Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tonight's Insomniac Post...

...brought to you courtesy of Mefloquine, the antimalaria prophylactic drug I'm on for the next two years. Being insomniac is no fun, but it does get stuff done and hey, being sleepy and out-of-it during the day sure beats dying of malaria, right? I think so.

So, continuing from last night, Thanksgiving was a lot of fun, although sort of overwhelming. What was nice was the end of the five-week challenge. It marks no real significance of any sort, being a totally arbitrary time demarcation after which we've supposedly achieved something...but still, it was nice to have that out of the way. Tabaski was okay, and I've written about that already, as I have the radio meeting and the warthog.

I've been out of village for about 8 days now, and the village guilt is really starting to ache. But, most of it has been either for work purposes, or for work purposes once removed. What do I mean by that, and how come it's not just rationalization? I came in a week ago yesterday, a day earlier than I'd planned, because there was stuff I needed to discuss with the Urban Ag PCV in Kedougou. We left for the Ag Summit really early on the morning of the 14th, and did not return until midafternoon on the 17. I had planned to go back to village on the 18th, but as I spent the afternoon of the 16th not in the meetings for the summit but curled up whimpering on the floor with a 102.5 (Farenheit) fever, I was not really feeling up to climbing the mountain. Then I thought about it some more and realized that the Peace Corps doctor had a point when she said that even if I am not doing a lot lately, it is still enough, somehow, to keep me weak enough that I can have a chronic cold. So I decided to stay until after Christmas.

Not that I'm sitting around doing nothing. In fact, I am sitting around a lot less here than I would be in village. Among other things, Matt and I built a gray water system to water the compost pile Thomas dug with the laundry water, and he's helped me start hatching my new well plan. I also dug out the shower drain, planted some papaya seeds, ordered some tropical fruit seeds online (with Matt and Kate), did a lot of coffee research (that was last night's insomnia), and am working on a viability test of some coffee seed that Matt found in the kitchen.

This is actually pretty amazing because, per my research, Coffea canephora seeds, if not fresh, can take up to 6 months to germinate. I counted out 100 seeds this morning to soak for 24 hours before planting in a test pot to see what the germination rate would be, and by dinnertime, several of them had sprouted! I'm really excited about this, because my approach to my Peace Corps service so far is to get as many balls rolling as possible and then chase as many of them as I can as fast as I reasonably can for two years. So, these seeds are going into a bed at the Peace Corps house in Kedougou tomorrow, and I'm taking a bunch up to site when I go, to start the pilot. Another really exciting aspect of this is that because C. canephora is a cross-pollinated species, it needs bees to really do well. Boy, what a beautiful coincidence, hey?

My other really exciting (and rapidly growing) project is to make water a nonissue up on my mountain. To this effect, I've been researching the cost of digging two new wells up there. This is really important, because of the three villages in my area, there is only one with a well (right near my compound). I want to dig one near the school / health facility (so I can have a demo garden at the school next year and the health post can have clean water), and one closer to my market town. After digging them (I'm hoping they'll be around $500 per well), I want to install a crank-pump (like a water wheel on a rope inside two vertical pipes--diagrams to follow when David's given me his blueprints) for each of the three wells, and put a cover on each of them. Before that, I will probably put a concrete skirt and drainage ditch around the current well. But then, after that, I want to build about 10-15 biosand filters, that use sand, gravel, and a bacterial film to filter large amounts of water and don't really wear out.

As the first Ag volunteer in my village, it is important for me to identify the people with whom it is good to work--this is what Peace Corps says. I agree, but I think that even more importantly, my place is to try to put as much of the infrastructure in place as possible for my replacement to hit the ground running and really be able to do things like have a garden right off the bat. To do that, you need a reliable water source, and a permanent garden area.

One thing I learned at the conference that was not a result of any meeting was a cool design for a round garden, which is my plan. The Tamba Urban Ag PCV was really helpful in doing that, and we spent a fun day playing in the garden he's developing there. It made me realize, though, that I really do need a permanent garden site. Because I want to plant fruit trees, among other things.

Other than that, I've been finally getting over my cold, still convinced I have giardia (although Peace Corps Med doesn't think so), and really glad that I have a direction for my energy: water, garden, and coffee. In a couple months it will be time to plant trees, so I may wait to do the coffee until I've gotten my tree pepiniere going and then just have a mammoth pepiniere with the coffee, too, but I think I wouldn't mind watering it (my mind may change drastically quite soon) if I could get the plants started right now. One thing about coffee is that it takes four years or so to actually bear fruit. But all this means is that my double-replacement could work with a SED (Small Enterprise and Development) PCV to create a coffeegrowers' co-op. Maybe they could even export it to somewhere that would pay sixteen million dollars per ounce. Cart before horse, yes, I know, but isn't dreaming big what I'm here to do anyway?

Speaking of "here," these are the rest of the videos of my compound in my village. [EDIT: Here's one. The Internet ate the other one after I'd uploaded it for an hour. Boo, Internet.]

In a really exciting development, while I've been waiting for these to upload, I've been doing some more coffee research, and have gotten in touch with a couple people who do research on which varieties of C. canephora produce the most efficiently, and may be able to get seeds from the breeder who produces the highest quality, highest yield seed in the world. This year. This is really exciting, and I guess it means I should really get my ducks in a row in village to find someone who wants to try to do a coffee pilot field with me.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Truncated post WITH VIDEOS

Well, folks, it's been an eventful few weeks. Today while shoveling a shoulder-jarring mix of gravel-plus-everything-up-to-head-sized rocks, I had my first, "Gosh, the time has flown" moment. Slightly over two months at site; if my time in Koboye were a day, I'd have been there for two hours already. Yow. I know everyone says, "Don't count the weeks or days," and I understand why. But it's fun to do once in a while, just to see how things are going.

Thanksgiving was nice. Austin and a bunch of the other people from Tamba, the region north of us, came down and made a Turducken and we made and ate a lot of food. Like, a LOT of food. I spent the Wednesday before cooking various sets of vegetables in a giant (15-20L) 3-legged pot over a charcoal fire. My sleeping bag, which my dad mailed in early September, got here in the Peace Corps car that came down for the occasion.

Speaking of packages, my gosh, people. You have gone so far above and beyond what I even hoped to get in terms of packages and letters that I really don't know how to thank you at all, let alone enough. Dad and Kate, you've been wonderful at keeping the packages coming--the food, gloves, earplugs, pens...amazing. Mom, the seeds! The seeds, and the food, and the books...words fail me. Kevin (and Whitby), the baking chocolate and stuff from the bulk section of Wegman's got me through more than you might think. Especially the brewer's yeast. Steve and Teresa sent me a wonderful surprise package with a book and some cinnamon (!!!!! How did you know I was running low?), a wealth of drink mixes and ziploc bags and--Allah jaraama--some grooming tools. Could any of these people be more wonderful? I think not. Then there's everyone who has sent me a package that hasn't gotten here yet--Kevin, my parents, Andres, Ari, Liz, and then whoever has kept it a secret--thank you in advance. And THEN there's the people who write me letters! Mom, Dad, Jen, Ari, Maddy, Marian, Carol, Erika, Kevin, Steve, Linjie, Pat...thank you all so much! I keep my letters at site, and on hard days there are few things more comforting than reading a few. And really, I am replying to whomever writes me, except Dad and Mom, because they write so often. Sorry, guys. But I will get better at it, I promise.

This was going to be longer, but I'm exhausted. Still, you haven't got too much to complain about, because here are two little video clips of my compound. In a couple days I'll post a few more, since each of these took over an hour to post...

Monday, December 7, 2009

My computer's broken

How come I'm posting so many updates if the computer's broken? Because I've been borrowing computers. And that's why I haven't posted pictures yet. But here's one...
This is the inside of my hut, looking towards my shower. It's not the picture I meant to upload, but it's the one I accidentally uploaded, so it's the one you get.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's a rant, because I'm stressing out, but don't worry, I'm fine

Hello, much earlier than y’all thought to be hearing from me! I’m in town again for a meeting, and will be in again on the 13th en route to a conference in Tambacounda, back to Kédougou on the 17th or so, here for a day or two to work on a project, and then out to village and back in again on the morning of the 23rd probably until the 28th, if not longer.

December is going to be a very busy month. Today’s meeting was an introduction to the radio show that the PCVs here in Kédougou do every Monday; those of us who want to start getting involved showed up yesterday evening, shortly before a surprise guest arrived. The roadkill warthog showed up on top of a car just into dinnertime. So, this morning, instead of immediately getting on the radio business, we (mostly Daniel) started taking apart the warthog. I am trying to tan the hide, so Sheila and I scraped it clean-ish and now it’s sitting under a layer of salt in the sun. Good thing it’s the dry season, right? Anyhow, there’s a lot of warthog around right now, and I’m not really able to eat any of it because of stomach issues.

