Thursday, July 14, 2011

Village Life

Jam waali mon.

I apologize for not posting anything for very long time. I do not yet have internet access in my village and when I go into the nearest city, the power is often down all over town.

I “installed” in Sedo Abbaas in mid May. Several hundred people came to my family's compound to greet me and to dance. I felt very welcome, but it was also very overwhelming. I live with the village chief and two of his four wives. The younger of the two (the third wife) has five children (ranging in age from 6 – 22) who live in our household year round and some older children who live elsewhere. His second wife, who is now in her seventies, has several grown children who live in a neighboring village and often make extended visits to SA. The first wife, who is fairly old by Senegalese standards, lives in another neighborhood (in a house her sons—who live abroad—built for her) with her daughters in law, grandchildren, and other assorted relatives. The fourth wife lives in Dakar, and I don't know much about her household. Needless to say, people are constantly appearing in our family compound and presenting themselves as my sister, brother, or aunt.

Right now, I have a small room in an unused building in the compound. Down a semi-indoor hallway is an outdoor area with a concrete floor and drainage out the back of the house. This is where I shower, wash dishes, and wash my clothes (I've strung a clothes line up across this little courtyard). A public latrine on the outside of the compound's main house has technically been turned over to me for my private use, but it's evident that most visitors to the compound missed that memo. A one-room building with a private bathroom off the back is currently being constructed for my use, since my current bathroom situation does not meet the PC's standards, and the building I am currently sleeping in is falling apart. I look forward to decorating this new house with the morale of future volunteers in mind.

The women of SA, especially, are extremely welcoming. I have been going house to house with my counterparts, surveying the first wife in every family about water usage, health services, and nutrition. The men are annoyed that I've chosen to talk to the women, but they often don't know how many children they have or how much water their household uses in a day; the wives always do. Jumping right into this community assessment has been great for my language skills and good for my visibility. The results indicate that most families are pulling the bare minimum amount of water they need for washing, cooking, cleaning, and livestock, and that both the price and difficulty involved in obtaining water makes gardening impossible for almost every family in town. Community leaders have been very forward in asking for my help with water accessibility, and that's where I plan to start after my technical training. Once there is a reliable, affordable source of water, I know that the Women's Group plans to start a large community garden, and I am eager to help them with that as well.

The hardest part of village life for me, so far, has been cultural communication. I need alone time, especially in this setting, to stay functional. But seeking alone time just isn't done here. My desire to sleep alone in my room when the weather gets cool enough to sleep indoors is completely alien. No one sleeps alone. My friend explained that she finds the idea very frightening. Similarly, my frustration with having a shower and bathroom that do not lock (or close) is not understood. Most people in the village have never locked a door in their lives. And possessions, within some limits, are basically communal. My counterpart and I had a fight one evening because I explained to her that she can't take my things out of my house without asking me first.

Despite these challenges, I am grateful that my program placed me in smaller town. When I come into the nearest major city, strangers ask for money, children throw rocks, and men proposition me every time I step outside. I ignore all of this to the best of my ability, but the effort that requires is exhausting. And this is, overall, probably the most challenging thing about living here: I have no anonymity in a culture where pointing out differences between people is completely acceptable.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Haa Gongol, Nguechoch

What do you say to the people who have fed, housed, and taught you their language for nine weeks on the day of your departure? If these people are Pulaar speakers, you say “May God pay you.”

I packed up my backpack and moved out of my little room in Nguechoch today for the last time this afternoon. My host grandmother (and namesake), who ranks pretty high on my list favorite people, cried. But since crying is generally frowned upon in pretty much all Senegalese cultures, she hid in her room until she could get it together to come out and say goodbye. I felt similarly, but Pulaar is decidedly lacking in vocabulary to describe strong feelings. The closest I could get was “This situation, it's pitiful.” But that's not really what I meant. What I meant was: it's very hard to leave such a generous, patient, open family. I will miss them all very much. Below are some pictures of the Sy household.

This is the baby, Samba Sy, who learned how to crawl while I was living with the family.

The three older children. From left to right: Hawa Sy, Mymuna Sy, and Mamadou Sy.

