Friday, May 9, 2014

Saying Goodbye

Welp, this is it I guess. I am not sure if I can call it the end because, while it sounds cliché, this experience will be with me forever. Whether you want it to or not, it is not something that you can’t just shake off and forget about, though I did have plenty of days that I wished that I could have!
My last week at site was about as perfect as you could imagine. I had a lot of quality family time, I was able to say goodbye to countnerparts throughout Velingara and everything actually fit in my suitcase. It was horrible saying goodbye to the people that I called family for the past two years; heartbreaking saying goodbye to the kids, especially since the younger ones didn't understand why I was leaving and nearly impossible saying goodbye to my host mother. She took me in quicker than I would have thought and was by my side the entire two years. I will always have a place for her in my heart and will be forever grateful for the experiences that she has given me! 
The last week that I had in Dakar was comprised of paperwork and downtime. We had to be at the office Monday thru Wednesday to make sure that we didn’t have any loose ends with admin- about 10 signatures from various administrative officials were needed and three informal interviews with senior staff. My boss (APCD in PC lingo) said that he was more than happy with all the work that I did and asked if I was sure that I didn’t want to stay one more year. Honestly a part of me thought about it but remembered all the reasons why I am leaving (such as the I should probably get a job someday thing). While the last week was flattering and it was nice to have lunch with staff to say our goodbyes, it felt good to have everything taken care of so we could just enjoy our last day and a half in Senegal, which is where the tattoos came in. I am still sticking to the story that had the only tattoo shop in Dakar not been directly in front of the house that I was staying at then I probably would have never gotten one but with convenience and pure boredom comes spontaneity! Alexx, Karen and myself got the ever so popular “Peace Only” greeting in our respective languages, mine being Pular. They are really cute and we all got them same font, just in different spots. It will forever remind me of Senegal.
So what is the first thing that I bought once getting off the continent you may ask? Well, a tomato, mozzarella and basil sandwich with an Arizona Ice Tea I would tell you! Sitting here, blogging, eating my snack, it almost feels like I was never in Senegal. It is strange, and scary, how quickly I can already feel myself bouncing back to “old life,” something so simple that I had wanted for so long and now that it is here it feels just normal.
My grandmother wearing my sunglasses!
Random thought:  I enjoy blasting music and zoning out while I write and while pondering what I should talk about without completely boring you the song “Perfectly Lonely” by John Mayer came on and it could not be more accurate than how I am feeling now, and not just now as in sitting by myself in an expensive café at an airport but, in life. Finishing Peace Corps, not really having a destination and nobody holding me back from where I am supposed to end up is almost too thrilling! Hopefully someday soon I will either get sick of the thrill that I get from traveling or I will have to actually find a job to support this habit.

I am currently sitting in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Sad, free and relieved are just a few of the feelings that I have at the moment. It was about as sad as you could imagine saying goodbye to all of the wonderful people that I had just built a life with the last couple of years, though I was lucky enough to have Marsha and Alexx on my first flight. Free comes to mind because while I have an loose itinerary for the next couple of months it is inevitably up to me as far as where I end up and what I end up doing. Relieved that my time in Senegal was a success and I am now able to move on to the next step. 
I still have two flights remaining and honestly it is going to be a little difficult; now is the time I am trying to tell myself that if I was able to ride squished in the back of a car for 12 hours without air conditioning or personal space that this plane that they refer to as a minibus, which holds at least 81 rows, refreshments and tv will be a piece of cake. Plus the detail worth mentioning that at the end of this I have my parents, friends and family waiting.
I guess with random mixed thoughts comes a random mixed blog post so this is fitting. Thank you again Senegal for everything and America, get ready for the new me!


