Saturday, April 6, 2013

Leaving Nafadji

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place...
like you'll not only miss the people you love 
but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, 
because you'll never be this way ever again."
-Azar Nafisi 

How do you leave a place you love?

I woke up yesterday morning in my hut in Nafadji with a pit in my stomach, afraid of the goodbyes that ensued. My few days back in Nafadji to spend time with my friends and family had come to an end. I could barely sleep that last night, and when I woke up, I knew I did not want to drag out the goodbyes. I didn’t think I was going to last very long before I started crying. I wanted to pack up my things, strap them to my bike and say my goodbyes quickly, like ripping off a band-aid. As I was packing up my bike, Mbamoussa insisted that I stay to drink millet porridge. I sat there drinking porridge with my family for the last time, and I couldn’t fight the tears that were coming.

When a person leaves a place indefinitely in this culture, people shake that person’s left hand. Giving your left hand is an emotional gesture since it means you don’t know when you will ever see that person again. I didn’t want to do this ritual and kept trying to give my right hand, but Mbamoussa grabbed my left hand and said “mbe lun do (until another day)". Tears were streaming down my face as I hugged all my kids, not knowing when I would see them again and feeling so sad that I wouldn’t be able to see them grow up.

As I walked my bike to Kaba’s house, villagers approached me to say goodbye, shake my left hand, and give me blessings for my trip home. I said my goodbyes to Kaba, and as I was biking away, she called me back and gave me the ring she was wearing as a souvenir. I’m going to miss her.

Me and Kaba
I continued on my tour of goodbyes with the people I was closest to and saved the most emotional goodbye for last. As soon as I entered Fily’s compound, tears were welling up in my eyes again. She’s my best friend in Nafadji, and we had just spent the last few days together cooking, drinking tea, and playing with her daughter Margo (my American mom’s namesake). I said goodbye to her husband Mourikee and told him that I want him to email me photos of Margo every now and then. He’s a teacher in another region and has a laptop.

Fily insisted on walking with me out of the village. She took my bike, and we walked along the red dirt road leading out of Nafadji. As we walked and cried, I told her how much her friendship means to me. When I first got to Nafadji, she took me under her wing right away. I remember on my second day there, she grabbed my hand and told me we were going to hang out with her friends. I was always in awe of her stylish outfits as I was perpetually grungy in village. We passed the days with hilarious activities, like selling meatballs door-to-door or hiking out to the seasonal puddle to do our laundry. I don’t know what I would have done without her in Nafadji. I made a lot of friends there but none that I felt as close to as her. So here we were walking out of the village together. We passed the Nafadji sign, and she kept walking with my bike. We walked and walked, and I asked her if she planned to walk with me all the 30 kilometers to Saraya. She said she just wasn’t ready yet. Finally, after a lot of walking and crying, she stopped. We hugged and I promised to call her often, and I biked away.

As I biked the stretch from Nafadji to Saraya for the last time, I felt heartbroken. I had just left a place that was home for the past couple of years. I biked away not knowing when I would get to see these people I’ve come to love again. Instead of listening to my iPod on this last ride, I replayed my “Best of Nafadji” memories in my head. Here’s how I spent my time:

Playing Hair Salon:
Fily, Sounkharou, Founee, and Asu braiding my hair

Going out to the fields with the kids:

Playing with homemade dolls:
FantaFounee and Asu


Cooking with Fily:

Surviving the heat:

Shelling Peanuts:

Being Fily's Bridesmaid:
Fily and me at her wedding

Hanging out with Fily and Margo:

Playing with Sira:

I arrived in Nafadji not really knowing what I had gotten myself into or how much I would get out of this experience. The first couple of weeks, I questioned why I was there and how I was going to survive two years in this tiny village. A couple of years later, it feels terrifying to leave this place. Living here has not been easy, but it has become home. I will miss my friends and family here immensely, but I will also miss the person I have become here. I’m not the same person who got out of the Peace Corps car in Nafadji two years ago. I can carry water on my head now. I can share a hut with rodents, lizards, cockroaches, and other creepy crawlers. I can cook traditional dishes over rocks and sticks. I’ve developed many bizarre skills that I never knew I wanted to learn, and now I’m afraid of losing that when I go back to the US. I hope I’m still as resourceful there as I have become here.

