is an alternate truth, but I do believe quite strongly that it doesn’t help. 

In theory, when a loved one passes on we should celebrate their life and be happy about the times we shared.  Initially that works, but it isn’t long before the reality that there will be no more new memories sets in and the reminiscent smile slowly fades as your eyes well up. 

I wasn’t at Klayton’s funeral.  I wasn’t able to hug his mother, his father, or his wife.  I wasn’t able to grieve that loss with the rest of my family. 

My grandmother’s funeral was last week.  At the time I knew much of my family was gathering to say good-bye I was carrying on with some semblance of my life here.  Nearly any topic would trigger the thought of my family back home. 

I wish I could have held my mom’s hand.  I wish I could have hugged my grandpa. 

It takes courage to say good-bye, to accept this inevitable truth of death.  Coping with family is like standing on the edge of a cliff ready to jump into the water below.  You can’t chicken out and run away because everyone is there with you ready to jump together and while it will be hard, you will all jump, and it will be ok. 

Stepping to the edge of that cliff alone is a different challenge.  No one is there if I decide not to jump.  I can bottle it all up and sneak away and few, if any, will ever know.  But that’s no way to live. 

Life happens.  Sometimes it’s magnificent and sometimes it hurts like hell, but it’s real and it’s happening right now. 

The question that I’ve found the most comfort in is, ‘what would Klayton or my Grandma want me to be doing right now?’  I know they wouldn’t want me to become bitter and angry with how unfair life can be.  They would want me to live and laugh and smile.  

So that's what I'll try to do today and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Parasites, Infections and Diarrhea, Oh My.

For those of you with a weak stomach this may not be the post for you.  Also, if you’re a eat-on-the-go type of person you might want to set aside that bowl of chili before you read any further. 

Before leaving for Africa I had the chance to speak with a couple in their mid 20s who just returned from some missionary work in Kenya.  Their main advice was to be ready for anything as far as ailments go.  The nugget of counsel that stuck with me was when they talked about never really feeling above 80% of their best health.  Turns out they’re right, after this last year It’s amazing how much I appreciate feeling “pretty good”. 

Let’s start from the beginning.

July 10th, 2009, I arrive in Africa happy and healthy weighing a normal 195lbs.  We spent a few days within the protective walls of the Peace Corps training center drinking filtered and bleached water and carefully prepared food. 

Spirits were high; Africa was lovely.

Mid July, after a few days of living with my homestay family I was introduced to what Malians call kono boli, which literally translates as running stomach.   My stomach never ran so fast, or so often.  The pounds began falling off. 

A couple weeks later we all regrouped back at the PC training center to debrief and attend more group sessions.  This also marked the beginning of my courtship of Meg, my current girlfriend.  I’m not sure if was her captivating swagger as she hobbled around on her crutches or how her left foot looked so cute all swollen up to twice it’s size, but I knew there was something special there.  A week before she got a small cut near her ankle that got infected and promptly resulted in a giant club foot/leg situation.  Romance was in the air.

Another week later, back in my homestay village.  My stomach was running more than usual one day and I felt noticeably worse than my normal state of “general malaise” so I went to bed after barely touching my dinner of greasy pasta and gristle. 

I woke up the next morning and felt even worse.  There was a naming ceremony in the village for a family who just had a new baby and I walked across town to hopefully sit in on it.  It was early, and as soon as the ladies busted out the spicy beans I was on my way home as quickly as my emaciated legs could take me.

I laid in bed sweating for about half an hour when I got the call.  My stomach was running, but this time in a different direction.  I threw open my screen door, ran through my families concession, made it to the open-air outhouse type toilets just in time.  Well, just in time not to vomit on one of my little host brothers.  The hole in the ground is difficult enough to strike when all systems are a go, in my sweaty delirious stupor I repainted the floor with what little I had eaten over the last day or so.

I’ll chalk that episode up to some level of food poisoning.  After a visit from our PC Dr. and a day of rehydration salts I was feeling great, back to a solid 65%.

Training finished up in the first half of September and I swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer weighing a strapping 170lbs.  I had surrendered 25 pounds to African acclimatization in two quick months.

Fast -forward about six weeks.  It was the end of October.  I had enjoyed six weeks of semi solid stools and a fair bit of weight gain.  I was nearing 180lbs and feeling great, so great that I took a trip to visit Meg for Halloween.

It was my first chance to explore a different part of Mali and we took advantage of it by going on a great hike up a “mountain” near her village.  We climbed as high as we could and camped there for the night. 

Halfway through our descent the next day we realized that we had grossly underestimated how much water we needed.   We ran out with about 30 minutes of the hike left and once we made it to the tiny village below we were desperate for something wet.  Conveniently, the two “shops” in the village didn’t have any sort of drinks for sale but on our second try the gentle shopkeeper did offer us some water from his calabash.  We inhaled the few cups he gave us and graciously walked away. 

Death by dehydration avoided, but thirst not remotely quenched.  The other catch to this trip was that to get back to her village we had to wait on the side of the road that leads to Timbuktu and try to hitch a ride back into town.

An hour passed and no prospects.  We had a deal with the guy who brought us out there but he wasn’t due for another hour or so.  Lying under a thin veil of shade, I noticed some women taking trips to a well not too far off.  Intense thirst makes a man do crazy things and throwing caution to the wind I took off for that well and a few pulls later I had two nalgenes full of the most beautiful gold colored water I’d ever seen. 

the "toilet"
The next day while I was curled up on Meg’s floor, writhing in pain and unable to keep any trace of fluid in my body I couldn’t help but wonder if chugging that well water was the best idea or not.  

According to our medical handbook, Meg diagnosed me with bacterial dysentery.  I was out of commission for a solid four days, didn't eat a thing, barely kept any fluids down, took approximately 80 trips (not exaggerating) to the "toilet", and lost every ounce of weight I had gained back plus another five to ten pounds. 

I never weighed myself around this time but I’d guess I was around a trim 160-165lbs.  I hadn’t weighed that since my sophomore year in high school.

Then the holidays came, times were good.  It’s truly amazing what our bodies can adjust to and it seemed as if my body was finally getting used to all that Mali had to throw at me. 

So fittingly, it was time to go back to the US for my sister’s wedding.  Seven and a half months of a stripped down diet made all the cheese, dairy and desserts of the US look like heaven.   Unfortunately, the preservatives made my stomach feel like hell because I spent many a night sitting awake with a burning esophagus.  You’d think I’d learn my lesson but our days were numbered in this land o’ plenty and I indulged with no fear of what each night would bring.

A month after returning and my stomach was once again training for a marathon.  This time it was accompanied with comically long sulfur burps.  This meant it was time to send in a stool test.  As if feeling horrible wasn’t enough, we then need to collect some of our feces and place it in a bottle to send off and get analyzed.  The details of this process are reserved for fellow volunteers. 

I thought that one was giardia but it turned out to be amoebas, all those parasites feel the same to me…

Nearly three illness-free months later Meg had a bit of pain one night around what looked like an insect bite near her eye.   We didn’t think much of it until the next morning.   She woke up and her right eye was nearly swollen shut.  It wasn’t too painful for her, which was fortunate because the ailment provided countless joking opportunities. 

Ever since the George Foreman eye there haven’t been any interesting physical impediments to speak of, but just when you get comfortable, Mali sneaks in a sucker punch.

Last week Meg broke out in a rash that covered her entire torso while I had an extremely painful rash type situation concentrated under my arms.  We did go camping the week before, and for better or for worse we’ve become quite calloused to these more tame situations and took care of it ourselves. 

Which brings us to today, and it’s my pleasure to report that we are both in relatively good health. I feel like a body builder at a massive 182 lbs and there are no rashes, parasites, or swollen limbs and my stomach is moving along at a steady gait. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Do You Believe In Miracles" -Al Michaels

After a quick 15 months of waiting sprinkled with rare moments of preparation the unthinkable happened.  

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce to you the members of the inaugural Malian National Tennis Academy. 