Saturday, April 19, 2014

No Regrets

Setting your mind to something and actually doing it. Traveling, writing a book, jumping out of a plane or landing a dream job, these are all things that we dream of everyday and only hope to accomplish someday. For me it is traveling. Not just sightseeing or that two-week break from work but actually seeing other cultures for what they are, learning from the people and understanding their way of life.
Peace Corps was not something that I had always dreamed of doing, it was not that I was against it but just never considered it something to get me where I wanted to go. Circumstances or plans change and people get antsy in their routine lives and sign up for the unimaginable. This is what makes up a majority of the Peace Corps population; people that enjoy helping people, able to learn another language and are free of major commitments that would hold them back.
My head is not in its normal place right now so I would like to pre-apologize if it seems more like I am ranting or putting together random thoughts versus telling a story or giving my unsolicited opinion. Days are being marked off the calendar and plans are being made in America as I am have less than a couple of weeks left at site. Of course there is that part of me that’s excited to be reunited with family and friends that I have not seen in two years. Before all of that happens though there is the reality of withdrawing from Senegal; my home for the past two years, the family that took me in when I only knew a handful of words, my counterparts that proved to me that with a little hard work anything can be done and all the kids that made it their mission in life to remind me to play and laugh.
Sure am going to miss these guys!
The only coping mechanism that I have come up with thus far for dealing with saying “see you later” to everyone here, because we all know I am horrible with goodbyes, is to pretend like I have a lot of time left and to go on with my days per usual. Not necessarily the most healthy way of dealing with it but I could think of worse. I mean, how do you express the amount of love and appreciation that you have for someone or an entire family unit when language is limited and the understanding of why we have to return back to the states is simply not there? Sure it seems like an easy fix to just stay, as many people recommend, but our lives are back home, our family, jobs, everything we have known. We have to go back, right? Well while that is a debate that I still have with myself everyday it may be a discussion that we have later. But really quick, am I going to get sick of the states again in a couple months? A year? Two years? I am going to go on the record that it is inevitable that I will feel this way, probably sooner than later, but that is what my dream job working for an international NGO is for.
Back on the original topic that I expected to talk about, accomplishing things that you once thought were unachievable or didn’t know you wanted until you did it. I was watching the miniseries Long Way Round featuring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman traveling from the UK to New York via, well, the long way and not only has it inspired me to actually trek around the world since I have always dreamed of it but watching them reflect on the experience has encouraged me to take more initiative in actually doing things that I dream about and to work on actually being in the moment more with no regrets. A famous quote that I once heard, I actually want to get a tattoo of it, it is just a matter of how and where, goes something like “never look back and regret the past, at some point it was exactly what you wanted.” I can’t think of a phrase that is more true in my life, be it jobs, tattoos or even boyfriends and you just have to appreciate your past for what it was because it made you who you are today.
So how does all this babble circle around and relate to Peace Corps and me leaving Velingara in a matter less than a few weeks? On the hot days when it is reaching 112°F, when kids can’t seem to get the hint to get lost, when ants bite me when I lay on my floor because the heat radiating from my foam mattress is unbearable or when I simply just want to crawl into a hole and have just one day to myself but my surroundings seem to refuse, I have to remember that not only did I sign up to be here but I will someday, while it may be later than sooner, miss these exact moments. I will miss the kids yelling, I will miss the hot weather when it is freezing for months on end in Minnesota and I will miss the feeling of never feeling alone and always having someone to talk to.
Compared to other services that people have had in Peace Corps, though you shouldn’t really compare because everyone makes their service their own and since all circumstances are different there is really no level playing field to compare them on, I must say that I have had a successful one. I have never been short of work, my counterparts have been amazing (though we have had our tough times as we should considering the amount of time we spent together), my family makes me speechless with the amount of love and comfort they have given me and Senegal in general has been very understanding and kind. It was a good ride, no regrets and now on to the next unknown chapter in my life. With that being said, Velingara we have only a little bit of time together so lets make the most of it.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Youth Empowerment: not just a camp but also a lifestyle

I am unsure if this week will ever go as planned. It seems like forever that we have been working out the details, running around town finding trainers, securing financing and nominating children to participate, but the time is finally here. Kids hide behind their parents as they walk up to the welcome table with their little bag full of nothing more than a change of cloths and maybe a toothbrush. The first activity, a simple name game to get them familiar with each other, goes about as you would think considering it is the first activity of the first day of camp. Students are shy. Speaking softly. Referencing nametags. Unsure of how to act around the foreigners and what exactly they can get away with. The sounds of laughter slowly start to become more apparent as clicks are being made and our walls start to come down as we feel more comfortable laughing and joking along side them.
There are certain projects that you do because it is a part of curriculum of your specific sector, there are the ones that you do to help a friend out with and then there are those that you do for yourself. At the end of the day when kids are harassing you, the sun seems unbearable or you just miss home it’s the projects that you do for yourself that keep your attitude positive and the future bearable. The Velingara Work Zone held a Youth Empowerment Camp for 24 students (12 girls and 12 boys) during Easter vacation over a period of four days and three nights at a hotel two kilometers outside of town at the Campement Lew Lewal. While planning of the camp took more time and energy than I think any of us had planned it was well worth it considering how well it turned out. Camps in Senegal tend to focus on English or girls so we wanted to be sure to include the boys (gender equality!). This allows the kids to work and play together, which doesn’t seem to happen all too often considering the gender gaps that still have a large role in the Senegalese culture.
The 13 volunteers that participated in the camp each planned at least one session in various areas including: a career panel (my session!), personal financial management, yoga, tae kwon do, gender equality, first aid, reproductive health, theater and leadership. Sessions were put on by the volunteer in some circumstances but for the most part they were led my local counterparts, or host country nationals in PC lingo. At the end of the camp it was obvious to see, and made perfect sense, that the sessions that was led or assisted by a local counterpart were more successful. The kids don’t have to worry about trying to understand us and they got the exact message not the one that we knew how to say.

One thing that I took out of the camp that I didn’t think I would was an attachment to the students. The first day was a little awkward as far as how we all interacted with each other but with the passing of each meal or session the kids quickly became a little bit more comfortable with us and were soon enough dancing, laughing, mouthing off (there were a few sassy kids) or hanging on us as if they have known us forever. There was one moment specifically where one of the male students Suleman had to try and pickup one of the girls during the Gender Equality session. He had kids rolling around on the floor laughing and covering their mouths trying to prevent whatever that may come out; I don’t think the kids could have had a moment like this together if it would have been a session on the first day. There were just not there yet.
Our work zone plans on replicating the camp next year and future years to come; unfortunately, I will be basking in the luxuries of America and will be unable to attend the camp but I have full faith in the volunteers in our little corner of Senegal. Our hard work paid off and we proved not only to ourselves but also to the students in our area that while sometimes our mission and objectives may get lost in our work we can produce projects that will influence for a lifetime.
When asked what some of the kids wanted to be once they grew up we found ourselves in the presence of future lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers and government ministers. While I have no doubt that they are able to accomplish these great dreams I just hope that their surroundings don’t get in the way. Girls get pulled out of schools to get married, boys work in their father’s shops and everyone finds themselves in the fields if the season is right. Let your youth grow and get an education Senegal, because whether you like it or not they are the future and will run this country someday.


Friday, February 21, 2014

So What Am I Supposed To Do Now? And Am I Qualified To Make That Decision?

