Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Mali
From Peace Corps Wiki
You should be prepared for a significant reduction in the frequency and reliability of communications with friends and family. It is a good idea to prepare your family and friends for the reality of lengthy delays between letters, the lack of regular access to a telephone, and uncertain access to e-mail.
The postal system in Mali is relatively reliable by African standards. Few Volunteers report problems with receiving letters and packages sent from the United States by airmail, but the mail can take three to four weeks to arrive. Surface mail is slightly less reliable, significantly less expensive, and takes much longer—six months to a year or more. Mail within the country takes a few days to two weeks. Volunteers can have important documents sent from the U.S. via DHL. Maintaining good relations with the staff at the local post office is can help to ensure timely receipt of the mail.
You can choose to receive mail at the Peace Corps office or at your site. Most Volunteers share a local post office box in their regional capital once they have moved to their sites. During pre-service training, mail should be sent to you at the Peace Corps office. Mail will be forwarded to the training site once a week.
Your address at the Peace Corps office will be:
"david roberts” PCT
Corps de la Paix
Telephone service in Mali, like the postal system, is relatively reliable. However, Volunteers do not have telephones in their homes, whether they live in small villages or large towns. An expanding cellphone network covers most cities and large towns, and some Volunteers have access to a phone at their workplace. However, it is not appropriate to make long-distance calls from these phones. Most towns have commercial phone centers that offer phone and fax services, but outgoing calls can be expensive. Many Volunteers arrange times to receive calls from home. Peace Corps regional and transit houses have telephones from which Volunteers can receive but not make calls.
Volunteers are not permitted to use the telephones at the Peace Corps office to call family or friends unless the call pertains to an emergency and is approved in advance by the country director.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Use and ownership of computers are rapidly expanding, but primarily among better-funded government offices and wealthy individuals and companies. There are Internet cafés in Bamako and the regional capitals. Connection speeds are slow, but improving with growing demand and more private-sector entrepreneurs. Some of the commercial phone centers offer computer and Internet access on an hourly basis (around 1,000 to 2,500 CFA francs per hour), and this is the route by which most Volunteers access the Internet. It is also possible to use a laptop computer in a staffed phone booth to connect via modem to service providers in Bamako, though not all phone booth staff will allow customers to do this.
Volunteers who served in Mali prior to the late 1990s had no access to email at all, and had to rely on the mail and expensive and unreliable telephone connections provided by the national telephone service.
Radio and Television
Radio is by far the most important source of information and entertainment for the majority of Malians, and local radio also serves as a kind of bulletin board for people sending messages about everything from recent deaths to lost children or animals.
Housing and Site Location
The community to which you are assigned will provide safe and adequate housing in accordance with the Peace Corps’ site selection criteria. Housing is typically a small house made of mud or cement bricks with a thatch roof. Some Volunteers in urban sites live in cement houses with two or three rooms. Most Volunteers do not have running water or electricity; water comes from a pump or a well, and light is provided by kerosene lanterns or candles. Nearly all Volunteers are within one hour of another Volunteer and most are within 10 hours of the Peace Corps office in Bamako via public transportation.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers’ living allowance is approximately 105,000 CFA francs per month, not including the vacation allowance equivalent to $24 per month. Volunteers also receive a quarterly work-travel allowance ranging from $20 to $100, depending on the location of their sites. All of these allowances are paid in local currency and deposited directly into a bank account that each Volunteer must establish at or near their sites. The amount of the living allowance is based on an annual survey of Volunteers’ financial needs. Most Volunteers report that they can live comfortably with this allowance and have extra money for regional travel as well as occasional nights on the town. You are expected to live at the level of your Malian counterparts, so you are discouraged from bringing or receiving extra money from home to spend in-country.
Food and Diet
Water geneally needs to be treated through boiling, bleach treatment, or filtering to be potable. The availability of fruits and vegetables is somewhat limited, but Mali produces some of the best mangoes and papayas in the world. Garlic, onions, tomatoes, and a local type of eggplant are available year-round. Other fruits and vegetables, available seasonally, include oranges, grapefruits, bananas, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers. Staple meals include rice and tô (a thick porridge made of millet, sorghum, corn, or yams), served with a sauce made from peanuts, okra, greens (i.e., spinach or baobab leaves), or tomatoes with meat or fish. French bread is available in larger towns and villages.
Paved roads connect regional capitals and large towns in Mali, and fairly well-maintained buses operate on a regular daily schedule. Smaller towns and villages are served by “bush taxis”—typically overcrowded and poorly maintained minibuses that do not run on a fixed schedule. Most Volunteers do not live near paved roads and thus do not have daily access to motorized transportation out of their villages.
Volunteers can choose between receiving a transportation allowance or receiving a bike to use for work and recreation purposes. Bicycle helmets are required. If you plan to use a bike, we encourage you to purchase a high-quality helmet in the United States. Peace Corps/Mali will reimburse you for the cost if you provide the receipt. The quality and selection of helmets available in-country are limited.
For safety reasons, Peace Corps/Mali prohibits Volunteers from driving motorized vehicles (such as a motorcycle) except in a life-threatening emergency. Moreover, Volunteers are not permitted to ride as a passenger on motorcycles.
Geography and Climate
Mali stretches across three climatic zones: savanna, steppe, and desert. The savanna features wooded grasslands broken occasionally by cliff and rock formations and is watered by the Niger and Senegal rivers and their tributaries. This area lies south of a rough line drawn from Kayes in the west to a point just south of Mopti in the east. The steppe, or the Sahelian, zone is between the savanna and the desert, stretching north from Mopti to roughly 50 miles beyond the great bend of the Niger River. It consists of dry, sandy plains sparsely wooded by trees. The third zone, north of these plains, is part of the Sahara Desert and is characterized by rocky outcrops dotted by vegetation and small villages wherever water is close to the surface. The harshness, vastness, and romance of the desert exert an influence that is felt throughout the country and has helped shape the culture.
Nomadic herdsmen and camel drivers inhabit the northern half of Mali, where they haul salt and other commodities from Taoudeni to Tombouctou and Gao.
The Sahel provides grazing land for more than half of the country’s 5 million to 6 million cattle. The savanna is the most densely populated and most heavily cultivated area, furnishing most of the cereal, cotton, and peanuts produced in Mali. The richest farming area is in and around the Niger River basin.
Mali’s climate is similar to that of Arizona. The rainy season extends from June to October in the south, but starts later and ends earlier as one goes north. The period between November and early March is characterized by moderate daytime temperatures, cool nights, and cloudless skies. In April and May, the humidity drops to about 10 percent, and temperatures rise to as high as 110 or 120 degrees Fahrenheit. June brings rains that slowly ease the intensity of the heat. The climate becomes hotter and drier farther north.
Social activities vary according to where you are located. They might include relaxing and talking with friends and neighbors, going to the market, or taking part in local festivals. The cultural diversity of Mali means that there is always something of interest taking place nearby from which you can learn, be it drumming and dancing or planting peanuts. Many Volunteers meet periodically in regional market towns to share ideas and experiences. But in keeping with its goal of cross-cultural exchange, the Peace Corps expects Volunteers to establish social networks with Malian friends and colleagues at their sites rather than seek out other Volunteers for social activities. Such networks enhance Volunteers’ ability to be effective in their work.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the biggest challenges faced by Volunteers in Mali is defining their role as professionals in the Malian context while maintaining a sense of their own work ethic and cultural identity. The tendency of Malian counterparts to blur (from a Western perspective) the distinction between professional and personal time and space adds another layer of complexity to the challenge of establishing yourself as a professional in this context. Cultivating work relationships is not something that happens only during working hours; behavior and activities outside the work setting will have an impact on your professional relationships.
Malians generally consider it important to dress appropriately whenever they are going to be seen in public—whether at work, in the market, or at a bar. It is almost unheard of, for example, for an urban Malian man or woman to wear shorts unless he or she is taking part in some kind of sporting event. Nor would a professional man or woman ever be seen in public wearing dirty, disheveled, wrinkled, or torn clothing, but for rural farmers this is not at all uncommon because expensive dress clothing would be easily ruined during a normal work day. Dressing appropriately - as a professional Malian would - will greatly enhance your credibility, improve your ability to integrate into your community, and increase your odds of having a safe Peace Corps service. Aside from following Malian norms for dress, however, Volunteers need to be aware of other unwritten rules of the culture, such as the fact that Malian women never go to a bar on their own. Serving in the Peace Corps often requires sacrificing personal preferences regarding dress and behavior. There will be ample discussion of this subject during cross-cultural sessions in pre-service training, but ultimately these are personal choices that the volunteer must make on a daily basis.
Peace Corps/Mali has instituted a dress code that must be followed by Volunteers, trainees, and staff at the Bamako office, the Tubani So training center, and at any function where a staff member, Volunteer, or trainee could reasonably be considered to be representing the Peace Corps. The code is also suggested for any Volunteer with an office-type work assignment, anyone attending a professional meeting, or attending a meeting with someone to whom one is expected (as per Malian mores) to show deference.
- Shirts with buttons, sleeves, and collars for men (must cover midriff)
- Shirts with sleeves for women (must cover midriff)
- Any kind of shoes or sandals (except rubber/plastic shower flip-flops)
- Long pants for men and at least mid-calf length for women (if worn by women they should never be tight or transparent and best accompanied by a long shirt)
- Skirts (opaque and at least knee length), dresses, veils (dampe), Malian-style outfits for men and women), or boubous (robes worn by local men or women)
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and being perceived as rich are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers in Mali complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Mali. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
How will living and working in communities affected by HIV/AIDS affect me?
The AIDS pandemic strikes across all social strata in many Peace Corps countries. The loss of teachers has crippled education systems, while illness and disability drains family income and forces governments and donors to redirect limited resources from other priorities. The fear and uncertainty AIDS causes has led to increased domestic violence and stigmatizing of people living with HIV/AIDS, isolating them from friends and family and cutting them off from economic opportunities. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will confront these issues on a very personal level. It is important to be aware of the high emotional toll that disease, death, and violence can have on Volunteers. As you strive to integrate into your community, you will develop relationships with local people who might die during your service. Because of the AIDS pandemic, some Volunteers will be regularly meeting with HIV-positive people and working with training staff, office staff, and host family members living with AIDS. Volunteers need to prepare themselves to embrace these relationships in a sensitive and positive manner. Likewise, malaria and malnutrition, motor vehicle accidents and other unintentional injuries, domestic violence and corporal punishment are problems a Volunteer may confront. You will need to anticipate these situations and utilize supportive resources available throughout your training and service to maintain your own emotional strength so that you can continue to be of service to your community.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction in Mali is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of financial constraints, inefficient management, and an often contradictory incentive system, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support they promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback on, your work. Development anywhere in the world—including disadvantaged areas in the United States—is slow work that requires perseverance. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. The Peace Corps staff, your Malian co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Mali feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.