21 December, 2011

Ya Have to See tha Baaybee!

After our refreshing stay in the regional house in the city of Kaolack for Thanksgiving, my closest neighbor (the great Sarah Ferguson) and I headed out to find the one bus that goes to the particular part of the middle of no-where that we currently live. Sarah was clipped by a white SUV in the second bus station we’d been in that morning. We learned the hard way that Kaolack has two. She didn’t sustain any damage and no one else around seemed to think anything of it so, after our disbelief and disconcerted squealing started to subside, we continued our search for the bus. We found it, and about nine hours later (the same length as the flight here from D.C.) I arrived in my village. The drive would directly take about two hours, but with waiting time, stopping time, and tending to mechanical issues, things generally move a bit slower here.

I took this boring lull to begin a new book, an exciting ritual which happens frequently for Peace Corps volunteers. I subsequently read the bulk of that book while I was trapped within running distance of my bathroom by an evil thing my body, luckily, ejected (one way or the other) after only three days. After this bout, Sarah and I decided to take a 20K bike ride to visit a volunteer whose village has electricity. This began the type of misadventure where literally nothing goes as (loosely) planned and we just had to laugh. We laughed when we found ourselves in the position that we had to walk 17K in the hottest part of the day. We laughed when one of our regiment cut their foot open trying to tackle the walk and became queasy at the sight of their blood. We laughed when the sun was setting and we were, once again, unexpectedly stranded. At least this time it was at a beer serving establishment inappropriately named Guantanamo Café.

That night we stayed at the house of another volunteer whose host-uncle is the principle of a school in a fairly big city. It was from him I received my first real compliment on my new language skills. Past volunteers have told me repeatedly, “the language will come to you, don’t worry about it”. But they forgot to tell me I could share their flippant attitude on this much more readily after a few cheap beers. My liquid courage paired with an open minded conversation partner, who is legitimately interested in the development of villages like mine, was an effective exorcism of my minute knowledge of Wolof and my enormous passion for working here. Her host family is Catholic and they were in no way offended that we had gone out for much deserved drinks and partook in plastic cups of whisky themselves.

Returning to my village from this trip was the first time I felt like I was going to a place that was my home. It was also comforting to know that within my village, transportation mishaps are impossible, since its perimeter can be walked in ten minutes. As I was biking into the village from the trip there was a party going on at one of the compounds. It was an Ngente which is a combination of a baptism and naming ceremony for babies that are one week old. This was my first opportunity to show my face at a community event and present a gift to the new mother. I felt more integrated because of this and I think the people of the village appreciated my being there.

I spent the next couple of weeks tending to the beginnings of my garden, getting to know the people in my village, and assessing their interest in projects I have in mind. I spent most of my time with my host family as I continue to find my niche in the household. One day there was a perceptible shift in the flow of activity in my fifteen person compound when my host mother left for yet another Ngente ceremony. This time it was for her sister’s new baby in a neighboring village. The frequency of these ceremonies demonstrates the rapid population growth and overpopulation typical to developing countries. Most family planning measures or unknown or unwanted by couples here here.

At Ngentes like this a baby is prayed over, given a name, and has it’s hair ritually cut. There is the sacrifice of a lamb in the morning which is feasted on for lunch by most of the village. In the afternoon woman put on their traditional clothes and present gifts to the new mother (in between cooking huge bowls of rice with sheep meat) and often enjoying some time to dance and celebrate. The day my mother left the village for twelve or so hours for one of these events the children, untended, ran amok around the compound. The other two women who live with us had to pick up the slack of pounding millet for that night’s dinner starting at 5AM, cooking three meals over an open fire, hand washing clothes, working in the peanut fields (and all subsequent processing of the peanuts), tending to a home garden, maintaining their medicinal plant garden they keep for extra income, etc., etc.

The disorder that day made me wonder what would happen if my host-mother ever actually woke up as the giant worker bug society has forced her to be, and could not do all the work she generally does in a day. In Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ this is exactly what happens to Gregor Samsa and, in the end, his family gains greater strength of character from it but only after struggle and sadness from the loss of their worker beetle. If the women here at my compound really took a day off, the men would certainly be floundering and the children would go generally uncared for. I am not insinuating that all men in Senegal are uninvolved, because the family I stayed with previous to this had very hardworking men who partook in traditionally ‘female roles’ like pulling water every day and child rearing. Societal change is slow to trickle through to more rural areas (and it doesn’t get much more rural here then my new digs) but I try to inject some feminist attitude into every day conversation, if possible. I think so far I’ve mostly made my host-mother jealous and my host-father annoyed with all the talk of how my real mother doesn’t cook and my father does laundry, but I have to start somewhere. My host mother’s day away from the compound gave me new perspective on the dynamic of the people here in my compound, something which will continue to grow and change.

