Great stuff to send Peace Corps Volunteers

– ramen (Shin, Jin, etc.)
– drink mixes
– hard candy (m&ms, skittles, starburst, jelly bellys, etc.)
– candy bars (snickers, twix, etc.)
– oreos
– magazines (The Economist, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic Adventure, Newsweek)
– cake mix
– books
– yourself
– card games


Tigadegana (peanut butter sauce)


Olive Oil
1/2 jar of natural peanut butter
1 large can of crushed tomatoes
2 TBbp Tomato Paste
salt and pepper to taste
a few habaneros
3 large red onions
Cabbage, carrots (optional)
2 bay leaves1/2 container of chicken broth
3 Cloves Garlic

about 3 cups water

  1. chop onions and garlic, add some salt and olive oil, then caramelize in large saucepan.
  2. add tomato paste, peppers, tomatoes, peanut butter, chicken broth, chopped carrots and cabbage (optional) and bay leaves.
  3. add water and bring to boil. after it comes to a boil simmer for about half an hour constantly stirring.
  4. give it a taste and add salt/pepper as needed. you can also add sriracha and/or soy sauce.
  5. serve over rice.
  6. if you want, you can also remove the peppers and bay leave then puree it. add steamed broccolis and serve over rice.

Less is More (more or less)

Since I arrived in Mali I’ve come to realize that most things here are completely different from the life I know back home. People here emphasize community and family while back home we tend to emphasize individuality and small families (if we choose). Time is money in America whereas here many men spend much of their lives content just hanging out with their friends sitting, chatting, and drinking tea. In our markets we emphasize competition while here they emphasize cooperation.

In Mali there is only a vague concept of mainstream Malian culture. Most people here identify themselves with their ethnic group (Malinke, Peule, Bambara, etc.) and try to live their lives accordingly.  Life isn’t this grand melting pot where cultures blend together.  Some people say America is a fruitcake with different chunks of ethnicities.  Then mainstream white culture is kind of like the cake that permeates it all. In Mali, life is more like a mosaic where all sorts of different ethnicities live in close proximity with each other but without a predominant culture.  People are both aware of their distinct cultures but at the same time able to live in relative peace.

It makes me wonder if my own life is a fruitcake or a mosaic. I think I’m just too idealistic about humans and believe in a world where we can all just live together. While culture is important, it doesn’t necessarily define who we are. There was a man who once said that all men were created equal, but how many of us truly believe that? What would we do as a human race if we all actually believed it to be true? I am not advocating we need to be one big happy human race but that we need to learn to respect one another and our differences.

I have finished my time in Mali and the most important thing to me is the relationships I have built. I didn’t do it for the glory and I definitely didn’t do it for the money. I guess I just wanted to do something real with my life instead of waiting for life to happen to me. The past two years have helped me to assess who I am as well as the man I want to be. My circumstances and relationships will change but the lessons I have learned won’t.  One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn is that less is more.  I got off the plane and almost immediately I’m overwhelmed with choices.  I don’t really know what the future holds but I need to have the confidence that when the time comes I’ll be able to make the right decisions.  Life is so much better when things are kept simple (although as humans we are wont to make our lives more complicated than they should be).

I have had to say goodbye to too many people and I appreciate being sent off with style (although perhaps the shot of off-label Chinese liquor wasn’t such a good idea).  I had an awesome time at the airport but it’s time to leave Mali for now.  May God increase the blessings we receive and make tomorrow better than today.

5 Reflections on My Time in Mali

I have less than a week left of my service here in Mali and thought I would offer 5 reflections on my time here.

1. Peace Corps will change my perspective on life forever.

From the moment I met people in Philadelphia during staging my life was changed.  People dressed weird and were from all over the country and were just different from people I know back home, yet these were the same people coming to Mali with me for two years.  Then upon arriving in Mali I started hanging out with actual Africans and was seeing what life was like on the other side.  I used to think in this box and think that I had to live my life step by step and there was no room for deviation or improvisation.  Now I find myself at odds, constantly thinking unconventionally trying to find innovative solutions to routine problems.  I have a different perspective on things and really question whether or not someone/something is keepzing itz realz.  Being here has given me more of an appreciation for being open and honest.  I’ve played the game and the game hasn’t changed, but also found that I don’t really like playing games at all.

