Friday, November 25, 2011

Personal Identity: Who am I, what and I doing here, and do I have to list Lamine Seydi on Government forms under “names I’ve used”?

Hello everyone.  I’m trying to get back into the blogging regularly habit so here’s another post!  This actually ties into what I talked about last time, but a little more me focused… because my blog usually isn’t all about me… Humility really is my best quality… humor me!

So last time I talked about rumors, and believe you me there are lots of rumors here.  What I didn’t really touch on though are the rumors that pertain to me.  Don’t get excited yet, I won’t be revealing any dark secrets today.  I’m talking about rumors of who I am and what I’m doing here.  There is an American narrative of what we think Peace Corps is and does, and just like other narratives it is somewhat… well… fake… Chris Hedrick don’t fire me yet, this is going somewhere I promise.   Fake isn’t necessarily bad; in many ways we do things a lot better than would be expected of a volunteer organization, and in some ways we’re worse.  It’s complicated.   That I believe is where the misconception lies.  Life, work, and personal identity here are so much more complicated than anyone realizes.  I talk with friends back home and the first thing they say is invariably, “What you’re doing is so amazing” or “You’re really making a difference in the world” or “You must be having such an amazing time”.  The list goes on.  This I suppose is the essence of the Garrison Harward Peace Corps Narrative.  It’s a rumor and well… its kind of false.  I have saved zero babies since arriving, most of my demos have either failed or fell on deaf ears, and in the long run my projects probably won’t be the tipping point of success and prosperity for my village.  On top of this, as much as I love my family and Senegalese culture… there have been times where I wanted to burn my village to the ground.  No not literally but you get the point. This is a rather cynical view of my role here, but lets face it denial isn’t healthy either.  I am under no pretense that I am saving anyone by being here.  It’s just not true.  

Now before I get a thousand comments boosting my ego and telling me my cynical views aren’t true, I will give myself some credit.  Yes this experience is hard and I’m proud that I’m getting through it and I understand why people identify with and support me.   The disconnect between the support and my own perceptions of my work here are just a little hard to reconcile. 

There’s actually a lot that’s hard to reconcile in terms of personal identity here.  I feel like a juggler, or maybe a master of disguises, or a con artist… In any case I wear a lot of different hats in Senegal and to a certain extent I’m not sure which one is the real me.  In village I’m Lamine Seydi: Peace Corps Volunteer, bringer of strange water pumps, tree sacs, and seed varieties, who kind of speaks Serere, but not quite as well as Adama Junko (the previous volunteer), and who doesn’t really like to sit around and talk, but who works pretty hard and wants to bring us latrines, which is generous, but they could be a lot better, which is just like most of his generousity which is a little stingy.  At least this is how I perceive their perceptions of me… Lamine Seydi is surely a part of my persona but he’s a pretty simplistic version.  I suppose this is why it so nice to be around other Americans.  It isn’t just about being able to speak English or eat American food, its about being able to just be without constantly thinking about forming your identity.  That being said though the Garrison with Peace Corps friends is different than the one around Peace Corps admin, which is different then the one around family etc… Who am I? 

Rumors boil down a lot of complex social dynamics into a sort of average truth.  I said that in the last post and I guess it holds true to me as well.  The rumors about me are true, but they’re simplistic and when so much of my life in Senegal is led with only the most basic transactional understanding of my identity on the part of those around me, its hard to really know who I am.  I believe in the theory of relativity: we (human beings, souls, bunches of molecules, whatever) are constantly changing in reaction to outside forces.  Yes there is a certain essence, which dictates some of how we interact, but essentially we are nothing in and of ourselves without the other.  Call it what you will: religion, philosophy, acting theory, natural law of the universe, the results are the same; being in a very different cultural setting where no one here or at home fully understands me is making me feel a little crazy.  Not that I’m going insane or anything… but my Myers Briggs scores are…

So last week I decided to take the test again, mostly because I was bored and a bunch of people were doing it at the house.  I was surprised to see that my scores had changed quite a bit.  I posted this on facebook and got a myriad of responses from some who have had this happen and others who feel that the core you doesn’t really change and the test may just be the wrong version or reflecting my reactions to stress here.  I don’t know what I believe about nature vs. nurture, or astrology or even Myers Briggs, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’m just not convinced that people stay the same over time.  We create the narrative of our lives, I believe much more deliberately than we realize.  We tell ourselves who we are, what’s important, what we want to be, what’s right and wrong.  Think of it like a building of personal identity with the foundation firmly rooted in our assumptions of culture, family, god etc…  Take away the foundation though (by going to Senegal for example) and build on a couple of strange guest room additions for new personas and the overall structure looks a lot less certain and sturdy than it did before.   I found myself during the test being completely unsure of who I am and what I actually prefer.  So many of those preferences seem situational and completely different out of the context of the United States. 

As a species I am utterly convinced that we are fantastic liars, at least to ourselves.  We end up saying “this is who I am” and believing it when things are probably not so concrete.  Surely Myers Briggs has value, surely there is intrinsic personal identity, but more important, at least for me right now, is the transactional and situational realities of identity.  Who am I with, when, if, etc…

I don’t remember why we were talking about this.    Maybe the overall idea here is once again that the world is really complex and we need to be aware of those complexities rather than putting everything is neat little labeled boxes. 

So time to wrap up this post and put a bow on it… We all wear different hats, each revealing various facets of our being with varying levels of truth.  Youthful crises of identity are plentiful, but perhaps more so in Peace Corps where our foundations are shaken daily by cultural differences, hallucinogenic malaria drugs, and the most shocking thing of all, the naked truth of who we really are at our core.  Lies are quite a bit easier to swallow than that. 

Cheers,
Garrison Harward

P.S. I’ve been assured that in the future I do not have to list Lamine Seydi, as a former name.  The split personality syndrome will come to an end! :-P  

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rumors

Where do you get your information?  Is it fact, hearsay, rumor, blasphemy, primary sources, secondary sources, apparitions from biblical burning shrubbery, and do you even really know the difference?  Dismount!   Thank you I'll take that, here's your tag.  That was all of us getting off our high horses, and checking our assumptions at the door to really think about this.  Don't worry you can ride off into the sunset with any manner of ideological superiority complex you want once we're done.  Now onwards and upwards. 

