Sunday, July 14, 2013

The World

Hello everyone! 

I'm sorry for not writing here as often as I should. If you'll agree to read again, I'd be happy to write once again in my blog; it's been almost a year but I really enjoy sharing thoughts here. 

It's been an eventful year - I've come so far so fast, my head is spinning a bit! My AmeriCorps service was a great experience and allowed me to live the life of a program manager in an incredible and impactful Habitat for Humanity affiliate. My work with the youth bureau has so far shown me the powerful motivation of today's youth and their parents. It's also shown me that great patience is required for working with public school administrators to implement new programs, even if their hearts and minds seem to be devoted to change.

Often, when I come to a junction like this in my life I think back to the very first tarot card reading I ever received. Sitting at the coffee table in her modest trailer home, my reader used a spread of ten cards called the Celtic Cross. The last card represented the outcome if I chose to continue on my path. My last card was the World card, which at the time thrilled both me and my reader. According to one website, the World "signifies completion, achievement and fulfillment. All of your efforts are finally paying off and you have reached the end of a journey or have completed a major life cycle." The card depicts a woman floating in air with a laurel crown upon her head. The woman has accomplished something and is completely balanced and free, surrounded by the feelings of victory and new possibilities. At the time of the reading I had just turned 19, and it was shortly before the reading that I decided to aim for the Peace Corps after graduating college. I was so happy to see that card and hear its description; it let a younger, often self-defeating me know that I was on the right path. The World card has followed me in subsequent readings, and has always been a welcome sight. 

Now, I am finishing my year of AmeriCorps VISTA service and simultaneously beginning new paths. In August, I will begin my scholarly exploration of social work at Fordham University. I am completely elated when I think of starting school again! In my undergraduate study at CUNY John Jay, I never truly applied myself. Although I earned many A's, I was too often happy scraping by with a B or worse. I'm not sure if becoming a social worker will be my end result, but I cannot deny my deep-rooted identification with the mission social workers devote their lives to. So, we will see!

Even more groundbreaking, in September my fiance and I are expecting our first child! She reached her 30th gestational week this past Thursday and we are quickly preparing ourselves, our apartment and our life schedules to accept our new family member into our hearts and home. The path to birth has been long, full of books, classes, discussion and of course, purchases. Even with all the prep work, we still smile at each other every day imagining the day we get to hold and welcome our new little boy or girl into the world (we are keeping it a surprise). 

Things end and begin again. I live through one experience, learn from it and live again through a completely different one, taking the lessons with me every time. I truly don't think I'll ever stop beginning, and I love it this way. Like the wise poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said, "And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Resolve to be always beginning—to be a beginner!"

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer Fun!

Dear Listener,

Thank you for patiently waiting for another post! A lot has happened since July, and I'll try to be more frequent with my posts so they aren't this long.

Southold Town Youth Bureau: Town Dump Beautification

We at the Youth Bureau have been meeting every month to develop environmental education initiatives targeting youth. In June, Bureau director Phillip Beltz, three Greenport and Mattituck High School students and I met at the local transfer station in Cutchogue (a.k.a. the town dump) to do, ironically, some beautification. 

A manager at the transfer station had kindly provided 8 wooden raised garden beds and purchased over $500 worth of flowers. The raised beds were in a grave state of disrepair, and the task was to rebuild the beds with material from the recycle section of the dump, then fill the boxes with compost and plant the flowers. The manager also provided the compost as the dump does its own composting.

I never thought I could have so. much. fun. at the town dump! The students and I scavenged the metals section for some good material to repair the raised beds. Most of the beds had no bottom and all were damaged in some way or another. We found old chicken wire and used that along with recycled newspaper to fix up all of the holes and reinforce the beds, then we filled them with compost and planted the flowers! A transfer station employee came along with a forklift to move the heavy beds all around the entrance and parking lot. At the end of it all we weeded the place just to make our dump look even nicer! 

Too easy!

Youth Bureau: School Environmental Education

Director Beltz, another new board member Dan Deacon and I have been meeting as a sub-committee to develop environmental education initiatives targeting the elementary, junior and senior high schools of Southold Township. We agreed that reducing waste, recycling and water quality were important issues we could feasibly tackle, and started discussing ways to help the local schools improve their waste systems.

