Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wait...This Is Beginning To Feel Like a Real Job

It’s been 2 months since my last blog entry and I've been on-the-go the entire time.  They say that your project work picks up after the first year of Peace Corps service, and apparently “they” know what they’re talking about.  This is beginning to feel like a real job all of a sudden!
Before the rush began, I took my second vacation of the year and spent 3 weeks back in the states visiting with friends and family and enjoying the splendors of autumn in Virginia.  Although I wasn’t able to catch up with everyone I’d hoped to, I did see quite a few people and many a four-legged friend.  Being home wasn’t as overwhelming as my trip to Europe this past summer.  I’d already experienced the shock of the modern world and my mind was no longer making comparisons with everything I saw.  In fact, it was more like I’d landed on a different planet, Planet America, and therefore I didn’t expect for things to be the same.  I did have a few first impressions, though.  It seems I’ve spent the better part of a year telling Senegalese folks who are enthralled with the idea of the U.S. that America is not really like it appears on T.V.  After having been back just a day, I realized that, well, it actually kind of is--clean, pretty, organized, and filled with things that cost a lot of money.  I guess I’ll have to change my tune on this and just accept it for what it is.  The other things that caught my eye were the little trends that had popped up since I’ve been gone.  Everywhere I looked there was Greek yogurt, scan squares, Angry Birds, and eyebrow threading.  Odd, what catches on so quickly.  Other than that, home was pretty much like I left it.  I filled my days sightseeing, walking in the woods, enjoying the company of friends and family, hanging with my dog, attending a film festival, eating good food, sipping tea, drinking good coffee, and appreciating fine libations.  I overextended myself a bit with all of the socializing I tried to fit in, so by the time I left I was fighting a cold and cough, but it was totally worth it.  How often to you get to be a vacationing visitor in your own home-town?  Click on this photo to open an album with pictures from my trip.
Special thanks go out to the many friends and family who hosted me while I was back.  It was a bit strange not to have a home to return to, but the hospitality extended to me was grand and I was happy to see that my renters are taking great care of my house in Batesville.  Also, a big “merci” goes out to The Peabody School for holding an assembly so I could tell them all about my adventures in the Peace Corps.  After the assembly, I spent an hour with the kids from the French classes with whom I’ve been corresponding and it was really great to meet them in person.  Then there are folks who came to the Cider Dinner at my friend Kevin’s house, who were gracious enough to donate almost $800 to my “Bringing Books to Senegal” campaign.  This is a project I was working on with a group of volunteers in Senegal.  We were teaming up with the non-profit organization, Books for Africa,to raise funds to bring over 22,000 local language books and text books to local libraries and schools Senegal.  Unfortunately, I just found out this week, that the campaign has been cancelled, as the request for funds has exceeded the time limit allotted.  Never fear, the $4,400 already donated to this project will be diverted to the Peace Corps Marathon fundraiser whose proceeds will be going to a scholarship program for middle school girls.  I’ve been involved with this scholarship program for some time and, in fact, some of the recipients of this year’s scholarships are the ones who attended our Girls Leadership Camp in September.  Click here for a clever video clip promoting the Peace Corps Race for Education Marathon.   Although I'm not planning to train for this race (are you kidding me?!?!--I struggled to train for a 5K while I was home and this is taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa!), I do plan to go down to cheer on those brave souls who will be running and make sure everyone stays hydrated.
On 11-11-11, just a couple of days after returning to Senegal, I organized a World Hoop Day celebration to spread my joy of wiggling and giggling (aka hoop dancing) with the people in my community.  World Hoop Day is a non-profitorganization based in the U.S. that granted me funds to make a slew of hoops for the kids of Diourbel.  I teamed up with my friend Nar Dieng, who heads a roller-blading association, to put on a grand spectacle for the kids.  A local youth center donated the space and Nar and his friends helped me make and decorate 50 new hoops for this event.  A couple of Peace Corps Volunteers from neighboring villages came in for the day to help me out and several school officials came to partake in the festivities.  We had well over 70 kids join us for an afternoon of hooping and roller-blading.  The local radio station even covered the event in their evening broadcast.  Aside from the usual annoyances, like having to transport chairs and hoops on the back of a horse-drawn cart, people showing up late, and a sound system that was many decibels too loud, everything came together and it was a fun-filled afternoon. Click on the picture below to open an album of photos from the event.

World Hoop Day

The following week, I gathered a training group in Dakar to conduct another round of Safe Zone Training to discuss gay awareness and sensitivity with our local Peace Corps staff.  This was our third round of training and was, again, well-received.  This always provokes lots of discussion and controversy, but that’s why we put it together in the first place. We give the staff a safe place to talk about these issues and to better understand how to support homosexual volunteers who are serving in a country where homosexual acts are treated as both immoral and illegal.  During this session, one of the staff members shared with us her concerns about an Islamic belief that if you touch a homosexual, even a casual touch upon the arm, then your prayers will not count for 40 days.  Since Muslims pray 5 times a day, that’s 200 prayers down the drain.  She understood that she has a professional obligation to interact with homosexual volunteers, but wanted to make it clear to us that she was uncomfortable with this.  Fair enough—we weren’t there to change their opinions, just broaden their understanding and hopefully identify some folks who could step up to provide support.  Regardless, it was hard to hear.  Soon after this discussion, however, one of our openly gay volunteers returned a pen to another participant and to thank him for remembering to give it back, she hugged him.  Yes, right there in front of Allah and everybody, with 200 prayers in jeopardy, she hugged him. It was beautiful.

The next week I returned to Dakar to attend a Thanksgiving feast at the home of the new Ambassador and his wife, Lewis and Lucy Lukens.  They arrived in Senegal in August and were brave enough to follow in the tradition of previous ambassadors and invite the Peace Corps Volunteers over to their house to celebrate the holiday. I say brave, because letting a group of mostly 20-somethings who’ve been living meager lives subsisting on rice and millet for many months around unlimited amounts of good food and wine can be a scary sight.  Many volunteers chose to stay in their respective regions, hosting smaller gatherings at regional houses, but there were still over 100 volunteers who signed up for the pot luck in Dakar.  In addition, 30 or so embassy employees joined us, so it was quite an impressive gathering (that’s a lot of toubabs) and the food was amazing.

