Saturday, August 4, 2012

Missing Mali, an attempt at poetry, & AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps

Babies on backs, bright fabric swaying in time to the beat of breaking millet.
Hot sweat dripping down hard work in liquid form.
Laughter and language not known but understood to mean friendship in a metal and thread chair, shaded dirt beneath the posts.
Small ones playing with boxes on a string, pulling along a childhood dirty, raw, sad, and beautiful.
Shouts of joy turn into pain as laughter is substituted with tears in the stroke of a hand or the naked branch of a tree that once provided shade to a metal and thread chair.
Sweat mango juice dripping down dirty faces, a stream of happiness and mud, life in liquid form.
Stretched out arms to give mangoes, friendship, peanuts, acceptance, hot corn, hugs around knees.
Ne somogo
My family.
Aw be yen, N be yan, nga An be taama nyogonfe tumabee. 
You are there, I am here, but we walk together always.

If you can’t tell, I miss Mali. I’ve been talking with my fellow Team Leaders here in Vinton, Iowa and reliving some of my experiences in Peace Corps, so a lot of things I haven’t been thinking of often get brought to the forefront. I need to make a plan to go back to Mali in the future, hopefully within the next 5 or so years. It is just such a special place full of amazing people. Please keep up all your positive thoughts and/or prayers for the people of Mali as they continue to face an incredible amount of challenges to their health, well-being, and safety.

I hope you all have been enjoying this hot summer and have been able to get to the pool or beach often. Believe it or not, Vinton Iowa has a kick butt community pool complete with a waterslide. It is a little oasis in a sea of corn. Some Team Leaders and I plan to go there tomorrow if the weather is nice.

I have been in Vinton since July 23rd and everything is going really well so far. The AmeriCorps NCCC staff at Vinton is really great (almost as awesome as Perry Point staff), and I feel well taken care of and that I will be prepared as best as possible to be successful when I get my team. Our Corps Members come to Vinton around July 27th and then real life will begin. We are enjoying our time with just us Team Leaders before the craziness ensues. I can still remember my first day at Perry Point in AmeriCorps NCCC Class 16 and how excited/nervous/scared I was. I remember Dave Beach with his Harry Potter wand talking to us while we did in-processing paperwork, ate sandwiches, and began the foundations of friendships to come. What a start to an amazing adventure that was. I only hope that the Corps Members of this class will have as great of an experience as I did in NCCC. The program is what you make it, and if you are determined to put in hard work, be open to growing as a person, and not give up, those are the ingredients to a beautiful AmeriCorps experience.

I will keep you all updated on how life as an AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps Team Leader (our official title) goes. I am excited for this journey and appreciate all of your support. I am lucky to have so many people in my life that are happy for me and are supportive of me following my dreams.

Congratulations to my awesome sister Marni and her husband Josh who welcomed my nephew Jackson Carter Clay into the world on July 25th. I can’t wait to meet the little nugget, and hopefully in just a few weeks I’ll be able to hold him in my arms for the first time!

Take care and thanks for checking out what’s new in my life!

Love, Jamie

Monday, July 16, 2012

The (long overdue) Obligatory Mali Evacuation Blog Post

Greetings from Minnesota!

Tomorrow is my birthday and as a birthday present to myself I am FINALLY going to write a blog post about our evacuation from Mali and catch you guys up on my latest goings-on.

Writing a good-bye Mali blog past has been in the back of my brain ever since I left the country. I was worried I couldn’t put into words something that would do my time in Mali justice, that I wouldn’t be able to describe my gratitude and emotions fully about the experiences and leaving behind those experiences. So I never wrote about it. But now I am going to do my best to give some closure, at least in cyberspace to my time in Mali and not worry if it’s what I feel it should live up to.

When I last wrote, the volunteers in my region and I were in consolidation in our regional capital, Kita. It was frustrating for us to be kept away from our sites because we were hundreds of kilometers away from any of the fighting, the protests, and the danger. All we wanted to do was be with our community members, continue our projects, and live life as normal, but we were stuck in a house with twenty-something twenty-somethings, and we had to make the best of it. During this time we played games, made family dinners, went out to the bars when we were allowed to leave the house, and in our insanity of being cooped up when we weren’t allowed to leave the house, made a zombie movie complete with a choreographed dance number(I know, we’re super cool). I have to say that if I had to be cooped up with twenty people during a coup, our region (Kita Kaw) was the best to do it with. It didn’t hurt that Dave, my boyfriend, and Natazia, one of my close friends were there with me.

While we were consolidated we received updates from Peace Corps about the situation in the capital and in the North. There were times where it seemed as though things were getting better, that order was going to be restored, but in the end that didn’t happen, and things still aren’t right in Mali.

