Thursday, December 25, 2008

(25 December 2008) As 2008 Comes To A Close

Merry Christmas!

Only three and a half months left before I leave my home of the previous two years.  The nights are cold (high 50’s-low 60’s), but the days are still hot (100F).  I’ve made new friends and family and have already experienced the loss of some of them.  I began to share this experience with my friends when I went home in June and my family was able to experience my life here firsthand when they came to visit in November.  I helped organize a women’s group for the village and once funding is complete (almost there, but still a little left.  Go to: if you want to contribute) will assist them in the installation and management of a grain milling machine that will lessen the arduous labor that is a woman’s life in the village.

I knew from the beginning that two years here would fly by and it has.  At times I’ve lamented it; other times I’ve longed for it.  As my time in the village winds down I look forward to some things: easy access to clean vegetables parasite-free water and the internet, electricity to facilitate work after dark, better transportation, a diet free of white rice, and minimal interaction with bugs like earwigs, horse scorpions, wasps, and stinging ants.  On the flipside I can already imagine some of the things I’ll miss: all the downtime to chat with my family here, watching my tomah (namesake) and all my siblings grow up, subsistence on almost entirely local products, and a night sky darker and clearer than any other I’ve ever come across.

I’ve set as a goal for myself to return to Senegal in the next five years (if I end up in grad school that extends to ten).  I can only imagine the changes that may take place between now and then.  By then the road between Tamba and Kaolack should be fully paved and the road from Koumpentoum to Kouthia Ba might be as well.  I think running water is coming, however its reliability will always leave something to be desired.  I think electricity will reach Kouthia Ba by then, though I imagine it will take much longer to make its way to the villages.  Hopefully more students from my village are able to continue their education at the college (junior high) in Kouthia Ba.  With only a handful of adults literate in French an increased literacy rate will open doors of opportunities.  Many of these opportunities will lie outside of what the village is able to offer.  It saddens me to think of how few people may be left in Lewe in five to ten years time; already more and more people spend the non- planting/harvesting portion of the year in search of work elsewhere.  I suppose the migration from villages to towns and cities is inevitable and will bring increased access to things such as education, work, and a quicker exchange of ideas.  

Last night we cooked up a big holiday meal at the Tamba house.  We originally expected to be a small group of 4, half vegetarian half not.  However, teacher’s strikes in the neighboring region of Kedougou spread to all out riots with some gunfire, forcing the PCV’s of that region to evacuate.  Fortunately we had planned to cook enough food for a few days so we were able to accommodate the extra 6 people that came our way looking for safety and Christmas cheer.  Our menu included: roast duck (the original 2 non-veg’s thought this was a splurge, but we were glad to have it once the guests arrived), lentil soup, mashed squash, mashed sweet potatoes, green beans, chocolate chip cookies, and vegan and non-vegan squash pies.  Though our evening was more crowded than we had anticipated, it was nice to spend the holiday with friends.  Fortunately the situation in Kedougou is simmering down so the PCV’s for that region are looking forward to getting back to site.

I just finished reading both Guns Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond and Land of a Thousand Hills by Rosamond Halsey Carr.  GGS examines the paths of different civilizations and how they ended up where they are today.  I quite appreciated Diamond’s analysis of how different peoples have worked with what was available to them (good or bad soil, favorable or unfavorable climate, many or few animal possibilities for domestication) and how some groups gained advantages before others.  I also liked how he addressed the controversy of racism in his discussion.  Land of a Thousand Hills is the memoir of a woman who followed her husband to the Congo 1949, moved to Rwanda shortly after, and spent the rest of her life in that area until her death in 2006.  She lived through multiple revolts (she was evacuated during the genocide but later returned to convert her plantation into an orphanage) and was friends with Dian Fossey.  Her memoir is only a glimpse into the geography and history of Rwanda , but I’m intrigued enough to visit.  The book I’m currently reading is The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly.  After reading Sachs’ The End of Poverty and both of Stiglitz’s books on globalization, it’s quite informative to read someone with such specific objections to them. Easterly’s credentials include over 16 years at the World Bank, but rather than trying to work on a utopian one-solution-fits-all approach, which he claims Sachs advocates, he sees real development as happening through piecemeal solutions specific to different situations.  His humor leaves something to be desired, but I appreciate his attempts to liven up what can be an overwhelming subject.  We’ll see how I feel when I’ve finished the book. 

