Monday, August 24, 2009

My Last Post

After a crazy 14 month adventure, my peace corps service was cut about a year short when Peace Corps Mauritania was evacuated on Monday August 10th, following a suicide bombing at the French embassy in Nouakchott.

At the time of the bombing and evacuation, I was on vacation back in Ohio and due to a weird loophole in the system, got screwed out of many of the options available to my fellow volunteers. As of the moment of the evacuation, my paperwork was started without my authorization to end my peace corps service and I officially became a Retired Peace Corps Volunteer. While I was at home sobbing over the loss of my work, family, and friends in Mauritania and the lack of closure, my friends who had evacuated to Senegal together were able to share a final week together and decide whether or not they wanted to finish out their service in one of many francophone African countries (ie. Rwanda, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, and Guinea). For me, it was over.

It has been an extremely rough time knowing that they will be continuing on their adventures while I am thrown into the post-grad real world in America. Don't get me wrong, America is great, but I had planned to use the last year of my service as a time to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Suddenly I've been thrown back into a world of 14 year olds; I don't have a car and I have to live with and mooch off of my parents. But things are starting to look up, between the loads of PC paperwork and job searching I'm keeping really busy and hoping for the best. Thanks to all my amazing friends and family for being supportive through the rough times and always knowing how to make me smile on days when I thought I would never be able to make it. If I had the chance to do it all over again I would; I came home with no regrets. I made friends that will last a lifetime, became part of an African family that will forever be a part of me and hopefully touched the lives of my center girls the same way they touched my life.

Thanks again for everything!

Peace Corps RIM: June 21, 2008-August 10, 2009

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

4th of July "No Talent Talent Show"

Although a little different then your classical American 4th of July, our little party weekend in Kaedi this year was amazzzinnggg…

Please check out Cortney wearing the wax print fabric we found in Bamako :)

We had a huge cookout/potluck of traditional American food. I have to admit, it was so amazing that me, an 8 year vegetarian, ate barbeque chicken and hotdogs. It just looked sooo good! Also in our boredom, we gave everything on the menu American names like “Boghé Barak-otato Salad”, “Yes We Coleslaw”, “Alexander Hamilton Hell raiser Hotdogs” and “Boston Tea Party Cream Pie” (and yes, there was an actual menu written out and posted haha).

And what do Peace Corps volunteers do when they’re bored? Throw a no talent talent show, normal right? We started the show off with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem and had 2 hilarious MCs cracking original Mauritanian jokes through out the night. Some of me and my regionmates did a MJ tribute with a dance to “ABC” by the Jackson 5, other people wrote/sang songs while others did summersaults on the ground ahahha (a very legit talent Amanda, Elise and Cortney!).

Not to be outdone, the talent show was promptly followed by a dance party, sandstorm, and then in middle of the night, a monsoon like rainstorm while everyone was sleeping outside. You never forget you’re in Africa…

Monday, July 6, 2009

The hardest month of my service

Where to even begin where the last month has taken us here in PC Mauritania. Let me start off with an apology for the fact that this blog post is all over the place. Trying to describe what has been happening in a mere few paragraphs is nearly impossible but I knew that many of you were concerned and confused about what was going on here so I tried my best…

As I left off in my last email, the new class of trainees had been postponed at the beginning of June, only a few weeks before training was supposed to start (and something that all of the volunteers here were all looking forward to helping with). A few weeks later the decision was made to completely cancel the training class, putting an end to any of our hopes that the COSing (close of service) volunteers will be replaced anytime in the next 6 months.

Following that announcement, in a completely unrelated event, an American was killed in our capital Nouakchott. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claim responsibility for killing the victim because of his "Christianizing activities" in a country where preaching anything but Islam is against the law. We have been assured that in spite of this tragic event there is no increased threat against Americans and I want to make it clear that I feel completely and absolutely safe.

Due to all of this, PC Washington has decided to offer any volunteers who wish to take it an “Interrupted Service” in which they go home now and have the choice of becoming an RPCV (returned PCV) or try to apply for another 2 year PC program. With the current extremely low moral due following all these events, it was not a huge surprise that many of the volunteers have decided to leave and take the benefits that come with IS (you get full COSing benefits as opposed to receiving none if you terminate your service early for any other reason).

