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).