Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Bittersweet End - Closing out my Peace Corps Service

Sitting down to write this last story about wrapping up my service in Senegal was hard for many reasons.  Primarily, my last few weeks at site were busy with tying up loose ends, packing and giving away a bunch of stuff I’d accumulated, introducing my replacement to his new home and projects, and making my rounds to say goodbye.  That was followed by a week in Dakar doing all of the administrative things necessary to end a government job.  Six other volunteers were doing this at the same time and a handful of others came in to bid us farewell, so there have been a plethora of social activities this week as well.  Unfortunately, all of this running around and communal living has taken its toll, so I’ll be boarding my flight this evening with a lovely chest cold, as well as several other minor bacterial infections that were identified in my last medical exam.   I consider this nice little going away present.  Merci, Senegal.  Things could be worse; there’s a letter I’m bringing to my doctor back home that was included with all of the final paperwork I received from Peace Corps that outlines of all of the nasty things that I could have caught while here.  Oh joy!  Let’s all cross our collective fingers in hopes that none of these pop up after my return.

If the volunteer should present herself for treatment, please be aware that the following diseases are endemic in Senegal:
·         Malaria-falciparum, ovale, vivax
·         Tropical eosinophilia
·         Infectious hepatitis
·         Intestinal parasites (such as Shistosoma, hematobium and S. mansoni, Ancylostoma, Stongyloma, Ascaris, Trichiura, Taenia, Entamoeba, Histolytica, Giardia lamblia)
·         Tuberculosis
·         Yaws
·         Leprosy
·         Typhoid Fever
·         Poliomyelitis
·         Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, and other Arbovirus diseases

Blister beetle burns - ouch!

Infections aside, as I look back on my two years of service, I'm happy with my accomplishments.  I’ve done work that I can be proud of, left a lasting impression on many people, and experienced remarkable personal growth.  Some amazing people have entered my life and many existing relationships have been strengthened.  My ability to stay connected while I was here was an unexpected blessing and I am thankful to have received so much support and encouragement during this journey.

Baol Environment board members wishing me farewell

Leaving site was a bit more difficult than I had imagined.  Three months ago, when we had our official Close of Service conference, I felt like I already had one foot out the door.  I’d been researching housing, school, and work options back home and I was mentally ready to leave.  As the time drew nearer, however, I really started to drag my feet.  Uprooting your life is never easy, even if you know you're going home.  Luckily, I was involved with training the new group of volunteers who will be replacing many of us at our sites and this kept me busy until the very last week.  During this time, my neighbors and friends stopped by to say goodbye which often turned into lengthy visits.  Some of my favorite students, who didn’t want our lessons to end, made frequent appearances just to hang out.  Packing was a production, mostly because I left a lot of things behind and these had to be distributed with great care so that no one felt left out.  I ended up giving all of the clothes I left behind to the family that I’d eaten lunch with my first year in Diourbel.  I felt a tad guilty, as I didn’t have any clothes for the many boys in the family, but that guilt soon passed when I saw one of their teenage sons walking down the street in my purple cargo pants.  I wish I’d taken a picture because they looked really cute on him.

Marame Gueye sorting through my clothes

Last photo-op with Ibou

Last Friday, I joined a group of friends at a local bar near the University of Dakar to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics.  I come from a family of non-sporty types who can go two years without watching any sports on TV, but when it comes to the Olympics, we're glued to the tube. I was really excited to be in the capital this last week so I could see some of the coverage.  It was fun to sit amongst such an international crowd, especially during the parade of athletes.  People cheered for all of the West African nations but when the Senegal team hit the track in their bright yellow boubous, the place erupted with excitement.  The same held true when the U.S. team entered the scene.  This camaraderie bring people together in a way that you only see when living abroad. Within our Peace Corps community, we have many people with allegiances to other countries and/or dual citizenship, so there was a rolling celebration as the teams rounded the track.

