Tag Archives: Peace Corps

And Thus Begins Chapter 3: Mali

29 Nov

So, I have attempted now on 4 separate occasions to start this post, but each time it has failed. This experience is not conducive to my prior writing style, so instead of doing this like I had in Morocco and France, I intend to keep a journal while here, and then edit parts into blog posts for all you wonderful people who still have regular internet access and modern amenities.

1 month in and only at blog post #1. It’s funny how a lack of modern amenities can make a pastime start to seem more like a chore. Step 1: Write in journal. Step 2: Find “reliable” internet. Step 3: Read Journal. Step 4: Write blog post in my increasingly deteriorating English while I continue to lament the fact that I can’t understand the Bambara of anyone in my host community.

As you can see, what started as a cathartic activity in Morocco has shifted into a category closer to work. But, at the same time I have to keep reminding myself that sharing these experiences with those I care about most was the true underlying desire to start this off in the first place.

So, anyway, about this “Mali” place…

Today it finally hit me that I was here. Yes, I know I have been in country for just under a month, and now, today, I finally mentally arrived. I say this because during the last few weeks I felt as though I have been in a dream, floating through my life as I know it, but expecting at any point to wake up and realize that I hadn’t yet begun the journey. I could process and retain information, but my mind had not come to the realization that the environment with which I was interacting was not just a product of itself (Please take that last statement at face value, this is not the place for further philosophical discourse).

Today, however, was unique. I used my broken Bambara to explain to my host father last night that I wished to spend my day off from school working in the fields with him (working: watching him work, making tea and performing simple tasks once every 45 minutes). We departed this morning, and as I made tea under a tree and learned how to irrigate a field using a pump and a well, something came over me, and stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly my brain had reengaged with my body and I realized that “I am actually in Mali, in the Peace Corps, learning how to irrigate a field.” It took a month, but I think I am officially here.

Now to recount the events of my 29 day dream…

The breakdown of the past month goes something like this: 1 week orientation, 3 weeks of homestay/language training. Nothing of any noteworthiness occurred during my first week here, other than the stark realization of everything that I was going to miss most about the life I left behind in the states, and the ensuing struggle to accept this new and drastically different lifestyle.

Highlights:

–  I now have a beard and am debating how far I will attempt to take it.

–  My bathroom is now a roofless brick enclosure with a cement hole in the ground.

–  I officially hate any and all donkeys on sheer principle (due to their 4 am, well, really all day howls that sound as though they are in immense amounts of pain).

Looking back through my journal, I get the feeling that I didn’t arrive here mentally until today due to a processing backlog. When so much changes so rapidly you fail to process quickly enough to keep up, and in the process revert to your college years: more work then you have the time for, so everything gets done later than anticipated.

Now, on to something you really want to hear about: food.

I’ve been relatively pleased with the food here, considering that as a non-tourist I don’t have a whole lot of say over my food choices, and my food options tend to be limited in a small village. Most mornings begin with a piece of bread (I’m relatively sure nothing other than baguettes exist in this country) filled with fried or boiled eggs, and sometimes peanut butter. They use about a quart of oil in everything they fry and every sauce they make, making my use of olive oil at home seem sparing, and also makes the fried eggs just a touch bit gross at times.

Lunch is usually rice or pasta with a peanut or tomato-based sauce and random pieces of gristle, bone and meat I assume were at one point an animal. It’s a decent set up, but starch seems to be an overwhelming dietary staple here. Dinner doesn’t tend to differ much from lunch with only the substitution of potatoes, sweet potatoes (looks just like a regular potato but has a sweeter flavor, and they are awesome) and the occasional yam. Fried plantains and onions add a little color every once and while as well.

Anything that is legitimately cold here tends to be a relatively hot commodity (pun unintended). Refrigeration is hard to come by, so a cold soda is a wonderful thing to stumble across when in larger towns. The options are relatively limited (Coke products and more local brands tend to dominate), but a cold soda is a nice luxury to indulge in from time to time.

