Friday, June 10, 2011

1st Birthday in Senegal

Okay, I know it's been a long time and I have a LOT to write about. So this is going to be a ridiculously long entry, but I'll try to break it up into sections so it isn't unbearable.
As I mentioned last time, I officially moved into my site (Mbeuleukhe) and "began" my stint as a volunteer; but these first two months are really more like practicing. From May 18 (my move in date) to July 18, I'm really just working on my language skills, greeting with people (a realllllly important part of the culture here), and getting to know my village. On July 18, I return to the Thies Training Center and have an intensive two-week In-Service Training (IST), and after that I really "begin."
But nevertheless, I've been at site for about 3 weeks now. I really like my family and my village. I have a lot of "youngers" in my house (in Senegal, the division between sibling/cousin/niece/nephew is much less defined, so everyone younger than me in my compound is simply referred to as my younger) and it's a lot of fun playing with them and teaching them English words and stuff like that. There are so many times a day when I wish I had a camera crew following me around because I literally feel like I'm living in a movie. My best friend Taylor always used to joke around that her college should be on the MTV show True Life and I feel like I need a True Life: Toubab episode.
Because I've been isolated in my village for the past few weeks, I've had a LOT of time to think. And I don't just mean before I fall asleep at night I have time to gather my thoughts... I mean I've had hours and hours and hours of time to daydream and think. Try to imagine no internet, no other fluent English-speakers around, no movie theaters, malls, restaurants, bars, or any other places to go to occupy your time; just hours for thinking.
So, in my spare time, I've been reading a lot and writing down basically every thought that pops into my head. Here are some of the main points...
·         My surroundings- Before I left, my friends back home and I made a lot of Lion King references because that's what we associated with Africa; but I've realized that my life here is much more Aladdin than Lion King. The only times I'm reminded of Pride Rock here are the scenes from the movie when Scar has taken over and everything is barren, dry and dead. But Aladdin is much more on target. The sand, scarves, camels, the food, begging, etc in Aladdin is all much closer to home right now than lions and warthogs. I've heard that everything is much greener and alive during the rainy season (which is quickly approaching), but I'll believe that when I see it. As of right now, I'd say Senegal is 80% Aladdin, 20% Lion King. We'll see how much it changes with the rain.

·         The language barrier- I had to pass a final language exam in order to swear-in, meaning that Peace Corps has determined that my Wolof is good enough for me  to function on my own. That by no means makes me a fluent Wolof speaker yet. I'm getting by and learning more every day, but there are definitely times when it's difficult. In these instances, I feel like I'm in the Colin Firth part of Love Actually, when he and the woman he likes struggle to communicate through hand gestures and  their respective languages; except that in real life the dialogue isn't clever and cute like in the movie, and most times I'm trying to say/ask important things (example- me filling out paperwork for PC and trying to ask my family where a helicopter should land in the event that I would have to be medically evacuated). The language barrier in Love Actually is sweet and makes it seem like fun to have to use gestures to communicate, but I'm over it.

·         The food- I'm going to warn everyone of this right off the bat, in the coming months my blog posts are probably going to start to revolve around food: the food I'm currently craving, the foods I want people to send me, etc. I've been here three months now, so I'm definitely not in bad shape right now in terms of cravings, but it's the knowledge that I still have two years ahead of me without American foods that makes me start to go a little insane. Here I eat breakfast on my own, usually a granola bar or oatmeal which my parents sent over in a package (thanks, guys!) or a mango from the market. Lunch every day is ceebu jen, Senegal's national dish. Ceebu jen is rice and fish with veggies. It honestly could be a lot worse. My family thankfully adds a lot of veggies, and I try not to eat too much rice. Then there's the tea. Tea here is served in a cup the size of a shot glass and I would estimate that each cup probably has about 3 tablespoons of sugar in it, if not more. Dinner is always different and my favorite dinner is a dish called laaj, which is like a porridge with yogurt poured over top (not the kind of yogurt you have in the US, but more like a sweet, thick milk sauce). It reminds of what would probably have been served in an orphanage in England during Oliver Twist's time. Every time I eat it I imagine I'm in a Charles Dickens novel or Goldilocks, but it is what it is. What I would give for a good salad, sandwich, dessert and cold draught beer. But for now I'll stick with my porridge.

·         Being a Toubab- This is probably what I've spent the most time thinking about. Being the only toubab in an African village is a very surreal experience. During our training, one of the older volunteers said that she views it as being a really rare bird; some people want to pet you and love you, others just want to stare at you, and some want to yank out your feathers and sell them. It's just such a hard concept for a white American to wrap their mind around. Imagine rolling up in a random village. You're obviously different, everyone has heard of you but most people have never seen you before, and then suddenly you're there. Some people want to befriend you immediately and get on your good side because obviously you're very powerful/special/different, others tease you and pick on you because you're different. You never have any privacy because everyone wants to know what you're doing at every second, and everything you do is broadcast around the village in a matter of hours (Example- one day I rode my bike to my friend's village and I go a flat tire so I stayed overnight. The next day every single person in my entire village was talking about my flat tire. It was breaking news.) It's just so weird. One morning I went to the little kids' school with one of my counterparts to drop something off. All of the children there were probably 6 and under. My counterpart said to the kids, "Hey guys, do you know who this is?" and they all nodded and smiled and he asked them what my name was and all of them screamed "TOUBAB!!" with such happy enthusiasm that you just have to laugh. It really is the weirdest thing
Okay so this entry is ridiculously long already, but now I'll start talking about packages. THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who's been writing that they sent something out. I can't even describe how excited I am to get American food/goodies. My friends and I came to our regional house yesterday and there was a package waiting for me from my aunt Anne Marie (thank you!!) which had mac and cheese and other yummy stuff in it and we literally devoured it.
Here are a few more things I've been thinking about:
  • bandanas
  • potholders (for my mom/the women here. they use their hands and burn themselves)
  • popcorn kernels
  • magazines! (people, us weekly, cosmo, entertainment, time, really anything)
  • more drink mixes (propel, crystal light, gatorade, etc.)
  • any little trinkets for my little siblings
  • post-its, flash cards, small notebooks
  • fig newtons
  • graham crackers
  • in-ear headphones
That's all for now. In a little bit my friend and I are going to go the lumo in our town, which is like a big market on Fridays. I'm hoping I'll luck out and find delicacies like watermelon or bananas. We'll see how I do.

And, finally, I couldn't write a post on my bday without a shout-out to my friends/family in the US. Mom and Dad- love you both and miss you today! Dani Shinder- hope your bday yesterday was awesome!! Tee, Mer, Cait, Amanda, etc.- Miss you all and wish we could celebrate together, but I know that in two years we'll be making up for lost time. And my dear twin, Kyle- I can't believe this is the first year in such a long time that we aren't together. I feel like we've been at least exchanging gifts since we were about 15. And then of course there were the epic birthdays like the 20th bday Scranton DMB debacle and our very classy 21st. Miss you so much today I can't even put it into words. Have fun and we'll skype at some point.

Thanks for everything, everyone! It's probably going to be a while till my next post, but I'm doing well and learning a lot. Love you!

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