Friday, November 9, 2012

Goodbye Senegal

 Well well well…  How the hell did I get to this place?  No really that’s not a rhetorical question, I’m pretty much at a loss for how any of this actually happened.  Stubbornness I suppose.  That’s probably it.   I think that’s a more neutral and accurate way to describe what has kept me here because it certainly wasn’t always noble selflessness.  What a journey this has been.  These last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.  Oh lets not kid ourselves you’ve read my blog all I do is think, usually to an unhealthy degree.  Anywho these past two weeks have been especially thoughtful and I’m happy to say that after all of that thinking I am more confused then ever.  Confused, enthused, amused, bemused, all of the above. Sit back and relax because you have the distinct privilege of watching me try to digest 2 years of Peace Corps service in the next thousand words or so… I suggest a stiff drink first.

Ok now that we’ve all started drinking lets start reading!  Thank god that’s not how my first grade teacher introduced reading to us.  Right, way back in PST our doctors made us write a little letter to ourselves to be opened in times of stress in order to have a little perspective. Mine has been nailed to my wall for two years, until I brought it to Dakar and opened it right now!  What was inside you may ask?  Why would I tell you that?  I need to keep up the suspense. This is for your entertainment so trust me. 

Five days ago I left my little village of Dassilame Serere for good.  It was a moment that I had been looking forward to for a long time if I’m going to be honest.  So long in fact that I somehow completely forgot that it would be the most difficult thing I had to do in my entire service.  Three days before that I had the pleasure of showing my replacement around village for something we like to call VV, another exciting Peace Corps acronym.  It just stands for Volunteer Visit so not actually very exciting.  The trip unlike the acronym was great though.  Elise, my replacement, came out for three days to see the village, check out my projects, meet to important folk, and generally get acquainted before she had to come for good.  It was a lot of fun and a great way for me to pass on the kind of information I would have loved to have when I first got there.  The day before I left we had a big village party where a bunch of my PCV friends and village friends all came to celebrate me :-).  We killed a turkey and made some of the best Senegalese food I’ve had in my entire service.  Why was it good?  Well because I bought extra MSG filled seasoning of course… yeah true fact…  Don’t judge you first world hipsters, it was good.  After lunch I called everyone together and told them how much I appreciated everything they did for me, how much I respected them and their work and village, and how sad I was to be leaving. They reciprocated with such wonderful complements as you work like a black person, and you know all of Serere.  Neither of which are true but it was nice of them to say.

That night I sent Elise and the other volunteers back to Toubacouta so that I could pack and have time with my family.  People kept coming by to say goodbye and that’s when it hit me.  This is going to be really fucking hard tomorrow.  Ding ding ding.  Correct answer.  It royally sucked.  I got up grabbed my bags and walked to the road with my family.  A bunch of other people came out and everyone I saw made me tear up.  I couldn’t look at people.  They knew exactly what was going on which made them start to cry and then I was just a mess.  For all of my questioning and wondering I finally got it, what I had here was real.  I really did love my village and my family and friends and it hurt just as much to leave them as to leave my American friends and family.  It was harder by far then anything else in my service.  Who would have thought? 

From there I went directly to Dakar.  In Kaolack my 7-place driver turned out to be Serere… then he turned out to have family in the same household I lived in during PST.  Small world.  Even smaller when I met another Serere a few days later who went to primary school in my village.  That’s the kind of stuff I’m going to miss.  The random in depth conversations with strangers where you inevitably find some way that your lives connect.  It’s nice.  I think a lot of people get bitter and jaded here, myself included at some points, but at the end of the day I love Senegal, her people and her culture.  It certainly has problems but no country is perfect. 

I feel like my head has come up above water again.  When we’re working in village its hard to see the big picture, its often hard to see beyond the mysterious animal bits in the lunch bowl.  Overall though we’re moving forward.  I had a great conversation with my APCD, my boss, about long-term vision in Peace Corps and I think that gave me a better perspective on why he does some things he does.  PCV’s can get pretty self-righteous about the things we think we know, or deserve, or require and how the institution above us is messing it all up.  They’re imperfect just like us.  Not that I wasn’t always right, cause I was, you know now I’m just right with humility… is that a thing… Maybe not humility but a healthy dose of respect even through difference. 

I’ve spent the last five days since leaving village filling out mountains of paperwork, thank you Washington, going through medical tests, and writing reports about all of my work.  Looking at my service on paper suddenly all of the questioning and uncertainty kinda goes away.  On paper it looks pretty damn good.  That makes me proud even though I know it’s more complicated.  If nothing else I know that I tried.  I’ve come to the realization that even though I wanted to do more or be better I probably did as much as I could do while staying sane enough to finish my service.  That’s enough I suppose.  When I finished all of the paperwork I thought I would feel relieved and content but I suddenly started to feel empty.  I thrive on structure and the structure had just been taken away.  I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. 

