Sunday, January 30, 2011

Love, Loss, and Not Letting Go

Part I - Love and Loss in the Information Age

Being 4,000 miles from home poses many challenges, physically, emotionally, and logistically.  Moving out of my house with little notice and leaving behind people and pets who I love was just the beginning.  Since my arrival, I’ve had to adjust to a daily life filled with cultural and language obstacles.  Most of this I was prepared to face, knowing it may be difficult at times.  I’d made contingency plans for logistics back home, I faced each cultural roadblock as a learning experience, and I continue to struggle with communication issues, but these are all things I was prepared to do because I expected them.

What I was not as prepared for was the unexpected--the real life things that happen to people everyday, but that you don‘t think will happen to you., especially when you are so far from your support system.  I was not prepared for the sudden death of a close friend, my faux-uncle and confident of 20 years, who was diagnosed with brain cancer a few weeks after I left the States.  He passed away soon thereafter, and the memorial service which I was very sad to have missed occurred the same day that the long-term relationship that I‘d left behind, hoping it would somehow be strengthened by a temporary physical separation and an exercise in self-reflection, took an unexpected nose dive and crashed to its ultimate demise.  I was not prepared for my sister to suddenly have serious health problems taking her in and out of the hospital with no definite diagnosis, leaving my family worried about what might happen next.  I was not prepared for my 13 year old dog who I left with a dear friend to develop a malignant tumor that would cause him to be put down, even though I knew in the back of my mind that he might have passed away from natural causes before I returned.  And lastly, I was not prepared to be attacked on the streets of Dakar last week, as an mugger tried to take my purse, leaving me with minor physical injuries, but emotional side effects that might stick around a while.

The loneliness and helplessness that come when you can’t actually be with the ones you love in their time of need, or in your own, take on a new dimension when your support network can only be reached through modern technology.  It’s the “boy in the bubble” scenario (Travolta, not Seinfeld).  I have the ability to speak with people over the phone or on Skype and to chat with people on Facebook and Gmail, which is a luxury Peace Corps Volunteers of the not-so-distant past certainly did not have, but it’s not the same as true human contact.  As the world gets more and more reliant on these communication methods, this is a good reminder that these will never replace the need for a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, or a glass to clink.  That being said, this is certainly the next best thing if you’re physically separated so I guess there a balance to be had.  Recently, a friend who was surprised at how accessible I was on-line asked me if I thought being so connected took away from my overall Peace Corps experience and I quickly responded, “No, it’s my lifeline.”   In retrospect, the answer is really YES, it does change the experience, but in a way that I’ve come to appreciate.  Being able to share my experiences, celebrate someone else’s joy, or provide some words of support makes me feel less lonely and less isolated.  My intention when joining the Peace Corps was to use the advantages I’d been given in life to give back to others, experience a world unknown to me, and in the process maybe discover something about myself.  I certainly had no notions of an “Into the Wild” fantasy where I cut off all contact with the outside world.

This ability to communicate with others has opened doors I never would have imagined.  People whom I’ve never met have found me through my blog or through other friends and have reached out to me to thank me for my service or to let me know that they‘ve been inspired to do something new and life-changing themselves.  Old friends who I’d lost touch with are back in my life and are cheering me on through my journey.  Classrooms of kids are being introduced to a part of the world they’d never heard of before and are becoming inquisitive about their global surroundings.  None of this would have been possible had I only the antiquated third world postal system to use for communication.

 Part II - Not Letting Go

Women of my generation have been trained from a very early age what to do in the case of an attack.  In fact, I’d had a refresher just a few months ago during our Peace Corps Pre-Service Training.  Most of the advice you’re given focuses on how to protect yourself from a physical and/or sexual assault and how to alert other people’s attention to what‘s happening.  For a robbery, though, the advice is almost always to let the attacker have what he asks for to avoid being physically assaulted.  Somehow, probably because my robbery took the form of an sudden attack, my instincts told me otherwise.  As is likely the case in most of these incidences, my assailant appeared from out of nowhere.  One minute I was walking down the street and the next minute I was being dragged down it.  The mugger came running at me from behind and tried to grab my purse which was strapped diagonally across my chest.  Since it didn’t just slip off my arm, I was thrown to the ground and my hands immediately latched onto the strap to stop him from taking it.  My grip became gecko-like, and my fingers held onto that strap as if my life depended on it.  Ironically, had I just let go, I probably wouldn’t be as bruised and battered as I am now because our struggle continued for quite some time.  I kicked and screamed and was determined to not let him prevail.  My friend who was walking just a stride behind me saw the whole thing tried to hit the guy to get him to stop, but he quickly elbowed her in the eye and knocked her to the ground.  People from the surrounding compounds came out in droves to assist us and ultimately chased the attacker off, luckily, without my purse.  We were just outside the apartment building where we were spending the night with an American English teacher we’d met when all of this occurred, literally just several feet from the door.  The building guard came out and helped us inside as we were both bleeding and in shock.  We called our Peace Corps security officer and within a half an hour, the Country Director was there to pick us up and take us to the Med Hut (the medical unit at the Peace Corps office) which was just 500 meters away and where the security office was awaiting our arrival.

Although our injuries were minor (scrapes, bruises, a black eye, and sore muscles), we were both pretty shaken up and stayed in the Med Hut for several nights.  The Peace Corps medical officer was great and the security officer followed up on the case first thing the next morning.  Apparently, the neighbors who’d come to our assistance recognized our attacker as someone who lived in the neighborhood and had done this before.  One of the neighbors accompanied us to the Gendarmerie (the national police) to identify him, which was great, because despite the fact that I’d spent several minutes looking at my attacker straight in the face while trying to fend him off I don’t think I’d be able to identify him in a line-up.  It’s strange what the mind chooses to block out.

Unfortunately, our experience dealing with the Gendarmerie was not as positive as our experience with the Peace Corps staff.  The intake officer took one look at us and, before even hearing what we had to say, went on a tirade in Wolof about how stupid Toubab women are for walking alone at night and how we should have expected something like this to happen.  The officer in charge was not much better, as the first question out of his mouth was, “Why didn’t you have men with you?”  Aarrghh!, this patriarchal society makes me want to scream sometimes!  Although they were quick to judge us for the incident, in the end, they did take it seriously and plan to arrest the guy.

The process is interesting.  First of all, the reason we were dealing with the Gendarmerie and not the Police is because the attack occurred in the Village of N’Gor (a small village within the city limits of Dakar) and the Gendarmerie has jurisdiction over villages.  Once our initial complaints were filed, they gave the neighbor who accompanied us an official stamped warrant and asked him to take it to the Village Chief.  The warrant requested that the father of the young man who attacked us bring his son in voluntarily.  When I asked what would happen if they didn’t come in, they responded that they’d round up a group of people to go get him in the night, a veritable modern-day posse.  Wow!  We should find out what came to pass on Monday.  At this point, I’m not sure if we’ll be called back to Dakar to testify in an actual trial or if they’ll just throw him in the slammer based on our complaint.

