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!