Wednesday, November 24, 2010

First Weeks in Site

My residence for the next two years is the lovely village of Goundaga, in Kolda, the southern region of Senegal. I live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and gorgeous backyard including a guava tree, a couple papaya tree, and tree nursery left by the awesome volunteer that proceeded me. My hut is one of seven in my family's compound plus two cinder block buildings and a kitchen hut. My family is huge, but I think I finally know most of their names: I've a host dad, and his brother, and three moms between them, then all their children plus a couple that they've "adopted." All in all there are about 30 people living in the compound, though 5 of my siblings are moving into the nearby large village/town for high school. I love my family; they have been nothing but kind and open so far. And my neighbors have been extremely welcoming and helpful in teaching me Pulaar. Goundaga is a pretty small village: around 450 people and most everyone is related so how or other. We have a mosque and elementary school, though the school's recently had two of its three rooms condemned by the inspector and badly needs its roof repaired. My counterpart, Demba Balde, and I are looking into ways to cover the cost of repairs as well as find funds to build bathrooms and a well for the school asap. ( More information to come on this project soon!)  

Demba and I at the demo plot
My days in the village are pretty structured, so I lose track of time a lot; there are no weeks in the village; there is always work to be done if you want to eat, or drink water, or have clean clothes... A typical day in the village for me starts around 6:30, when the sun comes up and my moms start pounding millet/corn/rice and pulling water at the well. I wake up and pull my own water that I will need for the day. Most of the water goes to the tree nursery and garden in my backyard - it's easy to conserve water when you have to pull it yourself. When my little brothers and sister see my door open, someone always runs to greet me, then beg for Flintstone vitamins that the previous volunteer gave them. (Hint hint, great care package idea!) Then I head out to the demo plot with Demba and my brothers to water the garden and build more garden beds; we have close to a quarter acre planted my now and it looks beautiful!

We get back around 10 and eat some type of porridge for breakfast, depending on what my moms pounded that morning. Between 11am and 4pm it is far to hot to get much of anything accomplished without completely exhausting yourself. I will sit and chat with my family in the shade, or help my sisters cook lunch. Lunchtime is 2pm, followed By siesta, when I try to read some of my various Peace Corps manuals and readings before falling asleep on my floor. Unless, my neighbors Omar 2011 and Omar 2012 are baking bread in their mud brick oven; then I go "help" and get first dibs on fresh, hot bread. Then it is back to the demo plot for evening water; sometimes we go visit a rice paddy or peanut field where my parents, aunts, and uncles are harvesting before heading home. The peanut field is always better because it means a snack! Even better when we have a lighter and can light some peanut plants on fire and have roasted peanuts.

Back home sweaty and caked in dirt, I play with my little brothers and sisters, then retreat to take a bucket bath outside under the setting sun. Then, I hang out with my siblings and neighbors in front of my older brothers hut, chatting in Pulaar while we make tea and listen to the radio. I eat dinner with my dad in my hut and we talk about our plans for the next day and what projects we can do in the community. After dinner I usually keep to myself and watch the stars (amazing far far away from electricity), or write, or read. Sometimes, if I'm not exhausted, I'll go back out and talk with the guests and neighbors that come by to greet the compound in the evening. Either way, I'm usually asleep early because it's so dark and my brain cannot function in Pulaar after about 9pm.

Papaya Jack-o-Lattern
The typical day is of course punctuated with the little special moments that are the matter from which our memories take shape. Some of my outstanding memories this past month have been carving jack-o-latterns from papayas for Halloween (creating an instant dance party among my younger siblings -- they sing and their own musical accompaniment), teaching one of my moms and brothers how to make sauerkraut and watching the family devour a bucket full 4 days later, teaching my siblings random yoga poses, and rescuing a kitten from certain death by drowning from two rambunctious 7 year olds.

Unfortunately there is also the sadder memory of my sister's death and funeral: she's been real sick for a while so I never got a chance to know her, but it was still heartbreaking to watch my family and the community mourn her, people I have come to love. Just as I was going to sleep, I heard wailing-screaming out in the compound that a chorus of sobs and shouts as the women of the village poured into our compound and announced her passing. The men followed to pay there respects. It was all sort of eery in the half-moon light and confused, I walked through the dark until I met my brother's wife, crying. She explained what had happened between sobs as a held her up, because she was literally shaking with sobs. The next day was the funeral, which was a repeat of the previous night all morning with people and relatives coming to pay their respects from surrounding villages.

When my brothers finally carried the body from my mom's hut to bring her to the cemetery (only men can attend the burial), most of the women started wailing, some of my sisters throwing themselves on the ground and beating the earth in grief. It was both a sad and awkward experience for me because I felt my family's grief, but I didn't know how to comfort them or how to react. A couple hours later the neighborhood women served lunch to all the guests; they had been over all morning cooking couscous in giant cauldrons, stirring with spoons the size of themselves.

Tabaski, or Eid al-Adha, was just two days later. Our celebration was toned down because the family was still in mourning and many of our resources had been used during the funeral. For those of you that don't know, Tabaski is the West African name for the Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham's almost sacrifice of his own son to Allah (God), before Allah intervenes and replaces his son with a ram. So every head of the household buys at least one ram (or goat in our case) and slaughters it. Then the women cook up the meat and dishes are passed back and forth between neighbors and family members throughout the next two days. Everyone gets all dressed up in new clothes and gets their hair done, kind of like Korite (end of Ramadan). Tabaski is a huge deal in the village, where we never eat meat and only really eat fish. Kind of like Thanksgiving for Americans in a way...

Which is exactly how I described Thanksgiving to my host family, except we eat turkey instead of sheep, this being the precursor to the Great Turkey Hunt. I had seen a turkey in a neighboring village during Volunteer visit during training. I asked my dad which village the turkey lived in and set out to Sare Yarubel with my closest neighbor and best friend in country, Sam, to find the legendary beast.

Hiraade/Herman the Turkey
We biked nearly an hour through the backwoods of Kolda, stopping to greet the villages along the way. When we finally got to the turkey's compound, his "mother," a tiny Pulaar woman with a great sense of humor, greet us and started bargaining with us over the turkey - which she couldn't believe we had come all this way to eat. Or not bargain, because she knew we were tired and had to have the turkey whatever the cost. Her son helped us tie the HUGE (free-range!) turkey to the back of my bike, using a broken bucket and somebody's old pants, and we headed back on our way.

Unfortunately, because of the poor condition of the paths between the village, the turkey was able to escape - twice. But his feet were tied and he could get far so we tied him back down a continued to Sare Abdou, where a fellow volunteer's father helped us secure him on the bike rack better. With the sun setting, I rode into my village, all the children chasing me to get a better look at the beast. They wanted to know its name (maybe they thought I was adopting it, like the cat), so I told them "Hiraade," or "Dinner."Once it was untie however, they kept their distance. The turkey spent the night tied up in my backyard on a hunger strike.
I heard rustling during the night but thought nothing of it. The next morning, I went out back to brush my teeth and there was the turkey - free and tail feathers spread and menacing. I figured I could just let it run around the backyard for a couple hours until my boss came with the Peace Corps car to catch up with me about my projects and, hopefully, drive Hiraade to Kolda.

While I was drawing water for the garden, he escaped out the front during and into the compound, heading for the kitchen. My siblings and I tried to chase him away, but he just ran into the neighbor's compound, starting a panic among the goats. The men in the compound helped me chase him back towards my hut, but they were too scared to try and catch the "giant chicken." So I grabbed its tail feathers, then caught its wings so it couldn't fight me, and finally tied his feet together. Never ever thought I would be catching Thanksgiving dinner... Two hours later, my APCD came and took it to Kolda, where it has been renamed Herman and awaits its fate tomorrow. The funny part about this whole story is Sam is a vegetarian and I don't eat all that much meat... yet we are the mighty mighty turkey captors of the Kolda region.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Officially a Volunteer : Swearing in

The last week of home stay flew by into whirlwind of celebrations to wrap up training, making us trainees officially Peace Corps Volunteers!
To thank our homestay families for all of their patience and help as we struggled to learn a new language and adopt Senegalese customs, we held a luncheon at the Thies training center. It was a little bit awkward because are training group was so large that we could only invite one family member each. So my "mom", and namesake, Habi Balde came for the afternoon. For all the trying moments that we had together during homestay, it was actually really nice to see her, all dressed up. Best part of the luncheon: lunch. Probably chicken, vegetables, and rice sound very simple to all you back at home, but it's expensive here and that is a treat. After lunch and tea, there was music and dancing; I actually got my "mom" to get up and dance Gwana (the national hit dance) in public with me. She loves to dance and we'd always dance at home, but never ever when anyway was home, so this was specially. It was really sad to say goodbye in the end because Habi started crying and honestly I don't know when I will be able to visit them again, but hopefully I will.

Two days later was swearing in at the US Ambassadors House. I was so ready for this one, minus the pre-speech butterflies in my stomach. I own a pair of coral pink Converses and I thought it would be symbolic to pair the shoes with a Senegalese outfit. The outfit was a process (finding the right material, designing the pattern, explaining to the tailor in broken Wolof-French what it was I wanted) but well worth it. Everyone looked gorgeous in their Senegalese outfits as we boarded the buses for Dakar. We had gendarme escort us into the city: sirens, lights, wrong side of the road and all. ( A little bit over the top and embarrassing but it was kind of fun too.) The ceremony itself was televised and there is a Peace Corps video of it somewhere(youtube?). I had the honor of giving the Pulaar language thank you/congratulations speech to an audience of the Ambassador, government officials, PC & JICA directors, and of course my fellow volunteers. I was all nervous because my Pulaar knowledge is very limited. But   everyone else thought it sounded great and I had a sweet outfit...

My Peace Corps Stage

The swearing in ceremony was concluded with delicious  foods, cold drinks, and photos in the Ambassador's garden. Then we went over to the American Club, aka swimming pool and grilled CHEESE and ICE CREAM! All the indulgences of America for a day.

River crossing to get to Kolda
Unfortunately, since Kolda (the region that I am serving in) is so far removed from Dakar, team Kolda had to be ready to leave the next morning, by 6. In a stupor from too much excitement and no sleep we left before the sun was up and began the confusing voyage to Kolda. Normally, we are not supposed to go through the Gambia to get to Kolda, but there was a miscommunication somewhere along the lines and we navigated our way cross the borders and ferry across the Gambia river and made it to Kolda record time with all of our belongings in tact. Kolda was one big shopping trip with interludes at the hotel pool. (We stayed at the Peace Corps regional house but free swim at the hotel if you buy a drink is too tempting to resist when it is over 100 and humid every afternoon.)

Velingara Hotel had no power...
The final leg of the trip was spent in a hotel in Velingara. Peace Corps introduced us to the local authorities and put me and my fellow Kounkane area volunteers up in a sweet hotel (aka working toilets, showers, and ac) for one night. Unfortunately, this was the day after one of the generators at the local power plant broke, so there was neither electricity nor running water at this lovely establishment.

Finally finally I installed October 20th  in Goundaga. I was greeted by the entire village singing, dancing and drumming in my new home. A man on a faulty loudspeaker announced to the town my arrival and gave me my new name: Ramatulaye Balde. Exhaustion took over, and after some dancing, chicken(!) for dinner, and thanking my family I was able to sleep like a baby (seriously, asleep by 8:30).