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!!”