Months since my last post, on the continent now, leading a very different life in many ways…where to begin? How about I jump a little farther back, with my going away party back in September. I had sent out a facebook invitation for the event themed “Madagascar – Escape 2 Africa.” My family later themed our annual holiday letter around the animated film as well – in the ‘photoshopped’ family portrait my brother so well-designed, I believe I had my arm around a cartoon giraffe. Haven't seen the film, but I understand the animals are trying to get off the island and end up 'escaping' to Africa. Turns out my party and the family holiday letter were well-themed. Not quite six months into my Peace Corps service in Madagascar, I was evacuated (along with the rest of the US mission) due to political instability. For two weeks I was pent-up in a nice hotel and B&B in South Africa; the first week in Johannesburg for thorough physical and psychological exams, the second week in Pretoria where I was told I was eligible to transfer to another position in Mali. I had no idea when or even if the program would reopen in Madagascar, but I still desperately wanted to continue with my PC service so I took the opportunity. From Jo-burg, I flew to Paris to Dakar and finally to Bamako, the capital of Mali. I was given two weeks of French language training before being dropped off at my new site a couple hours outside the capital.
Koulikoro, my new home, is a relatively large city so it’s been quite a change from my role as a village health worker. Here, I’ve been assigned to work with a Malian NGO (on a USAID-funded project). Now I have the benefits of city life – refrigeration, places to buy a plate of food, an internet café, frequent transportation and paved roads. I’m living in a family compound just outside of town in a rather affluent neighbourhood. I have two charming turquoise painted rooms with electricity and a host family that provides me with more than my basic needs. I watched the Barcelona v. Manchester United Champions league game live from the comforts of my own home…there’s an enormous rotating satellite dish in our central courtyard.
So is it a piece of cake the second time around, particularly with the bonus of some modern amenities? Not exactly. First of all, I’m a bit of a minimalist. Sure I loved watching reruns of Sex and the City with my girlfriends back home, enjoying a Chipotle burrito after a night out without having to start my own fire. But while the benefits of city life may technically increase my standard of living, they don’t actually make me happier. And besides, I was starting to feel really good about my lifestyle in Madagascar…no television or internet to deter reading, studying, and in person communication. In addition, the real peace corps challenges remain the same; trying to carve out one’s role in a new place from behind a language barrier. And this time, I’m dealing with a language barrier on two fronts.
When I was dropped off, I realized the family I was sharing a compound with spoke Bambara, not French. So this was kind of what I had actually expected of my PC experience before I entered….to be left in a community from the get-go without knowing a word of their language. Ok, I knew ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ (you can use the same phrase for both). I figured out my family was going to a wedding in a village the following day and they invited me along. I was under the impression that we’d just be back late that night so I didn’t pack anything. Thus, began the most unsanitary and ‘speechless’ two days of my life. I didn’t have anything…a change of clothes, a toothbrush…not even what I would consider basic necessities by my standards in Madagascar: chlorine to add to the well water, something resembling soap, and something to stand in the place of toilet paper. I could have been more creative with the lack of soap and used ash, but I did conform to the plastic kettle of water used here for ‘wiping’. There were other unhygienic moments too awful to recount in a blog, but, for comparison, I can say that I was relatively unscathed/unaffected while eating with my bare hands out of a communal bowl that I saw both a donkey and a goat get a quick nibble of during its preparation.
Nonetheless, it was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. The evening started in a tiny village of just a few family concessions. After eating, we walked to another village, where we hung out under a mango tree and ate more food. Soon, we departed for yet another village where even more people had gathered. And again, we ate. Some music was going, and we all lounged on straw mats, a traditional hunter of sorts clad completely in leather, down to the sheath of his knife was dancing independently in front of us. It was quite hypnotizing, his shadow dancing on the mud wall behind him, his movements responding to the activity around him. If someone approached him, he reacted as if they carried a gust of wind, blowing his dance steps backwards until they retreated, and he was able to draw himself back to his original position. I would have been terrified if I’d come across him alone…I could see even some youngsters were a little perturbed when they had to walk by him. Everyone then went to sleep and I followed order. Around 1:30am, I awoke and we left the village. A dancing circle had just formed and I thought we were leaving just when the party was really getting started. We walked to yet another village and in a large opening commenced a very crazed scene. Four large dancing circles formed in four adjacent areas around a couple of xylophones and calabashes. Some women carried morocco’s, some also sang. I definitely could never have kept up with the dance rings, which had some logical steps to it, so don’t get me started on the wild, free-style dancing that took place on the inside of these circles. And they didn’t stop dancing or lose any of their energy for 5 hours straight. Periodically I slept or rested on a straw mat, which at one point was visited by a scorpion that threw everyone into a frenzy. As daylight broke, the dancing ceased and we all watched as the bride made her first appearance….completely hidden under a cream-colored sheet riding away on the back of the groom's moto. Then, another moto with another concealed woman drove by. Turns out, there were actually fourteen brides married that evening. So I stood, in my sleepy stupor, watching as 12 other motos with 12 other cloaked brides emerged from the cluster of mud dwellings and took off, literally, into the sunrise.