Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Long Wait is Over, Part 1

On Friday the 13th of April after evacuating to Ghana due to the security situation in Mali, we had a close of service ceremony during which all volunteers of Peace Corps Mali were given the status of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. So how did we get to the point of prematurely ending the service of 180 volunteers? What does that feel like? To start to tell that story, this post is a bit longer than usual.

In my last post about Peace Corps Mali, The Long Wait, we were still in consolidation in our regional transit houses (mine was Segou). Days were filled with cooking, playing cards, watching TV shows, calling host families, planning to paint murals in the community, catching up on months of backlogged email, and anything else we could think of to pass the time. The heat was oppressive, and even with all the fans going in the house we were sweating through our clothes onto the chairs and couches. One particularly nice couch made of traditional bogolan fabric took on the permanent feel and smell of wetness. When allowed to we ventured out into the city in search of street food, cooking ingredients, a swim in the pool of a local hotel, a cold beer, or a decent restaurant meal. One night we had a dust storm and I awoke the next morning with a scratched up throat since I had been sleeping next to a window. I usually dealt with dust storms by a wrapping a long scarf around my head to protect my head, but because of reported violence toward light-skinned people (presumed to be Tauregs) I began to think twice about covering my face in public.

On Sunday April 1st, shortly after my last post, we were told in a Peace Corps-wide message that we would be temporarily deconsolidating – we had the opportunity to return to our sites to touch base with our host communities, grab any essentials we hadn't packed for consolidation, and tie up any lose ends on our projects. The instruction was to return by Friday the 6th. The message specifically indicated that cities north of the Niger River, where I and a handful of other volunteers had been working, were still off limits. It was one more nail in the coffin for us northerners, as it seem increasingly likely that even if Peace Corps stayed in Mali several of us would never be allowed to return to our sites.

I had taken care to prepare myself for this kind of news since sites were first announced in December – Niono was on the red line that delineated the off-limits zone for volunteers. Accordingly, I was instructed to not travel north of the city. I tried to be realistic about the fact that a lot could happen during my two years of service to cause Peace Corps to shift the line southward and thus requiring me to change my site. At the time I perceived the greatest threat to be kidnapping of Westerners since AQIM was very active. Despite my awareness of the risk, it was still rough though to realize that the mental preparations I had made for a possible site change were ending up serving a purpose, and it felt bizarre to find them useful not because of terrorist activity but because of a rebellion and military coup.

Leading up to the coup I never felt directly threatened at site. I felt well looked after by my host family and community. People always speculated that Niono was too big and too far South to be taken. That, of course, was before the fall of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Nevertheless, to my knowledge there is still no specific reason for rebels or other fighters to make the city a target and to date there has not been fighting in Niono. In the weeks leading up to the coup when there were smaller scale attacks by the MNLA up north in towns sometimes only 80km away we would regularly hear outrageous rumors that “rebels are going to attack Niono tomorrow.”  In a city of 54,000 there will always be such rumors somewhere, and Malians like to have something to talk about over tea, so the gossip repeatedly got blown out of proportion. Another time a couple soldiers deserted from the army to go fight with the MNLA up north, or that’s how the story went. I learned during consolidation that there had been some stirrings in other villages about the possibility of a military coup because of growing dissatisfaction with president TourĂ©'s ability to calm the rebellion. I find it surprising and intriguing that I had never heard those rumors at my site.

Getting back to the story, we were not told whether this temporary deconsolidation indicated one way or another that we might be evacuated. Speculation ran wild in our minds for a few minutes as it always did after big news. During consolidation it was normal for people to announce to a silent room, for anyone to hear, why they felt that we would be evacuated (or not) based on the latest news they’d pulled off of the BBC. Other times we ran through in our minds how decision-making must work in Washington when dealing with coups. It was easy to make the argument that Peace Corps knew when they sent the deconsolidation email that evacuation would be a necessity. It gave us the feeling of "this is your last shot to see everyone again." In reality, however, there had been many previous developments which we thought indicated a shift toward evacuation but instead resulted in a prolongation of consolidation. Speaking with an RPCV from Madagascar online I learned that they had spent three weeks in consolidation before evacuating. It should be clear by now how important it was to us to be able to trust that our Country Director was working hard to keep Peace Corps in Mali while still being honest and forward with us.

A couple hours later we were informed, to our dismay and in direct contradiction to the deconsolidation email, that none of the volunteers in Segou region would be allowed to return to site. We were too close to the front lines and the situation was too unpredictable. The news set off a wave of frustration since many people had made travel plans and told their host families they would be returning. At the time of the announcement I had been playing around with the idea of going with my friend Lisa to her site in Markala, which was as close to Niono as I would have been able to get. I figured that if the situation calmed down while I was camped out there then it would put me in a better position to hop on a bus to Niono. So much for that thought ... none of us were allowed to go anywhere.

