Thursday, 5 April 2012

‘What does a group of 8 British volunteers do when they find themselves in the middle of a Military Coup?’

I am going to answer that question ‘What does a group of 8 British volunteers do when they find themselves in the middle of a Military Coup?’

I'm sure you all read about it or had me inform you of it briefly but there was a military coup while i was in Mali - its still on-going now. Here's my experience and my final blog :(

With the temperature in Mali reaching above 40C some of us decided to start sleeping on the roof terrace to avoid more sweaty, sleep-less nights. We had been warned of some military tension in Bamako in the afternoon but believed it was of no real concern as we’d had a similar warning about 2months previous. We slept under mosquito nets only and were all drifting off to sleep when loud explosions startled us. From then on, there were regular explosions, flares and varying gunfire throughout the night. I was in an out of sleep as a result.
In the morning we were told there had been a military coup with the army claiming to have seized power from President Amadou Toumani Toure in a coup in the early hours of the morning. They had apparently captured the president and other government officials
Unable to leave the office, ‘cooped up’ as some may say what did we proceed to do? The first thing was panic-eat. I don’t know why we decided to do this but we did. We stuffed ourselves with bread, rice and mangos obviously worried about when we would next see food again. The idea of rationing didn’t even come into my head. There was no need to panic though, the small shop 5steps across from our front door remained open (unlike every other shop in the area) which was able to supply us with bread and rice and tea for a few days! The army had laid down a 6pm curfew however it didn’t feel necessary as we weren’t allowed to leave the office anyway and from the roof it looked as though Malians were staying indoors too. It was eerily quiet, no beeping taxis and mopeds on the roads, no street sellers or men making tea on street corners either. All the shops were shut too. Not being able to leave the office meant we couldn’t carry out any of our project work either because it meant travelling across town to the schools and centres etc. Equally, all these places were shut themselves. No one was going to work. Everything had come to a standstill.
There was regular gunfire and explosions through the day and night for about 3days after and between us we kept reading various news articles out loud to everyone from the BBC and Al Jazeera.
I proceded to do a spot of sun-bathing on the roof (what else do you do when you can’t work and its 40C sunshine?) it was quite strange to be catching rays in my bikini and hear the odd gun fire in the distance. It was far away and I was surround by high walls so this wasn’t dangerous sunbathing!
On the third day, we woke up after a very quiet night. Rumours surfaced about water being cut off and a counter attack by the President’s loyal forces, the red berets but nothing happened. We still slept on the roof. Petrol had run out in most of the petrol stations in Bamako and was doubling in price every day. Looting was going on and we saw some trucks of army soldiers with guns go past. We were still not allowed out of the house.
The following days were much the same and we were basically waiting to hear from the director of IS Mali And UK, British Embassy and DFID to see whether we were going to stay in Mali and sit it out or be evacuated. The airport was closed at about 11am on Thursday which led us to wonder how we would leave in an emergency but we were informed that we’d go via the US or French Embassy. We received a friendly email from the British Embassy to say they had suspended services and the FCO warned us not to make un-necessary travel. Excellent advice.
As Cabin fever began to set in, we whipped out monopoly, articulate and scrabble. I finished my book, ran my iPod out of battery and got a healthy tan!
With the boarders and airport closed, there wasn’t anything we could really do and IS kept monitoring the situation which seemed to calm down as each day went on. With things seemingly settling down, we were allowed out during the day but only in the local area so we went on walks and to the local market etc. It was still really restricting though and nothing like what life had been like before in Mali. We still had the 6pm curfew. At this time, I really didn’t want to go home as I wanted to see the rest of our projects through to completion; however, equally I was bored of sitting in the office twiddling my thumbs waiting to see if the whole thing blew over. At the end of the day, Mali was an unstable place to be with no democratic government in place. Thus, IS opted for us to be evacuated once the airport was open.
With our last few days in Mali approaching and being allowed more freedom as the coup situation settled we visited the big market one last time to buy presents for IS staff and people at home. Frequent trips to the tailors were made, especially as we had become great friends with them and often spent hours there just chilling and chatting during the coup as we were unable to work and their shop was right on the corner so within our ‘permitted’ zone! We also had a goodbye lunch at the IS director’s house.
