August 14, 2003 - Newtown Bee: Peace Corps Volunteer Rachel Walker writes about Life in Mali

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Mali: Peace Corps Mali : The Peace Corps in Mali: August 14, 2003 - Newtown Bee: Peace Corps Volunteer Rachel Walker writes about Life in Mali

By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, August 22, 2003 - 5:29 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps Volunteer Rachel Walker writes about Life in Mali

Peace Corps Volunteer Rachel Walker writes about Life in Mali

Letters From Mali--

Life (And Poverty) Goes On In West Africa

Rachel Walker, 23, the daughter of Randy and Robin Walker of Sandy Hook, has been serving in the Peace Corps in the Western African nation of Mali for the past year year. When The Bee published parts of her letters earlier this year, she had just moved from the countryside into the town of Koulikoroville to help with public health education there.

Unrelenting heat, an attack by a potentially rabid dog (requiring Rachel undergo a series of rabies shots), and the death of a fellow Peace Corps member are some of the issues she has dealt with in Mali. More excerpts from her letters follow:

Koulikoroville, Mali

It's 9:25 pm and I'm watching Malian TV on the one channel my host family's TV gets. It's kind of like watching public access all day long, but it's my only source of news, so I'm sort of obligated to watch as I haven't found a good radio yet and the plateau I live on prevents me from getting all but one radio station anyway.

While at the clinic today they were doing prenatal consultations with pregnant women. [I] helped to deliver at least three babies, without painkillers, a doctor, or a husband present.

It's really hot and I really wish I could go in the water. It's not allowed by Peace Corps [because] the fun things one can catch from it, such as schistosomiasis, require chemotherapy to cure. Oh well.

I met an English teacher from a high school in Bamako [and] he'd like me to come in and do an AIDS conference in English with his students (about 120 of them) next time I'm in Bamako. I convinced the AMPPF (Mali Association For the Promotion and Protection of the Family) to let me take their VCR and TV along with a pushcart in order to show videos to the truck drivers at night about AIDS/STIs (sexually transmitted infections).


I'm sitting here in the covered part of my porch -- sort of a compromise between the burning hot sun outside and the broiling effects of my aluminum roof. It's hot. I sweat perpetually through the night and into the morning, through the hottest part of the day and back into the night. There's no more cool water in the cannery and the neighbor who sells ice is fresh out. I'm currently fantasizing about a tall cool glass of iced tea as Tanti, one of the youngest girls in the family, hands me my fifth steaming hot shot-glass of tea for the day. I just sat down to write my radio script in Bambara for the radio show tomorrow.


A street in Samaya near where Rachel Walker does her Peace Corps training.

Yesterday I woke up outside, under my mosquito net, to the 6 am sounds of children clanging breakfast pots and getting ready for school. After stepping back into the sweltering house to change into my running clothes I was already sweating buckets. Greeted my jatigi (host family) and headed out for my daily run up the plateau and back, greeting various donkey cart owners and schoolchildren along the way, coming in with their loads from en brouse (bush). Returned home, showered (yes, I have a shower), changed for work and waited for my host dad to pick me up on his moto[rcycle] and drop me off at one of the local clinics that's too far away to walk to. Jumped on the back of the mini-moto (there are no full-sized motorcycles here because no one could afford the gas) in my Malian wrap-around skirt and helmet and flip-flops and headed out.

Got to the clinic to discover the pharmacist was going en brouse for vaccinations and invited me to come along. So here we go again -- white woman with a helmet on the back of a moto and a chain-smoking doctor with several ice-packed cases of vaccines draped over his shoulder heading into brouse on the back of the back of a Yamaha moto, dodging migrant cattle, children, and fissures in the parched dirt road. We saw people from four villages, all too far out from the city to get in easily for vaccinations. Vaccinated about 100 kids, most of whom were four or five and should have had them years ago. Tore up one vaccination record for a child who had died since the last time we were there (I kept records for the clinic while [the pharmacist] vaccinated).

Finally returned around 4 pm, exhausted, washed my face at the clinic and my feet at my homologue's (Mali counterpart's) house and headed on the back of yet another moto to Koulikoro-BA Radio where my homologue and I did a radio show on AIDS in Bambara


I described to some doctors here how in America you can get up, eat, drive to work, spend a day in front of a computer surrounded by electronic companions, run through a fast-food drive-through, return home, watch TV and go to sleep without having had a single meaningful human exchange through the day. As paradoxical as the US seems to people here, the idea of such a humanly independent existence is frightening. If there's one thing poverty teaches you, it's how to depend on other people. Given, this sort of inter-dependence only works in an environment where everyone shares it, but were more Americans to experience it I suspect that the often-alienating ambitious pursuits of career goals lessen in frequency. That's also partially why language can be such a crutch here for PCVs [Peace Corps volunteers] -- people could care less about my GPA or what university I went to, they just want to know if I can hold a good conversation over a pot of green tea.

Rachel with some children.

