Elizabeth Higgins possessed a social conscience at Salina South High School and as a psychology student at the University of Kansas, and the logical extension of that, in her view, was to join the Peace Corps.
"The Peace Corps was the next step for service work," said Higgins, 24, who recently returned from the Republic of Mali.
Her stay was shortened by a military coup in March that ousted President Amadou Toure because of a perceived lack of government support for the army's fight against northern rebels.
Higgins said she never felt in danger, mostly because Peace Corps officials hustled the volunteers to safety when any fighting neared the villages where volunteers were stationed.
"We didn't go back to the villages for two weeks," Higgins said.
Her return to her village lasted fewer than 48 hours.
"I had to turn around and come back," she said. "The next day we had to go to the capital."
From there, they were flown out of the country.
"The Peace Corps said they were unable to provide minimal support," she said.
Even the U.S. Embassy warned nonessential personnel to leave the country.
"I was to finish my service in mid-June," Higgins said. "It would have been nice to close up the projects and know they were sustainable -- and to say goodbye."
Higgins worked on two projects: empowering young Malians and combating adult illiteracy, mostly women.
"Males traditionally were allowed to stay in school longer," she said.
The national language of Mali is French, a holdover from colonial days. The Mali Federation was born in 1960 of the Sudanese Republic and Senegal after independence. Senegal withdrew and what had been the Sudanese Republic became Mali.
About 80 percent of the country speaks Bambara and numerous other African languages.
Higgins was responsible for acquiring qualified teachers who could read and write and acquire supplies and other items necessary to run a classroom.
No plumbing, electricity
Her accommodations while in the country comprised a mud hut with no electricity, running water or modern plumping.
Travel was equally austere. The local bus schedule was based on occupancy and not a clock. Buses and the few cars used as public transport left when they were full; not before.
A bus that was scheduled to leave at 3 p.m. may not leave until 4:30. And the paying customers shared space with local livestock.
"The goats and sheep go on the roof," Higgins said. Chickens rode inside.
"You learn to be patient," Higgins said. "You learn to be more flexible. You learn to live at a slower pace."
Traveling by bike
Mostly, Higgins traveled by bicycle to get around the cluster of seven villages that housed a total of about 5,000 people. The farthest was about 11 miles away.
Like most first-time Peace Corps volunteers, Higgins questioned her decision to sign up.
"Everyone has those days, wondering what you're doing."
Although her tour ended prematurely, she returned with a new appreciation of America, mostly the simple things: "Like hot showers and being able to get in the car and just go."
Glad to be home
Higgins has a degree in psychology from the University of Kansas and will begin a master's program in social work this fall at Washington University, St. Louis.
It was the two years of French at KU that earned her the Mali assignment.
"Anyone who has taken a French language class is destined for west Africa," she said.
Despite the hardships and political instability, Higgins said she's a better person for having gone.
"I'm glad I went to Mali," she said, "but I'm glad to be home."
Most Popular Stories
- Facebook, Twitter Announce Apps for Google Glass
- Will Yahoo Splurge on $1-Billion acquisition of Tumblr?
- European Car Sales up First Time in 20 Months
- 'Star Trek Into Darkness': The Return of Khan?
- Google Fiber Making an Impact
- Entrepreneurs Chase Social Media
- Financial Times Twitter, Email Hacked
- Exciting Night for UFC Fans
- Summer Movies Aimed at Young Men, Teen Boys
- Teen Drivers Should Be Prepared for Any Car-Related Situation