Friday, May 27, 2011

What am I doing here?

A lot of people told me that training was the hardest part, but they were wrong.  Initially, I was in awe of being in Nafadji and had a feeling of euphoria experiencing everything new, and then reality hit hard.  Yesterday was probably my hardest day mentally in Senegal so far.   I realized that I’m truly in this tiny village for 2 years, and it’s terrifying.  How do I do this?  What am I doing here?

Being the only English speaker in a 20k radius feels very isolating.  I have been feeling lonely, which is funny since I’m rarely alone here.  During the day, I’m usually surrounded by people talking at me in Malinke.  Unfortunately, I don’t feel any of these people can relate to me right now.  Pictures from home fill the walls of my hut, and I miss home so much it hurts.  Being in this village has also given me a lot more time to reflect and digest what I’m really doing.  During training, I rarely had downtime, and there were always activities to occupy my thoughts.  In Nafadji, my days have no structure to them, and I’m constantly surrounded by a language I haven’t mastered yet. 

The no structure part of this job was appealing in theory, but since I can’t speak the language very well yet, it makes me feel useless a lot of the time.  The goal for the first couple months at site is to integrate and get a better grasp on the language and culture of the village.  I’ll also be doing a community based survey in a few weeks.  So my job is to integrate…what does that mean?  I sit under a tree near the forage a lot which enables me to greet most of the village as they walk by.  I’ve helped my host sisters prepare meals, and I frequently help groups of women crack peanuts under a tree.  Going from having my days very structured to this feels bizarre and unnatural.  Yesterday I felt so frustrated with the language and with the feeling that I’m not accomplishing anything during the day.  What I need to remember is that I can’t implement projects if I don’t understand how the community works and if I don’t have relationships with members of the community.  Instead of thinking of the big picture of change, I need to shrink it and focus on daily goals.  It’s a hard adjustment to make, but I’m trying to make sense of it.

Yesterday I let myself really feel the weight of this journey and of everything that has changed in my life.  I left all my friends and family behind for 2 years to be here, and it feels really hard right now.  The feeling of isolation and discomfort is incredibly challenging.  I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I just hope living here gets easier with time.  Sometimes I think I’m crazy for being here, and I guess you probably do have to be a little crazy to do the Peace Corps.  It’s just hard to remember why I’m here when I’m sitting under a tree doing nothing, and I need to take things in smaller chunks with smaller goals to achieve for now. 

It’s good to know that homesickness is universal though.  My namesake, Aissata Dumbha, is my older host sister, and she lives in Spain with her family.  The other day, my other host sisters were preparing millet for Aissata’s husband to bring back to Spain with him because Aissata missed having Mono (millet porridge) for breakfast.  I laughed because Mono is the last thing I want to eat in the morning, and I would kill for my pumpkin granola and soy milk.  It’s nice to know I’m not the only one missing home. 

So it’s incredibly hard right now, and I’m looking forward to when I feel more comfortable and less homesick here.  Sometimes I feel like I’m in some sort of social experiment.  Drop an American in a hut in the middle of nowhere and see what happens.  As frustrated as I feel right now, something in me still knows that this is where I’m supposed to be.  This is supposed to be difficult.  Right now, I’m breaking it down and taking it day by day.  Dondin, dondin (little by little).  It’ll be worth it in the end. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Training Wheels Are Off!

Last Tuesday afternoon, the Peace Corps car drove away and left me standing with the family I’ll be living with for the next 2 years.  Part of me wanted to chase it down and jump back in.  Luckily, Mansa, my host sister, immediately invited me over to her compound for tea, and I felt welcome right away.

Nafadji is the way you’d dream Africa up, and it really does feel like another world sometimes.  It’s a village of around 800 people with about 80 compounds.  Red dirt roads weave around the compounds of straw roofed huts.  Women carry water on their heads from the various forages in the town.  Men congregate under giant trees during the heat of the day.  Every morning I awake to the sounds of the women in my compound pounding millet and the cows and roosters next to my hut.  My hut is situated right next to the cow pen.

I’ve decorated my hut, and it’s starting to feel like a home.  I have a colorful mat that I sit on in the center of my hut, a clothing trunk, a food trunk, and lots of buckets around my room.  I hammered nails in the wall to hang bags, my towel, necklaces, etc.  I have pictures hanging on a string with clothing pins.  Before I arrived, the children of the compound painted on the wall, so there are some random drawings there.  I taped pictures from home on another wall (ironically of my family playing in the snow this past winter).  I turned the box my family sent me into a table and put some pretty fabric over it.  Overall, I’m happy with the way my hut is turning out.  It’s clean for the most part, but since I pretty much always have a door open so I don’t suffocate, creepy things tend to come in from time to time.  On my first night here, a bat flew in at night and freaked me out.  Mostly just ants and lizards though.  I’m not excited for when the scorpions come out.

