Peace Corps

Kebemer Correctional Facility Sanitation Project

Looking for an opportunity to contribute? Here’s one! The good folks at Water Charity have pre-funded a grant to clean up and build septic tanks at Kebemer’s local prison. It’s a huge need, and if you post-fund the whole thing, you get “naming rights.” Finally an opportunity to cross “namesake monument” off your list. Even if it is a sewage tank.

Check it out!  http://appropriateprojects.com/node/1657

I just returned home from a “work” week in Kedougou where I swam in the Gambian river (and later a pool!), ate the best avocados of my life, saw a lot of monkeys, and stressed out over a Peace Corps conspiracy plan involving 3 kinds of fish for the duration of my 104.3 fever. A wind funnel carried away my friend’s bug hut, and IT. WAS. HOT. All in all, a pretty wild place, that Kedougou.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Talibe – The Begging Kids

Being a Peace Corps volunteer in an urban site, I encounter begging children in the streets every time I walk outside. Senegal is unique among developing countries with the Talibe – village children studying in urban Koranic “boarding” schools and often sent out to the streets to beg. A pillar of Islam is the giving of alms, but besides a ton of Talibe children and the occasional handicapped adult, I really see no other begging in Kebemer. The history behind the Talibe is COMPLICATED, as well as the different types of Tailbe kids and Darra schools, but their presence in Senegal is deeply rooted in the culture. You can check this out for more info, or utliize your google skills to learn more about the fascinating, controversial topic. For this post, I’ll just share my experiences thus far.

When I first arrived in Senegal, I was unsure how to deal with the Talibe, and not much has changed in that regard. Senegalese people tend to ignore them, and I did that for a while. Once that strategy made me feel like a cement chain was pulling my heart down to my bowels, I began engaging them in conversation instead. Some of the kids don’t speak Wolof, though, and some of the little ones are too scared to respond. Not to mention it’s awkward to strike up a conversation with kids after denying them money. I once made the terrible mistake of buying breakfast for about 5 tiny boys on the street, and by the time i was handing it out, I was surrounded by 30 boys of all ages, pushing and yelling. One kid even got cut by my bread knife; it was a nightmare. Everyday, every mistake here is such a learning process. I’m still trying to figure out my role in interacting with the Talibe. Giving them money is a dilemma: do you give the boy change, contributing to the system in place but maybe saving him from a beating from the maribou? Do you give only food, when really he’d rather have a coin to buy candy or meet his daily quota to take back to the school? Or do you give nothing to avoid being singled out as the white woman in the city who always has money to be hit up for?

A month ago, I traveled to Saint Louis to help out with a soccer tournament for Talibe kids. We had different stations set up to teach the kids about hand washing, an organic bug repellent to fight malaria, PC’s favorite plant moringa, and the one I helped with – microgardening. We handed out prizes of soap, toothbrushes, “healthy” moringa beignets (until it became a dangerous riot for food). But the most enjoyable part for me was face, arm, chest painting. After mistakenly painting lions on a few boys, it was made known to me that everyone was really wanting Barcelona soccer emblems. How you confuse lion and a soccer patch is a legitimate question, but I’ve now got mad skill Barce, as well as Real. I put my foot down at Chelsea.

See that white foot? That's me painting faces! This is abnormal for the day, it was usually much more crowded around the bench. Mob-like even.

See that white foot? That’s me painting faces! This is abnormal for the day, it was usually much more crowded around the bench. Mob-like even. [photo cred Lama (BFP) via Hadiel Mohamed]

Finally, this blog is a Peace Corps initiative with information on some awesome projects that some passionate, inspirational volunteers are working on. Really, they are so cool. As for me, I’m following up a project with a Koranic school a PC volunteer before me set up. Yay for gardening! More info in a future post. This is too long.

Frankly, my dear

During training, my fellow volunteers and I sat through a few sessions entitled Vulnerability, Resiliency or some other emotional catchword. Well meaning staff members talked about developing strategies until I wanted to stuff my ears with rice. They passed out papers with sine functions graphs, subnoted with ThePeaceCorpsVolunteer’s predictable emotions at the various times in her service. Amused, I envisioned the process leading up to these graphs, hundreds of volunteers flipping through their journals, hunched down under their mosquito nets, stomachs cramping and sweating through their wrapskirts, plotting relative states of anger and depression from their entries. But that was before I installed at site.

