"I was worried at first that spending three months in an office would take all excitement away from the fact that I was studying abroad. I thought that while my classmates would be on the field during the Nicaraguan coffee harvest or being the Angelina Jolie of micro-finance, I would be facing a wall. Not having worked as an intern before, I also was concerned by a friend's story of making copies all day long during the summer. At the beginning of my second week, all my worries were gone." - Paul de Vaugelas, Class of 2007
January 11: Tomorrow will be my fifteenth day in Senegal and the celebration of Tabaski, also known as Aid el kibir in the rest of the Muslim world. But before I get into more detail about the two sheep living on the roof of my house for the past week and how much they must wish Abraham had killed his son, I will give a little account of my past two weeks.
Fourteen days ago at this time, I was in the plane from Casablanca to Dakar sitting between an American graduate student going to Senegal for two weeks on a mission trek with her nondenominational church and a French photography student going to Dakar for three days to make a documentary about a local wedding. The plane arrived late, which gave the time to my American compatriot to write ten more pages in her spiritual journal while I tried to wipe off the hot tea my French compatriot spilled on my lap. After going through customs and getting my bags, I made sure the word "Paul" printed on the front of my jacket was visible and it paid off since 30 seconds later the Dakar Catholic Relief Services Administrative Assistant, Madeleine Manga (Mado from then on), was walking me to the car. We drove in direction of Yoff, where my host family lives, while James Blunt was singing "good-bye my lover" on the radio and I thought that if I had a girlfriend or a boyfriend, that would make me really homesick.
Yoff is right next to Dakar and while it may seem like it is just a suburb of the Senegalese capital, it has its own history and culture. Indeed, while most ethnicities are spread through different regions of the country, most people in Yoff are Lébou and most Lébou live in Yoff. There are four major brotherhoods in the Senegalese version of Islam and most Lébou belong to the smallest one, the Layènes. Across time, Yoff has managed to maintain its independence and identity through its strong sense of community. Today, the city has its own administration, with no intervention from the government or the police; the community is in charge of itself.
While living in Yoff forces me to get up at 7am to be at work at 9am after at least one hour of Ndiaga Ndiaye (what some would call a bus and others a bush cab) in heavy Dakar traffic, my host family makes the trouble worth it since they are extremely hospitable and helpful with everything. My host family is composed of Doudou Samb (father) and Mama Aita (mother), two of their daughters, Maman and Coumbis as well as Maman's husband, Seydou, and Dominic Rochefort. Dominic is from Montreal and has known the family for four years and lived with them in the past. He goes by Issa because the family likes to give Senegalese names to their guests (I am Biram). I have a very welcoming host family, the food is delicious and does not make me sick, I do not have to share my room with anyone, and the house has internet; so how much more comfortable could my adjustment be? Well, my host sister works in the building where CRS Dakar is, so instead of feeling lost every morning, I ride the bus with her and her boss drives us back.
But let us turn to the reason I am here, my internship with CRS. I was worried at first that spending three months in an office would take all excitement away from the fact that I was studying abroad. I thought that while my classmates would be on the field during the Nicaraguan coffee harvest or being the Angelina Jolie of micro-finance, I would be facing a wall. Not having worked as an intern before, I also was concerned by a friend’s story of making copies all day long during the summer or, even worse, by what I saw in "The Life Aquatic".
I am now at the beginning of my second week and all my worries are gone. As a student in nonprofit leadership, I probably am easier to please since I think words like "capacity building" and "in-kind donation" are exciting. Yet, I would say that what I am learning is interesting for any person interested in international development and nonprofit work in general. Through this internship I am getting a very close look at the process CRS workers go through to create a project, apply it and evaluate it. My first week has been an orientation, through which I met the head of finances, and people in charge of the programs for agriculture, micro-finance, nutrition and support of People Living With HIV/AIDS and peace building in the Casamance region. During my time here I will get the opportunity to accompany CRS workers as they go to Kolda, Ziguinchor and Thies where the different projects are implemented. I already have started visiting CRS' partners in Dakar, like Caritas and Helen Keller International.
So what is Tabaski? From what my atheist self gathered, God told Abraham he should sacrifice his son for her. Both were very glad to do what God told them to, so they headed up a mountain and Abraham proceeded to slit his son's throat, but just before he could do so, God changed her mind and next thing Abraham knew he was cutting a sheep's head off. Since then, Muslims have commemorated this episode of the Old Testament by taking a sheep with the family for a few days and then slit its throat and eat it. Also, since this holiday celebrates the saving of a son's life, little Senegalese kids are celebrated on the day of Tabaski. During the afternoon, they all dress up and walk from house to house and grown ups give them coins. It is pretty similar to Halloween in that sense except that instead of costumes, the kids are dressed up like on a wedding day and instead of candy, they are given money, which they then use to buy candy. This is quite a simplistic explanation of Tabaski so the photos I took may give a better idea of what the holiday is like.
February 1: Jumanji is the type of movie I suspect many people in the US would stereotypically think about when someone mentions Africa. The continent our President once called a big country is too often associated with mysterious tribes in dark jungles, safaris by the Kilimanjaro, and the poor kids we see in infomercials for white evangelistic humanitarian organizations during BET's weekend inspiration. I may be overestimating people's adherence to such stereotypes, but out of worry that I may spread them myself, I have tried to pay attention to what I write in my emails and which pictures I decide to attach. Adding to this the fact that I am too shy to take pictures of people I do not know, most pictures I took during the last two weeks are baobabs.
The baobab is, along with the lion, the symbol of Senegal. It cannot become bigger than a planet like in The Little Prince, but it is still quite imposing. The well-advised reader will have noted by now that I could not have seen many of such a tree by staying in the very urban city of Dakar. Indeed, one of the highlights of my last two weeks was a CRS-related trip to Tambacounda, or as I like to call it, the Spokane of Senegal. Just like Spokane in Washington, Tambacounda is the biggest city in the eastern part of the state. Instead of seeing pine trees on the road from Seattle, we saw baobabs on the road from Dakar, instead of ZIP'S we ate a few meals at a place called Best Burger and instead of a mechanical garbage-eating goat, there were live ones. Making the similarity between the two cities even more striking, my attention was caught by the numerous beautiful women there. Finally, while the most wonderful thing I have ever found in a Spokane bathroom was vanilla bean lotion, my Tambacounda hotel bathroom introduced me to naturally hot water. Indeed, running water there is naturally warm; during the summer it is so hot it can be used directly to make coffee. Being a warm shower aficionado, this little surprise made me as happy as an Australian finding Vegemite on the breakfast table.
But as interesting as the city was, the major part of our time there was spent in a conference room since the point of our trip was for different CRS and Caritas leaders from Ziguinchor, Kolda, Dakar and Tambacounda to meet about their work on the Development Activity Program (DAP). The DAP is a five year development program that differs in its content from one CRS country office to another. In Senegal it is divided between three Strategic Objectives: Sesame Marketing, Safety Net and Nutrition and Support to People Living With HIV/AIDS.
The Sesame Marketing program consists in reducing food insecurity by helping farmers to develop their sesame crops. The main cash crop in Senegal has always be groundnuts (peanuts) since colonial times. But as it becomes less lucrative, and farmers are not always able to feed their family just with staple crops, alternative cash crops have become necessary. Sesame can grow in the same places as groundnuts, it is a lot more lucrative as it is a newer market, its oil is better and it is easier to harvest. This is why promoting sesame culture and helping farmers to buy good quality seeds and find buyers can help reduce food insecurity.
The Safety Net program consists in identifying vulnerable people (people who have a disability, people living with HIV/AIDS, single heads of household) and provides them with USAID food, such as lentils and wheat soy blend, along with formations on how to prevent and deal with food insecurity. The formations may teach the beneficiaries skills for resource management or help a community to organize itself so that members may help each other.
As for the Nutrition and Support to People Living With HIV/AIDS program, it was created in response to the fact that an Ambulatory Treatment Center did a study showing that out of 100 patients living with HIV/AIDS, 40 suffered of malnutrition and 16 of severe malnutrition. CRS therefore leads a task force with the government and partners such as Family Health International and Helen Keller International that focuses on nutritional support to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Other programs CRS/Senegal is involved in are Peacebuilding and Rebuilding Infrastructures in Casamance as well as the Emergency Locust Control Assistance Program. The Micro Finance unit is now separate from CRS/Senegal has it became its own financial entity in order to grow and better serve clients.
Going to Tambacounda was a great opportunity to learn about the DAP and see beautiful landscapes. I hope that future assignments and trips will give me the opportunity to learn as much about other CRS programs. Just working in my (own) office in Dakar, I am learning a lot about nonprofit work and professional life in general. Of course I miss Seattle, Nice (where I live in France), and Dallas (where my cowboy family lives), but I see this as a unique opportunity to experience everything I read about at school and to develop my opinions about international development and the world in general. Ending this reflection I will therefore use the following quote "beware of the ground for which you stand, the floor is quicker than moving sand" as Robin Williams said in Jumanji.