Radio looks like it’s gonna be a lot of fun, though. I’m helping host the “Year in Review” show on December 28; if I can figure out a way to post an mp3, I’ll do it, even though it will sound like absolute silliness to pretty much everyone out there. If I’m really with it, I’ll also post a transcript. And I plan to buy a cart, too. No, I haven’t got a horse. Whatever gave you that idea?

So, during the last less-than-a-week at site, both a lot and a lot of NOTHING has happened. First, I found that the hill I was so worried about is actually not that bad. In fact, the road leading up to the hill is a lot worse than the mountain itself; once you’re at the slope, it’s just four pitches of slope. 30 minutes later, you’re on top of the mountain. If you’re me, you’re wondering, ungrammatically, “What was I so worked up about? Was that IT?” I guess it’s because the first time I climbed it, I was in a pretty bad emotional place and was also really exhausted, both physically and emotionally. So it goes. It’s kind of neat how internal state can influence perceptions.

I got back to site 2 hours after I left the Peace Corps house, which is a new record, to find that my family (which had been kind of grouchy when I left) was ecstatic to see me. Tamba in particular was pretty excited, and kept saying, “Go look in your yard! I think the chickens made you a present!” I figured he meant they’d left some eggs in there, and they had left two. But what he meant was that he and Babagalle had thatched my fence as a surprise, so now instead of nominal privacy, I have the real thing. At least to waist height. Kind of endearing how he kept saying it was the chickens who did it, though.

Tabaski was overwhelming, but not impossible; I made a copy of a shirt out of some material I bought in town, and started working on a bed. The shirt took two days, the bed took three. To make the bed, I was able to have a day or two of what I’m sure everyone imagines to be the picturesque Peace Corps experience. I took my Leatherman, my machete, and my hat partway down the mountain and cut some bamboo poles (blisters). I wrestled them out of the thicket of bamboo (sore shoulders and cut hands). I saw monkeys. I chopped the side branches off the bamboo (poor shoulders, more blisters), and then I carried about 80 linear feet of it up the mountain (on my shoulders), through a thorn patch (I skinned my eyebrow, people. My eyebrow.), past a tamarind tree and several baobabs to the workspace beneath the mango tree. Then I cut it up (yep, blisters), and tied it together. And was very proud of myself! But, because I made the legs too tall for their girth, it fell down in the middle of the night. Yes, I swore at it for about 10 minutes before figuring out what I needed to do the next morning to fix the situation. Yes, I was awake for another hour because sometimes my malaria prophylaxis gives me insomnia.

Here’s a word of advice: if you’re really hungry, without any way to prepare food (because you don’t really have any food), no matter how good of an idea it seems like, do NOT read a cookbook. That’s what I did for the hour or so that I was awake, and it ended up with me drinking a LOT of powdered milk, and even eating some with a spoon. Hi, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer and I eat powdered milk with a spoon at 3am. And sometimes at 3pm. Don’t look at me like that—go out and send me a package instead of thinking, “With a spoon? Like, dry? You EAT milk powder?” No, really, don’t worry; I’m still adjusting to site and what I need to do to live there successfully. I’m not one of the starving children in Africa, and not just because I’m not a child. I’m not really eating what would qualify in the US as a balanced, healthy diet. I eat rice, peanuts, corn, and some salt, okra, leaves, onions, hot pepper, and boullion flavoring. Oh, and powdered milk. And on days when I go into town, I eat bean sandwiches. And Laughing Cow ™ cheese product on bread—that’s a new favorite. Hey, soft ‘cheese’ on chewy bread—it’s practically brie on sourdough. My self of five months ago is currently horrified, but hey, self, it’s what ya gotta do.

Lately, I’ve started feeling this weird combination of totally uninterested in food and absolutely famished. Let’s back up a few paces, and I’ll explain that, since arriving in Senegal, I’ve been fostering a vendetta against white rice. Because it’s basically…simple, simple starches. Blurgh. I actively whine a little about it, and have not been able to sympathize with more senior PCVs who point out that one reason rice is good is that it tends to stick with you for longer. I dunno about the stick-with-you part (in any sense of the word—have I mentioned that I think I have giardia?), because I’m still starving about two or three hours after I eat (no matter how much I eat), but I really have started to love it when there’s rice. Hypocritically, I have not admitted this to any of my family yet. Perhaps because when there’s rice, there’s usually peanut sauce, and that’s got actual nutrition in it. In sum, I need to fix my food situation, and I’m working on it, so don’t get too worried. When I have a garden, things should be better.

Right. We started painting the world map in the market town about 9km from my town, and when it’s done, I’ll post pictures. It’s going well, but slowly, and there are enough frustrating bits right now that I don’t want to write about it much because I really do like the project a LOT and I really am having fun with it, but the frustrations are foremost in my head at this point in time. Let’s leave it that it will be freakin’ awesome when it’s done, and that I hope I can find a place to buy a chalkline to make the grid for the next one we do.

Moving on and looping back a bit, I still have not started my garden. WHY I have not started my garden is hard to explain, but the best reason is that I do not have a fence yet. I don’t have a fence yet because I haven’t been able to buy one because the men who make the fence panels are all busy harvesting. I was thinking about the garden the other day, though, and decided (after re-inventing the circle as the optimal maximization of surface area : volume via some trigonometry…yes, I am intellectually lonely up there on my mountain) to make an n-gon garden. When I tried to explain this to Tamba, he got very impressed and said that he hated math, and so wouldn’t disagree with me. It was funnier at the time. Anyway, I have a TON of really great seeds, and am going to plant many kinds of beans, and some cabbage, cucumbers, amaranth, sesame, and I forget what else. But it’s going to be great.

It’s going to be near the well, too. This makes me happy but also nervous and guilty. It’s good because then everyone can come gape at me while I do my weird white person stuff in the garden. It’s bad because I’m worried about the water situation—as in, what if I use up all the water? And it’s also bad because it means that people will probably steal my produce. Which is fine, really, because if they steal it, it means they’re eating it, and that’s the whole point. But I am partially doing this because I want some vegetables in my diet.

Oh, the well. After 6 weeks of total dormancy on the well front, suddenly Tamba decided that we needed to have our let’s-redig-the-well meeting on Wednesday. The day that the Peace Corps doctor is coming up to see if my hut and bathroom and family and village are okay for me to live in/with/around for the next two years. My job is to buy tea, powdered milk (to drink, not to eat. Shush.), and sugar, so that the people will come to the meeting. I won’t finance the well, because it’s not my job to finance it, but I am willing to facilitate it. For now, that means buying tea et al. So it goes. Thus, I have my first community meeting on Wednesday, and I’m kind of nervous about that, too.

Another reason this bugs me (and something that’s been bugging me a lot lately) is the ethics behind International Development. In the same way that you can’t have trickle-down democracy, you can’t just go around handing out fish. And I worry that financing the tea situation is handing out fish. I’m willing to help someone learn to fish, and to help the person figure out good ways to teach everyone else how to fish, and to teach them all about how you can’t overfish, nor pollute the habitat, and so on…but I refuse to just give out fish, dammit.

(This will seem like changing the subject, but bear with me here) Peace Corps policy states that I shall not pass out medications nor lend my bike to villagers. My villagers come to me all the time asking me to give them medicine for problem X. I usually tell them how to treat it themselves (if it’s a cut, wash it with clean water and cover it. If your shoulders hurt, make a hot compress or do stretches or get a massage or rest. Etc). I feel like I ought to feel guilty about this. I’m a rich, privileged American—why am I hoarding my aspirin when I and Peace Corps and the Rich American Taxpayers can afford more? Well, aside from that Peace Corps has a policy about it (for which they have many good reasons), it would be giving out fish. And as soon as I set a precedent of giving stuff rather than help, the ship of Peace Corps in my village might as well just turn turtle, stave itself in, and sink. Because the whole point of International Development work, as I see it (and as I keep explaining to my village) is to obviate it. I’m supposed to make myself irrelevant and obsolete. My job is to put myself out of a job.

Cool, right? I think so.

And that is why it makes me so angry when people here try to make me feel guilty about not giving them medicine, or my bike, or batteries, or an American visa. It’s like yelling at the clerk at the store about a store policy. The clerk’s got no control over the policy, and yelling will only make his job harder, which is actually not in your favor, because then he’ll probably squash your bananas. Or something. Anyway, it really burns me up that people keep demanding gifts, gifts, gifts. “CADEAU!!!!” the children scream when I ride by, “CADEAU!!! TOUBAC, CADEAU!!!” Or when I buy beignets for my family and a little old lady comes up and starts demanding that I give her one without even greeting me…it’s hard, because I’m culturally not allowed to be rude to old people. I didn’t give her a beignet, though—that was my small victory.

But I’m happy that I’m here, even on the hard days (of which there have been several lately). And although I’m getting what is currently a disillusioning perspective on development work, I think it’s really more of a demystification than anything more sinister and dream-shattering. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just not an easy thing, and four months in is not a bad time to end the honeymoon period.

