Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Teacher training & travel in Guinea-Bissau.

If you ever asked me if I'd ever visit Guinea-Bissau during my time in Senegal (or in the near future), my answer would probably have been no.  Not because I'm not curious -- because trust me, I am -- but because it wasn't necessarily on my radar.  And for geography's sake, Guinea-Bissau is the country directly to the south of Senegal.  Sure, one of my life's goals is to visit every country in the world, but I'd like to be brought to each country for one reason or another.

It's amazing how travel opportunities can present itself when you least expect it.  Rewind to December 2015 during the ATES National Convention in Kaolack.  One of the honored guests was Ali, Secretary-General of the English Language Teachers' Association (ELTA) in Guinea-Bissau.  English language teaching/teacher training was largely supported by Peace Corps Volunteers in Guinea-Bissau, but after some civil unrest, Peace Corps left in 1998.  ELTA was founded, in part, to continue supporting English teachers in their professional development -- and they wanted to use ATES as an example to further strengthen their organization.

After Michelle and I gave our ATES Pre-Convention Workshop on "Teaching Writing in English Language Classrooms," Ali approached us and said he would love for us to come down to Guinea-Bissau and give teacher training sessions to their English teachers...and then it started to unravel (in a good way) from there!

With a grant from the U.S. Embassy and collaboration with the ATES National Board, Michelle and I boarded a short flight to Bissau.  I always find traveling in West Africa to be such an interesting experience.  Flying here is very convenient but also very expensive!  When we arrived, comparing Dakar to Bissau, Bissau is so much calmer and even has a Latin America feel, perhaps because it's a former Portuguese colony.

Michelle and I arriving all sleepy-eyed on our flight to Bissau.  The statue is in downtown Bissau, and the picture on the lower left-hand corner is at the Azalai Hotel. 

We checked in to our fancy hotel, the Azalai, and spent the day catching up on sleep but also preparing for our presentations in the next two days.  For lunch, Michelle and I decided to venture out and find a bar/get some fresh seafood.  Interesting here in Bissau, almost everything seemed imported.  Beer, bottled water, and the like all came from Portugal.  I forgot to mention that Michelle and I speak no Portuguese nor Créole and it was a trip trying to order (which ended up being some of the best fish I've ever had!).  Fortunately, the waiter found an Ivorian guy, Alhusseine, who's been living in Bissau for a couple of years and speaks French. What was just a simple encounter ended up becoming a great thing, as Alhusseine was our sort of social guide/translator for the rest of our stay in Bissau.

The following day on Thursday, Ali and Baio (President of ELTA) had a whole day planned: visiting Tchico Té Teacher Training College to meet the English department; touring a few middle and high schools; seeing a number of private English language institutions; taking a tour of the U.S. Embassy's Liaison/Representative's Office in Bissau (as the Embassy is in Dakar); and walking around Bissau to get an idea of the city.  It was a packed day, but it gave us a better idea of the Bissauan context, particularly as we had our presentations the following day.  Later that evening, our fellow Fulbright ETAs in Ziguinchor (Eura and SJ) as well as some ATES National Board members came down to join us!  Reunion, for sure!  And with Alhusseine, we were able to grab some drinks and he was able to show us around a little bit.

The top picture is at Tchico Té Teacher Training College with some ELTA members and English Department professors.  The bottom picture is 

Fun picture of all of us in a toca-toca, typical public transportation here in Bissau. 

Friday was the big day -- ELTA's National Seminar with about 70 English teachers from all throughout the country.  I'll be honest, there were a couple of differences from how an event in Senegal would've started.  First of all, they started (for the most part) on time and almost everyone had shown up by the stated start time.  And while formalities and long introductions/speeches are the norm here in Senegal, it wasn't the same in Bissau.  Quick and to the point, so we could start with our presentations immediately.  Michelle presented on "curriculum development," I presented on "lesson planning," Eura and SJ presented on "English Clubs," and the other ATES members presented on "professional development and organizational leadership" as well as "writing grant applications."

Michelle, Eura, SJ, and I before the ELTA National Seminar Day. Looking fly, per usual! 

Me presenting on "lesson planning." 

I was impressed at how receptive the teachers were and they were asking some great questions, especially when it came to how they could implement these ideas in their classes!  We had a delicious meal afterward, and had a great night planned -- a dinner and concert out at the national soccer stadium with Alhusseine and his girlfriend, Annabella.  I will say that here in Guinea-Bissau, the rules are a bit more relaxed socially.  Dress is less conservative and there are more instances of PDA with couples, versus here in Senegal.  And the drinking culture is much more liberal here in Guinea-Bissau!  But it was a great night just to enjoy life here in Bissau and celebrate after a successful seminar.

Michelle and I after a long day of presentations.  But still smiling!

 Out with Alhusseine and his girlfriend, Annabella.  Awesome night with good people! 

The following day was spent exploring Bissau with Eura and SJ.  Like I said, it's a very walkable town so we were able to wander and get lost.  Highlights included finding a random Chinese restaurant and exploring the nightlife in Bissau a little more!

