It was my favorite time of year. Late winter, when the outside temperatures remain cold, yet the daylight grows stronger. Spring was coming, evident by the red maple trees’ swollen buds, days away from flowering. I woke one morning to the sun pouring in through the curtains, lighting up the corner of my bedroom. That afternoon, more than two years after getting married, I decided it was finally time to get a wedding ring. I paced to a neighborhood estate jewelry store and picked out a $20 silver band with mountains etched across. On my way home, I was feeling love, basking in the sunshine, and walking with a pep-in-my-step.

Before rounding the corner onto Marvelwood Drive, I crossed paths with two teenage guys. “Are you Jewish?” The bolder stouter one with the black hat asked me. I stopped to look at two Chabad men in their early 20s. Both with dark hair, scraggly beards, and wearing white buttoned-down shirts beneath black jackets and pants. I was, and yes, I was also interested in putting on tefillin, I said responding to their follow-up question. Mendel pulled out two black boxes with leather straps, kissed one twice and then wrapped it around my forehead. He lifted his black hat up and took his own kippah off and put it on my head. 

“Are you right-handed or left-handed?” he asked. “Right-handed.” Mendel gently placed the box on my left arm and wrapped the leather strap down to my fingers. As instructed, I repeated the Hebrew prayers he chanted, word-for-word, and when we were done, Mendel explained I had a moment alone with God for however I wanted. I closed my eyes and immediately I felt indescribably elsewhere. I was somewhere yet nowhere, lifted by and encased within the light. After coming down, I opened my eyes to Mendel’s grinning face, seemingly aware of my out-of-body experience. “Congratulations,” he said, “you just did a mitzvah.” We exchanged cell numbers, wished one another a good Shabbos, and continued in opposite directions.

For the last decade, my connection to Judaism had been on the backburner. Once a focal part of my life, it had since been squished beneath the weight of West Africa, the natural world, and diabetes. Then, during my trip to Senegal in May 2021, my yearning woke up again. Coming from America, a cultural environment inundated with the deafening noises of social division, Senegal was a breath of fresh air. Being back in a community that was anchored by a belief in God and a pious devotion to faith felt different to the untethered American landscape vacuumed up by political tension, nation-wide protests, and rage. While reconnecting to Senegalese friends and family, I swam in a river of blessings and was cooled by the unity of a community under a shared umbrella of Islam. It was during this trip that I became ready to return to my Jewish roots, but I didn’t yet know how.

After flying home, I attended Shabbat services at a reform synagogue, the oldest in Connecticut, and one that boasted a dedication to social justice. People were warm and the Rabbi was hip, but I didn’t feel grounded from the experience. I leafed through flyers of events at the local Jewish Community Center (JCC), turning pages until I reached the back cover. Once even, I was invited on Facebook to attend a “Jewish Millennials Hanukkah Party” in New Haven, and I clicked “not going” after glancing at a series of photographs of shot glasses seated beside greasy latkes. One day, something would click.

The next Friday at 4:00pm Mendel texted asking if I was around and wanted to put on tefillin. I was, giving him my address and welcoming the same two gentlemen plus a teenager with a fuzz mustache into my home 30 minutes later. They followed a similar series of events as last time, wrapping the boxes of tefillin around my forehead and left arm and having me chant the prayers following their lead. 

This continued, on and on becoming a Friday evening tradition. Mendel would text, and if I was feeling up to it, he’d come over. As winter turned to spring, I learned Mendel was a teacher at a nearby yeshiva, and that the one, two, three, four, (and once eight) 15-17 years trotting alongside him into my home were his students. Usually, they stood and watched politely, but sometimes Mendel would give them the honor to perform a mitzvah with me. They’d wrap the tefillin over my arm, lead me in prayer, or collect coins from me for charitable giving. Over time tefillin expanded into more; Mendel and co. put a mezuzah up on our front door, gifted me with Shabbat candles and matzah, and he showed me YouTube videos of notable religious leaders within the Chabad community. During the holiday of Purim, Mendel even recited the megillah, and I sat from my green couch watching him rock back-and-forth as he chanted the story of Esther adjacent to a bevy of his onlooking students. 

Eventually, our meetups evolved into one-on-one Torah study sessions within his yeshiva classrooms. I began filling in a foundation of religious practice and belief that I never covered in my earlier education. I learned about gratitude in morning prayers, ritual hand-washing, to discussing where the soul goes when one sleeps. I love religious education as a way for me to reconnect with my faith, on a deeper level than simply celebrating holidays. I feel more connected to my ancestors, while simultaneously learning from the coalesced wisdom of religious Jewish scholars over millennia.

In the background, my friendship with Mendel is growing. In addition to his religious teachings, I am teaching Mendel about life on the “outside.” Educating him about “American life” (Mendel’s mind was blown that the standard workweek is Monday-Friday, as he thought we all had Fridays off). I also introduce Mendel into the world of plants and trees, through conversations and more, gifting him milkweed and joe pye weed seedlings for the yeshiva. The learning and exchange are always reciprocal, without pressure, and to take in and absorb however we each see fit. I couldn’t tell you where this religious journey is going, nor does it matter frankly, this is where I am, and this is where I want to be.

For one week straight I dreamt I was in Senegal. In each I was driving down the laterite road to Madialy (my Peace Corps site from 2012 to 2014), and I would anxiously realize I forgot to bring gifts. It was like childhood dreams where students show up to school without pants. My dreams were a mix of all the emotions I had been feeling under Covid-19 – restlessness, monotony, anxiety, and isolation. So, one morning after waking up from Senegal dreaming, I booked a flight. Less than three weeks later, my plane landed on the tarmac in Dakar.

I was greeted by Chérif Djitte, a close friend and former Peace Corps staff member, who whisked me off to his home for two nights. Over the next days, we traipsed around downtown Thiès (Senegal’s second largest city) and visited Djitte’s parched fruit orchard. From there, I booked it to Madialy, approximately 8-10 hours via public transportation. The journey included 3 crowded vehicles (one broke down for an hour on the side of the road), and I arrived at dusk, just in time to take my bucket bath under the glowing moon.

Madialy is a 500-person village located in Tambacounda, a forested region in Eastern Senegal. Two-thirds of the village are Bambara (an ethnic group and language), and one-third is Jaxanké (also an ethnic group and language). Bambara and Jaxanké are mutually intelligible languages, and I learned to speak Bambara and lived with a Bambara family. Everyone in Madialy is Muslim, and the faith shapes diet (no pork or alcohol), prayer, and family structure. Nearly all residents farm. Right now, in hot season, villagers are preparing for the approaching rains by burning fields and cracking open peanuts. During the rainy season, villagers hustle to cultivate cereal crops such as corn, sorghum, millet, and peanuts. Outside of farming preparations, many were also working on their homes (e.g., building huts and fixing roofs).

In the 9 years since I lived in Madialy some things had changed, but most had not. In 2012, there was no running water, and now there are 4 spigots across the village (my host family still pulls their water from a well). And while there is still no electricity, the government has started to construct electrical poles. Regardless, many households now have their own solar panels, good for charging cell phones. Relatedly, there is a huge increase in village smartphones (with many more people on WhatsApp) and an increase in the number of televisions (from 3-4 to 10-12). However, outside of these minimal material changes, sadly the community is much the same resource-wise and activity-wise. People still discussed the struggle to make money, were burdened by health issues, weak healthcare infrastructure and poor education options.

Staying with my host family was different this time, due to the changes in our lives and circumstances. Within the compound there’s Souleymane (the head of the household) and his three wives and children, his younger brother Sumalia and his three wives and children, and their mother Mariama (called ‘Mama’). During my service, most of the children at home were between 2-15. It was a bustling household, and I ate my meals with 6-8 boys and men from within the family. Now the majority of those children had moved out for various reasons (to the gold mines of Kédougou, urban cities for work or public education, or Muslim schools for religious education). There was a generational shift and during my visit I ate my meals with just 2-4 family members. Fewer children meant less cooking, cleaning, and disciplining responsibilities for the women and less financial strains for both the men and women.

