as i am.

"…but soil is a refuge for dispersed seeds."


The Arrival

Posted on by chrissy

The faint recollection of chaos sprawling lingers as the Bamako pseudo-metropolis fades into a monotony of brown on the road to San. The land is flat as Illinois, the horizon interrupted only by stocky trees, branches jagged against the cloudless, hazy sky. Villages raise literally out of the sand, as the short square homes are built exclusively from mud bricks, as has been the tradition for centuries.

My bus careens past the sepia repetition, isolated from the realities of Mali. My thoughts wander, distracting me from the heat, from the sun, from the uncertainties. I fade in and out of sleep, brought back to alertness every time a truck barrels past us, horn blaring, two beasts fighting for their fair share of the not-quite-two-lane road. I watch as the long stretched shadows recede, then stretch again in routine obedience to the sun’s dominant rays.

The day is long, slow, patient, until a jumble of Bambara words from my counterpart brings the roaring bus to a halt. In an instant I find myself on the side of the road in a clump of too many belongings watching the black cloud of dust and exhaust follow the bus into the distance. Stubby bushes dusted with the pale green of new leaves dot the landscape between scraggly trees twisting their branches towards the oppressive white sun. I look around, grasping for a landmark, for signs of humanity, for some differentiation that makes this place, my new home, distinct from the other 400 kilometers we had passed on the way. I find not even an intersection to indicate the way to my village.

Aly, my counterpart, hurriedly picks up my backpack mumbling “An ka taa,” or ‘let’s go,’ his voice full of excited energy as he is already walking back the way we came. I scramble to collect my tote bag, helmet, nalgene, bicycle, and within a few paces catch up with him. He calls out more jumbled Bambara, and like magic, a figure appears on the road ahead, tall and lanky, meandering towards us. We exchange greetings as he approaches and he takes my backpack from Aly, my bike from me and helps us towards an uncertain destination.

After perhaps 200 meters we reach traces of an intersection. Aly is careful to point out a sign bent over in the sun declaring the existence of our village seven kilometers into the ambiguous bush. Slightly set off from the road, I am surprised to notice a structure built to provide shade for those waiting, and further back, a building and a well; I hadn’t seen these the first time we passed on the bus. Before long, I am ushered onto a horse cart with my belongings and slowly we set forth towards my future.

The path through the dusty mahogany tinted gravel slips in and out of existence as pieces of bedrock peak out where the soil has been blown away by the harmattan winds. The lanky figure introduces himself as Seykou Coulibaly, and explains that he is Aly’s younger brother. His voice is laced with a slight lisp as his smile reveals two missing teeth. He kindly informs me that I can no longer be a Diarra in a village full of Coulibalys, and just like that, my name is changed, once again altering my identity ever so slightly.

Finally, through the trees and shrubs, a village materializes, short and squat, nondescript even as the mud buildings get closer. In a whirlwind of children and greetings and jumbled Bambara and handshakes and smiles, I am brought to the compound of Adama Coulibaly, where I sit awkwardly in front of the elder men of the village, encircled by children half clothed and dust covered. They giggle as they watch me sit, proud and excited to finally have a village toubab of their own. I try to smile, to seem as excited as they are despite the overwhelming desire to return to the safety of my family in S New, where I am comfortable and relaxed, and not a spectacle any longer.

As quickly as the crowd has gathered, it disperses and I am brought to my new mud house across the street. Through a gate, I enter a walled courtyard covered almost entirely by a gua, or shelter built for shade. The walls are tall enough that I can only see over them if I walk up to them and strain my neck, giving me a decent amount of privacy. My house has two rooms, one slightly larger than the other, but with a log of support in the center of the larger room. The rooms are both empty and will need to be furnished once I move in. The roof is made of mud and sticks, and the tiny windows let in little light even at midday. The house is completed, which is great because it doesn’t need to be done until mid April when I officially move in. It is a sign of the enthusiasm of my community that it is already completed.

The village elders are thrilled with my approval, and hand me a live chicken while mumbling something about dinner. I thank them, hand it back, and they leave me alone with Aly once again so I can bathe. In an attempt to explain that I need both a bucket and drinking water, I somehow end up being brought food instead and eat before I am allowed to bathe. All I want is a moment to gather myself, to take in my new home, to accept my new village. I am overwhelmed by my own arrival, by the place I have been waiting to see for over a year, by the certainty and finality of it; I am overwhelmed by knowing. My thoughts scatter: My house is small; where can I garden? I want nothing more than to chug a liter of water and to wash the filth of the trip off of me and to compose myself; there’s not a place for a clothes line or a chicken coop or a compost pile. I’m making a terrible first impression; I’m supposed to be thrilled. I am truly in the middle of nowhere, an hour from the main road on a path I couldn’t retrace if I tried. Why am I not thrilled? Can I really live here for two years? The unexpected surfacing of self doubt throws me off guard.

I bathe, rinsing away some of my trepidation and readying myself to face the village again. Aly, Seykou, and I go to visit the dugutigi, or chief, who gifts me four eggs. My village is long and thin, narrow paths outline twisted compounds and walled-in gardens of onions, tomatoes, papaya, an occasional banana tree. I take deep breaths and regain confidence, excitement, and ease for my village. Returning to my house, I sit silently while Aly and Seykou chatter until 8:30 finally rolls around and I feel justified retreating to my mosquito tent on the cement floor for the night.


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  • About Me:

    I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Mali for two years promoting sustainable agriculture and environment development.

  • Address in Mali:

    Christina Scheller
    B.P. 02
    San, Mali

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  • What I’m Reading

    King Leopold's Ghost - Adam Hochschild
  • What I’ve Read

    High Tide in Tucsan - Barbara Kingsolver All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren Half the Sky - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization - David R. Montgomery Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee The Education of Little Tree - Forrest Carter The Rodale Book of Composting Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver The History of the House of Representatives - Robert Remini East of Eden - John Steinbeck Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin The Imperial Cruise - James Bradley