However, what Michelle and I didn't anticipate was that it would be a lot more difficult to return to Dakar.  You see, flights are few and far between here in West Africa, but especially to Bissau.  Because Senegal Airlines, our company, happened to dissolve during our time in Bissau, the next flight to Dakar wasn't leaving until a few days after our intended departure date!

The inside of the Guinea-Bissau International Airport. 

Long story short, we were stuck in Bissau but by then, Michelle and I knew how to get around by foot (very walkable and accessible town) and fortunately, less hassle from people trying to sell things compared to our experience here in Dakar.

Overall, a great trip to Bissau.  I would come back again -- in large part because of the delicious food and the hospitality of folks.  I'm quite jealous of the English Language Fellow they'll be sending to Guinea-Bissau next year, as there is a good bit of collaborative work that can be done.  But I know I'll return to Bissau soon!  Até a próxima! 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Quick detours: The Gambia and Morocco!

One of the perks of living abroad, especially in a city that has an international hub airport, is the ability to travel to other countries.  It's no secret that I love traveling (and imagine a good number of people in the world do, if given the means).  One country has been on my checklist since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Morocco) and the other was out of curiosity and convenience due to proximity (The Gambia).

Earlier in the year in January, I was lucky to travel with Kaylin, Fulbright research fellow, and her family for a very short trip to The Gambia.  I figured it was now or never when it came to visiting this tiny country, and am happy that I got to tag along!

Located in the middle of Senegal (it looks like Senegal's mouth), The Gambia a tiny country with an interesting history.  An Anglophone country surrounded by mostly Francophone countries, it was an adventure even getting down there!  We took a sept-place (really old station wagons that seat seven passengers, as the name suggests) down to the Senegalese-Gambian border, which took hours upon hours, in large part because we had to wait for a small ferry that crossed from one side to the other (across a smaller river in Senegal).  We were able to stop by the Bandia Reserve in Senegal, which had a variety of animals -- warthogs, ostriches, giraffes, etc.  Riding in one of those open, safari pick-ups, we roamed all over the park to catch a glimpse of as many animals as possible!  After, upon arriving at the border, it was almost 8:00pm and the border was about to close...and we were literally minutes from missing the last big ferry that crosses the Gambia River to Banjul, the capital.

Most of our time was spent in the Banjul and Serrekunda area, and our apartment rental was in Kololi.  Much like French, English varies depending on which part of the world you're in and I had to acclimate myself to the English spoken in The Gambia.  And also, when you exchange the currency (the Gambian Dalasi) from either CFA, dollars, euros, etc., you get a TON of paper notes.  You literally have a wad of cash that you need to stuff in your bag or even place in a Ziploc bag!

The Gambian Dalasi (currency) made me feel like I had a million dollars...when in reality, it wasn't as much.  Still, a guy can dream.  =)

Anyway, most of our time was spent exploring by foot with the occasional taxi ride.  We checked out the famous crocodile pool and saw the biggest market in Banjul, Albert Market.  Compared to Dakar, Banjul is relatively small and for the most part, easily navigable.  The Senegambia area is where they tend to have more expat restaurants and the like.  We spent another day on a 4x4/Sunset Cruise tour -- visiting the monkey reserve, a batik factory, eating lunch at Paradise Beach, taking an awkward village tour, and eventually capping it off with a sunset cruise, which, to our dismay, were tiny pirogues that went out into the river.

(Top left, going clockwise) Standing up on the back of the 4x4 as we were driving to the village; feeding monkeys at the Monkey Reserve (pretty sure we weren't supposed to do this but the guides brought peanuts, so...); on our "sunset cruise" which ended up being small pirogues; at the crocodile pool; Kaylin and I at the "Welcome to the Gambia" sign after the sunset cruise, since the cruise was on the Gambian River which divides the Gambia and Senegal.

Happy to have done the Gambia trip with Kaylin and her awesome family, what I was really looking forward to was my Morocco trip with one of my closest friends in the Peace Corps, Brenda!  I somehow find myself in D.C. at one point every summer for the past few years, and end up staying/hanging out with her.  Anyway, we'd been planning a trip for a long while now and Morocco was the destination on the top of our list!

In mid-February, we met in Casablanca.  Fortunately for me, Royal Air Maroc has three daily flights from Dakar to Casablanca!  Brenda is one of those friends who, after not having seen each other for a while, will be able to pick up right where we left off.  Laughing our way through security/customs, we took a train from Casablanca airport directly to Fes.  I can't believe how easy and convenient it was!  There are two classes (first and second), with first not being that much more cost-wise, and you have more private cabins (six to a cabin) with assigned seating.  Again, very impressed, left on time, and clean!

Arriving in Fes, I was surprised at how chilly it was and it was even drizzling a little bit.  But we made our way to Riad Ghita (riads are Moroccan houses that are converted into boutique hotels/bed-and-breakfasts with an interior garden or courtyard).  We were welcomed with mint tea and Moroccan sweets, and shown to our room.  I think the place had several rooms at most, but they all looked into the beautiful interior courtyard with so many vibrant colors.  Best of all, it wasn't too far from the many entrances of the medina.

Beautiful rooftop and interior of the Riad Ghita in Fes.  It was so cozy and beautifully decorated, we couldn't get enough of it! 

