Saturday, August 14, 2010

Year-in Post

In 1 year I have:
Written 23 blog posts
Gotten on antibiotics 3 times
Visited the US once
Eaten more Biskrem than I can count
Gotten two new names and families
Planted an awful lot of trees
Learned a new language (and pretty much lost my French)
Helped build the hut in which I now live
Gotten more marriage proposals than I've eaten Biskrem
Applied for and gotten a grant to get two-ish wells dug in village
Fallen in love with a giant mahogany tree
Learned to say "I told you so" in Pulaar (Wanna mi halani maa?)
Been to Dakar 8 times, although that's pretty nitpicky. It's really more like 3.

Could've been more communicative, but in spite of the lapse since my last post, I've been pretty chatty so far, yes?

The wells are done. Have I already said that? It's a big deal. The seed-extension corn has sprouted, the beans are doing fine, my garden has produced radishes and lots of buggy curcurbits. I squish the beetles and their babies, and hope that reincarnation doesn't exist, because if so, I'm definitely going to be a beetle in my next twenty lives and get squished over and over...

Before I left my village for the VAC meeting (Volunteer Advisory Committee) in Dakar (to which I ended up not going, woops), I harvested a ton of moringa (M. oleifera) leaves from two intensive beds in my garden. I've been trying to talk up intensive beds (good for fast leaf-production, and the leaves of the Moringa trees are incredibly nutritious ) for about 2 months now, so it was a bit of a surprise to hear about five women ask me "Where can I get leaves that easily? How did you do that?" But, I guess this is what I was hoping for with this garden of mine--do weird things and hope that people seeing the weird things pay off and then imitate them.


Lately, it's begun to seem even more complicated--I know the three official Peace Corps goals, and I can remember a lot of the Peace Corps / Senegal Agriculture goals and objectives. But I'm not convinced that if I fulfill them I should feel as if I've accomplished something. It's not apathy, exactly, and it's not that I don't care about my job (or my effect), but everything seems too complicated to nail down into "This is a good thing I've done". Because even if it seems good, it's not necessarily permanent, and the degree to which I've done it is pretty debatable. Of course, for now, it's nice. But I'm having a really hard time feeling that warm fuzzy "I'm helping to save the world" feeling I thought I'd get from having successful projects. Oh well--maybe it's still to come.

We have a house meeting at which we'll be talking about the sexism issue, and a bunch of other stuff. I'm not looking forward to it, because I have this terrible expectation (probably unreasonable. I hope so) that I'm about to get scapegoated.

My mom bought tickets to come visit me later this fall, so that's pretty exciting.

A couple weeks ago, my friend Susan, a PCV from midcountry, came to visit me, and we went to Ingli, which is this really beautiful waterfall. Turns out, it's technically a few hundred meters into Guinea, too. We rode out the dirt road heading toward Salemata, then hung a left and a quick right and spent a few hours following convoluted dirt pathways until...Susan got a flat tire. I stayed behind with her to fix it, and Sheila and Katie went on ahead, telling us they were going to leave flags at each fork they took (it was getting dark, and we wanted to get camp set up before that, so it made sense). After Susan fixed her bike, about 100m later its gears gave up the ghost, so we started walking. Got to a fork in the road...and there were no flags.

A long and frustrating time later, during which we tried to figure out how to go get Katie and Sheila from wherever they'd gone (we'd met Frank on the road and he'd told us which fork to take, although he hadn't seen them), we made it to the falls to find Katie and Sheila swimming.

Eventually we had a good time making s'mores (Thank you Lauren! For the amazing package!) and crawled into get drenched from 2:30am onward by a massive rainstorm. It rains a lot in Guinea. Katie and Sheila left the next morning; Susan and I stayed another night. Had a nice calm day, in which we ended up eating a lot of spam-knockoff sandwiches, since all the wood was too wet to make a fire. Went to bed after finishing the cold s'mores materials (mmm, no, really)...and the next day we headed out early, since the rain that began at 4am wasn't letting up much.

On the way there, we'd had to carry our bikes through a waist-deep river/creek, then carry our gear across over a very rickety "Africa Bridge" This bridge was basically 8 2-ply steel cables (a thin pencil in diameter): four had finger-thickness sticks woven and laced through them and made up the bridge deck, and four worked as handrails, that were tied to each other and the decking every two meters or so. On the way back, the water was much too high (and the current too strong) to ford with we took them across the scary bridge.

Scary's the word for it, too. I don't like water, as most of you probably know, and I also don't like wiggling things above the water that might cause me to fall into it, so after Susan had gotten her bike across and I edged out onto the span, my legs were pretty shivery. Inch the bike forward, inch the feet forward, take a breath, continue. This worked fine until a stick snapped under my left foot, letting it poke through the bottom of the bridge in a sort of cartoonish way. The stick made a theatrically understated 'plob' as it hit the water. And of course, because I'd moved my weight to my right foot (and the bike was on my right side), the back wheel of my unladen bike slid off the other side and was caught by my panicky grabbing lurch and the seat's getting tangled in the handrail wires.

I eventually made it across, and Susan and I eventually made it back to Kedougou. We spent the night and the next morning there, and then went up to my site. It was a really great visit, and it was a lot of fun to get to know her--she's a great person to go camping with. I don't know of anyone else with whom a camping trip where neither of us got any sleep because we were massively rained and cold spam was the sole menu attraction would've been filled with hysterical laughter.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Balancing (a diatribe on sexism, with a side of humor)

First of all, thanks to Six Senses Resorts and Spas for funding my well project in full. I really appreciate it, and so does my village.

It's been a tough couple of weeks up at site, although there is now water in the well, which changes a lot of things. For one, I no longer carry my laundry a total of around 46 km to wash it--I and my clothes are a lot cleaner these days. Since Mari left, I've been helping Aissatou cook, thus learning a lot about how to cook Senegalese food. Know what that means? It means that when I get back, I can provide nearly-authentic cuisine...for now, though, to business.

Peace Corps feels to me to be largely an exercise in controlling stressors, one long balancing act. The toughest one for me (and I think other women here) to deal with is balancing between cultural expectations of women and having any self-respect: sexism. In any given day, any man I meet--and many that already know me--will ask me within the first two minutes of speaking to me, "Where's your husband?" (the 'polite' ones will ask HOW he is--no answer will let me escape the following exchange). I can deny that I have one, or tell them he's in America, or tell them he's shopping 'over there', it won't matter. The next question (it counts as a question, because culturally, you respond as if it were) is, "So, I'll be your husband." I can say yes, or I can say no, it won't matter. There is no escape until we're several minutes in and I explain that no, it's not because I'm racist, it's not because I don't like black men, it's not for any reason other than I do not like men who treat me the way that they treat me. I'm tired of having to come up with reasons not to marry rude strangers. "Because I don't want to," should be reason enough, but just try explaining that in the American cultural [hetero]norm a man has to woo a woman, convince her that he can make her happy. "I can make women happy--I'll eat the food you cook, give you babies, and make money so you can have lots of pretty clothes," was the response I got when I tried. Of course, any more successful and I'd probably just have Senegalese guys giving me stuff trying to get me to like horrible as it is, it might be easier this way. Yuck.

It's no fun, interacting with men (and a lot of women) who think that a woman's place is in the kitchen and the bedroom (and pulling water, washing clothes, and taking care of kids) only, and have no cultural taboo against expressing this in nearly the coarsest of terms. Why would they be ashamed? That's what women are for.

Female volunteers deal with this all the time, and I think it is probably one reason that it seems like so many more men extend their service than women do. And being in the pervasively sexist culture seems to make the male volunteers--or many of them--forget the extent to which they need to actively be feminists.

Men here (PCVs) have a hard job. They're part of a demographic group that oppresses another one very categorically, and they don't believe that's right. But it's exhausting to do battle over it all the time, especially because there really isn't any cultural space for the kind of rhetoric involved. "Stop hitting your wife, hitting wives is bad/unjust/etc" is all very well, but so much of everyone's identity here (Senegalese) is tied up in sex (which is the same thing as gender in this conservative society). And women have a function, which means you get a certain amount of, "He's my man, you stay out of this, he'll hit me if he wants to!". So, nobody wants to do battle over sexism (especially) all the time every day. I can't blame the men (PCV) for bowing out. I wish I could bow out--I do, sometimes. There are times when I lie and say that I'm married and going to go back to the states and have kids; or I don't speak up when a man orders his wife around. You can't fight all the time--but as women, here, we don't have a lot of choice. For the most part, it's one long fight.

