Friday, April 6, 2012

Letters Home

Below are the three emails I sent family and friends during my short stay in Mali. I'll write a post about our evacuation when I'm home and actually sure of all the details.

NOVEMBER 3, 2011

I'll just do a quick recap. We arrived in Bamako at 4pm on Sunday (Mali time) and have been at the training center (45 minutes south, center is called Toubaniso) since then. We've had an oral French test, a few introductory Bambara classes, lots of orientation classes on cultural differences and the like, a bike repair training session, and I had to get 3 vaccinations (Hep A, B, and Meningitis) in addition to the weekly malaria medication. My French test was horrible. I understood her (basic) questions but I just couldn't think of all the words in French so I responded in Frenglish. I scored a Novice Mid which is basically level 2 of 9 but I scheduled French one-on-one lessons and we'll be retested on both languages at the end of training before we can become volunteers. We are just considered trainees now and very rarely does everyone make it. You have to score an Intermediate-Mid on Bambara before you can be sworn-in but I think there is only a minimum French proficiency requirement for Small Business Development trainees.

Today is our last day at the center until late November. We're going to find out our homestay families today and stay with them for the next 3 weeks, beginning tomorrow, as a part of the intensive language immersion necessary to learn Bambara quickly. They'll actually be my host family for the next 8 weeks of training but we come back here to T-so in 3 weeks for a few days. Greeting are extensive here: Good morning, how are you?, how is your mom?, how is your dad?, May the peace of Allah yada yada yada. You're supposed to greet everyone individually and with the same list of questions even for people you don't know. I only know Bambara greetings and we've been told that none of the homestay families speak any English so these next few weeks have the potential to be very interesting. One trainee per family but between 4 and 7 trainees per village. For the next 8 weeks, the trainees in my village and I will meet at some designated spot, usually under a tree I've heard, in the village and have intensive 8-hour long language training from our LCF (Language and Cross-cultural Facilitator) from M-F and 5 hours on Saturday. I guess the idea is to drill it into your head during class and then go home and be forced to practice it. Some of the current volunteers are here to assist with the training and I'm really impressed with their level of Bambara even though their stages have only been here 16 and 9 months. They said, on the first night of homestay, expect 20 seconds of solid greetings and 16 hours of awkwardness. Looking forward to it.

Toilet paper does not exist outside of Toubaniso so um, Malians wipe with their left hand and water. No soap. For that reason, they only physically greet and eat with their right hands. It is also common here to eat on a mat on the floor out of a communal bowl, so we got to practice that yesterday at lunch. The trainers said that the trick for lefties is to keep your left hand on the rim of the bowl and only use your right hand. I'm hoping to get placed in one of the "wealthier" families so that I don't have to eat millet 3x per day but we'll see. The food at Toubaniso is AWESOME (that was in caps, in case you didn't notice) but is also allegedly the best food made by the best cooks in all of Mali (thank you American taxpayers) so I've been warned to have very low expectations when not at the training center.

So I don't really have much else. I like my stage and I LOVE one of my stagemates. Her name is Anna, she's from Texas, also wrote her senior thesis on Botswana and just happens to be one of my two roommates at T-so. I'm sure she'll keep me sane as training progresses so I'll miss her these next few weeks unless we also happen to be placed in the same village for homestay. They say the purpose of training is to keep you uncomfortable; As soon as you start getting settled in at T-so, you move to homestay; When you start getting comfortable at homestay, you move to site. Getting comfortable at site all depends on you. I'll keep you all posted when I return in 3 weeks.



DECEMBER 8, 2011

Hi everyone!

Tomorrow marks 6 weeks since the Peace Corps Mali October 2011 stage arrived in Bamako. Just writing that sentence and realizing that it’s true only brings the following thought to mind: “Six weeks? That’s it?!?!” I guess anyone who leaves America with snow on the ground in the middle of the 8th season of House and moves to a small village in Africa with no electricity, 105 degree November days, and people who instead watch YOU for entertainment, the days are bound to be very long. Even though it seems like we’ve been here much longer than we actually have, time, in a sense, moves fast and slow. We’re already more than halfway through our pre-service training, with our swear-in ceremony being less than one month away now.

It’s hard for me to even think about where to start with updates since the last mass email I sent last month. Most of the responses to that email were inquiries about my homestay so I guess that’s a good place to start. I live in a small village located about 30km from Bamako. It’s in the opposite direction from Tubaniso so it takes well over an hour going from the training center to homestay. For the most part, my family is pretty great. I have a host dad who has two wives and between the two of them, they have something like 12 kids. The youngest is 12 or 13 months old and she’s their only biological daughter. The other sons are 4, 7, 10, and the rest are between 19 and 23. We all live in the family concession except for some of the older sons who go to the university in Bamako. Because gender roles are so rigid in this part of the world and because there are so many boys in my family, there’s a 13-year girl who lives in my concession (so I call her my host sister) and helps out around the house. I think she’s the niece of one of my host moms. A concession is just a small open plot of land with an adobe or mud structure that is divided into individual rooms. All the rooms face out into the concession. I have my own room, my host dad and moms each have their own rooms, and the older boys share a room. The younger kids sleep in the rooms with their moms. The “kitchen” and the latrine are both outdoors. We also have a donkey in my concession.

