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Where they went

Speaking Bambara, skirting civil unrest

Allison Huggins (left) and Caitlin Cohen at Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Allison Huggins (left) and Caitlin Cohen at Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / December 30, 2007

WHO: Caitlin Cohen, 22, of Providence.

WHERE: Africa.

WHEN: June 2006 to August 2007.

WHY: "I really fell in love with Mali when I went 2 1/2 years ago to do research on AIDS with the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS," Cohen said. That group was founded by a professor at Brown University, where Cohen is getting a degree in international development studies and will attend medical school. "I went back to start the Mali Health Organizing Project (malihealth.org) with two other students." She also visited other African countries and lived in Rwanda for four months.

OPTIMISM AND OPENNESS: "The people are dirt poor, but so energetic and lively and optimistic," she said. "They have a national philosophy of hospitality, and that openness was compelling. The impact of health issues and the child mortality rate is really depressing, but they're very supportive of each other. They're very practical and they seek their own social solutions, like sharing of wealth."

NATIVE TONGUE: In Mali, Cohen lived in Sikoro, an impoverished area outside of the capital of Bamako. "Most of the official business in Mali is in French, but in my town nobody spoke French, only Bambara," she said. "It's fun and it gains you so much credibility instantaneously." She learned the dialect through usage and a Peace Corps manual.

MALI TIME: Getting a nonprofit off the ground was challenging, she said. "The time thing is very, very different. It's hard going from an Ivy League environment, when your days are planned in five-minute increments to waiting two weeks for a document to arrive." They formed their public health group using a community committee that involves locals. "We have a full-time Malian director and had three volunteers this summer from US colleges."

ACROSS BORDERS: While in Mali, Cohen traveled to Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. "They're so different; it's incredible. Some depends on whether they're French vs. English. In Ghana the weather is nice, and it's so beautiful. Togo is very French. Benin is a small, long country, and people live in stilted villages. It was the origin of voodoo and a major place of the slave trade." She has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study there. Cohen was in Burkina Faso when civil unrest broke out. "It was a small skirmish, but there was machine-gun firing two blocks from where I was staying."

TO RWANDA: Not wanting her experience to be based on West Africa only, Cohen visited Rwanda, where she worked with Women's Equity in Access to Care and Treatment, which mostly helps those who are HIV-positive from genocide-related rape. "The people are very vivacious and the southwest part of the country is beautiful," she said. She visited the Democratic Republic of Congo with a friend, where they hiked up Nyiragongo volcano. "The intense militarization there was oppression, just the sheer number of guns."

PARENTS ON BOARD: Cohen grew up in Westminster Station, Vt., where her parents, both artists, still live. "The first time I went to Africa they were very concerned, but once they learned I was capable of taking care of myself, they felt better. Now my father helps with the NGO. He's our logistics coordinator."

SEE WHERE THEY WENT

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