Saturday, March 31, 2012

Senegal from my Parents' Perspectives

My mom and dad came to visit me!!! Rather than boring you all with my descriptions of ferrying them around for 10 days, here's a change- Senegal from their points of view! First my dad:

This was a trip that opened my eyes to how more than half the world lives in third world. It was both fascinating and surreal. Everything works differently in Senegal. It is dirty, people throw their trash everywhere and occasionally burn things on the side of the road. The roads are mostly paved in Dakar and very dangerous since the taxi drivers leave no room between themselves and the cars in front of them. Outside of Dakar, the only streets that are paved are a few city to city connector roads, which are the width of a side street in America and the main streets in other cities. Major roads often change from potholed paved to laterite clay between cities. Trips to villages are either on the clay laterite roads or even worse, sand. We took public transportation during our trip in either a 40 passenger mini bus with baggage and people hanging from the roof and fare collectors hanging from the rear. The other major public transit is a Sept-place, which is an eight person Peugeot station wagon that they often cram extra people into. Catching rides on Sept-places is an experience that is right out of a movie. You go to an open air garage with hundreds of people peddling merchandise and make arrangements with route drivers for transit and haggle for a good price for your bags and transit. The best transit was riding bicycles from Toubacouta to Emily's village, a two hour bike ride on laterite and sand roads. We passed by 7-8 villages along the way with little kids running alongside yelling “Toubab” (Foreigner or White Person) and asking for candy or money in Wolof. It is a stark dry and sandy landscape with domesticated goats, sheep, cows, chickens roaming about. Over the course of our stay in village we saw how difficult life is with lack of water in this very arid climate. A dead horse lying on the side of the road was being nibbled on by vultures, a donkey with a broken leg bent at a sideways angle was pulling a cart with five people aboard, and dried up water holes were collecting trash, trash, trash everywhere. All the rain comes during the June - September rainy season, and the rest of the time the water has to be managed frugally. Just getting water up the well and carrying it back to the hut for use for bucket baths, drinking and cooking makes you use less since it is such a big effort. I estimate that Emily uses 5-10 gallons a day. In America we calculate 275 gallons a day per person when estimating needs for new houses.
Life in Keur Andella. We were honored guests that were introduced to about half of the Wolof-speaking people of the village of 600. The village chief was wonderful, the Imam was gracious, and Emily's host family went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and shared meals with us. Americans would be appalled by the food, cleanliness and customs of life in the village. Meals are served on a big platter with a rice base, onion sauce and a small boney helping of fish or chicken in the middle. The host picks at the fish/chicken pulls off a small piece and tosses it into your section of the bowl. Locals eat with their hands (we could use spoons) and mash the rice together into a clump before putting it into their mouths spitting out bones.
The people are so friendly and appreciative of Emily and in extension us. Emily has been doing a world of good for the people of the village who are educated through third or fourth grade if they are lucky. A few go on to Middle and High School. Among the projects she is working on is a latrine project, adding 24 squat toilets scattered around the village. Many people go in the open and during the rainy season the feces can pollute the wells. We met the builder of the latrines and saw the caste cement caps being placed. Another project she is working on is the Women's Garden. The nutrition in villages revolves around mostly rice and minimal protein. There are efforts to educate women about better nutrition, and Emily is assisting in this effort by acquiring barbed wire fencing to protect the plants and assist the women to plant vegetables. We also saw school gardens, which educate children in nutrition and planting vegetables.
There is so much more that Emily is doing with planting live fencing, interacting with teachers and presenting America in a good light. It is the best goodwill for America to have Peace Corp doing work in third world countries. The people in village are genuinely warm, thankful and peace-loving. I have to laugh at how much celebrity Emily (Fatou) has in her village and several nearby villages. People all yell “Fatou, Fatou!” in greeting. They know what she is doing for them and it makes me very proud.
We met many of her fellow Peace Corp volunteers and I am very impressed at their motivation and knowledge in a very difficult environment. Mary and I had some good laughs with them during a regional get together, where we helped paint a new sub-regional office. These volunteers deserve our thanks and help when needed. Other diversions - The three of us went to Keur Bamboung where we spent two days in bliss on an ecotourism retreat on an island in the delta region. We also went to Toubab Diallaw and enjoyed a beachside hotel with a luxury tower room that I'll post pictures of. The touristy visits were fun and made it easier for our American bodies to get through 10 days in Senegal. After seeing and experiencing village life, I have much more respect for the Peace Corp Volunteers and especially Fatou.

