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The art of growing (a.k.a. going with the flow)


As I step off the plane in the middle of a desert road in Bamako, Mali, I look around and take in the smell of earth and red dust. I make my way through the doors to the airport, and it takes me a good minute to realize that I am the only very blonde, very young person in the room. I also see that a million people want to take me to the city – and I have not even thought about how to get there yet. I grab my bag, face the screaming human sea of barterers and hop in the car with the driver who gives me the cheapest fare to town.

We tumble over unpaved roads, passing through the rubble of old markets, ancient villages and naked children playing in the streets.

And I suddenly feel the change, the shiver of adventure run up my spine.

I am in Africa. Beautiful, dusty, boisterous Mother Africa.

It’s January of 2002. I am 23. I am just starting my first “real” job with an international organization. When one day in the office I am asked if I am willing to move to Mali for a few months to work on a local project, I don’t even bother taking a breath before screaming “YES!” to the world. What travel-obsessed, young professional would even think about answering otherwise? I am told that I leave Monday (and it’s Friday), so I need to run to get all medical and admin issues sorted. I get my vaccines done, yellow health booklet filled out and visa request filed. The corporate doctor hands me enough anti-malarial pills to last a year and tells me my plane ticket and details on where I would be living would get to my email inbox the following day.

I run home, call my family sitting on the other side of the globe and tell them I will be traveling for a brief period of time with a group of colleagues and staying in very central hotels. The truth being, though, that I’m totally alone and do not even have the faintest idea of where I will be sleeping. Plus, I have a one-way ticket and plan on taking nothing with me except for a small carry-on mostly filled with books, pencils and a few essentials.

“Moving to a new country – what an awesome way to start a career!”, you may rightly say. And it definitely is. Little did I know, though, that the decade to come living across the African continent would push me over my self-imposed limits and sit me in front of who I really was.

But let’s get back to Bamako.

I arrive at my bed and breakfast room and try to figure out where I am within the topography of the city. Remember, these are not the days of Google Maps, iPhones, Waze or Uber. This is the era of flip-open Nokias, no touch screens and definitely unprecise GPS tracking. I decide to talk to the owner of the hostel so as to get as much information about my surroundings as I can. Luckily, we are both proficient in French, have a hang for smiles and quickly become friends. That same evening, I am introduced to Castel, the local beer, and the generosity of the other travelers passing by who share mangoes, papayas and nuts from the market. By the end of the night, I feel like I have just encountered my new family.

And so, with a mind full of ideas and a heart heavy with a desire for the unknown, I go back to my room. I turn the light on just in time to find the biggest cockroach ever sitting on the floor waiting for me (and I come from Florida where cockroaches are usually as big as a child’s hand!). Too tired to chase him, I pray he stay there the whole night – and, of course, he doesn’t – while I get some sleep.

The following morning, I wake up to no water, no electricity and numerous “Excusez-nous, madame, pour l’inconvenience”. So rather than waiting for everything to start working again, I set out for the office on foot. Having read all about the attire expected of women in this (mostly) Muslim country, I believe I am properly dressed in long pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a small scarf to put on my head if need be. I carry my camera (remember those?) on my shoulder, and as I walk through the main market – le Grand Marche’ – I start taking pictures of people, produce stands and the central mosque.

I stop to inhale the mix of raw dirt, balmy sweat, sweet fruit, treated hide and cheap cigarettes. And then feel a very strong arm pull me to the side and rip my camera off my shoulder. My first instinct is to feel if my money is still in the pouch inside my underwear. It is. So, if this is not a robbery, what’s going on?

I turn to face an incensed policeman screaming wildly while waving my camera to my nose. Then I see it fly to the ground and shatter into a thousand pieces. The film rolls out and gets exposed to the 47-degree sun, basically melting on the spot. My notebook is torn up, stomped on and thrashed in the dusty road. I still have no understanding of what is actually happening – I am frozen on my feet. All I know is that my first impressions of this new home – pictures taken and words written – are gone, forever.

When I finally focus on what I’m being told (“You cannot take pictures of the Sacred Mosque”, “Women are not allowed here”, “Leave”), all I feel like doing is letting the lump in my throat turn into a bawling deluge. I resist the reaction, however – as well as the urge to run from the feeling of being unwanted, different, conspicuous and obviously lost. When I am told in front of a now big crowd that I need to get out if I don’t want my documents confiscated, for the first time I have the feeling that maybe, just maybe, I should not have trusted my gut this time. What was I thinking (or better, not thinking) when hopping on that plane to move here?

But I decide to soak it all in and to surrender to the moment of reality. And with hurt pride and unused tears, I pick up my pencil and notebook from the floor and walk away. As my feet follow their own selves towards an unprecise direction, my favorite poet’s words materialize in front of me. “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”. If I can’t handle what is new and different to me, how will I ever grow?

This is when I decide to allow my new life to take over and begin.

The 13 years following this first, intense embrace in Mother Africa’s arms are profound and meaningful. Nothing comes easy at first, like making friends or constantly jotting down local expressions to remember how to respectfully greet my neighbors. I spend long nights in the company of my books, of an incredible variety of insects and of total strangers, drinking beer in the dark at hostel cafés when the electricity gets turned off.

Walking to the office every day turns into a way of exploring social customs, mingling with shoppers at the market, taking pictures with my mind and a pencil rather than with a camera. The slower pace at work pushes me to fluctuate towards a mindset of valuing my responsibilities instead of treating them as a quick tick off my to-do list. Simple things like getting adorned in colorful boubous and jewelry made by the women of the villages I visit open my eyes to the human race’s one commonality: ready kindness and intentional vulnerability.

Rural communities teach me the importance of learning the basics of every local language, as a sign of appreciation towards them. I understand I should regard water as precious and to save it for drinking, not for taking a shower every day. I get the chance to see that women everywhere, independent of spiritual beliefs or location, are the pillars of family and society. I learn that nothing is indispensable in this life, and that we can easily adapt to any circumstance if only our minds and hearts are open to it.

Throughout my years in Africa, I meet hundreds of families, activists, writers, photographers, artists – and we enrich, sharpen and equip each other towards the individual journeys we are all on.

And finally, I meet a new version of myself: a rough draft of a project still in the making, with the possibility of seeing the potential of who I may one day become.


Michelle Calcatelli

Michelle Calcatelli

Hi there! My name is Michelle. I'm an American living in Italy, mom of two girls, a lover of travel, music and good food shared with loved ones. I am a freelance grant writer and a former agricultural development practitioner, having worked mostly in rural Africa for 18 years. I look forward to creating a space here - with your help - where we can exchange dreams, ideas and kindness to start shaping a better tomorrow.

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