Saturday, November 24, 2012

ThanksGouving 2012

This year more people than usual opted to stay in Kedougou for Thanksgiving and we were lucky to have a really good group at the house. I had the great honor (no one else wanted to do it) of coordinating the menu (which was ambitious) and market run, and - with help from Jess, Camille, and a whole host of other PCVs - it all went swimmingly. Except for the grease fire. But no one got hurt, not even the casseroles, so all's well that ends well, I suppose.

Some people cooked up a storm, others formed a house band and kept everyone entertained, and Ashleigh and Jackie spearheaded the Decoration Committee. (Many thanks to Ashleigh's Mom and Ilana's Mom for sending decorations and ingredients!)

 We didn't have real turkeys (chickens are much easier to come by around here) but we did have hand turkeys and everyone was pretty happy about that. There were so many appetizers, chickens, sides, salads, rolls, breads, gravy pots, pies, cakes, and fancy caramel apple cider drinks that everyone had more than enough to eat. Even Marie Christine and Pascale, our wonderful housekeepers, were impressed with how much we cooked and how well it turned out, so we all feel like we were pretty successful at hosting a good Thanksgiving party.

Gou Crew & Friends! 

Patrick and Annē, Dish Crew Extraordinaire 

Meningitis Vaccination Time

There was a national campaign to vaccinate vulnerable populations against meningitis A  this month in Senegal and I was able to go out with teams on several of the vaccination days. It was almost exactly like the Yellow Fever Vaccination Campaign that happened earlier this year, which went really well. I like participating' it's interesting to see how it all rolls out, it's great to get out into the bush and see new villages, and it's reassuring that big vaccination campaigns like this happen on a regular basis. 

I'm not a nurse or doctor or even an EMT, so pretty much all I did was fill out the little pink proof-of-vaccination cards. The Health Center staff knows that PCVs can write quickly and are generally pretty efficient when it comes to things like setting up a vaccination site and making sure everything proceeds in a relatively orderly fashion, so on all the days that I went out with vaccination teams that was what I did. We filled out hundreds and hundreds of little cards (location, name, age, date, vaccine lot number, expiration date, closest health structure), made our best guess when it came to a lot of the ages, and ran through a little spiel about meningitis more times than I can remember.  

There are always challenges - the vaccine must be kept cold, things tend to run late, some people are afraid of needles, it's hard to fuel up the trucks when the nearest gas station is 50 miles away, there are stock shortages, people are speaking Wolof and French and Puular and Malinke and Jahonke and Bassari all at once - but the health workers do am impressive job of keeping it all together.

Ndiaye, the nurse who was our team leader, is an extremely calm and professional person, and the Red Cross Youth volunteers were helpful. Overall it was a great vaccination campaign and it's nice to know that the vaccine lasts 10 years.

Vaccination Time!

Photo Ops

My host aunt Hassanatou and her sons finally came back from summer vacation in Guinea (where she's from), my other host siblings came back from the various relatives they were visiting in other villages, and it's nice -- the compound felt very empty for awhile there. 

My mom in America sent some photos and a photo book and everyone really enjoyed looking through them. Sajou Ba (below) was totally over-the-top excited to have his very own photo of himself and his friend Mankaba from last Tabaski. He ran around the whole compound to show everyone and then ran around again, just to make sure than everyone saw that he had a photo. Of himself. And Mankaba. It was pretty adorable. 

Sajou Ba and his photo

Most of the older kids and grown-ups were more interested in looking through the photos of my family, especially my grandparents. After the initial rush of photo viewing Ablaye and Mamadou (above) went back through and looked very intently at all the pictures. Mamadou (int he blue striped shirt) took some of the photos (he's very responsible and I let him borrow my camera sometimes) and Ablaye just likes looking at pictures of himself. His parents are in Tamba (about 7 hours away) but he's lived with us for as long as I've been here. He's very shy most of the time but he really likes being included in anything that's happening.

Ibrahima is my host brother who lives in Dakar most of the time. He's one of the few students from village who make it all the way to University so he only comes back for holidays, like Tabaski and Tamkharit (the Muslim New Year). He's one of my older host siblings but he was just as happy as the little kids, when he saw that photos he was in from last Tabaski were included in the photo book.

And, of course, everyone in my host family here told me my American family and to say that they hope that everyone is healthy. I told them that my American family greets them back. Greetings all around!