I started to get withdrawal symptoms from not going to the orphanage regularly during the coup I missed having baby contact and we were obviously a bit worried about them. So with some persuasion we managed to get Rene to allow us to go for the afternoon one day as long as we were back by the 6pm national curfew. It was lovely and all the babies were safe and sound. We had decided some time ago that we wanted to do something for the orphanage before we left because we had the capacity to help them and adored the babies. Bibi, the woman who ran the orphanage said she was running really low on milk for the babies and the coup may or may not restrict finances and buying things in the near future. (This was actually the case in the end, as sanctions were placed on Mali by other West African countries in order to try and stop the coup) So we decided to buy her lots of formula milk (nursie 1 to be exact), mineral water and mosquito nets (something we noticed, they did not have). My boyfriend started the ball rolling with a nice donation for this and then as a result some of the other girls asked family members at home who ended up asking around as well and before we knew it we had about £700 gathered. By this time, we had been informed that IS had booked us flights to leave a few days later and so there was a bit of a rush to get hold of the cash and milk whilst trying to do all the other things we had to do before leaving. The cash was the biggest issue. Cash machines are few and far between in Mali anyway but working ones are even harder to find in a military coup! It took me 3hours to get out £120. The first and only working cash point in my local area was in a hotel which ate my card. It turns out when this happens, you just have to find someone from the bank with the key and he will retrieve it for you! So I did this and tried again with no luck. In the end, Papa, our driver, took me across Bamako to the main bank where I waited in line for an hour to get the cash in 2 withdrawals. Nightmare! The other girls got theirs sent via western union at great expense but less hassle. Although, we were ushered out quickly by staff when rumours surfaced of the military coming and closing all offices and banks at any moment which posed a threat for us with bundles of cash on us. With the cash in our hands, Bridie and I went around all the local shops and completely cleared them out of Nursie 1 milk! We had to go quite far so one morning roped a taxi driver in to be our chauffer from one shop to the next loading up his battered taxi with milk and water! I think he had fun! When we gave all the milk etc to Bibi at the orphanage, she cried! She was overwhelmed and said she only had enough milk for 2days and now she has enough for 2 months with what we had brought! We spent a lovely few hours there saying goodbye to all the babies and they even tied some on our backs like real African woman! This was something I had been dying to do since the moment I got to Mali and saw woman doing it! I think the babies and the orphanage are one of things I will miss the most!
So on Saturday 31st March, we flew home, exactly one week before we were meant to and ten days after the coup had happened. It was the best decision because since we left, things have got a lot worse with rebels in the north advancing and taking over major cities such as Timbuktu and Gao. There have also been sanctions put upon Mali with the West African banks freezing assets and not allowing the CFA currency into the country in a ploy to try and get the military junta to step down. A real shame for the local people, it makes me sad to think about people like our tailors who may have to shut for the time being if there is no cash around to pay works and buy material etc. Saying goodbye to everyone was very sad and it feels a bit strange to leave when our projects aren’t finished but the IS staff will finish them for us. Before we left, we went to visit the artisans and metal workers who were building the playground equipment and they had finished everything and it all looked superb! So, this week it will all be being put in the ground at the blind school which Rene is over-seeing and this is wonderful to know. The art, sports and IT training classes were cut short due to the coup however, Mama and Fatime (the two IS interns) have said they will conduct the remaining classes with the disabled children using the materials we had brought to do them. Jemma had also planned a workshop for people who work with children with special needs that was cancelled due to the coup. However, she managed to create a booklet with all the information in it that is going to be distributed around the relevant people instead. Over the last few days, we tied up all our projects by filling in all our final forms and de-briefing the staff who are going to take over some of what we started.
Will I go back to Mali? One day, yes, I would love to. It won’t be anytime soon, not because of the military coup but because I want to visit places in the north like Timbuktu and Dogon country that were in the red zone while I was there and are almost certainly going to be in the Red Zone for a long time now! There are people there I’d love to see again and I will keep in contact with all the lovely staff at International Service Mali as well as some other fantastic people we met. The lady who runs the orphanage even said I could Skype her and the babies! Ideal! I am extremely fond of Mali and it’s only since I am back that certain things have been emphasized such as the friendliness of the local people and their generosity. No one says hello to me on the street here or asks how my mum and dad are! It would also be very strange to go back without my wonderful team! I miss them too. We lived, breathed and worked together 24hrs a day for 3months and grew so close that I would call them some of my best friends now. I know we will keep in contact and see each other often but it won’t be the same and most of my lovely Mali memories involve them in some form or another. I was very lucky to get to go to Mali and do the work I did but I was equally as lucky to have been put with such a great team of people.
I’ve had a wonderful 3months and will remember it forever. Thank you to those who donated money to the projects I worked on, your money was well spent! We have made a video about our work which I have emailed and put on Facebook. Thank you for also reading my blog and supporting me. J
Bridie and I with the tailor and the dresses they made for us!

