Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, March 28

Teaching English

Second grade is the time when one learns the concept of short and long vowels. I never learned this. I don’t remember circumstances- if I wasn’t there or if I never understood the lesson- but I do remember the embarrassment of not knowing this simple concept. Honestly, I still don’t quite get it. The point is that for the rest of my public school education I told myself I wanted to be a teacher. I wasn’t going to let another kid feel left out like I had.

Then one day I realized I didn’t like kids, and threw the whole teaching idea out the window.

And I later moved to Senegal. Here, my predecessor introduced me to one of his work partners, the headmaster at the local Catholic school. Pierre is a very motivated guy. He believes in shaking up the system, doing everything for the kids, and making the important things happen no matter the cost. He’s not only the headmaster but also a full time teacher.

So, when he asked if I could spend an hour a week with his class giving them an intro to English class, I accepted. He explained that the kids wouldn’t start learning English for another few years when they got to high school, but that he thinks it’s an important language and that the kids would be more excited to learn it from an “expert.”

I was scared. I’m no expert. And having given up the teaching idea long ago, my head is filled with business concepts and models- not grammar and vocabulary. The first day, I drew from my recent Peace Corps experience of learning new languages and started to nervously rattle out greetings and responses. Pierre stayed in the class with me that day helping to keep the kids under control and reminding me to help them with pronunciation.

After the first day I had a migraine. I tried to get a beer with Devin, my predecessor, but threw it up. I went to bed at 6p. The second time, I had a simple headache but it didn’t derange my night. The third time I started to worry more about the content of my lessons.

The thing is, the kids were really starting to show an interest. One week I showed up to school to find every class room completely empty except the one with my kids. The kids were sitting quietly at their desks, notebooks and pens out, and patiently waiting for me. When I asked what was going on I was told that they’d spent the whole week studying for a national exam equivalent to the stress level of the MEAP in Michigan or perhaps like the SATs for grade school kids. But when Pierre asked them if they wanted their usual Friday afternoon English class at the end of their long week, they insisted, even though every other kid in the country got the rest of the day off. I was blown away.

It was officially time for me to take an active role in teaching these kids. So I went to the Peace Corps resource library in Dakar and found some books on teaching English. I checked one out related to teaching with on a zero budget. I started a notebook with activities and lesson topics tailored to my beginner’s level class. I’m trying to organize a pen pal program with a school back in the states, which the kids are really excited about.

Not wanting, or having the authority, to give an exam I recently organized our first review session into a game of Pictionary. The winning team walked away with brand new pens (thanks to a care package from home). The kids loved it!

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to accomplish in the rest of this school year, or even next year, but I’m excited. I’m excited to find new and interesting ways to present my language (and yes, some culture too). I’m excited to motivate people in my town. I’m excited to have a side project to all my business plans. And I’m even a little excited that I don’t totally hate the kids. Ok, maybe just thankful, but still… it’s cool, right?

Sunday, March 21

WAIST

WAIST (or West African Invitational Softball Tournament) is an excellently masked excuse to gather mass amounts of Americans in the biggest city in West Africa for a long weekend of pure debauchery (none of which can be fully described without naming names).

Peace Corps has by far the largest turnout with volunteers coming from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mauritania, Benin, Gambia, and of course Senegal. But also in attendance are embassy, NGO, and UN workers who work very hard to have American products shipped in for consumption: hot dogs, cheeseburgers, candy bars and other packaged lunch snacks. Booze is available at all hours.

Teams are formed between coworkers and countries, and team uniforms are generated. This year my team of Dakar regional PC volunteers dressed as wrestlers... and accompanying us were teams of cave men, country club members, lumberjack, mimes, bums from unnamed countries, and more. A social league runs a parallel tournament to the more competitive bunch but in the end the trophies are the same size, though neither rest with my team.

Between games, we caught rays of sun and drinks by the pool. Any partying not accomplished by day (pesky game schedule!) is more than made up for at night. A well organized schedule of events scattered across the weekend and Dakar included: open mic night downtown, date auction at the home of the US marines, mingling at the local hotspot, all night dancing at the club on the beach, and culminating in an awards banquet resembling homecoming in both attire and venue (high school gym, I kid you not!).

It’s no wonder why volunteers dream, long for, and anticipate this event throughout the year; reminiscent of Christmas to a 3 year old. A documentary has even been made in homage this time-honored fest. And I too count the days until next February…

Sunday, March 14

Ode to Christine

I've actually spent the last month away from Mboro. I have enough obsessive compulsive disorder in me to have created blogs in advance of my departure and schedule them to post at a specific time each week, so as not to interrupt the entertaining stream of blog fun.

