Tag Archives: Mali

TIA : This Is Africa (a post about candy)

I went to the bank this morning to close my account. Absolutely brilliant. I had 150 646 fcfa in the account (thanks to an awkward interest payment), and there was a frais de fermeture of 5 750 fcfa, leaving the total at 144 896 francs. This begs the obvious question: how the hell are they going to pay me 144 896 fcfa, when there’s no such thing as one franc, and only rumors of the existence of a 5 franc piece. So, I’ll tell you. I walked out of the bank with 100 000 in tens, 40 000 in fives, 4 000 in ones, and 895 francs (a 500, a 25, and two 10 franc pieces) and the bank still owes me a franc. They couldn’t have just given me 900 francs and called it a day. Nope. They had to give me the most awkward coins ever, that I can basically only use to buy candy. I guess I’ll go buy some candy.

spiciest best candy EVER. thanks, bank!


Thunder and Lightning Nights: The Rainy Season has Arrived

It’s a really good thing that I have (mostly) gotten over my terror of thunderstorms. I no longer go diving under the closest bed at the slightest rumble of thunder, and can even appreciate the beauty of a uniquely great storm. Most of my evening yesterday was spent securing down items in my apartment (papers, books, lamps, rugs..) that otherwise would have flown away like Mary Poppins, but with much less grace. No measurement of how strong the winds were or how much rain we actually got, but it definitely ranked among the top five I think I’ve experienced. I live on the second floor of a building, and my front “patio” was flooded from rain coming in, and is still wet almost 24 hours later.

When it rains here, contrary to intuition, I open all the windows. The crosswind is amazing, and the temperature drop is a godsend. I guess that can get categorized under “habits I’ve picked up in Africa that will most likely get left behind”. (Along with: using my freezer as a pantry for dry goods, sleeping in DEET, and showering more than three times a day. Two is highly sufficient.)

sitting in front of the Niger River

Saturday, Bamako celebrated fête de la musique – one of the (rare positive) traditions passed down from ye olde French coloniser. Music emanates from every street corner. This is the third time I’ve celebrated fête de la musique in a francophone country, and I must say, France has got nothing on Malian music.  We went to Palais de la Culture to listen to a bunch of different groups play, see the Niger River by night, and inevitably, get rained on. The thunder and lightning started at around midnight, right as Amazones de la Guinée were finishing up, and the skies finally opened up for real an hour or so later.

What happened next was a chaotic mass exodus of thousands of people, all trying to get in their cars and on their Chinese “djakarta” motos at the same time. Classic Bamako style, everyone became a traffic director, shouting and waving in different directions, only adding to the chaos. After sitting in a quickly flooding parking lot (read: mudlot), we ended up at Amandine, a Lebanese-run 24-hour resto/bar/club with hot beverages, hamburgers (West Africa style : fried egg, fries, the works..) and mussed up hair. Not a bad way to spend the fête.

it's like the pac-man of burgers

some of my favorite things.

Frustration comes easily, living somewhere that’s not entirely familiar, where the simplest things are often misconstrued or misinterpreted. Not greeting someone in the morning; eating with the wrong hand (apparently the left hand is pretty tabou outside of Senegal as well, and you don’t want to know why); or any number of small little things that I have yet to pick up on. Conversely, there are plenty of things that make me smile for no reason whatsoever. Simple, seemingly silly things, that – thankfully – are pretty consistently present :
  1. Fancy Friday, or “boubou Friday” as some would have it. Whereas in the US, Friday is almost universally known for being a dress down day, here people do it up. It’s the day where all the men go to the mosquée, and men and women alike walk around in their best bazin for me, it’s a celebration that the weekend is actually here.
  2. When I needed flour last week (to make my ‘steamcake’), there was none in any of the grocery stores in my neighborhood.

    steamed to perfection

    Not entirely surprising. So I stopped by the boulangerie next door to my apartment, and, seeing at least ten 50-kilo sacks of flour behind the window, I asked the guy if he could sell me some flour. Of course he said no (what baker will sell you just the flour and not the bread?), but after explaining my situation, I walked away with a small black sachet full of wonderful white flour. For free. The cake was delicious.

  3. Avocados. Everywhere. At first I was skeptical, not gonna lie. I’ve had a few iffy experiences, and one really bad one. But this week, they hit the mark. I think I’ve eaten avocado every day, sometimes twice.
  4. Mangoes are even more prolific than avocados. And the two combined is better than you’d ever imagine. With a little hot pepper mixed in.
  5. the foam is the most important part

    Tea. AttayaThé. Whatever you want to call it. People drink tea here from sun-up to sundown. There is an entire process that goes along with it. Drunk from a small shotglass-like cup, it’s incredibly sweet, incredibly bitter, and if I’m *really* lucky, has some mint mixed in. Most of the time, I pass, but if it’s just right, it’s just perfect.

