Monday, June 14, 2010

Kid or Kid?

Early on in this whole shebang, I told myself that when the day arrived in which I could easily tell the difference between the sound of a human child crying and a baby goat bahhing, I would feel successfully integrated into Senegalese society. That day has yet to arrive. I'm getting better at this, but when I hear a high-pitched wail outside my window, my guess as to the species of the cryer is often wrong. So, happily, I have some work to do! Always good to make progress but feel you can still improve.

I would say that that is about where I am with most of my other goals related to adapting, integrating, conversing, etc. -- I'm progressing but by no means fully accomplished. A favorite Wolof proverb says: "Ndanka, ndanka, mooy jappo golo ci nay" -- "Slowly, that is how you catch a monkey in the forest." Patience . . . thus is the lesson of the past month of my life. (In the best way possible.)

My recent phone conversations with friends and family back home have reminded me that certain aspects of my life, while quotidian and unglorious to me, may still be somewhat mysterious and - bless your souls - interesting to you. Below is a cadre of somewhat mundane vignettes. For those of you not interested, just skip to the pictures, specifically the last one, which exposes the truth about the insanity of myself and the rest of the Linguere PC family.

Food -- The situation is not dire, but it's not great. For lunch, we crouch around a large metal bowl, generally filled with greasy rice. My family is posh enough to have vegetables in the bowl, but, out of necessity, all the veggies have been boiled to the point of being able to be squished between a thumb and a forefinger. My host mom does that part for me and then tosses the chunks into my corner of the bowl, her assumption being that can't get my own greasy mushy morsels with my spoon. Dinner is millet couscous or more greasy rice, and the dinner bowl can be a dangerous rodeo -- it's dark out, and sometimes when I blindly jam my spoon into the bowl, it comes back out and enters my mouth with something questionable on it, such as a chunk of rubbery/gelatinous meat of unknown variety.

My favorite activity these days is to help cook, both with my family and at other compounds around the village. It gives me the pretense of purpose (which, sometimes, feels in short supply as I wonder my village), and the women love to teach me! Everyone gets a hoot out of having Bigue in the kitchen, and they all want to hear every specific task in which I took part. The woman of the kitchen will announce, proudly: "She put the fish in the pan! She chopped onions! She took the fish out of the pan! She pounded tamarind!" It is in moments like these that the people of my village make me so, so happy.

To me, unexciting, or even yucky, food is not really a significant source of strife -- by no means is it the most difficult or problematic element of my service. That said, a girl can dream. And I have a lot of food fantasies. I dream of ginger-garlic snow pea stir fries and clam chowder and enormous troughs filled with baby greens, arugula, cherry tomatoes, avocados, and other raw salad delights. Mmmmm.

Sometimes, though, even reality serves up the things dreams are made of. So, picture this: several PCVs (Ann Marie, Kim, Justin, and myself, as well as the veteran Linguere-region volunteers), all seated around a large table, hunched over plates heaped with spaghetti and salad, our elbows dug into the table top and our forks clutched in our fists as we shamelessly shovel noodles into our mouths, pausing only to tear into unreasonably large chunks of garlic bread. This was the scene last night when we were invited to our missionary friends' house for dinner. Apparently, three weeks straight in our respective villages left us not only with a mad hunger for marinara sauce and lettuce, but also with a noticeable deficiency in table manners. (potentially due to the lack of tables in this country?) Luckily, Dirk and Sarah are used to hosting PCVs, and they accepted us for the overexcited, under-mannered eaters we've become.

Transportation -- This weekend, to get to the closest bank and withdraw cash, Ann Marie, Justin, and I (my nearest neighbors from my training group) traveled to Louga, a larger city about 120 km from Linguere . . . a three hour trip on, perhaps, the worst road in Senegal. The trip there, we traveled in a sept-place, which turned into a harrowing adventure in which the driver swerved from one shoulder (i.e., dirt trail along the side of the road) to the other, often narrowly missing concrete markers. On the return trip the following day (after an afternoon and night of exploring Louga and hanging out with PCVs there), we traveled in a larger type of van/bus that volunteers call an Alhum. This time, we went much slower but ended up having a much more pleasant ride - the reduced speed made it less terrifying.

Why is an Alhum called an Alhum? Because they all have the word Alhumdahlilaay written across the front. This means "Allah is good" or "Thank God;" in other words, the buses are thankful for the constant miracle of them reaching their destination. Hmmmm. This tells us something, I think.

Within town, my preferred mode of transportation is the horse-drawn cart, or charette. Open-air and lots of fun!

Sleep - Since I installed at the peak of Senegal's hot season, it's been way too hot to sleep inside. Instead, I usually set up my little canvas camping cot in the courtyard with the family. There's an obvious lack of privacy, as I generally have mats of kids to either side of me and sheep nuzzling me as I sleep, but I can see the stars! Recently, the winds have been picking up at night and kicking sand into my face, so, believe it or not, I've taken to sleeping in my douche and found it to be an absolutely lovely option -- cooler than my room, but protected from the wind, totally private, and still offering a view of the stars! Soon, the rains will come and drive us all inside, which, for me, will afford a welcome opportunity to close my door for the first time ever and enjoy and some legitimate privacy.

Health - Mine has been great! No travelers' diarrhea for this girl, alhumdahlilaay. (Though, as I write this, I'm experience some serious stomach pains. Let's hope hubris hasn't gotten the best of me.)

Mental Health - Also intact. During my first conversation with my (real) mother after I installed, she confessed that she had been genuinely worried that I had had some kind of nervous breakdown. Thankfully (and remarkably), I have not.

Negatively impacting my mental health, while simultaneously fortifying it and chipping away at my ego, however, is the amount that I am forced to hear about the former volunteer, whom I replaced. Dana's village name, Awa, continues to fill the conversations of my neighbors, and the details that I know about her service are immense -- facts such as what she ate, what she carried on her head, what she farmed (and how expertly she did it), what sorts of ailments she had, etc. In truth, their obsession makes perfect sense, and the fact that Dana had such a positive and meaningful relationship with the people of Ngaraff is only a good and beautiful thing, as well as entirely justified. She did great work, and I have done nothing so far to earn this kind of respect, so I am happy just knowing that the potential for such a relationship exists. They are already embracing me in so many ways, and I them.

Also, they did tell me that I am learning Wolof faster than Awa and that I have prettier hair. Hey, I'll take what I can get.

Babies-- What can I say? They're the best part of this whole thing. The other day, I had one strapped to my pack and another I was cradling in my arms, and I was happy as a clam.

Etc. -- I'm out of the village now for about a week, taking care of various logistical things (the Louga bank adventure being one), and helping out with some regional projects, like a basketball tournament for middle schoolers that was organized by the older volunteers. Tomorrow I travel to Ann Marie's village for a 3-day intensive Wolof seminar, and I return to my village on Friday. The next couple of weeks in the village will be quite busy. I have plans to bike to Justin's village (60 km in the dirt!), paint a mural, assist with some vaccination days being conducted by the local health post, help out with a mosquito net distribution a PCV is doing in a neighboring village, keep truckin' on my garden, and finish up surveying my community, all before I travel for 4th of July festivities.

Well, you've reached the end of another long blog entry. Have I told you lately that I love you? I really do appreciate the support that I get from everyone reading this. All my best to you, and thank you!

A little brother and his friend - they come into my room and pretend to help sweep, but what they really want is for me to take a picture of them, or just to hang out and see what kinds of funny things the white girl is doing.

A favorite baby, Aida, getting bath. (There are few things cuter than a bathing baby.)

Aida with her mother, also named Aida, who is the village's midwife.

A morning running route.

Just some kids, doing what they do -- being cute.

Look at the face!!

How I rolled into Linguere last week.

Justin in the sept-place on the way to Louga. That thing dangling outside the window? That's the poor live chicken that was strapped to the roof (and we thought we had it bad inside the car).

Reliable transportation in Louga.

Me and Justin with Emilie, our PCV hostess with the mostess in Louga. Me and Emilie make up 28.5% of the volunteer population in this country that is named Emily. Can you guess how many Senegal PCV Emily's there are?

Ann Marie "helping" the students warm up before the basketball tournament.

Linguere-region volunteers, before the day got crazy (see below).

Students getting into their basketball teams -- they were amazingly well-behaved!

Okay. This is Joey. She's a third year volunteer who did her original service in the Linguere region but has been working in Dakar for the last year and is getting ready to leave the country. Her idea - seeing as there is not one body of water anywhere near Linguere - was to fill up multiple beignoirs (large plastic buckets) with water and ice, and have each of us sit in them, reserving a few beignoirs to be centrally placed and hold beer and ice. Brilliant, no? We thought so.

Here's Team Linguere, sitting in our beignoirs. Do you think they sent us all here together because we're crazy, or do you think we all got crazy after living here in the desert? There's no way to tell for sure . . .

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Morning is Like This.

I'm back from my first stint in my site, and I'm alive! I biked into Linguere this morning to see if the local Eaux et Forets project could hook me up with some seeds for my tree pepiniere, and now I'm sitting at our missionary friends house, reeping the benefits of internet, cold water, fresh food, and English conversation.

What do I say? I kinda want to ask if you want the good news or the bad news first, but that would be a joke, because I don't feel like anything going on in my life or my head can be classified in those terms. I won't pretend like the last two and a half weeks haven't been a series of emotional ups and downs - joy at small victories, mixed with loneliness and frustration beyond what I ever could have imagined - but nothing, simply nothing, is wrong.

One day this week, I sent a text message to some fellow volunteers along the lines of: "my mom is an evil alien from a planet of cold and malicious beings." This was dramatic. Earlier that day I'd had a run-in with my host mother -- or, what I've come to realize, was less of a run-in and more of a cultural misunderstanding. The details of the run-in/misunderstanding aren't really worth relating, but my discomfort with my host mother has been a point of stress with me from Day 1. My father, the chief of the village (who spends most of his time in other parts of the country and is rarely home) kind of shook things up when he "gave" me to his second wife, who seems to have a tense relationship with his first wife, who was the previous volunteer's mother... and they both seem to be somewhat jealous of the third and fourth wives who live in a nice house down the road in the town of Dahra.

