June 27, 2011

Weekly(ish) Photo Essay: A Few Days In

Being in Mali has really helped me to appreciate the little things.

When we arrived our kitchen sink wasn't draining. Well, one basin would sort of drain and the other would slowly fill with sewage water. Also, the light doesn't work in my bathroom, and I keep forgetting to ask someone to fix it. Needless to say, I'm slowly getting used to peeing in the dark.

But today our sink miraculously started draining again after a rainstorm, and I've never been happier! I can now do the dishes with both hands because I don't need one to hold my nose! And sure, the light in my bathroom doesn't work yet, but I'm sure when it does I'll be thrilled to not have to go to pee Hellen Keller-style.

The little things, I tell you.

Yesterday I finally went to pick up my bags, which thank god were both there (albeit covered in flies, and, inexplicably, chocolate). Kara also exchanged some cash for me, which meant I was no longer without possessions or money! Yay!

And I fixed my mosquito net! It's not suffocating me anymore!

Then Shahla and I took a walk down Rue Blabla (best street name ever), past Blabla restaurant, and took a walk on the other side of our neighborhood.

Shahla in the garden

The Mosque, where we got dirty looks for poking in our uncovered heads

Pollution, yay!

Remember the truck graveyard? This is the refrigerator graveyard! There's even an ice box!

On our way home we ventured into the little market behind our house.

It was crowded, muddy, overrun with children, and um, fragrant (for lack of a better euphemism). The "meat" was crawling with flies and the "fish" looked fossilized. But they also had lots of beautiful wares, the mangoes were copious and huge, and everyone was smiling, in spite of the smell.

Vintage pedal-operated sewing machines! WANT!

Walking back, we came across a group of boys playing soccer who really really really wanted us to take their picture. So we did. Again and again.

When we came home we had a pizza party with Koura (the 11-year-old girl), a couple of guys from GAIA (the organization I'm working for), and this random french medical student, Olivier, who sort of just showed up at the house. (He later explained that he worked with GAIA last year, and is friends with the executive director's family, so he knew we were here and was stopping by to say hi to us while he spends a few days in Bamako before heading to Burkina Faso).

We also went to see some goats. And donkeys. There are a lot of those everywhere. Très cute.

And we almost had a monsoon today. Here's a video of it getting windy: 

Oh! And our other neighbor (besides the goats) is a French Canadian who works at the Canadian Embassy! He stopped by this evening to invite us to a Canada Day party he's having at his house this Friday (after we passive-aggressively left a note with his guard to call us). He's been here for a year and knows his way around, plus he has a generator so his lights don't go out when there are black outs. I think he'll be a good person to know, especially when I'm here by myself for two weeks!

Not his gate. This is the Canadian Embassy. But how cool would that be?

This morning we visited the clinic where I'll be working, Chez Rosalie, in Sikoro. I was shocked at how little electronic equipment there was and the utter lack of modernity. But the doctors and nurses seemed to know what they were doing, and based on the reports I've read, there seems to be a pretty high success rate with the programs, especially the Mother to Child Transmission Prevention Program I'll be evaluating.

On the way to the clinic we stopped to see the Village Chief, a friendly looking old man placidly waving flies away, lying on a mat outside his cinder block house. There were chickens running around the yard, which was strewn with garbage, and two women and a baby sat quietly beside him.

I thought my neighborhood was poor, but apparently it's one of the richest ones in Bamako. And I realized that when we drove through Sikoro. There were children--no older than infants--with no shoes playing on the side of the road with piece of rusty corrugated metal. The shacks were barely even shacks.

At least the kids in my neighborhood have shoes and matching soccer jerseys...

June 25, 2011

Weekly(ish) Photo Essay: Arriving in Bamako

In one word, Africa is different.

My trip began yesterday morning at 5:30, New York time, after having stayed up all night to finish packing and cleaning (and be tired enough to sleep on the flight). At JFK, the line for check in was ridiculously disorganized, but they let me check a slightly overweight bag, so I didn't complain. The security line was another story. After waiting an hour without moving a single inch, we finally crawled our way to the x-ray machines, where I was full body scanned, thoroughly patted down (read: molested), and then wiped down for explosives. My dignity hanging on by a thread, I made my way to the gate where I realized that I was surrounded by dozens of screaming children, one of who sat next to me shrieking for the entire flight. If I hadn't been so tired that I passed out for five of the six hours, I would have murdered him.