Each city in Morocco has its own distinct style and flare, and Fes, being one of the top tourist destinations in Morocco, is no exception.  At least for me, Fes is known for the winding paths within the medina where you literally get lost and wander into a variety of shops...and we did just that!  After resting the first day when we arrived, we used our second day to wander around, making sure to see the famous Blue Gate but also to take advantage of the many rooftop and terrace restaurants.  Love people watching?  Great!  Enjoy chatting with mint tea?  Perfect!  Sure, our feet were tired from walking and our mouths tired from bargaining for souvenirs, but it was well worth it.  I even got a multi-dish thing for my future apartment in Dubai...perfect to hold snacks for guests on a coffee table.  =)

Seeing the Blue Gate at the Medina in Fes was a must, but wandering around/getting lost in search of different food and souvenirs is what made the day extraordinary! 

Because the trains are so convenient, we eventually took one the opposite direction, heading south toward Marrakesh.  Not only are the trains easily accessible, but the train stations themselves, particularly in big towns like Fes and Marrakesh, were well-organized, works of architecture in-and-of themselves, and had a variety of eating options.

The train station in Marrakesh.  Absolutely stunning! 

Marrakesh itself has a sort of charm and magic that is stereotypically seen as Moroccan with influences from other cultures.  While Fes felt more like I was in what I thought was Morocco, Marrakesh was Morocco combined with heavy Arab, African, and European influences.  Sure some parts are very touristy, but that's all part of the charm.  We stayed at Riad & Spa Bahia Salam, a mere ten-minute walk to the famous Jemaa el Fna Square!  Different from our riad in Fes, the one in Marrakesh catered to more folks and as the name suggests, had a spa.  We definitely took advantage of it -- twice!  Because we were in Morocco, we made sure to try out a hammam experience where they essentially scrub you down in a sauna-type room and have you wash out all your physical impurities.  It was great!  Massages were also part of it which made this really feel like a vacation.

Our riad in Marrakesh was so comfortable and in a great location.  And the spa downstairs was an added bonus! 

As I mentioned before, the highlight of Marrakesh is the Jemaa el Fna Square, which happens to also be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was exactly how I pictured it...and then some.  Snake charmers, artists, people selling all sorts of arts/crafts and food, fresh juice sellers, and the like.  It was a true feast for the senses but we wanted to take advantage of the view many restaurants had, and opted for the Argana Café.

Jemaa el Fna Square is a site to behold.  I'd suggest going during the day and coming back at night.  Like two different worlds! 

Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip is the food...everywhere!  Fresh, delicious, and compared to Dakar, fairly inexpensive.  I think I'll let the pictures speak for themselves...

Kebabs, lentils, tajine...you name it, it was delicious! 

After a successful couple of days in Marrakesh, we took another convenient train back to Casablanca to spend the night and head to the airport for our respective flights.  I'm ashamed to admit this (it's the American in me) but it was pouring rain but we still decided to walk a bit in the evening to grab a quick dinner...and found ourselves at both McDonald's and KFC!  There's something about eating American fast food abroad that brings back a sense of nostalgia and many memories.

Overall, just a wonderful trip with a close friend and I felt recharged again to continue my work here in Senegal!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Working at Senegal's Ministry of Education and as a Fulbright ETA.

Nearing the halfway point of my Fulbright fellowship, and it has been quite the ride!  I never expected to grow so much professionally, and to enjoy Dakar as much as I do.  That said, the blog posts have been lacking but I hope to truly describe working here at Senegal's Ministry of Education, with various Senegalese English language professionals, and being a Fulbright ETA in general.

As I've mentioned before, I've been sent to work and collaborate with the Bureau Technique Pour l'Enseignement de l'Anglais (the Office of English Teaching) at Senegal's Ministry of Education.  Ultimately, this office provides professional development support to current English teachers throughout the country -- working closely with pedagogical advisors in different regions and with English teaching cells in Dakar.  It's a very unique experience as a Fulbright ETA as I'm the first one to be posted here at the Ministry, and I can already see how this is a great place (and partnership) for future Fulbright ETAs to develop and flourish.

Ngouye, my boss and English Language Teaching Technical Advisor to the Minister of Education, and Aminata, Assistant Technical Advisor, are two wonderful women (where I jokingly call them my "Senegalese aunts") and colleagues.  They themselves were English teachers in the past, served as pedagogical advisors for English teaching cells, and have lived abroad in Anglophone countries.  I'm learning so much from them and how the Senegalese education system works, particularly in relation to English teaching.

With Ngouye and Aminata after the Access Graduation at FASTEF, the teacher training college.

First arriving in mid-October, I didn't know what to expect.  Ngouye and I had been in contact via e-mail prior to my arrival, and she mentioned that the first couple of months would be pretty dead since the school year will just be starting, and professional development sessions do not kick in until well after that.  I often forget that in countries like Senegal, the importance of meeting people and maintaining those connections is paramount.  So I did just that -- meeting people from all ranks in the Ministry of Education, English teachers, teacher trainers, folks at the U.S. Embassy, and the like.

I met Israel, Master's candidate in International Education Policy from Harvard, by chance.  Through this, he invited me to meet Mr. Amadou Mahtar M'Bow at his lovely residence.  He was the first Minister of Education in Senegal and was a former director-general of UNESCO. Very accomplished, and he had a true fascination for the Philippines and the Filipino people! 

And the view from the office isn't too shabby.  Downtown Dakar, also known as "Plateau."  And look at all those English language resources -- even if they might be a bit dusty.  =)

While I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso and was exposed to the French education system in a Western African country, no two countries are the same.  So I insisted that we did classroom observations so I could get a better idea of the realities of the English classroom, and could help me understand what the professional development needs of the teachers are.  We even created a type of classroom observation feedback sheet to guide our observations and provide valuable feedback to teachers.  And, truth be told, it was a way for me to learn from fellow language teachers (even if in a different context) because I, too, plan to continue teaching after the Fulbright.

One of the teachers I observed was Mr. Guèye.  What a fun teacher who truly cares about his students!  They're all engaged and it was such a pleasure to watch. 

I realized that language teaching and learning is the same regardless of where you go in the world -- the only difference being the language taught and the context.  In that same vein, I've been fortunate to be able to use my Master in Education from Notre Dame, particularly what we've learned and practiced in our foreign language education classes (merci, Lori!).  CLT!  Integrating the four skills with culture!  Rubrics and grading!  Classroom management!  Assessment!  The list goes on, and it's been great to incorporate what I've learned and used in the past with the work I've been doing here.

Collaboration is huge, and one of our first projects of the school year (November 2015) was to get together motivated English teachers in Dakar for a day-long professional development session on classroom management and CLT teaching strategies, hosted by the Yavuz Selim Turkish schools with an expert from Oxford University.  It was a comprehensive presentation, but also made me realize that the sessions we'll be giving need to not only meet the needs of our teachers, but also need to remain cognizant of their context.

This was after the classroom management and CLT teaching strategies presentation by an expert at Oxford University.  We invited select English teachers from throughout Dakar to attend and afterward, disseminate the information to their respective schools and teaching cells. 

Perhaps one of the biggest parts of this job -- and in line with the Bureau d'Anglais' overall objectives -- is to provide professional development support to existing English teaching pedagogical cells, especially in Dakar.  It's where I've been able to meet a variety of English teachers, hear their needs, and find ways we can use both of our expertise to further the English language teaching field in Senegal, and to make our students better English communicators/speakers.  Maybe it's different outside of Dakar, but I was impressed with how organized the pedagogical cells were, and how democratic it was in deciding professional development topics for each month.  Everyone has their say, and it makes professional development much more meaningful.  So far, I've given presentations on assessment, project-based learning, teaching writing, and the like -- with many more planned until the end of the school year.  It's been wonderful, and the learning is definitely mutually inclusive.

This is after a co-presentation at the biggest English teaching cell in Dakar with over 100+ English teachers!  Aminata was doing a dissemination presentation from our "Teaching Writing" one at the ATES National Convention. 

The English teachers at Cours Sainte-Marie de Hann, a very reputable and beautiful private school in Dakar, invited me to come and present on Project-Based Learning. Of course, there were certificates!

The U.S. Embassy Dakar has many outreach activities to promote the learning of English and American cultures/values.  Every Wednesday, Michelle and I lead the conversation clubs and film discussions.  It's part of what makes me miss the classroom, in that we have candid discussions on a variety of set topics with university students and English language professionals who come to the U.S. Embassy to participate and use the (many) resources at the Information Resource Center (IRC; think Embassy library).  Keeping in line with professional development, we've also helped facilitate bi-weekly webinars with current English teachers that are hosted by the State Department and are broadcast all around the world.  We're all always learning!  The Embassy also has this great initiative with different schools throughout Senegal called the Access program, which caters to economically disadvantaged students that would like to further improve their English but perhaps lack the resources to do so.  Thanks to Ngouye, I've been invited a few times to give cultural enhancement activities on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Black History Month.

One of the Access cultural enrichment presentations I gave was on Thanksgiving.  And what do ya' know -- someone decided to throw a random turkey into my room.  Oh, Senegal...

One of the greatest strengths of the English teaching world here in Senegal is their English teachers' association, aptly named "ATES" or Association of Teachers of English in Senegal.  I haven't seen anything quite like it in West Africa, just by the association's sheer number of members and structural organization.  It really is a model organization for other countries wanting to start an English teacher's association and continually find ways to improve and enhance the teaching of English.  The current president, Sadibou, saw that I had this blog and asked that I guide them to start theirs.  You can check it out here.

Their pinnacle event is their ATES National Convention, which takes place in a different part of the country every year.  Hundreds of English teachers from around the country participate.  This past year, it was held in December in Kaolack (central region of Dakar), and was a great experience for us Fulbright ETAs and English Language Fellows -- especially since we came from all corners of the country for this.  Michelle and I were able to collaborate and play a big role in the convention.  We led the pre-convention workshop on "Teaching Writing in English Language Classrooms" for about 150 teachers, which has highly successful and engaging.  I was also able to give my own workshop on "Project-Based Learning through Assessment, Culture & Student Engagement," though it was cut short due to time constraints.  Overall, a really wonderful experience and gave us the right footing to continue our respective work in our cities.

