"But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace." - John F. Kennedy

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The End of a Chapter

Last time you heard from me, I was learning to cope with Mali’s extreme heat, getting better at Bambara and planning my birthday celebration/reunion for our stage in Bamako. Currently, I am freezing in Michigan, forgetting all of my Bambara and trying to figure out the rest of my life. How did this happen, you ask? Let’s start from the beginning….

In my village, people were getting used to my presence – less kids were crying when they saw me, less people were staring in general, and my host mom was allowing me to help cook more ( I bought and fried potatoes for my host family once a week). Life was good. For March 8th, the International Day of Women, I even made dinner for my host family – spaghetti with tomato sauce – they loved it! Then at the end of March, the coup happened…

March 21st, 4 weeks before Mali’s election, some military members were unsatisfied with how Mali’s situation in the North was being handled – they felt like they didn’t have the adequate weapons/support to fend off the rebels – so they decided to overthrow the current president. I remember that it was Thursday morning; I was sweeping in front of my hut, when one of my friend’s from the village stopped by and told me that the president was overthrown the night before. Immediately, I knew it was no good – and I was visibly shaken by it. My friend, as well as the rest of the village, throughout the day kept reassuring me that everything was going to be okay and this will be over soon. I really wanted to believe it, but deep down, I had a feeling it wouldn’t.

In general, there were no changes in my village. Life went on as normal. Everything seemed to be happening in Bamako, the capital. At first, I was told to stay where I was and await further instructions. Then, a couple of days later, me and the rest of the people in my region – about 6 of us – were told to go to the regional house nearest us with one bag of essentials and await further instructions. This was when it started getting real. It was nice being in the house because I was surrounded by other volunteers in the same situation – we had internet, bonding time, and great group dinners! On the other hand, every day we were there we kept speculating on what will happen next. Depending on what the news was saying, we were either certain we were getting evacuated or hopeful things were turning around for the better. Finally, after a week and a half of being stuck in this limbo, we were told to all report to the training center which was about a half hour from Bamako. That was when most of us realized that there was a strong chance we were getting evacuated.

On the way to the training center, one of my friends said “This is the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me – having to flee the country.” I replied “This is the second craziest thing that’s happened to me – already had to do that once.” The war in Bosnia started in April 1992 and about 20 years later, I find myself fleeing another country due to unrest/conflict – crazy, right??

We got there in the afternoon on Tuesday, April 3rd, and that night around 7pm was when we got the email that it was official – we were getting evacuated. The only things they told us at that time was that we were leaving sometime by the end of the week and we were going to be evacuated to a neighboring country. As the week went on, we spent our time getting last minute souvenirs, playing card games, enjoying the pool at the American club, and calling our friends/family in country and abroad updating them on our situation. Finally, we were told that we were going to be evacuated to Accra, Ghana on a chartered flight for a close of service conference. We ended up leaving that Sunday, April 8th

Leaving Mali was very bittersweet. We had all been there for different amounts of time, but we all had our own connections to Mali and our respective communities. That part was extremely hard. On the other hand, we were getting a trip to Ghana and staying in a hotel on the ocean. It was very sad, but also kind of exciting at the same time. When we got to Ghana Sunday night, we checked into our amazing hotel, got coconuts with straws handed to us and were led to our rooms. Then we had an amazing buffet dinner. Afterwards, we were all exhausted, emotionally and physically, so we went straight to bed in the most comfortable bed we had slept in in a long while.

The next day, and the rest of the week, we spent our days in sessions where they provided us with options for our life after the evacuation. There was the option of direct transferring – going straight to another country from Ghana – to finish out your service, delayed transferring, which was going home for a little while before going to another country, applying to Peace Corps Response, which is a shorter commitment where you would work with an NGO, or re-enrolling in the Peace Corps and starting all over again. The last option was to close out the service and figure life out from there. 

For me, before I knew of the options, I wanted to continue with Peace Corps. In my case, the two places I could have gone were either Cameroon or Senegal. After thinking about it for a couple of days, however, I realized that this wasn’t the best option for me. I wasn’t feeling the same excitement about doing it again as I had felt when I was getting ready for my Mali service. Also, I really wanted to finish my thesis so that I can get that degree!

So, I decided to close out my service with the Peace Corps. It was not an easy decision, and a decision that I really had to think about. I can still re-apply and do it all over again, or apply for a Peace Corps Response
position - so my ties with Peace Corps don't have to be completely severed yet. 

After the conference was over, that Friday, me and two of my friends ended up traveling to Cape Coast, Ghana. Cape Coast is another city on the beach – with many tourist attractions. We explored  the town, ate local food, walked on canopies in the rainforest, and stayed in this beautiful hostel  right near the beach! Cape Coast was wonderful! It was good to get away with two of my friends and explore another city of Ghana. Pictures are on Facebook :)

Although my time in Mali was relatively short, about five months, that doesn’t mean that it impacted me any less. I fell in love with the simplicity of life, the kindness/hospitality of Malian people and the resiliency of Malian people as well. The women in my village had to carry water in buckets from wells in order to water their huge garden – on top of cooking/cleaning every day – but they never complained. Malian people faced hardships (water shortages, dirty water, famine) that most of us have never/will never have to face – but they didn’t complain. They did their best to make it work.  My Malian host family opened their home to me and fed me without expecting anything in return. Life was simple. Life was good. Hopefully one day I can go visit my village and properly thank them.

Not only am I thankful for the experience I had with my village and Mali in general, but I also am really glad I got to meet my fellow volunteers as well. We had amazing times together, quite a roller coaster. Although we all went our separate ways, I know that we have a bond that will stand the test of time. I expect big things from everyone!

So, the question I get most is what now? That is a good question…and I don’t really have an answer. For right now, I am focusing on finishing up this thesis, getting this degree and finding a job. 

I can tell you one thing for sure though – my relationship with Africa is not done yet! That is why this is the end of a chapter, but not the whole book. 


Saturday, February 25, 2012

One Month at Site

I ended up moving to my actual site on January 16 – a little bit late due to the malaria delay. When I got to my site it was as overwhelming as it was the first time – except this time people knew my name. Everyone helped me get my stuff into my house and said our greetings/blessings. Then the Peace Corps car drove away and I felt a moment of panic for a brief second, until I realized that I can speak Bambara, I know my host family, and I know a lot of the people staring at me – everything will be ok :)
For my first couple of days at site, I tried to set up a routine for myself. I would get up around 7:30/8:00 (which people considered late around these parts) and make myself some breakfast. Breakfast usually consists of fruit and oatmeal or bread and nutella. After that I would walk around a little bit and greet people around the village. Then I would go back to my place and read or just chill until lunch. I eat lunch at my host family’s house. They all eat out of one big bowl with their hands, but they serve me in a smaller bowl and give me a spoon. I just can’t seem to get the eating with my hands thing down. It’s a little harder than you would think! From about noon until 3, people don’t really do much. This is because this is the hottest part of the day. So, after lunch I would chill at my host family’s house for a little bit and usually drink tea and chat. Then I would go back to my house and read or sometimes nap. In the afternoon, around 3:30 or so, I would take a walk to the community garden to greet the women and chat with them for a little bit. One day, they were joking with me and asked me to pull water from the well. I thought to myself “how hard can this be?” and decided to do it.  The well was about 75 feet deep! It was pretty hard. If you’re reading this you are probably going to laugh when I say this, but I only pulled water from the well once and my WHOLE body was actually sore for 2 days after. Pretty crazy, eh? Every day after, I would go back and pull water one more time than the day before. It became part of my routine to go and pull water from the well so that they can water their garden. 

There is a Danish NGO in my town called BORNE Fonden. They work with women and children, and are also the only people in town with electricity. Well, not really electricity, more like huge solar panels. At night, they bust out their tv and everyone gathers around to watch the news, or soccer when the African Cup was going on. This has become a routine of mine and my host dad’s – after dinner, we go to watch tv and socialize with the other people. In Mali, there’s this thing called joking cousins – where people can joke with you based on your last name. The most popular joke is to call people bean eaters. The guys that work at the NGO have a different last name than me, and are always calling me a bean eater. So, I told them when Mali played in the African Cup, if they won I would eat beans. Better yet, I would cook them. Well, when Mali won 3rd place, I had to stick to my word. I bought four kilos of beans and cooked them with one of my host moms. Because there’s no electricity here, they usually cook with charcoal or wood. We cooked the beans over a wood fire. I asked my host mom how many minutes until they’re done. She cracked up! She said “minutes? More like hours.”  In America, I could barely wait 10 minutes for things to cook, let alone hours! Finally, after what seemed like forever, the beans were ready! I gave some to the NGO guys, and my host family and I ate some as well. We took pictures, so now there is proof that I am a bean eater!

