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Monica Dispatch

A Letter Home One Year Later

Dearest Family and Friends,

Greetings from Mali! I'm finally in Bamako with the rest of the team. Kevin and I arrived a few days ago after a long, exhausting bus ride through Ghana and Burkina Faso. The last few days of the voyage have been exceedingly difficult for me both mentally and physically. On those endless buses, I realized that I've spent almost a full year working with the Odyssey. Happy birthday to my middle sister today, to my mom, who celebrates hers in three weeks, and --heads up, everybody-- I turn 26 next month...woo-hoo! It's been almost a year exactly since the Mexico Trek, when Trekker Shawn and I attended a party celebrating Mexican Independence Day (and my birthday) last September 15th.

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Checking out the goods in Bamako
Checking out the goods in Bamako
Getting here was difficult. However, once we arrived, I immediately sensed that Bamako would be a truly special site for our stay. You know I've always wanted to come to West Africa. I tried to memorize the names of all the countries here four years ago... now, it's not just a place on the map: it's a reality! It's been a slow start though, with me being sick and trying to get adjusted to the heat and language and not to mention being on the bus for 12 hours. More than anything I want to rest up and regain my health so I can trek at 110%, rather than dragging and coughing and sniffling.

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Some of the residents of Bamako
Some of the residents of Bamako

The conditions here appear the most underdeveloped we've faced so far. The electricity cuts off an average of twice a day, there's malaria (and lots of mosquitoes in our room- scary!), and tro-tro's into town pass infrequently and take thirty or forty-five minutes, depending on the rocky, muddy city roads that turn even muddier in the constant rain. I'd like to practice speaking French, but most of the people we actually meet speak Bambara (like Dabel's family), Songhai, or something else. I read that there are 32 official languages in Mali--I'd like to be at least trilingual, English-Spanish-French, (Kevin speaks Italian and Hebrew as well as those three), but I can't learn every single dialect in all the countries! Je ne peux pas tout apprendre! However, despite all the hardships, the images that have sifted through my mind in the first few days have been amazing.

Here are some neat phrases I learned from the phrasebook:

"Les voyages forment la jeunesse."
Literally, "travel develops the youth." I take this to mean that travelling helps one grow and gain experience.

"Non, nous ne sommes pas mariés."
"No, we're not married"...That would be Kevin and me when we're together.

"Je cherche des toilettes?"
Just guess...and oh, they're squat toilets here, only a few sit-downs. And you clean with water, not paper.

"Je voudrais de l'eau chaude,
s'il vous plaît."

Jasmine brought us some awesome green tea when she arrived. This is, "I would like, please, some hot water."

"C'est combien? Parce que normalement, le prix est seulement deux mille francs et nous n'avons pas trop d'argent, nous sommes volontaires."
"How much is it? Because normally, the price is only 2000 (CFA's) and we don't have too much money, we're volunteers."

Let me just share with you, s'il vous plaÎt (if it pleases you), some of the things we've seen. The women in the markets wear highly-designed dress outfits, with dots, stripes, batik prints, with long sleeves and skirts that billow around them in colors like black, gold, fuchsia, bright green and brilliant orange. I've also seen vinyl high-heeled pumps or sandals on the women, which seems totally out of place on the rocky ground. They wrap matching scarves around their heads, hiding their intricate braids, and carry large baskets of peanuts, peppers, or kola nuts on their heads. Kola nuts must be an acquired taste: Abeja tricked us into trying them and they're red, bitter, and have the texture of water chestnuts. The men like Ryad and Ahmed, who work at our hotel, often wear Western-style T-shirts or pants, but also wear long pajama-type tops with intricate embroidery down the front, and comfortable bottoms. Sometimes, in the street, an older man passes, wearing a loose-fitting, totally white shirt that stretches all the way to their ankles. My only white shirt is, of course, now brown from the dust.

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The streets of Bamako
The streets of Bamako
The religion, predominantly Islam (9 out of 10 people) figured right away in our experiences. Five times a day, everywhere, the men roll out the prayer mats, face Mecca, and stretch out on the ground to pray, even in the rain. Kavitha and I were in a tremendous rush to send off some email dispatches last Friday and ended up waiting around two hours--we learned not to try to do much on Friday at 12:30 while everyone goes to mosque. Today outside the Grand Mosque, while I was blissfully lost, a little boy came up to me, held my hand and started singing, "Donnez, donnez l'argent, donnez-moi l'argent," asking me for money but smiling the whole time. I stopped for the strong coffee with lots of sugar and condensed milk in a little fly-covered hut where the proprietor was totally friendly, and we communicated in broken French, and his neighbor helped me with directions.

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The muddy streets make for difficult driving conditions
The muddy streets make for difficult driving conditions
The country itself is the largest in West Africa. It's really neat: every day on the way into town we cross Mali's most distinguishing feature, the Niger River (that's from "ghir nigheren," River of Rivers) over the Pont des Martyrs, the Bridge of Martyrs. We can go by river on one of many pirogues (not pirogis), wooden canoes that traverse the plain, up to Mopti, to the northeast. Although there are mosquitoes and rain we might consider this option. We buy huge, sweet, 3-pound mangoes and juicy oranges from the street vendors, and you wouldn't realize that only 2% of the land in Mali cultivates crops-- 80% is desert (which I look forward to seeing...very romantic to have "tea in the Sahara" like the Sting song). We also eat the yummy baguettes, "avec beurre et confiture," with butter and jam, and have petit déjeuners, or breakfasts, with lots of good coffee. I think the food in former French colonies is tastier than in former British colonies, sorry Brits!

Bamako has 800,000 people, but I find it amusing that there are still goats and cows in the streets. Kevin always takes pictures of them, which I find even more hilarious. When we walk or drive around, too, it doesn't seem like a big city, more like a village, especially with the rocks all over the roads and people driving mopeds to get around.

I'm pretty excited to start researching Mali and learning about the ancient empires here, you know I'm a bit of a history enthusiast. There were three main ones: the Ghana empire, not to be mistaken with current-day Ghana. Then, a real "Lion King," not Simba but Sundiata, took over with the Mali Empire, which thrived until the 15th century. The legendary capital of Timbuktu flourished during that time: it's now a ghost city but we plan to visit it later in the week. Then, the Songhai kingdom reigned after Timbuktu fell. Some of the guidebooks say that the people in Mali live the same way they have for centuries.

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Night falls on Bamako
Night falls on Bamako
Life here seems to be hard, though. Kevin and I got totally lost once when we asked for directions on a map and I think it's because of the literacy rate: 40% of the men and much less of the women can read. But everyone's so polite and friendly, in the streets all you hear is "Comment ça va? Ça va bien?" so we didn't mind getting lost that much. Sometimes it makes me wonder, though. Here the life expectancy is less then our parents' ages now: 45 years for the men and 48 years for the women. The calorie intake, I've heard, is also 30% less than what some consider a minimum. I've already lost a few pounds and felt the effects of dehydration (headache, fatigue, and irritability) at one point.

Mali is one of the five poorest countries on the planet, but it seems so rich in history, culture, pride and hospitality. I'm glad we're here after visiting Ghana and Burkina Faso, and I look forward to travelling around the countryside more and meeting with our service groups. Our theme is "Social Change in Theory and Practice," so we'll be talking about programs and projects that work for real, by the people and for the people, not just in theory. I'll keep you posted, but in the meantime you can reach me always at and I really, really appreciate hearing from you, even though I might not return your message so soon.

Best wishes and many fond regards,


Abeja - A World Class Lesson in Hospitality from the People of Mali
Jasmine - Jasmine is Jammin' in Africa
Kavitha - Someone To Watch Over Us
Kevin - After All, Fare is Fair!
Making A Difference - Who Wants to Clean Out the Sewers?

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