Today marks the anniversary of learning we would be evacuated from Mali. I never wrote a post about it while it was happening because I was still processing the whole thing and between packing and flying home and seeing family and friends during the holidays before packing and shipping out again there wasn’t a huge amount of down time.
No matter the circumstances, evacuations are hard for everyone. You’ve envisioned yourself and spending 2 years in a country or in some cases you’ve already spent a year or more there and are ready to start implementing projects and then your time gets cut short.
It’s also hard on Peace Corps staff. Aside from Peace Corps sometimes being one of the few good jobs in the country, for some of these people Peace Corps is way more than a job. My program manager had had a Peace Corps volunteer in his village when he was growing up. He said this volunteer stressed the importance of education to his parents and today he and all his siblings have university degrees. When I wrote to him after learning that the program in Mali would be closed he said it was like when his mom was in the hospital and knowing that she was not going to return home.
When we got the news we were all together at the training center outside of Bamako. The day before getting the evacuation news, we had learned that we would no longer be receiving the new group of volunteers we expected in June 2016 because of security concerns. Less than a week before there had been a terrorist attack at a the Radisson hotel in Bamako where 20 hostages were killed.* I remember looking around at the 25 people I thought I’d be with for the next 2 years and thinking “WELL we’re either going to grow really close or we’re going to get to know each other too well and be sick of each other”. Probably both would have been true. You develop a sense of sibling love for the people you come in with. Regardless of the way you feel about them day to day you care about them. On Thanksgiving day we were called together again right before dinner. This time they said “We’re suspending the entire program”. There’s really no good time to hear that so any day or time is as good as any other.
The news hit me particularly hard because it came a few months after learning about the sudden death of one of my brother’s best friends. I’ve always been very close to my brother who is a year older and his close friends are like brothers to me. My good friends had changed from high school to college but my brother had had the same best friends since I was 13. They were constants- the people you know for sure will be at your wedding, etc. This event put me in a mindset where “ Anything can happen to anyone at anytime”. Which is true but it’s a scary thought. You feel constantly braced for bad news when you have more than 1 missed call from your mom. Together these events made me feel like I had very little control over my life.
When you’re in Peace Corps, you’re in a such a different setting and experiencing so many new things that you want to share with loved ones back home, that it’s easy to feel that everything is sortof on pause for you. At least you expect the big things to stay the same for the most part. But life in the States continues whether you’re there or not.
I already felt like I didn’t have a “typical experience” 3 months into my service with the news of my brother’s friend but I’ve realized that “atypical services” are not all that atypical. Things happen within a volunteer’s circle of family and friends that force a volunteer to go home unexpectedly or have to finish their service early. Within a country, there are political upheavals, public health threats, terrorist attacks, etc that can occur.
In my case we were very lucky that our group was so small. Peace Corps was able to give us transfer options to Benin, the Gambia, Comoros and Guinea. That’s not always the case. Volunteers evacuated from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in the summer of 2014 did not get that option because there was simply too many of them to be able to accommodate everyone.
Below is a Facebook post that I posted a few weeks after arriving in Guinea back in January:
“People have asked me if I would have chosen another country had I known that Mali would be evacuated 6 months in. My answer then and now is no. I felt INCREDIBLY lucky to have gotten to serve in Mali, even if it was only for 6 months. To have been welcomed into a community and given so much respect just for coming to the village was insane to me. At the beginning of our training I remember staff telling us that we had come to the best country in Africa, and while in the back of my head I knew every other volunteer in Africa was probably hearing the same thing, part of me was sure I had been placed in the friendliest country. It was a privilege to serve there.
While I’m super grateful to have gotten the chance to complete my Peace Corps service in Guinea, I can’t help but feel like I’m dealing with a breakup. I had really fallen in love with Mali and I feel as if I was made to break up with Mali and date Guinea. Now while Guinea and Mali may have their similarities, they are obviously not the same. There have been no blessings or bean jokes thus far, but Guinea definitely has its charm and I know I will enjoy my time here. It just feels strange to think that I may grow to love this country more than Mali. Part of me doesn’t want it to trump Mali. #confessionsofanevacuee “
I’ve stopped wondering whether Guinea is going to surpass Mali for me because I’ve realized that I’ve placed it on such a high pedestal that it would be almost impossible for any other country to come close. I don’t think one is objectively better than the other; its highly dependent on your experience in each country. There were people evacuated from Guinea who served in Mali afterwards and their first love was Guinea.
On the days when I’m missing Mali or home or just having a hard day as a privileged minority in West Africa (there are downsides) I have to remind myself to be thankful for this opportunity because I know I would have always felt like I missed out on something if it had been any other way.
And inshallah I will be able to visit a more secure Mali in the near future.
If you’re reading this and wondering why I’m so obsessed with Mali this past entry describes some aspects of Malian culture. Life in Mali Thus Far
*I cannot speak for my fellow volunteers but despite these incidents I honestly never felt unsafe in Mali. My experience there, however was limited to the Bamako and Sikasso region.