Meta Senegal or PC related


I realized a few months ago that this site had completely collapsed under the weight of broken links, incompatible updates, and what I can only assume is depression over the state of the world.

This (awful?) default WordPress theme at least gets the text back up. Maybe at some point I’ll get photos up and linked again.

I haven’t been back to Senegal in over ten years. I feel a bit guilty about that.

But I saw one of the guys from the village, Hamedu, in Milan, Italy, of all places. I found him on Facebook and messaged him. My boyfriend and I met up with him at a metro station, walked through the streets, spoke a weird Pulaar-English-Italian combo, ate lunch, and went to an art museum together.

He’s living in Milan, working in a restaurant. He was just about to make a return trip to the village—his first time back after leaving six years before, and the first time that he would meet the daughter that he has with Aminata, my host sister and the oldest of Kanni’s daughters.

It seems like a very lonely life for him in Italy.

I was very happy to see him.

J-school Senegal or PC related

Two years out

I think I’m finally hitting the end of Peace Corps related anniversaries that I can legitimately use as excuses for blog posts. So here it is: Today marks two years since I returned to the U.S. after two years in Senegal.

The volunteer who replaced me is back in America (welcome home, Donna!), I haven’t even tried to call the village in almost a year… I wonder if Bandi’s still alive.

I was on a Peace Corps panel the other night. Four RPCVs talked about their environmental work. One guy showed horrific pictures of sea turtle slaughter, another had that edge in her voice that maybe only other volunteers recognize—a strained quality that comes from long periods of trying to deal constructively with rampant inefficiency, absurdity, and frustration. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

Though standing in front of an audience, giving my Peace Corps PowerPoint presentation, it was fun to feel kinda special again—and not in the J-school short bus way I’ve been feeling lately.

Which reminds me, the crazy-reporting-class website went live: Oakland North, which along with the other J200 class news sites has the entire faculty tickled pink. The students are more likely to be loudly cursing various computer programs.

I’m incredibly impressed by my classmates’ prolific, quality article output. And photos. And videos. And audio slide shows. Multimedia, baby.

Speaking of multimedia, here are the things which I have photographed but not uploaded yet:

– The August road trip to Colorado. Many hundreds of photos.
– Cory and Josh’s baby shower in Oregon at the start of October… for Gabriel Vyrle Owens, who was born Tuesday night! 🙂
– My recent move. Andrew and I moved into a house in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland—a great area, within stumbling distance of restaurants, stores, BART, and Leslie & Bryan.
– Various J-school photos and frame grabs.

And now to continue procrastination elsewhere.

Senegal or PC related

Saare Modou from space

Josh alerted me today to Google Earth’s recently updated images of my little corner of Senegal—where there was once nothing but blurry brown and green there are now trees, paths, huts, and a batiment under construction (where my hut used to be) as of last November:

Saare Modou close up

Here’s a wider view, with landmarks: the new well, the old well, and my family’s compound.

Saare Modou with labels

If anyone knows how to submit a town marker to the Great Google, let me know!

(And here’s a link to the Google Earth kmz file that will take you to this view. You’ll have to download the program, but it’s worth it for all the other flying around the globe you can do.)

Senegal or PC related

In Defense of Ineffectualness

Yesterday the New York Times ran an op-ed piece entitled “Too Many Innocents Abroad” (will we never tire of the travelogue puns?) by Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter, and country director who argues that the Peace Corps’ tendency to send young college graduates with no relevant technical experience to do development work is not only ineffectual but also “a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey.” He says that the Peace Corps is not rigorously selective because it believes that having lots of unqualified volunteers twiddling their thumbs overseas is better than the potential PR crisis of dwindling ranks.

The article went out on the Northern California Peace Corps Association’s listserv, prompting an assortment of responses that covered most of my reactions:

1. He’s right that Peace Corps definitely needs better evaluation systems, in just about every possible regard. Program relevance, project success, site selection, country-level administration (How many tears could that have saved in Senegal? Let’s not talk about it.), volunteer productivity, host country needs… Like all distant bureaucracies, the Peace Corps administration does what’s easiest and cheapest, which usually means whatever’s been done before, regardless of how effective or efficient it is.