Well, it turns out the Southold Town Waste Management board is already working on a recycling initiative targeting town schools! This is great news, as we can now focus less on the waste management of our initiative and more on youth involvement and the environmental education of students. 

I'll provide updates on our progress when I can, but I'm very excited about this. Education is keystone to positive change, and can lead to improved water quality and greater concern and care for our fragile local ecosystem. Many students understand the big picture already; through my interactions with youth I believe future generations are moving fast towards greater environmental sustainability. In my opinion it is region specific information that many students lack, along with opportunities to participate and contribute to greater regional sustainability.

Our youth bureau board will await the results of the initial meetings between the schools and waste management board. We will move on from there. I can see art contests with clean water as a theme, or tech classes competing to see who can create the best recycling bin. I see collaborations with local advocacy organizations and sustainable businesses. I see guest speakers talking at the local high schools such as scientists, advocates, writers, directors and producers that live on Long Island and in the Hamptons.

Oh yeah! Gettin' stuff done! These guys know.
The Habitat for Humanity Model is Amazing

Coming from my experience in Senegal with the Peace Corps, I've always been very mindful of sustainability when examining a non-profit's model. I would like to let you know why Habitat for Humanity's model is one of the best I've ever encountered, and why I'm very happy to be serving with them.

Housing on Long Island is extremely expensive. Whether owning your own home or renting a home or apartment (if you can find one), the cost is extremely high. For a husband and wife with child, or a single mother or father, saving up a down payment and getting approved for a loan is typically out of the question. Because the supply of rental housing cannot meet the demand, families are forced to rent apartments at exploitative rates or settle for unsafe housing. Add to the situation the problem of transportation on Long Island, with the only reliable public option being the Long Island Rail Road. With each station being an average of 8 miles away from each other, the chance you live within walking distance of a LIRR station is minute.

As of the 2010 census, one out of two families with an annual household income of between $50,000 and $75,000 is spending over 35% of that income in housing costs alone (LongIslandIndex.orgHousing Infographic). Adding transportation costs to that and purchasing and owning a home on Long Island becomes impractical for a lower-income family, such as new parents often are.

Habitat for Humanity Suffolk offers one of the only local opportunities for a lower income family to purchase and own a home. Contrary to the belief of some, Habitat partners with families in purchasing a home. Families go through a lengthy application process which they must pass three qualifications: (1) They are living in substandard housing and are unable to obtain adequate housing by conventional means; (2) They have a consistent and verifiable income that is enough to afford the mortgage as well as taxes, insurance and any other monthly fees; (3) They are willing to fulfill all the partnership requirements for Habitat home ownership, meaning they exhibit timeliness, completeness and cooperation with the application and they are willing to commit 300 hours of service to the building of their home and other Habitat homes.

There are many reasons why this model works so well. One is the ubquitious and easily relatable nature of the problem. The problem of substandard and unattainable housing is universally understood, especially here on Long Island. Because the problem is easily understood, donations and volunteer support is more readily available to affordable housing organizations.

The real gem of the Habitat model is the volunteer model it's based on. Much like many places in Africa, a community gets together to build a house when needed. This act is then repeated by the community for another person, and the first Habitat homeowner contributes their time again to a second homeowner. The more Habitat homeowners there are, the more people there are to help build another house. These homeowners are also walking talking examples of what the love of a community can accomplish, and they naturally promote Habitat in their daily lives.

The volunteers that come out to help have a genuinely fun time building a house. It becomes a win for the volunteers, a win for the corporations and businesses donating their money and labor as they receive good press and a very fun experience, a win for Habitat as more houses mean more federal and corporate grants, a win for the homeowner who will now begin his or her 0% interest mortgage payments on their new home, a win for the children of the family who will grow up in safer conditions with more room to play, be happy and do their homework, and ultimately a win for the neighborhood the family moves into as a new hard working and responsible family is added to the block.