Team Senegal hits the track

Alex cheers for her homeland - Poland
The Opening Ceremonies

Team USA

I’m looking forward to spending some quality face time with friends and family over the next few months as I settle back into the swing of things.  Hopefully no one in the fast lane will run me over before I get a chance to acclimate to the speed of America.  After a week in the DC area, I’ll be returning to Charlottesville to begin anew.  I’ve rented a cute little house downtown and have enrolled in a Non-Profit Management certificate program at UVA.  I’m excited to get involved with many of the socially conscious organizations that have sprung up in Charlottesville since I left in 2010, most notably The CvilleTime Bank and the Charlottesville Cash Mob.  I’m also looking forward to joining the board of Better World Betty, a non-profit organization that serves as a resource for sustainable living.  We'll be working together to review and refine their mission, goals, and projects  There’s a lot of good stuff happening back home and Charlottesville is filled with some amazing people!

Speaking of amazing people, my friends at Brothers Cycling for the World who helped fund a village garden project that I worked on with Baol Environment have recently posted an article I wrote on their website:  http://brotherscycling.com/web/2012/06/celebrating-world-environment-day-baol-environment/

So, in less than 12 hours I'll be boarding my plane to fly home.  I leave behind many friends and co-workers who I'll miss dearly, but I have faith that many of our paths will cross again.  I take with me a belief that one person can make difference in the lives of others and a new-found courage that will make entering this next phase of life a little easier.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Throwing Yourself Out There

Joining the Peace Corps at age 42 was not something I did on a whim, in fact there’s not much I do that doesn’t involve a lot of planning.  The Peace Corps is something I’d thought about since I was a young kid, but it never seemed to to be a good fit.  I first wanted to join in the early ‘70s after my Godmother and her family returned from their service in Kenya.  Unfortunately, I was only 6 or 7 at the time and there was this annoying age requirement that I didn’t quite meet.  Right after college, when most people entertain the idea, I was preoccupied with health issues that required serious medical attention.  Moving to a developing country was just not an option, so I didn’t even consider it.  When my health improved in my mid-twenties, I soon found myself with both a career and a family.  We lived in an idyllic setting, in the country surrounded by close friends.  Life was good; joining the Peace Corps was far from my mind.  But then, in the spring of 2005, I had one of those horrifying moments that one hopes are only reserved for fictional characters in heart-wrenching movies.  My husband came home from a weekend away and told me that he was leaving me for another woman.  This kind of news changes your world and my life inevitably took a dramatic turn.  The ensuing details are irrelevant at this point, but that single moment in time became a catalyst for several years of change, and that change has been rather remarkable.
The insecurities that surfaced after my marriage dissolved wreaked havoc with my emotions for a while.  It took some time, but I learned to embrace my newfound feelings of up-rootedness and to appreciate them for the new opportunities they had to offer. In sorting through how to start my life over again I learned to take chances.  I quit my job, found interesting work that I really cared about, and even let myself love again.  These were huge steps for me.  I was out of my comfort zone and, amazingly, instead of being frightened about my future, I began to feel enlivened and hopeful.  A new chapter was unfolding. The thing with taking chances, however, is that they don’t always work out.  Because my new relationship and job were intertwined, when one failed to thrive, so did the other and I found myself at a crossroads once again.
It was at this intersection that I thought long and hard about opportunities that had passed me by and the possibility of joining the Peace Corps rose to the surface once again.  Why not take the road not taken?  My health had been good for years, I was debt-free, and, clearly, I was in career and life transitions.  So, I took a chance and began the year-long process of applying for the Peace Corps.  To my delight, they accepted me and, in August 2010, I got on a plane to Senegal with 60 other soon-to-be volunteers and threw myself out into the world once again. I am emotionally stronger than when I arrived, more confident, and brimming with perspective about the world around me.  I’ve done more “living” in the past 7 years than I’d ever thought possible and I attribute that to deviating from my well-planned path.  Sometimes, life's detours are a blessing in disguise.
The Peace Corps experience has been challenging on many levels, but one of the things I’ve learned to appreciate from it the most is the clean slate it provided me.  Living and working in a community and culture that has very little resemblance to the life I’ve always known has been both difficult and liberating.  I can no longer measure my successes and failures on cultural norms.  Because of that, my self-doubt has dissipated and I’ve learned to venture forth without impeding my path with judgment.   How else would I be able to stand up in front of a classroom of teenagers and teach business skills in a language foreign to all of us, hold court with a village chief to discuss the opportunities available to his community, or lead our region's new governor in a tour of our compound and scholastic program?   This newfound confidence is a gift that I will treasure and happily take with me when I leave. 
A few weeks ago, my friend Philippa read through my recent blog posts and then sent me a long catch-up email.  Aside from filling me in on what’s been happening in her life lately, she complimented me on a little story I’d posted back in April and suggested I submit it to The Guardian newspaper in London, where she and I met years ago.  They run a weekly column featuring stories from around the world.  I thought, “Sure, what do I have to lose?” I did a little editing and sent it in the next day.  Within a week, I got notification that not only do they want to publish it; they want to pay me for it.  Alhamdulillah!  See?  Taking chances opens new doors.  Life’s lessons are already paying off.  

