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!!”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lost in the Shuffle

Disclaimer:   The words here are my personal thoughts and observations.  They in no way represent the beliefs or policies of the Peace Corps. 

A little background that will be relevant for this post:  my service here is assisting the Malian Tennis Federation.  I’m going to avoid trying to define that because that definition has proved to be an ever evolving entity that I've yet to grasp. 

A few months ago I went to Senegal for a boys and girls West African tennis tournament.  Not surprisingly, the results by country closely mirrored that of their respective GDPs. 

The day before the tournament started I was walking around and saw a kid practicing that was almost half the size as some of the other kids in the youngest division.  He was like a mini Nadal out there playing every point with the intensity of a Wimledon final.  I just figured he was someone’s kid and didn’t think much more of it. 

The next day the matches were posted: First round, boys 12 and under, Mali v Mauritania.  Perfect, as I watch my guy maybe that kid will be watching his older brother play and I can ask him a few questions.  The two kids from Mali playing in the 12 and unders were a couple of the smallest kids in the draw; that is until I was wrong about the kid from Mauritania being someone’s little brother. 

Long story short, the kid was beyond impressive and he was only 10 years old.  Not only did he have the skills and the racket head speed he was a natural out there.  He knew how to move, how to anticipate and in tight moments he was visibly more excited for the fight which is a rare quality at any age.  Plus, he’s a lefty; he truly was a tiny Nadal.

Ok, where are we going with this?

Fast forward to the end of the tournament.  The director of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) for West Africa was handing out a few teaching materials to all of the coaches and I stepped into his room to say goodbye as the coach from Mauritania was coming in. 

Our paths were about to cross and we started that uncomfortable ‘who’s going which way’ dance, only I realize that he’s trying to get in my way.  The Mauritanian coach is about a foot shorter than me and was extremely soft spoken and modest throughout the tournament so this human roadblock move was very unexpected.  He tells me in French that he wants Peace Corps to send a tennis coach to Mauritania.  I try to tell him that the Peace Corps has recently suspended their program in Mauritania due to some security concerns (in broken French).  I tell him that I will talk to my office in Bamako and let them know of his request. 

I step aside as he makes his way to the ITF director and before I take my first step to the door this tiny man grabs me firmly just above my elbow and pulls me towards the director seated across the room.   The roadblock move was a shock, the grab and pull is like an out of body experience.  He demands that the director translate to make sure that I understand.  The problem wasn’t that I didn’t understand him rather I welcomed our language barrier because my French isn’t good enough to explain how unlikely it is that if/when the Peace Corps reopens their program in Mauritania that they’ll have another tennis coach ready to go. 

The Moroccan ITF director kindly explained that I understood and that I’ll do whatever I can.  I smiled awkwardly, as I often do in uncomfortable situations, but there was something troublesome with how the interaction concluded.   The coach had a look on his face like that of a child who has received one too many empty promises.  He knows not to get his hopes up.  He has a player with all the potential in the world and he knows that without some outside help this kid will only go so far.  There’s nothing else I can do.  I walk away.

That’s the part you don’t think about before coming here, the times you can’t help.   I’ve been here a year and have had my fair share of hopes dashed.  Kids I thought I was really going to be able to help, but for one reason or another, things haven’t worked out and you just have to deal with it. 

Yes, one could argue that my interaction with them is an improvement in itself for these kids, but it isn’t as good as what I thought I was going to be able to do and I’m not in the mood to get cheered up so we’ll just leave that point lie.

My current hopes:  Rumor has it that we’ll be starting the Malian National Tennis Academy and I'll be the technical director.  I’ve even seen a budget and heard that the money actually exists.  If that day ever comes I’m excited about the tennis knowledge that I’ll be able to share with the first batch of kids and the coaches.  But, I’m more excited to have some kids on a regular basis and begin to teach them punctuality (which is very unpopular here), respect, responsibility, and a hard work ethic.   Qualities that will serve them much longer than their tennis games will. 

Ok, let’s wrap this up with a small tangent.

It’s not uncommon for returned volunteers to go back and as a part of their transition to grad school or the work force help with recruiting future Peace Corps volunteers.  It’d be unfortunate if my honesty here were to make me an unlikely candidate for that job.  But, I think it’s more of a disservice to perpetuate warm and fuzzy lies about dancing through wheat fields hand in hand with host country nationals at sunset.  Yes, there are euphoric surreal experiences but there are also times that are beyond frustrating and it’s important to mentally prepare for both.

I’m trying to find some value in this venting.  While it’s therapeutic for me I think there can also be some benefit for people living and working elsewhere.  To be honest I don’t know what that may be right now, maybe that’s where you can help me find some clarity. 

