Monday, April 26, 2010

For your viewing pleasure...

Just for fun, a couple of videos:

Sometimes, you gotta dance! These boys are gettin' down at Dana's going away party in Ngaraf:

The trainees from each region had to make a presentation on the ecology of their region. The four of us from Louga/Linguere had the best one, and I thought I'd share it. (Take it with a grain of salt... though we are maintaining that we live in the most hard-core region, the true "wild wild West" of Senegal.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I'll start with this: 30 years ago, before the filling of the Maka-Diama Dam on the Senegal-Mauritania border, a tributary of the Senegal river greened the area surrounding Linguere. In the years since, the area has undergone a serious desertification process, but the population that settled there in the days of vegetation and flowing water has stayed put as the land dried up and the trees diminished. They farm and garden and go about their lives, but are forced to devote much of their day to seeking and transporting water for themselves and their crops. And now: I will live amongst them.

Personally, my water situation in my future home, Ngaraf, is nothing to complain about. One of the communal village "robinets" - faucets - is located right outside my family's compound. In my work as an environmental education volunteer, however, I foresee much of my time revolving around the perpetual struggle to keep this life-force close at hand, for my neighbors and my plants and who knows what else.

I returned last week from a 5-day visit to Ngaraf, my real, permanent village -- though we won't permanently install ourselves until the middle of May, the Demystification Week gave all of us trainees the opportunity to see the places where we will live. I spent the week with Dana, the volunteer I will be replacing and an intimidatingly-wise and competent young women. Absurdly, my very first nights in the village were Dana's last, and during my stay, we shared - both literally and figuratively - the space that she has occupied for the last two years and I will occupy for the next two. It was a truly intense time for both of us, sitting at opposite ends of the Peace Corps Circle of Life.

As the reality of my foreseeable future set in (and I mean that far less omoinously than it sounds), I picked Dana's brain about the details of her work and life in the village. She's done a great deal to help create and oversee a community garden operated by the women, and this is a project that I'm both thrilled and terrified to take on. (On that note, by the way, if anyone knows of any awesome gardening resources - especially those that pertain to warm weather - please alert me to their existence and/or send them my way!) I guess if I can make trees and vegetables grow successfully in that climate, I will feel like I can do anything! Until that happens, though, I must admit that I'm quite nervous about my prospects.

So, some of the exciting things about my site:
  • Camels: Driving in, we saw a few of these beasts speckling the horizon. During my stay, I came across a few others on my morning runs, and on the way out, our SUV was halted in the road by whole pack of 'em -- domesticated ones! (domesticated, as in they belong to a group of nomadic Pulaar people).
  • The people of Ngaraf: During my stay, it seemed that all 300 people of the village felt genuine grief about Dana's departure. Even so, I felt them welcoming me in all different ways -- trying to get to know me, laughing with me, teaching me, putting up with my bad Wolof. They are truly good people, and I can't believe my luck at getting to live with them for the next two years. Also, I must say that, while it may have been difficult to witness their distress at the loss of my predecessor, the affection and connection they felt with her is a testament to their kindness and ability to welcome an outsider. Such a beautiful thing!
  • My counterpart: every PC volunteer is hooked up with at least one village counterpart -- a competent and well-connected village resident to help you integrate, learn your way around, implement projects, etc. One of mine, Marem, is exceptional -- one of those people that I could immediately recognize as being intuitive, wise, caring, and strong.
  • My douche (my bathroom!): It's mine and only mine, and it's attached to my room, so I can walk there in my underpants when it's a bazillion degrees out! And it's open air, allowing bad odors to escape and letting the stars shine in on my evening buckets baths. The best cement pit latrine in Senegal, hands down.
  • The Missionaries: Linguere region volunteers reap extensive benefits from an ever-friendly and generous Lutheran missionary family living in Linguere proper (2o km from my village). When they got wind that all the region's new PCVs would be in the area for demystification, they invited us over and treated us to wonders untold: microwave popcorn, chips and homemade salsa (I KID YOU NOT), delicious gin and tonics in frosted classes (again, I kid you not). We hear tell of homemade ice cream (a BIG DEAL when there is no other ice cream within at least 100 km of Linguere), feasts on major holidays, cold drinks in the hot season, hot showers in the cold season, and all other varieties of semi-debaucherous delights.
It's been a week since I left Ngaraf, during which I returned to my training village to, well, train. I swear in as a Volunteer on May 14th, and shortly after that I will be installed in Ngaraf for good.

