Sunday, September 25, 2011

Changing Views

As many of you know, I read a lot while I'm here. Most recently I read a book called "Three Cups of Tea" (another of the many books my dad always told me to read but that I never got around to until I got here), and I have to say I was pretty motivated by the drive that Greg Mortenson has to improve the lives of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His philosophy is right on point, in that he understands that in the best way to help someone improve his/her life is to provide hir (gender neutral pronoun) with an education, and a way to jumpstart that education is by providing a place in the community for education to take place. He also does a great job explaining how ignorance and violence is what leads to hatred and religious extremism. Nobody is born a priori with hatred towards an ethnic group, a country, or a religion, it is taught or experienced. Before joining the Peace Corps, I had lost a lot of my faith in the United States. I can't say that I've always been very patriotic, but reading the books I did, seeing what was on the news, taking the classes that I did, I had developed some very pessimistic views on the world and especially the States. Since coming to Mali, things have changed. I still follow the views I had because I consider them realistic, but I see that individuals can make a difference and that the efforts made by individuals are recognized by thousands of people that will never be heard. The individuals that make the difference don't need 10 degrees from the Ivy League schools or have millions of dollars. Everyone says this, and I know I'm not saying anything new, but it makes me optimistic.
As I was saying, since I've joined Peace Corps, I've become more patriotic. After answering questions about women's rights, gay rights, the amount of religions and different ethnic groups in the US, I think back and I have to remind myself that the US faar from a perfect country but it is pretty awesome. People here have an incredible amount of respect for the United States (or Ameriki as they like to call it). Many of them understand the catch 22 they are stuck in, where they are given loans and can never imagine paying it back, and that wealthy people in France, the US, and many other "developed" countries want Mali to remain in it's state of perpetual development, but they respect this. (This is an observation made by many Malians) Mali has always been ruled by different ethnic groups at different periods of history, and while a specific ethnic group is taking over, everybody fights tooth and nail, but as soon as the most powerful gains control, everybody accepts their new leader, gets back to living day to day. They say this is exactly what happens during presidential elections (which is basically the opposite of what happens in our supposedly democratic country where elected officials are then politically torpedoed by a small group of people won't profit for that election). So for the US (some mythical country too far away for the majority of Malians to imagine), to be the most powerful country in the world and make the overall decisions for them is perfectly natural. Again I went on a tangent. The communities where Peace Corps volunteers come in, where NGOs come in, and where anybody else comes in to help remember. They remember the name of the first volunteer that came 10+ years ago and brought the first iodized salt and goiters started disappearing. They will remember that you took tea and spent an hour chatting. To them, this is what the real America is. They hear things on the news about America bombing Iraq or Afghanistan, and they think it's terrible, but what they are judging the United States on and who Americans are, are those they come in contact with on a day to day basis. One of my village's favorite things to do is talk about previous volunteers that were either in Tominian or in surrounding villages. Half the time they don't know what the volunteer was really doing but they do know, that this person went halfway around the world to come learn their language and their culture, was willing to chat with them on an equal footing and share their knowledge, all with the intention of helping. Greg Mortenson works in countries that supposedly hate us like Afghanistan and Pakistan, but when he goes in to build a school, those people know that he is not the man dropping bombs or torturing people in Guantanomo Bay. This is what people judge Americans on.
This demonstrates a shameful division between us and them. Compared to many Americans, the educated, powerful, democratic Americans, that blanket every Muslim as a terrorist, in most countries that we destroy and never bother to rebuild properly, where they supposedly hate Americans, they are making a distinct difference between the American People, and the American Government. The supposedly uneducated are able to understand that those acts are not done by the will of the American People, but by the American Government. It is the American Government they hate, not us. Believe me, without individuals like Greg Mortenson, we would have a much angrier world on our hands.

According to the Peace Corps philosophy, building schools is not necessarily "sustainable". I agree in the sense that unless there is a committee that is committed to taking care of the school and it's desks, helping students find proper materials etc, it isn't very sustainable. But two distinct events have helped change my mind. The second was reading "Three Cups of Tea" where although he seems to throw money at problems, Greg Mortenson only goes to schools that are willing to build the schools themselves. There is a clear motivation on the part of the community to educate their children and Greg gives them the starting push. The first thing that happened was when my good friend Kate, a current Peace Corps Volunteer in a town called, decided to build a set of 3 classrooms for her school to serve as a new middle school. I was skeptical at first because of what they had taught us in PST about how unsustainable it was. But, when we got to talking about it, she explained that it was what the community really needed. Malian schools are generally over capacity, but her community in particular has a problem. She did a long Needs Assessment session with her school and it was overwhelming that they need a new school. Peace Corps approved a PCPP for her which is where volunteers can raise money from friends and family in the States. I am trying as hard as possible not to use any funds that are not directly from the community, but if you would like to support a Peace Corps Volunteer I would highly encourage you to donate to her school, any amount would help her. The community is donating almost 40% of the project, so what she is asking for is what remains.

No comments:

Post a Comment