It has been awhile since we last posted because we have been busy with work and fun. We finished up the first project and it was great to see the greenhouse with irrigation, weeded garden, wormery, and mural all complete. A bunch of supporters of the project from Conquito and the community came for a presentation of diplomas to all of us as well as all of the kids we worked with and the engineers. We received many thanks and so much appreciation. There is a great community behing this project that assure us they will keep it sustained. At the end of the ceremony was a guitar performance by a son of one of the teachers and Luchito, our favorite engineer. Then, we sat down to an awesome meal of salads and beans and corn and fresh juice with produce from the garden. After lunch we played futbol and then basketball. Ecuador dominated in futbol, but we came back to win 10-9 in our basketball game. The games were a fun goodbye, but it is sad to think that we may never see these people again.
With the first project finished we headed to the coast. When we arrived at the airport we were greeted by Alicia’s teacher from UNC, Jeff, and his family, including; Tanya (his wife); Claudia (his 6 year old daughter; and Rowen (his 3 year old son) From the airport, two rangers from the national park who we would be working with drove us two hours two Puerto Lopez.
Puerto Lopez is a small fishing town on the coast of Ecuador, southeast of Quito. As such, I think we were all expecting a tropical coastline, with a constant temperature of about 100 degrees. What we found was a bit different; the landscape was beautiful, but could hardly be called tropical. The climate was warm, but never reached more than 85 degrees, and the coast line was studded with cacti and very dry trees, with little to no moisture apart from the beautiful ocean.
Because our stomachs were yelling to us in Spanish and English for food, Tachi took us to a restaurant on the beach that is known throughout Ecuador for its seafood. We ordered and by the time the food reached our table over an hour later, we were more than ready to fully appreciate the display of delicious in front of us. Garlic shrimp, grilled fish, and patacones (a fried banana side). As I could not appreciate the shellfish due to my allergy, I opted for pulpo, octopus, in a spicy garlic sauce. Satisfied we all walked across the street to the sand and spashed around with Jeff’s kids, Rowen and Claudia, as the sun set a brillant pink over the water. We then made our way over to some beach chairs around a huge bonfire.
After waking up to the rooster next to the hostel at 5am, Marie and I ran bright and early as the masses of fisherman were coming to shore with their morning catch. Then we met up at the national park office to head to our worksite which turned out to be steps to a lookout point over a beautiful beach. We drove to the project site with a few of the park rangers that we would be working with. Our project was to build stairs on a half mile trail that led up from a beach to a look-out point at the end of a tall cliff. While most of the stairs were already in place, many were rotting or simply needed replacing. The work consisted of carrying about 75 boards down approximately a half mile of beach to the base of the trail, digging out the boards that made up the old stairs, and replacing them with the new boards. We secured all of the boards in place by hammering wooden stakes, cut from the surrounding trees, into the ground on the down-hill side of the board, and filling in the area behind the board with dirt. Even with the help of the park rangers, the work was some of the hardest that we’ve had in Ecuador so far, and the heat and humidity definitely took their toll. Jeff and Tanya traded off watching their children on the beach so that they could help out building steps too, and their younger daughter Claudia even lent a hand for a while. After getting our tools taken away from us by national park men multiple times, we realized that we were going to have to prove to these machisto men that women can work as well. By the end of the day they had realized that at least these gringo women can get the job done right.
Back in Puerto Lopez, Tachi took us to yet another awesome restaurant, a Colombian restaurant owned by a friend of hers. The restaurant specialized in patacones pisa’os. These giant plates of fried banana were filled with your choice of seafood, meat, race, beans, cheese. Others opted for arepas, a Colombian specialty that consists of a white corn patty with your toppings of choice. After another satisfying meal, followed by the beach, we all went to bed early to prepare for the next days work.
Our second and final day of work went by surprisingly quickly!! We had an extra set of hands because Charlie had made it out to the coast and we powered through the steps! We made a system of Chris and Marie knocking out the old, termite eaten steps and cleaning the step area of the rotten wood, then Jeff, Adrian and I coming in with the new steps and stakes and securing them in. Charlie and Tachi were making new stakes by cutting branches and chopping the ends with machettis to make a point. Our system was working wonderfully, and then the men from the state park showed up. It was frustrating to have our tools taken away and be “shown” again how to do everything when clearly we knew because we’d been doing it already for over an hour, but we sucked up our pride and went along with their ways. After a quick morning of strenuous labor, be finished the steps to the Mirador by lunchtime. Tuna sandwitches and banana in our bellies, we suited up and cooled off in the refreshing ocean waves. We body surfed and then crashed on the sand for a bit of a nap.
Back in Puerto Lopez we cleaned up and then hung on the beach for awhile before deciding to return to Colombian for dinner, then returned to the hostel and fell asleep under an interestingly red sky. I woke up to the room shaking at 3:30am, unsure whether I was still dreaming. A few seconds later I was fully awake and sure that it was an earthquake. I heard Tachi talking and went outside to meet up with Charlie and her. I think earthquakes make people a little frantic and nervous, because there was a man shouting that we all needed to run to the mountains because in 3 hours a tsunami was coming that would wipe us out. Luckily it never came but unluckily there was little hope for more sleep!
When we returned to Bamako, we met with the tailor to assess the quality of our sample scrubs order. The sizes matched the sample scrubs that we brought, but it was also very useful to see the fabrics we had chosen in actual scrubs form. Some were surprisingly great as scrubs, while other patterns seemed too “busy” to be solid sellers in the market. While we were finishing up the workshop, we took the time to paint the African Sky logo on one of the walls. It was fun to do, looked great, and we even drew neighborhood crowds to see what we were doing!
Much of our final days were spent with Yacouba’s family. Kristen’s dad had sent a box of various styled scrubs, but also included the game, “Hungry Hungry Hippos!” Hippos are local to Mali, so we aptly renamed the game, “Mali-Mangez Mangez,” and the kids loved it! We each had traditional comples made, got henna tattoos and had our hair braided by the children. After our short visit, I felt like I was actually part of their family…and I can’t wait to go back!
While we were moving east of Bamako, we took a short trip to Dogon country. Dogon country is an area of Mali where the steep cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment are located. Some Dogon tribes built their houses on the sides of these cliffs (reminiscent of the Native American adobe dwellings of the southwest). Our car ride to the cliffs was an adventure (no paved roads for 3 hours), but the scenery was beautiful!
As we were walking around the cliffs, we saw an old man drawing lines in the sand – he was creating a sand divination. The lines were actually questions with small nuts placed by each question. During the night, the fox would come to answer the questions. If the nuts were gone, the answer was yes.
We stayed in the coolest hotel I’ve ever been in, by the way. Hotel Kambary was made up of small dome shaped pods with mesh windows and leather plugs as “curtains.” We even got to play “Dogon putt-putt” and had to get the golf ball through some amazing courses (such as through one eye of a Dogon mask!). Very eclectic!
Our time in Markala was filled by many gatherings with local leaders and teachers. We began with a well dedication in Welentiguila, across the river from Markala. The well had been funded by an Emory student earlier in the year. When we arrived, we were greeted by hundreds of children chanting “African Sky! Mali!” They led us to the school site, where the well was located and where the celebration would commence. As we settled in, the crowd began to dance and sing to the beat of a rhythmic drum. From the crowd, a creature emerged, led by a fellow villager. As the dance of the gazelle intensified, so to did our adrenaline. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being in the middle of Mali, surrounded by loving and thankful villagers, and having series of masked dancers greet you to the sound of drums and chants. The village presented us with 5 more absolutely amazing masked dancers.
We made our way to the well site, where we each got to pull up a ceremonial bucket of water. This is no easy feet, however! Consider pulling up about 2 gallons of water from the bottom of the well…and then repeating for the rest of your family. This reminded me of an environmental science class that I took in which we were given a similar task. We were given an empty 10 gallon paint bucket and instructed to fill it up at the nearest water source. Sounds easy, right? Nope, we were not allowed to use the sink or any spicket type source. The nearest outdoor source was a small creek on campus, and it took two of us to carry it back to our building! As we saw firsthand, this is an everyday reality for most Malians. You should experiment by filling a bucket up outside and using this method to collect your water throughout the day. You may begin to think twice about how much water you are really using.
Also, while in Markala, we visited a Spiruline production facility. Spiruline is a type of algae that is very nutritious and supports the immune system (you may have seen this supplement in the US as a powder in shops like Smoothie King). The production takes very little space and there may be a possibility for expansion into a future project at village schools.
Another school site that we visited was located on the river. The river is a vibrant community gathering place for not only fishing, but bathing and washing. Here, we not only saw the men and women race their dug out boats, but we actually partook in a race! The boats are very long, carved out pieces of wood, that are tied together in some areas. The river is not that deep, so you have the option of using paddles or long sticks to help you along. While we were here, we were also presented with a large gift of fish, and we proceeded to eat of meal of beans, tomatoes, onions, rice, fish and sauce.
Since we were staying with a new family in Markala, we also received new togomas, and spent the afternoon meeting and spending time with their families. A major realization that occured during this trip to Mali, was that development work is more than just projects. You can send in all the money in the world, but if you don’t take the time to create relationships, then the project may not last after you leave. I saw myself struggling with this concept while I was there. In America, we live in a 9 to 5 world where we’re obsessed with “getting things done.” We also have to realize that the obsession is fueled by the fact that most amenities and conveniences are handed to us. We drive to the grocery store and grab the lettuce off the shelf, rather than worrying about growing it ourself or walking a few miles to the market. So, don’t feel as though you haven’t achieved a lot if your project takes longer than expected. You’re not working with the same resources you might be used to, so you have to think outside of the box and channel your creativity. The time you spend building relationships will help it sustain itself in the future.
Our final stop in Markala was visiting with Jigiya. Jigiya is a support group for the disabled, which helps to reintroduce them into a working society by providing start up resources for the creation of small shops and businesses. African Sky has had a successful relationship with Jigiya, and the members presented us with breathtaking performances. Even those who had trouble walking would dance on their hands! It was utterly amazing.
Before departing Dissan, we took a tour of the village and school complex. The village would like to add a middle school to the two primary school houses that they already have. A middle school would not only keep older students in the village during planting and harvest time, but would be a magnet for students from other villages (a potential economy boost for Dissan).
We left as we came, but our stay was not long enough for me. I loved leaving the hustle and bustle of the city. We traveled by bus for twelve hours to Markala, stopping frequently in roadside towns, and teaching ourselves card games to keep busy. It was amazing to see how the ecology changed over such a short distance. Once in Markala, we stayed at the home of Tamba Traore, a regional director for African Sky.
We woke up very early to give the scrubs fabric and sizes to the tailor, and then headed to Dissan. Bus schedules in Mali are only a “suggestion” and really depend on how many people have bought tickets. As we piled onto the old Greyhound bus (not air-conditioned and the windows don’t open, mind you) so did everyone else, their items for sale, large pales, and even animals (I was gaping at the man in front of me who had two live chickens in his hands – I think we were equally startled by each other, since it’s quite normal to bring your goats/chickens with you on the bus).
We hopped off the bus in a nondescript roadside village to wait for our “rides” into Dissan. After a few minutes, several mopeds drove up out of the sandy savanna. We hopped onto the back of the mopeds and rode off on unpaved trails, past small villages, past fields being planted, until we came across Dissan. I could already feel that it was significantly cooler here and I could actually breath in the non-polluted air! Yacouba’s older brother, Brahman, greeted us upon our arrival and would act as our host during our stay.
