Monday, July 26, 2010

Good Old Ameircan Values

This post is a bit of a confessional. The last couple of weeks have been spent in the company of fellow volunteers -- the 42 PCVs that I originally trained with -- and thus have been an unabashed binge of all things American. We have been indulging in gluttony and excess. We've been swimming and sunbathing. We've been passing our flashdrives between our netbooks and macbooks, sharing films and TV shows and then curling up, together or alone, for marathon viewing session of Top Chef, True Blood, and Glee. We've baked cakes (excessive amounts, of course). We've been drinking beer; we've been eating cereal, spaghetti, ethnic food, and fresh vegetables.

Also a part of this all-American bender: We've been fighting for our rights and expressing our entitlement. We've been complaining. We've been gossiping. We've shared our fears, frustrations, and existential crises (which this blogger, for one, has been relieved to learn are not limited to her). We've also shared our triumphs and exchanged ideas, been applauded and awed by and each other.

Being in such a large group of toubabs (white people) for the first time in a couple of months has been both exhilarating and exhausting, difficult and delightful. The purpose of our reunion is our In-Service Training (IST). Since PST here in PC Senegal is so heavily focused on language training, they bring us all back together after our first two months at site to receive training in more technical subjects and logistical skills. The trainings, for the most part, have been worthwhile, but as I said . . . my American cohorts have not hesitated to compain when they feel that their time is being being wasted by a particular session. And the most vocal outcry came in response to the staff's decision to lodge us with our original PST homestay families, in nearby villages, instead of at the training center. A band of renegades raised a ruckus, sending a petition through the ladder of PC beauracracy until we earned permission to stay in the rooms at the training center instead. If ever one needed a reminder of the American tendency to exchange blows over that to which we feel entitled, these recent couple of weeks have provided it.

Before comign to Thies for IST, I spent a few days in Dakar, which turns out to be an exceptionally cool city, with a beautiful coastline and food that can bring your taste buds back from a regrettably latent state.

And now, a few pictures that capture some of the moments of American excess that I've had the joy of experiencing since I left site a few weeks ago. Many of them involve food. Please don't judge . . . in this country, you kinda gotta get while the gettin's good, you know. Soon enough, it will be back to millet couscous, and plus Ramadan's coming! What's a girl to do but overindulge when she has the chance?

Dakar, looking fine.

The view of the Presidential Palace (and beyond) from my friend Joey's apartment, who just completed her service and, ever so sadly, returned home to America.

A touching moment with Kourtney.

Sarah and Kourtney, two of my best friends here in Senegal. Truth be told, we spent more than one full day at the American Club in Dakar, swimming, tanning, drinking good coffee and eating french fries.

Italian deliciousness.

French cultural center. Trying to live up to sophistication that our wine bottle suggests, and clearly failing.

French deliciousness.

Steve and Kim, excited about Jello at the Dakar region meeting.

Dakar region volunteers, "meeting."

Dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where they only spoke Mandarin (good thing we had Justin, a native speaker, with us!), was also delicious. But get this: we were seated on the 2nd floor, and the food was delivered to us on this shelf, lowered on a rope from the 3rd-floor kitchen. Sometimes, the world is . . . simply amazing.

The view from the car one of the days that we had to commute to our old home stay villages.

Jenae, Jillian, and Maddie, cake decorating machines!

So proud of our three cakes: Super Stage Shout Out - Nature Scene - Map/Flag of Senegal

Celebrating all IST birthdays, and those that fell during our first months at site.

Jillian, making a hasty escape after lighting the firecrackers!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Where in the World is Bigue Dieng?

You are here.

Often times, while lying on my cot or hunching over my garden plot or peddling my bicycle down the rickety road, I'm tickled to visualize my location on a map. In my mind's eye, I like to picture a camera zooming out in concentric circles in the style of a Ken Burns documentary. On a daily basis, the sphere of my life is fairly limited, the concentric circles starting in my little room, expanding out to the family courtyard, and then gradually rippling out to the Ngaraff village limits. Essentially, I'm confined to, let's say, a half-mile square piece of terrain, and, were in not for my morning runs (which take me either down the paved road or deep into the bush), I would tread the same 400 yards of sandy path over and over again for many days on end.

I'm hardly dismayed by the state of affairs -- quite the opposite! Ngaraff is a place filled with wonderful people and a many delightful moments everyday.

See? These are my siblings in my room:

These are the lovely ladies that helped me put together my tree nursery:

And this is one my favorite kids - we crack each other up! (For example, he dared me that I couldn't take a picture of myself, and then when I took this one, he collapsed in a fit of laughter. So great.)

And these are my adorable twin brothers:

And we do lots of fun things in Ngaraff, like give kids baths...

(I don't know why these guys aren't having a good time... I think getting sponge bathed in a bucket in the middle of the hot afternoon looks like a ball!)

... And do hair...

And do laundry...
When all my little siblings wanted to "help" me do laundry, even the boys, I was eager to capture the moment as proof of the Gender and Development (GAD) work that we're supposed to do. :-)

The reality of my limited geographic sphere, however, does result in certain eventualities:
1- I can't stop reading anything and everything that I can get my hands on -- I think books are filling the void created by the intellectual under-stimulation I find myself experiencing.
- I talk to myself. And, in exasperating moments, I allow little outbursts of English to my non-English speaking neighbors -- It's enormously liberating, and, mentioning this to my Peace Corps compatriots, I've learned that I'm not the only one in the habit of doing this.
- I am compelled to travel, to explore, to roam, to make my way around my region and this country to the greatest extent that I am able.

Recently, I got the opportunity to explore the area immediately surrounding Ngaraff - the next greatest of the concentric circles - when I was recruited to help with a round of polio vaccinations being administered by the health post in a nearby town.

The first day of vaccinations, I assisted the village midwife and the village health agent (both exceedingly kind and lively women) in treating all of Ngaraff's children under the age of five, visiting every compound and squeezing two drops of the vaccine into each little expectant mouth.

The second day, we moved out into the countryside to vaccinate the children of the
Pulaar villages within walking distance. When I say "villages," however, I should clarify that in most cases, this consisted of a small cluster of huts set among the sandy, desolate terrain, separated from other such outcroppings by miles of barely distinguishable donkey cart tracks.

A typical Pulaar encampment:

In this fashion, we roamed through the desert, trying our best to reach all the compounds we could. Often, what we came across was not even a clump of huts, but a few tarps strung between thorny trees, or a mattress laid out under a donkey cart -- such a settlement, more often than not, being home to several children under the age of five, all of which were being attended to by an older sibling who usually wasn't older than eleven or twelve.

An example of a makeshift encampment:

Sometimes, we just found some kids sitting under a tree and, not sure which random bundle of huts they belonged to, we squirted the inoculating drops into their little mouths right then and there.

As a side note, Pulaars tend to have much groovier hair styles and a lot more flair on their clothing. Take this kid, for example:

The third day of polio vaccinations required the use of the health post's four-wheel drive truck to take us even deeper into the Pulaar forest. The truck brought us to what seemed like endless clumps of huts similar to the ones we'd visited on foot the day before -- except these were even farther apart and farther from the main road and from water sources; the people in them also seemed far more taken aback by the presence of a white person. More than once, some brazen grandmother snatched the lightest skinned baby from the arms of its mother and tried to offer it to me as a gift to bring back to America, and I'm fairly certain that in one little village, they showed me a newborn -- less than a week old, for sure, so not yet baptized and thus not yet named -- and informed me that her name would be Bigue, after yours truly. True story.

The Pulaars, like the Wolofs, are an ethnic group with a very strong presence in Senegal. Needless to say, my foray into their dispersed and remote communities gave me a new perspective on the circumstances, the opportunities, and the worldview of the people of my village. My glimpse of rims of the circles that stretch far into the desert made it feel like we here in Ngaraff are well-supplied with amenities and within easy access of anything we could need or want. As always, it's all relative, and it's all about perspective.

As one continues to zoom out from the village of Ngaraff, you have the region of Linguere and its adjacent region Dahra (separate according to the Senegalese government's delineation, but acting as one under PC Senegal... and not even an officially recognized Peace Corps region -- we're technically, and absurdly, a member of the Dakar region, but I digress.) Over the (nonexistant) river and through the (sparse) trees, across the plains of Pulaar nomads, we come to the village of Yang Yang, where my friend Justin lives. To get there, I bike 20 km on pavement, then make a right turn at Dahra... onto an abominable excuse for a road, a gravelly dirt trail that years of truck use have left rutted and bumpy, making for a painful bike trip.

This is me and my companions, April and Joey, on the paved portion:

40 km down the rutted dirt road, after passing nothing but small Pulaar huts and lots of packs of sheep and cattle, we finally made it to Yang Yang, sweaty and tired but pleased with our accomplishment:

Yang Yang, it turned out, is a bizarre oasis in the desert. Its bizarreness stems from the wealth that is apparent throughout the village, being located in the middle of nowhere, a seeming village in the sky. It has electricity, satellite TV and a refrigerator at every house, a hospital, a police station, a water tower, a massive community garden, streetlights, a museum . . . and only 200 residents, by Justin's estimate. Truly bizarre. One reason for its puzzling pre-eminence is that Yang Yang was the home Djoloff (Wolof) kings, and thus remains the figurative seat of the Djoloff empire -- it's actually a fascinating history, hence the museum. On the museum's second floor, we came across a statue, just realistic enough to be creepy, of the last Djoloff king . . . which of course begged that we do silly things with it and take pictures:

Yang Yang also has extra beautiful baobabs and baobab-lined sandy paths. . .

. . . And a baker of village bread who let us watch as he rolled out his loaves and baked them in his wood-fire clay oven. (Note: Senegal has two kinds of bread -- delicious village bread, which is soft and luscious, and machine bread, which is gross, airy, perpetually stale, and only kind of bread I can find in Ngaraff.)

So that's Yang Yang.

I also had the chance to do some distance traveling this past month, to the Kedougou region, in the Southeast of the country. The 15-hour car ride down there was first made better . . . and then made much, much more uncomfortable due to the fact that I got to sit next to the world's cutest baby in the uncomfortable far back of the car for a good portion of it:

Kedougou host PC Senegal's annual 4th of July celebration, and what a party it was! In case anyone was worried about ex-patriot loyalty, I can assure you that 100+ Americans an ocean away from their motherland are able to celebrate her freedom in top style.

I mean, just look at all this joy:

As always, Mikael and I representing for the Loggers:

Kourtney, my partner in crime and beer pong:

Perhaps more exciting than the party was the glory of Kedougou itself. It's a place where goats look well-fed and women ride bicycles along tree-lined street that have been cleaned of their trash. Oranges and avocados and bananas are found at on every corner. Best of all, however, was the green . . . the green, everywhere you looked, in every direction, up to your knees, poring itself mercilessly into the fresh air.

The Gambia River flows right through town, allowing for hours of floating and splashing fun:

And, in the nearby national park, there are warthogs! (which the restaurant at our hotel made into very popular sandwiches).

Now, if you'll allow me a semi-sequitar Tom Robbins-esque rant, I would like to take this opportunity to say this: it has officially been confirmed that Linguere is - by far - the most hardcore region in all of PC Senegal. Nowhere else are volunteers gardening in sand only. Nowhere else does the "rainy season" mean 2 - 3 big rains. No one else is so far from any large body of water. On the 12-hour drive back from Kedougou, the landscape got progressively drier, browner, and less populated with trees, and the seven Linguere volunteers in the car could only exchange glances of solidarity, knowing that desert is hardening us and that that's for the best (Right?).

Now, I've probably gone and scared off any potential visitor I might have in to this country. How about I make you this promise, however: If you come to Senegal, I will take you to Kedougou, and we can play in their waterfalls and tall grass together. :-D

Okay. I'm done denouncing my region. To be fair, the area surrounding Ngaraff has gotten much more beautiful of late, due to the onset of the "rainy season." With astounding rapidity, the dead brown ground has come alive in a kind of reverse spring: instead of melting snow and ice giving way to budding life, it's the slight cooling of temperatures and the saturation of the dusty landscape with long-needed rain that is allowing green grass to grow and leave to fill the trees. It's beautiful.


The rains also drove the villagers out in hordes to plant their seeds in the fields that sprawl out from Ngaraff. I accompanied my mother and brothers to their field the other day and had a grand time seeding cowpeas and bissap seeds into the rolling, (semi) green pastures.

Are you all wondering when I'm going to do real work? I will, I promise. I'm in Dakar at the moment, exploring the city, attending some meetings, seeing off an America-bound friend, and eating delicious food. Next week I return to Thies for a two-week In-Service Training at the Peace Corps center. When I return to the the village after that, I hope to have skills and motivation to hit the ground running. Inchallah.

This entry is way too long for it's own good, due to the fact that I wrote most of it on lonely nights in my hut. Thanks for sticking with me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Day the Sky Turned Black

It was 6:30 pm - daytime - according to the indiglo time on my watch. But the sky was pitch black -- a kind of black where every bit of light is obscured from the sky and you can't see your hand in front of your face.

Not ten minutes before, casually strolling home under bright blue skies after watering my garden (and you'll see the irony in this in a minute), I met my teenage friend Ablaye on the path, who, as usual, wanted to show off an English phrase he knew. On this admittedly hot afternoon, he said, "Today is very hot, because I think that the rain, it comes." I turned to the East and saw what he was talk about: low dark clouds that seemed to be heading our way. Still feeling no sense of urgency, I slowly made my way home and helped my sister check on the fish that we had been drying in the sun.

Before I knew what was happening, though, there was electricity in the air, the wind kicked into gear, people were running and screaming, and I myself felt a certain panic surge within my body. I dashed into my room just in time to grab my solar charger from my open-air douche and slam the doors and window. Then, I huddled on the porch with my family as everything went black, right before my eyes... and stayed that way for a good few minutes. These were the sandstorms of which I had heard tell, but no description or story could have prepared me for this. When the sand had blown through, the sky lightened - slightly - and then the rains came, rains like nothing I have EVER seen. This was so much more than rain "coming down in sheets" -- it was more like a hundred powerful fire hoses had been turned on and pointed at the village at a 45 degree angle. It didn't stop, or even lighten, for at least an hour. Never before have I witnessed such a spectacular testament to the fury that Mother Nature can exact. It was the kind of thing that made me feel entirely powerless, and that made me glad that I didn't have to worry about protecting small children or animals.

Also, it must be noted, my fellow villagers seemed basically un-phased by the weather phenomenon. Not 30 minutes after the worst of the storm had passed, my sister alerted that dinner was ready! The next morning, my neighbors were cheerfully rebuilding their stick fences. The first verbal acknowledgment of abnormal events that I was able to extract from my neighbors came later in the morning, when I went to help the women prepare a bulk of beignets for the school party. They nonchalantly changed their daily "How is the morning?" diatribe to include "How was the wind?" instead of "How is the heat?" Other than that, business as usual!

Below are some pictures that really don't do justice to the storm I experienced, but that's because I was running by the time it got really dark.

The approaching storm.

Notice the kid running for his compound - that's when I knew!