Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Story About Dakar and Thanksgiving

I have been staying at the Dakar Regional House for the last week and it’s been both exciting and exhausting. Each region, the equivalent to states or counties I suppose, has a house or apartment that is served as a sanctuary for volunteers. These houses are managed and ran by volunteers. Since we are in a prominently Muslim country these houses act as sort of a refuge for allowing us to be American and not judged by the locals for our actions. With all of this being said though it leads to some memorable gatherings that, if you are not in the mood, can ruin a good nights sleep; it’s like freshman year in college all over again.
Our outfits from the closet!
All the volunteers that belong to the Dakar region decided to set a day to deep clean the house and vote on their WAIST (West African Invitational Softball Tournament) costumes; a tournament put on by expats (expatriates- a population living abroad usually for work) each February as an excuse to drink alcohol and be American.  The house cleaning was very productive and the house looks more like a Goodwill store now than a dumpsite, which is good. There is always an allotted plot at each regional house where volunteers take and give their old clothing. Some things are so ridiculous and were hopefully only purchased to wear as a costume (tutu, glitter blazer with shoulder pads, track suit) but there are things that if you are willing to take the time to go through it makes a great addition to any wardrobe. At one point we had a party were everyone had to wear cloths from the closet and it was interesting to see the combinations; everything is more fun while wearing a ridiculous outfit. During the cleaning we found probably the equivalent to ten garbage bags of clothing in the closet. Nobody was willing to take the time to go through it to see if anything was salvageable so, for the sake of truly deep cleaning the house, everything had to go. We threw down some sheets in the front lawn dumped the clothes on in no particular order and got rid of everything; the locals were having a heyday. There were high school boys playing dress up in the girls’ cloths and little kids running and jumping in the piles, it was a lot of fun to watch.
Some volunteers at the Ambassadors house for Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving was hosted at the American Ambassador’s house, as he does every year. Last year the guest list was too large and some people came without bringing a side dish, the Ambassador provides the turkey, beer, and wine and the side dishes are up to the guests, so they ended up running out of food. With that being said this year the number of attendees was limited and I would guess that Peace Corps took up more than 80% of everyone. We were reminded, on several occasions, to act as though, well, we were not volunteers. We had to dress appropriately and not get too drunk. Drinking too much seemed damn near impossible considering the amount of food that we all ate; we have been on a rice and sauce diet for the last six months. Tables were set up in the back yard in the garden and poolside; at one point we were all freezing. Who would have ever thought that it would get cold enough to the point of goose bumps since we are sweating 90% of the day? If I had to guess it was about 75°F, so not cold but hey, temperature is relative.  After dinner we gathered around the piano and listened and sang to some classics like Elton John and a few newer hits like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”. It was a memorable party and I was thankful to be able to spend it with everyone I care about here in country. Of course we all wish in a little way that we could be sitting at home on the couch, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and stealing bits of food as mom cooks but there will be time for that soon enough. I am glad to be here with my work and truly appreciative this adventure.
About a year ago I was hustling through a crowd at the Mall of America’s Best Buy trying to find an external hard drive at a mega discounted price and this year I will be sleeping in, eating a bean sandwich for breakfast and taking my $4 cab ride to the Artisanal Fair. This fair or expo, whatever you want to call it, is a chance for a group of artists that work with volunteers to showcase their products and sell them to the expat market. All the products are hand made in Senegal and offer a higher quality than the normal touristy products you find. Some of the artists that they work with ship their goods overseas and even a few are featured in stores like Pier One. Woven baskets, paintings, jewelry, wooden statues, and tapestries are a few of the things that you can expect to find. One little trick that the volunteers are teaching the artists is pricing, in a simpler form of course. They teach them that even though everyone sells a certain basket for a certain price does not mean your basket has to be the same price. Maybe you use better quality products to make your basket or it has features that you can’t find anywhere else? Your basket should cost more. It’s amazing how we take even the little things for granted such as knowledge. It takes some time to get used to not assuming that the things that I learned in high school are not common knowledge.
It is just about time to go back to site and I am both excited and dreading it. I love hanging out with volunteers, watching movies and making fancy dinners but I have to remember that that is not why I am here. At this point I am just waiting for mandat (our monthly living stipend that includes money for food, housing, transportation and walk-around) to get deposited into my account so that I can get back to site. We usually get “paid” around the 23rd of each month and it’s the 25th and I don’t have a penny to my name. So in summary I am stuck in Dakar until I get paid so that I have enough money to buy my bus/car ticket back to site. Boo.
Between IST and Thanksgiving I have spent the last three weeks with my fellow volunteers and it has been a great time. Dakar and Thies are so different than the Senegal that I know and live in it’s a good escape. They have malls here, fancy hotels, pet stores, grocery stores with actual carts and air conditioning. It’s like a different world, but the world that I am used to and love. Someday America we will be reunited but until then, peace.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Election and IST

Elections snuck up on me this year, per usual, but I did remember to send in my absentee ballot a few months ago. I was studying abroad just before the last election and was confronted with the same scenarios this time around in Senegal as I was in France.
People are more informed about American politics than I would have assumed but the information that they have is either reverberated back, not actually understood on a conceptual level, or only a part of the picture. A majority of the people that I spoke with about the elections, with the conversation always being brought up on their end, seem to favor Obama but there are the few, like my host brother, who were all about Romney. Either way my election night was spent at the Tambacounda Regional House since I had to be in Thies the following day for IST (In Service Training); I live a good ten hours away from Thies so I thought it would be wise to get a head start. The polls were still open in the west coast when I went to bed but I woke up with Obama being favored to be re-elected, yay! Now I have to insert a line or two as to why I voted for Obama to prove that I voted for him for other reasons than the color of his skin or good looks; 1) his position on gay marriage 2) his position on abortion 3) his support for a national healthcare system and 4) I think that four years is not long enough to be productive. That being said we will see what we can do in the next four years; I say we because he does not pass or reject laws, he works with a large number of politicians all starting at the local level.

Diane, Anthony, and I left for the garage at 6am to meet up with Jenn, the usual crew because we are all coming from about as far south as you can get and transportation is never fun, let alone by yourself. This trip was going to be a little bit different than the usual trip up north; we were also transporting a puppy! I thought this was a great thing while the other travelers were not so enthusiastic. We were not able to leave the garage right away upon our arrival because there was still 3 spaces left in the car in front of us that was Thies-bound and we needed three more people to fill our car. Instead of using common sense and combining the cars we were forced to wait until the first car filled up and then ours to leave. We were more than a little impatient after waiting for about three hours and not moving so we bought the three remaining seats with the hope to pick up people along the way. We were off. The car ride was pretty smooth since we were all able to stretch out a little bit since the car was only about half full. Puppy, still nameless, slept for the first hour of the 7 hour trip; its hard keeping a puppy confined to a small box while on a road trip, he was restless to say the least. Since nobody wanted to take responsibility for this dog, Jenn found it outside and another volunteer up north said she would take it; I took on the responsibility of ensuring that he was properly taken care of during our road trip. Senegalese almost never consider animals as pets, they see it as wasting valuable resources and time on something that could go towards a human life and with this being said our driver was very confused why I was treating this dog better than some people treat their kids. He would pee in his dirt lined box that was acting as more of a litter box than a bed, we would take him on small walks during our pit stops and when he was getting REALLY restless I would feed him more milk in hopes that he would go into a food coma. We were unable to find locals along the way so we picked up the three other volunteers that lived off the main road along our trip. Our trip started out with four Americans and a dog and ended with the car full of us Peace Corps volunteers, with our dog, our driver was having a great time I am sure. As much fun as I had with our new little friend 8 hours or so was plenty of time to spend with him on my lap in a box, I was excited to get back to the training center.
We are back at the training center for IST; I am beginning to feel like I never left. During this ten-day period we have sessions such as Grant Writing, Reporting Statistics to the Peace Corps, Focus Groups (in each of our areas such as Waste Management), and Monitoring and Evaluation. All of these sessions should help us once we get back to site be more effective with our projects. There are so many things that I am learning here and its making me excited and nervous about my project at the same time. There are things we are doing right (having a motivational team, proper bookkeeping attempts, connections with the right people in the community) and things that we could use some guidance on (we are charging half of what we should, we don’t have enough workers, we need a sorting site) with one thing getting in the way; funding. There are so many International NGO’s (non-government organizations) that come to underdeveloped countries and just dump money thinking they are helping solve a problem of lack of money when in reality one of the main problems besides money is a lack of knowledge and dumping money does not create sustainability for these countries to be able to survive once the rich people go back home. I am torn on all the small details right now that can either make or break our business and after consulting with some volunteers who are working with similar projects I think I have figured out that I need to not be afraid to fail and while using my learned skills and background experiences I should just go with what I think is right. We are only charging 550CFA a month for our services when other towns nearby are charging 1000CFA. Our customers buy our trashcans while other villages rent them out to have collateral in case households don’t pay. We have one small cart with walls while others have found success in stacking the waste in rice sacks on flatbed type carts. I have one full time employee now (the other quite to work in his field) while others find it easier to work with two part time employees in case time off is ever needed. These are just some of the things that are stumping me at the moment that I need some advice on if anyone wants to put in their two cents.
Thanksgiving is coming up and since I was already 9/10ths of the way to Dakar I am heading to the big city for the holiday. The Ambassador has a party for Americans in Senegal each year, which I hear is a smashing time. Everyone gets dressed up, drinks fancy American drinks that you could only dream of at site and eats little appetizers that I can’t even imagine what they would be right now because it seems like forever ago that I had real food! Usually only volunteers belonging to the Region of Dakar are invited to the party but since I am already pretty much in Dakar I requested to get on the list and we will cross our fingers that when I show up they let me in.
So in summary life right now is pretty good. Classes can get long and seemingly tedious sometimes but I am eating a lot better than at site, I get to play with a puppy all day and I am reunited with all my friends. It’s just like PST all over again; movie nights, happy hours at Church (the name for the bar and since Muslims don’t drink they name the bar after our place of worship) and long walks on the beach. Ok I made that last part up there is no beach.

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