The End

After a substantial hiatus, I’m back in the States and hoping to bring some closure to this blog.

Before leaving country, every volunteer has a “COS week” in Dakar spent getting final medical check-ups, closing out grants, returning property to Peace Corps, etc.  It’s a bittersweet time.  I had wanted to write a post about leaving during this time, but it was just too hard.  For better or for worse, I didn’t want to spend more time dwelling on my goodbyes.  I also couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the situation.  I was in a strange limbo that didn’t feel real.  I kept catching myself thinking about a future that didn’t exist.  “When I get back down to Kolda…” Fill in the blank.  I talked with many COS-ing volunteers about this mental block and it seemed to be something we all shared.  I guess it was hard to believe for many reasons — the two years went by so quickly, we didn’t know what the next chapter would hold, and most of all I don’t think many of us anticipated how hard it had been to say goodbye.

And it was hard.

I left my family, my friends, my hut, many of my belongings, and a piece of my heart in my former home.   

My last day in village was a roller coaster of emotions.  I’m going to do my best to paint a picture here.

I woke up, early.  My last weeks at site I rarely slept in past 6:30.  Mostly because it was hot season (think, 97 degrees by 9am), but also because my mind was full of racing thoughts.  

I went to buy breakfast and found my mom cutting vegetables outside.  “Today is a big day, so your mom is cooking” she said to me.  My mom is an incredible cook but only cooks for special occasions — holidays, special guests, and I guess, my last day.  She told me to hurry back so we could start the henna.

I got back only to be sent out again to buy some cooking oil for my mom.  Older people in Senegal never go out to buy things if they can send a child instead.  My mom usually refrains from sending me out, but today she was holding nothing back.  After I bought the oil and was walking back to my compound, I thought about how people were going to see me carrying the oil and tease me by asking me if it was my turn to cook today.  Sure enough, three people called out to me “So you’re cooking lunch today?” which I affirmed, just to make them laugh.  

This little exchange made me think about how well I know Senegal.  If you know exactly what joke someone is going to make before they make it, I’d say you have a pretty good grasp of the culture.

I’ve never done henna in Senegal before, and my mom insisted I get it done before I leave.  Henna is a dye used on the body for special occasions.  It’s something that people do for weddings, but also before long journeys.  I didn’t realize how time-intensive the process would be.  As my mom cooked, her friend worked tirelessly on my henna.  She put small pieces of tape on my feet in a tiny and intricate design that took about two hours for each foot.  After that she put the henna on and wrapped my feet in plastic bags.  The henna had to sit for several hours.  She did my hand too, and the whole thing (with a short break for lunch) took about five hours.

DSC_0041

My henna

Because the design was on the bottoms of my feet, I couldn’t walk around while it was setting.  So I was stuck sitting in my compound, which was incidentally exactly what I wanted.  I had made the rounds of all of my friends/work partners in the days leading up and told everyone that my last day I’d be at my house if they wanted to come say goodbye.  Many people said they would come and a few actually did.

The way that people say goodbye to each other in Senegal shows some things about the culture.  Many people avoid saying goodbye altogether because they say it’s too hard.  I experienced this.  My namesake and host sister avoided our goodbye.  She left to visit family in the Gambia almost a week before I left.  She told my mom that she was running away — that she just couldn’t be here for me leaving.  She braided my hair one last time and the next day she was gone.

DSC_0022

My last braids

One of my PCV friends and I were discussing this after we left site.  She was saying that it’s strange that people in Senegal can talk about death so casually but think that saying goodbye is too hard.  I guess the two are connected — Senegal is a place where death is so common it’s hard to know if you’ll see someone again.  Even if I come back to Senegal soon, there’s a good chance I won’t find everyone that I left here.

When you are saying a real goodbye and you don’t know when you’ll see someone again, you shake hands with the left hand instead of the right.  In Senegalese culture the left hand is considered the dirty hand — you are never supposed to use it to hand someone something or to eat, etc.  The reason you say goodbye with the left is because it’s so unclean that it means you are obligated to see that person again someday to make things right.  

As I sat in my compound waiting for my henna to set, my host brother made tea and my mom came and sat next to me.  She asked about my real mom, and said that she knew she must be happy I’m coming home.  “Your mom there misses you and will be happy, but tell her that your African mom has a big problem.  I will be so lonely without you.”

I’d been on the verge of tears all week and it was hard to keep it together.  The sun cooled and I sat, drinking in the images of my compound for the last time.  Around sunset my mom helped me take off the henna and I was finally able to walk again.  I went to my hut and tried to fit in some packing before dinner.  The power was out (of course), so I knew that packing in the dark later was not going to be fun.  Thankfully the moon was bright.  I never realized the power of the moon until I came to Senegal and experienced life without lights.

I was frantically folding and prioritizing when my host brother Djiby walked in.  “You’re going to fit all that into one bag?” He gave me a skeptical look.  “Come eat dinner you can do this later.”  I walked out to find one of the most delicious dinners I’ve had in Senegal.  Macaroni with onion sauce and lots of meat.  I ate as much as I possibly could.  While we were eating a few people showed up to say goodbye.  

The hardest one was Thiane, who I’ve mentioned in this blog before.  She was my old site-mate’s host sister, and her father passed away my first year here.  We had become very close during my time in Senegal.  She became my confidante — someone that I felt I could talk to about virtually anything — problems with my family, the stresses of everyday life, etc.  

She sat with me for a little while, and then said it was time for her to go.  As I was walking her out, she lost it.  “You stop here,” she said, though I had been planning to walk most of the way to her house with her.  She gave me a quick hug and then burst into tears as she was walking away.  I wanted to chase after her, to tell her I would come back someday, to try to comfort her somehow.  But crying is often something people are ashamed of in Senegal, and I could tell she didn’t want me to follow her.  I had to let her go.

