Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bon Voyage, Sira

After being away from Nafadji for over a month, I was nervous to go back.  As the Niokolo got closer and closer to my village, I got that feeling of coming home.  The kids from my compound greeted me as I got out of the Niokolo, and as I walked towards the compound, Sira came running at me and leaped into my arms yelling “Aitata, aitata!!!”  It felt so good to see all of them again, and all the kids came into my hut to help me sweep away the dust.  After being gone for so long, my hut was frightening!  The following day, Saibo helped me do a deep cleaning of my hut, and now it looks back to normal.

My first night back, I woke up at 1am and knew I was going to be sick.  I ran into my yard just in time to throw up.  After another day in village, my stomach calmed down and adjusted to the food again.  It’s back to rice and peanuts.  Along with physical adjustments, I got back into daily life in a village: bucket baths, pit latrines, pulling water, etc.  After a couple days, I felt comfortable again, and I was enjoying spending time with my friends and family in the village. 

I absolutely love the kids on my compound, and spending time with them always brightens my day.  We’ve been coloring in the afternoons, and they always have some imaginative way to pass the time during the day.  When I come back from running, there’s a new ritual of all the kids following me into the shade, and they form a line and copy all the stretches I do.  We look like a sports team stretching in unison.  It’s hard not to laugh!

Saibo, my 12-year old nephew, deserves some sort of medal.  He is such a wonderful helper to me and to the entire family.  Mbamoussa has her hands full with her 9 children, including the new baby twins, and yesterday evening I saw him carrying one on his back and one on his front.  Sadly, the one on his back pooped on him!  He never complains and has such a good heart.  It’s unique to see how much he supports his mom, since it’s usually the girls who end up doing all the household chores.

My first Care Group meeting was yesterday afternoon, and it went really well!  Ten women showed up along with Kaba, Mahan, and Sarr.  With the idea that the women would want to take notes, I went out and bought notebooks and pens for each woman.  At the meeting, I found out that none of the women can read or write, so notetaking is out of the question.  I’m still figuring out how these women will retain the information they learn each meeting without being able to write it down, and I guess we’re all just going to learn through trial and error.

We met in a classroom at the elementary school, and the goal of the first meeting was to introduce the group and set goals for the coming year.  Our group will meet every 2 weeks, and each meeting the women will learn something new to pass on to other women in the village.  After explaining that each woman will be expected to teach seven other women what they learn each class, I facilitated a discussion about the health problems they saw in the village.  Some women were vocal and some didn’t say a word.  Through a mixture of French and Malinke, we created a list on the chalkboard of various topics that we will cover in our group.  Kaba and Mahan were wonderful resources for translating from French to Malinke and vice versa, and Sarr’s knowledge of the health problems he sees everyday in the village kept the discussion going.  At the end of the meeting, everyone seemed excited about the group, and each woman has agreed to create a group of seven other women that she will teach after each of our meetings.  I tried to make the meeting as fun as possible and provided Fanta and Coke, which were a huge hit!  After the meeting, I had villagers coming up to me telling me that they had heard I had “boissons” at the meeting.  Good to know what makes a meeting popular!

The best part for me happened after the meeting was over.  Mbamoussa is part of the group, and when I got home, I overheard her gushing to her mom about the group.  She seemed so proud to be a member and to be a health leader in the community.  Going to class every 2 weeks was exciting to her, and she took a notebook and pen and said that Saibo would help her write things down when she needed to.  I was so happy to hear that this group was important to her, because along with spreading health information and skills to the village, another goal of the group is to empower women in the community.  In 2 weeks, we’ll have our next meeting, and I’ll be teaching them how to prepare oral rehydration solution for when people have diarrhea.  After the meeting, I went on a long run and felt such an amazing high after a productive day!

