Sunday, March 27, 2011

What am I doing in Senegal?

The past 3 weeks at site, I am finally able to set some projects in motion because I am actually in one place and not running all over Senegal. It feels great to finally be doing some legitimate work, not just practicing language, meeting new people, and trying to assess the needs of my community free of bias: all i was excpected to do for the first couple months.At least I have a concrete answer that people can understand and respect when they ask what my job is in Senegal, not a vague description and condensed history of Peace Corps. Now I can say that I:

1. I am building latrines. I wrote to Appropriate Projects (an organization of returned PC volunteers in co-op with WaterAid) and received $500 to build 10 new latrines in the village. (Check it out!) open defecation is a huge problem here. There are only 5 latrines in a village of 500 people. Most people take care of their business out in the fields, but small children, the elder, and those with inflamed bowels cannot help make just go out behind their huts. And they don't always bother with digging a hole.
So you know all those flies that you see crawling all over the poor, starving African children's facial orifices in the 1-800-DONATENOW commercials? Well, that's kind of what it looks like in my village... the flies, not so much the starvation. But what they don't show you is where those flies are born (in poop) and what they like to snack on (poop and food). Those very flies go around spreading diseases, making people sick, and causing them to spend an obscene percentage of their money on medicines. Not to mention that diarrhea is the number one killer among children in the developing world. Or should we blame a lack of proper sanitation and an abundance of flies? Anyways, the latrines are not 100% the solution and I know that it isn't all that sustainable to build stuff from grant money, but the health of my community and my peace of mind at lunch justifies this project for me.
Please check out the project and give some if you can - I promise I am going to move away from grant projects and won't be hustling you for money the next two years. Most people here are too dependent on hand outs and have become blind to their own capabilities and the opportunities that surround them. I totally agree that projects should focus on capcity building and empower people to take control of their own lives. Still, without some basic infrastructure, the health, education, and mobility of Senegalese people is harshly limited...

2. My neighbors and I have founded a Cercle des jeunes femmes, a Girls Club, aimed at empowering young women. The club meets weekly and it is made up of 10 high school girls. I know this sounds small, but they represent nearly half the female student body. The goal of the club is really simple: to give girls an open, friendly environment to let loose and learn. Through a series of discussions, trainings, and guest speakers covering everything from health to personal finances to gardening,  we hope to introduce new ideas and skills to the girls. since we are meeting in a space provided by the mayor of Kounkane, the mairie (mayor's office) asked that we give monthly reports on our work in the community, which means we will all (Senegalese and American) do some volunteer work: painting murals and maps at schools, planting trees in public spaces, running a girls' leadership conference at the end of May, and recording informative radio programs for the local stations. Basically, a much cooler version of the Girl Scouts, minus the cookies. (Speaking of which, Girl Scout cookies are a GREAT care package idea!) We have only had the first couple meetings, but the girls are highly motivated and have come up with an inspiring list of discussion and training topics. Wednesdays at Girls club are the new high point to my week.

3. i am bringing literacy to the Fuladu! Several volunteers in the region got together a collection of Pulaar sotires and translated short stories into Pulaar. We are now in the process of getting them printed into storybooks! The idea of the project is to promote Pulaar literacy. Several women's groups are taught to read in Pulaar by aid organizations in the area, but they aren't given anything interesting to read, so they are not motivated to keep reading and they forget. Also, children go to school without knowing any French, but are expected to read, write, and learn in French; having a Pulaar reader could give them literacy in their own language first and hopefully a little confidence reading French as well. Literacy is the ability to send a text message, to record information and communicate over long distances; right now, it is mostly just men who possess this skill in the village. Literacy is empowerment of women and youth - writing it down in Pulaar levels the playing field a tad. Plus, selfishly, it has helped me improve my own language skills and given me something to talk about with my family.

