Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And some pictures, too!

The Environmental Education trainees after building a killer Moringa Leaf bed

Laundry day at the Training Center

My village home stay family looking at my pictures from home

This sweet little thing is one of the many other Ndumbe Caws in the village

Yes, sifting manure with my bare hands

At our teacher's homestay house for our eight tea session of the day

Baby goat!

Me, Steve and Jessica - Team Ker Sadaro -
Super excited about our freshly dug garden beds

Ker Sadaro

Ker Sadaro

Women leaving the peanut grinding factory in Ker Sadaro

With Sarah, Steve, Jessica, Jamie, Mikael
after our first week in the villages

Also, notice that there are more pictures posted in the Picasa web album. Click on the slideshow to the right. -->>

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hello, My name is...

. . . Ndumbe Thiaw!

I've returned from my first week with my village home stay with my own personal Wolof name and lots of new skills to help me survive in rural Senegal. Last week, I gathered with my 40 fellow PC trainees for the exciting moment of our language assignments - we will all be learning one of the six native languages, and the assignments are exciting because they tell us a certain amount about where in the country we will eventually be placed after training. I was pleased to find out that I would be learning Wolof, which is one of the most widely spoken languages in the country. My training home stay family lives in the small village of Ker Sadaro, and the two other trainees living in the same village, Steve and Jessica, are both fantastic -- they, and our lovely language and culture teacher, Ayssatou, make this whole experience possible. Steve is also my village running buddy, and they're both my confidants.

My home stay family, not surprisingly, is delightful as well - hospitable and generous and patient beyond belief. And there are lots and lots of them, a couple of heads of households, each with at least two wives, and each wife has innumerable children, ages 2 months to infinity (that littlest one, a teeny baby girl, might provide me more happiness than anything else in my life; as I cradle her in my arms every day after lunch, I feel myself lifted out of even the worst of bad moods). I still don't know who everyone is or how they're related or even whether or not they're part of the extensive Thiaw clan, but I'm hoping that my next stint in the village will take care of this problem. The Thiaw family gave me my name - Ndumbe Thiaw (pronounced NOOM-bay Chow) within a minute of meeting me, naming me after my four-year-old sister and several other village residents.

Village life is all sorts of wild. It starts early, with me wishing my host of host mothers "Asalama Malekoum" on my way to the latrine. I have several hours of class in the morning with my PC Ker Sadaro mates, and then I return home for lunch, which is usually the national dish, Chebujenn - rice with fish, veggies (eggplant, bitter tomato, manioc, cabbage, carrot), and lots of oil. I eat around an enormous metal bowl in the sandy courtyard with about 8-10 other family members, and I've been trying to eat with my hand like a real Senegalese, taking little balls of food in my right fist and squishing it repeatedly before eating the now-firm patty off the tip of my fingers. (I still prefer eating with a spoon, and I'm bring one with me when I return). Dinner is eaten in my room with my host sister Nogay, age 19, who fills the silent space above our shared bowl by repeating to me, over and over, "Rere, rere!!" ("Eat, eat!"). She is adamant that only through abundant consumption will I achieve the "Jay Fonday," or the large round butt that contributes to your dancing abilities and aesthetics, so named for the mushy, delicious, calorie-filled breakfast food, Fonday.

In addition to language and culture training, we've been working on our village vegetable plots and tree nursery, which involves sifting and mixing sand and manure, digging digging digging, and learning lots of technical project-related Wolof terms.

At the end of every day, I fall to sleep exhausted in my mosquito-netted cocoon, -- physically exhausted from the heat and the digging, mentally exhausted from the constant effort of trying to learn and speak a language that still sounds like jibberish a lot of the time, and, most of all, emotionally exhausted from the frustration of being unable to adequately express my appreciation for all that I am receiving from the community around me. The highs are high and the lows are lows -- I feel very discouraged when I get harassed by a gaggle of snarky boys looking for money, or when I contemplate the weeks and months that stretch before me in a place that does not yet feel like home. But: when I actually carry out a fluid conversation with my host mom and receive a big grin of approval from her, that ... well, that's like winning the lottery.
Also, the simple fact of my presence is entertaining to the people of my village; it's somewhat fulfilling to bring that much mirth just for being a Toubab (white person) that speaks bumbly Wolof.

I'll return to the village today (Wednesday) for a two-week stay, so you won't find me hanging around blogspot. I do, however, have a cell phone and can be reached on it in my village (via text or call): 221 (country code) 77 118 0534. If you're calling from a cell phone, press the star button twice before dialing the number.