My head bangs against the metal as we swerve to miss the potholes in the road to only hit smaller ones. It is a feeling that I am all too familiar with. The sun is hitting my arm like the feeling of laying on asphalt on a warm summer day; a sad reminder of what is to come in hot season. When we stop to let a passenger out, the windows quickly fill with women and children selling water, juice, peanuts, cashews, the fruit of the season or phone credit. 12 hours. In my brain it is a long time to stare outside a window but in reality it goes by relatively fast. It is amazing how the human brain is able to drift away from everything that is real once those ear buds are put in place or a book is opened. 12 hours, this is the amount of time that it takes to get from my site to Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, and I know this trip all too well. I only take it if need be, I don’t go up to Dakar just to hang out because of the adventure that I know awaits me.
I was up north for a few different reasons including Close Of Service Conference, the annual All Volunteer Conference, or AllVol as it is commonly referred to, and the West African Intramural Softball Tournament. AllVol always has sessions detailing volunteer projects, career panels or talks with some of the more influential administrators. One of my more favorite sessions that I attended was a session about how to document your service through writing and photography. While I already do both of these things I never studied it in school, I am a mere enthusiast, and I figured I could pick up a few tips and tricks. Describing the scene is something that was pointed out that I don’t think I do enough. How did things smell? What was the reaction of someone’s face after telling the story? What were some of the background noises that we going on at the time? All of these things set the scene for the reader and can put the reader in the shoes of the writer. I though this was great advice, something simple that could be done to make an account of something into a story.
Kolda Region! Our theme was Where's Waldo?
In the beginning of February the Health group along with my group, the CEDers (Community Economic Development), had their Close of Service Conference, which is designed to help with life after Peace Corps. Now lets set the stage, we are surrounded by the people we have known the longest, talking to staff who at least pretends like they are going to miss us and we are talking about the future which for the most part does not include each other. It was sad. Don’t get me wrong, there were happy moments where we all told our favorite stories of each other, first impressions or embarrassing moments but then reality would hit and someone would tear up which only caused a chain reaction. Alexx and I prepared a slide show of our group and while I thought it would be tearjerker it was actually really funny! It is amazing how much we all change over the course of two years, even small things like how long/short someone’s hair is and without looking back on some of those initial memories you don’t even realize it. I will try to get a final slideshow together and post it for you all to see!
As for my second, and last, AllVol/WAIST combo it was everything that I imagined; exciting to see people you never get to see, exhausting always being on the go and sad to be saying goodbye to people that I will probably never see again. Peace Corps had to play in our own league for the softball tournament, again, as we should, and I can actually say there was way more drinking and horse playing than actual softball, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think four official softball games actually happened but the next day it quickly stopped once we were asked to come back at 9am, the morning after the Marine’s Masquerade Ball. We all knew this was not going to happen but we tried to stay positive but when walking back at 4am in a vampire-like cloak that my homestay Megan and I took from a Marine we realized the 9am thing was not going to be happening. 11am rolls around and we finally turn up to the fields and the number of people that were there, already drinking and attempting a game of softball was impressive. There were not enough people to form any team really so it quickly became a game of the north versus the south. Those of us that were not into playing softball after a night of festivities were able to lie in the grass, listen to music and try to take down that first beer, which is always the hardest. We ended up getting kicked off the field resulting in us finding another one and starting a game of kickball. Once everyone was too tired of kickball we just did some more grass laying and beer drinking. Really it was a perfect afternoon. Other than softball and the masquerade ball, as far as Peace Corps sponsored events, there was bowling, pub trivia, and a talent show- Lily, Karen, Alexx and myself had a dance routine again this year along with the Kolda Region performing a K-Pop routine and I am proud to say they were both a hit!
With less than three months left in country I am left thinking, what next? We were told during our Close of Service Conference to do the next thing that interests us. This is where there is a bump in the road. What does interest me? Do I want to teach English abroad for a little bit? Do I want to push papers to try to move up in an organization? Do I want to try and find that perfect dream job that allows me to live abroad with a base somewhere in the states? And if I am going to live in the states there is always the question of where? While I have no idea what I am going to be doing in three months it leaves me with a freeing feeling. I can do whatever I want and I can live wherever I want. Now is the time to actually do whatever interests me. On the other hand after doing what I have been doing for the past two years, and pretty much being away from anything that I consider normal life back in America, am I really equipped mentally to make these hard life changing decisions? As a Peace Corps volunteer, and I am sure most, if not all can relate, you lose all sense of decency in those two years! We eat with our hands, when we shower it is out of a bucket, we are always late to meetings and we narrate every detail of our lives since nobody really understands us. Well, as one may say when talking about guys, I just need Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Forever!


Monday, January 20, 2014

Living The Dream: Job Searching and Cheese Plates!