But in actuality I was gallivanting Senegal for a month partaking of a variety of activities such as: cool graoul (monthly ex-pat party), super bowl party (and somehow I didn't actually watch it!), learning how to create a perma-garden, All Volunteer Conference- for all Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa, WAIST (West African International Softball Tournament), and almost 3 weeks of IST (or in-service training). While I didn't always have internet, I did have a plethora of free time to spend getting to know and enjoying my fellow volunteers. I made some new friends (I hope) and began to really appreciate my current ones.

The culmination of this extravaganza was the long car ride home tonight with my neighbor and best friend in country, Christine. Between conversation topics, it dawned on me that we're making amazing memories daily... and we're doing it together. Some days Christine gets on my nerves and me on hers or the Senegalese get on both our nerves, but thus far we've weathered it together and are closer because of that. At some point we'll leave Senegal, but we'll be friends for a very long time. One could even have a Mefloquine dream about what she’d say to my wedding videographer’s candid camera.

So here’s to freak-out text messages, hysterical phone calls, PC crushes, club 84, tequila on the grave or that actually is Patron, gravy mishaps, “AM,” steps that trip you out of no-where, Christmas in paradise, wrestler shopping trips, bunk sharing, and all of my future favorite memories. Here’s to my partner in the sand box, Christine.

Sunday, March 7

What Hobbies?

Before I left, there were a number of different interviews to join the PC. One face to face, and quite a few more via telephone. If memory serves, in every one of them I was asked how I was going to cope with the stresses of this new job. I can't remember my answers specifically, but I'm sure it was nothing those guys in DC hadn't heard before: something about finding new hobbies or keeping up with my old ones.

Well, my old stress releasing hobbies included watching movies, tennis, working out, reading, and cooking. After I've been here nearly 6 months, I can effectively determine which of these will work, and which wont. There is a tennis court in the westernized neighborhood, but as I didn't bring my racket and I haven't met anyone else who plays... we're out of luck there. And speaking of workout in general, there's no gym per se here so I'm left to my own devices (not the best scenario). The PC bike I was issued isn't useful in the land of sand. And as it is so hot, I'm considering a modified version of bichrem yoga (heat provided by Mama Africa).

There is a mild shortage of reading material. There are books, but this requires 1) reading in french or 2) going to the PC library- out of Mboro- and trading out on a regular basis. Who has the time for that? I could get an online subscription, but that costs money. For now, I'll keep reading, but at a reduced pace, utilizing the library and Google news. Movies are a little more readily available. There is an underground trading of movies throughout PC, and now that I have a very large external hard drive (thanks Dad) I am building a database of my favorite movies and TV shows to keep myself entertained.

And lastly, cooking. I'm fairly certain that my family not only doesn't believe that I've lived alone before, but they also are sure I can't cook. I've made things for them. I've explained that I lived alone. I even talk about recipes and preparation methods with my mom. They still don't trust me. I can cook when I go to PC regional houses out of Mboro, but again that's a vacation time scenario. Occasionally, I can force my hand at home (when fish is being served for everyone else) if I jump in before my mom and start making something, but that doesn't happen often as I do try to work a lot.

OK, at this point I have movies, some reading, potential yoga (although I'd need to find a mat), and sporadic cooking experiences. It's time to find other hobbies. Preferably something involving motion as movies already covers the sitting on my butt style. A few weeks back I was feeling particularly bored and guilty for sitting in my room for hours at a time during the afternoon, so I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of my brother. Then I wandered around outside and took a few more shots. The next day I started walking around town taking photos. I did this a few more times, even going to the market with my mom one day. I rather enjoyed myself- though I took a lot of boring stupid shots- because I did accidentally find some really cool things to shoot, played with the old beat up camera figuring out some different techniques, and got myself out of the house. Aside from the nice long walks, and people I got to meet because of this activity, I found out that my town is creating a website and there is the potential that some of my pictures could be utilized there. Score.

Other possibilities I'm considering are joining the church choir (because they have a keyboard I could potential borrow), but I have a feeling that requires a certain amount of religious commitment I'm not thrilled about. Or there's taking up running in the wee hours of the daylight. I hate running. Perhaps I can skip trying cooking myself meals, and start baking desserts or breakfast items. I suppose that one could also consider blog writing to be a new hobby, though I frequently find myself mildly stressed at the self-imposed "one entry per week" mandate and the constant reminder the back of my mind to be on the look out for discussion topics. But what's a girl to do? Gotta keep the folks apprised of the situation.