Back at my house, things were winding down for the night.  It was getting late, but I was wired.  I said goodnight to my family, knowing that I would see them in the morning.  I continued packing in my room by candlelight.  Djiby came to hang out with me while I was packing at first, but he realized he was distracting me too much so eventually left.  I asked him to come back in the early morning to say goodbye, and he agreed.

I slept maybe two hours that night.  My PCV friends and I who were all heading to Dakar for COS had rented out a sept-place so the car came directly to my house.  The next morning when I heard it pull up outside my compound I felt my heart sink.  I took a last frantic look at my hut, trying to burn it into my memory, grabbed my things, and tried to summon my emotional strength.

My family members were waiting near the car.  I shook their hands and said thank you.  When I got to my mom she pulled me into a hug and we both started crying.  Djiby told us not to cry and gently guided me into the car.  Just like that, I left everything I had known for the past two years.

My mom had said that she would come to Dakar to say goodbye one last time, and in my naïveté I believed her.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon for Senegalese people to avoid goodbyes.  As I rode away I didn’t know that it was the last time I’d be seeing her.  And I guess that did make it easier, in a way.  I called her a couple of times while I was in Dakar to see if she was coming, and it soon became clear that she wasn’t.  I was upset but I understood.  Sometimes it really is just too hard to say goodbye.

I said goodbye to my Senegalese home and family on April 19th, over two months ago.  But the sadness still hasn’t left me, and I don’t know that it ever will.  My last night, when I was sitting with Thiane and a couple members of my family and talking about how hard it was to leave, I told them that I don’t know how I feel about living in another country for so long.

“I won’t be quick to stay long in another place,” I told them.  “You get so comfortable and content with your life and then you have to leave so suddenly.  I don’t like it.”

“But it’s good.”  Thiane told me.  “Because now you’ve seen something else, you’ve seen how other people live, and that’s important.  And it’s time for you to go now because this isn’t your place.  We are happy you came here and we won’t forget you, but you need to go home to see your people there.”

“But it’s just so hard,”  I said, unable to phrase it any more eloquently in my near-tears state.

“Sometimes the hard thing is the right thing,” she said.

 

DSCN0509.jpg

Thiane and me

Advertisements

To Remember

Well, here I am with another post about going home because, at my 26th and final month of service, it is difficult to think about anything else.  I find myself constantly overwhelmed with emotions.  With only two weeks left in my site, I am entrenched in a losing battle to accomplish items on an unrealistic to-do list.  Racing against the clock to make my peace with this place before I go is not easy, especially because the fact that I’m leaving for good doesn’t yet seem real.

Over two years ago, I had a similar feeling.  As I packed up my suitcases in my parents’ living room while watching the Academy Awards and drinking white wine with my mom, it didn’t seem real that I was going to Senegal.  I carried boxes of clothes and other possessions up to the attic, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the version of myself who would open these boxes two years later would be a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, someone that I couldn’t yet picture.

It didn’t feel real until I was sitting on a plane with 50 other soon-to-be PCVs, bound for Dakar.  I was excited and scared.  I didn’t know what to expect on the other end of that flight.  And perhaps my leaving won’t be real until I’m sitting on a plane bound for Chicago. 

The emotion that overwhelms me the most at this moment is the desire to not forget.  There are so many things that I have learned in this place that I am afraid will be hard to hold on to in a different context.

I have learned patience.  I can sit and wait for someone/something for hours without getting upset.  I can entertain myself by talking to people around me, reading, or just thinking.  I am used to being around people that rely on each other for entertainment — instead of smartphones or other devices.  Will this carry through to my American life?  Will strangers think I’m crazy when I try to ask them about the weather or how their day is going?  Will my friends get annoyed if I ask them to put down their phones and talk to me?  And perhaps most concerning, will I assimilate and forget this aspect of myself entirely?  Will I too be swept up in the anonymous crowds of American city life and the black hole of unlimited data?  Will my expectations slide back into a first-world mentality where I become frustrated with things or people that don’t operate on a predictable schedule?

The answer to all of those questions is most likely yes.  It is difficult and not evolutionarily advisable to live in a culture and not assimilate yourself. 

But I like the Senegalese version of myself.  I wish I could have assured the nervous wreck who was carrying those boxes of possessions that she would be happy with the version of herself who would be opening them.  I like being friendly and talking to people, I like sitting for hours and drinking tea, I like being able to be late and still know I will show up before the person I’m meeting.  I like that I no longer take so many things for granted.  Things like ice water, hot showers, and air conditioning are all mostly mythical things to me at this point that have achieved a status of luxury.  How long will that last in a Chicago summer where everyones’ air conditioning is constantly on and where having a hot water heater and fridge/freezer in your home is a way of life?

I don’t want to forget.  I don’t want to take things for granted.  I want to remember the people here and how they live their lives, and I want to remember how lucky I am.  I am lucky that I was born into the situation that I was, and I am lucky that I was taken in by another community here and learned to live a different way.

Something many Senegalese people ask me is why I was able to come see how life is lived here but they don’t have a similar opportunity to go live in America for two years.  This, like many questions, is one to which I have no easy answer.  It certainly doesn’t seem fair, but then again, what does seem fair about the differences I’ve observed over these years?  I try to put all the blame on the government — “It’s the American government that paid for me to come here, and its the same government that doesn’t allow many people to come to America.”  This is an answer, but it’s not very satisfying to me or others.  It certainly doesn’t change the injustice of the situation.

