It’s Taken Three Years To Find Home and Office In Mali, West Africa

We have never had an air conditioner (AC) in Mali before. Our first few years in Mali were very basic. We lived in Sanabougou One, on the southeast side of the town of Sikasso.

The community we lived in had no power at all. No power poles, street lights or anything.  However, our landlord ran a wire from a quarter kilometer away, with the power first passing through three other buildings before arriving at our place, which would make us number four on the line. Needless to say, the power was dismal at best. The power was often so weak in the evenings that it lacked sufficient snap to turn on fluorescent lights.  The lights would simply flash off and on all the time with a disorienting, eventually sickening strobe affect. When my neighbor’s kids turned on their TV at night, which was rare, it would often trip the breaker all the way to my house.

We actually had to use a gas camping stove for everything, including heating our hot water for tea. My wife Lynn really despises fire, and lighting a gas burner on our tabletop camp stove did not sit well with her. The usual “poof” transforms her into a different kind of lady,  not my usual Lynn.

While at the market one day, Lynn spied an electric kettle. I commented that it would probably not work at the house, she totally ignored me, and plunked down her 14,000 CFA.  When she plugged the kettle in at the house the next morning, it tripped the power off in all four homes, all the way to the main road where the power came from a power meter mounted on the exterior wall of  a local bakery.

This original home was fine for our needs, but not for field visitors; it was barely above village life. The place was an abandoned women’s training center, where they taught women the sewing trade. It was built by western money for $35,000 US dollars, operated for six months, and stood empty for seven years, until we came along and rented it.

The building consisted of five small rooms of cement walls and floor, with a tin roof. It had no plumbing, water,  kitchen or bathroom. The windows had no glass, but were louvered tin that kept out rain, and were always open about an inch to allow constant fair flow This meant that the house was full of dirt and dust all the time, no matter how many times a day the place was swept. The donkeys that rolled in the dust just 10 meters away from the house did not help, nor the cotton trucks pounding down the dirt road only several hundred meters away. The windows had no screens either.  At night there were clouds of mosquitos floating around, and we slept under mosquito nets. We had an outdoor stall that was a combination bucket shower and poop-in-a-hole-toilet (Check out this funny Peace Corps Video). However, the second year we put in an indoor shower and a sit-on toilet with a pipe running out to the outhouse and down in to the outhouse hole. Best 60,000 ($120) I ever spent in Mali.  Nothing fancy but it worked. It meant that we no longer needed to venture outside for showers and business, which was a nice change. Especially at night, as we would have to unlock doors just to go to the washroom.

After a few years, we realized that when working in the village all day, coming home to almost village conditions wears thin. We did not have a fridge then. You never realize what a gift cold water is, until you have to live without it in a VERY hot place.  I missed cold water most, Lynn missed the ability to have a hot shower. She sometimes used the indoor shower head, but usually opted to heat a pot of water on the table top  stove, and poured it into a bucket and bucket showered in the shower.

Three years later, we finally have a workable solution that will enable us to receive our field work visitors and interns, and to have a retreat space where we can recharge our batteries after being in the bush most days.

We are on the second floor of a new building in the heart of Sikasso. Our landlord is smart, a major business man in Mali. He is the owner and builder of the big Hotel Cinquantenaire in Sikasso. He is rich. He is also excellent to do business with, because he takes care of things. One call from him and people show up, immediately. Not the usual West African experience, where people say they are on their way but show up two days later, or not at all.

With our program advancing, we are slowly setting up better offices for our program. We began with 5 amps of power here,  and last term we put an AC in our bedroom that would not work; it constantly tripped the breaker. So they upped us to 10 amps and it was still not enough. We had an AC but not enough power to use it, but we were almost at the end of our term so we left it so.

We are back again for another term, so  I called our landlord about the issue a few days ago, and after one call he is upping our power to 30 amps, and he ordered me another two ACs for our offices, at a considerably reduced price. Thirty amps is a real gift here for not just anyone can have access to that much power. The bank below me has 11 AC units running, so I think I should be able to have a few.

Since we are doing so much more language study this term, we really needed a place to study that is clean, cool, and workable. Our office can get pretty hot. It was 37.1 c in there last night. Just makes it miserable to get office work done when papers stick to your sweaty arms and you have to peel the paper off your skin like bandages.

So we bit the bullet and set up shop properly with some AC’s this term. It’s a pretty nice treat compared to the last two years.

What is so wonderful about our new home/office is that we are in the very heart of the Grande Marche of Sikasso, a new building that just opened last year. We can buy anything, and everything, within two hundred meters of our door. Bread, veggies, meat, hardware, garden supplies, mechanic, to a low end restaurant, gas station across the street, and instant banking machines.  The building has its own guard who sits inside at night. The bottom floor has a bank, and a dozen of small cubbyhole shops around the perimeter.  The second floor is the Orange phone, and Blue insurance agencies, Man Of Peace (that is us) and a small Mosque.  At the bottom of my stairs on the inner court there is a place for me to pull my motorcycle in and lock it up as well. There are two huge gates on either end of the building leading into the inner court. When the gates are closed at night, the two story building is literally a forty foot high fortress from the outside, with a guard inside and the bank downstairs also having guards with AK47’s sitting guard night and day on the exterior of the building too. So security is wonderful.

Our situation is unique. We cannot set up a home like other expats because we do not have any other teammates in Mali, no central office, we are the first to arrive. So if we rent a place, who will pay the salaries, or deal with the power or water bills arriving after we leave? No one….  We needed a place that was secure, that we could simply lock up and leave until we return each year and not worry about it. Now we pay everything to this one person. Our water, electricity and rent are all paid to our building owner, and a guard comes with the building. So we have finally found a one-stop-shop place, that meets all our needs and is easily managed between project terms.

We count ourselves very blessed to have finally found a workable arrangement. We always loved Mali. However, we are even more at ease as a result of this place. We now have a place to call home, it works, and we are thankful.

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