It’s a hot, humid day. I hear the weather’s about the same in New York, but here this weather is a way of life. The humidity signifies the rainy season: a season of hunger, work, and deprivation. This year’s staple crops have been planted (millet, corn, peanuts, and beans) but won’t be ready for harvest until September at the earliest and last year’s crops are running out fast. Families scrape by using whatever means they can: some are lucky enough to have relatives in Bamako who send them a little cash, some sell their livestock, some have enough profits from their vegetable gardens to buy grain. Does this mean people are depressed and worried about their families, tired and visibly distressed? Not at all. People don’t expect to have more food than they need to get by and their bodies and minds are used to it. Life continues at its usual lackluster pace – people farm together, eat together, chat, laugh, and dance. I would never have known that this was ‘hungry season’ in my community if it wasn’t for the food security survey I conducted for the Peace Corps. I’m sure there’s a sense in which people are suffering, but it’s subtler than what we’d expect – the inability to buy a new pair of shoes, getting a little skinnier than you were before, having to put off paying your kid’s school fees for a couple months. For an American, this would cause a great deal of stress and anxiety; Mali is different. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adult in my village look stressed or anxious.
I’ve been in Mali a year and three days now. It is a Peace Corps cliché that volunteers enter as typically individualistic, efficient, work-driven, consumption-loving Americans and leave having learnt about what is really important in life - family, friendships, and community. Is there a causal relationship in the fact that poor communities often have a stronger sense of community and family values? I’m sure there are a number of contributing factors, including being in a rural location, having an economy based on agriculture, and others, but in general it seems to me that there is a sense of family and community that exists here that is hard to find in developed countries. When I walk down the dirt path that forms the main thoroughfare in my village and every single person spends at least five minutes inquiring into the well-being of my family, my health, and my garden, I know I’ve come a long way from Manhattan. I feel a sense of contentment sitting in my host family’s yard with three toddlers on my lap, eating a disgusting bowl of millet porridge, complimenting my host’s wife’s cooking, and seeing how happy it makes her that I haven’t felt before.
This is not to say that I don’t crave the satisfaction of work accomplished and American efficiency: this is a pleasure you largely have to relinquish in a country where a meeting may be re-scheduled three times before it comes to fruition (due to unforeseen events such as births, deaths, and rain).
The rain here comes as a revelation. The first rain was in mid-June (before that it hadn’t really rained since September) and it felt like the sky was falling. The clouds grew dark and heavy, then opened up in a relentless downpour. You have a new relationship to water after 8 months of drought.
Do we have to give up some community and family ties in order to develop as a capitalist society, valuing the individual, the worker above all else? I’m not sure. My village has very little specialization. Everyone farms, everyone raises animals, everyone builds their own house, everyone engages in the entire food production process. All these are cooperative endeavors and the family members work together on them, divided along gender and age lines. Farming employs everyone and I think there’s a deep satisfaction the family gets from doing this work together.
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around things here – I rarely have access to the kind of quiet environment I need to sit and process things. Even now, in Bamako, I’m sitting in a volunteer transit house in a room full of chatty Peace Corps volunteers. In Mali, you’re never alone. This has been wonderful for me, but makes it hard to reflect. I know I’ve only conveyed a sliver of my experiences here, but I hope it gives you some idea of what it’s like.
Lastly, I want to announce that we successfully raised $4,234 or 2,258,161 fCFA to provide Koyan’s elementary school with 45 new desks to seat about 135 children. Thank you so much to everyone who supported this project! I can’t wait to tell my village that we can start getting the desks.