Kris Holloway was a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African nation of Mali in 1989-1991. Her host in the small town of Nampossela was Monique Dembele, the local midwife and health worker. This book chronicles their experiences over those two years, and also addresses many issues that women face in that part of the world.
This was an incredible book. It starts with some of Kris’s first experiences. She is re-named Fatumata while she’s in Mali (so that she can have a name in the local language of Miniaka) and she suffers all the culture shock and language barriers that one would expect. Her village is tiny. Most people live in little huts made of mud bricks with straw roofs. There is no electricity, no running water, no sewage system, no toilet paper, etc. There are vipers, cobras, wild dogs, 7-inch long scorpions, mosquitoes, and deadly diseases all over the place. The health clinic and birthing center are small, crumbling buildings, and Monique has only the bare essentials to work with. Her medical training consists of only nine months at a training school. In this community, half the children die before they reach age five, from malnutrition, diarrhea, or other causes like tetanus.
Because my brain is not significantly together right now to write a coherent review, I’m just going to separate this into sections of main issues touched on in Monique and the Mango Rains.
One of my favorite stories in the book was when Kris and her future husband (who was a water specialist volunteer in Nampossela) invited Monique to come visit them in the US six months after they left Mali. Monique wanted to go, but she was scared. She didn’t think she could hold on to the airplane for ten hours, that high up in the air. It was a very cute story, and once Monique realized you rode inside the plane instead of on it like a motorcycle, she was all for visiting (and did get to). The reason I bring it up, though, is because Monique was one of the most educated people in the village. She came from a nearby city that was larger and had a little more advantages. She went to school. She even went to medical training. But at the same time, her education was very rudimentary. She was very lucky to have what she had.
Education at the time was not even thought of in Nampossela. There were no schools; there were no thoughts of school. Kris returned to Mali eight years after her assignment was complete and by that time, the village had progressed to have a tiny school with two teachers. Education is so important, and yet so few people had it. The village chief couldn’t read. The only man who could was the village clerk, and because he had this advantage, he spent years cheating Monique out of much of her salary. It costs about $100 (US) to send a child to school for a year in Mali. So little and yet so few children are educated, keeping them trapped in poverty and ignorance.
Religion and Death:
The villagers were surrounded by death. Death of babies and children, death of sick people, death that comes with drought or too much rain, death of the few people lucky enough to reach old age. Death is treated so much differently when people are surrounded by it. There are celebrations when an elderly person dies, with dancing and feasting. It is a wonderful thing that that person lived to such an old age. There is no sadness here. Other deaths bring on sadness or simply resignation. People accept death as the will of God or Allah or traditional gods (Nampossela was a pretty strong mix of three different religions).
Religion is also so different there than here. I’ve literally spent years wondering how people could believe in an Old Testament version of God: fickle, jealous, petty, judgmental, selfish. He plays favorites and requires gifts and tokens to be appeased. He can turn on a person at the slightest provocation, or at no provocation at all. I understand a New Testament God. I don’t believe in it, but it makes sense with our culture. Reading about this tiny Malian village that depends on forces completely out of their hands just to survive, I can understand better about the older version of God.
For example, in San Antonio where I live, from August ’07 to August ’09, it didn’t rain. We went through severe drought that led to excruciating heat. So what did we do? We stayed indoors and used our a/c. We still clean had running water. People complained because they were only allowed to water their lawns once every two weeks. They cheated on the water restrictions to keep a green lawn. A few people died of heatstroke and heat-related illnesses, but no one starved to death because there was no rain to plant and harvest crops for two years. Our water supply didn’t dry up to the point where there was no water at all for drinking.
Drought in Mali means death. Great, sweeping waves of death. There is no irrigation. There is no reliance on other parts of the country to provide food or water. There is no government subsidies for farmers. There is nothing but death. They pray, they sacrifice animals, they try to stay in God’s favor so that he will send the rains that their lives depend on. When life depends on forces outside your control, forces that are sometimes benevolent and sometimes oppressive, it is easy to see where the idea of an Old Testament God comes from.
I save this one for last because there was so much discussion on it. There would be, considering these are two years spent with a midwife. I read about so many different types of birth and the different things Monique could do to try to ensure survival of the mother and infant. Not that she always succeeded. There is a very high maternal death rate in Mali and it’s higher in the villages than in the cities where there is at least some emergency service. Women in Nampossela had their babies squatting on a concrete slab. Their midwife kept away infections by washing her hands – she had no gloves. No pain medication, nothing to cut with to help the baby out, just a plain sewing needle (again without pain medication) to repair tearing. There is no running water, and they do what they can to make what they have clean water. The danger is enormous.
But it’s not just birth that this book focuses on. There are many women’s issues discussed. I mentioned above that Monique’s salary was being partially kept by the clerk who dispensed it. Most of the rest of it was kept by Monique’s father-in-law. Monique received almost nothing to support her family, because she was a woman. Despite the fact that she did the job, she earned nothing for it. (I’m pleased to say Kris fixed this issue by the end of her two years.) But society was in all ways completely unfair for the women. Their husbands and fathers-in-law dictated everything they did. The men ate first and had the best of the food. The men got to keep the children in the case of divorce, automatically. There is no protection against domestic violence (Monique was surprised to hear domestic violence occurred in the US too). Marriages are for the most part arranged. Men make decisions on everything from when/where women can travel to sexual relations to birth control. Women have absolutely no power – not even women like Monique who was an educated, respected working mother.
That’s not to say every marriage was bad, or that no good relationships exist here. Neither an arranged marriage nor a marriage of love was protection against bad relationships. Monique’s arranged marriage was a bad one and she longed to be with the person she loved, who was also in an arranged marriage and who loved her back. On the other hand, a friend of Monique named Korotun disregarded her family and married out of love only to have her husband beat up on her, starve her, accuse her of cheating on him, and disown her child when it turns out to be a girl. These problems are not infrequent.
And then there’s the subject of female genital mutilation. Monique, a midwife and health worker, an educated woman, did not realize until Kris told her that excision was unnecessary and dangerous on a girl. Monique thought that it was a necessary, life-saving procedure to remove unnecessary and dangerous parts from a female. She thought everyone in the world had the procedure done as a child and was surprised to hear that it didn’t happen in the US. She didn’t believe it at first and thought Kris had simply repressed the memory.
You know, years ago, I used to get mad when our country interfered with other cultures. I didn’t like genital mutilation, but I really resented the white habit of pushing our “better” culture on other people. Hearing that even health workers think this is a necessary thing, that this is less culture-related and more due to ignorance, made me change my mind completely about the issue. It’s not that I ever approved of what those cultures did – seriously genital mutilation is horrible – but to keep it going out of ignorance rather than culture/custom/ritual is a whole different beast. And of course excision becomes even more dangerous for women when it comes time to have children. Like Monique says, “I have noticed myself, that it does not help the baby pass through. As a midwife, I have certainly noticed this.”
Okay, I could go on and on but I think I’ve beaten this review to death already. This is a wonderful book that’s easy to read and definitely helped me see the world with new eyes.