Friday, January 7, 2011

Letter for Friends and Family

Dear Families:

Greetings from the Mali Desk in Washington, D.C.! It is with great pleasure that we welcome your family member to the Mali training program.  During the past year we have received many requests from Volunteers and family members alike regarding travel plans, sending money, relaying messages and mail, etc.  As we are unable to involve ourselves in the personal arrangements of Volunteers, we would like to offer you advice and assistance in advance by providing specific examples of situations and how we suggest they be handled.  Peace Corps service certainly impacts more than just the trainee and we hope that this information will help ease some of the uncertainty which affects the families of Volunteers.

1.  Irregular Communication.   The mail service in Mali is not as efficient as the U.S. Postal Service. It can take three to four weeks for mail in either direction to arrive via the Malian postal system.  From a Volunteer’s site, mail may take 1-2 months to reach the United States.

The following suggestions may be helpful:
  • Determine in your first letters an estimate of approximately how long it takes for transit and establish a predictable pattern of how often you will write to each other.
  • Number your letters so that the Volunteer knows if he/she has missed one.
  • Send postcards in envelopes, as they tend to get lost or stolen.
Volunteers often enjoy telling their “war” stories when they write home. Letters might describe recent illnesses, lack of good food, isolation, etc.  While the subject matter is good reading material, it is often misinterpreted on the home front. Furthermore, with the delay in mail, it is likely that a current problem described in a letter, has been resolved or forgotten by the time the letter is received. The Peace Corps Staff in Mali is available and equipped to assist Volunteers with any need expressed or in an emergency.

If for some reason your communication pattern is broken, and you do not hear from your family member, contact the Office of Special Services (OSS) at Peace Corps Washington 1-800-692-1470.  OSS will contact the Peace Corps Country Director in Bamako and determine the information or assistance needed.  In the case of an emergency at home (death in the family, sudden illness, etc.), please do not hesitate to call OSS immediately, so that the Volunteer can be informed.

2.  Telephone Calls.  Your loved one(s) will not have telephone or email communications for several weeks following arrival.  The telephone systems in Mali are not as good as in the United States but improving.  Service in and out of Bamako and major towns to the United States is usually reliable.  In the interior of the country, where most of the Volunteers are located, the phone service is more limited.  Many Volunteers purchase cell phones but networks availability differs greatly.  Like letters, you may find it helpful to establish a routine so Volunteers can plan to be within networks areas to receive calls from home.    Please be aware that the Peace Corps staff in Bamako cannot assist in arranging these calls and have limited phone lines for official business only.  The Peace Corps Mali office cannot accept pre-arranged calls for Volunteers, except in emergency situations.

The Mali Desk maintains regular contact with the Peace Corps office in Bamako through phone calls and e-mail. However, these communications are reserved for business only and cannot be used to relay personal messages.  All non-emergency communication between family members and the Volunteer should be done via international mail, personal phone calls, or e-mail.  Volunteers may have access to e-mail at Internet cafes on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on their location.    

Please note that for the first 8 weeks in Mali, Trainees will be near Bamako where telephone, e-mail and postal services are more reliable and timely.  In most cases, there will be a significant delay in communication when the Trainees finish Pre-Service Training and move to their sites.  Do not be alarmed if the frequency of letters, phone-calls and e-mail drops suddenly around this time.

3.  Sending packages. Families and Volunteers like to send and receive "care packages" through the mail.  Unfortunately, sending packages can be a frustrating experience for all concerned due to the high incidence of theft and heavy customs taxes, as well as the long waiting periods involved for packages to arrive. We do not recommend that valuable items be sent through the mail.  During training you may use the following address to send letters and/or packages:   

Name of Volunteers, PCV
Peace Corps
B.P. 85 Bamako

Following training Volunteers often choose to get local post office boxes.  Your loved one(s) will need to share this information with you.

The use of padded envelopes is recommended, if possible, as boxes tend to be taxed more heavily.  Custom fees for the Volunteer can sometimes range up to $100.  For lightweight but important items (e.g. airline tickets, important documents, etc.), DHL (an express mail service) does operate in Bamako.  If you choose to send items through DHL, you must address the package to: Peace Corps, C/o Country Director, B.P. 85 Bamako, Mali, West Africa. The Peace Corps and its Staff assume no liability for any lost or stolen mail, including items sent through DHL.  Please call a DHL office nearest you for more information.  Their toll free number is 1-800-CALL-DHL or access the DHL website at

Sending airplane tickets, cash or checks via international mail is not recommended.  Certain airlines will allow you to buy a pre-paid ticket in the US, though, unfortunately, this system is not always reliable. Please call the airline of your choice for more information.

Sending cash or checks is discouraged.  If your Volunteer family member requests money from you, it is his/her responsibility to arrange receipt of it and to determine a means of cashing any checks or receiving wire-transfers.

