bless the rains!

let the sunshine in

to commemorate this rather fantastic day and in light of other recent events, I’ve decided to dust off my blog and take it out of retirement. this marks my first real post in almost four months. why the sabbatical you ask? I simply haven’t been feeling spectacularly creative the last few months, no spark of inspiration to get me writing. also, I spend about 50 hours a week on the computer, so I try to avoid spending any extra time on the computer outside of work.

but on this magical day, I thought I might give you all an update about the goings on in africa and in my life. to start off with, as you may have guessed, it rained today! while the rains have been passing through the inland parts of senegal for a few weeks already, weather here in dakar (on a peninsula that juts out into the ocean, making it the westernmost point of continental africa) tends to be a bit different. while we’re saved from the scorching 120 degree heat, it’s a bit jarring to have seasons that lag 6 months behind cities only an hour away.

the important thing is that it rained! this was the first rain I’ve seen since leaving the states, minus that rainy-sandy thing I slept through in october and a brief drizzle while I was in paris. while this was a wonderful treat and a break to the sand, being a giant concrete and sand city, dakar tends to flood whenever it rains- we’re talking like monsoon flooding, streets filled with gross, smelly drainage water. so hopefully, the rest of the rains will hold off until july, when I go on vacation.

which reminds me, I’m going on vacation! for a while, I was thinking

along the lines of, “ oh, I just spent a forced, but nevertheless pleasant, three week jaunt in morocco, spain and france, I think that fulfills my vacation quota for the foreseeable future.” a few weeks ago, however, I found out that my crazy roommate dan from college was spending the summer doing research for his MPH in naples, italy. well, how often do you have a close friend living in italy while you’re slogging away through the sands of africa? not often. so I’m off to visit him in napoli and then I’ll be meeting mother dearest in lyon, france for what I can only guess will be repeated viewings of the new harry potter movie. the travelling should be fun, and the food absolutely delicious (I’m done with rice and fish here).

in other news, those of you who studiously read the new york times website will have noticed that senegal finally made a headline, the first time since last september. it wasn’t exactly great news. basically, the president of senegal is coming up for re-election, and like so many african politicians, was trying to push through some friendly constitutional changes beforehand (namely, making it easier to get elected and installing a vice-presidency, likely to be his son and heir).

well, the dakarois were a bit unsettled by that, so they took to the streets in some nonviolent protests that nevertheless got violent anyway. living on the extreme far side of the city, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary besides everyone listening to the radio and an usually large number of military helicopters going between the airport and the city center. in short, the president abandoned his legislation and things have quieted down considerably.

in case you’re interested, I’ll give you a recap of some of the more exciting things that I’ve gotten up to in the last few months. around the end of april, I took a week off of work to go out and see some of the rest of senegal, and stop by some of my pc friends’ posts. let us just say that travelling to a city 10 hours away by bush taxi over less-than perfect roads has its complications. but nonetheless, it was a fun trip and I made it back in one piece, and several of the photos in this post were from that trip.

in may, my 90 day travel visa was about to expire, so I had to take another trip and deliver some paperwork to tostan’s office in the gambia. for those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the area, the gambia is a small country centered around the gambia river and is surrounded almost entirely by senegal. but, the gambia was an english colony whereas senegal was a french colony, and so the countries remain separate to this day. anyway, I took an 8 hour trip for a quick 3-day jaunt to capital of banjul, on the coast (just long enough to renew my senegal visa).

the gambia was crazy! not crazy so much as surreal. as you might imagine, the culture and lifestyle of those in the gambia are essentially the same as in senegal. just the same, the local languages of the country are the same or similar to those in senegal, so everyone’s first language is completely unintelligible to the typical visitor. but whereas moderately educated people speak french in senegal, their counterparts in the gambia speak english! signs and posters are in english! suddenly I could walk through the market and bargain with someone without having to think about a first-person plural conjugation of an auxiliary verb with its associated past-participle. and apparently I’m not half bad at bargaining with people when I’m not stumbling over words and coming up with gems such as “a can which you hit and it makes a noise” when looking for a drum. suddenly I could understand overheard phone calls on a bus or conversations in passing. it was almost as if someone had taken the remote control and turned off the “french” setting for the entire country.