  6. Greetings. It takes about 45 minutes to greet anyone here, and basically goes like this. “Hi, good morning, how are you?” “Fine, thanks be to God, how are you? And the family?” “All’s well, thanks to God, how is work? And your family?” “Family is well, thanks be to God, how is your health? And your wife and children?” “Thanks to God, all is well. How are your children?” Etc, etc. This continues, the same questions being repeated over and over. It has this amazing back and forth rhythm, like a call and response, and I aspire – by the end of my time here – to have mastered it. For now, I can get about two lines in before I trip over my own western tongue. I’ve got three months to find my rhythm.

not sure what's going on with my hair here, but me voilà, and Bara in his bazin best!

Du marché au maraîchage : from the market to the market garden

so much okra

The theme of this week is work. Work, and land, and farming. Admittedly, this has been the theme of my life since January, but in particular this week. I’m working with a group of urban maraîchers – market gardeners – in Bamako, and the training (which takes place in the shade of a mango tree) has basically left me thinking that money doesn’t mean anything: invest in land because that’s all that’s real in this world.

We’ll see. Either way, one of the great benefits of working with farmers is that they love to share their bounty.

strangely, the only thing sold in small quantities

Between a trip to the vegetable market last weekend and a few days under a mango tree, I’ve made out like a bandit.

The best part was a field visit to the former co-op president’s groves just outside of Bamako where I got a bucket filled with succulent pomme de cajou – my beloved cashew fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been here for almost three months now, and have had an average of one existential crisis per week, I think. But the one thing I know is that there is nothing more important than the ability for a community to provide for itself. Cities can’t rely on the countryside for everything, and le contraire holds just as strong. I’ve criss-crossed this city countless times and seen the market gardens and the food production that happens here.

cashew fruit: like a fruit cocktail in your mouth

This city can feed itself, and that is one of the most powerful things I have seen in a long time. That’s not to say there aren’t problems (and I could go on forever on that), but the potential is there. Money comes and goes, but the land is there, and the people working the land are the backbone of any community.

Hotter, sweatier, dirtier, prettier.

Getting to Ségou was, in a word, insanity. Even thinking back on the bus ride there, it’s sort of hard to believe. Squeezed in amongst about 75 other people next to a woman with her baby on her lap and another woman sitting on the floor with a small girl sitting on her knees, the trip started out ok. En route out of Bamako, we made at least 10 stops to pick people up, let people off, pay tolls, and purchase provisions for the trip.

nothing cannot be bought roadside

Provisions, in this case, included everything from water, mangoes, and cakes, to live chickens, cassava root, and 50 kilo sacks of onions. The baby next to me shat his pants, the woman behind me couldn’t stop jabbing my back with her knees, the woman on my other side couldn’t keep her cassava root from flying all over the place, and the sweat was just dripping.

After five hours of stop and go, and we stepped off the bus into the chaos of the gare routière of Ségou. I quickly escaped to the shade of a tree to eat the mango I had been holding onto (after watching the woman sitting next to me eat five of them over the course of the trip.)

Once we arrived at our hotel, L’Auberge, I knew that the bus ride was worth it. Less than 200m from the Niger river, it was situated right in front of an (admittedly pretty touristy) artisan market, a few shady trees, and all the peace and quiet that Bamako is not. And everything was pretty. It contrasted so wonderfully with the place I call home these days.

le fleuve niger

We only had 24 hours in Ségou – two friends who are visiting are now heading out for a 5-day trek across Dogon country, and yours truly is back in the office tomorrow. Nevertheless, 24 hours in this sleepy little haven spent lazing about next to the river, walking along sandy paths amidst riverside gardens, visiting pottery and fabric artisan markets, and listening to excellent djembe music at a bar in town was exactly the recharge I needed.

working in the river

pottery and leaves

the hottest peppers you'll ever eat

 

hot, sweaty and dirty. (but ségou is pretty!)

Until the bus ride home. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I asked Fouad, our hospitable Lebanese host at L’Auberge, which bus company he would recommend for my return trip. Confident that Somatra would be worlds better than Coulibaly Travel, I got myself to the bus station in town, said adieu to my friends headed north, bought a ticket, and sat down to wait for the bus that would be leaving “in just a minute”. Two hours later, I sit down in the hottest sauna of a vehicle I have ever experienced, and with a slightly panicky feeling, realized that the windows only cracked open about three inches at the top.

