To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story.
--Barbara Kingsolover, The Poisonwood Bible

Friday, April 11, 2014

Time to Say to Goodbye

The thing about Peace Corps is that it lasts for two years. You know that going into it. It seems like a really long time. And you fantasize about it ending--with the end comes eating delicious and healthy things whenever you want, escaping the 110 degree heat, not getting constantly called out and asked to give people things or deal with horrendous public transport situations.

But then it actually ends. And it's awful. Pat described yesterday as one of the hardest days of his life. We had been trying to make it known for a while that we would be leaving Saraya on April 10th. But still, some people were surprised as we made the rounds to the compounds where we had really gotten to know people. The goodbyes to the littlest kids and the oldest adults were hardest. Will these kids that we've loved so much remember us? Will these wisened old ones who have taught us so much be around if we make it back some day?

We said goodbye to a lot of people yesterday. According to Malinke tradition, we asked them for for forgiveness for anything we may have done and forgave them in return. We blessed each other (well, they know a lot more blessings then we do, so it was a little one sided; the most fervent blessing was that we would receive a child as soon as possible). And we shook hands with our left hand--the taboo hand, the poop hand. I heard this ritual described as doing something wrong so that you have to see each other again and do it right.

Over the last few days, we had a goodbye dinner at the hospital and a goodbye lunch at the bar that Pat's counterpart opened several months ago. We prepared a goodbye radio show where we greeted everyone we had ever worked with or known, all with carefully chosen farewell-themed songs in the background. (Since that show, the Blind Boys of Alabama have been singing "This may be the last time" over and over in my head.) We did it all the best we could, but it still didn't prepare us to leave. We were leaving people with no assurance of ever seeing them again, we were leaving the puppies that were born under our bed 3 weeks ago,we were leaving a place that has become home, and we were leaving a way of life. It was different than any goodbye I've ever experienced. Goodbyes accompany change, but this will be the biggest life change. Bigger than coming here. Coming here, it was temporary, and we knew we would be coming back to the life we knew in the states. But leaving this life, with its difficulties and joys...this, we will never get back.
Pat and I with our namesakes and host parents in front of the family compound (which a grandchild recently labelled with our names)
For two years, I went by the name Sadio Tigana, a name that carried a lot of weight in the community of Saraya. It tied me to an amazing woman and to all of the relationships she had formed. For two years, I carried my daily water on my head from a tap several compounds away to my hut. For two years, I was a radio celebrity and could go to any village and be known once someone heard my voice. For two years I spoke a language I had never heard of prior to arriving in Senegal. For two years, I participated in every activity possibly with our host family and neighbors--baptisms, weddings, funerals, hut-raisings, hut-demolishings after a fire. For two years, my love of the people of Saraya grew until it burst yesterday during our goodbyes. "Don't cry," we were told. "Crying means it will be a longer time. Just bless." Some of those telling us this were hiding tears themselves, even though Malinkes rarely cry.

Allah mu nioxojela sonoyala. May God ease our seeing of each other again.

We are leaving the region of Kedougou at a tumultuous time, with an Ebola outbreak just across the border and gold-related bandit attacks on the rise. But it is also an exciting time. Next week, the new hospital that sat shining and unopened during our entire service will open its doors with an inauguration conducted by the president. It is never a good time to leave, but it is our time to leave. We are looking forward to exciting things coming up. After a summer of playing in Montana and travelling, we will head east, and Patrick will start a Masters in Public Affairs at Princeton in August (as for myself, my plan is to be determined, and I'm trying to be ok with that).

I'm looking forward to having more control over my nutrition but will miss knowing exactly where my meat comes from. I'm looking forward to running water but will miss knowing to the cupful how much water I use. I will not miss the heat or the dust. I will miss being greeted aggressively by toddlers racing to throw their arms around my legs. Let's be honest: I'll miss feeling like I'm really important. I'm afraid that, once we settle in, life in America will be so easy that it will be boring. I will miss my family and friends (both Senegalese and other volunteers) so dearly, and I pray that I'll call as much as I have promised to.

There are so many feelings right now, and it's exhausting. Now just one more week to slog through the final paperwork and health appointments, and we'll earn our "R" and become Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Our replacements will come in May and take our friends, our family, our work. (We met them last week, two female volunteers, one health (a Masters International student from Tulane!) and one community economic development. Fortunately, we really liked them, which makes all of this a lot easier to know we're leaving Saraya in good hands.)

We don't know if or when we'll be back. All we know is that we were here. It was hard, it was wonderful. I have no regrets.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

More Poems I Want to Write

White Heron Rises Over Blackwater by Mary Oliver

I wonder what it is that I will accomplish today
If anything can be called that marvelous word.
It won’t be
My kind of work, which is only putting words on a page,
The pencil
Haltingly calling up
The light of the world,
Yet nothing appearing on paper half as bright
As the mockingbird’s verbal hilarity
In the still unleafed shrub in the churchyard-
Or the white heron rising over the swamp and the darkness,
His yellow eyes and broad wings wearing
The light of the world in the light of the world-
Ah yes, I see him.
He is exactly the poem I wanted to write.

