Thursday, August 27, 2009



I remember the posters for Peace Corps recruitment in the US. Written in white print above a photo of a child in a worn t-shirt with a giant smile: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love. Trite, of course. But now, ten hours before I board a plane to leave Mali, it rings true. Joining the Peace Corps was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

On Sunday M’Pedougou held my going-away party. After a morning of soft drizzle, they hauled the balafons and speaker system out and set up in the center of village. People trickled out and gathered, kids, women, men, old people, everyone in the village and even the neighboring villages was there. A car arrived, and I was surprised to see men in suits step out! The mayor had showed up with some bigwig politicians from Sikasso, and they quickly made use of the sound system. There were long greetings and many thanks. One man said, "Do you know what she had to give up in order to come here? She left her family, her friends, her culture, her food... " A man from a nearby village that I had worked in gave me a massive rooster, a gift from the women's group. Finally, my close friend Yaya gave the mayor a package, and they presented me with a giant mud cloth depicting the history of Sikasso. It was a gift from my village so that I would remember them. As if I could forget. Finally I got up and gave an impromptu speech:

“ I left my house two years ago with no idea what was waiting for me in Africa. But I found you. We’ve now spent two years farming together, making tea together, eating together, cooking together. We dance together and take care of each other when we’re sick. You have become the largest family I’ve ever had, and I will never ever forget you and the warmth with which you welcomed me. …” and so on. It was cheesy but it was also true.

I choked up a bit as I looked out at the sea of faces that smiled back at me. I knew everyone. Every face I paused on brought a fresh memory and I had the overwhelming sensation that I will never experience anything like this again. I won’t know the names of all my neighbor’s kids and go help them grow their food. I won’t run from rainstorms through wet corn fields. I won’t sit under ripe mango trees listening to soft keys of balafon on the radio and greeting everyone who passes.

I finished my speech and the sorrow of the moment was soon overtaken by the sheer joy and energy of dancing. The women who I had been working with for two years gathered in circles and pulled me to the middle. The balafon notes rang clear and fast, and dust rose from the ground as our feet scurried to keep pace. My host mom Fatimata held my hands and we locked eyes, smiling, just beholding each other in that moment. Friends circled in and out, and we were all soon drenched in sweat, which was then powdered in light dust. It was beautiful. The old men (who were already drunk off millet beer) joined in the chaos and strutted their moves. I danced until I thought my heart would break.

These memories will rest with me forever.

So now for some more fun: A self-interview

How has Peace Corps changed me?
-I’m infinitely more patient, and I walk slower.
-I can do nothing all day and not feel guilty about it
-I value family and friends and spending time with these people much more highly. It is so easy in the States to get caught up in seeking. I was a very achievement oriented person before Peace Corps – getting good grades, pole vaulting, whatever it was, it was always my most important priority. I think living with a small village has opened my eyes to the importance of putting people first and valuing relationships.
-My intestines will forever be scarred…

Best parts of Peace Corps?
-The time span. It is so special to be able to spend two years with people, to see people change and to gain their trust. My friend Alimatu got pregnant, gave birth, and now her little baby is starting to walk. I also loved planting the fields, weeding, then harvesting, and then eating that same food. Seeing the entire life cycle is a huge benefit to the two year time span of Peace Corps.
-Being able to speak Bambara fluently.
-Balafon music and dancing under the stars

Worst parts of Peace Corps?
-The illnesses…. From intestinal amoebas to malaria, and I even once had a giant swollen lip that looked like a horror story: “Collagen Gone Wrong!”
-Getting harassed by little children constantly chanting “Tubabu! Tubabu! Tubabu!” (white person).
-Transportation - 60 hour bus rides, Goat pee dripping down from the roof into the window, 10 hours delays, breakdowns, crazy busdrivers, sleeping in bus stations...

I guess the "worst" parts do make the best stories.


I have a heart bursting with love for this country and the people I grew to know, but I am ready to come home and spend time with my own people. It’s been an adventure of a lifetime. Truly the toughest job I’ll ever love.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Waiting for Rain

I’ve often enjoyed awkward pauses in conversation, laughing inside at the clumsy silence hanging between two people. This evening, however, the pause lingering in the air presses against me like a growing balloon, and there’s no inner smile to break its taut skin.

