Closing of Service and Entering Discombobulation, aka Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

I’ve been back in America for almost 3 weeks now. I spent an hour yesterday wandering around CVS. I left empty-handed and fairly dumbfounded. The other night, I spent the equivalent of half a month’s Peace Corps salary on a pair of boots and a winter coat that likewise left me in a state of mild shock. My first week back saw me nursing an epic bout of food poisoning that trumped all the ones I have ever had in Senegal (but not surpassing the barf-fest that was Cambodia 2005).

Still, I didn’t start this post to talk about life post-Peace Corps (yet). Instead, I want to share the Close of Service letter I wrote with another fellow urban agriculture volunteer, David Vaughan, with quotes contributed by Jen Schlaich. I hope it resonates with volunteers old and new, and especially my replacement in Richard Toll, Michael! You can follow his antics in the Peace Corps here: http://mbaileysadventures.wordpress.com.

Michael and I at the Thies Training Center earlier this month


…the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

-From This Compost by Walt Whitman

Welcome to two of the most humbling years of your life. The next 27 months will be marked by an endless mix of cultural surprises, agricultural toil and moral circumspection that you will either grow to resent, or learn to embrace and turn into a profoundly soul-enriching experience. How could it not be? You have the benefit of knowing that your lot in Senegal has a 2-year expiration date. Farmers here have to live with the very real repercussions of every farming decision they make for the rest of their lives.

Some of you will experience your family’s heartache of selling an entire truckload of a vegetable crop at the peak of its season for peanuts. Even more of you will encounter problems encouraging people to grow crops during their off-peak seasons to beat the market, and every one of you will see the discipline and hardship that is required to work the land here effectively. Even then, unexpected pest attacks and diseases can decimate months and even years of hard work. Spider mites only turned up in the Senegal landscape a decade ago; the fly that afflicts the beloved mango trees here are likewise a recent Nigerian import. You will see first-hand how gravely a foreign import can quickly upset the local ecological balance, and how that can apply philosophically to your own presence here as a Peace Corps volunteer.

You will at times be exhausted, disappointed, and enraged to the point of wanting to give up. But you will also experience unparalleled joy, friendship, humility, and satisfaction should you embrace this experience as it was meant to be: a “formula for practical idealism” (to borrow some of the words of Sargent Shriver) that extends an unquestioning helping hand of American friendship.

To that end, try to always keep in mind your role as an American role model in whatever you do; lean on friends who will provide positive enforcement in times of hardship; and never give up—be creative and come up with alternatives when facing a roadblock, because Yallah knows you will face many. But just as important as all of this, is to HAVE FUN. We as agriculture volunteers have the privilege of getting our hands dirty on a daily basis. We get to see the fruits of our labor in ways that health volunteers can only dream about. A wise (wo)man once said that people who play in the dirt on a daily basis are on average 5 times happier than everyone else. Perhaps after two years of playing in the Senegalese soil (aka sand) you will find yourself much happier (albeit probably much, much dirtier), than you were before.

So as you toil away in the brilliant Senegalese humidity and heat, a few friendly pieces of advice from people who have been through it all:
1) Bring three shirts to the garden (or field) and a few pairs of shorts. When you sweat through shirt one, hang it up somewhere in the sun and move onto number two, etc. You’ll most likely cycle through them all a few times…
2) Sing to the vegetables. They really do respond. Really.
3) Water fights with Senegalese children are epic.
4) Cafe Touba. All day. Everyday. ‘nough said.

Finally, never forget that you are in a country that numbers in the bottom 25 of the Human Development Index globally, has an average life expectancy of 59 years, and where 51% of the population lives below the national poverty line. But also never forget how lucky you are to be here. If there is one Peace Corps cliché that never fails to live up to its overuse, it is this: you will learn more from those you came to ‘serve’ than you ever expected. Whether you are out in the “bush” of the infamous Bakel or in the gloriously over-crowded city of Dakar, your world view will be changed. You will be changed. The only question is this, taken and slightly modified from Mary Oliver: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious Peace Corps service?”