Ibrahima and the photo book

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Notes on Youth Camp

As evidenced by This American Life's oft-mentioned "Notes on Camp" episode, for many Americans summer camps are a fun and exciting part of growing up. Kids get to meet new friends, do arts and crafts, play sports, sing songs, act out skits – the list of possible activities is endless. Good summer camp programs can be really fun, and they also help young people develop independence, confidence, social skills, critical thinking, athleticism, and creativity. I had the good fortune to be a camper (and then counselor) Camp Unalayee, the best summer camp in the whole wide world. I learned to backpack, read a map, cook over a fire, improvise costumes, climb mountains, and make friendship bracelets - all skills that have come in handy as a Peace Corps Volunteer. 

Go Camp U! (That's me in the red.)
The Trinity Alps, CA, USA
In Senegal, most boys and girls not only miss out on the chance to go to summer camp, but they also don’t really get to spend time in places where creative thinking, problem-solving, and appreciation for the natural world are encouraged. In an effort to bring these things to local young people volunteers have worked on a variety of camp programs over the years, through Peace Corps, USAID, and NGOs. Last year my host sister Mariama (below, center, with two of her camp friends) had a great time at a Peace Corps-facilitated summer camp. This year, we decided to coordinate a Youth Leadership Camp for middle school students from around the region this coming March. This camp will have classic team-building activities, life skills sessions, interactive environmental education activities, career talks, health education sessions, and time for kids to just have fun with other kids during their spring break.

The volunteers of Kédougou are excited about the camp and are really looking forward to giving Senegalese kids from our local communities the chance to experience all the joys and growth experiences that a camp has to offer. Our camp is a Peace Corps Partnership Project, which means that it will be funded by a contribution from the community and by the financial support of donors from around the world. If you're interested in participating in this project or in making a donation in honor of a friend or loved one this holiday season, please take a minute to check out the link:

UPDATE: Thanks to the generosity of a number of donors this project has been fully funded! 


This is the calendar I have in my hut, and that is a close-up of the Obama button that my mom sent my awhile back. I was so relieved when I heard that Obama won. So relieved. 

I was relieved, because, for a whole smorgasbord of reasons, I really, truly believe that Obama was the better person for the job. 

Also, because I really didn't want to have to have a lot of conversations in which I tried to explain why America had voted for the other guy (as he's usually referred to here) instead of Obama. (It would have been studying abroad during the Bush Administration all over again.)

Instead I got to spend the day after the election getting congratulated like I'd personally cast the deciding vote or something. Sometimes people would tentatively ask if I was happy about the election, sussing out my political orientation before saying anything potentially inflammatory, which I think was really nice of them. Once I'd identified myself as an Obama supporter they'd shake my hand and grin and talk about how nice it was that he'd won and I'd agree. 

Finally, someday, after I get back to America, Peace Corps will send me a certificate of appreciation bearing the President's signature and (whether or not it's actually hand-signed) I'm glad that that signature is going to be Obama's. 


So, we love our Regional House. It's where we come to get our mail, check our e-mail, get our protein fixes, stock up on vegetables, take a break, or catch a car up to Dakar. It's also where we have a fancy marble-inlaid latrine (or douche,* as they're somewhat inaccurately called here) can take a stand up (outdoor, unheated) shower, which is really nice. Or, it was, until the walls of our shower/latrine area started to crack. And then crumble.
The out-of-order latrine at our Regional House
And then, over night, a hole opened up in the floor of the latrine area. The photo on the left another PCV took last week; the other one I took today. We had no idea that the people who built it just dug an enormous pit, covered it with a thin slab of concrete without any sort of supporting structures, and called it a day. Luckily the floor came apart slowly, no one got caught by surprise, and we're already starting the process of having it pumped, re-built (more practically, this time) and will hopefully be able to salvage some of that nice marble from the floor.

All this has really impressed upon me the importance of a good, sturdy latrine cap, and I'll be keeping that in mind as my own latrine project rolls out. No one wants to go douche-spelunking. 

* "Douche" means "shower" in French, but people use it to mean "toilet," kind of like how Americans call toilets "bathrooms."


Even when it isn't mango season there are still pretty great snacks to be had in my village. Lately we've been having a lot of late afternoon squash -- really lovely orange wedges of fresh, steamed squash. (I would have taken pictures but I was too busy eating.) Delicious. 

I've also been handed a decent number of limes and guavas lately; some people have lime trees and sometimes the kids just pick them out in the bush. As much as I love citrus I'm not a huge fan of eating limes all by themselves, but the guavas are pretty good. They smell amazing, but their flavor is usually really mild, and they can have a lot of seeds. Not bad overall, though. 

