Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in village

Making peanut butter to use in our sauce

All the kids from my compound in their new Christmas clothes

Look at that sweet baby :)

Batuma, Christine and I outside her house before we went to church

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ride on the "Bamako Express"; it was anything but.

Joelle showing off Christmas decorations we found on the side of the road in Bamako :)

Discharged from the Peace Corps medical unit in Bamako with antibiotics and advice to keep brushing and flossing (I had a tooth situation), I headed to the nearest gare to catch an afternoon bus to San. Bamako can be overwhelming and going to the bus station is no exception. Men rush at taxis shouting station names whose buses are leaving "Sisan, sisan!", 'now, now', and they quickly escort you and your bag to the ticket seller before you have time to think twice. At least that's what happened to me (and others after I shared my story with fellow passengers). But after the painfully long bus ride I just endured I'll be firmer next time and only go to the bus station I know is best. Here's a time line of how I spent the last 24 hours and a great example of how patience and a good book and knitting needles can make anything OK.

Dec. 22, 12:00 p.m. arrive at station and buy ticket
2:00 p.m. promised time of departure
4:30 p.m. actual time of departure
4:45 p.m. false start, just moved to another bus station outside of town to pick up more passengers
7:30 p.m. after bus fills up, we finally leave
8:00 p.m. flat tire
8:30 p.m. back on the road
8:45 p.m. loud crack, another flat tire
9:00 p.m. - Dec. 23 10:00 a.m. various breakdowns and run out of gas multiple times
Dec. 23 1:00 p.m. - arrive in San after almost 24 hours sitting in "Bamako Express" bus

So, what should have taken 8 hours (in a Mali bus on a good day, but is really 6 hours in a car going non-stop) took me almost 24. There were many times where I said to myself, Jennifer, what were you thinking when you bought this ticket? But I wasn't alone! There was a bus full of Malians thinking the same thing right along with me. While I don't like to generalize, even in stressful situations I've found that Malians have proven to take things in stride. Not that folks weren't upset about the constant setbacks but there really wasn't much we could do unless we wanted to wait on the side of the road and hope another bus came by. So instead, I tried to smile at my new bus friends as much as I could and it really made the journey that much better. I also befriended a precious little 8 year old named Batuma. She insisted on sitting next to me after we got acquainted when the first tire popped and then she fell asleep on my shoulder as the bus lulled us into a stilted slumber.

Coming back to San really felt like coming "home", especially after such a tiring journey. I took comfort in the familiarity of the boys selling bread by the station and stopping in to pick up packages from Miriam at the post office. Vincent, my tailor, had finished two outfits for me and they fit perfectly (pictures to come!) which put a smile on my face and his. Then, I stopped to have a soda at one of the "boutigi's" and lamented about my journey with Moulie who owns the store. He shared with me one of his own horror travel stories which made my experience feel less singular. Finally, what put the biggest smile on my face and laugh on my lips was the gift waiting for me back at the volunteer house. I started to tell my bus story to two of the other volunteers in the house when Geoffrey, the guard, (since volunteers aren't always at the house, Peace Corps hires three rotating guards to always be there) gave me a present wrapped in cellophane that said "Best wishes!" and was tied with ribbon. I opened it and found a bouquet of fake flowers and baby's breath from one of his friends who hangs outside with him. His friend is perhaps pushing 60 (nothing against older men, but a little out of my range) so the gesture really made my day more than concerned me (as it would if a younger guy gave them to me).

While I'm still rubbing my eyes with sleepiness and cursing the "Bamako Express" for being more like the "Bamako Broke", today (and yesterday) prove to me that I (and Malians) smile a lot more than frown and that's what matters most.

Monday, December 15, 2008

These are a few of my favorite things...

As the Christmas and holiday season come upon us, I thought I'd post some of the things that make me happiest here in Mali. Not pictured are the other Peace Corps volunteers with whom I've spent countless hours processing my experiences here, my lovely family and friends who've sent emails, letters and treats making me feel special, Skype, the list goes on.

Christine is a surefire way to brighten any day

I pass these two (and many other) trees on my bike ride into San each week and whenever I see them I think they look like two friends laughing together.

My cat, Caya, had kittens. While I'm not wild about having all the cats in my bed, they can be pretty cute.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

And we have a fence!

Yes, I even take timed pictures in Mali!

The completed fence with my house at right and the solar panel that charges my car battery so I can cook and read after sun-down

One thing I'm really excited about getting started is my garden. Esayi eyes me with a questioning look whenever I pick up gardening equipment like perhaps I'm holding it for the first time. While it's true I don't know loads about gardening, I've been doing my research and I'm also an eager learner and looking forward to all that Esayi is going to teach me. He came over this past week (well, just walked around my house really, since his house is just behind mine) and we got started building a fence to box in where my garden will be. Esayi did most of the work but let me pretend I was helping by letting me dig a few holes and weave some of the millet stalks. It's definitely going to be a hurdle to convince men that I can do any sort of labor. I get pretty frustrated when anyone tells me I'm not able to do something and my stubborn side comes up so I'm working on that. Fortunately Esayi, though quick to encourage me to rest, is also quick to see that I really want to help when he does manual labor (especially when I barely break a sweat doing it) so it's just a matter of persistence.
Annie wants to plant onions in the garden and I have seeds for watermelons, cucumbers, tomatos, carrots, beans and flowers.

Harvest is slowly coming to a close in my village (and around Mali). This past week saw lots of carts filled with millet being carted in from the fields to store in mud structures like the one seen here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Meet the Coulibalys

Looking at my blog, it seems like I live with only Annie and her baby Christine. In reality, there's a whole slew of Coulibalys. (women always keep their last names here so if they ever want to return to their father's home, they can).
From (left to right) Samuel, Ibrahim, Emma, Moussa, Batuma (Miriam), Le Vieux (Thomas), Annie, Khadia, Aminata and Christine. (Not pictured are Esayi (Annie's husband) Johanna and Yacouba, Esayi's brothers and Khadia and Aminata's husbands respectively.)

