Vince in Mali: A Blag!

The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily/probably don't reflect those of the Peace Corps.

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I wouldn’t have thought that the hardest part of site so far would be the installation.  More things couldn’t have gone wrong before I made it to My Site, and admittedly most of it was my fault.  

 Leaving Tubaniso was a bitch.  It’d be a lie to say that I was in any hurry to get out of there.  Goodfellas is an apt name for our Stage, mainly because we are so close, it almost feels criminal to split us all up.  But in the end, that’s what had to happen, PST being only a drop in the bucket of reasons for why we are here in Mali to begin with. 

That last week at Tiso seemed a blur of camaraderie to me.  Playing Mafia at the Trash Pile (1); summer sausage with the Boys Club (2); talent shows where laughter was the superlative talent.  Then there was Swear-In.  The morning at the embassy was all business and solemn solidarity, where speeches in French, Tomakan (3), Malinke, and Bambara were given in front of a national audience (at least for the privileged few who are able to watch television) by fellow stage mates. No sooner were our oaths given then it seemed we were at the American club a few blocks away to begin the celebration, one that lasted well into the night (4).  We had a day after the party to recover and pack up, but I did more of the former than the latter.  And so, I was in no hurry to get out of Tubaniso that last morning, at 5 in the morning, hurriedly packing whilst half asleep and wracked with nerves and grief.  

It was no wonder that I didn’t pack the keys to my hut at site, though this wouldn’t occur to me till I was 400km away in the regional capital of Sikasso.  Thankfully, one of my hut mates bound for Kaye later that day spotted them before he left, and they were able to be sent to Sikasso by public transport.  They were promised to be there by the next day.

Still I was nervous. Though my site was remotely situated about 55km from the main paved road (5), I was told that I would have to take public transportation to install myself, along with whatever luggage that I could take with me. At that point, in addition to the suitcase and backpack I brought, I also had in tow a metal trunk of materials that we received during home-stay, a gas stove, and a mattress (pretty much just a full-size wad of blue foam.)  All in all, it was well over 100 pounds of stuff, and most of my stage mates were faced with the same predicament.  I bitched and moaned during the entirety of protocol in Sikasso to my Regional Coordinator—who was a man stressed as it was with the task of installing six of us in the span of a week.  

In hindsight I’m sorry for my callous behavior, but at that time I was determined to try to get him to bend and install me through Peace Corps transport—something I suspected was the norm in the past, before budget cuts.   In the end, all my complaints were for aught.  I was told the night before I was to leave for site that there would fortuitously be Peace Corps transport heading back to Bamako from Sikasso, and I could hitch a ride all the way to Kouale, the village by the main road where the turn-off to My Site was located at.  It wasn’t a full ride, but a nice stress-relieving compromise regardless. I also would be able to leave most of my luggage at Sikasso, my RC being able to bring it three days later when he came to do protocol at my site. 

Things seemed set.  The Sikasso transit house was brand spanking new, and the largest in Mali, so those two days of protocol were spent in decidedly un-Malian luxury.  We watched a bootleg of Harry Potter 7 and I caught up on Game of Thrones & True Blood on an iMac well into the wee hours of the morning. Pointless and totally familiar thought patterns returned to me. 

I marveled at how faithful Game of Thrones the TV series kept to the book, right down to the last, epic image.  The new season of True Blood completely restored my faith in the series after a lackluster third season.

It was a trip to have these mundane, utterly familiar thoughts in Africa. Things that I compartmentalized to the “things I should care about” center of my brain have changed drastically in the past few months. The “watch HBO religiously” office had been shut down, having been replaced with a “let’s not get ourselves sick with Malaria” wing, motivational posters with a prominent “Mefloquine Mondays!” clogging up my synapses and thought lining.  But yeah, “watch HBO religiously” was reopened for business those nights at Sikasso, and I felt like I was in America again.  I made a dope (okay, it was just OK) lasagna-ish dish (6) on that last night with a fellow volunteer.  It’d be the last time I’d be in a kitchen for awhile.  I left Sikasso for site as ready as I could be.

Or so I thought.

