Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lucky 7

Most study or work abroad programs will tell you the usual process of adjusting to a new culture, and some may even show you a diagram of the spikes and plummets of emotions.  It's hard to imagine that someone's emotions could be that predictable, but oddly enough, you really can almost set your watch to when you'll feel up and down.  I went through the initial euphoria, hit a low when reality set in and now am feeling comfortable living in Senegal.  I've been here for 7 weeks now and am feeling good.  Time is starting to pass more quickly, and my swear in date is just around the corner.  

I spent the past week with my host family, and things have gotten a lot better.  My LCF had a talk with my host dad and we haven't had any more weird conversations.  My host mom, Mariama, still hasn't had the baby yet, but she looks like she's ready to do so any day now.  She still does all the cleaning and cooking on the compound, and I feel bad that she never gets a chance to rest.  Every afternoon before lunch, we fill up a tub of soapy water and another tub of water, and she washes the dishes in soapy water and I rinse them and put them away.  It's a nice ritual and gives me a chance to talk with her in the afternoon.  Mariama and I also eat dinner together every night.  The other night, I was frustrated with some personal drama and was venting in my journal when Mariama knocked on my door to ask me to come eat dinner with her.  We sat in her room and ate rice porridge with sour milk on top (kind of tastes like Cream of Wheat) and she told me all about her family and showed me pictures.  I came back to my room feeling really good about being here and completely forgot about whatever was bothering me before.  Living here, the grace notes in life really make this experience worthwhile.  I can be having a miserable walk home, hearing a zillion "toubab" screams, and the whole experience can be redeemed by an old man sitting in a chair on the side of the road smiling and joking with me.  Small victories.

While at my homestay, my host cousin invited me to his wrestling match.  They sectioned off an area of the neighborhood and charged admission for the match.  Another host cousin escorted me to and from the event since it was after dark.  It was a fun event to watch, and after one of the matches, a bunch of the guys (including 2 of my host cousins) did a traditional dance in the center.  To get everyone pumped up, they went around with 10 gallon jugs of juice and water to throw on the wrestlers and into the audience.  

Now I'm back at the training center, and it's a hectic week.  This morning we collectively stuffed and seeded 2,000 tree sacks for Earth Day.  We're also getting ready for the Counterpart Workshop that we're putting on over the next few days.  Tomorrow, all of our counterparts are coming in from all regions of the country to attend the workshop.  We're preparing lectures and activities in our local language which is a challenge.  This afternoon I worked on a powerpoint presentation on the Ecology of Kedougou.  The next few days will be chaotic, but it'll be nice to begin a strong relationship with my counterparts.  

Swear In is May 13th, and everyone wears a traditional Senegalese outfit for the ceremony.  Yesterday I picked out my fabric, and this afternoon I got fitted at the tailor for a traditional complet.  I'm excited to see what it's going to look like!  In 2.5 weeks, I'll be done with training!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Backpack Bandit

Ok, so here's the story from my first night in Nafadji...

Not long after we'd arrived at my new hut in Nafadji and met my new family, Ian, Kate, and I decided to go to the boutique near the compound to buy a bottle of water.  We realized that we needed another water bottle for our bike ride the next morning, but the only large bottle the boutique sold was African Fun, a knock off orange Fanta.  After arguing about the price for 10 minutes, we went back to my hut to find the back door wide open and Kate's bag missing from the room.  The back door of my hut doesn't lock, but theft has never been a problem in the past, according to the last volunteer.  We couldn't believe that someone would break into my hut right after I arrived and steal a bag.  After looking around my yard, we found the items she had on the top of her bag next to my pit latrine, so we knew the bag had been stolen.  Inside the missing bag were a camera (none of the pictures had been backed up), iPod, money, her passport (which she didn't know was in there until later in the evening), medicine, her favorite pair of pants, her bank card, keys, etc.

Kate was furious and went straight to my host dad, the chief.  To give him a sense of urgency, she told him she would become violently ill the next day if she didn't get her medicine back and that I may not be able to volunteer in the community if it wasn't safe.  

Next thing we knew, my senior citizen host father was out in the field with a flashlight, examining the footprints in the dirt near my yard.  After gathering information about the size of the thief's footprints and the direction they were headed, he and his helpers congregated in the main courtyard area.  All of a sudden, we heard the village drum, and all the heads of the household appeared on the compound for an emergency village meeting.  While the men sat in the courtyard, the women peeked over the fence.  My host father told the story, while another important man in the village loudly "uh huhed" everything he said.  Halfway through the meeting, someone brought Kate's bag to the chief with some of her belongings.  Apparently they were scattered around the forest.  As she was searching through the bag to see what was still missing, a woman started loudly crying and scurried out of the courtyard.  A bunch of the women huddled outside the compound and started wailing.  Kate told me and Ian that wailing meant that someone had just died.  As if the theft wasn't drama enough for one night.  While the women wailed, the men continued the meeting without batting an eye.

