Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Taggu Na La"

One year ago, on this day, April 30, 2013, I officially became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), said goodbye to Senegal and returned home to the US. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write my final blog post but what better way to reminisce about  my final days  in Senegal then to write about it  on my one year anniversary home. I can’t believe it has already been a whole year back home. It’s weird, some days it feels like a lifetime ago I was living in Senegal, other days it feels just like yesterday I was saying goodbye to my fellow volunteers in Dakar.

I remember the final weeks in village just flew by. Probably because I was so busy that whole last month. I had finally received my USAID grant for my last and final project in Mboula; a women’s garden! Since I first arrived in Mboula, the women couldn’t stop talking about their desire to have their own garden. They saw it as an opportunity for them to get together and socialize while still being productive.  A chance to get away from their household responsibilities. Also it was a means of financial independence from their husbands. The money they would make from the garden would help  fund future projects or things to embark on. I agreed . Not only would the garden benefit the women  but it would also benefit the whole community by increasing the abundance of freshly grown produce and overall improving the nutrition of the community. The grant money unfortunately took much longer to receive than I had anticipated. USAID apparently don’t just hand over 2,000 dollars lightly. By the time, I received the money and was able to start buying supplies, I only had a month left of service. I was nervous the project wouldn’t get done before I left.

 But to Mboula’s credit,  no matter how stressed out that last month was (even though I was probably  the only one stressing and running around the village like a crazy person), we managed to pull it off! I am so proud of how everyone came together to help contribute to this project. It was sort of inspiring to see such camaraderie amongst the community especially from the men. It meant that they too believed in what this project stood for. To me, it showed progress  and that there is hope for empowering the women of Senegal!

My couterpart Saer and Dabo helping the mason mix cement
I have to give the biggest thanks to my counterpart Saer, who from day one until the very end was right by my side the whole way helping to see this project through. He accompanied me to Dahra, to bargain for all the supplies so I didn’t get ripped off. He was out there every day  even sometimes all by himself, digging holes and putting up rebar to hold the chain link fence, mixing cement to help the mason with building the two water basins, installing the spigot so there could be water for the garden, and organizing every community meeting we had in order to develop this project. He is the most hardworking man I know and this project would have never been successful without him!!

 The garden was completed with less than two weeks of my service left. I was able to organize a two day garden training for all the women. I wanted them to have the right information and knowledge about sustainable gardening practices in order for the garden to truly be successful and last well into the future. I brought in this guy who worked for the department of agriculture in Linguere and he taught the women techniques, like double digging a garden bed, spacing the seeds, companion planting and fertilizing. It was a very valuable two day training, and the women had so much fun learning and getting their hands dirty. I even got a few agricultural Peace Corps volunteers to come help out as well (can’t thank you enough Bonnie and Teagan). And of course my right hand man, Fae was right by my side where she has been my whole service! I don't think I would have survived two years without her. I unfortunately won’t get to see the long term success of my garden project but I am very fortunate to be able to pass this project along to my replacement volunteer, Drew, who I met during my last week in Mboula.
Meet Drew, my replacement!!

Working hard with the women!

