Reflections


 Just “See ya later.”

Swear-In Ceremony – April 25, 2009

As more than half of my training group (stage) will have left country by the end of the month, this post is in honor of them. “Lame Stage” my face, these people are among my most favorite in country. As tough as it is to delete their names from my phone, I lessen my sorrows with the knowledge that I will run in to all of them again some day. (Oh awww.)

Close of Service Conference – February 24, 2011

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Dear Mr. Stein,

I would like to thank you for your column.  If you’re bored, allow me to elaborate. If, as I assume, you are not, please skip to the last paragraph.

I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural (“rural” meaning accessible by bike or foot, no running water, no iPads) Senegal for the past two years, and a TIME reader for significantly more.  I have to confess though, that it took almost my entire two years here to read your column.

Popular conceptions of the Peace Corps has most Americans viewing us in two camps: 1) as starry-eyed, young, dread-locked and somehow always slightly dirty, Chaco-wearing hippies, who sit in structures made of mud, engulfed in a cloud of ganja with a gaggle of locals, (ok, some of that is true); or 2) ultra-motivated, endlessly selfless depictions of what “young people today” need to be, who bound off into the bowels of the world engorged with the spirit of the American Dream, igniting the fires of freedom amongst the Starbucks-deprived masses, (this, most often, the view held by PCVs’ moms and dads).

I’ll let you in on a secret though: while we do indeed dabble in malaria prevention efforts, work twelve-hour days in orphanages, facilitate the set up of national parks, manage co-ops, and teach high school chemistry classes in local dialects, the a lot of the time we’re bored shitless.  (Lie.  Not shitless, amoebas are a problem.)  Yes, the lives of the starry-eyed in the developing world can be surprisingly monotonous and lonely.

So much so, that we begin acquiring new habits – some unthinkable to us before our Peace Corps lives.  We neurotically complete Sudoku puzzles.  We hand-sew entire outfits.  We read early-90s romance novels.  We become bi-weekendly raging alcoholics.  We listen to the World Report on BBC for eight and a half hours because it’s the only radio station that speaks to us in English.  And 22 months into our service when we think we’ve exhausted all available reading material in our huts, we read Joel Stein’s column.

During my pre-PC era, I religiously speed-read TIME, pausing only to actually read Verbatim, the “your world this week” bit, and other relative (read: current event, political blah blah blah) articles, and completely skipped the second-to-last page.  I mean, it’s the second-to-last page for a reason, right?  Surely nothing that great can be on it…. flip flip flip Blackberry BEEP, onto the next affair in the young twenty-somethings day.

But now!  Having fallen victim to any accessible medium of English-language entertainment (i.e. your column), I have to say, Mr. Stein, you’re freaking hilarious.  No really, I love your column.  I bet I’ll even love it when back in America.  The three I’ve read so far have motivated me to dig through the dusty stacks of spider-ridden care-package periodicals in our regional transit house, just to flip directly the second-to-last page in hopes of seeing “Stein” across the top (no offense “Gibbs”).

So, thank you, Mr. Stein.  Though idle hours may have been the initial motivation, your wit will keep me reading until TIME damns you to name the Uncoolest Person of the Year from the electronic second-to-last pages of a blog.

Regards from your newest enthusiast,
Amanda Wybolt

Re: Fan mail

Thanks so much. I am hugely popular amongst the incredibly bored.

It’s your job to help people who need it. It’s my job to entertain people who help people who need it for 5 minutes every other week. I’m going God’s work.

Joel

Life in the Peace Corps community relentlessly puts PCVs in interesting social situations. One that always amuses me is that of location-relations.  When settling into our new PC ways of life, volunteers quickly realize that it does not matter that during your three months of pre-service training your best friend was so-and-so, because now that you’re all installing into your villages, so-and-so lives 15 hours away from you via an impressively shitty vehicle and can communicate only through texting due to his/her spotty resseau (AfriFrench for cell service).  See those two people you normally would have never spoken to and maybe even avoided these past few months?  They’re now your family, as they are your site neighbors. Better find a way to be friends, because if you’re ever too sick to move or having some sort of mental meltdown, they’re your most accessible form of familiar support. Like it or not… well, you’d better learn to like it.

Kelly and her puppy Kindi during one of her stops by Fode Bayo

Enter the formation of odd-couples the country over. Take me for example. My neighbors? The one who lives 5k away, Kelly – she and I are not people who would normally gravitate towards each other. In social settings Kelly and I are not the same flavor of crazy, and since in PC you almost always only meet other volunteers in social settings, I feel as if Kelly and I would never have crossed paths, (we’ve discussed this, she agrees). Now, as Kelly and my site-mate relations have been forced upon us for over a year, I love her. Kelly is imperative to my happiness in Team Dabo land (“Team Dabo” is what we’ve come to call the villages that exist around my road-town as their social center). Now, when I don’t see or talk to Kelly for about a week, I start to get ancy. What is she doing? What if something new happened in her life that I don’t know about? She didn’t tell me her host moms’ funny comment of the day today! On top of that, I have yet to tell Kelly of my latest PC middle school romance account! Cue texting frenzy. The first time I visited Kelly in her village, I was back en route to the FB in twenty minutes. Now when we pop by each other’s sites “just to say hi,” visits rarely end within a two-hour time frame. Her resseau is as crummy as mine – I foresee separation anxiety when I move to Dakar in May.

