Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Running in M'bour

Greetings are extremely important in Senegalese culture, and they can go on for a long time which makes getting anywhere on time a challenge.  Every person I see on my walk to school, I start off with "Assalam Malekum", and they respond with "Malekum Salam" which is the standard Wolof greeting.  Then the person usually continues with further questioning as I try to keep walking to class.  I also get children yelling "Toubab" at me constantly, which means white person.  I'm slowly getting the children I see regularly to say "Aminata" instead of "Toubab", but it's going to take a while.  They don't say Toubab as an insult.  They say it excitedly and usually try to shake my hand.  It's cute at first, but as the day goes on and it gets hotter outside, it's easy to get irritable and annoyed with all the "Toubab" screams.

The roads in my homestay town are all thick, yellow sand, and there are goats, sheep, donkeys, and horses that wander the streets.  I went running last week in the town, and it was a really fun experience.  It's very unusual for a woman to run here, since most women are too busy with daily chores to fit anything else in, and me being a white woman made it even more bizarre for the community.  With the sand adding resistance training, I ran through the roads shouting out greetings to everyone I passed.  Since it's so hot outside, many people sit in chairs outside their compound on the road, so I had a huge cheering section throughout the entire run.  People got really excited and yelled out random things, probably thinking I'm just a crazy toubab.  One old lady in a traditional Senegalese outfit waited for me to do a turn around and pass her house again and jokingly ran next to me for a few houses.  A pack of boys raced me for a while, and they were fast!  It was an extremely entertaining run, and I'm excited to go again once I get back to my community tomorrow.  After the heat, sand resistance, and the energy of yelling out constant greetings throughout my run, my cold bucket bath felt incredible!

We've been busy at the training center the past couple days, with technical training lectures filling up most of our time.  Tomorrow I return to my homestay for 2 weeks straight (then i'm back at the center for a few days again), which means I wont have internet for a while.  It's been nice to see the other trainees the past couple days and to eat some good meals here.  I hope the next couple weeks with the Jabi's goes smoothly.  There may be a newborn on the compound soon!

Monday, March 21, 2011

M'toxo mu Aminata Jabi le ti

Last Monday I arrived at my homestay with the Jabi family, and was immediately given my Senegalese name on the spot, Aminata Jabi.  My family calls me "Ami" for short.  I'm living with Mariama and Karumba, and they have a 2-year old daughter named Fatoumata.  Mariama is over 8 months pregnant and looks like she's ready to give birth any day now, so there will soon be a new addition to the Jabi family.  Karumba's sister, Senoubou, also lives on the compound, with 4 of her sons, Musafa (5 yrs old), Sedna (8 years old), Hadim (17 years old), and Pap (24 years old).  There are also a few other guys who live on the compound who are the children of Karumba's other sister who lives in France.

The courtyard of the compound has a large mango tree in the center, which provides welcome shade during this crazy heat.  Surrounding the courtyard are the rooms of the various family members, with concrete floors and tin roofs.  Behind the courtyard are the enclosed squat toilet and bathing area, and next to that is the shelter for all the goats and a trash pit.  One of the goats just had babies, so there are a few baby goats wandering around, which are extremely cute.

My room has concrete walls and floor, a tin roof, and a bed (piece of foam on wooden slats).  Peace Corps gave me a mosquito net and sheets for my bed, but I forgot to bring a pillow with me to the homestay, so I've been creating makeshift pillows with my towel or sweatshirt this week.  Adjusting to living with my family has been hard the first week, but by the end of the week I finally started feeling more comfortable.  My daily hygiene routine has altered significantly.  I brush my teeth with a headlamp on while sitting on a concrete cube under the mango tree and spit into the tree soil.  I fill up a cup of water to wash my face under the tree, and then call it a night.

