Friday, November 2, 2012

Going, going, gone...

It's been 27 months, some months much longer than others... but this adventure has come to an end. I did! I completed Peace Corps and now I'm heading home, the scenic route. To celebrate our Close of Service, 6 of us are cruising home, two weeks across the Atlantic. I've made it to Barcelona via Lisbon, which was gorgeous. I can already tell I need these two weeks to readjust to this different pace of life, the rich foods, the cod weather, the new fashions, appropriate interactions and conversation topics... The list seems endless, but 2 days in Barca the kinks are starting to work themselves out. Hopefully, the transatlantic adventure will smooth out the rest.

If everything goes according to plan, I'll be home by Thanksgiving, such a glorious holiday! Thanks so much for following my Senegalese adventure on this blog; I'll figure out some way to get you updates on the transatlantic adventure. Stay posted

Friday, October 19, 2012

Summer in Senegal

I've let the blog slide... for months, oops!
I have a good excuse though, two actually. First, rainy season makes communication and electronics even more dicey than the already are. Second, the wrapping up of my service and mad scramble to say good bye to so many friends I've made here has kept me busy. Blogging, alas, just has not been high up on the to-do list in a while.
So what have I been doing these past 3 months?

  • Saying goodbye to my Community Enterprise Development (CED) friends... Senegalese style! We all came here together, but our goings have been staggered. My neighbors, Pam and Sam, have been my closest friends during my service. Watching them leave was sad, but they know how to throw a great Senegalese party: music, dancing, deliciously greasy food, chair rentals, etc.

Dance off with my Senegalese twin, Nenegalle!

  • Traveling to see sites and help friends with projects. I finally made it out to beautiful Bakel, which really is beautiful and nice town despite being way aways from everything. Brian showed us everything: from his work at his Master  Farm demonstration site to the majestic Fort Bakel, from his village nestled in the rocky hills outside the city to all the best bars in downtown Bakel. And we ended our visit with a stay in a barbershop. Anything can happen in Bakel!
Longingly looking out to Mauritania
  •  Planting mangroves! Volunteers in the Kaolack region organized huge reforestation efforts to reforest the Sine-Saloum deltas with mangroves. Mangroves provide a habitat for the marine life of the delta, flowers of local honey bees, firewood for villages, and shelter for migrating birds. Not to mention, the mangroves are beautiful! The mangroves drop seed pods into the water, where they float until they lodge in a bit of mud and hopefully take up root. We sped up the process by collecting and sorting through the seed pods before planting the healthy pods in the mudflats.
 Cuddling with lion cubs! After the Toubakouta Mangrove Refoestation day, volunteers headed to the Fathala Game Reserve, where the park is trying to familiarize 5 lion cubs with people. The cubs were surprisingly friendly. Other highlights of the park included zebras, giraffes, and antelope. So I can cross safari off the bucket list.
  • Experimenting with henna! After one last shopping to Diaobe (maybe the largest outdoor market in West Africa), my neighbor Jessica and I decided to try and dye our hair with henna. Only 40 cents! It sort of worked... More importantly, we got gris-gris made by a traditional medicine man. Gris-gris come in all shapes and sizes; they can be a necklace, armband, anklet, or strip of leather to wrap around your leg or waist for protection from just about anything. 
Henna got messy
  • Sewing mosquito nets! My friend Sarah organized an epic tour of Kolda region, going village to village showing people how to mend and take care of their mosquito nets. Mosquito nets are essential in protecting people from the Anapheles mosquito, carrier of the parasites that cause malaria. Malaria is a huge problem in Senegal, particularly dangerous among young children and pregnant women. The disease kills hundreds of children in our county every year and infects many more, driving down productivity and life expectancy in the region. But something as simple as sleeping under a mosquite net everyday can drive down infection rates. I only helped out at a couple villages, but Sarah went to over 15 villages spreading the good word of the mosquito net.
  • And of course, farming! Another season of planting thousands of trees and setting up field demonstrations is finally over! And I am ready to leave, ready to move on. Senegal has been lots of fun but I am looking forward to the next adventure.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Slowly Slowly to Catch a Monkey

