Vacance

I’m back! In a lot of ways. I’m back from a long blog-writing hiatus, but I’ve also returned from my vacation in France. I know my last post was uncharacteristic, but clearly it was something that had been bothering me for quite some time, and I’m glad I got it off my chest. I wish I could say the reason it has been so long since I updated is because I wanted my words to marinate a little, but I’m actually just lazy and haven’t gotten around to writing.

I spent two weeks in Paris at the beginning of August, and I had an amazing time. It was a much-needed break from the longest, toughest, craziest, most stressful, amazing year of my life. I have officially passed the year mark in my Peace Corps service, and in a few weeks I will be halfway done. It’s really quite unbelievable that I’m halfway done, but then I remember that I still have 13 months left and it becomes believable again.

If you’re interested in knowing what I did in France, shoot me an email. If you don’t have the time, just know that I did and saw all the touristy things. I also did things that aren’t touristy at all but super normal. These things, such as going to the movies and shopping, were also highlights because I am incapable of such things in Senegal. Being normal after an abnormal year was a breath of fresh air.

I also really enjoyed getting my anonymity back. Being an American in Senegal is like being a celebrity. Everybody stares at you all the time. You get harassed on a daily basis because you’re different and you stand out. Walking off the plane and blending in was such a bizarre, indescribable feeling. I was waiting for my luggage at the airport and staring in wonder at the number of white people surrounding me. I felt uncomfortable, actually. Leave it to Africa to make me racist towards white people.

I spent two weeks in the city of Paris, which I recommend to anyone who has the time to do so. Normally when traveling, I want to cram as much as possible into the shortest amount of time. A few days in one city, and then on to the next one. It was refreshing to be in absolutely no rush. This was what I wanted out of my trip. I wanted to relax and not stress about seeing everything in a limited amount of time. I ended up seeing everything I wanted to see and then some. I ate some delicious food (CHEESE!) and drank delicious coffee, wine, and beer. If you’ve never been on holiday, I definitely recommend it.

Because I had such a great time, I was really worried about coming back. I thought I was going to arrive in Dakar in hysterics. I envisioned the lovely stewardesses of Royal Air Maroc dragging my wriggling body off the plane and throwing me on the tarmac.

Surprisingly, the transition back to Senegal went pretty well. I landed in Dakar, stepped of the plane and was immediately hot and sticky from the humidity. The airline lost my luggage, and I got back at six in the morning because my flight had been delayed five hours. As I walked out of the airport, several taxi drivers started yelling and grabbing me. You’d think, after all of this, I would freak out and break down. Instead, I smiled and thought to myself, “I’m home.”

I’ve been back almost two weeks now, and it has been perfectly fine. I’m just as surprised as you guys probably are by how easy it was for me to come back here. I take it as a very good sign that I feel this comfortable in such an uncomfortable country. As much as Senegal angers me and stresses me out every single day, I really do love it. I missed my host family, who were excited for my return.

The trip did exactly what it needed to. It refreshed me and gave me a burst of energy. The month leading up to my leaving, I was impatient and fed up with Senegal. I got to rest in France and feel like a human being again. I loved every minute of it.

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An Update

It has recently come to my attention that I have failed to properly update you guys about what I’ve been up to. Because I live in a third world country, it is not always easy to find electricity, let alone have access to the Internet. I try my hardest to update my blog, and I am proud of myself for keeping it up for almost a year now. I also post on my Twitter quite frequently, and I am happy I can update it using my cell phone.

When I do update my Twitter, apparently what I say is unsatisfactory. I had a Twitter in America, and the reason I like this particular social networking site is because my friends and family can see what I’m doing, even if that includes events that are less than exciting. Like I have stated in previous blog entries, my life is not as thrilling as it may seem. Most days I am bored out of my mind because I have nothing to do. I have electricity about a third of the time, and usually it’s on when I am asleep. Thus, I sit around and read, sit around and talk to my host family, or wander aimlessly around town. I also like to nap during the day.

