seek and find

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

This set is a good set. Its tough here and getting it out in chicken-scratch into my journal and then into actual script on here is a relieving and reliving and reassuring thing. It’s a form of washing away the yick, the yuck, and the ultimately f*&!ed up stuff that is seen and heard and done. Here and there. Its everywhere, this life, these lives, these and those people. We’re all in this together and you reading what I write gets a lot of hot air across a lot of space and that is healthy and wise and good. (see how much I’ve grown and humbled? Ha.)
It is important for the reader to know that by their action of reading, by their typing in the words: whenim65, even if just on a random account or a daily basis, you are participating. You are helping me to speak and be heard and hear and listen. It is not easy, your job, your duty, but you are doing it well.

Also, I apologize for the misspellings and the overuse of “;”s and for the run-ons.

I hope you know that I’m happy, I’m on a great path back to healthy, and When I’m 65 I’ll know that this was done and it was good and I did it. With your help. That will never be forgotten.

When I’m 65 I’ll love this; I’ll tell Fisher’s friends from college and life stories about the nipples and the dimples and the water rights and the tribal feathers and the Muslim burial rituals and the importance of white face amongst black and more importantly the knowledge and love to look past that to the glowing teeth in the happy smiles that your friends give you, to the eyes that wrinkle in the corners of a truly good story teller and of the hands that hold you through it all. Ryan will get us coffee as we, hand in hand, together, watch a sunset and another rise of the Rocky Mountains.

But, for now, right now I’m in it so you’ll have to excuse me.

Dog Fightin’s Not Just for the Painfully Wealthy Anymore

Its noon. I woke early, had coffee, wrote happy and healthy letters and felt the good cleansing that comes with lovely, life giving rainshowers and their talking clouds. I took Wurdia water, got my own and now find myself making oolong tea to simulate the comfort found in Chinese Food on gloomy days. I think I’ll pack for Kita and for my trip with Megan Pilli for the 4th of July and I’ll nap and just be here today.

(talking about East of Eden)
This book takes a hold of your soul.
I miss my brother. Bubba. Sky. Skylar.
I miss hugs and snuggling toes under warm blankets while on couches.
I know I’ll miss the time alone, the contemplative hours, passed to sit and
to think and to calculate.
But I miss the reality and physicality and beauty of love. Now. More.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

(in bold, blocked, angry, fat letters)
I just watched in terror as 6 or 7 boys initiated a dog fight, a brutal, to the death dog fight. They brought two packs together with trickery; I watched this as I walked along the main path to Wurida’s house to return my lunch dish. They swung at the dogs, growling and viciously trying to stand their ground, giant sagging nipples flying and flopping, tagged ears bloody and flies buzzing. They beat the dogs to entice anger, they beat them with sticks and with fear-filled kicks, laughing and smiling and cried to me, in one horrid breath the one thing they learn in 7th grade, “hello-sir-how-are-you-I-fine-thank-you.” They squawk this at me when they are feeling tall, when they are feeling undoubtedly wrong. I stood shaking, shocked and scared, tears welling up as pups and puppies fought for their lives against bigger fuller dogs with razor teeth. They were pushed against a hut wall, curved in its circular shape, trying to run, forced into the dirt and onto their backs. Puppies.
I screamed, wailed at them to stop. Stop this. They saw my tears and laughed. It was a gloomy day, the rain had quit but the gray clouds hung around for atmosphere. They only stopped when Karim, the village tailor, heard me crying; obviously he thought I was being bit by the dogs. My brink-of-tears scream was heard by many; they popped their faces out to see what the fuss was about, and popped them back into their huts seeing it was just Oumou crying in the street. Figures.
I gave Wurdia her bowl.
I walked home and broke into a panic, heaving, shaking cry.
Karim scolded the boys, he said they should not dog-war in the street and they should not scare the white girl.
There was no word of the inhumanity, the cruelty, the indecency, the evil or the disgust or the pathetic thing. But because motorcycles couldn’t pass easily and Oumou doesn’t get it.


Puppies whined away, bloody, as I had to walk back through their nasty wolf-packs and try to hold my tears in. Try not to turn on them with their own sticks. Try not to be me.


JesusGodDamnIt. Why do I care what these filthy little boys think? Why does it hurt the soul to be laughed at when you are trying so so hard? Why would they want their dogs to shed blood? Why do I listen to this bullshit, these warring dogs, these puppies crying, these toddlers being beaten and whipped and why do I do NOTHING?
Fear? Embarrassment? What the hell is it? Anger is building, exhaustion and disgust.

. . . . . . . . . . .

American Girls

27 June 2009
American Girls

The nightly rains make my sleep good, my complexion bad and my hair crazy. They bring moisture to parched land and take the women from their homes to prepare the fields. They soak loamy spots and muddy shoes and toes and wake the snakes from their summer slumber. They come lightly, sneak around, make a little noise, like an uninvited guest feeling out the party bringing wine to the hostess in hopes of a free-be and then bam! Party crashed.

They come lightly, uninvited, somewhat expected, and without assurance and the crash and the strike and the scream. Children fear and yell and can only be heard by their bedmates or during the times of building fury. It can be felt, when the silences between clouds screaming takes a bit and it is filled with the shrill of children wailing. The noises, the mixtures of relief from hungry mothers to annoyance of big sisters and tears of small babies, they beacon the rain and ask for a bit of discretion, and are answered with towers of clouds and layers of lightening and pounding rains and green, beautiful pastures, ready for the season.

This compound of emotions and notions and the craze that comes just before everyone seeks shelter can strike some serious fear into American girls. American girls who find themselves alone, curled under a single sheet, too scared to blow out the candle from Korea and wanting a hard-rain-induced sleep to come over them and guide them, slowly and surely into the next day.

Heavy eyelids are no match for fear struck, lightening striking, puddle reflecting, eyeballs and imaginations…

The nightly rains make me more independent and more longing for another… one other. The nightly rains confuse and scare me yet I enjoy them, surviving them, knowing their final result and being able to say I did. I can. American girls, we hide under sheets until we’re able to talk big about how it was just one sheet.

