Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New blog!

Hello anyone who might still be reading this blog!

I'm blogging over at Zen Travellers now.

Hope to see you there!


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock Denied

Prior to my leaving Mali, my new friends speculated at how messed up I would be upon my "re-entry." (Click for a *delightful definition of reverse culture shock.)
*Denotes sarcasm font.

I worried a bit about how I would feel coming back, but mostly I was looking forward to seeing my family and friends again, as well as using a sink.

I learned during my semester abroad in France many years ago, that the friendships you make while abroad happen fast and get close a lot quicker than if you weren't both experiencing a sensation of other worldliness. So it was no surprise to me that I was very sad to say goodbye to my friends and tried to comfort myself with the notion that internationalists make the world smaller, and we would see each other again one day. Inshallah.

I was not prepared for how I reacted to leaving my host family. We had an unceremonious last supper together and then I gave them some presents. Mostly paignes of fabric and some shoes for the teenagers. I didn't think it was much, but they were tickled and my host mom kept telling me that I had done good.

They scrambled to give me something even though I insisted they didn't need to. They called me a cab, and gathered around me as I loaded up my bags, heads down, staring at the ground and looking sullen. I wanted to grab each one and squeeze them tightly but they're not big on PDA's so I slunk into my car. My host-mom piped up at the last minute:

"When exactly is your flight?" she asked. I told her that it would be the following night.

"You will come back for lunch then." She stated, peering over her glasses in her usual way. I hadn't intended on it, but I agreed.

The car drove away and even though I would see most of them the next day, tears began to well up in my eyes and I started sobbing in the back seat. This was a huge deal for me because I have only cried in public twice in the last 6 years and that's only when someone died.

I cried all the way across the Niger, which bothered me because I wanted to sear my last few images of one of my favorite cities I've ever lived in into my memory but my vision was distorted.

I was still crying when I met my friend at the Chez Amandine and needed a few moments to gather myself while he stared at me impotently.

It was during those painful moments that I realised I had been wrong in my assumptions about the experience, as had my friends. It was not the place that had the most profound effect on me, it was the people.

I cannot watch TV anymore without wondering what Papou, my mentally handicapped host-brother, would have to say about it, and when people ask me what my favorite part was, I tell him that coming home for dinner and watching an hour of TV with him ended up being my favorite thing to do. He had such a big smile, a wicked sense of humour and a kind heart. A true individual.

I think about how my host-mom would peer at me over her glasses and ask me "Do you have my number in your phone?" if I forgot to call to say I wouldn't be home for supper. As much as it was one of her charming idiosyncrasies, it was also a reminder that wasting food is a luxury that most of the world simply can't afford.

Finally, despite having very little extra for frivolous things, they each found a gift for me to take home. My host sister/partner in crime gave me a necklace, my host mom gave me a bracelet as well as some bracelets to give to my mom in Canada and little Fatamatou gave me a picture of her and her sister from a few years earlier. In the age of a seemingly infinite supply Facebook photos and Twitpics, she parted with one of only a handful of pictures of her family. It is now framed on my dresser.

To me, traveling is connecting. It is making relationships with the most unlikely people. It is as much about seeing how the other half lives as it is being open to letting them affect you.

It means taking risks, such as letting an invitation to tea jumble your itinerary, being open to an "unknown" experience which may make you feel uncomfortable and of course, you risk running into jerks since they are everywhere. However, in my experience, these risks have always paid off and the memorable moments that ensue and lessons learned are worth any doubts and fears I may have.

Since being back I have had a lot of time to think about my experience in Mali and about what I want to be when I grow up. I have put myself on a path towards international development and am currently working as a community connector of sorts in Canada's low-income communities of the North. I now have the answer to the "why" question.

"Why do you want to work in international development?" People often ask with a scrutinizing gaze.
"Isn't it hard? Aren't the places you travel to dangerous?".

Well sure it can be hard and dangerous, but to me connecting is easy, and I value the relationships I'm able to form with people more than I value just  having visited a place. Development and community relations work allows me to keep making those relationships.

Those last moments with my host family assured me that they liked the connection too and that the exchange was not just one-sided. That gave me the "buzz" that made me want to keep working in this field.

So no, I did not feel weird using a sink again or seeing familiar faces again but I do feel like some love has been added to my heart and that some has been left behind in Mali.