In June 2012, I wrote a blog post inspired by this poem and by the images striking me at the beginning of my service. Now, a week before I leave my site, there are different images filling my mind, spilling out of me in the form of tears, bursts of laughter, and, now, words: the poems I want to write.

The wobbling legs of the crew of toddlers in my host family’s compound who race to greet me and be the first to throw their arms around my legs.

The two lines on the pregnancy test and the wide eyes of the young teenager who came to me in search of medicine for when you haven’t gotten your period.

The streaks in my vision for hours after standing in the rain to watch the lightning.

The circle of ash and rubble where my neighbor’s hut had stood just the day before.

The solemn face of the chief of Khossanto as he pronounced that he would make it illegal to burn mercury without the retorts we had extended there.

The bottle of water with floating sticks that I was instructed to drink to cure my stomach ailments.

The red rock of the Spires jutting out of the mountaintop as we approached and looked for a place to camp.

The flow of women with empty basins towards the water tower on days when the water cuts out extra early, their looks of desperation increasing with every dry faucet they pass.

Flakes of gold in an outstretched palm.

The seven-foot cobra literally snaking up the dry waterfall.

The sealed labia of a woman undergoing cervical cancer screening and her contorted face as the speculum entered her radically mutilated genitals.

Seny’s grin as I make a tricky shot on the basketball court.

The parade of men walking home from the mines at dusk in Kharakhena, the red dirt covering them a stark contrast to the gold they had been seeking.

The gang of girls singing in the neighboring compound, straightening up and switching to the national anthem once they realized we were filming.

My real mom and my host mom pulling away tearfully from an embrace that spoke the words they could not speak to each other.

These are exactly the poems I want to write.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Rose and a Thorny Situation

She called to me with a shy smile from outside the maternity where I was sitting with women waiting to be screened for cervical cancer last October. I put down my papers and joined her outside, where Patrick and some of the doctors from peacecare were loading up a hospital car to go do a screening in a neighboring village. She pointed at Pat and Dr. Dykens, “Who are those men?” she asked with a lilting Nigerian accent.

“That’s my husband,” I said, quite defensively, thinking she was looking for a potential client.
She shook her head and pulled me out of view of the other girls who were waiting for their required monthly checkups. “My name is Rose. I’m looking for someone who can help me. I thought maybe those white men…I am tired. I don’t want to do this work, I don’t want to be in this country.” She pulled out her identity card from her wallet. It was from Mali. She pointed to the occupation: hairdresser. “I did not come here to do this work. Hairdresser is what they told me. I’m looking for someone to help me find other work.”

I looked her in the eyes and asked a novice question: “Were you trafficked here?”

She shushed me and pulled me even farther away. “Don’t use that word. I just need help. I’ll do anything, cooking, cleaning, plaiting hair. I just don’t want to be here.”

I felt hit by a ton of bricks. This was by no means my first interaction with a sex worker (known around here as les nigeriennes,or keme naani (the malinnke for 2000—the price ($4), or, at the hospital, or PS for professionelles du sexe). I had seen them often in the big gold mining sites and in Saraya—they stand out as the only women who wear pants and makeup. During my first afternoon interpreting for a midwife on sex worker consultation day, I had to tell one girl she was pregnant and miscarrying and another that she had HIV. When Saraya’s first bar had opened, just one week prior, the owner for some reason thought that the best way to get the party started would be to truck in sex workers from Kharakhena. What resulted was one of the most bizarre scenes of my Peace Corps service: 20 prostitutes dancing provocatively while hundreds of children from Saraya looked in from the street in utter shock and amazement.

This time, however, was the first that I had been directly approached for help. I had suspected that many of them were trafficked, but here was someone who really had been and was reaching out to me. I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of that. I gave her my number and said I would look into ways to help her. At my hut that evening, I scoured the internet for information on how to help a woman trafficked into the sex trade. I went to the websites of all the major organizations: International Justice Mission, Half the Sky. My heart beating, I clicked on the “resources” tab, only to find links to things like “Start an advocacy organization at your church”. There were absolutely no resources for people in a situation where a real person needed help. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so hopeless.

Over the next few days, I called and emailed everyone I could think of that could give me some guidance and got almost nothing concrete—email contacts that bounced back, links to organizations that worked in Nigeria but had nothing to do with Senegal. Finally, Pat came back from another cervical cancer screening in Khossanto, one of the biggest gold mining zones, where he had explained the situation to the head nurse and had been given a lead: an organization called La Lumière that had received a contract from the UN to work with trafficked girls in southeastern Senegal. It took me quite a while to track down a legitimate phone number for the organization, and in the mean time, I came back to my hut one night to find Rose waiting under my shade structure. I hadn’t been able to be in touch with her at all, and I had begun to worry that all of my searching for help for her wouldn’t every work out if I didn’t see her again.

