Saturday, March 31, 2012

"I just got paid to play Scrabble!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scrabble room

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

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

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tamba Nation and the Talibé

Last week I ventured to “Tamba Nation”, the self-titled hub for volunteers who live in and around the Tambacounda region in SE Senegal.  The purpose of my visit was two-fold:  1) to teach a beekeeping class for volunteers who are interested in getting involved with beekeepers in the area, and 2) to attend “Tambathon – A Race for Education” organized by the regional volunteers to raise money to encourage girls to stay in school.  Unexpectedly, my visit served a third purpose which was to really open my eyes to the issue of the Talibé and bring a new perspective to this group of unfortunate kids.

Tambacounda is about 5-6 hours from Diourbel, depending on the road conditions and what type of vehicle you get in, but I was able to catch a ride down in a Peace Corps car which always shaves off a little time and is exponentially more comfortable than local transport.  Like Diourbel, Tamba is hot and dry this time of year with daytime temperatures over 100 degrees and nights in the balmy 70s, but the HOT season is just beginning. Over the next month or so, the thermometer will continue to rise to about 120 degrees in the day and will only drop to the 90s at night.  It will stay like this until the rainy season comes again in July, so basically, until I leave.  This is the time of year when your skin gets very dry, your heels begin to crack, your nasal passages are crusted with rock-like formations and are prone to bleeding for no reason, and when we all start sleeping outside in tents because our cinderblock rooms or thatched huts we live in become unbearable.

My boss, Amar Sall, accompanied me on this trip and helped to organize the logistics for the 3-hour introductory beekeeping class that my friend Jerry, the visiting beekeeper, helped me put together while he was visiting in January.  Fifteen volunteers participated, learning the basics of the honeybee lifecycle and social order, the history of beekeeping, the different types of hives used in the area, and the process for how to harvest honey.  It was fun to pass along this knowledge to a group of young people who are enthused about this nerdy hobby of mine.  The following day, Amar took a handful of us out to a beekeeping cooperative about 45 minutes SE of the city.  There we met with some folks who run a “miellerie” or honey-harvesting center that supports the beekeepers in the area.  Tamba’s terrain is much more conducive to beekeeping (more trees and natural vegetation, as well as a large water source), so there are quite a few beekeepers in the area.  This association works with 35 beekeepers that use both traditional hives and Kenya Top Bar hives.  Traditional hives are made of reed or millet stalks bound together and rolled into a cylindrical log and capped at both ends with round pieces of wood each containing a small entrance hole.  This type of beekeeping has been practiced in Africa thousands of years and is quite effective here.  Kenyan Top Bar hives were introduced more recently from East Africa and allow for more manipulation within the hive and higher honey productions.  Both versions require that you destroy comb when harvesting honey, but at least they’re moving in the right direction, by adopting more modern equipment.  What they’re doing is also very measurable; they know how many beekeepers are in the area, how many of each kind of hive they have, and how much honey is being produced from the hives.  We were so impressed with the coordinated effort of this cooperative that Amar and I have decided to apply for a food security grant to help them expand their operation.  One of my class participants approached me when returned from this visit to say that she wants to extend her service for a a 3rd year to focus on beekeeping efforts, so all of the pieces are beginning to fall into place.  Since I had hoped to be involved in Senegalese beekeeping since my arrival, I’m glad that this project has finally taken shape and will live on after my service.  It’s all about sustainability, right?

Honey filtration system

Traditional grass hive
Kenya Top Bar hive
Steam-based honey extractor

Association label

Local honey label

Honey refractor

Cashew tree
Cashew fruit

Honey bee on cashew tree flower

On our way back to Tamba, the group asked Amar to stop at one of the campements (rustic campground resorts) situated on the bank of The Gambia River that's known to be frequented by hippos.  Luckily for us, there were two hanging out there that day but, because it was midday and hot, they mostly stayed below the surface of the water.  We’d occasionally see their heads bob up to breathe and even heard them neigh, which is why, I suppose, they call them the “river horses”.  Hippos in the wild--what an amazing sight to see!

The Gambia River
Look closely, that's a hippo head (facing the bank)

Twenty-five Volunteers call the Tamba Nation and its’ regional house their home-away-from-home.  Many of the volunteers in this region live out in villages and bike into the city to enjoy electricity, running water, and the camaraderie of their friends from time to time.  A few of them actually live in the city in small apartments or with host-families, including my friend Jamie who let me sleep on her roof while I was there. Hanging out with this tight-knit group made me made me realize what a different Peace Corps experience they are having from me.  My site is located pretty far away from other volunteers and my “regional house” is the Dakar transit house, located 3 hours away from my site. Our transit house is a place where volunteers from all over West Africa come and go on their way in and out of the city and most of the Senegalese volunteers, like me, that are assigned there live at least a couple of hours away by car.  There is definitely a family feel about the clustering of volunteers in other regions and they seem to be involved in a lot more group projects.  I’ve seen this on my trips to the Kaolack regional house, as well.  When it comes right down to it, I suppose we all leave here with a different perspective on our service, but somehow because of my location and maybe, at times, because of my age, my service seems a bit more solitary than most.

