Friday, May 17, 2013

Finally: A True African

Last weekend I finally became a true African: I got tribal marks.  I'm not sure what the real name for them is, but we PCVs give them different names depending on the area: Mende marks, Temne ticks, Limba lines, Kono cuts, etc. Traditionally they are done by a medicine man, but I'm a little skeptical of Foday's medicine man status.  I got the marks with a few other volunteers so I think the village just found whoever was willing to cut some white people.  The cuts are small and made with a razor blade (we all bought our own new blades and sterilized them first, obviously).  After making the cuts the medicine man rubs ash that he has blessed into the skin.  These make the scars last.  You can chose the number and location depending on what you want protection from.  I got three on each shoulder blade, three on my wrist, and two on each temple.  Marks on the back protect from witch guns, marks on the arms protect from evil spirits, marks on the face are for secret societies, and marks on the legs protect from snake bites.  I find it ironic that the one thing I actually believe in here (snake bites), and that am frightened of, is the one mark I didn't get.  Odd.  These will probably be the only tattoo I ever get.

The other two most exciting developments in my life recently are my new nick-name and my new pet (only a dog, nothing exotic, unfortunately).  My first acquisition was the puppy.  One of my friends, Cat, has a dog that had 6 puppies over Christmas break.  She was able to give away most of them but was having trouble finding takers for the only female (who also happened to be the runt).  I, being the sucker I am, decided to look for a home for her here in Yele.  I asked my neighbor, Pa, and he said he would love a dog.  I figured this would be perfect because I could keep an eye on her but not take responsibility.  How wrong I was.  After the jolting 2 hour ride back to my house I took pity on the poor puppy and let her recoup in my house for one hour before passing her over to Pa.  She hasn't left my house since.  I have definitely lived up to my reputation in the village though for being crazy.  I probably talk to my dog more than 90% of my friends here.  She also has a name they don't approve of: Michelle Obama.  In Sierra Leone it is very rude to give an animal a people name.  It's like putting a swear on that person.  I tried to explain that in America it's an honor to give a pet a people name, but they all think I wish terrible things on Mrs. Obama (for clarification: I don't).  We've come to a cultural impasse about the whole pet thing.  I love pets; they don't get it; I don't get how they don't get it.  It's just not going to work.

A few weeks after getting Michelle I also was gifted my nick-name.  All the youths here have a nick-name they go by outside of school.  A few examples: 60 Cent Boy, P-Star, Messi, Very Nice, J-Love, All Of You.  Obviously I became jealous of all these awesome names, so I asked some of the SS boys who live behind me to give me a nick name.  You may now refer to me as Lady Fresh.  I actually don't respond to Erica anymore.  It's kinda fun because walking down the hall at school now my students call me Lady Fresh.  I usually try to respond with either a salute or a curtsy, depending on my mood.  Sometimes they mix it up and call me Fresh Lady.  Or they just tell me I'm looking fresh today (not sure if the boys are trying to hit on me when they say that one--awkward).

Sometimes it's easy to forget that I'm not here just to get pets and nick-names, but I am actually here to teach.  So, I figured I should also include some school updates.  We are now in term 3.  The end of the end for me (yikes!).  Out of the 12 weeks allotted for term 3 I will only teach 4.  Mostly that's due to the external exams (BECE) held in late June.  I am determined, however to make them a jam-packed 4 weeks for my classes.  I taught the first stages of cellular respiration to my bio class today, but talked so fast I think they only caught every fifth word.  And I still went over time by 15 minutes.  I just can't catch a break.

