Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Post Evacuation Spin Cycle

Good golly I’m not in Mali, but I’m not home either.

(Sorry, I had to. Mkay, got that out of my system).

“Crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe the past month of my life. At last post, I was leaving Mali for (Spoiler Alert!) GHANA to attend our Transition Conference. It was a helluva week, with sessions, interviews, paperwork, bloodwork, and a lot of emotion. I have to say, PC Washington’s veritable SWAT Team of Transitional Conference staff did a stellar job, all things considered. We (all 180+ of us) had input in how the conference was run, free time, pretty fast internet access, interviewing and resume help, access to free counseling services, and, most excitingly, quite a few options for transferring to other countries of service. They even planned a really beautiful closing ceremony at the end. It gave each stage of volunteers a chance to speak on their experience and thank the people that made it all possible. It also provided good closure. We needed it.

So I suppose that I should tell you (or confirm your suspicions) that I didn’t transfer my service to another country. I have officially closed my Peace Corps service. Sigh. I really wanted to transfer. Or, at least, I thought I did. At the end of the first night of the conference, staff posted a list of all of the potential positions for transfers. According to my sector (Environment) and my specific skill set, I was eligible for programs in Burkina Faso and Senegal. The Burkina Faso position was the best fit- but it was just like my placement in Mali. It would have been in another rural village- which in and of itself would have been wonderful, because I love village life. However there was a strong chance that I would have had to learn another local language. I knew going into this conference that doing that was not an option for me. I was afraid that I’d have two first years, this second one being full of frustration and language gaffs, and not enough time to do good work. Plus, and this may sound counterintuitive, but Burkina is so close to Mali, literally and figuratively. I just knew that had I gone through the pain of a site change, an evacuation, a waiting period (program started in June), and then a transfer to a new post 40 kilometers across the Sikasso border, that it would have made me bitter. And then I’d be a poor volunteer, and that defeats the purpose of me being here. Senegal was a similar set up (no guarantee of working in French, a possible requirement to do the entire two years over again).

view from the old slaving fort over the village
In the end, when I looked at what was offered to me, I knew that I had more and better options if I closed my service and went home. I so desperately wanted the two year Peace Corps experience that I thought I’d have, and I was doing all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to get the job descriptions sound appealing to me. But at the end of the day, I knew I was just trying to make something work that just wasn’t going to. So, I decided to withdraw my name from the pool of transfer applicants, and (begrudgingly) start the journey home.

It wasn’t, and hasn’t, been easy. My mother can attest. I’m pretty sure that I just sobbed over the phone for forty-five minutes on that first night of uncertainty and disappointment at my options (and maybe a few more times in the days following). I didn’t want to admit that my journey would come to such a truncation. I wanted to make it work so badly. I had gone through a crazy, amazing year in Mali, and I was finally ready for a fresh take when the coup happened. And then, to realize that what I needed for my second year wasn’t possible… well, it was sad. And it made me angry. But the more I think about it, the more I know that I have made the right decision.

I am excited to find the opportunity in this sudden change of events. I’m proud of myself for doing what I’ve done, and I’m a better person for having done 14 months of Peace Corps than none at all. And I have options: the PC family/network is huge, there are short term Peace Corps Response positions opening all the time, and my family and friends are great supports. I know I’ll find something, but I’m not in a rush. I’m still grieving over Mali, and I expect to for a long time. The counselors at the conference told us we would feel like we had lost a loved one, or left our first loves. It will always kind of hurt, but the fond memories and learning moments won’t be totally lost, either.

tzatziki and feta 
parethenon with erin
For now, I’m travelling. I had vacations to Spain and Italy planned before the coup (Spain with my best friend from high school, Beth, and her Aunt Mary, Italy to see my family and boyfriend). In the meantime after the conference, I spent some time on the beach in Ghana with my PC friends, and just recently left a friend in Athens after a week chock full of feta cheese and saying UUUPPPAAAAA!! I can’t wait to see my family, though. The traveling sounds lovely and exotic, I know, but I am really looking forward to just hunkering down and being hugged. I don’t feel so strong these days, and I think that being with my family and Matt will help center me.

Ghana, after the conference

Sorry for being so sad, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. As my brother would say, sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. But I still seek the silver lining—I have my health, my safety, and a beautiful life to go home to. But not just yet. For now, I travel and float, travel and float. It’s true, what they say: life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. So here’s to life: may it always be better than you thought it could be. J

Saturday, April 7, 2012


4 April 2012
As I write this I’m sitting in a bus station waiting for Malians to fill up the bus that Peace Corps has arranged to take us out of Sikasso. It’s only 8 am, but already we’re flopping our fans and sighing with exasperation. It’s muggy and hot and we’re exhausted—we’re tired of being frustrated, we’re tired of crying, tired of saying goodbye. And this is only the beginning. We haven’t even met up with our fellow PCVs yet.

