Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Maybe the best thing I've done in my entire life

This is Adama. He lives in a village about 40 km away from mine. I saw him once when I was in his village to do some health education activities, and then coincidentally just a short time after that I got an email about an NGO called Operation Smile coming to Senegal to do free operations on kids with cleft lips and cleft palates.

So once I had all the information about Operation Smile, I decided to go back to his village to talk to his family about taking him to Thies to get the operation. I knew they probably wouldn't have the money for the car ticket up there (about $20 one way, per person), so I decided if they couldn't afford it I would just pay for it myself.

So I went to his village and talked to his mom, Fili. She said they'd taken Adama to the hospital in Tamba when he was a baby, but they couldn't do anything for him there, and his father is deceased and he has seven brothers and sisters, and the family can't afford to do anything else. And his mom has never been farther away from her village than Tamba, which is about a four hour car ride away. But we talked it over, and finally agreed that if Fili's older brother, who lives in Tamba, agreed, then I would take Adama, his mom Fili, and baby sister Penda (who is still breastfeeding and so has to stay with her mom) up to Thies to see if he could get the operation.

So we went up to Thies, along with my friend Mariama Keita, who was going to help out as a translator at the hospital. It was a pretty stressful few days for me, being responsible for a family who've never been out of Tamba and who only speak Mandinka, which hardly anyone in Thies speaks. Poor little Adama was scared about the operation and kept asking his mom when they could go back to their village.

But in the end, it all worked out great: Adama got his operation, everyone was happy, and after a few days they got to go back home.

The day after the operation, when Adama was released from the hospital, I took the family to spend the day with my Thies host family, who also speak Mandinka, because I thought they'd be more comfortable there (plus my host mom is an amazing cook). At one point it occurred to me that Adama probably hadn't seen his new face in a mirror yet, so I offered him a little compact from my purse. He took it over to the doorway for better light, and then just stared at his face for about two minutes.

Then when we were at the garage in Thies waiting for our car to be ready to go to Tamba, Adama said that he wanted to spend the 1000 CFA ($2) that my Thies host mom gave him for the trip on buying sunglasses and a mirror. So Mariama and I helped him buy those things from the vendors wandering around the garage. So then Adama was all spiffed up and ready to go back to his village and impress his friends with his new look:

I can't think of anything better I've done in my entire life than taking Adama to get that operation. I just wish I was going to be in Senegal long enough to see him when his face is completely healed up.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My ancestors are Pulaars!

Written Wednesday, 26 November 2008



On my way up to the Futa, the northern, really Sahel edge-of-the-desert part of Senegal, to visit a friend and celebrate Thanksgiving, we passed a village called Semme.  Which is what my family's last name was, hundreds of years ago when my ancestors immigrated to America.


Which leads me to think that maybe my ancestors were Pulaar!  Or, a little more seriously, maybe relatives of my ancestors colonized this part of Senegal!


Or, much more probably but also much less interestingly, maybe semme is a word in Pulaar that I don't know, and it has nothing to do with my family.  But I like my first explanation the best.

Universal experience

Written Saturday, 22 November 2008



I just finished reading a book about a (Canadian version of Peace Corps) volunteer in Bhutan.  It's funny to read about someone in such a different place and discover that our experiences have been almost exactly the same – the strangeness of the place at arrival, being scared of weird diseases and parasites, thinking you'll never find anything in common to talk about with the locals… and then gradually, gradually getting so comfortable that it's America that begins to seem like the alien place, and how will I ever fit in there again?


So when I got to the middle of the book I found myself anxious to find out what happened as if it would tell me how things are going to turn out for me here.  But at the end in the story the volunteer gets married to a local Bhutanese man and has a baby, and that is definitely not what I'm going to do.


So I guess I'm just going to have to figure out the next six months for myself.

Letter to President Obama from the villagers of Cour Bambey

Written Friday, 14 November 2008



Here is the letter composed by the villagers of Cour Bambey (which I also emailed to Obama on his campaign website):


13 November 2008


Dear Mr. President Obama,


The day of the 13th of November is the world day of the celebration of Obama.  We are behind you.  You touch us in our hearts.  All of the population of Cour Bambey is very happy and congratulates you on your victory.  Before we did not know you, but you have touched our hearts and it is as if we are all in America.


