Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grooving under the African Moonight

The past two weeks have been GREAT in Salone! When life is “great” in Africa, it usually means that the highs have been outweighing the lows. Let me break it down for ya…

One recent high was receiving my first package full of Latrobe Bullentins, peanut butter, and toilet paper. Now I ask you, what more can a girl ask for? (Thanks Ma and Pa!) Another high was having fun food day twice last week. We usually have one day a week at training when we are not served rice and plasas; therefore, those days are appropriately named “fun food days.” We also had a talent show on Friday of that week with all of the trainees and the staff. Some examples of the “talent” that was demonstrated by my peers were “magic” tricks, impressions and someone even made a pterodactyl noise (what a weirdo!).

Summer school also began last week. This experience has been a combination of highs and lows. I actually feel like a teacher, which is great, because that’s kind of why I’m here – uhh I think. I feel most like a teacher when I hear my students calling me “Ms. Rachel” or when I have to kick kids out of the class for mocking my American accent. I was never a teacher in the States, but I’m just going to go out on the limb here and say that teaching in Salone is very different than teaching in America. My classes for summer school are fairly small compared to the standard African classes (I have about 30 students now and will probably have about 70 students in each class in Madina – God Help ME!). I have to speak very slowly as most of my students know English as their third language and also no one can understand my darn Pittsburghuese.

Another issue with teaching in Salone is the structure of the classes. Usually a class consists of the teacher writing notes on the board, the students copying the notes into their notebooks (sidenote: hardly anyone has textbooks, so these notebooks are their textbooks and they go CRAZY about making their “textbooks” perfect – very frustrating as a teacher), the students memorize the notes and then regurgitate random bits of information on their 2 exams on the term. And voila, they get a grade based off those 2 tests. The students are not accustomed to homework, group work, in class activities/games, or actually critical thinking in any way. I guess I was feeling a bit ambitious the first day and thought I could get away with straying away from this system. I split my classes up into groups of two. We were going to be learning about the classification of matter, so I wanted each student to ask their partner three simple questions to demonstrate how we classify different people. After I explained the activity, I got the blank stares of doom that every teacher dreads. It was if I asked the students to explain Quantum Theory and that their final grade for my class depended on their response. Let’s just say I have my work cut out for me when the school year begins. The whole purpose of summer school is to help us figure out what the hell we’re doing, so this kind of experimentation is a little necessary. I already think I am starting to improve even after two weeks – uh, hopefully!

I’m going a little out of order, but let me tell you about this past weekend before I get to the biggest high of them all! We had a girls night on Friday night. We pigged out, gossiped, and the current volunteers even gave us all these traditional tribal waist beads that are suppose to give us dat African booty we’re all working towards. After we had our gal time, we met up with all of the guys at this club. African clubs are the bomb diggity! Yesterday we had a wine and cheese party, so obviously my bowels were going all kinds of crazy! Today I conquered Wusum Hill again, but still had some small little buggers guide me up and carry me done. So it goes…

I’ll briefly describe some of the lows: baby cockroaches invading my bed sheets, 75% of my students trying to cheat on my first exam, and developing a funky skin rash on my arm. The source is still unknown, but I don’t have to get my arm amputated so knowing the source doesn’t really matter. : )

Okay, okay let me try to hold back my excitement as I tell you about the best night in Salone (so far..)! My bumpin’ birthday jam was off the hookizzle!!! So back in the States, I liked to do things BIG – I think that’s a quality I get from Subby. I guess I just wanted to show Sierra Leone what “doing it big” really means for me.

The date was set, the location was identified, and the invitations were extended. My host family did most of the preparations with the help of some of my suggestions. I awoke last Saturday a little earlier than usual (5 AM instead of 5:30 AM) to the sounds of my host mother running around the compound barking out cooking and cleaning chores to everyone. As the day went on and the time was coming closer to the kickoff of the party, I was getting pretty anxious and realizing how big of a deal this was becoming. Also, after seeing the written agenda for the party, I realized these people do not mess around with birthday parties. A circle of chairs and benches were set around a middle table. The table was for me and the two chairmen for the evening’s events – and yes, there were chairmen for my birthday party. Guests started arriving when a truck pulled up with DJs from a local radio show and all of their equipment. The program naturally began with Christian and Muslim prayers, speeches followed, and then there was the offering of the gifts. We enjoyed gin drinks, ginger beer, Salone Star beer, and my favorite, palm wine. We also ate delicious African food prepared by my family – fried rice, acheke, and rice bread. The rest of the evening consisted of dancing with my new Peace Corps friends and my new friends and family of Salone. We played both Sierra Leonean and American music in order to fully appreciate both cultures. I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood, if not all of Makeni was in attendance. It truly was a wonderful evening in which I will never ever forget!

I opened my gifts the next day and the most popular items were soap, crackers, and these framed happy birthday prayers. Practicality, I like that! I was so touched by the generosity of my new friends and by the effort my family put in to making the day special for me. Many of the Sierra Leoneans I have met go above and beyond to make me feel welcome and included. I often hear “you are not American, you are a Sierra Leonean now.” Granted I usually hear this when I’m wearing the traditional, multi-colored lappa suit and sporting a fresh new plant (braids). People always say, “You be bluffing,” which means you’re trying to look fresh. Another statement I often hear is when people put their arms up against mine and say, “Look there’s no difference!” The thought is very much appreciated, but I know this is an exaggeration. I’ve already been in Africa for 2 months now and have not even developed a slight tan. +17 points for being one of the whitest of the limited white people here!

That’s all I got for you for now folks! Thanks for stopping by!! This time I’m going to leave you with a quote from my favorite stuffed animal – Winnie the Pooh. : )

“If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together, there is something you must always remember - you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart I'll always be with you.”

I love and miss all of you crazy Americans!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My village is cooler than yours!

This week has been very exciting, because all of the trainees went to visit their respective towns and villages where we’ll be serving for the next 2 years. Before we made our journeys across the country, we had a supervisor’s workshop. All of the principals at the schools we’ll be teaching at came to the training center. We had a bunch of sessions about the Peace Corps and our roles in the communities.

I traveled by poda poda to Madina with the principal of my JSS school. We had a paved road most of the way, but the last 25 miles was a rough, dirt road. I got to see the house I’ll be living – it’s really nice! It’s blue on the outside with pretty white flowers by the front porch. There are 3 bedrooms, a living room, a private courtyard, an indoor latrine, and a kitchen area. Perfect for me and my new little puppy (it was just born 3 weeks ago and will be ready to leave it’s mama by the time I leave for Madina)!

The principal of my SSS school was proctoring exams in the regional capital, but I did get to meet his family. His wife cooked for me while I was there on visit and boy, was it fine chop! The first night there I got to experience my first African soap opera (the principal’s family has a generator). The show was kind of like Young and the Restless and General Hospital… but just Africanized with kings, princes, and witches. In the show, the prince was going away to America for medical school. I found his one quote to be very ironic, “I’m leaving for America soon. You have no idea how hard it will be. I’ll be leaving everything I am familiar with. I’m leaving the hospitality of everyone I know. I’ll have to eat strange food.” Alright bucco, cheeseburgers and French fries aren’t that strange, so I don’t want to hear it!!

I walked around with the JSS principal and saw most of the town. Everyone kept yelling “welcome” and everyone seemed pretty eager to meet the new “Peace Corps.” The children didn’t yell “apoto” as I walked by them, but “fada.” There are catholic missionaries in the area and I guess they associate all white people with them. Yes, I am not only a man now, but a Catholic priest. How interesting Africa can be sometimes!

I met the head honcho himself – the paramount chief of the whole Thonko Limba chiefdom. He was really nice and told me how he had been to Philly before when he worked for and traveled around with the president (woohoo PA pride!). I also got a nice tour of my school. It’s pretty large with several classrooms, a hall (which is not functioning due to a leaky roof), and boarding rooms that some students live in during the school year. They have a building for the library, but the rebels stole all of the books during the war so now there are just boxes of some donations sitting in a room. They also had a nice house very close to the school for the Peace Corp volunteers that served before the war, but it was also destroyed during the war. Also, there are 30 teachers at the school and I’ll be serving as the only female teacher, woohoo represent!

I miss everyone so much! If you’re thinking about sending a package my way, I sent an email to my mom (SaMurray5@hotmail.com) with some ideas. I also heard a rumor that it only costs a dollar to send me a letter, so you should definitely do that. I’m homesick and want to know what I’m missing out in the States!

My address is:
Rachel Murray, Peace Corps Volunteer
c/o Peace Corps
P.O. Box 905
Freetown, Sierra Leone

Hope to hear from you soon!

This is what the vice principal of my school said to me when I met him on site visit, “I have to tell you that I am so happy to see, because it confirms to me that our country is truly and finally at peace.” : )

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Dysentery Blues

The laws of nature have wrecked havoc on my health. Dun dun dun… I got dysentery last week. I know – who would of thunk that you could get dysentery while not en route of the Oregon Trail. But atlas, my body officially experienced dysentery. Gruesome details aside – I am A-OK now and back in proper working order.

Onto other news, I found out where I am spending the next two years!!! I am going to Kambia District, where there are no current volunteers. I will be going to a medium-sized village with an estimated population of 5,000. No idea where that number came from, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt. The district is on the Guinea border in northwest Sierra Leone. I am living 9 miles of a paved road from one volunteer and 12 miles of an unpaved road from other. I was excited about that, so I can get me some American-fix once in a while. I am an hourish poda-poda ride away from the regional capital (Kambia), where I will do my banking and *cross fingers* hopefully use one of these dang machines once in a while.

I will be teaching in a Senior Secondary School (SSS), which is equivalent to our high school in the States. I’m still unsure which science I will be teaching (Biology, Chemistry, or Physics). I will probably talk with the principal to find a balance between what is needed the most and what I feel comfortable teaching.

So one of my favorite holidays has come and fast. Forth of July wasn’t the same this year. No parade down the streets of Latrobe. No party in my Aunt Jackie’s backyard. And no fireworks. : ( So sad! Okay, I’m done being dramatic. We made the 4th pretty fun considering our circumstances. We had a big party at a restaurant on Sunday and then had a big celebration at training on Monday. I ate a hotdog and watched a great game of soccer between my fellow trainees and Sierra Leonean PC staff (USA won, of course). Can’t complain too much with that combination!

I can’t believe it is Week 5 of training already. Time is surely flying in good ol’ Salone. There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to:

1. This weekend, we meet the principals of our schools and go with them to our villages. I will see my new house and the school I’ll be teaching in.
2. Summer school starts in 2 weeks, where I’ll put my big bad teaching skills to work.
3. My 22nd birthday is in 22 days… or as I choose to refer to this birthday – my 1st anniversary of my 21st birthday.
4. And on August 12, I will officially be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Trying to think of a good quote. Uh uh uh... "Keep it real USA." - The Rachel Murray