As Assistant Coordinator of AVN Senegal I am in charge of research and development on training and technical issues and co-manage deployment in the field while assisting with strategy and networking.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Life in the bush

Figured I'd start with pictures, then you can just look at them and not bother with any of the rest. Kind of like an executive summary or somesuch thing.

Loading the bus to drop the roughly 22 new volunteers in the Kaolack, Fatick, and Kaffrine regions. I'm proud to say the heinous stack of bags and bikes on top of bus is mostly my handiwork. It did the job though and nothing fell off, although it drew lots of stares, pointing, and shouting from just about every Senegalese we drove by.

My friends--the frogs. At least we were friends at first before they started swarming my yard, hopping into my tree sacks, and burying into the soft soil around the roots of my newly panted guava tree. Friendship destroyed. In this picture they cluster around the base of my water filter, where a slow leak causes a nice muddy patch of soil perfect for overnighting.

My grandfather (one of roughly 6--the brothers of my grandpa are also my grandpas, as is this man who is actually the husband of my grandfather's little sister) with his farm. The peanut crop is just wrapping up here (this field had peanuts on it). In the mini fences are young mango trees that my grandpa wants to graft with a variety that produces bigger and tastier fruit. I hope to help with this project and others. He is full of great ideas.

My rigged up cooking assembly. Sticks, wire, and tin foil unite to form a trinity of heat-holding, energy-saving, aesthetically mind-blowing synergism.

My hauls from the nearest large "louma"--market. About 2/3 of this went to my family, the rest I hoarded for myself. I plan on making the hour-long bike ride out to this market every Sunday to restock myself and my family with veggies. If I don't, there are no veggies to be seen in my meals. 

The closest I can come to making a fridge. Every hut in Senegal has one of these large clay pots for keeping drinking water cool, as the water slowly leaches through the clay it evaporates from the outside, cooling the water within. It actually keeps the water significantly cooler, so I thought I could capture the cooling effect for my veggies by building a platform that fits into the bottom to hold my produce above the water, and keeping about 4-5 inches of water in the bottom results in cool--not really cold-- produce, and hopefully improved shelf life. It has worked pretty well so far.
My hut, with water filter/frog mud bath arena (depending who you ask) on the left. My bike and chair that my friend made me on the right.

I installed at my site, Keur Andala Wilane, on December 5th. Its been pretty good at site, the only downside is Ive been getting sick a lot. At least the first week I was feeling healthy and was able to meet and greet lots of people and work in the fields and make good first impressions. But this last week I've been hit with diarrhea, vomiting, head cold, and then general lack of energy because I've lost my appetite and can't eat enough of the food (food here is pretty lame--mostly this corn/millet meal mixture with the consistency of wet sand, and then a scoop of sauce on top) I just can't stomach more than a few bites and then I'm hungry but have nothing to eat to keep myself going. Feel kind of like I'm wasting away, but there's nothing I can do about it right now, just trying to take a rest day today and heal up. I have bought my own food and began cooking for myself, which helped for a while but now my gut has gone rogue and even my own stews and scrambled eggs are unappetizing.

Other than food/sick issues, life here has been a lot of fun. I love that Peace Corps gave me a brand new Trek mountain bike to hit the sandy bush roads with. I've already spend several days exploring new villages, new roads, and visiting a few other volunteers who are (relatively) near me. Both are about an hour bike ride away, making me the most isolated volunteer in my region. I enjoy this though, as the area I am in is beautiful and my bike rides are one of my favorite parts of the week so far. Especially heading out at dawn or returning at sunset, the country here is stunning. There are no mountains (miss them already) but the rolling savanna scattered with lone acacia and baobab trees, or the occasional village nestled in a protective grove of huge old mango trees have their own charm (like my village, so many mango and cashew trees, can't wait for fruit season!).

My work situation is also pretty swell. My host father/counterpart assigned by Peace Corps is not often around since he lives and works in a nearby town with some of his relatives, but he is a very hard-working, patient, and understanding man, and is quite willing to help with any question or concern I have. My main work-partner is Pop, one of my neighbors--also the step son of my grandfather (almost everyone in small villages here in Senegal are related somehow, and marriage of first cousins is common--even preferred sometimes). Pop has a farm about a 15 minute walk outside of the village, and it is a mini paradise--filled with mango, banana, and cashew trees, with a big pond in the center for easy irrigation, and a living fence of eucalyptus growing around the border. He farms cassava, sweet potato, tomato, onion, cabbage, eggplant, and others. On the far side of the pond Pop set aside a generous amount of space for me to make my own garden, which I am extremely grateful for. It is really an ideal place for me to have my own garden and tree nursery, since it has easy access to water, decent soil (quite sandy though), a good fence to protect from livestock, and a dedicated farmer who can water and care for my plants and trees if I have to leave on Peace Corps business.