My other neighbor?  When I first met Dave, my initial reaction was, “Who the hell does this kid think he is?” I was immersed in a lovey-reunion with some stage-mates that I hadn’t seen in months and he bounded into our circle, loud and talking over conversation with something none of us cared about (I know this is rich coming from the queen of tact and quiet). Needless to say, Dave annoyed me. And he knew it too. “Amanda Wybolt hates me,” was a phrase that got back to me a few times as Dave told many of our mutual friends at the annual Health/Environmental Education Volunteer Summit. (Yes, PC social circles exist on a similar plane to those of 7th grade.)

I didn’t hate Dave. I was just uneasy about how to approach our situation. A situation that, normally in the “real world” (as we often refer to existence outside of PC land), I would have just avoided Davie due to initial social mis-blend. But as the PC powers at be decided that we would be friends, we bumbled through our first few months together. It was the whole, he-knew-that-I-knew and I-knew-that-he-knew-that-I-knew but we’re both going to avoid it altogether type situation. So, we existed with a cloak of cordiality around us, while I was always half on the lookout for a good moment to have a “talk” with him about “us.” (Does this feel like high school to you yet?)

Fact of the matter was that Dave, love him or not, was part of my PC family, and I knew after the few site emergencies I’d had before Dave’s arrival, how important it was to keep your volunteer-family relationships working well.

As time moved on in the PC world, ill and awkward feelings between Dave and I dissipated. Short of the long is that Dave has also become an integral and enjoyable part of my PC life. He’s my road-town rock. Luumo (weekly traveling market near my road town) afternoons now pass enjoyably under the 121 degree sun as Dave and I chatter about books, the news, work, and of course PC social circles and snafus. (It’s almost impossible when volunteers are together to not talk about other volunteers. I mean, there are only 200 of us in country. Village stories do eventually all sound the same.) Dave and I never ended up having the “talk,” (indeed if Dave ever reads this it’ll be the most forward and public reference to our awkwardness we’ve ever exchanged… er, “Hi Dave!”), but now I really don’t think we need to. Truth be told, I could have gotten on through my two years without a friend in my road town, likewise Dave most definitely does not need me to function well in his PC life, but there is something that we add to each other’s time here, and I am genuinely happy to have Dave’s company and support in my PC life.

Where is this all coming from? In its initial draft-stages, buzzing around in my mind while biking around Kolda, this blog post was actually supposed to be about the Kolda Donkey Rally, not Amanda’s reflections on the PC social circles. I’ll try to re-trace the path my thinking took, (WARNING: uncharted and chaotic territory).

The nights before I joined the donkey crew, I was receiving texts from Kelly (who was already participating in the Donkey Rally) containing wild and hilarious ideas that she and other volunteers had come up with for the Cinco de Mayo party we’re hosting in Kolda. (Veterans of my blog will be familiar with the fact that each region of Senegal traditionally hosts a party for volunteers country-wide, though Kolda has lacked its own fête until recently. We’ve agreed on Cinco de Mayo and I’m head of the committee to make it happen.) “Can Mike, Charlene and I be in charge of drinks?  We want to mix Fosters Clarks in baggies to have multi-colored beverages!” and “WE NEED A GIGANTIC TWISTER BOARD!!” were some messages I received. Amidst laughing (and agreeing with) the ideas, I grew increasingly eager to join the rally. Clearly, every night after trotting (or peddling) along in the hotass sun and talking to anyone they came upon about Moringa, the donkey ralliers spent the evenings unwinding in a clutter of laughter and random discussion until they all fell asleep. I was excited to take up with the crew.

I was excited to join not just because the Moringa Donkey Rally was a Kolda region-wide event and from a work perspective I wanted to attend; not just because the idea of riding donkeys over 100k with nine other toubabs was too much of a hilariously odd-ball idea for me to resist being a part of; I was excited to join because I genuinely enjoy the company of all the volunteers in Kolda and was excited to spend a few days with everyone.

Getting ready to join the crew this past Saturday, my anticipation got me thinking: How may other regions feel this way about each other? I’ve always loved Kolda because due to its location, we’re isolated from administrative support more than most regions in country and therefore rely on each other for everything. We always joke about how much Kolda is a family more so than any other region, but it’s true. In recognizing my enthusiasm to spend 72 sweaty, sleeping-on-the-ground, slightly dehydrated and heat-exhausted hours with the same nine volunteers, I felt lucky to be among such company.

