World Wise Schools

A gem arrived to my mailbox last month, in the form of 18 letters from my seventh grade pen-pal class outside of Boston, MA.  Below are snippets from a few of them, because they are just too great to keep to myself:

“Did you like Boston or did you like Boston.  Did you like Burger King.  Did you like people in Boston because some people don’t like each other in Boston.” – Devon

“I am Mr. Simon’s favorite student.” – Darah

“Will you ever come to our school?  Is it hard to live down there?  My last question is how many people live in Senegal? Bye.” – Jay

“What do you do when you get up?  What kind of breakfast do you eat?  Do you have your own classroom?  Is it busy in the morning?  What do the kids learn at school? How long is there school day?  What do you eat for dinner?  Do kids come and help you?  How long have you lived in that small hut?  When you come back are you going to visit Epiphany and come visit Mr. Raymond?  Do you think you are going to miss the kids?  Will the kids miss you?” – Torin

“I wonder how do you survive and do you have friends you age?  Do you get scared at night?  In Boston it’s very cold, is it hot in Senegal?  How is it living in a little hut?” – Anicia

“My parents are from the Cape Verdean island and when they first came to the United States, they were very confused at all the changes.  How did you feel going to a place so different from the states?  Do you ever get to come back and visit your family and friends? Do you know why Senegal still teaches in French even if it affects the way the students learn?  How long did it take you to get accustom to their way of living!” – Rashelle

“Epiphany [their school] is like a mini white house.  We have good opportunities towards good high schools.  I really want to learn more about Senegal’s economy and their weaknesses.  Well if you get this I hope you reply.” – Davon

“I have been thinking doing all of those good things for the less fortunate must be hard for how much you get paid.  Has it been hard to make peace with the people in Senegal I heard that they are fierce?  I think that what you do should inspire a lot of more people to take care of people.  Do you have a fun time on doing what you do with these people?  If you don’t why do you continue to do it if you do why would you do it?  If you were to ask me if I was to help people I would not do nice stuff for them.”  – Dashon

“When kids drop out of school what are their options?  And about soccer, I’m from Cape Verde which is not too far away from Senegal and the people there love to play soccer too.  I hope to see you one day.”  – Britney

“I noticed in your letter that the number zero had a slash in it like this [0 with a slash].  I was wondering if that is how they write in Senegal?  Do they have different handwriting?  If so, do they have numbers?  If they have different numbers, then how do they do mathe-matics?  Please be sure to write back and answer my questions soon.  Your friend in Boston.” – Shantez

“I kinda wanna do the same thing your when I get to college or end of highschool.  But I wanna do it for a couple of months, cause I know I will miss my family.  Any tip I need to be prepared for?  Do you miss your family?  Are the people over there like your new family?” – Joan

“I would like to thank you for this oppurtunity and learn more about Senegal during this experience.  Is it hot in Senegal and does it ever snow?  Since the French colonized Senegal do they still help them out to his day?” – Janikah

“I figure you do this to help the needy in Africa.  I like what you represent because this shows you care for others I appreciate that shows characteristics.”  – Derrick



Dear Mrs Goodrich’s Kindergarten Class,

Hey everyone! Did you have a nice holiday season?  What did you do for new years?  For Christmas,  a bunch of volunteers and I gatherered in the city of Kolda and celebrated together.   Lots of food, fun and good times.  NO snow though.

I was thinking about the letters I’ve written you this year and realized that I’ve never really explained the Peace Corps to you.

The peace corps is the organization I work for.  It was started in 1961 by US President Kennedy.  Today, Peace Corps volunteers work in over 130 countries all over the world.  When volunteers (like me!) get assigned to a country, they live there for at least two years.  As a peace corps volunteer, you live with, eat the same foods, speak the same language, alive in the same environment, and follow the same cultural norms as your host country family and friends.  As you know, I’ve been living and working in Senegal since March of 2009 and will leave here sometime in May of 2011.

As you may have figured out by now, life in Senegal is pretty different than life in Boston, MA, where I lived before coming here.  For example, in Boston, one of the leaders of the city is the mayor, but in my village the leader is the chief and the Imam (the religious leader of the community). 

Something else that’s different – food!  Not just how it tastes, but also where it comes from.  Where do you buy food in Maine? The food store? The farmers market? The cafeteria?  In my village, we grow all of our food, and when that runs out, we go to a weekly market called luumo.  The luumo consists of a bunch of traveling vendors who sell everything from vegetables to clothes to spoons and pots.

