Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Under African Skies...

      Wow. Where to begin? As expected, I have delayed starting my blog until now. Four years of college and I am still an expert at procrastination. There is so much to say, so much that has gone on in the last two weeks that I want to share. Although I really wish I had not waited until now to start writing, I am also very thankful for the time I have spent off of the computer here. Spending time with other Peace Corps trainees, current volunteers, and Peace Corps staff has been a huge blessing so far. Unfortunately, though, due to my procrastination I'll have to keep this post somewhat short and choppy. Hopefully I will do a better job in the upcoming weeks and months keeping up with this blog. Starting something like this has always been the hardest part for me...

     The first two weeks here have been simply incredible. There are 64 of us total that came to Senegal together, and we are now scattered all over the region in various towns and villages living with host families and learning various languages. The group as a whole is truly awesome- so energetic. Although I haven't had the time to get to know each person on a very deep level, I have been able to make some great connections with a few volunteers here. It is so interesting to see the different types of people that were drawn to the Peace Corps. Within this huge group of 64, there are so many characters, so many completely different personalities!

      All 64 new volunteers (well, technically trainees at the moment) flew into Dakar, Senegal on the 11th of August and immediately took a two hour bus ride to the Peace Corps training center in Thies, where we were greeting with drums, applause, and (later) a huge dance fest! The first couple of days in country were thankfully pretty relaxing, considering we arrived sleep deprived and let-lagged. After getting settled in, we took part in various cultural, medical, and technical sessions in order to give us a broad outline of the training and next couple of years here. While I could go on and on about the first couple of days- the dancing, the ridiculous heat, the food, etc., I'd rather jump right into our first "official" week as Peace Corps trainees.
             So this is basically how training is set up and will work for the next couple of months: All 64 trainees meet up in Thies at random points over the next couple of months for cross culture training, medical training, and technical training that is held here at the Thies Peace Corps Center. For the remainder of the time, we are split into small language groups and placed in home-stays in villages all around the Thies region. Typically, volunteers are placed in language groups (about 3-4 per group) with other volunteers that are in the same technical group as well (such as Urban Agriculture, Rural Ag., etc.). However, I was actually placed in a language class with 3 other Small Enterprise Development workers, but in the same town as another group of Urban Ag workers studying the same language. All of my language training and classes are with the group of SED volunteers, and then I meet up at random times with the other group to do gardening work in the town that we are staying in. We are all in various houses that are pretty close to each other, and we are all learning Wolof (the main local language here). Although French is the national language, everyone speaks Wolof, so our focus is strictly on developing Wolof skills over the next couple of months. It is going to be a TOUGH couple of months to say the least, but I am actually really looking forward to learning the language and working on the school garden that we are starting from scratch (the plot of land that they gave us for the garden is literally ALL sand! Hah!). 

     Although I am not in the Urban Ag language group, I spend a lot of time with them and see most of them around at various times during the day. It is so nice having such a tight-knit group during training. Despite all of our individual struggles with the language and the culture, we always come together, share frustrations, funny stories and awkward moments. I can't tell you how many times I have almost started crying from laughing at the stories that are shared about the home-stay experience. My Wolof teacher is amazing. She is a fairly young Senegalese woman who has been training volunteers for 9 years now. Her experience shows. She is so calm, so fun, and so confident in all of us, despite our struggles with the pronunciations (...I thought I had problems pronouncing French words...yikes!). We meet at her home-stay house, which is literally right next door to mine, and sit in her living area for most of the morning and afternoon learning the Wolof grammar and practicing with our few vocab words. It is truly incredible how fast you pick up on vocabulary when you are in a home-stay and have to adapt. We've been learning Wolof for one week and I already feel like I know more than I did studying French for an entire semester (not to say that I put a ton of effort into learning French, but still...). One side note, I have had to quickly adapt to the amount of flies here. They are EVERYWHERE. No joke. As we sit as learn Wolof, our legs are nearly covered with flies. Pretty annoying, but I'm getting used to it.

          On another note, my home-stay family is incredible. I can't tell you how lucky I am! I am in a house that is considered pretty middle-class for Senegal; we have electricity, running water (only outside, though), and even a little TV (there is soccer on at literally every hour)! However, it is not the house or the electricity that makes this place so special, it's the family. There are 9 of us living in the house, including my mother (Sama Yaay in Wolof), her brother (who I call Max), his brother (Assan), and all of her children- (Baye-24, Pop-20, Petit-18, Nabou (female)-21?, and Babakat-5). As you can see, most of the names that they told me to call them are nicknames...which makes it a lot easier to keep up with! Max, Baye, Pop, and Petit all speak a little English and are fluent in French, which has really helped me communicate this first week. It's also been really helpful, though, that they speak to me mostly in Wolof (unless I simply can't comprehend what they are saying...haha). Baye, Pop, and Petit are all big soccer players and fans (they love Chelsea and Barcelona), so I have it made in the shade! They took me to the stadium to go on a run the other night, and were shocked when we ran for about 2 miles and i wasn't tired. I think they expected me to fade pretty quickly...haha! Although I haven't gotten to play a lot of soccer so far, I am aching to play and hoping that over these next two weeks in my home-stay I'll be able to get out and play some. There are soccer players everywhere here, and they are all very solid from what I've seen. Exciting!

      Most of my day in the town consists of language training, but the nights have been simply divine. I break fast with my family every night, drink delicious, sugary attaya (tea), share stories in my broken Wolof, dance, laugh, and watch the sun set together. It is what community is all about, and I have been so thankful for it this week. The house only has one floor, but it does have stairs that lead up to an open roof where they hang their laundry. It is up here where I have had some of the most incredible views of the African to come soon.

            Although it has been a very good couple of weeks here, I would be lying if I said I haven't had moments of fear, loneliness, and home-sickness. Typically the mornings are the hardest for me, as I am usually the only one besides my mother that is up, and I am simply too tired and groggy to communicate well. Some good has come out of this, though, as I have finally started to journal consistently- some times twice a day! I can't tell you what a blessing my journal has been. I filled it with quotes from The Warrior of the Light and Markings, along with pictures of friends and family. Also, God really does work in mysterious ways. I am utterly convinced of this after the first couple of weeks here. Since I arrived at my home stay, I have had various points of home sickness and sadness. Truly enough, it is precisely these moments that Babakat, the 5 year old brother who is extremely shy, sneaks either into my room or onto the roof where I sit. He comes by me, smiling, and sits down in silence next to me. He doesn't say anything, almost as if he knows that I just need someone to be there with me- to show me that I am not alone. Now that he feels comfortable around me he has perked up a bit and now loves to show me things and tell me what they're called in Wolof.

       Although there is still so much to say, I must end this blog here for lack of time. I hope that my posts can slowly become more organized and descriptive, as I have so many funny stories to share. However, I thought that it would be best to start with an overview of my service here so far. More to come soon. As the Senegalese would say, Inshallah (God willing)!

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