When the bus was moving, the breeze was a godsend. When it wasn’t, the temperature soared, the sweat flowed. Perhaps it’s testament to my relief at being seated next to only one person this time, and someone not likely to soil his diaper, but the chickens didn’t bother me, and the cassava root flying around was just amusing. I stepped off the bus at the gare routière in Bamako and got into a four-wheeled engine block masquerading as a taxi to head home to a long, cold, shower. Hotter, sweatier, and dirtier than ever.

Shady Operations in Dusty Trainstations : A Dairy Story, Part 1

I officially have a dealer. In goats milk. Two days ago I got a call from Sheick Diarra, our guide de voyage on the trip out to Kayes a few weeks ago, and worked with us throughout the training on gestational and neo-natal care for goats and sheep. He left to go back to Kayes after the training ended, but not before I not-so-subtly mentioned how great it would be to have a regular source of goats milk to satisfy the need of my burgeoning yogurt and cheese making venture. So when my phone rings and he tells me there are six litres of milk en route from almost-Senegal, I knew I had it made.

8:30am, yesterday. I leave from the office with one of our drivers, call the number Sheick gave me for a certain M. Bakari Coulibaly, who was supposed to have arrived the previous night by train, cooler of goats milk in tow. Handing my phone to the driver, Monsieur Coulibaly gives him directions to the train station, where we’re to go.

women selling dried and smoked fish

It’s not quite 9am and the markets are already packed with people: women selling avocados and potatoes, men offering any number of products or services, kids trying to hawk cell phone credit or boxes of kleenex. We get to la gare, and park in the dusty red courtyard of loading docks filled with wooden crates, tables scattered here and there, and hoards of people going about their early morning routine.

piles of shoes and other bric-a-brac

After poking around for a minute and getting some strange looks from the dockworkers – I am slightly out of place here – I call my contact person again. I pass the phone to the driver, having not a clue how exactly to negotiate my way to finding 6 litres of milk in the middle of a dusty dockyard, and something tells me the message will pass easier in Bambara. Mohammad takes the phone and starts walking towards one of the loading docks where a man is serving breakfast to a few of the other workers. He hands my phone to that man. A loud and jumbled conversation follows, and I am beginning to think that dealing in goats milk might just not be my calling. The dockworker-cum-chef hangs up, walks over to a stack of wooden crates, and pulls back a large tarp that has seen better days.

Lo and behold, there lies my glacier, a cooler full of goats milk. I quickly buy a small plastic bag from a woman across the yard, and fill it with a dozen sachets of white, creamy deliciousness. We scurry back to the pickup and bump our way out of the crowded lot, tumbling back into the chaos of early morning Bamako.

9:15am: goats milk safely in my refrigerator.

9:30am: back at my desk, ready to start the day.

Faces in the Crowd: A Field Visit in Sikasso

This week I spent four days on a field visit in the south in the region of Sikasso. We met with several different cooperatives – both women and men. I took pictures galore.

meeting with women's rice co-op

In the first village, there were over 200 people that came to the meeting.

one of the secretaries

I was seriously impressed by their organization and their eagerness to advance in all aspects: business management, agriculture techniques, commercialization, marketing…

notetaking

They talked about rice seed varieties and the need for more training on seed multiplication techniques.

kids are cute

Having already had training in packing and storage techniques, they store bags of rice for several months, presumably to sell on the market in the off-season when prices are higher. Excellent in theory, but good connections to markets and transportation are challenges.

There is also a desire for post-harvest processing capacity. Without the machine to ‘décortiquer’ – to hull – the rice, the women aren’t making nearly as much money as they could. There is solar power capacity in this village, currently being used to pump water into a water tower. This solar power could also be used to power a hulling machine – I mean, why not?

best rice i've ever eaten

We ate with them after the meeting: rice with a tomato sauce filled with onions, cabbage, locally grown eggplant, and some fish that I conveniently ignored.

the men of n'pegnéss0

The men in N’Pegnésso are involved in potato farming. A barrage – a dam – has already been constructed to allow for flood irrigation of about 30 hectares (out of 600) of the land.

cows get thirsty too

Rice is grown during l’hivernage – the rainy season, potatoes are grown during the dry season (which is now), and whole herds of cattle graze the land.

In Zoloko, the second village we visited that day, about 175 women were interested in starting a co-op with rice culture and maraîchage, market gardening. They are in the very beginning stages of starting this co-op, and to be honest, I left that village a little disheartened. Out of almost 200 women, not a one spoke up. One man spoke for them all. And only three people in the entire village had basic reading/writing skills. Can we empower women, teach people to read and write, impart leadership skills, *and* reinforce capacity on a business level, at the same time that we do agriculture extension and community building? Please.

where's the white girl?