And now it's mom's turn:

Well, here we are back from Senegal. This will be a trip I'll never forget. The 2 days spent in village was the high point for me. The people clearly love Emily and really value her efforts to improve the circumstances in village. It was heart-warming to witness, and really made Joel and me much more comfortable with her life there.
The most important skill you need there is the ability to speak Wolof. When you master that, you're in the club. You can then negotiate every purchase, whether it be food or transportation, because unlike the US, everything is a negotiation. It was amusing to not only Joel and me, but to Senagalese bystanders to watch this slight, white girl fiercely negotiate a fair price for a cab. The other cab drivers observing this always smiled or laughed. You have to steel yourself to do this, though, and it can clearly become exhausting to the one doing it- unlike us bystanders. The "cabs" and sept-places are a real trip. When I first got into one, I only did so because Emily seemed perfectly comfortable with it. You go to a "garage" which is just an open location in the town or city where 25-50 beat up cars and passenger vans are waiting to fill up, so that they can get their full fair before leaving for a destination. While waiting for the 7 passenger beat up Peugeot station wagon, or "Sept-place" to fill up, numerous adults and kids are knocking at the window or patting the back of your shirt through the back window to get your attention, trying to sell water, cashews, cellphone refill cards, clothes, you name it. The 3 of us always sat in the 3rd row because it was much more spacious than the 2nd, where often 4 people can squeeze in together. You always want a window open when the engine is on, so as not to become asphyxiated by the fumes. The price for transportation is a bargain, however. It never costs more than a few dollars to go approx 20 miles. But, hands down, transportation is the most dangerous thing in this country, since there are virtually no traffic lights, speed limits, seat belts, door handles that work, unbroken windshields, I could go on and on.
The best way to travel if you can physically do it is by bike. Em secured 2 extra bikes for us to use biking down to her village- approx 15 miles from Toubacouta, a town we stopped in for a day . Thanks for the bikes, Rob and Garrison! We met a bunch of the PC sub-region volunteers and did a little painting in the new office. It was fun hanging out for the afternoon with all the "young folk" and having a big platter of “yassa jen” for lunch, then a beer later at the "patron" hotel overlooking the delta. The next day we biked to her site- Ker Andallah- over laterite and dirt roads. Looking at the scenery took your mind off the heat. It is really beautiful biking through the open countryside. The land is much like Arizona without the cactus. When you get away from the towns, you leave the garbage on the side of the road behind. Since there is no garbage pick-up, there is garbage everywhere, and often you smell burning garbage.
I was struck by the physical beauty of the people. Almost everyone is thin and strong, with good posture from pulling water and carrying it on their heads. The women dress nicely with bright fabric and matching head wraps. In Senegal you don't need to go to the gym to stay in shape- especially in a farming community.
The food was good- but not everything. Like cooks, everywhere, some can do a great job and some not so good. We had a similar dish in a much poorer house that was much better that at the richer house, only due to the skill of the cook- always a woman, by the way. We liked the yassa and ceeb so much, we brought back some “magi” spice to replicate the dishes at home. We actually helped Em out by buying this because she needed some change for an internet cafe next door and even though she had bought a few items, the boutique (mini-mart) owner wouldn't accept her purchase unless it was a decent amount, since small bills are so rare. There is no such thing as using a credit or debit card in this country, and if you don't have small bills, like 1- 5 dollars, you are screwed, since almost no one has change.
All in all this was a trip of a life time. I thank you Emily for giving us the eye opening experience to visit your host country and changing our world view. We here in the US are blessed in many ways and need to remember that. I didn't know if the Peace Corps was making a difference before this trip, but I now believe it is making some headway into helping this poor country. It has many years ahead of it, yet, to become self-sustaining. We were there over the run-off election and thank goodness it was a peaceful one. The few beautiful tourist sites we visited were empty due to the fear of rioting during the election. We did enjoy the peace and quiet- especially in Keur Bamboung, a lovely eco-tourist campemont on the Delta. Thanks again, Fatou, and see you in the US!

Thanks to them for making the trip out here and the contribution to the blog. Love you both!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wait... It's March already?

Trying to think back on the last week and what I’ve been working on in order to update my lovely readers, and I’m finding that my brain is going into overdrive. Whew. I need another vacation.

This past weekend, my lovely friend Aviva came to visit me for a few days and help me work on the school mural that I am painting at the primary school here in Keur Andallah. It’s ALMOST done, but apparently the ocean is larger than I originally anticipated. Who knew? The funny part is, I bought some paint brushes, but most of the map has been painted with dry grass and sticks because there are too many fine borders that the paintbrushes cannot handle. Thus, we have determined that that is how PCVs paint in Africa- with sticks. Sigh.