Before I forget to mention it, the girls leadership camp in Koumpentoum went off great.  We were indeed plagued by problems arising everyday for the week leading up to the camp, but it all worked out and 20 girls in total attended the two day seminar.  Check out the Picasa site for pictures (

Thank you to all of you for your continued support in thoughts, discussions, letters, packages and donations.  It really does mean a lot to both myself and my village.

Peace only,

Monday, September 22, 2008

(22 September 2008) The Passing Of My Mentor, Work Continues On, Get Involved

Greetings to all.  I am sad to report the passing of my uncle, Mamadou Camara, on August 24.  I was near Dakar at the time and so received the news by phone. There is no official diagnosis but my guesses are: heart attack, stroke, or head injury (he fell down before he died).  He leaves behind his wife, my sister Penda, their seven month old daughter, Sharon, the village of Keur Ndongo and me.  Penda is in mourning for four months, at which point I’m not sure what will happen; she is already in the same village as her family so she might just continue to live in her house or she might remarry.  Right now some family from other villages, her grandmother/sister-in-law and a few others, have come to stay with her.

We are already a month or two into the hungry season and the rains bring other concerns.  This is just a hard time of year for people here.  With no system set up to catch and store rainfall (except for the ground) immense swampy puddles form that create ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, flies, frogs, and diarrhea, while leaving transport carrying rice, vegetables, and other goods literally stuck in the mud.  However, at the same time, it is these rains that feed the crops that will in turn feed my village for the next year.  As far as our crops are concerned, the more rain the better.  The rains also bring cooler temperatures.  It’s really nice not to go to bed sweating every night and wake up the same way every morning.  I can even have a cup of coffee with my breakfast without beads of it rolling down my face. Though I won’t miss when the mosquitoes and black flies die down, taking the forever festering skin infections that accompany them away, the cooler weather is nice.

But enough about the weather.  I have been back from the US for two full months and things keep moving.  I’ve been following up with prices on different types of well pumps and looking into grain-pounding machines.  A few days ago some organization came to my village and said they want to put a robinet (French for ‘faucet) in my village with water being pumped from another village 9km southeast of us.  They need to fix the forage (a really big pump) in the other village first, but they are hoping to complete that project in early 2009.  Having seen the rate at which projects here fall through, or forages break down, I’m not going to stop pursuing the pump project I already started.  I think I have funding for it if I can find a pump for less than $2500.  Though I’m a big proponent of solar technology, I think a hand or foot pump is our best bet.

The next big project I’m working on is details for a proposal to bring a grain pounding machine to my village.  Pounding and preparing grain is a huge bulk of the women’s work here and takes a toll on their bodies.  The women’s group identified obtaining a pounding machine as their top priority when we had our big meeting last year; getting a well pump was a close second.  I had been in Dakar researching machines when my uncle died.  Not only was this incredibly sorrowful to me personally, I saw it also as a huge setback to most of the work I’ve been doing in my village.  Everything I do here involved my uncle in one way or another.  He facilitated the women’s group meetings and was able to translate both the ideas I wanted to communicate to them and explain to me what was going on.  He really bridged the gap between western ideas and organization and the traditional slow-to-change ways of the village.  It was probably unwise for me to have depended on him so much, but I did and I feel it was to the benefit of the village.  As it is now, things here will keep moving on, perhaps just a bit slower.  In terms of the pounding machine this means I must now focus more on how we can successfully manage the machine.  My father, the chief of the village, has already worked out some of the details: we will have a committee that keeps track of the finances; we will send two or three people to a training in Dakar offered by the manufacturer on how to operate and make small repairs on the machine.  All that’s left is to work out some of the other details, have the women work out the details on organization, for me to write the proposal, and the money to be raised.

