Monthly Archives: January 2011

They Call Me Sarata: Visiting the Field

We sat three across in the back seat of the pickup truck, seven men perched behind us in the cab holding on to the rails as we drove about 25 kilometers into the bush. The sun seemed to be playing games, positioning itself at exactly the right angle to make me sweat to the maximum, and the air conditioning was completely ineffective more than a foot away from the vent. Tom, an American consultant who is here until March, Mme. Berthé, and I all silently pondered the same thing: how much farther do we have to go, and I really hope this place is worth seeing.

25km on this road in 95 degree weather

In Bougouni, (maybe 100 or 150 km from Bamako) a cooperative of farmers and fishers has decided that they want to expand their enterprise into fish farming. That is, creating and maintaining fishponds in order to raise cultivated varieties of fish (carp, tilapia) to sell on the market. Inland fish breeding has become a quite popular – and at times quite lucrative – source of economic activity in several places across Africa. Fish accounts for a significant percentage of the protein intake for many people, and local production makes a lot of sense, both economically and ecologically.

Right after lunch we saw two attempts at the creation of a fishpond on one man’s farm bordering the river, an estuary of a river originating in Côte d’Ivoire that pours into the Niger. Both ponds that he had dug were completely parched, as the water had quickly infiltrated back into the surrounding soil. Despite their attempts to compact the earth around the pond to make it hold water, a combination of a low water table and lack of étanchéité made the one pond look more like a strange crater in the middle of a cracked and dry field. Not to be flippant, but it looked like a really determined attempt at digging a hole to China. Deeper than I ever got as a kid, but it’s safe to say this is not the objective here.

a really big, really dry hole

The dichotomy is huge between that which is irrigated – either naturally or by hand – and land with no source of water. The occasional shrub or small tree will grow in dry dirt, but a fishpond, even dug right next to the river, has little chance unless the conditions are just right.

no water equals no growth

After a good forty-five minutes crammed into the truck, bouncing over rock hard uneven dirt roads, we finally stopped. Everyone got out, and we proceeded to walk another 500 meters or so to the second fishpond site through the grassy bush of the Sahel. When we finally reached the site, it was like a man-made oasis, except it wasn’t actually a figment of my imagination. Different sized ponds separated by dykes, lush green grass growing on all sides, rich dark brown mud where the water met these man-made walls. (Complemented by the setting sun and a cool breeze for the first time in almost an hour, I actually had to convince myself it was real.)

fish ponds as far as the eye can see

Barry Sidibé’s land is situated in the flood zone of the river, which means that he benefits from the yearly supply of water (and fish) to populate the fishponds. During the rainy season when the water from the river covers the entirety of his farm – all the land we were standing on – the wild fish from the river reach just as far. When the water recedes back to the banks of the river, the fish are trapped in the ponds by the dykes, and can be cultivated, harvested, and sold. In a community where the price of fish imported from north of Bamako has risen from 75CFA ($0.15) to 2500CFA ($5.00) over the past ten years, the economic incentives to partake in local pisciculture are quite high. And for good reason. But the practicality of the venture is unclear.

pisciculture (fish culture)

On the road to M. Sidibé’s farm, we saw several dozen men and women panning for gold, and on our drive back to Bougouni, they were making the long trek home on foot. I asked Mme. Berthé how much gold they actually find out here. She laughed a little ruefully and commented that maybe they wouldn’t be walking to and from work every day if they had enough money to afford a ride on a motorcycle or the back of a cart.

Without the natural flooding of the river, and unless the situation is exactly right, digging these fishponds made me think about panning for gold where there really is none. I wonder how far a strong brew of hope and desperation will drive people, and how long it will last until a good dose of practicality sets in. That’s not to say that the situation is impossible; it just needs to be done in the right context, with the right information and training. Agriculture accounts for over 80 percent of the economic activity of Mali. A combination of an already harsh climate and climate change that is only making things worse has led to some of the most difficult growing seasons in history, and the need for a lot of really innovative thinking.

I’m here for six months, living in one of the poorest countries in Africa, which makes it one of the poorest in the world, too. Mme. Berthé gave me a Malien name, Sarata – incidentally also her own first name – which means that I’m part of this place now. Questions of agricultural development and creating sustainable food systems, writ large, make my head spin they seem so insurmountable. The willingness to be open to new ideas and to innovate is the only way to get anywhere. To dig what might look like holes to China, for a small group of people in Bougouni, just south of Bamako, might just be the way through.

(For more pictures of Bougouni, of a dairy production center at Ouellessebougou and of Kafara where we’ll be working on agribusiness and input/output marketing.)

