Monday, December 7, 2009

The Waiting Room

When I visit Ndiago's health post, a miracle staffed by able and educated men and women, I usually spend some time in the waiting room. Three tiled benches built out of the walls line three sides of the room; doors lead outside and into the doctor's office, a few examining rooms, and a pharmacy. For an American traveling abroad who might be forced by accident or illness to look for medical help, this place might be a reassuring sight. But the people in my village don't see it that way. My host mother, for example, let a pus-dripping open sore fester for two weeks before finally coming in, though I had been pleading with her to go since the first signs of infection. Furthermore, the cachement area for this health post covers around twenty villages, many of which are far away enough to be tough trips for the seriously ill. But despite this difficulty and the enormous reluctant to make the trip, the waiting room is often packed by mid-morning. After all, there aren't a whole lot of doctors to go around in Senegal, about one for every 10,000 people.

Ndiago is a pretty small village, and though it's not too remote it's still pretty far off the beaten track on the national highway. Most people come and go by horse-drawn carts. So the village might not immediately strike the mind as a place where two worlds are meeting and trying to become comfortable with one another, in spite of some considerable differences. Here, little bits of my world are easily assimilated into Senegalese daily life. I'm the only one who things "Houston" brand cigarettes in red and white Marlboro-esque packages are funny. Girls wear traditional printed skirts and ragged t-shirts with HOLLYWOOD emblazoned across the chest in silver sequins without a trace of irony. Almost every public transit auto sports colorful stickers of Madonna's face, Barack Obama's name, and the Mercedes logo. And all of this with no sense of absurdity, no interest in the ideas behind the images, and no discomfort at all.

But one place where such collisions between two cultures seem to sit less easily on the Senegalese soul is this waiting room. The idea of a waiting room itself doesn't translate too readily. In the States, when you want to see your doctor, you call up and make an appointment. The waiting room is where you get stuck if you're early, or if your doctor's running a bit behind schedule.

Ndiago has about 275 people living in it, and out of those perhaps ten of us could be absolutely depended upon at any point to know exactly what the time is, exactly what day of the month or week it is. Someone will occasionally ask me what day of the "white person month" it is (for example, the 31st of October) but I've never seen that information put to any use. Time, for most people in the village, is figured differently. The call to prayer comes five times a day. If you want to leave the village, you catch a horse cart between sun-up and the beginning of the hot part of the day, or you wait until the heat breaks in the afternoon. The big market in our road town is every Wednesday. Every Friday, the men of the village go to the mosque to do the first afternoon prayer together. Muslim holidays are announced by the moon's phase and ratified by the authority of the marabouts, whose dictum mainly spreads by radio and word of mouth. When I call a meeting, plan an event, or set up a time to talk with someone, I do so by making reference to the prayers.

The system of calling to make an appointment just wouldn't work here. Instead, people walk or ride in to Ndiago in the early morning, even before the post is open. They take their seats in the benches and wait. As each person walks in, perhaps with a child slung across her back or guiding an elderly relative, he or she pauses to greet those who are already seated. Each newcomer greets, asks after the health of common friends or relatives in neighboring villages, finds a place to sit. The greeting ritual is so highly formalized that someone who is seriously ill will, when asked about his or her health, respond that everything's in perfect shape. Nobody is a stranger here. The men and women talk about recent events in the villages: last week's baptisms, the soccer matches between the young men, the peanut harvest. In doctor's offices across America, patients awkwardly sit with at least one empty seat between them and their unknown temporary neighbors. No conversation, no eye contact, no greetings. There's no physical room for avoidance in this waiting room, no way to stay out of contact with the people seated next to you.

All this is true, of course, in a lot of public places in Senegal: schools, for example, and public transit. You're squished together with a lot of strangers, so you might as well make conversation. If the physical reality of the situation is such that it's impossible to feel the peace of solitude, you may as well give up denying that you're not alone. But here in this waiting room, where people come with sometimes terrifying illnesses, the crowd seems invasive. If you're scared for yourself, your child, or your parent, maybe the greeting ritual and patter of conversation grates at your nerves. If something you don't understand is making you sick, maybe what you want is a little bit of solitude and quiet to think it through. You're dealing with apprehension, fear, pain, and a whole host of other emotions. It could be difficult to sort those things out while diligently taking part in a description of all the gifts given on the occasion of a recent wedding.

But this is where Senegalese and American culture clash, and this is where the waiting room, which at first struck me as a bizarrely and inappropriately transferred Western-ism, starts to look like a perfectly designed space for the role it has to play. No one in Senegal seeks out solitude, unless they're very elderly and choose to spend most of their time in prayer and preparation for death. No one chooses to strike off into the wilderness all by himself, far from family and friends. I used to see solitude in Senegal as something to be avoided for practical reasons: the community of the village supports and sustains all the individuals within it, and no individual could survive for long without its framework. But maybe such a closeness is also an emotional necessity for the Senegalese. To be alone is to accept that your death is coming, or to seek it out prematurely. In a time of sickness, a close-packed waiting room where you sit elbow to elbow with neighbors and acquaintances would be reassuring, when you look at it this way. All those people squished in next to you are your life, your way of continuing to live. The doctor and his medications might provide some help and comfort, but I think there's a way in which a return to health and well-being starts here, in this waiting room, where it's impossible to be alone, and so perhaps impossible to die.

Love and guts,


Sunday, November 1, 2009

First round of photos

So I kind of hate taking photographs in Senegal. I didn't put a whole lot of effort into taking these photos, and so far I haven't captioned this album so you won't know what you're looking at. But I'll do that soon, I promise! And since my posts recently haven't been particularly descriptive of my daily life here, I thought this would be good.


I'm working on a couple other posts, but I'm looking to get back to site tomorrow afternoon so I'm not sure I'll be able to finish anything. I'll be back in Kaolack to get a mandatory swine flu vaccine and celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks, though. So I'll talk to you guys then.

Love and guts!


EDIT: I captioned them! Yay for me!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Art of Losing

PRE-PRE-SCRIPT: Ok, I have two hours in Kaolack to get a ton of work done. So I'm not going to edit this before I post it, even though I finished writing it a few days ago and should really give it a glance, or respond to any emails. But I should be back in a week or two, so see you then! Oh yeah, things in the village are fantastic and work is going well. There's a pretty cool latrine thing I've got going, and if it works out.... Well, we'll see.

PRE-SCRIPT: As I write this, I'm somewhere close to my third month without regular Internet access. We moved the Kaolack regional house a few weeks ago, and we're still working on getting everything going. But I believe it should only be a couple more days. I've been working on a couple of blog entries lately, which has been made more difficult than usual by something that gets explained below. So I'm going to try to sweat these last few paragraphs out. If you're one of the people who's sent me an email recently, please excuse me! I've occasionally borrowed a friend's computer and taken it out into town, to one of the couple local spots with wireless access. But it's been difficult to sit and concentrate on communication recently.

For those of you keeping score at home, I'm almost eight months into my service. It's gone shockingly fast. Tomorrow, the next stage of volunteers will be traveling to their regional houses. We'll receive our newbies here in Kaolack and take them shopping, introduce them to the sprawling mess of this city. We're not the new kids any more. Weird.

One of my bosses came out to my village recently to talk about my action plan, a long-term calendar of goals and strategies related to my work in the village. After his visit, I felt rejuvenated and super excited about things to come. So I'm here in Kaolack to help the new volunteers, and then it's back to the village for some good times.

Anyway. On to what I actually wanted to talk about.

I'm familiar with what it feels like to have a song stuck in my head. The two or three lines that you become stuck on, that keep you from moving on to the end. The urge to hum it out loud, to ask around if you've forgotten what line comes next, to spread your suspension to the people around you and force them to take a share in it. I'm familiar with all these things, but only remotely so. Much more often, I find myself chasing a couple of lines of poetry around my skull, sometimes even paragraphs of prose. A few authors and poets do this to me often: John Fowles, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot. And that's when I find myself in trouble. That's when I get the urge to go back and find the paragraph or verse I'm thinking about, put it in its context, as if it were a part of a wall that needed to be rebuilt, a child that had to be tucked back in properly, a gap urgently needing to be filled.

In Senegal, this has become much more difficult. When I was still in college, I had three resources that are completely lost to me now: my fellow students, books, and the Internet. So these days, if I get a line from something stuck in my head, I have to wait until I come into Kaolack and hope that it's findable from here. In this way, I'm learning patience and apathy.

Anyway, the most recent poem that's been driving me nuts is Elizabeth Bishop's One Art, which I first ran across in a high school English class. I'm re-typing it here, not because you wouldn't be able to find it, but for the fun of going through it like this:

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

She wrote this poem toward the end of her life, but I don't know on what occasion. I imagine it was the death of a loved one, though since I don't have any Internet access as I write this, you guys will have to figure that out for yourselves.

It's been a month of small losses for me.

There's a mango tree growing in my latrine. I'll admit to dropping a lot of mango seeds down there recently, mostly out of curiosity. How fertile, exactly, is my poop? Teeming as it is with amoebae and other nasty parasites, can it support more complicated life? Every morning and night, when I brush my teeth, I like to check in on it. Brush, brush, brush, spit. Why, hello, Mango Tree! How are you today? You get the idea. It was the spit part that got me in trouble one night. I went to spit and stare, and my glasses dropped off my nose, bounced (I held my breath and prayed, but couldn't catch them) twice, and fell down the three meters into my poop pit, landing with what seemed to be a rather self-satisfied splooshing noise at the bottom.