“I ni su Yaya. K’u jooni? Pi-ar-denni?” I’ve crossed paths with my close friend Yaya in the faint blue afterglow of twilight, and his white smile glows at me in the darkness. We exchange greetings, which flow naturally between us, overlapping, advancing and retreating like waves. When the tide ebbs, I complain about the topic that no one can avoid,

“I was sure rain was going to come this afternoon. The wind kicked up, the sky darkened, and then it vanished.”

“I thought it was going to come too.  I really did.”

“How many millimeters have you measured this month?”

“Not even twenty. Last year we had more than 200 by this time. I’ve never seen anything like this. No one has.”

            His words drop into the night air and leave only a hole, a gaping silence that I don’t know how to fill. I look up at the emerging stars, that lovely sight that has become ominous in its unabashed verification of a clear and cloudless sky. It’s been twelve days since the last rain fell in M’Pedougou, and everything and everyone watches the sky in angst. The corn plants, poking their puerile heads out of the ground, complain amongst each other in soft parched murmurs about the drought and the noisome clouds of dust.

            The silent balloon pressed against my flesh starts to hurt, but I don’t know what to say to Yaya. He rescues me with a gentle, “A be na nogoya,” It’ll get better. We’ll get out of this. I nod and affirm his blessings, and we continue on our paths. The silence, though broken, still clings to me and I can’t shake off its sticky tendrils.

            What if it doesn’t nogoya? What if this is a symptom of global warming, and Mali (and the world) is in store for more and more extreme weather events that will disrupt our ways of life and of living? I look up at the sky again, trying to locate the shreds of guilty silence still weighing on me in the darkness. The sticky part of the silence is the part gnawing its way into my conscience: the awareness of my own contributions to that unseen but present layer of greenhouse gases. The stars wink down at me through these layers, and I remember with greater guilt that I’m going home soon. Back to the land of gas-guzzling cars, heaters, air conditioners and TVs and rampant, blind, blithely rapacious energy use that we use to entertain ourselves and to make our lives “comfortable” and “easy.”

[I’ve been reading a truly life-changing book called “The Gift of Good Land,” by Wendell Berry, and in it Berry notes our tendency in the US to look too narrowly at a problem, and thus invent solutions that either do not solve the problem, make more problems, or make it worse. Case in point: air conditioners. Because of increased global warming, on hot summer days (let’s be honest here, not hot compared to Mali), people want to be comfortable, so they turn on their air conditioners. This consumes electricity, which is made in many areas of the country by burning coal. The burning coal adds more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and we’re back to square one. ]

            Standing here in the dark on a well-worn footpath in this small African village, I have felt no greater shame. It will be Yaya, the man with the warmest smile I’ve ever known, who will have to sell some cows this year to help his family get by. It will be Alimatu, my host mom who tells stories late into the night, who will have to scrape at the dry earth with her short-handled hoe to re-plant crops when the first planting has died of thirst. It is these people, who have worked outside under a blistering sun their whole lives, who have never known the luxuries of light switches, running water, refrigerators, or cars in which to zip down to the 7-11 for a slurpee and a bag of chips, who will suffer (first) through the consequences of our behavior.

The true irony lies in their desire to be like us. They are people who traditionally lived only off the interest of their “natural bank account,” leaving the principal alone so their kids would have something to live of off. Then they see and hear of America, which is eating away directly at its principal and proclaiming itself “wealthy,” and they are envious of our wealth. It’s normal, it’s only human, but it’s also tragic. 

How can I go home and go back to the American life, after seeing and knowing what I do now? Now that I know that when I hop into a car or buy food shipped from across the country, doused with fertilizers, and processed in a fume-emitting factory… that in merely participating in the American lifestyle, I’m (in an indirect way, but as part of the larger problem) making the soil just a little bit dryer for my dear friends Yaya and Alimatu. They won’t blame me. When I leave they’ll thank me profusely with heaps of peanuts and chickens for coming to “help” them, and I’ll smile guiltily and glance up at their dry skies. That will be an awkward pause that sticks with me for awhile. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On TV!