It's really hard to be a woman here--and I hate saying things that reinforce gender stereotypes or exclude anyone from understanding based on a demographic identity. Here is one of the few times it is appropriate. None of the women here like to say that the men (PCV) 'don't get it' because they're men. It sounds mean, and condescending, and bratty. Be that as it may, it's true. So we don't say it, and we try to ignore it when the omnipresent sexism leaks into their brains and they're rude to us. Or they fail to back us up. Or they act in ways that require us to assert ourselves as real people and then are very rude and denigrating when we try to do so. And know what's even worse? That the sexism and assumption of second-class citizen gets into our brains, and we start to act and think as though, because we're women, we should be quiet/not confront/not offer opinions.

To the male PCVs, I understand not wanting to fight, fight, fight about it all the time. I just want you to remember that some of us do not have the option of bowing out, because just to get away from it a little, we have to totally buy into the culture and say, functionally, "Yes, you're right, I'm property, but I'm not yours." Just as you balance between interfering every second and choosing not to do so, we balance between being treated as if we were property and trying not to sound condescending and whiny. It's difficult for everyone. But yes, it's harder for us.

A lighter note--sort of--is the Senegalese sense of humor. In my village, the sense of humor has been coming across as really judgmental lately. Visitors show up and call out to me, "Mari Keita, where's my breakfast?"
"Where's my breakfast? Didn't you cook? Give me food."
"I didn't cook breakfast for you--the food's all gone."
"You can't cook."
"True, I don't cook Senegalese food."
"You can't cook at all. And you don't speak Pulaar."
"What am I speaking now?"
"I said, 'Where is my breakfast' and you said 'what'--you don't understand anything."
"I said 'What' because you didn't greet me."

And so on. I forget, a lot of the time, that it's supposed to be fun, that they're just playing. Most of the time it seems pretty mean-spirited to me, but fine. Aissatou pulled me aside the other day and reminded me, "They're just making jokes, Mariama."
"But Aissatou, they're not funny."
"They're jokes. So, you should laugh."
"But they don't make me laugh."
"That's because you don't know that they're jokes."
" America, jokes are supposed to make you laugh because...they MAKE you laugh" (there is no word for 'funny')
"Yep. And here it's the same. When someone makes a joke, you laugh."
"Even if the joke doesn't make you laugh?"
"Jokes make everyone laugh."
"Not me."
"That's because you don't know that they're jokes."

Amusingly (and it's amusing to me in an infinitely metarecursive loop), my village thinks I have no sense of humor. Maybe it's telling that there's no word for 'funny'...

In other news, I'm chugging along at grad school applications. Anyone that wants to help me revise my essays, just say so.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

And so we beat on, boats against the current...

Byron and Kenny's adventure
Byron and Kenny were complete heroes on their trip up the mountain. After getting into the Kedougou garage at around midnight (after their car hit a cow), they were up at 7, raring to go. I was not really feeling excited about the ride because I was still physically exhausted from my long ride and subsequent lack of sleep plus more riding. We rounded up what we thought were rideable house bikes for the two of them, grabbed some stuff from the boutique, and set off. We got to the barge to cross the Gambia River, and about halfway across, I realized that what I had thought was a big bundle in the back of the truck we'd squeezed on around in fact was a brown fleece blanket wrapped around a long package. On a stretcher. And then I realized that it looked like feet at one end (underneath the blanket). In one of my celebrated less-than-eloquent, less-than-articulate utterances I turned to Byron and Kenny and said, "Uh, guys? That guy, I think he's dead or something!" Disconcerting experience, but not day-ruining. But nor was it the best of omens.

On the other side of the river, Kenny's bike gave up. We fiddled with it, but after a couple kilometers, it became apparent that there was nothing we knew how to do to fix it. I think I was the one (but it may have been one of them) who suggested turning it into a fixed gear bike by shortening the chain. Over an hour later (just before the self-imposed deadline of "If we can't finish it by 11, we'll go back"), we'd finished fiddling with it, having been the object of fascinated observation by at least six passing groups of Senegalese people and two cows. Everyone commented, everyone would have tried to be helpful had we asked, and we were very glad when each moved on. The cows weren't that disruptive.

I switched to the BFG (Bike of the Fixed Gear), Kenny rode my bike (Blue Nellie), and we went along maybe 5km more. Then Byron's bike's back wheel's rachet started to give out, making the chain tension pretty erratic. We pressed on. I was exhausted, because riding a fixed gear when you're with two people who aren't is a tough proposition. But we made tracks, and I felt bad asking either of them to take the BFG because I don't know how much biking they do and at least I know the path. Plus, in spite of my reputation, I'm a lot nicer than I have obligation to be. At the forage at the base of the mountain, Byron and I switched bikes.

Kenny and Byron are possibly the most determinedly positive people I've ever gone on a Murphy's Law adventure with. Not once did they complain, whine, groan, bellyache, or otherwise indulge in negativity. Not even when they saw the path we were going to go up, not even when we had to stop and just sit for a while to get our breaths back. I tossed them ORS packets, they drank them, and when they started to smile a bit, we kept going. "We have SO MUCH respect for you right now!" they kept saying. Eventually, we made it to the top, then to my village.

Where my family had not saved us any lunch. We ate raw peanuts, bathed in water we borrowed from Aissatou, and then went to get water. They each scooped a bidon of water out of the spring, carried it up to the bikes, and pushed the bikes back to the compound. In spite of not being used to the biketrek with water, they never complained, not even when the gear of Byron's bike perforated his leg a bit.

Another wonderful thing about having them visit is that far from turning up their noses at my "just weird, but whatever, if you like it" (according to other volunteers) normal village standby of oatmeal, dried refried beans, flax seeds, and hot water, they wolfed it down with me. It rained, with terrific lightning and thunder, and we all slept like dead things. The next morning, I took them to the edge of the mountain, said goodbye, and went back to my hut.

Where I subsequently collapsed. It was, I think, mere physical exhaustion. In any case, it was a controlled collapse--a lot like when you get sick after a period of stress, except without the actual being sick, which was a nice change. I drank water, ate, and slept, reading intermittently. The next day I was less incapacitated, but not operating at full. I built a couple bamboo chairs, seeded my garden a bit, and mulched the bed to which I am planning to eventually outplant my tomatoes.

Mariama leaving
The lowlight (not highlight) of the last week in village was definitely Friday night, when I went out to ask Aissatou a trivial question, and her reply was something like, "Oh, there's a fire for the guest. Mariama is leaving tomorrow."
"What? Tomorrow? For where?"
"Her husband's house."
"In Tambacounda?"
"She's leaving tomorrow and going all the way to Tamba and she isn't coming back?"
I refused to eat, called my mom, sat in my latrine, and cried. It may be the best deal she is going to get out of life, and she will probably eventually like it more than village itself, and it gets her away from her terrible mother-in-law (the one I have taught that "Crazy Old Bat" is a term of respect in English) who refuses to feed her and beats people with large bamboo sticks. But it was still pretty upsetting.

The next day I tried to explain to Aissatou that the reason I was having such a hard time is because they gave me no warning. While I was trying to explain, I was tearing up and my voice got sort of scratchy. Aissatou said, "Don't cry! Don't cry!"

Initially I thought that was just another cultural thing, but she kept repeating it. "Don't cry! Don't cry! If you cry, I am going to cry!" And I saw that she was serious, that seeing me nearly cry was opening up all of the sadness she felt at having her daughter leave home with basically no warning, to live far away and not come back very often at all. So I stopped myself from tearing up anymore, and went to finish mulching my garden.

Three minor observations that are more positive:
Cinnamon rice
Rice with cinnamon and sugar is a wonderful thing to eat when the sauce tastes like rotten fish. Thank you, Aunt Teresa.

Is what it says on the back of one of the t-shirts I have taken to wearing in village. I was hanging out with my 12-year-old brother the other day and he said, "Sauce."
"I eat sauce on my rice."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your shirt. It says 'sauce'"
" it does..."

I am making quite a name for myself as unbeatable at Bananagrams, although often this involves Meera (for example) making much cooler words than I do.'s nice to know that all that solo practice up at site makes a difference...wherever I go to grad school, I will have to start a Bananagrams club.

And with that, it's up to village I go for another ten days or until I can't deal with it anymore. It's a difficult period, but so it goes. Soon, soon, soon, there will be water in the well and vegetables in my garden. And that will be nice.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Well Update

I do not like asking for money, so I'm not going to.

Appropriate Projects funded my well project, though, and they asked me to post the link to the project page on their site.