People say that doing the Peace Corps is a good way to find yourself.  A time when one can find perspective and direction in life.  I don’t disagree.  But I and many volunteers at a later stage in service often find ourselves more confused than when we first arrived in this country.  We’ve been introduced to a new group of people and a new way of life that doesn’t have much value in American culture.  We’ve integrated into a place that values interpersonal relationships over money or power.  We find ourselves entrenched in strong and tight-knit communities.

But where does that lead us?  Where is the place for these values in America?  I’ve been in touch with many PCVs that have gone home, and inevitably they mention feeling lonely.  In Senegal there is always someone to talk to.  Failing all else it is completely normal to walk into the house of people you don’t know just to greet them, or to sit for some time.

I read a fiction piece in an old New Yorker that my dad left here when my family visited.  It was a sci-fi esque story, and one paragraph really stood out to me:

“If he could store a message for creatures thousands of years in the future, it would be simple.  Upon meeting one another in whatever passes, in your world, for a room, a hallways, a road, a field, do not play dead while you are still alive.  Just try to say hello.”

And so, this will be my goal.  I will not let myself forget what I have learned in Senegal.  I will not play dead while I am still alive.  I will try to say hello — at least try — and hopefully others will too.

Government-Issued-Friends

I have a friend — or perhaps I should say, colleague — who dislikes using the term ‘friend’ for fellow PCVs.  He’s warmed up to the idea over time, but for a while it was a running joke in the Kolda region.  He would use words like acquaintance or comrade to avoid it.  Finally he settled on ‘government-issued friends’ as an appropriate way to refer to us.

Truth be told, that is what my fellow PCVs are to me — government-issued friends.  By some chance situation we applied to Peace Corps around the same time, were assigned to serve in Senegal for the same years, and were placed in the same region.  And then, forced to be friends.

Well, I won’t say forced.  It’s always an option to opt out of friendship.  But that’s a lonely option when you live in a place where people that come from your home culture and speak your home language are few.  We could be friends with each other, or we could not have American friends for two years. 

When I first arrived at staging (the meeting of my group before we boarded a plane for Senegal) we had orientation and administrative activities.  I was intimidated by this group of people I was to spend two years with, and I honestly didn’t think I had much in common with any of them.  Many of them had lived abroad or spoke multiple languages.  Many of them came from conservative or religious, even military backgrounds.  Growing up in Oak Park near Chicago and going to school in Southern California I’ve been mostly surrounded by a liberal/progressive group of people my whole life.  This new mix of backgrounds threw me off.

I can be shy, especially when meeting lots of people in large groups.  I’ve never been good at the whole make friends quickly thing when I’ve been thrown into these situations.  So, I withdrew myself.  I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I was worried that the promise of making life-long friends in Peace Corps might not apply to me.

I didn’t have to be.  I feel incredibly grateful to be able to say that I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in this place.  Sure, they might be government-issued, they might be people I never would have gotten to know had I met them in the States.  But here I was forced to get to know them, and I am thankful for that.

It’s made me realize, as cliche as it sounds, that we’re all the same.  Being in Senegal has made me realize that, of course.  Shriver’s famous quotation about the pursuit of peace says as much:

“Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.”

I’ve realized this on many levels here.  Not only do I notice it with Senegalese people, but also with my fellow Americans I met here.  We tend to put ourselves in boxes — conservative, liberal, religious, hipster, etc — but when you’re in a new culture and out of your element, these differences seem to melt away.  We’re all just out here trying to make it one day at a time.  Trying to help each other, to feel needed, to feel content in our lives.

I became friends with my fellow PCVs because I didn’t have a choice.  And the longer we were in Senegal together, the more we had in common.  We were living similar lives and having similar problems — hut roof is leaking, work is frustrating, host family asking for money, etc — to the point where it became easier to reach out to my friends here with my problems than my friends there.  A friend from home would require a fifteen minute explanation for any of those issues, whereas my friends here would get it in the first sentence.

These are the people that I am looking forward to helping me through this life transition and beyond.  We’ve been through so much together: from countless stomach sicknesses to hundreds of kilometers biked together to lots of shitty beers drank to many embarrassing language mistakes and many, many, days spent in sept-places.  They say people grow closer in times of stress.  I say they’re absolutely right.

I am lucky that being in Senegal taught me this lesson so early in life.  I am lucky that I can carry my government-issued friends with me beyond this step.  They will help me to remember Senegal, and the person I’ve become here.  So thank you, U.S. government, for these friends that you issued me.  I can safely say that at least in this matter, you got it right.

Trump Abroad

“So… I saw this man on T.V.  His name was, Donald I think?  And he says that he doesn’t want Muslims to enter America anymore.  Do you think he could become President?”

This is the question I got from my host brother, Djiby, several weeks ago, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. 

It’s an embarrassing time to be an American abroad, especially in a Muslim country.  It could be worse. In Senegal, not many people watch the TV or are particularly interested in the American presidential election, since Obama is almost done (there are many, many Obama fans in these parts).  But Djiby is not exactly your typical Senegalese man.  He is a teacher and more educated than most.  He is also very interested in all things American.

I told him that for a long time I thought the Donald Trump campaign was a joke.  I saw snippets of it on Facebook but didn’t take it seriously.  It is easy to get disconnected from the news here.  By the time I realized it wasn’t a joke, it was very serious indeed.  This didn’t make it any more believable.

“But… he can’t win, right?  Americans would not agree to that.”

In a lot of ways people here seem to have more faith in my country than I do.  It’s hard to speak badly about the States because people won’t listen.  The images they see of the “American dream” on television don’t accurately portray what things are like on the other side of the Atlantic, but no one wants to hear that.  America is the land of money, nice cars and houses, and lots of food.

I wanted to tell Djiby that it is impossible for someone like that to get elected as the leader of the free world.  Someone as racist, sexist, and out of touch with reality — no chance. 

