29 April 2012

the detour

apr29today is april 29th.

apr29ba day where you were supposed to be in mali.

watching elections.

and more than likely, yala yalaing with your two favorites.

apr29cinstead you’re in france.

still watching an election. just not the one you really care about.

leadsyou’re also figuring out what is going to come next.

last01but you’re also constantly thinking about your final days in mali.

last02as nice and official and perfect the michelin maps are, what you’d really like to be looking at is the hand painted mural map at the peace corps training center in mali.

last07with the rest of your peace corps family.

ok, maybe not all of them.

last03just the ones 

last06you liked

last05  a lot.

tsoyy01there’s only one perfect way to leave mali.

a last yala yala with your closest friends.

just the three of you.

tsoyy02plus a fourth: a path toward the niger river.

tsoyy03the river is low.

tsoyy11it becomes easier and easier to cross.

tsoyy10low enough that cows come and graze in areas that were once covered with water.

tsoyy08 you’ve also just realized that you’ve never written about why the niger river is so important to you.

the moment you realized it was one night in your first visit in your new village.

you were saving the explanation for a day when you were going to explore the niger.

but that day never had a chance to come.

so here will be the last chance you get to write about the niger, since you won’t be visiting it in person anytime soon.

nigerlet’s look at one more map. a map of the niger river’s path.

and let’s agree on one thing though: rivers flow toward an ocean. or sea. or lake. or some sort of body of water that it can call home.

the source of the niger is only 240km (150 mi) from the atlantic ocean. so close. so near. there isn’t much work involved for it to be reunited with that giant body of water.


instead of taking the short and easy route to the sea, it decides that a detour of 4,180k m (2,600 mi) through mali, the sahara, and various other countries is necessary before finally rejoining the atlantic ocean.

thanks to this detour, west africa is rich with stories thanks to increased sources of water, where cities such as bamako, timbuktu, and segou can flourish, where millions of people can build houses close to the river, where businesses can transport their goods, where cattle can go and drink from the river, where people can wash their laundry, where fish can be caught for dinner, where gardens can be planted nearby, where bridges are constructed, where life can be found.

imagine! imagine west africa if the niger decided to take the short route. imagine if the niger didn’t pass through all these areas. so much would be missing.

tsoyy09you loved using this allusion for your own life. and your own path.

before the coup, you thought of mali as a detour for your way back to france. you were going to return to france two years richer with culture and language and experience and friends and so much more. you were going to be so happy.

but now that the coup cut your time short and you are back earlier than expected in france, you realize that being in france is just another detour for your way back to west africa.

because that’s all you can think about. the dust. the people. the language. the mangos. the hospitality. the heat. west africa is what you want. not for a permanent home. but a home for longer than six months at least.

tsoyy05all of this, of course, was discussed with your yala yala buddies.

tsoyy06with them, no topic is ever taboo and no conversation is ever forced.

tsoyy07you couldn’t ask for a better friendship.  

or better people that listen when you need to think out loud.

tsoyy13the sun sets.

tsoyy12and it’s time to leave the niger.

tsoyy14one game of frisbee.

then it is kan bei to mali.


24 April 2012

consolidation, deconsolidation, reconsolidation, evacuation

Back Camerayou were in your bubble.

Back Camerawords can’t explain how happy you were. photos don’t even come close either.

Back Camerapigs. puppies. parties. so much was happening in and near your village.

so many plans.

but a text message telling to consolidate interrupted all that.

consolidation01so you found yourself in koutiala with ten others in a constant mode of suspense.

consolidation02the koutiala group might be all smiles in photographs.

consolidation03but inside everyone is thinking the same thing.

consolidation04what is going on in mali? and what does it mean for us? when can we go back to village? this is all just a big joke, right? what will make peace corps decide to evacuate? where is the president? what’s going up in the north? when is the electricity going to come back? why do we have to stay together? when will the banks reopen so i can withdraw some money? why why why?

consolidation26unfortunately the answers just aren’t there.

consolidation05so what do you do when you’re in a two bedroom house with ten other people?

consolidation06you go outside and lay under the mango trees.

consolidation08or you spend hours observing overweight pigeons.

consolidation09flirt, fight, eat, make love – you are now an expert on what pigeons do all day.

consolidation10but your favorite thing to do while stuck in koutiala is to eat mangos.

consolidation11mango pistachio tart. tuna mango salad. mango bread. chopped mangos and yogurt. you can’t get enough of malian grafted mangos.

consolidation13time is spent baking.

consolidation15time is spent cooking.

consolidation12example: homemade meatballs.

consolidation17but even with all that cooking and eating, it doesn’t change the feeling of being cooped up.

consolidation20fresh air is necessary.

consolidation21everyone piles into the back of a motorcycle taxi.

consolidation19it’s quite the fun ride.

consolidation25off the paved road, past groups of mango trees, where exactly are you going?

consolidation23to the hospital.

consolidation22bare walls. stark walls. empty walls.   

but not for long.

consolidation28it begins with some sketching.

consolidation29then some painting.

consolidation30lots of teamwork.

consolidation31what better way to pass time than painting health related murals?

consolidation33a visual aid is the perfect way of reinforcing the idea that washing your hands with soap is a good thing.

consolidation34it also helps everyone take their mind away from unsettled worries.

consolidation35 keeping busy.

consolidation37 staying productive.

consolidation38that’s really the best strategy for staying sane when an entire country is crumbling around you.


then, hope.

an email titled deconsolidation.

(most) everyone has permission to go back to their village.

Back Camerayou are on a bus and on a bike before anyone has a chance to blink.

Back Camerayou are so happy to be back in your bubble. to take a shower in your roofless bathroom. to enjoy the shade of the neem tree outside your house. to say hello to everyone. to eat with your host family. to give away M&M chocolate to your favorite kids.

you sleep once again outdoors on your porch.

a perfect sleep. because you didn’t realize it would be your last.

Back Camerathe next morning. a text message.

“we are being reconsolidated. you have to come back to koutiala today.”

Back Camerahow, how, how do you tell your neighbors and host family and friends that you just got back, you have to leave, and you have no idea if you’ll be able to return?

this is no evacuation – it’s just reconsolidation – there is no word on what peace corps will decide. so you can’t say a goodbye because you very well could come back in a few days.

you can only think of one thing to say. waatimin hera be segin malila, ne be segin fana. when peace comes back to mali, i will come back too.

Back Camerabut your gut feeling tells you that this is the last glimpse you have of your village.

Back Camerayour last eight kilometer bike ride.

eight kilometers of tears.

even thought you aren’t sure, you can’t stop crying.

you never knew a bike ride – which usually makes you so happy – could be so sad.

Back Camerayou make it back to koutiala. and the waiting game restarts. everyone is cooped up again.

but not for long.

evacbecause the email arrives a few hours later that night. 9:06 PM exactly. the evacuation email.

now the tears really start to fall.

Back Camerabut you can’t cry for long. you’ve got things to do. such as packing.

consolidation40the next morning, you say goodbye to your last koutiala mango.

consolidation39you also say goodbye to the koutiala pigeons. 

Back Cameraand a goodbye to the region of sikasso as you head back to bamako.

you never said goodbye to your village.

the sadness you feel is balanced out by one thing, and one thing only: the happy anticipation of seeing your two yala yala buddies whom you haven’t seen in over two months.