in the beginning of june, I went up to st. louis for a weekend, a coastal city in the north of senegal that plays host to an international jazz festival every year. with less jazz than you might expect, it’s fundamentally like WAIST, a reason for west african expats and volunteers to get together in one place and have a blast. after having spent time in a number of cities in senegal, I can never get over the contrast of exactly how expensive dakar really is. one of my friends told me that the cost of traveling from her remote village all the way to her regional capital, a few hours distant, is significantly less than the cost of taking a 10-minute taxi ride from one part of dakar to another. c’est la vie, je suppose.

closer to home, I’m finding dakar is suiting me well. it definitely took me some time to get settled and regain some sanity after the whole terrorist- evacuation- evaluation- “you’re fired-” vacation- relocation thing, but after getting over the hump, I’ve started feeling at home in dakar. I know the city, I have favorite restaurants and places to go, and I can navigate the chaos of african public transit better than I could ever figure out the mayhem of the new york city subway system. I’ve made friends and had friends leave, and recently a brand new batch of volunteers just started positions with tostan in dakar. it’s hard to believe that after what seems like such a short time, I’m suddenly one of the elder, experienced volunteers. oh how the tables have turned. how far I am from the expectations of last year.

there’s only one way to go from here my friends. onwards and upwards!

alternate dimensions

so far you’ve read my words, and you’ve seen my photos.  but all that has been fairly two-dimensional, wouldn’t you say? so, in light of my daily internet accessibility, I’ve decided to upload the various videos I’ve been accumulating over the last several months and give you all a more tangible look at the world through my eyes… or least through my camera lens. I apologize that the videos are so short… I may have plenty of time on the internet, but I don’t have plenty of bandwidth or camera memory. several of these videos were taken by accident, when the wrong button got pushed on my camera, so just have some patience with them. kala suuru. anyway, without further ado, the clips.

this first video was taken almost as soon as we landed in niger.  we got off the plane, waded (waited) through customs, got our bags onto the pc buses, and were ready to go. dan, shelby, and michael share some words of wisdom.

 

 

this next video was taken during one of our oxcart rides over language immersion. for all you oregon trail fans out there, yes, I made sure to capture us fording a river.

 

 

woops, my camera turned on accidentally when I was fidgeting with it in my hut. despite being unable to tell anything about what is happening, you get a few choice glances around my hut. this was taken sometime between language immersion and installation.

 

 

again, an accidental video capture. this was during the photo ops at swear-in at the ambassador’s house.

 

 

one of my many stops after evacuation was paris. here’s the fun-filled elevator ride up to the top of the eiffel tower.

 

 

again, the eiffel tower.  this time doing that lite-brite thing that is apparently so famous.

 

 

and now for a change of scenery. I took this in Dakar over the weekend just to give you an idea of what the city is like. I started out on one of the local “buses” and then took a walk around part of my neighborhood. it gets a bit bumpy towards the end, so consider taking some dramamine before watching.

 

 

which brings us to the end of your multimedia experience of various places and sites throughout the world. thanks for watching and I hope you join us again next time.

you stay classy san diego
-ron burgundy

the beta release: africa 2.0

“congratulations on making it this far in the long and winding road that leads to becoming a peace corps volunteer in madagascar,” my new invitation packet reads.  that’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I just got re-invited to join the peace corps (again), for a position as a health educator in madagascar beginning on july 13th.  unfortunately, this comes just in time for me to have to turn it down.  with a new job, new house, new friends and a new life to settle into here in sunny dakar, and a commitment to stay for a year, I’m going to have to pass.  sorry peace corps. kala tonton.

 

wait, wait, wait. what’s this all about? let’s rewind a bit. two weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane several miles above the african continent, en route from paris to dakar with a stopover in casablanca.  fatefully, my layover in casa happened to be in the exact same terminal at almost the exact same gate we’d flown out of after the transition conference.  after a month of searching high and low for short-term jobs back in africa, long enough to keep me busy until my as-yet unforeseen re-enrollment, I had only turned up two promising leads. one was for an internship working on malaria and child survival, and would be based out of an office in washington. scratch that one off the list. the other was a much more promising offer.

 

while sitting in the train station in madrid waiting with mason waiting for my train to paris, I got an email from molly melching, a name I had come across in my days of google and wikipedia searching.  I knew molly was an rpcv who had set up her own ngo in senegal a while back.  her organization, tostan, had grown over the years out of its base in dakar and was running some fairly well-regarded programs throughout west africa.  anyway, the email got my heart pumping right away- she thought they had a position that could use my skills right away, might be paid, and she just generally wanted to skype with me to see what we might be able to work out.  after weeks of near-silence from most organizations I had emailed, this was fantastic.