Baby Adina, the cutest but moodiest baby in the orphanage

Checking out the playground equipment that has been made for UMAV - the blind school

Us and the IS staff looking at playground equipment

The drums for the sensory playground

Hibak and I with orphans tied to our backs

All the milk, water and goodies we brought the orphanage on our last day

Blind men packaging up chalk (photos from the chalk conference I organised and forgot to post in my last blog)

TV cameras filming the presentation at the conference

JJ talking giving the presentation in French about UMAV's chalk business

demonstration of how they make chalk

Tour of the workshop

Saying goodbye to all the IS staff in Mali

My wonderful team, before going our separate ways...

Monday, 19 March 2012

Malians seem to love Gaddaffi namely because he gave a lot of money to Mali and built places such as the fairly grand ‘Lybia hotel’ in the commercial centre of Bamako. His name is everywhere, local restaurants and even our local barbers are named after him. As a strange contrast, they also love Obama with his face equally as prevalent around the place. There are T-shirts and material with his face everywhere – even boxer shorts with ‘OBAMA’ written on the waistband!
As many of my photos have shown on facebook, I have been making many trips to an orphanage we have been introduced to. The lady who owns it ‘Bibi’ is a friend of one of the IS staff and is a very inspirational woman. She’s a larger than life character who always greeting us with a big hug and kiss. She claims to have not had a day off in 20years – she’s a wonderful sales woman – she often has other white people visiting and leaving money etc but essentially it’s how the orphanage has come to be there. Admirable really. The first time I went there, I knew I would be returning often! There is about 20 babies under the age of 6months in one room all sharing various cots. We spend hours in there playing, changing, feeding and washing the babies. It’s a dream – for me anyway I love it. They are so bouncy and cute. Most of them are chubby and fairly happy but they all have bad chests , various skin conditions  and plenty of mosquito bites. But I guess this is inevitable all being in the same vicinity. More often than not we come home covered in poo, sick and dribble! Ive been going for about 6 weeks now and in that time, two new borns have arrived who are very scrawny and tiny! Most of them are abandoned either due to the family unable to afford it or the mother dies during childbirth. Another story is a mistaken pregnancy for whatever reason.
Work has been frustrating at times recently especially with the playground. We have been waiting on various NGO’s who are wanting to form partnerships with us before going ahead with building the playground. However, the NGO who we have been discussing with failed to meet our deadlines and so we’ve finally decided to go ahead with building the playground with just our budget meaning it will be a smaller project but at least we can see the final result. So we have now ordered lots of equipment from the artisans who will be completed in the next week or so. The chalk marketing and sales conference that I organised took place last Thursday and was a success. I spent quite a while giving out invitations personally and organising how the day will run. The day was meant to commence with a presentation about UMAV, SOPRAM (the company that employs blind people to make the chalk) and the chalk itself. However, the TV cameras were really late so we had to give the tour of the workshop area first. It showed the invitees the blind people working making the chalk, packaging and also the cleaning mops that SOPRAM make as well. The cameras finally turned up and so JJ was able to give the presentation. I was meant to say something about our group but the International Service director ended up giving a long speech detailing what I was going to say and due to time constraints I wasn’t able to repeat L Refreshments and chalk presents followed this and everyone was very interested in the chalk and UMAV. People asked lots of questions so hopefully it will spur on some contract liaising. I appeared on Malian TV for this event and that’s the second time I’ve been on TV here in Mali (the other time was with the Americans at their rally ambulance ceremony). I haven’t seen any of the programmes because we don’t have a TV here but seeing as there are only 3 channels in Mali, I’m sure plenty of locals have seen me. The only reason I know is because the IS staff come into the office the next day saying they saw me on TV the night before! This along with my radio programme confirms that I am definitely more famous in Mali than in England!
There are children everywhere in Bamako, apparently 42% of the population is below the age of 15 which goes some way to explaining what we see. Everyone seems to live in compounds with about 4-5 mud shacks surrounding a communal courtyard area. Some have a well to get water and others have a running tap to share between the houses. I’m sure everything has order but some look so dirty and messy. Rags for clothing hanging up drying and plastic bags everywhere. The dirt tracks that these houses sit on are littered with rubbish, open sewers and goats. More often than not now I have seen little kids playing in the sewers and other children hanging out with their friends by dangling their legs in them.
The average Malian house here doesn’t seem to have a kitchen. Instead, the woman (only) do all their cooking on a portable coal stove outside. No matter how wealthy the family, all cooking and washing up is done outside in courtyards or just the street. They also don’t tend to have fridges and instead face the market on a daily basis to get food for cooking. Limited food is on offer. If you don’t like mangos, peanuts, tomatoes, onions, rice and things focused around those staples then you’re pretty much screwed in Mali. There are quite a lot of western restaurants around serving pizzas etc that are considered expensive and they are to Malians and we also have to be careful because of our limited living allowance but when you think a pizza is about £3 its not expensive at all!
I’ve been pretty lucky in the health department so far, I haven’t contracted Malaria (which seems to be surprisingly common among locals) and haven’t had any food poisoning despite the sheer amount of rats and lack of fridges. However, over the weekend just gone I had an awful fever and sickness, probably down to heat stroke. I made the mistake of going to the market for 4hours in the mid-day heat which is never a good idea but even worse after a night out. I spent the next 24hrs in bed sweating profusely. Yuk. It reaches 40C now most days which is pretty dam hot especially when there’s no air con.  
Not long till im back now L