Corny, corny, corny, I know give me a break I’m bound to get a bit reflective and mushy as my final six weeks in Kolda tick by. Everyone says one of the best and worst things about PC life is how much time we have to think. Agreed, but still – my warm-fuzzy hours of Kolda reflection have led me to be immeasurably thankful to have lived in Kolda, especially among the volunteers that I have for the past two years. No matter how amazing the FB is, without the good times I’ve had among the Kalabandits (what we call ourselves – we have shirts in addition to our Christmas card) I am well aware that I would not have made it through these past two years a quarter bit as sane as I have.

Curtiss, Geoff, Cara and Martin unwinding the last afternoon of the rally

It’s not just that the Kolda kids are fun either. They are, but it’s more than that. I’ll explain via a story. My first afternoon with the Donkey Rally, I helped (read: held visuals since the causeries was in Pulaar) with a causerie led by my friend Geoff. During the causerie, the doctor who works at the health post in my road town sat in on half of the talk and in the middle of it all, interrupted to hand out Plumpy Nut to all the attending mothers.  Now, Plumpy Nut is great – nutritious and fantastic for malnourished kids for sure, but being that the point of our Moringa causerie was to show people that one of the best tools for fighting malnutrition is in their very backyards in the form of the Moringa tree, the doctor handing out Plumpy Nut didn’t gel too well with the message of our causerie. The doctor passed out the Plumpy Nut while Geoff’s counterpart talked about the vitamins in Moringa and Geoff’s face darkened. “We’ll talk about Plumpy Nut later,” he mumbled to me during a visual-aid change.

After the causerie, while all ten of the attending volunteers for the Dabo leg of the rally sat around chatting, Geoff discussed the negative aspects surrounding Plumpy Nut and its distribution. Listening to Geoff spew was one of the many moments over my two years in country that I found myself amused and impressed by my PCV company. As fatigued, sun-burned and hungry Geoff was, his arguments were well sorted enough to be sent back to UNICEF before they planned the logistics for their next Plumpy Nut distribution.

I don’t mean to come across sounding so surprised that my PCV company is clever. I didn’t assume that the PCVs I would come in contact with during my time here would be dumb. I would be lying though, if I were to say that I didn’t assume there would be a lot of the crunchy hippie PC stereotypes from the 60s and 70s mulling about. I can now tell you that while I have met a few of those, most of the PCVs I’ve become very fond of here are more on the critical, sharp, up-to-date, brilliant, creative side of the spectrum. They’re smart and resourceful. And they’ve left their two years here to do incredible things such as work for the ICRC, attend prestigious international programs at universities in Geneva and New Zealand, at Carnegie Mellon, Columbia and Yale. They’ve invented sustainable technologies used by volunteers the country-over. And amidst piles of Senegalese burgers stuffed with friend and bottles of Flag (the local brew), they’ve embarked on debates ranging from not just development but also international politics, policy-making, human rights, and philosophy.

So to bring it back, Kolda volunteers are not just fun. Peace Corps volunteers are not just fun. They’re smart. As I meet PCVs around Senegal (as small as our PC social world is, I still feel like I am always meeting new PCVs), I’m continuously impressed as some of  their intelligence and clarity of view pierces through their crazy personalities and Senegalese-grown quirks. Being in the company of people like this makes me excited to see the organizations and initiatives that they will one day run. Hokey as it may sound, they really are people who will change the world.

How does this all relate back to the Donkey Rally? Well, the Donkey Rally, regardless of whether it was the best malnutrition intervention we’ve ever come up with or not, is a perfect example of a crazy idea that grew into a creative way to get people to focus on a big problem in Kolda.

It is an example of one of the things that is invigorating about working with people in the PC community. While most jobs pride their employees on how much they can improve the status-quo, here, imagination is embraced and manipulated into legitimate development interventions. Ingenuity is the name of the game, and it’s a game that’s re-carving levels of wellness on both teams.

Sargent Shriver on the cover of TIME in 1963

I’m currently sifting through Sargent Shriver’s biography. Not to (again) get cliché, but it’s a really inspiring read.  Shriver was a tornado of creativity and a fascinating leader. As I read about him, it became clear how much his geniusly chaotic methods of problem solving laid the framwork for how the Peace Corps would operate. Better yet, they’re still alive in the ways the organization runs today. Similarly striking is how much Shriver’s methods are embodied in many of the PCVs I’ve met (notably though unbeknownst to most of them). To illustrate directly from the book: “the [Peace Corps] under Shriver’s direction never lost the anything-is-possible creative anarchy – a mixture of idealism, naiveté, and brilliance that had characterized it from the beginning. The early Peace Corps didn’t cut red tape so much as shred it.” (Sarge, Stossel, p 211) Reading that sentence was a compelling moment for me, as it is a pretty similar description of most successful PCVs I know.

