Thursday, July 05, 2007

Milennium Village Project

I just returned from the states a few days ago and was scolded for not writing enough in this blog. I have to be honest I didn't think anyone was reading it and so I opted for neglect. But I am newly encouraged and always cognizant that memories and experiences (and stories most of all) will be lost if I don't write them here.

Also since I returned from the state I got a new perspective on some of the goings-on around town. Like Jeffery Sachs and the Millennium Village Project (MVP). Sachs has hit on the socially cool and conscious crowds like the iPhone hit hipsters and so I have to weigh in. One of Sachs' "Millennium Development Villages" is actually a regional collective of villages whose eastern-most reaches are a mere 15k from where I live in Louga. I won't go into the details of the project here, mainly since the undertaking is so broad and nebulous that i could not explain in concisely. But you can check it out on the site, or read about it, well anywhere lately. Or you can check out anybody in Hollywood that happens to be wearing the t-shirt.

A few volunteer friends and I had the opportunity to visit several of the work sites a few weeks ago, graciously guided by one of the project's technical agents. We visited massive agricultural plots built into the rich dunes of the Niayes region, an area that cultivates the large majority of Senegal's produce. Our agent guide explained that onion production in the area has doubled since the outset of the project just 1 year ago, allowing sales of the onions to extend to the distant market of Diaobé in the south.

As we toured far-flung villages we occasionally came across farmers making their way to an MVP meeting to receive new instruction on rainy season gardening and additional seed. The farmers knew our guide and driver and vice versa. Often the men in their long robes and conical, broad-rimmed hats climbed into the truck bed for a ride to the next village. Twice we spotted camels grazing on spiny acacia and one we found ourselves mired in sand. One particularly harrowing path bore our hurtling SUV through vegetable fields bordered with cactus. The path was wide enough only for a donkey cart and it would have been an uncomfortable ride even for the donkey. When we piled out of the car shaken and breathless, the car was striped with hairline scratches, smudges of pink from the cactus fruits and the occasional branch or thorn. I had to wonder if much of the MVP's money is lost to car repairs and paint jobs.

The school at which we had arrived had already closed for lunch but before we left the car we already saw school teachers, children and the village chief racing up the hill towards us. Everyone knew it was a visit from MVP and everyone wanted to be present. The group showed us their new classrooms and toilets, courtesy of MVP, which replaces the straw and tin shelters which previously housed the single classroom on the hill. The school's two teachers were present, neither of them older than myself, and we witnessed their precise French lessons written on the board. The second teacher did evening adult literacy education for local women in Pulaar, their native tongue. The group present was extremely proud of the progress they had made, but at the same time the teachers and village chief knew they needed to seize the opportunity to expound on what was still lacking while they had us in front of them. the resulting discussion was more than a little awkward for myself and the other volunteers who had nothing to offer and no influence or background knowledge in the MVP's work, but it was nonetheless an opportunity to learn how well the MVP really works. The water supply for the school was no good, they said. It came out of the pipes bright orange and could not be used to drink or to irrigate crops. Then came out other requests-- the students had no school books and the schools benches had not yet arrived. This all hints at the possibility of a litany of holes in the MVP approach, which attempts to address every physical need with apparently less attention to sustainability, education and capacity building. At the same time, I have learned to become very skeptical and critical of what people ask for before I try to provide it.

I haven't entirely decided whether the MVP will be effective or not (although i seriously doubt it can achieve all that it portends to in the few short years of its duration). But I've broken it down into some pros and cons.

1) MVP uses quasi-local professionals to administer the projects. These individuals understand the local language and culture better than any American could.
2) MVP works from the ground up. Local and regional governments are bogged down in bureaucracy.
3) MVP focuses on building financial stability for the region first. By showing local populations that there is money to be earned, they are bound to have good participation.

1) The project lasts only a few years, after which its investments will fizzle, or not. It is not clear if an emphasis has been made on local sustainability.
2) MVP appears to do a lot of giving, sometimes without the necessary trainings and public education that is needed. Sometimes this glut of offerings creates dependency and expectations that help will always fall from the sky.
3) In the rush to build and produce it seems that some basic needs have been overlooked, like potable water in the village we visited.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences with the MVP (especially those of you who are on the ground working with the projects). I think I would still put my money with MVP, they have been generous and ambitious about fixing problems. But I have my reservations.

All my best!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Wolof Words

I am always amazed by the Wolof language. It is simple. There are few words that have more than 2 or perhaps 3 syllables. It is direct. The elaborate twisting of sentences we have in French or English doesn't exist. It is vibrant. and loud. Most statements can easily be confused with shouts, expletives or arguments. It is funny. A good looking girl is a "diskette,"
an attractive boyfriend is an "expensive fish." And most of all it is absolutely unique to life in Senegal. There is a specific word for "to be able to carry something alone all of the way". There is a word that means "to prepare the spices for stuffing the fish". There is equally a word for carrying something on your head. I recently learned that there is a Wolof word for being pickpocketed. From a sort of nerdy, linguistic point of view, this is interesting. Most new inventions don't have Wolof names, only imports from the French language. But "pickpocketing" has a Wolof name? Did it exist way back when? Or is it just one of those rare words that was specially assigned its own word? And why "pickpocketing"? Why not "email" like the French "courriel". I guess some legacies just don't last

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


First of all, it is really unbelievably hot here-- so hot that after barely 1o days of working I am exhausted and so dehydrated from walking in the sun that my hands shake. But I'm not complaining :) It's time for a vacation!

Second, a funny story to share... just because I have no shame. I was supposed to meet a client yesterday at 3:30 to go visit a bank together before I started a training at 5 pm. He was early, so came by my room to see where I was. I told him I would be there in a minute and he went to sit with some family members. So I rushed to get dressed and started to gather my stuff for the training. I brought my bag and kit out and set them down next to my 20-year-old host brother, who is really shy and who I have just started to be close to. We were chatting a bit when I realized that I had forgotten something in my room. I turned to go back into the room, turning my back to him and at the same time reached back to check the zipper on my dress-- which I naturally had forgotten to zip. I very calmly zipped it and continued walking to my room.... but ever since then I have not seen my brother once! I am pretty sure he was mortified to see me so exposed in a country where I don't even show my knees!...

In other, more PC news... I visited a "simb" the other day, also known as "faux lions" or fake lions. It's a sort of a neighborhood fair/block party to raise money for the local community associations. Essentially big scary men dress up in costume and dance and act and also "trap" people from outside who do not pay tickets to come inside, then they bring these poor souls into the middle of the whole crowd and make them do silly tricks. Of course I got singled out 4 separate times since I was the only white person for miles around, but I had a great time with it, and my sisters really got a kick out of it too. Most impressive was the man with a body-builder physique dressed in drag and the man on stilts who did crazy Senegalese dance in the deep sand. Truly impressive. So I hope you enjoy the photos :)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Excellent MicroCredit Article

This article demystifies micro-credit lending for anyone interested. Accurate, concise and entertaining, it provides real feedback on the variety of lending sites out there. Read it!

A Good Run for your Money: Which microlender makes best use of your $20?

Gotta love days like these

There have been some excellent happenings around town...

there is a new baby in the family who is totally sweet. just 6 or 7 little pounds and only opens her eyes a few times a day, but I love her all the same.

there is going to be (inch'allah) a new volunteer in Louga! I can't tell you how excited I am about this (my very own little baby to welcome into the world!) Not really, but with both of my neighbors and practically half of the volunteers I am in touch with checking out in the next two months, I think I will need the new company. And plus, this volunteer will work in Urban Agriculture, which I think is sorely needed in this town. You can see some photos of a training we recently did with a women's group on gardening in alternative containers. A visiting volunteer led the training and I supplemented with a little business knowledge. I've been following up with these women and they are awesome, super self-motivated and they don't get discouraged when the lizards eat their plants, they just fix the problem (alxamdoullilahi)

tomorrow is my first real session with the girls club-- a group of 20 or so high performing girls from a local middle school, led by last year's scholarship winner ($50 to buy school supplies). It will be a little tricky to get our program to fit into the girls' schedules, especially since the school will be striking, taking a 15-day vacation for Easter (you'd never know they were all Muslim) and ending in late May but we will make it happen. On the plan for this year are learning to use the Internet, learning to do dynamic presentations and improved research (on figures in African American history), a meeting with professional women and career discussion , an exchange of American and Senegalese cuisine and maybe even a visit to the American Embassy in Dakar where there is a great library for the students to use and maybe even a chance to meet with one of the women who works there. Budget poses a little bit of a problem (as it always does) but the school will help a little bit and we will find some money somewhere else I hope!

We are still cooking on occasion (made okonomiyaki the other day in my bathroom/kitchen/storage room) which turned out to be delicious and in my absolute boredom and (let's be honest) curiosity, I also pickled several pounds of beets. Hey, whatever keeps you sane. Cheers!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Media Frenzy

here are two links from my mom and my brother with good stuff on Senegal

First the elections-- which came and went with really no serious event other than some pep-rally like cheering sections in the streets. The NYTimes covered it here

Senegalese Vote Hinges on Views of Economic Growth

I really like the article for some its summary of what Ablaye Wade means for the country-- he has a long political past here and I am still trying to figure out all of it.