Going back in time, term 2 went fairly well.  The SS1 class officially started and my JSS3 learned about lots of things like soil, water, air, heat, malaria, work, power, force.  But, the big event of term 2 in Salone schools is sports.  Last year we did not do sports at my school because it was my principal's first year and he wanted the students to do well on their exams.  Sports cuts out at least 2 weeks of classes.  For me it was more like 3.  Anyways, this year was my first experience with sports.  Sports is not actually sporting events but more like track and field.  (When they're going to play soccer or volleyball they call it games.)  They have all the traditional events: 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, relays, long jump, high jump, etc.  But then they also have a few added gems, such as lime and spoon (running 100m as fast as possible without dropping the lime off the spoon), three legged race, needle and thread (one person sprints 50m with the needle, passes it off to their partner, who threads the needle, then  sprints 100m), eating contest (eat hard dry bread as fast as possible), dancing competition, music and chairs (musical chairs).  Mostly it was 2 days of me hanging out with my students and watching them run.  I had a great time and really got to bond with some students.  Mostly the ones in my own house.  Every student and teacher (minus the ones on the sports committee who need to stay impartial) is assigned to one of four houses: red, green, blue, and yellow.  During first term we had a 30 minute staff meeting about the colors.  Yes, 30 minutes, and that's a conservative estimate.  It may have been closer to 45.  The problem was green and red since they are political colors.  So we had to find suitable replacement colors.  In the end the students rejected our new colors, so we went back to green and red.  A good use of time.  Anyhoo, I was lucky enough to be a proud member of green house.  I still have a few pikin who yell 'green house' every time they pass my house.  We, the noble green, came in second place, narrowly missing the top spot to yellow house.  One of the best parts of the whole experience for me was trash talking my fellow teachers before the sports days.  They thought it was hilarious that I kept trying to tell them green house was gonna kick their butts.  Good thing my students ran fast so I didn't lose face.

Ok, on to some sad news, and I'm going to urge you all not to cry: this is probably my last blog post from Sierra Leone.  I suppose there's a chance I'll write one more before I leave, but looking at my record in the past 6 months I'd say its unlikely.  During our April break from school I went to Freetown for our COS conference.  COS=close of service.  The conference is a chance for Peace Corps to go over the things we should expect when we leave, both from the Salone end and from the US end.  From here it's mostly saying goodbye, leaving well, final medical exam, and final reporting paperwork.  For the US end its how to readjust to American life, how to apply for jobs, creating support networks, fellowship opportunities. I'd say right now I'm equally terrified of both ends of the upcoming COS process.  As many of you know this has not been an easy experience for me, but recently I have bonded with a lot of my students and finally gotten to a point where I appreciate people so much more (I think that's largely due to realizing when I need to tell people they are being rude or annoying--which I do frequently).  And I'm very sad at the thought of having to say goodbye to them.  I also have finally realized how much of an impact a place so different from home can have on me after 2 years.  One of the biggest lessons I learned here was that 2 years is a long time and a lot can happen in that time.  I am mostly excited about coming home, but I am a bit concerned that I'll have forgotten some common rules.  (What do you mean I can't drink in transport?  I can't walk through people's yards?  Why doesn't everyone stop what they're doing when I walk through the door, I'M WHITE?!?)  My official COS date is July 25; I will no longer be a volunteer as of that point.  However, it will take me a little while to make it home.  Like many volunteers I am taking a COS trip.  Instead of taking the plane flight home I am opting for cash in lieu, which gives me some travel money.  My plan is to fly from Freetown with two lovely ladies, Sara and Liz, to Barcelona.  We are taking the well known and respected airline: The Gambia Bird.  I really hope we're on eagles from The Hobbit.  Maybe we'll also find a mountain filled with gold.  From Barcelona we are going to explore some of Spain on our way down to Morocco.  In Spain we hope to hit Granada and Seville.  Then cross the strait of Gibraltar into Morocco where we will wander imperial donkey-filled streets, ride camels into the Sahara, and watch snake charmers.  Eventually I will fly out of Casablanca and arrive in Portland on August 18, 2013, with a craving for sushi and draft beer.  (And Jamba Juice, Thai food, Indian food, pizza, salads, cheese, cupcakes, iced coffee, hamburgers, Chinese food, ice cream, Mexican food, and my Dad's cooking.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Back Again

Oh man it's been a long time since I blogged.  I guess you could label me as a negligent blogger.  My apologies.  I can't even remember the last time I wrote an update.  As most of you know I took a trip home for Christmas, which was absolutely amazing.  Can't thank my parents enough for making that possible.  Since returning in early January it has been business as usual.  Here are a couple of the latest stories:

--Different permeations of my name: I have yet to find somebody in my village that pronounces my name without a Mexican accent.  I find I have to fully roll my 'r's when introducing myself for anyone to understand me.  My favorite is when I walk around town and the children shout Erica FRESH!  as I walk by.  They haven't quite gotten the hang of French.  I also sometimes get Monica or Jessica.  I guess they all end with an 'a' sounds but other than that I don't really get it.  At school I mostly get Eric, particularly from my teachers.  Guess to them the 'a' isn't all that important.  To some of my fellow peace corps volunteers I am known as 'mama-pus' after they discovered my not so hidden love for cats.  I really just don't know what to respond to anymore.

