Saturday, April 14, 2012

Incorporating Malaria Education at Fun Events!

Peace Corps Volunteers recently gathered in the district capital of Koumpentoum to put on the first ever district-wide English Leadership Camp. During the three day event, students practiced their English and participated in a number of environmental and health activities including a causerie about malaria and making neem lotion. The students loved covering their hands in the gooey goodness of the homemade insect repellent while spouting out facts about malaria. Just one example of how PCVs are making malaria education easy and fun!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Zeke Emanuel Comes to Koumpentoum!

This past week, Koumpentoum had the honor in hosting the White House’s Advisor to Global Health Policy, Zeke Emanuel. Besides the fact they caught wind that there is a phenomenal Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Koumpentoum, Zeke and a Senior Advisor to USAID are doing an Africa tour to check out the President’s Malaria Initiative programs. Since Koumpentoum recently had a universal mosquito net distribution and pumping to eliminate mosquitoes in each of the homes in the district, USAID Dakar thought Koumpentoum would be a good site to visit and analyze which programs are and are not working. The small entourage only spent the morning in Koumpentoum and a small village about 18K into the bush, Kissang. I was invited to accompany the group because I helped out in the distribution last August.

Zeke definitely wanted to talk about the health issues and policies in the region, but I think all the Senegalese delegation had in mind was a party for him. You can imagine that the village of Kissang felt honored that delegates from USAID came to their village, but it’s not very Senegalese to want to talk about their problems and health issues. They feel that it would reflect failure on their part. When we arrived in Kassang, the entire village was ready with fine clothing, traditional outfits, tom-toms, and dancing. There were children holding signs that read “Thank you USAID, we sleep under our mosquito nets every night”. Clearly, the village had been well prepped for their arrival, which is nice, but not what Zeke was looking for. He requested that we swing by a village that isn’t prepared for his arrival to know if they actually received mosquito nets and are properly using them.

I’m not sure if the USAID delegation got everything they needed out of their visit to Koumpentoum and Senegal, but I had a good time having the opportunity to chat with them and visiting a village that I haven’t been to in my region. The visit also made me a little more interested in looking into doing more health work in the area. Inchallah.

Zeke chatting with the chief of the village.

Cultural dancing.

More song and dance.
Random crying baby. I thought her outfit was really cute.

From the left: Yaya (from Koumpentoum), Zeke Emanuel, Me, Nicole (Senior Advisor for USAID)

Sometimes You Just Have to Fail

Clearly, not everything is Senegal (or any country for that matter) goes as planned. For years, volunteers have discovered that you can pour your heart and soul into a project only for it to collapse in a day. In less developed countries, there are even more factors to consider for the potential of failure than you would in a more developed country. Not only are there the infrastructure barriers to consider (lack of reliable electricity, access to clean water, deteriorating roads), but there are cultural barriers that exist as well (lack of privacy, fatalism, the elasticity of time). While I didn’t witness a project crash in burn, I definitely experienced a bit of a set-back this past week.

For the past month, Koumpentoum has held a sort of “American Ideal” festival between the various youth groups called les OSCAR des Vacances. It’s essentially a theatrical, dance, and misses competition between the ASCs (Association Sportif et Culturelle) which roughly breakdown among neighborhoods. It’s closest thing that Koumpentoum has to a talent show and a pep rally. The event is suppose to raise awareness about important health and youth issues in the community, like HIV/AIDS and gender equality, through the theatrical skits and on-stage questions and conversations.

For the finale, the JICA volunteer in Koumpentoum (Miki) and I had discussed about doing a small presentation about trash and how long it takes items to decompose. We had put together a small powerpoint questionnaire (in French) and a script, talked to hospital about loaning trash cans for the event, talked numerous times with the director of les OSCAR des Vacances, and made posters to put over the trash cans to signify the two types of trash – biodegradable and non-biodegradable. I had also put together a questionnaire about HIV/AIDS in Senegal. Both short programs were to be presented at the beginning of the evening of the finale.