In the meanwhile, I’m also trying to get my pepinieres going for the year so that everything can be outplanted early enough this year that it actually survives the hot season. While all this is happening, the latrine project is progressing bit by bit, the school gardens and rolling along, the women’s garden people continue to annoy me about getting barbed wire, and my own garden refuses to outplant itself. I even asked it nicely. So yes, it’s hard to keep track of things, but Mangiiy goorgoorlu, I’m doing the best I can.

I also tried to upload pictures to my picassa account- the one on the right of the screen, and for some reason my pictures refuse to upload into the program, so until I figure that out I’m posting pictures on facebook for those of you who know me personally. Best I can do until I figure out the problem.

I’m very excited for my parents to get here next week and show them around my life here. I will make sure they post an entry so you will all know what it is like for a non-PCV American to show up in Senegal and start touring around. At this point, all I can remember is this vague shock and exhaustion from the journey and the prospect of spending the next two years of my life here, so I’m really no help on that matter anymore.

Stay tuned,


Monday, March 5, 2012

Running for the Girls

Guess what guess what guess what??? My appropriate projects grant is fully funded! Thank you to everyone who contributed, you are all wonderful and are making a huge difference. As I am sitting here in the regional house catching up on some emails and whatever else is on my to-do list, my lovely work partner Assane is heading up the project back in the village, hopefully breaking ground on the first 12 latrines. It turns out that I overbudgeted a little bit, and I will be able to install a few more than originally anticipated in the compounds that complete their latrines in the timeliest manner.

I am also out of site because I am returning from the Tambacounda “marathon” during which I ran a 10k to encourage girl’s education throughout the country. Thanks to those of you who contributed to that as well! The event went relatively smoothly, considering we were running long distances in the hottest region of the country at the beginning of the hot season. One of Senegal’s best marathoners traveled out to participate and run the half marathon, the longest event of the day, and finished WAY ahead of everyone else in a blistering 1:14 without breaking a sweat. This is one of the guys that gets of out Africa every once in a while to go see the sights and, you know, run the New York Marathon every so often. As you can imagine, it was great to have his support.

I did pretty well for myself, considering I’ve been training by myself in the village early in the mornings on the sand bush paths, so I was happy with my 4-minute-and-change 10k. I actually passed and beat a couple of the Senegalese Army men participating, who were joking to each other that they were beaten by a girl (Senegalese women rarely compete in sports competitively, especially in distance running, so there wasn’t much in the way of local competition). A few of them approached me after the race and started joking that I must have cheated because I have two hearts, and he was going to take me to the hospital to get it checked out. At any rate, it was a great day of hanging out with people and cross country nostalgia.

So now it’s back to village, getting some photo documentation of those latrines for your benefit and beginning the daunting task of making my farmers fill something like 3000 tree sacks over the next few weeks. I also have yet to finish painting my world map mural, and I should have some lovely volunteers come to visit me and paint all day! Finally, my parents are coming to visit me in a few weeks! I’m sure they will love giving input into what it is like to come to my village directly from America, because at this point it seems strangely normal to me to pull water from a well and take showers from buckets, and I’m probably not as interesting as I used to be. So stay tuned, there will be fun updates ahead!


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Elections and such

In light of the fact that it is Sunday and I vaguely remember deciding to try to write blog entries on Sundays for the rest of my service, I figured I’d let you all know how the Senegalese presidential election is going. Not in political sense- I’m not legally even allowed to have an opinion on that given my status as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but you can read all you want about that on the associated press. Google it.

Let me paint the scene- I’m sitting in Arame’s room at site, where some of the men have turned on a generator so they can watch TV during the election. I figured that if they were to bother buying the gas to turn on the generator, they’d at least watch the progress of the election on the news. Instead, they’re watching bad-quality “theater,” which is basically a series loosely written skits performed in Wolof. Most of them consist of women talking to each other and wearing skimpy Western clothes. But if you were wondering what a group of men who just voted decide to do the day of a controversial national election- that’s it. Watch women yelling at men on bad Wolof soap operas.

If any of you have been concerned for my safety while you’re all hearing about the riots in Dakar, don’t be. We get more text messages asking for status updates from our security director than I can count, and as work zone coordinator, I also have to be in touch with the rest of the volunteers in my subregion and know where they’re at too. My phone battery seems to be dying faster than usual these days. Thank goodness for solar chargers. There have been a few protests in Kaolack and other major cities over the last week or so, and we are all restricted from traveling there and to all major regional capitols. Hopefully that will be lifted soon, as most of us are running low on cash and the only ATMs we can go to are in Kaolack. I realize I talk about living without electricity and running water all the time on this blog, but ironically enough we are still dependent on modern conveniences such as ATMs to retrieve our money for every-day expenditures.