2. I almost died several times.

I remember the first time I was at the Kita stage house by myself in the back home barely able to move.  I was dizzy and didn’t really know where I was when I called Dr. Dawn and she told me that Peace Corps transport would come pick me up.  8 hrs later a truck comes to get me and by that point I’m at the verge of passing out.  It turns out that I had giardia (for the first time).  I would endure malaria a few times, multiple bouts with every sort of stomach illness, and even have a seizure (due to mefloquine/Larium) that would get me medically evacuated to The States before I finished my service.  I no longer think that I’m immortal but at the same time I’m much more in tune with my body than I ever was.

3. What is the point of development?

I’ve read books for and against development.  I’ve read books for aid and against aid.  Peace Corps has been working in Mali for 40 years and I really wonder if the type of work that volunteers do here has changed at all.  I think teaching people to wash their hands is as relevant 40 years ago as it is today in some villages, which is sad.  A lot of development work focuses around stomping out malaria, HIV/AIDS, or economic development, but I wonder if people want us here, and if people do want us here and we’ve been here for 40 years doing work, are we doing the right kind of work?  I’ve seen what’s been done in Mali and I just wonder if what’s been done has been effective or if maybe we just need to try another approach.

4. Development in Mali should focus on education even though development is a moving target at best.

Having lived with and talked with many Malians here it’s clear to me that the biggest obstacle to development is education.  Education is the reason why it doesn’t matter how many formations you hold or demonstrations you perform, most people will just stick to whatever they were originally taught and not deviate for fear of the consequences.  Education is why women are scared of frogs and people believe in genies and why the only reason why anything happens is because God willed it.  I have this theory that it’s difficult for many Malians to think about more than one thing at a time.  It’s because the schools focus so much on rote memory that those who graduate become nothing more than a bunch of automatons.  The creativity is literally beaten out of them.  The reason why NGOs and even Peace Corps haven’t focused on improving education is because it takes time.  At the end of two years a volunteer can’t say “look at what I built” or “look how much more the can produce” or “look at how much more money this person is making.”  All they can say is “Look at all that these kids learned.”  You can’t just swoop in like most NGOs and dump some money, education requires a commitment.  It’s complicated by the fact that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide an education for these kids, but the people who are expected to provide a good education for these kids are the same people who went through this broken system.  Breaking the cycle requires a paradigm shift and a focus that most organizations aren’t willing to do.  C’est la vie.

5. What is the mission of Peace Corps and does it still hold true 50 years later?

I’m constantly wondering about my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Is it to provide technical assistance, is it to give people a bunch of money, or is it to serve as an ambassador for the US?

Maybe it’s a little bit of everything.  Although the goals remain the same the means to achieve these goals have changed.  If the first volunteers could see us now they would all be shocked.  We all come in with cell phones (iPhones even), accessing the Internet is not so far-fetched, and most of the people we know here (even some in small villages), have cell phones themselves.  I think everyone has different reasons for joining The Peace Corps and everyone has a different idea of what they want to accomplish.  Whereas back in the day recruiting might have been difficult, nowadays there is a huge backlog of would-be volunteers but their demands are also much more specific.  Before it was “send me wherever”, now it’s more like “put me in a medium-sized site with Internet and a group that wants to work on gender and development issues for 14-16 yo girls.”  To accommodate such individuals Peace Corps needs to expand the program and include more offerings but doing so dilutes the effectiveness of the program.

I came to Mali naive about how change the world.  I leave Mali a more pragmatic and hardened man, albeit without any regrets.  The way I see it, if I can come to Africa, serve two years with relative success, then leave with my health more or less intact, then there’s pretty much nothing I can’t do.  Mali, it’s been real but I bid you adieu.  See you next time, Space Cowboy!

Top 5 Reasons I Can’t Wait to Go Home

These past two years have been amazing and will probably define who I am the rest of my life.  Everything that happens now will be relative to my experience in Mali.  A part of me is sad to go because I don’t know the next time I will see many people here and yet another part of me is happy to go home again.  Below are the top five reasons I’m looking forward to going back home (FYI some of these items are tongue in cheek in case it wasn’t obvious.)

5. Eating food that probably won’t make me sick

I’ve pretty much had every food-borne illness you can possibly get while being a volunteer in Mali so it’ll be nice to go home and eat food that I enjoy and probably won’t give me amoebas.

4. Not being poor all the time

For the first year of my service it actually cost more to fly us over here than it did to pay for our monthly living allowance.  We only get paid a couple hundred dollars a month but in Mali it’s a lot of money.  Sometimes I get into arguments with people when haggling a price, usually for a taxi.  I’ll argue to get a cab fare for 750 CFA when the only fare people will give me is 1000 CFA and I’ll wait until I get a cab for the “right price” only to realize I only saved 50 cents.

