Tag Archives: Travel

sunugaal (our boat) or where it’s less hot than mali.

After four months in Mali and living through the apex of the hot season (read: 105 degrees or more every day), I could not have been happier to board a plane to Senegal. Five days of temperate, ocean weather, amazing food, old friends and colleagues, and my family! Perfection embodied.

Senegal, especially Dakar, is not exactly what might come to mind when you think of vacation destinations, but it is one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. It’s also still very much lacking on the development scale. So when you plunk a group of foreigners in the middle of the city, you create an instant target for anyone who has anything to sell (which, in Dakar, is everyone.)

artisan talent on Gorée

On our first full day we went to the island of Gorée, which is the old historic slave departure island, but also home to a small community of artisans. The artwork is beautiful – if a little bit overpriced – and the intensity of entrepreneurial sweet talk is impressive. At least three women made friends with us on the boat over, ending the conversation by making us promise to visit their boutiques, which we were more or less forced to do. S’ok, though, Mom and I got some really pretty earrings, and we bought a batik table cloth to serve as a beach blanket for the rest of the trip.

I had promised my brother giant mangoes – and actually lugged three of them with me because Mali is rather famous for the size of its mangoes – so we feasted on mangoes and avocados, delicious Lebanese food, and some of the best ceebu jën, mafé and yassa I’ve had in a long time.

i'm not mad, i promise.

The Marché Sandaga delivered on everything it is known for: guys who follow you and guide you around for no other reason than boredom and the vague hope you will buy something from their boutique (or their father’s/cousin’s/aunt’s boutique); music blaring from CD (and cassette) shops; people shouting left and right; buses running down the narrow streets constantly threatening to run you over; back alleys filled with beautiful artwork and anything else you could ever think of. As annoying as it can be, and as much as I know we paid too much for most things, there is a big part of me that was so nostalgic for it, that it was nice. The little bit of Wolof I know got put to good use, much to the amusement of anyone within earshot, and joking around with the Dakarois about the differences between Senegal and Mali was hilarious – mostly because the insults are the same from both sides of the border. A few small paintings, six yards of cloth, a t-shirt and a few statues later, we were all so exhausted, we went back to the hotel and didn’t reemerge until dinner.

We visited the Renaissance Africaine monument (absolutely ridiculous), ate dinner with my Senegalese family (absolutely delicious), went to a few different beaches, and admired the sheer beauty and color of Dakar and the people that live there. Not to generalize, but Senegalese – and especially Dakarois – are some of the best and most colorfully dressed people I’ve ever seen.

35% of the ticket sales go directly to President Wade

Although I hadn’t been there since 2008, it was like I had never left. Dakar has changed a lot over the past few years, and parts of it weren’t even recognizable, but walking around felt sort of like going back home, and seeing old friends and family was wonderful. I think it was a bit overwhelming for my family, but hopefully the delicious food and beautiful beaches made up for it a little. My mom is already talking about our next vacation somewhere in Africa; I am dreaming up something involving gorillas, the Eastern Congo, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

karl and khadija eating binta's best!

On Monday morning I got back to my apartment in Bamako after only 4 hours of sleep, losing my favorite ring down the drain at the hotel, and being ripped off by the cabbie on the way back from the airport. I was greeted by 100 degree weather coupled with the humidity from the previous week’s rains, and a hamper full of dirty laundry. Awesome.

So today I skipped work, went to the market, talked to a jeweler about making me a new ring, bought some avocados and mangoes, and tried to ignore the sweat running down my back…

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.

The Kids Love This Stuff (A Breakfast of Champions)

To recap the past few days briefly :

Saturday night at 10:30, I got a phone call from my boss, Bara, confirming that I’d be doing a field visit the next day to the west of Mali in a city called Kayes (pronounced like ‘eye’ with a k in front). Kayes is about an 8 hour drive from Bamako, and the epicenter of small ruminant (goats and sheep) production in Mali. As has been pointed out to me, it’s rather amazing that there is an epicenter for goat and sheep production within a country; the sheer quantity of these beautiful little animals in the region is astounding. So we (myself, Judy who is here to do a training on the subject, Cheikh the researcher/expert in the field, and our driver, Boureima) set out on Sunday at around 8am.