So we left, and so did many other aid organizations. The kids who were in life skills classes, the women who were working to regain the health of their children, the farmers who were trying to make their crops better and reliably feed their families, the girls who had a glimpse at a future in education, all of the families and community members who were striving to make their lives better in partnership with aid organizations are being hurt by the nonsense that began in March. Malians are incredibly resilient and positive people, but this is an equally incredibly tough time for them as last year’s rainy season produced poor crops, and many families are facing hunger in addition to the other problems aid organizations were helping to combat.
When we were consolidated in Kita and right before we had to consolidate further to our training complex outside of Bamako, I was given permission to go to my site for the night. I arrived after dark and greeted my family and work counterpart and told them that I thought I was going back to America. “Noooo, no, you won’t go.” “They are having a meeting on Thursday and everything will be resolved.”
“Why are you going?” “There’s fighting here and Peace Corps says we will probably go home”  “No, the fighting is far away, there is no fighting here. You will stay.”

I went home to pack that night, put things in a suitcase that I wanted Peace Corps to mail to me, and told my work counterpart to divide my other things up between his family, my host family, and other people in the community if I didn’t come back. The next morning I said goodbye to my family and sat on the side of the road waiting for the bus. My host father gave me $10 for my trip which is A LOT of money in Mali and it was strange to take but he would have been offended if I said no. I waited longer and thought about going back to see my family who live close to the bus stop, but I just sat there. I didn’t know how to deal with saying goodbye, especially since I was still holding out hope that we would be able to return to our villages for good. About 20 minutes after getting on the bus, however, I received a phone call from Natazia saying that Peace Corps had made the decision to evacuate us, and that we wouldn’t be returning.

In one way I was very sad, and in another which I don’t usually talk about when talking to people about leaving Mali, I was relieved. Ever since the safety and security issue I experienced in my first village, Koyan, I had been a little wary and on guard. During my time in Guetala I had become increasingly paranoid at night while I was trying to sleep that someone was sneaking around my huts. I had had someone knock on my door once in Koyan, and again on my window in Guetala, and I was freaked out. I had a hard time sleeping and was in fear over tiny noises at night, which were plentiful because of the animals roaming around and grazing on trash or straw during the night. I kept a safety whistle that Peace Corps gave us in my bug tent and sometimes would put it to my lips several times a night in sheer panic. I don’t have to tell you that it is no fun living in fear, and that is the reason for the relief at the news.

 My time during the day in contrast was wonderful in village. I had made real friends, and even though my village was around 3,000 people, all of the kids called me by my name (Assetou) instead of yelling “toubab” (white person) which I feel is a pretty good accomplishment! My work counterpart was great, and we had recently held a meeting with the school director and teachers about different projects we could do at the school such as tree planting, fence mending, and creating visual teaching aides. I had completed three map murals in the school, three health murals at the local health center, and was about to put the finishing touches on a mural about wearing helmets in one of the school classrooms. Two very motivated people from my village and I had recently attended a tree nursery workshop at the Peace Corps training complex outside of Bamako, and we were excited to start new tree projects in Guetala. For two weeks prior to being consolidated I held an informal running and workout group with kids from the village and had some teenage girls get very interested which I was hoping could turn into something great. So many things were going well, and so much potential was on my side to make the rest of my service in Guetala great, but with the nightly paranoia I was experiencing, the news that we were being evacuated lost a bit of its sting. I still feel a little guilty about this, but it doesn’t mean I don’t miss Mali. I miss it a great deal.

I miss riding around in the crazy taxis in Bamako, feeling proud of the language I had learned to get around and solve problems. I miss shopping in the market, an experience that was once so terrifying to do alone, and at the end being able to joke with the women selling fruits and vegetables, make new friends, and have them slip me an extra banana or handful of lettuce. I miss my little friend Sita who couldn’t walk when I first met her and was deathly afraid of me. At the end we she was walking like a champ and we were best friends, she fell asleep in my lap one night. I miss sleeping on the rooftop of our regional stage house in Kita and hearing the several melodies of the morning calls to prayer mix harmoniously as the warm air and dust held them in the air. I miss bouncing around from group to group on my way to my host family’s house and greeting women of different ethnic groups on the way in their own languages. I miss the warmness of Malians who were always looking out for me whether it was bad prices at the market, helping me get water, making sure I was eating enough, giving me shade for me head, giving up a chair to sit in, making sure my laundry was being cleaned properly (I wasn’t very thorough), and so many small things that were at first overwhelming and sometimes frustrating but then turned to such a great source of comfort once I let go and realized that they meant friendship. I miss the dirty little hands that would invariably be in my own hands as soon as I walked out of the door. I miss hearing “I be se!” (you can do it!) when I would surprise Malian women with an action like dancing, painting, or speaking Bambara well, and I even miss hearing “I te se!”  (you can’t do it!) when they would laugh as I tried to do something that Malian women are so good at like pounding millet with one hand, or carrying 10 gallons of water on their heads.

There are a lot of things that I miss, and I hope one day I can return to Mali and spend some time with the people that I grew to love. I am grateful for the experience and all that Mali and the people of Mali have given me.