Living in a small African village with hardly any regular primary sources of information has taught me the power of rumors in a pretty profound way.  Information often passes through many mouths before it reaches Dassilame Serere and as such its pretty hard to determine fact from personal opinion.  As in any other society in the world though this is no hindrance whatsoever to my village's ability to be absolutely certain of what it knows... and this can lead to problems...  For example my host brother Omar recently tried to convince me that Osama Bin Ladin is in fact not dead and is a great learned person... let's digest this a little bit.  On first hearing this I was pretty shocked and more than a little uncharacteristically nationalistic.  We argued back and forth for a while and I ended up getting somewhat frustrated so I stopped the conversation.  Surprisingly what was frustrating wasn't my brothers views.  It was his certainty.   All his arguments were wrong but it essentially boiled down to the fact that someone he trusted told him this so it was true.  In the history of human story telling this is perfectly normal and understandable, but in our modern context of complex world politics its down right scary.  The final straw that ended the conversation was when I asked my brother if he wants Americans to die, because Bin Ladin killed Americans.  He flipped this right back at me though and asked if I want Muslims to die, because George Bush killed lots of Muslims.  Touche Omar, Touche...

As much as I want to say Omar is dumb and I'm smart he's got a point, and maybe here is a positive aspect of rumors;  while they can perpetuate a lot of untruths, they also help to boil down a lot of complex information into a sort of average truth.  Omar's information about Osama Bin Ladin is factually wrong, but its part of a complex social narrative that gets at a lot of the truth of American/ Muslim political and social interactions.  It shows the mistrust many Muslims have for western governments, and their bitterness at what can often seem like a hatred on our part for their faith.  Think of rumors as a kind of social barometer for international/ interfaith/ inter-anything relations.  Listen to the rumors and you can probably tease out the nature of the relationship.  So what do we do about this?  I said earlier that this kind of a rumor is scary and it is.  It shows the true importance of our image as a nation and illustrates just how much of the moral high ground we've lost in this "War on Terror".   Now more than ever we need that moral high ground if we ever hope to rid the world of ignorance and hate.  Those little compromises we make, sacrificing human rights for strategic reasons, or not being as generous as a nation in our situation should be, aren't really little at all; they add to the ongoing narrative that the world creates about us and that narrative is far more pervasive then any "facts" we try to spread .  It's in my little village so there probably aren't many places it isn't. 

This is why Peace Corps is so successful.  I wish I could say that our greatest gift is the work we do, but it isn't.  Our gift to the American people (notice not the countries we serve) is a positive image of the caring, hard-working America that whether true or not is part of our national narrative that we value and want to perpetuate.  I say true or not because once you start thinking in  these terms its really hard to tell where to draw the line.  As a species we tell stories, we speak in metaphor and simile, and regardless of our actual knowledge level we create a certain certainty of the world around us.  It's just not in human nature to humbly step aside and say we don't know; when we don't know we make it up.  Yes how we see the world is story, not fact, and I argue that it probably isn't any more truthful then the stories told in my village.  

Whoooaaahh there buddy, no jumping back up on that high horse yet.   I know this is pretty cynical but its a much healthier view then claiming absolute certainty of the righteousness and moral superiority of our actions.  We simply can't afford to be that nation.  We need to be better than that.  Of course everything in the real world falls in between and things are far too complex to be speaking in these terms. On the other hand look at the political discourse in America and tell me if its more based on fact or narrative.  Most of the time the overall political landscape is far too complex for the average person to take the time to digest and understand, so our news networks tell stories.  They paint the characters as hero's or villains, and create conflicts, climaxes and catharses enough to keep us watching when the true arc of the story is much larger and harder to understand.  The world is complex.  I guess that is the moral of the story.   Many of my blog posts come to that conclusion so it must be true.  We need to be skeptical of the views we hold and the things we call "facts" because in the end most everything is just a rumor to a greater or lesser degree.   But don't take my word for it.  Remember too that I'm telling you a story.  We started out with my brother perpetuating something untrue and I extrapolated that we don't necessarily know any more then him.  Tell a different story and my conclusions could sound like total BS.  Just food for thought.  

Cheers,
Garrison

P.S. Did you guys here that Obama is planning on mining for gold on the moon to solve the economic crisis and the Republicans are against it because it will attract the martian labor unions and their socialist influence!  Just saying :-)

Friday, September 23, 2011

MANGROVES!!!

Every once in a while projects just work... This probably doesn't sound like a radical idea but trust me in Peace Corps it really is.  This past week we had the second annual Mangrove Reforestation Day just outside of Toubacouta.  We got together with 28 PCV's, 30 Senegalese volunteers and 30,000 seedlings and went to town.  Before we get to the details here's a little back story.  Toubacouta is situated in the delta region of Senegal and is surrounded by thousands of acres of mangroves.  In fact at first glance there doesn't really seem to be a shortage of them...  There are however large areas that have been deforested for fuel, building materials, and because of oyster harvesting.  Mangroves are crucial for the ecology of the delta.  They clean the water, prevent erosion and provide a habitat for countless species of birds, fish, and apparently, but very rarely, manatees.  They're just awesome trust me.


Now that you're thoroughly convinced of the value of the program here are the details.  As I said this is the second annual Mangrove day.  The first was put on by my former site-mate Cail Hegeman in conjunction with the NGO Oceanium.  Now Cail had told me how easy this project was with Oceanium's help, but I didn't quite believe him.  I was flabbergasted.  Essentially Jamie Whitehead, Robert Rivera, and I organized the volunteers and told Oceanium the date we wanted to do the program and they took care of the rest.  They brought the seedlings, they brought the womens' groups, they brought the boats, they chose the site, I brought the boisson (that was a surprise reward at the end).  This is not normal.  In all my other interactions with NGO's they are not this reliable.   Go Oceanium!  Anyways we got to Toubacouta the 16th, checked into our hotels and had some very important discussions and work meetings and... no not really, we went to the fancy hotels and drank beer and swam in the pool as thunderstorms approached.  Don't worry mom I got out when the thunder and lightning  were less than 5 seconds apart... most did not...

The next day we all got up early and headed out to the Mangrove site.  Here's where Oceanium could have been a little more... upfront...  In all of our discussions I was led to believe that we were doing the reforestation just three kilometers outside of Toubacouta.  We did indeed travel three kilometers outside of Toubacouta... and then piled into a boat and traveled another hour into the delta.  This was not part of the plan.   Apart from some extra sun exposure though it was fine.  When we got the the site we all met up and discussed the general importance of Mangroves and then got to work.  Some people started sorting mangrove seedlings (we had to throw away a lot of broken ones) while others started planting.  The site for the reforestation was huge, over 10 hectares (almost 25 acres).  I imagined we were only going to finish a tiny part of the beach, but once we started going and the kids got their hands on seedlings we were flying.  As a side-note all of the kids and women were Sereres!  Sooooo nice to be able to speak my own language outside of my village.  Also that's probably why we got so much work done; Sereres are awesome.  Anyways we worked our way down the beach planting lines of seedlings every two meters until suddenly we were at the end... Well almost.  It was an insanely hot day and the tide started coming up really fast so we stopped a few hundred meters short of the end of the beach.  Also when the tide comes up over sand that's been baking in the sun for the past 4 hours the water just about boils.  It was kind of unbearable to walk through.
All told we probably reforested a total of 5-8 hectares (we didn't plant on the upper beach).  I need to talk to the Oceanium representative to get a better estimate.  As we walked back to the boats I quizzed the kids on the importance of mangroves and they enthusiastically gave me all the right answers.  It was at this point that I revealed my secret surprise of ice cold boisson (strawberry cool-aid basically).  They loved it!  We parted ways with smiles and then quickly got lost in the mangroves and had to turn around.  We found our way eventually and made it back without losing a
single volunteer.  Success!

It really is odd to just have things work.  I've been here a year and this is the first project that was unequivocally a success.   It just isn't usually so clear cut.  I guess this isn't in the overall sense of development either, but its pretty good.  There are a lot of NGOs that work with Mangroves, but few bring together so many people as equal work partners for a day like this.  That's the Peace Corps way.  We don't always get the biggest projects done but the ones we do are quality.  Thanks to everyone who helped!  It was a great day.  Enjoy some extra picture :-)  Cheers!

Serere children with mangrove seedlings.
My new site-mate Rob with some of our helpers.
Hard at work.  Look at the pretty lines of seedlings :-)
Large deforested area.
Me planting a seedling. 
David getting some help cooling off :-)
Rob showing off his dance moves.
Me with some new friends.
The long walk back after planting.  We were all very tired.
Boisson!!!
Boat full of very tired Toubabs :-)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Don't bother trying to change anything, everything is always the same.  Don't bother trying to keep things the same, everything is always changing.  This is a paraphrasing from a book on acting called "Tips" and today I feel it is particularly poignant to my life.  One of my favorite things about theatre, and art in general, is its ability to hold conflicting truths as equally valid.  Nothing ever changes/ everything changes, yin/ yang, masculine/ feminine, light/ dark, sin/ virtue, matter/ anti-matter (for the Star Trek fans among us).  The essence of life is not in the thinning down of the Universe into one set of right answers, but rather in the conflict between opposing but equally valid forces.  Maybe conflict is even too loaded of a word.  The essence of life lies in interaction.  We are nothing in and of ourselves.  We only exist in relation to others and the world around us.  Mmmm big thoughts.  Theory of relativity perhaps?  Maybe even some dangerous moral relativism sneaking in.  What's the point?  I've been back in village for a week and a half and I'm struck by the conflicting truths that nothing ever changes while somehow at the same time everything is changing.  My life here can seem like groundhog's day so much of the time.  I get up, go through the same routine, have the same conflicts, admire the same things, eat the same food, go to bed and repeat.  At the same time though things are slowly changing.  The language is more solid every day, the failures, while frustrating, are less devastating, and the moments of peace are more appreciated.  Repeat the same routine enough times and things will evolve.  I'm struck once again by how the macro rules of the universe seem to filter down into everyday life...

Repetition:  Senegal, as with the rest of the world, seems destined to repeat its problems over and over again.  I've been back in village for a week and a half and I'm facing the same excuses for why the tree nursery wasn't out-planted, or why the field crops weren't weeded or fertilized and why in general none of my solutions seem feasible in the real world.  All the while I'm marveling at the repeated rituals; the archetypal football rivalries between neighboring villages, the births and baptisms, the deaths and funerals, and the constant march of the seasons with all that they bring.  The relentless repetition of life can make for a lot of frustration, but at the same time its what defines our humanity.  We, like all other animals, are irrevocably bound to cycles, even if in the west we like to define life in terms of seemingly linear progress. 

Repeat something enough times however and its bound to change and this applies to everything, the good the bad and the ugly.  I had a wonderful theatre teacher who loved repetition.  She would tell us, "Don't think, don't create, just repeat".  "Repeat what?" we would ask.  "You've already begun" she would reply.  We would start from nothing.  What happens if you repeat nothing?  Well life happens in all its marvelous chaotic beauty.  From nothing things would simply start to happen: someone would cough, a shoe would squeak, a door would slam.  With each new unexpected, unplanned event we had the choice whether to ignore it and blindly repeat the past, or accept it as the new truth of the moment and adopt it into our repetition.  I'm not saying we should always ditch the old for the new, but I can say one of these options creates a much more interesting spontaneous theatrical composition.  Theatre through evolution.  It really makes perfect sense.  What is evolution but a series of imperfect repetitions which respond to the new truth of the moment.  Think what life would be if those ancient amoebas just played it cool and denied the new tail they developed in favor of trying to be like mom and dad.  Think of the actor who would play the scene exactly the same even if the chandelier fell right in front of them.  It just wouldn't work.  

Amoebas? Actors? Evolution?  Have you lost the thread of this post?  Good I'm not alone.  We are doomed to repeat our failures, we are blessed to repeat out traditions.  No matter how hard we try some things will never change, no matter how hard we try some things will never stay the same.  Come on now keep up.  Roll with the punches.  Break!

Now this is a hard enough pill to swallow in everyday life but it's especially hard as a development worker whose underlying mandate is to fix the bad parts without messing up the good.  I think its important though to take a lesson from my two theatre examples and realize that first we are a whole lot less powerful then we think and second that some of the most elaborate solutions come out of the natural varience of repition.  Evolution's photocopier has solved a lot more difficult problems than helping Senegal.  Once again though this kind of Buddhist patience is difficult when you only get two years and thus two repetitions of most things to try to make an impact.  Trial and error, which is how we end up working anyways, is a slower process than this.  I'm at the one year mark of my service and thus things have started repeating a lot.  Let me take this opportunity then to repeat some ideas from a previous post and see if I can't tie this whole mess together and give you all the wondrous intellectual catharsis I know you crave from my lovely blog... ok probably not but I'll try not to leave you in muddled frustration... myself included.

Even for all of my doubts about my efficacy here, there is one area where I know I can make a difference, and it is something I will work at for the rest of my life.  I have come to know Islam a lot better than most Americans, and with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching I feel it is my patriotic duty to once again reach out and defend this peaceful faith.  I wrote a post about Islam in more detail during PST so I won't be delving too deeply today, but I do want to say one important thing.  Every year around this time Islam comes into question once again.  Be it through 24hr network news reports or through word of mouth, the merits of this faith are unfairly scrutinized in a way that Christianity and Judaism simply aren't.  Beyond just the faith, Muslims are persecuted.  In America they are made to feel unpatriotic, or worse, as if they aren't real citizens.  I don't know a whole lot about Islam in America but I hear the slander and it needs to stop.  This is the 10th repetition of 9/11 and that gives it more symbolic power than usual.  Nostalgia would say for many to not let go of the passion and importance surrounding this date while the reality of the situation is that for better or for worse things have cooled down.  We don't hate the Japanese on Pearl Harbor day, we certainly don't have to hate Muslims on 9/11.  Now I realize I'm preaching to the choir here... probably... but nonetheless its time to let this day evolve and stomp out the ignorance which in inevitably invokes in much of the population.  If you hear someone making an anti-Islamic comment, say something.  If you see news coverage which is unfair, call in an say so.  I just participated in my second Korite (the end of Ramadan) and saw the beauty once again of a faith based on peace and compassion, and I see no reason why anyone should fear it or persecute its followers.  Reach out to your local Mosque and make this 9/11 about coming together and healing rather than perpetuating hate.  Some of the rifts between Muslims and Christians will probably never go away, but as we repeat these rituals year after year there's no reason that we need to deny that the world is evolving and we can coexist with peace and understanding. 

Sometimes I feel like I will never understand the world.  Sometimes I feel like I understand it better every day.  I guess I had better keep waking up to see what changes next. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

One of my favorite things about writing is its power to take my jumbled mind and order it into some sort of meaning, even if that meaning is really only valuable for myself.  People keep blogs during their services for a multitude of reasons.  Sometimes they're for staying connected back home, sometimes for educating Americans about the developing world, and sometimes just for personal reflection.  I suspect every blog touches each of these from time to time: today, if you will allow, I'll be diving headfirst into the latter of the three.  I am at a loss for words so that seams like the perfect place to start talking.  

What is the real world? Yep I get right to the tough questions.  How bout we just let that one simmer for a while and we'll get back to it.  

For the past year I have lived and worked in Senegal attempting to help my village with small scale sustainable development projects to improve food security, access to clean water, and sanitation.  Or at least that's what the development rhetoric says.  In a less euphemistic sense I have struggled to learn a native language, while adapting to a very foreign culture and trying to find appropriate solutions to serious problems without reducing my village's capacity for independence and individual initiative all while also balancing my family at home and a long distance relationship and trying to keep up the motivation to get out of bed every morning.  It's been a tough year.  It's difficult to see all of these complexities from the idyllic Peace Corps posters and advertisements but they're there.  Nothing is ever as it seems.  I think the most important thing that I've taken away from this experience so far is a very healthy respect for the complexities of the world.  I suppose that's pretty important in our modern world of simplistic categorical politics.  My feelings about Senegal and her people are so very complex as well.  In some ways Senegalese are absolutely amazing, incredible, generous people, and then someone tells me that I'm bad because I won't give them money, or build them a house or buy them fertilizer, or I watch them rip up their childrens' mosquito nets to use in the garden and I just want to give up.  

There are deep-rooted cultural and situational reasons for many of the things that drive Peace Corps Volunteers crazy and when you look at it from this birds eye view there isn't much reason to get angry.  When your brother has a seizure though because your host dad would rather buy tea then medicine it gets pretty personal.  I have been trying to organize a latrine project in my village for a very long time, its one of the first things they asked me to do.  I put it on hold though because my counterpart was trying to extort me for very elaborate and expensive latrines, which Peace Corps will not build.  Then I listened to a TED talk by Bill Clinton where he listed off standard statistics about the billions of people without access to sanitation and I suddenly felt silly that I was angry because my village wanted nice bathrooms.  Peace Corps Volunteers can seem really harsh when we talk about our villages, but that's often because people don't understand what we're here to do.  We are not placed in our villages to give them a bunch of free stuff, we're there to try to find ways that they can get what they need on their own.  Santa Claus development work simply isn't effective.  There's a fine balance between giving and teaching and too far in either direction doesn't work.  

Yes it’s been a hard year, which is why on August 4th I went on VACATION!!!  I met up with my family and girlfriend in the French Alps for two and a half weeks of quality relaxation in the first world.  Things immediately got off to a rocky start.  I come from a very intellectual family and thus every problem I brought up was met with theories, justifications, or possible solutions when all I really wanted was to vent.  I being a passionate person lost my temper.  We made up of course and the vast majority of the trip was lovely, but it was telling that even with my family I felt a disconnect between what I do in Senegal and their understanding of third world dynamics.  Development work is so complex.  You could study it for twenty years and know all the data and case studies, but until you're on the ground working and feeling those complexities, it's impossible to fully comprehend them. 

Lordy this has become such a whiny post.  Back to vacation.  Oh my god Europe is nice!  I had forgotten what it was like to walk through a city without garbage, where cars stop for you, and people don't call you "white guy" and where the food is as delicious as it is varied.  The first world feels like such a fairy tale compared to Senegal.  Well now has it boiled over or are we still just simmering?  Yes it's time for that question again.  What is the real world?  I honestly can't tell you.  Some would say the first world is an artificial construct built on intrinsic inequality and abuse of cheap third world labor.  That however would be just as false as saying the real world is the poor starving children of the bottom billion who live on less than a dollar a day.  I was flabbergasted by the amount of money we spent in Europe, and we weren't extravagant.  I went from a village where a $3 chicken is a treat eaten only once or twice a year to a land where people can spend upwards of $100 for just one bottle of wine.  How can these realities both exist on the same planet?  What is the moral implication of that?  In any case denying either is both unhelpful and absurd.  There is massive inequality in our world, that can’t be denied, but the only thing that seems to help bring people up is an intrinsic desire to improve ones life.  Shouldn't we thus then be able to enjoy the fruits of our labors since that motivates others to work harder as well?  Yes and no.  We have to be able to enjoy our success, that's what any person would do if given the opportunity, but we need to recognize that we are not intrinsically entitled to that success.  Each of us for better or for worse is the product of billions of little accidents that placed us in a position to either take advantage of opportunities or be constantly pushed to the side.  

So what to do?  I wish I knew.  Buddhists would say observe rather than judge or deny, so lets observe these conflicting truths about the world and hold them in our brains and hearts the next time we go to a voting booth or pass a homeless person, or buy a fancy car, or donate money to a charity.  The first world is not as fake as some might say, and the third world not as true and noble.  Both are real and more complex than any one person can comprehend.  I feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, only I’m not sure which side is wonderland. Who would have ever thought a nice vacation could make me even more confused about my life here.  Such is life.  Time to dive back into the work. 

Cheers!
Garrison

Sunday, July 3, 2011

10,000 Hours


Am I still alive you may ask?  Yes, yes I am.  After a few glorious moments of relief (I knew you were all worried), you may further inquire, then where the heck have I been for the past month.  Indeed I have been sadly neglecting my blog duties and believe me my journal is even sparser as of late (I actually spent the better part of the afternoon yesterday piecing together what I did everyday and writing it down because there was something very unnerving about having weeks go by where I had absolutely no recollection of what I did).  I could simply offer my standard excuses, “I’ve been busy”, “I’ve been traveling”, “I’ve been sick”, but all of those are hideously boring and don’t really give you any insight into what’s actually going on in my life, or provide my future self with any real anchor to remember this experience when I’m old and Alzheimery.  Lets dig a little deeper.  What have I been doing for the past month?  I’ve been putting in my 10,000 hours. 

If all goes according to plan, my Peace Corps experience will be just over 800 days long.  My work here includes cultural exchange along with actual development work, and then a hefty amount of sharing back home through things like this.  That means that every day I am working pretty much from the moment I open my door to the time I go to bed.  Give or take 4-6 hours depending.  For arguments sake let’s say I “practice” my Peace Corps skills then for 12 hours a day, which is a very conservative estimate.  800 x 12 = 9,600 hours.  Every volunteer says that at the end of your two years you’re just about ready to start making a real impact, and based on these numbers I believe that’s true.  Malcom Gladwell says that it takes the average person 10,000 hours to master something meaning that I’m not going to be really all that good at what I’m doing until I leave.  Now that’s a depressing thought.  It’s kind of liberating too though as it means I’m normal.  Throughout this whole experience I’ve been plagued by feelings of self-doubt and just thinking that I’m not good enough at what I’m trying to do.  In many ways I’ve never been worse at any other job: not since I was a baby have I not been able to communicate, or navigate culture.  It’s certainly a rude awakening into the real world of our personal strengths and, more often, weaknesses.  New college grads think they know everything; they’ve honed their abilities and are ready to take on the world.  I’m pretty sure that everyone finds out sooner or late that that confidence is an illusion; I just think Peace Corps forces that humility a little faster than usual. 

Now if we take away the standard western impatience to get things done quickly, then the 10,000 hour rule really is a blessing.  It gives the world permission to fail and failure is a beautiful thing: it’s the only way we can ever truly move forward.  I have failed so many times here it’s absurd.  My failures range from mixing up the words for goat and donkey so that I accidentally told my family that American’s like donkey cheese, to watching a 1,000 tree pepiniere die because the women’s group forgot to water it, to crying on the roof of the Kaolack house after spending two days trying to get a water pump to work and finally giving up.  Failure sucks but its necessary, as is time.  I decided to give myself a little challenge to not go to the regional house for the entire month of June and to spend as much time as possible in village just working.  Partly I did this because I’m swamped with projects; partly I did it out of pride.  This month was hard!  I don’t know the last time you worked 7 days a week for a month, but it sucks.  Something amazing happened though about two weeks in.   Firstly I felt my language skills soar, I fell into a rhythm with my projects and fixed a lot of their problems, and most importantly I stopped worrying so much about whether or not I was doing any of it “right”.  I started to see that this is a long learning process and I’m just not going to get it all right away.  I also started to see that without a lot of stress, these skills will just come on their own over time.  Take language for example.  Just being around Serere for so long now I’m understanding new things every day.  Patience is indeed a virtue and a relief that gives us leave to take our time. 

So how about the nitty gritty: what HAVE I been doing this month?  Here’s a little recap.  The month started with selecting the farmers to whom I would extend improved varieties of field crops. On the 8th and the 9th, our sub region had two days of “louma circuses” where we played loud American music at weekly markets and taught people about Malaria and how to make inexpensive mosquito repellent from local plants, soap and oil.  On the 11th I went down to Karang and Massarinko to work on two rope pumps, both of which had terrible problems initially.  The 14th-16th I had a French language seminar in Toubacouta to try to actually learn a language I can use outside my village.  The 20th I had to make a day tip to Kaolack to pick up grant money for the pump project, then on the 21st I went down to Karang to finish up the pump there and work with our Master Farmer.  The next two days were more seed extension work in village, and then on the 24th we had our subregional meeting and I started working on Rope Pump how-to videos with our third year video man.  On the 26th I seeded millet with my family and then went to the girls Leadership camp in Sokone where Byron and I lead image theatre exercises with the girls to help them think about the identity of women in Senegal and roles within the family.  On the 29th I biked to Emily Tran’s site to talk to her village about a pump, then spent the day working with her on her projects.  On the 30th I biked back to Toubacouta where I worked on the pump blog for the morning and then distributed more seed in my village in the afternoon.  On the 1st Byron and I went back to the camp to do one more round of Image theatre and saw that the girls really improved over the course of the week.  By the end of the exercise we actually had one girl who made an image of  a man and women doing 6 different jobs ranging from the military to being a lawyer with no hint of domesticity.  On the 2nd I finished up distributing seed in my village and today I headed into Kaolack for a little break.  Yes I have been busy.  

I am going to fail many more times in my service, but at least practicing my scales is starting to pay off.

Cheers,
Garrison 

P.S. Yo America guess what?  Its yo birthday tomorrow!!!! Let’s party it up bro!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Separation and Connection

What can I say on the subject of separation?  Well I’ve become quite accustomed to that concept as of late.  At first it was a sharp pain of losing so much so quickly.  That eased into a dull ache only really noticeable in moments of isolation.  Now everything just feels far away.  I have never felt so far away from America, my culture, my family and friends, and who I thought I was.  Every day makes it harder and harder to communicate this experience to anyone back home and at the same time makes me less sure of everything I thought I knew about the world around me and indeed myself as well.  I used to think I knew what 3rd world countries needed, I used to think I knew what was right and wrong (now I yell at poor African children who are rude to me), I used to think capitalism with its big corporations was evil, I used to think I knew who I was with my strengths and weaknesses, I used to think I knew my family and my relationship with them.  Everything is up in the air now.  I skype with people back home and answer the same questions about how “Africa” is like I’m some sort of authority on the continent now.  I browse Facebook and see my friends continuing on in their lives as I get farther and farther away from them.  I read my hometown newspaper and magazine and realize that my small town is changing more than ever and I’m somehow completely disconnected from it.  I work on project after project that may have no lasting effect whatsoever on my community, who often times seems to see me only as a strange foreigner who might be able to get them some free stuff.  And then I sit in a little grass hut in my village close the door and am completely alone with me myself and I.

Gross!  Okay catharsis achieved, pity party over, melancholic state averted.  In the words of Shakespeare, oh yeah I am that pretentious ;-), “Sweet are the uses of adversity” and that certainly holds true here.   Such utter separation and isolation has the unique benefit of tying together those who suffer the same pains.  Peace Corps relationships burn fast and bright.  We come together forget our troubles put on music and just enjoy life.  I think I’m better now than I used to be at recognizing those moments when I’m happy and just going with it.  The big problems can never be solved in the present moment so if you find yourself being happy why ruin it by worrying about something.  Time for me to go.  Someone’s shaving their head and that is much more amusing than worrying about all this big crap.

