An Outside Perspective

In the last week of April, I was lucky to host a friend of mine from high school, Regan. As this was to be her first time in Africa (or in any Third World country), I asked her beforehand to keep notes of her observations and first impressions for this blog later. I know there are many things I’ve become accustomed and desensitized to being here, both cultural and physical (eg- climate, amenities, lifestyle), and it was really interesting for me to get an “outsider’s” (non-PCV) perspective. Here are some of her thoughts from our whirlwind 10-day trip around Senegal:

  • DAKAR: Africa is crazy…. I can’t believe how poor it is!…It’s fascinating and I am soaking everything up but cannot believe how luxuriously I live- and we haven’t even made it out of the capital Dakar yet! We walked around the Dakar market and got harassed constantly by vendors and then I had a fancy Senegalese lunch: fried rice with plaintains, yams, tomatoes, fish, and hibiscus juice. The Dakar PC house reminds me of Camp Tohikanee.. It’s like our a-frames: wooden bunks with mosquito nets…it’s like hard core camping- luckily there is a toilet and a shower.
  • DOWN TO KOLDA: Man- leaving from Dakar was TOUGH. We woke up around 4:00am and went to a public garage. Transportation here is squeezing as many people and things as possible into a 1960′s station wagon that is falling apart (needless to say no air conditioning) and sending it on its merry way to wherever people need to go whenever the car is full. We get to the garage at 4:45 (garage looks like a car junkyard…). Our car didn’t fill up till 7:00am. We drove about 9 hours in 110 degree weather in a car packed with Senegalese people (it looked like we were trying to cross a border/smuggle people). It is amazing to me to see how people live- it’s like going back in time 500 years: thatch huts, starving children begging and pulling on you constantly, trash EVERYWHERE (there is no trash system)…it’s traumatizing…
  • KOLDA: We got to the Peace Corps house in Kolda- they have mice, lizards, and bugs! Again, I repeat how I am in awe of these Peace Corps volunteers…Since it is 115-120 degrees we took the foam sleeping mats up to the roof and slept under the full moon and stars under mosquito nets. THAT was awesome (except for the braying donkeys and roosters continuously from 5am. Plus the call to prayer from the mosque at dawn and the singing of the Koran that can be constantly heard all over.) This morning we woke up and went to the market. It’s “hunger season” right now because their harvest is September-November so starting around April they enter “hunger season”. So for lunch I had all natural peanut butter- I literally watched these women grind peanuts (they have tons of peanuts and cashews trees here). They don’t add anything! It’s just ground peanuts and it turns into peanut butter!  Did you know cashews have apple fruit that grow with the nuts? It’s really weird tasting.. And the MANGOES! I could eat them all day- at 120 degrees the water is just sucked out of you and these hot mangoes you buy at these stalls on the side of the road are God’s gift to Senegal. They are hot and juicy and one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. We got up at 6am to bike through the “bush” (60km ride- about 3 hours) to Steph’s village. I am learning SO much about Africa’s problems and the frustrations Steph deals with on a daily basis, and it all stems from ignorance (high school education is like genius level here)- and basically the culture’s inability to accept change. You can also see the “inside scoop” on what aid organizations are actually accomplishing here (according to Steph, it’s very little- it’s all just handouts and not actual teaching/progressive change- the whole “give a man/teach a man to fish”…). Her villagers think the American government just gives the American people money when they ask for it and money grows on trees in America. The ignorance here is mind-blowing…just mind-blowing.
  • KEDOUGOU: Biked to the waterfalls/mountains surrounding Kedougou, the capital of another region. Bad news though- I am uber sick. We went camping yesterday and last night and this morning we woke up to bike the 40km back to the Peace Corps compound. I am now laying in a hammock as close to the toilet as possible. It’s 1:00pm and like 110 degrees. Tomorrow we have a 13 hour car ride. Steph said some volunteers take Valium for the long rides and I’m considering it. This chick was not made for the 3rd world. Though the absolute careless lifestyle with no showers/makeup/sleeping under the stars etc., I am definitely enjoying. Spain’s conditions seem like Paradise now!

I’m so glad Regan got to come. I know it was a hectic, non-luxury trip (traveling on the combined budget of a PCV and a law school student), but it was so great to be able to host someone from back home. Not only am I going to be able to have someone from my pre-PC life understand my perspective/experience much better when I finally leave, but I got the unexpected benefit of being able to put certain things in perspective. She helped me regain patience for some people/customs of West Africa I thought I’d long lost, and appreciate little gestures and things I’ve since become used to… and she also brought lots of fabulous Spanish cheese and drink. :-)

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Who Don’t Need No Education?

This is a blog post I have wanted to write for several months, and with one of my newer projects starting up (doing lessons at my primary school about environmental conservation) and the conclusion of the newest Ag/Agfo PCVs’ in-service training, I figured this is an appropriate time to do so.