It’s been several days now and my wounds have scabbed over and the swelling has gone down.  My back, arm, and leg muscles still ache from the struggle, but I suspect that, too, will subside in the coming days along with my headaches.  The initial shock that I experienced which left me a bit nauseous with wobbly knees and insomnia only lasted 36 hours or so.  What remains, I’m afraid, is a overactive startle-response that’s left me panicked three times already.  The day after the attack, my friend and I ventured to a grocery store a couple of blocks from the office to get some food to cook while we were there.  It was late afternoon and although we were on-guard, we felt safe enough walking there from the office as this strip of road was heavy populated and it was still light outside.  This was the same grocery store I blogged about a couple of  months ago that was overwhelming to me when I was in a normal state of mind, so I was a bit over stimulated on this trip and found it difficult to make decisions.  We wanted comfort food, but didn’t want to go through the process of having to decide what to buy and then cook it for ourselves.  This is definitely where a “mom” would have come in handy.  Anyway, that’s the position we found ourselves in, so I was standing at the cheese counter (naturally--all comfort food contains cheese) and the lights suddenly went out.  My knees gave out, I gasped for breath, broke out in a sweat, and collapsed into the side of the cheese case. This sudden change in my environment was so startling, yet power outages are daily occurrences in Senegal. The generator popped on within seconds and I quickly recovered.  Yesterday, something similar happened.  I was able to catch a ride halfway back to my site with the Peace Corps security officer and a team of people who were heading to a meeting in Thiès.  They planned to help me at the Garage and put me in a Sept-Place back to Diourbel.  Along the way, we stopped at another volunteer’s village for a quick visit.  I asked to use her bathroom and while squatting over her toilet, a squirrel jumped from a tree onto the tin roof, clamoring above my head.  The same physical reaction occurred, yet I was precariously hovering over a Turkish toilet.  I guess this was a prime location to have the shit scared out of me, but apparently (and thankfully) that turns out to be just a figure of speech!  I was able to pull myself together.  Even today, as I’ve been typing this story, a group of young kids came into our compound looking for my host-Dad.  I told them he’d just left for a few hours and they said they’d come back later.  I shut the door of the compound when they left, so I could continue writing undisturbed, however, a few minutes later I heard a knock at the door.  My room is quite a distance from the door, so it took my a minute or so to get there and the knocking continued as I approached the door.  When I opened it, the young girl on the other side was not standing where I had expected her to be, but was in the process of climbing up the door to peer over the top.  This caught me so off guard that I jumped back and lost my breath again, hyperventilating and scaring this poor little girl who was just coming back to find out what time my host-Dad would be returning.  Yikes!  I guess I’m going to have to live with this side effect for a little while, but hopefully, it will pass sooner than later.

It may sound silly, but I’m glad I walked away from this experience without having my purse taken.  Somehow, it feels empowering not to have let him have it.  I know I’m lucky that he didn’t whip out a knife or seriously hurt me, but if he’d gotten away with my things I would have felt so much more violated.  There are a lot of strong women in my life and each of them, upon hearing this story, has commended me on not letting go of my purse.  It may not be text-book advice to put up a fight for things that are surely replaceable, but it definitely made me feel less helpless.

Writing about these experiences for my friends and family to read is not the same telling you in person and then sharing a hug, a glass of wine, or a much-needed bowl of comfort food, but it has helped me process what's happened and hopefully will help me move on.

As I know from past experiences, "time will heal all wounds."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ladies Who Lunch

Now that Khady (my host-mom) has returned to work in France, I’m eating lunch with the neighbors down the road.  For what amounts to about a dollar a day, I have my very own  place at the bowl and a spoon reserved just for me.  Senegalese families are all about welcoming people into their homes and being hospitable, but they’re also keen on earning a few extra CFAs whenever they can, so this is a win-win situation for everyone.  The head of the household is Awa Gueye.  She’s the president of one of the womens’ groups that works with Baol Environnement, the ecovillage with which I am partnered.  She’s also a Director of a school and a really smart lady.  Living with her are some of her children, her mother, her sister, her sister’s children, plus a few other random people whose relations I‘ve yet to figure out.  On any given day, there are about 20 of us gathered around the bowls.

Lunch is divided into two bowls, one for the males and one for the females.  Eating with the ladies is a pleasurable experience.  First of all, my ancienne, who also ate with this family, was a vegetarian so they’re in the habit of loading the bowl with vegetables which works in my favor.  Secondly, in a very motherly fashion, they all break off pieces of fish and vegetables with their fingers and toss them in my direction.  I just love that.  It seems like such a caring gesture.  Eating with this family  is a nice break in the day for me.  I often go a little early to hang out with them.  It’s a good way to pick up new phrases in Wolof and to just feel like part of a family.

