Friday, November 4, 2011

World Wise Schools - Letter 1

[I've begun corresponding with a high-school English class through the World Wise Schools student-volunteer correspondence program. My 11th grade English teacher Mr. James Stahl sent me 20 questions from his English 3 class, and here are my responses.]

Dear Southold students,

Thanks for the questions! I'm glad you're so interested! Volunteer life is a wonderful experience and it's hard to grasp it from the States, or if you haven't ever been to a less-developed nation.

We bike through forests or trek through deserts, we learn the local language and use it everyday, we work hard to make other people's lives better and we try to have as much fun as possible! Such a strange mix of domains!

Volunteer stresses vary country to country, and volunteer to volunteer. Every day we get better at the language but it can be difficult to communicate exactly how we feel or what we think. Every day you break a brick off the language barrier. No electricity or running water means flashlights at night; no computers or air conditioning, or fans, or TV; bucket baths instead of showers, and frequent trips to the well to draw water.

The culture and traditions of your host country may clash with your ideas. the Senegalese culture is 95% Muslim and very paternal; as a woman you will encounter chauvinism and as a man or a woman you may feel inclined to combat this. Ultimately as a guest of the country and a development worker you must find a balance between adapting and assimilating and standing up for your American ideals of freedom and equality.

> 1. Do you live in a hut? ...sleep in a bed?  If not, describe where you live.
I have my own cement hut with no electricity or running water. I sleep in a bed, yes. Each hut is like a room in an American household, and a number of huts makes up a family compound. The huts are spread out in a circle or some such configuration. So there is the cooking hut, my host father's hut, my brother's hut, the women's hut, my eldest host mother's hut, and my hut. I have my own bathroom (a hole in the ground leading to a cement lined pit), and to get water you go to the well and draw one or two buckets.

I live with a host family, and I grow closer to them every day. My dad, four moms (polygamy is the norm here, four is the maximum wives a man can have), sisters and brothers teach me the language and the culture through conversations, and I teach them American culture as well.

As a member of my village I am a member of the community and interact with them as well. I live with the village chief, and as the son of the village chief and as a foreigner I get respect. I also get made fun of, the best chair, free stuff like fresh peanuts or ears of corn, people asking me for money or my watch or my bike, people asking me to marry their daughters or take their babies home to America and raise them, constant invites to lunch and dinner, et. cetera, et. cetera. It's so hard to describe, but this is daily life!

> 2. Describe your hygiene situation.
Going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground isn't as fun as a western toilet. And pouring water on yourself with a big cup isn't exactly as satisfying as a western shower. You stay as clean as you can, wash your hands, feet and body as much as possible, and try to stay healthy!

> 3. Are you afraid of contracting any diseases?
Malaria, parasites such as worms or amoebas, and skin infections are all risks here in Senegal, among others. If you always clean your drinking water, take your anti-malarial drugs, and keep your body clean, you can reduce these risks. Some volunteers may constantly complain to each other about diarrhea or infections, but if you do the right things you can succeed in avoiding most health problems.

> 4. How do the people of Senegal dress?  Do you dress in a similar fashion?
They dress either in traditional Senegalese style or in more western style: shirt and pants. Senegalese dress is very flashy and colorful; garbs cover most of the body and are covered in prints or embroidery. The traditional clothing is usually hotter than a t-shirt, button-down shirt or a tank top, so I don't wear their clothing, but I do have a traditional garb for formal occasions like if someone is having a wedding in my village.

> 5. What do you eat?
I and the people here eat rice EVERY DAY. It gets very monotonous. The rice usually has some sort of leaf sauce to accompany it. We eat together out of shared bowls. My father and I share a bowl, the women share a bowl and the men share a bowl.

There is also a tasty peanut sauce made with dried fish and peanut butter. Senegalese food, I'm sorry to say, is not really focused on taste but rather availability and sustenance.

> 6. What language is spoken there?  Do you know how to speak it?
There are many traditional langauges here in Senegal. As a former French colony they teach french as early as first grade and speak it for official matters, in other words the government speaks and teaches french. Thus the educated speak French, but also their traditional language.

Every Senegalese person is part of a specific ethnicity, each with their own language. The most populous groups in Senegal are the Wolof, Pulaar, Mandinka, and Jaxanke ethnic groups. I live with Pulaars and have learned a dialect of Pulaar, Pulaar Fulakunda. I speak it every day in every interaction in my village and when visiting cities. Everyday I get better at the language, and learning Pulaar has given me a great sense of pride and endless enjoyment. I was scared before I arrived in Senegal because I never did well in language classes in high-school or college, but I've found it really easy and fun when you're fully immersed!