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

-Thomas Merton

An Unexpected Farewell and New Beginnings

September passed by in a flurry of activity— Camp Gëm Sa Bopp was another success, though I was unable to be a camp counselor this year due to project commitments in Richard Toll and a visit to the hospital garden from Eunice S. Reddick, Director of the Office of West African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. Just 3 days later, Mrs. Reddick’s visit was followed by the unexpected death of the Hospital Director, Elhadji Male, on September 17th.

Mrs. Reddick’s visit to the Richard Toll Hospital Garden: (from L to R) Maureen, the new Health PCV and my site mate of 6 months; Seyni, one of the hospital guards; Me; Director Eunice S. Reddick; Director Elhadji Male; and Moussa Wade, head of hospital security

I have yet to cry at a local funeral (though that has more to do with the good fortune of losing none of my closest friends and host family during my 2 years here), but a visit to Male’s wife that week to pay my respects reduced me to a tearful wreck. Progressive, patient, intelligent, motivated, hardworking and kind men of Elhadji Male’s caliber are hard to find anywhere in the world, and their absence is all the more felt when they are lost in places that dearly need their sage leadership. Perhaps Male’s passing also reminded me of my own father’s unexpected death 16 years ago, and the bewildering pain that follows for those that are left behind. I have no doubt that his children will do him justice though: one of his daughters is currently in medical school, and is well on her way to becoming a doctor. Female doctors are few and far between in Senegal—I have yet to meet one here.

New hospital garden gate purchased with income generated from excess vegetable sales, just in time for bizarre windstorms here in Richard Toll. Behind it, the forlorn termite-ridden door, blown over for the very last time

The 27th of September saw me rousing myself at 4.30am in the morning to greet the new batch of Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) at the airport in Dakar as they rolled in at 6am. Strange to think that one of them will be replacing me in Richard Toll come December, and even more strange to think that of the original 63 people I came to Senegal with on August 11th, 2010, less than 15 remain, and even fewer will meet their site replacements come the time for village visits in November. For most, another 2 weeks of waiting to go home can feel like an eternity. For this new group of 57 prospective volunteers though, their service is just beginning: I got infected by their enthusiasm in the mere 24 hours I spent with them before returning to Richard Toll.

My stage during our Close Of Service (COS) Conference earlier this year

The things I have learned over the past 2 years are quite honestly too numerous to recount here, but I hope the main lessons that I take with me from my Peace Corps experience will be helpful to future PCVs: (1) that there is as much to be learned from failure as there is from success, and (2) to never give up.

Most volunteers come from a background of consistent success with little room for failure. When they find that their experiences in Senegal are quite the opposite, many tend to abandon less-than-stellar projects, or choose not to embark on projects at all in the belief that they will be destined to fail. While it is true that projects often stall as soon as volunteer support is removed or diminished, it also underscores the importance of remembering the nature of our work as volunteers.

When failure rears its head, sometimes all you can do is get in a pirogue, sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery (but only if you happen to live by a river)

We do voluntary work that in many circumstances goes undone because people expect to get paid for it. I think a lot of volunteers forget that aspect of our job description in search of a results-driven service that looks attractive on a résumé. We are volunteers, first and foremost, not consultants (though that is often a part of our job). Sometimes, that entails doing things a lot of other people don’t particularly enjoy doing. The reality of our work is that it is often mundane, repetitive, and unglamorous, unlike the romantic notions some might have about the nature of the Peace Corps experience.

I don’t think I will ever miss carrying water on my head, though I might be a convert when it comes to carrying anything else less heavy

That said, not giving up on the projects we do take on, and putting in consistent hard work within reason is important. Oftentimes the biggest contribution we can give as volunteers is showing that we care about a community through our daily commitment to being present in whatever tasks we take on. A diligent work ethic and the simple everyday investment in helping those in need is often the most important aspect of our service and work as American role-models within the global community.

