Thursday, July 24, 2008

Change in blog address

Hey all,

I'm changing the webpage for my blog. I've been having some trouble loading photos and videos onto blogger so i decided to try a different blog.

My new blog is:

http://chrissenegal.wordpress.com


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rain!

While many of you often complained about cloudy/rainy/snowy weather throughout the fall, winter and spring (especially for those of you dealing with the unforgiving New England climate), I did not have that problem. In fact, I didn't feel a drop of rain from October until the end of May. I didn't even see a cloud from the end of November until May. The sky was always blue except for when the Saharan trade winds (the Harmattan) were in full force and filled the sky with dust and sand from the desert creating a monotonous haze.

However, all this changed when the winds switched and started to come from the south. With these new winds came clouds and more importantly rain. Senegal is currently in the midst of its rainy season, which lasts approximately from June through September. The rains have been a welcome relief, coming 3-4 times per week and cooling everything off (to a chilly 88 degrees!) and making everything green. Grass is replacing all of the fields and areas that were simply dirt and dust during the dry season and all of the trees and plants are looking more vibrant. It usually rains in the evening or night and is anything but a soft, summer rain. It comes in sheets and sounds like animals are stampeding on my sheet metal roof. If i step outside, even for a couple seconds, i'm soaked from head to toe. If anyone is caught away from their home during a storm they wait it out under the eaves of a building or in the doorway of a nearby boutique, which leads to great impromptu social time.

Its amazing what a boost to spirits the rain is. Since Senegal, and more specifically the department of Nioro, is largely agrarian, there is a direct connection with the rainy season as it is the agriculture high season. Everyone, regardless of profession, has some connection with agriculture and at least owns a small field (a couple hectares) that they farm. As a result, people have been very busy preparing, seeding and now weeding and thinning their crops. So far, they are saying this has been a good rainy season and are hoping for a good harvest.

Kids too get excited for the rains and often run through the streets laughing and screaming or playing in the compound. Here is a video of my cousins playing in my family's compound during one of the first rains. video

For those of you with a little slower connection (mainly my parents), here is a photo of my 3 year old host sister trying to sweep away the rain. Its unfortunately a losing battle for her

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wedding

The end of last week I was in Kaolack (the regional capital) for a Peace Corps regionwide meeting. While I was there i got a text from my host aunt saturday night that said, "Salut Moussa, je vais me marier dimanche inchallah. Ou es-tu?" For the non-french speakers out there this says "Hi Moussa (my senegalese name), I'm getting married on sunday if Allah wills it. Where are you?"

Completely surprised, i called her right away asking her if she was really getting married the next day. She said yes, they had set the date that morning. After confirming that she was actually getting married, i asked the next most important question - to who she was planning on marrying. While the majority of Senegalese marriages are arranged, my host aunt is a more liberally minded Senegalese and believes in marrying out of love not neccessity or practicality (novel thought). She told me that she and one of my work partners (the director of the program financing the women's groups) had been in a secret relationship for the past 6 months and were ready to get married.

The next morning i headed back to Nioro early so as not to miss any of the wedding. The wedding started with all the men going to the Mosque to pray for my counterpart and my aunt as well as asking Allah to bless their marriage. Afterwards, we all returned back to my aunt's house where everyone wished my aunt and my counterpart good luck and gave them gifts or, more commonly, a small sum of money. We then all ate a large meal of ceebuyapp (rice and meat), which is a common holiday and fete dish.

The typical Senegalese wedding is three days long with specific events for each day but because they are a more modern couple and i think also wanted to save some money the wedding was only for one day, which was fine for me because for the majority of the time at events like this i am just sitting around answering the same questions over and over - where i'm from, what i'm doing here and if i have a wife and why i don't have a senegalese wife. These questions are ussually broken up by the asker stopping to tell his neighbor that the toubab (white person) speaks wolof.

I hope you are all doing well and just imagine organizing an american wedding a day in advance.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Food

While i've eaten some few crazy things here ranging from cow intestine stuffed with stomach to sheep hooves - i'm glad to say these aren't regular appearances in the family dinner bowl. Ironically these are the special treats that we will get for holidays and birthdays and not a part of the regular meal regiment. Since i'm too lazy to cook my own breakfast every morning (unfortunately cheerios don't exist here) i usually go to one of the many informal breakfast stands in town. Every morning, women set up rickety tables with one or two benches surrounding it and sell different breakfast options. These options range from harboiled eggs with mayo, omelettes cooked with a selection of spaghetti, potatoes, onions, and yapp (the wolof word for meat, which could mean anything from beef to monitor lizard), tuna fish sandwiches and, my favorite, bean sandwiches. A bean sandwich - a sliced piece of french bread topped with beans cooked in a tomato sauce heavily loaded with garlic, onions and maggi (an msg additive that Senegalese add to every meal - ranging from salad to tuna fish.) The sandwich is usually topped with homemade mayo (so much better than hellmann's) or a peppery onion sauce. These women also sell a piping-hot, spicy coffee laced with three or four heaping spoons of sugar. Most Senegalese work for an hour or two before eating breakfast, so the big breakfast rush isn't until 9:30 or 10:00.