2. Strauss was a Country Director. Did he do anything about this problem, like encourage secondary projects or collaboration with established NGOs, or did he just sit around and bitch like all those young, unqualified volunteers do? Letters to Washington don’t count—DC just wants us all to shut up and not cause any trouble—so action at his country’s level would have had the most chance of creating some actual change.

3. Development is only one of the three goals of the Peace Corps. The other two are cultural exchange, both inwards and outwards, and they are just as valuable, particularly when considered on the very local, individual level where volunteers work. Our focus was on community integration, and as a result Peace Corps Volunteers were respected in Senegal for actually living in villages and speaking the local languages—something that was unimaginable to many of the urban Senegalese that I met. I can understand skepticism about being a PR tool of the American government, but is it really so wrong to try to counteract the current image we’re projecting to the world?

4. There is nothing wrong with Peace Corps being as much for the volunteers as it is for the host countries. It is a life-enhancing and even life-changing experience for the volunteer. That in itself has value, but, what’s more, many volunteers continue to seek out or create socially conscious work after service, both in the U.S. and abroad.

5. “Enjoying themselves” is not exactly how I’d describe the daily reality of Peace Corps service. It’s much more complicated than that, and usually involves at least twenty different swings between “good,” “boring,” “hilarious,” and “if I have to chase one more sheep out of the garden, I’m going to start screaming uncontrollably.” I may have drunk a lot of bad Senegalese beer on the government’s dime, but it definitely wasn’t a two year vacation. Even the laziest, most truant volunteers I knew initiated projects and did development work.

6. I was exactly the type of volunteer Strauss is complaining about: a 22-year-old film major sent to tell lifelong farmers how to farm. And I didn’t accomplish much for my “customers” in my primary assignment, seed extension. Of course the villagers knew that I wasn’t a farmer—but they also knew that the information I attempted to communicate in broken Pulaar came from my Senegalese program director, who did know what he was talking about. Also, there were my secondary projects. I helped the village women’s group organize itself, start producing income, and open a savings account. I revived and prodded through to completion the well construction project that the previous volunteer had worked on.

And I was an independent woman who did weird things like not beat animals and move to a foreign country for two years to share in other people’s lives. I was a novelty and a poor excuse for a village woman (no husband, couldn’t cook), but I was also a friend and a family member and, every so often, someone who instigated just a little bit of progress. We built a fence next to the new well, and the volunteer who replaced me is helping the village grow vegetables there. For that one tiny village, that’s development.

A 55-year-old agricultural engineer with decades of farming experience would have looked much better on paper, but with the (non-existent) budget I had, learning the language along the way, working with people who were functionally illiterate, I doubt he or she could have managed to “deliver the goods” all that more effectively. Change of any sort comes very slowly in the village, but “good intentions and a college diploma” got me through two years and allowed me to have some small impact in Senegal.

I agree that Peace Corps would definitely benefit from more rigorous, focused recruitment for reevaluated and restructured programs. In a way, my ruffled feathers show that I’m buying into the mythology, the idea of Peace Corps as an unassailable bastion of good intentions. But what I object to is not Strauss’s criticism of Peace Corps the institution but rather his lack of faith in volunteers’ ability to accomplish positive change despite the institution—and in the value of those small changes as “development.”

Senegal or PC related

seeing in all directions at the same time

Today marks a year since I got back to the States from Senegal. I’ve seen three close friends get married, driven across the country and up and down the West Coast, settled into California, found a job in video editing, and am making plans for the next few years (grad school!).

I think this year has mostly been a reaction against Senegal—reveling in all the good things that I’m rediscovering, breathing a sigh of relief after all the bad things I left behind. The lists I made last October predicting what I’d miss/not miss has proven pretty accurate.

I don’t miss: the fishbowl life; the boredom-guilt cycle; the crappy food; stupid rules from a malicious administrator; screaming children; the realities of the Third World; sept-places.