Diversity of food here is very much dictated by the seasons and regions, but this place is much more green than I think most people give it credit for, writing it off as a giant chunk of desert with no real diversity in diet. Although the north is more arid, it’s not quite what many people assume: Mangoes and Watermelons are dirt cheap and all over during the correct season and vegetable gardens are quite common. Even more diversity exists in fruits and veggies, but I honestly am not well versed enough to speak on this issue, though I will be sure to address it in later posts in much more detail.

Speaking of misconceptions, let me dispel a couple other ones that were flung my way during the months I was preparing to make my move here:

All Malians are poor, and therefore they are all going to want to steal my nice stuff

Mali is amongst the ten poorest nations in the world. Food security is a major issue even though most of the economy is based in subsistence agriculture. And, on top of all of that, a less than stellar rainy season prior to our arrival has hurt crop yields significantly that are going to need to sustain Mali until next year. So yes, I do witness extreme poverty, and extreme poverty does tend to lead to increased crime rate.

BUT

I have been living in a small village within Mali with my things under lock and key, but at no point in my stay thus far have I legitimately feared that any of my personal belongings were in danger. Many people may be poor here, but communities are communities. If you live in a community of 2,000 people, everyone knows everything about everything, and immoral acts don’t fly. Socioeconomic disparity does not essentially dictate theft, and vigilance in any situation is an effective deterrent.  So no, I can safely say that I don’t feel as though any of my personal belongings will be stolen if I follow the same safety precautions I did in Morocco.

Africa time is real, therefore Africans are lazy which is obviously why they are suffering

Yes, Africa time does exist, it is not a myth.

BUT

I live with a host father who looks like he is easily 70 (though he probably is younger), and every day he leaves for the fields at 8 am, comes back for lunch before leaving for the rest of the evening. And when I mean every day, I mean every day. Monday through Sunday. And after seeing him teach me how to irrigate a field, I can say without a doubt that he does not just drink tea out in those fields, he does back-breaking work that would make me desperately need a chiropractor. As far as I’m concerned there is much more to this story than blatant generalizations, and although this place runs on its own time, there is much more to it than meets the textbook. Although, since I am working in Small Enterprise Development, I’m sure I will spend time discussing this issue in the future.

The all being said…

I get the feeling from the volunteers here I have met that this experience is going to be a difficult and humbling one, and worth every moment. This makes moving out of you comfort zone in a study abroad seem like child’s play.

Until next time…

(K’an b’en)

See you later

Addendum 11/29/11: My first experience with Malian soccer ended in a small flesh wound. Soccer in Mali is a full contact sport, something I will most definitely keep such things in mind in the future. I’m quite fine and healthy, but something to keep in mind during future games.

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20/20 Hindsight Can Still Reveal Worthwhile Revelations

4 Aug

I know this is update is long overdue, but I’ve found that between facebook, this blog, and this Google + thing I already feel as though I’ve hit oversaturation. And, while that may be good for an upstart student political organization, I really don’t think my life needs the same treatment. That being said, I will spend a short time discussing what I promised to in my last post, before moving onto a more pragmatic discussion on a certain revelation I had recently.

I last left you with my acceptance to the Peace Corps. A few days after this update, I received word that I would be leaving for training in Bamako, Mali on October 29th. The following deluge of paperwork, and the idea that I was now in a situation where life insurance “is strongly recommended” has been interesting, but I’ll be honest: the gravity of this impending adventure still hasn’t hit me, so while I speak of it with interest, my excitement remains hidden behind the months of work and tough decisions.

That being said, with the “real life job search” officially called off, I’ve been granted the free time necessary to truly reflect on the path that brought me here. One part in particular has come to a full level of clarity. I speak of course, of the original battle:

Peace Corps vs. Teach for America

Let me give a small background. Upon researching my options for post-graduation this past fall, I settled upon three main paths. The first was the Peace Corps. Upon being contacted by a recruiter, Teach for America made the list in the number slot, with the long shot “why the hell not even though there’s almost no chance I’ll get in” FSOT registration getting number 3. As you may already be able to tell, the real consideration remained between the first two.

