Friday, July 6, 2012

In Case You Missed It Last Time

Just in case you have a few extra dollars burning a hole in your pocket this summer and are looking for a needy peace corps volunteer to support, I've just written another grant! It's pretty much the same as last time, turning scary holes in the ground into functional and less terrifying wells. This time I'm doing it in the village next to mine at the request of the community health worker there. This project should double the number of people in the area with access to cleaner water and is coming just in time for the rainy season - when surface runoff and debris cause an increase in contamination of unprotected wells.

My site mate Missy Orr, a sustainable agriculture volunteer, lives in Salamata and has been working on this project along with a few other health-related endeavors with me this year.

Here's the link to our project page:

Part II: Prudence Savage Animals

The second leg of Bike Trip: Kedougou involved catching an early morning car to the city of Tambacounda. From there we hit the pavement for a 228km ride south. Starting a bike trip at 10:30am during the tail end of hot season is not ideal, but we made good time and rode about 65km plus a lengthy mid-day nap. Our first stop was in the town of Dialokoto, where we found a nice gentleman who agreed to host us in his compound for the night. One of the nicest things about the Senegalese is their hospitality. The nicest thing about our new friend Ibrahima was the delicious dinner he gave us, in addition to the hut he let us sleep in when torrential rains began.

Our chariot from Part I of the Bike Epic
The next day was our endurance trial. A large portion of the Kedougou region is taken up by the Niokolo Koba National Park, which is bisected by the national highway. Although authorities claim there are all sorts of savage animals (lions, baboons, warthog, genies) we pressed on. One guard we met about halfway through the park tried to convince us - while standing next to a rolled over minivan - that biking was too treacherous and we should wait for a car to take us the rest of the way. Our argument that cars in this country are more dangerous than the park's three lions was persuasive enough and he let us go on our way. A few hours later we met that same guard while resting at a checkpoint and feeding the friendly monkeys and warthogs the park guards let hang around. The afternoon brought the first of Kedougou's many hills as we powered through the last of 123km. That night we happened upon a serene little campement (rustic hotel) on the Gambia River.

Our last day was a relatively short 40km but included more hills than I've ever ridden in a morning. We passed numerous trucks broken down on the steep inclines, but the scenery was beautiful and the freshly paved road made the ride less painful.

Prudence: Savage Animals

Mission Accomplished
 After 300km of riding, it was a relief to see the final mile marker and reach the Peace Corps house. After a day of recovery, I went with a group out to the well known waterfalls of Segu and Dindefello for 2 days of hiking and lounging in the mountains. Overall is was a great week topped off by a memorable 4th of July party.

Part I: You Shall Not Pass

Every year, the volunteers in the Kedougou region of Senegal host a few days of fun and festivities for the Fourth of July. There's something about being abroad (and pseudo working for the US government) that makes volunteers excessively patriotic on national holidays, this one especially. Kedougou is easily the most beautiful of Senegal with lush forests, rolling hills and picturesque waterfalls. This year, some friends and I decided to leave a few days early and take the long way bicycle.

The original plan involved leaving the comfortable pavement of the national highway to bushwack our own more exciting path. The first two days involved 70km of dirt road cruising and a less than successful interaction with Guinean border patrol. Once our entry was denied, we caused a minor international incident when we decided to hop on a camion (really big truck) filled with fruit for a 5 hour ride back to the national highway. After about an hour of waiting and negotiations we were on our way on top of a container of citrus with a dozen Guineans. Apparently, the guards didn't want us to get on the truck "in case it rolled over," but I suspect they were just looking for an easy bribe.

Hours later, we rolled into the trading city of Diaobe - home of the largest open air market in West Africa each and every Wednesday. From there we caught another car to crash at another volunteer's house before starting the second leg of our journey.

Brotherly Love

My one year anniversary in Sare Sara (only 10 more months!) was marked by my second family member to visit. Shortly after quitting his job in preparation for business school, my brother Charlie hopped on a plane and made his way to Dakar. After a few moments of craziness at the airport, I let him catch a few hours rest before we headed straight to the beach for jet lag recovery and relaxation. Once Charlie was fully on Senegalese time and able to eat whole fish - bones and all - while avoiding beach hawkers, we headed to Kolda.

We spent three nights in village, with lots of greeting and awkward handshaking. A few other volunteers stopped by to hang out and partake in classic hot season activities - sitting in the shade and sweating. Upon arriving out first day, Omar first announced that Charlie would be named after him and then proudly showed us the ram he wanted to kill for lunch. My attempts to spare the creature's life were unsuccessful, so it was three days of sheep for us. Charlie did great with all the food - even when one dinner bowl was opened to reveal a giant pile of intestines. Yum.