Bucket baths are amazing!  To bathe, I fill up a bucket of water and go into the enclosed bathing area and pour cold water on myself with a smaller bucket.  I was really dreading doing this, but I actually enjoy it!  Since it's cold water, I've been taking a bucket bath in the heat of the afternoon, and it's been great so far.  Sun streams in through the cracks in the wooden door as I pour on the refreshing water.  Getting the shampoo out of my hair has been a bit challenging, but if I stick my head in the bucket, it seems to work fairly well.

Eating with the host family has also been a new experience.  The women and men eat out of separate communal bowls, and we sit outside in the courtyard on stools while we eat.  Every meal seems to be a huge bowl of rice with some carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, and sometimes some fish.  Some of the meals have been good, some not so good.  It's all an adjustment.  It's really difficult to get nutrients here, and I look forward to eating a Kashi bar each day for some protein.  I brought a Costco pack of them luckily!  I don't ever struggle to get enough to eat though, because in Senegal, a host family feels successful if their guest gains weight while living with them.  Whenever I say "M'faata", which means "I'm full" in Jaxanke, they continue to say "xa domo, xa domo" which means, "eat, eat!"  They don't snack here, so each meal, people eat a lot of food.  I'm not used to that, so it's been hard to eat enough during the meals to not get hungry a couple hours later.  I'm going to start taking vitamin supplements to avoid malnutrition, and my mom is sending me a care package of protein bars sometime soon I think :)

Communication has mainly been in french, which funny enough, is now my comfort language.  I'm learning Jaxanke each day with a Language Culture Facilitator (LCF) in the mornings, and we've been gardening in the afternoons after lunch/nap.  Lamine is my LCF, and we have 4 people in our Jaxanke language group.  We started a garden in a local school in M'bour.  When we arrived at the space where we were to plant the garden, it was covered in litter, including glass and plastic shards.  After raking and digging up all the trash, we double dug 2 beds, single dug another bed, and did a tree pepiniere with 50 tree sacks as well.  We'll be planting Moringa trees after we return to our homestays on Wednesday to provide nutritious Moringa leaves for the school.

I'm slowly adjusting to the heat.  My language group has been meeting up for cold Fantas after gardening, and they taste like heaven after a hot day.  Slowly, I'm acclimating to the heat, but I imagine it takes a while to build up to being able to tolerate the 120-130 degree F heat I'll be dealing with down south in the hot season.

This past week I finally felt the culture shock of living in Senegal, and I felt homesick for the first time so far.  Thinking about being here for 27 months is hard right now, so I'm taking it day by day and focusing on the positives of being here.  As I mentioned before, time passes very unevenly, and the past 2 weeks have felt like 2 months.  It's hard to believe that all of this has happened in such a short span of time, and adjusting is hard, but current volunteers have told the trainees that once we're at our permanent sites, time passes a lot more quickly.  For now, my goal is to keep learning Jaxanke and learn as much as I can before moving to my permanent site.  In training, it's easy to feel useless and frustrated, but if I can focus on the end goal of being competent in the language and health technical skills to prepare me for my service, it's easier to get through it.  So much has happened that I want to write about, but it's past midnight here at the training center, and I need to wake up early to run, so I'm going to go to bed and try to write again tomorrow!

Sunday, March 13, 2011


So I found out the local language I'll be learning is Jaxanke/Malinke.  Apparently they're so similar that my 4 person language group is learning both.  I'm still not sure exactly where my permanent site will be, but I know I'll be in the southeast part of the country, probably in the Kedougou or Tambacounda regions.

This morning I got up at sunrise to run around the soccer stadium with a few other volunteers.  It was beautiful to be up with the sun and be on the track with local runners working out as well.  This afternoon, I went to the Thies market to buy local gifts for my host family.  I'm bringing them tea and sugar!  The market was extremely chaotic, and we met a little boy who helped me and a few friends bargain and get good prices for things.  He was adorable and spoke to us in french.