Now if I were brave enough to revisit the angry scrawls through my notebook, I’m sure my graph would not so much undulate as jerk like a seismograph – quakes high up on the Richter scale at that. Nevertheless, I can’t deny the highs and lows of serving in the Peace Corps. Now, though, the lows are frequent and the highs far between. And as it happens, that’s what them graphs were predictin’: that I’d be in the pits right about now. Yet again, Peace Corps knows what it’s talking about.

How to explain what makes living here hard? It’s no one thing so much as the constant push, I think. The mocking and begging children as I walk through the streets, the daily guilt of balancing of time to self and time to Senegal, planning routes to destinations to avoid the manboys who won’t leave me alone (I would rather DIE than marry you), being ignored except when being called upon to Dance, monkey, dance!, and the exhaustion of denying someone my earrings for the sixteenth time that afternoon – all with a smile and a joke, of course…and Wolof is not helping me out. Damn pronouns.

This is the part in the post where I’m supposed to say how all the pain is worth it when I sit under the tree, watching the children play or look up at the stars as goats bleat harmoniously or teach my whole city of 17000 how to properly space tomato plants, and singlehandedly end malnutrition, malaria, and stop the Saharan desert’s expansion…ha.

But I won’t. Because it’s not. Today it’s not. And yesterday it wasn’t. And hopefully tomorrow it might be, but probably not. And instead I leave you with a quote by Elizabeth Lane from Christmas in Connecticut and urge you to cherish the tacos you eat today.

“I’m tired of being pushed around, told what to do, tired of writing your gol-darned articles, dancing to everybody else’s tune, tired of being told whom to marry! In short, I’m tired!”

6 Months in Country!

I’ve made it 6 months! It’s so hard to believe. Although the individual days sometimes drag, the weeks and months are flying.

Random Tidbit: People here are superstitious.

  1. They don’t like to count people. When I was conducting my baseline survey at site, I had to ask, “How many people wake up in this house in the morning?” and “How many sticks of god do you have?” (meaning children). 
  2. Last night I was chastised for leaving my shoe flipped over by the mat.
  3. Tucking your shirt in is another no-no.
  4. Resting your hands on your head is a bad sign because women do that when they wail.
  5. In the lunch bowl, when someone flicks you some bitter tomato, you must eat it or you’re a witch.
  6. The most eerie: At dusk every night there is a call to prayer and the streets full of kids playing soccer, women selling fattaya, and the mosiers clear out and go inside their compounds. It’s said that witches (and cats?) walk the streets at dusk and it’s bad to be outside.

New Post!

Disclaimer: It’s been a really long time since my last post, and too much has happened to adequately blog about it.

I’m back in home sweet Kebemer after about a month of In-Service Training. We learned about a lot of Advanced Gardening/Field Crop techniques including Intercropping, Pest Management, Companion Planting, Waterharvesting Earthworks Techniques, Permaculture and more. WHEW! It was exhausting but really cool. (Side note, I’m officially in love with the 56? volunteers in our training group. What an incredible group we’ve got).

I also realized I’ve done a terrible job explaining to people back home what I’m doing here. The Peace Corps has 3 goals; here they are in my words.

  1. Development work
  2. Talk about the U.S. to Senegalese people.
  3. Talk about Senegal to Americans.

The last 2 are pretty obvious, and the first terribly vague. I’m an agriculture volunteer, and I basically get to do whatever projects I want within the broad realm of agriculture. I was placed in a city, so small scale gardening is practical; but biking out to nearby villages and working with larger scale crop production is also possible.

The Peace Corps approach to sustainable development work is grass-roots, bottom-up and person-to-person emphasized. That means I get to know people in my community first, talk to them, teach them and assist them with their ideas and projects. This approach starkly contrasts the traditional NGO presence in Senegal; namely, that is to walk into a community, hand out money and then leave. (Talk to any Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, and you’ll get a hefty rant about how this makes our daily lives oh so difficult).

