A little over a month ago life for the people of Mali got a whole lot more complicated, and I have been caught in the wake. For those of you who do not know, Mali is the midst of a civil war fought between the desert like North and the more temperate South. In mid-March, Mali also went though a forceful change in government and soon afterwards Peace Corps left. I am not going to comment on the civil war or the coup beyond this, good people have died, peaceful people have had their lives forever altered and no one knows what the results of all of this will be. A country that was once at peace is now partially filled with chaos. The oddest part is that I know my little village is still the same. I know that if I teleported back there I would not be able to tell there was a coup, or that a war is being fought. For my last blog post in the foreseeable future I am going to list a few of the things I am going to miss most about Mali and try and say what they mean to me.
The Coulibaly Family- I am not sure what kind of relationship I expected to have with the family I stayed with during my time in Mali. However, it surely was not as intimate and amazing as what I ended up with. I went into the situation looking for something along with line of a work partner and someone to watch out for me. What I ended up with was two people that I think of as an older brother and sister that are great parents to a bunch of the best kids I have ever met. Esayi is someone who I will always look to as a role model. In many ways he is the man I want to be, but in a remarkably different situation. He is strong, kind, family orientated and someone that his community looks up to.
Annie is just a fantastic and loving individual that took me in and made me feel like I had a friend from the first day that I arrived in village. She never tried to pander to me and was there to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. All of this at the same time she participated in a number of community organizations, cooked for a large family, looked after four kids and somehow managed to take the time to be an ideal work partner for me. Without the two of them, I would have been a FAR less effective volunteer and because of them the last two years have been two of the happiest in my entire life. I will never forget them and will do everything in my power to stay as close as possible to the two of them. They are truly remarkable people that have given their hearts to not only myself, but two other volunteers before me, my big sister of sorts Jennifer Davis and the original volunteer. For all that they gave they received no pay and they got no rent money for the house that they lent out for over SIX YEARS.
I think one very unfortunate development of American society is how our culture interacts with children. While I lived in the United States (up though college), my interaction with kids was limited to those within my extended family and those I mentored though a program with Montana State. This might be because of the general lack of friendliness between neighbors, or maybe a rift has been driven between kids and “young adults” because of fears regarding sexual predators. I don’t really know why, but I know that that divide did not exist in Mali and I had around twenty little guys and gals that were like little brothers and sisters. These kids taught me a lot of things and I have no doubt that I will be a better father because of my interaction with them (Annie an Esayi are also great people to look to in this regard as well). In particular, I will especially miss my host family’s kids.
Thomas (14) was my teacher, farming partner and friend. Whenever we were out in the fields he would make sure to point out to me plants or animals and tell me about them. I can’t even count how many times I gathered something delicious while out with Thomas bumming around. If it was not for him I probably would not have eaten termites, hedgehogs, various lizards or all those little birds! Thomas was also my star pupil and the driving force for me teaching English in Village.
Miriam (12) is brilliant, calm and collected. She and I would actually talk about what she was studying in school, not a common subject in Mali. In addition to cleaning and cooking, she dedicated herself to her schoolwork (this is nearly unheard of in a place where most women are not expected to be literate) and helped me learn Bambara. Growing up, I never had a sister and though Miriam I got a glimpse into what that feels like. Her and her younger sister made me realize that one day I want a daughter.
Ema (10) is my sidekick. I do not know why exactly, but we immediately took a shining to each other and for the last two years he has been my quiet companion. Whether walking though town, playing catch, gardening, herding cattle or drawing random pictures he was there giving his two cents, smiling and laughing. I really miss my little buddy.
I have come to the realization that I really did not understand what toddlers were before I came to Mali. They are these little people that can live in two worlds at once. One where the rest of us exist that anyone can see and feel. This world is far more concrete and boring than the one that is only open to toddlers. A place were their imaginations can transform them into whatever shape and size they deem desirable and everything seems to happen naturally in a pleasurable and amusing way. My guide to this secondary little world was my little sister Christine (the Malians think this impossible to say so they call her Tini). When I first got to village she feared and loathed me. Whenever I came around she would cry and run away. Run might not be the best word, because at that time she was still mastering the skill. Eventually, I won her over and now we are tight! Now she is a running, jumping and climbing machine that dances around and screams “Adama is here! Adama is here!” whenever I return to village from San. She has fallen asleep in my arms countless times and I believe I am one of her favorite people around. The feeling is mutual and I love this little girl with everything I have.
For the last two years these people have been my family and no one could have done a better job at that. I have felt at home with them from the very first day when I sat around with Jennifer, surrounded by people who I that time I had yet to know the names of, struggling to describe to them my brother back home. Little did I know that I would become so much a part of the family that on my second to last day in Mali, when Esayi’s younger brother (my neighbor, host uncle and good friend Yacuba) tragically died leaving behind five kids and a wife, he would call Jennifer and me to console with and draw comfort from. Though it was surreally sad to have my last moment with someone how had meant so much to me in a hospital morning, I was just glad that I could be there to help a man I view as a mentor and brother when he needed it. The craziest thing is that I know that is the situation was flipped and my brother was the one that died, it would be Esayi that I would by my side to help me out. I am crushed that I have been forced to leave these people without saying the goodbye that I would liked to have, and even that would have been hard. I do not know when I am going to se them again but it is not soon enough.
