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.

Monday, September 13, 2010

An E True Maliwood Story. Trash: The Revolting Route Back to the Dinner Table

   Have you hugged your garbage man this week? If not, I suggest you go out and buy a nice card, maybe one of those that sing a happy little ditty when you open it, and wait by your curb this week to thank the man that keeps the veil over your eyes because we’re about to take a journey that is going to make you very grateful that that man exists.

   It’s a cozy September night in Bamako, rainy season is still going strong and judging by the intensifying breeze coming through my window another storm may be on the way. The sweat soaked nights of dry season are a distant memory and this cool air doesn’t allow me to read for long before I start to doze off. My eyes are getting heavy and just as I drift off a flicker of light catches my eye. Is this soft strobe light a dream? No, the realization and disappointment set in before the stench, this night of sleep is going to be ushered in by the pungent choking bouquet of burning trash outside my window. 

   There are a number of paths that our trash takes here and all of them happen right before our eyes. It was during this most recent attempt to gas me out of my apartment that I realized I was holding back some intense eye/nostril opening experiences.  So sit back and relax as we embark on this photographic trash trail.

Option A:  Trash Potpourri
The photo on the right was taken about 50 yards down the “road” from my apartment. Here you will notice some potpourri dishes similar to the ones sitting just outside my window. I believe the ones in the background have reached capacity. It truly is amazing what we as humans can adjust to. For example, in the beginning when the deadly aroma of burning trash wafted through my window I wasn’t sure if I should worry more about the blood coming out of my nose or the uncontrolable gag reflex that it was summoning, and now I'm in the final stages with Yankee Candle on a new fragrance.  One man's trash is truly another man's chance to capitalize on a lucrative new product.

Possibility Number 2:  Private Entrepreneurs

This is one of the four "trash recepticles" immediately below my window.  The one these two boys are going through inspired the candle scent 'burnt plastic on a hot night' which has recently caused a rather viscious bidding war.  I call these children entrepreneurs because they are just that.  The big ticket item is plastic bottles.  Small roadside shops, or even ladies with a cooler, will pay kids a pittance for these bottles as they will then wash them out and refill them with some incredibly sugary juices that they will sell for 10-20 cents.
So recycling in Mali was en vogue even before Cameron Diaz started Trippin'  (That MTV show in 2005 where she was taking eco-friendly trips with her closest friends.   Apparently there were no pilates instructors and they had to pack their own bags... It's truly amazing the strain these stars will put themselves under to help save mother earth!)

The Third Way:  Donkey Cart Rubbish Removal
This is actually pretty cool.  I'd say the closest thing there is here to a garbage truck that I've seen.  I believe that apartment complexes or individual houses will pay these guys a small amount to come collect their trash every now and then.  These two aren't actually in the garbage business but the elusive donkey garbage cart has proved too be too rare a phenomenon for me to catch on camera.

Which brings us to the dump.  From previous posts you may remember that there is a soccer field right in front of this particular garbage destination.  The difficult part here is determing which aspect of this photo is the most disturbing; all of the plastic that won't be biodegrading for quite some time or that one of my rare sources of protein happens to be dining on the city's refuse.  I'll let you chew on that dillema for a while.

Scenario E:  Rain Rain, Take it Away.
Growing up in the USA, I was never faced with the question, "what if no one came to pick up the trash?"  This photo was taken a block from my apartment and it is just one strip of the spiderweb of open sewers that handle Bamako's water/waste distribution needs. 

My Veggie Lady! 
Maybe a few hundred yards down the road is where we buy most of our vegetables.  The main players in this picture are Diarra, our veggie lady, Meg, notice the reusable cloth bag, and Shaka, the made up name I gave to that baby strapped to his mom's back.  What adds some spice to this scenario is the open sewer a solid 4 feet away from dinner.  This was taken at the height of rainy season so the sewer is normally about half full except during some of the harder rainstorms when most of them overflow and I'll let your imagination finish that sentence.  A number of friends have fallen victim to the extremely unfortunate slip or misguided step landing them knee deep in an excrement cocktail. 

Unfortunately these sewers don't run off into a magical land where trash and waste is turned into gum drops and peanut clusters, respectively.  The trash washes up somewhere and then it turns into another problem for whomever seems to have picked the wrong place to pitch their tent.

