The Other 2012 Election

It has been two months since my last update. In a way, I’ve been too busy to post, what with being in America and all. I’m still a Peace Corps volunteer though, and part of that job description includes doing mounds of nothing. So I guess I was working when I was in America.

Excuses aside, I’m back now. Coming back was a lot different than when I came back from France. Back in August, I was coming back from one foreign country and landing in another. This time, I was coming back from America. This trip was also twice as long as my France trip.

Two weeks ago, when I landed in Dakar, the cab driver was trying to talk to me in Wolof, and it took about ten seconds for me to respond to each question. I even told him, “Sorry, but I haven’t spoken Wolof in a while. It’s a little difficult.” It was like the whole America thing had been a dream.

It wasn’t a dream though. I had an amazing time back in America. I got to see friends and family. I ate delicious food (burritos and sushi!) and drink delicious alcoholic beverages. I went to the Titanic exhibition at the Brogan museum. I decorated for Christmas. I went to the Orlando Science Center. I drank lots and lots of Starbucks. I slept without a mosquito net. I saw snow (I had a six hour layover in D.C., so I wandered around Georgetown in flip-flops during the first snow of the season). I rang in 2012 in downtown Orlando with college friends.

[Insert segway here].

Speaking of 2012, next month is the Senegalese presidential election. The country is abuzz because Abdoulaye Wade, the current president, is rerunning for a third term, which has never been done before. Actually, a few months back Senegal made international headlines when Wade tried to change the constitution so that his son could replace him (basically, he unsuccessfully tried to make Senegal a monarchy).

Anyways, so the frontrunners for the election are Wade and international singer Youssou N’dour. N’dour became famous back in the 80s when he worked with Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. Yeah, he’s legit.

So N’dour is pulling a Schwarzenegger. He’s never worked in politics before, but he’s trying to run for office.

[Segway #2].

For those of you who don’t know, the Sokone-area volunteers have started teaching English twice a week at the high school. We’ve been tag teaming. We started back in December, where I taught a few classes. Clearly, I was in America for a month, so I just started back up again this week. Yesterday’s class was all about the elections. We discussed the upcoming election and the issues, comparing them to American politics.

It was really interesting discussing politics, in English, with Senegalese teens. They were really knowledgeable and willing to participate in the discussion. Yesterday’s class only had five students (usually around 15 show up), and every single one of them supported a different presidential candidate. Two of them in the class were over the age of 18, so they could vote. Regrettably, neither was registered to vote. This is when I stepped in and went on a tangent, in English, about the importance of voting. They most likely didn’t catch every word, but they got the gist.

The elections are at the end of February, and riots are expected to occur. I feel like, in Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade is either loved or hated. It’s going to be crazy, that’s for sure. I’ll keep you posted.

Where I Leave for America

So as you may or may not know, I am leaving for America on Tuesday. No, my service is NOT over yet. I am merely going home for a month to decompress, see my family/friends, and celebrate Christmas. I am excited on so many levels. I’m going to get SO fat from all the food I’m going to eat, and I’m really excited about it.

But apart from the weight gain, I am looking forward to gaining something else: perspective. I’ve been away from home for almost 16 months now, and that’s a long time to go without a burrito or your family. I think America will be tremendously helpful for my mental health. The stress of living in Africa, combined with the Mefloquine, is making me a little crazy. It’ll be good to be at home with my family and my dog.

Speaking of families, I had an interesting discussion with my Senegalese one the other night. We were discussing me going home, and they are really excited for me. They know I miss my real family and that I’m excited to go home for a few weeks. They’re also excited for themselves because they will reap the benefits of my world travels. They know I’m going to bring back presents for them.

Thus, the other night my host father summoned the whole family and shoved a piece of paper and pen in my hand. They proceeded to tell me everything they wanted from America, and they made me write it down. Some highlights include:

For Baba (my host father): a motorcycle jacket.

For Na (my host mother): a computer, two new cell phones.

For Sophia (the oldest sister): a headlamp (for cooking in the dark), kitchen utensils, clothing for the baby, a car, a moped.