I was in Dakar the day before the finale, so I rushed back to Koumpentoum in order to be present for the event. When I arrived, I learned that it had been postponed by a week. When the evening of the finale arrived, we waited for about four hours for the event to commence. I had set up everything on stage and waited patiently for our turn to do our little bit. By the time they were ready for us, I discovered that someone had messed with the projector while I was not looking and it would not work. By the time we finally got the projector working, we had missed our window of opportunity. We never got a chance to do our brief presentation. Since the event started four hours late (actually a week and four hours late), the night dragged on and I had to leave early, which was around midnight. I heard the night didn’t finish until around 3 a.m. The next morning, when I went back to the foyer de jeune (where the event was held), there was trash everywhere except in the trash cans we put out. Two of the trash cans were crushed from people trying to stand or sit on them and our posters that we put up had been stolen. My weeks’ preparations were a total waste. I was glad that I was going to Tambacounda that morning, because at that point, I really needed a little break from site. I know I can’t expect to serve two years here and not have any failures, but it still doesn’t make my experience any more pleasant when I do.

Food Give-a-Way

A couple times a year, the World Food Programme offers food to communities that are in need at scarce times. During the rainy season in Koumpentoum, some food is hard to come by because it is all waiting to be harvested in the fields. The World Food Programme offered individuals in Koumpentoum corn, beans, and peas. The women’s group that I work with attempted to make an entrepreneurial endeavor out of the program. The food given away from the World Food Programme is only for consumption – it cannot be sold for a profit. The women decided to save some money to buy some of food item to stock pile for when food is scarce and they can make a small profit off it next season. That way, they had food for consumption from the WFP and could generate an income with the purchased food which will later be resold when the supply is down and the demand is up. I didn’t have any of the hand in these transactions. I merely showed up to chat with the women and take some pictures of the distribution.

The buckets lined up to be filled.

Women gathered to separate and disperse the food.

Dispersing . . .
One woman with her share.

Taking the goods home.

Camille’s Baby Shower

In a little Bambara village about 50K southwest of Tambacounda, Peace Corps Volunteer Camille lives with her host family and her dog, Tiki. Camille is an Environmental Education Volunteer and has been in country for about a year and a half. Some of the work that Camille does in her village and surrounding villages is promoting good post and prenatal health practices. Over the past 8 months or so, Camille met with a number of women in her area to discuss topics such as breastfeeding, malaria prevention, diarrhea and rehydration, hand-washing, and baby nutrition. Camille worked with various women in her village to be able to train other women how to properly care for their youth. At the end of the program, Camille promised the participants a fete (party) that would involve a health fair to demonstrate what they know about healthy maternal practices to other men and women in the community. This is where I come in. Camille needed a number of volunteers to help facilitate the causerie stations and encourage the women who are leading the sessions. Seizing the opportunity to visit another volunteer’s site and assist in her project, I volunteered.

The morning of the health fair, I and five other PCVs started out on our bicycles for Coeur Bamba (Camille’s village). It still being in the midst of the rainy season, we ran into a temporary torrential downpour, we then overshot our “exit”, which is actually a small village on the side of the road that we were supposed to turn off at. About 5K down the road, we encountered another volunteer, who is more familiar with the area, and his counterpart on their bicycles heading to the same event. The only difference is they were going the right direction. After doing a little bit of backtracking, we found the road we were supposed to be on. About 2K further into the bush we came across a Peace Corps vehicle stuck in the mud. We got off our bikes to help push the car out of the mud, and then mounted our bikes for the last kilometer and half to Camille’s village.

Once we arrived, Camille showed us her hospitality by giving us water to bathe and then we were ready to help out for the day. I was assigned with another Wolof speaker to assist in the demonstration of how to make a oral rehydration solution that is necessary to replenish your body with salts and sugars when you have diarrhea (a major problem in the villages). We also discussed ways to prevent diarrhea. We worked with one of the woman in her community who already knew about the points of the causerie, but was just a little bit shy getting started. After a couple tries, she was able to present the causerie without our assistance.

Of course, no Senegalese event is complete without a lunch of ceebu gen (rice and fish), tom-toms, and dancing. By the end of the day, it was too late to bike back to Tambacounda, so we got a ride with Peace Corps and slept sound.

No Senegalese event is complete without dancing.

Me and Katy leading a session on Oral Rehydration Solution and hand washing.
Participants demonstrating how to properly wash their hands.

Lots of kids and women hanging out for the day.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Don’t let the rainy season get you down

It’s still rainy season in Senegal. Apparently, this rainy season has been especially tumultuous. It rains at least a little bit every day and it seems that we get a couple major storms a weeks. You can tell when a good storm is coming in because the temperature sudden drops from a sweltering heat, the winds get a little out of control, the big dark clouds encroach in from the southeast. The first time it stormed in Koumpentoum, I was a little freaked out because I have a metal rooftop and even the slightest bit of sound is amplified times a hundred. My first couple nights in my room I was a bit alarmed by the sounds of lizards scurrying across the roof or a gust of wind. By now, I’ve adapted well enough to sleep even through major storms.

About a month ago, Koumpentoum endured a storm that it had not seen in years. I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. by my next door neighbors (my new neighbor that rent out the rooms next to mine) because their room was beginning to taken over by flooding waters. I opened my door to see that the water had also reached my door though had not yet infiltrated my room. It was still raining heavily. The entire courtroom had flooded and water was about thigh-deep to wade through. An unoccupied hut that my family had use for storage completely toppled in the storm. By 6:00 a.m., the rains had abated and I went back to bed. When I went out that morning, I saw that many boutiques and buildings in Koumpentoum had fallen in the storm. Many of the roads and paths were flooded. Most of the water in my courtyard had receded and my brothers were picking through the ruins of the fallen hut. Koumpentoum even made the evening news with its epic storm.

My host brothers picking up the fallen hut.

The flooded street outside my compound.

I thought that the rains were finally beginning to subside this month. I was wrong. This past week, Koumpentoum was pounded with rain every day and two somewhat destructive storms. In the first storm, I was fast asleep at 3:00 a.m. when my neighbors’ wall toppled down. I woke up the next morning to find my neighbors moving out all their possessions, a mason throwing globs of cement on the side of the building, and my counterpart, Balla, at my door explaining that I need to spend the day collecting my things to move. Even though my room had not fallen in the night, the building had begun to collapse. My family cleared out one of the younger boys’ room and cleaned it out for me to move all my stuff to a safe location. I’m now completely moved out of my room (including the plastic covering for the floor) and living in the main family compound “temporarily”. The next night, another big storm came through and caused the 2nd portion of the building to fall. Yet again, my room still stands, but now two-thirds of the home is collapsing. I’ve been away at site for the last couple days to help out a project in another volunteer’s site. I’m heading back to site tomorrow. I’m really expecting my room to still be standing. I’ll find out tomorrow. My family thinks that I need to spend the next four months in my refugee room (that is connected to another room and does not have a private douche like my last room) to wait out the rain season and the chance to rebuild. Next week, a Peace Corps support staff person is coming by my site to hopefully work a more expedite solution. Inchallah.

The toppled room from the first storm.

The collapsing building after the second storm. My room is the last one standing on the end.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


It’s official. I survived my first Ramadan in Senegal. Thirty days of getting up at 5:00 a.m. to eat breakfast with the family, of listening to prayers in Arabic being projected over the loud speakers of the Mosque all day, of attempting to hold meetings only for people to show without any ambition to concentrate due to their excessive thirst and hunger, and of having people approach me and ask me if I was fasting. Honestly, I thought I would hate Ramadan, but I actually really enjoyed it after I got into my routine. Sure, I was up early for breakfast, but my family usually had delicious fondé (a buttermilk rice porridge). I would typically go back to bed until about 8:30 a.m. and have the entire day to attend to my tasks without the long break of lunch (which is usually about 2 hours in the middle of each day). At some point in the day, I would make myself something small for lunch and relax or get done what I needed to for the afternoon. It was great. I actually felt like I had much more control over my day. Also, my family usually eats dinner late, around 10:00 p.m. However, during Ramadan, we’d have “first dinner” right after everyone broke fast around 8 p.m. Each day, we’d break fast with the call of prayer from the mosque at dusk. My family always broke fast with some bread and chocolate and butter and café or kinkiliba tea, which are really tasty leaves from the bush. I’d put little powered milk in mine and it was delicious. Since my family wasn’t spending any money on lunch, our dinner was a much better such as pasta and meat dish or Moroccan cous cous.

The end of Ramadan is marked with a festive day called Korité. All the men go to the mosque to pray in the morning dressed in their finest. The families usually slaughter a sheep or a goat for the fete. You ask all your friends and family to forgive you for any wrong doings you may have inflicted upon them knowing or unknowing. You also ask that God blesses that family and the next year and that he allows us to celebrate this holiday next year. In the afternoon, the kids get dressed up and go around greeting their friends and neighbors. The little kids go door to door asking for “dewelin” which is money for a party (it’s kinda like our version of trick-or-treating, I guess).

I let my host brother, Djiby Sow, take my camera to the mosque. These four guys live at my house.

