07 February 2014

bégué, part 1

bégué (n., Wolof) happy; also an exclamation, as in don't worry, be happy!

life in senegal took some getting used to - i realize that i'm only now feeling settled in and that adjustment is still a process. but i'm finally learning to be happy here - bégué! - feeling like i have a purpose and know what i'm doing and why i'm here.

work at the microfinance office is slow at times. often the five-hour workday (9-12:30 in the mornings, break for lunch, 4-6:30 in the evenings) passes at a glacial pace, as we try to entertain ourselves by checking social media over and over again to take advantage of the equally slow wifi connection, though all our friends are asleep for a lot of the day thanks to a significant time and schedule difference. (as a side note, it's amazing how being away from the internet makes you quickly disinterested in it. aside from occasionally texting friends and family, and wishing i could post photos on my blog, i really couldn't care less about checking the internet/social media all the time, which is a bad habit of pretty much my whole generation.)

our microfinance office gives business loans of 100,000 francs CFA, a little over 200 dollars, to talibés, young men who grew up studying the quran in daaras and begging for food on the streets. before receiving a loan, they take courses at our office in math, business, english, and french; pass a business math test; and present a business plan. in theory, our office also provides them with support as they reimburse the loan: helping with business obstacles, providing tables to record profits and expenses, offering resources for learning from others and improving their business sense. but in reality, this is senegal, and drive is lacking both in the office and for the beneficiaries. we have almost 30 beneficiaries and some are successful but only two have fully paid back in two years of giving out loans. at the office, the culturally unhurried and unworried senegalese attitude pervades, draining our motivation. because of this, at times our work can feel unfocused or not thought out.

but that's the value of foreign volunteers and new minds in general. getting started as a volunteer is tricky, because you need to find your own way and really make your own project. but each volunteer - we're currently five - is making a difference in some part of the office to make it a more efficient and effective organization. a woman with a business degree is rewriting the pre-loan procedures and loan contract. another woman is great at site visits to the small businesses, urging beneficiaries to reimburse and to track their business progress. a couple people are doing price research at the market, and one guy is working on a business plan to suggest to new entrepreneurs. some volunteers have also focused on writing the coursework so that the education we provide is more consistent, less haphazard - a tall order when volunteers are constantly in and out, teaching different things, in a room with native speakers of at least four languages and skill levels ranging from the most beginner to advanced.

we're hosting a pizza night tonight, to be attended by all the volunteers - we're willing to pay a bit more than locals would and anyway who doesn't miss pizza?! it'll give a cash influx to a talibé who's had bad luck in several businesses but is now going into pizza with the hope of opening a "tangana" - a common late-night fast-food restaurant - within the the next two months. all of us at the office are also discussing how to refocus our collective efforts, ultimately deciding to concentrate less on educating talibés who don't want loans, rather using our resources to support our entrepreneurs and encourage them to reimburse, so that we'll then have money and time to start a new crop of beneficiaries on the path to self-sufficiency.

a work niche is hard to find but i've now got a couple projects going on. tamar and i became the resident experts in taking inventories of beneficiaries' shops, a tedious but entertaining task because it's mindboggling how many different things (onions, laundry detergent, perfume, balloons, and everything in between) can be sold out of a shop half the size of the wardrobe in our senegalese bedroom. after fixing up the questionnaires for new and potential beneficiaries, i've done dozens of interviews of talibés who hope to start their own businesses. often the interviews are done in translation - many speak only wolof or pular, and they come from all over west africa. also, i've been helping to interview successful business owners in various fields to compile some tips for others interested in the same work. tamar and i are thinking of next maybe organizing a carnival-type event to support our beneficiaries, engage the community, and maybe even incorporate a cause for the pa human rights project we share a space with. those types of events were some of the most successful and most fun in argentina, so we're hoping to recreate that success here, despite very different circumstances.

though my french is still terrible, my wolof education has become the pet project of the senegalese assistant/interpreter at the microfinance office. oumar speaks six languages, so he much be able to teach me at least one, right? every day i learn a couple new words, repeating them until i've got the pronunciation down and the syllables stick in my brain. so far i've scrawled in my notebook (with made-up spellings for the mainly oral language) at least a couple dozen words and phrases, from basic to random. i'm hungry. i'm tired. are you hungry? why are you tired? stop. let's go. good morning, good night. come here. go there. hot, cold, windy. please, thank you. it's ok, not a problem. i'm starting to notice patterns and recognize the elemental syllables, trying to mix and match when i can. i've been told my accent sounds senegalese, ~whatever~.

i love how when i use even one of those phrases - say, "tahaowal fi, borum taxi" ("stop here, taxi driver") - the locals get suddenly excited and start talking to me in rapid wolof as if i'm fluent, leaving me to just repeat, "deguma wolof, damai takale rek!" ("i don't speak wolof, but i'm just trying!") i definitely get points for trying.

part 2 of this post is coming shortly: updates on life in senegal apart from work.

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