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Bou bous are taking me by storm. Woman and men stroll around in such colourful and beautiful hand made outfits known as boubous! For woman, they usually consist of a skirt and matching top made from the same material that hug their figures. However, the material is fairly think and with them being tightly fitted – I don’t know how they stand the heat, but everyone does! I have been visiting the tailor of course of a regular basis – they love us in there. They are Ghanaian and so speak English very well. I’m sure they are loving our business also but we are getting local rates for clothes which is next to nothing!
We went to Segou for the weekend because there was the annual Festival on the Niger River taking place. We were very interested to see what a Malian music festival would be like. The journey there was our first hurdle to tackle. Segou is about 3hours drive away and it wasn’t possible to book travel. Instead, we were told to be at a certain petrol station for 2pm. By the time we set off in our promised bus, it was 4pm. We’d had plenty of offers mind at the petrol station for lifts to Segou from passing locals but though. It felt like the whole of Bamako made a trip to Segou for this festival! We just so happened to take the same mini bus as a band performing at the festival – which obviously excited us all! They were from Senegal and we very nice to us, inviting us to their after party and offering us oranges and carrots! The bus was your average mini bus but managed to fit about 25 of us in and with people in the aisles it was hard to get out. However, there were always plenty of people selling food and drink at the windows when we stopped so we only needed to exit when we needed the toilet and this was a case of climbing out of the windows and jumping. The 3hour journey took us 5hours and I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much!
It was all worth it though because the festival was amazing. We watched performers such as Salif Keita, Habib Koite and Sauti Soul who are apparently big Malian and Kenyan artists and after watching them I can see why. The festival was on the river Niger which all the locals seem to use to wash their clothes and their selves! There were lots of Tuaregs at the festival – the people of the ethnic group from the north of Mali who wear long robes and head scarfs covering nearly the whole of their face. In Segou, we stayed with a host family instead of a hotel in order to save money and it was a wonderful experience. There were eight of us girls who stayed with Awa and her family of three lovely children for approximately £4 per night. We slept outside under mosquito nets and had refreshing bucket shower over the hole in the floor toilet. It sounds horrific but it was actually lovely, we didn’t need anything more. Segou was a nice place, just as dusty and smelly but less cars and bustle in comparison to Bamako. Instead they had moto-taxis and heaps of donkeys!
We met two Americans at the festival who had just completed a rally from London to Timbuktu in a 1989 New York Ambulance! When we found this out, we became determined to get a ride back to Bamako in this Ambulance and we succeeded! The two guys, Mike and Steve were more than happy to give us a lift back so long as we made a donation to the Charity they are donating the Ambulance to here in Mali now they have completed the rally. We obliged and rode the five hour journey back to Bamako in the ambulance. It was very fun and we thoroughly enjoyed getting the hammock out inside and dangling our feet out the back doors! We were also invited to the handover ceremony of the ambulance to their chosen charity which just so happened to be the Salif Kaita foundation! (one of the performers from the festival) so we were all able to meet him a few days after seeing him on stage. He was very nice and even invited us to his private island which made us all jump and squeal as soon as he turned his back! The ambulance will be used as a mobile clinic to treat people with albinism, leprosy and other skin conditions. The ambulance will treat 5000 people per year, and save 1000 lives.