When I arrived in Casablanca my flight to Bamako was inexplicably delayed for an hour and a half (while no one bothered to tell us anything), and when I finally got on the plane, the long-legged guy sitting behind me spend the entire flight kicking the back of my seat. Lovely.

When I arrived in Bamako, I stepped off the plane and smelled Africa.

No, I've never been here before, so I wasn't smelling something familiar. But the minute I smelled it, I knew that it was the smell of this vast continent. It was a mix of hot, dry mud and bustling market place. Pungent, but not overhwelmingly so.

It was 2am (we were meant to arrive at 1am), and I waited an hour for my luggage before an alarm bell sounded and I was told that they were done for the night. Kara, a doctor who works for my organization who kindly came to pick me up, told me to wait in line to make a claim for my undelivered luggage. By line he must have meant mosh pit because there was a giant group of people shoving to make their way into a small, airless room with two nonchalant airport employees sitting at computers from 1985.

I figured out that that if I didn't want to be there all night, I had to start playing by their rules, so I shoved and shoved and finally forty-five minutes later I left with my receipt.

By the time Kara dropped me off it was 4:30 am, and I realized that I didn't have any of my towels, toiletries or clothes, except for the tooth brush and one dress I had packed in my carry on (thank god). This morning (or afternoon, rather, since I woke up at 2pm), Shahla, my supervisor, lent me some shampoo, her brush, and some towels from the house to take a shower.

My invaluable mosquito net (which I have since then fixed to not suffocate me)

I cannot wait for my bags to arrive so I can put on my bathing suit and jump in the pool!

Our front patio

A banana tree in the yard

Living room

Dining room


Our "stove." AKA, a propane tank with a burner sticking out of it.
I'm trying so hard to not think about how dangerous this could be.

The front gate.

The dog, Nido. She is so sweet.

Around 3pm a little girl appeared to talk to us. We were told that people in the neighborhood would hear that we were here and would just stop by to call in and chat, and apparently they really do.

She's eleven years old and is HIV positive.

Both of her parents are also HIV positive, but her two younger siblings aren't, which means her mother probably didn't start taking ARVs (anti-retrovirals) until after she was born.

It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that she never even had a chance (since she was born HIV positive), but listening to her talk, I realized how she had managed to not let it rule her life. She told us about a friend of hers, an eighteen-year-old girl, who recently found out she was HIV positive, and became very depressed. She thought she was the only one who was infected, and was terrified of what would happen if her community found out (HIV positive people tend to be ostracized). She just wanted to die, so she stopped taking her medicine.

Now if I understood correctly (this girl's french wasn't perfect, and her accent was quite thick), the little girl managed to convince her friend that she wasn't in fact the only one, that there was a large community of HIV positive people to support her, and that no one would have to know that she was sick except those at the clinic and her HIV positive friends. But that the only way she could go on living was if she kept taking her medicine. And so the girl did.

On my first day here I met a mere child with such strength of character and clarity of mind that she was not only able to deal with being HIV positive herself, but also managed to be a source of strength and inspiration for her friend.

I have the feeling I'm going to meet some amazing people here.


Around 4pm Shahla and I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood to the local cafe`, Cafe Relax, and took some photos along the way.

The truck graveyard on our street

A common sentiment, apparently?

Beautiful women and delicious mangoes

Our "street"

Our "neighbors"

A shoe "store"

Our afternoon snack.
Hopefully I won't get cholera or dysentery  from the fresh squeezed orange juice.

Then we were invited by the Bamako Minister of Public Health to a gala celebrating the 20th anniversary of some doctor's organization, where we had a yummy dinner and saw lots of crazy outfits and dancing.

The woman in the front with the brown suit is the Bamako Minister of Public Health who invited us

Probably the only salad I'll eat in the next two months

Yummy fish

The most amazing fruit plate in the world! That mango was to die for.


Tomorrow I'm hoping to finally get my luggage, get a sim card for my phone, exchange some money on the black market, and buy some fruit at the regular market. It should be a very interesting day! 

Stay tuned!