The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

One year down, one to go...

I looked at my phone calendar the other day and was amazed that it’s almost March already.  I remember I left Minneapolis on March 3rd – that was the last important date I’ve had to remember – so I’m fast approaching my one-year in-country mark, although it definitely doesn’t feel like it.  Permasummer has messed with my head.  Winter hasn’t come yet, so it couldn’t possibly be September 2014 yet, let alone after Christmas.  To commemorate my Senegal anniversary, I decided to make a list of ways that I’ve changed since I’ve come here.  Some are big, some are small, most are unimportant, but all are true.

  • I can walk in a wrap skirt without tripping, and I can bike in it without flashing my ladybits at anybody. 
  •  I have helped with every step of the peanut-butter-making process, from planting the seeds to roasting the nuts to tying the plastic bags for sale at the boutique.
  •  I can litter nonchalantly without it breaking my heart at all anymore.  The ubiquitous piles of trash no longer bother me.  This is not a good change, and I hope it doesn’t carry over once I return home.  I used to loathe litterers.
  • I learned that milk is not only edible after it goes sour, it’s delicious, especially if you mix a bunch of sugar in it (kosam Y)
  • Before I came to Senegal I didn’t know what sound a donkey made.  Now I know all the sounds a donkey can make.  They’re all awful.
  • I’m able to hold a deep squat for hours.  No chair? No problem.
  •  If there is a chair, or even a hard bench, that’s also not a problem.  I can and do sit for long 10-15 hour stretches when travelling in a 7place or bus.  Sometimes I’m packed in so tightly I can’t adjust, so I just close my eyes and deal with it, wishing my flat Midwest butt provided more of a cushion.  I've also mastered the delicate art of drinking just enough water on these trips to avoid dehydration but not enough that I have to pee.
  • I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the world.  I used to be on top of celebrity gossip, but here I only follow village gossip.  I haven’t heard of any songs or movies since last spring.  I assume Ke$ha and Pit Bull’s “Timber” is at the top of the charts, right where I left it…right? 
  • I learned that babies can be picked up by one arm, thrown over a shoulder, and tied in place with a spare piece of cloth, all without waking the baby.  They’re not as fragile as I’d thought.
  • I have happily adapted to a just-after-sunset bedtime, and I actually become quite cranky if expected to function after 8:30 PM.
  • I have rethought “healthy” food for kids.  A year ago I probably would have said a salad full of broccoli and carrots and stuff. Now the healthiest foods I know are as caloric as possible, like a thick millet porridge full of oil, full-fat powdered milk, and peanut butter.  The more energy that can go into each bite, the better.
  • I vaguely remember that I used to like children.  I hate children here, possibly because they’re always grabbing at me and screaming my name.  Being a celebrity is not as fun as it sounds.  The babies are tolerable until they learn to talk.
  • My personal boundaries have collapsed.  To take just one example, when I first got here, it was weird to be greeted by someone calling in from outside when I was in my hut – then it was weird to have family members come in and lay down on my bed while I was sitting on it – then, the other day, someone yelled over my fence while I was pooping and asked if I was feeling OK.  Wasn’t weird at all.  Even if you're not interacting with the people around you here, there are always people around you.
  • When I first got here I thought the baboons in the woods were amazingly exotic and I got annoyed when I saw them and didn’t have my camera with me, since it was such a gorgeous photo opportunity.  Now when I see them I just get annoyed because I have to stop and wait for the troop to move on before I can continue on my way.
  • It’s hard for me to buy anything more expensive than $1 (500 CFA).  If there was a Dollar Store in village, everything in it would be too expensive for my community to afford.  My Peace Corps living allowance is generous, and I can buy everything I need without problem - but I still feel loads of toubab guilt when I do.
  • My personal hygiene has…adapted.  I only wash my hair 1-2 times a month now, but my feet are scrubbed a few times a day (especially during rainy season, to keep pesky staph infections at bay).  I don’t own a mirror here, and I never wear makeup, do anything with my hair, or put my contacts in.  I haven’t shaved my legs or armpits in almost a year.  My eyebrows look like fuzzy caterpillars.  Getting ready in the mornings is a lot easier than it was in America.  Every time I go to the regional house, however, I have a sad reunion with the wrinkly, tired, sun-spotted cavewoman in the mirror and vow to start putting in more of an effort. Then I never actually do.
  • I have accepted (though never embraced) permasweat.  When it’s too hot to move, you just don’t move.  I’m a lot lazier in general because of this.  “The sun is hot” is a perfectly good reason to stay right where you are.  No one expects anything of you from 1-4 PM.
  • If anyone DOES expect anything of you, they will probably expect you to be at least 3 hours late.
  • When I first got to site, I was terrified my hut might have spiders or other big bugs.  Now I know for a fact they're there, but it no longer bothers me.
  • Somehow I’ve lost about 20 pounds in country, if the scale at my health post is accurate.  I’ve been trying to figure out why this is, because I don’t think my diet here is particularly healthy (most of the food is so oily it drips, and there is very little protein) and I don’t formally exercise nearly as much as I did in the USA.  I think the reason is that instead of working out here, I’ve just been working.  If I have something to do in a village 20k away, I have to bike to that village.  If I want to wash a few shirts, I have to pull and haul buckets of water from the well.  It’s also notable to mention that if I'm sort of hungry and want a snack, I have to walk to the nearest boutique followed by curious children, who will then scream at me to buy them a snack, too, and tell me I’m greedy and selfish…which I usually decide is not worth it.
    • Addendum to the above bullet – skinny is ugly here.  My community regularly informs me that I was prettier when I first got to site, and when I come back from being out of site for a few days, they’ll tell me it looks like I’ve gained weight as a compliment.
There are probably dozens of other ways I’ve changed that I’m just not aware of yet.  I usually only go to electricity/internet a few times a month here, so I am more distant from American culture than I’ve ever been.  The only Americans I talk to on a regular basis are my Peace Corps friends, who are just as weird as me.  We pepper Pulaar into our conversations and talk about poop more than any humans should.  I don’t know yet whether Kadiatou, or at least parts of her, are here to stay, or whether Barbara will come back once I return to the states, but either way it's been a fun journey so far.  One year down, one to go!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Porridge Party!

