Friday, October 29, 2010

The Revel is in the Details

I recently finished reading "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun," a memoir about Mugabe's decimation of Zimbabwe and the impact it has had on one native white family. In it, the narrator, Peter Godwin, makes this poignant avowal:

"I feel like weeping. Weeping at the way Africa does this to you. Just as you're about to dismiss it and walk away, it delivers something so tender. One minute you're scared shitless, the next you're choked with affection."

For some reason, I was immediately struck by this quotation, by its striking honesty and by my visceral awareness of its truth in my own life.

Unlike Godwin, I'm not living in a veritable warzone, forced to watch the country of my birth and rearing go from being "Africa's breadbasket" to "Africa's dustbowl." Senegal is a world away from Zimbabwe, and in most cases I'm eager to avoid generalization about a continent made up of 54 distinct countries and countless tribes, ethnicities, cultures, and languages.

But something about what Godwin had to say help specific resonance with my experience here, as far as the way that this place - Africa - can shuffle you between polar opposite emotional extremes from one moment to the next. I know that I frequently have to take pause -- literally, to stop what I am doing -- when I find myself experiencing that sudden shift from utter, abysmal frustration/fear/loneliness/anger to utter appreciation/love/wonder/affection for the moment and the place.

As I write this, by candlelight in my hut, exhausted from a frustrating day, some young men are clustered outside my room in the nearby village common area. They came together for an impromptu session of harmonious singing, accompanied by the rhythmic beating of plastic jerry cans (Which double as chairs and water containers during the day). The anxiety and aggravations of the long, hot day are melting away in the beauty of this juxtaposed tranquility.

As a simple matter of fact, the harshness of life here is constantly making its presence known, especially to a tender, under-prepared white girl from the first world, such as myself. I go days on end without ceasing to sweat. My skin - thankfully not quite as pale as that of some of my colleagues - still responds unfavorably to the relentless West African sun. I spend my days walking through sand mottled with various types of manure, and no less than one in five steps does the poor sole of my foot come crunching down on a thorn stuck in my flip-flop.

And then there are all the inveterate health problems. Few and far between are the days when we don't suffer from some sort of gastrointestinal issue, mysterious rash, or both. As my PC Volunteer Leader April put it, "Sometimes you just don't know what's going on with your body in this country."

And then -- well, and then there are the people. Specifically, there's the high-incidence of meddlesomeness, the unabashed and unending demands and constant needs, and the perpetual scrutiny that is directed at me, the toubab. Please understand that I mean it in the least ego-meniacal and self-interested way when I say that I have come to sympathize fiercely with celebrities. Everyone wants a piece of you, wants something from you -- your attention, your salutation, your money, an English lesson, a ticket to America, a US. visa, your bike, etc. Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to pretend I'm anonymous again, like if I can't see anyone, they can't see me -- like a baby playing peek-a-boo who thinks he becomes invisible when you cover his eyes.

Believe it or not, however, all this is not meant to be a senseless barrage of complaints. What I'm presenting above is a sampling of things that can get me thinking that I'm not cut out for a life in Africa, that make me wonder what the heck I'm doing here, that break down my resistances, sometimes to point of tears or tantrums or feelings of total despondency.

But alas, this is the crazy miracle of Africa: it is these same forces that bring me back to life. The same kids that make me want to run screaming can make me fall in love with their sincerity, their desire to talk and learn and help. An old man will infuriate me when he reprimands me for not greeting him, but then we get to talking and I realize what a spectacular thing it is to befriend this man, and that maybe I should have been more careful with my greeting after all. In the midst of a sweaty afternoon, a poor migrant laborer gives me a watermelon and refuses to let me pay him for it. The women have impromptu dance sessions at the women's group meeting. The kids are always dancing, too, for no ostensible reason. Some of them bang on metal bowls while the rest of them dance, and in this simple, creative fashion, they pass the time. Teenage boys chant late into the night. Women come together to cook for the whole village, on command. My four-year-old brother insists on giving me a full half of his handful of peanuts. Villager after villager forgives all my language blunders, excuses all my communication errors, likes me and respects me and takes care of me despite my general confusion and occasionally cranky disposition. I sleep under the beaming moon, pee under the stars, shower in the rain. Goats and sheep offer me consolation in bad moments; a cow's soft eyes lift my spirits on a morning run. And the terrain, generally dry and brown as could be, for three months out of the year pulls out all of the stops and blankets itself in a lively expanse of green. In unexpected and vivacious ways, Africa makes you smile out of nowhere.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

There's No Cryin' in Futbol

It's soccer season!

The first game we hosted drew every single resident of Ngaraff to the dusty field across the road from the village. They banged on metal bowls, danced, stormed the field when our boys scored a goal, and showed off an impressive collection of aggressive/melodic French/Wolof cheers.

