Let’s just put that out there, toss it on the table, the elephant in the room. Since 2012 a few people have asked this very question of our board. Certainly more think it than verbalize it. The source pool varies, but it is a reoccurring question about our life and work here in Mali, West Africa.
During the march 2012 Coup d’Étas in Mali, the American Peace Corps pulled all there volunteers (PCV) for the first time ever in their forty year history in Mali. One of the PCV’s wrote this insightful paragraph on their blog at that time.
“I learned an important lesson in understanding and living life. I’ve lived in one of the poorest countries in the world, where people struggle each day to feed their children. I’ve seen happiness in places that seemed so dark that I never thought light could reach. And that is what Peace Corps allowed me to do. It allowed me to take my problems and take a step back and say, “Is this really how you want to handle your life?” The things and people that have been taken away from me this past year will always be a part of me. Living in Mali …..did not downplay the pain of the past year, but it did allow me to learn how to react…………Malians showed me first hand that you can’t live in the past. Especially in a place where so many things go wrong, it’s not feasible to focus on every hardship. Instead, you celebrate when the good things happen.” (Lee, Female Peace Corps workers reflections on Mali in July… thoughts about Mali after her evacuation in April 2012) link
In the fall of 2014, the Peace Corp returned to operate in only one region, the Sikasso region. That is, until last week. Peace Corps pulled each volunteer in every placement village. After a few days at the Sikasso base the volunteers were soon on their way to Bamako and then out of Mali.
The US embassy has cut back to only essential staff onsite; the rest are free to leave the country for the time being. Our Canadian embassy is advising no travel to Mali at this time, and for those already in Mali to revisit their personal security plans and protocols, advising that there is a high risk of terrorist acts, hostage or kidnapping for ransom situations, and general banditry.
Expats are being advised to avoid favorite expat restaurants, night travel, and going anywhere that expats historically like to gather. It seems that the huge Christmas artisan event that occurs in Bamako every December, the single greatest sales time for most artisans , is doubtful to occur right now, because it would be a prime target for another attack, as it is certainly to be populated by expats, even though their number in Mali is slowly dwindling.
Some Churches in Bamako have asked western missionaries and practising Christian expats not to attend church services for the foreseeable near future, because their presence in numbers makes locals indirect targets as well. Malians are nervous. Streets and alleyways are being observed during services. I was told Sikasso’s Mayor called in the church leaders of Sikasso three months ago, asking them to set up similar security around their services on Sunday as well. Some churches did, others did not. Those who did were the churches that already had police officers within their memberships who helped to set up plainclothes observers with action plans. What those plans where, I have not really been able to find out, but I suspect it was all useless anyway.
Other establishments are asking westerners not to arrive in their classy shiny vehicles, which essentially advertises, “flocks of westerners are in here if you need a ready target.” They are suggesting that expats arrive in less conspicuous local yellow taxis that drop them off, leaving parking lots looking rather dead and establishments unoccupied.
What is going on? Well, the sum total is this; anything could happen anywhere, anytime, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. How do you stop two or three gunmen from walking into any place, wishing to make some point in the name of some organization with a pulled trigger? The US, and Paris, France realize they are in the same boat right now. It is not only happening in Mali.
The paranoia is running especially deep in Bamako, and as always, at home. If we actually get into the new year without another event, we better count ourselves blessed. Hope I am wrong.
But we can’t live in the past, we can’t focus on every hardship… If you do, you leave, every time. You would never come to places like Mali. Frankly, the easy places have their saturated fill of volunteers, that is where over 80% of the global workers go, were they can work in English. The easy places don’t need us much.
We just press on in the hopes of a different future. We are here because there is good worth supporting, good worth defending, good worth progressing, good people worth knowing and partnering with. Our purpose outweighs the goals of a tourist travelling through town. We have considerably more invested here than that. As do you who know us well. Keep in mind, that for us on the ground, what we see, hear, and sense on the ground often does not resemble the impression you are getting from the outside, though we try to take into account what it is that you are seeing too.
This face, of this innocent Malian woman, is why we are here. Real people, real lives, who have no place to run when the bad stuff shakes down. They are mere innocent bystanders, mere puppets with strings they don’t even know exist, oblivious to a larger game, a game they are not part of… heck they don’t even know there is a game at all.
“Miraculously — global poverty rates are already plummeting. In 1990, about 2 billion people lived in extreme poverty — then, about $1.25 per person per day. Now, even though the world’s population has grown, only about 700 million people are beneath the extreme poverty line, now about $2 a day. Think about that. We’ve gone, in a quarter century, from 35% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty, to near 10 percent — even though there are now 2 billion more people on Earth.”
There are good things happening here, very good things. Some more excellent news is unfolding and you will be made privy to it very soon.
So, do you really want us to run home at every news report? Do you think covering our asses is the only priority around here? There is acceptable and reasonable levels of risk. For some, the only acceptable risk is no risk at all. This is why some of you are not here, and we are.
Understand this, we have ways of measuring and gauging things that you are not privy to. We have security training, we have security plans and protocols in place, exit plans and strategies exist for various emerging scenarios. When reasonable and acceptable risk vanishes by identifiable indicators, we will see you at home quickly. In our circles we are aware of no one who has made that move at this time, we are not alone in our choices.
Three things we ask of you.
Value what we do here as Humanitarians. We are professionals, not tourists.
Value what we do here as much as any other big name Humanitarian Organisation. We are EXPERIENCED professionals, with as much, and often much more experience in Africa than many international workers have. The people we assist are just as important as OXFAM’s, etc.
If something were to happen to us, please fight the guttural urge to torte “What the hell were they doing over there in the first place.“ Could you offer something better than this? No matter how much experience one has, nor how stringent the precautions one takes are, something can still happen. Such a statement would make it obvious to our families that you do not understand the importance of our work and sacrifice. Could you leave it unsaid?
“Malians showed me firsthand that you can’t live in the past. Especially in a place where so many things go wrong, it’s not feasible to focus on every hardship. Instead, you celebrate when the good things happen.
We find ourselves in the great position to celebrate wonderful things right now, and we will continue to do so for as long as possible.
Yes, our staying will always extend past your level of comfort or tolerance. But, do know this: when we, together with our board, observe indications that the level of risk is trending upward towards unacceptable levels, we will make different choices.
But until then, enjoy the ride will ya! Enjoy the pictures and stories. Great things are happening here.