Jen's Peace Corps Experience in Guinea

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Jen's Peace Corps Experience

Jen's Peace Corps Experience

Jen's Peace Corps Experience




le 3 juillet 1999

My dear M & D & everyone!

Outside my screen door my fellow PCTs are chatting fand singing and yelling back and forth, and the chips and songs of the birds are constant as always, accented on occasion by rooster calls and cat fights. I have slipped away for a moment to the bed in my temporary room here at the Peace Corps Training Center. Weíve stayed here the first two nights to prepare us before homestay, which begins in just a few hours when our families come to pick us up. Up until now it has felt almost like camp--but then you pinch yourself and say, with wonder, "I am in Africa."

le 5 juillet 1999

Two days later but might as well be two weeks. The thought of writing has been entirely daunting since there is so much to say--so many anecdotes, so many impressions, so many things I have already learned. But il faut commencer--so I will do so with descriptions of my surroundings.

Le Centre du Corps de la Paix Americain a Thies is an ex-camp/ compound of the French Army. It is surrounded by walls covered in beautiful magenta flowers which also serve as security since their thorns are strong enough to puncture an errant volleyball. (Have not yet learned this from experience, but the former stagieres (trainees) have supplied us w/ a multitude of such warnings.) The walls of *all* the buildings are covered w/ a sort of yellow-beige stucco, so it was easy to get a bit turned around in the beginning before we learned the way. Peppering the grounds are small huts used mostly for classrooms. The other buildings serve as dormitories, classrooms, the administrative offices, and tiny health center, foyer where I sit now w/ sleeping colleagues all around (la siestel), and kitchen and cafeteria. There are approximately 11 such buildings, each fairly long w/ several rooms inside. In addition to these, there is the lunch hut where we all sit "par terre" to feast from communal bowls for the midday meal, and the famous "Disco Hut"--a sort of small open-air pavilion where we all meet as a full group w/ trainers, etc. for announcements, groups sessions, etc.

None of this was apparent when we first arrived at 2 am local time after having taken the bus from Senghor Aeroport in Dakar. As our three buses pulled up (one just for our luggage), there were cheers and applause from our weary trainers who had waited so many hours for our arrival. We, on the other hand, were mostly all completely keyed up w/ the adrenaline high created by our first contact on African soil. After all the delays, we were that much more grateful to have arrived.

Many of us found it impossible to go directly to bed, and so, after having eaten the beigrets (fried dough balls) and milk that had been provided, my friend and fellow trainee Micah and I took a tour of the grounds. Saw our first African rat--not so different from its cousins down on the Boston Wharf. Later, after saying goodnight to those few of us who were also just heading to bed (it was already near 4h30 local time), I saw my first African toad. I smiled widely and thought of you all, and then let myself into my dorm that I was sharing w/ another trainee (PCT) and two Senegalaise trainers. I tucked my mosquito netting in all around the corners of my bed, and laid down w/ my feather pillow behind my head By the time I thought I was just falling asleep, I awoke. Cíest-a-dire--I donít think I really ever slept at all.

What thoughts kept me awake? It was simply that I could not believe I was actually there. In Africa. With African birds keeping me awake outside my window and African mosquitoes buzzing around my head. In the morning I realized that what I had felt was joy--a sentiment beyond happiness, beyond excitement. The next day we had more shots and the intro to our health training, and then later we met in program groups w/our technical trainers. Of the 8 Environmental Education (EE) people, only myself and two others have no enviro background. We feel that much more intimidated since for the moment we are always grouped with the Agro-forestry people--but we have been assured that our skills are also very much needed for the monitoring, management and implementation of our yet-to-be developed program. That is as I had figured. Our trainer is currently the trainer for the same program that already exists in Senegal, so she is here now to help us. Our technical training does not start for a few days, so I will have to tell you more about that once I myself know.