February 15: Usually too lazy to write daily entries in a journal, I was quite motivated to do so while in Senegal, not so much because I am abroad, but because my friends the mefloquine malaria pills promised they would give me fun vivid dreams as a side effect. I chose Thursday as the weekly day to take the pills so that the most intense dreams would be during the weekend when I had more time to write about them in my diary. But as the dream pills became crazy pills and my teacher, Dr.Quillian, worried about my PMS, anxiety, depression and irritability symptoms I was forced to change to doxycycline. Now the only side effect is that I have better skin. But during the two weeks it took to convince me to give up drug-induced dreams, a few events have made me realize I do not need malaria pills to have things to write in my diary, I just need women.
Women mostly shape the dynamics of my life in Seattle. Examples range from my roommate being a girl to most of my male friends having disappeared as a consequence of my passion for chick-flicks, along with my Jewish-blooded mom raising me to become a mama’s boy and my Spanish teacher making me read feminist novels for independent studies. So while I thought that my first month in Senegal had allowed me to feel settled, the past two weeks made me realize that my feminine side was feeling neglected.
Until recently, I enjoyed myself and felt content with what I learned from my internship and the time I spent with my host family. Alternating professional and family life, recent highlights of my time here were the completion of the APSA 2005 at work and a visit to the Lac Rose (Pink Lake) with my host sister and her husband.
The Annual Public Summary of Activities is a yearly report that must be written in each country where CRS has an office. Like many of my classmates, I was assigned to work on the 2005 version, hence making myself useful to my coworkers while learning about the NGO's activities in the country. The document is approximately 13 pages long, including a letter from the Country Director, a summary of CRS' activities in Senegal (Microfinance, Food Security, Support to People Living With HIV/AIDS, Agriculture), financial information, and pictures of people who might never know they made it to the annual report. As much as reading the 2004 version of this document during the fall quarter gave me a good idea of what my internship would be about, working on the 2005 version of it allowed me to learn from my coworkers, gain experience, and deepen my understanding of administration, finance and programs in the nonprofit world.
The Lac Rose is in the same region as Dakar, right next to the village of Sangalkam. As Sangalkam is where my host sister's husband is from, I was able to go visit the place during a day trip. So after watching a soccer game where my favorite African team beat last year’s continental champion and eating lunch with the family, we peacefully made our way to the Lac Rose. Little did I know that the lake was in fact pink. Amazed by this fact and ever so uninterested by sciences, I ignored the explanations about the sun's reflection on salt water and allowed myself to take a mental picture of the Lac Rose instead of letting a biology enthusiast ruin its poetic mystery.
These two examples illustrate well the way my internship and my family life kept me busy and entertained until recently. But as feminine aspects of my life started appearing in my Senegalese experience, I was able to expand my horizon and enjoy my surroundings in new ways. This started with the emerging of my social life as I made my first friend, Therese, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Virginia taking a year off before going to college. I could feel guilty about the fact that my only friend is not a local, but any such qualm disappears according to the three following reasons: first, living and working all day long with Senegalese people allows me to say I am fully immersed in the culture; secondly, having an outsider friend allows me to share and reflect on experiences; finally, she is the coolest, you don't even know. As much as having a female friend brings balance to my life, spending time with a fellow foreigner has increased my motivation to go on adventures and visit tourist attractions.
During recent adventures, Therese and I met a very friendly Seattleite from Queen Anne as we sat and gossiped on the beach in Yoff. Earlier that day, we had gone to visit the mosque I took pictures of on the day of Tabaski until we were kindly asked to leave the holy place. Indeed, ladies are not allowed to wear pants in that part of the village. But what I found most interesting was how polite and understanding the person who informed us was in the face of our blasphemous profanity. Religious tolerance in Senegal could be used as a model in many a country.
As far as tourism, Therese and I spent a Saturday with my host dad and host sister visiting the île de Gorée. Gorée Island is known for its colonial houses, which were mostly built during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Its most famous museum, la maison des esclaves (house of slaves), allows visitors to see the first floor where enslaved people were kept until being sent to the Americas while the second floor, where traders lived, was restored into a permanent exhibition about the history of slavery in Gorée. Being French, I felt ashamed by what my compatriots did in this country, as well as by the fact that some of them today dare to argue that France had a positive impact on its colonies. Being American, I was bothered by the fact that historical accuracy was often disregarded in order to romanticize stories about Gorée and exploit the emotions of African-American visitors. Being a tourist, I was horrified by how much fun and laughter came from people posing for pictures inside torture rooms. Being a Dakar resident, I enjoyed the beauty and calm present everywhere else on the island.