Today, while everyone is nervous about the election outcome, I’m just bored. I can’t do any significant work all day because everyone is going to vote and, apparently, watching skimpily-dressed women yell at their boyfriends on TV. I can go to the garden, water my plants, read my book, play a little guitar, but eventually I got bored enough that I’m bringing out the computer and writing this blog entry with a bunch of people surrounding me. Most of them are used to the computer at this point anyway- I’ve had enough conversations with people that are along the lines of “calling America is really expensive, that’s why I have a computer” that people get it. It’s also amazing how computer are starting to make their way into villages via community politicians, NGOs and teachers that it doesn’t really change anyone’s perspective of me. This is one of those things you learn after being here for over a year. The women in skimpy shirts are more interesting than the electronics that portray them.

On that note, I will leave you. A quick reminder, if you are so inclined, you can donate to any of the lovely projects that I am working on and describe in my previous blog entry. The Senegalese people and I sincerely appreciate any help you can give.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Give me Money!

Ok, This just went out as an email to my friends and family, but anybody else who reads this blog should help out! Sorry if this is the second time you are seeing this for those who got the email and also read the blog.

Hello all!

It's that time- the time when I ask you all to give me all your money. I've finally figured out financing for the projects I'm working on for the rest of my service, and your help on all of them (there's only 3) would be greatly appreciated. I'll give you an overview of the point of each project and its importance-

Tamba Marathon for Girls- March 4th, I am running a race to raise money for projects concerning gender awareness and development throughout the country. Despite the name, I'm actually not running the full marathon- they decided to cut that, and now the options are the 5k, 10k or half marathon. Despite my general love of running, the Senegalese environment, training conditions and diet really aren't conducive to long distance running, so I'm going to do the 10k with a bunch of my friends. This is not the highest priority, but if you feel very generous and want to throw in a couple of dollars towards me pounding the pavement (sand?) and helping women's advancement, here's the link:

More importantly, we are trying to raise money for the Girl's Camp that will be happening in June, and I will be much more directly involved in planning and carrying out this project. This is a week in which we invite a couple of girls of a middle-school age to a camp outside of Sokone and teach them skills for the future, have talks about careers and the environment, and we have a bunch of games and sports for the girls to play that they would never normally have the opportunity to play in the village. I'm going to be leading a bunch of sports (naturally) and we'll have cross cultural games and snacks (s'mores included). Anyway, here's the link if you're interested:

Finally, I just got funding through the wonderful organization appropriate projects to construct 12 new cement-lined latrines in my village. This is actually a huge deal, because most people in the village don't even have a sanitary place to do their business in the morning, and I often see kids hanging out with their pants down in village trash piles during my morning runs. When the rainy season comes around, there are lots of problems with bacterial diseases as you may imagine, so this project will be accompanied by a health sensitization meeting informing the villagers of the importance of building and USING these new latrines. This project will be partially funded by the organization that works with appropriate projects, but they ask for donations if you are able to do so, as this ensures that the organization can continue to fund other projects around the world in a timely manner. Anyway, here's the link- You can even see some of my lovely village pictures on the site!

Ok thanks for bearing with me. I'll post more about this on my blog over time so you can track how the projects go and see pictures, not to mention hear about my other lovely projects that I am continuing to work on as my service winds down. I'll be home this fall, can you believe it? Here's my blog if you lost the link: Honestly, if you don't have the money or just don't feel like donating, I will not be offended. I know that many of you asked if any of my projects required monetary contributions, so here's the information you were asking for. If you want to help but can only contribute to one project, the girl's camp would really benefit most from your help because donations are the only source of funding available. Also, please forward this email to anybody and everybody that might be interested in helping out, because I don't have everybody's email addresses. (That means please forward this to my extended family, etc.) This will be the only time I ask you guys to help out with my Peace Corps service, and I thank you all in advance for any help at all. Even just a couple of dollars here and there add up.

Thanks one more time, and greet America for me!

Jamm Rekk (Peace Only)

aka Fatou Sy

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Go Patriots!

I am mildly tired of writing about my projects, so I will instead give you a little anecdote for today. A few days ago, I was biking back from Toubacouta where I had been using the internet in one of the hotels there to write one of my grants. I biked through one random village, and a group of kids started yelling “Toubab!”and running after my bike. This is an entirely normal occurrence, but one kid specifically actually reached my bike and started grabbing the back of it and running with it, which really annoyed me. This again wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary, but on this particular day it just irked me, and I turned around and screamed that he was a “bleepity bleep” that I will not repeat here because unlike that little kid, you will all understand what I am saying. The weird part was, the kid looked at me and shouted what I had just called him right back at me, not knowing what he was saying. Hearing that little kid say it was a little jarring and sort of brought me back, but I still needed to get him off my bike, so I sped up as much as I could and eventually he let go, but it still just reminded me how difficult of a situation you can be put in when you’re a complete outsider. Things like that never occur in my village because everyone there is used to me and knows my name, but the problem with being here is that you don’t just sit in your village forever; you have to travel on occasion and go to places where people don’t know your name. Everyone has a way of dealing with it, but some days you just lose it.

