Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nomads and Camels - Kind of

We started teacher training this week and that seems to have taken up most of my time. Sorry for not posting in a while.

Last week was good. Friday we took a trip to Thies to exchange some money and take car of a few things. This was a good start to the weekend, but nothing compared to the rest. Saturday morning, we got up early to head out of town again, and I have to admit, I left town with a slightly different idea of the trip than was actually true.

Our friend Masar, who we hang out with at our mutual friend’s hut on the beach, is from Mauritania. He speaks at least 7 languages and has been to most countries in Africa. What does he want to do the most? Walk around the desert – he’s a nomad. He talked about it a lot, saying he planned to join some friends in Mauritania again soon.

Devin, the peace corps volunteer here, had a goal of riding a camel before he left here and had yet to accomplish this. Since I’ve never ridden a camel, this seemed like a good idea. We talked to Masar and he said he could help us take care of this.

What I thought when I left: We were going to meet some nomads, ride camels for longs ways, and see something real authentic.

What the reality was: We went to a French tourist destination and our friend Masar was the only African that didn’t work there.

Still, it was pretty cool and the weekend cost about $40. We took a few separate car rides out to this small town about 4 hours from M’boro – where I live. Then, we talked to this old man in a little grass hut and got a truck to come pick us up. We sat in back as he raced through trees and over sand dunes, unable to slow down without getting stuck in the sand. Needless to say, we moved around a bit in the back.

When we go out there, we walked a few hundred feet to the edge of a dune before we looked down the hill to see the other, 100 foot dune that our tent was in front of. Cool place. It was just like a bowl in the Rockies, but made of sand.

There were camel rides involved – but again, less than we expected. It consisted of the five of us going less than 3k with the guide leading the way at a safe pace… no camel racing anywhere along the way. This was a disappointment, but considering how uncomfortable the seat was, I guess it was ok. They were a far cry from the camel-mounted couches that Masar described himself riding on.

That night we had a great dinner and met some cool people while others played drums and danced, and then a number of people sat around the fire for a while. Me, Devin and Masar took a walk out into the desert to sit under the stars for a while. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the Milky Way before – which I feel like is not normal for my age – but I certainly got a good look that night. The only obstructions were the bats that flew overhead and sounded like distant helicopters.

To wrap the weekend up, we arranged to go back on a one horse, flat-bed cart. 40k along the beach is a bit more direct than our previous route, but three hours on a wooden cart is a bit more taxing. We had him drop us off at our friend’s house in the shore and took a swim before heading home.

We had to go to school once back in M’boro because there were still about 60 laptops to charge for the teacher training and first day of student training Monday. This took a bit but wasn’t to bad. The weekend turned out well, as all have so far. I feel a little foolish for thinking it would be so much more, but it was actually plenty – just different than intended.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009

Life is but a dream

Ok, really, I can’t complain. I manage to a lot, but it just feels good. In reality, life is going as well for me here as anywhere else I ever am.

The teacher training can be frustrating – “Click here…No, I said here... Yes, but now click… wrong button, it’s ok, go back…Too far, uhm… right, ok, now click here… I know you already clicked there, but really you need to move the mouse down about a millimeter and then click… yes, the hand, once it makes the hand.”

But really, the teachers are doing well and progressing much faster than I thought they would. They are kind and patient, even though communication can be an issue and what they’re dealing with is stressful for both them and me. Come to think of it, working with my parents and neighbors in the past has been a good introduction to this – we deal with just about the same problems.

People will get it. For the most part, they want to. For the other part, they have to. They realize that too.

It is a bit sad for me to think it, but people who can’t use computers are at a great disadvantage when compared to others in the world, not socially or culturally, but just in terms of job opportunities. Even in Senegal, ten years from now, when these kids – god willing – graduate high school, it seems like the only options available for people without computer skills will be mango sales and taxi drivers.

If you read the other blog, which I know you must, you will have already read this next bit, but Stephanie interviewed the principal here for a class writing-activity. In the interview, he gave the reason why he saw the computers to be important, stating, “Students need to know how to read, they need to know how to write, and they need to know how to use computers.” Later he continued:

“In the beginning, if you want to know how to use it, if you have the desire or drive, then it is easy. The teachers in the beginning were scared, they kept saying I'm going to break it. But, now they are getting it. In the end it doesn't matter if they are scared or not. Come October they have to use it in their classes and teach it to their class.”