I appreciate that they are funding this, and there are a couple pictures of my site up there, too, so if only for the photo value (and to boost their hits, which I think helps them in some obscure-to-me way), you might want to check it out.

But I don't want you to contribute money because it's my project. If you think it's a good idea, or for some reason would back it even if I were not involved, then by all means, please contribute. But I hate, absolutely can't stand, it when people hit up family and friends for money.

I guess that's more than enough overclarification.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Quick Update

Because our Internet was struck by lightning (no, really, and it fried the router AND the region's external hard drive), I don't have a lot of time, and because I'm exhausted, this will be sorta quick. I'm sorry I haven't been posting more often; I'll try to fix it when I'm back down in Kedougou in ... about a week. After that, though, I am going to try to be out for a little over a month.

Well update
Both new walls for both of the wells went up just fine, but because the rainy season started (whew!), our digger had to go back to his home village to start farming. I can't really hold it against him, but I did not pay him in full, either. He had gotten to the point of pulling out wet dirt (not mud), and wants to come back next year. Actually what he said was that he wants to come back in January, when his harvest is done, but that struck me as one of the head-against-the-wall lack-of-logic situations so common here. Why "finish" the well when the water table is high? I mean, other than that it is less digging that way. To his credit, he agreed to come back next time the water table is low and finish digging. Current feeling on the well project: I'm glad I started this year. And I really, really wish that the water table would come back up so that I wouldn't have to make a kilometer trek for water. It's not a big deal, but it is one of those things that wears you down after a while.

Termites/ants in hut
Those of you who know me know that I love hymenopterans. Even honeybees. Even though they attacked us. But now that the termites are chewing my new roof down around my ears (and itty bitty pieces of thatch are ITCHY), I am reconsidering my opposition to spray poison. And those ants that bite me every time I sit down on my floor? Seriously unwelcome. Luckily, though, the skinks (I named them all Spink, to keep it simple) and geckos (all named Forcible--yes, the names are a Coraline reference) are eating them as fast as they can. Not fast enough to keep me from being itchy and antbitten, but I bet it'd be worse if I didn't have them.

Map at Frank's
At the beginning of June, I biked 40-odd km out to Frank's village where I helped him paint a world map at his village's school. One of the most recently installed stage, Meera, came and hung out with us for a day, helped us draw and paint, and that was a lot of fun. From Frank's, I went via a bushpath through Jordan's old village, a few others, and ended up at Eric's. He'd gone to the weekly market one village more along the road, so I rode there and had lunch with Eric and Hannah at her house, hung out for a while, and then tackled the 28km to Kedougou. It was quite possibly the most beautiful ride I've taken yet. The grass and trees were newly green, the dirt was really red, the sky (finally!) was blue instead of a sulky yellow-gray, and the road seemed to tip just slightly downhill for at least half of the way back to Kedougou. When I got off my bike, it seemed like the world was moving farther away from me, because my eyes had become so acclimated to the scenery zipping by. I subsequently got really sick, though (that night and the next day in Kedougou). Thanks to Melanie for sitting and keeping me company while I lay on the ground and puked.

Thomas, our regional radio guru, is out of town this month, so it's been interesting trying to cover for him. Last week I completely failed--live, on the air--at keeping the conversational ball in the air. Granted, I was the only one on the air (we had scheduled an interview, but the guy never showed up). In any case, this week was AMAZING (the guy showed up). I don't know what we are doing next week, but I hope it can be done without me, because I don't want to ride in that soon. Why?

The 100km Ride
On Thursday, I rode back from Leah's (another one of the most recent stage). Her site is around 100km out, and though all but the first 30km are on a paved road, it was still a long day. I rolled into Kedougou, ate everything that was not nailed down, and then slept the sleep of the justly exhausted. Friday I rested. Saturday I went to my village. Sunday I worked in my garden (see below). Monday (today) I rode to Ashley's old village to drop off more seeds, and then into Kedougou to DJ the radio show and pick up two of my stagemates from Kaolack who want to visit me. They do not know what is in store for them, bikewise. Best of luck, Byron and Kenny.

Development and Aid
I've become increasingly uneasy about the ethics of Peace Corps and International Development/Aid NGOs in the past month or so. To put it really succinctly (I've become adept at this), I often feel that my very presence here exacerbates the tendency of many Senegalese people to wait for an NGO/Development/Aid organization to fix a problem rather than fix it themselves. I've heard from a lot of people who find this thought very offensive--coldhearted, even. I'm not going to go into it here, but for those of you whose immediate reaction is jaw-dropped astonishment that I could be so cruel and heartless, let me ask you exactly how you think, say, Senegal, is going to become self-sufficient (in any way) if the problems it experiences are all eventually solved by (or solution-determined/initiated/paid for by) Rich Other Countries. For an economics perspective, check out The White Man's Burden, by (someone) Easterly. It's not a very pleasant or convenient truth, but aren't we in the era of those?

So in my effort to find a way to be here that is not contrary to what I believe the ultimate goal of my work here is, I have started a garden. I bought the fencing, put it up, built rock retaining walls, and am in general focusing on being different and willing to answer questions about why that is so, rather than first motivate people to want change and then find a way that they won't have to pay much to get it. That, at least, I have learned from the well fiasco.


If you want to discuss my views on Development/Aid work and funds, shoot me an email or comment on the blog and I'll email you. I'm not about to get in a public flame war about it, though, so be ready to (a) have an individual interaction and (b) pay attention to what I'm going to say, rather than simply lambasting me for violating a moral imperative of some sort.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Quotations I like that used to be in my facebook profile

But I cleared out my profile in order to keep Facebook's massively privacy-invading policies from putting everything out there. So, here they are.

"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things you need to believe in the most. That people are basically good--that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything, that power and money, money and power, mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy, you remember that. Doesn't matter if they're true or not, y'see, because a man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing *in.* "

--Uncle Hub, Secondhand Lions.

"So everything that doesn't fit into some stupid idea of what you think God wants you just try to hide or fix or get rid of? It's just all too much to live up to. No one fits in one hundred percent of the time. Not even you."

--Mary, Saved

"As someone had pointed out, when man first dreamed of flying he had seen himself rising on his own silver wings into the blue empyrean, but it hadn't turned out at all like that. First he was trundled to a field, then he was shut in a box, then he was terrified, then he was sick, then he was in Paris."

--Josephine Tey, The Singing Sands

"Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interferences, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness -- all of them due to the offenders' ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man's two hands, feet, or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature's law -- and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction? "

--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

"You may say you won't interfere with another person's soul, but you do--merely by existing. The snag about it is the practical difficulty, so to speak, of not existing. I mean, here we all are, you know, and what are we to do about it?"

--Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Around the world and back again

Well, here I am, back in Kedougou, Senegal. The new stage is installing today, tomorrow, and the next day--they arrived day before yesterday, and yesterday, we took them shopping for all kinds of exciting things like door curtains, floor mats, and all kinds of plastic buckets and basins.

I can't tell you how the wells are going (or not) because I've been away for about a month. I went to Kaolack for the Ag Summit, then to Dakar, then to New York, California, and back to Dakar. I didn't post this on the blog or facebook for a few reasons: (a) I didn't have time to see everyone (b) I was trying to surprise a particular person, who was very surprised (c) I didn't want to be inundated with a to-do list of people-to-call while I was in the states and (d) I was just plain busy. But I am sorry that I didn't get to see everyone--honestly, I am.

I got to see a lot of great people, though. Got to see Heidi and Kyle get married. Got to see my best friends from high school, many of my best friends from college, my mom, my best friend from middle school, and lots of family. In short, I got a really brilliant reminder of all the ways in which I am in love with the people in my life, and that is why it is a good thing that I am back here. Doesn't follow? Yes, it does, because if I hadn't come back when I did, I think I would've lost my nerve and not torn myself away.

Things I learned:
(1) I like the city (also, The City) much more than I had thought, and would even live there one day
(2) It is surprisingly easy to switch between cultures, at least heading back to the original one. It is not as difficult as I'd expected to come back to Senegal, so far, either. Which isn't to say it's easy, but that's the risk I took
(3) It is possible, contrary to my former belief, for me to love rain even more than I did before leaving the US.
(4) I miss home.
(5) I may be becoming a similar kind of cynical to the dear, COS-ed JB. But we hope not.
(6) I missed bean sandwiches.
(7) Humid heat is really less fun than dry heat.