Cheers,
Garrison

Monday, May 2, 2011

Development Work... Dun Dun DUUUUUHN


There seems to come a point in every Peace Corps volunteer’s service (at least in Senegal that is) where they question whether or not we should be doing this at all.  That’s rather vague isn’t it?  Let me clarify.  The “we” is westerners and the ‘this’ is development work in Africa.  At first glance the answers seem so clear and usually include any number of complex arguments such as “Duh”, “Of course”, or “What are you racist or something”.   Yes development work seems so simple and righteous; I’m here to tell you that it isn’t.  Yes today is my day and I am quite disheartened. 

I’ve been writing this post in my head for most of the day and I must say you are lucky to be reading this version.  The previous ones, pondered in the heat of my frustration, weren’t exactly family friendly.  In any case I’ve cooled down some so perhaps I can say a few intelligent things on the subject.  Back story time! I’ve been working with a welder in Toubacouta to make very simple rope pumps for wells in my area.  The design is wonderfully cheap, easily repairable, and efficient. I have so far installed one pump in my village and it works wonderfully.  Long story short the pumps have promise.  There is a women’s group with whom I work very closely and they were slated to get the next two pumps.  They have two wells and 6 basins and the plan was to put one pump on each well to help fill the basins.  These would only cover half of each well leaving the rest open for people to pull water with a bucket for watering close to the well or to fill the basins if the pump breaks down.   The most important part of this plan though was that the women’s group would contribute roughly 30% to the total cost of the pump.  This way they would take ownership of it and have more of an incentive to maintain it.  So why all the was and were and would you may ask?  Well unbeknownst to me some American study abroad students from Dakar took it upon themselves to “Help” the poor people of my area by raising money from the States to buy 4 pumps for the group along with about 50 watering cans and 4 extra basins with absolutely zero village contribution. 

Where do I begin?   First I take a breath because just reading that again makes my blood boil.  So yes what’s the big deal?  They’re helping people right?  Africa is poor its great to come in and give it lots of stuff and money right?  White people are angels and gods and lets all worship them because we could never do anything on our own?  Ok that one went a little far, but you catch my drift.  Here’s what upsets me about this situation and it isn’t that they stole my project, although they did.  These kids come in and want to do something good and useful: that’s fine good for them, but they have absolutely no idea what they are doing and in the process are not only doing something that is utterly unnecessary and redundant, but they’re doing it in a way that is actually harmful to the overall development of the village.  Yes that’s right, bad development work isn’t just annoying it’s harmful.  Think about that next time your friend tries to convince you to write a check to some “wonderful” NGO. 

Let me explain myself.  These students are putting in two pumps per well making the pumps the only way that anyone can pull water.  There will no longer be any room to pull water the traditional way with a rope and bucket.  This means that should the pumps break down there is absolutely no way to water the fields.  This could mean total crop failure and massive loss of income.  Had the students taken the time to get to know the women’s group they would have learned that they are sponsored by PISA, an Italian development organization, and that PISA is planning on putting in two more wells and several other basins.  With these students putting in basins as well this could at the very least muck up the organization of the site and at worst take away PISA’s justification to add more wells.   The current two wells are old; I give them 5 years tops before they need massive repairs.  Two extra wells would be far more valuable than just pimping out the current ones and adding extra basins.    

I find myself now in a really odd position and I don’t like it.  The right thing to do is to put on the breaks and at most install one pump per well and hold off completely on extra basins.  This way PISA could come in and install their wells and basins and then we could install the remaining two pumps.  This is the right thing to do but no one is going to want to do it, and if I push the issue I’m going to burn bridges.  If I do nothing though and the pumps cause problems for the group then this threatens to poison the well, so to speak, for my very large project of 52 rope pumps that I am about to launch with another volunteer.  Regardless of how these 4 pumps turn out it’s going to be very difficult for me to convince other groups to contribute to the cost of the pumps when these first ones were given as gifts. 

Worry not there’s icing on this cake.  These students want to start their own NGO in the states that installs rope pumps in Senegal.  They have known about this technology for all of one day and they think they’re ready to take people’s money in the name of developing the poor villages of Senegal and facilitate installation through their friend while they sit comfortably in America.  Hold on I need to go vomit.  Ok I’m back.  I probably sound pretty harsh right now but I just can’t stand this kind of development.  Everyone wants to be a hero.  Raising money for someone else’s organization lacks glory I suppose so people decide to go it alone when they are absolutely unqualified to do so.  Where’s the plan for follow up to make sure the pumps are functioning and being used correctly, where’s the supplemental training to help increase agricultural production and teach IPM and pesticide safety (yes water pumps enable greater production which thereby encourages pesticide use and the people here have no idea how to apply them safely), where’s the selection system to make sure that pumps are getting to those who really need them and not just those who have friends in the right places, where’s the impact evaluation to ensure that the results of the pumps are recorded and available to the greater development community, and where’s the respect for the dignity of the Senegalese people who deserve more than gifts from guilt ridden upper middle class Americans who would rather write a check and feel like a hero then humbly work with someone to enable them to succeed on their own. 

On the whole Americans have absolutely no idea how to do development work.  We want quick fixes so we throw massive amounts of money and resources at problems, which only serves to create an atmosphere of dependence and subservience from third world countries.  They deserve better.  All the while we idolize those who give, knowing very little of whether or not their gifts are making any sort of a difference.  Take Greg Mortenson for example.  Building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan sounds wonderful and it has earned him millions of dollars and three Nobel Peace Prize nominations.  Low and behold he’s one of the worst development workers in the world.  He drops off schools with almost no knowledge of the local village dynamics and zero collaboration with local governments and is somehow surprised when the schools aren’t being used.  The drop and go method of development looks great on paper.  It enables NGO’s to up their numbers as quickly as possible, netting them massive donations, but lacks any long term impact.  This isn’t just inefficient it’s immoral.  Taking someone else’s hard earned money and wasting it while claiming moral superiority and near saintly status is incredibly wrong.   

Quite a rant huh?  My biggest fear though is that I’m not any different.  Am I in this to truly help people or am I in it just to feel like a good person.  Why me? There are Senegalese NGO’s that could probably do my job cheaper and more effectively and with more dignity for the villages they serve.  So why me? Everyone wants their piece of the glory and I would be lying to say that I’m any different.  I want to feel like I’m making a difference.  I have to have faith though that my stay here is a net positive for the village.  I try to be a catalyst for them to take action rather than just give them things.  Maybe I’ll succeed and maybe I won’t.  I honestly can’t say.  What’s important I think though is to keep questioning.  Development work is not as simple as it appears and as much as we would like to be heroes, doing so at the expense of true progress is selfish.  There is too much work to do to waste time and money on heroics.  Save it for the movies.  Back to village for me… 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tax Season

Well seeing as how this is tax season and that can be a bit stressful, I thought that I would take a few minutes to ease the pain and make parting ways with that hard earned cash a little easier.  The US Government is indeed massive and truth be told there are all manner of things nasty and vile that it does with our tax money.  This is not news though however much the national networks may like to spin it to the left or right.  The propaganda can be enough to make you break out your NRA card and call up the old militia buddies for a nice tea party, or depending on your inclination brush up on your communist manifesto before a peace and freedom party rally against the evils of cutting down a single tree on public property.  I don't care if you're a Democrat, Republican, Communist, or Fascist, the government will use your money for things that you don't like and that can indeed be a hard pill to swallow.  