Next post, being adopted by a Berber family and a group of middle-aged teamsters while traveling around Morocco.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On what may be my last day in Mali ever, and having just left an angelshare in Hippodrome, I find myself trying to piece together a series of thoughts and memories whose impact on me I’ve not even begun to register.

Although I came to Mali under the pretence of a professional internship which is part of a larger government employment strategy, I think a lot of what I’ve been doing is also a sort of long term and stable traveling. True, I’ve lived in the same house the whole time and I go to work at the same office every day, but I’m still discovering a new culture, learning about different ways of life and seeing unfamiliar sights, which defines travel.

Undoubtedly, this experience has helped me grow both professionally and personally and just as with my prior experiences traveling, I have seen sights and most importantly, lived moments both good and bad here in Mali that will stay with me for the rest of my days.  I believe that traveling ends up being a collection of moments that ultimately impact, change, affect, inspire and at times, devastate a person.

Sometimes during my bored moments, I’ve periodically flipped aimlessly through my collection of digital photographs but I noticed that the longer I stayed here, the further away all of those captured moments seemed to be.  I forget what it feels like to be cold, to see an overcast sky, to cook for myself, to sleep without a mosquito net and to wear closed-toe shoes. Slowly but surely over the course of my time here, “home” became a collection of moments in my seemingly distant past that were pushed aside to make room for the new ones I was to experience.

These new moments were amazing in the truest sense of the word; they left me shocked and awed and not always in a good way. Some were firsts. Some made me say WTF?! Some were “a-ha moments” where I learned a lesson.  Some moments I really could have done without. Finally, some were downright devastating, but I still consider myself fortunate and better off for having lived the lot. I will now try to do my best to describe my most memorable moments in Mali.

This was my first time on African soil, so there were a lot of somewhat arbitrary firsts (i.e. using a trou, washing my hands with the kettle, drinking bissap juice, wearing a pagne, eating sheep liver and fish heads etc.). I decided to pare down my firsts to the ones that were most important to me.

  • Celebrating Tabaski with my local colleague’s family was the first time I saw my food (a sheep) walking, prayed over, butchered and in my mouth within a matter of hours.  I appreciated the respect that my hosts paid the animal and the comfort I felt in knowing with certainty that he had just met his maker without suffering.
  • The second time I went to my sanity-saving paradise of Siby, I rock climbed like a boss, despite being terrified for the first time in almost a decade.  This challenge was as much mental as it was physical, but it felt incredible and shortly after I saw my first composting toilet.

  • My third time in Siby after having rock climbed the previous day, I biked a total of 34km in the blistering heat to a beautiful waterfall and freshwater pool and then got to cruise the last downhill 3km at an exhilarating break-neck speed (sorry Mom). I’ve never biked so long and so far and not to mention on such a hot, and I was amazed at how little I complained how I was not very sore the next day. Also on the bike ride I saw and heard my first cicadas. Cicadas are significant to me because I went through a bug phase as a kid and I remember wanting to travel to Africa to see and hear them.

WTF Moments
When divergent cultures collide, there’s bound to be some wires crossed, or things so strange and bewildering that they make you say WTF?! These moments can be endlessly frustrating, scary, confusing, but with a “meh, Africa” shoulder shrug and robust sense of humour, they can easily become hilarious stories to tell for years to come. A lot of these moments became banal to me and it was only after I mentally removed myself from the situation could I appreciate how strange they were. These are some of my most incredible WTF moments:

  • The famous cursed panties hilarious misunderstanding.

  • Today while leisurely eating breakfast in the court yard of a friend's NGO compound, a person (couldn't tell if it was a man or worman because all I could see was 2 eyes peering creepily from behind a slat in the fence) felt compelled to tell me that my pagne was pretty, but that it was an old one and then carry on being creepy.

  • Seeing a baby pick up a kitten that had worms coming out of its fur and put it in his mouth while the adults around him laughed.
  • Seeing 7 people cram into a baobab tree to pray while in a clearing that seemed to be at the end of the world.
  • The giant, horned cow that wandered up down the street I worked on would sometimes just chill out on the meridian. The juxtaposition of a pastoral animal laying on the concrete partition of a busy street with cars and motos whizzing by would always make me stop and chuckle.
  • Some families do their washing, cooking and evidently their butchering in the street instead of the court yard in their house. This means they dump all their waste water into the street which in turn forms trenches. One day, instead of having to step over a trench flowing with grey, soapy water, I had to dodge a river of blood on my way to work.