About an hour on the road to Kouale, I remembered about the keys. The keys to my freakin’ house at site—they were still back in Sikasso.  “Shit!”  I called my RC about the sudden predicament, feeling guilty as hell, and the voice on the other line was stressed, tired, and not without a hint of exasperation.  He told me to just go to Bougouni, my actual regional capital, and he would send the keys on public transport tuguni (yet again)—they should be there on the morrow. 

Damn. My mind and soul was at peace and ready to begin at site, and this latest snag was akin to a timeout to ice the kicker before a game breaking field goal.        

I kept the keys to the Bougouni transit house with my site house keys but fortunately there was a volunteer staying there at the house to let me in. She reassured me that problems like this happened more than you’d think in Peace Corps, and I’d do well to learn to just cope with them sooner rather than later.  I was feeling guilty regardless, that first day, even though my village homologue and djatigi was laughing and accepting when I explained to him in broken Bambara over the phone that I wouldn’t be there till the next day.  The guilt mainly stemmed from the fact that I had nothing to do except surf the internet and lafigne (lounge around) all day.  Rest and repose was all well and good, but I felt like that’s all I’ve been doing since the end of home stay, before that last week of Tubaniso.  All the work that’s expected of us at this point of service is to simply just live with Malians, and it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve had to speak Bambara.  I already felt it slipping.

That guilt soon went away however when I got hooked on to the internet again.  It was decently fast, on account of there being only the two of us at the house, and I was soon re-discovering that latent part of the 1st world brain responsible for multi-tasking.  I don’t think I had multi-tasked in weeks, a fact that I hadn’t really noticed until I settled back into the routine of browsing random websites on a whim with multiple windows—one always being Wikipedia—along with music blaring on iTunes, stopped every once in awhile whenever some new song is done loading on Youtube for me to devour, and then having a couple of torrents running constant in the background as well for good measure.  Before I knew what happened, night had fallen and I was being snapped out of my reverie by the other volunteer for dinner and a beer at the nearby hotel.  I’m beginning to understand what makes time hurry back in America, when it always seemed that twenty-four hours was a couple hours too short for a day.

That next day was a Wednesday and we went to the bus station at noon to see if my keys had arrived.  They hadn’t. 

After that, I didn’t see the point of going to site when I had to come back to Bougouni two days later as part of my original protocol anyways.  I made this known to my RC, who agreed and said I could just stay at the house till then—after I met with the CAP director and the police as per protocol at the regional capitals, I would get a ride to my site.  I was ecstatic; I was going to be installed properly.  

That day went the same as the first.  A whole lot of nothing.  My keys finally arrived late in the afternoon, and I picked it up with no real hassle. That night I (box)wined and dined with some grilled chicken at a restaurant.  At one point, I was thinking that the rest of my stage was probably at site already.  I facebook statused that, something along the lines of “stuck at Bougouni, probs the last one to be installed. LOL.” 

A whole lot of nothing. 

The next day was a Thursday. I will always remember that one of the top three worst day of my life happened on a Thursday. It won’t ever drop below the #3 spot, no way.

I woke early with a dull ache in my stomach.  I let it sit, laying there, hoping to fall back asleep.  The ache didn’t go away.  Finally, I decided to go to the bathroom. Just the act of standing up made me double over in pain. 

I won’t go into the details of what happened after that but will instead refer to a distant memory from Pre-Staging, before we left the States for Mali.  The Pre-Staging Event was pretty much just a couple hours of complete strangers breaking the ice by discussing every apprehension and fear they held about the experience they were about to embark on.  There really is no better or faster way to get a group of people to bond.   At one point, we even drew out our fears.  One amongst us actually had been in the Peace Corps already—Niger before the program got discontinued last year, its volunteers all evacuated within the course of a week. With a permanent marker, he drew a stick figure violently expelling something out both ends.  Like, simultaneously. 

I now know what he knows.  For three horrible hours I now know what he knows, pretty much.

The other volunteer woke up to find me shivering in what Ben Affleck might refer to as “jus mah underoos” on the kitchen floor, sick with fever, seizure inducing chills and barely conscious of my surroundings.  She called the Medical Officer, got the go ahead to feed me some Ciprofloxacin, and pretty much saved me from a lot more grief.  Cipro, along with my unsoiled underoos, were two miracles witnessed that morning.  I got my first taste of an intestinal parasite, the dreaded amoebas.  It is a hell that I hope I won’t have to experience again for a long time—though I know it will always be a lingering inevitability for the next two years.  At one point during the ordeal, I remember thinking “just what the hell is a Malian kid supposed to do?  With no doctor, no Cipro…” 

That next morning, my RC came to pick me up for protocol. “You ready to go?”  I think I finally was.   


(1) Mafia is a card game introduced to us by our social tigi.  It is a gut-wrenching game of deception and intrigue fueled by the dual elements of drama and lies.  So naturally, our tight-knit Stage had an affinity with this game from the get-go.  Our trainers took note, and the name “goodfellas” came naturally after that I guess.

(2) To understand Boys Club, and you gotta understand it’s the Boys Club, please follow this link:

(3) I’m glad I’m learning the majorly spoken Bambara, but if I had a choice of minority languages, Tomakan—spoken by the Dogon people living on the mythic cliff escarpments of the Mopti Region—would be my first.  The Dogon language is as ancient and fascinating as it is eclectic in dialects.  Some of these dialects are spoken only by tens of thousands of people, in villages isolated from the rest of the world by a landscape that was more Martian than Earth.  Not to mention the language itself is so damn cool to listen to.  Misali (example):“Whoa whoa whoa” could literally translate to a “woman who resides in the the village of ‘Whoa.’”  And yes, there is a Dogon village called “Whoa.”

(4) What some might call a “prayer call” night.

(5) Mali’s roads, at least from what I’ve gathered so far, are few as you stray from Bamako.  There are paved roads that connect the major cities together, but even the two-lane highway to Sikasso wasn’t fully paved until about a year ago. Beyond that, clay and hard dirt paths lead away from these main roads like tributaries of a river—uneven and rough to navigate on—and comprise of most of Mali’s transit infrastructure.  The baashis and sotramas that go on these roads bounce like rickety rollercoaster carts on old wooden tracks.  Excepting that rollercoasters have seat belts and restraints. My Site is reached by one of these clay paths, branching off north about a third of the way between Bougouni and Sikasso.    

(6) One thing about pasta in Mali, all forms of pasta—don’t matter if its spaghetti, fettuccini, bow-tied—are called by one name: “macaroni.” Malian macaroni also comes with two sauces: oil, and more oil.  In the Brousse, that means it’s usually Shea oil…which tastes as terrible as it sounds.  I suggested tomato paste (and there’s only one kind of tomato paste here in Mali) as a substitute once, and they balked at the suggestion.  There’s only one remedy for this and other Broussey cuisine: Please include Sriracha sauce in any and all future care packages.              

Filed under peace corps mali PST Amoebas

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World Map mural & education trainees.  Damn we look good.
Gotta give mad props to the BCampers for doing alot of the overtime work. And our Program Trainers Yaya & Sylvan for just being grobenet (stylin’).  
We painted this map in a 6th grade classroom.  It’s a crucial grade for Malian students because it’s the last of the premier cycle (1st thru 6th grade) and by then they are expected to have learnt to read & write in French.  This is often not the case because despite the fact that French is the national language in Mali, most of its populace speak Bambara or one of the 12 other major local languages in their homes.  There is currently an unacceptable drop out rate between 1st & 2nd Cycle (7th-9th grade), for well…many reasons.  From 7th grade onwards, all formal instruction will be in French.  If a student doesn’t know it by then, well its a bana (finished) for their education. 
The map itself is in French, and the hope is that ni allah sonna (god willing) the students in that classroom will be able to read & learn from it. 
Ending on a positive note though:  It does look much better than a blank wall, doesn’t it?

World Map mural & education trainees.  Damn we look good.

Gotta give mad props to the BCampers for doing alot of the overtime work. And our Program Trainers Yaya & Sylvan for just being grobenet (stylin’).  

We painted this map in a 6th grade classroom.  It’s a crucial grade for Malian students because it’s the last of the premier cycle (1st thru 6th grade) and by then they are expected to have learnt to read & write in French.  This is often not the case because despite the fact that French is the national language in Mali, most of its populace speak Bambara or one of the 12 other major local languages in their homes.  There is currently an unacceptable drop out rate between 1st & 2nd Cycle (7th-9th grade), for well…many reasons.  From 7th grade onwards, all formal instruction will be in French.  If a student doesn’t know it by then, well its a bana (finished) for their education. 

The map itself is in French, and the hope is that ni allah sonna (god willing) the students in that classroom will be able to read & learn from it. 

Ending on a positive note though:  It does look much better than a blank wall, doesn’t it?

(Source: marcyinmali)

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Beginning at the end of the beginning, or “Shit’s about to get real.”

It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes, 2Pac once said.  I’m inclined to agree.

My last two months have been quite an experience, and change has been about the only constant.  Within this PST (Pre-service Training) experience there has been a buncha of lil’ experiences—and by experiences I mean journeys with beginnings, middles, and ends/epiphanies—and as of this writing I’m about to embark on the final stretch of it: the last week before Swear-In. 

I’ve left accounts of some of these lil’ experiences at my Transit House in Bougouni (couldn’t post it up because internet was down or laziness) so for the sake of not repeating myself when I post that stuff up later, I’ll get right to where I am at now: the end of the beginning of my Peace Corps service. 

Homestay just ended last Sunday, and saying goodbye to my host family was awkward to say the least.  I mean, here is this family that has seen me turn from the baby I was (1), to the budding Malian that I’ve grown into.  My host family was responsible for much of that development, and I think I seriously lucked out, and couldn’t have asked for a better family to live with for homestay.  They are the Taraweles (said really fast its Traore, but I can’t roll my R’s anymore than I can roll my J’s winkwink, no matter how much I practice) and the Patriarch of the family happens to be my namesake (togoma) as well, Bubachar Sambo Tarawele.  He’s an old blind guy (lots of people develop blindness in their old age here unfortunately) and hella wise.  He has two wives, has had 18 children, 11 of whom are still alive and many of the eldest offspring still live with him in the concession—including Abdulaye, my older brother, and an invaluable resource due to the fact that he is a) educated and a Teacher, b) can speak French, and c) can understand my terrible French and Bambara.  

Never take the ability to communicate for granted.  Homo sapiens are social creatures and this is something that I’ve learnt the hard way these past two months.  Luckily, I have my fellow stage mates and the invaluable LCFs (2) to reach out to whenever I need to.  Its the beers (3) after class and the bananagrams during that have saved me from the arduous grind of PST.  7 hours of class, 6 days a week.  Shit was rough, but the good times outweighed the bad by many measures. 

And now, it has come to an end.  So many beginnings and so many endings in so few a time, that’s what has come to define my Peace Corps experience so far.  Its almost cruel, because here is this family that has taken care of me day in and day out for the better part of two months, and then right when I’m just getting to the point where I can talk to them, laugh with them (4), and share in some of their drama, I have to just pack up and move on to my actual site, where I’m going to repeat the whole process all over again with another family. 

Coincidentally, the night before I left, my older sister, Fatimata, went to the hospital to have her baby. 

Yep, the same older sister that has been cooking for me don o don (day after day) during homestay.  Cleaning for me, washing my clothes for me…name a chore, and she did it with narry a complaint and a great big stomach.  In the beginning I felt guilty and tried to help (hah!) as much as I could, or tried to pass on more of the duties to perhaps one of the younger, less pregnant sisters, but she and the family would have none of it.  I was Abdulaye’s guest, and Fatimata was his wife.  Malian hospitality is anything if not paramount.

And so it was that I could tell Bubachar I that even as a Tarawele is leaving the family, at least a new one is coming in.  If the babe is a boy, he would be named Bubachar (the fourth, there’s another Bubachar that’s a nephew of mine), Fatimata assured me.  Sure its not technically after me, Bubachar II, but Abdulaye still told me otherwise, as he said goodbye, and inundated me with the necessary million blessings for the road, and for familial farewells. 

And I still cried a lil’. 

Change has been the only constant in the beginning of this Peace Corps experience but I know that too will change after Swear-In.  This will be the final change to adapt to.  One motifeme my stage has continually referred to since the beginning was that the proverbial shit was about to “get real.”  In reality, things have just been getting real douni douni (step by step) in PST, increments that at the time seemed insurmountable but now I know was necessary, for when shit does get real. 

What I’m trying to say is that we have just been mere trainees this whole time.  It is only when we become volunteers, and leave for our sites this Sunday, and get installed/left there, in what is to be our home and community for the next TWO YEARS…thats when we can really say “shit just got real.”

Before that happens though, before the end of the beginning of what is sure to be an amazing experience…there is still the Swear-In Party.  I have a feeling it’s gonna be a blast, I couldn’t have asked for better stagemates to start this journey with. 

Ain’t nothing like a party to get shit started.  Some things will never change.


(1) And I WAS a baby at the beginning of the homestay.  There is no way to prepare for culture shock—that distressing realization that you have zero ability to communicate any needs or desires. Being only able to say hello & goodbye, with zero familiarity of a culture that is very different from America’s…can lead to a sense of helplessness that I must not have felt since infancy. Malian culture is quite dissimilar from America’s. This was a fact beaten into us repeatedly during cross-culture sessions at Tubaniso. At one point, we were asked as a group to list what we consider to be top American values.  We were a patriotic bunch and came up with gems like Equality, Independence, Opportunity, Capitalism, and such.  Then our Malian trainers were asked to do the same for Malian values.  They came up with Hospitality, Respect for the Elderly, Family, Family and Family.  They speak the truth, Malians for the most part are exceedingly hospitable and the warmest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  At the same time, its not unusual for the children to live with their parents well into old age.  Familial bonds define Malians—everything from their names to the respect they cull from their peers…all of it is dependent on a “family first” concept.  So yeah, not very American.  On a side note, when the Malians were asked to list some of their perceptions of us Westerners, they came up with “Gossipy, Promiscuous, Drunk, Homosexual, Spies”.      

(2)  LCF stands for Language & Culture Facilitators.  They are language teachers that live with us at our homestay village, and basically the main people responsible for turning us from illiterate, mute Americans into Bambaran spouting, confident Malians.  Needless to say, they are required to be exceptional educators to accomplish this feat and have mucho sabali (patience).   Thankfully, they all fit that job description, and I’ve never experienced anything quite as rigorous and effective as the PST language training I’ve received.  I’ve learned more Bambara in the last two months then I have French in the five years that I took it.  My LCFs > Ms. I-have-hot-flashes-so-I’m-not-going-to-teach-like-I’m-supposed-to from high school.  Indeed LCFs are more friend than teacher.

(3)  Let’s talk about some of the beers here, because they aren’t actually that bad.  There’s the Castel & Flag, which are interchangeable and the go-to light beers in Mali.  Castel is hilariously dubbed “the Queen of Beers.”  Recently I’ve discovered the “33,” which is German I think, and a blond that lingers better than the formaldehyd-ey after taste of Castel.  Finally, my good friend Montana Matt discovered a 12% dark lager called the Royal Dutch.  It definitely saves some cash to go that route, but it also tastes like pure gasoline.  Thats another good part about beers here, they are at most $2 a buwati bilibiliba (big bottle). And of course they are COLD, a trait capitalized by the African heat.  Oh yeah BTW, West Africa is hot.

(4) Well to be fair I didn’t need to be able to talk for them to laugh at me.  Malians have a great sense of humor.  Great sense of humor doesn’t exactly translate to a great variety of jokes though.  The bulk of the jokes here comprise of calling people donkeys and bean-eaters.  The bean-eating thing especially is the de facto joke to get people laughing.  Malians looooove to laugh, and I have found that I love to oblige them.  Without a sense of humor, Peace Corps service just might be impossible.

Filed under Peace Corps Mali PST