Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Old Friend

I’ve probably complained about this at some point in my blog, but one of the most difficult challenges for me throughout this experience has been finding a creative/artistic outlet. I’m certainly not a visual artist (though my pooping stick figures are at least finally discernable), and while I’ve taken to breaking out the water color set once in awhile, it’s not nearly as satisfying as taking a dance class, or choreographing, or putting on a show.

I mean, sure, I put on my ipod and sing at the top of my lungs while I wash my clothes (much to my family’s amusement), and once in awhile I get inspired to dance around my room (yes, with my rhinestone headphones), but it just isn’t enough. I miss the adrenaline rush of the stage, the performance anxiety and then the release and joy of moving in front of an audience, and the total exhaustion and euphoria after a “kick-you-in-the-ass” dance class, whether ballet, or salsa, or modern. I miss harmonizing with other voices, and obsessing about every tonal variation. I miss throwing myself into a new character and perfecting the delivery of every line. And I miss enjoying other people’s artistic endeavors. I miss watching other performers and feeling inspired, and congratulating them and smiling at a job well done.

Before I left for the Peace Corps everyone was always saying, “oh West Africa, what a perfect place for a dancer like yourself.” After traveling to Ghana in 2005 I thought the same thing. I thought that in Senegal I would spend nights dancing ‘til I couldn’t stand any longer with the women of my village. I thought that I would hear drumming and singing everyday, and learn pounding songs. But up north, at least in my town, there is a total void of all things artistic, and creative. It’s probably been my biggest disappointment to date.

So I’ve been trying to find my way around it. Keeping this blog helps immensely and I’ve discovered a hidden love for writing and reading. I’ve also started running which, though clearly not the most “creative” thing, gives me an hour or so to clear my head, blast my music, and push my body to the edge.

But I think the thing that has helped the most has been the rediscovery of an old friend, my flute. You can probably tell (if you don’t already know) that somewhere along the line I was a big old band geek. Yep, of the dorkiest kind…I was a serious flute player. So serious in fact, that during my adolescence, I spent three summers at Flute Camp (yep, just flutes) in Carmel Valley. But in high school I had to choose between dancing and singing and the flute. The flute lost.

I left my beautiful instrument in my closet for close to 8 years collecting dust. I broke it out only once or twice during all that time in moments of extreme boredom while home for summer vacation from college. But several months ago I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was time to pick it up again. It just seemed right. Here I have a lot of down time, and what a cool thing to be able to share with people who have never even heard of a flute let alone seen or heard one played flute up close. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my family has never even heard classical music at all! So when Chris came to visit he lugged my flute, my books and my music halfway around the world (what a guy huh?)

And I’ve started playing again. Not as often as I’d like actually, because my worked has really picked up, but I can still play! It’s so empowering. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I get totally carried away when I practice and 1 hour feels like ten minutes. Granted I’m playing my old favorite pieces and not exactly practicing my chromatic scales, but for the time being I’m allowing myself the luxury because that keeps me hooked. It feels so good to be creating again, to produce something beautiful (or sometimes not so beautiful) even if for now I’m the only audience member.

Sure I get little eyes peering in at me when I practice. I often chase them off, not because I’m shy, but because they are so distracting and giggle as they watch. My family doesn’t exactly understand what it is, or why it sounds the way it does, or what I’m reading in my music book, but they seem to respect the fact that it’s important to me. Someday I am hoping to work up the nerve to actually perform for them.

We’ll see, I have a long way to go before I’m concert ready.
But at least I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Health Class

Now that school is back in swing after the holiday season (Tabaski, Christmas, New Year’s Eve etc.) I have started teaching regularly at the elementary school. It is the most fun I think I’ve had at site to date. Much less stressful than the Jr. High level health class I taught last month for sure. Still, it was totally exhausting and I can’t imagine doing it as a full-time job (Katy Byrns/all you teachers out there, you are all my own personal heroes), but it was so fun and rewarding at the same time.

Here is some background about the school system.

The elementary school closest to my house (there is another one about a 20 minute walk away) has roughly 13 classrooms, with anywhere from 50-20 students per class. Classes meet Mon. Wed. and Fri. from 8ish-1ish and Tues and Fri from 8-1 and then 4-6. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they spend all that time learning or in class for that matter. Teachers are always late, leave their cell phones on to take calls, stop class to greet passerbys, cancel class to go get their paychecks or have meetings, and so forth. Also, there are always random strikes, holidays, and illnesses. Since school doesn’t really get going until November and ends pretty much at the end of May and closes for long holidays, I’d say that the kids probably have about ½-2/3 the amount of classroom learning time that we do in the states. It’s no wonder that most of the students at Jr. High level are already 15, 16 and older.