Anto (the oldest brother): a jacket (for the cold season), shoes (size 44), an iPhone.

Considering the amount of winter apparel they requested, this upcoming cold season is going to be BRUTAL. I’m not sure I’ll be able to provide EVERYTHING they want, but I will try my hardest to bring them back gifts they will appreciate and use.

Having a Senegalese family has been so amazing. When I got to Senegal and discovered I’d be living with a host family, I was hesitant. I wanted to live alone and do my own thing, but now I can’t imagine not having one. They’ve helped me so much with integration, as well as with language. I love them so much.

Today, when I left my house, I teared up a little. Crazy, I know. I alsonshook everyone’s left hand. In Senegalese culture, you do everything with your right hand (i.e. eat, shake hands) because the left hand is saving for wiping. For some reason though, when you leave for a long time, you shake with your left hand. It was sad to shake everyone’s left hand because it felt like I’m never coming back. Well Mansaly family, you’re not rid of me yet. I’LL BE BACK.

Obligatory Peace Corps Blog Post OR The Shout Out Post

So I am 15 months into my Peace Corps service (meaning I have 11 months remaining), and I am finally fulfilling an obligation by writing an informational “What to Bring Before Shipping Off” blog post. This blog has a decent amount of loyal followers (shout out to Mama Whitehead!), but I also have a lot of randoms wandering in from the cyber streets to check out what this blog is all about. A lot of these cyber streetwalkers (not to be mistaken with cyber hookers [shout out to White!]) may or may not be doing Peace Corps in the near future. If they are, then this is the post for them.

Of course, every Peace Corps experience is different. I am currently serving in Sub-Saharan West Africa (shout out to Sca-rah and her people!), but PC is all over the world. Volunteers in Mongolia will most likely need a parka because it’s FREEZING there. I wear flip-flops and shorts most days, which I pair with a sweat rag and an overall hatred of the sun.

Yes, every Peace Corps service is different, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few items that I feel are necessary regardless of where you go. Usually my blog updates are random stories about nothing, so hopefully, with this post, you take away some things. As a whole, I’m a better storyteller than knowledge-dropper, so bare with me.

1. Nalgene bottle: I have a love/hate relationship with my Nalgene bottle. I go weeks without touching it, and then all of a sudden I find it in my room and drink from it every single day. Because of this, I am adding it to the list. I brought two initially but lost one during training. Whoops. These bad boys are indestructible though. I don’t know about the local people in other Peace Corps countries, but the Senegalese are really good at breaking stuff. Thus, a Nalgene bottle is perfect because it won’t break. It also holds a lot of liquid.

2. Sunglasses: Be sure they have UV protection, especially if you’re going to Africa. Even if you’re going to Eastern Europe, sunglasses are still good to have. I sport reflective aviators because I like to feel cool.

3. iPod: More specifically, an iPod Touch. I initially brought a Nano to Senegal, which I cherished the first eight months of my service, but in April, Mama Whitehead decided to graciously send me an iPod Touch. I have never looked back. The thing has Wi-Fi! I use it every single day. I downloaded a flashcard app that helps me with my Wolof. It has Skype so, when I have Internet access, I can chat with people back home. I can watch movies and TV shows on it. It also has an awesome camera that can shoot videos. This little device has completely changed my Peace Corps service. Of course, I am very careful with it. I have a case to protect it from the desert sands.

4. Speakers: I brought speakers on a whim, thinking I wasn’t going to use them. I was SO wrong. I use them every single day, and I love them. Of course, I have an unhealthy obsession with music, but speakers are still good to have. I actually have a shower radio (shout out to Lee Anne!), so it’s waterproof, which is brilliant. I listen to it while I take my bucket bath, while I make breakfast in the morning, and while I write blog posts.

5. Ziploc bags: You can find a surprising number of things in Senegal, but Ziploc bags don’t exist here. I love having them.

6. Batteries: For a number of things really. I use them for my flashlight, my speakers, and my Game Boy (shout out to 12-year-old Jamie!). Before you leave for staging, buy them in bulk at Costco. I still haven’t run out.