Thoughts on a Fish

A great sorrow just filled me for a time. A sorrow that having stateside would have called for a glass of red wine on the porch with Janna on speaker phone, very good popcorn and a movie. Maybe a Wes Anderson. You know that mood?
However, here, in my mud hut with thatch roofing in the low hills of sub Saharan West Africa, none of those options exist and I will say that I’m better for it. Today I was pulled from this by jumping rope in my hut while trying to remember the words to “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (a definite wedding party song). This cleared my thoughts and simultaneously muddied them with thoughts of Fisher O’Brien. 2 ¾ years old, I’ve known him since before he was 1. I love and fear the thought that 4 nights a week I get to play with, walk with, talk with, feed, snuggle with, bathe and put to sleep this cool little dude. This little man who talks to me on the phone and tells me about his sleep and his hair and I can almost feel his beautiful, rosy cheeks rising when he laughs into the phone. He says my name like no one I’ve ever known and it is sends a genuine warmth my way, a warmth that directs blood from my heart to my hands and feet and eyes and makes me keep going and keep loving and keep living this beautiful (and surely tumultuous) life.
Fisher blesses me; although it is through the sweet guiding hands and the comfy blanket pulled up and the pillow perfectly fluffed and the light of nighttime dimly fading into sleep and the voice of his precious father, Ryan, I know that he knows what he is saying. The way small children do.
I find so much comfort and joy and true love in this.
I love knowing that I love Fisher.
in all that i do there is love and goodness and it is found in the depth and love and goodness of one Mr. Ryan O'Brien.

he is always. he is ever. and i am lucky enough to love him.

A Note to Incoming Volunteers and Current Ones Jaded

It is very hard to remember that this is my current and chosen reality. That this is their permanent and unwavering reality. They often do not understand my “choice” because they do not have liberty or in many cases opportunity. When I do something they don’t understand, which is all the time, it is NOT out of stupidity; it is NOT their timetable on which I live, they know I’m here to live for a bit and maybe give some and probably take an unrecognizable amount and then go and am likely never to return. They know this and they still put up with it. Our lives are shockingly different and yet we cohabitate, not easily but sometimes fluidly, and that should ultimately be chocked up to THEIR ability to adapt, not yours (mine).
It says a lot for their capabilities, their culture, their innate hospitality and their curiosity and their fear; it simultaneously speaks loudly of Americans.
Come here knowing you’re coming, you chose this, you choose this; although they are willing and able to house and feed and help you, they do not have any choice in you. Be patient. Close yourself when you feel this slipping. Take a break and wander your thoughts until you get back to this: your reality here is somewhere between 1 and 800 days. They will (very likely) never ever leave.
They are not dumb.
They are not stupid.
They are you if you’d been born into this life, this strife and this humble life.
Come and be good to yourself, you are the only one who can guarantee it, and when you are good and have done good you will, inevitably, do good.

Justice, Served, With Cream and Sugar Please

(in many ways this one is for Megan Pilli and Liza Clark, in many ways this one is for me. thank you for reading. please feel free to make comments on my writing, be it topic, style or spelling errors.)

26 June Friday
Its 830am and I’m mid chapter 18 in this Steinbeck. A sheriff just asked a deputy to go for a cup of coffee. As I drink my instant coffee with instant milk and unrefined buggy sugar out of my red plastic cup I think: this is reason enough to join the Peace Corps.
Never before have I taken so seriously the joys of simple things in life. Coffee cups, coffee machines, restaurants, napkins, seamless underwear, bug-less bedrooms, the freedom of not sleeping under a mosquito net, photos in frames on walls, communication abilities… a bar.

Before I came to Mali, I drank quite a bit. Before I moved from Austin to Salida, I drank too much. My friends, my true and lovely friends, stood by me, mentioned little towards it and I think they did so knowing that I was phasing it out, phasing out some thing of myself and they were always there to hold me up at the end, put me to bed, cover my toes when a chill came through the door, or let me crawl in. You know who you all are, you know that you are all loved; you know that in some way in some time in some beautiful light I’ll be able to hold your hand through something similar.

In France I spoke with my parents for the first time on this topic: my collegiate alcohol abuse. Abuse that was self inflicted. It got me into little trouble, I had a great time and regret very little if anything really, and I did well in school and liked to write then and now and always had something good happen to pull me from a slump. It was the first time I felt like a real life adult, coming clean about something they knew and we all know but that no one would say. It’s OK. To have those things, those vices that we explore. It’s OK but it has to be OK and be OK to end or to alter or to kick out of your life.

I moved, I decided that uprooting and going going going until I either couldn’t or didn’t want to. I needed to know something, something that I still can’t put my finger on, and I think I got it. Its here somewhere in me in this mess of words and the feelings that overcome me when I think of Whitis and Walling and Janna & Co. and I crumble into tears of joy and love and think: damn, sister, you’ve got it seriously good.

Everyone should take the time to sit and read, know, live through this book. East of Eden.
It’s huge, like 600 pages, and I know everyone is working and schooling and living, but please do trust me – it is worth it. It is a changer, a magnifying glass, a beautiful light on ugly things and it is helpful.

It helped me. It probably will always be held in my mind as one of those truly pivotal books in my life. I have a few of those. I read Catcher in the Rye in one afternoon in High School in a hammock, that beautiful piece is peace.

Anyway, take my word for it. Please.

Also, Mama and Daddy, my beloved friends and supporters and the (probably fewer with each post) dedicated readers, Thank You for letting me discover this. All of this. Its OK and its good and its life.

Quite a Lot of Not Much

1) Nothing quite encourages cramps like muggy weather. It sets into your skin, intensifies back aches, trumps Advil and makes you wish for sleep and a chick flick and a bar of chocolate and a pot of popcorn with extra butter and a dr. pepper.

2) East of Eden is an amazingly good early-rainy-season read. I just want to sit and waste the day away on rooting for the Hamilton’s and fearing the good and evil in everyone. I want to sit and drink tea and coffee and eat muffins and drink water with ice and lemon and read this novel only. It is one of those books that comes at you in a time when you need it; always you need this book but when you sit and really give yourself a chance to read it, read it, feel it, cry and laugh and angrily get through sentences that make you ill it comes through to you and you realize.
3) You Realize.
But I have duties, responsibilities; I must tend to my hand, take water to Wurdia, play a bit with Dabi, save face. Around 4pm I think I’ll go to Sirakoro and call home from atop a rock in a field in the sun.