I was close with many of my family members, especially Souleymane, Halima (Souleymane’s second wife), Sumalia, Tunko (Sumalia’s second wife), and Mama. Souleymane has a big garden with vegetables and fruit trees. People seek him out for his ethical reputation to help navigate family or community disputes. Halima is good natured and easy-going, we watched Malian music videos together on her phone. I was sad to see that her arm, which broke during my service, had never healed properly and still caused frequent pain. Sumalia is a religious teacher in Madialy, and he educates children and adults. He’s also a spiritual figure, helping villagers solve problems through Islam. Sumalia is the family workhorse, contributing massive amounts of physical labor. Mama Diallo, my host grandmother showered me with enough blessings to swim in. Each morning, day, and evening, she’d pray to Allah and bless me with good health, good fortune, and safe travels. Concurrently, I tapped my forehead with my right hand whispering back “Amina” at each blessing. She was a joyful burst of warmth and my “go-to” person when I hung out in the compound. As I said my final goodbyes, Mama’s eyes welled up with tears. Given her age and health issues, we both knew this might be our last goodbye.

I spent much of my Madialy days in Souleymane’s garden hanging out with Souleymane and his guests under the mango trees. We chatted, drank tea, fanned ourselves, and ate mangoes. Outside of that, I went from friend to friend and field to field visiting people and their trees. As an agroforestry Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked with Madialy villagers to plant trees, and it was moving to see how many stood healthy and tall. Even with my rusty Bambara, I was able to speak comfortably. We discussed many subjects, from my diabetes (one friend brought me “curative” leaves to boil and drink and another wanted to see the injection scars on my stomach), Covid-19 (cases have been low in Senegal, no one in the village wears masks, and most of the Madialy is surprisingly vaccinated), to the Ousmane Sonko protests (rising political star, Ousmane Sonko, was accused of rape in March 2021, but many accused the victim of lying and in cahoots with the current president, which led to nationwide protests and looting resulting in 14 dead). I had an amazing time rekindling friendships and deepening others. People were especially grateful I made the journey, aware of its physical and financial costs to my wallet and body.

Yelemarha Diaby was one of Souleymane’s most frequent guests at the garden. Yelemarha is a Jaxanké man, a few years older than me, and with 3 older siblings working in Spain and France. His brothers send home remittances that he’s used to build a cement home, buy a vehicle, and is now investing in agricultural technology. The solar powered pump and irrigation system should significantly make watering his enormous garden easier. Yelemarha was fun, and I enjoyed hearing him talk about his new dreadlocks, which were pushing the social boundary of acceptance. There’s nothing bad about hair!

Mamadou Kanté was one of my closest friends during my service. Extroverted, gregarious, and enormously big hearted, Mamadou is a father to 10 (10 sons and no daughters). On this visit, he showed up at my hut door the morning after I arrived, in disbelief and with a huge smile. We hung out several times thereafter. He told me about thieves stealing his metal work equipment, that his son in Italy was sending him enough money to construct a cement home, that he did not to get the Covid vaccine out of fear of being exploited as an uneducated African, and that he had so many thoughts and stresses buzzing around his head that his mind “burst.”

Batchi Kanté is a spunky next-door neighbor, one compound over from us. While Batchi was a treat to see, I was saddened to hear that his older brother, Abdul had drowned in the Mediterranean on his way to Europe a couple of years ago. His passing has set his family spinning. Unfortunately, Madialy and villages nearby have had many residents drown trying to get to Europe in recent years.

In contrast to the joys of seeing old friends and family, the elements were harrowing. Hot season daily temperatures range from 80-115 degrees, and it’s so hot that everyone sleeps outside at night (and the surrounding goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens, and bats make for loud company). Furthermore, with the roasting sun, dried up vegetation, and hardened soil comes dust – and the air particles enter your lungs, stick to your skin, and become embedded into your clothing. I hardly slept while in Madialy from the noise, and the temperatures made my blood sugars go wild, also making sleep hard. But juxtaposed to the ashes of Madialy hot seasons, stunning village events with colorful attire sprung up. I was fortunate enough to experience the celebrations of weddings, baptisms, and a traditional event called Gangurang.

I left Madialy on a great note, achieving what I set out to, and feeling ready to return home and get back to life here. I ended in the capital, Dakar for the last couple of days, largely to get my Covid-19 test needed to board my flight home. It was a memorable and emotional trip, albeit grueling and taxing. And while I have no regrets, I would do it differently in the future. Until next time, Madialy.

Once during my Peace Corps Senegal service, I was traveling on a crowded bus with my host father Souleymane. Souleymane recognized a colorfully dressed woman with a baby and started chatting with her. She was on her way to a health center, she said, she needed treatment due to continued blood loss while breastfeeding her child. Souleymane blessed her for better health. This wasn’t the only time West Africans casually shared their health conditions with/around me, many showed me horrifying skin infections or described unknown illnesses.

Unlike my experiences in West Africa, I find American society doesn’t normalize talking about/showing our health challenges. Not only that, but we actively discourage it. Twice, people have asked me to leave the room to manage my diabetes. While I don’t like to cause uneasiness, in action or discussion, those instances made me feel most welcome without diabetes. “Eli” could be in the room but “Eli with diabetes” could not. But, I cannot separate the two, nor do I want to.

To normalize discussing health conditions – I try to lead by example. When possible, I’m transparent about my state, sometimes sharing/doing things people don’t want to hear/see. But it’s hard. The diabetes community has a wealth of trauma from not concealing our heath. People have called the police assuming we’re drug addicts or blamed us for being sick. So, there are good reasons people keep their mouths closed – stigma and judgement dig deep. Still, we can be a stronger society if we are more open about our health – and subsequently better understood, protected, and connected.

Earlier this year when entering an antique store, the cashier told me to keep my backpack in the car. I politely pushed back, explaining that as a diabetic if my blood sugars ran low, I needed immediate access to my bag. Instantly, his tone changed from coldness to compassion. My bag was no longer a ploy to steal – but a safety net. He had a friend with diabetes, he said, and certainly I could bring in my bag.

The more I’m open about my diabetes, the more people are open about their health. Even if we have different situations, we can still empathize with each other’s health hardships. We all have our own physical and mental health challenges, and I never minimize anyone else’s circumstances. Mutual understanding brings us closer together.

I love talking about my diabetes because I am proud of it. Despite hating having a damaged pancreas, my accomplishments as a diabetic are sweeter (pun intended ☺). Diabetes makes everything harder. Running 5 miles with diabetes is way harder than running 5 miles was without diabetes. As a result, my wins have greater highs. Yes, awful diabetes days are worse than awful before-diabetes days, but amazing diabetes days surpass amazing before-diabetes days. Diabetes weakens, but it also strengthens. Don’t get me wrong, if I had the power – I would unflinchingly rid all people of diabetes – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a badge of honor.

My takeaway message for this Diabetes-Awareness-Month-inspired post (November is not quite over!) is to challenge us all to lean more into sharing/hearing about each other’s health situations. It’s true, this can be a sensitive topic, and many are be reticent to open up – due to past experiences or shame or whatever. But if the trust and care are there, the conversations may not be as scary. However, if you choose to ask someone to reveal something personal about their health – maybe you can start with sharing something about yourself? We all are dealing with something, and it’s often easier to open up to someone if he or she has already opened up.

So, with that, I would like to end with a brief diabetes update. In the last year, my/my relationship to diabetes has grown significantly. I’ve explored 4 different diabetes technologies (two insulin pumps and 2 continuous glucose meters), read 4 diabetes books (2 on diabetes management and 2 on diabetes history), helped get our insulin/diabetes supplies bill signed into Connecticut law (!), and participated in a research trial on a diabetes workout app – which expanded my physical strength and endurance. And while I still experience hard diabetes days/nights weekly, I am overall (somewhat) healthier. Happy Diabetes Awareness Month!

Last week, Martial and I went to Maine for a change of scenery. After months of restlessness in Connecticut, we felt the need to see something different. So, we spontaneously booked an Airbnb and left for “Vacationland” the next day. Our unplanned trip was restorative; we swam in glacial lakes, visited mountain towns, and watched anti-Susan Collins ads on tv. Though this post occurs before any of that happened.

On our first evening, I went for a run. I wanted to stretch my legs after the long car ride and my blood sugars were high. Going for a jog would address both those concerns. I slipped on my running shoes and jumped out the door. As soon as my feet hit the pavement, I was taken in by the bucolic neighborhood feel. As I ran, I stopped every few minutes to admire the colonial-style houses and barns. It was a run-jog-walk; I moved how I felt compelled, getting lost in the present.

