Friday, March 27, 2009

Lisa's Blog entry

Reflections on my visit to Senegal

I’ve been back, stateside, for less than two weeks but it feels like ages ago that I was squished in the back of a sept place, trekking across the sandy, hot country of Senegal with my eyes glued to the villages and lives that sped past our car. It’s hard to explain, as I sit in my air-conditioned office, with a busy Los Angeles day zooming by outside, how many different worlds away Senegal feels at this moment. And I can’t begin to express how indelible a mark that adventure left on me. I’ve been shifting through the many pictures (and some videos) that I brought back with me and one thing that continually strikes me in how inadequate they are in capturing all that I experienced on that trip. They fail to capture the cacophony of sounds and organized chaos that flooded my senses on the streets of Dakar, the overlapping dialogues of Pulaar, Woloof, and French that kept my “anglais seulement” ears in perpetual confusion, the brilliance of Cait’s nephews’ 3-year-old tinkling laughter, and the smell that centuries of sun on sand makes. I’ll give you an example. I took a picture of the train station in Dakar because it so beautifully represented the French Colonial architecture that would pop out, unexpectedly, along the streets of this noisy city. The picture shows this beautiful, ornate, colorful building but doesn’t allude to the crazy scene taking place behind me as I took the picture. The train station was on the corner of a large traffic circle in downtown Dakar. Picture a steady stream of cars, in all stages of disrepair, converging on this point from all directions. Without any sort of management, the cars seemed to be pulled into the circle, spun around a couple times, and rocketed out at an increased velocity to swerve down one of the side streets. The layers of noise (the car horns honking, the street vendors, the ships docking at the port nearby) and the waves of smells (exhaust, onions and meat cooking, salty air) only added to the scene. The sheer momentum and energy of the atmosphere is so obviously absent in my “pretty little picture.”

We spent the first two days in Dakar, and then Cait generously shleped Wendy and me, her two doe-eyed tourists, across Senegal to see her site and meet her family. If you know Cait, then you know about her incredible superpower at acquiring new languages (also, her newly formed superpower: the ability to sleep anywhere). Watching Cait interact with Senegalese people was completely awe-inspiring (it also prompted me to start looking into living for a stint in a Spanish-speaking country). It wasn’t just translating words into French or Pulaar but taking on the mannerisms and personality of the language. After flying for 15 hours and arriving in Dakar, exhausted, confused and disoriented, navigating the bewildering airport and wading through a throng of taxi drivers and vendors, tumbling into hugs from Cait and Holly, it was such a relief to watch (bug-eyed, of course) Cait tromp over to a crowd of Senegalese men and negotiate the taxi fare. She playfully rebuffed their teasing remarks, smiled and wagged her finger at their unreasonable offers and masterminded the first of many jocular negotiations that began to seem more ritual then necessity. After a two-day introduction to the adventure (and I do emphasize “adventure”) that is public transportation in Senegal (complete with pot-holed roads, no discernable traffic laws, crowded village streets followed by vastly empty desert-scapes, and beyond crowded buses) we arrived at Cait’s village to meet her family. The enormity of heart that I felt in small town on the edge of Senegal was not that unlike the generosity you find when you walk into the Givens’ home in Davis, California. Cait’s Senegalese parents even seemed to mirror the personalities of her parents back home. Papa Lam, always with a jocular smile about to break across his face and ready with a boisterous greeting and a cheerful laugh when Wendy or I would stumble across our unrefined versions of Pulaar words, and Mama Lam, obviously the matriarch and head of the house, was quietly in charge and oversaw a full house that, you could see in her eyes, she adored. I can’t begin to express the experiences of Kanel – when I think about Kanel, it feels like a million different snippets of memories are bubbling around in my head, surfacing for a second then tumbling away again. The soft padding of little, bare feet running across the dirt yard. The cloud of thick smells that blankets the market and made my poor little, toubab stomach do cartwheels. The warm little child’s body that transitions on your lap from sitting alert and engaged with the world to sinking back against your body, relaxed and sleepy. Holding the smallest, tiniest baby I ever have in my arms. A sweet little 3 year-old voice singing “bon chocolat, bon chocolat” (????) over and over again. The sweet, watchful eyes of Cait’s nieces that took in everything around them. Watching gender play itself out in so many different ways, sometimes making me livid and other times full of respect. Mosques erupting in the middle of the night for the 4 am Call to Prayer. Getting laughed at (good naturedly, of course) as I stumbled over phrases in Pulaar. The sweet and crunchy taste of fresh beignets. I will forever remember the four days I spent in Kanel as a wonderfully unique opportunity to see and experience a part of Africa that most tourists never get to see.

2 years

2 years

I have lived in Senegal now for 2 years. I cannot believe it’s gone by so quickly. I knew it would, even on the miserable hot season sick days that seemed like they would never end. I have watched my baby nephews and nieces turn into walking talking preschoolers. I have been to weddings, funerals, and baptisms. I have attended births, and talk children. I have traveled all over the country. I have said goodbye to 3 groups of volunteers, and now it’s my turn.

I used to keep regular lists and it only seems fitting that I round up my last few blog entries with these. I also hope that it will give you readers an idea of all the millions of thoughts and emotions that are going on in my head right now.

2 Years On…

# of years lived in Senegal: 2
# of times I left the country: 3
# of times I went to America: 2
# of friends that have gotten married or engaged since I’ve been away: 10
# of friends/acquaintances that have had babies since I’ve been gone: 3
# of baby deaths I’ve had to suffer through: 1
# of births I attended/babies I delivered: 3
# of babies that were born and named after me or a member of my family: 7
# of times I’ve had things stolen: 2 (purse and things from my luggage)
# of times I’ve felt unsafe at site: 0
# of times I’ve felt unsafe in public transport: Every single time
# of messages sent on my 2nd cell phone (1st one was stolen): 4869
# of messages received on said cell phone: 3643
# of people I’ve had come visit: 6
# of extra treks across the country to Dakar I had to make because of those visitors: 16 (totally worth every moment though!)
# of visitors that got sick during their visit: 3
# of times I’ve seen my host mom cry: 3
# of times I’ve henna’d my hands and feet: 3
# of times I let my family braid my hair: 0
# of packages I received : upwards of 40 THANKS EVERYONE!
# of random emails I receive from people because of my blog: 7-10
# of Senegalese friends and family that know about my blog: 0
# of months spent away from site due to illness: about 4
# of months spent on vacation: ~2 (we’re allocated 48 days)
# of months spent in Dakar working on various film projects: 3
# of months spent at site: 15
# of months out of each year where it’s actually cool enough to be permanently in a good mood: 3 # of months out of the year it’s too hot to sleep inside: 9
# of snakes I’ve seen in country: 1 (my 2nd to last night at site. In my family’s house. Hissing and poisonous and crawling down our hallway. Nice.)
# of scorpions I’ve seen and slaughtered in my room : 30+
# of other West African countries traveled to: 0 (which I’m annoyed at myself about, unless of course you count the night swim across the Senegalese river to Mauritania, which was stupid and dangerous, but SUCH a great story)
# of pounds lost, gained, lost, and gained again: 0-15
maximum # of lbs a male in our group lost in country: 45
# of pcvs from our group who early terminated their service: 10
# of us who finished out our whole service: 33
# of pcvs from our group who are extending their service: 7 (that’s unprecedented!)
# of women from our group who are going to nursing school following service: 5-6 (that should tell you all a bit about what is really needed out here)
# of forced marriages I tried and failed to stop: 1
# of times per day I’m still asked whether or not I have/want a Senegalese husband: ~4
largest # of people I’ve ever had attend one of my health talks: 120
smallest # of people I’ve ever had attend one of my health talks: 11

Things I will NOT miss at all:

The sweltering dry heat
Public transport in any way shape or form! NO MORE!!
Frequent stomach illness, skin infections, respiratory problems, random fevers etc.
Mosquitoes and the fear they instill with each bite
Always taking medication
The constant screaming, crying, and fighting children
Parents hitting their kids
Being a celebrity and a constant curiosity. Read “Toubak! Toubak! Toubak!”
Having the same 4 conversations over and over and over again: “Do you have a husband?” “Why don’t you want a Senegalese husband?” “Take me to America” “Do you eat rice and fish? Leaf sauce? Why can’t you cook?”
People constantly talking about my, ahem, voluptuous rear end, and trying to get me to dance for them
Always having sandy, dirty feet
Feeling like a circus freak dressed up in uncomfortable Senegalese clothing.
Morning call to prayer and mosque speakers
Senegalese beer
The flies, especially during fly season
The anxiety of worrying about every person I know when they’re sick and wondering if the health post will really be able to help them if it gets to that point.
Bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency
Being harassed by Senegalese men
Seeing children beg for food (my heart is broken about 60 times per day)
The exhaustion of living with people in poverty and wanting to help everyone I care about achieve a higher standard of living.
No proper sanitation systems = trash everywhere.
Bearing witness to women’s total lack of empowerment on a daily basis
Eating oily rice every day at almost every meal
Being constantly asked for things: lotion, phone credit, visas to America, money, the clothes on my back etc.
Sleeping on a bed made of sticks

Things I WILL miss desperately:

My Senegalese family and friends
Waking up in the morning to my two 3 year old nephews tearing across the compound to hug me and climb into bed for morning snuggle time
Lying around in the evenings on a stickbed with 4 or 5 of my older nieces, nephews, or sisters, looking at the stars and giggling.
Walking up to my good friends house and from up the dirt path all the children in their household come running and screaming out to greet me (usually anywhere from 7-10 at a time).
Always having babies to play with
The feeling of being useful, and needed, and wanted.
Speaking Pulaar and French all the time.
The simplicity of life
Having an almost non-existent carbon footprint
The feeling of satisfaction and total bliss that can only come from taking a bucket bath at the end of a long, dirty, hot, sweaty day, when the sun has almost set and the air starts to cool, and for a brief couple of moments I’m actually cold.
Greeting everyone in the room and the genuine joy I feel from them after a long or even a short absence.
Spending the day as a guest and being treated like royalty. Senegal after all is the country of Hospitality.
The sound of the faucet in the morning (because it means there is water for the day).
Going for long runs out in the open desert with no one around for miles
An enormous sense of empowerment and accomplishment, because after this, I can pretty much do anything!
My fellow PCVs.
The freedom to do what I want, when I want: To plan my own work schedule, and projects according to what I believe to be the most effective, and needed approach.
Car shopping! (Sitting in traffic, or stopping on long voyages and having people bring stuff to the window for me to buy: frozen juice bags, bananas, hard boiled eggs, peanuts, tangerines, toys, Laughing Cow cheese, flashlights, towels, you name it.)
Mango season! 1 bucket of delicious ripe mangos for a dollar.
Living in a culture that is tolerant and encouraging of breastfeeding in public.
Seeing happy, mellow babies tied to their mommies’ backs.
Dakar. I love that city.

Things I am looking forward to in America:

Seeing friends and family whom I have missed for two years
Things functioning the way that they are supposed to
Consistent internet!
An abundance of fresh vegetables, whole grains, real cheeses, and good chocolate
California wine, and good wine in general
The freedom to eat what I want, when I want it, in the quantity I choose
Being just another face in the crowd
Freaking people out at social functions with my “crazy stories from Africa”
New, clean, comfortable, functional clothes!
Yoga and Pilates classes
Being off medication
Having greater access to news and what’s going on in the world
Catching up on 2 years of movies
Gabbing for hours over coffee with friends
Seeing art exhibits, dance, music, opera, and theater productions.
Having stimulating and diverse conversations about our world, politics, the environment, healthcare, women’s rights, etc.
Feeling clean all the time
Hot showers, pumice stones, and mini-spa days
Sharing my PC experiences with friends and others who are willing to listen
Fresh terry cloth towels
Reading the Economist cover to cover the week it comes out instead of 4 months late.
Sleeping in a real bed, with clean, soft, fluffy sheets
Sushi and Mexican food (that’s kind of all I want to eat for my first month back)
Air conditioning
The Daily Show!
Being around for important events like weddings, and births

Things I am NOT looking forward to in America:
Obsession with celebrity culture
Excess everything.
Having emotional breakdowns at inappropriate times, like in the cereal aisle because there are just too many kinds of bran flakes for one little RPCV to choose from.
Meeting people who just don’t care to know about my experiences
Ignorance about Africa (I know that’s part of my job to enlighten, but boy is it tiring)
Waste, packaging and vastly increasing my carbon footprint
Obsession with material goods and the need to consume
Obsession with body image
Getting confused looks when I try to use words like “Inchallah!” or “in the city même" or when I snap to get people’s attention, or click my tongue to signify agreement.
Everything being so expensive
Spoiled children
Cold, unfriendly city folk who don’t greet and ask about my family, my goats, my work, or the weather.
“Time is money” and the stress that that expression instills in our culture
Not having a baby on my hip at all times
Missing my Senegalese family and friends and dealing with the difficulty and anxiety of trying to stay in touch
Momentarily forgetting how privileged I am to have the opportunities that I do and to live the way that I do
Not being able to relate to old friends the same way I used to
Forever dealing with the “Expat phenomenon” (aka. Always feeling like a little bit of an outsider from now on).
Frustration with other people’s inability to let things just “roll of their back.”
Everyone being in a hurry all the time.
Lack of family togetherness
Mourning the end of an era. From here on out it will always be past tense: “When I was in the Peace Corps…”