Langan Courtney arrives home from Senegal and addresses the club about her adventures.
( L to R Steve Anderson, Langan Courtney and President Elect George R.Sylvestre)
The following are emails form our current Ambassadorial Scholar, Langan Courtney:
Hello from Thailand! I hope that you are doing well and that you had a nice Thanksgiving. Please give my best to Deb.
I wanted to send you a quick update on my travels and work--and will try to upload some photos though I am not sure that the connection will be able to handle them. My head is swimming a bit with all that I am learning and seeing, so this email will surely be incomplete in its descriptions, but I will do my best to give you a taste of my daily happenings and thoughts.
I was in Nepal for just over a month and it was wonderful beyond words. I left Kathmandu on Nov. 30th and am now in Thailand, staying along the Thai-Burma (Myanmar) border in a town close to three of the nine of refugee camps that dot the border. I will be here for the next few weeks before heading north to Chiang Mai, where I hope to visit Anon's family and Rotary Club. My time in Nepal started with a 2 days in ever-hectic Kathmandu, followed by 4 days in the towering mountains and then a long journey to the very southeastern corner of the country where I split my time between the town of Damak and various refugee camps (seven in total that were all established in the early 1990s and are home to close to 200,000 refugees). Before leaving Oakland, I was very lucky to have been connected with friends and family members in the camps who have relatives in California now. Having some direct contacts lead to a lot of intimate time with families--staying in their huts; sharing meals, questions and information; playing games with the kids; and generally being together in a way that made the world feel very small and connected. It was an exceptionally rich time full of much learning and growth.
The Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal are "open camps" -- meaning that movement in and out for the refugees is much less restricted than it is in closed camps. This also meant that once I had United Nations (UNHCR) and Nepalese gov. permission to be in the camps, I was able to come and go freely which would not be the case in most camps around the world. For the three weeks that I was there, I spent 16 days in the camps. While in the camps, I spent a lot of time with families, in their huts and on their "blocks"; visiting various schools to observe in the classrooms and meet with teachers, counselors, and students; meeting with the various NGOs that run programs in the camps such as women development projects, special programs for refugees with special needs, and youth development programs; and generally observing and learning as much as I possibly could. I also had the chance to meet with a number of IOM and UNHRC staff members as well as do informational trainings about life and education in the United States with refugee parents, NGO staff members, and UNHRC trainers at a compound outside of the camps. The combination of experiences was ideal---a perfect mix that was beyond even my hopes for this trip.
I left Nepal with a bit of a heavy heart---sad to go and wishing that I could have stayed for a year rather than a month. Given that so many people are resettling in the United States, however, the likelihood that I will reconnect with many of the people I met is quite real. The Bhutanese refugee resettlement program to the U.S. is the largest single resettlement operation in the world, with close to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees either already in the U.S. or in the process of being resettled--and still more will likely come. This is quite unlike most refugee communities around the world, with the global statistic being that less than 1% of all refugees are resettlement in the U.S. or another 3rd country (like Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and others). Given how high the resettlement numbers are for the Bhutanese, I will undoubtedly meet some of these people again---not to mention the popularity of Facebook and Yahoo Messaging among the younger refugees, which will also serve to keep us connected! :0)
Thailand has been great so far---and full of more fresh fruit than I thought existed the world over! Even as a California farmers market junkie I am impressed by each and every corner stand! I spent a few days in Bangkok wandering the streets, visiting various Wats, and meeting with a couple of refugee organizations with headquarters in Bangkok. I then took a 9 hour bus ride to the north-western border of Thailand along the Burmese border. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was unable to obtain Thai Government permission to enter the camps here on my own, so my only access will be with various NGOs and International Organizations running programs in the camps and even that will be quite limited. While 150,000+ Burmese refugees are in camps along the Thai-Burma border, however, close to 2 million are living outside of camps in a very precarious undocumented situation along the borders of Burma. I am staying in Mae Sot (a small to medium size border town) which, for example, reports that close to 40% of its population is comprised of undocumented Burmese migrants and political exiles who fled across the border but are not registered refugees (i.e. not living in the camps with official UN refugee cards) and therefore have very little access to government services, education, medical care, etc. Some return back to Burma with some regularity (either voluntarily or as a result of frequent deportations) while others have been here for years in this state of limbo. Unlike the refugee situation in Nepal, there are still large numbers of Burmese refugees (mostly undocumented) coming into Thailand on a continuous basis, fleeing the ongoing conflict and oppression in their home country.
