Out Planting

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Maimuna and Sulaimaan, my niece and younger host-brother helping me out plant citrus trees and mango trees. The structure to the left is a woven bamboo fence to protect the young trees from wind and hungry, wandering livestock.

August is nearing its end and I find myself walking along the muddy road towards a neighbor’s rice and corn fields. I am walking with his son who is driving a donkey cart loaded with 4 large buckets of trees from his mom’s tree nursery; all thorny species, primarily acacia nilotica and ziziphus mauritiana. For the first several months of my Peace Corps service, I didn’t know how to answer what it is exactly that I do as a Volunteer. I struggled to tell people from home what is was that I was doing every day. I would have to actually pause and go through each hour, thinking, “Really though, what did I actually do today?”

Most RPCVs who I had spoken to prior to becoming a Volunteer had a similar problem; they didn’t really know how to explain what they had been doing for the last 27 months of their lives. More often than not, their explanations turned into nebulous feelings about their experiences and the country they served, rather than what every day looked like for them. My family has asked me recently what I do every day and that spurred this post about the fact that what I’m doing every day is changing all the time and some days I am doing the on-the-ground labor of digging holes or organizing the spacing for an orchard, while other days I am talking to friends in village about what it’s like to inside of an airplane.

A graduate student who I met at the 2014 Western Forestry Graduate Research Symposium held by Oregon State University approached me because my poster had a Peace Corps logo on it. She told me she was a PCV in Jamaica. I asked her what she had done there and she said her primary project was to teach people that lion fish were not poisonous and they should eat them because the population was exploding all around Jamaica. The other part of her job was actually scuba diving to count and collect fish to demonstrate cooking and eating the fish. I remember saying, “Wow, that’s really neat! I’ve never heard of anyone doing a project like that!”

At the time, I was still waiting for my country placement and I was trying to imagine myself scuba diving every week, counting lion fish populations in the ocean. The graduate student saw the starry gaze in my eyes and reacted appropriately, “Yeah, it was cool… Except when you consider that that’s what I did for 2 years of my life,” She paused and then said, “Good luck with your placement.”

Although the idea of what my service is, will be, or has been so far changes every day, I can honestly say that rainy season has proven to be something. Almost every day in August, I wandered around my village, going to every person’s compound, asking when we can out plant the trees in their tree nursery. I was impressed to find that the one training that I had done in May resulted in almost everyone in my village making a tree nursery, seeding that nursery, and watering it for a month. Sure, some people had 8 small papaya trees in one tree sack or seeded more tree sacks than they had land available for out planting the trees, but at least people made nurseries. Most people were just excited that the seeds germinated, but when I walked around to check out their nurseries, people got even more enthusiastic that their hard work paid off and someone wanted to check it. To put it as succinctly as my host dad, “You see, Djenabou, people here like trees, they just don’t know trees.”

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Corn growing within the fence of my family’s compound.

This was the first time in my service that I had thought about the conversation that I had with the Jamaica RPCV. Every day, since the rain started falling, I had a routine. I walked around my village or biking to villages in my region, asking every person who I knew had a tree nursery, when they wanted out plant their trees. We would then pick a day, I would show up at their compound, and then we would carry their trees off to a distant field in the bush. Once we arrived at the field, the man I was working with (the women, despite having made a tree nursery, did not want to accompany me to the field) would do the labor of digging the hole and I would split open the bags and plant the tree. We would talk about how to prune the tree, space the tree and fence the tree. Although I (surprisingly) know how to dig a hole, the men laughed when I offered to help; this also quickly resulted in the men never wanting to take a break because they knew that if they put down the post-hole digger, I would pick it up and start digging. The only person who was okay with me digging holes and didn’t want to do anything expect help me with the fencing was my host dad.

On one occasion, I was out planting orange and lime trees in the community mango orchard. Once finished, my host dad came down afterwards to show me how to fence off the small trees with a woven, bamboo structure. The next day, we returned to check on the trees and discovered that one lime tree had been stolen. My host dad was shocked at the discovery and immediately looked at me for a response. I said something that I have only ever said one time to date, “Mi satinii!” (I’m angry!). Trying to communicate frustration or disappointment in a language like Pular is still something that I haven’t quite mastered and although it wasn’t quite anger I was feeling, it was close enough. I can express things like, “They have no empathy,” “I’m happy,” “I’m sad,” “I don’t understand why they would do that;” I can even say the word for “rainbow” (I’ve only seen one so far during my service) or say one word that literally means to spit and pray over an open wound to heal it, but ‘disappointment’ is still just out reach. Disappointment is somewhere between my loss for words to express ‘worry,’ ‘anxious,’ or ‘preoccupied,’ all of which come out as “My head has gone to the bushes,” or “My head is lost in the bushes.”

To put it plainly, saying “I’m angry” to my host father, shocked him more than the missing tree. It’s difficult for me to actually get angry in this country, but when I need to communicate something close to some of the other feelings I just listed, I end up with things that don’t quite equate. “You’re angry?” My host dad’s forehead crinkled with concern, “Well, I’m sure it’s those children who live on the plateau. They’re bad, just like their parents.”

“Their parents are bad too?”

“Oh yeah, we’re all bad here. If someone has something that someone else doesn’t have, they think they deserve it too and they keep asking, why don’t I have that thing too? People here are complicated, Djenabou.”

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I told him the real reason I was angry was that the trees I plant in the community orchard are for the community, they don’t belong to me or to anyone. This got my mind reeling again for my real purpose in the community and as a ‘development worker,’ if that’s what I’m supposed to be. Why wouldn’t someone take the trees given the fact that: a.) They didn’t know that the trees were for the entire community and, b.) They didn’t create the tree nursery, water it for 3 months during hot season, and envision where a great place for it would be. I relaxed a little thinking about this, but my host dad said that he was going to tell the children that if they tried to steal any more trees, their hands and faces would blow up (like an allergic reaction), and everyone in the community would know who stole the trees. I guess that’s one way to tell the community that the trees are meant for everyone.

Yeah, I Know How to Farm

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From left to right: Saidu (host brother), Baaba/Chief Aliou Swoure (my host father, Djenabou (my namesake and host sister, Sulai (host brother), Mamoudou (host brother), Cherno (host brother, Abdulai (host brother)

Rainy season has brought on what feels like an endless parade of infections, illnesses, and mold. I can still remember back in May when it was 113 degrees and I was biking the 30km home to Woulaba; I thought I would collapse from the heat and breathing in the dry, dusty road. I now reflect on that moment when I know the rain is coming. The atmosphere drops in pressure and a cold wind picks up, at which point I know I have less than 5 minutes to find a dry place to take cover before the storm arrives. Now in the height of rainy season, it has become a daily occurrence that wind rips my back door open, sending a flash flood down the center of my hut. The rains have not only transformed the environment outside, but I am quickly learning how the rains are shaping my indoor living space. I have now learned that due to the slight hill my hut was built on, rain tends to flow directly down the center of my hut and out my front door. I also learned during the first torrential downpour that the stick of bamboo above my bed supporting my mosquito net is a perfect vessel for directing water into the center of my foam mattress. At the first signs that the wind has reached a volume where I feel like my hut is inside a commercial airplane, I scramble to stuff a plastic bag under my back door and shove storage buckets against it, at which point my host father runs around the compound, yelling out the obvious, “The rain is coming, the rain is coming!”

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Saidu and Cherno plowing the field

During the first rain, it was my host father who came to check on how my hut was holding up. He looked mildly disappointed when he saw there was rain leaking from the grass ceiling, “There’s a waterfall in your bed, Djenabou,” he pointed out, with his hands planted on his hips, “And a river flowing under your back door.”