While only 1% of Malians are Christians, there are a lot of Protestants in my village (maybe half) which means a lot of one-wife households.
The family is standing in front of the kitchen where the three women cook. (kithcen in Bambara is "gabugu" - this language is too fun!) They're on a two day rotating schedule; two days one woman cooks and the others rotate pounding the millet and washing dishes. It's a good system though all the work is pretty exhausting.
While Malians may not celebrate Thanksgiving, volunteers do! I'm celebrating with others in my market town and can't wait to see the creative cooking that will ensue over the next couple days.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Market day (Sing "Bonjour" from Beauty and the Beast to yourself)

My host-mom Annie with her older sister, Khadia (left) and her mom Hawa (at right). They live in another village but come into San every Monday to sell a sauce ingredient I can never pronounce let alone spell.

This is another Hawa (not Annie's mom) who sells tomatoes at the market in my village.

Market day in San requires a few things from its shoppers including: sunscreen, a broad-rimmed hat, patience and a fancy-cloth outfit. Armed with all four (though my outfits leave a bit to be desired since I need to get another "complet" made), I head out each Monday morning to face the crowds and heat to buy my week's groceries that can't be found in my small village 15 miles away.

I try and time my trips carefully, leaving at about 8:45 to reach market by 9 when most of the women have set up their booths and laid out their cloths and baskets filled with vegetables, fruits and grains. You cannot rush the task and there's also the pervading sense of claustrophobia so that I find myself stopping after each purchase to take a deep breath before heading on to the next item on my list.

As I navigate the rows and streets of women hawking their wares, a steady beat from an animal skin drum keeps me in time with the other shoppers. The beat comes from a man who is selling medicine out of old soda bottles relabeled and filled with cures for ailments of all kinds. I hear "Toubabou muso" (foreign girl) and get offered pills that will make me big and fat for when I go back home.

Passing on the pills I head to the meat market where I'm supposed to buy two kilos of beef to make hamburgers with other volunteers tonight. Everyone else in the house seemed hesitant to volunteer for the job and since I'd never done it before and was going to market anyways I agreed to buy the meat. Now I see why folks don't jump at the opportunity. What in the states would maybe take 5 minutes takes about 45 minutes here (including all the greetings and blessings).

I started the process by choosing the cleanest stall in the row of meat sellers. "Sik" removed a hunk of meat from a hook on his stall and hacked off two kilos of meat that he then wrapped in butcher paper and slid into a plastic bag. Next, we navigated through the stalls to a meat grinder around the corner who turned out to be a 14 year-old boy named Brahim who's handy with a sharp knife. For 200 CFA (about 50 cents) he cut the meat into small bits. As he cut, the cardboard he used as a cutting board tore to reveal the bare wood table beneath it. Brahim quickly grabbed a scrap of butcher paper from under the table and slid it under the torn cardboard, nodding to me with a look as if to say "Don't worry, it's sanitary." With no running water, un-refrigerated meat and flies, the torn cardboard is the least of my worries. Once he finished cutting, we headed to yet another location under a hangar to find a hand-crank meat grinder attached to a small bench with a vice. His friend sat on the bench to steady it as Brahim attacked the meat grinder with vigor. I braced my leg against the open end of the bench as we spent the next 25 minutes grinding through the 2 kilos of beef.

Two hours later, relieved of my groceries which I dropped off at my host-dad's horse cart to be taken back to village, I made my way back to the volunteer house. Sweaty, grimy and feet tired after my foray into the market I relax on the couch with the other volunteers, breathing slowly and thinking about the delicious hamburgers we'll eat tonight. After all the work that went into getting the meat (on Brahim's part), I'll savor every bite.

Monday, November 10, 2008

How small is this big world?

For what you are about to see, I want to remind my readers that I live in a village of 1,000 people that is a 2 and a 1/2 hour donkey cart ride from the nearest city, a 9 hour (total) transport to Bamako (the capital of Mali) and 4,573 miles from the East Coast.

This is Sita Sogoba and me. I was shocked when I saw her representing for my hometown so I went and grabbed my favorite sweatshirt so we could commemorate our love for VB together.

I loved this man's shirt and hat. I've taken to walking around my village around 4:30 every day because the lighting makes everything glow (as it does all over the world).

Do babies ever get boring? I don't think so! I love playing with Christine because she's so self-entertaining and is always laughing and smiling.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How old are you and what's your weight?

Here's my always beautiful host-mom Annie with her baby Christine on her back, pulling water from the well in our compound.

This is my endearing and lazy cat Caya (pronounced chai-uh). She likes to wait until I've started reading on this table and then jump on and lay on top of the book.

Two things that are reversed in terms of cultural ideals here (for an American) are the perception of weight and age. In America, women and men would gasp at someone telling them they are old or putting on weight. However, where I am, people take pride when others comment on their increasing age and telling them they're getting fatter.

My host dad keeps saying "Djelika, you need to eat to be big and fat so when you see your family they'll say, 'Mali is good for you - look at the weight you've gained!'" I try to explain to him folks back home don't view weight gain in quite the same light but he looks at me suspiciously like I'm just telling him that to shut him up. Yesterday when I told my host mom how beautiful she is she replied "Oh, I don't think so, I'm getting skinnier now that it's harvest season, maybe when I put on weight." The juxtaposition of the American fixation with being skinny and the Malian ideal that the fatter the better is a bit jarring and is still taking some getting used to.

And as for age. Perhaps it's a universal value to respect your elders but in Mali, it's a source of pride as soon as you can start to say you're getting older. This isn't as jarring as the weight issue for me since I've never had a problem (in the States) of folks thinking I'm older than I am. However, while I know many people perceive me as distinguished and wise because of my uncontrollable laughter and skipping around, I don't think I actually come across as being all that old. When a man came to vaccinate the farm animals in my village this past week he asked me how old I was. I asked him to guess and he said, "35?" Smile on my face and suppressing a laugh I told him he was only off by a few years.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Health center and hunger

Here's my cute-as-the-day-is-long host-sister, Christine, in her Malian baby chair.

This is the health center. To the right is the maternity wing and the left is an operating room and the doctor's office. The vaccinations and weighing take place outside in the middle of the hangar.

In a village about three miles from mine there is a health center and a mayor's office that serves the needs of 27 surrounding villages, each at least 1,000 people in population. On Tuesdays from 8-whenever the work is done, the doctor there vaccinates babies and I come to weigh them after they're vaccinated since there are too many women and not enough time for the doctor to do both. It's a great way for the women in the villages around mine to get a look at me and to know me a little so if we want to do projects together I'm not totally foreign to them. I also relish the chance to hold sweet babies who aren't old enough to recognize I'm a foreigner and so don't start crying just because I'm white (which happens often with children ages 2-7).

