Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Yes I'm still here

Well, it was recently pointed out to me that my blog has not been updated for quite some time. In fact, it has only one entry written a month before I left. So for those of you wondering what I'm up to over here, I can't imagine a source less helpful. And since I'm in a narcissistic mood today, assuming everyone I know is quite concerned with what exactly I've been doing the last year and a half, I'm going to put some effort into updating (or rather, creating) this thing.

We'll start with the basics:

Where am I?

Kaffrine, Senegal (As you can see, Wikipedia doesn't know too much about Kaffrine. That link was probably a waste of your time. Sorry.)

Kaffrine is in the "heart of the peanut basin" of Senegal. Flat, hot, and full of farmers. Not unlike the Midwest I suppose. Of course the soil is much sandier here and instead of space-age windmills dotting the landscape, we have ancient baobabs.

I live in a small city of about 35,000 people. Thankfully I have most amenities available to me: a few places with Internet access, electricity (frequent power outages, but electricity nonetheless), and a daily market with a healthy amount of vegetables, fish, and meat.

Kaffrine has one high school, three junior highs, and nine primary schools. There are also plenty of Franco Arab and Koranic school, but I have no idea how many. Several NGOs are active in the Kaffrine area. World Vision is the most prominent; Italian and French organizations are also around.

From what I can tell, there are less than ten "toubabs" (white people) in Kaffrine. So when people see me, they like to point me out. It's sort of like being a living "slug bug!" (or "punch buggy" if you're from the north).

Home Life...

I live with a Senegalese family. I rent two rooms from them, so I have a sort of attached apartment set-up. We eat meals together and hang out in the evenings, but they're pretty good about letting me do my own thing when I want.

The family is quite small for Senegalese standards. The "borom keur" (head of the house) ninety three and still owns and manages the house even though all ten of his children are grown up and live in Dakar. His daughter-in-law lives in the house taking care of him and her children. Her husband lives and works as a teacher in Dakar (this is really common in Senegal as people who can get jobs will take them wherever they can --especially good jobs like teaching).

Kine (my sort-of "host mom") is around 38 and has 4 kids. The oldest, a boy, is 13 and moved to live with his mother's relatives in a different city so he could go to a better school. The other three (ages 11, 7, 5) are all girls. The older two are in school and the youngest one spends most of her time playing up the role of being the baby. I love them all and we get along about as well as I do with my niece and nephew around those ages (meaning that we get annoyed with each other on a regular basis but still generally get along).

Work Things...

Peace Corps Senegal has several different sectors: Health, Sustainable Agriculture, Agroforestry, Environmental Education, and Small Enterprise Development. I'm in the SED program which means my work can range from working with Women's groups to find income generating activities, teaching business classes, acting as a business consultant, working with micro finace stuff, teaching computer classes, or pretty much anything I come up with. When I got into the program, it was pretty unstructured meaning you could so whatever projects interested you-- this is, I suppose a result of Peace Corps being a "volunteer" organization: if you let people do what they want, they'll do it well, right?

Peace Corps Senegal begins with a two month training with all the other new volunteers. We had culture lessons, classes on on sector-specific duties, and language classes. The language you learn depends on where in the country you'll be placed. Some people learned a language spoken by pretty much just their village, others Wolof -- the most common language in Senegal, others Pulaar (more common in the rest of West Africa). If you're a Business volunteer and your French isn't up to par when you get into country (guilty!) Peace Corps trains you in that first.

So after two months, I was sent to Kaffrine, where I could figure out how I wanted to spend my next two years. Two volunteers who had been in Kaffrine worked with a group of young women to start a juice and jam business. I was encouraged to help with this project, as they still need help with their end-marketing and financial analysis. So this is where I started, and moved on to other things from there.

That's a basic overview. More detailed project explanations to come...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Preparing for something

I think packing for the Peace Corps is a bit like preparing a disaster survival kit. Suggestion lists exist, but I'm not entirely sure what each item will really be used for when the time comes. The lists always seemed a little bizarre with the extent of things they included.

Before big storms news stations always seem to suggest putting together kits including bottled water, canned food, flashlights, batteries, can openers, blankets, ropes, and I don't know what else. I'm pretty sure there's a standard car safety kit you're supposed to always have in your trunk. You know, with things like jumper cables, sawdust, blankets, and first aid stuff. Bike riders have kits they carry with them so they will be prepared for a flat tire or a scraped knee. One time a pigeon flew into the spokes of my friend Cory's bike. I'm sure there's something in the standard kit for that sort of thing too.

So we've got all these kits: for tornadoes, floods, thunderstorms, computer crashes, car failures, and pigeon attacks. And everyone has a list for what needs to go in the kits. The lists don't always make sense right away (sawdust?), but most everything is there for a reason (I think it has something to do with traction).

In my invitation kit, Peace Corps sent a suggested packing list. When I read it about a month ago it seemed simple and to the point--as most checklists are. But now that I'm closer to leaving, even the simplest things are inducing anxiety.

Tape, for example, is generally not too terrifying, but recently it has become an ominous symbol. I've read nearly every blog I can find from a PC volunteer in Senegal and they all praise duct tape. "You'll never know there were so many uses for duct tape" they say; "it's amazing what duct tape can do!" It's on everyone’s suggested packing list, but no amount ever seems to be enough; it nearly always makes an appearance on the care package wish lists. So, I think, this is good; now I know: bring lots of duct tape.

But just what are they using all this duct tape for? I mean how much adhesive can one really need? It is a bit unsettling that the applications of duct tape in Senegal are so vast. This has got to be pretty indicative of how different my life will be there. I'm not even sure if duct tape makes more than one or two appearances a year in my life now. Pretty soon it will be my durable, sticky counterpart coming to the rescue when scotch tape, masking tape, and sticky tack all fail miserably.

I was standing in the tape aisle at WalMart yesterday considering this. Duct tape is now a symbol of all the problems I can't even imagine yet. On the other hand, it also represents the resourcefulness and ingenuity I'll have to develop. Clearly, I'm reading too much into this. I know that, but I can't quite stop doing it. It has made shopping an exhausting chore.

Even if I ignore my crazy symbolism thoughts, every single purchase I make is weighed heavily (and borderline obsessively). The normal considerations for price and quality aren't enough for these purchases. Now I'm considering the mass of the item (space and weight are limited by airline restrictions), the use of the item (chances are the uses I expect will never be realized and the ones I never considered will happen on a regular basis), how this item will be perceived by Senegalese people (lets be honest, I haven't got a clue), and the necessity of the item (who would have guessed that duct tape would be a necessity?). The whole process takes an absurd amount of time.

Today I combed the aisles of Target looking for items I forgot to add to my list. I got calcium chews, three different types of sunscreen, a travel size baby powder, and a Leatherman tool. I'm not really sure what I'll use the baby powder for, but I have a feeling it will end up being one of those sawdust-type items. (Meaning its use will become apparent at the time, not that I'll need it for traction)

Last week I met a little boy in Emmet, Nebraska who had wrapped his forefinger in duct tape. He couldn't find the bandaids in his house and this seemed to get the job done.

Sunday, June 29, 2008