Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hut Life?

Well, not so much hut life anymore. These last few weeks have been more like expat life. I've been house sitting in downtown Dakar - cooking Indian food, watching CNN world, and using the internet in any room I want. I guess the suffering that is Peace Corps is pretty much over for me. Now its 9 to 5 at the U.S. Embassy working on "Pepiniere du Sahel" ("Tree Nurseries of the Sahel"). And at night, I'm going to band rehearsals with Jac et le Takeifa. The song they wrote for the film is incredible. Its been quite an opportunity to collaborate with Jac and the band and with Michelle Cheng, the artist doing the stills and cell animation for the film. And now its only a week and a half until I'm out of here. I've got some paperwork to do for Peace Corps admin. and a few last minute presents to buy. But most exciting is the first official screening of "Elle Travaille, Elle Vit!" ("She Works, She Lives!") at the American Club in Dakar on Sunday, the 28th. The guest list has over a hundred people already and I'm doing a Q&A after the film. Not going to lie - I'm a little nervous.
My tentaive plan for the states is to fly in to Atlanta on October 1st - kick it in the AUG for two weeks - visit my bro and sis in Saratoga Springs for a few days, and then its off to NYC, the city, the big apple, the capital of the western world... Oh New York. I can't wait for fall, for central park, for hippies and hipsters, for old friends and new connections, for art and artists, happenings, screenings, exhibitions and exhibitionists, for dog parks, coffee bars, book stores and thrift shops.
Hope the States are treating you all well. Take care.

Monday, September 1, 2008

One Month Left...

Wow - what an exciting two years. Left my cush and comfortable life in America and moved to some country most people have never heard of. I spent two months doing language and cross-cultural training, then moved out to my remote village for three months, then back for another month of training on agro-forestry technologies, back to the village again, then on vacation showing my friend Sahil around Senegal, and now, here we are. Here I am. Its strange to think about all of our lives on such different trajectories. We have all moved forward - we have all had adventures. I used to sit alone in my hut thinking about my friends in New York City, D.C., Boston, and L.A. - What are they doing? Is it cold there? Man, I missed the cold sometimes. I now have only a month left and its going to be busy. I'm in production on another video, this time for creating and maintaining tree nurseries in the Sahel. I'm working with some really interesting people from Michelle Chang, a visual artist at UCLA to Baba Maal, a world famous Senegalese musician. And as excited as I am about going home, I'm really looking forward to making this movie.

So last month was pretty incredible - one of my best friends from college came out to visit. We had such a good time. We went to Goree Island to see the famous slave house and colonial architecture, we spent a few nights in a Gambian village on an desolate island, we spent some unforgettable time in my village (this was the best part of the trip for both of us I think), we went up to Saint Louis to hear live music and relax in our picture perfect apartment on the beach, we spent the night in a tent in the desert eating Moroccan couscous for dinner and riding camels in the morning, and we spent days in Dakar bargaining for masks and indulging in ice cream and falafel. What a trip.
And last Monday in Dakar, every Peace Corps volunteer from my training group met up for our Close of Service (COS) conference. Each day of the conference was based on a theme; the first day on a theme of reflection over the past two years. We mostly talked about our accomplishments and the personal and professional skills we've developed. The next day was about considering life after Peace Corps, jobs, health insurance, etc. We work-shopped our resumes and started our Description of Service (DOS) and Close of Service (COS) reports. And on the last day we gave feedback to the administration on ways to improve the effectiveness of the Peace Corps and Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal. It was nice to get to see old friends and catch up - sad to say good bye to the friends I won't see for a while. The conference gave us all a bit of closure and well, a sense that summer camp is over. One more month exactly and I fly home. Inchallah.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Girls Leadership Conference