The house.

The outhouse (one stall for showering, one for peeing).

A corner of my room.

Yesterday, in preparation for my departure, my grandmother had some friends of hers henna my feet and one of my hands (called "pudi"; traditional for Pulaar women on special occasions). The results drew a lot of attention in town this morning:

Some days I can't feel the progress I've made here, but today was not one of those days. My training site mates and I braved the luma (the augmented, Sunday market) this morning. We bargained in a melange of languages, snapped comebacks at aggressive men, and made smalltalk with the members of the Pulaar community we saw along the way. A month ago we would have dashed in, paid too much for everything, and dashed home for a nap. Two months ago, we would have detoured around the luma. We are far from culturally or linguistically fluent, but we're getting there.

On Friday I swear in as a Volunteer. On the seventeenth, I will be “installed” in Sedo Abass, and start my work. Inshallah.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Volunteer Visit

I spent this past week up north, visiting my future site of service and the other volunteers currently working up there. It took us the better part of twelve hours to get to our neck of the woods up in Matam (we stopped periodically to let off other trainees at their future sites). This is mostly due to the conditions of the one, paved road up there. We arrived in Ouro Sogue around eight, and were welcomed by three current volunteers. We have an apartment there, where volunteers can get work done or crash during the trip east to St. Louis and Dakar. Here are some images the Ouro Sogue apartment:

Living room.
Living room again.

I visited Sedo Abass, my soon-to-be-home, on Wednesday with my volunteer host, Camille. She called ahead and told my host father, who is also the village chief, that we were coming out. It takes about an hour and a half by sketchy minibus and then donkey cart to get out to Sedo. The village has a forage (which means at least some folks are not drinking well water) and at least some of the properties have electricity. We chatted and lunched with my host family. Two of my counterparts (members of the community designated by the village to collaborate with me) came to my host's house to greet me. One is a local proprietor and the other is the president of the women's group.

A counterpart came with Camille and I to visit the local health post in search of my third counterpart, the head nurse of the post. He was out, but the health post appears to be in very good order, with a sick bay, a midwife's office, and a pharmacy. After the afternoon siesta, we visited the middle school I will be working with to drop off instructions for a girls' scholarship program I want to start up in Abass. The school director had gone back to his village for the day, but I met a handful of the teachers, and they seemed to have it together. My house may or may not be finished by the time I'm scheduled to install, but all-in-all it felt like a fairly successful visit.

The next two days I spent traveling to Camille's village and hanging out there with her family. She has a nice garden she set up in her host mother's rainy-season field and she sleeps in one room of her family's house.

While in her town, we worked on two projects. We helped put up a fence around a school garden Camille wrote a grant for. We also spent a lot of time on the schedule for a girls' camp Peace Corps Matam is running in early October (the participants will be the winners of the scholarship program I am trying to get my middle school hooked in to).

On the way out of Camille's village, I snapped some shots of the landscape. This is what my site looks like, too, more or less (more on the people, a little less on the trees):

My last night up north, I met up with the other trainees and most of the volunteers currently serving in the Podor and Matam sub-regions, at our regional house in Ndioum (a large town in Podor). We have an entire house and courtyard to ourselves, complete with non-bucket shower, library, and little medical office. During the hot season, which is warming up now, everyone who can sleeps outside, which is several degrees cooler than a cement house that has been baking in the sun all afternoon. In Ndioum, volunteers sleep on the roof under mosquito nets--the night sky in the Sahel desert is incredible.

The pictures were loading ridiculously slowly here at the center. I will try to post more later this week.

jam tan

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ko Sebe Sedo liggoto-mi et kod-mi

Today, my stage (said with a French accent. It's the PC Senegal term for training group) received our site placements--the locations where we will live and work for the next the next two years.

Where we will serve has been the number one topic of discussion here since Day 2 of training. Until today, it was a carefully guarded secret (and is for every stage). We've harassed current volunteers for hints; we've bothered the staff here at the training center; we've read way too far into malaria-prophylaxis-induced dreams. But no one really knew for certain where they would be headed until this afternoon.