It was w/ Elise, the Agro-EE trainer that I first went out into town. As we walked for the first time through the gates, it seemed to me that we looked like a group of white people spending their first afternoon free from the asylum. We hesitantly followed our leader across the sandy red roads, past abandoned warehouse-type buildings w/ "Bob Marley est mort" spray-painted on them, and reached a road where the cars tore along, honking every five seconds to warn the goats, dogs, children wandering along the streets. Eliseís plan was to put us all into taxis, four in each, explain to the driver in Wolof where we were supposed to go, and send us on our way. We were all nervous, but she assured us that we would arrive with no problems and so myself and 3 others volunteered for the first cab.

We were now the ones tearing down the dirt streets, and more than once I thought we really were going to "ecraser" a small child. Heading into "centre ville" I felt as though I were in one of the anthro or francophone politics films I had seen in class: a city, but one not known by any western standard. Of course not. But to read, to see in documentaries, on t.v. . . . quite another thing to have the tan sand of the streets in your sandals and between your toes, to have the flies stick to your sweat, to have the smells fill your sensory system and for the first time not to recall anything at all familiar. No building seemed more than two stories, and most have only one, many have only three walls. As we passed in the taxi. myself and my three fellow PCTs, we were the main attraction: a whole car full of white people! A whole caravan! the tension in the car was palpable. I myself felt anxiety, but I cannot say from what exactly. It seemed to me that it was obvious we were P.C. neophytes--and since the PC has quite a favorable reputation in Thies and a couple of decades of history, I knew we were being seen differently than if we were simply tourists. But I did not feel very good about the fact that our driver did not seem to speak much but Wolof--suddenly all my power in Dakar and w/ people at the Centre was eliminated. We passed the place Elise had said was our destination, and the tension in the car mounted. We had turned down a street that for Thies seemed quite beautiful (towering trees that arched over the boutiques (i.e. stands) and bars below, creating an effect that earned the name my brother told me for this street: la rue sans soleil), and kept going to an alarming distance from the bar name we had recognized. I thought maybe he needed to go further in order to turn around, so I didnít even try to say anything at first. But when he stopped to ask for directions and the other guy didnít know, I started to panic. I was the only one in the car who speaks French, and I could feel them looking at me--so I managed to express that he should turn around, without a word of Wolof. When we finally got back and got out of the taxi, we were practically holding each other. A minor event in any other context, but none of us felt at ease until the others showed up. One girl was nearly traumatized. The beers inside and the spectacle of our trainer bartering with a woman for mangoes (100 cfa for one? Deedeet! No way! (100 cfa is 15cents)) more than made up for the preceding drama. Oh! And the mangoes themselves! This is what it must be like in India.

So what next? Ah -- the weather. The rainy season is well underway in Senegal, but it has yet to reach our region. Apparently it rained once before our arrival, but not yet since. Generally it has been, well, hot. It is not however that oppressive stuff we had in N.H. before I left; while it is humid, it somehow does not feel as heavy. Except at night, which is the worst. Now that Iím at homestay (Iíll get to that tout a líheure) I sleep with the door to the living room closed and the window too--otherwise the mosquitoes would be able to organize a posse and burrow through my netting. This means the only thing that gets in and stays there is the heat. It takes a bit of time to fall asleep, since the sweating keeps me pretty occupied. In the end I just resign myself to it, but only after the struggle that involves trying to get as far from myself as possible. Have not yet learned that I will never win.

The first night I actually slept was my first night at homestay--the Saturday after we arrived. (Side note: time here is a whole other species of dimension. As I write it seems we have been here already at least three weeks--I certainly have enough to write for that. In reality, I have only been "en famille" for three nights. The word on the street is that stage can feel like the longest three months of your life.) The past two nights have also been fairly successful and I am barely recalling my dreams at all let alone enjoying mefloquine hallucinations.

Saturday is when our happy little shelter centre existence ended and the in-your-face cross-cultural adventure began. Out of a week full of sureality the meeting of families and PCTs was still one of the most bizarre things Iíve ever been involved in. Families started arriving about 3 pm and when they were all here, around 4:30 pm (again: west African time), we all gathered in the Disco Hut. PCTs all smooshed together on the mat in the middle, families--mothers, fathers, children, cousins, neighbors, the children of the neighborís cousins--all surrounding us on the concrete benches. The effect was a bit like an oreo w/the top missing, I have to admit. More mutual scoping out than on a skin-tight dance floor. And then the names were called and the matches made It did feel a bit like a market--pick your toubabs (foreigner freak, basically) and go. Fishbait effect 101--sink or swim.

Salou was the only one to come get me that first day. I think after "hi, how are you," he wanted to know if I like Bob Marley and, if not, what music I listened to. "Tu aimes La Police?" he said, and I knew we would get along just fine.

A taxi took us and all my stuff (sticking out of the back--the driver didnít even attempt to close the trunk) to a neighborhood in the south end of Thies. We spent most of the ride talking about how he doesnít like rap because he only likes music that "professes the truth," and how he doesnít follow the NBA anymore now that Jordan is no longer playing. And what? I hadnít heard that something had gone down between Rodman and Tommy Lee? Where had I been--in a hut somewhere?

We arrive at the compound that houses Sofrako Numero 4, and Salou asks me if I like flowers. We enter through the gate leading into the courtyard, and suddenly Iím surrounded by white and pink blossoms--I put my arms out and can touch them on either side of me. We manage to wheel my suitcase around a mango tree and suddenly Iím standing on the patio, surrounded by children smiling and laughing and shouting their names that entered one ear, rattled around and then promptly left. But no worries--my smiles were all they needed. Ah--and then Mame (pronounced "Mom") appeared, and then charged--and suddenly Iím being smothered in the bosom of a woman chattering at me in Wolof, in French--welcoming me as the newest member of their family. Salou, who is 15, brought in my bags and I was ushered into my room. There a small bed awaited me, and a small table on the concrete floor. Someone opened the window, and through the bars I could see the second mango tree, more flowers, and the laundry line that stretches across the patio/courtyard. It is about 5 meters long, maybe 2 meters across. In the farthest corner is my joy--a pomegranate tree. Can you imagine! I have not yet tasted them but Salou assures me that they are ripe nearly year round.

I had about five minutes to myself alone in my room before Salou returned w/the intention of taking me on a tour of our surroundings. Since there really was no where to put my things, there was no real need to unpack, and so we went on our way.

My house is in a neighborhood due south of the center--about a 35-40 minute walk down sandy streets, past abandoned warehouses and construction sites where they are installing telecommunication lines, across muddy fields that seem to serve as nothing but trash depositories, across one main road that is actually paved (near the Shell station), and near the huge gare that serves anyone wanting to go anywhere thatís not Thies. The gare is always a very busy place, and kinda scary, especially for the women toubabs. Iíve only passed there once, and will probably not go back until I need to. There are three other PCTs who live in my neighborhood, so no one ever has to go to/forth alone.

My compound is across from a soccer field--made of dirt or trash, mostly--where the neighborhood kids play. Nearly all the roads in Thies, in fact, consist of dirt/sand and trash. The worst is at the market, where after the rains you cannot walk for the mud, slime, trash, and other various unidentifiable objects and creatures. Once inside a house, compound, or biergarten (nearly all the bars are outside in court yards) all that changes.

So Salou took me around to see the surroundings and to meet everyone. (So now, of course, people in my neighborhood recognize *me* but I would venture to say the odds are in their favor. And they always try to act hurt when I donít immediately recognize *them* (or know their names. But I do have 2 months). My experiences thus far seem to correspond w/the reputation the Senegalese have for their warmth and openness. Before I never really understood how generalizations like that could be made about a single people--I didnít understand what that even meant, being warm and open. But if I can extrapolate from my experiences being welcomed into a Senegalese family and meeting people in town, I begin to see why such things are said.