4) The warm sun is coming out to dry the night’s rain and to release the mahmah’s from their nests in the ground. Today I’ll do my dishes and sweep and refrain from crying; although sometimes tears overwhelm me; fear and want and discomfort and the guilt of it all knowing that all those things are daily here and normal and ignored.

p.s. These cramps are not helping.

Books Can Cause Greatness and Goodness and That is Reason Enough

25 June 2009 ----------- One Week Until Pilli!

“[...] he learned that when people are very poor they still have something to give and the impulse to give it” – Steinbeck, ¬East of Eden

Truer words have never been writ. Its lovely and its tragic and we all should give in to it.

Give it. Love it. Feel it.


Although I have so much pity and admiration and find myself in complete awe of these women, I feel as though it is all washed away in the utter stupidity of some of their ways.
(This is not fair and it is quoted directly from my journal. Observations made against large groups are often a signature of failure by the observer. I’m very aware of that. But this is honest and it is how I felt at the time. Bear with me, please.)
There are a few women in particular that erk me beyond reason; that infuriate me to a breaking point with their inability for empathy and their misunderstanding of goodness.
Wurdia, pure in heart, good in mind, hardworking for the right reasons; she never asks for anything and because of that I give her everything I can. Not necessarily gifts, but I take potable pump water to her every morning in hopes that she might not have to make that extra trip later in the day; I pay her to do laundry that I am very capable of doing, knowing that she needs and uses the money wisely. She cannot read or write and yet she is both wise in life and in heart.
I find myself infuriated by some of the requests and demands and the incessant mockery… in some women there is no subtlety, no empathy, and no self-awareness.
This is not only about West African women. This is us as a unit, as a people.

Today I miss my name. My identity. My life has been masked for the ease of their tongue and my inability to converse in it. I wish someone would call me Sydney today. Oumou has its cute qualities. But Sydney is me.

Thoughts on Homesickness

I’m so looking forward to a hard day’s work being followed not by an empty and dank hut. Not by photos hung from string that is slowly being devoured by termites. Not by a bucket bath, or a soundless house.
But by a hug and a reassuring smile and someone to share this mess of mine with, revel in it, learn from it, talk about it and everything else.

Introspection is a wonderful thing… for a while.

Excision, Men, Women

My mind angrily returns to excision, female circumcision, and my heart breaks. The scariest part as far as I can tell (along with the input of my friend and fellow volunteer, Christina Wood) is that although Men surely initiate and demand it, it is the elderly Women themselves who enforce it. As an initiation ritual or a rite of passage or even “everyone’s doing it”…
Damn it that is INFURIATING.

Where is that bridge everyone keeps talking about? Because feminism just jumped off…

It pains me to think that Wurdia, graceful, lovely, intelligent in her own right, mother of 12 (though only 7 remain), funny, has felt that pain and that destruction and has possibly reaped none of the benefits. It’s sad to know that my lovely host sister, pre-teen Tene, will feel nothing… although in many ways that is a blessing.

At nearly 9am this morning it felt like 2pm. Now at 2pm it feels like another day has passed and yet I’m still in this one.

An afternoon spent in the fields with Wurdia… I’m tired and happy. Although my battle with flying and crawling and slinking and disgusting insects goes on, my blisters help to urge the attention elsewhere.
I think I’ll hand out some photos and make some smiles.

two hours of goodness

24 June

It’s nearly 9am. It feels like 2pm. My patience seems to be tried.

“the finest pleasure is kindness to others” – jean de la bruyere

I wonder what a spell of Enlightenment thinking would do to African culture. Would the Muslim in Malians be tried by self-awareness?

The simplicity of subsistence culture is often times contemplative but (according to me and my openly cynical self) only to those outside of it. Because in its simplicity comes the ultimate daily decision to continue in it. The task of reducing every question to one that can be answered simply; squelching any difference not validated by money; allowing awful things to pass from generation to generation and chocking it up to Allah’s will. In this, the hardest time of year, the beginning of sowing season and the rains of hungry season are upon us and kids go hungry, entire families eat only one meal a day, because money from last years crop is gone (no one knows where – ahem: cigarettes and tea) and rationing this last bit is terribly important.

My time with Wurdia was lovely. Dabi cried as we walked up the hill and out of sight. We walked along the red dirt road north towards Sirakoro. With Nymuso, a beautiful young girl who lives in Mourgoula with her grandmother so she can go to school, and the crazy lady who bites at her nipples when asking about Fisher (according to everyone who has seen my disgusted laugh at this explains, every time as if I may have forgotten it the time before, that biting at your nipples symbolizes motherhood. Yea, I think I got that.), we walked and they gossiped and I held my 1 ½ liter water bottle in front of me with both hands and daydreamed of a bouquet of hydrangeas, blue and camel and white, tied with a lovely bow, walking down an isle with my Dad at my side, my eyes fixed on Ryan’s. I strolled along with music in my head: “Golden” by My Morning Jacket and laughed when I realized I was walking alone. The three women had stopped and were staring at me and grinning hard. Sighing and shaking their heads in confused fun, “eh, Oumou!”

The four of us broke off to our separate destinations, down paths and shoots you don’t know unless you grew up walking them. Once we arrived at Wurida and Brahima’s huge sorghum field, filled with shea trees and infiltrated by annoying tuber weeds, I realized the work set in front of us was just that: our work. She and I tackled a 5 hectare plot in one afternoon. It was fantastic and hard and hot and hilarious.
We spoke on many topics; many things that she had not yet shared with me and some those we’d gone over for 10 months now. Her 5 dead children, her trip to Abidjan, her fear of meeting my American mother, her wish to have a plough, problems with shea trees and their fruit and nuts, the difference between Western months and African months, women as machines, Brahima’s failing eyesight and its immediate and direct effect on their family’s food security and why I’m going to miss her.
We cut plants and uprooted weeds from 12noon until 3pm. We took one 20 minute break, during which she drank more water in a sitting than I’ve seen her drink in my 11 months in Mali, and went back to work. The work was relieving, the water cool even though not, the silence and simultaneous noises of the forest surrounding us was what I needed. It cleared my head; it hurt my hands; my right hand has 3 major blisters and my back aches and it is great.
We sat quietly together, two women working and enjoying and doing.
Our duty was before us and we did not leave until the job was done.

(She knowingly did much more and probably better work than I did, but she was happy; and so was I.)

