Thursday, November 26, 2009

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


Sarah said...

Katherine!! I have been trying to text you unsuccessfully, so I'll try this method instead. Your "The HOW" section of this post is absolutely awesome. Spot on. This is really tough stuff and I can't wait to talk to you soon about it. I think about you a lot...hope all is well!

P.S. Yes, World Vision is a Christian IAO.

Sarah said...

I keep forgetting to mention - if you haven't heard of this NGO that was started by a Senegal RPCV, definitely check them out...I met the guy who started it a while back and he's awesome: