In Peace Corps we spend a lot of time learning about safety and security measures (16 hours to be exact) we review basic knowledge things like pick pocketing and purse protection, robbery, bribes, but we also spend time reviewing the safety and security in the case of evacuation. When we first get here it seems kind of silly to talk about getting evacuated, especially in Mali. When Peace Corps has been in Mali for 46 years, it is easy to think of Peace Corps as an institution. Malians know more about Peace Corps than most Americans do. Before we are moved into our villages Peace Corps finds out the best way to contact us, whether it be by cell phone, landline, radio, or, call a neighbor, and the fastest way to get to us. We review the fastest, safest and best way for us as volunteers to come together in one area, and who our points of contact are. As part of our required training we learn the three steps of emergency, 1) Stand fast: don’t leave, stay where you are and wait for further instruction. 2) Consolidation: come together in a safe place, that Peace Corps can reach you easily. 3) Evacuation: Peace Corps removes you from danger.
Over the past 21 months that we have spent in Mali, we have put this training to use very few times. The times we have had to do it all had to do with the Tureg Rebellion in the North of Mali, and the kidnappings they performed. Our safety was never a question. The Tureg Rebellion was so far away from where Peace Corps even lets us travel or work. Americans in general were never a target.
The last week of March I spent acting a paintin fool! Painting world maps, Africa Maps ,Mali maps, maps, maps, maps all over my village. When I wasn’t painting I was spending my time with Seydou, tying him to my back and yalaing the village. I had just run out of permanent markers after outlining each country and still needed to write the names of the countries on the map. I was planning on heading into Bougouni to get more markers, stop at the post office, get food at the market, and spend some time on the internet before coming back to village the next morning. I woke up early Thursday morning and jumped on my bike and made my way into Bougouni. My first stop was the bank atm, followed by making all my usual stops at the market and visiting all my favorite vendors, lastly I went to the post office to pick up my mail and I noticed that another volunteer had mail too, so I called her to see if she wanted me to get her mail too and that is when I learned that the there had been a Coup de tait in Mali. My fellow volunteer had just received a text from Peace Corps stating that the military had rushed the Presidential Palace and Mali government was now under military rule. We were advised to standfast and not travel from where we currently were. At this point there were five other volunteers and I stuck in Bougouni. We had little information, but did our best to look up the news online, speculate, and conjure up as many worst/ best case scenarios as possible. This went on for the remainder of Thursday and Friday, when we woke up to a text from Peace Corps stating that all volunteers in villages should travel to the nearest consolidation point and remain there until further notice. By Saturday evening the three room Bougouni house was full and overflowing with people, and emotions. By Sunday morning breakfast I am sure we had speculated every possible scenario we could possibly come up with as to what was going to happen next.
What really was happening was that ATT the previous president was choosing not to inform the Malians as to what was really happening with the Tureg Rebellion in the north. He had demanded the national television and radio stations NOT to report on what was happening. When the most recent troop of Malian soldiers were sent to the North, captured and killed, a few escaped and made their way back to Bamako and started a riot, protesting the presidents’ power, and ability to lead a nation. Elections for a new president were to take place on April 29th, but the military felt that no lead way would be made with the Turegs in the north even with a new president so they decided to take over and attempt to right all wrongs themselves. However, once in power, their poorly assembled plan started to fall apart so they placed curfews on the country, closed the banks, post offices, government offices and limited travel to the capital. The curfew was to be lifted on Tuesday morning.
I can’t really describe the how we got through those first four days of consolidation. We were on a crazy emotional roller-coaster, feeling sad and upset for not being able to explain to our villages what was happening and how it affected us, being tired, tired of each other and tired of so much being unknown. One can only guess and speculate for so long before it drives you crazy! Peace Corps was keeping in good contact, and giving us daily information. Our Country Director was staying positive and kept telling us that evacuation was not eminent, and that we should stay calm and plan to be heading back to village soon.
Once the military curfews were lifted we were still in consolidation and asked to wait two more days, then two more days after that. When the week mark came and went we were sure we were headed home. Then suddenly we all received messages that we were able to go back to our villages for a while as long as we had cell phone service and could keep in daily contact with Peace Corps. Thankful to receive such a good message I ran to the market and stalked up on all the best ingredients to have Tenna cook me my favorite Malian meal. Early the next morning (Tuesday April 3rd) I woke up to rain and thought this must be a sign I shouldn’t go back to village today but I really missed Tenna and Seydou and really needed to get out of the Bougouni House, So I waited until the rain had mostly stopped and jumped on my bike loaded down with food and biked back to Sakoro. Having been away from my house for more than a week I had a lot of cleaning to do which I started right after getting in touch with Peace Corps to tell them where I was. After my floor was mopped and sheets washed I was just about to leave to spend the rest of the day with Tenna when I got a phone call from another volunteer saying I needed to get back to Bougouni as soon as possible that Peace Corps was consolidating us, sending a car and taking us all to the training center in Bamako. I went into panic mode. I started running around my house grabbing things that can’t be replaced, or had some meaning to them, while making a pile for Tenna to take. Once satisfied with my rushed packing job I grabbed all the food I bought and ran to Tenna’s.
As soon as I saw Tenna I started crying, seeing me so upset knowing that I couldn’t be bringing good news, Tenna started crying too. I told her What was going on and that I needed to leave again and probably would not be back. Tenna went with me to see the Dugutiki, and other important people in my village to explain what was going on. In Mali it is culturally unacceptable to cry in public. Tenna walked me back to my house to get my house key and say our final goodbyes. We both looked each other in the eye saying don’t cry! don’t cry! while we were both crying our eyes out. I did a very American goodbye and wrapped my arms around Tenna and kissed her tear stained cheeks and thanked her for being my best friend. Tenna accepted my hug and kisses and offered me her left hand to shake- the most respectable way to say goodbye in Mali. I took her left hand in mine and shook, making the promise that I would return to correct this wrong someday.
I jumped back on my bike and pedaled my little heart out all the way back to Bougouni. Upon arrival I found out that Peace Crops had already picked up everyone in Bougouni and I had somehow missed the car in passing, but they were sending another car in the morning for me and two other volunteers who were unable to return to Bougouni that day. Left in the house all by myself I was finally able to give in to my broken heart, mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. I showered, scrubbing off the day’s dust and dirt of two bike rides, and a week’s worth of stress and emotional turmoil. Like much of the time spent in consolidation, the next few days were a blur. Upon arrival to the training center we were told that we would be soon be evacuating to a neighboring country for a four day transitional conference and then sent home.
Peace Corps was really pulling out all the stops for us, trying to comfort and provide everything they could for us. We were able to celebrate two Peace Corps weddings, and we worked hard to make the best out of our situation. On Easter Sunday we were flown out of Mali to Ghana on a chartered flight. We landed in Accra, quickly taken through customs and baggage and bused to an amazing five star, beach front resort to enjoy our four day conference. The conference was really great. We met with members of the Peace Corps Washington staff, and completed all paperwork needed, and reviewed the next steps and options each one of us had to continue or complete our service.
I had been planning to extend my service in Mali for another year, but really had no desire to extend my service in an all new country. Choosing to take the plane ticket from Peace Corps I called my Mama and told her I would be home soon
I closed my Peace Corps service on Friday April 13, 2012 and hopped on a plane from Accra, Ghana to Washington DC where I was met early in the morning with open arms by my wonderful family.
Even though my planned projects were not completed, and I did not get as much time as planned to enjoy my village and my Malian friends and family, I have come to terms with the situation, and am thankful for all that I was able to do, all the relationships I was able to create, and all the memories I will carry with me on to my next adventure.