What I noticed in reading about Shriver and the founding seeds of the PC is what I love recognizing in the PCV community. I honestly didn’t think when I entered the PC that I would come out as one of the PC’s (what I always viewed as clichéd) spokes people/advocates, but I can’t help it. Some of the people I’ve had the opportunity and enjoyment to work with in this organize just stun and inspire the hell out of me.

When Chris started telling me about the malaria initiative he wanted me to extend to work with, the selling point (though he didn’t know it at the time) came days after his initial idea drop. What really got me interested about possibly spending a year on this project was when he told me I’d be handling PCV communications in the 25 target countries involved in the initiative. Immediately my attention was grabbed. Talking to PCVs in order to  gather their stories, their gripes, their ideas and creative chaos that kept them amused during the day, was the type of work I could immerse myself in immediately. Collecting and re-sharing these such thoughts throughout the PC community is an aspect of my extension position that is similar to what motivated to take over the PC Senegal’s newsletter about 15 months ago (besides enjoying playing with publisher). Often, when talking to vols in country about especially great ideas they had, I wanted to plaster them on the front page of our newsletter to scream: “Your PCV community is brilliant! Read this and take it 40 steps further and who knows what we’ll be able to do.” Now that is more or less one part of what I will be doing working with the malaria initiative, except that ideas will be exchanged over every PC country on the continent. !!! Are you excited too? Because the potential in such an exchange is what will be getting me out of bed every morning in Dakar come this May. That and the fact that they sell mandarins year-round on every other street corner.

And yet… though from a work perspective I am endlessly inspired by my peers and leaders here, I often find myself feeling something missing on a personal level. I’ve met people that I know I will keep in my life for as long as I can, but to make an obvious statement, it’s not the same. I’ve yet to meet anyone here that has struck a chord in the same key as the one in which my closest friends from home virtuoso. Back home, we were not only a family but also deeply tied to each other on a profoundly personal and emotional level.  I read once that you should be worried about your life-state if you can’t name at least five people who would be willing to give blood for you at a moment’s notice, and though there are some PCV friends I’d give blood for in a minute and I know vise versa, the first people that pop to my mind when considering that statement are from my “old life” (pre-PC era).

I realize that going through the turmoils and joys together that made up the past six years in Boston and Chicago inevitably created close relationships due to circumstance yaddayaddayadda, but I suppose what strikes me the most is that gut feeling of a glow you get when you know you’re with people who are your closest friends, and the deep absence of that in my life I’ve felt these past two years. I’ve met a few people in the PC community that I could see a likewise friendship forming, but as I displayed in the beginning of this novel-of-a-post, relationships here are very much limited to our location.  So, be there a few other people in country that I may have gotten close to or not, I never saw them enough to have those relationships really develop. Especially since PCV social environments do not lend much to creating those intimate personal relationships when there are always fifty other PCVs around. This is where I’m reminded of a saying common in the PC community: you’ll never feel so lonely while surrounded by so many people.

I realize that I’m in a small camp with this sentiment. Before I even came to country, PCVs I knew around the world told me that I would meet the best friends of my life and that the most incredible type of people that are in the PC. It’s true – PCVs are a striking specie of human being that I am grateful to live among, but when I heard them back in Boston, I remember the words resonating oddly with me. I spent my four years at university and in the city surrounded by some of the most inspiring and closest friends I’ve ever had – really, that I’ve ever had – and the thought that the 200 people I was about to immerse my life in were going to be “better” than any friend I’d previously made seemed bizarre to me. I assumed that most people who made statements like that had never had friends like I do in their pre-PCV lives; I’ve found this more or less to be true.

Looking at my past two years here and the year I’m about to embark on, part of me aches to go home to them, because wherever they are is very much where I understand my home to be. I cannot articulate this longing – how when I think of them too much my thoughts go numb and fuzzy and sounds seem to blend together. It’s that knot-in-the-stomach, weight-on-your-chest feelings.  How can I be away from such vital friendships for another year? Do I think that these types of friendships will grow in this next year? Part of me does, or wants to, but I don’t know. I recognize too that I’m a bit conservative when it comes to opening up in the ever-shifting social environment that is the Peace Corps. I guess the theme of this last stream of thought is just that, as inspired and awed I am of people here, I yearn for my loves from home so much that sometimes it’s hard to focus.

Still, in the spirit of being motivated and confident in my upcoming job, I’m steadily becoming more at peace with my decision to stay here another year. The student loans won’t get paid off any time soon but my job will not only be changing lives but also will set me up in a far more competitive career-plane than I’m currently in… right? Right. Year three? Le sigh… yes please.

I’m in crunch time.  Little projects and the day to day musings that take place in the life of a health volunteer, those I’m not worried about. That kind of work I do every day, and will continue to do until I leave Fodé Bayo in May. What has my nerves on end is that big food security/gardening/fencing project I’ve been talking about since about a year or more ago –  remember?  (There are two 1 and 2 old blog posts about the beginning and re-beginning of this project.)  If that one doesn’t get off the ground by the new year, it may not happen, and this situation is one of those where I really need to remind myself of my philosophy as a development worker.

