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I’m coming home now, which I don’t think my mind has fully grasped yet. It’s a strange thing to have something you’ve anticipated for so long actually happening; I feel quite sad though am also excited. I’m not sure what to expect once I get back home- before leaving for Mali, I recall thinking that I probably wouldn’t miss my friends and family, which was not true at all, so who knows at this point.

Overhearing people’s conversations in the airport has been odd- I’m now accustomed to listening to people’s voices, but not understanding much of what’s being said. This white noise was a comfort, and I feel like a sneaky eavesdropper hearing English conversations. Someone bring me some ear plugs!

I’m very tired right now. I’m also feeling cold. Washington D.C. and then Seattle (my family!!!). Here are some things because my mind is unorganized.

Excited to: eat an avocado, get warm clothes fresh out of the dryer, not always feel like someone’s watching me, play cello, not eat rice every day, have a general sense of what’s going on at all times.

Will miss: the vibrant colors, the invariable call to prayer, delicious fresh bread, sunshine, the clear night sky and the bright stars, the greetings which are wonderfully sincere and extended, my family, my neighborhood, the challenges and the discoveries.

 

Things I’ve seen change about myself:

  • I improved my handwriting by a lot; handwriting is serious business in school here
  • I’ve become a much heavier sleeper thanks to Mr. seemingly nocturnal Happy (the goat) lodging directly below me
  • My Bambara skills have vastly improved; around November my family decided that my Bambara was passable enough for them to speak it with me all the time (very untrue), so, I’m quite proud of my speedy advancement in the fun-to-speak language. Example: Billybillyba means large, but you have to say it really quickly to be understood.
  • I’ve become more relaxed, or maybe just lazier. “Sit down, drink some tea, let’s talk a bit…” It was difficult for me at first to slow down my pace of life, but now I have to set aside an entire day to get a pretty simple task done.
  • I feel much self-responsible after staying here, and also believe that I’m better at accepting failure; both of these things were large parts of my day-to-day life in Bamako.
  • I can carry a big bucket of water on my head without spilling any, which is very tricky. You got to do what you got to do, though.

 

I do have one request: the posts from this blog will now stop coming, but I doubt that I will stop learning from my experience any time soon. I have so many misconceptions and stereotypes to unravel, and am brimming with stories, thoughts, and realizations. I wish that the people who are reading this, if they have any questions at all about my experience of Mali or studying abroad, would please approach me with your questions. I have so much to say! Granted, it is a definite possibility that I will not leave my house for maybe two days once I get home, but afterwards, let’s talk. Thanks for reading all these months, and hopefully you’ve learned some stuff about Mali vicariously through me. If you ever need some Bambara lessons, I’m your girl.

 

The Hot ToMALIs and our host families at the airport in Bamako- lots of tears! A truly incredible semester for all of us.

These past three weeks have been quite busy for me and the time is going by insanely fast, only two more weeks left in Mali for me (Ahh!). I hope that everyone’s had a good holiday season- I’ve had an enjoyable but unconventional one. I’ll start two weekends ago:

The director of the Mali branch of the program, a sunny guy named Sounkalo, got married! Though we didn’t know it until it was happening, the four YES girls and I were the bridesmaids for the wedding. The night before, as is typical in America, there was a big dinner for all the family and close friends. For this occasion Sounkalo and his wife decided to wear the traditional Malian wedding attire, and on the actual wedding day wore the western-style tux and wedding gown. Being the bridesmaids, we were dressed up in beautiful hand-made shell jewelry and traditional Malian celebration clothes. There’s a process that involves mud and a lot of work to make the clothes, but I’m not sure how it’s actually done. The dinner was a lot of fun, especially getting dressed up like African princesses, and the wedding the next day was a blast.

Sounkalo and his wife at the wedding dinner

Traditional Malian festive clothes

The next weekend was Christmas! The YES girls and I all went to Ambassador Leonard’s house for Christmas lunch and festivities. We were in great company- the director of PeaceCorps Mali attended, along with some embassy workers close to the Ambassador. It was pleasant to eat American food again, and I’ve gained a considerable appreciation for the American cuisine. After lunch we sang Christmas carols, watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and exchanged stories.

Ambassador Leonard and the fab five YES girls

The week following Christmas was le composition, cue screams of terror. It’s the same as mid-terms in the US, except the whole week is super hyped up and all around stressful. But I got through it, and hopefully passed all of the exams, excepting physics, which I definitely failed.