But I couldn’t.  The truth is, I’m not sure whats possible.  I haven’t set foot on American soil in over two years, and I’ve missed a lot.  The Ferguson case, the formation of the Islamic State, legalization of marijuana in several states, the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.  These are just a few of the monumental events that I’ve observed from afar.

“The American people are scared.  They’re scared of the Islamic State and that’s why some people think Muslims shouldn’t be let in to America anymore.  But I and a lot of other Americans don’t agree with that.  We know you can’t generalize about a group of people like that.” I told Djiby.

He seemed dismayed.  Senegal is such a peaceful place, it is hard for one here to imagine Islam causing any harm.  The country is over 90% Muslim, but they are far more tolerant of other religions than I would have imagined. 

I didn’t know what it would be like to live in a Muslim country, but (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record ) I am grateful to have had this opportunity.  Islam seems to have done many good things for Senegal.  Religious taboos of drinking alcohol and stealing have a strong hold on the population.  Sure, people here drink.  But not that many, and its mostly confined to big cities.  There is not the same problem with alcoholism that exists in other, poor, African countries, where men spend what little money they have to get drunk.  And outside of Dakar, I’ve never had to worry about my possessions getting stolen.  I can’t count how many times I’ve left my valuables unattended — including my bike, which I don’t even own a lock for.  Even though my bike is American and extremely nice compared to the bikes here, I’ve never worried about it getting stolen. 

These are just a couple of examples of the positive impact of religion here.  There are many more positives, and sure, there are negatives too.  But the point is, I’ve gotten to see first-hand what its like to live in a Muslim country.  And it confirmed what I already knew to be true — that not all Muslims are extremists or terrorists.  Many of them are far more peaceful and tolerant of other religions than many Christian groups in the States.  And when I return home in a matter of weeks, I’ll have my work cut out for me in terms of explaining what I’ve seen to those on the homefront that are interested in hearing.

For now, I’m still representing America to the people of Senegal.  And it’s getting harder and harder as Donald Trump advances his campaign.  I’ll be long done with my service by the time of the election, but I can’t help but think of the PCVs of the future.  I was lucky to have Obama behind me during my service, but Trump if elected will make the lives of future generations of PCVs extremely difficult.  I’ll just have to borrow the simple statement that Senegalese people use in times of uncertainty and potentially negative outcomes — Allah akbar  (God is good). 

Impending C.O.S.

I got back recently from a long stint on the road, spending two and a half weeks in Thies and then Dakar.  I had a series of reasons to be in Thies, the first being my stage’s COS conference (stage is the training group I came in with, COS stands for Completion of Service).  Yes, I and the group of people who arrived in Senegal in March 2014 are now preparing to go home.  My official COS date is April 28th, a little over two months away.

For the first time, going home really hit me.  Sure, it has been on my mind throughout my service.  But being surrounded by people who are all in my position and talking about it for four straight days made it real.  We had sessions about the looming future: readjustment, finding jobs, graduate school options, how to explain Peace Corps on your resume or at networking events, etc.  We also had more immediately relevant sessions like how to say goodbye to your village.  I found it difficult to put too much thought into the future.  Perhaps this is a product of my integration into a culture where the future is by no means certain.  I am very much still here in Senegal, both physically and mentally.

After COS conference, I spent two days at the beach with friends, before returning to Thies for four more days of meetings for various reasons, plus a day off where I was able to visit my host family from training.  I hadn’t gone back to visit in a year and a half, and it was a trip to see them.  They were impressed with my now much more advanced Pulaar (and ability to greet in Wolof), and I was amazed at how much all the kids had grown.  The baby that was there when I arrived in Senegal was walking and talking and I didn’t even recognize her.  My host-sister whom I had grown close with was in her last year of high school, hoping to go to University soon.  It made me emotional to see the passage of time that I hadn’t been around to witness.  It also made me think about all of the changes that I haven’t witnessed in my two years away from my own home.

After Thies I went to Dakar for the weekend.  There was a mass gathering of the PCV and ex-pat community.  Everyone came together for the annual WAIST softball tournament (which I wrote about last year).  It was entertaining, and as it hit me at one point during the weekend, the last time I will be in Dakar until I go up there to come home.

I don’t think I’ve ever explained Senegalese transportation, but I think it provides a useful way to examine the ways in which I’ve changed over two years, so bear with me.  Public transportation here is, well, difficult.  The roads are bad, there are few ‘scheduled’ cars, and in a country the size of South Dakota it can take 12+ hours to get from one side to the other.  The most common form of transportation that volunteers use is the sept-place, which is a station wagon crammed with 7 people (8 including the driver).  There are garages in major cities where you can catch these sept-places, but you are at the mercy of waiting for other people that have the same destination.  You buy your seat, and you wait for the car to fill up.  This can take hours or minutes, depending on the day of the week, popularity of the destination, and other mysterious factors.

When I first got to Senegal, I was terrified to travel.  Garages are hectic places.  They are full of people trying to sell you things, begging for food/money, or tying to coerce you into taking their car.  To make things worse typically the people who work at them only speak Wolof.  Foreigners are often taken advantage of: asked to pay a higher price for their pass or for baggage (or both), misled into taking the wrong car, or getting ‘help’ from someone who demands payment afterwards.  I’ve gotten in countless fights at garages, and come close to tears many times.  It’s one place where I am forced to realize that even though I’ve lived here for so long, I’m still an outsider and will always be marked by the color of my skin.

At the beginning, I took comfort in the fact that I could usually travel with my volunteer friends.  If I had a training or reason to be in Dakar, there was probably someone else from my region that had to go too.  We would arrange travel plans and brave the system together.  I would obsessively charge my iPod to make sure it would last the whole journey.

