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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.