Wednesday, May 30, 2007

New Pictures

I have finally had some small success in uploading pictures so there are some new albums for you all to look at. And I've been adding to the pre-existing albums some so there are new pictures in those as well. I will try to write captions for them eventually, but for now at least you can all see my new site and family and hut.
From the 'album link' on the side of the webpage, you have to click on "Cait's Pictures" then click Caitlin's Public Gallery.
That's where you find all the albums.

Also thanks to all of you for the tips on craftmaking. Please keep them coming!

Trying my very best

I cried for the first time at site. I am surprised that it took almost two weeks. Funny thing was, I was surrounded by other volunteers at the time and on the phone with someone from home. Who knows what triggered it, but I was suddenly overcome with how much work there is to be done here and my own small insignificant contribution to what seems like unsurmountable need. It is so overwhelming to sit back and look at the lack of infrastructure, money for education, non-existence of income generating activities, and dearth of healthcare.

What Senegal needs is a total overhaul of the education system, employment opportunities and infrastructure. It is the hugeness (is that a word?) of these “topdown” needs that make me feel useless, because I can do so little to change that.

Sometimes it just builds and it is too much for one idealistic California raised Peace Corps woman to handle. On the one hand, crying made me remember that yes, this IS hard and that while you become somewhat numb to the poverty and the sick babies and the inefficiencies of daily life, it is still hard to see day after day. It’s not even one specific thing that is the hardest, but everything all together.

The fact that children here while not starving, are stunted and malnourished, and ALWAYS have respiratory problems, and there is SO much idle time and no outlets for them. Even when they are in school it’s usually only for a few hours a day and practically every week the teachers are on strike or they have a meeting and class gets cancelled. There are no after school activities. Girls come home and work, and boys sit around and play and fight with eachother. There aren’t sports clubs or dance lessons, or theater productions, or chess clubs, or pottery classes, or music lessons, or even after school tutoring. There is just idle time. Everyone wants to come to America to work. Everyone. I have yet to meet a person who has not asked me to take them to america so that they can work. There just aren’t jobs here.

The other day I met a woman who has her first baby. Roughly 2 months old and so tiny. Maybe 6 pounds. Maybe. She has been having trouble breastfeeding (she thinks she doesn’t make enough milk…though her breasts were huge and obviously painful and swollen with milk) so she has already started the baby on the bottle which trains her not to be able to suckle at the breast. She gives her water and formula. I am sure it’s untreated and making the baby sick. The baby fusses constantly and I was so overwhelmed with how helpless I felt. I tried to initiate the breastfeeding conversation and make suggestions and show her how to feed, how to reteach the baby, but it was no use. She was obviously self-conscious about not being able to breastfeed, and hesitant to have this conversation with a stranger (understandably) and convinced that she wasn’t producing enough milk—that it’s her fault.

Here I am, I have the knowledge to help this woman help her baby and yet I can’t make her change her behavior. I can’t do anything other than try. And while I tell myself that it is better than nothing, it still doesn’t feel like it. In the states she would be able to go to a lactational specialist and have help and be able to feed her baby, or if not, at least have the knowledge and the means to give her child clean water and formula. But here, my hopes are low that this one will make it. And I don’t know who she is and I probably won’t see her again.

These are the kinds of daily interactions that are the most devastating.

Women and children here eat dirt. They actually will go to the well where the dirt has been dug up and is rich in minerals and eat dirt. They are so desperate for iron that their bodies crave it. I see babies here eat sand all the time. Instinctually it is correct…they need the minerals, but clearly it is more hazardous than helpful. My baby host brother plays in the sand all day long with chicken poop and goat poop and who knows what else, and then sucks on his hands. My host family had a volunteer for two years before me and watched her wash her hands with soap everyday before meals and talked to them about handwashing with soap, and they never do it. They tell me to do it, but they don’t.

Behavior change is slow…painfully slow. These things are touched on in school. There are TV advertisements all the time showing people to wash their vegetables with clean water and to wash their hands with soap. No one does it.

How on earth am I supposed to make people change? Why would anyone listen to me?

I know that these ups and downs are part of the experience. That I have many more frustrations to come. That I need to know that what I am doing IS important, and does matter. That even if I only help one person than it will be worth it. That sometimes you plant the seed and you can never see the results. But some days repeating that just does not help. Sometimes you just need to cry about it. And that’s okay.

I have posted statistics on infant, child, and maternal mortality in Senegal all over my walls, and written in huge letters “THIS IS WHY YOU ARE HERE” to inspire me day to day. And this is why I am here, to try and make a difference. I am committed to the cause, but some days I feel like it will never be enough.

But I am trying my very best…

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Joyful Laughter

Giggling until your stomach hurts.
This is something that we can all relate to. When you’re laughing SO hard that you actually cannot breathe and you start to scare yourself because you’ve totally lost the ability to stop laughing. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, and the tears flow out of the corners of your eyes and your abdominal muscles are shaking, it feels great.
This happened to me the other night for the first time with my new host family. When nightfalls and the earth cools everyone’s mood improves tenfold. Suddenly people have more energy, laughter is in the air, everyone is in a good mood. Myself and my four oldest sisters had finished eating dinner and were all piled on top of the stick bed where we eat. My (USA) parents called and while talking my sisters were desperate to greet them and practice their english. This brought a lot of giggles at first, but as they went on listening to eachother’s broken english the laughter mounted and by the third sister we were in total hysterics. She was so flustered and said “Hello, where is your family?” which sounds more like “heeeyloooww. Weh izz yoor famly?” I almost busted a gut, and my sister Mariata (my favorite) fell off the stick bed and onto the sand, not missing a beat. The rest of them fell all over eachother—limbs flying everywhere. Faama passed the phone back to me and I tried to explain that I couldn’t talk because we were all laughing so hard, but the words just didn’t come. Tears were flowing down my cheeks and it felt so good to laugh. Just laugh as hard as I could. There is so much love and affection among the Pulaars (my fam especially) and I am elated when I can find and share in those moments.

Gender Roles

It’s difficult to explain the feminine toubak role among Senegalese Pulaar families. But I am going to try to describe the emotional/academic/ego-related ups and downs and thoughts that go through my head as I’m observing, trying to be culturally sensitive, and losing things in translation all at once.

This weekend I was invited to spend the weekend with my Senegalese counterpart at her husband’s second home in a village further west near Podor. I agreed with the hopes of getting to experience a different family dynamic and to witness “Gomon” which is a religious event that happens every few months here in Senegal.

My counterpart is the second wife. She was previously married but her husband passed away and so she remarried very recently. He is a very kind man, and is an official for the department of Matam (something to do with agriculture). Basically this means they’re well off. They have their own car (practically unheard of—like the 2nd house) and so we all piled in for the 4 hour drive to Podor. (We all being myself, the two wives, the two little girls, and their nanny/caretaker, tons of bags, a goat, and a hitchhiker riding on the top of the bags in the bed of the truck). It felt so great to be able to plug into my ipod and feel almost normal. It really was just like any other family trip: a little cramped, we stopped a zillion times (but usually only to greet people in the street that they knew), hot, nothing good on the radio, the parents stopped to buy crap, and by the end the kids were cranky.

When we arrived at the house I was surprised by a real shower (with good water pressure—amazing!) and we napped until lunch. Then after lunch we rested until tea! (Tough life I know. And to boot it’s cooler out here than where I am so I was barely even sweaty all day and actually had an appetite). Then feeling kind of lost and bored, I went out under the shade structure armed with my Pulaar notebook to try and memorize a few more verbs and maybe learn some new words if I could find a willing participant (the best ones are usually under the age of 10). I ventured out and sat with the women preparing dinner. So that you can picture it, the men sit on one side of the structure listening to the radio and drinking tea while the women sit on the other side preparing dinner. This is the typical scene—and I am not trying to be judgemental, just observational. I sat there helping the women prepare the leccere which always brings laughs.

This is how it goes…I sit in the middle of all of them mixing the leccere (couscous) with all eyes on me. They’re laughing and talking about me in a nice way, but mostly teasing me because I don’t know how to cook (at least the very specific way that they do it). Also, it is a novelty that a toubak would be cooking. They assume we have machines or servants to do all of that for us. (Today they asked me if I knew how to cook rice. I didn’t have the vocab to say yeah…put it in a ricecooker!) In these kinds of situations it’s interesting to observe my own ego at work. I find that at first, I laugh at the teasing, then I tire of it as it doesn’t let up. Usually they just keep saying, “no…do it like this” and will keep showing me the exact same thing. Then I get annoyed because I’m obviously not getting any better (according to them). Horrible thoughts tend to fly through my head like “why are you spending a billion hours a day laboring over this couscous when it will taste EXACTLY the same if you just cooked it as is??” or “yeah, maybe I can’t cook exactly the way you do, but I can do lot of other more useful things with my time!” This is the side of me that I hate that I quickly try to ignore or work through.

Eventually one or two of them will get involved and say “no, no” that I’m doing a good job. Inevitably, I take a million times longer to do the same amount of work as the rest of them. Then my counterpart goes and gets my camera because she thinks that I should have a picture of myself cooking. (This is a phenomenon that I have experienced before. Once, at my family’s house in Thies a total stranger passed by and took a picture of me on his camera phone because a toubak was doing laundry by hand and he wanted a picture to show his friends). All this involvement with the women, is silly and just gives me tough skin for the most part.

But when the men start in….it makes me furious. I want to jump up and scream at them to get off of their fat lazy asses and help with anything for once! I mean really. There they are laying around. They have not gone to work today, or yesterday for that matter, and the women are now preparing the third meal of the day for them on top of a million other chores. So to sit there staring at us working and critiquing just makes me nuts.

Because I am a toubak though, I can get away with comments like “I’m not doing a good job? Why don’t you come help me then?” As long as I keep a huge grin on my face and am careful with my intonation, I was getting enough laughs to keep it comfortable. Another one I used that I was quite proud of was when one of them said “I’m really hungry, you better cook really good cous cous tonight” and I came right back with “alright fine, but then you’ve gotta cook a good meal for me.” This is hilarious to them because the idea of a man cooking is about on par with the possibility of a pig riding a bicycle. Laughter really is key. But I hate the steps it takes to get there. The anger that swells up, the frustration, the desire to scream and shake people. I am not an angry person. I generally think of it as a wasteful emotion. But how do you tolerate such blatantly acceptable laziness and disproportionate division of labor? I don’t. But the trick is learning how to fight it subtly—through exposure and knowledge.

This adventure of mine is an exercise in patience, flexibility, and cultural understanding yes…but it is also a lesson in how to walk a fine line to bring change without making enemies. I find that that is the biggest challenge where gender roles are concerned.