7. Drink mixes: I live in the Sine-Saloume Delta, so the water here is salty and nasty. I have mostly gotten used to it, but sometimes I just need to cover the taste. This is when drink mixes come in handy. My family throws some in every package they send me. I am currently obsessed with pink lemonade (shout out to Crystal Light!). Gatorade packets are actually the best because they have electrolytes in them, and dehydration is not fun here (imagine me lying on the floor of my bathroom vomiting every hour). Drink packets are also good at covering the taste of bleach. When I first got to Senegal, I added 2-3 drops of bleach to my water to kill parasites. I quickly gave that up because it was annoying, but that’s just me. I’m an idiot.

8. Laptop: I don’t care which country you’re going to, but a computer is a necessity. I recommend those little Netbooks because they are tiny (shout out to Lindsey!) and transportable. I have a clunky Sony laptop that’s almost four years old. I like it just fine, but when I travel I take my iPod Touch with me. Best of both worlds (shout out to Megoosh by way of Hannah Montana!).

9. Flashlight: Or even better, a headlamp. Most of the volunteers in Senegal live in small villages without electricity. Because my sector is Urban Agriculture, I live in a pretty big town. I have electricity, but the power frequently goes out (especially in the rainy season). I’m grateful for candles, but more specifically, my flashlight.

10. Army blanket: Another item I brought on a whim and am super grateful for. It gets shockingly cold in this country…at night….in the cold season….sometimes. No but really, from December to February, I wear sweatpants and a long sleeved shirt to bed. This is when the blanket comes in handy. My dad (shout out to Colonel Michael J. Whitehead!) gave it to me a few years back. You can buy them at any army surplus store, and they are miracle blankets.

So there you have it. Everything on that list should be in your suitcase before you ship off for Peace Corps service. Feel free to tweak certain items, or you can just completely ignore the list and bring whatever the hell you want. These items have been lifesavers for me, and a lot of the things on the list I got later in my service. Having them since Day 1 would have been nice.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t include any medical supplies (i.e. vitamins), don’t fret. Peace Corps provides you with a badass med kit when you arrive. It has LITERALLY everything you need.

My dear readers, I hope you found this post helpful. I’m done. Moving on. Knowledge dropped.

An Expat Halloween

I didn’t celebrate Halloween last year. Tragic, I know. Sadly, it was a week after I moved to Sokone, so I felt obligated to INTEGRATE or whatever. This year, I knew I wasn’t going to miss another Halloween, and I didn’t.

Peace Corps Senegal celebrates Halloween in Tambacounda, which is a city 250 kilometers east of Kaolack. See map below:

After weeks of indecision regarding my costume, I finally landed on PETER PAN. I’m not gonna lie, I totally stole the idea from my sister Lindsey, although I don’t feel too bad because I have yet to see a photo of her in costume as Mr. Pan this year. Thus, I don’t think she actually dressed up as Mr. Barrie’s beloved child hero.

You’re probably wondering where I found a Peter Pan costume in West Africa. Excellent question. I didn’t find one. Bitch, I made one. Much like my infamous 2009 Where the Wild Things Are costume, I made my own. I’ll admit, without a Michael’s and/or Jo-Ann Fabrics around the corner, it was a bit harder. I managed though.

I found half the costume in Sokone and half in Kaolack. I went to the Sokone market and wandered around looking for brightly colored green things. I struck gold almost immediately. I found a shiny green L.A. Lakers uniform sketchily hanging in a, and I use this term loosely, “clothing store”. I bought it.

Next I found shoes. Shockingly, elf shoes were not difficult to acquire in Senegal. The men in this country (especially the religious leaders, aka “marabouts”) wear pointy/pleathery shoes in various hues anyway, so the only searching involved there was to find the proper shade of green.

The next step was turning NBA and marabout into Disney. Luckily, because everything here is crappily made, I could easily peel off the “L.A. Lakers” logo on the front. It was disposed of. I then cut the bottoms of the shirt and shorts, making them jagged. The shoes remained the same.

