A Long Road to Hoe

Friday, December 23, 2011

This post has been a long time coming… I just want you all to know that I have not abandoned you quite yet, but took an extended pause. In my actual world, life has been beyond busy. Let me explain something real quick. Your first year as a PCV you spend all your time thinking about how much time you have to do everything, and figuring out the best way to do it while missing home; your second year, however, is spent doing all those things you thought you had so much time to do, and thinking about how you wish there was more time to do it all, and then of course, planning for life after Peace Corps, which could take all of your time if you wanted it to.

So, I am currently in this last phase, known as ‘Now What?’ for most of us. The prospects of being both jobless and homeless are not in any way shape or form exciting, in fact, they create an incredible amount of anxiety, which is dealt with differently by different people. In the last week I have talked to other volunteers who claim to want to disown all their possessions, teach English in any country that will let them, volunteers who cry every day and invariably upset everyone they know because they can’t seem to deal with it all, volunteers who are so hopeless they just laugh, and then volunteers who are in such denial they drink as much as possible to forget they will have to at some point leave this utopia that pays them, feeds them, houses them, and provides them with a ‘job’ on a daily basis. The mental state around here is a fine equilibrium of euphoria and anguish. Blogging has taken a backseat, and I hope you understand why.

The quick and dirty breakdown of the last six months:

-Went to America (yay!) where I saw my best friend married and then become pregnant. And got tattoos!
-Had impetigo, staph, the flu, and a cyst excised from my palette. Oh, and crushed my big toe and toe joint on a car ride. Karma is a bitch.
-Re-planted mangroves in the wilderness area near the Gambia (see blog post from Sept. 2010).
-Had another PCV and fellow grad student visit me for a week.
-Turned 25 (no quarter life crisis yet).
-My village sister had a healthy baby boy, and my other sister is about 5 months along.
-Dressed up as a Wonka Bar and Golden Ticket for Halloween.
-Became a regional coordinator and the Kaolack transit house Manager.(Do your dishes!!!)
-Said goodbye to 6 friends, and welcomed 18 new PCV’s to the region.
-Celebrated World AIDS Day and demonstrated how to use condoms to villagers ages 11-62. Gave out over 300 condoms to teenage boys.
-Witnessed 2 births, and assisted with 1.

I can’t possibly describe every thing I have been involved in, mainly because I just can’t remember. At this point, I am focusing on trying to feasibly complete the proejcts that have either been in motioin for a while, or I have decided to participate in at the last minute, but are certain to be complete before I leave.

I am going to launch into shameless self promotion for the biggest most awesome project ever. The Senegal Race For Education.
Every year the volunteers choose 6 teenage girls from their villages or road towns to provide scholarships for the year, as well as money to school supplies, and participate in after school activities. In Senegal, girls enrollment in school is twice as low as boys, and their education typically lasts only up until the point of menstruation, when they are expected to marry and reproduce. I myself have seen a sister drop out of school at 13 to become married and pregnant. The best way to keep girls from early marriage, abuse, early pregnancy, and early death, is to keep them in school. The Girl Effect organization has this video that displays exactly how this works:

Each year we intend to give as many scholarships as possible (each at 60 dollars each); last year, after months of planning and promising to get girls their money, we did not have enough. Partly because our donations from home were so low, and partly because the Peace Corps budget has been cut. It left the volunteers to pay out of pocket, or revoke the scholarships. We refuse to let this happen this year, and so the RACE FOR EDUCATION is a marathon to draw in sponsorship money for the scholarship program. I am totally running it, and looking for sponsors from home town running companys, money for prizes, Gatorade for the runners, power bars, anything. It would be really awesome if we could get Nike involved somehow, since I know they already sponsor stuff like this.

So, don’t let the girls down! Ask everyone you know, to either donate, or send packages for the race. Please contact any business interested in sponsoring this project! I need your help, the girls are counting on it.