West African socioeconomic indicators near the bottom of the lists of the various IGOs, NGOs, and think-tanks who calculate such global measurements. Literacy rates and years spent in school are saddening. Throughout my high school and college years, I heard from multiple teachers/professors that the quantity and quality of education we were receiving, especially at the university level, is a privilege that many other people would be foolish to even imagine attaining.

As my first stop on my wild PC journey was Mali, where literacy rates are at an astonishing 40%*, I saw early on the benefits of having a university education. Now, when I say education, I’m definitely not referring to the ultimate goal: the degree. While that’s necessary for job-hunting in the States, the greater benefits of learning are often ignored in our culture. As I was first learning Bambara, I was so frustrated with any host family member or non-PC-trained person who’d try to help me. I’d learned foreign languages before, and moreover, I know how I best learn—the benefits of having spent most of my life in school. Yet, in many post-colonial countries, the school system attempts to teach primary students the official lingua franca, yet the only way they do it is through memorizing some basic, antiquated lines. Students are given “dialogues,” which often consist of lines such as:

“Hello. How are you?”
“I am fine. How are you?”

“What is your name?”
“My name is ______.”

“Thank you. Passport please.”

(I’m assuming that last line, which was ubiquitous in Mali, is in case any of them ever land in Dulles or JFK someday.)

Seriously, there’s no teaching or understanding of grammar, syntax, or a logical progression of vocabulary acquisition. As far as literacy goes, phonics is completely ignored. Students don’t know how to approach a new language (or any subject, really) and how to learn it best. As there’s absolutely no diversity in curricula throughout the country, students also are not exposed to different methods of learning.

Then I moved to Senegal. While the curricula and approach to imparting knowledge upon their youngsters are also atrocious, there are some unique problems. Unlike Mali, Senegal’s very linguistically diverse. The heterogeneity compounds the problem of teaching French to children who never hear or speak French outside of the classroom. Under this national education system, teachers (basically anyone who’s studied through the high school level) apply to be teachers, and the country assigns them to a school somewhere in the country. Anywhere. When I first got to site, I was reassured by one of the teachers, in Bambara, that when he and one of his colleagues arrived in my village, they also couldn’t speak Pulaar. It is definitely not uncommon for teachers of one language to be placed in a village or town of another language. Lacking any common languages with your teacher is something I’m now familiar with, thanks to the uniqueness of my transfer situation and the unavailability of PC tutors when I arrived. I was so frustrated and accomplished very little with that teacher; I can’t imagine what schoolchildren, who don’t have the ability to teach themselves, feel with their schooling quality. Having helped my younger host sister study her lessons, I know they get nothing out of it.

There are many problems inherent in the national educational system here, and I could easily list and describe them all, but that’s not where I want to go with this post. My work at site, with adults, has made me conscious of cultural obstacles to sustainable development in most sectors. While I’m definitely grateful for the advantages my higher education has and will afford me, as my teachers said, I’ve grown eternally thankful for my elementary school education.

Unbeknownst to me before PC, we learn so many critical things in the earliest years of our schooling that greatly shape how we think and approach problems as adults. Schools and homes here do not teach critical thinking, cause and effect analysis, or even independent and creative problem-solving. As adults, Americans use these critical thinking and problem analysis strategies regularly. To me, they seemed inherent. I never deliberately think to recall those skills; they’re reflexive. I remember being taught the steps to the scientific method in elementary school, but even at that point, it seemed superfluous. Logic and experimentation are such integral parts of our society that we don’t even realize these modes of thought are learned. Having controlled experiments and trying innovative techniques are still foreign concepts in many parts of the developing world. Without these elementary methods of thinking and the desire to determine how to improve a situation, nothing changes. The biggest local-level reasons for development and growth bypassing many parts of the world are the cultural adversity of straying from tradition and the unfamiliarity with testing and analyzing critically.

Next time you see an elementary school teacher, don’t forget to thank them. What they’re teaching children is much more fundamentally important to society than most people are aware. Analytical thought is crucial to the progress (and desire to progress) of society. Teachers and parents are responsible for instilling in their children from a very young age these values; it becoming ingrained throughout society is the first step to any positive development. The widespread adaptation of such thought processes is an invaluable accomplishment.

*For the record, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number was stretched. Several people I met claimed literacy, but I would later see they’d simply memorized words on a page after someone read it to them. I’d point to a word at random, and rarely were they able to tell me which word it was; phonics was not something they were capable of.

