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 6, 2009


Today was why I joined the Peace Corps. Today was why I went to film school. Today was why I spent months struggling to learn Bambara.

I came into Sikasso yesterday to finish up editing the shea butter training video that I shot in my village last month. I stayed up late into the night last night (taking advantage of the temperature falling below 100), sitting with the glow of my computer screen on our porch under a soft moon. Out of habit, I still woke up at 5:45 with the roosters this morning, and the buzz of the city (the motorcycles, the goats, the jabbering radios) pulled me up. 

Like every Tuesday, I went to Radio Kenedougou - the radio station where I have my weekly radio show - "Aux bords de l'amitiĆ©"  (on the banks of friendship). With my ever-improving language skills, the show has really come into its own. This month we've talked about tree planting, global warming, and we did a really great show exploring the question: "What is development?" One of my friends in village came up to me last week and said "I loved that point you made on your show about how Africa may be physically decolonized, but we can't advance until we decolonize our minds and allow ourselves to develop as Africans, not imitations of the West." Indeed. This morning's show was on individuality vs. communalism, and we compared American and Malian attitudes (from how we eat to how we treat old people).

My work partner Abdouleye came in to Sikasso around lunchtime and we got a ride with my friend Alou out to another volunteer's village 10km from Sikasso. We showed up an hour late and had to wait another hour for everyone to show up. Nothing unusual. Abdouleye and I just hung out under a mango tree, cooled by a gusty Western wind. We made observations about little differences we noticed in the village. Once the crowd had grown to more than fifty women, I opened the meeting to an enthusiastic murmuring of "Eh! Ala. She speaks Bambara fluently!" The women were wide-eyed and attentive. As seasoned shea butter trainers, Abdouleye and I stepped right into our element, asking the women about their current shea practices and then using our visual aids to go step-by-step through the improved process. When we finished I thanked the women for their attention span and then asked them, "If you can still sit still, I've made a little movie about shea butter production." We moved into a dark spot behind a building, and I pulled out my shiny, sleek MacBook, and propped it on a hand-carved wooden stool. The crowd huddled around and shhed each other into silence. I pressed play.

For twelve minutes, they were glued to the screen. They let out gasps of surprise and clicks of agreement, and when the credits finally rolled they erupted in applause. Success! I'm using my skills for something good in the world. Thy gave me a giant bag of mangoes and the women exhorted me to come back again. 

Next up? Trying to get the movie broadcast on national television!

I have also finally uploaded a little video clip to YouTube. It is a balafon party in my village in December. Just rough footage, but you can see just what incredible dancers they are!!