Work as Work Goes

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

                "You don't lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by  
                                going to that  place and making a case"- Ken Kesey

Another day, another dollar. Or in my case, another day, no dollars. As I am writing this, many of my fellow friends (and foes I am sure) are recovering from the various exploits of the Oregon Country Fair. As much a place in counterculture history as in my own, the fair marks the passing of another year, but lso a long tradition that was spearheaded by Kesey and his counterculture crew in the 1960's. Being in the Peace Corps used to be a part of that counterculture, and as it becomes more mainstream (and celebrates it's 50th year), it is apparent that we still  oppose most mainstream ideas of what a job really is...at least enough so that we can ignore the societal constraints put on recent  college grads for 2+ years. No longer is the Peace Corps family full of hippies or draft dodgers or bleeding heart activists who need to disappear off the map for a few years... right? Ok, so most of us fall left-of center, but we have more than our political views in common, but a passion and tenacity that seems to be born into the very thread of the Millenial Generation. 
If Ken Kesey were here today (RIP), he might be appalled by the shambled state of politics, Conservative attacks on women's health, and budget cuts for our international aid programs, but he would be proud that my generation is willing to go, and lead not by prose, but by example. So, here I am in Senegal, making my case.

My blogging has been thin of late, mostly because I have felt that what I had been up to was neither interesting nor extraordinary....but I have come to realize that is just my altered lens. What we do everyday, is indeed, rather un-ordinary, just by virtue of being here. It is also just my job, and few people in the US would blog about their every day job, because after a while all seems commonplace.
So my job over the last few months in brief:

Health Hut Murals: A productive way to educate a large number of people with limited resources over a long time. 

Baby Weighings: Monthly little gems....still no pictures, and I terrify the kids; the moms get a chart and bit of wisdom on taking care of their little ones! No pics from my weighing's yet, since I typically don't have any help.

Malaria boot camp and Neem Lotion tournee: Rainy season is here, so that means a spike in Malaria cases. I am working with a large organization, JHU, and other vols on prevention tactics. We did a large tournee to teach people about making Neem Lotion, a cream made of local ingredients to ward off mosquito bites.
Doing an art demo and contest 

cooking the leaves 

Women dancing at the bed net demo for Boot Camp

West Africa Boot Camp participants

Moringa Propagation Tournee: 7 days and about 24 villages in Kaolack were versed on the awesome properties of this nutritional powerouse plant. For this first phase we dug beds and displayed various ag techniques to amend the soil. Phase 2 comes in September when we will be going back out to do nutrition lessons with porridge and dried powder!

In the middle of it all, showing women and kids how to add amendments

Double Digging

Teaching about proper height for leaf propagation 

So that's about it for now. I will keep you posted on any new activities and pics of the new wall being built at my health hut!

The New Normal- A Little Life Reflection

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What is normal anyway?

Every day, I am surrounded by things people back home , and most places  in the developed world for that matter, would consider, well,  abnormal.  Riding donkey carts, sweeping dirt, and pooping in a hole are not activities, before coming here I would have regularly subjected too. I just came back from the most amazing trip in Morocco, where I loved the food, cleanliness and culture,  where most of the country would seem like a shock to westerners,  things were much better than here. 

People go on vacation to relax and see new sights, but as one friend of mine pointed out, I went on vacation to experience ‘anything but here’ and exhaust myself physically.  Hiking Mt. Toubkal was one of the best things I have done in the last few years, and even though I was not on the trip alone, I had copious hours of silence and scenery to think about how ‘normal’ all this has become. While being here and living the way I do is tiring, it seems that places that are more developed are even more tiring. 

Imlil Valley


On the trail

But just ask quick as it has come, this will all disappear. Soon, I will no longer be a Peace Corps volunteer, and one day, Senegal will have good roads, educated citizens, and long lifespans; compared to most in Africa, they are well on their way already. I spend every last ounce of my energy, essentially, hoping that one day, someone won’t have a job like mine to do, and if they do, it won’t be some overeducated white person doing it, but another African wanting to serve.
Yet, looking at my range of decidedly abnormal activities, I know that living a life outside of this new norm is not something I want. While real aid workers are much better paid living in better circumstances, they still choose to go to the worst  places on earth, and see the best. They work hard to eradicate the need for the very reasons of which their positions were created (in most cases).  Judging by the barrage of emails about jobs and fellowships, putting oneself out of business is good business.

Celebrating the summit, 4,900 Meters
I’ve never been an average Joe, and choosing to live this life, reassures me that I will never have to be.