All the pictures below are from Ngaraf and the Linguere region (my permanent site). Coming soon: some more recent pictures from this last week of training.

The women made hordes of delicious deep-fried beignets for Dana's going away party, which doubled as my "baptism."

In love with babies wherever I go.

Children of Ngaraf.

Dressed up for the going away party/baptism.

Many packs of Nomadic Pulaars, all cattle-herders, populate the area around Ngaraf.

Nomadic Pulaars come into Ngaraf every day to fill giant truck tires inner tubes with water from the Robinet.

I can bare the desert as long as there are baobabs. And there are, alhumdalilaay!

Me with the amazing Linguere missionary family: Sarah, Eva, Ellen, and Dirk.
(Camp Warren folks: Sarah's from Eveleth!!)

Camels. 'Nuff said.

Attempt at a picture of me and the camels through the picture of the Peace Corps car.

With Kourtney and Eric, reunited after Demystification.

The "Drive-thru Wal-Mart" -- These guys huddle around the Peace Corps bus all along the (slow-moving) highway on our way to and from Dakar (approximately 2 hours from the PC training center in Thies -- we went there to take care of some administrative business and eat at delicious restaurants.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Photos from Site Announcements

Scared, excited, and blindfolded, we were taken by the hand and led to our futures... on a giant painted map of Senegal.

(Photos by Kolda volunteer Amanda Wybolt.)

Andrew, Mikael, and Eric win the blind fold contest.

It's a funny thing to smile at a camera with a blindfold on...

Mamadou, head of PC Senegal's EE and Health programs, taking me on my way.

My feet, before my eyes and mind knew what was happening.

My personal photographer, Amanda. (thanks!!)

Some Kolda region volunteers, patiently (?) waiting...

"Who are you? Who am I touching? "

Fanning myself with my site envelope, I believe.

The moment of truth. Justin is my closest neighbor, and he's looking slightly displeased... I'm hoping it's not related to me.

Me, Justin, Ann Marie, Kim: The Linguere Crew (In this case, "L" is not for loser. I hope.)

Podor zone volunteers: Jonno, Evan, Maddie, and Paul - my neighbors to the North!

Steve and Sarah are excited to be placed on the coast! (Little to they know how frequently I will be visiting them...)

Me and Mikael B. (UPS '08)

With Country Director Chris Hedrick

Tomorrow, we're all heading out to visit a volunteer in or near our site! Since I'm replacing another volunteer, I will be visiting my actual site - yes!! PC Senegal's official nomenclature for this process is "demyst-ing" - or "demystifying" - which is tells you something about the purport of what we are doing tomorrow.

The reality has slowly set in that I will truly be moving to the desert for the next two years. I believe that there's a lot to love about the desert: dunes and camels and baobabs, all totally beautiful in their own way. Other elements of my future home are harder to love, like the rumor of 130 degree heat in the hot season and the news that I have to dress even more conservatively than I had anticipated. Maybe I'll come to love those parts, too, though. Either way, I'm not getting my panties (or my ankle-length skirts, for that matter) in a bunch until after I "de-myst." What an exciting time!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Home Sweet Home

I found out yesterday that, for the next two years, I will be living in the village of Ngaraf, in the region of Louga, in North-Central Senegal. On this map, you'll see the two cities of Dara and Linguere in the periwinkle-shaded region called Louga. Ngaraf is located right on the main road between these two, 20 km from each of them. (If you're feeling tech-savvy, you can check it out on google maps - Ngaraf itself is actually labeled and you can see all the little compounds.)

I still don't know a ton about my site. The village has about 300 residents, mostly Wolof-speaking, and all Muslim. I'll be replacing an environmental education volunteer who has been working on a number of gardening projects and, like me, likes to run and bike. My house is rumored to be fairly posh by rural standards -- a cement structure, not a hut, which makes me feel like the third little piggy who builds a brick house and makes fun of the first and second little piggies because they built their houses out of straw and sticks, respectively.

There are three other kids from my training group also being placed in the area surrounding Linguere. Ann Marie, Justin, and Kim are all great -- they have positive energy, good senses of humor, and thick skin, alhumdahlilaay!!

