LOS ANGELES, California — Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps is one of the essential US organizations for foreign outreach. The International Affairs Budget funds the program that sends volunteers worldwide to teach locals critical skills and engage in cultural exchange. More than 240,000 Americans have worked in 142 countries since the Peace Corp’s inception.
The Peace Corps Mission in Mali
Among the countries, Peace Corps volunteers have worked in is Mali, a medium-sized country in West Africa. More than 2,645 Americans worked to advance the Peace Corps mission in Mali until the program’s cancelation in 2015 due to safety concerns. The Borgen Project interviewed Peace Corps volunteers that worked in Mali to learn more about their experiences and observations, the successes and the failures of the program and the recent developments that led to its unfortunate end.
Living in Mali
Mali is located in West Africa and is home to nearly 20 million people. A French colony until 1960, Mali has had a tumultuous history due to both internal and external conditions. Political instability and a harsh climate have made the development of Mali’s economy a slow process. The vast majority of Malians live in small villages in Mali’s vast deserts. However, the country does have some cities like the capital, Bamako. The Sahel region experiences extreme droughts and increasing desertification that makes living precarious for most Malians. Subsistence agriculture is the most common mode of production in Mali, so a year of low rain can have deadly effects in remote villages. Despite the hardships, Mali has a vibrant culture that binds the multiethnic country together.
Unfortunately, political instability and threats from terrorists have made life even more difficult for average Malians struggling to survive. Extremist groups associated with Al-Qaeda have been fighting an ongoing war against the Malian government since 2012. The Borgen Project interviewed Peace Corps volunteers Kerry Andras and Camille Castaneda, who worked in Mali from 2000 to 2002.
The Volunteer Process
Involvement in the Peace Corps begins stateside, where volunteers sign up and provide the Peace Corps with their preferences about where they want to work. Volunteers then wait until the Peace Corps offers them a position they are qualified for in a country, whether they listed it as a preference or not. Camille recalled being initially opposed to working in Mali due to its heat and very different culture. However, as it became clear there were few other options, she decided to take the position in one of the most notoriously tricky countries that the Peace Corps work in. Her decision ended up being the correct one. She quickly fell in love with the beautiful country and its incredible people.
Starting Out in the Country
After a two-day orientation in Philadelphia, Kerry, Camille, and 30 others flew to Bamako where they officially began their work in Mali. Their stint started with a three-month training course at a Peace Corps establishment. They learned skills necessary to navigate the country and culture and advance the Peace Corps missions. The training course included lessons in Bambara, the national language of Mali, meaningful information about Malian customs and culture, and technical skills that they were supposed to teach to their villages. Kerry and Camille moved in with their respective host families at the end of the three months in Bamako.
Kerry was stationed in South-East Mali in a small village named Kuncila near the town of Niena. Camille’s host family lived in Dafela, a town in West Mali. Her closest point of reference was Kita, a small market town and urban commune. They hosted a family that was typically a bit more well-off than other families in the village. However, this inequality was minor, and poverty was widespread. Nearly all families in their villages were subsistence farmers that sustained themselves on family farms, growing rice, corn, millet and other vegetables. Due to the harsh conditions and heavy labor required to make food in the desert, families rarely had surplus goods to trade in their villages or sell at market towns.
Effectively the only economic opportunity at this time in Mali was to grow government-subsidized cotton. However, families had to take out loans to purchase cotton seeds. They would then sell back to the government to pay off their loan after the cotton was grown and picked. This was an arduous and risky venture. Lousy weather could leave the family in debt even after selling the cotton, so most people stayed away from it.
In addition to the Peace Corps mission of engaging in cultural exchange, Kerry and Camille needed to teach the villagers skills to curb desertification. One such skill that they learned during their training in Bamako was how to make mud clay stoves. Typically, rural Malians cook their food directly over a wood fire. Due to the lack of heat insulation, this method is very firewood-inefficient, which hastens desertification. The Peace Corps taught its volunteers how to make mud clay stoves that require less firewood than the traditional stoves used in villages.
Kerry and Camille successfully taught locals how to make these stoves. However, they soon realized they had little desire to maintain them or make their own. Kerry and Camille recalled often making family stoves that were in use until they fell into disrepair when they would revert to their traditional method of cooking meals. Camille suggested that the difficulty of life in rural Mali made it hard for people to plan and think of large-scale issues like desertification, “I don’t know if it’s because people don’t think ahead, because they’re kind of in a survival mindset. Like we’re not worried about down the road, we’re just worried about finding logs today. And then tomorrow, we’ll worry about the next day.”
Other Peace Corps volunteers and different NGOs had more success in Mali than Kerry and Camille did. Kerry recalled one NGO that would install gasoline-powered grain grinding machines in Malian villages. They would typically belong to a family that would allow others in their village to use the device for a small fee. This business would save village women hours every day by automating the process. While the technical aspects of the Peace Corps mission never produced as much utility as other NGO initiatives, Kerry and Camille both felt very confident that they achieved their secondary and tertiary goals of learning about Malian culture and being ambassadors for the United States in Mali.
Kerry maintained close ties with his village and kept in touch with them after he returned to America. He even got the opportunity to return a decade later and reconnect with his friends. Camille found the most fulfillment and made her most significant impact by working with children, who she said were the most excited and eager to learn more from her.
Returning to the Country
When Kerry and Camille returned to Mali in 2011, they found that not much had changed. The most significant difference was the prevalence of cell phones, which had become relatively common in most rural families. In 2001, the extent of technology in the villages were radios and maybe a television or two. Besides that, rural Malian life and culture continued to thrive despite the harsh circumstances. Unfortunately, things would soon get much more complicated. In 2012, Tuareg insurgents in Northern Mali began taking villages by force. The rapid advance ethnic rebellion, initially backed by Islamist organizations linked to Al-Qaeda, caused over 200,000 Malians to flee their homes in the initial year of fighting. The situation continued to deteriorate. Infighting between Tuaregs and more extreme terrorists escalated and the military carried out a coup against the President.
In 2014, the Peace Corps decided that the security situation in Mali was too fragile to continue their mission there. The organization evacuated all volunteers and closed all of its facilities indefinitely. While the fighting in 2021 is less intense than five years ago, there is still a low-level insurgency and sporadic terrorism throughout Mali. Another coup occurred in 2020, underscoring the improbability of extensive political and social stabilization returning to Mali shortly.
The ongoing war in Mali made life even harder for already vulnerable people. The war made NGO work and international aid much more scarce for Malians who need it. The end of the Peace Corps mission has further isolated rural Malians from external assistance. Until Mali is safe enough for the Peace Corps to renew their commitment to Mali, Americans looking for ways to help. They can donate or volunteer with organizations still operating in Mali, such as the Mali Health Organizing Project and the GAIA Vaccine Foundation. Brave Malians and foreigners continue to commit their time and resources to help those in need despite the current challenges.
– Will Pease