Monthly Archives: July 2011

Summer Showers Bring… Staph Infections in Surprising Places

July, July. My birth month has been rife with personal milestone events, both work and social-related. Highlights include handing in my first Project Completion Report after the women’s group formation on the 27th of June, and quite an epic 4th of July celebration in Kedougou. An excess of donations for another Peace Corps project, the Kolda Donkey Rally (watch their hilarious promotional video here), provided an advantageous opportunity for me to secure funding for moringa related training and tools for the 2 gardens I work with in Richard Toll.

June 27th Formation: Double-digging the soil before adding natural (and free!) amendments—cow manure, charcoal dust and fragments, neem leaves and ash

11 months into service and I have spent the night in every regional house, another arbitrary tick off my personal bucket list. July 17th brought the first (and so far only) torrential downpour of the rainy season here in the North of Senegal, which was also unfortunately the harbinger of a glorious staph infection located in the most convenient of places–it would be just my kind of luck to get one on my lovely rear end. Thankfully as I write this, recovery has been speedy though not painless—inch’allah there will be nary a scar on my delicate oyof (a word the Wolof use in this situation that actually translates to light (as opposed to heavy)) skin.

Group photo of the participants of the formation, along with Youssoupha Boye (way in the back right), who conducted the formation, and El Hadji Ngary Ba (located far right), the coordonnateur general at the Center where the garden is located

At the garden formation, I had the help of a SED PCV, Julia, who came in from her site, St. Louis for the day (you can read her blog here). She took all the lovely photographs and helped run last minute errands, which afforded me some well-needed breathers throughout the day. Youssoupha Boye, one of the Peace Corps agriculture program coordinators, came in from Dakar to conduct the workshop, and taught the essentials of double-digging and amending the soil, along with companion planting, neem solution treatments and the wonders of moringa. Lasting the entire day, I was pleased to see the women using their newfound knowledge days later without any instruction or direction from me or my counterpart, Diatta. After the rainy season ends, I hope to replicate the formation in Temeye-Thiago, with another women’s group new to collective gardening.

4th of July in Kedougou: Pigging out on pulled-pork and beer

My journey to Kedougou took an epic 30 hours and required 7 transportation changes thanks to 2 flat tires and my very first sand-storm (truly a “life affirming experience” as another PCV put it), but was well worth the effort. Verdant green mountains, a float down a beautiful river with beer in hand and good company in tow, an Independence Day Party replete with fireworks, forbidden pig meat, alcohol, and late-night dancing, plus the opportunity to introduce the wonders of Stump to the completely clueless masses, were all priceless moments in my all-too-short 2-day trip in what essentially equated to Peace Corps Club Med.

Zach demonstrating the very finest in hammer-spinning skills during a lively round of Stump. Ask your local red-neck/wilderness enthusiast/avid mountain biker on how to play this classic American game

Which explains why I ended up not celebrating my birthday in any shape or form this year. Coupled with Gamou (a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday) Thiago and several rounds of village wrestling that followed right after my return from Kedougou, I felt I had enough excitement to last me for a while, not-to-mention planning and executing gardening activities with the onset of the rainy season—generally the busiest time of the year for agriculture PCVs.

Restless wrestlers awaiting the start of their respective matches

In addition to all of this, July spelt the end of a tedious but extremely rewarding experience meeting and interacting with Michele Sylvester Scholarship candidates. The following, culled from the SENEGAD website (click here for more information) provides some background:

The Michele Sylvester Memorial Scholarship Fund was established in 1993 in memory of Michele Sylvester, a Peace Corps Volunteer dedicated to girls’ education in Senegal. Its purpose is to help close the gender gap in education. The scholarship provides money for the school fees for nine girls at each middle school working with a volunteer, and for school supplies for three of those girls. School faculty members determine the original nine girls, the volunteer chooses six finalists, and a Selection Committee picks the three winners. The Selection Committee uses a personal essay written by the candidate; an interview of the candidate by the volunteer; the candidate’s grades; and recommendations written by a teacher and the volunteer to make its decisions, based on the following four criteria:

Motivation. A student cannot succeed if she does not want to. Scholarship recipients must demonstrate a desire to remain in school.

Ability. Since advancement to the next grade depends on passage of final exams, recipients must demonstrate past academic achievement.

Financial Support. Success at school is impossible if a student cannot afford notebooks and pens, or if she cannot even afford to register. The scholarship can provide funds for these items, but only to applicants who demonstrate financial need.

Recognition. Education is a long-term commitment, and requires the support of both the family and the community. If this support is lacking, the volunteer can provide it by recognizing the candidate’s achievements.”

Meet Aissata Samba Diallo, poster girl for the Michele Sylvester Scholarship

Take Aissata Samba Diallo. The youngest of 5 children in a family of Pulaar cow herders, she also happens to be the first and only one in her family to have ever had any formal school education. In addition to having the most exceptional grades out of all the candidates at the school I worked with, she also had the most unusual ambition: to be an air pilot. In a sea of air stewardesses, teachers and nurses, she displayed a surprisingly different view of her future potential. She was the only one who immediately understood the questions I asked in French (I had to translate into Wolof for the rest of the girls, though this is most probably due to my sub-par French-speaking skills than anything else), and was 1 of only 3 of the other candidates who had nobody to turn to at home for homework help. Aissata was the only candidate to really hate having her photo taken—a rarity in Senegal, especially since so much of a women’s worth here is based purely on their looks… and sometimes their ability to cook a good plate of ceebujen (Senegal’s national dish, literally translates to rice and fish). Nevertheless, I managed to grab a shot of her smiling.

So you can see why my work with girls’ education hits home hard; as I stated in my previous blog entry, I have been afforded the opportunities I have had throughout my life thanks largely to funding from financial need-based scholarships (and the support of my wonderful family). Click here  to donate specifically to the Michele Sylvester Scholarship program! In addition to money for school tuition fees and school supplies, scholarship candidates also get the chance to participate in a girls’ camp this September, Camp Gëm Sa Bopp, to be held in St. Louis. More details can be found on the website here. While $5,500 seems like a daunting amount, each of the 12 Volunteers involved is responsible for raising about $460 each. So if I can just get 23 of you guys to donate $20, or 46 people to donate $10 each, I will hit my target! WordPress.com tells me my regular readership hovers above that (thank you for your interest in my Senegal escapades, by the way), so think about heading over to this page here to donate—the process is very simple and will take about 5 minutes of your time.

All this is yet another activity to add to what has amounted to a very busy July. Another Urban Agriculture Summit awaits come August 1st to 3rd, after which things should settle down till my Mid-Service Medical Checkup in mid-September, and Camp Gëm Sa Bopp soon after that. Project after project continue to line up as the days go by, and while I enjoy being busy, my relationship with my family and friends back home has certainly suffered. I question my ability to be a good daughter, sister, and friend given the career path I have chosen to take. Where do you call home if global nomadism appears to be your destiny, but financial ability prevents country-hopping several times a year? I have spent the past 11 months in Senegal, and am still trying to grapple with the benefits and costs of leaving the country for a couple of weeks.

Peace Corps life is not without its trials either. I question my efficacy every day. I wish I could fully assimilate and be surrounded by my surrogate family and friends 24/7 as the culture pertains, but solitude is oh so sweet at times. I certainly try my best, but as they say here in Senegal, “Gattax lu mu yagg-yagg ci geej du soppëliku mukk jasig” which roughly translates to “No matter how long a log stays in the water, it will never become a crocodile.” Still, I seem to be riding out the frustrations of Peace Corps work in my stride, but be well aware that they are ever present as I navigate the quagmires of development work from the rather precarious position of non-African outsider. It will be a year next month since I have seen any of my family and friends back home. While still far from burnout, I cried for the second time since I arrived in Senegal just a couple of days ago—there are times when despair takes hold and I feel so distressingly powerless to help those that I love in their time of need. I am forever thankful to be surrounded by gorgeous women with generous hearts and beautiful souls though, but I will save that story for another time.

Khady Ndiaye (my host mom) and I at Gamou Thiago—July 9th, 2011

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Exciting Life Updates on Hold for this Newsflash: Camp Gëm Sa Bopp!

A bunch of us PCVs in the Northern and Central regions of Senegal are planning on holding a girls’ camp for Michele Sylvester Scholarship winners in St. Louis come September 18th-24th 2011. However, US$5,500 needs to be collected before we can make that vision a reality. If you can find it in your heart to help bright, motivated young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to have the experience of a lifetime, empowering them to pursue their dreams no matter the odds, click here and donate today:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=685-180

More information on the camp can be found here: http://campgemsabopp.wordpress.com

Thanks to generous financial aid scholarships, I managed to get a stellar education and be debt-free at the age of 25. Most people aren’t as lucky, particularly the majority of women in Senegal. Your donation would provide an unprecedented degree of support and motivation for these girls to continue their studies. So please, just rethink that dessert for lunch or Sunday brunch mimosa, and chip in $5 or $10 (or more!) to the St. Louis girls’ camp. I thank you in advance, and besides, I just turned 25 this past July 12th—donate to this cause instead of sending me a care package!

When Your Ancien is the Chuck Norris of Senegal

I wrote the following article for the Sabaar, Peace Corps Senegal’s quarterly newsletter written by (and for) PCVs. Enjoy as I ponder how to relate 4th of July celebrations to all of you at some point in the future.

 When Your Ancien is the Chuck Norris of Senegal:
A Tribute to the Talibe Whisperer

Pape Diop. Few names manage to elicit as potent a mix of fear and adoration in the hearts of street Talibe, ceeb mamas, and your local Imam alike. The mere mention of these two syllables in Richard Toll can assemble an army of children to do your every bidding, have the ladies break out that special ngente outfit early, or have men start making attaya before lunch is even served. This effect is not just limited to the city of Richard Toll, however—fans have been found as far out as Matam, Dakar, and some say even Kedougou.

Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Casey McConnell joined the Peace Corps with an eclectic resume already behind him. A graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in sociology, his previous job descriptions range from working with rehabilitating the homeless in Washington D.C. to coaching Frenchmen on the intricacies of American Football in Paris. His decision to serve a 3rd year as PCVL of the St. Louis and Matam regions can thus be seen as a natural progression and an apt union of his collective prior experience in social work and teaching.

Casey began service as the first urban agriculture volunteer in Richard Toll. Faced with a tabula rasa, he quickly made the most of this challenge and turned it into an opportunity, finding and establishing the site for a hospital garden that now supplies overnight patients with fresh produce for their cooked meals 5 days a week. His seemingly boundless energy, coupled with a gift for moringa proselytization, has resulted in the successful implementation of the production and sale of moringa powder at the hospital pharmacy. Between April 2010 and April 2011, the garden produced an impressive 208 kilograms of fresh moringa leaves for this endeavor.

“Pape Diop should run for mayor” was a phrase I vividly remember during my installation in Richard Toll in October 2010. His exceptional work ethic was not lost on the community. “Pape Diop works hard. He’s also really strong—he can water with 2 watering cans at the same time!” said Assane Ndiaye, one of the medical technicians at the hospital. Nothing illustrates this unwavering dedication better than his undertaking of the installation of a drip-irrigation system at the hospital garden just 2 weeks before his slated return to the United States.

While the oft-quoted phrase “you’ll figure it out” was the trademark answer he sometimes gave when in one of his taciturn moods, more often than not Casey’s impressive verbosity was outstripped only by his ability to provide sage advice. To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens,” something I was privileged enough to take advantage of on a regular basis during my salad days in Richard Toll. An outstanding teacher, mentor and friend, Casey was always ready and willing to lend a helping hand, which at one point entailed cleaning out a staph infection of mine that even the local head nurse was horrified to set eyes upon. He always prioritized his fellow volunteers and community over his own personal well-being, sacrificing sleep, health and money if it meant making someone else’s life an iota better than before.

But what made Casey such a memorable human being in addition to his outstanding work contributions was his down-to-earth personality and unique brand of humor that transcended cultural boundaries. If you understand my reference to the “Left Hand of Allah” and have heard his lengthy rationalization of the use of dip as an important marker of cultural identity, you know what I am talking about. Add this to an assortment of eccentricities, such as his predilection for smothering most food items in mayonnaise whenever possible and his lengthy lamentations on finding a wife, and you have an endearing individual whose humor is outweighed only by the measure of his heart. “Pape Diop’s a bandit, but he’s a bandit with a heart of gold,” remarked Richard Toll’s police commandant, Malik Sarr. “I am going to miss that sai-sai.”

His recent foray into the sport of Senegalese wrestling will only add to his growing infamy—on June 4th, Casey participated in a traditional wrestling match at the St. Louis Stadium. The media vultures that encircled Pape American immediately after the match for an exclusive interview ensured its showing on RTS later that same evening, recording this momentous occasion for all of posterity (footage which I am certain will be making the rounds in Peace Corps circles at some point in the near future).

The match calls to mind an incident earlier this year in Richard Toll. It is mid-day, and we are making our way to lunch. Cursory greetings with a construction worker along the street are made. A careless “yangiy lekk sa xaalis” is uttered by the man, specific words that happen to be one of Casey’s pet peeves. (Woe unto the poor child who utters such a phrase in his presence, for the wrath of Pape Diop can be quite terrifying; I can tell you as a first-hand witness.) A callous “give me your money” quickly follows, but is met with a challenge to wrestle right then and there if he wants the money. The match is had; the man is deftly pinned to the ground. Casey leaves the arena victorious, money intact. The event is promptly forgotten and never mentioned again, until now.

It is the deft and atypical handling of poignant episodes like this that has come to make me appreciate, respect, and already miss the man that is Casey McConnell. I can think of few other volunteers who so perfectly embody the ideals of the Peace Corps and bleed red, white and blue, while seamlessly integrating with their local community to such positive and productive effect. That he achieved all this with a high measure of humility, a self-deprecatory sense of humor, a desire to help his fellow man, and a deep love for humanity all still firmly intact, make him an exceptional individual whose absence will be felt for years to come.

In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum, Senegalese Poet

Casey, I hate to admit it, but yes, you were right… 95% of the time, according to my infallible calculations.

I salute you, and I’m sure the rest of Senegal does too.

Ba baneen yoon, Pape Diop!