I would therefore say that finding a female friend in Therese added tourism and social life to my family-and-work-only existence. But my interest for womanhood has impacted my life in many other ways. Visiting the Musée de la femme (women museum) in Gorée added an intellectual aspect to my life here since I learned about a few authors and books I plan on reading while in Senegal. Reaching a peak in unpleasant malaria drug side effects introduced me to the feelings and struggles that come with PMS. Finally, I gradually achieved a kitchen coup d'état over my host mom, which gives me dishwashing privileges as well as a cooking aid position. Happy Valentine's Day to all the women who make my life so happy, especially my mom, I love you.
March 8: In order to leave my house around 7:45am, I wake up around 7:30am, wash my face, brush my teeth and grab a piece of bread full of Chocoleca (like Nutella, but more delish). My tummy full of Made-in-Senegal happiness, I walk a few minutes and hop into a Ndiaga Ndiaye bus with the man in the back screaming "Dakar, Dakar, Dakardakar, dakardakardakar, dkr,dkr,dkr!" The next hour is dedicated to inhaling exhaust fumes and reading.
Since I spend two hours per day in the bus, I have been able to read three novels in the last two weeks. The first book I read was Une si longue lettre (So long a letter) by Mariama Ba. The novel tells the story of a woman's life in Senegalese society with each phrase written in a more poetic way than the previous one. This allowed me to enjoy some of the best writing I ever had the chance to read in French while learning about Senegalese culture and the different struggles women meet in their lives.
At 9am I arrive to the Immeuble des Eaux where CRS/Dakar is situated. I say "hello","bonjour", "na nga def", "ccedil'a va", "asalam aleikum", "mann gi fi rekk", "ngu yendu jamm" to everyone and I turn my computer on. Today I had an email from each of my four best SU friends but I decided not to write back as a way to make sure they miss me a lot. After that, real work can start and this week is the last of my internship so I have to finish everything. One of my current tasks consists in adding amendments to all contracts between CRS/Senegal and partners to include anti-terrorism language that specifies that USAID funds will not support terrorist activities. I just finished translating documents from English to French to help with the management of storage facilities for the distribution of USAID commodities such as corn, lentils, wheat soy blend, and oil. Another recent task consisted of helping the Head of Administration to create procedures for the hiring, orientation and development of staff. But my main project is divided between the translation of the APSA (Annual Public Summary of Activities) from English to French and a research project that I will present to my grown-up coworkers by the end of the week. The point of my presentation will be to give an overview to program managers and such about fundraising opportunities to consider for future projects. Indeed, CRS/Senegal has been very dependent on USAID funds for its activities and it is therefore necessary to diversify for long-term sustainability.
This description of my work may make it seem like my experience of international development only took place in an office. Well, it is true. I never met a single beneficiary. Yet, it is important to be flexible when working for an NGO. If I am more useful in front of a computer translating documents than riding across the countryside on a motorcycle to go interview agricultural workers, than I am glad to do so. In order for some to do important work in the field, others have to do equally important work in the office, with paperwork, fundraising, finances, administration and such less glamorous tasks. In addition, having a 9 to5 job allows me to get my quota of traveling and adventure from tourism rather than fieldwork. One recent highlight has been to attend a soccer game between Senegal and Norway followed by a concert with A-Ha, Youssou Ndour, Alpha Blondy, Lauryn Hill and others. I also had the opportunity to ride on a Jurassic Park-looking 4x4 while taking pictures of typical African animals and beautiful baobabs in a safari-like park.
I spent the past weekend visiting the city of St. Louis with my friend Therese. St. Louis is in the north, right under the Senegal River, which serves as a border between the country and Mauritania. During colonial times, Dakar was the capital of French West Africa, but St. Louis served as Senegal's capital. The city is divided in three with a part on the continent, a part on the island and a part on the peninsula. The bridge linking the island to the continent was build by Gustave Eiffel (as in Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty) and named Pont Faidherbe after the ex-governor of colonial Senegal. Faidherbe's main "contribution" to the country was to make it self-sufficient after the slave trade was outlawed by using half of its land to grow groundnuts (peanuts). While this was very beneficial to the French Empire, the lack of agricultural diversity is still a handicap for Senegal 46 years after its independence as groundnuts are not as lucrative anymore and much of the country's land remains dedicated to it. St. Louis is also famous for its delicious shrimp, its jazz festival, its courageous fishermen and its Muslim cemetery where fishnets are set on top of fishermen's graves.
