Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tearful Goodbyes, Joyful Celebrations, and New Beginnings...

Well, for better or worse, I am now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. If swearing in as a volunteer came down to keeping up with my blog, though, I would surely not have passed the test...But alas, thankfully it is not a requirement (although maybe it should be so that I would actually keep up with this thing!!).

Yet again I have dug myself into a hole. So much has happened over the last month that I wish I could share, but it is simply impossible to write it all down here, let alone put some of my experiences into words…
I will start, I suppose, with the present moment. Since October 17th I have been in Dakar, my site for the next two years. What I have been doing the last two and a half weeks, and why I was placed in what I have been calling the New York City of Senegal, well, I'll get to that...eventually. For space sake, and for the sake of everyone reading this, I think I'm going to split this post up into two.

Part 1=Catch up time...

Sometime around mid-September all of the volunteers gathered in Thies to receive our final placements. After training in our home-stay villages for almost a month, with random visits back to the center for more intensive technical, cultural, security, and medical training interspersed, the trip back to Thies was not only extremely exciting (we were about to find out where we were going to be for TWO years!!!), but also very relieving at the same time. Frankly, we all needed a break from our language training and our intense home-stay families. No matter how awesome a family is, it is simply exhausting being constantly surrounded by people, not to mention a language that you are still struggling to understand.

The actual process of receiving our final sites was quite nerve-racking. Near the back of the Thies training center there is a small, concrete basketball court upon which a boot-leg map of Senegal is painted. As the tradition goes, all the volunteers were taken to the court, blindfolded, and then, one by one, taken to the general area where they will serve the next two years. As wonderful an idea as it is, there was one flaw (which ended up not being much of an issue, oddly); Peace Corps Senegal has never had a stage with 60 people, and the basketball court sure as hell isn't big enough to fit us all...or so we thought...Somehow, someway, all 60 volunteers were blindfolded and taken to their sites on this bootleg of a map. It was quite a site, or so I hear. As we all stood in our spots, blindfolded and waiting for everyone to get placed, everyone was murmuring and trying to figure out who was close by and where they were. As for me, I was taken to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, in a little corner away from where all the chatter was. The only person that I could hear distinctly at first was my language trainer, Regina, who proceeded to walk by me time and time again and say “Ohhhh Malikkkk!!! I am soooo sorry for youuuuu! Ohhhh Malikkkkk!” Haha.

Soon, however, a couple of other volunteers were placed close by, one of whom was a fellow Urban Ag volunteer and a good friend from training. When the time finally came to take off our blindfolds, I realized why I felt isolated and away from all of the other volunteers; I had been placed in Dakar, an extremely rare site for a first year volunteer. In fact, Dakar was (and is) known to many of the current PCVs as a place of refuge from the rest of Senegal, as it is by far the largest, wealthiest, and most westernized city in the country and quite possibly in all of West Africa. It is, as I mentioned before, the NYC of Senegal- a place far removed from the rest of the country, a place far different than where I imagined I'd be working when I entered the Peace Corps...

After the immediate shock of receiving Dakar as my placement came the questions...Why me? Why did I, a guy who expressed a deep yearning to get away the greed, materialism, and superficiality of city life, get placed in Dakar, basically the ONLY place in Senegal that is anything like America?? And what am I supposed to do in a massive city that is already in better shape than all of West Africa, let alone the rest of the country? How the hell am I going to get to know the place, to make friends, to integrate when the city is so large? To say the least, it was a bit daunting. Along with the questions and fear, though, came a number of other thoughts and emotions, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn't a little relieved to find out that I would have access to some things that I simply would not have in a village setting (mostly food...).

As the day went on, though, my initial mixed feelings slowly began to change, especially as I began to chat with some of the current volunteers who knew a thing or two about Dakar, the Urban Ag volunteer I was replacing, and the work I would be doing. As for all of that good stuff, though, I will get to it all later.

After celebrating our site placements the following couple of nights over drinks and excited/nervous chats, we eventually returned to our home-stay villages for more language training. While there is so much to say about the end of training, especially regarding my incredible home-stay family, my hilarious language trainer Regina, and my extremely tight-knit training group, I will make it short for time's sake. While the first month of training had it's slow moments (to say the least), the last month of training absolutely flew by. The language training that had once seemed so long and difficult turned into pleasant visits to various homes for tea and conversation. What we needed, said our language trainer, was simply to get out and talk to people, no matter how intimidating it seemed at first and no matter how fast they talked. Of course, Regina was right. The constant exposure to Wolof has proven to be extremely beneficial, at least for me. Although I am by no means fluent, I am very capable of holding a conversation in Wolof and am now able to pick up on what most people are saying. It is a pretty neat feeling to have come this far in such a short time. I can only imagine what my language will be like in two years time...

Anywho, a couple of quick stories from the end of my home stay village before I move on. I realize that a lot of my posts are me rambling about this and that and are lacking actual stories, so here I go. Story time!

