Tuesday, February 27, 2007


...is a requirement when being a volunteer in the Peace Corps.

If you are planner and need to know when and where, how and what, then the Peace Corps is not for you.

When my friend was going to visit her site for the first time in Guinea, she had to wait 10 hours for her taxi to leave.

Thursday we spent ALL day doing dental and sitting around the medical office waiting to get medically cleared.

Friday, we tried to leave Mali on Monday. The office closes at 11 am on Fridays. That plan went out the window.

Today, we tried to leave Mali on Tuesday. At 8 am, the coordinator said you are leaving tomorrow by bus. Would you mind leaving on a plane though? I replied, "I am as flexible as you need me to be."

We took the Peace Corps provided shuttle the 30 minute ride into town braving the horrible traffic and the kids selling stuff as they weave in and out of stopped and moving cars. I walked to get passport photos for Visas and then walked to the Mali Peace Corps office where we were told, come back around 3 pm. We will get your Burkina Faso visas and then we will give you money and a bus ticket to leave tomorrow.

We had a lovely lunch of falafels and yummy pita filled meat sandwiches. Then I went and had ice cream.

At 5 pm we learned that we would not be leaving tomorrow, but would be leaving on Wednesday on an 8 am bus. My friends who were looking forward to riding a bus to Niger learned that they would be flying. They were disappointed.

It was a day of waiting, of just being in the moment, of not worrying about plans, over the future, over anything, of just going with the flow of change. Funny how such a day was so stressful yet peaceful.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Burkina Faso

I am off into the great unknown.

I left the US for Guinea with 80 lbs worth of stuff.

I leave Mali for my new country with a week's worth of clothes, a headlamp, a nalgene, a pair of sandals, and a pair of running shoes. I left so much behind at my village to be given away.

It is a lesson in attachment.
It is a lesson in letting go.
It is a lesson in living at the bare minimum.

I use to say that air, water, food, shelter, and human companionship were the only things I ever wanted or needed in life.

It is being tested.
I wonder if it is still true.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Leaving Mali

I am sad.
Each night I give goodbyes away.

Soon I will be the one being waved at from inside a car window heading toward an airport in the middle of the night.

I am transferring to Burkina Faso soon to teach math and science.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Last days in Mali

Here in Mali, I wait.
I sit watching the trees move in the breeze.

I am waiting for a transfer offer to a new African country for a 27 month Peace Corps tour.

If I say no, I will return to the US.
If I say yes, I will pack up my week’s worth of clothes, board a plane, and be dropped off alone in a new country.

I sit and I wait.

The viscious mosquitoes are tearing up my ankles and legs. I spray Off, yet my bites turn red, pus-filled, infected.

I wear long skirts, but they are sneaky little buggers. So now I wear pants found in the free-box left by Peace Corps volunteers departing for home.

Today I found a pair of jeans. It has been 7 months since I have worn jeans. Jeans and Africa do not exactly mix. It’s too hot for heavy pants, but today I have no new bites.

I feel so American in jeans!

What does that mean?

In Africa, I feel very female, a woman, a different sense of power as a second-class citizen compared to men. I feel the pressure to be a wife, a baby-maker. Wearing jeans, I feel tough, feel the girliness leave, feel the strength of being who I am regardless of my sex and gender.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Time to leave

Even with my festering painful mosquito bite wounds
Even with the energy of the Malian camp changing from hope to ugh
Even with drama, anxieties, boredom and goodbyes

I still laugh and smile.
I am still well.

The time in Mali is coming to an end.
I still do not know where I will be, but by the end of this week
the answer surely will be seen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Contrast of Life in Mali

Yesterday I went to participate in a community cleanup in a neighboring village where we collected and burned trash in the market and near the mosque. The village was dusty with no electricity and with well water from a hand pump. It was brown with brown mud huts dotted with a mango tree here and there.