Not too long after storms pass through the barren, red earth around us, the ground has soaked up all but a few puddles and people are scurrying out to their fields, armed with hand tools to seed sorghum, rice, corn, beans, funio, and peanuts; the staples of Senegal. Before rainy season, people would excitedly ask me, “Are you going to farm?” Or “Do you know how to farm?” Since the rains have begun, people have moved on to, “How is the farming?” or “But really, can you farm?”

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Biking on the road between Kedougou and Woulaba

My answers have changed from, “I don’t know anything about farming,” to, “I am only farming trees and vegetables.” Most people chuckle at the predictability of the former answer and shake their heads in confusion to the latter. It wasn’t until I discovered that farming meant being bent over in the hot sun for hours with a hand hoe, removing weeds, that I could finally answer, “Yes, I am farming.”

Admittedly, this is my first time living in a place where the scramble to farm is not to satisfy a popular trend for homegrown, local foods, nor is it for commercial use. Everything grown is going to be stored, saved, and eaten by the hands of the people who are sowing the seeds. Despite malaria and some curious infections, my friends, neighbors, and family are all propelled by the great necessity of farming for sustainable consumption. After about the first 3 rains, the people around me became busier that I had ever seen them. I could no longer wake up early enough to greet my host dad, nor would I find him napping under the giant mango tree in our compound in the afternoon because he was out seeding rice. My young siblings as well as my host mothers were suddenly digging up the newly rain-soaked ground with hand hoes, and seeding corn in every corner of our compound. As the rains became more consistent, the corn reached surpassed me in height and could be found next to latrines and in the small bathing areas behind huts, even if it was a 3m x 3m space. I often tried to complement my host father on his ability to farm, but he claims that people here don’t know how to farm, and they just do it because they have to.

On the few occasions that I have asked him what people use to eat before they had access to corn and rice, his answer has always been the same, “The bush!” Realizing by my reaction that his answer was not self-explanatory, he spoke to me about which leaves, fruits, and bark people used to eat early on.

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Biking on the road between Kedougou and Woulaba

Although my host father isn’t the first person to have this conversation with me, I am starting to finally hear what people are saying about their diets in the Kedougou Region. People in Woulaba often complain about being tired or weak and say that they are ‘suffering’ daily. When I first started living with my host family back in December, I watched my siblings and my host parents commit to 1 or 2 tasks a day – laundry, cooking, or maybe fixing a couple of fence posts. It was easy to look around as someone who had just come from the United States and think, “Everything is so inefficient,” or “Why don’t people do more?” Although my perception has changed because of the surge in activity due to the rainy season, it wasn’t until I started eating the same diet that I started to understand why no one has the energy to do anything. If having worms, water born parasites, and malaria weren’t exhausting enough, eating a diet with very few micro-nutrients or protein in it, will make just about any human feel like hand-washing clothes is enough activity for one day.

On more than one occasion, I have had other Senegalese people tell me that they think the people in the Kedougou Region and Pulars, in general, are just lazy. I was inclined to think the same thing before I also had no protein or micro-nutrients in my diet. Combine that with having no source of income, illness, and no access to a weekly market, and you have rural communities who are physically worn down from the daily labors of life in rural Senegal. Even school teachers from the primary school that my siblings attend have commented on the students’ inability to focus or learn. They often say that the children are lazy, just like their parents. After only a few months of living in Kedougou, however, it has become painfully clear why they would think that: the diet is based on corn, rice, peanuts, and a little bit of boiled leaf sauce.

Thinking back to the first conversation I had with a friend in Woulaba, Djowando Keita, who is passionate about health issues, he mentioned that people in the bush are just not healthy anymore. He thinks that since people began adding things like MSG cubes to every meal, in addition to eating primarily imported rice and corn, people have become less healthy and weaker over time. I have quizzed him since then about why he thinks that people aren’t eating the same things that they used to. He says that some people forget what they used to eat or how to harvest or process things from the bush and people are acquiring a taste for packaged and processed foods. He then continued to explain that he thinks once people acquired this taste, they no longer wanted to harvest things from the bush.

It’s difficult to ignore the daily extremes between eating a heavy portion of white rice, topped with a sauce that contains a hefty amount of MSG cubes (like Adja, Doli, Jumbo, etc.),and salt, only to be chased down by drinking ataaya, which contains at least the equivalent of a 100ml shot glass of sugar. As my host father pointed out once, “You can eat all you want here, but you will never feel full. Your stomach will grow big and wide, but your arms and legs will always be the same size.”

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The Bambaya primary school in the height of rainy season

Djowando also points out that as people are less interested in eating what they harvest from the bush and as having money has become more important, women are also discovering that selling bush fruit is a lucrative business in local markets. This of course got me thinking about the changing preferences for foods in the bush, versus the city. People in my village are more interested in selling what they have in their backyards, to make money to purchase what they can’t grow themselves: imported rice, oil, MSG cubes, and salt; meanwhile, there are people in the cities who are buying bush fruits by the kilo in city markets. Because of the increased sale of the forest harvests, however, people seem to be eating less of what they are taking from the bush.

I occasionally try to start the conversation about all of the vitamins contained in bush fruit or other items harvested from the bush (baobab fruit and leaves, shea nuts, bush mangoes, etc.), but I am usually met with a laugh and people who say that bush fruits are only for children. I’ve been told that the powdery substance as well as the seeds in the pods of Parkia Biglobosa for example, used to be eaten daily by most people, but now people primarily harvest the powder and the seeds to sell in the weekly market. The first time I had actually seen an adult eating the yellow powder, was when my host mother handed me a spoonful of it, saying that I wouldn’t get malaria if I ate it during rainy season. The seeds, although smell like feet, actually taste similar to the MSG cubes that have become as  much a staple in the diet as white rice.

There are too many questions to be asked about why some people think that they are less healthy now than they once were: Could it be social stigma about looking like a child when eating bush fruit? Could it be the increased desire for money? Could it be a change in food preferences? I ask myself these questions and then get stuck on another one of Djowando’s comments in which he said, “People here associate being healthy with being full, so why wouldn’t you focus all of your energy on farming corn and rice, if it meant knowing that you could be full for another 6 months.”

 

Research

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Squirrels Tavern, Corvallis, Oregon

In April 2014, I was sitting in Coffee Culture Café in Corvallis, Oregon with a hard drive full of journal articles about desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa and the political economy of the ‘developing world.’ I thought I was forming some ideas about what my experience in Senegal might be like. I read about commodity chains in charcoal production and case studies involving interviews with “rural villagers’” about land cover change and deforestation. I started imagining the kinds of things I would want to ask the people I was about to live with for two years. My head went into a whirlwind of the kinds of projects I could do while in the Peace Corps. How you could not accomplish great research when you are so integrated in and passionate about the place you are living? It seemed like more than enough time. I stared out the window at the other Oregon State University students coming home from class. They pulled up on nice bikes with heavy backpacks, stuffed with laptops and books. The rain beat down steadily on all of them. They shuffled in and out of the café, dripping fresh rain on the floor. They ordered coffees or beers and spread themselves throughout the café, like birds perching themselves in a tree. Tiny rivers flowed down the long, glass windows and I was thankful for the temporary break from the rain. While my brain was absorbing the heavy political, economic, social, and ecological conflicts of West Africa, I had not even thought about what I might be eating or wearing; or what language I might be speaking every day.