"If I could walk 500 hundred miles, then I could walk 500 more"

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

DONATE HERE (before you read please please donate to my library project).

So, I did it. 1 calender year. 365 days. 52 weeks.
While I haven't been an officially sworn in Peace Corps volunteer for 1 year (that happens in May),  I have been living here in Senegal for a year.

 I remember how tough the first few months of being here were for me, but I also now that I don't have to do it again (hurray). Which doesn't mean that there will be fewer stumbling blocks, just my ability to take what comes with greater stride. I can now predict what will happen in the future, because I have been here before! I know what the weather will be like in the next coming months (hot, hott, and hotter). I know that a new group of Trainees are in Washington at this very moment waiting to arrive. I know that the work load will be greater, and time will go faster. I know that starting August 1st, my life will be consumed with fasting and reading. Then the rains will come. Before I know it, I will have to start planning for my life AFTER Peace Corps. This year felt like an insurmountable mountain to climb before reaching the peak, and in the next few weeks, I will begin my descent. Some of my favorite people will be leaving to head off on their new adventures: Grad school, jobs, and travelling.

While hitting this milestone is important as a PCV, it is also the time when you get that feeling that you are tightening the reigns on your projects, and the ability to actually 'do work' is now made easier. But also, knowing exactly how to plan that work time around the American holiday celebrations, and large regional projects that now fall upon the year-in people to organize and run.  I also feel much less guilty about having fun... See the end of the post about the West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament.

And about that work, which is moving along swimmingly thank you for asking. I had my first Health Committee meeting. The members have committed both money and time to improving my health facility. Tomorrow I will be collecting the first moneys for a new fence. They are starting the search for a new volunteer to help handle the work load. The people who work there now, will start bi-monthly trainings with the NGO World Vision this month. And finally, the long talked about mural series, will also begin this month at their request.
I am helping at with the local bed-net distributions by organizing an educational series to go along with it. We travel to weekly markets and talk about ways to not only take care of your nets, but other effective ways to protect against malaria (neem lotion, environmental controls). I will hopefully do follow-ups to these tournees in August around the rainy season, and complete adherence surveys.

I recently returned from a reproductive health training series for middle schoolers, arranged by another volunteer, Stephanie Schumsky. I plan on replicating this in my village middle school, on a smaller scale.

I am sure there are many more things I can talk about, but will have to wait until next time. Enjoy my lagniappe about WAIST 2011. And don't forget to donate!!
"Yearly, held in Dakar, Senegal, is the West African Invitation Softball Tournament (WAIST). Included in the tourney for 2011 were PCV's from Mali, Cape Verde, the closed Mauritania program, Niger evacuee's, The Gambia, and one or two stragglers from other West African countries (Guinea, Burkina Faso, etc). We were not only pitted against each other by region and country, but against teams from the American Embassy league, Missionary organizations, and other NGO's working here in Senegal. Historically, organizations have uniforms for their teams, but leave it to the Senegal volunteers to take it to a whole new level. Featured from our regions were: cowboys, cops and robbers, liederhosen,  space-core, and the 52 ballerinas from my region in Kaolack.

The festivities encompassed 4 days of talent shows, pool parties, and good ole' fashioned American fun (BBQ hot dogs and pulled pork were featured foods). Volunteers usually stay in the homes of foreign service workers while participating in WAIST, which adds that extra touch of being back home (hot showers, home-cooked foods, laundry facilities, etc.).
The U.S. Marine Corps even hosted a date auction where PCV's and Military men were sold off to the highest bidder to help fund the Gender and Development scholarship program in Senegal run by the Peace Corps organization SeneGAD.

Fun-times had, and utterly exhausted, Volunteers returned to their usual lives, just awaiting February to come next year, for another round of American good times.  Oh and don't forget all that softball playing!!"

