Tuesday, March 12, 2013


One of the things I got from living in a mud hut for 10 months was a sense of gratitude. For what, you ask? Well, a few things. For shelter, clothing, enough to eat, medicine, people that care, a few good books. For what else really is there?

Home sweet home!

It's like the proverb "One who has never tasted a lemon does not know how sweet sugar is."

Even before Peace Corps, living simply and frugally has always felt right to me. Maybe it's personal or how I was raised but buying things to feel good has never struck right with my soul.

Practicing having gratitude is something I try to be mindful to work at. Reading about the international news is one way I accomplish this. It seems we have to be reminded how good we have it. I don't get my water from a well or live in a tent as a refugee!

NOT how I get my water!

Sometimes I get the sense people pity me for living where I do (Auburn) and doing what I do (full time, low (almost no!) pay volunteer work with Americorps). And yet I feel lucky to have a decent place to go home to and to do work that I enjoy and enough (just barely!) to stay afloat. People seem to think I couldn't be happy with this situation, and yet strangely enough, I am!

I mean, I don't want to be a youth worker for the duration, for these kids are kinda wearing me out. And living closer to Seattle would be nice. But I think what I'm doing is right for right now. There are worse places I could be.

I still come home everyday from work, lie on my bed for a few restful minutes, then pick up my Ipod, get up and DANCE!

What's he doing...

So it goes! Be thankful folks!

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Lately as I think about career possibilities I am torn between two different lives: the life of Action, Success, and Achievement versus the life of Simplicity, Frugality, and Peace.

The First Life

For the first life I imagine myself working in international politics as a diplomat or for an NGO like the International Committee of the Red Cross. Work would be done in faraway places to resolve issues of peace and conflict.

I would get pleasure from helping people and nations and from the admiration of others for my tireless efforts.

The Second Life

The second life has a less clear work aspect but the other parts of it are clearer. They are: living simply, frugally, peacefully. Writing and music and stillness. Being active and healthy and spending time away from cities in wilderness. Dancing whenever possible. And even having a family.

But I ask myself, what kind of job would support and give meaning to this way of life? What is the quiet and calm job that could sustain myself and others?

A librarian?

A counselor?

A forest ranger? (Something I once wanted to be when I was a child).

And if I choose not to identify myself by my work doesn't this free up my choices considerably?

Choices, Dreams

Sometimes I want to give up having to choose a path due to the overwhelming number of choices. And yet I feel strongly that everyone is responsible for their own life. All life, really.

Forgive me these dreams if they sound quixotic or outlandish; but know that they are close to me. And even if they are never realized they give a sort of sweetness for the daily grind.

May you find own dreams and desires, especially the ones you never knew you had; these two are some of mine.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


One worry that persists in me despite my varied attempts to quell it is appearing successful in the eyes of others.

Part of my motivation for doing Peace Corps was to be admired for my noble choice and dedication. Shameless? Would-be humanitarians, like everybody else, have a need for attention and acceptance.

I remember when I received my acceptance letter from Peace Corps to go to Niger. I was so overjoyed, telling everyone I met! To some I must have appeared quite a lunatic. "You're EXCITED to leave the greatest country in the world for TWO YEARS to work for FREE in one of the hottest, poorest countries in the whole WORLD?" a few of them must have thought. "What the heck is wrong with you?!" Most were polite enough not to verbalize such thoughts and by so doing rain on my parade (I really don't have that many, parades that is).

A few people questioned my choice to go to a foreign country to help people when people are suffering right here in the US of A. This was a new perspective for me and I never knew quite how to adequately reply, and I still do not. Ready for a sweeping generalization? The conditions of impoverished Africans are much more pressing than those of impoverished Americans. Logically, aid would seem to be most merited by those most in need. Thus I went where I did!

Now I work with some American Poor through Americorps and I still get the sense people think I'm crazy for doing what I'm doing! "It's nice to help those less fortunate, but it's certainly not the most important thing."