Village life is also pretty good. I’m getting used to the 4:30 AND 5:30 calls to prayer that sound EVERY morning from the village mosque. I actually went to mosque with one of my host moms on my first Sunday at homestay because it was a big Muslim holiday called Tabaski and its one of the days all Muslims are obliged to attend mosque. I’ve also attended some kind of formal greeting ceremony before a funeral to give blessings to the family and a baby-naming ceremony where I gave gifts of soap. It’s kind of touching here that you attend all these events, give blessings, and bring gifts for people you’ve never once met. I also pump my own water for my evening bath from the pump right outside my concession. Sometimes there’s a line but because I’m the “toubab”, they always demand that I cut, even when I insist on waiting my turn. If you’re wondering what a toubab is, it technically means “French person” but I have a mind-blowing story behind this word; Right before Thanksgiving, the 8 trainees and I in my village wanted to explain what Thanksgiving was to our host families so they would understand why we were leaving to celebrate it at Thanksgiving. We asked our language teachers to help us translate the history behind Thanksgiving. So we got to the part about how the Europeans came to America and one of our teachers just started laughing. When we asked him why he was laughing, he shook his head and told us that Malians aren’t going to understand the difference between Americans and Europeans, we’re all just “toubabs.” So I asked my teacher if Malians just thought we all come from one place and he said that in Bambara, the only two continents that have names are “Farafin” and “Toubabyoro” which both mean “Africa” and “land of the white people.” I can back up his claim that Malians don’t have an inkling of geographical knowledge by the fact that my host brother asked me if I can from America by car and that my host sister asked me where on the map of West Africa was America.

One of the trainees in my village is always complaining about the food his family serves him and how he thinks his family is pocketing most of the money Peace Corps gives them to feed us. One trainee feels like the women in her compound pawn their children off on her while they do chores or run errands so she feels like a babysitter. Another trainee says she’s mentally exhausted by 9pm because her family never stops talking to her. Even though my family does commit their fair share of annoyances, I’m grateful I got them and not any of the others. They have a pretty good radar at sensing when I’m in the mood to chat, when I’m too tired from class and the heat to be engaged in deep conversations in Bambara with them, and when I simply just don’t want to be bothered. Every night I sit outside in my chair and I’ll read a book or I’ll study. My host sister will, at some point, come perch herself over my shoulder and start asking me questions about what I’m reading or she’ll just talk to me about something in general. I learned early on that Malians don’t stop talking when you ignore them, they only become more persistent. So on good nights, I’ll give her 3 minutes of attention and some days, I have to shush her from the start. I’ve already realized that to make it work in Peace Corps, I’m going to have to grow my patience. The worst part about my family is that there’s no female around my age. I have plenty of host brothers the same age as me but because men and women are so segregated here, I’m hesitant to build any kind of relationship with them in fear of how it will be perceived. There are actually two girls who live in the concession across from mine who are 16 and 20 but they’re both married with kids and duties, so my contact with them is limited. Of all my family members, my 7-year-old host brother is my favorite. For the first week or 2 at homestay, he followed me EVERYWHERE because school didn’t start until the middle of November. I’ve built him a swing that I hung in a mango tree and he’s pretty good at balancing on my slackline. He can now also count up to four in English and he responds to “come here” and “don’t touch.” After I get back from site visit this coming week, I’ll have less than 2 weeks with my family.

Speaking of site visit, I found out my permanent site on Thursday night. I’m going to a region of Mali called Sikasso! It’s located in the south and has the most rainfall, and thus vegetation in Mali. My actual village is called Diakorola Diassa which is roughly 10km northeast of the city of Sikasso. Sikasso is both a region and a city. The city is the 2nd largest in Mali, behind Bamako, so I’m really happy to be easy biking distance from the regional capital. I’m also not more than 35km from the border of Burkina Faso. The internet is so slow around these parts so if any of you are up for looking up information on Sikasso, then send it this way! I’d appreciate it. Every volunteer gets assigned a Malian counterpart, which Peace Corps calls a “homologue” so I met my homologue last night at a special welcome ceremony put on here at Tubaniso. I can’t really say much to him yet. One of the volunteers who has been here for 17 months and is helping to train us approached me today saying he tried to talk to my homologue but even he couldn’t understand him so that doesn’t give me much hope. It might make for a really awkward 7-hour bus ride to my site (where my homologue lives) on Monday. Our homologues are taking us to a one-week, mid-training visit to our sites via public transportation so we can get an idea of where we’re going before we actually go there personally. I have a packet of information on my site but I’ll wait until I actually return to fill you in. The all-day training session on how site visit logistics will work is tomorrow. The last 2 or 3 weeks of training after we return from site visit will be geared toward creating community plans for the first 3 months of service after we swear-in. Which reminds me that we met the new American ambassador to Mali yesterday morning and she cried while giving us a small talk on the importance of Peace Corps work in Mali and how much the Malian president talks to her about his gratitude for Peace Corps Mali. She seems pretty down to earth and our Country Director informed us then that our swear-in ceremony will occur on January 6 at the ambassador’s residence. We’ll be packing up shop and shipping out permanently on January 8.

So that’s my update for now. I know it’s long and pretty general so if you have any particular questions, send them! I won’t send another update until after swear-in so Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and I’ll talk to you all soon.Oh, and send me your addresses if you want postcards of letters. I expect to have a lot of time on my hands in the near future.

Allah ka su here caya!


MARCH 26, 2012

Hello All!

It's been almost 5 months for me here in Mali and 3.5 months since the last update. Being a brand new volunteer in a foreign place, you really start to lose a sense of how exciting and interesting your new life is to your old acquaintances when to you, the days have a tendency to seem routine and repetitive. Then I think about how often I send or receive text messages to or from my fellow PCVs that being with, “You won’t believe what I just saw/ what just happened” and, in the midst of the mundane, I realize that there’s so much to tell, I can’t possibly tell it all. I came in to Sikasso to use internet at the stage house about a week ago and sat down to write this update but I couldn’t think of what I wanted to write. But something really interesting is happening in Mali right now so I guess I’ll start there.

