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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Maps and Pen Pals

A fellow Koldan (Koldaite? Kalabandit?) who is fascinated with maps recently did a tourney of over a dozen schools in our region.  At each location, he painted a map of Africa (done with a really nifty stencil and spray paint) then supplied the teachers at the school with a curriculum guide to incorporate the map into their lessons.  I chose to paint my Africa map in Dinguira, right next to the Senegal map I did there back in December.

In progress

Unfortunately (fortunately), Jim's map was so great it made my Senegal map look pretty crappy by comparison, so my friend Lauren came over and we added a lot of detail to Senegal - roads, rivers, cities, and a legend.

All of the teachers said they wanted to use the maps in their lessons, but there was only one who invited me to watch the lesson take place.  Mr Sadio technically only has 24 students in his class, but is apparently lenient about not sending kids home who haven't paid the inscription fees yet, since on the day I came in there were almost double that number present.

After explaining what a map was and how they were used, Mr. Sadio showed his students where Dinguira, Kolda, and Senegal were located, then asked students to point out key features of both maps.

After that, he moved into the classroom and wrote information about Senegal's geography on the chalkboard for the kids to copy into their notebooks.  A notebook, a pen, and a chalkboard slab are the only learning materials available for students at the Dinguira school, so that is how they study - copying the board and then studying their notebooks.  There are no textbooks or copy-machined articles.

Meanwhile, a few kilometers away, I delivered the next batch of Pen Pal letters to the students of Teyel.  The students read their letters aloud, laughing excitedly, then passed them around to their friends and immediately began drafting their responses.  If everything goes as planned, I'll be able to deliver the next letters from Teyel to St. Paul when I go home on vacation in a couple weeks.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Pulaar Movie Nights

I got a free 8-inch tablet during staging (Nexus tablets, 1000 of them, were donated by Google to the National Peace Corps Association, and my training group was one of the lucky ones that received them).  I finally found a use for it when a fellow PCV announced that she figured out how to put movies on it.  Since the tablet was free, I won’t be devastated if Senegal kills it like it kills most electronics.  Since it has an incredible battery life (around 10 hours) we can bring it out most nights, put it on an upturned 5-gallon water jug, and let the whole neighborhood gather around. So far, watching movies has been one of my favorite things I’ve done here. 

My family has an endless attention span (after all, most of their days are spent sitting staring into empty space – when they actually have a screen to stare at, they are enthralled).  They’re curious, asking questions of me or of each other when they don’t understand something.  I think that movie nights have taught my family about American culture, but they’ve also taught me a lot.  By seeing how everyone reacts to the movies, I can see ways that they and I are the same – or ways that we’re different. 

Here are movies watched, in order, with my family’s impressions and comments about each one.  Maybe y’all will find this as interesting as I do.

Planet Earth – entire series.  I decided to start with this because since it’s a high-quality nature documentary, language is unnecessary, only an appreciation for cute critters.  No one knew what to think of a kangaroo.
 “Is it a rabbit or a horse?” asked my brother Oussaman.
 “Umm…Kangaroo,” I responded. 
Kangado?!” (crazy person?!), he asked. 
“I think it’s a rabbit,” offered my other brother.
“Yes.  It is a rabbit,” Oussaman agreed.
Most other animals were determined to be some variation of rowandu ledde, dog of the forest (wolf, fox, dingo, coyote, jackal) puccu ledde, horse of the forest (antelope, zebra, deer, moose, buffalo) or lingu, fish (shark, seal, dolphin, whale, jellyfish, stingray).  I thought my family was really into Planet Earth, because everyone was attentive and engaged, but after we started watching other things I found they loved everything else even more.

How to Train Your Dragon – They didn’t believe me that Hiccup was a teenager, and instead believed that he was a small child, so the little unfolding romance was confusing.  Everyone wanted him to kill the dragon for the first half of the movie, but by the end agreed that riding on it would be a lot of fun.  I tried to make the point that if you’re nice to animals they’re nice to you, and that’s why I don’t hit my dog, but that message continues to fall on deaf ears.

Lion King – The songs were very popular, and everyone was hushed and sad when Mufasa died.  Favorite moment: during the animated song-and-dance sequence that is “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” a neighbor turned to my sister and asked, “Is this real?”  My sister said, “I don’t know…ask Kadiatou.”  After the neighbor asked me and I said it wasn’t, she said, “I didn’t think it was real.  Animals can’t sing.”  Then she scoffed and walked away.

Titanic – Jack is a universal studmuffin.  The guy hitting the propeller as he falls off the boat at the end is universally funny to preteen boys.  Rose throwing the necklace overboard at the end instead of selling it is universally confusing. The naked painting scene, which I was sort of concerned about, was not awkward at all, possibly because everyone here sees dozens of boobs a day.  Everyone’s favorite scene was the 3rd-class party, with the fiddle music and the dancing.  Since showing this, kids in my compound have screamed, “Jack! Jack!” “Rose!  Rose!” to each other while one is hiding, as a sort of Marco Polo game, which I think is hilarious.   Most teen and adult women said this was their favorite movie.

