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!