I took it very well. Once I stopped choke-laughing on my toothpaste, I slipped back into my hut and found my replacement pair. The Peace Corps, in its infinite wisdom, makes us bring an extra to country. Presumably for just such an emergency. And thanks to the fantastic insurance coverage we've got over here, the American taxpayers will be buying me another pair. The whole thing is more of a funny story than anything else. It all makes me think I should keep a list of the strange things that accidentally or purposefully find themselves in my latrine.

The second loss was more significant. I arrived in Kaolack one day to find that the rainy season had claimed my beloved laptop. Even though I had left it locked up in a secure, metal-plated chest (tastefully decorated in wall-paper covered in teddy bears), somehow the rain had found its way in. I dried it out for a while, but the keyboard's still not working and the whole thing is generally behaving rather funkily. Considering everything that's there, I feel like I have the right to be pretty upset. My music collection, photos, writing from my college years. I'll probably be able to scrape the hard drive out and salvage all that, but I'd also become really attached to the particular experience of writing and working with that machine. I'm borrowing a friend's laptop now, but the keys aren't fit so perfectly to my fingers, it just doesn't feel like home.

I was deeply upset for a day, and then almost completely forgot about it. I only see my computer every couple of weeks or so, and I suppose some forgetting of it had already occurred. And of course I knew when I came to Senegal that there was a good chance my computer wouldn't be making the return trip home with me. This place is hell on electronics, and of course there's always the possibility of theft. Nevertheless, my laptop was on a short list of things I had hoped to protect while here. If you had told me before I left for Senegal that I would have this type of accident so early on in my service, I think I would have been a little bit upset about it. But now, my computer's absence is nothing. It doesn't bother me, I don't ever think of it.

The last thing I lost recently was my cell phone. I didn't lose it, precisely. But I broke it. No need to get into the details of how I managed to do the damage, but it was pretty dumb on my part. Suddenly, on this Friday night, the damn thing was only good as a flashlight. My phone number itself was lost: no one calling my number would have been able to get through. My contacts were all lost, and since my main method of communication with other volunteers is through text messages, a fair number of threads of conversations were gone as well. Friends who sent me texts (and I had been in the middle of a couple exchanges) would wonder why I had all of a sudden gone quiet. And I would be unable to explain myself until I got to Guinguineo, purchased a new SIM card, installed it, waited for two days for the Senegalese phone company people to wake it up. And then I would have to find a way to get back in contact with everyone. It's not as if I had written any one's phone number down, so that part was going to be tricky. Anyway, I was upset with myself, unhappy about how slow the process of healing would be, and bitter about the loss of contact, contacts. I went to bed that night in a black mood, about as bad as anything I've felt since getting here.

I left for Guinguineo the next morning, and was home in time for lunch. A couple of days later, I had a functioning cell phone again and I was able to track down most of the people I had been in contact with. Nothing important had happened during my three nights of being completely out of touch with my friends in Senegal, the Peace Corps folk in Dakar, and people back in the United States. The crisis was past. But during those days, I noticed the same feeling I had experienced with my computer; or rather, the same lack of feeling. There had been the initial anxiety, the initial disgust with myself for messing up my phone. But then, nothing.

I guess it's no surprise that I notice myself becoming less attached to the physical presence of my property, less materialistic. After all, the space in which I live has become considerably smaller. I store some stuff at the Kaolack house, but really, everything I own is in that little hut. And that little hut is itself made of rocks, mud, sticks, and a little bit of cement. Believe it: in the middle of the worst storms of the rainy season, after seeing other huts in the village collapse, I certainly made a mental inventory of the things in my hut I would attempt to salvage if the thatched roof collapsed and the walls caved in. I saw myself sifting through a pile of rubble, looking for... nothing. My wallet, my cell phone, my headlamp. If I hadn't lost my black security blanket utterly shapeless old hoodie, that too. But I realized that all I would really want would be the handful of change it would require for me to catch a charette to Guinguineo, and from there, a car to Kaolack. That's 600 CFA, or a little over a dollar.

Maybe it used to be important to me to have a mental list of the things I could depend upon always having with me. No matter where I found myself, if I had even partial use of my mental faculties I would probably have remembered my wallet, my cell phone, etc. And if I were at home (Los Angeles, Annapolis, Chicago) I would have a familiar stack of books, a computer, other small things to pour over, with which I could spin the sort of net that would keep my personality from leaking away and merging with others. People were like that for me, too. Carrying around a cell phone with a list of names and numbers in it was always a little like carrying around the selves those names and numbers represented. It was always so easy to pick up the phone and be connected. Suddenly those possessions aren't here anymore, and I have recent occasion to realize that the ones that are, aren't here forever. They never were, of course, but the illusion is gone. And the people in that phone book are gone, too. It costs me about a dollar a minute to call the United States, and an international text message costs the same. And even if you guys over there in the States signed up for Skype and called me occasionally, we would inevitably sometimes find ourselves, separated by an ocean and by a vaster gulf of daily experiences, with nothing to say to each other.

If I had made a list a year ago of people and things I was unwilling to lose in this way, it would have been pretty long. I need reminders of others, the presence of things. Or I thought I did. I thought I needed the presence of others and the forces of their personalities to assert the existence of my own, to interact, to expect things of me. I thought I would be lost without a handful of possessions and unable to function. I was wrong, at least in part. I lost my glasses, my computer, and my cell phone. These three items would have been on that list. And yet their loss was no disaster. So I have to ask myself now: what would that thing or person be, that losing them would be a disaster? And since I have to question the validity of my list, as it's been proved inaccurate so far, I have also to ask myself if I'll even know in advance what it is that's of vital importance to me. I can't guess what it's going to be. I can only wait to lose it, in its turn.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Childhood in Senegal

OK! Hello. Remind me to tell you later about mosquito nets. SUCH GOOD NEWS. But yeah, I wanna get this stuff out first.

We're about a week in to Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. I'm fasting along with my family, abstaining from eating or drinking between 5 AM, the dawn prayer, and about 7:30 PM, the sundown prayer. It hasn't been horribly difficult so far, though getting work done is tough. People are hungry, and as the day goes along they become increasingly cranky. There's a lot I want to share about this all, but I think I'll wait until we're a little further a long in the holiday before I talk about it.

I've been thinking a lot about childhood in Senegal recently. The children here don't fast during Ramadan. Some of them are lucky to have leftovers from the previous day's dinner to eat during the day, some eat with other families, some fend for themselves in other ways. It's probably not a horrible time to be a child, in many ways: no school, not as much work, a lot of time to sit around and play cards. Of course, if you happen to still be breast-feeding you might be in for it. Many mothers choose to fast, even if they should be eating for two. And there's one other pitfall.

Every time a child is bugging me in the village, or trying to play while I'm trying to study, or attempting to help me in the pepiniere or while doing a baby-weighing, the response from the adults is always the same: "He's just rude, Aissa. Go find a stick and beat him." Corporal punishment is the norm here, where children are raised not by one father and one mother but by a whole village of extended family members. Maybe the standardization helps, since the children wander from compound to compound, family to family. There's no squabbling over how much time-out is too much time-out, no question of whether a parent is over-reacting by taking toys away (what toys?). If an adult thinks a child is out of line, that kid gets anything from a smack on the leg or face to a full-on beating. Smacking someone else's kid is just as acceptable as smacking your own. Sometimes other adults will intervene if a beating is getting a little out of hand, and if it's being done in public: "That's enough, that's enough." But this is an entrenched community practice. If your kid comes home sobbing, saying the neighbor smacked him, you're going to shrug and accept that your kid probably had it coming. You wouldn't think of going to speak with the neighbor about it, and you're not mad. You've maybe even smacked someone else's kid today. That's how it works.

I've been thinking about all this because from the very first day of the fast, the intensity and frequency of this type of punishment went through the roof. I've seen someone smack a kid for nothing in particular almost every day I've been in Senegal, so I thought I was getting used to it. No way. Not even close. Everyone's in a bad mood these days. Cranky parents are beating the crap out of their kids, or maybe just smacking them a little more than usual. Two kids in my compound got in a little tiff over cards the other day, not an uncommon experience when you're 3 or 5 years old. Their mom responded by dragging them both across the compound to her room, with them bawling and trying to squirm out of their clothes to get away and dragging their limbs and flailing all over the place, with the rest of us looking on. She shoved them in, closed the door and barred it from the inside, and just went to town on them.

All of this made me remember one of my experiences from the very beginning of my time in Senegal (all of 6 months ago now, by the way). When I came back from Thies to my home-stay in Thieneba one day, we had a young visitor. Her name was Fatu, and she was the 4 year-old daughter of my mother's sister's daughter. This is a pretty close relation in Senegal, and her frequent visits weren't anything out of the ordinary. My host mom was always easy-going, perhaps because all the other children in the house were a little more grown up and once your kids get to be a certain age you just don't have to do as much yelling. The family environment was always friendly, always easy, and more like an American household than anything I've seen since. Fatu seemed to be enjoying her visit and loving the attention from my mom, though she was pretty scared of me.