It was a truly lovely day.

Changes or Just Time Changing?

I am most scared when I sit and can think of nothing to write. Like maybe my brain is going daft or, worse yet, my heart numb.

I can always write about my 14 hours of sleep or my peanut butter induced heartburn, or how badly I want a Dr Pepper with a slice of lime. About how much fun I plan to have with Fisher and how greatly I look forward to our walks to school and making dinner and drinking a glass of wine while Ryan bathes him and we put him to bed. About how I want to visit my parent’s daily if they’ll have me. About how much I’m going to enjoy visiting Austin and those who live in it.

Now there is that smile I was hoping for…That’s enough for now.


I spent all of today chasing off (or more so, trying to chase off) bugs and kids that were bugging me. It is not a nice way to spend a Tuesday and I could have left the house or done something else… but I couldn’t.
It took everything in me just to get out of bed.

I miss Ryan.
I ache for his words and his listening and comfort and his coffee breaks and his thirst for knowledge and his lovely laugh and his eyes when Fisher is around and his heart beat.

“Africa is a dangerous place for great sorrow to live very long” – E.H.

Great sorrow is found and formed in the distance between or the separation of loved ones.

hope is a lovely tool

Brigo is a small and rich region of Mali, south and west of the small city of Kita on the Guinea border. Many families and tribes here are Fulani: Sidibe, Diallo, Sangare and Djakite. Its hills roll and are spattered with sharp, black and red rock rises that help to judge distance and demarcate tribal, traditional and village plots.
Herdsmen and subsistence farmers, the Brigo people are in constant tango with nature and the many changes occurring now and over the past decades. Due to the poor road system both left by and poorly maintained by the French and Malian governments, most people in this region, especially women, have never left… not even to Kita.

I hope I don’t dwell on the dog fights, the unnecessary deaths, the whippings and beatings, the treatment of women, the excision of young girls, the slavery, the ugliness, the filth.

I hope when I’m home, cozy on a couch with Ryan, Fisher playing at our feet, I remember the smells. The ways that a warm breeze could move me to tears by wicking the sweat from my brow. The soil, soft and sifted and silky, and water’s drastic effect on it. The smiles received and given; toothless and terrific. The funny handshakes and boob grabs and the horrendous and hardworking feet. The slew of one-eye’s men, the blanket of stars that settle on you at night, the cool mornings, the call to prayer, the incessant sound of termites and their snow-like work falling from my ceiling. The perfect peanut butter, the shiny smell of a freshly cleaned baby.

The Things That Put Fear in Me Are Intricate Parts of a Whole

23 June 2009

After a tumultuous trip to Kita, tumultuous yet productive and reassuring, I
returned to Mourgoula.

Tuesday. I forgot my headlamp in Kita. Both of them, actually. I gave my flashlight to Wurdia months ago. Last night was moonless and filled with bugs and tales of giant doglike creatures and snakes that roam the forest. Warring and attacking people…

It is very hot today; I slept until 830am and with good dreams and am happy.


(later that day)

Now I don’t feel much of anything.
Hmmm. I do like my new pen. I do hate the slew of roach nests I found near my front door. I do feel as though my paranoia radar is at full capacity. I do feel as though I could lie around, inside, all day and not mind a bit.

(later, still)

X days left in West Africa… and I don’t know how to feel about it. I’m in village but I don’t feel very present – I feel like really and truly getting into bikini shape rather than sitting with women and talking and misunderstanding and being laughed at.

There, that. That sort of thing is what makes the guilt almost too much to bear. What am I doing a) thinking about something so trivial as a bikini, b) killing myself over thinking about the triviality of a bikini when I’m 24 and in love and missing leisure and finally c) I wish I wasn’t always misunderstood, misunderstanding and the butt of a joke I can’t even understand.

Maybe I’ll hand out photographs. Always fun at first, then quickly regretted. I’ll wait for Safiatu to arrive for that.
Her sister had a miscarriage, in Bambara her “stomach ran out of her house.” She is with her sister in Kita; the bills are horrendous; the sister is alive but very sick. Obviously the baby was lost and sadly the husband didn’t even go with her in the “ambulance”
Tomorrow I’ll go to a field and work; in the afternoon I’ll do my routine and feel (falsely) accomplished.
Thursday I’ll go to Sirakoro and I’ll call home and Ryan and be happy and in love while perched on a rock in a field looking at mountains dreaming of mountains.

WHY DO I SIT AND WRITE WHEN I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY? Sorry, guys. I should have quit while ahead.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wasp v Spider

Today, after my friend and fellow volunteer left Kita, I put on my staple, go to movie for feel-goodery, Juno, and just as the title credits were scribbled onto the screen a glider-sized Wasp found his way into the house and into my peripheral. His giant wings black and casting shadows against our old-age-off-white-sand-blasted walls. As he flew closer into view and as my eyes adjusted to zoom in on him I noticed he was flying rather strangely, albeit inside and all, but he had obviously been altered. As I drew him closer with my gaze, because as we all know once you see something you’re scared of or worried about you make it bigger and it comes closer, smelling your fear and anxiety and it feels powerful, I realized that his hind legs were carrying and caught up in a rather large spider web. I couldn’t tell who I was sorrier for: the Wasp or the Spider.
The Wasp of course was sad because he was trying to escape a (relatively) heavy weight that he had inadvertently got himself caught up in. The Spider because like the natives to northern Alaska who prepare months in advance for the whaling season, he had come very close to a feast that could sustain him through the season and had, as so many whalers know all to well, lost the battle, a lot of work, and probably some face with neighboring and competing spiders.
Strange how one can project her own life so fluidly into the lives, struggles and issues surrounding the natural life-cycle of insects that normally last about 10 weeks but can not, somehow, get the same point across in her reality.

Relatively. Reality. RodmanHart. Its cyclical… or something.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

have you seen

there is a way that we pass time here, once we're out of our villages and at regional houses: we veg. out.

i now understand the beauty and horror of it, of losing yourself in someone elses life, of obsessing over a tv show or movie couple or soundtrack. it sucks you in. it lures you. and with little other else to do : it feels GOOD.

today i watched ONCE for the fifth time, and for the fifth time i cried and laughed and said how the main character looks to me like Todd O'brien and how i love and loathe the ending and absolutely adore the music and lyrics and passion.

its a must see.

also recently watched and loved: 310 to yuma, Beautiful Girls, 4 weddings and a funeral, clueless.

