January 14, 2009

Looking for Normal in Timbuktu

Wanting more than a desk job in international development, Racey Bingham, N07, F07, found what she was looking for in West Africa

By Racey Bingham

I arrived in dusty, crowded Bamako, Mali’s capital, just over a year ago, a few months after finishing a dual master’s degree in law and diplomacy and nutrition from Tufts University. I had been positively loath to take a typical development desk job in the States.

Racey Bingham, on left, is a Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellow, providing technical assistance to a Malian team implementing an irrigated agricultural project under a grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency. Photo: Courtesy of Racey Bingham

During the three years before starting my graduate work, I was an agroforestry volunteer for the Peace Corps in neighboring Mauritania, where I had gained an appreciation for the unpredictability, the simplicity, the reality and the hospitality of life in Africa.

And I was itching to get back.

What I didn’t expect this time around was for life here to be so normal. After all, Mali is home to Timbuktu, and it’s the fifth poorest country in the world. Yet while providing technical support for a $230 million irrigated agriculture project, I’ve learned that work has been significantly different from my field days in the Peace Corps, and at first glance, similar to any average office job in the States.

I commute to work along with the rest of the city around 7:30 every morning, dealing with traffic and accidents just as I have in Boston. The workday is full of meetings, conference calls and email writing. My Malian co-workers and I take an hour for lunch, and finish up the day officially at 4:45, but as in America, most people don’t leave until much later. After work I go to bars for happy hour, dinner parties and quiz night with a hodgepodge of European, American and African friends. I play organized sports on the weekends.

Yet this “normal” life is unceasingly flavored by Africa. Just breathing on the morning commute is difficult, given the haze that hangs over the Bamako valley and the likelihood that you’ll get stuck behind a vehicle spewing thick exhaust.

Driving is more of a free-for-all than in Boston—do not make eye contact with a fellow driver or you will certainly be cut off, not only by him but also by the stream of cars glued to his bumper. Street corners are not full of morning Starbucks-goers, but rather with women, children and disabled people begging for a bit of cash to get them through the day. Everything is old or falling apart—the cars, bicycles, clothes, roads, even the new construction in the city often takes so long to complete that it begins to fall down before it is finished.

The mood at the office is also not what I expected. It is a stressful thing to build 40,000 acres of new irrigated land—about 800 times the size of Boston Common—in a remote area in five years, but you would not know it.

Laughter and lighthearted banter usually prevail no matter how stressed the Malians are. They have a smile on their faces, have time to greet one another in the mornings, drink tea together, ask about each other’s families and discuss the morning’s news.

At the most stressful moments, with procurement deadlines approaching, reports due and revisions to be made on a stack of technical specifications for irrigation canals and social infrastructure, there are rarely sharp words or harsh tones. Instead the project director will say with a grin on his face, “Racey, c’est chaud aujourd’hui, eh? Ça bouge!” Literally this means, “It’s hot today, huh? Things are moving!” What he really means is “Wow, we’ve got a heck of a lot of things to do quickly.”

My impression of a relatively normal life is also shattered each time we go to our project site at the northern edge of the Office du Niger in the Segou region. The Africa I remember from Mauritania comes rushing back: farmers, poverty, wide-open spaces, naked children with constantly running noses, big malnourished bellies, and women walking with some load piled high on their heads, a child on their back and another trailing behind.

Dirt and dust (or mud, depending on the season) infiltrate every pore. Myriad local languages leave me feeling as though any improvements in my French are useless, and news of deaths of friends and colleagues from unexplainable illnesses or accidents is mentioned without fanfare and with a casual reference to the one and only Allah who is responsible for all joys and sorrows here.

In the Alatona zone at the northeastern edge of the Office du Niger, 100 miles from the regional capital of Segou, we hold participatory community meetings, and the hectic routine of Bamako slows to a crawl. Time is not money here, except when it comes to the project getting started.

Villagers are hungry for the income they expect to earn as laborers on the construction of the irrigation canals, houses, schools, health clinics and latrines that will be built. The project beneficiaries have been hearing talk for the past three years about the new opportunities in irrigated agriculture, training, education and health care that they will receive under the Mali grant. They are eager to see something concrete.

And so I’ve realized that by coming back to Africa I am not entirely escaping the average development desk job. Instead, I am escaping the complacency of working far from the project site and am enveloped in the good humor, joy and sorrow that are so predominantly part of life here. It is, by and large, an almost-normal life.

Reprinted with permission from the Boston Globe’s Passport blog. For more information on Millennium Challenge Corporation activities, go to www.mcc.gov.

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