Lessons from Africa

1st Lt. Lauren Johnson is surrounded by a group of African children recently at a school outside the airport in Bamako, Mali. Lt. Johnson was in Africa supporting FLINTLOCK, a training exercise featuring the United States and 15 African and Partner Nations designed to increase security and build capacity in the Trans-Saharan region. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Jon Saas)

1st Lt. Lauren Johnson is surrounded by a group of African children recently at a school outside the air base in Bamako, Mali. Lieutenant Johnson was in Africa supporting FLINTLOCK, a training exercise featuring the United States and 15 African and Partner Nations designed to increase security and build capacity in the Trans-Saharan region. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Jon Saas)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- When I was first told I was going to Mali, Africa as part of Exercise FLINTLOCK-09, I was given four key pieces of advice: bring lots of bug spray, Lysol, hand sanitizer and extra toilet paper.

Never having deployed before, I was eager for any advice I could get. So I rounded up my supplies and hopped on a C-130 for the 5,300 nautical mile flight to Bamako.

As America drifted away behind us, I wondered if I was well prepared.

I wasn't.

I wasn't prepared for the heat. It's not supposed to be 95 degrees in late October. I wasn't prepared for the dust, or the constant grimy film that settled over all of us and couldn't be washed off in our dribbly two-by-two foot showers.

I wasn't prepared to be surrounded by French speakers, or the month-long game of charades we were about to play with our drivers, base personnel, and local shopkeepers and waiters. I cursed myself for studying American Sign Language in high school.

Living in Florida along the precarious stretch of Highway 98, you'd think I'd be prepared for the traffic, but I wasn't. Not Malian traffic. There are no street signs and I don't recall seeing many lane lines. Where there were lines, they were merely for show. Malians make their own traffic laws, and the bus driver's laws are much different from the taxi driver's laws, which are much different from the scooter-rider's. And don't even get me started on the scooter-rider-carrying-a-goat. I still contend we should have gotten hazardous duty pay for braving the roads every day.

So there I was, a 99.99% bacteria free, lemony fresh, bug repellant naïve lieutenant, armed with nothing but a roll of toilet paper in my pocket.

Thus, I was determined to be a sponge, to soak up as much operational knowledge, job experience and culture as I could.

One thing I learned quickly was that this wasn't a typical deployment.

Master Sgt. Craig Kornelly, 8th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, who's been deployed to the Middle East five times since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, said this deployment was unique because of the austere location.

"Typically, there's a lot of support already embedded at a location, and you already have everything you need there waiting for you," Sergeant Kornely said.

We had the Bamako airport waiting for us. We parked our aircraft there because there wasn't enough room at the air base. We moved into a sallow, drafty building that the Advanced Deployment team had somehow managed to turn into a fully functional (and air-conditioned!) Joint Operations Center, complete with secure and non-secure terminals, color printing capabilities, and, by week two, satellite television.

Unlike an established forward operating base, we weren't self contained.

While the JOC was on the military side, maintenance set up shop in two air-conditioned, technologically equipped, Wi-Fi connected tents at the airport. Food was served at the airport. Many of my meetings were held at a hotel downtown, and the commute from my hotel to the base was approximately 45 minutes through aforementioned traffic.

Additionally, as Maj. Mike "Big Daddy" Holder explained, deployments don't normally include interaction with foreign nationals.

"On typical deployments, the only other people you interact with are Marines, Army and Navy," Major Holder said.

Here, local interaction was inevitable. They drove us, granted us base access every morning, served us food and met with us to coordinate events and training exercises. I got the opportunity to participate in many such meetings, each side struggling through the language barrier to understand the others' regional operational procedures and protocol.

Did you know in Africa and Europe when conducting a ceremonial formation pass and review only the flight commander salutes, not the whole flight? Neither did I. They don't teach that in Reserve Officer Training Corps.

And did you know that it takes 1.6 times as long to say something in French as it does in English? Me either. This information comes in handy when conducting interviews through a French interpreter.

I learned a lot about the operational Air Force, the joint training environment, and conducting PA operations overseas. I also learned a lot of practical things, like "when buying oranges, you must weigh them and print out a price sticker," "don't take pictures of the monkey heads at the market or you might get mugged" and "it's probably not a good idea to eat the local cuisine the night before a six-hour flight."

But the biggest lessons I learned were cultural.

Sometimes in the evening, as the sun was setting over the African plains, a handful of us would go running.

We forged our way down riveted, dusty trails, dodging donkey-drawn carts and weaving through rows and rows of maize. We ran through villages, and people came out of their mud-brick huts to wave at the crazy Americans jogging by. The children waved, then jumped in the pack behind us and ran along to the edge of town. We took advantage of the opportunity to practice our skill speaking the local dialect, Bambara.

A typical conversation went something like this:
Us (in Bambara): Hello!
Them: Hello, thank you!
Us: How are you?
Them: All is well. How are you?
Us: All is well. How is your family?
Them: All is well (followed by an incoherent series of phrases)
Us (shaking heads, looking confused): Only a little Bambara . . .
Them: Giggle, giggle, giggle

But even when we exhausted our Bambara and French we found we could still communicate on a deeper level.

As Capt. Paul Alexander, an 8th Special Operations Squadron pilot, observed, it doesn't take words to forge a relationship.

"Children are boundless," he said. "They don't care if you speak their language or what color you are."

In Mali, there is a universal language: a smile, a handshake, a high-five, a sheepish look when you confuse the word for "hello" with the word for "thank you."

They are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I've ever met. And the great irony is they have next to nothing.

Mali is one of the most impoverished nations in the world. They live without what are, by American standards, "basic necessities." They have no sanitation, no electricity, no running water. Many don't have vehicles. Many are unemployed. Many don't have roofs over their heads.

So I learned to be thankful.

But yet, as Americans are complaining about long lines at Wal-Mart, overcooked steaks, broken air conditioning and slow internet connections, the Malians are unequivocally, uncompromisingly happy.

My most powerful lesson . . . we could learn a lot from these people.

"I wish all U.S. kids could come here and see all the things we take for granted," Captain Alexander said. "They would come home with a much better appreciation."

I certainly have.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I did use the bug spray, Lysol, hand sanitizer and extra toilet paper.