seek and find

Sunday, August 30, 2009

it feels to me that this is worthy of its length, worthy of your time, worth a lot to me

The last six weeks have been beyond turbulent and triumphant. Things in Mali went sour fast and I didn’t even get the chance or have the time to fully understand it all, much less explain it.
I went to Bamako in early July for a psychological evaluation at the Peace Corps clinic. It was administered over the phone so that I would be able to speak with a professional in D.C. It was concluded that due to the events that I will explain in the following paragraphs, my service needed to be suspended for a Medical Separation from the Peace Corps. Later, during my Close of Service routine medical examination, we discovered that I had contracted Tuberculosis and had severe dental issues that needed immediate attention.

I am now living in Salida, Colorado, with my finace, Ryan, his son, Fisher, my dog, Zoe and, of course, my wonderful and loving parents, Bob and Mohanta.

This all came at a time in Mali when the rains had begun and cool breezes turned to wild winds then to dry gusts then to downpour. An anti-police riot broke out in our quite regional capitol of Kita, ending in military take over of the city and the disarmament of many civilians and the suspension of many police. It was a sad scene riding a public bus into the city, seen through my weepy eyes - the news of my departure had been officiated and was scheduled for 48 hours later. The scene was this: the charred shells of cars still hot and smoldering, the shattered glass and shotgun shells littering the streets, the blackened window spaces and abandoned official buildings, the glaring blue reflectivity of the heavily armed military men, patrolling the emptied streets. The cool breezes swept gusts of dust and mold and burnt flakes of long-since inappropriately-imposed French bureaucratic paperwork up into whirlwinds; later drowned and disembodied into muck by night flooding rains. An eerie quiet swept the streets that were normally bustling with children herders and flocks of guinea fowl flittering. The clicks of armored heels were the most distinct sound to a city normally bustling with noise to the extreme that it rendered your cell phone useless unless atop a building.
This was my last view of the regional capitol, my second home in Mali, Kita; a very sad view.

The events that led to my psychological evaluation were traumatic and violent yet dismissed inappropriately by the Peace Corps official in charge of Safety and Security.
The story is a bit disarming and is very unique to my situation and in no way reflects the people of Mali as a whole; I want to make it very clear that my time in Mali was generally happy and when it wasn’t it was very often due to circumstances in which I dug myself too deep or put too much pressure on… not to mention the fact that the love of my life was waiting, patiently, in Salida, Colorado, as were my loving and supportive parents.
They only recently heard this story.

On an afternoon bus from the capitol city, Bamako, to my regional capital, Kita, in early March of 2009, I found myself 4 hours delayed due to faulty tires. My two choices were to either sleep on the side of the highway with 40 strangers and no food or water or to go with a passing bachee (bush taxi) that was headed to Kita. I took the latter once I recognized the bachee driver to be one of the four drivers that drove my road to village on a monthly basis. I explained to him, as the sun was becoming dimmer and the darkness began to fill the peripheral and the poorly lit cabin of the bachee looked very inviting, that I was without any money or phone credit but would happily pay him, extra even, the following morning, since he would be driving me to Mourgoula anyways. He agreed and seeing as how we were only about 60 miles from Kita so I took the chance and have since regretted it dearly.

I boarded the bus without windows and only a sliding door (not unlike a minivan) and sat in the front row, just behind the driver’s seat, against the wall. The man sitting next to me spoke English well and as a good American citizen and representative of the United States Peace Corps I entertained his obvious dedication to learning and spoke with him a bit. I, of course, did the Bambara greetings as I boarded but obviously didn’t fit or sound the part of a local so he struck up a conversation anyway. We chatted for about 10 minutes until I finally told him that I’d like to nap a while, that I’d had a long day of travel, and he said Ok. In the time that we had spoken I discovered that he was Nigerian and knew exactly what other Peace Corps Volunteers lived in the Kita region, down to the placement of their respective huts in their respective villages and even where they worked. It was odd and alarming so I tried, with some sternness, to distance myself from him in this situation.
I ended up falling asleep for a bit, the unevenness of the roads and the lack of shocks became comforting as I drifted into a nap; when I woke, we were parked at a small village, the driver and door-guy along with anyone previously on the bus, were gone. I had assumed that they were all praying, everyone but the Nigerian. As I woke and became more alert I realized that he, the Nigerian, had me pinned against the wall of the bus with his large combat boot heels grinding into my right thigh. I then realized that the pain was on my left side and was caused by a large bolt, part of the door, that was being pinned into my thigh. I asked him to move and he kicked me hard. My left leg was cut by this move and so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes outside, hoping to see a familiar face. Then he spoke to me in a much angrier and more agitated voice, “I could fuck you and no one would ever know about it.”
My heart stopped. Then pounded. My ears hurt and I froze, holding tears in and trying to remind myself to breathe.
The front door opened, the driver and the door-guy got in, without saying a word, and we drove on at a much slower pace than before, the final 20 miles to Kita. The Nigerian kept kicking me, threatening to rape me, laughing and speaking in French to the driver, who I soon realized was very drunk, as was his assistant. I felt trapped and was trapped, still, by his combat boots. My left leg was now numb and my right was bleeding, too.