I truly and honestly hope Ryan and I own a nice tv but never have channels, only movies.
Quotations for Ryan O’Brien & Co.

“If you don’t feel like a fool in Africa a big part of the time you are a bloody fool” – Earnest Hemingway in True at First Light

“Try to believe that things are never so good nor so bad as they seem to you now. Make it exciting… Go through the motions… Pretend its true and maybe it will be. Go through the motions. Do that. And go to bed.” John Steinbeck in East of Eden

“Gratitude is Heaven Itself.” – William Blake

“Africa is a dangerous place for great sorrow to live very long […]” – Earnest Hemingway in True at First Light

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge and if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.” – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“Ich Habe Genug.” – from a Bach Canata (translation: I have enough.)

“I love you, I always have. I’m not sure why I’m here, I probably won’t know for years to come why I was here. But I do know why I’m coming home, to you.” – Sydney Schalit

jannabanana: this one is for you

This gas that is accompanying the continuous battle with constipation is killing me. My spirit. And my otherwise healthy body image.
I so terribly miss my brother.
My Parents.
The Boys in Austin.
My Peugeot from Brandon.
My BT.

the beauty in breakfast, books and sleep

Shaking off bad dream malaise is not an easy thing to do; but there is something calming in books with breakfast. There is something calming in the way that Hemingway writes, that soothes a racing mind.
Without Ryan to listen to, or music to fill my head, at night I often read just before bed and love to fall asleep with another’s stories in my head. But with Hemingway I often find myself droopy-eyed yet pressing on further into the story.
Last night at 1am I woke to relieve myself and found that the relief I needed was of a more social manner. I dreamt of unhappy things, of jealousy and mistrust and furious flailings. I woke reaching for Ryan but getting only hot, humid, stagnant air.
I fell back asleep around 530am and slept until the angry rooster and the grumpy donkey that has been tied to my gate for three days screamed and yelped and balked at me.
Sweet Tene, my host sister, showed up soon after I drug myself from the floor and found me in distress and obviously tired and offered to do my laundry and I felt better.
She is so sweet and meek and lovely. And Hemingway is good at helping me to see that.
Dreams of giant waves crashing in on me, taking Mama and Skylar away, feeling the loss of everything, the break of spirit and air and want; I woke in a panic, screaming for Daddy, tearing through my mosquito net and out the door to find Ryan. Only to find myself under a star-less night, scratched and bleeding lightly, crying heavily and startled awake fully by the angry donkey tied to my gate; it was not a pretty night.

15 june 2009

A Very Successful Monday
Terrible dreams followed by a nice breakfast, subdued by bloody stool, rejuvenated by averting an always-awkward conversation with my self-appointed supervisor, MansaBoubou, I jetted off to Sirakoro to buy food stuffs, meat and call home to my sweet Ryan. Feeling stronger but strange about my dreams, my impatience and desire for mornings to be spent in America and with Ryan, were diverted by my dear friend Samba Sidibe. A village elder and extraordinarily smart man with skills beyond any known reason, he is a famous tree expert in Mali, and has agreed to help me start a Moringa Tree pepiniere; then he again and again reiterated why I trusted him so much by helping me knock three other things off my To-Do list.
After running the errands with Samba as my guide, I went to see Papa Sidibe, the principal at the school in Mourgoula, always an experience, who today proved very helpful and kind. We hung out, drank tea, talked about soccer, the new Mayor, electricity, good cuts of meat, the importance literacy with children and how funny Liza is. Then I got to speak to Liza while standing on a rock facing West, which was lovely but a little sad, then with Ryan, which was lovely, strange and rejuvenating.
I rode home, gave a half of a goat to Wurdia, watched as she smiled greater and greater, fetched water, played with Dabi, who is healthy and happy and fun, ate dinner, was blessed for buying a bunch of meat, and ate a very delicious meal.
It was a very good Monday.

jeepers creepers let me see those peepers

(Sunday Evening)
You know how your parents tell you that there isn’t a monster in the closet or that no one is on the roof, the house is just settling? Well, against all odds, its usually true. The wood and cement and plaster and paint all expand and compress with heat and humidity and snow and winds. However, when you’re house is made of mud bricks and bamboo rods and 6ft tall grasses, those noises are actually monsters, with exoskeletons and wings and long pinchers… nesting and moving about in the black of the night, termites eating away at my new beams, roaches crawling in and out of the grass layers, shinning their backs at me when I boldly and stupidly inspect for them with my flashlight.

Creepy crawlies indeed.

I’m ready for proper ventilation and a roach-less life and late night fridge raids and cold milk and a proper bed.

there is no i in teamwork

Watching the men in my village, the Men of Mourgoula, team up and work, replacing the roofing on my kitchen hut, laughing and cracking jokes, pointing everyone in a different direction, poking each other with 17foot bamboo poles, folding and tying the grass off, drinking tea and lounging, was hilarious. Satisfying. And quite rightly left me with a very poorly sealed roof. It was so worth it.

Secured with mud and stones, blessed by the Iman, they finally left me to my fresh smelling, damp roof. It was beautiful and funny and human. It was fantastic.

Rainy Sunday Afternoon

My first June rain in West Africa; it is cooling, it smells lovely and dewy and fresh. It is cleansing and soul strengthening. It comes through my new thatch roof that I fought so boldly for and soaks my bed. Damn it.

The breeze that preceded it was spectatular. I haven’t felt that satisified by weather since Dad and I went to the Sangre de Cristos in High School.

The coolness released some of my pent-up inner heat. Thank god.

Then with the end of the rain, which is inevitable, especially early in the rainy season, comes the sudden and squelching humidity. The moist-heat-drench that dampens even unpenetrated clothing, wets pillows safely stowed in trunks, it curls photographs and letters and hair. The flies wake up, with their pestering mosquito friends, hungry and fearless.


The sweet things, though they come, are too few and far between to sustain me.

