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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CBT Stay #1

Honoo heen!  This morning we returned to the training center after having spent the last 5 days in full language immersion with our Senegalese host families. Seven other Peace Corps Trainees and I were placed in the neighborhood of Samba Laube, in the town of Mbour, about a half-hour from Thies.  On Thursday (tomorrow!), I’m going back to Samba Laube, and this time I’m staying for 11 days, so I’ll have to skip my normal Wednesday blog next week, but when I write the week after that, I will have pictures.  Please feel free to call my Senegalese cell phone any time during the next 11 days - I'm sure speaking English will feel really nice.

When I stepped out of the van in front of my compound last Thursday, I was immediately surrounded by 13 jumping Senegalese excitedly shouting at me in a language I didn’t understand.  They grabbed my backpack, purse, and water bottle from me, then the father grabbed my hand and pulled me into their compound.  Everyone was talking to me at once and I had no idea what anyone was saying.  Finally, after about 5 minutes of craziness, a young woman around my age said “seu nome na américa?”  I (thankfully) had had one semester of high school Spanish, which is similar to Portuguese, so I was able to answer that!  I gave her my English name, and she clapped and pantomimed for me to write it in the sand.  After I did so, everyone clapped and hollered, and one of the older women yelled something at the smallest boy.  He gleefully stomped out my name in the sand with his bare feet, then, on cue, everyone pointed to me and yelled “HADJA BALDE!” (it sounds like hahd-jah bald-ay).  And that’s how I got my Senegalese name.

The compound consists of three cement buildings, an outhouse, and a deep well.  There’s no electricity, and I bathe with water from the well, a cup, and a bucket.  I have my own room in the compound, which is about 10 x 15 feet and has nothing but a bed with a Peace Corps supplied mosquito net in it and three giant but harmless spiders.  I am curious about who was using the room before me and how many people are crammed into other rooms now just so I can have my own space, but I don’t have the language skills to ask that yet.  The stars at night are amazing.  

The first day was pretty confusing.  I have a million stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings I could share.  You might remember from an earlier post that I said French is the national language of Senegal, so everyone who’s educated knows some French.  My family is not educated and did not know French...or English…or German…so I had to learn to speak Fulakunda pretty quickly.  I looked up how to say “what’s this?” in Fulakunda (hoko woni?, in case you’re wondering) and wrote the answers to everything they said in my notebook, so I know a ton of nouns but not so many verbs.  A woman named Fatou was teaching me parts of the body that first day, touching her eye and saying “gire” for example, and she calmly whipped out a boob to teach me the words for breast and nipple.  Every morning, I spent a few hours at Fulakunda class with my teacher and two other PCTs learning the language.  The classes were casual – we’d sit on mats and write useful phrases and vocabulary in our notebooks, and every 10 minutes or so someone from the neighborhood would stop by to say hello, or someone would come by to give us cups of delicious, potent, super-sugary tea (attaya).  The other PCTs are having an easier time with acquisition than I am because their compounds have people that speak English or French, so they can clarify when they don’t understand something.  I’m hoping that I’ll get over this initial hump of confusion and start to understand more soon.   It’s frustrating that it takes me 10 minutes of pantomiming and looking up words to say something like “I am going back to Thies tomorrow morning.”

My tokara (AKA namesake – AKA her name is also Hadja Balde) was the young woman who spoke Portuguese to me when I got there.  She grew up in Guinea Bissau, so Fulakunda is her first language, but she learned Portuguese in school.  She’s 27 and has 3 kids, but only two live in the compound, Kadi (3) and Yaya (1).  The oldest kid is still in Guinea Bissau, but I don’t have the language yet to ask why.  Her husband leaves for work very early and comes back late, so I don’t know much about him other than that he’s an Arabic scribe.  There are 4 other women and one other man that live in the compound with me.  I thought the older man’s name was “babba maa” because he kept pointing to his chest and saying that, but I learned on day 3 that “babba maa” actually means “your father” and his name is Mamadou Salif.  He is a fortune teller and has two wives, Adama and Assamau, who are my mothers.   A different woman also named Assamau has a daughter named Mari (5) but I don’t know who or where her husband is.  Fatu has a daughter named Assamau (8).  Jennebou has four kids: Zahara (8), Hulay (6), Mustafa (3) and Samba (infant.)  There’s another kid named Fatamata who’s 9 and I have no idea who she belongs to. I’m pretty sure there are indeed three Assamaus, confusing as that is.  

The legendary Senegalese hospitality has exceeded my expectations.  I feel like royalty.  Everywhere I go, people jump out of their chairs to offer them to me.  Hadja and I share our own bowl at lunch, and when we’re finished the rest of the family gets our leftovers.  I try to help cook, sweep, do laundry, or draw water from the well, and they tell me to stop and sit down, then they bring me tea or juice.  Every day, Hadja’s husband comes home from work with a bag of cheese balls for me that he bought on the way.  For breakfast each day, I am served on a US Presidents plate with a big picture of Bill Clinton on the middle.

None of the kids go to school or have ever gone to school (I asked that several times in several ways, just to be sure, because I desperately wanted to have misunderstood), but they are the happiest bunch of kids I’ve ever seen and they’re delighted with everything I do.  It was shocking to see the way the kids live at first. I want to stress again that these kids are happy, and they seem strong, well-fed, and energetic, but they literally play in the dirt in the compound all day, their clothes are tattered and dirty, they cough a lot, and their noses are always covered in snot.  Kadi and Mustafa frequently pick plastic bags off the ground and suck on them.  A few of them have open sores.  They do always wash their hands before eating, though (thanks former Peace Corps volunteers!).  I brought a deck of uno cards because I thought that playing with the kids would help me learn colors and numbers, but I had to teach THEM numbers before we could play.  They knew how to count objects, but I don’t think they knew that the symbol “8” represented eight objects.  I had a map of the world with me, and when I asked them where Senegal was, where they were, where Africa was, where America was, no one knew.  This might just be a communication problem - after all, I have only been speaking their language for a couple days - but it might be indicative of a larger problem.  In my compound, and I think in most others, the kids are left to their own devices while the men do their own thing and the women do their own thing, so there’s no supervision, formal education, or scheduled activities for the kids.  In my compound there are no books, no magazines, no TVs, and no radios, and I wonder how much the kids learn without those inputs.  They’re great language teachers because they never get bored of talking to me.  When I learn a new word, I say it in Fulakunda 3 times and in English 3 times, then we see who can remember better.   They usually win.

Unrelated, but awesome: I’m on methloquine as an anti-malarial medication, and side effects of that are vivid dreams and hallucinations.  I haven’t had any hallucinations (yet?) but the vivid dreams are sooooooo much fun! Three nights in the last week I’ve been able to recognize that I was dreaming, and then control the dream.  Usually in lucid dreams, sensations are dulled, but with the methloquine, everything looks and feels like it should, and it’s fantastic.  Like, I can fly, and I can feel the air rushing past…and I can eat anything…and I can feel anything…it’s terrific.

Until next time!


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Training photos and a language placement!

We’re in the full swing of training now, which is simultaneously monotonous and hectic.  From our arrival last Wednesday until today, we have had daily scheduled events from 8 am until late into the evening.  We do have formal classes, but there are other more casual events on the schedule as well.  For example, on Saturday night, a group of volunteers nearing the end of their service brought us to a bar down the road for a few beers. On Sunday night, there was a trivia competition (featuring a category on Rebecca Black!).  Monday afternoon we did language testing and medical interviews, then went out for more beers. 

"Dry Country" my ass.