  • 30 sheep tied to the top of a bus on the way to Soké and Kemeni that seemed oddly nonchalant about it.
Come on up, the weather is fine!


Part of intercultural learning is well, learning.  These are a few of my moments where a light bulb went off.

  • A month into my mandate, when my bosses’ car broke down on the side of the road, miles from nowhere, Solo, I learned that one should always travel with extra water, snacks and a jacket in Africa. Although I got cocky a couple months later and stayed in my friend’s village too late before jumping in a sotrama without enough water to survive a disaster and lo and behold, the thing broke down. Luckily, after an hour, and just before it got no-electricity-around-for-miles dark it got back up and running.

  • Listen up locavores: it’s not always good knowing where your food comes from. I once accompanied my favourite maid to the market where I saw the meat what would become my lunch on a table completely covered in flies which all scattered in a flurry when the butcher began to hack the meat. He also chopped up an organ that I couldn’t identify but the look of which made my stomache turn. Finally, I saw where what I’m sure is the source of my perma-bloat, palm oil, comes from: giant metal barrels with a tap that I’ve only every seen to hold aircraft fuel.
  • I couldn’t understand why the maids in my family and other’s wouldn’t respond to me when I greeted them, nor did I get why they would just stare at me seemingly mystified. I thought, they live in Bamako, surely they’ve seen toubabs before. After scaring the bejebus about of a young maid during her first week with my family simply by force of being pale, I learned that a lot of the hired help come from little far away villages where it’s quite possible that they have never seen a white person.  This can be cross-posted with devastating moments, because they’re usually just kids who have been sent to the big city by their parents to basically work as indentured labourers for slightly better off families.

  • Finally figuring out what Papou’s hand gestures and grunts meant. He is wicked funny with a jovial spirit that kept the mood in the house perpetually light and I will miss him dearly for that.

Not so much a Time

On the whole, I've had an icredible time in the purest sense of the word, but there were a few moments I could have done without, such as:

  • Multiple sessions of repeat visits to the trou.

  • Soké and Kemeni pink eye/chest infection onslaught where a bus delay almost prevented my seeking treatment in Bamako.

  • My wipeout on the soccor field where I ran. I tore up both my knees and hurt my wrist badly. I couldn’t get any reprieve either because finding ice in this country is a Sisyphean task.  It was finally 24 hours later that I got to ice my hand and get the swelling down.

  • Thinking that "brousse" was "brusque" for a month and that "sotrama" was inexplicably "outre-mer" for 2 months, epic French fail.

    Hidden Devastation

    Mali is a desperately poor country, and that poverty is devastating, but it doesn't meann that life skips a beat here. Things still move and life carries on despite the hardships and as part of an adaptive strategy I became quickly vaccinated against the devestation I was seeing. Things devasted me, but I hid it and just kept going.
    Nevertheless, certain sights and moments would break through the wall I put up to be able to carry on with my work without being perpetually an emotional wreck if I truly sat down and processed all that I was seeing. Some of those moments were too devastating for this blog which I've tried to keep light, but these are some of the moments that threw me off, but ultimately made for an amazing and eye-opening experience that steeled my resolve to be involved in this field of work.

    • My host mom did a very good job of not trying to treat me like a walking dollar sign. More importantly, she treated me the same as most my other "family" members and did not hesitate to take the piss out of me. One day she asked me to call my taximan friend, and I did but warned her that he might be out of her price range for the kind of trip she was wanting to do. She asked for a ball park and when I gave it, she told me in a defeated tone "I can't afford that, I'm not like you." I knew in the back of my mind that there were vast disparities in wealth between the two of us, and that's the only time she ever called it to attention.