Hmmm.  First, I'm a little upset because it looks like he didn't read my first post because that urine is marigold at best meaning he could be a good 2 litres short of his needed water intake for the day.  And B, public water areas are used for many different reasons such as transport, washing clothes, cleaning pots and bathing so taking a wiz two feet from shore is a big slap in the face to everyone in the area.  Not to mention the fish that is caught and served directly at all the local restaurants.

MMMMM, fresh fish!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How I got here

This post is going to act as the prequel to my first post. It may have been presumptuous to jump into things without first sharing how I’ve arrived at these thoughts myself. So to give you some perspective, currently I am living in Bamako, Mali, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Let’s go back a few years. I was working for a tennis management company that placed me in some of the most beautiful resorts around the world. Short version, I was playing tennis in paradise with some very interesting people for a living. Shortly after joining this company I became a vegetarian and to be honest I couldn’t tell you why. I had all the stock answers that I had heard regurgitated a hundred times but there was no truth behind my conviction. Some people that I admired were veggies and I liked their reasons so I jumped on the bandwagon.

Life continued in this fashion for about three years and then I was posted in Abu Dhabi, just up the road from their more popular neighbor Dubai. While there my fellow associates were from all over the world but to focus on where I’m headed my main influences over the next 9 months were from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Somalia. Getting to know them first as fellow employees and soon as friends our conversations quickly went to their homes. They were interested in my life in the US and I even more so in theirs. I couldn’t help but feel dejected after learning of their struggles and a bit guilty of my now seemingly charmed life. As many of the important decisions of my life began this one started one day when I was whining about how it isn’t fair what some people have to deal with and a British guy I worked with at the hotel beautifully lived up to their upfront no bullshit stereotype by simply saying, “why don’t you do something about it instead of ruining my lunch with all this whining?” That afternoon I was on the Peace Corps website and my application was in a week later.

Returning home that summer to await my deployment details probably marks my all time high in annoyingness. I was always a bit of a pain in the ass when it came to others being wasteful and environmentally irresponsible with many decisions but now I had an invite to Africa for two years of volunteering to back up my self righteousness. I thank my parents for putting up with me as every meat based meal or extra lawn watering turned into a mini lecture, they found patience and humored me.

Let’s jump ahead six months into my time in Mali. It’s difficult to sum up what it’s like to live here as many volunteers agree that it’s nearly impossible to find the words to describe this experience. For a long time I didn’t even try to illustrate my thoughts and feelings because I didn’t have a clue myself. Imagine being overwhelmed with feelings both good and bad, guilty and grateful, eager yet petrified and you want to make some sense of it all, mull it over with the people back home that know you, but you don’t even know where to begin with a description. Those first six months were about as confusing as they get for me. I came here to help, but now I don’t know how, wonder why, and know that they don’t want the type of help that I thought they needed.

The slate was wiped clean. Over the following nine months leading up to today everything I thought I knew was torn to shreds. I had this cocky little “I have interesting environmental facts to make you feel bad about yourself” walk and then it felt so embarrassingly ridiculous that at times I have felt ashamed sitting with people here. What I was doing before, the way I thought things needed to be done to make life better for people here was, to sum it up in one word, na├»ve. In my defense, my intention was never to make people feel bad about themselves or the lives they led. The problem was that I was getting the beginning and ending of the story, I knew the issues and then I saw the final data and not knowing how to do anything about it made me frustrated so I would recite these stats as a reflex hoping that somehow it would magically make a change.

This brings us up to speed with the change of my blog title. One of the nagging realizations during all of this has been that after initially being overwhelmed with this new definition of poverty I couldn’t help but notice that most people here seem quite content with what they have. It was confusing and almost upsetting to see that they are just as happy, and in many cases happier, than many people I have spent time with in the US or in other first world countries I’ve lived in. I laugh with the adults, play sports with the kids, and get extremely upset with the children when they hold on to the back of my bike regardless of their financial status. They don’t want my pity. They’re still living their lives whether I feel sorry for them or not.

So what is my take on all of this now? What do I believe? What are the problems and how do we help? I don’t know.. I don't disbelieve what I said before and I now have my own convictions for wanting to be environmentally responsible with my decisions. Now I have a better perspective of how the decisions I make effect my friends here and all over the world in struggling areas. So while at times it may look bleak, it just takes seeing a kid who seemingly has nothing yet won't stop smiling to convince me that it's worth trying. I guess that's what I believe.