This past week was the congé, which means I’ve been off of school. It’s been a nice and relaxing week, though I haven’t gotten as much work done as I had wanted to. It’s tricky staying on task in a house with so much activity! On Tuesday, I took a bunch of the kids to a local park called Cité des Enfants, which they were all very excited about. Before going, they told me about all the lions and giraffes that lived at the park, so I thought it was some kind of zoo, but it turned out that scattered throughout the park were hundreds of small statues of animals. Basically the same thing. On Wednesday morning, my favorite aunt here had her first baby. Everyone was rushing around in excitement, and I got to hold her- she’s really beautiful and very tiny!

So that brings us to this weekend. On Friday afternoon the YES crew and I headed out of Bamako about 2 hours, and camped overnight in a rural village. It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  We danced late into the night with the village girls, and fell asleep under an incredible starry night sky. It was a relief to be out of the city for a little bit; the fresh air and empty land that seemed to go on forever cleared my head. Last night, while I was walking through the village, I asked a man who had been educated in Bamako but moved back out to the village, “Isn’t it lonely out here?” And he replied with, “Yes, sometimes. But in the aloneness, you get lost, and then you find yourself again.” I thought that was pretty profound, and I sort of wanted to camp out in the village for a couple weeks after he said that. But alas, we turned back to Bamako on Saturday, and waved goodbye to the giant baobab tree and friendly villagers.

The village of Kella, about 3 hours outside of Bamako

Packing it up!

I thought this was a really cute picture of Moussa. He learned how to clap! So precious!

Early Saturday morning, the other YES girls and I set out in the crisp (ish) air to a school of traditional Malian dance, called Maison des Arts.  The quaint couple that owned the place ushered us first onto the sunny terrace, filled us up with a delicious Malian breakfast, and we promptly began our dance lesson.

 

The husband of the couple, Makan, is an artistic genius and was surprisingly patient in teaching us to dance. The walls of their house, restaurant, and dance studio were covered by vibrant paintings of dancers, instruments and nature scenes, which were all done by him, Makan informed us. 

 

The dance we learned is called the degou-degou, and is the most basic one of the Malian traditional style. This dance from the ancient past- further back than I can imagine- was inspiring, jubilant, and physical. Into the afternoon we worked long and hard, pounding our feet into the floorboards in time with the four drummers who relentlessly kept us afloat. Having been classically trained in ballet, this invigorating new approach was liberating for me, and I felt no constraint, no restrictions. We mastered the dance by lunchtime, and us girls plan on presenting it for the state department once we get to Washington DC. Should be interesting!

 

Lunch was tasty, and everyone was sweaty and tired. Makan’s wife, an older woman from Marseilles, made sure we ate everything on our plates, and with a smile in her eyes grouchily told us that she “wouldn’t dance for anything.” After lunch we went back upstairs to the dance studio, and got a lesson on how to drum. My mom in the US always tells me that she believes in some past life, she was a professional drummer, and I laugh every time as she bangs her wrist against the steering wheel while listening to the radio. I have some back-pedaling to do now, however, because I feel confident that African drumming runs somewhere deep in my blood. So wild! So raw, so exhilarating! I’ll stop before I become over-excited about this. The next day my hands were puffy and red, but who cares. The price of passion!!

 

 Moving on now. At around 5 pm, the dance company started filing in, slowly warming up and stretching out as I remember well from my own dancing days. We got the privilege to watch their rehearsal, and what I saw was inspiring and magnificent. The imperfect yet overwhelming beauty of the corps as they moved together projected an unrefined devotion to every step they took. Their pain and their dedication to the story of this dance which outlines their history as a people was apparent in their eyes, and the way their feet pounded along to the resonating heat beat of the drums. After around two hours, the rehearsal abruptly stopped, and I felt like crying out, “Don’t stop moving! Please, keep going.”

 

Makan explained to us afterwards about the different movements of the piece, all choreographed by himself. The storyline of the dance follows a family, with a daughter who wants to marry a man her father doesn’t approve of. Makan told us how the dance encompasses traditional steps and music, though brings in new ideas about modernization, and how the younger generation is changing. He said to us, looking a bit downhearted, that the young ones now just want to get out of Mali, go anywhere else. “When they leave and do not come back, that is an ugly thing,” he said.

