"Not all those who wander are lost." -J.R.R.Tolkien
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Last Update from Mali
This will be my last update from Mali. I am leaving soon for a new adventure: teaching French children English. I am leaving in a state of confusion, confused whether I want to leave the confusion or carry it with me, like a tangled necklace that someday I might get around to untangling. I am ready to leave, of that I am sure, but am I ready to come back?
So many emotions have beat in my heart these two years past: hate, despair, vengeance, apathy, guilt, envy, arrogance, pity, comradery, empathy, contentment, fulfillment, wonder, hope, love. I am ashamed of many of these. Why couldn't I be stronger of will, more understanding? I want to say that Mali beat all of that out of me, but the truth is that I let it be beaten. I hardened my heart. After so many disappointments and frustrations, there's only so much a person can take. I thought I was stronger, but now I know. This may sound strange, but I think of Jesus alot. I'm not Christian, but I was raised as one, so how could I not? What would Jesus do? Would Jesus give the hungry kid 100 frances, knowing that it would reinforce this begging behavior, this poverty? I think yes, he would have. Would Jesus have kicked the children out of his yard because he didn't want to bothered, because he wanted to remember the comfort of back home? Probably not. I feel so guilty, why can't I be more like Jesus, that epitome of goodness, of charity? I am not perfect. Instead, these encounters left me despising Malians and despising myself. I just want to get back home, back to a wife that loves me, a job that pays well. I don't want to feel guilty anymore about buying a fucking can of soda. Haven't I earned it, living in Africa for two years!
I just finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and it put me back in this mindset: I could do so much more. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Paul Farmer and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen did the same. Here I see examples of people giving their lives to help those in need, but how can I? How can I give my life to Africa? How can I give up comfort, give up family, give up my dreams for those who will only say, "Why didn't you give me this instead?" The people in those three books all have one thing in common: their service work ruins their family lives, their relationships.
The Poisonwood Bible is told from the perspectives of a mother and her four daughters during their time in the Congo, where their missionary father brought them on his mission to convert the Congolese. The ultimate reactions are apathy/hate, scientific disinterest, and love/understanding. I see myself in parts of all of them, including the father who keeps them there against their will so he can do his duty, as he sees it. I hate myself when I see how close I am to the reactions of the apathy/hate girl: vain interest in my appearance, unwillingness to give out my money, feeling they get what they deserve, unwillingness to "lower" myself to their culture. At the same time, I'm glad that I'm not as extreme as her, that I recognize that these are not good things. I also see myself in the other extremes: scientific disinterest, wanting to come back and study the trees, the fire, the cliffs; love, knowing that I have made a good friend, and helped him better his country, trying to give the children a chance to be unashamedly kids. Understanding, I understand they would like things to be better but their life here in Mali isn't so badly broken, so why fix it?
I've left my mark. I left a room full of books, and a man full of ideas. Some would say that's all anyone can hope for, that I've done my part. I don't know. I know myself. I know I was capable of much more. It's funny, but I blame the villagers the most for my lack of good works. I was there, available, full of knowledge about how to develop, how to make money, how to have better lives. Why didn't they come to me? Why are they so satisfied with the status quo? I'm miserable here with my family and friends so far away. Without good food, internet, movies and music, electricity and running water. With bad roads, bad transport, no one who thinks logically like us Americans, a dysfunctional education program and political system, no one who feels like it's their responsibility. Surely, they must see this and be dissatisfied, miserable. But they're not! They're not miserable. They laugh, they smile, they're content. So I'm the only one who's miserable, and they are the cause of my misery, because they do nothing to change it.
And then I find myself saying the opposite: why are they so unsatisfied? Televisions, cell phones, money, all way more trouble than they're worth. They've got family, a sense of belonging, enough food most of the time, even if it's not gourmet. I say they should be happy with what they've got. But me? I'm going back to the land of supermarkets and internet and cars, where I don't have to feel guilty about buying a can of soda, or not talking to everybody on the street. I'm going back to the land where I can have children without fear of them dying, knowing that they'll get a good education and have a good opportunity finding jobs and finding happiness.
I find myself discouraging Malians from coming to America. How could they possibly get a job not knowing any English? Where would they live? It's not like Mali, where a family member will feed and house you for years, even if you don't work. And it's not like you can go to a village chief and ask for land to farm. They cannot fathom the difference between the US and Mali, just as most Americans cannot fathom that difference. But even as I say this, I know in the back of my mind that they go to the US, sometimes illegally. They find jobs, they make a little money, they carve for themselves a little Mali in our America where they eat rice and peanut butter sauce and drink tea. They could go and get land and farm two acres of peanuts and corn, live in sod houses, and be successful. But *that's* not American! If they want to be in America, they must want to be Americans, too. They need hundreds of acres and tractors and fertilizers and a nice house with t.v.s and cars and nice clothes and *debt*! *That's* American. Not this wanting to get away from hunger, poverty and oppression to go live peacefully, with a few acres of land to call your own where you can raise a family and if you work hard, have a chance at being successful. Who ever heard of an American doing that? And it's not like there's any land to be had, just look around. Most Malians couldn't afford to buy even one acre of good farmland. Of course, there's all that farmland opening up in the mid-west because the Industrial Agriculture doesn't work there, but that doesn't count. Why, if we opened that up there would be a flood, a deluge of third world farmers wanting a few acres, just enough to grow enough food for their families. How could we possibly squeeze another 12 million people into Wyoming, population 500,000? Ah, but then the scientist comes out and says, "Yes, they'll fit, but what about their 72 million children, or their 432 million grandchildren?" It's a slippery slope. It's much better to have agribusiness hire them for the season and then let them go back to their respective countries, their respective families, wealthier than anything they could do around them. Everybody's happy, right? I know so many Malians who would jump at the chance to be a "second class" citizen, as we so disparigingly call it. Much better to prevent them from coming, from making a pittance and denying them a vote, so that we can say that America is a land of equality.
I've switched between irony, satire, and truth so much that this must be a difficult update. My apologies, but I'm conflicted, and the price of conflict resolution is so high: my life, my devotion. Why pay that when I can continue on the easy path, do a little good along the way?
Short summary of my last month: After our Ghana trip, where I saw that my experience is both normal and not, we came back to Bamako. Lamini and I said good-bye to Nicole in the airport, then went to a bus station to buy tickets to go to his village, Benena, right next to the Burkina Faso border. Transport was pretty terrible, as usual. Lamini was not happy. We arrived at 4am and quickly set up our mosquito net tent, mattresses, and got some sleep. The next couple days were filled with us greeting just about everyone in the village (and eating just about everywhere, I was so full) (Instead of meet & greet, greet & eat? meat & greet?), me learning Bobo (Lamini's native tongue), and people giving me gifts (chickens, millet beer, nuts). few places in Mali had I seen a people so generous, so welcoming, so ready to laugh. It did my heart good. It gave them a great impression of Americans. The highlight was when Lamini sat down with his boyhood friends and we talked long into the night (me mostly providing credibility) about the importance of washing hands, not having too many wives or children, good farming techniques, etc. Lamini just about told them everything we had talked about for the last two years, and all I had to do was sit there and look white. that one night validated my whole service. I left Benena convinced that Mali is not Dialafara. What I've lived in my village is not necessarily applicable to all of Mali, to all of Africa, all of the developing world, despite reinforcement from our Ghana trip, and from Peace Corps friends in other countries. I have told many that Lamini is a needle in a haystack, and maybe his village is another needle.
After leaving Benena, I went back to Kayes to go back to my village. I ended up staying for a week and a half, longer than I wanted, because the mines didn't have any cars going to or from Kayes, and I kept getting false leads: "We might have one going Thursday." I refused to take public transport, so I had to put up with the mines' fickleness and running water/ electricity/ free internet/ movies in Kayes, oh darn. Luckily, the last shipment of books came in for the library and I was able to type up my notes from my biology class for the next teacher, whoever that may be. I finally got a ride with the generous South Africans from our village, and I was able to transport the steel drum/trash can, electric cables, and books for the school. I had planned on cataloguing those books once I got home, but after taking them out of the box, I was daunted, maybe it would be a good activity to do when my replacement came for a visit? I also had to prepare for his arrival, which meant cleaning a yard and house left to their own devices for over a month (the weeds were taller than me!). The chickens were all still alive. Basil, mustartd, cucumber, green beans, and two sunflowers were discovered in my garden upon days of weeding. I went to the school and weeded around the trees we had planted. One had grown as tall as my shoulder after only two months! I hung out with the South Africans and got to see Mina Mine, which used to be a diamond mine 20 years ago but now all the machines are overgrown with weeds and it was very much like exploring acncient Incan or Mayan ruins.
I had to go back to Kayes to meet the new wave of volunteers who were coming down to Dialafara and Kenieba. I made fajitas for their arrival. After two months of nothing but rice and sauce, they were pretty impressed. We drove down together and they went to Kenieba while I prepped the house for Jeremy, the volunteer replacing Nicole and me. He arrived the next day and was blown away by how nice the house was, the beauty of the village. We introduced him around, showed him the school. I made some pretty good meals for him if I do say so myself. We went for a spectacular hike to the top of the cliffs and heard baboons. I'm hoping that that clinched the deal, that he'll stay. That's always the biggest fear, that a volunteer will see what life will be like for the next few years, wise up, and run back home to civilization. A valid fear: one of the four who came down has already gone back home.
After he left, it was all I could do to pack everything up, get things ready for Jeremy, and say my good-byes. I had wanted to go see a waterfall 18 miles away, but just didn't have the time. During a language test, I was asked if I had any regrets, and that was it: not seeing the waterfall, so maybe I'll have to come back some day, who knows.
On my last trip out of Dialafara, I took one last look at the cliffs. Even after seeing them dozens of times, their beauty diminishes not. i reflected on my time there, overall was I happy? sad? angry? A little bit of everything, but mostly nothing. I felt like you feel when you go to bed, that the day is done, good or bad, and another one is coming.
Ah but the adventure is not over. Now I am caught between adventures. I can't leave Peace Corps until I get my visa for France. So I sit and wait, waiting to start the next journey.
I imagine we will send updates from France. If you would like to receive those, please e-mail me, otherwise, thanks for accompanying me and my wife on our two turbulent years in Peace Corps, Mali.