About a week and a half after I got to my site, Radio Mali came and did interviews with different organizations in the village. The women’s organization asked me to go with them to get interviewed. The radio host interviewed me and I talked about my role in the community – helping the women’s organization and the cereal cooperative. I just hope it all came out the way I intended it to. After the interviews, the community organized a dance for the Radio Mali people. There were drummers and the women danced. Of course, they kept dragging me out to dance – it was a lot of fun though – even though I had no idea what I was doing! 

Then, at the end of January, there was a concert in my little village. This artist and his band called DJ Bamanan came and performed. At first no one was really dancing, but toward the end of the night a lot of people were dancing. We didn’t leave until about 1 AM – and the party was still going on. At one point during the concert, I went to go take my picture with the singer. Later on, when he was singing about the crowd he sang out “the foreigner took a picture of me.” It was the only part of the song I understood, so of course I was excited about this. 

The end of January also marked another momentous occasion. For those of you who know me pretty well, you know I don’t really partake in physical activity. Well, you better brace yourself for what I’m about to tell you: I started running! Hard to believe right? But, I’ve been going pretty regularly for a couple of weeks now. Running is a good way for me to be alone with my music – no speaking Bambara, no kids screaming at me, no people staring. It’s a good way to unwind. 

A couple of days ago, a woman in the village gave birth to a baby girl. The custom for this is for the women to get together and cook a huge meal for the people that come to say blessings to the family and give gifts. Usually people give soap or cloth to wrap the baby in or money. I helped the women cook from about 8am until noon. Then, we got to eat! Men and women separate of course. It was nice to be a part of the festivities and to spend time chatting with the women. 

As far as actual work is concerned, I haven’t done much in that area. For these first three months, I’m supposed to learn more of the language, learn the culture, and assimilate into the Malian lifestyle. My language has definitely gotten better. I can understand a lot more than when I first got here. It also helps that I have a language tutor who speaks English really well. I feel like I’m still learning new things about the Malian culture every day and am assimilating to the lifestyle more and more each day. 

One time when I was helping my host mom prepare salad, I started mixing the salad with both of my hands. My host parents started laughing at me because I was using my left hand. Using the left hand to pick up something clean is a big no-no in Mali. This is because there is no toilet paper in the village. So, when they go to the bathroom…well you get the picture. Anyways, they were laughing pretty hard about it and told some other people in the village, so now when I walk around people ask me to help them prepare salads and then proceed to laugh at me.

It turns out cold season is over, and it’s starting to get hotter and hotter each day. I’m already extremely hot and the worst of the heat hasn’t even started yet! Such a huge contrast from the winter and snow in Michigan! I joke around with people that when it gets really hot I will give candy to the kids if they fan me – but little do they know, I’m not really joking!

Thanks for reading!


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Site Visit, End Of Homestay and Swearing In

I know it’s been about a month since I updated, so I will try to include a lot of details in this one.  From December 12th until the 16th I stayed at my future site for a week to get a sense of the community I will be living in.  It’s a smaller village that is about 25 km away from a bigger village. The bigger village has electricity, water pumps and internet – mine has no electricity and a well – quite the contrast. I will be the first volunteer in my village, so the people haven’t been exposed to a lot of foreigners. 