Since leaving Mali I have been living with my parents in Minneapolis, and on July 23rd I begin a new journey as an AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps Team Leader. This will be a similar experience to my AmeriCorps NCCC gig in 2010 but this time I will be leading a team, and we will be travelling around the North Central region helping on projects in collaboration with FEMA. It is the first year of this new partnership between AmeriCorps and FEMA and I have a feeling there will be a lot of growing pains, but I am ready for a challenge and am excited to have to opportunity to continue a life of service.

I want to thank you all who have offered me support during my time in Peace Corps. I truly appreciate all of the kind words and warm thoughts, and I think that all of the positive energy you sent my way really increased the amazingness of my service during the 10 short months I had in Mali. Please keep the people of Mali in your thoughts and/or prayers.

I plan to keep up this blog during my AmeriCorps service, so stick around to hear what life will be like for the next 11 months!

Also congratulations to my beautiful sister Marni who is due any day now. She and her husband Josh will be welcoming their first child and my first nephew baby Jackson into this world very soon.

Another congratulations to my longtime great friend Kylie who is marrying Dan on the same day as Marni’s due date. Kylie, I’ve been telling Jackson that he needs to pick another day to be born so I can make it to your wedding!

Thanks again everyone for all of your support.

Ala ka nogoya ke (May God make things better). Ala ka Mali deme (May God help Mali). Ala ka funteni waati nyuman d’aw ma (May God give you a good summer) Ala ka si ni keneya d’aw ma (May God give you age and health). Mali mogo b’aw fo (The people of Mali greet you).

Love, Assetou Keita (Jamie)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stomp Out Malaria Month

Hello Friends and Family!

Greetings from Mali. I know right now there is a lot going on in Mali politically, but that's not what I am going to write about today. I wanted to tell you about Stomp Out Malaria Month and what that means for volunteers. April marks the beginning of Stomp Out Malaria month. Peace Corps Volunteers are encouraged to do a push for Malaria prevention related projects in our villages. Malaria kills over 2 million people a year. It is a sickness which can be prevented by taking simple steps such as sleeping under a mosquito net, wearing mosquito repellent and wearing clothing which covers the arms and legs. Deaths from Malaria can be prevented by being tested and seeking treatment as soon as Malaria symptoms are present.

Volunteers in Mali are working with our community members to make natural mosquito repellent, show creative ways of hanging up mosquito nets, and educate our community members on what Malaria is, how to avoid it, and how to treat it. Out of all the work we do with Peace Corps, I think one of the biggest impacts we can have on the lives of people here is to do this type of work. Malaria is a senseless, completely preventable sickness, and if communities across Mali work hard and change behaviors related to Malaria prevention and treatment, thousands of lives can be saved.

I plan on painting Malaria murals in my community and three other communities near me, holding a neem cream formation on how to make the natural mosquito repellent with women, and teaching kids about Malaria through songs and dances.

If you're interested in learning more about what volunteers in Africa are doing to Stomp Out Malaria, check out twitter and facebook (Stomp Out Malaria).

I hope you're all doing well in the States! I miss you guys and thank you so much for supporting me throughout my journey. I'll update this blog soon when I find more information out about what might happen to us Volunteers in Mali... whether we will be able to go back to our sites or seek other options.

Take care!


Jamie (Assetou)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

May God Grant You Lots of Babies!