Adji-Fatou is Awa’s niece, she’s  11 years old and was the first to welcome me to the family.  She and my ancienne were close and she’s made it very clear to me that she wants to be my new best friend.  She speaks French well and has been quite helpful to me.  Her brother El-Hadji (both of these names are variations on the Arabic word for the great pilgrimage to Mecca that is expected of all good Muslims), spent the first 5 years of his life in a hospital, where he underwent 4 surgeries for his cleft lip and palate.  He and his mom, Maram (Awa’s younger sister), actually lived at the hospital all of those years while other family members cared for the other children.  Among those other children are the twins, Assan and Houseinou, who look to be about 12 or 13 and were both born with malformed limbs.  This is fairly common in Senegal but these two seem to be much better off than the folks I see crawling down the street with cardboard strapped to their knees because they can’t walk.  That’s a terrible sight to behold.  Mané is the oldest of Maram’s children.  She’s 21 years old and a newlywed.  She and her husband were married 4 months ago, but she’s still living with her family while she finishes school.  I’ve heard tell that Awa was seen chasing her down the street with a stick when she said she was going to go to Touba to live with her husband.  Awa takes education very seriously and apparently, she got her point across.  Awa’s son Papis, and his young wife, Tabara, also live in the compound.  They have a one year old son named Cheikh.  Tabara, in her role as youngest wife living with family is responsible for cooking all of the meals.  She works really hard and doesn’t seem all that happy to me.  But then again, I doubt I’d be too happy if I were toting around a teething toddler on my back and cooking for 20 of my husbands relatives everyday.  Awa’s mother is a sweet old lady.  She’s an ever-present feature on the mat on the porch where we eat, seemingly leaving it only to roll out another mat to pray upon 5 times a day.  She sells frozen juice bags to the neighborhood children and is clearly a respected member of the family.  She wears lots of bracelets, a big smile, and even sports a couple of toe rings.

Awa Gueye at a training session in Oct

Maram Gueye with El-Hadi, Adji-Fatou and two other kids

The boys playing with make-shift drums (that's Assan in the green shorts)

Ladies Who Lunch (yes I'm the only one who eats with a spoon at this bowl.)

Yesterday, Mané took me to the market to buy materials for crochet and needlepoint projects.  She and the other women in the family spend many hours a day making tablecloths and bedspreads to sell with their womens’ group.  I just love working with my hands and was so I was excited to start learning this new craft.  What an amazing bounding experience this would be.  For projects like this, women buy fabric by the kilo (not by the meter), so when we got back to the compound we started ripping my kilo of fabric into manageable pieces.  I suggested that I start with a napkin set, thinking a smaller project would be easier to handle.  Mané started me off crocheting a border then handed the piece over to me to continue.  Ok, let me just say that I’ve been knitting for about 6 years now, but the apparently the skills don’t transfer.  The materials and hand movements may look the same, but let me tell you, they are not.  I was all thumbs.  It took me 4 hours to work my way around the edges of one napkin and the end product looks like some a 2nd grader did it (no offense to any 2nd graders out there).  The whole experience was so frustrating.  I broke the first crochet needle because my tension was too tight and I kept dropping stitches.  The worst part was that I couldn’t properly express my frustration in a language these ladies understood.  I thought my facial expressions, gasps of exasperation, and inappropriate swearing, would get the point across, but they just kept asking, “are you tired?”  I’m glad to report that today’s needlepoint went a lot better.
My finished border.  Ugh.
Whew! This was a lot easier and a lot faster.