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Peace Corps, Year 2: 2013

I don’t know if there’s any way 2013 can compete with this past year in terms of changes, upheaval, and new experiences. 2012 was comprised of all the following (and then some):

  • swearing in as a PCV in Mali
  • malaria
  • an unfortunate infection resulting in a huge scar and a home-made zombie apocalypse movie
  • a coup d’etat
  • sieges of the northern part of Mali by various separatist and Islamist sects
  • a hasty round-up/consolidation and evacuation of 180 PCVs following above coup and fighting
  • an unexpected 2-week trip to Ghana, including time at a super-posh resort and exploring the beautiful Wli Waterfalls in the Volta Region
  • direct transfer to PC/Senegal, along with many….”growing pains”
  • move to a new site, with barely survival language skills
  • learning yet another new local language
  • staph infection
  • realization that I have a genuinely awesome site, with many people who are not only incredibly warm and generous, but very motivated to learn and work for their own betterment (NB: the last point is both uncommon and KEY to a successful and enjoyable PC service and the village’s improvement)
  • ear infection, with temporary hearing loss
  • a very successful Open Field Day with my Master Farmer/counterpart
  • my host family naming the new baby after my dad
  • running a moringa tourneé with other nearby Volunteers covering both the growth/harvesting and the nutrition/cooking aspects
  • first vacation since I joined PC: Christmas and New Year’s in Cape Verde!

I’ve just returned after a busy but very fun 11 days in Cape Verde. There were plenty of beautiful beaches and mountains and good food and wine–even a volcano we were able to hike up in about 3 hours, but run down in just about 1 hour. (Yes, you’re supposed to run down it; it’s so steep and deeply packed with ash from its last eruption in 1995 that you really have no choice but to go that quickly–and even when you face-plant, it doesn’t hurt, the small rocks are kind of like that weird artificial dirt playground material.) Also, FYI, the Cape Verdean diaspora is largely concentrated around the Boston area. It wasn’t uncommon to meet someone with a Boston accent, or to see New England decor and sports jerseys. While I wanted to throw up with all the Dice-K and Garnett jerseys walking around, I thought it was kind of funny to see “New Bedford” and “Fall River” painted on  barrels at one cafe we stopped at.

Anyway, while I’m certainly dragging my feet to return to site after some much-needed relaxing on beaches and hiking mountains and eating delicious AND nutritious foods, I’m excited for what 2013 brings. I know I’ll be very busy in a few months, when tree-planting and farming season starts (as several villagers have already asked me to help them with live fencing or fruit tree grafting), and I’m really thankful that, despite all the upheaval and uncertainty of this past year, I’ve found work and a site I’m becoming very comfortable in.

 

 

 

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Over 1 year since leaving the US…

Cold season has started to set in–I think. After officially being in Africa for over a year, it’s amazing how much I’ve adjusted to so many things, including the climate. It takes many PCVs a while to acclimate to the heat of the Sub-Saharan, especially if you’re an agriculture/environment PCV and spend much of your working hours outside. My counterpart received a thermometer and rain gauge from PC earlier this rainy season to record rainfall. Mary and I quickly grew excited to check the temperature whenever we’d go to work on the Master Farm, only to reinforce every time that our bodies are seriously off the normal American scale. During rainy season, I’d often go to work in the afternoon (around 4 pm) to see the thermometer completely full. I don’t even know what the actual temperature was; it just topped out at 50 C (122 F). One time, we both commented on how strangely cold it was, and we went to put sweatshirts on…after all, it was a mere 80 F.
Anyway, since my work/daily life at site generally changes with the season (like most Ag PCVs), here’s what my average day in Thiewal Lao looks like:

  • 6:30: wake up to the sound of donkeys, roosters, and women pounding grain right outside my hut
  • 7: actually force myself out of bed and get dressed for a morning run (usually on bush paths around my village)
  • 8: return from my run, wash, dress, cook myself breakfast, and do basic morning hut chores (pull water, sweep, weed my backyard)
  • 9: go to work for the morning, which about 3 times a week means going to the Master Farm. Other times, daily projects are at the Poste de Sante, in the women’s garden, or with a villager’s individual garden or field.
  • 12:30: return to my family’s compound to rest, read, hang out, and wait for lunch. Sometimes I’m back from work early enough to help with cooking, but not often.
  • 4: finish up project/work for the day, or just continue to hang out with friends in village
  • 6: pull water for my evening bath and hang out with my family (which lately has been a lot of playing with my younger host siblings) and wait for dinner
  • 9: say good night to the family and go back to my hut, where I attempt to read a little bit before quickly passing out

