There are a few Christians around in this Muslim country. My close old lady friend is one of them, though in practice she mixes Islam, Christianity, and traditional beliefs. And that’s not shocking when everyone else holds traditional beliefs alongside those in the Quran. So I celebrated Christmas with ‘Ami’ and her family. I politely refused to go to church with her because I was still scarred from last Christmas’ full day in prayer in Madagascar. I was very willing to partake in the food component. We celebrated on Christmas Eve, and made French fries and French ‘Surprises’ (hard-boiled eggs covered in ground meat, held together with string which is removed after frying). I had to depart briefly to do a radio transmission on HIV/AIDS, and in order to publicize a campaign I’d helped organize for the following day (more on that later). But, I returned in the evening to enjoy the food we’d prepared. My Rasta friend, Ami’s son, also joined and brought fried pig skin. By coincidence, this is how I normally celebrate at home - on the eve (24th) according to my mother's Danish tradition, and always with pork rinds. In this case, it might have been a bit of an affront to the non-pork eating Muslim guests present, but, then again, they had joined in on a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a tad sacriligeous even if he is one of their prophets. I'm not judging...how can one complain these days about a place where the two religions meet in such a way. It was a nice evening, followed by an even more memorable Christmas Day.
December is the month designated worldwide for the fight against HIV/AIDS. A few weeks prior, a Togolese friend had approached me about a potential HIV/AIDS campaign – a discussion on the subject, followed by a dance interspersed with HIV/AIDS related games and prizes with the goal of increasing awareness and promoting safe sex practices. Over the preceding weeks, we went around to all the health NGO’s in the community to ask for assistance. I was able to get a bit of funding from Peace Corps as well (technically USAID money requiring a 1/3 community contribution of the total budget).
The NGO leader who ran most of the show (led the discussions and decided the deserving recipients of the prizes – shirts, hats, condoms) was already an acquaintance. I knew a popular DJ in town to do the sound (handsome and charming, and in line to become village chief). My Togolese friend and I invited the appropriate community leaders (I had to open the campaign with a slow dance with the mayor). A photographer friend of mine was asked to document the dance (which unfortunately turned me into a bit of a prop…everyone wanted a photo with the 'tubab'). The publicity included the radio broadcast and word of mouth, really the most effective communication tool. My close friends spread the word that “Aminata was having a dance” and within 24 hours I think every youth in town knew about it. What made me feel so good was that all my effort that had gone into integrating into my community the last 8 months, made this little task incredibly easy. I had already established relationships with most everyone involved.
Lastly, I often hang out with a group of friends that act as community peer educators. This means they’ve attended a conference on HIV/AIDS or family planning, for example, and then are encouraged to instigate discussions amongst groups of friends, perhaps 10 times a month, on the subject. This might be a little hard to imagine without a conception of Malian social life. As I’ve mentioned before, Malians are always taking tea together. In city life, everyone is part of a ‘gren’ or social group/clique. This is usual a group of people they have grown up with and they share tea with everyday. The idea is that one can share and have very open discussions with their ‘grens.’ It’s not appropriate to frequent other grens often; better to remain faithful to the original. Every gren even has a name (Mal vie ‘The Bad Life’, Brooklyn City, etc). People can be identified by naming their gren (eg. 'you know Mohamed?' 'Which Mohamed?' 'Mohamed Coulibaly' 'Which Mohamed Coulibaly?' '...of Mal vie.' 'Oh, yeah').
So, here in Mali, many NGO’s often form community peer educators and train them to target 'grens' to spread their messages amongst the youth. Again, since there are no jobs and people generally just chat over tea all day, this is a seemingly effective technique. I used to wonder what motivates a peer educator to do his or her job. Sometimes there are some very minor monetary rewards. More likely, one hopes their bit of volunteer work will help them land an NGO job down the road. But, I honestly believe, and of course this is completely my own speculation, that a large motive is simply to have a sense of purpose. For me, people are not just floundering to make ends meet, they are floundering for a 'raison d'être.' I can see the pride people have in saying they are a peer educator and have been trained in this and that. My main issue I can raise with this grassroots technique to behavior change is that it neglects females. NGO’s are well rehearsed in gender issues relative to development. They’ll make sure to have an equal amount of trained female peer educators. But, grens are almost always all male. Women just don’t seem to form social groups and take tea together to the same extent men do (probably because they are occupied with the foyer/household).
A bit of a digression there...so...the one particular 'gren' I spend many afternoons with happens to be peer educators in family planning and HIV/AIDS so they were more than happy to come present their NGO and do a little sketch at the campaign I helped organize. It was a small project, just a one-day event. I believe 300 people or so turned up. A fellow Peace Corps friend was there and wowed the crowd with her fluency in Bambara. I think the messages in relation to HIV/AIDS translated effectively and in an entertaining way. How couldn’t a white girl walking around with a silver platter of condoms not bring a laugh? The only problem I face now is everyone asking me for condoms! I’ve even had some uppity, imploring high school boys coming by my house close to midnight. By the way, in my town I know people can afford them..a packet of four condoms costs less than twenty cents. And even the students who really have no money still manage to find some change for cigarettes on a daily basis, so they can do the same with condoms, if they fully understand the responsibility they have.