I do miss: the volunteer community; my village family; my dog; unstructured time, for adventures; biking through the countryside; making children scream (no, not really. but at the same time… yes!); the village sky at night; thunderstorms; donkeys.

I was thrilled to speak Pulaar on two separate occasions this month—once in a Chicago cab, to a guy from St-Louis, and once at the Bissap Baobab restaurant in San Francisco, where several Mali RPCVs and I went to sample the bissap cocktails, lamb dibi, and maffe with tofu(!!) (we skipped the $16 thiebou dien).

I’ve been trying to call the village lately, more and more out of a real need to hear their voices than from the sense of obligation that I originally felt. No luck yet, the phones are still notoriously unreliable. (I now have some idea of how my mom must have felt when they tried to call me and it just rang and rang or went silent.) It’s sad and frustrating to feel my village family slipping away from my present.

I still catch myself thinking “I wanna go home,” which became a reflexive internal refrain towards the end of my service. I don’t know where I expect that “home” to be, or what I’m waiting for to quiet that small, anxious voice.

I have hours of video from Senegal that I haven’t watched yet, care packages for current volunteers that I haven’t sent, letters to the village that I haven’t written—the excuse of America’s hectic pace only goes so far.

I still don’t know “what I’ve kept with me / and what I’ve thrown away,” and I don’t expect to stop worrying about it any time soon. I also listen to sad music for the sake of indulging in sad music, so pay me no mind. At least no one will be waiting outside my front door tomorrow morning to scream “whitey” at me and demand twenty cents—though I wouldn’t mind waking up to a donkey bray or two.

Senegal or PC related

sad news from Senegal

I found out this week through RPCV email chains that Lamine Ndongo, Peace Corps Senegal’s Safety and Security Officer of four years, died in a car accident on Sunday. He was a great guy, genuinely concerned about all of the volunteers, and he died while out on the job.

The RPCV organization Friends of Senegal and The Gambia is organizing a collection for Lamine’s family—here is Senegal RPCV Marielsie Avila’s email with the information:

Dear Friends,

It is with regret that I inform you of the loss of a dear friend to Senegal PCVs and RPCVs from the last 4 years. Lamine N’Dongo, Safety and Security Officer, died in a car accident on Sunday, driving the PC car near Bakel. [According to another volunteer, “he was driving a PC car when an on-coming car swerved to miss a pothole and ran him off the road. He crashed, with the driver in the passenger seat.” This kind of swerving is very typical in Senegal, and very scary.] The driver was on the passenger seat and is currently in the hospital, injured but stable.

Lamine was a friend to those who knew him. He took care of each of us like we were family. He knew everyone in the police force throughout the country and God forbid anyone messed with us, he would take care of it tactfully and quickly. He believed in Peace Corps and was proud to be part of its mission. [And, as Will Conquest wrote, “He came to Peace Corps in the summer of 2003 with very little English, but through his own tireless work ethic he improved his language skills to the point that he was speaking better then some volunteers.”] He leaves behind a wife and four children, all girls.

We would like to make a collection for his family on behalf of the Friends of Senegal and The Gambia and the RPCV community at large. FOSG will match any funds collected. Some RPCVs already started collecting funds and I’ve invited them to join our collection so we could match the total amount. Any small contribution would be of great help to them.

Please send a check or money order to Dan Theisen to:

Pay to the order of Friends of Senegal and The Gambia
Memo: Lamine N’Dongo’s Family Fund

Daniel Theisen
428 Bowleys Quarters Road
Baltimore, MD 21220

We will wait at least 2 weeks to give people time to send their checks to Baltimore for Dan to process them.

Thank you,

Marielsie Avila-Negron, MPA

Senegal or PC related

Village view (back)

Towards the end of my first rainy season in Senegal, I started taking a picture each month from the same spot, looking over fields towards my village. They start in August 2005 and end in October 2006.


I find it hard to believe I was standing there a year ago taking that third-to-last photo—sometimes it could be a decade for how distant it feels, other times I can still feel myself there, watching the thunderstorms come rushing through. As life here takes over, I find myself worrying more and more about the effort it will take to hold on to those two years in any meaningful way.

