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).


The Girl With the Salidaga

One of my friends came to visit from The States recently and during her visit there is one instance that sticks in my mind.  We were riding the bus from Bamako to Sevare when unsurprisingly our bus broke down in Segou.  I had to go to the bathroom and so I asked around.  One of the guys sitting there told me where the outhouse was so I headed out back.  As I was walking a small shadow came running up to me out of the darkness.  A cute little girl who couldn’t have been older than 3 years old had run over so she could bring me a salidaga (it’s like a tea kettle but people here use it to wipe their butts and wash their hands).  We exchanged pleasantries and then I went to the bathroom.  As I got out I saw her again sitting with her mom and siblings filling up other salidagas.  I gave her 100 CFA (about 20 cents) without thinking twice, she thanked me politely, and I was on my way back over to my friend.

I don’t know why but this experience really bothered me.  That girl should have been home with her mom playing with toys or sleeping but instead she was sitting in the dark at a bus stop helping strangers go to the bathroom.  It really makes me think about how lucky I am to have been born in America and sad at the same time thinking there are more children like her running around in the darkness.  It makes me wonder if anything can be done to help those who don’t even know they need help.  Who will fight for the children in the dark?

The Role of Information Technology in Development

The world we live in today revolves around the collection and use of information.  Whether it’s checking our e-mail, surfing the internet, or buying things online we live continually connected lives.  One of the most prominent and exciting companies out there is facebook which boasts over 500 million users around the world, or roughly 1 in every 13 people.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I came in to this whole thing thinking I would be living in a hut for two years without a cell phone and farming for my own food.  How surprising it is now that I am here with a cellphone (like most people in Mali), I have access to the internet through a satellite internet connection at our regional transit houses, and I routinely skype my parents back home.  Speaking to previous volunteers who traveled through Kita we talked about how much things have changed so although the progress is not as quick as we’d like, things are in fact changing.  As little as five years ago volunteers in Kita didn’t have cellphones and many of the roads in and to Kita weren’t paved.  Today I can get from Kita to Bamako in 3-4 hrs whereas before it could have taken an entire day.  Even in my work I find it important to use the Internet as a way to research new ideas and share about my experiences here in Mali as well.

Upon coming to Mali one of the things that was clear to me from the beginning was a lack of institutional memory.  From the beginning we volunteers try to find as much as we can about Mali and when we get here we are dying to find out about where we’ll be placed and so we want to learn as much as we can about our sites as well.  But when it comes down to it we all receive these little packets with bits and pieces of information and some times volunteers are placed in sites that are new so the information is even more scant.  Volunteers do many projects and when they’re finished with the projects they file some sort of report about how it went but many times these are not available to the volunteers themselves.  Volunteers may even find some really cool articles/manuals, etc. on the Internet but most of the sharing of information that happens is from one volunteer giving it to someone else.  To remedy the situation we looked at different ways to share information and eventually we settled on using Google Docs.  Google Docs is a way volunteers can easily upload, edit, and download files online so the idea is that we will be able to share relevant information with each other.  Additionally it’s a way for program staff to add their knowledge and documents to a searchable database.  By making more relevant and quality information available to volunteers it allows them to be better equipped to address the specific challenges and needs of their communities.

One of the ways in which information technology can aid development is by keeping track of projects that are running and by collecting and sharing results of projects.  Development is most definitely an art but we must have a way to scientifically record data and results.  Many organizations and individuals want to laud their efforts and on one wants to admit that a project was a failure but people need to be bold and try new things knowing full well there is a high chance of failure and when projects do fail they must understand why.  There are many NGOs that come up with brilliant ideas sitting at their desk in an air-conditioned office in DC but when they go and actually implement the project they realize the project may not be appropriate.  It’s important to identify the need and then try to create a solution, not the other way around.  Furthermore there are just so many NGOs in Mali.  There may be hundreds of NGOs but since many don’t communicate with each other regularly there’s a high likelihood of redundancy or worse off one NGO trying to implement a project in a community where it has already failed without understanding why.  It’s difficult for Malian ministers because how do they tell an NGO “I’m sorry, Saves the Children is already doing that so you can’t….?”  The Malian government will never turn down an NGO or project that wants to pump money into the economy but there needs to some way to regulate the activity that goes on in this country and the easiest way is if the NGOs could coordinate their efforts together.

The world is changing rapidly.  We live in a world where artificial intelligence is not science fiction but very much reality.  Revolutions with people crying out for freedom and democracy are lighting up the world.  Everyone is connected now through phones and the Internet.  Where does that leave Mali?

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.

For Your Consideration….

The question isn’t whether or not it’s difficult to do business in Mali, most would agree that it is difficult with a resounding yes.  The question is WHY is it so difficult to do business.

If I ever figure out how to upload pics to WordPress I’ll try and go through the cast of characters at my women’s cooperative, explain the situation as best I can and provide thoughts on where I see it going in the future.

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood…..

It’s the start of a new year and once again we get to cast
off the shackles of a year of missed opportunities and broken
promises to make them anew, a time for rebirth and a time to
rethink how we perceive ourselves and those around us. I look ahead
to what’s to come and realize that I’m on the downhill of my Peace
Corps service. I think back to that bright-eyed bushy tailed
boy I was when I first came in and can’t help but laugh at the
thought that I could singlehandedly change Mali for the better.
Instead my service has taken me on a path like that of a sine
curve with really high highs and really low lows. I saw the
completion of a restaurant that Lord willing will continue to
generate a profit for my women’s cooperative. I’ve traveled
around the country and had several moments when I felt like I was
the only person in the world. I’ve made some great friends
along the way who I hope to stay in touch with but really I don’t
know what will happen. I’ve had malaria, several rounds of
diarrhea, and had days when I felt like I was literally going to
die. In a sense life is more “real” in Mali if that makes any
sense at all. I’ve had the pleasure of being in the States and one
of my friends asked me the other day what’s one of the lessons I’ve
learned while in Mali. After thinking about it for a while
one of the things I’ve learned is that at the end of the day we’re
not so different. We all wear masks and we have our
affiliations but when it comes down to it people want the same
things and so despite all the senseless violence and hatred in this
world if we were ever to engage in an honest and open conversation
with one another perhaps this world wouldn’t be so effed up.
It’s not right to think that one group of people is “better”
than another for arbitrary reasons. Yet this scenario plays
out so often every day around the world. Take for example the
whole idea of development in Africa. There are several
countries who have sent/are sending aid to Africa when clearly it’s
not working. Instead of trying to step back and ask why it
isn’t working we just reason “it’s because we’re not sending enough
money” and so the cycle of dependency continues for Africans and
this sort of neo-colonialism goes undeterred because after all “we’ve got to
do something to save Africa!” The reality is that it’s more
like a big game of Risk with conflicting nations/ideologies caught
up in this huge land/resource grab. Those in charge of these
pseudo-democracies (RE: Laurent Gbagbo in Cote D’Ivoire) are the
only ones in these countries who win while the rest of the country
is completely in the dark (both literally and figuratively). So
yeah I’m pissed off, but don’t I have a reason to be? I may
not be the naive boy who came to Mali but at the same time I’m not
a complete cynic yet either. I know my time is running out and I’ll use
it to the best of my ability doing my part to help my community
because at the end of the day as a Peace Corps volunteer all I can
really do is come in, make a connection with a small group of
people, and try to make a difference in their lives hopefully for
the better. In this, the new year I hereby resolve to be a better
listener and to live more in the moment (I also ate way too much in
America so I’ll probably be riding my bike more when I get back
too). Bonne année et bonne santé tous le monde!