Agroforestry work can largely be summed up as “planting trees.” The purpose of promoting agroforestry techniques is to help local farmers increase their lands’ crop productivity. Such techniques include live fencing (of which I believe I’ll be doing a lot of next year), alley cropping, windbreaks, and fruit tree grafting (which my counterpart’s already a local expert on). Agfos need to be able to identify local tree species and what they’re good for, as well as know how best to obtain seeds (either collect locally, ask the Senegalese Eaux et Forets Ministry, or from the Peace Corps office). Generally, Agfo PCVs’ work differs from many other sectors in that we usually work more with individual farmers/gardeners in our communities, rather than with larger groups. I really prefer this approach, as it’s much easier to control how work progresses, and teaching new techniques is much easier and less stressful one-on-one than it is with larger groups (ahem: Thiewal Lao women’s associations). After getting to know your site and introducing your work, it’s more typical  that people come to you rather than you approaching them for work collaboration/ideas. Early on in my service in Senegal, I went around to each compound in my site to give them a young tree I’d planted when I first installed and explain what it was good for agriculturally (e.g. the thorns make it a good live fence, or it enriches the soil and grows tall so it would make a good windbreak….). Since then, people have asked me to help them with planting tree nurseries next year to be used for a specific technique in their garden/field. (So far, it’s all been live fencing requests.) Just keepin’ busy….
Sidenote: “The Newsroom” has officially become Senegal PCVs’ (or at least in Kolda) latest Western obsession. For those of you who aren’t in the loop, it has the best parts of his “West Wing” (another PC obsession), and Sam Waterston (I miss “Law and Order”!). Watching the first season has basically been all we’ve been doing in the Kolda house while staying up all night for election results to come in.

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Open Field Day, and other updates

Well, September absolutely flew by. Mary and I started off the month finishing up final preparations for our Master Farmer’s Open Field Day (a day of my counterpart showing off his demonstrations for all the field crops—corn, peanuts, rice, sorghum, millet–, the live fence, and garden beds to the community, with discussions and questions led by a visiting PC Ag staff). Good news: our Open Field Day was great! Gano, my counterpart/Master Farmer, is simply awesome. Not only does he work very hard and try his best to adhere to the PC field demo guidelines, but he actually UNDERSTANDS the point of most of the demos. Personally, I think one of the most beneficial and sustainable aspects of the whole program is the fact that it teaches the basic scientific method principles and experimentation (along with other very useful life skills, including basic accounting: Gano has to keep a record of how many of his vegetables he sells in the weekly market and how much he earns). In many West African cultures, people are very risk-adverse—which makes sense, considering that if a new technique/technology wasn’t successful, they won’t just lose profit; they won’t have food for their family. With over 80 people showing up for his Open Field Day, I hope that at least a few of them were able to recognize the success and purpose of his demonstrations—and after listening to the (seemingly non-ending) discussion following the tour, it sounds like he did a great job of explaining the process and what he tested for (be it a pesticide, soil amendments, plant thinning, or spacing techniques), and what the results show.

Another reason September seemed to fly: I unfortunately came down with a nasty ear infection and some resultant hearing loss the week before our Open Field Day. I waited in Kolda until the pain had subsided a great deal before going up to Dakar to see an ENT specialist (traveling 15+ hours on bad roads, cramped in a car without A/C while my ear was in so much pain I was literally crying? I think not). Since I had a follow-up appointment with the specialist eight days later, I ended up going back to site for, ultimately, about 10 hours. But while I was there, it felt great to be able to see my host family for the day, especially since my sister finally had her baby the day before I got back! I was told that everyone was hoping for a girl, since they wanted to name her after me (my Senegalese name, Kadiatou). I’m actually thankful that she gave birth to a little boy, as my namesake is my youngest sister, and having three different “Kadiatou’s” in one small compound would make life so confusing. Since it was a boy, though, they’ve decided to name him after my father—well, sort of. The vowel sounds of “Tom” and “Thomas” aren’t very pretty coming out of their mouths, but “Tomas” worked just fine. I have a feeling I’ll be spending a good deal of time playing with little Tomas when I get back to site. :-)

Other activities at site: Any day I’m not busy working at the farm (planting more trees for the fence, digging garden beds, or combating the never-ending weeds in the crops), you can find me crazily walking through village trying to track down the presidents of my two women’s groups or one of the masons to figure out how to fix the women’s garden fence before the start of cold season. The fence is falling apart, and animals are constantly getting into the space. I also think the one well and basin aren’t exactly sufficient for the whole garden (it’s a big plot), so I bribed the women’s groups if they could fix the fence before November, I’d try to put in another well and basin. (So far, they’re still collecting the 52 new fence posts for the fence, after which we’ll have to go through and cut all the chicken wire currently tied to their rotting posts in order to pull the grillage tight enough.) But, I have confidence that this will stay on track—and have already discussed at great length with some local masons/well-diggers how I want this well and basin (with PVC piping running between) to be done, and they’ve started digging the initial holes.

I also have a moringa tournée I’m helping run throughout our work zone. Another PCV in Kolda (Whitney) and I have scheduled visits to several sites over the course of November to promote growing intensive beds. Intensive beds, whether for moringa or fruit trees, are tree nurseries in which you plant the trees very closely together and continue to prune them to a certain height for greater leaf production. I taught the nurse at my health post how to dig one early in my service, and he’s done a really good job so far with its up-keep. Either Whitney or I will be at each of the sites to paint murals (showing either how to make an intensive bed or the nutritional benefits of moringa and properly cultivating/cooking it) and dig a bed with the volunteer at that site and their counterpart.

For the first time in my service (and I’m just about at the year mark in Africa!!), time feels like it’s flying. Looks like I still have a busy month ahead of me….