What are the daily sounds you hear living in Mine?  Horns form cars driving by?  People talking to each other? Cell phones ringing and music playing? In my village, I hear animals all the time.  Donkeys, sheep, and goats are the loudest animals – they like to make noise all day and night.  Sometimes it drives me crazy!  But usually I don’t notice day-to-day because I’ve lived here for so long.  When I hear people talking in my village, no one speaks English like the y do in Maine. Here, I hear people speaking Mandinka, Pulaar, French, or Wolof.  I speak Mandinka in my village, but  have learned a little Pulaar, French and Wolof for when I travel.

Sounds a little bit different from daily life in Maine, huh? One of the things I miss the most about living in the east coast are the seasons – warm summers, pretty fall leaves, lots of flowers in spring and snowy winters!  In Senegal, the season mostly change between hot and less hot, (though right now the nights get very chilly), then from rainy to dry.  No fall leaves or snow here!

Anyway, I must run – lots of errands to do today!

Your friend in Senegal,



Dear Mr Simon and Class,

Hey Everyone, Merry Christmas! I’m currently in my village wrapping up some work , but will be heading into Kolda meme to celebrate the holiday with other volunteers soon.  There is a small population of Catholics in Senegal, but most volunteers live in Muslim villages (as I do!), so we like to plan holiday parties for volunteers to come to so we can celebrate together.  This year, volunteers from two regions near where I live will be coming in for the Christmas party… come to think of it, this may be a short letter because I want to get to the good food!

Anyway, things have been really busy lately, except this time I’ve been busy in my village, not traveling around for work.  We’ve been collecting information for this big food security project, and though asking for prices may seem simple, because Senegal is a bargaining culture, it is in fact not.

I have to admit, sometimes living in a place where people bargain for everything is fun, but other times it’s such a headache.  For example, for this project, I need to get prices for a fence we want to put up around our school garden and our health hut.  We called the mason over from a nearby village, showed him the land, and asked how much chain-link fencing is, how much cement and fence supports would be, etc.  The mason looked at me, looked at my villagers that were helping them, then gave us a price that was FOUR TIMES what we knew to be the actual price.  But there is the problem you’re in with bargaining – you know the correct price, the mason knows the correct price, but unless he says out loud that he agrees to that specific price, there’s no deal.  Even if you know, and he knows, and everyone around you knows he’s lying, the mason (or whoever is selling you something) will stick to his bloated price because he thinks eventually he can get you to pay. 

In these situations, people yell and scream and call each other names, but I’ve found that often your biggest bargaining chip is walking away.  Then, usually, the salesmen calls you back, saying something like, “ok ok, for you, my friend, I can give you this price.” This, you both know, is still the wrong price.  Commence again yelling and flailing and so on and so forth.  This can honestly go on for an hour, especially if you really need what the guy’s trying to sell.  The whole thing makes me miss being able to hop in the car and go to the hardware store; even if the hardware store is expensive, at least you know that what you see is what you get, and that prices are not changing because you look like you can pay more. 

Anyway. We did in fact, finally get our prices, so my next step is to type it all up in the form of a grant for the Peace Corps office to review.  If they give me the green light, they’ll fund the project and fence construction will begin.  This grant process usually takes between two to three months.

Why are we doing a  fencing g project anyway? Fencing in my village is commonly made out of bamboo.  While bamboo is indeed strong, it falls apart every year during the intense rains of the rainy season.  If the winds and water don’t knock the fencing down, our cows are very apt at doing so when the starving season is in full swing. (We go through  a starving season from April until harvest from late October through December.)  So, I’m writing a grant to fund chain/metal fencing four our big community garden oat our elementary school and for our nutritionelle demonstration garden at our health hut.  The volunteer who lived in my village two years before me put up fencing in both of these places, but the fencing was bamboo, and had fallen apart by my first rainy season.  Hopefully, with durable, metal fencing, the gardens will be able to run year-round.

I know, it’s not the most thrilling work , but it’s what my village has designated as important and is in fact necessary to continue good health/nutrition information and practices in my village.

With all this talk about money, I’ve included some Senegalese currency in this letter.  The prettiest bill is the 10,000 franc CFA bill, but that’s about $20.00 here, which is more than I can spare!  So, I put in instead: 1,000 (called 1mil), 2,000 (2mil), and some coins.  One 500franc CFA equals about $1.00, so you can figure out what all the money is worth. 

