Coffee shops will wait. 

January 21st, 2016
When life circumstance steals experiences from you, you have two choices: give it up and move on, or try again. I was ready to move on from Peace Corps. In fact, I was looking at jobs and picturing myself sipping coffee in a coffee shop, catching up on the news and writing letters to my friends. But…life had another option, and I could either take it and move on, or leave it, and move on. 

Sometimes you need a boost from friends to remind you what you are good at, and to guide you to your next adventure. I was approached by several people, telling me to consider this new Peace Corps Response position in Liberia. I didn’t even want to look at it, so I kept my mind in that coffee shop, sipping a warm beverage with friends. Then I received an email from the woman who does the interviewing and hiring for this position. A dear friend had recommended she reach out to me about it. That’s when I broke. I looked at the position, and was rushed there, feeling free and sweating. Smelling the West African air (whether that’s a good smell or not) and feeling the intense love from a community somewhere. I saw myself doing this job, and kicking ass at it. And then the bug bit me: I applied for this position almost immediately after reading about it. Within ten minutes of submitting my application, I was scheduling an interview. And within a few days, I was talking on the phone to someone about why I would do well at this position. On my 25th birthday, I was offered the job. On Christmas Eve, I accepted. 

Now I’m sitting in an airport, waiting on my flight. In 24 hours, I will be stepping foot onto the soil of Liberia, West Africa to begin my position as the Malaria Coordinator. I will be working with fellow volunteers on doing malaria prevention projects, hopefully doing trainings with locals, and also working with an NGO who focuses on malaria prevention and education. 

For some reason, this time feels a lot different. The first time, I was prepared to give 27 months to a village in Guinea. (Where had my plan played out, I would still be to this day.) The second time, I went with my best friend, who I was able to be excited with and could share my fears and joys with. I was met by friends who became some of my greatest. I went to finish what I started, in hopes to end exactly when I thought I would. This time, I am going to further my love for this part of the world, as well from a professional standpoint. I’m going because I know I will do this job well, and I know my heart is there. Coffee shops can wait. But my desire to be there, now, cannot. 

My time home was filled with such joy. From Ohio to Minneapolis to Seattle, I’ve experienced the love and encouragement I needed to know that this decision is right. I’ve had my moments where I think “I must be crazy to want to do this again.” I’ve had the “ehhh am I sure about this” moments as well. But now this adventure is in action, and it feels so good. I feel free. I feel ready. I’ve been telling people “third time is a charm!” Though who knows what this time will bring. I may hate it. I may love it. All I know is I need to go do it. 

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Merci, Mali. Allah ka here caya; May God give you peace. 

November 17th,

Dear America,
As my time here comes to a close, you are not making things easy for me. Normally, after a year you’d think I’d be craving sushi or a burrito so badly, I would hop on the next plane as soon as I finish. However, there is something in the way that has become loud and clear, as I have watched you from afar this last year: your soil is infiltrated with monsters. Real life monsters. Even worse than the ones that you thought used to hide under your bed when you were a child. These monsters are walking amongst you, disguised as governors, professors, cashiers, waitresses, pastors, the girl sitting next to you on the bus, and even the man driving it. I never thought monsters were real, but this is the only possible reasoning for what I’ve been watching. The racism that’s manifested on campuses, the xenophobia that has manifested through an international crisis, the racism that’s walked into churches to kill people, the racism that has been bogging down police forces for a century, the xenophobes that have shared that picture suggesting we blow up an entire religion. The ignorant comments that have moved me and others to complete shame and fear of our nation. These monsters hate for no reason. They sit on couches, Fox News illuminating (and darkening) the room, and absorb the nonsense that is misinformation. They high five their friends when their state has declared themselves unfriendly and unwelcoming to traumatized victims of war. I’m sure they follow Donald Trump on Twitter. Maybe they even share his tweets. They then, jump on their computers to write horrible things about innocent people who are victims of their circumstance. These people probably even see news stories about my current home, and then suggest we blow this place up. These people have grown up thinking THEY are superior, over every life that does not look like theirs. 