Whether here at school or off in the ‘real-world,’ kids and teachers both will need to know how to use computers. It is a hard reality that I am coming to accept – this along with a few others. Still, as Pierre said, they are going to have to use the computers, but they are getting it. The latter part is encouraging. What I am doing here isn’t a waste of time or a forcing of foreign influence. While the foreign influence is certainly creeping in and may still hit them like a tidal wave, I’m simply helping build reinforcements so it doesn’t knock them down.

In the mean time, weekends are still nice to have off. If you can’t tell, I’ve been at the beach a lot. We started off Saturday with an early walk to the shore, leaving town in a different direction, through a more farmed part of the area. It was a great walk and much different scenery than we normally get, but the slightly extra distance meant that my calves didn’t completely avoid the midday sun. None the less, we made it in time for a great day at the beach.

I am lucky enough to have already made friends with someone who has a two room hut right on the water. It’s great to relax under his trees, talk with him when I can, and meet the other people who float in and out through the day – the lifestyle on the beach is incredibly open and communal, minus those trying to rip off the white people.

For dinner, Friday, we cooked rice and fresh fish and then about ten of us, including Eli, from my group, ended up staying in his hut. It was too great wake up to the waves and walk along the beach before taking a morning swim. The entire day I sat thinking about how dream-like life is here and that a piece of property like this costs about $4,000 US.

Ok, that is life for now. I’m trying to stay regular with this blog thing – and supposedly gaining some more readers if you who shall remain nameless are actually reading now. I’m interested to see if they finally tuned in.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gimme a minute

I have to sit on this for a bit. It has been the first week of teacher training and I thought about writing a few things but I have to phrase this correctly and it takes some thinking. I won't lie - there are ups and downs. At the same time as it is going well, it's still like building a boat in the ocean - you need to start with something firm, some base. We don't have that with any but a few teachers.

I'll get back to you in a day or two after I chew on this a bit more.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fun in Foundioune

Last week

The teachers went on a small vacation and, since we had nothing better to do in M’boro without the teachers around, we went with!

The bus picked us up at 6AM Tuesday and we were off to southern Senegal. Again, I love driving through places. Even though stopping and visiting would be better, you can still get a little bit out of watching the change of the landscape and lifestyle. A few hours later we got to the ferry which took us to our destination. It wasn’t an island but we needed to cross a river to get to the tiny town we were staying in.

The place wasn’t that much different than where I live now – small town, not a lot going on – except that there were not only goats all around but also a lot of pigs. This surplus meant that we got two for about forty dollars – good deal. Meals don’t generally have that much meat, but vacations and celebrations are all about eating as much as possible and splurging on good food. We had pork sandwiches for breakfast, pork, sauce and millet for lunch, fried pork over an onion cucumber and fried potato salad for dinner. Of course, this was all eaten from a few large platter and mostly with your hand. Meals here are very communal.

Both afternoons we went swimming in the brackish river, which is supposed to be where the salt water and fresh water mix but it seemed even saltier than the ocean. It’s always nice to take a refreshing swim and be covered in a thin gritty film. On the second day they had even arranged a short boat trip through the mangroves in that area. It was a pretty good ride, but someone needed to be bailing at almost all times since our vessel was a well-worn, Senegalese fishing boat, and one of the teachers started crying because she thought we were all going to drown – none of the teachers could swim.

The two evenings there were spent cooking late into the night, and then, after eating as much as possible, the teachers began to dance. Some of the music and dancing here seems to have no kind of rhythm, but maybe that’s just a white boy’s perspective, because the always manage to find the terminating beat. I just chose to save my dignity and stay out of it. The nights ended with about 20 of us on mats in one room, sweating far more than I ever want to again. They had cabins at the Catholic mission – cheap destination for a Catholic school – but they hadn’t been used in over two years and would have taken more work than it was worth – the mice won that battle.

Highlight of the trip: butchering the pig.

Life lesson: It is always good to find the articulation and make a clean cut around the bone, but when that doesn’t work, just hack through the bone with the machete – people gotta eat.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A taste until tomorrow

So, once again, I have written a few blog posts but between traveling a bit with the teachers, teacher training begining and the power going out for a couple days I have not had a lot of time to post them. Instead of flooding you with all the posts, here is a quick adventure to tide you over - and DON'T FORGET to check in on the other blog for near daily updates of the teacher training and project work - AfricaXO.blogspot.com

The days here can drag a little. We try to stay busy at the school, but with things going so well it gets hard to spend too much time there. Lunch is around 1 most days and then most things are closed until around 4 when it starts to cool down just a bit. It leaves a good space for a nap in front of an oscillating fan that hardly does the trick. After 2 hours of rolling around to find the driest part of the sheet, we usually wake up a bit wrestless.