Training is excellent.  I had heard before I got here that training would be tough, I would be overwhelmed, and I would feel like quitting, so I had been mentally prepared for the worst, but I could not imagine a more supportive training staff. The classes are well-structured and useful and the teachers are friendly and engaging.  They see themselves as coaches to help us thrive, not as disciplinarians who punish us if we’re not good enough.  So far, we’ve had about 20 formal classes, including “Intro to Malaria,” “Current State of Health in Senegal,” “American Diversity,” “Resiliency,” and “Staying Healthy in Senegal,” and just today we started our local language classes.  Although French is the national language of Senegal (so nearly everyone who's educated speaks some French), we’re expected to learn the languages of our villages so we’ll be able to reach more people at the community level.  The majority of our Peace Corps training is going to be language acquisition based, since it doesn’t matter how much we know about community health if we can’t communicate it with anyone.  My language is Fulakunda, which is spoken mostly in the Kolda region, which is in the rain-foresty, humid, full-of-plants south, which is exactly what I wanted!  After three months at our permanent sites (around September), we’ll be coming back to the training center to do technical training, since our language skills should be somewhat developed by that point.

This is "The Disco Hut."  A lot of our training sessions take place in there.

We have also received our medical kits (basically a suitcase full of all the over-the-counter meds anyone could ever hope for), water filters, and mosquito nets, and we got rabies and meningitis vaccinations and practiced giving ourselves blood tests for Malaria (I’m negative, what up).

The food at the center is usually good.  

Bonus points if you can spot the lizard on the middle pillar.

All the ladies in my training group are as gorgeous as these three.  It's a little intimidating.

Unfortunately, I still can’t make myself like fish, but it seems like every culture has their rice and bean specialties, and I love those!  One of our Senegalese teachers said women should never say they love beans because it’s like admitting they’re farty.  Whatever.

The biologist in me immediately noticed that there are way too many raptors in Thies, and it freaks me out. There are literally thousands of giant predatory birds everywhere.  They swoop over our heads and constantly circle in the sky.  If the Senegalese fishermen are netting enough fish that the leftovers in the market are able to sustain a raptor population that large, it’s no wonder global fisheries are collapsing. I don’t understand this Thies food web and I don’t see how it’s in any way sustainable.

There are a ton of lizards at the training center, too.  They’re hard to get pictures of because they freeze when they sense people nearby, then if you do happen to notice them, they run and hide.  I’ve never lived somewhere with lizards, and I’m loving it.

The other Peace Corps trainees in my group are an amazing group of people.  Nearly everyone has traveled extensively, most have impressive work or internship accomplishments, and 11 of us are PCMI masters students.  Most of the people in my training group are looking for a career in international development or global health after their service, and everyone is smart and inquisitive without ever being boastful of their impressive accomplishments.  I’m really enjoying discussions with them because I feel like they have a lot to teach me.  I definitely don’t feel worthy of being included in their ranks, but I’m honored that some Washington higher-up thought I belonged in a group as exemplary as this one.

As we’ve been learning about the country, I’ve been thinking about possible future projects I could do here.  Apparently within the last 5 years or so there has been a plague of invasive garden pests that have been devastating crops down south, in the Kolda and Kedouga regions.  Since a lot of the people that live there are subsistence farmers, those pests have the potential to ruin a lot of peoples’ days.  I’m by no means an expert on gardening, but I’ve done it before, and I’ll have (pretty much) unlimited free time to research the pests and try out different methods of killing them.  I’ve also thought about working with schools to do after-school programming (like a health and wellness club) or to have community cooking classes to encourage women to include more vegetables into their diets.  It’d be a mistake to choose a project before I even get to my site, but I’m encouraged to find so many possible future projects interesting after only a week!

Tomorrow, we’re leaving the training center for our first homestay, which is when we’ll be tossed, albeit very gently, into a Senegalese family and expected to swim with the culture.  Peace Corps has told us that during our first homestay, we’re supposed to be friendly and humble, and to listen and try to learn a few words.  The Peace Corps staff totally understands that language doesn’t come immediately and they keep telling us to just do the best we can and to not worry about the inevitable mutual misunderstandings.  I’m bringing UNO cards and a bunch of vegetables, so I hope that’s enough of a peace offering to make them like me.  I’ll have lots of stories about my host family in next week’s blog post, I’m sure, but we're supposed to leave all electronics at our training site, so no pictures on that just yet.