In order to expend some excess energy, explore the area and ecology around my village, and remain sane, I have been going for runs most afternoons. It’s a good way to escape being the center of good, negative, pleasant, annoying, and every other kind of attention. It also gives me the opportunity to blast American and Swedish Progressive Metal into my brain without hiding in my hut to do so. Although part of my role here is to expose some of American culture to my host community, I’m sticking with the girl-wearing-pants and washing with anti-bacterial soap aspects for now. They may not be ready for my music, just yet.

I am now in the city of Kaffrine for a three day intensive Wolof seminar with three other newbies who live in the area and a Peace Corps language instructor. I will be heading back to Kaolack and then to the beach for Christmas for a few days of light bulbs, shower heads, cheese, and Wifi.

Bonus points to any one, besides my father, who knows which hilarious TV show the title of this blog post alludes to. Actually. Rather. Bonus points to anyone, besides my father, whose reading this.

Ba bennen yoon! (Until next time!)

Mefloquin's Requiem

You generously gave me, the best sleep
Into my brain you crept so damn deep.
An explorer of dreams could not ask for more,
But you quickly began to lose your allure.
I enjoyed time spent in the realm of dreams
With a love left behind, but when the same fiends
Who play tricks on the mind gave me a start
It became time for you and me to part.
Friends said a free trip was a sweet deal
But things that weren’t there were suddenly real.
In moments a mango tree doubled in size,
And in my hut I saw my dead cats glowing eyes.
Your job was only to protect me from malaria
Now I’m saying goodbye to avoid total hysteria.

Don’t worry all, I’m now taking a different medication that helps prevent me from contracting malaria. There is no vaccination, just prophylaxis medications which are too expensive for rural farmers here to give their whole families and cannot be take indefinitely so therefore are unable to help the huge populations of people living in malaria ridden areas of world. Malaria sucks and is still extremely dangerous!
The first drug I was on, Mefloquin gave me super vivid dreams, which were fun but it made it harder for me to experience them lucidly a la Carlos Castaneda and ‘The Art of Dreaming’. The real negative side of mefloquin was the ADD and memory loss type symptoms I was experiencing, which made it a bit harder to learn a new language. No worries to those on their way into the Peace Corps or who will be taking malaria meds at some point, not everyone experiences these symptoms and if you do you can always take a different type of pill.

23 November, 2011

Fear and Trembling Under the Mosquito Net

It has been two weeks at my village, which is 8K from a road clear of bush. Without my directions the Peace Corps driver who brought me and my bags to here would not have found it. He headed in the wrong direction twice based on directions given to him by people in villages along the way. It has been an interesting two weeks. I am starting to learn the details of my host family, like their many names and how in the world they are all connected. Families work a little bit differently here. I’ve also been learning my way around the area. This included a hilarious relearning of how to ride a bike, in pure sand. I only fell in one bush full of sharp, dry stickers. Luckily my closest neighbor was with me and was nice enough to remove the twenty or so embedded in my back. There were about four women from the village laughing hysterically . I’ve since gotten the hang of which gear is best for biking through soft sand.

But, before all this excitement was my first Tabaski. It is the Senegalese version of the important Muslim holiday which celebrates the story of Abraham and Ishmael (Isaac). The story goes; Abraham is willing to kill his own son to show God he would do anything or him. At the last moment, as Abraham is about to plunge a knife into his first born son, God sends the angel Gabriel to grab his hand and stop him. A ram enters the scene and is sacrificed in Ishmael’s stead. To represent this, each family in Senegal slaughters one sheep (or many more then that) on Tabaski.

The story has special meaning to me because of its usage by Soren Kierkegaard in ‘Fear and Trembling’ to elucidate his idea of the ‘leap of faith’. Abraham is a ‘Knight of Faith’ because he does not care that the act of killing his own son would be frowned upon by society, he follows what he believes because is a free moral agent. Although in this context it is God he is ‘blindly’ following, the concept of this ‘leap’ into the realm of un-relegated moral action has lent greatly to the tenant of existentialism which holds that one does not need God or law to make them take responsibility for their own actions, they just should. Which, I tend to agree with in a Pragmatic sense.