I got Eli to join me for a walk down to the market with no real goal in mind. After passing a few shops, and struggling to decide if the price of 40 cents which I was quoted for a small mirror was a good price or the toubab (white person) price, we managed to walk out of town town. We stopped at one last mango stand to grab some sustinance before exploring a path through some farms.

Wandering up and down the dunes, our goal always reaching the top of one to pick out the next, we decided to aim for the beach about seven kilometers from where we then were. First, we needed to stop to ask a farmer if we could use some water to wash off the mango juice which had run down our hands and arms. A 'yes' was a pretty safe bet since Muslims aren't supposed to refuse anyone water. Judging from the young farmer's reaction, another safe bet may be that we were the only two white people to ever set foot on that farm.

Minding our way through the patches of cacti and thorny vines, we headed in what we thought to be the right direction. Passing two men, as confused as the farmer by the white people in the desert, we doubled checked... and redirected slightly. Here we met a donkey.

They are all fairly focused in town, always at work, but this is under a cheap yoke and the threat of a whip. In the desert, no one around, he seemed to be quite interested in us and soon became slightly more threatening than those pulling the carts or the one befriended by Pooh Bear. We wondered if this one this was maybe an escaped donkey which now had a grudge against the species that enslaved him. After dancing for a while down a few different paths, a useless, dried vine in my hand, the donkey - which we totally could have taken on in a fight - lost interest and went a different way.

A while later, still not at the beach, we checked our path again with a woman passing by. This time, we were right on course, even after being rerouted by the donkey. We finally got to a strip of pine trees which we assumed signaled the nearness of the ocean. A ways a way, first thinking it was a pack of cats, I got to see my first group of monkeys - I didn't even know they had monkeys in this area. They paused to take a look at us but weren't as interested as the donkey.

Soon enough, we proved ourselves correct and found the ocean just beyond the trees. A part that we had never been to, we used our semi-keen sense of direction - a setting sun on the coast makes North and South pretty easy - to find our way back to a village where we could get a ride back.

We found Stephanie and James in the kitchen helping our land lord, Mohammed, cooking dinner. He had bough some of longest fish I'd ever seen - said it was related to sardines but these were about two feet long, not two inches. Everyone ate dinner on the roof to avoid the heat but eating large hot meals followed by boiling mint tea still takes its toll. We stayed up there for a while afterward but it was almost 11 and teaching began the next day. After staying long enough to be polite, we thanked our host and headed to bed for the secondtime that day.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Back-owed blog posts

Ok – These are a lot of back-owed blog posts that were written but did not get posted. Internet has been an issue on and off and when I have had internet I have not always been able to load these off the USB or I just had more important/official things to do. Sorry. Now it is up to those of you with time and strong eyes whether or not you would like to read them. The bonus is that if you get to the end, you are up to date and I will post again soon. Sorry again - Have fun.

Those of you who have read my blog before know that I tend to stay busy rather than stay connected. In Rwanda, I most certainly stayed busy but being connected was not always an option. Either way, I apologize for only updating you now.

So for starters, thank you to all who wished me a happy birthday a bit ago. It was the first day of the conference and I only remembered my birthday the day before, so there wasn’t a big party or anything. I’m ok with that. There still happened to be a social hour planned for after that day’s sessions, and meeting all of the other teams and so many people in one day was enough of a gift.

I can't tell you all of the things I took away from this time in Rwanda. There is just far too much that will still take a lot of time to reveal its full value. The team that lead the orientation was personable, motivated, and did a great job of talking with each of us to get to know us personally as well as get to know our own goals so that they could help us as much as possible. The school visit was great - which you can read about at the end of this whole mess of a blog - and the time spent with other students was bitter sweet, start to finish, and I am grateful to work with such a great group. Don’t mean to gush, but this was quite an experience.

Outside of the conference, Stephanie and I took a trip to Gisenyi, a town in a northwest border, to see Lake Kivu and visit the NGO started by some new friends of ours. Gisenyi is most well known, today, not for its beauty but for its neighboring city, Goma, across the border in Congo. This is where many of the rebels were pushed into after the genocide. Goma is still over-crowded and in need of a lot of help. Attacks still regularly occur within fifteen year old refugee camps which act as breeding grounds for both healing and hatred of the Tutsis and Hutus.