San Kaw- Throughout my entire life I have been lucky enough to have just a top notch group of friends, and for whatever reason I seem to be able to make new friends quickly. Right off the bat in Peace Corps, I met four people that would form four solid friendships with people who are still four of my best friends to this day. Anderson, Fletch and Ryan have been my “crew” since the first few days of training and we have only gotten tighter since. I could not imagine my time in PC Mali without these three and I know that we’ll see each other in the future. Grahm was my first friend in Mali and I could not have made a better pick! I am super excited for him to work close to Montana this summer. During my time in Bamako, I was lucky enough to get close to some of the coolest NGO workers around, right now I was talking about the Project Muso crew; Rebecca, Martha, Amber and Ian. You guys were some of my closest friends in country and meant as much to me as any PCV. You all are hardcore and hope you continue to do crazy things that help people out. I became friends with some great people, but in it took a little bit longer to meet my Peace Corps family.
Once we swore in as volunteers ten people from Team America (my training class) went to a place called San. If you look up San in most travel books they will tell you that it is a gloried truck stop (which is true), but it is one truck stop that the ten of us came to love. Not only did we come to love the town, but we came to love each other as a family. We had wise older brothers and sisters in Holly, Brad and Caitlin that showed us how to exist and thrive in the climate we found ourselves in. I was surround with people that I not only liked, but admired personally and professionally from all over the country and a variety of different backgrounds. Virginia, Alyssa, Sarah, Megan and Lindsey were my new sisters and we shared many a fine conversation and much merriment was had. Tom, Henry, Mario, J Clay and James were my brothers. Clad in matching checkerboard soccer jerseys, we wandered the litter covered street drinking Beaufort, eating some great baguettes and settling Catan. Together we, San Kaw, helped each other though some challengers and rejoiced together in some memorable celebrations. We ended up liking each other to a humorous degree (a joke within Peace Corps was the “San Kaw really likes San Kaw”). Fortunately, our family grew.
In my sixth month at site, while I was still a greenhorn, new volunteers showed up and they were pretty awesome additions. Chrissy and Michelle became my two nearest volunteers. They were like a unit from day one and it was great to see. Hannah was a breath of fresh air and made her stamp on the house. In particular, I want to mention Chrissy specifically. She was my neighbor and she was awesome (we’re talking best neighbor ever material)! Her level of integration into her village was inspiring and we clicked almost immediately. If I ever needed to speak English, or eat some just great food, I knew Chrissy was just a short 8k away. The Kennedys (their training group) added their flair to our family, but it was a decidedly feminine one. That is where our Goodfella (another training class name)came in. Flash forward another few months and Lyle showed up. Lyle was pretty up the perfect person to have gotten in San. I hope to spend some time with him in South America at one point, Lyle=the bees knees, nuff said.
Rounding out our pre-evacuation family is The Mad Hatters, and I consider myself a quarter Mad Hatter. I was their trainer and saw these guys within their first few hours in Mali. When I found out that Anthony, Michael, Karen and Cythia were our merry band I could not have been happier. Even though I spent a lot of time with these guys, it was not nearly enough. Expect letters and packages when you head off to your new sites.
San Kaw is a group that I will remember for the rest of my life and our time together is something I will always cherish. I know that everyone in that group will go on to do awesome things and I am just excited to see what those things are. Here’s to many excellent meals, excellent friends and to the best freaking guards in the entire world.
The Brousse- Over the past few years I have become very interested in people’s relationship with their surroundings. I have spent my entire life in cities and I believe that I have a fairly standard relationship with the cities I have lived in. In my mind, a city is its own little world cut off from things around it in mental attachment. The concrete sidewalks, manicured lawns and painted houses let you know that this is man’s world and one tends to forget how much even a world in the digital age relies on nature. You buy flour from the super market, and thus in your mind flour comes from the supermarket. You might know (I hope you do) that a farmer had to grow the grain for that flour in a field that he or she cleared. That grain then had to be milled before it went though further processing and showed up at the grocery store around the corner, but YOU do not experience any of that. Even though the city itself seemed to provide everything for me, it did not seem like I was ever a meaningful part of that community. Yes, I worked, had friends and was happy in my former places of residence, but there is a certain feeling that I did not know existed until I left the States and found myself in a very small village, in a very poor country and very far from the nearest paved road.
For the last two years I have lived in a place where I knew where every road led to and had biked them all. I knew where every family lived and everyone knew me (not every hard when I am the only white guy around). I could go out into the bush to collect fruit and I farmed my own food, the earth and the labor of my friends and me fed the village. For most of the year I spent under two hours a day (including sleep) indoors. When you live like rural Malians do, then you form a different kind of relationship with nature. On a daily basis you interact with nature though your labor, not just though recreation. As a result you gain a level of respect for the land that is different from the one I felt back home. It was almost like the area itself was my work partner. For the last two years, I have really felt that I really knew an area and a community. I do not know if I will ever form that same form of relationship with an other area as I did with my village, but I am going to give it a shot. That may take the same sort of concentrated effort I put into establishing relationships during my first few months in village, but I am committed to giving it a shot.
In conclusion, I got way more from my time in Mali than I could have ever wished for. I came to Mali looking for a job and maybe some sort of adventure. What I ended up with was a new family, a new home and some of the best friends a guy can ask for. Additionally, I had almost two great years that changed me in a meaningful way. I will always be grateful for my time in Mali and I will miss it.