Jessica Marcy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 2003-2005. She currently works as a web reporter at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics.
“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” my mom said into the phone. “You might want to sit down.”
On the other side of the line, my mom held an invitation from the Peace Corps with my assignment. I waited anxiously to hear my fate for the next two years. “Mali and water sanitation,” she said, her tone suggesting no one would ever want to go to a place like that. “Are you disappointed?”
For the past couple of years, Peace Corps had seemed like an intriguing possibility, an opportunity to go anywhere in the world and be completely immersed in a foreign culture. For awhile, it was simply something that I wasn’t ready to commit to, but I now knew it was the time. Though I knew very little about Mali, it actually seemed like a pretty perfect place and, though I knew almost nothing about water sanitation, I knew it was a serious need and would provide me an opportunity to do meaningful work.
I was intrigued by Mali, having spent time in Morocco while studying in Spain during college. I dreamed of returning to a Muslim, French speaking African country and wanted to go someplace deeper in the continent. Mali is a landlocked country that borders seven different countries from Algeria in the north to Ivory Coast in the south and acts as a true bridge between North and West Africa. Its people represent a mosaic of cultures from the nomadic Tuaregs and Islamic scholars in the once flourishing yet now nearly forgotten city of Timbuktu in the arid north to the more expressive, colorful and verdant south. It’s a country with some of the continent’s best music and a place where French colonization could never suppress Malians’ pride in their rich past which includes three of West Africa’s most powerful empires.
After I arrived in Mali, I would often hear other West Africans describe Mali as ” la vrai Afrique,” or the true Africa. Once in Mali, I was assigned to work in a town named Bla. A Peace Corps trainer drove me to the truck stop town and introduced me to my host family and work counterpart, describing my arrival as the day of my wedding to Bla.
In typical Malian hyperbole, he said he had chosen the most beautiful woman and that my dowry was waiting in the Peace Corps van. He described how we would make babies together and our families would grow increasingly closer. But, he warned, they needed to treat me well and jokingly added that if I lost even a single pound, there would be a divorce. So, began my two years in Mali.
During that time, I fell in love with many simple things: the sound of waking up to the kids’ in my family laughing and preparing for the day, the nearly constant joking, the generosity with which people treated you as a valued guest. I also enjoyed the chance to work with the community on larger issues: to help a women’s group create a community garden and see it through all its stages; including choosing the land, building the wells and eating the vegetables that the women harvested. I enjoyed working with Malians to promote AIDS education and teach students about basic sanitation and health issues.
Every volunteer has their own unique Peace Corps story, shaped not only be the culture and context of their host country but also by their own history and realizations. Still, Peace Corps teaches all volunteers that they have three main objectives: to help host nationals meet their develop needs, to promote a better understanding of Americans, and to share what they learn when they return the U.S. by promoting a better understanding of other peoples and cultures.
The first two objectives always seemed clear and natural to me, but I often struggled with the third. I wondered how I could share my experiences from Mali. My time there often seemed so far and distant, completely truncated from my daily life in the U.S.
It has now been more than four years since I left Mali. Yet, I’m struck by many of the lessons I learned there; including what I see as possible, the importance of community and relationships, and the need to seize opportunities when they arise. When I was there, my mom came to visit me and was able to meet my Malian family and friends. It was wonderful to have someone I love be able to see a place and community that I had also grown to love. After I returned, I asked my mom whether she would help support a school that one of my best friends had started in his own small village. He later named the school after her: L’ecole de Madame Kristine Marcy. My mom actually just returned last week from Mali. She took a short trip there to volunteer with Global Smile, a non-profit that organizes medical professionals to do cleft palate and other dental work in developing countries. After visiting me there, she said she wanted to also volunteer in some form.
While back in Mali, she also went to visit “her school.” My friend likened her visit to that of the Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure or Princess Diana while my mom described the excitement of the students as they crowded around her. She would later write an email to my friend saying that her visit to the village and school was one of the best things that has ever happened to her. Another of my best Malian friends wrote an article about the medical mission for a newspaper where he works. They both took her in as their own mom, welcoming her and taking care of her. Through my mom’s visit, I recognize how much Mali is a part of me and how simply sharing one’s experience can affect others. I also realize that what the Peace Corps trainer had said was true: our families would indeed grow together.