To be honest, it freaked me out to have her seen at my house. She had clearly had to ask around to find it, and it was a bit scary to know that people might suspect I was helping her. Those who traffic women aren’t the nicest people, and I didn’t want my home involved. Pat had travelled to Thies, and I started having dreams that pimps had come to my house. I told her about the research I had done and about La Lumiere and started to learn a little more about her. She had only been in Senegal for about 2 months after having first been brought to Mali. She was afraid to go back to Nigeria without being able to bring money home to her family and wanted to find a non-prostitution job anywhere else.

I eventually got ahold of La Lumière’s office in Tambacounda, and they referred me to a guy named Francis who could help her out. They explained that they had a center in Kedougou where they could bring the girls and help them get their paperwork sorted out to bring them back to Nigeria. Once they were back, the program would fund them to get job training. It seemed like a really sweet deal. I called Francis to verify, and he started yelling in English, “Where are you? I can come and get you!” I had to explain to him that I was not in danger and that I wasn’t even with Rose. There is no cell phone service in Kharakhena where she was living, so it was just a waiting game for her to come to Saraya so we could talk.

In the mean time, I went to a friend’s village to help with a youth empowerment event and forgot my phone in Kedougou. Another volunteer who knew the story explained the opportunity to her when she eventually called, and through a ridiculous sequence of communications, it was decided that Rose would come into Kedougou the following day. I got back to Kedougou and confirmed the plan with Francis, who I had met along with Peace Corps’ safety and security advisor. During that meeting, he had said that center was not available but that he would find lodging.

When Rose called me to tell me she was on the way, I felt so triumphant. We were actually helping her! I called Francis to let him know, and he informed me that a) he was in Tambacounda (four hours away) and couldn’t help her that day, and b) that I would have to figure out lodging for her for the several weeks she would stay in Kedougou. My euphoria dissolved instantly. Things had just gotten shady.

Together with Pat and some other volunteers, we decided that we could finance her lodging for the night while we figured out what the heck was going on. We then called Francis back to demand that he meet with us as soon as he arrived in Kedougou that evening. Pat and I met Rose at the garage and took a taxi with her to a campement that we thought would be a quiet and out of the way place. That preconception was based on the week last year when Peace Corps rented out the entire campement for our youth camp. It turned out that on all the other weeks of the year, it sports a happening bar with numerous Nigerian prostitutes. So much for getting away from that environment.

We awkwardly got a room with her and sat inside (Pat propped the door open with a chair to indicate that there was no funny business going on). We sat and sat and sat, waiting for Francis. It got more and more uncomfortable and stressful. First, we realized that she had not understood that the plan was for her to work with the embassy and go back to Nigeria.  She was absolutely convinced that if she went back, then the government would publicly shame her and show her picture in the newspapers and on TV. She couldn’t bear for her family to know that she had been a prostitute. We tried to assure her that this would not happen, that she didn’t even have to go back to her family until she had gone through job training and made some money. But she was freaking out. She told a story of a time when she was still in Mali, where people from the Nigerian embassy had come looking for girls who had been trafficked, and they all ran out into the bush to hide, but a young girl got caught. It was this girl who had told them about the media exposure. I still couldn’t believe that could be true and tried to reassure, but really, what do I know about how the Nigerian government treats returned trafficked women. I would think that the UN’s involvement would provide some protection though…right? We also learned that she had actually paid off her madame and was free to leave, which was a huge relief regarding our own safety. She still had been quite secretive when she left Kharakhena though.

Finally Francis came. It turned out that he wasn’t even an actual employee of La Lumière but rather just the president of the local Nigerian Association. We were all quite suspicious of his constantly changing story, but Rose agreed to stay (and had a friend she could stay with so that Pat and I wouldn’t have to foot the bill) to hear him out. We had to go back to site, and we left Kedougou praying that it would all work out.

Several days later, Rose called and said she was still in Kedougou and that Francis was a great deceiver. The next time I came into the regional capital, I found myself in a bedroom with four sex workers as they got ready for the night. Rose handed me her phone, which she had set up to play a French version of Alvin and the Chipmunks to entertain me. As she got ready, she told me that she had heard that there was an opportunity for girls to go to Kuwait to get jobs cleaning houses and that’s what she was going to try to do. I begged her to be careful. It sounded like a similar opportunity as the one that had brought her here.

In the end, she just went back to Kharakhena. All that drama, and she is where she started. I, however, ended up more confused, less naïve, and, for a while, pretty convinced that the world was a horrible place.

Around the time I was feeling that way, I came across this prayer from Ted Loder’s collection Guerrillas of Grace:
Sometimes, God, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and cowardly silence, fiery rage and the bitter taste of ashes in my mouth.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion. Too much of darkness, God, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference … Too much, God, too much, too bloody, bruising, brain-washing much. 

Or is it too little, too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence, of sacrifice; too little of music and laughter and celebration.