One night during dinner, Fatu had a little hissy fit. I have no idea what started it, but it climaxed when she threw her mug of a warm millet desert called fonde to the floor. In a single moment, the mug shattered against the cement, food flew everywhere, and my mom, who had been sitting right next to Fatu, slapped her once across the face. By the time Fate had recovered from her shock enough to begin crying, my mom had already started cleaning up the mess. She hadn't raised her voice, hadn't at all relished hitting the child, and wasn't looking to do it again. She had hit Fatu once, and in such a way that it marked the end of a tiny crisis, not the beginning of a big one. Fatu sat in the same spot for ten minutes, mouth open, nose running, solid bawling flowing right out of her, water from a storm drain, an un-ending un-varying stream, my mother moving efficiently around her as she picked up the jagged clay remains of the mug. When she had finished cleaning, my mom finished her own mug of millet and headed back to the kitchen niche to clean up the dinner dishes. My sister Ndeye, 13, and still one of my favorites, approached Fatu slowly, coaxed her onto her lap and into silence, soothed her with more of the sweet, warm millet. My mom came back out and sat with us. Still seeming a little disconsolate, Fatu crawled into her lap, where my mom rocked her to sleep. The woman who had made the little girl cry in the first place was the only person who could really console her. Of course, what I saw happen then to Fatu was nothing like the beatings I see in the village. They're different worlds.

I don't know. It's just one more thing about Senegal, I guess. Hard to watch, hard to talk about. I want to try to explain cultural differences away, to make them comprehensible within the world-view I've grown into, to make them disappear. That makes me pretty uncomfortable. But so does refraining from making any comment. I guess I'll just reassure you all that I haven't hit any of the kids yet, and I don't plan on it.

Love and guts,


Sunday, August 2, 2009

... And one more thing.

Guys, I'm incredibly excited about the malaria net distributions I'll be doing soon. Not too long from now, every single bed and sleeping area in my village will be covered with a mosquito net, and I'm estimating that we'll get something like 75% coverage in the three villages around mine.

I'm been amazed by the generosity shown by friends, family, friends of friends, and random anonymous strangers who have chosen to give money to the Against Malaria campaign. I want to thank you all. It makes me feel like a part of a huge, loving family that stretches from some new friends in Australia all the way to a collective of artists, musicians, and activists in Los Angeles. It makes me proud of the work I do here, knowing that you believe in it enough to want to be a part of it like this. On behalf of my family and friends here in Senegal, thank you. If you ever find yourself considering a vacation in Senegal, you should know that you'd be welcome here.

We're still collecting money, so if you missed my post on this subject, go back and read it! And then head on over to

You're my favorites, guys.

Love and guts.


First off, woah, that last entry was a long one. Sorry about that.

BUT. What I wanted to say was this. Apparently some emails from me have been dropping into people's Spam boxes because they're coming from an IP address in Senegal.


Add my email address to your address book and it shouldn't be a problem.

Thanks, guys.

Sense of Accomplishment?

What day is today? The first of August? I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the way time passes here. The two months of Pre-Service Training dragged on and on, not unlike a long block of Freshman Lab class on a Friday afternoon. (The Elder Sterling’s remark comes to mind again.) Then we got shipped off to our sites and time started to fly. Every Friday, or whenever I remembered to take my (ideally) weekly dose of mefloquine, I was shocked. Could another week really have passed?

And for the last three weeks, I’ve been out of my village. The newest volunteers, the twenty-five of us who are left of our group, all came to the city of Thies three weeks ago for In-Service Training, a two-week opportunity to get a lot of technical training and begin to learn a second local language. After that, we piled into the Peace Corps vans and were taken to Jaol, a beautiful beach community not far south of Dakar, for a summit of health and environmental education volunteers. I hate this usage of the word summit, by the way. And now I’m back in Thies, where Demba (the training center boss) has been kind enough to let me stay in exchange for a little bit of work. Tomorrow, health volunteers and their community counterparts will convene here for a training session on behavior change techniques, specifically as they relate to malaria prevention.

There have been a lot of new faces in the last three weeks, and a lot of vaguely familiar faces have come back to hang out. Not only did I get to meet a few of Peace Corps/Senegal’s nerd population (and oh, does it feel like comin’ home! I went on and on with this one guy about Plato and Nietzsche for two hours in the back of a sept-place the other day), but I also found a lot of people willing to be honest and thoughtful in conversations about their work as Peace Corps Volunteers. So at the risk of writing something that’s not as well-received as my last blog entry – and thank you, all, for the wonderful comments and feed-back – I want to take some time and think about the work here.

At the end of PST, in the final days of preparing to go to our sites, we all sat down with a third-year volunteer and prepared an action plan for the following two months. With her help, I came away with a list of three activities to begin in my village. We were all cautioned not to expect too much from these initial months of work: the primary objectives would be too continue improving our ability to speak the local language, to become comfortable with our new host-families, and to begin assessing the needs and abilities of our communities.

My personal goals were pretty simple. The first goal was one all new volunteers were required to complete: a baseline survey of my village. Combined with a similar survey on the regional level, this would involve going door to door in my village, sitting with families, observing their compounds, asking questions, and sparking conversations. The idea is that we can’t do a whole lot to help our communities without first doing some basic assessment: how many compounds have access to safe drinking water? How many families are washing their hands after going to the bathroom and before eating? How many people know that malaria-carrying mosquitoes are born in standing water, and that we can reduce the number of cases of malaria by keeping our village free of trash piles? After two months, I have a pretty good sense of my village. I know what they have, what they need, and where I need to do some educational interventions. I know who washes their hands and who uses oil to “cure” infected wounds and who is interested in making and selling neem lotion and whose children are underweight. I know how many latrines we have in the village, and I know where we’re going to get enough money that every compound will have one. I know how many mosquito nets we have, and I know that in a little bit every person in my village – every last one – will be sleeping under a net. Of course, I’m still working on everyone’s names. But one thing at a time, I guess.

I still am not entirely clear on how I got through the baseline surveys. After all, going around from compound to compound asking about where the family poops and whether or not they wash their hands afterward should be pretty awkward, right? I’m lucky to live in such a small community, where everyone understands what I’m there to do.

My second goal was less simple, but thankfully does not involve as much awkwardness or paperwork as the baseline surveys. I got dirty! I played in the mud! I shoveled horse poop around! I made a pepiniere! In the short history of this blog, I’ve probably mentioned pepinieres a few times. It’s unlikely that I’ve spelled it with any degree of consistency or explained it very well. But. A pepiniere is a home for baby trees. Fill a couple of hundred plastic sacks with a mixture of sand and horse poop (or whatever you can get your hands on), stick a couple seeds in each one, and water once or twice a day until the rains start. A couple of months later, you’ve got a glorious batch of young saplings, you’re ready to out-plant them, and you’re well on your way to defeating deforestation single-handedly. Huzzah! For bonus points, set this up in your village’s school and teach the kids about why trees are important. Pick a few of the smarter ones and have them do the watering every day.

Before you get too excited (which was, of course, my mistake), remember a couple of things. I share my new home with lots of sand, imperfect access to water, zero rainfall for most of the year, a damn lot of goats, and a fatalism born of generation after generation of grinding poverty. Also some weird aesthetic priorities; more on that later.

I had a plan for the pepiniere. The volunteer I replaced had given every compound a couple of trees at this time last year, when she did her out-planting. Between foraging goats (damn them!) and infrequent watering, all but a couple of those trees are now dead. And how the village must have mourned: all the trees were mangoes and cashews, two very popular local products. So I seeded about 150 nebeday trees. Nebeday, also known as moringa, is a tree that produces a bunch of ultra-nutritious parts. The leaves are dried, ground, and turned into a leaf sauce that can be served with rice or millet. Other parts yield other good things in excitingly large quantities. On top of all that, nebeday is largely pest-resistant, drought-resistant, and easy to grow.

The plan is to out-plant two in each compound in my village (I might be able to do a lot more, it depends on the yield) and do a lot of work with the people on tree protection techniques, proper watering, and the nutritional properties of nebeday. It’s a lot of work for me, but it’s also going to be putting some of the burden on the villagers. Which, as I understand it, is what this whole sustainable development scene is about. Unfortunately, nobody loves nebeday the way they love mangoes. But mango trees are way harder to work with. So I’m going to do a little motivational work. Any compound with a nebeday tree standing one year from now, when I’m about to out-plant next year’s pepiniere, will receive a baby mango tree.

So far, so good. Though I didn’t spend a whole lot of time mucking around in gardens as a kid growing up in Los Angeles, everything got off to a great start with the help of the volunteer I replaced and some enthusiastic kids. There’s even a fence made of woven sticks and veggie matter around the pepiniere, protecting it from the goats, sheep, chickens, cows, cats, dogs, and infants who regularly wander past, eyes gleaming with mischief. I stacked several bricks in the gap in the fence, which I used to take down and build back up twice I day when I watered. Some bugs came around and started making trouble: I dealt with it. This stupid puppy tried to eat the handful of cashew trees we planted: I dealt with that, too. Alas, though, the brick wall was not pretty enough for my family’s standards. When I came back to site one day after being away in Dakar, my dad’s second wife joyfully showed me the strange gate-like contraption she had constructed to replace the bricks. Prettier, perhaps, but definitely less effective. It had rained a couple of times by this point, and the fencing around the pepiniere had taken a bit of a beating. I’ll be back at site in less than a week, finally finally finally, and I’m a little concerned about what I’ll find. I think the rain will have been enough to keep the trees growing happily, but the fencing might not have managed to keep the critters away. I want to out-plant and start in on the educational interventions within my first week back at site, since Ramadan is coming up and no one will able to work during the day for the whole month. Cross your fingers, guys.

