Monday, December 22, 2008

Smiling with Operation Smile

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to go to Thies and help translate for an international project called Operation Smile. ( Operation Smile is an organization comprised of doctors, nurses, and volunteers from all over the world who travel to underdeveloped countries and perform reconstructive surgeries on individuals with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other facial and dental deformities. When in countries where the Peace Corps is present, PCV's are often used as a resource in translating. Because many of the doctors did not speak French, and many of the patients did not speak French (nor English obviously) but only local languages communication was a tad bit tricky. Luckily us volunteers came to the rescue, single handedly lifting the entire project out of its lingual CRISIS!

I had such an amazing time being able to hang out with all these wonderful people. Everybody was amazingly friendly and appreciative. I got to wear scrubs and watch surgeries. I got to follow the nurses around and ask all kinds of annoying questions. (If the nurses were annoyed by my constant inquisitiveness they didn't show it, bless their hearts). I met some really extraordinary Senegalese families who were extremely grateful for all these people did. Most of these people were really not used to being treated well at all by people in the medical profession. The Senegalese medical system is coarse, and often absent and uncaring. It is really sad. Families and patients are not provided for at all. Family members who accompany the patients are responsible for buying all the medicine themselves (including IVs--the nurses will put them in but the patient or family member has to go buy it). The family is responsible for feeding the patient (even water). All over the hospital you see families laying on mats with little gas stoves and all their belongings like clothes and blankets. Doctors and nurses don't talk to the patients unless they're commanding them to do something like "open your mouth." Bedside manner is completely non-existent. Patients are often yelled at, like it's their own fault for being sick or hurt.

While I was working in recovery this lady just came in after her facial surgery. She was still pretty out of it and not really conscious but the doctor wanted the Senegalese nurse present to make sure to tell her not to touch her face. So I told the nurse to tell her and he reached down and SMACKED her twice in the face and said "HEY, DON'T TOUCH YOUR FACE!" I couldn't believe it. I grabbed his hand and told him to go away. All the OpSmile nurses were really upset. I mean, she JUST had surgery ON HER FACE and this nurse is SLAPPING her!

Being translators and their only source of communication we got really close to the patients and families. It was really nice to see them all the way from screening to surgery and through final exams when they're all fixed and relatively out of pain. But it was difficult being the bearers of bad news as well. There were several children who couldn't go through with the operation because they were anemic or malnourished. One little boy had a tumor in his throat. Some kids had eye infections that had to be treated before surgery. Its really hard telling a parent who traveled hours to get there that their daughter couldn't have the surgery because she didn't qualify or wasn't healthy enough, and because we were the translators they had to hear it from us.

In spite of the rough times I loved every minute of my Operation Smile week. I cannot wait to go to nursing school so that I can participate in Operation Smile as well (I am in the process of applying to schools right now). The impact these doctors and nurses have on these people is immeasurable and I am so glad to be able to be a part of it.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Holidays are always a little different when you happen to be spending some time in Africa but always eventfull! Volunteers gathered for a slightly improvised Thanksgiving meal with turkeys and chickens that we killed and plucked ourSELVES. It was a foodfilled day spent at our regional house with around 40 Peace Corps volunteers and a very nice British couple. For my birthday I was given lots of love and a cheesecake that I spoon-fed to everyone present.

It was a glorious day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


To keep the power of women going strong I'd like to briefly mention a volunteer-created organization called SeneGAD. Gender and Development is a sector in itself in many countries that Peace Corps serves but not in Senegal, so we decided to create SeneGAD; and organization of Peace Corps Senegal volunteers in every sector that participate in projects and programs devoted to minimizing the gender gap and raising awareness of the gender issues all too apparent in the Senegalese culture today. The following is a movie put together by peace corps volunteers interviewing various amazing women, one of whom works for the Peace Corps. (Watch the movie, her name is Awa Traore and while filming, her phone rang and she just picked it up and puts it back down--that was probably one of us calling with a host family problem. Haha.)

We recently held an all girl conference in Ourossogui with middle school girls in the area, it was amazing. (Do I use that word too much? English is failing me). We showed the movie (above) and talked about topics like stereotypes, personal limits and goals and had a few extraordinary guest speakers. At the risk of sounding like a British t-shirt, I have to say GIRL POWER!

Pictures to come.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'm a man-eater...

I am no hater to the male gender most of the time but living in this Muslim, male-dominated society sometimes makes me so frustrated I wish we could find a way to eliminate the need for men altogether; perhaps find a way to laboratorically create sperm and reproduce only those embryos with no "Y" chromosome…

*Be mindful that the following pontification will be overflowing with sweeping generalizations, stereotypes, and unfair personal opinions.