Stanzi rolling out pie dough with a beer bottle--classic Peace Corps ingenuity!
An impressive variety of foods at the pot luck

One of the MANY long tables set up for the event.

So I over-indulged a little!

The Tivaouane gang had a Thanksgiving reunion of sorts.
Phil, Kelsey, April, and Chris

The following day, a small group of volunteers hosted a Black Friday Art Expo in Dakar.  I brought two artisans from Diourbel: Mamadou, who I’ve introduced before, and Dibor, a new tailor with whom I’m working.  She and I designed some satchels and bags made from recycled rice sacks and these sold really well.  I also worked with her to create some other new items that we thought would interest the ex-pat community of Dakar.  She made placemat and napkin sets, adjustable aprons, and wrap-pants.  Dibor sold so many things the first day of the Expo that she stayed up late at her sewing machine that night to replenish her stocks.  In the first two days of the sale, she netted well over $200, which in an economy where people survive on less than $1/day, is pretty substantial.  Her husband called me later that week to thank me personally.

Dibor at the Art Expo
Dibor's rice sack bags
Mamadou and his friend Matar

Hanging with my artisans

Khady returned to France at the end of November and won’t return to Senegal until after my service has ended.  I’m going to miss having her around, although it will be nice for Ibou and me to have the compound back to ourselves.  This time around we’re not exactly alone though.  We now have a young French volunteer named Anna who has just started working with us.  She arrived in Senegal a few weeks ago and will likely stay for the three months that her visa will allow.  So far, she’s settling in and getting used to the heat, culture, and language.  That’s a lot to come at you at once, I know.  Soon, she’ll be helping us with our Eco-Ecole program and our village garden projects.  Although she doesn’t speak a lick of English and my ears strain to understand her accent (so different for the African French accent), it’s nice to have another toubab around.  Her arrival was also a good excuse not to return to eating lunches with the family across the street.  As much as I enjoyed their company, I’m happy not to be forced to eat my weight in rice every day.

Another welcome change that’s occurred since my return from the States is that we’ve had over 2 straight months without any electricity outages to speak of.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had two straight days prior to this.  Not sure what’s afoot, but the upcoming election surely plays a part in this.  Unfortunately, now that I have reliable power, my internet service has been on the fritz, working only periodically. This has been annoying and disruptive for me, but knowing that the majority of Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal (or around the world) don’t have the luxury of WiFi, I really shouldn’t complain.

The first weekend in December, a reporter from Voice of America came out to Diourbel to do a story on our paper briquette press project.  She attended our Saturday morning Eco-Ecole and interviewed some of the kids and school directors.  She was impressed with our little compound oasis and the projects that we’re working on. Here is a link to the radio transcript

Last week, my friends Andrew and CJ came up from Kaolack to conduct a training seminar about the wonders of the Moringa tree.  My neighbor Stanzi came from Bambey, as well.  The first day we brought several people in from neighboring villages for a train-the-trainer session, teaching them how to best grow and cultivate it, the nutritional value of its leaves, and how to incorporate them into their diet.  The next two days were spent in the villages repeating these same lessons, but with the help of the participants from the first day.  The information was well-received and each village now has a small Moringa nursery to tend to.  I’ll be following up with them in late January to see how things are going.  Click on the photo below to open an album of our Gardens of Moringa Training.
Gardens of Moringa Training

Here's a special bonus--a short video of the women of Khokhe who broke out into song and dance while pounding moringa leaves.
Moringa Powder Song & Dance

And finally, last week marked another milestone for me; I turned 44.  To celebrate, I traveled to Thiès to join a few friends for lunch and then went on a little shopping spree to replenish my cupboards.  As a special treat, I bought myself a bottle of Scotch, a frying pan, a can of artichoke hearts, a hand-blender for making soups and smoothies. That alone equaled half of my monthly living allowance—but, heh, I’m worth it, right?!  All in all it was a good day and it was so nice to hear from so many of you.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.  May Santa's sleigh be filled with sacks of rice and boxes of live chickens!

I shared my ride into Thies with a box full of chickens

Ice Cream - Yum!
Joyeux Noel

Monday, October 17, 2011

Girls Leadership Camp 2011

The last week in September, I joined 14 other volunteers and 4 Senegalese counterparts at the University of Bambey (just about 25mins from my site) for a Girls Leadership Camp.  Planning for this camp started just a couple of months after we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers.  It was a project that justified meeting up for group lunches every now and again and was always in the back of our minds until late this summer, when we started working on it full throttle.  Luckily, the group that came before us initiated the camp the year before so there were some good “lessons learned” to consider when planning it.  Not that we didn't leave room to make our own mistakes along the way.  All in all, the camp was a big success and everyone pitched in to educate, motivate, and entertain 52 bright Senegalese teenage girls.

The girls were all recipients of the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship, a Peace Corps-run program that provides tuition, school supply assistance, and mentorship to middle school girls who exhibit academic potential, financial need, and lack of family support.  Throughout the year, many Peace Corps Volunteers work one-on-one with these students and their families to encourage the girls to stay in school.  The literacy rate in Senegal is 52% for males and only 33% for females over the age of 15 and the drop out rate for girls increases dramatically from primary to tertiary education.  
As with most projects in Senegal, you never really know when and if something is going to happen until it actually happens.  The “inchallah mentality” (where people add “God willing” to the end of anything they agree to do) gives an entire society the right to be vague about their commitments.  We’d budgeted for 40 girls to attend and really didn’t know how many would actually join us until the morning of the camp when they met their volunteers to be escorted from their home towns out to Bambey.  Surprisingly, instead of a shortage, we ended up with 12 extra girls, Allhumdalilah (another favorite Senegalese phrase-ender which means, “Thanks be to God”.)