Money, power, fame- these have evaded me, or I them.

What should I do to be a successful American? And does it matter if I am?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Afloat, Adrift, Content

It's been a little while since the last update. I think my life has gotten less exciting and blog-worthy since leaving the African continent. Many memories from Niger and Mali are in my head, some of which may form future blog posts, but those pieces float and dance in this mind, wispy elusive fairies, as yet uncaptured. I decided to update what I'm doing these post-Peace Corps days, where my head and heart are at, and where I'm headed. Won't be too long an entry, promise.

So after getting back to the U.S. I shortly dove head first into the job market. I had heard Peace Corps volunteers have a high employability, possibly from being adventuresome and self-assured and passionate. Well, many of my fellow PC friends have obtained respectable employment, so I guess it's probably true. As for me, I wasn't getting too many leads or calls back. I did however get a job offer to teach English in China, which I declined. As the days passed and my despair grew I decided to return to an old possibility I had once considered: Americorps. Like Peace Corps, but in America! And so I applied.

And I got the interview, and saw the place, and was offered the job, and I ACCEPTED! Technically it's not a "job" but  full-time volunteer work with some benefits including a small amount of money to keep this boat afloat. I am working as a "Youth Tutor" at a Seattle non-profit organization called "Neighborhood House." The possibility of one day working at a non-profit interests me so I am happy for the opportunity to volunteer for one. And I hope I can help some of the low-income kids at the public housing project where I will be located. I've done some social work in Africa and I am now doing some in America, which will be a different but hopefully also rewarding (spiritually, not monetarily!) endeavor. I will keep you posted.

So again I find myself trying to do good, not getting paid much for it, and wondering where this path is leading me. Sometimes I feel bad or guility for not making bathtubs full of dollars but I think that's just my culture's pounded-in message conflicting with my own values. Right now I am fine with living cheaply, doing something interesting and meaningful, "building the soul" (in a metaphorical sense, my more literal-minded readers!). Feel free to judge me or criticize me for my actions or beliefs and believe me I often scrutinize endleslly my own decisions and actions. We all wear our blinders, no? Having all the Answers is not something I claim; instead I try to be a cheerful and open wanderer, engaged and engaging. "Mind forg'd manacles" are what scare me the most!

Friends in Western Washington, we should hang out! "Hanging Out" for me these days often means "Staying In," doing the following: watching movies, cooking something, playing board games (new favorite: Dominion!), listening to great music (new favorite: LTJ Bukem!), watching movies, conversing, hiking. Not super glamorous or excting to some, perhaps, but enough for me! And isn't it who you spend time with that counts, not what you're doing? Heck, most of my time in my village in Mali was spent sitting with people and talking and drinking tea and I loved that!

And I am still dancing nearly everyday.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Moussa Dembele and his Four Wives

Every Peace Corps Volunteer has a "transportation horror story," or indeed, several. "Horror" may be too strong a word, for these incidents are rarely (though occasionally) wounding or fatal. They certainly are frustrating! Due to how things are in the developing world,  cars and engines are old, hardly running. They break down and no one comes to fix them. And Peace Corps volunteers mostly use public transportation, suffering these breakdowns. These incidents are frustrating. They test your patience like nothing else. In my time in Africa I was lucky to only experience one of these episodes. And, you guessed it, here it is: the time our van broke down but how I lived to tell the tale. And made a memory.

This particular day last February began with me biking 8 miles to my market town and going to look for a van headed south to the local Peace Corps hostel. I found one. The fare was equivalent to $6, quite a hefty fee to be honest, but I paid it, because sitting under a fan, getting online after a month off, and drinking something cold were all important factors in keeping me sane.

Our van was ike this, but way more busted up: this "bush taxi" is from Cameroon, a country doing a bit better than Mali economically: Cameroon is ranked 150 on the UN Human Development Index, while Mali is 175.

After waiting a few hours for the van to fill up (bush taxis never leave unless they're filled way past capacity), we were off! The time: 3 PM. This trip which I've done before usually takes about 3 hours. The distance is only around 50 miles. So you know I was surprised when about 1.5 hours into our trek the engine stops and our driver coasts to the side of the dirt road. We are lucky because there is a village. The driver pops the hood, looks around the engine, and walks off into the village. The other passengers and I wait a little while, then when he does not return unload ourselves. And the waiting begins.

We wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

The driver comes and goes, trying new parts, fiddling around, resting. The passengers show little open impatience. They are used to things like this. I have enough water, and some beef jerky (thanks Dad!), and a great book, so I am pretty content. No cell phone reception, which is always worrisome. "We'll be going soon enough" I tell myself.


Night falls around 7, and I am slightly concerned about the fate of our still inoperable vehicle. Also distressing is the fact that I have seen no other cars pass, cars which I would have paid to get on. But clearly that was not happening. So I walk into the village with a few others, to see if we can find a TV showing the Mali vs. Cote d'Ivoire soccer game. We find it, along with the entire male population of the village. I make a splash, being white and all, but people are more interested in the game. Which is fine with me!

The game ends close to 9. It's fully dark, I do not have unlimited water, no way to call anybody, and I am quite alone in a strange village. Thank god for all the language study I have been doing, because I am truly on my own. I begin thinking of contingency plans if we have to spend the night here at a stranger's house. This had never happened to me before, but I was pretty sure it would be acceptable, what with Malian hospitality being what it is. Still, it was not an option I was 100% comfortable with. So I'm prayin' on that car!

Still not going.

So, I wander around, find some of the passengers who have made a fire, and sit with them to wait it out. By this point I think word got out that a foreigner was in town, because many village kids started coming up to me at the fire. Mostly they just stared, but a few were brave enough to speak to me.

"Hey Toubab [Bambara for "white person"], what's your name?"

"Moussa Dembele," I reply. This is my Malian name, the same name as my village's chief, so the kid is quite surprised at this foreigner with a local name.

"Moussa Dembele! Where are you from?"

I say my village name.

"What do you do there?"

"Well, I am the village chief and I have four wives" I reply.

The kid is dumbfounded. He's looking at me with the strangest look, eyebrows raised, like, what is this thing, a ghost? How did it learn Bambara?

Meanwhile a bunch of other kids, maybe 20, have gathered at this point. I am so tired of waiting for the stupid van so I just start talking and making up stories about myself and joking and singing and dancing with the kids. We all loved it. I would be rather be silly and amused than bored and gloomy, you feel me?! This tomfoolery continues until around 11:30, when, thank the heavens, THE CAR STARTS WORKING! SEVEN HOURS IN THAT DAMN VILLAGE!

I walk with the other passengers towards the car and many of the kids follow. They question me: "When will you come back to our village?" "Will you remember us?" "Where are you really from?"
"Can we fly in your air car sometime?" (I told them I fly airplanes...).

I'm in the car, it's starting up, it's going, and the kids are chasing after, calling my name. "MOUSSA DEMBELE!" MOUSSAAAAAAA!"

The car breaks down shortly, and continues to do so, off and on, as we travel through the night. Many hours later, at 7 AM, exhausted, having slept only a few bumpy hours, I reach my destination, which is a mere 50 miles away from where we left. The trip, 3PM to 7AM, took 16 hours. Only in Africa.

I never made it back to that village and cannot even recall its name. But a few hours there talking and joking with kids who I would never see again greatly comforted my exhausted spirit. I wonder if some of those kids ever talk about the mysterious white stranger who spoke their language and who wanted to talk to them. Who did not mind looking silly. A benevolent apparition, come from a strange faraway place, come only for a brief moment and then quickly gone, into the night and the dark.

One of my favorite memories from Mali.