But now, I can and usually prefer to travel alone.  I have enough basic Wolof to explain where I’m trying to go and to negotiate prices.  The fewer white people I’m with the less I have to fight.  And after that, 12 hours in the car without someone to speak English with can be a prime time for self-reflection.  Where I used to listen to music constantly to pass the time, now I barely do.  I mostly just sit and think.

Or sleep.  While I used to be unable to sleep in these cramped conditions, I can now sleep no problem no matter what seat I’m in.  I think it’s an evolved coping mechanism.  This ride, in my conscious hours, I thought a lot about my time in Senegal.

I recognized all the major towns we passed through on the ride.  The landscape is so familiar after two years.  I didn’t over-pay for anything.  After I was done negotiating my seat in the garage in  Dakar, I heard two men talking about me in awe.  “That white person speaks Pulaar AND Wolof!”  Not true, but I’ll take it.

The first time I went to Dakar, I bought an entire duffel bag worth of snacks at the Westernized grocery store there to bring home.  While I was there I ate pizza, burgers, ice cream — all of the things that you can’t get anywhere else in Senegal.

This time, I didn’t do any of these things.  I even went inside the big grocery store to buy  ingredients to cook dinner one night and didn’t buy one thing to bring home.  I didn’t have ice cream once.  I guess when you do without things for so long, you forget to seek them out.

And so, here I am.  My days (and blog posts!) left in this country are numbered.  It is hard to think about saying goodbye to this place.  But I am trying to force myself to, little by little.  If I don’t I fear it will take me by surprise.  Long sept-place rides are a good opportunity.  So are long afternoons drinking tea with my family.  I saw a quote recently, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”  This is the sentiment I’d like to focus on these next couple months.  Sure, it’s hard to say goodbye.  But that’s a good thing right?  It illustrates the fullness of my life here, and how much I have gained in these two years.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

IMG_1523

My training family host parents and I, two years later.  Thanks to these patient people, I learned the beginnings of Pulaar and Senegalese culture.

Please Help – Youth Empowerment Camp 2016

I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to write another blog post asking for money, but here I am.  And somehow I think it bothers me more than it does you all, my lovely readers.  In fact I’ve received lots of questions from readers asking how they can directly help my work here.  Well, here’s one way.

Last year, I was the grant-writer and one of the leaders of the Velingara Youth Empowerment Camp.  It was to be one of the highlights of my service, and I hope this year proves no different.  See my blog post about the camp last year here.  World Connect, an organization that funds development work all over the world, funded the camp for its first two years (’14 and ’15) but they have (understandable) qualms about funding the camp year after year.  So, it’s up to us to fundraise this year, and every little bit counts. 

The camp will be for 30 middle school students in the Department of Velingara, Region of Kolda.  It’s a ‘sleepaway’ camp over four and a half days, with room and board included for all the kids and volunteers.  The schedule is packed full of educational sessions including first-aid, nutrition, sex-ed, financial planning games and tree planting, sports, arts and crafts, guest career panel and future planning, and the quite popular theater skits and talent show.  It’s a wonderful opportunity for these kids that they can’t get anywhere else, and they truly love it.  Several of the kids cried last year on the last day when it came time to say goodbye, which broke my heart.  Whenever I see the kids from my town that went to camp last year they say they miss all of us volunteers.  From what I can tell, camp has a profoundly positive impact on the kids that participate. 

The link to donate is here.  If you have the means, I can’t thank you enough.  Thanks to all of you for reading.

Family Comes to Senegal!

Many Peace Corps Volunteers go home to the States at some point during their service.   Two years is a long time to be away, and often PCVs have family obligations, weddings, or just the desire to see friends and family that draw them home.  I made a decision long ago that, inshallah, I wouldn’t go home during my service.  I had heard from other volunteers that sometimes going home makes it hard to come back.  Also, I wanted to use my vacation time to see new places instead.

I made this decision also because I knew that my family was going to come here to see me.  This past December I saw my parents and younger brother Jackson for the first time in over a year and a half.  As I waited for them to emerge from the Dakar airport the day they arrived, I was nervous.  Was I ready to be a tour guide/translator/fixer?  Would they get sick?  Would they like Senegal? 

But as soon as I saw their faces, my concerns melted away.  Whether or not things went as planned with the trip, I was happy that I’d have the opportunity to hang out with my family for two weeks in my new home.  I didn’t realize how quite much I’d missed them until that moment.

And a whirlwind trip ensued, full of exploring, eating, drinking tea, sitting with (Senegalese) family and friends, and lots of shopping (read, me getting into fights about prices at every turn).  I brought my family all the way to my site which is a 12-hour car ride from Dakar on questionable roads.  A long and taxing journey, but I was selfishly glad that they now understand the exhaustion involved every time I have to make the trek up to Dakar and back.

The meeting of my American and Senegalese families was the highlight of the trip for me.  Even though they don’t share a common language, they were all excited to meet each other.  One thing I’ve learned here is that language is not as important as we might think it is.  You can glean so much from body language and watching people interact with each other even if you have no idea what they are saying.  My parents were so happy to see how my host family has taken me in as one of their own, and my host family was honored to have such important guests.  Every person I saw on the street would just comment on how happy I must be to have both my families together.  They weren’t wrong.

Besides spending time in my site and Dakar, we stopped in Kolda for a night and had some beers and good conversation with some other volunteers.  We continued on to a touristy spot on the water called Toubacouta, which is known for its mangroves.  We took a memorable boat tour with a local guy named Ibu who also sold us some homemade jam the next day (my mom bought about 10 jars, to go in the full-sized suitcase that had been filling up with souvenirs — mostly fabric — throughout the trip).

