Thursday, May 19, 2011

the past few months

I’m gonna make this one simple.
April: Mid service medical check-up in Dakar, and a week of fun. Did a lot of eating (French Cultural Center cheeseburgers…La Piazza gourmet pizza…Nice Cream ice cream, etc), a little exploring, and a lot of relaxing. A great week, minus my friends phone getting stolen on a boat ride over to Ngor Island for a day trip (see pics on FB).
May: Trekked down to Kolda for the greatly anticipated Cinco de Drinko party with some buds (Heather and Camille). Enjoyed the abundance of mangos from the area (where mango season starts way earlier than the North), along with some roasted pig, guacamole, beans/rice, and home made tortillas. And let’s not forget fresh baked bagels in the morning. We spent the following days in a movie watching marathon on the living room floor, putting the projector to good use as a big screen. Some quality time was spent with friends we don’t often get to hang out with!
Our travel back to the North turned out to be quite a fiasco, as are most of my travel experiences here. The 2nd leg of the trip, day 2 from Tamba to Ourossougi, took us 28 hours instead of the usual 10. After switching cars for the 3rd time, our driver finally decided he’d gone far enough for the night and stopped about 50 kilometers from our destination to spend the night. We were about to sleep in the car when the aprenti (guy that collects money for tickets) invited us to sleep at his house along with the one other passenger that got stranded with us. The next morning we hopped onto our 4th car and finally made it back to the apartment in Ourossougi…where I passed out for several more hours under the fan. At least I’ve added one more crazy experience to my endless list of travel disasters (including but not limited to: being puked on, sat on, felt up, squished by sweaty armpits, smacked in the face by a giant pink elephant balloon, and asked to marry countless times).
This Week: Helped with installing the new kids to their villages with Tidiane, our regional coordinator. Installing involves visiting all the necessary government services to introduce the new volunteers, such as the police, education inspectors office, and local government facilities. Then we bring all of their belongings to their houses, where usually a large group (or the entire village) is waiting to welcome them to their new homes. The first install happened around lunch time, so we lingered to have lunch and relax some. Others were basically us unloading the volunteers’ belongings, greeting the family, and then driving away as the newbie watches the truck fade into the distance with wide nervous eyes. One site, a village that has never had a volunteer before, had what looked like the entire population inside her compound and spilling into the street just to welcome her and get a glimpse of the new Toubab (white person) that’s going to live there for the next two years. It was quite a grand arrival, with lots of dancing and shaking of sweaty hands. It was literally a mob of people and children that mostly pushed us around for a few minutes, until the volunteers belongings were unloaded and then Tidiane anthed I quickly drove away, leaving the poor girl in the middle of about 200 riled up villagers. She took it all in stride, and I was confident when we left she could handle the attention and everything on her own.

The whole 3 days made me think back on my install, exactly one year ago. Our Country Director Chris Hederick installed my region, along with another APCD and our PCVL (peace corps volunteer leader) Casey. This year, it was only Tidiane and me. My arrival was much anticipated, and the school director (my work counterpart) had all the children lined up in a welcome line and singing a song to welcome me to the village. We had a short meeting at the school with about 50 villagers where I was introduced, and we were served cold sodas (very fancy). The install crew stayed at my house for lunch and a rest, so I fortunately wasn’t just unloaded and left within 10 minutes. The whole day was overwhelming and exhausting, when everyone finally left all I wanted to do was sleep. The kids we just helped install in the past few days all seemed to take the transition in stride, and I’m sure will do great in their villages.