Greetings from Mali/Senegal!
Christmas was amazing in Kati. It turns out Mary’s mom (Mama C)’s packages were rerouted to our training complex instead of going to Bamako, but even without her (7!!!!) packages there was no lack of Christmas cheer, or decorations since other volunteers’ family sent boxes too. There were 12 of us that celebrated together on or around Christmas and instead of buying gifts we did a white elephant type fabric exchange where we each bought fabric and picked numbers out of a hat to select a bag with the fabric in it. I got a very pretty fabric picked out by Kat and it is at my tailor’s right now being made into a skirt!
The rest of the Christmas break was full of good food, good company, Christmas movies, trips into Bamako for shopping and eating delicious pizza and ice cream, and spending way too much money.
After Christmas Dave and I headed out to my site where we spent New Year’s and a few days after that together in my community. We made three improved stoves with the help of my homologue and family members of the compounds we were placing them in. We also created three hand washing stations. One of the hand washing stations is at the local community health center where in the future I plan to do murals on general health information including a mural on the importance of hand-washing right next to the station. It was a productive week and my village loved having Dave there. He played with the kids, danced around, and even had my REALLY old host Grandma dancing on her feet. I think the internet it too slow to load the video but I am going to try my hardest to put it on Facebook because it is amazing.
I have two host Grandmas in my village. One named Ja, and one named Kuje. They were the wives my host dad’s father who has since passed. Ja takes care of Kuje now since it’s hard for Kuje to get around. They are like two peas in a pod and really cute. They bless me all the time to have good health, a good day, to have good work, to have lots of babies, and I like to sit with them and just listen to them talk. Before I left to come to Dakar Kuje was pretty sick with a fever which is scary since she is so old, but the day before I left she was feeling much better and sitting outside and chatting instead of curled up in bed. Sometimes I ask her about when she was younger and she likes to talk about that… I don’t understand most of it but she talks about how they used to not have donkey carts and had to walk a long way with all of their water or crops they collected on their heads.
Many of the women speak Malinke/Bambara/a weird form of Malinke. Either that or they are Fulani women who speak Fulakan, or are from Mauritania and speak Syrakan (sp?). This is cool in that I get to learn a lot about different cultures and it has been fun to use my Syrakan greetings with shop owners from Mauritania in Kita, but it’s rough when trying to talk to people about behavior change/ why they don’t send their kids to school, etc. (which is hard to do at my language level even with Bambara speakers).
Even though I can’t talk at length with most of the women, I’ve been hanging out with them as much as I can. Like I said I like to sit with my host Grandmas, and at night I usually sit with the women in my host family and talk or listen to them talk. Also I’ve gone out twice into the fields surrounding the town to gather peanuts, or “Tiga Tumbo” (which always reminds me of Ricky Ticky Tumbo when people talk to me about it (which is around 10 times a day)). The first time I went, most of the village women were out there gathering peanuts together. I gathered peanuts with them, held babies, got peed on by one baby, and greeted the women. I’m hoping this gave me a little bit of street cred with the Malian ladies, especially getting peed on, that’s gotta mean something.
I’m feeling more at home in my new village every day. At first it was rough coming from my old village, Koyan, where no one called me a “Toubab” (white person) going to Guetala where a lot of kids screamed “Toubab” as I walked down the streets. Now that I’ve been there longer more kids know my name and yell “Assetou” at me instead to get my attention. Also I’ve won over my fair share of babies that used to be deathly afraid of me as their mothers laughed and thrust the babies, tears streaming down their faces in my direction. Now a lot of the babies don’t cry around me, and some even crawl over to me for me to hold them.
I’ve also started to make some friends. I have a 15 year old friend that came to Mali from Senegal two years ago, and her older sister (I think) and I have become friends too. The women in my host family are also pretty amazing. My host Dad has a wife named Malado who has been very welcoming, and there are some other women who live with my host family while their husbands are abroad to find better work than is available in Mali. These ladies are hilarious and so far have been really helpful in working on projects at a small level with them before trying to get the projects to catch on at a larger level in the rest of the village.
My town is unique in that it is kind of out in the middle of nowhere where normally there would only be mud huts and farming but many of the people in Guetala have gone off to Bamako, France, or Spain and send money back home. Because of this reason there is an abundance of cement houses, and projects completed by NGOs that have been made possible by connections Guetala residents have made while abroad. They community is very motivated to improve their town which makes me excited that I am placed there. Sometimes I worry that people will expect too much of me since so many NGOs have come in and created tangible improvements to the community, but my work will be at a more grass roots level and produce less impressive visible results, but (hopefully) more behavioral change oriented results.
Other things:
1.)    I have a mouse friend/enemy that lives in my hut with me and likes to rummage through my things at night to try and find treats. I’ve tried to kill him once with rat poison and felt horrible but he didn’t die, so to alleviate my guilt I talked to my American Dad (expert in inventing wacky mole traps) about making a live trap to catch him and release him in a field. Still working on the prototype… I’ll let you know how it goes.
2.)    One of the women in my host family is super excited about Moringa trees and we planted seeds in around 15 small bags filled with soil. Hopefully in a few weeks they will grow and be big enough to transplant into the garden.
3.)    During my first 20 days at site I made a world map on the wall of one of the classrooms at school. When Dave came to visit last week we labeled it. Next I will make a map of Africa, and then a map of Mali in the other classrooms!
4.)    So far to get cell phone reception I either have to go to my homologues store and talk on the phone attached to a cord in front of everyone or stand on a mound of dirt out in a cornfield which I feel really silly doing as people pass on the road and stare at me strangely. Soon I am going to buy a device so that I can have reception in my concession so I don’t have to be a Toubab on parade anymore.
5.)    I attended my first school board meeting (by chance since they didn’t invite me to it) last week when Dave was at my site. My homologue told me he was going to the school, and then another person said they were headed to the school so Dave and I went over to see what that was all about. At first they didn’t want us to sit in on the meeting because there was going to be arguing, but I told them that they need to call me when they have meetings and it was okay that they were fighting because if I don’t know the problems going on in the school then I won’t be able to help them. It makes me feel like I need to sit down and discuss with my homologue and host dad what I’m really there for because that situation made me realize we have some dissonance on what my role is in the community.