Then it was back to Dakar for more fabric shopping, some beach time, and a failed attempt to see some music (nightclubs around here don’t usually get their live music started until midnight, a bit late for our crowd).  C’est la vie.

I am so grateful that I have a family that was willing and able to do this trip.  It was so wonderful to share my life here with them, and it will be so great that they’ll be able to understand more of what I’m talking about when I get home in just a few short months.  It was hard to say goodbye, but easier than last time, knowing that we will all be seeing each other again soon.

Also, it was nice to have two professional photographers documenting my life in Senegal.  Enjoy some pictures below:

IMG_2436

Fabric browsing in Dakar with my host aunt

IMG_2543

Mom trying her hand at pulling water from our well in my site

DSCN0581

Mom and Dad on the boat tour through the mangroves

DSCN0601

Another boat tour pic, with our guide Ibu

DSCN0412

Enjoying a West African sunset on the coast in Dakar

IMG_0389

One last family photo in Dakar before their departure.  Love you guys!

South Africa Holiday

In November, I went on my second vacation during my service.  Destination: South Africa.  One of my best volunteer friends here, Nate, has a good friend currently doing the Peace Corps in South Africa.  South Africa is a place that has interested me since I learned about apartheid in high school.  Nate’s friend has been living there for almost two full years, and knowing how well PCVs tend to know their country of service, I jumped at the opportunity to see another country with a PCV as my personal tour guide.

As I had hoped, it was an authentic and informative way to visit SA.  I had someone to answer my many cultural questions and — perhaps equally important — to point me to all the best restaurant and beer spots in the various places we visited.

First up on the itinerary was a hike along the Wild Coast.  After a slight hiccup in our flight plan (read: flight delay/cancellation until a day later, beware of Kenya Airways) 2 planes and 3 flights later we landed in Johannesburg and caught an overnight bus that took us to the Eastern Cape.  The next morning we started hiking, and if it weren’t for the invigorating breathtaking beauty of the lush and mountainous scenery along the Indian Ocean, I might have been overtaken by exhaustion.  As it played out, I was so excited to be in a new place that I was able to persevere.  The hike was stretched out over 4 and a half days and covered a little over 60 kilometers in that time.  Basically, we hiked along the beach and mountains every morning/afternoon, and relaxed in local villages in the evenings/nights.  Not a bad life.  Our guide was a local man who spoke perfect English (not uncommon in South Africa — one of the most jarring aspects after living so long in a place without English).  We did the hike with a group of South Africa PCVs, all of whom are close to completing their service.  It was lots of fun to ask/answer questions and compare our Peace Corps services.

DSCN0340

DSCN0346

There were many things that made me grateful to be a volunteer in Senegal.  South Africa was a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do my service there.  Here’s a short list of things I’m grateful for in PC Senegal.

  1. Local language.  As I mentioned above, it seems like nearly everyone in South Africa speaks English.  As a result, the volunteers we spent time with seemed to not use their local languages nearly as much as we do in Senegal.  Instead, they fall back on English.  While this would have seemed preferable earlier in my service, I’m happy I had to go through the difficult process of learning a new language.
  2. Alcoholism.  Alcoholism is a big problem in South Africa, and in many other Christian-dominated countries in Africa.  Senegal, with a 95% Muslim population, has a pretty strong taboo against drinking.  It’s rare to meet Senegalese people that drink, and usually the ones that do (that aren’t Christian) are people that live on the fringes of society and are pretty universally avoided.  In South Africa there was no avoiding the drunks, and it was clear that many host country nationals and PCVs alike have serious drinking problems.
  3. Presence of the First World.  Senegal has a relatively small amount of tourism and first world amenities, and most of both of those things are concentrated in Dakar, the capital.  In South Africa, the First World is constantly staring at you from across the room, highlighting the income inequality and economic disparities.  While it was wonderful to be able to drink craft beer and eat high quality Mexican food on vacation, it would be difficult to balance these indulgences guilt-free as a PCV in SA.
  4. Racism/ethnic tension.  Senegal is an extremely tolerant, peaceful, and accepting place.  Ethnic tension here is eased by joking relationships between ethnicities, and there have been few ‘real’ problems historically.  In SA, this is not the case.  In the grand scheme of things, apartheid didn’t end that long ago (1994) and It is still a very segregated place, both in terms of skin color and ethnicity.  Negotiating segregation and racism on that level on a daily basis would be difficult.
  5. Food.  What might seem a small difference — eating meals with family (Senegal) versus cooking for yourself (SA) seems to make a huge cultural and level of integration difference.  Having to schedule my days around meals and eating communally with my family has made me more a part of my family than I might have given credit to had I not seen the difference in SA.
  6. PC organization.  I never would have thought of PC Senegal as being organized, per se, but compared to a newer PC program (PC SA started in the early 2000s, whereas PC Senegal has been around over 50 years) we have a lot of advantages.  In terms of training, resources, program structure, etc. things have had more time to develop and grow in PC Senegal, and it shows.

That being said, back to the vacation from Peace Corps (I guess you can never, truly get away?).  After the hike on the Wild Coast, we paid a visit to Krueger National Park.  We saw lions, a leopard, elephants, and giraffes, but the touristy vibe left a bad taste in my mouth.  I was happy to move on to visiting Nate’s friend’s ‘village,’ which would be considered a town or city by Senegalese standards.  He seemed to have some great friends, dedicated work partners, and a sweet family.  After a short stay, we went back to Johannesburg where we spent a day visiting the Apartheid museum and then caught a flight to Cape Town.

IMG_20151109_073748

One of many giraffes spotted in Krueger.