My third objective for the first couple months at site was the baby-weighing tourney. Without incident, I weighed a bazillion kids in my village and three surrounding villages. Now that my Wolof has improved, I’ll be doing this every month, paired with some talks about weaning foods, the importance of early childhood growth, etc. How does a childless 23 year-old philosophy major talk to a 19 year-old mother of two about breastfeeding? Stay tuned. I think I’ll be touching on this pretty extensively in the next month.

On top of all these things, I pushed neem lotion pretty hard. The causerie went well, and so did the follow up work. When I left site for training, a handful of women were making neem lotion on their own and selling it in Ndiago, the surrounding villages, and even potentially at the weekly market in Guinguineo, my road town.

When I think, write, and talk about all this, I usually feel all right. It’s not the work but the conditions in which we work that make this difficult. So when I can honestly catalogue a few things I’ve managed to achieve with my village, I feel good about myself, and good about what my village will be able to achieve in the next two years. But the second I try to go past a list of activities and look at anything on a larger scale, I get lost. I know I’ve written and talked a lot with many of you about the challenge of “sustainable development,” and the confusion I have about whether or not this work I’m doing is virtuous. I’ve had a lot of good conversations about this with people here, especially recently, and many of you have sent your thoughts along in e-mails. I’m thankful for the opportunity to talk this all out.

It struck me a few days ago that this is perhaps similar to what I was experiencing in my first two years at St. John’s. I loved the College and hated the College and couldn’t imagine being happy anywhere else and thought obsessively about leaving every day, multiple times a day. The books, the conversations, and the people all made me happy, but it took the crisis of going to New Orleans in my sophomore year for me to become fully comfortable with being in the world of academia. I wanted to drop out of school and stay in New Orleans, because suddenly the work down there seemed to carry an imperative with it, seemed to be more important than anything else I could possible be doing with my time. I consciously rejected that call, choosing instead a slower, more difficult path toward the work I thought was worth doing, one that might even lead me in an entirely different direction, but one that may also enable be to do that work better.

The crisis was in the decision, in having to choose a path instead of passively allowing it to flow along under my feet. In a sense, it would have been the same if I had decided to drop out of college and stay in New Orleans. But I think that in leaving the College and coming back to it, a moral space was created in which I could be a student for at least another two years, and that was no problem. I could be at peace with my decision, knowing that I had seen both sides of the question and that I had come to my conclusion honestly.

So these days, I’m still doing the job in front of me. But I’m also waiting for whatever conversation or event will come along that will give me what I need to stay here for the next two years.

Love and guts, and maybe another blog post coming along later today,


Thursday, July 9, 2009

The First Rain

So I guess I should apologize for interrupting the usual narrative of this blog for so long. I’ve been mentally composing a blog entry and several emails for some time, and I should know better than to do that because I end up never committing these phantoms to paper. A week or so ago, I was passing through Kaolack on my way to the village from Dakar and intended to do some writing, but the electricity went out at the regional house. Pen and paper, you suggest? Maybe. But I was frustrated and desperate to get back to Ndiago, so I gave up and headed out to the garage.

And here I am, back in Kaolack. Our Regional Strategy Meeting (look at all those capitalized letters! Don’t worry, if it turns out to be anything of importance or interest I’ll tell you more about it later. But bureaucracies are bureaucracies, and meetings are meetings, even in the sub-Saharan desert. So don’t hold your breath, OK?) is Saturday. On Sunday, I’ll head up to Thies with my stage-mates for In-Service Training. I’m super excited to see all my friends from training again, and I’ll be living in Thieneba-Gare with the Sene family again. Nothing could be more appealing – I love that family. Not psyched to spend so much time away from the pepiniere, but those trees are in God’s hands now. And anyway, the rains have started. Trees can take care of themselves during the rainy season, right?

The rainy season. I guess if you’ve been reading the blog, you might have a sense of my attitude toward the rainy season. On the one hand, the rains will bring food. Vegetables are getting ever more expensive and scarce in the village, and the end of the rainy season will mean the harvest is coming in. On the other hand, the rains bring mosquitoes. Instead of freaking out here about malaria, I’ll just direct your attention to any of my earlier blog entries. As far as I remember, they all read something like this: “Senegal is so great! Man, I love eating rice every day! OH GOD I’M SO AFRAID THAT EVERYONE IN MY VILLAGE WILL DIE OF MALARIA! Kinda hot today.”

Well, it’s here. It rained a couple of times in the two weeks before I left for Dakar, then once in those next two weeks while I was away. But the night I arrived back in Ndiago was perhaps the beginning of the regular rain. I’ll never forget that first rain, though. It was a pretty normal early evening at the compound. The day had been hot, of course, and muggier than usual. It had started to cloud over in the afternoon, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen that and I thought little of it. Maguette Ndao, the young woman whose husband works in Dakar and who lives in my compound with her three kids, was just beginning to make dinner. Other family members were spread out around the huts, relaxing. It was the time of day when people generally stop their work, the women begin cooking, and I start to think about taking a bucket bath.

Suddenly, something shifted. Everyone seemed to know what was coming. The people who had been just lounging around got up and busied themselves. Maguette put out the fire in the cooking hut and moved the pot into one of the huts with a tin roof – the cooking hut being little more than a bunch of sticks held together with soot. Maam Bode, the ancient lady of our family, was suddenly hollering at the kids from her corner of the compound, rousing them to pick up everything that was sitting around outside and bring it in. “Gaw! Gaw!” – “Quickly! Quickly!” The children weren’t the only ones running, either. My dad was off somewhere on business, but both of his wives were scurrying around, picking up every single object outside and bringing it in. Even being placed inside a hut wasn’t always good enough. My mom brought the family’s television set (a black-and-white wonder of a machine, rarely used but much adored) into my hut. I guess the logic was that the toubab’s hut would be the least likely to leak, though the same hands built my thatched roof as built everything else in that compound. Somehow, America, my American-ness, the impossibility of my being imposed upon by nature would keep the rain off my head and away from my possessions. (My mom’s assumption turned out to be false, though no harm came to the television – more on leaking roofs later.) The laundry, not quite dry on the lines, came flying in. A couple of plastic lawn chairs, the plastic mats and sheets we sit on in the compound, the toy cars made out of the cardboard boxes in which you send me care packages, all these were the objects of the family’s frantic search and rescue mission.

As for myself, I could hardly tell what the fuss was about. Sure, there were some clouds in the sky. And the wind had certainly come up quite suddenly. But nature was never that obvious about its intentions in Los Angeles or Annapolis. Or perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention. After all, rain is not such a huge inconvenience when you choose to spend most of your day indoors. So I helped out a little bit here and there, and brought in my own laundry. The family’s energy and anxiety were infectious, and I knew they saw rain coming, but I myself saw nothing.
When the rain finally hit, it wasn’t as if it was dropping out of the sky. The wind brought it right to us, a solid driven wall of wet. By this time, we had managed to take everything inside. The family huddled in clumps, some in Maam Bode’s room, some across the compound in my mother’s hut. I chose to shut the iron door of my hut, since the wind was blowing right into it, and ride out the storm with Maam Bode, Maguette Ndao, and her three kids. Everything is more fun when you include small children, especially when you’re not responsible for them. With Fama, Maguette’s 3 year-old girl, in my lap, and her 5 year-old son Maam Biran sitting next to me in the doorway of the hut, I watched the rain. Sometimes we stuck our feet out into the sand and wiggled our toes around. Sometimes one of the kids would dart out for just a second, then come gasping back in, laughing and dripping. The clouds changed the early afternoon light into something totally removed from the normal progression of the day – the strange dullness had no temporal connection to the late afternoon brilliance we had sat in just hours ago. Each peal of thunder was an earthquake, an immense gulf being torn in the sky, completely engulfing all of us in its crash and heave. No one, not even the kids, seemed alarmed by it. The lightning didn’t look like anything I’d seen before. Each stab cut not from the clouds to the earth, but right across the sky, illuminating the nothing up there with incredible brilliance. The rain itself couldn’t have lasted more than twenty minutes, but it heaved itself at the earth with fury. It was spectacular.

The storm moved across us and was gone, cutting south and west and leaving a trail of grumbling thunder in its wake. Life got back to normal: everyone came back outside, the laundry went back up on the lines, and Maguette returned to the cooking hut to coax the kitchen fire back to life. I sat with her as she began again to cook, as I sometimes do.

“Is there rain in America?” she asked me. I get this type of question a lot, about the horse or donkey carts, about various foods, about all sorts of random objects. So her question didn’t take me by surprise. But how to answer it? I thought of rains I had known, vague memories coming back to me one by one: slipping out of class one day in third grade to jump around in the puddles of the abandoned playground, only to return to the room soaked, muddy, and obviously truant; watching the rain of the late summer in Annapolis from the patio of the quad, drinking beer with my friends and trying to forget the endless singing of the cicadas; and one late afternoon cloudburst in New Orleans that came upon us just as my crew and I came back from a long, sweaty, exhausting, horrible day of gutting houses. Rain had been sometimes a joy to me, sometimes a cursed monotonous horror, and that one day in New Orleans it had been our dance party, our desperately needed shower, our salvation, our rebirth. But I had never seen anything like that rainstorm in the village, and never in my life had I been so desperately concerned with water falling from the sky. Was there rain in America? How could I answer Maguette’s question? The same way I answer most of the questions along those lines. Are there peanuts in America? Are there carrots? Are there charettes? Is there rain?
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s different.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

A bad day in Dakar.