Almost everything I have accomplished during my Peace Corps service has been just a baby step in development: asking village children to draw their dreams and desires in crayon, funding middle school girls through another year of school, explaining contraceptives to the adult third of my village, demonstrating simple organic solutions to people’s pest problems in their fields and gardens, planting some fruit trees, and crossing all sorts of gender barriers by being my (independent, very American, touch feminist) self.
My work is in the realm of micro-development. I’m not out to change the world single-handedly, but I am here to make a difference. However small-scale and localized my work may be, the hope is that something larger will grow from it all.

The Senegalese proverb says “Slowly slowly to catch a monkey.” The message rings true for many Peace Corps volunteers; we aren’t here for very long and hardly have a handle on the language and culture when we arrive, but our work builds on each other. After hundreds of baby steps, things are just starting to come together and really change Senegal. One place I’ve seen the baby steps add up is in our village’s school library.

The US Embassy and several other individuals have donated books to Goundaga’s primary school, from which the school director and I have formed a small library. While initially getting the kids to read was a painful process, our reading club is starting off. In fact, the reading club is no longer official anymore since so many kids want to read every day and not just at cub sessions. While the following no longer includes all the students in the top three grades, the following that has developed naturally is eager to read anything they can get their hands on and our picking out more challenging books, chapter books, all by themselves. As tedious as listening to ten renditions of Snow White in French ten times over can be, it’s truly heartwarming to have children knocking on my door to see if I don’t have something else for them to read, or picking out the long science books with big words because they want to learn and ask questions, about photosynthesis or meteor showers perhaps.

As if to symbolize the proverb, yesterday walking back from a morning at the school library, I heard shouting and sawing half the village running towards my host family’s compound. I caught up with some women gathered outside the fence of the compound, peering in. Apparently, a big monkey had come dashing out of the forest into the village, where it was chased across village (only 150m wide, maybe), it climbed into my backyard, then scurried across the compound and took refuge in my host father’s hut., where it was hiding from the mob of children (armed with sticks). My host uncle was trying to keep them at bay (with a stick of his own)and had shut the monkey into the hut so the children couldn’t get at it. They mob children were all screaming, dancing, clapping; some would try to sneak around the back of the hut only to be driven away by Ba Samba. Some other kids went to inform Demba of the unexpected visitor in his hut.

When Demba arrived at the compound, he also refused to open up the hut and tried to chase the children out of the compound. The compound was overflowing with the crazed kids looking to kill (which the adults didn’t mind so much) and eat the monkey (which, according to the elders, was un-Islamic and a little too close species was, according to me). The village only has a population of around 400 and a good two thirds are children; at least half of those children were waiting for the monkey. This was a standoff.

After an hour or so of waiting, most kids had gotten bored and given up, or at least wandered over to the neighbors to hang out there. Demba finally decided to let the monkey go free. Sadly, the monkey wasn’t very bright and instead of running left, hopping over the fence, and scurrying across the cotton field into the forest, it chose to go right. It landed on the other side of the fence in our neighbor’s compound. A shout rang out and soon all the kids had remobilized from seemly nowhere, stampeded across the compound and after the monkey.

Speaking of school books, the image of the stick wielding, barefoot children giving chase instantly brought to mind the last scene of The Lord of the Flies: the shouting, the hunt, the group frenzy electrifying the air. Different ending, though: no savior for this ape. The kids cornered it, beat it to death with their sticks, and then started the cooking fire. O, and this all went down in amount two minute; so who knows where that proverb came from.

