So I’m broke. I think I had more money when I was 7 years old; my piggy bank filled with the money I made off recycling my neighbor’s bottles and cans. Plus I had a little enterprise with my brother. We’d find golf balls that had gone astray into the Santa Monica Mountains surrounding our Tarzana home. We’d wash them clean and resell them on the side of the road leading to the golf club. I understand now that my brother was the brains behind my small fortune at a young age. I’m on my own now, I’m 24 years old, and I have $3 to my name ($1 of which I just spent on this internet session – clearly, I know how to manage my money).
Lettuce is in season, and I absolutely love to stroll the streets at night, finding a woman selling food, and having a big bowl of salad prepared. The vendor has probably washed the leaves well (with chlorine), but unfortunately she uses the same hands to toss the salad that she does to take dirty coins in payment. I’m well aware of all this as a health volunteer, but I’ve convinced myself that the vitamins I’m getting from the leafy greens outweigh the costs of sticking to a purely carbohydrate based diet. My closest friend Awaha and I have being doing this like ritual for the past two months. We tear pieces off a long loaf of locally baked French bread to scoop up mouthfuls of lettuce covered in oil, vinegar, and Maggi (msg-filled boullion). Maggi is ubiquitous, used in every sauce, every meal, every time. The commercials are endless and feature a typically dressed Malian woman cooking in a modern Western style kitchen. It closes with the motto, « Avec Maggi, chaque femme est une etoile » (With Maggi, every woman is a star). I'll skip the feminist comment and just say Maggi targets their audience well.
Now, my current state of means is curbing my appetite. It is absolutely impossible to starve anywhere in Mali that I’ve been. Every single person invites you to share their meal. There’s nothing Malians love telling foreigners more than 'an fe' or 'chez nous' - 'every morsel of food is everyone’s food.’ But, my body is craving veggies! Luckily, as people can buy almost anything on credit, so can I (they simply promise to pay the amount a week or more later). So my salad lady is keeping track of what I owe her. You know, every white person here is looked at as a walking wallet. Seeing me buy lettuce on credit is a very confusing picture. Only my friend Awaha actually believes I’m broke. Of course, the girl has less than me. And yesterday, I borrowed her cutest ‘going out’ shirt and she told me at the end of the night that if I tried giving it back to her, she would pick a fight. I kept the shirt, but I felt a pang of guilt…the pang of recognition of my selfishness. Months back, she’d done my laundry for me and borrowed a shirt of mine. A friend hinted that she liked the shirt a lot, which angered me, and I immediately asked for it back. From my point of view, it was sneaky…offer to do my laundry as a friend because she could a better job than me, and then indirectly ask for a shirt of mine in return. But, now I’ve begun to see their point of view. I know she gave me her favorite shirt the other day and I know I never would have done the same.
I knew I’d learn a lot from Africa. I knew Africa (and Peace Corps) would make me self-reflect to uncomfortable lengths. I've provided a small, silly example, but in much larger ways, I’ve become acutely aware of my selfishness in the past year. But, becoming self-aware is one thing. Changing is another thing altogether. Well, at the very least, when I get home, I’ll be better at sharing my food.
(I'd like to stress that Peace Corps is not starving me. They keep us frugal certainly by American standards - and we are volunteers after all- but I earn more than the average Malian teacher. I’ve just been a little to liberal with my money the past couple months.)