Celebrating holidays in Mali always seems a bit weird.  The birthday parties, Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings, New Year’s Eve festivities (etc.) of the past year and a half have been wonderful in their own way, but so different from what I’m used to doing Stateside. 

Instead of cutting the Christmas ham with my family in Kentucky last year, I spent Christmas Eve at a mud-structure church in Dogon Country.  For this year’s birthday, instead of throwing a party with friends in Washington, DC, I shared it with my Peace Corps friends in Bamako, sipping on Malian beers and dancing to music we’ve added to our playlists throughout our service. 

I have no doubt that these holidays will remain fresh in my memory for years to come.  Although not the norm, they have been special and have brought me closer to the people I now consider my Peace Corps family.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve, although both quite low key, were equally as wonderful as all of my holidays in Mali.  For both, I celebrated with the new group of trainees at the Peace Corps training center.  The Christmas festivities were led by one of the trainees – she planned a full menu of “American-style” holiday fare and helped organize a secret Santa among the volunteers. 

From start to finish the day was full of holiday cheer.  We listened to classic Christmas tunes while making and decorating sugar cookies under a sign that read “Merry Christmas”.  Trainees and volunteers were split into food teams and helped prepare the meal throughout the day – macaroni and cheese, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad and pork (although we are living in a Muslim country, there are a sprinkling of Christians around and many of them raise pigs)!

We setup the tables in the dining hall end to end to create one big “dining room table,” so that we were all able to eat together.  After stuffing ourselves with delicious food and exchanging secret Santa gifts, we topped off the night with a viewing of “Love Actually” and fell asleep with visions of sugarplums in our heads, haha!  It was a wonderful way to spend my last Christmas in Mali.

New Year’s Eve was also quite fun, but very different from any other NYE of my past.  There is a backyard bar a short walk from the training center.  This classy establishment, which we lovingly refer to as “The Trashpile” is literally someone’s backyard that happens to serve Malian beers, gin in plastic bags and boxes of wine.  After dinner, about 45 of us made our way there to toast to the ups and downs of 2011 and wish each other well in 2012. 

Around 11:30, we walked back to the training center and setup speakers in one of the outdoor training areas to dance away the rest of 2011.  Our countdown took place sometime between 11:55 and 12:05 (cell phones here are programmed manually, not by satellite, so we all different ideas about the exact moment when the clock struck midnight, haha) and we continued dancing our way into 2012.

Although much less glamorous than past New Year’s celebrations, it felt fitting to ring in 2012 – the last year of my service – at the place where my Peace Corps journey began. 

I am certain the year ahead will bring many challenges, but that it will also present many opportunities.  I plan to use the remainder of my time in-country to further connect with the Malian culture and build stronger relationships with its people.  I hope to see improvements in my partner organization, Si Teriw, and its members.  I look forward to holding more small trainings and planting seeds of change in my community.  I’m also prepared to use this time to further hone my ideas about international development, foreign aid, and social policy and determine what role I can play in continuing to make the world a better place for all people, “dooni, dooni.”

Albeit a bit late, I’d like to make this toast to 2012 – May your new year be filled with manageable challenges and plentiful opportunities; may you have success in all of your endeavors; may you be blessed with health and happiness; and may you recognize each day as a gift and make the most of it.  Cheers!