3. Not sweating nonstop

Especially when I first came to Mali I would just be constantly covered in sweat.  I would sit down, break out my fan, and just sit there without saying anything.  Back in homestay I would fan myself to sleep only to wake up half an hour and do it again until the sun rose and I just forced myself out of bed.  It’ll be nice to go a gym that’s blasting with A/C while I’m trying to break a sweat.

2. Family and friends

Being able to see everyone and try to live a “normal American” life will be a stark contrast to this African life I’ve been living the past two years.  It will be quite novel and I’m looking forward to being able to see my family when I want to and hang out with friends when I want.

1. Food, duh

I can’t wait to go to the supermarket and buy some eggs, take them home, and crack an egg just so I can stare at the yolk stay together.  When I crack the eggs here the yolks always fall apart, probably because the chickens here are so malnourished.  I want to eat Korean bbq and make a sandwich and eat some lasagna.  So yeah, looking forward to going back.

I will be back home July 8 so see everybody soon!

Why Do We Fight?


Why do we fight? Whether it is with internal or external forces it is our desire to fight that pushes humanity forward. I’ve been pondering the question if humans are inherently bad or good and come to the conclusion that more than anything else we find ourselves fighting FOR something. Be it for our lives, for love, or sometimes for the so-called greater good we like to think we are always fighting for something. More often than not we don’t start a fight for a cause, but we are just ordinary human beings placed in extraordinary circumstances. We tend to idolize some men for their bravery or valor but such is history. It’s the winners who decide history and so, for example, someone like Christopher Columbus crossing finding America accidentally is considered a great explorer but we observers of history overlook the death and destruction he inflicted upon The New World and its former inhabitants and instead we honor him every year with a holiday in his name and perpetuate revisionist history. We fight because that is all we can do and some may even believe it’s something we were born to do. It is something that is hard-wired in our core. There are “good” bad people out there and “bad” good people too. At the end of the day we’re all just human beings. We try the best we can.

Over the past two years I’ve experienced extreme poverty. People here live in mud huts and they sit around in darkness at night because they have no choice. I’m one of the “lucky” ones where I have a concrete house with a tin roof and electricity but my case is more the exception than the rule. Even then, my friends who have visited me will attest it’s not super cush. Most volunteers live in mud huts with thatched roofs in the middle of nowhere. Children here routinely die of preventable diseases because most people are too ignorant to believe that it was anything but God’s will. Instead, those more educated are forced to stand by idly while their children die because they can’t afford the medication. It’s difficult to stand by and watch this happen around me without asking why. There are people in this world who are so rich they don’t know what to do with their money. Then why do people continue to suffer? In a logical, sensible world wouldn’t those people who have money and those charged to govern be able to do something about the poverty and suffering that exists? Some, like Bill Gates, have tried to use their billions of dollars to help those least fortunate. Yet his efforts continue to fail. People who are suffering revise their expectations on life and become fatalistic, believing there is nothing they can do to change their circumstances, so why bother. Or, worse yet, there are many villages in Mali who have NGOs swoop in and tell them they want to save them so they build them a school. These same villages then start to believe if they ask for something long enough there will be some magical “toubabs” who will come in and just give it to them for nothing. There is no motivation, no incentives, only dependency. I remember walking through my town one time when this man showed me an e-mail. He told me Bill Gateshad sent him an e-mail telling him that he was going to give him lots of money. I took a look at the message and from the misspellings, poor grammar, and lack of credibility that it was just another Nigerian scam. But to this man he felt like he was Charlie holding the golden ticket. It was difficult but I had to tell him the truth and even after I did he wouldn’t believe me, while his friends just laughed on. How do you tell someone there is no Willy Wonka, no Chocolate Factory?

We delude ourselves into believing our twisted logic because reality is what we choose it to be. Somewhere along the way we lose our sense of right and wrong and the only justification for our actions is our individual happiness. We go through the moral gymnastics to get to where we need to be. We start out in these defensive positions and end up flinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. We lash out like abused animals because we know nothing else. We’ve forsaken the very thing that will save us: logic and reason. Instead, we cling to any sort of rally cry that appeals to our emotions, and when it goes too far we wonder how we got there in the first place.