 A while ago, I wrote and received a grant to enhance Saraya’s existing condom distribution network to better target sex workers. The project was put on hold because of my crazy schedule and the maternity leave of the midwife who I was going to be working with. We finally started it up in January, and the last few months have been crammed with training bartenders (the primary lodgers of the sex workers to distribute condoms) and doing health and lifeskills talks with sex workers in the big gold mining sites and in Saraya as they wait for their monthly checkups.  Overall it has been a really positive experience. Fatou, the head midwife, said that after we did a talk on STIs, the girls have been more willing to let the midwives actually examine them, which felt like a huge victory. It’s encouraging to know, after my failed attempt to make a difference in Rose’s life, that it’s not impossible to positively impact these girls. It’s a crazy world we live in, with a lot of messed up things. But there is always room for the little positive things that make things just a little messed up. I hope.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Les Linns en Voyage, guest post by Patrick

From December 18th-30th, my whole family visited us in Senegal. We traveled, ate local food, relaxed, threw Frisbees, drank Gazelle (a local beer contained in .63 liter bottles that tastes like a mix of Corona and Coors light), visited Saraya, & basically cruised from one end of Senegal to the other.
Some highlights:
Picking everyone up at the airport—like all flights into old Leopold Senghor Airport, they disembarked almost 2 hours later than the posted time, but we were ready with reading materials. When we finally saw Mom, Dad, Matt and Emily walking out into overcast but still harshly bright Dakar, I just started laughing. It was so fun to see the most familiar people in the world to me in such a crazy place. At least one dude was eagerly trying to co-carry someone’s bag, and none of them had ever seen a Wolof taxi stand in action, with tall chauffeurs shouting in an harsher than German but rounder than Portuguese language. Hugging everybody and helping them carry their bags to the relative calm of the broad street, I still just couldn’t believe they were finally here. Anne and I had been planning their visit since about November 2012 and it was a struggle to not talk constantly about what was going on around us. I’ve heard some truism about tourists who’ve spent a week in a new place will explain its customs as if they were born there; longer term visitors speak with less assurance, and long-term imigres are at once most and least certain about what drives social currents and what they mean. Having just reached that medium term-visitor mark (living in Senegal for almost 2 years), I was self-conscious about coming across as a complete know-it-all and tried to let my family deal individually with their own first impressions of a place so different from the US, a place where shoes are usually removed before entering a room, even if it’s a mud hut with a dirt floor; where trash (grocery bags, drink wrappers, discarded car tires) are raked into a pile and burned, right next to houses, schools, restaurants; and where walking down the street in your town of residence you are treated like a movie star, people don’t ask for autographs but they sure know who you are and they’re ready to throw the red carpet down for you no matter the circumstances—they don’t just do this for Peace Corps volunteers, visitors from one village in another village receive the star treatment too. In any case, everyone saw what they saw and thought what they thought but they’ll always know what we mean when we refer back to this or that from our time as Peace Corps volunteers.
First Senegalese meal: everybody was so tired after almost no sleep and too much travel but we went to our favorite Senegalese food joint, a rice shack near the beach that has such flavorful ceebou dieun (oily, spicy rice with fish, carrot, turnip, potato, tamarind and leaf mash). People had conked out in the hotel room after settling in, so when we finally arrived at this rice shack the couscous was gone, so we were stuck with the famous rice and either chicken, or maffe (peanut butter sauce), or ceeb dieun. Luckily, our tired trek to this joint wasn’t long, the place is just across the street from our hotel. Mom was intent that everyone use hand sanitizer and lo and behold none of us got diarrhea that day. It’s the small things that make life sweet.

Visit to slaves’ last view of Africa: 