Here’s a link to the on-line edition:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/letter-from.  This will also run in the paper's print version on Friday, June 8th.  Perhaps the Queen will take a break from her Diamond Jubilee celebration and give it a read?

I’ve seen changes in other people with whom I’m serving, as well.   No doubt about it, this experience will change you. The majority of the other volunteers here are much younger than me, but in reality we’re all just a mixed bag of people and we’re all in this together.   We’ve experienced similar hardships and challenges and we’ve bonded over our shared commitment.  One thing that we now all have in common is a desire to explore the world, take chances, and throw ourselves out there with little fear of failure.  What’s failure anyway, but an opportunity to try again with a different approach?  As we wrap up our service and prepare to leave this country (or not), our plans for the immediate future are as varied as we are.  Some people will be going back to school, others will be traveling, and a handful will be staying here to continue working with the people of Senegal.  I am so impressed with and humbled to be a part of this amazing group of people.  Oh, the places we’ll go.

Aug 2010 Training Stage at our
Close of Service Conference
in Apr 2012 (Dakar)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

L'Education Mondiale - A Tale of Two Classrooms

The week I found out I was being sent to Francophone West Africa for my Peace Corps service, as opposed to Spanish-speaking Latin America for which I'd spent the previous year preparing, I freaked out and asked my friend Maryline if she would give me an afternoon refresher in French.  It had been 20 years since I’d been in a French class and since I’d been taking Spanish classes for my supposed departure to Central or South America I was a little rusty, to say the least.  Maryline is a native of France who married a friend of mine and moved the Batesville over a decade ago.  She’s the head of the French program at the Peabody School where she teaches French to elementary and middle school kids.  In looking through my pre-service paperwork,  I noticed a pamphlet explaining World Wise Schools, a correspondence match program started by former Peace Corps Director, Paul Coverdell, as a means to connect Peace Corps Volunteers with classrooms back home.  I asked Maryline if she would partner with me and she said, “Bien sûr!”, thus beginning a two year correspondence with Madame Meyer and her 6th, 7th, and 8th grade French classes.

