A Jackhammer Journey – A Little Too Much To Bare

“Very occasionally, if you pay really close attention, life doesn’t suck.”  (Joss Whedon)

Have to admit this one made me laugh out loud in the wee hours of the morning. Yes, that lifelong early morning fishing habit I can’t break, exacerbated  in the off-fishing-season by 4:00am Mali mosque calls to prayer.

This week I have a tough visitand voyage to undertake.

You have little idea about how much I can’t write about here.  Mali has its security issues these days. But I can share about  a serious bush trip I need to make before I leave. It will happen early this coming week

I can’t really say as I have to make it, but from a Malian perspective it would be good to do so. One of the first men we ever worked with in drip irrigation lives about 80 km in the bush, and I need to go see him.

This entails a 160 km round trip into the bush. I regularly make round trip village trips each week of 60-100 km. However, the path to this region is brutal. The first thirty km are jackhammer riding, even at very slow speeds. Right now it is getting seriously hot by noon, and this road is full of rocks, crevasses, and deep dusty powder bowls. All of these make it hard work to handle the bike in, so it takes 3.5 hours out and back in ideal situations. That is a minimum 7 hours of hard driving… leaving only a few hours  to work out there. I have to be on the road no later than 3:30 pm. If not, which often happens, we are in the dark on the worst section of road, the last 30km to Sikasso. I have to then slow down because the dust rises like a thick fog in the evening and just hangs in the air, and you can’t see anything. I’m reduced to a blinded crawling pace of 5- 10km a  hour at that time. The last 20 km can end up taking me an extra 2-2.5 hours, turning a 7 hr drive in to an almost 10 hour drive. We have to be out of the bush before dark, as it is a bad bush road (Robbery); the police chief was even robbed on this road one time- and relieved of his clothes and vehicle.  Often, we never seem to be able to get home before dark.

Three years back, I had great plans for that region that never materialized. There is a group of three of villages out there we hoped to work with. We were even invited to come. However, we could never even get a mud room place to stay in. No one can support round trips out there; two a week would kill you and the bike too. The village leaders wanted us to build a spot, but that is just ass backwards in my mind. It’s the western way, but not my way. What does it communicate to a village when a westerner comes in and starts immediately building things? Well, exactly what you think it communicates.

“Focusing is about saying No.” (Steve Jobs)

Money complicates a lot of things, and a lot of thinking. At that time, I had no intention of building anything, even a modest mud home, until I got an indication we are connecting with some families that we can work with in these villages, and that I felt they had our safety in mind.  Until then, I could not really feel the village really wanted us.

But that is difficult to determine when you can’t spend much time there. I made  many brutal round trips out there trying to make these connections. Only……..

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” (Seneca)

without being offered a place to stay the night. So we have little time to mingle out there to make these connections. Can’t stay unless invited, right? They looked at a few options, but the chief said he wanted to see the place first, and if it did not make his approval, he would not agree to it. This happened twice; two options (whatever they were) were presented, but upon inspection the chief said no, it’s not adequate. We explained over and over we are not looking for a villa, anything will do.

They kept offering a piece of land to build my own little house on, if I like. Nice offer, but the catch is this: I will not build a room until I get a sense of connection with some people and get a real read on the place. But I can’t get a sense of connection unless I stay out there more. I can’t stay if no one has yet offered me even a place to lay my head for a night. Partly because they can’t believe I would stay there, despite my words to the contrary.

So I have been making these brutal trips to keep the door open for two years. But the truth is that last term I did not even go out there to work at all. I had an exploding new work in another neglected region that needed me. Only ventured out only a few times to greet the chief and to say hello to my “kind of” friend.

There has been some interesting news, that I can’t comment on, from this man I first drip irrigated with out there.

I find I am having to say no, to resist the urge to run ahead and build a place to stay. If it was a matter of just making it happen, I could have been there from the start. But I did not come here to build buildings, no matter how modest.  I leave that for the people who have the budgets, and money, and means…. not agencies like ours who sometimes can’t even pay us… 🙂 I agree with Neil Cole, if you don’t find an open door of interest now, why invest five years of your life hoping it will change, when it often does not?

“A solid answer to everything is not necessary. Blurry concepts influence one to focus, but postulated clarity influences arrogance.” (Criss Jami, Salomé: In Every Inch In Every Mile)

The region is behind a huge 150 km flood plain in rainy season, and is inaccessible, except by canoe. 30 km on the moto, get in a canoe with your motorcycle, cross 1.5 km of water, then drive another 35 km with possibly two more water crossings in canoe…. depending on the rain.  In dry season, the flood plane is dry and we can get in, but it’s still brutal. This explains why I am only here working in dry season. The chief told me in 2006, “You will die out here. In rainy season we can’t get out for three or four weeks at a time. If you get sick, you die out here with no way to get out.”

My fishing seasons in Canada (as a fishing captain) correspond to their rainy season. So this is why “The Invisible Humanitarian” is a perfect fit for this people. I don’t need to be here all year long, because I can’t get out there all year. And besides, the villagers work 10-12 hrs a day in rainy season to get that one harvest a year, to sustain their families for a year. Without it they starve.