we gathered our strength--mom and dad were looking so bleary eyed, but they put on a brave face, and we booked it to the ferry terminal across town to visit Goree Island. It was a race. We found our seats on the ferry just minutes before it unmoored. 
The island is a terrible, sad place. The send-off point for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people whose lives were violently destroyed in the Americas. Hollywood movies that deal with slavery usually include the term mandingo in film dialogue. Mandingo is the Anglicization of the name for Mande language speaking people who were sought by slavers for their strength and endurance. Anne and I live in a Mande community in Kedouguo and it hurts to imagine the flip side of the pre-civil war African American experience, that is the experience of my host family’s ancestors who were terrorized by slavers for centuries. Some say the reason West Africa is the most underdeveloped region on earth is that of the millions of slaves taken to the Americas, most came from West Africa and most were also strong, healthy people—many were leaders of their people. So, visiting slave holding rooms and seeing the last bits of ground in Africa that slaves would ever see is a haunting, important experience and I was proud that my family was so insistent to visit Goree. Our excellent tour guide walked us all around, Dad almost fell asleep in the island cathedral but we eventually got to a café with coffee and our hides were saved. After everybody got a strong injection of caffeine we moved on, bought some cool sandpainted art and headed back to the mainland to eat dinner at one of the great spots in West Africa, the French Cultural Center, with delicious hamburgers and a stunning ambiance with a giant fromagier (Kapok, cousin to baobab) tree growing in the center of the restaurant.
Dakar garage: our first full day together in Senegal, we skipped town and headed to Mbour, city of sand. Getting there required a visit to the old, giant Dakar Pompiers garage—a city block-lot with no signage but full, completely full of chauffeurs, sept-places (old Peugeot 504s), car rapides (bread trucks with bench seats welded in that seat 30-odd passengers), and people who grab your baggage from the taxi and haul it to their buddies sept-place then ask to be paid—all before you even know where you’re going. It was a little stressful getting everybody together in the garage because our taxis got separated in the traffic jam en route from the hotel and our two groups unloaded from our taxis in the middle of the sea of sept-places and had to swim through the crowd and hope we’d meet up in the right place.  As luck would have it, we made our ways to the same car without misplacing any baggage and soon sped off toward Mbour and our nice hotel on the beach. 
Warang: after a couple days in Mbour, we found ourselves in a village to the south called Warang, home to a famous Belgian local fruits liquor distillery. We spent the evening at a tiny open-air bar right in the middle of a Baobab grove with a stream running through, sampling spirits distilled from the tastiest fruit on earth. Thinking of all of us together making merry in the charming setting still makes me smile. Peace Corps volunteers have been good customers there so the Belgians give us and our families a nice discount—we left with a full box of bottles. Mom, Emily, Anne and Matt took a waiting car and Dad and I hitch hiked back to town.
The beach: playing Frisbee with Dad, Matt and Emily is always the most exercise I get on vacation. Unfortunately the water was a little too cold to jump in but the sun wasn’t too hot, mid-90s tops, so we didn’t even need to jump in to cool off; a little shade and a boisson did the trick. Of course a beach vendor dude decided he was in love with Emily and was really annoying trying to crash our party but he ended up arranging a nice mini-van to take us to Kedougou so it was mostly worth it dealing with him.
Kedougou!: we got to Kedougou in time to sit by the pool and relax the afternoon away. The Bedik hotel/campement is far and away the nicest place to stay in the region and we enjoyed the luxury—air conditioning, showers, actual mattresses (vs. foam pads) and a restaurant with tasty salads. We went tout de suite to the Peace Corps regional house and ate a tasty dinner with the other volunteers. The next couple days were all about Saraya. Our hut was dusty and so was the town but everyone had admirable attitudes. I would have loved to read their minds as they saw our hut and family compound and the places where we work and hang out. It looks completely normal to us but it was completely new to them. Sad news greeted us on the way to Kedougou; a good friend in Saraya passed away, so our first day in town was spent at the funeral. The next two days we made the most of our time, trekking out another Malinke village called Sanela for data collection for the malaria project we were finishing up, eating Saraya food, drinking mostly cold Gazelles at my counterpart’s new bar/conference room, and just being together.
 It was so fun for me to have my entire immediate family together in a new place. It makes me really look forward to the vacations we’ll have in coming years. Our last day in town Anne and I through a tulungo (charity feast) to celebrate the family visiting and musicians came from three separate villages to mark the occasion which included dancing, sitting under a neem tree and haggling with the Saraya concert master about how much to pay the diverse stakeholders in a local music happening (it’s surprisingly complex). Anyhow, the music was great and even Dad and Matt danced. I wish we could have stretched that day out longer—for so many months I’d been picturing my family in just that situation, looking forward to making Matt dance and getting a kick out of seeing Emily on the dance floor and just having a ball with Mom and Dad—but just like that, the music ended and we had to get on the highway back to Kedougou because it was Christmas Eve and we didn’t want to miss the evening Mass.

Christmas Eve: our dinner went a little late and by the team we got to the Catholic church for Mass the sanctuary was full. So we stood outside and tried to comprehend the echoing French service and tried to sing along a little with tunes we recognized, and all did our best not to fall asleep on our feet. That evening we had an important discussion about the inter-religious harmony that contributes to Senegal’s special status as a beacon of peace in West Africa, and the next day was Christmas!

Christmas was wonderful. We woke late, and had a slow morning that proved that even in hot, dusty West Africa Christmas still feels like Christmas. We took it easy and made it to the regional house in time for a tasty, fun Christmas brunch with delicious quiche, white elephant gift exchange and Frisbee. Another day I wish we could have put on pause but days in south Senegal are really short.


Dindefelo: the day after Christmas we got going late because Anne was really sick but we eventually took an adventure trip to the waterfalls on the Fouta Djallon plateau. 

The details were exciting. In any case, we made it to Dindefelo in time to relax in a scenic eco-campement under the overgrown cliffs that look like Jurassic Park. We could hear baboons and chimps hoot and hollering in the woods. The next day we hiked, relaxed and recovered from hiking. So sadly, these days passed too quickly too and before you know it we were heading back to ‘gou to gear up to head north again. The route back to ‘gou was exciting and time consuming for different reasons. Our turn around was fast as can be and soon we were trucking through the national park with wild lions and native elephants! And that night we stayed in gorgeous Oassadou eco-campement on the Gambia river. Another night and day I wish could have been paused. This is a place with hippos in the water below the restaurant and a forest full of baboons all around.