About two weeks into my home-stay, I found out that my family had 25 baby chickens that my younger brother Petit (21) was responsible for. At first, I figured that most of the chickens would slowly die,  as it is quite a difficult talk to take care of chickens, especially when they are first born. But as time went on I realized that Petit was not only extremely knowledgeable about chicken raising, but that he was GOOD. Out of the original 25 baby chickens, only one died. As for the rest, they grew to be quite large and were either eaten (by us) or sold by Petit to neighboring households. When the chickens became big enough to eat, I came home from language training one day to find my Petit, Babakat, and my mother all in the backyard with three chickens in between them. Right as I stepped out of the door, Petit looked up and said, “Malik! Ban ginard moo genna baax? (which chicken is better?)” I walked over, acting like I actually knew what I was doing, and pointed to the one that I thought looked the biggest. In reality, it probably wasn't any better than the other two, but I tried...Right as I pointed to it, Petit picked it up, took it to the corner of the backyard, held it down on the ground, took out a knife and started to chop its head off. Hilariously (and sadly) enough, the knife that he was using went flying out of his hand due to the fact that the chicken was flailing with all its might, so Petit ended up just holding the flailing, half-headed chicken on the ground until it eventually stopped moving. Meanwhile there I was, in the opposite corner, shocked that I had basically just played God by choosing which chicken was to die. My host mother, who I'm sure picked up on my reaction when she saw my face, burst into laughter and just said “Oh, Malik!” As for the dead chicken, it actually ended up being given to my host-mother's best friend, who also happened to be the host-mother of one of the other volunteers in Mboro. Ha.

One of the many things that I loved about Mboro (and really all of Senegal for that matter), was the incredible passion for soccer that was ever-present. I found out very soon after arriving that my host brothers were not the only ones who played, watched, and loved soccer; the entire city loved soccer, and it showed. Everyday, without fail, children, teenagers, and young adults would play anywhere and everywhere. And they were good. In all honesty, I have yet to see a bad soccer player here. Pretty dang impressive. Anyways, now for the story behind this... Once Ramadan ended and people finally were able to eat and drink during the day (aka have energy to do things), the city stadium (a fenced in area with a sand-covered soccer field) became the place to be in the late afternoon. Hearing that there was a soccer game going on, some of the other trainees and I decided we'd check it out. Little did we know, we were in for a treat. We arrived at the stadium to a picturesque site; every single one of the trees lining the outside of the concrete fence was filled with children, all earnestly watching and cheering on the game from the tree-tops. Once inside the stadium, we became very aware at just how serious these games were. The left side of the stadium- the only one with bleachers- was filled to capacity. In fact, the entire field was surrounded by hundreds (seriously, hundreds) of fans, all intensely focused on the match. Standing room only. Lucky for us, we were able to find a little opening along the fence behind one of the goals. We watched as the two teams went at in on this sand-covered field, which looked incredibly difficult to run on, let alone play soccer on. But these guys were used to it, made it look easy. I did, though, chuckle at every set piece, as the players would form a little mound of sand to place the ball on to get more air- a little tee of sorts. What we figured out pretty quickly was that each team represented a different neighborhood in Mboro, so the games were not only about entertainment, they were also about pride. At halftime, all the fans from each given neighborhood would crowd around the benches to hear what the coach was saying and probably to put in a few words of their own. Imagine 70-80 people, if not more, all surrounding a little bench. It was a hilarious site. When a goal was scored, you would have thought the team had just won the world cup. When it was all said and done, the fans of the winning team chanted the entire way home. Needless to say, it was quite the experience.  

The last day in Mboro was full of emotion. We had taken our final language test the day before (which ended up really just being a laid-back, recorded conversation in Wolof with our language trainer), so we were all very relieved but also quite sad to be leaving the families that had shaped so much of our time in Senegal. As I waited for the Peace Corps bus to arrive, I make tea for the family and joked around by acting like I was bursting into tears. They all got a big kick out of it and laughed away, although we all knew deep down that it was a very sad occasion and that we wouldn't see each other for some time. Oddly enough, the one member of my host-family that did burst into tears as I prepared to leave was the maid- a sweet young woman who I always joked around with but who didn't actually live at the house.

Right as we were preparing to pack up the truck, a couple of Senegalese women came running down the street hollering and pointing down the road. We all turned to see a good amount of smoke coming from one of the houses nearby; it had somehow caught on fire. I'd only been in Senegal for about two and a half months, but I had yet to see a Senegalese woman run, let alone run in traditional Senegalese attire and in the sand-covered streets! It was quite the site, to say the least. Nearly all of the adults from the neighboring families, and even from houses decently far away, ran to the house carrying buckets of water. Within minutes, the fire was out and peace was restored in the neighborhood. But wow, what a site! I remember thinking to myself, “Now THAT is what community is all about.” Thankfully, no one was injured and as far as I know there was little damage done to the house, although those Senegalese women sure did some damage to the sand! Haha.

Our next few days before swearing in consisted of some relaxation, volunteer celebrations, and a big party for all of our host families at the Thies center. One member of every host family was invited to come for an afternoon of food, music, dancing, and (of course) attaaya (tea). It was a joyous time, one that I will never forget. The center was filled with an amazing array of people from various towns and villages, all wearing gorgeous outfits and beaming out of pride and joy for their trainee. After a delicious meal of chicken, beef, rice and veges, we all gathered together under a massive tent for music, dancing, and speeches. Representatives from each local language came up at the end and gave testimonies, mostly proclaiming their unwavering love for us and saying how proud they were of our fast progression. Finally, after all the tea had been consumed and all of the goodbyes said, we watched and waved as our families departed, many of the mothers with tears in their eyes. I cannot give thanks enough for my incredibly generous and loving family. After only two months of living on and off at their house, I can truly say that I felt like apart of the family.

Training had officially ended. Soon, we would be sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers and head to our official sites. For such a happy occasion, I was honestly a little sad. I had spent the last two months with these other trainees, slowly getting to know them, becoming more comfortable around them, and sharing with them many of the same struggles. And now we were leaving. But we would go out with a bang, we would make sure of that; for, our swear in date just so happened to be my birthday. October 15th.

To be continued...

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