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.

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