A cute little story: There's a big map of Senegal painted on a cement area here at the training center. The Peace Corps folks unveiled our site placements to the trainees by blindfolding all of us and then leading us to our spots on the map. We stood there, calling out names and grasping blindly to figure out who our nearest neighbors were until they told us to remove our blindfolds and indulge in the "moment of truth." It was very fun, though nerve-wracking and quite intense! One of the spectators took some great photos of this process, which I'll post when I get a chance.

Next week, we travel to our install sites for a five-day visit. We'll stay with the volunteer we'll be replacing (if there is one), meet our new home stay families, and basically see where and how we'll be living for the next two years! The shroud of uncertainty under which I've existed for the last three years is finally being fully removed. I'm extraordinarily excited to see my home and meet my neighbors, and I'm doing my best to reserve judgment and expectations until then.

All the best to you!


Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Missed You More

When I returned to my village home stay family last week after several days at the Thies training center, my host mother greeted me with "Nammoon nala" -- i.e., "I missed you." Better yet, I knew to respond with "Malaa Raw" -- meaning, "I missed you more." This delightful little exchange is fairly common, and it's a nice indication of a certain tenderness that is present in the culture and language that I am becoming immersed in.

Another encouraging auspice is the frequency with which the word for peace, "jamm," appears in Wolof phrases:
* Goodnight. Sleep in peace!
* How is your family? In Peace only.
*The morning is peaceful.

And if that isn't good enough for you, how about these little gems from the Wolof language: the word for yes is "Waaw," pronounced like the English exclamation, "Wow!" -- Meaning that every time I answer a question in the affirmative, I get to sound like I'm giving a really enthusiastic endorsement. It's great. Oh! And their version of "Thank Goodness" is ALHUMDILILAAY (All-HOOM-dah-lee-laay). People here seem to say it every other sentence, and I've picked up the habit. Try it some time, with gusto; it's really fun! Finally, my favorite idiomatic phrase, uttered in response to a variety of questions, is "Mungiy Doh" -- "It walks." Wolof is great.

And I'm sure you're wondering . . . How IS the Wolof coming along, anyway, Numbe? Well, it's coming. It walks. :-)

The language learning curve has been steep due to the confluence of several fortuitous factors, including my stellar language trainer, my personal desperation to understand what the heck people are saying, and - most of all - my immersion in a Wolof-speaking environment. With each and every exhausting day in the village, I come leaps and bounds in my ability to speak and understand the language. I also feel that I'm making progress in other, less-tangible areas, like a higher tolerance for being the constant focus of attention and a broader understanding of the emotional patterns of my host family.

As practice for the kinds of things that we will do after we install, the Peace Corps trainers have been giving us a lot of technical work to complete. During our last village stay, we planted our garden and our tree nursery, and now have a whole adorable patch of black-eyed pea plants sprouting up; we built two mud stoves; we created a map of the village; we sat in on a primary school class; and we traveled to a local health post to observe a morning of infant vaccinations. The vaccination day was a bit intense -- in the midday heat, hundreds of women were lined up with their babies, with at least half of them nursing at any given moment. Upon reaching the front of the line, they would hold their squirmy little ones as a bleary-eyed nurse jams a large needle into each plump, smooth little thigh. Maybe it has something to do with the administering of shots - I'm really not sure - but many of these women seemed weary, or even sullen.

On another note: I've been struck of late by the true, honest affection that I've come to feel for my host family in the village. It's an intriguing and beautiful testament to our ability, as sentient beings, to love and understand across cultural rifts. This was one of my primary motivations for seeking Peace Corps service in West Africa, so I'm overjoyed at how much I've come to like this family. I love my mother, Manay Njay, who calls me her "Diskette" and proudly, with a beaming smile, hands me a frozen bissap juice treat after lunch every day; I love the young kids, like Binta and Manay Thiaw, who are interested in everything I do and offer me shy smiles when I come home from school; I love my preteen sister, Nday Njay, wise and strong beyond her years, who helps me do EVERYTHING and doesn't even laugh at me; I love my teenage sister, Nogay, who sits with me at dinner and never fails to remind me that I must strive for my "Jay Fonday" butt; I love my "Tante" Hady Keri (actually the second wife of my father's brother), who seems to have a sixth sense about when I need help with something and will send one of her beautiful children running across the courtyard when she sees that I'm in need; I even love my brother, Mamour, who is my age and likes to ask me to marry him. Oh! And the babies... I love the babies. The best part is that none of the mommies have any problems ceding their darling baby to my care for however long I want! :D

I think these people really are good people, and sometimes they make me so happy. Yet this is just my family for the duration of training. Imagine how attached I will get after I am installed in my final village and live with the same family for two years!

