Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lost in the Shuffle

Disclaimer:   The words here are my personal thoughts and observations.  They in no way represent the beliefs or policies of the Peace Corps. 

A little background that will be relevant for this post:  my service here is assisting the Malian Tennis Federation.  I’m going to avoid trying to define that because that definition has proved to be an ever evolving entity that I've yet to grasp. 

A few months ago I went to Senegal for a boys and girls West African tennis tournament.  Not surprisingly, the results by country closely mirrored that of their respective GDPs. 

The day before the tournament started I was walking around and saw a kid practicing that was almost half the size as some of the other kids in the youngest division.  He was like a mini Nadal out there playing every point with the intensity of a Wimledon final.  I just figured he was someone’s kid and didn’t think much more of it. 

The next day the matches were posted: First round, boys 12 and under, Mali v Mauritania.  Perfect, as I watch my guy maybe that kid will be watching his older brother play and I can ask him a few questions.  The two kids from Mali playing in the 12 and unders were a couple of the smallest kids in the draw; that is until I was wrong about the kid from Mauritania being someone’s little brother. 

Long story short, the kid was beyond impressive and he was only 10 years old.  Not only did he have the skills and the racket head speed he was a natural out there.  He knew how to move, how to anticipate and in tight moments he was visibly more excited for the fight which is a rare quality at any age.  Plus, he’s a lefty; he truly was a tiny Nadal.

Ok, where are we going with this?

Fast forward to the end of the tournament.  The director of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) for West Africa was handing out a few teaching materials to all of the coaches and I stepped into his room to say goodbye as the coach from Mauritania was coming in. 

Our paths were about to cross and we started that uncomfortable ‘who’s going which way’ dance, only I realize that he’s trying to get in my way.  The Mauritanian coach is about a foot shorter than me and was extremely soft spoken and modest throughout the tournament so this human roadblock move was very unexpected.  He tells me in French that he wants Peace Corps to send a tennis coach to Mauritania.  I try to tell him that the Peace Corps has recently suspended their program in Mauritania due to some security concerns (in broken French).  I tell him that I will talk to my office in Bamako and let them know of his request. 

I step aside as he makes his way to the ITF director and before I take my first step to the door this tiny man grabs me firmly just above my elbow and pulls me towards the director seated across the room.   The roadblock move was a shock, the grab and pull is like an out of body experience.  He demands that the director translate to make sure that I understand.  The problem wasn’t that I didn’t understand him rather I welcomed our language barrier because my French isn’t good enough to explain how unlikely it is that if/when the Peace Corps reopens their program in Mauritania that they’ll have another tennis coach ready to go. 

The Moroccan ITF director kindly explained that I understood and that I’ll do whatever I can.  I smiled awkwardly, as I often do in uncomfortable situations, but there was something troublesome with how the interaction concluded.   The coach had a look on his face like that of a child who has received one too many empty promises.  He knows not to get his hopes up.  He has a player with all the potential in the world and he knows that without some outside help this kid will only go so far.  There’s nothing else I can do.  I walk away.

That’s the part you don’t think about before coming here, the times you can’t help.   I’ve been here a year and have had my fair share of hopes dashed.  Kids I thought I was really going to be able to help, but for one reason or another, things haven’t worked out and you just have to deal with it. 

Yes, one could argue that my interaction with them is an improvement in itself for these kids, but it isn’t as good as what I thought I was going to be able to do and I’m not in the mood to get cheered up so we’ll just leave that point lie.

My current hopes:  Rumor has it that we’ll be starting the Malian National Tennis Academy and I'll be the technical director.  I’ve even seen a budget and heard that the money actually exists.  If that day ever comes I’m excited about the tennis knowledge that I’ll be able to share with the first batch of kids and the coaches.  But, I’m more excited to have some kids on a regular basis and begin to teach them punctuality (which is very unpopular here), respect, responsibility, and a hard work ethic.   Qualities that will serve them much longer than their tennis games will. 

Ok, let’s wrap this up with a small tangent.

It’s not uncommon for returned volunteers to go back and as a part of their transition to grad school or the work force help with recruiting future Peace Corps volunteers.  It’d be unfortunate if my honesty here were to make me an unlikely candidate for that job.  But, I think it’s more of a disservice to perpetuate warm and fuzzy lies about dancing through wheat fields hand in hand with host country nationals at sunset.  Yes, there are euphoric surreal experiences but there are also times that are beyond frustrating and it’s important to mentally prepare for both.

I’m trying to find some value in this venting.  While it’s therapeutic for me I think there can also be some benefit for people living and working elsewhere.  To be honest I don’t know what that may be right now, maybe that’s where you can help me find some clarity. 

I know that my last few posts haven’t been overly positive.   The truth is if I needed to leave Mali, the Peace Corps could have me on a plane in 48 hours.  But, this is where I feel I need to be right now, as I trust that there is some value in the work that I’m failing to do. 

About all of his unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

At the end of all of this I will definitely have my 10,000 ways not to get work done and there will be some value in that.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome stuff, Tyson. It's often well after the fact that we realize all we've done, even in just attempts, to help other people, and how just the trying, the effort, the caring is what makes the biggest difference to people anyway. Keep up the great work.

    Jim n Kim