But just wait!  I'm here to remind you that despite all the bickering and propaganda, your tax dollars also go to some pretty great things.  Many Americans have never even heard of USAID but I see them all the time here and I am so incredibly proud every time I see their logo "USAID From the American People".  They're in Senegal, they're in my local community, and they're funded by you. 

 

I bet you didn't know that you built a fully equipped school with wifi and computers in a rural village outside Kaolack.


Or that now its being used to hold health training to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Senegal.  And while that's all well and good your money is also going to support something even more amazing and innovative and quite good looking I might add....


Me!  Peace Corps is a government agency and we only exist because of you all and your lovely lovely money.  Seeing as how you're paying me let me justify my existence just a bit. 


I am standing behind one of David Campbell's rope pumps and I'm about to install it in my village. 


First things first I have to cast a half well cap in cement for the pump to sit on. 


Almost done...


And there she is.  The cement needs about a week before we can finish the install and then my village will have a lovely rope pump.  Hmmm... one rope pump is nice... I guess.... but it doesn't really solve anything and certainly won't last forever. 


Let me introduce Lamine Gin.  He is a welder in Toubacouta who will be helping me to make a lot more rope pumps.  26 to be exact.  My friend Marcie down in Kolda is also doing 26 pumps so together we will be doing a total of 52 pumps.  We've partnered with Appropriate Projects, and NGO back in the states, to purchase all the pumps and install one every week for the next year.  We officially kick off the project on May 1st Inshaallah.  We'll be keeping a blog as we go, with entries every week about the villages and people benefiting from the pumps and how you can help!  I'll post more on that as the date approaches. 


We went to my neighboring village to check out some pumps that an NGO had brought in.  They're good but they're really expensive and not made locally.  Thus they are useful for a while but not sustainable. 



This is Lamine with the beginnings of his pump.  It will be much simpler and cheaper and a whole lot more sustainable since he will be around as a pump producer and technician long after I'm gone.  This project "52 Pumps in 52 Weeks" will probably be one of the biggest of my service.  I'm sure that it will cause me a lot of headaches but hopefully with enough Advil I'll make it through the year and then I'll have finally done something worthy of the insane things people say in regards to my good character and whatnot.  Joining the Peace Corps is like getting a huge credit line increase on your strength of character.  You can keep raking up the charges even if you ain't got the goods.  Well time to dig my heals in and pay my debts.  I suggest y'all do the same and get those taxes done so, you know, I don't starve over here or something.  And also so that the US Government never has to consider cutting foreign aide for development even in this tough economy. 

Cheers,
Garrison

Monday, March 28, 2011

Paradigm Shift


Peace Corps Volunteers are strange.  Let me elaborate.  As you have no doubt heard we go to the ends of the earth to parasite and disease infested lands where we learn tribal languages and talk about bodily functions far too openly regardless of the circumstances, and constantly fantasize about all things food and drink related.  But this isn’t why we’re strange.  I could just as easily have been describing the peculiarities of fraternity life.  No Peace Corps Volunteers are strange for an even more bizarre reason but I’ll get to that in a minute.  First a story.

Once upon a time this bright young lad named Garrison went to study with the Nobel Peace Prize nominated Theatre visionary Augusto Boal.  Garrison was intrigued by Boal’s techniques for using theatre for third world development work so he thought that, as a natural step after college, he might join the Peace Corps to give it a try.  Now after several grant projects investigating Boal’s techniques and a show at the SF Fringe Festival in his style, Garrison felt fairly qualified to do this… Welcome to the Peace Corps Garrison. “Wow this is really going to happen,” he thought.  You will be studying a minority language called Serere spoken only in rural villages in the delta region.  “Okay this shouldn’t hinder me doing theatre locally right?” He hoped.  We’re having a girls’ camp in the region and we would love to have some help doing skits “Fantastic let me talk to everyone putting this on and show them that theatre can be so much more than skits” He pleaded.  Well there are too many people helping at the camp so how about you just work with the girls for an hour on the first day and then for an hour right before they present their skits on the last day.  Oh yeah and you can’t lead the sessions in Serere.  Does that sound good?  Meanwhile the girls will be working every day for an hour and a half on their skits.  “Well I guess I can do some games or something” he sighed.  Perfect people love theatre games; they’re so fun and won’t get in the way and take time away from the important work.

… cringe…

I don’t really know what I expected.  It’s hard enough getting theatre people to understand the benefits of Boal’s work let alone PCV’s with every background under the sun.  I was still more than a little disappointed though when the planning meeting for the girl’s camp made it quite clear that my skills were neither wanted nor necessary.  As strange as it sounds to me I don’t know that I will be doing any theatre whatsoever during my service in the Peace Corps. 

So get to the point, why are PCV’s so strange?  Hold up, more about me first.  My service is shifting.  I see now that the things that got me into the Peace Corps aren’t necessarily going to be the things that keep me here.  My service is simply not lending itself to exploring Theatre for development work.  I am overwhelmed by projects, all of which are too legitimately needed for me to justify taking away my attention to pursue something else out of personal curiosity.  There is certainly a part of me that’s just avoiding the work because it’s hard.  Excuses are wonderful express routes to the easy track.  Even so I stand by the work that I am doing and I simply can’t justify going out of my way to pursue something else… even if it’s pure gold for grad school applications… 

This is how we are weird.  Not only are we in the most absurd situations, but every decision we make comes down to trying to get the most, not for ourselves but for someone else.  Everything is about how much impact I can have on my village, how much I can increase their food security, how much I can help reduce the labor for the women’s group how much I can increase their overall level of sanitation etc… It’s quite a paradigm shift.  Now let me stop you before you start thinking that we’re little altruistic angels, cause we’re not.  This shift is a normal product of our situation.  The Peace Corps yardstick by which we measure our self worth and success just happens to be based on how much we help other people.  Different situation different yardstick.  So don’t go comparing apples and oranges saying we’re so delicious and you’re so bitter, although we are rather delicious, but that a topic for another time.    Still though it is a strange shift to have one’s sense of self worth so completely wrapped up in other people’s wellbeing and success.  Maybe this is what it feels like to be a parent… or a grown up…  or a human… or a walrus… I don’t know. 