--Success story: I think I may have actually gotten through to some of my SS 1 students (think freshmen in high school) about osmosis.  I spent at least 4 weeks last year trying to teach osmosis to my biology class and I still don't think any of them understand the concept.  The difficulty is understanding concentrations.  It seems like it should be easy to explain (ex: putting too much sugar in your coffee makes a higher concentration of sugar) but these guys look at me like I'm speaking gobbledegook.  I think the root of the problem is that they are taught to simply recite notes, and not to try and understand a concept, but that's a whole different story.  Anyways, I finally decided, after a few unsuccessful classes of chalk-board work, to try something new.  The next time we had class I took everyone outside and did some examples of concentrations using  boys vs. girls.  I figured high school boys would understand the concept of wanting to go where there's less competition for girls.  Fighting 6 guys for a girl's attention is a lot less appealing than fighting just one guy.  (I may have overestimated this ideal in a Muslim country where polygamy is common--they may have just thought I was suggesting women be allowed multiple husbands.)  Anyways, I think a few of them got it, and if not, they at least enjoyed being outside.

--Not success story: it is getting to the really hot part of dry season now.  (Not a success.)  100+ degree weather every day and no fans or AC.  I now sweat through a shirt a mere 2 minutes after putting it on (Definitely not a success.)  Now my house is pretty cool because none of the windows directly face the sun and the floor is made of tile.  By extension, my veranda is also pretty cool, and out of the sun most of the day.  (Success.)  I, apparently am not the only cognizant being around here, and have hence found that the chickens have also discovered my den of less than 100 degree heat.  (And yes, I just compared my mental faculties to that of a chicken--I'm losing a lot of brain mass here people.)  The not success of this whole story is that now I come home every day to at least 2 dozen piles of chicken scat on my front porch.  And I also get up every 10 minutes to yell at the chickens and make them go away--which is a fruitless effort because they always come back in about 30 seconds.  I can be seen a couple times a day yelling about how I hate chickens and wildly flapping my arms.  And we wonder why the locals think white men are crazy.

--Actual update: we are now 6 weeks in to term 2 at school.  If everything goes as planned on the calendar I hope to get another 2-4 weeks of teaching out of this term for a grand total of 8-10.  That would be my record best for weeks taught in a term here!  Term 2 is typically the time for schools to engage in sports which for us will be held at the end of March.  We did not hold sports last year so I am quite looking forward to it this time around.  Not sure how everything will go, but I look forward to it all.  Overall life is going fine.  I'm a bit restless and ready to move on.  I think I finally realized how long 2 years really is.  Looking forward to spring break in April and to  a COS trip to Morocco when I'm finally done in July.  I certainly still have room to learn new things about Sierra Leone, so I hope the next few months will give me some opportunities to have new experiences here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Hello again!  Look at me writing another update so soon. I feel all grown up.  As usual, while talking to my mother she said that some of the things we talked about would be good blog topics (these are also things she gets questions about periodically from those curious folks back home) so I got I inspired and have decided to satisfy some curiosities.

First, a cool Sierra Leonean tid-bit I recently learned: towards the end of the wet season if you stand facing north you can tell the weather that is yet to come by looking at the moon.  If the moon leans right it means the wet season is coming to an end.  If the moon leans left it means more rains to come.  If there will be more rains it means the farmers can proceed with the second planting of granat (peanuts).  So everyone go out today and predict the weather from the moon.  I'm assuming if you love in the good ol' PNW the moon will lean heavily to the left.

On to other topics.