Change is hard.  I know its necessary but it’s still hard.  My life, which has been so constrained in so many ways, is now full of possibilities again and that terrifies as much as it excites me.  Peace Corps is hard but hard in different ways then American life is hard.  I have to worry about getting a job now, and making money, and moving forward in a career, and planning a wedding, and explaining this experience to people who know nothing about anything.  Village life is so much simpler.  I don’t know where I’m going with all this.  I guess I’m in a weird place.  I’m in freefall again and I’m not sure when or where I’m going to land. 

So what was in the letter?  Honestly it was a little disappointing. We talk about how much we grow during Peace Corps, but there’s also so much of us that stays the same.  I still have so many of the same insecurities and hopes and I’m still very vague and unsure about weather or not I succeeded in my one main goal, “to help my village”.  I like to think that I helped them in some way, but who knows in the long run.  We plant trees under which we will never sit, or that will never mature at all because they were eaten by goats.  It’s really a crapshoot.  Like all of life.  I’m the same person as I was, but with a whole lot broader perspective.  I think that’s probably what it is. 

Everything is so ambiguous.  Luckily Peace Corps has taught me to be ok with that.  The world is shades of grey, and conflicting truths, and necessary opposites, and inherent connections.  That used to frustrate me, but now I think thank god there’s more to figure out.  The world would be so boring if it was simple. That and other fortune cookie tidbits brought to you by the Mostly Harmless blog.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my random attempts to try to order this experience into something coherent and meaningful.  It’s been grand.  It really has.  I leave you with the words of someone far more elegant then I:

"I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature-not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
- Norman Maclean

Thanks for the memories Senegal.   You’ve made my life richer and grander.  I’ll never forget you. 


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Letter to the 2012 Ag Stage

Hello all.  Here is a letter to the new Ag stage that I recently submitted for our Ag newsletter.  So many things to say, so little time.  Enjoy!

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I would start this letter and as you can probably see by this cliché introspective first sentence I still don’t really know what to say, which is telling of my current state of mind.  How does one some up 2 years of service in a few simple pages?  There are plenty of things I want to say, some things better left unsaid and some things words simply cannot express.  Seeing as my primary audience is the new Ag stage though I’ll focus on practical advice and inspirational anecdotes.  But first a little about me!

My name is Garrison Harward and I am a SusAg.  There we go, now we’re off the ground.  I joined Peace Corps immediately after graduating from a small State University with a degree in Musical Theatre.  Yes that’s right I turned down countless job options, and pushed aside my dreams of fame and fortune to join the Peace Corps.  It was a truly selfless act.  In all seriousness though I thought Peace Corps would be a good transitional option after college to get some much needed professional experience, do a little good, and kill time while my girlfriend finished school.  It turned out to be great for all of those things and so many more. 

When I got here I was the very essence of forward thinking academic liberal.  I mean that with the utmost spite and distain. Its not that my views have really changed, they’ve just sort of matured.  I recently dug up my old aspiration statement and found this:

“I know that the Peace Corps will change the way that I view the world.  I hope that it teaches me in a practical way some things that I already know: that I can live with less, and that communities and families are valuable and important.  I hope that it will also surprise me and make me realize what I cannot even think to include now.”

I agree with all of those things but its hard not to laugh at the naive idealism of the person who wrote that.  I think often times in life we go searching for the profound experience all the while forgetting that profundity is a byproduct to be earned not something that can be sought outright.  That’s if we want real experiences that is.  There are plenty of ways to feel like we’re saving poor starving Africa while learning brilliant truths forgotten by evil modern capitalists, and that’s certainly what most people back home think, but that’s not why we’re here.  It may have been the reason we joined but in the face of the realities here that pursuit is sort of like Disneyland development, fun but utterly artificial and in the end not practical.  So what to do in the face of reality?  Get dirty!

We’re Ag volunteers so when all else fails, when the complexities of the work, and the people, and the situation overwhelms just do what we do best, put your hands in the dirt and dig.  This may sound flippant but it’s actually some of the best advice I can give.  Sort of like Dorry in Finding Nemo, just keep digging.  You won’t get to China but people will respect your work ethic, become curious about your techniques and eventually understand what you’re trying to do.  Notice I said eventually.  In the idealistic vision of development you the wise PCV teach the eager local amazing new techniques and they triple their yields and feed their family sustainably for the first time… You hero, them grateful, mom proud.  That CAN happen but most of the time it’s not so simple.  Most of the time you do the same thing over and over for 2 years until you finally find the right way to explain it, or the result from your demo is finally visible enough that people start to adopt whatever it is you’re trying to teach and then you leave. 