You step from the dirt streets--around children playing and goats grazing and chickens clucking, and you enter a courtyard or patio of someoneís home. You greet them in Wolof and they are all smiles--they usher you to sit down and eat with them. They offer bags of mangoes and freshly made beignets. This is the normal, quotidian procedure.

My first day in homestay, I arrived, met everyone, took that tour w/ Salou and them returned home. Before I knew it, Iím discussing African politics and history w/ Pap, my host father. "*Thatís* what you learned in class!?" he says. "Well *this* is how it really was." Then Salou and brother Tala pipe in, eager to share all theyíve recently learned about the States--and then its my turn. "*Thatís* what they taught you? Ah no, it wasnít like that at all." An hour into my homestay and Iím discussing Senghorís commitment to Africa, and relations between pilgrims and Native Americans.

Pap is a respected math teach in the community, and is a bit of an intellectual. Mame is more jolly and clever, with interrogating eyes. There are seven kids, but since there are often more in the house, it took me a while to figure out which ones are actually my brothers and sisters. Ami is the oldest--she is 19 and takes TaiKwando. We get along quite well, and she has already come out w/ me and other PCTs. We have plans to go the marche together in order to find a wedding present for Monica and Matt [friends of Jenís, in the States]. The others are all extremely smart, and study hard. All except for Sekou, who is about 9 and a complete rascal. But he has plenty of other talents (which include getting dressed up and lip-synching to Bob Marley). He and I have a secret handshake that we do every time I come home. This is our main form of communication, as he is not doing very well in French class and speaks nothing but Wolof.

After the political discussion it had gotten pretty late, and was time for dinner. Suddenly the electricity goes out--as it does nearly daily w/no warning--and Iím trying to figure out if I really want to wash my hands in the communal bowl thatís being passed around. (In health training I had just learned the litany of nasties found within a thousand and one places in the home.) I am then guided to sit on the floor at the communal bowl set aside for the father and youngest son. At the training center I had already gotten accustomed to the 1/2 dozen-eating-all-from- the-same-bowl thing, but I wasnít ready for the segregation and place of honor. But I sit myself down and wait further instruction, which comes: simply to eat. The lack of electricity proved to be advantageous for all parties involved. I couldnít see all the meat they put in front of me, and they couldnít see that I was eating nothing but the beans and onions around the side of the bowl. I have mastered the trick of picking up very little every time I reach inside the bowl (we use utensils only when soup or porridge is served)--w/o being discovered. This last bit is very important, for I always have to answer to the whole family when they think I havenít eaten enough, which is always. Mange, mange! The best defense is the Wolof word for "thank you, but Iím full and canít eat a bite more." (I never knew a single word would be so useful) "Souma, Souma" comes my response, and only then can I get up from the bowl.

So after dinner that first night, Salou & Tala are asking to see my music, and we hook up my little cd player speakers. At this time the electricity is still out, and so without the TV, I am the main attraction. Suddenly there are eight little people in my hot little room w/ the concrete floor and concrete wall and barred window looking over the patio. Eight people and all dancing--first to my entire Police album (their request), secondly to Bob Marley. A dance party--and even Mame joins in--at this point w/o her shirt because you know, itís just too goddam hot in Africa.

le 19 juillet 1999

(Pulaar: "sappo e jeenay balde")

Okay, so I just need to accept that Iím not going to be able to tell you everything, and that this letter could very easily go on forever w/ every passing day and Iíd better send it before we reach the next millennium. But I do want to catch you up on a few things as I enter my third week here in Thies.

Classes are well under way, and Iím beginning to feel well settled "en famille" and better situated as I get to know the town itself better. At this point in training, we are focusing strongly on language. Placement was determined by interviews held on our second day. Since for my program (Environment) they know already for sure that I will be in the Fouta region of Guinea, I was able to start right away Pulaar. (Yikes-- thatís a French construction, isnít it? "Start Pulaar right away," I mean.) There are two others in the class: Dana (with whom I had roomed in Philly, and who has studied in Strasbourg) & Brian (whose French is also good enough to start the national language of our region). Cerno, our teacher, is originally from Guinea, though his family has lived in Senegal for a while now. We get at minimum four hours of language a day, 6 days a week, so our class has long taken on a definite sort of ambience and character. Cerno is what people call a typical Peul (person from the Fouta): reserved, rather Zen, and quite literal. Never sarcastic. He is a fantastic guy--smart, earnest, kind, and rather earnest in his own way, and I canít seem to stop myself from interminably pushing his buttons. Part of it that same old issue with my being too comfortable with people his age (Heís 31), and part of it is the sheer AMOUNT of class. We have to keep it lively somehow. Dana is just like me, while Brian is just like Cerno. The result is often hysterical, and sometimes it feels like Dan & I are running the show while the guys have no idea whatís really going on. I have earned the name, as Cerno now calls me, "la provocatrice." (e.g. there are only so many times you can practice saying where you come from and where you live before you get bored w/ the answers. Beginning Pulaar would get insufferably monotonous w/out trying to claim that while you come from Mars, you are in fact Brazilian. I figure that as long as Iím saying these things in Pulaar, Iím still doing my work. Cerno cracks up, but then he tries to regain control: "Jenny-fair, parfois il faut travaller dans la realite" Jenny-fair, (sometimes it is necessary to work w/ in reality).

At home, only my mother speaks Pulaar. I practice w/ her and sometimes teach what Iím learning to the kids. Itís been only two weeks, however, so Iím still pretty much limited to such things as "Kohonno kele maa wadi? Min, mi Jombaama taho, kono, mido mari kotiraa be tato" (Howís your girlfriend? Me, Iím not married yet, but I have two older brothers") So Mame normally just laughs at me and waits for me to learn more.

Aside from the Pulaar, I continue to learn about the seemingly infinite ways to get diarrhea, various skin diseases, and at least three types of nasties that would just love to raise their young in your epidermis. Even after all the worrying we PCTs have done about what could go wrong w/us, it seems we didnít even scratch the surface of possibilities. But whatís a toubab (freaky non-African) to do but grit oneís teeth and try not the fall into the latrine?

There are actually a lot of preventive measures to take in order not to get sick, and for many of us, these efforts form the great part of any stress incurred in the homestays. You always have to worry about where the foodís been, where it came from, if it was cooked sufficiently, etc. And then thereís the issue of water--for washing hands, taking bucket baths (about 10 cm from the latrine), cleaning the latrine (the action formerly known as flushing), etc. Itís tiring to always have to worry about these things, especially when the family around you donít give them a second thought. Either theyíve built up certain immunities and tolerances that we toubabs just donít have (this is so in some cases), or they do in fact get sick. They get malaria like Americans get colds--but of course the effects are cumulative. Iím actually fairly worried abut the father of house--heís been sick for a while now, and I think it may indeed be malaria. The mosquitoes are insufferable here during the rainy season, and I canít think of a single Senegalaise who sleeps w/a mosquito netting let alone who takes any prophylactics. There was one weekend when my family was sick with high fevers, and much hacking and bad headaches. I tried to keep away as much as possible . . . the others are all pretty much better.

As for my own health, I have been extremely lucky thus far. But is it luck, really? It may have something to do w/my daily Optiflora, with all the potable water Iím drinking to stay hydrated, w/all the well-wishing you sent off w/me. So--Iím doing quite well, and my biggest problem is that when I run every day or every other day, I canít seem to go as far or as fast as back in the States. And that might be because I no longer have Scout [our German Shepherd] pulling me at my side.