Students with disabilities:  Last week in our weekly chat my mother asked me about students with disabilities in my classrooms.  While I'm sure that students with learning disabilities exist in my classrooms I think in general in this country (or in any underdeveloped country with lower levels of educational standards) most of the students with severe learning disabilities end up dropping out.  I would also assume that, with the exception of maybe Freetown, all learning disabilities go unrecognized.  I also probably would have a hard time discerning here between what might be attributed to a learning disability and what would be attributed to the teaching methods.  (Most teaching here is by rote memorization.  Any education theory will teach that all students learn in different ways, so rote memorization may not work for some students.  But whether or not a student is struggling due to teaching methods or due to a learning disability is beyond my abilities to identify.)  I also am by no means an expert on learning disabilities so that may also have a small part to play in my inability to see it in my classrooms.  As for physical disabilities I have two students at my school with club foot, requiring canes to walk.  But the most common form of anything physical would be poor eyesight.  Essentially no students have glasses so the ones who can't see know to seat themselves in the front of class.

More about the student body:  every term there are always a number of students who leave school because of illness or pregnancy.  This may make me sound like a terrible teacher,  but my classes are big enough that most of the time I don't notice if a student is gone.  It is very common for students to miss a week if they get malaria but students also have to leave more long term for more serious sicknesses.  There are always a few girls every term who leave school because of a pregnancy.  Sometimes they will come back the next year, but more often after they give birth they are done with school for good.

Nutrition:  I don't have any concrete data to back up any of my observations, so take this all with a grain of salt.  In general I think most people get enough calories but I see a big problem in protein deficiency, especially in children.  Fish is about the only protein they get, and sometimes chicken/guinea fowl, goat, or other beef (bush meat--I generally prefer not to know what it is, but could be monkey or cat or cutting grass or squirrel or any other kind of meat) but anything besides fish is usually too expensive for most families, at least to eat on a regular basis.  Little kids will often eat more actual rice than I could, but they almost never get any fish or beef so while they might not have a calorie deficiency they do lack for protein.  At least 70% of the kids I see have the big bellies associated with kwashiorkor.  (Kwashiorkor is a protein deficiency while mirasmas is a lack of both protein and calories.)  It is really important for kids to get protein because it is the 'body building' nutrient, but they don't get enough, which I think probably accounts (at least somewhat) for the smaller stature of people here.

That probably didn't answer anybodies questions but it at least made me feel better about updating my blog.  Glad I could feel productive!  Miss you all!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Awesome Electricity--or AWESOMICITY!!!!

Hi everyone!  I know it's been a while since I actually wrote a blog--my apologies.  I find it increasingly more difficult to write about my experience here because it just feels like life now, and not a news worthy experience to write about.  That being said, my lovely mother has provided me with some topics people back home frequently ask about, so I shall do my best to satisfy some curiosities.

First, a brief overview of my summer.  The summer holiday started off with a bang at the wedding of two of our Peace Corps volunteers here in Sierra Leone.  A huge congratulations to Cody and Ivy!!  I posted some pictures last week of the big night.  Afterwards the wedding I spent a few quiet days back in Yele before heading to a summer school in Port Loco.  Me and Amy volunteered for a week at this summer school run by a British group called EducAid.  Following that I was in Bo for 2 weeks to help out at the training for our new PCVs in Salone.  It seemed to be a great training and I have high expectations for their next two years of service!  After the whirl-wind event of  the swear-in ceremony for Salone 3 I headed back to Yele to check up on the town and make sure it was still there.  (Side story: when I left 3 weeks earlier one of my cats had given birth to 2 kittens; one white, one orange.  Much to my surprise I came home to 3 grey kittens.  Turns out both the original kittens didn't survive, but a neighbor's cat had kittens and then the momma cat was stolen.  My genius neighbors gave the 3 grey kittens to my mom cat to nurse.  Everything worked out well and now we're one big happy family.)  After some relaxing village time it was back to Freetown for our mid-service conference (MSC).  Overall the conference was good and it was great to see everyone as a group again.  Now I'm back in Yele getting geared up for the new school year!  School was supposed to start today, but we're still in the process of interviewing (it's more like a registration than an interview) new students for the JSS 1 class.  Actual classes will hopefully start next Monday (the 17th) but I'm not holding my breath.