With those wonderful highs come the lows as well.  This morning, I went to a meeting at the college to discuss the coming semester, and Sounkharou called me during the meeting to tell me she was going to Kedougou.  I thought it was odd that she called me just to tell me she was leaving for a few days, but I figured maybe she was just excited to use her new phone.  When I came back to the compound for lunch, Mbamoussa broke the news to me that Sounkharou had left to move to Spain to live with her husband.  I started tearing up and asked if Sira was gone as well.  Mbamoussa knows how much I love Sira and quietly said that she had left as well.  How could Sounkharou leave without saying goodbye?  I kept asking if she would come back, and they said they didn’t know.  As soon as I was alone in my hut, I couldn’t stop myself from crying.  The thought of never seeing Sira again made my heart hurt.  Out of all the kids on the compound, I am closest with her, and I look forward to playing with her every day.  Whenever I’m sitting out on the compound, she jumps into my lap and I tickle her and spin her around.  If I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is give her a big bear hug and see her infectious smile to feel better.  I can’t imagine not seeing her every day.

I was surprised at how emotional I got over a little 3-year old girl moving away.  She’s a special kid, and I know how much I’ll miss her.  It was such a sudden departure.  Souhkharou never told me she was leaving.  She had mentioned last fall that at some point she hoped to move to Spain, but I never figured she’d move so soon.  When I get past feeling sad about not seeing Sira, I know deep down that this is a really positive thing for her.  She will have so many more opportunities in Spain than she could ever have here.  I’m happy that Sounkharou will get to live with her husband and that Sira will get to be with her dad. 

Since I didn’t get to say goodbye, I’m planning to bike the 90k to Kedougou tomorrow morning to catch them before they leave for Dakar.  With the transportation strike, no cars are leaving from Saraya, so biking is the only option.  I want to take some last photos and give Sira a big hug.  Maybe someday I’ll visit them in Spain.  It’s hard to not be able to see her grow up, and I want to hear about all the amazing things she’s going to do.

Sira leaving reminds me that things are constantly changing.  Soon Leah will be leaving to go back to the US, and I’m going to miss her a lot.  Change is never easy, but we eventually adjust.  Before I know it, I’ll be going back to the US as well, so I want to get as much done while I’m here as I can.  I’m very excited about the Care Group and can’t wait to see how influential the women will be in the community!

                                    Hanging out with Sira one last time in Kedougou

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Adjusting All Over Again

After three incredible weeks in America, I’m back in Senegal.  I always seem to struggle with adjusting quickly to new environments, and this time was no different.  It takes me a while to move from one place to the next.

While sitting at the Dakar airport, waiting to begin my 30-hour journey home, I felt sad about leaving Senegal behind.  I was nervous about entering the US again since it really does feel like another world.  My first flight was from Dakar to Brussels, and as soon as I stepped off the plane, I saw a big green Starbucks sign, and a huge smile spread across my face.  I was back.  With 6 hours to kill at the airport, I sipped my soy latte and devoured a chocolate muffin as I watched movies on my laptop.  As the journey wore on, I started growing more and more excited to see my family on the other end.  In my final flight from Philadelphia to Seattle, I couldn’t wait to get there! 

As I took the escalator down to baggage claim, my mom, dad, grandma, and sister were waiting at the bottom with a balloon and flowers.  We all hugged for a long time, and it felt so amazing to actually see them in person.  As I walked into my house, I was greeted by my energetic dog, Joey, and my grandma had thai soup and fried rice waiting for me inside.   That night, I slept like a baby on what felt like the most comfortable mattress in the world.  After 10 months of sleeping on foam, I was in heaven. 

The first few days at home, I really felt the weight of the difference in cultures.  Walking into QFC, our local grocery store, I was confronted with so many options.  At one point, I stood in the middle of the produce section and thought about the little orange and banana sellers in the market in Kedougou.  I went with my mom to the pet store to get dog food, and I was amazed at the options: bison, venison, chicken, pork, turkey, beef.   These dogs were eating better than I do in my village!  People asked me if I felt guilty for all the excess we have in America, but honestly, guilt wasn’t the emotion I was feeling.  I don’t feel guilty that my villagers can’t buy Cheez-Its in Nafadji.  Although there are not as many options, the people in my village seem perfectly content.  I think it is because I grew up with so many choices that I miss things about the US.  I think living in Nafadji has made me realize how unnecessary many things I find at the supermarket are, but it doesn’t stop me from craving them every now and then.