The way PC Senegal chooses to reveal this information is epic. At the training center, we have a small basketball court with a giant map of Senegal painted on it. Each of us was blindfolded, and then, one by one, we were lead onto the map and positioned roughly where we will be serving. Once everyone was in place, we were allowed to remove the blind folds and see, finally, where we would live, and who our neighbors would be. The staff and some current volunteers hung around to ask questions and give words of encouragement about our posts.

I will be serving in a village called Sebe Sedo. It is located not far from the Senegal-Mauritania border, in the region of Matam. According to the limited information I have, 95% of Sebe Sedo speak Pulaar (the language I am learning), and the population is about 3,600. I expect that my host family, who hail from "the Fouta" (the collective local name for the northern regions), will be very excited.

For my part, I'm feeling a mix of pride and disappointment. Disappointment because very, very few of the people I've become close to during training will be anywhere nearby. But this positing is a boost of confidence because Northern sites are regarded as the most challenging, and volunteers in the North are known for their work ethic.

I am planning to take my camera back to my training village tomorrow, so my next update will, inshallah, be a little more visually interesting.

jam tan

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ngeechoch, Week 1

From here on out, the updates are going to get a little sporadic, and my grasp on the English language is going to weaken; we've started the home-stay phase of Pre-Service Training (PST).

My training community is a good-sized town called Ngeechoch. It's in the department of Thies, about thirty kilometers south of the training center in the departmental capital. The town is dirty, hot and sandy, with two paved roads, a good-sized market, and many mosques. PC Senegal uses a language/culture immersion model in which each trainee lives with a different family, as does a language/culture teacher, in the same general neighborhood. There are three other girls in my class, and we meet every morning at the home of our teacher. Every afternoon we go to an elementary school and work on a little tree nursery and vegetable garden we've set up there.

My host family consists of a man, his two wives, the first wife's four children, the husband's grandmother (for whom I am named), his nephew, and a woman of yet undetermined family status who boards at the house and teaches at a local middle school. In the past, the husband has been involved with some development projects that marry livestock-based micro-finance with reforestation and environmental protection. At the moment, the family's source of income seems to be a gardening supply store that he owns and operated with the help of one of his wives. The children are eight, seven/six, six/five, and less than a year. So I would say that my position in the family is more that of a third wife or aunt than an older child. They have been very good to me, and my French has gotten exponentially better talking mostly with the father about various development projects in Senegal, and Pulaar culture in general. I am there to learn Pulaar (a beautiful, but difficult language), however, and I will probably need to quit the French cold turkey at some point if I want to have a true immersion experience.

Traditionally, Pulaars were nomadic animal herders. They were the first ethnic group in Senegal to convert to Islam, and they are culturally more conservative than most of the country's other ethnicities. Both sexes, but especially the men, tend to run very tall and very thin (at 5'9", I'm about average for a woman, and my host father is 6'7" or so). Senegalese men apparently find Pulaar women very alluring, with their numerous gold earrings and black henna-ed hands and feet. Many Pulaar men have two small scars beside the corners of their eyes (thought to give a man clear vision throughout his life). Diary is much more a part of their diet than that of other ethnic groups. In my family, we frequently have a sweet millet porridge called karaw drizzled with sour milk for dinner.

One of my host mothers is teaching me to prepare Senegalese dishes. It's incredible what people can do with blunt knives, hollow gourds, and little charcoal burners. The food is never bland. Fish especially, is usually stuffed with crushed black pepper corns. All dishes and clothes are washed by hand in enormous metal basins in the courtyard of our family compound. There is also a chicken coup, a former shed where a family member now lives, and what the Senegalese call a "douche": a separate building with two, tiled stalls. One has just a small round drain in the middle of the floor, and is used for showering. The other has a Turkish-style squat toilette. In place of toilet paper, people rinse themselves with water from a large bucket (which I've actually come to prefer). Likewise, people shower two or three times a day with a bucket of water and a small cup for pouring. After a hot day of social and solar exposure, I love these tepid showers.