Human Planet - Deserts – This was weird.  Everything in the show was familiar to me and my family – mud huts, drawing water from wells with a pulley, herding cows – but the narrator was far too serious, making it sound like all the people profiled were suffering for having the lifestyle they did.  I was happy they couldn’t understand the narrator and slightly embarrassed by what he was saying.  Life can be hard here, but it’s not nearly as hard as the show made it look (at least not here). 

Up – Everyone thought that Kevin the bird was hilarious, and I had to replay the scene where Russell climbs up Mr. Fredrickson’s face four times because it was so funny.  When people asked me if American dogs could really fly planes, I said yes (of course).  Most younger kids said this was their favorite movie.

Aladdin – This one completely failed.  Everyone hated it.  Usually, we watch movies over two days, since I feel bad keeping kids up past 9pm on a ‘school night’ (even though few kids in my village actually go to school).  I usually have to insist that it’s time for bed while everyone whines that they want to watch more.  With Aladdin, it was the kids’ idea to turn it off.  No one thought the genie was funny at all, and I couldn’t explain any of his jokes, since they feed so heavily from American pop culture.  I wasn't able to explain the concept of a wish-granting genie, either. They said that Jafar looked like Scar from the Lion King, which I found incredibly perceptive.  The best part of Aladdin was during the magic carpet ride, when a kid said, “Jack! I’m flying!” in a perfect Kate Winslet Titanic impression.

Selena – Also a very popular choice.  They thought Selena was beautiful, both as a child and a young woman, and they loved the song “Como la Fleur.”  In the couple days after showing this there was a marked increase in preteen girl dancing and singing around the compound.  Every girl between the ages of 8 and 15 said this was their favorite movie, which I’m really happy about, since that means they’ll probably be into musicals, and I am too.

Jurrasic Park- I hadn’t watched this in years and barely remembered it, so I didn’t know what I was getting into.  The beginning of the movie was very slow, focusing more on conversations than on dinosaur attacks, and the copy of the film I had was missing an audio track for some reason, so I wasn’t able to explain what was going on.  Although people were bored by the movie at first, once I told them the dinosaurs were going to “start snacking on people”, everyone wanted to wait for that and would not let me turn it off, so we watched this until 11pm.  Luckily (unluckily?) the next day was a teacher strike so no one had anything to get up early for.  A neighbor kid who’s around 5 got too scared during the T. rex rampage and started crying, and his mom and sister yelled at him to be quiet and made him walk home in the dark alone because they didn’t want to stop watching it.  Finally, by the end of the movie, I had them using the word “dinosaur,” but the first few times they saw dinosaurs, they insisted that the plant-eaters were niiwa ledde, elephants of the forest, and the carnivores were donkonteri mawndi, big lizards.  I said many times that it was only a movie and that though dinosaurs used to live everywhere (even in Senegal) all of them are dead now, but then I kept overhearing them comment to each other that animals in America were very bad and they didn’t want to go there.  More dinosaur films are necessary, I’d say.  Most males over the age of 8 said this was their favorite movie.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A year in: still a manchild.

As I’m here longer and longer and I “integrate” more and more, there are nuances of being a foreigner in a village that are just starting to come to the surface.  I do consider myself a member of the community here.  I live with a family, I eat their food, I sleep in their compound, I play with their kids, and I am usually treated like one of the gang.  Sometimes, however, there are rude little reminders that inform me I’m really not one of the group at all…and the longer I’m here, the more I start to feel comfortably at home, the more painful and surprising it is for me to feel those reminders, like springs poking my skin when I settle into a favorite old recliner.

I've blogged about this before, saying that I felt like a "manchild" here - I'm a child because I can't speak or understand well and I make silly cultural mistakes, but I'm a man because I'm still seen as a patron, still expected to give people goods and knowledge, to save them from poverty.  Now I'm year in, and though many things have changed, I'm still a manchild.

The other day I didn’t have anything planned for the afternoon, so I just hung out with my sister and brother in my family’s compound.  Both of them are in their early 20s, left school early, and don’t have a whole lot going for them in life, besides eventually finding spouses.  My language is good enough now that we were able to rib on each other, just like siblings are supposed to do.  I was having fun – the dogs were playing, we were laughing, we were drinking tea with mint, and there was a cool breeze ruffling through the leaves of the mango trees.  I was feeling at home, at ease, content, wishing I had longer than a year left here, already dreading saying goodbye to this place and these people I love so much.  Then a visitor from another village (who had just arrived for a dennabo the following day) walked into the compound, did a double take when he saw me, and zeroed in. 

