Wednesday, December 19, 2012

From Mali to the Sidelines

You are probably thinking sports right now and what would I be doing writing about sports, I am not a sports fan and do not intend about writing on the subject unless it has to do with economics, politics, social issues or art all of the things I contemplate on the sidelines. Shifting this blog to just everyday American concerns and whatever strikes my fancy. My assessment of my place in the world is small because even though I live in a democracy I have one vote and that one vote does not give me a whole lot of voice. I watch the politicians, the courts, the congress do their job not always feeling that they take me or my family, or my neighborhood, or my community, or my State, or my civil rights into account. I escape into photography, the 9 to 5, my friends and family and now this blog. So how do you get a voice in these times? Letter writing campaigns, demonstrations, becoming active in a political party where only two parties really have a voice, joining the League of Women Voters, giving to the Human Rights Campaign Fund. What? Some of us just step out of the political arena and take beautiful photos, which I have done, or have families that take up so much of our time that we don’t think of becoming active, which I have done, or dong development work in remote areas of the world, which I have done, or organizing in our communities, which I have done. After much thought blogging seems one way to impact the world, the local community, my friends and family for change or at least start a conversation. We talk a lot about race it’s the one ism that is OK to fight against but what happened to sexism, classism. There is no democracy as long as the capitalist corporations on a strong hold on the elections and are treated as individuals.

Re-Entry: Two Years Later

Following up on my re-entry back into American culture. While in Mali all of us Peace Corps Volunteers craved , I might even say yearned for the US; for the food, the bathrooms, the facets, the washer and dryers. But arriving home in the US home brought up quite different feelings. Africa had become my home and I was homesick. So even though Peace Corps’ staff warned us it would be hard to re-enter, they said our family and friends would be happy to see us but would not understand what we were going through. They warned us people would not want to hear whole stories about what we went through and what we did; people would not understand how deeply this experience affected us. I was fortunate, my daughter came and visited me for three months while I was in Africa, and she was also accepted into Koro’s family my African Family. We had a phone call just before I arrived home and Lani said “ I can hardly wait until you get back so we can talk about Africa and how it affected us”. Africa changed both of our lives. People returning from the developing world always share the grocery store experience but what affected me and surprised me was the visit to the pet store. How would I tell Koro, my African sister, about this pet store kept running through my mind? “Yes Koro all of these things are for dogs and cats” I would recite in French in my mind and I envisioned Koro’s expression that looked exactly like she looked on her first elevator ride. The pet store also brought to mind how the pet industry has expanded and how we treat our pets like members of the family in contrast to how people in the developing world treat their dogs as utilities to eat the scrape food or guard the house. In Mali even one of the big grocery stores in Bamako was not as extravagant as the pet stores in the US. During my time working in collectives in the 1970’s we debated needs verses wants, my time in Africa gave basic needs a whole new meaning. One conversation that sticks in my mind while traveling through Europe on my way home was a conversation on a Portuguese farm I was staying at. We were talking about what would happen during a big disaster the conversation came around to healthcare then to dentist. People were concerned that they couldn’t get to a dentist during a disaster. I sat there reflecting on my point of reference which was the women I worked with in Africa whose teeth were rotten with no sign of a disaster except for poverty. I’m thinking there is no way a dentist would come to mind as a concern of during a disaster, what would worry me is clean drinkable water and basic food which is exactly the concerns of the developing world and Mali in particular and how out of touch with basic needs the people in this conversation were. My reference point for looking at the world had changed so much. My reference point was not something I shared with people very often accept to say “Because of my African experience I see things differently” most of the time without going into detail. It was never my intention to tap into that American guilt which I personally didn’t feel very often even when I went back to visit after being gone for two years from Mali. I just want people to know that things like “Fair Trade” is a luxury not many Africans can afford that so many artisans need to sell their product to food on their table. Peace Corps warned that our place in our families would have changed during the two plus years gone. After a month of being home we celebrated in style the first Christmas for me in what seemed like a long time. I always orchestrated Christmas Eve. Mostly my family would come over and my partner, Laura, and I would do what was a custom in my family. This first Christmas Laura’s family came and stayed for a week, and she orchestrated the dinner, the presents, the time and it seemed like no one listened to me anymore. It did occur to me that Laura kept up my family’s tradition the two years I was gone with the help of my sister. Laura became closer to my side of the family and my daughter while I was gone as a result we are a much closer knit family. Before I left Mali I knew that my health had deteriorated. I had a foot injury, I had developed a lymphoma on my shoulder, been exposed to TB, lost a lot weight, my hair had thinned and my overall health was not good. Peace Corps did give me vouchers for test, checkups, mammograms and TB follow up. So many doctors’ appointments, everyone pocking at me, requiring more test. It was exhausting. Finally one day when I had two test scheduled I was handed a list of side effects on some die they were going to shoot up my veins for a CAT scan and then I went to the other test and they handed me a whole new set of side effects for that test, I informed them I just couldn’t go through with the test on that day and would reschedule soon. Now two years after returning Laura says my hair is looking better but not the same as before I left, my foot is good enough to bicycle again, my lymphoma has been removed, finished with the TB medication and things are still getting better but like my outlook on life I don’t think physically I will ever be the same. Some of it is that I am in my sixty’s, in another volunteer’s words “Living in Mali is like dog years on your health” and this was sure true for me. Do I regret going to Mali in the Peace Corps, not ever. Not a day goes by that I don’t I think about and appreciate that I was a part of the community and felt like I contributed every day of my service and the changes in my outlook on the world.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

People Ask “Why did you join the Peace Corps.”

Years ago as I was filling out the Peace Corps application all I knew was that I had always wanted to join the Peace Corps, beyond that I couldn’t express why. Never did make it through that application process. Two years ago at age 58 I did finish the application process and receive my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps I still couldn’t answer the question “Why.” Today I think I can.

Recently a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer said he joined the Peace Corps to become a better person. As most of us I too struggle with the good and evil within myself. After 25 years in the business world my good self could use a good pep talk along with some new points of references. The Peace Corps was guaranteed to do that. It will be interesting going home and testing out my new perspective. Since I am still in the changing phase I only have some idea what those new perspectives are.

A lot of reasons for joining the Peace Corps have to do with my nature. My hopes and dreams never did match my father’s advice to me in high school which was to take shorthand so that I could have a skill to support myself in case something happened in my marriage. With this advice my future looked grim. Luckily I did not take his advice. My life goals, successes and dreams have never been motivated by money or security. As an Aquarian my thoughts tend to first go locally than globally.

I came to Mali my vision of what I wanted to do was to tap into the community organizing skills I used in the 70’s when we organized the community by starting a food coop, a woman’s clinic, and a day care. A lot of that organizing time was just hanging out with people in the community. Meetings only happened when an idea arose that was worth while following through on. I gave a lot and got a lot during this time.

The same goes with having foster children. Having foster children gave me an extended family with outreach into the community. The kids were and are amazing every single one of them. There is a moment I remember with my daughter that I will never forget, she thanked me for having foster children and said it enriched her life. She put into words things that sometimes I have a hard time saying. Again as in my community work in the 70’s I gave a lot and got a lot.

The times of organizing the community and having foster children were the times when the good in me shone through, times of meeting and working with great people. Before coming to Mali I had no idea that these skills would transfer to being a Peace Corps volunteer. Even in the beginning as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa I was skeptical that with cultural and language barriers the skills I learned doing community organizing and raising foster children might not get anything done.

Luckily I was wrong. Koro my Malian counter part and I networked from Ghana to the Ivory Coast to Segou and Bamako in Mali. We met great people saw their work and even received some help along the way. We learned about their production, skills and marketing programs. Koro and I became the best of friends. We met each other’s families and have become family to each other over the last two years.

Meeting members of the community here in Koutiala, Mali and participating in activities such as the Collective des Femme a Koutiala, the Union of Associations of Artisans of Koutiala (UAAK), and the twenty five professional associations that are members of the UAAK have given me endless resources and projects to work on. My host family where I live has been welcoming and supportive.. There are so many others I can’t list them all.

Now with less than a week here in Mali I can say I did tap into my community organizing skills. The Bogolan Association has new products, new production skills and new math skills to further develop their business. Many artisans have attended literacy classes, the women’s association has acquired the skills to start a soap production business, and recycling has been introduced with the skills to make some products out of the recycled material as an incentive.

Peace Corps offered great support in the way of technical training, language classes, medical coverage and the encouragement to be a part of the community where we live. And because of this there are so many friends that I will be taking back to America in my heart never to be forgotten. What a gift.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Women's Soap Making Training

During the 2010 planning meetings for the Bueareau de Femme (Women’s Association) of the Union of Associations of Artisans of Koutiala the woman asked me as a Peace Corps Volunteer to help fund and plan a soap making formation. I was happy to do so but was not sure how I was going to pull it off.

As a volunteer I have attended many shea butter trainings. Trainings on how to make quality shea oil, soap making, skin lotions, oil for cooking and many other products. Many of you may remember the shea butter making training that I help fund and plan as my first funded project here in Mali.

In Mali shea is the main oil for cooking and often is an income generating activity for women in villages. Shea nuts are so easy to get you just collect them during growing season out in the fields. Shea is so important in Mali that is illegal to cut down a shea nut tree. Shea butter products in the United States are gaining popularity. You will find shea products in the fair-trade, organic, beauty product isle at your health food store.

Luckily a volunteer told me about a woman, Fanta Diollo, in a small village just outside of Bamako who makes soap for exporting and was willing to come and teach the women of Koutiala how to make four different kinds of soap, cucumber, heemé, honey and Bf.

The women enjoyed the training and are going to start soap production soon. They wanted to pick a name for the soap so that others would not copy it and to implement a marketing strategy. They decided to call it Koutiala Kounadi, Kounandi being my Malian name which means good luck in Bambara. I was over whelmed at the gesture. What a privilege to have a brand of soap named after me.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mali battles over women's rights

Rebecca Stewart
Guardian Weekly,

Deep in the vast, burnt-orange Malian desert in the town of Gao, 17-year-old Zina is getting ready for school. One of the luckier Malian women, she is among the 33% who can read and write. "I hope to be a doctor when I finish my studies," she says, through wide eyes framed by her vivid blue veil. "I'm not sure if I'll get married before my studies or afterwards," she adds "but inshallah, I'll find a good husband."

While the professional workplace is slowly opening up to women, with a few female lawyers, doctors and MPs, it remains predominantly the realm of men. I ask if she thinks she'll marry another doctor and how she feels about being equal to her husband – a privilege denied her mother. "We won't be equal," she says with a nervous smile. "I will always be inferior to my husband. That's how it is in Islam. I never want to be equal to my husband."

Zina's pregnant, 19-year-old sister Nana is giggling. "It's not like that here," she says. "Your parents chose your husband and you must obey him. It is in the Qu'ran and it is in the law."

According to Brahim Koné, president of the Malian Association of Human Rights, the position and treatment of women is one of the biggest human rights abuses in Mali today. "If the authorities aren't careful, Mali risks back-sliding," he says.

Under family law, Nana's inferiority it not just cultural, it is imposed by the state. She has a legal obligation to guarantee "obedience" to her husband. This means she can be divorced for anything from burning the dinner to refusing to have sex; she is allowed to inherit only an eighth of her husband's property if he dies; and while the legal marriage age for men is 18, for women it is just 15.

Some seeds of change were sown in Mali more than a decade ago, when the ministry for the promotion of women, children and the family, in association with certain women's groups and NGOs, proposed changes to laws that discriminated against women.

Then, in 2003, the UN Human Rights Committee said changes were necessary to bring local law into line with internationally ratified conventions. "Why did we ratify the conventions emanating from Europe and the west just to then reject the changes and say that the west is imposing its values on our society," asks Maitre M'Bam Diarra, mediator of the republic – the senior-most legal figure in the country – and a leading human rights activist.

"The changes didn't just start now," she says. "There have been several revisions coming from the fact that we need to harmonise local laws with international ones. But what is in the code [family law] is nothing new."

She is flanked by armed bodyguards. "They say that those of us who support the code are blasphemers," she says. "The imam of Kati, a town just outside Bamako, spoke in favour of it, and now he is in hiding in fear of his life."