So now I am in Dakar to have a retainer made for the tooth I had pulled in November. The West African Intermural Softball Tournament (WAIST) is this weekend too so I will stay for that as long as I am here. Unfortunately this is an off year for Mali volunteers to come to the tournament so there are only a few of us here but I am sure it will still be a lot of fun, and the Senegal volunteers never fail to show a good time to volunteers from other countries when we come to visit.
I hope you are all doing well in America and have started off the New Year well and healthy.
Hi and I miss you to my amazing sister Marni and her husband Josh who are expecting their first child! Marni’s due date is July 21st, right around Wendy and my birthdays.
If you want to brighten my day, send me a letter, or some pictures that I can show my host family.
My new address since switching villages is:
Jamie Casterton – PCV
Corps De La Paix
B.P. 25
Kita, Mali, West Africa
If you want to send me a package (which would be awesome but see my previous blog post about how I am eventually going to ask you for project donations so you might want to hold off) I would love it!
I like all things candy, things for my kids here (like little toys or educational things), goldfish crackers, hand drawn pictures of animals (I am starting a collection and think it would be funny to have a silly pictures of animals that my friends and family draw – totally random but fun), granola bars, or more candy.
Thanks again for all of your support while I’m on this crazy journey. I am very lucky to have such caring people back home, and it makes the difficult days here better knowing I have people rooting for me. If you want to catch up over the phone send me a message with your number and I will call you while I am in Dakar since I can place free calls to America at the Peace Corps medical office where I am staying!
Love and miss you all!
Jamie (aka Assetou)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Toothless in Africa

Vision: When I get home I am going to listen to live jazz. Good jazz, not the crappy kind. I am going to drink a ridiculously expensive craft beer and sit cross legged in my chair on the patio in a flowy summer dress and close my eyes and smell the muggy air mixed with smoke and music. This will preferably be in New Orleans, but I won’t get too picky.

I’ve felt a little stagnant lately. Tonight I had a burst of creative energy that for some reason gets stifled when I am here so concerned with something that keeps it under wraps. Cultural sensitivity, integration, people staring, not being able to explain myself in Bambara, whatever. Someone told me that Malians are going to think you’re weird no matter what… so taking that to heart gives me more wiggle room to be myself. That and to stick up for myself more. Some of the problems I could have seen myself running into in Koyan may have been a result of being afraid to be mean, but I realize now that I have to set cleaner and more ridged boundaries in order to be a more successful volunteer, to remain safe… and to keep my sanity.

It’s been 22 days since I left Koyan. It feels like 5 months. I’ve been keeping positive for the most part until I get to thinking about leaving behind all of my kids in there. I am worried what they will think when I come back to collect my things. I wonder if they will be excited to see me or if they will be mad and act distant. I feel like I am abandoning them and I know it isn’t my fault but that doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty. I grew so close to those little people during the two months I was there. They are what I will miss the most. Bamu, Issa, Bablen, Fatoumata, Jella, Bafi, Mariamu, Basuru, Baji, Garantigi, Ina, Kadja, Fatoumata, Madou, Lemieri, Kadja, Bua, Fanta, Sa, and Burama along with so many of my other little peeps in village. We used to play this game where one person would say “An ka taa Bamako” “Let’s go to Bamako” or some other village and we would run around with our arms outstretched like an airplane and make airplane noises. We would do this for all the cities we could name in Mali and it never got old. I miss Kadja’s face that looked so mean when she was sad or pretending to be mad at someone and all I would say was her name and her face would light up into a beautiful smile. Kadja was one of my favorites. I would tell the kids that fighting and hitting was bad when they would hit each other and any time someone would get in a fight she would look at me and say “kele a manye!” or “fighting, it’s bad!” and then smile… and maybe hit someone for fighting. I thought she was a boy at first when I came to Koyan because of her short hair (I am assuming she had to get it shaved because of lice which happens every now and then). I went around asking the kids their names and when they told me that another girl’s name was Kadja too I almost said “But she’s a girl and he’s a boy!” She is looked after by my host grandma in our compound and her mom lives in a compound that is around a 15 minute walk from ours. I am assuming her mom maybe was really young and unwed when she had Kadja or is going to school far away. I think her lack of a strong mother figure made us closer.
I am sure the new kiddos at my next site will be the bomb too… but I am going to miss the Koyan crew.
Here is a picture of Fatoumata, Fanta, and Kadja on the right. Fatoumata and Fanta are the bomb too.

Here’s what’s been going on since I got to Senegal.

I got to Senegal on October 29th and immediately the Senegal volunteers were great and welcoming. I went out with some volunteers for a Halloween type romp to a few bars. After that, various people have been in and out of the medical unit where I am staying (which is in a different location than the volunteer transit house). A volunteer from Gambia named Lina left last night but we became friends during her time here and it was so nice to have her company. There are also two other med evacs that are volunteers from Burkina Faso that have been fun to hang out with. People from several countries come to this regional Peace Corps medical office as ‘medical evacuations” when the medical facilities in our countries aren’t up to Peace Corps’ standards for the type of work we need done. We’ve been watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy, Friends, and any other silly TV show that can give us hours of entertainment on end as we pass the days we must spend here, lengthened by never-ending Malian and American Holidays and doctors not showing up to work. Luckily my dentist is the bomb and is going to let me come in on Saturday to clear me so I can fly out on Monday morning if all heals well with my mouth-hole situation (I am here because I needed a tooth pulled).