It seems anywhere you go in Senegal, at any sort of business establishment, garage, or even a really shady tree you will inevitably see at least 6 men sitting or laying around doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING and this is especially true in villages (i.e. my village). In contrast, you will see the surrounding women in constant motion. Many families in my village get their money from relatives that work abroad in places like France or America and this allows the men the privilege of sitting around and doing nothing while the remarkable women of this country work extremely hard doing the housework, the cooking, the parenting, and the child bearing (and in many villages the very difficult job of pulling water from the well for the entire family to cook with, bathe with, and drink—and often times while pregnant). The men of my village love to get together, oh say mid morning, (mustn't get up TOO early) sit around, make tea, order their wives and children around and talk about how great they all are ALL day long.

In addition to being born into the super exclusive club of "the greatest people in the world," men also seem to think that it is their duty to hit on any foreign female they happen to see in hopes of duping her into marriage and reaping the benefits of all we might have to offer (i.e. a visa to America). It literally nauseates me the way the men here look at me. Before they even speak they give you a look and a smirk that makes my skin crawl because I know that what's going through their head is "oooh, a white girl! Lets see what I can squeeze out of her." And their eyes flash with dollar signs.

An example of a typical conversation with a Senegalese man:
Man: SSSS, TOUBAK! (white person)
Me: Toubak is not my name.
Man: What's your name? AREYOUMARRIED?!
Me: No, I'm not married and I don't want to be.
Man: Not married? You should be married. You have to get married and have babies. I want to marry a white woman.
(By this time I've already walked away.)

I was once on a horse cart with a seemingly very nice, older man. He expressed an interest in getting a Peace Corps volunteer for his village and so I gave him my phone number. BIG mistake. An hour later he called me professing his love for me. (I must have made quite the impression in that 15 minute horse ride where I spoke little more than 5 words.) He proceeded to call me 30 more times that evening and at least every fifteen minutes for the next 5 days! I couldn't use my phone because he was calling me so often so I had another person answer my phone and tell him he had the wrong number. He eventually stopped and I pray I never run into him again.

In addition to the flirting, we women are treated vastly different than men in any situation. Men are always treated more hospitably and always favored. Men eat first, men get the better seats in buses, and men get served first in almost every situation. The other day Marisa and I were getting into an EMPTY bus on our way to Ourossogui and were not allowed to sit in the front because we were women. I had a male friend visit from America and although he neither spoke French nor Pulaar everyone would direct their conversation towards him when traveling because he was "the man."

The male volunteers' lives here are pretty different, and I dare say EASIER. Their host sisters wash their laundry, sweep out their huts, and pull and bring them their water. They don't know how good they have it. Not to mention they're actually taken SERIOUSLY.

Once again I apologize for my negativity but sometimes you just have to vent.

I'd like to give a shout out to all those Senegalese women rocking the "X" chromosome and kicking ass!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Those lazy, hazy days of Ramadan

Yep, its that time of year again! So grab your mat, find a cozy spot in the shade and prepare to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING until the sun goes down. No eating or drinking sounds like a great way to spend this holiday season.

This is my second Ramadan and this time around I've decided to stand my ground as a non-faster. Sure I get dirty looks as I energetically jog past my villagers in the late afternoon heading for my daily run but I am not Muslim and I've decided that I am firmly against fasting from a health standpoint. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers both fast eventhough its horrible for them and their born and unborn children. In addition, kids are not fed as well either and are daily served this milk and rice mush that I would imagine tastes something like the substance Oliver Twist just couldnt't get enough of. Poor guys.

Inevitably all aspects of life in Senegal are slightly more difficult when no one is eating or drinking so life goes a little bit slower.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I was only in it for the free sandwich; The Gorée Island Swim


I had heard about this really cool thing that Senegal does every year where a bunch of crazy people strip down to their skivvies and swim out to this island where free sandwiches and redbull flow like wine. Its called the Traverse de Goreé (or the Gorée Island swim to the American community--Gorée Island is a historical island off the coast of senegal where slaves were captured by the Europeans back in the day). Boy was I dissapointed when I swam my happy ass all the way out to that island (nearly two hours) to find no such sandwich, but only a tiny package of biscuits in its stead. I got this rediculous looking swim cap burn (that circles my inner face like I used too much blush but only up half of my forehead) for nothing.

Just kidding! To be fair we did still get red bull (eventhough red bull makes me vomit and I gave it to some nearby 10 year old kid who swam and beat me horribly by a multitude of minutes), a bottle of water, a swim cap and a t-shirt. That makes the two hour swim worth it, right? Even the part near the island where we swam through copious amounts of garbage and water that smelled like gasolene...yeah I think so!

In all honesty the swim was actually a lot of fun. There were two swims, one was supposedly 8km (for the ULTRA crazies) and the shorter one was said to be 4.5 kilometers although up until the race we thought it to be 3 to 4. There were around 600 participants in the shorter swim and 15 Peace Corps Senegal swimmers, a huge increase from last year! There were also 4 volunteers from Gambia that swam as well. We all made it to the island without hopping on a boat or drowning which I think deserves mad props.