Behavior change is complicated and even though you’re coming out of PST with all these amazing techniques and knowledge it is unfortunately not enough to be right.  Plenty of people throughout the years with a lot more money and resources then Peace Corps have been right and failed the developing world miserably.  Far from discouraging you though this fact should be a source of inspiration.  Why you may ask?  Because you can succeed where others have failed.  The development world has tried throwing money at the problem with mixed results at best.  Peace Corps throws people.  Results may vary but the potential is there for real sustainable growth and knowledge exchange. 

The temptation is going to be there to fight the Peace Corps model, don’t.  It feels great to finish some big project that gives your village this that or the other, but most of those projects feel better then they really are.  Our greatest asset as volunteers is not money or resources but rather time.  We have the time, unlike almost every other organization in the world, to really sit and watch, to see a problem from every direction before we presume to know how to solve it.  Yes this is excruciating, and yes it is also brilliantly contradictory to my “just keep digging” advice earlier.  It is and it isn’t.  Time plus effort equals more opportunity for failure and learning.  Where the big organizations fail and move on, we fail and stay.  Sounds fun doesn’t it.  Being here I’ve come to appreciate though not just the usefulness of failure, but its utter necessity as a precursor to real progress.  Don’t avoid failure, run at it with reckless abandon because only by failing to achieve better yields with double dug beds, or neem solution, or compost or whatever can you learn the necessary modifications that need to be made to these techniques to combine them with, rather than simply ignoring, the wisdom of local knowledge.  People here are incredibly smart and they have good reasons behind almost everything they do.  Embrace that rather than fighting it and you will find the magic key that allows people to adopt your “improved” techniques.  Fight it and you will be miserable for two years and end up resenting the very people you came here to help.  Just FYI I paused during that last sentence to kill a mouse.  The profound and the mundane in one instant. That is the essence of the Peace Corps. 

In the end it’s about process over product.  The volunteer who extends seed to 100 farmers is not necessarily better then the one who extends to 10.   There have been many great volunteers who never wrote a single grant in their entire service.  There is no cookie cutter way to be a good volunteer or make a difference.  It’s about really getting to know your village and being willing to put aside your personal desire to feel helpful in order to really have an impact. It sounds counterintuitive and it is, which is why so many charity organizations stifle developing countries rather than really helping them. Don’t even get me started about Tom’s shoes… This harkens back to my current feelings of distain toward forward thinking liberals.  The road to hell as they say is paved with good intentions.   In other words before you dig a well or build latrines or buy seed for a women’s group find out why they couldn’t do it on their own and how they’ll do it when you’re gone.  If you can’t find the answers to these questions consider working on something else.  Peace Corps isn’t about making you feel good. 

Now if it sounds like you have to be a saint to be a good volunteer you don’t.  This advice is coming from the many times I have failed to live up to these standards.  Two years is short and many times I have forgone sustainability in order to simply get things done that I knew would be beneficial for my village.  It’s not about being perfect but rather striving to be better.  Perfection is an illusion but by always trying to improve we achieve much more then the cynics would have us believe is possible. 

One of the greatest things that I’ve learned during my two short years here is that there’s nothing new under the sun.  All of this questioning we inevitably indulge in stuck alone in our huts is the same questioning humans have engaged in since the dawn of time.  Happiness, meaning, wisdom, its all been figured out.  No unfortunately I cannot give you the answers here and even if I could I wouldn’t.  The process of life is just that.  Each and every one of us has to go through challenges, failures, successes, happiness, depression, frustration, inspiration, love, hate, all of it in order to truly learn about and understand this funny thing we call life.  Or Peace Corps for that matter.  The good and the bad, its all useful because it is within the conflicts and questioning that we find truth. 

You may be thinking great that’s all well and good but where is that useful practical advice and anecdotes you promised?  Yes I did say that didn’t I.  Sorry I tend to lean towards the theoretical.  In practical terms take it one day at a time.  That isn’t a cliché here.  Peace Corps service can be a lot of waiting and hoping and wishing for anything other then what is directly in front of you.  If you can learn to live in the current moment, even if that’s a 6 hour Alhum ride in the blazing sun or finding a way to say goodbye to your beloved family after two years, and be content to deal with things as they come and not wish for them to be different, then you will not only find happiness here but will also become more successful and influential then the big guys could ever hope to be.  Don’t worry though you don’t have to get it right the first time, and its better if you don’t. Just keep digging. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mangrove Reforestation 2012

Alright folks I gotta be honest.  I'm dead tired and writing this blog post is not quite what I want to be doing.  We're in the process of moving the Kaolack house so I've been working all day and basically just want to have a beer. I know if I don't write this now though it won't get done so the beer shall have to wait.  Okay here goes!

