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ali in mali
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december 2002

Dear Grandma,

I'm sitting in my comfortable cement house on a plastic woven mat,
writing this letter by lantern light. I'm eating some Ramen Noodles
too, after a lengthy debate whether I should have mac and cheese,
pasta and spiced oil sauce or the Ramen [all sent to by Grandma]. I didn't go to market today and I've been avoiding buying
the meat so far. Often I go to my Cuban friend's house to eat (he
bought and killed a chicken yesterday) where I eat meat, preserved
during the day in a fridge, cold salad (cabbage) and cold beverage.
But otherwise I'm at home most of the time for meals. Enough
rambling about meal times!

So every day is a new experience for me and everyday I experience
new emotions. Sometimes it's hard to try to integrate into the
culture. The people are so different, ideas, livelihood, concerns,
climate, language. Yesterday, I could barely deal with anyone for an
hour because I watched a family beat a dog and laugh. And sometimes it
feels like they are always laughing at me or mocking me. But then
other days I see how much patience they have with my inability to
speak or perform simple things like carry water on my head without
spilling or inviting me to sit with them and watch the world go by
or just how many people go out of their way to say hi to me and
greet me. Many members of the community are also very excited to
begin projects together. So it all balances out and I'm happy to be

Normally during a day, I wake up in my room to the sound of roosters
crowing and goats scavenging next to my window. I grab a bucket and
go pull two pulls from the well outside my concession, then carry it
to my nyagen and take a bucket. This has become a very fun way to
bathe. Then I run back to my house and cuddle in my blankets as this
is now the only time I feel cold. Savoring the sensation, I spend at
least 20 more minutes in bed. Afterwards, depending on the day, I go
to market, study local language, visit a local shop keeper and
discuss accounting methods (crazy I now know more about this than
many here [math was never her strong subject]) or go to church.
Regardless, my day is full of random visits, many greetings, a lot
of studying and trying to speak Boré, French and Spanish during the
same hour.

Town life, small as my town is, is really nice. I can get bread
everyday, usually onions, garlic and tomatoes, mangos this season
and a variety of packaged goods like coffee, pasta, sugar, salt,
spice cubes and cookies. We also have spigot water which comes from
deeper in the earth so it is cleaner than the well water in most
villages. I would like to do a "formation" (training) for the town
on soakpits. The bathroom water all drains out into the streets, so
you have to avoid walking next to houses as vast build ups of muck
have coagulated. These nasty puddles, however, seem to be most of
the animals only source of water. Sadly, as unsanitary as this is,
it appears to be one of the only way animals get water. So drainage, although much more sanitary, could lead to possible dehydration problems, thus causing an epidemic in the hot season.  Strange way to think, isn't it?

I have no set schedule, but the time is flying. It seems I am always
running around to different places. I get tea invitations around
town, and it's inevitable that a walk down my street, which should
take five minutes, is more like half an hour because I have to stop
in and greet and attempt to chat to almost everyone I see, whether
on the street or sitting on their front patios (that would be a
chair or wood stool in front of their homes). I really enjoy the
community feeling. Everyone knows my name, but I can hardly remember
by landlady's name, but each day is easier.

Sometimes I realize how strange it is here. Especially walking
through the streets, seeing the litter and pigs wallowing in the filth, watching
people in the market, yell, bargain and laugh in strange languages, seeing traditional dresses, beads, tattoos and men wearing long gowns, and other times,
it seems so normal. Most of the world lives like this. Finding a
spot in the shade, I'll sit with my friends and play a game of cards
I don't know the rules to, or sit with someone mixing some crazy
peanut dough with her hands as she sits in the dirt and tastes a
bit, sipping tee under a large baobab tree and convincing the dugutiki (village chief) that I don't want to drink a cup of na (millet beer), or sitting with my Fulani friend who sells goat's milk and has tattoos around her mouth and on her gums and her ears dripping with gold and thread woven through and money braided into her hair. Life is amazing. All the forms we've cultivated around the world. I can barely believe how different things are, everywhere.

Everyday I hear about poverty and famine and how people want a
better life. I can only nod in agreement. The way we live in the US
is like kings in comparison and they know it. Everything progresses
little by little though. So many things to do, its hard to know
where to start. The people here are well educated, but still many
are illiterate. I was asked yesterday if I knew how to write. But
basic concepts and innovation seem to be missing here. How to save
money, money making ideas, sanitation concepts, animal care,
nutrition, preventative measures, long-term goals and
preparation....the list goes on.

The women's association will be beginning a literacy center for
women in the next month. I'm excited about this. I think that
reading is the best way to encourage motivation, new ideas,
education and action. The community needs this gravely. With the
drought, the crops are failing, no money is coming in and the people
are leaving the town to go to bigger cities. We need to do a lot.

I went to the mayor's office the other day and met with the council.
They said that they were hoping I would work on issues for men and
women. I hope I have it in me to provide something sustainable for
the community. In the meantime, I'll keep studying language and
research case projects of the past/present. If you have any ideas,
let me know!

With much love, Alexis

december holidays 2002