It was an altogether stirring performance by both the players and fans. Midway through the game, however, the afternoon heat suddenly started to turn on us, and before we knew it there was a dark thundercloud looming on the horizon . . . followed not far behind by an enormous cloud of dust. But in Ngaraff, apparently, the show must go on! The men of Ngaraff and their opponents played on as a sandstorm in the distance got closer and then covered us all in dust as it moved through . . .

. . . And the sky got increasingly dark and grimacing . . .

. . . And most of the fans picked up their plastic chairs and headed home . . .

. . . But the diehards stayed on . . .

Including my sister and my little buddy Pop Ibra . . .

And my BFF Joxal (look how cute she is!):

A few days later, most of the men and many of the young, unmarried women climbed aboard a caravan of horse-drawn charettes and shipped off for a neighboring village to watch our team compete. The rickety wooden charette, combined with fierce speeds and bad roads, made for a harrowing ride -- my 11-year-old Koumba and I clung to each other and the splintered wooden planks, especially when the charette drivers (teenage boys from the village) decided to race with one another.

The caravan:

Everyone was happy and excited, though, and the game was worth it.

The team (I painted numbers on the backs of all their jerseys!):

Victorious smiles, and happy to be home alive:

In other sporting news, Ngaraff hosted a wrestling competition with big, beefy participants from all over the bush. They wrestled in traditional Senegalese style, which is nothing like you've ever seen: an odd spectacle of two men circling each other in the ring, staring each other down, swinging their arms like feral felines while bent over at the waist, until at some point they go in for the tackle and then -- it's over! Quickly and anticlimactically, they're done, and the ref gravely raises the hands of one of the wrestlers. Also, they wear the most uncomfortable-looking, non-stretchy, tightly-tied diaper-like things as their only uniform. The whole thing is quite a display, and these people LOVE it.

Now, you probably think its been all fun and games around these parts, but we have found time to fit in some serious work. April, our PC Volunteer Leader in Linguere, organized a girls' leadership seminar as a culmination to an annual scholarship competition for middle school girls in the region. We involved the girls in activities and lessons regarding both AIDS education and "stay in school" messages. Awa, one of the most dynamic women in Senegal -- and, bless her heart -- a Peace Corps administrator, came to help us lead it. Awa has a remarkable and unique ability to address important issues that we would be hard-pressed to tackle on our own, including incest, early marriage, and condom use.

A typical "choose one side of the room based on whether or not you agree with my statements" game:

Women's empowerment, one teenager at a time:

Amazing Awa, doing her thing:

The following day, I hosted a smaller-scale event in Ngaraff with a small collection of preteen/ teen girls and their parents that I gathered in my village. Awa talked about the hazards that can prevent girls from continuing their education through to university -- everything from parents that demanding constant help pounding millet to early, unwanted pregnancy.

My young ladies:

Also: the urban agriculture volunteer in Linguere hosted a perma-garden training with her PC boss that turned out to be a smashing success:

Gardeners and farmers came from far and wide to learn about effective, efficient gardening techniques, including four women from my village:

And back in the village, the women have been working on weeding and cleaning various communal areas, such as the school and - at my suggestion - the area around the health hut! Look at them go!

Plus, intensive harvesting of the field crops has begun. I've helped pick beans 'til my fingers were raw, and I accompanied my buddy Usman on a millet stalk harvesting expedition the other day:

Harvesting millet means that the long cycle of processing it will begin -- Millet needs to be pounded several times to prepare it to be eaten in the way we eat it. This is my mom and, um, other mom working on the first pound:

The kids like to roast millet stalks and then scrape off the seeds and eat 'em hot. I think it's delicious!

I'm also still working on my little garden plot, though it's mostly dead. I've harvested loads of beans and I'm working on a compost pile in preparation for "cold season" planting. I'm basically going to start over, this time with a somewhat more premeditated approach -- I'll try to include some sort of perma-culture techniques and integrate pest management, but optimism at this stage would be premature; I'm still gardening in sand. Weeds grow great, though! Here's the somewhat photogenic cow that came by while I was weeding the other day; in a seredipitously symbiotic affair, she seemed to find my most annoying and invasive weed to be the most delicious! :-)

That's a sampling of what's going on in these parts. I'm continuing to plug away at my big health structure re-structuring -- I've started with convening the village health committee that has been defunct for years; Now I'm helping the committee put together a budget for their dream health hut compound and focusing on small-scale preventative health education.

I've spent the last week or so making my way around the country a little bit: to the beach, to a volunteer summit, to Dakar to get some work done. I'm ready to go home to my village . . but not before answering to one more very important call-of-duty: Food. Justin and Kourtney, fellow Korean food addicts, joined me in stuffing my face on my last night in Dakr:

If I look devilishly happy, I am -- Kimchee noodle tofu soup has that effect on me.

Now, with my belly full and happy, it's time for me to get back to my babies:

See why?

See you soon!