I have until the end of the year to know if this project will happen or not, because I have to write a grant for the fencing/food security project and you cannot submit grants without five months in which to complete them. I will be leaving my village in May… so as I said, crunch time.

Seeing this project happen can play out in two situations: me giving my village something versus facilitating something. While I could easily run around and talk to masons, getting prices to complete the grant, I would be doing most of the work and then one day appearing in village with fencing supplies – it would appear as a gift since the village not something they got on their on. I would be, [dundundun] just like (almost) every over aid group that likes to announce that they develop the “3rd world.”  Let’s be honest though: at this point, especially under the time crunch I’m in, this option is extremely tempting. I don’t want to leave my village with this project not happening. All Peace Corps volunteers like to talk about how tangible outcomes are not as important as the sustainable impact (intangible outcomes) we’ll have via things like teaching our village new ideas and methods, and working with them day-in, day-out… but I also cannot name one PCV that isn’t a tad self-conscious about leaving their two years in site without something physically standing for their time. Example, a well. (Ahh ha!  I fall into this category as too.)

The other option then – the one I’ve been trying to follow – is to work with my counterpart and village as they drive the project on Africa time (inch Allah and “tomorrow”): talking to brick-makers, organizing transportation, getting all of the numbers organized has been taking weeks while I know I could muscle my brother into doing it with me in two days. Instead, the beginning buds of this project poked up over a year ago and we’re still sitting around talking about it. Frustrated as I get though, I keep coming back to “us” when trying to find someone to blame.

It’s actually an example of my biggest gripe with development in places like Africa; aid agencies and NGOs, being pressured by donors and the numbers game, rarely talk to village and towns when they move into do a project. They create some sort of “solution” algorithm in their offices to decide (for example) what villages need wells, what areas need schools, and so on, then swoop in one day with all the fixings to get the project done, leaving two weeks later, patting their backs for enriching the lives of the poor, ignorant, helpless villagers.  Usually they don’t even talk to a village beyond telling them what they’re doing. And why would they – villagers (or anyone who is approached by someone saying, “Hey! I want to build this big cool thing for you that you may not be your biggest need but I’ll do all the leg work, so…”) will always say “yes, welcome,” and be thankful.  I’m not saying that schools and wells are not needed – indeed, massive uneducated populations and non-potable water are two of the most prevalent issues in developing countries. My dispute lies in the attitude that this kind of development method breeds among Westerners and the develop-ees; develop-ees believe that they cannot do things for themselves, that they need foreigners to rush in and do things for them, and that if they do need something – if they want something –  to just sit tight because some white man will eventually come and empty his pockets and they won’t have to lift a finger beyond maybe doing some “tribal” drumming to give the foreigner his “African experience;” Westerners think that as long as they are well intended and doing something they think is right (even if it has no back up) that it must be good regardless so whatever let’s just do our project and bounce and think our shit doesn’t stink for the next year.

This is an attitude that Peace Corps Volunteers confront and combat daily.  “You’re white, you have money, give me this.”  It is a mind-blowingly frustrating attitude to face, but let’s think about it – didn’t we as a development community have help to created this attitude in the first place? If so, how much can I justify wanting to punch people in the face when they approach me this way?

I know, I’m on my soapbox, excuse me for getting carried away.  This is something that I feel very passionately about and frequently deliberate over during idle hours.

If you’re interested in the ideas and realities of development along this line of thought, the history of why it’s hasn’t been meeting it’s goals for so long, and so on, I recommend two books: The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly and The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier.  These two books make up my development creed. Another good resource is Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

Anyway, I’ll keep  you updated on how/if the project progresses.  My fever is not 102.3 anymore, so assuming the position of the exasperating “let’s do this let’s do this let’s do this!” person should resume tomorrow.

Me holding one of Jon's iguanas I met while visiting his site in Panama

Among frantic trips to camping stores and wild nights of goodbyes with my friends, I took ten days during my last month in the states to visit my good friend Jonathan, who was at the time a PCV in Panama.   We visited his site (they call them communities there, not villages), attended a traditional Panamanian dance, hung out with some iguanas (he did work with the endangered population there), and hit some awesome beaches.  Ten days flew by, and gave me a good taste of PCV life.  Three weeks before this past Thanksgiving, it was his turn. We had a whirlwind two week trip: being tourists in Dakar, hitting a beach, and most importantly, going to my village for the Tabaski celebration (the biggest holiday of the year by far). He was a big hit in my village; between being able to drum for my ladies while they danced, playing soccer with the local guys, cooking for my moms, bringing soccer shirts for the little (and big) kids, and having a freaky memory for picking up Mandinka wicked fast – I’ll tell ya if he didn’t leave when he did, my village may have sent me home instead of him.