My counterpart Diatta, a man whose work ethic and generosity I can only hope to someday match

So there it is, my lessons learned, posted on the internet for all of posterity. It was wonderful to meet people in the new group of PCTs who found my blog useful, or mentioned that their parents had found it at least mildly assuring. I stand by everything that has been said on this page for the past 20 months or so. This will be a positive life-changing experience should you choose to embark on it, but only if you allow it to be just that. Yes, a lot of unpleasant, discouraging and sometimes downright ugly things can happen while doing the Peace Corps, but they happen in your everyday life too. It is easy to forget the bad times back home when you are looking through a desert haze of heat, hunger, and dehydration in Senegal. But this has certainly been the hardest job I’ve loved to date, and something tells me that it is going to stay that way for a long time.

I leave you last with a photo of a hedgehog- one of the critters I found rambling around the garden earlier this week

Mangoes to melons, floods to mud: Seasonal starts and finishes

With the cursory click of a button heralding the unpresumptuous beginning of an end, I bought my air ticket home: a November arrival in New York City, right smack in the middle of fall and winter. What better way to jolt oneself out of season-less sub-Sarahan living than a brisk New York fall, replete with color-changing leaves and the donning of down or wool layers?

Waxing lyrical on the wonders of moringa to a wonderfully rapt audience in Kalassan

Though, I’d be lying if I said the past 2 years have passed like an endless July summer. Even now the skies open up once a week or so to deign us with the presence of precipitation. The rainy season is upon us, though I can’t say that everyone is happy with this year’s heavier rainfall. Down in Dakar, frequent rains coupled with trash-filled drains and canals (with refuse running the gamut of discarded plastic bags to the blood and viscera of a freshly slaughtered goat) produce outbreaks of disease and illness in inundated neighborhoods unlucky enough to be the victims of poor urban planning. Volunteers in Dakar sometimes lament that even rain-boots don’t go high enough up the leg to keep the flood-water out, a problem Richard Toll thankfully does not have. Our heaviest daily rainfall to date this year has been 25 millimeters, so the worst I have had to deal with is circumnavigating potholes filled with mud or algae in paths that contain more loam than sand.

An unexpected 35kg sweet potato harvest from some old onion plots I was intending to amend with organic material!

Seasonal fruit changes also mark the passing of time here—you know mango season is nearing its end when prices now spike to 1000 FCFA (1 USD) for 5 mangoes (or less), and the products are far from the gorgeous, plump, juicy specimens that were quite literally falling from the sky just 3 months before. Still, the passing of a fruit’s heyday often makes it more delicious—that anticipatory wait between seasons (so foreign a concept when you grow up with a superficial supermarket bounty for most of your life) to taste fruit at its peak (versus foreign cargo shipped thousands of miles away, and picked far before its actual ripeness) is incomparable. Besides, in Senegal, there more often than not is another glorious fruit to fill the void. Right now, it’s watermelons. I can get a gorgeous one than could house two strapping toddlers within for 500 FCFA.

With just 8 weeks of service left, it appears that my season of volunteer fruitfulness is likewise coming to an end. My move back to Richard Toll in August brought me closure, as I bid farewell to my village of Temeye-Thiago. Bittersweet as it was, the thought of saying goodbye to two communities at the end of October seemed like too daunting a task, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to stagger that, while learning to maintain contact with my newfound family and friends in the process.

The Access English Camp crew in Ziguinchor

Far be it from my luck or style to allow my last few weeks in country to be a series of calm, unhurried days of gardening in the morning and lazy lunches in the afternoon, to be followed by tea-drinking and bountiful periods of napping. An unexpected invitation to help run an English camp in the lush, oft-forbidden region of Senegal called Ziguinchor in late August was an offer too good to refuse, even if it was a 21-hour one-way trip from Richard Toll. Camp Gëm Sa Bopp begins on Monday after months of pre-planning and fundraising, thanks to the generous donations of many of you kind readers. A couple of visits from my program director and other USAID officials loom over the horizon, in addition to the flurry of report-writing that I really should begin to engage in soon. All of this, of course, to be tackled alongside the eternal life cycles of fruits, vegetables, and my oh-so-detested-but-resilient foes (pests and weeds).