The Family Tree

This is my attempt to explain my family Lam. But I must say that it is a very US-centric notion to even think that you can explain the relationships to people. Most times when I try to ask people how they are related you either get “he/she is my brother/sister” or “they are my cousins.” It just doesn’t really matter. Family is family. Neighbors are family. At least these are the people that regularly sleep at my house. There are always various additions and often I’ll notice them in the morning.
Here goes:
Baabaa = dad, but he’s super old and retired so I’m pretty sure he’s not actually the dad of a lot of the younger kids
Yaaye = mom, again. Old, probably not the mom of most of the kids.
Binta Jigo = sister-in-law. This I’m sure of. She is married to my brother (whose name I forget) who lives in Dakar who I have yet to meet.
Papa = 1 year old baby boy. Binta Jigo’s son.
Binta = other sister. 17 maybe?
Faamaa = another sister 15 maybe?
Mariata = another sister (my favorite. The ‘namesake’ of my sister at home J maybe 18?
Mamadou Thidiane = 18 year old brother. Actually, the son of my counterpart who is also my sister but lives down the road at her husband’s house. He is sy-sy (player) and always jokes with me that I’m his fiancee. Luckily it’s unheard of for an older women to date a younger man, so I love joking with him that he’s just a kid and too young for me.
Oumar = 13 year old brother. Speaks awesome French. Should be a gymnast. In the states with some training he absolutely could be. But there is no outlet for that here so he just climbs everything and does handstands and backbends and flips all day long in the compound.
Samba=7 year old brother. A cutie. Pretty shy. Doesn’t get into much trouble.
Hapsatou=10 year old sister. A sweetie pie. Also doesn’t get into much trouble.
Nene Bol and Nene Lam = 2 sisters. The littlest ones. Probably both about four. The highlights of my life. Total sassy little things, and exhausting, but also the most lovable and willing to come running full speed into my arms when I come home even though it’s 125 degrees outside.
Acha = a 10 year old who does the vast majority of the washing of dishes and the clothes. She is actually from a neighboring village, but her mother died so Yaaye and Baabaa took her in recently in the past 7 months or so. She has a lot of spunk, but is always the first to hit the other kids. Understandably so. She also has never been to school because she is over the age of 10 and so can’t be admitted this late. I try to shower her with kindness, but it’s so hard when she is so rough on the other kids. Yaaye has threatened repeatedly to send her back to her village, but baabaa always resists.
Other characters whose relationships I haven’t quite figured out yet:
Koran guy: he’s around a lot and sits and recites the Koraan all day. Literally.
A couple of other sisters (names???) who live at their husbands houses but who come around pretty often with their kids.
A brother and his family that live in France. (name?)

This is in no way a complete list, but it will do for now. I bet you’re just as confused as I am!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Calling All Craftspeople!!

I have a request…a call to ‘arms’:

Many people have asked me how they can contribute to my experience, or to my own comfort, or to local schools or things of such nature. I now have a project that I need outside assistance for.

I need knowledge! Knowledge of simple craft projects. I am the president of a girls group (started by some of my sisters and my ancienne). They meet on a weekly basis and each girl contributes 50 CFA to buy supplies and then I’m supposed to teach them how to make things, or teach them computer skills, or how to make anything that they can then sell and make a profit from. All the while, we talk about various issues: family planning, reproductive health, boys, marriage, singers, teach them English, school, clothes, hair, you name it. (again, this is all in theory and hearsay from my ancienne and my sisters because obviously I’ve just arrived and our first meeting isn’t until next week). Which is why I need your help! (PS. Doesn’t it feel great to be needed??)

I have compiled a small list of things that I could come up with that I need from you all at home. I would love additional suggestions and explanations. A few things to remember:

LITTLE SUPPLIES IS KEY! (Or, at least very cheap supplies that we could find here. Aka. Keeping it sustainable and not reliant upon gifts from generous toubaks in the states).
You can explain it to me via email and/or with diagrams of some sort.
It will interest young women ages 15-20.
The end result can be sold for profit. (aka. No tips on how to make bookends, or bookmarks please. They just won’t be useful).
My email address is send all the information to me there!

Here is my list of things I’ve run by them and they want to learn how to make/do:

-Lip balm (I already have instructions on how to make that one)
-Jewelry-making/beading of any kind. (Lisa and Kathy White…I’m counting on the two of you for this one. My sisters are obsessed with the shell earrings you made for me Lisa)
-Notebook-making (I’m excited about this one because the materials should be easy to find.).
-Bubbles? How to make them? What can substitute for the plastic sticks that we use to blow the bubbles with? (example: wire bought at market).
-Sew or quilt etc. This might be difficult as I’m HORRIBLE at it. I might have to call in a local PCV for reinforcements.

I have already told the more active girls in the group that I am calling on family and friends for this and they are thrilled. I can’t wait to see what all of you come up with!

From across the miles,

ps. if you have only just read this post. There are 4 other new updates underneath this one so enjoy your blog binge!! I hope to have lots of comments when I have internet again next week!!

The Day to Day

I am sitting in my hut at 2:57 pm Tuesday afternoon May 22nd, 2007. My alarm clock thermometer tells me that it is 110F in my room (Not bad!!). The electricity is working (it goes out at least once a day for a few hours) so I am working on my interpretation of the Peace Corps’ 3rd mission (sharing my experience with fellow Americans). I have decided that sometimes there are just some things that I never mention in my blog entries because I mostly write about big events, or challenges, or trips, but there are so many little details that though I can never explain them all, I want to at least try and list the things that I have been mentally noting from day to day and want to share with all of you. Because it is in the details that sometimes the most memorable moments arise…

Here is my list…let’s call it:

The Day to Day…

*Really skinny, brutally treated, undernourished animals are everywhere, all the time. Horses, goats, cats, dogs, donkeys. It’s horrible. And it never gets any easier to see or to hear the cracks and pounding of the whips and sticks on their bony backs .

*TRASH! It is everywhere. Truly, it litters everything, even in small villages. I’ve almost become immune to it. Though most people burn the majority of their trash, the harder plastics, glass and other non-burnables inevitably end up being thrown in huge empty fields next to houses, and all over the roads. The wind picks it up so it gets everywhere. Another volunteer brought up a really good point though, in which she compared it to the trash consumption in the states. She brought up the fact that in the states, we produce WAY more trash but we hide it. So we are ignorant to how much waste we actually produce. What would our homes and towns (not to mention huge metropolises) look like if we did not pay to have our trash buried and exported to other poorer countries? Food for thought…Since I have been at site (1 week tomorrow) I have yet to even fill up a full plastic bag of burnables! It’s amazing how little waste you produce when you’re living simply.

*Being CONSTANTLY asked (no, bombarded really) by everyone and anyone for everything. This is not exclusive to strangers or children in town. My own family is constantly pestering me to give them cell phone credit, let them drink from my water bottle, give them candy, etc. Mostly it is in jest, but it does get tiresome and it has been one of my greatest challenges to keep laughing them off and come back with witty comments. Having spoken to my ancienne volunteer though, she had the same thing happen until one day she just blew up at them and then they laid off. So, I hope that it won’t come to that, and otherwise I do love them very much, but sometimes you want your home to be the one place where you won’t have to be pestered. My yaye (my host mom—literally meaning, grandmother in Wolof) is definitely my best advocate though. If she hears of them asking me for things, she yells at them and shakes her head and mumbles that her children are bad. My ancienne advized me to make her my closest ally. Some brilliant advice I am definitely going to take to heart.

