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


  1. Wonderful! So glad that you have internet again and time to write. I love reading about your life and work. Happy belated birthday, again, and happy holidays!

  2. Always enjoy your blog. You certainly lead an interesting life. I'm always perplexed and saddened by the strange beliefs that people live by - like losing prayers for touching a homosexual. Isn't religion supposed to bring enlightenment? Keep up the great work and Merry Christmas April.

  3. Hello! My first visit, will visit you again. Seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed your posts. Congrats for your work. If you wish to follow back that would be great I'm at
    Thanks for sharing!
    Happy New Year!