Concrete Jungle

First days back from the “land of the free, home of the brave” felt amorphous, surreal even, like leaving one world and stepping into another one somewhere in between, Dakar. The first day back I ate nothing and slept most of the day; the next day back, I slept less but still couldn’t eat much. Nothing seemed appetizing after spoiling myself for two weeks… And this is Dakar, normally the land of plenty where eating is half the joy of being there!

Another topic of interest for every Peace Corps volunteer traveling to Dakar is transportation. Relative to a PCV’s living allowance, taxi are very expensive. Yet, Dakar is too sprawling to walk across and not particularly bike friendly (assuming you have your bike with you). Therefore, it behooves the volunteer to learn the bus system and minibus routes. Still these are time consuming, over-crowded, and often lead to a (mis)adventure, more so than public transport in the US. Taxis can be a great solution for group travel, but that’s no guarantee it will be a simple trip from point A to point B.

 Take for instance the extraordinary taxi experience I had with my Dakar visitors Nas and Dan. The ride was initially sketchy because the taximan had some trouble getting started, but enough taxi rides in this city and that is no longer so much an omen as a norm. Once we were off, the keys kept slipping out of the ignition. The first couple times this happened, no problem, we kept rolling. But then the car approached an incline and started to stall every time the keys fell out. We were enduring, but the situation soon became ridiculous: the keys wouldn’t stay and the car would jerk forward two feet and stop again, jerk, stop, jerk, stop, etc. Finally, patience (and the humor in the situation) left us and we let ourselves out of the jerking car. The taximan was very upset and insisted that we get back in the car.

Unfortunately, we were on a stretch of road not frequented by empty taxis, and even if they were empty it was dangerous for them to stop because of the curve in the road. So we walked forward to the next block. But the pace of walking was the same as the pace of the jerking taxi, so we had this irate taximan leaning across the passenger’s seat and screaming at as to get back in the taxi. Awkward, until we arrived at the top of a hill and gravity began to work in taxi’s favor, leaving us behind and alleviating us for the taximan’s muddled Wolof-French rant.

Luck, however, was still not on our side. It was another couple blocks until we found a minibus and decided to give it a go. Although the fare collector claimed the bus was going our way, he had stretched the truth a lot (no one lies in Senegal).  We got off just two blocks later to hustle another taxi. By the time we finally got to where we were going the whole ordeal was making us giggle again. Always an adventure in the concrete jungle.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

See you later! COS Conference

Close of Service (COS) means I've made it through my two years in the Peace Corps: I've lived in a different culture, learned a new language, met so many interesting people, challenged established beliefs (American and Senegalese), served my country and the people of Senegal. It's kind of a big deal...
In order to help volunteers through that transition, Peace Corps Senegal brings us all together as a training group one last time to reflect, debrief, and start looking at our options in the future. Reverse culture shock is an overwhelming process, so it's really great that we can come together as a training group, remember the good times, discuss tentative plans for the future, and get away for a weekend in a beautiful beach house.
My Training Group
What's really amazing is how close I've become to my training group, even though some of us are so far apart and don't get to see each other very often. They are a great group of people that have been nothing but supportive. And seeing everyone all together again was such an exciting moment - it doesn't really matter that this is the last time we will be all together. It doesn't matter that life is going to lead us down a hundred divergent paths - something will keep us together and I'm sure we will run into each other again.

Goodbye Send-off Breakfast
While we were going through our COS conference, the training group before us was getting ready to actual COS and leave. I have spent so much of my service working with these people, not to mention they make up about half of my neighbors, that it is surreal to know they're gone. I am so happy and excited for them: congratulations on completing Peace Corps service and getting to go off on some new amazing adventure! Of course I will miss them, but I have a feeling that it's not actually goodbye... I'm going to see all these wonderful volunteers again in someplace better!