Second is a film made in the south of the country. I love the images in it. The people are very real Senegalese (the film-maker used an all-local dance and theater troupe) and the scenery is of course, true to life. Maybe the story is a little trite (clearly made by a european white guy) but still worth a look.

Binta and the Great Idea

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tomorrow is Election Day

That's the big news (that and my Senegalese god-daughter will be named tomorrow). There is some interesting info on the elections here: BBC provides short synopses for 10 of the 15 Presidential candidates.

Here is a blatant personal opinion regarding these elections and all the hype coming from within senegal and from the US. Whether or not these elections are fair and transparent, I really don't think that there is much to worry about. Everything we hear is about threat of violence or corruption, etc. In reality, I think the transition (or retention) of power will pass just as peacefully as anything else here. It certainly will not surpass your average school strike or rowdy soccer game. And as far as corruption? the only thing rigging votes are lack of infrastructure and a new and completely untested voting system. So why did the US have to issue a press release asking pretty please Senegal will you have free and open elections? Yes. they are trying, it is not that simple.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cooking class

It's been a long time coming, and the other day when yet another class was canceled due to no-shows I took the opportunity to be home early and learn how to cook a Senegalese dish start to finish. I'm so proud of what I learned that I want to share a little bit about it.

The dish is called "domoda," a classic Senegambian fish and rice combo with a thick tomato-y sauce and all the regular veggies, cabbage, manioc, carrots, turnips, squash, etc. the details of all the prep aren't terribly exciting. But then there came the moment that I was asked to squish the tomatoes one by one with my bare hands. How satisfying. And it got better. We started frying the fish up a little bit and suddenly it all made sense. I had never been able to figure out the tiny, slightly irregular marble-type things in the food. But here they were, fried fish eyeballs. Who knew they could balloon like that?

once we finished prep for lunch it was time to get started on dinner. In Senegalese cuisine lunch is the main meal. It requires a long time to cook and is usually quite a bit more expensive (and tasty) than dinner. For dinner, we tend to have a little bit of rice with bits of dried fish or kinds of meat 'extras', stomach, organs and the like. The dried fish, known as "ketcha" that ends up in these dishes is very inexpensive because it is actually fish that has started to spoil and then was dried and salted. I've known this for a long time and I guess I learned to live with it (and the strong taste that comes with it). Habit can change I suppose. Well for dinner I got to prepare the ketcha. I was handed a paper bag with three dried fish in it and told to pick out the bones. I started to work using my best knowledge of the anatomy of a fish and was bent intently over my task when I realized that in the effort to pick out the tiny bones I had completely ignored the fact that I was actually digging right into maggots. I was more than a little shocked, but I couldn't drop the fish and make a scene... it is, after all, the same dish we eat almost every day. So I leaned casually over to my sister and asked her about it. She told me I was doing just fine... when we washed the fish later all the maggots would come off.

Bon appetit!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

a turning of the tides

What an amazing week. It doesn’t get any better. And I say this despite a long-standing love/hate relationship with peace corps… I’m completely serious, this is why I came. On the eve of 16 months in country I can say that okay, I’m starting to figure some things out. It’s never been any secret that I had trouble adjusting to society here, and I might be understating the fact if I said that Wolofs weren’t the first to welcome us with open arms into their communities but of all of a sudden I am starting to feel like I halfway belong here.

Here are some of the colorful people that have made life in Louga so enjoyable recently.
Last Saturday I taught a really small computer class (meaning that one person showed up) but it was still entertaining. The guy that I taught is one of the administrators of the school and possibly the goofiest guy I have met in Senegal. He weighs no more than 80 lbs. and has a lively personality, always exclaiming in Arabic when I show him how to change text to italics and so on. What I love about this job is that when I give the teachers something very simple to copy out and format on the computer I get such colorful interpretations. Today a short letter announcing a new class included such phrases as “decentralized development” and “powerful is my teacher Fary Sarr” (Fary Sarr being my Wolof name). How could you not love this from the Wolof version of Screech?

The following day I taught again. This time I was terrified (I literally was feeling sick to my stomach with fear in the hours leading up to the class. 30+ hard-talking older Wolof women in their first ever literacy program were going to participate in a basic business skills class. Introduced by? Fary Sarr. The mix was all wrong for an ivory-tower white girl from Indiana. And then somehow it worked. Somehow the women got it (bless their little hearts) and somehow they tolerated my mediocre Wolof, and somehow they got the answers right, at least some of the time. They clapped at the end (I should have been expecting a barrage of insults and rotten fruit) and I wanted to dance. I might have given them a butt wiggle or two.