I've already cleared the head-height grass, leveled off my beds (they are on a slope), and amended my beds with manure, ash, and ground peanut shells (the last is my own invention--since the soil is so sandy I wanted a way to increase it's water-holding capacity and organic matter content, we'll see how it works. I left one bed unamended to test the efficacy of my amendments). I'm planning on planting the American seeds I brought: tomato, broccoli, beet, carrot, kale, and pea. I also have plenty of space to expand my garden, I estimate I've used only about 1/3 of the space so far, so lots of room to expand later, hopefully with some larger beds and bigger crops like three sisters (corn, bean, squash), watermelon, and potato.

So far I've been gardening in the mornings when it is cooler, and then spending the rest of the day in my village, either working in my yard (lots of small home-improvement projects like building platforms to wash/dry dishes, making my tree pepinaire--100 tree sacks, mostly guava with some other ornamentals--and making compost) or visiting other houses to talk, let people know who I am, and just be friendly. I try to be as social as I can, since introversion is a near-blasphemous offense here in Senegal. Being sick makes this especially difficult though, which is one of the reasons I came into the regional office in Toubacouta for a rest day--if I can't be outgoing and talkative I'd best remove myself from my village otherwise people will think I don't like them. The fact that I'm sick is a frail excuse, since I can't really tell anyone that I'm sick (also culturally unacceptable--I'm supposed to say I'm feeling much better whenever asked). 

I hope I get my appetite and energy back soon so I can once more engage in proper Senegalese social interaction. This involves lots of joking, teasing, shouting, laughing, and smiling. Most of the time I am up for this rough and tumble banter, and they all love it when I can hang with them with my Wolof, its great fun for all. But it's almost like being on a stage all the time, and can be quite wearisome, especially if all I feel like doing is hiding in a cold dark cave and reading a book. Such is my conundrum.

Overall though I am very grateful to be where I am. My village is full of friendly people who are all eager to talk and get to know me. I'm glad I spent so much time and effort on improving my language during training, as I can jump right into making friends here. I also greatly enjoy exploring my surroundings and establishing a routine that will help me be an effective and efficient volunteer later on--for example assigning a day for going to the market to restock food, going into Toubacouta to work on the computer and chill out, and keeping a free day to explore a new place, forest, or village once a week. There are so many things I want to do with my time, so many ideas I have, I can't really imagine feeling the boredom that older volunteers talk about. Maybe it is a feeling that can sneak up you, so I plan on keeping an eye out for it and trying to always keep myself motivated. That will probably be one of my greatest challenges but also one of my strongest attributes if I'm able to pull it off.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Training almost over!

“Slowly, slowly, one catches the monkey in the forest.” So goes one of the proverbs I’ve learned here. Along with many others, the primary lesson is patience; things in Senegal happen when they happen, and the urgency of the American work environment doesn’t exist. Taking your time is valued over rushing about. People will lounge in the streets with neighbors, chatting under the shade of a tree while sharing ataaya—the ubiquitous tea brewed in small pots over charcoal and generously amended with sugar.

Such an environment is great for learning a new language, as I have found an abundance of patient teachers to sit and talk with. Nobody is in a hurry to get anywhere, and people are generally very open and friendly.

Senegalese also take lots of time for meals, at least lunch. Breakfast is French baguette bread with margarine. Dinner is often rice with a sprinkling of beans. Both are eaten fairly quickly and with little lounging before and after. Lunch, however, is a social affair. Generally I eat with my family and whatever guests or neighbors might be over for the day, usually between 5-10 people. There are two large bowls, which we all crouch around and eat from with a spoon or hand. Lunch is almost always ceeb u jën—rice and fish with some veggies thrown in. It is quite delicious although a bit heavy on the oil and salt. My strategy (developed and perfected over the my several weeks with my host family) is to ignore the rice and go straight for the fish and vegetables. Inevitably I will end up consuming ample rice since one can only be so deft with a large spoon, but if I wait to long the fish will be gone, leaving me essentially protein-less for the day.

