Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dakar and Diourbel

Dakar - The Big City

Until I arrived in Senegal, all I knew about Dakar was that Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR’s West African foreign correspondent reports from there and  signs off on all of her stories with a melodic pronunciation of the city’s name.  Aside from that and a quick turnaround at the Leopold Senghor International Airport before the crack of dawn the day we arrived, Dakar and all it had to offer was a big mystery to me.  It was reportedly, the land of plenty.  Whenever anyone asked “can you get X or Y in Senegal”, referring to some creature comfort from home that someone failed to bring with them, the answer was always “yes, you can get that in Dakar”  We’d also learned that getting in and out of Dakar was a traffic nightmare.  Situated just 70 km (44 miles) from Thiès, it often took our trainers 2-3 hours to commute.

October 4th was Dakar Day according to our training calendar.  Early that morning, we loaded up in Peace Corps buses and headed into the city.  On the outskirts of town, we stopped along the side of the road to transfer some passengers; those folks that had fallen ill (a weekly occurrence during our training period) were shuttled in another vehicle and sent directly to the Med Hut (the medical facility in the Peace Corps Senegal office) and several 3rd year Volunteers who are now living in Dakar jumped on board our buses to give us a guided tour of the city.  Their commentary went something like this,
  1.  “Don’t come to this section of town or you’ll surely get mugged.”
  2. “If you want to by a sheep or cow, this is the place to do it, but get here early for the good ones.”
  3. “On Saturdays, this street is lined with used clothing for sale; you can pick up ratty old clothes donated to a charitable organization in the US and sent over here in a shipping container, however if you have the patience to pick through it you might just find something really cool.”
  4. “This is the stadium where the big football (soccer) matches are held, but we’re not allowed attend them anymore because last year there was a huge riot and several volunteers had to be rescued from the crowd by the Gendarmerie (the National Guard) after trying to flee the attacking crowd in a taxi and running over and killing someone."
  5. “Here’s a cool club where we go out dancing the first Saturday of every month and stay up until all hours of the morning”.  
Oddly, all of this sage guidance was said with the same tone of voice, as if each statement carried equal importance.  Ahh, the perspective of youth.

Our guides were quick to point out Chez Ass

After the bus tour, we parked our vehicles within the US Embassy gates and split  up into groups to tour the downtown area.  The streets were bustling with modern cars, businessmen headed to appointments, and people enjoying food and drinks at sidewalk cafés.  Tall modern buildings lined the avenues and fountains sat inside traffic circles.  It was trés moderne and reminded me of European cities I’d visited in the past.  Having spent 7 weeks at this point in interior Senegalese towns and villages, it was hard to believe we were in the same country.

A bustling city street in Dakar

A fountain in the traffic circle

From there we drove along the Corniche, the wide boulevard that parallels the coastline, and were also warned to stay away from its wide sidewalks after dark to avoid running into bandits that prey on Westerners.  After passing the recently unveiled African Renaissance Monument, we soon arrived at Club Altantique, otherwise known as the American Club.  It’s a small country club of sorts that caters to American ex-pats and their families but waives the annual membership fee for us poor Peace Corps volunteers.  It has a pool, snack shack, volleyball court, bar, and themed dinner nights and serves as a nice oasis of familiarity where we can go when we’re in the area (without fear of bandits, muggers, or overpriced second-hand clothing).  The rest of the afternoon was spent attending debriefings from the Embassy’s security and legal departments and touring our Peace Corps office before we convoyed back to Thiès in time for dinner.

Along the Corniche--brave soul or potential bandit?

A pool to enjoy when I'm in Dakar

Controversial boondoggle and the gaudiest statue in the world

Our second trip to Dakar, was less than 2 weeks later for our grand swearing in event at the Ambassador’s residence.  They pulled out the red carpet for this fête, escorting us into the city with a three cycle motorcade with flashing lights.  At one point, the Gendarmerie diverted our convey to other side of the divided highway  where we completely usurped a lane of oncoming traffic.  Our Ambassador, Marcia Bernicat (an African American woman - yeah!) resides across the street from Dakar’s Club Med.  She opened her home to us, some local dignitaries, and news agencies that came to see us be inducted.  After a formal ceremony full of speeches, pomp, and circumstance, we enjoyed fresh juices and appetizers on the patio.  From there we headed back to the Peace Corps office to finalize some paperwork and get our bank cards, then stopped by Club Atlantique for quick dip in the pool and a beer (or two) before hitting the road again.  Truth be told, I look forward to a day in Dakar without an agenda.