Currency here is called the West African Franc, and all the writing on the bills and coins are in French.  A lot of countries in West Africa use the Franc, but a few do not (like the Gambia). 

Time for me to bike into Kolda.  I hope you all have a wonderful new year and are enjoying the snow.


Mr. Simon’s class is a new class I’m exchanging letters with this year.  They are a 7th grade class outside of Boston.  Below is my second letter to them.

Dear Mr. Simon and Class,

The most comfortable sept places. My friend is peaking out from the least comfortable back row

Hey guys? How’s everything going state-side?  Things are crazy-busy here, as I’ve had to travel all over Senegal the past few months for work.  It’s been cool to see parts of the country I’ve never seen before, like the far north where people live in the desert and the only trees that grow have needles for leaves, but traveling here is also very tiring.  95% of my travel takes place in cars called “sept places,” which is French for “7 seats.”   The cars are basically huge, over-grown station wagons that bumble along roads filled with pot-holes.  It took me 19 hours to get up north last month!  At least after traveling here, traveling in the states will be easy.

We’re entering cold season here, which means nights in the low 60s… freezing!  Seriously, it’s cold when you consider that \our summers (or “hot season” as we call it here) gets up to 136 degrees.  These evenings, I sleep in long pants, socks, long sleeves, a hat, and with 3 blankets on.  It is nice compared to sweating all night in the hot season, but with cold season also comes bed-bugs, so those are no good. Every 3 or 4 nights, I have to pour boiling water all over my bed and sheets and walls around my bed to try and kill them, but I swear, bed bugs NEVER die.  I despise them.

Rice and leaf sauce! Mmmmm

One really nice thing about cold season is that our food is really\good because the harvest from the rainy season is in.  Usually, we eat either millet (which is a grain) or rice with some sort of sauce over it, usually leaf or peanut-based.  Wealthier Senegalese families put oil and lots of vegetables and meant into their food, but since my village is poor, our food is usually just a sauce over rice or millet.  At first, I’ll be honest, it’s not that great, but you get used to it, and believe it or not, eventually even crave leaf sauce!  Weird, I know.  The food starts to run out by April though, so we begin cutting meals and eating smaller portions until the next harvest in the fall.  My village has to grow the majority of the food they eat, which, no matter how hard they work, seems impossible sometimes.  We live about 18 kilometers form the main road where the weekly market and little shops are, and considering that no one in my village has cars or motos, 18k can be a really long walk (or bike ride).  For my contribution to the family I live with, I buy vegetables and beans every week, which makes the food a bit better.  Either way, let’s just say I crave pizza, cheese burgers and burritos a lot.

I just got back form a big conference called the West African All Volunteer Conference.  It’s an annual gathering for Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) from all over West Africa, though most attendees are from Senegal.  This year though, volunteers from Cape Verde, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mali flew in, (the Gambian volunteers drove).

One of the sustainable technologies presented at All Vol - a briquette press, which makes "bricks" to burn for cooking fires out of organic waste. One way to fight deforestation, yay!

The conference is basically a huge, two-day series of presentation on innovative projects that different PCVs are doing and around-able discussion on how we can improve what we’re already doing.  My country director (basically by big-boss, the CEO or PC Senegal) and Senegalese bosses even came.  Though the days can be long, it’s really interesting to hear about other volunteers’ work, and wonderful to see friends of mine that I only see twice a year.

I even presented this year!  My talk was with my friend Annicka, and we presented on behavior change methods and theory.  Sounds boring, right? I know.  Actually, it’s pretty simple and pretty interesting (in my opinion as well).  Basically our talk discussed ideas on how you can get people to consider new ideas or habits that may benefit their health or daily lives without immediately writing the new idea off because it’s unfamiliar.  For example, in my village, people have a lot of problems with cuts and wounds getting infected.  In traditional medicine, people here will put sap or a leaf paste over wounds, and wrap them in cloths.  As you may guess, this often leads to infections and their wounds get worse.  The thing is, I can’t just run around my village telling everyone that they’re treating their wounds wrong because they would never listen to me.  Think about it – if you parents had been telling you since you were born that sugar is healthy, and then someone fro a different country, who barely speaks your language, and that you’ve only known for three months, told you that your parents were wrong and that you should eat carrots instead would you listen to them? Probably not.

What Annicka and I presented on then, was how to lead people to their own conclusions instead of tell them these new ideas.  For example, instead of telling someone that they should wash their wounds with a clean cloth and hot weather, I them how to clean their wounds properly, and then, once their wounds heal instead of getting infected, let them decide which method of wound-care they prefer.

The cool thing is, once someone likes the way I’ve taught them to clean their wounds (for example), they usually then become advocates of the method, and teach their friends and families.  And new ideas coming from Senegalese people is always better received than new ideas coming from the crazy white person in their village, right?  People in my village teaching each other ideas is a heck of a lot more sustainable than me yapping about ideas for the two years I’m here.  Make sense?  All-around good stuff.

Well, I have to jet off to the garage to get back to my site.  I’ve included a few stickers in your envelope.  In Senegal, people like the put these stickers all over their cars, so I’ve put stickers all over my bicycle.  Enjoy!

Happy holidays and New Years!

Your friend in Senegal,

Below is my second letter to the Kindergarten class I write to in Maine. I will hopefully be starting up a correspondence with a middle school class in Massachusetts soon, but it’s unsure, I’ll keep you updated!

Painting on the front of the card I sent.

Dear Mrs. Goodrich’s Kindergarten Class,

Hey guys! How are you all doing? I’m well but I’m really busy lately. There are a bunch of meetings I have to go to, so I’m dong a lot of traveling lately.

One of the places my travels took me was an artist’s gallery in the north of the country. The guy I met did the painting on the front of this card. It’s a watercolor painting of a lady with a baby on her back, carrying a basket of fruit on her head. Women here always carry their babies on their backs tied on with a piece of cloth. The babies all look very comfortable! They also carry heavy things on their heads. At first, I thought it would be difficult, but now I carry water on my head every day!

Talk to you all soon, enjoy the fall colors!

Your friend, Amanda

I’ve recently started up another WWS correspondence with a kindergarten class in Sanford, ME.  My mother’s side of the family (the Whichers) are one of the original families from Sanford, so telling these little guys about where I am now is especially fun.

So far, I’ve sent them three letters, and in turn, they’ve emailed me a bunch of questions.  I thought they were cute, so I’ve decided to post the questions and my responses below.

Their very first question was “Do you have a phone?”  Along that same line they are wondering if you have electricity, cable, and a computer and printer.

– I do have a phone – all PCVs in Senegal have a cell phone for safety and work reasons.  Being that my village is so far into the bush though, I can only get a signal on my phone in one special little spot in the twigs in my roof.  As for us volunteers, we stay in touch with each other mostly via text message.
– Electricity, a computer, and a printer are available in the city of Kolda (the capital of the region I live in). Each region in Senegal has a house for volunteers to meet at, use computers and the internet, and even a little kitchen to cook the mac and cheese we get in care packages!  Senegalese “cable” is only a few channels, but I’ve never watched it because no one in my village has a tv!

They would like to know if the children there go to school and if they have a playground.  Also if they have a pool and toys to play with.  Do they have books to read?  Our students LOVE to read!!

– The children at the school in my village do not have a playground, but they do have a soccer field that they love to run around on (though our “field” is dirt because grass doesn’t really grow here). Soccer is a sport everyone loves to play in Senegal.  No pools here, but one of the most popular toys for Senegalese kids (besides soccer balls) is a hoop (or old tire) that they get to zoom along on the ground with a stick.  They’ll all line up and have races, or just spin their hoop/tire all around the village.  I’ll try to find a photo of this one.  As for books, we do not have very many.  They are expensive and get stolen and are usually difficult for kids to read because they are in French.  (Note: while in huts all over Senegal, kids are raised speaking their local languages of Mandinka, Pulaar, or Wolof, all of the schools are taught in French because the official language of Senegal is French.  Imagine how difficult that must be – not only having to deal with learning things you’ve never imagined in school, but also having to learn them in a language you’ve never spoken before!)

The children were wondering where you get Nacho’s food and if there are any other animals there (other than the donkeys).  Are there bugs or fish?
– Nacho gets a spoonful or two of whatever my family and I eat for meals.  The idea of having “pets” is not common in Senegal  because animals are mostly used for work or food purposes, e.g. plowing the field, protection etc.  In my village, there are: chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, dogs, a few cats, and a few ducks.  Wild animals in my area include monkeys, bush weasel/shrews, hippos (but not by me!), baboons, warthogs, and lots of really beautiful birds of all shapes and sizes.  No fish, but SO MANY bug!

The students are very interested in what you eat for food and how you make it.  They didn’t think your crushed rice with sauce from boiled leaves sounded too good.  They wondered if you have popcorn and spaghetti.  They also wondered how you cook your food and then wash your dishes.

– While I cook and eat my breakfast in my hut, my moms are responsible for cooking every meal.  Almost everything is cooked by boiling – rice, millet (a sandy-type grain), leaf sauce, peanut sauce etc. Even beef/chicken is boiled (though we only have meat on very special occasions).  Every meal is eaten from huge bowls, with a few people at each bowl, and everyone eats with either their right hand or a spoon.  Since we get all of our water from a well, my moms usually pull a bucket over to their cooking area, and rinse dishes and pots off there.  Cooking takes a really long time to do here, so usually the cooking fires are going from 10am to 8pm at night!
– In Senegal, I can actually get spaghetti and popcorn!  These are foods I only eat in Kolda at my regional house though, since they are items that are too expensive for my village.  We don’t have any microwaves, so popcorn is made in a pot over the fire.  Spaghetti is good too because we’ll because we’ll buy a lot of fresh veggies and make sauce from scratch.  Pretty much everything we cook at our regional house is from scratch, unless someone sends us a mix in one of our care-packages.  We have a stove and oven at the regional house, but in village, everything is cooked over a fire.

They are curious what you use for money and also how far you are from Maine.  I showed them on the globe where you are but it is hard for them to imagine how far away it is.
–  In West Africa, people use a currency called the Franc CFA.  One 500 fCFA coin is worth a little more than one US dollar.  Here’s a photo of what the currency looks like:
As for distance, I’m not sure how many miles Senegal is from Maine, but how about this: the plane ride from NYC to Dakar, Senegal is nine hours, then I take a car from Dakar to the city of Kolda that is about ten hours, then a bus from Kolda to my road town that is about two hours, then a forty-five minute bike ride from my road town to my village.   Hope that helps!

Style of paper used in school notebooks here, I wrote this letter on this paper.

Dear. Ms. Riha and Class,

Hi everyone!

Isn’t this paper interesting?   This is the type of paper that school kids in Senegal use.  When you buy a notebook from the store, this is the type of paper that’s inside!  It looks different from the paper you use in class, huh?  Just because it’s different, doesn’t make it bad though!  When you travel, or live somewhere new like I am, people use lots of things that are different from what you use every day.  What I’ve learned living here though, is that the things that people in Senegal use that are new and different to me, are not weird, they’re just new to me and special to Senegal.  I bet if some of the kids in my village came to Brooklyn and saw some of the things you use everyday, it would all be special and new to them too.

Right now, it’s starting to get really hot here.  That’s because the hot season is coming!  Yesterday, my thermometer reached 120 degrees.  It’s still cool at night though, which is nice.  Last night, it was 70degrees.  Since it’s getting warm out, everyone in my village is sleeping outside. I sleep on a bamboo mat in my backyard, and Nacho sleeps right next to me.

You know how in New York, you have four season every year?  Well, in Senegal, there are three main seasons: the hot season, the rainy season, and the cold season.  The hot season is from now (March) through July.  In July, it’s still hot, but the rains begin, so it’s called the rainy season.  The hot season can be really uncomfortable here, especially since there’s no electricity, so we don’t have fans or air conditioning in my village.  The nice thing about hot season is that all the mango trees have mangoes!  They’ll be ripe in about a month, and I can’t wait – they’re really yummy!

Guess what?  As of February 28th, I have lived in Senegal fro a whole year!! Can you believe it? In about 14 more months, I’ll be on my way back to America!

In this letter, I’ve included a piece of fabric.  It’s called wax fabric, because to make it stiff, they pound wax into the fabric when they make it.  Wax fabric is what most people in Senegal wear.  First, you go to the market and pick out some fabric you like, then you take it to a tailor’s to get sewn into clothes.  Most women wear skirts, and the men wear long flowing shirts called boubous.  I have two skirts made out of the fabric I sent you because it’s one of my favorite fabrics.  Isn’t it pretty?

Well, it’s lunch time here, so I have to go, but I’ll write again soon!

Your friend,

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