We understand how frustrating it is to communicate with your family member overseas and we appreciate you using this information as a guideline.  Please feel free to contact us at the Mali Desk in Washington, D.C. if you have any further questions.  Our phone number is 1-800-424-8580, ext. 2327 or 2328, or locally, 202-692-2327 or 2328; e-mails are,, and
Nicole Lewis             Daryn Warner
Mali Desk Officer     Mali Desk Assistant

Information and Advice for Families and Friends Planning to Visit Mali

The following points of information and advice have been compiled from various sources (previous visitors, former Volunteers, staff, etc.) for those planning to visit Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali.  We hope that the suggestions and information below will be helpful.  You may also wish to consult various travel books such as The Lonely Planet’s Africa on a Shoestring or West Africa on a Shoestring.  It is also advisable to plan your travel through a reputable agent to assist you in providing all the information you need.  The Peace Corps' staff, either in Washington or Bamako, cannot assist in your travel plans, or in expedition of passports, visa and ticket arrangements and confirmations.

Special note on timing your visit:  Trainees are not allowed to have visitors during the Pre-Service Training which takes place their first 9-weeks in Mali. Furthermore, Volunteers must not take leave from their post for vacation during the first three months after Pre-Service Training, as well as the final three months of their service.  Visits from family members and others are strongly discouraged during these periods to avoid disruption of the Volunteer's work responsibilities.

1.  Planning.  Begin planning at least six months before departure, since several tasks have to be done sequentially, often adding up to several weeks/months.  Keep in mind that communication takes a long time, so arranging the logistics through the mail/email will require a lot of lead-time.

2.  Passport.  If you do not already have a passport, obtain a passport application and application instructions from a post office, your travel agent or the Department of State website:

3.  Health.  You must get, at minimum, a yellow fever immunization and have it listed in a World Health Organization (W.H.O.) medical card.  For more information on what additional immunizations are required or recommended, contact your local health board or the Division of Immunization at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 639-1870.  The CDC can also answer other questions and advise you on relevant health precautions. You should also plan to take anti-malarial prophylactic drugs during your stay in Mali.  Contact the Malaria Hotline at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 639-1610 for information on what drug(s) to take and where you can obtain them.

There are health risks, and medical facilities in Mali are not comparable to facilities in the United States.  Peace Corps Medical Staff cannot care for family members or friends who require medical attention during their stay in Mali.  We strongly suggest that you consider extra insurance with emergency evacuation coverage from a company such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. (; 1-800-523-8930 or 215-942-8000 in Philadelphia, PA).

4.  Visa.  To apply for a visa to Mali, obtain an application from the Mali Embassy, 2130 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009; phone number (202) 332-2249; fax number (202) 332-6603; website  (Note: Your World Health Organization (W.H.O.) records showing the required yellow fever shot MUST accompany the visa application as well as a copy of your tickets.)

If you plan travel to other countries in the area:
Separate visas are required for almost any African country you may plan to visit in addition to Mali, except for intermediate stops where you will not leave the terminal.  For Mali and most West African countries, visas CANNOT be obtained upon entry and you may be unable to obtain visas for further stops during your stay in Bamako.  Determine the visa requirements for all countries you plan to visit well in advance of your travel.

5.  Money.  The unit of currency in Mali is the CFA.  Traveler’s checks are recommended.  You may want to take at least some traveler’s checks in Euros, since changing Dollars to CFA in Bamako is usually more expensive.  Some larger hotels in Bamako will accept some credit cards.  The best person to answer questions is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit, who can research your options depending on your detailed travel plans.

6.  Baggage.  Have all your suitcases locked.  On most airlines, you are allowed two pieces of baggage (up to 80 lbs. total; with a maximum weight allowance of 50 lbs for any one bag) per passenger for trips from the United States to Europe, but only 20 kg (44 lbs.) total for intra-European, intra-African and flights between Europe and Africa.  Therefore, you may be charged an excess baggage fee for anything over 44 lbs. from Europe to Africa, unless you check your baggage through to Africa directly from the U.S. This is particularly important if you plan to break travel in Europe.  As baggage allowance can change, please confirm the above weight restrictions with the airline when making a reservation.

7.  Flight Check-In.  If you fly through Paris, arrive at the check-in counter for the flight to Bamako at least three hours before take off.  Usually you cannot get a seat assignment until final check-in. Large carry-on bags will likely be refused.

8.  Arrival in Bamako.  You must have both your passport and W.H.O. card when boarding a flight to Bamako and upon arrival. You may be required to open all bags for inspection. There will be many porters pressing to carry your bags for payment.  Carry your bags yourself if you can. If you must have assistance, a tip of about $1 per large bag is sufficient.

9.  Accommodations.  Your best source of information about where to stay is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit.

10.  Photos.  Picture taking is often restricted in Bamako and you should ask permission before taking any photos.  Photos are never allowed at the airport, or around any military installation or government building.

11.  Identification and Registration.  During the course of your stay in Mali, you may have to show your passport to the police several times, so you should carry it with you in a safe place at all times.  The Volunteer can advise you about particular registration requirements, if any, at the sites you will visit.

12.  Departure.  There is a departure tax of 14,000 CFA (approximately $28.00) at the Bamako airport when leaving.

13.   Other Resources:
On this site, you can learn anything from what time it is in Bamako to information about converting currency from the dollar to the CFA franc. Just click on Mali and go from there.
Visit this site to learn all you need to know about any country in the world from a traveler’s perspective.
This site includes links to all the official sites for governments of countries around the world.
This online World Atlas includes maps and geographical information about countries around the world. Each country page contains links to other sites, such as the Library of Congress, that contain comprehensive historical, social, and political backgrounds.
This United Nations site allows you to search for statistical information for member states.
This site provides an additional source of current and historical information about 225 countries worldwide.

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