I love my new family!  My host dad, the village chief, is an elderly man who looks very intimidating, but he is very sweet.  My host mom is also kind and is usually lying on a mat on the compound or sitting around.  I have 3 sisters who are all in their 20’s or 30’s, and 2 of them have children.  On my first day, my host nephew helped me figure out which kids belonged to who.  Bamoussa lives on the chief’s compound and has 7 children ranging in age from 3 to 14.   Mansa lives on a different compound and has 5 children ranging in age from 2 months to 15.  Fily is probably in her early 20’s and doesn’t have any children and lives on the chief’s compound.  Sungaru is the wife of a host brother who lives in Spain, and she lives on the compound with her 1 year old, Cira.  All of these women are extremely kind and funny, and it’s been fun to sit with them and try to communicate.  A couple days ago, Mansa invited me over to help shell peanuts and listen to all the women gossip. 

The kids are my favorite!  I’m completely falling in love with some of my host nieces and nephews.  Adama (8) and Asu (6) love coming into my hut and hanging out with me.  I gave them a coloring book that they went nuts over, and they also went crazy over some princess stickers I gave them.  They shower me with bracelets, and both my wrists are covered in multicolored beads.  They have become my shadows and tend to follow me around everywhere.  They are also freakishly strong and pull water for me, fill up my buckets, and carry them back to my hut.  Fanta Funee (4) is hilarious.  She is full of energy and sass and loves playing hand slapping games.  Seybo (12), my nephew, is an incredible helper.  He’s the one I’ve been going to with questions, and he’s great.  All of the kids are my new Malinke teachers, and they are constantly trying to give me new vocab words.  One evening, I was sitting in the courtyard and the kids surrounded me with the animal coloring book I gave Adama and started having me repeat the animals in Malinke.  Then we switched roles and I taught them all the animals in English.  So much fun.   On my second day, I gave the kids a soccer ball and started a game near the forage, and everyone had a blast.  The boys tend to exclude girls from soccer though, and one boy even came up to me and told me Adama shouldn’t be playing because she’s a girl.  I plan to change this during my service.  I would love to start a girls soccer team.  Adama and Asu had such a good time playing, but they usually aren’t allowed to.

Sembou, a man in my village, has been taking me around to the compounds at night to introduce me to the village.  We’ve almost made it through the whole village and should finish tonight.  When I thought I’ve got greetings down, I learn a new one.  Greetings are crucial here.  Everyone greets everyone they see, even from afar.  Conversations here tend to be very circular and centered around greeting and asking about the family.  Sarr, the nurse in my village and my counterpart, has been great to hang out with, because he’s from M’Bour and started off as an outsider to the village a couple years ago.  A couple days ago, I weighed babies and he did vaccinations at the health post.  After I weighed the babies, I charted their weight and age to see if they were in the healthy, moderately underweight, or severely underweight zones.  When a baby was in the red, Sarr gave nutrition advice to the mother so that she could get her baby up to a normal weight.  We do these baby weighing/vaccination sessions each month, so next month I’ll compare weights to see if the underweight babies have made progress.  Later on that night, we did a causerie on an HIV testing that we were helping with the next day.  The causerie was supposed to start at 8pm in a classroom at the school.  I learned that meetings never start anywhere near the correct time.  I sat in that hot classroom for an hour and a half before we finally had enough people in there. 

Yesterday, SWAA (Society for Women and AIDS in Africa) did HIV testing in my village, and I helped out with the event.  I mainly greeted people and helped write people’s information on their blood tubes.  SWAA tested couples only, where men had to bring their wife or wives, and vice versa.  This is a new strategy they are trying out to stop the spread of HIV to children by 2015.  The event ran smoothly, and it was great for me to see that the people in Nafadji will participate in causeries and HIV testing.  It gives me hope for my future projects in the village.

I lucked out and had some health activities that were already planned this week, but for the most part, living in Nafadji is a lot of sitting around, drinking tea, and shelling peanuts.  The pace of life is very slow and I don’t think anyone here owns a watch.  Food is scarce, and I’ve eaten rice with peanut sauce for lunch and dinner every day, and millet porridge for breakfast.  My host sisters told me that they don’t have access to vegetables here since there is no market.  There are 2 boutiques at the entrance to the village, but they barely sell anything.  I’ve been trying to stay healthy by taking vitamin supplements and eating protein bars in my hut.  I’ve started a ritual of boiling water in my hut (using my gas burner) in the mornings and having a cup of Starbucks Via instant coffee.  It has been so incredible to have this Via coffee after months of Nescafe during training.  I’d been saving my Via for site. 

