Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer

When my friends laugh at me when I say I am African now..

When I went to the capital and had ice cream for the first time

Peace Corps Volunteers in a club in Bamako

Every time I would Skype with my parents

What people would comment on every picture I took of myself

When the tailor would ask what else I wanted him to do with my clothes

I'm Mexican-American and this was my reaction when I met a Mexican in Segou..

Whenever I would see a white person in Koutiala..

The feeling when I would bike 31 km to finally check my Facebook, and as soon as I walked into the Peace Corps house... the electricity went out

When the lady that makes the best street food told me she does not believe in washing her hands with soap..

When I would  talk to my friends back home about the awesome books I was reading

How I felt when someone would compliment me on how good I spoke Bambara

When my host mom said she was cooking my favorite Malian meal... tigadegena

When I began my latrine and well project!

What my American friends thought when they first saw my pictures in village..

My reaction anytime someone said we should go get a shawarma from Ryans..

Pay day! 

At the end of the month

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Life goes on...

A few months have passed since I came back from Mali. A fairly quick evacuation, a close of service conference in Ghana..My life in Ameriki has been full of reunions with family and friends who want to know all about my time in Africa. They would listen for hours about my life, my adventures, my disappointments, my saddness in leaving...

A couple of weeks into my life, people started asking what I was going to do. work? school? Go to another assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Well life decided that graduate school was next for me. I was accepted into the Masters in Political Science at the University of Texas at El Paso.

I also applied and was accepted as a Research Assistant, and will be working with a great professor, Dr. Tony Payan, for two years on a project that is about cross border governance. Everything happened so fast.

Surrounded by my readings for my next class, my mind cant help but wander back to the quiet village life I had in Mali.

Waking up with the sound of donkeys brays, the sound of millet being pounded by women, the laughs of children walking to school. As I unzip my tent, and walk over to the window, I feel the breeze that flows freely throughout my house, and watch my neighbors tending the small piece of land where they grow onions. I proceeded to my morning routine, not abiding my any time constraint, because there wasn't one. Preparing my morning tea, I would sit outside, under my hangar and read. I would open the door and people would stop by to greet. The greeting process takes a while.

i ni sogoma! (good morning)
here sira? (did you spend the night in peace)
     here doron (peace only)
i ka kene? (how are you)
     tooro te (I am fine)
somogow ka kene? (is your family well?)
    tooro t'u la (they're fine)

I reciprocate the same questions

awiya, n taara (ok, i am leaving)
     kan ben. k'an b'u fo. (see you. greet the people you encounter for me)
K'an sooni. U na men (see you soon. They will hear your greetings)
     Ala ka tile here caya (May God increase the peace in this day)
Amiina. (Amen).

Life here passes us by. In Ameriki. We hardly stop and greet someone in the way a Malian would. Here our live revolves around a ticking clock. My mornings in Mali were relaxed... here it all about the clock... alarm. get ready, and be out the door.

Its rough getting used to this lifestyle again.

Ni Ala sonna (If God agrees), getting my masters will help me get a job and I can once again serve others.

A class that brings me back to my life in Mali is my Political Economy of Development. I just finished reading a book called Bottom Billion. NOT ONCE does the author mention Mali.
when I am sure a large chunk of the bottom billion of people in poverty is in Mali.

Why do people forget about Mali?

It is because they haven't been there.

Because that place is unforgettable

Thursday, April 26, 2012

it is not easy being back...

Dear friends and family,

I know I always apologize for not writing my experiences more often, and I always thought I would have more time to do it, and now I regret it because my Peace Corps experience was cut short.

It all started on Thursday March 22, when a group of soldiers took over the presidential palace and dissolved the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure and suspended the Malian constitution. The reason for the coup d'etat was because the soldiers claimed that the military stationed in the north were ill-equipped and not getting food to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north. Capt Amadou Sanogo imposed a national curfew, shut down the airport and borders in Mali. They called themselves the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (long name..)