 

a week of parisian site-seeing later, and I still wasn’t sure of a position.  but I did know one thing… my readjustment allowance was running out, and paris isn’t exactly the cheapest city to

hang around in indefinitely.  I had to make a decision, stay in paris wasting my money, or go to dakar and risk finding a job or finding nothing.  well, I’d had enough of waiting for something to happen, so I was going to go and make something I happen. as my roommate dan (not niger dan; other dan) always says: go big or go home. I wasn’t going home. I booked a flight to dakar and a hotel room for 6 nights. after that, I would have to play it by ear.

 

after a fairly painful line at airport immigration at 1am, a short-lived moment of almost getting deported, and a mildly terrifying taxi ride through deserted, unlit streets by myself, I was in dakar.  I was back in africa. I had done it. I was ecstatic.  I had spent the last month saying all I wanted to do was get back to africa and help people. I couldn’t help but be overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that I still didn’t have a job.  I felt like I was actually going to find something, make a difference here, somehow. on the plane, I helped my seatmate fill out his immigration form because he couldn’t read or write for himself. I just felt generally good about the decision I had made.

 

the next day, I went to the peace corps senegal bureau just to stop in, introduce myself, and see if they had any suggestions or advice for me.  I also got to meet some pcvs after a few long weeks in isolation, and use their fantastic wireless internet.  I headed over to the tostan office to get the lay of the land and see what my chances were.  that’s when I saw it, out of the window of the taxi. the ocean.  the beach. boats and fishermen and waves and cliffs and lighthouses. I was surprised and shocked. I didn’t know what to make of it. there was nothing anything like it in niger. it was all so tropical, so serene, so beautiful.  I remember thinking to myself, now that’s a sight you don’t see every day.

 

the meeting at tostan made my day. any hesitation they had had about hiring me in paris seemed to be gone the moment I stepped off the plane.  I guess they felt that if I had committed to flying to africa on a whim, I would be committed to their program. I had one more meeting set later in the week to get the final approval from molly, and I would have a job. finally!!!

 

now, this may sound like everything had gone perfectly according to plan. that’s not entirely accurate.  before moving to dakar, my plan went something like this: get a position for a month or so, then try and convince peace corps to enroll me in a healthcare training stage they had coming to senegal in the middle of march.  my friends were in senegal, now I was in senegal, and my potential volunteer job was in senegal. let me stay in senegal. the peace corps senegal country director seemed pretty open about the possibility but, as fate would have it, my peace corps placement officer called while I was standing in the lobby of the dakar bureau.  no, there is absolutely no way under any circumstances that we can put you in a program any earlier than may 23rd. enrolling in senegal’s program was absolutely, 100% out of the question as far as peace corps headquarters in washington was concerned.  that left me with a few choices. I could volunteer with tostan until may or whenever my new assignment with peace corps would leave, but chances are it would be a program without any other niger pcvs. jam. also, tostan only offers stipends to volunteers who commit to staying for a full year, so my few months with tostan would be unpaid. double jam.

 

my other option was to sign up with tostan for a year, get paid, and stay in a reasonably close proximity to other niger pcvs.  I could choose between starting over brand new with peace corps, or starting over brand new with tostan.  at least with tostan, I’d have control over where I worked (instead of being randomly and secretly given an assignment by an email address in washington) and who I worked with. plus, tostan hadn’t put me through a “the-worst-thing-ever” conference. on the list of pros and cons, tostan was in the lead.

add into the mix of job choices and decisions a terrifically heartwarming reunion with my niger-turned-senegal pcv colleagues.  the weekend following my arrival was marked off as the pc senegal all-volunteer conference, for pcvs to meet-and-greet with ngos and learn what kinds of projects other volunteers are doing. also scheduled for the weekend was the west african invitational softball tournament (w.a.i.s.t.), for which a few hundred volunteers from senegal and around west africa were descending on dakar.  the niger evacuees had been given a reprieve from their weeks of language classes (yes, they have to go through training again) to attend.  a weekend full of fun in the sun, softball, beach volleyball, and good company cemented my desire to stay in senegal.  I might also add that the niger evacuee/cape verde combined softball team bowed out undefeated and leading the amateur division by the time monday rolled around.

