Monday, August 24, 2009

Homestay the first

I'm going to try having subsections so that I don't wander all over the place, since this is probably going to be a long post. If there are things I promise that I'm going to talk about but then don't, you should get on my case about it on the comments, okay? Good. Here goes.

My Family:
Is, to put it flatly, amazing. Absolutely lovely people, all of them. They're hospitable to an embarassing degree, and take absolutely amazing care of me in every way. I am still not sure who everyone is, or who the toddlers belong to, but here is what I've gotten so far. Jeneba is married to Issakha, and they have a small boy toddler whose name I don't know. Issakha's brother is Ady Assiz and also lives in the compound with his wife, Rama. Their house/room is separate from the main house, and is next to Issakha's workroom. They have a very precocious nine-month-old girl, Fatou, who is very chubby and very, very beloved by everyone. "Faaatou" is a pretty common cooing. Assiz in particular is absolutely in love with his daughter, and it is beautiful to watch him interact with her--she prays with him, which is to say, she climbs on him and he gently moves her so that he can do obeisances (is that what they're called?). There are two women who also live in the compound and each have at least one child (each have a boy toddler, one is named Abdou) and one has a five-ish-year-old girl whose name I used to know.

Jeneba cooks for me (and everyone), and is hugely pregnant. Both she and Rama are incredibly thin and probably really badly underweight, although there is plenty of food in the compound. I think it is probably because they are either pregnant or nursing children. Issakha and Assiz are incredibly kind men, and although the women do all the work, they seem pretty progressive. Assiz occasionally cuddles a little bit with Rama when we're all sitting outside at night, and Issakha sometimes does work for Jeneba if she's feeling extremely out of it. This is really inadequate as a description of them all, but with luck, I'll have pictures of them all.

Interestingly, Rama's sister's compound is just over the wall, and Hadi is Frank's host sister. Family trees get pretty confusing, but I think that Ashley has a sibling married to someone else somewhere in my extended family. Up until the last day, I wasn't allowed to help cook, but finally they started to let me help! I have stripped leaves from stems, sifted rice (thus learning the verb 'to pour' because Jeneba had to tell me several times, "Yupe (yoo-peh), Hali, yupe!"), and helped prepare bwuiri, which is a couscous (millet) porridge flavored with lemon-type-things and sugar and eaten to break fast during Ramadan. Maybe I will even get to help prepare dinner some day.

Your Mission: bathing
Kevin, Chrisses, Helen, Emilys, Erica, Lindsey, Jen, Jess, Maddy, and anyone who is contemplating visiting me ever, this is your assignment. For everyone else, you really should do this at least once, because it's fun and informative, and if nothing else will make you really love your shower.

I bathe once or twice a day here in about a gallon and a half of water, on my extremely luxurious days. If you want to try the way I bathe (and you really ought to), here's what to do. Get a bucket. A clean bucket. Get water in it--I use unheated outside tap water, but you can get whatever temperature you prefer, since technically I could heat water and have warmer baths if I wanted. Use about a gallon. Get a quart yogurt container, or some other plastic scooper--a mug will be frustratingly heavy and small--you want it to float in the bucket so you don't have to get your water dirty with your soapy hands. Okay, now take the bucket to the shower, and put it in the bathtub (if you wanted to be really authentic, you'd do this outside, but some people may not be able to do that, public nudity laws being what they are). Get your soap. Squat down and pour water over your shoulders and commence to bathe. If you are washing your hair, I recommend dunking your head in the bucket first, turning to each side and trying to touch your shoulder with your chin--that will probably get your entire scalp wet. It works for me. Then shampoo, etc, use the lather for body wash to whatever extent you like, and slosh water all over yourself to wash. Last, rinse your hair by pouring water over your head, and work your way down to your feet until you're all washed. If you've been good, you still have about four scoops or more of water left in the bucket. This is the best part: lift the bucket up and pour is over your head or down your back. It feels amazing.