We started writing to each other soon after I installed at my site in Diourbel.  The first letter I wrote was edited by my French tutor before I mailed it.  She red-penned it so much that I had to re-write the whole thing before sending it.  The kids wrote back with a series of questions for me to answer, which I did, one by one.  The delay in response time was quickly frustrating on both sides of the ocean.  I’d send a letter then wait 2-3 weeks for it to arrive.  Then they'd draft a response and it would take over a month to reach me.  Madame Meyer and I decided to try Skype instead.  That was much more fun, but it didn’t allow me the luxury of someone else proofreading my comments before they came tumbling, grammatically incorrect, out of my mouth.   Thankfully, our French was at a similar level, so we all stumbled along together and Madame Meyer was very patient with all of us.  Although Skype was more gratifying than waiting for international snail mail, it did pose its own problems.  The sound and/or video quality were often lacking and because I struggled with electricity problems the first year and a half I lived here, I couldn’t always guarantee I’d be at the other end of the line.  We’d schedule a call well in advance and then when the day arrived, I’d sit down at my desk, open my Skype account and the electricity would go off.  For some reason, this often happened minutes before the call and then would stay off for hours.   This was a big problem for us (and for me, in general) until about 6 months ago when the election season started and the electricity has magically stayed on for days and weeks at a time.  Regardless of our delays and interruptions, we continued to schedule and reschedule calls on a regular basis.  On occasion, we’d still send care packages or notes to one another through traditional means. I sent them Senegalese souvenirs and postcards and they sent me snacks and mementos from home.  This was surely a win-win situation.


Last October, I visited the kids at school while I was home on vacation.  We organized a school-wide assembly and I gave a presentation (decked out in traditional Senegalese garb, no less) on what it’s like to live in Africa and to be in the Peace Corps.  The 6th grade French students sang a song I taught them in French, Wolof, and English.  Everyone was so impressed.  After the assembly, Madame Meyer got the kids excused from whatever classes they had and we gathered together for a live correspondence session. I was thrilled to see the bulletin board they’d created with all of the letters, post cards, and pictures I’d sent.



This week, we had our last calls of the year.  I sent back traditional leather and cowrie shell necklaces for them, as well as a certificate for completing the correspondence program with me.  Collectively, our French has improved dramatically and because I’ve been a constant presence throughout two school years, they’re no longer shy about coming up with questions or speaking to me in French.  At the last call for each of the three classes, I asked them a few final questions, including what was the most interesting thing they learned about Senegal.  Their responses varied, but among the most common were:

  • The tale of the griots (village singers) being buried in the hollow of the baobab tree
  • The explanation of the seasons (or lack thereof) in Senegal, basically we have the Hot and Rainy Season, the Hot and Dry Season, and the REALLY HOT and Dry Season (I'm experiencing the latter right now).
  • Senegalese salutations and greeting
  • Differences in food, food etiquette, and agricultural product
  • The politics of our recent Presidential elections

I also asked them if they might consider joining the Peace Corps after they finish college.  To my surprise, most of them were pretty sure they’d look for a job right away instead.  They seemed pretty driven to start earning money, but maybe I scared them away with tales of the heat.  Regardless, I'm not sure why this was so surprising to me; finding a job straight out of college was exactly what I did.  Maybe I was just hoping I’d instilled a taste for adventure in them, or maybe I was just regretting not joining the Peace Corps earlier, myself.  The good news is that they all indicated that they planned to continue with their French studies.  I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for all of us to be able to communicate in another language.  People here in Senegal often speak 3 or 4 languages (Wolof, French, and one or two other ethnic dialects), not perfectly, but at least they can get their message across to a wide group of people.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve also befriended a local school, Algor Dioum Primary, affectionately referred to as “Al Gore”.  This school enrolled 10 of its students into our Eco-Ecole program last year and its Director, Moussa Diallo, is a member of Baol Environment, my partner association.  Of all of the schools we work with, this one and its students are the most engaged.  With the exception of Friday prayer and Muslim holidays, Director Diallo is almost always decked out in western clothing:  a suit or polo shirts and dress pants on weekdays and soccer jerseys and baseball caps on weekends.  His attire is indicative of his work ethic.  Moussa runs a mile-a-minute.  He’s always late to meetings, and not for the typical Senegalese reason of “just being late”, but because he’s usually just left another meeting.

