When I embarked on my two-year commitment as an Agricultural Peace Corps volunteer in a small rural village in western Mali, I didn’t yet know that I wanted to pursue a career in social work. At the time, I simply wanted to travel to a foreign land, immerse myself in a culture completely different from my own, and try my hand at helping, whatever that entailed. The experience turned out to be so much more, and so different, from my initial expectations.
I quickly learned that integrating into Malian culture was more challenging than I had first anticipated. It was often exciting and frustrating in the same breath. Over the course of two years, I worked with the villagers in several different capacities. I held weekly meetings with the local Women’s Association to establish certain goals – namely, creating a fenced off women’s garden for personal use, as well as sale of excess produce at the local market. I wrote a grant proposal to secure funding for materials, including metal fencing, tools, and seeds to construct a community garden for the women of my village. We obtained land from the chief of the village, and once funding came in, we built the garden from the ground up. The process involved the entire community, and everyone had to reach an agreement over how we would proceed with the plans before any action could occur. It was my first big project as an organizer, and I encountered numerous roadblocks along the path to success.
However, my biggest accomplishment, the thing I am most proud of and eager to discuss, are the relationships that I formed with my host family and my villagers. These relationships took time and effort to build, but they were essential – not only to accomplishing any work within the village, but also to my own daily happiness and sense of place and fulfillment in Mali. Many days were spent sitting under the giant Neem tree in the center of my family’s courtyard, drinking tea and discussing every topic from American politics to the Malian presidential election to the success or failure of this season’s harvest. We worked together to accomplish daily tasks, including gathering fire wood for cooking, pounding millet and sorghum for meals, fetching water from the well, shelling peanuts for storage, repairing a wooden fence – anything and everything that came up.
By working together to complete these daily tasks, we built trust and friendship. That was probably the biggest take away – that in order to accomplish any task, we had to establish mutual trust and work together; I needed the support of my community to accomplish any goal. I often credit my time as a Peace Corps volunteer as the reason I feel so at home at Fountain House. It just feels natural to respect those I am working with. It feels natural to work together towards a common goal. And it feels great to share in success. West African culture, village culture, is set up as a working community. I truly believe the clubhouse model can be successful in Africa if we can help these communities understand that mental health needs to be on the agenda.
My work with the Walther Executive Fellowship Program will provide new learning opportunities for me to absorb and master the skills necessary to start a clubhouse, possibly a network of clubhouses, in a new country. I feel strongly about returning to a region and a people that gave me so much and helped shape the person I am today. I am excited to be afforded this opportunity to enhance my leadership abilities and utilize the resources I have to start a new mental health approach in an area that is lacking in such services.
Since the beginning of January, I have been working with the Fountain House Development team to learn about fundraising, event planning, grant writing, and working with donors. Our Development team is very skilled at raising money for the clubhouse, and I recognize that fundraising will be one of the most important aspects of starting and maintaining a new clubhouse – I am very excited to learn from such a talented group of individuals! I will also be using this time to build a network of support from others who believe that everyone, regardless of where they live, deserves treatment and recovery options that are respectful and supportive, free of stigma and full of hope.
I recognize that this is bigger than anything I have ever done, but I am passionate about returning to West Africa and building a supportive community for the underserved (perhaps unserved) mental health population. My goal right now is to start one clubhouse. However, I hope that in doing so, I will motivate other mental health workers throughout the region to spread the working community model and establish their own clubhouses, creating a coalition and network of support across West Africa. I hope the clubhouse model spreads to reach even more communities and support people as they discover that they are not alone.
Megan Hunter, Walther Executive Fellow
as interviewed by Alan Miller, Communication Unit