Armed with seeds, good intentions and a job to do, 22-year-old Shauna BurnSilver got a ride to the village of Zambougou in southern Mali south of the capitol of Bamako, on Africa’s west coast, in 1988. Her escort stayed about 15 minutes, then left her standing among her things in the dust and heat of the late afternoon, surrounded by 30 or 40 curious villagers. It was her initiation into the Peace Corps.
“All I wanted to do was cry,” she recalls, her African cornrows swaying across her shoulders. “I didn’t know what to say. They didn’t speak English or French, and my Bambara was infantile. I couldn’t do anything but laugh.” Shauna BurnSilver wanted to help. She had a heart full of good intentions and a wide-open curiosity to know about the world. BurnSilver grew up in Colorado where she never went hungry. She was naïve, yes; but her innocence was also her ally. With it, she embraced the people of Zambougou and their struggles for survival with hope.
BurnSilver was fresh out of college armed with a degree in International Relations with an emphasis in Third World Studies. She had traveled, but not to a country like Mali – one of the poorest countries in the world with a life expectancy of only 46 years. Her education gave her lots of theories, but she wanted to see for herself what was really going on in the “third world.” So BurnSilver took on a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps.
The young American was the first Peace Corps volunteer to live in this village of 13 families (about 200 people). There was no electricity and no running water. The Peace Corps gave her a medical kit and a mosquito net. “I packed as if I was going on a two year camping trip,” says BurnSilver.
The Peace Corps offers a different way to travel. Instead of moving from country to country, as most budget travelers do, or being guided through a country with an outfitter, the Peace Corps trains its volunteers in local languages and customs and sets them up in a village to work. Not quite a nine-to-five grind, nor a relaxing vacation, but it is an opportunity to immerse yourself into a culture in another part of the world and maybe help make life a little better for the people who live there.
While in Zambougou, BurnSilver’s job was to show the men and women of the village how to grow and maintain an organic garden. She believed in the Peace Corps and thought she had something to offer. The Peace Corps’ main priority when placing volunteers is to send them where their skills are most needed. BurnSilver had a background in gardening, yet her main strength was her willingness. She came bearing seeds, many of which the locals had never seen, and didn’t like, such as kale, cabbage and kohlrabi, a turnip-rooted cabbage. Dealing with the fact they also didn’t want to eat them was only the first of many challenges. Just living provided its own struggles.
“I had to draw my own water from the well, filter it, then treat it with chlorine bleach,” describes BurnSilver. After six months of living in one the village chief’s family huts, the villagers built BurnSilver her own house at the edge of the village. It was part of their agreement with the Peace Corps. Her “house” was made out of mud and brick and had a grass roof. The wives of the chief’s sons took turns cooking for her, another agreement the villagers made with the Peace Corps.
Usually BurnSilver ate rice with peanut sauce or a gumbo made out of millet, corn or sorghum – not a bad diet, really. Located in the sub-tropical south, Zambougou had a more varied diet than their northern neighbors. BurnSilver’s training taught her to identify problems and steer the villagers into coming up with the solution that she had in mind. Proverbs, real-life examples and laughter were her tools.
When she realized that the men were selling all the produce and leaving nothing for their families, BurnSilver suggested a new approach. They ate the carrot greens (a good source of Vitamin A) and sold the carrots. They ate the potato greens and sold the potatoes. They ate the imperfect tomatoes and sold the perfect ones. “In the end, I felt like I was pretty good at this method,” BurnSilver says. “I asked the right questions and got the right solutions. But I wasn’t comfortable with the process.”
She left the Peace Corps after her two-year assignment was up, traveled and returned to the States. Then she got a call asking if she wanted to run the agricultural training program in Mali. She had the opportunity to change a process that had left her feeling manipulative rather than truly helpful. She had gotten results but didn’t like the method she had been trained to use. She felt the Peace Corps and other agencies, with only good intentions, imposed a system on local villages instead of incorporating help into the local people’s customs and habits.
“I had a big realization,” BurnSilver says with an amused smile. “I realized that the local people know more about their environment than we do.” BurnSilver did two, four-month trainings in Mali before returning to Colorado to start graduate school. “I still thought education was the answer,” she adds, although she knew something wasn’t quite right.
Then she met Kathy Galvin, a senior research scientist at the Natural Resources Ecology Lab at CSU Fort Collins. “I finally got it,” BurnSilver explains. “She taught me to look at humans within their environment and to look at the drivers that push people to act in a certain ways. I realized you can’t separate the people from where they live. In Mali, a major driver is drought. Even though the last one was in 1986, it still influences how people feel about their environment and the risks they’re willing to take.”
The Peace Corps isn’t sending its new volunteers to Mali with bags of kale seeds anymore. They and other agencies are trying to implement the new agri-forestry strategies. “AF (agriculture-forestry) is in the keystone phrase now,” explains BurnSilver. “The idea is to unite crops and trees in the same location using horizontal and vertical space. It’s actually a technique that’s been in effect for hundreds of years.”
In 1997, BurnSilver went back to Mali to do research for her master’s degree. She documented their specific strategies for using trees in farmland. “Traditionally, the villagers relied on natural regeneration rates for trees and bushes. They didn’t think long-term because they didn’t have to. But things have changed, even in the 10 years since I was here before,” BurnSilver says. Her 80 interviews revealed that 80 percent of the farmers don’t cut down the trees they consider beneficial, no matter what size the tree.
BurnSilver was pleased to learn about a new way the villagers were farming. “They radically prune the trees, use the wood, plant their millet, and then when the field is used up in 3-8 years, the trees are already there,” she says. “It’s long-term planning and exactly the kind of practice you want to build on.”
“I’ve learned in my travels and work in Mali,” BurnSilver adds, “not to travel as an American with concrete ideas of how things should be and pass judgment on whether it’s good or bad. When I see something different, I think, ‘They’ve got to be doing things for a reason. It’s a great game to figure out.’ Travelers can pass through a village like Zambougou and never see who lives there. Most visitors to Mali will only see the farmland as they fly over it.”
Shauna BurnSilver, who is now 38 and at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University where she is finishing a PhD in Human Ecology and teaching in the Anthropology Department, thought she was going to Africa to help. She went with naivety and with an open mind. As she gardened beside the villagers, they taught her new ways to measure the quality of life. The gifts she brought home were not artifacts, but the strands of a different culture she has woven, like the braids she sometimes wears in her hair, into her own heart.
About the Peace Corps
In 1961, The United States Congress created the U.S. Peace Corps. The goals remain unchanged: to help promote world peace and friendship; to help developing countries meet their needs for skilled men and women; and to help promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of developing nations. Currently there are 6,678 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 69 countries. Their average age is 28. Six percent of the volunteers are over age 50. The oldest volunteer is 84. The Peace Corps contract requires two years of service after a three to four month, in-country training program. Volunteers receive a monthly living allowance, health insurance and a small allowance for re-entry costs. To find out more, log on to: www.peacecorps.gov or call 1-800-424-8580.