    •  Between the "toubabu! donne-moi le 100 francs", finding out you overpaid for something after the fact and a few sketchy taximen, it's hard to not to be suspicious of being fleeced sometimes. After a swim one night, I hailed a taxi with my friend and explained that there would be 2 stops in Hippodrome, negotiated a price and off we went. After the first stop he told me he didn't understand that there would be 2 and that I needed to pay more. Not at all in the mood for this I argued with him and it got so intense a guard came out to see what was going on. I finally finished by insulting the guy and storming out of the car to walk home. I took two steps and realised that I had been fighting with an impoverished local over the equivalent of 50 cents and had ultimately devastated myself with my lousy behavior. To make matters worse, he insisted that I get back in and drove me as far as the main drag. While I understand that it's not good to train locals to depend on handouts from toubabs, I didn't need to get so upset, especially considering that the 50 cents he was trying to squeeze out of me wouldn't change his situation in any way, and that made me feel hopeless, thus devastated.

    • A colleage recanted a conversation with her host family:
      Family: "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
      Colleague: "I have one brother."
      Family: "Just one brother? What happens if one of you dies?"
      Colleague: "Well, babies don't really die in Canada."
      Family: Perplexed stare... "What do you mean babies don't die? Babies die here all the time!"

      In sum, it's been a wild ride of incredible moments that will stick with me and provide me with stories for years to come. There were hard moments, moments I could have done without and moments that brought a mist before my eye, but that just means that I got the exact experience that I signed up for.I'll miss this complicated, bewildering and at times, devastating place, but I'll be back again I'm sure...inshallah.

      Total Marriage Proposals: 20

    Thursday, March 31, 2011

    T Gets Technical Part Deux: Savin' Babies, a Mandate in Review

    By the end of next week I'll be in another country taking my sweet time enjoying myself before heading back to Canada, which means it's time to reflect back on my last 5 months in Mali.

    I've wanted to work in international aid and development since I was in high school, partly because the indomitable idealist in me wants to help save babies, but also because the pragmatist in me wants to get paid to travel to exotic, far-off places that are otherwise very expensive to fly to.

    Obviously when this opportunity presented itself, I accepted it with no hesitation and an unbridled glee. I was aware that my mandate would likely "evolve", and that I may not end up working in the same area or place where I applied to.

    For the most part, I think my mandate evolved in my favour, despite some unfortunate hiccups.

    While I occasionally maligned the office drudgery, I learned important skills (I can make a mean logframe now for example!) in my chosen professional field. More importantly, I also learned that boring office work is boring office work even if it's in your field of choice and in an interesting, foreign land.
    From this handy-dandy site:

    What's a logframe? It's an exercise of condensing the last 10 pages of your funding proposal into a neat, little table that makes donors feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    Why do I need to give donors the warm fuzzies? Because the hope is that they'll open their wallets and help this SLoNGO out by providing funding for its local development projects. In short, I worked on the funding, project development and communications side of international development. So not anywhere near as exciting as saving babies, but we can't all be Angelina Jolie. 

    How Angie touring an IDP camp saves babies,
    I'll never know.
    Nevertheless, the projects that I helped develop and find funding for during my mandate could arguably contribute to the saving of babies because if we strip away all the jargon, arbitrary divisions, politics and anti-politics, and occasional elitism that characterises this line of work, most aid and development work aims to address the conditions that put babies' lives in danger in developing countries and conflict zones. And no very little of this can be achieved while drinking 3 cups of tea with locals, it takes skilled people working in offices in both the developed and developing world to get these potentially life-saving initiatives under way. 

    Take the popular development initiative of microcredit for example. I initially applied to be a microcredit officer for the cooperative of women shea butter producers in the commune of Zantiébougou, Mali called COPROKAZAN, but was told that the position was given to a Malian-Canadian who could speak Bambara. Made sense to me. I was a little disappointed that I wasn't going to be in "the field", since it seemed more glamorous and exciting. But I reminded myself that working in an office in a developing country is already working in the field.

    Back to microcredit, this is how I've observed it work in Mali. Women in the rural communities apply for small loans to start small-scale income generating activities i.e.: raising livestock (usually just one goat or cow to start); stocking and selling peanuts on the side of the road for the equivalent of 5 cents; or producing "African gold", AKA, shea butter. After 6 months to a year, they repay the loan with 10% interest that goes back in the loan "bank" so to speak, so after the initial set-up, the loan system is self-sustaining. Ideally, the women who went through the first loan cycle would be able to borrow and pay back more so they would move into more gainful income-generating activities, or even better, join together to form a cooperative to ensure that they are paid a fair price for what they're producing (re: COPROKAZAN), or collaborate on a bigger community development project (i.e.: community garden plots).