The Ambassador's residence

All spruced up for our induction

Her Excellence Marcia Bernicat welcomes a few new volunteers.
A patio reception
We arrived back in Thiès to find out that the moment we swore in as official volunteers, our figurative umbilical cord had been cut.  No longer were we Peace Corps trainees, attached to the womb of our training center and reliant on it for all of our physical needs.  The dining hall was closed, we had access to our monthly stipends, and we were expected to feed ourselves. So we did what any group of formerly cooped up, highly dependent people would do, went out to the nicest restaurants in town and all blew a week’s worth of  living allowance in just one night.  No regrets. A plate of Osso Buco and a half carafe of red wine was a well-deserved treat after 10 weeks of intensive training, and boy did it taste good.

Farewell to friends

That last weekend at the training center was filled with good-byes.  Departures started on Saturday afternoon, with groups of newly appointed volunteers leaving for their permanent sites.  I was one of the last to leave and headed to Diourbel on Monday afternoon with three Peace Corps officials who drove me around and  introduced me to the local authorities before dropping me and all of my belongings off at my new home.  My host Mom and Dad and several members of the Eco-Village where I’ll be living greeted us with fresh-baked millet cake and cold sodas.  They’d baked the cake in a solar oven on the roof.  Making, selling, and training women’s groups on the use of solar ovens is one of the many sustainable ventures in which the Eco-Village is involved.  We’ve got a handful of these on our rooftop and in my first week here we’ve cooked, beef stew, Ceebu yaap (a traditional rice and beef dishs), baked fish, roasted peanuts, Nyebe (spicy beans), and more millet cake.  It feels good to make use of the extreme sun and heat that plagues us all day.  The temperature in this centrally located city reaches 100 degrees F daily this time of year.

Solar oven on roof

Roasting peanuts

A rooftop view of my neighbor's compound
The entrance to Baol Environnement (my new home)

This weekend, the Eco-Village will be sponsoring a solar oven workshop and I’ll participate in my first training experience, co-teaching marketing and accounting classes to the women’s group so they can promote and manage their own solar oven businesses.  I also plan to work with my counterpart (who’s also my host Dad and president of the Eco-Village) on a Feasibility Study for a Volunteer House that the city of Diourbel wants to open that will serve as a work/meeting place and resource center for volunteers from many different countries and non-government organizations (NGOs) that come to Diourbel.  This idea has been in place for some time, but it’s lacking the organizational structure for it to actually happen.  I attended an all-day meeting regarding this venture the third day I was here and it was painfully clear that they need some help on this project.  That’s what I’m here for, right?  So, one week at site, and I’ve already identified some work.  Not bad considering that I’m supposed to be focusing on settling into my community and not looking for work until after my In-Service Training in December.  I’d probably go stir crazy if I waited that long. 

I’m also doing a lot of reading for a seminar our Country Director is hosting on Development Theory and Practice.  About 25 volunteers are participating.  We have an extensive reading list and will meet a handful of times (via teleconference and in-person) over the next 4 months to discuss the factors leading up to the current economic status of the world’s poorest countries, what attempts at aid have failed and why, and what new approaches to development might prove more effective.  So far, the reading has been interesting and having the opportunity to learn more about the big picture of the poverty that surrounds me helps make some sense of it all, even if it’s still daunting.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bobbing Toubabs


