Friday, November 25, 2011

What's Mali Really Like?

My main hope going into training was that Peace Corps would allow me to engage with the full cultural richness of the country, and in this way the organization has absolutely lived up to my expectations. Many organizations give their foreign staff/volunteers in country very cursory language and cultural education, if such training is provided at all. To be fair, such training is expensive, time-consuming and often inconsistent with the dominant strategy of mounting one-size-fits-all development projects. However, I would argue that looking for shortcuts to understanding a place and people is never a good idea as it leads to increasing and reinforcing innacurate stereotypes. Not to mention making the whole project more susceptible to failure. I'm ashamed to say that I hear all the time about staff from reputable organizations making innapropriate comments or decisions regarding host country nationals simply because they haven't spent the time to truly understand the context within which they are working. I have come to believe that Peace Corps is unique in the emphasis they put on cultural adaptation.

What makes Peace Corps any different? Why do we spend the time when so few other organizations do? As volunteers working alone at mostly rural sites, our success as agents of development depends entirely on the support of our host community. As outsiders (specifically Toubabus, or white people) from the get-go, it is up to us to earn the trust of those with whom we live/work. This is why PST is so important - the hundreds of hours of language and cross cultural training, along with living with a Malian homestay in the local community, give us the tools we need to begin understanding the Malians at our future placement site. Our Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs), Malian educators who work with us at our homestay site, are quick to dispell any sweeping generalizations we may be tempted to make, pointing out the myriad of exceptions that exist. Mali is a vast country with an incredible amount of diversity - there are dozens of different languages, dozens of different ethnic groups, and vastly different climates all over the country. Our job as volunteers in Mali is more about people and relationships than it is about solving problems, since without the former the latter is next to impossible. One of the few useful generalizations to be made about Malians is that relationships are paramount and that the nature of relationships will change dramatically depending on where you are in the country.

During homestay we have classes for more than six hours a day in the compound (or concession, as it is often known as here) of a local family, who is compensated by Peace Corps to host our two LCFs. We have come to know the family who hosts our LCFs quite well over the first three weeks, and we are constantly greeting, joking, and asking them questions. Mama, the wife and mother of the concession, is always working a few meters from us while we study, washing clothes, pulling water from the well, cooking lunch or dinner, preparing to go to market or anything else from her infinitely long list of daily tasks. Her husband, Brahima, we see less often since he works every day in the rice fields. Their young son uses the same whining tactic every day to get Mama to tie him onto her back while she works.

Sometimes in our cross-cultural classes (for example a recent one on religious ceremonies), the LCFs decide that we need the opinion of someone who lives in our host community. So they'll ask Mama or another member of her family to help explain to us how the ceremonies are organized in their village. We have a handbook that provides basic information on such topics, but it is interesting to note the discrepancies between the book and the experience described by the villagers. This is not to say that the book is incorrect, but it clearly does not fully explain the experience in this particular location. Recently we were studying the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west), and our LCFs stopped class to ask Mama which variation on the Bambara word for North was used in that region (turned out to be the one he least expected). Perhaps my favorite example is my 20 year old host brother.

We had been taught in our first few days of training that a good general rule is to avoid too much direct eye contact (it is considered impolite, in contrast to its perception in the US) and to expect that people will not talk while eating. This is 100% true with my 43-year-old host father, who will barely look me in the eye and refuses to speak while eating. On the other hand, Abdoulaye, my host brother, will stare me in the eyes for minutes at a time while we talk, and we carry on long conversations while eating. I haven't figured out yet how much of his behavior is his personality, how much it comes from his sub-culture of being a young man, and how much of it is a genearl trend in the village. I suspect that it is mostly the first two and less likely to be the latter, but I can say that being open to the uniqueness of the situation has allowed me to create a wonderful connection that I might otherwise have missed. You can see how one-size-fits-all development projects could run into some difficulty in such an environment and why translators from the exact region the project is located in is a must.

The emphasis in our training is on real, practical knowledge, which does come at the expense of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations. I will be the first to admit that I have become frustrated when after learning two variations on the pronunciation of a Bambara word my host family confuses me by coming up with a third variation that even my LCFs hadn't heard before. But the truth is, that's Mali. I don't believe there are shortcuts to be had in cultural learning, and it's dangerous to tell oneself that there are. The diversity that exists in this country cannot be boiled down to a magic formula, and although it means more work for me, I'm much happier knowing I'm dealing with reality. On top of that, I'm learning how to learn, and the skills that I build in adapting to life here in Mali will help me adapt to cultures across the globe. Peace Corps Mali is a people-centered organization, and it shows!