House

A couple of miles in, I grabbed my phone and scanned the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) on my upper arm to check my blood sugar levels. The number 68 and a downward arrow ↓ flashed across the screen. My blood sugars were low and quickly going lower. If I didn’t consume carbs shortly, I risked passing out within ~15 minutes. This is why I try to carry Gatorade, gummies, or bars when I go out – but outside of my normal routine – I had forgotten. I glanced around, surveying my options. Should I knock on a door? Wave down a car? Ask a passerby?

I had little time to strategize. Soon the familiar symptoms of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) onset. First, foggy thoughts. Without enough blood sugar circulating in my body, my brain lacked sufficient fuel. My world started to become fuzzy. I began to imagine myself passing out. Who would find my body? Would I wake in an unfamiliar hospital? Shortly thereafter, my heartbeat sped up. As hypoglycemia intensified, my body increased adrenaline production akin to our “fight or flight” stress response. Soon, I would be sweating and shaking.

Up ahead, I saw a woman, barefoot in her front-yard garden, and watering beets. I started towards her, waving from a distance. “I have an unusual request,” I uttered. As I went on to explain my situation, she put down the hose and listened intently. With an earnest expression and a slight German accent, she assured me to wait here and then raced into her home. Less than a minute later, she emerged hustling towards me holding a spoon and a wine-bottle-shaped receptacle.

“How about strawberry purée?” she asked, putting the bottle forward. Somehow, it was the only sugar she had. I grasped the bottle and poured spoonful after spoonful of her delicious homemade strawberry delight into my mouth. Its richness was unlike anything I’d had before. She waited patiently as my blood sugars rose, and I was lifted back into place. I handed back the bottle and spoon and thanked her greatly. Despite my embarrassment, I was overcome with gratitude and relief. We shared a moment of smiles, and I continued Airbnb-bound, now equipped with enough fuel to carry on.


I share this story for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s difficult to convey how diabetes influences and shapes my life. Glimpses like this can be a powerful view in. This experience demonstrates the strenuous and unpredictable nature of managing diabetes.

But I also share this story because awareness of our collective well-being is important. Not just for my/our personal safety, but because our society is stronger with more mutual understanding. Since my diagnosis, I’ve been surprised by people’s reluctance to bring up diabetes. And when someone does, they usually dance around the words “diabetes” or “diabetic.” This reluctance fosters the idea that my diabetes is to be hidden and puts the onus on me to surface the subject. But, to me, diabetes is not a dirty word nor is discussing it shameful or triggering. This is my reality and the more you can see into it – the more I am seen/understood – and the greater potential you will be there when I/we need your help.

Hi again, I’m back. In the past, I’ve only used this blog to write about my various times in Africa, but I’m picking it up again. I’ve been horrible at keeping in touch with many of you, so perhaps this can draw us closer together? In addition, I am currently writing a book drawing off my Peace Corps years, and naturally, this blog has been the best resource to resurface my experiences. As I’ve gone back into those years, I’ve realized how much memory we preserve from writing. So, I also envision this as also a form of record-keeping.

In this post, I write about the past 12 months; my first year as a type 1 diabetic. But first, I’ll rewind to “the beginning.” This story begins in October 2018 when my body started falling apart. In 3 weeks, I lost 30 pounds, was waking up to pee 5-6 times a night, and I barely had the strength to leave my bed. I did a lot of Googling, and my symptoms matched diabetes. However, it would take until January 2019 for the specialists and blood work to confirm what I already feared. At 30 years old, I now had type 1 diabetes. (For a brief explanation of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, see “What is diabetes?” at the bottom of this post.)

Since my diagnosis, it’s been a long year of doctors’ appointments, carb counting, finger pricks, and developing new routines. Diabetes has pushed me to new limits and has been undoubtedly the hardest adjustment in my life. The condition is relentless, and there’s rarely an hour when I forget I’m unwell. To devote the energy necessary to keep myself healthy, I’ve had to cut back on just about everything. So, for those friends whose weddings I’ve missed, and those people I’ve become more distant from – I apologize! Diabetes takes a lot out of me, and I sadly don’t have as much to give as I once had.

Now a year into diabetes, and I’ve gained back the 30 pounds I lost, reclaimed the ability to travel, and am managing my condition well. But, there’s no “going back to the way things once were;” and each day poses new trials. Diabetics often experience social stigma, and as a result, we can feel the need to pretend we’re just like everyone else. But the truth is, we’re not. So, I want to share some of where I’m at:

  • I’m a year in, and I can still spend large portions of a given day chasing between blood sugar highs and lows.
  • I’m a year in, and diabetes still comes with physical pain. At times, my stomach or ass throb from the 5-8 injections I take each day.
  • I’m a year in, and I can still have largely sleepless nights from diabetes-induced nightmares.
  • I’m a year in, and I still shed tears when a type 1 diabetic in America or elsewhere dies from inaccessibility to insulin.
  • I’m a year in, and sometimes I still need to pull the car over to the side of the road as my blood sugars plummet.

Now, I won’t pretend there’s any silver lining to having a chronic illness, but diabetes has unquestionably helped me grow in numerous ways.

  • I’ve slowed down and become more in tune with my body.
  • I’ve become more patient and empathetic towards myself and others, and I am now more aware of the (visible and invisible) health-related hardships so many people face.
  • I’ve developed a new sense of purpose, today like every day, I take care of and keep alive a chronically unwell patient – he just happens to be myself.
  • Diabetes has helped me find my voice.

As alluded to earlier, many parts of the world (including the United States) are in the midst of insulin crises. In America, prices have been skyrocketing over the last couple of decades, and some diabetics are having to choose between paying their bills or paying for their month’s supply of insulin. I won’t get into all the political factors that have created this indefensible situation, but if you are interested, more information is available here. The bottom line is that something needs to be changed.

Since early 2019, I have jumped headfirst into Connecticut #insulin4all, a volunteer and patient-led advocacy group pushing for policy change to counter the insulin crisis. With a small group of passionate advocates, our state chapter is part of a national movement, and we are speaking at town halls, round tables, and press conferences with policymakers. As a national movement, we have been championing legislative wins in all corners of the country and spreading awareness. Our collective activism has proven to be a political power I didn’t know was possible. I strongly believe policy changes are coming down the pipeline in Connecticut too.

As I conclude this first year with new physical and mental scars, I also come with an astounding sense of gratitude. This year has shown me the superheroes in my life, first and foremost my spouse, Martial who has been with me from the very first prick to my mother, who spent hours on hold making sure I could see an endocrinologist. I have similarly crossed paths with many “new” angels. From the Liberian phlebotomist who prayed for me as she took my blood, to the woman in CVS who taught me how to prick my fingers, to the pharmacist who spent an hour calling my health insurer when I could barely stand up.

If I have one takeaway from the year, it’s to be kind. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your loved ones, and be kind to the strangers on the street. Life is hard, and even the smallest gestures of your love have helped me get through the toughest of days. Thanks, everyone!

Observations:

  1. Tofu and pistachios are the only foods that fill me up and have zero impacts on my blood sugars!
  2. So many things affect my blood sugars beyond diet, including my sleep, stress level, and my caffeine intake.
  3. According to the US government, as a diabetic I am disabled. Consequently, I’ve been told my disability makes me eligible for a free pass to the National Parks?
  4. If I had been diagnosed with diabetes earlier, I never would have been able to serve in any of the Peace Corps countries I did.
  5. With the right access to healthcare, type 1 diabetics can live long, healthy lives; but for those in the rural African villages I served in, a diagnosis today would likely be a death sentence.

What is diabetes? Within one’s pancreas are cells that produce a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps remove the glucose (also known as sugar) from our blood and into our cells (cells use glucose as an energy source). A person will die without insulin. For type 1 diabetics, our immune systems destroyed the cells that produce insulin, and thus, our bodies’ ability to make it. For type 2 diabetics, normally their body still produces insulin, but the insulin does not work as well, and the blood glucose has difficulty getting into the cells. Type 1 diabetes is not preventable, has no cure, and is treated with insulin injections. Type 2 diabetes is usually behaviorally induced (associated with being overweight), can sometimes be reversed by the patient’s behavior, and is treated with medication.

