It’s 00:56 here, which supposedly means that I should be snoozing but I’m a bit too wound up to sleep. Not wound up in the too-stressed-to-stop-my-mind-from-reeling way I was from this past November through February, but in a I’m-so-excited-about-things-that-are-awesome-that-may-or-may-not-happen wound up way. Don’t get me wrong, I 100% prefer to be kept up by thoughts of a good nature rather than the taxing ones, but the late night tossing does make me worry for tomorrow’s workday. Either way, since I’m committed to being awake (or more importantly to a late night snack) I may as well use the time to catch up with you.

I’ve decided that instead of giving all of you out there in interweb land a play-by-play of the past seven or so months as originally planned, I’m just going to highlight interesting events and projects that have busied my time since we last spoke. You’re really not that interested in what I did over home leave anyway, are you? Me neither. (Ok if you are, here it goes in bits: seafood, lots of rootbeer, lots of draft beer, my brother’s grilling, cheese, [noticing a pattern?] Boston, cigars, north end, bars, pizza, family reunion, Maine, driving, NYC, soft pretzels, DC, PC HQ office, dancing, more NYC, more cigars, comedy show, live band, Mexican food, more draft beer, 3am Chinese food, mom’s condo, awesomely bad daytime TV, shopping, rootbeer, wedding on the Cape, dancing, good whiskey, cigars, sleeping, ice cream, massive amazon.com order, back to Dakar in the gut of rainy season. Got to see all of my favorite people save about five, and the whole trip reminded me how much I missed you all and what exactly I missed about being en Amerik [which was apparently surprisingly easy to forget after 2.5 years].)

Anyway, back to interesting events and projects. In PC Senegal land there exists an organization called SeneGAD. SeneGAD (GAD for short) stands for Senegal Gender and Development, which is a group made up of volunteers who lead the country’s gender-based initiatives (girls’ camps, girls’ scholarships, men as allies/partners in female rights advocacy, talibe work, etc.). Though I wholeheartedly support GAD work, I’d never got involved in SeneGAD during my two years as a wee health volunteer down in Kolda. Then one day in Dakar, I was wondering around the PC office in my new 3rd year PCVL shoes and came across a sign for Safezone allies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Safezone is the name for LGBT awareness and sensitivity trainings as well as support groups that exist in many universities, organizations, and PC countries. Since LGBT rights are something that are important to me and since I’d worked pretty extensively with gender rights in Boston (FYSOP Gender Focus, focus on your gender!), I decided to heed the call at the bottom of the list asking for additional volunteers who would be interested in being listed as allies. And that is where things took an intriguing turn.

Through conversations with the volunteer who was leading the Safezone initiative, April, I learned that Safezone allies were running a training for the Host-Country National (HCN) staff of PC Senegal. This was interesting indeed: a Safezone training for our Senegalese staff? In Senegal, where Imams proclaim in major newspapers that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and so should be thrown off of a tall building? Where gay men are so taboo that two men can walk down the street holding hands and no one would dare to think they’re anything but friends because the idea of homosexuality is so far removed from the general consciousness? Well, all of that considered, the first staff training apparently went really well, “but that’s because it was the staff all-star group – all of the medical staff and language instructors who’ve been working with PC for years. This next group may be more difficult,” April explained. This next group was the other half of our training center’s language instructors and staff, and they were getting trained that Thursday. I agreed to help out.

A few mornings later I was prepping a training room with five of my good PCV buddies. They had all led the first Safezone training, so they divvied out the easier parts of the training agenda to me (vocabulary game and testimonial introductions) reserving the more touchy areas for the vets (what “causes” homosexuality? How do you feel about homosexuality? What do we expect from you in terms of support as a PC Senegal staff member?). Before the HCN staff arrived, we also planned out how we’d deal with the awkward moments that were sure to come: what if everyone is too embarrassed to talk? What if everyone is too afraid to talk? What if someone is aggressively homophobic? How are we going to respond to the religious views on homosexuality in Senegal? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these potential sticky training scenarios didn’t make me a bit nervous – they were significantly different in nature to the conflicts I’d dealt with when working Boston when working in gender rights and I didn’t feel very prepared. Plus, I didn’t know the majority of the new language instructors who were attending the training, so I didn’t have much clout to diffuse any sticky situations with. That and it was a bit obvious from everyone’s expressions when they filed in that they either a) weren’t sure why they had to be at this training, or b) were not interested in talking about the gays, never mind the Bs and the Ts.

