volunteer

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!”

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!

 

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.

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!