Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Field Trip in West Africa

By Carole Jampsa Southam

These last few days, I have been experiencing the very unglamorous side of international development field work. Early wake-ups to get to field meetings. Working into the evening comparing notes. Being HOT, HOT, HOT (did I mention HOT?) during outdoor meetings with partner groups.

Food that is practically inedible for me and grosses me out as I watch others eat animal parts that should go into the trash. A hotel that I won’t even describe because I don’t want it to stay in my memory. (Nor will I mention the toilet facilities.) And then there was the small caterpillar that got into my shirt, bit my neck and shoulder, and has caused a horrible swelling and rash all the way down my arm…

I’ve been deep into the interior of Mali, in what is usually a very dry, desert-scrub landscape. But it’s the end of the rainy season, and in the town of Koro, the main road has puddles that sometime stretch further than the width of the road. Just outside town, the road looks like a boat would work better than the car. In fact, many of the villages that this project works with are simply inaccessible by vehicle during the rainy season. The Land Cruiser swings back and forth trying to find a drivable portion on (and sometimes off) the road, and we all hope that we don’t become stuck in the red mud that lies at the bottom of the puddles/ponds.

During a wrap-up meeting with one of our partners, the president of the group spoke with us. Mind you, he was speaking Dogon (or maybe Bambara), which was then translated into French, which was then translated into English, so conversations take a very long time. He thanked us for our monitoring trip to his organization and told us an African saying: When you carry something on your head, you don’t know if it’s tipping unless someone else tells you. This, of course, references the multitude of women and children here who carry items on their heads. It was funny that he used his cell phone to illustrate it.

Despite the difficulties, it is still exotic and exciting to experience cultures that are so different from my life. I count my blessings to have been born with the opportunities I was given. But I sure hope that this caterpillar-induced rash goes away soon…

(The author, a former vice president of administration and finance at Bread for the World, is currently part of a Lutheran World Relief delegation on tour of West Africa.  Read about LWS's work in Mali)

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