Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Peer Support and All-Volunteer Conference

So far the month February has been a veritable festival of meetings. Things got started with a Peer Support Network (PSN) workshop preparation meeting, followed by a training of this year's new Peer Support Contacts (PSCs) and another meeting. New PSCs were oriented and trained, and outgoing PSCs lead workshops on dealing with issues frequently faced by Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) serving in Senegal. Topics ranged from basic coping skills to domestic violence to body image and it was great to hear about how Volunteers have helped each other in dealing with some really tough situations.
Peace Corps Senegal's Peer Support Network 
PSN fed right into our Close-of-Service (COS) conference, which overlapped with Work Zone Coordinator (WZC) presentations and meetings. Katie O. and I are the current WZCs and hopefully my replacement will also be interested in doing some coordinating once they get settled in. The PCVs in our area really like working on team projects (radio shows, world map murals, grafting trainings, etc) and it's nice to have someone who's centrally located (and has occasional access to electricity) to help out with getting things organized. In any case, I could be more pleased that Katie O. in taking over, the work zone ins in very good hands.
Work Zone Coordinators
All the WZC meetings lead into the Annual West African All-Volunteer Conference (All-Vol), where PCVs come from all over Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, and Cameroon to present and discuss case studies, development in West Africa, and Peace Corps's work in the region. Usually Mali and Cape Verde would also send delegates, but the Cape Verde program was closed due to excessive fanciness (they're doing just fine without PCVs, apparently) and Mali is still in disarray. Ambassador Lewis Leukens came to speak about his work in the Foreign Service and the ongoing problems in Senegal's Casamance region. After his talk we chatted very briefly about U.S.A.I.D./Ambassador-supported community radio station in Salémata, which has proved to be both useful and extremely popular. (It turns out that PCV Marsha H. was taking pictures, which she kindly sent my way. I am not sure why I appear to be clapping. I am maybe applauding the success of the radio station?)
Chatting with Ambassador Leukens 
Current and former volunteers and gave presentations on a wide range of topics including malaria prevention, data collection, talibé support centers,  mercury harm-reduction projects for small-scale gold miners, and personal narratives reflecting on the many kinds of lessons that one learns while serving as a PCV. (My favorite quote from that session was "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou)

During All-Vol my friend Marielle and I also opted to do oral language assessment interviews, which went much better than I'd anticipated. After too much instant coffee and over a week of nothing but English I was completely sure that my interviews would be a sweaty, semi-coherent slew of unconjugated verbs, but Djéba, my evaluator, was gracious and patient and I muddled on through. To my relief they placed me at the Superior level in French and Advanced- Low in Pular/Pula Fuuta, which isn't particularly spectacular but, hey, it gets the job done. 

Monday, February 18, 2013


My training group and I had our Close-of-Service (COS) conference last week and I now I have an official COS date (May 1st, 2013!)  and a long list of things that I have to get done before then. With the latrine project wrapping up nicely I can turn my attention to helping run a Maternal & Child Health training, helping to facilitate another visit from the PeaceCare team, participating in the Kedougou Youth Leadership Camp, and handing off my various Peace Corps-related responsibilities.

The Maternal Health training was supposed to happen last November, but there were some... perturbations... during the whole grant-processing  procedure and things didn't quite pan out as planned, but the midwives and Health Center staff are enthusiastic and I'm hopeful that the training will happen in early March so that I won't have to pass it on to my replacement, who will be arriving in early May. I'm looking forward to PeaceCare's visit (cryotherapy training for local health professionals! How can you not be looking forward to that?) and of course, pretty much everyone knows how much I love camp, so that'll be great, too.

It's shaping up to be an exceptionally busy few weeks, but as hectic as it's shaping up to be, I am glad that I'll be busy.

I'm hoping that all the work will help keep me from dwelling on how sad I'll be to leave my host family and my friends here and from fretting about the somewhat intimidating prospect of returning to America. (So big! So expensive! So fancy! So many options for everything!) I'm definitely going to miss Mariama Kesso and her daughter Fatou (above - she's getting so big!). I will miss the kids (Sajou, Tijane, Mankaba, and Diabou, below left) who like to come by my hut in the afternoons (and some mornings, and most evenings) to color and practice counting and insist that I look at whatever they happen to be doing. I might miss Diabou (below right, with marker on her face) most of all. She was the last of the kids to warm up to me, she doesn't talk much, and one time she accidentally peed on my floor, but she's also funny and tenacious and always comes over to offer me peanuts and to help me sweep out my hut. She's a good little friend.

Friday, February 8, 2013


I like to journal. Or, rather, I like to glue paper-type things into the small stack of booklets that have collectively become my journal. Mostly transport stubs and wrappers and bits of packaging. Sometimes things that people give me - drawings of the world, for example, or photos, or post-it notes. 

My first journal in Senegal was a gift from a good friend. It was a nice size, had lined off-white pages and a very world-traveler-looking leather cover thing, which I like. I labeled it "Senegal"and when I'd filled it up completely with receipts, swatches of snack food packaging and my semi-legible scrawl I cut a little paper-bound Moleskine notebook that my mom gave me down to fit in the cover thing, printed "Senegal con't" on the cover and kept going. I'm working on the last few pages of "Senegal con't con't" now and have another one lined up and ready to go. 

Most of what I write is boring, little more then what I did that day and what I plan to do in the near future. Sometimes there are vicious little diatribes about whatever has recently struck me as awful and there's a fair amount of cataloging of things that remind me of other things, which most things do. Short sentences are favored. Explanations and follow-able segues are not. I don't like to re-read it, unless I'm trying to go back to find the date for a specific event, because it has a tendency to read like the diary of a neurotic middle-schooler.