But enough from me.  I’ve invited him to write a few words about his time here to offer you all a change from me and some new perspective on life here. Enjoy!

Riding with Ñamoo by Jonathan Payne

Amanda and I biking the path to her village

I finally got my chance to visit Amanda in November this year, returning the trip she took to see me in Panama, almost 2 years prior.  I had just finished my Peace Corps service (Panama 2008-2010), was happily unemployed and still full of the need to travel.  Coming to Senegal a month after finishing my own Peace Corps service in Panama meant that I still felt mentally and physically prepared for the challenge of traveling in a developing country.  That said, I still knew that I’d be lost without Amanda.  I’m a firm believer now that Peace Corps volunteers make the best tour guides because of all the local knowledge they acquire from their day to day living – so if you were ever on the fence about going to visit Amanda, hopefully this blog will make up your mind.  (Though if you do go, make sure its Amanda that meets you at the airport and not Ñaamo – Amanda’s “evil” twin.)

Amanda met me in Dakar, mercifully at the airport, despite her threats to cut me loose and see how I would fare solo.  We spent a couple days in the capital, shopping in some of the markets, taking in the city, and enjoying the restaurants.  One thing you must know about PC volunteers is that you do not get between them and a decent meal.  Apparently though, not even I could hide my reaction to Amanda killing a tub of ice cream.  Don’t judge though, she gets defensive!  Plenty of other volunteers were in the city, and it was great to swap stories from Panama with them.  Peace Corps volunteers are a special breed of people that are like cheap scotch or Andrew Dice Clay – rough around the edges, and an acquired taste.  Conversations usually involve food, drink, sex, gossip, or “constructive criticism” of the country we are serving in.  Peace Corps volunteers as a general rule, mix a junior high social mentality with diverse backgrounds, developed world views, and passionate opinions.  It’s an interesting combination of hormones, outrageous statements, intense discussions, and a wide range of alcohol usage.  Fortunately for me, the only real differences in talking points were the names and places so I felt right at home with the many new volunteers I met in Senegal.

From my short time in country and from speaking with some fellow volunteers, I came to the conclusion that Senegal, and Dakar in particular, is a tough country to live in.  Culture wise, I heard it described as everything from abrasive to proud – what it was to me was a mix of everything in between.  Given the sheer number of ethnic groups, languages, and sub-cultures, it’s no surprise that each party is quite protective of their individuality.  The mix of languages and dialects across the country made me wonder how clear communication ever really was, and my respect grew daily for volunteers like Amanda, who have to know and speak 4 or more local languages (of course she will say she doesn’t speak any of them well, its extremely impressive to hear her cuss out a taxi driver in 3 dialects he doesn’t know).  Being a predominantly Muslim country means that there are additional cultural integration challenges, especially for women.  I found Senegal similar to Panama in the way people treat you as you travel throughout the country.  Dakar, like Panama City, is much more developed and metropolitan than anywhere else in the country, meaning that you can travel as a “Western tourist” in relative anonymity.  The trade-off however is that you are constantly seen as a walking cash machine, and will be treated as such.  Because Senegalese culture is so in-your-face, this can lead to a never ending battle to get reasonable prices, proper services, and correct information.  Bottom line – spending any time in Dakar is exhausting – even for the volunteers.  Sure it’s nice to enjoy a fancy restaurant and nice life, but after a couple nights the noise, dust, and constant bickering make getting lost in the bush pretty appealing.

[Paragraph omitted, due to possible PC policy overstepping… I’d like to stay in country until I’m ready to leave, so I’ll tell you all about this and more similar adventures after I officially complete my service =) – Amanda]

Maama and I posing with one of the Tabaski lunch bowls

A side-note about food – Rice, or cheb, is a staple wherever you go, which thankfully I never got sick of in Panama.  Millet is something we didn’t have in Panama, and is pretty good for a bowl of sandy-like grains, especially when it hides the actual sand that makes it way into most every dish.  Peanuts and beans make up a lot of the flavors in the sauces, and the stewed meats are nice too.  I’m a big fan of the Senegalese giant-bowl-free-for-all that is their eating style, though apparently even “free for alls” have rules.  The food is simple, but filling, and after eating rice and beans for 2 years, I felt pretty good in my ability to put it away (always a quick way to make friends with the cooks).  Amanda will undoubtedly be happy to hear however, that I did NOT like the leaf sauce I vowed I would.  Pungent mucus is more like it.  And once you have to eat it for days at a time, I can see why she goes crazy for ice cream and cheeseburgers (just a little).  Big time thumbs up to Bissap juice, of which Amanda has already sung the virtues.  This beautiful nectar from hibiscus flowers was the lifeblood of my travels throughout Senegal – cold, sweet, delicious – it really can become the one bright spot in the hours of driving down dusty potholed roads, dealing with stubborn border guards, police checkpoints, and hot, cramped cars.