As I am sitting here trying to write, and honestly picking peanuts out of my teeth since it is the only crop that you can pretty much rely on year around and, it is not rice, I can’t help but think about all the things that I make note to write about, which I can never remember when it actually comes time to write, versus the things that end up flowing from my fingertips more naturally onto this aged MacBook. 
We are COSing (close of service) the first week of May we were told, not sure on an exact date yet, and we all find ourselves reflecting on these past two years, what we are going to be doing after COS and how exactly to blend the two lives together. We are constantly being told how great the work that we are doing is and we are constantly scrutinized for being spies or foreigners who come in and don’t really do much. Whichever side you fall on as a volunteer you can’t help but feel just as lost about life towards the end of your service as you were pre service which is ironic because being lost is the reason most of us pack up and leave America in the first place.
Before I get too far ahead let me clarify a few things first. Usually, groups from a specific sector, be it Agriculture, Health or Community Economic Development (CED) in Senegal’s case, come the same time ever year creating an easy transition for communities with a volunteer leaving and another one arriving a month later creating a two-year cycle. The Community Economic Development sector, which is where my work lies in, has been separated into two groups now arriving twice a year in Senegal once with the Agriculture sector and again with the Health sector. We are the smallest sector within Senegal so it was decided that, since a lot of money goes into trainings, it would be better and easier for everyone if we were mixed in with the other sectors. That being said the CED group that is coming to replace us is now coming in March for training, instead of June. Long story short, we get to leave early. Now I don’t want to sound extreme on either end. There are people in my group that are excited that we get to leave two months earlier and there are those that signed up for two full years and plan on staying here until that time is up. I would say I fall somewhere in the middle. Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited to see friends and family that I haven’t seen in nearly two years. On the other hand I like being abroad, I always have and I probably always will. I am not saying that Senegal is a destination hot spot, I think my mom can attest to that, but it still fills something that I find missing when I find myself in a routine for too long. So I am not sure when we will be leaving but we have our COS conference, a conference every PC Volunteer goes through before COSing to help us transition into life after service (job searching, resume writing, final administrative responsibilities for PC), the first part of February and will hopefully have a better sense of everything afterward.
Sitemate Rachel and I at a local soccer match 
So where does this leave all of us now that are getting ready to do whatever is next? We find ourselves passing on our knowledge to the new volunteers that arrive in country, be it about where to find the best and possibly only cheese plate in the country or where to find cheap beers when you are at your regional house, we obsessively look at and change our resumes, we job search and hope that we get one that will actually let us start when we are able to start, we plan, change, and re-plan COS trips to some exotic far away land before we get tied to a desk in America, we start giving everything away including things that are meant for the trash but you know the kids at your house are just going to dig it out and play with it for an hour before they leave it on the ground and we, with a smile on our face, slowly let people down when we can’t commit to a new project idea because we are leaving but someone soon will replace us and we are sure they would love to help!
Two years may seem like a long time, and some days it is longer than you will ever know, but it seems that right when you get fully comfortable with where you live, with the transportation, food and cultural norms, you have to start packing and saying goodbye. It is true. Development work is hard. Living abroad with a host family and without a salary while you do it is even harder. People say that if we really wanted to make a change that volunteers should commit more time and while I agree with that to a point I am glad that I will not be one of those volunteers. I have loved my time here in Senegal but I also love my life back home. This is nowhere near a goodbye from me, I still have another three months, but that will come and go just as fast as this past year and a half.

Friday, December 27, 2013

"I Touch It" says the Italian

The travel bug. Something that seems more like a disease in the sense that you are born with it and it never really goes away versus something temporary that you catch. I have been infected with this disease, if you will, sine I can remember. Moving every few years, visiting family that were spread across the United States and continuing traveling though my studies and now through my work has allowed me to visit and live in some of the most interesting, at the very least, places in the world. At this stage of the game I want to believe that when I find myself back in the states in four months or so that I will be content with where I am geographically and not have the innermost feeling of needing to get away. With that being said there are things that only seeing the world can add to someone’s life and finding those cultural difference remind me why I am always trying to immerse myself in a new culture.
While I technically live abroad, my day-to-day life is such a routine at this point that Senegal has almost lost its shiny new toy effect. I forget that the things that seem so normal to me were once seen as new and exciting. It becomes more apparent once I leave the comfort of my village and venture to the more touristy sites of Senegal where I get to watch all these firsts in the eyes of other people that treat Senegal as a tourist destination; it is the Mexico of France.
The first night at Blue Africa, a hotel on the beach in Mbour where Rachel and I found ourselves for Christmas, we met an Italian man who was touring West Africa on his motorbike. Granted he had seen much more of West Africa than I have he was new to Senegal and seemed to be checking his first impressions for accurateness with Rachel and myself. It was not only funny to hear his impressions but it was also exciting to see some of his mannerisms that he had brought from Italy. A prime example of this, which we ended up Googling later to figure out the details of what we witnessed, was the act of him grabbing himself, you know, down there, and saying “I touch it” after I asked him if he had been in an accident yet. Rachel and I both just laughed it off and continued on with conversation because we both knew it was a cultural ism that we were clearly unaware of and didn’t feel the need to go into detail incase we were getting into something that we would eventually regret. Apparently the act of a man grabbing his crotch or a woman grabbing her left boob in Italy was the equivalent to our knock on wood; t is interesting how the simple act of knocking on wood differs so greatly amongst cultures. I also noticed how seemingly passionate he was with everything. The food was great as he took in every bite, the view breathtaking and the homeless dog that was never too far away was even greeted with a “ciao bella” or hello beautiful in English; usually the homeless animals get an “acha” or “shoo,” as we would say in America, since they are at the bottom of the bottom of the totem poll in Senegal.
In a not so smooth segue; dogs, cats and pigs are treated as though they don’t exist in Senegal. Cows, goats and sheep are slightly higher up considering that they at least provide food once someone determines that their life should come to an end, with the human life, as similarly in most cultures, usually being the reigning class. Not too long ago a few volunteers and myself were riding in a car coming back from Kolda when we came across a troop of monkeys. While we were all taken back by how magnificent they looked in their natural environment and the natural way they acted towards each other we could not help but notice the behavior of our driver. He repeatedly brought his fingertips up to his forehead and out in the space between him and the windshield with an open palm almost like he was telling them to stop. We had our assumptions of what exactly he was doing but once asked he told us that he was showing them respect because we were once exactly like them and even today we are not much different. This sign of respect was interesting since it was coming from a cultural that normally does not show much, if any, respect for animals.

How do you make Christmas on the beach better? Add
some wine and cheese!
While rituals, little behaviors and the simple beauty that a country can offer us are all searchable on your favorite search engines it will never be the same as seeing it first hand.  We tend to speed through life and forget to take in all the little things that we take advantage of once we get used to something. Whether you are one of 14 squeezed in a car, waking up to the mosque speakers announcing prayer at 5:30am or tasting that once exciting dish for the fifth time that week for dinner, life is exciting, life is a gift and it is the little things that reminds me why I like to travel. If you are ever missing home or family just blink a couple of times because it will be over before you know it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Peace Corps is hard. Development work is harder. There are things that we do to ourselves to make our lives more complicated, drinking too much and having a hangover when it is already 100°F, and there are things that the world does to us and make us wonder why, such as people stabbing your already overworked donkey, but I will elaborate more on that later. With all these things being said when work is going well or, more or less, your way, it is something to celebrate and appreciate. When you find yourself in this rare ideal you tend to see, not just look at, the sunrises on your morning run, savor the lunch that you eat probably five times a week or play with the kids in your compound a little more; everyone benefits!
While work has been about as busy as ever and though it still does not compare to a busy schedule in my previous life it feels good to be on the move again. My trash project has all of a sudden stumbled upon financing from a few sources which seems typical as far as timing because I have been working my entire service to get funding without writing another grant and I finally find it once my service is in the last stretch; 1) the city contributed 100,000CFA (about $200), 2) we were fortunate enough to add one of the local pharmacies to our list of clients which also just so happens to be owned by the richest person in Velingara and insists to pay more than 3x the service fee, 3) Sodefitex, an international cotton company with a local bureau, promised funding if we write an official request for donations and 4) we may have found financing from the US Embassy to install public dumpsters throughout Velingara.
With the good things come the bad and like a famous rapper once said, “mo money, mo problems.” We are now faced with the ever so daunting question of what to do with our new found wealth. Buying a new donkey is top of the list at the moment ever since someone decided to slice into her back leg with who knows what when she was eating the other day forcing her to visit the vet to get the wound cleaned out which I think she is less than thrilled about. We already considered her over-worked but since we were always financially unable to buy another donkey we just sort of
Donkey getting the best medical care Velingara has to offer!
hoped for the best I guess. Donkeys apparently run for about 50,000CFA (about $100), which cuts a large piece of the already small pie given to us by the community but we will consider it as an investment in the business. The rest of the money will be put in the bank so that we have money to fall back on as it’s needed, like during dry season and donkey food is so expensive that she is eating most of our profits. Amadou has expressed a few things that we can buy but I am keeping him grounded, I think.
The meeting with Sodefitex to ask for donations, materials, or pretty much anything they could contribute, went great. We initially spoke with someone but he ended up being in charge of manufacturing but kindly showed us who the correct person was to speak with and, while he was a little less inviting, he said that he would accept our request if we had a proper written request. We have to state the brief origin of the project, our current dilemmas and what we plan on doing/how we will benefit from the donation, in whichever form we are requesting. This was expected, and he wanting a formal request did not surprise me, but I was surprised when he started explaining that he probably wouldn’t be able to give funds or materials 100% and that in fact projects are more successful and people are more invested when they are required to also contribute to the end goal. With that being said they usually would, as an example for our request, give us a well-built cart containing the Sodefitex logo and we would have to pay for a percentage of it, which could be paid in full or monthly installments. What? I was speechless. This is great! This is exactly what I wanted when I was declining to write another grant for the project in the first place, the community and the project needed to be more invested and here I was listening to a Senegalese man preach about the importance of the project leaders having a sense of ownership in the “donated” materials and this is why Africa is how it is today because they receive too much free stuff and aren’t involved in the development process. I am not paraphrasing or summing up the point of what he was getting at, this is what he said and I wanted to jump out of my chair, throw my arms around him while I cried. He gets it. People can get it. This is what I am doing here. Not to write grants, though I did do that a couple times, or to solely teach people about Americans but to show people that there are resources here which are available and it is up to them to take advantage of them and with a little hard work, and if we are being honest, education, they are more than capable of doing this.
Concerning my project in Tambacounda producing poultry feed I think we were approved, well I received a text from the Peace Corps grants manager asking if I had received the funds yet and while I informed him that I was unaware that we were approved I was encouraged to look into my account. This is great timing since not only has it been a while since we submitted our application but my counterpart Cissé had called me the other day to tell me that the project had already started because “if he were to wait funding he might be waiting forever and he doesn’t have time for that.” This does not mean that he has funding to do the project on his own it merely means that he is financially capable, and determined enough, to start the preliminary crucial steps in the project so once funding is received we can more easily hit the ground running! He has great determination and has not let me down thus far and I am excited for the week when we get to set up shop and start a truly wonderful business; it will also be kind of nice that I will get to live at the regional house with Wi-Fi and access to a kitchen since it is approximately two hours from my actual site and the thought of commuting sounds horrible.
In summary, life is good. I have more work than most volunteers, which is something to be excited about and I love, for the most part, the people that I get to work with. My service is going to be coming to an end before I know it so now is the time that I get to, pardon my language, start kickin’ ass and takin’ names!


Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Best Game

I tend to get in the habit of writing about my experiences and I skim over the work that I am actually doing. I talk about how things make me feel, or I write about things in an attempt to better understand my surroundings or for the chance for those you of actually reading my blogs to better understand Senegal, even if it is just a little bit or through only my eyes. Well this post is different my friends. I want to tell you a little bit about a training that myself and my PTA (Program Training Assistant) Talla Diop held in Velingara, and by that I mean Talla did almost everything, all I did was find a bunch of people that wanted to attend, which doesn’t take a rocket scientist.
Talla explaining the rules of the game
I decided to have two trainings, one for the more educated or entrepreneurial types and one for the less educated. Almost immediately by creating these two groups we are separating the women from the men, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Since everyone that we wanted to attend the training were not educated, and since men have a complex in this society, we wanted to keep them separate to give the women a chance to actually learn and take something from the training and not just watch the men participate.
So what was the training? It is called The Best Game and it is adapted from a game that was created by the UN and played throughout many developing countries throughout the world. There are four stages to the game but Senegal for the most part is still in the first stage of the game, learning and understanding basic principals that most of us in the US learned in primary school. The game focuses on financial management and budgeting principals and puts it in a context that is very relatable to the Senegalese culture. The best part of the game is it can be adaptable for literate or illiterate groups and since most of the women in the afternoon training were illiterate this game worked perfectly.
Babies apparently always go to the market, when it
is real and just for fun 
The game starts out separating people into even teams. Each team is then explained the rules; 1) You are paid 200CFA the beginning of the month which is a Wednesday, 2) Thursdays are used to plan and budget your money for the next week, 3) Saturdays is market day, 4) Sunday is a day of rest and no work can be done, 5) you are a hat maker and each Monday you can buy materials to make your hats which cost 400CFA/hat, 6) Tuesdays you make your hats, 7) Wednesdays you sell your hats in the market for 800CFA/hat, 8) the 27th of the month you have to pay rent which is 250 CFA, 9) a new day happens only when the hour glass is flipped over and those days activities must finish before the sand runs out of the hourglass, about a minute, and 10) money can be deposited into the bank whenever you would like.
Rules are explained in detail and since there are four weeks in a month there are four
Quality control on "hats"
rounds to the game. The game starts out in the beginning of the month and everyone is handed money and, in a typical fashion, feels richer than they are in reality. This first round is great to watch once you know how the game works because you pick up on the more fiscally responsible decisions that some groups are making while understanding the less responsible ones from other groups. For example, when Jordan and I played with the more educated group in the morning training there was one other women who attended, so of course the men put her in our group. We sent her to the market the first Saturday where you can choose from food, cloths, candy, sunglasses, radios, watches and soccer balls for all varying prices. She had 50CFA to spend and she bought 20CFA of food, which was good, but the only thing that was 30CFA on the market board were sunglasses, so she bought them. Now I am not sure how sunglasses are going to better improve our “family” situation but she did not even think to not spend that money and save it for next week. Interesting train of thought and needless to say she was never sent back to the market. Also in the first round my counterpart Amadou, who was in a different group, was holding his pen when the hourglass was flipped over to Sunday, resulting in a financial penalty for working. Not exactly sure the intentions behind this rule but I think it just enforces that there are rules and we follow them, which I like! The first Monday everyone was unsure as to how many pieces of paper to buy to make our hats since we were unsure how long it would take to make a hat and all hats had to be completed by the end of the hourglass timer. I think we bought three but we should have used the first Thursday to better plan our expenses to determine how many hats we needed to make in order to support our lifestyle and profit to pay our rent at the end of the month. That is what the first round is I suppose, to make mistakes and learn from them. Once at the market on Wednesday we tried to sell our hats to Talla where they had to endure tests to ensure their quality (him bouncing them in his palm to make sure they didn’t become unfolded) and if they were not well-built he would then dramatically crumple them up and throw them in a trash can or over his shoulder in attempts to prove a point. It was great and everyone got a good laugh out of it and everyone quickly learned not to invest too much money in raw material if you were unable to create a quality product in a timely fashion.

Talla crumpling hats that were in the
production phase before the start of the day
As the weeks went on we grew stronger in the game since we knew what was expected of us and how serious Talla was about the rules of the game. People stopped spending their entire weeks budget on food, they invested more in the business and they were sure to build quality products over quantity. It was like everything that I was taught in school and it was refreshing seeing these somewhat foreign principals being used so casually and without trying to shove it down their throat; if only everyone could play this game, understand the concepts and apply them to real life we could wrap this Peace Corps thing up next week. Unlikely.
A couple of times throughout the game a card is drawn where a life event happens and, depending on your situation, you are either prepared for it or not. Of course the card that was drawn in both trainings, I think Talla planned it now that I think back on it, was that a thief was coming around and stole all the money that was not in the bank. The bank?! I forgot about that thing and so did every other group apparently. We had a savings, we were feeding our family, we were creating quality products but we were not putting money in the bank so three-quarters through the game we lost everything. Amadou’s group was already in the hole at this point, they had to borrow money from another group with an interest rate of 30% determined by the group and they chose them over our group, which was charging 100%.  This being said, they were a little less affected by the event but it was detrimental to those of us who actually had a plan. Another card was drawn during the women’s afternoon training where the kids in the family were sick if you did not buy enough food the previous week at the market. All the groups passed this test and I must say, the women were much better at listening and following directions compared to the morning session where the men were constantly being penalized for not following rules.
The Bank
If it came down to having to pay for something and you had no money you could sometimes borrow money from the bank, when Talla allowed it or he wanted to prove a point. The end of the month was approaching for both trainings and Talla required that each group pay back the loans that they had barrowed from the bank. Most of the groups were able to pay, without a problem, and life seemed to go on. But there was one thing, no receipts. The next day Talla requested that each group repay their loans that they held with the bank and when each group, screaming more or less, explained that they already paid it back he simply said, “oh ok no problem, can I see your receipt.” No receipts were shown, of course because he did not write any, and everyone had to pay their loans back for a second time. I could not help but sit back and laugh at how passionate everyone was getting and how they refused to pay again, but Talla stood his ground and demanded money from each group.
Out of both the morning and the afternoon session Jordan and I were the only group that actually had money at the end of the game. Not  only money left over but we were the only group that did not have an outstanding loan with the bank. This may have something to do with us being the most educated out of everyone at the trainings or that I had played the game before but I still forgot key lessons like keeping money in the bank. Damn, that one will stick with me forever, how could I forget that? Now comes my favorite part of the game- Talla had a little talk with the groups at the end of the game telling them the importance of being aware of your financial situation, budgeting and not spending half your salary on a weeks worth of food, investing in your business since that is how you earn money and keeping money in the bank. He was able to apply all of these important principals with examples directly from the game and everyone understood.
Talla (in the hat) and most of the women
from the afternoon training
It is amazing how people can got more out of this training that any amount of lectures that I could have given. It was prepackaged, easy to understand and conducted by someone knowledgeable and passionate in the topic. A truly great training for anyone working in development or honestly with any group that needs to improve his or her financial knowledge and responsibility. If you would like details on the game or would like to duplicate it feel free to message me and we can tailor it to your culture or individual situation. Thanks for reading, take care and until next time.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Transit Card? Yes Please!