Easter Ceeb

Village had gotten so quiet; all my host siblings and cousins had gone off to CEM (middle school) and Lycee (high school) in the bigger towns. Suddenly there is no one to have a friendly conversation with during siesta or late at night waiting for the winds to cool things off. The daily discussions of market prices, okra, and why I'm not married yet just don't do it for me. And these seem to be the only things anyone ever wants to discuss with me. I had this idea that maybe I ask Senegalese villagers their opinions on GRE essay prompts, but it kind of fell on deaf ears - what was I talking about and how did that have any relevance to their very orderly (if not monotonous) lives? They do things they way they've always done them because that's the way to do things... or so they say.
Down time during the day, I played with the kids. They are a lot more fun: leap frog, coloring, reading at the library, adventure hikes, and imitating anything and everything. Playing with them is great, but I'm not a huge fun of the crowds of children that tend to develop - 8 is my cut off...

When Easter break finally rolled around and my teenage/young adult siblings started to wander back home, it was such a relief to have more stimulating conversations and debates about values, lifestyles, beliefs. Suddenly the dull evenings turned into inter-village soccer tournaments and late night parties. The students were interested in my projects and tagged along everywhere. And older siblings came, listened and helped younger siblings read books from the Goundaga Primary School Library. (Thank you all for your donations!) Everyone is so excited about the library; I got 5 kids reading their first chapter book!

Harriet, Lisa, and I cooking over the fire.
Best of all, my favorite girl friends in village came back for the holiday: Lisa, Harriet, Jenny (not their real names, but they figured if I got a Senegalese name, they should also have American names). We had a long over due cooking date so we planned to make the most patron (bougie) ceeb (Senegalese style fried rice) ever! Unlike people stuck in the village all the time, i.e. the adults and children that I had spent all of the previous month with, these young women know their food and know the importance of a balanced meal. Our market list was full of every vegetable in season and a special note for Lisa's dad to catch us the biggest fish he could find. One of my host mom's, Mata Sadio, got on board and sent us a small mountain of fresh basil to stuff the fish with. My neighbor, Jenae, and her friend visiting from America came by too to enjoy the day in village.

So, how do you cook the best ceeb ever?

Easter Ceeb
We started washing and cutting the bucket full of vegetables we had bought in the road town market. We cleaned and gutted the big fish. We built a big fire and boiled a big cauldron of water over it. We picked the rocks out of the rice and rinsed it before steaming it. We mashed basil, garlic, pepper, green onions, and chili peppers up in a mortal and pestle and stuffed the fish with the mixture. We fried the fish with oil and onion, put that to the side, and fried some potatoes and sweet potatoes. We added water and spices and boiled the vegetables until soft, then we added the steamed rice and let everything simmer. And when it was all done, we served it up to the whole family and ate until we were stuffed. So good!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tamba Race Aftermath

Hot season has arrived and with it, a constant trickle of sweat. The notebook I wrote a draft of this blog in left a rectangular sweat stain on my pants. Even holding a pen is sweaty business here.

Yet, somehow, despite the heat and lethargy it forces on everyone, the Race for Education in Tambacounda went tremendously well. Over 100 participants came to run the 5k, 10k, or half marathon and we raised over $3000 to fund projects supporting girls education in Senegal. The runners were a diverse crowd: firemen, police, Peace Corps volunteers, local students, teachers, school admins, military, a marathonist from the Caimens team, and even the Prefet of Tamba (the county's official head)! The race achieved its purpose and had everyone out talking about girls education... or at least how silly we all looked running through the city.

The Principal of CEM Wassadou came all the way to Tamba to run 5k and support the girls at his school!

The race was also a personal achievement for me. It's the furtherest I've run and I did it in hot, dusty Tambacounda, Senegal, West Africa! So I gave myself a pat on the back and spent the next two days lounging around the regional house. It took a good week for biking (main means of transportation around here) to not be painful and leave me exhausted after every small trip. Somehow, I muster enough energy to bike all over the place 2 days later and put together a Pest Control Training in a village across the river from me... Then I needed another two days to recover from heat exhaustion and soreness. But I think I'm finally back to being a normal, functioning human being! Thanks everyone for your support!