By the time the vaccinations start there are at least 30 women waiting and they continue to arrive throughout the day. I keep a tally of the babies I weigh (at the doctor's request) and last week 75 women came between 8:00 - 3:00 to get their baby's first shots and a dose of vitamin A. Women walk for at least an hour, and in the case of my village, an hour and a half, to get this vaccination and as I look around while I wait for the next baby to weigh my heart feels heavy inside knowing they have another long walk home in the heat of the day with a hungry belly after the shots are done. They can't just bring a snack pack along with them to eat - all their food is cooked on a large scale and doesn't travel well so there isn't another option. None of the women complain about the long wait, long walk and eating late. I'm struck by the power of women and mothers because I know that all of these things affect them. I'm hungry and tired and I eat a full meal before coming and have a bike which speeds up my travel time so I know they must be too.

A friend asked if malnourishment is a problem where I live and the short and simple answer is "Yes" though it's not strikingly apparent. While I imagined hunger to be emaciated children with protruding bellies, the results where I am are more subtle. Most of the babies I encounter are fat and smiling but they are all still breast-feeding. Once the breast-feeding stops the effects of hunger become more apparent. Some children's hair gets a yellow-orange shade and I know there are extended bellies hiding underneath their t-shirts when children get their nightly bath in the compound. By the time they're 8 or 9 years old, the hair returns to a normal black and the bellies retract but their diets don't change so the malnourishment remains.

It's hard looking around me and feeling helpless in the face of such a big problem. While it would be easy to just buy food to give away, what would happen when I left? As I struggle with how I can be a vehicle for positive change during my time here the word "sustainable" becomes more and more a part of my internal dialogue. I've reached no neat conclusions to this messy problem but am hoping that further discussions with fellow villagers will produce some answers and together we'll be able to at least shake a stick at hunger and malnourishment.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Name, Age, Location?

This is one of the many Baobabs (and two women) that I pass on the way to my village each week.
The next picture is my host sister Batuma (if you're named after your grandmother or mother you aren't called your name - her real name is Miriam - you're called Batuma) and my host brother Emmanuel.

A few crucial aspects of the Malian culture revolve around last names and the married (or unmarried) state of women. Being a foreigner, these aspects are amplified as the people I live with are eager to learn everything they can about me (and I them). But this information isn't relegated only to the people with whom I live and work - sharing my last name and whether or not I have a husband is a daily occurrence when I'm at market or just walking around town. This has become so normal to me that when I talk with friends outside of Mali via email or skype - I forget that these are not things people share as they meet strangers. I'll try and give a concrete example starting with a little background anecdote.

There are a finite amount of last names in Mali, sort of like everyone being a Jones, Smith or Davis - except they're Malian so it's Diarra, Coulibaly or Dembale. When the French colonized Mali, legend has it the only clan of people who ran to hide rather than fight back were the Coulibalys thus making them the brunt of many jokes because of their lack of bravery. What they have here is something called "joking cousins." It's sort of an on-going inside/outside joke where when you greet someone for the first time (asking all the required questions for every greeting, new or old: Did your night pass peacefully? How is your family? How is your husband? How are your children? How are the people of your village?) you ask, and what is your last name? If you're a Coulibaly meeting a Coulibaly you laugh, and say a ka ni (that's good!) and maybe even shake hands. But if the other person is a Diarra or Dembale (or two-handfuls of other last names) they frown and say oohhh, a ma ni (that's bad! - but with a smile and a laugh) and then say, You're a bean eater! (Implying, yes, you guessed it, that you fart a lot) Or, You eat donkey! (Implying you're a country bumpkin I suppose, I haven't quite figured out why you'd call someone a donkey eater)

As crazy as this may sound, every time I go out to buy something I go through this ritual and since I'm a Coulibaly (and proud of it!) I'm constantly being railed on for eating beans and donkey. It's wonderfully amusing how Malians never tire of this joke and it's an instant way to connect with a stranger. Even if you don't have the same last name as the person you're greeting you can still laugh together and call the other person a bean-eater.

As for whether or not I have a husband, I always say yes to avoid offers of marriage so they can come to Ameriki (America in Bambara). But even when I say that I am taken the men will usually offer a "proposal" just to get a rise out of me and see how I react. I put the fire out pretty quick though when I say that men and women in Ameriki share responsibilities and that men cook, clean and take care of the kids alongside their wives (at least that's what I'm expecting!) and the Malian men balk and say, essentially, keep your extra plane ticket! :) I've also tried to explain the concept of a weak American dollar and a bear stock market but I don't think my Bambara has reached the level of economic discussions just yet.

I've learned a lot about patience in the short time I've been here and I'm sure to learn more. Malians love repetition and since I clearly stick out as a foreigner I constantly have to repeat what I'm doing here and the afore mentioned facts which can get a little tiring but is worth it. When I remind myself why I'm here - to live and be a part of a different culture - I leave with a smile on my face and a laugh on my lips. I'm going to relish these interactions for the next two years because when else will I be called a bean-eater because of my last name or receive endless marriage proposals because I'm a foreigner?

Monday, October 13, 2008

October in Mali means peanuts (we have pumpkins too!)

Another week at site come and gone. It's getting closer to harvest time so people are going out to the fields more and more to check on crops and start collecting. This week my family pulled up peanuts - and I think will for weeks to follow. Everything is done by hand and horse cart and I often sit and wonder how it's done in the states with technology since, although I am from Virginia, I don't recall every having seen a peanut farm and I know I've never been to a peanut processing plant.
The men unloaded the cart of peanuts, roots, leaves and all in our compound and then about 20 women came to help with my family's harvest. Groups of 7-10 women sat around big piles of peanut plants and got started pulling the nuts from the roots. I sit and marvel at the sense of community here. People are always outside because it's too hot to sit indoors and the houses are just for sleeping so there's not any room anyways. It's such a warm feeling of community, though I'm sure when I comment on this to my new neighbors they think, this is how it is, how else would people do it?
I finished my morning chores (washing my dishes and sweeping the hut) and pulled up a stool and got to peanut pulling. At one point, the women made me make good on my promise of guitar playing so I played "Lyin' Eyes" (of course) and my new hit, (or rather, Tom Petty's old one...) "American Girl" which I think is an appropriate song for me to use as a launch for cultural exchange :) One of the women danced during my whole playtime and so I just kept playing and singing because I had a captive (albeit, occupied with peanut pulling) audience. I had to take a nap mid-day (peanut pulling is tiring!) and when I came back the women were still hard at work and the pile just kept getting bigger of work "to do" as the men brought in more cart loads of nuts. But by the time the sun started to set, we had finished and everyone went back to their own compounds to get started cooking dinner and rest; here, because tomorrow is a weekend or holiday doesn't mean work stops. There's always something to be done and it seems like the people (namely, the women) of my village, never rest.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What am I doing here??