My plans here are still unfolding. I spent my first week visiting Mae La camp (home to 40,000 refugees), touring a refugee medical clinic in town that provides free medical and mental health care as well as some education to close to 200,000 people each year (mostly undocumented refugees living in Thailand and people who come across from Burma for the medical care as they have no access in Burma), and participating in a cultural orientation program for refugees who are about to be resettled in the United States. Over the next 10 days, I will visit some camps schools and other schools along the border, will participate in more cultural orientation classes, and will meet with with various NGOs and CBOs providing an array of supports to the Burmese in Thailand. I will also be eating as much mango and sticky rice, pad thai, and pumpkin curry as I can get my hands on! The night market near my guest house whips up some of the cheapest, most delicious food I have ever tasted--steaming food stalls line both sides of the street as people (and mosquitoes) gather to share a meal in the warm night air.
On a daily basis I feel very lucky for this opportunity and know that I am learning and absorbing more than I am even aware of at this point. To be in refugee camps and along borders that I have read so much about is an amazingly informative, expansive and emotional experience. I look forward to incorporating what I am learning back in the United States as I continue my job and life--and I hope to have the opportunity to return to both Nepal and Thailand some day!
I hope this email finds you well. I used your phone often in Nepal--it was a great addition to my luggage. Thank you. And I just got a SIM card in Thailand so will put it to good use here as well.
I will try to write again soon. Until then, be well and happy holidays!
Dear Rotary Club of Mystic,
My adventures as a Rotary Cultural Ambassadorial Scholar in Senegal have begun!!!
I arrived on Sunday January 9th around midnight, and was taken right to my host family’s house. After almost three sleepless days of packing and travel, school started the next morning at 9! It’s been a bit of a whirl-wind so far, but one I am happy to be amidst. The combination of two new languages, a new family, a new country, a new city, a new culture, a new religion, and a new sun burn has resulted in an exhausted mind that is running a mile a minute…but I have a huge smile on my face as I fumble though it all.
I live with a big, loud, gregarious Muslim family in a residential part of the Dakar. They speak Wolof at home nearly all of the time, so I will learn that along with French while I am here. I am also learning to eat with my hands with some proficiency. All of my meals are eaten that way as I sit on the floor, one of many around a large dish of steaming rice and fish. The language center where I study is wonderful. My cultural and language classes have been great so far and the general atmosphere is quite inspiring. People come and go, switching in and out of English, French, and various Senegalese languages with ease.
Tomorrow, I will go to my first Rotary Meeting in Dakar- and it is to be a big one! The District Governor from West Africa is in Senegal at the moment, and there is a large meeting with all 7 of the Senegalese Rotary Clubs. I will be sure to write about the event in my next email. There is also much taking place in terms of the Rotary Centennial Celebration- so I will keep you posted on that. I am most excited to be a part of the Rotary community, both in CT and Senegal.
I would love to hear from you, and promise to write often. If there is anything specific you would like to hear about, just let me know. Internet cafés are everywhere here, so it wont be hard to communicate electronically, but if any of you prefer snail mail (and don’t mind waiting a few weeks for the letter to arrive), just let me know, and send your address along.
I hope all is well in Connecticut. Take care, and merci, merci, merci!!! I am so thankful for this opportunity.
Dear Mystic Rotary Club,
HAPPY 100th ANNIVERSARY!!!