Personally, I knew that by leaving I would be letting down way too many people including my center girls, my regionmates, all my PCV friends here, and the future prospects for the PC program here in Mauritania. Although it would have been a lot easier just to go, I don’t feel like my work here is done. In total we have lost about a 1/3 of the volunteers in my class plus the entire COSing class before us, going from about 120 volunteers a month ago to 40. Im in desperate need of this trip home to relax and reenergize myself for this next year of service… see you all in a few short weeks!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mali Trip

Im currently sitting in Nouakchott detoxing from my trip to Mali…. where do I even begin? This trip has truly tested me in the Peace Corps motto “Be Flexible” since basically every single plan I had made was thrown to the wayside by either crappy transportation issues, minor incidents of international terrorism or complications with the Mauritanian government. Its been a crazyyy few weeks…

So the first leg of our trip was to get from Boghé to Bamako, which was of course full of the usual ridiculousness that accompanies travel here in West Africa (aka lost reservations, 2 am border crossing, sleeping in a bus station). But once we got to Bamako it was completely worth it. Unlike cosmopolitan Dakar and sand dune filled Nouakchott, Bamako is a real African city. It is so green and tropical and has both western amenities (including a pool at our hotel!) and traditional African charm. I had a great time celebrating my birthday eve at a local bar full of PCVs from Mali and Mauritania (in town for the World Cup qualifying game and PC Mauritania/Mali Soccer game). And on a random side note, turns out it was the bartenders birthday as well so me and my friends enjoyed free bottles of champagne all night! The pictures below are me at a re-creation of the famous Djenne Mosque at the National Museum of Mali and me and Julie on my birthday eve.

After a few days in Bamako, me and Julie headed out to meet up with our friends who had already started hiking in the Dogon country. The bus ride from Bamako to Severe (jumping off point into the Dogon) was such a trip from hell that I decided it was better to forget it was my birthday because that just made me more angry, but even with the bus ride from hell it was completely worth it. The Dogon country is known for its beautiful rock formations and traditional Dogon culture that has withstood centuries of imperialism and globalization and is considered one of the top places to visit in all of Africa. The dozens of villages are only assessable by hiking up and down the rock facades and with an experienced Dogon guide. The views are amazing and the history and culture are unparallel to anything that Mauritania has to offer.

On the left is an aerial view of one of the Dogon villages where we hiked to and spent the night and on the right is a close up of some of the alleys throughout the village.

On the left is a traditional Dogon village and mosque with the ever present baobob tree in front and on the right is an engraved pole holding up the thatched roof of our campement.

Notice the houses built into the rock face on the left. These were originally built by the 'Tellem" people, a pygmy race in Mali. Due to the location of the homes, upon entering the territory the Dogon people believed that the Tellem could fly (although they soon discovered otherwise and forced them to leave). On the right is a house of "fetishes", things used for traditional medicine and rituals, like stuffed monkeys and skulls.

The goat skin is not Dogon specific but unfortunitly popular throughout West Africa. They swear it cools down water but i think its about the sickest thing ever! The picture on the right was in one of the Dogon villages where mirrors (or reflective sunglasses) apparently dont exist... these girls spent a solid 5 minutes tapping my eyes and showing their friends their reflections (although im sure they could have gone on playing with them for an infinite time if i would have let them).

Sadly in the middle of our Dogon trip we found out that the PC Mauritania/Mali Soccer game was cancelled. Everyone had really been looking forward to it for a long time but due to the continuing terrorist activity in north-eastern Mali the embassy decided it was best not to have so many Americans congregated at the same place. Then later during the same phone call we found out that our new group of volunteers had been denied visas by the Mauritanian government so all of our plans for this summer (that virtual revolve around training the newbees) no longer existed. Although there is still a possibility that training is just postponed until later this summer, it is still a huge blow to our moral as we watch the second year volunteers COS (close of service) and the possibility that they wont be replaced starts to sink in.

GMC Art Project

One of the last projects I did at the center this year was an introduction to art lesson in coordination with Amanda (my fellow girls ed volunteer in Aleg). For almost every single one of these girls, this was the first time they have been given the opportunity to use their creativity through art and learn hands-on about things like the color wheel, drawing, African/Islamic art motifs and painting. We taught the girls how to create secondary colors from primary colors and then had them practice with a color by numbers and watercolor paints. From there Amanda taught the girls about some basic painting techniques and together we practiced by painting a flower using pointillism. On the next day we studied African and Islamic motifs and using the projector (a borrowed godsend from our bureau in Nouakchott!) we studied photos for the different type of art they could find throughout Mauritania and Western Africa.

The next step was the hardest, giving the girls absolute freedom to create their own painting of African/Islamic art. It’s a delicate balance of giving them examples to use but still making them push themselves to really create something original. In the end, it was a pretty successful couple days and you could see some of these girls discovering their artistic side. Even though there was only a few weeks left in the school year they keep asking when the next art class would be!! I guess I’ll just have to start planning one for next school year!