Cashews and Medical stuff:
I had a popsicle the other day. Frozen pulped fruit from a little tied-off baggie. Bite off the corner and go to heaven. I didn't recognize the flavor, and thought it might be mango, but I was in one of my "It's too awkward to talk or inquire about anything, I don't want to be rude, I really want to eat something cold, and I would rather be sick than say anything other than 'Jaaraama,'" which is hello and thank you and goodbye and how are you all rolled into one. Two days ago I broke out in a horrible, horrible rash. Woke up from sleeping--badly--in my room on my bare matela (didn't have the energy to make it, since I ran inside with all my stuff rolled up in my tent at about 4am). There had been semiraw cashews and their skins spilled on the mat, and I thought nothing of it. Assiz had, sweetly, given me a bunch, saying "Garde les dans ta chambre pour manger pendant la Ramadan," the night before, after the announcement that Ramadan was starting the next day. I noticed a bit of a funny feeling on my face from the mat, but it went away. Then, I ate the cashews. And the next day or so I woke up with the beginnings of a super terrible bout of mangoface.

For those of you who don't already know (can't be many out there), I dearly love and am deeply allergic to mangoes. When I eat them I get angry, yellow-puss-oozing, skin-cracking rash all over my face, neck, and sometimes other parts of my body, if it systematizes. My first thought was the juice, and when my family decided to offer me a bottle of the juice, I lied and said I was too sick (yesterday) to drink anything but ndiyan, which is water. I asked what it was and they said baobab fruit, but I was skeptical. Maybe they added mango. So anyway, that is why I asked everyone to go look up plant families. The short version of the answer is that it is basically impossible for a mango allergy to translate to baobab. They're related, but only because they are both rosids, which constitutes about 60,000 species of plants. I was really confused until I realized this evening that, duh, I had been eating cashews. Semiraw cashews. And slept with my face pressed into a cashew-hull-inundated semi-rough foam mat, sweating, for several hours. And wondered briefly when I woke up if I was allergic to the mat.

I called the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer), Doctor Ararat (who, incidentally, learned English in Ethiopia--I think--from PCVs there as a child) initially prescribed washing my face. Then, the next day, when the rash had started to spread rapidly across face and neck and was coming out on arms and hands, she prescribed me some steriods (Prednizone, I think, but check the spelling on that). I have no pride when it comes to this--normally, I would not take steroids for something like that, but in a hot humid climate with no clean water to soak off the puss crust (any water I would use here is bleached--OW--or could carry infections), I'm not a hero. Steroids for me, and the rash is much less bad, although it has made it all the way up to my eyes and down to the vertical part of my neck.

In other news, I got my med kit today, which may not seem exciting, but it means I have my own supply of all kinds of general first-aid type stuff. Before, they did not have enough, so three of us were sharing one in Sangalkam. Which was kind of sad, since we all got sick in one way or another. But most of us are better now, and those who aren't are getting there. Sickness here is inevitable, you just have to hope that it happens at a relatively convenient time.

The Tayer's Wife:
Issakha is a tailor (in Pulla Futa, that's "tayer"), and he makes all kinds of absolutely gorgeous clothes. Tailors here, by the way, are incredible. You can show them a picture of a garment, and give them fabric, and magically they make the picture into that cloth and you can wear it. Super amazing. He seems to be a pretty highbrow tailor, too, because he has his own coutier (younger guy who cuts the fabric), and spends most of his time lately doing incredibly intricate, repeating, symmetrical and completely perfect patterns of gold embroidery freehand on an electric sewing machine. I don't know how to explain how perfect his work is, but it is exquisite.

And now a little bit of a cultural note. People here don't really brag at all. They don't talk about how great they are, and even if they say they are doing well, it is usually followed by, "Thanks be to God," even for those who are not particularly religious. Yet, often if you compliment someone, they'll just say, "Merci," which would be rude in French culture (you say "thank you," when someone compliments you, which is seen to imply that you think you deserve the compliment or something, that isn't really the point, but it's an interesting aside), but is normal in America. But the real point here is that nobody seems to brag. The other thing you need to know is that people wear (a) the same clothes for a week or more and (b) not particularly super-fancy clothes, either. Jeneba, though. Jeneba's normal around-the-house clothes are fit for a mid-to-upscale social gathering. Her hair is coming out of its braids, and she always looks tired, thought not particularly grubby. But her clothes--they are covered in intricate gold embroidery, they have decorative wrap-around shapes also accentuated in gold embroidery, and yet there is enough yellow in the fabric's pattern that you don't see it initially. At first I wondered why she wore such nice clothes around the compound, and then I realized that it's Issakha's way of bragging, both about his wife (whom he clearly really loves and cares for) and his skill in his trade.