Last night we had the talk that we never thought we’d have. After forty years of uninterrupted service to the people of Mali, Peace Corps is evacuating. It’s surreal. We keep saying, “I can’t believe this is actually happening,” as if it were some freak accident or Armageddon or a zombie apocalypse or something. In a way, it is the beginning of the end. In a lot of ways we’re just starting our next adventure. But I can’t really think about that right now. My eyes are puffy, I’m exhausted, I’m stressed. There are so many unknowns yet.

Evacuation messes with a lot of things, to say the least. Our friendships, our projects, our lives, our emotions, to name a few. Dozens of Malians will shortly be without jobs. Good paying jobs—that there are too few of in this country. The next few weeks are going to be rough, to say the least. More goodbyes, confusing paperwork, international flights. I’m not looking forward to it.

I am trying my hardest to see the silver lining in all of this. At least I never made it to my new village. It’s sad for them because they were literally days from having their first PCV. Going then leaving in the space of a day would have been rough for both parties (we thought we could de-consolidate for three days, but the situation worsened too rapidly to allow us more than one). And in that sense, at least I was already in a sort of transitional mindset. I was able to pack for evacuation, something many PCVs were unable to do, due to the circumstances. At least I’ve been here a year. It’s a good chunk of time, and I feel like no matter what, I got a good chance to experience life in Mali, life as a PCV. I’ll see my family soon, too. Vacation is planned for three weeks from now. All things considered, I’m doing just fine. I just don’t feel fine.

The worst part about all of this is that I have to leave Scout behind (Peace Corps does not allow PCVs to evacuate pets.). Honestly, leaving her has been the largest source of my tears over the past week. I know that saying that marks me, perhaps, as someone who missed the point of Peace Corps. It’s circumstantial that I’ve already said my goodbyes to my few friends from my old village, so I don’t really have anyone else to say goodbye to. But Scout has been a huge part of my life and happiness for the past seven and a half months. I left her with my old site mate’s homologue, an amazing man named Abdoullaye whom I know will take care of her.  I really hope I get to see her again someday, if anything just to rub her belly one more time and let her know that I didn’t forget about her.

Okay, so, that was sappier than I might want to admit, but I don’t care. I’ve been crying for days and there are harder days ahead. A good friend just emailed me and reassured me that my reaction wasn't crazy; the people who don't cry over the loss of a pet are the weird ones. I tend to agree :) At least I’m safe, though, and at least I can leave feeling kind of good about my time here. I have no idea what my next step is. I know that as soon as possible we’ll be taken to another country for a close/continuation of service conference, and then we’ll go our separate ways. Ideally, I’d love to finish my remaining year in another country, but it’s too soon to tell if that’s even a possibility.

Thank you to everyone who has sent prayers and positive thoughts my way. I’ll be in touch. Xo, Miss Mali

April 7, 2012
Update: Today is my last full day in Mali. Tomorrow we all leave. It’s odd, really. Our country director, Mike, addressed us yesterday morning. “I’ve always wanted an all-volunteer conference, but this isn’t how I pictured it.” Us, either. It’s been really emotional for everyone, but especially awful for the staff. They’re exhausted from figuring all this out, from talking to us and Washington and their families and co-workers. Through all of this, though, they’ve been absolutely amazing. Patient, kind, empathetic, flexible, and above all, motivated to make sure they are doing everything they can to get us taken care of and home safely. Director Williams, if you or your staff ever read this blog, please know that PCVs in Mali want you to know that Mike Simsik, Jolie Dennis, Jeremy Rothgerber, and Bocar Bocum are invaluable members of our Peace Corps staff. Each of them has personally made my service and my time in Mali a wonderful experience, and I am better for having worked with them. You are lucky.

In terms of Chelsea Logistics: We know where we’re going now, and even though the New York Times reported on it (a Fulbright scholar in Bamako and someone’s mom in the US leaked the story—not something we’re pleased about), I’m not going to post it here. It doesn’t matter, really, so don’t bother speculating. I will definitely spend a few days there decompressing and probably (definitely) crying with my friends, until I move on to the next place. I still don’t know if I can transfer my remaining service to another country, but even if I can, I’ll have to come home to the US for awhile before I ship out again. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Ameriki, and honestly, even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. I can’t really process these shenanigans, let alone the idea that I’ll be home way before I wanted to be. If I get my way, I’ll hole up in my parents house and be that 23 year old that still lives at home and wears sweatpants until she starts her day at 2pm. And I’m okay with that. Eventually, sooner rather than later, if I don’t get a new assignment, I’d like to get out to Southern California. Rumor has it that there a fella out there who’d be happy to see me.

Again, thanks for all of your concern and positive thinking and prayers. I will certainly draw on them in the coming weeks and months. I’ll update you more from my next location. Here’s to embracing, rather than fighting change. As my dad likes to remind me, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. Bring on the adventure! Love, for the last time (for now), Miss Mali