December 7, 2003 - Statesman: Leah Quin writes about her year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in "Where the sky still rules"

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Mali: Peace Corps Mali : The Peace Corps in Mali: December 7, 2003 - Statesman: Leah Quin writes about her year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in "Where the sky still rules"

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Tuesday, December 09, 2003 - 9:29 pm: Edit Post

Leah Quin writes about her year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in "Where the sky still rules"

Leah Quin writes about her year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in "Where the sky still rules"

Where the sky still rules
Peace Corps worker struggles with poverty, life's meaning in Mali, where 1 in 5 children dies

By Leah Quin


Sunday, December 7, 2003

SIBY, Mali -- I still wake up surprised, still squint at the sky strained through tie-dyed curtains and wonder for an instant where I am. My neighbors have been awake for hours, but I've learned to sleep through all the predawn noise: the screaming ah's of prayer call, the great rusty-hinge brays of wandering donkeys, the ax splitting wood to boil breakfast gruel.

But the sky can't be ignored. It governs my day. It tells me what to wear, whether to do laundry, whether to work or spend a morning indoors, whether to walk or bike, whether to draw well water or wait for rain. Since my watch broke four months ago, it also tells me when to wake, eat, bathe, sleep.

This is the life I both craved and feared when deadlines ruled my day. As a reporter, I counted minutes and considered each one an opportunity -- often squandered, to my consternation -- to get something done. Now, after a year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, time seems elastic, even forgiving. Afternoons slip away as I slurp shot glasses of sugary tea under trees with neighbors, listening to the liquid vowels of Bambara conversation and playing with a baby too young to know how alien I am. I'm lulled by the entreaty to slow down -- doh-ney, doh-ney -- that I hear whenever I rush to, or into, anything.

It shouldn't be this way, I sometimes think. I'm here doing preventive health work in a country with one of the highest child-mortality rates in the world. I should be racing around, making the most of my two years here, making a difference in the short time I have.

That's what goes through my head when I put terrified toddlers in plastic pants and hang them off a pendulum scale, talking to their moms about the importance of gradual weaning. Or when I insist on everyone washing their hands with soap before we eat.

But other times I see myself in a long procession of foreigners drawn here to the Sahara's southern shore by different motives, stretching back to the days when slavers marched captives hundreds of miles to the ocean and Muslims converted animists at the end of a sword. Today, the strangers -- tourists and aid workers alike -- drive burly white Land Cruisers, descending to buy Tuareg leather boxes or give a speech on the importance of good nutrition.

In the end, we all leave. And though some of our lessons -- intentional or otherwise -- make a difference here and there, most of the time it seems like Malians just adapt to conditions we consider insufferable. And they do so with a grace that makes me wonder whether we should be here at all, we earnest strangers.

After all, look at them: Apart from during the famine years, most look like they spend a lot of time at the gym: tall and taut, with firm biceps from pulling water and perfect posture from years of carrying full buckets and laden trays on their heads. And that's just the women. The men, even those with white hair, have movie-star abdomens.

Disease lies ready to ambush from every direction. During rainy season, pools of sickly green sewage alongside pathways harvest malarial mosquitoes and flies the size of licorice jelly beans. Forget flu season; here, winter is meningitis season. Tuberculosis lurks in milk, in the close air of packed minivans that are the country's main transport. And yet the majority of Malians survive, even thrive, in conditions suitable for creating plagues, thanks apparently to ironclad immune systems forged by daily resistance.

Their appearances are deceptive, even so. The toll is taken not on these hardy adults, but on children whose deaths are so plentiful they don't even merit funerals. One in five Malians dies before the age of 5. Those who are left have proved that they can handle the country's rigors. It's Darwinian selection at its harshest level, a level we could never tolerate. But they have no choice. Not yet, anyway.

Before I came here, I never could have reconciled such a cruel foundation with a life that contained laughter, never could have imagined how misery might not follow such excruciating poverty. But people here aren't moaning by the side of the road. Far from it.

They sing when they farm; they dance -- men and women, teens and aged -- without shyness; they greet one another compulsively: How'd you sleep? How's your family? Your business? Then follows a dousing of benedictions for every occasion.

Malians I meet also grab any excuse for a laugh, starting with the system of joking with "cousins," whose last names have a relationship with yours. It's as acceptable as discussing the weather to tell a perfect stranger that she's soft in the head and probably eats donkey meat. She may insult you back, but no one will take offense. And the deference extends to more serious injuries, such as car collisions: If you take revenge or inform the police against your "cousin," woe be upon you.

The name relationships are based on ancient tribal rivalries, once leading to battle, kidnapping and pillaging. Now the rivals' descendants intermarry, work and live alongside one another. Dominant Muslim next to occasional Christian. Fulani next to Bambara next to a war refugee from Sierra Leone. All welcomed by cries of "Come, eat!" as they walk past during mealtime. On a continent infamous for mindless mass murder, Mali has found a way to live in relative peace for decades now. Those who fled here this year from neighboring Liberia and Ivory Coast can testify to that.

Peaceful doesn't mean perfect, of course. Corruption here doesn't approach the slime standard set by places like Nigeria, but bits and pieces tend to disappear from aid contracts, and police have been known to bully money out of those who approach them for help.

Women have more freedom than in many Muslim countries: They show their faces and don't need a man's permission for birth control. In the cities, some wear pants and drive motorcycles. But they still lag far behind in literacy and school attendance, in many cases because they marry as teenagers to men twice their age. Men here laugh when I tell them their wife-beating is wrong and would be illegal in Europe and the United States. "How else can we get them to obey?" they ask.

Sometimes I feel crushed by all there is to fix. I make lists of people to visit, projects to start. I do it even knowing that no one changes for good unless they do it themselves.

I vent with other volunteers. Are we development workers-in-training or "just" goodwill ambassadors? Can outsiders ever really create lasting change? Are we doing more harm than good by perpetuating dependence on foreign intervention, even intervention as low-key as the Peace Corps? And when we do see change, is it enough to satisfy our beefy American expectations of success?

So the debates go on with no answers. Maybe I'll find them in my second year. Or maybe I'll leave the procession still wondering, as other earnest ones take my place.

For now, I know only that one day I will ache for a time when the sky was in charge.

Leah Quin is a former Austin American-Statesman staff writer.

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Story Source: Statesman

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



By Michael D. Schattman ( - on Monday, March 29, 2004 - 10:13 am: Edit Post

Leah -- Happy to learn where you are !! Proud and glad to see what you are doing. And, you still write so well. Virginia is married to a Brit and living in Derby, England. Write me if you can. All the best, Mike Schattman

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