I have just finished a series of Ted Talks all based on the idea of the workplace; where are employees the most productive? How can businesses be good at solving social problems? What makes you feel good about your work? With the inevitable and seemingly prolonged return back to the States I can’t help but, as any good OCD job-seeker may be, start thinking about how the workplace has changed since I left it over a year ago and what I can do to be better prepared to reenter it. Though the following topics may seem obvious to some of you it is important that we take time to remember what makes our employees happy since they are the ones that make a successful business.

The office is changing. This is something that you read in those articles that feature the top employers of the year that just leaves you wishing you worked for that company and in turn only points out how your employer is in fact nothing like any on the featured list. Like former Apple mogul taught us, if you need to have a meeting go for a walk. Nothing quite like a walk stimulates blood flow resulting in more creative thinking leading to innovative ideas and you can’t help but think you couldn’t come up with these same ideas in a more typical office setting. Are you more productive in the early morning before the office is full of all those people who bounce from cubicle to cubicle set out to ruin your train of thought? Great! Come in at six and you can leave by 3pm.  These are just simple, conceivable, examples of the changing office setting into less micro-managed spaces having more faith in the employee.

Businesses are working for social change; not merely a kindhearted task anymore but sort of an expected responsibility. More and more conversations are being geared towards nonprofits alone not having enough resources to make a large impact on social matters and these responsibilities shifting to be shared with the for-profit community. Non-profits are tied down by donors with restrictions on what they can use funds for, often excluding administrative costs, when in fact administration costs are inevitable and necessary with any successful business be it for-profit or not. So not only do we see these 501(c)(3) organizations adapting but also we are seeing the private sector stepping up and making a big difference in big social problems.

As expected, employers are requiring new skills from its employees resulting with the millennial generation being more tech savvy and adaptable than any of its previous generations. You are no longer considered a notable candidate for a position if you merely have Microsoft Office listed as a skill on a resume. HTML is being taught as early as middle school and writing code will be the new skill requested among employers to any given employee. As technology increases so must our knowledge of technology.

Typical day at the office! (After an agriculture training in village)
An interesting topic that I ran into was the idea of benefits. People are no longer, and I am not even sure they ever were, motivated purely by salary. People like to feel appreciated, acknowledged and respected. There was as study that had various people building works of art with Lego’s and after something was built they were asked if they wanted to build another work. Individuals were more willing to build again after their first piece of work was acknowledged versus just torn down immediately. Would you want to build another dinosaur if the one you just built was torn apart before you were even acknowledged for what you had done? The same goes for work. I am not saying that managers need to praise us every step of the way but gratitude and appreciation can go further than financial rewards. This idea also stretches into the form of benefits where employers are compensating employees in more ways than just financial compensation; in the form of flexible working hours, daycare vouchers, cell phone plans, transportation vouchers or gym memberships.

So what is the new employee look like to fit this new working environment? They share the passion of the company they work for. They want to feel like they are making a difference and feel appreciated even if they are working for a for-profit giant. They are motivated by more than mere salary since, after all, money doesn’t buy happiness. They are forever seeking higher education be it with a formal education or weekend Ted Talks. They are evolving for the better, just like businesses today.

And remember employee of the future, it is not a mutually exclusive choice to do good for yourself or do good for the world. Both are possible.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

