Thursday, June 23, 2011

Halfway There (But Where's "There"?)

My year in country mark was back in March, but I felt like the more significant milestone was the anniversary of my installation in Ngaraff, which came and went on May 18th, while I was, ironically, out of village, traveling from Dakar to Linguere after returning from Morocco. It has triggered a fair amount of reflection on what I’ve done and am doing; what living my life here, rather than elsewhere, actually means, and all those other inevitable deliberations that accompany little landmarks that we cling to in the generally chaotic and illogical elasticity of time’s passage.  Needless to say, I reached no grand conclusions  I do, however, have some sporadic reflections.

My counterpart and her family, including one-week-old Kine. 
These are definitely my closest friends in the village.
I’ve been looking around at the babies of Ngaraff:  There are the ones walking around who were merely blob-like when I arrived.  There are the ones who for a long while were in the odd stage (reached around the first birthday) where they were scared of me, and now scream my name and reach for my hand and let me port them all over the village without protest.  There are the ones who had no problem with me in their infancy and now are entering that very phase.  And then, of course, there are the babies who – most narcissistically, I realize –  I like to say are part of “Club Bigue.”  -- That is, the ones who were born during my time in Ngaraff.  I love counting them, loudly and proudly, with all the moms, showing off how I can recount not only the order of their births, but their respective dates.  My life here allows me to follow along with growing kids in a way I was never able to in my previous life and, as you can see, I love it.  The cycle of birth (and death as well, for that matter) is simply so much more present here.

Another thing: as I’ve watched the seasons come and go here, watched it go from hot to rainy to hot to cool and, yup, back to hot, I’ve become exceptionally appreciative of the work that goes into food,  of the incessant battle to feed every mouth in this village.  I think about one of my favorite meals,  for example: millet couscous with a sauce of peanut paste, dried fish, tomatoes, beans.  (I realize…. Not that exciting.  But reasonably nutritious and… seriously, try to the millet couscous before you knock it! Although, if I lost you at “dried fish,” you’re actually right about that -- it’s a ubiquitous offense in Senegalese cooking).  For this meal to hit the enormous communal metal dinner bowl and get hastily fisted into my gullet, so many labor-intensive processes have to occur that it really boggles my mind.  The millet alone has to be planted, weeded, maintained; harvested; extracted from its stalk; bagged; transported from field to home; pounded, sifted, pounded, sifted, steamed, sifted, reconstituted into couscous.  Having been a part of each of these steps – all done by human-power, alone, without the help of machines – I can attest to the time and effort it all requires.  Then there’s the sauce: the farming of the peanuts, and the many steps to turning it into paste; the cultivation and collection of the beans, the importation of the fragile little tomatoes; the (unfortunate) importation of the dried fish; you get the picture, and I’m rambling.  I’m just perpetually astounded by the burden faced daily by the women of my village and every other village in Senegal and most of Africa: that of preparing three meals a day for a horde of hungry bellies – not just the cooking (over an open fire, might I add), but the perennial struggle of ensuring the presense of adequate supplies and maintaining them in a usable form.  I certainly have no intention of inciting some sort of guilt complex in you, but I can’t help but say this: next time you order a pizza, or put a Lean Cuisine in the microwave, or grab a ready-made rotisserie chicken from Safeway, I ask you to take a moment and smile at your good fortune: one more meal attended to, and easily, at that.  I’m living amongst people who will never once find such a trouble-free, effortless solution to the nightly question, “What’s for dinner?”

Wow.  That was a bit of a lengthy piece, I’m sorry!  I’m gonna try to be less verbose from now on…

My year mark also got me thinking of all the things I’ve done and seen in the last year that I’d never done or seen before, so I jotted down this incomplete list:
  • Dismembered and disemboweled a variety of dead animals in preparation for eating, including chickens and goats
  • Plucked a thorn the size of my pinkie out of my foot and the foot of others
  • Sent kids on absolutely any errand I can dream up
  • Ridden on a car with goats beneath my feet and chickens tied by my head
  • Eaten around a giant bowl with upwards of 18 other people sticking their hands in.
  • Been openly gawked and laughed at on the street.
  • And so much more...
Health Hut Grand Opening!

So, perhaps you’re tired of hearing about Ngaraff’s Health Hut, but this is big news: I helped my community put on a huge Grand Re-Opening of the clinic.  I wrote a VAST (Volunteer Activities  Support and Training) grant and everything, so that we could go crazy-all-out!  I also insisted that it double as an HIV/AIDS educational extravaganza, complete with HIV testers from the Linguere hospital, AIDS-related theatrical sketches, and several health talks from local experts.  