    Microcredit loans are by no means the panacea to endemic poverty that Nicholas Kristof would have you believe they are, but they are most definitely a start. By making small amounts of money, the women are able to better feed themselves and their babies. Moreover, by participating in the leadership and administration of the loans through village councils, women are given a voice in the development of their communities which they might not otherwise have.

    Although 90% of my work to support the initiatives mentioned in the above was on developing similar project proposals, grantwriting and contacting prospective donors in the office in Bamako, my boss delivered on his promise to get me out doing a little of what I call "field-field" work.

    During my first ill-fated excursion en brusque brousse which I blogged about here, I attended a COPROKAZAN (a project that the local NGO I work for supports) general assembly meeting where women traveled incredible distances, some on foot, to listen to the President's address and to be introduced to a new microcredit "bank" partner. In short, I just watched and listened and then got stranded on the side of the road for 4 hours, but not before taking pics of how shea butter is produced for your kind perusal:

    Vive le karité! L'assemblée genérale de COPROKAZAN

    The gang's all here.
    My boss promoting synergy like a boss.
    Another intern that came the same time as me was tasked with developing
    new products for the COPROKAZAN ladies to produce. This was her workshop.
    In order to get to the above, shea almonds are collected and dry in the sun.
    The dried nuts are then grounded here.
    After the nuts are ground, they are boiled, then the ladies whip them into butter with their hands for hours.
    Hard work, but at least it smells like chocolate.
    The finished products are sold in this depot, or shops in Bamako, Burkina-Faso and Senegal.
    We hope to sell them in Canada one day.

    My next field-field excursion was to Bougouni (thank goodness I didn't have to sleep in the store room in Zantiébougou, I'm told it's a special kind of hell), where I joined a working group tasked with administering a diagnostic to COPROKAZAN and other microcredit projects in Zantiébougou to help determine if the village would benefit from a permanent bank. For this we put African time aside and worked tirelessly from 8:00am to 8:30pm on developing the questionnaire. The next day we finalized it and traveled to Zantiébougou to administer it the day after. Finally, we developed a timeline to administer the rest of the questionnaires and write the follow-up report. Aside from getting lost on a run and a raging headache, this was my least eventful and most productive trip to the country.

    Diagnostic Work Group

    Preppin' before administerin' in a typical Malian "meeting room".

    My next and final field-field trip was immediately after returning from my mid-mandate break in Dogon Country, which means my weary bones weren't necessarily up to the task. The trip there was mostly pleasant and uneventful, I even found a good breakfast en route. This time, my local colleague and I headed to two villages, Soké and Kemeni to perform follow-up on the loans and evaluate their success in the communities.

    This was particularly interesting for me to see because the differences between the 2 villages were remarkable. Soké had just had its first microcredit project established six months prior, so most of the projects were small scale and the women said they didn't think that working together would be possible just yet. Rather, they wanted to continue their small scale activities but slowly but surely give out more loans and hire assistants. They also wanted us present to help them with the accounting aspect of collecting the loans and interest and then redistributing them. Both meetings started late and it took a very long time to perform the fund follow-up, but the ladies said they were happy we were there, however my colleague and I assured them that they could do it without us watching next time.

    Kemeni on the other had, had benefitted from a microcredit project for 2 years and it was obvious in their organization and professionalism. The ladies wished to collaborate on developing a community garden, but knew that it would require more money than the present fund could allow because it would need a fence and a well. They resolved that it may take several years for it to be possible, but that it could be done, inshallah.

    In both instances, the ladies proved that locals really do know what's best for their communities and that the best way to help them is to listen and get the money, which is where I fit in.

    Microcredit Lady Superstars

    My colleague interviews the village women's council under a baobab in Soké.
    Here, the ladies are collecting and redistributing the funds.

    I unfortunately didn't take pictures of the meeting in Kemeni because I developed a nasty case of pink eye and a chest infection the night before. My bus also stopped inexplicably for 3.5 hours in Ségou while on my way back to Bamako, making this my most ill-fated field-field trip of all.

    In the end, this has been an unforgettable and invaluable professional and personal journey. Although most of my work was done on a computer behind a desk, I've observed and learned skills in areas of interest for me, met some amazing people along the way and experienced living and working in a truly different, but amazing world.