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I am close to 8 months of being in the country and I probably have learned more in 8 months in Senegal than I have in any other time in my life. I don’t want to say that I forgot about charcoal commodity chains or that I forgot about soil destruction because every now and then, when I have internet, I continue my research at a very slow pace. I see the conflicts that I read about every day in Senegal and discuss with people about what they feel are the problems they face. When I first arrived, I expected to feel a stronger reaction to things like burning trash, slash and burn, and chemical fertilizer use. While I wouldn’t say I promote use of any of these, it didn’t occur to me until recently how desensitized I had already become to them. All of these things had become normal parts of my everyday life. I had also stopped noticing the smells, the lack of a public waste system, and the restaurants built out of termite-infested bamboo, tarp and tires. I had stopped thinking that it wasn’t normal to tie your backpack together with rope or to transport your goat in a bucket on the roof of a bus.

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Going back to Woulaba from Kedougou

 

As my environment in Senegal felt more and more normal, the journals that I left behind in Oregon started to feel farther and farther away. They now seemed as far away in my mind as Oregon is geographically. I know I will pick them up again in the fall when I really begin the deeper question-asking, but for now, I am still observing the buffet of Senegal’s cultural offerings, unable to make a decision about what to put on my plate first. It is only when I remove myself from the village, however, that I can reset my perspective. The reality of living with the very people whom I hope to interview and the actual question-asking is more challenging than I had ever expected it to be. My host-father and my best friends in village are some of the first people I hope to record and they are excited about the prospect of helping me achieve my second university degree. However, I know when I am sitting back in Coffee Culture Café, putting together my interviews and data, I will have to try to see everything with the eye of the researcher, and not that of a friend or a host-daughter.

Bush Meat & Petit Pois

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“What is it?” I ask as my friend, Oumou, who is handing me the other end of a piece of dark meat.

As I hold the meat, she tugs on one end to shred it. It takes some tugging to separate the tough pieces. It will end up in the marre maffe (peanut sauce) for lunch today. She responds with a word that I struggle to understand. Between pulling pieces of meat apart, I look up the word in my Pular-English Dictionary and the translation is literally ‘wild animal.’

“Not much to go off of,” I say aloud to my book.

Oumou looks up, “Ko hondun?” – ‘What?’ She asks, looking at me, with her forehead scrunched up.

I try again, “Is it a monkey?” She laughs at me and shakes her head.

“Is it a bat?” She laughs harder, doubling over.

She drops the thick, shredded pieces of meat into the boiling pot of sauce, “It’s bigger than a cow,” She says, holding her hands apart to demonstrate the size.

“Is it a hippo?” I ask, even more confused now.

“Djenabu, if this was hippo, the whole village would be eating,” She replies, gesturing at the remaining meat hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen hut; she was right that there wasn’t much of it to speak of.

After a series of charades and poor drawings on my part, I determine to the best of my ability that the meat that I have just helped Oumou prepare is nothing more than a bushbuck.The conversation ended there, while Oumou sliced bitter tomatoes.

We are sitting in Oumou’s kitchen hut on squat, wooden stools. It’s 107 degrees outside and even hotter in the hut with the fire burning. She is wearing a checkered wrap skirt, closely resembling a long kilt and a pair of blue, plastic flip-flops. Her breasts are bare and sweat is collecting on her shoulders and forehead as she stokes the fire. Oumou’s daughter, Amanta, approaches us. Even after seeing me almost every day for 5 months, she remains shy and overly-polite around me. She greets me with a handshake and a curtsey, before settling herself on two long pieces of bamboo just outside the door. How she manages to stay balanced on them amazes me. Oumou hands her a flat, woven basket with roasted peanuts in it, “Weesu,” She instructs her daugher, and Amanta begins shaking the basket back and forth.

Amanta pauses periodically to scrunch handfuls of the hot peanuts and I attempt to help her. Her knobby knees are locked together as she concentrates on gently shaking the basket back and forth. My arms, neck, and face are slick with sweat and the light peanut skins stick to me, almost as soon as they take flight from the basket in her hands.

As soon as the peanuts are skin-free, Amanta walks them over to a hand-grinder and dumps the basket of peanuts into the top of the grinder. She glances over at me every couple of minutes while she does this and giggles. She asks if I have ever seen a peanut grinder before. I tell her that I have, but that usually people in the US buy jars of pre-ground peanuts. She asks me if women in the US make marre maffe. The shortest answer is yes, and I stick with that, before adding that my mom’s husband makes delisious marre maffe. Amanta stops grinding and looks at me, dumbfounded, “You mean, your mom makes delicious marre maffe,” she tries to correct my statement.

“It’s actually her husband who cooks most of the time,” I respond, “because he likes cooking and my mom doesn’t,” I add.

Amanta seems to understand this, bobbing her head up and down slowly as she begins grinding the peanuts again. When she is finished, she brings the bowl into the kitchen hut to her mother and then skips down the hill towards their neighbor’s compound, cutting through the dingira, where the cows normally spend the night.

Within ten minutes, the thick aroma of tomatoes and peanuts wafts out from the kitchen hut and outsteps Oumou, holding a metal bowl with white rice and a plastic yellow cup advertising Adja. Chunks of dark meat are poking up through the thick, brown sauce like toads peeking out of a mud puddle. She sets the bowl down on the ground just as her husband, Mamoudou, pulls up on his motorcycle. He greets me enthusiastically and sits down at the bowl beside me. Oumou hands each of us a spoon and sings for her daughter, “Amanta!” The singing gradually grows more shrill and louder until her wiry daughter returns to the compound.

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My host mother selling mangoes in the market and my little sister asleep on the table.

She plops down at the bowl and Ibou, the youngest in the family sits on an empty, metal can beside her. He is two years old, but still breastfeeding. He will only eat a few handfuls of the rice, most of which end up on the ground or on his face, before returning to his mother’s breast, “Bismillah,” Oumou and Mamoudou say together and our spoons and hands are in the bowl together. My first bite of the meat is tough and salty, but without having any protein aside from peanut sauce or crushed peanuts, I have no complaints. In the middle of the meal, two women show up and sit on the outskirts of the bowl. All of us encourage them to eat with us, almost to the point of bullying, but they finally say, “Enough,” and we leave them be until the bow has been licked dry.

The women continue glancing at the bowl, but it isn’t until the end of the meal that they tell us why they are there: they want peas from the tree (locally referred to in French, simply as ‘petit pois’) in Mamoudou and Oumou’s backyard, “How do you prepare them?” Oumou agrees to let the women harvest the peas, but admits that she doesn’t know how to make them.

“You just soak them for 24 hours and then you boil them with pepper, salt, and adja,” one woman says.

“Then you fry them in a pan and put them in bread or in sauce,” The second woman adds as she quickly collects the peas. She collects with new fervor, as if thinking that if Oumou knows how to make the peas, then she will change her mind about offering them to the women.

“Oh,” Oumou looks surprised, “I never knew,” She makes no moves towards the tree, but begins boiling water for tea instead.

The women finally turn to me, as if taking notice of the white person for the first time, “Ko honno inetedaa?” (What is your name?), the first women asks me.

“Djenabou Soure,” I respond.

They giggle together, but not unkindly, as most people do when they hear my Senegalese name. This seems to be in part due to the fact that I understand the question they are asking, but also that my answer is a very common Senegalese name in the Kedougou Region. They ask if I am a Peace Corps Volunteer and then tell them that they are from Togue, which is a neighboring village that has had 4 rounds of successful Volunteers, all of which have spoken excellent Pular. I know this because everyone reminds me.

“Do you have a husband?” The same woman asks me, after a round of greetings. It has become a standard element of greetings in my region and have finally realized that if I respond with ‘yes,’ I am treated with a different kind of social status and people assume that I am older than if I tell them that I am unmarried.

“When is your husband coming?”

“Next year,” I respond, without hesitating.

