Ok. I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna sit here and type something out and we’ll see how close I can get to an accurate representation of the complete and utter environmental change I have endured over the past two weeks.
It’s difficult for me to paint the picture because every nuance of existence is different here. Meals are hands-only, consist of rice and sauce, and are shared from a common bowl. I take bucket baths with sunglasses on and never know if the rooster standing on the trash pile on the other side of the wall is going to jump over to my side of our divided space. 100% of life here is unfamiliar to me.
Perhaps one of the greatest realizations of being here is just how differently folks from other countries exist than those of us who hail from America. When we arrived in our authentic, real-life Malian villages for a full-submersion, 3-month-long training session, I was clutching my Peace Corps-issued toilet paper and mosquito net tightly as our van rolled to a stop in front of the Village Chief’s compound. I was quiet. This is going to be my new life for the next two years.
The 8 of us piled out of the van, becoming instant celebrities as the only white folk in the village. Malian children of all ages began emerging from every corner, and it wasn’t long before we had dozens of young, dark, curious eyes staring up at us.
The ceaseless curiosity of children has been a running theme here. During our walking tour of the village we managed to collect an entourage of maybe 50 kids, giving us 100 eyes attempting to process the scene we were desperately trying to avoid making. Some barefoot, some under the age of 5, and many sporting tattered American clothing.
Oh, while I’m thinking about it, women do carry baskets on their heads here. They can carry anything on their heads, actually. Laws of science don’t actually apply in Africa.
Back to our sites. The 8 of us here in Baguineda Village are all Water, Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) and Nutrition volunteers. We will eventually be trained on implementing clean water practices and malnutrition prevention, but right now we’re just trying to learn the local language as quickly as possible so we can actually begin to converse with our host families.
My general attitude rides a violently swaying pendulum every day. Sometimes I’m happy and feeling like this will be a wonderful adventure. But often I’m of the thought that living here will be really, really tough, especially because every thing I do contrasts so starkly to American life.
For those who have not yet heard the egg story, it went like this:
My family eats white rice for breakfast every day. As the special guest, I get the better breakfast, which is a giant hunk of white bread.
On one occasion I observed my host sister pull out three eggs, and I was delighted they had evidently found the money to serve up eggs for breakfast that morning (for the record, my sister is a 14-year-old superhero who runs that compound and has a better work ethic than anyone I know but is totally typical for a Malian woman). She cooked up two of the eggs and presented them to me, alongside my usual hunk of bread. She then cooked the third egg along with the usual rice and served the egg to the 3-year-old.
It wasn’t until I finished my first egg that I realized whatever remained of the 3-year-old’s egg after he was finished picking through it was going to be split between the other 5 members of the family, supplementing their white rice.
Of the three eggs they had found the money to purchase and cook, I was the only one who was going to genuinely benefit from it.
I promptly announced that I was full, thanked them for the meal, and gave my second egg and remainder of my bread back to the family for them to finish it up. In Mali it is common for a person to offer what’s left of their meal back to the family. It will always get eaten. There is no room for waste.
I wanted to share the Egg Story with you not to make you feel terrible for eating 3 greasy eggs with your bacon and toast every time you go to Waffle House, but because I wanted to let you know that there are some ways of existing that are not universal. I read a lot of cheesy blogs about international travel explaining that humans have more in common than we think, listing things like “smiles” and “a need to be loved” as our commonalities.
But what those blogs don’t say is that there are also incredibly different ways of living.
It is so difficult to imagine that the American way of living isn’t the only way of living. Why don’t we realize that such things like running water, electricity, break rooms or parking spaces are things that we don’t inherently need, and might not even be normal for so many others?
Please don’t take away from this that I want you to be thankful for such luxuries as forks or toilets. My story to tell is that those things aren’t everywhere, and that those without them seem to do just fine. My host family is healthy and happy. Our call to action is not to bring forks or even shoes to Mali. It’s to start investing our time in learning about other peoples, and maybe to realize that we don’t need as much as we think we need.
But I would be a liar if I said I wouldn’t kill for a good ole, familiar, flushable, toilet to use whenever nature calls.