Other than Dakar, Kolda, and installs, I’ve been relatively productive and able to finish my maternity room grant, a girls leadership camp grant, a latrine grant, and almost finish the scholarship process at the middle school. I’ve hardly had time to hang out in the village and be excruciatingly bored, like I usually am.
My family continues to be pretty chill, although the verbal abuse the subject the children to on a daily basis is a little bit stressful (even though I know it’s not as harsh as I think it is based on the cultural context, it’s still not nice at all!). My host mother sometimes says to the kids (literally translated), “fuck you, shut up, you’re stupid,” among other things. The crazy part is she’s the nicest lady ever! People are just really mean to the kids, I mean…they’re just kids after all, right? They don’t need any respect...! Fortunately there is no severe beating that happens in my house, but sometimes they do get smacked around. Last week my precious baby Fati got slammed to the ground by a huge goat that decided she was just the right height to head butt. Now if she ever does something they don’t want her to, they say, watch out, the ram is going to come hit you again!! Look out! He’s coming! The threat is enough to keep her from doing whatever or going anywhere. The threat they use for the 3 year old is that my counterpart, the school director, will come over to our house if he’s bad and hit him. The worst thing about that threat, although never true, is that this teacher will be the child’s first teacher in school in a few years….and he will hit them in class if they act out. Oh how I’m sure he’s looking forward to going to school now!

So tomorrow back to a long stretch in village until the next big adventure—the Fourth of July. I tried to go today, but the ticket guy at the garage refused to sell me a ticket to the car that was leaving immediately, insisting I sit in the completely empty car and wait for it to fill up. The ready car wasn’t going all the way to my destination, but I could easily switch cars where they stopped and get to my town much faster than waiting for the other car to fill with passengers. I got so completely furious at them that I stormed out of the garage and walked all the way back to the house, fully committed to never ever go back to the garage here again (this is the last of a long string of similar incidents). They also prevent any drivers passing through to pick up people on the road, because then the garage would lose its profit (they charge more for tickets than if you just get in a car on the road). So that leaves me with one solution to getting back to village: have Tidiane drive me a little ways out of town and drop me on the road to wait for a car, where the garage guys can’t prevent me from catching a passing car or refuse to sell me a ticket. Is that not absolutely insane that I cannot buy a ticket to wherever I want or catch public transportation at my free will without submitting to money eating a-holes that legally have no power over my actions? What they do is blatantly wrong, and they know it, as do many other Senegalese, but nothing gets done about it. There are no police to keep them in check, so they get away with treating people like shit. (And don’t even get me started on how the force passengers to seriously uncomfortable spots, and sometimes even dangerous situations- too many people in a car, and too much baggage piled high on top, in cars 20+ years old, driving like maniacs towards their next penny).

Ok, rant over. I am praying that tomorrow I will have better luck on the edge of town, and will be able to get a car back to my road town! Back to my home sweet home to spend some quality time with my fam and relax for a few days. See new pics on facebook of all the stuff I just mentioned!

Monday, March 28, 2011

half way there

Two gross things have happened today. The first being Felix eating a cockroach this morning, which is disgusting enough by itself. Then on my bush taxi ride I was subjected to being smashed up against the metal bars while the woman next to me smothered me with her sweaty armpit. Gross. But a nice friend of mine did pay my pass, so I guess it balances out.

Along with the pungent smell of BO, we have recently begun to endure the start of HOT SEASON. I am grateful that it still drops below 100 during the nights and I wake up covered with my sheet, not a bucket of sweat. Only too soon will I have to start dumping buckets of water over me before I go to bed so I can actually fall asleep.

Since we’ve hit our year mark, it seems like the wheel of time has started to spin much faster. It now feels like there’s just not enough time to get everything done! We’ve been planning away for a weeklong girls camp that will be occurring in July in Ndioum, for which we will each bring 4 girls from our respective schools to participate. I have also decided recently to participate in the Michelle Sylvester scholarship program for middle school girls, which involves me selecting 9 finalists and then 3 winners to receive a sum of money towards their school fees and materials.

The past few weeks have busy- I helped my friend Hadiel in her village (about 35k from me) with a agriculture seminar she organized for farmers and people wanting to learn more about crop rotation, improved beds, better watering practices, outplanting, river side gardening etc. She had the ag. trainer from Peace Corps come give the lecture and do demonstrations. I just helped everything run smoothly and helped her not go too insane with it all. The following day Amber and I also helped her paint the 3 rooms of the Case de Sante (health hut) with her brother who is currently being trained to run it.