But most of the time there are a million other things eating up my tired little brain, including those I’m procrastinating on, like switching my blog over to WordPress from this dying install of Movable Type (comments crapped out a while ago). And something about a site redesign. Right.

Senegal or PC related

In Defense of Ambivalence

Today is the start of Peace Corps Week, a celebration of all things Peace Corps and a time for evangelization. I’ve been doing my part with the new group of volunteers that’s preparing to leave for Senegal in March. I’ve responded to emails and even met for coffee with invitees deep in the throes of the only two states nameable at that pre-departure point: “nervous and excited.”

I’m conflicted about how to answer questions other than “What should I pack?” and “How much French did you use?” They’re so enthusiastically open-minded that it seems somehow inappropriate to burden them with the challenges and frustrations that they’ll experience for themselves soon enough.

Also, I feel a vaguely judgmental pressure from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community to have loved my country of service and to reminisce fondly about my time there. At a Peace Corps association meeting this weekend, another RPCV asked me how I was adjusting (“It’s pretty damn great.”) and if I missed Senegal. “Not really” was my short version of an honest reply. “Oh, that’s too bad,” he responded.

The thing is, I’m still in recovery. I’m still in a defensive—not yet nostalgic—mode. I think of Senegal and I think of feeling like a moving target. I remember the asshole chefs de gare and the dangerous, cramped sept-place rides. Useless bureaucracy and unquestioned misogyny. I still resent members of the Peace Corps administration for their incompetence and even outright malevolence.

I can still feel utter isolation, like those baby monkeys that researchers lock in bare wire cages with nothing but a bottle and a ragged towel. I remember the pressure of holding my emotions in and choking back a two-year repressed scream—and the fear I wouldn’t recover. I reread my journals and I see cycles of depression and elation, expansion and withdrawal.

But here’s the uplifting moral of the story: In spite of all the bullshit from Peace Corps, Senegal, and my own twisted psyche, I’m glad I went and I’m glad I stayed.

Because there were so many beautiful parts, too—bike rides through open countryside, a village family who accepted me unquestioningly, and smart, funny, passionate volunteers who exemplified the best of “community.” Sunrises and rainstorms and knowing the constellations and moon cycles. Actual conversations in Pulaar, winning-over strangers, and those other precious moments of success.

I have complete respect for the volunteers who made an honest evaluation of their service, decided they’d be happier elsewhere, and left early. I am in awe of the volunteers who could genuinely say that they loved being in Senegal, some enough to stay for a third year.

But I also want to recognize a third category: those of us who spent two years swinging between extremes of joy and rage—with the occasional pause at contentment, if we were lucky—unsure of what we were supposed to be doing, who we were doing it for, or why the hell we were staying. We stayed, even if it was only through pure force of will, and when we left we still didn’t know how to feel about those two years of our lives.

But we—I—do know that Peace Corps was a choice, a privilege, and a gift. The fact that it was also a struggle and a royal pain in the ass doesn’t negate its positive value but instead gives it complexity and depth. It was beautiful, ugly, and incomprehensible.

Before I went to Senegal, I mistakenly thought “ambivalent” meant “indifferent.” Once there, I quickly learned to appreciate its actual meaning: having equally strong and entirely opposite feelings about one, same thing.

I loved. I hated. I was there and now I’m not, and I am thankful for both.

And that’s why you should join the Peace Corps.

Senegal or PC related

Soil in Senegal!

Here’s one of my reasons for being MIA from the internets lately, the other being my eye-twitch-inducing yet extremely interesting full-time internship with a Berkeley production/post house.

This screened yesterday as part of Cory’s exit seminar for her master’s at UC Davis:

Senegal or PC related

Earth & Sky article

Kanni with gourd bowls

Over at Earth & Sky‘s features section today there’s an article I wrote about the “human world” side of my Peace Corps service, illustrated with a few of my photographs.

Another of my Senegal photographs is paired with the text of a radio show on the Millenium Villages project.

Go check out the site, if only to see what to look for in Tonight’s Sky.