Other news from the domestic front involves my new kitchen set-up.  Those of you who know me well, know that I love to cook.  Well, for past 5 months, I haven’t really done much of that.  At first, it was kind of a treat to have someone else cooking all of my meals for me, but after a while, I started missing that creative outlet.  My weekend at the beach over Christmas really enlivened my desire to start cooking again, so when I got back to site, I started addressing the issues in the kitchen that were standing in my way.  My host dad had been asking if he could unplug the refrigerator to save electricity.  I hadn’t been using it and it is really old and inefficient, not to mention the fact that each time I opened it, there were roaches crawling around on the inside.  I told him to go ahead and turn it off, but asked if he’d help me buy a new one on his next trip to Dakar.  We spent an entire Saturday back and forth on the phone and as he looked for second-hand mini-fridges for me, discussing features and negotiating prices with the dealers.  I’m so glad he dealt with that part for me.  He also had to deal with getting the one I finally purchased back to Diourbel on the top of a taxi.  While he was gone, I took “my new best friend”, Adji-Fatou, with me to town to get a new propane tank for the 4-burner stove, bought a few needed pots, pans, and utensils, and reorganized the room a bit.  By Monday evening, I had a fully functioning kitchen.  Now, my morning walks to town to run errands include a trip to the market where I buy stuff to make for dinner.  It’s all starting to fall into place now and I’m feeling better about what I’m eating.

My new refrigerator and organized shelves.

The "Pierre Cardin" cook stove.

Before I sign off, I’d like to draw your attention to the new pages I’ve added to this blog.  At the top of the page, you’ll now see new tabs entitled “My Spare Time”, “My Project Work”, and a revised “My Wish List”.  Take a look at these new pages to see what else I’ve been up to.  Also, if you sent me a package in the last two months and haven’t heard from me that I received it yet, you are in good company.  Remember, this a developing country and even government-run organizations like the post office are not run very efficiently.  One package I’d been waiting on for a month finally arrived today, so I’m hoping that others will follow.  I’ll be sure to let you know.

À bientôt mes amis,

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Nightmare After Christmas and How I Rang in the New Year

After a busy first few weeks of December spent training in and around Thiès & Dakar, I was prepared to spend Christmas back at site watching holiday movies on my computer and nibbling away at the stash of dark chocolate my friends and family have sent.  With very little arm twisting, however, some of my Peace Corps peeps convinced me that joining them at the beach was a much better idea.  We rented a house in Popenguine, a small beach town on the Petit Côte south of Dakar and spent three days playing in the sand, frolicking in the surf, eating great home-cooked meals, and enjoying a relaxing weekend engulfed in holiday spirit.

Garrison, April, Kelsey, Amy, Clint, and Daisy

Daisy grew up in a traditional Mexican household in Los Angeles and offered to whip us up a Mexican holiday feast on Christmas Eve.  We had carne asada with homemade tortillas, empanitas stuffed with cumin gouda and bacon, homemade salsa, candied yams, arroz con leche, and bissap/mint juice.  I drew upon my own brown roots and contributed a big pot of frijoles.  After dinner, we crowded around a laptop to watch “Love Actually”, a modern Christmas classic, and then changed into nice clothes and headed to the village for midnight mass.  Halfway to town, the electricity went off, which was no big surprise until we arrived at the church to discover that it was not only dark, but locked.  Apparently, midnight mass was held at 10pm and we'd missed it.  We all had a good laugh about it and headed back to the house, stopping along the way to listen to a traditional Senegalese band at the restaurant next door.

Daisy pounding salt

Our glorified camp stove
A failed attempt at Christmas Eve Mass

We awoke the next morning pleased to find that Santa had managed to find us in our little corner of the world.  He’d filled our stockings and snacked on the treats we left him.  An American ex-pat  friend joined us for coffee and Kelsey’s yummy breakfast strata and then we headed back into town a second try at mass.  The service was in French, baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary were black, and the choir, which sung in French, Wolof, and Latin, rocked-out with the aid of drums, hand-clapping, and many African percussion instruments.  It was so much fun to watch.  The tourists from neighboring resort towns joined in to experience Christmas in Africa.