Group headed to Mboro (note flat of eggs)
In our last few weeks of Pre-Service Training, we were able to break free for a bit of R & R.  The first weekend we were officially allowed to venture out on our own, the other 3 trainees from my village and I met up with 8 trainees from a neighboring village and rented a beach house in Mboro for the night.  Mboro is a relatively short distance, yet a far cry, from Tivaoune, the Islamic holy city that 4 of us have called home for the past 9 weeks.  Mboro  is supported mainly by an Indian-owned  phosphate factory that employs most of the town’s inhabitants, plus quite a few ex-pats.  It sits just 15 minutes inland from a lovely beach and fishing village.  Although only a 45 minute drive from Tivaoune, the vegetation is remarkable different, much greener and with palm trees peppering the landscape.  When we arrived, we met up with the other group and spread out in the market to buy food and drinks for our overnight stay before crowding in several sept-places (7-passagener taxis) to find our beach house.  In hindsight, it was a mistake to assume that the 15 young twenty-something’s that I was traveling with had coordinated a plan for group meals.  Acquiring liquor and mixers, however, had of course been top priority, coordinated days in advance, and this plan thankfully included a bottle of red wine for me.  Food, on the other hand was a free-for-all, which having not been well-communicated, left my group of 4 with just a 2.5 dozen flat of eggs, a bag of mangoes, and 4 grapefruits to eat--food we’d purchased thinking it would be our contribution to the group meals.
Finding the beach house was another challenge.  The rental had been arranged by a current volunteer who had to leave town for a project and couldn’t join us.  She left instructions with her uncle to escort us there.  He delegated the job to someone else who took 3 of our group in advance, dropped them off on the beach and pointed in the general direction of the beach house.  When the rest of us arrived, an hour later, they’d still not found the place.  Nevertheless, after a few phone calls and the arrival of the missing uncle, we finally made our way to the house, only to find that a young Senegalese couple had converted one of the rooms into a secret little love shack.  The man renting us the house seemed not as surprised to find them as he was to see 12 of us, as he’d been led to believe that there’d be just 4 of us and therefore had only supplied four foam mattresses on the floor, and one of these, which we’d all just witnessed, had been freshly test-driven.   He also told us that there was not currently any running water, but directed us to the well and bucket out back, that the electricity was not hooked up, and that there was no propane tank to use for cooking.   Then and there, I knew that this was bound to be an interesting night.
Charet in the foreground,
bobbing toubabs in the background

Mboro Beach House / Hut

 Yet, once we looked up from our surroundings and saw the beautiful beach, we put all of these worries aside and enjoyed a swim in the ocean and some very sub-standard libations.  The Atlantic over on this side  is pleasantly warm and the waves entertaining.  When dinnertime rolled around, and it became clear that everyone but my three village-mates and I had assumed we were fending for ourselves in the food department, we broke out my Swiss Army knife and started slicing up mangoes.  When that didn’t satiate us, we started looking longingly at the flat of eggs we’d bought and wondered how difficult it would be to find a way to cook them given our current limitations.  Being Americans, our first thought was, “we’ll pay somebody to cook these for us,” but that attempt failed when we discovered that the neighboring houses also had no gas, in fact we were on the cusp of a country-wide gas shortage that lasted for the next two weeks.  So, with no other choice, we started gathering kindling and driftwood to make a fire and salvaged one of the empty cans of tuna from which our housemates had feasted without us to use as a cooking vessel.  Surprisingly, the eggs were edible, once you got past the bits of sand, ash, and pine brush that made their way into the can while they cooked and we ate them by stabbing at the bits of eggs chunks with the point of the knife.

Making fire

Eggs on the embers the next morning
 We saved the remaining uncooked eggs and grapefruit for breakfast which we supplemented with bean sandwiches a woman was selling a little way down the beach.  Bean sandwiches are an affordable  Senegalese delicacy and are available on most village street corners throughout the early part of the day.  Other simple, yet delightful, sandwiches often found at these little stands contain sautéed onions, stewed peas, seasoned spaghetti/macaroni, or stewed beef with French fries (or any combination of these that you desire).  When I say these are affordable, I‘m not kidding.   A half baguette costs 75 CFA (there are ~ 500 CFA to a US $) and, aside from the beef/French fry combo (which will run you 400-500 CFA), each topping  costs only 50 CFA each.  So, basically you can be enjoy a bean, spaghetti, and onion sandwich for just 225CFA (about 50 cents). I love the bean sammy ladies!  Sorry they're shy and wouldn't let me take their picture.
 After breakfast we enjoyed a lazy day of swimming, reading, and lying about.  Most people were exhausted from staying up late dancing the night before.  I, however, the token “mid-career” trainee (Peace Corps tries to make it sound so much nicer than middle-aged) was equally exhausted from lying in my tent just 10 feet away from all of the late-night activities trying unsuccessfully to get my beauty rest.

When I returned to my host-family later that evening and told them the story of our weekend adventure they all got a big kick out of the fact that I couldn’t feed myself properly without them (mangoes and eggs for dinner sounded absurd to them) and that we’d all survived 24 hours without consuming rice (which may actually be a record here in Senegal).  “Silly Toubab“, they thought, using the moniker assigned to all Westerners (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not).


One of our Al-Hams

Just one week after that beach adventure, the entire training group (all 61of us) piled into 2 rented Al-Hams (rickety old buses that have Al-Hamdoulilah (Thanks be to God) painted on them) and headed to Popenguine, a beach town on the Petit-Côte just an hour south of Dakar, for a celebratory gathering to mark the near completion of our training.  Popenguine is the prized Eco-Tourism placement site of Peace Corps Senegal and has been assigned to Kelsey, who’s been living in Tivaoune with me (that‘s good for me and anyone who wants to come visit be while I‘m over here).  It’s an incredibly scenic beach neighboring a hilly nature reserve.  The beach is much more built up than the one in Mboro, frequented by both locals and vacationing Europeans, but still not overrun with commercialism.  We rented two houses this time--one reserved for 10 people (the quiet house) and the other for the remaining 50 or so (the party house).  Both were lovely and catered to weekly renters, with fully stocked and operating kitchens, a few bedrooms with mattresses and mosquito nets, and indoor plumbing.  By request, I was assigned to the quiet house, which was good on so many levels, but mainly because I was taking medication for amoebic dysentery that had decided to wreak havoc with my insides and apparently drinking alcohol while on this medication produces ghastly side-effects.  There were other people who also chose to spend the weekend in a calmer environment so I was in good company.  It was nice to all be together away from the training center and just play in the water for the day.  There were rocks to climb, the nature reserve to explore, and a sweet little Catholic village with Toubab stores just down
the hill.

Inside the fabric fringed Al-Ham

Nicer digs at Popenguine

A view from the deck of the Quiet House

More bobbing Toubabs
The nature reserve on the hill

 Having planned ahead this time, I had the makings for a salami and cheese (score!) sandwich so I made myself dinner, treated myself to some juice, and found a little corner in the living room in which to curl up for an early night with my book.  In the near distance, I could hear the revelry next door and was glad to have some refuge from it…for a while, that is.  About three chapters into my book, one of the party-house guys, Will, came stumbling through the door accompanied by a few concerned friends.  He had suddenly, out of the blue, spike a fever of 105 degrees.  Burning hot, we threw him into the shower and called the PC Medical Emergency number.  While I was on the phone with the medical officer, Pam, another trainee, burst through the door with a bug in her eye, the same eye that she’d had a surgical procedure on the week before.  Not ten minutes after that, two other folks who were staying in the quiet house because they felt like they were coming down with something--came down with that something and started lining up to use the bathroom, soon joined by yet another person who was quite surprised by her sudden explosive symptoms.  So, one minute I was enjoying a good book, a glass of orange juice, and the sound of the ocean waves, the next minute the house had become a veritable M.A.S.H unit and I was listening for Radar to warn me of more “Incoming!”   Because I seemed to be the only one of our entire group who’d heeded warnings from our medical staff to travel with a mini-med kit, I became the Florence Nightingale of the Quiet House, dishing out Ibuprophen, Tylenol, band-aids, thermometers, oral hydration salts, and Immodium to the masses.  The following morning we put three of the sick-bay inhabitants in a sept-place to go to the medical office in Dakar where they spent the next few days recovering and the rest of us headed back to Thies and then to our villages for our last two weeks of training.
Florence Nightingale's Magic Box

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Polyglot by chance


To all of my gmail friends (and gmail-wanna-be friends),
Gmail has this cool new feature that happens to work in Senegal.  Basically, you can send an SMS text, FOR FREE, to my Senegalese cell phone (221 77 673 0064).  When I receive your text, a local Senegalese number is created for you that I can save along with your name.  I can then text you back at my local rate.  Brilliant!  If you try this, be sure to sign your name to your text so that I’ll know who you are as the numbers in my US cell phone did not transfer over and I haven't re-entered all of these yet.  Hope to hear from some of you from time to time.

Polyglot, by chance

So, as some of you know, ending up in Africa was a bit of a surprise for me.  For an entire year, I prepared for life in the Peace Corps in Latin American and spent many studious hours re-learning the Spanish that had been buried in the depths of my brain since high school.  Last July, I took a 40-hour immersion course, studied for and passed the CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exam, and spent every Tuesday evening for the next 12 months in a conversational Spanish class.  However, six weeks before I was due to depart, I got the call from Peace Corps asking if I’d change my plans and come to Francophone Africa instead.  “Sure“, I said.  “Flexibility is key, right?”  I was so tired of waiting for a placement that I thought, “just assign me already!“  In that flash of a moment, I thought that since I’d studied French in high school and college and had spent a semester in Paris and had successfully re-learned one language that I was up for the challenge.  “Bring it on!”