I’ve spent the past couple of years dreaming of Thai food and Pumpkin Spice Lattes, but once I can finally get those things regularly, am I going to appreciate them? Will I start taking all of these things for granted? I hope not.

I hope when I’m sitting in traffic in Seattle, I’ll remember how I used to bike 30 kilometers on a bumpy dirt road to and from my village while getting attacked by tsetse flies. I hope when I take hot showers, I remember pulling water at the pump with the ladies of Nafadji and going back to my pit latrine to bathe with a bucket and cup. I hope when I’m overwhelmed by the options at the grocery store, I remember how possible it is to survive on rice and peanuts alone.

Living in Nafadji has changed me in ways that I probably don’t even realize yet, but I do recognize that it has been a defining experience in my life. Leaving was painful, but I know that I will be back one day to visit my friends and family. Nafadji, mbe lun do.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Little Camp in the Big City

Camp de Vacances 2013

The Kedougou Peace Corps Volunteers and local counterparts hosted a 7-day leadership camp for 20 middle school students from all over the region.  All of the students came from their villages to the regional capital and stayed at a campement (motel with huts) where the camp took place.  Volunteers led various lessons, activities, and games based on their skill sets and interests, and they selected students from their villages to participate in the camp.  I invited two of my Jeune Relais, Diongnima and Fatoumata. Both of them are exceptional students and have been effective Jeune Relais.  Ngom told me that he would ride with them on the Niokolo to Kedougou and drop them off at camp.

Diongnima and Fatoumata are both from small, remote villages and attend the middle school in Nafadji.  Neither of them had ever been to Kedougou before, and although it may seem like a small town to us, it is a big city to them.  I could tell they were nervous as I greeted them when they arrived at camp, and initially all of the campers were shy.  I was worried my two students would have trouble making friends since they speak Malinke and the majority of other kids were Pulaar.  As camp wore on, the kids got closer and closer.  By the third day, all of the kids were dancing in a circle together, and Fatoumata was the one drumming!  I didn’t even know that she knew how!  She went from being shy and quiet to this outgoing girl who was drumming with her new friends.  My heart soared every time I saw how much fun my kids were having at camp and how much they were getting out of it.

Fatoumata learning to play the guitar

Diongnima in his costume for his skit

The volunteers in Kedougou have a wide array of interests and skill sets.  We had a challenge course, ballet class, zumba class, arts and crafts, career panel, hike to a waterfall, family planning lesson, life skills lesson, question and answer with a midwife, puzzle, and theater. 

Ian and I led the family planning lesson, and the kids were very engaged and interested in the material. Teenage pregnancy is a huge problem in most communities in our region, and these students learned some ways to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.  Our two Jeune Relais volunteered lots of information that they learned last year in their training, and I was happy that they hadn’t forgotten.  We talked about the advantages and methods of family planning and led a jeopardy game as a final review.  

Family Planning Jeopardy

Family Planning Scenario Role Play

We didn’t have time during our lesson for me to have each of the girls practice using condoms on the wooden phallus, so after lunch, I rounded them all up and we sat in a circle on a mat and practiced putting condoms on the wooden model.  I was shocked that every girl wanted to try it! 

Condom Demonstrations

By the fifth day of camp, everyone was very comfortable with one another, and we were able to have some frank conversations.  A local midwife came to do a question and answer session, and I was shocked at how open and honest she and the students were.  There were some pretty graphic questions asked, and I was impressed with how the midwife handled everything.  The students learned a lot!

By the sixth day of camp, the students had already talked about sex during family planning and with the midwife, and they were open to talk about anything.  Awa Traore, Peace Corps Senegal’s Cross-Cultural Coordinator came all the way from Thies to give a presentation about the importance of education, avoiding early marriage and teenage pregnancy, and gender roles.  She is a phenomenal speaker and made a huge impression on the Nafadji middle school girls when she came to my village do a presentation last fall.  She has overcome many obstacles to become the successful woman that she is today and is able to have frank conversations with students about gender roles.  She is full of energy, humor, and life and knows how to engage an audience.

