Friday, June 5, 2015

First and Last "Vacation" from Senegal


On my recent hiatus from Peace Corps I found myself saying two things over and over: "I haven't had ... in so long" and "this reminds me of ... in Senegal." So I had been craving developed world amenities but simultaneously missed the developing world. That dichotomy had me flustered but grateful my time in Senegal is not easily categorized and detached from my conscience. I was a little surprised by it so I'll elaborate on why exactly. 

I loved the ability of people to obey simple rules like road signs and littering regs. But I missed the lawlessness and openness that dispelles "trespassing" from the Wolof vocabulary. I loved the quiet hum of crickets and lack of obnoxious motos but it was hard for me to fall asleep. I loved blending in but why was no one greeting me? Everything around me was so beautiful but when did selfie sticks become as quintessentially tourist as the oversized coach busses blocking the very view they try to capture? Needless to say I had to balance my touristic cynicism with an enthusiasm for drinking on the sidewalk. Though theres one thing I'm not conflicted about: I didn't miss cheb u gën. 

Other than my internal crises, my time in Italy was rejuvenating. I did feel like I was hiding a secret from everyone all around me but I was given a bizarre comfort imagining the way Senegalese Ex-pats must feel when they first arrive. I played catch-up with my parents and we reconciled our life accounts as best we could.

In God's own timing, my grandma Jean Austin Johnson died the week before we met up. I think she knew death would find her while I was in the corps. The tears she shed the summer before I left were the kind of unspoken jewels the give goodbye it's most terminal meaning. But nothing could have prepared me for how it felt to be here while that happened. My words could not do her memorial justice here so it will suffice to say that I pray to be with her again. I was glad to be around my Pops so we could discuss and find peace in the end of her long life.

After our bumbling rental car navigations of Tuscany I left the parents in Florence at 6am to grab one last Italian espresso and a flight to London. Still fighting the giggles inflicted since my walk onto the plane in Dakar, I took London like I've never been able to before; unplanned and alone. I stayed at a YHA hostel in central London and finally felt surrounded by a gastronomy scene qualified to cook Mexican food. So I partook. If the vacation wasn't worthwhile before then, the deal had certainly been sealed. 

After a day of enjoying the parks, foreign languages, and double decker busses, I took a train up to Wales. I knew I was getting close when I started to observe a higher ratio of sheep to people. Landing in Abergavaney brought me into the care of Forrest Hogg, the son of Gavin and Vina Hogg. Occasionally I meet people in my travels who I can't fathom. Can't explain. People who I feel like I've known for longer than the moments we've spent together. The Hogg family epitomizes one of these occasions. I'm not sure if I was just drunk from beholding the bucolic scenes unfolding from the small windows of their broken down hatchback or if I had really just taken a train ride into my dreams. Either way the only worry I had was keeping my excitement from bubbling out into manifestations of handstands and beaming awkward smiles. I hope I was successful. 

I spent a few weeks working on the Penpont organic farm, meeting all their wonderful friends, and learning what efforts operate(d) their sprawling estate, past and present. Weekends consisted of pub trips, antique markets, a visit to friend Sam in Cardiff, small music festivals, and biking/hiking/running up mountains. This is my element. And it was nice to know I'm capable of working 30+ hours a week and happy to wake every morning with that ahead of me. Eating fresh and organic also had a rejuvenating power I could not have expected. I felt myself regaining strength every day. The three days of rain we recieved also reminded me of how simple pleasantries add up to giant reliefs. 

After one last London spending spree facilitated by Ryan Perkins, I returned to Senegal via barren Mauratania for the final stretch of this Peace Corps Marathon. And just like the final stretch in any race I'm exhausted but running fast with the energy of knowing it's almost over. This isn't to say I'm counting down the days, but in these last 100 I want to bring a new energy to everything I do. I want to see the things I would regret not seeing. I want to say the things I've always wanted to but never had the vocabulary or energy. I want to absorb and be absorbed in every interaction. I don't want to just look back on this as the longest race of my life but rather my most beautiful adventure yet. For all my running friends; this is my last 100 meters, the last 100 days. 


                              
                                     A pictorial summary of Tuscany


        
            A view from full time organic farmer Pete's apartment, Penpont, Wales



                      
                         The Red Lion of Wales

          
             DOGS



          
              The staircase we built from a fallen tree. Last work day at Penpont. 


