Pre-service training is almost over, and about a week remains before I move into my permanent site, Sama Ndiayen.
The other week I participated in a "counterpart workshop" at the training center in Thies. Each Peace Corps volunteer is assigned two Senegalese counterparts who are either residents of the volunteer's village, or are professionals working in the volunteer's field, such as NGO workers or government officials. The (unpaid) role of the counterpart is to facilitate the volunteer's work mainly by introducing him/her to people in the community who are interested in working together, and by providing advice when needed. Peace Corps chooses counterparts for volunteers, after consulting members of the community. The counterpart workshop was held so that volunteers and counterparts could get to know each other, and discuss future work we will do upon moving to our villages.
I enjoyed the chance to spend time with my two counterparts. One counterpart, Mass Gaye-Diey, is a forester at Eaux et Foret, the government agency for forestry and water management. He works in the arondissment (administrative unit) that includes my village, Sama Ndiayen, but is living in the regional capital, Kaolack. He is a large man with a large smile and deep laugh who rolls his own cigarettes. Although I don't anticipate seeing him on a regular basis, he seemed open to meeting at his office to answer questions I might have, and also said that he would come to visit me in my village.
My other counterpart, Papa Dia, will be a neighbor of mine in Sama Ndiayen. He is a small-time farmer, but also a baker. He owns an oven and bakes tapalapa, a delicious and hearty type of baguette that is generally found only in villages. (In cities, an airier, less delicious "machine bread" is available, which ironically is more expensive and has a certain prestige attached to it so that many people who can afford it, buy it instead. Tapalapa is often used to make sandwiches with a bean sauce called ndambe, eaten for breakfast.) Papa Dia, my counterpart, was one of the quieter participants in the workshop sessions, but when he did speak he seemed to have precision and purpose. He also seems to have a clever sense of humor, and I look forward to working with him. As part of the workshop, Peace Corps had me teach a short Nepali language class to counterparts to demonstrate the difficulty of learning a new language (although many already speak French, Arabic, or a second Senegalese language), and since then Papa has been greeting me with a "Namaste!"
The workshop took place amid ongoing protests in Thies and elsewhere in the country over power outages. The power company Senelec claims that the government has been failing to pay subsidies owed, and has responded by cutting electricity for large parts of the day, and so "Coupelec" has become its common name. In some cases, protesters are also expressing discontent with the government of Abdoulaye Wade, the neoliberal-leaning president of the country since 2000, who many speculate is grooming his son, Karim, to replace him in 2012.
After the counterpart workshop, we had our first free weekend since arriving in Senegal, which most of us spent at the beach. We went to Popenguine, a beach town with many houses and bungalows owned by foreigners and wealthy Senegalese. The beach was beautiful; there were bluffs overlooking the sea and decent-size surf, and I had a good time try to body surf. I spent most of the time at the beach but also ventured into the town, which had a number of shops catering to vacationers and a prominent cathedral. After Islam, Catholicism is Senegal's most populous religion (about 5%).
After the weekend at the beach, we spent one day in Dakar as part of training, in order to get acquainted with the city (for most of us, it was our in the capital), and attend a security presentation by an embassy regional security officer. We visited the downtown area first, which has many high rises, fancy shops (we stopped for some pricy but good ice cream), shady tree-lined sidewalks, an underground tunnel, and a cosmopolitan feel. Compared to the contrast between Kathmandu and rural Nepal, the contrast between downtown Dakar and rural Senegal seemed even more stark. In Nepal, disparity in wealth is extreme, but Kathmandu is only just beginning to be partitioned into neighborhoods of the wealthy and their commercial centers as separate from poorer neighborhoods. Downtown Dakar, however, had few signs of the serious poverty that exists elsewhere in the country. The government recently banned talibes, or Quranic students, from begging in parts of the city, and I didn't see any beggars during our short walk in downtown.
After seeing downtown, we drove up the beachside promenade known as "The Corniche" to the American club/American school compound, where we attended the security presentation. Some of us accidentally walked into the school during lunchtime, where a mix of white and African kids were playing soccer on a manicured field. The American club had a pool and restaurant. Following our security presentation, we drove further north, past the giant bronze African Renaissance Monument (recently commissioned by the government and built by a North Korean firm), to the Dakar Peace Corps office. We had a brief tour of the office and met with staff there, who seemed very friendly and helpful, before driving back to Thies.
The Dakar trip was followed by one last week in Ker Madaro with my host family. I worked on my Wolof skills by carrying around a pen and paper wherever I went, writing down words in conversation that I did not understand. Although I have a lot left to learn, I think that my language skills will be adequate for moving into Sama Ndiaye and beginning work.
School registration also began while I was in Ker Madaro - a several week-long process where students come in to register, before classes actually begin. In Senegal, government primary school is free for all, but after 6th grade, students must pass a test in order to continue to attending government college (equivalent to middle school). Another test must be passed in order to attend government lycee (high school). Students who fail the tests may attend private school, but tuition can be expensive and there are problems with the quality of education.
I continued to enjoy spending time with my host family, and they continued to take excellent care of me. I often spent afternoons sitting under the neem (Azadirachta indica) tree in our yard, chatting with my host sisters or visiting neighbors. For my last night in the village, I bought a couple chickens and we had a lovely meal of chicken, potatoes, onion, and "boisson." I was sad to leave my family, and a few other friends I made in Ker Madaro, but I also look forward to being in Sama Ndiaye and beginning work. I plan to go back to visit Ker Madaro when I return to Thies in December for "in-service training," two weeks of tech-intensive agroforestry training.
I took a few photos of my host family and Ker Madaro, which I attached below.
A family shot.
Aram, my host sister, with Nday, her neice.
Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in the fields outside Ker Madaro.
The ladies of the house: Nogay, Fatou, and Aram (carrying Nday).
The road outside my host family house, with a small mosque on the left and and a Ficus spp. tree on the right.