So right now, I’m in the seeking-out-motivated people phase of my work. Seeking-out-people-not-just-looking-for-free-money. Here are some of the people I’ve met, to give you an idea.

  • The Senegalese Government’s Agriculture Office – Peace Corps sets all volunteers up with a counterpart at their sites. Mine works in the Agriculture Office. His main focus is a Table MicroGardening project. People are super enthusiastic about growing vegetables in tables, but there are limits to its sustainability ($$).
  • Women’s Group – Women in Senegal frequently have organized groups, and they are a great tool to use pre-existing infrastructure to reach people. I’ve made friends with the president and several women of a MicroGardening group and sat in on one of their meetings.
  • Schools – I’ve been making regular visits to 4 schools in the area: Ekol 8 and Ekol Ndakhar Syll, both primary French schools; CESSA a middle school; and a Talibe Koranic school (I’ll blog about the Talibe in a later post)
  • Khalmbane – A village just outside Kebemer, there is a big gardening group with a large field. The chief of the village is (perhaps overly?) nice.
  • Prison – There’s a pre-existing garden in the local prison and the Warden is really interested in working with me. I haven’t had time to go over there as much as I’d like to.
  • ISRA Seed Extension Program – When the rains come (around June) farmers plant their crops. Peace Corps works with the Senegalese research institute to extend improved variety seed to farmers (more drought, pest resistant, higher yield, etc). We also collect data on yields and whatnot. So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for hard-working farmers to extend seed to later on.
  • Eax et Forest – One of my favorite people in Kebemer is a man working with trees at the government office. He’s great, has worked with PC volunteers in the past, and is super motivated. Hoping to maybe do some tree trainings (fruit trees, reforestation projects) with him.

I’m probably forgetting some, but that gives you an idea of what I’ve been up to for the past couple months. I’ll try to start blogging more regularly and keep them shorter.

If anyone has any questions or has a topic they want me to write about, just holler!

 

Holidays Recap from Senegal

Well, the holidays came and went full of bittersweet celebrations with new friends. Starting the celebrations my sister had a wedding party in a neighboring village. We all got dressed up, loaded up in the back of this truck, and took off.

Maybe 12 women total? On the way back, everyone took off their shoes and put them in a bucket. I couldn't get a straight answer for why.

Maybe 12 women total in the back of the truck? On the way back, everyone took off their shoes and put them in a bucket. I couldn’t get a straight answer for why.

The Beautiful Bride and her under-dressed friend at a very Senegalese-angle (think Myspace era aesthetics)

The Beautiful Bride and her under-dressed friend at a very Senegalese-angle (think Myspace era aesthetics)

Christmas was a great time including killing and cooking a chicken, eating a LOT of cookies, pumpkin bread, salads, mac n cheese, mulled wine, tapalapa — basically my dream weekend. It wasn’t easy being away from home, but thanks to Skype, letters, presents and Christmas decorations from home and the company of my wonderful fellow volunteers, we all made it through.

Our Christmas card featuring chicken feet (Christmas dinner) and canned snow (courtesy of my lovely mother)

I rang in the “New Years” like this at 8 pm and then peacefully slept through the turn of 2013 with a belly full of sparkling grape juice. Wild night, eh?

This was the most flattering of all the self-portraits I took, though it may give a skewed perception of my enthusiasm of spending New Years Eve alone in my room...

Believe it or not, this was the most flattering of all the self-portraits I took, though it may give a skewed perception of my enthusiasm of spending New Years Eve alone in my room

Then the next morning it was off to the Maggal Touba– a huge annual pilgrimage one of the Islamic brotherhoods takes– at 5am, which means 730 am SenegalTime. They celebrate the exile of their leader with a ton of eating and drinking (soft drinks) and, for the women, at least, gossiping while lounging in rooms covered wall to wall with mattresses to accommodate all the guests descending on the city.