Friday, May 15, 2015

COS*, Round One:

Woke up, made eggs, streamed Kenny Loggins from the internet, sat on my couch, enjoyed real fresh coffee, spoke English the whole time. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, it’s because you haven’t been living with a host family in Senegal for the past 19 months. I have moved to a 3rd floor, 3 bedroom, and balcony apartment in my regional capital Thies. I’m living with two friends and we are still learning what this entails. I’ve never lived in an apartment before. And I’ve never had to cook and clean for myself to this extent. So in many ways this really is COS round one. I said a preliminary goodbye to my host family, moved my things, and passed off my work projects. Now begins my task of preliminary reintegration. We are cooking for ourselves, doing chores, budgeting, shopping, crafting, and schmoozing regularly. We have already hosted parties and been injected into the Thies ex-pat social scene. This is a totally different experience than the one I signed up for but I’m learning to welcome and embrace it. I am thankful to be going through the awkwardness of oven-excitement now. This will make me a more approachable human being after COS round two. 

I will admit though that the few weeks leading up to this big-city move had me unnerved. Showing Josh around Mboro and introducing work partners to their new volunteer was making it all much too real. But I feel as though all have found themselves in good positions. I am still around for my friends in Mboro when they have complications but I am able to start some new projects here in Thies. This move has also brought some things to an end. I am seeing now that I will be using Wolof less and less. And that means my fluency will likely decline, probably for the rest of my life. This realization came at an unwelcome time. Just as I was really starting to break through with Wolof and speak proactively instead of reactively, my journey with it was over. I make peace with this by appreciating its role in this country and what I loved about that. It was the language of small and large informal markets in a complicated West African hub. All garages are Wolof speaking; almost all boutiques are as well. Basically people and things move around this country only if it is decreed in Wolof.  But now it’s time for me to move onto the language of formal markets, French. This is a language I’ve been infatuated with but not able to speak well since 7th grade. I’m hoping my 10th will be the breakthrough year!

Now to address the continually complicated question: what are you actually doing over there? For what’s left of May I will be working on the base work of the tours I want to do in July/August. I am creating record keeping systems to be taught to small-scale farmers. These are made with the hopes that farmers can know more about their financial and agricultural production capacities. Empowering them with that knowledge is the first step to safely accessing markets and formalizing their businesses. Ill also be working on a marketing plan for a third-year volunteer named Gordon Day. He is trying to coordinate moringa production and drying across the country to develop a national and eventual international market. I also hope to conduct some market tests and gain concrete information about adoptability in Senegalese cuisine. 

After this I’ll be going to Italy to meet with my parents who I haven’t seen since I left. They are taking a trip to Belgium to see Mudae, an exchange student they hosted in America before my time. They’ll continue on to Rome where I’ll meet them. I admit to a little fear of that reunion because of all that has changed since I left. I am a different person now and I’m sure they’re different as well. But I think we’re all constantly changing in some ways and it’s much easier to see the jump when we’ve been far apart for so long. Mostly though, I’m excited. Pizza, wine, coffee, old buildings, and shameless tourism are the expected highlights. After our trip together I’m continuing alone to Wales. Many have asked why, and to be honest I’m not too sure myself. Mostly though I hope to clear my head in an English-speaking country and enjoy some more familiar weather/scenery. My time here in Senegal has been complicated so far. I’ve lost a lot but gained a lot too. I need some time in another foreign place to flesh that out and what it has done to me.

If anyone wants to talk, I can do that now. Let me know when you’re around and I can call you on the internet, from my couch! 

 

Jamm,

-Tim

 

*Conclusion Of Service

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Changes are changing

Let's start with some news I recieved a month ago. I'll be moving to Thies, a much larger city, one hour away from Mboro. I knew this was coming for a while but not much had been done until now. The change will formally take place in May. My replacement arrived in the March 2015 CED/Health group and he/she is currently in PST (pre-service training). Although I was sad I would not complete my service in Mboro I've constantly been reminding myself of the uniqueness of my service.  It's not what I expected but that's hardly a reason to get upset. I will be living with two great friends in an apartment. This means a few things: cooking for ourselves, lots of English, Internet, collaboration, sleepovers, and possibly occasional quiet nights. I'll also be able to continue my current projects on a consultation basis while undertaking a larger "roving" job. In that capacity I'll be performing on-demand trainings across the country and researching alternative solutions to rural farming issues. More details will come in May when I'll be focusing on that full time. 

