Beth Ashley writes: Earlier this month I spent four days at the Festival on the Niger in Mali where I met some of the Peace Corps Volunteers who had recently been evacuated because of political unrest in Guinea
Does the Peace Corps really help in West Africa? I asked cultural instructor, Sylvain Dabou. "A lot," he said. "They are educating the people about good health practices, and little by little they are making progress." (They have campaigned with some success, for instance, against clitoral excision, still widely practiced in West Africa.) The volunteers represent the best aspects of the American people, Dabou said. "They are not fighting Islam. They are helping us."
The Americans were half delighted to be in Segou, where Mali's most famous musicians played on the riverfront stage, and half sad at having left the villages where most had spent most of two years. When we talked to them, they didn't know whether they would be allowed back to Guinea or not: "I just want to finish my project and say goodbye to my friends," said Devon Brooks, a volunteer from New Jersey. Having seen Mali's villages, I tried to imagine what it would be like to have the Peace Corps drop you off in one of them and leave you there, alone, to work for two years. Orr lived in a village of "three mosques and one water pump" and a school with second, third and fifth grades. Like others I spoke to, he was a health educator, teaching villagers to wash their hands (with soap), eat nutritious foods and brush their teeth. He had felt lonely at times, but the villagers were "very nice people."
Volunteers spoke lovingly of their work in Guinea. One had been assigned to an area that supported the beleaguered president, so she had not been in any danger; another in their group had had "frightening experiences," she said. Both of them hoped to go back.
Talking to the girls over lunch, I couldn't help feeling emotional. I told them how difficult it had been as an American to see our country's reputation tarnished the world over - diminished by our government's go-it-alone attitude and ill-advised war in Iraq. I told them how heartening it was to see Americans doing what they were doing - showing that most of our countrymen have kind hearts, high ideals and good intentions and are trying to do good in the world.
"Thank you," I said. "You've done a lot to restore my faith." Then I left them, afraid I might burst into tears.
Read more about Peace Corps Guinea.
Caption: Festival sur le Niger 2007, Segou, Mali
Photographer: Damian Rafferty Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0