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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

thoughts on...

25 May 2009
Stars, They Are Just Like Us!

There is something to be said for the finer things in life. In fact, there is a whole lot to be said, but that isn’t why my parents, Bob and Mohanta, took me to Dives in Normandy for 10 days this May. We went there because, sure, I hadn’t had the finer things in life for some time now. 10 months, to be exact, but more because we all needed a vacation and we all needed each other. And while there, on the beaches where thousands and thousands of American, British and Canadian men my age and younger took the shores and lost their lives, we walked, stared and strolled. The sunset: endless, the life of the French country-side: picturesque, the thoughts: unstoppable.
I found black seashells for Fisher.
We talked about poverty and injustice and love.
We talked a lot about love.

(cue the dramatic music and put the soap-opera shading on the picture of me, my dad and my mom walking hand-in-hand into the long sunset with thought bubbles over our heads filled with heart shaped bubbles and pictures of loved ones faces and puppies and Zoe)

When I joined the Peace Corps I knew I’d be faced with poverty, filth, sickness and uneducated but intelligent people who, I assumed, just wanted a hand in their fields. To my (albeit naive) dismay I’ve discovered that poverty is winning, that filth doesn’t mean much when you don’t understand it, sickness and death are the will of Allah and that uneducated intelligent people are just like educated unintelligent people. They want what we all want: dignity and an easy life.
They do want a hand in their fields and they do want help with their children and in selling their goods in a stronger market and they are interested in technological developments (we’re not talking about the iPhone here, we’re talking about western hoes where your back isn’t stressed because the handle is no longer than your forearm) and they do want to tweak their eating habits to better their health and they do want to better educate their children. But (and here is that People Magazine reference I know you’ve all been waiting for) Impoverished People, They’re Just Like Us! They want these things but they want them fast, they’d rather not pay and they don’t want to have to follow-up.
And I don’t blame them.
Think about it: we know many of the processes of life and law because we’ve been formally educated on the subject; we know about paper trails and the importance and incompetence of bureaucracy because we all have a drivers license and have registered for college courses; we know that No Child Left Behind translates to Everybody Get Out but only because we were forced to watch the big and pretty opening ceremonies, trip up on their first step and crumble; we know that medicine generally kicks religion’s butt in the battle of infections and illness: antibiotics tend to rid our children of ear infections and antifungals rid our feet of red rashes much quicker, more efficiently and with less mentally-painful life-quality-questioning prayer; we know that fast-food will kill us and we know that vegans will too (I still love you, Sean and Lauren); we know that cigarettes are harmful and cool and we know that quitting is made harder because of non-smoking suits who live in gated communities, far removed from the lives they supply with nicotine. We know these seemingly simple aspects of life and law because in 4th grade everyone was taught the Scientific Method and understand that when you do something and the effect isn’t what you wanted, try doing something a little different, be patient and do more trials; we know these things because our systems are in place to afford us the rights and privileges to better make these decisions through questions and discussions; we know them because our parents take the time and make the effort to help us to understand this wild world we live in. In the end we know that medicine will help the body but that prayer often eases the mind and the heart further allowing the aforementioned to work better.

These processes of life and law are instilled in us; but these very processes of life and law are brand new to the people that development agencies, like the Peace Corps, intend to help: impoverished, uneducated, yet deserving people. We want to help in the process of developing, changing, and yet we are not sure how to go about instructing, instilling and ingraining these life altering attributes. When your student is aware of the fact that 8 hours a day he is at the mercy of the teacher, you have control and a vague sense of trust that helps the student to relax his nerves and focus (in theory, at least) on the lessons being taught. When your student in 65 and has lived a far fuller life than you, has survived the country’s independence and has seen 100s of friends and family die from Allah’s will (also known as malnutrition, malaria, AIDS/HIV, complications with birth due to the age of the mother, snake bites, bull fights, etc) and has worked in fields and been bitten by cobras and is blind from malnutrition and is still alive even though he doesn’t wash his hands, he chews tobacco, sleeps without a mosquito net and lives without the knowledge of other cultures, then what? And to confuse it more: he is Happy.
Then what do we have to teach him? Somehow, even though the developed world says it is impossible, improbable, and unlikely, he has lived way past the “average life expectancy” and has loved it. Shouldn’t that be what we reach for – improving the life they already lead instead of changing and uprooting what they already know?

It seems ridiculous to me, the more time I spend here and spend with friends like Safitu Traore and Sala Sidibe and Djan Diallo that I as a representative of the United States, am here to alter their ways of life. What the hell do I know? I know a lot about the socioeconomic factors that allow for the wealthy to stay rich and the poor to stay deprived. I know exactly why, politically and socially, the government only allows for the radio to work in highly populated areas and that that is why my villagers don’t even know when there is a coup going on just 35 km from us. I know that rural African doctors are often out here so that they can some day get promoted to Bamako or Segou and that they continue to treat everything with quinine and pocked the rest for profit (brand new motorcycles don’t come from a rural doctor’s salary who is supporting 3 wives). I know that the anthropologist that study these people are probably kicking themselves knowing that even though they are making it known that Toubabs (white people) digging for gold in Mali are “culturally sensitive” and therefore should be allowed to come in, buy land for nothing and bank later without having to give anything back, and that those anthropologists are banking too. I know that we as Peace Corps volunteers suffer a long, drawn out sense of regret and resentment because it is clear, after a period, that we are here as dolls of America. That we all know that none of us actually know anything technical that could help these people in the long run and that we are here to save face. JFK made the latter very clear.
Surely my biggest success as a United States Peace Corps volunteer will be the execution of Peace Corps 2nd and 3rd goals: to transfer useful/unusual cross-cultural knowledge between Americans and my Malian counterparts (even as you read this I’m considered to be doing my job). But to be honest, that isn’t what I signed up to do.

When I defended my choice to become a Peace Corps volunteer to the Republicans in my life I was always honest and straight forward with these two reasons: 1) I want to be extra hands in a field in West Africa; 2) I need to find a reason to love America (at the time I absolutely did not). Since moving here, my thoughts on America and Americans have dramatically changed for the better (although Gossip Girl isn’t helping, The Office sure is… we don’t get much news around here). I do currently and for the first time ever proudly wave an American flag both in and outside of my humble little Malian huts. I speak highly of our rights, liberties and abilities; though there is much reform to be had it’s nice to be able to speak of it, freely and without being called anti-American. Truly, can you believe we went through that horrific stage? Yikes.
Rainy season is coming up, quickly, and for that I am dreadfully grateful. For one, when it rains, it cools everything down and greens everything up. It’s nice and necessary for my sanity. Also, it means we start to plough and sow the fields – what I always intended on doing when in the Peace Corps. I honestly cannot wait. We’ll see what changes occur as I wake with the sun, take water to my host mother, and team up with another family each week for the next 12, to take to the fields, weed, prep and sow. I hope that with the change in weather and change in work my attitude too will change.

I need to revert back to the Gratitude is Heaven Itself attitude of my earlier days in Mourgoula. I need to make decisions that work socially, globally and in my best interest – which is no longer just mine but that of my fiancĂ©’s too, after all, we are a unit spread over 6,000 tumultuous miles and its important that we are supported and supportive… both sides of the Atlantic. I need an attitude adjustment and this word-vomit-blog is helpful.

You, if you’ve read this piece all the way through, should pat yourself on the back, because, according the official Goals of the Peace Corps, you just helped me be successful.

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