Although that news consumes a lot of my thoughts and conversation, I've been maintaining my projects at site. The Citrus Union is meeting next week to monitor their record keeping progress and ask questions. Demba has started branding his products. This is an innovative step for him and I hope it leads to many like it. The women's group is trying all kinds of fruits and vegetables in the dryer. Their preparation room should be finished before mango season. That means we will be drying many mangos, packaging, product testing, and saving for personal consumption later. If all goes well, next mango season (approximately late April to June) they will package, save, and $ell. 

I was also invited to be a guest trainer for the new group of trainees. I had a few days being trained and preparing then we picked them up in Dakar March 1st. Seeing their faces fighting a blend of confusion, tiredness, and excitement gave me flashbacks to my arrival and how unnerving it was. I am jealous of them because of the beautiful journey they have ahead but I am glad to be out of those shoes. Truly. PST is a difficult two months. I'm glad I was around to answer all their questions. Professionally, it was a great week. I led a session on handicrafts and recieved some constructive feedback on my style, content, and appearance. Apparently the presentation was fine but my hat was a little too dirty. Socially I was able to have long awaited conversations with far-away friends. I intensely value my time with each volunteer I get to see so I was quite tired by the end; but updated. 

Afterwards I was able to bike and visit two friends in the Fatik region. Countless activities were programmed but the highlights include wrestling, live Sereer music, duck for dinner, first cashew apples of the season, baobab climbing, island hoping, ferry riding, and salt flat camping. 

I also learned recently my lifelong pastor, Peter Smith is moving to Hanson, MA. I have no doubt God is working wonders in his life and those around him. It does feel weird to me though to have another major change waiting for me back home. I recently got to watch one of his sermons online thanks to firstthomaston.org and it sent my mind flying. I especially appreciate his words while being this far away and after not hearing them in so long. I look forward to catching up with him and seeing him speak in Hanson. 

Finally, my tickets are booked for Italy! I'll be flying to Rome May 28th to meet up with my mom and dad. From there my plans are, well, not planned. But they involve an extended stay in Wales. Although I'm really enjoying every moment right now I look forward to this trip with vigor. It will be a special time with my parents since I haven't seen them in 18 months. I also hope to have some time to reflect on the experiences I'm having now. But it will certainly be difficult as I will want to enjoy all that there is to see in Italy and Wales. 

I often feel the need to write down profound thoughts that stem from complex situations and new experiences. I think part of that comes from a desire to account for the pain of separation from America. But I'm feeling a change. I'm learning that happiness isn't about a constant change of scene. And I'm learning that not every moment needs to be a revelation. I enjoy all that's happening here and a lot of that is simple and seemingly mundane. As I speak and understand Wolof I discover differences between everyone I meet. As I participate in cultural exchange I find more peace with how unique I am. And as I see other volunteers and their sites, I see just how throughly different these two years are for each one of us.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year! (Belated)

This has been admittedly pushed off for quite some time. I have a couple of reasons for the tardiness but the most explainable is I've been away from Internet. Really though I've been taking some time to process my experiences this past month and a half and think of ways to polish it for the Internet. I've also been afraid of the observation effect taking away from what I've been part of. But I've had a pause now and I'd like to share some updates from across the Atlantic. 

Thanksgiving dinner was pot-luck, spent at the ambassador's residence. This is where I first started to notice and fully embrace my new eating style. That being to take whatever is in front of me and mix it into a big mash, then eat. So I'm afraid my engraved porcelain plate looked more like a dog bowl. In spite of the social degradation we enjoyed our new dinner manners with lively discussions about which intestinal bacteria have the worst side-effects. We spent Black Friday with a morning of shopping and iced coffees (at this point I felt the full affect of being in a group of girls) and the afternoon watching a dog show and decorating the Christmas tree (somewhat more gender neutral). 

A week later I was down in Tamba for the "Half-Marathon for Girls' Education." I had hurt my foot two weeks before so I was in pretty poor shape and very tempted by the optional 10k race. My friend Aaron won the half-marathon with an impressive time and I finished with no pain in my foot, so it was a day of accomplishments. Unfortunately though my friend Anna collapsed with heat stroke. She was air lifted to Dakar but is doing well now, Alhumdulilah! I really enjoyed my stay in Tamba but particularly  because it's the cold season. I'm not sure how well I would do there this coming July and August. 

I had the opportunity to visit Scott Le in his Kolda village, Sinthian Kortiba. I had not previously been to a village so the experience was a little shocking at first. However because of the gentleness and sincerity of his family, I felt at ease shortly after meeting them. I got to see what life entails in a village for a window of time. The stilness of the land and passion in the food were nearly tangible. Life is quaint there but it's also a daily battle. It's a battle similar to the one we all face every day but sometimes this village has to do it with no clothes, shoes, nutritious food, or clean water. I don't say this to insight pity because that allows us to degrade them and they don't want it anyway. It did however make me consider all the things I buy and the living conditions of those at the bottom of the supply chains. For instance Sinthian Kortiba spends a lot of time growing and picking cotton. Their wage system sounded exploitative and contrary to anything I would want to set up for a production cycle. Additionally it's made me conscious of the important roles we each play in the Peace Corps. I hope we all in our unique ways someday help other Americans understand more about Senegal. Because it's not a place to fear or about which to make nasty assumptions. It's a place where people live their lives and go through daily struggles like anywhere else.  

Afterwards we had the annual Master Farmer summit in Thies. I was there to help represent Cheikh Senghor as a CED volunteer. It was a great opportunity for the farmers to all get together and exchange ideas from across the country. People who would have never met otherwise get to do this every year and expand their repertoires of knowledge. Volunteers too benefit from great ideas exchanged and support given. Some of the major topics were the new selection process for members, repercussions of underperforming farms, and better data collection methods and procedures. I also had a few opportunities to mingle with farmers from all over the country. I made some friends who I'm planning to see in February. 

Christmas was spent in Dakar with many friends. Volunteers were in the city for travel, med appointments, and general amusement so we were taking up sidewalks with packs of Americans. I got to spend Christmas dinner at the Country Director, Cheryl Faye's house with her family and friends. I again did some food mashing but tried to make it less noticeable. I met some interesting people and felt grateful to be invited into her home. 

New Years was celebrated probably a few seconds before or after it actually happened. Hopefully that's a good summary of how my weekend was. Long beach walks, friendly people, no watches, foliage, and lots of memories I won't forget. That's all I got to say about that. 

Finally to bring things full circle we had a gathering on the beach this past weekend to celebrate 5 weeks in site for our friends in the new stage. We discussed some struggles, progresses, and funny moments from scenes in America and all over Senegal. Now I'm in site catching up with work partners, making plans, and tracking progress. This coming week I will be in Kolda for our CED sector summit where I'll catch up with friends, learn some new stuff, and ideally figure out what I'll be doing with my service in May. Oh by the way, For those who haven't heard, I am getting replaced in May but I won't be leaving Senegal early. So we are trying to figure out what the eight of us will do for the five months after that. Of course I will keep you updated as plans develop. 

That's it for life-event updates. I'm posting a lot on Instagram so give it a look at TJohnson240. As for mental status, I'm doing well. Part of me will never function normally here because of how far I am from people I love dearly, but the rest of me is still making this work. I want to be truly involved in people's lives here and for me that entails being mentally present. So I'm taking the whole thing in one day at a time. Since I already feel the fleetingness of my time this next year, that will become more and more important. 

Finally I want to send everyone the sincerest holiday wishes. I am sad I didn't get to catch up with everyone but those who did get to say hi I'm delighted to hear from you. I hope 2015 brings everyone peace, prosperity, and joy. Before too long I'll be home and we'll all have some good times together. 

                                
    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"So what have you been doing over there?"

I might be able to finally answer this question with some substance.  One would imagine that after a year at a job, progress is long overdue. And I would agree, normally. But this isn't a normal job. And progress is sometimes hard to explain here. In many ways I feel ready to work now. My Wolof is starting to manifest what I want to say, not just what I need to say. My work partners trust me, understand how limited my time is here, and are encouraged to work. Finally, and likely most importantly, I'm starting to understand the brevity of my experience here. Two years is a long time but I can see this next year will be a quick one. I will not get done all that I want, but I'm certainly going to try. Although it's taken a year to get to this point I'm happy to start using these skills and assets to build a future for my work partners. Here is a little of what's been going on:

On October 15th I hosted an 'Open Field Day' with Cheikh Senghor. We invited 65 people with an expectation that 45 would actually make it. 90 came. The good news is Senegalese cooking accounts for about triple what one can eat. So there was plenty of food and the guests were happy. The day began with a light breakfast and tour of the field. Training and discussion topics included composting, pest control, live-fencing, and tree grafting. After the tour and training we took respite from the oppressive sun under the tent. I was given the floor to have a practical training and discussion on farm record keeping. I recieved a lot of empty stares but that's typical and I was told afterwards it was actually informative, hfeww! Overall the day was a success. It was the first one in Mboro and provides a base from which the Master Farm can be graded. It was also the first Open Field Day to incorporate financial training, putting me in my boss' good graces. Below is myself with Master Farmer Cheikh Senghor and my audience of tired farmers. 