Awa Traore's Presentation

Awa started off the presentation talking about female genital cutting, which is a very taboo topic in Senegal.  Most villages have renounced the practice but still do it secretly.  During the conversation, it became clear that most of the girls in the room had been cut.  Awa has been cut and was able to relate to the girls and explain why she chose to be cut but also why she did not choose for her children to be cut.  It was an incredible discussion to listen to, and the girls were completely honest about their feelings on the topic.  Many of them did not understand why the practice was harmful, and others didn’t understand why the practice was ever created as a rite of passage. 

After this intense discussion, she moved on to early marriage and teenage pregnancy, which was another emotional conversation.  Many of the volunteers found out things that they had no idea were going on in their villages.  One of the girls openly admitted that many of the girls in her village get pregnant because their teachers force them to sleep with them.  Many of them voiced genuine concerns about continuing school because they knew they were going to be forced into an early marriage by their fathers.  Fatoumata is one of the top students at the Nafadji middle school, and I learned that her father plans to force her into an early marriage, and she was vocal about this fear.  I think it was beneficial for all of these students to voice their fears together and to realize that they are not alone.  They learned in a life skills session how to practice assertive communication, and this skill may be able to help them to stand up to the pressures of their parents and teachers.

On the last night of camp, we were all dancing in a circle before dinner, and one by one, all of the girls started crying and went into a hut together.  At first I was worried that something bad had happened, but it turned out they were all sad that they would be leaving each other the next day.  This weeklong camp was short but very intense, and all of the students bonded and formed strong friendships.  Since they come from villages all over the region, many of them didn’t know when they would ever see each other again.  It was hard to see them so sad, but I think this was a sign that the camp was successful.   I was so happy to have been a part of this amazing leadership camp, and a big thank you goes out to Camille Bevans and Rob Mominee who did the lion’s share of the work of organizing this camp.  It was flawless.  I’m sure our campers will remember that week for the rest of their lives, and for many of them, this may have been the defining experience that motivates them to go on to achieve their dreams.  One can only hope!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Bending it like Beckham!

Even before getting on the plane to come to Senegal, I wanted to start a girls’ soccer team during my service. I loved playing soccer when I was a kid and still enjoy playing recreationally as an adult. I also wanted to find a way to empower girls in my community. My dad, who was my soccer coach when I was in elementary school, was very supportive of the idea and held a soccer ball drive before I left for Peace Corps. He successfully collected a bunch of soccer balls from his soccer teammates for me to use with a soccer team in Senegal. I carried some balls over in my luggage, and he sent me many more in subsequent care packages. He also sent me a bag of pennies with 2 different colors that would be great for scrimmages. 

I spent my first year and a half in Nafadji and never found the opportunity to start a soccer team there. I gave my host family a couple of soccer balls, which we would play around with, but I never found a group of girls who were motivated to play regularly.

My first week in Saraya, I spent a lot of time with my new 12-year-old host sister, Maimouna Damba, and learned that she loves playing soccer. We watched Bend it Like Beckham together on my laptop, and she was inspired by the movie and wanted to become just as good at soccer as the main character. We devised a plan together and decided to create a soccer team of her and her friends. I asked her to find girls who were interested in playing and to figure out a good time for our practices. Within a week, she presented me with a list of 12 girls who were interested in playing.

Our next obstacle was choosing a time when girls would be free. Girls in this country have very little, if any, free time. If they are not at school, they are pounding grain, washing dishes, sweeping, cooking, doing laundry or taking care of younger children. Since girls have to prepare for dinner in the evening, we found that the best time for everyone to meet was at 3pm on days where the girls didn’t have classes in the afternoon. We practiced for an hour and then the girls went home to wash dishes and prepare dinner. 

At our first practice, 10 of the girls showed up, and the level of excitement and enthusiasm about playing soccer was high. Not only was this a time for them to play and improve their soccer skills, but it also gave them a chance to play with their friends and have an hour during the day where they were not in school or doing chores. We passed the ball around and scrimmaged, and by the end of the practice, the girls were begging me to play again the following day. 