We offer a hand up to a selected family partner not a hand out. The more support we receive, the more hands we can grab and pull up. Naturally one would think, even if its for a brief second, "Why can't I have a new home? I'm struggling too." The answer to that is you can apply and partner with us to purchase a new home if it's the right fit for you and if you qualify. Do you have family with housing to rely on? Do you want to purchase and pay off a 30 year mortgage on a home in a neighborhood of Habitat's choosing? What if the neighborhood is a "not so nice" one? Our real estate is usually delinquent lots and houses acquired through donations from the local town governments. Properties that are acquired through delinquency are usually in "bad" neighborhoods, and a partnering Habitat family has to be okay with that.

If it's not your time to partner with Habitat, then volunteer and help a fellow community member. One day it could be your time. 

AmeriCorps VISTA Member, Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County

You are now listening to the new AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer Training Coordinator of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County. Phew, that's a mouthful of a title. But what does it mean!?

This is my new VISTA site mate Danielle in front of a double rainbow!

Essentially my primary assignment is to expand the volunteer model of our Habitat for Humanity affiliate to include recruitment and training of skilled and experienced volunteers. Our Habitat built around 10 houses last year, and less the year before. This year we are on track to finishing 16 houses, a huge increase. This represents an increase of work which requires more crew leaders on the ground to help guide volunteers. Crew leaders  are regular volunteers who are informed privately when a church group or corporate group is coming out to a build site. We have a few, but we need more.

I've been reaching out to current volunteers to step up and lead. I've also met with the trade schools around Suffolk County such as Eastern Suffolk BOCES and apprenticeship programs at the local trade unions. Each potential partnership has the ability to yield so much more than just a few crew leaders, and together we will explore the many ways we can collaborate and help each other.

Which leads me to my secondary assignment, to create and expand partnerships with licensed tradesmen and women. Habitat Suffolk currently subcontracts specific construction tasks such as plumbing and septic work. If our affiliate could create a partnership with a plumbing contractor or septic systems contractor whereby we receive donated labor and materials, or just labor, we could shave that cost off of the budget of the house. Eventually the savings would add up to full funding for another house. That's another hard-working low income family receiving the opportunity to own a home.


I hope you've enjoyed this update as much as I've enjoyed living it. Let me know what you think and share all of your ideas! Because my VISTA assignment requires independent and imaginative thinking I could use all the help I can get. 

Love and peace,

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Southold Youth Bureau Update

Hey everyone!

Much has happened since my last blog post two months ago. I've been having a great time as a new member of the Southold Town Youth Bureau (SYB). We're currently planning an environmental initiative to start in September when school is back in session, and I'd love to tell you about it!

Let me begin with a little story. When I graduated Southold High School back in 2004 there was a rumor about how the paper in our paper recycling bins actually wasn't being recycled. Teachers and students in the know would mutter with brief disdain how it doesn't matter which bin you put your paper in, it all goes to the same dumpster at the end of the day.

Fast forward to present day and to Anne Davey, a fresh graduate of Southold High School (and former member of the Southold Youth Council). In her senior year at SHS, Anne Davey tried to champion a new and improved recycling system. Powered and motivated by students and funded by outside organizations, this new recycling system would have been something the whole North Fork could be proud of. Anne ultimately failed due to lack of support from her peers among others. A lesson was learned that you cannot succeed with such a large project as just one woman.

I met last week with Anne Davey and Phillip Beltz -who is the director of the SYB- and discussed potential environmental initiatives for the fall. Also attending the meeting was fellow neophyte board member Dan Durett. We spent an hour brainstorming ways to revitalize Anne's recycling initiative for Southold High School, and we now have a battle plan for Anne Davey's Recycling System version 2.0.

I'm very happy to say that this project excites me! Happy because I only get excited if I truly believe that the potential for success exists, and there are many reasons why this is so. The backbone of the plan is already sketched out. Not only that, but we have a failed attempt that we can learn from. Plus we have new minds on the SYB with new ideas and different ways of looking at things. Dan Durett is a go getter and is idealistic, and years and years of professional experience, including working for the National Council for Science and the Environment. I myself have no qualms walking the halls of my former high school and speaking with students and faculty, and I already have a relationship with most of the faculty as a former student.

Our subcommittee will present the idea to the whole board at the next meeting, and hopefully we get some positive feedback. We will then present the idea to the Southold Youth Council, which consists of 15 students from three different schools.

