So I haven't been able to update in a while due to several factors: 1) I only get internet at the training center, which I'm at for a days at a time every 10 days 2) When I am at the center I have to find someone not using his/her laptop to borrow 3) Even if 1) & 2) are fulfilled the internet isn't always working.
In the last month, as you might have guessed, a lot has happened.
For starters I received my official site. I will in fact be working in the Kolda region of Senegal for the next two years. Kolda is one of southernmost regions in Senegal and thus has the most fertile soil and steadiest rains - good for trees! Most volunteers are continuing work started by a previous volunteer, but for me individually I will actually be starting a new site in a city within 20km of Guinea-Bissau. It will be interesting because there is a cluster already established in the southern part of Kolda...about 25-30km from my site. It appears that I will be the first site in what will be a new cluster in that area of Kolda. Again, I can't blog about which city it actually is, but if you e-mail me I can tell you otherwise I have told a number of people.
I had my first Korite, which marks the end of Ramadan in Islam. During the entire month of Ramadan Muslims fast from sun up until sundown. The day is filled with feasting and visiting neighbors and feasting with neighbors - Lots of eating. People generally get especially dressed up for this occasion and will usually even have new clothes made. I hadn't had my Senegalese clothes made yet, so I just wore some nice American clothes. As a side note, I did go to the market with my host father the other day to buy fabric and have it tailored for a "Grand Boubou." I even opted for the special gold embroidering, and since I had my Senegalese host father with me, I was able to get the true Senegalese price instead of the "tourist" premium price that most any foreigner would expect. I plan on wearing it for the first time on October 15th for Volunteer Swear-in, but I might be able to offer an exclusive sneak peak on my blog...stay tuned for updates...
After Korite we were slated to have our "Volunteer Visits." 11 people plus the driver piled into a Peace Corps landcruiser and drove 10-11 hours south into the heart of the Kolda region. We were scheduled t0 leave at 5am, but we didn't end up departing until about 5:30am only to find that we had a flat tire less than 100yds from the training center. Apparently the guards even thought that we had a flat tire as we left - a great start. One advantage of leaving that early was being able to see the sunrise over the African savannah without the obstructing presence of buildings.
As we drove further South the surrounding environment got greener and greener. When we finally arrived in Kolda we were surrounded by trees - there is a reason why it is the most beautiful region in Senegal. During my stay in the Kolda region with current volunteer Darren I quickly learned that biking will be a staple for me during my two-year stay. The second day I was down there we biked about 20km from his site down to my site to meet my future family and see my future home, after which we biked back North and took a longer route to visit some other volunteers in the area - a total of over 50km on the day - I enjoyed every minute of it. Lining the latterite (clay & rock) road was either cropland or thick forest.
My future site is certainly not what I expected. As an Agroforestry volunteer going to the Kolda region I figured to be in a small village with around 100 people and to live in thatch huts. I will in fact be living in a city of around 2,500 people (quite sizable for Kolda). The compound I'm living in will have a cement hut for me by myself, but the main house on the property has, a TV, two satellite dishes (I wonder what Senegalese satellite TV is like), 2 DVD players, a motorcycle, and even a computer! I will have electricity for about 5 hours a day at night and on holidays. It's not that I'm defining my family by their possessions, but it gives you some perspective considering I wasn't even expecting cement buildings! All of this really ironic considering some of my fellow trainees were expecting to go to an urban area and ended up in villages with less than 100 people. I knew Senegal was rather developed for African standards, but I wasn't expecting to ever see it. So, like I said I am a bit further than I'd like from other volunteers, but somehow I have a number of amenities that I was prepared to have to give up.
In the mean time I've gone swimming at beach a few times with some of my friends here, and I couldn't believe how warm the water was after swimming in Lake Michigan my entire life. Otherwise I've been studying Fulukunda 4 hours a day still, and I've been learning about a number of Agroforestry technologies. Other than that, I do a lot of hanging around with my host family perfecting my ear for Pulaar.
The past couple of days have been devoted to "Counterpart Workshop," where my host father and main technical point person from my new site come to the training center to learn about what Peace Corps is all about. Overall it has been a rather successful couple of days. I noticed my counterparts, as new additions to Peace Corps, had a number of questions, but the way I look at it the more they want to know, the more they care about this program. It is important for them understand what they can expect from me and what I need to be able to expect from them. I was also able to have some discussion time with them 2 on 1, and we were able to hash a number of issues the people of my new city want to address. It seems that, despite being in the wettest region, they have an especially deep water table, during the dry season they all but run out of water. Additionally, they have a big problem with slash and burn agriculture where all the vegetation is cut down and burned for a fleeting supply of soil nutrients - the fact that my counterpart already understands that this is an unsustainable practice without me trying to explain it is very encouraging. Generally a practice like that has been going on for generations leaving barren lands in its wake (e.g. Brazil), but he already wants to change this. Finally there is an issue with having money to purchase more nutritional food, so they want help developing diverse gardens that can produce nutritional food at a lower cost than the regional market. It was great to really get an idea of what they want help with so I can start envisioning my potential there.
Tomorrow, as per tradition, our training group (aka stage) will be renting a beach house for the afternoon, night, and next afternoon. It should be a great time!
On Monday we head to Dakar for a few logistical workshops, but it does sound like we'll have some time to see some of the city. This will be my first time back in the capital since I flew in at 5am on August 11th! Then on Tuesday we head back to our homestays for our last week there before swearing in.
I can't believe I only have a few weeks left of training. This last month and a half has flown by! I am however humbled by the daunting reality of 2 more years in front of me. As a friend recently told me, all I can do is focus on living in the moment. I try not to think about what I'm going to do when I get back to the US, what I'm going to do in a year or even what I'm doing next month. I take a deep breathe and take each day as it comes - with an enormous sense of curiosity and an open mind.
Miss everyone back in the States and I'll write as often as I can