Standing from L to R: Moi, Asthar, Samba, Yousef, Bouare.
Kneeling:  Aissita, Gausson. Missing: Abu
Smiling strictly prohibited!

Three weeks ago I received a call informing me that everything was in order to start the academy on the following Monday.  This was the most promising call I had received in many months.  Unfortunately, days later it was followed up with another one notifying me that there were a few problems with the house for the kids and they needed one more week.

Week 2.  Saturday rolled around and I was actually feeling some nerves.  I had the first week of training and conditioning all scheduled and was ready to go.  Yet, as the sun was setting so went my hopes as I heard my phone ring and saw who was calling.  This delay wasn’t accompanied with any reason, just another empty, disheartening postponement. 

A fortnight had passed since our first somewhat believable start date and I fell back into the routine of filling my days with zero realistic expectations of any tennis in the near future.  That week flew by, as many of them have been lately, and the insignificant transition into the weekend brought with it a very inconsequential recognition that I had not yet received that dreaded call advising me that this Monday would once again pass without any tennis. 

It was Sunday afternoon.  I was having an out of body experience.  The final courtesy of being able to count on the promptness of calls informing me of countless delays was being stripped away from me.  I felt violated.

I went on the offensive and made some calls.  Only, I didn’t get any excuses, all I got was “oui, nous commençons demain à 1530.”  For those of you who’s French is only slightly worse than mine, that was a confirmation, we were starting the next day.

I’m obsessively punctual, one of the biggest reasons for much of my frustration here.  Your word is your bond and if you say you’re going to be somewhere and don’t show up on time then to me that’s simply saying something more important than you came up, so sorry.

I arrived at the tennis club 30 minutes early.  Greeted Bouare, the director of the tennis club and the only reason I’ve maintained the sanity to try for so long, and grabbed a seat to reapply some sunscreen.  Not surprisingly, none of the kids had arrived yet.  I asked Bouare if they were all coming today and he reacted with a yes, but then looked puzzled and walked purposefully back into his office.

Ten minutes of listening him yell at his phone later and he came out to talk with me.  “Tyson, we have small problem.”  (Bouare speaks pretty good English, a huge help to me, but also a crutch allowing my French skills to sputter)  “The driver forgot to pick up the kids today.”   Hmm, initially, I thought to myself, isn’t that his main job, as a driver, to drive his clients from one place to another?  What other part of that job could have deterred him from this rather crucial aspect? 

Then, as I’ve learned to maintain a cooler head in moments like this, I rationally deduced that he has probably received all of the scheduling changes that I have and probably thought it unlikely that we’d be starting today, confirmation or no confirmation.   It’s difficult to start a tennis academy without any players, but no big deal, our long wait turned into forever and a day. 

Against all odds, Tuesday came and more shockingly, so did the players.  They actually arrived before me which was a pleasant surprise.   

Stepping onto the court felt surreal.  It’s a strange thing to walk into a day you never thought would come.  In spite of the long and trying road to get there, spirits were high and we had a very productive first day.  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

So I just...sit here?

In a recent e-mail conversation with a friend back in the US I nearly allowed myself to send off a sweeping generalization that was about as negative as it can get.  We’re all friends here so I’ll let you in on the secret, but before I do, in exchange for my barefaced honesty I insist that you read this entire post.  What I about said with little explanation was, drum roll… I don’t like Malians.

After discussing this with my much more level headed girlfriend I realized that was just a tad oversimplified.  My goal here is to explain that frustrating path to enlightenment proving that, in fact, I don’t dislike an entire human population.

My last few posts have highlighted the difficulties I’ve encountered living in Mali.  While I have an endless supply of these trying tales I think you get the picture, no need to beat a dead goat.  Now that I’m here, at the end of my rope, at my wits end, just about to snap, the easy out would be to discard all of Mali’s inhabitants as bad people, therefore justifying my struggles and erasing my shortcomings.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Upon closer inspection I have come to these conclusions.  Bamako has approximately two million citizens and according to the all-knowing Wikipedia is the fastest growing city in Africa, sixth fastest in the world.  99.6 percent of this two million, according to a study I just made up, are of African descent.  An overwhelming majority of that number has little to no outside contact with the rest of the world as we know it.  To be honest, the most attended geography lesson here occurs once every four years during the World Cup. 