At last night’s Rotary meeting here in Dakar, we all sang, clapped, and toasted to one hundred years of service, friendship, international bridges, and peace building. As I stood among my club members trying to piece together as much French and Wolof as I could, I was overwhelmed with thanks and appreciation for my Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship. This opportunity is allowing me to experience life in Senegal in a very special way. I feel extremely lucky to be part of the worldwide Rotary Community. It is truly an honor.
There is a ton going on in Dakar this week in celebration of the 100th anniversary. On Saturday there was a 10K and a big press conference (the Rotary scholars were on SNTV- Senegal National Television!), and this week is chock full of blood drives, musical performances, photo exhibitions, peace marches, cocktail parties, and meetings. Busy, and so much fun! The photo that I have attached is of myself and the 4 other Rotary Scholars, along with one of Dakar ’s club presidents. We are all at “A Taste of Africa”, which was a huge soiree for all 5 of Dakar ’s clubs. (From left to right: Me, Aimee Gallagher (USA), Emily Smith (USA), Tomo Toku (Japan ) and Bobbie Wofford (USA).
The 4 other scholars are wonderful, which is a good things, as we spend tons of time together. We are spread between Dakar ’s five different clubs, but over the past 3 weeks we have each attended the other’s meetings as well as two Roteract meetings. Additionally, we are volunteering at an orphanage together and working to start a sustainable lunch program at a very under-funded elementary school here in Dakar…and so, more days than not we are together!
My classes are going well at ACI. I just passed 65 hours of French, and I finally feel as though I can put together a few decent sentences!! Its coming more slowly than I had expected, but I am learning a fair bit of Wolof as well as so many other things, so I have no complaints. Family life is hectic, all-consuming, and very much fun. I help cook when I can, watch a lot of soccer and bad Senegalese soap-operas on TV with my mom, play cards and soccer with my little brother nearly every afternoon, and study around our big living room table with my sisters. I eat all of my meals at home around a big communal bowl. Everyone sits on the floor, eating with their hands, and although I certainly can’t hold a candle to the Senegalese, I can finally get the food from the bowl to my mouth without dropping half of it on my lap!
This past weekend was Tamaxarit, the Senegalese fete that marks the Muslim New Year. The day is celebrated with lots of eating, singing, dancing, praying, and more eating! I spent all day Friday helping my family prepare a huge cous-cous and goat feast. Tons of family members came over, as well as two of my friends from school who live in Christian host families, and therefore weren’t celebrating the fete at home. The Senegalese put our thanksgiving appetites to shame on a regular basis…its really unbelievable! We ate and ate and ate…and then we ate some more. After the big meal, all of the little children dress up and go from house to singing and dancing for coins. (Very similar in concept to Halloween in the States.) I went around with my sisters and little brother. The streets were jammed with people till the wee hours, and the beating drums could be heard until the daily call to prayer at 5 a.m.
And now I am off to Tomo’s Rotary meeting, so this is all for now. Three members from her sponsoring club in Japan are here this week to celebrate with us in Dakar. Its great having them here. And with that, I’d like to formally invite any and all of you to Dakar! I would love to be you tour guide here in Senegal. :0)
I will write again soon to report on the rest of the Centennial Celebrations.
I hope that this email finds you all very well. And again, Happy 100th Anniversary!!
Dear Mystic Rotary Club,
Happy Spring and Happy Easter! Based on the snowy weather reports I have been reading from the states, I don’t imagine too many daffodils have sprouted, but I hope spring comes soon for you all.
I believe my last update was sent at the beginning of March, right after the Centenial Celebrations ended here in Dakar. February was a very busy and exciting month, nearly everyday of which was spend involved with some sort of Rotary event. As I have mentioned, the 5 scholars here are split up between 4 of Dakar ’s 5 Rotary clubs, and we have all become very involved in one another’s clubs meetings and events. Each week I go to my own meeting, and at least one other club meeting. During February, the big Rotary events consisted of a Peace March, a road race, a press conference, two blood drives, a youth music contest, and a bunch of soirees and cocktail parties. It was a great time to be in Dakar as a Rotary Scholar. I feel very lucky that my time as an ambassadorial scholar corresponded with Rotary’s 100th anniversary.
