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 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! 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

So we meet Dakar. In-country orientation!

After what seemed like a chaotic and packed few days (I swear, I suddenly had all of these family gatherings and last-minute things to attend!  It was great to see family though...), I arrived at SFO on Monday early afternoon -- weary from lack of sleep and intense packing...where the issues only began to arise.

Turns out there was some miscommunication between the airline's policy for a visa to Senegal and what we've been told.  Long story short, the 7 other Fulbrighters had some degree of trouble getting through the airport because of the visa.  We all have our return tickets for 9 months later (July 2016) but airlines see that if you are staying in Senegal for more than 3 months, you need a long-term visa to go through.  Not gonna sweat the small details here, but I was booked for a flight the next day (Tuesday) through Delta instead of Air France and luckily, had another fellow Fulbrighter on my New York to Dakar flight (Kaylin; the 6 others were able to make their flights).  We laughed so hard because of the many issues that arose and the delirium that comes with constantly being at airports/planes/on-the-go.

Arriving in the airport in Dakar was surprisingly easy, as well as getting through customs and arriving at our (air-conditioned) hotel.  Thanks, U.S. Embassy Dakar!  There's a very familiar smell that comes with arriving in a country like Senegal (I've realized it's the humidity) and it was just so...comforting.  To be back in a French-speaking country and to be back in West Africa.

View of Dakar from up in the air. Amazing to be on the westernmost tip of continental Africa! Literally had butterflies in my stomach just looking at this view and thinking, "Wow, I'm back!" 

Our three-day in-country orientation was very close to reliving our time during the Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C. this past June.  Very grateful to be placed with 7 other Fulbright ETAs who just get it and all think in a very similar way!  We also met the two English Language Fellows who will be placed in universities.

The Fulbright ETAs and English Language Fellows pointing to our various sites throughout Senegal. 

Met Eran and Safi, the RELO/Assistant RELO (Regional English Language Officer) for West Africa and various English language partners in Senegal.  What an incredible group of colleagues!  The desire to learn English is alive and well in Senegal.  Overall, a very informative orientation on Senegal, the education system, cultural nuances, and even getting the chance to do a little teaching with the ACCESS English classes! (Note that a few of the pictures aren't mine; they were taken by Eran, the RELO for West Africa.)

We did a quick lesson on verbs in the present progressive to get them speaking more.  I look crazy here...I assume this is one of my many teaching faces, lol. 

We ended our three-day orientation with a reception at the U.S. Embassy Dakar's Public Affairs officer's residence with the key English language professionals throughout the country.  Great way to cap off a productive three days, and send us off to our respective schools/institutions.  I was able to also finally meet Ngouye, the Head of the Office of English at Senegal's Ministry of Education and my boss for the next 9 months.  She has impeccable English and seems like a great person to work with!  I start on Tuesday and am definitely looking forward to it!  

With Ngouye of the Office of English at the Ministry of Education.  Looking forward to working with her and other English language professionals to help train English teachers throughout Senegal! 

Group picture! 

I realize I'm a little dated with this blog post -- will update with host family description, getting acclimated to Dakar, work, and other discoveries soon!  

Ba benneen yoon! ('See you next time' in Wolof!) 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hello, Senegal! Hello, Fulbright! (très bientôt)

I probably should've posted this when I found out I got the Fulbright (in April 2015), but such is the life of a procrastinator.   =)

I'm taking a temporary pause from teaching domestically and pursuing more work in the field of international education.  

As the subject line suggests, I received a Fulbright grant/scholarship as an ETA (English Teaching Assistant) to live and work in Senegal.  Yes, that's right -- I'm heading back to West Africa!  My grant is for 9 months (much shorter than my time in the Peace Corps), and I'll be living and working in a big city (one of the biggest French-speaking cities in the world): Dakar, located on the westernmost tip of continental Africa.  ETAs sent to Senegal work at the university level (one of the biggest reasons for me applying); however, I expressed interest in training teachers, and will be working with the Office of English at the Ministry of Education to help train English teachers all throughout Senegal. 

If you're unfamiliar with what the Fulbright program is, I turned to Wikipedia to help me out a bit:

The Fulbright Program is a program of highly competitive, merit-based grants for international educational exchange for students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists, founded by United States Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946. Under the Fulbright Program, competitively selected U.S. citizens may become eligible for scholarships to study, conduct research, or exercise their talents abroad; and citizens of other countries may qualify to do the same in the United States.

The Fulbright Program is one of the most prestigious awards programs worldwide, operating in over 155 countries. Fifty-three Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes; seventy-eight have won Pulitzer Prizes.  

The program was established to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills.

There might be some of you that are interested in the Fulbright program and might want to know what the application process was like: 

  • October 2014: Applied through the University of Notre Dame (highly recommended that you apply through your undergrad or grad university). You can only apply to one country. 
  • November 2014: After tweaking my application, personal statement, and the like, I submitted my complete application. 
  • January 2015: Passed the first round of selection from the Fulbright Scholarship Board; my application was then sent to the folks in Senegal. 
  • February 2015: Had a brief phone interview with the U.S. Embassy in Dakar. Was told there might be an opportunity for a Fulbright ETA to work at the Ministry of Education. 
  • April 2015: Received word that I received the Fulbright in Senegal! 
  • June 2015: Was flown out to D.C. with other Fulbright Scholars heading to Sub-Saharan Africa this year, including the 7 other ETAs heading to Senegal. 
  • October 2015: En route to Senegal. Will have a 3-day orientation at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, followed by the rest of our 9-month grant. 

June 2015 in Washington D.C. for the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation for scholars heading to Sub-Saharan Africa. This is with the 7 other ETAs and 2 scholars + Kiné (far right) from the U.S. Embassy in Dakar. Wonderful group of people, and excited to be embarking on this adventure together. 


You might be asking, just why did I go for the Fulbright?  For those of you that know me very well, this goes far beyond me being a wanderlust and moving around from place to place.  I’ve realized I like the blend of learning and applying that knowledge to practical experiences, and have found a true passion for education, especially foreign language education and international education in general.  And I feel like the Fulbright fits perfectly at this point in my life.

Today, I leave San Francisco after being back home for about 2 months.  I don’t think I’ve been home for that long since 2009, but it was a truly special time seeing family and some close friends. 

Probably the greatest experience was watching over my Grandma and spending time with her (my grandparents have lived with us since we were little, and they helped raise my brother and I as my parents went off to work).  I was even lucky enough to be there for her 89th birthday, which is a rarity!  Nowadays, she doesn’t say much but it was simply being present with her that made the difference.  And as I left the house early this morning and said a “goodbye for now” to her, I cried a little.  She told me to enjoy this experience but to find a job that allows me to stay closer to home.  I told her that there’s so much to see in the world; it’s hard for me to stay in one place.  After a long and pensive pause she said, “Michael, take care always.”  Simple as that.  And with that, I am off to this new and exciting adventure that awaits.