If I knew French, I would supplement my Pulaar with that, but I took Spanish because Mrs. Tambarello was teaching...

> 7. How do the people get their food?  Do they hunt? farm? (Have you ever speared a lion? pet a giraffe?)
You guys are funny. I had the same questions before I came. Am I going to have to hunt? Will I ever get to hold a baby giraffe?? Alas, the people of Senegal don't hunt, and there are no giraffes here in Senegal. The people here mostly farm one or two or more hectare plots of land for food and income. On the family, sustenance level they plant, harvest, and sell cotton, peanuts, rice, millet, and corn.

I have slaughtered and butchered chickens, though. Senegalese people keep lots of animals, especially the Pulaar ethnicity. My father has 30 cows and a bunch of goats, sheep and chickens. It's a sign of affluence, and when a reason to celebrate arrives we slaughter and eat something.
> 8. What types of transportation are available to the people?
People have bikes with the frequency that people have cars back in America. To get to my village I bike 8 miles through the forest, it's really really fun! We call them bush paths, paths through the forest.

There are a bunch of old, beat up, barely running station wagons here in Senegal called "sept-places" that we use for public transportation. Sept-place is French for Seven Seater. Seven or eight... or 11... people sit cosy in those. That's the classier way to get around. The more common way is by waving down or catching a large windowed van called a "mini-car". Its kinda like a small school bus. Mini-cars are crammed full of people and run all along the one real road here in Senegal, the Route National.

> 9. Are there such things as witch doctors there?
Yep, there are traditional healers here. People go to them if they want a blessing, a charm to ward off a specific illness, or a balm or medicine to heal something. You can get a special rope to ward off snakes, for instance. Just tie it around your leg and they wont attack you. Charms protect you from death, bad dreams, illness, and provide your babies or future babies with health and good fortune. Just about everyone here in Senegal wears a charm of some sort around their wrist or arm, waist or neck.

Things like this make living in Senegal so damn amusing. Snakes kill cows here in Senegal, so its understandable to want a charm against them. The mortality rate is high, illnesses are rampant, so some blessings and luck can't hurt.

> 10. What is the climate like?
Hot. It's so hot, all the time. It's so hot here, every language uses the phrase "It's hot." as a greeting. Sometimes you want to take all your clothes off. Sometimes it makes you go a little crazy.

> 11. Do the people have cultural skin piercings and gouges?
Yeah some do. It depends on their ethnic group. Pulaars stain their faces with permanent black ink and do burn scars in patterns on their faces.

> 12. Are you the shortest and slowest person in the village?
That is hilarious.

> 13. Are there drugs there?  If so, what kind?
West Africa in general is a transit port for the trade of cocaine and heroin from South America to Europe and America. Here in Senegal there are hard drugs like that, but that's all done in its own underworld. More common is the smoking of marijuana. Although illegal, you may once in a while smell it or see someone smoking it in a village or city. The traditional drug of the Senegalese ethnic groups is the Cola Nut. It is an upper, with qualities of caffeine. It's where the caffeine in cola soft drinks used to come from. People chew them to get a jolt, and it's widespread, village or city. Muslims do not drink alcohol, so only the slim Christian minority drinks and thus bars are usually only in towns with at least +10,000 people.

Senegal is one of those countries in which the laws requiring a prescription for potentially harmful medications such as opiates is lax and unenforced. This is not a threat to the Senegalese people, as prescription medications are expensive relative to a traditional healing solution such as a crown of branches woven together and worn around your head to prevent headaches.

> 14. Do the children attend school?  What is it like?
Their school system is modeled after the French educational system. My village has an Elementary school, which is the American equivalent of grades 1-6. After that, kids in my village have to go 8 miles to the middle school in the closest big town. They walk or bike.

It's hard to objectively describe the school system here. Teachers, Principals, and students all differ. Discussion of the school system is better left for another correspondence.

> 15. Is there a rigid social structure in the village?
I feel only when it comes to the relationship between men and women. Most men farm, fish, trade, and make charcoal. Women cook, clean, and raise the children. Men cook tea and sit under trees talking about problems and politics, women gossip and tend their vegetable gardens, roast corn and braid hair.

As a foreigner you blend into these things. Female volunteers are treated as not quite women and not quite men, and are allowed to do most tasks, although they may be laughed at. Personally, I strive to show my sense of the equality of men and women bestowed upon me by American culture and the movements our past. I help cook with my sisters and mothers, I do my own laundry and pull my own water, and I garden a lot. I also cook tea (a male ritual/skill honed during youth), plant trees, meet with the elder men and hang out with the men. You must find you're own, comfortable balance between cultures.