When we signed up we were told that the race started at 10 am but in true Senegalese fashion, once we got there, were told that it had been pushed back to noon--big surprise Im sure, and the race eventually started at 12:20pm. Our star swimmer Megan almost sabotaged our entire outfit by losing her goggles in the surf seconds before the race, but fortunately found another pair just in time to dive in and kick ass, being the first female swimmer to reach the finish line and fifth over all. Your humble narrator was quite a bit farther back in the crowd (no need to mention numbers...).

As the race started it was sort of crazy with everyone jumping in the water and you have to be careful not to get kicked in the face, or to be the person doing said kicking, but eventually everyone spreads out and you find yourself pretty much alone and wondering frequently if you are getting anywhere at all because the island doesnt ever seem to be getting any bigger. Angela and her sister were good sports and would wait for me to catch up every so often so we could stay somewhat together. Towards the island there are boats shouting at you where to go and yelling "Go! Go! You are almost done!" It was really neat. After turning a corner you see lots of banners and people on shore. Upon finishing and getting out its like a big party with loud music. Other Peace Corps volunteers were on hand as well to cheer on their Peace Corps swimmers. It was really exciting. "Yes, we did it. We're alive."

I could have really gone for that sandwich...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Languagely Self-Righteous

The winds of Peace Corps service have brought me to Dakar to work at a week-long English language camp for Senegalese high school students. The program is funded by the US Embassy and is a chance for students to get a leg up on English comprehension during their summer vacation. We played lots of games with the students including "Simon Says," "Dodgeball," and "Capture the Flag," as well as many other adolescent favorites. The students also performed sketches that sparked very interesting and intelligent discussions about various Senegalese topics such as polygamy versus monogamy, HIV/AIDS, and gender inequality in Senegal. The games and projects gave the students the chance to practice their leadership and communication skills, which I believe to be somewhat lacking in the Senegalese educational system.

This last week was so much fun and the kids were so great that it was really hard to leave. On the last day the students surprised us by doing a presentation thanking us for coming and for our help and enthusiasm. They also gave us gifts of Senegalese clothes, necklaces, and drawings that were completely unexpected. We were all extremely touched. At the end of class we were all taking pictures and exchanging numbers when the group gradually broke out into song and started clapping, then urged us to dance-- a Senegalese farewell. I'm gonna miss those crazy cats.

Pictures to come...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I ‘bless the rains down in Africa’ as much as the next guy, but this...

The afternoon began like any other...

I was sitting in Boki Diawe waiting for a horse cart back to my village. When one finally showed up, it was immediately stampeded by myself and seven other women anxious to get back to our respective villages. As we were pushing, shoving, and piling on, I looked up and noticed some ominous, dark clouds moving fast in the sky. I turned and asked a lady if she thought it would rain. She replied that it probably would but she didn’t seem the least bit concerned. So we squeezed in and took off.

We were about halfway to the first village off the road when the wind began blowing violently. In a short time, the wind was joined by hail and extremely heavy rain. At first I thought, “Well this kind of sucks. All my stuff is getting wet (cell phone, iPod, books, etc.) but at least it’s not hot...”

The rain and wind grew more violent and stung my head and face. All the women were shielding themselves with their long headscarves, but since I didn’t happen to be sporting one, a lady next to me took hers and wrapped the both of us up in it. I was huddled up against this lady’s chest like a child as I watched the ground beneath us go very slowly by, and watched what happens to the desert when it rains — it floods. The ground became mud… then water… then swiftly flowing water. You can imagine how these conditions might not be favorable for a tiny, two-wheeled, one-horse cart bearing nine people and all of our stuff. Also, I believe I should note that the terrain surrounding my village is neither flat nor friendly. There are many deep gorges cut by previous rains, as well as hard clay deposits and patches of deep sand that the rain instantly turns into deep mud. Thus began our long journey home.

Wet and disheveled, we were constantly required to get off the cart and push it out of the mud or through a gorge, sometimes wading up to our chests in flowing water, shoeless I might add, because we were all wearing flip flops that would get stuck in the mud and lost forever. We were stepping on all kinds of rocks and thorns. I was cold and wet and uncomfortable and still a long way from home but surprisingly I was not in a bad mood. The women’s spirits were high and we traveled slowly along, joking all the time about how we looked and wondering aloud about why we didn’t choose to go to town the day before or the day after. The women were helpful and engaging the entire time, always turning to make sure I was still with them and doing OK. “Where’s Atoru? There you are. Come on.” Through the deep wading they would hold my hand.

Well after dark, we finally got to the village nearest mine and dropped off the bulk of our passengers. Two women from my village were the only ones left on the cart besides the young driver and myself. As we neared our village, we began to hear an eerie sound. The horse driver stopped and we all fell silent, listening. I asked what the noise was and the ladies replied that it was water.

“Like rain?”

“No, not like rain.”

We drove on and finally came upon the water sound’s source — a flooded gorge rushing wildly across our path. There wasn’t a raging river running near my village yesterday, but there was now. The two women (both in their 70’s at the very least, one small and frail-looking) got off the cart and began taking off their clothes and preparing to ford the river. I was told to stay on the cart and hold on very tight. I was sort of disappointed because I was ready to join the river-fording club and had already begun disrobing as well.