Having only one big meal per day has been tough to adjust too, especially when I’m trying to focus on language class and my stomach is eating itself. So I’ve recently been buying second breakfast in the late morning, after my garden chores are done. A sandwich of beans and hardboiled eggs makes all the difference. I also have a stash of oranges in my room for snacks. Despite my father owning a fruit orchard we ironically eat very little fruit.

Another exciting part of my life is the dramatic but sporadic dreams I’ve had since being here. Partly I think this is a product of the malaria medication I take, Mefloquin.

**Reader alert—the following recounting of my dream is somewhat graphic (violence and scary monsters) so please skip ahead if such content may be unsettling to you**

The other night I dreamt I was trudging through a snow covered forest, with heavy flakes obscuring much of the blanketed undergrowth. I happened upon a man covered in heavy furs, crouched by a fire under the canopy of a sprawling conifer tree. As I approached the edge of his camp a massive six-limbed monster thundered out of the blizzard and burst into the clearing under the ancient tree.

The creature resembled a demonic blend of horse, man, wolf, and ram. In place of fur was flayed skin, revealing ligament and muscles covered in a sheen of bright red blood. The beast had four powerful legs and two bulging arms terminating in wickedly sharp spikes of weathered bone.

Neither man nor demon had seen me yet as I crouched behind the snow laden branches of a bush. Before the man could do more than turn to face the fearsome creature one of its bony bladed arms was rammed clear through the man’s torso and out his back. I didn’t stay to watch the gruesome scene, but backed into the swirling snow and fled.

Uncertain of whether I was being pursued, I struggled through the deepening snow searching desperately for some means of escape. My random flight led me to a cave that appeared suddenly as gaping hole in the earth, with a jagged slope leading into darkness. I could see remains of broken metal struts, wood planks, and barbed wire haphazardly forming makeshift barricades as if in a forsaken attempt to deter intruders. I began my decent into the earth, more slowly now to avoid snagging the jutting metal scraps littering the floor and walls. The cave gave me a foreboding feeling of uneasiness, but I feared the demons above more. Thinking only of my immediate survival I pushed onwards through the cave, deeper underground.

**The dream goes on—a post-apocalyptic underground society, a desperate struggle for survival against demonic monsters bent on murder, and other strange things—but I’ll stop narrating here for the sake of brevity**

**OK you can start reading again if you skipped my bizarre dream**

Below are some photos of my host family in Mboro. I will be spending one last week with them before heading out to my permanent site. They have been such a friendly and caring family, I can’t imagine a better space to have spent my first two months in Senegal learning the language and culture and making friends. I will miss them when I have to leave, and will do my best to come back and visit.

 My older sister, Hadi, cooking lunch (yup, ceeb-u-jën). I've helped cook a little, which is fun because cooking is one of those gender segregated roles so they all get a kick out of me grinding sauce with the mortar and pestle. I aspire to one day cook Senegalese-style as well as my sisters.

 My other big sister, Ngone, with Abdila (her son, L) and Mustafa (Hadi's kid, and my namesake, R)

My host mom with the youngsters

 My younger sister Amicune, holding Mama Diaw (Hadi's son), in front of my sis's garden inside the compound. I've brought home several small trees that I grew from seed and a bunch of Aloe vera plants to plant here with my sister. The women love them! I made the mistake of bringing only one with me first time and all my sisters were arguing over who's it was. So next time I brought back enough for everyone to have their own--crisis averted.

One of the hobbies I’ve picked up here is seed collection. I suppose it qualifies as work, but it is so fun I count it as a pastime. I’ve been raiding every useful seeding tree I can find, building up stocks for my permanent site. Already I have a collection of eight or ten species, some with hundreds of seeds. My favorites are my guava seeds (scored them in Dakar where I found a lady selling the fruit) Parkinsonia aculeata (an ornamental but also potentially useful as a live fence) and Leucaena leucocephala (one of the super-hero trees here in Senegal with a plethora of uses such as animal fodder, nitrogen fixation, fuel wood, and live fencing)

Studying the language has been my priority for these last two months. I’ve been trying my best to seek out teachers (at the Thies training center) and neighbors/friends/family (at my host town) to speak Wolof with. Its been helping significantly, and my language is coming along fast. Still not up to par with my French but I think I’m learning fast. Most volunteers chat with friends and catch up while back at the center, but I’ve made friends with the language teachers here instead. They are an awesome group, love joking around and teasing, and are excellent teachers. I guess I might appear antisocial to the other volunteers because I don’t mingle with them much—instead preferring the company of our Senegalese teachers—but that doesn’t bother me. I’m having a great time making friends and learning the language.