For all my gushing, I still find myself feeling a significant amount of frustration on a regular basis. The nature of my life produces weak spots in my optimism, and every now and then it becomes just a bit too much. In bad moments, I scowl at an agressive kid, or stomp past a group of old women without greeting them, or retreat to my room until I feel I can once again face the heat and the swarms of people. Suffice it to say that I am constantly working on making these moments fewer and farther between.

The hardest part, for me, might be the cession of all control over the food that I eat. It is certainly a bizarre thing, at the age of 25, to all of sudden find yourself void of agency over what you will eat next -- not only not to have a choice, but not to know when your next meal will come, or what it will be. I'm getting better about it every day, and slowly coming to a place where I can relinquish control without forfeiting my sanity.

That all said, it's nice to be back at the center for a few days -- choosing my food, catching up with friends, taking alone time, and checking in with all of you folks!

The big buzz around the center these days revolves around our Site Placements, which we will know on Wednesday! The rumor mill is churning with talk of the relative merits of various potential sites, such as a Pulaar-language village where you get to swim with manatees, or the Serere-speaking site that sits among abundant mangroves, or the Fulakunda village populated by dwarfs! For my part, I'm confidant that wherever I end up, I will make the best of it and come to love it as one loves the place they call home.

Congratulations on reaching the end of this ramble-fest of a blog post. I've added several pictures below, but for those of you feeling exceptionally photo-gluttonous, you can click on the Picasa photo album to the right, where I've posted many, many more.

With my host mother and another family member; the posed me with the enormous metal bowls and the over-sized serving spoon, which got cut out of the photo.

A typical lunch spread

In the background, the older men's lunch bowl; In the foreground, the young men's lunch bowl

The other Numbe Thiaw - Called "Little Numbe" by our family so we know who's being addressed. (Yes, that makes me "Big Numbe.")

This is Fatima, one of my favorite babies --
she lives in my compound so we get to hang out a bunch.

"Tante" Hady Keri, with three from her beautiful brood.

Pounding goat food -- notice that they gave me the small stick and my seven-year-old sister the big stick, which is just about an accurate representation of our relative abilities.

Little kids in the wheelbarrow -- always a hit.

Pounding and sifting clay for our mud stoves. I love these kids -- they're all so happy here, even though they are in the midst of getting covered in sand and clay because they are so diligently helping us.

These kids followed us around as we gathered clay and manure for our mud stoves. They insisted on carrying all our stuff, like Jessica's big black bag, which is hanging from the shoulder of the little one on the left.

The Ker Sadaro crew with our mud stove. That's our language trainer, Ayssatou, on the left.

One very exciting day, another group of Wolof speakers visited us in Ker Sadaro.

Kids eager to answer a question in the 5th grade class we visited.

Lunch time!

Chebujenn - fish and rice - which we eat for lunch about 4 out of every 5 days.


Jessica, me, Steve - the Ker Sadaro Crew - finished with our mural!

The Thiaw Clan Cows.
(to get the most out of this phrase, you must know that "Thiaw" is pronouced "Chow;" Thiaw is the French spelling.)

Steve and Jessica with their respective favorite kids.

Binta, another favorite baby.
This one lives at our language trainer's house, where we have class.

Some of my siblings: Manay, Nday Njay, Binta, Little Numbe, and Pap

Binta and Mohammed

My brother Mamour, on the right, with another family member whose name I can never remember.

I was excited that they finally let me help cook!

Some of my teenage siblings, studying in the courtyard.

My host mother!

Mothers and infants waiting for vaccinations.

This baby is only ONE DAY OLD! They let me hold him; it was beautiful.

Ker Sadaro boys, dressed in their best for Friday prayer (the most important prayer of the week), in line for candy.

Another favorite baby.

Our black-eyed pea patch!

On the way back to the training center after 12 days in our villages.

Sarah, Andrew, Albert, and Kourtney cooking dinner at the training center.

Jay Fonday contest.