Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ce N’est Pas Comme ca en Amérique (as stolen from my kick-ass replacement's blog)

I must preface, I didn't write this; my awesome replacement Katy did and it's avail on the link above. I just loved it and had to repost it. Katy- Hope you don't mind; you're spot on with all of these observations.

So this blog is dedicated to a list of Senegal-specific things/characteristics, and perhaps other 3rd world countries, that myself and a my neighbor volunteer put together. These are attributes that one would most likely never encounter in the great land of America aka a part of my new life. Enjoy...

- Men sporting jelly shoes (oh yes, we remember these, those clear plastic shoes we all wore in middle school)
- Motor oil as a burn antiseptic

- Africa does weird things to your skin: rashes, blister beetle sores, bacterial sores that prevent walking, etc.

- Spitting, picking your nose, grabbing your crotch anytime, anywhere, and in front of whomever...literally all the time

- Spaghetti/macaroni on bread with mayonnaise, and (if you choose) beans as well

- Spaghetti/macaroni sprinkled on rice (this is fancy food)

- Liberal use of dried fish in literally almost every meal

- Donkey races with small child drivers

- Eating every meal with your hands (right hand only, left hand reserved for other things, you can only guess)

- Liberal use of insults to any and everyone, people you don't know are not exempt from the insult hurling; they actually seem to be favored targets

- Small children can apparently do anything big children can do: shopping, driving charettes, any general task that an young/adult should do but feels they don’t need to because they can send a small child

- Bird slaying by slingshot followed by a bbq

- In Senegal it takes 5 seconds to fall in love with a white girl: see, speak, love. "I have always wanted a white wife".

- Every baby is available for the taking if you are going to America, or will be going to America at some point in the future

- Men squat to pee. Why? That’s one of the beauties of being a man, you don’t have to squat.

- Men holding hands and being generally physically affectionate with one another

- Boobs everywhere….everywhere, and of all ages…yuck

- Animals roam everywhere, the capital city highway included

- Fear of cats and dogs by at least 85% of the population

- Saying hello/greeting can take a solid 3 minutes, with the same questions being asked repeatedly (and it’s rude if you don’t greet so we are forced to participate)

- You can buy anything, in any amount (1 cigarette, ¼ Nescafe, 1 tbs sugar)….not for individual sale not applicable in this country

- You can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and its completely acceptable

- Falling stars every night

- Anyone will pick you up on the side of the road if you need a ride (charette, car, 18-wheeler) and it’s common Peace Corps volunteer behavior

- Laying outside under the stars with your whole family every night

- Napping all afternoon because that’s what you do in the afternoon

- Hissing is a completely acceptable way to get someone’s attention

- Eating all parts of an animal (eyes, insides, head, etc.)…ew 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

(7 April 09) COS Contemplations

The other day I was asked to help out the school in my village with an activity.  They were practicing how to physically describe a person.  Their task was to describe me.  First, they mentioned my long legs, red lips and white teeth, then moving on to my small head, long hair, short neck & obese form.  I let those descriptions be; however, I did correct them when they tried to say my skin was white.  It took them a minute to come to a consensus; they debated yellow violet and red, but finally they settled on café au lait.

Being the focus of their descriptive adjectives got me to start thinking about how we perceive the world around us.  While the primary objective of their activity was to practice descriptive vocabulary, as opposed to accurately describing me, I realized some of the ways in which their perception of me differs from my own.  For example, I would describe my hair (which now reaches just past my ears) as quite short, whereas to the students here it really did seem long.  When it came time to describe my skin at first they said white, though they all know I have neither the same fair skin as Erin or Sara (the two closest pcv’s) nor the same dark pigmentation as themselves.  It was interesting to watch them try to decide on a color to describe me.  I admit it was the teacher who finally suggested café au lait, but they were stuck with yellow red or violet up to that point.  At least they were right on the long legs.

My sister Penda was just remarried this past month.  Her four months and ten days of mourning for my uncle (her first husband) finished in late December and no time was wasted in finding a new husband to take his place.  Her husband now is a marabou (a kind of religious healer) near Kaolack who already has two wives. Though Penda has been excited and giddy with anticipation, I can’t help but feel knots twisting inside me at the thought of her new position.  Polygamy is legal here, but each wife exerts dominance over any future wives.  So Penda is now subservient not just to her new husband and his parents, but also to the two wives before her.  I cringe when I think of Baby Sharon (who turned one year old Jan 24) growing up with two ‘step-mothers’ always holding her parentage against her.

Of course, this is how I see it.  Penda has been all smiles with talk of her new husband and he even called several times in the weeks before she left.  Over the phone I told him if he doesn’t take care of her I will bring him big problems; he said thank you.  My parents also seem pleased with the match.  While I don’t know much about the particular village she now calls home, I do know that there’s a faucet with running water in the compound and schools nearby.  As the wife of a marabou she should be respected and have enough to eat.  All of these represent the glass half full, but regardless for the rest of my time in the village my glass will be half empty.

My time in the village is indeed winding down and as it does I find myself questioning and reevaluating everything I’ve done or not done.  I see the good, but I can’t help but also see the possible bad.  I guess I want to make sure I leave here without regrets, but at the same time I don’t want to look back on my service with rose-tinted glasses.  Yes, I want a clear conscience, to know that I not only tried my best, but also that something positive came of it; that I did more help than harm.  Peace Corps stresses the importance on increasing the capacities of the communities we work with.  It is left to us to figure out how best to do this.  There is no exact formula to know when to interfere/get involved or when I should let them work something out on their own.  Another ambiguity is how we are to evaluate the work we’ve done.  I suppose in the increasingly interconnected world we live in it’s only getting easier to come back after a few years and see where things are, but what about in the meantime?  I find myself longing for the holy grail of development work, sustainability, but Peace Corps is inherently not sustainable with Peace Corps Volunteers leaving after two years.

I’ve brought many things to my family: money for food, a donkey, clothing, chickens, a few home repairs, but have I created a dependency on something that won’t last?  Maybe they have eaten better or been ‘better off’ during my time here, but will any of these benefits outlast my two years?  I helped my village acquire a grain-pounding machine (currently up & running), but have I helped increase their organizational capacity to manage it?  I like to think so, but coming back a few years from now and checking will be the true test.  The group from the US government finally called me back and is installing a hand pump in one of our village wells.  The OSC (Office of Security Cooperation, affiliated with the DOD) was reluctant to install a motorized pump after seeing so many fall into disrepair or disuse (if they run out of gas or money to buy more), but I’ve had no luck researching if a hand pump at 65meters is actually easier than how they currently pull water.  I’ve already extended my time in the village until installation is complete, but I won’t be around for long to see how it works.  My deepest fear is that I’ve made their access to water more difficult.

One of my good friends in the village, Daba Ndao, just gave birth to her fourth child March 31.  Her youngest was just a few months old when I arrived back in May 2007 and it was Daba, along with a few other women, who started asking me about family planning.  A month or two ago, when I first realized she was pregnant (half the time I don’t realize a women is pregnant until after she’s had the baby), I asked Daba if she had been to the health-post for a pre-natal checkup. She had gone for one, but didn’t have enough money to buy the medicines they said she needed and hadn’t been back.  I told her that is she/her husband found a charette to take us to the health post and back, I would pay for the appointment and any medicines she needed.  Another woman from the same compound, Amy Ndao, has also approached me to discuss birth control.  Her husband, Subberou Mbacke, agrees he doesn’t need any more children, but doesn’t have money to give her to get birth control meds and is unlikely to use condoms.  Amy gave birth to baby Fatou in September of last year.  Since the baby is now over six months old Amy reminded of me of our talk and asked if I could help her.  Though I wasn’t able to accompany her to the health post to meet with the nurse, I was able to pre-pay for her visit and three months of either the pill or Depo-Provera (the only two options in Kouthia Ba).

Am I overstepping my bounds by paying for these women to go the health post and get the treatment they want and need?  Am I sending a message to their husbands and the village that if they don’t take care of this themselves, the Peace Corps Volunteer will pay for it?  Obviously I think I’m making the right decision by doing this, but I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. 

Just this past week the PCV replacing me in May came to Lewe for five days, accompanied by the PCVs going to Koumpentoum and Kouthia Ba.  Katy is fresh out of college, excited, and doing well with her Wolof.  My family has already re-named her Penda Mbodj and they get along well.  I feel a sense of relief that someone competent and motivated will replace me; I just hope that I’ve set her up well and not left any unfinished projects or annoying precedents.  Already I’ve seen things normal to me that she’d like to change.  If I’ve learned anything in my two years, it’s how little control I actually have relative to what I think I should have. 

It’s clear at this point that after two years here, my feelings flow between both positive and negative.  Right now, I really don’t know how to personally evaluate my service, as the objectives and accomplishments seem more abstract than the disappointments and failures seem concrete.  Much like the students in that classroom activity saw things from a perspective different than my own, I find myself caught between varieties of ways to look back on these two years.  I fluctuate between feelings of confidence and doubt, lacking an accurate way to surmise it all.  I suppose the Peace Corps proverb rings true:  the optimist sees the glass half full, the pessimist sees the glass half empty, while I, the Peace Corps Volunteer, look at it and can only say, “I could take a bath in that.”

Jamm Rekk,
Kodou Mbodj
PCV Senegal ’07-’09

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