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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Training photos and a language placement!

We’re in the full swing of training now, which is simultaneously monotonous and hectic.  From our arrival last Wednesday until today, we have had daily scheduled events from 8 am until late into the evening.  We do have formal classes, but there are other more casual events on the schedule as well.  For example, on Saturday night, a group of volunteers nearing the end of their service brought us to a bar down the road for a few beers. On Sunday night, there was a trivia competition (featuring a category on Rebecca Black!).  Monday afternoon we did language testing and medical interviews, then went out for more beers. 

"Dry Country" my ass.

Training is excellent.  I had heard before I got here that training would be tough, I would be overwhelmed, and I would feel like quitting, so I had been mentally prepared for the worst, but I could not imagine a more supportive training staff. The classes are well-structured and useful and the teachers are friendly and engaging.  They see themselves as coaches to help us thrive, not as disciplinarians who punish us if we’re not good enough.  So far, we’ve had about 20 formal classes, including “Intro to Malaria,” “Current State of Health in Senegal,” “American Diversity,” “Resiliency,” and “Staying Healthy in Senegal,” and just today we started our local language classes.  Although French is the national language of Senegal (so nearly everyone who's educated speaks some French), we’re expected to learn the languages of our villages so we’ll be able to reach more people at the community level.  The majority of our Peace Corps training is going to be language acquisition based, since it doesn’t matter how much we know about community health if we can’t communicate it with anyone.  My language is Fulakunda, which is spoken mostly in the Kolda region, which is in the rain-foresty, humid, full-of-plants south, which is exactly what I wanted!  After three months at our permanent sites (around September), we’ll be coming back to the training center to do technical training, since our language skills should be somewhat developed by that point.

This is "The Disco Hut."  A lot of our training sessions take place in there.


We have also received our medical kits (basically a suitcase full of all the over-the-counter meds anyone could ever hope for), water filters, and mosquito nets, and we got rabies and meningitis vaccinations and practiced giving ourselves blood tests for Malaria (I’m negative, what up).

The food at the center is usually good.  

Bonus points if you can spot the lizard on the middle pillar.


All the ladies in my training group are as gorgeous as these three.  It's a little intimidating.

Unfortunately, I still can’t make myself like fish, but it seems like every culture has their rice and bean specialties, and I love those!  One of our Senegalese teachers said women should never say they love beans because it’s like admitting they’re farty.  Whatever.

The biologist in me immediately noticed that there are way too many raptors in Thies, and it freaks me out. There are literally thousands of giant predatory birds everywhere.  They swoop over our heads and constantly circle in the sky.  If the Senegalese fishermen are netting enough fish that the leftovers in the market are able to sustain a raptor population that large, it’s no wonder global fisheries are collapsing. I don’t understand this Thies food web and I don’t see how it’s in any way sustainable.


There are a ton of lizards at the training center, too.  They’re hard to get pictures of because they freeze when they sense people nearby, then if you do happen to notice them, they run and hide.  I’ve never lived somewhere with lizards, and I’m loving it.

The other Peace Corps trainees in my group are an amazing group of people.  Nearly everyone has traveled extensively, most have impressive work or internship accomplishments, and 11 of us are PCMI masters students.  Most of the people in my training group are looking for a career in international development or global health after their service, and everyone is smart and inquisitive without ever being boastful of their impressive accomplishments.  I’m really enjoying discussions with them because I feel like they have a lot to teach me.  I definitely don’t feel worthy of being included in their ranks, but I’m honored that some Washington higher-up thought I belonged in a group as exemplary as this one.

As we’ve been learning about the country, I’ve been thinking about possible future projects I could do here.  Apparently within the last 5 years or so there has been a plague of invasive garden pests that have been devastating crops down south, in the Kolda and Kedouga regions.  Since a lot of the people that live there are subsistence farmers, those pests have the potential to ruin a lot of peoples’ days.  I’m by no means an expert on gardening, but I’ve done it before, and I’ll have (pretty much) unlimited free time to research the pests and try out different methods of killing them.  I’ve also thought about working with schools to do after-school programming (like a health and wellness club) or to have community cooking classes to encourage women to include more vegetables into their diets.  It’d be a mistake to choose a project before I even get to my site, but I’m encouraged to find so many possible future projects interesting after only a week!

Tomorrow, we’re leaving the training center for our first homestay, which is when we’ll be tossed, albeit very gently, into a Senegalese family and expected to swim with the culture.  Peace Corps has told us that during our first homestay, we’re supposed to be friendly and humble, and to listen and try to learn a few words.  The Peace Corps staff totally understands that language doesn’t come immediately and they keep telling us to just do the best we can and to not worry about the inevitable mutual misunderstandings.  I’m bringing UNO cards and a bunch of vegetables, so I hope that’s enough of a peace offering to make them like me.  I’ll have lots of stories about my host family in next week’s blog post, I’m sure, but we're supposed to leave all electronics at our training site, so no pictures on that just yet.

Favor to ask for my stateside friends reading this:  Please call me.  The wifi here isn’t wonderful (it is West Africa, after all) so it’s not possible for me to Skype from my computer.  Calls to the US from my phone cost about 40 cents a minute, which adds up fast on a volunteer salary (consider that two kilos of carrots are about 20 cents and two yards of fabric are about 50 cents). You can call my Senegalese cell phone using Skype or a phone card for a very low cost, and calls that I receive here are free for me.  I know I’ve only been gone a couple weeks, but I still miss you.  I don’t want to write my cell phone number on a public blog, but I did put it on Facebook, so look it up or message me and ask for it.  I will have a cell phone all through my service.  When everything around me is foreign it’s really nice to hear a familiar voice talking about familiar things.  All the people in my training group are great, but I have only known them for a week, so there are certain things we can't discuss. Seriously, even if you've only got 5 minutes - call me.

Til next week!

~Barb