 

 It made me reflect on what I’ve heard many people ask me during my stay: why are you here in this country, we’re so poor, there’s nothing here.  It makes me a bit sad each time I hear it, and I always rush to say how much I enjoy it here, as if that could change someone’s mind. This lack of pride, nearing on disgust towards one’s mother country, has come as a surprise for me, and a frustration at that. How can I explain to someone how much they should prize their home, when everyday in geography class we learn that Africa is a continent defined by it’s problems, during school time students are callously berated for speaking Bambara among themselves, and in history we’ve learned nothing yet about Mali’s past, but instead are now focused on the technical revolution in Europe during the 18th century. I’m not saying that Mali doesn’t face many problems, but I don’t think she should be characterized solely by her worthlessness.

 

Mali has been an independent country for 51 years now, but the signs of colonization are still blatantly present, and a push to become westernized is an item of great importance among people my age- in the way they dress, speak, and consider their futures.

 

Learning to dance in the traditional Malian style was fun and interesting, and I’m glad I have this part of Mali’s culture to bring back with me and share. It made me consider, though: how many 16 year-old girls living in Bamako could dance the degou-degou? And once Makan closes up his studio for good, and all the young people move out of their villages in exchange to wear a suit into an office building, how long will it take before the dance is forgotten completely?

These are my neighbors, they’re laughing because I counted to three in Bambara before I took the picture.

Below to the left are the young ladies of my house, plus baby Moussa.    This is a friend of mine, and her baby. All the women here carry around babies on their backs- even I have a few times! Got lots of stares.These are the mud-bricks that most houses here are made out of, drying in the sun. Most of my neighborhood looks like repetitions of this picture.

This is the small boutique just down the way from my house- there are small stores like this on every corner, selling soap, bread, candies, and tea. Not quite Whole Foods!Future wife of Mr. Happy? Couldn’t exclude a goat picture. This is the soccer field close to my house, in the evening there are games and all the men come to watch. Fun stuff!

Happy thanksgiving, all! I am feeling sad about not being able to celebrate in the US today with my family, though incidentally there was a bathem (baby naming ceremony) hosted at my house yesterday, so that was a sufficient substitute for me- lots of food, many speeches, and tons of family around.

Today, while I was running around a dusty field in this truly unreasonable heat for gym class, I was thinking of all the things I’m thankful for. I had more time to think on the subject later, while driving home from class, when our car broke down and I had to take the city bus home (which is in actuality a cart hitched onto a motor-scooter). But that’s another story.

What came to mind first and foremost is my host family. After a little over two months now, I feel that they are exactly that to me- a family. I remember before leaving for Mali I felt anxiety about how I would be able to fit into a place so different from where I came from. My host family, and in particular my host mom, a woman who has taught me strength, resilience, and humor, have all welcomed me with incredible generosity. I feel thankful that they have yet to grow weary of my never-ending questions, or if they have, that they hide it well.

Of course, I cannot forget how thankful I am for my family in the US. They have given me so much encouragement throughout my journey here, and whenever I’m crying and thinking about how I’d like to go home, I remember them telling me how proud they are, and I wipe my nose and go do some cleaning.

Another big thing that’s come to my attention is how thankful I am to be an American. I know that sounds corny, and I’ve never thought of myself as much of a patriot, but I’ve realized after living in Mali what tremendous privileges one immediately has just by being born in the US. It makes me feel, along with a sense of gratitude for my nationality, a sense of responsibility. So many of my friends and classmates here absolutely worship the US, and harbor dreams of going there someday. I never thought before leaving how lucky I am just to be American, and I think it’s something that we as citizens of the United States need to reflect on, and need to appreciate more.

Finally, I am thankful for you, my readers of this blog. I’ve learned after a little of two months now, that just trying- trying to speak Bambara, trying to dance the togo wele, trying to cook facoy for my family- it’s all that I can really do here, and it goes a long way. So maybe if you are reading this, trying to understand Mali vicariously through me, then I am thankful for that. Mali, after all, is not quite so different as one would think.

Is what food poisoning felt like!

Around four am on Sunday morning I started having diarrhea and throwing up like there was no tomorrow, though reasoned in my fever-stricken and confused state that it had to pass by morning, so I spent the night whimpering around in misery.

By 11 am on Sunday morning, I was seriously dehydrated, and completely spent of all energy. I still planned on resting in my room for the day, not thinking that it was too bad. I called from my window to one of the girls to bring me a banana, and as soon as she entered my room she left again, yelling out for my host-mom to come. They all quickly concluded that I looked horrible, and needed to go to the hospital. The in-country coordinator of my program, Sounkalo, came to my house and took me there.