Cape Town was a fun, first-world-filled time.  Nate and I drank lots of good wine and craft beer, ate lots of quality seafood, pizza, Ethiopian food, Mexican food, etc.  One of the highlights was hiking on Table Mountain, which was a beautiful green space in the center of the city.  We also spent time shopping for clothes in malls and other crazy things like that.  It was fun, but it was also as usual great to get back home to Senegal.  For all the reasons listed above and more, I’m grateful that PC sent me to Senegal.

DSCN0379.JPG

Breathtaking view from Table Mountain, looking down on Cape Town.

And, once I got back I only had two weeks before my American family came to visit me in Senegal for their great vacation adventure!  Stay tuned for another post on our whirlwind tour of Senegal, hopefully with the input of some guest bloggers.

Happy holidays from Senegal and thanks as always for reading!

DSCN0357.JPG

Nate and I with the Indian Ocean behind us.

The World is This Only

About four weeks ago, a member of my host family passed away.  She was my aunt, and her name was Fatimata Diallo.  Unfortunately, her death coincided with me leaving for vacation in South Africa (stay tuned for another, happier, post about that in the coming days).

Before I left, I sat down to write a post about Fatimata’s death.  Writing helps me process my thoughts and feelings and often leaves me with a better understanding of things than I had initially.  But in this case, I found myself staring at a blank page.  Where to start?  How could I begin to sum up this woman’s life and impact?  How could I bring myself to use the past tense about this person who I still couldn’t believe was really gone? 

About two years ago when I first received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps, I remember reading through all the literature that they had sent with my invitation.  There was information about Peace Corps in general, Senegalese culture, packing lists and advice for new volunteers.  One section that really stood out to me was about dealing with death.  There was what could be perceived as a warning to new volunteers that they may be faced with the deaths of their friends and family in their country of service, probably due to illnesses and lack of good health care.  I remember finding this ‘warning’ to be concerning, but resolved to cross that bridge if and when I came to it, as they say.

Unfortunately I seem to have found myself on this bridge more than most volunteers in Peace Corps Senegal do, and it hasn’t gotten any easier to cross.  Fatimata is the third person that I knew well who has passed away during my time here in Senegal, and without a doubt the most difficult death for me and my family.

When I first arrived in my site about a year and seven months ago, Fatimata was the one who truly supported me in this difficult transition period.  My host mom works and is away from the house during the day, but Fatimata was always around.  She did the bulk of the housework and took care of everyone in the family, myself included.  She was patient with my Pulaar and was one of the few people that took time to practice with me.  She would save me meals if I missed them, and when she noticed I liked a particular dish she would make it more often.  When I was sick, she would come and sweep my room and pull water from the well for me because she knew I was too weak to do these things myself.  If I was too sick to come out to eat with the family she would ask me what I wanted to eat and go buy it for me, or save me food for when I was ready.  Though she was my host aunt, she was really more like another mother to me. 

There were a couple of times that I had misunderstandings with certain members of my family due to the language and cultural barrier.  When I got upset and went to my room, she would come after me and patiently explain the misunderstanding and urge me to come back outside and sit with everyone.  She was always the first to assure me that I was a member of the family just like everyone else and not to let anyone treat me any differently.  She made me feel like I belonged, something that some volunteers never have the privilege of feeling.

Fatimata was a strong and stoic woman who never stopped working.  In addition to all the housework and cooking, she would often make snacks like roasted peanuts or corn to sell on the road in the afternoons.  But she worked too hard and was always tired and very thin.  She didn’t eat much and often complained to me about stomach pains and other ailments.  I knew from the beginning that she was a sickly person, but this is not rare in Senegal and I never could have imagined how serious it was.  She hid the gravity of her illness from everyone — being a model Senegalese wife and mother, she worked hard and didn’t complain.

Several months ago, the severity of things came to light.  Fatimata started to have trouble controlling her bladder, which is not an easy thing to hide.  Once my family found this out, they decided to send her to Dakar to get better medical care.

But it was too little too late.  She had bladder cancer, and it was too advanced for the doctors to be able to help her.  In typical Senegalese fashion, they didn’t tell her this outright.  Instead they kept making more appointments for more x-rays and more consultations with different doctors — leading her on for months.  I went to Dakar a few weeks before she died and visited her.  I could tell she was in a lot of pain — both physical and emotional.  I can’t imagine what it felt like for a woman as strong and proud as her to have to have someone help her with basic things like bathing and using the bathroom.  But she was still there mentally and we sat together and talked for a few hours.  She told me all she wanted was to go home.

A couple weeks later, she got her wish.  I woke up one morning to her oldest  son, Dioulde, knocking at my door.  He is studying at University in Dakar and had been watching over his mom while she was there.  I was surprised and also devastated to see him.  I knew they had brought her home to die.  “The doctors can’t do anything, and she wanted to come home,” Dioulde said.  I held back tears and replied, “The world is this only,” which is something Pulaar people say when something difficult is happening but there is nothing that can be done to change it.

Over the next few days, Fatimata slowly deteriorated.  She was so thin and weak that she couldn’t walk, and she stopped eating completely.  She started to lose track of things and didn’t recognize me when I went to greet her, even though I had just seen her a week ago.  She would ask to see certain members of the family and then forget that they had already come to greet her that day.  It was really hard to see her that way.

I felt even worse because I had a vacation planned and was leaving soon.  I knew that Fatimata’s days were numbered, and that once I left I wouldn’t be able to come back for the funeral.  Sure enough, the day I left Fatimata passed away.  My brother called me with the news, and thankfully I hadn’t left Senegal yet so I was able to talk with everyone in the house over the phone and give my condolences.  My family was very understanding and no one was upset that I couldn’t come back. Some of my volunteer friends pointed out that maybe it was for the best.  Senegalese funerals are often overwhelming, and involve lots of people gathering at the house of the person who passed away for several days on end after the death.  With this turn of events I was able to grieve in my own way.

