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?

Christmas
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.