If you haven’t been keeping up with international news, the Malian military recently staged a coup d’etat against the government in Bamako on Wednesday or Thursday. I spent Wednesday night in another volunteer’s village because her friend offered to braid my hair. On Thursday morning, I was walking to the main road to catch a bus back to my site when my Regional Coordinator called me and told me to stay in Maria’s village because of some gunfire and government instability in Bamako that could possibly spread and make the roads unsafe. Between the rebel leader’s television broadcast, what I’ve been hearing from Malians, and the emails from our Country Director, I’ve gathered that the reason for the coup was the military’s frustration with the president for not acting quickly enough in supplying them with food and ammunition for another battle raging in the north. For years, the northern regions of Mali, in the Sahara, have been unstable and Peace Corps does not operate there for safety reasons. Within the last few months, there have been problems with the Tuaregs, an ethnic group that technically resides in Mali but wants nothing to do with Mali, and the military over who would control the north. Even though there has been unrest in the country for years, and even more so since I’ve been here, every violent occurrence has taken place hundreds of miles north from any PCV’s site. That all changed this past week. The coup started in Bamako, with the rebels taking control of the television and radio stations and has since spread to the Kati region outside of Bamako. The rebel leader claims that it’s the only way to get the president’s attention. So far, there have been no demonstrations in the Sikasso region, but Peace Corps has decided, in accordance with the U.S. Embassy’s recommendation, to consolidate all volunteers regionally until at least Tuesday in case things spiral out of control and there’s need for a mass emergency evacuation. After spending 3 days at Maria’s site, we finally were granted permission to travel to our regional capital for consolidation. Tuesday is the day borders are supposed to reopen and an important meeting with the rebels is going to happen to straighten things out. Hopefully I will be able to return to my site then. But for now, all PCVs are safe and in constant contact with PC headquarters in Bamako and everything is relatively normal in Sikasso with the exception of the bank and the post office being closed. I’m remaining optimistic that the talks will go smoothly and everything will return to normal pretty soon.

I wrote my last email in December right before we went off to site visit, the 6-day period where all trainees visit the place they’ll be living in alone for the next two years. I had the opportunity to meet my awesome new host family, the rest of my village, and the other older volunteers in the Sikasso region for the first time. We returned to Tubaniso for the remaining few weeks of training and celebrated both Christmas and New Years at the training center. On Christmas, we had pork, which is a rare treat in this country and was very much enjoyed by most. They put too much garlic in the rest of Christmas dinner and a lot of people were sick the next day. On New Years, many of us walked to the “bar,” lovingly called “The Trash Pile” by volunteers and is really nothing more than someone’s huge backyard with chairs and tables. It’s an eccentric place not only because you can buy cold beer, boxed wine, and gin sachets, but also because there are free-roaming pigs and turkeys there; quite a site in Mali. It was probably my fourth or fifth time at The Trash Pile since training began and every time, on the 2 mile walk there, I always tell myself never again will I walk this far just to get a cold beer. But it’s kind of like when you wake up in the morning with a really bad hangover and you tell yourself never again will I drink. Somehow…

On January 6, 10 weeks after arriving in country, we all swore in as the newest batch of Peace Corps Mali volunteers. Our ceremony took place at the ambassador’s residence in Bamako. Being there made me forget for a moment that I was in Mali. It was a wide-open space with grass (gasp!), beautifully landscaped with a huge pool, tiki bars, and an abundance of free drinks. We came in as 41, swore in as 40, and are currently holding strong at 39 volunteers left in our stage, maybe soon to be 38 due to a volunteer who was evacuated for medical issues and may or may not come back. Every stage in Mali gets its own “stage name” that is announced at your swear-in after-party so our trainers decided on “The Mad Hatters” for the October 2011 stage. Their reasoning was that because our stage was always late to all of our sessions, they needed to give us a theme along that track. So they thought of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland but “The White Rabbits” was too lame so they chose The Mad Hatters because the Mad Hatter breaks the White Rabbit’s watch. There are now 4 stages in Mali; Team America arrived in July 2010 and will be leaving this summer; The Kennedys, who came in February 2011 or 50 years after Peace Corps was founded, are named after JFK (founder of PC) and The Goodfellas came in June 2011. The next stage is expected to be coming this June and we’re all really excited to meet them.

Between January and April, our only expected job is to integrate into our communities and expand our language skills. We’re not allowed to start any projects or leave our region during this period. Our 3-month integration period at site is almost over and I’m currently 3 weeks from our stage’s In-Service Training or IST, considering things settle considerably in Bamako. Having had many conversations with older volunteers about their projects, I’m feeling very anxious to get started on something when I return from IST. Projects- a large part of one’s identity as a Peace Corps Volunteer- are only one of the three goals of Peace Corps but every volunteer has to decide what kind of projects would be beneficial for their own community. One of my friends in the stage before mine is trying to get a large amount of funding to build 26 wash areas in his village so the women don’t have to wash clothes and dishes on the dirt. While I think on paper that sounds really great and ambitious, I don’t personally like the idea of really large money projects because I think that goes against the self-sustainability value that volunteers are supposed to be helping their villages attain after volunteers leave. Lucas and I have a lot of respectable arguments about whether buying $2,000 worth of cement and other supplies is really developing his village at all or if it’s just making them more dependant on aid especially because there have been two volunteers in his village before him, both of whom have done big money projects. I want to take a more different approach to development in my village by focusing on behavior change and not physical development. Nobody ever washes their hands with soap and it’s hard for people who have never gone to school to understand that things they can’t see and have never heard of, like bacteria, can kill them. Malians attribute every mysterious death to malaria (even though I’ve never seen a mosquito in my village) and my goal is to explain to them that a lot of deaths can be prevented if you just wash your hands with soap often! I’ve tried to explain to my homologue that just because you wipe your butt with your left hand and only eat with your right, if you touch your farming hoe with both hands, your right hand is equally as contaminated. I know that right now my host family only washes their hands before eating because they know I’ll hound them about it but I want them to see the importance of it. I also want to get my moringa tree garden started soon at my maternity so the moms can get some nutrition in their diets from the leaves; I want to start doing malaria animations and teach them the benefits of sleeping under mosquito nets; I want to set up hand-washing stations at the school because behavior change is easiest with kids; I want to teach them to brush their teeth (!); I want to invite some of my artist volunteer friends to come to my village to paint murals with health messages at my maternity and my school. There are so many things I can do that wouldn’t require me to ask for any funding from USAID and that I think can make gradual but big positive changes in my village. Both of my village water pumps need soak pits to collect the water run-off that cause big cest pools and breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes to form but I’m hoping to work with my homologue and raise money within my village to buy the PVC pipe and the bag of cement for each soak pit. I’ve also been giving a lot of consideration as to whether or not I want to tackle my maternity remodeling as a potential project later in my service or leave it for the next volunteer. The roof in the labor room is falling apart and a lot of the mattresses and furniture are really old and worn out, but I haven’t been convinced that fixing any of that would actually make the maternity a healthier place and like I said before, I don’t really want to do any big money projects. I’m the first volunteer in my village and I think it’s important to first instill the idea that not all aid is money. The next volunteer can do what she wants.