I am still grieving for Fatimata.  She was such an influential figure in my time here in Senegal, and it is still hard for me to believe that she is gone.  I am thankful for the time I had with her, and I am happy that she is free of pain and resting now.  But acceptance of tragedy — something Senegalese people are so used to — is still hard for me.  It is perhaps the most difficult and most valuable lesson that Senegal has taught me so far: “The world is this only.”

I used to pay Fatimata to hand-wash my clothes for me.  It was an arrangement that the volunteer before me had set up, and something I was happy to continue.  Hand-washing clothes is not easy and it’s not a skill we learn in the States.  Fatimata appreciated the extra cash and I appreciated the way she was able to clean even my dirtiest and dustiest clothes just as well if not better than a washing machine could.

Ever since she left, I’ve been washing my own clothes.  I’m getting better at it, but it’s a lot of work.  I think about how lucky I am to have had Fatimata around when I first got here.  She helped me out so much when I needed it, and now I’ve been forced to grow up a little without her here.  Now I wash my own clothes and fend for myself in terms of family misunderstandings.  I don’t get sick as much anymore (knock on wood) but when I do there’s no one around to take care of me like she did.  I’m on my own now, and thanks to Fatimata and many others who have helped me throughout my time here, I’m better equipped to handle this life than I was when I first got here.

Fatimata Diallo, you are missed.  I hope that you are in peace now, and I hope you know how much I appreciate everything you did for me.  Yo Allah yurme yaafo.  Rest in Peace.

IMG_20140729_073650

Fatimata, drinking tea under the mango tree in my compound.

Family Drama

I’ve been spending a lot of time at home lately, which has its ups and downs.  The life of a Peace Corps volunteer can often be very transient — we have lots of meetings and trainings that take us out of site.  And for someone like me in the South where it takes me anywhere from 10 to 15 hours to get to Thies or Dakar, these trips are often extended or combined with other things to minimize the back and forth.

This rainy season I’ve just refused to go anywhere.  I’ve been at site for the past 9 or so weeks, broken up only by a few nights at the regional house interspersed.  The rains have been plentiful, which is a real relief for people here (practically everyone in my region is engaged with farming activities in some way).  Last year there wasn’t enough rain, and it really hurt.  This year people are complaining about too much, but I’m happy.  Things are green and the rain cools things down.

There’s no doubt that getting out of site can be good for a volunteer’s mental state.  Dakar has a lot of comforts to offer.  The camaraderie of being around other volunteers, whether in Thies or in the regional capitals is invaluable.  But during Peace Corps training I remember them urging us to create support systems within our Senegalese communities in the same way that we do in the volunteer community.  I’m fortunate to have been able to do this, and sometimes its nice to just get lost in my little world here.

The more I’m here, the more I pick up on family drama.  And my family has been full of drama lately.  The latest has been weighing on my heart in more ways than one, and it leaves me feeling culturally conflicted and unable to help or support my family in the ways that I’d like.  My host cousin (though I think of him more as a brother) has gone “crazy.”  My family first told me this in the context of his marijuana habit, which is apparently quite serious.  They told me that he went crazy from smoking too much, which I doubted could be the full truth.

Later, I pressured my host brother to give me examples of what he was doing that was so crazy.  Turns out, he’s been having hallucinations.  He told my host brother that Obama visited him in his room.  He doesn’t sleep.  He also is very paranoid and won’t eat the food my family gives him for fear they’re trying to give him medicine or control him in some way.

As an American (and perhaps just as a person with white skin), I’m often looked to as someone with inherent knowledge.  In this case, I had no idea what to tell my family.  The symptoms sound to me like schizophrenia, but I’m no psychologist.  My host cousin acts completely normal towards me, and I don’t know what kind of mental care Senegal has to offer.  They decided to take him to a mental hospital of sorts against his will.  The place is called “returning the mind.”  They tricked him into going under the pretense that it would be a consultation only and after they would all come back.

When they got to the hospital (which is in another region a good 8 hour drive away) he tried to run.  They caught him, gave him a shot, and then he went to sleep.  Who knows what they shot him up with — that’s not a question a Senegalese person would ask.  My family is just happy he’s there.

For me, its another sad reminder of the lack of resources available to people here.  It also demonstrates a lack of awareness and sensibility to mental health issues.  My family has had little patience for him, and instead people make fun of him and laugh about how crazy he is behind his back.  It’s a coping mechanism.  What else can you do?  Sometimes, you can either laugh or cry, and Senegalese people almost always choose to laugh.  That’s their way.  I’ve definitely learned to take life less seriously here.

With about seven months left here, I’m acutely aware of things coming to a close.  I know seven months sounds like a long time, but after 19 months I can tell you its going to fly by (for me, at least).  Spending so much time at site, I’ve learned a lot of Pulaar, and gotten a lot closer with my family.  This is bittersweet.  Learning a language that I will most likely someday forget, and getting close to a family that I will be leaving soon enough.  It’s also difficult to negotiate this closeness in terms of the information that I’m now let in on — my ‘crazy’ cousin being a prime example.  In one way, it’s great that my family trusts me enough and that I understand enough to know all the details of this saga.  But on the other hand, the more I know, the more I realize the immense cultural barriers facing me.  I feel less able to help or to explain my point of view, because I now understand enough about life here to know that my ideas or views will not be understood or supported in the context of this different culture.

But, I’ve learned to choose to laugh instead of cry.  So I’m here, sitting with my family and drinking tea while the rain comes down and the corn grows tall.  And we’re laughing.  For now, at least.