Change can be so constant that you don’t even feel the difference until there is one.  I can feel myself slowly changing.  No electricity, no running water, scarce food, no market or grocery store, new language.  I no longer use toilet paper.  I bathe using a bucket.  It’s a completely new world.  Luckily I feel like training eased me into this.  If they had dropped me off in Nafadji on day 1 of being in Senegal, I probably would have cried.  Now the training wheels are off, and I’m adjusting all over again.  I’m creating my new routine, getting used to my new family, and trying to get comfortable here. 

You’re probably wondering how I’m able to post this blog since I haven’t left Nafadji.  In Thies, I bought a USB internet key and am able to have some access to internet from my hut if there is cell reception.  I put money on a sim card to use internet a little while I’m here.  I’m going to try to limit myself since I think it’s harder to adjust to living here if I’m on the internet though.  Also, the connection is extremely slow. 

Ok, I’ve written a novel and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!  It feels impossible to accurately describe this place.  It’s beautiful, and the people are generous and so patient with me.  When I walk anywhere, everyone yells “Aissata, Aissata!!!” at me.  I’ve felt lots of highs and lows in this first week, which is normal for adjusting to a new place.  As homesick as I feel looking at the pictures on my walls sometimes, I feel very fortunate to be in Nafadji.  It’s a special place, and I’m looking forward to getting to know my new friends and family here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Training is over, and I'm an official Peace Corps Volunteer!  I swore in on Friday at the US Ambassador's house in Dakar, and it was incredible to finally be at that point.  I remember looking at our training schedule on our first day in Senegal and thinking to myself how far away swear-in felt.  For a while in the beginning, it felt like time was passing so slowly, but the past month has really flown by.  Everyone says that training is the hardest part, and I'm very excited to start working and living in my village.  All the trainees had traditional outfits created for swear-in, so we arrived as a sea of bright colors in our complets and boubous.  All the female volunteers had fun fashioning different styles of headwraps.  After the ceremony, we were treated to Senegalese mocktails and appetizers, and then we relaxed at a Western country club for the rest of the afternoon.  It was a great day, and we all enjoyed our last day together before heading to our villages.

I packed up all of my belongings for hopefully the last time for a while!  I bargained in the market for a metal trunk to store the additional items I've accumulated here, and packed my 2 suitcases to the brim.  Somehow 2 other volunteers heading to Kedougou and I packed all of our bags, boxes, and bikes into a Sept Place (a small car with 7 passenger seats that most people use for transport here).  Yesterday was a long voyage down to Kedougou in an insanely hot car with no A/C.  We left Thies around 8:45am and made it to Kedougou around 8pm, coated in red dirt from the road.  Feeling tired and dirty didn't prevent us from enjoying our Install party though.  We arrived to a feast of Cheeseburgers that the other volunteers had prepared for our arrival.  Those burgers tasted amazing!

Today the other new volunteers and I went with the Country Director to the Bassari initiation ceremony near Salemata, where boys wear masks and paint their bodies red and fight one another as a rite of passage.  To get to the remote village, we drove along narrow, bumpy red dirt roads through green trees.  With the beautiful scenery, tribal masks, and costumes, I had an "I'm in Africa" moment and felt very excited to be here.  When we got back from the ceremony, the other new volunteers and I shopped in the market and cooked dinner for everyone in our regional house.  It was a cool experience for us to bike to the market and buy food using our local languages and then come back and figure out how to cook it using the equipment we have at the regional house.  It turned out well!

It's great to finally be in Kedougou, but I'm anxious to move into my hut on Tuesday.  I am excited to have my own space and to be able to settle in and unpack.  Living out of a suitcase for the past 10 weeks has been rough, and I feel like all my clothes smell gross.  Tomorrow I'm going shopping in Kedougou to buy stuff for my hut (buckets, kettle, foam mattress, etc).  Right now I feel exhausted.  Last week was full of last minute training, language test, swear-in prep, installation prep, etc.  We also had to pack everything and prepare to leave the training center, and there wasn't much downtime to do that.  Yesterday I was in a car for the entire day, and today has been full of activities.  When I get to my hut, I'll probably have the opposite problem though.  I'll finally be able to digest everything that's going on.  I'm excited for Tuesday!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Goodbye Jabis