Monday, June 25, 2012

We want what we do not Want: Reflections on Service

"Doing Peace Corps was when I felt most alive."
-random Peace Corps Volunteer

Due to the nature of my current occupation (namely, finding one...), I find myself, like in Africa, with much unstrucutred time in which my restless thoughts scurry off to all corners of Everywhere. Work, the economy, society, American culture, are some of those places. But naturally my mind often flees back to Niger and Mali. The process of processing experiences like that is no quick thing, as I try to make sense of so much I lived through. I'm reminded of a quote by Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." I know I will be puzzling and working through my time in Africa for years. Which is great! Only such a rich experience would provide that. In this post, however, I want to muse a little on where I am at now, especially with regards to "service." If the idea of wondering about why people volunteer, and how it changes both themselves and who they work with, interests you, then kindly read on!

First, I want to say just a little about my motivations for joining Peace Corps. They are not entirely noble and selfless, which I am coming to believe is true of many who do such work (and nearly all human actions, but that's a post for another day). First, as a liberal arts major with no hot job prospects (see: first sentence of this post) Peace Corps seemed like a reasonable alternative compared with getting into the "job market." Second, possibly from my religious background, which included a lot of "community service," I did (and still do!) have a desire to help people. Thirdly, and the strongest  of my motivations, was the need to feel important and necessary. There it is. The really selfish reason! I went halfway around the world to prove to people how important I was, that I mattered. (And I write this post in another such attempt at attention. The ego loves the spotlight!)

Of course when I got to Niger everything I had thought it was going to be was catastrophically turned upside down. Totally. Nothing was as I had thought it would be. Including the work I was doing! As an "education volunteer" teaching seemed like a logical guess as to what we would be doing. But oh this was not so.  Volunteers have roles as facilitators, mentors, cheerleaders. We try to get our community members to work together to solve their own problems. We provide technical advice and support, based on our education and experiences. That descrpition does not romanticize the work, and I hope those descrpitions do not dimish it: I like to think volunteers do get some really cool work done. It's just different than they thought it would be, in that mostly we encourage others to do work rather than doing their jobs for them.

I think I am getting off track. Well, I mentioned how our advice-giving and leading of committees is a big part of what we do. The other part, equally big, is cultural exchange. And this is the really cool part about Peace Corps service: the immersion in a foreign culture and the sharing of our own. It's what makes Peace Corps a unique program. There are many many aid groups working in developing countries to better impoverished nations. But how many organizations place their workers at the grassroots level, in the village, to live close to the level of those they have come to help? I tell you, not many! Peace Corps volunteers learn the local langauge, take a local name, wear local clothes, eat local food (with care package food supplementing, on the side...), dance like maniacs at weddings (I can only speak for myself...but I assume it's common), attend funerals, everything. Heck, some volunteers even marry locals!

So we did Peace Corps to be a Hero, to change the world. We got to our country and were shocked at everything, especially what we were supposed to be doing there. We adjust, most of us. We live close to the local level (but, and it's important to note this,  not at, what with our medicine, huge living allowances, our guaranteed trip home, and so on). We eat weird food, we get sick. Even make a friend or two! We completely embarrass ourselves in front of the locals in a variety of interesting ways. We miss home and friends and food and just familiar things. The strangeness fascinates us, then terrifies us, and then it eventually bores us. So why do we stay?

Why do we stay?

To try and put a little good into the world. To learn about a new culture the best way possible. To share our American culture and set the record straight. To grow.

For that's one of the great things about service: you get what you give. By giving your time and energy for no material reward you are put into places you have never been, do things you have never done, and learn things you never even  knew that you did not know.

Yes it is hard to explain our motivations. Yes "ourselves" is really our first priority. But we can strive for something greater than just our own personal happiness. And the great thing about service- of doing things for others without expecting anything in return- without expecting love, appreciation, gratitude, or even understanding of our efforts- service lets us be better than we are in an attempt to get beyond ourselves and connect with other lives, a reminder that no one is alone, and only together can we be "ever closer to what the Dreamer in the dark intended before the dust arose and walked" (Loren Eiseley, "The Hidden Teacher).

And that is what Peace Corps taught me.

Do you see what I see?