There aren't any of what I would call easy days here. If I'm working, I'm working. Any number of things can make that hard: cultural and linguistic barriers, my appalling ignorance, or the damn long skirt I wear most days in the village. Especially that skirt, for God's sake, it almost hits my ankles. And if I'm not working, you better believe I'm freaking out about my inaction. I've never felt so guilty simply picking up a book before.

Even if there aren't easy days, I would generally describe most of my days as good. I'm happier here every day, or so it's seemed for the last two weeks. And new things make me happy: bantering with my family, playing with the kids, wandering through the village to the market for a snack and knowing, finally, several people's names.

But today was maybe the second or third genuine bad day I've had. A family member in the States is having health problems, and I'm holed up in the Peace Corps/Senegal office here in the capital city of Dakar. I got here early this afternoon after maybe 2 hours of sleep and 5 hours in a sept-place. You know things will be a little ugly when you spend more time in the Senegalese public transit system than you spent in bed the previous night. But it's better to be here than in the village. Here, there's a phone I can use to call the States with no charge. Here, there's Internet access so I can... I don't really know what I do online, honestly. Here, there are other volunteers and PC staffers who are sympathetic, available, and helpful.

So I'm here. Waiting. Just waiting.

This is the type of moment when you have to step back and take a good look at some things you may have preferred to ignore. I could have been on tonight's flight to New York, could have been out west with my family by tomorrow afternoon. I say the word, they put me on the plane. I can come back to Senegal or not.

Every day I ask myself about what it is I'm doing here, why it's important, why I should care and continue to care. Most days, these questions are academic: I know I'm not going anywhere, I know I'm where I want to be. But some days, the questions are very real and very pressing. Today is one of those days, and tomorrow will be one too. For a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months to come, I'll have to make the decision to come to Senegal every morning when I wake up. I'll have to re-commit every day and then re-examine my commitment every night. I'm scared, I'm tired, but I'm pretty sure I'm ready for it.

Just to prove to you that I mean it, I'm going to plug the bed-net thing again. Go look at my last post, if you missed it.

Love and guts, for serious,


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Against Malaria bed net distribution project

Dear friends and family... and total strangers who read my blog,

I got to Kaolack just this morning, and I have a whole lot to write about. It's been a good couple of weeks, maybe some of my happiest days so far in Senegal. And there was this one guy in a purple cowboy hat -- I have pretty good story to tell you about him. But I want to take a break from the usual tone of this blog to shamelessly, without the slightest bit of guilt, ask you for money.

Here are the basics. I'm raising money to provide everyone in my village and in the three tiny villages next to mine with mosquito nets. Each mosquito net costs $5. My goal is to be able to bring around 1,200 nets to my area, which should be enough to cover every single bed.

Already interested in helping me out?

I think probably you'd all agree that saving lives is, generally speaking, a good thing to be able to spend your money on. And a quick internet search or a perusal of the Against Malaria website will tell you that malaria is the number one killer of children and pregnant women in the world, that one to three million people will die of malaria this year, and that the children who will die today from this disease would fill seven jumbo jets. You'd also quickly discover that malaria is an entirely curable, entirely treatable disease. But all that means is that if you or I got malaria, we'd be fine. For almost all of the victims of malaria, however, prevention and treatment are just out of reach. The decision is between being able to eat for a week and being able to purchase a mosquito net. The people I live with don't have $5 to save their own lives, but I know you do.

Anyway, you know all these things already. So I wanted to tell you a little about my own experience with malaria.

So far, no one I know has ever died of malaria. The rainy season is just just just starting here in Ndiago. After the first heavy rain, I've been told, the mosquitoes will come out. There are lots of ways to try to prevent malaria, and we're making use of all of them in my area. After my causerie the other week, the women are making and selling neem lotion, a natural anti-bug lotion made of soap, cooking oil, water, and the leaves of the neem tree. Our first big set-setal, when everyone in the village sweeps up all the trash in their compounds and in the public areas and burns it, is Monday. We'll be repeating this task every two weeks to keep the malaria population under control. So I've done everything I can, at this point.

That's pretty much what's killing me. With my limited Wolof and my limited resources, I'm spent. And I know it's just not enough. Ever since I got to site, I've been feeling a gnawing anxiety about the advent of the rainy season. Part of me is excited, because soon the harvest will come and we'll have more food and the malnutrition rate in the villages around me will drop from its current level of 40%, and I'll sleep better. But the thing bringing on this wealth -- the rain -- is also bringing misery.

So spend a few dollars and save a life or two. Don't forget you're also buying me a small reprieve from intense anxiety. Everyone will be sleeping a little better.

Other blog posts to follow soon. Thank you so much for reading and responding, here and in emails to me. I'll get to them as soon as I can.

Love and guts,


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sustainable development?

My very first neem lotion causerie was Thursday!

Depending on who you are, there are a few words in there I may need to gloss before talking about how it went.

A causerie is a demonstration and conversation with the people of my village about a specific topic. These are going to be a big part of my service, and topics will include things like nutrition, adequately and cheaply feeding a baby who's being weaned, the making and maintaining of mud stoves, and, well neem lotion.

Neem lotion is some seriously good stuff. It's a mosquito repellent that's easy and cheap to make; the only ingredients are the leaves of the neem tree, bar soap, a little oil, and water. When you live in a country with a whole lot of malaria and no DEET spray (except for what the Peace Corps gives me, which makes me die inside a little bit inside for reasons I'll explain soon), neem lotion is a potentially very powerful tool. The volunteer I replaced cut the malaria rate in the village by 90% (yep) during the last rainy season, when she made and distributed neem lotion to all the villagers. Other measures helped, and I'm doing all those things too as the rainy season approaches. But since the Peace Corps is all sustainable development, I chose this year to try to convince the women of the village to make the neem lotion on their own, so that they could sell it in and around the area. Since the lat volunteer changed everyone's mind about their ability to influence whether or not they fall ill with malaria, I figure I should be able to push it up a notch.

Anyway, the causerie went really well. The women understood my Wolof and I understood theirs, and I feel all right about it. I sort of want to tell you about it, but I'm not sure how much time I have to write today (heading back to village later) but I also kind of want to get on to this other topic....

Sustainable development?

So I'm all about neem lotion. The advent of the rainy season here makes me crazy, maybe partially because I don't know what it looks like. I know it brings mosquitoes and malaria, but it also means there's going to be more food and fewer starving people, so I feel kinda conflicted. The thought of people in my village falling ill with malaria (a preventable, treatable disease) and possibly dying of it fills me with anxiety.

And neem lotion is... I think it would be called "appropriate technology" by authorities on the subject. Maybe I should call it that too. After all, it can be easily made with local products, it's effective, it's even potentially a moneymaking project for the women. All good things, right?

What it makes me think about, though, is the fact that the Peace Corps gives me DEET sticks for my own protection against mosquitoes. I take a malaria prophylaxis every week, provided and required by the Peace Corps. And if I were to fall ill with malaria in spite of these precautions, the medications to save my life would be readily available to me and doctors would be there to prescribe them. I would be fine, and I wouldn't pay a cent for it. This is a disease that killed approximately 881,000 people in 2006, most of whom were probably too poor to purchase DEET, some of whom would be too poor to purchase even neem lotion, and all of whom were just as alive, just as human as I am. But through some meaningless accident, I was born in the United States. Through no action or virtue of my own, because I'm an American citizen, one of the very few and the very privileged, I have nothing to fear from this disease. I help the women of Ndiago make and sell neem lotion while enjoying full access to medications and technology that make neem lotion totally unnecessary for me, personally.

It's hard for me, then, to always embrace sustainable development, because so often I think we conflate that concept with "appropriate technology;" in other words, with accepting cheaper, less effective methods of health care for the world's poorest people. And it's hard for me to be a Peace Corps volunteer sometimes for similar reasons. All of us have medical kits stocked with all sorts of drugs, including Tamiflu and the first few days of a regimen of pills to take in case I manage to get malaria. And I'm not exactly supposed to give that stuff out to the people of the village.

I don't know. I'd really appreciate your thoughts on this one, here in the comments section (oooh! start a conversation!!) or in an email. This stuff keeps me up at night, and sometimes it makes it hard for me to do what I came here to do.

Anyway, things are well, as usual. I feel like I'm focusing on work pretty well, and bein' thoughtful about some stuff, and learning a whole lot. Keep sending the love, knowing I have friends out there keeps me going.

Love and guts,

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Oh, P.S.

It's early morning here in Kaolack and I'm going to head back to my village soon, after stopping in the market here to pick up some fruit as a home-coming gift to my family. I meant to respond to the emails I've gotten on this trip, but some circumstances out of my control made it much harder to sit down and write than it usually is here. But please, keep them coming, I love hearing from you guys, and I may be in Kaolack this weekend again for an event here. And, of course, to answer your emails.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Food for thought.

I think about food a lot these days.

A friend of mine here in Senegal recently reminded me of the time in training when I, hungry, commented that I would love to slather some buttery salty mashed potatoes on a chunk of rich, moist chocolate cake. Nowadays, I can use this mental image as a barometer of my general hunger level. If I think this combination sounds delicious, I suspect that I've consumed fewer than 1,000 calories or so that day and on some number of previous days.

Right now, potatoes and cake sounds gross. I'm tempted to list everything I've eaten since I arrived in Kaolack yesterday morning, but I know that no one reading this is as obsessively concerned as I am. So I'll pass, and say that my tummy is happy, and that I hope you all have happy tummies today too.

The last two weeks in village went by very quickly, and I think pretty successfully. I'm slipping into good standing with my family; I did baby-weighings in Ndiago, Nguick, and Keur Daodo (two neighboring villages) without dropping anyone; I know some names and faces. Getting between Kaolack, Guinguineo, and Ndiago is no longer a very intimidating process. My Wolof is improving, and I can greet in Sereer now too. Of course, behind each of these simple statements of progress lurk a million stories, and I wish I didn't have to be selective about telling them. Anyway, here we go.

Being a health volunteer involves thinking quite a bit about childhood malnutrition. For the next two years, I get to monitor the malnutrition rates in my villages and a handful of surrounding communities by doing monthly baby-weighings. I just set up shop in my compound with my two scales (one for very tiny infants, one for children as only as 5-ish) and the notebook I've devoted to this purpose. In my village, I can go around and tell the women to show up on a certain day and at a certain hour, but elsewhere the local health workers help me to get the word out. I weigh between 30 and 40 kids per village.

Part of this is hilariously fun, because I like hanging out with kids. It's a little nuts, because some of them are just hideously frightened of the whole experience. If you are a young Senegalese boy or girl, it's possible that for you toubabs like me are super scary, and being stuck in a sling hanging from a tree branch is super scary. And so the moms stand by with their breasts sticking out, ready to immediately grab their wailing children from me after I remove them from the sling so they can take comfort in the familiar act of feeding. Some kids enjoy it, though: it's basically as close to a swing as anything I've seen in Senegal, and we all know that swings are basically one of the three best things about childhood.

But the days in which I've done these baby-weighings have been some of the hardest for me. This is the starving season, and while we wait for the rain to come and prices of food to fall, the malnutrition rate in these villages is between 30 and 40 percent. Some of these children, according to their charts, have never had a healthy weight. Some have just stopped gaining weight this season, and some have been losing weight. They're tiny, so tiny, with coppery hair and skinny arms and distended bellies. Sometimes the moms seem to know what I'm going to say before I say it: "Are you still breast feeding? She's too young for water, your breast milk has everything she needs." "He's too old for just breast milk now, he needs to breast feed and eat solid foods too." But some of the women aren't eating enough or drinking enough to produce all the breast milk their child wants. Sometimes, because of the heat, the mothers will give their infants water, filling their bellies but not giving them any calories or nutritional content. Sometimes they stop breast-feeding too early because they're pregnant again. Again. If I were God, or if I were a more teleological and sympathetic evolution that what we live with, I would make it impossible for a woman to get pregnant while she's still breast feeding.

This last situation is the story of a little girl who lives in the compound next to mine. Her name is Jiall (rhymes, more or less, with doll) and she's maybe three years old. When Jiall was 7 months old, her mother's milk dried up because she became pregnant again. Jiall's maternal grandmother took up the task of rearing the infant once her younger sibling was born. She got other things to eat, of course, but no breast milk. This is bad, worse than it would be in the States because diarrheal diseases and dehydration resulting from unclean food can kill kids who can't get breast milk. Jiall made it this far, but she suffered. Her hair is coppery, she doesn't walk or talk as well as the other kids here age, and she's small.

On top of all this, nobody seems to like her that much. My dad's second wife sometimes shoos her out of the compound for, it seems, no reason. The other kids she hangs out with are bigger, and they know it. I yell at them when I see that they're picking on her or hitting her, but even though I feel like I see it happen 100 times a day, I know it happens even more when I'm not around. If leftover food is being given out, or if someone's buying the kids snacks or mangoes or whatever, Jiall is almost invariably left out or given short shrift. I just don't understand it.

One day, I noticed the adults in my compound calling her Suppome, which is the French/Wolof word for cabbage. Why, I asked, was she given this nickname? One of the women said simply, "She's small." I couldn't handle it. It seemed like it was too much, this child was the butt of so many jokes among her peers, and even the adults mocked her openly. That afternoon, when I noticed that the other children were calling her cabbage too, I snapped a bit. I decided to hand out some nicknames of my own, and since we had started with cabbage, I moved on to the other ingredients of the Senegalese national dish, ceeb u jeen (fish, rice, veggies -- a luxury). The brattiest kid in the village is Carrot now, my own little sister is Jaxatu (I have no idea), my brothers are Eggplant and Fish. The women in my compound loved it, and the kids picked it up pretty quickly too. One woman gave us all ingredient names. When it came to be my turn, she said, "You are the water we cook everything in." My nickname hasn't stuck, but some of them have, and I hope I'm removing a little bit of the stigma or onus of singling out Jiall.

I have more, of course. I could go on forever. But I need a little break from writing. I'm leaving the Kaolack house tomorrow morning, so I think I'll have time to write a little more for you guys.

Seriously, though, send me emails. Tell me all about your lives. I miss you.



Thursday, May 14, 2009

One of those weird Senegal moments.

The title of this blog post is a little on the vague side, but you might not even be aware of that yet. After all, lots of weird things have happened to me in Senegal. This very afternoon, as I was sitting here typing today's previous blog entry, there was a knock at the door of the Kaolack regional house. Believe it or not, the Jehovah's Witnesses were calling for us. Seriously. They made it all the way to Senegal. Here were these Senegalese men and women, neatly dressed in an awkward mixture of western and traditional clothing, knocking discreetly at the door. No bikes or suits here, but the general feeling came through. Strange, indeed.

Anyway, that's not really the moment I'm referring to. A few days ago, when I was a week and a half into my first village stint, I was agitated, unhappy, and nervous. I had trouble settling down to one task or activity: I sat down with a neighbor to chat, and then left. I went to pick around the edges of the pepiniere, since there's always work to be done with dirt. No dice. I took a bucket bath, and it was totally unsatisfying. The sun was sinking and the day was almost over, and I was still bouncing around from one corner of my hut to the other, from one part of my family compound to another. As I sat in the kitchen hut, watching dinner being prepared ("Aissa's cooking dinner!" "No, I'm just watching." "Hooray, Aissa's cooking dinner!!" "Mmm hmmm."), I had a definitive moment of anguish, a final crescendo and crash. I thought suddenly of all the work ahead, all the daunting tasks, whether small (the weekly market in Guinguineo) or large (the preparation to be done against the threat of the oncoming rainy season and the inevitable presence of malaria-bearing mosquitoes). How, I wondered desperately, was I ever going to get all this done, or even manage to get out of bed on any given morning, when I was so far away from everything I love? My friends and family, the familiar scenes and situations, all of it seemed infinitely remote. How could I ever conjure up the strength, the courage, the guts to get the job done?

What could I do? I didn't have enough phone credit left to call or send a text message to anyone in the States for reassurance, and even if I had there was no guarantee that it would go through. I could try talking about it to my new adoptive family, but this thought only made me a little crazier because I realized the extent to which my Wolof is still limited: I can say I like something or someone or some place, I can that say something tastes good, and I can say that my stomach hurts. But I didn't know how to say "I love" in Wolof.

Within a minute of asking myself the question -- how will I ever have the strength to do this, when I am so far from what I love? -- I had the answer. I was sitting there in the hot, cramped hut that serves as kitchen in my compound, between an open fire with a heavy pot on it and a woman I had known for days, who was busily chopping onions in her hand. Outside my host-brother was coming in from a day in the fields, the youngest children were playing with whatever make-shift toys they had managed to find (bottle caps, sticks, bits of plastic from God knows where), and my host-mom watched passively. I could barely talk with any of these people, my new "family," or anyone in the village for that matter, my new "home." But I realized suddenly that this whole being-a-Volunteer thing was going to work because I was going to find love here. Senegal, this village of Ndiago, is going to break my heart. These men and women, now strangers, are going to become the center of my life. I will want to teach, to help, to protect them all. When I can pull it off, it'll feel great. And when I can't, it'll tear me apart inside.

The moment I realized this, I was calmed. Now that I know what's ahead, I can face it. It's not going to be pretty, but it's going to be all right.

The first two weeks.

I am sitting underneath a ceiling fan.

If you didn't slow down for a few minutes to appreciate that statement, to empathize a little with my relief and joy, it's understandable. But you should know that it's been well over 100 degrees in Ndiago every day since I installed there two weeks ago, and when you don't have ceiling fans or cold water to alleviate your misery, it can get rough out there. It's worse than the summer in Annapolis -- at least then we had smoky evenings and early mornings at Harry Browne's. And it's worse than summer in Los Angeles, where it was always ten degrees cooler once you sat in traffic on the 10 for an hour.

But you know what? It's not bad.

I think the way I feel about the temperature in Ndiago isn't too dissimilar from the way I feel about life in the village taken as a whole. It's rough, it's new, it's by turns incredibly intimidating and deathly slow. But I know I can do this.

Installation day was April 29th. Installation is a funny word for the process, but that's Peace Corps-speak for you: I felt, just because of that word, more like a light bulb than I ever have before. And that was the day it started not being as scary as I thought it would be. The whole village had gathered in a semi-circle in the central area: men and women sat in chairs or squatted behind drums, pots, pans; children hovered around the edges, staring and giggling. As we drove up, the drumming started. Drumming in Senegal is a Thing and every woman here is better at it than anyone in the United States. Better rhythmically speaking, and better at improvising too -- any surface can be used as a noisemaker. So the drumming was immense. And over it, the women chanted in an improvised song: "Aissa new naa! Aissa new naa!" I didn't catch all of it, but that phrase means "Aissa came!" (Aissa, pronounced EYE-suh, is my name in Ndiago.) I probably could have escaped dancing that day, but Keri (the volunteer I'm replacing) and I jumped into the center of the circle and busted it out for a minute, stomping and waving our multi-colored sers (traditional skirts). Laughing, hysterical hooting, clapping: they loved it. Their new toubab liked to dance! Not true, necessarily, but I figured today was the day.

Anyway, the drumming and singing stopped and the speeches started. My counterparts spoke, telling the village about the work we had done together during the counterpart workshop in Thies. And they were definitely not out to make it easy for me. The people of the village seem to have pretty high expectations for me, and they were excited to hear about some of the stuff we have planned. My host-dad spoke, welcoming me to the family and the village. My installer guy spoke, welcoming the village to me. And then he turned to me and said, "Your turn."

I don't mind public speaking, but this was something completely different. Imagine yourself in my shoes. New village, new family, high expectations, and this is my first shot at saying hello and making an impression. Oh yeah, and it had to be in Wolof. So on top of everything else, I had the grammatical range of a 10 year-old and the vocabulary of a smart toddler to work with. But it went pretty well, I didn't embarrass myself, and as far as first impressions go, I like the village and the village likes me right back.

The last couple weeks have been mainly feeling things out. I'm learning names, hanging out with people, and making friends. There's no such thing as a typical day for me yet. Sometimes I'll hang out with my mom in the center of the village for most of the morning, chatting and learning new words. I've visited the school in Ndiago and spent a lot of time talking with the teachers and headmaster about what the school needs and what we can do there. I hang out with my counterparts a little, talking about their health work in Ndiago and going on tourneys in the surrounding villages. I hang out with my family in the compound, where I'm slowly learning to feel at home.

I have a few projects for this initial period before In-Service Training in late July. I'm mostly supposed to be scoping out the village, assessing needs, assets, and willingness to work as a community. I have a couple surveys to do to figure all this out. I'm also doing a baby-weighing tourney in Ndiago and the surrounding villages next week. That involves lots of screaming children getting put into a little hanging scale thing I have while I talk to their moms about breast-feeding, weaning foods, and malnourishment. It's tough, because right now we're right at the end of the dry season and food is expensive. Most of the villagers are eating just rice and couscous (not Moroccan couscous, smaller grained stuff) right now. My family gets veggies once a week when I go to the weekly market in Guinguineo, the road-town 45 minutes away by charette. And we have fish a few times a week. We're pretty well off, but I know the kids are hungry.

With the help of Keri, I've also put together a tree pepinierre. Deforestation is a big deal here. And there's one type of tree, the nebeday or moringa tree, which is especially great because its leaves can be used to make a super-nutritious sauce for rice and couscous. Plant enough of these trees, teach people how to harvest mass amounts of the leaves, and you could go a long way toward fighting malnutrition. It's just that good. People also love mango trees, for obvious reasons. Mango season is in full swing here, by the way. YUMMY. Anyway, more on trees later. I have some plans along those lines.

Since the malaria season is coming, I'll be doing a malaria party in a couple weeks too. The women of the village will get together and make neem lotion, this magic tree juice that keeps the mosquitoes away. We'll talk about bed-nets, taking anti-malarial medication during pregnancy, and stuff like that. I hope my Wolof is up to it; I think it'll go fine. More on this later, too.

OK, I have a lot more to write about but I have to make a quick run to a store here in Kaolack to buy some stuff for dinner. We're making food! Alisha, thanks so much for the pesto mix, it's going to be the center point of dinner tonight here in the Kaolack regional house. And I'm mailing you a letter very soon on the beautiful stationary.

More thoughts soon, I'm excited to write today. And as usual I miss everyone a whole lot. Send me an email, tell me all about your life! Thinking of my friends and family back home helps me through the rough time.

Love and guts,


Monday, April 27, 2009

Training is over...!

Alxamdulilaah. At least, it's over for now. In three months I'll be headed back to Thies for three weeks of In-Service Training, during which I may even learn a thing or two about being a health volunteer. Inshallah.

Why am I thanking God that training is over? Why am I tossing around little phrases that aren't in English? All that and more.... Maybe.

About two months ago, with three or four days in Senegal behind us, my stage-mates and I were dropped unceremoniously into a handful of villages in the Thies region. Mine was Thieneba-Gare. The idea behind Peace Corps/Senegal training is that stagiares spend most of their days in communities, speaking the local language they've been assigned to learn, being completely immersed in Senegalese culture. Every now and then we have to return to the Training Center at Thies for a medical session (read: a million shots and conversations and diarhhea and STDs and rape and other pleasant, light-hearted topics) or a security session (a million conversations about getting robbed and travelling in Senegal and, well, rape again). You'd think we'd all be dying to spend more time in Thies, with our whole stage united, within walking distance of several bars and pizzerias. But going back to the training center was always hard. I came to feel so comfortable in my host-family that the interruption and inevitable craziness of being in Thies was a little bit of a downer.

I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult to write here in Senegal; I didn’t realize how numbed I had become to the process of sharing my life until a couple of friends asked me questions that were basically about my every-day life. So many very small things are different in very big ways that it’s hard to even know how to start, but I want to take a shot at describing a typical day in Thieneba. This is partially for you guys, but partially also for me. I will be installed in my new village on Wednesday, and I want to spend the next couple days thinking about what it was like to be part of a family in Senegal, what went well and what didn't, etc. Plus, I miss my family in Thieneba, and so I'm going to impose several stories about them on you.

First, though, a vocab lesson.
Toubab: white person. Derisive, depending on the context. We all hear this a million times a day, and once I get back to the states, Inshallah (weird how reflexive that becomes), I will probably be calling you a toubab.
Stage: pronounced like you're French. The group of people with whom I left the States and came to Senegal. My stage is half health, half environmental education, and all quality.
Stagiares/trainees: actually, I'm not going to explain this one to you.

Life in Thieneba-Gare

You’re all familiar with Eeyore, right? The cranky mopey donkey in the Winnie the Pooh books? If you’ve never spent time with a real donkey, you may be aware that they’re capable of making the most miserable noises. Think of the emotions evoked by the ripping noise made as the fabric of your pants split while you’re walking down the street, or the desperate hesitation of a car engine that just won’t start when you’re alone in a strange city in the middle of the night. It really is that bad. In the last few weeks, I've come to think that donkeys are pretty damn adorable. But they just sound so miserable all the time.

Anyway, when the donkeys start braying at around 6 AM, that’s how I wake up. As depressing as they sound, they don’t manage to get me down. After all, they’re just saying good morning. There are other sounds, too: the call to prayer over the loudspeaker; the squawk of chickens; the shuffling and mumbling of my family as they pray and begin their morning routine.

I sleep pretty well in Thieneba (pronounced Chen-uh-buh, by the way) and usually I’m pretty ready to get out of bed at this point. But part of learning how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer is figuring out how to make time for yourself. I’m spending my whole day in class or with my family, speaking a new language while immersed in a new culture. We all need a chunk of the day to spend by ourselves, and I like mine in the morning. I read a book or study while lounging in bed, partially because my bed is a nice, comfy place to be and partially because there’s not really any other furniture in the room.

Once I’m ready to get up and go out, it’s time to greet my family. My mom and dad had a handful of kids, but only two are living in the house now -- Pape, my 16 year-old brother, and Ndeye, my 12 year-old sister. Also along for the ride is Mben, 13, who is the daughter of my father's brother. In Senegalese culture, that makes her my father's daughter too. Sort of. My family is a little unusual by Senegalese standards. My dad, though a Muslim, is all about monogomy. And he has fewer children and extended family members living in the house than most. I heard stories from my fellow stagiares about their training villages, where some lived in compounds of 50 or 60 people. My little house in Thieneba, comparitively, is about as American as it gets here.

Breakfast time. Most Senegalese I've seen tend to eat the same thing for breakfast every day: a loaf of bread, sometimes with beans or butter or chocolate spread on it, and a cup of coffee, called cafe touba, which is really more about the sugar content than the coffee. Alas. But I've come to like the routine. On my first morning, I happened to be sitting in the public area of the house when my breakfast was ready for me. Carrying my bread and coffee, my mom shooed me from the living room into my bedroom, where she placed my food and a chair for my temporary use. (In the first few days, I was basically followed around by a small child carrying a chair. No sitting on the floor for the toubab! She might melt.) In the next few days, sometimes I docilely waited for me breakfast in the room. Other times, I tried rebelling – I would plant myself in a chair somewhere outside and open my notebook to study. But my mom’s will never broke.