Favor to ask for my stateside friends reading this:  Please call me.  The wifi here isn’t wonderful (it is West Africa, after all) so it’s not possible for me to Skype from my computer.  Calls to the US from my phone cost about 40 cents a minute, which adds up fast on a volunteer salary (consider that two kilos of carrots are about 20 cents and two yards of fabric are about 50 cents). You can call my Senegalese cell phone using Skype or a phone card for a very low cost, and calls that I receive here are free for me.  I know I’ve only been gone a couple weeks, but I still miss you.  I don’t want to write my cell phone number on a public blog, but I did put it on Facebook, so look it up or message me and ask for it.  I will have a cell phone all through my service.  When everything around me is foreign it’s really nice to hear a familiar voice talking about familiar things.  All the people in my training group are great, but I have only known them for a week, so there are certain things we can't discuss. Seriously, even if you've only got 5 minutes - call me.

Til next week!


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Day 1 done!

I am now done with my first day in Senegal, and so far, it’s exceeding my expectations!  It’s around 8pm here now, but this has been a very long day. I woke up at 8, went to Target to buy unnecessary but appreciated last-minute American junk food, went running in the hotel gym, showered, changed, ate one last Chipotle burrito, and boarded a bus from our staging hotel in Philadelphia to JFK airport.  We had to check out of our hotel by noon, but our flight didn’t leave until 9:30, so we had a lot of time to kill.  Naturally, since we are America’s Finest, we decided to get tipsy on $10 airport beers.  I had intended to sleep on the flight, but they had excellent in-flight movie selections (Gravity, The Hobbit, and the TV series Adventure Time) the flight attendants kept walking around and offering us delicious snacks, and I was sandwiched in the middle seat, so I only slept for about a half-hour of the eight-hour flight. 

When I got off the plane in Dakar the first thing I noticed was the temperature.  I’d been worried that it would be too hot, but it was perfect – 80, sunny, and breezy, and the air was scented with saltwater and blooming flowers.  We collected our luggage and went across a parking lot to two waiting busses.  There was an adorable little boy begging everyone for money in Wolof near the bus - I gave him a banana that I had taken from the plane (I’m a bit of a hoarder) even though I don’t think we’re supposed to do that.  They say that giving beggars money just perpetuates the myth that westerners are rich and encourages them to keep begging, but I had just figured that I had a banana I didn’t need and he looked like he could use it.  Whatever.

I fell asleep for most of the 2-hour bus ride from Dakar to Thies (pronounced “chess”, oddly enough) so I missed most of the landscape, but if what I missed was similar to what I saw, there were a lot of dirt hills, baobab trees, and roadside vendors selling watermelons.   I was very happy to see the abundance of green near the road.  I’d been nervous that Senegal was treeless desert.  Maybe it is farther north, but if I end up being placed in a site that’s similar to what I’ve seen today, I’m very happy with that.

The training center is incredible – it feels like I’m staying at a resort.  There are mango and banana trees, a big vegetable garden, and tons of birds and lizards.  We had an impromptu dance party this afternoon.  There were these four Senegalese men who showed up to drum some tribal beats and lead a big group dance.  The dancing was awkward at best, but that was actually perfect, since I have no rhythm but could still easily follow along with the random limb-slinging.  It was a lot of fun, even though I’m sure I looked like an idiot.  Almost all of the other PCTs were also dancing and laughing. 

I have no idea what the rest of the week will look like.  We will get sorted into our language learning groups soon, and language acquisition will be the focus for the majority of training.  I’m hoping that I’ll get a “harder” less commonly spoken language since I’m hoping to be placed in a tiny village, but I’m sure I’ll be happy in a larger town as well.