The second shea butter movie was just aired on ORTM, Mali's national TV station, last week! The first movie (Shea Butter) has been appearing at least weekly for over a month now, and the now the "prequel" - Shea Nuts - is in rotation too. It's pretty exciting for people in my village to see themselves on TV, and I've heard from other Peace Corps volunteers throughout the country that they've seen the videos. They're movie stars!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Back home

This is the first e-mail I’ve ever written IN village! I’m in my hut in M’Pedougou with my laptop. I brought it to village just this once to show my movie stars the video that is the talk of Bamako! They really enjoyed it - I had to play it three times.

We’re on the cusp of rainy season, but it’s been a fitful start. Everyone’s seed is in the ground, waiting desperately for the next rain to come. This morning is market day. Sellers carefully stack their wares (okra, mangoes, bike parts) into the smallest sellable unit (5 or 10 cents a pile) and people drift about socializing and drinking rounds of tea. I suffer through the endless cycles of “Sita! You were lost! Now you’ve been found!” (the Bambara way to say you’ve been gone for a long time) I say, “Yes, I was indeed lost. I won’t get lost again!” But they’re glad I’m back, and I’m glad to be back. I know so many faces, so many names. We’ve hoed fields of corn together, we’ve danced into sweaty starry nights together. It feels like home.

After a week and a half without rain, the air clings around us like viscous soup. Sometimes I wish we humans had more conscious control over our unconscious bodily functions; I’m awed by our bodies, don’t get me wrong, but… when it’s 100 degrees outside and 95% humidity with no chance of evaporation, maybe sweating profusely (It’s like my body’s sprung a serious leak) isn’t the best strategy.

So when the Western sky “speaks and splits” as they say in Bambara, I’m overjoyed. Swirling black clouds bully in a fuming dust storm that whips over piles of mangoes and sends us all scurrying for home. But, as luck would have it, the clouds leap frog right over us. I stand bemused in my yard, surveying my parched tomato beds and my tree nursery, contemplating the broken pumps and the difficulty of getting water (strapping an old 20 liter plastic jug on my bike and riding across village). In three directions I see gray sheets of rain, but above me shines a patch of blue sky. It is difficult, even after two years, to imagine what life is really like for my neighbors. My garden is for the joy of it, not to feed a family. If the rains don’t come… well, I don’t really want to think about it. I can’t fathom it. We are so conditioned in the West to having control over just about everything in our lives. We believe that if you just work hard and apply yourself, you’ll be okay. But here, there’s a lot more simply left to the swirling clouds of Chance.

(and, of course, whether the chickens you sacrificed in April fell on their stomachs or their backs. J )


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Shea video on You Tube

My shea video is on YouTube now - with English subtitles.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sierra Leone or bust!

Chronicles from Guinea.

It's called a "sept-place" taxi. A used station wagon shipped over from the US after its so-called useful life is over. In West Africa, the sept really means nine or ten human bodies crammed into every last square centimeter and some spilling out the windows. You can only hope your traveling mates are skinny old men.
Luckily, there were seven of us traveling, so we pool our money and buy out the "extra" seats. And we're on the road for Guinea, hiking shoes ready.

We cruise into the gorgeous hilly countryside of the Fouta Diallo on our second day of travel. I wish for a helmet for the final three hour stretch of road (slamming into the ceiling as we careen over washboards and pot holes that make Kangaroo Island or the McCarthy-Kennicott roads look like super highways). We show up after dark at a little village named Doucki and meet the irrepressible Hassan Ba, a little bundle of energy (fluent in English, Spanish, Fulani, and French) who guides us around the surrounding country for a few days. We hike into Guinea's Grand Canyon, clamber up little wooden ladders strapped together with natural fiber twine, dive into swimming pools, and ooh and aw at the countryside. It feels good to sweat from sheer activity, to cool off in fresh water, to swing on rubber tree vines, and to marvel at nature's beauty.

After three days, we reluctantly pile back into a "sept-place" to head for Sierra Leone. But visions of sugar sand beaches dance in our heads and we're on the road again.

Our only concern is the glaring hole in our passports where we should have a visa. A group of volunteers went to Sierra Leone a few weeks earlier without visas and managed to 'bribe' their way across the border, so we figure, well... maybe we can too. It sure beats the alternative of paying almost $250 US dollars. We're volunteers, after all. (According to a recent Economist magazine definition of poverty, Peace Corps volunteers' wages fall below the international poverty line. We don't even qualify for the global middle class, at $8 a day) We're willing to pay up to $100, but if that doesn't cut it, we're going to head back. So we press on towards the border a bit nervously.
We reach the turn-off road to Sierra Leone and get into another sept-place taxi. Two muscled guys climb into the front passenger seat and lean back to warn us, "They'll ask you for money, but don't give them any." We exchange glances. Okay. There's four of us across in the middle seat, shoulders and hips and arms and elbows rubbing and sweating in unison. We reach our first gendarme stop and as we see a camouflaged figure sidling up to the car, I plunge into the mess of legs to roll down the window. A mouthful of yellow (palm oil) rice and teeth lowers down into our frame of vision. More rice kernels cling to the gendarme's right hand (that he holds out to his side) as he surveys the carload of white girls. He grunts that he wants to see our ID cards, and we obligingly hand them over. After a cursory glance, he says "the price of water." I look at the guys in the front seat for clarification, and they say "he wants a bribe." Kyle picks up his water bottle and says to the gendarme "Are you thirsty? Here, have some water." The gendarme chuckles (spraying some rice) and waves us through.
At our next official bribing station, the gendarme is cleaner. He's also fatter, taller, and drunker. As he approaches our open window, we hush our chatter to gauge our oponent. His eyes are wide and red, slightly watery and without the slightest hint of humor or compassion. I smile and greet him. "Passports" he spits. We hand them over in silence. He looks without looking, his eyes slipping transparently past our IDs to rest on our white skin that drips of money. "Il faut donner dix mille francs." As the sole French translator for the group, I tell him that our passports are in order and we aren't going to pay any money. We argue for a few minutes, me and his red drunk eyes. He yells at our taxi driver to pull back and park on the side of the road, then he shouts "You'll spend the night here!!" We shrug and call his bluff. I plop my head in my heads for a nap. A minute later we're cruising down the road again.

Before the border, the road turns to a dirt track riddled with potholes (an international highway!) We have to make our way through check point after check point, joking about why we are six women with one guy. ("Yeah, these are my six wives. One for each day of the week, and then I rest on Sunday"). It's weird to be back in a place where people speak English, so we start speaking to each other in Bambara when we want to confer privately. We decide to walk the final mile to the border in order to avoid the scamming cab drivers.

At the top of a hill looms a giant building. A billboard in front of it reads "Stop corruption." Then I see the sign on the building: Sierra Leone Immigration, Customs and Excise Department. We're ushered up the steps and down a long dark hallway, then filed into a small office in front of the desk of a lanky man in a well-ironed uniform. He flips carefully through our passports and looks back at us,"Why have you come here without visas?" We tell our story of "no embassy in Bamako, we heard we didn't need them, blah blah blah." Sweat beads pop out on our foreheads as he continues flipping through our passports and says "You're chances of getting in without visas are very very slim." He points to the wall where it says American citizens must pay 650,000 le to enter, approximately $250. He asks us to read it out loud. I notice that the next nationalities only have to pay 100,000 le and I ask him why they don't want Americans coming to their country. He says, well, America doesn't want us coming to your country, so it's foreign policy retaliation. He asks us why we can't pay, and we say we're Peace Corps volunteers. Immediately his face brightens and he says, ah yes, I learned English from a Peace Corps volunteer. His name was Martin... Then we discover that he speaks Malinke, a close cousin to Bambara, and we joke around and call each other bean eaters. We monkey back and forth for an hour, but eventually they turn us away. We're unwilling to pay, and he's an honest guy who wants to do his job right. With a forlorn glance, we cross the border back into Guinea. Our passports are re-stamped (exit Guinea, 4:30 pm. Entry Guinea, 6:30 pm... Where were we for those two hours?). We stone-face our way back through bribe-hungry policemen and finally crash in Conakry at 1am at the Peace Corps transit house, a true vacation destination.

We drink beer and eat pizza at the beach bar 50 meters from the house, and then we get a boat out to the little islands off the coast of Conakry. The port is the biggest sewer I've ever had the pleasure to visit (an olfactory nightmare), so in order to swim we have to get out to the islands.

I was reading Cradle to Cradle Remaking the Way we Make Things, a waterproof book made from fully re-cyclable plastic polymers. The author said "You can even take it in the bathtub." So I took it to the ocean.

My last vacation in Africa. Now it's back to work! Lots to do in the next few months.

A lot more pictures are on Facebook,