Besides think about what I want to do in the next 22+ months in Mali, I spend several hours a day just shooting the breeze with my village and answering the same questions day after day; “Are you going to take me or my baby back with you to America?” No. “Why don’t you speak Bambara very well?” Because we speak English in America and I’ve only been here 4 months. “What? They don’t speak Bambara in America?” No. “Oh. You’re not married? Can I be your husband?” Hell no. “The moon is really pretty tonight. Do you have a moon in America?” Um, yes. Same moon, believe it or not. “What? No. That’s the Malian moon. How can the same moon be in two places?” Sigh. “Are there cows in America? Are there goats in America? Donkeys? Chickens? Do you have rice in America? Corn? Do people eat bread in America?” I digress. Speaking of ridiculous conversations I have with Malians, my host mom, Abi, loves to ask me how much everything costs. When I bring them back gifts of sugar or fruit from Sikasso, she always asks me how much I paid for it. Part of me thinks she just wants to make sure I wasn’t ripped off but I also know in this culture that it’s not impolite or a-cultural to ask someone how much they paid for their house or their car or anything else we would never ask someone in America. Speaking of prices, mangoes in Mali are overwhelmingly abundant around this time of year and close to free. Abi asked me how much a mango costs in the US and I estimated that your average mango would cost about $1.50 which is more than what a Malian would earn for one day’s labor in the fields. I thought she was nearly going to lose her jaw. Abi also wanted to know how much a chicken costs in America. I tried to explain that in America, we don’t buy chickens alive. I think one of those rotisserie chickens at grocery stores are about $10 so I told her “wa kelen.” This time, I saw her grip her chest. Even though I know informational cultural exchange is a large part of the Peace Corps mission, I don’t really like having these conversations with Malians yet because it’s hard in such limited language to explain all of the factors that contribute to high prices, like the fact that mangos are imported, that they can’t just be plucked off of trees by Americans, or that Americans make considerably more money so food prices are naturally going to be higher.

I mentioned in my last email that my assigned service is going to be working with my village maternity, which is the only health center in a 5 village radius. I witnessed my first birth at my village maternity in January. It was just as disturbing as I imagined. I didn’t really want to attend but my midwife didn’t offer me much of a choice and I figured since I had been assigned to work with the maternity, I would have to do it eventually. She tried to give me a pair of latex gloves but I refused and told her I wasn’t touching anything. When the baby was born, she wrapped it in old clothes that had been sitting on the floor just moments before. I’m also sure the midwife has no idea how to use the scale. At first, she weighed the baby at 5 kg. The lever on the manual scale never moved so I asked her in French if she was sure. She then moved it to 3.6 kg. The lever still didn’t move but she seemed satisfied with that number. I used the converter feature on my phone to see what 3.6 kg was in pounds. Almost 8. No way that baby was more than 5lbs. I then looked at the Registry of Births book and found that some babies were recorded at 5.5 kg. Which means that Malian women, who have very little nutrition in their diets, were birthing 12 lb babies with no drugs. No way. The woman then walked home with her baby wrapped up in an old cloth like a package 6 hours later. Another incident that sticks out in my mind was an old man came to the maternity with a really swollen foot that he had trouble walking on. The midwife cut the skin on his foot without sterilizing the scalpel or the foot and drained the infection, but then put his shoe back on him. She told me she doesn’t use alcohol because she needs it for sterilizing the string she ties around umbilical cords and she didn’t wrap his foot because she doesn’t have the supplies. “This is Africa,” she said. I tried to explain that I’m not a doctor but I know that if she opens the skin and leaves it exposed then the man is at risk of making his infection worse. She replied, “But he was in pain.” I told my Program Assistant about this incident and he promised to provide me with materials and resources on how to approach these “common sense” issues in Third World countries at my IST. Looking forward to it.

From now on forward, after this consolidation period is over, I’m making the goal for myself to spend more time outside of my house and more time with my villagers. Spending the last four nights in Katie’s and Maria’s villages Bambara is, I realize I need to break out of my comfort zone, spend less time alone, and interact more with my community even if all they do is ask me the same questions over and over. For now I’m remaining positive in my time of exile and we’re using this time together to cook good food, watch our favorite TV shows (I’m on the third season of The Wire), read the trashy magazines that all our wonderful family and friends from home send us, and pray that the electricity doesn’t cut out like it always does during hot season. Thank you for all the lovely emails of concern and well-wishing! Thank you to the many of you for taking time out of your day to write and send me packages and letters and for in general thinking of me and sending positive thoughts and vibes this way. It means a lot to know that people from home are still thinking of me in my home away from home. You all are awesome.



Monday, October 31, 2011

Now I'm in Mali

The summer flew by, the 6 weeks at the job passed just as quickly and I'm finally in Mali. It's 5:50am (I've been up since before 4:30) and I'm sitting alone in the Refectoire (dining hall) trying to find things to do to occupy my time before breakfast at 7am. I think I went to bed before 8pm last night because the Mefloquine, or the anti-malarial pills I've been prescribed and just started taking yesterday, have made me kind of light-headed.