Tolkien-town: we persevered through another day of hard traveling and made it to the petite cote village of Toubab Dialaw in time for a sunset and tour of the whimsical and strange group of connected hotels that seems designed to be a fantasy movie setting. We dined, Matt instructed me in new rubic’s cube moves, Dad talked about how he wanted to do a longer self-guided trip through the Niokolo park to look for lions and such, 
Mom was annoyed that our rooms didn’t really have running water but she was tickled to be together and got us thinking about how soon we would all be together again, but in Montana. (This trip left me with a touch of senioritis. I was honestly pretty jealous to see how everybody could just up and leave and head back to the comforts of life in the States.) And, Emily kept up her encouraging conversational style and got us to talk about how we were really feeling about the prospect of finishing in just a couple months. Goodbyes: heading from Tolkien-ville to Dakar was a huge letdown. Dakar is just an intense, busy, kinda stressful place, and our attitudes were a little sabotaged by a terrible 7-place driver and a non-existent Air France check-in staff. We had a delightful afternoon in Dakar planned but because we couldn’t check bags in early at the airport our plans for seeing the giant Dakar market were dashed! That is a pretty typical Dakar outcome but it was harder because this was goodbye and we were primed to take it personally because the fam’s eminent departure was just really hard to accept. Most days of Peace Corps are much like the day before, so the difference is magnified between a day with your whole family together and the next almost 5 months apart. We made the most of things, I ironed out my feeling of being victimized by the Air France staff, and we ended up having a super pleasant early evening at a bakery and then at a restaurant on the westernmost point in Africa. Then we gathered everyone and everything up, said tearful goodbyes and hugged everyone a bunch of times and sent them off to an extremely different leg of their vacation, a trip to Paris, France and get togethers with one of my best friends and a groomsman, Aurelien. Anne and I spent our New Year’s Eve in Dakar, the family spent theirs under the Eiffel Tower, and from then on the time has flown and now we’ve 30 days left at site and then we’re packing up and heading home ourselves. My family’s visit was such an important milestone in our service giving us something to look forward to and on which to look back fondly. It let us share important realities of the low-income world with people who were so interested to better understand the inequalities present in the world, gave us a chance to introduce our family to the host family that has been so generous and kind to us over the last two years, and just made us feel so valued. Thanks guys and see you so soon!

P.S. This is Annē now. 

After the event I’m about to describe happened, Ed kept saying that he couldn’t wait to see how I would describe it in the blog. So here it goes:
As we were walking through the hyperstimulating fish market in Mbour, with one of a kind sights, sounds, and definitely smells, we were stopped by a group of fisherman who wanted Matt, Ed and Pat to help them push their boat up the beach. Matt handed me Nancy’s camera and plastic bag with market purchases.  As I was taking pictures, the bag fell open and dumped things out onto the beach. I was putting the contents back in the bag when a teenage boy came up to me. My first thought was that he had seen me struggling with the bag and thought I needed help. That is what my experience in Senegal for the past nearly two years had me believe. But then I felt his hand on the camera. We locked eyes as we both realized what was happening. We struggled over it for a few long seconds before he wrenched it out of my hands. To explain what happened next, I have decided that he must have been on drugs, because we all know I’m not very strong. Nonetheless, in an act that Matt deemed “Epic Annē”, I grabbed his other arm as he was getting away and punched him in the back as hard as I could. He dropped the camera. (I am now convinced that eyewitness testimony is absolutely unreliable, because apparently Emily caught the camera when he dropped it, and I don’t even remember her being nearby.) At that point I remembered how to say “thief” in Wolof and yelled it as loud as I could. The fishermen the menfolk had been helping converged on him and carried out their own form of justice, which I actually thought was pretty harsh since he didn’t actually succeed at the crime. News travels fast, and people nodded approvingly and even clapped as we headed up at the beach. I’m typically more lauded for my language abilities than my fighting abilities, so I at first assumed they were stoked about my Wolof skills. Then I saw someone acting it out and realized that they were clapping for my scrappy camera recovery.
In the end, I’m just glad that it happened to me and not one of Pat’s family members. It definitely has made me more wary of strangers (particularly people coming up behind me). I don’t like feeling on edge, but it’s probably  better to not be so naïve. I’m also glad that it turned into a great story about my heroism and not a huge downer of an anecdote about the time Nancy’s camera got stolen.

Well, Ed…what do you think?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Village People

The bottom billion. The starving children of Africa. The world's poor. They are collectively known as many such names, and it can be difficult to remember that these groupings based on economic status or their location on a distant continent are comprised of real people with real lives and individual stories of sorrow and joy and the daily grind. They have quirks and virtues and character flaws that constantly make me see every day, despite our vast cultural differences, our shared humanity. 

The South African idea of Ubuntu has always resonated with me: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” I want to introduce you to some of the humans that made me human throughout the past two years, to share the little things about I will remember.

 Sadio Tigana. My very own namesake and host-mom, Sadio is a very well-respected woman in Saraya. Her last name makes her a part of of the Niamakhalo caste group, and she is often called upon to lead ceremonies. Subsistence farming is a large part of her income and identity--her crops consist mostly of rice and peanuts. She hates monkeys--they destroyed her peanut crop this year. Sadio is very fashion conscious--a new outfit or piece of jewelry is what makes her happiest in the world. A necklace that I gave her broke, and she showed it to me sadly saying, "It happened because I loved it too much."