At what point in our lives do we learn to fight for something WORTH fighting for? How do we justify our actions? Some may cling to religion, doctrine, or ideology but ultimately it comes down to a strong sense of self. Know thyself. Only when we know who we are can we start to move forward, can we try and fulfill our true desires. In the end I know I am a simple man with simple needs. I’m not trying to be the richest or most famous person in the world. I just want to live a life worth living. I hope that when I leave Mali I’ll be able to continue to help the people who have had a significant impact on my time here. I think there are a lot of people in The States who look for a way to “help” people and end up blindly giving a donation to some random charity each month. For most people this scratches that itch to help someone but then again the majority of that donation goes toward paying for overhead costs of the organization. So even though you think your $20 a month might be going towards helping little Soumaila’s education the reality is that only a fraction reaches him (it’s an exaggeration but still, who knows really?). It’s important to look for charities where your donation goes directly towards the people you are trying to help. For us Peace Corps volunteers taxpayer money pays for us to be here so the funding we request through Peace Corps Partnership Project (PCPP) goes 100% towards different projects geared at helping our communities. I don’t know if it’s a better model than traditional NGOs but it’s an alternative to just blindly giving. I’m not advocating not giving to charities but it’s okay to ask questions.

My time in Mali is quickly coming to an end. I have less than a month before I close my service. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I came here to help some people, until I can’t anymore, then I’ll go home. I’ve had a great time here and am one of the fortunate ones who don’t have to wait ten years to know that I’ve made a difference. Today I went to show my women’s cooperative the label I designed to help them sell Shea butter more competitively but while I was there my supervisor, Sabou Sisse, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, recounted past volunteers who had more trials than tribulations. She told me that when I leave that the new volunteer has to be someone like me but we both know that’s impossible. What I’ve done for these women’s lives, especially Sabou, will be hard to duplicate. I was trying to convince one of my friends who was changing sites to come to Kita but after she had seen all I had done she was intimidated to step into my shoes. It was quasi flattering but it makes me wonder what kind of volunteer will be charged with picking up where I left off. I’m going to miss certain things about Mali but it’s time, and like Diddy said, “I’m coming home.”

Arrested Development: A 2nd Year Volunteer’s Exhortation to Do Something

A child-like man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention. – Aldous Huxley

 The past two years have included some of the most rewarding and most challenging times of my life.  When I first arrived I was so young and dumb, so bright-eyed and bushy tailed.  I was overly ambitious to do something. But maybe that’s the kind of attitude we need when we first get here just to stick around.  We need to be able to survive training and those first few months, but it eventually wears off.  I have had my ups and downs, as many failures as successes. I’ve had a pretty decent service but that’s not because I consider myself to be a “good” person.  I just happen to be good at getting things done.  Anyhow, I’ve come up with a list of 5 simple lessons in the hopes that others may learn from my personal experience and hopefully have a fruitful and enjoyable Peace Corps service.

1. You don’t have to be everybody’s best friend.

Everyone in Mali is nice but you’ll soon realize that doesn’t mean they’re not as messed up as the rest of us. Until my language got awesome I had no idea of the crazy things that happened around me. My language tutor would try and fill me in on the details when I couldn’t figure it out on my own but even then I probably understood only a fraction of what happened. It’s going to be your initial gut reaction to be friends with and please everyone, but don’t.  We don’t have the time and energy to be best friends with everyone we meet.  Find some chill people you can hang out with and develop your relationships with them. This means taking the time to hang out with people and staying at site. Take your time finding good people to work with because that’s really the hard part.  Once you find capable and willing people the rest is easy.  So, like anything else, the more time you spend with people, the better chance you have at succeeding in whatever you want to do.  Especially in Mali, it’s all about the relationships you have with people.

2. Just because they told you something in cross-cultural training doesn’t make it true.

I ride around town with shorts, I give and receive stuff with my left hand all the time, and I don’t greet every single person I meet.  According to my cross-cultural training that might make me a horrible person but meh.  Back in my homestay days I tried to prepare myself to live in a small village and be a good, considerate Malian wannabe. But then I moved to a large town where people drink and for the most part don’t really care what I do. I’ve had several conversations with other volunteers about stuff we learned during cross-cultural training only to find that it doesn’t apply to our specific situations. I don’t think cross-cultural training isn’t important, but volunteers should take all those lessons with a grain of salt.  What if we had to teach cross-cultural training to our APCDs?  We are all individuals and so are Malians.  It’s true that ethnic groups are more important here and people definitely play into the stereotypes, but what happens when you run out of bean jokes?  Context is crucial, so the best thing to do is take those cross-cultural lessons and start asking people in your specific community what they think. It will help you better understand your people while helping them understand you better.  At the end of the day isn’t that all we’re really striving for?