Dakar is really beautiful in places on the coast and the city itself is very developed, especially compared to Bamako. I haven’t done too much exploring other than going out onto the tip of the peninsula that juts out into the ocean twice. Lina and I sat out on the cliffs and looked at the waves and sun reflecting on the water and talked about the hardships in education in Mali and Gambia. There is a lot that needs to happen before things get better, but at least we can feel like we are helping a little bit.

IST (In service training) is coming up on Monday. I’m ready to be surrounded by my people again. Some people let you be yourself in such a way that it is a gift to be with them. I feel that more intensely with others in service work (shout out to my AmeriCorps peeps), and my stage of volunteers is no exception. I want to hear their stories and frustrations and be goofy and dance and smile and laugh. Dave’s birthday is on Tuesday, and I am grateful that I will be there for it since at first I wasn’t expected to leave until after the 15th.

During IST we are going to learn more about projects that we can do in our villages. We will get information about our own sectors as well as how to implement various food security initiatives and we will get some technical training on things like moringa tree planting. I’m excited to learn these new skills but I think I probably speak for all of us in our stage saying that we’re more excited to see each other. Some of us haven’t seen each other since the beginning of August when we first went to our sites. I’ve been lucky to see Mary, Kat, Jenna, Renate, Lucas, and Dave but can’t wait to see everyone else!

That’s all I’ll say for now. Hopefully I will have more details on potential projects, and more information about my new site soon. I hope you’re all doing well in the States. I can’t say that I envy those of you who have been getting snow. We are entering into cold season here too but our “cold” is substantially more tropical than you Minnesota and Michigan folks. I will, however miss my Dad’s amazing Thanksgiving mashed potatoes and Wendy’s pies made from scratch. Yummmmmm! I miss you all and love you and thank you again for all of your support and for reading about my life. Send me e-mails so I can read about yours too! I will even bless you with a Malian name if you want one! But don’t worry, I won’t make anyone be a Traore… they eat beans.

Peace (Corps), Love (bugs), and Happiness (I couldn’t think of one for here) to you all!


