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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 3, 2003

Peace Corps volunteer brings Mali to the world

By Kalani Wilhelm
Advertiser Staff Writer

Vanessa Adams is sharing the aloha spirit with a country in dire need of a helping hand.

Mali at a glance

• 70 percent of the population is illiterate

• Two-thirds of the country lives below the poverty level

• The student-to-teacher ratio is between 80-to-1 and 120-to-1

• 12 out of 100 children die before their fifth birthday

• The 180 corps volunteers in Mali is the largest number of Peace Corps volunteers in the 24 African countries the organization helps each year

After working in Colorado in a number of top-flight positions for seven years, Adams, a 1988 Punahou graduate, decided it was time to pursue her lifelong passion.

So she joined the Peace Corps.

"It was always a running joke amongst friends at work, when we were really burned out, that we would join the Peace Corps," said Adams, 33.

Adams' aspirations led her to Mali in western Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Adams works with the Ministry of Tourism and Handcrafts in the capital of Bamako, a city with a population of 1 million. She said her educational background in international relations and development and her many travels overseas fueled her desire to work abroad.

"I really wanted to live and work in the developing world," she said.

Two-thirds of the Mali population lives in poverty. Diseases such as malaria and AIDS are widespread, and 50 percent of the population is younger than 15, with many of them undernourished and uneducated.

Adams has seen many hardships in the West African nation, but she said the warmth of the Malian people and their perseverance have given her the strength to go on.

"It's easy to give up here," she said. "You just have to ask yourself if it is worth continuing. If it is, you keep on going."

For the past few months, Adams has been responsible for marketing Malian culture, such as its stark scenery and arts and crafts, worldwide.

In June, she helped coordinate Mali's involvement for the first time in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival held at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Mali was one of three featured cultures. The occasion also marked just the second time a Mali president has visited Peace Corps headquarters.

The 10-day cultural celebration featured 200 artists and musicians.

"Vanessa has been one of our star volunteers," said Mali Peace Corps director Byron Battle. "Vanessa showed extraordinary organizational abilities and cool-headedness in an event that was extremely difficult to organize."

"She rose to this challenge brilliantly," said Battle, who called Adams' work a "key factor" in the success of Mali's participation.

Her work with the festival is just one of a number of contributions in Mali. Adams worked for a large finance institution that helped provide credit for local cotton farmers and found information that led to the shutdown of a program embezzling money. She helped with Mali's participation in the Corporate Council for Africa, a group that is expected to improve trade and investment relations with the United States.

Adams said her professional achievements have been satisfying, but her relationships with the Malian people have been equally rewarding.

"The people are very welcoming," said Adams, who also met her fiancee during her first month in Mali. "If you need a place to eat they'll tell you to come eat; if you need a place to stay they will give you a place to sleep.

"Nothing is personal or private. That's the only way to survive here."

During her first three months in Mali, she stayed with the family of a blacksmith laborer. The family taught her about Malian culture and treated her like one of their own, she said. They even named her Safiatou after one of their daughters.

Their son suffered from malaria and became very sick. Adams helped pay for the family's travel expenses and the boy's medical treatment. She visited the family two months later and to her surprise the boy was "running, smiling" and full of energy.

"They were my family. They took me in, fed and housed me and did my laundry for nearly three months," said Adams. "He was my little brother."

Adams will return to the United States this month to continue marketing the country she has fallen in love with. When she completes her duties next year, Adams hopes to look back and see a solid foundation in place for the Malian people and the next group of volunteers to continue building upon.

Adams said she will continue to share with the world the hidden treasures and secrets she has found in Mali.

"The wealth of the many local cultures as well as the human spirit is not diminished by (poverty)," she said. "It will soon be there for everyone to see."