After a few days, I was back in my old routine and felt completely at home.  I was going to yoga with my mom, running along my old route, watching movies with my family, and going out in the evenings with my friends.  It was so incredible to be able to spend time with all my friends and family again.  From taking a pole dancing class to going to a Korean bathhouse to dancing at my favorite club, my friends and I had some fun adventures over break.  I got used to feeling clean, wearing makeup, dressing in nice clothes, and upping my caffeine intake.  My body finally adjusted to the cold, and I was enjoying wearing my purple wool coat again.  Baking cookies, singing songs, cross-country skiing, drinking hot cocoa.  Being home for the holidays was magical, and I was not ready to go back to Senegal. 

My vacation passed too quickly, and I couldn’t imagine leaving everyone all over again.  After finally catching up with the people closest to me, I didn’t want to leave them for a year and a half.  Lots of tears were shed, and walking into the SeaTac airport to board a plane again made me unbearably sad.  I struggled a lot on my flights back to Dakar, because I wasn’t ready to come back yet.  I had adjusted to being home and didn’t want to readjust again.  It felt like waking up in the middle of a wonderful dream and not being able to fall back to sleep.  But deep down, I always knew I’d go back to Senegal.  Even when I kept saying over and over how much I wanted to stay at home, I knew I wouldn’t. 

I didn’t expect to feel as sad as I felt to leave home again.  I thought I had already gone through that and was done adjusting.  Maybe it was the sleep deprivation of my long flights and layovers, but I felt very emotional.  I didn’t know how to do it again.  Before coming home, I could look forward to my vacation when I had hard days, but now it was as though someone had hit the reset button and I had 16 months to wait.  On my flights, I was trying to stay as positive as I could and focus on the things I liked about Senegal, but I kept replaying the fun times I had had at home.  Luckily, I had been through this before and knew that time would make it easier.  As sad as I was, I knew that coming back was something I needed to do and that I would be happy again in Nafadji.

After arriving in Dakar, I felt the warmth as I got off the plane, and the long, chaotic lines at customs reminded me that I was back in the land of inefficiency.  Homesick and nostalgic, I’m just taking it day by day and setting small goals.  I’m in Dakar for a few more days and then will be headed to a conference in Thies.  In a week and a half, I’ll be headed back down to Kedougou.  I’m very excited to be back in my region, because it feels much homier than Dakar.  I’ll be coming back to Nafadji with lots of gifts for my friends and family, and I’m excited to give them the photo album I made them.  One thing that I’ve been looking forward to the past few weeks is seeing Sira.  Whenever I’ve been gone for a while and return to Nafadji, she runs up to me, jumps in my arms, and gives me a huge hug.  I can’t wait!

So while going through this emotional rollercoaster all over again, I asked myself whether or not it was worth it for me to have gone home for the holidays.  It feels like it was a setback since I feel so homesick now.  I’m still glad I did it though.  As hard as it was to come back, it was nice to catch up with friends and family.  I was amazed at how much can change in just 10 months.  When I come back in a year and a half, who knows what will be going on!  As we were driving to the airport and I was telling my mom how hard it was for me to leave, she pointed out that it’s going to be much harder for me to leave Nafadji next year.  I know I’ll be back to the US again, but after my time in Senegal, I’m not sure when I’ll be back again.  So I should enjoy my time in my village while I can!

With all the tears recently, I thought I’d share one of my favorite quotes:

"I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm. It is my fervent hope that my whole life on this earth will ever be tears and laughter."
- Kahlil Gibran

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season!  For those of you I was able to spend time with over the holidays, it was so great to see you!  Keep in touch through email, because I love hearing from you!  Happy 2012!