Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Mali - A Foreign Life - Over and Out

A foreign life in the international aid industry, one imagines, means adventure.
The exotic, an accelerated existence somewhat above the pale.
True enough.
To deny this, to say that, really, we international types go on as normal… well, vain humility.
We are privileged.
We have servants, excellent benefit packages, and access to affordable good wine.

I remember Alassan telling me how he wished he could live in Canada, how wonderful that would be.

In retrospect, with a level of arrogance which now embarrasses me, I invariably responded…
well… taking into account the difficulties of earning money, inflation, of people living on the streets, of pollution, taxes…
good God the burden of being bourgeois…

Well, I have had my adventures.

I have been surrounded by appalling poverty, survived malaria, dysentery, and debilitating flus, listened to bongo drums talk to each other across a Lac Ahémé lake in the heart of Bénin, ate ants’ eggs, looked into the glistening eyes of a Serbian woman surrounded by the pointed rifles of Kosovars, and hiked four days into the peaks of the Himalayan mountains with fleas and horses and sweaty men to test asparagus production possibilities.  I have eaten a dead turtle in Lhasa.

My material existence is qualitatively light.  Years and infinite spaces beyond those with whom I have drunk whiskey from an old Nigerain oil barrel.  A sweaty distance from the flesh of a prostitute in Khon Kaen.

Ours is an industry whose very foundation stands on the absolute certainty that we do good.  We are humanitarian.  Selfless.   Bearers of a utopian, global future.  To doubt is akin to blasphemy.  To express doubt is to have oneself cast out in the desert like Aaron’s Azazel.

            I tell you.  I spoke my mind and was cast from the Tibetan plains.  I spoke my mind and was cast from Marco Polo’s Azerbaijan.  I spoke my mind and the University failed me.


            There is some cognitive dissonance here.  I care.  I work hard.  I suffer.  I wish I did none of these.  Like any guy who wants to enjoy his coffee, who regards his wife with lust, whose heart breaks with his child’s tears.

But, still, in the midst of complexity, something remains simple.

Something sustains me… so I garden.
Plants boom green.  Plants eat light.  Red laterite soils.  Sunken deep marsh loam.  Composted, carbon laden, clay.   Set your heart to it… and nothing will not grow.  Cold, hot, warm, and inbetween wet dry dripping yes yes yes…
How many guys can brag that they’ve done mango trees.  Hibiscus.  Lime.  Bougainvillea… blossoms blooming busted cherry reds… wow…

And then I get all my knickers in a knot about a swimming pool in Mali.

            In the beating sun of the Saharan heat the landlord calls me a ‘boy’.  I call him a ‘theif’.  I have levered my theoretical weight as a construction expert with the almighty weight of delayed rental payments to speed up the repair process.  I have been derailed by the war in Cote d'Ivoire, which has resulted in a dearth of quality cement, given that the transport corridor from the port in Abijdan to land locked Mali is closed and that the cement from Lomé, Togo, arrives adulterated in Bamako, albeit in neat and tidy counterfeit bags. 

All so my kids can swim in their backyard.
Where all my surrounding neighbours get their drinking water from a public tap.
Good God.
Who did I think I was.

In Mali I slept on a carpet and sheet, plus mosquito net, to stay cool, cooler down and close to the concrete.  I thought: Why a bed?  A mattress?   All I could think of was the farmland, oxen, and vast Sahelian emptiness surrounding this little urban oasis of mostly destitute Malians and us and our cooled French red wines.  All I could think of was rice and maize and millet and imported macaroni.  And eggplant and tomato and sweet potato leaves and pumpkin and onion and red palm oil, beef or mutton, chicken, fish.  My tongue got wet.  Peanut sauce galore.  Yoghurt and bread.  Powdered milk from New Zealand and wheat grain from France.  Pizza.  Cheese.  Guava, custard apple, papaya, oranges, bananas, avocado.

            So a floor for a bed…

Imagine my days as follows.  Wake about six a.m. and begin preparing breakfast, feed the puppy, ensure that everyone gets their malaria prophylactic, make myself coffee, and walk the kids to school for eight o'clock.  The wife gone by seven thirty.  Until noon I install straw thatch over the whole house, to diffuse the direct sunlight which pounds on the flat concrete roof.  I work side by side with our cook to show her how to make the bread, yoghurt, and pizza and other strange details which foreigners like to eat.  I do a training on how to run the automatic washing machine.  At ten minutes to noon I walk to the school to pick up the kids, who linger on the swing or monkey bars.  We doddle home for lunch and Lego.  The afternoon might be crafts or, on occasion, I take them to our Belgian neighbours for a swim in a nicely tiled, functioning pool.  By five thirty I have the kids fed.  I bathe them (sometimes outside under the hose for fun), get them into pj's, read stories, a snack, lights out by eight.  I feed the puppy during these early evening hours, grind grain in my German domestic mill for breakfast, make yoghurt if necessary, shower, wash dishes, and detail clean up around the house.  Weekends we shop at the import stores.  Bags of potato crisps, cheese, salami.  The kids do fine.  Lots of medicine.  All insurance paid for equals free, what with getting used to local flu bugs and the Sahara dust.  We make handprints in plaster of paris.  In the yard they play in the enormous sand pile, which I bought for innumerable cement repair jobs around the house.  They draw and look at books or I read to them.  My son and I play chess if my daughter is sleeping because she can't tolerate the patience of rules quite yet.  Sometimes I give my daughter a large bucket of water and soft detergent and she washes her animals, an activity in which her brother invariably gets involved, and usually their clothes come off for a wash.  In front of our house, beside the gate, we have a lean-to, under which the guard sits and whiles away the day drinking tea with his buddies.  The kids join them and play checkers and watch the cattle herds wander down the street.  Sometimes I have other kids over in the afternoon.  We visit other homes on occasion.  We eat together, breakfast, lunch and supper.   We have been to the museum, such as it is, a dusty place with five or six rooms and wood carvings of which better examples can be found in our museums.

One evening we went to the U.S. Marines for an American movie, Spy Kids II.  Loud guffaws, blue jeans, blond women perched on stools harvesting drinks from the bar, dry wrinkled hotdogs, chile con carne, the profound disorder of the clean shaven Marines scuffling to serve Margueritas and Fanta, keeping the orders in order, keeping the addition correct.

We went camping before Christmas.  A wonderful place, high on an ancient escarpment, which rises above the vast low grade forest surrounding Mali’s central region.  We had the stars, a full moon, and a gaggle of rural kids who discretely watched us from a distance.  For Christmas, we had a plastic tree!  I played the role of Papa Noel for four hours at the kids’ school.  Neither of them recognized me.  We went to the Canadian Embassy for another Papa Noel doo.  We did Christmas Eve at home and opened gifts the following morning.  Christmas Day dinner proceeded pleasantly in familiar environs of the home a Canadian Embassy staff member.  We intended to have an American with us, but she flew back to the States for the holidays.  Between Christmas and New Year’s we went away with a friend and her son for three days to a wedding and a kind of rural resort, Selinge and Bougouni, where there was an artificial lake.  The wedding was Catholic.  The invitees were Muslim.

Mali is a sub-Saharan country.  Mali is richly Muslim.  In Mali, we saw fully clothed and shrouded women.  We saw men wearing their caps.  We heard the mullahs chanting from the mosques no less than five times a day.  The guards prayed at the correct times, facing east.  People in the street stopped and prayed at the correct times.  Fridays, especially Friday afternoons, much commercial activity came to a standstill.  Men were found reading excerpts from the Koran, on street corners, in their shops, as they sat in chairs in the shade chatting with friends.  Our cook stopped every afternoon, bathed, and prayed in the children's bedroom.

             All that happens is in the hands of Allah.  God willing.

Yes, a Muslim country.  More than that.  African.  And behind all the walled compounds of that oversized village called Bamako, a city in name only, families worrying about putting food on their own family’s tables, worrying about their kids’ futures, about better jobs, about maybe one day a tv.

Then Alassan asks me again if there is a way he could come to live in Canada.

And I think of myself as the adventurer?

You’ve got to be kidding.

No comments:

Post a Comment