Anyhow, I'm back, and going up to village for a couple weeks tomorrow. Then I'll come back down, go visit a couple of the new stage with Frank or Kate, then go out to Frank's village to do a world map. When I come back, one of my friends Emily (who is a PCV) will come visit.

Not a lot of news, but at least it's an update.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Some pictures

The old, re-dug well. Soon it will have a new wall. When the ATM works and I can send up concrete on the Luomo Car, that is.

The digger for the new well, praying quietly while breaking the ground. He said the same phrase that people say when they're thirsty: "Offer me water."

The women, surveying their new well site.
Before getting on the Luomo Car...I got to ride in back, and savored the whole way there as time I was not riding a bike

The path branching off the main road South, to go to my village, you take a right.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“Just enough science to keep from saying ‘***k it’ “

“But they left out the sisters / I’ve been prayin’ to a Father God so long I really missed her / Good old goddess of benevolence / And you should listen to your momma if you have a lick of sense left.

“Pushed under by the main thrust / Buried under the photographs / Relegated by the Vatican / But you can’t keep a spirit down if it wants to get up again.

“It doesn’t come by the bullwhip / It’s not persuaded with your hands on your hips / It’s not the company of gunslingers / The epicenter of love is the pendulum swinger.

“ If we’re a drop in the bucket / With just enough science to keep from saying ***k it / Until the last drop of sun burns it sweet left / Plenty revolutions left until we get this thing right.”

--Indigo Girls, Pendulum Swinger

Peace Corps continues to be incredible, infuriating, and all-around conducive to getting to know myself a lot better. And, as it says in the song, what I’ve been doing most of lately is feverish “wanderin’ ‘round and wonderin’ how it oughta be.”

Two Thursdays ago, my neighbor Katie woke me up by tapping my foot in the not-to-be-mistaken-for-cool-fog-because-it’s-actually-just-not-painfully-hot-and-also-very-hazy morning. “KC, do you want to go up on the Luomo Car? We have to go put our stuff on.”

“Uh…okay. Yeah, sure. Let’s go.” I gathered up my massive shipments of books and food (THANK YOU Lindsey, Maddie, Dad, Mom, Andrew, Andres, and Ari!), hopped on the bike and off we went. The Luomo Car (actually of a giant, lumbering truck) is the cat’s pajamas as far as I’m concerned: you get a ride all the way to the Luomo town and your bike, too, for about $2.50. So much better, on those days when it’s more than I can deal with to both go back to the land of possibly-no-water-and-definitely-no-English AND go up the mountain. I’m learning to choose my battles, and last Thursday, it was hard enough to just go back up there.

But when I got back, my hut floor was done, and lacking only painted walls and a backyard before it’s totally done (the floor is pretty dang cracked, which is too bad, but I can live with it for the duration). More excitingly, they were nearly done re-digging the old well, so I did not have to walk all the way to the river to get my bathing and drinking water. That was the good part of the homecoming. The bad parts, though, were a lot more harrowing and engendered a lot of soul-searching and tears on my part. The first thing was that everyone was so excited to tell me that my tokara, my 17-year-old sister, was getting married off on Wednesday (NB, I realize that “off on” is a really terrible syntactical thing, but she was married OFF and it was dissonant enough that it merits the horrible prepositional structure). She and I were the only ones unhappy about it; seeing her face and asking her how she felt about it when we were alone was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do since coming up the mountain the first time.

I also had my first total breakdown that afternoon, influenced by being totally powerless and bereft about my tokara. Before he left for the Luomo, Tamba pulled me aside and explained that the well-digger was sort of high-maintenance and kept asking for money, that he’d already gotten an advance, as well as a lot of special treatment, and that I was not to pay him, no matter what he said or did, until he, Tamba, returned from the market. I thought this was unusually emphatic in this culture of accommodating and turning a blind eye to the faults and foibles of others, but figured, okay. I told him I wouldn’t pay the guy until he returned, and he and my dad/older brother (I still can’t figure out what to call him, but I usually just say “Dad” here…) left.

No sooner had they left than the well-digger started a theatrical complaining and production about how the work was too hard, the pay was too poor, and how nobody would help him. I couldn’t decide whether he (a) had an apprentice who’d left (b) had an apprentice who was to arrive soon or (c) had no apprentice, but he was really laying it on thickly about how lazy the village was. And how, if Tamba and the Toubab (sounds like a great band name, right? Tamba and the Toubabs) wanted a well, they should pay for it themselves, since they’re the ones with money. And the village felt the same way, that’s why they resented being made to help pay for the well and being made to help pull the dirt up out of the well. He ran through this production once, largely for the benefit of his captive audience (the women of the family). I was about to cry in anger at the injustice of it (they asked me for the well, they were happy to contribute the pittance, he was the one who set the price for his work, he does it for a living, so if it’s “too hard” perhaps he should find another vocation), but then my Dad called me and pointed out that what a man says in front of a group of women (when he’s clearly angling to get more money out of one of them, moreover) when the men of the family (who are normally in charge of the money) are not present cannot be trusted. I calmed down, went back to the compound, and kept reading my book.

He went through the same spiel again, and this time I thought, “Well, maybe I do just not understand what he’s saying,” so I asked Aissatou what he was saying. She looked really uncomfortable, and said, “Well, Mariama, you know…the people here in the village, they’re complicated in the head…” in short, I was right. One of the women asked Aissatou, “Does she understand?” Aissatou looked at my face, and said, “Yep. She does. She understands.”

I still wouldn’t have totally lost it then, although my hold on dignified behavior slipped a bit when the well-digger came over and started shouting his piece into my face—again. I shouted back, “STOP! STOP! I understand! Stop talking!” No, I lost it after he went back to sit down and I decided it would be better to spend an hour or so in my hut alone with my journal. As I walked away, he said in a crowing, loud announcement, “Touuuubaaaaacooooo”.

Before he was finished, I’d grabbed the small handful of pebbles on the ground near the door of my hut that I kept there for chasing the chickens. I whirled around, and threw them as hard as I could at his bare back. While he turned, surprised and taken-aback, I shouted in a voice torn ragged on my tears, “DO NOT SAY THAT! DO NOT SAY THAT—YOU ARE IN MY HOUSE! WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS? YOU ARE ENTIRELY WITHOUT INTELLIGENCE!” As I went into my hut, I could hear Aissatou explaining what I’d meant. I cried for an hour, and I can’t remember feeling so completely at a loss for something I could do to fix my life. (NB, I do realize that my repartee is somewhat limited in its acerbity and fluency, but honestly, I’m just impressed that I reacted in Pulaar rather than English or French.) I think my conclusion was something along the lines of, “Fine, they don’t want water, they don’t want to work, I won’t work, either, and I’ll tell them why, too. Jerks.”

Later that night, I told my [Senegalese] mom that I was too angry to eat, and it came out that it wasn’t that the villagers thought that Tamba and his whitey should dig their own damn well…it was that they resented the well-digger telling them that they should stay home from their market (the social event of the week) to pull up heavy buckets of dirt in the hot sun. I’m still not sure how all of that reconciles with the things he was saying, but then Tamba came and he spent about 10 minutes explaining that people ARE happy that I’m there in the village, and they do know my name, and they’re really happy about the well, and so forth. The well-digger apologized, and said he was only joking. My family told me I shouldn’t listen to him, because even though he’s a good worker, “his head is unfull of water.” (To have a head full of water is to be intelligent, but also to be sane.)

Over the next few days I had an interesting sinus condition (my nose dripped bright orange liquid, resulting in my, yes, fourth course of antibiotics), cooked macaroni and cheese for some of the women of my village—a big hit—and painted and moved into my hut, so that we could use the small one for guests for the wedding.

The wedding was two days, but I only took part in one day of it. People from all over, family and not family, came to see us, hang out, and everyone in Aissatou’s women’s group brought some rice and oil and onions to help with feeding all the guests. That night, some neighbor women came over and cooked huge pots of oily rice seasoned with the goat they’d slaughtered (I’m serious, I could sit in one of those pots with the lid ON and you wouldn’t know I was there). My sister went over to her friend’s house while, between 11pm and 3am, there was a dance party with traditional Pulaar musicians, called Ñaamakalabe (NYAM-uh-kah-LAH-bay). All the women formed a four-or-five-deep ring and took turns dancing in the moonlight. Yes, I was pulled into the circle. Yes, I danced a little bit, but seeing those grandmothers and mothers celebrating the (what to me still smells of) oppression and subjugation of a young girl was not something that made me really feel like cutting a rug. My mother in particular danced with a wild kind of triumph that deeply bothered me: I wanted (still do) to ask her, “Over what do you think you have triumphed? Your granddaughter’s slender but nevertheless heroic attempt at self-determination in the face of her family and her culture? You celebrate that? Do you not remember what it was like when you were young and married off against your will?”

