Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Closure with my one-hundredth post.

Where to start? Ive been putting this closing blog off for the last month during my leisurely travels back to the US of A, which may be the safe excuse to go with. Ive had so many undulating feelings since my big move out of village, my home for the last 2 years, to my most recent realization that the door to that gratifying life experience is only open by the key hole.
Nalli Samba and baby Jii, Nalli and little Hawa, Baaba Jii, Diebou & baby Homa & Tidiane, Neene Koumba & Houssae & Issatou, Aminata, Tidiane and me.
I stayed up as late as I could with my family that last night. We spent the evening reminiscing about silly things that Ive said and mistakes Ive made. They punctuated each consecutive ending with a heavier sigh that made its way to weigh my heart down a little more. I was determined not to crack like they say we Americans do so often. For one of the very few times, I stayed out in the compound later than most people in my family. But of course there are going to be those too stubborn and kind not to share one more dazzling night under the sweet Senegalese sky. I wish my pale face wasnt as distinguishable in the moon light- it was the only veil concealing my ebbing tears.

The night turned from lovely to long once I returned to my hut for the last time. With my walls now stripped of the letters and pictures from home along with the latest drawings and knickknacks from my little kids, I was the only thing left in this red, round room that could attest to the collaboration of effort and repeated failure that I ultimately grew with. Contemplative thoughts led my lucid mind to wild dreams. My brother Tidiane later said he didnt sleep either because "the mind cant rest without the heart."
My early-departure plans failed miserably. Mother Nature stuck it to me one last time with a heavy thunderstorm that threatened to wash the road away altogether. Instead, I sat at my open back door as I had done so many hot afternoons, fishing for a breeze, and so many early mornings, awaiting song birds and dawn. The air was still humid when Tidiane came with fresh breakfast milk and demanded that afterwards he would help bike my equipment to the road. My brother, my family made my life so much easier because of thoughtful things like this.

Everything just kept going forward. I was mindful and collected until little Jennabou looked up at me with eyes Ill never forget, asking, "Are you coming back?"
so much love
My family has a new volunteer now, Stephanie, who has recently been welcomed into the community as "Sira Diao." Im so happy to share such a wonderful and warm family, community, and (sort of) life with her. I feel like I have a new little sister that I get to watch grow up. She makes that key hole to our little piece of Senegal a little more manageable.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Peace Corps Senegal: the place where dreams are mefloquin induced and the vegetables are all greener on the other side.

Im nearly out. I can no longer count the years or months; I have weeks and am still in disbelief that the countdown will shorten to days. I think it safe to say that I am more surprised than anyone else in regards to my performance. Although resilience has played a grand role, it was a performance of great stature by the end.
Peace Corps Senegal began casting two summers ago, calling ag-interested applicants out of the wood-works. After proving our skills and dedication, not to mention health and legal reputations, over any where from a ten month to a several year span, we got the part. This new season would introduce 54 new (and still clean) faces to the program of 200. Peace Corps Senegal: the place where dreams are mefloquin induced and the vegetables are all greener on the other side. 
We gradually took on local characters as we stumbled through new languages and flattened words with our American tongues, furrowed our brows at cultural practices and realized we could explain ours no better, and felt the pit of our stomachs contract, hardly satisfied by the nonsubstantial staple. Our characters filled out as we were taken in by families and made new, very patient friends. We were assigned a dialect as part of the process to correspond with our new home and workplace in a community guaranteed to be comparatively curious about our ways as we were theirs. And finally, to seal our new identities, we were given names, which sprouting from weeks of hardship and training with the promise of mysterious but gratifying years.
The show began far before any of us realized it. We were right to feel like stars the moment we found crisp invitation letters waiting expectantly in the mailbox.
I am Homa Diao, an agfo PCV in the lush region of Kolda. I belong to the Casamance, which is made obvious by my sweet Foulakounda twang. Consider me a hardworking southern belle, my family still traceable to the herding lifestyle although we've been settled for a hundred years. I have a namesake and she is beautiful; She can walk now and soon will only know me by stories. Ive been given more babies and husbands than I care to count to take back to America with me. I have a hardworking Babaa and two moms that care for me in their own ways.
My days have taken on a slower pace to allow for greetings and hamming it up with the crazy old women; my days have slowed to patiently listen to kids explain themselves without the clues of body language; my sweet days have slowed just enough for people to show me what is important to them and for me to reassess, myself.

What started out as a performance became intertwined with my life. 

I have an "Obama" and "Chris Brown" in my group

“How are you? Are you fine?”
International English books and every surrounding munchkin and adult alike cling to the routine response- Fine! Although we Americans hardly ever mean it when we exchange a polite greeting (or when a woman expects you to decipher when she is employing the “fine red flag”), it seems to take on a more playful flavor here. Fine, Nice, and Cool are hip phrases in metropolitan areas, folded in with the local languages. Im not sure that we have an equivalent in the US since there is miraculously a common language across the huge country (Senegal compares to South Dakota in size). Plus, it would be inappropriate to racially profile someone passing at the grocery store with a – “Que paso?!” Fortunately, Senegal and West Africa are still culturally rich with more than 2000 local languages dominating the perhaps official,  colonized languages. They are also nonchalant about different ethnic groups and races. Its not that they haven’t had rifts, religious and political, or slavery, they simply aren’t resentful and hypersensitive. Their curiosity converges with the need for conversational stimuli with outspoken tendencies, which can be perceived as hospitable or, on the wrong day, hostile and aggressive.
With one month left in Senegal, I dedicated a week of it to teaching at English Access Camp, a program organized by the US Embassy and carried out by PCVs in conjunction with local school teachers. Kids are chosen from underserved districts far and wide across the country to participate (with a 2 year limit) to hear our American accents, practice in a semi-submersive environment, and like many summer camps, to have fun! The kids are eager to compare our accents to the British and Jamacian-like Gambian accents. Its amazing to hear them push through to express themselves and surprising how advance their functional classroom English is. Much like my grander PC service, I hope that I, as an extension of the Access Program, can help some of the kids continue in their studies or even pursue a career previously thought unattainable. Volunteers across Senegal, and Africa for that matter, have similar aspirations of seeing their work contribute to the positive rippling effect for deserving kids. This year, 755 middle school Senegalese students played baseball, translated cultural folk stories, and practiced English through a variety of games. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dear future me,

I've resolved to write a note on my current situation, place in life, and arrangement of mental furniture to be delivered to me 365 (and a quarter) days after a web-cation. 
I like the idea of taking a journalistic snapshot. Where will I be and what will I be doing in a year? How will my priorities shift and how will that affect my decisions?  These questions, easier to ask than answer, are often shot between volunteers and although they evoke anxiety, perhaps they're continuously asked for communal reassurance. You're not alone.
Maybe it's okay that plans seem to abstract with the brush of every sunset; It's okay that goals linger in the long term place, always cutoff by spontaneity; It's okay to live without creating a trivial buzz of routine and distractions. And together we put the anxiety back on the shelf between societal expectations and time's hourglass. 
It's time for an introspective hour (or 3) to make a web of options for those questions. Until next year- 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Baptisms and Birth Control

Jingles of the mortar and pestle resonated across the compound reminding everyone that we would step out of monotonous chores for the day to celebrate the newest member of the family. By the time I opened my door to the world, the young ladies already fetched water from the well and had a choking fire prepared for the mid-morning feast. The 3.5 kilo/8 lbs baby was exactly 2 weeks old and therefore ready to be blessed and named. His mom was allotted the standard week of rest and he was able to cuten up a bit before crowds of in-law visits. Typically, the family organizes the party and then sends verbal invitations with traditional Kolda Nuts for the elders.
In the late morning, as soon as the last of the dew evaporated, guests filled ready-made benches and neighbors hoovered to see the "baby shower" gifts. The more intricate gifts sent by distant family or village groups are gift large bowls filled with rice and basic ingredients, sheets of patterned fabric, and baby care products. Village style gift baskets. The women also open the floor for monetary donations by holding a collection sheet in front of the hut entrance. The outspoken women tend to find their place guilting freeloaders into donations and then prodding them to dance with a melodic "Thank You!" song. I can never slip through before my name is put into the song for a quick shag. 
The action really starts when the Griot announces the baby's name, shouting it in every cardinal direction. Sometimes the parents have separate (special) names that only they use for the child. They proceed by shaving the baby's head, careful not to loose any of the hair that could be used to curse the baby. 
After giving the name, the festivity rolls on with treats and the first meal. The men slaughter a sheep or goat and the feast continues through the day. There is always a debate over the best way to divy up the meat to insure that all households receive a share. I finally was not delivered the prized organs. 
This particular naming ceremony was exciting since it was put on by my immediate family. My sister was in full bloom for what seemed like months, as Im sure she would agree, and I just knew she was going to give birth every time I went into town. Finally I have been present. During the last two years in Sare Meta, all three ladies of my house have had a baby and our village population has increased by about 25, a significant number for only 350 inhabitants. 
Planned parenting education has shown successful as women are speaking up and taking action to control pregnancy (and young marriage) within safe measures. The latest WHO survey in 2005 indicated that the percent of married women using modern contraceptives increased to 10% with trends projected to continue increasing.  The average Senegalese woman has approximately 5 surviving children throughout her reproductive life. The high, yet ideal number reflects the demand for physical labor on family crops, insurance of reverse caretaking in old age, and high perinatal mortality rate, which accounts for stillbirths and neonatal mortalities. Again in the 2005 survey, WHO reports an average perinatal mortality rate of 45 per 1000 pregnancies with rates twice as high in rural areas. Comparatively, while there is a 1 in 3,600 chance a woman will die from maternal causes in the developed world, sub-Saharan women face a ghastly 1 in 31 chance of dying from such causes. (Data from PRB’s  2011 World’s Women and Girls Data Sheet)
With progress both visible and reported in family planning, current government and NGO projects continue to press the women's health agenda by addressing maternal malnutrition, low birth weight, and continued developmental requirements. 
“Public health is like sex. Thinking about it and talking about it is not the same as doing it.” -Dr. Daniel Singer, Director for Global Health Research and International Activities at National Institutes of Health

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hunger & Heat... for what?

Like water trinkles to the depths of its watershed, people flow down trails and clay roads that cut through the woods to the community mosque. Last night's new moon sighting announced the end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid or "Korite."
The morning was kicked off with holiday mugs of cafe sweetened with condensed milk *cringe* to chase hazy skies away followed by traditional bowls of rice topped with tidbits of fried beef. The richness filled a shriveled and unexpecting spot now accustomed to waiting until dusk. Fasting combined with seasonal farm work has stripped most down to bones. In the fervor of Eid, they seem determined to replenish those hollow cheeks, that can attest all too well to the last 30 days.

As we near our humble mosque, the Jumanji pounding of the drum synchronizes with my heartbeat.  My brothers and the elder women discussed how old western films can attest to a day without cars or high technology. At some point we all have to slow down and walk to get where we're going (old man talk). They removed a few degrees between us as they reminded each other that we're all flawed, vulnerable humans. (Did this conversation really start with horse-drawn carts and wagons?) And here I am, calloused hands and sunburned shoulders, adorned in flamboyant, tailored drapes and tight braids, sharing another bookmark holiday in what finally feels like my corner of Senegal.

We rush for cover in the small mosque. The usual picnic spot in the mango courtyard was only slowing the rain. I haven't been inside this mosque before. Like most village structures, its simple by design and somehow offers a comfort in its patterned floor mats and quaint blue shutters. The men file inside and the women shuffle along,
beneath the periphery overhanging, situating prayer rugs and offering the better real estate to tardy elders. Enduring a life in the Sahel entitles them to such privileges. The elders, or "mawdos," can be recognized first by the several meters of fabric layered head to foot, then by the respectable wrinkles that tell stories of their own, and finally by the grandparent twinkle in their eyes.

The last month has been enlightening as most volunteers are non-Muslim Americans. We are all faced with the opportunity to fast with our families and communities, if even for a few days, which could respectably respond to the daily question: "Are you fasting?". The hardships, especially this year as Ramadan fell during the long, farming days of July, outshine the richness and depth of the religious practice nine times out of ten. Its understandable that at the surface the practice seems intimidating and unhealthy. Beneath, however, this core duty of Islam is a reminder designed to promote service, appreciation and empathy, self development of character and spirituality, and devotion. I was told regularly (as everyone grows grumpy and eager to bicker) that the smallest acts of kindness would return the giver with mercy and blessings. What I took away with the closing of Ramadan and glorious Eid celebration was that in this scope of Ramadan, we finally let the demands of our physical being ease up a bit as we serviced our overdue spiritual needs. Ive now closed my third Ramadan, only partially participating, with a clear mind and open heart.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Spilling the Guatemala beans!

T-minus 2 months and I'm in utter disbelief. I remind myself daily of the precious time I have left with my host community, of the impossible span that remains to square off work, and that I have to start thinking about my many goodbyes. These reminders are often necessary to fish myself out of post-close of service (COS) daydreams. As I mark the days down, literally scribbling them out of my calendar from h, it's increasingly difficult to sit idly in the dirt with such exciting plans approaching.

Immediately after COS, I plan on touring the splendors of Spain for two weeks with a couple of my favorite people, Robert and Becca. We're just a couple of countries away with locals always talk about that uncle that left for work in "espain" to better support the rest of the family. Maybe we will run into some of those admired Pulaar folk!  I try not to let my expectations get away from me these days, but it would be a complete shame not to pass through now.

A Few Things I want to do in (e)Spain:
  Parc Guell and Temple de la Sagrada Familia
  Las Ramblas
  Casa Mila, La Pedrera 

The two week span should be long enough for a decent visit without engulfing our limited volunteer funds. We have a dear friend, who also works here in Senegal, to visit in Barcelona along with CouchSurfing hosts. By November 10, we will meander home to the east coast on a transatlantic cruise. Once again, now or never, right?!

If we dont pull a Titanic, we will hide away from the rest of the world for two final weeks at sea aboard the "Navigator of the Seas." I plan to fully enjoy myself and my company. Im going to explore the fitness arena, test my taste buds and tummy with fine dining and room service, lounge about in the coolest breeze, remember how to appropriately interact with people and be a shameless hermit, and remember how to do what I actually want without guilt.

The real news:
After reuniting for the holidays with our overly joyous families and rediscovering intimate conversations with friends, Robert and I will be off to our next adventure in Guatemala. We're trading Pulaar and endless bowls of rice for Spanish and tortillas. We've got a plan scribbled in my journal and enough wanderlust to carry it through.