I then went to Kaolack to find the rest of the costume. I got in pretty late, so most of the market was closed already. I still went in and wandered around. I found gold leggings and asked the man if he had them in green. He sent one of his minions to fetch them. While I waited for the minion to do his master’s bidding, I chatted with the master. I was looking for a red feather. Not surprisingly, I don’t know “feather” or the verb “to fly” in Wolof or French, so I said what I could to convey what I wanted.

Me: Ya know birds?
Master: Yeah.
Me: Ya know how birds are up in the air?
Master: Yeah…
Me: Well, birds don’t have arms. They have those things that are like arms that make them go up in the air.
Master: Right. Your point?
Me: I want to buy those things that make birds go up in the air.

He told me he knew what I was talking about. He said feathers were available in the market, but not red ones. They had white, brown, and black. I told him I wanted one white feather, figuring I could color it with a marker or dye it with fruit punch mix. At this point, the minion had returned with the leggings.

While we waited for the feather, the master sat confused.

Master: So…why do you need this stuff?
Me: You’re asking me why I’m buying red feathers and women’s clothing?
Master: Exactly.
Me: Well, there’s this American holiday called Halloween. You wear crazy clothes and celebrate. It’s on the 31st of October.
Master: I see.

So the third man (second minion) comes back with the feather. Except this feather was attached to something: A BIRD. The man had brought me a live animal. A fairly pissed off dove, to be exact. Minion #2 must have been some sort of magician because he supplied a dove in the Kaolack market at nine at night. I’m lucky he didn’t try to saw me in half.

So I point to the bird’s feathers and tell them I want ONE of these. They happily obliged, although I felt bad for the dove when they plucked it.

I colored the feather red when I got back to the Peace Corps regional house (hopefully the bird didn’t give me some weird disease). I also borrowed my friend’s green cap, which completed the look. I think I did a pretty good job considering my geographical limitations and time constraints. Below is the finished product:

The shorts also double as shiny green lounge pants. Very stylish with the jagged edges. I’m wearing them now, actually.

Halloween was really fun. I ate candy and danced a lot. Leggings are good for dancing, for you can move fairly easily in them. In the future, I may only choose costumes that allow me to wear leggings. My options are limitless.

Me and My Murse

When I lived in America, I looked a lot different. I dressed better, and my clothes were washed by machine rather than hand. My feet were clean, and my face was less greasy and blemished. I was rarely sweaty. In a nutshell, I was more attractive.

In America, I did what every other guy did: I carried my wallet in my back pocket. Here, that is not an option. Theft is not something that happens every day in Senegal, but it does happen, and of course foreigners are targets because they have money. I learned during training to carry my wallet in my front pocket because it’s less accessible. I did this for a little bit, but I started getting frustrated when I would forget this and that. In addition, change is really important in CFA (the Senegalese currency). You end up carrying a lot of coins around, which jangle and leave bulges in your pockets.

So after a few months, I did what all grandmothers do and bought a change purse. Mine was purchased at an artisan fair in Dakar. It’s green and small, and I love it. It’s very convenient.

I thought the change purse would solve my problems. I thought it would organize and streamline my pockets. I still wasn’t satisfied though. I had my wallet in one pocket, my change purse in another, and my cell phone in a third. My pants were getting out of hand.

So finally I caved. I decided to man up and buy a MURSE. For those old folks who don’t know what a murse is (aka my Dad), it is a portmanteau for MAN PURSE. For those slow people who don’t know what a portmanteau is (aka a lot of people), look it up.

I was hesitant at first because I didn’t know what people would think of my murse (both volunteers and Senegalese nationals alike), but it has been almost a year since I rocked my first one, and I have never looked back.

My murse has changed my life. I carry all sorts of wonderful things in it. There is a list of things that are always in my murse, and today I would like to share that list with you. Let’s stop chatting and dive right in, shall we?

1. My wallet: of course my wallet is in there. I carry my wallet with me everywhere. It holds my money and my Peace Corps ID, which are both very important. There is a law in Senegal where you can’t walk around without proper identification. Basically, they can arrest you if you’re found without an ID. Foreigners should carry their passports, but Peace Corps volunteers can get by with carrying their ID card.