Last night, I went out into the city to celebrate a friend's birthday. We sat in a restaurant with a case of cakes and pastries, with a freezer full of colorful flavors of sorbet. I ate ice cream on an outside patio next to a main road full of cars and establishments with Neon signs. The city has stop lights and fancy hotels, dance clubs, and casinos, supermarkets, and an art museum.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Day 14 in Mali

We spent 14 days on standfast in Guinea.
We have spent 14 days consolidated for training in Mali.

Au village, I was alone.
Au Mali, I am with 106 Americans.

Au village I ate rice and sauce, fresh fruit, and cooking project dishes.
Au Mali, I eat eggs and pancakes, rice and sauce, and Western food for dinner spaghetti, mac and cheese steak and green beans.

Au village, I finished 6 books, wrote 10 page letters, worked on art projects, worked on community building by going to ceremonies and carrying rocks.
Au Mali, I souvenir shop, play ping pong, ultimate frisbee, flag football, watch music videos and Gray's Anatomy, eat chocolate, take educational training classes for if we return to Guinea, talk with people about our futures.

Time in Mali is coming to an end.
Political unrest in Guinea is not.

Where will I be next?


Mali music festival at the
foot of the Niger
Bright stage lights below
a full moon amongst glittering stars
Two powerful women drumming
with their souls
The crowd stands
a mass panic
shirts turned into face masks
the scent of tear gas in the air

Thursday, February 01, 2007


The problem with scraping up your knees playing flag football is squatting to go to the bathroom. Man, those knees are painful, each wound being opened up again.

The day I arrived

Saturday 27 January

Roughing it in a tiny village of Guinea, wilderness camping has turned into car camping in Mali. My lifestyle has turned luxurious: stable electricity, water that doesn’t run out, huts with ceiling fans, internet, a dining hall that serves pizza, pancakes, and omelets, basketball courts and a football field, fancy international restaurants: Thai, Chinese, tex-mex and ice cream, even an oven to bake cookies with.

Am I on vacation?

For the past 3 weeks, I have not been teaching. I have been on standfast (told to stay put in my safe village) as the nation of Guinea has been striking for a regime and economic change.

Because Peace Corps had no way of contacting me, I rode my bike 5 km each day to a neighboring village to use the HF radio powered by solar panels. Each day I got the boring message, “Everything is calm here;” however, I knew protests were ending in deaths as radio listening teachers gossiped with me. I knew the Labe taxis were not coming to our market-day. The town was running out of cooking oil. The price of 1 liter sky rocketed from from 6000 FG to 12000 FG. Even though there were small hints that the nation was striking, in my village things were very peaceful and calm.

I was not hurting for anything. The local market ladies still had their tubars. Plus tomatoes were also coming back into season. One of my students even walked 10 km to get me eggs.

On Tuesday, the PC message drastically changed, from "All is calm, to “Pack a bag. We might be going to a training session in Bamako, Mali. Radio tomorrow morning for more information.”

On Wednesday morning at 8 am, the radio was not working. All I could hear was mumble jumble and static. People were talking, but I could not understand anything that was being said. I finally just tried to call in.

"This is Jennifer in Tounkourourma. Jennifer in Tounkourouma."

A driver answered in a clear voice, “I’m on my way to pick up a couple of volunteers. You are next. I’ll be there soon.” The one voice I could hear was the one with the most important message.

I got a boost of adrenaline as I pedaled hard the 5 km home even up the rocky hill I usually walk. I believed that I would meet the Peace Corps car, parked in front of my hut. I wasn't ready. I had assumed that I had at least one more day. My hair was only half-way braided. My things were spread upon the floor. I hadn’t packed my perishables to give the family. My heart felt disarrayed just like my house and packing.

I was ready to go very quickly though. My sac was ready with a few clothes, toiletries, meds, and things to entertain me like my journal, crochet, a CD player, and my running shoes. I packed an extra bag of food which could be left behind if there wasn’t room.

Then I waited.

As I sat on my porch, surrounded by kids, they understood I was leaving, but none of us knew when I would be back. They kept me company singing and dancing. My heart was heavy. I couldn’t leave my compound to say goodbye to my community. I told two key people who would inform the others, but it felt strange to just be one day shouldering red bauxite rocks to the mosque with the community to silently disappearing.