(sigh) to eat queso and pico de gallo laiden quesadillas with Janna, APV, Lauren, Ryan and Patrick Dentler… heaven.

it was a sign from the beginning: Bill Murray was on our flight from JFK to Paris last july

If there was ever to be a West African movie parody it should be: Tea and Cigarettes. They are peace keepers, teeth killers, heat stabilizers, anger and exhaustion quenchers, status nullifiers and zap you in and out of whatever mood you happen to be in. The tea is strong and willed and chock full of sugar. The cigarettes are unfiltered and smell of rotten leaves.

carcass with your coffee?

14 June 2009
Dogfights were the only thing moving the air last night. I woke to the smell of heavy dog urine only to later find another bloody, black eared, white tailed carcass at the door of my nygen.
My dreams were terrible: I woke three times, scared and shaking. I was being chased on foot and without hope of escaping. Also, Mom’s car got stolen on my watch but I couldn’t call the police. Later I met Zac Posen (the designer). He was annoyed and annoying but had beautiful hair and a sharp suit. The chasers, two men now, were violent, handsome and vengeful. It was truly awful because with every wake I reached for Ryan only to grasp and withdraw from my mosquito netting.
It is 815am now and I’m ready for a nap.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

When the Fence is Made of Bamboo Rods, YouDon’t Want to Be on It for Long

So I’ve been doing this thing lately, where I’ll start to write a post or a letter or a to-do list and I’ll get about a paragraph in and scratch it. It’s sad really, the ways that indecisiveness have entered into my daily life as well as my professional life and more important my written life. I’m on the verge of making a very big decision, one that I cannot announce here yet, because it’s against the rules and also because I’m still on the fence. The painful, annoying, skewering, bamboo fence.

I hope I find my way off sooner than later.

Seeing as how I’d like to, one day, have, at the very least, a paying-hobby in writing, this aforementioned early-signs-of-permanent-indecisiveness-blockage in my hands/heart/mind is troublesome to say the least. Seeing as how, in my current situation, that being: somewhat sick in a leaking-roof hut in the middle of nowhere in West Africa, is made easier to bear by the writings that some of you receive via post and others that you see here on my blog and others still that no one will see… except maybe Fisher in 15 years when we are rifling through old journals trying to find an excerpt for some article that I actually don’t feel like writing (aaah, to dream, eh?). A teammate here, Malian named Chaka Sidibe, and I have discussed this quirk we all have; we all have this one little thing that we do to keep sane. He rides his bike, Liza reads incessantly, Dan plays soccer or climbs cliffs, Megan actually does good deeds for Malians, Jackie escapes to her boyfriends’ place on the river, Christina draws and paints, and I, well I write. And I like to think I write well… at least I did, up until very recently.

I have been sick, with a fever and bloating and really ridiculous bowl movements and eewe and ick. I’ll be the first to tell you that I am a huge wimp when I’m sick, but being sick is compounded tenfold by being sick in West Africa. The heat, the filth, the language, the crass medical facilities, the European bedside manner with Malian attitude, it all adds up and boy oh boy has it done a number on me.
Things in village have been rough, too. The Country Director and the Safety and Securities Officer came to do site visits in my region and while they were in my village we had a lovely time. They gave me a hand, linguistically and with authority, in getting repairs done on my house… or so we thought. After agreeing that indeed my roof should not have 2 inch diameter holes and that my doors should shut and lock without needing a cement block to hold them and yes, the water from my nygen (bathroom) should flow away from my house. Yet, 6 weeks later, 6 weeks that included a French reunion with my parents, Fisher and Ryan being ill, me in a clinic in Bamako for 7 days and my two best friends in country leaving for a month’s visit to the states, there are still no repairs done on my house.
I went to village early this week with a Peace Corps escort only to find my bedroom hut, bed included, ruined (by American standards) by the rain that came through what is now a 6 inch hole; the nygen untouched except by squatting goats escaping beatings from kids; and doors that are not only un-shut-able but nonexistent due to the rain’s damage to the hinges. Tears and anger and Damn it quickly ensued.

My host-dad’s excuse: I forgot about Sydney.

Well, while the village of Mourgoula was forgetting about me, because, in fact, it is the entire village’s task to ensure my living arrangements are up to (a pathetic) standard, I’ve been crying, sick and longing for an answer, a sign, a single sliver of hope, in a disgusting clinic, loosing weight daily and missing Ryan and Home and Life more than I knew possible. It wasn’t pretty.

But then I think: what am I to expect? I haven’t been there in 6 weeks, since Ryan left I’ve been depressed and rather pathetic, they still don’t understand my reaction to the girl who seized and later died, they don’t understand how hard it is to be this far from the one person I want to be as close as possible to for the rest of my life, they don’t understand how weather and sickness and death and water and bee stings can affect an attitude or an afternoon. But it’s not their fault and I’m not saying they don’t understand life. In fact, they surely live their lives to the fullest extent that they see possible and Allah Ka Deme (may god help them in this).

But I’m not them. I don’t understand their acceptance of marrying off sobbing and scared 14 year old girls to 44 year old men who already have 3 wives; I don’t understand how a woman can castrate her 10 month old daughter and then kill a goat in celebration of it; I don’t understand how one can be so patient with the weather and with God’s will that they can just wait around for the ground to soften while their kids go hungry, get sick and die. Again, these are things that I don’t understand and that, although they are shrouded in what could seem to be judgment (and honestly, probably is), I can do nothing about for I am but a cog in the wheel. It makes me rather sick.

So the here we are, fenced. I am happiest when I’m with Ryan O’Brien. I’m terrified of making mistakes and forming regrettable situations. I’m angry at myself for letting it come to this. I’m mad at my host dad for forgetting about me while I have been talking only of them while with my parents in Dives. I’m happy that Dabi is growing and talking and moving around well. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to how precious it is to hear Fisher on the phone, chatting it up with me, knowing that sometime soon I get to be there, chatting it up with him. I’m tired of scaring my parents, friends and loved ones by remaining here and sick and unhappy.

I’m in love. I’m engaged. I’m in Africa.

I think I just cleared the fence.

spring cleaning... in june

Ok, its official, I’m requesting that, as of 1 July 2009, no more packages be sent to Mali. I did a bit of an assessment and inventory of my stuff here in Mourgoula and, after some disbelief and laughter, I made the easy assumption that I could easily live off of the goodies that have been sent thus far for two years and still have happy feet and taut skin and clean teeth and pretty nails and be covered on the underwear front.

Thank you to everyone who has overwhelmed me with love, affection and goodies from a land far away and made it all seem a little closer to home. I still have plenty of goodies to keep me going until further notification.

Again, thanks to you all who have supported and helped me through this, especially Mama, Aunt Tootsie and Reagan and Ginger South.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Longing for Even Just a Sweet Dream

1 June 2009

DISCLAIMER: this blog is mainly intended for those of you who might have some sweet tea, or tree oil, or root-beer that can cure nightmares. This is not a blog to inspire sympathy… although if it does it must be the first time you’ve read this blog and I highly recommend reading on. Thank you.

There is something to be said for a culture that doesn’t allow public tears. It is not against the law, mind you, it is just absolutely ridiculous unless someone has died, right then, and possibly in your arms. Although I strongly agree with personal boundaries and the such, these are not people with similar ideas of “publicly appropriate” much less “personal.” Allow me to explain: children poop in public, not in diapers, but through pants with holes cut in strategic places, into open sewers where rats, mice and toads live. Old Men have been seeing doing similar acts but with a little bit more fabric to hide what they are doing. Women breastfeed openly and often the children are not even theirs. In market, while calmly shopping for lettuce or tomatoes people will grab your shirt, hair, and feet – “Buy a Mango?” They throttle down snot rockets at the doors of their mosques and bejewel the hand they use so un-hygienically to wipe. I could go on, but…

I wept on the phone, under large dark glasses, today to my Dad. Wept. Heaved. Walked. The blistering sun and wind and filth heated and lifted by both. Checked the traffic, took a breath, walked and wept some more. I’m sick with a fever and tired of Bambara; in 4 days I’ve lost 10lbs, received one really nasty email, and have eaten only yogurt whose flavor is called “exotique xx”; I’ve had three nightmares in which I die in the waking moments a death of newsworthy means, two nap-mares in which I kill people and zero sweet dreams. I’ve followed all the rules and slapped and jerked around for it. I’ve felt nothing but a void, one I cannot myself fill; it has been altogether present since March. I am suffering from depression, that I am well aware of, but the usual cure for depression is exercise and sleep – two things I cannot muster here in Mali. And medications are out of the question: this is the last place I’d want to alter my already fragile state, especially when it comes to sleep.

Now if any of you have some ideas on how to pass a sweeter night, or even just a better nap, I’ll take them all with a grain of sand. Please muster these with the knowledge that: I read only happy or at least inspiring books (no Steven Kings here), I eat at 7pm, long before bedtime, I do not drink anymore (unless I’m in the presence of Pilli, Dan, Cahill or Jon), I’m generally active, I drink Chamomile tea and cold water before bed.

Back on track… It seems as though it is inappropriate for these people to gawk, stare, laugh and poke at me for crying. I was having a terrible day, damnit. Much of which I can attribute directly to their country and a handful of their countrymen.
Alas, there must be something more than just the tears that they so abhor. But what could it be? Any given family has lost at least 2 children, most parents don’t make it to see their children’s children (and that’s saying a lot because women bear kids at 12, 13, 14), everyone has been to funerals and more people than like to admit it have been to female circumcisions. Car and motorcycle wrecks are the number one killer here in Mali (notable fact: this is something development agencies can do nothing for) so nearly every person has seen at least one – me in my 11 months, I’ve seen 3, 2 which were fatal, 1 included two small children. They go to Mosque, they have a great respect for the hand of God but do very little, or so it seems, to interact with him in anyway aside from structure and demanded prayer. Even now, just typing out the things that make me want to cry makes me realize that they truly do not tear up.

The only thing I can think of is this: the loss of control that comes with tears. For us, Americans or even westerners, it’s a sense of release but maybe that release is something they don’t want. They don’t want to feel hopeless and hopeful at the same time. Do they want to blame every action, inaction and reaction on Allah’s will and let it be at that?

How cynical can I be? I’m sure you’re all asking yourselves that, as am I, but at some point we have to wonder… why no tears? Why no responsibility? No helmets? No condoms? No mosquito nets? No clean water? The US Peace Corps has been in Mali for over 30 years, just 10 years short of their own independence from France, and even the earliest volunteers, the ones for the early ‘80s and ‘90s say they’ve gone back and visited their communities and even the simplest of actions towards healthier, longer lives, like washing your hands after the restroom and before eating, are still ignored and seen as more trouble than it is worth. What does that do to the spirit of the current PCV?

It bursts us into tears, sometimes composed entirely of laughter due to the ridiculous manner in which we live and believe that we are making a difference. A tangible real difference.

Today, I’m even a bit touchier than yesterday because today I woke up sick, again, un-rested due to terrible and terrifying dreams, and decided to walk from the Medical Clinic to the Bureau only to be stoned by a small troop of 10 year olds, peeved because, like everyone else, I did not give them the money they demanded.

What ever is a gal to do?
I feel as if I’m up a creek with stones tied to my feet.
Please don’t worry, though. I’m not too huge of a mess, I can still bring myself to eat, and bathe, and try. Although my patience and persistence are running thin, they are still running. Now more than ever, I’m trying. It may not sound like it, or seem like it, but I am.

So, who is going to give me the secret recipe for night-mare-less nights?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

thoughts on...

25 May 2009
Stars, They Are Just Like Us!

There is something to be said for the finer things in life. In fact, there is a whole lot to be said, but that isn’t why my parents, Bob and Mohanta, took me to Dives in Normandy for 10 days this May. We went there because, sure, I hadn’t had the finer things in life for some time now. 10 months, to be exact, but more because we all needed a vacation and we all needed each other. And while there, on the beaches where thousands and thousands of American, British and Canadian men my age and younger took the shores and lost their lives, we walked, stared and strolled. The sunset: endless, the life of the French country-side: picturesque, the thoughts: unstoppable.
I found black seashells for Fisher.
We talked about poverty and injustice and love.
We talked a lot about love.