As we relaxed with the family, we were constantly asked to move into the shade as the sun moved, in politeness, since they didn’t want us to be burned. The children began to gather, but unlike the neighborhood children in Bamako, the Dissan kids were much more hesitant to speak. As we ate dried peanuts (a staple crop here), two elders taught us greetings, with much amusement. We ate a wonderful dinner of spaghetti and chicken at Brahman’s complex and headed in as it began to rain. Even though night was falling, villagers headed back to the fields in the rain, since it was critical planting time with wet soil.
Today was a slow day since some of us weren’t feeling well (heat and culture shock mix). For lunch, we met with a current third year Peace Corps worker to discuss a project idea he wanted to pitch to Dr. Lacy. His project is unconventional, but effective. His idea is to collect human urine and use it as a fertilizer. Urine is sterile (given that the owner is healthy) and contains lots of nutrients. He has devised a system to collect and disperse the samples throughout small garden plots.
We started the day at Yacouba’s, and the girls got to cook! We sliced onions, pestled peppercorns, peeled carrots and peppers, and made a mixture of pestled parsley and spices. With the addition of beef and fish, we left the concoction to work down into a red sauce. While we waited, the neighborhood children taught us phrases in Bamanankan and French, and we taught English in return. It’s amazing how much you can communicate, even without a common language.
We gathered the sewing machines and dropped them off at the workshop. We set the machines on the tables and took pictures to be created into a “how-to” guide for fitting the machines into the table (just in case, but it will probably not be needed since this is the standard machine and table type that they use in Mali).
Our bags finally arrived today! After freshening up, we traveled to Yacouba’s for our naming ceremony. In Mali, visitors are named after an important family member, after which you both become togomas (namesakes) to each other. Our names were as follows:
Michael – Abu Sangare (eldest brother of Yacouba)
Kristen – Matu Traore (named after Yacouba’s brother’s wife)
Katherine – Abi Samake (named after Yacouba’s wife)
With our new names, we soon commenced in the traditional joking between persons of certain last names. The Malian culture is very light-hearted, and the jokes even provide strangers with a sense of connection. As is customary with any visit, we proceeded with three cups of tea. The first cup consisted of straight green tea, the second: half tea/half sugar, and the third was a very sweet sugary mixture. The cups were passed to visitors first, then to family and elders. An interesting twist to the process was that the tea was poured from a very high position, creating a thick foam at the top (a skilled tea maker can create lots and lots of foam). As you drank your tea, however, you left as much froth for the next person as possible.
We began the day with a trip to the national museum to see exhibits on Malian textiles and iconography. The displays showed many types of Malian textiles, and how the styles have changed over the years – it was a great tie-in with the scrubs project!
From the museum, we traveled to the textile market to choose a selection of fabrics for our sample scrubs order. The market was stocked full with anything and everything you could imagine! You could buy fabrics, hubcaps, raw meat, fried fish, electronics, etc… creating a whirlwind of sights, sounds and flavors. We chose five different fabric patterns for the scrubs, a mixture of funky and conservative, and decided to have them made in M, L, and XL, for now. We will have one tailor use the fabric to create a sample order of twenty scrubs, so that we can compare sizes and quality later in our stay.
While we were in the market, we also checked the pricing for treadle bases. We had only brought one base with us to Mali, with the intention of having copies made by a blacksmith. We found a great deal on treadle bases that had the wooden top already built in, so we strapped them on to the top of a taxi and dropped them off at the workshop. The workshop consists of a long room with a store front in a row of shops.
Once we were done at the workshop, we made our way to our Bamako host’s (Yacouba – country director for African Sky) house for dinner. This was our first (of many!) traditional meal, which consisted of a large communal bowl of rice, potatoes, and fish with a vegetable sauce. To my surprise, it was delicious! While we ate a dessert of mangoes, we learned some local Bamanankan phrases for mealtime.