Perhaps one of the most epic selfies: Michelle and I with our 150 participants during our Pre-Convention Workshop on "Teaching Writing in English Language Classrooms." Couldn't have asked for a better co-presenter! 

Michelle and I in action. Photo credit goes to the U.S. Embassy Dakar RELO's Office! 

With most of the Fulbright ETAs and English Language Fellows in Senegal.  We clean up nice, with Senegalese outfits to boot! 

In addition to the Pre-Convention Workshop, the following day was filled with workshops which participants could attend.  Mine was on "Project-Based Learning through Assessment, Culture & Student Engagement."  Lots of fun, but definitely tons of work preparing - especially when it's both a presentation and a workshop. 

Whew!  If you've stayed with me until now, bravo!  I look forward to many other events ahead, such as the Bureau d'Anglais' week of professional development sessions in the central region of Senegal, working with the English teachers' association in Guinea-Bissau, and potentially, a mid-year retreat/seminar in South Africa.  I love it when working, professional development, and travel can come together!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Christmas & end-of-the-year reflection on understanding and dialogue.

Another Christmas abroad.  This time, in Senegal!  Christmas is one of my most favorite holidays, mainly because of the delicious food and the time to gather with those we love.  I am beyond blessed to have a close-knit family and friends from all walks of life, so the Christmas season is one of gratitude for me.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, and end with a reflection I posted on Facebook that really highlights our need for more understanding and dialogue, particularly in a world that seems to be constantly divided. 

Kaylin and I ended up checking out the Midnight Mass at the Cathedrale downtown.  It was packed, and for a country that is majority Muslim, very interesting.  The music was on point!  

 FaceTimed with my de Leon cousins (Mom's side) first.  It's amazing how technology has advanced and how we can communicate from halfway across the world.  It was fun to partake in our normal "cousin shots," despite the distance.  This was on Christmas Eve. 

 Christmas Day dinner with some of my Fulbright favorites!  

 FaceTimed with my cousins on my Dad's side as well! 

All in all, a wonderful Christmas spent away from home.  Nothing beats being home for the holidays, but I think Pico Iver says it best in his TEDTalk on home where he says, "My home would have to be whatever I carried inside of me."  Shoutout and huge thanks to one of my close friends from grad school, Weggy, who shared this with me.

As I mentioned above, I'll end this with a reflection on understanding and dialogue, particularly amongst Muslims and Christians.  The rhetoric I've been hearing on the news against Muslims is just downright disgusting.  We're better than that.  And I've become more cognizant of that living in Senegal, a country that is 95% Muslim.  Below are two pictures where Ibrahim wanted to come to church with Kaylin and I the Sunday after Christmas, as well as the reflection.  A very (belated) Happy Holiday season to you all, and a very Happy New Year 2016!

Rewind to Christmas Eve this past Thursday night: Kaylin and I were coming back from a revitalizing Midnight Mass at the Cathedral downtown (the music was on point!) and were impressed with the turnout, especially given that Senegal is a country that is 95% Muslim. Naturally, we were craving a snack after and didn’t find anything open in our neighborhood…with the exception of the boutique/corner store.
Ibrahim, the store owner, asked why we were all dressed up and we explained that we were coming from Midnight Mass. Genuinely curious, he kept asking us questions and suddenly wanted to know if he could join us for mass on Sunday. I’ll be honest; at first, I thought he was joking. He’s a younger guy (in his 30s), Muslim, always working, so I didn’t think his request was real. Until he kept pressing…so we gladly invited him to join and check it out for himself.
Come yesterday (Sunday), we all walked together to a church that has mass in the early evening. Ibrahim seemed initially apprehensive and didn’t know what to expect. Rightfully so. But as we entered the church, he displayed a sense of true reverence and respect. During the mass, I would occasionally explain what exactly was happening and why. Afterward, the Nativity Scene was in the front of the church, and Kaylin described the significance.
Walking back, I felt this sudden sense of calm. A different kind of calm that hit me spiritually, which, to be honest, has been lacking as of late. We talked more about his beliefs and practices as a Muslim, particularly the five daily prayers and heading to the mosque on Fridays. And just as we turned to our neighborhood, the now routine call for evening prayer played and Ibrahim bid us adieu as he headed to the mosque. Simple and seemingly fleeting as that.
I often wonder if those that spread this divisive and unfounded rhetoric on Islam have themselves met someone that is Muslim, inquired at their local mosque, or have made an effort to truly understand Islam. What good is it to stereotype and alienate an entire group of people based on the actions of a select few? We oftentimes are so inclined to stay within our bubble, both physically and through social media (myself included), that we forget that we can agree to disagree but still remain civil with one another and attempt to understand. We’re all human, after all.
Whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, etc., we can all agree to respect each other’s beliefs and highlight the things that connect all of us together. Only light can dispel darkness, and true dialogue (accompanied by well-intentioned action) is a start.

Just some thoughts as we end this year, and try to mend a world that is becoming more and more disconnected. We’re all part of the solution, and our efforts to interact with and learn from others different from ourselves are what will make the collective that much stronger.

