Please note that the opinions reflected on this blog are solely MY opinion. They do not reflect the Peace Corps or the US Government in any way.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It's a mad world

I don’t really know where to appropriately begin this post. I usually have a pretty clear direction of where I want to go and what I ultimately want my blog posts to be about but this one is different. I have followed my typical pattern of writing up random thoughts in a word document as well as cataloging my observations when I’m out and about. I’ve gone through the habitual steps but I still feel like this post will be even more all over the place than usual. You see, I’m doing pretty well here overall. Sure, right now things are a bit slow with Ramadan and the fact that the air is completely stagnant and incredibly hot (I know you’ve seen all my sweating stories on Facebook). I don’t really have a lot going on work wise but it will come soon and I’m not too worried about it. As you all have probably figured out by now, when I have a significant amount of down time, I end up thinking about various random things.

Recently thoughts of my family and various dramas going on back home have consumed a lot of my time. My dad recently lost his younger brother, my uncle Norbert who I have mentioned in various posts. He was incredibly close to him as was my mother. She lost one of her best friends.

Norbert was the kind of person that even though he was going through something more painful than most of us can imagine, he still took the time to be considerate and he cared deeply about his family and friends. I think that we could all benefit if we took a page from his book. Lately I feel as if some people back home are forgetting what is important in life.

There is far too much focus on pettiness and resentments that are long past. Instead of thinking about the fact that our family is already small enough and that we should cherish what we have, there has been criticism and hurtful words spread. Instead of encouragement and candid conversation, there is backstabbing and gossip. I’m not saying that some of the frustrations expressed aren’t valid, but I think there are better outlets for dealing with them. I would hate to think that Norbert’s passing meant nothing to anyone. I would hate to think that he left and we continued to foster unnecessary hatred towards one another. I would hope that his passing would enable all of us to reach into our hearts and hold on to what we have here because you never know when it’s going to be gone.

Underneath friendships, jobs, boyfriends, and whatever else, family is truly all we have. It is what we are born with, for better or worse, and it is what we need to protect. I am writing this not only because I am frustrated and sad with what I see going on back home but also as reassurance to anyone who is possibly dealing with a similar situation. I encourage everyone to make that weekly phone call, to give an extra hug, and to always say I love you.

 I know this might be getting kind of personal but I started this blog in order to document what is happening in my life during my Peace Corps service. Unfortunately these issues back home consume a lot of my everyday thoughts and are truly affecting my well-being here. I’m not writing this because I expect that things will miraculously get better. I am not na├»ve enough to believe that. I know that all families have problems; I just love mine too much to let things slip away or get worse. I hope that my family loves me enough to read what I have to say with care and an open mind. I’m not writing this to go on the defense or attack anyone. I know that we are all going through struggles and I write this with wishes that we can support and help one another. I am writing this because I am hurting and this is one of my outlets that I use when I am having a hard time. I am hoping that my words will be heard and will possibly help but all I can do is hope.

Along with my thoughts of home, I have also been thinking a lot about all of the hatred that there is the world. I honestly don’t understand it. I recently watched the “bi-racial” cheerios commercial that has had so many people super freaked out. I am at a loss for words on what to think of our society today. I was at least reassured after watching a video montage highlighting various children’s’ reactions to the commercial. They, rightly, didn’t see anything wrong with the fact that the couple featured was of different races. I applaud the parents of these children. I believe hatred and racism is something that is often taught.  I don’t think that we are born with this animosity in our hearts. I do believe that it’s possible to break free of the chains that bind us to the opinions of our families but it has got to be difficult. I want to share a quick blurb that I read on the comments of the video interviewing the children. It really stuck with me. It’s nothing super special; actually it is quite odd where it was taken from. It’s just a few lines from Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific that was filmed back in 1949.

