It's not often that an American IBM employee awakes to the sound of the Islamic call to prayer, is served mint tea by uniformed guards and catches a concert by a West African reggae superstar -- all within 24 hours. Yet that's exactly how Scott Jenkins recalls an average day in balmy Bamako, Mali.
Jenkins, an associate partner at IBM Global Business Services, was stationed in the growing capital for two months earlier this year as a Geekcorps recruit. A long way from IBM's tony New York offices, Jenkins lived and worked in Geekcorps Mali's mixed-use, four-story headquarters, where unarmed guards in purple uniforms served techies "a potent mint tea with enough caffeine to just knock you out," laughs Jenkins.
Not that Jenkins was spoiled during his stint in Mali. Living accommodations consisted of a small room with an air conditioner and shared bathroom facilities. And work conditions were plagued by power outages and spotty Internet connections.
Jenkins used his vacation pay from IBM to finance most of the trip; Geekcorps covered his medical, evacuation and travel visa expenses. The nonprofit also paid him a $10 daily stipend to cover his food costs.
Jenkins knew he wasn't in Armonk anymore the moment he landed in Bamako Airport and was immediately accosted by "hundreds of Malians trying to [sell] SIM cards and taxi rides."
He worked 9 to 5 in a 10-person team of Malian and Western IT professionals. And he says it was the people he encountered that defined his experience as a Geekcorps recruit.
Off-hours, when he wasn't picking up a fabulous egg salad sandwich from a roadside food stand, Jenkins says he was frequenting Senagalese restaurants where, by candlelight, he could feast on rice with an "out-of-this-world" peanut sauce for about a dollar.
Nights on the town ranged from visiting the homes of American expats to catching a concert by world-famous recording artist Alpha Blondy.
Jenkins himself was often the center of attention. "I'd be walking down the street, and 90% of the time a child would see me and yell, 'Tubabu, tubabu,' the Bambara word for 'white person,' pointing at me as if I were a zebra walking by," he chuckles.
But Jenkins was embraced by Bamako's friendly inhabitants. "You say hello to everybody you walk by on the street -- everybody," he recalls, noting that the locals eagerly invite foreigners into their homes and share what little they have with complete strangers. "The Western world associates crime and violence with poverty," says Jenkins. "But in a city without any street lights, walking in the dark everywhere with people all around me, not once did I ever feel threatened. Everyone is warm and welcoming."