The driver and the two women took their stations behind the cart, ready to push. The road was quite bumpy and it wasn’t long before we had to halt. The cart was stuck and refused to budge. The driver began untying the horse and said we’d have to leave the cart and come back for it. The women insisted that they would move it and it was agreed that they’d give it one more shot.

These two courageous women once again took their positions and, on the count of three, pushed as hard as possible. The cart was jarred loose and everyone was abruptly thrust forward with it, sending the little old woman into deep, swiftly rushing water. In a split second she had been carried away a couple yards and without a moment’s hesitation, the other lady jumped in after her. Neither woman could be seen for a horrifying second, but soon emerged struggling against the current to get back to the cart. My heart beat rapidly as terror overtook me, and seeing that they were still struggling to find footing, I jumped in and grabbed hold of the older woman and helped her back to the cart. By this time, the cart was led back to dry ground and the two older women and I emerged from the water winded and clutching each other’s hands.

When we got back to the village I took a visual inventory of what we arrived with:

A very tired and wet horse and horse cart, as well as driver.

Two half naked, very wet Pulaar-speaking women, one shoeless.
    “Where are your shoes?”
    “They're gone.”

And one very wet, disheveled white girl.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Its a hard knock life...

The lives of children here in Senegal, specifically in villages, are vastly different from those of the U.S. and unfortunately very hard. Because kids are the best non-verbal communicators, you can imagine how much time I spend with them. (They never tell me that my Pulaar is bad or ask me for money or for visas to go to America, only to give them my hands so that we may play clapping games, or a lap to sit in.)

Kids here are not viewed as humans but something lower and more unsubstantial. They are servants, hindrances, mouths to feed, and eventually an opportunity to gain material wealth (by marrying off your daughter to a wealthy man or hoping that one day your son will work abroad and send money home). They are hit, ordered around, or neglected. There is no affection shown and conversations about goals or what they want to be when they grow up never take place. If a child falls down and gets hurt and starts to cry, no one is there to offer comfort. The child is left in the sand crying until he eventually realizes the futility of his tears and gets up and dusts himself off.

You can imagine what kind of effect this has on the educational system here. Without encouragement or interest from parents, I can only speculate that most children would have no motivation to set goals and reach them which makes those that do so miraculous. Recently I have been working on a Peace Corps gender and development project that offers scholarships to girls in middle school in hopes to encourage girls to stay in school. (They are often taken out of school when they are married, pregnant, or need to help with the housework). The application process includes an essay and an interview, most questions having to do with goals and role models. Its so interesting to see the girls reaction when asking questions like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" because they have never been asked that before and often have no idea how to anwser.

Babies are fondled and spoiled and loved. Unfortunately things go downhill after babies learn how to walk. The attention given decreases with every month and often by the time the mother is pregnant again the littlin' can kiss his happy days goodbye. He's on his own.

The other day I noticed this little baby sit quitely watching her mom walk back and forth cooking lunch and I could see the admiration in the baby's eyes. Her stare was filled with such sheer love as if she was thinking "my mother is the greatest single thing this world has to offer." I couldnt help but wonder if her eyes will have the same gleam in two or three years... only fleeting at best.

I love you, Mom and Dad.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I cannot yet see the light at the end but am no longer looking at the light behind me…

The date is June 5th, 2008. I arrived in Senegal on March 16th, 2007. I came to my village on May 18th, 2007. I have officially been here for almost 15 months. I have past the halfway point of the typical Peace Corps service and a lot has changed in the past year, not only in my ability to live and work in this country but also my understanding of it. I am thoroughly enjoying watching the new stagaires come in and go through the various stages of freaking out that take place after debarking the plane in Senegal. Don’t be afraid little ones; I am here to help you through this hard time! I have all the answers. I am older and wiser and I am sure that I didn’t look or act anything like you guys when I first got here. I’m SURE of it.

One of the most common questions from friends and family have to do with my language ability and how its progressed after living here for a year. Obviously my language is a million times better than when I got here or even got to site but the process is a lot slower than you would, or I thought. Its very much two steps forward and one step back. Some days you feel like you are the king of the world and seem to understand everything that’s going on around you and being said to you. Other days, many days, I want to stay in my hut and not talk to a single person, because if someone tells me that I can’t speak Pulaar ONE MORE TIME, I will LOSE IT! But I know the only way to get better is to get out and get berated for not understanding the verb that’s being used until some nice villager takes pity on me and helps me understand what’s going on. I love these people. After being in my village for a year I’ve been able to pick out the families that help me and understand and these are the places that I prefer to spend my time and these are the families I feel I have developed real relationships with.

