Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Just over two weeks left until the Tambacounda Race for Education. I've pledged to run the half marathon in an effort to raise money for Peace Corps Senegal's Michele Sylvester Scholarship. Each year the scholarship awards middle school girls with school tuition and supplies for their hard work and excellence in scholarship.

This past year, I have been working with the 9 scholarship recipients at the middle school in Wassadou and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had so far. I have learned so much about the hardships these girls, and so many others around the world, face everyday just to get half an education. [I am so grateful I have always known the support of family, friends, and teachers in pursuing my own education. Thank you!] Together, these 9 girls and I planned a two day conference, drawing attention to these obstacles and searching for the resources they need to overcome. The event concluded with a moving dialogue between parents and daughters, pledging their support and understanding for one another. Once again, the conference could not have happened without Awa Traore, Peace Corps Senegal's amazing cross-cultural instructor.

The work and effort Awa, Aissatou, Maimouna, Binta, Goundo, Fatimata, Jenabou, Fatimata Binta, and Awa put into their schoolwork and this conference inspired me to run. Their principal was inspired too, and has pledged to run 5k and donate the money he raises back to the girls at the Wassadou middle school.

Seeing me running through their fields early in the morning, people in my village are becoming inspired too. When they first asked jokingly what in the world I'm training form we were laughing at my bright red face and sweat-soaked shirt. (I'm definitely not the image of beauty after a run.) But their faces quickly grew serious when I explained the cause. Especially, so many women, my host moms, grandmas and aunts, who never had the opportunity to go to school, never learned anything but pounding millet and spinning thread.

No one here thinks that I can actually run the 21 kilometers, but I got a couple neighbors to say that they'd throw a dollar my way if I come back with a half marathon certificate. The money's a nice gesture, of course, even more so when it's coming from those who have so little. What really makes me smile, though, is getting the conversation started: girls education and how necessary it is. Now when they see me out running at the crack of dawn, they know I'm not just crazy. We are making a difference - one stride at a time.

For more information about Michele Sylvester Scholarship click here. To donate to the Race for Education, click here - "Race for Education" in comments line please.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Kids Say the Darnest Things

Just over a year ago, I was a fresh, naive volunteer with well-shaped opinions and concrete preferences. Going through all the trainings that Peace Corps Senegal offered, I would tend to zone out whenever radio was mentioned and be completely gone when working with children was topic of discussion. These were great activities for other volunteers but I don't have a radio voice and I didn't fly across the Atlantic to babysit. Not interested.

But working as a Peace Corps volunteer is not about yourself. Yeah, there is know boss breathing down my neck demanding results, and my closest neighbors are a half hour bike ride away (or hour and twenty minutes by donkey cart). That may seem like complete freedom and independence at work - ideal conditions to some maybe, paid vacation to cynics. Yet the longer I am hear the more I realize my assignment to my community makes me accountable to them first and foremost. And I have to live with them everyday, eat all my meals with them, and chase away peeping Toms at shower time. The longer I am here, the more I have come to understand and respond to my communities needs. While my (least favorite) host mom has flat out told me to babysit her kids - met with point blank refusal - the community as a whole has shown me there is a huge lack of support for the children and youth. And so, whether I like it or not, working with kids has grown on me.

Last year, I avoided the school like the plague and creepy teacher stories made my weary to work with them. This year, the director at my primary school is when of my favorite people to talk to in the village (one out of five that I can have intellectual, in-depth conversations with). Now I am at the school nearly everyday: helping out in the school garden, teaching kids how to make compost and mulch garden beds, or visiting the library and letting 20 kids fight over who gets to read to me first. And it's become the favorite part of my day - funny how life as a volunteer changes you.

Spending so much time with the little ones, however, has still not given me much insight into their shakily constructed worldviews and their unique ideas of what's what. Just like kids everywhere, Senegalese village children say the darnest things, usually questions - they're curious. Here's a sampling.

"Is America in the sky?" "What?! No, America is next to the sunset." "But all the planes go to the sky!"

"What is the dirt like in America?" "ummmm...?" "I mean, does stuff grow in the dirt in America?"

"Is there fire in America?"

"Is there rice in America?" "Yes." "Peanuts??" "Yes." "Corn??!" "Definitely."

"Do you eat with spoons in America?"

"Will sunscreen (sun cream) make me white like you?"

"Who did you weave?" (asking about my natural hair)

"Do you breastfeed your kitten?" "What?! No!" "But she's a baby!"

"If you can eat in a plane, can you poop in a plane?" "Yes you can." "Where does the poop go?"

"Are you going to Kounkane? Buy me money!" (Kounkane is the closest road-side town.)

"Are there people named Harouna in America?" "Yeah, some." What about Maimouna?" "Yes, a few." What about Seydou?" "Yeah, a couple." "What about Gomez?" "Yes. There are a LOT of Gomez's in America." (giggles and cheering)

"Are there kids in America?" "Yes." "Really? Kids? Like us?" "Yes, there are kids in America." "Are there babies?"

Girl: "I'm going to be the President of Senegal." Boy: "You can't be president. You're a girl, right Ramatoulaye?" Me: "Actually, no. Women can be presidents too." Girl: "See? I can be president." Boy: "Okay, but I am going to be president first."

"I want a white husband. Can you give me one of you friends?" (from my six year old host niece.)

"Are you a afraid of babies?"

"Did you go to school? Even high school?"

"What's a chinois?" "Umm, they are people from China." "But what do they look like? Draw a chinois for me!" (Chinois  is the French for Chinese, but the term is used rather loosely in Senegal to cover lots of different Asian peoples - there is no politically correct here.)

"You are going to teach Pulaar when you go back to America, right?"

"Do want want to split a lollipop?" (from the dirty, snot-covered kid)

"Are there black people in America?" "Yes, lots. America has all different type of people." "No, you didn't understand me. I said black people, like us." (pulls at skin for effect)
[Probably Peace Corps biggest downfall - the volunteer population could be a lot more diverse, especially if we are going for an accurate picture of America.]

"Can vampires get you if you sleep under the mosquito net?"

After being gone from village for a week... (Ramartoulaye is my village name)
"Is Ramatoulaye lost? Who lost her?!"

At least, I know they love me... in their own weird way.