Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Noticing the Little Things

“Each day the first day; Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, carry, and give back. It must be held out empty- for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity...and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchafe to give us...”

    Each day the first day; Each day a life. After only three weeks here in Senegal, I am beginning to understand, to feel the meaning of Dag Hammarskjold's words. For one, each day here feels like an eternity, a life. From the time I wake up until the time I flop down, exhausted and overwhelmed, on my bed at night, I am taking in new information. Be it new vocabulary in Wolof, cultural norms, or gardening techniques, I am constantly learning new things,  and my eyes are quickly being opened to a life vastly different from my life back in America. Despite the amount of effort, energy, and patience needed to sustain this lifestyle, it has been an absolute blessing thus far, as I have finally started to do the little things that I have been meaning to do for so long, to pay attention to the finer details of my life. Each morning I wake up to the glorious sound of roosters crowing right outside of my window starting at 5 A.M. I say glorious, of course, as a sarcastic way of dealing with my frustration and new-found hatred for roosters.  One might be under the impression that waking up to the sound of roosters crowing would be fairly pleasant. However, when the rooster that is crowing sounds fairly similar to a wailing child and, for whatever reason (competition with roosters nearby, perhaps?), decides to crow about 5 times a minute for approximately 2 hours (oh yes, I've timed it), one quickly realizes that such an idealistic impression is utterly false. In reality, roosters suck! But I digress. After I lie in bed for about an hour or so, attempting to sleep and at times succeeding (dreaming, of course, of wailing babies due to the crowing of the roosters...), I wake up, get dressed and immediately head to the elementary school with my two watering cans in hand.
      Despite not having any breakfast or coffee at this point in the morning, I have come to love watering the garden early in the morning. The school is located literally right down the street from my house on a nice little hill that overlooks the small city of Mboro. As I trudge up the sandy hill in the morning (every street is completely covered with sand, save for the main road) passing the sheep and goats that hang out in various places around town, I begin to notice, to appreciate the morning. I have always been, in theory, a morning person. I have always loved the quiet peacefulness of the morning, the sunrise and dew-covered grass, yet for the last several years I simply have not made the effort to get up early on a regular basis. Here, however, it has become a vital part of my day, a time in which I ground myself with solitude, silence, and journaling. It all starts with the garden, my place of temporary refuge from the plethora of people and information that I must know or learn. When I arrive at the school, still relatively groggy and half asleep, I am immediately woken up by the amount of work that is actually involved in watering a garden here, as the school's main source of water is a deep well centrally located in the courtyard-like area of the school. The water lies about 60  meters below the ground, so you can imagine the amount of energy needed to haul up buckets of water. Typically, however, children from the city gather at the school starting at 7 A.M., all full of energy and eager to help in any way possible (even when their help is actually spilling half the water that I haul up from the well in an attempt to pour it into the watering cans). After filling up the water cans, I head to the section of the school given to us for our gardening project- a small, sandy corner of the school protected by the several thorny branches that make up our home-aid fence. Watering in the morning is good not only because it wakes me up, but also because I get to witness the slow growth of the plants, the emergence of the first stems above ground. What a gift it is to see each and every morning the wonder and beauty of creation.

     The walk back from the garden to my house, both in the morning and especially in the later afternoon as the sun sets, is one of my favorite activities here in Senegal. Because the school sits on a hill overlooking half of the city and the gorgeous fields surrounding it, the view, combined with the cool breeze from the nearby ocean, make it a perfect spot to both start and end the day. Every evening, without fail, I am overcome with awe as I gaze up at the sky. Corny? Of course. But I have found that the longer I am here the more corny I become. I have taken to noticing all the little things here that never gave me satisfaction (many of which I never even noticed) in America. I'm sure if my siblings were to read my journal entries or hear me talk at times during the day, they'd be sure to tell me how similar I sounded to our dad (who gives thanks for flamingos, random colors, etc. every morning). But here is the thing; it is indeed the combination of all of these little things that keep me going, that keep my grounded in hope and love. In a place so far away from home, a place where there is so much suffering, it is crucial to appreciate the smallest details- to give thanks for each day, for health!

    The rest of the morning is typically taken up by language classes held in our language teacher's host-family's house, which conveniently is right next door to my own. It is unbelievable how fast you can learn when you are in a home-stay situation. I have always considered myself to be a slow language learner, but in only two weeks of learning Wolof I have taken in so much! I read my first journal entry from Mboro today, and laughed at how complicated words and phrases seemed then that are now so basic. I still have at long way to go, especially with the comprehension aspect (people speak FAST here), but each day I am gaining confidence and know that with practice and time it will come. Trusting the process, I think, is a huge challenge for Peace Corps Volunteers- a challenge that, once acknowledged, can really aid in the transition.

