Military Coup, Zombies, America, Falling Mangoes: Part Four

Part Four: Falling Mangoes

Finally, I would like to leave you with a few of the lessons I learned while living in Mali. Many of these are ideals with which most of us would readily agree, but we could all take a cue from Malians in actually acting on them. I myself am trying to remind myself constantly to take these to heart. Without further ado:

1. Respect your elders
There are lots of different kinds of chairs in Mali, and some are quite clearly more comfortable than others. To the best of my knowledge, here are some of the most widely available options, listed in order of perceived “sitability”: butt-floss chair (doesn’t sound comfy, and it really isn’t that comfy, but it is deemed the most prestigious of common chairs); bamboo bench (no back, must be shared, but offers the option of lying down and nodding off if you get tired of the conversation); simple mahogany bench; parked motorcycle; parked bicycle; round wooden stool; bucket; a digging hoe; tiny child’s stool. If ever you are in a situation where a group of people is seated, all seats taken, and someone elder to the group arrives, you are obliged to give the elder the nicest chair. A quick game of musical chairs ensues. This is a long description of one of the ways in which Malians show extra respect for their elders. They go out of their way to make sure that their elders are comfortable and included. It is not just because of a sense of obligation, Malians truly revere the wisdom of those who are their senior; their advice is sought out for all major decisions. I believe that we could learn from this. A wise man once said, “The greatest wisdom is not always found on the Internet”.

2. Ask about family
In Mali, the first thing you do when you run into someone, familiar or stranger, is ask about their family. How are your children? How is your mother? How is your great-uncle? Sure, it is something of a scripted nicety, but it is still important. Rather than the cold, brisk, “How are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” this gives the conversers a real chance to connect, and it forces each one to worry about more that his or her own, individual well-being. Family is important to people, why not ask more often about how each other’s family is doing? I think you will be surprised by how much this means to the people you talk to.

3. Joke with people
I don’t think Americans could try the types of jokes Malians tell and get away with it (see “You Eat Beans”), but I do wish we could joke around more. Maybe what we really need is to take ourselves a little less seriously. Tensions couldn’t be higher leading up to this next presidential election, and everyone seems to be at their wit’s end with everyone else. I think most people would agree that the Democrats and Republicans could really use some common ground, and couldn’t that common ground be some inside joke that they shared? If you can joke around about one thing with someone, I suspect that you are way more likely to even want to work together on anything else.

4. Be the best host
I am still trying to figure out exactly what this means, but I can tell you one good example of being a good host in the context of Mali. It is called “ka sira d’a ma” or “to give him the road”. All you do, when it comes time for your guest to leave, is begin their return journey with them. You could walk with your guest to their car, or a block or two in the direction they are walking. Maybe we already do this sometimes, but it is a nice gesture and one I try to remember.

5. Invite others to your table
Another principle of Malian hospitality is inviting others to your table. As most meals are eaten outdoors, you will rarely sit down (squat down) to a meal without seeing one of your neighbors pass by. If you do, you have to ask that person to join you for the meal. It is incredibly rude not to do so – I was scolded more than a few times for forgetting to call someone over to join me. Even if the food that you have is barely enough for your own family, there are always others less fortunate than you. Most of the time the passer-by will refuse your offer, but you never know when someone is in need. Now that I am back in the United States, eating in privacy, I don’t have to worry about the passerby. I do, however, try to be thankful for everything that I have, and I think about other ways in which I can make a contribution to those less fortunate than I am.

6. Wait for the mangoes to fall
The last morning, waiting for that white Peace Corps SUV to take me away, I sat for a long time at the bus stop by the tall old mango tree. The first mangoes were just starting to ripen, and the tree was heavy with them. There was an old hunter and a young girl, a pair of Fulani cow herdsmen were there idly chatting, and Surun was there making food for the Fulani men passing through town. They all had one eye on the tree, and every once in a while a mango would fall from the tree and there would be a race to see who could get to it first. Someone could have gotten a tall stick to knock down the ripe mangoes, I suppose, but by waiting they could be sure that only the ripest mangoes would fall. When the Peace Corps vehicle finally did come and take me away, I watched the tree in the rearview mirror disappear into a cloud of red dust. The image of the people under the tree stuck with me. I think this final lesson is to be patient and be present – but when the time comes, and the perfect mango has fallen, don’t hesitate – go get it.

~~~

I would like to thank everyone who has given me courage and support from the beginning to the end of this journey: my parents and sister of course, and friends and family who kept in touch with me throughout, even when I wasn’t the most “level-headed” version of myself.