And speaking about travel – Panama did prepare me for the hours spent on buses and poorly paved (if at all) road systems.  Senegal however, manages to take it to the next level (or down a few levels, depending on how you think about it) in terms of discomfort.  Panama is about the size of South Carolina, Senegal = South Dakota.  You can go border to border in Panama in under 24 hours (not that you would ever need to do that).  To start with, in Senegal, Dakar is far from everything.  The roads are worse, there are more police checkpoints, the cars (old 1970’s Peugeot 504s) breakdown more, and the cheb mommas are large.  Your only hope is to have good travel companions, and a fully charged iPod.  Good luck sleeping.

Back to the trip – soon we headed to Kolda, Amanda’s regional capital.  We hung out for a couple days there, cooked some buffalo wings with the sauce I brought to win over her PCV friends, and made sure I remembered how to ride a bike again.  A short two to three hour bus ride from Kolda is Dabo, and the beginning of the road to Fode Bayo.  Despite Amanda’s concerns about my skills on a bike, we made it with no spills.

Amanda and a bunch of the ladies from her compound all dressed in their Tabaski best

Compared to the rest of the country, Fode Bayo is a special place of friendly caring people and good vibes.  I can see why Amanda has developed such an attachment to her community, and gets annoyed with the rest of the country.  After all the traveling it was amazing to get to the part of the trip that I had most looked forward to.  I still have fond memories of my Panamanian village and after reading Amanda’s blogs, wanted to see her interact with her people first hand.  It wasn’t a disappointment.  Everyone was thrilled to see Ñamoo ride in on her bike, and welcomed me just as warmly.  Despite what Amanda says about my Mandinka, I really never understood a word, and just got lucky repeating the 5 or 6 phrases she had me memorize.  We had planned my visit to coincide with Tabaski, the biggest celebration of the year.  Lucky for me because it meant the food was good and plentiful.  And since it was a holiday, there wasn’t much work, meaning I had plenty of time to hang out with Maama, Amanda’s counterpart, mooch around the cooking fires with the women, and teach the little kids how to call Amanda names in English (“Funny looking!”).  Amanda did make me pull water from the well so I didn’t get too lazy though.  Other activities included soccer, trips to nearby villages, and walks in the bush.  Eating was a major part of our days too, leading up to Tabaski when I had to tap out early from the mountain of food they kept putting in front of us.

Amanda and her ladies during an impromptu dance party

Everyone was so accommodating and eager to help me out, my thanks really go out to them.  From the chief to the little kids, it was a pleasure to spend this holiday with them.  I wore my new traditional outfit proudly, and managed to pull it off probably about as well as a toubab can.  The highlight of it all was definitely the night of Tabaski when the women broke the drums out for a frenzied dance off.  Words really can’t describe it, so I hope Amanda can post the videos for you.  The little drumming I learned in Panama paid off in spades, as I became a guest drummer, and even managed to keep the rhythm while the chief danced.  My own efforts at dancing were met with much laughter, but nothing I didn’t deserve.
We spent 5 days in Fode Bayo before biking back to Kolda, and then took another car the following day back to Dakar.  For all the photos, check out http://picasaweb.google.com/jnthnpayne/Senegal#

I hope you all want to go visit Amanda now, or at least send her packages full of food, music, books, and peanut butter M&Ms – she definitely deserves it.

All in all, it was a very memorable trip with a great and patient guide.  Thank you for not ditching me on the side of the road for making bad jokes.  Thank you for translating what was actually said and not purposely misquoting me.  Seriously, thanks for not letting me feel like such a toubab.  Thank you, Amanda for everything, for sharing the hospitality of your village and letting me be a part of your Peace Corps experience.

As I was flitting around my village last year, talking to every person I could about what they needed and wanted me to do during my two years as a Mandink in Fodé Bayo, one of the most common responses I got from the women in my village was to help them with the rice paddies (called a farroo in mandinka).  Specifically, they needed help with water retention in the farroo.  “Jiyoo man sii faroo-to.” they kept telling me over and over.  “The water doesn’t sit in the Farroo.”

This left me with a bit of a down feeling when I was reading over my survey results that evening.  The longing for aid in my womens’ faces as they asked me help them grow their most-needed crop flowed across my mind as I laid in bed that night.  I was nervous.  Faroos – rice paddies – these were things I knew nothing about.  Beyond that, I was a health volunteer, not an agriculture volunteer – I hadn’t even received training beyond basic seed beds and pepiniere construction.

From my first day in Fodé Bayo through today, my mothers have been the most influential people in my service and biggest supports to my ideas.  But beyond that, they are the only people in my village that are close to really knowing me.  Knowing me to the point where when I sit around the dinner fire, watching them cook that evening’s sauce and pounding onions as my menial help, they can tell within a glance at my face if I’m in a good mood or not – if I’m upset or missing the states or feeling lonely.

No one else in my village can see me the way my village moms can, and the one thing they want my help with more than anything else, I know absolutely nothing about.