Tomorrow I'll be taking a bus with other volunteers to M'bour to move in with my host family for the next 9 weeks!  I'm excited and nervous to meet them!  We've been having talks on integrating into the culture, so hopefully I don't make too many embarrassing mistakes!  Next Sunday I'll be back at the training center for a few days to debrief and do some more tech training before returning to my homestay.  So for the next week I probably wont have access to internet.  Hope everything goes smoothly tomorrow!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Soccer and Gardening

Yesterday afternoon, a group of volunteers and I jogged over to the soccer stadium with a group of Senegalese Peace Corps workers to play a game!  It was nice to get out of the training center and get some exercise in.  The local players were pretty amazing, and I'm going to need some work on my ball control skills!  It was a blast to get out there and play though!

Today we learned some gardening skills so that we can plant gardens in our villages when we get to our sites.  USAID sponsored the Peace Corps Senegal Food Security Initiative which involves starting school and community gardens and providing nutrition training to students.  I learned how to double dig and climbed a neem tree to gather leaves to add to our soil amendments which also included manure, coal, and ash.  We sifted manure and created tree sacks for our pepiniere.  It was great to learn about gardening since I  didn't know much before coming here.

I had a moment today while we were all circled around the manure and sand, creating our soil, where I realized how happy I am to be here and how much I'm going to learn.  I feel like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, and I'm going to learn so many new skills in the next couple years.  I still can't believe this is my job.

We also learned how to repair a bike today, which I kind of knew, but it was good to learn more about the bike I'll be riding for the next couple years.  In my tech interview a couple days ago, they asked me if I felt comfortable biking 20 miles, and I said that was fine...hopefully that's not how far I'll be biking to my nearest neighbor!

Tomorrow I find out what local language I'll be learning, so I'm excited!  Once I know the language, I can start guessing which region my site will be in!  So far, I've been able to hang out with Americans every day since we're all together all the time at the training center, but starting Monday, I'll be living with my training host family and will probably start feeling more of the culture shock.  So far I haven't felt homesick, but I think that's because I haven't had a chance to feel lonely or isolated yet.  That being said, I am anxious to meet my host family and start to feel more apart of the culture here.  I've only been away from home for a week, but it feels like so much has happened.  More to come!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dance Party!

Yesterday afternoon, we all heard loud drumming in the center of the compound, and Awa, our cross-cultural leader, started a dance party!  I learned many new dance moves that I'm anxious to try out at the Frontier Room when I get back to Seattle...haha :)  At first, a lot of the group was pretty stiff, and we formed a huge circle with the Senegalese people dancing in the center.  Soon, we all loosened up, lowered our inhibitions and starting dancing to the beat of the drums.  West African dancing is so much fun, and it looked like we were all wild animals dancing around.  Later on, some of the local children joined in, and they showed us all up with their incredible rhythm and natural confidence in their dance abilities.  It was a blast!

So far, I am really enjoying the food here.  For lunch, 5 of us sit around one of the communal bowls on a mat on the floor outside.  The large bowl so far has been filled with rice, meat, and vegetables and has been very tasty!  I'm learning the culture slowly and have been committing many cultural faux pas in the process.  We can only use our right hand for eating and drinking which is challenging!  It's hard to pick chicken off a bone with one hand!  Senegalese people also do not talk much while they eat, so they're probably all annoyed with the chatty Americans here asking endless questions while they try to eat.  The local Peace Corps staff here is very nice though, and they're helpful in telling us the cultural dos and don'ts.

Today I took my french language test and did a technical interview which will help determine where I'll be placed for my site.  Until today, we hadn't been able to leave the Peace Corps training compound, but after our Safety and Security lecture, we were able to walk around the area.  The surrounding area is dirt roads with mud huts along the sides and lots of litter all over the place.  There is an area of abandoned houses that is called the "red zone" where we have been forbidden to go since squatters hang out there and we're huge targets for theft since we're very conspicuous in this country.  Next week, we'll get to move into our homestays, so I'll be living with a family for the rest of training (9 weeks).  I'm anxious to meet my host family and start to integrate more into the culture.

