Lillie Carlile ’13 (Phoenix) who hopes to eventually work in public health, traveled to Mali last January for a study abroad term that ended abruptly with a military coup. Following is a piece she wrote about her experiences there.
I recently realized that when I see something that reminds me of Mali, I think, “Oh, it’s just like home.” Now when I think of home, I’m no longer sure which home, on which continent, I’m remembering.
My new home in the world started when my study abroad program did, on the late January 2012 day when I landed in Bamako, Mali. There I was to spend several months studying global health while living with a host family and learning about local culture. Mali, a land-locked republic about twice the size of Texas in northwestern Africa, is home to 15 million people, most of whom live in rural villages. It had two decades of stable democratic government, avoiding the chaos and turmoil of many other African nations.
I’ve had a longtime interest in the developing world and Africa in particular, but I’ve never enjoyed “roughing it.” I love indoor plumbing and long showers, so this was going to be a challenging adventure.
As it turned out, this trip to one of Africa’s most impoverished nations offered a whole different type of adventure. Lack of indoor plumbing was the easy part. When I was in Mali, I found myself in the middle of a military coup and an emergency evacuation.
On March 21, about a month before presidential elections were to be held, a group of soldiers unhappy with the government’s handling of tribal issues in the north invaded the capital city of Bamako and ousted the president.
Although my Malian home was in the capital city, on this particular date I happened to be in Siby, a small village outside the capital, living in a health clinic. Small health clinics throughout the country care for many civilians—handling everything from ear infections to serious illnesses—because the only two full-fledged hospitals in Mali are located in Bamako.
The clinic’s water worked only during the daytime, and electricity was sporadic. But the Malians working at the clinic dedicated themselves to helping village residents, even if it meant waking up in the middle of the night to care for a patient by the light of a cell phone. The clinic’s only physician, Doctor Sylla, worked all day, every day.
The day after the coup, I awoke to a phone call from the director of our program, who told me that the country’s president, Amadou Tomani Touré, had been overthrown. This was a huge moment for a country that had been hailed as a democratic model for the continent, and had maintained peace and stability for more than 20 years.
In tiny Siby, though, caring for people was paramount, so we spent the day shadowing the doctor while he administered vaccines, performed circumcisions, and delivered a baby. The country may have been in the midst of political turmoil, but the responsibility to care for an entire village remained.
Our program director told us to leave Siby that day and return to Bamako, where we were to lie low in our homestays for a few days. During the drive back we were stopped at a checkpoint, but when they found out that we were American, the soldiers were nice to us. Bamako appeared to be returning to normal, with storefront vendors still selling fruit and changing tires. There was little to suggest that a coup had taken place. There were fewer cars on the streets, but the city was still vibrant. There was a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and we were instructed to stay close to home for the weekend, but the city was not shut down. I heard occasional gunshots, but my family still slept on the roof because of the oppressive indoor heat; my neighborhood was far from the city center, where the government buildings were located.
The next few days were strange, because we were receiving two very different stories. On the one hand, our Malian teachers and families, who only received news from the military and had lived through earlier coups, believed the situation wasn’t too bad. Furthermore, life did not seem to change much in Bamako. It was confusing to hear that your city was dangerous and unstable, yet to feel completely safe living there.
On the other hand, our parents and program directors, who were receiving outside news, told us Mali was in a potentially bad position, on the brink of serious instability, and that it wasn’t safe for us to be outdoors. (Worse, aid donors had removed funding, leaving poor clinics like Dr. Sylla’s even more financially strapped.)
While we were trying, unsuccessfully, to reconcile these two perspectives, we were being advised by both sides how to act. It made for a confusing and frustrating situation; no one knew what to think.
A few days later, our group set off for a week-long village stay in Sanankoroba. The group was split into pairs, and my partner and I were taken to a house with many little children and an old couple. We stayed in a tiny concrete room with no ventilation, and a loud donkey tied up outside our window.
Several days into our stay our group reassembled, only to receive the worst possible news: Our program was ending early and we were to return to the U.S. immediately. We all started sobbing and group hugging right there, which made the Malians very uncomfortable.
This didn’t seem right. We still didn’t feel unsafe in Bamako; we were still doing our laundry on washboards at wells, men still made afternoon tea on the roadsides, and the markets were still bustling.
Malians let time come to them, whereas Americans chase time, always looking for the next thing. At this point we all became Malian: we let life happen. There was clearly no stopping the political and military events that were rapidly changing this country. Rather than continue with our scheduled activities for the day, we just enjoyed each other’s company, remaining under the hut canopy all day, and coming to peace with our situation. Then we pleaded with the program director to return us to our Malian families in Bamako, with whom we already felt close.
So the caravan was loaded up the next morning, and we returned to Bamako to spend one final weekend with our host families. My last night at home was wonderful. My host brother, Ladji, had to drive our sister and her baby home, so they invited me to tag along. This turned into a two-hour driving tour of Bamako, including a stop at a mosque and at various friends’ houses to visit and eat. Again, in the midst of political chaos, Malians simply focused on enjoying the day and living in the moment.
The next day our group moved to a hotel, where we spent a strange week together, living without electricity or running water. It wasn’t until I boarded the plane in Bamako that it finally hit me: We were leaving. All I wanted to do was return to my bumpy dirt-road neighborhood, sit in the plastic lawn chairs out front with Baby Ami on my lap, drink tea with my brother, and not quite understand the Bambara conversations surrounding me.
I did not want to be return to the U.S. I wanted to be back in a far poorer country, where everyone greets you in the street and welcomes you warmly into their homes. I had a new family and friends and home in Mali. I was just starting to understand the local dialect, Bambara, and to know my way around Bamako, and was beginning to love it all.
It’s terrible to watch the country unravel as the political turmoil unfolds. The military coup, far from strengthening the country, has weakened it. Northern Mali has been taken over by radical Islamic separatists, and the south, without a cohesive leader and military, has been unable to respond. For progress to be made, in public health or any industry, there must first be political and economic stability. And sadly, Mali will not have that stability again for years to come, until democracy is restored. All the hard work that local doctors like Sylla and international organizations have dedicated to improving the lives of Malians has been largely undone.
And I still miss Mali so much it hurts.