Positive feedback from the students is the most important because if they don't want to get behind this it will ultimately fail. Not only will it fail, but it will have no meaning. The projects and programs the SYB plans are designed to inspire and help the youth of Southold reach their full potential. The most important part of this potential initiative is that students increase their desire for knowledge of more environmentally sustainable living.

I'll keep you updated on how this and other projects go. A few weeks ago we beautified the town landfill by repairing eight flower beds with reused material found around the dump and planting beautiful annuals and perennials. We won't have too many projects during students' summer break but we will be busy planning.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Americorps Update

Hey all,

My phone interview with Habitat for Humanity went very well. In just an hour they offered me the position and I accepted.  I will be HFH of Suffolk County's new Training Coordinator, although I still do not completely understand the position. They sort of rushed me in the interview. I do know that the two primary tasks of the position are to (1) help develop a training curriculum for volunteers and (2) to help coordinate volunteer participation.

This is a new position for HFH Suffolk, so they were undecided on my work hours and failed to answer some other questions fully during the interview. They did, however, tell me how much the monthly stipend would be and lets just say it is miles more than what is estimated on the Americorps website, but a lot less than how much I could be making in the private sector. I'm happy though; the free healthcare, education award at end of service worth over $5000, and networking and prestige of working for Habitat and Americorps makes me believe this will prove to be a good career decision.

I also interviewed with Outreach Training Institute this past week. They train the most CASACs, or substance abuse and alcoholism counselors, in New York state. They require an admissions interview before accepting new students (haha, like they wouldn't accept new students?). Due to my low income for last year they are offering 50% off my tuition, which lowers it to around $200 a month. I'm going to take a few classes and see if it's worth it to continue. Maybe it won't be my calling, but addictions counseling training could open many new career paths for me. Also, mom says education is never a bad thing, and I agree!

I'm excited! Send some good energy and thoughts my way!


Sunday, April 29, 2012

What's Been Happening and Tentative Plans

Hey everyone!

How're y'all doing? Long time no post. I got back from California days ago, it was great. I don't think I'd want to live in LA, but the weather on the west coast is definitely inviting. Asterios is doing well, he's keeping busy with lots of comedy and freelancing, and probably lots more stuff he pushed off the schedule to hang out with me. He and his better half Justine just moved into a new apartment together and they are very happy. I forgot to take pictures, but the apartment and especially the neighborhood is very nice and relaxed compared to Hollyweird (I love to say that) and Weird Town, CA (Venice Beach).

I've been a bit busy out here on the east end. For a couple months I was selling items for people on eBay. I've since dumped my clients and hooked up with a comic book dealer as his business partner. We will ideally work as a ford assembly line of comic dealing: hunting, buying, grading and selling comics. He's been doing it for a decade but would like a partner to increase business. I also may work for a new restaurant in Greenport. They focus in locally sourced good-for-you food, and the manager was one of my eBay clients. They will be calling me this week and giving me my initial schedule.

Tomorrow I have a phone interview with Habitats for Humanity. Their office is about an hour away from Peconic, and they are looking for a "volunteer coordinator"I believe it's a full time position but I'll get the details tomorrow. The catch is that they've posted the position as an Americorps VISTA volunteer opportunity. So I will be working for Habitats, but I will be an Americorps volunteer and be paid by Americorps. There are some pros and some cons to this (health insurance, education award, length of service, minuscule monthly stipend, full-time), I'll update you on that after I speak to them on the phone.

In the beginning of April I was appointed to the Southold Town Youth Bureau Board as a board member. The Bureau is a government funded volunteer board that designs, implements and maintains projects and programs for the youth of Southold Town. We have a small budget (below 10k) and our focus is to ensure the youth of Southold, Cutchogue, Peconic, Mattituck and Laurel reach their full potential. Since I'm new I've just been meeting individually with like minded organizations and people and discussing potential projects. I missed the first board meeting as I was in California, but the second board meeting is on May 21st, so I'll have more to talk about then.

I believe I've created a nice little three year plan for myself. Once I finally gain a stable source of income I will begin taking classes in substance abuse and alcoholism counseling. If I deem those classes worthwhile I'll continue taking them for 11 months until I earn what's called a CASAC or certificate in alcoholism and substance abuse counseling. Within that year I will be making payments on both my student loans and, hopefully, a new economy car.

