Il faut dire merci a la vie pour ce qu'elle nous donne.

We have to say thank you to Life for what She gives us.

- Pierre Rabhi -

January 25, 2011

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January 18, 2011

In the States I didn't know

In the States I didn't know
that statistics correspond to breathing,
living people.
that poverty is a crime
we all perpetrate.

In the States I didn't know
women who have their genitals cut.
Here it is almost every woman I pass.

In the States I didn't know
people whose houses are burnt down
and they are left with nothing -
not a bank account or back-up plan or asset
just the clothes on their back, the
love of a community and the
strength in generations of knowing that
to HAVE is not to BE
Here my best friend rebuilds his charred home
of sun-dried clay bricks and stones.

In the States I didn't know
couples who have lost their children
to things like
diarrhea malnutrition malaria
Here, in the past week I have talked to two
couples who have buried three babies each.

In the States I didn't know
people with
goiters birth defects infected wounds
that go untreated, uncured.
Here I wonder if my offering of aspirin or rubbing alcohol
acknowledgment or empathy
really helps.

In the States I didn't know
people who, without warning,
lose their minds to paranoia, schizophrenia, insanity
speaking tongues or empty words to no one at all
- or to the self they have somehow lost -
Here it happened to my brother in one day – today – Eid-Al-Adha – Tabaski –
The day of Sacrifice
(who knew he would sacrifice his mind?)

In the States
we say such occurrences are cases of
falling through the cracks
of a safety net
a social welfare system
a health care system
a government infrastructure

I didn't know
that in some places
there are no cracks.
there is no net at all.

In the States I didn't know
We don't even see these people falling.

there is a hidden violence

there is a hidden violence i never recognized
til now
it was lurking somewhere
i could sense it was there that
feminine intuition

like every Body in soft or hardened skin
round or dried breasts
and the curvature of life giving hips

i couldn't understand why no one
ever cared to surface this thing
shove it in my face
(and all our faces)
and demand

but now I understand that no one
could force me to open my eyes
my ears
my heart

it is me alone

it is all of us alone who must surface this hate
this hidden violence

turn off the mute
awaken the hushed whispers to a red-glow rant

be it detroit, darfur, rome or beijing

a Woman in her in her soft or hardened skin
round or dried breasts
and life giving hips
is worth the voice she is given
the thoughts she births
the soul she was born unto

we must give life back to her as she
gives to the world

Paying for Attention

I sit at a table, hands beading sweat in nervousness, a white twenty-four-year-old American amongst mostly middle-aged African men. Many of the Malian women here bear small children wrapped tightly to their backs with bright West African fabric, most making themselves look small and unassuming at the periphery of this conference. I want to ask them a question that will undoubtedly elicit a response that makes my stomach knot. A white banner streams in the background, half-lit by the brutal sun under a canopy of mango trees, bearing the words “Espacement de Naissance et Planification Familiale” – Birth Spacing and Family Planning. To my right sits a thick-spectacled, weathered man – an Imam, or Muslim spiritual leader. On the other side, a female radio-journalist. Across from me is a traditional medicinal healer, next to him the mayor and a local doctor. I look at these men and women and want to ask:

“How many children have you lost in your lifetime?”

Many couples here would respond with a figure around two or three, all children who died in the first few years of their lives or during birth.

“How many of you have sisters, mothers, wives, friends who died during childbirth?”

According to Amnesty International, every ninety seconds a woman somewhere in the world dies giving birth.

But before I can ask these questions, I am met with a question of their own: “When do we get paid for being here?”

Every one of the more than 120 people assembled here will receive the equivalent of 10 US dollars per day to be asked these questions. We are paying for their attention, because otherwise, in this patronage-based, foreign aid- and colonialism-corrupted system we have helped to create, many would not be present.

Everyone here has a different price tag for their attention – a certain sum to permit them to think about the fact that many girls here give birth to their first child around the age of 14, that often they will become pregnant again soon after giving birth and may have well over five children in their lifetime, and that very few will do so at anything resembling a modern medical facility.

Later I will meet with a group of media representatives, and they will burst with excitement about radio programs on maternal health and family planning, only to have half of them refuse to return our phone calls when they learn we will not pay for their programs.

A few of the Muslim leaders will tense up and stop listening when they hear we will not pay them to meet with us.

Public officials and even midwives will stir up a frenzy when they learn that their per diem is no greater than that of those lower down the hierarchical ladder.

Too many will retract their attention when it is not paid for, and I fear their sisters and daughters will continue to suffer the consequences.

But then the eldest of the Muslim leaders stands up in his group, insisting that it is Allah's will to protect our wives and daughters. He will inspire the group to lead mass prayers on the importance of maternal nutrition and birth spacing.

A male radio-journalist scorns his colleagues for having their interests in their pockets, rather than in the public good. He will launch a 3-month media campaign on family planning, and others will follow.

A doctor will emerge from the mass of his resistant colleagues and offer to donate his time and effort to train village-based health workers.

A nonprofit will put on a film and theater sketch on contraceptive use to the public, free of charge.

And, one by one, we will reconstruct this system into one where we all freely and passionately pay attention to the lives of women. My hands no longer sweat anxiously, and I hope that some day, the knot in my stomach will be gone.

October 26, 2010

The Barefoot Ascent

In an effort to rekindle friendships long neglected, I beckoned my friends Eric, Arthur and Owen to come escape to the cliffs of Dogon country for some rock climbing and star gazing. Arthur packed us and my Malian friend/tour guide Emile “Le Gros” into his car, and we bounded down the rocky road to Sangha—perhaps the most touristed place in Mali. We descended the cliffs to Banani, past the swaths of children yelling “Toubabu, donne moi un cadeau!” (“White Person, give me a present!”), and swept over to Emile’s maternal home village, Irili. It turns out that the centuries-old sandstone cliffs, dotted with incredibly perplexing ancient Tellem graves and dwellings, do not make the best climbing spots—at least not to amateurs with untrained eyes like ourselves. The folklore about how these cliff dwellings came do be range from claims that the Tellem ethnic group could fly, to accounts of ancient multi-story treetops that have since been deforested. Regardless, spending a few days analyzing how to climb these rocks gives you a profound respect for the Tellem.

A testament to things not always being what they seem—or rather to Malians saying what you want to hear as opposed to what is real—we followed the trail of crumbs to this village where we had been told it was possible to rent climbing gear, and upon our request for shoes, were presented with a pair of sad, tattered loafers, oversized even for our large American feet. We politely refused, resigning ourselves to the probability of us not being able to climb at all. But, as custom would entail, we went to greet the village chief with a standard offering of kola nuts, and he welcomed us eagerly by insisting he show us the best spot to climb, for which we would not need shoes.

We wandered up through the village, past the bleating goats and rock houses and thatched mud granaries to the base of the cliff, just as the sun was flirting with the horizon. The chief pointed up to a ledge a pitch off the ground—a wall most undesirable for climbing considering the fact that it was spotted with these ancient habitations, ceramic remnants and bones—and indicated a small wooden stick, forked at the tip, to which he intended for us to attach a top rope. (A bit of context: these cliffs are most often considered sacred, and many are the unknowing tourists who have been reprimanded for treading upon this untouchable ground) Naturally, we were perplexed, and once again politely refused the chief’s proposal, even after his offer to ascend first.

The next morning we woke to the cries and bleating of donkeys, sheep, goats and children, under the majesty of these cliffs, and knew at once that a lack of shoes couldn’t keep us from the climb. We set out in tennis shoes and flip flops to find an alternate site—one free of historical and archaeological significance—and packed up our gear. So many rock faces with backyard passageways winding between them, and almost nowhere to climb. These walls are pocked and slit through with ledges and overhangs, like an old wrinkled face, too worn over the ages by sun and rain. After splitting into smaller groups and exploring for over two hours, Eric rambling back and forth between us in the hot sun, barefoot marauder that he is, like a shepherd dog trying to keep track of us wandering sheep, Arthur finally sounded the call that he had found an acceptable site.

We tied off the top rope and dropped it down, got into our harnesses and prepped for the climb. The first climb at a new site here always makes me nervous; my internal ‘caution’ sign constantly blinking a reminder that I am not immortal, and that I am, in fact, in Africa. Nonetheless, I geared up and offered to climb first, dipping my moist fingers into the chalk bag dangling at the small of my back. After the first few grips proved to endure my weight, I more confidently reached for the sky. But, as hubris would entail, a few seemingly sturdy grips crumbled upon force, raining down small bits of sandstone. Nothing to panic about, but enough to make belayers and bystanders beware.

We each got in a couple of climbs, and our itch was satisfied. After all, a less than ideal climbing wall could hardly supersede the daring beauty of the place, us tucked in the remote mouth of this strange country we call home, without a care in the world.

Our nights were spent sipping scathing African whiskey from the little plastic sachets we have grown a love-hate relationship to, staring at the night sky and sharing our lives and dreams. I hadn’t felt this alive in months.

If I learned one thing it would be this: If the shoe doesn’t fit, go barefoot.

April 13, 2010

Planting Trees in Place of Subsidies

In some ways I've flown through these past eight months in a haze. To get by from day to day... it's like I've been staring at my feet this whole time. But in the last few days the ground came rushing up beneath me again.

What I mean by this is that I had forgotten why I am here — what passions had driven me to this point, what riled me up, what inspired me to come back to West Africa and work in development. And then I picked up a book my father had sent me — Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, by Wall Street Journal correspondents Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman.