2. My change purse: as previously mentioned, I own a change purse. It holds all my coins, which are crucial in this country.

3. A book: the pace of this country is as frustrating as an episode of Lost. I always have a book with my in case I have to wait around, which happens often. I have read my book in all sorts of places: the post office, Senelac (where I pay my electricity bill), every mode of transportation I’ve ever taken, every restaurant in Sokone, etc.

4. Sunscreen: the African sun is brutal. The bottle currently in my murse is the one I brought to this country from America. I ran out of the stuff Peace Corps gave me. Thanks Publix for protecting my toubab skin.

5. Chapstick: the chapstick I carry in my murse is always SPF during the day. At night, I used medicated from the States.

6. Cell phone: my link to the outside world (and to other English speakers). Text messages are 20 CFA, which is around three cents. International texts are 100 CFA, which is around 20 cents. I can call volunteers for free, but it costs money to call Senegalese people.

7. Keys: to my room in Sokone.

8. Hand sanitizer: this country is dirty. I was always paranoid about germs, but since I got pink eye, I am overly cautious. Annoyingly, Peace Corps does not provide hand sanitizer, so it’s always good to include a few bottles in packages (hint hint).

So there you have it. Above is the list of things I carry with me on my person at pretty much all times. When I’m done with Peace Corps and this mess is all over, I probably won’t attempt to rock the murse stateside. I don’t think the American people are ready for me and my murse.

Simon Says Learn English!

Hey folks, before I start this next post, I just wanted to say THANKS for visiting my blog. To be honest, how many views my blog gets is directly connected to my level of happiness on any given day. My last post was so popular, so I’ve been walking around town like a king lately. Proper blog promotion + talking about tattoos = record number of views!

So…moving on. I have been busy the last few weeks. On September 17th, we finally got to do the big mangrove reforestation project I’ve been planning the last few months. There were over 50 people involved, and we ended up planting over 20,000 mangroves in the Sine-Saloume Delta near Sokone. It was such a blast. A group of women came out, as well as a lot of Senegalese children. I also recruited 25 fellow PCVS to help me out.

We all took a boat out into the delta, which was a blast in and of itself. We then spent four hours wandering around barefoot planting trees. It was low tide, so we ended up ankle-deep in mud and/or water most of the time. The day ended in a massive water fight with the children. They won. I felt like it was the perfect Peace Corps project. A lot of PCVs came out to help, as well as plenty of Senegalese people of varying ages. We taught them about mangroves and why it’s important to plant them, then we went out and planted. We had a lot of fun, and Senegal and its people benefited from it. A win win.

Also, I got to go up north and participate in an U.S.A.I.D.-funded English camp in the city of Louga, which is near St. Louis. My friend Rachel and I spent a week teaching English and playing games with middle school kids. All of them were proficient in English.

Since being in Peace Corps, I have done a lot of things I’d never done before. One of them is teaching. Considering my mother has been an elementary school teacher for 15 years, it’s ironic that I have never taught anyone anything before. Now I have worked and taught at two camps. I taught gardening at a girls camp in June, and I just spent the week teaching English. Let me tell you, teaching is HARD. It’s also unbelievably rewarding though.

The first day was rough. The kids were shy and quiet, and Rachel and I had a hard time getting through to them. They also acted like elementary schools in the 1950s. We walked into the classroom, and the boys were sitting on the left side of the room, while the girls were on the right. It took three days, but they finally learned how to talk to the opposite sex. Each day was better than the last. They finally came out of their shell a little bit, and I know for a fact that they had fun.

Things we did with them: Simon Says, baseball (which turned into a shit-show), hot potato (with water balloons…the girls were PISSED), Never Have I Ever (not just a drinking game!), relay races (three-legged, potato sack, egg-on-spoon-in-mouth), Pictionary, Word Find.

Songs we taught them: Take Me Out to the Ball Game, If You’re Happy and You Know It, and Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. (Clearly I don’t know the real names of those last two.)

Quote of the week: “How do you say ‘antelope’ in Engish?” – one of the students

We weren’t allowed to speak any Wolof. We could speak ONLY English, which was bizarre. I haven’t spoken that much English in over a year.

