So as I’m sitting in an Internet Cafe in Accra, about 48 hours away from Round 2 of this crazy PC adventure, I can’t help but make some interesting cross-cultural observations. Honestly, I heard a while back that PC Mali was rated the “#1 Hardship Post” of any PC country–i.e. Mali PCVs experienced greater physical hardships (amenities, physical chores, health, sanitation…) than any other PCVs…but the severity of Malian poverty didn’t hit me until arriving in Ghana. I swear, I feel like I’m in the First World. Granted, Accra is often cited as the most developed city in Western Africa, but over the past few days I’ve been able to travel to other places within Ghana, and even the small “brousse” towns put the bigger Malian cities to shame. When I was in Hohoe, a small town in the Volta region, I quickly noticed that it was far more luxurious than Kita. I’m honestly going through a weird, reverse culture shock. How can a country so close to Mali be, quite literally, many generations ahead of it?
Though I have yet to see a town without electrical towers (though, yes, I’m aware plenty still exist in Ghana!), I think the first stark and startling contrast I noticed was when I was leaving a public restroom. No, not that there were multiple flush toilets with toilet paper, and not little holes in the ground with a salidaga, but that the bathroom attendant chided me for not asking her for soap to wash my hands afterward. (For the record, I didn’t see she was holding a bottle of soap–and if you’re in PCMali, you’re used to carrying around your own little bar in your backpack everywhere you go. I wasn’t NOT going to wash my hands.) Seeing as how the smallest behavioral changes are the aim of Mali PCVs (ex: hand-washing, sleeping under mosquito nets, balanced nutrition, trying to create a more open atmosphere for discussions on sensitive topics, such as pre-natal care and birth control), this seriously took me by surprise….after my experiences, I’m having a hard time imagining being in a country that doesn’t need its volunteers to work from the ground up. I know Ghanaian and Malian cultures are very different (as a result of religion, language, political systems, and colonial powers), but I’d never fully understood that the mindset of a place heavily impacts its development.
I’m still extremely sad about leaving Mali– I’d made many friends at site and within the PC Mali family. It’s also not the aesthetics of a place that make it beautiful. My past few days in Ghana have shown me some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen, but my time and friendships in Mali reiterate that the people can be even more amazing. Malians are extremely warm, hospitable, and generous–they regularly help and give to others when they have nearly nothing themselves. There’s a reason Malians are often known as the kindest people in Africa, and my experiences in Accra (haggling/harassment at market; non-sincere greetings; eye rolls whenever we ask for help) have really highlighted that. I wish I could’ve stayed in Mali to help in a larger, more meaningful way. My time there was definitely short-changed. When I left Behon the final time, most of the wells (especially in the women’s garden) had dried up. Food (especially vegetables) was getting scarce, and “hungry season” doesn’t usually start until June. Right now, most of my villagers are eating only rice and peanuts–maybe some corn, if any is left over from last season.
I have no idea what to expect from Senegal. I’m also not entirely sure why I was reassigned there; I don’t speak French (and, unlike most Malians, many Senegalese do), and the main language is Wolof. (Although, a few places in the far eastern part of the country speak Malinke, and on the whole, Senegalese and Malian cultures are very similar.) I have a feeling that people in various PC offices all over the globe just thought, “well, they survived Mali; they’ll be fine in [any other country's name here].” And honestly, I concur. I even have hopes that this time around will be easier; I know what to expect.
Though Mali PCVs definitely “Found Love in a Hopeless Place” (Rihanna’s song became the de facto evac anthem), I’m Dakar-bound in 2 days– ni Alla sonna (God-willing)! And if you learn anything in Mali, it’s how to give a blessing: Alla ka here son, Alla ka Mali deme, Alla k’an nogoya tuguni. (May God grant peace, may God help Mali, may God let us meet again.)