So you're probably all thinking (at least I would be) nice pictures Jennifer, but what the heck are you doing over there anyways? And so I'll take this blog entry to try and explain a little.
I spent two months (July-August) studying Bambara in a small village outside Bamako and 3 weeks ago I moved into my own mud house to continue to learn Bambara and get to know the people in my village. Peace Corp's approach to development is a slow one, and rightly so. We don't just plop into a village and start projects but rather take time to get to know the people with whom we'll be working and perfect our local language skills. In January I'll go to a two week training where I'll learn more about environment projects I'll be working on (we also had technical sessions for our various sectors during those two months in Bamako mine being environment) Some possible projects are: working with shea butter and nuts (exporting, selling, finding buyers), a women's garden, building a chicken coop to raise chickens for eggs to sell/eat, and various tree plantings. These are ideas suggested by the community I'm living in and I'll spend these three months and the next two years trying to see if they're feasible (financially and time wise). Since I'm not an agriculture expert (although art history and french are liberal areas of study, they didn't cover much composting or tree planting), I'm relying a lot on the people I live with to teach me what they do and what is and isn't working for them. I'm not going to be able to learn how to farm/garden in a way that I could possibly know more than what they do already - they've been doing this their whole lives! But what I am hoping to do is to connect my fellow villagers with resources to improve what they're already doing. To find a higher paying shea nut buyer. To dig more wells or install pumps for cleaner drinking water. It's really, like I said before, a matter of connecting the people I live with to outside resources. The village I'm in is pretty far off the main road and most people don't travel outside the village. But I am in and out with access to internet and other resources.
As for what I do on a daily basis, it's pretty relaxed. I wake up early (5:45) to my cats jumping on me and asking for breakfast. Then I wash my dishes from the day before and try and help my host family with their chores like pounding millet or sifting the millet once it's been ground. I also play with my 5 month old host sister a good bit while her mom works non-stop. I tell you something, they need to make Mother's Day a national holiday here because the women here are incredible. Non-stop manual labor and they take care of all the children. While I'm sure the men work hard, from what I've seen, the women do everything they do and more (hey, is this like the states?? :) Juuuust joking. I cook all my meals on my gas stove and have a fun time being creative with my somewhat limited resources. If I get tired of pounding millet (physically tired that is) I'll sit and knit. I'm a knitting fool now! Or I'll sit and read or write letters. My host mom and I go out to pick peanuts or chick peas and cut okra. Did you know okra is prickly?? I have to wear gloves because it feels like I'm picking cactus pears! At night I do some yoga, cook dinner and then go outside to sit and talk. My family watches t.v. that's connected to a car battery (charged by a solar panel during the day) and I try and understand what's going on but usually just talk with my host mom Annie as she knits and we sit and shell chick peas to eat.
Here's another anecdote highlighting the small-town nature of where I'm living.
I was in San on Monday and saw some women from my village. We greeted each other and they had seen me dance a little at the women's meeting last week and asked for a repeat performance. Never wanting to disappoint I agreed and gave a little shimmy and shake there in the market lasting maybe 10 seconds. On my way back to my village the next morning I was biking hard and sort of zoning out. The road is two lanes and not many cars at all pass by (mostly just donkey carts, bikes and some motorcycles). Well, I was getting close to where I get off the paved road and bike for about a half hour in the dirt and I wasn't sure where to turn off. I pulled up to another bicyclist (worried I wouldn't see another) and greeted him. After we finished our greetings (still biking) he said, oh, you're from this village, you take this road, before I even asked. Surprised, I asked him how he knew what village I was from (this was about an hour outside of San and he was one of about 5 bicycles I'd seen on the road). He said, oh, I saw you dancing with the other women from your village at market yesterday. Unbelievable! When I got home, I told Annie, my host mom, about it and she shook her head and said, Djelika, you really shouldn't dance at market, people will see you! I said, Annie, I think people notice I'm different anyways... :) But it reminded me so much of my own mom or someone telling me, Jennifer, now don't do this it's not a good idea so I couldn't help but laugh. If you were worried whether or not I'm laughing over here - have no fear, it's happens daily with all my social and language blunders. Not so different from the US!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Meeting with the women

I went to my first women's association meeting this past Saturday with Annie, my host mom, who told me she was heading over to a woman's compound after dinner. I invited myself along which she seemed happy about. Annie didn't say what time the meeting would start, just that she was going to head over after she'd eaten. I wondered how all the other women would time their meals to end in unison with the end of hers but figured it really wasn't worth getting a gray hair over. Time is a curious thing here in Mali, and apparently in all of West Africa. Folks joke that you have to WAIT (West African International Time) and it's proved to be very true. I like these tests of patience because it's teaching me that there really isn't a reason to rush - at least not if it means passing up an opportunity to have a conversation or to take your time with whatever you’re doing which is usually the case.
But back to the women’s meeting. After Annie and I had finished dinner I put on my tailor made Malian outfit and we headed over lighting the way with my high-beam headlamp. My village, and from what I've seen, many of the surrounding villages are sort of like mud labrynthes. The compounds themselves have lots of space for kids to run around and to do all the chores but sometimes the compounds back up to one another and are divided by narrow corridor-like passages that make me feel like I’m navigating a medieval castle. I hope my pictures do more justice to what it’s like here than my words.
When we got to the meeting place we set down the stools we brought and greeted the few other women already there. An older woman I think is the association president picked up an iron pot and started beating it with a stick producing a shrill noise akin to a school-yard bell. I looked at Annie and asked her if she was announcing the beginning of the meeting to the 5 of us already assembled because it seemed like a loud way to start a little meeting. Annie laughed (good naturedly) at me and said that no, she was announcing that the meeting would start soon for the rest of the women in the village. Sure enough, for about 20 minutes women starting trickling in with their own stools, flashlights and kerosene lamps. At the meeting, the women discussed their peanut field and that they’ll go out to harvest the peanuts on Friday. I spent most of the meeting looking at the women around me (about 30 showed up) and wondering how these associations function since my Bambara comprehension isn’t exactly at a level where I can understand a meeting. I’m spending a lot of my time observing here and participating too. Harvest season is upon us here in Mali so folks are heading out to their fields everyday to dig up peanuts, chick peas and beans and cut okra for sauce. Soon they’ll cut down the millet and corn and then the work of thrashing and storage begins. All by hand too! Annie determines whether or not the field is too far for me to go to; her concerns for my hydration and fatigue are high.
I left the meeting smiling at the other women’s compliments of my outfit (I think they find it endearing when I wear Malian clothes and they sort of coo over me which makes me laugh a lot). I hope you have a little more insight into what I’m doing over here and if you were wondering how big my village is, take a small iron pot outside and hit it as hard as you can with a stick to see how far the sound carries. And if someone shows up asking about your peanut fields, you’ll know why.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Two weeks in, chugging along!