The Peace Corps SUV with an empty caboose except for two sideways facing benches picked me up, my next closest neighbors were already packed in. As we sped away, kicking up dust, my head and ass feeling the brut of the car, I was glad for my mother’s Christmas package that had luckily arrived full of Dramamine. We were in a hurry not because of danger, but because we had 12 other people to pick-up.

It was a LONG day!

The ride got easier though as more were packed in. Since we were hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder we couldn’t bounce as much, a solid unit keeping each of us securely weaved into a hard bench.

Keeping to non-main bumpy dirt roads, we arrived at a fellow volunteer’s site by dark. They were cooking pasta for us having spent the whole day trying to find accommodations for around an estimated 24. The village, the most generous people gave us their best beds. The bus full of the other half of the volunteers didn’t arrive till the next morning.

We packed the 25 passenger bus with 28 including a row dedicated to our luggage and picked up an additional 2 volunteers on our way to Kankan. We were six to a row for the 12 hour trip from the cool green Fouta region to the hot, dry dusty Haute Guinea region. It was an exciting way to see Guinea!

One group of volunteers had already left the Peace Corps house in Kankan, the Peace Corps regional capitol for Haute Guinea, leaving an empty house for the fifty plus volunteers who would be arriving. We were the first to arrive. Around midnight 24 others arrived. We filled the beds, the floor, the balcony, the cars trying to get a few hours of sleep before the 5 am departure time.

Fouta volunteers stayed one more day. Our passports were with a program director who was helping the other Fouta volunteers get to Mali. It was a welcomed rest to the 2 days of hard travel. We cooked, did laundry, went to the dead empty market. Our trip out of Guinea was like the empty market, uneventful. We saw absolutely no trouble, no road blocks, nothing. Many of us had stories of being in a quiet village during the challenging days of waiting in our villages, waiting for any news during standfast. Our trip was like our villages, quiet, unlike some of the stories I heard here in Mali from volunteers from some of the bigger cities where there were clashes between people and the military.

3 SUV’s arrived with the last volunteers going to Mali by car and we headed off the next day at 5 am, through beautiful country, mesa-like landscapes. We had no trouble at the border, just sitting in our cars as a Peace Corps staff handled our transition from one country to the next. On the Mali side, a peace Corps Mali car met us and accompanied us to the PC training center.

Wow and what a training center it is! It is a huge compound. I can run around it in a leisurely 15 minutes. It is big enough to give us 100 plus volunteers space. Gathering 100 people who survive in the isolation of their villages, sometimes isn’t easy on all of us who enjoy that solitude. It is like a small college campus. My education group are the freshmen, the most recent arrivals to Guinea, Group 12 (G12). G9 are the seniors who are about to graduate who were getting ready to leave in the next couple of months. We even have some grad students, volunteers from G3 and G7.

What next? We wait and see what happens in Guinea. We have a maximum of 4 weeks before we either go back to our Guinean villages, go back to the US, or get reassigned to a new country. We will keep busy with trainings, sport activities, projects, talent shows. We must or else face the symptoms of cabin fever, an unhealthy challenge for PC volunteers.

Peace Corps Guinea has been amazing. The staff ran a tight ship in a country were organization, order, schedules usually are put aside for flexibility. In this case the hard work of the chauffeurs, the program directions, the security officer, the office people, the medical staff, the country director, and the volunteers got us out in 4 days, an amazing feat! And now Peace Corps Mali has been extremely accommodating arranging the training site for our arrival organizing cultural events, safety and security sessions, and language classes.

It is amazing to feel the accomplishments of this Peace Corps community that I have become a part of.

My gratitude
My thanks

The day I left

Wednesday 24 January

This is not the right way to say goodbye not knowing if I’m coming back pretending that I am.

Where do I live?

Tuesday January 23

My village has two parts: the village and the center of town.

The village is a huge area where most everyone lives. The area is surrounded by a man-made fence to keep livestock out. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. It is a wooded area with lots of huts, cassava gardens, orange trees, bamboo groves, avocado and mango trees. The mosque is in the village towering over the trees.

In the center of town, there is a huge tree, a small mosque, and a couple of concrete buildings where a tailor stores his machine, where rice, flour, and other goods are stored. Here there aren’t many trees. It is mostly wide open land with concrete houses on plots of land surrounded by fences to keep the sheep out. There is a football field. Both the middle school and the elementary school are here. Here we have pump water powered by solar panels. In the village, they have wells. The well-groomed dirt road passes through this part of the village.

Sometimes I wish I lived in the village under cool trees, in a mud hut; however, I am also quite happy living in the center of town with my close by running water.

The Boring Village

Monday 22 January

It is day 13 of nationwide strikes. Give up your Presidential power is the cry. As I was riding the5 km to use the nearby radio to check in with Peace Corps, I thought, I have seen my village. I have tasted its food. I have sat through its ceremonies, its deaths, it births, its religious rituals. I have experienced its generosity and hospitality. I have shopped in its market. I have played with its children and talked with its old. I have experienced a small part of Africa.

Is it time to leave? It isn’t as strange as I would have assumed sitting in the U.S. I haven’t eaten any insects, danced around any fires, seen any elaborate costumes, or strange ceremonies.

There isn’t any magic here in this village.

Today was a scheduled nationwide gathering to show the strength of the striking people. I asked if the village was doing anything. No way. We are in the country, not in the city was the reply.

Sitting on my porch on a stool, the floor as my table, scrubbing the dishes, I heard a distant drum. I have only heard a drum one other time when the village was called to pray during the end of Ramadan. Was this second drumming a call having to do with the strikes?

The children started jumping with excitement chanting, “Caillou, Caillou.”

Do I really want to go transport rocks from the hillsides to the courtyard of the mosque? I have nothing else better to do. Plus wouldn’t it be cool to leave something behind once I left Africa? How about a bowl full of rocks?

I followed some of my male students carrying a bowl of red stones upon my shoulder. I was afraid of the weight upon my head. At the mosque, I saw every familiar face of the village, everyone excited, everyone with a thank you upon their lips. I did two more trips with some of my female students, walking 500 yards to the hillsides, squatting in the brown dry terrain, gathering bauxite to fill the courtyard. The men enthusiastically grabbed my bowl spreading the rocks in the sacred yard, an area bigger than half a football field. Then I rested under a tree with 50 other females sitting on our overturned bowls.

I watched as 30 old women passed us bowls of rock upon their heads singing in Arab, one voice answered by the many. As they exited, they goaded us for sitting and I rose with the principal’s wife, Binta, to continue on with the group.

Reaching the hillside, we split off in multiple directions finding a spot rich with rocks. I followed the principal’s wife and we quickly filled our bowls. As I shoulder it to take off, she said, “Wait. We’ll wait here.”

The women regathered and then there was an uproar, a clucking of hens. I asked Binta to translate. She said, “Everyone’s yelling ‘Wait. Wait,’” scolding as one lone woman started to take off. When a mass of women had gathered, we started a slow steady walk, a tight group. I was in the middle of the tall female strength gazing between the pots of rock upon their heads, the towers of the mosque looming ahead. It was in that moment that I felt the magic of a community effort to build our mosque, finding the pleasure in being.

It isn’t the time to leave my village yet. There is more magic to be found.

The Grass is Greener

Sunday 21 January

In Seattle, a lazy Sunday would be spent in a coffee shop writing, sipping a Latte, a pastry waiting in the corner of my eye. Sometimes I’d stop and have an ice cream my spoon sinking into the soft cold sweetness.

In Guinea, a lazy Sunday is spent sitting at a desk, writing, sipping a full bottle of water, artwork and photographs in the corner of my eye, a cool breeze passing through the open door and windows. My spoon sinks into the yellow sweetness of a freshly picked papaya.