After church we sat by our 6-ft tall wooden giraffe “Christmas tree“ and opened our stockings and presents while eating Kelsey’s cinnamon rolls.  We were all like little kids again.  For most of the people with me, this was their first Christmas away from home or away from their parents.  Their nostalgia was contagious and reminded me of happy childhood Christmases back home.  I have to admit it’s been awhile.

Stockings come in all shapes and sizes

Our Christmas "tree"

Garrison took charge of Christmas dinner and impressed us all with his culinary delights.  He made roasted chicken with a lemon cream sauce, steamed julienne carrots, and bowtie pasta tossed with pesto.  Daisy made homemade eggnog and for dessert I made a trifle.  We so enjoyed these tasty Toubab meals mostly because the ingredients are hard to come by and purchasing them requires a commitment to splurge beyond what our monthly stipends will allow, but also because they were not made under the easiest of circumstances.  Both the electricity and the water were off  more than 50% of the time we were there.  We made due using the gas stove, collecting water in buckets when we could, washing dishes in the surf, and cooking and eating by headlamp and candlelight.  We’re all learning to go with the flow.

Later that evening we had a bonfire on the beach, complete with s’mores, fireworks, and laughter.  It really was a delightful weekend and rejuvenated my belief in holiday happiness.

Christmas Dinner
Garrison & Clint by the bonfire

Garrison & Kelsey ashing dishes in the surf

Stained glass at Christmas Mass

Amy, April, Kelsey, & Daisy
We couldn't have asked for more beautiful sunsets

 If you want to see the whole array of Christmas photos that I posted to my Facebook page, click here : Christmas in Popenguine 

After Christmas, I went back to site for a couple of days and then embarked on my first real project work.  At our All-Volunteer Conference at the beginning of the month, I'd gone on a beekeeping field trip to an apiary near Thiès.  On the bus ride over, I mentioned that I kept bees back in the States and the next thing I know, the trip leaders asked me to help translate and lead the session.  I was so enthralled, that I went back two weeks later, during our In-Service Training to do it again with the Agro-Forestry group.  I asked the beekeeper, Abdou Seck, if he’d be interested in partnering on some training projects and not only did he agree but he wanted to begin immediately.  So, on the 30th of December, I packed up my bags again and joined him on a 3-day beekeeping tour in the Kaolack region, south of Diourbel.

Leading a discussion on beekeeping
Abdou and I with the honey extractor

Inside a hive box

We met up at the garage (car depot) in Diourbel and headed to Kaolack together in a Sept-Place.  Aside from the bumpy road, that leg of the trip was rather uneventful.  We stopped in at Abou’s sister-in-law’s house for lunch and Attaya (afternoon tea) and awaited the car that was supposed to take us out to our destination village.  The driver was delayed and then finally showed up telling us that his car wouldn't make the trip.  Our only other option this late in the day was to take a series of Ndiaga Ndiayes, the ridiculously over-crowded public buses that transport people, livestock, and cargo all at the same time, and stop every couple kilometers to let people on and off.  We boarded the first bus just before dusk and spent the next couple of hours winding our way through small road towns until we finally reached Wack Ngouna.  Each time we stopped to let people on or off was a production.  Women dressed in flowing boubous, carrying sacks of bread, baskets of produce, and/or live chickens had to crawl over the people already seated to reach their empty seats.  Their pathways were blocked by sacks of rice, cases of eggs, and cases of sodas.  As each new person got on the bus, we all scrunched in closer until we were shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh-to-thigh.  The farther out we went, the darker it got, the closer Abdou got pressed against me, and the more tired I grew and irritable.  I started to doubt my choice to join a man I barely knew on a trip out to the hinterlands, especially with his arm now draped around my shoulders.  When we finally arrived in the village it was pitch black because the electricity had gone out.    We were dropped off at the door of small office building where we planned to spend the night.  The guard showed us in and shined his flashlight on the dingy mattress on the floor in the corner of an office where we were both supposed to sleep.  Ok, now I was really doubting my intelligence.  What had I just gotten myself into?  