 

as much fun as I had that weekend, it also forced me to come to terms with a bit of an identity crisis that I was hoping to put off for a few more weeks. being surrounded by hundreds of peace corps volunteers, my friends, still peace corps volunteers, and new friends, and strangers, all in the midst of their own personal brilliant peace corps experiences put my situation in a very stark contrast. I was no longer a pcv; I was an rpcv (returned pcv). If I took the year-long position with tostan, I would not be a pcv ever again. I wasn’t going to spend a year in senegal and then decide to rejoin peace corps. my stint with peace corps lasted three months, of 27 I had been expecting.  21 days elapsed between swear-in and cos.  I served in my village for 8 days.  my peace corps life, something I had been looking forward to for over a year, had suddenly dissolved before my eyes.  and now, here I was, back in africa, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. what I had spent a month in europe trying to do. and I’m fine with that. but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ surrounded  by pcvs. my closest friends (both figuratively and geographically) are all pcvs. in my core, I still feel like a pcv.  peace corps isn’t a job, it’s a whole lifestyle.  I’m used to struggling to learn national languages, used to interacting more with villagers than americans, used to filtering my water, sleeping outside, brainstorming simple village projects, dealing with being isolated and culture shocked, going without running water or electricity or wireless internet. these are all thing that I’ve made part of who I am in africa, an identity that I’ve come to acknowledge and own for myself.  and now, that’s all for naught.  now I live in a major metropolitan capital, work in an office on my computer all day long, live in a house with refrigerators and wifi and laundry service.  for my friends, these are all still relevant to their lifestyle, if maybe in different degrees (sleeping outside, access to electricity, etc.).  but for me, as much as I might still identify as being a pcv, I have to acknowledge that, in fact, I’m no longer a peace corps volunteer. and that’s something I’m going to have to deal with. probably the hardest thing for me during w.a.i.s.t. was how to explain to people exactly who I was, what category I fell into. yes, I was a volunteer in niger. no, I’m not a pcv in senegal. but yes, I do work in senegal. but no, not with peace corps. yes, with an ngo; but no, not as a pcv. but yes, I’m an rpcv. in the end, I can’t help but feel like I traded 23 months of peace corps service for a consonant.  and it will be awhile before I can fully come to terms with that.

 

now, don’t take this to mean that I’m not happy with my new job.  I absolutely love my new position and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be more productive, more effective, and have a much greater impact on people’s lives than if I was living in a cramped hut and working in a three-room health clinic.  but like any major life change, it’s going to take some time to get used to.

so what is it that you’re doing again…?

by this point, you’re probably all asking yourselves, what exactly is this job? I’ve skirted describing it every time I’ve mentioned tostan, so basically all you’ve learned thus far is that it does not entail working for peace corps in madagascar.  so what does it entail?

 

well, to start off with, I’ve added a new page to my blog, entitled “tostan.” you’ll find it at the top of the page, next to “about me,” “niger,” and other informational pages.  there, you can read up and get an idea of what kind of organization tostan is, its mission, and its programs.  (I’ve also added a page giving some background on senegal, so you can get an idea of what the country is like and how it’s different from niger.) basically, tostan works to empower communities to lead their own development initiatives through non-formal education.  instead of building a community garden, tostan teaches a community the skills it needs to manage funding and build the garden for itself.

 

tostan’s model begins with its community empowerment program, a 30-month series of classes and seminars broken down into four modules: the kobi 1, kobi 2, aawde 1, and aawde 2.  the kobi 1 module teaches the concepts of problem solving, human rights, and democracy.  the kobi 2 then applies problem solving and human rights to the issues of health, hygiene, and nutrition.  these two modules set the framework for a successful community project, and a starting point for learning the technical skills taught in the aawde programs. the aawde 1 begins the process of teaching literacy and basic mathematics for finances.  the aawde 2 moves forward with more specific technical project skills, income-generating projects, and microfinancing- giving villages a small capital investment and turning it into a major development initiative.

 

my job here at tostan is composed of a short-term and a long-term project.  the first is revising the kobi 2 module.  basically, the specific recommendations and guidelines from government ministries and the who for health, nutrition, and disease prevention change over time, and the kobi 2 is currently a few years out-of-date.  my immediate job is to revise the kobi 2 and bring it up-to-date, and possibly to add new or relevant information. pretty straightforward.