So for now the center is closed during the summer, with the exception of the 10th Annual Girl's Conference in Nouakchott at the end of June. Although its going to be an exhusting 4 days, im excited to be able to bring my 3 best girls to participate. Blog post on that to come in just a few short weeks!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Faux 23rd BDay Party

Because Yates will be out of town for my real birthday, her and Julie decided to throw me a little mini faux bday party last weekend. Since everyone else was down in St. Louis for Jazz Fest, it ended up being just me, Yates, Julie and Zach but it was still such a great day! By the time I came over to the house in the morning they had already hung ballons from our big neem tree (Yates actually thought I may not notice the ballons due to all the trash and plastic bags that are in the tree haha ). Then we made enchiladas for lunch and spent all afternoon lounging in the kiddie pool. They even made me two desserts, a banana cake with chocolate icing and Zach’s famous mango pie (with colorful coconut shavings on top). Sadly, by the time the cake was cut the fluish sickness I had been fighting the whole day got the best of me and the drinking games we had planned were replaced with sleep, but I still could not have asked for a more perfect faux bday party! Now onto Bamako to celebrate my real bday!

look how good our enchiladas look!!! its amazing wht creativity and some velvetta can do!

its always so sad when we have to drain the kiddie pool at the end of the day

Monday, May 4, 2009

GMC Female Health Campaign

For the past few months I have been working with Tiffany (a health PCV in Boghé) on a big female health campaign in my center, something that I have always wanted to do with my girls. Back at the end of March, Tiffany had a few intro to women’s health classes at the center and I started collecting anonymous questions from the girls (think sex ed, everyone’s too embarrassed to be the one with questions so I made all the girls write two questions down). Then we coordinated a series of seminars with local medical professionals where their questions were answered and the floor was opened up for more questions and discussions. For many of the girls this was the first time they had ever been able to candidly talk about their health and get their questions answered. An example of some of the questions are “how do women get pregnant?”, “how can I avoid getting pregnant”, “why do girl’s get their period”, “why are girls more susceptible to contracting AIDS?” and “why do some women have cesarean births?” I was so happy to see that through these seminars the girls were able to understand and control decisions made about their bodies. In a place where being married by 16 and having your 5th child by 22 isn’t unheard of, education is the most important tool to give these girls.

Following the huge success of these seminars, we decided to bring the female health campaign on the road to one of our nearby villages, Sarandougou. The girls spent 2 weeks working nearly every night brainstorming the subjects they thought were important (and weren’t too radical, villages tend to be much more conservative), researching their subjects, writing/practicing sketches and discourses and making posters. The topics they ended up presenting were puberty, AIDS, breastfeeding, female nutrition, and malaria (although not really related, very important in our area!).

When the big day came, all the girls pilled into a prison bus with me, Tiffany and Amber (another one of my sitemates who teaches English at the middle school) and headed to Sarandougou, about a 30 ride outside of Boghé. PC has a long standing relationship with Sarandougou and currently my friend Ryan is an English teacher in their middle school so he helped set the ground work for our visit. Since he is currently in America (and I am sooo jealous!), he left a lot of the day-of organizational work to the other professors at the middle school and they did a fabulous job! By the time our bus arrived, there were hundreds of girls waiting for us. The professors gave us the use of the teachers lounge to set up/practice in and then took care of dividing the village girls into two rooms, one for elementary girls and another for middle school age girls. I have never seen a better run event in all of my time in Mauritania! The professors were able to keep all the annoying snoopy boys out of the school compound and even managed to get the head nurse at the local health post to come! By the time we were ready to present, all 210 girls were quietly sitting in the desks of their respective rooms waiting for us to start.

I have never been so proud of the hard work of my center girls! The presentations were organized so well and they presented their information and sketches like professionals. This event developed their leadership skills, inspired peer education, and made the girls thoroughly educated in the area of women’s health. My biggest success story so far!

On the left is the room with the elementary girls, over 100 in one classroom! (which actually is the normal amount for a teacher in that room as well). On the right are my girls presenting HIV/AIDS with a poster describing how AIDS destroys your immune system.

On the left are the girls presenting how breastfeeding is nutritious for babies and the signs of malnutrition in children. On the right are some of my girls presenting on basic nutrition and why eating vegetables/fruits are so important for the body (a major issue here).

On the left are some of my girls presenting a breastfeeding sketch while on the left is some other girls presenting the malaria sketch (the girl outside the malaria net is pretending to be a mosquito to show how sleeping with the net can protect you from getting bitten).

On the left is one of my girls giving a discourse on malaria to the elementary girls while on the left is a picture of the middle school girls classroom.

On the left are all the center girls who participated in the prison bus getting ready to go back and on the right is me (the proud mama!) with my girls!