Without trying to appear panicked, I told Abdou that I would prefer to sleep in the hallway.  I’d brought my Therma-Rest mat and a small Bug-Hut tent with me and would be much happier out there.  He looked at me like I was insane and asked why I would choose to sleep on the floor in the hallway when there was a perfectly “good” mattress for us right there in a room that locked.  I said that I preferred to sleep alone and showed him my mat and tent.  He then pointed to the small space between the mattress and the desk where I could set these up.  “No”, I reiterated.  “I’d really rather sleep alone.  It’s an American thing.  We like our privacy” (all of the above being communicated in my broken French, of course.)  He gave me that “crazy Toubab” look and helped me carry my things into the classroom next door, shaking his head and stating that someone might step on me if I stayed in the hallway.   I quickly set up my sleeping area and was about to settle in when Abdou came into the room, laid his prayer mat at the foot of my tent and started his evening prayer ritual.  So much for privacy.  I guess he was afraid someone would step on him in the hallway.  Who is this someone, I wondered; there was no one there but us and the guard.  Anyway, when he was done praying he got up as if ready to go somewhere (in the pitch dark) and said, incredulously,  “you’re going to go to sleep now?”.    “Yes”, I muttered, and then didn’t add what I was really thinking, “I’m out in the middle of the boonies, in a developing country, with a man I barely know who intended to share a dingy old mattress on the ground with me, it‘s pitch black outside, I haven‘t had dinner, and my headlamp isn’t working,  Yes, I’m going to bed now!”  Again, he just shook his head and went to his room.

With this exhausting day now behind me, I crawled in my tent and hoped that tomorrow would bring better things, as I drifted off to sleep.  Not long after that, however, I felt a hand gently rest on my calf.  “Aack!  Go away!“,…no, I’m just dreaming, I thought.  Then I felt the side of the tent press against my other leg.  “OMG, there’s someone trying to get in my tent!  GO AWAY, LEAVE ME ALONE”, I screamed.  Then, I heard the rattling of the metal door and someone trying to break in.  A flashlight shined at me and someone was yelling in Wolof.  I awoke to find the security guard in his underwear, half asleep, shining his light at me and around the room.  He wanted to know what was wrong, why I was shouting, and who else was in the room with me.  I was quickly awake and overcome with embarrassment, as I realized that I was just having a nightmare.  All I could think to say was “Je dors, je dors” (“I’m sleeping, I’m sleeping”), which the guard thought was ridiculous because, clearly, I wasn’t sleeping.  His flashlight shined on several toads that were hopping around the room and had likely jumped on my legs, serving as a catalyst for the crazy nightmare I just had.  He called Abdou out of his room to come deal with this crazy Toubab and I explained to him that I had just had a nightmare.  When Abdou translated for the guard, they both started laughing at me, and finally left me at alone, both now shaking their heads.

[The next day, I took pictures of the scene to amuse myself.]

The creepy bed on the floor.

My tent set up in the other room.

The toads came back for another visit.

The next morning, the sun was shining and my insecurities were laid to rest. It was a new day.  Abdou, as it turns out wasn’t the creepy old man I’d made him out to be in my state of exhaustion.  His offer for me to sleep with him, was just good old-fashioned Senegalese “teranga” (hospitality to the nth degree) plus a disparity of cultures--women don’t sleep alone, nor do they live alone, and Senegalese people in general prefer to be in the company of others.  I guess I showed him how brave and independent we American women can be!  Ha. 