I wrote a lot more at the beginning of my service than I do now. I think that was mostly because everything was new and remarkable -- all the new places, all the new people, all that Mephaquin. Now, with only a couple of months left, most of the things that were once so novel have become routine. Instead of being shocked by the new I find myself jarred by the impending loss of the familiar - soon I will buy my last transport pass, be handed my last little drawing, make my last cup of tea in my hut, take my last Malarone, apply my last bit of antifungal cream. Funny, how you can be nostalgic for the present.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bows & Arrows

While he was visiting my village my brother and I walked over to the market area and on our way back we saw some boys playing under the trees. I thought "Huh, it looks like they're shooting arrows in the air." As it happened, that was indeed what they were doing. Not real arrows with tips or anything, just little stick bows and little arrow sticks and bits of cloth or twine as a drawstring. 

They were all cheerful and super proud of their bows, so we reminded them to be careful (wouldn't want to put an eye out, after all) and then obliged them and took some pictures, which they immediately viewed and declared to be very very nice. (Made me I wish I had a bigger screen on my digital camera.)

Once I get back to America I'll develop these photos, along with a whole bunch of other ones (it is excessively costly to develop photos here) and then send them to my village care of one of the other PCVs in the region. It's odd, to think that I'll be leaving here in a few short months, but it's reassuring to remember that there will still be volunteers around - my replacement, my PCV neighbors - to pass on letters and photos and greet the family. 

Snacktime for the Kiddos

The kids on our compound are really adorable. Much more so than most kids. They do have their disgusting moments - the runny noses, the peeing on my lap, the grubby little hands trying to shove gnawed-on biscuits into my mouth - but they're funny and affectionate and they listen when I tell them that I'm busy and they have to go play somewhere else. They're also healthy. My host dad once worked as a community health worker and one of my host sisters is training to be a matrone, which is a kind of birth attendant/women's health worker, and I think that helps. It also helps that he's the traditional village chief and the family has enough corn and rice to go around.

Some people in our area have some pretty unsettling ideas about maternal health, such as the all-too-common misconception that pregnant women shouldn't eat too many vegetables and fruits because vitamins will make the baby fat and cause a difficult birth. Very few women go to all four of the recommended pre-natal visits and many don't make it to any at all. Thankfully, while she was pregnant my host sister made a point of going to all her appointments, of drinking lots of milk, and of eating as well as is possible in our area. She practiced exclusive breastfeeding during those early months  (which is particularly important in areas with unreliably potable drinking water), made really nutritious weaning/supplementation porridges, and ensured that Fatou, her daughter, got all her vaccinations on time. And it shows. It really, really shows. 
Afternoon snack for Fatou and Sajou
Fatou just turned one, she's walking (and dancing, in her wobbly little way), and is quite a bit taller and bigger than a lot of two-year-olds in town. People are always saying that she's "all cheeks" because she has such a chubby little baby face, which is exactly how toddlers are supposed to look. In an area where it's not uncommon to see little kids with the brittle, orange-tinged hair that signals chronic malnutrition, she has dark, thick hair that's already long enough to braid. As a Health PCV I could do a thousand talks about proper nutrition and healthy weaning foods and the importance of vaccinations and still not make as convincing of a case for improved nutrition and preventative care and Fatou and her chubby cheeks do simply by existing.

Siblings Abroad: Life On the Dunes

After we got back to Senegal we headed out to Lompoul, a little village near the coast just a few hours outside Dakar. On the way there I just kept being impressed by how fancy the Louga area is. There are more gas stations and shops in each of the little road towns than there are in all of Kedougou, and the side roads are paved, all the way out to some of the smaller villages. Paved!

Anyway. The Gite Lompoul campement was pretty much empty when we got in, so we just puttered around, checking out out out tent and the dunes, until lunch was ready. The sand was really soft, which made it nice to walk on but hard to get any speed up when sliding down on the snowboard they leave out for people to play on. 

After lunch we went for a camel ride. Camels are much bigger than I was expecting, and their legs and feet were much stranger-looking than I'd imagined.

Walking along the dunes was nice, the camels plodded along, making weird, grimacing faces every once in awhile, and the crust of the sand cracked and crumbed prettily under their feet. The lovely pre-sunset sunlight, the hushed sound of sand blowing softly over sand, the rustle of leaves on the occasional tree - it was much more placid than I'd anticipated, but I liked it nonetheless.

That evening we had dinner with the thirty-or-so middle-aged French tourists staying int he other tents - there was drumming and hilariously bad dancing and some better dancing and a lot of "oh, your French is so good for an American!" and a pretty decent dinner. (The cooks there have nothing on my hosts moms, but it was good and there were some vegetables so no complaints.) The next morning we walked from Lompoul-Village to Lompoul-sur-Mer, to the slight consternation of the guides, who were concerned that we would not be able to make the grueling 8 km (about 5 miles) trek out to the seashore unaccompanied and with our daypacks strapped to our backs.

As it turns out, it was a flat and pleasant stroll, and took a little over an hour. We dawdled here and there, admiring first the dunes, then the eucalyptus groves, then the thorn-tree flats, and finally the little patch of Dr.Seuss-ish evergreens that cropped up just before we hit the beach. As soona s we arrived in the town of Lompoul-sur-Mer we saw a couple of the campement guides who'd driven in to buy fish and supplies; they seemed happy and amused to see that we'd made it, intact and in record time.

The beach smelled like chum and was strewn with fish heads and guts, so we didn't linger much. We found a car back to the road town, and then another one from there to Dakar, where we set about getting things together and packing up to head out on our respective long hauls back to the places that we live.