Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Long Wait


The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is one filled with uncertainty. The application process itself often takes ten months or longer, and there is a seemingly endless list of technicalities for which applicants can be rejected. From prior criminal records to chronic health problems to a lack of technical skills, an applicant can be rejected for these or any of a slew of other more mundane reasons. Many volunteers spend as long as six months with little idea of where in the world they might be placed. French-speaking volunteers like myself occasionally find themselves assigned to Latin American countries, and not all volunteers have previous experience in the sectors they are assigned to. Sectors often change at the last minute, as did my own (from girls education and empowerment to small enterprise development) just two months before I was scheduled to leave. In other words, applicants are required to demonstrate flexibility and patience long before they are accepted in to Peace Corps.

Once arriving in country the next adventure for the would-be volunteers is pre-service training, or PST (note that PST differs from country to country, so the experiences I write about here refer only to Peace Corps Mali). Not all volunteers make it through the two months of living in a rural village while going through intensive language and cross-cultural training. In some earlier posts I’ve described the daily schedule which would be grueling in itself but becomes more challenging with the exhaustion from adapting to a new culture and climate, the culture shock and occasional homesickness. Failure to successfully complete PST means a trainee cannot become a volunteer. To make things even more interesting during the first month and a half of PST we did not know exactly what we were working toward. This is because the announcement of our sites (the community we are assigned to work with for the next twenty-four months) comes near the end of PST, so volunteers do not know what specific tasks they will have or what their host communities will be like. My site is a city with a population of 54,000 and I work at a well-established sewing center with 68 students. My friend Anthony went through the same training as me and is in the same sector, but lives in a rural village of only a few thousand people and has no formal workplace. I live in a two-story apartment building and he lives in a mud hut. While I am several hundred meters from a paved road with hourly transport to the regional capital, his commute to market requires a long and uncomfortable bike ride.

Once dropped at site after training for the first three months of service, volunteers sometimes discover that working with their homologue is difficult (the in-country counterpart identified by Peace Corps and the community to aid us in our work) perhaps because of language issues or maybe a conflict in schedule or personality. Other volunteers are supposed to work with an organization, association or cooperative, and upon arrival find that their skills are simply not well-suited to the workplace. In this situation the volunteer works independently and with Peace Corps to identify people they can work with and projects that they can successfully implement in their communities. Given the complex mix of cultures and languages in some areas, volunteers sometimes even find that the language they learned in PST is not the primary language spoken on their site. In extreme situations a volunteer’s site can be changed, but this is a drastic measure mostly reserved for security issues.

Lest I give the impression that this is the dominant experience of volunteers, I will specify that my host community, host family, service (workplace) and job are perfectly suited to my interests and abilities. I know other volunteers who feel the same way. Most often though it takes a while for volunteers to identify the needs of their community and how they can best meet them, which requires a good deal of patience and adaptation. The pace of life and work for a PCV is most often a slow one. Sometime this is imposed on us from Malian bureaucracy but it is just as often a result of our own strategies. For the first three months on site we are instructed to not do any major projects. Peace Corps does not want its volunteers to rush into as many large and expensive projects as possible. PCVs do not have easy access to large amounts of money and are encouraged to focus on small, sustainable projects that increase the capacities of the local population and meet the true needs of the community. Another component of our work is engaging in cultural exchange, which is an essential part of ensuring that our work is sustainable.

So you’d think that given all of this uncertainty we’re used to and flexibility that we’ve learned, PCVs are exactly the kind of people you’d want to go through a coup together. Based on my experience the last few days with the twenty other volunteers here that is the conclusion I’ve reached. We pride ourselves on being able to keep ourselves occupied, eat local food, take local transport, and deal with difficult climates. We think of ourselves as being able to live out of a small backpack, stuff sack or duffle bag. We also have the advantages of modern technology. At our current location we have wireless internet for our laptops and a desktop computer on which we can watch movies and TV shows. We can keep in touch with loved ones back home without skipping a beat. We recognize that life could be a lot worse, so we’re very grateful for what we have.

One thing that doesn’t change whether we live in 2012 or 1991 (the year of the last coup in Mali) is the uncertainty of whether or not we’ll be going back to site. Our emotional ties to our host communities are strong. We alternate between scouring the news for any sign of a tilt toward staying or leaving and giving up the guessing game because the future is so unpredictable. The decision of whether or not we stay is mostly in the hands of our esteemed Country Director and Peace Corps Washington. A Peace Corps evacuation from Mali would affect everyone in a different way. Some of us have been at site for only two and a half months, others a year, others around eighteen months. If the decision is made from the top to leave Mali each group of volunteers is likely to have a different set of options. There will likely be even more choices offered to volunteers who have just started our service. It is likely, although I cannot say for sure what will happen, that volunteers closer to the end of their service would be offered the opportunity to close their service earlier.

So why is this long post dedicated to putting in context what is a mere nine day wait? Especially in a regional capital with most of the amenities that we aren’t used to at site, and much better communication than volunteers had a mere decade ago? For a very simple reason – this is a very difficult and stressful situation for us volunteers despite all of our patience, flexibility and good coping mechanisms. It may only have been nine days since we arrived in our regional capital, but most of us would say it feels like we’ve been here weeks. We’re taking it in stride, but we didn’t join the Peace Corps to sit around watching movies. We came here to learn new languages, integrate into new communities, exchange ideas and help train Malians to meet the needs of their communities. We’ve built incredible emotional bonds with our host families and communities and are dedicated to our jobs. Our daily lives at site, spent far from the upscale neighborhood where we are currently residing, are entirely disrupted by recent events. The life we have here in our regional capitals is not the life we have chosen, and the life we have chosen back on our sites is hanging by a thread. That thread now risks being cut by a military dictator.

So for the time being we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing for the past nine days – keeping up regularly with the news, speculating about the future of the country, calling our homologues and host families, and passing the time however we can. As the major Northern capitals of Gao and Timbuktu have fallen to the rebels in the past 24 hours yet talks between the military junta and the regional body ECOWAS in the last few hours seem to be progressing, it’s hard to say what will happen next. The pressure is certainly on Sanogo, and ECOWAS has offered 2,000 troops to Mali if the military junta makes the right moves, namely handing back power. Mali desperately needs the manpower to quell the growing disorder in the North, so we are hoping that despite all odds the junta is able to see that the best thing for the country is for them to hand over power to a transitional government.