A few days after I returned to village I had a visitor from Dakar, an American student studying abroad for the semester. The program does site visits with PCVs around Senegal for the student to be able to see what small villages are like outside of Dakar. It was interesting to have an outsider come visit, it made me reminisce about how I initially felt in village and what I noticed in the beginning. It actually made me step back and be a lot nicer to people as well in daily encounters…I took the time to see it from a different perspective and realized I’m getting worn down and easily frustrated with certain things. A few of us have recently decided to try going for an entire week without yelling at anyone… which will be a challenge. Harassment and unwanted attention become very different after a year of endurance than they were in the beginning, when it was nice to be noticed and doted upon. Toubab gets old. Give me money gets old. Explaining your job gets old. Talking to everybody all the time gets old. And then you get bitter. And if you don’t watch it, you might just turn into a meany. Some days are better than others.. :)

Well today I might be subjected to getting my hair braided (…?) while I wait in my road town for a friend to show up. I’ll only post pictures if it’s not completely horrendous looking.

Check out the new pics on FB for your viewing pleasure (since I’m incapable of incorporating them into this blog):

Friday, January 28, 2011

New Year, New Adventures

I came to the realization yesterday that I am the only person in my work region that has yet to go to the Med Hut in Dakar for some sort of sickness. Not saying I haven’t been sick in the last year, but I’ve just never had to go to Med. My few cases of unpleasant stomach illnesses have generally gone away after a few days, with the exception of the first time I got sick at site and had fever hallucinations (back in May). And this time it probably will too, but the experience is still not pleasant. Without going into the gory details (since not all of ya’ll have the desensitized reaction to nasty details like PCVs do), I’ll say that I think I have amoebas, again. I’ve been nauseous, had crippling stomach cramps, and lost my appetite among other symptoms, and I think it might be time to call up Med. Same symptoms as I had around Thanksgiving, but I “got better” that time. Well, amoebas tend to go dormant at times, and then come back with a vengeance, so who knows, maybe I’ve had them this whole time. Stay posted.

Fortunately, for the month I spent back home in America I had no stomach issues at all. December was a great month. I arrived to the bitter cold of New York City and my mom waiting for me at the airport. We spent a whirlwind 5 days in the city, seeing multiple shows on Broadway (the best being Billy Elliot- most amazing show I’ve ever seen), eating great food, and exploring the city. Following that craziness, we road tripped to Michigan, spending a few days in Canton with my brother, and then the weekend up in Traverse City seeing everyone we knew in about 2 whole days. It was a great trip, although very exhausting and a lot to handle right upon arriving back to the states after so long. Unfortunately my mom’s cousin in MI passed away right before our return to MA, so we delayed our trip home for the memorial, but were still able to make it back to Nantucket late on Christmas eve. My two weeks at home were amazingly relaxing and wonderful. Christmas and New Years with my family was cheerful and warm, with lots of great home cooked food, crackling fires, and quality family time. All very much needed and appreciated (and often dreamed of now that I’m back here).

It was very difficult to leave the Island and make my way back towards NYC to fly back here, but the trip took some unexpected turns along the way, making it a great adventure! I spent one night with my adorable and great friend Autumn, in her cozy apartment in Mid-town, and the next day trekked out to Brooklyn to visit my long time friend Betsy and her mother (who was visiting from Australia!). While on my way to the airport from Brooklyn, I met a young guy on the subway who was also headed to the airport, so I asked where he was going. Mali. Say what?! I live in Senegal! (Look at a map, it’s close). Amazingly, he was traveling with some students to do some sort of research in Mali, and then going to travel through Senegal and visit a friend of theirs that’s a PCV in the North. It all quickly unraveled to reveal that one of the guys is good friends with my fellow PCV and neighbor, Vivienne, and was also a PCV in Morocco a few years ago. We all coincidentally were on the same flight to Casablanca, with an 18 hour layover during which Chris, the RPCV and Viv’s friend, included me in their group and played tour guide to us all throughout the city. His fluent Arabic and knowledge of the city/country was incredible, and so appreciated. We toured the beautiful and 3rd largest mosque in the world, ate authentic Moroccan food, and explored some awesome markets full of colorful rugs, spices, olives, artisan goods, etc. To top it off, I was informed by the group that Air Moroc provides a complimentary hotel and meal to travelers with long layovers, so we dropped our luggage there for the day while we explored. They flew out a few hours before me, so I took advantage of a free bed, shower, and meal after an exhausting 24 hours of travel, before I embarked on the remainder of my journey back to Dakar. They will be passing through our regional house in Ndioum next weekend, just in time to help celebrate my birthday! :)