4. I work with my counterpart to demonstrate improved agricultural techniques and to hold trainings to teach local farmers, gardeners, and students. In cooperation with USAID, the Peace Corps created  a Food Security Program including a number of Master Farmer demonstration sites across Senegal. Master farmers are provided funds to set up a 1 hectare demonstration plot with a well, fence, and tools. In return, thay must demonstrate certain techniques, showcase specific agricultural experiments and supply the results to Peace Corps, and hold trainings and at least one Open Field Day per year. Right now is a transition period between the cold-dry season and the hot-dry season, so we are busy setting up new beds with a variety of comparisons of companion plantings, plant spacings, mulching techniques, and tree nursery styles. The biggest problems in the garden are the break-ins by badgers, monkeys, and goats; my counter-part's overacheiver schedule; and the insects. As much as I hate to use chemical pesticides, they are an inevitability in the tropics, next to a large body of fresh water, so I'm fighting for their correct application and wearing protective clothing when the chemicals are used. I really love working in the garden; it gives my day some structure. Plus, we get to eat all the tomatoes, onions, okra, and cabbage as they've come into season!

5. Miscellaneous other (Agroforestry) activities... Pluses of being an Agroforestry volunteer include climbing trees, going for long walks in the woods, and eating lots and lots of fruit. I also get to go on seed collection missions at neighboring sites and get a warm, fuzzy feeling everytime I see a Moringa tree ripe with seed pods. (If you don't know all about Moringa, you should look into it... wikipedia!) I am teaching my moms how to read watches with hands and Roman numerals; much more classy than digital.
As for the second goal of Peace Corps (sharing American culture with my new neighbors), I had my first village pizza night last Saturday. My cousin Omar is the village bread baker and some time ago I mentioned making pizza to him and some of my brothers. They had no idea what i was talking about; they thought I meant to say a sandwich... So I brought cheese back from Dakar and we made real, delicious, hot-out-the-oven pizza! The villagers who came by looking for bread were confused by the creation, couldn't pronounce it, and mostly were just annoyed that the regular bread wasn't ready yet. But one darling old lady decided to try it and even paid me 50 cents for her own personal pizza. Victory! There is someone in my village (elderly and a woman at that!) not only willing to experience something new and different, but also ready to pay for it!

This is a hopeful month with lots of new projects to take on. Unfortunately, this post finds my in the doldrums of hot season and inexplicable illness. Although, in all honesty, if there weren't these dampers on my energy, I wouldn't have found the time to leave the projects and write this blog! Photos are coming later this week... with better internet connection!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Little America

Agroforestry summmit, All Volunteer Conference take two, and the West African International Softball Tournament brought me out of village (again) and into the bright lights of Dakar for the last week of February. Nestled int he beautiful seaside neighborhood of Mamelles, in the shadows of the Lighthouse Mamelles and the Statue of African Renaissance ( a gift from North Korea and rather Soviet kitsch), the American Embassy Press Security's family hosted six volunteers and myself. And what a treat! Food, lodging, taxis, and just about everything in Dakar feels very expensive on my monthly village allowance.
Thanks to our wonderful host family, we had a comfortable, fantastic stay in Dakar. So comfortable in fact that it felt just like America for a couple of days - Raisin Bran for breakfast, hot showers, electricity, and a washing machine! Not to mention it was President's Day and there was the softball tournament at the American club all weekend... it hardly felt like Senegal with all the American foreign service, volunteers, and ex-pats everywhere.
All dressed up and chilling with the Talibe.
For Peace Corps volunteers, this is an amazing opportunity to meet up with friends who live and work on the opposite side of the country. Needless to say, our commitment to the sport of softball is vague, secondary at best. So PC volunteers sign up for the social league and it turns into more of a competition of witty costumes and general wackiness that we cannot express in village. There were cook outs, parties every night, speaking American English, and swimming in the pool (well, I couldm't really because my costume was an Avator and covered in blue finger paint and glitter). I really forgot that I was in Africa.
As guilty as I felt when I was packing my suitcase to leave village, with my little sisters oh-ing and ah-ing the nice clothes I keep hidden from the dust and fighting to try on the only pair if "claque-claque," aka heels, that I brought to country. It was a very enjoyable week and much needed break from the constant culture shock.