"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

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!



  1. Hi Ajka! We think of you everyday. I'm learning about Mali and Bosnia, too, by reading
    books from the library. Keep strong and thanks for sharing. With love from snowy Chicago, Ricki

  2. Hey Ajka!
    My mom and I were talking about how we are so proud of you! =) I hope you are enjoying it, I am almost positive I could not do what you are doing so good for you! Enjoy the heat - I complained about Florida heat I can only imagine what Africa is like!

  3. Ajka! Everything sounds so interesting.. I can't imagine adjusting to a whole new lifestyle - you're incredible! From reading this I think I'll know what to send you next: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and one of those little electric fans! ;) Miss you babe! <3

  4. The stories get better and better! When you get back, will you toss my salad too?