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Culinary Adventures à l’africaine

When I went about creating this blog – mostly in anticipation of being in Mali – I didn’t think at all that it would be a food blog. Yes, avocados and agriculture are inherently linked to food and to eating, and so I guess in the larger sense, this is intrinsically food related. However, I was in the kitchen last night cooking dinner after having done some shopping at a couple of local markets (no way I’m going without toilet paper, and there is only so much tolerance I have for sterilizing water every morning to drink).  Less than $3 got me a bunch of carrots, four tomatoes, three large beets, a head of cabbage, two giant plantains, two green peppers and three of the hottest little chilies I know. On the other hand, I think I paid almost forty dollars for things like toilet paper, bottled water, salt and pepper, a small jug of milk and a few other house essentials.

tomates et bananes

While in the process of opening a can of mushrooms (don’t judge me) with a sort of pokey devise that doesn’t at all resemble any can opener I grew up with, I realized that cooking in Africa is a total adventure in and of itself. Especially when you find yourself in a kitchen that you didn’t outfit yourself; whoever did equip it clearly did not come from a house outfitted with three crockpots, enough dishes to serve fifteen, various gadgets to perform various (seldom necessary) tasks, and more kinds of flour than I am proud to admit.

With the know-how of someone who has lived in an African kitchen, I hacked open the can of mushrooms (I promise, they really are tasty), chopped up an onion, and found a skillet buried in the cabinet somewhere.

onions sautées

I then, for the second time that day, set about taking my life into my own hands turning on the gas. Opening the gasket as little as possible, I said a small prayer and lit the stovetop with my lighter. “Low heat” is not something this range does well, unless there are two burners going at a time, in which case you have to open up the gas a bit more and play with the levels. Otherwise, flames will be at a roar.

my attempt at a slow simmer

 

my humble little stovetop

Boiling water in a small casserole to make rice, I suddenly understood better why all the ‘ceeb’ you get in Senegal has the crispy stuff on the bottom of the pan. If you try to steam rice over a huge flame, it will crisp. Granted, crispy rice is delicious – a delicacy, some might even say – but that’s not what I was going for. Dancing between the gas tank and my two burners, juggling the sputtering rice pot and some sautéing vegetables, the only thing I was missing is a unicycle, and I would have been a bonified kitchen circus act.

un repas délicieux

The meal turned out delicious; or maybe it was simply the fruit of my labor that was so satisfying. Either way, I don’t think I will be wont for a interesting culinary adventures over the next several months.

90 degrees at 9pm

It’s hard to believe that I am now sitting about 4000 miles away where I was just 36 hours ago. And that when someone says it’s 32 degrees outside, it’s hot enough to walk around in next to nothing.

As the plane was landing in Bamako, I watched the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me that tracks the flight and tells you the temperature and how much farther you have to go. I watched as the temperature went up from 21 degrees Celcius (71-ish degrees Fahrenheit) when we were at 7ooo feet, to 31 degrees Celcius (about 88 degrees Fahrenheit) on the ground. At 9 0’clock at night. Stripping off most of the layers I had been wearing all day, I stepped out of the plane and down the stairs, and it all came back. The reasons I am here and the reasons I know I will love it. The smell of the hot desert air felt like coming home; it made all my tension go away, and, as I breathed out again, made me realize exactly how perfect these next six months will be.

My apartment is incredible. Like I told my colleagues when they dropped me off there last night, ‘je suis trop gâtée’ – I’m way spoiled, to be living there. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a huge living room, and a bathroom. My room even has AC, which is absolutely ridiculous.

mes valises

I unpacked everything (wondering both why I brought about 15 pairs of socks and how/where I possibly could have left my iPod), arranged my clothes in the armoir, stacked my books on the shelf, did a few stretches to undo the last 24 hours stuck in an airplane or an airport, and passed out on my queen-sized extra firm mattress, flicking away the occasional mosquito as I fell asleep. One light sheet on top of me was almost too much.

mes livres

In the morning, realizing I had barely eaten or drank anything over the past day, save for some Glenlivet in the Air France lounge and a few roasted hazelnuts, and simultaneously realizing I didn’t have any bottled water, I walked toward the kitchen to boil some water to sterilize it. Wearing nothing more than a tank top undershirt and the thong I had worn to bed (day-glo yellow, incidentally), and passing by the curtains in front of my front gate to get to the kitchen, I see a woman standing there who turned around and, in turn, sees me. One thing to know: in a very conservative Muslim West African country, a woman’s legs are the most sexual of body parts. Now here I am, I’ve just moved in, and I’m already parading around like the neighborhood whore. I quickly threw on a skirt which would cover my knees, and returned to the kitchen. Turns out this woman is the femme de ménage who will come every Monday to clean my apartment. I’m sure she has already told everyone that she’s working for a foreign hussie without even the courtesy to wear clothes in the presence of others. Bon.