Note: Her Crayola Dress. The prayer scarf on my shoulders -you have to cover your head as a woman in Touba

My mom in her Crayola Dress. And me with a prayer scarf on my shoulders -you have to cover your head as a woman in Touba when you go outside

Note

Street corner of Touba. Note the megaphones on the corner. The covered the city chanting/singing nonstop along with these posters everywhere of the brotherhood leader

Then, just a few near-death incidents later….involving donkey carts, speed bumps on highways, a fenderbender, clouds of dust requiring medical-grade masks, stand still traffic, unmarked lanes, engine trouble (maybe battery related?), subsequent pushing of the car down the street, and getting lost once……..We made it back to the house alive! And, kids, that’s how I started 2013.

A Day in the Life – Morning Edition

Every morning I wake up to the mosque chanting the call(s) to prayer before sunrise, and lay in bed until my alarm goes off at 7. My emotions during this dark time range from rage to romantically feeling like “I’m in Africa!”. (I imagine exercise will worm its way in at this time, once I figure out how. The one time I ran, a piece of glass went through my Vibram, and my calves hurt for 2 days. Deep sand is deep.) Opening my east facing windows, I spy a lovely sunrise and settle down to drink a cup of Nescafe and powdered milk while working a crossword puzzle that I never finish. Settling down means sitting on my stool that I asked some carpenters to craft last week; I cannot go on enough about how life changing it is to have something to sit on. Those first mornings were rough. It’s worthwhile noting the mosquitos are raging at this hour. Once I’ve given up on the puzzle, I get ready for the day, pack a backpack and fill up my water filter. I bike to the government agriculture office a little before 9 and stop on the way for breakfast from my favorite lady. There I join some people eating in silence on benches arranged in a horseshoe around the chef, Psiu Nabu Diop. The benches are surrounded by hanging sheets, giving an illusion of privacy. My bean sandwich costs 150 CFA, 30 US cents. I work at the office here until 1 when we break for lunch until 4. That’s three hours of lunch break, in case you missed it. Senegal shuts down for lunch, especially during the hot season. I bike home and relax until lunch and sweep.

To be continued, I’m tired.

I’M INSTALLED, HELP!

I am finally in my home sweet home Kebemer, which started out about as sweet as three week old Tabaski ram. I’ve only been here a little while, though, so I’m trying to keep an open mind. Instead of going on a rant about my new family, the city, and the men of this country, I’ll entertain everyone with a bathroom tally. In six days there have been:

cockroaches slaughtered in the bathroom – 22

escaped cockroaches now MIA – 2

cockroach carcasses discovered the next morning – 6
(ensued the heated debate among my friends and I about what was happening to all the slain)

Cockroaches killed fighting over the carcass of their own kind  – 6                                                      (settled the debate)

Cockroach arch nemesis – 1

*** some may be represented in multiple counts

Sworn In, Now What?

Well, I just spend an hour writing a lovely, witty blog update just to have the power cut out and lose it. As we like to say, “High highs, Low lows.” Peace Corps is an emotional roller coaster. I’ll summarize what I had already written:

I took an oath regarding upholding the constitution, and I’m now an official Peace Corps volunteer! Here’s a video where you can see my teacher, confidant and second mother Ouly and a bunch of my friends–all of whom kept me sane these past 2 months. One noteworthy discrepancy, however, is the atmosphere of our cocktail hour. While we seem to be leisurely enjoying pleasantries and the sunshine, it was in fact more along the lines of a bacon-in-the-middle match with hors d’oeuvres in place of a football. Fingerfood-deprived Peace Corps volunteers can’t be expected to behave themselves around cheesy mashed potato balls.

It’s bittersweet finishing training and moving to Kebemer. I developed a unique bond with my host family, the Peace Corps training staff, and my fellow volunteers. Being so vulnerable when I arrived here and being taken care of so well by everyone has left me overwhelmed with gratitude and very sad to say goodbye. It’s hard to articulate how terrifying it is to be unable to meet your basic needs on your own, and how life changing it is to be surrounded by people who you know care deeply about you. Almost like speed-growing up; I don’t know if I’ll ever experience another time in my life like this, or ever make relationships under similar circumstances again. Tears were shed during the swearing in.

But I’m excited to unpack my bags, cook for myself, and start my work. It’s both exciting and also really scary to have a completely open ended schedule in my future. Come Wednesday, it’s all up to me what I do with my time!