Wolof is difficult, simple, frustrating, tricky, daunting, and comical all at once, depending on the context and my mood. The dictionary we were given was made in the 90’s by a UCLA linguistics student. It is frequently inadequate or erroneous (mostly because Wolof varies so much between regions and the student worked only in the north of Senegal) and therefore many volunteers here are not fond of it. It does, however, have some hilarious vocabulary, anecdotes, and proverbs. For instance I’ve learned (and used, much to my Senegalese friends’ amusement) how to tell someone to hold their horses and how to swear an oath by the drawstrings of my father's pants. One of my favorite words so far is the verb “bul,” which means: “to feed livestock (esp. camel) finely cut grass, at night.” Maybe one of these days I will get the opportunity to bul.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mid-training update

This is just a short post to let you all my site assignment--where I'll be for the two years following training. It is in a small Wolof and Bambara-speaking village in southern Fatick, about 500 people. I will be the second agroforestry volunteer there, following an agfo volunteer who just finished her service and headed back to the US. I have not yet seen my site, and will not get to until I install in the beginning of December. The volunteer I'm replacing, however, left me a detailed description of her site, projects, and work partners, so I feel well-prepared. I'm content to finish up with technical classes in Thies and language practice in Mboro before heading to my permanent site.

One of my fellow volunteers in Mboro took some great photos of our CBT site, so here are a few to give you an idea of where I've been living:

 My host father and mother in Mboro, Medun and Nday Diaw.
 Rollo, Megan, Vivian, and me. The Mboro CBT group, and an awesome crew!
 An attempt to capture one of the stellar sunsets we get while watering our eggplant, onion etc.. in the evening.
Our garden at the local elementary school. Complete with recently planted live fencing stakes (they will grow into a thick goat/sheep/kid-proof barrier in a couple years eliminating the need for the current chain-link and wood post fence), field crops (rice, corn, millet, sorghum, and beans) and vegetables (onion, tomato, eggplant, pepper, cucumber, turnip, carrot, and some others) some young trees growing in sacks, and a couple piles of compost waiting to amend our field of sand we are desperately trying to farm. Of course we are in this for the long haul, and the school director, teachers, and students are excited to take over after we leave. We are just the instigators in this project, which owes much of its resources and design to a productive relationship between Peace Corps management (my bosses) and the school director.

I'm headed back to Mboro for the next two weeks, but will take my camera this time and hopefully have much more to share when I return!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Arriving in Africa

I have now been in Senegal two weeks, which seems unreal. It also feels unreal how warm it is ALL THE TIME. I have not slept with a sheet since arriving here. I probably sweat my own weight out at least twice daily. I struggle to come to terms with the realization that I may not experience coldness for the next two years of my life. 

The activities here has been so jam-packed that it feels as if months have passed. Then I just have to look at how little Wolof I have learned to remind myself that I really couldn't have been here that long, right? Wolof is the local language I am learning. It is the de facto national language, despite French being the official language of Senegal. It is spoken in most parts of the country, although the north, south, and southeast speak primarily other local languages. 

I still do not know where my final site will be, and having been assigned Wolof as my language I can't narrow it down much based on regional languages. Over the next month and a half I will be swinging between the Peace Corps training center in Thies (near the capital, Dakar) and my host family town, Mboro (a 40 minute car ride to the northwest of Thies).

My training group consists of 57 trainees. About 24 of us are agroforestry volunteers (myself included), then there are about 16 apiece for sustainable ag and urban ag. Most of our training sessions are shared (i.e. safety and security, medical) while our technical training can sometimes be group specific (tree dendrology for agfo volunteers). The training center is a comfortably American bubble within Senegal, and since we hardly go outside the compound when here it is hard to feel fully submerged in Senegal. Of course the sweltering heat, strange plants and bugs, and exposure to new (delicious!) food is constant reminder that I am not in the States. Also almost all the staff here are Senegalese--our LCF's (language and cultural facilitators; one is assigned to each group of volunteers in our homestay communities to help us adapt and learn the language) technical training staff, safety and security supervisor, cooks, and groundkeepers. 

