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
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
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.