You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Why do some choose to continue to perpetuate the hatred? From one generation to another? This doesn’t only apply to racism but to negative thoughts in general. Why can’t we let go of our own past pains and encourage our children to be positive and happy? I am obviously not speaking from a parent’s point of view but as a child who has experienced others growing up in a resolutely negative atmosphere. I feel bad for them. I pity those who can’t see past their own shortcomings and look forward to a brighter future for their children. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that didn’t tolerate that sort of behavior. I did have very traditional, strict, German grandparents who would occasionally make racist comments but they were not sentiments that my parents shared which made them easier for me to escape.

I guess I would like to end this rambling, incredibly personal blog, by talking about forgiveness and the true importance of the word. Our lives are so short. Why can’t we make the best of it while we’re here? What does holding onto grudges and spewing hateful jargon really do for anyone? Why can’t we let things go and instead of criticizing others, why don’t we work towards our own personal betterment? Why can’t we lean on one another and offer support and guidance to those we know are hurting? There are people in the world, who are going through struggles that are beyond our magnitude to comprehend. I feel that as someone who has been living in a developing country for over a year, I have some room to speak on this subject. The people here may be “suffering” but they sure as hell do love each other. Family is number one.

In Senegal, you never turn your back on your family; you are always willing to take them in, to give them a second chance. This is one reason why African families are so huge (there’s also no real concept of birth control but that’s a topic for another day). These people may not ever have clean water; they may have to wait a few days before they can afford a proper meal for their family, and they may not have the best healthcare or education system but they sure do understand the importance of forgiveness. Maybe instead of continually pushing our sense of development on them, we should take a page from their book.

Until next time then,


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ramadan... For a day

5:00 AM – Wake up. Realize that the bread I bought last night has gone stale. It’s hard as a rock. Improvise. Eat two bananas and a cliff bar instead, knowing that this isn’t going to be enough to last me but also knowing there’s nothing that I can do about it. Drink a liter of water. Almost puke because of forcing said rapid consumption upon myself at such an early hour but force it down. Go back to sleep.
6:00 AM – Wake up to pee.
6:20 AM – Pee again.
7:00 AM – Pee…
7:40 AM – Take a guess
8:30 AM – Wake up sweating while realizing the electricity has gone out. Swear to myself but then remember that I need to get up for the day anyway.
9:00 AM – Meeting at mayor’s office. Naturally sit and wait for the entire group to arrive. Watch mayor drinking water in front of me (he’s catholic meaning no Ramadan) with an abnormal amount of loathing.
9:20 AM – Meeting still hasn’t started. Feeling a slight rumbling in my stomach. Thoughts of the long day that looms ahead of me are running rampant.
10:00 AM – Meeting is in full swing but I am falling asleep because I am tired and thirsty and I also do not understand the languages being spoken around me. Dehydration headache is blooming.
11:20 AM – Back home with a book, journal, cell phone, and computer to distract me for the next 8 hours. Too hot to nap so don't even suggest it.

At this point, some of you might ask, why are you doing this and also, what in the hell is going on? I am wondering that myself at this point. It seemed like such a good idea yesterday. Two of my other Peace Corps friends were doing it so I figured that we’d have each other to call and whine to. We decided to fast for one day of Ramadan. Just one day. During the entire month of Ramadan, I am asked by my Muslim friends and family here why I am not fasting. Typically I just respond with, I am not Muslim, it’s not part of my religion. This year, though, I wanted to try it. I was interested in seeing what they went through for a month. I wanted to see why this was important to them. Mostly, I wanted to show solidarity with the culture that I have been living in for over a year, even if it was only for one day.