One thing that I still find funny is the lack of shops selling fruit and veg here. There is plenty of it and instead of shops, woman seem to carry big bowls of one particular item on their head and you kind of just buy it when you see it! Street stalls of lettuce and tomatoes are dotted everywhere too.
All the projects are going well but a bit slow – we have all come to terms with this now though and accepted that things just run slower here. My chalk event is in motion and I am in the process of inviting everyone personally. The sensory garden and playground is also going well. After shopping and pricing up we estimate both to be built for about £150 which is great and well in our budget. We are also proving ourselves as fairly good English teachers. We have discovered how best to work with the blind students – lots of dynamic activities instead of blackboard stuff. For example, we designed a game of blind-folded directions. One student was blindfolded and another gave directions such as right, left, straight-on etc in order to navigate them from one object to another in our open-air mud hut classroom! Using the blindfold – it meant both blind and sighted children could play.
On Valentine’s Day we came up with a game of Secret Valentine which was just like secret santa. We had to do nice things for our valentine during the day but they’re not supposed to know who their ‘admirer’ was. It was a lot of fun!
We have sampled the Malian nightlife on a few occasions now and the clubs are very different to Western clubs playing a mixture of African and western music. We are always the only white people in the club which usually proves a novelty for the locals. A Friday night a few weeks ago came to an amusing end when we finished off in a bar by our dance studio full of male dancers showing off their moves which was hilarious when one gave a full on performance to us! Apparently homosexuality doesn’t exist in Mali and is especially not tolerated but we did question whether we were in fact in a gay bar when three men dressed as cow boys seemed to be giving a private performance to some others. Some feminine practices seem to be the norm here for men for example; it’s common for male friends to hold hands in the street. We also went to a Bob Marley tribute night last week at a local outdoor venue which was very good with an excellent turnout from the expat community!
playing drums with children at AMALDENE