 Seny Cissokho. Now here's a character. If you get up early enough and go out to the main road, you may be fortunate enough to see Seny's morning routine. He rides his bike down the street with one foot on the frame of the bike and the other up in the air, either for everyone's morning entertainment or his own, no one's really sure. Be careful when you shake his hand, or he will take it upon himself to crack every one of your knuckles.

 Kharifa Danfakha. Rap Name: Numba One. He is a great case study of the nature vs. nurture debate. Was he born to be a child rapper or was it the influence of his cousin Sambaly (Rap Name: N** Zaky Blow. There was a bit of an awkward conversation in very limited Malinke when he asked us to call us by his rap name upon our arrival. I didn't yet know how to say "I can't and won't call you that," and he didn't understand my refusal. We settled on us calling him Zaky.) Regardless, little Kharifa always knows how to get a dance party started with a drum made out of a can or a Vitalait powdered milk commercial in the background. He's Pat's favorite of the kids in our family. 

 Seny Kanoute. Known to the Malinke community as Papi and the hospital community as "The King of the Court", this seventeen year old kid has become one of my best friends here. He is far and away the best basketball player of the regular crew--I really wonder how he would stack up in the states. With some coaching and some actual shoes (someone lent him the ones he's wearing in this picture), he could be so good. The thing that sets him apart though, is how he uses his talent and amazing smile to keep things going in the nightly basketball scene. As I've written about in another post, sportsmanship isn't something that kids are really taught here, and things can get ugly quick. Somehow Seny always manages to calm everyone down, bring out the talent in the worst among us, making it more fun for everyone.

Bintou Mady Danfakha. The chief of Saraya for the past 40 years, Bintou Mady has diabetes and has a hard time getting around. This doesn't pose a problem--people just come to him. He spends his days sitting behind his family's compound or in front of it, depending on where the best shade is. He speaks a little of a lot of languages and likes to whip out a few words of Russian when he's trying to impress people. Frank, our former sitemate, compared Bintou Mady to an African mafioso because of his gravelly voice, round face and ability to make anyone do anything for him.

 Rokhoya Sakiliba (left). One of my next door neighbors.  She is just starting to hit puberty, and I desperately want a magic button that will put the brakes on her growing up. She is a joyful girl whose unique laugh can be heard from far away, and she is about to enter the phase of life that can be very difficult for girls. Both of her older sisters got pregnant and dropped out of school at an early age, but I am hopeful that she will stay in school and at least get her middle school diploma, which is quite a big deal, especially for girls.

Gouda Diaby--a man about town. He is a radio dj, the health center lab tech, but his real love is raising chickens. Gouda is a candidate in this spring's elections, running on the platform of solving Saraya's water issues and getting 24 hour electricity. In this photo, he is translating for an event about family planning that came into town but only had material in Wolof (most Senegalese believe that everyone speaks Wolof--and then they get to Saraya and are blown away). About three quarters into the presentation, he admitted that he didn't actually speak Wolof and had just kind of been saying stuff about family planning that he thought they might be saying.

I will leave Saraya in 6 weeks, and I haven't really allowed myself to really think about saying goodbye to these people that have made the past two years what they were. I realized something early on in Peace Corps, however, back when my primary job was to integrate into my new community. I want to continue to work in global health and development after this experience, which at times might mean that I sit in an office somewhere in the states. During Peace Corps, I have built relationships with the real people who benefit from the kind of work I want to do. These relationships have buoyed me through trying times of this experience, but I know that they will continue to buoy me throughout my career--that their faces will be with me at my desk as I look at the numbers that represent their stories. My humanity will always be wrapped up in theirs.

Monday, January 27, 2014


In our interview for Peace Corps back in 2010, we were asked if there was any reason we would choose not to do Peace Corps. Pat and I looked at each other and both said, "Grandparents."

With our grandparents all at a somewhat advanced age, we knew it was possible that we wouldn't make it through our two plus years without having to say a long-distance goodbye. When I said goodbye in March 2012, I sobbed on the drive home from my grandparents' house. But then we visited home and all was well, the goodbye wasn't as hard. It was only seven months.

My grandpa died yesterday. At 91 and suffering from congestive heart failure and moderate dementia, he fell and broke his leg. He had surgery and never fully woke up from it. The memorial service will be on Saturday, and even though we will do another celebration of life this summer, missing this service may be the hardest part of Peace Corps. My mom asked me to write something that could be read at the service, so this blog post is a bit of a draft for that and a lot of my mourning poured into words on a screen.

The other night, when it was becoming clear that the end was imminent, I was journaling as I prayed, and I caught myself trying to pray that this wouldn't be the end, that I would be able to see him one more time. Then I realized how selfish that was to hope that the end of his life would be dragged out simply so that I could be there. Beyond the standard peace and comfort, I grappled with what to pray for. It came to me to pray to be flooded with the good memories, the little things that made up the essence of Gramps. Here's the highlights:

My very first memory is of holding his hand. His and Grammy's, and trying to swing myself as we approached the hospital to meet my baby sister.