She nods approvingly, until she looks down at what one of my friends from Alaska called ‘adventure pants, and says, “When your husband comes, you have to wear a skirt,” She points accusingly at my paints, which are stained with dirt from the tree nursery I made that morning.

“I will probably continue wearing pants,” I respond.

“What? And you mean, you’re both going to wear pants?” She laughs the way my grandmother laughs when she tells me I will never be able to continue learning and working, and have a family.

“I like to bike, run, walk, and work in the garden all of which are easier while wearing pants,” she nods slowly, still in disbelief.

Apparently the conversation has ended. She turns her nose up, picks up her bowl of peas that she has collected, and leaves the compound. I suddenly felt insensitive to the fact that many women here would feel that it was socially unacceptable to wear pants, once married. This is what I had seen in my village and those around me so far. I had never seen a married woman wearing pants in village.

Oumou noticed the shift in my face and offered me tea saying, “We just don’t know, Djenabou, but we are trying to know. The men suffer here and because of this, they make the women suffer too.”

We both knew that the conversation went deeper than simply an argument about wearing pants, but we sat sweating together, side-by-side as we sipped our tea in silence, staring at the skinny petit pois tree.

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The Funeral

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Dry grass bundled to re-thatch roofs, just outside of Woulaba

 

“A yahay?” My host mother asked me one morning after I finished watering my small tree and vegetable nursery.

“Where?” I asked.

“To The Funeral,” She said with a hint of surprise and raised an eyebrow.

My host mother’s mouth hung slack and her hand was outstretched, but limp; her palm facing the sky, waiting to catch my response. In the United States, if my mother had woken up one morning and asked me if I was going to a funeral, I would answer gently and immediately that yes, of course I would go. It wouldn’t matter if I had known the recently deceased or not, I would be there to support my mother and the other people who would be mourning. I would do what would be expected of me: dress in dark colors and be respectfully present in the only way I know how to be during a difficult time. In the United States, however, I would probably have known when the funeral would take place, whom it was for, and how they died. This morning, I knew none of the above and was even less sure about whether my host mother had asked me if I was going because she wanted me to go, because she thought I was already going, or because I was expected to go.

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Dust blocking the view of the mountains

 

This would be the second funeral that I’ve attended in my short six weeks living in Woulaba. The walk to the first funeral lasted longer than the funeral itself. My two host mothers and I took our time leaving the compound in the morning and walked the 4 km to the neighboring village, Bambaya, where the funeral was being held. As soon as we arrived, we walked around, we greeted people and we asked if they were mourning. On my way out, I ran into some men from my village who were surprised to see me there; they smiled and made light jokes, and then we parted ways. On the walk home one of my host mothers start tearing up, but she had stopped by the time we reached the bush path leading into Woulaba.

I thought this funeral would be the same, knowing very little about death in Senegal and seeing nothing that was familiar to grief on my host mother’s face. I assumed that we would arrive, greet people, and walk home. This time, however, my host mother was in more of a rush to leave. I was not yet dressed in a complet and she looked anxious; she was already wearing a white, wax complet with geometric blue and orange flowers. Wrapped around her head was plaid, fluorescent pink scarf, over which she draped another white scarf that was patterned with colorful egg shapes.

I walked quickly back into my hut and dressed in one of the two complets I own. The purple and white frills hardly seemed appropriate, but taking my cues from my mother, and knowing it would be expected of me, I zipped myself into the heavy fabric. I stared down at the bright colors one last time, smeared sunscreen on my face, and headed towards the gate of our compound. My 15-year old host brother smiled, clapped his hands together and yelled, “Labbama!” (Beautiful!), as we made our way out of the compound. The comment, like my outfit, seemed obtrusively out of place. My host mother walked hurriedly in front of me and I followed in her footsteps. It was only 10am, but the sun was already hot and I immediately began sweating beneath the multi-layered wax. The matching head wrap made my forehead itch and I tried to readjust it as we marched forward.

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Bamboo forest

 

We walked through the village on a bumpy, laterite path past other compounds that were just now finishing breakfast. I took one last look behind me where the mountains should be, but they were not there this morning; the normally beautiful view was obstructed by thick clouds of dust. A neighbor called out asking if I spent my night in peace and I tripped on a large rock in the path. The thong of my flip-flop cut between my toes and I swore as quietly as I could manage. My neighbor shouted loudly and casually, “Are you going to The Funeral?”

It again struck me how out of place this would be in United States and it took me a moment to respond, “Yes, we are going now,” I shouted back and I asked him the same.

My host mother told me the funeral was being held in Medina, a village across the road from Woulaba that I yet to visit. I had known Medina was nearby because friends and neighbors often were coming and going from the village, but every time I had asked my dad where the town was, he just gestured north and said it wasn’t far. Once we reached the main road, we were joined by several other women from Woulaba. We greeted each other and in the distance, I could see more women flocking toward us, coming from Dimboli. Men sporadically whipped by us on motorcycles and bicycles into the bush ahead of us – none of them walked. Occasionally I saw women on the backs of the bicycles and motorcycles, but the vast majority walked alongside us. As we marched along together into the slim bush path, I felt like I was being swallowed by a tulip field in Amsterdam – the women’s colorful dresses flowed and waved around me as they swiftly navigated the narrow path. A younger mother whom I had recently become friends with walked in front of me – her head was covered in a bright green hijab with a golden string of flowers; her head bobbed as she nodded to the conversations around her and the flowers jingled as softly as a small wind chime. The women chattered like birds in their high-pitched Pular, singing greetings to one another as we collected more women along the trail. I was in the middle of all of the them and my head flittered between conversations. I found myself fixating on one word that I didn’t understand, but kept hearing. I tried to listen to the context, but it kept changing. Before I could confuse myself further, I saw my neighbor’s wife holding her wrists together as if they were tied. She was talking about a “bad man” she had seen in Dimboli. He was chained at the wrists, stumbling around town recently. Suddenly, the context became clear and the verb I didn’t understand, “jabata,” came to life: not permitted. The man they were discussing had been accused and found guilty of a crime, but was sentenced to a life in handcuffs, rather than put into prison.

The women laughed explosively when one of them said that that was how her husband felt all the time. A close friend of my father’s in Woulaba had also recently told me that his first wife tied his hands, his second wife tied his ankles, and the third one beats him. He laughed until he almost fell out of his bamboo chair, but given his 16 children, his point was very clear.

The casual conversation carried us all the way to Medina. Motorcycles and bicycles were leaning against fences and baobab trees, or had been tossed on the ground by the time we got there, but people continued to enter Medina from out of the forest. A group of men were gathered under a large flamboyant tree, wearing shiny, brightly-colored bubus, while the women were gathered in compounds on either side of it. One woman was standing, singing a haunting song while the women seated at her feet, sang a chorus. The group of women I had walked with headed towards the singing women, but before entering the compound, they dropped to their knees on the edge of the compound and began wailing. I was left standing for a brief moment, but dropped to my knees beside them. The women covered their faces with their hands and scarves and stayed that way for a minute. I did the same, but did not wail. Tears fell and women continued to cry out in pain. I kept my head down and continued to cover my face as they did, but before too long, the women stood, recomposed themselves, and entered the compound. Behind us, another group of women had arrived and replaced us on the ground and the wailing continued.

Once inside the compound, we sat with other women on the ground. Tears continued to fall around me, but the women sang. I tried to pick up some of the chorus, but the words were lost on me and I ended up just listening. After several choruses, the men rotated and went to the mosque; the women replaced them under the flamboyant tree. Some women threw themselves onto the ground, crying openly, while others looked frozen with grief, crying silently. I parroted what the women around me did, greeting people and asking them if they were mourning. Some of them smiled at me, while others ignored my outstretched hand. The women whom I had arrived with had changed completely since our walk. Their faces were drawn with sorrow, their eyes empty and fixated on the tree in front of us, or the ground. No one embraced each other, but people held hands and shook hands for an extended period of time.