What does this mean?  First of all, it’s easy for any single member of a large group of people to blend into the majority and fall victim to the mob mentality.  It’s easier to go with the flow, a universal truth.  Friends of mine who live in smaller villages have had very different experiences than me.  They’re able to spend some time with most of the people that they’ll deal with on a daily basis.  Kids don’t see an odd white stranger walking by, they know their name, their family and probably have had some first hand interaction with them.  The novelty is gone along with any desire to harass and taunt.  This suggests that the mob mentality is alive and well in Bamako.

Secondly, most Malians rarely bump into, let alone converse with, a white western man.  That rate of occurrence is slightly higher than Americans who have reported alien encounters, citation from study referenced above.   Taking this regrettably weak comparison, would it be fair to expect an American who stumbles across an alien to inherently understand and exhibit all of the cultural norms to make that Martian feel at home? 

Now, it’s only fair to discuss the very real flip side of this whole ordeal.   There are many things about the Malian culture that I have the utmost respect for.  At the top of that list is the respect they show for their elders.  The best example of this is when an older Malian man enters an area where many other Malian men and boys are sitting.  Like clockwork, one of the older men, who will undoubtedly have one of the better quality seats, will stand up and offer their chair.  Before that man can turn around one of the teenage boys sitting near him will have gotten up and be replacing his chair with theirs.  Finally, this seat less teenage boy will pick out one of the smaller boys and smack them across the back of the head and tell them to give up their seat.  It’s the circle of life. 

Malians also take time to spend with their friends and family.  One could argue that this is because they don’t have TVs and laptops to steal their attention.  This may be true, but the fact is that they don’t have them now, and whether they know it or not, they don’t act as if they’re missing anything.  Malians have perfected the art of sitting together.  Talk if you wish, but just sitting will suffice as quality time.

One final admiration for their culture is that the idea of imposing doesn’t seem to exist.  This took some getting used to when I was the imposed and not the one doing the imposing.   For example, when I got back to my apartment today three guys were huddled around a meager bowl of rice and some random sauce.  It wasn’t much but they didn’t think twice to invite me to eat.  I kindly turned them down but even if I had accepted their offer they’d gladly share what little they had.  On this same topic a Malian house call is as welcomed and nearly as frequent as an American teenage girl texting her friends, LOL.   Plus, there is no pre call to get an ok for the drop by, you just drop by, and if no one answers the door you drop in, maybe sit around for a while, it’s no big deal. 

So to put some more rational thought, sans emotion, behind my opening point; there are aspects of Malian culture that have been very difficult to accept and given my American background coupled with a slightly stubborn personality I believe there are some aspects that I will probably never adopt as natural.   And for the first time I’m ok with that.

I’m going to finish this one with a call to action.  One of the more annoying aspects of living in the big city is that I am constantly the recipient of a ruthless scream of “Toubob!” from onlookers as I bike by.  Over the last week I’ve been counting and have figured that I receive an average of 15 of these a day.  For you first time readers out there Toubob roughly translates to white person.  All Asian American volunteers are affectionately called Chinois and little kids practice their Kung Fu on them.

For the next month or so I am going to have a goal of stopping at least once a day when I hear that lovely Toubob catcall.  I’ll have a short conversation with the group of kids, teenagers and sometimes adults.  I’ll introduce myself, learn their names and after reiterating my name I’ll tell them that they can call me by my name so they don’t have to scream Toubob anymore when I drive by. 

On any given day I drive by hundreds of different people so I’m not expecting to never again hear Toubob as I drive by, but I will track the change and put weekly updates here on the blog so get excited!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is The Grass Always Greener?

Eighteen months ago I was anxious to the point of a nervous breakdown.  Soon I’d be leaving for Mali and my great African experience could finally begin but I couldn’t help but feel claustrophobic stuck in the center of the US.  I was working, coaching and spending quality time with my family but these were all selfish obligations that were stealing precious moments that could be spent with people who really needed me. 