It was my first Saturday night in Zana and I heard the tinkling of keys and a tap tap on my corrugated iron window shutters which means Esayi, my homologue, was coming to give me a visit. He announces when he's coming by making these noises because I'm so jumpy and I really appreciate it because it means I don't scream every time he comes to see me which is daily. I was in my kitchen cooking dinner, my hair still dripping from my nightly bucket bath under the stars. Esayi said folks were meeting at the church to sing and if I'd like to come, was welcome to join. I finished making dinner and eating it and made my way over to the church which is an unassuming mud structure no larger than my house, which is just the right size for me, but makes for a very compact worship space. I sat in the back on a cement bench and watched the evening unfold before me. Esayi stood at the front of the church with another boy, Emmanuel, and they led the singing. There were maybe 10 people there, but as the singing progressed, more people came out of the woodwork and joined me on my cement bench and others. I felt cozy and at home sitting there, listening to music I couldn't understand but could feel the emotion in the people's voices. A single kerosene lamp was all we had to light the room and it made the two men up front's shadows loom large before me and made everyone around me glow.

Top Ten Zana:

1 Cute little pigs run around everywhere

2 No cars - it's safe and eco-friendly out here!

3 Stunning sunrises and sets

4 While it's hard on the back, it is very soothing to sleep outside under the stars and with a breeze

5 Zana is filled with patient people who like to laugh

6There's an interest in ultimate frisbee! Little by little (Donni donni in bambara) we'll get a team going so we can play a game

7 Folks will listen to me play "Lyin' Eyes" ad nauseum (just like my college roomates :)

8 I don't have to worry about cutting the grass (or neighbors eyeing my overgrown lawn with weary eyes) because people just come into my yard and hammer stakes - with their livestock attached - into the ground. It's like my own petting zoo - goats, horses, donkeys, chickens. You name it, it's likely in my front yard.

9 There's a harmonious mix Christianity, Islam and animism which means I get to celebrate 3 times the holidays!

10 There's an endless supply of babies to play with and coo over.

And here's a little anecdote to give you an idea of what life is like here when I come to San, my market town:

Two of the other newly installed San volunteers were out shopping for house things at the market and as they walked, a child wouldn't stop pestering them. The kid kept waving an old book in their faces - and they kept shooing him away and, with their fragmented Bambara, trying to explain they weren't interested. The kid followed them throughout the market until he gave up and handed the planner to an older man who then approached the two volunteers. Now, with the children here, it's expected that they'll accost "toubabs" or foreigners, but older people generally tend to keep to themselves. The older man didn't bother with words - he just put the book in the volunteer's basket and left. The two volunteers were so confused - so they opened the book, which they now recognized as a planner, and flipped through the pages and found, written in small print and in pencil, the name of a volunteer who has ben here for two years and is extending for a third. The little boy had just wanted to return the lost book and knew our community is so small here, he knew toubabs would return this book to whomever it belonged.

This is just one example of why I know I've found another place to call home here in San/Zana.

Monday, September 22, 2008

First week at site

After an initial mix-up about the location of my water filter - move-in was great. I thought folks would swarm in on my room, eager to see the new person in town but folks kept their distance until the next day when I went around and greeted everyone.
My house is all moved into and I've got all my furniture except a bookcase. I spent this week getting started knitting with my host mom and greeting folks. My cat, Caya, is a great companion even if she does take up too much space in my bed. One thing, of many, that's lovely about my house is there's a wall around my whole yard, but also a smaller one right in front of my house so I can sleep outside in my mosquito tent without anyone being able to see me. Star gazing here is a big past time of mine and every night it seems I manage to see a shooting star.
I'm loving my village and feel like I really lucked out with my homologue and his wife who are terribly wonderful. More next week- I'll prepare a blog post before I come to the internet cafe.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

It's official!

Kamaje, my beautiful host grandmother that would clap as I danced and rub my belly when I said I'd eaten dinner and was full.
This is my out door bathroom, called a negen (with funky e's). Inside there's a covered hole that you use as the toilet. I'll bathe here as well and it's beautiful when the sun is setting because there's a perfect view of it from these mud walls.
Here is one such sunset in Zana.