The emotions swept through the women around me until the moment we stepped outside of Medina. The casual conversations then abruptly picked up again. The woman walking beside me asked how my Pular was going, if my garden was growing, and if I ate kossan – sour milk, usually mixed with a fistful of sugar and either poured over rice, lacciri, or drunk on its own. I was a little taken aback by the ease with which our conversation took place after the deep grieving I had just seen at the funeral. The women around me were once again singing and talking, some saying they needed to get home to pound corn for dinner. The deceased was not mentioned again and the women eventually went their separate ways along the bush paths, as did I. Before saying goodbye to my friend in the colorful hijab, she asked me, “Are you coming to the naming ceremony next week?”

“Eeyoo,” (yes), I answered, although I didn’t know who it was for or where it would be.

“You should wear that complet,” She gestured to the one I had on.

I looked down at the bright purple fabric and the frills that were more extravagant than anything I had worn since I was under the age of five, juxtaposed with my dirty, bleeding feet and dusty, sunburned skin, “Awa,” (okay), I responded. She nodded, smiled, shook my hand and headed in the direction of her compound.

While I have yet to snap photos of the women in my village, this was taken at our swear-in and offers a peak into the range of colors, fabrics, and styles of complets women typically wear

While I have yet to snap photos of the women in my village, this was taken at our swear-in and offers a peak into the range of colors, fabrics, and styles of complets women typically wear

Woulaba

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The waterfall behind Woulaba

  I have finally moved to my permanent site in the small village of Woulaba. My host father, the chief of Woulaba, says that there are about 300 people who live in the village, but it seems like far fewer. Our family is made up of my host father, his two wives, and about six children. There are other children as well who drop in from time to time, but they have since gotten married and moved to surrounding villages or to the regional capital, Kedougou, which is about 30 km away. The half of the village that I live in is at the base of a string of mountains bordering Guinea. Surrounding the compound is a large corn field. We are nearing the end of harvest season so the slope behind my house has been razed, leaving behind the empty sockets of old corn cobs and the crunchy yellow stalks they fell from. I didn’t realize until I was having a pleasant bucket shower one afternoon behind my hut, that people live on the plateau where the slope ends behind my hut, “Djenabu!” I heard a young voice call my new name in village. Startled, I looked around me, but didn’t see anyone. I continued scrubbing my feet, and then the voice cried out again, “Djenabu!” I looked up this time to see my 8-year-old neighbor waving to me from where the slope meets the plateau above our compound. Embarassed, I ducked down behind my fence, but he asked me curiously, “Ko hondun wadata?” – What are you doing? I froze and didn’t respond at first, but he continued with, “A lotoyoto?” – Are you washing yourself? I knew my cheeks were hot, so I continued to stare at my feet, where red ants bustled around them and tested their ability to climb my ankles. I finally responded, “Eeyoo,”  – Yes! There was a soft giggle and then I heard him scurrying down the mountainside. I stayed crouched, thinking that he would come right up to the fence and continue conversing with me, but it was jus the cows and goats on the other side. IMG_0363 Woulaba extends up the plateau and into compounds, which all have the last name of Diallo. It also extends across the main road where all of the compounds have the last name of Camara. Lining the plateau are African teak trees, kankiliba, mango trees and a number of tamarind trees. Clustered next to my backyard are moringa trees, some of which have taken root along my fence. When combined with crushed peanuts, they make for goopy sauce that Is then poured over lacciri. Beyond the plateau is where the mountains suddenly become steeper and beyond them lies Guinea – about 8 km from Woulaba. Every night I fall asleep to the sounds of the cows munching old corn stalks alongside my fence or the sounds of lizards scurrying through my hay roof; and every morning I wake up to the roosters who let me know that the first light is about to spill over the mountains.

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The main road between Woulaba and Kedougou

I have arrived in the cold/dry season and the main road is lined with long, golden grass. At the call of the first rooster in my compound, I am out the front gate and running in the middle of the red road, which is quiet until 7 am, when students start arriving on bicycle and motorcycle for school in the next village, Dimboli. Before the seasonal fires started up, the grasses carried the strong scent of local lavender and vanilla. Countless, unfamiliar colorful birds chatter in the trees lining the road and it feels like I have a symphony to listen to in the silent darkness of the “subaka low” (6:00am prayer) hour. Because of the bush fires, which sweep through the main road and form spectacular rings on the mountain slopes, I am occasionally startled with the thought that the sun is rising all around me. By the time I return to my compound, sunlight has flooded Woulaba and I can clearly see some of the squashes left behind from harvest season and the bush dogs, who hang their heads at my approach. It is in the quietest, darkest hours of the morning when I am running that I feel like I could be anywhere in the world. No one has left their compound yet and I am left running with the birds, crickets, cows, and goats.

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The moon rising over the roof of my hut and the small solar panel that I use to charge my cell phone.

Because Woulaba is fairly close the Guinean border, the town has changed since the border closing. The closest weekly market was located in Fungolimbi, which is the last village on the border between Guinea and Senegal. During my first week, I started to hear complaints from villagers about the lack of water and the closing of the only weekly market. Villagers have taken to selling baobab, corn, rice, and other crops in Kedougou, which has the added complication of travelling to and paying for a 30 km bus ride. Villagers have also been buying items in bulk from Kedougou like sugar, cooking oil, tea, and onions and selling them out of their houses. When I ask people about the border closing and if it has had an effect on the village, I usually get a response like, “Jooni, alla yimbe gaa,” – Now there are no people here. One villager also seemed concerned that once the border was reopened, people would “run” into Senegal and flood the small villages in the region, and then there really would be nothing left.

“Slowly, slowly, you will catch the monkey in the bush”

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Sengalkam boutique next to the futbol field

 

It’s difficult to believe that I have already been here for over a month. My entry into Senegal was a blur from the moment I stepped off of the plane and into the hot breath of Dakar. I had no expectations before my arrival into Senegal, except for the few packets of information that the Peace Corps had passed on through various emails. Between trying to make sure that I had all of the items from my packing list, downloading reading material to continue developing research ideas for my thesis, and saying goodbye to family and friends, I felt like I had less than enough time to digest the language and cultural information that was being filtered down to me.

And yet, here I am. I have begun to learn a sub-family of the language Pular (Pullo Fuuta), which is spoken across West and East Africa, and I am very slowly learning how to integrate with my host family; although, I have to relearn how to integrate with another family in an entirely different region of the country next month. All of the new Volunteers are being trained between the Peace Corps training center in Thies and a secondary location with a host family. Our host families speak the language of the region in which we will be living for the rest of our service – which means that some of us have relative ideas about where we will be placed. Myself and 4 other trainees were placed in Sengalkam, which has a population of about 5,000 people and is located 23 km from Dakar.

From the moment that we stepped off out of the safe, air-conditioned bubble of the Peace Corps van, we were swarmed by children and our host mothers. My host mother is an energetic woman in her late 50s and despite the size of Sengallkam and its proximity to Dakar, she is well-known throughout the community. Neneyo is the commonly used word for ‘mother’ in Pular, but when I say that I live at Neneyo’s house, everyone in the community knows who I am talking about. Neneyo may only be 4 foot 11 inches and weigh 85-90 pounds, but she is impossible to miss. She is the community shepherd for men, women, and children in the community and can be often found taking her goats for a walk or talking to the chickens in our compound. Our compound is large, with 4 separate buildings contained within it. I have yet to see all of the rooms, because we spend all of our waking hours outside. I now more or less understand who lives within my compound, but there are never less than 15 people eating at the lunch and dinner bowls every day.

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Nima, my namesake, helping me and my sister cook lunch

 

 

The streets of Sengalkam are sand. There is one main, paved road that leads to Dakar, but otherwise, all of the compounds are more or less in grid formation and filled in with sand. I don’t know why this fact amazes me so much or what else I would have expected in Sahelian Africa, but there you have, the one thing that I am continually amazed by: just how much sand there is. There are pockets of people in Sengalkam who speak Pullo Fuuta, but most people speak Wolof and French. My two host brothers bounce back and forth between French, Su Su, and Pullo Fuuta because they are both from Guinea Conakry. While my family tries to speak only in Pullo Fuuta around me, especially while eating in large groups, some speak Wolof, while others debate which words or phrases are more correct in Pullo Fuuta. Being so close to Dakar, Sengalkam is also more westernized than the majority of the villages in which we will actually be living. Several members of my family have had more formal educations, including one who is attending University for his Master’s degree in Sociology. Sengalkam and the area around Dakar is clearly becoming more westernized and as a result, there is a stronger divide in values between the younger generation and the older generation. I was surprised to already be having a discussion with younger girls in my community who expressed a strong interest in pursuing English and attending university.

The westernization of Sengalkam made for a very unique and unexpected Tebaski experience. While our first week with our host families may have been a confusing and stressful one for us, we also entered our home stay sites the week leading up to Tebaski, which meant that my household as well as the country as large, was preparing for one of the biggest celebrations of the year. From the little that I could understand at the time, women discussed daily what they would be wearing and how they wanted their daughters’ hair braided. I was approached by my younger host sister who wanted me to have my hair braided. I consented, not knowing the pain or the process of what was about to happen to my scalp. By the end, I was staring at two fistfuls of my hair at my feet while each family member reported, “No labba,” (Very pretty). One of my host brothers added, “Nima, today you are a real African woman.”

Occasionally my little brother, Alliou, would look at me, say the word ‘Tebaski,’ point to the sheep chained up in our yard, and then slice his finger across his throat. “At least we’re communicating,” I thought to myself. The internationally recognized sign for ‘that goat is definitely going to get it.’ Although I interpreted his miming gestures correctly, I later learned that he understands Pullo Fuuta, but he only speaks Wolof.

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I did not manage to get a photo of my checkered, clown-like dress for Tebasky, but this is another complet that I wore for a wedding recently

 

My Tebaski experience was a puzzling one from the moment I woke up, having had only basic knowledge about the celebration itself, having no knowledge about how my family would treat me for the occasion, and speaking only butchered Pullo Fuuta. I stepped out of my room in the morning and was immediately greeted by Neneyo, who led me to the backyard, sat me down on a small stool, and then handed me a knife and potato. “Joodo, joodo,” she repeated, until I sat down on the brick-sized wooden seat in front of a bowl of murky water filled with more potatoes.

The other women in my family sat nearby, giggling under their breath while they peeled potatoes and carrots, chopped onions, and mixed spices. Other members of my family walked by and greeted us as we worked. They would also immediately after inform me, “Nima, you’re cooking.” They seemed both surprised and excited to see me working with the women, rather than dirty from working in the garden or studying my language books. I responded by parroting their informative statement, “Yes, I’m cooking.”

My style of learning Pular as it turns out, is much like a toddler might learn. For example, when an adult tells a toddler to pick up an item from a collection of items, but the toddler is unsure about which item might be needed. My older sister might slur some Pular in my direction while simultaneously pointing at a collection of items. On Tebaski, it was a row of different kinds of pots. I knew she wanted me to pick a pot so I got up and walked over to the pots. I maintained eye contact with her and put my hand on the first pot, “O’oo,” she said, and waggled her finger at me.

Blank-faced and wide-eyed, I put my hand on the next pot, “O’oo,” she said and I pursued the same method of trial and error.

Placing my hand on the third pot, her eyes lit up and she replied, “Eey,” shaking her head vigorously and gesturing for me to join her again.

This differed from normal days when my family members would walk by me as I was flipped through my Pular dictionary and they would say, “Nima, you’re studying,” and I would parrot again, “Yes, I’m studying.”

Or one of my bothers might say, “Nima, you’re a soldier because you’re from the United States.” While lacking the ability to explain why I was not a soldier or why I did not own a gun, I would say, “Yes, I’m studying.”

After spending the morning cooking with the women in my family, our house experienced waves of young girls and boys who stopped by to greet Neneyo and the other members of my family. Some of them would offer 10 francs or 25 francs. They would shuffle into the house slowly and quietly, looking just as unsure as I did while speaking Pular. They greeted each of us in Wolof or Pular, shook our hands, and curtsied. The girls wore complets ranging in iridescent pinks, blues, oranges, or greens, and often were accompanied by sequins, lace, or complicated embroidery. Matching the dresses were the colors painted on the young girls’ faces – bright eye shadows that I had only ever seen on Barbie dolls and rouged cheeks as bright and shiny as cherries.

I have never been interested in make up or felt the urge to ‘be made up,’ but in the context of my Tebaski experience, it would have been unacceptable to greet other houses without wearing peacock purple eye shadow to match my floral complet. The night ran late and just when I thought we were finished with our rounds, we returned to the house and sat on the roof, drinking shots of ataya – a very caffeinated green tea, made with a lot of sugar. The caffeine made me restless and I felt the goat kicking its way out of my stomach, but when I retired to my room, I realized that it was only during the 2am tea-drinking hour that I began to really pick up lists of new words and where I was introduced to community members who wanted to stop by to sit and drink tea with us for hours. This is also where I began to hear the limitless proverbs in the Pular language. One popped into my head that the pilot had said to us when we arrived in-country that suddenly made sense to me, “Slowly, slowly you will catch the monkey in the bush.”

 

 

The Art of Happiness after Quitting. Part 2.

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In less than a year, I deployed my mother’s powerful mantra when I realized that I would rather work 7 days a week at two minimum wage jobs and be happy, than continue climbing the ranks of a toxic work environment, despite a high pay grade, health benefits, and ‘stability.’ My supervisor’s response to my resignation letter was initially shock, which evaporated quickly into an aggressive hiss, “Why?”

“Because you’re a psychotic micro-manager and a total sociopath,“ I wanted to spit in her face. I resisted the urge to scream and flip the desk over, killing her carefully chosen succulents in the process. I wanted to threaten to throw bricks through her windows, kidnap her cat, and key her car.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t think she would ask me ‘why.’ In fact, a friend who had been encouraging me to quit, informed me that she technically wasn’t allowed to ask. Instead of hurling the threats and violence on the tip of my tongue into her pinched face, I mumbled an apology and a lie about family obligations. I looked at my shoes and strangled my hands in my lap. I gave my two weeks’ notice in my resignation letter, but she informed me that I could leave immediately. I saved my tears for my empty apartment in Oakland, but I walked out of the office with more pain in my stomach than I had had the entire time I worked there. Relief was finally twisting free from somewhere deep inside me.

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West Cliff, Santa Cruz, California.

I had been applying for jobs during that last couple of weeks of my employment with the consulting firm and a job offer came from Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz, California. At the time of my second interview with the company, I was living in my Honda and on people’s couches in town. I was so desperate to get out of the life that I had been living, that I almost offered to scrub the floors of the roastery, when I was offered a job as a cashier. Everyone working for Verve, and the additional group of people they planned to hire were painfully friendly. I couldn’t believe that a work place could have such a positive community. 