In summary: life is good, food is a project, the radio, well, map, and garden are all in various stages of “gonna be awesome,” and except for probably-giardia, I’m healthy. Oh, and I made it into town in record time yesterday: 1 hour and 23 minutes from my front door to The Gambia river. Mido waawi Senegal, folks. Sedaa e sedaa. (I’m able to Senegal, folks. Little by little.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pictures and videos

I know I keep saying this, but really, next time (two weeks), there will be lots of pictures and videos. Really.

Send me letters! Thanks to my mom, dad, Kate, Marian, Jen, Ari, and Maddy for the wonderful letters. Keep them coming--I'm now reply to every one I get.

The worth of the water (A Thanksgiving post)

Lately in my village we've been having water issues. Either the well gets dirty (don't ask me how), or the pulley breaks, or someone loses the rope-bucket combination down the well. If none of these things happen, you're me and have had 6 guests in the past two weeks, and thus have had to pull a lot more water lately. Whatever the one of various reasons is, I've recently come to a much deeper understanding of value. I value being able to drink water when I'm thirsty with a part of me that never had to think about the water before. I value each splash of water when I bathe with a part of me much deeper than the simple muscular appreciation that goes along with pulling it and carrying it every uphill step of the way to my hut. I always thought that, child of the high Colorado desert and baking California drought that I am, I understood how very valuable water is, and I'm sure I did, before I got here. But now I understand it more.

It's always easy to think that before the now moment comprehension of any given thing was incomplete. Thus, young children will speak of “when they were little” and 24-year-olds will talk about what it was like “when they were growing up”...the nature of time is such that we have one direction of perspective, one that constantly revises our previous concept of 'complete' and places it as inferior to the current one. With the exception of things like mathematics and quantum mechanics, we never look back and say, “Boy, I sure understood before, but I'm a royal idiot now.” It just doesn't work that way.

Before I came to Senegal, started living in a village by myself, alone in a way I'd never been alone before, I'd always considered myself independent of other people. I didn't have many friends until the last few semesters of college, and having gone far from home to attend university, I entertained a vaugely mystical idea that I was emotionally independent beyond what “everyone else” was. This is utterly untrue.

The idea I had that I was totally independent of my family turns out to be predicated on a very close degree of contact with them, whether through the Internet, or phone wires, or letters. So although I could look with gentle—but uncomprehending—perplexity at the people who let their families rule their lives, or who wouldn't go far from home to do research for a summer / go to college / etc, I never realized that I was equally depending on mine, just in a less-obvious way. Families here stay, for the most part, in a giant block. Maybe it's this that has flicked the switch in my brain, that duh, I miss my family in a very basic sense: they are missing from me.

I miss my family in a way I did not realize I could miss them, and I appreciate in retrospect all the time I spent with them before leaving the country. I value the letters and e-mails they send me, and I actively think about them—my extended family (and by this I also mean all my really close friends—my definition of family is a wide one), too, not just my parents and brother—more frequently than I expected.

I wonder whether realizing this simply catches me up to the rest of the people I've always wondered about, or whether I've gone through another cycle of development. This is irrelevant; what's important is that I feel blessed beyond measure to be able to understand how lucky I am to have the family I have while they're still here, contactable and breathing. I feel like I've been given the most precious and beautiful gift possible—to understand (although I still can't possibly fully comprehend it and am sure that some day I will look back on this moment and consider myself ignorant) how valuable what I have is—before it's gone.

The well has not gone dry, and while I understand that once it does my perspective may become more complete, for now, I truly believe that I understand the worth of the water. Thank you all for everything you do and have done. Thank you for being who and how you are. I love you.

Just Wow: the first five weeks

The WHO!
My family is no longer a mystery to many of you, but the basic outline goes: Koumbouna's husband is dead, and her two sons, Tamba and Karfa, both live in the same compound as she does. Karfa is older, and has had two wives before his current wife (one divorced, one died). His son from his second (deceased) wife also lives here, and is around 25, named Moussa. His current wife, Nenegalle, has two kids, around 6 and 3 are real brats and they're named Ibrahima (“Bura”) and Binta. Tamba has one wife, Aissatou, and they have four living children: Mariama (14), Babagalle (12), El Hadji (9), and Luis (4). I'm an awkward addition to describe, familially, because I call Koumbouna my mom, but Karfa (because he's the eldest man in the compound) is technically my dad, although he treats me more like a respected sibling than a child. Most of the time. Tamba is usually called “older brother” but sometimes is my dad, apparently. Aissatou is always my older sister. Nenegalle is always annoying. So it goes (I recently read Slaughterhouse Five, and highly recommend it).

What have I been up to lately? Well, mostly, I've been pulling peanuts off of plants, although in the last couple of weeks I've been doing somewhat less of that and a lot more things that fall under the category of “random stuff that feels like I've done nothing useful but seem busy all the time anyway.” Also, very exciting, my market town now has a volunteer stationed there. PC Guinea closed its program recently, because of political problems, and so PC Senegal was able to absorb a few—and so lucky me, I get a neighbor! In the last two weeks, I've also had six (count 'em) overnight visitors, and so that's been both a lot of fun and also really weird in terms of continuity, if for no other reason than that I've been speaking a lot more English. Go figure, though, because my Pulaar feels like it's getting a little bit better.
Village food is usually fine corn couscous, but because I give my family money every month, we get to eat white rice for lunch every day, and sometimes they cook it for dinner, too. I don't really like rice more than corn in general, and have adopted an “ew, rice” attitude, but I have to say, in the past few days, I have definitely come to appreciate rice as a little bit superior. You can, for example, chew it a little bit. So, that's the base. Then we have one of six things. Sometimes there's peanut sauce, which is good. Sometimes there's leaf sauce, which is usually good. Soup sauce is gross more often than it's tasty. Kosan is soured milk—sort of like yogurt, but if you go into it expecting yogurt, you will probably not be happy with it—to which they add a TON of sugar, and you eat it exclusively on the couscous. The last thing is nunkatunk, which sounds funny (extra funny if you lived in Risley), and is just rice cooked sorta gooey with hot pepper and seasoning.

Breakfast is something else entirely. I make it myself, and it's been oatmeal, oatmeal, oatmeal. Which is nice with powdered milk and a little bit of Foster Clark's (it's like Kool Aid and Crystal Light had kids in tropical flavors). But they only sell oatmeal in Kedougou, and carrying every bite of oatmeal up the mountain is really not what my idea of fun includes. Too, I would then end up with around 50 empty oatmeal cans up at my site by the end of my service, and that's just not a good scene. I was worried about this, but then I solved the problem and was ecstatic for about three days straight. My village has lots of corn. My village has a corn-grinding machine. Thus, I now have about 2 big liters of corn flour, out of which I make fairly boring (but very cheap and relatively tasty) polenta. It's fermenting slowly; I don't know what to do about that, but in theory, this is a great stride forward The machine also grinds beans, so bean-corn porridge may be in my future, in which case, wow.

It generally comes from the village well, and it's a matter of pride to me that I haven't used a drop more than I've pulled and carried myself. The well itself is a crooked, fern-bedecked affair with several lost buckets swimming around in the bottom like so many disconsolate, widemouthed fish. There is—with any luck—going to be an entry all about water specifically, so that's pretty much it for here and water.

My hut is the smallest one of those in my family's greater compound, except the tiny ones given the goats and chickens. This is fine with me and the three toads, two geckos, ex-mouse (you'll hear the story), and transient bat that share its 75-ish square feet with me. It's round and mud, topped with a cone of thatch held together with a bunch of bamboo strapping and joists. It has a richness in doors (two), and a small backyard, in which I used to have a tiny garden. The garden died from the attentions of the chicks; chickens can't make it in through the stick fence, but their babies can, and those babies liked nothing more than a fresh baby-green salad. Can't really say I blame them, since vegetables are things that happen to other people, but I was still kinda sad. I shower in the back by standing in a big basin and pouring water over myself. I used to use the gray water to water my garden, but I'm not sure what I'll use it for now.

My toilet is a hole the size of a coffee can that leads to a big tank, in which many maggots live. Two skinks also live there, and I have named them Spink and Forcible, for obvious and silly reasons. Also in residence in my latrine are one pair of sunglasses (Sheila dropped them while visiting) and a dead snake (which Matt killed while visiting). I don't think the snake is still there except in memory, but the sunglasses are visible for given values of the word.

My village is on top of a mountain—not a large one: it can't compete with any of the mountains near my home in the U.S. It's enough of one to be really painful to go up and down, though. On my way back last time, I ran into a guy who was going up the same path. He does the trip a few times a week, and basically charged up the steep, slidey pathway pushing his unladen bike while I stumbled and gasped and made little sobbing noises in my throat trying to get oxygen into my system. It was actually kind of scary, because I was deprived enough of air that it felt as though my throat was closing up; I couldn't breathe without making whimpering, whistling noises. Towards the top of the hill, I felt the chills again, and knew that my legs' shaking was not going to go away. The man I was with kept trying to get me to let him push my bike or take the bike's load or something. I refused at first because I was still holding onto pride enough to feel embarrassed at my ineptitude, and in the end because I was just set on making it up the mountain and wanted, in a theoretical way, to say that I did it all myself.