 Walking towards the altar after mass and explaining the different parts of the church. 

Discussing the Nativity scene and the Christian belief that, Jesus, a king in his own right, was born in the most unlikely of places -- a stable where animals lived.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

29 on the 29th & bittersweet farewells.

My, how time flies!  I always seem to have the intention to post something but then something comes up -- and two weeks pass, and there isn't a new blog entry in sight.  Must change that!

First things first, my Golden Birthday -- turning 29 on the 29th (of October)!  If you know me, I'm not one to get too crazy for my birthday (though my Dirty 30 may be a different story...), so I wanted to keep it chill and simply celebrate it with my host family and a couple of friends.

After work, we grabbed some pizzas from Caesar's, a restaurant not too far from my house.  Arame and I also went to get a cake from Brioche Dorée, a pâtisserie (bakery/pastry shop), that can be found all over Dakar.  With my host family, Michelle, and my Gabonese neighbor/friend Ance, it was such a good time to laugh, eat some good food, and just be present on a nice Dakar night.  Last year, I made "gratitude" a priority in my life, and this year I've decided to focus on "opportunity" -- taking advantage of many of the opportunities given to me, and also trying to expose others to opportunities available to them.

Couldn't have asked for a better 29th birthday here in Senegal!  Looking forward to what my last year in my 20's will bring.  

Arame and I walking back home with the cake.  She insisted we buy a plastic bag because our neighbors would inevitably want some of the cake, too, haha! 

On Facebook a few days prior to my 29th birthday, one of my former high school classmates posted this really unique video -- his life, comprised of one-second video clips for each day within the past year.  I really liked the idea and decided that, for my last year in my 20's, I'd make a concerted effort to try this out.  So far, it's been good and I highly encourage anyone else to try this out: 1 Second Everyday.  That said, be on the lookout for a video in a year!  (Quick tip: It's best if you film everything in "landscape" mode.  My first several video clips are in "portrait" mode, which is fine, but would look better in "landscape" mode.)

Halloween was a couple of days later, and Jen (fellow RPCV from Burkina Faso who has been living in Dakar for a few years) invited us to an expat party.  It was awesome creating last-minute costumes with what we had in our suitcases, and of course, I dressed like a nerd!  Met some great people doing some interesting work, from journalists to fashion designers to consultants to...you name it.  Always interested in hearing what different people are doing here in Dakar, as this is truly a regional African hub!

Happy Halloween from Dakar!  

Only a mere few days after, my host sisters, Mary and Martha (two study abroad students that are going on this awesome, around-the-world trip this semester) left for their last leg in Vietnam (with a short in-country vacation in Senegal first).  That's perhaps why I will always keep traveling, but more importantly, living and immersing myself in different countries/cultures -- because of the people you meet and the experiences you end up sharing with each other.  The two of them are mature beyond their years, are extremely aware of social issues, and just great people!  They've had many assignments where they've had to analyze a certain cultural situation, or ask about specific aspects of Dakar/Senegalese life.  There were many dinners where I found myself translating for them (which I was happy to do!), and in the process, learned so much about life here in Senegal -- more than I would have if they weren't here to ask such questions.

The morning they were supposed to leave, it truly was a bittersweet farewell.  Happy for them to continue on their journey, but sad to see them leave the family.  We took typical "family pictures" in our Senegalese outfits, but what got me was when they said goodbye to Mama Soda.  At that point in my time here, it had been about 2.5-3 weeks living here in Senegal, yet tears were streaming down my face as the girls hugged Mama Soda so tight.  To see them so close to a woman that served as their mom for the past month, and wonder when they'd see her again.  And it got me thinking that the relationships we cultivate with others are what truly sustain us.  We're interconnected more than we think, and when we make the time to get to know others, it affirms this interconnectedness.

Morning family pictures!  The top is with our "parents" and the bottom are all the kids of the family.  Very grateful and blessed that we all meet at this very time, in this very place.  Wow. 

A month in and I feel like I've learned so much.  Yet there is so much that still awaits, and I can't wait to share the rest of it with you!  Will have to do another blog post on recent discoveries here in Dakar (food, sights, etc.) and recent developments in my work as a Fulbrighter!  Stay tuned!  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Host family love and first impressions of Dakar.

My goal was to post at least once a week, but time in West Africa is a very weird thing -- it seems to go by quickly yet pass so slowly all at the same time.  Ironic, yes.  But for those that have been here, you probably understand my sentiment.  That said, I feel like I'm long overdue for a new blog entry.

Two Saturdays ago, all 8 of us Fulbright ETAs parted ways and headed to our respective towns in Senegal.  As sad as it was, we all realized we'd visit each other at some point during our grant periods to get a better glimpse of Senegal (especially outside of Dakar), so lots to look forward to in the coming months.

Thanks to Matthew (Fulbright Alumni from Senegal, and who I met at the Pre-Departure Orientation), he was able to connect me with his old host family in Mermoz, a nice residential neighborhood in the middle of Dakar.  Soda (host mom), Ton-Ton (host dad), and Arame (housekeeper who's also like a host sister to me) make up this very small family.

My host mom, commonly referred to as "Mama Soda," as she cooks a Senegalese dish that looks very similar to pancit, a Filipino noodle dish.  She is so warm and inviting -- and makes sure that we get fed a lot.  They've received and hosted many foreign students and young professionals! 

One afternoon my host sister/housekeeper, Arame, was explaining to me how she danced at this really fancy club a couple of years ago.  I thought I was going to die of laughter!  While there may be a little bit of a language barrier (she speaks really broken French, but speaks Wolof fluently), moments like these make me realize how important family -- in all forms -- is. 

We also have two study abroad students that are staying in the house for a month.  They're also like my host sisters and we have such a good time -- and makes me realize that for someone in his late 20's, I sure act like I'm still in college, haha!  But seriously, they're wonderful and are so future-oriented (more so than I was in college).  They're both a part of this study abroad program that took them to New York (2 weeks), Argentina (1 month), and Senegal (1 month).  Their last stop in Vietnam (1 month).  Such a cool program!

The house itself is relatively small, but I'm lucky to have the upstairs room (think 'in-law' style) with a little outdoor terrace with a view of a neighborhood and an outdoor sink.  It makes for cooler and breezy Dakar evenings, and is a great place for me to have my own space.  Who knows, I may stay her for the whole 9 months of my Fulbright grant!

So I did something like this when I was in the Peace Corps, and will do this again.  Here are some of my first impressions of Dakar organized by topic.  Would you expect anything less from me?  =)

  • Food/Drink: If you love seafood/fish, this is the place to be!  Fortunately, for me, I fall under this category and have been eating a variety of well-seasoned and wonderfully prepared dishes (thanks to Arame/host family)!  Thiéboudienne is the national dish of Senegal and consists of fish that's seasoned with lemon, garlic, onions, other herbs -- then cooked with tomato paste along with lettuce, carrots, etc., served on rice (which is more red because of the tomato paste). Poulet yassa is another dish, and it comes with this great onion-sauce side.  They have your standard West Africans drinks as well: bissap, gingembreetc.  All in all, very good food and will definitely be posting more pictures throughout my time here. 
When Michelle (other Fulbright ETA posted in Dakar) and I walked along the Corniche, we found a guy selling fresh coconut juice.  Mmmm! 

  • Transportation: Speaking strictly from the Dakar perspective, cars and taxis (!) abound.  Everywhere.  There are not as many motos as there were in Burkina, at least in Dakar.  Taxis, while everywhere, require you to haggle and bargain -- which can be fun but also frustrating if you want to get to your destination ASAP.  Fortunately, I've gotten the hang of around how much a taxi ride should cost (of course, it can go down/up by a few hundred CFA).  Mermoz to Plateau/centre-ville is between 1200-1500cfa, shorter distances can range from 500cfa-1000cfa, and Almadies to Plateau/centre-ville can be from 2000cfa-3000cfa.  Going from where I live to downtown can get pricey with taxis, so there is a relatively good public transit network; though it's really an adventure trying to figure it all out!  There are 4 main types: 1) Dakar Demm Dikk buses (blue or beige buses that are the official public transport system in Dakar; set routes); 2) AFTU/Tata buses (white buses with blue stripes on the side; set routes); 3) Ndiaga Ndiaye vans (white vans with apprentices in the back shouting the destination); and 4) Car rapides (brightly painted minibuses that are iconic of Dakar/Senegal).  They range in price -- anywhere from 50cfa to 150/200cfa.  Been trying them all out and it's quite fun, especially as an alternative to taking taxis.  This English speaking blog, Direction Dakar, is a good start to help those interested in taking public transport in Dakar! 
Car rapides that run throughout the city of Dakar.  So iconic of Senegal! 

  • LanguageFrench is the language used for administrative and educational purposes, but by far, Wolof is the language that almost everyone speaks.  Other languages, such as Pulaar, Mandinka, Sereer, and the like can be found as well.  A simple Salaamaalekum/Maalekum salaam ('Peace be upon you') is the standard greeting, and will go a long way when getting to know someone.  I originally came to Senegal with the intent of continually improving my French, but Michelle and I signed up for Wolof classes at the Institut Français and so far, they've been helping.  Like Burkina, Senegalese folks light up when a foreigner speaks some Wolof -- and rightfully so!  I don't expect to be fluent by the end of these 9 months, but hopefully have a good grasp of it.  
  • Weather: Arriving in October has its pros and cons.  It's one of the hottest months of the year (humidity...ughhhh), though I hear it gets cooler from here on out.  I've felt it more in the morning, where there's a cool breeze -- in part, thanks to the ocean being so close and Dakar jutting out as the farthest point west on continental Africa.  I imagine the rest of Senegal may be a bit hotter, though I'll let you know when I get the chance to visit! 
  • ReligionIslam is by far the most dominant religion (around 95% of the population) though there is a small percentage of Christians.  Like Burkina, one thing I love about Senegal is the amount of religious tolerance the Senegalese have for each other -- one thing we in the U.S. could learn a thing or two about, particularly given the climate nowadays.  The mosques and calls to prayer make this a place very much rooted in faith, and as a Catholic, it's so interesting to me!  
On my first Sunday in Dakar, I took a taxi downtown to visit la Cathédrale du Souvenir Africain.   Very interesting place, particularly in a predominantly Muslim country -- but the two religions co-exist perfectly, and respect each other! 