I've been reading books on social work and I believe it's a field that I would do very well in, so in November of this year I will apply to graduate programs in social work. I've created a list of a few universities, and will have to visit them before applying of course. Most of these Masters in Social Work programs take two years, but some give a three year part-time option. Ideally, I would want to find a part-time program and use my CASAC to find a part time or per-diem job as a counselor, and leverage myself with student loans and potential government aid and scholarships.

A lot of thinking and planning going on! I'd love to know what you guys think. Just email me your ideas!


Friday, January 27, 2012

Resignation and the Peace Corps Experience

Hey everyone!

I never thought I'd be saying this but as you may or may not have heard, I've resigned early from Peace Corps Senegal. I will not go into my reasons for resigning on this blog but I'd be happy to speak about it with anyone through the blog's messaging service or through email.

My Peace Corps Experience
In the beginning of undergraduate studies I was confused. I found strong interest in helping people as a career, and wanted to help those who need help the most, but I couldn't explain why or even how. A year into college I had chosen International Criminal Justice as a major, and through that found a strong interest in human rights law, but soon figured out that enforcement of such law is practically non-existent. Through conversations in higher-level classes, I came to believe that governments and development workers are the closest thing to enforcers of human rights, and during my senior year at John Jay I began my application for the Peace Corps: to become a human rights cop, in a sense.

Why did I want to help people, though? Where were my motivations to help people coming from? Why did I feel I must help people of other countries when there are so many problems here at home? Through the application process, the Peace Corps asks you to answer these questions. I'd like to post my answer here (unedited):

My Motivation Statement
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to help people. It's possible that this desire came from my parents, or the stories and media I absorbed as a child, but I've stopped trying to figure out its origin. What I do know for certain is that I will not be satisfied until I invent an original and
effective method to assist people that are in dire need of support.

In attaining my bachelor's degree in International Criminal Justice, I've gained an extraordinary amount of knowledge and experience. I've also learned a lot by
listening to the radio and reading books about people creating banks in Mongolia, or building schools in Pakistan. I want to join the Peace Corps to use the knowledge I've gained, and the skills that I have, to help create upward mobility for people around the world.

I want to go to a country in the Middle East, or in Asia or Africa, and help a vulnerable community survive and thrive. I also want to learn from them, adopt their culture as my own and learn from their perspectives. I believe the Peace Corps represents the start of my path in the world of development.

The former Peace Corps volunteers I've talked to have all said that their time with the Corps was the best and most difficult time of their lives. Many warn me of the patience that I must have, some have told me that I may become discouraged or depressed. I know that I've only studied other people's cultures from afar, and I may not know what is in store for me in the world of development, but I will never be discouraged from assisting others in need of my help.

I plan on figuring out ways to make it easier for people to gain their fair share of wealth and happiness. This may be done by creating a social entrepreneurship in a developing nation,
or it may be done by founding a nonprofit that assists in the education of girls and boys. But before I can figure out how to help, I feel that I must leave the United States and see for myself what needs to be done. The Peace Corps offers me a perfect opportunity to learn what kind of business or non-profit I can create to help people attain greater wealth and happiness.

My mother and father immigrated here from different countries so that my siblings and I could
have a better life. I want to give the same chance to people who have not been dealt the same hand as I have. I'm proud of my cultural heritage, and of my parents' and grandparents' labor to become Americans, and I believe that the Peace Corps will allow me to show people of a different nation what it is to be an American, and what we can accomplish by working together. 


The name of this blog is taken from a song lyric, which in its entirety goes: "I tried walking backwards to get less confused". My theory right before I left was that through "walking backwards" in Senegal, I would better understand how to move forward. Extracting myself from all that is known, moving to a developing country and starting at zero culturally and linguistically: this became my definition of walking backwards. I've now finished walking backwards, and I want to say that I was right: I now understand how to move forward.

Moving Forward
There are a lot of lessons I've taken away from my service in Senegal. I won't bore you with all of them, I'll simply speak about the most valuable one. In an earlier post -- the 20 questions from high-schoolers -- I spoke about fear. I'll reiterate what I said now.