All in all, I had an amazing time. I was exhausted at the end of each day, but it was totally worth it. Hopefully I can do it next year.

YAY FOR MAKING A DIFFERENCE!

When Senegal Met My Tattoos

My cousin Brittany was curious to hear what Senegalese people think of my tattoos. I was going to wait and tell her in December when I come home for Christmas (I’ll try to pencil you, but I’m booked solid), but yesterday in the Kaolack market I saw two children staring and pointing at my legs. If you don’t already know, I have two tattoos. I have a small owl on my right ankle (shout out to Allyson!) and a line drawing of a camera on my left leg.

When I first arrived in Senegal, I was very conscientious about hiding my tattoos. When I accepted my invitation to come here, all the paperwork told me to bring conservative clothing that hides any tattoos. I also couldn’t have any bizarre piercings (not a problem because I took out my lip ring years ago). As a result, in my first few weeks, I wore long pants every single day, even though it’s insanely hot here (in AFRICA…I know, crazy right?).

Slowly, as I got familiar with this country and its people, I realized how much more relaxed everything is. Yes, in the north of Senegal (on the Mauritanian border), it’s a lot more strict. Women must wear long skirts that cover their ankles. Luckily, in my neck of the woods (just north of the Gambia), people are super chill. An added bonus is that my area is heavily populated with Sereers. Sereer, like Wolof, is both a language and a group of people. In general, Sereers are Catholic, so normally they’re more chill because their religion is less strict and they can drink alcohol.

Sokone, my town, is 60% Sereer. When I first moved there, I was a good little volunteer and tried to remain respectful of the local people, but as I walked around town, I would see women showing their knees and men wearing shorts. I decided to test the boundaries of my clothing options. I started by wearing shorts around the house. The first few times my family eyed my tattoos and said nothing. The more I wore shorts though, the more they stared. Finally, my host sister Sophie pointed at my camera tattoo and said, “That’s pretty. Do you like to take pictures?” It was something that a lot of Americans ask me. She didn’t yell at me for being disrespectful or make me put pants on. She oohed and aahed and asked if I had any others. It was a normal conversation with absolutely no judgement.

After that, I started walking around town in shorts. People stare, yes, but I figure they are going to stare at the white kid anyways, so I might as well give them something to look at. Adults don’t stare as much, and a lot of them ask me about my tattoos. Kids are crazy though. They stare and point and summon their friends to come and have a look at the toubab with the tats. A lot of the time I find myself being circled by children. They walk around me completely, checking for more body art. I often feel like I’m prey being circled by a shiver of sharks (a SHIVER? Google it). I guess, in a way, I am. If you’re wondering how I feel about the local children, read any of my previous posts. Senegalese children and I have an, um, interesting relationship.

A few weeks ago, I had a long conversation with my host brother about tattoos. He is about 45, and he was really interested in the subject. He asked me how long each tattoo took to get done, how much it cost, and whether or not it hurt. He was shocked at how expensive it was (I told him the prices in West African CFA). I was expecting him to freak out that I spent so much money on frivolous body art. The amount of money I spent on a small owl tattoo could have fed his family for a week. Instead, he told me how much he liked them. Oh, and during this whole conversation, my host brothers were outlining my camera tattoo with their fingers. Perhaps they were trying to see if it would come off.

One reason why I think people are chill about tattoos is because henna is so popular here. Senegalese women love getting henna done on their hands and feet. They do it for baptisms, weddings, and holidays, and a lot of the time they do it just because it’s beautiful. It’s the same thought process in America: people get tattoos for legitimate reasons (like commemorating something or honoring a loved one), but they also do it just to decorate their bodies. Henna is done for the same reasons, only it’s not permanent.

I don’t know why I was so worried in the beginning. I guess I was trying to integrate and be respectful, but most people here don’t care. Perhaps in other African countries it’s a big deal, but Senegal, I have found, is actually a really amazing country with a lot of laid back people. It suits me.

Oh, and one more thing, the lip ring comment was a joke.