He had open heart surgery the same year I was born, and he always had to take a lot of naps. I loved tucking him in on the floor. Every single time, he would wake up and say, "Boooooy did I sleep!"

I wanted to be just like him in a lot of ways as a kid. Mostly I wanted to be a cowgirl, but when that didn't work out due to my sister's extreme horse allergies, I settled for trying to find a walking stick that he would approve of on every hike we took around the cabin that he bought in the 50's, the place I still claim to be my favorite on Earth.

When making phone calls from Bozeman to Livingston (the town twenty minutes away he and my grandma lived in for the past sixty years) changed from costing a long-distance rate, I became the happiest nine year old in the world. I would take the bus home from school every day, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios, and call my patient, patient grandparents, who would listen to the day's joys and tribulations as I slurpily recounted them.

In second grade, my class had an Africa day. I was so excited, because Gramps had been to Kenya and Egypt in the 70s. Somehow it got worked out for him to be a guest speaker, and I was so proud. And look at where I'm writing this from. Coincidence? I think not. I first started travelling thanks to a yearly spring break trip we took with them from the time I was in first grade until my sophomore year of high school. Thanks to his travel bug, I got bit early and hard.

He had very strict rules for making lefse, loved lutefisk, and hated Prairie Home Companion because "they make fun of Norwegians". 

When all of the valuable Molesworth furniture that came with the purchase of the cabin was stolen out of it, he started experimenting with how to replace it and came up with "Roaldsworth". His furniture was so beautiful. I liked to sit in his shop and watch him work and then claim to have helped.

I would sit on his lap after I was far too big for it to be comfortable for him, but he never said a word. 

He thought that our spaniel Lizzy was small and useless until she chased away a mountain lion that was sitting on its haunches watching my mom and uncle outside the cabin. After that he called her "Lionheart" and would permit her to spend the night in his workshop when we came over.

He was incredibly proud of his North Dakotan roots, a pride that grew with the Bakken Boom. "And they said North Dakota would never amount to anything," he muttered once.

He went through a bread making phase and would make what came to be known just as "Gramps' bread", which had no nutritional value but was my favorite food for several years. When my mom followed his steps and got a bread machine, I was not as enthused about her whole grain copy-cat bread.

I loved the story of how he and Grammy met, how she had a crush on him and would spread out her shopping at the pharmacy where he worked, buying one item at a time to increase her outings to the store. Gramps wanted the night off to go to a basketball game, but his boss would only let him, “If he took that blonde that keeps coming in here.” The image that will always stay with me now is of her holding onto his two fingers as they slowly made their way about.

He was infuriatingly slow at opening Christmas presents. He would take a knife and slide it gently down each piece of tape as we all would watch in indignation as the clocked ticked by and we had to wait an extra two minutes for our turn.

As a kid, I was very upset about the idea of smoking (as in, I was so upset that I would cry about billboards advertising cigarettes). I idealized Gramps to the point that when I learned that he used to smoke, I converted into a story in my head about how he’d been tricked and quit long before he actually did. I believed my version of this story until probably college.

 Some of my favorite childhood Christmas presents were the ark he made, complete with many species of wooden animals and the stable for my toy horses.

They say that he was a crier, but I only saw him cry once, and I don’t even remember what it was about. I definitely inherited that trait though. Yesterday, my mom put the phone to his ear so that I could say goodbye. Even if he was conscious, he probably wouldn't have understood what I was saying--thanking him for being the grandest of Grandpa's, for always making me feel so loved, telling him how much I would miss him. I cried so hard that my neighbor Kountimba, who is mostly deaf, came over to see what was wrong. People have a hard time grasping the idea that in America medicine is so advance that you can be pretty dang sure that it is the end of life. I'd been through this before, so I decided to tell just tell her that my grandfather had died. She put her wrapskirt up to her face and started to do a high pitched shriek, the death wail. This made me cry all over again, and she stopped to hush me. The whole exchange meant a lot, but I needed to just grieve in my own culture, one where I was allowed to cry. Pat sensed this and dealt gracefully with the growing crowd of neighbors as I retreated inside to contemplate having said goodbye.

Goodbye Roald Jasper Mogen.  You taught me so much about gentleness, steadfastness, generosity and love. Now you are teaching me about loss.

Most of my cousins and some significant others at Gramps' 91st birthday party last August. I'm so grateful to have been there. I'm the oldest grandchild, which, in my humble opinion, makes for an extra-special grandparental relationship.
Pat and I with Grammy and Gramps in probably 2008. He was a North Dakotan rancher, a small town Montana pharmacist, a father of three, a grandfather of six, an adventurer, and a stubborn Norwegian.

Grammy and Gramps at their 60th wedding anniversary dinner. They are not smoking cigars. Just holding fancy cookies.

Pat and I got married exactly sixty years after they did. Here's my cousin Colin escorting them to their seats at our wedding.

Gramps made it to the airport to welcome us home last August. He rarely left Livingston at that point. He never ceased to make me feel special.