Friday, June 29, 2007

Fun, Sun, Staph Infection, and Laura Bush...all in my fun-filled Mali adventure...

Hello all. I write you on the eve of my departure from Mali, and who knew that so much could happen in a week long period. First off, Mali is WONDERFUL! I have had such an amazing time seeing another country (including being bribed at the border just to get in), meeting other volunteers, learning about shea trees/nuts/butter, contracting a staph infection, and meeting First Lady Laura Bush.

To say that my trip here has been interesting is definitely not saying enough. I departed Bobo at 8:30 AM for my 14 hour "joy" ride to Bamako. I was told by countless volunteers to just buy my visa at the border. It is about $80 cheaper to do just have to deal with the Malian Gendarmes. I approach the border guard and he immediately starts yelling in garbled French that I don't have a visa. "Why don't you have one? You can't have to go back to Ouaga and visit the embassy!" So, I tried to explain that I came from a village and that I didn't have time to purchase one, that I was coming for a formation, and that I was told I could get it here. He again starts his little tirade about how my friends were wrong...I had made a "faux" and that he couldn't help me. I started to get a little angry, but then it dawned on me that this is Africa...there is always a monetary solution. Trying to look resigned I started to walk away, only to have him trail after me. " to this guy...he'll take care of you." I get ushered over to this window where they tell me I have to pay 15,000 CFS ($30) or they were going to send me back. They hand me a receipt for 10,000 CFA, so I give them that. He continues to stare at me, and places his hand out again. It dawns on me that the other 5,000 CFA ($10) was the bribe--a cheap bribe if you ask me. I ask him why my receipt says 10k when they want 15k, and he very calmly explains that if I don't pay the extra money they will keep my 10k and just send me back to Burkina...nuff's the $10.

Not surprising from a 14 hour bus ride, I arrived in Bamako with "cankles"....REALLY big "cankles." At first I thought it was just the transport...but I was neglecting to remember the cuts on the bottom of my feet that I had gotten due to all my running. As the days progressed my feet only got bigger, and then developed sores on the ankles. It got to the point where I could barely walk. But, as most PC volunteers know...we practice a grin and bear it approach to feeling sick or being injured. I finally break down and went to see the PC Mali nurses in Bamako where I learn I have a staph infection...FUN! So, needless to say I had to wrap both my feet up like casts and I am now on a seriously strong bout of antibiotics to knock this stuff out of my system. Oh, I love Mali!

Regardless, I spent a fabulous week at a shea butter formation learning all about the opportunities that exist in the shea butter industry in the world market, how to produce good nuts/butter, how to create/manage women's groups that could produce/harvest the nuts, and more. It was really invaluable for me as I work to get shea groups established in my village, and help various organizations with exportation and selling overseas. From what I have learned, Shea Butter is quite a hot commodity on the world market. What makes it wonderful is that shea production is done almost exclusively by women, so it gives them an opportunity to take ownership and control over a part of their lives, in a society where they are not allowed that much autonomy to begin with. It is really inspiring to sit at a table with 25 Malian women as they become empowered by knoweledge, and discover the confidence to create their own enterprises. I can't wait to take this information back to Burkina Faso and get the ball rolling there. Burkina Faso (along with Ghana) are actually the two most developed countries in regards to Shea Butter/Nut refining and there is so much exciting opportunity in this area and I am only skimming the surface. Not only that, but the formation was held in Siby, Mali....a world famous hiking and rock climbing spot--and even though with my infected tootsies I couldn't really take advantage, it was beautiful scenery.

As if things couldn't get better, we heard that the First Lady was making a stop in Bamako, Mali and we were invited to head out to the Ambassador's Residence and meet/greet her. Here is a little pic from the meeting:

There I am in the front row with several Peace Corps Mali volunteers...

It was so much fun. She stopped and thanked all of us for our service, and talked about some interesting initiatives that she is working on to battle Malaria and HIV/AIDS Nutrition (check out That is Sarah's NGO that Mrs. Bush personally visited).

I have had such an amazing time on my trip to Mali...meeting new people, conquering crazy infections, and shaking hands with the president's wife (even if I don't necessarily agree with most...actually all...of his policies). Well...I am off tomorrow...14 hours back home...FUN TIMES!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A smile to your face...

