I returned from my trip to the States on May 10 – apologies for not writing sooner! My time at home was fantastic, as I was able to see friends, family and former colleagues in Washington, DC, Kentucky and at a close friend’s wedding in Florida. Ten months is a long time to be away!
In addition to catching up with many of you, I was also able to share my Peace Corps experience with members of my local Rotary Club and with students in a classroom at my high school. These opportunities to share helped me realize just how much I actually have learned about Mali, its culture and the Peace Corps. It was special to be able to tell others about my experience and feel like I was fulfilling the third of Peace Corps’ three goals – to educate people in the United States about my host country.
In all of my conversations, I fielded questions about the people, the environment, the food, my living conditions, my work and Malian culture. I hope to use some of these questions as material for future blog posts, and look forward to sharing more photos to not only tell about my experience here, but also show, as best I can, what life in Mali and life in Peace Corps are like.
A few things about my trip home surprised me. I thought that I would experience a lot of culture shock and that things that once seemed very normal to me would in fact feel foreign. Several other volunteers that went home during their service said that the grocery store was overwhelming, the shear number of cars and people took them by surprise and the cost of things seemed outrageous. To some extent I would agree. The grocery store was just as I had remembered – an endless, diverse amount of food and products precisely marketed and meant to make our lives easier and better. Comparing the prices of the products was quite funny, as I can get a head of lettuce in Mali for about 10 cents and a head of lettuce in the States will put you back $2 or $3. But Mali is not the United States, and within these distinct contexts the price differences actually make sense.
Although the amount of people and cars didn’t overwhelm me much, it was the diversity of the people that made me take pause. The topic of diversity is something I talk to Malians about quite frequently, as the idea of a diverse population is very foreign to them. There are several Peace Corps volunteers who are of Asian descent, and it is always frustrating to me that, just as they yell “tubab,” or French person at me, they will yell “chinoise,” or Chinese person at them. I try my best to explain that the United States is a place where many people come to build a life and that although someone might look Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern or European, if they grew up in the United States or immigrated to the States, they are very much American. Certainly, being removed from a diverse society has helped me further appreciate the truly American value that champions diversity and calls for respect and equal opportunities among our diverse population. I have come to realize that this is a unique characteristic that makes the United States an extraordinary country.
Aside from diversity, I noticed several other things while in the States that I hadn’t fully examined until I left and returned to their novelty:
Infrastructure – Although the United States infrastructure certainly has its problems, my acknowledgment of all that does exist was more acute – living in a place with little to no infrastructure will do that to ya! Our physical infrastructure, along with electric, health, communication and financial infrastructures (and so many more that I’m leaving out here) are incredible systems that make our lives so much easier than the lives of many people around the world. Now, we have to maintain them and make them better, but I’m proud to say we have a heck of a good start.
Social media – It is everywhere! When I left the country just 11 months ago, large news organizations and major companies were urging Americans to communicate via Facebook and Twitter and use their mobile devices to find out more. When I returned to the States, I was reminded how quickly technology evolves. I was surprised to see that my local news station was fully engaged in social media and that nearly every television advertisement sent you to their Facebook page rather than their Web site. Also, nearly all of the print advertisements provided a smart phone barcode to learn more on the spot. Really incredible stuff is happening in business and media, and I look forward to seeing how this technology will continue to infiltrate the developing world and change how they too live their lives. It will be a while coming, but I think it will have a significant impact.
Reality TV – What a waste of time. I found myself far less excited about watching an episode of the Real Housewives series. It was hard to watch a bunch of women worrying about the “problems” of their lives, like hair appointments and showing up at a party wearing the same designer dress as a friend. There are much bigger problems out there – I’ve seen them. I think this lack of interest is very positive. Just think what I’ll be able to do with all of the hours I used to spend watching reality TV, ha ha!
Being outdoors – Although I have always enjoyed being outside, I think my time in Mali has helped me appreciate fresh air more and realize what a beautiful landscape the United States boasts. Perhaps, instead of watching reality TV, I will take more walks. I encourage you to try it out!
Returning to Mali, also gave me reason to reflect. When I was in the States, I felt as if my time in Mali seemed very dream-like. I found myself thinking, “How is it possible that my Malian life and my American life, which are so very different, exist in the same world?” But when I arrived at the airport in Bamako, it was if I pinched myself and was reassured that this is actually real.
I reached into my language archives and the Bambara started to flow, along with the bean-eater and donkey jokes! I was instantly reminded of things about Mali that have always bothered me (there is no such thing as waiting in line, it is always a free-for-all). But with the bad, came the good – it was so nice to be back in a place where everyone says hello and wishes you well.
After a few days in Bamako at a regional training, I adjusted to the air-conditioning-free zone and prepared myself to return to site. It was bizarre to feel like returning to site also felt a bit like a homecoming. My surroundings were familiar, my host family greeted me as one of their own and my neighbors wanted to hear all about the wedding I’d been telling them I was going to in the States.
Coming back, and feeling so comfortable, made me realize just how difficult it had been the first time around – nothing was familiar, I couldn’t speak to anyone and the community saw me as an outsider rather than one of them. Realizing how far I’ve come gave me a sense of pride in my accomplishments and motivated me to want to do even more.
So, that’s where I am today. I am so glad that I was able to make the trip back to the States and recharge my battery. It has given me greater perspective and has motivated me to do as much as I can with the (actually quite) limited time I have left. If the first year has gone by this fast, I can only imagine how quickly year two will unfold. Wish me luck and keep checking here for more updates!