As for life in Yele the biggest thing here that has happened recently was the opening of the hydro dam which has provided the town with electricity--my house included!  Unfortunately it has been a very heavy wet season with tons of rainfall, which means the river is at unprecedented high levels.  The overflowing river is dangerous for the hydro equipment, so they turn off the dam to protect it.  Sadly for me that has meant intermittent electricity in the past few weeks (although I feel like a wimp complaining about it after a year with no electricity at all).  The purpose of mentioning the electricity, however, was not to talk about my own personal benefit but how it has affected the life of people in Yele.  The electricity to houses runs off of prepaid meters so the first step to getting electrified is to buy the meter box.  When I bought mine (over 6 months ago) I paid 135,000 leones (about $30).  Not a ridiculous sum, but certainly a high price for the average villager.  Last I checked about 150-200 people had bought meters and many more are hoping to in the near future.  As for the effect this electricity has had on those who have it, I'm not convinced yet that it has radically changed anyone's life here.  I think it certainly has the potential to improve the standard of living, but it's going to take a few more years of development to get there.  While electricity is great, to take full advantage of it requires electronic items.  This is great for me (I can charge my phone, iPod, camera, kindle, and I recently bought an electric burner and water heater) but the only item most Sierra Leoneans have to charge is a phone.  Eventually it would be great if women could use the electricity to cook over electric burners (thus reducing the health risks of cooking over a wood fire every day)  but the cost of an electric burner, on top of buying a meter box, is currently too steep for the average person in Yele.  Those who have not yet been able to buy a meter box can also benefit from the hydro dam because it also powers street lights for Yele (of course this also requires the dam to actually be working).  Another great benefit I see is the environmental aspect.  A hydro dam produces much cleaner energy than the current option, a generator.  Right now, actually, the hydro is producing more energy than is being used.  That extra energy goes back in to the river by heating up the water.  This is not good because increased temperatures kill the fish, which is a source of livelihood for many villagers.  That said, it would actually be better if more energy were being used.  Thus, I consider it a civic duty every time I plug in an appliance.  The electricity has been great for people who own and run businesses (especially those that sell cold drinks or play football games) and eventually I think the benefits will increase for the common villager, but it may take a while.  The good news is that the first step is here allowing for improvements in the future!

Alright, I'm blogged-out now, but I will do my best to make sure it is not another 3 months before the next post.  Miss you all and hope you're fully enjoying the conveniences of first world living (like electricity)!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Year One