Special thanks goes out to all my blog readers, who gave me the encouragement I needed to continue to write about my experience – I learn, process and grow so much just from writing, and I am so grateful to have had people to share the journey with;

I am also grateful for Mali Peace Corps staff, whom I couldn’t say nice enough things about. We must have had the best staff in the world. There was never a moment when I felt uncared for or unsafe, and I felt I had the individual support I needed. That support continued even just after the coup when I was applying for grad school and had about three days to get a letter of recommendation, whoops!

I would also like to give a shout-out to all the other Peace Corps Volunteers, especially “Kita Kaw”, who taught me so much about compassion, passion, patience and ambition. Aw ni ce, aw ka n’yenafi be n’na kujugu.

I was also truly grateful to everyone who generously donated money to help fund the primary school renovation project for my village. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received for the project, and I was devastated when I realized that the project could not be completed due to the coup. I honestly believe, however, that people in my village were heartened simply knowing that so many people cared about the education and the future of their children.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone in Mali who welcomed me like a favorite old daughter, sister, friend or aunt. No matter how badly I butchered my Bambara, no matter how sweaty, cranky or frustrated I was, no matter how many cultural norms I failed to adhere to and probably just unknowingly stumbled all over, you were always there for me and you never gave up. I will always hold you all in my heart, and I promise that I will come back to visit someday soon.

Aw ni ce, aw ni baraji
Ala ka here d’aw ma
Ala ka torro dogoya
Ala k’awn deme

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Military Coup, Zombies, America, Falling Mangoes: Part Three

Part Three: America

People walk dogs in America. Have you ever noticed that? It often happens multiple times a day. They walk their dogs, and they pick up the dog’s poop!

Before being sent back to America we were counseled about coping with reverse culture shock. I was prepared to spend at least a month half-paralyzed by culture shock and separation anxiety, but I suppose I was too worn-out to take any more rides on that particular emotional rollercoaster (though I was very taken aback by the whole people-walking-dogs thing). The greater challenge turned out to be a bit different, a challenge that I suppose is particular in the Peace Corps to Volunteers who are evacuated or forced to end their service abruptly for other reasons. Let me tell you, there is nothing worse to a person of great independence, ambition and passion – qualities that define Peace Corps Volunteers – than removing their sense of independence, direction and purpose. That was what the evacuation threatened to do.

These qualities, independence, ambition and passion: these are all things that I grew into in Mali. It took a while, but well before the time of the coup I knew who I was and I knew what I was doing, and I was confidant in these beliefs. These qualities grew from my own time in village, but they also were gained because of the influence and encouragement of other Peace Corp Volunteers. Moving on from Peace Corps, I didn’t want to lose all of this, so I immediately set to work figuring out my next step.

So. I’m sure you are wondering what my “next step” is. Well, here it is: I am going to business school! (Talk about culture shock!) I will begin the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s MBA program just a few days from now, actually. I can’t say that I know exactly what I’m getting myself into, but I am absolutely thrilled about this Next Big Adventure. I plan to work in development of socially/environmentally responsible business … but first I need to hone my accounting skills. (Assets = Liabilities + Stockholder’s what?)

Beyond preparing for school, I have had an amazing summer. I am lucky enough to be from the Twin Cities, one of the greatest places in the world to spend the summer in the city, surrounded by an amazing group of old friends. Everyone has been fairly tolerant of my “When I lived in Mali…” stories, and I have been able to speak about my experience in formal presentations on a couple different occasions. I gave a presentation to French students at my old high school during their last week of class before their summer vacation, and they all listened! I would say that that was quite an achievement. I was also apparently the “buzz” of Iris Park Commons, the home where my 96-year-old grandmother lives, after a presentation I did there.

One of the highlights of my summer came just a week ago: Mali natives Amadou and Mariam had a sold-out rock concert in Minneapolis, and I got to chat with them after the show. If you don’t know Amadou and Mariam, they are two incredible artists with an incredible story. Being able to joke with them in their native language, Bambara, was such a privilege, truly something I will never forget.

No matter which direction life takes me, I will always know that having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali had an important role in shaping how I got there and who I am. I will forever be grateful to have been given the opportunity to serve.

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Military Coup, Zombies, America, Falling Mangoes: Part Two

Part Two: Zombies

Zombies / zombies / what’s in your head?
“Zombie”, The Cranberries 1994

There were three other Peace Corps Volunteers in that car with me, and all three were as devastated and angry as I was. We arrived at the regional capital and found ourselves crammed into a small house of 20 other devastated, angry volunteers. We were all stuck in this small house for almost two weeks, much of it without even being allowed to leave the compound, and none of it knowing whether we would be able to return to our villages to finish our service; much of the two weeks the power was out, and it was always hot.

It is a great testament to the spirit of Peace Corps Volunteers that these two weeks didn’t divide us. Truly, Peace Corps Volunteers are the most good-humored, compassionate, passionate, and genuine people that I know. During those two weeks we grew closer, and we grew stronger. I don’t mean to say we were level-headed and even-keeled throughout this time. I mean to say that through all of the waiting, the uncertainty, the frustration and the fear, we managed to keep it together.

Here is an excerpt of my journal at the time, recounting the latest news bulletins and the house activities, which gives a sense of the suspended reality we were living in:

“…Build a fort – ministers on hunger strike – argue about doing dishes – military in north pulls out of Timbuktu – make waterballoon launcher – United States pulling all but humanitarian aid… US?”

There was plenty of speculation about what the outcome of the coup would be, for us and for Mali. We listened to every BBC news story, read every internet article we could find (when the electricity was working), re-read every US Embassy and Peace Corps communication, and we collectively over-analyzed all of it. A couple days in, however, we stopped doing this quite so obsessively because we got consumed by a new hobby: zombie movie film production.

I’m not sure whose idea it was originally to make the zombie movie. I’m sure the idea was somewhat inspired by the hours many of us had spent watching HBO’s Walking Dead on one of those first days; I’m also sure that at first no one actually expected anything to come of the idea. Perhaps, though, the idea of being zombies struck a nerve; our hearts and our minds were overburdened, and there was no telling when it would be over. Since there was nothing to be done but wait and worry, the logical thing was to turn off the brain and the emotions except for what was needed to strive for one sole purpose: the making of the zombie movie. And I can say with some confidence that it is the Greatest Zombie Movie Ever Made in Mali.

There’s nothing like a cloud of heat-rash-powder zombie makeup, a few too many zombified Lonely Island spoofs, a WWE-worthy zombie wrestling match, and a choreographed zombie dance number to ease the pain of a military coup.

Then, on April 3, 2012, we got the final word: All Mali PCVs were being evacuated.

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Military Coup, Zombies, America, Falling Mangoes: A very belated final post

Part One: The Coup

When I signed on to the Peace Corps, I signed up for an adventure. And I got one.

On March 22nd members of the military overthrew the Malian government. No one saw it coming. Three weeks later I was on a plane to Minneapolis, setting foot on American soil for the first time in 21 months. I thought that after a little time back in America the red dust would settle enough for me to make sense of what had happened so I could tie up all the loose ends from my life in Mali in a reasonably nice, neat bow. I realize now that this is just not going to happen. So please bear with me through this final blog post.

For those of you whose first response was, “Wait, there was a coup? In Mali?!” Yes, there sure was. About one month before a presidential election was scheduled to take place members of the Malian military who were dissatisfied with the way President Adama Toumani Toure (ATT) was handling the Touareg rebellion in the North took it upon themselves to take a stand. Though not everyone agrees that they actually intended to do so, the immediate result of the uprising was a government takeover. The coup itself was not marred by violence, but it triggered a series of events that have drastically altered life in Mali. This blog post is not about the coup itself, however, so much as it is about my experience leaving Mali. To read about the coup and events that followed a good place to start is the Wikipedia article about the coup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Malian_coup_d’état); to read about Malian culture and current events I highly recommend reading the blog Bridges from Bamako, which is written by Bruce Whitehouse, an American anthropologist who up until very recently was living in Bamako (http://bamakobruce.wordpress.com/).

I first heard about the coup while listening to the BBC on my shortwave. Though many in my village would have been listening to the radio throughout the day, I was probably the first to hear the news because one of junta’s first moves was to take over the national broadcasting station. It was a story that sounded all too familiar, almost too ordinary or cliché to stand out, except that it was about Mali. My Mali. When the news program ended I turned my little shortwave off, took a deep breath, and listened.

My host mothers were pounding sorghum. My heart was pounding, too, but more strongly I could feel my host mothers pounding sorghum. There were children screaming and laughing over at my neighbor’s place, and there was a cricket somewhere in my kitchen chirping, but first and foremost there were women pounding sorghum. The heartbeat of the bush.

I ran around village to try to see if I could learn anything from my host father, my counterpart, or my friend Dr. Monday. No one knew anything yet, and they didn’t seem concerned, either. Don’t worry, Nagnouma. You are safe here, Nagnouma. If there really was a coup, they will just kill the president and everything will resume as normal. Please don’t worry, Nagnouma. Outwardly at least, no one in my village seemed particularly concerned about the coup.

My own response was largely confusion and anger. Mali had been a so-called poster child of democracy in West Africa – couldn’t the mutineers have waited until the election had passed and a new president had a chance to address issues in the north? And the situation was already so dire because of the last year’s drought – couldn’t the coup leaders have waited until after the next harvest before choosing to further burden the Malian people? Of course I had my own, arguably selfish, reasons to be angry. I had put a great amount of work into a number of big projects, including a girls’ camp, a tree-planting movie for Mali national television, and of course the primary school we were so close to building. I honestly believed in the potential of these projects to positively affect the lives of those around me. None of them would be completed, but I didn’t know it yet.

Before I knew that my time in Mali was over, I was blessed with one perfect day. I had spent much of the afternoon and evening of the coup at the one spot in village where my cell phone could almost dependably receive network coverage so I could stay current with information from Peace Corps and the Embassy. We were told very clearly to stay put, stay tuned, and that further instructions would come based on the way things unfolded in Bamako. The next morning I brought the dead battery of my phone to my counterpart to charge on his motorcycle battery, but when I returned a few hours later he had left village on some errand and my phone battery was locked in his house. But, as I said, not having access to my phone and therefore not knowing that we had been directed to consolidate in our regional capitals on the next day, this not knowing was the greatest blessing. I was able to just live through the day, spending as much time as possible with my favorite people, and cherishing every second of it.

There was Dr. Monday’s snotty-nosed, cranky son, Npie, for example. Just like most mornings, he was in such a good mood when I arrived at Dr. Monday’s compound. We sat outside by the pile of laundry she had just washed (“There are always more clothes to wash,” she always said) and she jokingly wrapped her own head scarf around Npie’s head. “Look, Npie’s a girl!” She said. “What a pretty girl.” Not long after, just like clockwork, as the morning sun rose high in the sky, Npie decided to roll on the ground screaming and crying and dirtying his clothes. Dr. Monday took him to her breast and we walked inside. She lay down on one of the simple mahogany benches and I lay down on the bamboo bench, and we both half-napped through the late morning heat.

The rest of the day was equally ordinary, equally perfect. I talked for a long time with Issa about Malian history – who was whose slave, who did what trade, and how these things are still significant today. I gave him the Mali travel guide that I had been given when I first moved to Mali; we looked at the pictures, and he joked about errors he already saw in the book.

Then I spent a few hours with my favorite neighbor girls recording music videos, watching the ones we made, then making new ones. We started by recording a song about malaria that we had written together for a regional Peace Corps contest, and then I let them take over. They sang their favorite pop Malian songs and danced around my yard, completely un-self-conscious. I don’t think it would ever have gotten old, but by late afternoon their mothers decided that they had better get back to chores.

After dinner I went over to my neighbor’s house, just like I always did. It was my favorite thing about Mali. I loved to listen to Mori’s stories of when he was a child, to weigh in with my opinion when Kenja extolled the latest village gossip, to help Ma with her homework, to learn new songs from Konte, to be entertained by Moimouna’s antics (until she’d gone too far, and then I would try with the rest of the family to bring her back to stability), and to sing to Dante as she lay in my lap, falling asleep. But that night I just went over there, to my neighbor’s house, to be there. Because by dinner my phone was charged and I had gotten the call; I was to leave early the next morning, and though it would be another two weeks before I would know, for certain, that it was over, I did not have a lot of hope. I lay down on one of the bamboo benches, Ma and Dante and Kenja all sitting there with me, all of them telling me not to be afraid.

Before I knew it I was in one of the white Peace Corps SUVs, speeding away from the bus station under the mango tree, everything behind becoming a cloud of red dust.

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How to get to the gold mines, six plus hours to go

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hooligans in my kitchen

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GOLD

The Diawara family has been partying for the last week, ever since some of the Diawara boys came back from the gold mines. The night the boys came back they rolled into village on their brand new motos, the frames and side-view mirrors still in foam protective sleeves. They did victory laps through village, honking their horns as kids chased after them. It was when one of them passed by the Sangare house for the fifth time that Kenja told me the money had come from the gold mines. “You can’t eat a motorcycle!” I shouted as another of the show-offs drove by. Kenja laughed. “No you can’t,” she said, “but you can eat sorghum. And the boys also presented the elder men of their family with money to buy sorghum – one million CFA”

One million. Mee-lee-yon. I think Malians really like to say this word. One mee-lee-yon CFA is roughly equivalent to $2,000, no small potatoes. And because of the drought last year, families in my village could use all the additional food that they can get.

