Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Long Wait is Over, Part 2

The Long Wait is Over, Part 2

When the Peace Corps vehicle finally arrived to pick us up in Bamako we discovered that the driver was none other than Seydou. He was one of my favorite drivers and just one important part of the amazing Peace Corps staff. I always think of Seydou as perennially optimistic and having a great sense of humor. He drove us on many of the long, bumpy and overloaded bus rides we took as trainees. During training he also shuttled us back to Bamako when we were too sick to stay at homestay and brought trainers out to our villages to teach us the ins and outs of our jobs. In short, he was our connection between the developing and developed world, or at least the struggles of the former and the resources of the latter. We reveled in the rare air conditioning in the vehicles (as weak as it was) often the only cool breeze we’d experienced since the last ride weeks ago. That night in Bamako despite all the emotions and distractions we were still nothing if not Peace Corps volunteers, and would eagerly soak up the cool air inside the van.

We greeted Seydou warmly, reunited with an old friend, while he helped us pack our bags into the van. The feelings were bittersweet since we now knew it would be one of the last times he would drive us. Seydou always took good care of us and was happy to make extra stops if we needed to buy a necessity such as phone credit. Or more likely we’d simply open a window in the middle of heavy traffic and buy the phone credit scratch cards off of a vendor walking (or jogging) alongside the vehicle. Seydou’s was a good driver, but despite his skills Malian infrastructure is a force to be reckoned with. When driving across city streets and dirt roads he would good naturedly look into the rear-view mirror and wave at us whenever we hit especially big bumps. We could tell that he found our cursing, moans and occasional cries of pain more than a little amusing, and we didn’t blame him. What could be funnier than a bus full of Toubabs expressing the everyday discomforts of Malian transportation in their native tongues? He had a lot of respect for us but I think he still thought we were a little soft. In the end though his ear-to-ear grins made us smile too. Even if from time to time we were pretty sure he hit a bump on purpose.

As we drove through the streets of Bamako on our way to Tubani So that night the van was unusually silent. Once again we peered out the windows to see what we could ascertain about the situation in the capital, the location where the fateful coup d’état had taken place. Some Malians stared back from the dimly-lit streets, but soon I realized that more and more people were crowded in front of TVs. We periodically passed shops with TVs set up outside, and there large crowds had gathered. In my experience Mali is, like many developing countries, normally a place where life goes on no matter what. The daily grind is not to be stopped for trivial matters. The most interesting soccer games and pivotal speeches rarely have a direct effect on the average Malian who works hard for their daily Tô. So to me the empty streets and dozens upon dozens of men crowded around TVs was remarkable, making me feel that the moment we were living in was that much more surreal. Perhaps the only time I’d seen such focused attention from Malians was when the country’s national team made it into the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations in February. Some crowds had even arranged themselves by height so that everyone could see the TV – a rare site indeed. What was going on?

We discovered it was an announcement by the leader of the military junta in response to sanctions put it in place by ECOWAS. I wondered if Malians were finally coming to terms with the gravity of the situation their country was in. During consolidation many volunteers reported that their host communities just didn’t understand the potential dangers stemming from the coup. It seemed too distant and abstract a threat. Like I said, people are concerned with getting food in their bowls. In many villages the government has a minimal presence to begin with. Besides, last time the government was overthrown the leader of that coup was elected president of the country. That election marked the beginning of the period that earned Mali the reputation of the most stable democracy in West Africa. So things couldn’t turn out so bad, could they?

Having spent much more time observing Sanogo and the junta I am still struck by how much uncertainty there was in the days and weeks immediately following the coup. It was a very different uncertainty for us volunteers than it was for the Malians, however. Although we guessed accurately that the coup would be disastrous and that Sanogo would cling to power, those predictions were based on judgments about military strength and historical precedent. The day-to-day unfolding of the situation raised so many more questions than it did answers and we knew little about the junta’s real motivations. It seemed incredible that a group of soldiers that size could overthrow the government so quickly and easily, even if it had been done before. We kept waiting to hear who was really backing them (no one, as it turns out), whether the people would rise up against them (they haven’t), whether there would be some kind of outside intervention (there still hasn’t been), whether violence would spread throughout the country (it has been contained in the North) whether there would be an immediate food crisis (still on schedule for later this year) and whether the junta would give up power after succumbing to infighting (turns out the same guy is still in control).
We arrived at Tubani So with all these thoughts and questions running through our exhausted minds and were happy to see dinner being put out for us by the Tubani So staff. This was the start of an impressive display of hospitality and coordination that continued up until the end of consolidation. Preparing three meals a day for 180+ volunteers is a challenging task. The food wasn’t much different from what we ate during training and little more imaginative (rice and sauce, beans, salad, the occasional Malian-style pizza, etc.), but the quality was consistently good. Since we were among the first volunteers to arrive the internet wasn’t completely overloaded and a few of us hopped online to send messages home and read the official evacuation order from our country director. Reading the full evacuation message started to give some concreteness to the knowledge that we would be leaving. And yet my friends and I had just been there a few months ago for our pre-service training, making all the mental and physical preparations to complete two years of service. And there we were back at Tubani So just two weeks we were scheduled to return for the training that would mark the completion of our first three months at site. So in a way the timing wasn’t as jarring for my stage as it was for many other volunteers. The reality of our situation would still take a few days to sink in. So in the mean time we moved into the huts that make up the living quarters of Tubani So. Most huts house three volunteers, but because of the high temperatures anyone who had a mosquito tent (generically referred to in Peace Corps as Bug Huts, the name of an REI-brand tent) moved outside to beat the heat and look up at the stars while trying to sleep. In the dark we kept running into people that we knew but hadn’t seen in ages as we lugged our belongs across Tubani So, brushed our teeth at the spigots and used the pit latrines.

Returning to Tubani So in fact marked the start of a mass reunion. Many volunteers hadn’t seen each other in months, some in over a year. Some were reunited with staff members they had worked with during training but hadn’t seen since. A lot of volunteers met each other for the first time. We could feel the social dynamics shifting from what they were during the past ten days at our regional houses. The Peace Corps experience has the potential to bond people together tightly, and can puts pressure on people who might not get along well in another context to build close relationships in spite of their differences. It can also put people at each other’s throats, but I’m happy to say that this happens much less often. As we came to grips with the fact that we would soon be far away from our closest friends a lot of volunteers began to prioritize those closer relationships, a shift from the mutual dependence that we experienced in our regional houses where we had no say in the 20 or 30 people we spent time with.

In spite of certain advantages of being at Tubani So such as being with friends, a good number of volunteers were unhappy to be returning there. The center is used almost exclusively for pre-service and in-service trainings, so it’s a place where we spent very little time compared to the rest of our work in Mali. Those times are intense and formative, while occasionally frustrating, boring and unpleasant. Being at the training center has its advantages during PST, such as running water and electricity, but once a volunteer has been on site for a little while Tubani So is easy to beat. We really get settled into our villages with our routines and preferences, amenities notwithstanding. We find ways to access those amenities or make up our own. In addition our regional houses where we’d been cooped up were more luxurious (some air conditioning, at least the infrastructure for hot showers, kitchens at our disposal, nearby markets, 20 people online at a time instead of 100, etc.). I must say that I wasn’t looking forward to the lack of amenities at Tubani So either. What I was excited about was returning to a place that had come to feel like my first home in Peace Corps Mali. There I got to spend time with my friends whose homestay villages were far from my own. At Tubani So I first met our trainers, other volunteers who to this day continue to inspire me. There I also practiced and translated my French speech for our swearing-in ceremony. My friend Anthony and I rehearsed our choreographed dance to Lady Gaga’s song Bad Romance there. It was where we celebrated Christmas together. It was where I first met many good friends and shared many good laughs.

There were some undeniably good times during consolidation at Tubani So. One night we had a reception for the Peace Corps couple whose marriage I attended in Segou, as well as another volunteer, Deborah, who wedded her Malian husband around the same time. We had great food those nights as the kitchen staff pulled out all the stops with the help of volunteers. The culinary delights included burgers, a beautiful birthday cake and sorbet which had been brought in from Bamako. Who knew such delicacies existed in Mali? Another night after dinner we watched films that two regions had made at their stage houses during consolidation. One was a Peace Corps version of the Olympics which included such rigorous tasks as the Bug Hut set-up race (your entire team has to set up and get inside the zipped-up tent before the others), bobbing for mangoes and caterpillar eating. The other was a horrifyingly realistic and entertaining zombie flick created by the volunteers from Kita. Needless to say those of us who did not participate in the making of a video spent the next few days wondering why on earth we hadn’t.

That’s not to say that we had an abundance of time with nothing to do. We were all grateful to the Peace Corps staff for going out of their way to help meet our many, diverse and often urgent needs. We could tell that everyone was overworked, stressed, and short on rest. Yet it was reassuring to be back with them instead of feeling rather isolated at our regional houses. We felt like we were in good hands at Tubani So. In addition to planning sessions, transportation when necessary and all manner of services we needed the staff also periodically asked us for feedback on how they were doing. One of many useful services they were able to provide was bringing in a money exchanger so that we could convert our leftover cfa to dollars or any other currency we thought we might need. To keep us in good spirits a vehicle was arranged to take us to the American Club via a roundabout route that stuck to the calmest parts of the city. They also organized the language exams to officially record our level of language proficiency. There was a dizzying array of other administrative tasks to be accomplished that we simply could not have finished without their help. Paperwork related to our sites, our DOS (description of service, the only official record of our activities as volunteers), cataloguing our belongings left in village, figuring out payment for the previous month’s rent and utilities, etc.