The hospital, Polyclinique International de Bamako, is pretty close to where I live, but the drive over on the bumpy unpaved roads caused me some additional nausea. Once we got there, I was ushered into an office, where the doctor (with Sounkalo translating, thank goodness for me) quizzed me on the normal doctor questions. The moment that it was discovered that my last meal eaten was goat head, the doctor seemed to come upon a great understanding. Goat head, as I understand it, is notorious for doling out diarrhea and vomiting aplenty, and the treatment plan was pretty simple.

For the rest of Sunday I slept, read a magazine proclaiming the wonders of the safari in Botswana called Discover Botswana (I’m convinced, and now really want to visit), and tried to recall all the lyrics from the tracks of Genius Loves Company (difficult). They stuck a few IVs in me with antibiotics, vitamins, and water, which was my first time having that done. The IV was hung on a pole above me, and in my dazed state, I did not realize that I only needed to unhook it in order to have mobility. So, for the majority of Sunday, I felt like a dog chained to a house, and held my bathroom needs in. Not my smartest moment!

The doctors and nurses there were all incredibly nice to me, even when they had to ask me four or five times to lay down because I was too busy trying to explain to them my dream (yes, it happened). There was one nurse in particular who was very kind, and sometimes would just sit with me and watch the IV drip slowly down and travel into my vein. Whenever my blankets would become tangled up, she would tuck me in again, and she kept me from ever feeling too alone or afraid.

I stayed the night at the hospital, and when I woke on Monday morning I felt much, much better. My host-mom came to visit me in the morning, and it was actually a great bonding time for us. She spoke playfully about the second wife’s incapabilities in the kitchen, which made me laugh. She had to go back to work after a few hours, but I was glad for her company.

On Monday afternoon, I was feeling very ready to go home, and had bit of a fit when one doctor came in and told me I had to stay the night again. After I got really worked up he explained that he was joking, and I could leave in good time. Not cool, doctor!

When I got back to my house all the kids were glad to see me, and I was equally happy to see all of them. I’ve been sleeping a lot lately, and have resolved to stay away from goat head from now on.  An interesting change of routine it proved to be, and I was able to see even another new side of Mali- the hospital! I’m glad to have experienced it, and so relieved that I am better, but hopefully I will not be going back any time soon!

We’ve arrived!!!!!!!

So the fab five made up a theme song: Basically, you sing the spider-man song, but insert “Bamako” into it instead of spider-man, and say things at the end such as “the place where all the cool kids go,” “we lost our luggage though,” and “I wish I brought my piccolo.”

It is so different than anything I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know where to begin in talking about things here, and it’s only my first day! Weather-wise, it is cloudy but extremely humid, and (tolerably) very hot. That’s different.

Every last one of us lost our luggage! Good thing it’s so super amazing here that I don’t really mind. Thanks Mom, for making me pack that change of clothes. Good call. Hopefully our things will arrive promptly!

Today we’ve been taking lessons in Bambara and learning about Malian culture. We’re taking a quick break before we head off the lunch, and then tour around the city. Pictures are to come as soon as my luggage does.

I hope that this message finds everyone well!

Hello, readers! I am boarding a plane in a few days, and still am yet to settle on one emotional stance towards my journey. For the most part, however, I feel complete elation.

My packing is going extraordinarily well. The whole packing-light thing is a bit of a struggle, but I already am learning things of importance, and I haven’t even left America yet!

MALI

Wow.

So much anticipation!

I hope everyone has a wonderful labor day weekend, and by my next post I shall be transatlantic!

Hello again! A friend showed me cool song by Saa Magni, a musician from the Southwestern region of Mali. I love it.Take a listen!

Oumou Sangaré

Hello all! So, a quick debrief on what’s going on: I will travel to Bamako, Mali with four other American high schoolers around late August and come back to Seattle around late January. What happens during those five months I will try my best to document on this blog!

I’ve been awarded the YES scholarship, which is through the US State Department. The YES program awards 50 scholarships to 10 different countries, all of which have significant muslim populations. The goal of the program is to build bridges of understanding and communication between different cultures. I went to Denver in mid-March for a semi-finalist event, where they narrowed us down from 75 to 50. I got the wonderous email saying I’m going to Mali on April 11th.

I’m ridiculously excited. Stay posted!

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