Little Maimouna Dansokho playing goalie

Our practices have been informal, and we play on days that work for the girls. Sometimes we play twice a week, sometimes just once, and some weeks I haven’t been in Saraya. The girls have so much fun, and as time goes on, I have seen that the girls have become much more confident in their soccer abilities. Maimouna is a strong player and can get pretty aggressive on the field. I played opposite her the other week, and she almost knocked me over! 

The girls’ soccer team has been a great way for me to get to know some of the girls in Saraya and to give them the opportunity to play soccer. Thank you so much to those of you who donated soccer balls a couple of years ago! They have gone to a great group of girls, and my Saraya site mate, Annē, would like to continue the team after I leave. Maimouna can’t quite bend it like Beckham yet, but she is determined to get there!

Bine and Maimouna, our top players!

Monday, March 11, 2013

First Aid Training

Hot season arrived early this year, and I had forgotten how miserable the heat could be.  I’m sweating throughout the day and most of the night, and the heat sucks up all of my energy.  It’s still cooling off around 5 or 6am, but I’m not looking forward to a couple weeks from now when it will never cool down!  I’m dreaming of being cold in the US next month!

As you may have read in previous blog posts, Ian and I started a Jeune Relais program with Nafadji middle school students last year.  Last spring we trained 6 boys and 6 girls to be health leaders at their school and in their communities.  Our initial training was in reproductive health, family planning, and life skills, and our Jeune Relais spread the information they learned to their peers by presenting in their classrooms and leading health talks in their communities.  Right before rainy season, Ian and I led another training with the Jeune Relais about malaria, and they went back to their home communities for their summer vacation with the homework assignment of teaching the community about the importance of early treatment and how to make neem lotion (a natural mosquito repellent).  We’ve continued to meet with them on a monthly basis to review the material they have learned and to check up on how their health talks have been going.

This past weekend, we went back to Nafadji to lead a First Aid training with the Jeune Relais.  We invited Pat Linn, my Saraya site mate, as a technical trainer since he trained as an EMT and knows a lot about First Aid.  Last weekend, Pat, Ian, and I all made our way to Nafadji the day before the training to meet with Mr. Ngom, our local counterpart for the project.  Mr. Ngom is an extremely motivated English teacher and a great friend, and he has worked hard to keep the Jeune Relais program going after I had to leave Nafadji. 

We were warned prior to coming that the students were having a party at the school the night before the training and that we couldn’t start too early the next morning.  Unfortunately, my hut is right next to the classroom where they always throw parties, so on party nights, I usually get very little sleep.  This night was no exception.  The school rented a generator to blast music until 4am.  Ian, Pat, and I went to bed around 10pm to get a good nights rest before the training, and then the music turned on.  Around midnight, it stopped for about 10 minutes while they fixed a problem with the generator, and we thought we were in the clear.  But then the loud hip-hop music started up again and blared into the night.  Our alarm went off at 7am, and no one wanted to move.

When we saw the Jeune Relais in the classroom the next morning, it was clear that none of them had slept as well.

To liven up the group, Pat asked everyone to get up and do some pushups followed by jumping jacks.  Whenever we felt we were losing the audience, we did some more jumping jacks!

Pat did a great job of explaining what First Aid is and the rules the students needed to follow to be responsible responders when helping the sick or injured.  Along with showing them how to make arm slings and leg splints, he explained the steps that the students would need to take when approaching someone who was sick or injured.  They all learned how to examine someone and make a quick decision about whether to help the patient themselves or get him or her to the health post.  

Pat and his arm sling

Learning how to find a pulse

Teaching the students how to examine a patient

They practiced picking up a patient who needed to be carried to the health post, and they also learned how to immobilize the spine if they found someone who may have a spinal injury.  We finished off the training doing practice scenarios, where we took one student outside of the classroom and assigned him or her a sickness or injury.  Another student was chosen to be the responder who had to figure out what was wrong with the patient and what action to take to help him or her.  The scenarios went well, and the students were driven to prepare themselves to help someone who is injured or sick.

Scenario 1: Maimouna passed out from heat exhaustion

Learning how to carry someone

This was our last training with the Jeune Relais, and Mr. Ngom said that he would try his best to continue the program without us.  It has been incredibly rewarding to work with this intelligent and motivated group of students over the past year, and I hope they retain the knowledge and skills they have learned in the Jeune Relais program.  Many of them want to go on to become nurses, midwives, and doctors, and this program has been a great way for them to learn more about health and get excited about their future careers. 

Jeune Relais

This was the last time I would be in Nafadji with the teachers and many of the students since they will all be on Spring break when I go back to say my goodbyes at the beginning of April.  I started feeling nostalgic and remembering all the great times I’ve had with these teachers and students over the past couple of years.  The goodbyes are already starting, and I’m not sure I'm ready.  A little over 2 years ago, I was terrified of leaving the US and embarking on this crazy adventure, but now I’m terrified of leaving here next month.  When I’m sweating away in my hut, it feels easy to want to be back in the US, but saying goodbye to my family in Nafadji seems impossible.  I still have a month before I leave Kedougou, so I’m trying to stay present.  To keep us distracted, Ian and I have planned a biking adventure for the coming week! 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bringing Cryotherapy to Kedougou

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the cervical cancer prevention project I’ve been working on with the Chicago-based nonprofit, peacecare (, has been a major focus of my service. In case you haven’t read about it in other blog posts, I’ll give a little background. This project is the pilot project for the organization, started by Dr. Andrew Dykens, and the goal is to partner with Peace Corps Volunteers and a local health structure to create a sustainable program in a health topic chosen by the community. When the team did focus groups in Saraya a few years ago, cervical cancer was the health issue that they wanted peacecare to address. Peacecare doctors did a training of trainers and trained 2 midwives how to train others how to screen for cervical cancer using Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA). Since then, we have added some trainers and now have 4 women who can train the nurses and midwives in the region how to screen for cervical cancer. We’ve trained almost all of the nurses and midwives in the region how to screen, and the focus of the most recent trip was to train a few people at the hospital how to treat cervical precancer using cryotherapy. 

Before the peacecare team arrived, I had been in communication with the regional head doctor and the head doctors of each health district. They had chosen 3 people to participate in the cryotherapy training, including Fatou Traore, the head midwife in Saraya who has been involved in the project since the beginning. She has taken a leadership role in the project and has been at every training we have done for either nurses, midwives, or community health workers. The night before the peacecare team arrived, Fatou called me and said she had been summoned by the Ministry of Health to another region to lead a training. Now she would not be able to participate in the cryothearpy training. I felt so frustrated with the lack of control health professionals have over their schedules. You can plan a meeting months in advance, but if the boss tells a health professional at the last minute they have to go somewhere else, they have to go. This makes scheduling anything a challenge.

It was a setback, but once the peacecare team arrived, we were determined to carry on and do the 3-day training with the other trainees who were chosen.  Fatou sent a replacement trainee who came from a village in the Saraya health district, and she was motivated to learn. The CO2 tanks made it safely down to Kedougou, and all of the equipment worked!

The theory portion of the training, taught by Dr. Tracy Irwin, on the first day went well.  The three trainees demonstrated their ability to look at photos of cervices that were negative for precancer, positive for precancer, and those that had invasive cancer.  They learned how to decide if cryotherapy treatment was possible for the patient, and they did well during a photo test where they had to decide if the patient was positive for precancer and if the patient could receive cryotherapy.

The day before the training, Tracy mentioned that she needed some sausages for the practicum part of the training, so we went to the “Toubab store” and were able to find some. I was curious about how she was going to use these sausages, and when we began the practicum it made sense! Cryotherapy involves using a special gun hooked up to a CO2 tank and placing the gun tip on the cervix to freeze it for 3 minutes, thaw it for 5 minutes, and then freeze again for 3 minutes. Before the trainees performed the treatment on real patients, they practiced on sausages.