After a shorter stay than intended – I have returned to the United States. Unfortunately, Mali is not stable enough for me to continue researching at this time. That said, though the excursion was shorter than anticipated, the experience still proved powerful, fulfilling and special. This is a very long post – the first third is my emotional/personal journey the second two-thirds are more focused on the research.

After my first two days in the mostly empty, largely financial district of Bamako, I returned to the region of Mali where I spent most of my Peace Corps service. When I got off the bus in Sikasso (5 hours from Bamako), I was awaited by my former counterpart, whose face continually erupted in smiles despite his stifled attempts. In moments, I got on the back of his motorcycle and immediately tears flooded down my face, despite my discretion. My mind raced back to the last (and only) time I was on Karrim’s motorcycle, leaving the village due to our evacuation. At this present moment, I was saddened by the reminder that the Peace Corps is no longer in Mali. This fact resurfaced many times throughout my time there, as people with raised eyebrows would ask “Corps de la Paix?” upon hearing my spoken Bambara. A Peace Corps staff member responsible for opening up volunteer sites, told me that even today, like every day, he gets phone calls from communities making requests for volunteers.

The 17-kilometer journey to Coulibalybougou, my former Peace Corps site and research location, was swift as we raced up and down hills passing familiar verdant landscapes. As we pulled into Coulibalybougou, this time I managed to hold back my tears as a swarm of 30+ children ran towards me shouting “Ousmane nana, Ousmane nana (Ousmane is back, Ousmane is back! – Ousmane being the name I was referred to as)”. Among the crowd, strapped to the back of another child, was none other than Eli, the now almost 2-year-old boy who was named after me at the end of my service. Though he is called Eli, it’s pronounced slightly differently than my own way. The emphasis is on the “i” part, and the tone goes up with a sharp ending, if that makes sense.

Eli is terrified of me, even more so than other children his own age. But he’s old enough to understand that I’m his namesake, despite his seeming reluctance to accept it. When he was not being forced near me by an aggressive child or adult, Eli watched me from afar, trying to figure me out. By the end of my time there, he could withstand being next to me, as long as another “safe” adult was nearby.

Coming back to the family and village was filled with joy but also intensity. One of the saddest things to return to, is a family of children that look almost exactly the same (or in some cases, more gaunt or lean) as I remembered them 1.5 years ago. After eating the food for a few days, where we consume almost no meat or vegetables, it’s clear that a micronutrient deficiency is responsible for what seems to be perpetually small children. Despite their energy, laughs and excitement, I can’t help but always feel a sadness for their physical states, knowing that there are likely less overtly physical defects from this diet.

Furthermore, it was hard returning to a world and facing the reality that some of those I had left were not here to greet me. Some seemingly healthy children and adults alike, had died in my absence, always as they were “not well”. I visited graves, said blessings and mourned for a part of the world without sufficient access to healthcare facilities, that could and should prevent many of these lives from being lost.

In some ways, just as many of the children had seemed “stalled” or even weakened in their physical stature, sadly this was how other aspects of Mali felt to me. As mentioned in my last post, Mali is a country still trapped under the assaults of ongoing instability. Some of the few NGO projects that were functioning when I left (such as a solar powered grain grinder), was no longer in operation; rather just detritus located in the heart of the village. Sikasso as a city, looked rather unchanged. Many Westerners, NGOs and businesses that were formerly operating within Mali have relocated to neighboring countries such as Senegal and the Ivory Coast. What looked to me, like a slight degeneration in many domains, was hard to endure.

Despite really loving these people and community, it was also hard going back to a world so deeply patriarchal and hierarchal. After coming from a community in Yale, where when we first introduce ourselves, we use our preferred gender pronouns. Yet, I cringed the moment, like so many in Mali, when my host brother, while sitting on a chair socializing with his buddies (including myself), barked an order to his hard-at-work wife to get him a cup of water. Then, I saw her immediately stop what she was doing, collect water, deliver it to him in a curtsy and wait for him to finish before returning the cup to its proper place and resuming her work. I felt pressure to ask women to get bathing water for me, because doing that on my own is disrespectful. It was emotionally painful when I felt socially obligated to ask that of my host sister on a day she was really sick with malaria. This was no different than when I left Mali before, but I guess a year in America made it harder to accept. After being around so many brilliant, determined women with such high dreams, aspirations, and making huge contributions to our society and world, it was hard seeing such inequality. No, I certainly don’t aspire for Mali to reflect the gender norms identical to the States, but I strongly believe there are very heavy burdens and levels of oppression on women that I really hope will be minimized one day.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, reconnecting with many different people in Coulibalybougou was filled with laughter, sharing old memories and deep connections. Some people had grown into themselves. Sita, my counterpart’s third wife is younger than the oldest children of her two co-wives, finally seemed at ease with herself, now several years into the marriage with 2 children of her own (and a third on the way). Others had overcome debilitating physical obstacles, like Madu whose snake bite on his foot left him practically crippled during the whole 10 months I was there in 2015. I had great moments, really, many of these people are special to me.

Personal aspects aside, what little I was able to research was absolutely fascinating. In short, I was looking at a tree called African Locust Bean (which I’ll write as ALB). ALB has many different values and uses across West Africa such as: its roots, leaves and bark are used medicinally (for treating things such as: UTIs and children’s headaches), it’s leaves are used for animal fodder, the fruits are consumed by people or used as an animal fodder, the seed pods are composted, arguably most importantly, the seeds are processed into a cooking spice (called soumbala in Mali – though it has other names elsewhere). Soumbala has huge economic value among women in some communities, who are solely involved in the preparing and selling of soumbala. ALB is consistently one of the most common parkland tree species in West Africa (perhaps as prevalent as say an oak tree in the States). The tree often grows within millions of acres of farmland across many nations (unlike the corn or soybean fields in the U.S. that are usually barren of any trees or vegetation), thus these trees absorb massive quantities carbon and are lessening the effects of greenhouse gases, thus climate change. The tree is clearly important yet…

In many parts of West Africa, ALB trees are disappearing – with growing African populations, and intensification/expansion of agriculture typically assumed to be the perpetrators. Yet, in southern Mali, I had anecdotally recalled an abundance of this tree species, in a part of the country with a vastly growing population and intensified agriculture. So, in some sense, I was hoping through this research to put more perspective into this seemingly incompatible notion. To put it more bluntly, I wanted to question/challenge frequent foreign narratives that put unjust blame on rural populations globally, viewing them as largely destructive; often as passive agents locked into Malthusian traps where growing populations necessitate degradation. Yet I wanted to look more deeply into this. Why do growing populations HAVE to mean important species will vanish? People are able to plant/protect certain trees, aren’t they? I wanted to look at the role of the species in everyday life, and see how/if at all people were actively managing ALB’s regeneration. I planned to look at the ways in which social, economic and cultural values of ALB are embedded into behaviors that sustain regeneration of the species. What kind of revenue is ALB bringing into the community? What ways is it used ceremonially or culturally? How do people find the taste of the soumbala compared to maggi cubes (MSG flavoring cubes – a more modern substitute to traditional spices) and how do they feel about the perceived nutrition of soumbala? In short, what is ALB to Coulibalybougou – and how do they use it?

Results: In my weeks in Mali, I interviewed 23 people of the following demographics: young/middle-aged/older men and women, Islamic healers, hunters, a soumbala producer, and the president of the women’s group. To begin, I started by asking everyone to list all the different kinds of tree species in the forest, then I went back to those species and had them list all their “uses” (meaning fuelwood, construction, medicine, animal fodder, human consumption etc.). This took much longer than you would think – people could easily list 40, 50, 60, 70 (roughly 100 total) different tree species (incredible, right?)- and EVERY tree had “uses”, many multiple “uses”. It was important for me to place how ALB fit into the context of other tree species. Interesting things of note pertaining to this question:

(1). Men and women have a lot of overlap in knowledge of tree species, but there are many species better known one gender, usually according to its “uses”. For example women knew the tree species whose fruits could make cooking oil or whose bark is used to treat childhood illnesses. While men were more familiar with species for construction (this is an over generalization – but there certainly were differences in knowledge according to gender and this isn’t a surprise since rural Malians live in such a gender divided world).

(2). By far, the most common usage of trees was for medicinal purposes, at more than 60 different species. Roots, bark, or leaves would usually be boiled for an hour or so and is then drunk or bathed with (or both).

(3). As alluded to earlier, since residents of Coulibalybougou listed up to 100 tree species, it was clear that ALB is just “one of many” important tree species. And while that is true, and I have no doubt that many species are highly valued, what does make ALB unusual is that it’s only one of two indigenous tree species that (some) residents are planting (the other being shea trees – which are used to make shea butter). In my opinion, this distinguishes these species from others.

I learned quickly, that shea and ALB have social restrictions that forbid either specie from being cut by anyone (except for extreme cases). Yet, why? The elders explained to me that both of these trees became highly coveted during colonialism as a source of revenue (people would sell soumbala or shea butter to the Ivory Coast, for example) and used to pay colonial taxes. Furthermore, I was told, the tree from then onward was associated with wealth. As a young man, the now village chief was instructed by a fortune teller to plant trees of all kinds (including ALB) to secure his financial future. So he went on a splurge and while I was there, he personally pointed out to me all the adult ALB trees he planted many decades ago. So, this poses a series of follow-up questions. How do you assess the alleged “demolition” of a tree species, if the ones examined were not naturally germinated, or were excessively protected (as in, the trees likely wouldn’t be around were it not for people’s involvement)? What is the baseline for comparison? Hypothetically, it seems hardly fair, that even if the species were disappearing due to peoples lack of protection, that resulted from their changed values of the tree species, that the people should put to blame as “destroyers” (such as colonial taxes no longer being relevant).

Next, I looked at what “use” does the ALB have for residents of Coulibalybougou? As mentioned earlier, the wood is used for construction, the fruits are eaten, leaves fed to animals, roots/bark/leaves used medicinally. Yet, it seems the most irreplaceable product of ALB is the aforementioned spice: soumbala.

Soumbala is processed from the seeds of ALB fruits. It takes about a week from start to finish with three separate sessions of pounding required (totally roughly 12 hours), 3 different boiling sessions and sitting for several days to ferment. Women are the ones who do almost all of the harvesting, processing and selling of soumbala. In Coulibalybougou, I’ve been explained that all women process soumbala, and it’s used in cooking of all meals (except those sugar-based, like a porridge). Therefore, most everyone is eating soumbala 2-3 times a day, all year. In Coulibalybougou, a village of 1,200 people where all women process soumbala, there are only 4 women who sell it on the market (and as a result, are able to make a sizable income). Though, other women can sell their excess seeds to these 4 women and make some money, most women seem to pursue other money making opportunities (the main source of revenue is from onions, peppers, lettuce).

If soumbala takes a week to process with excessive labor (in my opinion – despite one woman saying it’s not “much” pounding), why do they continue, when there’s an alternative, maggi cubes? Initially, women would say they prefer the taste of soumbala, and that it’s cheaper (though “cheaper” is contestable – considering the total number of hours it takes to process). Though upon digging a bit deeper, I learned that just about everyone believes in negative health effects of maggi cubes (some believed it gives men sexual impotence, women genital complications, liver issues, salivary problems, among others). People don’t know the ingredients of maggi as they do with soumbala, increasing skepticism. Yet, they all still cook with maggi cubes (with the exception of older women who are more “purists” with soumbala – since “that’s all they know”) for a variety of reasons. In a community where people are relying on up to 60 tree species for medicine, it’s no wonder there’s a finer attachment/understanding and even hesitation of most of the things people ingest (be it medicine or dietary). I believe, it’s in the same way that Malians have caution towards Western medicine (what really do we ingest?), that they feel about maggi.

In what other ways is ALB/soumbala embedded into the lives of residents of Coulibalybougou? Soumbala is given out as a gift in for funerals, weddings, baptisms. Women can give out loans with ALB seeds. In years that there’s a bad yield of ALB, the community has been known to pray collectively.

Everyone I talked to stated that the population and agricultural production of Coulibalybougou is increasing, and that as a result the net forest is decreasing. Yet, few believe that all species within the forest are decreasing, most believe that certain species are increasing, with an almost unanimous perception that ALB trees are increasing despite the increase in population and agriculture. How is this possible? As stated earlier, ALB are virtually never cut down, yet it’s more than just that. When I asked during my interviews, or chatted informally, if people plant ALB, 4/5 said, no, no one does that. Except that 1/5 would respond and say, yes, they do (including a couple women – which is notable as women traditionally do not plant trees). Interestingly, 4/5 of people had no idea that was going on within the community.

I did a few forest inventory censuses in fallow land (fallow land is land that was formerly cultivated that has been left to regenerate with little or no agricultural production), where essentially I made plots and counted the number of ALB seedlings and compared them to mature trees to determine the sustainability of the species. For example, if there are only large old trees, one can infer that when those trees die, it’s less likely they will be replaced by younger seedlings if those aren’t there. From the inventories I did, my findings supported many of the observations that residents have, that ALB is increasing (or at least sustaining itself healthily). There were many many young seedlings, saplings and juvenile trees and thus one could suggest the number of ALB is augmenting. BUT… there’s a caveat. ALB needs a lot of sunlight to grow and thus are only really found in fallow land (or formerly fallow land that is now in agricultural production). Few are found in the denser parts of the forest. So, as the population of Coulibalybougou continues, less land is left to fallow (since more men and women need to cultivate that land to feed themselves). As the population increases, new forest is not cut, fallow land is used instead for agricultural production. This trend, arguably this could threaten the sustainability of ALB, right?

Findings: So, here’s a recap, this is what I’ve gleaned up to this point: ALB have for a long time been planted and protected by people (most of those found in Coulibalybougou aren’t really “natural” – but rather have been managed directly or indirectly) by people. To me, people are at the center of this, and despite potentially shortening periods of fallow land, currently I witnessed a high density of ALB seedlings, thus indicating a likelihood for a sustained tree species in this area (so perhaps, even with the increase of people as is, the tree still doesn’t seem particularly threatened). Yet even if populations were to continue to expand, and less land is set aside to fallow, why would one assume that ALB would simply disappear? Since people are and have been planting ALB – I believe there’s no reason to indicate this practice will stop – and the tree will vanish. And given the importance of ALB financially, socially, dietarily and more, I believe people will find a way to keep the tree around. I cannot speak on behalf of other West African countries with dwindling ALB populations – but I would believe the tree’s “uses” and “values” are different, and likely in some cases less significant. Were that to be the case, in those instances, the disappearance of the tree is likely not just a population or agricultural explosion, but in response to their lack of appreciation or usage of the tree and its products. In other places, it’s possible that climate change is hurting the tree where increased temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns are impacting the regeneration of ALB.

Other interesting bits I learned that may not be related to my research: Interviewing the hunters was fascinating. Hunters in rural southern Mali do much more than hunt and kill animals. Essentially, they are the protectors of the forest. They are the eyes that walk vast distances and report violations to the village chief (violations such as cutting down protected species or other) and even now they have the option of reporting to the national forest service run by the government. I learned a lot about the ways in which the forest service has historically undermined their customary rights of governance (especially during colonialism), but within the last couple decades, the hunters have gained national recognition/title and there is a supposed good collaboration between the two groups. It was fascinating to learn about traditional ways of ensuring the forest stays protected and intact (this is another example that challenges the notion of the “destructive rural African” – in that they’ve cultivated their own solutions without external help that far predates “modernity”). That said, the hunters griped about how few young men want to enter “hunterdom” since youth are more concerned about making money and the hunter’s work seems grueling. Is this a part of the “old world” of Mali that will be lost soon? Similarly, the women’s group in Coulibalybougou has banned selling of firewood to further protect the forest – this is another example of a community-led initiative and mechanism to protect the environment without any national oversight or demands.