Guava Time

Friday, November 2, 2012

American Tabaski

This year Tabaski fell on October 26th, and it was the first time I haven't been with my host family for a major Senegalese holiday. I wanted to make it back to my village in time for the celebrations, but between the trial in Tamba, working with peacecare, and a tenacious-and-unbelievably-itchy fungal infection on my legs, it just wasn't in the cards. 

With everyone else back at site for Tabaski in their villages, Marielle and I were the only volunteers left at the Regional House - it was a little like being the only kids left in the dorms over Thanksgiving Break - and we made the most of it.

 We were joined by Casey, a Mali RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) here to make a documentray about West African music, and the three of us had a really pleasant time. (Having a few extra days to hang out in running shorts and shower twice a day really helped with the rash recovery, too.) We cooked super-fancy little eggplant pizzas (thanks Meghan!), baked amazingly delicious pumpkin spice cupcakes with caramel frosting (thanks Marielle's mom and Ashleigh!), called to greet our friends and host relatives, watched new New Girl episodes (thanks internet!) and laughed about Senegal's recent American Idol-style sheep competition (thanks, Sally!)

 It wasn't a traditional Senegalese Tabaski (no sacrificial ram, no shiny new clothes) but it was quite delicious and I wouldn't have traded it for all the mutton in town. 

Thoughts on Justice

At the end of September we had to deal with the legal follow-up for a security incident involving a PCV over the summer. Even as a bystander it was an extremely aggravating and profoundly disappointing experience in many ways. However, throughout the entire ordeal I was awed by the courage and resilience of the affected PCV and absolutely impressed by the unwavering support, encouragement, and tenacious advocacy coming from the surrounding volunteers. Also, once she got involved, the Peace Corps Victim's Advocate in D.C. was very responsive and helped get things moving in the right direction.

One of the most depressing aspects of the experience was reflecting on how insanely difficult it would be for a wronged Senegalese person to pursue justice. Even though the incident happened in Kédougou, all of the legal proceedings happened in Tamba (a four-to-eight hour drive, depending on what village you’re coming from) because the Region of Kédougou has no court system of its own. All proceedings were in French, which would be problematic for all the villagers who only speak Pulaar, Malinké, or other local languages. Most of the officials at the trial were dismissive; it seemed like it was only the absurd insistence of the American volunteers and the perceived weight of United States Government behind them that kept the convicted perpetrator from being immediately released despite having been sentenced to a correctional facility. 

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for a person from a village, especially a woman, to marshal the resources necessary to press charges, travel to a trial, and see that a sentence was carried out. The most crushingly awful thing that I kept hearing - even from some of the Senegalese legal officials! - was that “this is Africa and you must accept that the system does not work here.”  I will be forever grateful to the Americans who did not accept, and to the Senegalese official who made a few calls to help see that justice would be, albeit somewhat grudgingly, served. Also, more than ever, I am aware that I have had such unfathomable good fortune, to be raised with the belief that justice is attainable, that change is possible, and that people have the power to improve the world, if only one small corner of it. 

Fancy Ladies

There have been several very fancy things in my life this past week. The first one was Tambaween, which is like Halloween but is hosted by the gracious PCVs in the region of Tamba. Being so busy with work stuff lately I wasn't sure that I was going to go to Tambaween this year, but a group of Kédougou volunteers arranged for transport and decided to dress up like princesses, so I got a tailor to help me throw together a last-minute Snow White outfit and packed an overnight bag. 

Our Private Car and Chauffeur. And a street cow.
The drive from Kédougou up to Tamba is usually about four hours, barring flat tires, break-downs, and inclement weather. It can be a grueling ride on public transport if you happen to get squeezed into a sheep-laden mini-bus or have to perch awkwardly on a seat made mostly of metal bars and sharp edges, but we were in luck. PCV Ashleigh made some phone calls and hired us a driver and a mini-van, for the same price as a seat in a seven-seat station wagon at the public garage, and so we all got to travel in style and relative comfort.  

The Region that makes team
costumes together stays together.

The Ladies of Kedougou
As you can see, our costumes were pretty great individually and even better collectively. We had a great time the whole time -- getting ready, going to the party, hanging out, and going back down to Kédougou the next day. 

And, when we got back to the Regional House there was internet. Wireless internet. It's been weeks and weeks and weeks since a particularly fierce lightning storm took out our house router, so we're all pretty thrilled to have wifi again. Fancy!