So, before my battery dies I supposed I'll just briefly recap what has occurred over the last half-week. On Thursday, I finished up at work. My office went to lunch together and then I bid my final good riddance. It was an easy 6-week stint definitely worth the $3,000. I took a red-eye flight from LAX to Philadelphia at 10:10 that same night. Peace Corps had called me several times that week and the week before informing me that red-eyes were against their policy but their travel agency, not mine, had arranged the booking and I kindly informed them that it was too late to call me, after I had made necessary family arrangements, and tell me that I would have to leave on an earlier flight. Their reasoning was that I should be alert and awake for orientation the following morning. Too bad, too sad. In the end, I got my way. The best part about leaving was not having to answer anymore redundant questions about why I want to join the Peace Corps and having to listen to ignorant comments like "It's not safe in Africa". Have you been to America lately? It got so annoying to the point where I stopped telling new people what I was going to soon be doing for the next two years. It also didn't help that my mom and I went to our last Saturday night mass together and the priest, who is Nigerian, was giving a sermon on how he was robbed on his last trip home and his brother, who works for an oil company, has recently been kidnapped and has yet to be returned. That led to a very uncomfortable Q&A session with my mom who had all the Qs and I, in return, had few As. How am I supposed to respond to what happens to me if I get kidnapped?

Anyway, I arrived in Philly around 6am and was picked up at the airport by my college friend who goes to Drexel Med. I stayed at his house until about 1pm and then went to orientation at a hotel which I won't get into the logistics of. As can be expected, it can be summarized as "boring." While most of the rest of my stage (group going to Mali with me) stayed in the city center for the night, I got to spend my last night in America with my sugar plum, Imanyah. The next day, we left Philly on two charter buses and drove 3.5 hours to New York through a pretty cool snow storm. It was the first snow of the season. From New York, we flew to Brussels and from Brussels to Bamako. From Philly to Bamako was something like 30 hours or more total. It's kind of hard to tally when the time differences change every place you stop. My first impressions of Africa were pretty identical to my expectations: hot and barren. Luckily, it was pretty smooth out of the airport as everybody got through customs without a hitch and nobody's bags were lost.

We drove to Toubaniso, the training center gifted to Peace Corps by the Malian government, which is 45 minutes supposedly south of Bamako. This is our third day here and training is starting to get as intense as it was promised. I had my French interview which was awful and an interview with one of my sector directors (I'm in the Health Education sector by the way). I understood all (ok, most) of the questions in French but I haven't practiced French since April so I forgot a lot of the conjugations and the words for certain nouns. I scored a Novice Mid which is only useful to them so that they know not to place me in a village that speaks a minority language. Since a lot of us are going to be learning French and Bambara, the people who already speak French will be learning Bambara and a minority language. I'm glad one of those people will probably not be me. My sector director is a female medical doctor from the Ivory Coast and is nice as can be. I'm really glad to be part of Health Education.

On Friday, I'll relocate from Toubaniso to a homestay family. I'm a little anxious because I only know basic greetings in Bambara and they sure as hell won't know English. I'm hoping there are at least a lot of little kids because they're the most patient and don't mind repeating things multiple times. I'll post more on that at a later date. Toodles.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New Job! [not in Mali yet]

I started my first day of work this past Friday as an assistant in the registration office of a local art college.  Luckily, it's not even a 5-minute drive from my house and I could walk if I wasn't inherently lazy. It's only a 6 week stint as I'm just replacing a lady who is currently on maternity leave. The day the job ends is coincidentally the day I'm supposed to be leaving for Philly to meet my stage. All I've been doing at work the last 3 days is tedious transcript checks because I'm not well-versed enough in the ins and outs of the registration system to be answering phones, which is a shame because the drop period is ending so they've been ringing off the hook and we always seem to  have someone in the office out sick for the day.  So in reality, the office is really down 2 men at the busiest time of the semester. It's not ideal work but 7.5 hours of pay per day will give me some travel money while I'm in Mali.

I guess I can write a little bit more about my job because I find some of it interesting and it kind of takes me back to the end of high school. The interesting part is that now I find myself on the other end of the spectrum (the person reading the application) and I realize the same things I laugh at when I read these kids' applications are the same stupid things I said not so long ago. Really all I'm supposed to be doing is verifying that all enrollees have sent in their final high school transcripts with their second semester grades and date of graduation so we can confirm that they've actually finished high school after their acceptance, and if they're transfer students, they also need their additional up-to-date transcripts from their previous school(s). It's as boring as it sounds so I find ways to entertain myself. If they're incoming freshmen, they have SAT or ACT score reports in their files so I compare those results with their transcripts for kicks. I find that this art school, like I suppose any state school would, accepts a wide variety of students. Some kids have almost straight As and some have so many Ds and Fs, I not only wonder how they got in to college but how their school districts let them graduate with those marks. One girl had a load of Cs on her transcript but scored above a 2000 on her SAT. How do you get a 700 on the Math section and a C in Algebra II both semesters? Another girl went to an LA public high school and had a cumulative 3.95 GPA but when I looked at her test scores, she scored a 980 (out of 2400) on her SAT and an 11 (out of 36) on her ACT. The same chick who ranked 5/588 in her class scored in the 6th percentile for the national average on the SAT. It doesn't matter how bad of a test-taker you are, you can't be THAT bad. California, like most states, has a state exit exam where you have to pass the test and your required classes before you're allowed to graduate but the standard is so low, it should be the elementary school exit exam rather than high school. On the flip side, if they raised the standard and made the exam harder, as it should be, that puts the state in limbo because then the schools become overcrowded and even more financially burdened. So California is graduating kids who can't can't give you the definition of the word "synonym," can't read past the fifth grade level, and can't convert a basic fraction into a decimal. Nobody wins.