Last Saturday Salone 2 had our 1-year anniversary of stepping foot in Sierra Leone.  One year!  That's crazy.  As per some suggestions from friends and family, now seems like a good time to do some reflection on the first year of my Peace Corps service.  So here goes:
TIME: time has flown.  It does not feel like a year since I left home.  In general, the days and hours here can go by pretty slowly, but overall time seems to pass quickly.  I think that's an observation Peace Corps Volunteers in countries all over the world would agree with (at least from the small sampling of other PCVs I've talked to).  I have also gotten to the point where I have a routine in the village, so the slow parts don't bother me as much anymore, they're just a part of my day.  I spend pretty much all of my down time reading.  As of now I've read about 60-70 books (not including the rereading of the HP series).  Yes, I'm keeping a list.  That's the other activity I do when things are slow: make lists.  It's great fun.  Some days the only thing on my to-do list is sweep and shower.  Now that's a jam-packed day.
TEACHING: I've made it through one complete year of teaching.  Technically term 3 isn't over yet (we don't officially close until July 13) but classes are done and we are now taking final exams.  The last 4 weeks of term will be spent grading exams and filling out report cards.  I only got 4 weeks of teaching in term 3, which, out of a 12 week term, is not a whole lot.  I did start teaching my JSS2 kids about atoms though, so that felt productive.  Hopefully I'll move up with them and teach them in JSS3 next year so I'm laying some groundwork this year.  Now that I've got a year of the school system under my belt I'm excited for next year (after a nice long summer break, though).  I've already got ideas about activities and classes I want to teach next year, and I'll have a better understanding of how to get that done in a class with 70 students.  I'll also have a better understanding of how school works: when it will be open, when it won't, etc.  The only wild card is that this November Sierra Leone is having their next presidential elections (just like us!) so things at the schools might come to a standstill.  I'm still not sure how exactly that's going to work out.
PEOPLE/CULTURE: my mother asked me recently in a letter, now that I've been here for a while, what my thoughts were on the state of poverty of the village people.  To be honest, it's not something I notice.  Yes, people here are very poor, but they don't live in a world where everyone has laptop computers and ipads and constant internet access, so everybody lives at the same level as their neighbor.  Even if you gave them those things I doubt it would improve the quality of their life.  People here just live their life and in general seem quite happy to me.  People are able to eat every day, buy clothes, sleep indoors.  They don't make a ton of money, but they're still able to live life.  I would say the biggest area that needs improvement would be health care, but there are a whole load of issues where that's concerned.  I don't work in health care in any way, but from what I've observed one of the biggest problems is simply education about health issues.  Obviously prevention would be a great first step, but nobody sleeps under mosquito nets--they use all the government issued mosquito nets to make fishing nets.  And there's education out there, workshops on malaria, advertisements about malaria prevention, etc. but people still don't change their behavior.  You can send as much medicine into a village as you want, but if the village people still believe more in the traditional healing techniques, the medicine won't be used.  Or when some one needs medicine they have an idea of what they want/need so if they get pills instead of an injection they don't think it will work (despite what the doctor says).  So there's a lot of education and behavior change that needs to happen with regards to health care.
BEING A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER: I realized in the past few weeks that the most important thing I need to do is decide what I need to do or accomplish to feel like a successful volunteer or to feel like I did something in my two years.  It does not necessarily need to be something tangible (build a school, write a grant, etc.), it can be small things, but the point is I need to decide now what I personally will define as a successful service so I can give myself some direction in the next year.  As a PCV I pretty much always feel like there is something more I could or should be doing, but I can't do everything, and I can't feel bad about everything I don't do, so I need to figure out what will be enough for me.
Recently at site I made lists of things I liked and didn't like about being a volunteers, so I wanted to share some of those with you:
Top 3 hardest parts of being a volunteers:
     1. Being lonely--I wrote that write after the April break when I had spent 2 weeks with other volunteers then went back to my village and felt particularly lonely (we affectionately call those Freetown hangovers).  Right now though I'm actually quite comfortable with being alone in the village.  One of the biggest lessons I'll learn in the Peace Corps is how to be by myself.
     2. Loss of anonymity--everybody talks about me all the time in the village.  I wouldn't be surprised if I got to school and one of my teachers said, "So I heard you ate oatmeal for breakfast today."  Everybody knows everything I do.  Apparently I'm very exciting because apparently they all talk about me non stop.  Sometimes it can be amusing, other times I just wish I wasn't always the center of attention.  This experience has made me realize I would in no way enjoy being a celebrity.
     3. Being a woman in Sierra Leone.  It's just not that easy.  Women in general don't get a lot of respect.  I'm ready for the gender rights movement to sweep through Sierra Leone, but that will probably take another 50 years.
Top 3 favorite things/things I like:
     1. My neighbors--the Kanu family takes good care of me.  They leave me alone when I'm in my house, but they're always willing to let me sit and chat when I'm feeling social.  Gbassay, the 8 year old, might be my favorite person in my village.
     2. Learning about food--I've learned so many things about how food actually grows.  I know now what peanuts look like and how to harvest them.  Pineapples look super cool when they grow.  I know how to harvest rice.  Did you know cashew nuts come on top of little red fruits (oddly known as cashew fruits)?  So many things to learn about the natural world here because everything is so natural.
     3. Kids at play--kids entertain themselves in the most simple ways here.  I remember the first time I saw my little 1 year old neighbor just having the time of her life by putting sand in a calabash and pretending like she was soaking rice (they way she watches her mom do it).  I'm pretty sure she was playing "house."  She's also getting to the point where she's learning to carry things on her head, and she just has a ball whenever someone puts something on top of her head for her to carry.  I've also witnessed little toddlers, barely able to walk, practicing for sports.  Sports are like track and field, so these little kids line up, get in a starting crouch, then race for the 10 yards to the next tree.  It's pretty adorable.  Especially since their motor skills aren't quite developed yet.  Not the most coordinated.

The other exciting thing about reaching our year mark is that we get our newbies!  Salone 3 just landed in Sierra Leone last night, so we officially have 45 new trainees in country.  I'm going to work at their training, but not until the very end.  I'm excited to interact with them though because I think it will make me realize how far I've come in the last year.  It is difficult to remember all the things I struggled with at the beginning, but watching the new kids go through it all will be about the closest I can get to reliving my first 3 months.

Hope everything is going well stateside.  Miss you and love you all!