Sunday, July 19, 2009

Senegal part 8 - 3 = 5

Hola! Guten Tag! Ciao Bella! Namaste! Perestroika! This is me stalling for time because I don’t know how to start this email! More “!!!”
Ahem, well, I suppose that can count as a lameass opening, so let’s just jump right into the midst of things…

On Wednesday, Ngoné reappeared out of thin air from Dakar. The actual trajectory from Dakar to Matam entailed about four buses, three donkeys, two coughing drivers, and a chicken in a coop/partridge in a pear tree (if you were keeping up with the tempo) spaced out over the course of 15-20 hours, but because I walked in to get breakfast not expecting to see her, to me, it appeared she materialized out of thin air. Needless to say, it was a rough night of nonexistent sleep for her, but after 3 cups of Nescafe and an entire can of condensed milk, she rallied enough strength to make it to the office to go to work.

Honestly, the thought of her journey and the bags under her eyes were sufficient to make me want to go to sleep, but we managed a fine morning of checking email, and exchanging chuckle-inducing stories interspersed with mild discussions about our project. Somehow after staying awake all morning and early afternoon (minus a few minutes during lunch when Ngoné fell asleep), we slammed our two shots of lunchtime tea (I kid you not, we’re served tea in glass thimbles that acutely resemble shot glasses), Ngoné was on fire. Let me explain…

Perhaps it’s the nose ring, perhaps it’s the helping hand around the kitchen, perhaps it’s the smile, but it is very clear that when Andrea leaves here uncommitted to any Senegalese man, many hearts à la Matam will be broken. Ngoné has picked up on this fact, and in her sleepless state, decided to teach Andrea a new word: Diongué. It is important to know one’s audience, and I know there is only one person copied to this email list who speaks Wolof fluently, so Jojo, this is your cue to start laughing. “What is Diongué?” the rest of you are probably asking. This is exactly the same question I asked myself, and by the graces of our internet connection, found the answer to be this, “Diongué: The Woman’s Art of Seduction.” Yes, my friends, somehow, with the very purposely loose-fitting clothes and sticky-ish rice, Andrea can be equivocated to having “seductress” powers in Ngoné’s mind. For many reasons, I found this absolutely hilarious, and spent the next few minutes doubled-over with laughter and tears coming out of my eyes…in fact, here comes another fit…

::10 minutes later:: Ok, back. That night, I had another “practice” with my girls soccer team/hodgepodge, and showed up promptly at 6 as agreed the previous Saturday. 40 minutes later, the other coach and the girls decided to make an appearance. Given my renewed tiredness, this didn’t bode well with me at first, but I held my tongue and we finished 1.5 hours later with limited success. After a confusing conversation of agreement disguised as disagreement, we agreed (I guess) to meet on Friday at 5, and after dodging hoards of 10-year-old boys demanding I give them my new soccer balls, I made it back to our room tired but moderately content, though much of the contentness stemmed from actually using my duffel bag as a duffel bag instead of as a clothes holder. The oddness of day cannot be properly captured in this email, but let’s just say we were all off, and I went to bed fairly positive someone laced the Matam air with some kind of “Make Me Crazy” solution.

The following morning, we got dropped off one street before our office, so I charged out of the car expecting this to be part of Ngoné’s new exercise routine, but we instead meandered into the office of the community radio station. After demonstrating that I know absolutely no Pulaar (the local language), the head of the radio station launched into an hour-long explanation of his various programming activities, including lamenting the one mid-wife Andrea and Latsouk specifically warned us was absolutely unhelpful. In the midst of my fly swatting, the head found out my name is not “Kuemr,” but “Mala,” to which he took great joy in explaining that if you take out the second “a” and add an “l and e”, you have his name. I tried to look interested, but instead made a slight notion that I had his name written down throughout the course of the interview, and my being American does not preclude the ability to spell. Fortunately, another man came in a few minutes later, the Regional Coordinating Assistant Director Head of Chief Bureau Administrator (or a title equally as long), and steered the conversation back to something of warrant, and actually interjected a few points that were quite useful to our research. Wanting to go out with a bang, Ngoné and I left and finally made it to the office.

