I was so cold this morning I woke up and have since put on my favorite hoodie, sweatpants, and two pairs of socks. The only problem is I checked the temperature and it’s only 78 degrees. Back home I would beg for it to be 78 degrees right now but since I’ve arrived here my body seems to have adapted and so here I am freezing my ass off. These past few months have done much to peel away those masks I donned while I was back in America. Being here sometimes makes me feel like The Mask. When I’m with other Americans I try to be this mild-mannered happy go lucky guy, but when I’m around Africans my personality changes because something inside of me feels that’s what’s necessary in order to get anything done around here.
I feel at home here. For the first time in a really long time I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve accumulated enough project ideas to keep me busy for the next two years and then some. My place is comfortable enough for me to live in, I have no problem cooking for myself, and I get along well with my neighbors. My language is getting better although it’s not fully there yet (consequently I’m forgetting a lot of my Korean). I get along really well with my community (I’m getting around to starting to play soccer soon I swear) but still each day is a struggle. No matter how comfortable I get here it will never be like back home. Not a day goes by where I don’t miss family and friends or just being in America. The only thing that keeps me here is knowing I can do more good here than I ever could back home. I have some days where all I think about is how fast I can get on a plane and back to America while some days I feel great because of a good conversation with someone or because people were receptive to an idea. Most days are a mixture of both but every day is a struggle. Because I’m in Mali does it mean I need to live as poorly as the poorest villager? Even the volunteers who are in the villages come in every week or two weeks to hang out because that’s what keeps them sane. One of the things that has kept me sane is receiving packages and looking forward to receiving packages (thanks Mom!). But perhaps the only thing keeping me here helping me do what I do is the love and support of my parents and friends back home.
I would argue that most aid workers only live as uncomfortably as they want to (which usually means working in a developing country but every day going home to a Western-style apartment with as many amenities as they can afford). Look, this is something that people who aren’t here will never understand. We do what we have to do to get by. As much as I wanted to integrate as much as possible at the beginning I’ve reached a point where if I integrate any further I’m just going to end up as lazy and restless as so many other Malians. I can speak the language, I eat the food, I play with the kids, I understand the economics. They have to understand that I’m NOT a Malian and because of that I have something to offer (hopefully).
I don’t know if we ever become experts at this. People in typical corporate jobs will have climbed the ladder over two years but I don’t care if you’ve been here 20 days or 20 years, a person with more experience isn’t necessarily more successful. So much of what we do here is trial and error perhaps the greatest ingredient for success is a willingness to fail. I don’t expect failure but I understand that even if I do everything perfectly things still may not work out as planned and that’s okay. What’s going to happen when the music stops?