No agency does any field work during rainy season in Mali. And since our agency’s budget is so small, (yeah, I may be getting no pay check today, or next month I hear, because reserves are low -the work is covered to the end of the term, but not me :-0…. Ironic that I’m here to help the hungry and poor, and I am one of them by Canadian standards. :-)…..)  it works best for us to just leave before the rains, let locals do what they know how to do, at their very busy time. Then we come back when the rains have stopped, and the harvest is in (by then I am completing my last fishing season too)  and then we help them extend their food production in to the nine months of drought. I’m trying to show them they can produce lots of food in dry season, and take simple sustainable measures to help restore and augment their soil’s healthy capacity.  They do not need to only rely on stored dried stalks for the next nine months. There is an easy capacity for drought season farming, with a very modest input.

Anyway, I had big hopes for this isolated region that have not materialized yet. Honestly, I’m not overly excited to make this jackhammer trip this week.

“Sometimes we focus so much on what we don’t have that we fail to see, appreciate, and use what we do have!” (Jeff Dixon)

Anyway, is it mean to go out to inform them they lost their work possibility?

Not forever lost. However, when they ask what I am doing I will simply let them know we are working in another region right now, and are helping almost 1000 people grow and eat healthy drought season vegetables, while we have been waiting for you to offer us some workable solutions for a simple place to lay our heads from time to time.

Is it too in-your-face to indicate….. this could have been here……… ?

It might be mean… but it will also let them know how serious a deal this is, and I am. It is not a pie in the sky work. It is happening already, and you missed the boat.

Depending on how you look at it…. it might be nasty… or it might just motivate the chief and elders when they hear it.

Might motivate my friend too, with whom I have not drip irrigated for two years now.

Anyway, this man I want to see has three wives and a little tribe of 21 kids. The first demonstration kits of irrigation worked well for him, until he went away for three days for a funeral. He asked the kids to fill the irrigation buckets, and the kids doubted the drips (Everyone’s first reaction here is that the drip is not giving enough water). So the children took a tree thorn and poked holes in the tubes to get more water going. It ruined the tubes, the water came flushing out, loosing the high water conservation capacity, and ruined the whole system.

By the time my friend got home, the tomatoes had just about died;  the kids had stopped watering, so only a few survived.The cucumbers made it however, and everyone in the village commented on the cucumber harvest. One old man told me he never believed one could get so many cucumbers on one vine….

Anyway, the villages out there got to see some early results on these early demonstration systems.  But we were never able to keep building the work because no one ever offered us a place to stay. Commuting out there and coming home is impossible to support physically, two days a week.

The other thing that really discouraged me was my friend. He is a village elder too, but agreed with the collective decision of three villages, for us to live in the next village. So now the only guy I knew was going to be 7 km away. And the village they wanted me in, looked at staying options that never actually materialized. I asked him directly,

“Why am I being sent over there? Why not stay here with you, and live beside you and your family?

He gave me “Africa speak” about how the villages cooperate etc. Bottom line, I can’t sit with him and his family at night and chat… I have no one in the other village. I was very discouraged he was so willing to “let us go”.  This juggle has been going on for three years now. Truth is, I did not ask them for a solution last year. I only went to greet. 

I love the guy, and the people, so you may be asking “Why not just go and build a place then? Get it over with?” There is so much you don’t understand if you even ask me this…. I cannot take the time to explain. Simply understand this;  it will sow a good few wrong attitudes and ideas in the village, none of them healthy or good to a long term work.

But I have a possible one hectare of land out here on which we can set up 100 families. I want to get started, but have never been able to. The people, and the time is not right.

I wish to inform my friend and the village leaders that we have been working with almost 100 families, just not here with you guys as first hoped. It might encourage them to speed up their pace, It might make them angry for me saying it… no odds. I will touch base to let them know I am still here, and working.

Anyway, this region is about as cut off and isolated as it comes. It is not a picnic, not easy, and exposes to me I am not as tough as I once thought I was. This region hurts, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I really have no idea if I will ever be able to do much out there. Depends on them… I’ll take another lickin’ for them… trying, but it’s been exhausting.

“The only time you fail is when you fall down and stay down.” (Stephen Richards, Cosmic Ordering)

I’m not here to make anyone do what they don’t want to do. Also, I am not here to spoon feed them western money, expensive charity models, or construction models. I am not of the, “Build It And They Will Come” camp. Way too much money is wasted in international work. The simple solutions are hard.The easiest thing to do is raise money for a building…Westerners love to fund it.

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” (Steve Jobs)

A brutal trip, with little movement probably. But I suppose, it is a gift to even get to set foot in this region. Not many foreigners have laid their eyes on what I see out there.

So the Jackhammer Journey may be worth it for that simple reality alone.

“It is beautiful to talk about beautiful things and even more beautiful to silently gaze at them.” (Dejan Stojanovic)

“The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.” (Nikos Kazantzakis)

“I love to sit on a mountain top and gaze. I don’t think of anything but the people I care about and the view.” (Julian Lennon)

One Comment Add yours

  1. Crystal says:

    Smooth sailing my friend. My prayers go with you.


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