I have several constants in my life: being called toubab (wolof for foreigner or white person), having a woman offer me her baby to adopt and eating rice for lunch. Meals are eaten from a communal bowl so the whole family crowds around one large bowl. Since we eat from one bowl there are several important etiquette rules. The first is that you never, absolutely never, put your left hand in the bowl or use your left hand to hold your spoon (the primary role of the left hand is in the bathroom). Also, you only eat what is directly in front of you - its very impolite to reach in front of someone else and take from their "bowl area." If you want something that is in their area, you need to ask and they will pass it to you. Everyday the bowl is filled with rice, topped with some sort of sauce, several pieces of vegetables and one or two pieces of fish. The most popular lunch dish is ceebu jenn (rice and fish) which is rice cooked in a heavy oil and tomato sauce. Other sauces include onion, onion and tomato, palm oil all of which have the same mix of veggies and fish. I like the food a lot although at times i get a little tired of the monotony of rice with sauces that are all very similar.

For dinner, the most common carb/base is millet which is ground and steamed. It has a striking resemblance to wet sand and at first i thought it tasted like that too, but in the past six months it has really grown on me and i now look forward to it. It is typically topped with a tomato-meat sauce or a leaf sauce (flavored with a bit of dried fish and peanut butter). Chicken for dinner is a huge treat and something that we only have for holidays or other big occasions. Senegalese people can't get over the fact that Americans eat chicken everyday and fish is a more expensive meal and something that many people can't afford to eat everyday.

Hopefully this gives you all an idea of what i've been eating for the past seven months. I hope you are all doing well and i'll write again soon.

Chris

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hello everyone,

I hope you are all doing well and enjoying the start of spring or the never-ending winter depending on where you are. The seasons have changed here too - from comfortably hot(the low 90s) to unbearably hot (pushing 110 degrees). During the obligatory mid-day siesta (the wolof word is noppalu (pronounced nope-a-loo) which i think is a good case of onomatopoeia), i'm either seated inches away from my fan (which feels like a blow dryer because the air is so hot) or hiding under the shade of one of the mango trees in my family's compound. It has also been very windy as we get the tail-end of the wind and dust storms that blow across the Sahara. These storms form occasional dust clouds that fill the sky. Fortunately, the temperature still cools down at night so it isn't difficult to sleep although i hear that will stop sometime soon.

I realize that I haven't given you a very detailed description of my town and living conditions so here it goes. The population is about 20,000 people, although it feels significantly smaller than this. I can walk from one end to the other in about 20 minutes and the main commercial area is limited to two streets. It is a departmental capital (the equivalent of a US county) which means that a lot of the government agencies have offices here and there is also a large high school and well-equipped hospital. The government is by far the largest and most stable employer and most of the town's middle and upper class citizens work for the government in some capacity.

The rest of the economy is largely comprised of agriculture and agriculture-related products. All of the surrounding land is arable and produces peanuts, millet, sorghum and corn. There is no large-scale industry/manufacturing in the town, there is only a handful of small metal and wood working shops that produce furniture and other household products. There is also the ubiquitous boutique on every street corner selling a little bit of everything ranging from perfume to potatoes to propane gas tanks.

For perishable foods, there is a small daily market as well as a large weekly market where you can find fish, meat, vegetables and whatever fruit is in season.

I live in the northern part of town, about a ten minute walk to most of the government offices and the town center. My family's compound consists of 4 different buildings - my family's house (3 bedrooms and a living room) the kitchen, the bathroom/shower and my house - a single room about 150 square feet with an attached bathroom. All the buildings are made out of cement bricks and have metal roofs - i've begun to realize that they are simply giant ovens. My house is fairly visible on GoogleEarth or GoogleMaps. Go to GoogleEarth and enter these coordinates: 13.749609,-15.77736. If you don't have GoogleEarth (or don't know what it is) go to googlemaps (http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&tab=wl) and enter those coordinates in the "search map" box. After entering it click on "search maps." Next, click on the satellite tab on the top lefthand corner of the map. The green arrow should be pointing to my house. If this doesn't work for you, let me know and I can send you the link via email.

I hope you are all well.

Miss you
Christopher

Friday, January 25, 2008

my january

Hello everyone,


Sorry it has taken me so long to write, but I just finished a stretch of 24 straight nights and consequently had extremely limited access to internet. High speed internet just arrived in my town about 6 weeks ago, but nobody has opened a cyber cafĂ© yet so I still need to travel to Kaolack (about an hour and half car ride north of me) to find reliable internet. I can occasionally use the internet at the phone company’s boutique in Nioro, but it rarely works and when it does it is still painfully slow because the employees are constantly downloading music videos.