In other news, in case you are as disconnected from the world as I sometimes find myself, today is the superbowl. I will not be watching it in real-time, but being a Patriots fan I cannot reasonably let it go without doing anything, so a group of us are getting together at a hotel and watching a recorded version of it tomorrow night. If I were to watch it when its happening, that would mean kickoff would be about 3 am, and for someone who’s been passed out at 9 pm every night, that’s a little past my bedtime. Therefore, I will not be in contact with anybody back home tomorrow until I actually watch the game. The funny part is that it’s really not that hard to disconnect from the world and not spoil it when you’re in a village in Africa. I can guarantee you that nobody in my village will come up to me at any point and say “can you believe he made that field goal?” It just won’t happen.

So on that note, I am signing off until after I am back up to date with you all and we can chat about it.

Go Patriots!


Sunday, January 29, 2012


In an effort to keep relatively up to date with my blog, here is the next entry in my somewhat weekly escapade to document my life. Granted, lots has been happening that may very well define my work for the next few months of my existence here.

Recently, I was approached by Aissatu, one of the four leaders of the women’s group. (Ironically, 3 of the 4 women are named Aissatu. This was the one I am closest with, Aissatu Diop.) She requested that I help the group by finding financing and enclosing the garden with barbed wire. This is not the easiest of tasks, as the area to be fenced in is a 2-hectare plot of land (for those of us stuck in the western world, that’s about 5 acres, or 4.94 according to the handy-dandy converter on my phone. I guess little old-school Nokias are good for something. But I digress.) The project would require at least 100 thousand CFA of financing, which converts to roughly 200 dollars, not an easy sum to come by in the village. The project is very much possible, and similar projects are carried out all the time, but I had to air two main concerns, namely 1: they still need to come up with a 25% community contribution, which might be a challenge due to the fact that they can barely come up with their contributions towards seeds for this year and 2: I am sick of going out to work in the women’s garden and having most of these women peace out early to go cook lunch/lay down/take care of someone’s kid/whatever their excuse may be. Why should I work my butt off for a group of people who don’t quite seem to understand the importance of what they are doing? So despite all roadblocks, I started talking with my chief of village and my APCD in Dakar to see what we can do, and whether this will turn into a giant headache remains to be seen.

Another grant-funded project seemed to just appear at roughly the same time, this time to do with douches, or compound latrines. These would be similar to mine, if you’ve seen pictures of it that are buried somewhere in those album off to your right on the screen, but the village would complete one for every compound. This is also a significantly costly project and we are still working out the logistics of it, but if my original plan to hit up a lovely little organization called appropriate projects (google it- falls through, I may be hitting you all up for money in the near future. Unlike my reservations about the women’s garden, I actually am pretty determined to see this through, because you have no idea what its like to walk out to the field every day and pass by a group of children out on a compost pile behind their compounds with their pants down and pooping their little hearts out in public. The kicker is when they get all excited to see me and try to scream and wave and greet me in the middle of this rather awkward occurrence.

All while this is happening, I finally decided that I must paint a world map in my school before my close of service, and what better time to do it than when I am starting two other major projects? Makes perfect sense, right? After my exasperation with the school garden grant, the two new ones I plan to write and never wanting to write a project abstract again, I have decided to suck it up and just pay it. It’s not really all that expensive, and it’s a damn good way to get me out of my hut and away from screaming children for a few afternoons while I go grid out and outline a world map in pencil in my ecole primaire and listen to some good music. Sometime in the next month, I’ll invite a group of other volunteers over to my site, buy some paint and paintbrushes, cook up a good bowl of yassa ginard which for you non-wolof speakers is rice with chicken and onion sauce, and we’ll bring this thing to life. At least then finally most people in the village will be able to point to their own country on a map, especially after I reward them with candy for doing so.

In the meanwhile I’m still working in my garden every morning, watering my beautiful little guava and orange saplings, and damnit if I don’t get some good looking carrots and tomatoes by the end of this gardening season. It’s also pretty good therapy sitting in a garden each morning and writing in your journal. I suggest you try it sometime. And on that note, I leave you until next Sunday. Inchallah.