I’ve been putting off writing about Kolda’s Peace Corps house for a long time, not for lack of things to say about it but because I knew it would be hard to put into words the many conflicting feelings I’ve had about it over the last couple of years.
The house is in a residential part of Kolda, uphill from downtown and about a block off the paved road. When you step inside the front gate you are first greeted by one of our three guards. They have a little gatehouse built against the front wall where they listen to the radio, make tea or work on puzzles. We have a small front yard with a few trees and bike racks and a narrow front porch. The house is a tall one-story with rooms around a central hallway and a roof. Our little American haven has everything you need in a house: kitchen, multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, a library, an office, a patio. We are lucky to have a big space but it rarely seems big enough. There are over forty volunteers in Kolda now and with so many people coming and going it can be difficult to keep our house clean and orderly. Its got all the grime of a frat house without the testosterone; the inconsistent amenities of a run-down budget youth hostel without the excitement of meeting strangers from all over; the good intentions of a hippy co-op without the consistent community.
For us volunteers the regional house is many things – it is a gathering place, a work space, a home away from home, a refuge when you need a break from village. But it really struggles to be all of these things at once, especially in a region as big as Kolda. I always think that I’m going to get more work done than I do (I have some very ambitious Kolda-house-to-do lists to prove it), but conditions are often less than ideal. How much work could you get done when it’s over 100 degrees out and there’s no AC, just junky fans? Or when there are half a dozen or more other volunteers around, most of them not doing work, when you’ve got someone else’s movie, TV show, music playing? Or when you’ve got a slow (read “third world”) internet connection made slower by volunteer x trying to skype, volunteer y downloading the latest episode of The New Girl, and volunteer z watching something on YouTube? All of this compounded with the fact that I am generally out of practice when it comes to sitting down at a computer and being productive and you can see why my to-do’s never get to-done.
But I’m making it sound like a bad place to be or that it’s impossible to get things done here. Like anything else it just takes practice, and after two years I’ve finally become well versed in the art of being at the Kolda house. And now that I have begun my extension (yes, I’m here until October, in part to continue working on a medicinal plant manual for my fellow volunteers) I am spending more time at the house and getting more practice in. Part of it is just the simple fact of duration and its accompanying sense of ownership or familiarity; that is, being a super-senior as opposed to a freshman. When I first got to Kolda I hardly knew how to fend for myself. Even just to make a simple meal required a new set of skills: I had to learn how to navigate the market, become familiar with what kinds of ingredients were available and where to find them, how to buy them in Mandinka and Pulaar. Now these things are second nature and I am the upper classman making a quiche from scratch while the newbie bowls ramen. Being able to cook delicious meals is a joy and comfort and one of the main reasons I come to the Kolda house, so the how and when and where of grocery shopping is an essential part of my Kolda routine. The house for me is about these meals, about my cache of American food (thanks Mom!), about a separate house wardrobe that shows a little more skin, and about the computer.
The order of operations is as follows:
1. Weed through the 50 or so new emails
2. Weed through the dozens of facebook notifications
3. Catch up on news and friends and family
4. Work. Maybe.
5. Blog or post pictures
Steps 1 and 2 can take a while and if I try to sate my appetite for number 3 it may take up the rest of that first day at the house. I have a much better, more realistic sense now of how much work I can get done in one go. So I use downtime in village to write out blog posts so that it’s just a matter of typing them up. And if I come in more often I’m less likely to have 70 emails in my inbox.
More importantly, I’ve learned how to avoid the crowds. It’s hard for me to feel completely at ease in a place where all I can truly claim as mine is a trunk and a suitcase and where most of the people around me are little more than acquaintances. Sometimes I would come in to escape from village and the house would get so crowded and I’d get the most panicky, claustrophobic feeling and start to wonder how I could escape the escape. So now I generally stay away when I know there’s a party or a meeting and I time my visits to Kolda when I can reasonably expect the house to be quiet. I hit the jackpot this time. Three days of near solitude, some solid progress on my reports, new pictures posted (click here) and a blog post! Check, check, check.