Mali's Tuareg tribesman who left to fight with Gadaffi in Libya returned to Mali armed and dangerous and decided to launch their own struggle for an independent state. The rebellion sent thousands fleeing south or to neighboring countries.

Following the coup d'etat, the international community (including U.S, European Union, France, Canada, United Nations, the African Union, the African Development Bank and the World Bank) responded by condemning the coup and suspended foreign assistance to Mali (with the exception of humanitarian assistance to the current food crisis). Also,the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is a regional group formed by 16 countries, responded by first offering talks with the coup leader (Sanogo) but when 5 leaders traveled to Mali to talk, they were unable to land in the airport when protesters took over the runway. After that ECOWAS issued an ultimatum- 3 days to restore constitution or else Mali would suffer diplomatic and financial isolation. The military junta kept promising a return to democracy, but did not offer a timeline to these promises. 

At this time I was currently in Koutiala (a city 31 km from my village). I decided for security and financial reasons not to travel back to village, as I wanted to keep in touch with my family and with the current situation. At this time people were panicking, banks were closed or ran out of money. In my situation, my Peace Corps allowance had not gone through, so I had no money. 

Peace Corps was very good in responding to the deteriorating situation. They kept us informed and told us not to move from where we were. However, those were the worst days of my life. I had my Malian friends calling me and asking me why I was not back home in my village, and all I could say was that for security reasons I was to stay where I was. 

The waiting game was emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting. Peace Corps tried to keep a positive light and promised that we would be back to our sites in no time if the military junta stepped down. With this, Peace Corps decided on Sunday night April 1st to deconsolidated Volunteers and let us go back to our houses. As I had to travel 31 km on bike to my village, I decided to go back home on Tuesday. I traveled back to site and as soon as I got to my house, I got a call from another Volunteer telling me to come back to the consolidation point as the situation in the capital was deteriorating. It was devastating. I walked to the dugutigi's (the chief of the village) house, and I smiled and promised him I was going to be back next week. Although in my heart I had a feeling I was not going to come back. 

That night we got an email explaining we were going to be evacuated. Given the fact that the ECOWAS sanctions were being imposed resulting in banks closing, the closure of the border, gas shortages, limited public transportation, and the increase in food prices, Peace Corps felt that it could not function well or provide support to the Volunteers. Also, the decision of the U.S Embasy to have 'non essential' personnel depart from Mali, and other Embassies ordering their citizens to leave the country, PC was convinced that it made a right decision to evacuate us.

Bruce Whitehouse, a professor of anthropology, said "Consider that in 41 years of working in Mali, Peace Corps has NEVER evacuated before. Through the killer droughts and famines of the 1970's and 1980's, through the popular revolution and the coup d'etat that toppled a longstanding dictator in the early 1990's, Peace Corps Volunteers have been in Mali, quietly serving the Malian communities in which they lived"

I think Mr.Whitehouse's words capture all our sadness in this situation. Evacuating Peace Corps Volunteers is not a decision that is taken lightly. We were all taken to the Peace Corps training center outside of Bamako, and then a couple of days later we were on a plane to Ghana for the Close of Service/transition conference

Because it was a circumstance that we could not control... Peace Corps offers us all the benefits like if we completed our service of 2 years. Which means that we are eligible for grad school benefits, non competitive eligibility, ect. The transition conference offered us counseling, future options, ect. 

Apart from the close of service benefits, we were offered direct placement (if a Volunteer wanted to be reassigned) and there were over 100 positions in different countries.
Another option is re-installment which is  if Mali reopens and Peace Corps decides to send Volunteers there again, we would get priority placement and we could return (this option is only valid for one year).
Also, another option is re-enrollment. Which is if we want to go to another country within one year and change our sector, we get priority placement and we do not have to go through the whole application process.

I am considering re-enrollment. That offer is only valid for one year, so I have time to think. I talked with the woman in charge of re-enrollment and she said there was a program in Jordan leaving in November that would be perfect for me.