My return to site went very well, my host family was very appreciative of all the America gifts and happy to have me back. The past few weeks have flown by, packed with lots of work and activities. We had the amazing Awa, a great woman that works for Peace Corps in Thies, come up North and make a tour of our schools to give talks to girls about early marriage, the importance of school, sexual harassment, and general girls empowerment. Her talk at my school went great, there were about 38 primary school girls (11-13 yrs old), all of whom were VERY excited to have Awa come talk to them. I’ll try to post videos of it on Facebook. These girls are a challenge for me to work with, but only because of their excess of energy, which is sometimes difficult to harness… they almost got out of hand, but Awa did a great job of handling it all by herself (my teachers were out of village). They even did a great spur of the moment theater skit about a girl endowed to get married but who speaks up to her father about wanting to stay in school. It was awesome.
The past week I spent in village was incredibly productive- the maternity room budget has finally been jumpstarted by a visit to the mason, I completed another mural at the Health Post, made some new friends, caught up with people I haven’t seen in forever, and started my Environmental Club back up at the school (officially called “Des Amis de la Nature” – Friends of Nature Club). I easily spent a week in village before bringing my teachers to Ndioum for the long anticipated CCBI training, which was this past Wednesday. It was a huge logistical challenge to bring together about 35 Senegalese teachers from 5 far apart villages, but thanks to Maddy and a group effort, it went well and my teachers at least seemed to appreciate it. The training was on how to integrate community issues into the classroom via Community Content Based Instruction. Us volunteers were trained on this during PST, so trying to listen to it again, in French (which most of us don’t speak), was challenging, but we were there to support our teachers.

So that’s the breakdown of my past few months, not a whole lot of commentary, but I hope it was interesting enough for those of you who actually keep up with this rambling blog of mine. It has turned out to be more of an online journal rather than the informational and analytical type of blog I was aiming for about my PC experience, but it’s what works for me.

Living here and speaking another language every day gives a strange angle to my days that challenges me regularly— we all have things that happen to us that normally we would casually mention to a friend or family member or a roommate, because we like sharing our experiences. Well here, those things happen all the time, but there’s nobody to tell. If I somehow do remember after the fact, as I’m talking to an America friend or someone back home, those things often seem too trivial or irrelevant to bring up again. The isolation can be crippling, and often puts a dent in my personality. I find myself speaking a lot less out loud, but the internal dialogue does continue…sometimes to the point of near insanity if I’ve been in village too long—that’s when you start making strange comments out loud (and sometimes in English) and actually giggling at things that nobody around you understands. That’s when you know you need to get out of village… It’s just a challenge that I’ve now pinpointed and appreciate as something that I’ve been able to deal with pretty well. I try very hard to translate my personality into Pulaar so Senegalese people can see some of it, but it often seems impossible and like they will never understand. But that’s ok, because I have my American friends to keep me sane, and to remind me who I really am and what I’m really doing here. At almost a year in, I’ve started to reflect more on the work I’m doing here and the process of development work in general. We’ve all learned staggering amounts about how it all works, some good, some bad, a lot frustrating, but also a good amount rewarding and perspective changing. Only time will tell how this entire experience will reflect on my overall existence, if it will grind me down to be cynical and eternally frustrated with development work and Senegalese people, or if I will rise up and make the best of it, somehow able to cling to the optimist we all are in the beginning, coming out a hugely changed person.

Ok well that was a bit intense, on a lighter note, only one week till my birthday, and less than 3 weeks till WAIST…the ultimate softball tournament of West Africa. Team North still needs a theme, so if there are any good suggestions out there, please let them be heard. I will attempt in the future to integrate pictures into this blog, but until then, refer to Facebook for your picture viewing pleasure. I did finally get a new camera. Hoorah!