This is where you can insert yourself, if you would like.  The proposal is going to be through Peace Corps Partnerships, which puts PCV projects on their website where interested people can donate to the projects of their choice.  I’m not sure what the total project cost will be, of which the village will pay 25 percent, but I’m guessing just over $6300.  The machine itself is $5900 and on top of that we’ll need to build a hut with a good roof to keep it in and pay for its transport.  So in a short while I’ll be working to raise $4750.  I’ll send out the web link and information as soon as everything is submitted and approved.  And yes, donations are tax-deductible.

I may have mentioned before that Erin and I submitted eight girls as candidates from our local college (junior high) for the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship (named for a deceased PCV).  The scholarship is run through our Senegad (Senegal Gender And Development) program ( and awards one 30000cfa ($70) scholarship to one girl at each participating college.  In Senegal college is like a three year junior high, but many of the students are in their mid-teens before they pass to this level.  Peace Corps Volunteer has to organize and manage their applicants so colleges without a PCV nearby are unable to participate; however, urban PCVs with multiple college close by can work with as many as they choose.  The principal and teachers pick four girls from each grade, usually twelve girls per college, and we the volunteers meet with them, do home visits/interviews, collect teacher recommendations and the girls’ compositions, and submit them to Senegad.  The winner for each college is selected at a meeting in Dakar in August.  Senegad only has enough funding to sponsor one scholarship per school so Erin and I decided to cover the cost of a second in Koutia Ba (our college is new and only has two of the three grade levels offered so far).  In Koumpentoum Sara’s family back home is going to provide an extra $140 so that there can be a winner in each of the three grade levels there.  Erin, Sara and I are also planning a weekend leadership camp for all the candidates (20 girls in total from both our colleges) to be help in Koumpentoum in early November.  We have applied for funding through another PC grant that sponsors activities involving HIV/AIDS education, which we discuss in the female reproductive health portion of the weekend.  The three of us have a lot of work ahead of us: we are bringing in five female speakers, have sessions to plan, and are working on the logistics at a nearby campement.

The next big collaborative project we’re working on is hosting an eye clinic in Koumpentoum in January.  Another PCV with contacts to a medical group in the states that performs cataract surgery hosted an eye clinic in eastern Senegal last December.  The doctors enjoyed what they did so much that they asked to do it again in another location.  Hopefully this will bring sight to tens or thousands of people in the surrounding communities of Koumpentoum.  While Sara, Erin, myself, and the next two closest PCVs are excited to host this, we have a lot of logistical work to do from making sure the generator at the health post works to publicity to finding places for the doctors to sleep to getting ready for the crowd control problems that plague every medium-large size function in this country.  My family is coming to visit in November, which will leave December for all the last minute details.  I’m excited and exhausted just thinking about it.

For now the corn is tall and the millet stalks taller.  My four year old brother passes the days catching crickets and grasshoppers to feed to my cat (she really likes the insects).  Ramadan started September second here, so there’s no lunch to break up the day.  It’s interesting to think of the people here fasting on purpose when they were already skipping so many meals on account of lack of food.  But soon the fruits and grains of their labors will start to come in and another year will begin again in this tenacious little village.

Ba Chikanom,


Monday, May 26, 2008

(26 May 2008) June Blog- 1 Year On, 1 More To Go

  It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since leaving my home in Sunny California to come to the exotic hub of West Africa .  As different as it is here, I find strange how normal and non-exotic it feels to me.  Being here has also increased, rather than answered, my questions about development.  It’s also made me contemplate my work here for the second half of my service.

    I really appreciate how much of the stigma of Africa disappeared for me after being here for so long.  Though the way people do things here is drastically different from what I’m used to, the things that people do here aren’t that different.  The pace of life here seems slower but only because it takes so much longer to do any one thing, there isn’t time or energy to do more beyond that.  The climate is another huge factor.  Sometimes we joke that entropy occurs at a faster rate here than anywhere else; because the temperature is so much higher I think that’s technically a fact.  This weather ages everything at a warp-speed pace.  As I write this it’s 2:45pm in the shade inside my hut and with both the window and door open it’s 101.5F.  The other day it was 109F inside my room at 5pm; that was hot.

    I may lament it at times, but I’ve become accustomed to pulling water at the well every other day and carrying it back to my room on my head.  In the states I can’t imagine how much water I use in a day; here, I use less than 15liters a day for bathing, drinking, cleaning, etc (granted this does not include laundry, which takes 30-40liters of water once every two weeks or so).  I’m also much more aware of the moon.  With no electricity to create light pollution it gets dark when the sun goes down and the amount of light is entirely dependant on the moon.  As for weather, I notice everything.  In the states if it’s too hot you turn on the a/c or a fan; if it’s too cold, you turn up the heat.  So much time is spent in a climate-controlled environment.  Here if it’s cold (anything below 80F is cold) I put on more clothes and sleep inside.  If it’s hot I sweat and sleep outside; if it’s really hot I am soaked in sweat and sleep outside.  I’m used to my younger brothers and sisters running around like wild monkeys every evening.  The more moonlight, the madder they get.  I’m used to their ripped and tattered clothes and my host mom walking around with no shirt on.  I get excited about millet with leaf sauce for dinner and am not surprised on nights where there is no dinner.  When I go someplace I walk or bike.  If my destination is really far I take a hot, smelly, overcrowded, and often-breaking-down relic of a bus that we call an alhum. Needless to say it’s not air-conditioned.  I’m used to the 100km (60mi) trip taking at least four hours and arriving in Tamba covered in dust that has adhered to my sweat.  I’m used to the trip from my village to Tamba (130km) taking a day.

    There used to be times I’d be in disbelief that anyone could live like this, but at the end of a year of living it, it just seems normal.  Part of the reason I wanted to come to Africa is all the bad press we hear about it in the states.  I knew I needed to dispel the myths that had built up in my mind and replace them with a picture based on my experiences here.  This much I am achieving.

    I think every Peace Corps Volunteer thinks that they will change the world on some level, ideally for the better.  In some ways you have to believe it to take the plunge and go.  I came into this with basically no development experience, but the idea that Africa is a big part of the world that seems to have a lot of problems that no one understands. All sorts of people spout off all sorts of solutions: leave it alone, give money, flood the place with international NGOs, or adopt a child… In my opinion Africa has been taken advantage of for centuries and continues to be, and as someone who profits from this I feel obligated to try and see the bigger picture I don’t really have any money to send that would make much of a difference, and even if I did I am unsure of how wisely it would be spent. International aid organizations in Africa constitute a major sector of employment, and while unemployment is a huge issue here it seems strange to me that working for an NGO is one of the best jobs someone here can get. Needless to say I am in no position to adopt a child.

    One of the nice parts of Peace Corps is all the books we pass around. Paul Farmer is a household name here. Martin Meredith provides an excellent, if lengthy, account of African history leading up to and through revolution until present day in The Fate of Africa. In the states I probably couldn’t sit through book after book on development, but here I’ve got the time and my interest is yet to wane. However, instead of deducing the solution or means to achieve sustainable development, this seemingly holy grail, I’ve only deduced that a lot of factors led to this web of issues that seems to have kept Africa back. Untangling this to move forward is going to be slow.

    I often find myself thinking of projects for my village and area that they haven’t mentioned yet. The consciousness of PC Senegal is currently shifting in a positive direction, but during my training we were totally discouraged from any projects that weren’t entirely initiated by our communities. The trouble is there are a multitude of basic needs that aren’t met here. Only a few compounds have latrines; most people walk out into the forests/fields to relieve themselves. Every drop of water used has to be pulled 64 meters or more up from the ground and carried home on the women’s heads. This water contains dust, dirt, and sometimes parasites. It’s a rarity here when a woman gives birth to twins and both survive. Women in the village often have 8-12 pregnancies during their lifetime; around 40% of those children don’t make it past the age of five. Though my family is fortunate enough not to have this problem, there are families here that eat one meal a day. The World Food Program provides a modest but filling breakfast and lunch to the school children each school day, except when it runs out. That’s for the kids who get to go to school. Some children are kept home to help with work around the house (the case with many girls) or for lack of money to continue their studies. Many simply fail to pass the exams required to continue on to the next level and drop out. I can’t even begin to picture my opportunities as a third grade dropout. When so many students are incapable of passing their exams, it shows how ineffective the education system is.

