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.

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).

How to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (er, kindof)

In 1961 JFK created The Peace Corps with three goals in mind:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

So then what makes a successful volunteer?

During our training there was a massive push towards funded projects and APCDs (assistant program country directors) were constantly asking us what our next funded project was going to be. Most countries don’t even have access to funding but those of us in Mali are “fortunate” because we can access SPA (Small Project Assistance) and PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program). Out the gate we were roaring to get started on projects by asking the experts (second-year volunteers who have been in country exactly a year longer than us) what to do. But what is the point? Is that really why we came to Mali? I imagined sitting under a mango tree sitting around singing songs and dancing, etc.  Never did I imagine I would oversee the construction of not one, but two buildings. I never thought I would hold any sort of training for locals nor did I expect that Peace Corps would ask me to come in as a so-called expert to train the new batch of recruits because of my experience (little under two years but in my case I actually held a session during the training of OUR stage).  It’s almost a Catch-22 sometimes where some volunteers spend a lot of time out of site frolicking about the country and these are, many times, the same expert volunteer trainers called in, to…..spend time out of site.

When I think of a volunteer who can leave Mali considering his/her service a success I think about the three goals. Instead of focusing on short-term projects most volunteers SHOULD just get to know their communities and work with their friends on subjects like English, bookkeeping, or basic nutrition.  I remember coming in thinking of all these crazy ideas like “mobile banking, microfinance, sustainability, etc.” when this is a country where a majority of the population either don’t know about or don’t care about germs.  The thing is it’s EASY to do a project but it’s hard to teach someone something.  If I could do my service over again I would have found a group of youngish kids and spend my entire time teaching them all I know about finance and accounting from scratch.

But then again, maybe we should just spend our time simply hanging out with people? I never thought I would come here and have political discussions about Malian history or the remnants of colonialism in Mali and yet I have those kinds of thoughtful conversations with my language tutor and friends quite often over glasses of tea. We talk about girls and sports too but a lot of the burning questions they have are centered around much of the same things I would talk about in The States.  I came in thinking “oh everyone’s poor, no one knows anything” only to have one of my friends update me on how Obama’s not doing so great in the polls.  It’s astounding how little we know about how little we know.

But, in many communities we may be the only “white people” some Malians will ever meet. It’s important to let Malians know that Americans aren’t necessarily evil and that (on the whole) we’d like to help them. Then again you run into the issue of breeding dependency. Some small villages have absolutely zero means and many depend on rich uncles living in Bamako or in France to send them money every so often. When volunteers enter these villages all of a sudden “Daddy Morebucks” is living next door. And what? He wants to build a school? Sweet!  There’s a point where people stop looking at us as the carefree volunteer who came to learn tribal drum beats and eat mangoes and they start looking at us in terms of dollar signs and things we can buy them.  Most NGOs try to do good in these unreached communities but some end up doing more harm than good. It’s a delicate balance that requires a good relationship with the community and the dialogue to help them understand we’re in fact trying to help them help themselves. Some volunteers may leave not having done a thing at all but what they fail to see are the ideas they have planted in the minds of the youth. Ten years later that little kid who annoyed the crap out of you every single day screaming “Tubabu!”  may very well become a teacher or a doctor because a volunteer told them that anything is possible and that education is important. Who knows?

I’m coming towards the end of my service. Most of the things I have set out to do here will be done within a few months. I’ll most likely spend the rest of my time here enjoying time with my friends and traveling the country. I have probably burned a few bridges and done some things that at the time were questionable but I don’t look back and regret not spending more time with certain people or having failed to do certain things. I look back and see that I did the best with what I was given. It was important to me that I help certain people here and I feel I can leave knowing that I made a tangible difference. Not much longer til I’m back “home” and although I feel like ending on a cliche I’ll just say I’ll be glad when I leave but also glad that I came.