For the first part of my journey to my village Peace Corps drove me. When I got to the bigger town, Dioila (where my mail will be coming to), they dropped me and my counterpart off and we waited for public transport to take us the rest of the way. Now let me tell you something about public transportation in Mali – it is CRAZY! The bus we took was a little tiny bus that is supposed to fit maybe 12-15 people max. When we got in, there were about 25 people on it, and they still picked us up!! They also climb on top of the roof and put all of the luggage up there, sometimes goats too! They let me sit up front since I was a foreigner. Sitting next to me was a guy that kept asking me to take him to America and marry him. My Bambara was a little more developed by this point, so my response was “I can’t wash clothes or cook, can you do that for me?” This instantly turns them off! In this country, specifically in the village, women are expected to cook, clean, wash clothes, cut up firewood, fetch water, etc. The list is long – and it’s all in a day’s work. But anyways… when I got to my village, people flocked me and my counterpart because they were so excited. It was kind of overwhelming at first, but I think by the end of the week they got used to me.

For the whole week, I didn’t have to go to any class or training sessions. I would spend my days talking to my host family, walking around, talking to the villagers, and reading. I ate all of my meals with my host family because I didn’t have anything at my house to cook with.  In general, I think that my site placement was a good one. I’m not too far from the capitol of Bamako, or internet, but the community is small and rural, so I will still get that ‘Peace Corps experience.’ Site visit itself wasn’t anything too exciting, but at the end of site visit I got to go explore the capitol of Bamako. I had lunch at this Lebanese restaurant and it was GLORIOUS! I had a chicken sandwich and French fries – SO GOOD! It was especially good after site visit because I ate this food called toh for a lot of the week. Toh is really hard to describe. It can be made from corn or millet. When it is made out of corn it kind of tastes like uncooked corn bread. Here is my host mom making toh:

Bamako itself was pretty cool. It is such a huge contrast from the rural village where I’ll be living. In Bamako, there are tall buildings, nice cars, and good food! At the same time though, in between the tall buildings, people still have gardening plots and are growing vegetables. Quite a stark contrast. 

After site visit and my outing in Bamako, I went back to stay with my homestay family. We came back to the training center for Christmas, and the last day of homestay was New Year’s eve. Otherwise, the rest of the time was spent in my homestay village. The last couple of weeks of homestay were pretty hard because I knew that my time was coming to an end. I was at a point where I was getting used to my host family, and it was sad to leave. On the day I left, my host brothers and sisters carried all of my stuff to the meeting point. Picture Below:
I definitely teared up a couple of times, but held it together for the most part. One of my host sisters even started crying! It’s amazing to think about how far we came: When I landed in Mali I knew zero Bambara, knew almost nothing about Malian culture, and my host family were complete strangers to me. Today, I know a lot more Bambara, know about Malian culture, and truly feel like I am a part of my host family. It’s weird to think that it’s only been a little over two months and so much has been accomplished!
After the end of homestay, we went back to the training site to finish up training. At the end of training, we had a swearing in ceremony – which was held at the ambassador’s house. We all dressed up in our finest Malian outfits. The fabric that my dress was made out of felt like paper, and it sounded like a paper bag was rustling every time I walked!

After our ceremony at the ambassador’s house, we went to the American club to relax by the pool for a little while. We also had a buffet lunch – burgers, fries and potato salad. After the American club we went to our hotel rooms and got ready for dinner. The group that I was with decided to go to a Chinese restaurant. I was so excited to practice my Chinese! When I got there, however, I realized that I forgot most of my Chinese and kept speaking Bambara instead. I couldn’t even remember how to say the word rice! After I started thinking about it though, more and more Chinese started coming back to me, so I think the next time I go I should be able to communicate. 

The next day we came back to the training center and started leaving for our individual sites. Since my region is Bamako, I stayed at the training center and got to go to Bamako to shop for my house. I bought a bed, a dresser and a table – all made out of bamboo. I was supposed to go to my site tomorrow, but today I found out I have malaria! Pretty crazy, right? Considering I take my prophylaxis every week! So, instead of leaving for my site tomorrow, I will be hanging out in Bamako and taking medicine in order to treat it and will hopefully be able to go to my site on Monday or Tuesday. I don’t think my case is extremely serious – I only have minor aches and a relatively low fever – so I’m hopeful that it will go away soon! 

So, until Monday or Tuesday, I will be hanging out in Bamako - air conditioning, good food, internet - not a bad deal right? I will keep you guys posted on the status of this malaria and my new site. Thanks for reading!

Until next time,