After village, Charlie got to see what life is like for Kolda volunteers in our downtime at the regional house (settlers of catan, warm beer, crashing hotel pools) and meet another handful of PCV friends. For our second week, we made a two day trek up to the far northwest corner of Senegal to the city of St. Louis, the former capital of French West Africa, where there is an annual international jazz festival. Although we missed the festival weekend by a day, we did get to enjoy the beach, good food and more volunteer socializing. Our last day was spent in Dakar visiting Goree Island (along with every 7th grader in the city) and sampling the best ice cream in country.

All in all we had a fun time and I successfully played tour guide while convincing Charlie I can actually speak French (not true). He put up with a fair amount of confusion, hours of painful transportation and less than tidy accommodations without complaint. I'm glad that now 2/3 of my immediate family have made it to Sare Sara and will have some idea of what I'm rambling out when I return home.

Paint by Numbers

It's hot season (actually it's rainy season now, but it was hot season when I originally wrote this), thus the perfect time to paint. A few weeks ago my neighbor Missy and I went to town sprucing up the health hut in her village, which is also the closest health facility to my town. Missy painted a delightful scene of mother, child and demonic mosquitoes. I depicted the virtues of family planning by showing that less children = nice clothes. Check them out...

I'm Still Here!

After two months of radio silence, I promise I am still alive and kicking in Senegal. It has been an incredibly busy couple of months as I round the corner on my second year of service. Everyone says you spend your first year twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to happen, then the second year hustling to keep up with too many projects. My second year has definitely started at a run, and it's nice to feel busy.

I promise I actually have been writing posts, they just haven't made it from paper to published. Here's my attempt to flood the blogosphere with what's happened the last two months.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Minding My Tea's and Q's

After legendary singer-songwriter Akon and traditional wrestling, there is nothing my Senegalese friends enjoy so much as drinking Attaya, or tea. The tea ceremony is long and elaborate, mostly an excuse to sit in the shade during the heat of the afternoon (or morning, or evening). I never got very far in the book Three Cups of Tea (he was still lost in the mountains when I gave it up), so for those of you like me here’s a play-by-play of drinking tea:

1. Debate who will buy the tea or hope your guest has brought some (as all good guests should)
2. Send one child in search of the forno (small coal stove), another in search of a the tea set (a small pot and two shot glasses) and a third hunting for lit coals.
3. Arrange all equipment under a mango tree. Wait for water to boil.
4. Add matchbox size package of loose tea leaves. Albarka is the preferred brand in our house, but I can’t tell the difference between any of them. Wait a while longer.
5. Add one full shot glass of sugar. Boil more.
6. Remove the pot from the coal, tap on the group, let sit, do other seemingly pointless gestures to ensure liquid doesn’t boil over.
7. Commence pouring. Amaze friends and neighbors by pouring tea back and forth between the shot glasses and kettle from unimaginable heights. This is ostensibly done to mix and cool the tea, and to create foam within the cups, but I think it just showing off.
8. Return tea to the kettle. Let sit a few more minutes.
9. Pour out shots of tea and have one of the aforementioned children pass them around. Guests (and me) drink first.
10. Repeat for second and third rounds, keeping the same leaves but adding more sugar each time. Rounds move from bitter to sickly sweet (2nd round is the crowd favorite). Variations include: adding fresh mint leaves, basil leaves, crushed up breath mints or vanilla powder.

Earlier this year I took an anti-tea stand, as some volunteers choose to do. Some just don’t enjoy mainlining sugar but others make it a principled protest. Tea is a waste of money. The 200 CFA (about 50 cents) for each box and sugar is the same as it costs to see the doctor at the health post. When people tell me they have no money for medicine, the easiest rebuttal is to tell them to stop drinking so much tea. While my refusal to drink didn’t stop anyone else from imbibing, at least it raised the issue every time someone offered me a glass.

After a few months though, I have decided to give up my soapbox. Why? Because drinking tea with people make them so damn happy. Some people have said to me, “we don’t drink, we don’t do drugs, we don’t gamble – tea is our one big indulgence.” A fair case could be made that a larger percentage of my monthly pay is spent at the bar, so this defense isn’t entirely unreasonable (but I also don’t worry about having enough money to eat dinner). Tea really does bring people together – it provides perfect opportunities for impromptu health chats and it gives me an excuse to laze around for a few hours every afternoon. After the birth of his 8th child in 10 years my neighbor and I recently enjoyed a nice round of tea while I explained family planning options.

I have kept a few tea rules though: no drinking before lunch, only a cup before bed and just one round of three per day. I don’t want to turn into a tea-brained diabetic in my two years here.