Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Knock Knock! Coup’s There? A MILITARY JUNTA

As you may have heard by now, there was a military coup d'etat in Mali that happened this past Wednesday. My dad asked me to post a quick update on the situation from a PCV standpoint because I’m here and kind of experiencing it. I say “kind of” because it’s been nearly entirely contained to Bamako, and literally nothing has changed for me down in Sikasso. That’s the good and short news for you. I am safe and secure. My friends are, too.

You can find some really excellent information on the coup and the background history here, and here. I am not officially allowed to comment on the coup or give my opinion on the political situation, as I am a representative of the Peace Corps, and therefore a (long) extension of the American government and its people. So, I’ll be brief, and attempt to refrain from offering any commentary. (Hah.) The BBC Africa page is always a good place to look if you are bored at work and need a page to refresh, Al-Jezeera is on top of it, and CNN, as usual, is operating in its usual space-cadet ways, probably still reporting on Whitney Houston’s death or that cat that miraculously lived after falling 19 stories.

Basically, a couple of junior officers (mostly bloodlessly) overthrew the government, forced the president into hiding, threw out the constitution, shut down the airport, closed the borders, and declared that they weren’t backing down until there was a democratically elected president AND the issue with the Tuaregs up north was taken care of. First of all, the coup (ironically named the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State – yes, seriously, you can’t make this shit up) has logic that’s about as tight as a woven basket. Virtually the entire international community renounced the junta, revoked their international aid, and unofficially called them dumbasses for failing to remember that 1) Mali’s been a democracy with a democratically elected president for twenty years and 2) Elections were scheduled for a mere five weeks from the date of the coup. LACK OF VISION, as my father would say. There are tons of rumors about the coup, about Amadou Toumani Toure (or ATT-- the now-deposed president), purported collusion, conspiracy theories, and the Malian military’s involvement with/failure to stop the Tuareg rebels up north, but that’s the issue in a very small nutshell. I highly suggest you check out the above links to get a fuller picture.

Democracy is a tricky seductress, and doesn’t always operate under the same standards every where she claims to be. As you read more about the coup d’etat, you’ll likely hear how many are condemning Mali for letting slip their spotless record of democracy in a region full of unstable states. Things are not always as they seem, and my good friend and fellow PCV, Ashley, makes a compelling argument against the temptation to call it like it is—a shame, a disappointment, a failure. Ashley says that democracy did not, has not, and clearly will not come easy in a nation for which it is not native. I agree.The coup notwithstanding, Mali is one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world for many reasons, and each of those is a contributing factor to a quiet, yet pervasive instability underneath the guise of a functioning democracy.

Over the past week, Peace Corps has done a friggin’ spectacular job getting in touch with every single PCV, calling, emailing us with two, sometimes three updates a day, and making sure we have what we need until we can move forward as an organization. I am happy to report that here in Sikasso, the anticipated toilet paper hoarding was a non-issue, as was the decision to make Team Dinner Bigger Dinner Winner Dinner every night for all 24 of us. All things considered, life here is pretty good.

My colleagues and I remain hopeful that the coup leaders will continue to be non-violent (the worst of their actions included firing their guns in the air and sporadic looting). The airport and borders opened today, and according to all reports, life in Bamako is more or less back to normal. The junta has some pretty high demands, but I suspect that once they realize what’s at stake (after all, something like 40% of Mali’s budget comes from foreign aid) they’ll sort out some kind of compromise. At least, that’s what I hope. But these things tend to be capricious, so we’ll just have to see.

Therefore, we’re still not out of the woods yet, in terms of the possibility of evacuation. The next few days/this week will be telling. I really, truly hope we don’t leave. There is absolutely no threat to PCVs working in villages. We are safe, and untouched by the coup. We have work to be doing. People are depending on us. The damage inflicted by an evacuation would cause excessive and unnecessary stress for so many people—everyone from our loved ones back home, to our office staff in Bamako and Washington, to our host families in village, to the dozens of Malians that Peace Corps employs.

(WARNING: I get a little preachy here, feel free to skip this paragraph) Quite a few people have expressed to me and my friends here that this is potentially a good thing—that we could finally come home, guilt-free. While we may have joked about a “get out of jail free” card in the past, the ugly truth that’s facing us now is that in reality, an evacuation would really just fuck a lot of things up. No one wants that. My friends are in the middle of projects here, we have relationships that we can’t just up and leave. And, on a personal note, simply being here can, at times, be a very stressful experience; it’s a lot like being a waitress on roller skates. Every time we shift to pick up something else for our load, every time we need to readjust or change directions it’s like skating over a pebble and falling on our asses in a puddle of cherry limeade, only to have to get up and pretend that no one saw and your ass doesn’t hurt like hell. Except there are no cherry limeades here. My point is, we’re trying. We want to make this work, and we do, every day that we’re here. It’s not like we’re exiled; we chose this. And contrary to what it may sound like, many (most) PCVs really love what they do and don’t want to be sent home.