During pre-service training I gained a fearlessness that I know will never leave me. The lesson was gained at the beginning of training, specifically day four: moving into your host family's compound. Being driven 40 minutes into desert, kicked out of a car and left without an understanding of your environment, its people, culture or language, you must decide: fight or flight. Do you run from your fear or try to embrace it? Twenty members of your new family are yelling at you and tugging at your hands, trying to get your attention. Do you become scared, or do you laugh? That first day was the beginning of a lifetime of laughing at fear.

Fear of the unknown can be overcome by gaining an understanding of the unknown. I've overcome fear of any difficulty because Peace Corps Senegal helped me better understand what difficulty is. The only thing left to do in a world without fear is to move forward, to progress. That's what I intend to do.

I'm keeping my plans simple: Go back to square one and try to truly understand my community's ecology and economy. Currently my community will be the area I grew up in: the north fork of long island. With all of my new experience, training and knowledge, I now am motivated to truly understand the area I live in, and more importantly to work together with the people around me to create the positive change that we all want to see.

Thank you for reading about my Peace Corps experience, and for supporting me through my time in Senegal. Up until now you've read about how my Peace Corps service affected a community Senegal. Stay tuned to this blog to see what I can do back here, at home.

I never understood what there was to love back home in this community, but now I'm beginning to see the meaning in every tree, the location of every house, every business, the nods and smiles of strangers. It's astounding how blind one can be -- even of what's right in front of them -- until one walks backwards.



Monday, December 12, 2011

Food Dreams / Village Politics

Hello everyone!

Since I came to this country, I've been having taunting dreams about food. Usually they go like this: I order a pizza and right when I pay for it, I wake up. Or, I walk into a Taco Bell or Burger King and I'm verbally stunned at the menu, I ask someone else to order for me and right before I get the food I wake up. OR... I'm about to bite into a large hamburger, and I wake up....

But recently -- and I think it's because I'm about to come home for a Christmas and New Year vacation -- I've been able to bite into the food I order. A few days ago I ordered a hamburger in a dream, and I actually got to take a bite or two. The rub is that I woke up absolutely disgusted at how it tasted. Two days ago it improved a little bit; I received a large hot dog with ketchup and mustard, took a bite and it tasted... like a hot dog with ketchup and mustard. Then I woke up. Things are improving! Today I could have sworn I smelled fresh bagels cooking somewhere, but I think that was just a fluke of some sort.

All joking aside, my work here in my village of Niandouba has been great recently! In November and early December I held pretty successful meetings shaping my and my villagers' idea of creating an early childhood education and development center, what we are calling a Sudu Cukalon but what is officially named a Case des Tout-Petits (CTP). Today my host mother Mariama Diaw and I became the first two individuals to begin training at an established CTP in the road town Kounkane, 15km from Niandouba. All of this week her and I will be attending class there, 9am-1pm, teaching and playing with kids aged 3-5. Mariama has volunteered to be one of the support staff; she will attend the Sudu Cukalon one day a week and help teach and take care of the kids. This training is especially important because not only is she learning how a CTP is run, but she is gaining an understanding of the value of early childhood education, an issue which was deemed the most important issue at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in 2000. Today, when I gave her $10 for the week for attending this training, she said "Oh Sakou, your paying me to learn?". She's a great mother and we will have soooo much fun this week.