We arrived at the police check stop, where I discovered them to be drunk as well, and passed through without verification of the number of people riding in the bus. I called Liza, who I knew to be at the staging house (the Volunteers’ house in the city) and told her that if I wasn’t home in 5 minutes to send Konte, our beloved house guard and friend, to the bus stop to look for me and to then call Peace Corps. I was terrified, hungry and bleeding; it was 10pm at this point and I was a mess. This Nigerian knew where I lived, where Jackie, Liza, Ryan and Joelle lived. I knew he was trouble and he was the only thing I was thinking of when I jumped out of the bus’ window (remember, there is no glass in these busses or transports so it was more of a wiggle than anything), and took off down the dark, dirt path that lead to the mayor’s office, that led to the road that led to the staging house.
I ran, hard and heavy, for about 15 feet when I suddenly found myself on the ground, with laughter ringing in my ears. My backpack had been stripped from my shoulders by the (now drunk) bus driver who was laughing and spitting harder than the crowd that was sitting, laughing, enjoying me on the ground. I got up and demanded that he return it (as much as one can demand something in a language like Bambara when I’d only been in the country for 7 months at the time). He laughed again and pushed me back.
I lunged for him, punching him with my right fist, against his left cheek. Merely shocking this man of 6’ 3”; the laughter was mean now, mean and loud. He took me by the shoulders and threw me into the bus. I hit my head and once again found myself on the filth riddled ground of the bus stop; his foot came into my ribs and left me with a white spell of air-less-ness. Once I got up I demanded my bag back, now with a slightly bloody nose and far less hope, the laughter from the crowd roared and mocked, snickered and spit.
Before I knew it, my bag was on the ground and Konte was on the man. (Konte is our, the PCVs, best friend in Kita and house guard, he would and will and does anything for us) Wailing him with fists and then, only then when two grown and built men were fighting each other, did the crowd step in to help settle the dispute.
The driver wanted the 1500cfa (the equivalent of $3), I wanted my bag and my dignity, and Konte wanted me home and clean. We called the owner of the bus, who showed up at his leisure, as he did everything else in his life, and laughed off the entire situation.
That, like so many things in Mali, was that. It had been joked to a choking point and considered settled and under the bridge.

I reported the incident the next morning, after sleeping closer to Liza than I ever had before, and the response I received from the Peace Corps official to whom I had been, as had everyone else, told to report such incidents to, was: Sydney, you should know better than to talk to Nigerians.
My response was, of course: You are all Black. Are you kidding me?

That, too, was dropped. And with his disinterest in my near-rape and assault came my silence. I assumed he would report it to the Peace Corps Medical Officers, or at least to my boss, or maybe would mention it to the Country Director, but nothing came of it. Nothing but a phone call and a trip to Liza’s village to tell me that he had: begged that I be forgiven of my cultural insensitivity. (that being me punching the driver in the face).

After that I withdrew from the Peace Corps as an entity of safety or care. Only later, after seeing my parents in Normandy, France, for a week did I realize the extent of my depression. My anxiety had taken my sleep from me; it had morphed my otherwise healthy lifestyle there into a mess of constipation bouts lasting 14 days at a time, followed by 5 day weight losses of 12lbs; my attitude and happiness had nearly diminished. Unless I was in Mourgoula, with Madou and Dabi, Wurdia and Safiatu, I was aggressive, on edge and unhappy.
Embarrassed and unable to tell my family and friends in America, I confided in Megan Pilli, Christina Wood and Liza Clark, who all gave me support and love like only friends in fucked up situations can.

Throughout May and June, I continued to physically deteriorate. I would loose and gain substantial amounts of weight with fevers and colds; I contracted a severe respiratory infection and finally, after weeping on the phone to a PCMO about (please don’t judge me on this, it was very embarrassing and nearly sent me into fits) an incident where I stood in the bathroom in Kita, brushing my teeth, flossing and was suddenly flushed with heat and without even feeling it, had defecated myself. I had an anxiety attack which led to the physiological evaluation in which I was diagnosed as suffering from Adjustment Disorder. Bullshit.

The whole mess of it all, truly the worst experience, was leaving Mourgoula, my home and village of one year. Peace Corps sent me out with a grumpy driver and I asked Konte to come to help me explain the situation to the village, especially my host family.
It was a dreary day, and had luckily rained that morning, so most people were in town.
The Village Chief cried.
My host family wept.
Dabi was so shocked and obviously did not understand. He was clutched to a weeping Wurdia who could not bring herself to look at me.
Brahima begged me to stay, said he’d go to Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana to fetch me medication.
I had to move out a years worth of life in 40 minutes, with the crowd growing and the tears welling. I wept and walked form one hut to another. I was not able to say goodbye to Safiatu or Kassoum. Madou cried but hustled me into the car before I made any more of a culturally inappropriate scene by hugging Wurdia. He was protecting their memory of me; he was protecting himself.
It was terribly unfair.

Then I had to say goodbye to Konte. He said that men shouldn’t cry, that he’d never seen a chief cry, that he hated to cry.
He teared up and looked away as he sat on the new bench I gave him as the sky continued to fall.

The rain drizzled as I watched the town come back to life, only two days after the riot most businesses still had not opened, most children did not go to play, most people mourned the losses and the unfortunate powers that the police have and mis-use. I wept for days.

I still weep.

I miss Dabi and Wurdia. I miss the smells of the rains, the terror that the toads incited in me, I miss the beauty of the flowers and the flurry of the women’s words.
I miss Mali.

When I tell this story, I always get asked : Why did you stay after the attacks?
I always say: I wanted to leave on a good note. Then when good things would happen I would think, well, that’s not good enough.

The Country Director was alerted of the severity of my situations, those being the assaults, and the poor judgment used when I had reported it. He was in full support of Peace Corps Washington’s decision to Medically Separate me on the grounds of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, after giving me a firm and proud handshake, he offered me my Peace Corps pin.

Again, I cried.

The work that was done, that was planned, and that was invisible except to the soul, I am proud to say I had a hand in. Sometimes, my blistered hands and cut feet were enough to help me sleep. Other times the discussions that arouse were enough to keep me up, to keep me writing and thinking and are to be acknowledged as truly cross cultural.
My time in Mali was cut short by two horrific acts of violence that could have been worse and that I’m grateful ended as they did. Bruised ribs and bruised ego are two things that I can, have and will recover from.

We are all dealing with my sudden reappearance and my saddened state, but we are all we still and it’s the togetherness that is helping.

Maintaining a sense of self during my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali was difficult; maintaining or regaining that old self in my current state feels impossible, but it is not impossible and in fact is inevitable and is helped and led by family and friends, loved ones and readers.

It will come. My surgeries will heal, my head and heart will go back to normal, Post Traumatic will turn to Once Traumatic and will slowly become a lesson and an anecdote and a good self-defense story rather than a crushing and drowning sense of self.

Since I've been back in Colorado I've been seeing Psychologist in Denver who works with adventuresome cases, like mine. I have been officially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; it is a terrible and sad thing to have gone through but worse are the moments when I relive it, when I see it again, when I hear in other's voices the passionlessness I heard over the phone the morning after. Little triggers send me into a weeping state; grocery isles are terrifying; Zoe is my best comfort; I am not the same.
But I'm trying, working at getting back my old self, and I know it will come.

The imperfections of life make everything perfect and livable.
The lessons make it life. Don’t lose the lesson in loss.


Tiffany said...

;;hugs you;;

atomsfurpeace said...

you, sydney, are an incredible person. not just because of what you've experienced. but because i know if you knew the same danger awaited you (though you've learned lessons that would guide you differently) you'd still take the risk for a people you love.

glad you're back on our soil, though.

Alyssa said...

Holy crap, Sydney! At first I was trying to figure out why you didn't tell anyone in Peace Corps about this, but then I realized that it would have been all sorts of distorted through the grapevine. I'm so sorry this happened to you, and I'm glad you got to tell everyone on your own terms. I don't even know what I would have done... makes me think long and hard about my actions and safety here. Thank you.

Megan said...

Thank you for telling your story. We're all listening-don't ever forget it, darling.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story! I know it must be hard to do but it really will help others in the future. It's good to hear first accounts of the bad things that can happen as well. Thanks again!


Im glad that you feel better now :)

psychologist in Denver