Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pretend I wrote this specifically for the blog...again.

Et le deuxieme:

Hello All,

As you may recall, I have trouble deciphering the difference in spelling between the words “desert” and “dessert.” Normally, this minimal impact on my life, alas, as you may remember, I am currently in the d-e-s-e-r-t. I rarely garner enough motivation to write more than one email about any given event in my life, but ironically, a lack of things to do here warrants multiple emails, as I have successfully memorized all the words to all the “Will and Grace” episodes I brought with me, and am “going green” by replaying them in my head rather than wasting electricity by replaying them on my laptop.

So, on to my random life au Senegal…

By far, the most fruitful thing in my life right now are mangos. Well, quite literally they’re the most fruitful thing. The most utilitarian fruitful thing in my life is still consistently exercising despite overly monochromatic scenery, 100+ degree temperatures, and two paved roads. So for those of you who say you don’t have the ability to exercise, ha! There is always a way. Unless there isn’t. I believe Confucius said that.
Anyway, I think the initial shock of “Oh my God, there’s an Indian girl running around in shorts” has worn off of the greater Matam population, and I am now instead met with a universal sense of confusion. I honestly have little to no idea how to go about getting a bunch of girls to join in my quest to sweat (my girls exercise club), which has happened for three reasons:

1. I have yet to see a single girl other than myself exercising
2. None of the girls I have met speak enough French for me to communicate in any capacity other than grunting and pointing
3. I have made a sadly abysmal effort at actually trying to get anything together.

Ignore the last reason, and you see this problem is entirely not my fault. However, as two other people in my group have asked me, I might try to approach some people tomorrow and see if there is interest. I even have translator…

Which brings me to Malik. Tuesday afternoon, which I may very well be confusing with Monday, Wednesday, last Friday, or a dream, I walked outside to find Andrea talking to a guy about my age. I marched straight up in French speaking mode only to hear: English! Of course. Apparently Malik went to the public university in St. Louis and has taken a lifelong vow to teach English until he dies. At least that’s the way he came across. During our broken conversation in the language of the Queen, Malik proceeded to tell me how culturally similar he is to America, and how the USA has always been his motherland, his dream, his place of understanding. (Keep in mind he has never been.) How learning British English in a former French colony capital is connected to America is beyond my prerogative, but when he flashed me the peace sign and pumped his chest, I didn’t have in my heart to point out this blaring discrepancy. Malik then invited us to his parents’ house and gave us an unnecessary long description of his certification in the sport of volleyball (who knew playing a sport needed certification?), when it dawned on me that I could ask this guy about getting a group of girls together to exercise. I tried asking in English, but was met with another spiel about volleyball, so I tried asking in French, which was also met with another spiel about volleyball. Andrea even tried asking again later, which was met with another tangent comment…ok, so maybe Malik isn’t a great source to get this volleyball, wait no, girls exercise group together. Whatever, the point is that there is one random guy in Matam, Senegal who sort of speaks English and plays a lot of volleyball. Next subject.

I’m fairly positive 99% of all the people I have ever met claim they are really bad at keeping in touch. I am not. I’m actually really good at keeping in touch, as proven by the fact that you got this email. One of the benefits of keeping in touch is connecting with the randoms who live where you are going. Mark (kind of) being one of those examples, who at this very moment is wandering somewhere around Arlington, but is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania. Mark has a friend Nick, and friend Nick is also a Peace Corps volunteer on the other side of the river where my hostel is, so friend Nick, Andrea, and I went to the social scene of Matam a few days ago – aka, a tin structure that has electricity, which powers a fridge, in which some Flag beers are kept, two of which I drank. In the midst of these refreshing bits, I was approached by what appeared to be the town drunk, which is ironic for many reasons as the overwhelming majority of the population is very Muslim and doesn’t drink to any extent. Town drunk walked straight up to me and presented me with a gin bottle filled 1/5 of the way, and a bag of water, which I was supposed to pour into the gin bottle so he could drink (even the town drunk has a relatively low tolerance to Americans). Between contact issues and bad lighting, I couldn’t figure out where the opening in the bag was, so I held the bottle while he diluted his drink. Needless to say, I didn’t engage in conversation after the pouring incident, and also needless to say, I would never go into that place alone, but it’s nice to know it exists, mostly so I know how to avoid it.

Despite the obvious plethora of exciting and interesting activities in this corner of nowhere, I am indeed here for work. Work, as anyone who has been to a developing country may know, is a relative term. I do admit that in the days prior to this week when the electricity was consistently turned on, no one in our group was on the brink of death, and everyone in our group was physically present, we worked at a very respectable pace by even Japanese or German standards; however, things slowed down considerably last week, to the point where I was almost sure we were going backwards.

My Senegalese student is in the middle of completing about 79824528 other degrees at the same time as this one, so she had to go back to Dakar last weekend to take an exam, and since she could, she stayed for the entire week. As we were waiting for feedback on our work thus far, and as my knowledge of the Senegalese health system in Matam can be comfortably summed up in 2 sentences, I was left a little helpless (worthless?) for the duration of her absence.

In the coming weeks; however, we’ll probably be going to more remote areas (yes, it’s possible to get more remote than here), and conducting surveys and focus groups to get an idea of the response to our question (why is there both weak use of and weak offerings of reproductive health services for transhumant populations?). So for all of you who imagine me running with the wild boars while my hair ripples in the wind “Dancing with the Wolves” style, brace yourselves, it may come true. If nothing else, I’ll stand in front of a fan and strike a dramatic pose.

What else? I have a few other observations that aren’t making it into paragraph form. Here goes:

1. I packed 500 Q-tips but no (functioning) flashlights.
2. Other than two people with office jobs, I am the only person in Matam who wears socks.
3. There are approximately 7 different types of packaged chocolate cookies in Matam. The Croatian ones are winning on taste, cost, and satisfaction factors.
4. My natural computer literacy is not sufficient enough to compensate for my total lack of musical talent in learning how to use GarageBand on my MacBook.
5. The French media compared the magnitude of Michael Jackson’s death to Fran├žois Mitterand. Sadly, I think more people in the world know who Michael Jackson is than Mitterand. So go ahead, look him up if you don’t know, I won’t judge.
6. I still want a puppy.

That’s all for now!
Cheers,

Mala

Pretend I wrote this specifically for the blog...

Instead of trying to come up with twice as many funny stories about my time in Senegal, I'm posting emails I've sent out en masse. Voici le premier:

Hello All,

Please forgive me for leaving out whomever on this here; it has been awhile since I’ve been compelled to send out a mass email. In fact, this might be a fleeting moment, so relish the message, I say!

Soooo, as you should probably know, I am currently writing from the desert of northeastern Senegal. And by “desert,” I mean lots of sand. I hope I didn’t accidentally type the word for sugary finish to a meal. At 24, I still get those two confused. ::sigh:: Anyway, after 10ish days in intense but fabulous Dakar, we got shipped to…the middle of nowhere!

Our first accommodations were a royal piece of crap. Thankfully there was electricity and running water, but the only furniture we were allotted were 4 pieces of foam misleadingly referred to as “mattresses” and 4 plastic chairs whose weight capacity is 4 flies and a can of Fanta. Not surprisingly, Andrea, the other American with me got ridiculously sick, so on Wednesday, I spent the better part of the day running around the region with her to go to the medical center, the “hospital,” and finally to our new accommodations. I never would have thought A/C is necessary, but with the 122 F degree (49-50 Celsius) highs, and buildings that allow absolutely no air circulation, it is. I probably could have handled the accommodations we were given at first, but barely, and not certainly not happily.

Now that we’re nicely shacked up in the equivalent of a 1-star hotel sort of complex, everyone in our group is in decent health, thank God. On to the perils of our town, Matam. There is absolutely nothing in this town save a few venders that sell “The Laughing Cow” cheese, and one permutation of a bar ironically titled “Oasis.” Our links to the modern world are a 4 by 4 truck UNFPA uses to cart us around, and the saving grace of our dessert city: UNFPA’s wireless connection I’m using to send this email.

Despite the abysmal selection of things to do in the town, I’ve managed to occupy my time enough to compose a few funny tidbits in this email. First off, everyone in our group is paired with Senegalese students, and mine is by far one of the funniest people I have ever met. I should have seen it coming when she fell asleep during our first presentation in Dakar. This woman has been all over the world, including Mexico. While there, she went on a tour and learned about the Aztecs who (according to her 300-year-old tour guide), used human hearts as a sacrifice to the Gods. When asked what they did with the rest of the body, the guide replied that the townsmen ate it, from which my student partner deduced that Mexicans are fans of human buffets. Ridiculous, I know, but to her credit, she’s an incredibly hard worker, and completely vital to my project. Andrea’s student pair is extremely nice and helpful as well; a great rapport with our student pairs is definitely more essential than a few meager forms of entertainment.

I decided that I don’t stand out enough in the area, and have taken up running in shorts to alleviate this concern. Running may be too generous of a term; with the 100+ degree weather, trotting is probably more accurate. During one of my trots this past weekend, I was stopped by at 16-year-old (or so) girl and asked if I was coming back tomorrow. I said yes, and she told me she wanted to come with me the next time. I was two hours late the next day due to ridiculous heat, but her little encounter gave me the brilliant idea of perhaps starting some sort of exercise club for girls in the area. A friend of mine who did the Peace Corps in Jordan tried doing something similar, which came with mixed results, but since I have an obvious abundance of time, I might as well try, right? On verra.

I spend the rest of time my rationing the episodes of “30 Rock” I burned, reading, and trying to teach myself German from one textbook I have from a class I took 5 summers ago. I also drew a few pictures and have been solicited to paint a mural on the wall of our hotel. If it doesn’t melt, I might actually go for it.

That’s about the extent of my life for right now. In the next few weeks, we’ll probably be going to the regions outside of Matam to find our nomads/transhumants and collect the data necessary to bring our paper beyond a concept. I’ve been warned a thousand times over there’s nothing there compared to here, and since there’s practically nothing here, I’m curious to see what nothing squared looks like. I’m also curious to see how I fare in nothing squared. I’m expecting nothing.

Pictures to follow eventually.

Write back and tell me what’s going on with you!

Love, liebe, amour, kys og kram, and cheers,

Mala