“International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development is a chance for individual volunteers, communities and organizations to promote their contributions to development at the local, national and international levels. By combining UN support with a grassroots mandate, International Volunteer Day is a unique opportunity for people and volunteer-involving organizations to work with government agencies, non-profit institutions, community groups, academia and the private sector.”

-The United Nations

International Volunteer Day was celebrated throughout the world on Monday, December 5, and Peace Corps Mali took part in the festivities that were arranged in Bamako to celebrate the day.

This year’s International Volunteer Day was particularly special for Mali, as it inducted its first group of volunteers into a newly-developed volunteering program which will send Malians to villages in the Koulikoro, Sikasso and Kayes regions of the country.

To kick off the day, a swearing-in ceremony for these Malian volunteers took place at the convention center in Bamako and I, along with several other Peace Corps volunteers and staff, attended the event.

During the swearing-in ceremony, several volunteers representing some of the international volunteer groups gave a short speech about their experiences in Mali and discussed the importance of volunteerism.  A Returned Peace Corps volunteer (RPVC), who is now back in Mali serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer spoke on behalf of Peace Corps Mali and wowed the crowd with her excellent Bambara skills.  In her remarks, she talked about her experience serving in a small town in the Segou region. 

While she spoke it became clearer to me why Peace Corps has such a good reputation in Mali.  Of all the speakers, she was the only one to address the crowd in the local language.  Her stories of service showed that she had respected the community in which she was living, while also pushing the envelope.  Sitting in the audience while she was speaking, I felt a sense of pride – I felt honored to be representing Peace Corps and its development philosophy.

Despite my great respect for Peace Corps and what we as volunteers accomplish in our communities, I think this new volunteering program presents a unique opportunity for Mali. 

Note: I am not sure of the specifics of the program and, frankly, the Malian government might also still be determining the details, but it seems that the program will be very similar to that of AmeriCorps and will call on Malians to serve their country for an extended period of time.

Unlike Peace Corps volunteers and other foreign volunteers, Malians who volunteer in Malian communities will be able to integrate within weeks, as they will not encounter the cultural and language barriers that we all do.  It also seems that the advice and trainings provided to communities by the Malian volunteers may be more easily received, as the information will be exchanged between two Malians, rather than coming from a Westerner.

It was exciting to see this group of young Malians pledge their time and talents to help make Mali a better place.  I have noticed that the concept of volunteerism, as we in the west have defined it, is not often found in Mali.  This is likely due to several key differences in our culture and the realities of our societies. 

For example, the culture of Mali is very communal in nature.  Although it isn’t called volunteerism, Malians – especially those in small villages – help one another with daily tasks, lend each other food and shelter and share resources amongst themselves on a regular basis.  Secondly, wealthy Malians usually don’t have a responsibility to give back to their communities in the way we expect our wealthy to, because they are likely supporting a very large, extended family with the money they have earned.  Lastly, Mali is a country that is flooded with volunteers, NGOs and government programs and these more formal volunteerism programs often have the face of a foreigner.  Without examples of their neighbors serving in unpaid, volunteer roles, it is hard for many Malians to imagine themselves doing so.

After the ceremony, I joined a group of other PCVs at our booth to answer questions and hand out information about our work.  When the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré (A.T.T.), made the rounds, I was there to give him our annual report and a Peace Corps lapel pin – which he put on right after we gave to him!

Later in the afternoon, all of the volunteer organizations gathered together for a football match.  My team consisted of Malian volunteers, UN volunteers, British volunteers and Japanese volunteers.  I played soccer on a grass field for the first time in Mali (I usually just have to make do with dirt and sand), and my team was victorious in a shoot-out!  

Ultimately, the day was a fantastic celebration of volunteerism.  You can check out pictures from the day here.