But then, everything started to go smoothly. I opened the training with a vocabulary game that had participants match words with their definitions and then present to the group their matched definitions in their own words (interesting first activity when the words were ones like “transsexual,” “outing,” and “civil union”). My friend Steve continued the training, talking about the history of gay rights in America, around the world, and in Senegal. The staff told us about stereotypes they’d heard regarding homosexuals from their friends growing up, explained the Senegalese mindset on gays, and delved deeper into the religious community’s views of gay men and lesbians. And no one freaked out, no one was visibly uncomfortable, – people were engaged and even curious. BOOP light bulb: in a culture where homosexuality is as taboo as it is here in Senegal, this training was the first time that most of the staff in attendance were able to discuss homosexuality in a safe and honest environment.

Opinions and questions started pouring out: “I don’t think you can choose if you’re gay or not,” and “but aren’t lesbian women just women who were abused by men and so decided to be with women instead?” The discussion turned into a fascinating critique of cultural norms, gender stereotypes, and sexuality, and as they day progressed I was more and more thankful that I’d agreed to help. It’s easy after 2+ years as a PCV to get lazy about the culture you’ve integrated into. Not necessarily because you “know it all,” but more that the frequency of surprising cultural moments diminish to the point that what was at first foreign is now your new normal. This training though, brought me back to my wide-eyed days; this training was letting me into a facet of Senegalese culture that I’d never ventured to face before.

One of the most poignant moments of the training was when me and the five other PCVs leading the training got up in the front of the room and read a series of PCV testimonials (some testimonials are included in this blog post). Background: PC’s Safezone training was originally developed in Panama, then made its way around the globe, throughout West Africa, into the Gambia and onto us. Along the way, it collected PCV testimonials. They covered topics about what it was like being a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps, how volunteers got kicked out when they came out to their parents in America, how it’s awkward to be a lesbian volunteer in a culture where women typically don’t wear shirts, and how painful it was to live with a family you grew to love to the bone during your service yet that you were still petrified to tell you were gay because of how their culture dictated their likely reaction. The testimonials were candid, written with clear voice, some funny, some honest to the point that they were difficult to read without tearing up, and as we read everyone in the room was entranced. It was one of those moments where when we stopped reading, the silence in the room seemed to vibrate in the air around until someone sniffed or scuffed a chair, breaking the trance.

The training ended about an hour later with the staff having the option to list themselves as Safezone “allies,” or people who are advocates for LGBT volunteers in Senegal. This is a big move for a Senegalese person to make – openly listing that they support gay volunteers (well not openly openly – the list isn’t published anywhere, we just disperse it among the PC Senegal community. It’s still a big deal though). To our delight, we had a few of the staff sign up. Awesome!

Believe it or not I have more to tell you about Safezone and diversity and such, but sleep has caught up with me now (almost 2, woops) so I’ll save those words for another day. As a parting gift, I leave you all with a cheer from my days as a Gender Focus FYSOP coordinator:

Gender 1, focus all, let’s all do the GF call.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 2, focus 3, let’s fight for equality.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 4, focus 5, let’s all do the GF jive.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 6, focus 7, boys and girls make out with Kevin!

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 8, focus 9 STOP: it’s GF time.

GO GF GO GF GO! GO GF GO GF GO!

Le sigh, I miss college sometimes.

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“The Real Peace Corps”

The link above is to a blog entry from a volunteer in Ethiopia, Michael Waidmann. It’s a post on “The Peace Corps experience,” true to form and better written that what I could ever hope to do when it comes to summing up PC life. An Amanda “highly recommended” for anyone interested in what the whole PC thing is actually like.

Taking a break from catching up on the past seven months, let’s talk about what’s happening right now. Dakar is all over the media at the moment because of Senegal’s upcoming elections, and because of this I have been getting a steady flow of “WTF IS HAPPENING OVER THERE?! Are you ok? You should get out of there” emails and texts. These texts and emails are the reason that I’ve avoided joining the expat chorus encouraging the dramatic banter by blogging about or posting photos of local riots on Facebook. But in light of some more steady-minded opinions, I shall offer my un-opinionated (see Peace Corps blog disclaimer, check!) observations on what’s happening.