Learning how to seed

My amazing counterparts Saer and Abdou!
My final day in Mboula was a difficult one. My whole room was packed and ready to leave bright and early the next day for my last bush taxi ride. I spent my last day going around to each compound saying my thanks and goodbyes. I heard a lot thanks, prayers and blessings. Some people didn’t want me to leave, others wished me luck in finding my future husband.  In Senegal, when you say goodbye to someone that you are not going to see for a while or rather a more permanent goodbye,  it is custom to shake hands using your left hand and say “taggu na la”. As some of you may know, you never use your left hand for anything. It’s your filthy poop hand.  Well the only exception is for when you are saying a permanent goodbye to someone. It was a bit awkward shaking with my left hand, it felt wrong. Also not many Senegalese people knew what I was doing. They kind of looked at me like why are u giving me your left hand. Probably because they don’t really ever say goodbye permanently. Not many people leave their lives for good. My host mother was having a really difficult time with me leaving. She would come into my empty room and start crying. Senegalese people tend not to get weepy or sad so it was really unusual and hard to see my mom so upset. I tried to comfort her. I told her not to cry and that I would keep in touch and that one day I would return (God Willing). 
Ami winning her award
That evening, the Elementary and Middle school held an awards ceremony for those students who showed academic excellence in the classroom. All of Mboula came out to cheer on the winners and show their support for education. My little Ami, was rewarded  for best in her class. I was so happy for her. She is such a bright young girl and I know she will go far in life as long as my family continues to support her education. All of the children performed little comedy skits, half of which I just didn’t understand. They sang songs and danced around and one middle school aged kid even gave a short speech in English. It was pretty impressive.  After the awards, my two counterparts, Abdou and Saer, both got up and made a speech to the community, explaining to the village that my time in Mboula had come to an end and that I was leaving. They thanked me for all the hard work I had done and that I was going to be very missed here. The teachers of the Elementary school  awarded me a certificate of completion of my service, as well as a traditional Senegalese Outfit with a beautiful necklace.  Then Ndey Awa, one of the leaders from the women’s group, spoke on behalf of all the women, how grateful they were for all my hard work and that I would always be a part of the community. It was then my turn to talk, which was probably a good thing since I was on the verge of crying. In my best possible Wolof, I thanked everyone, told them how much I would miss Mboula and that I could never forget them! I then said a Senegalese blessing my family taught me and said good bye!

 The kids acting out their skits

So proud of my Ami!!

The last dinner with my family was a hard one. It still didn't quite feel like I was leaving them. Everyone was pretty quiet around the dinner bowl, not really knowing what to say. I ate my last mbaxal gerte that Njiaay cooked and I knew I was  definitely going to miss that meal! I said good night to all my little nuggets before they fell fast asleep and then I hung out with the adults for one last night! Xhady kept asking me why I had to go and that I should stay. It was sweet to know that I would be missed. I couldn’t believe all the love my community showed me that day and how lucky I was to have known them. I said my goodbyes to my family that night not knowing who I would see in the morning. I cried myself to sleep that night, I don’t know why but I did. I will say that I absolutely do not miss sleeping in my stick bed or waking up to the sound of a Mosque at 5:30 am.
I awoke early that morning and started to gather my stuff up. Njiaay Sibi unexpectedly entered my room and said she would help me carry my stuff out to the car. Instead of taking Elhadji’s bush taxi, my neighbor  Abdou was going to drive me to Dahra in his little car, he was going that way and had room for me. To my surprise, all the women had awaken to say good bye to me again.  I was overwhelmed with emotion and was on the verge of tears. I went back into my room one last time, to gather up the remaining bags, when baby Aida came running in calling my name in her baby talk, “Fatty, Fatty”. I lifted her up into my arms and completely lost it. The tears just flowed down my face and when we walked outside I wasn’t the only one crying. My mom, Xhady and even Mamtou had tears in their eyes. It was by far the hardest and saddest day of my service! My father blessed me with safe travels, good health and a rich and fulfilling life. I then took my father’s left hand and said goodbye. My mom was sitting on the concrete slap crying, it was time for me to go so I walked up, gave her a great big hug and told her I would miss her. The rest of the women walked me to the car, and we all said our goodbyes. As we drove out of Mboula, it all finally felt real. I was leaving a place that had begun to feel like home. I cried the whole way until I reached Linguere and Regional house.

We Survived the Djolof!!!

However my Peace Corps family knew just how to cheer me up as I arrived at the Regional House, a nice cold Gazelle (Senegalese version of Natty light-yuck)was waiting for me as I walked through the front gates.  Six of us started this journey together and now five of us were leaving Linguere and the Djolof family together. It was weird to say goodbye to everyone, we all had become so close but at least it was comforting to know that I would most likely see them again in the U.S. The hardest part was  saying goodbye to Helen Keller and Sparky our loyal watch dogs. But I know they will be in great care, as more and more volunteers cycle through. They will always have volunteers looking after them!  