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Say What?

One of the cooler aspects of PC service is learning local languages most Americans have never even heard of (think of all the cool bar stories I can tell when I’m home!). PC Senegal especially has many languages. The country is extremely linguistically and ethnically diverse—the largest group (Wolof) doesn’t even form a majority of citizens (about 40%). My site’s a Fulakunda site, though it’s 1km from a Pula Futa village (another Pulaar dialect), and my sitemate is 4km away in a Mandinka village (a Mande language, like Bambara and Malinke).

In many cases, you’re the only Toubab they’ve met who’d rather speak to them in their native tongue than in French (or whatever the host country’s lingua franca is). Though having had to learn Bambara, Malinke, and Fulakunda in less than a 12-month span has had more than its fair share of frustrations, there’s definitely an unparalleled sense of street cred you feel whenever the locals recognize you as being able to speak their language. Granted, this acknowledgement comes much more easily and frequently from strangers than from villagers at your site. It’s easy to make yourself sound more comfortable and capable of the language than you really are when you’re quickly throwing out greetings and casually shooting the breeze in the same 10-minute conversations with people you’ve just met—I practically have those memorized at this point (who you are, what kind of work you do, where your site is, and how hot it is today). Funny, if you just spit out greetings at rapid-fire pace, they think you’re fluent—until you start trying to have actual conversations with them (often project-related), and they realize how much of a stuttering, hesitating speaker you are.

After busting my hump for the past 3+ months at site to learn Pulaar, I’m starting to feel some progress. I’ve had 2 personal victory moments, both of which happened in Kolda. The first was at a hotel, where I was using their wifi while watching an Olympic soccer game. Two Senegalese men were standing behind me, discussing what had just happened in the game. One of them got the player’s name wrong, so I turned and corrected him. That man just looks at the other and says, “How does the Toubab know Pulaar?” The second guy’s immediate response was, “She must be a PCV.” Points for PC.

The second awesome moment happened the next day, when I was getting a car back to site. Unfortunately, the little victory wasn’t under the best of circumstances: some 18-year-old kid who helps load the buses tried to prevent me from sitting in the empty front seat because I’m a woman. Seething, I lashed out at him, saying he was disrespectful, stupid, and ended with pushing him out of the way while telling him in no ambiguous terms what he should go do (much thanks to an older PCV who’d, ironically, just told me how to say that in Fulakunda earlier that day). The few nearby people who’d heard our interaction jumped to my defense and later told me they were very impressed with my Pulaar. Points for me.

(*For the record, I very rarely experience gender discrimination in Senegal, incessant marriage proposals aside. And the whole not letting a woman sit in the front seat thing does not actually exist; this must have just been a little punk who was looking to upset me.)

The language barrier has made communication at site very interesting and highly variable; though the people I speak with most generally understand me the best, and I sometimes use them as intermediaries when I’m trying to explain something important, just to be sure it gets conveyed accurately. My older host brother, who works as a Tostan teacher in a different town most of the year and speaks French, is one of those who understands my Pulaar best, and his greater-than-village-average education means he’s a bit more worldly and knowledgeable about current events than most others in Thiewal Lao; he’s become one of my favorite people to hang out with at site. However, I had an interesting conversation with him and my grandmother (also one of my favorites) earlier this week that reminded me that, despite his awareness of current events (we talk about the ongoing Mali situation a lot) and the fact he has an email address (like Mali, many villagers have no idea what the Internet is, much less email), he’s still a rural West African villager (and the education here is sadly lacking in quality history and geography lessons—in addition to many other things, namely logic, reasoning, deduction, etc. But more on that another day…). Per usual, the conversation started with them asking questions about life in the US, this time about farms and farming. I showed them my passport page with the image of the US farmer circa 1900. Because this conversation quickly became the quintessential village culture exchange, I wrote it down as literally as possible to demonstrate what I hear on a daily basis:

  • Me: Yes, over 100 years ago, we farmed like you, but since then we’ve learned new techniques to grow lots of food and keep our soil healthy. And we have very big farms with big machines, but most Americans don’t farm.
  • Brother: So, one person has 4 hectares of a farm, and they have a lot of money?
  • M: No, many farms are much bigger, and farmers pay people to help. They farm lots of food to sell.
  • *They nod, unconvinced. He starts flipping through the passport, looking at other images.
  • B: Oh, this is a big animal. What’s it called?
  • M: I don’t know its name in French, and it’s not in Senegal so there’s no Pulaar name. In English, it’s called ‘buffalo.’
  • Grandma: Are there a lot in the US? Do you eat them?
  • M: Not too many now. I’ve never eaten one. People used to kill them and eat them because they have a lot of meat, but American people don’t do that a lot now.
  • B: Oh, so now they’re not in American towns? They’re bush animals?
  • M: Sure.
  • *They continue to flip through my passport and comment on every animal and monument picture, until the last page.
  • B: What’s that thing?
  • M: The moon. And that’s the earth. Americans have been to the moon.
  • B: (giving me a face as if I were from the moon) They’ve gone to the moon?! Why? How long did their airplane take? A month?
  • M: It’s not an airplane; it’s similar, but much faster, and it can fly much higher. It took them a few days. They stayed on the moon for a few days to take some pictures and take some rocks for research. Then they came home.
  • G: Toubabs have been to the moon? Why do they have so many machines? There’s nothing in Senegal….
  • M: Yes, American people really like science and technology. We like making things.
  • B: Yeah, you like science a LOT. When did this happen—going to the moon?
  • M: The first time? 1969.
  • B: The second time?
  • M: Soon after the first, but I don’t know the year, really.
  • B: Did they go in 1993?
  • M: I don’t know.
  • *awkward silence, with them just looking at each other
  • G: So does your dad go out and kill buffalo?