My new Peace Corps neighbor in the village closest to me, in all her naivety, asked when it was that I became comfortable with the language and how long that took… Umm… Sorry to break it to you, little one, but that hasn’t happened yet. I am not, nor do I believe I will ever be “comfortable” with the language. I can get around, ask for things I need, have simple conversations but if you think after a year of living here you’re going to be able to have the ability to discuss Nietche or the fundamentals of economic growth in the Middle East you are sadly mistaken. And admittedly, it is hard. It gets lonely when real, substantive interaction is beyond you. But you find ways to deal with this lack in communication by reading or writing (a blog for instance) and knowing when its time to get together with friends and speak some English. Also, knowing that my parents will call every Wednesday night helps me through long periods of village dwelling. Letters are great too! (hint hint.)

But as you could imagine, my progress of work parallels the progress in my language. The only way I can describe my (our-Peace Corps) work is…slow.

But even the small level of comfort we develop in our language (for us Pulaar speakers) gets shot to hell when we travel to other places in Senegal, like Dakar for instance. Most people in Dakar speak Wolof, and although some speak French many do not which leaves me in constant turmoil and leaves those Pulaar speakers that don’t speak French absolutely nowhere. It’s almost a necessity to have some Wolof speaking volunteer around at all times when we’re in Dakar. “Do you speak Wolof? Wanna be my friend? *smile*” But that can’t always happen and things consequently get lost in translation. What can you do?

My parents have recently visited as well as a close friend and I loved having the company. Having an outside perspective to my life here is amazingly enlightening and I’d love to have more. ;)

Along with the proverbial pat on the back, you also get a thorough medical examination when you’ve completed a year of Peace Corps service including a TB test, a pelvic exam, a stool analysis, a dental exam and the remaining vaccinations. All this probing is really pumping me up for the next year! Lets save the world, I am READY!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bean battles....

Gauntlettes were thrown,
enemies were made,
beans were eaten.

There are a few jokes that never seem to lose their humor amoung the Senegalse. One of these entails the consumption of beans. Apparently in Senegal it is an insult to be accused of being a "bean eater" because traditionally beans were cheap and only eaten in the absence of money to buy anything else. (This isnt really true though because beans are sort of expensive and as a health volunteer I must say that beans rock the house as far as nutrition is concerned).

I was recently in Bernard's village for a few days helping out with some health activities with a few of the new Peace Corps trainees and, let me tell you, there was no end to the bean harrassment. Bernards village name is "Modi Sow." My village name is "Atoru Dia." Historically, Dia's and Sow's are cousins and therefore we are required, by BIRTH, to give eachother copious amounts of redicule. Bernard's village is riddled with pesky Sows just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting, visiting Dia, much to my chugrin. I couldn't go anywhere without being called a "Naamo Niebe" (bean eater) or being offered beans.

"You look hungry. You want me to cook you some beans?"
"Im sorry, I dont have any beans, you should go somewhere else."
"Where are you going? To buy beans?"

To add insult to injury, Bernards family actually cooked beans for dinner one night and they all sat around watching me eat and laughing. When will the maddness end?? OK! I admit it. I EAT BEANS! I LOVE THEM, CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF THEM! GIMMEE GIMME GIMMEE!
My name is Atoru Dia and I am a beanaholic!

And as if I'm not laughed at enough, this morning I was attempting to disembark from a horse cart (jumping off gracefully as the horse is still moving) and my bag fell off my shoulder and around my ankles and when I jumped off I got tangled in bag and fell over. I'm an idiot.

Besides that, Ashley, how are you doing with the heat, the wind, and the tiredness?

I am here only.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Corki and Eric’s African Adventure

Toubabs ambling willy-nilly in search of fromage

Corki (aka Mom) ...

I’m sorry that I’ve taken so long to add my thoughts, but I’ve had a really difficult time paring down the experience to a few paragraphs. My original attempt turned out more like a diary and when I stopped, I had six pages in Word -- and I was only halfway done. I’m not going to pretend that anyone is THAT interested. So here is the condensed version -- I hope!

Senegal is a foreign country in the truest sense of the word. I know what you're thinking -- “DUH, Corki, it's freakin’ Africa!” But it's hard to get a sense of just how foreign it is. Foreign sounds, smells, heat, tastes, and of course, sights and language. At times it's sensory overload and it's easy to lose all sense of reference. Very little is real as we know it.

Sounds... In the villages and road towns, the first thing you notice are the active family sounds that extend late into the night. Since the villagers nap in the heat of the afternoon and eat dinner late, they stay awake late, even the children. And most of their living is done outside. There are constant animal sounds, bleeting sheep and goats meander around everywhere along with the occasional cow and burro. Feral cats fight at night. Perhaps the most foreign of all is the Muslim call to prayer which begins around 4:00 am and continues at intervals throughout the day, ending at sundown. The speaker is right next to Ashley’s hut. But this followed us throughout the country. Everywhere we stayed, a mosque was never far away.