Our week unfolded like this:

Sunday morning, the Volunteers who were not bringing girls prepped the facilities to get ready for the week ahead.  This was originally planned for Saturday afternoon, but we were all delayed due to a couple of big rain storms that came through.   Later in the afternoon, the girls arrived, settled in, made nametags for their doors, ate dinner, and got to know one another while forming teams.  That first evening we discovered that not only was it incredibly hot and humid in Bambey (living so close, this was no shocker to me) but there were no fans and the campus was infested with blister beetles and earwigs that tormented us every evening while seeking the overhead lights when the sun went down.

Monday morning, I led a yoga class to start our day.  This was a lot of fun, but a little intimidating at first because it was such a large group and I had to teach the class in French. Luckily, I had Wolof interpreters when I needed them. The girls were enthusiastic about the practice and seemed to enjoy it, as later evaluations confirmed.  In fact, one girl wrote that here favorite part of the entire camp was doing the Corpse Pose every morning. I’m sure both my yoga friends and my non-yoga friends can appreciate this desire to lay on the floor in complete relaxation all the same.  Each day had a theme and Monday was “Our Health Day”, which started with a lesson on how to make Oral Rehydration Solution (aka homemade Gatorade) and why it’s important to drink it when you exert yourself in the heat.  After that, we had a lesson on the health benefits of Moringa, or in Wolof, Nebedaay (the well-documented “miracle tree”), and after that we used dried Moringa leaves to make beignets (yummy little fried donut balls)—see, anything that can turn a donut into a healthy snack IS a miracle.  A nurse joined the girls in the late afternoon to answer health-related questions ranging from “why don’t men have periods?” to “why do some girls smell like trash?”  Girls will be girls!  Every evening, before sunset, we had some sort of physical activity led by La Rouge, the only male Senegalese counterpart we had at camp.  La Rouge adopted his name to reflect his affiliation with the communist party and we only once caught him proselytizing his political beliefs to the girls. Other than that, he was great with them.  For Monday night’s health activity, I lead “Spa Night” which was a lot of fun.  We made an oatmeal facial scrub and then an egg and lemon face mask.  None of the girls had ever seen oatmeal before and were very curious about it.  It’s available here, but usually only “toubabs” buy it or can afford it, so this was a real treat.  After our facials, we painted our nails, which almost didn’t happen, as we were informed at the last minute by our counterparts that the girls would have to remove any nail polish before their next prayer (and remember, the Senegalese pray 5 times a day.)  I’d only brought enough nail polish remover to correct the mishaps I’d anticipated.  This was certainly a lesson learned.  I can’t believe I’ve lived here a year and didn’t know this already.  Clearly, not all girls follow this rule.  My host mom regularly wears the stuff, but then again, she's "Khady Toubab."  Luckily, we were able to scrounge up enough acetone in the local market to allow those girls who wished to participate to paint and then un-paint their nails.  I’m sure this felt very exciting and decadent to some and probably scandalous to others.  Not all girls participated, so we got out the back-up supply of paper and crayons.  Another obstacle I hadn't anticipated was having to use only our right hands (not including our "dirty" left hands) to wash off our facial products because we were using communal basins. This proved more challenging than you would think.

Tuesday was “Our Environment Day”, which included activities about identifying and defining the various cultural and micro-climate environments that are found in Senegal, creating micro gardens in old tires and in water bottle planters, and an educational scavenger hunt that unintentionally resulted in live animals being carried back in sacks—not our proudest moment--but we did give those teams extra credit for thinking outside the box.  After dinner, the girls put on skits or performed dances that represented the various ethnic groups that make up the Senegalese population.  One thing about this camp that amazed me the most is how quickly the girls took to one another.  They'd come in groups of 3-9, but other than that they didn't know each other beforehand.  They were split up into new groups the first evening and roommates were selected randomly.  Within the first few hours of camp, these girls were happily interacting with each other.  No cliques were formed and they worked together as if they'd always known one another.  I guess that's the result of Senegalese communal living.

Wednesday , on “Our Career Day” we made self-portrait collages that representing what the girls like to do or what they’d like to become.  After that we played a fun game where girls had to take a stand agreeing or disagreeing with a series of statements that started out mundane and increasingly got more substantial (e.g., “Ceebu Jenn (a rice and fish dish) is better than Ceebu Yapp (a rice and meat dish); A woman should not work outside the home; A man has the right to beat his wife; Birth control is only the responsibility of the man, etc..).  This activity generated a lot of discussion as girls were called upon to defend their position, whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement.  After lunch, we invited a panel of professional women to speak with the girls.  I’d been corresponding with Ofeibea Quist-Archten, NPR’s West African correspondent, for many months and both she and I had hoped that she would be able to attend our career panel discussion, but unfortunately, her schedule changed at the last minute and she had to fly from “Daakaaaar” to attend a family event in Ghana.  Despite her absence, and the last minute cancellation of both my host mom AND my neighbor who has also agreed to attend (but of course, carefully added "Inchallah" when agreeing), we ended up having four impressive women on the panel.  The pinnacle of our camp experience occurred when one of the girls stepped outside after hearing the woman from the Helen Keller Foundation speak and started crying because she was so moved by the woman’s talk and hoped to someday grow up to be as inspirational as her.  So, for those of you who helped sponsor our camp, THANK YOU.  We didn’t just use the money we raised to by markers, paints, supplies, and food, we used it to create an environment where young girls could form dreams about their futures.

Thursday was another big day for me.  In addition to my morning yoga class, my friend Kelsey and I lead a session all morning on how to make Neem lotion and Shea Butter lip balm.  Then, we followed that up with a class on Costing.  This was “Our Business Day”.  Teaching business concepts here is always challenging, but I think we got our points across fairly effectively.  I had to leave camp after this session to teach another round of Safe Zone (gay awareness and sensititivy) Training back in Thies, but the rest of the day at camp involved other business related games and marketing exercises.

Friday was “Our Imagination Day” and focused on activities that encouraged creativity.  Some of the other volunteers led the yoga class in the morning and then the girls tie-dyed camp t-shirts, watched a movie about women in Senegal, worked on various other art projects, and practiced for a talent show that was held that final evening.

If the camp could be evaluated by the state of exhaustion we were all in when it was finally done, then I’d have to admit that WE ROCKED!  The girls were amazingly well-behaved, tolerant of the heat and the bugs, and enthusiastic participants in all of our planned activities.  We definitely could not have pulled off the week without the help of our Senegalese counterparts who, hopefully, will come back next year to work with the next set of Volunteers.  Ultimately, as with any good Peace Corps project, we hope that the camp will be a sustainable project and that lasting partnerships are formed.

Click on the photo below to open an album of pictures from the week.

Girls Leadership Camp 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

She’s Baaack ….and we’re cooking up a storm.

One morning shortly after I returned from vacation, I walked out of my room and found my host mom sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee.  “Surprise!” she said in French before reaching over to give me a kiss on my left, then right, then left cheeks.  Khady Ndiaye, or Khady Ndiaye “Toubab”, as the neighborhood kids call her because she’s more Western than the average Senegalese woman, has come back from France where she works cleaning rooms at a ski school 8 months out of the year.   She superstitious about flying so she comes and goes without any advanced notice.  Khady (pronounced like “hottie” with a guttural H) doesn’t like her job there much, but she gets paid well and, as a result, can afford to own her own house in Senegal.  Ibou and I rent rooms from her and our association offices are located in her compound.  Much of her family lives next door, although her relationship with them is a bit strained so she keeps them at arms-length.  The compounds share a wall which used to have a door leading from one to the other, but after a dispute with her father’s second wife, she bricked it up.  That’s Khady for you!  She’s a force to be reckoned with.  People both love and fear her.  Although she returned unexpectedly in the middle of the night, it didn’t take long for people to realize that she was back.  Within 24 hours, the peace and quiet to which Ibou and I had grown accustomed was gone.  In its place was a flurry of activity as Khady began executing the home improvement plans she’d been envisioning while away.  Gardeners showed up to hack away at or dig up and move the overgrown plants.  Brick layers appeared with pile of sand and bricks to begin paving a terrace outside her living quarters.  Workmen deconstructed a thatched-roof hut over our classroom space so it can be replaced with something more substantial.  Khady is wise with her money and is investing it in her compound as opposed to doling it out to whoever asks for it, which is the more common trait here in Senegal.  She definitely has a good head on her shoulders.

In addition to filling her house with workmen and construction debris, she’s also filled it with friends.  Daily, there are a handful of folks who come by to catch up with her and hang around most of the day.  We all eat lunch together, with 10-12 of us around the bowl, and most of them stay for afternoon tea.  Last week, Khady decided that I need to learn how to cook Senegalese food.  This thought had, of course, already crossed my mind since cooking has always been one of my favorite pastimes, but I hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet. It wasn’t an appealing prospect at my neighbor’s house where I’d been eating lunch since Khady left last December because their “kitchen” is a small hot cinderblock room with soot-stained walls which is shared with a family of mice and about 10,000 flies.  I also, thought that learning to cook here wouldn’t really translate back home because the pots, pans, and “appliances” are so different.  All meals are cooked over a single propane burner or a pile of burning wood (sometimes even“paper briquettes”!), so there is a certain order to how things are cooked (e.g., the fish is fried first, then the oil is used to make a sauce for the stewed vegetables, then the rice is steamed over this mixture, then the veggies are removed, and finally the rice is added to the liquid.)  Even though we have a four-burner stove in the indoor kitchen here, no one ever uses it but me.  This method of cooking outdoors, using one pot, is well-engrained into the fabric of the culture and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

This will soon be a new covered classroom

Khady washing dishes amid the debris

Most of the greenery in our compound got hacked away,
but I suspect with all of our heat and rain, it will be back in no time.
Anyway, I decided to take her up on the offer and have started to prepare some meals under her tutelage.  Had I known how many “toubab points” that would have gotten me earlier on in my service, I would have done it sooner.  The first afternoon, I made a simple tomato sauce to have over the millet couscous that someone brought us from an outlying village.  Couscous is “village food”, you see.  People in the cities eat rice.  This is an unfortunate cultural divide as couscous is made from local millet or corn and is so much more nutritious than the imported white rice that most people I know eat.  My sauce consisted of oil, tomato paste, water, onions, hot peppers, vinegar, potatoes, and spices.  It was far from rocket-science, yet you would have thought I’d just sent a man to the moon by the way people reacted to a “toubab” cooking a Senegalese sauce.  Anyone who heard the tale, which spread like wildfire, came by to ask me about it and giggle.  Maybe this was the other reason I hadn’t been inclined to do this until now--I certainly don’t need any other reasons to stick out around here.  After the success of my couscous sauce, I was next charged with Ceebu Yaap, or Rice with Meat, which is very descriptive of the end product.  You’d never guess that a platter of oily rice with a few morsels of meat in it would take several hours and many steps to make, but it did.  It went something like this:

  1. We washed ½ kilo of meat in a basin of water since it spent the morning at the market covered in flies. Remember, a ½ kilo is just over 1 lb (before the fat cooks off) and we were serving this to 12 people—not a lot of meat.
  2. Next, Khady and I held onto each piece of meat with our right hands (the “clean” hands), stretching them taut, then I used a dull knife to cut the pieces into smaller pieces.
  3. I then chopped 2 onions in the palm of my hand and added this and the meat to an aluminum Dutch oven called a “marmite” with ½ liter of oil and basically deep fat fried these for 15 minutes or so.
  4. After the meat and onions were crispy, we added 3 liters of water and, pardon my French, boiled the hell out of it for at least an hour.
  5. Meanwhile, with a large wooden mortar and pestle, I pounded away at an onion, many cloves of garlic, a couple of bell peppers, 25 CFA worth of hot peppers (yes, that’s the measurement I was given), black peppercorns, and Maggi and Adji spice packets (aka MSG-laden spice mix).  Pulverizing this into a saucy paste was a good upper arm work out, but you must be careful that the mixture doesn’t splash up and hit you in the eye, which, of course, I was not.
  6. Before adding this saucy mixture to the pot, I skimmed off the oil.  At this step I got excited for a minute because most Senegalese dishes are really oily, but then I realized we were going to add the entire ½ liter of oil back in later.
  7. Then I rinsed 2 kilos of rice (that’s about 4½ lbs dry weight--a lot of rice) and placed it in a steamer pan over the boiling mixture and covered it, wrapping a long piece of fabric around the two pots to keep in the steam.  This is why we removed the oil, so that the pot would produce a better steam.
  8. About a half hour later, when the rice was soft and fluffy, I poured it into the boiling mixture with all of the oil that I’d skimmed off and cooked it until the rice has absorbed all of the liquid.
  9. Finally, I transferred the mixture to a large platter, scraping the crunchy rice that was stuck to the bottom of the pot and placing it in the middle as a garnish, and listened to all the oohs and ahhs from our guests as they gobbled up this high-carb, high-fat meal.
Today I helped make"Boulettes" (fish pounded into a paste and then deep-fried and served with a curried tomato sauce over rice.  It was pretty good.  We’re building up to Ceedu Jenn, the national dish of rice, fish, and vegetables, but even though they’ve been impressed with my cooking skills thus far, no one thinks I’m ready for that yet ;-)

Abib eating millet and my couscous sauce the
 next morning for his breakfast.
Making Ceebu Yaap
Three hours later (see I told you there's not much Yaap)
Khady and her bonne (maid) frying fishballs
Tomato curry sauce

This weekend, my friend Kelsey came to visit.  We were both in Thiès on Friday for a Girls Camp planning meeting and came back to my site together to work on some of our assignments.  We decided to cook an “American” meal for dinner on Saturday night and prepared a burrito bar with tortillas, marinated meat, seasoned black beans, sautéed onions and peppers, grated cheese that Khady has brought back from France, chopped lettuce that Ibou grew in his tabletop garden, and mango salsa.  Everyone loved it.  Ibou, who usually eats like a bird and has been sick for the past week, wolfed down his entire burrito before mine was even wrapped up.  Khady informed me that a meal like this would cost 7€ per person in France, and Khady’s brother and nephew were glad that they’d come to visit just as we were putting the meal on the table.  The next morning, we shared the leftovers with the guys working here and they all came over to thank us personally.  I might just be making that Ceebu Jenn sooner than they thought!
Ibou, Fatou, Coumba, and Khady

Ahhh!  A yummy burrito.

Even this little pipsqueak enjoyed the meal.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Mediterranean Get-Away

First Impressions of Barcelona
A few weeks before leaving for my vacation, my friend Alys, who’d just completed her Peace Corps service, began a long and winding journey through Europe on her way home.  Her first stop was Barcelona, from which she reported, 
Hello Barcelona. You're beautiful, but please don't make me fall in love with you. I just got out of a long term relationship with another continent and I'm still getting over it. But damn, you're temptingly sexy...”

I chuckled when I read this and then spent the next couple of weeks daydreaming about what lay ahead for me.  I mean, let’s admit it; sexy has not been in my vocabulary for a very long time.  When I arrived, I was just as smitten as she was.  This city’s got it going on!  It’s beautiful, clean, artsy, proud, colorful, exuberant, historic, organized, kind, picturesque, smart, tasty, charming….and yes, even sexy.  The only discomfort for me was that the Spaniards in this part of the country are so proud of their culture and heritage that they speak their indigenous regional language, Catalan.  Having just left a country where I struggle to communicate, I was a little worried that this might send me over the edge. But no, the Catalonians have mastered many languages, including Spanish, English and, for some, even French.  Believe it or not, I even ran into a few Wolof speakers on the streets.  For the first 24 hours, I was completely tongue-tied and my brain didn’t know what sounds to produce.  People would speak to me in English and I’d try to answer them in some combination of French and Spanish.  Luckily, by the second day and after a good night's sleep, this problem subsided.  I'd planned a few days in Spain before my parents arrived, so I could adjust to the modern world again.  My first impressions were that everything was so pristine and that everything worked.  For some reason, I’d only left Senegal with the name of my hotel and no address and knowing that I’d booked a room in a tiny privately owned establishment, I was concerned that a taxi may not be able to find it.  So, I paid for the airport WiFi to search for the address and then asked a guy at the information desk at the airport if I should call them to get directions.  He said “most taxi drivers have GPS devices—no worries.”  I just stood there a minute laughing out loud at the wonder and absurdity of it all.  When you get in a taxi in Dakar and ask the driver to take you somewhere, the driver will first argue with you about the fee and then finally agree to take you there for some negotiated price. Halfway to your destination he’ll turn around and ask you how to get there and then, inevitably, start yelling at you for not knowing the way.  More than likely, he’ll try to charge you more when he stops to ask directions.  Sometimes, this whole process gets so infuriating that you just get out of the taxi have to start all over again.  So, the news of GPS devices, taxi meters, and “no worries” was like music to my ears.  I grinned the whole way to my hotel.  The other thing that immediately hit me was how clean the streets were.  I mean, you could eat off them they were so clean—I’m not just talking generic American-clean, I’m talking Wisteria Lane clean.  They had recycling bins to sort glass, paper, plastic, and even compost on every corner from inside the airport to the smallest little neighborhood street.  Needless to say, I was very impressed.  The tapas were the next thing to catch my eye—so artfully crafted were these little flavorful tidbits.  The first evening, I sat alone and ordered a slew of them, one at a time, while enjoying some lovely Spanish wine. I could have sat there all night.  It was just divine.