And indeed, early childhood care and development is very important. I've been reading Wangari Maathai's most recent book (before she passed away this year, bless her) The Challenge for Africa and I believe that she would be proud of the direction my villagers and I are going with this and other projects. Maathai states that the dependency ubiquitous in Africa was not only generated by the more recent overabundance of aid, but colonialism and a detachment -- forced or defacto -- from culture and history also played a large part. Furthermore, this dependency is not at all perpetuated by some genetic or geographically-generated disposition to be relatively careless and "fatalistic" about the welfare of one's children and the future. It all comes back to a loss of culture. She prescribes a focus on strengthening the "culture of peace" inherent in many African cultures, a focus on the environment and environmental sustainability, and also a strengthening of Africa's future leaders, of civil participation and activism in general. She also says that to strengthen the leaders of tomorrow, ethics and leadership have to be taught from the beginning of a child's education to the last year of high-school; a topic only focused on at the university level across Africa. I believe that the tree planting, garden establishing, capacity building, and the increase in the quality of education that I'm doing in my village is hitting upon her prescriptions.
It's not all smooth sailing though. You'd think that people would be behind my ideas and projects, see and understand the obvious value, and want to help, but it's my current perception that village politics are getting in the way of things. A few examples:
  1. I was recently told that I can't use the building I wanted to house the Sudu Cukalon because it is a "health structure" and a group of health officials have refused access to it for anything but health projects that they are informed of and condone.
  2. Whenever I try to have a meeting, it's like pulling teeth trying to get people to attend. The mechanisms that are in place to inform people when a village meeting is scheduled seem to be off access to me in many cases, even though I am told by many villagers of high standing that "everyone will be notified".
  3. There is this feeling that people want to be paid to help themselves. If I have an idea for a project and I need a little bit of volunteer assistance it becomes difficult to mobalize people, even after they've publicly volunteered. To quote Wangari Maathai: It's as though I'm expected to compensate them for helping themselves.
These issues are overcome though, through something I've been learning about firsthand called politics. Politics on the village level is much like the politics we know back in the states, and I use many tactics that I've learned from paying attention to the news all my life. I constantly remind people that what we are doing is for the children, and that I'm just a volunteer. If I have no children, and I'm volunteering to help them, then why shouldn't they? I also have an ace up my sleeve that I can use at any time, the wonderful director of our primary school Director Mussa Coly Balde. Last night I came to him after dinner updating him on a few things, and I told him that some of the potential staff for the Sudu have come off to me as wishy-washy. I also told him about the problem of the Ministry of Health (MoH) officials prohibiting use of the building we planned to use for the Sudu.

Last night, from around 8 o'clock to 11 o'clock he and I went on a reprimanding campaign all over the village. We arrived at the house of the potential teacher and got a pretty convincing pledge to attend a week of training in Kounkane at the CTP.

We then went to the health worker Souba's house and YELLED quite a bit at him. He told us that we hadn't informed him adequately enough about our plans for using the building, and Director Balde flipped out at him, along with some other villagers that had chosen to approach the loud yelling next-door to their compounds. Souba played a large role in shaping this project, but when the MoH officials arrived in my village last week they decided themselves to start a project in the Sudu's building beginning in January, and consequently barred access to the building. I was not present in village at the time, nor was the village chief or Director Balde. Souba says when he informed them of our idea for the Sudu Cukalon, they verbally prohibited use of the building. Director Balde's grief was that he didn't fight for our idea and by condoning their prohibition he was setting up a blockade for the Sudu Cukalon, and oh boy did Balde show that grief.

Director Balde and I then stormed to my host father, the village chief Sakou Balde, and told him about what was happening. Sakou, in my perception, is not as involved in village happenings as he should be. If I was the leader of a group of 1000 people I have to admit that I would be the first to know everything, but he is not. Perhaps it's that he is over 50 years old, doesn't use his cell phone very often, barely greets the village, can't get people together for a meeting, and empirically cannot keep promises. He's a good host father, and he's getting better at helping me with my work, but I can think of two or three other host fathers in a 20-km radius that I'd rather have stand beside me. Sakou said that he would speak to Souba about what's going on, but only after Director Balde got in some scathing reprimands about not "grabbing the village like you should".

It's stressful and tough to watch this struggle, but Director Balde is being the voice that I cannot be. Balde is not from Niandouba, and that takes a chop at his credibility and village clout, but he is being the proxy I, and consequently and the future of Niandouba, needs. I wish I could tell him with a greater vocabulary, but a pat on the back, a straight look in the eyes and a thank you will have to do for now.

Although I believe that anything the MoH wants to do for the people of Senegal is in some ways more appropriate than the projects I'd like to do -- Senegal helping Senegal is better than me helping Senegal -- I don't need people putting up unnecessary roadblocks. A building is a building, not a political tool. A meeting is a chance to better understand ideas and issues, not a waste of time or an opportunity to posture or soapbox, or something to not believe in from the get-go. And a chief should act like one, not like just another villager. But it all comes back to value. Once people really understand the value of early childhood education I believe the tune of the village will change; the roadblocks will be removed and we will be able to move forward more fluidly. For now, we must just move forward and do the best we can.

Love you,