I live in Dogon country, Mali, on the edges of the impoverished Sahel that stretches across this starved continent. And I am here in the capacity of a development agent representing the United States government. To be more specific, an agricultural and natural resource management development agent, from one of the most economically, agriculturally and politically powerful countries in the world.

And I sit here, reading about how for decades, domestic agricultural subsidies in the United States and the E.U., coupled with the food aid industry and economic restrictions imposed on Africa, have perpetuated and worsened famines, malnutrition and economic ruin in the very countries these policies are ostensibly trying to help. In the developed world we are dependent upon protectionist policies in the sacred area of agriculture, and yet we indirectly deny the use of similar mechanisms in Africa by way of Structural Adjustment package prerequisites demanded by the WTO. The push for African countries to embrace free market capitalism and the "Green Revolution" of chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds to maximize agricultural yield has not been effective here. And why? Because even with a bountiful harvest season and plenty of international aid to support the purchase of modern farm tools, alternative technologies and high-quality hybrid seeds, American and European farmers out-compete their African neighbors by dumping their subsidized crops on the global market. This in turn cuts world prices on agricultural goods to a point where African farmers actually start losing money. The book brings up several poignant examples, all with the same message: in "blessed areas, especially the United States, a crop fails and the government writes a check. In Africa, a crop fails and people die."

Because African governments are discouraged from, or can't afford to subsidize their crops, there is no social safety net to protect them during droughts or pest infestations. And even when they have a good crop and produce well, it floods the international market because the EU and US are already overproducing, and the price drops. Our governments push Africa to embrace and rely upon the private sector to develop agriculturally, but in most of Africa there IS NO private sector, nor the infrastructure to compete internationally. And so, local grains rot in African fields because cheaper grain surpluses (or free grain, in the form of food aid) from the US and EU are dumped on their markets.

I was distraught to learn that the food aid we so altruistically give to starving countries is actually exacerbating food insecurity in some African countries. Billions of dollars of food aid flows in from developed countries, but far less is spent on agricultural development aid to prevent starvation in the first place. Indeed, our international financial institutions and governments often discourage these countries from implementing policies or devoting federal funds to bolster agricultural development. We don't want to spend US dollars on development efforts that would lead to increased competition for our local farmers on the global market.

And so, when a famine sets in in Ethiopia or Sudan or Mali, the international community's conscience is pricked, food aid flows in and politicians make heart-wrenching speeches about ending world poverty. Then, when the world stops watching, the food supply is cut off, and these countries are left with weak infrastructures, a ruinous agricultural base, and no tools (political or real) to become self-sufficient. There is no private sector to rely on. Local markets aren't developed enough, roads from farm to market are poor, transport is unreliable and often nonexistent, and food is difficult to transport from the lush areas to the poor.

And I see all of this; I feel it and I live it every day here. In Mali people haven't been victim to outright famine since the drought of the early 1980s. Politically, Mali has been relatively stable since colonial independence. Mali was once home to a burgeoning salt and gold trade, and even today Her southern fields are ripe with cotton, shea, bananas and mangoes. And yet I sit here, a 12 hour drive east of the capital into the Sahel, and there are no mangoes. It is garden harvest season, and yet of the families I've interviewed about food security, most only eat vegetables once or twice a week. Meat they only can afford once a month. People aren't starving to death here or killing each other, and as such, most Americans have never heard of this country. But Mali ranks amongst the lowest on development indicators: the infant mortality rate is shockingly high, as is the level of malnutrition.

This I see. I see it when I pass the village cemetery, where there are far too many fresh little burial mounds. I see the effects of geopolitics and global trade when I go to eat dinner every night with my host family, and Yacouba, the four year old with a belly distended from malnutrition, complains about having to eat toh again (a millet mush), like they do for every meal of every day. I feel the pain of what American and European trade policies help to perpetuate when I catch small children digging through my compost pile, eating moldy, hard pieces of bread and sand-covered vegetable scraps. It becomes real when I joke with kids about them not eating my cat when I go out of town, and then I see cat skins strewn about the edges of the village. I understand how my country's excessive subsidies for crops like cotton — which is also Mali's biggest cash crop and export — effect my friends here, when I watch women hand-pick cotton from the fields and laboriously hand weave string, then cloth, and walk the 7 km to market just to sell a bolt of cloth that took them nearly a month to make for a meager $26.

Amongst all this I remain an agent for agricultural development here in Mali. It tears me up inside that, while most Malians are enamored of the United States because of Peace Corps presence, my country is also doing a lot to prevent development from happening here — even if it is inadvertent or stemming from good intentions.

I am learning more and more that perhaps the most important part of my being here is to give me a wake-up call. One of the main goals of the Peace Corps is to "Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans." This, at first, I took to be secondary to the goal of training and teaching Malians useful skills. But now I'm realizing that the real impact is in putting us young, perhaps naive, but ambitious and courageous volunteers in the places most marred by global economics, politics, natural disaster and misfortune, where we can better understand the functioning of the world, and what roles we can play to better it.