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dooni Doonevenworryaboutit

Oh heeeeey!
Greetings from Texas! Jk, I’m still in Mali.
I hope you’re all doing well and enjoying the new crisp fall air of October. This is truly one of my favorite times of the year in the States and I am sad to miss it. The other day while I was bucket bathing outside the air felt like and smelled like fall (specifically Halloween), and I got all nostalgic for home. I’ve been very nostalgic for home lately actually. Random memories pop into my head from all times of my life and from all places I’ve been. Memories that I haven’t thought about in years.  Something about being here so completely out of my element stirs them up at the strangest of times.
This past week has had its ups and downs. I think the Malaria medication I am on gets me a little out of sorts for a few days after I take it. That combined with awkward social situations in which I don’t quite know how to handle myself and the language barrier offer some unique frustrations. But for every rough time there are 10 happy times of playing with the kids in my compound, understanding a new phrase that I didn’t know before, having my host grandmother tell me that my work is good, or feeling the cool wind on my face and arms as is blows in my window during a lightning storm at night. There are great moments that happen every day and remind me why I’m here.
Since my last post I have been to two funerals and one baby welcoming ceremony. These are important ceremonies for me to attend to gain the trust and respect of the people of my village. If I don’t go to these types of events people will talk about me and say that I don’t care about people, or don’t consider people.
The two deaths were both very old women who were revered and respected throughout the community. Hundreds of people came to these events to give blessings and money to the family of the deceased, and to sit around and socialize and eat good food. The ladies of my compound were busy cooking at the first ceremony so I sat with some other women who took me under their wing. I hung out with them at the second ceremony too, and now we’re best buds. Malian people are so warm and welcoming like that. You meet someone one time and then you’re friends from then on. It makes me think of sometimes in the states when you see an acquaintance on the street and both of you pretend not to see each other (ok I don’t know if you guys do that, but I totally have). It’s not like that here. I am even buds with people by association because the last volunteer in my village and in the village next to mine were buds with them.
Here are some silly things that you should know about:
1.)    Women’s breasts. – when I was first learning about Mali and the culture before arriving here I assumed that since it is a predominantly Muslim country there would be tight cultural restrictions on women’s clothing, and to some degree that is true of the bottom half of the picture, but women’s breasts are EVERYWHERE here. You may notice this in some of my facebook pictures as some of the women were breastfeeding when thy asked for me to take their pictures. I mention this because one of my favorite experiences in Mali so far happened yesterday at the baby welcoming ceremony and it involves breasts. Three musokoroba (old women) got into the middle of a circle of people (like at any dance party), took of their tops and head wraps, danced wildly, screamed, threw water over their heads, and sang as we all stood around and clapped and laughing. These are women probably in their 70’s who had the energy and agility of women in their 20’s. It was such an interesting place to be, standing at the edge of the circle looking on. It was a powerful experience and I am not poetic enough of a writer to do it justice. Some of the ladies on the outside of the circle told me to take pictures. I didn’t have my camera on me at that time, but I probably would have felt pretty strange taking topless pictures of old ladies. I did take some later of the three ladies holding the two new babies if you want to check that out…
2.)    The Malian independence day was last week and the teenage- 20-something boys in the village held a soccer match in celebration. I played with them for a little bit and kicked the ball around a few times. One of the guys even said to me in English “very very good!” – I felt pretty cool. Brought me back to the AYSO days… but there were no juice boxes or snacks after the game. J All of the children and young girls came out to watch the game too. I want to buy a soccer ball while I am in Bamako and start playing soccer with the girls since they are a little shy to play, but I know they want to.
3.)    Badenni, the baby goat that I love, is growing up just nicely. It is good to see him putting on weight and thriving, even without his mother, but it is also sad because I know that the bigger he grows, the closer he is to becoming the centerpiece of a funeral or baby welcoming ceremony. Once in a while I pet him and scratch his ears. It makes me miss my cat Pumpkin back home in Minnesota.  My Malian family thinks this is so weird and they just laugh and shake their heads and say “Eeeh, Assetou!!”. The other night when I walked into the second room of my house Badenni was standing at the door, about to walk in but he got scared and ran away.
4.)    Speaking of goats- yesterday at the baby party there was a goat skin spread out on the ground with the goats head and chopped off legs on top of it. The children were playing with the head and shoving the goats hooved foot into its own mouth. It was pretty disturbing to me, but that’s just life here! Later I had to politely refuse that same goat’s meat as I sat eating with several women who were holding out chunks for me to eat. “N fara tew! A barika” –I said. “I’m completely full. Thank you.”
5.)    It is corn harvest time in my village. This means a lot of delicious hot grilled corn on the cob, and time spent shucking corn which is nice to do with the ladies of my compound and chat. This also means it is the beginning of the end of hungry season which occurred before the harvest when food from the previous year’s harvest may have run out for some families. This is good news since a lot of kids in my village are looking dangerously thin. I am going to try to work on some food security initiatives in my village soon.
6.)    This really isn’t anything important, but it’s the little things that make me happy nowadays – I finally found nailpolish remover in this country! I hadn’t brought any with me and couldn’t find any – it was driving me crazy, and now I can relax.
7.)    School starts this week – 4 of the older boys in my compound left today to continue their studies in bigger cities. I will miss them. They were really welcoming and helpful during my initial adjustment here and I think we grew to be good friends. They’ll all be gone for the next 8 months. This also means the kids will start going to the school in my village. I’ll be able to see first-hand some of the issues my school has such as space, teacher quality, and so on.
8.)    A lady at the funeral this week grabbed my boobs, People do this to each other a lot… but I don’t think I want to get used to it. I ran away from her and said “ A manye” which means “bad”. If my villagers want to think I’m weird because I don’t let people touch my boobs, then I’m okay with that!
9.)    If you were thinking about sending me a package, don’t! Instead, save that money you would have spent for when I inevitably ask you to donate to help with a big project. My village wants to build an addition onto the school since the classrooms are severely overcrowded (like 80 kids in a class), and if I take on that project I will probably need to do a little fundraising. I know it is annoying when people ask you for money, and I hate doing it… but I see it as this is a great way to 100% know that the money you are donating is going to exactly what is intended for and not being siphoned away into people’s pockets which happens all the time with foreign aid. Example on a small scale: used clothing that is sent over to be given away is sold in every market in Mali. That clothing got into the hands of people who sell it for profit. Even Mali’s government has issues with corruption – with stories of little money reaching its final destination for education or sanitation because it has been lining the pockets of people on the way down. If you donate when I put the word out, you will know where your money is going, and be able to see tangible results. BAM!
10.)  Read 9 again… and start saving your pennies!
I hope this post finds you all well and healthy. Shoot an email my way with the details of your life. Extra points go to emails about really good food you ate so I can live vicariously through you. The greatest thing I have eaten in Mali I ate today – it was a delicious sandwich on French bread with sweet potato fries, and onion sauce, salt, and a hardboiled egg. Dee-lish. Malian street food at its finest in my opinion. I was so incredibly hot and sweaty while I was eating it walking up a hill to go to my friend Mary’s house, and Malians were looking at me like I was a crazy Toubob, but it was so good that I couldn’t stop eating it and I just let the sweat pour down my face. Good visual, I know.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate all of your love and support throughout this journey. I couldn’t do it without you guys! Know that if I accomplish any good thing here you have contributed to it in some way!
Love and miss you all
Jamie (Assetou) Casterton (Diarra) – that’s a mouthful!

Monday, September 12, 2011


Cockadooooodledoooo! Greetings from Mali (where the roosters begin their day at 4:00AM)!
Currently my friends Kat, Mary, and I are in Bamako, Mali’s capital city where Peace Corps ‘ office is. We are going to do a little shopping in places where we can get things we can’t get in our villages, and check in at the office to exchange some books in the library, pick up packages, and resupply on medical items.
I am WAY excited to get the letters and packages some of you have sent. My mom and Dad sent a package with a Frisbee that I know my kids will get a kick out of. Speaking of my kids, I will try to upload some pictures on here but if they don’t load, check out my facebook page to see some of them. I tried to get them to smile for the pictures, since they are always smiling in real life and I want you all to see them looking happy, but a lot of Malians don’t smile for pictures, so most of them aren’t smiling. They LOVED seeing the pictures though on the camera screen when I took them and burst into laughter and smiles when I showed them their images. It was the first time I took photos of my family here but I have a feeling they are going to want to take a lot more when I get back since they enjoyed it so much.
Life at site has been going very well.  Every day I become more comfortable and my language improves. I even surprised myself with what I was able to squeak out when my host father was asking me questions the other night. Also the other day when I was running (on a BEAUTIFUL dirt road that goes to one of the market towns nearby) two dogs started barking at me and chasing me a little bit and my gut reaction was to yell at them to stop in Bambara… so I think that is a good sign of language learning. I also picked up a life skills book at the Peace Corps office with Bambara translations and I think that will be helpful in language acquisition as well.
Some of you have been asking about what work I am doing right now and what my job duties or projects are. Mostly right now for these first three months after being installed at our sites we are focusing on language acquisition, community integration. We are also supposed to complete three community needs assessments  education, food security, and gender analysis) during this time. I haven’t begun these needs assessments as I don’t feel like my language is at the level to be successful, and I think I will begin around the start of our second month at site. Pretty much what I do during a given day is wake up, greet the people in my compound, eat breakfast, go to my teacher’s house for an hour of Bambara class, do chores, play with my kids, sit around with the older girls while they braid hair, and sometimes go with my Grandma to other compounds to greet people.  When my family shells shea nuts or peanuts I help them do that, and sometimes I go to the fields to pick up the weeds that the women are removing with their “dabas”, or weeding hoes. Once a week I go to the market in one of two towns around where I am to stock up on food.
Here are a couple of things that happened this past week:
1.)    When I was cooking dinner, two goats tried to walk into my house. (Dave said that if I ate meat I would have had a free meal)
2.)    I killed another scorpion in my house this week and left it on the ground when I went to bed. When I woke up it was gone. I am assuming the army of crickets took it away to be eaten.
3.)    A chicken is roosting on the wall of my compound and has around 12 eggs there. I can’t wait for the chickies to hatch (CHICS!)
4.)    Mary and I unsuccessfully tried to resolve an issue with our tailor in Kati (who made really unflattering clothing for us, omitted the headscarves and one skirt that I had asked for, and decided not to refund me for those items for which I already paid). I am bad at handling these situations in the states and with the language barrier it was crazy! Luckily I’m only out around $2 USD.
5.)    Some of the little girls in my compound were really happy with me the other day because I helped them wash their dishes and do some chores. They took me around to little secret spots like where the boys play drums in the millet field, and to some gardens I hadn’t seen before. Then they wanted to take me to the place where they poop by a tree so they could poop… I told them I would meet them back at home.
There’s a little glimpse into my life here!
I miss you all at home a lot. Congratulations to my sister Marni who got married on Saturday. I am bummed I couldn’t be there for the wedding and I hear it was just beautiful.

Fast forward… my time in Bamako is over and I am now at Mary’s house in Kati. We had a salon night – I cut Mary’s hair and have henna setting in my hair as we speak (thanks to the package from Mom!) I will leave to go back to site tomorrow after we make one more trip to the fini kala yoro (tailoring place) to resolve some saggy crotch pants issues.  Women don’t really wear pants here so I guess I can’t blame him for making me men’s pants… but it’s not a cute look.

I hope you are all doing well and staying healthy in the states. I am officially over my cold and can now taste things again, just in time to devour some of the delicious candy in the packages from Mom & Dad and Allison. You guys are the best!

As you all enter the fall season please drink lots of pumpkin flavored coffee drinks and eat Einstein’s pumpkin shmear for me! And when the leaves change color for my friends in the north, take pictures and send them to me in an email, or throw some leaves in an envelope with a little update on your life and send it my way! I’ll probably get it two months later… seeing as that’s how the trend goes. For those who have sent me letters, I’ve only gotten one from Stef, so hopefully yours will find its way to Bamako somehow after floating around the planet for a while. I’ll be crossing my fingers.

Take care, stay safe, and thanks again for all of your support.

Jamie (Assetou Diarra)