Lunch and dinner are different. The Senegalese eat these two meals seated on the floor around a big communal bowl. The women and children eat most dishes with their hands, but men and toubabs get spoons. Sometimes, if there were a lot of people visiting, my dad and I would share a bowl and the rest of the family would eat out of a smaller bowl, in another room. It’s funny – in Senegal, I’m a toubab first and a woman second. Frankly, I could go on for a good long time about eating in Senegal – what we eat, how we eat, even when we eat. I’ll save that for another time. But again, it’s another aspect of Senegalese life that being the community together.

Our days were far from idle. In the mornings, three of my fellow stagiares would emerge from their own homes and walk to mine for Wolof classes and culture sessions with our teacher, who lived in the same family as me. Immersion courses are bloody, guys, and that’s all that needs to be said about that. Except that every language is easier than Ancient Greek. Some afternoons, we stayed in the house for another language class. Sometimes, one of the other students and I would go out in the community to mingle and practice our Wolof while the other two girls stayed for tutoring sessions. Most days, in the two or three hours before sunset, we would walk to the primary school to work on our practice garden. We’re told that every volunteer in Senegal, a land of malnutrition and deforestation, is incidentally an agriculture volunteer, and so each of us will be responsible for planting a million trees and maintaining a demonstration garden in our villages. I’m a little nervous, because our garden in Thieneba was a miserable failure. Planting stuff in sand is hard, and hard to justify sometimes. But I guess you shovel enough manure around and everything turns out all right.

The best part of the day came next. Bucket bath time! Seriously, America. I know you have plenty of toilet paper, different types of soap for different parts of your bodies, conditioner, and running water. I remember all of these things pretty well. But the fact is that you don’t know what you’re missing. Few joys in this world parallel getting super sweaty in the 115 degree heat, then washing it all of with a bucket of coolish water and a bar of soap. I’m anticipating trouble with my hair, which occasionally wants to be brushed. But we’ll see. What would you think if I shaved my head? I don’t think it’s likely, I’m just curious.

After bucket bathing, I would hang out with the kids for most of the evening. Ndeye, my sister, is amazing. One evening, we were messing around on the chalkboard we used for Wolof lessons. Ndeye was showing off a little bit, demonstrating her arithmetic abilities and testing out mine. I don’t know what prompted me to do this, but I drew the multiplication table up and we started going over the patterns and trying to talk about how addition and multiplication are related. It was pretty difficult, because at the time I had been studying Wolof for all of ten minutes or something. Still, she loved it. She just lit up. Ndeye is the quieter of the two girls; Mben is a crazy mess. She’s fun, loud, loves dancing, and if the house weren’t made of brick and almost completely empty she would burn it down whenever she made dinner. Oh no, I have to tell you about cooking in Senegal too. Oh yikes. OK. Later.

Anyway, after a few hours of quality time with my family, I usually went to bed pretty early. Sleeping is great, guys. I am a big, big fan.

I'm still amazed by the generosity and openness of my family. These five people went out of their way to make me feel comfortable in the strangest moments of my life so far, they let me become a part of their family, and they gave without asking.

I'm going to wrap it up. There's much more to say, but I wanted to give you a quick glimpse into what life has looked like for me during the past few weeks. I again feel as if my words are sloppy and haphazard, that I have been struggling and will continue to struggle to find a way to share my life here with you. But ndank, ndank, as the Senegalese say. Slowly, slowly.

Love and guts.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New address!

PCV Jessie Seiler
B.P. 33
Guinguineo, Senegal, West Africa

For those of you paying close attention, don't be confused: I'll be living the village of Ndiago and picking up my mail every now and then in Guinguineo, my road town. I'll explain all that stuff about road towns later, and why it is that I'll only be going there once a week or so.

BUT AT THIS VERY MOMENT I'm sitting in the Kaolack regional house. Tomorrow is a big shopping day, followed by two days of greeting regional authorities and seeing my friends installed in their villages. I have some free time today, so expect long emails, long blog posts, etc. Or maybe I'll just take a long nap, because it's 110 degrees outsides and the hot season isn't even here yet....


Love and guts. Oh, and I have a good guts story for later....

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Training finally ends next week! We swear in as volunteers, hang out in Dakar for a day, and then head out.

The last two months have been insanely busy. I committed to doing a lot of writing while I'm here; I have every intention of following through with those commitments. In about three weeks, expect a million new content.

I've got some stuff about the link between the Wolof language and Senegalese culture, daily life as a Peace Corps Trainee, blah blah blah. So much to share! So please hang in there. If you're still reading this blog after my two months of being bad at life, thank you. Hang in there just a little longer.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

A letter home

Greetings from Kaolack PC Regional House! I'm here briefly after a few days in my new home of Ndiago -- did anyone manage to find it on the map yet? We have Internet access here, and a flushy toilet, and a refridgerator, and all sorts of exciting things. The house is kind of a cross between a youth hostel and a vacation home for PCVs in the region.

Anyway, I'm going to start today's offering by transcribing a portion of a letter I wrote a couple of days ago from Ndiago. Gil, this letter was originally for you. I'll probably send it anyway, in part because it has an important and educational drawing. I hope you can forgive me for putting it online first. Here we go:

Dear Gil,
The other day, I found myself in a car that reminded me of you. It was a Peugeot 504 station wagon packed with 10 adults, a couple of kids in laps, and a ton of luggage. Every indicator on the dashboard was broken so I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I suspect that the thing couldn't go faster than about 35 M.P.H. The road (between a big city and a medium-sized road town -- Kaolack and Guinguineo) was so marred by treacherous potholes that we covered most of the distance on the packed-down shoulders just beyond the asphault.
But the fun really started in Guinguineo. Between that town and my new home, a village of 271 called Ndiago, I take a charette.
This is where my amazing drawing skills come into play. Basically, what you should be imagining is a donkey or a horse hitched to a big wooden platform supported by one axle and two wheels, balancing rather precariously on hope alone. There is nothing to hold on to, unless you count the goats or your fellow passengers and their belongings.

Anyway, I'm going to stop with the letter now. But you should know that when you guys all come visit me, you're going to be spending 45 minutes on a charette behind an exhausted horse or an irate donkey.

As for Ndiago itself, I'll save those stories for later. Except for one.

Greeting is very important in Senegalese culture. The first language bits we learn as trainees are all for greeting, and we use them constantly. A typical conversation would start like this (and maybe go no further):

"May peace be with you."
"And also with you."
"What are you doing?"
"I am here only."
"How is your morning."
"It is walking. Peace only, thanks to God."
"Where is your father?"
"He is here only."
"Thank God. Where is your mother?"
"She is here only."
"Thank God. How is your work?"
"It is walking slowly."

Seriously. This could go on for a few minutes, depending on how formal you get. Whole conversations could be just an exchange of greetings.

It came as no surprise, then, when my ancienne (the volunteer I'm replacing) announced that we would be spending my very first morning in Ndiago going around to every family compound and greeting them all, one by one. We had met with the village chief the evening before, and I gave him a gift of kola nuts. He went around that night and gave a kola nut to every family in the village, so everyone knew we would be coming in the morning.

Most of the time in Senegal, I don't feel very far from home. I am comfortable and happy here and just not a bit homesick. But you get a whole different perspective on what it means to have a home, to be at home, and to be a part of a community when in a single morning you can shake the hand of every man, woman, and child in your village, greet them all, ask them all their names. All of these people I will soon live among are steeped in an idea of home and community that is completely different from mine. People and place are tied together much more intimately here than in the States. I can more easily put myself in the position of a Senegalese and understand what it is like for her to be homesick than I can imagine myself being homesick.

Does that make sense?

I might write more later. I'll be in Kaolack with Internet access until tomorrow, then Thies, then Dakar for a day, then Thies, then Thieneba.... Then, I forget. OH! And today is Senegal's birthday, tomorrow is my birthday, and the day after that is Anna Sutheim's birthday! Hooray for everything.

Love and guts,

PS, for people who asked questions on the blog--

Doug, I would love to give you some insight on energy use once I know a little bit more. Let me know through email if you have any specific questions.

Aaron! My cousin Aaron, right? And not other Aaron!? I'm glad to hear from you.

Kate, I got your COMPLETELY AMAZING letter a bit ago, but no package yet. But I only get mail in Thies, and I haven't been there in days and days. So we'll see?

AND! From my dad:

You should all get skype and call me all the time.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Apologies! Stories! Elephants!

OK, frankly, all you get this time are apologies. I'm sorry I haven't been writing anything to anybody recently (with the possible exception of text messages -- you have no idea how great it is to get text messages from the States), but I'm working on it. As it turns out, I have very little time during training for much besides learnin' stuff. But I've also discovered that it's very hard to write for you. Explaining life to you requires me to be in two mental places at one time -- the Unites States and Senegal.

Tomorrow, I leave Thies to visit Ndiago, the small village in the Kaolack region (find it on a map for extra elephant points!) that will be my home for the next two years. The current PCV I'm replacing and I are going to hang out for a few days, and she'll introduce me to all the 271 people living in Ndiago. I'll probably get a new name as well. During training, I am Issa Sene, a name given to me by my host family. Funny story -- apparently it's a boy's name meaning Jesus.

Anyway, I'm hoping to come back from my village with a new determination to share my life in Senegal with you. I may have said this before, but I'm radiantly happy here. The only thing that would make it any better would be if I could magically be sharing it with you -- or at least find the will to write more. Soon, soon.