le 20 juillet, 1999

Have just come from a one-on-one interview w/the big honcho head guy who directs my program in Guinea He is here for the week to meet up w/our trainers, to tell us more about how TERRE is actually working in the Fouta, and to talk w/us about our file (CV) and where we might potentially be placed. He asked me for certain preferences (house or hut, cooking for yourself or eating w/a family, etc.), and informed me that while nearly all EE PCVs would at the sous-prefecture level (small town as seat of a region w/a few villages), sites can vary greatly. He said that placement is somewhat affected by language ability, and that they might want to place me where I would have access to a larger number of districts and schools. It was hard to tell my preferences since I am not so very sure of them myself. I ended up saying that regardless of whether I get placed in a hut or house, I did wish to be cooking for myself, and I wished to have enough autonomy to be able to entertain and have people over, etc. w/o having to worry about being a nuisance because I was living in someone elseís complex or compound. (Remember Thanksgiving Ď97?). So weíll see. Itís in their hands now--I wonít find out until Mamou where Iíll actually be. (Oh--among a few other things, I also mentioned an interest in collaborating w/NGOís [non-governmental organizations] in the area on secondary projects, as well as possibly working on womenís development issues, i.e., a few newsletters/ magazines that have already been developed for women and girls. All this as well will become more apparent once I get to site.)

As far as tech training goes, we have begun to work with a group of school kids in a neighboring sous prefecture in order to practice working with the EE curriculum that has already been developed, and to practice engaging them as agents of environmental awareness in the community, schools, and home. As Kate Anderson-Levitt told me, environment indeed does mean something else in a developing country. It was striking to observe a Senegalese teacher talking w/his students about the environment--how the importance was understood fundamentally w/ in the framework of the human condition. Both in how actions and behavior in quotidian life affects the environment ("everything around us," and how the degradation of this environment then circles back to cause maladies, poverty. He laid out quite lucidly and directly the chain reaction that would never have any immediacy for an American eco awareness: fail to maintain a proper latrine, or dispose of household waste in the river, this means adding to the degradation of all that depends on that soil and H20 supply. Not enough or toxic rain, spoiled harvest. Spoiled harvest, no food, and therefore hunger, famine. And how can a country develop if its people are dying and diseased? All this, discussed w/preteenagers who nodded w/ agreement when their teacher then said that their most important role was as ambassadors of this message in their own communities. Tomorrow is our first trip w/them to explore a degraded site not far from their village. I canít wait to really get started both discussing the issues w/them and creating a plan of action. Tomorrow, as well, I will bring my camera. (Have already started on a few portraits of the family.)

Okay--this letter is really getting out of control so, in order to kill it off, in order to send it, Iíll just summarize a few other things here or else you never will receive it.

1. Iím taking Senegalese dance 2x week w/many other toubabs-- and Iím not even half bad. (Proven by the fact that my host sister even admits that. Even taught *her* a few moves the other night.)

2. The PC held a "Tam Tam" here at the center this weekend-- basically a great big dance party w/drums only. A good couple hundred people w/family included. After the tam tam the fate continued w/a disco (after a two-hour wait for the electricity to come back on) . . . ended up being among the last to still be dancing; got home at 6 am, slept til 2.

3. Received a letter from Shirley W [Woodward] from the PCV whoíll be training us in bike repair--a friend of hers. Says sheís doing well, that "Guinea is infinitely better than Senegal." Will be missing her, quite unfortunately--sheís done and leaving just 2 weeks before I get to Conakry and Mamou. But for the moment, Durham N.H. indeed has 2 PCVs in West Africa!

4. This weekend is our first "open"--will probably be heading to Dakar w/a fellow PT to visit a friend of his and possibly the family of my A2 [Ann Arbor] Senegalese friend.

So! So much more, so I will probably just continue--after I send this out. I received your letters M & D--never knew I could get so much joy from something as simple as an envelope. I do hope all is well--that things have settled in your favor w/the house, that you are enjoying the summer.

I miss you all more than I can properly express. Know as well that I am grateful to be here, that I have you always in my thoughts. My love to everyone, and please pass news onto those who might be interested.

. . .


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