My first Tabaski was about as nauseating and disorienting as my last paragraph was for most readers, albeit much more exciting. The best part so far has been the chunks of dried sheep insides that are still popping up in my lunch bowl (two weeks later). I avoid them pretty easily and have yet to be sick, so it’s no problem. After Tabaski, the training group left the luxurious training center in the posh and happening city of Thies and began moving into our new (some very rural) homes.

Without superior language skills, the hardest part about my first couple of weeks in my village has been figuring out how to spend my time. Being and American, who is used to having a schedule, it has been difficult to the point of anxiety inducing not to have a particular place to be each day at a certain time. My work and my learning schedule for language had to be optimized and created by me. There is an overwhelming fear that I may not be progressing or being productive. There is no measure of progression for community integration, which is currently my job, that is comparable to what we are used to in America like grades or time cards. This made me restless, and my second morning in village I began feverishly building a compost pile, which over the next two weeks became two compost piles, a double-dug bed, two no-dig/sheet mulched beds for comparison, and a zai-hole demonstration plot. I also created wild plans for the use of these and the rest of my garden space. I think I did this because gardening is something I know I can do and it is the only thing I immediately had some level of control over here (plus it’s fun).

After a week or so I began to settle down and realize that I have time to plan my work (and garden) carefully. The worry of failing to insight positive change here over the next two year is a valid concern but I cannot allow myself to become obsessed with it during this time of adjustment. I work here but I also live here and I need to take the time to become used to that. Hiding in my hut, with the door closed, writing a blog post definitely isn’t the way to do that so I’m going to head out there and talk to my new family in awful, broken, Wolof. Until next time!

16 October, 2011

Lord Henry in the Bush

My time last week was spent at the compound of a current volunteer in a village nearby where I will be living for my two years of service (starting next month). A Peace Corps car drove us as far as Kaolack (from Thies) but from there an adventure that I could have expected (but for some reason had not) ensued. My host and I walked to the Kaolack garage, a packed, filthy parking lot filled with vans and station wagons waiting for fares (25 people in a van and up to as many clinging to the roof). After locating the correct van in rapid Wolof and accidentally cutting my toe on a rusty can, me, my bloody toe, and my host crammed into our seats. With our baggage piled in our laps we started the three hour ride to my host volunteer’s village.

The next day we decided to walk to my village (15K away) so we had an early start. After a few hours of walking through the bush it became clear that we weren’t completely sure where we were going, and that we should have gotten breakfast. At one point, for lack of another option, we waded through a road flooded waist deep. My host asked for directions in each village we came upon. Through my mediocre grasp on Wolof, I ascertained that most women had never heard of my village but some older men were able to provide us with, at least, which road to take out of their village towards mine.

We eventually reached our destination and I was able to spend some time with my host family and become aquatinted with my hut and my new village. When we did finally get there, upon entering the village on the donkey drawn cart (charrette) which picked us up on the bush road, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the gentle slope of the land, punctuated by the flatness of most of Senegal, as well as by the grove of massive baobabs surrounding the village. The trees were lavishly decorated with fruit; oblong orbs attached to the thick branches by succulent cords. The cluster of trees looked like something out of a world Tolkien dreamed up. Somewhere so far from New York it must exist only in another world (think Zelda).

After spending the afternoon with my host dad and seeing the village we set off back to my host volunteer’s village. During the bumpy charrette ride back our driver stopped and dropped us off on a bush road so that he could turn back and make it home before dark. This left us to walk the rest of the way as the sun sunk quickly into the horizon. By the time we reached the next village it was too dark and unsafe to trudge on. My host had thought this circumstance was a possibility so she had contacted the Peace Corps affiliated farmer (Master Farmer Program) in this village earlier in our trek. We made it to the farmer’s house just as it became too dark to see. She welcomed us and insisted we eat there and stay the night. We rinsed off our filth and ate millet cous-cous with bean sauce then crashed under the mosquito net for the night. We woke up early enough to see the sun rise and examine some of the work the Master Farmer had been doing. I saw her field crop demonstrations and personal gardens. She is someone I will likely be working with once I live in the area.

After checking out the fields we caught a van back to my host’s village and washed (with soap) and drank some water (filtered!). We ate hard boiled eggs on heavy local break during a two hour chartette ride to visit the other Master Farmer I will be working with. The journey was artificially long because the cart was being dragged by a horse who had never driven before. My vegetarian-self cringed each time the driver used the stick to whip the horse, but the side of me who wanted to be out of the hot sun and get to the farm made it easier to bite my tongue. After the short visit we did some work around my host’s village and then watched a movie with the remaining battery on her lap-top.

The effect of watching a movie on my mood was strange; knowing I was still in a very rural village in Senegal but being completely transported back to the U.S. where Russell Crowe was breaking his wife out of prison. The amazing ability of books and movies to move my mindset to a completely new place is amplified infinitely here because of the intensity and strangeness of everything going on around me. The next day was the last day of the visit which consisted of visiting the Peace Corps office in nearby Kaffrine and a whiskey fueled party at the Peace Corps Kaolack transit house.

Back in my training village, far from the bush village I’ll be living in for two years, I am realizing that there are different life styles and cultures in Senegal, even between small Wolof speaking villages. The way of life in my training village appeared to me to be no-frills but it is, in fact, much more comfortable ‘economically’ then my permanent village placement. It seems like each day I’m here my perspective on poverty, development, and my personal goals change. Most of my ideas end up back where they started, perspectivally, but some of the ways I understand and experience are in drastic transition. My latest literary escape here has been Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Grey which has reminded me of a philosophy I have always been a proponent of. That is, that there are no good or bad experiences or sensations, all of them contribute to one’s identity and each is as valuable as another. The combination of horror, nausea, morbid curiosity, and strange excitement that I felt when a sheep had its throat cut just a few feet from me (and subsequently when it was served for lunch and dinner for the next two days), are all important and I revel in the intensity of such experiences, despite how uncomfortable they might be.

Without a combination of pleasurable and disconcerting sensations, none would have any effect. The Daoist concept that something (in this case a sensation) cannot exist without it’s opposite is more obvious to me here in Senegal then it ever was before. The delight of sipping a cold drink isn’t as good unless you’ve really worked up a sweat and the pride of learning something new (like Wolof) isn’t as warm if you haven’t been frustrated over it for weeks (or months!). I suggest Dorian Grey should have joined the Peace Corps in search of new and extraordinary sensations (instead of doing evil), because like myself he feels that “no theory on life seems to be of any importance compared to life itself…”

28 September, 2011

How Many Nights and Weird Mornings...? a gonzo induced blog post

Fourteen days straight at homestay (village based training) proved to be an intense but rewarding adjustment period. Waking up in the morning to the sound of sheep baaying behind my room, after 7-10 hours of Mefloquin induced lucid dreams, it takes a moment to realize where I am. What kind of strange trip am I on this time? What is the bizarre dialect cracking through the blaring battery powered radio outside my room? WHY are my legs tangled in this light airy net??

It's time to get up, pull water from a well and moisten the saline soil around whichever plants in our training garden haven't been devoured or dehydrated by the Sahelian ecosystem. Then off to several hours of having Wolof syntax Socratically jammed into my remaining neurons.
But first...breakfast.
Any person who wants an excuse to eat an entire 12+ inches of French baguette with butter for breakfast everyday should move to Senegal. In village this has been accompanied by cafe Tuba; sugary, spicy, hot coffee cooked with loads of cloves and ginger which inevitably gives me the hiccups. It's good. And I swear it's prevented me from contracting the violent upper respiratory issues going around both the village and Peace Corps training center. So far the vile health problems often experience by travelers to a new country have yet to be an issue for me. With the exception that acne has gone from a general annoyance to a potential Staph infection. I did experience two days of some intestinal difficulty but nothing someone who enjoys a glass of straight tequila with Pabst Blue Ribbon on the side isn't somewhat accustomed to.
Spirits among my training group were growing low after about a week. It was hard to say why. Although we were aware of and understood what was happening here we hadn't completely accepted it. This was our most marked period of culture shock thus far. Questions were floating around like; "WHY do I have to eat from the same bowl as 7 children, with my hands, as the others lick their finger and just PAW at the food?". I myself was having some trouble forming the palm oil soaked white rice into balls with my hand and delivering it to my mouth. Most of my skirts now have rice kernels stuck to them, dried into tiny hard pellets. Maybe it was the week of inadequate protein or the stress of immersion language learning while living with a family we COULDN'T understand, but all that was clear was that we needed some back up reserves...
We strapped on our running shoes and packs and set off on a jog to Thies to find a store that we could not only walk inside, but which sold fruit (our village is beyond quaint). Packs filled with fruit and peanut form protein we headed back, but not without a cold soda.
After a couple of days of micromanagement and protein loading our spirits were up...and the temperature was down! Two glorious days of cool breezes and refreshing rain and we were back to being the idealistic {coherent} plant loving do-gooders the U.S. government hired and sent to Africa!