Team Linguere for LIFE!!

My  last day in Dakar was also my last birthday in Senegal! I was fortunate enough to spend the day with incredible friends I had made throughout this journey before my flight at midnight! We took a little fishing boat out to get to Ngor Island just off of Dakar, where we spent the day exploring the Island, picnicking by the water, buying anything and everything from the local women selling things (I’m pretty sure I bought natural coconut oil, trying to spend all of my CFA before I left) and enjoying my very last Senegalese beer, Flag. We then watched the sunset on top of Sarah’s new apartment in which the girls had bought me a delicious birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday! I couldn’t have asked for a better last day! That night, teary eyed from saying goodbye, I boarded a plane and said good bye to my new lifelong friends and to Senegal. Leaving had finally hit me and I was now worried about the thought of being back home, a place I had not been back to since I left for the Peace Corps. 

After an exhausting whole day of traveling from airport to the next (Dakar- Lisbon-Newark), I had finally arrived at West Palm Beach airport excited to see my family waiting for my arrival. To my great surprise, as I turned the corner to see the waiting room, I was welcomed not only by my family but by a whole crowd of people screaming my name and holding signs. I of course didn't have my contacts in and it took me a good minute  to realize that those crazy people screaming were all of my amazing friends welcoming me home!! Honestly it was the greatest surprise of my life, and I am so grateful to have such wonderful friends and family! And I have to especially thank my little brother who planned the whole surprise. He is absolutely the best!

I had a Jack and Coke waiting for me to arrive, thanks bro

It’s crazy writing this blog, looking back on my experience and thinking it has really been a year since then. I miss Mboula and my family everyday! I often think about them and wonder what is going on. I keep in touch with them  as much as possible through skype although it just doesn’t quite feel the same.  I miss the children the most especially my little baby Aida who I watched grow up from a newborn to a talking two year old! I am forever grateful to the people of Mboula, for embracing me as one of their own and to the Ndoa family for taking me in and caring for me as if I was one of their own children. Mboula will always be a home to me just as Fatou Ndoa will always be a part of me. Since being home I have seen a few of my Peace Corps friends and have remained in close contact with them. I believe I have fully adjusted back to life here in the U.S however I still really hate how cold the air conditioning and always feel like I’m freezing inside my house.  When I think back to my Peace Corps experience, I think of how much I’d grown throughout those two years and all the experience and life lessons I gained. I am forever grateful to the Peace Corps, it was an amazing experience that I do not regret doing for a heartbeat! It was the hardest experience of my life for sure but when I think back to my time in Senegal, I think about all the fun, the laughs, the weird crazy moments and all the happy memories. All the tears, sweat and work were all worth it. Asked if I would ever consider doing Peace Corps again? I say this: “If I was wealthy and could afford being a volunteer again, then absolutely YES!!!”


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Education in Mboula

"There is nothing more important than learning to think- except learning to teach someone to think"
Nanci Bell

So I just wanted to take some time and tell you all about my little wonderful elementary school in Mboula, that I have been working so closely with this past year. As my service is rapidly coming to a close, I have been reflecting a lot on the work (or attempted work) I have done these past two years. For me, the most rewarding work I have done is with the students and teachers at L’Ecole Elementaire El Hadji Abdoulaye Mbengue. From educational nutritional talks to planting sunflowers, my collaboration with the teachers and students of Mboula has been memorable to say the least.