> 16. What made you join the Peace Corps?
I've always had a strong desire to help others. It may have been my upbringing, my parents teachings, or the teachings of American culture and history. I became interested in international development and human rights during undergraduate studies at CUNY John Jay College. I went with a major in International Criminal Justice/Human Rights primarily because although sociology and philosophy interested me immensely, my desire to help others wouldn't be satisfied without a focus on development.

The Peace Corps was a cost effective way to get experience in the world of international development, and it was easier for me to get into Peace Corps than get a job with a development agency such as the UN, USAID, or the many thousands of others. I didn't really know much about it, either.

Now that I'm here, I see what development work really is. Development cannot be learned in a formal institution, it must be experienced. Development to me has become a difficult struggle between what we believe can be a sustainable and replicable solution, and "the easy way" of giving aid. You may want to build a library for your village, but is it sustainable? If you get funding or write a grant (American taxpayer dollars) for a library, aren't you just continuing the dependency of the less-developed world on the more-developed world? What if you just bought the books for the library? How can you make sure your library stays open and in good shape when you leave?

Most of the struggles here for volunteers are mental ones such as my library example. These are issues discussed by volunteers for hours, till we are pulling our hair out in frustration, or someone is crying. The alternative is to turn to pragmatism -- or thoughtlessness? -- and provide assistance in a straightforward way because that is the fastest way it can be done. If USAID wants to fund projects that improve the output and income of Senegalese farmers, and that grant is available, and you can do it, should you allow yourself to be slowed down by worries of sustainability? Build the fence for them or figure out a way to convince the villagers to pay for a fence, its your choice. We have enormous power as Peace Corps Volunteers.

> 17. Do you miss Southold?
I miss America very much. Living in Senegal has taught me two very important things about life in America. Because families are so close here, and villagers are so close as well, I have gained a greater respect for the family and the community. When I finish my two years here I plan to truly cherish my family and community, and serve my community, wherever that may be.
The other important thing is that life in America is a blessing, especially the food. This also cannot be taught, it must be experienced.

> 18. Are there special herbs there?  Would you be allowed to bring them home?
Special how? Nothing special that I've seen so far. Bringing anything back to America depends on the customs laws I believe, but I'm not sure about those.

> 19. Are there tall buildings there?...a fire department?
In your village the tallest building is usually a one story concrete building, and it's usually the Mosque or the school. Every village has a "Health Hut" where babies are born and first aid materials can be found. Malaria tests and drugs can also be found there, among other medicine. But there is not a doctor in every village. The doctor can be found at the larger "Health Post" usually around 1-10 miles away from a village".

There is no fire department. I've never thought about that.

> 20. Has jumping off Goose Creek bridge come in handy in your life in Senegal?
I was always too scared to jump. If I had it probably would've helped though. Adapting to a whole new culture and learning a new language requires mental leaps, abandoning the ground you know and have stood on your entire life. At times its really scary. But I've realized that fear of the difficulty of life can only be overcome by recognizing and understanding what difficulty is. Then it's not that scary anymore.
I think perhaps the reverse has happened: Peace Corps has prepared me to jump off the bridge. I can't wait to come home and jump and jump.

Peace Corps is at heart a collection of young and intelligent men and women who learn from intelligent trainers language, culture and technical skills to help their host country partners who themselves are intelligent in their own domains and have a lot to teach. Every day we create fans of America and we try to help those people who ask for it in a sustainable way. If you have any more questions or want pictures of anything just ask!


P.S. -- The volunteer parties here are something else. We really know how to have fun, because our work and life can be, at times, so hard. It's something I didn't expect but our respect and admiration not only life itself but of American culture and everything it represents has been amplified to an incredibly heart warming extent. Fourth of July was spent dancing deep into the night in the rain under some shirtless being waving theAmerican flag, while our fireworks exploded above.

When I was back home I detested the overindulgence of American culture. I was disgusted in the direction that our policies and culture were heading. Now I'm not disgusted, there is no anger, just a love for America and a desire to fight for and defend the legacy of freedom that was left to us by years of struggle.

PCV Constantinos Kokkinos
Health and Environmental Education Agent
Niandouba, Kolda, Senegal
+221 77 67 20 266

1 comment:

  1. Hi Costa,

    This was a very interesting read. I am looking forward to hearing more stories over the holidays.

    Take care,