I just got back form my first seven days with my homestay family, and it was a great experience. Our primary goal is to integrate with the culture and learn the language, but we also have "homework" assignments to practice our technical agfo tasks. Each CBT (community based training) community takes on between two and five volunteers. We live in separate compounds--each with our on families--but we meet up every day to work together in our communities setting up a small garden which the community will take over once we leave our CBT sites and get our final assignments. Our tasks during our first visit included gathering components and making a comport pile, digging and adding soil amendment to garden beds, and setting up a seed nursery bed where we will propagate plants to transplant into our beds. These chores are a great way to engage with the community (talking to people to find out where to find organic material for our compost, or manure for our planting beds, for example) and having some clearly defined work was often a nice anchor in an experience that can otherwise seem rudderless at times. Really focusing in on the language is another strategy I have been using to keep myself focused. Despite being unlike any of the romance languages I know or have studied (and not like english either) I think I'm doing a decent job of learning Wolof.

A brief description of my host family life:
* Forgive the lack of photos, I will try to get them in my next update. So far I haven't even unpacked my camera.

I'm in a small town along with three other volunteers, each of us in seperate compounds. In my host family I have two sisters in their late twenties who are married and each have a young boy (about 4 and 5) and a baby (one is a 3 month-year-old boy, the other a 1 year-old girl). One of my sisters' husbands lives with us, the other lives up north in Saint Louis. I have an 18 year-old sister, a 20 year-old brother, a 26 year-old brother, and a 9 year-old sister. There are also frequent visit from friends

My host mother runs a small shop in the market downtown, selling an assortment of household items including ice, which I help my sister make each evening by filling several dozen plastic sacks with a few cups of water, tying them off, and freezing them overnight in our freezer. 

My host father is retired and spends most of the day out on his farm. He let me come with him one day and I loved it out there! He speak french and so I am able to communicate pretty well with him. This helped me immensely when I spent all day at the farm with him and was able to talk about everything from his worries about who will inherit his farm (none of his children are interested in farming) to a discussion of the farming techniques he employs. He has put an incredible amount of work into his one hectare plot, doing essentially all of it himself. It is mostly an orchard, with a combination of oranges, mangos, bananas, papaya, lemon, and some local fruits I have not yet learned the names of. He also cultivates tomatoes, eggplants, and some other crops. He grafts all his own fruit trees, harvests all his own seeds, and has a great watering system set up to irrigate all his trees from retention ponds than hold water all year thanks to the extremely high water table on his land, which borders a seasonal swamp. 

Hanging out with my host dad is great, but since he is often gone at the farm all day I usually see him only briefly in the evenings. While at home I spend most of my time with my sisters, since one brother is usually out chilling in the streets or playing football with his buddies and the other works. One of my sisters speaks french quite well, which has been a huge help since I can clarify any question I have and get help learning Wolof. I worried for I bit that I wouldn't learn Wolof because I was just speaking french all the time but I'm getting to the point where I can usually get my point across in Wolof, it just takes a loooong time to say it. And my comprehension is still pretty pitiful. 

Of course much of my interaction doesn't necessarily require language. On my fourth day at site I demanded that my sisters let me try washing my own clothes--they vehemently refused but I was stubborn enough that they eventually relented and let me try. They teased me mercilessly about how awful a job I did, even when I asked them show me exactly how one is supposed to hand-wash clothes. They use big plastic tubs and soapy water, and do this quick motion of scooping water between the fabric and rubbing it with one hand against the other wrist in a sudden squishing motion to force the sudsy water through the fabric pores. When done properly it makes a signature "squeek" noise. There is even a special verb for this, "fetey" meaning "to squeek one's clothes while washing." I aspire to one day fetey as my sisters do.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Final summer in the States

On September 25th I leave for Philadelphia for staging, after which I fly to Thies, Senegal, for my three months of training. At the end of training Peace Corps will finally inform me of my exact site and project.

For now I'm making the most of my last summer in the states. It's been a flurry of working, playing, and prepping for Africa. I've done some great climbing (the Sisters and Mt. Hood, OR) and hiking (Olympics and Cascades, WA). My brother got married in the end of July at our house on Bainbridge. The ceremony was spectacular, with homemade split log benches my dad and brothers and I made, and flowers that my mom carefully tended.

In my spare time I've been attempting to prepare myself by getting gear together, studying French, and reading up on the history of Senegal and Peace Corps' involvement.