Apologies for the delay in posting my initial reactions to my site.  Upon returning to the training center after our site visits we had a little over 30 hrs and then it was back to our home stay villages for the last couple of weeks of training.  Although I wasn’t able to post during that short break, have no fear, I will have plenty of time this week to catch you all up!

First, I have good news to share…On Saturday, we took a language test to evaluate our progress in the local language, Bambara.  I received the target marks – intermediate-mid – and have the go-ahead to swear-in as a Peace Corps volunteer on Friday!  As you can imagine, I’m really excited that my language has improved throughout training and hope it will continue to improve in the next two years.  I’m also so proud of my stage.  As we bridge from trainees to volunteers, we are still 80 strong and are all having a blast getting to know more about Mali and the work we will all be doing in the coming years.

Now, a bit about my site…and the interesting experience getting there! When I left the training center it was pouring rain.  We drove into Bamako through water-filled streets and everyone in the car was silent.  We were all excited, and anxious, about leaving the comforts of the training center and heading to our sites.

When we got to the Peace Corps Bureau in Bamako my homolouge was waiting there in a car with his brother.  I hopped in with my saki belebeleba (big backpack in Bambara) and we drove through the city to my homolouge’s family’s concession where I made the rounds meeting his large family.  After quick greetings we got in a cab and arrived at the bus station just a few minutes before the bus was full and ready to leave.  The station was unorganized and that, along with the rain, made for a crazy experience in getting on the bus.

Generally speaking, the public transport here is crowded, hot, and smelly, and this ride was no different. I sat in the back of the bus next to a woman and her daughter and a row of very old men.  Because it was raining outside, it was also raining inside – the old charter bus was a bit leaky!

After leaving Bamako, we stopped several times on the side of the road so vendors could hop on board and sell food – gato (a really yummy cake-like muffin), bananas, meat and onion sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, etc.  When we were on the road, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, as many of them aren’t paved.  At one point, we were driving the charter bus through a muddy, one-way street in a village where outdoor vending shacks were about 4 feet away from both sides of the bus.  Luckily, the bus didn’t slip and slide, but I have to admit that I did think about the worst-case scenario…

My ticket was about $4, and after about 3.5 hours on the bus, I arrived in my host village – a town of about 7,000 – 10,000 people.  The main road is paved, and is lined with vendors.  Each Monday, a market takes place at the center of the village.

After having dinner with my homolouge and his family, we took my backpack to my house and had a look around.  I was pleasantly surprised with my accommodations – tiled floors, solar electricity, a shower (that works most of the time) and a faux toilet that sits on top of a hole in the ground. I also have roof access, so I’ll be able to sleep outside during the hot season – which I hear is brutal.

I’ll be living in the same concession as a very large family in the village.  There are four wives, a husband and numerous children and other family members. One day, I was sitting with the women while they pounded millet and cooked dinner and I asked how many people they cook for each night.  If my Bambara served me well – and I think it did – they said around 50! Can you imagine having to cook for 50-60 people everyday without a stove?   The women here never cease to amaze me…

During my site visit, I was very busy meeting, greeting and eating and drinking tea with people.  The villagers at my site speak Bambara, and some speak French, so I was able to put my language skills to the test.  Let’s just say, I certainly have room for growth!

Throughout the week I met the mayor, the director of the schools, the Gendarmerie, the president of the agriculture union, the dugutigi (an unelected leader in the village), the director of the hospital and many, many more.  I was excited to hear that several of these community leaders have ideas for projects with which I can be helpful. For example, the mayor has requested that I work with young women in the community and the director of the schools wants me to assist the teachers improve their English skills.  I’m really looking forward to getting back to my site and figuring out how I can get started on this work!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, my primary project will be working with a women’s association to improve their shea butter production, marketing and sales.  I was able to attend one of their leadership meetings during my site visit and it seems that they are really enthusiastic!  With some time, and a bit more Bambara under my belt, I hope that this project will go really well.

As you can tell, my visit to site was a whirlwind of activity, and I’m sure I could fill many more blog posts about it – and I plan to do so over the next two years!

A couple of people have asked what my new address will be at site.  It will actually remain the same, as I’ll be coming into Bamako fairly frequently:

Beth Roberts, PCV
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 85
Bamako, Mali
West Africa

I’ll be posting at least one more blog before leaving the training center on Sunday to share with you my thoughts on leaving my host village and preparing for swearing in.  Stay tuned!

Once I’m in my village, I only expect to have Internet access about once per month, but I’ll try to write posts while I’m at site and upload them all when I have access to some bandwidth.

I hope all is well in your part of the world, I look forward to hearing from many of you soon!