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Myself in green, being trained at Verve. Taken from: http://www.vervecoffeeroasters.com/pages/roastery-coffee-bar

It was unthinkable after the work environment I had come out of, where my supervisor made cruel jokes about the president of the company (sometimes during teleconferences) or about my coworkers. It was a relief to talk to a supportive work community after I had lived in a house with people whom I couldn’t open up to about the violent tremors I was still experiencing after my most recent scrape in Oakland. The response I had received most often was an unsympathetic stare accompanied by, “Not everyone can handle Oakland.”

After I began working for Verve Coffee Roasters for a couple of months, I was offered a second job working for Buttercup Cakes, decorating cupcakes. I worked 7 days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day between the two jobs, but my life had improved significantly.

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Buttercup Cakes, Santa Cruz, California. http://www.farmhousefrosting.com/

I’m not good at quitting things because of the sense of obligation I feel to fulfill whatever commitments come my way. For a while, I was determined to not quit my job because of the pay, the experience, and the benefits. In addition to this, I was also fulfilling my 16-year-old self’s dream of living in the Bay Area and a part of me felt like I was giving up a dream too easily. However, I found my limits. My body had reached a capacity for the levels of fear, anxiety, paranoia, and worthlessness that it could withstand. I felt that if I didn’t quit, I literally wouldn’t survive because I already wasn’t surviving at work and I wasn’t surviving at home. I wanted to be happy, not just struggle to survive each day.

The relief I felt in quitting the job washed over me in slow waves. For weeks I had the same reoccurring nightmares about being in my supervisor’s office, or waking up in the tight, musty loft in my room in Oakland. Eventually, the memories of, “I should be dead right now,” my old supervisor, and the burning acidic pits in my stomach were replaced by the cheerful, daily buzz of the café and the friendly locals in Santa Cruz.  

So why explain this now when I have also moved on from Santa Cruz, through rural Alaska, Oregon, and soon-to-be Peace Corps in Senegal? Because it was a long trip to get here (although it could have been longer). Since the day that I applied to Peace Corps and now with 4 weeks to go before my departure, I am asked all the time why I decided to apply. People like to remind me that it is a very long commitment. The answer to why is a complex one, however, it grew out of a desire to be happy and a desire to pursue experiences that seem like the right thing to do at the right time to them, rather than feelings of obligation to ‘not fail,’ or to gain status in a career.

My neighbor said to me recently, “Well, now is a good time to go in the Peace Corps anyway. You’re young and you’re still figuring out what you want to do. Something will turn up eventually for you, you have plenty of time,” he said reassuringly.

“I don’t need more time. This is what I want to do,” I replied with a broad smile.

“But I mean for a career,” He countered, his eyebrows rising with the passing seconds.

“This is my career,” this had been true working for Verve Coffee Roasters, doing forestry work in Alaska, and beginning a graduate program at Oregon State University; I just happened to have time in between each step of my career to repeatedly ask myself it it’s really what I want to be doing. Peace Corps has given me a year to question whether this is what I want to be doing and my answer is one month away.

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Looking over the mouth of the Stikine River in Wrangell, Alaska

The Art of Quitting. Part 1.

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“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do!” I flushed as the words that I recognized as my mother’s poured out of my mouth and into the face of a friend whom I had been talking to.

She paused, laughed at me and said, “Okay, but you’re coming to this thing with me.”

The thing she was referring to was a seminar for returned and future Peace Corps Volunteers at Oregon State University. The words I had just said left me feeling stunned and guilty. My mother had been saying these words to me for as long as I could remember, “Just quit. Remember, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

I had always been slightly embarrassed and frustrated by my mother’s words when I was a kid, thinking that I would never start something that I couldn’t finish. However, those words have gotten me through a lot, especially in the last 4 years. There was a time and a place for those words and sometimes it’s harder to say them than others, but the important thing is to recognize when they need to be said.

When I was 16, I traveled to San Francisco for the first time. Like many people who visit the West Coast, I had decided that I wanted to move there as soon as I could. The opportunity presented itself when I graduated from UMass Amherst and I was offered a job as an ‘environmental scientist’ for an environmental consulting company in the Bay Area.

The best part about this story is that it doesn’t end with a self-assured smile and a statement like, “I worked really hard and look how far it got me. With some hard work and a go-getter attitude, the stars are the limit.”

I ended up in Oakland when I moved to California for my new job. My cousin’s fiance owned a couple of old Victorian houses in Oakland, one of which had a room for rent. A tall wooden fence enclosed the spaces behind the houses. Thick vegetation grew along the fences and an astonishing eucalyptus tree spilled over the otherwise concrete backyard, sheltering us from people passing by. I was sold. However, being from the East Coast, I knew little about Oakland and let go of most of the things I saw. I reasoned that if my cousin was living there, then it must be okay, despite the fact that the day I moved in, my landlord pulled me aside and said, “I’m not going to lie to you, this isn’t a safe neighborhood.”

I just shook my head and smiled. I didn’t have the means to go anywhere else nor did I know where else might be a good option, even if I had wanted to leave.

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Hobbes, my pet fish in Oakland. He died the day after I brought him into the office.

It took little time for me to realize that my job was more difficult than I had imagined and was made even more challenging because no one took the time to train me. I worried constantly about the work I was expected to produce. I began panicking every night before bed, forcing myself to reach into the deepest places in my brain, where I might summon the thin tendrils of strength I had left to continue.

Despite my growing paranoia living in Oakland and my dwindling self-confidence, I felt like I should do everything in my power to avoid quitting. I had been advised by a family member to have a meeting with my supervisor, “Just sit with her and try to straighten things out, see if you can have a fresh start and use a ‘What-can-I-improve-upon approach.’”

I was raised in a region of the country where happiness and [financial/entrepreneurial] success are often interlinked in people’s minds. There is a common expectation to attend a reputable school, obtain a good job, and work towards status and money. This being the societal foundation that I was raised in, I felt like I was failing. I whispered to myself nightly, Just one more day, just one more day.

 But then I started asking myself, And then what?

“My job is hard,” I heard myself telling one of my best friends over the phone.

She laughed light-heartedly and said, “I think that’s just the way it is now. Everyone feels that way,” I could hear her smiling, but my heart sank.

The hours I spent commuting every day began reducing me into a person that I no longer recognized. During the week, I stayed up late with the mentality I had when I was 10, thinking that if I didn’t go sleep, tomorrow would never come. I filled my evenings working out at a local boxing club, running in the Regional Redwood Park in the Oakland Hills, or buried in novels.

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Redwood Regional Park, Oakland, California

Time dripped slowly into me at work and rushed by me at home.

I slept in a loft in my room that had about 3 feet of clearance between myself and the ceiling. It was the only place in which I had a sense of safety; I could hear my own breathing and my heartbeat, reassuring me that I was in fact still alive. One night, after being chased on my bike, a neighbor asked if I slept with a knife.

I tossed around in my sheets every night during the week, sweating through my clothes. Dread tore through my chest about what new, humiliating events my work day would bring. This anxiety of being humiliated and scrutinized by my supervisor transformed into terror.

Was this what I had set myself up for, for the rest of my life? 

I had vivid, reoccurring nightmares about my supervisor calling me to her office, emailing me that I was fired, and pointing out my incompetence during office meetings. I know that I’m not the only one to ever feel humiliated, interrogated, scrutinized, or micromanaged at a job. I know this because over time, I discovered that many of my coworkers felt the same way I did.

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Window from my second apartment in Oakland, California

One particularly harsh day passed and I was sitting in my car in the parking garage, staring at the concrete corner in front of me. My hands were shaking and I gripped the steering wheel to steady them, concentrating on breathing. A coworker startled me when he knocked on the window. His eyes flickered around the parking lot to see if anyone else was around before he said, “I know you’ve been having a tough time,” at this point I thought he was going to say something encouraging, like my supervisor just needed time to get to know me, but instead he admitted, “I’ve seen 4 young women go through your position in the last 2 years. It always seemed to get harder on them, not easier,” He shook his head thoughtfully, not looking me in the eyes, then patted my car like a big dog and said, “Well, have a good weekend!”

My room was a tall closet with one window that faced the street. I often found myself sitting in the one piece of furniture I had borrowed from my cousin: a creaky, wooden chair. I watched people moving in aimless flight around the neighborhood, and began identifying with the questionable direction we were all headed. Cars drove by infrequently and when they did, it was slow and deliberate. Most people really didn’t seem to do much of anything, but it never calmed the fear that ignited in my stomach when I was followed or stared at, when leaving my house. Although, I felt like what I was doing was no different than the people I saw in my neighborhood wandering around – I constantly questioned the hypocrisy that environmental consulting companies worked for the construction companies to get projects done and I questioned what the real point of my job was.

What was I actually doing, except  (unsuccessfully) advancing myself as an individual?

Sometimes I would take my bike onto BART through the crowded, noisy streets of San Francisco or Berkeley. I whizzed past colorful rows of houses, each neighborhood exploding with a bright, distinct personality and purpose. I flew down steep streets and over bumpy trolley tracks, passing hordes of enthusiastic tourists who snapped photos of every detail the lively city had to offer. I was always struck by San Franciscans in line outside of bars and cafes, none of whose lives seemed to resemble mine.

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San Francisco, California

My anxiety in Oakland built to a point where I left the house armed with mace and a knife. I had had enough scrapes to realize that I may be one step away from one really big one. Maybe one that I wouldn’t recover from. When that one finally came, I acknowledged the truth of it, and the words, “I should be dead right now,” constantly flashed through my mind. But I wasn’t. My mother’s words burned in my mouth, “I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do!”

If the consulting job marked the first stepping stone, of the path I was expected to follow: ‘I go to college, I get a job, I get married, I buy a house, and I have some kids,’ then I was about to abandon my vehicle on a 6 lane highway, dodge traffic, and look for another route, no matter what it was. The only thing scarier than quitting without a plan, would be not quitting at all.

Cavity

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Wrangell Island, Alaska

 

“You have a cavity,” my dentist informed me. Her mouth was covered with a blue, paper mask that wrapped around her ears, but I shifted my line of sight to the deep furrows in her forehead and then to her deep-set black eyes which reflected my mouth.

I meant to say, “Oh good,” but with the tools in my mouth only allowed me to say, “Ohgrod.”

“I’m going to fix you,” she responded.

I closed my eyes and felt the burn of tears behind my lids. When I opened my eyes again, the dentist held up a tiny drill, which was already shrieking a high-pitch noise that always managed to give me more anxiety than any job interview or high-stakes exam ever could. I started thinking about the word ‘cavity,’ to take my mind off of the drilling inside my mouth.

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Myself and a hunting companion on Etolin Island, Alaska. Photo Credit: Holly O.

 

When I think about leaving for West Africa, a cavity in my chest opens. I forget to breathe for a moment and my heart feels pinched. It’s not that I haven’t been outside of the country before or that I haven’t been away from my family before. It’s not that I have never traveled in a Muslim country or that I will be a foreign implant in a place where I may not always be welcomed. Well, maybe some of that is part of it.

It probably sounds like a silly or unbelievable anecdote when my family members repeat to our neighbors and friends that I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a gang warfare event in California, or that I had been chased by a bear in rural Alaska, or that now I am preparing to live in West Africa for a couple of years, during a time when NPR discusses the threat of Ebola all over the region. Only 3 years have passed since I left my home state of Massachusetts and sometimes I can’t believe what has happened during such a short period of time. 7 weeks are left before I take flight again and reopen that cavity for yet another new person with another new round of unseen events and adventures.DSCF5824

The cavity began forming the day that I left Rowley, Massachusetts for Oakland, California. It started as a paranoid flight reaction that I had never experienced, but I had not become aware of the chameleon that the cavity had become until a year and a half later, when I had been living in Alaska.

The first 4 months in Wrangell, Alaska moved swiftly and easily. I fell in love with my job, I was surrounded by interesting people at work and at home, and the backdrop to my life could not have been more stunning. I lived in a bunkhouse that had 6 rooms and slept 15 people. As the season wore on, people took jobs ‘down south,’ some returned to school elsewhere, and some simply felt like it was time to move on. The bunk house became emptier and emptier. Much like the cavity in my chest, the empty rooms hemorrhaged energy that once buzzed through them with the vibrant people who had been there. The doors to the rooms were left open, exposing the emptiness of each. There was nothing in the rooms except for the identical, faceless bunk bed, dresser, and desk of all the others.

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City Park on Wrangell Island, Alaska

I started to wake around 3:30am every morning in the empty house, my chest burning because I was suddenly too aware of being alone again. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or terror that would overtake me. Wrangell felt safe with its tiny population and welcoming locals; I had even begun to make a few friends in town. It was a bigger cavity that was echoing my feelings of being alone and that I would not soon be with my family again; it was the echo of what ‘home’ meant and who I was without it. My family was moving on with their lives, but very separately from mine. Although we are all traveling on parallel timelines, I was becoming increasingly unsure about whether we would ever travel together on that timeline again. I kept asking myself if I was making a mistake by choosing to be so far away. My chest grew tight and I struggled to breathe, feeling as if I had left them behind for something new. In the middle of the summer in Alaska, the sunlight would already be peering through the slits of my shades at this hour, but with Fall quickly approaching, my tiny room drowned in darkness. My heartbeat burned in my ears and I shut my eyes to the sound of the steadily rising drum of my life.

Near Berg Bay, Alaska.

I know you cannot worry about the outcome of an event or an experience. And I know that the people you love and share your life will not share every moment of your life with you because they cannot always be with you and some things you just need to, or happen to experience on your own. For better or for worse, you experience many things that will change you, but sometimes it is difficult to recognize that many people will not understand the things you face because they are not you and they were not there. The same is true for them and for everyone else.

Ultimately, despite all of these strange life in encounters, I personally had to reconcile with this and stop struggling to remember who I was, or worrying about who I was becoming as a result of the odd things I was and am still living through. If I can open that adaptable cavity wide enough so that I may approach new experiences with open arms, then I can become what I really always was: resilient. I will always be afraid of something, particularly when faced with a new challenge, a new environment, a long commitment, a foreign language, a test of my physiological stability, and an experience that will likely change who I am forever.

The funny thing that I also had to recognize over time is that people encounter life changing experiences all the time, but they are less predictable and perhaps more subtle. The only difference between experiencing those changes while working a stable job, and while living in a stable environment is that you do not expect those things to happen on a regular basis. Heading into Peace Corps, you are informed that you will be facing all of those things all at once and you should prepare and be aware that it is about to happen, even if you cannot predict the outcome or your reaction, or which experiences will affect you the most while you’re there.

Thorne Bay, Alaska

Thorne Bay, Alaska

“All done!” The dentist cooed through her blue mask.

I blinked several times and felt a couple of tears drip down my cheeks. The high-pitched drill was off and hanging from the tiny metal tray beside me. Tools were removed quickly from my mouth, as if they were never there at all.

“You’re lucky your cavity wasn’t any bigger or we might have had to remove the whole tooth and constructed a new one for you,” my dentist chuckled.

I nodded, not really listening, “Sometimes that happens,” I smiled at her.

She looked puzzled and handed me a bill.