In the bigger cities, it’s more about the traffic and people. We were routinely followed by people trying to sell as merchandise as well as services. Everywhere, talibé boys beg for money and food (see: article on At the airport men offer to help you get through, carry your bags, and find you a car. Of course they then want money. This is also common in the cities. They will offer to give you tours, show you the best shops, restaurants, etc. -- of course, they always have some relationship to the places they’re leading you to, or get a kickback. Because of our expert personal guide daughter, we were taught early on how to deal with these people -- ignore them. I got really good at the dismissive hand wave.

Heat... I’m thinking 100 degrees kind of speaks for itself. Especially when you are in the very back seat of a sept-place (think a Ford Taurus station wagon with an extra, smaller back seat in the rear area) packed in like sardines. Air conditioning in cars is pretty well non-existent. And Ashley's village is in the desert -- 10K off the road into the bush. Let me tell you, in the afternoon we were virtually unable to do anything except sweat and breathe.

Smells... Imagine a mixture of exotic spices and oils, and mingle that with garbage and animal manure. That's pretty much how it smells. Near the coast add in fish and people smoking fish in the sand. Away from the cities, the air was pretty fresh most of the time. But even at the coast, there was an occasional waft of garbage.

Tastes... I didn't find the food bad at all. We ate well at the coast and in the cities. It was easy to find French food, crepes, and the occasional pizza. We even ate at a restaurant in St. Louis that served pina coladas and margaritas! Ok, they wouldn't have won an American bartender any awards, but they had alcohol and were tasty in their own right. We also discovered a new delicacy that’s available all over Senegal -- omelet sandwiches -- eggs scrambled with various vegetables and served on a baguette. Yum! In the village we ate oily rice and fish out of the communal bowl. I think it was almost more strange to eat sitting on the ground than it was for everyone to eat out of the same bowl. It’s rather uncomfortable, too, when there are a lot of people and you have to contort your body to allow someone to sit very close in front of you. And since we are not as used to squatting on a daily basis as the natives are, our knees weren't so much up to the task, either. But again, we had been taught beforehand so we were up to the challenge. Many of the villagers we visited also offered us sweetened milk and sweetened hot tea, much to Eric's dismay. He would try to discreetly pass it off to me so he didn't look ungrateful, but I think we were caught. I guess I really will eat or drink pretty much anything.

Sights... If I really get into this, it will be another six-page diatribe so I will do kind of a stream of consciousness string without a lot of elaboration. As you can see, I have included a few photos. Many, many half-built and abandoned buildings crumbling -- big ones in the cities as well as smaller dwellings and businesses in the road towns; sheep and goats everywhere; people staring at us wherever we went; really cool individually decorated long wooden fishing boats; eight-lane freeways with no lane markers painted; no stop lights or even stop signs anywhere and we never saw an accident; primitive donkey and horse carts sharing the road, even highways, with vehicles; piles of garbage, blowing garbage, garbage washed up on the beach; modern buildings next to ramshackle tin boxes and mud huts; lovely women in brightly colored traditional dress and head wraps, often carrying things on their heads and many with babies tied on their backs; lots of lots of kids (who always seemed to be fascinated by white people); many tiny local restaurants with "Fast Food," in English, painted on the front (not so much, as it turns out); totally awesome baobab trees; MONKEYS!, gazelles, large sand crabs, odd birds, a couple of camels, burros, longhorn cattle, one scorpion, and did I mention sheep and goats?; Lots and lots of sand with lots of dried animal dung on top of it; white mosques with turquoise accents; sleeping under mosquito nets; small villages with dwellings laid out in a way that makes no sense; sand paths; kids and men in western clothing (we saw lots of American cast-off clothing, in fact the moment we arrived in Ashley's (her village name is Atoru) village we were greeted by a woman with a “White Bear Lake High School” t-shirt on over her traditional skirt -- this is where my mother-in-law grew up and went to school); men in robes and turbans as well; mud bricks drying in the sun; fences made out of mud bricks, sticks, and combinations of sticks and rolled up thorn bushes; roadside markets with small, tin-covered stalls; beautiful azaleas in surprising places; and stars that go on forever, breathtaking, defying description. To sum it up, Michael Palin said it best when talking about Senegal -- “'s a place where beauty co-exists with squalor.”

The country and the people are genuinely beautiful. They have very little, but the villagers share what they do have with complete strangers without hesitation. They are warm, they are funny, they are proud. I am honored to have been welcomed by them and I will always treasure them in my heart.

I can't close without mentioning how proud we are of
our awesome daughter! She was the parent wrangler, the translator, the negotiator, the guide. the teacher, and the leader. It was amazing to watch her converse easily switching between French, Pulaar, and English in all types of situations, from negotiating a price for a taxi, to schmoozing a gendarme (policeman) as he was checking our passports, to formally greeting the elders of the village. She showed an amazing amount of poise, skill, and maturity and we are just so proud of the woman she has become -- again words just can't convey the depth of our pride and gratitude. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it. Aturo, my love, you truly rock!


Eric (aka Dad)...