Let me be really clear, here. I do not think that the Pulaar culture is unsophisticated or primitive: I think it’s a beautifully complex way of living, and there are many, many times per week that I look at something and feel nothing but appreciation, awe, or delight. But that night, with the men smugly asking me whether I was happy, clearly believing I should be, because my sister was getting married and that is clearly the culmination of every woman’s life: getting a man, with the women celebrating the anguish of their daughter…the only adjective I could feel or think of was “barbaric”. They are not barbarians, not any more than we are in the USA, or the French, or the Chinese, or the Aztecs. But in every culture there is barbaric behavior, and that night I saw it in the Fulbe’s.

When they were finished dancing, my sister’s age-group sold her to her family (they let her out of the house) for about $6 (a very high price), and they took her to my mom’s hut, where, if I understand correctly, the children sang outside while the male friends of her nearly-husband wash her and dress her in white. They then carried her to her husband’s house, where she sleeps in a room with her father’s younger sisters. They won’t have children until she goes to live with him in his house in Tamba, a year from now, so for now, she trades off weeks at our compound and at his mother’s. There, she cooks, cleans, pulls water, and is basically the general factotum. It’s hard to see.

I did not go to the second day of the wedding; I told everyone I was too tired and would just growl at them and make them all unhappy. And, for the most part, it was true. Two days later, I spent the day at my sister’s mother-in-law’s house (whose husband shared a father with my mother; my mother is also the mother of my sister’s new husband’s father as well as being my sister’s direct grandmother. I’m not sure what percentage of DNA that makes my mother have in common with his makeup, but I think it’s more than the average grandmother has with her grandson…someone do the math, am I right?), my sister’s husband had gone to Kedougou to get treatment for a snakebite…my mom was really worried about him, though.

But, the next day was a lot better, because they started digging the new well! Originally, the village Matron (like a nurse) had seemed to think she could hoodwink me into putting the new well really close to—or even in—her compound. But although she tried to bully me, I successfully put her off, and then Tamba stepped in and explained to her that if she wanted a well in her own compound, the digger would be happy to discuss prices with her. And we all know she can afford it, as the chief’s wife and a member of the family that owns possibly the most cows in the village…so she had no recourse but to stop dogging me.

Monday, I went to Katie’s village to spend the day and charge my phone at the tower; the guy who runs the tower messed something up in my phone, though, so now it’s locked and may have to go to Dakar before it can work again; this is not an optimal situation, but tomorrow may bring a miraculous hacking-into-my-phone. And if not, I may just spring for a new phone and wait until I’m actually IN Dakar and get this other one unlocked. Then I’ll have a spare phone…

Today I rode to Ashley’s old village to talk with them about doing seed extension there, and they were really excited and supportive. I was going to fill up my water bottles at the covered pump-well in the village (I trust that water mostly, because it’s covered, and really, why not)…but there were a lot of bees, so I didn’t. As a result, the subsequent 90-minute ride into Kedougou really hurt; when I arrived, I chugged two liters of water, an hour later, two more. I think it was around 100 degrees when I rolled into town. My trying to play basketball later did not make it hurt less (sorry, Mom, but I’m fine, if exhausted, now).

Overall, a stressful but productive two weeks. I am sending concrete and rebar up on the Luomo Car this week if things go according to plan, then in a week-and-a-half, I get to go up to Kaolack for a conference. I am pretty proud of working on this well, though, so that plus noticing another step up in my Pulaar has helped me get through, as have all the phone calls from my parents. Thanks, you guys.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How are you doing with the peeing?

Peace only, for lack of a better response. And it is a sort of peace: there's no violence and war, which is the only linguistic alternative in Pulaar of which I am aware. There's just this emotional exhaustion that comes from always feeling like I need to be doing more than I'm doing. This is related to my observation that my ability to cope with life here seems to be indexed to exactly how overwhelming it is: I keep thinking it will get easier, but instead, as I become better at Sénégal...Sénégal becomes better at me. Duh, this is inevitable, because as I become more comfortable, I push the envelope.

I exhaust myself. Knowing is half the battle. The other halves are figuring out how to change it, finding a way to thermoregulate, and finding a way to easily supplement my nutrition, and growing a thicker skin to people asking me for things.

Up on the mountain for 11 days, two days in, I locked myself entirely out of my cell phone. This is impressive, but more importantly left me entirely without any way to communicate in English for 9 days. I think my Pulaar got better, I know that I was quite talkative when I came down the mountain. With a bad cold.

"It's because of your sleeping in the wind, Mariama," Aissatou told me. "It's because you sleep outside," my Senegalese mom said. I'm getting to the point where I don't mind contradicting people in a culturally insensitive way. "No," I told them, "It's because Luis and Binta do not wash their hands with soap and reach into my section of the bowl." They argued with me a little bit, and in the end we agreed that both of those factors were a cause. Sleeping in a dry wind certainly does not help, it's true.

As soon as I got back to site, Tamba once again began hitting me up for money for the hut. After a lot of anger and a very small breakdown at Katie's house, I finally gave in. This prompted extremely fast action: by the time I get back (this afternoon or tomorrow), my new hut will be ready for me to move in, except for my painting the walls and them finding me a backyard fence. Oh, and my latrine fence is such that I can greet people and pee at the same time. Once, one of the neighbors even said "Good morning, Mariama! Did you sleep in peace? How are you doing with the peeing?" It was a kid. But, still. No, I'm not joking.

The Eye Clinic is going on right now in Kédougou: a couple American doctors are doing free cataract-removal surgeries. I've been helping a bit with translation, but it's time to go back up the mountain...I thought today, but now I think, tomorrow.

Oh, and those glasses I went to Dakar to get? The new prescription gives me a headache. This is not the easiest week of Peace Corps, but I didn't come here because I thought it would be easy, and if it were, there'd be no bragging rights. (Yes, I plan to be incredibly fond of bragging when I get back. You're warned?)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Me looking silly at swear-in last October...

The February e-mail, more or less

I've spent nearly the last calendar month in Dakar, so I don't have a lot of great village stories. No, I haven't been sick--this was the last round of training that my stage has with Peace Corps combined with the infamous WAIST weekend and the much-touted All-Vol conference to make a full month of being out of site.

Before I left, I had one of those "I might seriously injure someone" moments. Let's back up--my family has been building me a hut, as most of you know. And they've been stressing that it's my gift, their gift to me. I've helped with the work on this gift to me, and also fronted about $100 for Peace Corps to buy things like doors and cement for the floor (and white latex wall paint, my one extravagance). This is great for my family, because after Peace Corps leaves, it means they get to have a really spiffing hut all to themselves. They know this, I know this, the village knows this. And this is why, when Tamba asked me for an additional 40,000 cfa (about $90), I got really mad.

"We need money, you know, because your hut...all those things you see cost money," he told me. When I refused, he continued, "And, you know, you're not giving us money for food for the time that you're gone. Our other volunteers did not do that. We even cried, trying to get them to take the money, because we knew they needed to buy things like sodas and snacks on the road--we don't need much, here. We don't need sodas. But the other volunteers told us they could give us the money anyway because they care for us so much..." I told him I knew that was not the case.

Then he said, "Well, will you give me a pen? I don't have any pens." I said fine, I'll give you a pen. But later that day when--yes--a bee stung my hand, I lost it. "Why are you crying??" my family asked. "She's crying because she's scared of bees. Because bee stings hurt and last time there were lots of bees. White people do that, they cry like children when they're scared."

The next morning, I left. I visited Kate, but stupidly left from Kedougou at exactly the hottest time of day (and yes, there was a headwind). I was convinced that I'd be fine--two liters of water was fine to get me the 37km out to her site. Well, it wasn't. 17km out I got off the bike and lay on the ground in the shade and napped for 10 minutes. I drank a liter or so of untreated well water about 25km out, given to me by a family who didn't understand a word I was saying, but could see that I was hurting. But I had fun visiting Kate (although I now have some sort of intestinal weirdness again), and the next morning we rode into Kedougou, and the NEXT morning at 4am our house dog walked us to the bus station, where we caught 3 buses (one transfer, one broke down) over the course of 34 hours (9 were a scheduled layover in Tamba, 2 an unscheduled layover by the side of the road waiting for a replacement bus) to Dakar.