(cue the dramatic music and put the soap-opera shading on the picture of me, my dad and my mom walking hand-in-hand into the long sunset with thought bubbles over our heads filled with heart shaped bubbles and pictures of loved ones faces and puppies and Zoe)

When I joined the Peace Corps I knew I’d be faced with poverty, filth, sickness and uneducated but intelligent people who, I assumed, just wanted a hand in their fields. To my (albeit naive) dismay I’ve discovered that poverty is winning, that filth doesn’t mean much when you don’t understand it, sickness and death are the will of Allah and that uneducated intelligent people are just like educated unintelligent people. They want what we all want: dignity and an easy life.
They do want a hand in their fields and they do want help with their children and in selling their goods in a stronger market and they are interested in technological developments (we’re not talking about the iPhone here, we’re talking about western hoes where your back isn’t stressed because the handle is no longer than your forearm) and they do want to tweak their eating habits to better their health and they do want to better educate their children. But (and here is that People Magazine reference I know you’ve all been waiting for) Impoverished People, They’re Just Like Us! They want these things but they want them fast, they’d rather not pay and they don’t want to have to follow-up.
And I don’t blame them.
Think about it: we know many of the processes of life and law because we’ve been formally educated on the subject; we know about paper trails and the importance and incompetence of bureaucracy because we all have a drivers license and have registered for college courses; we know that No Child Left Behind translates to Everybody Get Out but only because we were forced to watch the big and pretty opening ceremonies, trip up on their first step and crumble; we know that medicine generally kicks religion’s butt in the battle of infections and illness: antibiotics tend to rid our children of ear infections and antifungals rid our feet of red rashes much quicker, more efficiently and with less mentally-painful life-quality-questioning prayer; we know that fast-food will kill us and we know that vegans will too (I still love you, Sean and Lauren); we know that cigarettes are harmful and cool and we know that quitting is made harder because of non-smoking suits who live in gated communities, far removed from the lives they supply with nicotine. We know these seemingly simple aspects of life and law because in 4th grade everyone was taught the Scientific Method and understand that when you do something and the effect isn’t what you wanted, try doing something a little different, be patient and do more trials; we know these things because our systems are in place to afford us the rights and privileges to better make these decisions through questions and discussions; we know them because our parents take the time and make the effort to help us to understand this wild world we live in. In the end we know that medicine will help the body but that prayer often eases the mind and the heart further allowing the aforementioned to work better.

These processes of life and law are instilled in us; but these very processes of life and law are brand new to the people that development agencies, like the Peace Corps, intend to help: impoverished, uneducated, yet deserving people. We want to help in the process of developing, changing, and yet we are not sure how to go about instructing, instilling and ingraining these life altering attributes. When your student is aware of the fact that 8 hours a day he is at the mercy of the teacher, you have control and a vague sense of trust that helps the student to relax his nerves and focus (in theory, at least) on the lessons being taught. When your student in 65 and has lived a far fuller life than you, has survived the country’s independence and has seen 100s of friends and family die from Allah’s will (also known as malnutrition, malaria, AIDS/HIV, complications with birth due to the age of the mother, snake bites, bull fights, etc) and has worked in fields and been bitten by cobras and is blind from malnutrition and is still alive even though he doesn’t wash his hands, he chews tobacco, sleeps without a mosquito net and lives without the knowledge of other cultures, then what? And to confuse it more: he is Happy.
Then what do we have to teach him? Somehow, even though the developed world says it is impossible, improbable, and unlikely, he has lived way past the “average life expectancy” and has loved it. Shouldn’t that be what we reach for – improving the life they already lead instead of changing and uprooting what they already know?

It seems ridiculous to me, the more time I spend here and spend with friends like Safitu Traore and Sala Sidibe and Djan Diallo that I as a representative of the United States, am here to alter their ways of life. What the hell do I know? I know a lot about the socioeconomic factors that allow for the wealthy to stay rich and the poor to stay deprived. I know exactly why, politically and socially, the government only allows for the radio to work in highly populated areas and that that is why my villagers don’t even know when there is a coup going on just 35 km from us. I know that rural African doctors are often out here so that they can some day get promoted to Bamako or Segou and that they continue to treat everything with quinine and pocked the rest for profit (brand new motorcycles don’t come from a rural doctor’s salary who is supporting 3 wives). I know that the anthropologist that study these people are probably kicking themselves knowing that even though they are making it known that Toubabs (white people) digging for gold in Mali are “culturally sensitive” and therefore should be allowed to come in, buy land for nothing and bank later without having to give anything back, and that those anthropologists are banking too. I know that we as Peace Corps volunteers suffer a long, drawn out sense of regret and resentment because it is clear, after a period, that we are here as dolls of America. That we all know that none of us actually know anything technical that could help these people in the long run and that we are here to save face. JFK made the latter very clear.
Surely my biggest success as a United States Peace Corps volunteer will be the execution of Peace Corps 2nd and 3rd goals: to transfer useful/unusual cross-cultural knowledge between Americans and my Malian counterparts (even as you read this I’m considered to be doing my job). But to be honest, that isn’t what I signed up to do.

When I defended my choice to become a Peace Corps volunteer to the Republicans in my life I was always honest and straight forward with these two reasons: 1) I want to be extra hands in a field in West Africa; 2) I need to find a reason to love America (at the time I absolutely did not). Since moving here, my thoughts on America and Americans have dramatically changed for the better (although Gossip Girl isn’t helping, The Office sure is… we don’t get much news around here). I do currently and for the first time ever proudly wave an American flag both in and outside of my humble little Malian huts. I speak highly of our rights, liberties and abilities; though there is much reform to be had it’s nice to be able to speak of it, freely and without being called anti-American. Truly, can you believe we went through that horrific stage? Yikes.
Rainy season is coming up, quickly, and for that I am dreadfully grateful. For one, when it rains, it cools everything down and greens everything up. It’s nice and necessary for my sanity. Also, it means we start to plough and sow the fields – what I always intended on doing when in the Peace Corps. I honestly cannot wait. We’ll see what changes occur as I wake with the sun, take water to my host mother, and team up with another family each week for the next 12, to take to the fields, weed, prep and sow. I hope that with the change in weather and change in work my attitude too will change.

I need to revert back to the Gratitude is Heaven Itself attitude of my earlier days in Mourgoula. I need to make decisions that work socially, globally and in my best interest – which is no longer just mine but that of my fiancĂ©’s too, after all, we are a unit spread over 6,000 tumultuous miles and its important that we are supported and supportive… both sides of the Atlantic. I need an attitude adjustment and this word-vomit-blog is helpful.

You, if you’ve read this piece all the way through, should pat yourself on the back, because, according the official Goals of the Peace Corps, you just helped me be successful.