In town though, when children ask me for things, I will just tell them it is impolite to always ask for things, or I will ask for the same thing in return:
Child: “Gimme a present”
Me: “NO! Give ME a present.”
It always stops them dead in their tracks, or they think it’s hilarious and we all win.

Though with adults it is a little bit trickier. When I come up with a witty comeback though, and I get a good laugh, it can make my day.

Example: Today I went to the market to buy a lighter for my gas container/ ‘stove’ and some mangoes. I was bargaining (horribly I might add) with the mango lady when 2 older gentlemen walked up to me and asked me my name. Then they asked if I would buy them mangoes…so I just smiled and laughed and said “no way, I’m a guest in your country, you should buy ME mangoes!” They loved it, bust out laughing, shook my hand, and went on their way. I count that as a successful cultural/language experience! One for the books…and it was all in Pulaar to boot!

*Lizards! They are everywhere. Totally harmless and don’t bother me at all, but I will often come home and have 5 of them in my douche. They live in the rafters in my hut and I can usually see their tails and toes hanging into my room at night. I like having them around though because I know they help protect me from bugs! But their thunderous scampering across my tin roof is another day to day nuance I have come to expect.

*Sand!!! I don’t know what all of you are picturing, but I know that when I envisioned my PC experience I had visions of greenery and tropical climates like the one I experienced in Ghana. Not so…think desert, because that’s where I live! There are some scattered cactus-like bushes that grow (somehow) in the open fields, and other than the scattered neem tree or two, everything is flat and brown and sand blows in the hot wind all the day long ( for you Davisites, think Davis, CA in August plus crazy winds!!)

*I have turned into a text messaging FOOL! My cell phone is a constant fixture, as is the beeping alert tone it makes when I have a message. Because I am a mostly urbanish volunteer I am supposed to help act as a coordinator for the rural volunteers and I have pledged never to turn my cell phone off in case of emergency. Or, so that when they all DO hang from that one tree in their village, at just the right angle, and have service for a brief moment, they can get ahold of a fellow PCV if need be.

*Dolce and Gabbana brand stuff! It’s everywhere! And it always makes me laugh because back home there was some sucker who paid top dollar for that EXACT same shirt (granted when it was in season like 10 years ago). And now, some old Pulaar man in the Fuuta in Senegal is rocking one simply because it was sitting on the top of the pile at the weekly market! And he will certainly get more use out of it for the 50 cents he paid, then whoever had it first. Or maybe it’s actually never been worn before and it was just exported to Senegal as a surplus product. Who knows? But it’s such a great nuance that endlessly entertains me. I think the best shirt I’ve seen so far was on a young man in a village outside of Thies. It was beige, with brown cuff sleeves, and in purple, gold and silver sequined lettering from top to bottom it read:


Amazing! I wrote it down because it was just too wonderful to forget. Even now I’m giggling out loud thinking about it.

*Everything I own or have in my room is “ina yoodi” (‘it’s beautiful’) to everyone that comes into my room. This includes everything from my GLAD tupperware containers, ‘crappy’ plastic bowls I bought at market, my Nalgene bottle, scotch tape, books, bottles of lotion, a filthy backpack, earrings, clean notebooks, the trunks that hold my clothes. Not to mention my computer and camera and bike (aka. things you might expect to get commented on). My sister Mariata recently commented that “white people have the best stuff.” I didn’t even touch that one. But those kinds of comparisons are made all the time. Both my family in Thies and here often start off with sentences like “We Africans….” Or “White people…(insert categorical stereotype).” Sometimes I choose to engage them in a discussion about that particular observation and engage PC’s 2nd mission, but usually they are uninterested and I let it go. But once in awhile they surprise me and really want to know about what I always say “American is REALLY like.”

*Butt sweat (affectionately termed ‘swamp ass’ by fellow PCVs). I know that this isn’t the nicest image. But it is a constant fixture in my life. And as a ‘guest’ I am usually offered the plastic lawn chairs in lieu of a mat on the floor or a stick bed bench. This is awful because inevitably when you sit there for more than 5 minutes, when you stand up it looks as if you’ve peed yourself. And it has definitely earned me comments from my family. They just don’t sweat as much as we do. They do sweat some, but usually along the brow or in the armpit region. I haven’t decided yet whether this is due to their superiour acclimitazation, or to lifelong intensive dehydration. (Probably some combination of both).

*Latin American soap operas. The characters from ‘Barbarita’ (a Venezuelan soap that plays mon-fri) are practically national heroes. And the greatest part is that it’s dubbed over in French. It is totally attrocious and unwatchable. But you’re damned if you try to interrupt people while they’re tuned in. They will in no way be rude, but you’ll be lucky to get a word out of them. I take advantage of this block of time from 7:30-8pm to scurry to my room and ‘bucket bath’ or write for a precious 30 minutes of solitude. On the weekends, ‘Maria del Barrio’ takes it’s place. (In case you were wondering, it is not any better.)

*The absolute blissful joy that comes early in the morning and again at the end of the day when I can shower and cool off, and feel chilly for those fabulous few minutes. (And when I say chilly, I really mean it. I’m actually cold! Granted it’s probably anywhere from 85-90 degrees at that point). In the mornings after my bucket bath, I tune into the BBC on my radio, and sit and eat my cool instant oatmeal (LOVE IT! Thanks mom!), and Nescafe (Yes, I still take it black. Gross I know.). I plan out my day, and enjoy the few moments of solitude and ‘normal’ time. I didn’t realize how much I missed knowing what was going on in the world until I tuned back in.