 I can still remember the first time I visited the school. It was around 11 am; the teachers were sitting around each other in a circle drinking tea, the children were running around the school, wrestling and dancing like they were high on sugar. As soon as the kids saw me, they rushed at me screaming “Toubab”. I had about 60-70 kids all around me, touching, staring and grabbing at me until one of the teachers came screaming and chased them off with a stick. I thought to myself “Oh god what have I got myself into.” A lot has changed since then. I now can understand what the teachers are saying to me and often join in on their tea breaks at 11am. The kids call me “Fatou” rather than “Toubab” and I have gained many little friends. I have been very fortunate to have very friendly, motivated and enthusiastic teachers who have always supported me and my work. I have also come to love the majority of students in Mboula (there still are some that drive me bonkers) and appreciate them for embracing me as I am, even if I am a strange “Toubab”.

L’Ecole Elementaire El Hadji Abdoulaye Mbengue is what they call a Franco/Arabic school. The students learn all their subjects in French and Arabic. A normal school day starts at 8am and the teachers will have a strict lesson plan lined up for the students with an objective they must obtain. Straying from the lesson plans is not tolerated. There is no room for outside of the box ways for presenting a lesson plan. Creativity is very limited.  At 11am, the students get a little 30-minute break to run home and grab some food to eat. A lot of women in the village will come and sell the children beignets, fatayas, roasted peanuts and cold bissap juice. After the break, the students will switch to either learning their lessons in French or Arabic. I think it is so impressive that these students learn different languages at such a young age. I really wish I had that when I was in elementary school.  School is normally over at 1:30, right in time for the kids to make it home for lunch. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the students have afternoon class from 4-6pm and normally are fed lunch at the school.

There is a total of 6 classrooms at the school in Mboula. It is just like elementary school in America- kindergarten to fifth grade. There is a classroom for each grade level. However, the classrooms look like they are crumbling apart; there are no fans (and during hot season the classrooms are unbearable), and the desks are wooden benches ( I have no clue how the children sit in those seats for hours). Here teachers do the best they can with what they  have and a lot of times that means overcrowded classrooms, not enough qualified teachers, teacher strikes because they haven’t been paid, worn out school books that are outdated, and not enough utensils for the students to use. And yet students and teachers both show up each day ready to learn and teach.

The students here are taught in a very formatted way. A teacher will write the lesson on the board and the students are expected to copy word for word what was written. Students will then go home and spend hours memorizing what they wrote down in their notebooks. It seems like such an outdated and backwards way of learning, but unfortunately teachers and students are not aware of the different ways in which people learn. Students here must conform to the ways the teacher teaches, which is just  memorizing lesson plan after lesson plan. Some students are great at memorizing, while others struggle to learn with that method, in which case they are kind of shit out of luck and left behind. It is hard to imagine how any child  learns in this kind of environment where teachers are not attuned to  their students’ needs. If there is a child who is struggling with assignments, there is no one to reach out and help. There is no alone-time with a teacher to help a student better understand a lesson plan. The students who are most in need of a little extra attention are often times the ones who are cast off to the side. 

Students are not taught to think for themselves but instead are taught right or wrong. This is the way something is and nothing else. It is a system of yes and no answers. There is no room for debate or to ask questions of why. I have rarely ever seen a child raise their hand and ask a teacher “but why”. In fact, most students in class don’t raise their hands at all to ask questions for fear of being ridiculed by classmates (being called stupid for not understanding). However they will always (and are very much expected) to  raise their hands when a teacher asks them a question, even if they do not know the answer; which unfortunately sometimes can result in that child getting his/her hand slapped with a strip of rubber multiple times.

Yes, corporal punishment is allowed here and boy do they use it. Each time I am at the school I see numerous children getting hit for various reasons: talking, not answering the question and even getting the answer incorrect.  There was this one occasion where Fae and I were painting the map of Africa in one of the classrooms during an Arabic class. For some reason that I do not know of, the teacher in the classroom (who is generally a really nice and great guy) took his strip of rubber and started to hit these two girls hands really, really hard multiple times to the point that both girls started to hysterically cry. He then made them stand in front of the classroom, in front of their peers until they stopped crying. It just seemed so unnecessary and cruel.