If you look back through my blog posts you'll see one about Mangroves from last year.  This is year three of our Mangrove Reforestation Project and year two of Robert, Jamie, and I organizing everything.  I gotta say it went splendidly.  A little back story.  I live in the Sin Saloum Delta, there are mangroves here, they are pretty.  But wait there's more.  Beyond just being pretty mangroves help to clean the water and air, prevent erosion, provide habitat, and contribute nutrients to the incredibly fertile waters off the cost of Senegal.  The Red Mangrove is very slow growing and is thus especially susceptible to deforestation.  Expansion of villages into the delta and increased populations in urban centers such as Kaolack, Fatick, and Foundgioune, have contributed heavily to the decline of mangroves in the region.  The great importance of these trees along with their rapid decline means that reforestation is now more important then ever.  Could you tell that much of that last paragraph came from my report I submitted to admin?  Like I said I'm in a rush. 

Like I said its a pretty place
The first year of this project volunteers reforested about 10,000 seedlings, and last year we increased to about 20,000.  You have to wait to hear this year's number (don't worry its impressive).  After last year's program we went out to the site and did some statistical sampling to determine survival rates, which told us two things.  One, don't plant mangroves too high up the beach, they will not survive.  Two, don't plant mangrove seedlings that have already sprouted, their roots will get damaged and they'll die.  These two things meant that our survival rates weren't particularly great, about 40%.  In the great scheme of things this is not bad at all but we knew we could do better.  With that knowledge we set out to make this year even more successful.  Peace Corps, we turn mistakes into learning opportunities!  No but seriously it was a necessary step.  

So this year we used google maps to find a better reforestation site that was more within the ideal tidal zone for mangroves and we had the village collect seedlings just before the reforestation so they would be nice and fresh and rootless. We also sent out an email to the entire country so 47
PCV's from everywhere came to help out.  On the 24th we all went out to Keur Bamboung, a really nice rustic campement out in the delta right next to our reforestation site.  We swam, kayaked, had an amazing dinner, drank a few boissons, and had a dance party with a giant sound system brought in from the mainland.  It is was amazing.  Check out their website

The first boat transporting volunteers to the campement
Having some fun the night before
In true Peace Corps fashion every single person was up first thing in the morning and ready to go to work.  We all walked to the reforestation site, about a kilometer away, and met the 25 volunteers from the village of Sippo and got things started.  In order to keep consistent spacing we drew lines.  In order to draw even lines we held hands and shuffled our feet through the mud.  It was lots of fun... until our feet started getting cut up by hidden shells.  After this we started planting... then we planted some more... and more and more and more until by the end of the day we reached our final number.  40,000 seedlings spread out over a distance of a kilometer and a half.  I do believe we can call this a successful day.  Granted success is relative but relative to anything I've done thus far I say WIN!  

Walking out to the reforestation site
Drawing our lines
One of the village leaders teaching the kids
A planted mangrove seed
The end result, rows and rows of seedlings
But wait it gets better.  The next day since we're awesome and have connections with some fancy folks who work at fancy game reserves we arranged a day for a bunch of us to go play with baby lions.  Yes real baby lions.  The lions came from South Africa and are only small enough to play with for a few more months.  Thus our timing was impeccable.  After we had our lion fill... lets not kid ourselves no one ever has their lion fill... once they told us to stop playing with the lions we went on a game drive through the rest of the reserve and saw giraffes, and zebras, water buffalo and hyenas.  The general consensus was awesome.   

Me with a lion cub... yeah amazing
So yeah I didn't end up waiting to finish this before the beer drinking started.  But hopefully that made it a more amusing reading experience for all of you folks.  Who may or may not exist... does anyone read my blog anymore?  I looked at the stats the other day and over the course of my service the graph looks a bit like our economy lately... are we on the same page about what that means?  Maybe it will pick up before I leave.  Insha Allah.  But I digress.  This event is always awesome but this year it was really truly amazing.  We did some good stuff guys.  Here's to many more reforestations to come. 


Saturday, August 11, 2012

2 Years in Senegal

730 days ago today I landed in Dakar with my fellow PCT's.  We stepped off the plane at 5am on an unbearably humid Wednesday morning and proceeded to pick up our luggage and push away the "helpful" locals at the airport who wanted to do it for us.  After much struggle we made it to the buses and looked around at the current volunteers who came to help.  They all looked so confident, so calm, so dirty... All I could think was Peace Corps has made a mistake, I'm nothing like these people, I can't do this, please let me back on the plane.  That first week was hard.  I missed my girlfriend and family, I felt overwhelmed by everything, I felt like I didn't fit in, and in truth I really didn't think that I could make it two years in this terrifying new place. 

Oh what a difference two years makes.  I've not only learned how to survive here, I've come to love Senegal, her people, her beauty, her quirks, and even her disgusting dirty streets.  I'm not the same person I was back then. This experience has changed me in so many ways.  Some for the good and some not so good.  I'm a stronger person now, but I'm also more cynical and jaded.  That's not always as fun as simple righteous idealism but its helped me do the things that might actually make a difference and not the ones that just make me look like a hero "saving" the poor people of Senegal.  Development work is a process, its not a well, or a latrine, or electricity or vaccinations or anything that we can give to anyone.  Its a road that we walk on, often times in the wrong direction, but hopefully overall moving towards something better.  That's vague isn't it.  Exactly my point.  This work is vague and complicated and multidimensional, and conflicted, and good and bad and everything in between.  Anyone who says it isn't is selling something... or more likely asking for your money for their NGO.