Another thing I do for entertainment when my eyes are bugging and my headache is starting to develop is read their essays. In general, art students aren't the most captivating writers. I admit I normally read the essays of international students because they're the most chuckle worthy. So you score a 65 (out of 120) on your TOEFL (English proficiency exam) and you're coming up with sentences like "His usage of the rich array of color warms the palate and invigorates the senses"? LOL. Right.

Another common trend I find funny is a majority of the Asian students write about how they have "typical" Asian parents who had wanted their kids to take up the violin and academics but someone/something inspired them to pursue their "true passion" even if that meant disappointing their parents, who will only be pleased if they become "a doctor, lawyer, or nurse." Which is funny because I really don't know many Asian lawyers of nurses. A lot of kids write about one of their parents becoming ill or dying and ALL the grad students write about how they just never really found satisfaction in their undergraduate pursuits and now is the time to go after what makes them happy, blah blah blah. What I was getting at earlier when I implied that I would probably shake my head at my own application essays if I read them today, from the perspective of an administrator, is how we think we're making an impression by over-emphasizing details (for example, adding strong adjectives) or dramatizing ordinary events when in reality, we're just blending in with the crowd and adding ourselves to the "too ordinary" pile, which is some cases becomes the "DENIED" pile. If you say that you had nothing better to do one day than go parade through an art gallery and one work of art struck you so vividly that you instantly knew from that moment you wanted to be an artist, you don't sound very believable because we all know that things don't really happen that drastically. I still remember one of the questions on my Duke application simply asked why I was interested in Duke. I spent several sentences trying to flatter them, talking about how "prestigious" of a university they were and how I would be "honored" to be a Blue Devil and yada yada, when I should have just been honest and said that their brochure that came to my house junior year as part of the daily "college mail" pile really caught my eye, I was interested in learning more information about all the clubs, programs and student groups they listed as offering, I did further research on their website, talked to a few current students and alumni, and Duke was a place I could have pictured myself attending for all the above reasons. Not saying it would have affected my outcome, but at least I wouldn't be sitting here today, as a college grad, and cringing at the essays I wrote as a newly minted high school senior. Oh well.  Hindsight is 20/20.

Enough about my job for now. I'm about 6 weeks away from Mali and I'm feeling pretty neutral about it. One of my best friends, who now lives in New York, was home for 10 days and she was asking me if I'm excited about leaving next month because I've been talking about the Peace Corps since high school. I told her I'm excited but not bursting at the seams just because I'm skeptically anticipating what's to come. On the one hand, I'm really excited to meet my fellow stagers and the Mali volunteers already in country but who's excited about no running water, electricity, or wireless internet!?! She told me that she's always thought I've had good foresight and if the Peace Corps was designed for anyone, then it was designed for people like me. That was a nice pick-me-up but I'm going to remain as reserved as possible, which we both agreed was my natural mechanism for preventing disappointment. I'm really kind of concerned about some of the folks in my stage who just seem a little TOO excited. What happens when the excitement of being a newcomer to the Peace Corps and a resident of Africa wears off and the harsh realities of living in the African bush rush in? The last thing I want to do is ET because I'm "not liking it," it's "not what I expected," or it's "not what I signed up for." So I keep my emotions guarded, my anticipation low, and my expectations at close to 0. Definitely excited for Philadelphia though and meeting all those wonderful people. Just about 5.5 more weeks of the good life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Peace Corps Invitation

Let's hope by the time I start the Peace Corps, I'll update this blog more regularly. Now that my 9-month application process is over, I'm sure I'll have more to write about. Not that I haven't had anything exciting to write about lately, as I've been in Europe backpacking for the last 9.5 weeks and haven't blogged once about it, but people change their ways sometimes, right? Anyway, the exciting news commences...

In mid-June, I received my invitation to serve. In Mali! A few weeks into my trip, I received an email from my Placement Officer requesting a phone interview so we set up a time for me to call him since I can't receive calls while I'm abroad. I thought he was just going to ask me more tedious questions about where I stood in my decision to continue with the application process since we had previously had a phone conversation about a month prior where he was informing me of Peace Corps's changing financial situation and how that might affect my nomination. It was also the point I told him that my September nomination probably wasn't going to be feasible anyway (see below post) and that I would be out of the country for the next 3 months. I was in Salzburg, Austria at the time and I called him via Skype using my hostel's WIFI. The connection wasn't strong enough because the call dropped twice so I ran around the corner to the nearest internet cafe and called him from there. Little did I know he was offering me a position in the Mali program at the end of October. I'm not a squealish, overly-excited person by nature (plus I was in the middle of this cafe and the only person on Skype); he totally caught me by surprise with the offer (after the normal Q&A) so all I could say was, "Wow. That's great." Most PC Invitees have to wait a week or so to find out where they're going (or so I'm told), as the normal invitation comes by snail mail, but being in Europe for 12 weeks made my situation unique, so he sent me the official inviation letter by email along with sending the normal package to my house. I found out later that night, from the email, that I would be going to Mali if I accepted that invitation. I knew right away that I would be accepting because it's a French-speaking country (the Peace Corps required me to take French for my original nomination that didn't happen so might as well put the courses to use) and it's in Africa, where I've wanted to go all along.

Now I've officially accepted and will be departing for staging at the end of October. I'm kind of lagging on my pre-service duties, however. When I got notice that PC received my acceptance, they said in the email that I have 10 days to submit an aspiration statement and something else to the country desk. That was about 50 days ago and still no submission. I'm a bit pre-occupied Europe-ing and being lazy. I will do it first thing when I get back though. I have about 11 or so days to apply for the special passport from the time I get back home so I'll have a busy few days.