I cannot even begin to explain why I want to leave again, but I feel my work is not done. I have more to do in communities and Peace Corps, no matter how challenging and frustrating it is... it was the best experience of my life.

However, I also think it might be time to settle down and start my masters. The faster I get my masters, the faster I can leave and continue working in international development, even if it is at the federal level in DC. I spoke to my former professor yesterday and he said its not too late to apply to grad school starting fall 2012! 

Its hard to adjust to life back home. I cannot even begin to explain how heartbroken I am, and the worst part is my friends and family think I should be happy and feel lucky I am back. Yet... how can I go back living my life the same when my heart is in Mali... when now I know that my village needs latrines... when people in Africa live off about a dollar or less a day, and here in U.S people take for granted even the most basic services we have.. running water.. ect. How? 

No one believes that coming back to the U.S takes time to readjust.

An excerpt from PC on the homefront book- along with some of my opinions

It’s a surprise to most Volunteers—and a shock to most families—
that the hardest part of the Peace Corps experience is often coming
home. Many former Volunteers have remarked that readjusting to
life back home is even more difficult than adjusting to life overseas.
But what can be so hard about coming home? The Volunteer already
speaks the language and understands the culture. He or she is reuniting with family and friends. Part of the issue is that Volunteers at the end of their service often strongly identify with their Peace
Corps country. They may now have more in common with friends in their country of service than with their old friends in America. Moreover, Volunteers are keenly aware that they may never see
these overseas friends again. The goodbyes may be permanent, unlike those of two years earlier. (this particularly is hard for me as I did not get a proper goodbye with my village, or with the people who helped me out during my hardest times in my transition to village life)

Returning Volunteers may miss the stimulation of living in a foreign culture, of the small triumphs that occur each day. No one gets excited in a shop or on a bus in America when someone starts speaking English. Volunteers may have no idea what they are going to do after Peace Corps service. (It hasn't even been two weeks that I am back, and I've already been asked a thousand times what am I going to do now. Grad school, go back overseas again, work? I DON'T know... I didn't think I was going to have to worry about this until another year.)

The more families understand about this difficult stage, the better they will be able to help their loved ones through it—and get through it themselves.

Another frustrating dimension of readjustment is the sudden return to anonymity. While Volunteers often complain about living in a fishbowl overseas, their every move the subject of intense scrutiny and still more intense speculation, they nevertheless enjoy being the center of attention and interest; it makes them feel special, even important. Speaking the local language, for example, makes celebrities—even heroes—out of Volunteers, as does being the first American ever to teach at the King Hassan II Elementary School or
to ride the local bus from Song Kwah to Phu Banh. Now, no one looks up when we enter a room or squeals with delight when we start speaking Swahili (or Bambara in my case). Our every move has more or less the same novelty value as everyone else’s every move. We aren’t special anymore—and we miss it. (It was that look on peoples faces when a white person began to speak in their language, it was an immediate connection, one that made villagers say wow.. you are not only here living among us but learning the local language in order to better understand my needs and my culture. Everyone in my village knew who I was, knew what I liked, knew exactly where I was and what I was doing... even though when I was there I disliked the fact that everyone watched my every move... now I understand it was because they cared, because they wanted to make me feel special and loved.. because if they looked out for me, I was going to be alright. and you know what? I was... I was better and alright... I was one of them.)

These losses—of home, self-confidence, and independence—are at the core of readjustment and all but guarantee that most returned Volunteers are not going to pick up where they left off. . For two years, throughout all the excitement and frustration of culture shock, pre-service training, settling-in, and beyond,
we were supported by other Volunteers going through the same experience we were. Now, suddenly and precipitously, we’re on our own. We have our family and friends about us, and they are
sympathetic, but they don’t really understand.