Last month we also gave 2 presentations to interested American students here in Dakar, and Aimee and Emily gave a presentation to their club that we all attended. (I am holding out for another month before I do my big presentations in French…want to get a few more classes under my belt first…)
In addition to Rotary, I continue to have a very rich and active host family experience here. In January we celebrated Tabaski- a holiday which commemorates Abraham’s willing sacrifice of his son. Then in February, we celebrated Tamaxarit, the Muslim New year. Both holidays come with much preparation and huge celebrations. In my time here I have also had the opportunity to attend 3 weddings, 2 birthdays, and a number of large family gatherings. The joke amongst the other Rotary scholars and my American friends is that I have the host experience on steroids, as I live with a huge, loud, ever more insane family!! I live in a small house with my host father, mother, two sisters, little brother, two cousins, a grandmother, a grandaunt, and an uncle, a goat, a dog (named daddy- which still makes me laugh, and I think always will...), three rabbits, and on any given day there are 5 to 10 other people around for dinner, and often to pass the night. For my first two months, two other aunts were living with us as well, and when they left to go back to their homes in Mali and Benin, the house felt oddly empty! Luckily I come from a very large family in the states, so I am somewhat accustomed to things, else I don’t know how I would handle it.
My best friend from CT visited me for the first two weeks of March, which was great fun. Due to Rotary events, and school, I hadn’t found much time to travel outside of Dakar in January and February. While my friend was visiting, we spent a week with my host family and then a week traveling along the coast south of Dakar. It was great to get away from the traffic and city smog for a bit…and the beaches in Senegal that I have seen are breathtaking. We spent two night at this artist community a few hours south of Dakar, and then went onto to Joal Fajut- an island that is build entirely on shells, and is the birthplace of Senegal’s first President and a community of Muslims and Christians deliberately cohabitating. There is a huge graveyard in Joal Fajut that is for Muslims and Christians, which is a rarity in Senegal (and perhaps around the world) as the practices and beliefs that surround death in each religion don’t lend themselves to joint graveyard every easily. It was a great place to spend some time.
My friend left on the 19th, and life is back up to full speed here in Dakar. Somehow I envisioned a more relaxing existence as a Rotary Scholar in Senegal, but it is anything but! School is going well, though I have to admit that my French regressed a bit while my friend was here. I just couldn’t make myself speak in French on vacation! We were supposed to go to the Magal in Touba this week, but due to a sad combination of a rather serious cholera outbreak in Touba and a death in my extended host family here in Dakar, we are not traveling. The past few days have been very hard and sad around the house. The mother of my host cousin passed away very unexpectedly on Friday leaving 4 children- the youngest is in high school. Both of my host sisters have been staying with our host cousin for the past two days, and she is going to move in with us at the end of the week. I am continuously amazed at how open and gracious so many families are here in Senegal. People take in nieces, nephews, family friends and near strangers without blinking an eye.
And I am off to see what Easter Mass looks like in a country that is 98% Muslim! I have only heard church bells twice in my three months here, and both times they seemed so out of place. Five times a day (starting at 4:30 am ), the Muslim call to prayer is piped over loud-speaker from the rooftop of every mosque in Senegal, and the few scattered church bells simply don’t stand a chance vocally! I am interested to see what Easter mass looks like though as the few Catholics around are very fervent. My host mom made me the traditional Christian Easter treat on Friday…a yogurt-type dish with peanut butter, millet, raisins, and fruit…odd, but good. Kind of reminded me of a fruitcake in essence…no one really likes fruitcake or knows why they continue to make it year in and year out, but there it is, year in and year out, and it always gets eaten!
Happy Easter and I hope you are all very very well. I will try to direct some warmth and sunshine across the ocean...
Greetings from Senegal!!
Dear Mystic Rotary Club,
Dear Mystic Rotary Club,