The next morning, I caught a train to the medieval village of Montblanc, which is situated about 2 hours southwest of Barcelona in the Tarragona region.  The patron saint of this village is St. George because, it is here, they claim ,that he slayed the evil dragon and saved a virgin princess.  That's quite a claim to fame!  Montblanc is also the home of my friends Annaïs and Eric, a Catalonian couple who had stayed with me in Diourbel when they were traveling through Senegal back in January.  They run an organic farm called. Xicòria, which means 'chicory' in Catalan, a plant with many culinary and medicinal properties. Together with another couple, Sylvia and Maximo, they manage a cooperative association, employing a group of local association members and WWOOFing volunteersto help them coordinate educational programs, distribute baskets of produce to shareholders, and manage catering jobs using their homegrown products.  The group was about 10 people when I arrived and they welcomed me into their communal family without the blink of an eye, sharing both their work and their meals with me.  The two nights I was in there, the neighboring village was hosting a street festival, so after we finished work, we piled into a couple of vans and headed over the hills for artisanal beer, music, street food, and festivities. This was how a typical day at Xicòria unfolded:
Shareholder baskets ready for pickup
  • 7am – Head out the door to begin work on the farm (e.g. picking tomatoes or onions)
  • 10am – Communal breakfast set up on tables at the farm: coffee/tea, fresh baked bread, homemade jams, cheese, Iberian ham, tomatoes, and fruit
  • 11am – 1pm – More farm work (e.g. cleaning and bundling onions or assembling shareholder baskets)
  • 1pm – Communal lunch back at the apartment consisting of something yummy like fresh gazpacho, a hearty vegetarian dish, a fresh salad, and grilled veggies drizzled with delicious local olive oil.
  • 2pm – 5pm – Siesta (they really take this seriously in Spain—things shut down completely)
  • 5pm – 8pm – More farm work (e.g. handpicking beetles off cabbage plants)
  • 8pm – 11pm – Village festival in Valls
Each night we fell into bed sore and exhausted.  It reminded me of my Horse & Buggy Produce days but with a lot more breaks for eating and resting.  The second day I was there, Eric, Maximo, and I drove to a friend’s place with a vanload of tomatoes and spent the afternoon washing and slicing to prepare them for drying.  Their friend makes artisanal breads and pastas and constructed a giant ventilated drying machine in his kitchen to dry his pastas.  In trade for vegetables to feed his WWOOFing volunteers, he let us use it for drying tomatoes.  There’s a lot of bartering going on in this community and it was nice to be a part of it for a few days.  My hosts were so welcoming and, with a mixture of languages, we were able to communicate effectively.  Our visit ended way too soon.

Cruising the Mediterranean
Mom & Dad on the docks in Monaco
Mom and Dad arrived in Barcelona on Thursday just as I was getting back from Montblanc.  I literally walked into our hotel from the train station and there they were waiting at the elevator with all of their bags. Although they were tired from an all-night flight, we ran around the city enjoying the colorful atmosphere.  They had been in Barcelona two years ago and were anxious to show me around town.  Unfortunately, we walked a little too fast and furious that afternoon which caused Mom to pull a ligament behind her knee and that slowed her down for the remainder of the trip.  On Friday, we headed down to the port and boarded our cruise ship.  I’d been on a cruise last summer, a Girls Trip for a long weekend in the Bahamas with my mom, sister, aunt, and cousin, so I knew what to expect, but still, somehow, the over stimulating décor still took me by surprise.  There were patterns everywhere—on the floor, on the chairs, on the walls—chrome and bright lights, too.  It was sensory overload at times.  Luckily, our room was big enough that we weren't stepping on each other and it had a window looking out onto the water that made it seem even bigger.  This served as a good escape from the crowded decks above.  It’s a good thing I like hanging out with my parents because we had a lot of “together time” on this trip.
Our 9-day itinerary took us around the western Mediterranean Sea.  We stopped in (or at least near enough to visit):  Monte Carlo, Florence, Naples, Messina (Sicily), and Marseilles.  We also docked a couple hours outside of Rome one day but decided to explore the port city for a couple of hours and then spent the rest of the afternoon having quiet time on the ship. Our stop in Palma de Mallorca was cancelled due to a port-worker strike so we ended up with an extra day in Barcelona, which was just fine with us. Mom, Dad, and I seemed to be in the same mindset about wanting to relax and not run around like crazy people trying to see everything there was to see in a city in just one day.
One of the highlights of the cruise for all of us, but especially me, was the overabundance of food available at all hours of the day and night.  I’d made an early decision to mentally separate myself from the developing world so as not to be riddled with guilt the whole trip.  Instead, I was appreciative of the many choices presented to me each day.  At the morning buffet I could have made-to-order omelets, an assortment of cheeses and cold cuts, freshly made cottage cheese, fruits, and yogurt, bacon and sausage, home-fries, etc.  Lunches were often eaten on shore or were another version of ship’s buffet with a Mongolian Wok, salad bar, deli sandwiches, various hot entrees, and frozen yogurt (which, of course I had daily!)  What I had previously mocked as “trough food” back in the States, was now a sight for sore eyes.  Dinners were a bit more structured and were served in a dining room with a full menu of daily specials.  At times, my mother convinced me to join her in ordering multiple appetizers (because we could) and we had dessert after every meal.  I likely ingested more food in any given day than I do in an entire week back in Senegal, but at least I was eating well-balanced meals and got my fill of protein and vegetables.
Several days into the cruise, my body started feeling rejuvenated again.  I was getting plenty of sleep (in a comfortable bed in an air conditioned room), my diet, although excessive, was healthful, and we were walking a lot at each port of call.  I decided to take my now-kind-of-squishy-body that hadn’t seen any real physical exercise in over a year up to the gym and started working out again.  I can’t tell you how good it felt to get on a Stair Master and make myself sweat.  In Senegal, I sweat all the time because it’s either 110 degrees or if it’s a tad cooler, like it is now, the humidity is through the roof.  Sweating because you live under the African sun and sweating because you’re pumping blood through your veins and making your muscles ache are too entirely different things.  I was so grateful for just a few days the latter.  It gave me hope that someday, my body will get back in shape and I’ll feel good about myself again. I also treated myself to a haircut in Sicily and had my first “good hair day” in over a year.

Back to Barcelona
At the Olympic Museum in Barcelona
Because we ended up in Barcelona a day early, our post-cruise visit there was increased to 5 days.  Even so, there was still so much more of the city we could have explored.  We left our hotel by 10am each day after making ourselves breakfast in our room and didn’t return until 8 or 9pm each evening.  We ate our lunches out, enjoying the neighborhood restaurants offering Daily Menus (an appetizer, an entrée, wine, water, and dessert) for reasonable prices (but, man is the dollar weak over there!!).  We usually picked up things from the local mini-marts to have in our room for dinner when we returned late.  The highlights of our wanderings through Barcelona included the Modernisme architecture that peppers the city (including all things Gaudi and especially Domènech i Montaner’s Music Palace), the plazas and infrastructure built for the ’92 Olympics, the Spanish Village built for the ‘29 International Exhibition, the St. Joseph Market with its colorful produce displays and meat on a stick, the Els Encants flea market, the many impressive art museums, and all of the colorfully decorated balconies.  We shared our visit to Barcelona with thousands of young Catholic revelers who trickled in from all over the world before heading to World Youth Day in Madrid as well as a slew of soccer fans who were there cheering on FC Barcelona as they won the Spanish SuperCup the last night we were there.  We really had such a great time that it was hard to leave, but I did so with a promise to myself that I would be back.  To lighten the mood as we were preparing to leave, Dad looked at me and said (with tongue in cheek), “As many people our age tell their children, ‘We’re going to a better place.’”  ;-) 

Home in Senegal 
Fundraising koozie
Flying back “home” to Dakar felt strange, but this is where I find myself these days.  It was nice not to have the deer-in-the-headlights feeling when I got off the plane and it was fun being able to speak to some of the Senegalese on board in their native tongue. However, I was also welcomed back to Senegal in true Senegalese style.  We landed at 3am in the pouring rain (that same storm eventually headed west and turned into Irene) and I was immediately accosted by no fewer than 8 aggressive taxi drivers who all wanted my business and had all laid claim to my luggage.  There was a lot of yelling and I had to pull my bags back out of people’s hands but, eventually, I negotiated with a driver and within seconds of getting in his car he got pulled over and had to bribe the police before we could be on our way.--oh, Senegal!  With very little sleep, I attended the new volunteer Swear-In Ceremony later that morning, spent the weekend doing laundry, and then had my mid-service medical exams early the following week.  I’m now back at site and am settling back into work and my way of life.  The rainy season has brought dampness to everything and new bugs and smells inhabit my room.  Although this makes daily living  uncomfortable at times, it’s no longer new.  The power and water cuts are just part of life here, as are the ants in my food, the mosquitoes buzzing around my head, and the mold growing on my belongings.  This is my life and my home now, at least for the next year, and I can find comfort in anticipating what will come as I make my way through the last half of my service.  Keep me in your thoughts, as you are in mine.

More Photos
Here are two photo albums from our trip:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


It’s hard to believe that I’m at “mid-service” already.  In two weeks, I’ll have been in Senegal for an entire year. There have been weeks that have flown by and days that have dragged on, seemingly forever, but some years are like that for all of us, I suppose.  The difference, for me, has been that that everything in my world changed the moment I got off the plane in Dakar last August—the language, the culture, the food, the climate. I’m just going to say it, the whole experience has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. One year later, the languages are familiar, and although I can communicate with those around me, I’m far from fluent; the culture is less shocking, but still confusing and abrasive at times; the food has gone from interesting and new to commonplace and repetitive; and last but not least, it is still HOT.  Those of you on the East Coast have recently experienced the extreme of my daily temperatures.  I’m not sure anyone can every really get used to it.  Even the Senegalese who were born and raised here still include mention of the heat in their everyday conversation: “Dafa taang!” (It’s hot!) or “Taang nga?” (Aren’t you hot?).
At mid-service, there’s a changing of the guard or a passing of the baton, of sorts, that happens with volunteers.  Many of the folks who were here when we arrived have just ended their service and have gone home, moving my group up a notch in seniority, and new trainees have arrived taking our place as the new kids on the block.  It was difficult to say goodbye to the friends I’d made here over the past year.  Living in harsh conditions and sharing our experiences with one another creates a unique bond.  Much of what goes on over here is hard to explain to people not living in the midst of it. Part of me felt a little abandoned when a handful of my friends left a couple of weeks ago and it made the 12 months ahead of me feel a quite daunting.  At the same time, however, I was welcoming a new group of people who are just about to start their service and are so excited to be here.  They’re a good reminder of why I came and what I hope to accomplish before I leave.
July 2011 - Past, current, and future PCVs from the Dakar region.
This seems as good a time as any to take my first vacation.  Next week I’ll be meeting my parents in Barcelona for a Mediterranean cruise.  It may seem extreme to go from roughing it in a developing world to fancy living on the high seas, but I need it desperately, especially now at mid-service. A little booster will do me good and, hopefully, I’ll come back refreshed , ready to take on new projects , and motivated to push a little harder on some projects that have recently stalled. I timed this trip to coincide with Ramadan, as things here tend to slow down then.  Ninety-four percent of the country are Muslims and therefore Ramadan becomes all-consuming.  People fast (no food or water) from sunup until sundown (~5:30am ~7:30pm) which means things begin to slow down around lunchtime when people roll out their mats.  After that it’s hard to get much done.  Some volunteers show their solidarity and fast with their families, however, I've decided to spend this time recharging and regrouping. I’m totally at peace with that.  Sometimes you need to listen to what your body needs, like last week when I consumed 3 hard-boiled eggs, a bag of beef jerky, and a can of tuna, including its juice, within a 3 hour window.  Clearly, I needed a protein boost.  Other times you need to listen to your soul and mine is telling me I need to get away for a bit.  Hopefully, this vacation will leave both my body AND my soul a little more energized.
Truth be told, I’m a little bit worried how I’ll handle being in the developed world again.  I’m packing extra wraps because, even though I long to experience air conditioning again, I’m sure I’m going to freeze on the ship and then there are the socially questionable bad habits I’ve picked up since being here.  In order to integrate into a new culture you often find yourself doing what they do to try to fit in, but these don’t always translate into social norms in other parts of the world. The following is a list of 10 habits that I should probably try to break before getting on my plane next week:

  •  Burping during meals
  • Wiping my nose on the hem of my skirt
  • Flapping my arms like a chicken when I say “No”
  • Eating my meals on the floor
  • Wearing flip flops to formal events
  • Slurping my drinks
  • Scraping the filth beneath my fingernails with the page corners of the book I’m reading (ok, I admit, that one’s all me—no one reads here)
  • Adding “Inchallah” (God willing) to the end of every sentence
  • Letting insects crawl on my food while I’m eating
  • Squatting wherever and whenever when I need to pee
Wish me luck with all of that!

While I’m gone, the volunteers in my area will be continuing to raise money for a Girls Leadership Camp that we’ve planned for the end of September. We’ve been working hard these past few months to coordinate this project.  I’ve even been in discussions with NPR’s West African Correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, to join our Career Day panel.  Per Peace Corps policy, all funding for camps must be come through a Peace Corps Partnership Grant, which basically means that we have to solicit funding from people back home.  So, if you’ve been looking for a way to support some of the work I’m doing over here, this would be your opportunity.  One of the goals of this camp is to encourage girls with aptitude to continue their education, as this is a problem in Senegal.  According to a recent gender assessment study done by USAID, the ratio of girls to boys drops from 98% in primary school, to 80% in middle school, and then to only 54% in high school.  Girls are usually pulled out of school early to assist with household chores or later to get married.  Our camp will focus on the importance of continuing their education, on the roles they can play in their society, and the opportunities that are available to them.  We’ve got about 40 girls who are coming to camp, which is being held at a local university not far from my town.  To donate to this project, follow this link:  Thiès Region Girls Leadership Camp 2011.

Also, when you get a chance, take a look at the new tabs I’ve added to the top of my blog—Photos, Videos, and Sounds.  These should provide another window into my world here.  I’ll be updating these over the next year as I continue my service.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Queer Quiz

One of my proudest achievements in service, thus far, did not include attempts to end malaria, to promote nutrition for small children, or even to introduce an alternative fuel source.  No, instead, my moment of glory came in the administration of a quiz---a "queer quiz", to be exact.

At the tail end June, Gay Pride Month in America, five other volunteers joined me at the Thiès Training Center to deliver a day-long seminar on sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles.  Our target audience was a group of local staff members whose job it is to provide language training and cultural support to Peace Corps Trainees.  Also in attendance were other key members of the Peace Corps Senegal staff, including the Training Director, Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officers.   This training (called Safe Zone Training) was originally put together by volunteers in The Gambia, the small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal, and was shared at our Gender and Development Summit back in February.   It focuses on increasing the staff’s awareness of different sexual identities and instructs them on how to support volunteers that come to them with personal issues.  Homosexual acts are not only considered immoral by the religious leaders here, but they are also punishable by law.  In 2007, 96% of the Senegalese population surveyed said that homosexuality should be rejected by society and, in the past 3 years, 14 Senegalese men have been arrested and 5 imprisoned for illicit homosexual behavior. Just two months ago, several of my friends and I were stunned upon reading a front page news article declaring a “jihad” on  homosexuality, wherein one of the most prestigious religious leaders suggested that those found guilty of this heinous crime be stoned on the streets.

They say that serving in the Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love”, but when that job comes with the challenge of masking your true identity for fear of personal harm or imprisonment, as it did for 14% of the volunteers who swore in last year, that makes the job even tougher and, frankly, this just didn’t sit well with me.  I was raised to be open-minded and accepting of people’s differences and I include in my “circle of love” many people whose lifestyles differ from my own.  My mother recalls a phone call she received from me in college after I’d witnessed a KKK march where little kids stood next to their parents holding signs with anti-gay slogans.  I was livid at them; she was proud of me; and yes, I said KKK, as in Ku Klux Klan.  I’m not blind to the fact that discrimination is still alive and well in our great nation, but I’ve never been one to tolerate it.  When I arrived in Senegal, and realized that many of my friends who had been “out” at home had to go back into the closet here in order not to offend their host families or, worse, subject themselves to possible danger or arrest, it made me feel as uncomfortable as they did.  Living in this this foreign culture is hard enough without the added burden of trying to change who you are.  So, I took matters into my own hands and pushed to have this training.

The SeneGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Board met at the beginning of May and approved my proposal.  Shortly thereafter, we had full support from our Country Director, and we formed a Safe Zone Committee of interested volunteers from around the country to review and modify the training materials we’d gathered.  In less than 2 months, we conducted our first day-long session to 12 attendees.  We covered basic vocabulary, issues faced by homosexual volunteers, current gay rights around the world, the stages and difficulties of coming out, testimonials shared by current volunteers, and anti-gay behavior.   We spent the last hour of the session discussing the definition and role of an “ally” and how our staff can be supportive of volunteers who have issues related to their sexual orientation.  At the end, we passed out the “queer quiz”, which was really just an evaluation form, asking attendees about how their perceptions may have changed from the beginning of the class.   Across the board, the participants demonstrated an increase in understanding and a willingness to discuss these issues.  We had lively and open discussion throughout the day and everyone agreed that this was an topic that no one had felt comfortable broaching before and that this training was long overdue. 
The SeneGAD Safe Zone Team

Our Country Director opened the session to show his support.

It was an interactive training day.

We even had role-play scenarios.
We may not have changed a nation’s attitude, last month, but we connected with a room full of people who provide daily support in the lives of future Peace Corps Volunteers as they struggle to understand a new language and acclimate to a new culture. We “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”, which is the second goal John F. Kennedy defined for the Peace Corps.  Even though most of our participants still hold strong to their religious/legal beliefs regarding these matters, they're open to accepting and supporting others whose beliefs are different from theirs. Like all countries where Peace Corps is present, Senegal is a developing country with a young democracy, so, of course, there is room for improvement when it comes to many rights and the concept of equality.  

Even we, in America, don't quite have this right yet, as we were reminded by the late Coretta Scott King--but we're trying.  “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination.  I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere.  Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”