I just wanted to ad a few foot notes to Corki’s entry. Travel in Senegal is very hard, everything is public transportation of different degrees of difficulty. Once you got outside the airport virtually no one speaks English with the exception of ”Igiveyougoodprice“ and ”howareyouiamfine“ both spoken as one word. You could get by along the coastal areas if you speak French. Also the random traffic stops by the military police are somewhat bothersome as you sit on the side of the road for 30 minutes in 100 degree heat as they argue with the driver.

Something else that really surprised me was the large piles of trash you would see as you got close to the populated areas. If you look close at them you will see they are almost entirely made up of plastic water bottles and black plastic bags (every time you buy anything in a store no matter how small it is carefully wrapped in a black plastic bag) introduced by our modern civilization without any way to recycle or dispose of them.

The talibe boys that would gather around your car every time you stop would really tug at your heart strings. They would recite alms which are the Islamic version of bible verses and in return you were supposed to give them money. We would try to give them food if we had any and what really surprised me was that instead of the person you gave the food to wolfing it down on the spot, they would walk a few steps away and split it up to share with the others. Please read the link in Corki's blog about the talibe if you have not done so, it is a very eye opening story, parts of which we witnessed first hand.

It was really great to get home and I am not really sure if I would want to go back to Senegal, but it was an experience of a lifetime, some good some bad. Ashley was an awesome tour guide and parent wrangler and we never would have been able to do this without her. Her ability to handle all of the different situations and watching her converse in multiple languages was just amazing and we were so proud. When you see the mud hut that she lives in on a daily basis I do not see how she does it. The prisoners in the La Porte County Jail have better accommodations. Also it was great to meet some of the other peace corps volunteers. As future leaders of our country I can't help but feel they will do better than the ones we have now.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Our awesome toubak radio show!

Pulaar skits
Caitlin and Angela skitting their socks off...
How much cooler can you get than this?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

DJ Jazzy Ash

Although gallavanting around the country and eating gobs of food that did not include fish and/or rice with my parents was undoubtedly fun, the parental units have departed and once again left me all by myself in a scary, sweltering country. All good things come to an end, I suppose. Hopefully in the next couple days my parents will post a blog about their visit and impressions of Senegal and my little life in it.

So I am back in my village and diving right back into work (ha ha). Today was our biweekly radio show that us newbies have taken over and today we did it all on our own. I got a little soundboard training today and you are reading the blog of the new voice of senegalese radio. (Dont get too excited. I think the station covers only a 30km or so radius). I get to wear headphones and everything. I was fading in, fading out, and blowing the mind of every senegalese listener with my spunk and broad knowledge of health matters. The guys that work at the radio station kept walking past the door flashing me their thumbs up.

The weather has taken a turn for the worse and the heat grows fierce. I am literally moist at this moment, and probably will be for all the moments in the forthcoming 8 months. I love this country!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In the words of Forrest Gump, "Sometimes people do things that, well, just dont make no sense."

I know it has been a while since my last blog but I've been running around the country willy nilly and haven't had a chance until recently.

Let me start from the most recent news in my life and work my way backwards to before I left my village to come to Dakar (where I am now).

So once a year WAIST (The West African Invitational Softball Tournement) is held in Dakar, Senegal for all the Peace Corps volunteers in all the west african countries. This is basically a four day debocle in which you play softball and drink all day and night, get no sleep and try to survive. I barely scraped by. It turns out that I'm not a bad softball player but had a little trouble running to second when I got pegged in the back of the head with the ball by the Guinean team. I toppled over but recovered quickly. Unfortunately, things got worse.

Saturday night was a party hosted by our (senegal) volunteers and things got a little crazy. Apparently when you throw someone in the middle of no where with no contact with any other people like you, one seems to go a little crazy when brought back into civilization. Anyway. The night began with a huge mistake on my part; wearing these high ass heals that killed my feet. I am not a high heel wearer. So after, oh say five minutes, Ive had enough and take off my shoes and proceed to walk around barefoot the rest of the night on basically the worst terrain possible for a party; cobblestone and stairs. An unseen step appeared to my demise and I fell, hardcore. Wow that really hurt. Some friends found me, laid me out in a hotel room and gave me ice and advil. And that, as they say was only the tip of the iceburg. If you'd like further details I'll be happy to fill you in at some later date. Suffice to say it was one crazy frickin night.

So after being in denial and walking around on it (my foot) for the last three days I finally got an xray and it is indeed broken. Guess Im staying in Dakar for a little while. The logistics of living here are very difficult when you have limited mobility. Walking is essential, not to mention I sometimes have to walk 2 hours in and out of my village. So Im basically hanging out in the infirmery until the swelling goes down and I can fit my foot into my tennis shoes. Its pretty lonely here with nothing really to do except play around on the internet and watch senegalese television.

That brings us up to date: softball, beer, broken foot.

But BEFORE I left my village, things were going pretty well. A couple days before I left the forage was fixed and we had once again had our spickets turned back on. No more well dwelling. The series ended before it even began.

Also, I had started a weekly baby weighing at my village school with the help of my principal. The first saturday I weighed over 50 babies!! If you had a baby, I was weighing it!