I drank some tea, took a sponge bath, put on my linen pants and a light tank top and a scarf to cover my shoulders, and walked downstairs just as my colleague Bourama was arriving to pick me up for work. The first day is always kind of funny: trying to figure out exactly where I fit in, to listen as much as possible and absorb everything, to watch the interactions between other people in the office.  I have a basic idea of what I will be doing, but still nothing concrete. Tomorrow I will learn more, and the next day and the next after that. Already, though, I feel completely welcome here, and am basking in the warmth of this country. Literally and figuratively.

Having lived in Senegal, I was somewhat confident that I would at least have something of a cultural understanding of Mali. I had no idea just how many little ‘points de repères’, reference points or things that are familiar, there would actually be. The oranges with green skin that people suck on for their juice; drinking attaya (sweet tea that is also incredibly bitter) after lunch; saying “Bissimilah” to welcome someone; a genuine niceness that seems to pervade everyone. It’s comforting in a certain sense.

Anyway, I am going to drink my second round of attaya, (and pray that the third round is as démodée – out of style – in Bamako, as it was in Dakar), look through some documents to bring me up to speed, and try to wrap my brain around the fact that this is all really happening.

No, I’m not going to Bali

Surrounded by tote bags full of clean laundry, bottles of vitamins, books that I hope I have the desire to read in three months, and a travel backpack stuffed with my yoga mat, sunscreen, and a first aid kit, among other things, it still hasn’t completely registered that I step on a plane in less than twenty-four hours.

DC was hit with an ice storm earlier this week. The city woke up to a shiny (and rather beautiful) coating of frozen water over everything. Temperatures had been in the twenties, the wind wailed through the night, and I was woken at 5am by my (admittedly quite responsible) neighbor chopping and scraping away at the ice on the sidewalk. Next time this week, I will probably be praying for anything resembling ice; temperatures in the twenties – even centigrade – will seem cold and unusual. Par for the course.

Anyway, this week – my last in Washington – I’ve made a tetrus board out of my schedule in order to hang out with everyone I love, I’m running around getting all of my errands done, using up the miscellany of food cleaned out of my pantry (which, I should note, has been quite the success, if not the impetus behind some bizarre and inventive recipes!), and in general trying not to think about what next week’s meteorologic predictions mean. A month ago or so, I made a DC ‘bucket list’, to motivate me to do things in DC that maybe I wouldn’t do if my time here wasn’t so limited. Two Fridays ago I took a personal day from work and hung out at the National Gallery (an amazing place to wander around) and the Hirshhorn.

on a power box somewhere near logan sq

Monday I spent walking from Columbia Heights to Logan Circle to Dupont to Penn Quarter and back again. It’s been wonderful to have a few days to myself – it’s like winter vacation when I was in elementary school (minus the obligatory uniform of snowpants and mittens) – I finally have the time to explore the city I’ve lived in for almost three years!

cute little thing

It’s funny trying to pack and deciding what I will wear and use and hopefully need over the next several months. I got a two week free subscription to an audiobook website and downloaded The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith; books I might not have the time and/or impetus to read in print form.  Other books I am bringing with me include:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Markets and States in Tropical Africa by Robert Bates
  • Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Morrison
  • What is the What by Dave Eggers
  • Teachings of Rumi by Rumi
  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Bhagavad Gita, the brilliantly insightful Indian scripture
  • La lenteur by Milan Kundera

I also fully plan on spending more money than is advisable in the Paris airport to buy a few more books to round out my stock. And maybe a trashy magazine or two.

Everyone keeps asking me if I’m excited. My response is, of course, ‘yes’, but to be honest, it’s hard to be excited about something that is completely unknown and somewhat abstract. I don’t know who my colleagues are; I don’t know what my office or apartment will look like; I have only a vague idea of what my daily work will consist of; I don’t even know what language I’ll be speaking on a regular basis. My excitement is completely abstract. I’m excited about the potential facing me, about learning and experiencing and seeing and doing things completely foreign to me.

I walked all around DC again on Wednesday – Columbia Heights to Foggy Bottom to Logan Circle and back up 18th St, taking pictures of the most random things, but things that seemed beautiful in the moment.

i love the texture of these

Moss growing on the walls of Malcolm X park; a puddle in the sidewalk reflecting the trees; a statue juxtaposed against a beautifully colorful mosaic; the fire escape of a building behind my brother’s apartment.

not so many puddles in Bamako

Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word since I’m still here – is there such a thing as anticipatory nostalgia?