How does one protect themselves from these monsters: I wish I could say there is a special repellent you can wear that keeps them 100ft away at all times, but unfortunately, science hasn’t discovered the opposing agent of ignorance yet. If these monsters infiltrate your space, we must show them how to LOVE our fellow brothers and sisters. There is only one explanation to the ignorance and utter hatefulness that I can think of, and that’s a lack of love. They have closed their hearts to empathy and certainly haven’t dusted off their Bible, Koran, or Torah in awhile. We need to remind them, to SHOW them, why love conquers all. Immigration is a topic all too real here. Recently, I sat down with a young man who took a rickety boat to Spain in hopes to find work. And I can tell you, many of you would do the same thing if it meant providing for your family. Risking your life to make your families lives better…and these monsters call this act selfish. These monsters can leave you feeling hopeless for mankind, however, I remind you, there ARE good people out there. Don’t lose hope because of them. Let’s show them how it’s done…

  

December 11th,

Here I am, again. Lying in my bed…in America. I am trying hard to find the words, but I feel like I’m dreaming. I feel numb. Reflecting on why I am here is not easy. Reading my last blog post makes this even harder. Normally, I am a glass half-full girl, who sees the good over evil any day. Today, I am not sure what I am. I certainly see beauty in the small things, but at the same time I see terror in every crevice of the world. Two weeks ago, 2 jihadists invaded a hotel in Bamako, taking 170 people hostage, and taking the lives of over 20 people. Including an American…a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Senegal…who developed a love for West Africa and was now working with an NGO in Mali. 

After the attack, the Ambassador decided to cancel the Peace Corps group who was set to arrive in June. We had a meeting asking us to keep this confidential, and telling us we would return to our villages as normal. The day after, Thanksgiving, we were informed that Peace Corps has decided to suspend the mission in Mali, and that we would have a few days to return to our villages, pack our bags, and say goodbye to our families. 

Having been through this once before, I did not take a single day for granted. I spent time with my friends and family. I had more patience with my kids. I woke up early to exist in the peaceful space that would no longer be mine. I held babies more often. I admired my trees more, thinking about how far they’ve come, and how far they will go. This time, I had more time. There were moments when I shut down. During the meeting with my health center chief, chief of village, and my host dad, I could barely get out words in between the tears. When I told my best friend I was leaving, I had to exit the room. The night I told my father, we went immediately to inform his best friend, who happens to be the father of one of my best friends. Later that night, I told my crew. “We are already nostalgic for you.” Telling my kids, my first friend, the health center…my people…none of it was easy. This departure said a lot about the security of their country. People were scared. When I was leaving Guinea, confusion swept the village. However, leaving Bougoula, everyone understood. Sure, they reassured me that Sikasso is safe. And I KNOW that it is. But the capital is hot right now, they would tell me. Unfortunately, especially for westerners. 
 

 

So here I am. I flip on the news and see how terrorism has swept my own nation. Planned Parenthood being attacked. Schools being threatened. Holiday parties being attacked. Policemen rapping girls. Mosques being set on fire. Muslim women being attacked. And I was pulled away from my family in Mali to rejoin a nation where there is more blood and hatred in the news than happiness. When I returned from Guinea, I felt called to put a halt to the craziness that was the “Ebola fears.” Now, I feel a deeper call…one that, especially now after the ignorance of the powerful, is relevant in our country. I feel called to be an ally to our Muslim brothers and sisters. I feel called to educate those who have only been given a dark, negative, and frankly wrong perspective of this religion. Yes, it is the acts of extreme radical Muslims who have halted my service in Mali. However, I refuse to let the act of few define the greater. Join me in that. 


Those last few days in my village, the sadness was thick, but there was something else in the air that I had always longed for: my crew wanted to learn anything and everything about Moringa. They took my baby trees, my seeds, even harvested my leaves to make powder with. Leaving brought about an urgency to learn what I knew about my trees…they were sad about me leaving, and excited about Moringa. THIS is how I always imagined leaving a place. With a confidence that the work I had done had hooked someone. And here we were, two nights before departure…at 10pm, excitingly and urgently harvesting my leaves. 
 

 

I have yet to fully process it all. It will take a lot of patience and love, but I hope to share my story with whoever is interested. My service is defined by my accomplishments, and by the love that is shared between me and my family and friends. It is NOT defined by this evacuation. I will see my family and friends (and trees) soon enough, and until then, will represent them wherever I go through the lessons and love that they gave me. Thank you, Mali. May God give you peace. 


Allah ka here caya. 
 