Around 10pm, it looked like we weren't going to retrieve anything else that night, so Ian, Kate, and I returned to my hut to head to bed.  When we got to the entrance to my hut, there was a pile of cookie wrappers and trash that had been inside Kate's bag.  The thief had come to my hut during the meeting to leave that surprise for us.  At that point, we were still missing Kate's bank card, keys, and money, so this trash offering was frustrating.

After finally falling asleep in my sauna-like hut, we heard a banging on my door at midnight.  Kate went to the door, half asleep, and found out that the thief, a 12-year old boy, had been caught and was in the courtyard, handcuffed with cloth.  I imagine the kid was probably beaten before Kate came out.  Not much was discovered from the meeting with the kid, and he escaped and then Kate came back to bed.  

This was a bizarre first night in my village, but I was impressed with how quickly my host father acted and how seriously he took the situation.  He will put a lock on my back door and build my yard walls up higher before I move in.  This boy shamed the village by stealing a bag out of my room, and everyone felt terrible.  The entire village as well as Ian's village heard the story and kept asking me if Kate had retrieved her belongings the next day.  The community cares a lot about my safety, and this incident did not make me concerned about moving to my village.  If anything, it made me realize how well they will respond to problems.

Hopefully my first night when I move to village in less than a month will be less eventful!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Volunteer Visit to Kedougou

I love Kedougou!  I just returned to the training center last night from my volunteer visit and am energized to finish training and move to my new home for the next 2 years.

At 6am last Tuesday morning, 5 other trainees, 2 current volunteers, and I left for Kedougou in a Land Cruiser with all of our bikes and luggage strapped to the roof.  Well, we were supposed to leave at 6.  True to African time, that really meant 6:45, so we fed some thirsty mosquitos as we sat in the car waiting to leave.  The landscape got more and more beautiful as we headed south on our 9 hour car ride.  We moved along from sandy terrain to picturesque red dirt roads and towering green trees.  We arrived at the Kedougou Regional house to a Mexican dinner of fresh tortillas, ground beef, and mango salsa!  After weeks of fishballs, this meal was amazing!

The Kedougou house reminded me of a hippy commune/campground.  The compound is spread out with a kitchen hut, mini disco hut, covered sleeping area with beds and mosquito nets, horse shoes, hammocks, etc.  The volunteers were extremely welcoming, and they threw us a party on our first night.

The next day I went with Ian, my new closest trainee neighbor, and Kate, a current volunteer in the region, to spend the night in Nafadji.  Nafadji looks exactly as I'd pictured a small, African village to look, and it felt surreal to be there.  My host dad, the chief, is very serious looking, but seems very kind.  I was swarmed by my little host nieces as soon as I arrived and they helped me carry my bag and bike to my hut.  They made me cute little bracelets, but my hand barely fit into the first one (that baby is never going to come off again!), and I accidentally broke the two others they gave me as I tried to get them on my wrist.  The little children are adorable, and my host sisters seem very nice as well.  There's a crazy story that goes along with that visit, but I'll write that in another post.  Oh, and my new name for the next 2 years is Aissata Dumbha.

Ian and I biked 16k to Missira Dantila, his site, the following morning with Mamadou, a local farmer in my village.  The bike ride was beautiful, and we greeted lots of locals on the route, including a group of women singing and playing drums on the road.  We also randomly bumped into Ian's health counterpart as he was motorcycling away from town.  Mamadou took us all around Ian's village and introduced us to the families, and the majority of them shared the last name Tanjan (which is Ian's new last name as well).  Apparently the whole village is related?  His hut is in the process of being built, so we got to see them put the straw roof on.  They asked him to help out with that, but we're still not sure whether or not they were serious.  It was a great trip, and his village was very enthusiastic and welcoming.

The rest of the visit, Ian and I stayed with Chris, a current volunteer in Saraya (30k north of Nafadji).  He showed us around the town and introduced us to the doctors at the hospital who we'll be working with.  Chris is finishing his service next month, so we picked his brain and learned about the health projects he'd worked on.  He also has movies on his laptop, so we enjoyed watching Indiana Jones Temple of Doom in the shade of his hut to escape the insane heat Kedougou gets this time of year.

Our last day, we returned to the regional house, and all the volunteers went swimming and enjoyed warthog sandwiches.  Funny enough, on our drive back to Thies, we saw warthogs in the road, and when we stopped to take pictures, they let us pet them and were really sweet.  Now I feel bad about eating them!

I had a wonderful visit to Kedougou and am very excited to move down there in less than a month!  Tomorrow our training group is visiting Dakar for the first time.  I'm anxious to finally see the capital!

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I found out my site!  I’m headed to the Nafadji village in the southeastern part of Kedougou for the next 2 years.  The population is 850, and I’ll be living in my own grass roof hut on the village chief’s compound.  He’ll be my new host dad!  I’m in a hilly area, and my nearest neighbor is a 20k bike ride away.  One of the current volunteers who lives in my region told me that my main safety concern while running outside the village is to watch out for lions and baboons.  Should make for some interesting runs!

