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!

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3 thoughts on “5 Reflections on My Time in Mali

  1. Hey Dave, your posts have been really thought provoking and refreshing to read. I’m sure that your adjustment back to the States will both be familiar and shocking at the same time but I’m glad to have crossed paths with you for that short time in Philly because it’s really been neat to hear your thoughts on how a life broken away from the “American mold” can be sustained and lived fully. And welcome “Home” soon 🙂

  2. Hi Dave,

    You don’t know me, but I read your reflections when I was researching doing business in Mali. I am very good friends with a large family from Guinea (Conakry). I went to Mali 1 1/2 years ago and stayed with their relatives in Bamako. We’ve talked of many different business ideas, but I always want more information. I’m a teacher by training, but am looking into business ventures, as well. If possible, I would like to get some feedback from you on different things, because it sounds like you have a business background.

    Thanks.
    Gretchen

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