Mariama had her baby!  Last Wednesday, my host family held the baptism (“Kunliyo” in Jaxanke) at the compound, and I got to invite my Jaxanke /Mandinka friends to join.  Baby Gundo (yes, that is actually her name) is adorable.   Prior to the ceremony, she had her head shaved, ears pierced, and thick black eyebrows drawn on with charcoal.  The morning portion involved all the important guys (Keebaas) praying over the new baby’s life and name.  While they were praying in the center of the courtyard, some of the boys were slaughtering a sheep on the sidelines for lunch.  After that, the men sat around talking while the women began preparing the feast.  My male Peace Corps friends decided to break down gender roles and help us female volunteers chop vegetables along with the other women.   The lunch was delicious, and afterwards, we hung out in the compound, playing and dancing with lots of little kids.  Later on in the evening, my host mom, who had left the compound earlier, returned with a makeover.  She had gotten her hair and makeup done, and she was dressed in a new complet.  Her return was quite the event, with drummers following her and lots of dancing.  The whole baptism was a wonderful cultural experience, and it was a blast for me and my friends to participate and dress in traditional outfits.

From what I’ve experienced in my host family, women are in charge of the children and all the daily household chores.  My host mom had just given birth only a few days before I returned to their compound, and she was already doing chores along with taking care of a newborn.  I could tell she was exhausted, and I admire how hard she works for her family.  The night before the baptism, Mariama and my host aunt had to leave to run errands, and my host dad yelled for me to come to his and Mariama’s room.  He handed the baby to me, left the 2 and 5 year olds with me and told me he needed to go to the market to buy something.  Fatou (2) and Moussafa (5) do not speak French or Jaxanke since everyone in M'Bour speaks Wolof, so it was an interesting experience babysitting without being able to communicate anything verbally.  I’m getting good at charades.  After watching those kids, I have even more respect for what Mariama does every day.

One of the days I was at my homestay, I started feeling nauseated in the morning and it got progressively worse throughout the day.  I didn’t eat lunch or dinner and laid in bed all day, feeling miserable.  I finally got to a point where I knew I needed to throw up and my aunt told me to throw up out back where the goats poop.  I was very uncomfortable and irritable the whole day, and a large group of neighborhood children were screaming and singing outside my door.  That noise coupled with the obnoxious goat shrieks pushed me to my breaking point.  Holding back tears, I asked my host aunt if she could please make the kids move to another compound.  Being sick during homestay is miserable since Senegalese life is loud in general, and it’s impossible to find a quiet place.  For the most part, I’ve adjusted to the noise and don’t have trouble sleeping at night, but being sick made me want nothing more than to teleport home to my quiet, comfortable room.  Thankfully I felt much better the following day.

Sunday was my last day living with the Jabi family, and it was bittersweet.  While I’ve struggled to deal with Karumba’s inflexible, condescending demeanor, I’ve really enjoyed spending time with Mariama and Senoubou.  The Senegelese life involves a lot of sitting, talking, and drinking tea.  Sitting with Mariama and Senoubou in the afternoons has been the highlight of my homestay.  They are very curious about my life in America, and we exchange stories about our cultures.  They are extremely strong, kind women, and I plan to go back and visit during my in-service training in July.

For my final gift to my host family I gave them a new soccer ball from the US.  Thank you to those who donated balls to the soccer ball drive!  And thanks to my dad for organizing it!  I plan to use the rest in Nafadji.  All the young boys who live on my compound went nuts over the new ball.  There was only one soccer ball in the neighborhood, and it was deflated and the outer layer had been peeled off.  My host cousins were all fighting to play with the new ball and started a game in the compound.  My 5-year-old host cousin kept asking me if I could make it a gift just for him so he wouldn’t have to share it with the others.  They all loved it!  I gave my host sister stickers and a sticker book which I thought she would get really excited about, but she looked very confused.  No one in my family had ever seen stickers before, so they had no clue what they were supposed to do with them.  I started sticking them on my host sister’s dress and face and they got the hang of it.  I later found my host mom happily sticking the stickers in the album.  It was hilarious.

I can’t believe I’m almost done with training!  Time has started passing much more quickly, and before I know it, I’ll be in Kedougou.  Thinking about being here for 2 years still seems daunting, but if I break it down into little chunks, it doesn’t seem so hard.  Dondin, dondin.  Slowly, slowly, little by little.

I’m back in Thies this week and will be swearing in as a volunteer in Dakar on Friday!!!  I leave for Kedougou on Saturday and move into my hut on Tuesday.  I can’t wait to settle into my hut and not be living out of a suitcase anymore.  Almost done with training!