Monday, April 16, 2012

Confessions on an Addict

So. Tell me if you notice what all of these photos have in common:

Little sis gnawin' on some cabbage.

The most recent addition to the Ngaraff family. (wearing eyeliner eyebrows at two weeks old.)

If you guessed that the common theme was that the subjects of these photos are all under the age of two, you're right! I'm addicted to babies.  There you have it. Except, now I'm an addict in withdrawal because I left the village for good last Friday.  Deep sigh.

Below is my attempt at a picture of all the babies that have been born since I installed in the village two years ago! Look closely and you'll see that the age range is true to course (but there are some interlopers, clearly...)

Now look at this next series of pictures -- this here's the real problem: (keep in mind that all the following photos were taken with the span of a couple of weeks).

That's right, I have some compulsion about taking pictures of this baby, Kinay Gueye, and taking pictures of the two of us. I can't stop! What's wrong with me?  Isn't one of the signs of insanity to do things repeatedly for fear that you haven't done it yet? I think that's how I feel about having enough time with this baby girl, who I indefatigably refer to as "my baby." I do love her like my own.  When she does new things, like sit up by herself after a nap or make signs of crawling, I get more excited than anyone else, including Mom. God, I love that kid. She's going to be walking in a couple of months and then talking, and I'm going to miss it all.  She's going to grow up and not know Bigue, except through photos. Such is life, but it's tragic in its own way.

Being gone from site, for good, hasn't quite hit me yet.  I'm still not processing and haven't found the right words to put up here.  But we all sure did have a great last few weeks together...

With my counterpart (and holder of my heart and soul), Marieme, after our HIV/AIDS project evaluation in Linguere.
We're waving Ann Marie and Kim out of our special hug. 

The Linguere crew of two years -- one last trip to the Linguere Bar.

Ngaraff homeboys - Amadou Dieng, Ibra Dieng, Mor Dieng, Moussa Dieng - making post-lunch attaya.
Photo credit Bigue Dieng :-)

Thirsty thirsty cows outside my compound. 

The community storage shed I helped the village build before I left.

Typically afternoon hang out. Sellin' roasted peanuts.

Ran into this guy on a morning jog.

Check it out! I brought my camera along because I had found these wildly beautiful pink trees in the middle of the brown desert, in the bush behind my house!  Such extravagance out of nowhere!

These little Pulaar kids came sprinting out of their little huts every morning to shake my hand as I ran by.  Sweet smiles always.  Also, how do you know you need knew running shoes? These kids live in shacks literally made from acacia branches and old rice sacks, and they've pointed and laughed at MY shoes because they're so wretched.

To be fair, my shoes look like this... 

Oldest man in the village? Some say yes. Unconfirmed.
The people of Ngaraff threw me an off-the-hook going away party! We did what we do best - dance. Speeches were made, beignets were distributed, tears were shed. These people are so good! I felt unworthy a million times over.  Luckily it took place a few days before my actual departure so that I could recover.

One last big beignet operation.  

Taking in the party from above.

Mombusa Sar and I get things started....

Greeting the Pulaars.

Marieme.  Never have I known anyone so purely good.

The babies took over the dance floor, and it was beautiful.

Typical beignet riots.  

Speech and prayer.

Ann Marie and Abby came for the party!

Last days in Ngaraff....

Good job, ladies.

Monday, March 19, 2012

All Things are Great...

This may be one of my last blog posts from here in Senegal, golly! Next thing you know, we'll be BEYOND Senegal Skies.

All sorts of interesting things have been going on during these final months of my service.  I’ll make note of some of it here and just cross my fingers that I don’t bore my crowd too dreadfully. 

Team Linguere and cohorts therein have  been busy.  For a week in February, we ran around the Djoloff region, hitting each of our villages in a whirlwind nutrition education tour to teach people about Moringa – i.e. the Miracle Tree!! Guys, they loved us! 14 toubabs blow into a village, dance, do skits, scream and shout about all things Moringa related – they go nuts.  Who wouldn’t? Plus, it seems it was fairly effective.  I’ve done lots of Moringa education in my village before this, but since the PC tour, folks have been extra hyped – asking me to help them get a Moringa plot going, repeating the details on the nutritional information, shouting out the theme song we’d belted throughout the tour. 

Skit:What's wrong with Kim?? She needs Moringa energy!!

Utilizing the new Health Clinic compound and
shade structure at the NGARAFF Health Hut! :-)

Dance interlude, of course.

"Justin, what strong teeth you have! Have you been eating Moringa leaves??"

In other news – the HIV/AIDS project that Kim, Ann Marie and I have been working on since last fall is ongoing.  We’d been divided into three "zones," each with four villages that would do four discussions a piece.  If you do the math, that’s a lot of AIDS chit-chat – 48 educational talks, attended by 20 to 50 people each.  Whew! Anyway, that all happened back in December and January, and we were actually able to move on to our final stage and piece de resistance – the big “mobilization sociales” / HIV testing days events in each zone.  Three huge parties later – each complete with free AIDS testing, blaring music, skits, videos, educational discussions, beignets, juice, etc. – 221 people from all over the Linguere region have gotten tested and everyone has had a lot of fun.  I actually would not have expected this project to turn out as successfully as it did, but at this point I can say that it has been one of the most fulfilling and important things I’ve done with my time here.    

Awesome turnout at the Barkedji-zone AIDS Event.

Related to that – I must, yet again, brag about the lovely ladies of Ngaraff. In my Project Zone, the final fete was held not in my village but about 10 km down the road, in a place called Thylla.  I still invited the people of Ngaraff, of course, as they were part of the project, thinking they wouldn’t come.  How could I underestimate them??  After lunch on the day of the party, while the people of Thylla, the guest speakers, the doctors, and everyone else had collapsed into a post-lunch lull, a car comes barreling up to the tent, filled to the brim with Ngaraffians – clapping, chanting, rallying together through cheers for “Bigué”, drumming on bowls that I found out later they had borrowed from a village along the road because they’d forgotten them.  They brought the party, and it was beautiful.  I can’t describe it, but these people are simply SO special, SO wonderful.  I’m fortunate a million times over to have lived in their midst for 2 years.

What else? In February, Ann Marie and I took a really fun trip to Thies to visit the Seeds Basketball Academy, one of our partners in the court-building project we’ve been working on.  Our goal was to secure hoops and potentially other supplies for the court being built in Barkedji, but we also were interested in seeing their operation and knowing what high school basketball training looks like in Senegal.  The academy was an alternative universe.   Arriving there, it was immediately clear what a divide there is between those kids and say, your average youth in Ngaraff.  But it did our hearts good to see these young minds and bodies active and engaged.   The boys were super polite and kind, and they are all studying English, so “Head Coach” (that’s what they call him, yes, in English, even in the middle of a sentence spoken in Wolof or French) asked Ann Marie and I to pose some questions to them.  They were lined up before us, hands behind their back, and I said, slowly and clearly: “Who is your favorite singer?” One extra tall guy raised his hand and, when I called on him, said in perfect English: “My favorite singer is Michael Jackson.”  I loved it! I don’t know why. 

Cream-of-the-crop Senegalese ballers scrimmage beneath posters of Kobe Bryant and other Nike icons.
(the Academy is largely financed by Nike.) 

All the Academy students, plus coaches.

Then the boy behind yelled out, in English, "Now, boys, fuuuhh-ney picture!"

Back in Ngaraff, we’ve been building – making improvements to the women’s community garden, including putting in a water basin (see below – it needed to be done) and a storage shed!

I’ve also started up with a new group of girls for a Girls Group.  They’re equally adorable and intriguing as my last group . . . I feel that, of all my interactions here in Senegal, the insight I’ve gained from trying to do basic art projects and creative thinking activities with these groups of adolescent girls has taught me more than anything.  They’re smart, they’re eager, and they’re SO sweet. But once again, I’m time and time again baffled by their confusion related to simple tasks, questions posed, stuff like that. It’s clearly a cultural divide, and that’s why it’s so instructive and fascinating to me.

Finally, there have been some exciting marriages to attend.  My Peace Corps friend Jessica – who I trained with way back when I first got to country – put on an all out Senegalese wedding for herself and her boyfriend, who visited from America.  The PCV contingency in attendance played along, of course, and we ended up with a really fun melding of Senegalese-American fun.

Anna, Mika, Ann Marie and I with our wedding gifts: two chickens, a duck, and a dozen eggs.

Senegalese photo: be serious.

Wedding day!

Check out Jessica's Senegalese overdone make up! And the bridesmaids, super serious once again.

Also newly betrothed is my host sister Ndeye Awa, who has cared for me and been my patient companion since I installed.  Like all Senegalese weddings, it was huge multi-day affair, starting in Ngaraff – her natal village–  and ending in her husband’s village, which, according to custom, would be her new home.  Interestingly, the husband lives in New York City, of all places, and didn’t make it to the wedding.  No matter – it was a gala for the ages nonetheless.   Now, if you think you’ve ever seen people dressed up, I’ll say this: you ain’t seen nothing yet. These girls, from the bride on down, were draped in velvet and satin and sequins from head to toe. They were decked out in enough bangles to sink Hawaii and had neon eye shadow painted on in a myriad of colors to match their rainbow ensembles. Whew! It was a beautiful affair.   I was WAY underdressed, in a basic cotton two-piece complet.  Unfortunately, my camera's been broken, so I have no photos of my own and therefore none from this event. :-(

Well, friends and family, just a couple weeks to go.  I don’t know how it can be, but it is.  My post-COS plans are shaping up at last, and I’m getting excited.  The legendary Joe Cline and lovely Adrianne Marsh will make their Africa debut, and together we’ll explore Mali.  From there, it’s unsure, but I’m thinking of a Cape Verde escapade.

And then: home! HOME! Of anything in the world that I can imagine right now, nothing sounds better. The main draw is the thought of family within reach, if not in my presence, then a FREE phone call away! Then there are all the other appealing perks that America has to offer – fresh food; comfortable beds; intellectual pursuits; the ability to blend in, not be a foreigner, and walk freely down the street without being heckled or harassed. 

Of course, it goes without saying that there are many, many things that I will miss once my time here comes to an end.  First and foremost are the people in my village – my family, and my counterpart and her family.  I love so many of them, with real love, and the others I feel genuine affection and respect for. Better yet, I feel that that is returned to me, more and more as my time here comes to a close. This mutual love and respect is way the greatest accomplishment that I feel, though it hardly feels right to use the word “accomplishment” in this context.  It’s a simple fact of life that this amount of time will bring people together, and it’s equally a fact of life that things must come to an end.  Anyway, my dad recently quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to me: “All things are great if greatly pursued.”  It struck a chord with me, and I realized that, while I don’t feel like I neglected more “official” aspects of my positition here, the greatness of my pursuits here is best reflected in this love.  (Pardon the cheesiness, if you will…).  

And since this is my blog, I guess I can use it as a forum to express how happy I am right now.  I’m perched on this narrow precipice as my Peace Corps service wanes, as I leave behind the doubt and dread and questions of worth that have stifled true happiness for most of my service, and focus on the positive.  I’ve always liked living in my village, and now that I can just DO that, and not feel less-than or anxious due to uncertainty about my effectiveness or value, I love it all that much more.  As I’ve noted, Ngaraff has become on big love fest of late, and a vocal one at that. Plus,  I’m merely excited for all that Home has to offer – salad bars and constant contact to my mom – and am not yet nervous about the hecticness that it will present.  So on this little strip of bliss, I find myself more content and at peace than I’ve been in a long time.  Perhaps, however, it will carry on – I believe that circumstances should not dictate ours states of mind and would  therefore like to think that the buoyancy, confidence, and cheer I feel at this juncture can and will extend into the future.