I am currently back at the training center for a brief series of tech, med, and safety classes. I return to Ngeechoch Wednesday evening. Despite all of the exhausting (and not always positive) attention I attract in my neighborhood and at the elementary school, I already miss my host family. I think I like not having internet, not knowing what time it is, and spending most of my waking hours in the sweaty company of dirty children. I'm certainly in a state of culture shock, but the feeling of existing and communicating only exactly where I am is something I can only find a two-days hike from civilization back home.

Asalaam malekum.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thies Training Center

We arrived at the training center an hour after the earliest call to prayer this morning. The center is an old French army base with office buildings, an infirmary, a dining hall, indoor and outdoor social spaces, barracks, kitchen, and experimental gardens:

There are 48 of us in this "stage." Mostly women, one married couple, but everyone seems to be getting along swimmingly with everyone else so far. As I write this, there are cribbage, backgammon, and Settler's games going on simultaneously.

We call this the "disco hut" because it used to have an ostentatious disco ball hanging from the ceiling. We spend all of our together hours here because the wifi signal is strong, and the benches are comfy.

This is the experimental grafting garden. They are trying to create mango plants that have a longer season and produce bigger fruit, high-output bananas, guavas, and pomegranates.

This is the barracks building where I'm currently living. I share a long, thin room with four other girls. We sleep on bunk beds made up with traditional fabrics and draped in mosquito netting.

This complex houses the dining room, financial office, and indoor social lounge. We ate lunch outside this afternoon: beef and rice with spicy vegetables. Five people sit on a mat around a large bowl and eat out of it with spoons (communal-bowl etiquette is fairly complicated).

The weather was low eighties and breezy all day. It will be tomorrow, too, and the day after. Obies, I laugh at your plight.

Asalaam malekum.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

For keeps this time

Hello everyone!

I haven't posted here in almost a year, but now I've actually got something to report on.

From now on, the purpose of this blog will mainly be to share stories, information, and photographs from my Peace Corps Senegal service with my family, friends, and whomever else takes an interest in my escapades. I will of course answer individual letters and emails (when I have internet access), but highlights will be posted here to view at your leisure.

For anyone who stumbles upon this blog looking for some Peace Corps application process insights (I know I did while I was applying), here are some blogs with good application timelines:

The truth is that everyone's timeline is a little different. Here's a Peace Corps wiki chart and graph showing the timelines for 150 different volunteers, if you'd like to take a statistical approach to planning your future:

And now, the ubiquitous PC Packing List!

Clothing and Shoes:
3 wrap around skirts
1 pair dress khakis
1 pair khaki cargo pants
several cotton shirts
excessive amounts of cotton underwear
4 sports bras
1 underwire bra
4 spandex shorts (for wearing under skirts in warm weather)
1 pair yoga pants
1 pair baggy cotton pants
2 big t-shirts
1 linen dress
1 warm up jacket
1 waterproof windbreaker
1 pair Chacos
1 pair Teva flip-flops
1 pair leather slip-ons
Personal and Hygiene:
1 tube tooth paste
1 bottle shampoo
1 bottle body wash
2 sticks deodorant
1 bottle sunscreen
1 tooth brush
1 hair brush
1 nail clipper
1 nail file
1 Keeper (menstrual cup)
several pairs of earrings
one necklace chain and a few different pendants
Tech and practical:
netbook and charger
back-up drive
small digital camera, charger, memory cards
3 jump drives
cell phone charger
plug converter
waterproof matches
multi-tool knife
shortwave radio
LED headlamp
rechargeable AA/AAA and charger
battery-powered alarm clock
colored and regular pencils
colored and regular pens
embroidery thread (for making bracelets)
Blink (a card game)
Wolof and French pocket dictionaries
Lonely Planet Senegal and Gambia
maps of Senegal and Africa
photo album with pictures of family and friends
2 backpacking packs
1 back pack
1 collapsable duffle bag
1 sleeping bag with compression sack
1 sleeping pad
1 pillow

Note: this list is a for a warm country with two seasons (dry and rainy)

Tomorrow I start my training in Washington, D.C.. Tuesday I fly to Dakar!

Asalaam malkeum