While here, I found opportunities to speak with a few local people who where about my age. At 21, I was timid to ask about their family and their experiences, but both of the people who I spoke with the most were able to admit that they lost both parents and multiple siblings 15 years ago. What I couldn’t ask was how they managed to survive. Honestly, even if they were able to tell me, I don’t know if I could respond to hearing how one witnessed and survived the death of his or her family.

Still, there is a lot that is changing and advancing in Rwanda. The president is dedicated to his project 'vision 2020' which promises to make Rwanda a middle income country by 2020. Although we didn't get to talk much, I was able to meet him as well as representatives from the ministries of education in Uruguay and Haiti. I spoke with the man from Haiti and am looking forward to working with him and a Rotary club in Appleton on expanding an on going project there in Haiti.

I knew that we would also be visiting the house of the king of Rwanda, and while I knew that he hadn't officially been king since the early 60s I knew he was still active. What I didn't know was that he was active from the U.S. where he had lived for some time now. His house in Rwanda is a museum now. The bus ride was beautiful anyway and I loved the long drive up and down the mountains - only a couple close calls passing on curves.

It was a good two weeks, even with the cold bucket showers on days when the shower wouldn't work - at least some water did. A subtle transition into what was to come.

Me and Stephanie were the first to arrive and tied for the last to leave. When we got to the airport, we saw the team of two from Ethiopia - where we happened to have a 13 hours lay-over. There were 100 people from different teams at this conference and I am bad with names - I have to admit that these were two that I had yet to learn. My first thought was, 'crap, we have to fly with them - how long can I hide that I don't know who they are?' Luckily, they didn't know our names either.

We talked for a little while before getting onto the plane. Nice flight, biggest exit row I've ever sat in, and pretty good food. Here's the best part - After we landed, me and Stephanie had heard rumors that we could get a free hotel. We thought we'd just have to pay for the visa. Well the visa was free, hotel was free, free transport to and from, and we happen to have two nice Ethiopians available to show us Addis Ababba (the city in Ethiopia).

Ethiopia is a place I would certainly like to go back to. We got a great history lesson from our taxi driver into town which helped prepare us for our night. We went out to a place to watch some cultural dancing. At first I thought they took us there just because we were tourists, but when I asked what Ethiopians do on a normal night, he looked confused and assured me that they just go and watch dancing. They take part in the dancing too.

From the look of the people and dress, to the style of their food and dancing, Ethiopia is an overt, cultural crossroads for Europe, Asia, the Middle East and all of Africa. In the states we have a lot of cultures that exist side by side, but here they fuse together. I'll admit that there was a lot of visible poverty where we were, but there was also a lot of construction - often a good sign. While in some areas that could put a culture at risk, I think that in this case it will only enable the mix that the culture already is to continue to grow.

It was a good night out and a decent rest in the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. Next morning - bright and early - off to Dakar!

[Originally meant for the team blog]
Orientation and School Visits
The conference is finished and, as you read this, Stephanie and I should have just arrived in Senegal. The past two weeks of orientation have been a wonderful opportunity to delve further into the goals of the OLPCorps program as well as develop a network of support to help us while we are on site in M’boro, Senegal.

The team leading the conference did a great job of working with the Corps teams - like me and Stephanie - to find out what our most pressing concerns and needs were to get us the information and experience that would best prepare us for our deployments. One of the most valuable experiences which I had was the school visit. Stephanie and I visited separate schools and those of you who keep up on the blog may have already read about her experience. While mine was relative to Stephanie’s, I was happy that we were able to get different perspectives on different situations since we have yet to see exactly what our own situation will be this summer.

Our first day at the school was teacher training. Although we believed the teachers had had some experience with the XOs prior to that day - that was mostly untrue. Still, the goals set for Friday morning were ambitious, working with a fairly advanced program, and the teachers picked it up much quicker than I had expected. I sometimes underestimate what people can do with minimal guidance and the support of their peers around them. Kinya-rwanda is a language I have yet to learn, but if I could work with one teacher who seemed to be getting it quickly, they would easily turn and help three others. In the afternoon we worked with other programs like Record to show them how to use other media in their classroom projects and it was incredible to watch them chuckling like children as they made videos and took pictures of their own, awe-struck faces. While it highlighted a number of things to be aware of as I begin working with teachers in Senegal, it was certainly a motivating experience.

Monday, I began working in the classroom with the children. I had the honor of instructing the kids how to turn on the XOs for the very first time. When working with someone who has never once touched a computer, it is interesting to see what teaching needs to come first. They were three of us Corps members and about 45 students, unfortunate odds, but it was a fun for the kids and us to work with Paint to develop basic skills for using with the mouse pad and learning to click, drag, and draw. Also, a circle indicating ‘record’ and a square to mean ‘stop’ is not common knowledge if you did not grow up with a VCR or DVD player. The kids picked it up very quickly though and I am sure that they will be working with the more advance programs very soon.

In the afternoon, we had to deal with some electricity issues but were able to resolve them in order to work with a math class. The goal was to demonstrate knowledge of fractions by creating images in Paint that clearly depicted things like ½, ¾, and 5/7. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised with the students’ ability to learn quickly and then share the knowledge with those struggling around them.

Sorry to make this long, but the time spent at the orientation was quite busy and also quite beneficial to the project that officially begins as soon as I land in Dakar in a few hours (I’m writing this on the plane). However, before I end, I would like to clarify something. There is blog called OLPC News that is in no way affiliated with One Laptop per Child. It seems official and they provide a good bit of necessary reporting, but, due to their lack of affiliation, fail to fact check much that they report and often misrepresent OLPC. While we have asked them not to report information from this blog, they did so anyhow since blogs are considered public. We ask that you consider this if you happen to come across their website, and remember OLPC News is not connected in anyway with OLPC or the separate group of OLPCorps.

Thanks for reading this long and we will be sure to keep you updated as we begin to work with the school in Senegal.

Ok – This is the most recent thing – you’re almost done.

We spent a couple days in Dakar before the Peace Corps could drive us to our new home. It was a good couple of days and a gracious transition to the country - living in the capitol with a bunch of people from the US before moving to a small town not too near to anything. After that, the four of us got as many computers as we could along with our baggage and sweaty bodies in the back of a Land Rover and then bounced our war to our the town of M’boro.

We’re now in M’boro – the town of the school that we are working with. Everything has gone wonderfully so far. If you are reading the team blog – AfricaXO.blogspot.com – you already know a bit about our progress. We make it a priority to update that blog – not so much this one.

We thought we had a great house lined up but that fell through the day we got here. We then moved into a bed and breakfast that had just enough room for us all since the husband was away in France for four more months – then he called and said he’d be back in one day. So we moved to our, hopefully, final place. Stephanie has her own room and the four guys share a big one. We have enough mosquito nets for all and the school loaned us mats to sleep on. Water only works at night but if we fill enough buckets we have enough to bathe in the morning.

We started working with the school and have been really successful in getting them to invest in the program. This helps to ensure that, after we leave, they won’t let the program fall to the wayside. The school dug trenches to lay the Ethernet cord, they are putting extra outlets in each room, and we met with the head of Catholic schools in the country and who then agreed to supply the conduit so we can install everything professionally instead of just stapling it to the wall. Best part yet – electricity in town is free thanks to the phosphorus mine/factory in town. Life is good.

So we are still working at the school to get all this set up and training will begin in less than a week. Meanwhile, we live five kilometers from the coast. A taxi costs about $1.50 to get there so we decided to relax a bit on Saturday. After about 5 hours of swimming, we almost went home but ran into our friend the Peace Corps volunteer, Devin, who invited us to his friend’s house on the beach. It turns out we were sitting in front of his friends house earlier, we just had yet to meet.

We watched the boats fly by the coast and throw lines to groups of waiting locals. If you help pull in the net, you get a cut of the fish. We didn’t help, but fresh fish are cheap and within an hour of the fish arriving on shore, they were cooked over the fire and buried in onions and sauce. Eight of us around one big plate were able to pick it apart with our hands in minutes. It was the best fish I had ever eaten.

Normally, dinner is at one of a few small huts along the road and they all cook delicious, traditional food – well, I find it delicious, some in my group disagree. There are bugs bigger than I have ever seen but they still seem more afraid of me than I am of them. Lizards of few kinds chase each other around and up trees, stopping half way to watch me pass by – something like desert squirrels. The streets are made of sand which follows you everywhere, and although the heat is a constant reminder of the more-intense desert to the north, there are still plenty palm trees and mangos to show the more tropical area that exists to the south. Maybe since things are going so well I’ll have some time to travel to one or the other.

If you have made it this far you have earned the right, if you please, to ask me questions. Feel free to comment or email me and I'll try to respomd to you personally or blog about it - depending on the subject of the question. Thanks for finishing - now go do something more interesting!