Tag Archives: water

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

Advertisements

The Quest for a Waterfall (and the Source of Life)

Saturday night – or, more properly speaking, Sunday morning, I dragged my sorry butt into bed at around 3am after some excellent live music at the Savana club in downtown Bamako. (At least, the closest thing resembling a downtown.) Sunday morning, 8:30am, I get a cheeky text, “You awake?” which I know comes with a chuckle and the certainty that, no, I am not truly awake. A few minutes later, I climb into the back of the 4×4 pickup, squeezed in between an agriculturalist from Borko (Dogon Country, Mali), a jewelry maker cum tour-guide from about the same region, and an animal scientist from Kenya.

We set out for Siby, about 45km from Bamako, with the promise of waterfalls and beautiful rock formations, and the certainty of a lot of interesting conversation. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I quickly realized that sleep was by no means in the cards. Instead, I got a history lesson in both the official sense and in the mythological sense.

about 1/2 way to Siby, still on good roads

In Mali in particular, and in West Africa in general, there is something that not-so-secretly rules over the relationships between people – politically, culturally, socially, romantically. Referred to as cousinages de plaisanterie, it means that one person, based on their ethnic group or last name, has the right (even the obligation) to tease, mock and harass another person of a different group or name. À titre d’exemple: in Senegal, an Ndiaye can come across a Diop and call him a thief, claim him as his slave, or tell him he’s nothing but a bean eater, and no one would be shocked. It’s all just part of the relationship.

The most well known example of this ‘joking relationship’ in Mali is between the Dogon and the Bozo, two ethnic groups towards the north of the country. Bara, the director of the program I work with here, told a story that sheds a bit of light on the origins of this relationship.

A long time ago, there were two brothers who went hunting to find food for their families. After days with no success, the older brother began to worry about his younger brother, noticing that he was quite hungry and becoming weak. Because it’s traditionally the responsibility of older people to take care of the young, the brother knew he had to find a way to feed his younger sibling. Slipping off into the woods, he decided to cut out a piece of the meat on his thigh to cook for his brother. Totally famished, the younger brother didn’t ask where the meat came from, and ate to his satisfaction. It wasn’t until later that he noticed a trickle of blood on his brother’s leg, and realized that the meat he had eaten was his brother’s own flesh. The younger brother, realizing what a dire situation the two found themselves in, decides that they should go their own ways, and see if survival wasn’t easier on their own. The one brother went deep into the woods and began to work the land, becoming an agriculturalist and the first of the Dogon people. The other eventually found the Niger river, settled there as a fisher, and so began the ethnic group Bozo.

As the story goes, because the older had sacrificed so much for the younger brother, the two ethnic groups Bozo and Dogon have sworn to never harm one another. If a Bozo somehow injures or harms a Dogon, or vice versa, the repercussions are endless. Marriage is also strictly forbidden between the two – the ties are so close, that it’s almost seen as an incestuous relationship.

my backseat companions, we haven't yet found the waterfall

At this point, we’re in the middle of the woods, passing by Foulani cow herders and wild zaban trees (strangest fruit ever that tastes exactly like a Lemonhead), two hours in to what should have been a 30 minute drive to the waterfall. Barry, our ‘guide’ admits that he hasn’t been to the waterfall in over six years, and we turn the truck around.

The ‘road’ is basically just a semi-cleared path between trees, over rocks and dried stream beds, and I am sure we are going to pop a tire. Dieu merci for Bourey, our driver, who never broke a sweat.

false alarm: we thought we had found it.

In Kenya, there are forty-two tribes that populate the country – only one of which, incidentally, is known for its running capabilities. Our animal scientist consultant, Charles, is from the Luo tribe. He was charged with telling the creation myth of all forty-two tribes (I think we knew we were in for a lonnng ride) but we only got as far as a story about the Kikuyu and the Luo.

The Kikuyu originated from the north, settling around Mt. Kenya, but spreading out around the country eventually to become several distinct ethnic groups. The ‘Adam and Eve’ of what are today known as Kikuyu – Gikuyu, and his wife, Mumbi – lived in a place called Mukurue wa Gathanga (very loosely translated as the Kikuyu Garden of Eden) and had nine daughters. Gikuyu was upset at not having any sons, and pleaded with the god, Mbai, who presented him with nine men to marry his daughters. The daughters married and had children, and thus became the nine clans of the Kikuyu tribe. As the story goes, the Kikuyu were originally a matriarchal people, with these nine women reigning over all of society. As time went on, the women became more dominant and the men were less than ok with that. They plotted to get their wives pregnant at exactly the same time and take over control of society. From that point on, the Kikuyu became a polygamous society characterized by one man with several wives rather than one woman with several husbands.

Apparently the myth continues that if you so choose, by walking around Mt. Kenya seven times a man becomes a woman and a woman becomes a man. According to Charles, this is an early example of a democratic society; if you aren’t satisfied with your lot in life, you can elect to change it.

The Luo story is more one of treachery and intrigue:

Luanda Magere was a great warrior who lived on the shores of Lake Victoria. He was extremely powerful and strong, and it was said that he could not be killed – that his flesh was in fact made of stone. The traditional enemy of the Luo, the Nandi, had had enough of being slaughtered by Magere and his people, and plotted a way to infiltrate into the ranks of the Luo. The elders of the Nandi conspired to give the prettiest Nandi girl to Luanda to marry, claiming it to be a peace offering, but with the real intention that she discover a way to defeat him. They married, despite the warnings of the Luo elders. After many years of marriage, the girl had still not discovered his secret. One day, however, Luanda Magere fell ill, and needed medicine. He instructed his wife to cut his shadow in order to administer the medicine. In following his instructions, she noticed that his shadow bled when she cut it. That night, she ran back to her Nandi village and told the elders of Magere’s vulnerability – that it was his shadow that was made of flesh. The next battle between the Luo and the Nandi was a bloody one. Luanda alone killed many Nandi, and they were forced to retreat. As they were retreating, however, one soldier remembered what had been said about Luanda’s shadow, and threw his spear into the shadow. Luanda – true to the rumor  – fell and died, turning into a stone. This stone still stands in Kenya along the river Nyando.

finally!

At this point in the story, I won’t keep you in suspense any more. We finally found the waterfall. Two hours and seventeen kilometers later, we tumbled out of the 4×4, and stumbled down the rocks to see the waterfall.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t really seen water in five months, or maybe it was the journey that made it so good, but it was worth it. Arguably one of the most secluded, serene, beautiful spots I’ve ever seen. I think we were all surprised that there was actually water there, given that it hasn’t rained here since last October, but lo and behold, la chute d’eau.

I won’t belabour the trip back to Bamako; suffice it to say, my bed greeted me with open arms upon my return.

bko, you got nothin on this.

Fields around the City: Urban Ag in Bamako

sweet potato sunset

I have been sitting on this post for a while now; it was three months ago, to be exact, when I started writing it. Part of it is guilt about not having made much progress with my supposed ‘research project’ on urban ag. Part of it is a genuine lack of certainty about what exactly my thoughts are on urban ag, and what I could possibly write to contribute to the discussion. Which is why I am going back to school. For a long-ass time.

Starting in April, I spent a few weeks working with an urban ag co-op in Bamako. We sat under a mango tree for several hours a day talking about their issues and problems – illiteracy, c0-op organization, lobbying power and lack of agency concerning legislation about agriculture practices in Bamako, land tenure and insecurity, water issues, lack of resources, lack of NGO presence. The list goes on. I met with officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Regional Direction of Agriculture, and talked with researchers, ministers, officials, attachés, ad nauseum. The particular co-op we were working with is extraordinarily well organized, has a clear vision of where they want to go, and has some pretty significant connections within Bamako (their former president is now the president of the Chamber of Agriculture in the District of Bamako). But that doesn’t get them far when the system is not built to support them.

diagramming different organizational strategies

Bamako is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Africa; construction of offices and hotels and apartments takes precedent over land used to grow lettuce or beets, and farmers (who don’t, incidentally, pay income tax) don’t really have much power in the face of huge Libyan or Chinese companies that come in to build their massive complexes; the government doesn’t give weight enough to the potential problems with relegating producers to the periphery (or farther) of the city (i.e. how will the food be transported in to the city because what good does a vegetable market do 35 km from Bamako if the food is needed in Bamako?); a co-op expect is not really well positioned to move forward if out of 40 members, only 2 are somewhat literate; technical assistance and extension agents are there, but have only a vague sense of what is really needed and don’t work on an individual level with the producers. To further render difficult the task, the individualist mentality, built from the scarcity paradigm, tends to reign supreme: people group together not for the benefit of the group, but for the gains they can get, as an individual, by aligning themselves with other people. In other words, each member of the co-op is acting as a single unit that happens to be loosely associated with the larger group; land is cultivated individually, resources are owned individually, inputs are acquired individually – the only thing cooperative about the co-op, is their capacity to access things like NGO financing and trainings.

urban compost - the potential is huge.

All of this is quite daunting, and has caused me more than one existential crisis of the ‘what-the-hell-am-i-doing-here-anyway’ persuasion. The co-op I was working with in April, when it came right down to it, really just wanted resources. Someone to landscape new farming plots they had bought outside of the city; an organization to finance a tractor; organized transportation in and out of Bamako once they are inevitably kicked out of the city. And who am I to judge them for wanting these things? The problem becomes creating a sustainable development model from these things. Getting an NGO to buy you a tractor does not automatically teach you how to operate said piece of machinery, and said NGO will not help you when it falls into disrepair. There are organizations doing literacy trainings and capacity building work  but the problem is that the linkages don’t exist between the organizations in place and the co-ops that could really benefit from their services. State budgets are not constructed in a way to support long term growth, but look to shorter solutions to ‘reduce hunger’ or ‘increase productivity’. It’s a systemic problem that runs the length of the development chain – there are gaps and shortages and breaks in communication and mismanagement of funds and the list goes on.

But back to urban agriculture itself. Until the governments of cities realize how vital it is to the survival of ever-expanding urban populations, it will not be prioritized amongst city planners and zoning officials. If a city doesn’t demands that it be able to feed itself, it will constantly be relying on resources from an ever-more-scarce population of rural producers that often don’t have the means to produce even enough for themselves. Until we put a heavy enough emphasis on sustainable and safe food systems, come up with the innovations need to create these systems, are empowered enough to become a part of what we’ve created, we will forever rely on the currently negligent systems in places that have repeatedly and consistently failed.

So there’s my diatribe. (Excuse me while I step off my soap box and regain some composure.)

There is a way that this can work, and there are places and people and cities putting the process is in motion. The world is not an impossible puzzle to figure out; it’s just a complicated one. The fundamental need to feed ourselves – while slowly being moved to the top of the priority list of policymakers and other key people in the mix – is a need that will not go away. Cities cannot rely on rural areas to provide for them while continuously grow bigger and bigger and leaving behind a shrinking population of farmers. So abandoned lots in Detroit and Baltimore will become food gardens, and plots not yet turned into apartments or offices in Bamako will produce onions and carrots and sweet potatoes. Chickens and goats will be raised next to kindergartens, and it’ll all be cobbled together somehow. Eventually, though, the green space in cities will hopefully be fruit trees and cabbage patches rather than decorative ivy; city zoning will take agricultural production into consideration; and the concept of eating locally will be supported by governments and states, not just NYTimes op-ed columnists and CSA members.

gardens and football games

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.

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

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.)

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.