The village itself is beautiful, though. Baobab, mahogany, and all kinds of other trees, many of which are large tree-trees, not just scrubby chapparal. Picturesque Pulaar huts are all over the place, but the village lacks not only a road, but a centralized place of any sort, so from the main trail (like a bike path) running through town, you just have to know which branches lead to whose compound, and from those, which other branches lead to which OTHER compounds. This contributes to the fact that I haven't really met all of my village yet. Or else I have met my village and it's smaller than I thought.

There's a school, at which there are four (count 'em) teachers, only one of whom speaks any Pulaar, so the village is convinced that, since my Pulaar isn't the worst around, it's actually pretty good. It's a nice ego boost, if artificial, because I've heard any number of stories from other new PCVs about how their villages tell them ceaselessly how bad their Pulaar is. The reason there are teachers there who do not speak the local language is that Senegalese schools are conducted in French, and teachers are employed by the government and then told where in the country they are going to go for the school year. They appear to have several years at each place, but I don't know anything more, and I also don't know why the government doesn't take into consideration which languages the teachers speak. Or maybe it does and there are just no Pulaar-speaking teachers around.

Guinea is visible from my hut. It's a lot greener and more forested than Senegal is—I can say this because I see Guinea from the mountains of my village and Senegal from the mountain as I descend the slippery, dangerous, oxygenless path down the mountain to Kedougou. Going east from the village to my market town is about a half-hour bike ride if you're in a hurry, a 45-minute bike ride if you take it easy, and over an hour if you're me and sick. On the way there's a path that branches off the main trail that goes down a chimney of a creekbed down the mountain. My family swears it's just fine if you carry your bike down it, but I've seen that path and I don't know if I'll ever feel I have enough testosterone to make doing that a necessary part of proving my worth. In other words—heck no!

The WHY!
I, unlike so many people in this vast, spinning universe, have a purpose. I know why I'm here. I mean, obviously, I'm here to work on agriculture-related development projects, spread awareness of American culture, and collct Senegalese culture to take home and share with all the people I know in the U.S. who aren't here right now. So basically, all of y'all. What're my projects, so far, you may ask.

No, I'm not kidding. You may ask. Go ahead, ask me.

Okay, so I have no projects yet. But my project ideas are on the ground waiting for their wheels to be affixed and they are thus: a garden (I need a fence), redig the well (so that it won't go dry in a few months), get a solar panel for charging phones (this is a carrot with which I hope to tempt people to do ag work with me), seed extension (Peace Corps' idea and one of my main purposes), beekeeping (utterly in its infancy in terms of project-ness, and likely to remain so until I've gotten the rest of my stuff going), and agroforestry work, which right now includes trying to plan out some live fence places, and also making plans for a wood lot. That's it. What have I done so far? Not a whole lot, to be honest.

Why? Because, it's hard to comprehend if you're not here (or I'm assuming it is—maybe you all are smarter than I am about this), but time here has a different type of quality. It isn't money, here. It's not even related to money. It's more like a resource that's so abundant that nobody seems to think of it as a resource. Like sunlight, except for even more available. Why would you try to save it, in that situation? There'll be more of it tomorrow, and the next day, and next week, and next year. So why would you want to have your garden started in your first five weeks at site, when you've got a good 114 weeks at site at your disposal?

Seriously, though, it's because the garden and the well redigging are at the top of my list, and for the former, the guys who make fence need to be done with their peanut harvest to make the fence. And for the latter, I need to have a community meeting to decide how we're going to finance the situation, and that also needs to wait until the harvest is over so that people will actually show up to the meeting. In the meantime, I've been doing a lot of letter writing (everyone who has written me a letter has gotten at least one reply, with the exception of my parents, who write way more letter than I reply to, and Kevin, who gets way more replies than he sends letters), peanut harvesting, and, recently, drawing.

The new Guinean refugee PCV just installed in my market town has organized this map to be painted on one of the walls of the local middle/high school. Ashley and I have been helping her—first, we drew a grid on the wall, and then we transferred a map onto the wall by drawing it square-by-square. Soon, we'll start painting, and I hope to put pictures of it up when we are done.

The HOW! (some anecdotes and some musings on stuff in general):

One thing we (Ashley, Katie, and I) did in the last two weeks was go to a community meeting held by WorldVision, a Christian (I think) International Aid Organization. They're trying to establish a six-year plan for developing health- and education-related infrastructure and classes, which is kinda neat. So they had a meeting, to which many important people (Imams, village chieves, elders, presidents of women's groups, and the local PCVs) came. Credit where credit's due—they spoke great Pulaar. A lot of governmental organizations don't even speak Pulaar down here, so it's really great that an IAO would. But they were trying to organize things. As in, they wanted to make a committee for overseeing the expenditure of money. But of course most of the people at the meeting were like, “Just give us the money, that's what we want,” and everyone in the room knew that if that happened then several people would end up with new motorbikes and life would go on the same way it always has. Not, you understand, because the chieves and Imams and so forth are bad people. It would just end up that way—it's hard to explain why that's not as jawdroppingly corrupt here as it is in America. It is corrupt. But it's not really anything that anyone would hold against anyone else, or at least not that I've seen.

If you can buy a moto, then you do. Awa, gasi. (literally, “Okay, finished,” but figuratively more like “That's all she wrote.”)

So WorldVision spent around four hours trying to explain that the people needed to be responsible for mobilizing their communities, and so forth. After that amount of time, we decided that our presence wasn't helping, and that it was time to go. As we walked out of the room, one of the WV workers came up to me and asked me what they were doing wrong. Why the people weren't just organizing. This was odd on several levels, first because he is Senegalese and I'm American. How would I know more about his country than he does? Well, because even though I'm an American, I'm a villageouis. I don't have running water, electricity, or Internet in my village. I live in a hut. And it struck me that, whatever its insufficiencies, Peace Corps really is good at putting people into communities. It is unique in that—otherwise how would a Senegalese Aid Worker (who is more fluent in Pulaar and has more development experience than I do) think that an American has more of an understanding about how people work? So, go Peace Corps. But it was still a very strange experience.

Another odd NGO experience is more through observing the local TOSTAN workers. TOSTAN is a great organization, let me just say up front, and I really respect their goals and effort. But they way their work is going in my village is really something that nonplusses me.

They're giving out cell phones to women. The women may not get to keep the cell phones. The cell phones are part of their women's literacy effort, as near as I can make out. So, in addition to teaching Pulaar literacy (which is great!), they're teaching about texting and phone calls and stuff. Literacy is awesome. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But I've got to wonder...why the cell phones? So I asked Aissatou why they were giving out cell phones, since she goes to the classes, I guessed she'd know. Because presumably they tell people why they're teaching them what they're teaching them. She said she thought it was so that the women would go to class. So that they wouldn't have to walk a long way to communicate with one another. That's two reasons rammed up against each other without room for a transition, and I did that on purpose because that's how she told me.

A couple days later, I got it. “Ohhhhh, they want to let the women communicate with one another without having to walk across 'town' AND they want to encourage them to come to class.” Check. But giving out cell phones. Could we try to think of a less sustainable thing to do, please? Because as cool as it is to have a cell phone, what that organization has done, effectively, is created another set of needs that requires money to be fulfilled in a community without a whole lot of the jingling—let alone the folding—stuff. Now the women need to charge their phones, which means they need to go into town more often, or find someone who is going to town. They need to pay for the phones to be charged. They need to buy credit to put on the phones. But the giving of phones has created no source of income—they're just a status symbol. So now instead of spending that money on food (maybe even vegetables!?) or clothing or some requirement, it's going towards...what? Phones. Which were not missed before they existed, but now that they exist, must be taken care of. This baffles me. I have no right to say that they SHOULDN'T have phones. I have no reason to say that TOSTAN shouldn't give them out. But it strikes me as deeply backwards that giving out cell phones should be the method of choice of creating literacy and developing an area.

Related to this is the whole question of, “What role do IAOs play?” Are we, the workers, here to help the people with what they want, or to give them what we think they should have? Well, if the former, then TOSTAN's cell phone business is right on the money. If the latter, then how are we really that much different from the imperialist colonialists of the 19th and 20th centuries? I mean, sure, we're not enslaving anyone nor exporting everything valuable...but we're messing with their lives in order to give ourselves that warm fuzzy glow of having-done-something-nice-for-someone. Altruism, by the way, axiomatically does not exist in my universe. If you want to argue that point, go do it elsewhere.

So, presumably our role is something more like parents, and I mean that in as nonpaternalistic a way as possible. We're not supposed to just pass out candy—we need to help people understand why just eating candy is not a good option. Education is key. Broccoli is good for you. And it needs to be education without devaluing the existing cultures. We run into another problem here: what if the culture is fundamentally exclusive of development, and vice-versa? Should we work to conserve the culture, or figure that it's their culture, they're allowed to leave it by the wayside if they so desire?

But what's been getting to me lately is this nagging doubt that education is anything more than making people feel unsatisfied with their lot. I mean, if they're happy to live in huts and have no teeth and live from dime to dime, spending everything they could be saving for future use on sugar and cell phones and so forth...who am I to say they shouldn't be doing that? Isn't it their right to kill their environment and rape their ecosystems just as much as we in America have done so? So if my 14-year-old sister doesn't want to be literate, doesn't want to go to school, or learn French, or do anything more than have a family and enough money to get fake hair braided into her hair to make it look like she has white person hair every it really my role as a development worker to tell her that's wrong? Or just trying to show her another way of doing things—doesn't that imply that I think my way of doing things is better? And even if I think that, is that really the point of my being here, to try to get the people here to do what I, a total outisder with a barely-scratching-the-surface view of life here, think they ought? I don't know. People here have so much less than we do in the U.S., and yet they seem so much more contented. If to motivate them to become more developed is to take that contentedness away, what have I done? Is that really “aiding” the people here?

Maybe the problem is that in order to raise the standard of living, you have to do just that—change the standards. Which means to make people unsatisfied with what up until now has been satisfactory. But doesn't that seem odd?

Obviously, there's a lot of work that can be done that doesn't touch those questions, with gardening, and vegetable consumption, and just helping people do their daily work (pounding peanuts, for example) and so forth...but I really do wonder about all of this. What role do IAOs and their development workers play, philisophically? And is that role ethically defensible? What about morally?

This may be a result of my spending an awful lot of time alone in my own head for the last five weeks. It's not something that can be avoided, either, because I doubt if my Pulaar will ever be good enough to discuss abstract concepts, and even were I able to discuss them, the nature of these concepts is such that I cannot really discuss them with the people here. Or maybe that outlook is my problem. Maybe it would solve everything if I tried to discuss it. But I don't think I'm that brave, so I'll content myself with trying to make a garden and help them figure out a way to redig the well...

On to happier topics.

Sometimes when I sleep, I wake up with what I think of as the creeping itchies. The creeping itchies are when there aren't actually bugs or bug bites, but you feel crawly itchy things all over your body. So the other night, I woke up with a very distinct creepy itch on my leg. And then I thought, “No, that's way too real to be a creepy itch.” I turned on my flashlight, threw back the blanket and there was a mouse! Crawling up my leg! Inside my mosquito net, inside the blankets. It ran and hid. I pawed through all the bedding, looking, looking...didn't find it. Decided to go back to sleep. Woke up an hour later to something falling from my ceiling, and was just MAD. I mean, fine. Toads, geckoes, earwigs, ants, bats which do laps in the room every night...but mice, dammit. Mice have fleas, and fleas make itchy things happen AND carry diseases. So I turned on my light again and started shifting all the stuff in the hut. Find the mouse. Find the mouse. Find the effing mouse and kill it dead. Then I hear my dad's voice from outside. “Mariama. Mariama? You're not sleeping—are you okay?”

“There's a mouse in my hut. I want to kill him.”

My dad comes into the hut. “A mouse?” He holds his cupped hands up to the top of his head, “With EARS?”

“Yeah! A mouse!”

“I'll kill it. Where is it?”

“In the bed.”

“In the bed? In the NET?”


“THERE HE IS!” and with a leap and three or four whaps, he suddenly emerges from the bed/net tangle holding a very floppy (but thankfully not leaky) mouse. “Okay. Sleep well.” And, taking the mouse with him, he goes.

I am not sure what he would've done if I told him it was a mouse without ears. I don't know why the ears were the operative thing, or the defining characteristic, or whatever. But it was very strange.

Another strange experience has been that my obviously dirt-poor village has been giving my an embarrassment of gifts. Usually food, and I give it to my family, so we all eat it, but here are people who have less than almost anyone I've ever met doing way more than the equivalent of bringing over a casserole for the new family in the neighborhood.

And finally, I'll close this mammoth blog entry with a list of things:
72: number of bamboo ribs in my roof
3: number of buckets swimming in the bottom of my well
8: number of huts in my compound (counting the kitchen and goat-house)
10: number of feet my hut is in diameter
5: number of bead bangles my tokara, Mariama, gave me
2: number of books I've read so far
1478: number of pages in one of the books
5: types of sauce we have on our rice or couscous
3: number of toads that live in my hut
100: approximate number of meters tall my mountain is
12: number of goats Tamba has

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's a long way to Kedougou and back

The title is a reference to an Antje Duvekot song that has been running through my head for the past few weeks.

I have forty minutes here in the Internet Cafe in beautiful downtown Kedougou before I head back out to my site (25 + km with 100m gain in elevation).

Before swear-in was nice. We went back to Sangalkam and stayed for one last week, during which I had a fight with Issakha, who was trying to shake some more money out of me for my swear-in clothes. It left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, especially because I had given him a very generous gift of money just before the dennaboo, and he'd had the cloth for a long time. And yet, he still pressed me "Oh, Hali, I just don't know how I can get the money to turn the electricity back on to work. I just don't know where to find the money. It's so hard to live here in Senegal, where we have no money," and so forth. This was clearly a bid for money, but I got angry, embarrassed him in front of the entire neighborhood, and my clothes were finished the night before we left.

Swear-in itself was quite the party. The US Ambassador's house in Dakar is beautiful, in a mansion-like way. Many people, including me, gave speeches (mine was in Pulaar), and then waiters dressed to the nines passed around silver trays of miniature hamburgers. It was surreal.

Two days later, we headed down to Kedougou in a car that had to be pushstarted, and the next day we went install-shopping. Overwhelming, to say the least. The best part of the day was when Daniel and Thomas, who took us newbies shopping for our stuff, disappeared around the corner and then showed up carrying a beautiful raffia cabinet. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" they shouted. After buying buckets, beignoires, a sleeping pad, lots of various odds and ends, and enough tools to make my little agricultural heart sing, we went back to the regional house for a very delicious dinner (Matt cooked).

The next day we went around and met all the really important people of Kedougou, or tried to. Half of them weren't there, but that didn't stop us from greeting everyone in absentia. Melanie installed, and then it was my turn. I'll write a more detailed account of install when I have my journal with me and a little more time, for now I'll describe my site (at breakneck speed).

My hut is, as Matt says, "Tesoko haaaaaaaa tesoko" (literally: small untiiiiiiiiiil small), but very cozy. The front door is low enough that I have to stoop nearly double to not scratch my back on the thatch, and once inside, it's a roomy 10' in diameter (yes, it's round). My back door is about as low as the front, and leads to a shower area that is about as large as my hut. It's fenced and has a big, beautiful shade tree, and now also a clothesline and a very small garden as well, which I water with my grey water from showering and doing laundry.

To get water, I walk down a slight hill to the well, pull water myself (to the amazement of the village), and carry it on my head back to my family's compound. I do this to wash myself and my clothes, and that amazes everyone,too. I'm not sure if they're more impressed that I DO my laundry or that my clothes actually come out CLEAN (major achievement), but they're impressed, so I'll take what I can get.

My family is large and confusing, but basically I have a lot of parent figures and a lot of sibling figures. Tamba is my older brother/father and he is nothing but helpful and kind. His wife Aissatou is clearly proud of how much I work, and tells me to do chores when people visit from other villages to show off how hard her volunteer works. Mariama, my tokara, or person-with-whom-I-share-a-name is 17, and is probably my best friend in village. We hang out, and she likes to teach me to do things, or to make silly jokes, or try to understand what I say. Karfa is Tamba's older brother, and thus also my father, and his wife, Nenegalle, has two really annoying little kids. The elder makes everyone cry and the younger never stops crying. She also can't cook very well, but I don't have to interact with her much, so that's a plus. My mother, Koumbouna, is also Tamba's and Karfa's mother (I think), and she's a jolly mother archetype. Strong, funny, kind, and absolutely not standing for any crap from anyone. My three younger brothers (Tamba's kids) are Babagalle (12) Alaji (9) and Luis (4). They're true younger brothers, in all their annoyingness and glory. This morning I got on my bike and discovered that they'd disconnected the front breaks and messed the gearing up, so we'll be discussing that when I get home.

This morning I left at dawn, and Tamba decided he had to go with me. This was not my favorite thing, but it ended up being fine. He took me to the place where the road plunges precipitately down the mountain, and reminded me to go "doucement, doucement," 'til I got to the bottom. I got to the bottom of a pretty rocky thing and then it flattened out. I said, "Huh. That was the mountain? Ooooooh no, watch out, skeery mountain gonna GITCHA!" and things of that sort until, 50 feet later, the ground fell away and I was looking at something easily as steep as E. Buffalo St. in Ithaca. Big, loose rocks the size of your head. Anyway, that took some doing, and as I got to the place where it leveled out for good and looked back at the sunrise over the mountain, I thought, "Wow. I'm really in the Peace Corps now." Riding down, I kept feeling like an REI or Trek Bikes advertisement.