For those of you that don't know, Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, improvement, increased devotion and worship. Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam meaning it is an essential component of the religion. The fast begins at dawn (hence my 5 AM chow fest) and ends at sunset (which ended up being around 7:30 PM). In addition to abstaining from eating and drinking, Muslims also increase restraint, such as abstaining from sexual relations and generally sinful speech and behavior. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. Ramadan also teaches Muslims how to better practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate; thus encouraging actions of generosity and compulsory charity, zakat. (Washington Post, not sure if I have to site stuff in a private blog…)

For some Muslims, fasting may instill a sense of fraternity and unity, as they believe they are feeling and experiencing what their needy and hungry brothers and sisters are feeling. Those who are already poor and hungry are often considered exempt from fasting, as their condition renders them effectively fasting all the time; however, many still refrain from eating during the day. The fast is intended to teach Muslims patience and self-control, and to remind them of the less fortunate in the world. I especially appreciate this part as I think this is something those of us who are more fortunate often forget. Faithful observance of the fast is believed to atone for personal faults and misdeeds, at least in part, and to help earn a place in paradise. It is also believed to be beneficial for personal conduct, that is, to help control impulses, passions and temper. The fast is also meant to provide time for meditation and to strengthen one's faith (ramadan.co.uk). 

Before I decided to take a day to fast, I saw Ramadan very differently. To most PCV’s, me included, Ramadan can be somewhat of an annoyance. People tend to be quite irritable and tired (no kidding, eh, after not eating or drinking and being in oppressive heat all day). You often have to rethink your traveling as taking public transportation in the late afternoon can be quite dangerous with people rushing home to break fast. Around this time people are obviously even more tired and irritable considering that the end of their long day is finally approaching. During Ramadan, whether you live with a Senegalese family or not, eating can be more difficult. I have a friend whose town doesn’t even make bread during the month. Many restaurants are closed down or are open for very odd hours and often boutiques are sold out of staple cooking items. As selfish as it may be, many of us only think about how Ramadan is going to affect our day to day. I am so glad that I took a step back and truly realized the importance of this month and the difficulty those fasting are really experiencing. At the end of the day, after many more hours of boredom and hunger pains, I broke fast with a Senegalese family that I often share meals with here. Their gratitude and delight at the fact that I had fasted all day was well worth the few hours of difficulty. I’m not saying that I want to do it again anytime soon but now, I feel like I get it a little better, and I respect it greatly.  

Another aspect in which Ramadan affects us volunteers is through our work. Most of my projects have been halted right now because people are simply too tired to really engage in anything new. I now feel that I understand the importance of Ramadan to Muslims a little more and I have decided to take this month to reflect, meditate and work on what I truly want to accomplish in the next year.

I would like for my language to become better. I get along fine with my French and the basic conversations I can have in the local languages but I know that I can improve. I’m sure that you have all seen the photos of the scholarship program I have been posting and I am happy to say that we were able to complete funding! This will be delivered to the girls through me this fall and I can’t wait to take them out to get all that they will need for their next year of school. In this next year, I want to further develop my relationship with those girls. Along those lines, I want to execute a successful leadership camp for them this September. I would like to start a dance club at one of the middle schools. I used to dance way back in the day and I really miss it. It would be fun to start up something that I love and could share with the kids here. I am planning on starting an entrepreneurship course at the high school that will tie in with an internship program matching high school students with a specialist in a field they are potentially interested in. I want to continue the work I have started with my various women’s groups as well as form a network for them to work together easier. I would like for the waste management and sensitization project my site mate and I are doing to be wrapped up successfully. A final work-related goal I have is to continue with my English teaching projects and also facilitate an effective series of English Camps between PCV’s and the US Embassy.

On the more personal side I would like to use my bike more. This basically means getting over my fear that kids might attack me on it. I want to learn how to cook a proper Senegalese meal from start to finish. I want to work on my fitness. That’s right, I said it like that! I need to continue working on my patience. Living here has helped more than I could have ever imagined but I still can progress further. I am going to study for and take the GRE while here in Senegal. I’m going to continue pushing myself to get out in the community, even on the days where I’d prefer to hole up in my room and watch one movie after another (yes, those days still happen even after a year). As my time begins to wind down, I am hoping to either have started applying for jobs or being decided on a graduate program. Finally, I want to have at least 365 more adventures.

Until the next adventure then,