When people find out I am in the Peace Corps, they have these grandiose visions of me saving the world. I am not doing that at all. Yes, I occasionally teach gardening if people are willing to listen to my broken Wolof. Unfortunately, Senegalese people are not that patient. There is a large NGO presence in Senegal (especially where I live), so when the locals see a white person, they automatically assume I am here to give money. Thus, it is really difficult to successfully do the work I came here to do. In addition, the Wolof culture is very abrasive. There is no beating around the bush, so when a Senegalese person is mad and/or no longer wants to speak with you, they tell you.

Of course, I am generalizing here. I have met a lot of amazing Senegalese people in this country. A lot of them are great at assisting me in my work. Without them, I am sure I would get absolutely nothing done. Most of the time, if I am trying to explain something in Wolof, people either are not listening or they do not understand. This is when those aforementioned Senegalese people step in and say the exact same thing I said. Of course, because they are Senegalese, people listen to them. Because of this, work is really discouraging.

Apart from these difficulties, I am trying my hardest to do what I can. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, most of the projects I am working on will not be sustainable. I quickly learned that grassroots development in Africa is really hard if you are not willing to dish out wads of cash in order to appease the locals. Thus, in order to keep myself sane, I have focused on the second and third goals of the Peace Corps, which are listed below.

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

On a day-to-day basis, the second and third goals are so much more gratifying. I studied Anthropology in college, so I joined the Peace Corps to travel and meet new, interesting people from a different culture. I have no background in development, and I am not particularly good at it. I am here to teach gardening, but I am not too good at that either. I found that my time is better spent sitting and chatting with people. I tell them about America and about the things that I know. In exchange, I learn more about Senegal and its’ people every day. I am here as an ambassador to the United States, so I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I get really frustrated and upset when people assume I am sitting around doing nothing just because I don’t have a beautiful garden or because you have not seen photos of successful projects.

I’m sorry I did not do a blog post about the hour-long conversation I had with my host brother about tattoos the other day (he had a lot of questions). I’m sorry I do not update my Twitter every time I sit under a tree and drink tea with a stranger (I do this a lot). I’m sorry if I did not discuss, the last time we talked, the frequent social obligations I must uphold every week so that people in my town don’t think I am a rude American. All of these things are part of my job, and they are really important to me. They make me feel like a good volunteer. Unfortunately, few seem to agree.

My Peace Corps service is mine and no one else’s. I can do with it what I wish. If I want to garden less and chitchat more, that’s my prerogative. To me, making friends and developing relationships is more rewarding than hosting permagarden trainings.

Of course, that does not mean I do not intend to try my hardest to make a difference in other ways. I am really proud of myself and the other volunteers who worked at the girls’ leadership camp last month. I think we made an impact on the lives of 39 young Senegalese girls, and for that, I am happy.

Next on the agenda: mangrove reforestation in September, school nutrition trainings in October, and lots and lots of tea.

Le 4 juillet 2011

BAM! I’m turnin’ out these blog posts like there’s no tomorrow. I guess this is because I am having a busy summer (lots o’ work and lots o’ play).

Well, yesterday I returned from a mini vacation to the region of Kedougou for the 4th of July. It was probably one of the most fun times I have ever had in my life. Kedougou, if you didn’t know, is down in the southeast corner of the country. It’s so far away that you can see the country of Guinea from the city of Kedougou (“I can see Guinea from my house!”).

Sorry for the back-to-back Sarah Palin jokes. I’m done now.

Anyways, so Kedougou is like a different world. Below you will find a map of Senegal. I am being wildly high tech and fancy doing this, but I feel like this post requires visual aids in order for it to be understood properly.

Okay, so Kedougou is that city really far away in the bottom right corner. I drove from Kaolack to Tambacounda, which took over four hours. We stopped in Tamba to stretch our legs, and then we moved on and drove the four hours to Kedougou. After we left Tamba, the world suddenly changed. We entered the Niokolo-Koba National Park, which is a World Heritage Site that is so insanely beautiful that I forgot where I was for a second. It’s so incredibly green, and there was MOUNTAINS. I saw warthogs frolicking and baboons (TONS of baboons) running across the road. They’d be chillin’ in the middle of the road, and our driver would get so mad because they wouldn’t move as he honked furiously.