Such a different thing than bragging in America--we talk bigger than we are, exaggerate our claims to emphasize their importance. Issakha's wife wears incredibly beautiful clothes as a matter of course, and Issakha, thin and with one crossed eye, smiles happily and goes quietly about his tailoring. It makes me happy in the same way that seeing Assiz pray with Fatou makes me happy--expressions of love are always beautiful. Seeing something that is genuine by definition, though, is even better. Issakha wouldn't make Jeneba such beautiful things merely to advertise his trade; he would make her clothing, of course, and it would be well-done. But it touches me deeply, somehow, that things are the way they are.

It isn't really Kool-Aid, but there's something here called Foster Clark's that comes in many different flavors and is about twenty cents to get a packet that makes a liter of drink. Yes, I know I normally would not drink Kool-Aid if you held a cup to my lips, but this is different. In addition to flavors like 'Cola,' 'Mango,' and 'Tropical Punch,' (none of which I bought today), there are: Berries, Lemon, Passionfruit, Orange, Mandarin, Pineapple, Guava, one I can't remember, and Pineapple-Ginger. This last, I was so curious that I had to try, and it actually carries a hefty ginger kick. I may be in love with Foster Clark, whoever he is. Seriously, though, don't bother sending drink mixes--this stuff is in better flavors and is cheaper here.

I've already described our Thies breakfast food, but in village, my breakfast is amazing. At first it took me a bit to warm up to it, but now, I love it. And I love Jeneba, because she makes it. I get about a third of a loaf of french bread, fried eggs (very bland), and salty fried onions-and-oil as a thing to eat with eggs and bread. It doesn't look so hot, described like that, but I promise you it is one of the tastiest things you'll ever eat.

Lunch and dinner are communal, eaten out of a large bowl with your right hand if you're adept, and with a spoon if you are not. I am firmly in the "spoon" school. One night I tried eating with my right hand (nyame njoowo), but all I really did was provide entertainment. There are a lot of food types, but mostly it is rice with some vegetables and some sort of sauce with fish. The sauce is usually red, or else the rice is red, which means there's tomato or palm oil, or both--I feel lucky that there are vegetables. Everything is pretty oily, but so far, so good. It's all either tasty or neutral, too, which is also nice.

Other foods I've come to love are bissap (very sweet dark red hibiscus tea, sometimes with mint, drank cold or frozen), stale Biskrem cookies (I fell in love with those in Turkey), and, now that I know I am not allergic to it, baobab fruit. Oh, and the bread-with-chocolate for breakfast, well, it grows on you, that's all I'm saying.

I know I already mentioned it, but I was thinking about it more today, and with respect to French, I am really so surprised that I don't even know where to look. I don't want to seem like I'm bragging at all, but it's incredibly impressive to me that I've been able to just start using French. Like I had it there all along, just waiting to walk on out of the woodwork and be used. Sometimes I don't understand what people say, sometimes I have to ask for clarification or vocabulary help, but by and large I can speak at a Real Person pace and communicate effectively enough that people--even outside the training center--don't seem to have to slow down for me. Another huge milestone is that I have started remembering conversations I have in French as concept, rather than vividly and specifically in English. The crossover isn't 100% yet, but it's so much closer than when I was in Burkina Faso. One of the teachers here (who will be my boss when I swear in to become a real-live PCV, insha'Allah) asked me today if I had ever lived in a Francophone country, and whether I had learned French from a young age. I haven't got a swollen head about it (other than the rash, anyway), but it really boosted my confidence.

Today, walking back from town, I was thinking more consciously about it and noticing that I really am just comfortable in that language in a way I didn't think I was going to be able to access. Clearly, I am not fluent, but I am functional, and I don't sound like a brain-dead two-year-old, so that's a start.