I moved through the application process in both, and as anyone who has been through either can attest, they are extremely long and arduous application with many steps and long anticipatory waiting times, which can over time, raise the shadow of doubt. That being said, only upon the final interview completion for Teach for America and the completion of the medical clearance for the Peace Corps did I truly start to think about where I wanted to go with the next two years of my life.

As this debate within my mind started the choices became clear: the Peace Corps was much more in line with my grad school ambitions, my desire to master foreign languages despite my inability to learn them, and an experience that remains relatively unparalleled. Teach for America, on the other hand provided me an experience that I felt would be equally rewarding and deserving of my time, and a much more steady income, something I worried of constantly due to the lack of salary a position with the Peace Corps would offer. Both were reputable organizations based in strong community service values, but one was closer to my interests and one was much more economically viable.

Both of them worried my parents to no end.

With the Peace Corps application dragging out longer than I previously had anticipated with my original nomination, I waited anxiously to hear from Teach for America, knowing that an acceptance with them  would force a decision between one sure bet and a good chance, but no guarantee.

I was rejected from Teach for America.

And, with that began my next chapter. But, let me preface the following by saying the following. Recent conversations with others, as well as my own daily struggles have taught me something: the human mind has an incredible ability to wrap itself around and idea and concept and turn it to reality. I don’t mean that hokey “you can be/do whatever you want to be/do” sugar coated cliché, I mean the ability of a human mind to convince itself that what it wants to believe is true, despite the physical reality beyond the inherently flawed perception that occurs through one’s personal lens.

My point being, some of you will dismiss the rest of my story based upon my rejection from the organization. You will convince yourself that I am merely a bitter rejected applicant, and therefore any criticism I levy against an organization is a childish means of satiating that bitterness. Believe what you must, but I have nothing against Teach for America and its principle and what it is striving to do, only in some of the all too bitter realities surrounding its approach, and how, through my own personal story, it has been reflected.

I coped though my rejection and the narrowing of my professional options, swearing that there was something bigger at work here, that I wasn’t meant for the program and the program wasn’t meant for me. I worked through the momentary defeat, and sight my sights on more new alternatives.

When the Peace Corps came through with an invitation I danced around my house through an odd mixture of laughter and this thing I had never experienced, tears of joy, as I struggled to grasp the enormous impact this news would have on my life… My flight had finally arrived. There was something bigger at work, and my patience had finally granted me the reward I had been seeking.

Then, as I settled into the final stages of the Peace Corps pre-service process, I, though the opportune post, came across an article posted by my friend about a Teach for America critique by an NYU professor. Intrigued, I gave it a read and his observations resonated with me. I first dismissed it as my own bitterness from the botched application, but as I thought more about it, the more it made sense, and I gathered that I was not bitter, but merely regretful that I was not able to process my own emotions effectively on the matter until long after the “post-grad next step search” was well over.

When I was entering the final process of my applications, April had hit, and with no idea what my next step in life was going to be I was beginning to panic. I had thrown my nose against the grindstone with a force I had not thought possible, and reaped the benefits of my hard work, but it still began to feel as though my efforts had been in vain. Further increasing the anxiety was the total student debt numbers looming over my head that gave me heart palpitations every time I dared to try and total them up. I was beyond broke, and most of my job options were looking like a net loss in income with the loan payments, and I was honestly scared.

In retrospect, beyond a shadow of a doubt I can say that had I been accepted to Teach for America, I would be a member of it right now. It was a steady paycheck, community service focused, and I would be making a difference.

But it’s not what I wanted.

Wait… why would I do something that I didn’t want?

Fact is, in this climate, Teach for America is one of the best deals running. A sizeable reliable salary in the nonprofit sector with and Americorps bonus that can translate into a free masters degree while I’m making said salary? How could I pass that up?

But why begrudge Teach for America for making it easy for great students to help close the achievement gap? Fact is, I think it’s incredible that they can offer this access to students to put their idealism to work and truly help out a community in need. To attract the best and the brightest is no small feat and Teach for America has found a way to channel that energy toward a failing education system in a way that is nothing short of commendable.

It’s not what they do, however, that troubles me, it’s how they do it (a sentiment I felt that was raised in the article I had read).