So if all of this can be imprinted in the minds of even some of the nearly 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers this world has seen so far, it is achieving something extraordinary. I will continue to plant my trees and water my garden, if only to go home at the end and sound my barbaric yalp.

April 1, 2010

"Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast..."

In late February, the home of my best friends in village caught on fire. Hassim is my counterpart, closest friend, colleague and neighbor here in Pelleni. Fatim, his wife, is also my dear friend, and their eight-month old baby Mariame is my new protege and partner in crime.

When it happened, I was across village at my friend Saydio's house having tea and trying unsuccessfully to weave cotton, when all of the sudden a group of small children scrambled into the courtyard, yelling frantically. Everyone jumped to their feet and started running. I caught Saydio's arm and looked into her panicked eyes for an explanation, and she mumbled something, the only part of which I could catch was "gogo! gogo.... Fatim munda jo!" ("fire! fire.... at Fatim's house!"). As we ran I saw a huge plume of smoke pouring into the sky above their home and a wave of dread hit me. I didn't know whether or not Hassim, Fatim or Mariame were trapped inside the burning house. By the time I got there the whole village had crowded around, and the flames were almost extinguished. I immediately picked Fatim out of the crowd-- she was wailing and weeping in exasperation, unable to control herself. A friend held a crying Mariame, and Hassim stood nearby.

I was fascinated with how everyone reacted, trying to imagine myself in a parallel situation in the United States.

Because, here in Mali, it is unacceptable to cry or show extreme emotion in public, all of the village women were yelling at Fatim to get ahold of herself, even hitting her lightly. But at the same time, they were consoling her. They quickly ushered her into another concession behind closed doors, where she could weep freely.

Hassim, on the other hand, was a vision of stern calmness. He stood there, arms crossed, with but a faint smile on his lips to cover whatever emotions lie therein, while his neighbors excitedly ran to the river to fill buckets of water, throwing them on the flames. Countless others approached him to pull the story of what had happened, and how, from those closed lips. I couldn't believe how well he remained composed, even not knowing what damage had been done to his home.

I pieced together the story, listening to the others chatter nervously. The smoke died down, leaving the wreckage of the front of their house, and on the inside of the hangar sat two blackened motorcycles-- one Hassim's, one owned by his friend who had been visiting from out of town.

No one knows exactly how it happened, but it could be deduced from the scene: Fatim had been boiling water in a cauldron on a three-stone fire on coals inside the hangar. She left, with Mariame tied to her back, to go fetch water from the river. Fuel, fumes, or something flammable, must have leaked from one of the motorcycles, igniting upon contact with the coals. Luckily, the fuel tanks of both motorcycles remained intact-- there was no explosion. As for the house, the rocky terrain of Dogon country turned out to be a blessing for them: all Dogon houses are built of stone, with mud as an adhesive, and so the flames licked only the wooden rafters, support beams, door and windows. The structure of the house was left unscorched, as were a majority of their belongings on the inside.

So what did this mean for Hassim's family, and Hassim's friend? What of their motorcycles, which, to replace, seemed like such an insurmountable task for a family with no source of income, and surely no excess for insurance purposes? Their motorcycles were one of their only assets, aside from the little livestock their families own. In the developed world, it's a tragedy when someone's house burns down or a car is destroyed. Here in rural Africa, I couldn't even imagine what they were feeling.

And yet, as I think about it, I'm not sure which scenario is more devastating. On the one hand, my friends here in Mali have virtually nothing, so to lose what they do have is horrible. On the other hand, they aren't dependent on a wealth of material goods built upon itself to construct a life.

...If you're used to having nothing, does it make it easier to lose what you do have?

As I write this several weeks later, Hassim is fixing his house. For weeks he had been making mud bricks-- digging up dirt, going to the river to fill buckets with water to mix, painstakingly forming each brick and laying it in the sun to dry. He searched for wood and straw to reconstruct his hangar, walking miles each day. His friend never asked him for money for his destroyed motorcycle. No one placed blame on Fatim for leaving the hot coals unattended, nor on Hassim or his friend for parking their motos right next to the pot. They simply say that an evil wind came through, and that, thanks to Allah, no one was hurt and worse damage to their home was avoided. They continue with their lives.

I still don't have the answers to the questions I asked above. The only sense I can make out of it is this: whether in Mali, or in the United States, we mustn't allow the things we own to become a burden, for if we do, their loss can destroy us.

And tell me... what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you the beauty, that leads from the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses?

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?
... Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning to the funeral.

But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped or tamed. Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast...
You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through its doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling door, nor fear to breathe lest the walls should crack and fall down.

For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

Kahlil Gibran
-The Prophet-