It's Like Herding Cats

Hello there digital world. I must say it has been a little while since I had written last and, depending on why you read this blog, I am both sorry and you are welcome for the lack of entries. After returning from Thailand I had about two weeks to prepare for mom’s visit to Senegal. It is amazing how, when you actually have work, quickly time passes here which turns out to be more of a good thing than bad; nine months and counting but that sure does sound like a long time writing it out.
Before mom’s arrival I was excited though I was trying to compose myself because I knew that the sooner she arrived the sooner she would have to head back the land of wonderful things. And while I don’t want to do a day-by-day account of her trip I can tell you that she saw more of the country than a lot of volunteers that live here
have. We were up north in St. Louis along the coast to enjoy a more European way of life, we rode camels in Lompoul, visited my family and home in Velingara, back up north along the coast to do a liquor tasting in Warang made from local fruits, had a few days by the pool and beach in Saly and back to Dakar to truly rest and enjoy time together which usually always included wine and cheese. YUM.  Along with way she got to meet some of my closest friends in country, got to know the ins and outs of a truly local way of transportation (sorry mom but you were a trooper!), taste a few local dishes and even learned a few words of the local language Pulaar which by the end of our stay in Velingara she had the greetings down. All in all it was great having some mom time, I am so lucky that she was able to come and not only see a little bit of my life here but to explore a true passion of mine, the international community.
On one of the last nights of mom’s stay, while in Saly with Alexx, I had a little too much wine and liquor from Warang and I agreed to help out with an English camp that was in Dakar to be held the day after mom’s flight. They were short a volunteer and since I was already in Dakar it seemed like the perfect fit; I really wanted to get back to site and return to “normal” life since I had been traveling so much lately between Thailand and mom’s visit but honestly it was nice getting to hang out with people I rarely see in Dakar for a week. The camp was a part of the Access English program put on by the US Embassy promoting and educating people in the English language. I was a teacher in the camp in the Parcells neighborhood in Dakar, only about a 15-minute cab ride from the regional house, with students ranging from ages 15-18. Some students had attended the camp before, or were in higher-level English classes in school, making them stronger English speakers while others seemed to struggle during the camp. While the camp was fun, it was exhausting. And I think exhausting is an understatement. You could tell some students were there because they either had to be or they had nothing better to do. In sync with the Senegalese schooling system people often wanted breaks of a half an hour and more which was exactly opposite of what us volunteers are used to which caused tension and conflict at times. Also, it was like pulling teeth to get people to answer questions and I don’t know if it was because of their age, their inability to speak the language or their general lack of confidence. There is also just a general lack of respect that I thinks also comes with their age. At one point I asked a group of girls probably five times to join the rest of the group in the courtyard and they all just looked at me with a look on their face questioning why I was even talking to them. After a few seconds of that lovely face I literally started herding the girls to the courtyard. I really did feel like I was herding cats, which if you could imagine would be difficult. In summary I am glad it is over and am also glad that I will not be here for the next camp. I heard nothing but good things from others at other camps so it also could have been the group of students but I commend those teachers all over the world who work with difficult students day in and day out, stick with it, and are actually capable of making a difference without walking out and not looking back!
Back at site now that I am done dealing with children I get to work with adults who merely act like children. Not only did I not sign up for this I don’t have the patience to deal with it alone so thank Allah I have capable counterparts. Just today, one of a million examples, I met three of my counterparts with the waste management project at the Mayor’s office to try and get him to use the money in the budget for waste removal on actual waste removal. Now this is not the first time that we have met there to have these impromptu meetings but the last one I attended was in June resulting in the Mayor promising money by the end of July. It is October now. Continuing on, he was not at his office and his assistant informed us that he was at his house. We walked to his house, to so surprise of our own, he was not there. We walk back to his office thinking we may have just missed him and he was not there either. It is 11am on Wednesday I don’t think it is unreasonable for him to be at his office, easily accessible to the public, since he does not take appointments. My counterpart, the wonderful Amadou, took my phone to call the Mayor to ask him where he in fact was while requesting a meeting and he told us that he was in Gambia and he could see us later in the afternoon. This is interesting since that is not at all what we had heard from anyone along the way. Once hanging up the phone Amadou punches a code on my phone to determine the amount of phone credit he had used up calling the Mayor who apparently was in Gambia, which should have resulted in international rates. 59cfa. Interesting. It should have cost at least 500cfa. He is in fact in Senegal and not only is lying to us but we found his car at the local hotel where he was probably just escaping his daily fight to do actual Mayor-like tasks. This is where my internal struggle comes in. Why am I busting my butt everyday to try and help Velingara when the own Mayor is smuggling money and wants nothing to do with the development of his community. If he does not want to help his own community, where he has lived his whole life and will probably reside the rest of his life, what is my incentive? I thought Amadou was acting mildly radically when he used to tell me that he was going to expose the Mayor on the radio about how he is doing nothing for our project, and those like ours, but now I am quickly becoming on the same page. Lets exercise our right to strike I tell him. He laughs and though I think he is seeing the downside of a strike financially, I can’t help but think what will happen if we don’t collect trash for a few weeks or a month; the people will start talking and becoming infuriated with the lack of support and corruption from the Mayor’s office. I have an appointment tomorrow to speak with Mr. Mballo at the radio station who is an educated well-respected man in the community in which I will hopefully get some advice from on the entire situation. Stay tuned.
It is a similar situation with my youth project. Though the project is getting executed it is no longer because of any help from my counterpart with that project. Not only has left to go north to Thies (I have actually not heard from him in at least three weeks) but I am pretty sure he is pocketing leftover money from the project. Yay. I need to come up with the energy to confront him about this and I can’t wait to hear what excuse he is going to come up with. I am counting down the days until the project is done and I don’t have to communicate with him any longer.
On much more exciting and productive news, my grant for the chicken feed project in Tambacounda is all turned into my APCD (boss) Mr. Sall and I am waiting on his confirmation or request of changes to turn it into the grants person with the Peace Corps. Hopefully he reads it sooner than later and I can get it turned in. After I submitted the grant my counterpart, Mr. Cissé, wanted to have a copy for his own records and when I emailed a copy to him, including translations into French, he called me soon after telling me that he read it three times and it is ingenious! It is nice to get some positive feedback for once. I really like working with him on this project because not only do I get to get out of Velingara for a little bit but I get to work with someone who has a business mindset and understands profits, loss, bookkeeping and all those other important things that make a successful business. Finally! I love Amadou and he is a great counterpart but he has never ran a business before so it makes things complicated at times, but that is why I am here, and teach I must.
Well America, and the rest of the world, that is all I have for now. I would love to hear some comments from you about my entries thus far. Is there something you would like to know more about or do you have a solution for any of the above problem areas? Also, I am unofficially looking for high school age students who want to pen pal with students here in Velingara. I think a few of my contacts might fall through and I would really love to set up a connection with a school locally with one abroad before I leave. It can be from any school in the world as long as the class can write in English. Let me know! Thanks again, take care!


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