After that I continued my work on the solar food dryer for "GIE Marché". This has taken a long time mostly due to miscommunications and delayed material deliveries. But finally the carpentry stage and glass is finished. Now what's left is the painting and it's new designated work area. Below is the day of completion and delivery. 




This past week on November 8th I was again hosting a training with farmers. This time it was a union of citrus producers who want to formalize and take on a larger project. Ideas they've been floating around include buying a car, making juice, exporting to America, and just getting free stuff from a new "partner." My job so far has been to bring some expectations down to earth. Ultimately we are making progress but it's slow. I'm recieving some very valuable lessons in patience. Conversely they're recieving some valuable lessons in expectations and responsibility. That established for us a great relationship and I look forward to seeing what they will accomplish. Below is a "double digging" training session. 





So finally (for now) I've been working with my artisan, Demba Mbow, on developing new products for two upcoming expos in Dakar. I've always loved working on stuff like this but certainly never on a commercial level. Despite my inexperience however, he trusts me. So we've got some new products to look forward to and maybe even a new image for his brand. More to come on that. Pictured below is our new headband and below that some of his smaller products. 




Work has been in full swing but will slow down for the holidays. I will most likely be gone from site for all of December so I'm sure I'll have more to say and show about that. Until then, happy holidays! 





Friday, September 26, 2014

Being Here

It's really hard to describe what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is like. Especially because it's hard to describe even to myself. I've tried to tell friends about this and I know it's a talk I'll have to give many times when I'm finished with service, but I think it will be nice to try and briefly summarize now and reflect on how it changes over the next year.

For one thing it's a dynamic experience, which inevitably causes a changing state of mind. In the first few months it was hard to form an opinion about anything since everything was new and shocking. But after time, maybe months 6-10, this new world became very old for me. I started to get frustrated with the culture, the people, and the things that used to be funny to me but then just seemed unhuman. Like seeing people dangling from busses on the highway, eating rice every day, and recieving constant verbal derision. Integration became a task of forgetting how weird it was for me to be here, something made impossible by my bizarre environment. That's pretty hard to talk about too. Because this is supposed to be a magical experience in which there is so much personal growth and peace. But the truth is, part of this is really difficult. I sometimes feel much less patient than I was. I don't appreciate everyday interactions as I should. And I'm still homesick. I am continually trying to embrace that reality and find out how to make it work. And it should be talked about. I shouldn't avoid these conversations just because the Peace Corps has been my dream. I have learned though that this will likely always be a transitive time of my life. I don't think I'll ever be completely unaware of how foreign I am here; something I pictured for myself before I arrived. I still have opportunities to thrive, impact, and inspire, but I emphasize my limited time here to work partners. After I'm gone, they will continue to do this work and they will have to thrive, impact, and inspire. In sum, that's how it feels to be a PCV for me; living in a transitional life-changing experience while trying to pass on some inspiration to those around me. 

So yes, I've had some really dark times that are likely to continue. And yes, I was pretty scared of Ebola for a few days after the case in Dakar. But no, I'm not going home. I am one year into this and at times my coping strategies still don't work. But I'll persist out of half dim-wittedness and half stubbornness. As corny as it sounds too, I signed up to help people and to serve my country. That job's not yet done. And possibly never will be. But I've found out that's hardly the point. 

For those in the Northeast who I haven't been in touch with, I am sorry. Keep doing what you're doing and know that I care. Although one year really felt like a year, I'm sure the second will go by quicker than we think. Cheers to another  (plus some). 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Another Picture Post (Mangrove Edition)


Here are some photos of the mangrove reforestation I was involved in a few weeks ago. You can read a lot about it at PeaceCorpsSenegal.org but here are some pictures from my POV. 





Some friends getting excited. 




Me and my bucket. 




The sunrise.




The breakfast spread. 





The sunrise encore.





Toucan-ish bird. 




This one is dedicated to Katherine LaRegina because I figure she would want to see what Senegalese pigs look like. Adorable. 





An inventive parrot cage.