But after Mali, spending time alone now gives me the most discomfort. If ever I find myself alone, my first thought is now 'what am I missing? Am I really making the best use of my limited time here?'
Reflecting upon the near two years I spent in Mali, the most important thing to me is the relationships I built. I had never felt closer to a community than I did in Makili. Not even close.
People often talk about a feeling of isolation while serving in the Peace Corps. That is certainly understandable - we come from different backgrounds, have different habits, look differently, speak differently...
Whenever you travel around Africa, you are constantly greeted by the chanting of kids, even adults, using whatever the obligatory word is for 'white people' in the local dialect. In Mali, the chant was 'Toubabu! Toubabu!' In Kenya, 'Muzungu! Muzungu!' And people sometimes get no further into interacting with you than a stare.
But as a Peace Corps volunteer, within the community where you will spend two years of your life in service, you do have tools to get past this. Most importantly is language. Learning 'Bamanankan', the local language in Makili, fluently was key to my integration. It toned down the differences between us. I was able to carry out conversations with everyone in the village. In groups, I was just one of the guys. No need for one person to translate what was being said to me. I could join in completely, follow in real time.
Coming from Mali, and knowing what an impact language learning had on my service, I gave all of my attention to learning 'Kiswahili', the most widely-spoken language in Kenya.
And when I found that my area has its own native language, 'Olunyala', I committed myself to learning this language as well, to the best of my ability. This has been a more difficult task. There are no text books and I have no teacher, but I feel that my language is now coming along.
The educational system in Kenya is significantly better than that in Mali. Most people can speak English, let alone 'Kiswahili'. Language learning is not necessary in Kenya like it was in Mali. You can communicate through English, although it often means relying on a translator when speaking to 'wazee' (the elderly) in rural areas. But to me, to gain that same sense of community, it is necessary.
The most pronounced lesson I learned from Mali, the one that I hope to take with me no matter what community I go in the future, is the lesson of 'yala yala.'
It was a gradual acceptance for me. During my first several months at site, I fell into the familiar concept of spending my free time at home. Everything was too different, communication was too hard. I was reading at a blistering pace, and frequent visits from my good friend Giardia didn't make things easy for me either.
But I soon realized that it was after these times alone when I felt the most isolated. I felt ready to leave, be done with this experience.
And when did I have those glorious highs? Those moments when I found myself so thankful for the opportunities in front of me? Those moments when I could not contain my excitement for the days to come? Those moments when I realized there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be?
Those moments always occurred after being with people out in the community. And it dawned on me, the best way for me to live in Makili was to live as a Makilian. It wasn't enough to physically be a part of the community, I had to commit myself fully, mentally.
People in 'third-world' countries seem to be much better at this than we are in America. In Mali, I became another villager. I spent my time as they did. Whenever there was no work to be done, I'd be out in the community, drinking tea and socializing. No invitation required, I'd just roam until I found people to talk with. And I was rewarded with some of the best friends I've ever known.
I have mentioned before that I find Kenya to be a sort of middle ground between Mali and America. While people are generally friendly, they are not as welcoming as Malians. There are no extended greetings asking how everyone in your family is. People did not greet me on the street if I wasn't the one to initiate. People don't see a stranger and invite them to join their friends to chat over tea.
But thanks to Mali, I now knew the type of experience I wanted to have. I knew I wanted to become a part of this community in the same way as I did in Makili, and I now knew how.
The 'how' is to 'yala yala'. I spend all of my free time walking around town, going up to people, striking up a conversation. I have had to more force my way in than I did in Mali. One man asked if I was planning to run for mayor, being struck by my odd behavior. To 'yala yala' is not as much part of the culture.
But I find that the community has been quick to reward me for my efforts. They have opened up to me, accepted me as one of their own. They no longer wait for me to initiate greetings. They readily accept me into their circles. The places have changed... I no longer sit on rugs under shade trees drinking tea. Now I chat in front of small retail shops, by the local 'fundi wa viatu' (cobbler), in the market, in barber shops, at restuarants...
I now find myself just as excited as I was during my days in Mali. Mali was amazing for so many reasons. The culture was fascinating, so different from our own. But the most important component to any experience in life is people. The relationships I built in Mali are what mattered most then, and the relationships I'm building here in Kenya matter most now. And because of those relationships, I will likely become just as attached to Budalang'i as I now am to Makili. This is the biggest lesson I've learned, and I thank my friends in Mali for being such great teachers.