In short, this research made me realize not only how little development agents/policy makers know what is going on on the ground, and instead impose foreign solutions without full understanding of the reality. I always knew this in theory, but this research was particularly illuminating in that regard. There is so much going on that is “invisible” to outsiders. What was unsettling about this was 1.) even me, the inquisitive Peace Corps Volunteer I was, knew so little about all of this. And I lived in this community for 10 months! This is worrisome to me. 2.) I believe many of these foreign ideas are not only ignoring local systems, but actively dismantling and undermining them. The hunter’s power and rights, though slowly regaining traction was hit hard for decades. Furthermore, other practices denigrated by the West (such as slash and burn agriculture) has started to trickle into the psyche of rural populations, who in response question themselves, their practices and at its worst, change their understandings to mirror Western sentiments (slash and burn agriculture, for example: much research shows is well suited to the tropics where nutrients are held in phyto-mass rather than the soil – yet after decades of disparaging the practice, people I interviewed started to accept that fire is “bad” – even though this used to be overseen by hunters in a way that was highly regulated). It breaks my heart just how often West Africans will tell me they believe White people are smarter than them, as if it’s genetic. I can’t help but wonder how much Western racist sentiments about African intelligence has trickled down to some populations on the continent?

Speaking of traditional governance – it was interesting to learn about different access rights depending on the tree species. For example, the fruits of shea trees, irrespective of where they’re grown are available to anyone. All women have equal access to harvesting and processing them into butter. Therefore, women wake up at the crack of dawn to collect the best fruits, to outcompete all other women in the community. However, women have rights to ALB’s fruits based on property. Therefore, women casually collect those fruits after working in the garden, often midday. These “rules” are not created by the government, yet they’re understood and respected by all within the community. It’s amazing and a wonder how this form of traditional governance came out. This is an example of social practices that are intertwined with ecological preservation. On a deeper note, ALB access rights, usages, and understandings are vastly different depending on the country and ethnic group. This tree, as with many in West African countries, wears many hats, has different understandings and values. In some countries ALB trees are owned by a “tree chief”, who is typically unrelated to the village chief. He has the rights to all the ALB trees regardless of whose property they’re grown on.

It was clear from my research and time in Coulibalybougou, that the term “subsistence farmers” seems ill-suited to describe their lifestyles. The village wouldn’t have a pulse without the forest, their lives and incomes are not at all just their agricultural crops. One man I interviewed does no farming, rather he ventures into the forest to collect medicines that he sells to earn his living. There are always medicine sellers coming by with bags of powders or leaves that help “problems” such as infants teeth growing too slowly. The leaves and grasses from the forest feed livestock that then feeds the community. Lastly, two of women’s main activities making shea butter and soumbala couldn’t be possible without the forest.

Building off of these women’s activities, one aspect that this research made clear is that rural West African women are not simplistically the beasts of burden, robotically serving their husbands and families without any agency. No, it was clear to me, more so than ever, that many women are very entrepreneurial and making financial decisions and calculations all the time. Many receive little money from their husbands and thus experience relative financial autonomy. Given the time commitments for making shea butter (often women have to constantly keep a fire going in a brick oven for several days), and ALB (the processing is 1 week), women are juggling so many projects and work at all times. I think the way they’re multi-tasking is astounding. I never know what’s boiling in that cauldron by the kitchen, or what fruits are in that basket she’s carrying or what inter-marriage or kinship social dynamic they’re navigating while supervising schools of children. I’m not saying that men aren’t calculating at all, but often they’re given that understanding more readily than women who are frequently naively painted in a way that underserves their strengths.

Lastly, I’m going to end a way-too-long post about a tree you likely don’t care about, with questions I’ve been reflecting on since returning home on research. I can’t help but wonder, what is impact of researchers who often research in times/places of stability and peace (not that I’m insinuating they should be risking their lives, at all)? How does this influence policy recommendations? How transferable is this knowledge to other times (even within the same nation)? How does/should this change our understanding of the “environment” – given people’s behavioral changes during times of crisis? What impact, if at all, does the dearth of research coming out of Mali today, similar to other unstable countries, further isolate these countries more from the rest of the world in the future? When will Mali be a place, that we in the West, actively choose to learn from? When will Mali have the peace and stability it so rightly deserves?

Thanks for reading. Talk to you guys soon.

I write my first blog post, in almost a year, from my friend’s living room in Bamako, Mali. I arrived in country late last night after a day of traveling, and it’s the first time I’m back in Mali since being evacuated from the Peace Corps in late 2015.

I’m here however, in West Africa, for the first time as a non-Peace Corps Volunteer (excluding my semester abroad in central Africa), but now as a graduate student doing summer research. I’m here, not only with a new agenda (researching the tree species African Locust Bean –more to come on this another time), but also as a different person than I was when I first moved to West Africa in 2012. I’m now less than a year away from turning 30, engaged, and I’ve come equipped with refined understandings of the world due to graduate school, among other influences. That said, I still come with the name Ousmane Traore, and will be spending the bulk of my time in Coulibalybougou (the village I was placed in during my Peace Corps service), surrounded by the people who made my experience in this country so memorable.

The journey here seemed in no way abnormal. I was seated next to a middle-aged Nigerian man from Lagos who spent most of the journey hitting on the teenage girls in the row behind us. When he wasn’t diverting his energy on them, he was trying to convince me that I should do my research in Nigeria, rather than Mali (Ebola is in Mali, he assured me – showing me that rumors and misunderstandings still persist within the continent). The younger man in the seat in front of me was continually taking selfies, presumably already on Facebook by now.

Yet, as I stepped off the plane in Bamako, I became flooded with emotions that had not hit me earlier. There, on the tarmac around me, were UN planes and vehicles, a reminder that the political instability, of which precipitated the closing of Peace Corps Mali, is not over. My first flight to Togo was filled with children, women and families, nearly all Africans, that were flying onwards within the continent. Yet, those that continued with me on my flight to Mali were all men, mostly in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. The energy of crying babies and hustling families that was so palpable on the first flight, felt in serious juxtaposition to the solemnity of these wordless men. In some ways, the silent crowd and the icons of an ongoing war, seemed to match the gloomy weather – dust and wind swirled around us, followed by a light showering (rainy season has begun). Not that Bamako or the airport were ever places that defined my experience in Mali, yet my initial feeling back wasn’t one of a warm familiarity.

As I waited for Ben to pick me up from the airport, I had friendly banter with those congregating around the entrance of the airport, desperately hoping to sell phone credit or give me a ride into the city. Some thought I was the Peace Corps Volunteer who was in a famous movie, but the majority politely accepted my presence there without any aggressive behavior. Through discussions and joking in Bambara, it was a nice reminder that not all is unfamiliar, and in many ways, this is still the place I know filled with life.

I will spend today in Bamako, before resuming onto Coulibalybougou tomorrow morning, where I excitedly await to be reunited with that community and begin what I came here for.

As of last week, my years in the Peace Corps have come to a close (2012-2016: cumulatively 3 years and 2 months). And it was a wild ride – here I’ll re-cap:

At the end of September of 2012 I flew to Senegal to serve as a Peace Corps agroforestry volunteer for 2 years. I was placed in the village Madialy (population 500) roughly 9 hours from the capital and located in the Tambacounda region. Hot season temperatures roasted up to 120 degrees and thunderous rainstorms during rainy season kept us whimpering in our grass-hatched huts. I inherited a Senegalese name (Ousmane Traore) and lived with a family of 25 (two middle-aged brothers with their 6 wives total, mother and children). I routinely ate millet, sorghum and rice on peanut and leaf sauces out of the same bowl with 6-8 men and boys. I worked with 40 farmers doing any and everything tree related: orchard management, fruit tree propagation, grafting, live fences and firebreaks. I did all of the above solely in the language Bambara (with a significant linguistic influence from a local dialect Jaxanke).

Senegal is sitting at the forefront of climate change. The country is experiencing an unnaturally high increase in temperatures, urban flooding, and perhaps most dangerously desertification threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers. Consequently, Madialy is a community largely absent of men in their 20s and 30s, the majority have ventured off illegally into France and Spain taking dangerous (and sometimes fatal) week-long journeys on the open ocean or overland through the Sahara Desert. Many families have lost sons, fathers, and brothers on these journeys. Even though Madialy sits in the central part of the country with relatively adequate rainfall and fertile soil, agricultural limitations still persist catalyzing these migrations. It’s these stresses that push farmers to move internationally. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, for those fortunate ones there’s a high financial return injected into the local economy. It’s this money that not only sends your parents to Mecca or spent building decadent houses but also is invested into Senegal, arguably raising the standard of living (in addition to donning vast amounts of social prestige).