Why would I feel ok with devoting my life to a field for two years that I had relatively minimal interest pursuing as a career? Why would I sign up for a program that provided me with almost none of the skills I was seeking for my graduate level education goals?

Like a said earlier, the deal was too good to pass up, and the program was pitched to me not as a way to combine a career in education with a progressive minded outlook and a passion for helping communities in need, but a stepping stone to a future I already knew would lead me far outside of the realm of education.

And, let’s be honest here, although I would be a strong supporter and advocate of education reform from then on in, tell me honestly, what advocacy will I be involved in to promote domestic education reform when I’m seeking employment in the international development policy sector?

The fact remains in the end that Teach for America made the right choice rejecting me, but I feel as though, even if I had proven myself completely qualified through the application process, the system was flawed. I also don’t feel as though I am alone, I think many young starry-eyed college grads with plans to change the world get lured into this recruiting powerhouse under false-pretenses.

What good are a bunch of starry-eyed top graduates worth to your sector if they step on the stone you provide them and follow it into a career in corporate law or many other fields that provide little use to the failing education system they used to reach their high-powered career? These two-year cycles may help these schools, but if no one stays for more than two years working in this field then you leave a system with non long-term sustainability and hamper its ability to learn, grow, and develop… allowing schools to continue flounder as a endless stream of new recruits replaces those who have long since left the field to continue on in other sectors.

Now, feel free to aim your guns now and fire Peace Corps critiques at me, but keep one thing in mind. I am going to Mali to work on what I’ve been studying before I go to grad school and study it some more before I go back to work on it again. I’m not giving up on my field despite its many flaws, and I would suggest Teach for America place more stock in finding education minded individuals looking to do the same for our failing schools.

Your Flight is Ready

21 Jun

The important words in this article are “Peace Corps,” “Francophone Africa,” and “Small Business Development.” If you need any more information I would implore you to keep reading.

For those of you who don’t know me that well, this will be the first you are hearing of my application to the Peace Corps. For those of you who already know, I will spare boring you with the details.

I applied in October, interviewed in November and got nominated in December. It was at this point that I received my first “false high.” I recently read an article entitled “Applying for the Peace Corps is like flying on standby,” and I feel as though the phrase speaks volumes to the process. These “false highs” are like getting a possible flight, and then waiting to hear word about if you may actually get on. You spend months in waiting, then great news, and then more months of waiting. It’s a process that could try the patience of a saint, and try it did.

As you can probably tell, by June I had become increasingly anxious. Medical, Dental and Legal review after nomination had come and gone, and each new step completed was an excitement that turned into months of waiting for that one fateful phone call that would finally seal the process.

Last week as I was pulling into a parking lot, I heard my cell phone ring. I looked down in it was a 202 area code. I pulled the car into the nearest spot, threw it into park, but false alarm… it was only my congressman’s office…

Continued patience and a list of 20,000 secondary cover letters piled up until today. As I pulled into the post office to drop off some letters, I felt my phone vibrate. Passing it off as just a returned text message from someone, I let it go… but it continued to vibrate. I pulled hastily into a spot to pull my phone out to reveal another 202 number.

The next 20 minutes remains a foggy mess etched with emotional precision into my mind. I picked up the phone, and it was the Peace Corps. I immediately dropped everything I was doing, and sat for 20 minutes with rapt attention on the hood of my car. After a tense 15 minutes discussing my application with him, the moment had come.

“So you’re willing to accept any position I offer you right?” With I slight knot in my throat I said yes, and he responded with a “… Sub-Saharan Africa” just muted out enough that I couldn’t hear the entire sentence. I asked him to repeat, and he confirmed it… I was going to be leaving in October to work on Small Business Development in Francophone Africa. My letter is going in the mail tomorrow morning.

Tears welling up in my eyes I hung up the phone, and place my tumbling hand to rub my nonexistent beard again… this was it. 10 months of patience and trials for that one moment in a post office parking lot.

I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around it, but expect an update when I receive my country assignment in the mail within the next two weeks.

Update: Country Assignment – Mali