Thursday, May 14, 2009

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,


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