“Your name.”
“Oh! You know Pulaar!”
“A little.”
“Where is your husband?”
“I don’t have a husband.”
“I am your husband.”
“I don’t agree.”
“Take me to America.”
“I don’t agree.”
“Haha!  You know Pulaar!”
“A little.”
“Are you having fun?”
“A little.”
“Haha!  You eat money!  You only have fun!  You don’t work!”
*awkward laugh*
“America is nice.  Take me to America.  I am your husband.”
*awkward laugh*
“You agree, my wife!  You will take me to America”….and so on, and so on.

Asu and Oussaman didn’t say anything to come to my defense…why would they?  I’m not really their sister.  I’m just a random white person that’s living with them for a while. They wouldn’t risk offending this middle aged man, someone whose opinion actually matters, by telling him he was making me uncomfortable. My “siblings” might like me more than other toubacos they’ve known, but I’m still just a toubaco, not a real person. I can understand much more here than I used to, but for everything I understand, there are a hundred things I don’t. 

I’m here because I had a vague intention of helping people, but even after a year of living with the family, I understand only a tiny percentage of what goes on around me.  Like a toddler, I can understand when people want me to understand, but normal adult conversations are over my head.  Normal Pulaar needs to be translated into Kadiatou Pulaar, slower and more carefully enunciated, before I can make sense of it.  Like a child, I’m a source of entertainment on slow days.  When I leave my family’s compound, people scream my name for no other reason than that it’s funny watching me respond to it.  When I’m sitting with a family and they don’t have anything else to talk about, talk inevitably turns to me – what I’m wearing, how my body looks different from theirs, what I said or did in the days previous.  I’m a fair subject because I’m not a person.  I’m a toubaco.

I’ve been helping my ASC (community health worker) dispense vitamin A and de-worming medications to the several tiny villages that are served by my village’s health hut.  This involves lots of biking on beautiful windy bush paths to villages that are far from the road, villages who rarely see foreigners.  The majority of children have burst out crying and tried to run away when they saw me, which is not great for my self-esteem, but even worse is hearing and, finally, understanding what the mothers say to their kids.  “If you don’t stop crying, the toubaco will cook you for dinner.”  “Behave or the toubaco will take you on her bike.” I came here to volunteer two years of my life to try to help people, and I’m being treated like a witch in a Disney story.  It doesn’t matter if it hurts my feelings.  I don’t have feelings.  I’m not a real person.  I’m a toubaco.

A representative from the district hospital came to my village the other day to ask my ASC about how things are going at his health hut.  Apparently the hospital rep didn’t know there was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the village, because he was confused by my being there and started speaking to me in French.  I told him I didn’t understand French, but he could talk to me in Pulaar.  He then tried to talk to me in Wolof.  I said I didn’t understand Wolof, either.  Then he spoke to me in rapid, fluent, confusing Pulaar, so turned to my ASC so he could translate the fluent Pulaar into the baby Pulaar I’m capable of understanding.  The hospital man was disgusted.  Through my ASC, I got the gist of what he was saying: “You can’t French, you can’t Pulaar, how do you work?  Where are your notebooks describing your work activities? What do you do here?  How many radio shows have you done?  How many causeries have you led? Why are you here? What kind of work are you doing?”  I didn’t know what to say.  I’m at peace, now, with doing very little, but it’s hard defending it to people that are clearly disappointed by my lack of productivity.

There was a random group of five Spanish people visiting a nearby village (Koulinto) last month. They all spoke French and some English, and they were doing a shadow-box theater sketch in several villages, with plans to make a documentary about their time here after they returned home to Spain.  No matter how many times I explained that I had never seen these people before, that we didn’t speak the same language, that I had never been to Spain, everyone kept asking me about how my relatives in Koulinto were doing.  Italy, Spain, France, USA…it’s all the same place to a person who’s never left her village, and my skin color means that THAT place is my home.  Not this place.  No matter how much I want to fit in here in village, no matter how comfortable I start to feel here, I don’t and won’t truly belong.

My friends and family from back home, the ones who speak the same language as me and know my culture through and through, who understand all the weird things I do…I have no idea what they’re up to. I left all of them to come here and hang out in a mud hut in 120 degree heat. 
Most days, I’m happy I’m here, and if I were to go back in time to 2012, I’d still fill out that Peace Corps application. I love my community here and I’m happy with my job, but the inevitable downer days are getting harder and harder to deal with.  When I didn’t understand what was happening around me when I was brand new at site, I told myself that this was temporary, that I’d pick up the language quickly and be able to converse with ease.  A year in, that hasn’t happened, and I’m starting to doubt that it ever will; baby Pulaar might be as good as it gets for me.  Plenty of people in my community are friendly, kind, and patient, but now that I can understand more of what people are saying, I’m picking up that not everyone is as positive and welcoming as I’d hoped they’d be.  Hopefully this struggle will resolve itself soon.