I stayed at an awesome American ex-pat family's house during the two days of the All-Volunteer conference (at which someone I did not know walked up to me and said "You're Katherine--I hear you are really good at editing papers, and I have this essay...") and the three days of WAIST (West African Invitational Softball Tournament). I did not play softball, and nor did I go out and party (I read Anna Karenina), so I missed the two chief activities of the latter, but the conference was really great. Then it was training time.

It was great to see the other people from my stage. It was really wonderful to get to interact with everyone outside of my sector. But the PowerPoint presentations were long, the host family I was being bussed out to every night spoke Wolof and French (not Pulaar, although since I asked for that family, it was pretty much my fault), and I've decided that training is really important and it's actually done really well. But there is no universe in which it can be categorically "fun". Like vaccinations--you're glad that you have them and you're glad that they're over.

Now I'm back in Dakar for an eye appointment, staying with the same family (I told you, they're great--2 RPCV parents and their really hilarious, intelligent kids) until tomorrow evening, when I'll take the night bus all the way down to Kedougou. In the next month I plan to: start my tree and coffee pepiniere, have meetings with my village farmers and Ashley's village* farmers about seed extension and who wants to try out which techniques, nail down with my village if they actually want the new well, and get my hut finished (pouring the floor is my job).

In other news, I hear I have four packages waiting for me down in the 'gou, so thank you so much! And to those of you who have written and not received responses yet, I'm sorry, I'm on it, and I'll mail them in the next couple of weeks. This month's slightly paternalistic and reductive but overall extremely useful book recommendation is 'African Friends and Money Matters'.

My computer has not returned to me yet, so my Internet time will still be more arbitrary and sporadic than usual.

Friday, February 5, 2010

While waiting for the bus (late at night)

Dear Developing World,

Yes, I joined Peace Corps to try to help make a difference, specifically to (a) try to understand and gain an appreciation of what the situation is in terms of infrastructure and privilege for most of the world (b) try to help offset the resources I've used to get the education I have by using said education to help other people (c) learn a new way of looking at interactions culturally and linguistically (d) who are we kidding, it's a type of tourism.

Yes, I have had a tremendous number of privileges in my life, from growing up with medical care and more-than-adequate nutrition in a culture that allows women to become professionals and attend school to being lucky enough to have the demonstrable intellectual wherewithal to study at a prestigious university. Yes, I have never truly known hunger, thirst, deprivation, lack of a loving and supportive family, or the flat-out lack of resource to overcome any hurdle in my life. We have always had toilet paper. Yes, I have always had more clothes than I can wear, more food than I strictly needed to eat, more clean water than I could use to drink/bathe/flush the toilet and more leisure time and activities than much of the world. Yes, even now, I have more disposable income than most families see in a year. Or two. Yes, in two years (or thereabouts) I shall be returning to AmericaLand, where I, too, shall do nothing but wear nice clothes, drink beer, and behave in a scandalizing manner. Oh, and you've seen through my clever ruse, so I might as well admit here and now that I plan to exploit the knowledge of your language (which you are giving me for free) by capitalizing on the vast demand for Pulaar teachers in the U.S., cheating you out of the royalties to which you are so justly entitled.

Given this, I can certainly understand why you seem to think that I have the magical ability to transport everyone I meet to America where I will subsequently give you a green card from the stash in my desk so that you can all be fat, rich, and happy without doing a lick of work just like all the other Americans in the world. I also see why you think that I would love to give you whatever it is that I happen to be using when you see me, whether it's the pen I'm using to write a letter or the bicycle that I use to get from my village site (where I have my own hut and latrine--I know I'm spoiled) to town (where I use the Internet and have electricity, a kitchen, and a refrigerator at my disposal). It also makes a lot of sense to think that I would be delighted to drop whatever it is that I'm doing and become everyone's free private English tutor, introduce you to A-kon, and buy you lots of presents with my neverending supply of cash. Don't think I don't appreciate the effort you make to save me trouble, telling me that I could just give you the money and you'd do the work of buying your own cadeaux. I know that many of you think I'm a complete imbecile for coming here to live and work in these conditions when I have a university degree (well, two) from one of the best institutions in the world (even if it is in dire financial straits).

I understand that in your position, I might do the exact same thing, have the same expectations, and be at least as maddening to you, were you in mine. I know that we will never be granted the chance to reverse the circumstances, allowing me to see the world through your eyes, and you to see theworld through my expensive prescription glasses. And really, I do get it that we are different. I know I'm a different color, and would remember that fact without being reminded every time I ride my bike past a compound with children. I know you can't fully control your children, so I don't hold it against you. At least, not every day, and not seriously. I know you have no control over where you were born, nor into what circumstances, and it would be unreasonable of me to expect you to NOT desire at least some chance at the privileges I've had so far in my life.

But Peace Corps service is about reciprocity, my friends, and while I know that you, unlike me, did not all sign up for this experience of having me live in your country, with my strange, strange ways...I'm here, now. And simply because I have chosen to be here is not a reason to hold the accidents of my birthplace, native culture, privilege, and skin color against me--many of you know this. If you want me to go home, tell me so. Until that time, please remember that you pride yourselves on your hospitality. I know you know it, because you've told me. What I'm not sure you realize is that I have as little responsibility for the disparity in our levels of privilege as you do.

Perhaps that's taking it a bit far. Certainly, in the most immediate sense, it is my fault: I do not regularly hand over any gifts. I am the only one responsible for the fact that you do not have my bike, my money, my clothes, my flashlight, my camera, my bank card, my cell phone, my passport, or my promise to bring you to the land of All Play and No Work (for what it's worth, I haven't been there since I was about 10 anyway). You, on the other hand, would remedy this if you could. But what good would it do you to have my stuff, the stuff I brought to Senegal?

It's true that I could spare all of it with relative ease. Except for maybe the passport (although I do have two...). But what would you do with the flashlight, cell phone, bike or camera? You'd use it for light, talk on it, ride it, or take pictures with it. It would break (things do, here, with distressing frequency). You might fix it. Eventually it would break beyond repair. And what would that have done for you? You'd have some pictures, you'd have had some conversations, and you'd have gone some places, in the dark and in the light (and oh the beauty of the conundrum, sometimes both at once!). But would it really change the quality of your life? What if I gave you my money and clothes? Well, you could wear the clothes. But they wouldn't last you longer or be any better than the ones you can get for 500 FCFA at the secondhand clothes boutiques here (by now, those are probably a better bet for long life anyway--my clothes are trashed). And if you had the money, you would probably not send your children to school, have better medical care, or higher quality food: you'd buy a motorcycle. Or have a party. Or have a motorcycle party.

Yet, while I am generally in favor of going places, having light, taking pictures, wearing clothes, and having parties (and even motorcycles!), I'm not here to give those things to you. I'm here to do my best to help you get them yourselves. You tell me why:
(a) It's more fun that way.
(b) I like to see you suffer. (That's why I came all the way over here. Those starving-kid ads just weren't doing the trick anymore.)
(c) In spite of the fact that none of the disparity in our standards of living is my fault, I do feel some level of responsibility.
(d) I don't like to share what I have, especially when it will deprive me of the least little comfort.

And, who am I kidding, you and I both know that it's a grand adventure to visit someone else's country and learn about their culture.


PS Heading up to the Dakar region for a month, taking the late/early bus, and should have my computer before March, lord willin' and the cricks don't rise.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Really Fast Post

Hello, everyone!

