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RPCV Dan Bellrichard discusses Peace Corps experience in Mali
RPCV Dan Bellrichard discusses Peace Corps experience in Mali
Austin native shares experience in Peace Corps
By Lee Bonorden/Austin Daily Herald
Life called. Dan Bellrichard answered.
It's as simple as that.
Also as complicated.
Mali was on the other end.
Mali, the largest country in West Africa, is bordered by seven other states: Algeria to the north and northeast, Niger to the east, Burkina Faso to the southeast, the Ivory Coast to the south and Senegal and Mauritania to the west.
Shaped like a butterfly, life in Mali follows the great Niger River, a natural source of sustenance for and a major transportation artery.
It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Bellrichard, an Austin High School graduate, spent two years of his life there.
The son of Larry and Cindy Bellrichard, he has a sister, Kyra, and two brothers, Paul and Aaron.
After graduating AHS in 1997, he went to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Bellrichard had a well-rounded childhood in Austin and it showed in his teen years. Sports and the tuba, the National Honor Society and the outdoors, church and volunteerism. The countryside, too.
He graduated high school with high distinction honors.
With his eclectic tastes, his curiosity continued in college. When he was a sophomore at Luther College, something new attracted his attention.
"As soon as I saw the slides that day, I knew I wanted to be in the Peace Corps," he said.
Last Friday (Dec. 5) was International Volunteerism Day. Arguably, no organization better epitomizes that theme than the Peace Corps.
In this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps is part of his legacy.
Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts, running for the presidency, when he spoke to students at the University of Michigan in 1960 and challenged them to serve their country in the cause of peace.
His idea was to live and work in developing countries. With his inspiration, the Peace Corps became a reality.
More than 170,000 Peace Corps volunteers have been invited by 136 host countries to work on issues such as AIDS, education, nutrition, information technology and environmental preservation.
"As soon as I learned more about it, I knew it was for me," Bellrichard said.
By his senior year in college, he was immersed into he process of making the two-year commitment to the Peace Corps. "Everyone was very supportive when I told them what I was going to do," he said.
Armed with his college degree and letters of recommendation from two Luther College professors and a best friend and his application, he went through a 60-minute interview with Peace Corps representatives.
Afterwards, they immediately offered Bellrichard an assignment and he said, "Send me wherever you want."
He left for Mali in May 2001.
After participating with 50 other Peace Corps volunteers in extensive training upon arriving in Africa, the volunteers went their own ways, promoting world peace and friendship on a one-to-one basis.
Mali is one of three African countries to be considered a true free democracy and life is relatively stable in the nation.
Helping Bellrichard stabilize his introduction to live in the village of 3,000 people called Tene was his "first" in-country friend, Harouna Cisse, a farmer and blacksmith. He was the only Caucasian in the village and he didn't speak the Mali language.
"They speak four different languages, but unfortunately English wasn't one of them," he said.
Children would touch the stranger's white skin and marvel that it wasn't a paint that came off.
Over the next two years, Bellrichard would fill the time and there was lots of it writing letters. He estimates he wrote more than 300 letters.
The visit of his girlfriend, sister and best friend would break the monotony. Otherwise, Bellrichard was left to his own devices to make the most of the 24 months in Africa.
"They accepted me right away," he said. "I never felt threatened or even out of place. For the first year, I learned how they lived and worked together. That was the focus of my first year," he said. "In the second year there, I introduced a savings group to the village. They had no bank and really no concept of what savings meant."
Bellrichard said living there was difficult for many reasons.
"Farming is their main source of income -- what little income they make -- so everything revolves around agriculture, and when they were in the fields, there's nothing I could do. I would set up meetings for such-and-such a time and when that time would come -- usually 9 at night -- there would be nobody there. I thought something was wrong, but I just waited and waited and finally -- maybe, an hour later or so, people started coming in one at a time.
"It was just their way. We were on Mali-time and in the end I was able to form a savings group that had 250 members."
The task should not be understated: Bellrichard created the first savings bank in a village in a country that was once one of the richest African empires. He had to earn the villagers' trust, convince them the idea was a benefit to them and then create a system that worked.
"Mainly, I was gong by instinct every step of the way," he said. "It was a matter of building relationships one person at a time."
For two years, Bellrichard could only dream of what he missed most -- outside of family and friends. Cold water and Mexican food, for example.
When his assignment expired and he prepared to leave Mali to return to his Western lifestyle, there were tears.
"The whole experience changed my way of thinking on Africa," he said. "Americans think the solution to problems is money, but it's not. Instead, the Peace Corps gives them time and knowledge and tries to help them, one village, one person at a time."
Bellrichard returned to Austin in October and now plans to attend grad school at Luther College and study sustainable development or natural resources.
He wants to share his Peace Corps experience in Mali with all who will listen. Presently, he his assembling a slide/Powerpoint presentation for group presentations.
And he has become an ambassador for the Peace Corps.
"Going into the Peace Corps, I don't think your attitude is the most important single thing," he said. "The need to adapt to a different culture, a different environment, a whole new way of life is.
"Having the right attitude will help you do that."
Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at :firstname.lastname@example.org