I usually use my lunch break to send a few emails, bring post cards to the post office and go buy a sandwich for 500 CFA (1$). If I feel fancy, there is a pastry shop a few blocks away where I can get paninis, quiches, fougasses and such for a little less than what I would pay in France, but then I end up spending 15 extra minutes with my hungry eyes glued to the case full of lemon pies, mousses au chocolat, pear and chocolate tarts and other pastries. Today I just solved that problem by obsessively eating jellybeans that I received in the mail from my mom.
I like to stay at work until 6pm or later so that I can get more done or just work slower, but today I left at 4:30pm because my friend Therese and I were meeting at my house to go visit a marabou. Some marabous are considered as religious leaders within Islam in Senegal, while others, Muslim or not, are not recognized by Islam since they pretend to read the future, cast spells and give grigris (charms or amulets). The one we visited was of the second kind but I cannot imagine anyone doubting his powers since he kept insisting on how perfect my life would be and how much everyone appreciates me. No reason to feel crazy suspicious, even when he declared Therese and I would get married within a few months. After all, the timing sounds right even if we are not dating yet and she starts college next year on the other side of the United States, true love and destiny would not have such details stand in their way.
March 21: Maybe there is something special about Senegal, or about the IDIP, or my work with CRS; maybe is it my dear friend Therese, my loving host family or all my friends and family in the US and in France; but this quarter abroad has been very different from any experience before. I have been lucky to study abroad many times before. From class trips to Spain and England during my French high school days to a year as an exchange student in Olympia, WA and a quarter in Mexico through Seattle University, I have had many opportunities to feel homesick, to miss loved ones and to feel strange once home. It therefore comes as quite a surprise when all the study abroad symptoms I thought myself immune to affect me in the strongest ways they ever have.
While I usually do not feel too sad when leaving home to travel abroad, I remember not being able to hold my tears when saying goodbye to my roommate and other friends from Seattle. In the past, crying was reserved for goodbyes to girlfriends. But the hour I spent sobbing on a bench in the SeaTac airport was definitely dedicated to the Seattle friends I missed the whole time I was in Senegal.
So I arrived in Dakar thinking this would be a quarter of interesting experiences as far as work and culture, but with no strings attached. I would just enjoy Senegal, learn about its history, its traditions and its people and gain experience and knowledge about the field of international development. But I became a member of my host family who taught me about Senegal's Terranga, or hospitality and sense of community. I met Therese who motivated me to be proactive about visiting places and reminded me I needed a girl-based social life (including gossip, chick flicks, girl talk, and critical people watching) in order to feel fulfilled. I worked with CRS/Dakar's wonderful staff and realized my coworkers would not only teach me valuable things for my internship but also serve as mentors and influence me in shaping goals and hopes for life after college. Somewhere in between all that, Senegal and its dreaded sidewalks made of sand impacted me a lot more than I had planned.
The result is bitter sweet. On one hand, I learned even more than expected about Senegalese history and culture, gained great experience through my internship and enjoyed so many aspects of my time in West Africa that I could not mention them all in my journal entries (also due to the fact that I mostly wrote about drug-induced dreams). But on the other hand, my plan of swinging by Dakar for 3 months and going back to my Seattle social life was somewhat disrupted. I am now in Nice, my French hometown, craving bissap juice (made by boiling hibiscus flowers; also known as jamaica in Central America and Mexico) wishing someone would compliment me on my skillful use of five different Wolof words and dealing with an ongoing feeling of emptiness. I first thought it was due to the fact that I am away from Therese who represented 90% of my non-grownup fun for the last two months, or because I do not continuously email my classmate in Tanzania to talk about our experiences anymore, or due to the fact that I just spent 5 days in The Gambia with the two local SU interns. But I will have the opportunity to see all these people in the US. The feeling of emptiness appeared with the realization that people would not be asking me how I am doing five times as soon as I say hello anymore. It appeared with the realization that I had a new comfort zone outside of Seattle and Nice. My new comfort zone is in Yoff, with the stand up toilets, the kids who stopped screaming "toubab!" when they see me because I ignored them every time they did, the crowded "buses" and the French-dubbed Mexican soap operas.
I complain because it is a good pastime but I realize there is no reason to. Being sad my time in Senegal was not longer is a sign that I had a valuable experience there. Even if my love for some of the people, values and places there make me miss the country, it is a privilege to feel this way about a country I am so foreign to. I sure did not expect to feel homesick once back at home.