Round 3:

Accepted. (Again. Finally!)


don't know much about history…

Courtesy my mother, courtesy the LSU Daily Reveille: She explained that it’s an ad from some condominium developer who was recently un-invited to be an LSU sponsor due to some feather-ruffling ads the developer placed. (More details, anyone? I couldn’t find anything online.)

I cannot attest to the historical accuracy of previous ads.

germans bombed pearl harbor

UPDATE: It’s an Animal House quote. I stand corrected.

And ashamed.


New and improved

I managed to finally get around to some housekeeping—trying to improve readability with a few text and color changes, fixing the background (that may have only bothered me), and (*drumroll*) upgrading to Gallery2.

Well, kinda—there are some redirect and layout issues still to be sorted out, but, for just browsing around, it works pretty swell.

Let me know if you find anything that seems more broken than usual.

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.”


christmas party


tree and cats   fireplace

cat and room   balls!

And Fun:

cookies on table   cookie decorating

matt, fierce   cookies


birthday hike

Tomales Point Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore: 9 1/2 miles of beautiful ocean vistas and elk out the wazoo.

waving to the sea

tomales point



video shoot from last night

fire pixie

Fire dancing by Fire Pixie. They were awesome.

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.


RTF street cred

It took an extra three years, but I’ve finally earned the right to call myself a film student—I’ve done an unauthorized video shoot in a laundromat.

Parking garage ninjas can’t be far behind.

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