 

the long-term term project is way more in-depth and a lot more exciting.  let me begin by painting a picture for you. senegal has pretty high school enrollment (69% for primary schools according to wikipedia), partly due to government policies guaranteeing free primary school education to all students. but imagine that of these primary school students, less than half can read 9 words-per-minute, and more than a quarter are unable to read even 1 word-per-minute.  despite decades of school ministry reform, reading and comprehension levels have progressed little.  instead of attempting yet another system-based education reform, what if we tried addressing learning styles, informal education, and the ways in which children learn long before they ever step into a classroom.  by informing parents and community members how children learn from an early age, and how early learning stimuli radically improve learning later in childhood, we might be able to improve school education by changing the social norms about how children learn. that’s the goal of tostan’s brand new initiative for early childhood development, and I’m the dedicated volunteer assigned to see the project through.

 

I had the great fortune to get involved with this project right as it was starting up. over the coming months, we’ll be writing the curriculum for the program and training everyone involved in the process. by next year we’ll be starting the pilot program in 30 villages, getting feedback and evaluating the project’s effectiveness, and by next summer we’ll be analyzing how well the project worked.  by september, the project will be scaled up to 300 villages, and (hopefully) eventually integrated as a fifth module into tostan’s core program.

 

like I said, I’m really excited about this program and its potential effectiveness and impact.  I’m not just working day-in, day-out in a rural village health clinic.  this project is going to be in at least 30 different villages throughout senegal, and up to 300 or more.  tostan is a great development organization with a strong international reputation for social change. this is a great professional opportunity for me.  the trade-off is that it’s not anything like the cultural experiences I’d have with peace corps.  I’m not living in a rural village with a host family, being the only english-speaker around, forced to integrate into my community if I want to function (or survive).  now, I’m working in an office with americans, europeans, senegalese, and other africans, speaking english and French, and working primarily on my computer.  I live in tostan’s volunteer house in dakar with 4 other people, all of whom speak english and none of whom are senegalese.  in niger, I picked up enough zarma to survive on my own in only two months of training.  here, I doubt I’ll learn anywhere near that much wolof in a year.

 

but that’s not to say that this is an entirely culturally lacking experience. it’s just a different type of cultural experience.  my french is certainly going to have to improve very quickly, as the majority of the work done in the office is conducted in french.  last week, I spent three days in training seminars for my project, all of which were conducted entirely in french.  part of my job revising the health module includes editing a 297-page document in french.  I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me.  add into the mix learning wolof, the major local language of the dakar region.  sitting with the other tostan volunteers in my first wolof class yesterday, I was having flashbacks to sitting under rachida’s shade hangar going over the present progressive tense for zarma.  I’m worried that with so many languages bouncing around my head, I’m not going to be able to remember much of anything.

 

and there you have it.  I’m alive and well, gainfully employed and happily occupied.  it’ll take me some time to get used to life in dakar, but I’m looking forward to it.  most of all, I’m just as glad to be back in africa. it certainly took some trying, but I managed to pull it off.  I think dan (niger dan, not roommate dan) put it best when he told me, “this sounds super awesome man. i’m so excited for you.”  I wholeheartedly agree.

[note: I added pictures to the “month of mayhem” series if you want to go back and check them out]

a month of mayhem: prologue

this is a post I’ve been avoiding writing for a while. I tried to give you all an idea of the course of events that has taken place in niger in my last post, but haven’t really discussed the M. Night Shamalan-worthy twists that my life has taken as a result.  I haven’t really been avoiding it completely, I did try starting it several times, but there’s a lot to say and I have no idea where to start.  so, rather than try and explain everything about one of the most turbulent months of my life in one go, I’ve decided to break it down into a few posts that may be a bit more coherent.  are we sitting comfortably? then let’s begin.

a month of mayhem: chapter 1 [installation]

let me start in the beginning, when we left off with the pomp and circumstance of swear-in and the logistical nightmare of installations.  I believe there was also a musical number in there somewhere.  so as it turned out, I did end up getting to stick around in dosso one more day and left on wednesday, which I was hoping for from the beginning.  I was in the last batch of volunteers to be shipped out, so I had the bittersweet fortune of waving my friends off as they headed to their sites.  this also meant I would have to face the impossible task of now fitting all my worldly possessions into an impossibly full land cruiser packed with 5 other volunteers’ earthly possessions.  more on that in a bit.

