Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job:
Riding the Peace Corps Rollercoaster in Mali, West Africa
A Side-by-Side Memoir
by Asifa Kanji and David Drury (both: Mali 2011–12; PCResponse Ghana 2012–13; PCResponse South Africa 2013)
$14.95 (paperback), $5.99 (Kindle)
.Reviewed by Wayne and Laurie Kessler (Ethiopia 1964–66)
I love bath time — the feel of cool water drizzling down my sweaty back is absolutely delicious. I don’t even dry myself. I let the breeze cool me down. It feels sooooo good. My village life is so simple, it is beautiful.
Asifa Kanji expresses delight in this Peace Corps memoir. But it’s more than a memoir. It’s a splendid read with insights into Asifa and David’s views on life, and glimpses of their earlier adventures in East and South Africa, India, Eritrea, and Norway. These adventures provided a base for understanding and interpretation of life in Mali, often with a humorous twist. And their forays into picking up at least bits of other languages may have been the background needed for them being the first “old people” to pass the Bambara language test first time around in many years.
Asifa’s section is Three Hundred Cups of Tea, and it encompassing “Here Comes the Moringa Queen,” “Food — which do I prefer, sex or chocolate?,” “Sahel Christmas,” and “Joking Cousins.”
Why “300 cups of tea”? Many aid workers don’t get beyond the idea that so many issues have the simplest solutions and the local people just don’t get it. Just maybe the aid folks “. . . failed to drink those three hundred cups of tea with the people they came to help, listening to their stories, their dreams and their solutions: because that is what it takes. Change comes one person at a time, and most of the time there is no glamour and no recognition. We don’t even know whom we have touched, or how.”
Asifa is assigned to work in the Women’s Health Center. She weighs scrawny babies and swings from hope to despair at the lack of understanding of the germ theory (by the health workers!), genital mutilation of young girls, the idea that malaria comes from eating mangos, lack of hand washing, and malnutrition. But that’s where she finds her calling as Moringa Queen. “I would start the First Church of Moringa and preach its virtues.” “. . . if we helped every health center in the country grow and dispense dried moringa leaves and seedlings, it might have a real effect on reducing malnutrition.” Her idea became a Peace Corps project under her direction.
I had to allow a good twenty minutes for my morning greetings “[Did you have a peaceful night?,” ” God bless you,” God bless your husband,” May God keep you healthy and safe.” And more] My own mother too was a virtuoso blesser. As a kid, I was barely tolerant of her asking God to take care of me and make me successful. I would have much preferred a new dress than a shower of maternal blessings. But at this advanced age, I felt her warmth hugging me so tightly through my Malian family’s words.
. . . I love the soft and more authentic side vulnerability brings out in me. Despite the discomfort and challenges, I am very engaged with life, trying to make it work and trying to make something out of it. Having been stripped of all luxury for nine months now, I have become so easy to please.
In Kayes, Mali, reputed to be the hottest continuously inhabited town in Africa, Asifa recounts, “This last year has pushed the boundaries of our lives to new edges, emotionally, physically and spiritually; and as each new experience wanes, that powerful feeling of ‘I survived, I made it’ is invigorating and energizing. We made it through the hot season, hunger season, rainy season; we even acquired enough language to get a fair bit of work done and have a sense of accomplishment, despite all the disadvantages. What made it all work? I discovered that the secret lies in turning misery into adventure.”
David’s section is The Toughest Job, including “The Lingo and the Radio,” “The Wet T-shirt Contest,” “Iced Tea, or Giant Termites in Earth Take-over Bid,” and “Don’t Push the River”
David’s main work was with Radio Rurale de Kayes and its cybercafé, the Community Media Center (CMC). Using a combination of college French and English technical jargon, he trains three enthusiastic staff in Excel and other Office programs so they can create resumes for clients, and train others to do so, bringing in useful funds. “The technical stuff is the easy bit. The hard part, if you are coaching future coaches, is changing habits of mind that people don’t know they have. . .. They have never learned to play with technology, and that slows them down.” For further funding, he suggests asking the diaspora for support, in the manner of public radio. David was tapped by UNESCO, which supported all 23 CMCs in Mali, to help with the transition — in only two months — from a UNESCO program to a government agency.
David fills us in on the Toughest Job, conveying lots about the working of Peace Corps — the official and the informal. Read about the Dead Toubab Shop, language teachers (paid to be patient), the swearing-in ceremony in the Presidential Palace (walking in a long flowing boubou was like wading), thrills of the PC shuttle SUV taken on a quick ride of the rails, going through the drama of Levels One to Five when security of the Volunteers is threatened, leading to evacuation. He also enlightens us about the intricacies of the Bambara language and bilingual money, and tells of spending his 61st birthday perched atop five fragrant tons of onions.
“Joking Cousins” is a Malian custom of good-natured ribbing:
Fair enough you might say, but how is it that foreigners get roped into mandatory fart joke duty? The short answer is that they don’t unless they take on a Malian name — which is precisely why all Peace Corps Volunteers get one early on. No name, no cousins, no fun. . . . No one takes it seriously. I mean, I am pretty obviously not from around these parts, but no one, ever, has questioned my inherent Coulibaliness, or Asifa’s fundamental Diarrativity. It’s all a game, and part of the game is to pretend that it’s not.
Check out David’s chapter “Pith and Vinegar: 25 life lessons we learned in Mali.” Our favorites are: #2 — Mangoes are God’s consolation for the hot season. #7 — Teflon, plumber’s putty, Tupperware and electrical tape are foreign words that mean little black plastic bag. #15 — 85 degrees is cold; 75 degrees is freezing. #20 — Warm beer is better than dirty water, but not by much.
Your stripped-down life frees you to focus on that new experience, and on the work at hand. . . . for now I’m enjoying the quiet space created by a world that operates on flexible time, and in the long run it may help me understand better what makes Malians tick. How can you have such a hard life and be so cool about it? This might be a piece of it.
A greeting when an outsider arrives: “You have left home, but you have come home.”
Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job is a charming and intriguing way to learn about Malian culture as well as David and Asifa’s ways of adapting their life style. They write as they speak, in their own individual voices, personal and delightful. They detail the good, the bad, the problems and challenges in clear language. They offer a splendid story and possible guidance for anyone going into development work.
Reviewers Wayne and Laurel Kessler’s friendship with the authors began when David and Asifa’s spent six months in Eritrea in 1996.
Proceeds from the sale of Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job are donated to the Peace Corps Partnership Program to fund Volunteer-led projects in Mali.
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