That night at our regional director’s house, I asked Latsouk if his program director would be coming to Matam soon. Latsouk replied that he was supposed to come today, but no one has heard from him since yesterday. Right on cue, the program director rolled up in his truck, which in apparent decoration for Bastille Day (week?) was decked out with flashing red, white, and blue lights, and stumbled out of the car with nothing but the clothes on his person and a confused expression on his face. He is hilarious in his own rite, but one of the slowest moving people I have ever met. After a ten-minute journey through the front door, he walked up the stairs to meet us, and speaking at approximately 2 words per minute, told us that he just rode in the car for 12 hours. I must hand it to the man, because after a 12-hour journey, I would probably run straight for the nearest bed, but he joined us for dinner and lumbered off to sleep at a decent hour that night.

Friday brought a slew of interesting events, not being limited to being informed that I would be carted off to nothing cubed for sure on Sunday with a truckload of Senegalese UNFPA workers. We also enjoyed a second batch of sticky-ish rice, and I committed to cooking an Indian meal for the following day with the spices Ngoné brought back for me from Dakar. Enter yogurt chicken…

For those of you who know anything about Indian cooking, you probably know that one of the easiest ways to make a “curry” sauce is adding whatever spices to plain yogurt and mixing in any proteins, potatoes, vegetables you desire. Stick it in the oven, boil some rice, pitter around for an hour, and presto!, you have the perfect meal for a family, an awkward third date, your friend visiting from Germany, or whatever else. Apparently, the concept of cooking anything not sweet with a dairy product was highly bizarre and prompted grave fits of nervous laughter, so for one whole day, I had 4 (5?) Senegalese people questioning, doubting, pondering, visibly showing their fear for this concoction of a dish, which, not very affectionately, garnered the name “Yogurt Chicken.” Ngoné, in her constant silent quest for competition, told me to “shove it in their faces” and make the best damn dish possible.

Saturday proceeded with average hilarity: coordinating my coming to the kitchen to make my dish with the cook with whom I share no common languages was highly time-consuming, as were buying the ingredients (which entailed a special opening of our preferred store). Once in the store, we found out that the only type of yogurt was sweetened vanilla, which presented a problem for two reasons:

1. Ew
2. Our regional director is diabetic

But very much wanting to cook the best damn dish possible, or at that point, any dish possible, I went with the sweetened vanilla and prayed whatever the hell is in “Madras Curry Powder” would be potent enough to mask the taste. As for the regional director, he can’t be THAT diabetic, right?

I walked into the kitchen, which is really a room with a bunch of utensils and two propane gas tanks on the floor, and spent the next hour mimicking motions and sounds for “tasting,” “smelling,” “looking,” “chopping,” “scooping,” “cooking,” and “ow! I stabbed myself trying to do my fancy chopping thing with this tin knife!” Our cook knows what she’s doing though, and within in an hour, we managed to finish all the prep work and left everything to cook for the next few hours. We even found unsweetened yogurt in the fridge, so all turned out well and I returned back to our place to finish exercising; an hour and a half later, I sat in the car with Andrea and 4 (5?) Senegalese skeptics by my side.

Upon reentering the kitchen, I made the slightly alarming discovery that the cook forgot to cook (I know, awkward sentence) the regional director’s meal, but since the chicken had been pre-cooked and any French/French derived yogurt lasts longer than your diamond ring will, we turned up the gas tank to the “burn a house down in 60 seconds or your money back guaranteed” mode and got everything out toute de suite.

Latsouk had already tasted a potato piece from yogurt chicken dish, and knew it was safe/appealing to eat, so he dove in first, and an alarmed crowd of Senegalese followed suit and, TA DA! Enjoyed the meal! Or at least they ate enough and gave me enough compliments to make me feel like they enjoyed the meal. So long as no one gets sick, I’m happy to take in the praise, even if it’s even slightly false. We finished off with the rest of the sticky-ish rice, so between Indian food and Thai d-e-s-s-e-r-t, I was in Matam heaven.

Alas, I will be going into the field to finally chase nomads today, so wish me luck, but don’t even try asking me where we’re going, because save geographic coordinates, this places barely exists on a map. I find it entertaining that in exactly two weeks, I will be on a plane heading back to my apartment in lower Manhattan, so in the span of 15 days, I will have covered the very extremes of the earth in nearly any way definable. One of those moments that makes you stop and ask how your life (in a very good way) got to this point? Fortunately for you, my natural writing style manifests in more humorous ways, so you do not have to read about this musing; however, if you’d like to circumvent this very “study abroad” conversation altogether, I suggest you avoid my physical presence like the plague for at least the next few months. I’m feeling a big spout of deepness coming on.