Across the Atlantic and Back Again

Monday, January 24, 2011

“All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return”
Homer, The Odyssey

When I left Senegal, I tried hard to leave behind my frustrations and annoyances, in order to truly enjoy my time at home. However, it seems that such feelings, after being built up for the previous nine months, were an awful lot to leave behind, and inevitably, some came along. I did all of the things in America that I wanted to do. I ate huge portions of food of every variety and all the fresh fruit and veggies you could imagine. I drank vintage wine and micro-brewed beer. I went to the grocery store, and shopping mall, all in the same day by way of car. I spent the holidays surrounded by close friends and all my family, drinking cocoa in a rustic log cabin. Like Homer in The Odyssey, I was eating the sweet lotus, and rarely thought about return. Yet, I did return. No matter how much I justified my anger with my community, frustrations, and otherwise bad experiences...there is a family here for me too. A group of mostly 20-somethings feeling exactly the way I do most of the time, but pressing onward; a family of Senegalese relying on me to make small changes in their way of life today, so they might lead better lives in the future.
While in America, I knew all along I had made the right decision coming to the Peace Corps, and while it is never what anyone expects it will be, it is a time to grow as a person if nothing else. I often fooled myself into believing that I did not subscribe to the American brand of complacency; I bought local, rode my bike, used Eco-friendly products, and bought alternative fiber clothes. But, I still took for granted how incredibly easy my life was...and how floating along, eating the lotus blossoms, gave little thought for anything else. Half of me did not want to get back on the plane, but the other half knew if I didn't, it might mean never leaving; falling back into sweet complacency.
Now that I have been home, I can see my mission here with fresher eyes, washed of the expectations I had in the beginning. I will continue to do whatever it is I am willing and able, but also take steps to be remain happy and sane...getting out of my village if things are bothering me, working more on regional projects, spending more down time with my host family, and not pressuring people into work....follow the West African time-line, not my American one.

Thankfully, Spring is an incredibly busy time for PCV's, and I am really happy that I have things to do right away. My personal projects in village are still slow, but coming along. I have taken on the role of the annoying white person at any meeting, NGO, or health facility I can get in too...I want to make myself more visible in the community at large, and also as someone who will push to make changes. So far, just simply putting myself out there, and caring less about what some Senegalese may think about me showing up everywhere, has paid off. There are a couple major projects in motion, and I will blog about them as they happen. I am also focusing my energy more into training other volunteers by way of Peace Corps connections. The end of the week, I am working with an organization, TOSTAN, to do a basic training on personal health and living in Senegal for their short-term (6 month volunteers).
Also, as a project with Books for Africa, I am creating a school library in my village. The books have to come in a standard shipping container size, and we need money to get them here! Bring 500 books to my village and thousands more to others in Senegal: see Link below!

Gobble Gobble!!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Well, despite my defeated voice in my previous blog post, many good things have happened recently, not the least being Thanksgiving!! 
In a time and a place where I often forget how lucky I am ...and who I have to be thankful for, this day was with my new Peace Corps family in body,  but with my American families (both East and West Coast alike) in spirit. 
A few quick "thanks":
 My parents, first and foremost, for supporting me the whole way in the crazy adventure I have called life for the last 24 years. 
 The endless care packages, cards, and letters from friends and family while being here.

And now, a photo Ode to Turkey Day!
The Band

Jessica dunking her fried turk

Playing the Uke!



Turkey pikins


Green Bean casserole

Mac n Cheese

Mashed potatoes


Corn Bread

more veggies

Cran sauce



Fried Turkey

After the meal (my friend Mika)

The month I stopped sweating the small stuff

Friday, November 26, 2010

In the last couple weeks, it has cooled off considerably in my village. At night it gets down in the sixties, and I literally freeze. In the day time it still gets hot, but not like I am used to and on most days I don‘t even break a sweat(although as someone informed me it still gets up into the mid-90‘s everyday)….think New Mexico in late Spring…very arid. As someone who prefers a bit of humidity, the sudden change has wreaked some havoc on my body (super dry skin, cracking lips, a 3 week long cold), but on the good side, the mold in my hut has cleared out, and the mosquitos (most of them) are gone!!

Every new month continues to bring new challenges, and like the months past, I continue to question the motivation of my community, but now also my own motivation. One of my Senegalese “ colleagues” from Peace Corps came to my site to sit down and talk to the leaders about my plan for the community. It also served as a forum for them to express any grievances or amendments they might have to my proposed work plan.  It was helpful in the sense that my community heard from someone in a position of power at PC what exactly I was supposed too do, and would be doing. At the same time, I felt incredibly embarrassed that I had so little to actually show for the last 6 months I have been living here. As much as Peace Corps pushes the intangible experiences, they tend to look more upon physical changes in the community as indicators of your work…I have painted no murals and worked little with the school since my failed school garden; mainly because people did not express interest/motivation for those things. But, now I am feeling pressured to do those things, even if I do not think it is important or a need of the community.
In situations like this, I find myself bowing down to the beaurocracy, because if I do those projects that are looked upon favorably, I have a better chance of positive job recommendations, and a better chance of the administration looking on me as a better volunteer. So then, why am I here?  Because I want to help people, or because I want to help myself…I think any volunteer would tell you both. It still leaves an uneasy feeling in my stomach that I could be letting my community down, or the PC down, or myself down depending upon how I choose to live out this experience; which as of now has 16 months remaining in it.

I decided all of my time here is compromise, and that doesn’t just mean everyone else compromises so I get what I want. I did a mural at the health hut; there is proof that art is therapeutic, right? In this, I have discovered, nay confirmed, something I already new about myself: I am an organizer. I want to be the person at the top organizing, planning, and researching programs for other people to execute at a lower level…I lack a lot of the patience to do small scale projects. One day I will be a great boss, but in order to be at the top, you have to start somewhere, usually at the bottom. In this sense, Peace Corps is the first 2 years of my working career, where I can be on the bottom with an immense amount of freedom. I know where I want to be when I turn 30, and this experience is just the beginning of what I hope is a long career (having just celebrated my 24th birthday this is something I was thinking about). And at 24, I feel like I have so many choices; more choices than my family has in Senegal, more choices than my grandmother, and even my mother, had when they were my age.  I am not married (with no prospects here to the dismay of many Senegalese men), no kids (to the dismay of Senegalese women), and no heavy financial burdens (like a house or car payment)…I could literally do whatever it is I wanted, a powerful motivator for me to provide opportunities for others; even as small as helping a girl delay pregnancy a year so she can finish middle school by giving out condoms. So, while I might question the motivations of myself and my community, one thing is clear that I can do: be an example of a woman who has chosen this life over others, while creating small opportunities so that others might have a choice too.

In addition to all this woeful reflection, another Senegalese Holiday has broached upon us. Tabaski; in Arabic “Eid al Adha”عيد الأضحى‎ 
My sisters and I in our traditional whites
In tradition, the celebration is an "important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness ofAbraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Isma'il) as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a ram to sacrifice instead.[1] The meat is divided into three parts to be distributed to others. The family retains one third of the share, another third is given to relatives, friends and neighbors, and the other third is given to the poor & needy." However, as with many Koranic events, the Senegalese interpretation is simply 
about food and family. My Tabaski was really fun actually. We spent the day before in preperation mode, celaning the compound buying the supplies, etc. In an effort to really embrace the holiday, I wore clothes that matched the other 15 women in the compounds around us. Quite the site given the fabric was polka dotted. My measurements weren't taken before the holiday, ad so the clothes were huge, but I am getting them fixed. No one seemed to care.

I know I look ridiculous, don't hate
Skinning the sheep
The day itself was absolutely exhausting. We killed 3 sheep and 1 goat at around 10 am. There was a lot of tea drank, and we fried up huge meat parts and ate with mustard before our lunch even began. Then our neighbors came over and we ate lunch. Then everyone had sodas. Then we all showered and rested a bit before eating another snack. Right before night fell, we changed into other clothes, and started off visiting neighbors and sitting around with the family. Then we ate again...twice. 
Frying up the rib and shank portions with mustard
I ate so much sheep that day.  As is typical, we all stayed up late drinking tea. The next day a similar festivity  ensued, and the day following. The last day we ate the goat and drank yogurt drinks all day. So for 4 days, we celebrated. On the 5th day, things went more back to normal, but we still were eating the meat (which by this time had been sitting in heat without refrigeration for 5 days). My stomach was glad when it was over. The best and worse part about it all was the lack of work. I got to relax, but it was impossible to accomplish anything at all. 
See pics below!

My sister Rhamma and I

Our lunch...onion sauce ad sheep

Posing for my sister in my second clothing change

My sister Fatu and her cousin in their whites

Sophie and me

The goat head...which we also ate