Hello all. It has been a few weeks since I arrived back in Burkina Faso, and so I thought I would send out a little message to say hello. Things here are going well, and after a bit of a hard time transitioning back to life here in Burkina, I am feeling settled again.

I am passing through Bobo on my way to Bamako, Mali to attend a formation about the production/marketing of Shea Butter. It's an African trademark, and can be used in anything from shampoo to chocolate! It's an amazing, and severely under-utilized resource. Mike's Aunt is coming in July to tour some Shea Butter facilities in Burkina, and they are interested in exporting to Europe/ there are a lot of interesting opportunities on the horizon. I just might do something in the business sector after all...WOO HOO!

I have been feeling a bit introspective lately thanks to a book I have been reading, Tales of a Female Nomad (Rita Golden Gelman), which I HIGHLY recommend. It really forced me to look at my time here, and to appreciate it for the little things, the things that bring a smile to your face...that brighten your day. So, I thought I would share an experience that I just had...something that brought a smile to my day:

The sun peaks through my straw hangar, the thwack of the axe can be heard from across my courtyard, and the naying of the donkeys signal another day has begun. In Burkina Faso the last thing that I need is an alarm clock. As if set to a timer--even though usually NOTHING runs on time--my village comes to life as the sun peaks over the horizon. The people--and animals--start their day, whether I am ready for them to or not...there is NO snooze button.

I jump out of bed, thankful for the morning coolness as it flows over me, knowing that in 3 hours the sun will beat down and I will have to take refuge for a while from its rays. The mornings have always been my favorite, not only for the gracious breeze and cool air, but for the sounds and sights of my village coming to life.

For me, my mornings are the same. I lace up my shoes, take a gulp of water, and I set off. I pass several of my neigbors, all of whom have been up for hours already preparing breakfast and lunch, washing the children, cleaning the house, and preparing to set off to the fields--it is the rainy season and everyone has a field to tend to. As I run past I wave hello and pass my morning greetings to my neighbors--"Aw ni Sogoma," I shout as I jog by--Good morning in my village's local language of Joula. We rush through the greeting ritual as I pass by. At this point the odd looks have subsided, and most people just know me as the crazy american girl that "faire's le sport." Running is never done unless trying to get away from something, or in playing soccer...and most certainly not done that often by a girl.

I continue on my path through the mango groves which are teeming with ripe mangos. Their scent fills the air and I have to resist ripping one off the tree and eating it right there. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy fruits from a supermarket again. I wave to the villagers and children who are already in the grove, picking the mangos for sale in the market. I pass as the children make their way to school in the morning, carrying their little rice sack backbacks as they bound along. I dodge the various cattle, goats, and pigs along my route, Passing the river, and continuing on into the rice fields. The view is spectacular, and a far cry from 9 months ago when I was staring at the New York skyline from my office window. Oh, how much my life has changed in such a short time.

As amazing as all of this is, it is the end of my run that I look forward to the most. As I crest the hill out of the mango grove the familiar cry pierces the air. There is Brahim, my two-year old neighbor. "Madame! Madame!" he cries as he sees me come over the hill. He darts towards me from his courtyard, his little legs carrying him as fast as he can go. His eyes are lit up, and there is a smile on his face
that could light the world. Normally we shake hands, high five, and I pat him on
the head...but today is different. As he runs up I put my hands out and UP he jumps giving me the biggest little bear hug that he can muster. He has always been so shy to this point, and his affection surprises me. "Bonjour," he says...the only word of French I am sure he knows. He props on my hip and I jog him back to his mother. He pops down to the ground, gives me a hug and then runs back to his house.

I wave goodbye and finish up my run, just a little more energized than the moment before. Happy...content...that his hug is one of the highlights of my day...and something to look forward to every time I crest that hill to make my way home.

Anyways...I hope all is well. I will update you soon on the happenings in Mali. Also, the tickets have been purchased...THAT'S RIGHT FOLKS...October 30-November 26th...Stephanie's Tour of America! I will be landing in NYC to visit Mike and friends, run the marathon with a Peace Corps buddy, party, EAT, and just relax. Then I am off to the big salty 'Ham (Birmingham to those of you who don't know) for family visits, my Dad's wedding, hopefully the Iron Bowl, and much more. Start planning your parties now...and our restaurant schedule. We are a mere 4 months away! Love you and miss you all...STAY CLOSE!