Arrived in Kayes, we visited a few producers and more goats and sheep over the course of about 4 hours than I think I have in my entire life. And I could definitely tell you more about breeds and cross breeding and characteristics of the different breeds than you care to hear. Believe me.

I held a newborn goat (literally 3 hours old) and felt the milk in its belly, making sure it had gotten the colostrum essential in the first few hours of life. Saw a sheep that costs up to $1500 simply because it’s a handsome fellow and is quite sought after among breeders.

this one was born the day before

they were amazingly content to be in the back of the truck

Monday morning we set out back for Bamako. Judy and I are waiting at the hotel where we overnighted for Cheikh and Boureima to come back with the truck and… three female goats.. and.. two twin newborn kid goats… and… 10 litres of goats milk, freshly milked and pasteurized that morning. Right.

Needless to say, the journey back took a little longer with five live animals (and their shepherd) in the back of the pickup. We crossed the Senegal River leaving Kayes (which I haven’t seen since I swam across it in 2007!) and crossed the Niger back into Bamako about nine hours later. When I got home, I promptly bought some vinegar at my favorite little boutiki and made goat’s milk ricotta from two litres of the seven in my fridge. Yesterday, I got a starter and made a vat of yogurt.

le fleuve sénégal, kayes

Since Tuesday I’ve been translating the training in Bamako for veterinarians working with goats and sheep into French. A big problem is with aborted pregnancies and infant mortality, yet they want to amp up production in the region because the market for meat and milk is lucrative, and wide open. It’s fascinating to sit in a room spitting out information about something in which I have almost no previous experience, because at the same time I’m translating, I’m learning all sorts of crazy things. (If the membrane of a goat’s eye is light pink or white, it could mean they have stomach worms and are anemic. Measures should be taken immediately to deworm them, or the animal could die.)

From a pedagogical perspective, the week has been hugely productive. But let’s be honest here. The most important thing to remember is : nothing but a little heated goats milk with cinnamon for breakfast is positively divine. Goats milk has this reputation for smelling bad and not tasting good, which, I admit, I bought into for a long time. But I swear it is the sweetest tasting milk/yogurt/cheese I have ever had. And the fact that I know exactly where it came from, how it was produced, and under what conditions the animals were raised, makes the whole process that much better. There’s no better way to be connected to your food than to see la chèvre milking her newborn kid, and then to drink that milk, or maybe the milk from a different female goat, with my breakfast of baguette and Nescafé.

See more goats and sheep here…

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

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?

 

retrospective no. 2: where are you, goma?

In a meeting this morning with two colleagues and the “chef d’agence adjoint” of one of the biggest Congolese banks, we were talking about the different branches they’ve established across the country. They’re present in almost all the provinces (of which there are, at least for the moment, ten), and have several branches in Katanga, the mining capital of the country. This in and of itself is pretty amazing, considering that the country in question has been steeped in war and conflict arguably since 1960, and even things as simple as constant electricity or running water are not to be taken for granted. Currently with 29 branches – with two more opening before the end of the year – TMB has managed to make of itself a credible and credit-worthy institution. But that’s not what this story is about.

Sitting in the second-floor, floor-to-ceiling-windowed office of the deputy director, sipping on bottled water, almost chilly from the air conditioning (I said almost), overlooking what seemed more like the first class lounge of a European airport than a bank in downtown Kinshasa, the thing that struck me the most was the nostalgia that hit me like a ten-ton truck the instant he mentioned the branch in Goma.

I don’t know what it is about that place, but the instant the plane landed there last November, I was amoureuse. Something about Goma, about Lake Kivu, about the entire place, crawled right under my skin and has yet to leave me alone.

le lac, vue de l'hôtel

The first time I was in Goma, I spent about 10 days there working at a workshop with leaders from the Masisi region. I remember talking to one of the old “chefs de la région” about both the big volcano that threatens to erupt again the way it did in 2002, leaving a third of the city under lava (and eating away a third of the runway at the airport), and, to the other side of us, of le lac Kivu, which sits on top of an enormous reserve of methane gas that threatens to burp up at any moment and suffocate the entire population of the region.

le volcan: mont nyiragongo

The striking beauty of the volcano – the pink hue in the sky at night, the constant stream of smoke that climbs towards the sky, the throne of lush greenery it seems to sit on – masks only in part the latent danger both of eruption, and of what that could mean for the lake, strikingly beautiful in its own right, and yet dubbed an “exploding lake” for the ganger it poses.

We spoke in metaphor about the natural wonders in front of and behind us; quite clearly the situation in Nord Kivu was the question sous la main, and the potential for positive, should the leaders work together, as well as for negative, should the war re-erupt. Goma, one of the most idyllic places I have ever seen, is wrought with conflict – both latent and manifest – that keeps the enormous potential of this area very much at bay. The beauty of Goma reminds me of the myth of Medusa: a beautiful woman turned into the ugliest of creatures only by the jealousy and wrath of another.

I won’t pretend to be able to explain the conflicts in Nord/Sud Kivu or the Eastern Congo in general because I have yet to scratch more than the surface of an understanding of what is arguably one of the most complicated conflicts in modern history. Let’s just say that with nine countries bordering the Congo, each one with its own history of conflict, problems with governance, resources, migration and immigration..I could go on..

The point isn’t that Goma is foutu – pardon my French – but that it has captured a part of me.

how could you not tombe amoureuse?

With unmatched intensity, this city sitting between the lake the the volcano – promising to erupt, in one sense or another – is paradise on earth, the geographical love of my life.

retrospective no. 1: also, where i am now.

I promise eventually to update this blog with a “Best Of” set of posts from my travels over the last year. It’s been about three weeks since I created this blog, and only today am I sitting down for the first time to write a post. The (mostly self-imposed) pressure for that first entry to be so witty and catchy pretty much kept me at the widgets and layout phase of blogging. Well, here I am now and I’m sorry if the wit is lacking. I’ll blame it on jetlag.

Kinshasa et le Congo, view from above

Kinshasa is hot. Hot and humid and oppressively congested. I’m sitting in the office here doing some work (‘some’ being the operative word) and wondering if it’s even possible to go “en ville” without consecrating the next three hours to the trip. It took more time to get to lunch yesterday than it did to get a table, order and eat. Which is surprising, given the time it normally takes for even the simplest of meals to be served.

Michel’s wife Mapuseke (a beautiful Lesothan woman whose accent is so charming it makes me feel quite big and bumbling) leaves two hours early to get their children to school. No one seemed surprised when we rolled up an hour late to our meeting yesterday with the tax office yesterday, which was supposedly at 14h. It just adds to the slow pace of life. But also makes me wonder how much work is just completely lost to inefficacy.

I read something once that a Peace Corps volunteer had posted about his experience trying to get things done in Niger during the rainy season. People just can’t (or don’t want to) work in this kind of heat. Admittedly, when the electricity goes out, the generator doesn’t power the AC. Fifteen degrees hotter in the room I am working in, I’m sweating in a very unladylike fashion, and all of a sudden my work ethic is out the ineffectively open window. Alas.

The office where I am working these next two weeks – for the NGO “Initiative pour un Leadership Cohésif et la Cohésion de l’Etat – or, Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership and State Cohesion – or, ILC for short, is situated in a ‘commune’ of Kinsasa that I’m not at all familiar with. Which says next to nothing, considering my last stint in Kin consisted only of a six-hour period: a trip from the airport to the office in the middle of the night during one of the the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced, and then a trip back to the airport (the United Nations section, this time) to hop a flight to the East. But I do know that it hardly matters where you are, because it’s going to take at least an hour to get anywhere.

I’m in Kin until November 13. I promise to post pictures and write more. For now, I just kind wish I were back in Goma.