Peace Corps is the same way.  It's about the journey not the destination. Yeah that's a cliche.  Guess what?  Most cliches are true!  I know that some of you in the new ag Stage are reading so this is for you.  Don't come here to save Senegal.  In the end Senegal is or isn't going to save itself.  Come here to learn from Senegal first, and work with Senegal second to be a catalyst for people here to help themselves.  This is not a new concept and any Development 101 intro course will tell you the same thing.  Its different though when you're on the ground, and its different when you're having to explain your life here to people back home who think of Africa as a singular entity for which me must feel sorry.  When you get here you're going to see a lot of things that look like terrible "Poverty".  Eventually that will change, your standards will shift and you'll see that lack of shoes, or dirty streets, or no running water etc. doesn't mean that people aren't happy, intelligent or capable.  Make that shift sooner rather than later and your work will be much more effective.  To those of you who aren't about to join Peace Corps do some research and don't let NGO's or your government or friends turn a billion people into a simple stereotype so they can take your money to "help" them. Charity work conducted by people who don't know what they're doing harms the very people it tries to save.

Wow where did all that come from.  Rant rant rant rant rant.  Sorry I've just been thinking a lot and have recently been trying to explain what makes good development to a lot of people.  So yeah Peace Corps is a process.  Its going to be frustrating, but that's a good thing.  If it was easy chances are you'd never learn the complexity of this work and then you'd never really do any good.  Sweet are the uses of adversity.  Don't worry about failure, its going to happen regardless and its necessary.  You're coming to help Senegal but I've come to realize that one of the most important benefits of Peace Corps is that in the course of two short years it creates incredibly knowledgeable Americans who understand the complexities of international development and charity in general.  We are an amazing catalyst for America to be better both at home and abroad.

OK bare with me I need to tie in more random thoughts.  So yes learn, fail, find out how it really is, lose some idealism, all that jazz.  After you do all that though do the exact opposite.  Once you've learned, teach; once you've failed, succeed; once you've been beaten down and lost all motivation and idealism, get back up and in spite of it all find the idealism that got you here in the first place and cherish it.  Before you get to Senegal you're going to have a very idealized vision of what this organization is.  In reality it is a flawed institution run by flawed individuals in a flawed world.  That frustrated me so much for a very long time.  Then I realized no ones going to make it the organization we want it to be, that's up to us. Don't try to change everything as soon as you show up, but once you know what you're talking about don't just sit around when things could be better.  Volunteers over the past two years have made incredible improvements to our programs.  Most every successful program, or change in this institution has come from volunteers.  Personally I've spent a lot of time on a couple of issues that I thought were impossible to solve, and now amazingly I'm seeing results.  It's not perfect but we're moving in the right direction.

When I got here I felt under qualified and out of place, now I'm helping to shape Peace Corps Senegal into a better organization, more capable of serving Volunteers and the Senegalese People.  I'll be at the airport when the new stage arrives.  I'm going to be one of those strange, dirty confident volunteers. I never would have thought it but I've become everything I hoped I would be here.  I can't wait to meet the new stage.  You guys are gonna do great.  Study hard, gain the experience you need, and question everything all while assuming you know less then you think you do.  Do that and you'll become the experts we need to take this program to the next level.  We need to be better and you're going to take us there.  Don't worry you'll be able to do it.  Want to know how I know?  I was in your same shoes and against all my own predictions I did it. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

10 Things America Could Learn From Senegal

Yes that's right there are things we in the west could learn from the third world.  Not everything and not always but surely this time and surely some.  I just got back from a whirlwind 30 day vacation in the states during which I visited family, spent a few days in Yosemtite, ate a ton, and got engaged... among other things.  I'll upload a picture of the ring at the end.  Anyways with all of that plus several really long trips up and down California I've been thinking.  Then again when do I ever stop thinking.  Here's a new slogan for you, "Peace Corps: Two years of feeling really mixed and confused about everything".  But I digress.  During my time I had this same conversation probably about 50 times:

Them: "So how's Africa?"
Me: "It's good."
Them: "What did you learn?"
Me: "The world is really complicated."
Them: "Ah yes... did you see any wild animals?"
Me:  "Monkeys and birds..."
Them: "Excellent!"

