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,


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