Disclaimer: This blog does not reflect the opinions and policies of the Peace Corps, the University of South Florida (USF), the U.S. government, or the government of Mali

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Third Year in Mali: Pre and Post Coup d'Etat

So it has officially been a year since I updated this blog. I think it is important for updating everyone and would be great to write regularly but it has always gotten pushed to the side with other work. Now there is so much to say but I don’t think people would want to read a ten-page blog but I will make an attempt to summarize this past year and then hopefully update again a few times before I return to the states at the end of November/beginning of December. 

So, much has happened since last year. My last entry was about my transition to Bamako for my third year in the Peace Corps as a PC Volunteer Leader and working with a women’s water and sanitation cooperative. I certainly didn’t anticipate the events that occurred and sometimes still don’t believe what happened. There have been five major events of this past year that I will attempt to summarize below: 1) my five week home leave in December, 2) my Father’s visit to Mali in February, 3) the Coup d’Etat in Mali and subsequent evacuation of PCVs in Mali, 4) a five week French immersion in Nice, and 5) my return to Mali to finish research for my dissertation.

As part of extending for a third year, PC grants you a month, paid home leave which I took during December to be home again for the holidays. The first two weeks I spent back in Tampa where I kept busy meeting with my adviser and committee members. I successfully defended my dissertation proposal, becoming a doctorate candidate! The other three weeks I spent with family and friends mostly, it seems, eating (gained another 10 lbs like last year…). It was great being home and I have found being so far away has made me value family that much more.

I was lucky to have my Dad visit Mali for two weeks in February. This included a few days in Bamako in the beginning and end with a visit to the PC office and women’s cooperative. His visit happened to coincide with his birthday so we had a cake at the women’s cooperative and everyone sang him Happy Birthday in French.

The second day we rented a taxi for the day and visited my village where I had spent my first two years. The villagers gave my Dad a grand welcoming. The women’s association I worked with on the garden project presented with a painted calabash and morroca as well as a chicken. Most all the village showed up at the public square and there was dancing and drumming. We only could spend a few hours before heading back to Bamako before dark but everyone wanted to take pictures with my Dad and we gave him a tour of the village as well. The women in Bamako had given him the name Sedouba and ofcourse his last name would be Konare as most everyone in my village and my own Malian name. Though my Dad could not speak a word of Bambara and even had trouble with his new name, we made do with my translations and lots of laughter.  By the end we had three chickens and had presented the chief of the village with a sheep.
The next day we had to leave well before sunrise to go to Segou (a region further north in Mali) for the music festival. We spent several days enjoying the festival. All the hotels had been booked a year in advance but I had managed to book a room on a boat with four small bunks though lacking hot water and a western toilet. My Dad didn’t let that hamper his fun and we made sure to make a daily trip to the hotel’s pool and enjoy the festival.

At the conclusion of the festival we headed yet further north up to Dogon country in the Mopti region of Mali. There we did a three day, two night hike with a guide and a group of Senegal volunteers. My Dad held his own and often was ahead of over half a dozen twenty somethings which involved a lot of climbing on rough terrain.

The days up in Dogon flew by much like the whole trip and then we found ourselves on a 12 hour bus ride, returning to Bamako. My Dad was excited for a hamburger and a real toilet by then. We spent the last two nights in a hotel in Bamako with air conditioning and a pool which was a nice end to my Dad’s African Adventure. My Dad said he wants to come back for the music festival and Dogon festival some years later.

Fortunately and unfortunately, my Dad’s trip occurred before March 22nd when there was a Coup d’Etat where the military overthrew the former Malian president, Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT). Now his visit would not be possible. Just days after the Coup d’Etat, rebels took over three regional capitals in Mali (Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao) dividing the country in two. Visiting Dogon country is out of the question now.
To say we (myself, PCVs, staff, and Malians) never saw this coming is an understatement. Even writing this now, I find it unbelievable. Before the Coup, there had been protests against ATT’s handle of the situation up-north but elections were scheduled in April; ATT had served two terms and was expected to step down. 

The day of the Coup was like any other in Bamako. I had gone to the women’s cooperative that morning but then we received a text from the embassy like similar ones before that there would be protests and to stay away from the presidential palace. Then around midday the embassy sent a message that there was gunfire around the presidential palace and to return home. That night, the military took over and ATT went into hiding. For five days I was told to stay put by myself in my apartment in Bamako. Each night and sporadically throughout the day, I would hear gunfire sometimes very close. Needless to say, not a very pleasant time.

After the Coup, things were quite a blur and I won’t go into all the political details but when the military refused to give back power, ECOWAS threatened and instituted sanctions. Gas prices sky rocketed and getting money from banks became near impossible which made operations for PC very difficult. They had consolidated volunteers to regional capitals. We were all put into a state of waiting. The volunteers in the Mopti region had been brought down to the PC training center and I was there when our Country Director told them they would have to take interrupted service as the region was no longer safe and with the situation for the rest of the country, unsure, they could not be placed in other places in the country. It was heart breaking news and I tried to offer comfort, only a few days later I found myself in their shoes when we received an e-mail at night from the Country Director; all PCVs in Mali would be evacuated. Just a few days earlier some volunteers had played an April fools day joke on me when I had woken up that we were being evacuated. That joke didn’t seem as funny anymore. I immediately called my family and my advisor to tell them the news.

Packing up my apartment not knowing if/when I was coming back was one of the hardest parts. I was just starting to feel at home in Bamako, it had been a more difficult transition than I expected. Of course, the hardest was saying good bye to the women at the cooperative and me and my old site mate rented a taxi to break the news to our villages. It also didn’t help when I closed my bank account, the woman asked “So when things get tough, you all (westerns) just run?” I felt really bad for my replacement who had not been able to stay a year in Mali and had just started a WATSAN project and her Bambara was getting good. It is hard to say who the evacuation was hardest on but it was really difficult for the volunteers that had just completed training or had not quite served a year. At least myself and the training class after mine had pretty much completed our service.