The point is things are shifting for me and it’s making me think about all those pesky big life questions.  Should I pursue international development work after PC?  Can I justify just becoming a professional actor? Where am I really going to be able to have an impact?  Luckily I’m also reading the Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series right now so I know not to take any of these questions too seriously.  The Earth will probably end up blowing up regardless of what I think. 

Living up to the title of this blog, this post took on some serious thoughts of one PCV in such a way that hopefully you walk away with only a slight feeling of discomfort, which will ultimately turn out to be completely unrelated and will go away shortly after a few more hours of digestion. 

…see what I mean?  Way too much Douglas Adams right now :-)

Cheers,
Garrison 

P.S. In the spirit of non-bitterness here is the link to the girls’ leadership camp fundraising page.  It is still going to be a really valuable experience for all involved, so do chip in if you have a few bucks to spare. 

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=685-163

Friday, March 4, 2011

Welcome to Peace Corps Senegal!

This one's for you new stage.  Welcome to the wonderful land we call Senegal.  Before you get your hopes up too much let me give you some bad news: no zebras, no giraffes, no wildebeests, no cheetahs, no elephants.  If you're in the delta region we have hyenas but you will never see them.  If you're down in Kedougou apparently there are lions... but no one ever sees them either.  But if you're in Kolda you might see a hippo.  Yes you are going to Africa but it is not the Africa that most people think of.  Welcome to Senegal's Africa


Here in Senegal you can buy the latest appliances from all over the world, including top of the line plasma flat screen televisions. 


Can't live without the latest iPod or Macbook?  Well you're in luck we've got um :-)


You've probably heard horror stories about eating bland meals of rice and fish for your entire service.  Fear not, just pick up a box of name brand cereal at your local mega grocery store.


Ah yes but you're getting here right before the hot season so food isn't really the biggest part of your worries.  When that mercury hits 120 degrees just swing by the American club for a dip in their fabulous pool.


As you can see we are also really up tight here and have zero fun whatsoever. 


And we are always one hundred percent integrated.  No afternoons of softball with pulled pork sandwiches, beer, and relaxing under a giant American Flag tent.  Nope not for us Peace Corps Volunteers.


Is he serious you may ask? Well yes and no.  Dakar will be Dakar but you've caught me being flippant, and while we can vacation to the land of the nice, the reality of life here, much like the latrine above, is a little shittier.  I'm telling you this for two reasons.  First to assuage your parents' and your fears that you may be going to an utterly desolate and poverty stricken third world country.  We always have Dakar!  And also to prepare you for the utter bizarreness of living in a country with such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. 

Senegal is poor don't get me wrong, but you are not going to a country where people die of starvation or where the population is devastated by AIDS.  The majority of the country functions fairly well.  Albeit usually without the most basic of amenities, but Dakar is a good sign.  You probably won't agree when you get off the plane and drive through Rufisque to Thies, but things here are on the up and up and there is great potential for Senegal to break into a prosperous period of sustained economic growth.  There are cell phone networks all over the country, internet cafes are numerous and reliable, roads are improving, electricity is spotty but expanding none the less, and most importantly more and more people are going to school meaning that Senegal's workforce will soon be able to tackle bigger and better things.  This ain't the Peace Corps of the 70's so fear not parents or significant others, your PCV will not disappear off the face of the earth for two years. 

I've only been in country for about 7 months but this arrival stuff is still fresh in my head so let me offer a few words of advice.  Everyone's experience is different though so take this with a grain of salt.  My first couple of weeks in country were really difficult.  Read my first blog entries, they were down right neurotic.  I missed home like crazy, felt like I would never be able to learn the language, was absolutely terrified of Thies and Dakar and just wanted to go home to my girlfriend.  Top it all off with a feeling that everyone else was adjusting better than I was and I developed a wee bit of a sense of inadequacy.  So first piece of advice: PST is hard so don't make it harder by being hard on yourself.  Cut yourself some extra slack and realize that even if people keep it together on the outside, they all freak out at some point.  Freaking out is beyond perfectly normal.  Talk to your fellow PCT's if you're having a hard time with something, chances are they're going through it too.  We're a family here, don't forget that.  Second piece of advice: the language will come.  Every single person in Peace Corps Senegal passes their language exam by the end of PST.  Study but don't stress about it.  Third piece of advice: Your CBT site family is not your family for the rest of your service.  You are allowed to make mistakes with them.  Most of them have had volunteers before and they have seen it all believe me.  Go ahead and butcher their language, forget their names, hide in your room because you don't want to talk to them, cross some unspoken cultural boundary, do it all.  This is the one time here where you truly get a free pass.  You get to make the right first impression with your real family so don't worry about this one. 

Now let's talk about something taboo... ETing (Early Terminating).  Yes if things get too much you can call it quits at any time, pack up and go back to America.  Three people did it in my stage during PST.  Yes it is an option, but please don't do it.  You may feel like you can't do this, that two years is just too much.  I am here to tell you though that yes you can do it.  I have never met you but I know that this is the truth.  Peace Corps selected you so trust that you are qualified enough even when, inevitably, you feel like they made a mistake and that you are absolutely incompetent.  You can do this!  We are a family and we will support you through thick and thin.  This is a two way street though and we need you.  Many times current volunteers fill out requests to set up new sites so that they will have a Health or EE volunteer with whom to collaborate.  I can't tell you how disappointed my sub region would be if our health volunteer never showed up.  Magnify that by 10 and that's how the village will feel if they never get the volunteer they've prepared for.  I don't mean to put extra pressure on y'all, but we need you.  I'm not going to lie, I wanted to go home during PST, but I made a promise to myself that I would stick it out until I got to my real village and now here I am.  PST life is NOT what your life is going to be like for the rest of your service. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and its not death, its a village with a family and an incredible two year adventure that will change you for the rest of your life.  Welcome to Senegal my friends.  You're going to do great!

The last day at my CBT site.  You will make it there too!

P.S.  I made the mistake of staying awake on the drive from the airport to Thies.  It's really not worth it.  There is just two much to process and it really isn't the most flattering view of Dakar.  Trust me you are better off sleeping than trying to take it all in and inevitably freaking out.  You'll see Dakar again soon don't worry.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

WAIST - The West African Invitational Softball Tournament

Check out the brand new collection of photos and videos at the right.  They're from this last weekend where Garrison joined virtually every PCV in the region for some good fun, food and softball.  I was on a business trip and was actually able to "drop in" for the weekend.  This picture is of all the Kaolack region PCV's complete with their Tu Tu uniforms.
Bandwidth is precious in Senegal so Garrison asked me to post these for him.

Enjoy, Randy (Dad)