    I have trouble demanding the solution to their salvation from people who are starved in so many ways. Outside of the towns almost all the adults are illiterate, and very few children what I consider fully literate. The farthest people in my village have gone is usually Kouthia Ba (for the women) or Koumpentoum (for the men). Few have ever been to the regional capital Tambacounda. They have little to no knowledge of anything going on outside of Senegal and even less of factors outside their control that impact their lives (such as grain or cotton subsidies in other countries that may decrease the value or demand of the crops they grow here, or a global food shortage that has caused the cost of a sack of rice to increase 50% but done nothing to increase their income, or the poor quality of their roads that impedes potential trade and work opportunities). How is it, I would like to know, that these people should be able to have a clearly mapped out answer to their problems? Even when they do know what will improve their lives they must defend it to people or organizations that doubt the proposed solutions or drag out their execution. The contrast to this is when random groups, usually NGOs, stop off and hand off wells, or machines, or big-ticket things. This serves to reinforce the “give-me, give-me” attitude that drives me crazy. These people do have to work for things but how much do they need to convince us that their basic needs should be met? How much is reasonable for them to put forward to meet these needs? As I skimmed through volume one of the Oxfam Guide to Development, I could only imagine my village’s response to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Part of the trouble of having so many questions and so few answers, is the paralyzing effect it has on action. Part of me feels that I shouldn’t take any action without knowing its full impact, after all that is what has caused a lot of these problems. At the same time we will never have all the information and have to start somewhere. Doing nothing changes nothing.

    This leads me to figuring out what I will do in this next year, the second half of my service. As I mentioned earlier, the atmosphere of PC Senegal was pretty negative when my batch arrived. Since then, a new Country Director has come in with a much more positive can-do attitude and a lot of jaded volunteers have left. I spent part of this first year unlearning a general destined-to-fail outlook on projects, and really do feel I can help my village to improve at least some parts of their lives. My women’s group, though discordant at times, is slowly taking steps forward to achieve their goals. Right now we have leads with an NGO, some random guy from the US Embassy, and possibly Engineers Without Borders to work on our well-pump project. Once I return from the States I’m also going to begin a numeration class with the women to teach them how to write and say the French numbers. I am thinking about starting a men’s group to get them off their asses and doing something, but their work season is about to begin and by the time it finishes I will be getting ready to leave. I am also thinking about starting a latrine project (seeing as it’s a basic need and the improved sanitation would lead to a break in the oral fecal cycle, and a decrease in incidences of diarrhea), but my village hasn’t mentioned this as an issue. I’m hesitant to start it without going through the possibly lengthy process of getting them to understand that if they stopped going in the forest and exclusively used latrines it would keep them from having diarrhea and decrease child mortality. I’m nervous that if I do go through the process with them that by the time they get it I won’t have enough time to see the project through, leaving a huge and costly project for whoever comes after me. Other things I want to do include a girls group and boys group. I’m not yet sure what my target age range will be, or my max number of participants (too many and nothing gets done, too few and you’re exclusive), but I’m hoping to start when I return.

    I am also not sure how much to leave for the next volunteer after me. For all I know the next PC slated to come to Lewe could early terminate during training, or right after they get to site, leaving no one to continue any projects I might leave. Also, some PCVs prefer coming to a site with activities already set up for them to do, while others would prefer to make it entirely their own. This won’t stop me from starting girls and boys groups but it is a serious concern for bigger projects like wells or latrines. As long as two years is, it’s not that long when everything has to move so slow except time doesn’t slow down for us to catch up.