And so it continues… with any luck, in perpetuity for the rest of my unforeseen future.

My counterpart’s adorable daughter, Aisha, trying my boots on for size

2 Weeks Shy of 2 Years

Dream or Reality: Cooking pork chorizo in Barcelona, or spending the past 2 years living in Africa, grappling with the local fauna? I can’t decide half the time, as you can tell from my facial expression on the left.

You know you’re back in Senegal again when the breeze blows hot and sandy in your face, your video chats are an exercise in interpretative movement and lip-sync readings, and your once solid bowel movements are quickly reduced to a series of liquid emissions more suitable at a Vietnamese water puppet ballet. Strange to think that it’s been 2 months since I took a vacation in Barcelona, and almost 3 since I last deigned to update this blog. At times it seems like just last week I cooked a meal of chorizo stew on a stove-top in Spain; at more trying moments I find myself wondering if the entire trip was but the chimera of a daydream I had, brought on by heat exhaustion and dehydration.

On the eve of my birthday, an encounter with a palm-sized alien-face-hugger spider (aka camel spider) is a wonderful reminder of personal mortality.

Peace Corps life has been both whizzing past and inching along at the same time; any volunteer can probably tell you about the paradoxical passage of time and the tricks it can play on you. On August 11, I will celebrate 2 years in Senegal. With the passing of my birthday this month, a quick calculation reveals that I have lived 7% of my entire life in Senegal thus far. No small personal feat, especially when only 30 days of the past 2 years have been spent outside the boundaries of my host country. Granted, some volunteers spend their entire 2 years of service within country, but those acquainted with my shoestring wanderlust are probably just as surprised as I am with this number, especially given the smorgasbord of budget travel options in West Africa.  On average PCVs are entitled to a total of 48 days of vacation time over the course of their 2-year service.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention that I do play tourist in-country occasionally, recently spending 21 hours on public transportation to get to the Segou (pictured here) and Dindefelo waterfalls in the paradise region of Senegal, Kedougou.

To further reduce this blog post to a series of arbitrary numbers, I have fasted all of 3 days thus far during this holy month of korgi (better known as Ramadan). With 3 weeks of Ramadan left, I have no intention of increasing that number, just as I have no intention of converting to Islam even after living in a majority-Muslim country for the past 2 years. My paucity in blogging I blame on having to write an article for the Senegal Peace Corps newsletter (a travel piece on my 2-week trip in Barcelona), an increased desire to engage in personal correspondence, and rabid fundraising efforts for the Michele Sylvester Scholarship and the 2nd annual St Louis Girls’ Camp in September, Camp Gëm Sa Bopp! (You may recall similar efforts around this time last year here.)

I am proud to say that the Michele Sylvester Scholarship is now completely funded for all of Senegal! This year, I was fortunate enough to extend the scholarship to 2 schools instead of just 1, thanks to the addition of a new health PCV, Maureen, to the city of Richard Toll. It has been wonderful to have company again after spending the past year without any other volunteers in the area. Since her installation in May, we’ve been kept busy with the above projects, in addition to facilitating a moringa workshop at another volunteer’s site a couple of weeks ago, and transitioning work zone coordinator duties to her and another awesome volunteer, Kate in Kalassan. I breathe more easily now with that handover done, allowing me to focus the last 3 months of my service on organizing the girls’ camp, finally moving back to Richard Toll after 15 months of commuting from Temeye-Thiago, and making the transition for my replacement in December as smooth as humanly possible.

Hospital Garden Update: The occasional kid pops up in the watering barrels—a minor hindrance that is usually overridden by their enthusiastic weeding and watering utility.

As I mentioned in my fundraising emails (this will be familiar to some of you), one of the most rewarding aspects of my work here has involved girls’ education. My foray into the realm of international development has made me all the more certain that arresting global poverty is completely contingent on our ability to provide access to education for all. Particularly for women in the developing world, study after study has shown that women’s access to education is the leading factor in decisions to delay childbirth and limit the number of children to be had in a given family. Procreation aside, educated women are also empowered women—more likely to have the knowledge and gumption to find an alternative source of income, and more likely to have access to resources that can help them save and invest this money for their future.

Thanks to the help of family and friends, over US$3,500 has already been raised for Camp Gëm Sa Bopp! However, we are still a little shy of our goal of US$5258.75 in order for the camp to go ahead as planned. I hope you can help us reach that goal by the end of the month by making a tax-deductible contribution at the link below:

https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=685-213

To read more about the camp, go to: http://campgemsabopp.wordpress.com.

I have seen firsthand what such encouragement can do for a girl in Senegal, especially in a society where a girls’ worth is still determined purely by her looks and ability to cook a good plate of ceebujen (fish and rice). With your contribution, I, along with volunteers across Senegal, can continue to help girls realize that a trained intellect is your most valuable asset.

To close off on a random note, my host sister Khady holding a laminated photo of my host mother and I at a baptism taken 6 months ago, now preserved for all of posterity in a Senegalese living room, amongst dozens of others. Strange to unexpectedly stumble upon a piece of your personal immortality, hanging in a stranger’s house.

My So-Called Peace Corps Life: the Hardest Job I’ll ever Love

Daily lunchtime path through Temeye-Thiago

Some Volunteers get distraught by their inability to tangibly quantify their Peace Corps experience on paper, and consequently see their service as a waste when they are unable to enact development projects of a sufficient scale to warrant their time here as meaningful. While I have been lucky enough to be part of several successful projects, what has made my service profoundly meaningful to me (and I believe, constructively engaging for my local community in general) is not correlated at all to the number of kilograms of vegetables the hospital garden produces, nor the number of dollars I raise for a project grant.

Months passed growing vegetables, hours spent cutting tomatoes, carrots, beets and onions, seconds taken to consume at the local turr (dance)

While those are all fine things to have done with one’s service, it is the everyday engagement with my local community, of that veritable exchange of cultural ideas that I believe is the core of a successful and meaningful Peace Corps experience. Keeping in mind also that I may be the only contact many Senegalese have with an American ever, I try to be a role-model to the best of my abilities. I don’t think anyone in Richard Toll will ever call me slothful or disengaged— although you never know: I sometimes have my off-days and have certainly rubbed some people the wrong way.

Fambey in the middle, an example of someone I still rub the wrong way, because she still screams in terror every time she lays eyes on me

That being said, numbers do quantify the ‘effectiveness’ of the Peace Corps, and help Congress determine whether they want to continue to throw us a bone, and how big that bone will be. 60 years later, and I think the Peace Corps still provides a very unique “formula for practical idealism” for people who join the program with “youthful enthusiasm and noble purposes” as Sargent Shriver succinctly put it (you can read more about Shriver’s enlightening and still very relevant vision of the Peace Corps in “Practical Idealism: How Sargent Shriver Built the Peace Corps”). If I could offer a constructive piece of advice for the program, it would be to more rigorously interview potential candidates for service. I think personal intent/philosophy and understanding the purpose of the Peace Corps greatly determines the color and impact of one’s service, no matter where you are and which work sector you are put in.

Of personal import, I am thankful for the insight and fortitude a 2-year contract with the Peace Corps has provided. Living like a local for a year in a foreign country is easy enough while the novelty is still fresh. Continuing to stay engaged in your second year takes sustained discipline, especially so after facing repeated failures. Still, I have learned to treasure my failures even more so than my successes, something I never thought I would say, especially coming from a culture where success is often the only option you can afford in your professional life.

My discussions on animal cruelty are still mostly fruitless, but at least the kids eat what they kill (You’ll never know, but bird-meat is surprisingly tasty like… chicken.)

In the grander scope of development, you also quickly realize how short 2 years is to enact the kind of change you thought you would be helping to catalyze. Enacting the larger-scale projects I dreamt of before entering the Peace Corps would require me to dedicate at least a decade or more of my concerted time and effort in order to adequately realize them, not-to-mention additional years of training and education. All too often I have seen well-intentioned projects fail due to short-term contracts running out before the project came to fruition, which now in retrospect, appears to go against everything the word development even seems to suggest. Enacting change requires sustained commitment. Sustainable development requires creative and constantly evolving ways of engaging in and with the communities you are trying to help. I don’t really see how that can ever truly be possible without actively becoming a part of that community yourself.

I spent an hour the other day talking to these boys, and I still can’t for the life of me remember what we talked about

What I really mean to say is, I hope Volunteers out there with pure intentions never lose sight of them, and that they never underestimate the impact they have on their communities, no matter how intangible they think their efforts might be. And honestly, take solace in the simple things in life, because you never realize how much wisdom you can glean from your everyday interactions, until they exist no more. Or how universal certain joys are, such as Easter Egg Hunts!

Easter 2012: Preparing dinner, boiling AND dyeing Easter eggs at the same time: truly killing the proverbial 2 (or 75) birds with one stone

Easter 2012: When and where else are you ever going to see how happy finding a purple boiled egg makes a kid?

Easter 2012: Meet Ahmed, a true connoisseur of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar, both of which he has watched at least 3 times over at this point

Easter 2012: The day I found how Greek and Talibe culture intersect: If you are ‘uninitiated’ (aka a pledge/uncircumcised), you get a phallus-like shape shaved onto your skull. Boys will be boys, no matter where you are in the world

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt

And the Vote’s In!… Tomorrow

Elections came and went, and I quickly forgot about my promise to blog amidst the mayhem of pre-event shenanigans involving burning tires in the streets, misfired flare guns, and multiple stone-throwing volleys at the po-po as they beat down the man with their shiny black batons, helmets strapped tightly on and rifles on standby.

All of this watched on television in the comfort of my family’s living room as they tsk-tsked at the screen, of course. Activity was limited to a couple of areas in Dakar, with much more peaceful demonstrations found across the country. Richard Toll was predictably not one of these hotbeds of protest, much less my idyllic little village of Temeye-Thiago. The majority of the population value their jamm highly, in comparison to many of Senegal’s neighbors (Mali’s recent coup comes to mind, along with Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire… you get the point).

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10 of the 14 candidates’ flyers, Macky Sall (top left flyer) being President Wade’s opponent in tomorrow’s second round of elections

Still, the February elections simply served to cull the 14 candidates down to 2. Incumbent President Wade did not manage to secure the 50% vote needed to secure his place for a third term, so the March 24th elections tomorrow will determine the state of peace in Senegal in the coming weeks. I personally hope the world’s oldest running President (85 on paper, but closer to 92 in reality) somehow finds the grace to step down—at least 10 people were killed in the run-up to the February elections. I don’t think anyone in Senegal relishes the idea of anymore violence.

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Tomatoes and Carrots and Beetroot, Oh My! A random day’s harvest at the hospital garden

In the meantime, I spoke too soon about my iron stomach. While I admit that, true to my Chinese heritage, I pretty much will eat everything, my culinary dalliance with road-side crème (frozen milk) last week has left me in the throes of Montezuma’s revenge for the first time since I hit Senegal. At a time when vegetable harvesting at the end of the cold season couldn’t be more fruitful, I have learned to intersperse my gardening activity with liberal sprints to the bathroom. I will spare you all the details of my affliction, which at Day 11 still shows no end in sight.

Instead, a final photo of the newest additions to my household compound, an orphaned calf and a brand-new tap, the latter sparing me the agonies of carrying 20 liters water on my head to my house every couple of days.

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The new barnyard baby may like the tap even more than I do

1, 2, 3 Strikes and You’re… Out?

‘Tis the season for protest in Senegal. This month alone had drivers across all of Senegal go on 2 transportation strikes spanning 5 days thanks to rising gas prices. Teacher strikes are a daily occurrence in some part of the country at any given time now thanks to delays or insufficiencies in salary payment, not to mention the growing number of rallies from both opposition parties and President Abdoulaye Wade supporters alike. Some PCVs in Ndioum witnessed police tear-gassing citizens in the main market during Thanksgiving, and disgruntled university students have had several rock-throwing skirmishes with the police in major cities over the last couple of months. With national elections occurring in less than a month, the atmosphere here has been somewhat heated, to say the least. The BBC has a good article on recent unrest here.

Abdoulaye Wade: Senegal's 85 year-old incumbent President wants another go at next month's elections

In most villages however, life goes on as per usual, with people’s concerns directed mainly at the outbreak of violence within the cities. In all honesty, most of my village is engulfed in football fever at the moment, with the Africa Cup currently in full sway. The Constitutional Court ruling just 2 days ago validating President Abdoulaye Wade’s candidacy in the coming election was accepted in Temeye-Thiago without much fanfare, though disgruntled smatterings from more progressive and well-informed villagers were heard. Interestingly enough, Senegal’s most famous musician, Youssou Ndour, had his bid for the presidency denied, which sparked quite a bit of street protesting on Friday night. For the most part, however, people seem resigned to the fact that Wade may well remain President till his death. His bribes don’t hurt, either. Just the other week, I found my host father, Masseck (also the village chief), collecting the names and identification details of 100 villagers on paper who said they would vote for President Wade. He said he would get 50,000 CFA (about USD 100) for the effort. Not bad for him, but I can hardly see what’s in it for those 100 individuals.

Still, I did catch a music video entitled “Mr. Wade Out” on national television last night, which featured some rather amusing images of Mr. Wade’s head superimposed on a stop sign, and blinking text taking jabs at the nouveau riche and declaring the need for soppi-soppi (change). And rightly so. A look at Senegal’s Human Development Index of 0.411 in 2010 ranks it 144 out of 169 countries with comparable data. While the list excludes the poorest and most war-torn of countries such as Somalia, the figure still places Senegal in the bottom 25. This never ceases to amaze me whenever I have to take a trip to Dakar, with the multi-million-dollar Monument to the African Renaissance looming over everyone in the distance (built with North Korean cooperation), yet the streets flood every rainy season because the government has yet to even begin building drainage infrastructure even after years of complaint from the people.

An early January morning surprise: my first pet scorpion, to add to the resident frogs, mice, crickets and ants

I was in Dakar just a couple of weeks ago for the West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST), one of two annual events (the other being the All-Volunteer Conference held in Thies just before WAIST) in the Peace Corps calendar where most volunteers get to see everyone else in the country at one given place, not-to-mention interact with PCVs from neighboring countries such as Cape Verde, Mali and the Gambia. While the beer and hotdogs I could get at the softball field between games were glorious, it was the homestay with an expat family living in Dakar that made me ache for home. Carl, Laurie and Matthew hosted me and two other PCVs for much longer than I’m sure they expected, especially given our early morning returns from the various parties organized to coincide with the softball tournament. You can read more about their Senegal experience here. Still, I hope our stories of village living, of finding scorpions in rooms and rubbing elbows with goats on daily commutes to work, were at least mildly entertaining. I cannot thank them enough, and hope our costumes and antics on the field were amusing at the very least.

WAIST 2012: The North as "Aquatic Corps", along with "South of the Border", and stray "Boyscouts and Girlscouts" team members

I leave you with that stirring image of Americana in West Africa seared into your eyeballs, and incidences of political and civil unrest aside, I am sure the February 26th elections will pass without major incident. I will try to post another update before they occur, but in the meantime, jamm rekk.