I'm borrowing a computer before everyone else is up to write this very quick blog post because I know that if I wait a week until I am back in Internetland I will miss some things. But because I am getting a ride up the mountain (!!!) in the Peace Corps car (!!!), I have to be quick so I can go pack my stuff--thus, the list:

~I have more stuff than usual to pack because I bought things like concrete, corrugated metal sheeting, and 23 kg of paint in order to outfit my new hut.
~If I'm lucky, Peace Corps will reimburse me for that.
~The walls of the hut were built but not plastered when I left village last time.
~I'll be in Dakar region most of February for the all-West Africa Volunteer Conference, WAIST, and then IST (In-Service Training). Everything is fine here, and did I mention that the giardia I was sure I had ended up going away after one last painful hurrah that led me to call the med people and beg them to let me take the drugs. Which they did. So I am vindicated.
~The well project is going forward, but the plan now is to dig only one, because UNICEF is apparently putting in a forage--deep, covered, pump-well--not 20 meters from the site of one of the wells I was going to dig. The other well I have decided needs to be partially paid for by the village, so that it will be more of an "our achievement" than "our Toubab's gift", and so am waiting for them to commit to feeding the diggers and buying 4 sacks of concrete.
~I'm getting lots of practice at designing my own clothes.
~If anyone knows how to put an .mp3 up on blogger, let me know, because I have some radio clips that I'd love to share (in Pulaar, of course) if possible.
~We had a three-day language seminar recently and it went really well. Given that putting four people with different strengths, language skills, and learning styles together in a really stressful but unstructured environment to steer a class for which they've all got different objectives is never a recipe for a warm fuzzy feeling, it still went well. I learned a lot and am pretty happy with my language skills so far. I think they'll only get better over the course of 2 years and am confident that they're pretty adequate right now. Not bragging. Well, not bragging much.
~I'm trying to make plans about grad school--it's early, you say. Not so much, say I, given that this fall is when I'll be applying if I am going to attend directly upon returning to the states. Even if I don't attend until fall 2012, it's still good to start thinking about applying, because when you're me and have no idea of the general discipline (let alone field and focus), it's good to have a good run-up. So that's part of February, doing lots of grad school research so I can finally decide what on earth (maybe that is more literal for me than for many other people) I am going to study.

Lastly, but certainly not least, I recently got a bunch of letters and 5 packages in the mail. Carol, mom, dad, Ari, Jen, Marian, Paul C., and Maddy, thank you for the letters! I haven't written back to all of them yet (except Paul's and Maddy's, which came a while ago), but I will, soon. This week. To Ari goes the keeping-my-brain-alive prize, because he sent me two awesome books relating to ethics, which is something that increasingly interests me. Yay Ari! Thank you! To Mom goes the keeping-my-body-alive prize, because of the massive amount of food (3 lbs of dark chocolate! 2 lbs of dried apricots! Many other things! Including dried figs!) you fit in that box. Thank you! And to dad and Kate goes the prize of THANK YOU FOR ALL THE PACKAGES, because they sent me three, each one full of great stuff--from a travel backgammon game (wooo!) and a knot-tying kit to dried berries and (amaaaazingly) granola. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you! THANKYOU!

For all of you who have sent packages and been frustrated that they have not yet arrived, thank you in advance. Also, do not fret: the packages get stuck in Tambacounda until either they get so many that they finally do send them down here in a car or someone from Kedougou goes up and rescues the packages and brings them down here. On my way back down from IST I plan to stop in Tamba and rescue any remaining packages. So, don't worry--it doesn't mean they're stolen.

For all the rest of you--write me letters! It costs a dollar and earns you a shiny letter in return--all the way from Africa! The only obligation is, keep my letter so that if I want to copy all of them and make a binder of "letters I wrote from Senegal" I can. A nanni? (Ya hear?)

Oh and one last thing--I have started dropping the Pulaar "ya hear" into my English. Yes, I now say things like "If you drink my boisson I'll be really unhappy with you, hear?" I shudder to think what will happen to it in the next 20 months.

Love to all. Except in cases where that would be awkward. Oh, why not--even in cases where that would be awkward. Thanks again everyone for all the support.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sully's PACA, and my new best

Hello, everyone. With luck this will be a short post, but probably fairly scatterbrained, because I am exhausted.

You know, I've noticed that being constantly exposed to the equivocation of repeating "If God wills it" after even the most strict appointments or inevitable occurrences (waking up in the morning, the sun coming up--no, really), that I find it hard to assert things anymore without equivocating. Since I'm not religious about anything but taking my antimalarial prophylaxis (Hi, Chris. Hi, Dr. Ararat. No, I'm not kidding.), I end up referencing luck a lot more than I normally do.

Since I end up having a lot of luck most of the time, it doesn't really bother me, but I remember getting really annoyed at the blogs I read always dropping "inchallah" all over the place. I don't mean "I'm lucky" in the 'I have a wonderful family' sense, but more in the 'I'm 20 minutes late and the last bus of the day just so happens to also be 20 minutes late'. Glad we got that cleared up.

We interrupt this routine program for a special announcement: speaking of reading lots of blogs, hi Nathallie! I know you're out there, hope you had a fun time here, and enjoyed meeting you. Send me a letter!

And now back to our regular programming. The last two days, I've been helping with Sully's PACA--that's Participatory Analysis for Community Action to you--meeting. Yesterday was amazing because I got to help facilitate part of the meeting with the women of his village. Specifically, it was really great because as I wrote things on the board, they would correct my spelling. Think about that for a minute--women who probably have not been to school more than a few years of their lives and certainly not for literacy in their native language were correcting my spelling. Not big errors, either, but just small ones. Granted, there's no standardized spellings here, but given that the women here are pretty nonconfrontational towards authority figures in many cases, that's really wonderful. At first I was annoyed, but then I realized what a wonderful thing it is, and remembered to apply my sense of humor to the situation.

Today I got to run a session nearly by myself, with the women again (I was the only female PCV there, so I guess it worked out well having the only Pulaar-speaking female Outsider work with the women), voting on things like "Would we rather, as a village, have latrines or electricity?" The priorities were surprising to me--people in the states would probably give up electricity before they'd get rid of their toilets...but not the case, here. And they'd rather have a good road than electricity, okay, but they'd rather have electricity than new wells or a water pump? Whole different frame of reference, folks, and I feel privileged to have gotten a peep of it from their point of view.

It was a really rewarding experience, but in total I've spent 8 of the last 36 hours on what's actually a good road but still engenders high levels of carsickness. Sully, the PCV whose PACA it was, was also the one whom I visited during PST. He's turning into something of an older brother figure for me--I'd like to be like him when I grow up. Superstar Ag volunteer, speaks beautiful Pulaar, all-around really kind person...Hi, Sully. Yes, I know y'all are reading this.

Oh, and I almost forgot, my new best time coming in from village to the Gambia river--67 minutes. If you remember, my previous best was 83 minutes, and previous volunteers have, I believed, clocked about 120 minutes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Christmas, New Year, Camping, and why I'm back in Internetland

Hello again! I assume that most of you will have already read a rough version of this post in the form of a mass e-mail, but for those of you who haven't, and for my own sanity, here it is again. And yet again, I am writing in the form of paragraphs with headers because it's just easier for me to make sure I stay on track that way. All those years of studying English, and I only start making outlines when I've gotten a BA in the damn subject. Well, fine. At least I learned something, right?

Was a lot better than Thanksgiving, in my opinion. There was not too much food, it was not partially spoiled by the time we ate it...and it was a lot smaller of a crowd, so it was a lot more personal. I cooked some really great pork chili over a charcoal fire in a giant pot (we bought and killed two pigs), passable cornbread, and delectable (hey, it was) squash pie. There was a gift exchange. Santa filled our stockings with cookies, soap, snacks, and yes, MSG. Oh, and to my everlasting pride, none of the food that I cooked got thrown away--even the gallons and gallons of chili were eaten. So, I am slowly building a reputation as a good cook in Senegal. Yes, I still am eating milk powder at site. Shush. Don't call it an inconsistency. Call it admirable versatility. Call adaptability. Call it eclectic taste, or a striking dichotomy. Remember, I can haz English Degree.

Nathalie and Austin Visit
Nathalie came for Christmas, and Austin arrived soon after. We had planned to welcome 2010 at my site, but as events conspired against that, we rolled back into town on the evening of 12/31. The trip out was pretty tough--N. particularly was a real trooper. Even though it took us five hours to make the normally 2.5-hour-max trip, she kept after it and made it to village in one piece, if not in great shape. When we arrived, we found out that Aissatou had had her baby while I was gone, and so that was very exciting. Also, I carried a folding metal cot up the mountain on my back, tied on with twine and padded with the plastic foam that passes for mattresses here. Pretty pleased with myself about that. It works a lot better than the other bed (the one I made), and is more small-hut-friendly, which is great when you have a small hut.

New hut
Speaking of which. As I'm sure many have gathered by now (at least, I hope you have), my current hut is quite small. Very cramped. Supertiny. Infinitesimal. Macroscopic, but only just. Sometimes I call it "boson". Not really. Anyway, my family decided to build me a new one, and the construction started last week. First my dad and my counterpart sketched out a circle on the ground, carefully measuring it to be bigger than my current hut. Then they dug a bit of a trench. And then they began making mud balls and dropping them into the (3-inch deep) trench. After a while, it was walls, a perfect circle, broken in two places (for doors), rising up out of the ground.