In August 2009, the national assembly adopted the code with all its provisions. Soon after, demonstrators took to the streets in the capital, Bamako, and in Timbuktu and Mopti, shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and holding banners declaring: "No to the new code."

Weeks later, President Amadou Toumani Touré, instead of ratifying the law, sent it back to the assembly to be reconsidered "to ensure a calm and peaceful society". Touré, a former general, overthrew a military government in 1991 and handed power back to civilians the following year. He retired from the army in 2001 and was elected president in 2002. He was re-elected in 2007, in elections deemed free and fair by international observers.

The president's backing down on the code reflects the political power of those who oppose it.

"This code has no respect for the inherent values of our society," says Mahmud Dicko, president of Mali's High Islamic Council. "It's just the way our society is organised. The head of the family is the man, and everyone in the family has to obey him." The equality of women is one of the most contentious provisions in the code, along with the secularisation of marriage and the proposal to give women inheritance rights on divorce – all of which, opponents argue, run counter to Islam.

Many of those protesting against the code were women. Hadja Safiatou Dembelé, president of the National Union of Muslim Women's Associations, says: "There are passages of this code that are incompatible with Islam, and that's why we oppose it. We will never leave our religion for this code".

For those fighting for equal rights, there are two main issues. First, the interpretation of a woman's role in Islam, and second, the position of women in terms of economics and education. "It's very difficult for illiterate women to either read the Qu'ran or assert their legal rights," says Maitre M'Bam. "[But] the problem isn't the Qu'ran. It's just a question of interpretation."

Back in Gao, Zina is a symbol of the solution, of a new Mali. She is a devout Muslim and has been told the Qu'ran makes her inferior to men. But she is also part of a generation of women breaking out of the traditional mould. And it is through women like her that change will ultimately come.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bogolan – Traditional, Commodity or Fine Art

Images of wood statues, beaded jewelry, and bogolan represent what Americans view as African culture. Thus African culture in the minds of Americans becomes a glorified homogenized icon. How do you dissect this homogenized icon in an effort to rid Americans of the stereo types of Africa? Africa is a big continent. Even in Mali where I serve as a Peace Corps volunteer there are diverse cultures and people which is reflected in the more than nine local languages and in Dogon country every village speaks a different distinct dialect.

In the Peace Corps we are trained to do development work. The message was to develop skills so that the people we work with can make more money and thus have a better life. Working with artisans a debate is in the forefront of my everyday activities as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer. The debate goes like this; to what standard of development am I aiming for and how much of the indigenous culture will be sacrificed for the development work I do.

The concepts of traditional, authenticity, and contemporary, are tossed around in the fair trade shops that have sprung up all over the western world. These concepts are coined to accompany products that have been produced in mass production to sell to western consumers. The goal is to translate long time traditional practices and motifs into commodities for the soul purpose of business. During a training in Mali that I attended a fair trade organization gave a presentation on 2009 Colors and Designs. Watching the Malian translate phrases into Bambara such as “Winter Colors, Fall Colors, Warm Colors,” was painful. There is no winter or fall here in Mali. As a volunteer put it how do you teach Malians about color when they don’t learn what primary colors are.

Many organizations have sprung up in the past decade that “Help” local international artist to achieve the goal of translating traditional crafts into commodities. People from these different organizations go to a place already producing some local tourist art and works with them in product development and business practices thus bringing in a lot of money and trade that allows the artist to become part of the middle class while hundreds of struggling artists continue producing on a small scale struggling just to feed them selves.

We criticize Africa as undeveloped and at the same time glorifying African traditions. What kind of message are we sending to people of Africa? This phenomenon can be said of Native Americans, and other developing groups of people the world over. In the development process it is important for Africa to define and redefine its own culture and goals both as nations and as individuals. I admire Africans. As much as the western world has tried to colonize, enslave or genocide the people and develop the continent, Africans have remained proud in their indigenous and diverse cultural. Bravos Africa!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ethnography

Ethnography as defined by the dictionary is the study and systematic recording of human cultures, exactly the thing that my blog has tried to do. Many anthropologist believe that it is important for people to tell their own story.

This project was inspired my daughter Lani BonaDea. I gave my camera to two different Malians to let them tell their own story and this is what they pictured.

Owa's Family













































Awa the mother of my name sake.