Later the next day we received another message informing us that all volunteers would be reconsolidated to Tubaniso, outside of Bamako. ECOWAS sanctions were going into effect and access to money was becoming unreliable so it was prudent to make sure that we were in a safe and sustainable situation. There were also rumors of buses being stopped by armed men in various locations across the country and a number of other worrying developments in the news. We made plans to leave Segou over the next two days.  

A bright spot shone in these last hours in Segou, and that was the marriage of two volunteers in our region. Jason Bliss and Devon Larson had planned to get married in Bamako later in April.  Now faced with the possibility of evacuation before their ceremony, they worked with our regional coordinator to get the schedule pushed up to April 4th. A handful of volunteers stayed in Segou an extra day to attend the ceremony at the mayor’s office. I had the great pleasure of getting to know Jason just before the coup and it was heartwarming to be present at the ceremony. Afterward we had drinks at a local hotel we frequented, l’Auberge. Then we headed to the bus station to catch a ride to Bamako. Although the ride was uneventful many of us kept a nervous eye out the window just in case. I also think that in the back of our minds some of us we were already thinking in terms of our “lasts” – last public bus ride, last crazy food sellers, last 50 cfa water sachet, etc. We knew that once we got to Tubaniso our movements would likely be tightly restricted. We ran into a massive traffic jam coming into Bamako caused by a huge line of slow-moving trucks carrying a mix of what appeared to be construction materials and office supplies (chairs, wooden desks, etc.). I still have no idea what was going on there.

We arrived in Bamako a little numb from the long trip, waiting at the dark and deserted bus station for a Peace Corps vehicle to pick us up and take us to Tubaniso. A friend needed to use the sketchy bathroom and asked me to hold the broken door closed for him. Where we sat in the station a hundred meters from the bathrooms the smell of raw sewage seeped around the wall we leaned against with our bags. Suddenly, one of us got a text message from another volunteer saying that we had been given the order to evacuate. Now wanting multiple sources before we believed any important news we waited for further confirmation, which came shortly.

The tiny relief of having the seemingly interminable wait finally end was overshadowed by an enormous sense of loss. A thousand thoughts running through our minds. There were no immediate reactions; we were just in quiet, reflective shock. Some of us then got on the phone to contact loved ones both in Mali and abroad. After a few minutes some began softly crying, while others comforted them.

How do you react when you learn that after five intense months spent learning a language, a culture, technical skills, integrating into communities, planning projects, making huge personal sacrifices, enduring harsh weather and difficult living conditions, experiencing homesickness, culture shock and physical illness, you learn that you have to abruptly leave instead of spending the next twenty-two months doing the work that all these preparations were for? Mali tested us, forcing us to work hard for our successes and teaching us to  become best friends with failure. And how about the love that you have for your host family at site, your host family from training, your Malian friends, your American friends, your neighbors, your colleagues, your pets, your favorite Malian food, your market ladies, your home that’s finally started to feel like home, your garden, your plans, your daily routines? Mali had become precious to us, more than a home to us.

I think it’s rare that any two volunteers are really in the same place at the same time in their service mentally, physically or emotionally. The beauty of it is that volunteers learn to be humble when with others and sensitive to the fact that we all have our own struggles and triumphs that we go through at different times. Circumstances and experiences vary greatly from site to site and volunteer to volunteer. On top of that, volunteers also arrive at different times, so while I was in Mali there were four groups of volunteers. Some, like me, had recently begun their service. Others were only two or three months away from the end of their service. I know volunteers who were almost finished with their full service yet felt like their work had only just begun. Some of them were planning to extend their service for an extra year. I also know volunteers who were tired of their service less than a year in, felt like their work was futile and were ready to leave. Living through a situation as challenging as Peace Corps can be as big an internal (mental, emotional, spiritually) struggle as it is an external struggle to do the job that you are assigned to do.

In the end this all means that every volunteer is dealing with evacuation in a slightly different way. The experience was intensely personal, while still creating intimate bounds between volunteers because of the experiences they did share. So dealing with all these mixed emotions is a complex and challenging process. It’s not something you "get over," since Mali is a place that stays with you, it's something that you process and integrate. I’m discovering every day new feelings about what it’s like to no longer be there. There is a healing and a grieving process to be gone through, and there is a lot to be learned from my experiences in Mali that will help to improve my future work. One of the things that I feel most right now is gratitude for having been in Mali for as long as I was.