For the past few weeks, headlines about the upcoming (well, tomorrow’s) presidential election in Dakar have read: “Violence Continues in Senegal,” “Is Senegal Falling Into Chaos?” and “Senegal Faces Turmoil.” Couple that with what even casual observers of world events jump to upon hearing about political troubles in Africa given the past year, those headlines lead to some pretty big assumptions about what’s going on here. Especially when they are paired with photos like these:

Yes, big things are happening in politics here in Senegal, especially in a country that has the longest history of peace and democracy in West Africa. In recent riots, protestors, police, and innocent bystanders have been killed. Tear gas has been shot, tires burned. Demonstrations have broken out in regional capitols around the country. What’s important to remember is that no – the entire country is not a rampant fire-pit of chaos. The entire city of Dakar isn’t either. If you stayed in my end of Dakar, you would not know that the images above were occurring 15 kilometers away unless your turned on the TV or the radio. Besides a constant flow of Gendarme trucks entering and leaving the post near our apartment a some shiny new political billboards, life has continued as normal. (Ok, there was one political rally that happened in Ngor Village a few nights ago that we watched from our roof. The rally didn’t venture past loud music, big crowds, cheering, and banging on cars though.)

True, we do not know what’s going to happen during voting tomorrow or when results start to roll in over the next few days, and because of this people are on edge. I’ve not once had any fear for my personal safety based on what I can see and hear happening around me; I have gotten nervous upon receiving four text messages in one evening saying “Do not leave your apartment! There are demonstrations down town! Vigilance!” Downtown is over 15 kilometers away from me. The ancy messages that I’ve heard from the western population in Dakar and outside media have made me more nervous than anything I’ve seen or heard around me, to the point where I actually followed fervent advice to empty my bank account and stock up on food and water. Good to be prepared, sure, but I really don’t think it was 100% necessary. Now we’re just getting fat in our apartment because of the unusual abundance of good food.

Two days ago, I was driving with one of my Senegalese friends who explained that he is nervous for the election results because he thinks Wade will try to take the presidency regardless of whether he wins or not, and if that happens, people will react. This seems to be the general understanding among most Senegalese people I’ve spoken with – that Wade will somehow try claim victory and that people will not respond well. The other resounding sentiment I’ve noticed among  my Senegalese neighbors is that people do not want unrest, they do not want their country to “explode” as some headlines claim they are about to do. They are proud to live in a peaceful country and would like to keep it that way.

If you want a well-written, accurate description of what is going on here, I highly suggest this New York Times article by Adam Nossiter: An Atypical Unrest Troubles Senegal’s Election Season. Otherwise, I’ll leave you with the last paragraph of my friend Rachael’s blog (Rachael and her husband Josh live near me, yay new friends in Dakar!):

We don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday, but I have no fears about our personal safety. But it’s not really about us, not at all. It’s about Senegal and what the Senegalese want and need – or push back against. I hope for the sake of the country I’ve fallen a little bit in love with that all stays relatively calm and no one gets hurt.

Could not agree more. And yes mom, I promise to Tweet if anything crazy does in fact go down around me.

Oh hello again. I know, I promised to write. Interesting thing about this 3rd year extension job that has me spending 98% of my time in front of a computer, I never want to look at one outside of work once office time is over. (That was my attempt at an excuse as to why I haven’t blogged since July. Did you buy it? Yea I didn’t think it was that good either.)

I have thought about writing you though, throughout these past seven months. Does that make things better? Ok I’ll stop trying to address the lack of attention to this thing and just muster up some amusing tales from the mass of absent blogging days.

Let’s see. The Abode in Dakar:

My apartment stands as one of two buildings that can claim full structural functionability in a neighborhood of construction projects, unfinished roads, and random piles of trash (yay!). Actually, my first thought at seeing the apartment was that it is wonderfully hilarious: someone decided that it needed to be painted yellow and have a front door that resembles that of a tacky, shiny vault or the silvery, metallic, ribbed mirrors of a carnival fun house (you know, the ones that make you all dis-proportioned when you look in them? Kind of like the different lenses on Mac’s photo booth software? Anyway). Cool, yeah? Yes, the answer is yes.

I live with Renee and Jessie, two girls from my stage (remember, the word we use for the group of people we arrived with to country, pronounced French-like as stahj). We each have our own bedroom and bathroom, and we share a sizable (that looks like it’s spelled wrong but I’m not going to google it) kitchen with a far too large stove and a living room that could sleep 13 backpacking PCVs should we wish to do so (which we have not thus far).