3. Work smarter not harder.

Someone once told me Mali is a country full of a bunch of unfinished wheels.  Many of us came here trying to start something and many leave not having finished what we started, or seeing our projects fall apart.  I’ve personally seen projects my predecessors have started fall apart.  In a few years the things I’ve started may just as well fail but that’s ok.  We as Peace Corps volunteers in Mali have a bunch of resources available to us so might as well use them while we can and while we’re here.  It’s hardly the fault of the volunteer if something doesn’t end up working out.  Learn to use your APCDs for technical/cultural advice and be persistent with them. Track them down, get their full attention, and don’t let them off the hook until they’ve remedied the situation.  If you don’t, you may end up spending months waiting for an e-mail reply that isn’t coming.  I asked one staff member if he could help me find some lab equipment so I could extract essential oils to be added to Shea butter and I’m still waiting after two years.  It’s one of those things that take getting used to as Americans.

Also, don’t worry about sustainability.  The whole concept of sustainability is such rubbish. To only do things because they’re sustainable limits us from doing some cool things or helping people who are actually in need.  I’ve given people money before that I don’t expect to get back.  Of course it’s not sustainable, but if I’m placed in a unique opportunity to help someone I care about, screw sustainability.  If your brother asked you for $20 to buy food for his family would you even think twice?  We have people here who take us in and welcome us to their families and their lives.  In the big scheme of things for most of us $20 is nothing.

But, for the rest of our work, we have to do our research, get some good data, and make the best decisions we can with the information given. Common sense is our best friend and the most important question anyone can ask in this country is “why?”  “Why reinvent the wheel?” some would say.  The same goes for volunteers. Collaboration and building institutional memory together will undoubtedly help current and future volunteers.  It’s important that we build on each other’s work instead of saying “I’m a genius and I can figure it out by myself.”  Instead we need to be humble and help each other out as best we can. That way everyone wins.

4. Stay at site because you want to, not because you have to.

Some volunteers use transit houses as a way to escape their villages. Without anyone watching them they could just hang out at the house while their APCDs are none the wiser. I knew a volunteer who would spend two weeks at site then come in for an entire week, repeat.  The way stage houses are run now discourages volunteers from spending any more time there than they have to.  The thing is that volunteers should actually want to be AT their sites. Isn’t that the whole reason we joined Peace Corps in the first place?  We didn’t join Peace Corps to hang out with a bunch of other white people or join a bunch of committees/task forces.  It’s great that we have task forces to address HIV/AIDs, GAD issues, and food security, etc. but getting involved dilutes our experience by taking us away from the very people we came to help.  We work on these projects designed to help people instead of just helping people.  We came to live in a community and try to make a difference at the COMMUNITY level.  So grab a friend, learn how to brew three cups o’ tea “Malian style”, and spend some quality time hanging out with your homies. The end result is your service will be more rewarding and you’ll actually like the people you’re helping (insh’Allah).

5. You’re a volunteer!

Understand that as soon as you swear in and if you decide to leave you are considered an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). The only one keeping you here is YOU. If you’re not happy being here and all other remedies haven’t worked, just go home. People who try to “stick it out” don’t really spend much time at site, annoy the crap out of other volunteers with all their complaining, and are basically just wasting resources that can be better spent on someone else.  Life goes on.

After all, we are not professional development workers.  Even though some come here with a relevant degree there are some out there who study international politics and end up as Water and Sanitation volunteers. Huh?  Then we go through PST (Pre-Service Training)  and IST (In-Service Training) where we learn how to do everything, right?  Even then, just because you came here as a SED (Small Enterprise Development) volunteer doesn’t mean you can’t work on youth development or water and sanitation issues.  Do what makes YOU happy.  Do what you gotta do.  We’re all volunteers here and it’s up to us to determine our service.  It’s no one’s responsibility but our own.  Appreciate the opportunity you have to serve in a beautiful country with some of the friendliest people in the world, try your best to help some people out for as long as you can, then go home.  Don’t take life too seriously; no one gets out alive.

Ok I think that’s it. Please understand that these are just some things I’ve observed in my short while here.  I had this conversation with someone who told me being in Mali is like this crazy time warp. There are some days that just go on forever yet at the same time months can go by in the blink of an eye.  There were days in my service when I was stuck on transport that days seemingly went on forever and there were also months that just flew by as well.  Learn to appreciate it all.  I wish you all the best of luck and Allah k’an deme (may God help us).