Why It’s so Hard Doing Business in Mali

In 2008 The Doing Business Report rated Mali 162 on a scale with 1 being the easiest to do business.  There are many reasons why it’s so difficult to do business in Mali.  One of the reasons it’s so difficult is there are no rules or regulations.  For example if I came up with an idea to sell chocolate covered bananas there’s absolutely nothing to stop anyone else from doing the same.  In the US I might be able to patent this idea and there would be enforceable legal recourse against anyone who would steal my idea but here in Mali there are no rules, regulations, or recourse.  People are free to do whatever they want.

The lack of barriers to entry makes it easy for people to enter the market but what happens when they go seeking capital?  Instead of going to a bank and taking out a loan most would-be small business owners would just fold because credit is so hard to find.  Most banks only offer checking accounts to the “rich” and most microfinance institutions provide tools that may help people save but for most are still out of the realm of possibility (one of the models I was assigned to help out, mobile banks, is a terrible idea).

But let’s say someone is able to get credit and start his or her business.  At this point most don’t have the experience or technical expertise to manage a business.  Many Malians attend primary school (~70%) but the level of schooling is not very good.  If a child makes it through primary school they graduate learning through rote education and subsequently lack creativity.  As for secondary school the rate drops to 35% and few if at all go on to pursue higher education (less than 10%).  As for higher education the only university in Mali is The University of Bamako and the quality of education there, again, is not so great.  Thanks to the French, Malians love protesting and for much of the school year it’s either the students striking or the teachers striking.  Unfortunately the school doesn’t adjust the school year due to days lost from strikes and therefore someone can attend The University of Bamako without REALLY attending The University of Bamako.

What happens to this graduate?  More often than not they spend time looking for a job that isn’t there and will try to use their family connections instead to find a job that really doesn’t require a university degree at all.  So then what was the point of going to university?  Most businesses prefer looking for employees through social connections anyway.  Therefore if I start my chocolate banana business and I’m looking for someone to manage daily operations I won’t start by putting up postings on a career website, instead I’ll ask my family members and friends if they know anyone good.  Of course they do because everyone and their brother is looking for a job so I end up with someone who’s under qualified but “eager to learn.”  I then have to spend time and capital I don’t have to train someone who has an outside shot of fulfilling the position.  Even if I were able to successfully train this person I still run the risk of losing him/her to an NGO who would be able to compete compensation-wise or with the prestige such a position brings since NGOs are the only true industry in Mali.

Let’s say I have my chocolate banana shop and I’ve found someone to run operations.  At this point I have to consider the market.  Typically Malians don’t sell products in unit packaging.  You don’t go to a corner store and ask for a bag of sugar, you ask for 200 CFA worth of sugar.  Malians sell nearly everything in terms of how much your money can buy instead of in retail packaging.  Therefore the margins are razor thin because the reality is THERE IS NO MARKET.  Most people spend about 4-5 USD on food to feed their family each day and there really is no extra money to spend on frivolous things.  The reality is I could spend millions of dollars on marketing and education and even then people wouldn’t buy my product.  As an investor there is a high degree of risk and very little chance of reward.  If people had extra money they would just buy more food, or tea, or cigarettes.  So it’s either too much product differentiation or not enough.  Most of the time the people running the corner stores are themselves poor, the only difference is they have product they can use/eat should things get really bad.

But let’s assume I got my chocolate banana stand off the ground and it’s doing fine.  I want to formalize operations and even though most businesses are informal I file papers to make my operation a formal business.  Formalizing operations requires filing ten separate documents and could take months or maybe even years.  On top of that I’ll have to pay taxes, which is something most businesses avoid (only 15% of GDP is captured through tax revenues).  The government does not receive money for taxes and there are no rules or regulations, therefore there is no incentive to make the business environment any better and so there is very little effort to improve infrastructure.

I’m not sure if it’s really that bad but can only speak on what I’ve personally observed.  What needs to be done?  What should be done?  As the world finally turns towards the once so-called Dark Continent these are questions Africa’s leaders face to hopefully make sure things can and will change for the better.