Shortly after news of the evacuation, a plane was chartered and we all left for Accra, Ghana for a week long transition conference.  The conference was packed with sessions and well organized. It did help that it was held at a five star hotel with a gorgeous pool. PC had done this before and staff was flown in from the states some even that had experienced an evacuation when they were volunteers. Nevertheless, things were hectic and everyone was in different stages of grief. A week is also short period of time to close out all the paperwork for 180 people. A close of service ceremony was held on April 14th where I officially became an RPCV.

Before and during the conference I had kept myself so busy organizing things along with the other training class “chiefs” from organizing t-shirt orders and the final dance to helping staff collect paperwork, etc.  I had not been able to give much time to think let alone plan my next steps. I know I had to go back to Mali to finish my research for my doctorate though the when part was a bit difficult (now? Two weeks? Two months? A year). Two years of data collection is a lot to lose and plus I wasn’t ready to leave Mali.
I stayed another week in Ghana in the house of a PC staff member who had married a Malian. Her housekeeper, husband, and brother all spoke Bambara so it really helped with the transition. I took the week reading Malian news updates and talking to people in Mali to gauge the situation.  

In the end I decided to take at least a month to let the situation calm down but in the mean time I would improve my French in France. I enrolled in a five week intensive course with Alliance Franciase (4 hours a day, five days a week) in the South of France, Nice. Nice was amazing and breathtaking. It is on the French Riveria where the sea is a beautiful blue. I went running most every day on the promenade near the coast. I made friends in my class from all parts of the world: the US, Malaysia, Spain, Italy, and Brazil and visited other cities along the French Riveria (Monaco, Ville France, St. Tropez, Cannes). I ate a lot of great food and drank a lot of good wine and was amazed by the cheese, wine and yogurt isles in the supermarkets.

Though Nice was a great experience, and really helped with my French, I was still getting over the shock of the evacuation and worried about the situation in Mali and anxious to get back. I made good friends with classmates but found French people much less patient and welcoming than Malians which doesn’t facilitate learning a new language as well. In the final days of my last week of class I made the plunge and bought a ticket back to Mali for that weekend. Things had seemed to calm down and a transition government was in place. Though I was still not 100% sure it was the right decision, it was good to have at least made one.

On June 2nd, I returned to Mali late at night and had a friend meet me at the airport. I wasn’t quite ready to go back to my apartment. After 5 weeks including many dust storms, I knew it would be a mess so I stayed at a hostel I had stayed at before as a volunteer, The Sleeping Camel. Through the first two days, I didn’t get out much but everything seemed normal if maybe a little quieter especially at the Camel and restaurants. On the third day, I visited the PC office and it was great to see all the staff and then I visited the women’s cooperative. It felt like no time had passed though it had been almost two months since we had been evacuated.

Going back to village was even more of a rush and not a shock like I was expecting after living in the luxury of Nice with its rich French foods to fetching water from a well and no electricity. I fell back into my normal routines and soon checked to see if the Tippy Tap hand washing stations were still there. It felt like coming home and I felt happier, more relaxed than in France. It was really inspiring to see that Zeala had finished the project my replacement had started (including three top well repairs, over 30 soak pits and 30 latrines) and the Shea cooperative had built a house from their own funds to store their soap making materials in.  

Now it has been two and a half months since I have returned to Mali as just a researcher. Things are very much the same and very much different. I really miss the support of volunteers and PC. You ofcourse don’t realize how good you had it until it is gone. I get very few text messages let alone phone calls now from volunteers asking questions or just random musings of their day. Ofcourse the first weeks when I was back, I got a bad rash and cold and wished I could call Dr. Dawn (the PC Medical Officer). The first several market days I walked, rode on someone’s lap in the front of a speeding van, and rode on the back of a motorcycle several times. I really missed our PC trek bikes and everyone kept asking where my bike went. I had always told them it wasn’t mine. A friend let me borrow his bike which doesn’t have brakes, the chain often falls off, and I think riding with the bar up my butt would be more comfortable than the seat they made out of wire and cloth. Nevertheless, I am thankful and it is better than not having a bike at all.

Even now I get questions of when Jeneba (the volunteer that replaced me) is coming back and I have to explain for the hundredth time that she probably isn’t coming back and no, I don’t know when another volunteer will come as PC has yet again pushed back the arrival of another training class until March. Though the situation in the south of Mali has stabilized, the North is still in the hands of the rebels and there has been little progress made to take it back.

I am keeping very busy with my research on the hand washing stations and shea butter. I guess a positive from this whole situation is I have really been able to focus on my research as before I had many responsibilities with PC. I have been weighing the shea nuts in different stages of the process and hopefully will have a total amount of nuts collected and butter made in the entire village. Also, I have been conducting ethnographic interviews and surveys in respect to Shea butter and its role and importance during the hungry season for an anthropological methods course I took as a directed study.  Data collection for my third topic of research, latrine usage at schools, should start in October at the beginning of the school year.

Hopefully, if all goes to plan (though I’ve learned things can turn out quite different), I should be back in the states at the end of November/early December. I may go to USF for a few weeks to work on research and make sure I have a place to live and that I am registered for classes in the Spring. It will be nice to be back in the US for a significant period of time and in the same country as my family. Hoping Allah will see me safely through the rest of my time in Mali and then home and also pray for a solution to the crisis Mali is facing and soon. Thank you to all my family and friends that have supported and continue to support me through this transition.