Islam: Ramadan and praying:
Senegal is proudly secular, I want to say that from the get-go. Still, though, a good 96% or so of the population is Muslim, and with the start of Ramadan, that has become really apparent. The calls to prayer here are very different from the ones in Turkey, but I find them similarly comforting, and one thing I really love doing is watching people pray. I feel a little awkward about it, somehow voyeuristic, but it's like watching dancing or listening to music: pure, genuine, and real. Something about the ritual of it all, so much more apparent to me than the ones to which I've really been exposed, is just supernaturally lovely. It's like watching flowers--they're beautiful because they are what they are, and nothing else.

Less peacefully, I bought [stale] Biskrem and [cold! with real sugar! in a glass bottle!] Fanta to celebrate going through a week of language class and getting my first evaluation. Ramadan started a few days ago, so most people are fasting, and by a few weeks from now, apparently everyone gets really crabby. Anyway, I was eating and drinking in the public square, which is sort of rude, but I'm such a spectacle anyway that really, it doesn't seem to matter a whole bunch. Peace Corps, I know you are reading this, so I want to be clear--I don't go around flaunting the eating thing, especially to my family. However, there was a sort of secluded space right in front of the store with some shade, so three of us were partaking there, as I said, fairly furtively. And a woman walks up and starts absolutely berating me in French. When I could get a word in edgewise, I protested, "Mais, je suis cretienne!" (But, I'm a Christian!) and she let me go, left in a huff. What was she berating me for? I was being a bad person for not following the fast, since I am clearly old enough to be doing so.

My apologies to Christians--both in my circle of friends and outside it. I know that professing false belief is really not good; in this case, I hope that you can understand why I am doing it. Basically, unless you want to be ostracized, you need to be (to my understanding) Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Clearly, I am not Jewish, and it doesn't really seem that anyone in Senegal is, not noticeably, anyway. Therefore, the other option (and, coincidentally, the one about which I know most) is to be Christian.

The Garden:
We have a garden in Sangalkam, me and the five other trainees. It is mostly sand, and we have carried baignoires (big plastic basins) of manure to it. Plans for the future include lots of tree seeding, and renting a horse cart to haul enough manure to make manure tea for our so-far-a-little-sad garden. I will post pictures next time.

My Name:
Halimatu Ba is my Senegalese name, for those of you who were confused by my somewhat surrealist last entry. Everyone has one, it makes things easier and clearly says to the entire community that I Am Here To Be Part Of Things. It doesn't stop the Toubabbing, but I respond "Nam!" (what you say when someone says your name) more often than I hear Toubab. Which, incidentally, means "white ghost" in Wolof.

Language continues at breakneck pace, but I am so far holding on by the skin of my teeth. Thanks to Cornell and the craziness that was the Chemistry major, actually, because by treating it as an intensive college course and putting in the same amount of outside time (rewriting and rereading notes, etc) I seem to be staying nearly abreast. Of course, I am not functional, and so use mostly French with my family, but I am using more and more Pulla Futa, and hope that will continue.

Funnily enough--Andrew and Andres, this makes me think of you for some reason--the way to tell someone to eat, eat, eat! (which is what you do to guests here) in Pulla Futa is to say "Nyame! Nyame!" and the way to say "I'm eating, already!" is "Mi nyami! Mi nyami!" You can extrapolate from this what happens before and during meals. Afterwards, I argue with at least one person--genially--about how I actually did eat enough. Mi nyami bui! O'oo, a nyame sedaa! And so forth.

Incidentally,Iam a little intellectually lonely, but I don't really want to go into it here partly because I don't want to give the impression that I am judging my fellow Trainees or teachers, suffice to say that most of you know what I normally talk about (nerd things) and think about, and there isn't much of it here. Which is fine, I just miss Cornell's climate a bit.

My Five Favorite Things:
Okay, this is a hugely long entry, and I'm nearly done. Thank you, whoever you are, for reading it all. The five things I love most that I brought here are:

REI BugHut2 (saves my life every night)
My 2.0L Platypus water bladder (keeps me going every day)
My hemp Pance (a little heavy, but comfortable, tough, and don't show wear or dirt)
Large Timbuk2 Messenger Bag--I packed it in a different bag to get here, but it is so incredibly helpful to have an *additional bag* to pack for village.
Teva Flip-flops

To put this in perspective for you all who know me--I would not trade my BugHut for any number of Terry Pratchett books nor any amount of Bavarian Raspberry Fudge ice cream from the Cornell Dairy nor anything else on earth. I would not trade my Platypus for any amount of any foodstuff, but it is a close second. Pance come in a clear third, but you'd be hard-pressed to get me to part with them. Flipflops and messenger bag are kind of in a dead heat for fourth place, though.

Next time: pictures, more about technical training, a day in the life, what happens during the evenings at my compound (Ibrahim, whether I've met Tupac, and Franglofuta) and anything else you want me to talk about (post comments!).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Homestay Day 1--In which I nearly ETed

We left the Training Center in Thies (say it: "chess") in a bunch of different vehicles--an AlHam*, a couple sept-places*, a Peace Corps Land Cruiser or two, and a van. One by one, people climbed into their cars, throwing their ten-days' estimate of stuff onto the top or anywhere it would fit. As the last group to leave, the Sangalkam crowd sat and watched. Before we left, one vehicle came back--someone had forgotten their med kit (more on this) mosquito net (aka "mousquitaire"), and possibly also the water filter. If you could pick three things to not forget, well, you pretty much ought to. Anything else, well, you can do without it, but your malaria shield and health maintenance stuff are a must.

We finally got on our way--Cellou (our Language and Cultural Facilitator, or LCF), Frank, Ashley, Melanie, me, and Tim. I wasn't nervous on the way there, not really. I had bought cola nuts, tea and sugar the day before to bring with me as a thank-you gift for hospitality, and had packed what I thought I would need, and somehow was oddly emotionally absent from the whole thing, until we got lost in Sangalkam trying to find our neighborhood. We looked at each other, and I felt my nerves start to hum a little. "This is one of the hardest moments of the entire two years, I bet," I said, answering someone who said that nerves were about to fray past mending soon. Tim, who used to be in Mauritania and is 15 months into his service, reassured us that it was the case. Melanie was first, followed by Tim, Frank, me, and Ashley.

I clambered out of the back of the Land Cruiser (known affectionately by some as the Vomit Comet), holding (somehow) my water filter, my messenger bag, and all the gifts. I stepped into the compound, and I swear to you that I remember nothing of the outer wall or the people in the street all shouting hello (not crowds, but not a few), nothing about carrying all the stuff, nothing about seeing the compound for the first time. I remember a woman looking into my face and saying, "Halimatu! Halimatu!" Cellou had told me I was allowed no French, so I pointed at her and said, "Halimatu?" thinking maybe it was her name, or maybe it was a variation of "Welcome!" or even "Toubab!" Not so. It was my name.

I stepped into the compound and a tiny, very dark, very pregnant woman with huge eyes, shyly tried to put the gifts I had handed her in my room. I took them and carried them away with us to the other end of the courtyard, where two other women were sitting on a mat. They sat me down on a chair, above them, and carefully poured orange soda (cold, from a fridge) into what in the U.S. would be cheap, clunky Goodwill stemmed glasses but here are the Best. I drank. They drank. I did not know what to do with my hands. I sat there, remembering that in Burkina Faso, it is not considered rude for a guest to just sit with nothing to say. If you have nothing to say, do not say it. A man with one slightly crossed eye was talking with Cellou, and they handed me a key to my door. Cellou left at some point, and, utterly at a loss, I just stood there until Jeneba (the pregnant woman) asked me using Pullo Futa and sign language if I wanted to shower.

This, by the way, is not a commentary on how I smelled. It is respectful--if someone has been traveling, you offer them to bathe when they arrive, because clearly they must be tired, hot, and dusty. As a gesture of hospitality it was hugely wonderful, because it gave me the chance to get away from everyone's eyes and regroup. I remember feeling totally inadequate to explain that I had my own shower shoes, and Jeneba giving me her own, much too small, rubber sandals to wear. I do not remember much else about that evening, except that I went to bed around 8, feeling completely at a loss and overwhelmed at the prospect of the next two years. Or even the next two hours.

Cellou showed up about 20 minutes after I had gone into my room. I came out in my pajamas (modest by U.S. standards--a too-big tee-shirt and basketball shorts), which are pretty scandalous by Senegalese standards and downright lewd when it comes to the standards to which I believe I would've been held in Mauritania, and had to go get re-dressed. After that, I went to go to bed, but because I had to close the solid wood door to be "safe" and have only one small window, there was no airflow. I counted 300 breaths, was still awake, and about to burst into tears at any moment. Until I remembered.

The bucket lid.

I had a bucket lid. From the bucket one of my host sisters had brought to me. So I lay in my tent all night and fanned myself every 10 minutes or so. I dozed, I'm sure I even napped, but it was only to dream strange and disquieting half-finished stories of confusion. At 7am, I was not rested, but I had to pee. But of course instead of a front door, what the house has (which is four rooms branching off a main porch-thing) a double-locked front wrought-iron gate. So I waited in my room, hoping that I wouldn't need to use the bucket.

I didn't. I made it, but spent the greater part of that first morning trying my utmost not to break down and sob. I talked to children, I wrote the names for the things I could poitn to. I tried to eat breakfast, but could barely swallow past--if you can forgive the expression--the lump in my throat. Poor Issakha, my chief host brother and Jeneba's husband, went out and bought beans for me to eat with bread, and when I couldn't/wouldn't eat that, he went and bought eggs. I had a devil of a time explaining that I wanted no coffee nor tea, and so for most of the morning I sat in the front yard in the shade, trying not to cry and bewildering everyone around me.

Frank, Ashley, and Cellou arrived, and without wanting to, I cried. I didn't sob, and I didn't wail, and I didn't even sigh, but my eyes just let go of a bunch of water. Poor them, they didn't know what to do. Ashley gave me a hug, and I kept saying "Ca va aller, it will be fine, it's fine, I'm fine, I just didn't sleep last night because it was too hot and I'm so tired ..." it was comforting to see how close everyone else is to my compound. Ashley is across the intersection diagonally, Frank is next door, and Melanie is across from the opposite corner of my block, as is Tim. That first day, all we did was meet people. I was so upset that I didn't keep track of any directions that we walked or anything. I just followed the group around, and wished with all my soul that I could find a good excuse to go back home, tout de suite.

I don't really remember that evening, but I slept outside in my tent that night, and woke up the next day not happy, but not sick with worry. Since then, everything has been looking up drastically. I'll post a more detailed version of the rest of the week tomorrow afternoon or evening, and I'm sorry this one post has been such a downer, but know that I have gone from that emotional state to actually being sad to leave my family to come back to the Training Center for three days. And on that positive note, it's bedtime for this Toubab...also, if someone reading this could look up Baobab fruit, leaves, taxonomy, and relatedness to mango, I'd be deeply grateful. Do it, then let me know via e-mail or by commenting (if it isn't a comment, I will post why I want to know after I find out. Suffice to say, please, someone, do this for me ASAP?).

P.S. Please weigh in:
1: Haircut (==de-dreadification) yes/no?
2: If haircut, then mohawk yes/no?
3: If haircut but no mohawk, what?

* Remind me to explain.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Training Center pictures

First, because I am secretly a Biology nerd, we have a picture of the really awesome (and prolific) caterpillars that are all over. Two days ago, Matt and I raced a couple of them, and his won. If you blow on them, they will stretch out and be very still for a few seconds before continuing with whatever they were doing.

Next, a showing-off-what-my-camera-can-do-in-spite-of-me picture of a beautiful moth. Its body has been eaten by ants (it's dead, by the way), but its wings are gorgeous. Those silver spots are actually transparent if you hold them up to the light.

People hanging out in the front of the compound just after the arrival of the 5 displaced Mauritania PCVs who are now part of our stage.

Our room. Danielle's bed is to the immediate left, Ashely's to the immediate right (behind the door), Emilie's to the back right, and mine to the back left. These are really, really nice rooms, by the way.

The well that we all thought was really deep until the Senegalese people showing it to us told us it was not only way deeper than we could tell, but also the water was unusually high in it. 30 feet down is high. I pulled water, though, without a pulley, and it didn't seem too bad. Of course, I was pulling just one bucket, without having done any other physical labor that day.

More hanging out. Something was, apparently, really funny.

The Disco Hut. Not sure why it's called that, but it is where we have all our stage-wide meetings and where a lot of people hang out. The post thing hovering in the left frame of the picture is one end of the volleyball net, and the building behind it is the Med Hut to the left and Demba's office to the right. Behind you and to the left is where people were hanging out and laughing, directly to your left is the building with the Refectoire (breakfast and dinner) and the Foyer (general hangout zone, and where the letters you're all sending me will be delivered).

Which reminds me. Everyone wanting to send me stuff and complaining that you don't have the address, if you are on the mailing list, you do. It is in "Peace Corps Update #5" at the bottom. Everyone not on the email list, email me at my first name dot my last name at gmail dot you-know-what. (There. Hope that keeps the bots out.)

And anyone to whom I've related a story about Senegal, if you wanted to be really awesome and post a non-typoed, slightly more literate version than the one I probably gave you directly, I'd appreciate it. Just post it as a comment or something.

Tomorrow evening we leave for Village for a week or so, and I will try to update with a general explanation of what and why, as well as a description of what language I will be learning and what that means, before then. But I might not. At the very latest, look for another post in a little over a week telling all about (a) Village (b) my host family there (c) my language and (d) how I'm doing. Currently, I'm great if a little overwhelmed. Why great? Training center, staff, and my stage are all awesome, plus I used my bugtent and actually slept last night. Overwhelmed? Tomorrow we start host families, and I was way overwhelmed last time I tried that in West Africa (my goodness, doesn't it just sound like I'm such the world traveler).

'Til later, everyone.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Senegal, post 1

Staging was tough. For me, it was harder than the Madagascar staging,because Peace Corps finally became real. I mean, I knew that doing Peace Corps involved going to Africa (or somewhere) for two years. I knew that, and it was part of why I originally really wanted to go. Staging made it all real, but since I've been sort of going through the wringer since February, I was running low on excitement, and high on anxiety.

I won't lie—I had a harder time with leaving this time than ever before. It didn't make sense, but there you go. Tuesday night I had a breakdown, and was absolutely convinced that I could not go—could not do it, didn't know why I ever thought I could, that sort of thing. Thank you to Jan, Nashily, Kev, and my mom for being there for me and pulling me out the other side of it.

If I were to try to describe my day, I am pretty sure it would read like a fever dream. The most surprising thing so far is my lack of anxiety about Peace Corps. I'm not scared of it--I feel tremendously unfamiliar, but not as much as I thought I would. Still, so far there hasn't been a whole lot of True Senegal in my experience. We stumbled out of the airport this morning, onto a couple--or maybe three--small buses/big vans. They had air conditioning, which was a big surprise. A couple hours later, we pulled into the Training Center in Thies (pronounced "chess").

As we left Dakar, I was awake. It looked a lot like Nairobi, except more people carrying things on their heads, a little cleaner, more horses-with-carts, less muddy, and nicer cars [read: cars that would be considered nice in the USA]. It looked a lot like Ouagadougou, except fewer people carrying things on their heads, more people riding motos with helmets, fewer women with babies tied to their backs, way more cars, and more muddy. Sometime between leaving and arriving, I fell adoze (sleeplike state, but not actually restful), and woke up in the middle of green. Children waved at us excitedly as we drove towards the Peace Corps Training Center. Adults stopped what they were doing and waved. I nearly teared up--how welcome we are, and it seems silly, because we haven't really done anything yet. Hell, most of us may not make a dent in any of the issues we are ostensibly here to address. But it means something that we're here. It means something that we care enough to try.

We got to the training center, met too many people to remember very well, found our rooms, and ate breakfast (french bread with chocospread/butter/jam/peanut butter). Then--thanks be to whatever power reigns in West Africa--we got free time until lunch, which was rice cooked with spices and oil, some vegetables, and some tasty meat (goat, I think). We met some current PCVs. We ate all out of a big bowl together. When we were finished, we ate an apple apiece, and had another meeting. Our country director thanked us for making this decision, and us Sustainable Ags (the whom of which I have decided to call "Hicks from Sticks" (like Fox in Sox, but different) had to give up one of our own to the Urban Ag program.

Filled out a survey--things like
"How often would you be willing to bike 6 miles? 12 miles?"
"Do you mind being isolated?"
"What are your feelings about parties?"
"How often do you want to see other volunteers?"
PC/Senegal differs most greatly from PCHQ in Washington, D.C. in that the former they want you to have preferences and specificity, and in the latter they rake you for it, a bit. (Sorry to the Peace Corps people reading this, but it is true, or sure feels that way to a lot of us.) I said that I would not mind being isolated, that I'd be happy to bike 12.5 miles per day (well, you know, not happy, but willing), and that I didn't mind not seeing other Americans very often. I am expecting, based on this, to get a very remote site. This is pretty overwhelming to think about all at once, but I'm here to be immersed, there's no point in trying to diffuse the experience.

Had a language interview, talked with a really nice Senegalese woman in French. I'm pretty sure that I didn't fail, but at this point I'm so jetlagged, sleep-deprived, and generally out-of-it that it wouldn't surprise me if I had been speaking absolute gibber. Per my usual, you say? Psshh, c'mon now, be nice.

Had a Medical interview. Apparently, being allergic to mangoes can influence where I will get placed, so, I have to go back to my placement interviewer when he gets a spare second and let him know about that.

Major blooper of the day: When my placement interviewer asked me [in French] how I thought I could use what I had listed as my special skills (communication ability, problem-solving ability, and sense of humor) to work with a group, I thought he was asking me if I wanted to be at a site where I collaborated a lot with other volunteers. So I carefully explained that in the past I had not liked working with a group because sometimes that meant that the group did not do any of the work, that I had to do it all. He was really nice about it, but then explained that No, in fact what he wanted to know was how did I see those things helping my village. Woops.

Good things of the day: Singing with my roommates, playing fife for a couple people later (people really seem to like my musical stuff, which surprises me because it's been a while since I thought of myself as Musical), a cool bucket-shower (with about 6 cups of water!), the meat at lunch, and not feeling totally inept at African French. And getting about six billion email responses to my first-ever ACTUAL email from Africa. Thank you all, so much. It really helped.

Hard things of the day: Being super sleep-deprived.

Other things: It's really sticky here. Like, very, very sticky. Like Ithaca was the last few days before I left, except without the thunderstorms, so far. Other trainees seem great. Everyone seems to be holding up okay. Gotta go talk about mangoes now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reading List

This is totally optional, for everyone. But if anyone is feeling like they want to spend money on me, or have a gift card to a bookstore that you're not going to use, ever, consider that I have a list of recommended reading, I am probably not going to buy all of these for myself. Even cooler, there's a stateside address to which they can be shipped and they'll then get to me without anyone having to pay Int'l shipping rates or customs fees. This won't work for everything, because technically everything is not work-related. Too, though, if you want to get an idea of what on earth I'll be doing (now that we know, theoretically, where on earth I'll be doing it), you too can read some or all of the following:

Lost Crops of Africa, vol. 1 (Grains):
Lost Crops of Africa, vol. 2 (Vegetables):
Lost Crops of Africa, vol. 3 (Fruits):
Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia:

Two Ears of Corn - Roland Bunch
Indigenous Agriculture Revolution - Paul Richards
The Greening of Africa - Paul Harrison
Black Rice - Judith Carney
Dirt - David Montgomery
An Agricultural Testament - Sir Albert Howard

P.S. Seriously, though, don't worry about buying these for me. I am putting them up here so I can remember where they are and also as information for anyone in the future who is a real go-getter or wants some resource recommendations.