It's a long way. And it's hot. And everyone keeps telling me I'm bonkers for planning to go back up tonight, but it's about time to do that. When I'm back in town in two weeks I'll bring pictures of my site, the road down, and my family, and with luck, post them.

Please keep sending letters! I am replying to everyone, so if you want a letter from Senegal, write to me! Also, big thank you to Kevin for the two amazing packages, to my mom for the seeds and soap and books, and to my dad, although that one hasn't gotten here yet. See you all in two weeks (where by "see" I clearly mean "will write")!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Counterpart Workshop

One thing that makes Peace Corps' mission a lot more feasible is that they find Counterparts with whom PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) work. A Counterpart is an HCN (Host Country National) who lives in the community and (in theory) a lot of facilitating, from explaining to the community the PCV's role and goals to acting as a linguistic mediator and general go-to person.

One thing that has made me a lot less nervous about install (say it "IN-stall", which is when Peace Corps takes me out to my site and leaves me there), is that we just had our Counterpart Workshop (CPW). My two counterparts are named Tamba Keita and Aissatou Diallo. Tamba is one of my two older brothers in my host family, and Aissatou is a woman who lives in the village as well. They're both really sweet people, and they both speak French and Peul Fuuta, and I think also Wolof and just a smidgin of English. Peace Corps brought in about two counterparts per PCT for two days of intensive meetings and workshops.

Basically, what we did was (a) get to know one another a little bit and (b) listen to Peace Corps lay out the ground rules. The "Here is what your Americans are for, and here is what they're not for. Here is what they will be good at, and here is what they will not be good at. Here is what will come easily to them, and here is what will not come easily." To drive it home, they had some of us do a few "example" language classes in languages like Hebrew and Polish, and asked the counterparts to all imagine that they've been dropped into a totally foreign place without any knowledge of culture or language.

You may think, "Well, duh, it's obvious that the PCTs and PCVs are in a situation like that," but even if you've grown up understanding that there are other cultures, if you've never really thought about it a whole lot, you may not realize that EVERYTHING would be different in, say, America. People in America are white and rich, but most Senegalese probably would not assume that we can buy our rice ready-to-cook without picking, washing, or anything else required. Or that we have machines to wash our clothes and dishes. It's the small things...and so you might not get that no, it gets cold in America like Minnesota cold, not like oh, it's 60 F. And so you would expect your American to get little things like how to pick rice, or greet, or something. Because there are things so basic to your way of life that you don't even think about them. Like looking both ways before you cross the street, holding the door open for someone, tipping a waiter, or things of that caliber.

So, now our Counterparts know a lot more about us, and we know a little bit about them. Tamba called our elder brother to ask him what my name is, and it turns out that in Kedougou (so, basically, everywhere but Sangalkam), my name will be Mariama Keita, which is a pretty name. I count myself lucky.

The rest of training will fly by, I expect. Tomorrow we visit the Official Peace Corps Bureau in Dakar, and then Tuesday we go back to village for the final week, coming back to Thies after our final language test on 13 October, pack like crazy, swear in (in Dakar) on 16 October, and then travel down to Kedougou before install, which for me is on the afternoon of 20 October. I would prefer, of course, to travel on the 17th, because that leavse the 18th for shopping and th 19th for hanging around doing nothing, or perhaps cooking tasty food. So, between now and then, I need to convince two of the other six PCTs headed to Kedougou to leave on the 17th, since we're taking two cars (and therefore the other three can come down whenever they please).

Expect another update in a week or so, after I've left Sangalkam for good and am even closer to the coveted PCV title.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dennaboo (say it "DEN-ah-boe")

PSA first: I figured out what the problem with the video stuff is: you can't upload files larger than a given size (sensible), and the ones I wanted to upload were too large. As a result, I took a bunch of really quick ones, which will be a little like hiccups to experience but are, I hope, a little more real than photos. If not, let me know and we shall not try this experiment again.
So what is a dennaboo? It's an Islamic baptism ceremony that normally takes place one week after the birth of a baby in which the baby's head is shaved, its name is announced, and everyone eats a lot. Jeneba had her baby two weeks ago, and since the dennaboo would've fallen on Korite, they just gave the baby a name then (Yaasi), and had the party the next week. The pictures are all G-rated, but some of the film clips may have butchering-of-animals going on, so be warned.
Toubabs from left: Frank, Zach, Ashley, Melanie.
Zach and his host nephew.
Frank and Zach's other host nephew.
Turns out the kid isn't the only one capable of making silly faces.
The kids here really like to be obnoxious and touchy. Frank is really taking advantage of that here.
So that the women of the family do not have to do a ton of cooking on the day they're throwing the party, there's a women's co-operative that does it. I don't know if they get paid to or if they just rotate through themselves whenever one of them has a baby, either way, here they are in all their laughing, chatty, hardworking glory.
There were at least three of those pots.
Zach's host sister and Issakha, wearing a boubou he stayed up all night to make out of cloth I brought him from Kedougou. He likes that hat a lot, but I think he'd look better without it.
My other namesake, with a water bottle, looking like a bottled-water commercial.
"Hali, atchu!" ("Hali, stop!")
Wooli, I think his name is. One of the nicest people ever, the dogsbody of my compound. Very kind and gentle and patient with the children and with me. However, he has never had to threaten to lash me with a switch to keep me out of the sewer, so we have a less strained relationship than he does with, oh, say, Yero (aka Hiero), for example.
Nogay with pinkeye.
Aissatou, my eldest sister, visited from Dakar to help with the dennaboo.
A small child in very embroidered clothing.
Alpha Omar Sala, my second namesake's and Nogay's brother. Also one of my favorite people.
Here he is again.
Another of my favorite people--this is Frank's older brother, Ibrahima, who is endlessly patient and speaks very slow, clear Pulaar. He reminds me of what a full sibling of both Barack Obama and my father would look like (if such a thing were possible).
Issakha. And hat. Sorry the picture is so dark.
Jeneba, who is even smaller now that she isn't pregnant anymore.
Jeneba, in her gold-embroidered splendor.

Funny, I didn't notice that woman not want her picture taken until I watched the clip.

Yaasi Ba, appearing for the first time to the world at large.

Zach wants to get, like, ten goats. That much English is unusual to hear. It's funny, you'd think that as I've got a first-rate degree in the study of it and am a relatively introspective, analytical type, I would've noticed by now that I really like my first language. Especially given my sensitivity to how it is used. But no, it took six weeks of foreign-language-immersion training to get me to notice that not only do I like my language, butImiss it. Yes, I am sometimes dumber than a box of rocks.

GORE ALERT--nothing dies in the following, but things are being cut up that are already dead.

In which Omar Sala thinks I am taking his picture again.

Wooli and company cutting up a sheep.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

We are sending...

This post is the place to comment with things like, "Do not send her a hammock--I am sending one!" I won't come scroll through the comments, promise. Also, with respect to the gloves, if anyone finds a longer pair, that'd be awesome, because then I could maybe do some Anacardia sp. work.

Oh, and if you want to comment with other things that you are sending, that's fine. Prevent my getting sixteen packages full to the brim with raisins...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Region Visit

Okay, let's see if I can get through all of this. There will be no pictures this time around, because I took very few and, honestly, I'm too lazy to walk over to my room and get my camera.

Kedougou and environs
Kedougou is absolutely beautiful--full of rolling hills, tall green grass, short-ish (10m) trees of all kinds, corn fields, millet fields, cows, seasonal streams, the Gambia River...I know, it's the rainy season, and it won't be nearly as amazing in the dry season, but it's Truly Beautiful, and I hope that everyone comes to visit me. Maddy, my parents, Kevin and Jess are all on the list somewhere, and I expect everyone else to sign up, pronto.

Party and Dinner
When we arrived in Kedougou after a 12-hour car ride (that's fast, apparently), the current PCVs were really happy to see us. They were so happy that they'd spent a ton of money and time making a dinner that included: hand-ground hamburgers, onion rings, sweet-potato fries, fried okra, potato salad, coleslaw with RAISINS (!!), tomatoes, cheese, and homemade hamburger buns. I nearly died of amazing.

The village I visted was beautiful, welcoming, and tiny. I fell down in the mud and the villagers observed that "The mud got her dirty". So as to avoid embarrassing me.

Warthog sandwiches
Are readily available, cheap by US standards, and very tasty.

Journal Excerpt
September 16, 2009
Kedougou, Senegal
Warthog sandwiches last night at the Relay. Tasty, and ruined only a little by the pompous drunken Briton who really, really liked one of the current PCVs. I guess he thought the way to impress her was to say that she should take over the Peace Corps trading up from a napkin and that we're all too cynical to do good development work. And that America sucks compared to the UK. Foodwise, of all things. Because we do not have Cornish Pasties. Really.