When volunteers leave the country they are required to close their Malian bank account. Most of us used BNDA (la Banque Nationale de Developpement Agricole) and closing the accounts meant taking all of the volunteers with BNDA accounts to the Bamako branch, waiting in line, withdrawing all our money and instructing the bank to close the account. The BNDA was packed that day, and I imagine many people were emptying their accounts or withdrawing large sums of money like us. It’s difficult to get change for large bills in Mali, and thus small change is highly valued. This is especially true for expats like us who typically withdraw large amounts at a time and get stuck with 10,000 cfa bills. As a far as I know this is the largest denomination in cfa, which is equivalent to about $20 in the United States. So I took it as a sign that the bank wasn’t paying much attention to its ability to make change, just its ability to move cash, when instead of paying me 200,000 cfa in 10,000 cfa bills, I received a crisp stack of 100 2,000 cfa bills. I had never seen so much small change in Mali, and its scarcity made it worth much more than its monetary value. On the ride back to Tubani So on Peace Corps transport (at this point feeling rather safe in downtown Bamako since violence had subsided) we joked about how fantastic a target we were for criminals at that moment – a bus full of Toubabs carrying millions of cfa.

We had learned during consolidation that if evacuation occurred it was most likely we’d be headed to a neighboring country for a COS (close of service) conference. There our options for our future with or without Peace Corps would be presented to us. At Tubani So it was said that the likely scenario for most volunteers would be heading back to the United States before being offered the opportunity to serve in a different country. According to a Peace Corps staff member who had come to help the Mali bureau through the process of evacuation (unfortunately Peace Corps has had a lot of experience over the years evacuating volunteers and suspending/closing programs) there would be virtually no transfer opportunities. Transfers, he explained, involve sending volunteers directly from their COS conference to another country where they continue their service. Apparently Peace Corps had started to phase out direct transfers because volunteers who transferred immediately after evacuations struggled more at their next post than volunteers who had some time off in between.

We also learned that we would all be offered the opportunity to have a flight booked to our home of record (the place that we indicated to Peace Corps was our permanent address in the United States) or the option to receive the money that would have been spent on our ticket. The latter option is known as “cash en lieu.” With “cash en lieu” we could use the money to book a flight home ourselves, maybe even saving a few pennies, to book a trip somewhere else or to do whatever we pleased. With this news a lot volunteers started looking at how much flights home would cost and comparing that price to the cost of travelling for a few weeks or even months. Being able to look at flights returned to us some of the sense of agency that we had given up when we accepted that our fate as it related to Mali was far beyond our control, resting on the decisions of the government of the United States and the actions of the military junta.

Before becoming a volunteer and even through part of training I had imagined that once volunteers went to site they were alone, isolated, and generally left to fend for themselves. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, volunteers can isolate themselves and become “site rats,” meaning they stay in village and don’t come into their regional capitals (as counterintuitive as it seems, site rats are often regarded with a kind of reverence – spending months on site is tough to do). However as you can see, most volunteers in Mali rely heavily on their friends. While on site we texted and called each other and we planned to meet up in the regional capitals or in nearby towns on market days. We were each other’s support systems in the best of times and the worst of times. Peace Corps is not an easy experience, and for most people it’s even harder to do alone. In my experience the most successful volunteers are humble and accept their need for contact and the importance of receiving help from others. They reach out for support when they need it and don’t always try to “tough it out.”

My friend and fellow volunteer Cathy wrote a beautiful post (one of many) about evacuation which has stuck with me because of it poignancy and beautiful images. In the post Cathy speaks about her last “yala yala,” (walk, in Bambara) with her friends at Tubani So. She describes the beauty of Mali, the connection between us volunteers and the heartbreak of leaving them, and Mali, so early. Cathy and I both met friends (including each other!) who we were looking forward to sharing the next two years of our service with. While we might not have been able to see each other every day, week or even month, that didn’t diminish the bond that we shared. Returning to Cathy’s post, I think that a strength of her artistic expression is her ability to use multiple images to recreate a sense of place and time. Her photographs have individual value but together (as a triptych, for example) they are much more expressive. The ensemble of Cathy’s images across the post conveys the meaning of moving through Mali, which is a deeper, more beautiful experience than any one snapshot. One of my regrets is having not taken more photographs in Mali, something I intended to do gradually over time. That was back when I thought I had all the time in the world, and the luxury of avoiding being labeled the only thing worse than “the rich Toubab,” which is “the rich Toubab whose amazing and expensive things I’ve seen.” How I regret that decision now!

It’s hard to express what the meaning of the connections between volunteers. Comrades, best friends, lovers, colleagues, partners, site mates, there are so many different words to describe the relationships we have with each other. And it’s dynamic, shifting over time and context. Volunteers in the same stage share an intimate knowledge and experience which years from now only they will be able to really understand. As my experience shows, there are significant differences in the lives of volunteers whose arrival is only months apart. So being in the same training class is an incredible bonding experience. You draw strength and support from each other, reassurance in times of doubt, calmness in times of stress and patience during moments of frustration. It’s nice to talk to someone about whatever’s on your mind and know that however strange your experience might be, you won’t be judged because they’ve lived through the same struggles (or at least something as challenging). As one of my close friends texted me one day out of the blue: “Id have to say that the first thing ill do in the states is try a hotdog with peanut butter. Seems like it could work.” And that’s one of the more normal-sounding texts I received. But we don’t bat an eye because we all know what sitting around in village in 115 degree weather with nothing to do but drink tea with a couple hundred Malians can do to your brain.

I would come to understand this support system even better over the following week at our COS conference, which is where my next post will begin.