Yesterday, (Friday the 12th), all the trainees loaded up onto one big bus and we headed to the American embassy. Once there, we listened to speeches by our country director, the acting ambassador, and our training director about our decision to join the Peace Corps and the completion of our training. Three trainees gave thank you speeches in the three languages folks learned: French, Bambara and Bomu. It was a little surreal looking around at the other volunteers newly sworn in and thinking about the past two months we've spent together learning about Mali as we studied our respective languages. Just to remind us of our roots, the ceremony was followed by a pool party at a club complete with hamburgers, hot dogs and potato salad.
Later in the day all the new volunteers and the older ones who came into Bamako to see us swear in celebrated together at the Pirate's Bar and then No Stress - night clubs owned by some Lebanese folks (like many of the restaurants and clubs are in Bamako). I haven't done much clubbing in the States and it was a lot of fun to get dressed up and go out dancing with everyone. We've all been going to bed early these past two months - usually no later than 10, 11 is pushing it. But last night, we didn't get back to the hotel until 3 in the morning, get crazy!
Nouhoum, the man in charge of our language training and a cousin of Malick Sidibe's, said we could meet this morning and travel together to Malick's studio which is within walking distance of the Peace Corps office. So I dragged myself from the mattress on the floor in the hotel room we stayed at in Bamako and walked over the peacefully sleeping bodies of exhausted volunteers to get ready to meet the man I spent 4 months studying last fall. I practiced my Bambara greetings with Nouhoum on the way and how I would say that I had studied him for my thesis only to find that he's on a trip to Europe for 10 days and won't be back until next week. But Nouhoum showed me his studio (pictures to come) and I'll be able to go back when I come back to Bamako in January for training. While disappointing, I'm glad that my Bambara will be at a conversational level by the time I meet him because even though Sidibe speaks French fluently because he went to high school, it's a palpable difference in the way Malians treat you when you speak Bambara and when you speak French. The interactions are so much more jovial and full of laughter and smiles when I communicate in Bambara than when I use my French.
I leave early tomorrow to take a bus to San to go shopping for my new house and to meet the police in San and find the post office. There's a nervous excitement in the air - after two months of training we're yet again moving away from those close to us (this time it's friends we've known for only 2 months but we've still developed strong rapports in the short time) as we did in July. I've got quite a laundry list of things to get for my house but am most excited about getting yellow paint to spruce up the mud walls.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Pictures from my site

This is my bed at site, with the current volunteer's things but you get the idea :)
Here's my cooking area, I'll try and duplicate this because it seemed to work pretty well.
My front room with the tent I slept in set up.  You too could sleep in a tent in my home!  Or we could sleep under the stars and on the roof.
This Baobab is right outside my compound.  The birds that live in it are really large, as you can tell by the size of their nests.

I just wanted to put some pictures up (I woke up early and not many folks are using the internet so it's faster). 

One week to swear in!

The smiles and laughs of children!  The one on the right is Umu who, although a bit of a pain in the butt at times, was my favorite at homestay.   Whenever music would play, her hips would get a little twitch and she'd just start dancing.  
This is one of my other sisters, Jatu, who often came over to see what I was up to and silently observe.  
Usuman!  This baby always had a smile on his face and was my favorite baby because of that cute smile and sweet belly.
This is Christine, the baby at my site who is 2 months old.  Isn't she precious!
My new house!  The structure in front and to the right is a kitchen, but I'll do my cooking inside and use that place as storage (?).  

I left two months ago today for Philadelphia, and interviewed with the Peace Corps one year ago to the day, and I'm having a hard time deciding how fast the time has gone.  But it definitely feels fast!  Just one year ago I was starting my senior year of college, beginning my thesis on Malick Sidibe and trying to take advantage of living with 4 of my closest friends while living in the unbeatable city of Fredericksburg.  This past year has certainly brought a lot of changes!
  But I digress.  
  Homestay is over and leaving was harder than I thought.  My host family took such good care of me- going to get my teacher when I was sick and giving me consistent meals (no surprises with them, I ate bread and egg for breakfast, rice with sauce for lunch and boiled potatoes with a bouillon cube for dinner every day these past two months).   We swear-in this Friday as official volunteers and I am chomping at the bit to finally settle and move-in to my very own place!  
  We take our language tests (for Bambara) tomorrow and I'm excited to see how my language has (officially) progressed.  Hand gestures and body language speak volumes, but actual words are pretty good too so I'm interested to see how I communicate in a more formal setting where me pointing and jumping around won't really cut it.  Bambara is a really cool language and I'm enjoying playing around with the new sounds and testing them out as I learn.  Our language teacher (for the 4 of us in Kabe) was a sweet, older man who often wore a t-shirt that said "Souled Out for Jesus" and was always there if I needed to talk or process anything. 
  There's a talent show on Thursday and I have a couple ideas a brewin' for my talent.  One is definite.  Becky, another trainee from St. Louis who was a horticulturist before coming here (and who has a good sense of humor and was a great friend to me at homestay) and I will dress as the Kabe-kaw (Bambara for people from Kabe and kaw pronounced "cow") girls in half Western (America) half Malian outfits as we sing along to rewritten lyrics of the Dixie Chicks "Wide Open Spaces."  If you're missing my singing, don't shed no tears, just get skype and I'll sing to you over the ocean.  I've also selected some of my favorite excerpts from the renowned author and performer Jack Handey, but we'll see.  
  I'm spending nothing but time thinking about my family and friends back home - life is going great but I miss you all and hope you know it!  I'll be at internet all week (until Sunday morning) and then after that, once a week.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


 Back from site visit in the scenic region of San (in Segou).  All the trainees spent the week at their eventual sites (which we'll go to in September after swear-in) getting to know the officials in the town and establishing rapport.  My site is very much like Kabo-san-Mali (aka Kabe) in that it's very rural, or brusse, the people are lovely and it's beautiful.  

Things of note in Zana (my site):

-Fully grown baobab outside my compound with about 25 birds nests in it.  The birds look like a mix between egrets and pelicans, large but not too noisy and very fun to watch.  If you like birds, you should definitely plan a trip out here because there are tons of different birds at my site in all colors and sizes
-I have my own house!  First time living alone and I have a 3 room place (3 rooms total...) with a bedroom about 10 ft x 10 ft, a "kitchen" a little larger, and a sitting area where there will be a lot of crafting going on.
-My yard is very large and I have a chest high mud wall around my house, outdoor bathroom (it's as romantic as it sounds, really!) and well where all my water for drinking and washing will come from.  There's also a special area for a nice big garden.  I don't think my foods will travel well in packages so you'll just have to come here to taste the fruits of my gardening labor!  
-I'm replacing a volunteer who did incredible work that is sustainable and she set a great precedent for me to follow.  Sometimes villages see foreigners as banks and easy sources of money because organizations will come in and just give away things without making it sustainable - the volunteer I'm replacing made sure all her projects were community supported and run.
-I get to bike about 15 miles every week to get my groceries for the week (just dried fish and dried onions in my village - tasty but not exactly sufficient) so I have a guaranteed exercise program/release. 
-San is my market town and is not as touristy as other cities like Bamako, Segou and of course, Timboctou because it's not on a river or main thoroughfare which means less tourists and also that the locals treat foreigners less aggressively.  Of course I stick out like a green thumb but at least the people just call out "Toubab! (Word for french, white foreigner) and I say "N'amu! (that's me!) and we laugh and move on.  Other cities, you can run into folks being relentless asking for money and things - not what I'm looking for.  
-My host mom is a knitter and has a 2-month old baby.  I knew I had big shoes to fill when they let me know that the volunteer I'm replacing, Tamara, was given the honor of naming their child.  !!!  But they seemed to like me and the baby peed on me which is a sign of good luck!
-The San volunteer house is incredible.  Not only does it foster much needed Peace Corps Volunteer community, it has a toilet, hot shower and full kitchen!  Lots of creative cooking took place this past week when we stayed there as we opened bank accounts and got to know the town.  The current volunteers are delightfully friendly and open and there's a large library (with books, VHS tapes and DVDs).  Nice to have such amenities so close by.  

And PS - definitely check out the Wollersheim Time blog (the link on the side bar)  if you want a cross reference for what I'm experiencing.  I could very well be lying (how would you know??) about how beautiful Mali is and what training is like- but let their pictures and words be an assurance that I'm not :)  

I'm leaving tomorrow for a long visit to my homestay site so I'll be back in touch in early September.  I'm writing everyday so let me know if you want a letter! 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


This is the view of my host family's kitchen and home (left to right) at sunset.
Talking about the fishbowl feeling in the last entry, this was the normal amount of people who would sit around me and watch me, silently, for the first few nights. Now that I can actually say something back to them, I'm less - though not by much, of an anomaly.
Me and Joelle, a kindred spirit, and another agriculture volunteer with our "dabas" in the test garden in Kabe. We're learning about agriculture through half-day sessions with current volunteers and Malian trainers in my homestay village through hands-on demonstrations. I wear my hat everyday but as you can see by Joelle's outfit, am not required to be in dresses or skirts all the time by any means.
This is the view from my hut in Kabe. The bench in the middle is where my host dad hangs out at night. The structure to the right is one of his wive's huts. Malian men are required to be provide separate homes for their wives and then they have their own place too.
Here is Gibril (at right) and his brother Adama getting ready to head to Bamako to play music. Transportation is funny around here, no one follows traffic laws and motos are always weaving in and out. Gibril charges my cell phone on this motorcycle battery.
It's been 4 weeks today that I've been in Mali and while I do seem to think more than usual about time and it's passing, that still catches me by surprise. It feels like I left for Philadelphia last week (sometimes...) and at others, like it was ages ago. We're getting ready to head out for our site visits this weekend where we'll get to see what our living situation and village is going to be like for the next 2 years. Kabe is pretty separate from a main road which is great for getting to spend time with my host family but not so much for spending time with other trainees. I'd like to be able to meet up with them during the week when we're at homstay but the road to Kabe, like the one to Casablanca (thank you for that movie Memaw!) is a rough one to say the least, so we're a little isolated. Fortunately the surrounding area is enough to satisfy me and when I go to site I will have a bike. In fact, my site is about 5 km from a drivable road it seems so I have to have a bike, even for our site visit this weekend, and I'm very much looking forward to getting to explore the village on two wheels.
It's fun coming back to Tubaniso and hearing everyone's different adjusting stories. It seems to "survive" here you have to have a vibrant sense of humor, or at least an appreciation for it, and an ability to look at what's going on around you and say, "yes, this is wayyyy different, but I'm pushing along." Some of newest, closest friends embrace laughter and sharing these stories and it feels so good to laugh along with them at the situations we're encountering.
Of course it took coming to Mali to realize how small the world really is. I went to Bamako for a quick medical visit with another trainee who wasn't feeling so well and we got to talking with another current volunteer who is one year in and when I asked where she was from, of course she said Virginia Beach. I was hungry and excited to take advantage of being in a city (which means I'm around pizza and ice cream!) so we headed to a nearby restaurant The restaurant had a bar area for passersby and the likes of me to sit and quickly refresh. I sat down to eat my pizza with the VB volunteer and we struck up a conversation with the only other guy at the place. The french reader and motorcycle helmet gave him away as a traveler, and perhaps the English as well, but we got to talking and found out, naturally, that he too was from the 757 - though Hampton and not our beloved Virginia Beach. He's biking around West Africa for 5 weeks on a moped/motorcycle he bought in Mauritania (or Senegal) and just taking in the scenery and culture before starting business school. It had only been about 3 weeks at the time since I'd been in the US but I was nonetheless already very excited at the prospect of pizza. I got my food and as we talked and very politely ate. When I finished, he looked at me with a little awe and commented "Um, you just ate that pizza in about 4 minutes." I looked at myself and laughed at the crumbs all over my pants and said, yes, I was reallly hungry.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jelika Toure - (that's Jennifer Davis in Mali!)

Thinking about how to explain my homestay visit is not so easy.  It's pretty indescribable but I'll do my best!  My village, Kabe, has about 800 people and is a beautiful farming village with one water pump and a small market that has vendors on Thursdays (sometimes).  It's the rainy season so it's lush and green and not at all what I expected (dust and dirt, dirt, dirt).  The shea trees dot the landscape as far as you can see and I greet two cows, a donkey and various chickens when I open my hut door in the morning.  
  I live with lots of families but am looked after by the Toure family.  When we met our families, they gave us Malian names and mine is Jelika Toure.  My host dad looks to be in his 70s and has two wives.  His son Gibril, and his wife Korotumo, really take care of me.  Gibril is a marimba/xylophone player for a band based out of Kabe and which travels around to Bamako and lots of little surrounding villages for all sorts of celebrations.  He's about 30 and Korotumo is 25 and they have 5 children, Umu (above) is my favorite because she's a doll baby and curls up in my lap at night after we eat and falls asleep.  Two things that I love in the United States, grandparent-age people and babies, are all around me in Kabe.  My host grandmother (one of them) is too precious for words.  I go to greet her in the morning but she won't talk to me until I've used the bathroom so she just pokes her head out of her hut and cocks her head and makes a "hunnh!" noise to indicate she's heard me.  She's about 70 it seems as well and has lost all her teeth, but not her beauty, to age.  Everyone speaks to me in Bambara like it's a first language (not because they are confident in my ability, but rather because they don't understand how I can't) and Grandma is no exception.  I will go and sit with her outside her hut and sing in English to her and she'll clap, clap clap and add her own noises along with my singing which cracks me up to no end.  I'm lucky because it is like living in a fishbowl, but my family does give me breathing room for sure.  
  We spend 6 hours a day doing language training and it's coming along at such a speedy rate!  The Peace Corps is surprising me everyday with how much they prepare us.  The health care is incredible - we have sessions every other day it seems about how to treat various diseases and any medicine I need, they provide quicker than I could get from a pharmacy.  Also, Mali is unique (I believe, this could be heresy) because we learn the local language, not just French.  My host brother speaks French which is very helpful, but I'm hoping not to rely on it too much as my Bambara improves.  
  Everyday is something new and different.  I'm blessed to have already met incredible folks who at the sight of an eye welling with a tear offer their shoulder for a quick cry.  We're all looking out for one another and it feels so wonderful to be in such a supportive, enthusiastic community.  
  As I write this post, I'm listening to two foreign service officers talk about their jobs which sound wild.  They came out here to give us our absentee ballot applications and talk about their careers and it's fascinating.  Not a job for me, but I sure do enjoy the stories.  
  In case anyone was wondering, fate is alive and well.  While I am just outside the capital, we've yet to venture in because of our limited language abilities and we've got loads of other training things to do.  My only interest right now is to get there to meet Malick Sidibe, the Malian photographer I studied for my senior thesis in art history.  All of our language and training sessions are led by Malians or current volunteers and the head Malian man is a cousin of Malick!   This isn't that exceptional to Malians because so many people have the same last name, but he seems to actually be related and has just relayed to me his business card with his personal number!  Gloria, am I excited!  I think I'll write out what I'm going to say to him before I call but I can't believe it's going to actually happen.  
  Training is harder than I thought it would be so far, but I can also tell this is going to be so much more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.  Thank you for the emails and letters - your words are keeping me going!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Toubaniso, Mali