Village. I got all weird and self-conscious about Pulaar in front of my host, but he was really nice and it was extremely reassuring to see a place sorta similar to how mine will be, at least in terms of language. It was awesome to hear everyone speaking Pulaar. But I did not practice enough. On the trip there, though, I could feel myself getting sicker and sicker. We'd had dried fish and rice in town before leaving for the 5km ride, so I was already feeling a little crappy, and had in general feeling like there was building internal pressure in a lot of areas. Weirdest feeling--we got there (finally started hating my shoes, the TevaFlops with no heel straps, because you can't walk up a muddy slick hill in them, period) and I lost my host in the cornfields. It was beautiful, and nice in a detached way, riding along through the fields on narrow, winding paths. When we arrived at his compound, after he found me, I was well into the chills phase of heat exhaustion. He sat me down in the shade, and brought me water to drink and bathe, but for a while, I just sat and sweated, sweated, sweated. My face felt as though someone had taken sandpaper to it, even though I was not even sunburned. After a while, I came back to earth, but it was a little scary how easy it was to get that messed around.

Notes on the Journal Excerpt
I have since bought Emilie's Keens from her, and that has solved the heel strap issue.

Oh, and I hate my ex-bike. I named it Gimp, because at the Kedougou Peace Corps house we discovered that the front brakes were beyond easy repair. So, we disconnected them. Then, the inner tube spat bubbles when I inflated a tire. And the frame was too small. Took it out to the town with a road where we ate the dried fish (ew), discovered the chain jumps the cassette pretty easily. But nevertheless, I have regained confidence in my biking ability, even though I am in terrible shape. Not bragging, just saying, because even with a totally unfamiliar and craptastic bike which could barely shift gears and which was heavily loaded in back and had no front brakes and even with me having mild heat exhaustion and shoes that spat out my feet and flung mud all up my back (to my HAIR) when I tried to walk anywhere relevant and the incredibly rocky, uneven, and muddy terrain nonwithstanding, I did not fall over, skid, or lose control of the bike.


I remember swearing my way up a hill, clashing through the gears and feeling horrible for abusing the machine, muttering every obscenity I could think of (and some that I couldn't), and cracking myself up, suddenly, in what was a true Peace Corps Moment (TM). Sometimes you get a breath of fresh perspective when you really need it... "&*$&*@ing *#& of a bike I swear I'll @#*#&ing kill it when I get back @&@#ing Peace Corps won't give me a bike well @#&^@$% them I hate that I'm breaking this bike, because (oh @#*@$ that's a ROCK!!!!!) something is going to break soon, but oh look, it won't be me, because $*@%ing Peace Corps didn't give me a bike with front @#^#$%ing brakes. Hahahahahaha OH @^#&#*^!!!" After that I hated it a little bit less, but it was still frustrating. I mean, I know we can fix bikes and that riding on top of the cars really does them no good at all, but *still*.

Today is a hard day, not in an "I'd like to ET" kind of way, but because I'm underslept, I'm running out of stamina, and training (PST, Pre-Service Training) is only about half over. I feel like I'm the stupidest person in my language group, and that really bothers me, because a big part of my identity is that I am intelligent. I also truly do not like certain circumstances surrounding and related to my language class, as some of you may have gleaned. And, so as to remain fairly circumspect (being as this is a publicly identified forum), I'm not going to specify further, but if you are curious, try to imagine the kind of person with whom I would completely not get along, and then put me in the same room with that person for multiple hours per day. It's just an exhausting day, we had a really intense session about rape and sexual assault, I'm discouraged, I am chafing in a subordinate position to someone I feel is totally incompetent (never a good situation for me), I'm feeling isolated and insular and really tired of the specific ways that the world continues to suck, and there is not a break coming up anytime soon.

My family in Sangalkam is amazing, but staying there is not restful. Jeneba just had her baby, which is wonderful, except I do not like babies. I also do not like parties, and here comes Korite (one of the biggest holidays of the calendar) and right behind it, a Dennaboo (say it "Den-uh-boe"), or baptism. And a language test, which, coinciding with a trough in my competence is really not great. Frankly, I'm sure this is just a PMS-y kind of day, and normally I am neutral-to-chipper...but, yeah. Not all blog posts are happy ones, and I just wanted to let y'all know the other side of training: there are days when nothing feels right, everything is overwhelming, there is no respite in sight, and you want to cry, go to sleep, hide, scream, or who-knows-what. Because you feel stupid, you feel overwhelmed and inadequate, but at the SAME TIME you just want to go out to site and get the training over with, already.

But on the up-side, I'm not really sick, my laundry will probably dry before we head to Sangalkam, we just got paid so I have plenty of money to go shopping for things to take with me to village, and I talked with Maddy, Kevin, and Andrew and they made me happy. And I got a really wonderful note from Bert, too. Thank you all for being wonderful!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some thank-yous

To my Dad, who sent me pens, earplugs, and a letter-a-week so far, and who woke me up with a really welcome phone call during a tough week at homestay...

To my Mom, whose letters and pictures have also been coming thick and fast...

To Pat G., who sent me a letter and a picture that reminded me of Colorado and the Real Mountains...

To Jen Y., who sent me a wonderful postcard that kept me from having a really terrible day...

To Ari, who sent me letters, only one of which I have gotten so far, that made me smile and remember how lovely language specificity and snarky humor is...

To Adam G., Elaine, Kevin, Bert for Facebook encouragements...

To Sarah, Kevin, and Ari for chat support, especially when I was sick and miserable...

To everyone who replies to my emails...

To everyone who has sent wishes and prayers my way...

To anyone who has done something wonderful for me but I forgot to mention...

Thank you, as I have rarely thanked anyone before.

And, to Heidi and Kyle, congratulations on your engagement! I will look into coming back for the wedding, but right now it is nearly impossible to say whether I will be able to make it or not. Either way, my thoughts will be with you.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Homestay the second

[Insert failed attempt to upload video]
I'm going to make a list of things about which I would like to write, and then use those as subject headings again. We'll see how far down the list I get.

C'est facil, ou bien?
Alpha Omar Sala is a 16-year-old in my CBT village (Community Based Training) who has taken me under his wing, somewhat. He loves to joke and tease but is really interested in helping me to learn the language and culture. Every time he teaches me a new word, and we talk in French, he says to me "C'est facil, ou bien?!" "Is this easy, or what?!"

Nyami niebe
One of the absolutely most funny things you can say, if your last name is Ba (like me) or Diallo (like Frank and Ashley) is that the others eat beans. Now, this is common--think of it like Smith and Jones. Imagine that they're all related to the size of being distant cousins, which is in fact culturally relevant and interesting. And imagine that every time anyone named Smith talks to anyone named Jones, they say "You eat Beans! All Joneses eat Beans!" Then Jones replies, "No, you Smiths are the bean-eaters. And you steal things." And then imagine that everyone always finds this hilarious. No, reallyn

Messes you up good. I did it for one day, didn't eat or drink (minus the mouthful of water I needed to take my last anti-mangoface steroid pill that morning) until 7:30pm. The not eating is not a big deal, but the not drinking water is really, really a painful thing to try. The next day I was covered in lethargy. The day after that I was fighting off a virus and losing, felt like I had been beaten with a pipe. Five days later I was finally back to functioning at around 90%, where I feel like I pretty much stay. But yes, I fasted for one day, and although I am telling my Sangalkam family that I am going to fast vraiment, tellement (really, totally) next year, I don't know about that. Because really. Just, ouch. But it made my family happy.

My koto, or older brother, is really amazing, but has taken it into his head that I need to win a Toubab Ribbon of some sort, and so has been praying for me to "Prendre le meilleur note". No pressure. The day of our language test, he woke me an hour early to practice Peul Fuuta with him for an hour. He is taking this way more seriously than I am, and I think he is engaged in some sort of possibly-informal contest with at least a couple of the other host families to see whose American is the Best. Huh.

Phone calls
Are free to receive, but cost me through the nose to make. So, please call me if you can spare the money to talk. I hear rumors of websites that let you pick five frequently-called countries and get a vastly reduced rate, but I do not know what they are called, yet. When I do, I'll post them. Until then, yes, please call me. I'm four hours later than New York, so calling me after 8pm their time is really not a good plan. If I'm in class or busy, no biggie. People in Senegal answer their phones while teaching class, having a conversation, or sitting in class. Much different in terms of etiquette than in the USA. So if I can't talk for long, I can offer an estimate of when I will be able to talk.

Pulling water
I wrote about this already in a letter, but it has left a pretty deep impression. So, for our garden, about which I will write more soon (perhaps below), we had to make some manure tea. And in order to make said tea, we needed water. Lots of water, and no hose, which meant that pulling water out of the well is the first, best, and only option. 50 gallons is a lot of water to pull, and I thought that I wouldn't like it, but it is, although difficult and repetitive, much like meditation. The rhythm of dropping the bucket down two seconds to the water (splat), letting it fill all the way to the top (5 seconds), and then begin to pull the rope. But you can't jerk the rope around, or the bucket will swing, and you'll be able to hear all your water splashing back down, wasting your energy. A smooth rhythm is best, but you have to keep an eye on the rope, because when you can see the knot that means the bucket is nearly up, you need to time the swing just right to get the oblong bucket up out of the square well hole. Otherwise, you dump the water back down into the well. Drop, pause, pullpullpullpullpullpullpull, pause, pull, grab, pour, drop, pause...Peaceful.