The women I see in my village are incredible.  All household work is “women’s work” here, and there is no shortage of it.  Females work tirelessly, sunup to sundown.  My daily wake-up call is the pounding of a mortar and pestle as a portion of the family’s grain stores are turned into something edible (lecciri is finely pounded millet or corn, kodde is bigger particles of the same, and even rice needs to be pounded to remove the chaff and picked through to remove the rocks).  The work continues through the day, a neverending cycle of sweeping the compound (this is not just for aesthetics, as roaming livestock leave piles of “fertilizer” all over the ground, which is obviously a health hazard), drawing heavy buckets of water up from the well, washing clothes over a washboard, and cooking, all while keeping track of several children.  

In America, cooking is low-stakes.  You can try out a new recipe because you have disposable income, and if it’s not good, you can always just throw a pizza in the oven or head to a restaurant.  Here, if you screw up dinner, if you burn the rice, oversalt the mafe, forget to guard the kitchen and allow a marauding donkey to get into the bowl of grain, your family's meal is ruined, hours of hard work were wasted, and your family will not eat tonight.

Sometimes when I talk to my friends at home, they treat me with reverence.  “I can’t believe you’re living in an African village!” they say.  “With no electricity or running water!  For two years!  You’re amazing!”  This is simply not true.  I am not amazing.  I could never survive here if I didn’t have the women in my compound to help.  I don’t do any of the hard work of converting food that is grown into food that is eaten.  If it wasn't for the women, I probably would have starved to death a few months ago. 

All of this background is just to put the next sentence in perspective:  Women in my village have no creativity when it comes to cooking.  The same 4-5 dishes are repeated, identically, every day, and new foods are treated with suspicion.  This is usually fine, since those dishes are typically nutritious and filling, and the monotony doesn't bother people when it's all they know.

Breakfasts, however, can sometimes be lacking nutritionally. In my village, breakfasts are usually gosse (rice porridge), mooni (millet balls in sauce, with the consistency of the gelatin pieces on the bottom of a bubble tea), or ruit (millet, corn, or rice flour porridge).  If you’re a regular reader, you might remember the Complet Model of Nutrition, since I’ve talked about it here and here.  If you don’t remember, here’s my sitemate Lauren with an incredible visual aid she made.

A traditional Senegalese complet has three parts - headscarf, shirt, and skirt.  You would never go out without all three parts - you should never eat a meal without all three parts.  Headscarf is fruits and vegetables (they're on your head because they give you knowledge), shirt is protein sources (they're on your arms and back because they give you power to pound) and grains are on the skirt (on your legs because they give you energy to walk).
The breakfasts in village contain the skirt part of the Complet model, but don’t usually contain the rest.  I saw this as a good opportunity for a project…and since I’m me, I wanted it to be as fun as possible.  So, I looked at a list of the 16 women in my village whose babies were underweight at the last baby weighing and invited them and their kiddoes to a Porridge Party.

The premise was simple – each woman was asked to bring a cup or two of what their kid usually eats for breakfast, a small charcoal stove, a bowl, and a spoon.  I told them I would bring several healthful additives to increase both the taste and nutritional profile of their child's meal…or at least that’s what I wish I could have told them, but I think my baby Pulaar still got the point across.

Of the sixteen women I invited, only seven came, and of those seven, only four brought stoves, but, as the Pulaars frequently say, wiso wiso buri hokkere – a sprinkle’s better than a drought.  Some attendance was better than none.

We started with a review of the Complet model, then I laid down a picture of a woman in a complet, and, after asking the women where each of the porridge additives went, placed them on the sheet.  

Bananas, tomato paste (in the oatmeal can) and onions on the head scarf; beans, powdered milk, peanut butter, and dried fish on the shirt; oil (in a recycled liquor bottle) on the skirt.  Sugar and MSG cubes on the neck - those are the earrings of the Complet.  They're not nutritious, but they taste good.
I announced that we would make four different porridges today, one for each stove.  I told each group of women to grab one or two items from the shirt and from the headscarf of the woman, since the skirt was already taken care of by the porridge base they had brought.

This is where the Porridge Party shows “room for improvement,” to put it mildly.  I knew that Senegalese women were not creative cookers, but I underestimated the extent of it.  They simply had no concept of what tastes would be good together and which combinations were disgusting.  It reminded me of the time I was five and decided that cheese slices and chocolate sauce were both delicious so I’d make a sandwich with both of them.  One group put dried fish and bananas in their bowl before I saw what they were doing.  They did follow the “rules” of the porridge party – they just did so in a nauseating way.  I watched the other groups more carefully (ie I told them what to do) and their porridges were more successful.

From the front: dried fish, beans, tomato and MSG; powdered milk, banana, tomato, and sugar (I was skeptical about this one but it ended up being OK); peanut butter, banana, and sugar.

After the porridges were cooked, the moms gathered in a circle and had their babies try out the three successful porridges (we gave the gross dried fish and banana porridge to a grateful goat instead).

Did I start a revolution of healthy breakfasts in Teyel?  Probably not.  But I got the moms to try something new, and hopefully they got to thinking that improving the nutrition of breakfast does not have to be expensive or difficult.  It’s a start, and, after all, wiso wiso buri hokkere.