The following day, another class. This time school dropouts, girls from age 15-20 signed up for a basic sewing school. they might be more scary than the older women. I have battled with this class for more than a year, always trying to design lesson plans that they can manage with a minimum of literacy and that will actually serve them in the work they are preparing. I’ve tried mentoring sessions, games, discussions, homework. Everything. So I resigned myself to teaching costing; thinking there was no possible way it would be understood, but at least I would feel like I was actually teaching something about businesses. The topic was awfully theoretical for them, but we muddled through it (what qualifies as a direct or indirect cost) and I was honestly so proud of them. They struggled to understand our rules and definitions for each type of cost and at the end I apologized for how difficult the lesson was. A couple of the girls honestly sat straight up and said, no, it was a fun class. Wow, who would have thought? It made me realize that maybe its not that these girls don’t like to try to analyze and study, but maybe they just never had the chance to give it a try?

Wednesday, another class. Female scholarship candidates from a local middle school. Hair extensions, tight jeans and attitudes. I started out getting blank stares in response to my pleas for introductions. I had started in French since these are the best performing girls in the middle school and ought to speak very good French. So I tried again in wolof and the room erupted. The same girls who stared out at me under heavy eyelids were spouting questions. Do you sweep? Where are your Wolof clothes? Why don’t you wear earrings? Are you Muslim? Do you pray? Can you dance? Do you sweep? Can you cook ceebujen? Do you eat rice? On a normal day I would be furious at this barrage of questions. These are all the criteria that make a “good Wolof girl” and I usually just get annoyed that I am expected to fit a mold that has nothing to do with my own identity. But I guess on this particular day, I was just happy to have won them over. I was maybe still a little disappointed that their view of the world was limited (at least in my opinion), so I proposed a club where we could get together every week and get to know each other better. I saw some other volunteers do this with success and I’m hoping that I can pull it off as well. So, if all goes to plan, we will do recipe exchanges, discussions on culture, activities for painting, singing dancing and any other number of activities. If you have any ideas please let me know! We are definitely limited because we have no budget, but we are looking for fun and educational plans.

This is really a lot for one day, so I will save news on the bird park, the Catholic women’s group and other stuff for another post. Diam ak Khewoul!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

A few tasty treats

Today is Tabaski. At least that is what they call it here. It is based on a story that I think is quite similar to the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing his favorite son, who is later stopped by the Angel Gabriel? Am I totally mixing this up? In any case, in the story that I have been told here, Ibrahim is going to sacrifice his son Ismaellah according to God’s wishes and at the last moment, Ismaellah is replaced by a ram. So on Tabaski, every head of family buys a ram to sacrifice. This morning we sacrificed 6 rams, and thus I have just finished my third meal of the day of ram meat and onion sauce. Yum. I won’t eat for another two weeks to be sure.

After that, we all get dressed up in nice new clothes and go around visiting people’s homes. We ask forgiveness for our sins from other families in the neighborhood and then we wish them health and prosperity in the coming year. So here are a couple pics for you. Enjoy!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wow, it has really been a long time since I wrote. But I'll make it up to you.

Tonight after I was sitting in one of the women's rooms in my house and talking with a group of them. Three were married, two were not, but certainly of the age to be married. Soon the discussions got pretty racy. For everyone's best interested I prefer to leave out the details (and you can imagine how much of the conversation I got, with my extensive Wolof vocabulary) but the part that was really funny is only PG-13. It went something like this:

Woman 1: Why don't you bring FD (names have been changed) back to the US? She could braid hair, clean, everything
Woman 2: Yeah, she'll even give sponge baths to the toubabs and wipe them after they go to the bathroom
(raucous laughter from all around)
Woman 2: I saw that, I swear, the toubabs take paper and wipe when they go to the bathroom

(at this point I am still not getting the Wolof phrases and I am thinking, what are they talking about.... shaking my head no...)

Woman 3: That doesn't make any sense, it would get all wet

Woman 1: no, they hang it on a little stick and tear off a little piece, wipe and then they throw it out. If you want you can even clean your hands with the paper when you are done's note...*okay, maybe a little off on that part, but close enough*

Woman 2: see I told you!

At this point I intervened and had to admit that yes, the toubabs like to use little bits of paper in the bathroom. I talked a little bit about germs and why most americans are terrified by the idea of a turkish toilet and a lack of toilet paper. The women understood the germ thing very well, but they still think that users of toilet paper are completely alien. Ahh, another Peace Corps goal satisfied, sharing American culture the world over....

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It's hot

Actually really hot. Who was I kidding? I told myself that the cold season was coming (sometimes at night I approach the sheet bunched up at the end of my bed). But no. I visited some American missionaries in town today, and you can always count on them for knowing the temperature in a number system that I can understand. Turns out that the middle of the day reaches 105 and the coolest time, early morning, is about 75 F. Certainly put things in perspective for me, ha!