Slapstick and praying
Ashley's family has a TV. Actually, many families have TVs, but Ashley's family pretty much
has theirs on all the time. Really. One time I was over and there was a movie on about some sort of People Who Had Been Caught By Bad Guys. The Heroes were white, and the Baddies were Arab, which was not particularly scary except that they were Muslim. And the way that the Heroes escaped was by waiting for all the Muslims to pray all at once, and then attacking them. I saw this and was immediately really nervous, because it seemed pretty horrible to stereotype like that. But, when the Really Bad Guys sat up from a prostration and both got knocked on the noggin by a log, the entire family burst into raucous laugher. And then I realized that it doesn't seem like a racial stereotype or an anti-Muslim stereotype. Everyone, or pretty much everyone, from the Senegalese point of view, is Muslim. So what if the Bad Guys are, too. It was interesting.

Helping to cook and chore increase in general, see also: Watching people work and helping!
Several weeks into my relationship with my Sangalkam family, they've finally started letting me do work, and I think it must've been as a result of someone talking with them, because not only are they letting me do things, but they are telling me to do things. "Hali, go buy bread with this money. Can you say 'I want two-and-a-half loaves'? Yes? Good. Go buy bread." "Hali, come carry this, we're going somewhere. You understand?" "Hali, come twist this thread together so that we can make silken cord to trim boubous." Relatedly, everyone seems to be really excited to have me watch their work, and Issakha has taken to having me draw designs (looking at an original) for him to embroider on fancy Korite clothes. It's nice, but it's also worrying, because I am constantly wondering if I am doing it correctly. Lucky for me I know I am a dab hand at doing dishes out of a couple buckets, so that at least that's getting done to standard.

Long conversation with Ibrahima
In which I detailed my life in the United States, my parents, my family, and he told me that HE would love to walk to America if he could, but that failing that, it is good to hear about my family, because he hopes one day to meet them.

Lac Rose and my revenge on the flies
Near Sangalkam there's a lake called Lac Rose, because it is pink. We went there on one of our few days off, and although it was not pink, we had a good time anyway. It's something of a tourist trap, complete with fake gifts from vendors, and ridiculously 0bvious price hikes and scams. Still, it was cool to see the mountains of salt they're extracting from the lake (the only economic benefit to salinification that I've seen or heard of so far), and of course, there was a restaurant with (obscenely priced) American food. Some people at pizzas and drank beer, but ever the lame one, I had Fanta. And, because flies here are really annoying, I trapped them under a glass and let them fly around in there. Nevermind they don't have enough intelligence to be annoyed. It also is not my fault that Zach then cruelly murdered one of them.

Embarrassing biriti/billet moment
The word for 'bread' is 'biriti'. The word for 'ticket' is 'billet'. Sometimes it is hard to hear the difference. I thought Issakha was trying to pay for my ticket to Lac Rose, he was trying to tell me to go buy bread, and the ensuing conversation was embarrassing.

Ready, set, pee
Notes on how to use a squat toilet--first, roll up your pants. Then pull down your pants. Do not mix up the order.

What we probably sound like, vraiment
Hello. What are your name? I went to school right now. Have a good morningnoon. Here are two sample conversations with my family. I do not know if they actually happened, but this is about what I sound like.

"Hali, do you want to eat anythng?"
" want to eat anything. I don't understand."
"Eat anything?"
"Are you hungry?"
"Are you...oh! I understand! Am I hungry? No, I am not."
"Yes you are. Come eat."
"No, I was not hungry."
"You are hungry."
"You are hungry."
"Hali, you are hungry."
"No, I am not hungry, but you are hungry. I will eat yesterday."
"Come eat! You will eat today! Now!"
"Okay, okay..."


"Hali, what are you doing?"
"What are you doing?"
"Are you studying?"
"Are you...Yes! I am studying! I was studying, I was doing."
"What were you studying?"
"I was studying Pulaar!"
"Did you learn anything today?"
"Did you don't understand."
"Did you"
"No. I did not learn today?"
"You did not learn? But you went to school."
"I did not learn! I went to school to study Pulaar!"
"Hali, do you know what "learn" means?"
"Do I know what...what?"
"Do you understand 'learn'?"
" 'Learn' means 'pour apprendre'"
"Oh! Yes, I did learn. I went to school and I learnt."
"Say it."
"I don't understand."
"What did you learn?"
"I learned about des verbes."
"Hali, speak Pulaar."
"I learned about verbs."
"Which verbs?"
"I don't know."

Frank has a talent of pushing his LCF to the point of twitching eyes and where he will just say "V-v-v-vraiment, Frank! D-d-doucement!" I am amazed that my family has not yet clubbed me over the head to stop the "I'm stupider than your average baseball bat" Pulaar that I try to speak.

We have one. It has: Corn, Millet, Sorghum, Cowpeas, Rice, Okra, Bissap, Peppers, and five kinds of tree. It's our English-speaking haven, and we go there every day.

Country Director

I'm getting lazy, so here's another journal excerpt (yes, I am aware that around 12 hours after I post this, Chris Hedrick will read it or hear of it. Doesn't make any of it less true. Hi, Chris. Thanks for putting me in Kedougou.) "Chris Hedrick visited today, and I have a disconcertingly comprehensive feeling of faith in him. He came around to visit all of the stagieres and talked to each of us individually for 10-20 minutes. Really awesome, especially because he really has no requirement to do that sort of above-and-beyond outreach. He mentioned beekeeping to me in the first thirty seconds (he has it in his documents that I am (a) interested and (b) sort of experienced with des abeilles), and told me that there were possibilities for collaborating with PC/Gambia for beekeeping training and was really interested in helping me with infrastructure that I might need for a project. He also talked about how he thought Kedougou would be a really good fit for me in terms of values (good, hard work and intelligence). He got right around me, and the weird thing is that I do not even mind. I think he got around everyone, and that is really a talent, because I do not think he is insincere. But it takes talent to communicate sincerity that across-the-board in that short a time period." So, my CD (Country Director) gets a vote of full confidence, andIam excited to work for him.

Losing ability to articulate
I talk funny now. And my syntax, it is broken. My English degree is a commonly-referenced joke around here, because it's just absurd. My ability in English, too, is falling off disproportionately to my gaining competence in French and Pulaar, even if you add the competences together.

Lists of things to write about (we love infinitely metarecursive things!)
I like to make lists of things to write about. It helps. So, I have journal entries of about 12 items. Anyway, I miss having really intellectual conversations, and this is exacerbated by regular interactions with a person who considers himself an Intellectual but is in reality hidebound and frustratingly backwards.

Took the LPI (Language Placement Exam) and got Intermediate Low. I only need Intermediate Mid to swear in, so we are hoping that when I next take the exam, in five days, I will get that level, so that when I take the final LPI, I can get Intermediate High. We can hope.


There is a Peace Corps Senegal cookbook you can buy, which I now read and salivate. Angsting about whether to eat every meal with my family or not--I hear that everyone is happy when they eat with their families, but I really like to be in control of my own food. Like, a lot.

Dried Fish and concept of food
Dried fish is gross. And I am not picky here--I eat Vache qui Rit and actively enjoy it. But somehow my concept of food just will not expand to include dried fish. I do, however, regularly walk past a stand that sells very fish-smelling fish and think, "mmmmm". Shudder.

Anger going back in on itself

Journal excerpt:
"August 28
It's been raining a lot. Yesterday it rained with increasingly torrential fury for about an hour, or just under (45 minutes). We had to stop class and went under the school's overhang outside to escape the worst of the noise. I was trying to present my family tree, but literally could not shout loudly enough to be heard Especially in Peul Fuuta (there are no standardized spellings, so that's my chosen one). Standing outside the room, watching the water pour down, I listened to the rain (obviously) and thought I heard a rhythm in it. Not possible, given the nature of thermodynamics. I decided that I must've been hearing my heart, and that seemed so poetic and fitting that I have decided to believe it.
Last night I slept inside. That's right, I SLEPT inside. Now, given it was night-after-mefloquine, sleeping is really sort of an optimistic misnomer, but the point is that if it is raining and my wooden door is open, and so is my window, then I am able to sleep. What a relief."

Note on sleeping--I have now gotten pretty good at predicting (a) when it is going to rain and (b) when it is going to rain enough to matter. At least in terms of overnight weather. I'm also pretty pleased with myself because although I can sleep through roosters, calls to prayer, children, enthusiastic Parcheesi games, arguments in the street, and tea parties (loud things here), I wake up as soon as the pre-rain wind starts to blow, or when water falls on my face. NB I know I
can sleep through these things because I keep hearing about other people being waked up by them and/or they are still occurring, but I no longer notice them. And whenIam sleeping inside because I've decided it's going to rain and it starts to really rain and I wake up slightly and hear it, well, I don't think I've ever felt more smug.