Thank you all so much for reading. In an egomaniacal way, when I'm sitting quietly with my homestay family, it makes me feel comforted and connected to think of all your curious and empathetic eyes sharing my experience with me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Learning to Live in Senegal

Training is going remarkably well! We're still in the early stages and basically locked in our compound, but we're learning all sorts of important things. In addition to the unbelievable number of Peace Corps acronyms, we learned about all the yummy Senegalese foods, several important unfamiliar objects, some basics on planting a garden, how to fetch water, how to pee in a small hole, how to eat rice with our hands, and the proper behavior when in the presence of someone doing their daily prayers. This morning, we even had our first "survival Wolof" lesson, and we've all been like broken records repeating the greeting over and over ever since. (Since there are several local languages in Senegal, many of us won't be using Wolof in the villages we eventually will be placed in; we will start training in our "permanent" languages tomorrow, but for now we need some Wolof - the most common language - to get around the city.) We have our lunches in the tradition style: we sit on mats in groups of 4 or 5 and eat out of a big metal bowl in the center of our circle -- it's quite fun, and phenomenally tasty as well! I'm relishing all the over-stimulation and onslaught of new ideas.

My fellow trainees are all truly good and interesting people, with unique and important qualities to bring to the group. I feel SO very lucky to be amongst them. As a group, they are also exceptionally hilarious, and I find myself laughing about 80% of the day. We've been playing volleyball and doing yoga and sharing card games and having sing- and dance-alongs... and also, of course, working hard and having lots of discussions about our futures here in the country.

Here are some photos, which fall into mini-album called "First and Lasts." (heh heh, my creativity is waning, I'm sorry.)

Remove Formatting from selectionLast stateside meal: Sushi and Saketinis

Last piano bar dance and limbo fest in the U.S.

Last view of American soil

First moments in Senegal

First Senegalese dance party

First time carrying water --
I'll try to master the no-hands technique in the next couple of years -- I'll think I'll have plenty of practice
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Big Little Victories

Of the 791 (or so) days that I will spend in Senegal, I've done one. This seems like a small feat, until I zoom out and pan over the bigger picture of my Peace Corps process, which started about two and half years ago with an application. Getting myself safely onto Senegalese soil required a lot more than I anticipated when I started the paperwork back in the summer of 2007; it meant lots of perplexing decisions, self-reflection, and -- as is the nature of any meaningful decision -- the forfeit of much that is dear to me. The last month has been particularly enlightening in this regard, as I've said one bittersweet goodbye after another to family and friends. Finally, I made it to staging in DC, where I met and befriended my fellow volunteers. And then - at long last - came the final airplane flight (direct from DC to Dakar) and the rigors and immigration and customs. Two hours after our 6 AM landing in Senegal, we reached the town and Thies and the Peace Corps training center, where we promptly collapsed for long naps that carried us straight into the middle of our first hot West African day. After French language interviews and medical reviews, we had a long, long drum circle/dance fest with local musicians, romping and stomping until we had sand up to our kneecaps and had gotten a chance to witness all of the trademark Senegalese moves the locals could come up with.

So as I sit here on this first evening, I realize that the bridges I've crossed thus far deserve their own reflection and self-satisfied nod, for being here really is a big part of the battle. Of course, there is so much to come, and thank goodness for that. The bridges and battles that await me will, needless to say, take on a character that is different from those in the past, but they will no doubt build on each other and contribute to who I am -- which is the exciting part. We can travel all over the world, up and down and back and forth a million time, and we still maintain our personal constitution; in fact, we realize and develop who we are with each tough decision, difficult goodbye, or weak moment. For this reason and so many more, I am thrilled to be here and excited for the days, weeks, and months to ahead.

We'll be here at the training center for another four days before moving in with nearby home-stay families. I hope to check in again soon! To all of you, THANK YOU for listening.

Some of the girls that taught us our dance moves today.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Time Has Come...

... The Walrus Said, To speak of many things - Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of Senegal and one girl's feelings.

Thanks, Mr. Lewis Carroll.

The time has come for me to start my tenure with the Peace Corps. On March 7th, I'll depart for Senegal, where I'll stay for the next two years, working in and enjoying a rural community yet to be determined. As a Preventative Health/Environmental Education volunteer, the projects, training, and education that I carry out will address both of these subjects, as well as the nexus between the two.

Or so I think. As I sit here in Los Angeles, I can't truly know what my life will be like once I move into my community in rural Senegal. What I do know is that I am ready to experience a truly new way of life, to get to know a diverse set of people, to share ideas on a range of matters, to play with some kids, and to broaden my perspective on the challenges, opportunities, and capabilities of all the people with whom we share our little planet.