Thursday, September 2, 2010

How I got here

This post is going to act as the prequel to my first post. It may have been presumptuous to jump into things without first sharing how I’ve arrived at these thoughts myself. So to give you some perspective, currently I am living in Bamako, Mali, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Let’s go back a few years. I was working for a tennis management company that placed me in some of the most beautiful resorts around the world. Short version, I was playing tennis in paradise with some very interesting people for a living. Shortly after joining this company I became a vegetarian and to be honest I couldn’t tell you why. I had all the stock answers that I had heard regurgitated a hundred times but there was no truth behind my conviction. Some people that I admired were veggies and I liked their reasons so I jumped on the bandwagon.

Life continued in this fashion for about three years and then I was posted in Abu Dhabi, just up the road from their more popular neighbor Dubai. While there my fellow associates were from all over the world but to focus on where I’m headed my main influences over the next 9 months were from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Somalia. Getting to know them first as fellow employees and soon as friends our conversations quickly went to their homes. They were interested in my life in the US and I even more so in theirs. I couldn’t help but feel dejected after learning of their struggles and a bit guilty of my now seemingly charmed life. As many of the important decisions of my life began this one started one day when I was whining about how it isn’t fair what some people have to deal with and a British guy I worked with at the hotel beautifully lived up to their upfront no bullshit stereotype by simply saying, “why don’t you do something about it instead of ruining my lunch with all this whining?” That afternoon I was on the Peace Corps website and my application was in a week later.

Returning home that summer to await my deployment details probably marks my all time high in annoyingness. I was always a bit of a pain in the ass when it came to others being wasteful and environmentally irresponsible with many decisions but now I had an invite to Africa for two years of volunteering to back up my self righteousness. I thank my parents for putting up with me as every meat based meal or extra lawn watering turned into a mini lecture, they found patience and humored me.

Let’s jump ahead six months into my time in Mali. It’s difficult to sum up what it’s like to live here as many volunteers agree that it’s nearly impossible to find the words to describe this experience. For a long time I didn’t even try to illustrate my thoughts and feelings because I didn’t have a clue myself. Imagine being overwhelmed with feelings both good and bad, guilty and grateful, eager yet petrified and you want to make some sense of it all, mull it over with the people back home that know you, but you don’t even know where to begin with a description. Those first six months were about as confusing as they get for me. I came here to help, but now I don’t know how, wonder why, and know that they don’t want the type of help that I thought they needed.

The slate was wiped clean. Over the following nine months leading up to today everything I thought I knew was torn to shreds. I had this cocky little “I have interesting environmental facts to make you feel bad about yourself” walk and then it felt so embarrassingly ridiculous that at times I have felt ashamed sitting with people here. What I was doing before, the way I thought things needed to be done to make life better for people here was, to sum it up in one word, naïve. In my defense, my intention was never to make people feel bad about themselves or the lives they led. The problem was that I was getting the beginning and ending of the story, I knew the issues and then I saw the final data and not knowing how to do anything about it made me frustrated so I would recite these stats as a reflex hoping that somehow it would magically make a change.

This brings us up to speed with the change of my blog title. One of the nagging realizations during all of this has been that after initially being overwhelmed with this new definition of poverty I couldn’t help but notice that most people here seem quite content with what they have. It was confusing and almost upsetting to see that they are just as happy, and in many cases happier, than many people I have spent time with in the US or in other first world countries I’ve lived in. I laugh with the adults, play sports with the kids, and get extremely upset with the children when they hold on to the back of my bike regardless of their financial status. They don’t want my pity. They’re still living their lives whether I feel sorry for them or not.

So what is my take on all of this now? What do I believe? What are the problems and how do we help? I don’t know.. I don't disbelieve what I said before and I now have my own convictions for wanting to be environmentally responsible with my decisions. Now I have a better perspective of how the decisions I make effect my friends here and all over the world in struggling areas. So while at times it may look bleak, it just takes seeing a kid who seemingly has nothing yet won't stop smiling to convince me that it's worth trying. I guess that's what I believe.

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