    A year in, I would have to say that Peace Corps is all about balance. Balance between your comfort zone and uncomfortable places, cultures, locus of control, project ideas, personal time and work time, and more. I was learning how to balance while I worked in the states before I came here, and this process has continued. Being here has tipped my scales in a totally different direction (both literally and figuratively) but I think overall it will help me to find a greater balance in my life. Inshallah!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

(14 February 2008) Happy New Year From Senegal

Happy 2008 everyone! Time has been moving right along. In December, six other volunteers and I headed off to Vienna for an unbelievable Christmas and New Years.  A previous PCV here in Tamba invited all of us to celebrate the holidays with her family in Austria, where her father forks for the UN.  The only way I can think to describe it is AMAZING.  Her parents know the area well and showed us all around (including day trips to the Alps and Salzburg).  After New Years a friend and I went to Krakow and toured Auchwitz-Birkenau, a sobering experience.  Due to the availability of electricity and internet in Europe and here, most of the pictures are already on-line.

On our way back to site we stopped in Tamba to participate in a Tostan demonstration.  Tostan is an NGO, started by an rPCV, that teaches local language literacy classes for adults in Senegalese villages.   The group has also included a component about the harms of FGC (Female Genital Cutting) and most of the villages that go through the several year program have a ceremony at the end to renounce this practice.  I should say that I’ve heard mixed responses from villages as to how many of the villages actually discontinue this process, but regardless it is an amazing educational program.  On Sun Jan 13, over 900 villages from the Tamba region came to celebrate their completion of the program and announce their discontinuation of FGC.  Around 10 of us PCVs joined the parade to the stadium and then watched the ceremony.

Before leaving Tamba I made a stop at GADEC, an NGO that house CONGAD (the group that networks/organizes all the NGO’s in Senegal) in Tamba.  I’ve heard other volunteers have worked successfully with GADEC and my hope is for them to help my village get the grain-pounding machine, well pump and a fence for our future garden.  

After returning to the village I met with the women’s group and we wrote a demand for those things, which I have since delivered to GADEC.  Another one of the group’s objectives has been to get a health hut and train a midwife.  I spoke with my counterpart, the nurse at the dispensaire in Kouthia Ba, and reported my findings at the next women’s group meeting.  The women responded with MUCH emphasis that getting a pounding machine and well pump were the absolute first priorities.  I explained that the demand to GADEC was addressing these goals, but that didn’t prevent us from also talking to the Ministry of Health to work on the other identified needs.  Not only are the priorities NOT mutually exclusive, but it also makes the most sense to work on them concurrently because who knows how long it will be before any of the projects are completed.

This then led into a really great cross-cultural talking point about how we prioritize and pursue goals in the USA (at least how we ‘ideally’ pursue them) and thinking in terms of short and long term goals.  I ended up drawing a lot of lines in the sand, labeling them now, 1yr, 2yrs, 3yrs, and so on, and then jumping back and forth between them.  Using their ‘ultimate goal’ of selling vegetables at a variety of markets around Tamba, I tried to show that it takes time to get to that point.  That may be their 5yr goal, but in order to be able to reach that we hope in the next year or so to get a pump for the well.  I also tried to get them to think about what they want for the village when the young children are my age. This type of thinking doesn’t exist much in the village, so I’m not expecting any huge ideas just yet, but you gotta start somewhere. 

In other exciting news, my sister Penda had her baby. On Jan 24 she gave birth to her first child, a baby girl, in just under 4 hours. I have to say I’ve sort of been on cloud 9 ever since my uncle decided to name the baby Sharon after me. The only person who can pronounce it properly is my uncle; the ‘sh-‘sound doesn’t exist in rural Wolof.  The baptism was this the Friday after and I’ve taken a bunch of photos and a few short videos (if you know how to get these to upload, let me know), so check out the picasa site.

Despite the hubbub in the village, we found time to finally build my cement bed and path in my backyard.  It’s strange that a cement bed is luxurious here, but it really is. The path will come in handy when the rains start because part of my backyard floods.

Before I forget, Bowie had her kittens!  I came home to find 3 pudgy, fuzzy bundles around a week or 2 old (2 girls, 1 boy). I’ve given 1 away so far and think I have homes for the other 2.  The kittens are super cute, but 4 cats is a lot to take care of here.  In the meantime, the kittens continue to chase each other around my room.  My goal is to get Bowie fixed as soon as I get back from WAIST (West African International Softball Tournament), where I am now.

Wish Team Tamba luck!

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