To further complicate things, I am in a rather unique situation. Last Wednesday, I moved out of my old village, Kandiadougou. I spent the morning paying visits to my host family, my homologue, and my friend, Mamu. I explained that between the language barrier and the community’s lack of response to the necessary work, I would be better used in another village. Surprisingly, they took it well. No one really fought it, except my friend Mamu, who just told me to move into her house instead. My homologue, once he realized what I was saying simply replied, “Wait. They can’t just come talk to us again?” I clearly made the right decision. I plan on going back and visiting my host family and Mamu in the future.

Somewhat fortuitously for me, the cement at my new house was not dry when I moved out, so I was instructed to stay for a few nights in Sikasso before being moved to my new village. During the course of the first night I was in Sikasso, the coup occurred. I’ve been here ever since. On the one hand, I’m glad I didn’t move to a brand new village, only to be pulled out the next day. The villagers would have been very confused. On the other hand, if PC Mali does have to evacuate, then I’m not sure how I feel about entering another round of emotional and physical limbo. There are two (huge) options to weigh: finish my service elsewhere or repatriate. I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself. My poor dog, also in limbo, is staying at a friend’s host family’s concession about twenty minutes from the Sikasso house (where she is not allowed). Scout must be very confused, bless her heart. There’s nothing I can really do, except visit her during the day. But that just makes me sad, because she cries every time I leave her. Again, I’m trying not to think about evacuation. Scout would have to stay behind.

So, for now, I’m just enjoying the company of my friends, watching movies (so far all of the Harry Potter movies and the Star Wars Trilogy, natch), making family dinners, and planning the Sikasso Olympics, to be held tomorrow. Events include rice sack races, fastest mosquito net set-up, oral rehydration solution chugging, peanut shelling, and Peace Corps trivia. I will be sure to document the upcoming days, and update as necessary. Thanks to everyone who wrote or called asking about me. It always feels good to know you’re in someone’s thoughts. In the words of our regional coordinator, Mama, “Let’s remember to be vigilant, okay?” Which, of course, we have shortened to “CONSTANT VIGILANCE.” Accio democracy!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Well, folks, tomorrow is the big day. I’m going to leave my old village and move into a new village, and therefore begin Good Golly Miss Mali, Version 2.0. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to telling my old village goodbye—after all, they did host me, feed me, and teach me how to be Malian over the past year. But I also know that taking this second opportunity to do what I came here to do will be amazing. It will breathe new life back into my seriously pathetic level of motivation, and I will be happier.

My new village, “D.,” (for safety reasons I can’t publish the actual name of my village) is still in the Sikasso region, which means my address is the same. I’m thankful that I don’t have to totally uproot in order to do this, though to be honest, I’d have gone to any village, anywhere in Mali, that spoke Bambara and wanted to work with me. I don’t know too much about my new home, except to say that they do, blessedly, speak Bambara (actually Julakan, which is just like a redneck dialect spoken in southern Mali and most of Côte D’Ivoire). I can understand them, which is fantastic. I’ve been to visit twice, and so far, it looks great. Once they heard they might get a volunteer if they finished the house, they completed it (roof, floors, latrines, compound walls, windows, doors) in less than three weeks. I’m impressed.

The village is much smaller than my last one, about 500 people. Combined with the neighboring village about a kilometer farther “en brusse” I will have a community of about 800 people. I’m very excited about this. I think the smaller size will help me make a deeper impact and also shorten the assimilation process. They requested an Environment Volunteer to help them with their small-scale gardening and ginger production—to which I add an emphatic “HELL YEA!” I don’t know much about ginger, but I will learn. Prepare for an onslaught of ginger facts, ginger jokes, and ginger recipes in the near future.

Since I go on vacation in a month or so, I am committing myself to spending the next month in D. so that I can integrate as much as possible before leaving for a month. I just used the word “month” way too many times in that last sentence. Month, month, month. It’s a funny-looking word, no? It is also a strange combination of sounds. I guess if you say any word enough it starts to sound funny. In Bambara, the word for “month” and the word for “moon” are the same: “kalo.” I like “kalo.” It rhymes with “malo,” which means uncooked rice, of which I just bought two kilos in market for a gift for my new host family. Mkay I’m done with that tangent.

Anywho, a change of subject. For those of you who sent me letters, I know I’m woefully behind in my replies. I just sent some out with a friend of a friend whom I believe just made it back to the States. Stamps just doubled in price here in Mali, which means, unfortunately, that my letters will be fewer and farther between. They used to be about a dollar, and now they’re well over two. “Just two dollars?” you say! Yea, I know, letters that y’all send are about the same price, but keep in mind I make about $200 a month. My mother literally laughed when she saw my W2. I have some Forever stamps that I brought with me, and I’ll get some more when I see my family. Regardless, I still have to wait until I hear of someone going back to America before I can send some. Sigh. I do suppose I could just put them in the “outgoing” box in the Bamako office and cross my fingers, but then again, I’d have to be in Bamako in the first place, and that’d probably count as an abuse of the diplomatic pouch.

