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 K├ędougou 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 K├ędougou 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.)