I also got an email a few days ago saying a Facebook group had been made for my program so I joined the group and find some of the postings amusing. Some people are already PACKING!!! And we don't leave for staging for another 10 weeks or something. My fellow invitees are also discussing amongst each other what they've been buying and what they'll be bringing with them, and should they buy or bring this, etc. In other words, they're VERY excited and I haven't even really let it sink in yet. I guess when I'm back stateside I'll have more time to think about it. I'm for sure not bring tents and handlamps and sleeping pads with me though. I probably won't buy much of anything and instead have those sent to me once I get there if I deem them necessary. Plus you never know what you can find cheaper in Mali or get for free from current volunteers. Better not to have to schlep what you don't need.

I think that's it for me for now. I'm getting the stink eye from people waiting to use the computers. But I promise more updates! Oh, and Croatia is fantastic!!! Cheers.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Happy New Year

I know it's April, but it's been 6 months since I last posted an entry so happy new year it is. I'm graduating next month which is the good news. Bad news is I have a month to finish this thesis. I haven't really touched it in the last few weeks so things can get interesting.

Peace Corps- Ok, so the last blog I think I wrote was a few days after my interview and nomination. I guess a lot has happened since then, but the steps have been so spread out, it doesn't really feel like it. I received some medical forms in an official package, I want to say less than a week after my interview. It took me a few days to figure out where I was going to get my dental and medical evaluations done, seeing as how I have no dentist or doctor in Baltimore. Luckily, though, there is a dentist office in my apartment building. So I called to see if they were taking new patients. They were. Score. Made an appointment for a week or two later and I told the receptionist what exactly I needed done and why; X-rays and dental chart fill-out based on the dentist's assessment of my teeth. Please... This must have been some time in mid-November. I actually ended up seeing this dentist twice because the first time around, he remarked that he didn't know how extensive this evaluation was and he had another appointment so I could only get the x-rays done that day. I hate when they do that. Good thing I didn't actually have to take anything more than an elevator and a few steps to get there because I would have been less than happy. I went back for the assessment and teeth cleaning. Submitted the paperwork and got dentally cleared really quickly.

Medical was not so fun. The good thing was I found out there are actual physicians that work in our campus' Student Health and Wellness office so at least it was convenient. For the medical evaluation, it was mostly just annoying paperwork and medical history documents but I also had to have a regular check-up, a blood test, a urinalysis and all women are required to get pap smears. First one. Ouch. A few weeks later, everything came back normal and I submitted the results along with the dental evaluation. Peace Corps sent me a letter in the mail some time during Xmas break saying a few things on my medical chart were missing but they were things that I either a) stupidly forgot to put a check mark next to... or b) filled out but forgot to fax, or they got lost on PC's behalf. One document that was missing required the doctor's signature so I had to wait until the health office re-opened at the beginning of January to go back and get the signature. I re-faxed everything... or so I thought... and waited. I never received any kind of confirmation that my documents were received but I figured that my file was just being put on the backburner because my nomination date still wasn't for another 8 months. Meanwhile, I started an intensive 3-week French course that compressed a whole semester of beginner French into 30 hours of class time and probably 120 hours of homework. It was necessary to keep up my end of the bargain with Peace Corps that I would learn some French if I wanted to take part in my nominated program.

Finally in March, I emailed someone in the Medical Office HQ and asked if the needed something else from me because I hadn't heard from them in 2.5 months. Turns out they never received my fax of updated medical documents. HA! I later realized it was because I never included a "9" before the fax number, which is necessary when sending faxes long distances. I re-re-faxed and about a week later, I was medically cleared. One giant leap for mankind.

Which brings me to today. My online Toolkit, which is basically Peace Corps' system of letting its applicants know where in the process they are and what is need from them next, is a little ambiguous. Here is what it says: "Your file is currently under consideration. Please review the information on this page to determine whether Peace Corps is awaiting any information from you." Well the information on the page doesn't actually tell me anything other than what is already complete so I called the Placement Office for my nomination field to get more answers. The Placement Officer who answered my call told me he would review my file and get right back to me. A few hours later, he responded by email:

"Our database shows that you have been nominated to a Community/Youth Development program that is estimated to depart sometime in mid to late September. The review of your file here in the Placement Office will begin within 6-8 weeks of when you become medically qualified."

It's now almost mid-April and I'm realizing that my September nomination program is not looking so likely afterall. It sounds like they're going to start reviewing my file some time around my graduation. This can be a problem. I'll say why in a second. Here's more...

"Then, your Placement Specialist will perform a final evaluation of your technical skills and suitability for service. Upon completion of this assessment, your Placement Specialist may contact you with some follow-up questions regarding the information in your application."

Yeah. Contacting me after graduation might be a little difficult. And the kicker...

"Given this, please keep in mind that an invitation is never guaranteed. Applicants should make no plans to go overseas until an invitation has been issued and an email has been sent to the headquarters staff to accept the invitation."

Well. That's just too damn bad because I'm backpacking Europe for 3 months this summer and I won't be back stateside until August 25. That might make getting a visa and other documents in order for a 2 year trip that leaves a in a few week, a little difficult. This doesn't really bother me that much though. It's funny to read some other applicants' blogs on Peace Corps Journals and see how stressed out they are about the application process. Maybe I don't care so much because I'm too busy with school/excited about my Eurotrip to worry about placement right now. I've also been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of not being able to participate in my September nomination program and there are only 2 things that suck about it. 1) I haven't really imagined myself anywhere other than French West Africa. But I can quickly get over that. And 2) I specifically started learning French and taking French classes at school as part of my agreement with Peace Corps that my nomination was contingent upon gaining at least a year of French. Oh well to that too. A little French never hurt anybody. And it's a super easy A. So, basically I have zero problem with asking for a new assignment if I am actually invited to my nominated program. It will also give me more time to be in LA for a little while and volunteer somewhere locally as a way to make my candidacy for a new program stronger. I also just miss LA.