What about a returned Volunteer’s family members? Such reactions are probably not exactly what they expected, either. They were looking forward to seeing their loved one again after a long two years. Yet, after a week or two, all the Volunteer wants to do is get away, to go see a Peace Corps friend in another town. He or she is even talking about going overseas again! How is that supposed to make the family feel?
Families should not to take this personally. Its a defense mechanism, we just want to be with people who understand our experiences, and we want to be in search for that thrill, for that excitement of being new. For example, I want to leave for Jordan. My parents say no. But why keep me here? I just turned 23... I am young... isn't this the perfect time to go off and explore? When will I ever have this opportunity again? 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

8 month update :)

Hello everyone!
Happy New Year! Hope everyone is doing well and I wish you all the best of luck in 2012!

First, I want to apologize for not updating my blog more often. During pre service training it was said that once a volunteer begins to feel comfortable in country, one stops updating and trying to connect to life back in the U.S as much as one did when first arriving in country. I kind of feel that happening now. I have established great friendships with other Peace Corps Volunteers, my language gets me by, and I am now on my way to starting my first project.

In November, I went to my In Service Training (IST). A training period in which Peace Corps provides sector specific training's to help a volunteer learn about grant opportunities and potential projects. It was also the time where I got to spend time again with my stage ("Goodfellas" is my stage name). After IST volunteers are officially allowed to travel around the country! So after IST, I decided to go to Sikasso a couple of days with some friends and started planning my first trip.

In December, a group of 10 friends and I decided to go to northern Mali ('Dogon country') to go hiking and celebrate Christmas together. Having my first Christmas away from my friends and family was difficult but surrounded by such great friends, I feel like I have my own family here in Mali too. (Pictures of Dogon are below) For your information too, the Bandiagara cliffs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and they are absolutely BREATHTAKING!
The great thing about a Peace Corps volunteer is when you travel, its not like a tourist. Two of my friends live in the Bandiagara area and they speak the local language there which is Tomokan. It was amazing because we were able to visit the non-touristy sites too, and the villagers were amazed by these two white people speaking their language.

After Dogon, I worked my way down to Bamako with a couple of friends to celebrate the New Year...
Bamako is AAAMAAZING. I ended up staying longer than I expected as a group of friends convinced me to stay until the 6th to go to the new volunteers swear in party. 40 new volunteers become part of our Peace Corps family <3.

I've certainly enjoyed my holidays, but now I am in Koutiala getting ready to start work. My homologue came over yesterday and we went to go buy cement for my latrine and top well repair project. I had to talk him out of buying the 99 bags of cement we need all in one day, and convinced him it was better to do it little by little, so it gives me a better opportunity to manage the materials and supervise the project. If all goes well, we start building latrines on MONDAY! I am excited and a bit nervous! I am a 22 year old volunteer, supervising latrine building and top well repairs for my village. I am confident that this project will not only help my community but make them aware that I am serious and committed about my service to this country.

Apart from my project in the next following weeks I will also finish up another project that was postponed... the World Fair. I mentioned it in my previous blog, which was going to different villages and teaching kids about other countries and different cultures.

ALSO~ during IST I was nominated and selected as the Food Security representative for my stage. I will be traveling to Bamako in February for our first meeting of the year. Soon we will be hosting the West African Food Security Summit, and Peace Corps volunteers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo will be coming in order to discuss how we can more effectively address food security issues in West Africa.

I also have great news! So my last site mate had to leave the country, so Peace Corps decided to place a new volunteer near me! Her name is Kelsey and she is awesome. She is a Small Enterprise Development volunteer and she now lives in my market town 4 km away. We discussed about having a technical exchange, which means that one day I will be helping her out in SED projects and she can help me out in Water&Sanitation ones!!

I will be pretty busy during these next couple of months (but not too busy to take a little well deserved break.. ;) ) The Segou Music Festival is in February and it is a 4 day event with international artists and artisans from all over the country come and sell their artwork. It will be awesommmmee!