So, five days after arriving in Senegal, I began immersion French classes.  Aside from the obvious problems of trying to speak French with a Spanish accent, learning it from someone with an African accent, and trying to replace all recently-learned  nouns, verbs, and verb tenses with new ones, I was actually doing okay.  Because my host-family in my training village spoke Wolof, and very little French, I got a break from daily immersion each night as I sat around our dinner platter and listened to them speak a truly foreign language.  In a way, I was able to shut language out completely and give my mind a rest at the end of each day.  I did a lot of smiling, pointing, and nodding with my family and although it didn't promote great conversations, it served as effective communication.  Ahh, those were the days. 

In a rush to get us fully prepared to live independently and be able to communicate with people in our assigned posts, the Peace Corps, after just 4 weeks of training, decided to move those of us who reached an Intermediate-Low level of French to Wolof classes.  Aack!  Unfortunately, immediately after this decision, I spent our first day of class sick in bed. When I returned to class, on Day 2 of Wolof training, I felt completely lost.  While I was feverishly sweating in bed and making hourly runs (pun intended) to the bathroom, my classmates had banded together in solidarity to master Wolof without me, putting me at a linguistic disadvantage.  I kid you not; after just one day, they were carrying on lengthy conversations with each other while I stared teary-eyed at the chalkboard. 

What I haven’t really mentioned thus far is that our physical learning environment is a challenge in itself.  Language classrooms at the Training Center are concrete-walled huts with thatched roofs and sheets of wood painted black that lean against the wall and serve as chalkboards.  In the training village, we usually meet in one or two of our host family compounds.  We meet from 9am - 1pm, break for lunch, and then meet again from 4pm - 6pm.    Aside for the unbearable heat of the day or the afternoon deluge of rain, there are many other distractions to effective learning, like: 1) family members that walk by one-by-one as they arise for the day to greet us (greeting is very big here and with large families of 10-15 people this becomes a constant activity), 2) flies, which come in many shapes and sizes, that make sport of landing on us and require constant swatting, 3) random animals that wander through the classroom on their way outside to graze for the day, and 4) our teacher who frequently stops to answer his cell phone or return a text.  Last week, we actually had this strange old woman wander into the compound, interrupt the class, and ask our teacher for some money so she could buy bread.  When I asked him afterward if he knew the woman, he said “No, that’s just what we do here in Senegal.”

Immersion training in action
Language Hut @ Training Center

Classroom in Training Village

Sheep wandering through class
Rooster checking out the lesson

Okay, so now that you have a picture of my daily classroom distractions, let’s go back to imagining me, foggy-headed, dehydrated, and on the verge of tears, trying to absorb my third language in just 12-months.   Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.  It wasn’t until the following weekend that I had any grasp of Wolof what-so-ever.  But that’s the funny thing about total immersion.  Once you have that grasp, as slight as it may be, you can immediately begin communicating.  I’ve since had successful, albeit short and elementary, conversations with my host-family and with the women at the market.  How ‘bout me?!
My Host-Dad (closest to table) learning Polish

Last week we had a Counterpart Workshop for our Small Enterprise Development team at the training center that was attended by the people we'll be working/living with at our permanent sites.  During this 2-day seminar, we had a session on language to help gain some empathy from our local hosts regarding how frickin' difficult it is for us to be communicating and conducting business in another language (in another country) after just 2 months of training.  We asked for three volunteers to come to the front of the lecture hall and had them experience a 30-min immersion class in Polish (one of my fellow trainees speaks this fluently).  My counterpart and future host-Dad was one of the brave few to participate.  It was rather fun to observe them completely lost in words and phrases they'd never heard before and was effective at driving home our point.

Yup, that's me teaching in French
Also at this workshop, we put on an American Cross-Cultural fair to help our host-country partners understand our cultural differences. My group presented Women throughout the 20th Century and outlined things such as the womens' suffrage movement, women taking on industrial roles during WW2, the womens' rights movements, the working woman, and women in politics. We also spoke about the Modern Woman and the concepts of independence, choice, balance, and partnership.  This was quite eye-opening session for a group of people who are used to women staying at home to cook, clean, and share their homes with multiple wives.  Needless to say, we had lots of questions.  Oh, did I mention that we gave this presentation in French?  We had six groups cycle through our presentation, so by the end of it we were a bit tongue-tied.  In the end, Awa, our Cultural Awareness trainer asked us for our presentation so that she could give it to Language and Cultural Facilitators that join the staff.

We head back to the training village this afternoon for one last week of Wolof.  Wish me luck!