Last year he approached me about helping him apply for a grant to improve the latrines at his school.  I told him I’d be happy to help and went to check out the situation.  He wanted to extend an internal wall that divided the boys’ side from the girls’ side.  When I went in the small outbuilding which housed the latrines to take some measurements and pictures, frankly, I was appalled that this was all he wanted to fix.  There were several stalls on either side of the existing divider that contained typical Turkish toilets (porcelain in-ground bowls with foot treads and a mounted tank on the wall above).  Unfortunately, all of the tanks were out of order and there was no back-up water system in the building.  Because these toilets are a little “fancier” than the standard hole in the ground that many kids may have at home, not everyone was sure how to use them, thus there was feces  piled throughout the stalls—in the bowl and out—and no means to wash it down the drain.  The closest water source was communal sink situated a few yards outside of the latrine, but it was not functioning either.  Because the school can’t afford a night guard, thieves have come repeatedly to steal the spigots off the faucets.  The whole situation was really quite dreadful.  I asked the Director if he thought fixing this bigger problem was more important that extending the wall and he agreed that it was, but felt hopeless they’d ever find the money to take it on.  Keeping the boys out of the girls’ latrine (and vice versa) seemed more pressing to him and was a manageable task to complete with the money that we had available to us.  I left with the measurements and photos I'd taken and asked that the director follow-up with me to collect demographics about his student body so I could complete the grant request.   Unfortunately, every time I've seen him since then he says, “I know, I know, I still owe you a report” and then I don’t see him again for a month or two.   Since the timeframe for applying for grants has now ended for me, I plan to tell my replacement about this project.  Hopefully, with a little more pushing, they can expand the wall and try to improve the plumbing system.  Things take a long time to come to fruition here.  Accepting that has been one of the many great challenges I've faced during my service.

This week, Ibou and I dropped by Moussa’s office because he’d failed to show up at a scheduled meeting the week before.  We needed some information from him about an Educational Fair we’ll be attending at the end of the month and thought we’d have a captured audience if we just showed up on his doorstep.  This proved to be true.  After a productive meeting, he asked if we’d like to see the interactive white boards that had just been installed in two of his classes.  “What?!”, I uttered, thinking I’d misunderstood him.  “Interactive white boards that project from a computer onto the classroom wall,” he said.  “Why, of course I would”, I answered, still in a bit of disbelief.  Sure enough, we walked across the courtyard, just steps away from the broken latrines and non-functioning sinks and found a classroom with an LCD projector mounted to the ceiling.  The teacher invited us into her classroom, propped a laptop on a lidded bucket, and fired the thing up.  She then started calibrating the touch-sensor on the rectangular “white board” painted on the wall.  With my jaw still a bit slack, I watched as she used a wand to draw pictures and type words onto the board.  Then, the kids got up and did the same.  Granted, I’ve been away from the U.S. for a couple of years and haven’t visited a classroom (aside from the aforementioned trip) since Elliott and Emily were little kids, so maybe these are in commonplace back home, but I was truly taken aback.  This is rural Africa, for God’s sake, where kids don’t even have proper toilets at school, yet here they were using a keyboard image to type out words on the wall.

This lovely world never ceases to amaze me!



Monday, April 30, 2012

Sweaty Angel by Sweaty Angel

There are many things I’ve learned about myself during the past 21 months living abroad in a developing country, so many, in fact, it would be hard to list them all.  At times I feel as if I’ll take away more from this experience than I’ll leave behind. One thing I know I've learned is that I like to write and, even more surprisingly, that people like to read what I have written.  Luckily, my schedule has also allowed me to do a lot of writing and a lot reading.  These really go hand-in-hand; it’s hard to do one without the other.  It seems that exploring other people’s style, their rhythm, and their cadence, is an important part of developing your own.

Recently, I read a series of novels by Anne Lamott that follow a young girl and her family over a 10 year period as she grows from a sweet little angelic child being raised by an anxious widow to a manipulative teenage addict who challenges her mother’s new marriage.  When reading any series of books, whether it is Harry Potter or the Millennium series, I always find it interesting to watch the characters grow and change as the storyline evolves.   I was happy to come across a fourth book by Lamott in one of our regional house libraries, Bird by Bird, a non-fiction book that, as its subtitle suggests, offers “some instructions on writing and life.”  The book is filled with stories about how Lamott became interested in writing and some of the challenges she’s faced along the way.  It follows the same format she uses when teaching writing classes at UC Davis, giving new writers tips and tricks for assigning writing tasks, dealing with perfectionism, discovering characters, and letting plots develop alongside them.  She’s very funny, so in addition to this being an interesting read it’s also entertaining.  One of the first exercises that she suggests for learning how to craft a story is to give yourself a manageable, short writing assignment describing a brief moment in intricate detail.  She references some advice her father once gave her brother when he was ten years old and had procrastinated about writing a report on birds.  He’d had three months to complete the report, but waited until the last minute to begin it.  Seeing his frustration and despair, their father, who was also a writer, suggested that he take it “bird by bird”, focusing his writing on the description of each bird instead of being overwhelmed with the entire assignment.  This advice stuck with Lamott and she recommends it as an exercise for focusing on the details of a single situation and letting that set the scene to expose characters and settings that can later be explored. I liked this idea so much that I decided to give it a try.  Here is what I came up with:

Having lived in the midst of the Sahel for the past 2 years, she still had not gotten used to the intermittent brown-outs that roll through during the hot season.  These brown-outs have nothing to do with electricity, although that’s often a problem as well.  Instead, the brown-outs  are aptly named because of the color they change the sky.  The hot dust-filled Harmattan winds that blow in from the north are still as eerie to her now as they had been the first time she’d experienced them, well over a year ago.  This time they came on quickly.  She was sitting on her porch admiring a couple of neighborhood kids who were studying in the outdoor classroom recently built in the courtyard of her compound when the winds began to pick up and the late afternoon temperature began to rise.  Within minutes, the sky above and the air all around was sepia-toned and filled with fine particles of sand.  After the girls ran home, she took shelter in her hot cinderblock room closing the door and shutters behind her and drawing the curtains in a futile attempt to keep silt and sand from coating her belongings.  Unfortunately, the small cluster flies that usually only torment her in the early morning while she enjoys a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle decided to follow her.  To avoid them, she took refuge under the mosquito net on the small twin bed that occupies a quarter of her room.  Luckily, the power stayed on despite the high winds, so she was able to use her most valued possession, the oscillating fan she bought when she’d first arrived in Senegal. As the evening descended, she ventured out a few times to refill her water bottle and check on the weather.  Not much had changed; it was still hot, still brown, and still windy.  

What seemed stiflingly oppressive to her, surprisingly did not affect the neighbors who’d come by earlier in the day to pick up the stackable plastic chairs that she and her host father rent out for parties and events.  Soon after the 7:30pm call to prayer, she heard the sound tests from their rented speaker system and then the amplified drums that would continue on throughout the night.  When she returned to her room and splashed her face to cool off, she noticed that the water returning to the sink was brown and that her whole body was covered in grit, which prompted her to rinse off completely.  After a quick shower, she patted herself dry and then crawled back under the mosquito net, unclothed.  Being completely naked in this conservative Muslim country is a rare event, for anyone, and it felt a bit risqué.  Although women are not shy about walking around topless, especially in the extreme heat, being totally naked is something that rarely happens, even in the privacy of one’s own room.  She’d recently learned that some women even keep their bottom halves covered with a crocheted wrap skirt when showering or giving themselves bucket baths.  That night, however, she did not hesitate to disrobe.  It was too hot for her to care about modesty or cultural integration.  She lay on her bed with arms laid flat above her head and her legs spread wide so that no part of her skin was touching another part, as if preparing to make a sweaty snow angel atop her damp sheets.  On occasion, a limb would bend in an attempt to find a comfortable position on the lumpy bed, but as soon as the skin on either side of the crease of her knee or her elbow would touch a stream of sweat would work its way down the limb like a raindrop on a window.  The fan positioned just two feet from the net provided some relief  as it attempted to dry the trickle of sweat before it reached its destination.

Sleep was not an option, at least not until she was thoroughly exhausted.  The neighborhood drum-fest was loud and intrusive.  Even her host dad was trying to drown out the beat of the tam-tams by blasting Miles Davis and John Coltrane from his computer speakers.  The sounds of both kept her from sleep so she picked up a book and tried to read.  The hum of the fan did not completely drown out the drone of the mosquitos and flies that zoomed around the net attracted, no doubt, to the headlamp she was using to read. The wind, the insects, the drums, the jazz, the heat, all mixed together in the air filling her room with an amplified agitation.  The insects soon outsmarted the net and many of them found their way through the small holes that had been created when the bracelets she wore to mark each passing month snagged and caught on the delicate netting.  After a while, smashing mosquitos between the pages of her book became less fulfilling and more of a hindrance to her actually being able to read the words in the book, so she turned off the headlamp and resigned herself to a restless night, pulling a sheet above her head to keep from being feasted upon in her sleep.  Just two more months of this, she thought, and then the rains arrive.  

So, what do you think? Do I have a novel in me?  I think I should probably just stick to blogging.

If you're curious about where I've been living, I've recently made an album entitled, "My Digs in Diourbel".  Check it out.  Also, the "Keur Cheikh Girls Club" album has also been updated with new photos.  Both of these live on the My Photos tab, but you can also click on the links above.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

"I just got paid to play Scrabble!"

Okay, that title is probably a bit of an overstatement, but it’s kind of like I just got paid to play Scrabble.  As my role implies (Peace Corps VOLUNTEER), I’m not exactly being paid here, but the good tax-paying people of the U.S. do put a few CFA in my account every month to help pay for my rent, food, and transportation costs, so most of the time I pretend like I’m being paid.  A couple of weeks ago I responded to a request from the Embassy to assist with “Celebrate America Day”, an event hosted by the Senegalese English Teachers Association.  It was held today at the Cheikh Anta Diop campus of the University of Dakar, the same campus that was the center of political riots just a month ago.  Aside from a quick drive-by from the vantage point of a taxi, I’d never spent any time at the university until today.

My friend Amanda also volunteered to help with this event so, despite out lack of direction from the Embassy staff about where we were supposed to meet them or what we were actually supposed to do once we got there, we hopped in a cab close to her Dakar apartment this morning and 15 minutes later got let out in the middle of campus.   After wandering around aimlessly for a bit, we asked a passing student where the English department was located and he said he was headed in that direction so we followed him.  Alhumdullilah!  When we arrived at our destination the Embassy staff were there waiting and a bit apologetic that they’d failed to mention where we were supposed to meet them.   I guess they figured that if we could survive out in the hinterlands of the Sahel, we could figure out how to find them.  They were right.
Letters & Sciences building at Cheikh Anta Diop
Campus library

American Cities display with the
Jefferson Memorial and the Cherry
Blossoms smack dab in the middle :-)
Amanda was entranced by the iPods
and Kindles the Embassy had on display

The day started with a grand assembly to welcome the kids from several local middle and high school English Clubs.  The US Ambassador gave a speech, as did the Minister of Education and the Ambassador of Indonesia.  That last one had us all scratching our heads, but I suspect there was a loose “Barack Obama once lived in Indonesia” connection there, plus the Indonesian Ambassador was adorable and smartly clad in an island-print shirt, so who were we to question his presence at Celebrate America Day?

The auditorium was crowded, with standing room only, but apparently not as crowded as the average university classrooms are.  Our Embassy point person told us that it is not uncommon for kids to be listening to lectures while peering through the windows, as the university is overenrolled.  The campus has 5,000 dorms and currently 60,000 students.  On a quiet Saturday with not that many students milling about this was hard to envision this, but certainly not hard to believe.