I know that my last few posts haven’t been overly positive.   The truth is if I needed to leave Mali, the Peace Corps could have me on a plane in 48 hours.  But, this is where I feel I need to be right now, as I trust that there is some value in the work that I’m failing to do. 

About all of his unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

At the end of all of this I will definitely have my 10,000 ways not to get work done and there will be some value in that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Webster's Defines Job as...

If a problem falls in the desert, but there is no one around to worry about it, does it really exist?

Poverty, hunger, disease in 3rd world countries, these are bad things right?  I recently heard a section of a speech from President Obama on BBC radio where he said something to the effect of “it’s time we start helping and urging these struggling countries to develop sustainable ways to support themselves instead of supporting a dependence on long term aid”, basically the idea where instead of giving a man some food you teach him to fish so everyday for the rest of his life he has a reason to go sit on a boat and drink beer.

Drunken fishing stories aside, yes Barack, most will agree that this is a great idea, but where nearly everyone will differ is with the how.   

Spoiler alert, I don’t have any genuine answers to the big "how" question and I'm not sure Barack does either.  To be honest, after experiencing a year of the development game I've come to the conclusion that anyone who gives you a definitive recipe for how to fix a struggling area is either lying or trying to impress someone.

So the best I can do for you is to sum up my first year as an optimistic Peace Corps volunteer who was ready to fix Africa but realized that the illusive "how" is more complex than simple good intentions.  After a few months in the lost-in-a-temporary-black-hole-of-despair stage I've now progressed to the realistically-hopeful-and-optimistically-jaded (no plug intended) for the small fraction of this life that I do understand.

Just over a year ago I got off the plane in Mali.  At this point I could write all about the expectations I had leading up to that moment and if you were to just imagine the exact opposite then you’d have a good understanding of my last 14 months.

Let’s break this down:

Misconception Number 1: I exit the plane and place my first foot on African soil, (Imagine an over dramatic inner dialogue voice with a slight echo) “People of Mali, at ease for I am here to solve all of your problems!” 
Lesson Learned: Shockingly, I soon find out that they have figured out how to live before I’ve been able to impart all of my wisdom on them.  As a matter of fact, I soon realize that the village style of living is more self-sufficient then the average American’s.  Small speed bump. 

Misconception Number 2:  (Same voice from above) “That’s ok, I realize you had to find a way to make do until I could arrive, but now I’m here, let’s get started with the Q&A.” 
What would you do if let’s say a friendly Chinese fellow arrived in your office and shortly after the awkward introduction started informing you of better ways to run your business?  Even if he's coming with the best of intentions, he's still Chinese, you're still American, cultural wise it's comparing apples to oranges, fried rice to fried chicken.  
Lesson Learned:  Most people are not going to jump at something just because it's new.  A lesson I learned the hard way when I lost a small fortune investing in Pepsi Clear.

Misconception Number 3:  (No longer standing high on pedestal, similar inner voice, remove echo)  “Ok, ok, I accept that you have certain ways you like to do things, but you must agree that there are some problems so let’s fix them.”
Lesson Learned:  Forget all the fixin' talk, wait a ridiculous amount of time, and finally piece together what I and my Malian colleagues collectively believe the problem to be.  For example, I see a leaky roof and start thinking of ways to patch it up whereas my Malian friends might just tell me to just find somewhere else to sit.

Misconception Number 4:  Six months in, initial expectations shattered along with good portion of ego, but I now have fit myself into a small niche where they have specifically asked for help and I know I am qualified to do so. “Here is my proposal for what we need to change and how we’re going to move forward.”  They love it and want to get started immediately.  Yes!  The time has come we’re really going to start making some improvements.  Six months later we’re just about to get going. 
Lesson learned:  Be patient.  And here I thought two years in Africa was excessive.

To sum up in the simplest terms, I was under the naive impression that this would be easy.  Yeah, the living conditions would be hard and the language barrier frustrating but the satisfaction of a job well done in a place that can really use the help would surely erase all of those mild discomforts.  Little did I know the main discomfort would be spending the first year attempting to redefine the word “job”. 

I’m not sure what the point is here and maybe that is the point.  It’s easy to feel lost.  Everything I thought I knew has either transformed or is not relevant to this daily life.  Sometimes I feel like that kid in the cartoon, confused, frustrated, scared. 

If I could go back in time and give the Tyson of 15 months ago some advice it'd be, "assume you know nothing, then slowly start from there."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Look, I just want some tomatoes!

I have lived in a few different countries and adjusting to other cultures is always a bit of a challenge but Mali has raised the bar to a level I never could have imagined. 