I also had an interesting conversation with my village teachers about what the meaning of the song, "Smack That!" was?? Any guesses on how to explain that in French? "Frapp La!" The meaning goes a little deeper...

So, the most exciting thing happening in the near future is MY PARENTS ARE COMING TO VISIT IN less than two weeks!! I can't wait to see them and show them MY world. Maybe I'll even let one of them write a guest blog about how they found Senegal... if they're good. ;)

Mom, word of advice:
Bring about half of what you're thinking of bringing. You'll thank me for it!

Anyhoo, I'm lonely and feeling pretty down lately and would love some emails since I'll be on the internet quite a lot for the next couple days.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The wind blows where the well dwellers dwell...

To my dismay the weather is gradually starting to get warmer and the time when I could go an entire day without sweating has past and I fear will not return till next year. The evenings are still pretty cool however and I am still sleeping inside. This particular time of year is marked by very strong winds and frequent sand storms, which makes walking to the road a bit more teacherous. The other day Big J and I walked to the road and could not open our mouths for fear of getting a mouthful of sand. We both looked like sand yettis by the time we reached our destination.

I'd like to thank my brother, his wife, and their church for donating many books to the local middle school. I took the books to the English teacher on thursday and he was ecstatic! All the other teachers huddled around looking at all the books and magazines in amazement. The teacher said that those types of books (ones with pictures) were perfect for his students and I thought the Dr. Suess ones would be great for beginners. He could not have been more happy. He said that it was really hard for teachers and schools in Senegal to get resources like books. We spent the day at the teacher's house and helped him do English recordings for his class. Some Senegalese English class is going to be listening to my voice talking about clay pots...very slowly. ;) Im practically famous.

The other day Jane and another PCV did a maternelle health talk in Janes village. It was really neat and I think the women really enjoyed it. We talked about what were common symptoms in pregnancy and what was not normal; things you should go to the health post for. It was sort of frustrating trying to keep everyone quiet, though. There were kids running around shouting and the women were all chatting but I think we got some points across. I was having a blast playing with all the kids and babies. I was peed on more than once, but later that night I was told by Jane's host mother that if a baby pees on you its a sign that you'll have good fertility. Jane's mother is full of little peices of knowledge. She also told Jane that her boyfriend was no good because he didnt have any money. According to her: if a man gets to kiss you and canoodle you, he should pay for everything. Amen sister.

Now, a new segment coming to Ashley's blog:

"This week at the watering hole!"
Going to the well is always full of surprises. Will it take 20 minutes to fill my bucket or 2 hours? One never knows! The other day I came to the well and sat down, waiting my turn to pull when I noticed that no one was pulling any water and it was unusually quiet. Usually you hear the noise of the pulleys and people shouting and water is flying everywhere. Well it turns that something was awry down in the well and they lowered a man into it to investigate the problem (30 meters). After about 15 minutes they all started pulling and this man rose gloriously from the depths and I guess everything was fixed because they started pulling water again. It makes me feel good to know that Im bathing in and drinking man-diving well water. Mmmmm.

A fun pastime of the women at the well is to fill my bucket up really high, put it on my head and laugh hysterically when I spill water all over myself trying to get it home. Oh what will these crazy villagers do next!? Find out next week on " this week at the watering hole!"

Monday, January 14, 2008

Atoru came back!

Village person: Atoru! You came back!
Me: yep! How are you?
Village person: Fine. How was Germany?
Me: America, actually.
Village person: Whatever. How are your parents and your family?
Me: They are in good health.
Village person: What did you bring me from Germany?
Me: ummm, nothing.
~look of utter dissapointment~

Yes this was my happy return to my village. Everyone and everything was pretty much the same and they were happy to see all the pictures I had taken of them and had developed in Germany.

Unfortunately the village water pump is broken and according to what was explained to me, the pump is broken and the village does not have enough money to buy another one. So I now have got to go to the well, which if you have read earlier blogs you will know is the bain of my existence. I cannot complain too much, however, because many volunteers have only wells and have dealt with the strife for their entire service.

But still... woe is me.

Monday, January 7, 2008

My triumphant return

Well, I did it! I successfully managed to ENDURE three whole weeks of American living. It was difficult, let me tell you! Everyone was constantly trying to get me to eat; offering me various sorts of Christmas goodies, taking me out to dinner every night. My parents were even nice enough to let me use their shower (and hot water) EVERY DAY, as well as the use of my former bedroom! Boy, are they great!

I know what you're thinking: that after spending three whole weeks in America I could not WAIT to get back to the comforts of my Senegalese village. You are RIGHT! I am fired up to get back to my bucket baths and scorpion pals. :)

I'm actually in Dakar right now adjusting a bit before heading up North tomorrow. I really do look forward to getting back and taking a little break from running around and jumping continents. There are several volunteers in Dakar right now for various reasons and I am so happy to be able to hang out with them for a short while. My break was amazing but now its time to get back to my reality.

Thank you to everyone who made my trip home SO great!