I wonder sometimes if Mali’s current situation – very much at the bottom of the development totem pole – places it outside of practical agricultural development solutions. An irrigation system being implemented in Rwanda, for example, might not have any relevance here, simply because the costs for implementing it really outweigh the benefits. Or because the amount of water available during the rainy season doesn’t add up to what would make it a realistic installation. Just an example.

future rice and potato growers of mali

Anyway, the next day we visited another co-op of women – again rice culture and market gardening. A much more promising venture, and again, really encouraging to see the initiative and drive of so many women. I’m not sure what the point of this post was; to be honest, I think I just wanted an excuse to put up a bunch of pictures. So take from it what you will.

first to arrive, last to leave

Sweet Potatoes by Hand: Small-Scale Urban Agriculture

Today is Saturday, my second full weekend in this city. I don’t know very many people in Bamako outside of my colleagues and a couple of Peace Corps volunteers here and there, so basically I had the entire day in front of me. The perfect opportunity to do a little city-field research.

I’m working for an NGO that works with smallholder farmers and farmers’ cooperatives, but my big agricultural passion (yes, I’m going to completely dork out here) is urban agriculture and urban food systems. Bamako is a city of about 2 million people and the fastest growing city in Africa, at that. Other cities across the continent are also expanding at such a rapid rate that the urban systems in place are not equipped to provide for the growing populations. As it is, unemployment is extremely high; people with degrees are jobless or working in unskilled labor, hoping for something better.

Urban ag is (and has for quite some time) been a way to fill in a lot of gaps: it offers job opportunities, feeds people and their families, supplies markets with much-needed produce that is often difficult to transport from rural areas (poor road systems, lack of cold storage, small-scale producers with limited means to move their goods), and helps to green cities that are often dusty, dirty, and littered with trash. And the influx of rural people brings with it a lot of agricultural know-how, to add to a population that is usually already quite agriculturally inclined.

yams and onions and cinder blocks

Mamadou Touré is managing two small plots of land just down the road from my apartment. The owner of this urban garden, Sanou Coulibaly, has been there for over sixty years, since sometime in the 1940s, but is too old to do all of the hard labor herself. Unfortunately for me, Mme. Coulibaly, who was cutting the green shoots off of freshly pulled onions, doesn’t speak much French, and the seven words I know in Bambara would not have really made for much of an interview, so I spoke with M. Touré instead.

M. Touré has been working on these small plots for several years now. He is growing patates (yams), onions and lettuce, mostly because that’s what grows easily and is easy to sell. Every day, anywhere between eight and ten women will come to this mini urban farm and buy the produce that is harvested to sell on the markets – the same neighborhood markets where I buy my produce. It’s an independent operation – not part of any co-op or association, so all of the organizing is done on a person-to-person basis, and very much depends on the relationships between the market women and these urban gardeners. From what I understood, the women are the ones who determine the price for what they buy. Especially considering the size of this operation – there’s no cold storage or post-harvest production, whatever isn’t sold or eaten goes to waste.

That’s not to say there’s a lot of loss here. M. Touré also feeds his family with what is grown; the same goes for Mme. Coulibaly and the five or six other people I saw working there. As I sat in the shade under a giant tree with a few of these people, a bunch of baby chicks ran around us in that crazy uncoordinated way they have, meaning there are big chickens somewhere, laying eggs and probably being eaten, too.

The two plots – which amounted to about a hectare of land – is irrigated by hand from a well dug under that same tree. Bamako’s water table is high enough that well water is readily available. That doesn’t make it easy, however. When I asked what challenges or obstacles he faced in this business, he looked around at all the beds and mused that if he had a motorized pump for the well, things would be much better. He sometimes works until 3 or 4am, just to get everything watered and to pick what will be sold the next day. Urban ag offers possibilities, but it’s not exactly a glamorous life.

After leaving this small venture, I went to one of the markets where M. Touré’s vegetables are sold. A head of lettuce for fifty cents, two eggs for just about half that. As I looked around me at this market, I realized that most of the produce that was there was probably grown within five or ten miles of where I stood. This extensive network of farmers and market women has established itself in a way to take care of a city that isn’t entirely able to take care of itself. I’m going to talk to another woman a little later this evening who has a small plot next door to my building, and hope to venture out near the river soon where several hectares of land are being used to feed the people of this huge city.

Every time I pass by one of these urban plots, I think about the grocery stores back home and the fact that I have no clue where my broccoli or leeks or tomatoes came from. But it’s quite possible that the onion I sautéed for lunch today was one that Mme. Coulibaly picked from her garden sometime earlier this week.

“What’s that?” you ask…

 

hungry anyone?

That, my lovelies, is breakfast. Fresh mangoes and coconut.

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.)