I’m back down in Kedougou this week for a girls leadership conference that a few volunteers have organized. They invited 26 of the top female students from the area. They asked Awa Traore, one of the women I interviewed for my film, to run the conference. First off, Awa Traore is on e of the most passionate and dynamic speakers I’ve ever met. She works at the Peace Corps Training Center in Thies as the Cross-Culture trainer and as the SeneGAD (Gender and Development) advisor. For the past few years she has helped PCVs facilitate girls meetings and conferences focusing on some relatively taboo subjects like Aids, underage marriages, and rape as well as the softer topics like education, self-confidence, and independence. A few of us met with Awa last night to talk about the plan for the conference and it was classic Awa. She had a long list of issues she wanted to discuss with the girls and she noted our suggestions as well but told us that the sessions would inevitably be shaped by the dynamic of the group and the girls’ level of interest in the topics. She told us about her experience doing this in Tambacounda last year with a group of 30 girls where one of the girls told the group she had been raped. In Senegal, this speaking out about sexual abuses is extremely uncommon and is often considered culturally inappropriate. But these are the types of barriers that need to be brought up and discussed with the youth; with the future of this country. These girls are smart and motivated and capable but the system they are working in is flawed. Girls are supposed to go to school through sixth grade while learning how to cook and clean and then they should get married, drop out of school, and start having children. They should not stand up to men. They should be obedient and submissive. Awa has come to show these girls there’s another way. They can make decisions about their own lives; whether they want to get married at an early age or not, whether they want to quit school or not. And so this morning at 9am, the doors of the Peace Corps CTC (Community Training Center) in Kedougou opened up to the 26 girls invited to the conference. It’s incredible to see the change the girls go through from just one day of talking. In the morning, they were all so scared and timid but within a few hours of discussion and activities with Awa and the PCVs, they were pumped up and excited. You could literally see the empowerment happening. This girls leadership conference was an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had. To see these girls be so engaged and encouraged by such a wonderful role-model, you just wouldn’t believe it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Kedougou, the 4th, and beyond…

Recently, I went down to Kedougou (on the boarder of Guinea) to the infamous annual 4th of July party. Some friends and I actually left a few days early and went for a bike ride out to a village called Segou. We arrived as the sun was setting and talked to the guys at the campament about staying the night. They told us that a few days before, the wind had taken off some of the hut roofs but if we wanted to we could still stay there. We put our bikes and bags away and walked to the stream just down the path. We all waded out into the water to rinse off and cool down. Some of our bike ride had been through the rain but by the time we got to Segou, the storm clouds had passed and the stars were out in full force. We all gathered around the two candles they gave us at the campament and made dinner… Avocados, canned lentils, limes, mustard, and mayonnaise on bread. And for desert we had peanut butter and mango jam sandwiches. So good. That night we all slept great and the next morning we headed out to the waterfalls. We biked about 30 minutes, then parked our bikes and started hiking. About 15 minutes in, there was this beautiful pool where we stopped and swam. We passed two more swimming holes on our way up to the falls. When we got to the falls, there was already another group of Peace Corps volunteers there. They had stayed at a different campament about 20k away. We all scaled the rock wall a few meters up and jumped into the deep pool below. It was incredible. Of course on our way out, as we were all drying off, we saw two water snakes on the rocks nearby.
The party itself was fun. A giant piƱata full of pints of whisky, cigarettes, and candy. Horse shoes, bocce ball, and beer pong for the more athletic types. And fresh palm wine out in clay pots. The music was good (if only all the speakers worked). The food was great – vats of humus and babaganoush. The dance party wasn’t quite the sexual frenzy it had been the year before but it was still fun. I got a chance to stay in a hotel for the weekend and that was incredible. A giant hut with a shower, air-conditioning, a ceiling fan, comfortable clean beds… what more could you want. Oh, and there was a pool. So sweet.
These days I’m in Tambacounda working on my next film, “Tree Nurseries of the Sahel”. I’ve asked fellow PCV Caitlin Givens to come on as the producer. I’ve written a script and had it translated into French. I’ve drawn up the story boards and cut out and organized the collage materials. Caitlin is writing a proposal for a small grant from the US Embassy in Dakar to cover our costs and we are still looking for local music. I am also hoping to reach the artist in Dakar about doing some of the cell animation of trees growing. If all goes as planned, it will be done and on DVD by the time I leave.
Of course, I am also very excited about the arrival of two of my friends, Duncan and Sahil. They are coming at the end of the month and they’re staying for 3 weeks. I’m going to show them around Senegal, take them down to Kedougou, bring them to my village… I can’t wait. I haven’t left on vacation my whole service so I’m treating this trip as my vacation. Just traveling around, doing the tourist thing a little bit. I’m also interested to see their reactions to things I’ve become accustomed to. And as it turns out, I think I’ll be saying good bye to my village the days that Duncan and Sahil will be there. So that will definitely be interesting. Then, once they leave, I’ll be in Dakar for our COS (close of service) conference and then I’ll stay in Dakar to work on the tree nursery video for the month of September. Then, October 1st, I fly out – to Fatlanta – to my friends and family – to breakfast burritos and IBC root beer… Inchallah.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Fabric of Amadara

