It’s incredible to think that just three months ago I packed up my life in America and boarded a plane for this adventure. At times, it seems like the three months has flown by and that time is passing quickly. Other days, it seems as though I must have been in Mali for more than a year… Despite the rate of time moving along, I have certainly packed a lot of learning, travel and growth into three months!
A little over three months ago, I had never been to Africa (let alone Mali), I didn’t speak a word of Bambara, and I had only read about the culture and history of the country to which I was about to travel. Now I live in Mali, I understand and speak more Bambara with each passing day, and I experience the culture and witness the repercussions of Mali’s history on a daily basis. I hope that this blog allows you to share these experiences with me from afar, and that it will perhaps motivate you to explore Mali or any other developing country on your own (or to join Peace Corps!). I can already tell that this will be an experience I will never forget and that my two years here will, without a doubt, help shape my worldview and provide greater perspective on life.
It has been a while since I’ve written here, as my site is in an area without Internet access – my work counterpart seems to think that it is possible that Internet will be available there within my two years…fingers crossed! I’m sure you are wondering what I’ve been up to, so I’ll try to fill you in as best as I can.
When I wrote my last post, I had just been sworn-in and was preparing to leave for my site. I left the training center on September 5, and headed toward my site with a few other volunteers in tow. We stopped in to meet with the governor of our region on the way to my site. Although it was a short meeting, it was an honor to meet this regional leader and to represent Peace Corps and all of the volunteers in my region. I arrived at site later that day and got settled into my place by buying the essentials like a mattress, buckets and a broom.
The first week seems like a blur now, as I managed to pair a stomach bug and sinus infection with trying to get around town to greet many of the ‘movers and shakers’ in the community. Luckily, you don’t need a prescription to go to the pharmacy here, so I was able to consult the Peace Corps doctor, get some meds and feel 100% by late in the first week.
My work counterpart is very motivated and has been wonderful at introducing me to folks around town, while also making sure I’m fully briefed on the women’s association that I will be working with. During my first month, I visited all of the villages represented in the association – six total villages, and about 120 women – and attended the monthly leadership meeting of the organization. The women in the association are fantastic and are incredibly motivated to make the best quality shea butter possible while also creating a successful, sustainable organization. I am really looking forward to helping them do both during the coming two years, while also developing many new friendships. The women of Mali are incredibly strong and work very, very hard everyday, despite rarely having paying jobs outside of their homes. I hope that some of this strength rubs off on me!
In addition to visiting with the women and attending their meeting, I have been learning a lot about shea butter. Click here for some more info. Luckily, several past Peace Corps Volunteers recently wrote a manual on all things shea. During some of my free time, I read through it and took lots of notes. It seems that I will be able to assist the women with many things related to shea. I hope to work with them to assess the current health and age of their shea trees, to start a nursery to ensure the future of the shea production in this area, to improve their current butter processing practices, and to help them market and sell their quality shea butter. I certainly have my work cut out for me!
On Saturday, September 25, the women gathered together for their first shea transformation as an official association! I am so glad that a seasoned Peace Corps volunteer, who speaks fantastic Bambara, was able to join me at my site for this day. She has two years of experience working with a shea butter women’s association in her village and was so helpful to both me and the women. Overall the day was successful. There was a minor problem when we took the powder to a machine that is supposed to make it into paste – it didn’t become paste… Although this was a hiccup in the process, the women persevered and worked extra long and hard to produce the butter. The next time you buy a product with shea butter in it, think about how hard the women of the Sahel region in Africa have worked to make it possible!
The next year will certainly be filled with plenty of information sessions, organizational management skills training, and field trips to successful shea transformation facilities to ensure that next year’s transformation produces even more butter of the very best quality for the women to take to market.
Although working with the women’s association has been filling much of my time at site, I’m also focusing on my language, as it will be incredibly important as I continue to work with the people in my village. My language tutor is fantastic – he is a French teacher at the local high school, and he speaks English well. With his help, I’m learning a lot of vocabulary, brushing up on my sentence structure and practicing what I’ve already learned. With time, I’m sure that I will be able to speak about all kinds of things in Bambara, haha. For now, I’m drinking lots of tea with the locals and doing my best!
Stay tuned for more posts about my daily life at site, as well as a few posts about some special events. Cheers!