Anyway, depending in which country you’re reading this from, good day or good night, and I will talk to you next week in inevitably hilarious renditions of chasing some of the most removed people on the planet.



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Senegal part 1 + 2 + 1

Don't even start on me, no, it's not an original blog composition. And no, this does not mean you can have your money back.
Lou Bess Everyone?,

That means “What’s up” in Wolof, and serves as the one phrase in said language I can say with full confidence. Well, that’s not entirely correct, but for the sake of the general theme of not ever knowing what the hell is going on, pretend it’s true.

To start off the week of not knowing what is going on, Ngoné, my Senegalese student counterpart, had to go back to Dakar again to take another exam, and as a parting gift, Matam turned off the power for the previous 12 hours. Normally, Ngoné would spend any free time we have (which, mind you, is a lot) studying in the comfort of her own room, but as our hollowed out cinder blocks tend to accumulate the heat of the day with the upmost fervor imaginable, within 2 hours of the power going out, our rooms were stifling hot, so when I went to go talk to her about my “bring me back crap from Dakar” list, I found her in the common area instead of her room. If there was any doubt we were destined to work together, it was the scene in which I found her that confirmed this destiny. I pride myself in having, using, testing, and unintentionally smelling every Sharpie known to man as I use them often for my artwork; when I found Ngoné, she had spread in front of her, quite possibly every hi-lighter known to man.

After recovering from the initial shock that hi-lighter comes in 2,000 colors, we started in on a conversation about soccer balls when I was abruptly interrupted by the loudest squawk I’ve ever heard. I was fairly positive that someone had died, but Ngoné told me to stop being dramatic, there was merely a frog inside of the wall. And by “in the wall,” she meant in the room, but regardless, the frog was bothering Ngoné because it “Won’t stop chatting, and I really don’t have the time to chat right now,” so Ngoné did what any adult would do: she starting throwing toothpicks at the frog. Frogs are thick skinned, figuratively and literally, because after a series of rather hurtful comments and a handful of toothpicks, Ngoné had only managed to drive the frog to the other side of the table. Naturally, her next weapon of choice was a can of air freshener, but the only effect the air freshener had on the frog was leave it with a subtle scent of lemon and “summer breeze.” Finally, after using the air freshener as a bat rather than as an odor remover, Ngoné got chatty, nice-smelling frog out of the room, and we went back to discussing the virtues of Indian spices and quality soccer balls. I somehow got the time of her departure mixed up, and missed seeing her off, but we continued our soccer ball conversation over the phone the next day, so I know she made it back to Dakar safe and frog-free.

Call me romantic, call me inspired, call me a lazy American, but my favorite thing to do in Matam is ride around in our air-conditioned car and watch the scenery outside. God must have heard my laziness/romanticism, for we spent the better part of the workweek riding around finding small villages and hamlets for my project. That was interesting. Let me explain…

Day 1: We stopped by the office and picked up a sheet listing 30 villages, one of which (as pointed out by Andrea’s Senegalese counterpart, Latsouk) was named “Peru.” Despite my lame pleas, we did not end up in Peru, but instead went to another village whose name I cannot remember nor did I copy down. I know, great investigation skills.
After some navigating around cows and asking half a dozen confused people where our mysterious village was, we stumbled upon our desired hamlet and spent the next hour and a half talking to various people of the hamlet to gather quantitative data. Being two foreigners and two Senegalese, we managed a fine audience of dumbfounded adults who masked their interest as best as possible, and dumbfounded kids who made no effort whatsoever to mask their interest. But no matter, we got the data needed out of the short interviews, and proceeded to do what’s contractually obligated by any Westerner visiting a small African village – get pictures with kids to post to Facebook. Check and check, a successful day.

Day 2: Japan’s philanthropy runs in mysterious ways, not limited to agriculture development in the middle of nothing cubed Senegal. I have no profound comments to make of this endeavor; the reason I mention this is because in our first hour of driving around on day two, we went by pasture land that was restored by the Japanese, and at one point, I saw a sign that said, “Japon Techno.” Har har. That was funny.
Aaaanyway, day two consisted of asking more people along the street for directions to a hamlet exactly 15 people in the world have heard of. Fortunately for us, we found number 13 (he was wearing a shirt that said “13”) and pointed us in the right direction. Said hamlet had a current population of two: one adult and one kid. The kid of course wearing a “New York” t-shirt, but suffice to say that “We’re American” is all the information most people need, and we didn’t get to have a laugh about the coincidence of the shirt locality.

The luck of the week continued, because the one adult was able to direct us to the village center, where we found a few people capable of translating directly from the local language to French, so all of us could understand, but the results of the survey where less than encouraging. When asked what happens when someone who is migrating by foot falls very sick, our guy more or less answered, “Well you know…whoever dies, dies; whoever lives, lives.” The rest of the interview followed in similar fashion, so my genius conclusion on improving the health system from this interview is: “Uh?...”

Day 3: MC Hammer parachute pants day! We were told we’d be going to an even more remote location than the previous two, so I decided the occasion called for full-length pants. Unfortunately, the only location that got to see my pants was the car. Mysterious hamlet was so mysterious that it took us a full 2.5 hours to determine that it was currently uninhabited and only accessible by foot. Damn. We did manage to get some pictures of the neon grass up close, and convince our driver that his services should remained unpaid on our part. Andrea also got a marriage proposal by a 15-year-old boy. Last I heard, that’s a no go.

So on to the weekend! On Friday night, we were informed that we’d be attending a conference for World Population Day. The conference was planned to start at 9 AM, but in African time, this translated to anytime between 9 AM – Sunday, but being the good Americans and Senegalese we are, we woke up to be on time for the 9 AM start time. At 11:20 AM, the conference officially started, and the next few hours proceeded with a blur of two local languages interspersed with French words and some snoring on the part of the audience.

At some point in the conference, Andrea noticed that there was one office swivel chair that was nicer and rose above the rest of the chairs, and was surrounded by two smaller office chairs, which were surrounded by pink plastic chairs. One director sat in the biggest chair, our regional director sat in one of the smaller office chairs, and the local population sat in the pink plastic chairs. After drawing a depiction of said situation, Andrea lightly proposed getting up and asking the following question, “Dear Audience, I’ve noticed that the assemblage of chairs clearly manifests power constructs in this conference. What is your take on this issue?” I spent the better part of the conference prodding her to ask the question, and even offered $100 as an incentive. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of the subject, perhaps it was that the $100 was clearly a lie, but the question was not posed, and we are still left with the predicament of power play through pink plastic chairs and fake leather. An issue to be dealt with next year, I suppose.

On Sunday, I was feeling slightly ill, and was greeted with a torrential downpour of rain as my saving grace. I opened the door, looked to my left, and saw Andrea thoroughly drenched and smiling. Obviously, the solution pick-me-upper was getting soaked, so I stormed outside in full force, fully clothed, and ran as fast as possible to the edge of the pavement before I realized I couldn't see anything and was experiencing a sensation that is utterly foreign at this point: being cold. So after trying to strike a "Singing in the Rain" pose, I met defeat and instead settled for a Tim Robbins "Shawshank Redemption" pose instead. (The picture has since been deleted because I looked fat.) Sure enough, I feel a million times better after the brief run, and that night, fully enjoyed comfortably wearing JEANS in 77 degree F (23 degree C) weather. Hallelujah!

I now leave you with a few highlights of conversation from the past 10 days:

- Fallou: “I know I didn’t correctly predict the hour of rainfall, because you see, I’m not God.”
- Me: “Will I end up in the fetal position after reading the article?”
- Andrea: “Meghan told me she has a goat named after her. I told her I have a cow.”
- Latsouk: “Crap! I made a catastrophe. A mustard catastrophe!”

Cheers All,


Friday, July 10, 2009

Senegal, part deux plus one

(Again, copied from the email I sent out. I know you're feeling disappointed and betrayed that this is not an original composition, but the important thing is that you're being ridiculous.)
Hi All,

Well, here I am again, writing in the midst of the desert. Progress has been made on many fronts, the first of which being I can now clearly delineate between the words ‘dessert’ and ‘desert,’ among others. Here goes…

Last Sunday, Peace Corps Nick invited Andrea and I over for lunch in Mauritania, which we gladly accepted (ooh, big trip!). Being the genius I am, I failed to pack a single skirt, so after bugging Nick and another Peace Corps volunteer with 15+ text messages, I finally got the answer I was looking for: you’ll be fine in pants. After putting on my MC Hammer parachute linen pants (I got them on sale for $30 at Uniqlo, which in retrospect, was $25 too much), Andrea, Ngoné (my Senegalese student counterpart), and I made our way over to the boats we see crossing the river everyday. Fallou, our trusty driver told us to meet him by the “dock” so he could talk to the police on our behalf. So we waited for 15 minutes only to determine…we were at the wrong place! Fantastic start. Fallou came and fetched us and walked us over to a dirt path, which apparently doubles as the “dock.”

Neither Fallou nor Ngoné had any particular desire to come with us to Mauritania, but despite being able to clearly see over to the Mauritanian side, were slightly perturbed by the thought of the two of us going at it alone, so as we waited for the boat to come back to pick us up, they made a slightly dramatic charade of looking for Nick on the other side. A very dark African in a red shirt came up to the river, and out of paranoia and denial, Ngoné and Fallou determined that guy had to be Nick because “of the light pants he’s wearing, no one in Mauritania would dare wear pants like that,” despite the fact that Nick is very white, a point stressed to both Ngoné and Fallou. Alas, I couldn’t pick out an actual foreigner from where we were standing, so I went along with their charade and agreed Western pants guy was indeed Nick.

After 15 minutes of sweating in the shade (yes, it was that hot, and yes, I am overusing parenthesis in this email), the boat finally came back to pick us up, and in a very mom and dad fashion, Ngoné and Fallou wished us well and told us to call as soon as we got there. The passengers from the Mauritanian side included four tired looking women, a few kids, and a goat. After the slowpoke goat debarked, Andrea and I settled into the boat, which was covered in a fine layer of brackish water and used thin wood planks as benches. The motor had obviously been ripped off another boat half the size, so instead of making a straight line across the river, we crossed in a perfect diagonal fashion, as the motor wasn’t strong enough to counter the invisible current. Fortunately, the one-meter tall person steering the boat was not a child as Ngoné thought, but indeed a very small adult, so we made to the other side…well, almost. Since the Mauritanian side is a beach, we stopped in the water and trekked the last 15 feet by foot. At first I thought I was paranoid in thinking about the millions of different parasites that probably live in the nearly stagnant pool of water, but I was later informed by Nick that the only real dangerous parasite are tiny snails that lodge themselves in your skin and inject some sort of poison. Good thing he told me that after we waded through the river to come back, or I might have asked childman to take me straight back to the Senegalese side.

Anyway, after shaking the parasitic water off, we were elated to fact that we finally made it to Mauritania! Of course, it being our luck, a police officer was standing with Nick (who was wearing black pants, in case you were curious), and promptly informed us that we weren’t allowed in the country. Damn. But after a few words of exchange, the police officer went to the local station and got permission for us to stay in the area for the afternoon, but “only because we know Nick.” I have a sinking suspicion that our obvious inability to properly handle the weather for more than a few hours lent us credibility that we would not run off past the village to take contraband pictures of the country, and that we were in fact, just having lunch. Regardless, the officer finally allowed us in to the village.

In my first email, I stressed that I am living in the middle of nothing, but will perchance have the opportunity to see nothing nothing (nothing squared). The Mauritanian village is perhaps, somewhere between nothing and nothing squared. Granted, Nick’s host father was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and spoke perfect French, so our lunch went very well. We spent the time in between lunch and tea reading statistic guides from 9 years ago, so in case you were wondering what the population of Mali was in 2000, I know just who call.

On the way back, we stopped at a Moorish owned shop to buy something authentic, but instead settled on Chinese tea. At least it was packaged in Mauritania. The grand total cost of our purchase of 10 small tea boxes was about $2, so we splurged after getting back to Senegal, and bought ourselves each a Fanta Orange. As we were walking with our drinks, Nick took us by the one church in Matam, not uniquely called “Notre Dame de Matam.” Apparently “Christian” is code for “We Drink,” and upon spotting us three foreigners, a young guy of about 28 invited us in for a beer.

