22 February 2012
Everywhere, or so it feels. For a country the size of Kansas, traveling here is much more difficult. Not that I’ve been to Kansas, but Google maps says it takes six hours to drive the 408 miles from Kansas city to the western border. To get from Kolda to Thies, about half the distance, it takes twelve to sixteen hours, depending on wait times in as many as three garages and how much charcoal the driver wants to purchase on the way. This is taking into account the fact that as volunteers we are not permitted to travel through the Gambia, the quickest route, due to banditry on the road in Ziguinchor. This is not taking in to account the half-day (whether by bike or bike and bus) it takes for me to travel from Fode Bayo to Kolda. Nevertheless, when it comes down to it, I’ve been back and forth between site and volunteer events in Thies and Dakar.
After Christmas and New Year’s (spent at the Kolda house) I was back at site for a little over a week when the time arrived for the most talked-up event in PC/Senegal: WAIST, the West African Inter-mural Softball Tournament. Before WAIST, however, there was work to do in Thies. We had a two-day Gender and Development (GAD) conference with volunteers from all over West Africa and representatives from NGOs. Highlights include: 1) The success of TOSTAN, an organization started by an RPCV to stop Female Genital Cutting in Senegal, which takes the PC model to the next step, employing Senegalese to live in villages for three years with a single culture-changing goal. 2) A PC/Senegal volunteer who started a soccer league for girls in her city and provided them with equipment donated by her family and friends from the soccer club she played with in Northern Virginia. 3) The story of a PC/Mali volunteer who grew up in India, where her father empowered her to pursue education and defy gender lines in a developing country. Her experience inspired her to work with the men in her community as agent for gender equality. GAD was followed by tow days of All-Vol, All Volunteer conference, where West Africa PCVs discuss best practices from the field. It was only two and a half days, not nearly enough time to attend all the sessions I wanted. Favorites here included an Environmental Education volunteer’s class on phenology, or why people care about nature and why Senegalese kids kick puppies, a Health volunteer’s incorporation of medicinal plants into his local health facility, and visual aids, or how to trick people into learning.
I had no idea what to expect of the tournament. All I knew was that each Peace Corps region had chosen a theme and we were dressing up for our themes to play softball. This sounded like an Ultimate tournament to me and I was psyched. Turned out we only got to play one other Peace Corps team and the other teams practiced and had real uniforms. Most of them had patience or found humor in Kolda’s South of the Border theme, which turned Pulaar cowboys living South of the Gambia into cowboys and a
mariachi band from the U.S.’s Souther border. The PC teams were short on gloves and bats and the other teams kindly switched with us mid-inning, but when Kolda faced our friends from the North we were batting with an inflatable cactus and dolphin. The nights consisted of a PCV talent show, Peace Corps prom, and an almost-all-night dance party. It was exhausting and fun and I was ready to go back to site afterwards.
The first two weeks were my stage’s In-Service Training (IST), which consisted of too much time in the classroom but also fun field trips to build large-scale earthworks in a mango orchard to improve water retention and decrease erosion, and a perma-garden challenge, where four groups were given different scenarios and tried to build the most user-friendly, biologically-diverse, water-conservative plans. The two days, respectively, were like a big kids sandbox and a reality TV show for gardening nerds. After IST was Master Farmer training. The Master Farm program is a project supported by an USAID Food Security grant to establish demonstration farms and train local farmers as technology and improved seed variety sources. I have inherited a Master Farmer from my friend Kelly, whose site is four kilometers from mine and have lots more to say on this topic and will go on about it in a separate post soon.
On my way back to Kolda, my friends, Jaynel, Andy and I stopped in Mbour to visit our training families. I soaked up the warmth of familiarity there and the comfort of being Koumba Faty, who was just a girl trying to learn Mandinka. I was eager to get back to village and work, but it was nice to remember an age of less expectation. The road home consisted of a cramped sept-place with Andy’s long legs from Mbour to Tamba, a fortuitous ride from a Malian man in a Toyota Yarris to Tamba, and after a short night’s sleep and a long day’s wait in the Tamba garage, a sept-place to Kolda. Eventually, I was back in my hut with Nacho sleeping at my feet and waking to the chirping of my chickens. Although the long list of plans for Fode Bayo I brought back with me is a bit overwhelming, I am happy to be home and excited to get projects rolling.