After 12 months and 28 days, there are days I still stop in the middle of a walk around Bamako, or a bike ride through village, when I say to myself, ‘Holy sh*t. I’m in the Peace Corps. I am living in a mud hut in the middle of West Africa…and I am actually making it!’ I cannot believe the experience is half over and -if I can trust my friends about to COS (close of service)- the second year goes exponentially faster than the first. I can only imagine at this point next year I will be astounded that the experience is ending and that, hopefully, I have been a help in one way or another to the folks in Moribila. I’ve had a lot of chats with my friends about to head back to the States about their experience here and what it means to them to have finished. Most seem to express that the second year is much more meaningful since communication is easier and you know your village and their needs. So I look forward to this and I feel as though my vision for the next 12 months is already pretty laid out, which makes me confident in my ability to finish strongly.
I cannot say that things have become easier, I have just found better ways to cope with the difficulties. I have also realized I am capable in ways I did not know previously, and learned to find help in those areas where I am incapable (i.e. laundering jeans and large towels, or pounding millet for my morning seri :P). I have, however, become really adept in the last year at spending hours on end reading novels and sitting for immense periods of time doing absolutely nothing but stare at the stars and listen to Malian radio! I’ve learned that I prefer life and work in a structured environment, but have also come to appreciate the aspects of non-structure and small things that come to light through living life in this way. I have my routine at site, and when I get to go by it I feel comfortable and in a stride. There are days though, when routine gets thrown out the window, that my emotional stability takes a tumble; when so much else is different than what I know, a change in my schedule can impact me so much more than it would in any other environment. Thank goodness I have an amazing support network of family and friends both in the States and here in Mali that has helped me to stick it out thus far. I finally know I am glad I didn’t go home on the close calls I had feeling homesick, or actually sick, or had family issues arose, or was just bored to the point I wanted to jump out of my skin!
I talk with my friends all the time about the realities in Mali that so starkly contrast what life was like for us in the States. For instance, I got to wash my clothes in a washing machine this past weekend –it only took an hour!!!!!- and I got to drink a ice cold Sam Adams, and I nearly cried! haha. Those things are obviously very surface struggles and things I have barely noticed missing in the last 6 months or so. The forms of attention (often negative or from a patronizing fashion – i.e. ‘you are too old to not be married with at least 2 children’, or ‘well you should marry me then, since you are so old, you really don’t have much choice’ and then, themselves, getting offended when I say ‘No, thanks’) has made it so I cannot say I don’t miss the US nearly everyday. Not to say harassment isn’t real and persistent in the States, but I find I can choose to surround myself with people who are respectful towards me and can choose not to have meals or tea with them without offending the natural order of my community. The longer I am here, the more I understand the freedom that comes from being an American even if we still have a long long journey for equality. I find myself thinking about my life and knowing how incredibly lucky I am.
I was just remarking yesterday to a friend that I almost feel like I am in the home stretch now, even though it is only half-way done. The hardest parts about living here just take some time to get used to and the missing of my friends and family will be less intense this second year because I am coming home in September and then I know its way less time than I had to do previously before I get to see their wonderful faces again! I am also realizing how hard its going to be to leave this place in a year after understanding how close I have gotten to my Malian family in this first year and the second year (inshallah) my language comprehension and ability will only get stronger. My little namesake, Fanta, is getting so big and is so so cute, and I have gotten many phone calls from my village folks wondering how I am doing and when the heck I am coming back to them (since I have been in Bamako the last month doing training for Peace Corps). Realizing how much they have come to care, and in turn how much I find myself caring for them, shows me how much I have come to rely on them for support as well.
I am also, as I mentioned above, at the point where I know what my village needs that I can actually be of some help with. We are working towards starting a pretty big adult literacy program within 8 of the 16 villages in my commune; I have been working with the Women’s Association on Income Generating Activities so they can raise money to build a well within their garden; and because almost every person stated a sincere need for help with water sanitation issues (obviously not my area of great competency), we started a water and sanitation committee with the village chief and are going to discuss how we can improve the health practices around their water supply. Because we, as a community, have met numerous times to narrow down these 3 areas as their greatest needs, I am feeling much more confident and much less stressed about making sure I am doing the right work for the right groups of people. There were just as many, if not more, women than men included in the community assessment, so I am sure their collaborative voice was heard, and I feel like no single project was pushed by government folks within the village either, which seems to often become problematic.
I have a year to go and I wholeheartedly feel that if my friends and family support me even half as much as they did this past year, I can finish my time here and be really proud of what I’ve done. I know its unlikely all three projects will get finished or work perfectly, but I know they are all projects initiated by the community members and are things they have shown they want to be engaged in. I will have to work hard this year to keep them motivated and to fight against the backwards work many NGOs have established in my village and Mali more broadly (i.e. that they should not have to save up for anything their village needs because someone will come in and pay for it for them) and hopefully get some sustainable projects in the works. Wish me luck, and keep your letters of support and care packages filled with goodies - see list on the right if you are unsure what to send ;) – coming my way!!! I so appreciate each and every one of you that has helped me get this far, you know who you are, and I don’t know how I will ever be able to fully express my thanks.
I’ll leave you with a quote that fits my community organizing studies and now, even more so, this experience I am having trying to get work accomplished in West Africa…
“The greatest good we can do for others is not to share our riches with them, but to reveal to them their own.” - Benjamin Disraeli
Thanks for reading and keep your comments coming!