I surveyed the group of people sitting, and nearly had a heart attack. Among the sea of Senegalese were two French girls, one of whom looked eerily like one of my roommates in France. Mind you, this is the roommate who threw me out of the apartment with two days notice, but being entirely positive it couldn’t possibly be the same person, I held back my urge to punch her in the face and instead found out that she was a volunteer in the area for a year and was leaving next month. Since the girl was from Paris (so was my former roommate), I emailed Anne, my German friend who also lived in the apartment, to ask if this roommate has a sister or cousin or someone who might be that girl. The French girls we lived with are quite possibly two of the most socially inept people you could meet, and at one point, the other roommate told Anne she has “a German head,” so Anne suggested that maybe our former roommate and this French girl in Matam have “French heads,” because it’s entirely unlikely our former roommate has any relatives in the middle of nowhere Senegal. I emailed Anne back and said she’s probably right, because come to think of it, the other French girl at the church looked like the roommate who told Anne she has a German head. In conclusion, there is some serious inbreeding going on in France.

Anyway, needless to say, it was an interesting day. On to the girl’s sports team. Fallou, the driver, knows everyone in Matam, so when I told him I wanted to start some kind of team, he had the Minister of Sports for Matam come by the office the same day to talk to me. The Minister and I agreed to meet the following Wednesday, so after work, I trekked over to his office to see what we could do. I had in mind leading a few exercises for young girls once or twice a week, but before I knew it, I had committed to designing a pedagogical (a word the French absolutely adore, but I’m not entirely sure of its meaning) lesson plan for practices, setting up a full out team, leading practices in the stadium, and buying soccer balls. To add to comedic irony, the Sports Minister had a cigarette in his mouth nearly the entire duration of the meeting, but at least he was excited and supportive, perhaps overly so.

The next night was a highlight, because Andrea had gotten Ngoné to bring coconut milk back from Dakar so Andrea could make sticky rice (but due to not having the right kind of grain, was more like sticky-ish rice). I walked into the house in great anticipation for sticky-ish rice, and was informed that 5 girls had stopped by asking for Isatou (my unofficial Sengalese name) to discuss the soccer team. How they knew about the team, my unofficial name, and where I eat my meals is beyond me, but without fail, the girls came back later that night and to find out details of our first practice, which I told them would be the next day around 5:30 PM in the stadium.

The next day I showed up to the stadium (a giant, abandoned dirt pit) promptly at 5:25 PM and was greeted by a guy I had never met, but who apparently was put in charge of welcoming me and leaving shortly thereafter. After 35 minutes of waiting, no one showed, so I dragged myself back to my room, and was greeted with a knock on the door a few minutes later. One of the girls who mysteriously knew where I eat my meals also figured out exactly where I live, and informed me that 7 girls were waiting for me at the stadium. Great. So I picked up my stuff and lumbered back to the stadium, where we held our first “practice.”

All of the girls save one do not speak French fluently, and in my masterful language skills, I haven’t picked up any of local language except “What’s up?” Despite this rather large communication gap, I held another practice for the same set of girls plus another set the next day, and we agreed to continue every Wednesday and Saturday before I leave at the end of the month; all in all, a success, if I don’t say so myself. So long as I can avoid being completely fried from the sun, and so long as I manage to keep the soccer balls I buy away from overly aggressive 10-year boys, I think the whole endeavor will prove quite fruitful. And if not, there’s always sticky-ish rice.

Oh! A quick paragraph about work: There are 84 financed development organizations in Matam, 40% of which are in the actual city (not the district). Apparently, Ngoné decided to hit every single one of them up, as we did 12 or so interviews with various presidents, assistants, experts, etc. in one week. Thankfully the interviews were all in French, so I understood nearly everything that went on in theory, but how to put everything together in a coherent fashion is beyond me, especially since we’ve gotten so much conflicting information: the transhumants are here, no, they’re there. No, they’ll be back in October. Yes, they’re easy to find, no, they’re impossible to locate. Each group has striking similarities, except for the ones that have nothing in common with every other group. Oy. I trust Ngoné knows what to take seriously and what to discard, otherwise, I’m expecting a few weeks in the car chasing transhumants that may or may not exist.

That’s about it. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this email. As reward for your reading persistence, I’ll bring you back a souvenir – do you like Fanta?