The women's work of hutbuilding is to bring the water, the men get to play in the mud to build the walls. Then the women plaster the walls and the men put the roof up. Since I've been sleeping outside lately and the moon has been rising late, the moon has been my alarm clock. One morning, I got up and pulled water by moonlight, carried 40L on my head before breakfast.

We mix the mud by battering the clay soil into small pieces, adding water, and then adding goo. The goo comes form soaking a chopped up vine in water until the result looks like...well, like a giant sneeze, to be honest. It makes it stick better. Or, if you want the literal Pulaar translation, it makes the dirt accept until [it's] good.

Old Women and Guilt
I think I've mentioned how much I really can't handle the old women here. They enjoy guilt tripping you about anything and everything, and always try to play the "I'm a poor, oppressed, malnourished, illiterate, underprivileged, undereducated woman without medical care, the knowledge of where next year's meal is coming from, or any of the myriad technologies that so many in this world enjoy" card. Which is all true. But the implied, "And it's ALL YOUR FAULT!" is the part I can't stand. Yes, actually that's why I joined the Peace Corps. So that I could take responsibility for millenia of oppression of women by men. Because, obviously, you know, I'm so very responsible for that sort of thing. I don't know how they know I have that button, but it's like a sixth sense they have. The old men are also pretty bad, but because somehow they've got a little more face to want to save or something, they usually lay off you after you tell them you're not a tourist.

So the women of my village have recently discovered that I hate being guilt tripped, or that I am very prone to crawling under whatever mountain of guilt I can find. Their new hobby? You guessed it--guilt-tripping me. Which is why I was so happy to get out of there, because when some random old woman comes up to me when I've been working hard at making good mud for about three hours and tells me I haven't been working and she has (and I've seen her sitting in the shade for at least two of the last three hours), because she brought more water to the mud pit than I did...there's just nothing to say. Even if I were fluent in Pulaar there would be nothing to say, except take a flying leap.

More Visitors
My friends and fellow Kedougou PCVs Sheila and David both came to visit me, David bringing a guest who, conveniently, has the same name. We'll call him "David too". They showed up, we hung out and ate baobab fruit, watched the light change across the vista from the nearby overlook, and ate dinner. We talked some about my well project (did I mention I've scheduled two wells to be dug in April? Yes, I am actually getting stuff done! And I'm doing wells instead of gardening because the lack of available water is preventing, flat-out preventing, getting any kind of garden or compost going. Yes, really.), and they talked me into going on their excursion.

Where were they headed? To "The Spires" Why did I decide to go? Because in spite of having been out of there for two-and-a-half weeks not in village, the guilt tripping was really getting to me on the day they showed up. Anyway, long story shorter, I was talked into the 19km (one-way) adventure. Next morning early, we set out with plenty of food, four spoons, four bikes, and about 15 liters of water.

The Bike Ride
The ride across the plateau is beautiful. Winding, twisting mountain bike paths are what pass for roads, and we flew through baobabs, mahogany, and various tree-names most of you won't recognize (kinkilliba, flambouyant, etc) until we got to my market town. There, we ate some bean sandwiches, drank some cold, sweet, blood-orange-red hibiscus tea, and hopped back on the bikes. A couple hours later, we arrived at the base of the Spires, which are big rock teeth that jut up from the hill they stand on, about 50m higher than the surrounding plateau, which is 100m or more higher than most of Senegal. They're somewhere between granite and sandstone and so these very brittle and the butte-like formations are full of cracks and fissures--in other words, perfect amateur bouldering material. We filled our water bottles at the forage (water pump) of the village at the hill's base, locked the bikes, carefully stowed the key in Sheila's backpack, and hiked, climbed, and scrambled our way to the top of one, where we decided to make camp.

The Spires
Getting there was a bit scary for me, because it involved trusting that the friction between the rubber of my shoe and the sandy rock would hold me on the face, rather than spit me 7m down into the bamboo stands. Twice I climbed oh-so-slowly and at the very limits of my comfort zone, but David was really encouraging, so we all made it without mishap. Several sardine sandwiches later, the Davids went on a climbing adventure while Sheila and I sat and admired the view while talking about life in Senegal (she's a year in, so has a lot of good insight and advice of which I try to take advantage). Soon, there were about 6 honeybees bouncing off our heads. We hid under our sheets and laughed because it was sort of funny, six tiny insects making giant mammals cower in fear. The sun went down, the Davids came back, and we cooked, made a campfire, sang songs, ate some (coveted and rare and worth more than twice their weight in platinum) peanut M&Ms and went to our windswept beds.

The morning
The wind blew all night, and I woke several times to admire the view of the crescent moon over the rocks, the night sky and its beauty without light pollution of any kind, and even the distant forest fires, looking like so many false dawns on the horizon. We all woke up before dawn and lay there, anticipating breakfast (bread, peanut butter, and--rare treat--jam) and saying good morning. We heard a few bees, and thought "Damn, they're probably after the water we left in the pan to keep it from congealing overnight". Then we heard a few more while we were packing up our stuff and putting on shoes. One of the Davids swatted one dead from his face, where it had stung him.

"I hope that doesn't bring more of them," I said. More began to arrive. "Is there anything we can do?" Sheila asked. "Maybe a fire. Maybe smoke, but I don't know if that would just enrage them more," I said. And then hundreds of bees began to arrive, their buzz more of an angry scream. They went for our eyes, our faces, our hair. I was the first to break and leave my gear where it lay, and while I was swatting them away from my eyes, I slapped my glasses off. All I could hear was the buzz, because they were stuck in my hair (I'm so glad I didn't have dreadlocks anymore), and beyond that, the shouts of the others. I went down the way we'd come up, instead of down the other side, which the Davids had found was much more traversable.

The Aftermath
I don't remember much. I know that I went down the mountain much faster than I'd come up, and I know that at some point I must've performed rock-climbing acrobatics that would make my rock climbing friends very proud. How do I know this? Well, I remember jamming my hands into a crack in the rock and swinging my entire body across a gap. But mostly, I remember running, falling, scrambling, sliding in a totally hindbrain-driven mad dash down the mountain, terrified. I know I was sobbing, "Stop! Stop! Go away! Stop! Stop!" As if the bees could understand. It's odd how having your face and eyes under attack can do more to turn up the panic than almost anything else. Luckily for me, either through instinct or training, I was able to keep all but a couple of the around-60 stings I got from anywhere near my eyes.

I made it down, went around the side of the mountain, met up with David too. The other David was coaching Sheila down the mountain, because in our panic, she had initially tried to hide from the bees rather than escape them. I was ashamed that I was the first one to break, but after thinking about it, I'm glad my survival instincts are good enough that I can be a coward and not care until I'm out of danger. And even then, I didn't care that much.

Sheila's face was covered in stingers, and she was not far from shock. David had little or no took my cell phone and hers (the only two what'd made it down the mountain) to call Peace Corps for help, and David too and I went to the water pump with Sheila, where we got a drink and began to remove stingers. Sheila freaked out again when a few bees showed up at the forage, ran off to the village. David too followed her.

I ran after them, and managed to communicate to the villagers (who do not speak Pulaar very much at all) that they were sick, they needed water, and a shady, sheltered spot to lie down. The villagers immediately took them into two huts and pushed them onto beds. The aftermath was that David got in touch with Peace Corps, who sent two doctors with hydrocortisone shots on motorbikes, and a car up from Kedougou. Sheila and David too rode back on the backs of motos, and David and I did a DIY medevac on our bikes, with two Senegalese kids riding the others' bikes. Which, superman that he is, Volunteer David had freed not with a key, but by dint of smashing the heck out of the padlock holding the bikes together. Good to know they were so secure. We met the car and the others, came back into Kedougou and started drinking water, taking the antihistamines the other volunteers had bought for us at the pharmacy, and in my case, having a nervous breakdown after-the-fact.

The next day
I am sore to the point of being barely able to walk and can't move my arms well. My face, arms, and neck are all puffy but not drastically swollen, and David went up and got our stuff, so I once again have glasses and a sleeping bag. I'm not sure when I'm going back to site, but I think I should be able to walk without my legs buckling from muscle spasms before I try to go up the mountain. So even though I feel like a slacker, hanging out around the regional house and cooking for the mosquito net distribution crew, there's not a lot more I can handle. Oh, and someone has my cell phone battery, so if you're trying to call me, that's not gonna fly just yet.

Sorry this is really rough. I'm sure the others have more detailed, better-written accounts. I keep meaning to polish this (and will keep meaning to), but am not sure when I'll have the motivation, because honestly I've told the story so much recently that I'd just as lief not deal with it for a few days.