Preparation, needless was to say, was a bit hectic – a torrent of visits to officials, conversations with community members, phone calls, and double/triple checks on little details, like ice and coolers and transportation for extra chairs.  The villagers rallied behind me and pitched in – the women showed up the day before to sweep and sift the sand in the lovely new health compound and clean out of the buildings, then stayed up late preparing beignet dough, only to rise early and drop ‘em in the hot oil by the barrel-full.  The men raised the tent with little prodding from me, and sent their precious horse carts to retrieve extra seating from the nearby town.  Despite the stressful and somewhat chaotic preparations, the event itself transpired almost flawlessly.  It was a total success, as far as the goals of the day were concerned: people had fun, ate their fill in beignets, got real, hard-hitting education on HIV/AIDS, and got pumped up about the future of Ngaraff’s health system.  On my end, I had to put up with some obnoxious behind-the-scenes BS, such as people seeing my white skin and trying to suck every dime out of our budget (what else is new?) and having to offer apology after apology as I failed to follow the correct protocol of calling the village chief and then the Imam to the microphone before handing it over the first speaker (granted, something I know and should have adhered to, but my mind was a million places that day.)  

So be it, though-- I can swallow the personal frustrations in the wake of a really successful, entertaining, educational celebration.  Still today, five days later, my people were telling me what a good time they had, how nice the party was, how “everyone was happy,” “everyone ate lots of beignets,”etc.  If they’re happy, I’m happy.  Truly. 

And the best part? 54 people got tested.  That might not sound like much, but considering that the last time a testing team came through, we had to pull teeth to get six people to show up, this was a huge victory.  I had begged and pleaded, dragged women out of their seats, cajoled them and had others do the same, and despite their fear, my lovely ladies of Ngaraff (and a few men) stepped up to the plate and entered the testing room.  My heart still fills to think about it and share this with you.

This is still just the beginning – or maybe we could see it as another halfway mark? – to a functional health system in the village.  But that’s something, right?  

Cleaning the health hut in preparation for the big event!

This is what sifting sand looks like -
and the compounds look beautiful when we're done!

Late-night beignet dough prep.

Kicking off the Grand Opening!!

The New Health Hut at it's finest!  HIV testing - lots of it!

Dance troup from the nearby town - the crowd loved it!

AIDS-education skits.  And really well done!

 Senegal Vacay 2011

My other big accomplishment for this first year of service?  Luring my dear friends Andrew and Erin out of the comfy Seattle lifestyle and into the grips of a full-fledged Senegalese adventure! They get the prize for being the first (And maybe the only?) “home” friends to visit me here.  We had such a good time!  I don’t think I can adequately express how amazingly flexible, forgiving, resilient, and easy-going they were, and it was thanks to this that we had such a stupendous, unforgettable trip.  We kicked it on the coast for a few days, kayaking in the mangroves and taking pirogue trips out to bird-covered islands to camp.  Fellow PCV hosted us at his SITE, Palmarin, which - yes - is located on a salt intrusion filled with mangroves forests.  (Not that I'm jealous...)  Erin and Andrew then bravely endured a typically horrendous day of travel to make it out to Ngaraff, where they happened to catch one of the biggest parties the village has ever seen – the baptism of my counterpart’s daughter-in-law’s baby. We brought the house down when the three of us hit the dance floor together, along with my PCV Linguere buddy Mack. 

After a gastro-intestinitis-induced layover at the Linguere regional house, we cruised to St. Louis to experience the big International Jazz Festival, held annually.  We finished up the trip at my friend’s Chris’ house, taking advantage of his highly-operative kitchen to let Andrew and Erin work their magic and create the World’s Best Veggie Lasagna.  As a side dish? BROCCOLI.  I speak the truth.  I hadn’t seen it in 15 months, and I shed tears.  Thank you, dear friends.

I heart baobabs.

Andrew helps some kids across the salt flats to get to the beach.

Erin, makin' castles in the sand...

With our Palmarin host, Chris, on the pirogue out to "Bird Island" for a night of camping.

E & A kayaking through the mangroves.

Beautiful beautiful baobabs.

With my counterpart Marieme at her daughter-in-law's HUGE baptism party.

Andrew mugs with a local tot.

Awa Cham and my favorite twins, Awa and Ada.

The World's Worst Sept-Place ride: this position is no joke!
We had to bend over like this to fit in the car.

St. Louis.
More pictures to the right. ==>

The Enduring Magic of the Moonbounce, Caught on Tape

Long story short: My pal Chris' friend back in Florida has a clothing company that's trying a promotional campaign that involves people putting on t-shirts with the company logo on it and taping themselves doing "Conscious Acts of Kindness." Chris decided that he wanted to find poor kids and pay for them to jump in them moonbounce at Dakar's (one and only) park -- He brought me along because he knew I would love the kids and because he doesn't speak Wolof (he speaks Serere.) Anyway, we did it and it was really successful, of course - how could you go wrong with a moonbounce?!? We took a ton of footage and Chris put together this video: