Published: November 17th 2008November 17th 2008
Today is our sixth day in Niono, and, I must say, it has grown on me. Last Tuesday, Nora and I woke up at 5:30 in order to be ready to leave by 6am, but that didn’t happen. We probably should have expected that given all of the delays that we had experienced leading up to that day. When the Save The Children SUV finally pulled up to our house at 7:15, it was a relief that the much talked about trip was finally happening.
Getting out of Bamako proved to be the tedious part. We navigated through morning traffic for what seemed like an hour before we finally hit the open road. And when I say/write “open road,” I mean it. Even though the way to Niono first leads to Segou, a relatively large city to the northeast of Bamako, the road was a simple two-land (albeit paved) affair with very little traffic. The landscape was quite beautiful. First we passed through rocky tableland, with low-lying mesas of round black stone jutting out of the otherwise grassy flatland. This gradually gave way to a more featureless meadowland punctuated by the occasional village.
We arrived in Segou a little after 11, and we were fortunate enough to make a couple of stops there at some public health offices. For all of Bamako’s noise, pollution, and general sense of disorder, Segou appeared to be calm, clean, and well-arranged. The main thoroughfare of the city sits right on the Niger River, which chugs merrily by at a lazy pace, seemingly setting the mood of the town. Apparently the appeal hadn’t escaped the tourists, who appeared to be everywhere, at least in comparison to Bamako.
Niono was just an hour beyond Segou. Our first stop at the hotel where Nora’s supervisor would be staying gave me the impression that it would be like a smaller version of Segou. The streets are lined with giant trees in that part of town, and our drive to where we would be staying on the other end of town led us along a small canal where women were washing clothes and children were bathing. Our place lies within a giant walled-in compound of at least 100 acres. After driving through the main entrance, we pass by several two-story office buildings scattered here and there amongst the trees before getting to a series of residential buildings. We live in one such building with another family of Amelie, her husband Keiba, and their small son Hame. Despite all of the apparent office space and housing capacity, the compound feels relatively empty and very tranquil. Large trees shade the grounds; small sluiceways feed water to various parts of the compound; and there are free-ranging chickens, about 2 for every person, roaming around everywhere. At all times, this place is a cacophony of rooster crows and exotic bird calls. This along with the communal toilets and kitchen lend this place the feel of a campground.
Amelie is originally from Quebec and works for the same organization as Canadian Ak, which is how we came in contact with her. She and Keiba have been in Niono for two years and are itching to leave for Bamako when her contract expires in March, which is how I started to develop a negative impression of Niono. First I was told that the tap water is not potable because of fertilizer in the water. Apparently all of the canals feed the rice paddies which form the principal industry of Niono. In my first trip back into town, I was also told by Amelie and Keiba that Niono is dirtier than Bamako, which completely countered my expectation that the small towns and villages would be much cleaner than the larger cities. To prove their point, they drove me through trash-strewn streets until we reached a giant sewage dump resembling a filthy swamp right within town. I was convinced.
Because of the bad water situation, they swear by the two town establishments that use filtered water, the hotel where Nora’s supervisor was staying and a bakery near the sewage dump. So, everyday we head into to town to have lunch at the hotel restaurant, which consists of fresh rice (for anyone who has never had fresh rice—I know that I hadn’t before now—you wouldn’t believe how good it is!) and sauce. And then we head to the bakery for a couple of baguettes. Amelie and Keiba have also told me that they stay in the camp at the far end of town, which is actually owned and run by the Ministry of Agriculture and serves as a site for rice research and temporary housing for visiting Ministry employees, because they relish being away from the rest of Niono.
However, Nora and I have found it to be a nice retreat from Bamako. Our housing site does admittedly make it nicer. It’s on the very south end of town, about three miles from the aforementioned hotel, at the junction of two canals. Out here, the dirty, crowded streets give way to cleaner, quieter complexes of mud-brick buildings. My favorite time of the day is dusk, when the sun sets over the rice paddies to the west of town, on the other side of the north-south running canal. The bucolic charm of the vast fields of rice, the date and palm trees, and the remote clustering of mud brick settlements on that side of the canal is definitely at its height in the waning light. I’ll have to take and post some photos of it soon to give a sense for what I mean.
As far as my schedule goes, Nora is typically gone by 8am to do her interviewing. I do work at the house until about 9:30, after which I’ve been heading over to the closest Ministry of Agriculture office building to use the wireless (I can’t believe my luck with wireless in this country!). I come back at noon, head into town for lunch with Amelie, Keiba, and Hame, and hang out/do work until Nora gets back in the afternoon. Because things are so quiet here, Nora and I have been going to bed really early here. After dinner, we play with Hame for about an hour, and by 8pm we’re under the mosquito net, listening to an audio book or reading.
As far as the research goes, as of recently I’ve decided to hold off on the interviews in Bamana until my use of it improves and instead finish up a French version of my questionnaires. I’m hoping to get some friends who are students in Bamako to help me distribute these to their peers, although I imagine that I’ll have to jump through some hoops to do that. Getting IRB approval should be the easy part, but things are so hierarchical here that I’d probably be stepping on too many toes if I didn’t ceremonially ask permission of university officials and instructors to distribute the surveys.
As far as the Bamana goes, I’ll probably have to look into getting a teacher when I get back to Bamako. I’ve found that I don’t really have the materials or the discipline to teach myself what I need to learn, but I think that 2 hours of instruction a day, 5 days a week for 3 or 4 weeks should do the trick. Although I have the Bamana translation of my questionnaires, I’m planning on converting some of those items into more open-ended questions. I’ve also begun developing some questions that I’d ask in an interview so that I can seek instruction that is specific to conversations on those subjects. Finally, from today on, I’m forcing myself to study Bamana 2 hours a day.
Anyway, that’s the update. I hope all is well with everyone!