The rest of my village looks on at the Diawaras with envy, their own food stores are frighteningly near empty. The village itself is also relatively empty, as most of the younger men left for the gold mines sometime after harvest. When they leave, they can be gone for months, even years, trying to get rich quick from the gold mines, ashamed to return to village unless they were able to make some money.

No one in my host family is at the mines. “All our children are in school,” my host father tells me, and adds, “so we are hungry.”

I half-heartedly mumble something about collapsing mines, prostitutes with HIV, and how quickly the Diawaras will burn through their money if they keep spending at this rate – they will probably be back to broke well before the next season’s harvest. I didn’t say these things, though, because saying them wouldn’t change the fact that his family is hungry. He has sent most of his children to school, but as none has graduated yet (the oldest is in a university program to work in government finance) he has yet to see that gamble pay off.

It is a gamble. Like many developing countries, Mali has a surplus of unemployed educated youth. Frankly, I would like to blame the French. Though their role as colonizer ended over fifty years ago, the French education system is still the basis for the education system in Mali today. In practice, this means that particular emphasis is given to memorization and perfection.

Tailored to Mali, textbooks are full of things like the life-cycle of the organism causing Schistosomiasis, commerce during the reign of Soundiata Keita, or methods of peanut-farming. I am not saying that there is no value to sixth-graders memorizing passages on these subjects. I am saying that when students come out of school expecting to be given jobs only to find that there isn’t a job market to support them, it is unfortunate that the former students have not been given skills to create work for themselves.

It is ironic because Malians in my village are some of the most resourceful people I have ever met; I suppose that resourcefulness is an imperative to survival in extreme poverty. What the students need is an education system that acknowledges the need for such skills and one that fosters creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship.

On another note, international media has been reporting all kinds of continental doom and gloom – for Europe. And the press seems to enjoy taking a step back from illustrating the latest Eurozone crisis, pointedly, to give a nod to Africa. Because despite the Eurozone taking blow after blow, shit hasn’t hit the proverbial fan in Africa as a fallout from dependence on Western countries. In fact, economically speaking, much of Africa seems to be doing rather better recently. Sure, they can’t seem to elect and seat a new president without a hailstorm of protests or worse – but that’s for the most part due to conflict from within.

And you could say that it’s what is inside that counts. Especially when it comes to innovation and development. The West isn’t going to come up with “solutions” for development in Africa, because Africa isn’t the West, it never will be, and it shouldn’t be. In Mali – as it is a young country both demographically and in terms of its relatively recent gain of independence – the next few generations have the opportunity to re-shape their country. And I do now believe in the potential for Mali to make itself into something great.

Why? Mostly because of Tene, a young Malian woman who was recently posted in my village to do child and maternal health work. I have to admit that my village can be a very frustrating, heart-breaking place to live and work, largely because almost anyone with any education or ambition leaves village to settle elsewhere as soon as he or she can. But now I’ve had a chance to work with Tene, and she has completely changed my view as to the direction this country is heading.

She gives me hope. Though aside from her midwife training she has only the equivalent of a ninth-grade education, she is bright and ambitious, and she receives an incredible amount of respect from people in my village. She is a walking campaign for having faith in education, empowerment and a better life, more than I as an American could ever be.

So though the Malian education system is far from perfect, I like to mention to my host father whenever I can how much Tene’s education has given her and how much hope I have for his own children who are in school.

All that glitters isn’t gold, and all that’s gold doesn’t glitter. Malians may tell you that gold is their only valuable resource, but the youth here have even greater potential to make the country shine.

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Help us repair the school

Children went to school for the first time in my village in 1998, when the Men’s Association built a large 3-classroom building of their own labor and resources. This building, housing grades 1-3, though still sturdy in structure, is starting to show the effects of having seen so many years in Mali’s extreme climate. More than anything else, the people in my village have wished for this building to be repaired so as to ensure that primary education continues in village. They know that education is the key to giving their children chances at better lives. The local government has repeatedly made promises, and broken them.

But you can help. Here is a link to take you to a page where you can donate — any amount will help.

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=688-368

I have felt an incredible amount of support and love over the last year and a half, from friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. I have never asked for money before, and it’s not something that comes naturally to me. But I have been thinking about this project for a long time, and I strongly believe it is worth every cent. I wish you could all come to my village to know what I mean. Everyone has been so welcoming, kind, understanding, loving. They are hard-working, good-hearted and optimistic, despite the hard and unfair way their lives have been shaped.

So, if it is within your means, it would mean the world — to myself, to the people of my village — if you could spare some money to help repair the school.

Aw ni ce, aw ni baraji, ala k’aw sara.


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Earth Day Pilot 3

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Earth Day Pilot 2

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