Thursday, January 22, 2009

What if the mightiest word is love?

I'm putting on a bee suit to collect honey from the hives (killer African bees!). My suit ended up having a hole in it so I just walked around wearing the suit...

This is at the Peace Corps training site in Bamako. We're learning by doing which is great for folks with short attention spans :) Here we learned how to make mud stoves so when women cook they use less firewood which means less strenuous trips out to collect firewood.

The first week I was in Mali all the new trainees (soon to be volunteers) took an oral language test to gauge our level in French if we had studied it previously. The questions became increasingly difficult to encourage the use of complex verb tenses and vocabulary and my test ended with a question about terrorism and war and what I thought a solution could be. I thought for a minute and then tentatively responded "Love?" My interviewer looked at me and said "Precisement."
As I sat and watched the inaugural address from a club in Bamako I was brought back to that first week of training over 6 months ago (!) when Elizabeth Alexander asked in her inaugural poem "What if the mightiest word is love?" It was so exciting to sit with my fellow Mali volunteers and listen to President Obama's powerful speech and the prayers and poem that accompanied it. The Malian response to Obama's election is overwhelming. I'd wager a guess that most Americans don't know where Mali is on a map let alone who the president is (Amadou Toumani Toure) but you better believe folks here know who our president is.
Life in Mali is worlds away from my life in Virginia. But some things are universal. I've laughed and cried with my new family (both American and Malian) and seen that families here want the same things we want in the states. Better lives for their children. Jobs to provide for their families. Communities to share in joys and lessen the sorrows. Why do people want all of these things? I think the answer is simple - love. I can't wrap my mind around how these needs aren't met for people here and am hoping that over the next two years I'll find some answers to my own questions about poverty and development in Mali.
As independent as I sometimes feel, I know I depend a lot on the support and love of my family and friends. And as I get ready to jump into two years of projects and cultural exchange here in Mali I'll keep in mind that for me, love is the mightiest word.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January in Mali

This is in Tonka - a small port town on the Niger. These camels are sassy.

I'm at the beginning of a three week technical training with the 70 other volunteers I came with in July learning skills specific to our sectors. Each day I meet with the other environment volunteers for morning and afternoon sessions to learn about making garden plans, beekeeping, chicken raising, nutrition formations, live fencing, mud stoves, ecotourism, GPS tracking of shea trees, grafting and starting garden associations just to list a few. It's certainly exhaustive in terms of subjects covered but the general feeling of the volunteers is give me technical skills so now I can use the language I've been trying to master these past 6 months.
Our role as volunteers is becoming clearer as we meet with handfuls of researchers from the countless NGO's here in Mali to learn how to implement projects like an improved rice planting technique and how to conduct Farmer's Field Schools. There's a unique relationship between these researchers and Peace Corps volunteers because we're eager to find out new information and they're looking to move their information from the lab to the field (or to find new locations to implement their practices). While I'm still no expert and not trying to be, I am making invaluable contacts and learning new information to share with my village who wants to increase crop yields, build a cereal bank, install pumps, basically improving upon techniques they already practice. I'm excited for Annie (and baby Christine) to come in a week when we'll focus on shea work and hopefully she'll teach me how to knit baby booties (we've spent the past 4 months doing hats, sweaters, shirts and pants).
It's been great to hear what volunteers who have already been here a year are doing (or have done) for projects and learn about the struggles and successes they've encountered in their service. Sometimes it feels like I'm non-stop processing what I'm doing with other volunteers which can get a bit repetitive - sometimes negative - and exhausting but maybe that's just life.

As an unrelated (to this post) side note, I had a great New Year's with the Wollersheims, Joelle and Bubba - Ashley's brother, in Dogon country. I didn't hike with the other volunteers over Christmas but we did take a wonderful boat trip on the Niger. It's incredible the power of surrounding yourself with positive people who love being goofy. I've certainly been blessed with friends here (and of course at home in Ameriki!) which has made living here a lot easier.
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