I certainly don't regret coming here -- I think it has given me a perspective I would otherwise never had had. I mean, how many times when you're in the US do you think twice about buying an 8 oz coke once every two weeks or so because you're afraid it'll make you look even more like a patron? Or suddenly riding in flip-flops, a skirt and T-shirt at night up and down a plateau on the back of the moto suddenly seems safer than walking or taking public transport? And it becomes weird to spend more than five minutes inside your house? Oh well, it's been interesting.

Having gained at least 10 lbs as a result of a totally rice/toh/bread and oily sauces diet I've put myself on a "regime" although this is easier said than done in a country where veggies are scarce, most food is fried and eating is equivalent to showing friendship/goodwill. They also don't understand why I would want to lose weight as a "bigger is better" attitude prevails here (though none hesitate to point out how I've grown!).


Life at site is good. Life, of course, would be much simpler if I had access to a phone and email. I'm getting ready to go on vacation! YAY! Finally get to see my parents. My wallet disappeared, which means lots of running around (with 4th of July it's impossible to find anyone here) trying to get new papers and IDs and money out of the bank because all the money I had got lost. Sadness. But hopefully it'll all work out.

I also had an interesting incident the other night at site. I say "interesting" because I don't want to freak my parents out. Malians are generally very nice, peace-loving people. They like to help each other out and they're not terribly aggressive and crime as it exists in the States is almost unheard of here. So anyway, this is what I had in my head when I went to sleep Saturday night on the porch of my house in Koulikoro.

The houses here are built like pottery kilns and the sun is so hot normally most people sleep outside, though as the rains are coming now it's less frequent. Around 4 am that night I woke up -- correction, someone woke me up. Someone kind of old and not too big with a bit of a beard, a scratchy voice and a knife in his hand. Apparently he had scaled the wall to my concession and had decided that as an American I must have tons and tons of money, which is what he demanded when he woke me up. I told him that I couldn't give him any money because I myself didn't have any (partially true since my wallet's gone missing).

He demanded I open the door to my house (I lock it each night and put the key under my pillow). I refused. He asked me if I didn't give him money who was going to take care of him. I informed him he could obviously take care of himself (I was being a bit of a smart-ass as I almost thought I was dreaming -- one never knows with the side effects of the Larium malaria medication we're all on) at which time I screamed as loud as I could for my jatigi (who unfortunately wasn't outside that night, sleeps like a log and didn't hear a thing). But my screaming was enough to intimidate this guy to run away at which time I grabbed my keys, unlocked my first door, locked it behind me and was in the process of locking the second door when the guy came back and tried to open the first door cause he saw there was nobody else there to help me.

Luckily I live in the equivalent of a fortress and he couldn't get in so he ran around to my window and tried to open that and couldn't. He stood there until the morning prayer call when people were leaving to go to the mosque. And I guess in some sort of immature fit of anger he cut up my mosquito net (which I had left outside with all of my stuff) with his knife. My jatigi mom was a sweetheart though and had it sewn up for me the next day.

Anyway I didn't get a real good look at the guy -- don't think he wanted to hurt me but poverty makes people do strange things and also to women that are vocal when it comes to dealing with men or being intimidated. I will not stand for anyone physically harassing me. Obviously this guy had never dealt with an American woman before because, dude, nobody has the right to take my things or make me feel threatened in my own home.

You may laugh occasionally at feminism in the States but it takes coming to a West African Muslim country to see what a real disparity between the rights of two genders can be like...and it's not even that bad here in comparison to one of our neighbors like Mauritania.

Rachel with Mame Sali Traore and her daughter, Fratim.

I had a guy (actually one of my jatigi dad's friends) the other night tell me he didn't want to marry a woman who had gone to school (this guy is a school teacher). I asked him why -- he said it was because women who have studied know too much and ask too many questions...he doesn't want his wife to talk to him or to ask him where he's been, where he's going or why. He feels that if she hasn't ever been to school she'll just accept whatever he says, no questions asked. I told him I thought that was a horrible idea and a great way to turn a woman into a prisoner in her own home. He laughed and informed me that luckily I had studied so he couldn't be interested in me.

Workwise things have multiplied exponentially since the end of the workshop I helped organize that was held at my site a few weeks ago. It was a success and now we're in the process of trying to get several projects off the ground. Sadly, that means I have to look for financing for it all as well as write all of the propositions. We're trying to train 30 peer educators in my site, as well as do a training with school teachers and radio DJs on AIDS and peer counseling with people at my site and a site close by.

There's a sensabilisation [AIDS/STD training] of truck drivers we're still trying to get off the ground, and a month-long workshop with handicapped people and underprivileged women on how to generate income by making traditional Malian crafts that we've found financing for. Also, I have a friend at site trying to get a training for prisoners off the ground on how to make shoes so that they have a job when they get out of prison and to make a little money for food and medical supplies there as they currently have nothing.

The radio show continues on a weekly basis with my playing American music sent to me by you guys and often times being asked to explain the lyrics as well (often difficult with rap and censorship). Baby-weighings continue and soon the next stage will be arriving with a whole new group of trainees and its back to Tubani So. So, as you can see, things are beginning to pick up a bit.

Luv, Rachel "Mamu Jeman"

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Story Source: Newtown Bee

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Mali; PCVs in the Field - Mali



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