Guinean Tidbits

Guinean Tidbits

It just dawned on me. Vultures here in Africa are as common as red cardinals in Alabama. I forgot that you out there in the US don’t get to see them everyday. Today on my way home from a 5 km hike to a neighboring village for lessons on how to read Pular, I saw the most beautiful huge vulture, taller than my knee. It even had a mane like ruffle. I wish I could have finished watching it dine.

Five young kids were on my porch with 10 oranges to peel the special Guinean way, leaving the white pulp intact, slicing the top off so each child could suck and squeeze the juice out without getting their hands messy. This non-wannabe mother took a deep breath and started.

My 3 cockroach friends who live in the latrine have turned into 30 with one dead, a hundred ants attending the funeral.

Non,a Russian onion flatbread was a bigger success to my tongue than the tortillas. Cooking projects are fun during these nationwide strikes. Day 12 had arrived with no end in sight.

Leave and Good Things Will Happen

Wednesday 18 January 2007

Needing to get out of my house, I sat in the town center under a tree, upon a rock, with the nine gathered there: 3 children at their near empty tables of condiments that are hard to find as day 8 of the strikes continue- the Labe trucks don’t come to our Thursday market anymore- several women selling tomatoes, dried manioch roots, and peanuts, and 3 women dressed in their best stopping to chat.

I asked the typical greeting in Pular, “Where are you coming from?” The mother of one of my best 7th grade students replied, “There was a death in the village. Have you gone? He was an old man, very nice.”

I was wondering where all of the men who typically gather in the town center. I continued sitting there as the mother continued on. She is one of the few women who speak French and indirectly hinted that I should go greet the mourning family as she said goodbye.

I sat for a while longer then stood, “Awa, see you later.” At home I went into the inner bedroom, lay upon my bed, and looked up at the metal ceiling through my mosquito net. I’m tired. I just spent a day riding 3 hours on my bike. I don’t want to go visit a mourning family. It’s late, 16 h. How will I find their hut? I ran across the mothers of my concession returning from their visit as I was returning from my bike ride. They are not going to want to stop their dinner preparations to take me. All the older kids have been sent to other villages to help with work. The younger kids won’t be able to guide me. Anyways what difference does it make if I go or if I don’t go. I’m tired. You’re just feeling guilty because you’re a people pleaser. What is the big deal if I miss this one visit? You know the village would be pleased with your presence. They’re probably just wanting money.

I took a few deep breaths, closed my eyes, and relaxed, observing how I was feeling, observing my breath, stopping the voice in my head for 5 minutes. Then pop, like a bullet out of a gun, I jumped out of bed through the opening of my net and grabbed my African clothes, my good sandals, wrapped up my hair, and locked up bringing only my keys, no money.

I took off in the direction that I saw the mothers coming from earlier. I walked with a 7th grade student, trying to get directions from her, a girl whose French level was low. I had to be clever in my questioning. Some people answer yes to every question coz they don’t understand all the questions.

There was a death in the village?
It’s late. Will there be anyone there?
But aren’t the men burying the body?
So there will be no one there?
So if I go over there will there be anybody?
A few.
Am I going in the right direction?
Is it near the mosque (opposite direction)?
Is it far?
As far as Lamba?

She pointed in a general direction as she left me for her own home. Well this is going to be an adventure.

I continued on and in the far distance two figures greeted me, “On Jaramma. Ko honto yahataa?” Hello. Where are you going?

I pointed in the direction, shouting, “There was a death in the village wasn’t there?

They shouted back, “Wait there. We are some of your students. One of us is going home and lives over there.”

Thank goodness. Now I have a guide and won’t be wandering aimlessly in he maze of paths of the densely packed village full of huts, fruit-trees, and gardens.

We twisted right then left through rock filled courtyards, past girls sifting pounded corn, always under rotting orange filled trees, past a bamboo grove, across a dry creek until we reached a gathering of women sitting on mats. I sat down.

