Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

March 26,
I am at a cyber cafe in Thies now, struggling with the French keyboard. It reduces me halfway back to the search and poke method of typing. Time is short, so I can not respond to the comments directly. But I wanted to tell you it made me feel wonderful to hear support and enthusiasm from my family. I shall soon, enjoying the leisure of time and a qwerty keyboard, type an entry about demyst, training, and my homestay. For now, I am going on a hunch and a rumor, I suggest you read about the city or region of Kolda. Everything else aside, I think you will be pleased by its proximity to the safari-full national park.

March 17
My flight to Senegal was quick and pleasant, thanks largely to the good books my uncle chose for me.
When my group arrived in Senegal we were greeted by Malcolm, the country director for Senegal’s Peace Corps. On seeing my violin he told me he plays a few instruments and has a group that gets together once a week to try a night of Irish, bluegrass, or folk. They meet in Dakar which is too far from Thies (where I am now, pronounced “chess”) for an evening visit. Hopefully I’ll be able to join them occasionally.
We rode from the airport in Dakar to the Peace Corps village in Thies shortly after landing. Everyone stared out the window at the goats, the boys playing beside the street, the immaculate women in bright beautiful fabrics, the men hanging out the backs of busses, the baobab trees, etc. When we pulled into the village the staff was singing and dancing in welcome. There was a brief welcome for us, they told us where to find clean water (the coolers – never ever ever the taps), and sent us to our rooms. As we walked to the dorms (picture long barracks with very inviting bright patterned bedspreads making the rooms homey) I first noticed the birds. They are constantly overhead and always in song.
The Peace Corps village is a small compound that formerly belonged to the army. The buildings are all one story and look a like stucco. Half the bathrooms have only a hole in the floor. (I only learned the existence of the other half today.) The ground is sand, and it is frequently raked and sprayed. The trees are green, and there is an abundance of flower bushes starting at shoulder height. I believe there are three hammocks. The central meeting place is outdoors under a large round straw roof. I’ve yet to feel anything approaching NY summer heat. May it all be so nice.
The first day here consisted of meals with delicious veg options, a brief welcome meeting, two nap times, a lot of speaking in French, and about an hour of drumming. We all danced. Knowing I was in Senegal dancing with Senegalese to African drumming I couldn’t stop smiling. Early in the day I had felt very nervous and overwhelmed by the scope of what I’d gotten into. Ever since the dancing I’ve been feeling wonderful.
Today began schooling. We had our first lesson on staying healthy, nearly four hours of Wolof, and a lesson on staying safe. I missed most of the last class because it conflicted with my meeting with Cathy, our nurse. These meetings were set up to review any health issues. I was her last appointment of the day, and we spent about four times the allotted time. She was willing to answer questions, so we talked about eczema (which I’ll have to kick because open sores can easily gather infections), shaving (which she said I’d be safer to avoid, again for fear of infections), vegetarianism, body odor, the type of family I may join, and more.
Tonight a bunch of us played Frisbee in the courtyard.
On Sunday I will go to a village to stay with a current volunteer for four days. My job is to walk around, talk to people, look a the plants and flowers, and just soak it up. Such a pleasure.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Monday morning Mom drove me to the New Rochelle train station, and after much talking, laughing, and hugging, I got on the train and cried as it pulled away. About twenty minutes later I realized the anxiety and nausea were gone at last.
The two days of staging were pretty fun. There are 36 people in my staging group. Most of them will be health volunteers, a handful will do environmental education, and the remaining seven, of which I'm a part, shall do agriculture. Peace Corps is putting us up in a nice hotel. I'm trying to relish the pleasures of running water, electricity, and porcelain toilets. To being the staging we were each given a paper listing activities like studying with a Shaolin master, doing an independent study in Bosnia, and knowing how to can pickles. Our first assignment was to find out who among our group did each of these things. A good way for us to have instant respect for one another, I think. My item on the list? "Volunteered with cats in Humane Societies across the USA." An apt representation of my values.
I'm worried about my diet. I'll eat what I must, and hopefully it will taste good, but I dislike the fact that much of what I eat will contain fish.
Chuck, who volunteered in Tunisia in the 70's, led the staging. He began by asking us a slew of trivia questions about the Peace Corps. He was really cheerful and enthusiastic. I think he delights in welcoming us into the adventure. He talked to us about safety, expectations, fears, precautions we can take, and the like. He related stories from his time in Tunisia. Some were inspiring, like the one about him tutoring a boy and quickly bringing him from an illiterate to a 4th grade reading level. Some were daunting, like the number of times he has had malaria. Surely the vaccinations were weaker then. I hope. Mostly staging consisted of the volunteers being broken into small groups for discussion, drawing activities, making a skit, playing word games, etc. Very little was spoken specifically concerning Senegal. Rather, general ideas were discussed and, equally important, we got to talk and play with one another. I'm so glad that when I land in Senegal I will be with familiar faces rather than strangers.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Today is Saturday, and on Monday morning I will ride a train to Philadelphia where the Peace Corps staging will take place. I understand staging to be a series of lectures on what to expect and how to behave abroad, followed by a slew of vaccinations. I waver between being excited and nauseous. Mom and I spent most of this past week struggling with the packing list, the shopping list, and various to-do lists. Mom has been amazing. More supportive and encouraging even than I hoped she'd be.
Almost everything that I'm taking to Senegal, including a new violin, has been purchased this week. I know that I can buy many things in Senegal, and whatever clothing I have I'll be able to deal with, but with each item I consider taking, I feel like I'm contemplating marriage. Is it light enough, modest enough, breathable, does it match enough other pieces, and do I like its color? Does wicking matter? (Jennifer Tian, my clothing guidance counselor, I need you now!) I wonder if in a few weeks I'll laugh at how concerned I've been.
Getting to sleep at nights is difficult because of the many tasks yet undone, friends unspoken to, and words I cannot translate into French spinning in my head. But Mom, Jim, and I are still laughing a lot, and I can always read myself to sleep.