The community though steadfastly dedicated to Islam and local traditions has found ways to “modernize” without jeopardizing their faith, culture and values. Village chiefs are elected rather than passed on within families, women can and do divorce unhappy marriages, increasingly sons and daughters are becoming educated, and female circumcision is diminishing. Throughout I achieved a high level of spoken Bambara. Though Bambara is small minority in Senegal it’s the lingua franca of neighboring country Mali so I concluded my service feeling like I was living just outside of the “Bambara homeland”.

Consequently, I spent the following 10 months in Mali as a Peace Corps Response agribusiness volunteer. I wanted to understand agriculture from a business perspective. Great, farmers like the ones I worked with in Senegal plant trees, but what next? How are they able to profit from this? Not only that, but Mali was just opening to the Peace Corps after being suspended due to political insecurity; so I latched onto the opportunity.

The village I spent the majority of my service, Coulibalybougou, is in a pocket of West Africa with among the highest early marriage rate, highest fertility rate, highest child mortality rate, and lowest literacy rate in the world (I lived with an amazing yet massive family of 60-70 people). Regardless of their traditional lifestyle these guys know how to work the land. The village was located in the breadbasket of Mali producing much of the agricultural production for the country. Ironically, despite their agricultural output, the malnutrition rate was stark yet many of these families prioritized motorcycles, solar panels even televisions. Though Coulibalybougou is in the southern region of the country (Sikasso region) somewhat safely distanced from terrorism plaguing the north – I was in country the day we were evacuated and the post closed due to rising threats against foreigners.

My working experience proved more frustrating than in Senegal. The mango-drying business I was paired with had lost it’s customers and buyers after the coup d’état because this business no longer wanted to source their mangos from a less stable country. This is just one example of many of the setbacks that can ripple down within a nation after any kind of national crisis be it political, social, or health (big loss in investors, business opportunity, NGO presence and more).

While in Mali I also got a much more intimate understanding of the international development world. Though there were projects successfully reaching their targets I also witnessed firsthand the corruption, paternalism and reductionism fused with development both perpetrated by foreigners and host country nationals.

It was clearly devastating to be in country for evacuation – but it also afforded me a new opportunity. With a little more time in my schedule before starting graduate school I was able to squeeze in 4 months as a Peace Corps Response literacy specialist in Sierra Leone. I taught in a rural middle school in the subject of language arts in Bandawor (found in the eastern region of the country: Kenema district). The nation was recovering from the Ebola crisis and we were the first Peace Corps on the ground after the evacuation a year and a half earlier. So I departed from an evacuated country and then shortly after opened a formerly evacuated post. The country was still deeply wounded by the crisis and it was evident even within the school system. I was challenged working with very limited resources, with serious health issues plaguing the community, and crippling poverty that took some students away from and out of school.

The area I lived in was a tropical rainforest with rubber, palm, coconut, banana, mango, avocado, coco, cacao trees and many more. Rains were long and heavy and yet despite excellent soil and long rains the community was food insecure much more seriously than my Senegalese and Malian communities. When they ate it was always rice (usually with fish) often cooked in a nutritious leaf sauce – but it was never quite enough to feed everyone. It’s also a country with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world due to the infectious diseases associated with tropical climates. The low life expectancy is also the product and legacy of a traumatizing decade long bloody civil war. It left broken families and is seared into the memories of people in Bandawor who occasionally would slip out horror stories and debilitating memories to me.

Though Senegal and Sierra Leone face many challenges, after serving in these three countries it’s Mali that I leave here most worried about. In most ways Mali’s future seems the least stable. Though each nation is facing serious environmental threats it’s Mali that on top of that seems the most socially stalled, religiously locked and politically pessimistic. Sierra Leone though abused by international presences extracting huge sums of wealth from minerals and resources that should be working their way down into the economy does not have serious ethnic strife or terrorist activity. It is a nation embracing education and gender equality. Senegal has a strong enough economy to provide the nation with relatively decent health care and education systems. Mali’s future is the most worrisome with an Al Qaeda presence in the north, over reliance on traditional medicine/beliefs, and severed from the global economy physically due to being landlocked.

I would never lie that each moment in West Africa was a blissful paradise. Volunteers see and experience a lot. Three very close friends of mine, men in their 30s, put children into the ground while I was there. I met women who have outlived up to 10 of her own children. I saw early marriages and girls with bright potential forced against their desires into motherhood (in each country I served in there was a 15-year-old I connected with that birthed a child). I saw serious ill health, conditions and diseases that have stumped Western doctors when I try to get a diagnosis. I saw houses collapse, fires consume fields, relentless stress and anxiety. I saw sexism and oppression bringing women to their breaking points (and was even present for some wrenching scenes of screams and confrontations). And I heard stories – horrifying ones from wars.

Yet, juxtaposed to that darkness I saw light. I know a woman from a neighboring village in Senegal born with a partially deformed-foot struggle against odds to rummage the cash to send all her sons and daughters to school. My friend Madu Sylla from Mali, though the son of a religious imam, challenged me to look at and understand Islam in a new and positive light. My counterpart in Sierra Leone negotiates with parents to allow their daughters go on birth control so as not to jeopardize their academic futures. I met heroes and fighters in each community working towards a better tomorrow. People showed me the untapped potential of indigenous knowledge, the value and commitment to community and family, and how really similar we people are despite seemingly superficial differences. It’s these people, these places that have refined who I am. It’s these experiences that have greatly formed me into a far better, and more knowledgeable and confident person. It’s these years that have sculpted my next steps as I pursue a joint-master’s degree in environmental management and African studies at Yale. As I momentarily leave West Africa I know I cannot nor ever will fully shed that life, that world, those people behind. But now it’s time for me to be here.

The school year is over. In some ways it feels like it never really started given all the delays and cancellations; there wasn’t much momentum. About half of my 7th graders passed the class, yet despite that, the majority will go onto the next grade. The 8th graders are furiously studying for their national exam, a prerequisite for high school, which will be held at the end of July after I’ve left. I don’t have any regrets and overall I feel good about the use of my little time here. Frankly I feel confident I didn’t do anything negative in the classroom. Yet I still feel a hollowness, not for or about me but rather for and about the students and the school system. These students have so many cards stacked against them. They don’t know their rights, or what kind of quality education they don’t have access to. It’s hard to not feel for them and for their situation. I wonder how many will graduate from high school? Despite all that, rather than respond with helplessness, certain students, teachers and residents show courage, determination and resilience in moving forward. It’s this momentum that I’m riding as I leave Bandawor and leave the classroom. Many of these students will face future hardships, no doubt. Yet some, maybe just a few, will hit enough strokes of luck mixed with their competence and perseverance and will be leaders wherever they end up.

We 10 PCVs decided to have one last hurrah before leaving the country. Together we ventured to a river island a few hours south of Bandawor. Tiwai means big island in Mende and though it’s just 12 square kilometers its biodiversity is astounding. The island is swarming with leaping and screeching monkeys as it has 11 different primate species (including two troops of chimpanzees with up to 50 per troop), it harbors the endangered pygmy hippo, it’s a world-renowned site for butterfly watching and it possesses natural beauty with roughly 700 plant species. The island was seriously damaged during the Civil War when armed rebels ate their way through much of the living organisms. Since then the government has turned it into a protected center of research and ecotourism. It’s 8 hours from the capital with a bit of “off-roading” so it doesn’t rope in vast numbers of tourists (Ebola has also dwindled tourism). Additionally, West Africa never draws the same safari crowds as east and southern Africa so this beautiful gem on a tranquil river doesn’t seriously compete with other pockets of the continent. That said, it was amazing. We spent the days wandering into the heart of the island, taking boat tours and hanging out. I learned that one of the best ways of tracking down monkeys is through their unique smells (I can recognize alarm calls because of all the times I was detected). I also discovered that pygmy hippos are little known by even regional residents of Sierra Leone. I brought with me two guests from Bandawor. I loved seeing their faces as they experienced alongside us all that Tiwai had to offer.

Though I have not succeeded in seeing any chimpanzees (to my disappointment) their legendary presence has been a part of my service. To begin, I learned about the chimpanzees on Tiwai Island in an anthropology class at Brandeis (it was there that researchers in the 80s first saw chimpanzees using tools)! Everyone I meet has a different story about chimpanzees, many of which are questionably accurate. One old man told me during his childhood his mother was walking in the forest with a baby strapped to her back when a chimpanzee leapt down, snatched the child and eventually murdered him. Supposedly the village went on a massive chimpanzee hunt. Another man told me he’s seen chimpanzees fishing on a river bank – building stone walls, muddying water and through coordinated efforts scooping up and evenly dividing the fish (while throwing the portion that couldn’t be divided equally back into the river). I once wrote about the chimpanzee that was presumed to come into Bandawor to stalk and lunge at solitary women. I’ve heard several tales of chimpanzees causing havoc on fruit plantations and the inventive ways that farmers have succeeded in ridding them (including one supposed elaborate baby chimpanzee kidnapping story). It’s difficult to know what is and what isn’t true, but what I can say with certainly is they’re around and their presence has made a big splash among inhabitants of eastern Sierra Leone.

There’s a village I visited once early in my service that’s about a 6-7 mile walk from Bandawor. It’s not special, maybe 6 mud huts with thatched roofs perched on top of a hill overlooking rice fields, streams and jungle. The last couple miles are through dense forest and I yearned to go back once more just to relive the scene. My counterpart John insisted I take his 17-year-old son Al Haji and I agreed. It was a funny scene. Me wearing a stretched out t-shirt I’ve owned for over a decade, muddied pants and boots ready for the plunge into the wilderness. Al Haji on the other hand was wearing stylish clothing, was dusted in a light layer of cologne and had a comb purposefully wedged into his short hair (looking like what people call a “bluff man”). Here I was, coming from America, “the idolized and developed world”, yet drawn and attracted to exactly what Al Haji was trying to shed from his identity: the “uncivilized bush”. Here I was, though a newcomer to Bandawor, somehow taking Al Haji, a native, to a village and part of the forest he’d never been. In some ways yes, he was “watching over me” but it was I who was leading the way. We trudged along, at times removing our shoes as the path turned into knee-deep water (even a few times he carried me on his back over narrow streams). I would stop us to watch colonies of marching ants, look at animal footprints in the mud or attempt to identify flying monkeys by their scents. And when we finally arrived in this seemingly unimpressive village Al Haji was glowing. He took pictures of the mosque, exclaimed he’d never seen this area before and even made plans to take me another day to a village he could show me. The experience was not only bonding, but really I loved allowing him to look through his own world with fresh eyes and find a way to re-connect with it.

I also went on a day-trip excursion to the second largest city in Sierra Leone, Bo last week. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Bandawor yet many residents have never been. I took with me 3 residents (for their first journey to Bo) alongside a few PCVs just to explore and see the “city sights” (this included: touring the regional hospital, the campus of two high schools and finding a caged and depressed over-sized Nile crocodile). Though the city only seemed to be a more crowded, larger version of Kenema my Sierra Leone guests were infatuated. They kept talking about how “beautiful” a city it was, usually in reference to the better and more extensive paved roads network. To me I couldn’t quite find the charm.

Sometimes as PCVs we find ourselves with rather unusual roles given the circumstances. Recently, a friend who I’ll call Sheku approached me and told me he needed my help; he’s having serious martial troubles. His agitated wife Ami has been having an affair and is threatening to leave him. She’s lonely, Sheku adds. Her life was jumbled a lot after the Civil War when rebels took many lives of intimate family members. Consequently, she moved to Bandawor and doesn’t get to see her family as much as before the war. Sheku asked me to do what is typical in West Africa for solving disputes/issues but something rather foreign to Westerners. He wanted me to call them both to my house to facilitate and moderate a session with them. Hear their stories and then give each advice, almost as a marriage counselor. Though intimidated by this daunting task, I agreed. Though I feared the session would be invasive it was anything but that, they were comfortable sharing with me their feelings. It was however, confusing, bizarre and took a bit of analyzing on my part later. That said, by the end I had done just what I was asked, heard their perspectives and doled out solicited advice.
Towards the ends of my services in Senegal, Mali and now Sierra Leone I have been drawn to the same curiosity: how has this community changed in the last 50 years? So I went to the village elders to hear from them directly. In Bandawor I’ve gotten some wonderful tales and clarifications. What has come up rather quickly is the role of British colonialism. One old man he recalls seeing “Whites” carried into Bandawor on a hammock! Another told me about the British recruiting citizens of the village to fight in WWII against the Germans! I heard about the police working under the British that were overly aggressive and violent against citizens in Bandawor. They were allegedly trying to make a railway go through Bandawor and conscripted villagers to clear the pathways (no train ever came through here). The village has even had zinc roofs (just a few) from a long time ago made possible by the British. I found the role of the British interesting because under the French I never heard Malians or Senegalese have much interaction with their colonizers (though it is not a fair comparison because the town Blama only 9 miles from Bandawor had a big British presence as seen by the many crumbling buildings and remains). I also learned about lifestyle changes between then and now. For one, depending on the wealth and status of men some were allegedly having 10 or 20 wives many decades back! I learned that food insecurity here has been present for a long time and despite excess bush meat there was still chronic hunger. I found this interesting because people have claimed on countless occasions that they are unable to feed themselves properly because so many students are in school – though given this earlier period of time when there were very few in school the population still struggled to feed itself.

Though I admire Bandawor for demonstrating some progressive norms I see them at times actually causing additional issues and setbacks for the community. In Mali I would see much younger children working the fields than I do in Bandawor. Women also do a lot less rigorous and time-consuming farming/gardening here. This is wonderful, right? Except for the fact that by lessening child labor and women’s responsibilities there’s less food to eat? Additionally, in my Senegalese and Malian villages when a woman lost her husband she was usually married off to his brother. She wouldn’t have to move homes, or risk the embarrassment of having children with different last names. Yet here, when women aren’t “passed around” between brothers many are left to fend for themselves. There are a lot of single-mothers here really struggling to make ends meet in a way that I never saw in my Senegalese/Malian villages because there were always massive families that could absorb the losses. When my host mother in Senegal broke her arm other women in the family took on greater cooking and cleaning responsibilities in her absence. If that happened here in Bandawor – it would be really difficult for the family to find an adequate solution. Alternatively, I find these problems also contributed by the social strive for independence much more striking than in my Senegalese/Malian communities. Within polygamous families in Bandawor each wife will cook her own food daily. Why not take turns? I asked. When they take turns like I’ve seen prior it opens up more time for women to do other activities (some of which make money). They would quarrel too much, was one answer I got. Or each wife has her own preferences, was another. Why don’t brothers live together once they’ve married? I asked. They would quarrel too much, was the only answer I got. Several students in essays in class wrote about the social disharmony within the nation and within the community/family as hindrances to development. Though this may be an overly simplistic analysis I also sometimes find families here to be less mutually dependent and supportive of one another sometimes at their own expense.

I’ve written in the past about the currency here (the leone). The largest bill is 10,000 leones (less than 2 USD). The other day I went to the bank to take out 4 million leones (and since I got a mix of 5,000 and 10,000 bills I left with about 500 bills!). However, Sierra Leone is the only country in the world with this very fragile currency subject to big changes in the international economy. When I arrived it was roughly 5,000 leones to 1 USD. It’s now 6,000 leones to 1 USD (which might not seem like a big difference but in a country this poor it is significant). It’s hard to know when merchants lie to you about fluctuating world prices or simply just trying to take a bigger dent out of your wallet. Coming from Senegal and Mali that share a currency with many other francophone West African countries I never appreciated the financial security of their currency until I came here.

Soccer is big in Sierra Leone, just like many countries around the world. Yet it controls my life here in Bandawor more than in Mali and Senegal. It’s the soccer games that dictate when generators will be turned on – thus when I can charge my devices. You pay a small fee and hoot/holler in an overcrowded, overheated room in “downtown Bandawor”. I was only present for watching one game and despite that they put the fan directly on my face I decided it still wasn’t worth it for me to return other than for charging purposes. I participated in a student versus teacher soccer game a month back and my one header gave me enough street cred that I have rode on for the rest of my service.

Observations:
1. People are not afraid of crossing “touching” boundaries that we try to adhere to in the States. For example I once had a bunch of splinters in my legs after climbing onto the roof of a hut and found 2 full grown strangers plucking away at the frond shards in my legs. Additionally, it’s not a surprise to me when students or other individuals slap at my leg to squash a black fly or mosquito hungrily drinking my blood.