After the initial welcome speeches the young audience broke out into an adorable rendition of the American National Anthem at which point, I experienced a patriotic pride most likely only felt by US Olympians when they stand alone on their podium to accept their medal.  That probably sounds overly dramatic, but when you are only one of five people in a room of over five hundred who is standing there with your hand over your heart while your national anthem is sung it’s a significant moment, no matter how cynical of US affairs you may have become.
The US Ambassador (with hand over heart) and
the Indonesian Ambassador (the little guy in the print shirt)

When the assembly was over, Amanda and I split up into two rooms to oversee the games section of the day.   Lucky for me, a girl who has at least twelve “Words with Friends” games on-going at any given time, I was assigned to the Scrabble room (she was just as happy in the Quiz room).  The Embassy supplied three brand-spankin’ new boards which I laid out on consecutive tables and then waited for the kids to arrive.  In typical Senegalese fashion, things started slowly and I thought that I would spend the next couple of hours playing a couple’s game with my new friend Lamine.  As soon as I took my second turn, however, the room started to fill and I was overseeing three, then five (somehow, two more boards appeared out of nowhere) four-person games.  With this large group of kids came another supervisor of sorts, a Senegalese English teacher who had participated in this event for the previous several years.  He thanked me for being there and then quickly pointed out the error of ways, of which apparently there were many:  I had had the kids sit in the order in which they arrived instead of by age group (mistake #1); I was not timing the kids as they took their turns (mistake #2); and not all kids were able to play because there were only three, then five boards, leaving 15 kids on the sidelines (mistake #3).  This attention to the mismanagement of what I thought would be a friendly game of Scrabble mentally transported me back to an evening at the Albemarle County Fair about ten years ago.  I was there with a small group of friends who had volunteered to sell ride tickets.  We all took off work early to arrive at our post in time to receive instructions before the rides opened.  Our instructor was old guy who’d been selling tickets at the fair for decades.  He described in great detail (way more detail than was necessary) how to take the money and hand over the tickets.  He then repeated those instructions in case we didn't understand them and then stuck around to watch out first transactions.  When my first customers arrived and I took their cash and handed over their tickets, the old guy said with a kind of gleeful, Ha!, I knew you couldn't do this tone, “Now, that’s a mistake already!”  That statement has been rattling around in my head ever since and I heard that guys voice echoing in my thoughts today.

Needless to say, I let Mr. Scrabble Aficionado run the show and concentrated my efforts instead on proctoring one of the games.  The group of middle school kids at my table, despite being of similar ages, was clearly at different language and skill levels.  With constant pressure from the Scrabble Nazi, I was instructed to use the stopwatch on my cell phone to move these players along.  One poor girl ended up passing more than she played because her time kept running out.  Because there were coveted prizes at stake, I wasn’t allowed to help them along by giving hints, which pained me because I could clearly see words available to them on their little wooden trays--“Jar, Jar, don’t you see it? You can play it right there on the Triple Word score for 36 points!!”  The competitive nature of the whole thing made me question why I’d traveled three hours to participate.  Maybe Bobby Fisher thrived in this environment, but I kind of thought I was doing more harm than good in giving these kids confidence in speaking my native language—“nope, sorry that’s not a word”, “if you don’t play in the next 10 seconds you have to pass”.  Regardless of my anxiety over whether this was fun or not, the kids actually seemed to enjoy it and Mr. Scrabble Head walked away with a list of winners that he could announce at the closing ceremony, so all’s well that ends well.

We left the festivities before lunch so I was able to spend the afternoon sitting at a sidewalk café, playing Words with Friends, eating pizza, and enjoying a carafe of wine.  It’s all in a day’s work!

Now, if only I could figure out how to be paid to eat Scrapple!?!

The Scrabble room

Deep in concentration (the guy in purple won this round)

This gal was told (by guess who) to redraw her score card
using the flat edge of her tile tray.  Oh brother!