When we first moved in, I had a mattress, a pile of grosssauce village clothes, and a dresser to adorn my room. With irony at its best, our apartment was infested with mosquitoes (huzzah working for a malaria initiative!) but I had no net (nor a drill to be able to attach one to my concrete ceiling) so I slept in my orange tent on top of my mattress that was on the floor. Chris Breezy Brown stayed with us for about 6 weeks after we moved in and said he used my opening the zipper of my tent each morning as his wake-up call. Nice.

In theory, we had running water (like, from a pipe. Where it’ll fall from above you, not from a cup you tip over. !!! I know.) and electricity, but there’s this fun thing in the crux of hot season and rainy season (you know, when you’d really love to rinse off and plug a fan in) where the water and electricity decide to fall victim to the heat and decide to not work. They tease from time to time by working for 20 minutes here and there. All of that business has made the apartment more uncomfortable than being in the village because my room has no breeze (where as in village I slept outside) and without the pipes funneling water we have to buy it or shower at the Peace Corps office because we have no well. Eventually I dragged my tent to the roof of our building, but that didn’t last too long with the wind and the stairs and the hotness of the sun etc etc etc.

Nested!

Now, after a decent chunk of money, some well-timed house raids of departing PC Senegal staff, and lots of creative decorating, our apartment is quite comfortable and my room quite Amanda-style nested.

Yes, we got the place set up in about 6 months, just in time to live in it for 6 more before we all bounce. Ah well, future PCV residents: you’re welcome, you may buy me a beer.

Ok that’s a good part one of catch-up for now. We’ll get to home leave and the job and the side-jobs and la vie dans la grande ville soon soon. Until then, what will YOU do to STOMP OUT MALARIA in 2012? (Explanations on the obsessiveness with stomping and malaria to come.)

How far will you go… Smash Williams? Anyone get it? Anyone?

5 May, 2011

6:59am, sitting in Dabo.  Definitely the earliest I’ve ever seen this town.

My last ride out was not ferocious, more a slow rotation that began before dawn.  Maneuvering down the bush path, my mind drifted between fuzzy scenes dense with the feelings of leaving my family of two years that morning and my favorite memories from the FB.  Hollywood tells us that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. Well, I most certainly am not dying, and even though it was just a week over two years of my life, my time in Fodé Bayo was in ways a life of its own. A life that as of this morning I will never be able to return to in the same way.  (Sorry for the clichés and the drama, communicating how this all went down is a bit beyond my english skills at the time.)

Many of the ethnic groups in Senegal have a tradition of bidding farewell via a left-handed shake. Seasoned readers of this blog will remember from my cultural integration training way back when, that to give something, receive something, or gesture with your left hand is considered very rude in Senegal. The idea of the left-handed shake then, is that when you leave someone who you are not sure if or when you will see again, you bid them farewell by shaking with the wrong hand. Shaking hands with the left is awkward and uncomfortable. It goes against years of social training. As hands clasp and move in up and down in their familiar gesture, the urge to squirm away and correct it is overwhelming. This, is exactly what the left hand shake is intended to do – it’s a manifestation of the feelings people are experiencing as they give someone the love of an uncertain farewell.

 

18 July, 2011

Above is my attempt to sort through my emotions while I sat in my road town the morning I left Fodé Bayo.  In line with village tradition, I woke to leave before the first call to prayer at 5am. Whenever people leave village, they leave before anyone in the village wakes up so that a new day can began without having to say goodbye. Instead, everyone wakes up and you are gone and life is supposed to continue as if it was always this way, without the dramas of in-person farewells.

In Mandinka, when you know you are going to be sad, you say that you will be sick. There is a word for sadness, and there is a word for missing someone or something, but when the sadness is the type that will be overwhelming, it becomes not just saddness but a bed-ridden sickness as well.

My last night in village, we cooked a whole sack of rice and had a drum circle until two in the morning. While everyone knew this was for my goodbye, no one mentioned it. We all just ate and danced and said goodnight as normal. It was my counterpart who stopped me before I went into my hut and said that he would be sick all day the next day, because I would not be there. I didn’t know how to respond.