The population is ready to invite you to Cour Bambey, which is found 47 kilometers from Tambacounda.  We want development, including natural resources, education, health, potable water, water towers and faucets, and above all we want a strong relationship between our village and America.  Cour Bambey is in the locality of Sinthian Coundara in the region of Kolda.


We wish you much success with your work, that you work hard and listen well to the people of America.  We ask that you help the women with their gardening projects.  And above all we hope that you bring peace in the world.  The economic crisis hits us here too – the rice and gas are very expensive.  You must help us.  In the village here, there is no one in America.  Help us to send two or three people to go to America to see the conditions there.


Now we understand American democracy thanks to Peace Corps.  We really hope that in Cour Bambey it continues to have much success.  Thank you very much for having sent us Mariama Keita (Holly Packard), who has given us a party.  And also Khadija Tandian (Rebecca Semmes).  They have done a lot to help us.


We were not able to vote on paper for Obama, but we have voted for you in our hearts.  We all greet you.  We are very tired with work, but we all greet you and we hope that you can help us to be less tired.




The People of Cour Bambey

Obama victory party in Cour Bambey

Written Friday, 14 November 2008



Yesterday my friend "Mariama Keita" and I held an Obama victory party in Mariama's village, and then we decided to write an article for Sabaar, Peace Corps Senegal's volunteer-run newsletter, about it.  Here is the article:


Senegalese Villagers Sacrifice Goat for Obama


Cour Bambey, Senegal – In celebration of the election of America's first sorta-black president, the villagers of Cour Bambey sacrificed a scrawny goat, danced to Beach Boys music, and wrote a letter inviting their quasi-African brother to visit the village.


The fete was first conceived one sleepless, sweltering night sitting around the radio.  PCV Holly Packard vowed that if Senator Obama won on election night, she would provide livestock and dance tunes to celebrate.  Since this required no effort on their part and could result in meat in the bowl, the villagers were vraiment d'accord, quoi.


So when the election results were finally announced in the wee hours of the morning November 5, the Cour Bambeyans' joy in the renewed proof of democracy and equality in America was augmented by the knowledge that they would soon be getting some good eatin'.


True to her word, PCV Packard and her trusty accomplice PCV Rebecca Semmes rolled up on their metal horses a few days later with all the party fixins.  (PCV Mary O'Brien was supposed to complete the celebratory trifecta, but she didn't come because she hates freedom).  Strapped to the backs of overloaded velos were ten kilos of vegetables, six bottles of bubbles (generously donated by PCV Tracy MacDonald), various decorative Obama paraphernalia, and some tunes with a tiny, tiny speaker.


The smallish goat chosen to be sacrificed on the alter of American democracy sat tied to a post, anticipating the outcome of its glorious martyrdom. (70 virgin lady goats?)  The villagers spent the day dancing to the sounds of the '60s and extolling the virtues of America and its first sorta-kinda-black president elect.


PCV Packard, unwilling to lose even one day in her mission to develop the shit out of Senegal, continued her work as a playground extension agent by teaching the children how to blow bubbles.  Terrified at first, the kiddies soon acclimated to the wondrous new game, and then started a small riot in their quest to pop as many bubbles as possible.


PCV Semmes recorded the event for posterity and the Sabaar using her mad photography skills, and then aided the village elders in composing a congratulatory letter to President-Elect Obama with her incroyable orthographic abilities.


Through no fault of PCVs Packard and Semmes or of the Beach Boys, lunch wasn't ready until 7 p.m. (It is unclear at this time whether fault lies with freedom-hating PCV O'Brien).  When lunch was finally served, it was met by enthusiastic chants of "O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!"  After the meal, the village men adjourned to the mosque to pray for the success and long life of the new American President.


Their mission of spreading democracy and freedom to the people of Cour Bambey accomplished, PCVs Packard and Semmes retired to Packard's hut for a celebratory meal of instant mashed potatoes and lukewarm Tang.  At the late late hour of 8 p.m., they closed their eyes, full of starch, Jadida, and the sense of a job well done.