Luckily, we only had one car problem, which arose as we were entering the city itself. We were crawling at a snail’s pace.

Us: Um, chauffeur. What the hell? Why are we going so slowly? It’s hot.
Driver: We ran out of gas.
Us: Oh…is that why we’re COASTING down this hill?
Driver: Yes.

Finally, we puttered to a stop right on the outskirts of town. The driver took a can and walked to the nearest gas station. As we waited, I decided to walk to the nearest boutique to buy water. I quickly encountered a problem when no one in the building spoke Wolof. I had stepped into Pulaar country and completely forgot. I did everything in French, which was bizarre. Good practice for France though, I guess. Luckily, I did find a lot of people who spoke a little Wolof, so I could easily get around.

Kedougou is an interesting town. It’s not very big, but it’s really spread out. There are no taxis, so you either have to walk or ride your bike. I was told this beforehand, so I brought my bike with me.

The 4th of July was really fun. We all hung out at the Kedougou regional house. Two pigs were roasted, and there was lots of delicious food. We set off fireworks, which was scary. It was probably the funnest (yes, FUNNEST) party I have ever been to.

The next day, we all walked down to the Gambia River to go swimming. We forded the river, which was scary as hell because the current was REALLY strong. Like, my friend got whisked away and had to grab a tree branch in order to stop herself. Several people lost shoes and other items.

So we swam in the river. There was a massive tree that had branches hanging over the river, so we climbed it and jumped in. Apparently there are hippos further down the river. I saw none. I did see two snakes though, which was awful and horrible and scary. I held my cool, and everything was fine. Maybe I am growing up. Hopefully.

Overall, Kedougou was a lot of fun. As a rode around the red dirt roads, staring at the greenery around me and mountains above me, I realized that this sort of scenario is what I thought Peace Corps Africa was going to be like. Biking around and greeting people in a beautifully lush environment. My Peace Corps service is drastically different from what I expected. Luckily, I think it’s better. As quintessential as Kedougou is, I’m glad I don’t live there. It’s so far away from the rest of the country, and there are scary animals (i.e. scorpions, huge spiders, snakes). It’s a wonderful place to visit, but it’s definitely not a place I would want to live for two years. I was glad when I pulled into Kaolack and the smell of garbage met my nostrils. I was home.

Where I’m the Pied Piper and Santa Claus

So this past week was the Kaolack Girls’ Leadership Camp. It was held in a campement in Sokone, and it brought 40 girls from the regions of Fatick, Kaolack, and Kaffrine together for a week of fun and learning. We focused on a different theme each day. On Environment Day we discussed gardening and the earth. On Career Day we had women from the area come in and discuss jobs. The goal was to open these girls’ eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

I helped out with a lot of sessions, but I ran one of them: Container Gardening. On Wednesday, I did three identical sessions on how to plant mint in found objects (i.e. water bottles, old tomato cans, etc.). I discussed how, if you don’t have space to start a big garden, there are a lot of possibilities to grow things. All of this was in Wolof, by the way. It went rather well, and the girls responded positively. They all took the containers home with them.

How did I acquire 40 containers for the sessions, you ask? Ah, let me tell you.

PICTURE THIS: me wandering around the Sokone market with a gaggle of Senegalese children trailing close behind carrying garbage. Yep, this happened.

I spent several days wandering around town looking for possible containers for my sessions. One day, I ended up in the market in the late afternoon. Few people were around. I had a big rice sac filled with random objects, which I carried with me. I stumbled upon two boys playing with an empty water bottle (only in Senegal!).

Me: Hey kids! Can I have that bottle?
Kids: No.
Me: It’s just a bottle. Give it to me!
Kids: NO!
Me: Ugh. I’ll give you 25 CFA for it.
Kids: Okay.

I gave them the money (around 5 cents), took the bottle, and continued on my way. Five minutes later, two other boys come up to me with an old plastic bucket.

Boys: Do you want this bucket?
Me: Yeah! Thanks!
Boys: Where’s our money?
Me: What?
Boys: We heard you were giving away money for garbage.
Me: Um, no. Do you want to give me that bucket anyway?
Boys: Um, no.

Seriously, kids kept approaching me with random garbage and holding it out to me. Of course, they all rudely wanted compensation. One little boy, bless his heart, just gave me a bottle and ran off. Not the brightest, obviously.

I ended up getting enough containers for all the girls, and I only paid for the one. I got a lot of interesting looks though as I rooted through garbage for two days. They didn’t think the toubab was weird enough, I guess.

PICTURE THIS: me wandering around a small Senegalese village with a big sac full of gifts to hand out. Also happened.

It’s seed extension time here in Senegal. Part of my job description includes extending improved seed varieties to local farmers and/or citizens. Peace Corps paired up with ISRA (L’Institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles), who supplies the seeds to all the agriculture volunteers. I decided to extend my seed (sounds dirty, but it isn’t) in my friend Joey’s village. I also gave my host dad some seeds, too. He was pleased.

So last week I biked out to Joey’s village, which is five kilometers away, with around 12 kilos of corn, beans, and millet. I mostly extended the seed to women, which I thought was a really good idea because women farmers get shafted a lot in this country. When I got to Joey’s village, we organized everything and headed out to the compounds. I carried a huge sac of seeds, and we went door to door.

At each house, we explained the program. Basically, if we give a farmer one kilo of corn, when harvest time comes, he has to give us two kilos of corn. It’s not that difficult. It’s a decent program, and all the villagers were really excited. After two weeks, and then again after four weeks, I have to check up on them to make sure everything is going swimmingly.

Yep, so that’s pretty much what’s been going on with me recently. Tomorrow I am heading down to the southeast corner of the country for 4th of July. I am going to be crammed in a car from Kaolack to Kedougou for eight hours. Wish me luck.

Where I Fly, Explode, & Get Jazzy

Where have I been? What have I been up to? I wish I knew the answers to these questions.

Wait, I do know. I am STILL IN SENEGAL. I have been here for over ten months now, and I am beginning to get itchy. Hence my impromptu purchase of a plane ticket to Paris. That’s right, Jamie is gettin’ outta dodge. I am heading to France for two weeks in order to escape Senegal in August. The way my service lines up, I get to experience three Ramadans in this lovely country. Unfortunately, Ramadan is not fun. Thus, I am taking a slight respite and I am going to wander around Paris for a little bit. As of right now, I plan on going it alone. If anyone would like to come, feel free.

Things I did in the last few weeks:

-Got thrown off a horse cart.
-Got a glandular infection of the eye.
-Went to an international jazz festival.
-Went on a booze cruise.
-Drank ginger ale AND 7 Up.

To start, let me explain how I almost broke a bone when a horse decided to contract suicidal tendencies. A few of my friends and I decided to visit another volunteer in his village. Regrettably, in order to get to his village, you have to take a 45-minute horse cart ride through the scorching African bush.

We climbed aboard this horse cart with a friendly Senegalese driver and were on our way. Suddenly, the horse decided he didn’t want to walk anymore. The driver, beating the animal senseless (which was both terrifying and horribly sad), finally succeeded and jumped back on the cart just in time for the horse to start sprinting like a bat out of hell. It was scary, yes, but we were fine and still on the cart, so we said nothing. Plus, the horse was moving, which was an improvement from his earlier immobility.

After several stop-and-go type scenarios that almost resulted in us flying off the cart, the horse finally succeeded when it took a corner too sharply and plowed into a stump sitting next to the road. Because the horse was sprinting, the left wheel stopped abruptly, while the right half of the cart continued on the path. I remember thinking, as I flew through the air, that I really did not feel like getting medevaced to Dakar. Luckily, my childhood gymnastics training/years of watching the Olympics kicked in, and I landed on my feet. I seriously have no idea how it happened, but I found myself standing several feet away from the cart, looking down at my friends, who were lying in a dog pile directly next to the cart.

My friends: How’d you get way over there?
Me: I have no idea.
My friends: Did you land like that?
Me: I believe so.
My friends: Seriously?
Me: ……

We finally clamored back onto the cart (we were bruised but not harmed), and for the duration of the journey, my knuckles were white from clutching the sides so tightly. I guess the horse was satisfied with the level of fear it instilled in us because it trotted softly the rest of the way. RUDE. We made it though, and the ride back the next day was, of course, a nice stroll through the countryside.

Next on the list: my glandular infection. Basically, the right side of my face exploded one morning because of this weird bump on my eye. My eye was super red and swollen and constantly leaking tears. I went to Kaolack to get medicine, which I took for two days. After little improvement, the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) told me to come to Dakar. I agreed (even though I really didn’t want to go).

I ended up staying at the med office in Dakar for four days. I went to the eye doctor, which was bizarre. He was French and very nice. I got three types of medication, which I am still taking. The swelling went down pretty fast, and the bump on my eye is tiny and barely noticeable.

I also took a slight vacation last week when I went up north to the 19th Annual St. Louis International Jazz Festival. I had visited St. Louis once before (for New Years), so I was no stranger to the ole French colony. It was really nice to see volunteers I usually don’t get to see, and I had a lot of fun listening to jazz music. All the legit shows were expensive, so my friends and I ended up bar hopping every night to listen to the shows that were playing at several smaller venues all over the island.

The second night we were bar hopping, I received a text message from a friend that read: Come to the boat. Free booze. Basically, there was this large, multi-story boat docked on the river that had been sitting there for days. My friends and I leapt up and ran across the island to the boat. We climbed several ladders and ended up on the upper deck. The party was amazing, and there was lots of delicious free wine. The boat never moved, but it was really beautiful watching the ocean and the bridge at night. You can even see the country of Mauritania from there (“I can see Mauritania from my house!”).

Overall, the weekend was really fun. I will definitely go again next year. St. Louis is a really cool and diverse city, and the jazz festival was amazing.

Last but not least: I found ginger ale in Kaolack and 7 Up in St. Louis. Livin’ the high life.

Oulay

Living with a Senegalese family is about as difficult as living with an American one. They drive you crazy, but they always have your back. In return, you always have their back. There is a mutual trust and appreciation that doesn’t go away. Yes, my Senegalese family is not my real family, but it’s the closest thing I’ve got in this country.

I have been living with them for eight months now, and they have been wonderful. They are kind and patient with my language skills. They cook delicious food (by local standards), and they put up with my strange American behavior. I love all 23 of them, and I would do anything for them. This declaration was tested the other day when my sister Oulay knocked on my door.

She asks if she can come in, and I gladly accept. I find it slightly odd because my family rarely comes in my room, but I push these feelings aside. She sits down on the floor and tells me to sit with her.

We chat about nothing for about ten minutes until finally she tells me that she is sick. She pulls out her right breast and tells me that something is wrong with it. It hurts. I ask if she wants medicine. I give her Ibuprofen from my med kit and provide water. I give her a couple more and tell her to take them after meals. She thanks me. She says she needs to go to the marabout’s house down the road but she doesn’t have any money. I ask why she needs money to go to the marabout’s house. She says she will pay him money in exchange for health and protection.

How much? She wants 30,000 CFA, which is around $60. This is a lot of money considering how much I get paid monthly. My family has never asked me for money before. I have heard horror stories from other volunteers whose families have asked for substantial amounts. It’s an awkward situation for both parties.

I stall by steering the conversation elsewhere. Several minutes later, she stands up and tells me she’s going back outside. I stand. She asks if I understand the situation. I do. I go to my wallet and look. I only have 20,000 CFA, part of which is earmarked for travel. There is no bank in Sokone. I give her 10,000 CFA and tell her that’s all I have. She accepts it and says she will ask other people for the rest. She leaves.

