Sunday, 29 January 2012

Marriages and Markets!

Last weekend we went to Bamakos largest market ‘Le grand marche’ via a Sutrama! It was our first time riding the sutrama which is Bamako’s public transport option – basically a very old, very dodgy green minivan that can apparently fit 30people. I counted 20 people in the one I was in and a few of us only had one buttock cheek on a piece of bench during this time so I think 30 is optimistic. The sutrama moves at snail pace and the back door of our one was held on with rope but it got us to the market and for a mere 15p. The Grand Marche was unbelievable – I have never witnessed so many people in one place at once! It contained all sorts of smaller markets, from fruit and veg, to meat, fabric, fetish and artisan sections. There was a sea of people everywhere you looked and to move through you had to just go with the general flow of people. Occasionally a person would try their luck and barge through with a wheelbarrow of produce or a goat!
I was shocked by the shear amount of extreme poverty. Bare-footed children begging with empty tomato tins were everywhere and occasionally we saw paraplegic men dragging themselves along the ground as their legs weren’t functioning. Everything was on sale including crocodile skins, dead monkey heads and tails that could have been from anything. I was shocked to also come across some Ivory L Nevertheless; we all managed the hard task of choosing some material for our African dresses that we were later measured for by the local tailor.
Saturday also seemed to be washing day as everywhere I looked in the city, woman were out in full force hand washing clothes in buckets and tin baths - I sub sequentially followed suit and did my washing also but in the confines of the back courtyard. Not sure how comfortable I feel about washing my undies in front of the whole neighbourhood! Funnily enough Sunday seemed to be bath day with the same families dipping their kids in the same tin baths the following day – once again in the street!
The following day we experienced a stark contrast from the market when we attended a party of a friend of a friend called Alfa, who we believe is a nightclub owner and entertainment promoter. The area and host of the party was clearly very wealthy however dinnertime was a reminder that were in another culture when massive sharing plates of food came out of the ‘female-only’ cooking area. Guests, including some of us subsequently got stuck in by eating with our hands – the norm. Following the meal, the housekeeper, poorer in appearance, cleaned beneath our feet whilst we drank, which made us all feel a bit uncomfortable. After this the party got into full swing with reggae music and drinks in full flow! The contrast between Alpha’s wealth (and of course generosity) and the poverty we witnessed yesterday was striking.
The carbo-licious diet here has motivated us all to start doing some exercise so daily jogs are now on the agenda but it does have to be after 6pm so we lower the risk of death due to over-heating. The activity was fully risk-assessed! This jog is not the average jog as you end up shouting ‘Bon Soir’ to everyone you pass and always get groups of little kids who find it hilarious to join for a few paces! As for food, so far my stomach is holding up even though a few places we have been eating at (often just a shack added onto the outside of someone’s house) have a few too many flies lingering around the stagnant (but delicious all the same) curry sauces!
On Friday night five of us volunteers went along to an African dance class that we had been invited to by a contempory dancer that had performed in a show we watched last week. His performance was to a largely expat audience and so, like a salsa night we had already been to, expected this dance class to be the same – French or Canadian expats doing a little African culture dance but ohh were we wrong! When we turned up we were greeted by our friend, the teacher and about 30 male professional Malian dancers.  At this point, the token male member of our team decided not to take part and once we had done the long extended greeting around the open air dance stage we began the class. Never before have I done such an intense work out and had so much fun doing it before this dance class. The warm up left us (and everyone else) dripping in sweat. We subsequently learnt a traditional routine and performed it over and over for an hour and a half! Despite being amateurs I think us girls did fairly well to not only pick it up and keep up with the pace but to also deal with the amount of testosterone flying round the room due to the unbalanced gender ratio! We will be returning to this class!
In our first week we were all invited to the wedding of someone’s daughter who worked at UMAV – we had met this lady for about five mins when we received the invite. The wedding was today (Sunday) and was fantastic. We all had African dresses tailor made and were made to feel very welcome! There was about 1000 people I’d say at this ‘reception’ that was a self-constructed canopy in the middle of the street next to the bride’s mothers house. Woman and men sat more or less separately and the colours of everyone’s outfits was beautiful! There was music and traditional dancing going on, which we got involved with!
On a work note; I have met with UMAV, the residential centre and school for the blind quite a lot now – these meetings are always quite long, detailed and in French! The team has a lot of interesting ideas on what to do at UMAV, we are planning to build a playground, teach English and paint classrooms amongst other things. UMAV also produce chalk on site however selling it is an issue for them as previous contracts with the government seem to have been terminated due to cheaper chalk being available from China. This is the project I am focusing on. I’m responsible for putting together a marketing strategy for the chalk and to try and set up some new contracts. The language barrier can be a hindrance sometimes even with the interpreters but I feel like I’m making progress as are the other team members with their projects. I am also going to be involved in the English classes too although these are very different to what I am used to. There are 70 teenagers per class, half of which are blind and so read in brail! A Challenge and a half! We have also been visiting AMALDENE, a school for children with learning and physically disabilities. We have been observing the work they do, which is fascinating and planning the best way in which to help them. I think this will follow music, dance and sport with the kids!
A period of day called 'kid time' has crept into my daily routine here in Mali which involves playing with the neighbouring street kids at about 5pm once we have finished work! They have been loving the toys I have brought with me although their favourite activity is to be swung and to play 'What's the time Mr Wolf!'