the directions lesson

drying clothes by the river

sleeping arrangments

the host mother -Awa

the new york ambulance

Monday, 13 February 2012

Each one of us has managed to have had a mini disaster now! Jemma has fallen into an open sewer in the dark. She has also acquired a very strange Togolese stalker who often turns up at our house un-invited! Poor Rachel has visited the hospital on 7 occasions now due to various illnesses. It seems the private clinic loves to invite her back for check-ups especially as they make a killing from our insurance on every visit! Two of the volunteers have been verrrrrrry sick now from a food-related catastrophe! So far so good for my stomach though– touch wood! I have had a memorable encounter with a cockroach! The daddy of all cockroaches landed on my bare skin somehow just as I walked into the bathroom for a shower! My immediate reaction to drop my towel, scream at the top of my voice while beating myself vigorously to get it off me. Still panicking and screaming I subsequently ran into the next room where I made Rachel check over my entire body whilst still jumping around and squirming. Rachel and I are now much closer after this experience!
Work is going well-ish. I feel like I am making progress on my Chalk project for the blind school and union, UMAV. The plan is to organise a marketing and sales event for the chalk and invite some ministers of education and NGO directors that deal with education and children. International service has some great contacts for me to exploit and corner. Some of the other projects don’t seem to be moving as fast as we thought they might. For example we want to build a playground and sensory garden for the blind children but there is so many hidden factors to think about such as goats! UMAV have a lot of goats wondering around the site that will probably end up making a lunch out of the garden so we need to think about getting around that!
Last week I visited the special education specialist at AMALDENE (a school for disabled children) on a few occasions. He takes children out of class to work one-to-one with them on developmental activities such as jigsaws, bead threading and sorting. He says they try to enable the child to catch-up with peers, and if they reach a level where they can study, they will go to class; otherwise they will attend vocational workshops such as textiles and woodwork. He would like more information on how we assess and support children with special educational needs in the UK which Jemma will be working on. Both this school and the blind school have no electricity. It’s crazy to see the schools running normally. They have no need for computers, lighting etc but when you desperately need the toilet you do witness the need for a small amount of electricity for them to have running water. The sanitation and toilet facilities are horrendous but with running water they wouldn’t be half as bad. They have had access to electricity in the past but can’t pay the bills anymore so we are going to try and organise some solar panel project with the help of the Chinese embassy.
A few of us have also been teaching English for the last few weeks. It’s nothing like the English I classes I have taught before – we were given no guidance because they don’t really have a curriculum. We decided the class of 70 children, some of which are blind was too difficult to face as one so we have split the class into 4 smaller groups for tutor-type sessions. Teaching blind children is really tricky though – we have appealed to their touch so in the food and drink lesson we brought in loads of fruit and foods for them to touch and taste. It’s so amazing to see them writing in brail and then reading it back to us in English!
I received a very shocked email from my mum the other day after she opened the Bournemouth Echo and found me in it! This also shocked me as I wasn’t exactly aware of it either! I wrote to the echo last week on the off chance they might want the story and for a bit of promotion. The news desk was interested and I sent some photos too but they never confirmed anything was being written so it was a pleasant surprise!
There have been some demonstrations in Bamako because of the on-going fighting in the North of the country where rebel groups dominate. The vast Sahel region is used as a highway for transporting weapons, people and the likes. The North wants to be a separate independent country from the South. These disturbances have lasted several years, and are the primary reason we can’t travel to the north of Mali where the tourist areas such as Dogon Country, Djenne and Timbuktu are, due to Foreign and Commonwealth Office restrictions. It’s a real shame because it’s these places we all really want to visit!
Last weekend we all went to Siby, a small village about an hour outside of Bamako that not in the red zone. It was the perfect place to go in order to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The accommodation was simple and traditional, small round mud huts with 3 beds and mosquito nets. The showers were outdoors with no roofs so you could look up and see the moon. There were some beautiful waterfalls in the area which was a lovely place to spend a few hours and cool off in the 30+ heat. We also had an African drumming lesson and walked up to some beautiful rock formations that had carved out a natural archway at the top of a cliff. The view was breath-taking- miles of flat, sparse landscape, dotted with trees, several rock formations, and an occasional mud-hut.
Yet another material-buying mission took place on Saturday. All us volunteers headed to the market and were greeted by many a seller including ‘Moosa Goodprice’ as one artisan called himself whilst trying to persuade us to buy his gift boxes. The choice of material on offer is so vast that the whole experience turns into a frenzy of panic buying and bartering! We all ended up spending about an hour at one material shop deliberating and stressing out about what material to get, how much to pay and how much of it to buy. It really is a girl’s worst nightmare! In the end we all came away with about 3 lots of material and didn’t really like any of them so swapped between ourselves!
Round and round the garden with one of the blind girls

kids at AMALDENE

our mud huts

waterfall lagoon from the top

Rachel, Hibak and Fatime

Cleaner at the school

the girls posing on rocks at waterfall

drumming lesson

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