I have so many mixed feelings about the situation. I feel so guilty that I didn’t give her all of it (though I had a legitimate excuse). I am also suspicious about this whole scenario. I believe she is sick, but I don’t know why she needs so much money just to see the marabout. I would be more willing to give her money for hospital bills, but I don’t want to tell her that. I don’t want to preach to her when she genuinely believes that the marabout can help.

These types of situations make me sad. In a country with such a strong NGO presence, the local people see a white person and immediately assume they are there to dish out the dough. Children, as well as adults, on the street ask me for money on a daily basis. I was always thankful that my family never did, and I appreciated the safety their compound provided.

I still trust my family immensely, and their compound is still a safe haven from the rest of Senegal when it needs to be, but I probably will never, and I use this term loosely, loan them money again. A one-time, quasi-legitimate payment will be sufficient in the two years I’m with them.

I’ll keep you posted on further developments.

It’s Just a Dollar

Last night, a situation occurred that I believe accurately sums up Senegalese culture as a whole. I will tell this story with as little bias as possible because I do not want to seem insensitive to this country that I love so much.

Time: I dunno. 8 PM?
Location: Kaolack, Senegal

My friend Kourtney and I are walking to the boutique together to buy Sprite. I have my wallet in my pocket, but Kourtney is carrying some money in her hand. We are approaching the boutique when Kourtney drops a 500 CFA piece on the ground (roughly $1). Neither of us has our phone (which has a fancy flashlight on the end), so we’re rooting around on the ground for a good five minutes looking for this money.

As we’re searching, two random Senegalese people get on the ground and start helping us search, too. Then, the owner of the boutique comes out of his store with a huge lantern, which illuminates the scene (it was rather dark before). Kourtney and I keep telling them that we can search alone, but the growing crowd insists that they want to help.

Finally, we give up. We tell them it was only 500 CFA, and that we can return in the morning and hunt for it some more. The helpful citizens go back to their original positions (aka loitering outside the boutique). While I am waiting for Kourtney to buy the Sprites, a girl stands up that had been silent and immobile the entire time. She walks over to the area where the money was dropped, picks up the coin, and hands it to me. I thank her.

Kourtney and I start discussing how wonderful Senegalese people are. In America, if I dropped money on the ground, a crowd would never gather to help me find the missing currency. We are genuinely impressed.

Unfortunately, as soon as these feelings of happiness arise, the girl who found the money finally breaks her silence with:

Girl: Give me 100 CFA.
Me: Excuse me?
Girl: I helped you find your money. Give me 100 CFA of it.
Me: ……
Girl: I helped you find your money! Give me 100 CFA! Give it to me!
Me [walking away and laughing]: Ha! You’re funny….

As Kourtney and I walked away, we discussed how typically Senegalese that whole scenario was. As a whole, Senegalese people are genuinely nice, but only to an extent. You can walk by someone’s compound that you don’t know, and they will invite you to lunch. This sort of hospitality is called teranga in Wolof. The Senegalese are famous for it. Regrettably, teranga has limitations. Yes, a Senegalese family will invite you to have lunch with them, but the second the meal is completed, they will either tell you to leave or completely ignore you, implying that their hospitality has ended.

Thus, the girl probably sat there the whole time we were searching for the money. She probably knew where it was from the beginning but wanted to be the one to find it so she could collect her reward. Unfortunately for her, the two stingy toubabs who lost the money in the first place were not willing to put up with that sort of behavior. We laughed and walked off.

I also find it funny (and I’m segwaying here) that people in Kaolack can always point out the Peace Corps volunteers. Kaolack is the third largest city in Senegal, so white tourists show up all the time. They are gracious and speak French. The Senegalese can always pick out the volunteers though because we speak in the local language and don’t put up with bullshit. When I am harassed at the garage, I yell in Wolof and shove people when they touch me. They always just laugh at say, “Ah, Corps de la Paix.” I guess I am pretty integrated because I act just like a Wolof.

I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.