"People from all over the world have passed through this village, son," said his father. "They come in search of new things, but when they leave they are basically the same people they were when they arrived. They climb the mountain to see the castle, and they wind up thinking that the past was better than what we have now. They have blond hair, or dark skin, but basically they're the same as the people who live right here" (The Alchemist, p. 9).Four years ago today, I rode a bus from Philadelphia, PA to New York City and then boarded a plane with 78 other Peace Corps volunteers bound for Mali - a country I had never been to and one I knew little about (aside from Malick Sidibe). I was excited, nervous and eager to begin a new chapter in my life. I had no idea what laid in store.
Working in Zana as an environment volunteer with Annie and Esayi (on shea butter production and a cereal bank) changed the way I think about cross-cultural work environments. Third-party mediation? I've been in the middle of it. Functioning (and trying to thrive) as a woman in a male-dominated society? I made a crack at it. Learning and speaking Bambara, the majority dialect in Mali, which is nothing like French? I did my best!
When I talk about my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali (and remember - with short attention spans I have a 2 minute window of opportunity to discuss my entire 3 1/2 years so I have to be quick!) I briefly mention my work but what my 3 1/2 years come down to, like many volunteers, is people. The relationships I had not only the opportunity to make but to also truly develop. Namely with Annie and Esayi and their Coulibaly clan (and, of course, my fiancé-though he came into the picture later on :). Did I like it? people ask. Not always, I try and answer honestly. But mostly.
As I transition back to life in the United States - I am often asked a few other questions. Do you miss Mali? Yes. Is it hard coming back? Yes and no. What made you join the Peace Corps? That's a story. How did you get sent to Mali? That's another story. Did you think this [living in DC/America, engaged to Abdoulaye, working for WRI] was where you would be following your Peace Corps service? Not at all. (but I am thrilled for all of those things!).
I am reading The Alchemist and I think anyone who reads it would join the Peace Corps (if that was ever a dream of theirs). The book has the answers to all of the questions above with an easy-to-follow, thought-provoking plot. The author, Paulo Coelho, also uses the word 'treasure' a lot. You know I can't resist a treasure. What I like most from what I've read is the idea that you can't set your plans in stone. One of the greatest lessons I learned in the Peace Corps is that you must be flexible and open to others if you want to pursue happiness happily. Joining the Peace Corps is kind of how I feel about entering into a great relationship (like how I feel about Abdoulaye!). Was I happy before I joined? You bet! Am I happier after? I think so - at least I have a more acute appreciation of my happiness - and the choice that I have to pursue my own personal legend (à la Alchemist).
My friend, Anna, and I emailed once about when we would stop looking at our life in segments. The college years. The immediate post-college years (for me, the Peace Corps). The post-post college years (now). And I don't know that I will ever stop looking at life in those segments though now the segments are becoming more like segues. (I have also tried to stop looking at things as good or bad. Read this story and you may see why).
Four years later, I find myself sitting in an air-conditioned, sub-let apartment in Washington, DC. Dirty plates and cups are piled on the desk beside me and letters waiting to be written and addressed sit behind my computer. What has changed in the four years since I joined the Peace Corps? Well, the presidents changed in both countries (one after an election, one after a coup). I biked in Mali and I still love biking in the US. I'm engaged! And while I knew little about Mali four years ago today - now I make a conscious effort to not talk about Mali all the time. But if you ever want to listen, I'll be ready to share :)
While perceivable change in me is slight, I think with a little digging, much would come to the surface. And, after all, like the boy in The Alchemist said, "I'm [still] an adventurer, looking for treasure" (p. 42). I also still don't know what lies in store.
Unofficial polls may or may not reflect that this is the best Peace Corps COS presentation ever. That may or may not have been my San-kaw poll....
Some of my reflections on years past from years past:
Some of my favorite trips and visits while I was in Mali:
Guinea & Sierra Leone.
Marija in Mali.
A Moroccan wedding.
Sarah in Mali.
Mom in Mali.
Abdoulaye's and my first trip together.
A Lebanese wedding.
Thanks for reading! And you might note (not sure how you got here!) that I changed the address to www.triflesandtreasures.blogspot.com - if you bookmarked the site - please note the change!