The site placement reveal is a huge event during training.  The anticipation started as soon as we got to the training center a month ago, and many of us had guesses and bets on who was probably going to end up where.  The language we were assigned as well as sporadic clues from staff and current volunteers gave us some idea, but no one knew for sure where they were going.  Last Thursday, we were all blindfolded and led onto the massive map of Senegal on the basketball court at the training center.  We were all placed on the map where our new sites would be, and once we removed the blindfolds we were standing next to our new site neighbors.  It was a fun way to reveal where we’ll all be for the next couple years.

My site is remote, but I’m very happy with it.  The other volunteers in my region seem like a fun group, and my area of the country has a lot of need for a volunteer.  The current volunteer in my village is moving to a larger site 30k away, and she told me I have the opportunity to start from scratch in my village.  I’m excited to get started!

I leave on Tuesday for my Volunteer Visit, where I’ll be staying with a current volunteer in my region for 5 days.  I’ll be able to visit my site and meet some important people in the village including my host family and local health counterpart.

It feels great to know where I’ll be working.  I can’t wait to swear in on May 13th and become an official volunteer!  It’ll be nice to settle into my hut and not be living out of a suitcase.  I’m excited to meet my village!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Goodbye Euphoria, Hello Reality!

The past couple weeks were rough, but I'm now back in the comfort of the training center for a few nights!  Living with my host family has been a challenge.  After seeing where all of the other people in my language group live, I realized this week that I have the most difficult living situation in terms of room conditions, cleanliness, and host family.  My room is barely larger than my bed, and was not cleaned of all the dirt and dead bugs before I arrived.  As hard as I've tried, I can't seem to get rid of the pungent mold smell.  This week, fly larvae started crawling out of the family squat toilet and up the walls of the stall.  My host father creepily kept asking if I had a boyfriend and wouldn't drop the subject after I repeatedly said I had no intention of getting married in Senegal.  It got to a point this week where I realized I needed to say something to our cross-cultural coordinator.  I didn't want to complain, because I knew I would face uncomfortable conditions here, but after seeing that everyone else seemed to be having a very different experience, I decided to speak up.  My cross-cultural coordinator was glad that I told her what was going on and is going to talk to my host family before I go back this week.

Last week, the euphoria of being in Africa ended, and the reality of being here for over two years sunk in.  I got a cold, and had a morning where I almost lost it as I was late for class because of a miscommunication with my host aunt about breakfast, had a terrible headache, and was tripping through the thick sand as kids incessantly screamed "toubab, toubab!" in the streets.  I would have killed to be home drinking a soy latte instead of trudging through sandy trash piles in that moment.  After hitting a low point last week, I started thinking about the big picture of why I'm here, and I feel much better now.  Everyone says that training is the hardest part and that things get much better once we're at our permanent sites.  My friends at my training site have been a great support, and it's incredibly helpful to be able to talk and hang out with my fellow trainees.  I found a running buddy, and running in the morning keeps me sane.

A lot happened in the last couple weeks, but here are a few stories:

* One of my trainee friends lives far away from our language class so he came over to my homestay for lunch one afternoon.  We had some time to hang out before lunch, so we decided to play cards while sitting on a mat in the middle of my family's courtyard.  Halfway through our game of Rummy, my host aunt said my host father wanted to see me and my friend outside of the compound.  My host dad proceeded to tell us that playing cards is forbidden, and we had to stop playing immediately.  Apparently my host father equates playing cards to gambling, which goes against Islam.  First major cultural faux pas.  Oops...

* I was taking my usual afternoon nap after lunch when I heard roaring screams coming from the courtyard.  When I stepped outside to see what was going on, I saw a mob of 15 little boys running around, shrieking with sticks and massive rocks in their hands.  Confused about what was going on, I asked my host aunt, and she explained that they were on a rat hunt.  Apparently a rat and its babies had made a home in one of the cousin's rooms, so the whole neighborhood of boys made it their afternoon mission to exterminate them.  The courtyard was chaos, and little boys were running around, laughing and screaming, with a dead rat in one hand and a huge stick in the other.  As bad as I felt for the poor rat family, I couldn't help but laugh at this ridiculous scenario.

* Last week I came home for lunch to see a goat head and other organs in a bucket in the courtyard.  Guess what was for lunch!  My host cousins killed one of our goats while I was at school.  Avoiding bone shards and what I think may have been stomach lining was a challenge, but other then that, it tasted pretty good!

This whole experience is filled with highs and lows, and this past homestay stint was difficult.  I felt homesick and malnourished at certain points, and it's hard to be at the beginning of a 27 month journey with only one month down.  This truly is a marathon experience.  Mile 1 done!  I realized this week that I need to be patient and stay positive throughout this.  It's easy to get frustrated during training, but there are a lot of positives.  I'm making great friends in my group and am learning so much each day.  Overall, I'm happy to be here.

I find out my permanent site on Thursday and can't wait!