Last night, as I was brushing my teeth with a headlamp on and using my Klean Kanteen full of filtered water to avoid parasites, I felt like I was camping.  This place is a sandbox, and I always feel kind of grimy, but I'm adjusting to the idea of not feeling clean all the time.  The girls seem to all have stopped wearing makeup, myself included, as vanity disappears here.

Our days are pretty laid back until we move in with our host families next week.  Most of the volunteers hang out in the "disco hut" during downtime, which is that outdoor gazebo like structure I was talking about yesterday.  Apparently there used to be a huge disco ball in the center which is no longer there, but is in the process of being replaced.  Hopefully we'll get to do some more dancing today!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Made it to Senegal!

I'm in Africa!!!  The past few days have been a blur, and it's felt like a lot has happened in such a short period of time.  I've left home, made some new friends, and moved to a new country all in the past 3 days!

On Sunday, my dad and Gabi drove me to the airport, and on the drive, I felt like I was on Splash Mountain on my way up to the top of the waterfall, ready to fall over the edge.  I had a lot of anxiety about the unknown of it all and felt sad to leave everyone for such a long period of time.  After an emotional goodbye, I dragged my awkward, heavy bags into the airport and flew to DC for staging.

As soon as I got to the staging hotel around 11pm, I met my roommate and felt instantly calmer.  She was extremely friendly and we ended up walking around DC at midnight looking for food since both of us were still on West Coast time.  We ended up ordering pizza to our room and getting to know one another.  The following day, I met the rest of the group, and everyone is so amazing.  We all realized in our orientation that we have similar anxieties about the Peace Corps, and we're really all in this together.  It felt very relieving to know that we're all going through the same thing and that we can support one another throughout this journey.  

Tuesday morning, we woke up early to go to the clinic to get our Yellow Fever vaccine and then were off to the airport to fly to Senegal.  We just arrived at 6am this morning and rode in vans to Thies as the sun was rising.  It felt so surreal to actually be in Africa!  I'd been waiting for that moment for so long, and it had finally arrived.  Stepping off the plane, I could immediately feel the humidity, and it has warmed up throughout the day.  The hot season here runs from March through June, so I'm in for some heat in the next few months!  

As our van drove us on the 2 hour ride from the airport to the training center in Thies, I soaked it all in.  I was imagining Dakar to be very different from what I saw today.  As we drove past Dakar, I saw horses and donkeys carrying carts, goats and sheep roaming around the dirt, rubble along the sides of the road, and buildings that were falling apart.  It got prettier as the drive went on.  As we moved further out of Dakar, we passed beautiful Baobab trees, and the sun coming up was a massive red ball emerging from afar.

The training center is beautiful, full of gardens and open shaded spaces for volunteers to congregate.  Some of my friends and I just finished playing soccer, volleyball, and frisbee, as we have some free time before lunch.  Right now, I'm sitting in a shaded outdoor gazebo type structure with all the volunteers as we utilize the WiFi here.  

I feel very positive and am excited to begin my pre-service training!  I'm definitely in the euphoria stage of being abroad and am happy to stay in that phase for as long as I can!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Packing for this trip is much more challenging than you might think!  I can only check 80 pounds of luggage total, which may seem like a lot, but it's not when you're dealing with a chronic overpacker.  I've slowly been gathering items over the past couple months and decided to lay everything out last night.  Here's what i'm dealing with...

And that's not even all of it!  I wish I could know exactly what my living situation was going to be, because it would make packing for it much easier.  The unknown is the reason I have to pack for so many different scenarios.  I don't know what area of the country my site will be in, so I don't know how conservatively I'll need to dress, and I won't know what my running water/electricity situation will be until I get there.  I think I'll try to do a test run with my packing tonight and see how much it weighs so far...wish me luck!