I do not believe in corporal punishment and it kills me sometimes to see the teachers hit their students, but unfortunately that is how teachers here gain discipline and respect. It very much is an environment that feeds off negativity, but then again that is really how Senegalese culture is. There are no encouraging words or positive reinforcement from teachers or parents. Students don’t have someone cheering them on in their corner saying “Well done” or “Good try”.  However, people here have no problem pointing out your flaws. Parents or teachers are quick to call out if a student is “stupid” or (as they like to phrase it) “has no usefulness.” It is phrases like these that students hear on a daily basis. A student who is not making the grades and passing on to the next grade level will not get any extra encouragement or help, but instead will most likely be pulled out of school by his/her parents and put to work in the fields or some other technical work. Why would parents spend money on a child who is apparently not smart enough to go to school? Obviously it was not God’s will for that child to learn. They have no one to believe in them but themselves. I think it is commendable that under such conditions, children even show up to school. Even though the teachers in the school are great and positive people, they don’t encourage their students the way that teachers in the U.S. do; and I think that that makes a big difference.

I remember when I was in school, all of my classrooms were decorated in brightly colored arts and crafts projects and pretty educational visual aids that lined the classroom walls. There was always an endless supply of pencils, pens, glue, erasers, crayons, markers, paper, scissors and staples. Teachers always had fun interactive lesson plans and all the resources needed for those plans.  I can remember having a world culture day at school in which my Mom cooked her Indian Curry for all the children to try just so they could get a taste of a different culture. In second grade, my teacher Mrs. Sivennen, had us read about seven different versions of the Cinderella story from all over the world, and then she recreated our classroom into Cinderella’s Ball. All of the girls brought their dads as dates and all the boys brought their mothers. I can still remember waltzing with my Dad in one of my flower girl dresses and feeling like a princess that day!

We had it all in school- the books, the supplies, the fancy classrooms, the qualified and inspiring teachers, not to mention all the afterschool programs . There were so many afterschool clubs and teams that you could participate in. I remember being on the basketball team, track team, Spanish club, chorus and video production. I even participated in one of the school plays. I was a singing flower in the background. Everything imaginable was at the tips of our fingers. Education was so available for us. With that being said, and with the time that I have spent working with this elementary school in Mboula, I can’t help but feel  like I took my education for granted. I think of all the wonderful opportunities I had right at my fingertips and I don’t think I ever truly appreciated them until now. I still remember all the countless mornings my parents had to force me to get up and go to school. All the wasted temper-tantrums and fake sick attempts I tried, just to get out of going to school all seems so ridiculous and pointless now. Having seen how few opportunities there are for children in Senegal, it seems silly for children in America to go to such lengths just to get out of all the amazing opportunities that are provided for them at school.

At the elementary school in Mboula, there are no classroom decorations or pretty educational visual aids hung around the classroom walls. The classrooms don’t have an endless supply of pencils, pens, markers, glue, crayons or glue. There are no art classes for kids to participate in or school plays, or after school clubs or sports teams for them. Besides, the only sports team they can really participate in anyways is soccer; it would be pretty hard for them to play basketball in the sand. I think the most interactive and fun the students have had is when Fae and I organized a school relay day in which we set up relay races for the kids to participate in. And yet everyone is content. Teachers and students are grateful and appreciative of what little they do have. My teachers have never asked anything of me. They have had plenty of opportunities to ask for things like “Fatou, give us some supplies,” or “Fatou, build us new classrooms.”  But I think that is one of the main reasons I have really been motivated and enjoyed working with them -because they don’t expect anything.

Some of the work I have done with the school in Photos

School Correspondance             The kids wrote letters in french to my old highschool, South Fork back in Florida, talking about their lives in Senegal. They also received letters from students back home (Thanks a geat deal to Mrs.Ralicki for helping to make it happen)

Sun Flower planting at the school.

Educational Maps in each of the 6 classrooms

Educational discussions: Handwashing/ Diarrhea and Nutrition

My Wonderful School: L'Ecole Elemenataire El Hadji Abdoulaye Mbengue

and it's amazing teachers...