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.)


Sheila said...

Hey now how much of a weirdo am I commenting while you are sitting next to me. Oh wait, you just left.
Anyway, lovely rant. My favorite part is the lady chasing you asking for a beignet. And eating powdered milk with a spoon. I can only relate to that. :)

Must help with radio...
Aint life grand

Sit well

Boydo said...

So are you putting the cart before the horse then?

Also, any specific requests for a food that you are missing? I'll send stuff.

<3 Kevin

C.W. said...

hey lovely :)

my comment is same as Kevin's...anything you want in particular right now, I'll send!!

Also, I like your observations on your position in the PC, a very elegant way of stating why you are there XP