Thursday, February 16, 2012


One of my earliest memories of having an interest in the world beyond my neighborhood is of playing the “Capitals” game. As in, “What’s the capital of …….?” After years of training with the help of the linoleum-esque spill-proof placemats on our kitchen table, I got to be fairly knowledgeable about these kinds of things. Even so, there were always a few places that, as kids, we never really associated with a real geographic location on the planet. In fact, we tended to use these names to refer to places that were as far away as you could imagine, and then some. Thus, in our imaginations, the only place that was more distant than China—which was actually only as day’s worth of digging away—was Timbuktu

The mysterious Timbuktu, center of several deceased empires, was probably my favorite pseudo-imaginary place, all the way up until high school. At that more mature age, my buddy, Joey T., introduced me to the idea of Burkina Faso, and its superbly-named capital, Oagadougou—beat that.

Ironically, here I am decades later, closer to Timbuktu than I ever imagined myself being. After almost three weeks on pins and needles, I received an invitation from Peace Corps to transfer to Mali to complete my service there. Wow. Now, I am realizing that the only thing harder than waiting for this information is figuring what to do with it.

I am certainly not the only one facing this decision right now. All of the 25 first-year Cape Verde volunteers in my cohort have received similar invitations to transfereither to Mali, Benin, or Moçambique. The past few weeks have seen a flurry of back-and-forth emails and Facebook conversations, as volunteers seek to pick each other's brains, support one another, and just plain vent. Ultimately, we all know that it will be a personal decision for each of us, regardless of what the common knowledge, misinformation, or apprehensions may be.

I have until the end of this month to make my decision: to transfer or not to transfer, that is the question. If I chose not to accept the invitation to Mali, I would complete my first year of service here in Cape Verde. My official status would then be listed as “Interrupted Service,” which the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook describes as a form of “Early Termination initiated by Peace Corps staff members, Host Country or local authorities who decide that a trainee or Volunteer should not remain in Peace Corps service due to reasons beyond his or her control,” (p. 73). In some ways it’s kind of like an honorable discharge. If I took this route, I’m pretty sure that I would end up staying in Cape Verde for another year to continue my volunteer work with the Centro da Juventude, while hopefully landing a job that would allow me to pay my relatively modest living expenses. Also, I would still be eligible for the normal benefits of being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, including one-year of non-competitive eligibility status if I were to apply for a federal government job.

The timing of this decision is pretty… well… interesting for me. For one, Carnaval is just around the corner (or already here, depending on when you are reading this post). It will be nice to have something to take my mind off the looming question for a few days. Plus, my body has almost recovered from W.A.I.S.T., so I think I’m ready. Then, after the festivities wrap up, I will be blessed with a cross-Atlantic visit from Lita and the Notorious D.A.D. Over the years, my dad has served me well in many capacities, including, teacher, financier, judge, jury, advocate, warden (never executioner), tour guide, and doubles partner.* Nowadays, he is more of a friend, confidant and general life consultant. It will be nice to have him close by in the days leading up to, and following, the deadline for making one of the biggest decisions of my life…** In truth, I’m not really looking for advice right now. Like I said before, the decision has to be mine. Regardless, it is helpful to bounce ideas off my peoples, be they fellow volunteers or family and friends spread across the globe. 

On that front, you guys have continued to be amazing, with supportive emails and more inspirational art therapy. Here’s the latest in our series of “Live From Tomorrow Haikus,” courtesy of my folks, Molly.

keep on keepin' on
enjoy all the adventures
the best ain't easy
Before I sign off, I thought it would be interesting to share with you a glimpse into my thought process as I start to tackle this decision. So, I present to you two more short lists:

3 Reasons Why I Should Stay in Cape Verde

-          Personal Commitment – Peace Corps aside, I feel like I made a personal commitment to the organization(s) that I work with in Cape Verde and the community where I live. The biggest reason for me to stay would be to see that commitment through to the end.

-          Not Moving - I hate, hate, hate, moving. Seriously, it is one my least favorite things in the world.

-          Mindelo - Mindelo é sab.***

3 Reasons Why I Should Transfer to Mali

-          The Need – Unlike Cape Verde, Mali is one of the poorest countries on the planet. About 35% of the population does not have access to clean drinking water. If I transfer, I will (be trained to) work on water sanitation projects.

-          Professional Commitment – The last thing I need on my resume is another thing that lasted for a year or so. I was really looking forward to being able to say that I worked for ______________ for more than two years. Right now, that would mean transferring to Mali to complete my service there.

-          The Challenge – If you know me, then you know that this is one of the things that make me tick on the most fundamental level. While my time in Cape Verde has brought its fair share of challenges, transferring to Mali would likely be a whole new level of “damn this is hard.” My French skills are negligible—besides, whatever language I would learn (Bambara?) has absolutely no connection to French, or any other language that I speak. Now that’s what I’m talkin´ ´bout. On top of that, I’ve never lived in a country that is landlocked, predominantly Muslim, etc., etc., etc.

Notice how I chose to keep these lists in the affirmative? In other words, I didn’t share my list of reasons why I should not do "x, y, z." But believe me: that list exists in my head, and as my roommate would say, "it tain´t purty." Without being a complete Debbie Downer, I do want to share one serious concern that will be a big influence on my decision. My big question is, “What if they decide to shut down the program in Mali, too?” Whether you call them insignificant skirmishes, isolated incidents, or a full-fledged rebellion, the reality is that there is some degree of instability in the country. Granted, the media has a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize some of the stories coming out of Africa while ignoring others. “Besides,” you might be thinking, “Peace Corps wouldn’t transfer you to a country if they were going to shut down that program.” Unfortunately, in light of my current circumstances, I have trouble buying into the logic of that argument. Even as we speak, there are areas in Mali that are “off-limits” to the Peace Corps Volunteers that are already stationed in that country. Ironically, I'm pretty sure that one of those areas is the ever-elusive city of Timbuktu. So, maybe I’m not as close as I thought.

One thing is for sure: I won’t be making any final decisions in the next few days. I’ve got other fish to fry right now. I just bought a couple packs of face paint yesterday and the biggest question on my mind is whether to go with the simple black-and-white Dead Presidents look, or something more extravagant. When the dust settles, I will face the music and make the call. Who knows, maybe I will choose “none of the above.” Until then, I'll just be following my friend Yang's haiku-advice...

Pretty Mindelo
You won't be there for ever
Party it up NOW!!!
Pura Vida,

* We are still undefeated after dominating the non-competitive division of the Father/Son tournament at the San Francisco Tennis Club, circa 1995.
* *… thus far.
*** It’s nice here. “Sabi” (pronounced “sahb” in the North or “sah-bee” in the South) is another one of those words that is much bigger than its definition. It could mean nice, good, tasty, fun,all-gravy, or pretty much anything positive.

UPDATE: Peace Corps suspended its Volunteer Activities in Mali on April 9, 2012. Click here to read the official press release.

1 comment:

  1. That noncompetiive eligibility is a golden ticket of sorts. I wouldn't want to lose that. Plus, this way you get to see more of Africa, do things you wouldn't have done, and complete your service. Seems like a win-win. You can always go back to Cape Verde when you're done.