the weekend prior to installations, we had free time devoted to 1) celebrating new year’s dosso-style, and 2) buying all the junk that we were going to need for two years of living in the bush.  being one of the regional capitals of the country, dosso has a pretty substantial marketplace where you can find everything you need to survive in niger.  let’s take a moment and reflect on the wording of that sentence: “everything,” “need to survive,” and “niger.”  what would be considered a necessity to survive in the us is a very different metric from what’s needed to survive in niger.  for example, you cannot buy “aa” or “aaa” batteries, but you can buy boxes and boxes of matches.  you cannot buy meat that has not been sitting in the sun all day fresh from the slaughter, but you can buy cans of corned beef.  I’m not quite sure if those work as good analogies.  in any event, dosso is basically hit-or-miss when it comes to buying food and goods, so you have to make do with what you can find there.

and here’s what I found in dosso to help me survive the next two years.  one metal trunk, two bathing stools, a bathing bucket, a wash basin, a trashcan to use as a water reservoir, a set of three pots of various sizes, a few plates/bowls/cups/silverware/serving utensils (actually, one of each; I’m only cooking for one person), an authentic nigerien hand broom, clothesline, soap, and a bunch of other things that I’m realizing it’s pointless to go into detail about now.  kate was kind enough to also arrange for the purchase of my cot, my mattress, propane stove, and propane tank rental.  the one item I went overboard and splurged on was a good teflon skillet I bought in niamey. if I’m going to be cooking on it for 2 years, I better invest.

then came the tearful goodbyes.  monday saw the first of our protocol sessions (meet-and-greets with important people mostly for the sake of formality) and the newly-formed team dosso was split.  volunteers destined for the far east of the region headed out right away, while the rest of us bid them farewell.  it would be a month before we would see each other again, but we’d only be a phone call or a text message away- thanks to the nigerien version of verizon’s family-plan, which the peace corps bureau had just arranged for us to be enrolled in. now, calls and texts to other volunteers would come at no cost to us, a huge improvement over having to pay ungodly service charges and only calling each other when absolutely necessary.  little did we know this plan would come to play a crucial role in the events of the next week.

after watching the first land cruiser drive out of the dosso hostel, it was time to install michele.  michele had the fortune of being posted in a village pretty near to dosso proper, which also meant she had the misfortune of being the first person to be dropped off.  after meeting a few local gendarme sergeants, secretaries, and similar minor officials, we made for her village.  we unloaded her things, got everything set up nice and cozy in her spacious 2-room mud hut, and it was time for her to go meet her new village chief.  this was all a bit of a formality, as she had spent language immersion in her village and knew basically everything already.  (coincidentally, she spent more time in her village over the course of language immersion as a trainee than actually in her post as a volunteer.)  but in addition to meeting the chief (again), the meeting was also to set expectations and boundaries: what did the village expect of her, what did she expect of her village, how much privacy did she need, what did the community need to know about her and the work she was doing, and generally everything you need to know about someone who will be living in your midst for years to come.  in my humble opinion, the first official “village meeting” is a pivotal moment in a volunteer’s career.

phoebe, jeff, and I left michele to have her meeting (mediated by peace corps staff) independently, without the pressure of a bunch of other white people hanging around.  we wandered around the village, scoping out an enormous women’s garden that had been built by an non-governmental organization (ngo) a few years prior.  andrew was asleep in the land cruiser because kate had convinced him that taking 2 benadryl in the middle of the day would be a good idea.  then it came time to bid michele farewell.  we hugged, said “kala tonton” (until later), and drove off into the dusk of the evening.  after leaving dan in niamey over the weekend, she would be the second person from my language class to start her own adventure.

and then there were five of us left in the dosso hostel.  andrew, phoebe, and I were to be posted in villages along the same 3-hour stretch of dirt road, and thus qualified as being in the same cluster.  samantha and jacob would be at the far southern tip of dosso, conveniently accessed by a 6-hour drive along the same road; thus, we’d be sharing the drive for installations on wednesday.  5 people, 5 houses, in one car.  it was a bit tight.

my cluster would be having a shuttle coming to us the following friday, the 14th, so we needn’t pack everything, we were told.  only the bare essentials.  phoebe did an amazing job of fitting everything she owned into a single metal trunk.  incredible. I managed to bring a smaller trunk and my suitcase, with the pick of the litter of clothes, snacks, supplies, and zarma study manuals.  I’d have to leave my stools, my cot, wash basin, and about half of everything I owned behind.  no big deal, I thought, I just need to make it will last the 10 days before the shuttle comes, wednesday to friday.  backpacking through new mexico, I’d had to survive much longer with far fewer supplies, so this wasn’t a huge problem.  no biggie.

wednesday morning’s sun rose. I had been up for a while, the call to prayer coming a bit before sunrise in the winter months.  it could have been the call to prayer that woke me, or the general combined excitement and anxiety and energy that had been building over the last few months.  the day that I had been looking forward to, and equally dreading for so long had come.  I was to be set on my own, and left to fend for myself.  I’d often thought about the moment the land cruiser finally drove away, what would my reaction be? overcome by sheer terror at the thought of being completely isolated for the next month? overwhelmed by the work I’d have before me, with no direction or guidance on how to accomplish it? invigorated by finally being able to set my own schedule, cook my own food, and do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it?

it was a moment I had been looking forward to since I decided to join the peace corps a year and a half before. I could finally say I was doing work and changing lives, no matter how small the change actually was.  it was a moment I had been dreading since I had found friends and family in my training class, knowing that the next two years would be spent in isolation with only brief, explosive flashes of time spent with my friends. a match, extinguished almost as soon as it’s lit.  I’d spent the 9 weeks of training finding comfort and support in the few americans going through the same troubles and trials that I was; the few people I could actually talk to without going through thousands of miles of telephone cables and receiver towers and intercontinental satellite computer servers.  now it would be up to me to start again, and this time find friends and comfort with the people of my village.  the people I had joined the peace corps to help.  the people I had joined the peace corps to learn the ways of the world from.  the people that would be my friends and family, my job and my joy and my frustrations and anxiety for the next two years.  it was time to embark upon the meat of my adventure.

bright and early, the car was packed and ready to go.  we piled in, stopped off to do some more protocol in two towns along the way, and we were bouncing pleasantly along the dirt road on the way to my site.  only one bag happened to be flung violently from the roof of the land cruiser as we bombed our way south; thankfully, it was only a bag of clothes, no harm done. maybe a little worse for the wear.  and before I knew it we were in bassi. [note: bassi = baltimore; you’ve cracked the code.] my village was the furthest north on the road, and as such I was the first to be dropped off.  a half dozen young men showed up instantly and helped us haul my luggage the ten feet from the road to my hut, and it was time for my village meeting.

haoua, one of the peace corps program directors, spoke rapid-fire zarma for about ten minutes, of which I only actually understood a smattering.  I had written down a few notes to myself to go over with the villagers during the meeting. things like, please don’t be offended if I don’t drink your millet porridge because it contains bacteria which will cause an unpleasant pathogenesis in my gastrointestinal tract.  which I roughly translated into zarma as, sometimes I can’t eat food, because my stomach doesn’t have strength.  in any event, haoua snatched up my notebook the instant I took it out, glanced over it, and fired off a few more volleys of zarma into the crowd.  she had breezed through thoughts that I had taken months to painstakingly piece together in anticipation of my first words to my villagers.  I was taken a bit by surprise, and left a bit off-balance.  after all was said and done, wiza (to my surprise), haoua looks at me and asks if there’s anything I wanted to add.  keep in mind this was after not having understood the last 15 minutes of conversation in zarma.  I didn’t know what to say.  I rattled off something about not knowing much zarma, and that everyone would have to be patient with me and that I would learn slowly. I was here to learn from them just they would learn about me.  I reiterated that they’d have to have patience, and once again, that my zarma was really not very good.  I apologized in advance and thanked everyone.  or at least that’s what I remember, but is probably a very dressed up version of the choppy sentences I managed to string together.  what I do remember was that haoua looked at me when I was done, a bit surprised, and told me that it was pretty good, that I had made a pretty nice speech.  it’s always nice to receive a bit of positive encouragement.

I hugged phoebe, I hugged andrew, I hugged jacob and samantha, and then they were in the car and off towards the horizon.  I was finally on my own.  I decided that I was really going to enjoy bassi.

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