Category Archives: Mali

Blood in the Streets

I have finished my work with the rural (aspiring) fish farmers in Toula village, near the town of Bougouni. The farmers’ hope is that their fish ponds will provide additional food for their families, plus some extra to sell at the market in Bougouni. Much of my work entailed teaching basic business topics to these farmers. And much of my teaching entailed dealing with disruptions that one does not typically encounter in an American classroom. I have previously reported on the hunter who passed through our alfresco classroom with his shotgun and just bagged rabbit. This was not the only disruption. I pretty much got used to the crowing rooster, chickens, and guinea fowl scratching in the dirt in front of my flipchart.

As a teaching point I asked the class the age old business question: What is the difference between marketing and sales? One hand shot up, then another and another, soon over half the class had a hand in the air. I thought, wow, these farmers are really business-sharp. But it turned out they were not answering my question. Instead, they were waving at a friend bicycling along the road that ran past our outdoor classroom…and shouting greetings too. As well, they inquired about the health of his second wife and new baby and about the price of corn in the market. I just about had regained their attention when a young man herding thirty cows down the road lost control of his cattle. The herd veered off toward the village cotton field. Most of my students jumped up to divert the cows from their precious cash crop.

These sorts of interruptions tended to throw me off my patter. However, in the end, I suspect they learned something. After all, they had a teacher who very much enjoyed his work.

By the way, the difference between marketing and sales: Marketing is having what you can get rid of. Sales is getting rid of what you have.

After I finished my work, I could not leave Mali without viewing several of its most interesting sights:

• Djenne – with the largest mud building in the world, a six story mosque
• Timbuktu – at the end of the world, the legendary caravan town on the southern edge of the Sahara
• Mopti – the country’s major river port in the heart of the Niger River inland delta
• Dogon Country– Mali’s famous trekking destination and an area of incredibly rich culture

Let me tell you about my experience in the latter two locations.

Mopti lies at the confluence of the Bani and Niger Rivers. I hired a boat captain to take me through the waterways at this river junction in the inland delta. My captain – – a highly inflated title for someone who commanded no sailors, just a 25 foot long pinasse (canoe), a pole, an oar, and I guess, me as well – – spoke little French. I too know only a little. His little and my little didn’t correspond. Consequently, I was pretty much sailing blind, going wherever he poled and paddled me.

When we arrived in Kuakolodaga there was blood in the streets. Also blood in the dirt courtyards, in the dirt alleyways, pretty much all over. At the risk of sounding bloodthirsty, it was quite colorful: red on tan. By the time we got to this island, the sheep had been slaughtered. All over predominantly Muslim Mali, every family that can afford a sheep – – almost all – – purchase and slaughter one on the important Muslim feast day, Tabaski, the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son. If you want to get a relaxed view of Islam untainted by the media, by al Qaeda, by the Taliban, by radical Pakistani madrassas, then come to Mali. Some 90% of the population are Muslim. And most live a rather chill version of Islam. Veils are essentially unknown. In some villages the women go topless. (Try doing that in Saudi Arabia.)

On this special feast day the villagers were dressed in their finest: especially bright clothes, women with perfectly corn-rowed hair, a sort of yellowish mud makeup on the face. Even some with plucked and redrawn eyebrows. From that alone I could have been at a Manhattan charity event – – except for the blood in the streets.

By the time we poled downriver to the next village, Masaya, there the sheep had been quartered and were slow cooking over a low wood fire in a mud brick oven. I sat down to talk with some young men in an extended family. After a few minutes one of the guys stepped away, then shortly reappeared with several unrequested pieces of mutton on a bed of rice covered with green slime. Okra and baobab pods I think, but I can’t be sure. The rice was likely boiled in muddy Niger River water with the requisite dash of sand. I wasn’t keen on dining just then, especially this meal, but they were so hospitable to share their Muslim feast day mutton, that I felt obligated. The score: somewhat tasty, but highly chewy.

On to Dogon Country: The Dogon are an ethnic group of half a million, living in 700 villages scattered along a 150 mile long escarpment. Some villages perch on the plateau atop the escarpment, others lie on the plain at the base of the cliff. And in between are a series of abandoned cliff dwellings strewn along the length of the escarpment, sort of like a never ending Mesa Verde.

We trekked for four days and three nights through Dogon Country, about nine miles each day – – a healthy but not an inordinate distance to hike. However this was no cakewalk either. We both ascended and descended the 1600 foot high escarpment each day. So, many hours of our daily hike were essentially on nature’s stairmaster.

My guide, Batrou, spoke English fractured enough to be quaint, but clear enough to be occasionally understood. We were climbing up the 1600 foot high escarpment to a village that promised to have chicken and rice for lunch. (All villages promise to have chicken and rice for lunch.) Batrou was about 10 yards ahead when he suddenly wheeled around and sprang back towards me, closing the gap between us in about 3 milliseconds. His eyes were saucers; he said in perfectly clear English, ¨Big cobra.¨ I didn’t get to see the snake, it had slithered off into the bushes before I had the opportunity to talk it down from its agitated state. The last half of our ascent, post-cobra, was not as relaxing as the pre-cobra first half had been.

Maybe Dogon Country is the end of the world. I spent my first night in the aptly named village of Ende, in rather rustic conditions: I slept on the roof of my lodging – – too hot inside – – under a mosquito net and under the stars. I lost count in the high trillions. Neither Ende, nor the rest of the dozen villages I visited, had electricity or running water. I showered with a bucket and ladle. But what the Dogon country lacked in infrastructure, it more than made up in richness of culture.

One morning Batrou needed some advice about how to recover $500 that he had misplaced a couple of months previously. He took me with him to visit the village fortune teller cum traditional healer. Some might call her a witch doctor but that term would be pejorative.

The elderly Dogon lady sat us down in the shade of an alleyway and from a leather pouch she emptied out 20 small seashells onto a woven grass placemat. Next she scooped up the shells in her hand, brought them to her mouth, blew on them, talked to them, then tossed them back down onto the placemat. I have seen guys at the craps table in Vegas behave similarly.

She repeated this process several times until the shells landed in an auspicious configuration: perfectly side by side or one on top of another or one hanging off the edge of the mat. For each auspicious configuration she told Batrou the meaning and the ramification on his search for lost money. For twenty minutes she kept up this shell tossing, shell blowing, shell talking, and shell interpretation. This woman, like all Dogon soothsayers, was untrained. She had learned her trade, Batrou said, “From the spirits.”

Apparently so pleased with her advice to him (“you must sacrifice to recover your lost money”), Batrou asked her to evaluate my future. Good news: She said I – – and my family – – would have good luck. Consequently, any of you wishing to join my family, kindly email me. And also wire $100 to my bank account. She said I would have good fortune, too.

Before we left she gave me a good luck potion to rub on my face three times a day. The bottle she found for me to carry it in was previously filled with what looked like greenish curdled cream. She sort of washed it out. Not entirely certain that I wanted an unknown potion mixed with curdled cream on my face, I discarded the bottle when no Dogon were looking. I still feel guilty about this.

I will be leaving Mali tomorrow. Shortly after my arrival home I will post a final report in pictures on Flickr. Standby. And standby for a post from my next assignment: whenever and wherever that may be, but certainly from the edge.

Hieroglyphics Brought to Life

My work in Mali continues. On this assignment I am working with an American NGO: Winrock International, headquartered in Little Rock. I am based in Bougouni, a town of 25,000, in a mainly cotton growing region of southern Mali. I am assisting a newly formed fish farming cooperative with business training.

Bougouni is a regional center of sorts. But despite its importance and its size, there are just three proper restaurants in town. I am excluding the countless roadside stalls – – ten feet off the road – – that have a vat of hot oil to deep fry almost anything, including fly-encrusted raw meat awaiting cooking. The passing trucks and buses on the highway, stir up a fine coat of dust that settles over the food along with an essence of diesel fumes. My Malian colleague and interpreter, Bourama, won’t eat at these restaurants, so I don’t either.

We stick to the three proper restaurants. None of the three has a menu for its patrons to review. The waiter tells us what is available: meat with rice, chicken with rice, fish with rice. Pretty much day in and day out, lunch and dinner. So we are applying a restaurant and meal rotation plan: never the same restaurant nor the same dish two meals in a row. Variety is the spice of life.

Many days I spend in Toula, a small village just ten miles outside of Bougouni. The members of the fish farmers coop gather under a large shade tree next to their mud walled compound to listen to my morning business lesson. In the afternoons we usually visit their prototype fish pond to ensure that the fish are still alive. Since my lessons are given outdoors there are many interruptions to deal with. One day during my lesson a hunter from the village walked through our alfresco classroom carrying a shotgun and a recently bagged rabbit – – poor Peter Cottontail. My class erupted with congratulations and praise for the successful hunter.

That day the villagers ask me to stay for lunch. The village ladies cooked up enough food to feed the entire business class. As a visitor I was invited to dine in a nearby mud and thatch hut with senior members of the cooperative. Six of us sat on low stools around a large dishpan full of rice (I think it really was a dishpan shortly before it was filled with rice.) All six of us ate with our hands out of this communal vessel. And we ate the same meal found in restaurants: chicken and fish with rice. But that day, the chicken and fish were augmented by the ill fated Mr. Cottontail. That culinary change of pace was quite welcome. Variety is the spice of life.

A fair number of the villagers who attend my training classes are illiterate, so I use symbols as much as possible when I draw on the flip chart. For example: A fish silhouette with a sun above it to represent dried fish. A small fish with an arrow toward a larger fish to indicate size growth over several weeks of feeding. A fish with whiskers for a catfish. But just how do you represent such business terms as a board of directors with these signs? It is kind of fun trying to think creatively in symbols. Not to brag, but I could have done quite well as the court hieroglyph-ographer during the reign of Ramses II in ancient Egypt. (I kind of slipped that history lesson in without you noticing, didn’t I?)

One of the legacies of French colonialism in Mali is that French is the official language. However, outside of cities and towns (like Bougouni) where the educated speak French, numerous local languages are the means of communication. About 80% of Malians speak Bambara as their first or second language. Consequently, Bourama, my interpreter turns my English into occasional French and more frequent Bambara.

Through all of this I have learned that when working with an interpreter it takes twice as long as normal to share an idea with the audience. And twice as long to learn what their response is. I usually make up for this delay by talking twice as fast…and thinking double time as well. But it really wears me out.

Through all of this, I have trained about 30 people in fish production planning, marketing and sales of fish, how to organize a cooperative, and basics in business planning. And also in symbol drawing.

Enhanced Virility in Bougouni

We’ll come to the virility part soon. At the moment I am in Bougouni; and no, it is not an African country that you have never heard of. It is a small town in an African country that you have heard of. The country’s capital is Bamako. Need another hint? Its most famous city has been known to you since childhood…Timbucktoo. Bougouni, Bamako, and Timbucktoo are in the west African country of Mali.

Do not confuse Mali with Malawi in east Africa. (I reported on that country earlier this year.) But you can remove the aw from Malawi and get Mali. Like the other countries I have chronicled, Mali is poor: its GDP per capita ranks 205 of 227 countries tracked – – $1,200 per person vs. $47,000 in the U.S. It is a large country, almost twice as big in size as Texas…but less populated: 14.2 million people live here, 25.1 million live in Texas.

To find Mali, put your finger on Burkina Faso and go north one country. If this is confusing, try moving one country east from Mauritania. Alternatively, head due south from the southern tip of Spain into the bulge of West Africa until you reach landlocked Mali – – shaped a bit like a butterfly in flight. So, you can think of Mali as a big, poverty stricken butterfly. But a beautiful one.

I will be working here for 2.5 weeks, helping a fish farmers’ cooperative. They are attempting to raise tilapia and catfish in hand dug ponds. I think I was asked to participate in this assignment due to my reputation as a talented aqua-culturist. Actually, the aqua-culture talent is Joe Sullivan, like me an American volunteer. His role is to teach the aspiring fish farmers how to build effective ponds and how to raise fish. My job is to help the fish farmers develop their sales, marketing and production plans.

From Joe I learned that tilapia are mouth brooders. After the female lays her eggs, the male will fertilize them. The female will then scoop up the eggs in her mouth, where they will incubate until hatching. She will not eat – – cannot eat – – until they hatch and swim out of her mouth. While still tiny, if they spot a threat, say a wading heron or a hungry catfish, the little tilapia will swim back into mommy’s mouth. This flight to mouth-safety will continue until they can no longer fit there. Fascinating.

The Malians are extremely hospitable. Several times each day, they will interrupt our work to offer strong, hot, sweet tea in a jigger-sized glass. One holds the scalding glass by the slightly less scalding jigger rim and quickly downs the tea. Speed is important because, in this poor country, there are only two or three glasses available to serve five to ten people at a meeting. As guests, Joe and I are usually served first. Once we have finished, the glasses are refilled (no washing) and offered to the remaining people at the meeting. At least I get to drink first. Except that typically a second and even third round is offered. And I feel obliged to partake at each offering, otherwise I would be rude. So far I have not gotten sick.

And I have not gotten sick from the spicy meat brochette they have served us as a daily snack. Thin strips of grilled beef are skewered on a wooden stick, then we rub the beef-on-a-stick in a dry mixture of ground peanuts, millet, chili and other spices. And also, dried, ground goat testicles. They say that final ingredient improves virility. I have taken a second helping every day.

For those of you interested in improving your backyard tilapia ponds, get ready for my intervention when I return to the U.S. And be advised, I have been eating a lot of that goat gonad spice.