So long for now! Positive vibes gratefully expected. I hope that you’re all enjoying spring time in America, and I look forward to updating in a month! Month, month, month.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Limbo, Spain, and Azawad: States I’m Experiencing (Remotely)

Greetings from the Bamako stage house! I have spent the last few weeks traveling (more on that later) and finally have 1) something worthy of an update and 2) internet, so here I am. For those of you familiar with Azawad, stop panicking, I didn’t go there. I just wanted to include it in my blog but lacked a witty hook for my title. That said:

THE STATE OF LIMBO: I’ve been in Limbo for the past month, since I officially requested a site change!!! For those of you who’ve followed my various challenges and experiences in village, this may not come as a surprise. For those of you new to Good Golly Miss Mali, the nutshell version is that my village was unwilling to raise money for the pump project they so adamantly desired, in addition to not speaking the language in which I was trained (Bambara).  So, a combination of poor planning on Peace Corps’ part (the language issue) and a lack of motivation from my community (no fundraising), I knew that I couldn’t face another year in Kandiadougou. It took me a long, long time to come to grips with the idea that it wasn’t my lack of effort or that it wasn’t something I was missing. It was just a bad fit with a village that didn’t really want to put in the kind of work that having a PCV requires.

It sucks. It really does, since I’ve been in village for nearly a year and I’m connected to the place and a few really great individuals. But I also came here for me—I need to feel fulfilled, I need to do the work that I came here to do.  And at the end of my time here in Peace Corps, I do not want to leave and feel like I didn’t get the same chance as everyone else to do the work a PCV is supposed to do. So, I asked for a site change. My APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director), the guy in charge of all the Environment Volunteers, admitted that he had not come to see my village before I was placed there, AND then, having visited it, said he never should have put me there in the first place (!). It feels justified, but I have been wrestling with the various stages of grief, anger, sadness, and guilt that come with any kind of break up, especially when I only have a year of service left. But I do know that a new village will be just the ticket I need. My only regret is that I vacillated for so long. I do not want to leave the Peace Corps, so I am seeing this as an opportunity. [Please note that this is NOT a commentary on those who elect to Early Terminate—you have to do what’s best for you, regardless of how it looks to anybody else nosy enough to care.] And I know, that even when I’m deep in a day dream about a lazy Sunday morning with my parents, or in a cozy shared apartment with my boyfriend, that I’d regret not taking this second opportunity. I won’t lie, coming home was a very real option for me. But with the unfailing support of that fantastic boyfriend of mine and my family who knows me better than I know myself, I am back on track.

Developments on a new site are indeed happening, but nothing’s concrete yet. BECAUSE ALL THE HOUSES HERE ARE MADE OF MUD! Bahaahaha get it?

Of course, I will write when I relocate. My only requirement? Okay, well, I have two: they have to speak Bambara, and they must love dogs. Or at least just let me bring mine. We can work on the love part later. But Scout is a non-negotiable. Duh.

THE STATE OF SPAIN: Oh happy day--- I’m going there! And Italy, too! Yes, I know, it feels like I just got back from Rome with Matt, but I’m going again! I’ll be gone for an entire month of hot season from late April until late May. I’m meeting my best friend from high school and her aunt in Spain for about two weeks, then I’m hopping over to Florence to spend two weeks with my boyfriend, my whole family plus their respective significant others, my aunt and uncle, and a surprise special guest, Grandpa Oscar, who was just invited this week. I’m pretty damn excited. I’ve never gone this long without seeing my family. It’s going to be wonderful. I am one lucky girl.

THE STATE OF AZAWAD: Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t actually exist. It’s the proposed state of a separatist movement of the Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group that lives in the Sahara. They live in parts of Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Mali and have been advocating for a separate nation (to be based on Sharia law, FYI) for decades. Unfortunately for their opponents (the Malian government, for example), the Tuaregs just came back from Libya after being hired as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries. They’re still after their independence, AND, as it happens, flush with cash and arms, a sort of posthumous boon from their late leader. The point of this is just to say that if you hear about fighting in Mali, it is ALL in northern Mali, and very, very far away from anywhere that Peace Corps operates. In fact, we’re not allowed to go north of a certain line that itself is far away from the fighting. So, fret not. Miss Mali is safe and sound.

I’m sorry that this post is not that exciting, but not all updates can be gold. On that note, I would love to hear about what kinds of things you guys want to read! Anything goes! Besides, two thirds of my job is cultural exchange, so let me know!