…..

The late and great Neil Armstrong, I salute you.

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My First Ramadan

(Written August 15)

We’re nearing the end of Ramadan, the month-long fasting Muslims adhere to each year. That’s right: 30 days without water, food, and other vices from dawn to dusk happened this year in the midst of the busiest part of the farming season. My family is very understanding and has said from the start, they know I’m not Muslim and have never fasted for Ramadan, therefore I wasn’t expected to. (Luckily, my sister-in-law, the main cook, is about 13 months pregnant, so she’d still be cooking regular meals for herself, the young kids, and my elderly grandmother.) However, in both a community integration measure and just for the experience of it, I decided to fast with them (with the exception of water!).

For nearly a week, I rose before dawn with my host dad, moms, and teenaged siblings for “breakfast”—then promptly returned to bed for another 2 hours. People generally went to the fields and worked as normal during the mornings, but the post-lunchtime nap during Ramadan is a bit longer than normal, which was fine with me. With everyone sleeping off their hunger, I was able to get a lot of reading done without feeling like a slacker. :) As soon as dusk hits (around 7:45 pm), we all break the fast with “coffee” (i.e.—steamed and very sugary milk), delicious tapalapa (fresh handmade brusse bread you can’t find in the cities), and mooni (sort of like oatmeal that’s normally eaten for breakfast throughout the rest of the year). Dinner is usually a bit later than normal (9:00 pm). Right after we broke fast, people (mostly the kids) would go around greeting and blessing everyone. The “breaking fast” was actually one of my favorite experiences so far at site.

I say “for nearly a week” because towards the end of the first week, I had a terrible stomachache one evening and could hardly eat anything at dusk. My host parents and counterpart immediately blamed the fasting for my illness—though my 2 teenaged siblings were also experiencing similar stomach pains, and no one seemed to care about them. Clearly it was something we’d eaten around 5 a.m. that morning. It didn’t matter that I insisted that fasting was the best thing I could do then (for whatever reason, Senegalese, just like Malians, believe that stomachaches are subdued by eating LOTS); they refused to let me fast after that. I really didn’t put up much of a fight….

Not all PCVs experience Ramadan the same way. It largely depends on how wealthy and religious your site is; the more wealthy and devout villagers generally are more likely to fast. (One of my friends, in a very poor site, said his villagers don’t fast, since “that’s what they do all year anyway.”)

In true Senegalese fashion, exactly when Ramadan ends is up for debate. This year, half the people are adamant it’s August 19th; the other half swears it’s the 20th. Contributing to the confusion is the government: they just accepted both dates and declared both as national “Korite observing holidays.” Korite, the holy day that ends Ramadan, is eagerly anticipated by all those fasting, or those just eager to kill and eat a goat for the feast. On the 19th, most of my villagers ended their fasting and ate normal meals, though there was no celebration or big prayer service in the fields. Instead, the afternoon of the 19th was largely for most of the villagers to pass through my host family’s compound to ask and debate with my host dad, the village jarga (chief) on which date Korite actually is. At least on the 20th, there was a large outdoors prayer service in the closest village, which I was able to watch and take pictures of. When I returned home for lunch, I was surprised with some good meat (you read that correctly—I actually ate GOOD MEAT at site!) with oily rice—the national dish.

As nice as it was to have many afternoons generally to myself to read, Ramadan definitely made it hard to get much work done with villagers, especially as an agroforestry volunteer. Next year it’s supposed to be around the same time of year—if I were in any other sector, I’d plan a vacation for this time of year….

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The best things are worth waiting for

Ok, so I realize that perhaps this blog isn’t exactly a “best thing” on everyone’s list, but at least allow me to justify (if only to myself) the time lapse between posts. I realize it’s been quite some time since this blog was updated, but it’s been a hectic few months for me. I’m actually writing from Dakar, where I’m spending this week with 4 fellow PC Mali refugees who are swearing in with the newest stage(along with our new Interim Country Director–also a transfer from Mali!). It’ll definitely be a fun reunion.

The title of this post is also a reminder to myself of the age-old truth. I’ve been at my new site for about 2.5 months now, and I know it’s an amazing site, with plenty of work to keep me busy (the Master Farm, health post, women’s garden, and school) and about 500 of the nicest Pulaar people you’ll ever meet. Regardless–the past few months have been extremely stressful. My first month or so was basically a reiteration of how poorly trained we were in Fulakunda prior to installing at site. (Actually, after the first 2 weeks, I met up with John and Katherine again in our regional capital, and together we very strongly voiced all our concerns to admin–along with the fact that we refused to return to site until we received our guaranteed week of intensive language training in Kolda with an experienced LCF. I think that was the fastest time admin has ever responded.) Additionally, I’ve been subconsciously continuing to compare my experiences in Mali to Senegal–and Mali truly is generations behind Senegal (also one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world). Having truly lived in poverty, I feel like my new site (though they’re still without any luxuries–including cell phone service!) is not. Thiewal Lao doesn’t have much money, but the state of life is infinitely better than it was in Behon (better/more food and water; more money; more progressive attitudes towards education and women/gender equality; better hygiene, etc.)–and honestly, that was hard for me to deal with; an easier life and job made me feel less needed as a PCV.
Since May, I’ve been busting my butt with both language and work around village, especially with the Master Farm, as farming season (and all his demonstrations with field crops, gardens, and live fencing) began shortly after I installed. Though I’ve been spending most of my waking hours helping my counterpart, I plan on definitely scaling back once farming/Master Farm demos are done in August. I’m really eager to help the women’s associations in my village repair their new garden fence; animals have knocked it down to the point of it being completely useless. After that, I hope to have my own garden beds in their garden that I’ll use as my gardening technique demos, and also introduce new vegetable varieties (which will hopefully give the women seeds to save after I leave). All in all, I believe that, though I’ve had quite a roller coaster of a PC journey the past few months, things will ultimately end up fine. I have a really good feeling about this site–both for my villagers and their willingness/ability to work hard for their own betterment (as opposed to the commonplace demands and questions of “what are you giving me/doing for me?” that many PCVs hear at site). It started off rough, with more than one afternoon of me just lying in my hut, staring at my ceiling, wondering what on earth I’m doing there. But, I’ve been working extremely hard at Pulaar (though that’s not to say it’s good yet–I’ve got a LONG way to go!), and I have the help and support of a great host family and counterpart, as well as awesome and accomplished nearby PCVs….and best of all–I’ve got some good Mad Hatter friends who’ve followed me from Mali to Senegal :-)

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Peace Corps, Round II: in Senegal

“Mi faamaani Pulaar buy.” (I don’t understand much Pulaar.–in Fulakunda).

Unfortunately, I feel that I’ll be repeating that sentence many, many times in the next several weeks or months. The end of this coming week marks the end of the mini-orientation/training in Senegal for me, Katherine, and John. We’ll be heading out to our new sites in the Kolda region (south of The Gambia), where apparently they speak the minority language (Fulakunda) of the minority language family (Pulaar). Not so useful, even in Dakar–but at least I’ve been getting by on my rusty French (which has actually really improved, thanks to my training homestay family–by far the nicest people I’ve met in Senegal yet–who I plan to take up on their offer to come visit any time I “need a break from village life”).
Over the past 3-4 weeks, we’ve had some fun, hands-on tech training (new sector: Agroforestry), and LOTS of language training…rather, independent study. (Because there was a PST underway when we transferred, all their current language tutors were being used. We had a last-minute find: a first-time teacher who speaks no English. We communicated in pigeon French.) Needless to say, we’re feeling rather non-confident about our language skills when we get to site. Oh well–I’ll figure it out. C’est la vie.
I’ve just found out my site has a “Master Farmer:” a local farmer trained by PC to educate the rest of the community on the best farming practices to maximize soil fertility, crop productivity, etc. The farmer will also be a seed source in the future. PC/Senegal currently has 23 master farmers, with the overall country goal of having 100 within the next 4 years.  Check out the program’s official site for more info:
While I’m really, really stoked to finally be heading back to “real life” after what’s felt like an eternity of living out of a suitcase, I still have some qualms. Since we’ve already experienced life as a PCV, and Malian and Senegalese cultures are very similar, I’m confident certain things will be easier. For instance, I already know what kind of personal/professional boundaries I want to establish with my site, and when to expect things to be done through the whole integration/acceptance process. However….I’m starting all over again. I know I’m about to embark on an awkward several weeks/months of charades and miscommunication as my language slowly develops (and this time, I’m starting almost with nothing–it’s sad how little Fulakunda our teacher helped us learn). I’ll have to sit through the same tedious afternoon tea sessions, start the same conversations of explaining who I am, what PCVs do, etc. When I left Behon, I was already a member of their community. I felt accepted, in spite of all my Toubab-ness. I had some good friends at site who I could joke with, and who knew me well enough to feed my dog when I was out of town, or come find me to let me know a big soccer match was on soon. It was a pretty sweet set-up, but it took at least a month of frustration and confusion for me to make it that way. Luckily, I think my new site will also be wonderful, if the previous PCV’s site report is any indication…and with a Master Farmer as my work partner, I’m sure I’ll have more than enough to keep me busy. At least pruning live fences, transplanting young trees, and making compost don’t really require any actual talking… :-)
*Also, while I’m now happily a member of the PC/Senegal family, Mali will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve been keeping up with developments since the coup and subsequent rebel take-overs in the north/Azawad. The news has been sad; rural Malians are/will suffer the most if sanctions are imposed and aid revoked. While I feel I could never fully repay some people in Behon (particularly Samba and Numu, their young children, Moussoumady, and my many friends at site), as well as PC staff, for all the kindness, help, patience, and hospitality they extended to me, at the very least I can ask everyone to keep the awesome people of Mali in mind…inshallah, I’ll be able to return to visit them wonderful people sometime in the next 2 years….
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Ghana–first world country? Only if you come from Mali…

So as I’m sitting in an Internet Cafe in Accra, about 48 hours away from Round 2 of this crazy PC adventure, I can’t help but make some interesting cross-cultural observations. Honestly, I heard a while back that PC Mali was rated the “#1 Hardship Post” of any PC country–i.e. Mali PCVs experienced greater physical hardships (amenities, physical chores, health, sanitation…) than any other PCVs…but the severity of Malian poverty didn’t hit me until arriving in Ghana. I swear, I feel like I’m in the First World. Granted, Accra is often cited as the most developed city in Western Africa, but over the past few days I’ve been able to travel to other places within Ghana, and even the small “brousse” towns put the bigger Malian cities to shame. When I was in Hohoe, a small town in the Volta region, I quickly noticed that it was far more luxurious than Kita. I’m honestly going through a weird, reverse culture shock. How can a country so close to Mali be, quite literally, many generations ahead of it?

Though I have yet to see a town without electrical towers (though, yes, I’m aware plenty still exist in Ghana!), I think the first stark and startling contrast I noticed was when I was leaving a public restroom. No, not that there were multiple flush toilets with toilet paper, and not little holes in the ground with a salidaga, but that the bathroom attendant chided me for not asking her for soap to wash my hands afterward. (For the record, I didn’t see she was holding a bottle of soap–and if you’re in PCMali, you’re used to carrying around your own little bar in your backpack everywhere you go. I wasn’t NOT going to wash my hands.) Seeing as how the smallest behavioral changes are the aim of Mali PCVs (ex: hand-washing, sleeping under mosquito nets, balanced nutrition, trying to create a more open atmosphere for discussions on sensitive topics, such as pre-natal care and birth control), this seriously took me by surprise….after my experiences, I’m having a hard time imagining being in a country that doesn’t need its volunteers to work from the ground up. I know Ghanaian and Malian cultures are very different (as a result of religion, language, political systems, and colonial powers), but I’d never fully understood that the mindset of a place heavily impacts its development.

I’m still extremely sad about leaving Mali– I’d made many friends at site and within the PC Mali family. It’s also not the aesthetics of a place that make it beautiful. My past few days in Ghana have shown me some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen, but my time and friendships in Mali reiterate that the people can be even more amazing. Malians are extremely warm, hospitable, and generous–they regularly help and give to others when they have nearly nothing themselves. There’s a reason Malians are often known as the kindest people in Africa, and my experiences in Accra (haggling/harassment at market; non-sincere greetings; eye rolls whenever we ask for help) have really highlighted that. I wish I could’ve stayed in Mali to help in a larger, more meaningful way. My time there was definitely short-changed. When I left Behon the final time, most of the wells (especially in the women’s garden) had dried up. Food (especially vegetables) was getting scarce, and “hungry season” doesn’t usually start until June. Right now, most of my villagers are eating only rice and peanuts–maybe some corn, if any is left over from last season.

I have no idea what to expect from Senegal. I’m also not entirely sure why I was reassigned there; I don’t speak French (and, unlike most Malians, many Senegalese do), and the main language is Wolof. (Although, a few places in the far eastern part of the country speak Malinke, and on the whole, Senegalese and Malian cultures are very similar.) I have a feeling that people in various PC offices all over the globe just thought, “well, they survived Mali; they’ll be fine in [any other country's name here].” And honestly, I concur. I even have hopes that this time around will be easier; I know what to expect.

Though Mali PCVs definitely “Found Love in a Hopeless Place” (Rihanna’s song became the de facto evac anthem), I’m Dakar-bound in 2 days– ni Alla sonna (God-willing)! And if you learn anything in Mali, it’s how to give a blessing: Alla ka here son, Alla ka Mali deme, Alla k’an nogoya tuguni. (May God grant peace, may God help Mali, may God let us meet again.)

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