  
 

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars. 

November 9th,

Each night, I walk by the house in front of mine, greeting everyone’s dark figure, not knowing who is who. The past few evenings, there has been a congregation of children gathered around the father of the household. Tonight, I approached. I wanted to know what the fuss has been about. Then it became clear: he was reviewing with the neighbor kids, spelling out on the blackboard sounds such as b-a-h, b-o, b-u, etc. I asked him what he was doing and he politely told me he was preparing the children for school tomorrow. With a flashlight hanging from a string and about a dozen kids seated neatly on a mat in front of him, this man is actively involved with the fate of these children. What a breath of fresh air…to see, a father especially, aiding the children, more than his own, at school. I have been in classrooms here. The amount of children who so easily fall through the cracks is incredible. 7th graders who cannot read is not an uncommon occurrence. (As I once fought with a friend about…) Of course, with 100 kids packed in a room meant for 50…my guess is only half of them are really proficient. 

This is now a nightly stop for me. One of the favorite powers I have here…when I show up, the kids want to show off how smart they are. They all hand over their chalkboards for me to check their addition and subtraction problems. We need more people like this man in the world. People who see the importance of educating children, and who are willing to go out of their way to DO something about it. 
November 12th,

Tonight, I came home early to set up camp and watch for fireballs. (Google that shit. It’s pretty cool.) The stars, incredible and clear, became a backdrop for my expectation of magnificent balls of fire falling from the sky. A shooting star whizzed by, but I was disappointed. It obviously wasn’t a fireball. So I waited…glancing around the dome above me in hopes to see something rare and beautiful. 

Isn’t that just like human nature? The awe of something I used to drag my friends out in the middle of corn fields to see, was pushed behind while I waited for something better. Shooting stars were un-incredible, and the spectacular backdrop was disregarded. When you wait around for the incredible and rare, the less flashy, equally as incredible things are overlooked. We are willing to pass off the magnificent as normal, and the normal as boring. To the shooting star that I disregarded, we are together: you are magnificent, a child of the universe (Desiderata) and worthy of my fascination. 
November 14th,

Babies who once couldn’t get enough of me tossing them in the air and tickling their feet, whose smiles and laughter were met by a mutual enjoyment on my part, now…after a few months…are terrified of me. Their refusal to enjoy me is a reminder that as we get older, we lose something. We lose a child-like, blind thrill of life. We develop irrational fears of irrational things. We forget what used to make us happy. We forget how to be silly. We forget how to laugh. We are scared to ask questions. We are scared of honesty, and of dishonesty. We are scared to get too close. We let past experiences define the present. We are scared to fall in love. So we try our best to control things, forget how to laugh, develop fears, and lose that thing. That 5 month old baby, sprawled happily across my lap had it, but that same 10 month old baby has learned through her experiences, to lose it. Fearlessness. She has touched too many fires, been sick too many times, has fallen and been knocked down, hurt, bled, cried, felt too much. And now, my white skin is scary. Something that used to fascinate her now sends her in a state of panic. 

How many times have I not done something that I may have done in the past, because I was scared of getting hurt? How many past painful experiences have prevented present joy? Here’s to rewinding my fears to my 5 month old self, polishing off that rust life has so thickly caked on my soul, and laughing and living fearlessly.
November 16th,

Tree update: Ever wonder why I love my trees so much? Visit this website to learn why! Moringa! I have grown over 100 trees, and have about 35 in the making. Soon, I will distribute them to more families in my village.  

   
   

#BeansBikesMali

November 5th,

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The months of blood, sweat, and tears have paid off: last week, the 2015 Peace Corps nutrition bike tour swept the region of Sikasso. This project turned out better than we (Ethan, Jessica, and I) could have ever imagined. Each day of biking was met by a great, slightly overcast, not-too-hot day, and each demonstration day was met by hundreds of women. Each village welcomed us with open arms, and was eager for our presence. We were met by village chiefs, women with gourds, smiles, babies, and dancing – sweet, Malian music. We had the perfect group of enthusiastic new volunteers, and experienced Response volunteers.