*Dizzy spells. Sort of like a head rush, usually when sitting down. These are very mild and only happen every few days, but it is a side effect of the Mefaquin (anti-malarial) that we are all required to take. It is a constant reminder of the threat of malaria and the importance of protecting myself from it. Now in the dry season the threat up North is almost non-existent (I have yet to see a mosquito in the Fuuta) but it is one of the biggest health concerns during and after the rainy season.

I think that for now, those are all the details that I have mentally filed away to share with you all. Thanks for tuning in for that marathon account of my life.

I was recently on the phone with a friend and she asked “So, what exactly is your work?” I realized that I haven’t talked much about that at all yet, so I promise that a ‘work’ update is in the near future. But to summarize, for right now, just learning how to live, and make all the necessary greetings (of which I’d say there are about 40 people I have to meet with still), and studying/practicing Pulaar, all take up my whole day.

Do I feel like I have a lot of down/idle time? Not at all. Before I left, people kept telling me how much I would be reading during my two years in the Peace Corps. I have yet to read a single page in a book since I’ve been in-country! I have the opposite problem of feeling like there is SO much I want to accomplish and not enough time in which to do it. Everyone’s experience is different, but I cannot imagine feeling like there is nothing to do. I feel a sense of urgency and satisfaction because I have lists and lists of tasks, projects, contacts, causeries, presentations, meetings, and the like, that I want to accomplish in the first three months alone! I think that this might just be my nature and even sitting here rereading this entry, I realize why I have earned the title among the other PCVs as “the girl who has already done everything eventhough she is only 23!”

‘Inchallah’ that fire doesn’t ‘burnout’ before I can accomplish everything I want to…

wonderful, wonderful rain...

Saturday night around 2:30am, a huge gust of wind blew my mosquito net out from under me. I tried for a few moments to tuck it back under the foam pad on top of my stick bed, but I quickly realized what a futile exercise that was, and resigned myself to sleeping without it. A few moments later a few blissfully cool droplets of rain began to fall. I laughed out loud…The wind picked up and picked up the corners of my foam pad, scattering my water bottle, head lamp, keys, hand fan, ear plugs, and cell phone everywhere. I followed my family’s lead and took cover under my sheet and mat, to protect me from the blowing sand. Suddenly, several bolts of lightning hit in the distance and the downpour began. RAIN! It is difficult to describe the total elation I felt at the familiar and sorely missed sensation of cold water bearing down from the sky.

As my family scurried to bring the mats and mattresses inside and out from under the tree where we all sleep, my sister Binta (my namesake), helped me grab mine and we dashed to my hut on the other side of the compound. The torrential rain combined with my tin roof was deafening and we had to yell at one another as we set up my foam pad on the floor and sat to wait out the worst of the storm. Not knowing how long the rain was going to keep up, all I could think to do was stand outside in my douche, with my arms outstretched high above my head, letting the rain soak me from head to toe. Twenty minutes later the storm let up. Soaking wet, I walked out to take down my mosquito net which was now saturated and pulling on the tree’s branches. My family giggled at my wild appearance. And rightfully so. There I was, hair matted down, standing on top of my stick bed in my pajama shorts and tank top, soaking wet and grinning from ear to ear. As my family settled back down outside, I set up my bed in my hut for the first time since I had arrived Wednesday night. It was the first night that the temperature had fallen below 100 F in my room, and for the moment the electricity was working and I slept in a bed with a real fan. Total bliss…wonderful, wonderful rain…


Saturday, in preparation for my baptism that evening, my sisters and I spent the morning making beignets (fried dough balls), spicy onion sauce, monkey bread juice (bohe—a kind of fruit that comes from baobab trees), and chatting. So that you can all imagine, I always have a notebook and pen in hand, my cell phone, keys, and a water bottle. So there I am, sweating all the time, laughing, and furiously writing and creating long pulaar vocab lists. They are all so tolerant and have endless patience for my pathetic pronunciation. It has become a kind of exchange where they teach me words in pulaar and I give them the english equivalent and we giggle at eachother’s horrible pronunciation. We must have made several hundred beignets, and as the day wore on more and more women came to help out. Around 6pm people started showing up and it quickly got very overwhelming much the same way that my sister’s wedding in Thies was. While there were not nearly as many people, everyone was still staring at me, asking me tons of questions and ordering me around… “Binta, go get your mattress, and your mat, and now a bucket, and a sheet, and we need a spoon, and where’s your camera? You are going to take pictures aren’t you?” (I was probably asked about my camera 20 times that day.) But I obliged, and I wore my bridesmaid get-up from the wedding, and I was determined not to let this event get the better of me. And I did I fairly good job until I brought out my camera.

*I think it’s important for you all to remember that people are shouting at me in Pulaar this whole time and not slowing the pace of their speech and expecting me to understand*

Unless you have been to a developing country where people do not have cameras and do not see themselves in mirrors regularly, it is nearly impossible to explain what happens when the ‘toubak’ brings out the camera…

Everyone…and I mean EVERYONE wants a picture of themselves. They want one by themselves, with their baby, with their friends, another group one, another one of themselves, and all the while the little kids are running around and jumping into every picture possible. That part isn’t so horrible, (though I now have about 30 pictures of people who I most likely won’t ever see again, or remember—gotta love digital), but as soon as the picture is taken, what can only be described as ‘camera diving’ starts happening. Everyone standing nearby, and everyone in that same picture just start grabbing…at the camera, at my arms, at the camera case—at everything and anything just to get a glimpse of themselves and their friends. It is loud and stressful and totally overwhelming and of course I keep pleading with people not to grab at the camera and to “please please….just DON’T TOUCH THE LENSE!!!”


After picture 40 I got fed up and made sure I had a few pictures with my actual family, and then lied and told the crowd that it had run out of batteries and tucked it safely back in my room.

It is not that I blame people for being so camera crazed….but there is only so much shouting and grabbing and harrassing that one toubak can take. I’m sure that I would be the same way, but man is it stressful.

One of the girls in the crowd really got under my skin for some reason though. Maybe it’s because I was feeling especially exhausted having barely slept the night before (due to the heat), but I just could not take her attitude and she would not let up. For one thing, she kept shouting “toubak” at me, despite my pleas for her to call me by my new name, as everyone else was thankfully doing. Then she began demanding candy from me, so I asked why she thought that all toubak’s have candy (a constant request from people of all ages), and she came back with some comment that I should know that at baptisms people give out candy and so I should have been giving them out. So I got up and walked away amidst sympathetic looks from some of the older women.
But she followed me as I greeted the three male school teachers who my sisters had the foresight to invite (I’m hoping to collaborate with them on health topics when the new school year starts in October).

Then my sister’s started demanding that I dance in front of everyone. I adamantly refused. It is one thing if other people are dancing, but parading around like a circus freak for everyone’s enjoyment in 115 degree weather was not something I was about to tolerate. When my sister saw that I was really embarassed and that this was not okay with me, she quickly relented.

Then she and the teachers started teasing me about not shaving my head (because that’s what happens to babies at baptisms). That I took in stride because you really do just have to have a tough skin and the joking doesn’t bother me as much. But then one of the teachers got on me for not giving a curtsy (sp?) when I gave him water. That was enough humiliation and teasing for one tired, sweaty, toubak! I sought refuge inside where my sister’s were dishing out the food to take to people…but as it was hotter inside and they were all screaming at eachother about who to take what (it is a very complicated hierarchy as far as I could tell), I just gave up trying to be involved and went and hid out with the teachers who were now being served in a private room and had a lovely chat with them (in french—my relief language) about collaborating on health related subjects next year. They were very open to my participation and I feel confident that they will be helpful people to know next year. Fingers crossed that the fact that they are all young, male, and single from Thies (so less conservative) will not become a problem…inchallah!

Thankfully by the time I came out, it was dark and people had all gone home. My family was thrilled with how it all turned out and I was happy that no one seemed to notice how little fun I was having. Probably for the best. At least now I know that most of these events seem to just be overwhelming. Again, this is not unique to Senegal. I think that it’s universal, but my frustrations are exasperated by my exhaustion, the heat, and my lack of language comprehension. All that will get better with time, but I am determined that those of you at home are getting the full experience and not only the ‘romantic’ side of life as a toubak in Senegal.

Installation (aka. Cait's Inferno!)

I have arrived! I am now at site and currently laying in my douche/shower area in back of my hut at 6:50 in the morning on Saturday, May 19, 2007. I have been at site now since Wednesday evening but today is my baptism! My new name is Binta Lam. I adore my new family, and again am lucky enough to have about a million sisters. There are probably 15 or 30 people living in my house. I’d say half are children under age 15, which is wonderful and totally chaotic all at the same time. So when I update this entry several days will have passed but this is the first go with the computer in the few blissful moments of privacy that I can muster in the morning. I’ll start at the beginning:

You always hear horror stories about installation, people running after cars, crying, locking themselves in their huts, those that are already ill vomit everywhere (there is an urban legend that one volunteer even messed herself in front of her whole family!)…but no such fabuloust tale from me. The Peace Corps van dropped me off around 5pm and the staff stayed for about a half hour and chit chatted with the family. That first night was pretty overwhelming, but mostly just scary. The thoughts were racing, what am I doing here? Can I even do this? It would be so easy just to go home…
But I’m still here, so I obviously made it through the night.
Because it is so sweltering hot (more on that soon) I’ve been sleeping outside with the rest of the family under the one tree in our compound. There are several stickbeds surrounding it and I have one to myself and we all bring out our mats and I set up my mosquito net and around midnight it finally starts to cool off and life is good.

You’re all probably wondering how I’m doing with the heat? Well….it’s hot, and horrible. Right now, at 7am it’s 94.5 F. On Thursday I left my alarm clock outside in my douche just to see how hot it was at the peak heat of the day, and it was a whopping 148 degrees!! No, that is not a typo…I’m being totally serious. My hut during the day is usually around 120. I have been hydrating like it’s going out of style, so no worries there.

But last night was the first night that I did not sleep a wink because as I was warned “I just sweat through the night.” It was literally too hot to sleep. I was getting desperate for some privacy and wanted to try and figure out how to sleep on my own, so I tried sleeping in my douche, but the cement had heated up all day and was horribly hot. So I tried sleeping under the shade structure outside my hut, but again, the cement radiates heat and blocks the little wind that there is…so, tonight I will again sleep around the tree with my family and have to move to my douche for some alone time when the sun wakes me. It was a good experiment, and now I know. (in case you’re wondering, it is absolutely out of the question to sleep in my hut. Yesterday it did not get below 100 degrees inside all day. Not sleepable.)

I realize that this entry is all about the heat, but it pretty much consumes all of my energy. It’s so difficult to do anything else, and I’m trying to figure out how to keep myself sane, and mildly cool so that I can get things done. This will take some time.

Since day one I have greeted the mayor and his office, various prefes and sous-prefes, gone to the dispensaire and greeted the head nurse there, saw vaccination day (every Friday), found the district health center (by myself I might add…very empowering), lunched at my counterpart’s house, been to the post office, sat around with my sisters talking about America and Senegal and the differences between our cultures (one of my highlights thus far, as I did it in mostly Pulaar with French as a supplement), made a family tree, been to the weekly market, saw the daily market out in Kanel, attended a women’s and babies group meeting that my ancien started with 10 first time moms in the town, ate my first dish of Jaco (a dish with mashed up and boiled leaves and fish…it’s SOOO good), unpacked and decorated my room…the list goes on. The women’s group wants me to lead a health talk next week so that they can start up again!! Stressful, but thrilled that they already trust me to take over her job so readily. I am working on what topic to address first! There are so many to choose from…

So despite the advisary that this is community entry and you shouldn’t be doing any actual work, it feels great to have some tasks at hand. I have been keeping a daily work journal of everything that I’ve been doing so that I can look back after my 3 months and know that I had a successful and productive CEP.

The gears are already turning the more and more I see. But in the mornings I am at my best and I’m so happy to be here and be working, but during those hot hours of the day, I want nothing more than to run away to a hotel with air conditioning and hideaway.

I have not made any lists for awhile so here it goes:

#of times my family has asked me if I have a kind of medicine, or cream, or product, or bandage: 10+ (my ancienne and I have a strict ‘no giving away things from your med kit’ policy…not sustainable, they need to be encouraged to go to the dispensaire)
# of liters of H20 I drink daily ~ 12
# of times I pee ~ 5 (yes, the rest leaves me via sweat. A nice thought)
# of times I’ve wanted to cry because it’s so hot: 3
# of times I’ve felt total elation at being at site: 4
# of times the water and electricity have cut out : 1 (all day, this is very typical)
# of times per day that I cringe when the adults smack the kids: everytime. It never gets easy
# of goats in our compound: 6
# of CFA it cost to buy a huge bag of ripe delicious mangoes: 250 = 50cents

So there you have it. I will be writing about the ‘baptism’ later which I’m sure will be totally overwhelming, much like my sister’s wedding in Thies. There are going to be many people, all speaking Pulaar at least, but none the less it should be an adventure!

Haa boye!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A wedding of epic proportions

So last Sunday, May 6th was my sister's wedding. It was the most overwhelming day I've had yet in country and the closest I've gotten to a breakdown. It was horrible. Here it goes:

Saturday i spent the day helping roughly 15 women prepare couscous, and chop vegetables, make beignets, and shop for gifts, and paint peoples initials on bowls and pots with my nail polish and being ordered around to help with chores, and asked to dance, and take a million pictures of everyone. That was mostly fun except that being asked for the 20th time if I wanted a senegalese husband and having them all speak to me in wolof and ask why i wasn't learning wolof was starting to get old. So after putting in about 8 hours i left and spent the evening out with friends.

After spending a restless night's sleep saturday with lots of strangers in my house, (having come home at night to cow guts and skins, and organs everywhere around midnight with the reddish outside light on, and many young shirtless men chopping away at the leftovers, and asking me to marry them) we were woken up at 6am to start the chores. By roughly noon there were probably 100 people in my house. Mostly women, a zillion children, so many smells I can't even handle. We still were not dressed in our "bridesmaid" dresses. So we went searching for a salon so that my sisters could accompany hte bride and have their own makeup done.

The first one was so crowded that it would take forever, so we went to another one adn waited, though it was closed so after two hours of being dragged around in the sweltering heat we went back to the house. This is when I almost lost it. I was being spoken to in wolof the whole time because my sister's friends were around and they speak wolof, and we were carrying lots of crap and had no directoin and all i wanted to do was study for my exam on tuesday and spend some of my last hours with my friends.
So, we go home and by now there are women everywhere. we sit in my room and scarf some oily rice and then my sister's start ushering in women so that they can pray privately in my room. So im trying to study for a few brief hours despite the ridiculous noise.
OH! i totally forgot to mention that this ENTIRE TIME, huge speakers have been placed in my compound and BLARING all day long. literally. It's hard ot describe, but about the volume of an atrociously loud dance club.
Around 4 oclock we finally get dressed, my sisters have their makeup done (i refused, once i realized that senegalese makeup meant shaving my eyebrows and sharing the makeup at a salon that hundreds have used before me), and we trudge back to the house. there are now probably 150 women in my house. all speaking in wolof and all trying to get the toubab to dance for htem. so i take cover with my sisters, find a cute baby, and 2 of the other volunteers showed up to hang out and witness the event.
The bride finally comes back from the mosque where she and all the men have been. The husband never comes home, and only a few of the men show. some of the women meanwhile have taken all of the donuts and refreshments that they spent the whole prevoius day making over to the men and come back with them all gone.

She looked absolutely gorgeous and totally done up to the nines. The car was decorated and everything, but all she did was come in and spend 2 hours greeting every SINGLE person in the house and having pictures taken of her, was given water, and fanned.
By 7:30 i couldn't take it anymore, and then they started packing everyone INTO the house. that was just absurd. So I told my sister's that i had to leave and study, so i gave her my gift, changed my clothes and spent the night out and stayed at a friends house.

its hard to explain how overwhelming the whole thing was, and i dont think that i do it justice. when i have the time to upload the pictures i think that you will all have a better idea. I was just so tired of being bossed around, sweaty, it really didn't matter at all that i was there, i didn't understand a single thing that was going on, i was so hungry and anxoius about my exam.

The wonderful thing is though, that despite those two days of total insanity, the next evening when i came back, my family was so thrilled to see me and they spent a good half hour profusely thanking me for letting them use my room and spending the night out so that they could use my bed. They had cleaned it top to bottom and kept telling me what a good person i was and wanted me to make absolutely sure that nothing in my room was missing. it was so refreshing.

i learned that weddings universally, are stressful and overwhelming and I have decided that someday when i have my very own, i blatantly refuse ot let that happen. I came away with some great pictures, and a cultural learning experience that i will never forget. I now know that the next wedding i am invited too, i will go towards the very end, and pre-invent an excuse to leave if i need to.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

From a PCT to a PCV and Installation

It's official...I am now a sworn in Peace Corps Volunteer and tomorrow I am going to be installed in my site which will be my home for the next 2 years, inchallah. I have to apologize for slacking on the updates, believe me there have been many many things to tell I have just been so busy these past two weeks that the internet has not been my top priority.
So I passed my language test and met the required level of intermediate low. Which basically means I can muddle my way through the basics. I am feeling very confident that the next three months I am going to spend most of my time trying to perfect my pulaar. On Saturday we swore in in Dakar in a formal, slightly boring official ceremony which also included the Japanese and the Korean international volunteer swear-in, which meant that there was super yummy food at the reception, like spring rolls and veggie sushi.
This might now seem like big news, but you should have all seen how we rushed those tables!

My computer arrived in the mail on friday! amazing. people cannot believe that i even had it sent to me. Apparently, it's actually not allowed to send it in the mail and I only had to pay 12 bucks in customs fees! (sometimes its beautiful to know people in high places). Had it been a week later adn the other customs guy was working I might not have been so lucky.
So, I am enjoying the safety of uploading my pictures to a secure location, making new playlists to put onto my ipod (huge thrill btw) and havign the possibility of watching DVDs.

I'm not feeling very nervous about going to site--really, i feel relieved if nothing else. Relieved to finally settle in and stop living out of a suitcase, thrilled to finally meet my new family, to see my hut, to stop feeling anxious about the heat and just learn how to deal with it...and of course most importantly, i can't wait to start my community entry phase (CEP)!

CEP means that for the next 3 months until IST in August my job is primarily to work on my language skills adn assess the needs of my community. That means visiting and greeting all of the important head honchos of my town, the prefes, sous-prefes, all of the doctors and nurses at my healthpost and at the district center (b/c my town has both), greet the presidents of the neighborhood orgs, of which there are 11, meet the heads of various womens groups, health groups etc. These greetings will probably take me about a month because often you have to stay for several hours, and if you get caught in the heat of the day then there is no sense in fighting to get back to your own home. Also, for the first week I'm going to be wantign to get to know my family and my neighbors and singling out those people who will be patient enough to help me with my pulaar. I anticipate many many hours of sitting around with the women cooking with my notebooks and dictionaries in hand and not understanding the majority of what goes on.

Sunday the 4 of us installing up north drove to our regional house and spent the night there. We were met by 2 current PCVs who gave us the lay of the land and surprised us by making pizza. it was a lovely night of giggling, eating, telling stories, and bonding. It really is true that the people in your region become your lifelines, your family. We have a retreat all together at the regional house in June for 4 days, when we're a month in. It gives us something to look forward to and commit ourselves to one full month at site without leaving.

Yesterday we drove into the town where we will all be doing our banking and where a lot of us meet up at the only place for miles where we can have a beer and some pizza and feel semi-normal. (one restaurant in town just got pizza 2 weeks ago, and menus too!)
Today we went to another nearby town and watched two current volunteers at their bi weekly radio show. it was so awesome. They have an hour slot and play music and do various health related skits, interiews, and lessons--and people really do listen! they are even approached on the street by people who will say things like " hey i heard your skit about vaccinating my kid, just wanted you to know that i do. we like your program. etc" pretty cool huh? talk about reaching a wider audience. and for an hour i was transported home because this week the theme music was johnny cash. yes, i am definitely in the presence of awesome volunteers.

I am feeling mildly intimidated about taking over for my ancien volunteer. She was just so loved adn did such great work. She's a tough cookie and will be a hard act to follow, but I"m going to try my best.

Today and yesterday we also spent the day buying things for our huts. Mats for the floor, buckets for fetching water, adn washing, soap, fans, foam pads to put over our stick beds, trunks, sheets, you name it. It was so wonderful to have the other PCVs around to bargain for us. Money in Pulaar is insane. the numbers used for money are totally different than the actually numbers. Brilliant right? Of course it's like that....

So think of me tomorrow. Know that I am mostly excited, less jittery than I thought I would be. Ashley and Bernard are going to come in the PC car with me to help ease my nerves. There are all kinds of horror stories about volunteers chasing after the PC car once it takes off and they freak out, but I dont think that will happen to me. I'm tough :) and i'm installing in the evening so I'll just have time to settle in, greet the fam, hae dinner adn pass out.

As for the heat, it's been about 115 during the day as far as we can tell. I haen't exactly been walking around with a thermometer though. Its funny though, once you get that hot, you actually start to feeel chilly? Though I hae definitely decided that I am someone who tolerates the heat MUCH better than I tolerate the cold. Its that CA blood i guess.
The rumor is that the highest anyone has officially seen on their thermometers is 137, but that it stayed that exact same temperature for hours and hours, so then the PCV realized that her thermometer didn't actually go above 137 degrees!!!
I've been hydrating like a crazy person. I haven't kept exact track of how many liters i drink a day, but I'm guessing it's been around 10-12. and I barely ever pee which gives you a delicious image of what a sweaty mess I have been! I think my plan of action will be to shower at least 3 times a day, just for some relief. My family has a refrigerator though which means that I will hae access to ice cold water to drench myself in for hours at a time.

Today we walked along the river adn I could see mauritania on the other side. That was a trip. It was so close, and the water was so blue. I guarantee I'll be swimming in it a lot. I figure we get treated for Schistosomiasis anyway, I might as well not let the meds go to waste right? (sorry mom....but it's just too hot).

FYI, my address in Thies is no longer valid. I mean if you've already sent something to me I'll get it eventually, but I have a new address which I will be mass emailing everyone soon. That being said, you have all been asking me if I want anything, and I nwo have a better idea of things I'd love to have:

Breakfast snacks, fibrous ones preferably. but snacky foods in general, trail mix, granola bars, cliff bars, oatmeal, dried fruit, etc.
conditioner (it's really hard to find and super expensive)
any kind of lotion especially that smells good...but not too too strong,
pantiliners (good to pile on top of other stuff because customs doesn't want to touch it).
ANNIES MAC AND CHEESE!! I promise my first born child to whoever sends me some.
spices for cooking and baking. all kinds. they will definitely be used at the regional house.
Vitamin C supplements.
business size mailing envelopes, and padded mailing envelopes so that i can send you all more substantial gifts and letters
That's it for now.

Thanks to everyone for your words of encouragement after my frustrated last blog entry. I am doing much better, my spirits are up. I am moving into the next phase of my PC service with lots of energy and enthusiasm, and it means the world to me to receive all of your supportive emails adn encouragement. What wonderful family and friends I have supporting me. It's hard to explain how much all of your thoughts and messages mean to me.
Thank you all so much.

I promise to write more regularly, especially now that I have my computer and can write messages there adn then just upload them. Anticipate many more emails and detailed blog entries from now on. Probably the best decision i've made to have it sent to me.
I also promise that soon I will write about the overwhelming experience that was my sister's wedding and pictures will be uploaded soon.

Wish me luck tomorrow!
Peace and lots of excitement,