The Munsell Limited

There are few items I own that I’m attached to. But one of them sits in my pocket all day and on my bed stand at night. And it’s not my phone. That’s more obsession than attachment.

It’s actually a simple item and one of the most inexpensive purchases I’ve made outside of a penny candy store. It’s a small wooden elephant, less than two inches in height. He hangs on a ring in between my house key and Hubway pass.



It was the summer of 2008. I had graduated college two months prior, and my younger brother Zack finished his senior year of high school. We sat in the living room watching The Darjeeling Limited, a movie about three brothers traversing a new country and continent. In twelve hours, we would be on a similar excursion with our older brother Dave who was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Mali. The three Munsell brothers, traversing West Africa. The Munsell Limited.

While in Mali, Dave kept a very regular blog. I’ll summarize my experience of the trip by pulling out some quotes from his blog and adding my own photos and commentary. It will no doubt be a more realistic account than I could drum up after five and a half years.

“The first leg of our trip took us down to Bougoni and Sikasso where Zack freestyle rapped in a night club called Alcatraz and then threw up all over Mike’s face in a taxi the next day.”

We had to feed Zack a bit of liquid courage at the club, but the Malians were impressed with his rapping skills. Unbeknownst to them, due to language barriers, he did repeat the same lines a number of times.

As for getting puked on – it was unrelated to the liquid courage and brought on by something he ate. But, I laughed hysterically and wiped it off.  Dave’s friend Sophie commented on how close we were as brothers if we could handle being puked on by one another.

“The ride to Douentza was memorable because Mike was sick.”

Yep. I puked upwards of twenty times that night. Though, I had eaten some inedible nut shells.

“I whipped out a pair of pants from my backpack and tied the legs together, creating a makeshift puke bag.”

This is still the most MaGyver-esque thing I’ve ever witnessed.

“Sorry, but I have very little sympathy for throwing up and/or diarrhea in Mali. If you get Malaria, then I’ll send you a get well card.”

Thanks brother.

“At night, we brought out the iPod and speakers to accompany our meal of canned chicken, mango jelly, peanuts, and dates (it was REALLY good).”

Dave had been in the deserts of Mali for over a year at that point. We had very different palates at the time.

“Mike and Zack thought it was funny to see me attract a crowd everywhere I went as I had them rallied around me while I told stories and joked around. I don’t know what I’ll do when I go home and am anonymous again; I enjoy this quazi-celebrity status that I hold here.”

He went home and became story-teller-Dave. He’s got quazi-celebrity status in his social circles here.

“We got to village the next morning. What sounded like the coming of war ended up being the most hearty and warmest welcome I have ever experienced in my life… The entire village came out with guns blazing into the air and drums beating out rhythms. I introduced everyone and we were paraded into the village with such fanfare that I could have sworn we were in a movie. The villagers sang, danced, and jumped sporadically into the air as they accompanied us to all of the main households in village to greet the elders.”

zack dancing in mali

dave dancing in mali

dancing in mali

Pictures don’t do it justice. It is a moment I will never forget.

“That afternoon, it was time for me to kill the goat I had bought for Mike and Zack’s arrival….. Zack was squeamish and couldn’t watch, but Mike was ready with the camera.” 

I believe some vegetarians we’re friends with on Facebook flagged those photos as inappropriate. They have since been removed.

“I grabbed the goat’s horn, pulled his head back as he faced Mecca and let out a loud “Bisimillah!” Slicing into the goat’s neck, he reeled back, but we had a tight grip on him. As instructed, I said “Allah akbar” as the blood came out, and everyone was happy.”

“After leaving village, we met up with other PCVs and headed north to Hombori for rock climbing”.

Dave forgot to mention Zack getting sick, again, almost missing the bus and getting stranded by himself in Douentza.

“Mike really impressed me this day. On his first climb, he said it would be his last due to his fear of heights. But before I knew it, he was down on the ground and then strapped in on the other side for another climb! Go Mike! Zack was also really impressive. He got off to a slow start, but was consistently making it to the tops of his climbs. The second day he really came through. We had set a top rope on this face with tiny little holds. I belayed Zack on his climb and he just plugged away until he reached the top with no problems.”

This is apparently where I impressed Dave.

big brother
Dave being a good big brother.

“That second morning, we were about to leave the campement we stayed at when I saw some odd looking clouds approaching. Hell’s chariot was on its way in the form of a sand storm. Imagine rolling clouds of sand thousands of feet tall engulfing huge rock spires in the distance barreling directly towards you. It’s scary and exciting, especially when your only shelter is a dried millet stock bungalow. Although Hell’s chariot never reached us, we were in for a neat treat as everything around us turned a bright yellowish-reddish-orangish hue. I don’t know how the storm missed us, but it did.”

sand storm
The approaching sand storm.

sandstorm hut
#nofilter. seriously.

“Leaving Hombori, we caught a ride to Boni in the back of a large truck full of people. Standing room only. A goat peed on Zack, Mike hit people in the face with his giant backpack and I was berated with questions in too many languages.”

Hitchhiking with said ‘giant backpack’

“Standing room only”

“Mike, Zack, Braxton (a fellow PCV) and I hopped into a 4X4 van (aka piece of junk) and rode out into the bush to search for elephants.”

A safari, of sort with the “piece of junk” in the background.

“In time we found a Fulani watching over his animals who claimed to have seen elephants this morning. He jumped into the van and we were off again. Bringing us to a thicket of small trees, we exited the bus and headed downwind as not to be discovered by the elephant. Quietly, we tracked down an elephant near a watering hole and followed him for a short while. Stepping out from a patch of trees, we found ourselves face to face with the elephant himself (it was definitely a “him.” The Fulani pointed this out to me with much enthusiasm). The elephant stood there for a while and threw his trunk around. After we snapped a few photos, the elephant decided it was time for us to move on. He puffed his ears up and took a few steps forward, just to let us know we were on his turf.”

The male elephant, through the trees.

dave as elephant
Dave reminding me what the elephant looked like.

After our safari, we trekked back to Bamako for a couple nights before heading home to the States.


There was nothing special about the wooden elephant key chain or the buying of it. At the time, it felt like an item on a checklist – buy myself something in Mali. Check.

But now, it’s a reminder of the three weeks in Africa with my brothers. Getting sick together. Dancing with Dave’s entire village.  Rock climbing and sandstorms. Our safari. The elephant. It’s a constant reminder of my brothers and two of my best friends.


The Munsell Limited.


If you enjoyed this, read Dave’s entire post of our trip. He wrote it just days after Zack and I left Mali — so it was a very fresh memory at the time.

One thought on “The Munsell Limited

  1. Pingback: A Toast | Mike Munsell

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