I can vividly remember a brisk day in the spring before my departure when my dad and I were out playing tennis.  The summer hadn’t gotten around to stealing that frosty bite from the air that slurs your speech, but in Nebraska, that’s still outdoors weather.   After hitting around for a bit I met my dad at the net and told him that no matter how hard I try, my thoughts are consumed by the belief that I could be doing something “more important” with my time.  The very metaphorical greener pastures of Africa were calling and effectively drowning out every meaningful experience I was having.

Eighteen months later and here I am, coincidentally recovering from an eerily karmic near nervous breakdown, sitting in my apartment in Mali counting down the days to a trip back to the US for the holidays.  The greener pastures are once again calling, but somehow they hopped back across the Atlantic. 

Wait a second; let’s break this down.   In the US, I was guilt ridden, had more amenities then I knew what to do with and couldn’t help but feel like I single handedly was causing 3rd world poverty every time I started my car or sat in air conditioning.  Now, I’m living in said 3rd world country, frustrated with how difficult it is to get any work done, admittedly missing some creature comforts and now I yearn for the overwatered green lawns of the US. 

Where is the balance?  This cycle can’t continue or my sanity won’t.

Let’s go back to the source:  The infinite search for greener pastures.  How about we just put that myth to bed right now, because most of the soccer fields here are dirt and the lawns back home are chemically induced, over-watered and comically green.  Here’s the kicker, kids swarm to the rocky dirt soccer fields here with the same passion that western kids flock to the finely manicured fields in their hometowns.   What gives?

I’ve realized, it’s not a green (or brown) oasis they’re chasing, it’s the idea of what they can do there that is universally alluring. 

Now, is it possible to translate that to life after recess?  Probably not, but what else have I got to do?

It’s taken me over a year but I’ve finally been able to pick out some of the “greener” aspects of living at such opposite ends of the spectrum. 

Let’s start with Mali.  The biggest green patch here, that can potentially rival all of the stadiums in the US, is the gift of time.  Time, you remember, that thing that babies wallow in yet immaturely squander because they don’t realize how soon their schedules are going to fill up with preschool and play dates followed by kindergarten, piano lessons, soccer practice and summer camps.  No need to go further because by middle school free time is a concept too distant to comprehend.   Yet in Mali, there is time to read, to take walks, to spend an afternoon in the park (not a typo, I’ve only found one), etc.

It’s taken me a year to figure out how to productively fill my own days and weeks with personal activities I find mentally stimulating.  A skill that I believe will prove valuable.

Now, back to the motherland.  The American media machine scares me and is what I believe leaves a bad taste in my mouth every time I'm Stateside.  If the American media machine were a Goonie it’d be a combination of Data’s mind boggling inventions and Sloth’s brut force and boyish good looks. (I forgot that Josh Brolin was Mikey’s older brother Brand).

Considering this monsters force it’s far too easy to get caught up in Lady Gaga’s trendy fashions or worry about what’s going to happen next week on Glee.  It too often effectively replaces individual thought instead of posing as what it really is, a mere suggestion.

But the truth is in America I am still a human living on this earth capable of making my own decisions.  Yes, there are more of them and I need to be a little more informed when attempting to make the most responsible choices.  So if I want my pumpkin spice latte then I should be willing to spend a few minutes figuring out where this coffee is imported from and if this cup I’m drinking out of is biodegradable.

Let’s see, my grand conclusion… 

Greener pastures are a state of mind not an illusive magical problem free sanctuary.  For me that pot o' gold is being ok with who I am, where I am, what I’m trying to do and going from there. 

This isn’t easy. 

I am who I am at this present moment and there is no reason to feel neither pride nor guilt in the face of this fact.  There are decisions to be made today and sitting around feeling proud of my past accomplishments won’t alleviate them any more than guilt over previous failures should hamper them.

It’s a difficult thing but we should all heed the advice of the great philosopher Garth Algar from Wayne’s World and try everyday to “LIVE IN THE NOW!!”