We started our day with an egg salad sandwich (well, as close as you can get around here) and a cup of coffee.  Sometime thereafter we were met by a guy from the forestry department, several members of the local Environmental Club, and a driver with a truck.   As I’ve learned through many experiences here, nothing ever starts on time.  We were scheduled to begin our tour of surrounding villages at 8am, but didn’t actually leave until after 10am.  I carry a book with me at all times, just for these occasions.  Once we got going though, we had quite an adventure.  Back in June or July, Abdou had been down in this area to give a beekeeping workshop in partnership with a Senegalese NGO (non-government organization).  After the training, men from 36 different villages were given the equipment to start their own apiary (most of them received 8 hives and 4 nukes (smaller starter hives used for capturing wild swarms.)  This tour that we were on was a follow-up to that training.  We visited each village and inspected the installation of the hives:  where they were placed, how many swarms they’d captured, the health of the hive, etc.  We also answered any questions that the new beekeepers had.  This was a really good experience for me for many reasons.  I saw many small rural villages far off the beaten path, visited 225 hives (138 of which were occupied), met some really interesting people who love beekeeping, witnessed an active swarm, and managed not to get stung, even once.  
Inspecting a hive installation

One of the numerous villages we visited
We traveled for three days like this (luckily I got a set in the truck)

Bee-“keeping” is a fairly new concept in this part of Africa, whereas bee-”killing” and bee-”having” have been around much longer.  Bee-killing involves raiding wild hives found in trees by setting fires next to them, smoking out the bees, and destroying the brood in order to obtain the honey.  This practice goes back centuries both in Africa and Asia, results in a smoky-flavored, prematurely harvested honey, and is clearly not a sustainable enterprise.  Bee-having is a step in the right direction and is also widely practiced.  Bees are housed in man-made containers (logs, gourds, or clay pots), but the comb is fixed to the container, not allowing for inspection nor manipulation/maintenance of the hive.  Generally, only the honey comb is removed, which allows the brood comb to stay intact.  The hive is protected and the farmer reaps his reward in periodic honey harvesting.  Bee-keeping, is by far, the most advanced practice but is not yet widely recognized in Senegal.  It implies the management and sustainability of the hive based on an understanding of the bee and can span multiple levels of technological involvement.  It promotes honey production and the health and proliferation of the hive.

On our tour, we were surprised to see many of the new beekeepers combining aspects of their former bee-killing or bee-having practices.  We found hives stacked up in trees, hives suspended upside down or turned on their sides, and hives positioned without protection.  Old habits are hard to break.  We gave each beekeeper advice on how to correct or improve their hive placement and spoke to them about the problems that they faced.  It really was a great learning experience for me, although I have to admit, after the 200th hive, I was starting to get a little bleary-eyed.  It didn’t help that every village we drove into had a crowd of young children who rushed our truck yelling “Toubab! Toubab!” and crowded around me “oohing and ahhing” at the color of my skin.  What first felt a little rock-star-esque, quickly became exhausting and downright unhealthy, as everyone of those kids, although quite cute, had runny noses, visible skin conditions, and probably lice, and by culture, each and every one of them felt obliged to shake my hand.  I emptied my bottle of anti-bacterial gel by the third day.

A group of kids gathering to see the Toubab

Misplaced hives (they're supposed to be on the ground)

And upright!

Rushing the car to catch a glimpse and touch my skin

We headed back to Kaolack late Sunday afternoon, but this time lucked into a Ndiaga Ndiaye that went straight through.  I opted to stay over at our Peace Corps Regional House that night and the next to do a little kitchenware and food shopping since I’m now cooking some meals for myself.  There were quite a few other volunteers there who were staying at the house on their way back from various and sundry New Years celebrations, so I was in good company.  Abdou and I have lined up some more work in the coming months and I have a few other projects that are starting to take root, so those many months of training are beginning to feel purposeful now.

Please take note of the new Photo-A-Day - 2011 link I added to the left side-bar of my blog page or you can click here.  I’m planning to capture a moment from every day in 2011 since it will be the only complete calendar year I’ll spend in service.

Happy New Year to all of you!  Jamm rekk (Peace only!)