It’s a hot world out here in the bush. The wind blows every now and then but when it does it brings lots of dust. Not just a little bit of dust to be rinsed off at my evening bucket bath but what would amount to be mountains of dust. This past month, that dust has crept into every crevice and nook available. And when there is liquid involved such as sweat or a cup of water left uncovered, well, you can start to collect your own little mountain of dust. A few days ago, my throat started feeling scratchy and in no time at all, I lost my voice completely. I was literally whispering greetings to my villagers as they looked at me with sympathetic eyes. I thought it was the cold that I’ve had for the past week and a half but my Tokara told me it was definitely the dust. And its crazy to see the dust funnels come sweeping through the village. Yesterday during my bucket bath I looked out over my grass fence and saw an enormous, well, what looked like a tornado. It was taller than the tallest mango trees and wider than a hut and it was moving so much dust around it was unbelievable. I watched as it moved down the main path in the village just beyond my backyard. It was picking up trash and leaves, even corn stalks. It went through a group of donkeys and they all started braying uncontrollably and eventually it spun down toward the river bed and outside of the village.
The wind does give a break from the sort of calm that usually persists. It adds excitement to an otherwise pretty boring environment and you can feel the electricity in the air. I’ve had some days recently where I would just sit in my hammock and let the wind storm blow all around me (I usually have to close my eyes though). But now I’m in Tambacounda, trying to get better. I’ve had headaches and body aches for the past week. And all of those kids constantly coming into my hut… well, I felt I earned a little time in front of a fan. We’re having a regional planning meeting this weekend to talk about region wide initiatives and projects in and around the city of Tambacounda itself. We had a neighborhood park clean up last month and it was a lot of fun. And I’m hoping to pass out a few trees this year to the compounds along our street (dirt path).
On Friday, my Agro-forestry boss is coming to see my tree nurseries so I’m going home after the meeting to get these last 200 cashew seeds in the ground. I’m having the farmers that want cashews either in their compounds or fields, dig the holes and prepare the soil. My counterpart told them that I would only give them seeds for the holes already dug. Hopefully my village will be full of half a meter in diameter holes when I get back. Inchalla I guess.
Also, I’m participating in a few meetings this week. A few of us from the Tambacounda region are meeting with Tostan’s volunteer coordinator to talk about what sort of collaborative projects are possible. Tostan ( is an NGO that works in rural education outreach by assigning a teacher for two years to each village they work with. The classes are held a few days a week (under the big mango tree in my village) and they teach Pulaar literacy, Senegalese civics, and health and hygiene practices. Then I’m meeting with a group of five pre-med students from the States that are in Senegal for a month to help out with mosquito net distribution, some primary care at a village hospital, and a new HIV testing center in Kedougou. They’ve just arrived in country and the med student they are being chaperoned by wanted us to speak to them about Senegal, the cultural do’s and don’ts, what our most common concerns are within the health field, and our ideas on improving the health issues like malaria and infant mortality in the bush. Then, in a few days I have another meeting, this time with the other volunteers from the Velingara area, a few people from Peace Corps Staff, and the head of World Vision in Velingara. Currently, Peace Corps Senegal is trying to make working contacts between volunteers and every major NGO in country. I think it’s a great idea and I can’t wait to see the results of these meetings. Hopefully it will help us as Peace Corps volunteers have more concrete plans of action and help the NGO’s in bringing their proposed projects to more remote villages. Of course, all of this is to help the Senegalese people. We are going to develop the shit out of this country.
Well, enjoy the summer in Amerik (or wherever you may be) and I’ll talk to you all soon. Ajarama e yeho e jam (Thanks and go in peace).