This is another shot at the mosque of my neighbors, Mamadou Camera with his son Omar.

I helped my sister, Marie Diaw, cook lunch for Korité, which took all morning, but was delicious. My counterpart, Balla, slaughtered a goat in the morning. We cut it up and cooked in a sauce and made pommes frites (french fries), with hardboiled egg, and a veggie and mayo side dressing. I just did what I was told to do: stir the sauce, peel potatoes and onions, cut veggies, hold the meat while my sister or mom makes a cut, etc. However, my family told me that they really liked “my Korité lunch” that “I cooked.”

My sister, Marie Diaw, putting the finishing touches on dinner.

Our Korité lunch.

After lunch it rained for a while so I didn’t go out to greet anyone until kind of late. My friend who I work with in the community garden had a dress made for me for the fete. Even though it was complete white in the middle of rainy season, I still wore it out. I visited a couple homes and then came back home and took a few pics with my host sisters. My host sisters decided not to go around greeting people because it was so muddy out, so they went around the next day. I managed to make it though the evening in my white complet without slipping in the mud, so I would call the day a success. Now, it’s time for me to get back into the swing of my “normal” Senegalese lifestyle.

Me and my host sister Dioudé

My Korité dress

Dioudé's Korité Dress. Classy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Saré Boili

Being that my site is a larger town of about 10,000, I rarely get the opportunity to live the “bush life”. Most of the PCVs from my stage are at much smaller sites than me. Most of them do not have electricity and running water. Anna is my closest neighbor from my stage. She is about 30K out into the bush from Koumpentoum in a little Pulaar village of about 300 people called Saré Boili. There is no electricity and no running water. She does not get to eat rice every day and rarely has vegetables in her bowl. Anna’s PC experience will be very different from mine, but I still like to the chance to romanticize the “bush experience” and of course visit my friend, so I paid her visit. I biked from Koumpentoum to Saré Boili and spent a day and half with her in her little village. It definitely has a different feel from Koumpentoum. The first thing I noticed was how much quieter it is in the bush. No motos. No TVs. Only nature to fill the space. There is a natural lake that forms during the rainy season just a few minute walk from Anna’s hut. The entire village of Saré Boili knew my name before I even arrived and the kids would sit outside of Anna’s hut and chant it while we sat inside. No one yells Toubab at you in the village because it’s small enough where everyone will know your name and face in a matter of minutes. It’s also very important that you greet everyone all the time. This probably gets old if you live there all the time, but a visitor can see it as part of the charm of village life.

Anna walking to her private lake.

Welcome to the bush in the rainy season.

The rainy season lake.

A rainbow after an afternoon shower.

So, Now What?

I’m not going to lie, heading back to site after being gone for a while is very intimidating. In fact, part of the reason I stuck around Tambacounda for a while before I heading back to site was because I didn’t feel ready. It didn’t take long for life to start to feel back to normal. Since we are in the heart of the rainy season and Ramadan just started (Aug. 12th – Sept. 11th), my routine is a bit different. I’ve got a couple projects already underway back at site.

The first is completely transforming my personal garden. It was a complete and utter disaster when I got back from being gone for three weeks. What plants that were growing when I left were consumed by some sort of pests, my family managed to kill my Nebadye (the name is spin off of Never Die – as the plant that can’t die—though now I think that name is deceiving), my tree pépinière was taken over by weeds as was everything else. So far I’ve managed to weed the entire garden, reseed my vegetable pépinière, tear up the useless sacks of the tree pépinière, create a new raised bed, transplant tomatos, make an organic pesticide, create a new compost, and transplant a banana and guava tree (I took them from the training center in Thiès and hauled them all the way across Senegal to be planted in my garden).

My garden was a sad site to see when I got back from IST.

The second project is a universal bednet distribution that is taking place in my region right now. As part of USAIDs’ President’s Malaria Initiative, a collaboration of NGOs, Government Agencies, Health Centers, and Peace Corps are working to distribute mosquito nets to every uncovered bed in Senegal region by region. This gets to be a little tricky when you get out into the more rural areas – counting beds, transporting nets, distributing nets, and educating the populations. I cannot say that I’ve really done much to contribute to this grandiose endeavor but attend a couple planning meeting and trainings and go out to the bush to talk to a couple Poste de Santé. It’s given me a chance to ride my bike out in the bush, which is fun for me. This week, we are starting the actual distribution all over my region, so I suppose I’ll go where I’m needed.

A trash management pilot program is the third major project I’ve been keeping myself busy with. This is a much larger, more long-term project than most Peace Corps projects, but I’m happy to make some headway during my service. For anyone that has traveled to a less developed country, you most likely notice that trash is a massive problem. Most cities and villages do not have any system of waste and natural resource management. As a result, trash is thrown everywhere – on the roads, paths, forests, rivers, lakes, etc. Koumpentoum is no different. Few have tried to address the trash problem in Koumpentoum for many years, but have always taken it from large-scale approach. What I would like to do is try to tackle the trash problem by one quartier at a time.

I’m modeling my project proposal off of a recent trash management project that was implemented in Joal (a city of about 40,000 on the coast of Senegal) by Peace Corps Volunteers in 2007. The Joal Project started in just two quartiers. It gave each household two trash receptacles – one for biodegradable products and one for non-biodegradable products. The biodegradable products were picked up once a day and brought to a center for composting. The non-biodegradable products were picked up once a week and taken to a landfill. The Joal Project found that about 85% of waste in Joal / Senegal was biodegradable. As a result, the biodegradable products were decomposed and sold as organic fertilizer, which was proven to be a better quality than chemical fertilizer and cheaper.

I’ve been working with one of the JICA volunteers in Koumpentoum, Mikki, as well as the Mayor’s office to attempt replicate the project in Koumpentoum. I want to make sure that the demand and that work for the project comes from the community, so I held a meeting with all the chefs des quartiers (chiefs of the neighborhoods) and the appropriate authority figures / those concerned with the matter at the mayor’s office to show the documentary of the Joal Project and facilitate a discussion about tackling the trash problem in Koumpentoum. Everyone was on board to start with one quartier, but the challenge becomes choosing the quartier for the pilot program. I suggested that every quartier do a survey in their quartier about general environmental education issues, organize set-setals (trash pick-ups), and express why their quartier would be good for the program. It seemed to be well-received, though some chefs expressed concern about doing the survey, so we are going to work with the ASC, an active group of youth who would be interested in helping out, to conduct the surveys all around Koumpentoum. I put together a fairly comprehensive Environmental Education Survey and with the help of my APCD, the JICA volunteer (Mikki), and my counterpart in the mayor’s office, Balla, got it translated into French and Wolof.

Mikki is heading to Dakar for some work related purposed and will be able to print off the surverys. The next steps are to hold a training session for the youth that are interested in helping out with the survey and then have another meeting with everyone to kick-off the survey before we select a quartier. At this point, the project seems very daunting. I’m trying to think of it with a step-by-step basis. It requires a lot of leg-work and education, but can hopefully turn out to be a very effective project in the end.

The final thing that has been going on in Koumpentoum since I’ve been back is Ramadan. Even though this isn’t a project of any sort, it still very much involves me and my work. Ramadan is the month in which all Muslims (that are able to) fast during the day and focus on Allah. Being it that Senegal is 95% Muslim; this means that practically everyone (including my family)are up at 5 a.m. for breakfast and are not eating or drinking (not even water) until dusk (around 7:45 p.m.). This also means that people are much more tired, cranky, and even more unproductive than they were before Ramadan. Many of them are going through caffeine withdrawal as well from not drinking attaaya (Senegalese tea) all day, which usually serves as their pastime. This just means I need to plan my days’ activities accordingly. So far, I’ve fasted for two days of Ramadan (primarily to see what it is like and for people to shut up about asking me about it). It’s definitely not something that I’d like to make a habit of. I especially will not fast if I am doing any sizable amount of physical activity like working in my garden or riding my bike into the bush. Even though it’s not the “hot season”, it’s still really hot. And yet, some here still do both and end up dehydrated and sick. I do have to admit though; there is something magnificent when you have that first cup of water and a little bread when you break fast for the day. Also, my family eats even better than were before for Ramadan.


Two months into our service, PCVs in Senegal are required to attend IST – In-Service Training to gain the technical skills necessary to implement projects back a site. Well, that’s not always the outcome, but none-the-less, I’m glad for the chance to attend my IST. It was great to get back together with my stage (training group) after not seeing them for months. I forget how much miss some of fellow stagaires and how much I actually miss some their insanity. We had some good times going out and Thiès and catching up on life / site.

A reunion of friends. Who doesn’t love someone in a banana costume (Jessica)?

Hanging out with my LCF (my language teacher) from PST, Regina.

My IST was the last two weeks in July back in Thiès (where we had our Pre-Service Training). I made the trip a couple days early for the opportunity to experience a small dose of Dakar for the first time. During our IST, some sessions were more helpful than others. One useful session was building a latrine – though there were too many of us for the one project so most of us just watched / played around. (I have some pretty innovative photos from that day.) We also covered some resourceful sessions about gardening and forestry – permaculture, integrated pest management, outplanting, and tree grafting. I really enjoyed any opportunity to get my hands dirty. There were a few other sessions on grant possibilities, trash management, and NGO involvement. After IST, I spent a couple days back in Tambacounda bouncing ideas around for potential projects that I could implement in Koumpentoum and recuperating from all the traveling.

Building latrines. Aka there was only one shovel for 40+ people so I just stood next to Spence who was actually doing work.

Coming in from a hard days work in the orchard.

Outplanting! Yeah! We love trees!

I took a guava tree (my child) home with me to plant in my garden.

Settling in Koumpentoum

In my personal observation, the first couple months at site are a rollercoaster ride. You find out that you can’t speak the language very well. You don’t know anyone. You don’t know your new “family” and “home” that you’ll be living at for the next two years. You have no idea of the type of work/projects that you can do. Each day, you wake up with very little idea of how the day is going to unfold. You find yourself on a rollercoaster ride of emotions going from the highest highs to the lowest lows in a matter of minutes. Things you thought that wouldn’t bother you so much really do. And things that were probably not as funny before, you find to be hilarious now.

I have now been at site for three months (granted one of those weeks we spent going to the 4th of July party and another 3 weeks I was in Thiès for In-Service Training) and I can honestly say that the rollercoaster ride is starting to taper off… slightly. So, what I have been doing with myself for a last couple months? I’m still trying to figure that out as well. The routine I established in Koumpentoum at the beginning was a way to get-to-know the community. It typically consisted of me wondering around the town and finding people to greet / introduce myself to so when I actually do start projects, they will know my face and role in the community. I would swing by the Eaux et Foret, the Mayor’s office, and the Educational Inspectors office just to visit. Some mornings I would hang out at my counterpart’s house and just try to learn some Wolof. I also did a fair amount of gardening to get away and feel somewhat productive.

A shot of my garden before I left for IST

In my first week at site, I met Moumini Diallo, the President of a local GIE called Les Amis de Tous which manages a decent-sized women’s community garden in the quartier of Grande Ville. Moumini had worked with my ancienne a little bit and has a pretty good grasp about the role of Peace Corps Volunteers. I worked with him and the women in the community garden almost every afternoon doing composting, double-digging, tree pépinières, and vegetable pépinières. By the time for IST came around, I had pretty much exhausted everything that I knew about gardening, but still little has seemed to take off. The garden lacks proper fencing, which makes it utterly impossible to do any effective gardening because animals here are always running amuck. The women get discouraged by the lack of fencing and are not consistent in their attendance. Some women are reluctant to take advice from a young foreign girl who has very little gardening experience (I don’t blame them). The first compost pile I did with the women, everyone showed up to help out. The second compost pile, hardly anyone showed up. And we haven’t been able to mobilize people to do start up again. I feel like garden is difficult subject to teach because nothing you do has immediate consequences. Everything is very long term and it’s a gamble to change your ways for one season when it could cost your food.

The Community Garden of Les Amis des Tous. Parts of the fence fell down the first storm of the rainy season. You can see our tree pépinière and compost in this photo.

Moumini watering one of our vegetable pépinières.

Some things that were challenging my first couple months at site are:

· People, adults, children yelling “Toubaab” (white person) constantly – while I’m working in my garden, outside of my room, walking down the street…

· People pointing out that I cannot speak Wolof

· People stating that I need to learn a different native language – Pulaar, Bambara, Fula Kunda, etc.

· The heat! Constantly sweating!

· The flies and mosquitoes

· Skin infections – the second you get a bug bite or a cut, it flares up in a pussy infection during the rainy season

· How long it would take to start meetings (hours of waiting)

· People asking for money

· Everyone being tired/cranky/hungry/unproductive during Ramadan because no one is eating or drinking!

· Children yelling “Toubaab! Donnez-moi cadeaux” (“White person! Give me a gift!)

· Public Transportation – drivers lying to me about when a car is going to leave and where it going

· Nothing grew in my garden

Some things that I loved about my first couple months at site are:

· My host family

· Having extended conversations in Wolof

· Having someone tell me that I can speak Wolof very well for having been here just a short time

· Morning bean sandwiches and café touba

· Hitchhiking – usually much more pleasant than public transportation and free

· Riding my bike into the bush

· Visiting nearby villages

· The food – my family cooks really well

· Watching the World Cup with my family – even though I don’t give a lick about soccer

· Getting to know the Tamba Nation Volunteers – we are such a great family

· Homemade yogurt and Thiakery (yogurt and cous cous)

· Sweet potato fries with mustard – I hated mustard in the States, but love it here

· Getting to know the JICA Volunteers (Japanese Volunteers – there are 5 in Koumpentoum)

· Breaking fast during Ramadan – I’ve only fasted two days, but I still break fast with my family every night

· Things are starting to grow in my garden

· Rain storms

· Receiving packages and letters from home!

My Room. Home Sweet Home.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Trail Blazers

Alright, so I know it’s been a while since I’ve last written. What can I say? Life has been busy. I’ll try my best to recap some of the highlights.

Each year, the fourth of July in Senegal passes just as any other normal day for any Senegalese throughout the country. Well, just about everywhere in the country. For the past couple years, Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal infiltrate the town of Kedougou (about 15,000 inhabitants) for a good ole fashion 4th of July Party. Perhaps it takes being away from home for so long to bring about an extreme sense of patriotism or maybe it was five long weeks at my new site, but this epic party was something I was not willing to pass up. The party is hosted by the PCVs in the Kedougou Region (the southeastern most region of the country bordering Guinea). 5,000 fCFA ($10) got you in the door, which is actually more like a gate to an outdoor hippie commune known as the Kedougou PC regional house, and all you can eat and drink. Some of the highlights of the event include:

· Three warthogs were slaughtered

· American style appetizers

· GSaap drinks – gin mixed with bisaap juice

· Fireworks (you work with what you can get)

· Dance Party into the night

· Beer Pong tournament

· Waterguns and waterballoons

· Ridiculous American Paraphernalia that you can only find in random Senegalese garages, fukki jaays (Senegalese thrift markets) and Lumos (weekly village markets). Some of these items include “Obama, President of Space” hats, flashy American flag t-shirts, and Budweiser bathing suits.

· Speaking English

· Reuniting with some of the PCVs from my stage

· Debauchery

A shot of the entrance of the Kedougou Regional House.

I love Mika lurking in the background of this shot.

It would seem like the American Independence Party itself would be more than enough excitement for me after becoming a fresh new Peace Corps Volunteer, but a few other PCVs and I had another idea to make this experience even more grandiose. Preceding our American holiday festivities, we embarked on a three day bike trip from my regional capital of Tambacounda to our party destination of Kedougou (about 250K or 150 miles). We talked to other volunteers who had made the trip the year before and decided that with a little bit a planning and a tune-up on our bikes, that the expedition was quite feasible. The roaster for the trip included Kourtney (PCV from Kaffrine), Anna (my closest PCV neighbor from my stage), Aude (a Tostan NGO volunteer who we know from Tambacounda), Austin (PCV from Tambacounda), and yours truly.

A shot of the group right outside the Niokolo Park Entrance.

Packed up for the trip.

The first day of the trip we biked from Tambacounda to Wassadou (about 70K south), where we met up with Amanda whose site was about 5K outside of the roadtown. Wassadou has a fabulous campement (hotel) right on Gambia River. We met up with Amanda and Kim (another PCV who was visiting Amanda) in Wassadou in the mid-afternoon and spent the rest of the day lounging around next the river, catching a few glimpses of hippos and monkeys in the distance, and drinking Gazelle beer with lime (it’s the only way to make Senegalese beer tolerable in my opinion). Being on a low-budget, we did not stay at the campement for the night but rather crashed in the back of Amanda’s hut in her village. No major set-backs for the day expect a flat tire on the way back to Amanda’s village. Kim and Amanda decided to bike the rest of the trip with us.

Aude relaxing at the campement after day 1 of the bike trip.

The Gambia River. I don't think there are any hippos in this shot.

Mmm. Beer.

Not a care in the world.

Day two was our longest day. We biked through Senegal’s only national park of Niokolo. It’s prohibited to spend the night in the park, so your only opinion is to bike it all in one day (about 120K). We stalked up on food and water for the day and made plans to stop at “campement” mid-way through the park to rest up, avoid the heat of the day, and refill on our water. The morning started off smoothly but the farther and farther we pushed on, we realized that none of us had any idea as to where this “campement” was. At one point, we were stopped and hassled by a group of park guards for not having a pass (you don’t need one if you staying the night in the park). Another time, we greeted a guard station but continued to ride on towards what we thought was our campement destination. It turned out that the guard station was the destination and respite point we were looking for and we completely passed it up in the heat of the day. The terrain was getting more and more demanding as we forwarded the mountains.

When it rains, it pours – literally and figuratively. Shortly after we passed up our chance to rest and refresh ourselves, a few of us began to experience heat exhaustion that involved throwing up, delusion, and almost the point of passing out. We regrouped and cooled ourselves just off the national road under a couple shady trees. After about forty-five minutes of rest, rehydration, and Power Bars, our presence started to attract a couple spectators. Monkeys of all sizes and a few large baboons started to inch their way closer to us to see who was impeding on their turf. The monkeys gawked in our direction (a monkey gawk sounds strangely like a small dogs bark) and the baboons started to circle around us. I really have no idea what they intended to do, but whatever it was, it was enough to make Kourtney and Aude packed up our stuff right away and seek another shady spot. This left Austin and I behind as both of us were a little curious as to what was going to happen next (the other girls had regrouped over another hill). We slowly started to pack up the rest of the stuff and back away when we heard a warthog approaching in the distance, which turned our slow pace into a quick sprint out of there!

As we started to set-up our new camp, we noticed a large black mass of clouds rapidly approaching from the southeast. We scrambled to cover our bags with the tarp that we had packed, but within 3 minutes we were drenched in torrential downpour with massive gusting winds. We huddled together under a tree to try and block ourselves from the wind and piercing rains. We went from being practically overheated to the brink of hypothermia (I’m exaggerating a bit, but it was pretty extreme). Since we were almost out of water, we attempted to catch the rain water off the leaves of the trees into our water bottles (we are so Bear Grilles). It rained for over an hour. We were soaked, cold, and out of water. We still had about 50K to go until we could rest in Mako for the night. We devised a plan to hail down the next car we see and start to put those who were to most tired in it to go on to Mako. What we got was a sept-place filled with a group of PCVs on their way to Kedougou for the 4th of July party. The car filled with PCVs that hardly any of us knew gave us bunch of water to continue on our journey. We were saved! We decided for forge on to Mako. It sprinkled the rest of the afternoon, which kept the temperature cool. The terrain became more extreme but with the group morale was surprisingly high (though exhausted) and we now had water.

We finally made into Mako around dusk. There was one campement in Mako that was open at the time. It was situated on the Gambia River and about 1K off the main road on a completely flooded muddy mess of a path. Most of us got our bikes stuck in the mud. By the time we made it to the actual campement, we were stoked from the rain and caked in mud. What a site to see! We negotiated a price for us to stay the night and have dinner. We were able to clean ourselves up and have a somewhat restful nights’ sleep.

The group getting into Mako after about 150K of biking.

Sign for the turnoff to the Campement. (The next morning. Notice the clear skies.)

Champions! Kim is wearing Austin’s t-shirt because all of her stuff got drenched in the downpour.

The next morning, we took in the beautiful view of the Gambia River and spent the morning preparing for our final leg of the trip. The facet water was out for the most of the morning and we needed it to wash off our bikes. There was no suitable drinking water available to fill all of our water bottles so we pulled water from the well and treated each water bottle. We paid our bill. By the time we finally got back to main road to find some breakfast, it was already 11:00 a.m. That heat of the day was already approaching and we kept seeing sept-places pass us filled with our friends coming from other regions on their way to Kedougou. It might have taken us all day with the hilly terrain and the heat of the day to bike the rest of way. A cold beer and a swimming pool were calling to us from Kedougou. We made the executive decision to rent out a sept-place to take us the last 30K of the trip. A somewhat of a defeat, but I don’t think so considering all that we had endured. When arrived in Kedougou, we relaxed with a beer in hand by the pool. The next day was the Fourth of July party. The day after, a few of us lazily floated down the Gambia River. It was a Fourth of July that I will never forget.

Austin walking his bike into Mako from the campement the next morning.

Aude – probably asking herself why she signed up for this.