(The Peace Corps in Mali)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to move to a completely different world - with nothing that resembles home - and see if you could live there for a few years? How about not only living - but actually make a difference in your new community?
Every year thousands of young college graduates join the US Peace Corps to try and do just that - they travel to developing countries to try to make social change, learn about themselves and see the world while their at it. Mali, which is considered the 3rd poorest country in the world, is one of the most popular destinations. During our past few weeks here in Mali, we've noticed a lot of Peace Corps volunteers around the cities and towns (we Americans tend to stand out a bit on the crowded West African streets!). Many locals even assume we're Peace Corps volunteers when they see us.
The other day, while I was walking to get to Mopti, I happened to pass the local 'Corps de Paix' (Peace Corps) house - the good ole' red, white, and blue caught my eye. I was on my way to try to meet some local Malian volunteer groups, and I stopped and wondered - what do all these volunteers from America actually do? I decided to drop in to see if I could meet some volunteers to find out.
Lucky for me, my new friends Renee, Tara, and Ashley were around and were full of stories of their past 6 months with the Peace Corps in Mali - and what a 6 months they've been!
The Peace Corps is an incredibly different experience for every volunteer - each country has a different organization and focus, and each volunteer has a unique living and working environment. There are over 120 Peace Corps volunteers from the United States here in Mali right now. Volunteers here fall in to one of five fields: Natural Resources Management, Agriculture, Small Enterprises Development, Health, and Water Sanitation.
Dreaming about traveling or volunteering in Africa is one thing, and actually arriving in the hot, crowded, poor streets of Mali prepared to stay and work for 2 years is quite another. That's why all new Peace Corps volunteers go through the 'De-Mist' after they first arrive here. Each new volunteer is sent to visit an older Peace Corps volunteer in their local village, to 'de-mystify' the new volunteers about what living and working in harsh third world conditions is like.
Life in the small villages of countries as poor as Mali is completely unlike anything one experiences in the United States. What do you think you would find in a village in Mali? If there's no electricity, what do people do after the sun sets? How do you think people cook? If there's no running water, where do people get water to drink? How do they bathe? Do you think they have toilets? If houses are made from mud and earth, what do they do during the rainy season? Do you think you could live without any of the modern conveniences you're used to back home?
"'Oh my god, what am I doing here?!' is all I could think," remembers Renee of her reaction during her De-Mist. "I started bawling 'I miss my dad!'," laughs Ashley remembering. "All I remember is getting off the bus, and being bombarded by hundreds of women trying to sell me something, kids grabbing me and begging for money, guys shouting at me to be my guide, and not being able to speak or understand any of the languages....'I'm not ready for this!' is all I thought," recalls Tara.
Arriving in a foreign country can be a pretty shocking experience at first, but that all changes after some time. At least Renee, Tara, and Ashley can all laugh looking back at their initial reactions to Mali now!
Those volunteers that last after the De-Mist continue on with a 3 month orientation, where they study the local languages, learn about the culture, basic personal health, and basic appropriate technologies like solar drying, composting, building mud stoves and making tree nurseries. After three months, the volunteers get placed in the villages where they will live for the next year and a half. "In theory, you're supposed to spend your first few months feeling out what the village needs. You're not supposed to arrive in the village saying, 'I think you need this....' You've got to meet the people and let them tell you what they need," explains Ashley.
What do you think you would do? Imagine, you've been in this new country learning the language for just 3 months. Up until now, you've had the support of your fellow volunteers (peers from back home), and now you're sent, all by yourself, to live in a remote village - and you're supposed to figure out what the village needs and how you can help them?! No teacher, no boss, no guide telling you what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. No local friend or relative introducing you to all the people in your new home.
"I think I spent my first 3 weeks sitting in my house, crying! I never used to be a crier back home!" remarks Ashley.
"I went around my village trying to meet people," recalls Tara. "The hardest part is to get the children used to you, and not scared of you, staring at you or throwing sticks at the new stranger."
The goals of the Peace Corps seem like very challenging undertakings - moving to a completely new area, adjusting to new living standards, using your own initiative to determine what can be done without being guided by anyone. The volunteers that arrived in the same group as Ashley, Renee, and Tara have all been living in their villages for about 4 months now, and most of these volunteers still do not have any projects planned for their villages. When you think about it, that makes sense, because while traveling from a country as wealthy as the United States to help a country as poor as Mali is definitely a noble goal - figuring out how to actually be effective and helpful is a daunting and difficult task.
Two years is definitely a long time to spend away from family and friends, but is it enough time to learn a new language, culture, and way of life? Is it enough time to become familiar enough with an entire village to really understand their needs? Is it enough time to learn about innovative appropriate technologies - and figure out how to apply them to combat local problems? Enough time to instill these new projects or plans in a way that will be sustainable, so the community can continue to benefit from them even after you leave?
"A lot of people join the Peace Corps 'to find themselves'," notices Ashley. "They want to live in a community, form bonds with a new culture. If they happen to do a project-great! If not, oh well! They're still learning from living with the community."
"The Peace Corps has 3 goals: The first is to inform Malians about U.S. culture. The second is to bring Malian culture back to the United States, and the third is to actually bring in appropriate technologies and projects to improve the way of life," explains Renee. "It may sound strange, but if you just spend your 2 years in the Peace Corps having a cultural exchange, you're still meeting 2 out of 3 goals!"
It was really nice talking to Renee, Ashley, and Tara for the afternoon, hearing their tales of getting familiar with Malian culture and getting used to the loose supervision of the Peace Corps. I think it is hard to say whether the Peace Corps is having a tremendous effect on Mali's development, but one thing I can say for sure - it is having a tremendous effect in the development of three young women from the United States!
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