    By about 5 in the afternoon our second language class ends, and I make my way to the school garden to meet up with the four other Urban Ag volunteers. After many hours of language training, not to mention the additional strain of communicating with our home-stay families and other neighbors, our brains are fried, and our time in the garden becomes a place of rest, relief, and laughter. I cannot explain just how thankful I am for our Mboro group of trainees. We have mentioned time and again how lucky we are to have gotten placed with each other for the first 2-3 months of our time here. I can only hope to be placed near some of them for the next two years...

    After my amazing daily walk back to my house, I join my family for Ndogu (break fast) and chat with them over coffee and bread. I have come to really appreciate Ndogu. Although I admit I haven't fasted at all during Ramadan (it is hard to concentrate on learning a language when you are hungry and thirsy I hear...), my family is extremely excited to share their time of breaking fast with me, and I have come to really love the time we spend every day outside, chatting and enjoying the cool breeze and beautiful sunsets. As my Wolof has slowly improved, I have also been able to join in on more conversations and joke around with my host family. First, I found out how to say “I like” in Wolof, which was a huge step for me at the time. That night, I excited told my family a handfull of things I liked in Wolof, ranging from “I like to play soccer” to “I like to dance!”. By the end of the night, my family was clapping away and demanding I dance for them. Although I have never really been a big dancer in America, as I have always been too self-conscious, I decided that there was simply no point to being self-conscious here. Having let go of my worries about how I looked, etc., I stood up and danced. And danced. And danced. Despite the fact that I was the only one dancing, and surely looked like the goofiest man alive, I simply didn't care. I flailed my legs this way and that, jumped up and down and let loose. I'm pretty sure my family almost died they were laughing so hard...It was a blast, to say the least. Since that night, I have danced almost daily for my family. On a few rare occasions, little Babakat has joined me, teaching me the real Senegalese dances and laughing away.

    Other than my dancing escapades, I have also learned how to brew Senegalese attaaya (tea), which is absolutely delicious, yet unbelievably sugary. My brothers always watch me make it and scold me if I don't put enough sugar in, so I obey, sighing as I put nearly 2 cup-fulls of sugar into a tiny tea can. I admit, the way they make it here is divine, especially when fresh mint is added. However, the amount of sugar is scary, considering attaaya is consumed here numerous times a day. The remained of the nights here in Mboro are filled with more casual conversations beneath the stary African skies, as nearly every night the electricity shuts off for hours at a time. While I was a bit taken back at first, and a little annoyed at the frequent outages, I have come to enjoy the nightly power outages, especially on clear nights. With the entire city powerless, the sky becomes unbelievably visible. The hundreds of stars, combined with the bright moon and the thin cloud-looking Milky Way, light up the sky. On one such night, I was chatting with my brothers about America when a shooting star bolted across the sky. I can honestly say that I don't think I have ever, or will ever again, see a shooting star so bright and long-lasting as the one I saw this night. It had to have lasted about 5 whole seconds, slowly making its way from one side of the sky to the other. I gazed in awe, jumped up and down and yelled “Wow!!!!!”. My home stay brothers, who surely thought I was crazy, just chuckled and said “Bideow bu fakk!” (in Wolof, literally “star that runs really fast!” haha!). As of now, my new name is Malik “bideow bu fakk” Ndiaye. Ha.

    Our time in Mboro has been interspersed with random trips back to Thies for technical, cultural, and medical training. These trips back to Thies, however, have also been great little vacations from the stressful home stay life. While I say stressful, in reality I can not really complain at all, as I actually really enjoy my situation and am always eager to go back to Mboro after a day in Thies. However, it is nice to get away for a bit, eat ridiculous amounts of veges (which are very rare in the home stay), and exchange stories with the other volunteers who are in various towns and villages. It's so funny how after only 3 weeks here I already get super excited over any sort of vegetable, meat, or food other than rice and fish. Although my host family is relatively wealthy, we eat rice and fish for basically every meal. Typically there will be a potato or one carrot in the family bowl, but as far as veges go, that's about it. Nutrition is a HUGE problem here, even for families with money. Despite the amount of fruits and veges regularly available here in Mboro, families simply don't eat them. I think it is a combination of a lack of nutritional education and culture, which makes it really hard to change. Many of the children here go to elementary school and, in many cases, will learn about the importance of incorporating fruits and vegetables into their diets, but then return home to a diet consisting of rice, fish, and bread.

    As for the training, it has been very informative for the most part. I have already learned so many new gardening techniques through various in-class and hands-on sessions, not to mention the 8 books/manuals I have on gardening laying in my room for reference...The cultural training has also been extremely helpful, especially in understanding our home-stay families and interacting in the most respectful way possible. It is very obvious, even from being here only 1 month, how male-dominated the culture is here. Women are responsible for basically every household task, save for a few small things here and there, as well (of course) as the children, food, etc. It is a very interesting, and hard, thing to see. I am very curious to talk to women here and hear about life from their perspective, and also to see the differences (if any) in gender roles in the different regions of Senegal. More to come on this subject, I am sure, later. As for now, I think I have sufficiently rambled for quite long enough. I hope this post have given at least some insight into a day in my life here in Senegal, at least during training that is. More to come soon!

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