Obviously that's an oversimplification but that's how it felt after a while.  In truth I've had some of the most stimulating and insightful conversations of my life this month, but they all seemed to boil down to the same couple of truths: the world is complicated and so are people, and by and large we have no idea how to manage either.  During my final dinner with friends Jason and Jodi Womack we got on this topic and I came to the realization that the art of sustainable success lies in walking the knife's edge between complexity and simplicity.  We can't oversimplify to the detriment of truth, nor can we over complicate at the expense of action.  It's a fine balance and good work comes from the struggle between these truths.  The world is full of conflicting truths.  Think about that the next time you get into a political debate because guess what, the Republicans and Democrats are BOTH right.  Conservatism and Liberalism are both necessary in our world, both bring valid points to the table, and the struggle between them is where the good work gets done.  That is only true however if we recognize it to be so and stop uselessly flinging mud.  Life's about the journey, the struggle, the in-between, not about destinations and absolutes. 

I mentioned my friend Jason Womack.  He's the author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  Truly interesting, insightful and inspiring.  There are lots of people who can tell you how to be more productive at work, but Jason does it in the context of getting what you want out of life not just work. 

I digress once again.  So America.  Tis a strange land.  Very strange indeed.  Being back showed me how so many of the things we take for granted are truly absurd and NOT inherently the ideal or better than the way the rest of the world lives.  We live within the context of our own culture and don't reach the absolute truths of what "Should" be any better than any other culture.  So with that in mind here we are, 10 things America could learn from Senegal (not in any particular order):

  1. Greetings:  In Senegal people talk to each other.  I could walk up to any stranger and 9 times out of 10 (probably 99 out of 100 really) they would have a conversation with me, and ask me real questions, if not somewhat standardized, about my family how I'm doing etc...  Try doing that in America.  Try even making eye contact with a stranger for that matter.  So strange. 
  2. Family: People here really have an appreciation for family.  It matters.  How many times in America do we toss our family aside because of inconvenience or distance.  Call your mother!
  3. Community:  In Senegal it would be absolutely unheard of to not know and communicate or socialize with your neighbors.  Do you really know your neighbors?  And I mean all of them on the block not just the ones on either side of you.  If not why?  Are your differences really that great.  Make the effort. 
  4. Child Rearing: They say it takes a village to raise a child... and IT DOES.  I suppose this connects with the previous item but still no excuses.  We are all responsible for the well being of children and for teaching them the norms of our culture.  Get involved in the lives of the children around you, not in an intrusive way, but you know.  Its not just the parents job to take care of them.  Oh and also breast feeding is a normal human need for Christ's sake.  Never make a woman feel uncomfortable for feeding her child no matter where she is.  God knows here they just whip out their breast wherever they are and IT DOESN'T MATTER.  
  5. Forgiveness:  On Senegalese holidays everyone walks around asking forgiveness for anything they may have done and forgiving others for offenses to them.  Both ask for forgiveness and forgive more then you think necessary.
  6. Generosity:  In Senegal if you start eating something in front of someone you offer it to them, if anyone stops by around meal time you feed them, if someone has problems you help them.  We kind of have this sentiment in America but when was the last time you offered some of your M&M's to the person next to you on the plane/ train/ wherever.  Just be nice and generous, its better then hoarding.
  7. Waste:  America is incredibly wasteful.  I bet you'd all take a shorter shower if you had to full that water from a well, or carpool a little more if gas cost $7.00 a gallon (That's the price in Senegal).  Speaking of, it would be unheard of to have everyone drive with only one or even two people in a car here.  Cars get filled up.  Think of how many people go to the same places but take seperate cars.  Not easy to fix but easier once we tell ourselves that that isn't necessarily "Normal" or "Ideal".  Also American food portions are absurd.  We're all getting fat!  We don't need to eat so much just because we can.  
  8. Religious Tolerance: Senegalese are by and large pretty religious, but I don't know many that would judge you based on your beliefs.  Islam and Christianity coexist perfectly well here.  If you believe nothing else believe that people are generally good and put that lens in front of your eyes next time before you judge someone else's faith or think that you understand more then you do.  Everyone's just trying to do their best in the context of their unique situation and back ground.  
  9. The Siesta: Taking a long lunch break to reinvigorate yourself and socialize with others should be rewarded not punished.  It works great here and makes people happier, healthier, and MORE productive.  When I get home I'm napping every day.   
  10. Respect:  Everything on this list is possible because of a general respect for the dignity and worth of other people.  Beyond that though Senegal has an incredible level of respect for age and elders.  In America we do not.  We must realize that the world works in cycles not just linear progress and thus the old are not useless and obsolete but rather the perfect guides to take us into the future.  
Well there you have it.  Go forth now and fix America before I get back.  In truth my biggest reaction to being in America was absolute amazement.  America is incredible and we all have so much to feel thankful for.  As many problems as we have just as much, if not more, just goes right: roads get built, electricity stays on, sewage gets treated, everyone can have an education, everyone gets food, etc.  Of course its far more complicated then that but in this moment I'm grateful. Its hard to feel good about paying taxes when so many of the benefits are unseen and taken for granted.  Let me tell you this though, none of that infrastructure is a given in this world.  It takes money and effort and a pretty well functioning government to maintain.  That's just one side of it though and as I've said its complicated and all my assertions are probably just as wrong as they are right.  In any case food for thought.  I love swinging the pendulum and trying one side and then swinging back and changing my mind.  That's where I am right now.  That and this:

Kinda puts things in perspective.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012


When one has gone as long as long as I have without writing a blog post there should be a myriad of things to say, stories to tell, revelations to share and general bloggery to explore... that is unless the one in question has been stuck in a cave with nothing to do but ponder existence or something similarly useless, in which case said person should be kept away from communication apparatuses at all costs lest they infect the general population with a malaise for which no one but a bored cave dweller (or PCV) really has the time.  In the great wisdom of Amtrak however I have a wifi connection right now so here's whats been happening in my cave the last couple of months.  Caution this post may have the following side effects: Malaise, Sentimentality, Ethnocentrism, Boredom, and Dry Mouth (It just wouldn't be a side effects list without dry mouth).

Things have been shifting lately.  When I first got to country I was the scared little American who knew nothing about his job, couldn't speak the language, got screwed over and taken advantage of in the cities, didn't particularly like pushy Senegalese culture and couldn't understand why with all of these wonderful attributes garnered zero respect or authority in his village.  If you look at the day to day its hard to see any improvement whatsoever but lately several experiences have given me the opportunity to step back and look at my overall progress.

1. Getting Shot.  Now that got your attention didn't it.  Ok well not shot exactly in the stereotypical sense with blood and injury and whatnot but shot in the sense of something that came out of a gun contacting with me...  Here's how it all went down.  There have been a lot of Belgians hunting birds in my village lately.  Being tourists they don't know what they're doing, don't follow any cultural protocols and are just generally assholes.  One guy thought he was out in the middle of the bush and didn't seem to realize he was right next to a community garden and a village.  It was just a nuisance at first, but he kept getting closer and closer and the women got angrier and angrier and then suddenly bird shot started raining down on top of us.  I got hit in the hand.  It almost left a mark.  This meant war.  I dropped what I was doing, stormed out and proceeded to curse out Mr. Belgian hunter man in my incredibly horrible french which was probably more of an insult then the actual words I used.  Luckily his guide spoke Serere so I was able to redeem myself by properly insulting them both in my now excellent Serere.  It was a proud moment.  When I got back to the garden the women all laughed and asked if I hit him.  The story spread like wildfire, how I had defended the village against the stupid toubab and how it showed that I was really a part of the village. 

2. NGO Ignorance.  My host dad works for an NGO that hosts French students as interns every year and this year the guy was a little... stupid... Ok thats kinda harsh, but I spent some time discussing Senegal with him and lets just say I didn't appreciate his views.  Now I admit I have said some bad things about Senegal, Senegalese people, Peace Corps, you name it, but I've done this in the way you would do it to a family member.  You know honest, cruel, and from a place of love and respect.  This guy who had only been in Senegal for a month was criticizing it left and right and I found myself vehemently defending the people here out of both out of a respect for the culture and a healthy amount of American pride and general contrariness to French arrogance.  The moral of the story is don't mess with MY Senegal.

3. COS Conference.  For those of you not accustomed to PC acronyms COS = Close of Service.   Yes due to some shifting around of things we had ours this month.  AHHHH!!!!! Sorry that's been happening a lot lately for some reason... Yes my training group all came together to write our resumes, talk about job possibilities, and learn how to cope when all of you lovely well meaning people inevitably stop being interested in our stories and experiences.  Aside from some freaking out over the prospect of going home it was fun.  Peace Corps Service for better or for worse starts to look pretty successful in resume format.  For example by the end of my service I will have helped to plant over 30,000 trees. What does that mean?  Nothing out of context but it looks good on paper :-).

4. Adoption.  For a long time my host family has been trying to convince me to bring home one of the kids to America.  I always joked back saying I could put them in my suitcase and whatnot.  Always joking, never serious...  Don't worry I didn't bring home a child in my suitcase, but for the first time I actually want to.  It's never going to happen but if I could adopt my two little host cousins, Moodu and Fatou, I would.  In a heartbeat.  I never thought I would be one of THOSE volunteers.  You know the obnoxious ones who are just a little too dedicated and integrated and take things a little too far... oops...

5. America.  As I write this I'm riding a train heading up to Chico, CA for some much needed vacation time.  This is vacation number two of my service and its absolutely amazing to me how different they feel.  Before vacation last year I was counting down the days until I could leave, wanting nothing more then to get out of Senegal.  This time I wanted to push back vacation to get more work done and immediately started missing the hustle and bustle of 3rd world life now that I'm back in meticulously organized and clean America.  It is nice to be back certainly, but I get the feeling I don't quite fit in here anymore.  I'm still incredibly jet lagged, but stay tuned for a post about my reflections on America once I'm more settled here.

Nothing too profound from my cave this time, just a few clearer interpretations of the shadows on the walls. Maybe if I keep going deeper I'll come out the other side someday... but then how do you ever really know whats real and whats just another cave... man... deep...


P.S. I don't know about the other side effects but a glass of water should take care of that dry mouth :-p

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Poop: An enclosed superstructure at the stern of a ship... Oh how I wish I was serving in a country where that definition was the focus of this post, but that is neither here nor there.  No let's look at google's number two definition (oddly appropriate): Excrement.  Hehe :-).   Yes since the time of the dinosaurs poop has been funny.  George Carlin has a wonderful rant about it, and Peace Corps volunteers will often bring it up as part of dinner conversation or quite literally show you a sample that they're about to send to the Med Office.  We lead strange lives here.  Yes we can all agree that poop is very very funny. 

Unfortunately the poop in this post is no laughing matter.  I'm talking about poop out in the fields, poop outside your front door, poop on the bottom of shoes, on ropes, on animals and eventually in the human digestive system where it causes all sorts of problems most of which lead to more poop!  This is what happens when you live in a village where only 30% of the population uses latrines.  Where do they poop you may ask?  Refer to sentence number 2 of this paragraph.  In case you didn't get that, they poop everywhere, and animals end up dragging themselves and ropes through it... they aren't pooping on animals directly... although you probably got that already.  They don't mean to eat it either it just kinda gets on hands and.. ok right you get it, moving on. (I've been watching too much West Wing lately so I'm emulating Aaron Sorkin's comedic timing... or at least attempting to.  What's next?)

I just so happen to live in said village and it's about time I did something about it.  Now lest you think I'm trying to be the big bad westerner changing native culture when its not really necessary let me explain my motives.  I'm not doing this because I want to.  I don't want to in fact, its a heck of a lot of work and I really have other things I'd much rather be working on... hmmm that makes me sound heartless.  I just mean that while I love dealing with other people's sh... stuff, I have quite enough of my own right now.  The fact of the matter is, my village has been asking for this project and trying to get it done for 6 years.  They're the driving force behind it, I'm just the facilitator.

So what is the project you may ask?  Well I considered lessening the food intake of the village by burning down the gardens and thus reducing defecation, but something said that conflicted with my Ag sector work so let's move on to solution #2.  We want to build 62 latrines in my and a neighboring village to get universal coverage for the entire population.  Is that really so much to ask?  They just want a place to poop.  No gold toilets, no toilets at all for that matter, just a functioning brick lined latrine with a hole in the cover and a PVC pipe for insulation.  Most people in America wouldn't even consider that a latrine, but stick up a few meters of millet stalk fencing around it for privacy and it gets the job done.  And that job is important.  This is about more than dignity, this is about health and wellness.  With a place to poop, and almost more importantly a kettle and bar of soap for afterward, comes a general lessening of poopy bacteria spread out across the village.  That means fewer instances of diarrhel diseases, especially among children who can die from them, and a much lower chance of outbreaks of the really bad diseases like cholera.  Poop's funny, cholera isn't. 

Is a brick lined latrine really better?  Yes.  The bacteria is contained out of the general food chain and all the poop eventually breaks down.  They are slightly elevated to avoid flooding and have mosquito netting over the vent and a removable plug for the hole to prevent flies and mosquito from going in and out and spreading disease as they do.   It ain't glamorous by any means but its better than open defecation. 

Now that you're thoroughly disgusted and eager to help let my tell you how you can!  I have written a Peace Corps partnership grant which is essentially a grant that Peace Corps administers but that folks back home have to fund.  The total is a little over $7,000, which is actually pretty reasonable for 62 latrines, and I need all the help I can get.  I can be flippant and crack jokes on here but I really do appreciate everyone who reads and I feel a tremendous guilt for asking you all so many times for money.  There are a multitude of worthy charities in the world today and everyone is going through hard times, but if there's anything you can spare these folks really need it.  It doesn't have to be a lot.  If 1,400 give five bucks we're there.  If a few people give a little more we're there faster.  I'm young and a lot of you reading this are my friends just out of college.  Don't give more than you can, but if you can go without the Starbucks for a few days I'd really appreciate it.  I mean come on I'm going without Starbucks for two years!  That's a lie I have a pile of Starbucks Via packets in my hut courtesy of all your lovely care packages.  By the way as much as I love you all giving the USPS 50 bucks a pop for care packages I will be just fine without them.  Next time you feel the urge to give me something delicious, donate that money to the project.  Believe me you're still helping to make my food in village a little less shitty ;-).  Thank you all so much.  Here's the link if you're interested, and please pass it on if you can: