Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Food Frustrations

My preparations for Peace Corps included reading “Im glad that didn’t happen to me” blogs, sharing my anxiety with volunteers currently serving in Africa via emailed questions, and of course shopping to fill my luggage with everything I thought I’d need for 2 years. I got a few laughs from the blogs, some of which I wouldn’t dare show my apprehensive family, and I even got some good advice from chatting with faraway volunteers, but I still wish I only packed a fifth of what the Peace Corps guidelines recommended. My girlish love of clothes probably didn’t help the case—2 suitcases actually. During the summer before my departure, I was easily excitable over outdoorsy attire and utility pockets.  
I took spring cleaning to a new level and finished it off by locking all my old quirky Jessica things up in storage (thankfully my Dad had space in his). Before I knew it, I was walking through Dulles International Airport as a shiny, new volunteer in the making with a nifty backpack, a boyish haircut, and loose, comfy cargo pants.
Sigh. I was probably most fit before coming to Senegal. In many of those blogs, I read about PC weight trends with real nonchalance-- guys trim down and girls get a little fluffy. As many probably do, I reassured myself that I wouldn’t succumb to the typical trends. Several months and 15 pounds later, I finally understood the frustrations of the freshman fifteen. Nearly a year and a half into service now, I suspect this weight isn’t going to leave until it sees America.
Those comfy cargo pants that once lay around my hips so ominously now cling tightly to my thighs. The pair of lazy-day jeans I brought along only zip after an inch-by-inch wiggle dance that leaves too much strain on the button for me to actually wear them.  I shamefully admit that occasionally I try them on, hoping to reveal a prior form. Three pairs of pants are on the sidelines, but like any hopeful girl they will sit in my dark trunk as a reminder. Im quite thankful that I went for a conservative, baggy collection otherwise everything I brought would have been useless. What is interesting is that I’m hardly spending any money on food.
The culture in Senegal is tightly woven around hospitality and the food. Regardless of which household or village Im in, people want to make me feel welcomed, share whatever bit of food they can, and as many grandmothers would say, put a little more meat on my bones. For example, when I visit other families and villages for any purpose, they insist that I stay for the next meal (even if its 5 hours away), stay for a couple cups of hot tea, or take a sack of the seasonal fruit for the road. This can be exciting when people are eating something delicious, in my perspective that would be kosam (sour milk/yogurt), but discerning genuine from obligatory invitations is beyond me.
I don’t think I would worry about my womanly figure if I was gorging myself in gourmet meals. Season to season, we eat out way through the staple crops in the storage hut, which is primarily white rice for my family.  As we go from harvesting with an ample supply of grain and peanuts to starving season, the variety of meals dwindles from maybe five to one sad bowl of charity rice. It’s those repeated meals of nutrient-lacking white rice that nearly bring me to tears, leave an unsatisfying rock in my tummy, and maintain the width of my hips.
I wish I was kidding or exaggerating; I didn’t eat rice before Senegal and this has only left me loathing it. The understanding that Senegalese culture centers on family and food, one of the few expressions of appreciation and love, might be the last reason that I don’t try supplementing all mealtimes. I’m not going to be the foreign prude and I’m done going in circles. I’m making the most out of sharing meals with my family by buying whatever veggies I can get my hands on during trips into town. Living in- or even visiting- a foreign country will remind you of the love for your own country and its simple comforts.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Latrines and English!

Two months ago Appropriate Projects approved a $500 grant in support of the construction of nearly 20 latrines in and around my village in the Kolda Region. I have had a firm stance against free handouts, but the people came to me with health concerns and a willingness to help.  The effort spent digging ~3 meters into the stubborn earth followed by construction of latrine platforms seemed like a fair trade for cement and metal materials.
The project provides about 20 family compounds, nearly 800 people with essential means to sanitary latrines... or as a few of them have said, they wont have to run out to the snakey forest in the middle of the night to relieve themselves.
The project closed with 3 fewer latrines than projected due to miscalculations and material readjustments during construction. Doing math with a Senegalese man may be one of the most frustrating obstacles I faced, equally matched with trying to get receipts from everyone.
The project took on a slow start due to harvesting commitments of field crops, several funerals, and the ongoing difficulty gauging the truth in progress updates. The work pace increased (and by that I mean started) with my presence in most cases, so as the project progressed I oversaw more of the work. Another motivational tactic was taking before and after photos of the pits and the final product. With that I must admit to my new technologically challenged way. I have photos on my camera that I cant get out. Ill work it out (Inshallah) but no promises as to when.
In the next stage, the local health volunteers and prominent members of the 6 villages and I plan to have health trainings to first off commend the people for their community contribution and to discuss important benefits as they see fit. Im satisfied with the success of the project and look forward to the next wave of crazy requests theyll send my way.
During my tours of the villages, I offered to teach English to kids that have started studying it in school, help women with their upcoming dry season gardens and new ideas, and even look into a well-digging project pitched by a very convincing man in Sare Kallilou, a nearby village. I was blunt with people, saying that I am just sitting and waiting for them to share how I can help. With this I expected more odd requests than usual. People ask me to give them everything insight on my person, to take them or their baby to America, and to marry them/their son. Ive resolved to saying Ill give things to them upon my departure, Ill steal their (now crying) babies, and I only accept to marry toddlers and one very interesting old woman that insists I curtsy to show my respect.
Piles of kids show up and fill my floor mat when we both have free time to practice English. Once reminded of my rules, which are very different from the school house, they are so excited for the attention. The no-gos: They repeatedly snap their fingers instead of raining their hands. no. They whisper the answers and hit each other on the back of the head upon silence. no. They cannot just sit and insist on getting up (a kid thing). still no. As long as they're nice to each other, we chat until the cows come home (hehe, but literally) or we're all tired. I love it. (Again, I have photos, but my camera is not cooperating)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

My holiday break carried me down 345 km of twisting and turning, well-worn and poorly maintained road back to Kedougou. It was a painless trip that I made in record time. Yes, I use the chrono function on my handy watch for everything. For the first time, I even got to sit in the somewhat more comfortable front seat of the 7place/car, which is usually reserved for fragile old men.
It's a lonely road lacking  the structure of reflective lines and mile markers. The simplicity doesn't distract from the orange clay landscape of towering (or recently burned to the ground) grasses, grandfather trees, and the occasional troop of baboons or monkeys. I prefer my daze tied to nature rather than our tar and tin attempts to civilize it. The ecology of Kedougou is quite different from my Casamance region. It is the furthest inland region and the differences can't even be from from the car. The clay clings to every traveler's stained heels and bristly hair, the thorny trees are a little more rugged and will gladly offer scratch to take home, and the remaining wildlife is just abundant enough to offer an exciting glimpse. 
I got into town just in time for Christmas festivities. *Wooh* After tag teaming for Skype time home with a few other volunteers, we nestled right in and shared the holiday with all the things we can't do in village. First things first, we knowingly binge ate pork stew from market fresh ingredients, desserts from much appreciated home-sent packages, a classy Christmas brunch that lasted all day, and lastly appropriate beverages.
More family time was spent popping corn (without a microwave!), projecting movies outside at night, and exchanging the oddest collection of While Elephant gifts imaginable. Mine was hot dog hand puppet that I couldnt pass up at the thrift section of the market. Oh I can't say enough how comforting the little things are when everything is turned upside down. I don't get weekends to sleep in and do a lazy load of laundry. I don't even get cozy nights at a home separate from my work site. I'm working at all hours and representing PC in all my actions. With just a peek into this, maybe you can understand how wonderful it is to escape just far enough to be your nearly forgotten self, or at least part of it.

Ive gotta dash back to site because the guilt is working on me and the day is creeping by, but an update on the best Camping weekend is soon to come... includes: biking, a crocodile, waterfall  swimming, open flame cooking, food shortage, and a bush fire.