    Shameless local NGO-promotion time:

    If you're moved to act by any of this, please consider making a donation to the Canadian NGO that provides funding for projects like the above to my local NGO.

    You can do so here and thanks for reading!

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    (Mis) Adventures in Eating

    By popular request, I'm blogging about fish heads this week instead of my mandate. Ask and ye shall receive:

    As I've alluded to before, one of the most important aspects of my work in international cooperation in Mali is "intercultural learning" which is centered around living with an adoptive Malian family. For me, it has proved to be at times the most and least enjoyable aspect of my life as an international stagiaire.

    Although the families we are placed are slightly better off than the average Malian family, the conditions there are a far cry from the air-conditioned houses with pools that ex-pats can afford. In short, living with a family provides a first hand glimpse into the every day realities of many Malians. Still, the situation is somewhat artificial, since interns get their own room and bed which is already different than the situation for most Malians who share rooms and beds, if they have a bed at all.

    Not all interns have had the same experience as me, but I did have a hard time transitioning from living independently in Canada where my only obligations to others were to feed my cat and to be considerate to my roommates, to being part of a family in a société collective (as opposed to individuelle like home, thanks pre-departure intercultural sensitivity training!) where decisions are meant to be made and actions undertaken with everyone else in mind.

    The living conditions in my first family were intolerable to me, and I know that I wouldn't have been able to do 5 months living in a dark, dirty store room with a door that didn't shut all the way. Still, the family spoke French really well, there were cute kids and babies to play with and they cooked me a big plate of eggs for breakfast every morning, so there was good and bad in that situation. Having to change families meant that I had been in Mali for almost a month and still didn't feel "settled", which definitely affected my productivity. 

    My next and current family were much better equipped to host an international worker, but I still had issues having my daily needs met, specifically a good breakfast. They seem to be an afterthought here, and most time and effort is dedicated to supper where the portions are enormous. Usually, the family eats so late that by the time they bring me my pot, I've "pushed through" my earlier hunger and don't have much of an appetite anymore. I tried unsuccessfully to explain that a big breakfast before work was more important to me than a huge supper right before bed. Eventually, they started saving a portion of the day's lunch and served it to me warmed up the next morning. This was not my favourite thing, but it more or less worked until the maid brought me cold faroké. I took one bite and vommed before breakfast and then snapped and told my family and my boss no more, I'm buying my own breakfasts *Shut it down!*So it only took 3.5 months, but finally I've been given an extra 50 cents a day to buy my own breakfasts. 50 cents gets me one croissant or pain au chocolate, 2 slices of laughing cow cheese, or 3 hard boiled eggs and a stick of bread. It more or less works.

    As for my room, it's a good size and a nice place to retreat to. If I didn't have my room, I would probably go crazy. That being said, the room is still a big change in its own right. There is no screen on the window so mosquitoes have been a problem the whole time and it faces the court yard, so it's noisy and pretty much everyone can see what I'm doing in there at any given time. The lack of privacy bothered me at first, but now I don't care except for when I'm changing. Also, it's stifling hot in my room since its position in the house means it's hard to get any kind of a cross-wind going. The plus side of this is that now the glacier showers don't bother me...I even look forward to them. Finally, there was no problem adapting to the people in my family, because they're just lovely. As with any relationship, it took me a while to trust them, but when I did I realised that they were good friends and great fun.

    Evidently, I've adopted the "meh, Africa" shrug coping mechanism where you shrug off things that might otherwise bother you because the other option is not being in Africa, which would be worse. 

    Before anyone accuses me of going native though, I must admit that for me, the food has been one of the hardest things to get used to. Mali is known for having some of the worst food in the region. For example, I once heard a Sénégalais proudly announce that they don't have the somehow sloppy yet gelatinous, blackish/green blob food called thon there. As with everything, I did a lot of shoulder shrugging to accept having someone else cook for me and never the things I wanted, and I've spent much time here fantasizing about what the first thing is I'll cook for myself when I get home. I keep craving borscht with a healthy dollop of sour cream which probably means I'm deficient in something found in those two things...or that there has been some latent, as of yet undiscovered Russian incursion into my lineage.

    All meals are prepared outside and usually eaten by hand communally,(although separated by gender) out of a big bowl, but my family gives me my own pot with a lid and a spoon, which is good, because I'm not hardcore and I don't really like eating with my hand, especially if I've had to wash with just the kettle. 

    Breakfasts are sparse, if they happen at all. Lunches for my family are always rice and sauce, but way too much of it and I get a food baby every time I eat anything with rice in this country. I buy my own lunch most days since I'm at work which means a huge portion of my budget has gone to Le Relax and Burger-Time. Snacks are purchased from nice ladies on the side of the road and suppers are by far the best and worst, depending on the night, allow me to explain:

    Suppers in my family are usually some kind of starch (eg: potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, and cassava root or pasta) with one or two chunks of sheep meat or a piece of fish and a sauce, typically a little too heavy on the palm oil and salt, but tasty enough. Other times, it's a grain (eg: couscous, fonio, thon, attieké) with the same accompaniment as the starch. Rarely, I get salad, nems, meat and peas. For the most part, I eat fairly well compared to other stagiaires, so I don't go out for supper too often. There is however, one problem and that is what has come to be my least favourite thing in the world: fish heads
    The first fish head I got was some slimy bottom feeder served with rice for lunch after I'd been with the family for only about a month. I lifted the lid, looked inside, closed the lid and momentarily pondered packing my bags and getting on the next flight out. My maman was sitting right beside me, so I did my best work on the thing and tried to sneakily put the lid back on and steal away. She opened the pot and remarked that I had barely eaten the thing, then picked it up and sucked all the skin off of it and dug out all the organs including the eyes. Her tenacity impressed me, but imagining myself doing it made my guts turn.

    Prior to that, I had done my best to eat all that she put in front of me, but I just couldn't do it this time, and was hoping that she would interpret my not eating the fish head as a sign that I didn't like it. 

    It didn't work, and much to my chagrin, I was given many more fish heads. I did my best to eat them, despite being put off, especially once I had a Malian tell me that giving some one a fish head was a sign of respect usually reserved for the male head of the family. This made me feel uncomfortable, since I already get to skip the eating order hierarchy by being pasty and I didn't want to seem like I was eschewing some sign of cultural respect.

    Nevertheless, I suspect he might have been pulling my leg, because the other day one of the kids brought me a pot with a fish tail on potatoes but my mom called her back. She swapped my pot for hers saying that she didn't like the head....

    Food in Pictures:
    The kitchen
    The stove

    Céréal, usually made with corn, rice or millet and eaten with these big, plastic spoons.
    This also doubles as dinner on Sunday.
    Lunch/Somtimes my Breakfast: 

    Faroké (sp?) dark green sauce made with shea butter and ground seeds, usually palatable but has the texture of sand and will break you if ingested cold.
    Every Sunday lunch feast: riz au gras, or Sénégalais rice cooked in oil with fish and veg.
    Lunch en brousse=fish and spaghetti.
    Ubiquitous sauce arachide, or peanut sauce
    Poulet yassa from a street stall, that's a chicken's spinal column in the foreground
    Poulet yassa from a nice sit-down place in Djenné. Notice the lack of spinal column.
    Fish and Chips, Dogon style.

    What's for Dinner?
    Beef+deep fried plantains+onions=not bad.
    Thon, or tion? Pronounced like "toe" is the bane of most stagiaire's existence.
    More common en brousse, and my family hates it anyway, so I wasn't subjected to it that often.
    This kind with vegetables wasn't so bad, but I couldn't eat the kind with fish.
    One time after couscous, I got a second supper of beets and beans.
    Any kind of insoluble fibre makes T very happy.
    Tasty sweet potatoes and cassava, one of my favs.
    First supper back from Dogon was my fav: nems on salad :)
    Fish Heads for Supper: A Cautionary Tale
    (go on, click the link. You'll enjoy it)

    Fish head on deep fried plantains and onions. This is a "capitaine"
    or "nile perch". Tasty enough when not in head form, but I
    did the best I could.
    Dear real family, next time you try to say I'm a princess, remember this image.
    Fish head on salad with a side of! *shrug*.
    This kind of creepy bottom feeder  which was served on rice was the first kind of fish head I received, but I didn't take a pic then. This one was served with red sauce and bread.  I didn't even try to eat this one, this picture broke my camera and I dreamt about fish heads that night...only 2 more weeks.
    Finally, after yet another unfortunate and still ongoing digestive episode last week, I refused the last fish head I was offered. I guess there is an upside to being sick.