So that's my 6-month Peace Corps application status wrap-up in a nutshell. Stay tuned for more updates.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Peace Corps Updates

I'll try and keep this short. I had an interview with my recruiter from the Peace Corps almost a week ago and it went really well! It was held in Arlington, VA which is right next door to DC. I guess that's convenient enough considering there are only a handful of recruiting offices around the country so some applicants REALLY have to travel far just for an interview! I believe applicants from Alaska have to go to Los Angeles and this is before they're even nominated to serve. It was pretty easy for me. It was forecast to rain so instead of walking to the shuttle stop and taking the JHMI to Penn Station, one of my friends graciously picked me up and drove me 10 minutes to the train station. I took the MARC train to DC and then 2 lines on the DC underground metro trains into Arlington. The building where my interview was scheduled was only 4 blocks from the metro station but it was completely uphill and it was raining cats and dogs. Even though I had an umbrella, as I was walking uphill, the wind was blowing downhill and I was drenched from knees down. I was also wearing heels which aren't very agreeable with wet weather since it created very little friction between the soles of my feet and my shoes, which were probably about a half size too big. Those four blocks were the worst leg of the trip but I made it and on time!

The interview process was more casual than Teach for America's. My recruiter's name is Chris and he's a really great guy- very likeable and easy to talk to. The first part of the interview was just him explaining how the rest of the process will go, how long it should take, etc. The second part was the traditional question and answer stage. The last part was me asking him questions. I learned two important things about the Peace Corps at this interview, things I hadn't come across during my traditional research. The first is that PC volunteers can live on their own after training, they don't have to live with host families. The other is that all volunteers travel to their host country together, on the same flight, and actually meet each other a few days before their departure in one US city before traveling abroad together. I thought both of those things were cool.

After I asked Chris my questions, came my nomination. He told me he had no problem nominating me and I was surprised I got to help pick my region and program. Of course I wanted sub-Saharan Africa but I didn't think I was going to get selected to go there because I don't have the skills or the kind of degree they're after. However, Chris found a program in French West Africa (we don't know the country) that can use a volunteer in Women and Children Community Development or something or the other. The thing is this program wants volunteers who have some basic knowledge of French and I've never studied French so I had to sign a contract vowing to learn some French before I depart. The good thing is Hopkins offers a French Elements I Intersession course, or at least they have in past years, so I'll jump on that if it's still necessary. It's also important to note that I very well may not end up in the program I get nominated for, for a number of reasons, so I'm crossing my fingers but I'm still open to change.

I missed my stop on the MARC train back to Baltimore so it took me an additional 75 minutes to get home, but when I did, I looked up programs in French-speaking Africa that typically leave in mid-Sept, the departure date of the program I was nominated for, and found Cameroon and Togo, both francophone, to have departure dates around the middle of September, historically. The next step for me is to get medically and dentally cleared. Everything else is of course just a waiting game.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Teach For America Said NO

It's been a few weeks since I've posted any updates about TFA or Peace Corps. Looks like now it's only Peace Corps as TFA is no longer interested in my candidacy. I had a phone interview with them about a week and a half ago. I wouldn't say it was a complete train wreck but it didn't start out very well and only got a little better as time passed. I don't remember who the interviewer was exactly but she was a TFA Corps member and I think I remember her saying she actually still teaches. Surprisingly, considering the interview was scheduled for 8:30pm, I had all day to think about it but I didn't actually get nervous until she called. She spent like 7 or so minutes just to tell me how the interview was going to be conducted and how phone interviews are sometimes awkward, so what to do if we got disconnected. I'm sure that opening schpeal is designed to make you more comfortable and less nervous but I was just anticipating getting going so I found myself replying "Ok, ok, ok" without actually fully paying attention to her directions. By the time we actually did get going and she asked me why I was interested in joining Teach For America, my ability to convey an actually satisfactory and concise response was already out the window. I don't remember what I said exactly, it was a sort of out of body experience, but whatever it was wasn't as eloquent as it should have been and I remember thinking throughout the rest of the interview that I should have written what I really wanted to do say down and practiced it earlier as that would quite surely be asked.

I spent the next 15 minutes of the interview just pacing the length of my apartment back and forth. I had researched some possible interview questions and typed notes on them which I taped to my wall but I found them to be quite useless as not much I prepared for was really asked. I was prepared to talk about my views on the achievement gap in American education, what core values central to the TFA mission I aligned best with, what I thought about the articles I was asked to read, etc. but every question was way more broad and certainly more personal. She asked me about people I didn't get along with, how I stay organized, working in groups, and other things unrelated directly to teaching. I think I answered them fine but I didn't have a real warm feeling when it was over.I didn't realize until after I got off the phone how sweaty I was. Even though it wasn't the best of initial interviews, I was still about 70% certain I would have advanced to the final round but I found out on Wednesday afternoon via email that I had reached the end of the road for my quest with TFA.

I still think TFA is a really great program that sets out to address a pretty large injustice in our country and I believe that along with most corps members really making an impact in the classroom, the big name of the program also raises awareness about the issue. Education inequity is not really something that can be easily solved or has a single solution. I still think I would have made a decent addition to the squad but I also believe that everything happens for a reason and denial into the program has gotten me really excited for the Peace Corps!

On Monday, I went to Campus Police and got my fingerprints done. PC sent me some charts and other paperwork needed before I can actually interview with them so I got that sent out with the fingerprints and transcripts Tuesday night to some office in VA so I hope they receive(d) it before the end of the week. I'm also making good progress with my thesis so 'Africa, Africa, Africa' is on my brain. I know that PC process takes a while as with any government agency, bureaucracy is at its finest... Paperwork, interview, more paperwork, extreme medical clearance, background check, probably more paperwork, and since this is an out of country experience, passport and visa nightmares. I'm definitely glad I didn't wait until later to apply. I guess I'll just keep waiting until the next step.