I know, I know, I’m getting a bit melodramatic.  I have access to the interwebs, and libraries and tons of sources of knowledge about rice paddies and their cultivation… I really have nothing to complain about as far as ignorance goes, I know.  The thing that gets me though is the specific location of my village and our faroo there; rice paddy research and perfection has happened all over Asia, in Mali, and around India, but in the Sahel?  Not so much.  What if, after all of my research and discussion with those who know better than myself, I try some new techniques in my village’s faroo and they don’t work?  Or worse -they cause a lower yield than the previous year?

Last year around harvest time I wrote a blog post about what rice means to villages in my area; how much it means to spend three back-breaking months working on one field that will grow food that will hopefully be enough to feed you until the next harvest, but rarely ever is.

Ok, I’ll settle down.

One of my village moms leading the way to our faroo. The tools shes carrying are the hand-hoes that we use to till the land.

What I am doing this year, is working with two of my sisters on our own little field in the faroo.  There, we will construct burms, or small barriers made of weeds, dirt, and other organic materials found in and around the faroo.  Once constructed,  these will act as small walls, causing water to stay in among the little burm patches in our rice field, instead of flowing away other lower-lying areas.

This sounds simple, I know, but you must consider the sand of the Sahel before throwing too many judgements my way.  The earth here turns into rock between rainy seasons.  Sure, you many be able to scratch away a few areas of top-dust, (top-dust, not soil), but once you try to hack deeper than 2 inches, you must grab a pick and whack away at the earth as if you were mining in a cave.  Really – the earth here is that dry and strong. Knowing this, it is then easy to understand how the first rains simply roll over the top layers of the ground, only settling to  seep in the areas of low-lying land once they can flow no further.  In creating burms, we will hopefully keep this water that would previously roll on by, in our own little patch of land so  that our rice crop is more plentiful than last year.  Simple, I know, but it’s just step one.

One of my village women hacks away at her future faroo - the tilled land behind her is a resutl of six hours of labor.

Burm construction has yet to begin this year, as we are in the tilling-stage of the land.  If you want to imagine this back-breaking work, than picture this: the sun is only 98 degrees but the humidity is at 99%.  Four acres of land stretch out before you, hardened from nine months of cold and dry weather, waiting to be broken up so that you may attempt to get anything to grow from the land. All you have to plow this land is a simple hand-hoe – a wooden stick about a food long with a wide, flat metal piece shoved into the top end.  Bending over fully from your hims, you swing your primordial tool high above your shoulders and crash it down into the hard earth. Chip. Chip. Chip.  Flakes of black and red earth flick up in your face, as your single blow reaches only three inches deep – not deep enough for you to actually plant anything.  Deep breath, swing high, WHAM, the hoe strikes the earth again.  Five inches.  Pausing, you glance up at the three other women working on their own five-foot wide areas at the same pace as yourself.  In twenty minutes, you will have all moved only ten feet forward.  Good progress, but as you gaze out over the acre of land you must plow, it seems but a wisp of earth in a massive terrain of labor.

That is what I’ve been doing with my moms the past few weeks. If the rains begin to cooperate, we will seed soon.  Thankfully, among seeding, weeding, and harvesting, nothing carries as much pure labor as hoing the land does, but I’ve never seeded before, so I may be speaking too soon.  I keep you updated.  Hopefully burms and a higher rice yeild will fit somewhere in all of this.

Journal Entry

Today, one year ago, I was installed into Fode Bayo in the dead-heat of early afternoon.  A few hours later, the chief of the village died, and three days after that, one of my host moms had a baby girl named Tida.  No such excitement thus far this year, (which I’m ok with).

Having been in Fode Bayo for one year, (and Senegal for 14 months), I’ve decided to make a few lists.

I have not done the following things for the past 12-14 months:

– eaten a burrito

– driven

– smoked a cigar

– drank real coffee

– even seen root beer

– worn high-heels

– used a hair-dryer

Before coming to Senegal/living in Fode Bayo, I didn’t know/had not:

– that a “moon-shadow’ was anything more than a song

– how to carve/eat mangos fresh off of a fall from the nearest tree

– what a baobab tree actually looked like, or that it had fruit

– experienced, not just witnessed, but actually been the direct subject of malicious racism

– that cashews grew from the bottom of fruits on trees – and that the fruits are actually really good

– been in a car (two cars to date) that while moving, had a wheel pop off, followed by everyone in the vehicle sighing like “oh again” and plop down on the side of the road for the driver to quickly bolt it back on

– eaten home-made mayo, unrefrigerated eggs, yogurt enough that it was normal (for my stomach as well)

– that 98% of the goods and services I would need in country I would have to bargain for (FRUSTRATING but a good skill to acquire)

– what millet was, what it tasted like, or that it was about the best damn thing ever if cooked with beans

– the little bissap popsicles sold by ladies on the street corners in grubby little bags would be such and integral part of my sanity here

HURRAH!

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