The Senegalese education system is based on the French system. This means that most lessons are taught using dictation. Basically, the teacher reads lessons aloud or writes them on the board while the children copy and memorize the information for the annual exams. There is little discussion, group participation, or room for individual creativity. I’ve gone over my niece’s workbooks and am always surprised at how little they’ve done thus far this year. (About 8 pages worth of lessons for what’s theoretically about 2 1/2 months of school).

To their credit the teachers do have it rough. They are sent wherever the state tells them to go. My good English teacher friend at the Jr. High for example is from a beautiful town on the coast near Dakar and has been stationed in my town for 6 years now! Every year he counts down the days until each vacation and every year he applies for a transfer. (I secretly hope he doesn’t get it though because he is a great colleague and fun to have around). So they are usually far from their families, sometimes in a tiny village or a region where they don’t speak the language. They make very little money and often pay out of pocket for students who can’t afford school supplies and fees.

Also, the conditions under which they teach can be pretty miserable. Huge classes, no electricity, no air conditioning, no screens on the windows or doors, no textbooks (at the elementary school level. There are some at the junior high but the students have to buy them), three or more students to a desk, and almost zero supplies. All things considered they should be commended for persevering and even choosing this noble and desperately needed profession.

So when I approached the Headmaster and said I was interested in teaching health classes, he and the rest of the teachers of course jumped at the chance. They all told me that it doesn’t matter when I come teach that anytime I can just stop by and they’ll drop everything and give me the floor! It’s totally different than the Jr. High, which is much more structured. The way I have it organized now is that I prepare a health related lesson and then teach it in each class until I’ve hit all 13 of them. This will probably take about 2-3 weeks between my and the school’s schedule. I started this week with a health lesson on Germs-how they are transferred from person-to-person, and the importance of handwashing with soap before eating, after using the toilet etc. Really very basic hygiene information. It seems redundant and commonsense based, but as the former Peace Corps Senegal Director told us during pre-service training, “You must apply the rule of 50 to everything you do. Until you have told someone, and showed someone some piece of information 50 times, you can’t get frustrated that you have not yet seen behavior change.” While discouraging and depressing at first, it really is true. My hope is that my celebrity/novelty status will drive the information home a little harder. Also my approach to teaching is totally different than what the kids are used to so I’m hoping that they really take it to heart and listen up.

I taught the two oldest classes back-to-back in the afternoon. As you can imagine the first class was a bit more chaotic than the second because I knew what to expect and settled into a rhythm. Also, in the second class the teacher wasn’t in the room so I relaxed a bit more and felt more comfortable taking charge.

I started off the Germ lesson by having a few volunteers come up and draw what they thought a germ looked like. When we had 4 different versions I explained that they were spot-on, that there were many different kinds of germs that bring all different kinds of diseases. Then I asked if they had all heard of germs. They all raised their hands. Then I asked them to define them.
One skinny impish kid with huge thick glasses in the front row timidly raised his hand and whispered that they bring diseases.
“Great!” I said. “That’s exactly right!”
Then I defined germs for them and we played a true false game using facts about germs that got the whole class participating, giggling, and totally focusing! It’s an incredible high really.

Then I did do a short dictation lesson so they could write some concrete information in their notebooks to “memorize” for later, and to demonstrate to the teachers that I was not just some nutty toubak who waltzes in and plays games under the guise of health education and Western-style teaching.

Then I called up 3 volunteers to help me with a demonstration. I used hot pepper powder (easily accessible at every market stand/boutique everywhere in Senegal) to represent germs. I asked the kids what happens if you rub hot pepper on your hands and don’t wash your hands and then touch your eyes. Of course they all cringed in fear and said “No! Don’t do that! It will hurt!” I explained to them that germs are like hot peppers. You can’t see them, and you might think that your hands are clean, but they’re not, and the only way to avoid transmitting germs is to wash your hands with soap and water, just like you would if you had hot pepper on your hands.

I could tell that that idea really clicked with some of them. I also brought up some of the hand-washing habits I’ve seen before: dipping hands into already dirty soapy water and claiming they’re clean, rubbing their hands on their pants, or just claiming that “Look! My hands are clean!” They all looked sheepish and laughed.
I mean, the information was not hard. They understood. They’ve all heard it before. But maybe this time it will actually stick? I can only hope.

Monday I’ll be teaching the same lesson to the next three lowest classes. Then again on Thursday to a few more. I’ll continue the week after until each class has gotten a chance to experience Madame Lam’s guest lecture on Germs. Then I’ll begin with a lesson on dehydration and diarrhea.
Sometimes I can’t help but giggle to myself and think how totally pointless my MSc is to some of the work that I’m doing here. Other times it comes in handy, but not so much when I’m talking about the Oral Fecal Cycle with 9-year-olds.

I guess part of me feels conflicted about teaching at the schools. I mean, there already are teachers. And they WERE just given a health education curriculum (by USAID) and they do do some “Education Sanitaire” lessons. But since actually living and working here, my notion of sustainability has changed. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to change the system and train teachers or a teacher to do health education? But that does happen at the Jr. High level and the elementary school teachers simply do not have the time. So I’ve decided that transferring knowledge (aka. education) IS sustainable. And that maybe the teachers will learn from me and incorporate more health-related activities into their curriculums.

Even if not one single child changes his or her behavior, maybe one day, even just being exposed to me and my classes, or just the idea of a bigger world out there that needs health workers, maybe one kid will become a nurse or a doctor?
I don’t know.
I guess you never really can.
I just have to plug away.
I have to have faith that what I’m doing makes a difference somehow, at some point, to someone.

And I do.

List of Adjustments

Things I never thought I would ever get used to, but I totally am…

1. Using my hand for toilet functions. (In fact, I kind of prefer using water…you really do feel much cleaner, and talk about reducing my carbon footprint huh?)

2. People commenting on your weight. “Binta! Oh no! Where did your Yeroba go?” or “Hey hey, Binta, you have a big old Yeroba! Let me find you a Senegalese husband.”

3. Finding lizards in my room (all the time).

4. People commenting on various zits, bites scratches and immediately touching them.

5. Saying NO!

6. People asking me for things. It almost doesn’t phase me anymore.

7. The baaing of goats. It’s super loud but I don’t even notice it now.

8. Kids picking up and touching everything and anything the second they walk into my room.

9. Being totally comfortable laying around at night with my family and doing absolutely nothing.

10. People talking about me right in front of me (probably cuz now I can more or less understand them).

11. Using a pit latrine.

12. Eating anything that’s put in front of me at mealtime.

13. Taking "me" time in my hut and not feeling guilty about it.

14. My “celebrity” status.

15. Spending the day greeting people just to greet because I haven’t seen them for awhile. I really do feel productive after a day of greeting because it’s SO important.

16. Sweeping sand in front of my hut. It really does look cleaner once I clear away all the leaves and garbage that blow around and accumulate in my doorway.

17. Only having internet access once a week or so (this one took me awhile).

Things I still don’t know if I’ll ever get used to/over…

1. The heat.

2. Scorpions.

3. Finding frogs in my hair in the middle of the night.

4. Feeling awkward about having more money, and means than everyone around me.

5. Being one of the furthest volunteers from Dakar. (Traveling back and forth just sucks royally and never really gets better).

6. The intense frustration I feel when I’m expecting packages and they take 6 weeks+ to arrive at sight.

7. The overwhelming stench of human sewage.

8. Public “toilets”

9. Constantly seeing kids begging, barefoot, skinny, with head fungus, filthy, and hungry.



I think I made this clear in some of my previous entries, but just so you all know, almost all of the Pulaar people up north are polygamous. I’m not entirely sure if that’s universal in Senegal. It seems to be falling out of favor in more urban areas, but up here it’s quite prevalent. I’ve had countless discussions with men and women about it and I’ve made my feelings quite clear to them: “I certainly do not judge others who live a polygamous lifestyle, but it is and never will be for me.” (One of the best reasons for declining offers of marriage to Senegalese men). I’ve always been curious about the logistics of it though and until now I didn’t really feel close enough to anyone to ask personal questions. But the other night I was sitting alone with my sister/counterpart (Nene) and her baby and I asked her how she was doing adjusting to being a second wife now that the first wife (Mairam) is back and they live in the same house.

About a year ago Nene married her second husband (her first one passed away a few years ago). She is the second wife. As soon as she moved in, the first wife was really jealous (understandably) and moved to Dakar for several months. As soon as Nene had the baby, Mairam came back and they’ve been able to live more or less at ease with one another. But at first it was hard adjusting and Nene would complain to me about it. So I asked her if things were getting any better now that a few months had passed. She said that they were more or less better, but she also clued me into some of the kinds of under-handed competitive stuff that the two of them will pull. Like if Nene dresses up in nice clothes one day then Mairam will go and change her clothes so that she looks equally as made-up. Of course, they try to outdo each other when they cook meals too. They are on a 2-day schedule for cooking. So Nene prepares all the meals for 2 days and then they switch. The days that they prepare the meals, their husband spends those 2 nights in their room. (Yes, they do each have their own room). I guess it’s a sign of respect as a sort of “thank you” for serving him well that day. According to Nene he would never dare spend the night with the wife who had the day off. Also, apparently according to the Koran, after a woman gives birth she is supposed to wait 40 days before sleeping with her husband. So for 40 days after she had the baby she did not let him come lay with her despite his advances.

She did defend him adamantly though, which made me realize how much she does love him. He is a very nice man, educated, loves to laugh, works extremely hard, loves his children fiercely, and does not deny his family anything. He’s always very calm and I never hear him raise his voice.

I felt so lucky to be privy to such personal information and it was fun to giggle with her about “girlie” stuff. She even admitted to me that she understood now why I refuse to be in a polygamous relationship. (In case any of you were worried I’d be convinced otherwise! Ha!) She is the first person to ever say that to me outright. Though I have heard plenty of women complain openly about being second and third wives. And I’ve seen the look on their faces when I ask about the possibility of their husbands taking second wives. I would not want to cross my sister Binta that way. Lucky for her (and him) I’m pretty sure her husband believes in monogamy.

I still haven’t found a way to logically argue and convince men that no, in fact, there are NOT 10x more women than men in Senegal, and that the practice of polygamy does not exist because there are “too many women” and not enough men. It’s not enough to tell them that I have a Master’s degree in Population and Development from LSE. Nope, they’ve seen the compounds in their hometown (which they’ve usually never left) and they see only women (duh!) and therefore they are certain that all of Senegal is full of way too many women. Hmmm.

This particular argument makes me nuts and I’m at the point where I have to just avoid it because it feels like I’m beating my head against a brick wall. I think that maybe I should start walking around with Senegal’s demographic breakdown to show people and maybe that will help? A secondary project perhaps?
In any case, I hope you all enjoyed that cultural insight. I certainly did.


I apologize for my long absence.

My father told me recently that some of you avid followers were sending him emails wondering why I hadn’t write since December 11th? Not only did that make me smile, it also motivated me to get writing again. The reason for the hiatus though is because I went on vacation. Yep, I spent the holidays in Rome and Sicily with family friends. Lucky girl huh? The trip was just wonderful (see “Italy” album), and I didn’t freak out about being in the “1st World” nearly as much as I thought I would. I mean, within my first day or two I had a moment of panic and disgust at my return to materialism. I mean you could say that I sort of binged on luxury. I went out in Rome, had my hair done (by a hilariously flamboyant Italian man), ate delicious fresh meals and tons of gelato, bought jeans, took long hot showers, and watched CNN in English. But as my good friend said “Cait, you’ve only been in Senegal for 9 months, that’s not enough time to undo 24 years of cultural learning.” And he’s right. It was great to be back in a city I knew and wander the streets with no agenda. In Sicily it was so nice to just be locked up with friends and have no agenda except to feed ourselves and occupy the kids.

Though I know it was disappointing to my family at home that I didn’t come home, I realize that I just was not ready. I did not want to have to say my goodbyes all over again. What a treat it was too to be with a family of people that grew up in West Africa. One of the things I was probably the most anxious about going home to was the “celebrity” status. You know, running into people all over town who expect soundbyte responses to “How is Africa?” “What’s it like” and waiting for a 30 second or less response. I know that I’ll have to deal with all that eventually when I’m home over the summer, but I think that by then I’ll be able to handle it much more graciously. The idea of telling the story over and over again is exhausting though. This is why I love having a blog so much! I feel like those of you who really care will follow along and then I won’t have nearly as much story-telling ground to cover when I come back.

Coming back to Senegal has been an unexpected piece of cake. I spent a few days in Dakar with other volunteers who were coming back in from vacations, so that we could hit “critical mass” for the long voyage back to the desert. I was so thrilled to come back to site and to my family, and my work. I feel rested, restored, re-motivated, and ready to put in some serious work time before the hot season smothers all good intentions to get anything done. Since I’ve been back I’ve just been on cloud nine. I mean, so little bothers me anymore! I’m not sure if that’s a product of my own adaptation to life here, or the cool season. Probably some of both. Truly though, the cool season is like 5 zillion times more tolerable than the rest of the year. Too bad it’s mostly over by March. I actually fear the hot season. Even thinking about it makes me anxious and miserable.

But for now, I’m thrilled to be back, work has taken off again, I’m the perfect level of busy, my Pulaar rocks, and life is wonderful!