Thank goodness in Forricarriah during training I had accompanied my family to visit a mourning family, the husband of a friend had died. That friend was even a friend of mine, a woman who often sat in our kitchen preparing dishes unfamiliar to my family, but believed that I would enjoy. She helped cook my birthday feast. She had labored over toe, a favorite of mine, a play dough like cassava dish. So I was familiar that consoling a family was by visiting and sitting for some time. You can stay for a long time or just for a couple of minutes. I had experience in a situation that can be culturally scary to a newbie.

Children gathered around me. The women laughed as two started crying as the two young uns caught my eye and my smile. I saw some of my students learning the death was an old teacher of Arab, an uncle of one of my students. I greeted the mourning wife, sat for a few minutes more, and took my leave, followed by 10 giggling kids accompanied by two students back through the maze.

I felt a sense of well-being as I learned the two female students’ names, a challenge I have been trying to overcome- learning 120 strange names. Little by little they say here in Guinea. Walking home I saw 6 girls playing soccer. Wow, what a find! Each time I leave my house I learn something new.

Returning home, 6 kids were singing and dancing on my porch. What have they been eating? Their explosive energy, moved through their feet, their arms, into their shoulders radiating through their smiles. I pulled out a chair and the kids lay in a semi-circle around my feet. “Teach us French,” Mamadou asked. I taught them the 2 French songs I know “Alouette” and “Frere Jacques.”

I asked them to do a recitation. Their first grade memorized speech was about the days of the week, recited without understanding. I then asked what today was giving them a lesson about Thursdays being market day, Fridays mosque day, and Sundays no school days. Then we practiced our sums. I tried to help them learn to count their fingers instead of just memorizing the answers, answers that have no meaning.

The sun set. I sent them to their house. I went to bed, content with the good things of this Wednesday

A Treat

Monday 15 January 2007

Have I been in Africa too long when mashed night chilled ripe avocados mixed with sugar tastes like ice cream?

Patience for a Sunset

Saturday 13 January

I walked in-between two of the mothers of my concession through our fruit tree filled village, up a rocky path surrounded by barely green bushes only slightly taller than us, across a barren black burned field down a hill into a tiny village of about 5 huts. And there I sat in silence for 3 hours upon a chair, the only one sitting on a chair. Everyone else gathered leaves or straw or found prayer mats to sit upon on the ground. There was no one to explain the ceremony we were attending. The men, the French speakers were all gathered over there.

I sat and watched with a patience that never found comfort in the wooden chair. A singing parade of people carrying wood upon their heads dumped it all in a pile. Money was collected. Women gave 100 GF. Because I didn’t know what the ceremony was for, I pretended I didn’t have any money in my bag. I didn’t want to be giving money to some ceremony I might not agree with. Everyone just sat listening, listen to what? No idea. We couldn’t even hear what any of the men were saying, probably something from the Koran. Not knowing when the ceremony was going to end, I glanced at my watch, almost 17 h, hour of prayer. Maybe this silent sitting will end by then. My ass is beginning to numb.

We were on our way home by 18 h. That was the best part of the day. No not because we were finally going home, but because it was beautiful. The full round sun was setting amongst beautiful dark shades of barren ground dotted by brightly clothed women making their way home single-file.

I rarely, okay never get to see Guinea during dusk. I am always inside. My source of light, candles. It was a rare treat to watch the trees go dark, the grand mosque blacken against the sky.

We reached home barely able to see. The moon doesn’t come out these nights. It was there where the husband explained that the ceremony was a religious one giving two women the title Therino, for their devotion and dedication to Allah, striving to lead a sinless life, devoted to reading and interpreting the Koran. It was much better than the theories I came up with like a circumcision ceremony.

Donnez moi un Bon Bon

Monday 8 Janvier 2007

As the ringing sound of the tire hit by a rock notifying us that school was out, I gave the 6 year old not yet of school age a bon bon. Her siblings slowly trickled to my porch. She spat it out into her grubby hand and popped it into her 7-year old sister’s demanding mouth. It passed from one to another until it was gone. When was the last time you shared a bon bon?