Reason numero uno.  I now believe that I understand why all the pretty celebrities in the US freak out on the paparazzi.  Let's take today for example.  I load up my bike and backpack with everything I think I'll need for the day, lock up my apartment and head out.  The people inside my apartment "courtyard" are used to me so we just go through the mindless greetings that are expected in Mali;  good morning, how'd you sleep, how's your family, how are your kids (even though they know I have none), how's your woman, may Allah bless your day, boom I'm out. 

That was relatively painless but I'm not even out of my apartment building yet.  The moment my front tire breaks the daylight outside I'm spotted by some kids playing nearby.  "Toubob, Toubob, Toubob!!" (white person).  A couple kids chase me for a while trying to grab the luggage rack on the back of my bike.  I shake them off and make it to the main road and after the deathly game of frogger I get across and am on my way.  While riding I'm surprised if I ever make it more than 50 yards without someone yelling Toubob at me, just to point out that yes, I am a white man, thanks for that info. 

Now I'm riding with all the cars and motos, we're moving pretty quickly so the jeering from the pedestrians gets muffled with the wind and traffic noises.  Probably every fifth moto that passes me yells Toubob as they go by; phew, thanks buddy, I forgot for a second there.  I try really hard to avoid responding to the calls of Toubob as I don't want to reinforce that behavior, but sometimes I can't resist and I yell Farafine (black person) back at them, then we both look at eachother for a while, they laugh at me and I leave. 

A few times I've walked around some neighborhoods with a few Malian friends of mine from the tennis club and as expected a minute doesn't go by before some kids give me the Toubob heckle and they kind of laugh along with them.  Then as we continue to walk and the verbal assault on me continues they start to realize how annoying it is and start to defend me.  I've come to the conclusion that people see me ride by once that day and yell and then their day continues, what they don't realize is that this treatment never stops for me.  I swear, if I ever see Brangelina in a vegan friendly restaurant I am going to ignore them as best I can!

So yes, some days I feel like freaking out in a way that would make Brittney look like Mother Theresa but the fact of the matter is that we American volunteers are novelties here and with a population that does not have many outlets to the world I'll cut them some slack.  Plus, the Malians are always good sports when I give it back.

The other issue that continues to upset me on a regular basis is MONEY!  More specifically, the amount of bills and change circulating in Mali are disproportionate to what's needed here.  Here's a quick breakdown of common items and what they roughly cost in cents/dollars:

500 cfa = 1 dollar

3 tomatoes:                       20 cents
1 onion:                            10 cents
1 cucumber:                     10 cents
1 egg:                               15 cents
5 bananas:                        50 cents
1 apple:                            45 cents
12" loaf of bread:              40 cents
1 can of houmous:             1.20 dollars
small bag of cashews:        1 dollar
1 bar of soap                    20 cents
bottle of beer:                   1 dollar

This is how this scenario plays out.  I go to the ATM to get some money, I take out about a hundred dollars but it all comes in the equivalent of 20 dollar bills.  Shit!  Now, let's take yesterday as an example.  Meg and I were going to have houmous for lunch so after a meeting I had in the morning I tried to find some cucumbers and tomatoes on my ride back.  Finding any vegetables during the day is a feat in itself and once I did I was ecstatic.  I pull over, pick out a nice cucumber, 3 tomatoes and I throw in a couple onions to round it off to 50 cents.  As I reach for my wallet the clouds roll in and it gets eerily dark because I think I only have big bills.  My wallet opens in slow motion like I'm slowly cracking a door I believe to be hiding a mass murderer.  Just as I peak my head around the axe hits me square between the eyes, it's a $20.  I hold it out with a stupid look on my face, I've been here a year and know what this means.  She laughs and just puts the veggies back down knowing that we don't need a verbal response here, that produce is going nowhere.

Fast forward to that evening.  If I've learned anything it's to have backup plans here and then a backup for that backup.  So on my way home I plan to go buy a few bigger things at an actual grocery store with a roof near my apartment.  I get there, pick out about 3 dollars worth of items and head to the cash register.  The clerk adds up the total and I hand him the 20 acting like it's no big deal.  He stares blankly at me and just says "no money".  I know for a fact that he has change, plus I can see it in the mirror behind him.  So I plead for some small bills but he says "no, take the food, pay me tomorrow".  Small consolation as I was planning on taking that change and getting some veggies.  Frustrated, I took my food and stood by my bike, staring out at nothing.  I ran out of options.  At that point I was upset with the entire country of Mali and knew that nothing good would come from any other interactions I might have so I went home to piece together dinner.

If anyone reading this knows why this lack of small bills exists I would be very interested to hear.  I'm assuming that by printing an equal amount of all bills more money can be printed without having to print a higher number of actual bills.  By the same logic, I would also assume that making coins costs more than bills once again resulting in a shortage.