  The Peace Corps leases a 10 acre plot of land from the Malian Department of Agriculture for our training site.  The compound is walled in though once you past the solid green gate you don't really see the wall and instead just notice all the lushness (of the greenery not people) around.  It's the beginning of the rainy season which was confirmed for me last night after using the naygen (sp? but it means toilet in bambara) at 4 a.m.  I drank a liter of water before going to bed because my roommates instilled fear in me as they reminded me that the doctor said we should be drinking 3-4 liters of water per day.  As soon as I crawled back under my mosquito tent the buckets released and I was lulled back to sleep by the sound of fierce rain on our tin roof.  
  All of our teachers are Malians and so far we've been learning about how to take care of ourselves to avoid "Mister D" as the doctor calls it (diarrhea) and safety precautions among other things.  Malians are very friendly people and apparently the only concerns are when you're in the city or urban areas where people are less traditional and take advantage of tourists.   Don't worry about me though - I'll likely be in a fairly rural place with lots of shea trees!  Mali is the largest grower of shea trees in the world but only holds 12% of the international market for shea products because the women add too many impurities to meet the standard.  I had my interview with my Agriculture director who said that I would likely be working with shea butter production and the marketing of the product or fish farming.  
  The Niger river runs alongside our enclosed space so a few of us walked down today to check it out.   This afternoon there were fishermen in gondola like boats fishing and one of them noticed us looking at him so he pushed his way on over.  We exchanged greetings (nodding and smiling when we didn't know what he was saying) and it turned into him asking if we needed a ride to the hotel across the river (obviously looking out of place on a river bank away from the city).  We can't really communicate beyond "Hello, my name is Jennifer, how is your family" so we smiled big and shook our heads before leaving.  On our trek to the river, I of course was searching for a hippo, but alas, was lucky enough to not see one...  My two current goals (aside from Peace Corps things...) while here in Mali are to meet Malick Sidibe and to see a hippo.  
  Today we started our language training for Bambara.  It's a learnable language though we're all still stumbling along through greetings.  All the volunteers here (about 10) who do our training and have been here for a year speak it very quickly and without any trouble so I know it can be done.  
  Tomorrow a cultural festival is happening so lots of vendors and folks will come out here to show us Malian culture in a microcosm.  We leave on tuesday for 12 days for our initial homestays where we will be in groups of 8 (though each with our own family) to really learn Bambara.  
  It's been a week (almost) since leaving Virginia Beach and so far so good.  More later!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Staging in Philly, the journey begins!


   Here's a picture of me and Memaw before I left, I've got good genes! 
  When I thought about this "staging" in Philadelphia, I imagined walking into a hotel with a lot of hippy guys and girls with newly shorn hair.  Instead, all the guys were in khakis and collared shirts (as the Peace Corps requested) and there's only one girl who shaved her head in anticipation of the heat.  
  I didn't know what to expect as far as the ages of people - and there is quite a spectrum.  A few older women (one that looks exactly - I mean it!- like Glenn Close, about three married couples, and lots of college grads!  There are about 78 of us - a lot more than the 30-40 I expected.  Everyone brings a different dynamic to the group as we prepare to embark on different journeys.  Some working in environment & agriculture (me!), small enterprise development, water sanitation, education, and one more I'm leaving out.  Some have experience, some speak French and some don't but everyone is enthusiastic. (Don't worry, we're not all freaking out on each other with my level of excitement and energy - we all express it differently :)
  There are 9 harmonicas, about 5 guitars (none filled with as much as love as mine - thank you to all the girls who got me my guitar) and one flute.  One guy who has never left the US and about 6,630 pounds of luggage to be checked.  We've spent these past two days sharing fears and anxieties about our upcoming adventure - ones we didn't want to share with family and friends that would scare them more :) We have lots of hope too; hopefully more than fears.  (I need a lesson on semi-colon use if anyone wants to comment with advice).  
  They gave us a generous stipend for our time in Philadelphia so we've been eating lots of good food and tying up loose ends (i.e. passport photos, books from cool used like the Book Trader - though none as cool as Riverby).   
  We get up tomorrow at 7:00 to get more shots at the clinic and then head to NY in the afternoon to leave from JFK at 10:30 p.m.  I'm doing great and still excited to be heading out but couldn't do it without all the love I'm receiving from home.  Thanks for your emails and calls, they've meant more than you can know.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Three weeks away...

I got my ticket to Philadelphia, PA yesterday to leave Newport News, VA at 9:35 on July 7th. Nervous to make one of the more final steps towards my Peace Corps experience, I had to take a few deep breaths afterwards to calm down. It finally struck me that I'm really going and these next few weeks will be hard for sure but also full of energy as I finish packing and storing things at my parents house. Looking forward to spending more time with loved ones and enjoying what Virginia has to offer.
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