Thats all guys/// now for the good stuff.. pictures! enjoy. love and miss you all!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone- Neale D Walsch

Hey everyone! Hope all is well!

Life has been good and I have been fairly busy these last few weeks.

I have been working on finishing my baseline survey. I made my baseline survey quite simple, and only addressing water and sanitation issues. Such as- Does your family drink pump or well water, and do you treat the water, do you have a latrine, do you have a soakpit, do you wash your hands with soap, ect.
 I'm pretty much finished except for a few families who were not home and were out in the fields working. 

I really enjoyed doing these surveys, because I was able to get to know my community by sitting down and chatting with them. People are so kind, after finishing my survey, people sometimes gave me presents such as fruits, peanuts, pumpkins, and even chickens!

Just by glancing at the baseline surveys, I think that I want to work on building latrines, soak pits and help improve wells. Also to teach people about basic sanitation such as hand washing. Then, in November, I will travel to Bamako for my in service training (IST) in which volunteers learn about project planning, grant opportunities, donations, and sector specific language instruction.

Also during IST we will meet the new group of volunteers (approximately 40 volunteers) that are coming in, we are going to celebrate Thanksgiving together <3. hearts

Moreover, as mentioned in my previous blog post, I also worked on an international fair with other volunteers. It was part of a World Map project by two volunteers, they painted 3 world maps in different villages, and part of their project was also to teach kids about some of these countries. We gave short presentations on Mexico, Cameroon, Brazil, India, and Russia. Before the presentations we got together and Malian women helped us cook food for the kids (samples of cuisines) from Mexico and Cameroon. It was so much fun! Kids really seemed to enjoy the presentations, the music and the videos we showed.

At site life has been peaceful or as we say in Bamanankan "Here Dɔrɔn" - peace only.

Someone told me that if you go work in the fields, Malians will respect you. Therefore.... yes. I went to the fields to work... cotton and peanut picking! Omg its so hard! My homologue Samuel told me earlier this week he was going to the fields and that we should go together. Of course when I was picking cotton, every Malian that was around was concerned and pointing up to the sun and then to my skin and were like NOOOOOOO you will burn! Hahaha, in fact yes I was very sunburned after that, but I had fun nonetheless :)

I have also tried to make improvements in my water and sanitation committee. Last meeting, I suggested that more women should be included in the committee, because as of now, there are 4 women and 11 men in the committee. I was worried they would not like my suggestion, but they welcomed it and will be talking to the chief of the village about this. I think in a small way I am contributing to gender and development.

The elder men, the dugutigi and I also had a meeting concerning the pump. Since school started a few weeks ago, kids are always at the pump and they are not taking care of it. They bang the handle and contaminate it by putting their water bottles up the mouth of the pump. Therefore we concluded that it is best for one or two people from the community to be appointed to watch over the pump during the day.
As most of you know by now, ex-Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi has been killed. The U.S Embassy in Bamako issued an emergency message to advise U.S citizens about possible demonstrations that might be held in Mali. Gaddafi had many supporters in Mali and his death was remembered by thousands. The BBC article is below-

Currently I am in Koutiala. This weekend I traveled to Sikasso city and then to Bougouni for a Halloween party. It was my first time out (well other than Bamako), and I got to meet a lot of other volunteers from different regions and see my friends whom I haven't seen since pre-service training ended.

picture timeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

"oh mommy please read to meeee"

the international fair panel getting ready to talk to the kids

Volunteers who participated in the International Fair. 
From left to right- Elyse, Pamela, Delissa, Bethany, Claire, and Jaqueline 

the kids <3.

The boys eating the food we prepared

My homologue, Samuel getting ready to put the cotton in a donkey cart

my roommate

Bro and Bacardi .. they love each other

the new addition to my family, a chicken a man gave me. (this addition didn't last long as the next day I ate him hahaaa)

African sunrise... wow

My friends- Maria, Amy, Jenna, and Brooke

Maria and I at a hotel in Sikasso
Pool time!