Another difference I noticed when visiting the Tamba region is the effect the surrounding ethnic group has on the culture.  Tambacoundans are mostly Pulaars.  They have their own language, which is a bit more sing-songy than Wolof and their interactions are much less aggressive.  Walking down the street in Tambacounda was a markedly different experience than walking down the street in Diourbel.  I felt much more welcomed. 

Board games!  That's Jamie, my host, on the right.

Tamba Nation regional house

The boys did their "Warblers" routine for me.
This friendly Pulaar woman "took a picture" of me with her purse.

The most recent group project that the Tamba Nation coordinated was a Race for Education, a 5k-10K-1/2 Marathon event that raised about $3000 for girls’ education.  I’ve been calling it the "Tambathon" all week.  At some point, I considered running the 5K and, in retrospect, kind of wish that I had since we had a fairly cool morning.  I was happy enough, however, to be down there cheering on those that did and capturing the experience in photos.  In addition to the many volunteers that made the trip to Tamba to run this race, many local kids and school and government officials participated. The local army post and fire department also had an impressive showing.  Djiby Sow, a runner from Dakar who has run marathons all over the world, traveled 10 hours to join us and made a monetary contribution to the cause. He was quite personable and even came with a personal manager, which seemed to elevate his celebrity status and make us all wish that we traveled with personal managers.  He was all muscles and legs and ran the ½ marathon in 1hr 14min.  My friend Richard Ross, who admittedly has a little less leg and a little less muscle, became a celebrity in his own right by “joggling” the entire way and being the first volunteer to finish the ½ marathon. 

Girls getting ready for the 5K
And, they're off!

Djiby Sow easing across the finish line

The Djiby Sow fan club

Joggling to the finish line

Unfortunately, Richard’s excitement for the event was somewhat marred at the end of the race when he crossed the finish line and was immediately approached by a group of Talibé kids asking for alms.  Richard is affectionately known among his Peace Corps friends and family as “the Talibé Whisperer.”  He’s spent much of his 3-yr service working with this group of young boys who are forced to beg on the streets as part of their Koranic education.  “Talibé” translates to “disciple” and is the term used to describe boys who are sent by their families to live in daaras (usually located in run-down buildings) with local marabouts to learn the lessons of the Koran.  They spend hours memorizing and reciting Arabic chants and the rest of their time begging on the streets, collecting money for the marabouts and finding their own food.  In general, they are not well-cared for, and are usually unbathed and wearing raggedy clothing.  Images of Fagin and his group of street kids from “Oliver Twist” often come to mind when I observe the Talibé and their marabouts.  This group of kids is the focus of concern for many NGOs, including World Vision and Human RightsWatch (click on the hyperlinks if you're interested in more info).  They are prevalent throughout the country and even in my neighborhood most families have a Talibé child who comes on a daily basis to pick up a bowl of rice at lunchtime. This is likely the only food they eat all day.  Richard lives in St. Louis and started a garden project there to teach them to grow some of their own food.  He’s also met with the US Ambassador and leaders of aid groups to discuss possible solutions to assist these boys, and has organized an upcoming soccer tournament that will not only give them the opportunity to participate in a group sporting event and have social interaction, but will raise money to help ensure their well-being.

Talibé watching the race

This kid climbed up to join me

Looking for water
Shoo-ing away the Talibé

Talibé with their signature bowls

I’ve wanted to write about the Talibé for a long time but, for many reasons that are hard to explain, the topic is a difficult one to summarize.  Who knew that the Tambathon would provide me with the motivation to bring this issue to the forefront?  The juxtaposition of a group of well-intentioned volunteers and community leaders that came together to raise money and awareness for one group of kids (girls who want to stay in school), while at the same time excluding another (the Talibé) by shoo-ing them away from the event was shockingly evident to those of us who weren’t too busy dealing with the race logistics to notice.   At the end of the race large groups of these dirty, thirsty, hungry, young boys crowded around us asking for t-shirts, water, and bean sandwiches, but we had no system to deal with it.  These were for the runners, which made sense, as the project had been well-planned to provide for those who were participating in the race.  Group dynamics quickly came into play and volunteers and staff (the “haves”) huddled around the supplies to protect them from the grabbing hands of the Talibé (the “have-nots”).  Yes, even I was guilty of this. Watching this scene play out through my camera lens really made me pause and reflect.  How have I treated the Talibé on a daily basis?  How are they different from the neighborhood kids who ask me for xaalis (money) on a daily basis, yet have families that care for them and beds to sleep in every night?  What could I have done during my service to make a difference in these kids’ lives?  Maybe it’s because I spent several days hanging out with Richard after this event, but this issue really started to get under my skin.  My service is coming to a close in a few months, so it’s not realistic to think that I’m going to take on a Talibé project that will have any real effect, but I have started to implement a simple approach that someone suggested will make a difference--stopping to greet the boys when I see them and just simply asking them their names.  This brief interaction can have a significant effect on them psychologically and validates them as people, not just beggars.  This is something I can and will do.
This little boy's name is Abdou