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Just a little background of the project:
There are three child nutrition volunteers in Mali, and we met one day as to discuss a collaboration project that could reach the masses. I suggested we do soccer games in each of our villages, where we had educational messages during halftime, and Ethan suggested we do a bike tour of the country. Roping in his wild mind a little, we decided a tour of the region would be more feasible. We also decided that we could plan out the tour during our soccer matches. So…we had four soccer games, one at each of their villages and two in mine, and planned out the bike tour in our time together. We wrote out a grant proposal for AfricanSky, received the grant, found four Malians willing and able to bike the whole thing with us, and tirelessly prepared for this huge event. We created a beautiful banner, advertised on the radio, invited every important person out there, and prepared our villages for the arrival of dozens of Americans. The final soccer game in my village was a practice for the bike tour, and we used it to prepare the volunteers for what the bike tour would be.

The schedule was as followed:

October 25th: demonstrations and skits in Niena, Jessica’s village.

October 26th: bike 25 km to N’Kourala, Ethan’s village.

October 27th: demonstrations and skits in N’Kourala, including a demonstration at a balafone party, where there were hundreds in attendance.

October 28th: bike 15 km to Farakala, where we were met by dancing women, and the (extremely old and hilarious) village chief who gifted us chickens.

October 29th: demonstrations and skits in the market.

October 30th: bike 35km to Sikasso, where we were met by the police for an escorted entrance with sirens booming. I think the entire city stopped to watch.

October 31st: bike 8km to Bougoula-Hameau to do a demonstration and skit.

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The closing ceremony in Bougoula-Hameau was ginormous. There were thousands of people who turned out. My chief of the village and mayor were dressed in their best, the ambassador of the U.S. was a champ and biked with us, several Peace Corps higher ups joined, including the director himself, and the national television station crew was there. At times, I couldn’t walk through the flood of people because they were so densely packed. I have never seen this many people in my village. This is exactly what we had hoped for and more. My village chief gave a speech, thanking Peace Corps and thanking “Aissatou Diarra” (my local name), and it ended with the volunteers chanting “Newlove.” Can’t say I didn’t blush. These moments are why volunteers sign up to subject themselves to 2 years of humiliation, tears, hot season, language barrier, bugs, scorpions, and weird medical mysteries. These moments when it all comes together…your village, your peace corps friends, and your work. We performed our demonstration and skit in front of hundreds of women. We danced the balafone and announced to the country that Peace Corps is back, louder than ever.
Between the 4 villages, we performed 7 demonstrations, 8 skits, over 50 pre and post surveys, and reached nearly 3,000 people. We saw dozens of women who could improve their child’s health by implementing the recipe we suggested. (We decided on a recipe that would be cheap, local, and easy. Corn flour, bean powder, peanut butter, bananas, and sugar. We took a common porridge made of corn flour and sugar, and added some things that would give it a nutritious boost cheaply.) We explained the importance of adding vitamins and protein to meals, and in our skit demonstrated what eating a diverse diet could do for a child. The importance of this project became obvious the first day when a mother of extremely malnourished twins showed up after hearing about it on the radio. THIS is why Peace Corps exists.

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This is the highlight and defining project of both of my services. My teammates and I completed each other, and their presences brought so much laughter and happiness to my life these past three months. We challenged each other, grew together, and made this thing happen. If you took away one piece of the triangle, this tour would not have been possible. I cannot say enough good things about these two. Kudos to the team, and also a huge kudos to the volunteers for stepping up in their first months of service and participating in such a great project.

To read Jessica’s account of the tour click here.

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To read Ethan’s account of the tour click here.

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(For more pictures of the event, follow our hashtag #Beansbikesmali on Facebook!)

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Yalla yalla and mountains

October 17th,
Today, I walked around Sikasso with my friend Daniel in search of radio stations. I am in charge of getting the message out about the bike tour, and successfully found 8 stations who will broadcast our advertisement. (I have 4 more stations I’m trying to hit.) It was an exhausting day, but reminded my about how beautiful this place is. Every last place I went to today, I was greeted by friendly people who wanted to disperse our message. Some of them even told us they were interested in biking to Bougoula with us from Sikasso.

Now I’m lying in bed, drying off from getting rained on during my walk home from dinner. That rain…the relentless kind that flies sideways and drenches you to your skivvies. After a hot day in the sun, you won’t hear me complain.
Finally, to the real point of this blog post.