In the Sutrama

Masks on sale at the market

An artisan at work in the market

Where we al brought our material

The lady on the corner who often makes us lunch

Bridie and Rachel with our neighbours

All sorts

Jemma, Bridie and Me

On our way to the wedding

Wedding band

Some traditional dance


Outside our house with Dolo, member of IS staff

Getting stuck in


Friday, 20 January 2012

I ni wula! (Good afternoon in Bambara) Where to start!? My first week in Mali has been fantastic!

The heat! It’s their winter…and its about 35C on average per day. It’s due to get hotter between now and April…I needn’t say more! Unfortunately we can’t walk around in shorts and bikinis which is what I’d usually do in this heat – that and sit by a pool with a cocktail! Covering up is a must – showing excess skin would be frowned upon and make us stick out even more than we do already!

I’ve been so lucky with my team – everyone is so enthusiastic and positive about working hard! On arrival here in Mali – the staff at International Service have bent over backwards to make us feel welcome which has really helped with the settling in! The Malian people have shocked me in how friendly they are! We already have our first wedding invite from a random woman we met once on a visit to an organisation. We are all going to get some traditional African dress made for us – we just need to pick some crazy material from the market tomorrow!

Our first week has included a lot of induction to the local language (Bambara), culture, IS Mali, the partners and a lot of project planning which has been really fun! One key thing that has been drilled into us is that, in Malian culture when you start a conversation with someone you MUST have a long extended ‘how are you and your mum, dad, kids, house, country, family life etc etc…’ Then half way through your conversation it is best to repeat this again so as not to be rude! This could party explain ‘Africa time’ by which I mean the relax, chilled no rush culture!

We are all making a big effort to learn French too – My GCSE French has actually worked wonders but I do keep accidently speaking bits of Spanish!
One problem we have come across is getting ripped off initially! I do think the man in the local corner shop will soon be buying a few Rolexes with the increased business we are providing for him! Bargaining and bartering is a skill that has come in handy! It seems there is a market for everything here and home comforts such as cereal found in Bamako’s ONE supermarket are all imported which explains the £8 for fruit and fibre! 20p per mango will keep me happy though!

The accommodation is surprisingly good – no mud huts! We are staying in the building which also houses the International Service Mali offices! We have an amazing roof terrace upstairs too which has been a great place for work and for countless games of articulate!

Bamako to me, is strange. There are areas that look fairly developed with government buildings and hotels and roads and then other areas that are red dusty dirt tracks and shacks. This dusty landscape has meant that we all have permanently black feet! I have fallen in love with the neighbours kids and have already distributed my supply of bubbles I brought with me!

The women here fascinate me! Every other woman is carrying a baby on her back in a sling and a bucket of stuff on her head! Their balancing skills are incredible! These buckets contain anything from Bananas to building materials and look so heavy! Another interesting fact is Polygamy is practised here!
We went to visit the blind school that we will be working in and it was great to finally see it and meet the people who run it and some of the students! Just from seeing the site we have had so many ideas about how we could help them. For example we want to build a playground and help them sell the chalk that is made at the school by the blind people who are involved in the association.

In conclusion – a Fab start to a Fab Country!
Next door neighbour!

Men carry the lighter objects - towels

Balancing act

Need to practice..


Coconut wheel-barrows

Our Street

The corner shop
The Team!