  • Housing: Again, I can't comment on other parts of Senegal but Dakar is your typical city (with of course, French and even Middle Eastern influences) -- anywhere from apartments to huge mansions along the Corniche which runs along the coast.  My host family's house is very much like a duplex/condo setting in a residential neighborhood just off one of the main avenues in Dakar.  I'm lucky to have a second floor room with a terrace-type area and outdoor sink.  Love sitting out there at night with the fresh, ocean breeze; we'll all sometimes eat dinner up there as well! 
  • Clothing: Oh, YES!  Senegalese (and quite frankly, African) fashion is all about vibrancy and color.  One regret I had in Burkina was giving away all of my tailor-made clothes.  Not this time, though!  Of course, finding the right tailor is never easy.  I was lucky in Burkina because my village tailor, Mathieu, also happened to be one of my good friends.  And of course, looking for fabric (le tissu) can be both exciting and daunting because of the many different types of fabric available.   I hope to have a traditional boubou made, along with pants (with a hipster/modern look, haha).  Will post more pictures as I get clothes made! 
Getting my first shirt made here in Senegal.  Brought in a model shirt just to show the cut I'd like.  It's so much fun getting this done! 

Back to washing clothes by hand, though this time, I'm lucky.  I only have to wash my underwear and there is running water! 

  • Hospitality: There's something to be said about the hospitality that Africans extend to foreigners/visitors.  It's something that I've especially noticed in French-speaking African countries, and Senegal is no exception.  They have this term in Wolof called "teranga" (hospitality) that is really a way/philosophy for life.  I most especially feel it when my host mom, Soda, continually offers me more food at meals -- even after I've said I'm full, haha! 
  • Work: As I've mentioned before, I'm posted at the Ministry of Education's Office of English in the Plateau neighborhood/downtown Dakar.  Work has been relatively slow (just meeting people, attending meetings, and getting a feel of the resources available here) since the school year has just started, but Ngouye has mentioned our work will really pick up in a couple of months as professional development seminars and traveling to various regions in Senegal kicks in.  Looking forward to it!  In the meantime, Michelle and I started getting ourselves involved in English language activities at the U.S. Embassy -- conversation clubs, webinars, and American film viewings/discussions.  Regardless, I can feel my network of English language professionals growing day by day, and it makes me realize that as a Fulbrighter, your professional growth depends on how much you involve yourself in both your work environment and the greater community.  
View from the office.  I'm actually in a connecting room (which has air conditioning, lol) but you can see the many English language resource books which are available to teachers.  

  • Dakar as a City: I remember living in my village in Burkina Faso and dreaming of going to Dakar.  It truly is a regional hub, and people from all over West Africa come here to study and work.  I'm very lucky to live off of one of the main avenues in Dakar where you can find pretty much anything you'd like.  As well, the Corniche, which runs along the coast of the city, has a beautiful view of the ocean and many people run and walk along there.  Working in the Plateau region/downtown area makes me feel like I am in such a big city with all of these bigger buildings -- a change from Ouagadougou.  Technology is relatively accessible here and I'm more connected to the Internet than I thought I would be -- I have an internet USB key for my laptop, and am able to use my iPhone from the U.S. with a Senegalese SIM card.  
Picture of some of the many buildings in the Plateau/downtown area of Dakar.  You can clearly see the French influence in this city. 

 Walk along the Corniche and you are mesmerized by this view.  So beautiful! 

Such an interesting feat -- le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine.  You can climb the almost 200 steps to get to the top (free!), then enter the inside the monument for a tour of how it was constructed as well as learn more about Senegalese culture (for a fee). 

This is from the top of le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, one of the hills.  These two hills are called "Les Mamelles" (yes, you read right if you understand French!).  The other is where the lighthouse is located, and beyond that, is la Plage des Mamelles and les Almadies (where the U.S. Embassy is located) in the far distance. 

  • Expats from Outside of West Africa: In addition to many people from all over West Africa, there are plenty of expats from outside of West Africa as well -- Americans, French, British, Canadians, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, etc.  The list is truly endless, and I've seen more 'Western' expats here than any other city in West Africa.  It's been great meeting people of various nationalities, and hope to meet more during my time here! 
  • English Speakers: Perhaps one of the biggest surprises.  There were more Senegalese that speak some level of English than I originally thought!  Maybe it's the circles that I've been encountering, but by and large, it's bigger than I thought, especially for being a French-speaking country.  I attribute it to a number of things: many people from all over the world living here; Senegalese expats living in the U.S. and other English speaking places; and a great desire to learn the English language.  It makes me realize the work of us Fulbright ETAs is both wanted and necessary.  We're not only language resources/teachers, but are also able to share American ideals and perspectives.  The cross-cultural exchange is, by far, one of my favorite things about being here and hope it only continues to grow.  

Until next time!  Don't forget to keep checking in for updates, and commenting on these blog posts!