That morning when I wheeled my bike out of my hut at 4:45, I was supposed to just leave. I sat on the floor of my hut with Nacho, giving him a last few scratches behind his ears (Nacho was thrilled at this 4am wake up – more hours in the day to pay right? That definitely could be the only explanation for waking up this early). As he zoomed off into the bush and I started to leave the compound, I couldn’t keep up the tradition of leaving the village before dawn on my own. So, I woke up my counterpart, who woke up my brother Malan, who woke up my two favorite moms, Diara and Aminta. Together, they wheeled my bike and walked me to the edge of the village. It was clear when we got to this point that no one was sure what to do, considering I was as usual breaking all normal protocol for the situation. My counterpart started to cry, then my brother, and as I turned to my moms, Aminta just walked away.

We exchanged blessings, and promises of seeing each other soon. I awkwardly climbed on my bike and slowly wobbled down the path (no moon, very difficult at 5am with 50lbs of junk on your bike). The ride and car into Kolda was uneventful, which is good since my head was in a cloud.

And just like that, my two years in the village were over.

Note: Reading these journal entries outside of the mindset in which they were written, I’m realizing that they seem a bit dramatic. But trying to be true to form with trying to keep this blog as an honest representation of my time in the FB, because they are a clear description of how I felt and what was happening my last month, I’ll post them even though I’m slightly embarrassed. Right. Anyway.

22 March, 2011

Today was the first day that discussing my leaving village with my mom became a comment that weighed more than just a logistical talk.  Apparently, “five weeks” is a span of time that is graspable, whereas “three months” was still a “I’m going to be mad at you if you leave!” amount of time. It was Diara, my favorite mom, who took a sharp inhale and gave me that look when we talked about “five weeks” today.

We spent a long movie moment staring at each other before I broke it. “Don’t you say it!” I said forcing out a laugh, and walked away. Normally this is where she’d throw in a “WAI yoooooo Ñamoo!” but I heard nothing I as made my way towards my hut.

2 April, 2011

The typical after dinner routine consists of me, mom #1, mom #1’s baby, and my sister laying around on one of the family shade structures. This is one of the things I know I’ll miss most about village: laying in the middle of my women, letting my mind drift between their gossip and relaxing in evening breezes with flashlight moons. Consistently, it is one of my happiest times in village.  And it’ll never be a part of my life again after the beginning of May.

13 April, 2011

I love all of the new volunteers currently demisting in Kolda. Difficult to think about how I’ll be in Dakar and the Kolda family bonding will continue and I won’t be a part of it.

I’ve never considered my existence in Senegal not as part of the Kolda family.

And while yes, I’ll always be a part f Kolda, I will not be down here for the love and bonding, and they’ll all come to AllVol or WAIST and I just won’t know about the it that binds them together.  It makes me sad (for lack of remembering how to speak English well). It makes me not want to extend. I’m having trouble picturing “Amanda happy” in an office job for the first time in my life. Sitting still is not my thing.

Anyway, today brought a really special moment for me in village. On our second day of demiss with Cibyl in the village, for the first time during my life as a PCV, I was able to be in village with another volunteer and be sit in a crowd of people speaking ½ Mandinka ½ English and didn’t have to worry about translating. Really nice to have someone to share my village/Mandinka culture with without side explanations. Warm fuzzies, I know le sigh.

 

27 April, 2011

Without having counted, if I had to guess, I’d say I ate eleven mangoes today.  Successfully avoided all allergic reactions as well.

I did absolutely nothing today. Well, not entirely true. I speed-biked to Dabo and back to buy more candles since my headlamp is nowhere to be found in my hut. How fitting that the last week or so in my hut I have neither my headlamp nor my phone – two of my most coveted items in vil. Understatement; I more or less had these items surgically attached the past two years. Funny to not have them now in my final week when I wanted things to be uneventful and “perfect.”

It seems that last days are never perfect. Boxes are packed, days are full of awkward interactions where everyone knows that everyone is thinking about your leaving but everyone refuses to bring it up – life is hardly recognizable to the routine it had before the last few days in a place that has become home. Those quintessential last days seem to sneak up on us and float by before we have the right mind to bask in them. They come right before the comforting familiarities of routine are interrupted by the beginning of the moving out process. Last days of life in the IL house were spent meandering from room to hollow room, sitting on the back porch and eating take-out. Last days in Eleven were such a whirlwind of parties, long dinners, and early coffeed goodbyes, that driving out I realized that none of my last evenings included my favorite moments: each of the three roomies on a couch, DVR murmuring in the background as we munched on whatever random snack someone found and laughed at our lives and the world’s woes.

Transition to the next life chapter, better to take it and keep going.