There’s really one thing on my mind right now: those mountains. You know the ones. The ones that swallowed me up one summer and spit me out with a new approach to life. The ones that shook my world, and ultimately, placed me gently where I am right now. I just watched the summer recap video that Meaghan made. At times, I can’t watch it because it makes me remember feelings that I haven’t felt in awhile; feelings of community and the intense love that follows; feelings of ultimate freedom, the kind that found us sauntering through the mountainside or skinny dipping in the lake; feelings of anger, rooted in MY culture forgetting THEIR children, tucked away so WE don’t see them.

I will admit, I have let something in me become rusty. I never wanted to be that UDSAPer who forgot where they were. I never wanted to be that UDSAPer that didn’t carry those mountains with them every single day. These last few months, I have felt very small. Though I know I am, I feel like with those feelings of smallness, I have neglected to recognize my ability to love big. Just like I loved that summer, and the years of visiting that followed. Sure, when you love big you put something out in the open, vulnerable and exposed. Exposed to potential pain. The pain that comes from being ripped away from something. The pain that comes from rejection, or getting too close and having to part ways. To deny that love that I can give because of the potential pain would do a grave disservice to myself and everyone around me. So here I am again…promising you, promising UDSAP ’11, and promising Salyersville, Kentucky…that I will embrace the dirt on my body as the proof of my love.

Shine on, UDSAP ’11. Jarrod our Snake Warrior, and the summer you became bald and almost died; Charissa and your tight hugs, heart talks, and Mexican children we adored; Shayn and your new adorable family; Tom the cuddler and Rocky the dinosaur; Morgan and your flower smelling farts and go-girl adventuring; Kristin and the countless odes to poop mountain; Meaghan and your ever-changing accent depending on the occasion, and that laugh…that freeing laugh…; Jamie and your love for parasites/flies/anything gross and myself, as the summer recap video kindly reminded me; Mike Winn and your music…your sweet, sweet music..and your mandolin that kept us all happy; Tori and your sassy heart of gold; Emily and your love for pups and overalls; Kevin and your sasshole comments, ability to trick, and the love we felt all the while; Michael and your monotone jokes that had people rolling; James, our honorary ’11er, who’s little buddy became family quicker than it can make it’s own; and last but not least, our superhero, BT, who’s been keeping up with the kids since he can even probably remember.

Aren’t we lucky? May we always find room in our pockets to stuff a piece of those mountains.

Beginning of #BeansBikesMali

August 31st,

“They are fleeing to the countries who are responsible for making their country miserable.”

“We are worse than animals. Animals kill each other to survive. We kill each other for no reason.”

“Since when have men hated men so much?”

“If the pictures of the dead children in the sea do not wake us up, we are ill.”

These quotes are from a few fortunate men in this country who have found jobs, talking about those who are fleeing their misery in hopes for a better life. Time to wake up, world. How are we going to respond? Why are we so used to watching others suffer?

September 13th,

The Nutrition Response volunteer team (Ethan, Jessica, and I) are in the process of fine-tuning a bike tour, stretching about 80km across the Sikasso region. This six day adventure will include days when we bike and days when we teach communities about how to prepare healthier versions of the breakfast porridge they already prepare. We are trying to make a big splash out of this event, and will invite the national television crew (we will see if they respond…), the American ambassador, Peace Corps staff, and other people working in Bamako. We recently received funding we applied for through AfricanSky, and are really excited to be able to have financial support!
Now time to start training!

September 22nd,

Bunny. Cow head. (and by head I mean brain and ocular nerve.) Bunny again. Toh.
I’m rewarding myself with a dinner of peanut butter m&ms.
I’m hopeful for tomorrow’s menu, though today was considered the best of the best. I’m ready for mediocre.

September 30th,

It’s been a beautiful week. I cannot even describe it well, pin-pointing the peace. However, I am there. That peaceful place that screams like fire but feels like a refreshing shower.

Shea!

Do you use make-up? Lotion? Ointments? You probably use Shea butter a lot more than you think, thanks to the women of West Africa! In this photo I am mixing Shea nuts with Ethan’s host sister. Reminded me of the classic I Love Lucy grape squishing episode. It felt mushy, was a little painful (as if I was stepping on rocks over and over again) and left my feet feeling very soft.

For more on how it’s done, visit https://thereissomethingaboutmali.wordpress.com/
Photo credit goes to Ethan Timmins-Schiffman.