Ouli practicing on a sausage

In order for Tracy to certify each of the trainees, she needed to observe each of them performing at least 10 cryotherapy treatments. This meant that we needed at least 30 women who tested positive for precancer to come in for treatment. In December, Annē Linn and I helped the Dakar-based NGO, PREVENIR, do a mass cervical cancer screening at the Kedougou hospital. Our collaboration with PREVENIR allowed for us to treat the positives that they found during our cryotherapy training in February. From PREVENIR’s screening and other screenings the hospital had done in the past year, we in theory had enough positives for the training. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. All of the positives were called or given messages from their village aunt to come in during the 3-day cryotherapy training for treatment. Some of the women never came in, some of them were false positives, and some of them had lesions that were too big to be treated with cryotherapy. At the end of the training, the trainees were only able to do 2 cryotherapy treatments total, which was not sufficient to get certified. The trainees, volunteers, and peacecare team were all frustrated that the team was going to leave Senegal and no one would be able to perform cryotherapy in Kedougou.

We were all feeling discouraged when a woman came in for the last screening on our last day of training. She tested positive for precancer, and she was anxious to get cryotherapy treatment. The gratitude she expressed to the peacecare team and trainees who performed the treatment made us all remember why we were doing this. She had a huge smile across her face after the treatment and told us that health is the most important thing to her. If she doesn’t have her health, she doesn’t’ have anything. She recognized the importance of getting treatment for cervical precancer, and her energy and excitement about getting treatment re-energized all of us. We were going to make this work.

At the PREVENIR screening in December, Annē and I had met a Tamba-based gynecologist who performs cryotherapy. Since the peacecare team had to go back to the US soon, we thought this doctor could be a potential solution to our problem if he would agree to finish the training we had started. The team went up to Tamba to meet with him and discuss the possibility of him finishing the certification of the trainees. This doctor was on board and was enthusiastic about the possibility of cryotherapy treatment in Kedougou. Being from Kedougou himself, he recognized how far women would need to travel for treatment if they could not get it there. We are hopeful that we will have at least one of the trainees certified in cryotherapy in the next few months.

The rest of the peacecare trip involved a lot of strategic planning for the future. Organizing meetings with doctors here can be like herding cats with their busy schedules and lack of response to emails. Fortunately, we were able to get meetings with all of the head doctors, and we had some productive conversations about the future of the program. At this point in the program, peacecare is focusing on how this project can be sustained by the health structure itself when we phase ourselves out eventually. The local doctors and midwives renewed their motivation in the project, and both the volunteers and the peacecare team finished the visit feeling hopeful about the future of the project. The vision is to have cervical cancer screening and treatment available to everyone in the region, and we continue to get closer to that goal.

Working on this project has clarified for me that I want to continue doing work in women’s reproductive health. It has been an incredible opportunity to work with the peacecare doctors and local midwives and doctors on a program that I hope will be sustainable in the future. I can’t wait to continue doing further work in women’s global health as I begin graduate school in the fall. I was thrilled to find out recently that I was accepted to University of Washington’s Masters in Public Health in Epidemiology-Global Health Track program! I’m excited to pursue my dream of addressing women’s health needs around the world!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Visitors, Reflection, and Geriatric Gou

February was filled to the brim with visitors, conferences, and softball.  At the beginning of the month, I went up to Dakar to meet my amazing friend Caitlin and her boyfriend, Danny.  After not seeing Caitlin for over a year, it felt surreal to hug her at the Dakar airport.  Danny previously lived in the Gambia for a year, working with the law school in Banjul.  He and Caitlin planned to spend a week with me in Senegal and then head to the Gambia.  When you take into account how horrible transport is in Senegal, a week is not much time, so we had a busy week ahead.

We started off in Dakar visiting Goree Island and eating dinner at a delicious Ethiopian restaurant downtown.  Unfortunately, I had amoebas at the time so had no appetite.  Due to the amoebas, my 13-hour 7-place ride up to Dakar to meet Caitlin and Danny was one with many stops to run into the bush with an irritable stomach.  Thankfully I got on the right medication the day that we left Dakar to head down to Kedougou and started feeling much better.  We took a 9 hour 7-place to Tamba, and then another 4-hour 7-place to Kedougou, getting into the regional house at night.  After a long day of travel, we decided to relax in Kedougou the following day.  We biked to the Gambia River, visited the market, and played Settlers of Catan with some of the other volunteers.   It was fun to share the regional house culture with Caitlin and Danny.

The following morning, we squeezed into the back of a 9-place to get to Saraya.  We greeted the village and hiked into the bush to see Maimouna’s garden, and Caitlin and Danny spent the night in my hut.  

Danny and Caitlin walking to Maimouna's garden

Caitlin and me in Maimouna's garden

A couple of other volunteers loaned Caitlin and Danny their bikes for a couple of days, so we were able to bike the 30 kilometers to Nafadji the following morning.  I forgot to mention the terror of the tsetse flies to them until that morning, and the tstetsies made the ride much more stressful.  We biked in the heat while tsetse flies honed in and continually bit each of us.  Each bite is a painful sting, and then the bite swells up and itches for days.  On previous rides, I’ve thought that if the government could get a hold of them, they would make an excellent torture device.  I’m used to them at this point since I bike to Nafadji often, but it wasn’t the best welcome for Caitlin and Danny.  I felt bad about how painful the bike ride was, but luckily our time in Nafadji was worth it.

We received a warm welcome in Nafadji, and Fily killed a chicken for our lunch.  We blew bubbles with my kids and spent our day hanging out on different people’s compounds.  The village chief gave Caitlin and Danny local names, and Mansa, my host sister, was ecstatic to receive a namesake!  She danced around with Caitlin and showed off her new namesake to her friends.  It was amazing to be able to share my life here with Caitlin.  We’ve talked a lot through email and Skype over the past couple of years, but to actually be able to introduce her to my family and friends here and to connect those two worlds was incredible.

We got attacked once again by the tstetse flies on our way back to Saraya, then waited a few hours on the side of the road for a car to Kedougou and finally hitchhiked a ride on the back of a huge truck.  Transport on this trip was not comfortable, but Caitlin and Danny were flexible and kept their senses of humor along the way.  I think they got a good feel for what day-to-day life is like here.  We took some more 7-places the next day up to Kaolack and stayed in a nice hotel with a pool.  It was a relief to have a shower and a real mattress, and our celebratory dinner that evening was the perfect way to end the Senegal leg of their trip.  I was happy to have been able to spend time with Caitlin and to meet Danny.  It was a stressful week, but we had some good laughs along the way, and I feel honored that they traveled all the way to Nafadji to see what my life here is like. 

From Kaolack, I continued up to Thies for my Close of Service (COS) conference.  I was so happy to see my friends from my training group again since we’re spread out all over the country.  During the conference, we reflected upon our services and started thinking about readjusting to living in the US.  We have all come such a long way in the past couple of years, and I think we all share the sentiment that if we can do this, we can do anything.  I cannot think of one person’s service that has been without challenges, and it was powerful to have all of us sitting in a room together reflecting upon what we have learned.  At the conference, I also chose my COS date and will be flying home on April 23rd!

After the conference in Thies, I took a bus to Dakar with my friends to attend the West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament (W.A.I.S.T.).  Each Peace Corps Senegal region comes up with a theme for their team, and this year, Kedougou was geriatric.  Everyone got into character and had fun yelling at people to get off their lawn.  We by far had the best costumes, but we did not win any of our games (maybe that was due to the fact that we were hobbling around the field).  I love how Kedougou has such a close-knit group of volunteers, and it was fun to all be together in Dakar.

Me, LaRocha, and Katie

Pat and Chip

Gou Crew

Right after WAIST, the Peacecare team arrived in Dakar, and we headed down to Kedougou for our cryotherapy training.  I’ll write more about that in another blog!  It’s been a crazy month, and time is passing way too quickly!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Guest Post: Dancing into the New Year in Nafadji

Written by Margo Goyette (Marielle's mom)

Host Mom Aissata and Margo

It felt so exciting to finally be in Senegal--to reunite with Marielle after so long and to be in Africa for the first time. Over the past year and a half, we had closely followed her blog, clicked through the many photos, listened to her stories and Skyped, but to experience it all firsthand with our whole family felt very special.

Even though we only had a week, we made the most of each day and took away some memorable impressions that will stay with us for a lifetime. We were very fortunate to wind up with a comedic driver named Pape (“Pop”) who crammed all five of us, plus our mountain of luggage into his modest Toyota pick up and patiently drove for nearly 13 hours from Dakar, all the way out to the southeastern corner of Kedougou. He somehow maintained a sense of humor while swerving down heavily pot holed dirt roads for hundreds of miles.

Pape and his truck

Senegalese humor was something we picked up on from Pape’s silly nicknames for a couple of our family members, to villagers who told us about “joking cousins” which apparently are people who have a “rival” family last name paired to their last name. So when you meet those folks you get to rib them by saying things like “You are my slave” or “I am your king”. We were given honorary Senegalese names by Marielle’s host families, however we did not have a chance to use the “You are my slave” lines on any of our “joking cousins”. We covered a lot of ground during our marathon drive. One of the highlights was visiting an animal preserve in Toubacouta where we observed rhinos, giraffes and warthogs up close from our truck. We also enjoyed a rare opportunity to walk with and pet a pair of adorable 9-month old lion cubs. 

Marc, Alex, Gabi, Marielle, and Margo

Marielle, Alex, and Gabi

Baby Margo and Margo
Getting a chance to learn about village culture and one of the dialects was also memorable. We put into practice the basic Malinke that Marielle taught us by greeting countless villagers and shaking many hands---her emphasis on the importance of greeting each and every person was not exaggerated. We were treated like honored guests and given a warm welcome by Marielle’s host families in both Saraya and Nafadji. In both villages we had a chance to sleep in thatched huts, eat native foods out of communal bowls and were treated like family members. I was especially thrilled to finally get a chance to meet my namesake, Baby Margo, in Nafadji. She is already over a year old now and mirrors the radiant smile and beautiful eyes of her mother Fily.

Helping Fily cook lunch

Our most memorable moment of the entire trip was a large dance party that was given in our honor on New Year’s Eve under the moonlight in Nafadji. Fily had organized the event and the dancing and singing were performed by the village women, while two male djembe drummers kept the lively beat going. The women sang in Malinke with beautiful harmony, substituting words to their familiar folk songs with words that honored and welcomed us--we had come from far, far away just to visit them, we were Marielle’s family, they were happy to greet us and our names were called one by one. As they poured their hearts out in song, each woman danced individually in the middle of the circle while everyone clapped to the drum beat.

Into the wee hours, feet were stomping furiously over the dirt, like a frenzied sprint with puffs of red dust wafting up into the night air. Arms flapped to the beat as if preparing to take flight. Other women would step in with their own spirited moves to challenge the dancer in the middle with hips swaying, feet pounding, and then they would step out and others would take the spotlight. Each of our family members were pulled in to take turns with our own dance moves and the women whooped with glee. At first I felt like a self conscious Toubab trying to catch the beat, but a spark finally caught and my feet just took off. Gabi and Alex added their own heat to the circle as they were pulled into the center and gyrated to the drum rhythms without reservation. The game changer happened when Marc began to swing dance and the women went wild. They had not seen this type of dancing before and many repeatedly pulled him back into the dance circle to try it. He spun each one around like tops and they thrilled to the unexpected speed and footwork. We learned that the men do not normally participate in dance parties, so it was probably a fun novelty for them to have Marc & Alex joining in. Both guys were pulled into the center of the circle frequently throughout the evening.

Marielle looked radiant and completely at home dancing and kicking up dust with these women. The bond that had grown between them over the past couple of years seemed clear. The singing and dancing were not just to celebrate our family’s visit, but it felt like their tribute to her and all that she’d done for the village. There was a surreal and visceral quality to the evening that transcended language and culture. We were deeply moved by it and the incredible love and warmth we felt from everyone in that circle. Long after we have returned home and gotten back to our routines, we are still talking about how that moment will always be remembered as one of our best.

Marc and the Nafadji Soccer Team

Gabi and Sira

Margo, Marielle, and Gabi with their red dirt tans