I say all this not to complain, but rather to share my small but widening lens on Senegalese emotions and motivations -- the set of cultural behaviors that stretches beyond what you can learn from a book or a movie or a brief visit, and the stuff that brought me to the Peace Corps. My family here is my best "tool" in this regard, and the fact that I was having difficulty getting along with them has been an upsetting distraction, to say the least. Slowly, however, what had appeared to be a sticky misfortune is - maybe, just maybe - revealing itself to be the most valuable teaching tool. Realizing that my "run-in" with my mother was really no such thing, understanding that her hurt face indicates not disdain but concern over her own performance as my caretaker, coming to terms with this and many similar disconnects, in my family and my village -- all has contributed to instructive growing pains that revealed themselves not in one epiphanic moment but in a shadowy edification that has yet to fully develop. My ego is still bruised, and I know that much of my loneliness continues to stem from my shaky cultural footing, especially as it pertains to my family. But I'm getting there, and I'm learning, and that's the best I can do.

If all that I'm saying sounds convoluted, confused, or contradictory, you're right... on this constant journey of self-discovery (alas, this has certainly turned out to be one), I am still sailing turbulent emotional and mental seas. (Forgive me,O grammer gods, aka my loving parents, if that was a mixing of metaphors). As a girl who always did wear her heart of her sleeve, however, I can't seem to stop myself from bringing my mixed-up babble right here to blogspot. So welcome aboard! I hope you don't get sea sick.

But, enough with the flowery pontifications, right? You're probably wondering how the work is coming along. Right now, my work consists mostly of getting to know the people around me, planting a garden and tree nursery, conducting an extensive Peace Corps-mandated baseline survey of my village, and, uh, figuring out what the heck is going on around me -- actually a taller order than one might expect, especially when my Wolof, while getting better everyday, is still frustratingly underdeveloped. Anyway, on a given day, I take a run in the morning, then try to get some gardening work done before the sun starts frying eggs right before your eyes. Then I walk around. I chat. I walk into random compounds and plop myself down, go through the greeting parade (it's long), ask questions, usually get teased, and generally get asked if I have a husband and if I can cook, even though most of my neighbors already know the answers by now. I go home for lunch and a mid-day rest period (though it's been too hot to sleep) and wait until the afternoon cools off enough to start walking and talking again, or to do some dirty digging.

Oh! And I apologize for the schizophrenia, but I have another new name. Upon installation in Ngaraff, I was re-baptized Bigue Dieng (pronounced BEE-gay Jang). I had a little trouble warming up to it at first, but now, as I walk through the village, I hear it squeaked by every tot that can talk, and it's hard not feel endeared to a name so sweetly shouted. "Beeeegay!" If I don't respond: "BEEEEEGAAAAY!!!!"

Early in the day, people here traditionally greet each other by asking how the morning is. Most times, the reply is: "Suba sang nii, rekk" -- "The morning is like this, only," sometimes with a comment about the heat or (if it's under 90 degrees F out at 8 am) the cold tacked on. I usually find that this quip calms and brightens my mood a bit. It's so simple, and so pleasant. Just like my presence here, the morning is what it is. This is the life that I dreamed of and worked toward - for better or for worse - for years before I made it to Africa. To be amongst these people, feeling their pains, laughing their laughs, learning their habits, holding their babies, LIVING THIS LIFE - this is what I wanted. Now I'm here, and it's not easy, but I'm in the thick of it, and all I can do is my best. And sometimes my best is just to be here. So be it. The morning is like this.

This is the dust pile that I sweep up about 3 -4 times a day when the sand storms roll in. In this, the hottest months of the year, right before the rainy season, the heat's been getting up around 120 degrees and the winds, occasionally fierce, have sent the dry sand swirling.

Returning from the garden. The school director took this, saying that I needed to have it "for my father back in America."

My counterpart, Marieme, with her bucket of dried cow manure to match the one I had on my head. She's ready to help me pound and sift this sh*t, literally. Marieme is amazing, and never makes me feel stupid, even when I ask silly questions, like: "Are we going to get in trouble with the owner of this manure?"

The first stages of my pathetic little garden. If it looks like we're gardening in sand, you'd be right. Hence the ever-tenacious manure-hunt -- it takes lots of it to create viable soil.

My little brother and my fabulous, hard-working sister. This is the kitchen.

My firecracker of a mother, manning the "market" that she sets up every morning outside our courtyard for villagers to get their vegetables and fish.

The endless hunt for dried cow pies, and how completely desensitized all the kids are to them, never fails to amuse me.

Shower power hour at my house. 6-year-old Say Sisee is being soaped up by Bitti; 5-year-old twins Hussein and Assan are waiting their turn.

By request: my douche (bathroom/shower)