My past month has been filled with meetings with various local officials and future work partners as well as attending all types of group meetings ranging from women’s groups to Red Cross meetings to planning committees for a summer camp. And of course continuing to learn/struggle with the local language, which has become a constant process of two steps forward and one step back. The majority of Senegalese in my community have never learned a new language at an older age so they are not very understanding of my struggles or why I haven’t become proficient in the past ten weeks. This coupled with the openly and naturally critical Wolof society has lead to more than one person telling me I’m not very smart or that I don’t know much. At first, this criticism was hard to take, but I’ve come to learn that this is how Senegalese motivate each other (positive reinforcement is somewhat nonexistent) and parents will use the same logic with their children. But despite these struggles, my Wolof skills are definitely coming along and I am feeling more comfortable everyday.

I am leaving this weekend to head back to Thies (the site of the training center) for another three weeks of more technical based training where we will have the opportunity to present the specific projects we will be doing and tailor our training curriculum to cover these topics. I’m looking forward to this because this past month I began to develop a basic plan for my work for this coming spring and summer. My biggest project will be working with 15 different groups/individuals that recently received loans from the United Nations Development Project to start small businesses. The supervisor for this program will leave a month after the loans were administered and I will take over his role and work with the different groups on developing sound business practices and making sure that they are going in the right direction. This will mainly consist of visiting the different establishments and offering various trainings for the entrepreneurs to attend. Additionally, I will start teaching business classes at a girl’s vocational school. These classes will cover simple business concepts as well as include field trips and seminars with successful, local entrepreneurs.

These two projects will take up the majority of my time, but I will also be working with a group of high school student volunteers from the local chapter of the Red Cross. They hold weekly health classes for the area youth and I will help them plan the trainings as well as skits and activities for the kids. The first class was held two Sundays ago and when I got there I was shocked to find close to 300 loud, clamoring children filling an auditorium. There was a slight miscommunication with the high school leaders and just before it began they told me that it would end in four hours and wished me luck in leading the session. Shocked (and quite scared) I told them there wasn’t a chance I could lead a ten minute class speaking Wolof, much less a four-hour class. I then explained that I wanted to help them develop their materials, but it would be them who conducted the trainings. We’ll see how this ends up working out.

The country has become consumed by the Africa Cup soccer tournament which started the beginning of this week in Ghana. Games are on every afternoon and evening and my host dad has stopped going to work in the afternoons to watch the games – he told me it was ok because he works extra-hard in the morning. I hope you are all doing well and I will write again soon.


Miss you all,

Chris

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas and Tabaski

Merry Christmas!!

I’m just getting home from spending Christmas at the beach with a group of other volunteers from my region. It was definitely a little atypical to say the least, and it didn’t really feel like Christmas. But it was nice to spend the holiday with other volunteers and have a few days to relax in our rented beach house with Christmas music blaring from the stereo nonstop. For Christmas dinner, we rented out a restaurant that is right on the beach and had a great Senegalese chicken dish with chocolate cake for dessert.

Right before Christmas was the Muslim holiday Eid-al Kebir, known in Senegal as Tabaski. This holiday celebrates the day that the prophet Abraham sacrificed his son for Allah and was quickly rewarded with a ram for his faithfulness. This is one of the big two Muslim holidays (the other is Eid-al Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan) and every Muslim household kills a sheep the morning of the holiday in remembrance of Abraham. For the rest of the day, it’s a feast of epic proportions. After going to the Mosque in the morning, the men come home, kill the sheep in the yard, then skin it and clean it. This was a little shocking to watch as blood and entrails ended up everywhere. Everyone kept trying to get me to kill one of our sheep (we had three) especially after they found out I had never killed or even seen an animal get slaughtered in the United States. This led to an explanation of how Americans purchase meat which blew some of my family’s minds. I was able to get out of killing it by promising to help more next year so we’ll see what happens then.

After butchering the sheep, the women start grilling the meat for lunch and we ate a huge lunch of sheep covered in a mustard and onion sauce with French fries. After eating lunch at my family’s compound, I went next door to my extended family’s compound where I ate the same lunch again. During the afternoon, everyone lazes around in a food coma - drinking tea and visiting with family. For dinner, we ate another giant meal of sheep in a heavy sauce with bread. After dinner, everyone goes out and visits friends and family into the early morning.

We followed the same schedule the following day: eating massive amounts of sheep (which at this point expanded to include the stomach, intestines, and feet), visiting friends and family and relaxing around the compound. For the entire holiday, everyone wears traditional clothing – men wear long, brightly colored gowns and women wear very elaborate dresses or skirts with matching shirts. Women also put henna on their hands and feet and braid extensions into their hair.

I hope all of you are well and had a Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year. I miss you all.

Chris