In keeping with the picture theme, here are some pictures from my school garden. We built it to fight malnutrition and teach better gardening techniques.
Last week my sister-in-law, Salimatou, and I did a photo shoot with her baby, Biriel. Here are the results. (Note: Salimatou is the wife of my village brother, Mahamadou. I am not married nor are any of my American siblings.)
Since the fall, I have attempted many times to get HIV/AIDS education projects started in Dabo. After my parents’ visit in February, I tried one last time. This was, I expected, to be a final, futile attempt. I went to the middle school in Dabo and asked them if we could have an event at the school to discuss HIV/AIDS education, sexual health and family planning. Students at the school have become pregnant throughout my service, so I know students are having sex, and not being safe about it.
The school had a club devoted to talking about public health issues. The club is relatively dormant, and has not done a lot in the recent past. I talked to the club’s advisors, and we agreed to convene a meeting. The students came and were receptive to my ideas. I suggested that we use theater as a vehicle to provide information to their fellow students in a creative, stimulating way
Following the club meeting, I met with nine students to plan and rehearse sketches for the event. Their initial attempts were far too dark. In all of the sketches, a female student would make a questionable decision, get HIV, get pregnant, and then be lectured by her friends and family about what a terrible decision she had made. Not exactly helpful or productive.
Part of the purpose of our event was to talk about the stigma regarding HIV/AIDS. I wanted to make sure students knew how the disease was spread, and that individuals can live successful, fulfilling lives with HIV. In America, that’s obvious to most people. In Dabo, it’s not. They needed to get past the idea that HIV was a death sentence.
As we rehearsed, we found the proper balance of humor and gravity, recognizing the importance of sexual health and HIV prevention while also learning how to humanize those who living with the virus.
The day of the event, we had to deal with the type of last minute problems that always occur in Senegal. I showed up at the agreed upon time, only to realize none of my theater group had arrived. We were supposed to start at 4, but quickly realized our audience would be bigger if we waited. There was a soccer game beginning at 5, and since that would be the biggest attended event of the day, we wanted to rope in the young soccer-watching youth.
Students began to arrive, and we kicked the event off by giving condom demonstrations. If students could correctly answer questions about condom use, we gave them a condom (since there was a school dance occurring that night at the school the timing seemed apt). We had them practice putting condoms on a wooden penis, and talked about other aspects of family planning too.
We decided to save the theater for halftime of the soccer game. Then, with about 150 students in attendance, and a promise that the second half wouldn’t begin until the theater had finished, the students got out and performed. The reaction from the crowd was uniformly positive. Both teachers and students alike enjoyed the theater, and found it both amusing and beneficial. As soon as the theater finished, the head of my local health post stood up in front of all the students and did a large-scale condom demonstration (in much better French than I could ever hope to possess). Then he discussed family planning options available in town, and sent everyone back to the soccer game with the knowledge to present sexually transmitted infections and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Today my replacement arrived in Senegal, 728 days after I made the same voyage.
I remember little about that first day. We arrived, 42 of us, at Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport, jet-lagged and confused, greeted by volunteers and immediately shuffled onto a bus. The journey out of Dakar was startling, probably because I had little idea what any African city would look like, let alone one of the most cosmopolitan in West Africa.
But soon we were out of Dakar, driving on roads lined with baobab trees. Because it was hot season, there wasn’t much vegetation. We arrived at the Peace Corps Training Center in the city of Thies, were greeted by Peace Corps staff, shown our rooms at the center, and encouraged to take naps. After waking up in a haze, of course Peace Corps’ next step was to quiz us on our knowledge of French. I could barely speak English at that point, but I muddled through it. I’ve often wondered if a better test would have changed the selection of my site. I doubt it, since many factors go into site selection. However, it’s impossible to know.
After the language test, I was shuffled into a room with a third-year volunteer and two staff members. I was subjected to a barrage of questions about what I would want my next two years to be like. Almost all of us would later say that we tried to be as non-confrontational as possible. “I don’t care if I have electricity or running water. I don’t care if I’m in a big town or a small village, if I’m the first volunteer or the third. There are advantages to all types of communities.” That last part is only half-true.
As new Peace Corps trainees, no one wants to rock the boat. You’ve just agreed to give up two years of your life to work in a foreign land, where little seems familiar and every day is a new and eye-opening experience. After being told by virtually everyone in the months leading up to your departure that you’re being “selfless,” no one wants to be the needy volunteer.
After two years here, I’ve learned that final thought is wrong. Requesting to be near the road, to have electricity, to work with health posts instead of individuals, these aren’t indications of weakness. They are indicative of your personality. Just as we would never tell a high school students applying to college that narrowing your options is a bad thing, neither is it for Peace Corps. As the best arbiters of our own souls, we are best aware of our optimal working environment. If we give our peers imperfect information, we are responsible for that outcome. We are not looking to be selected for Peace Corps anymore, that decision has long since been made. But our desire to be accommodating should not obstruct our ability to do work.
Mercifully, somehow Peace Corps cut through the fog and delivered me to Dabo. Given what I know now, if I had to do my interview all over again, I would be more specific. I would tell them to place me in a town. I would tell them access to facilities (schools, health posts, etc.) was important to me. I would tell them I would want to live in a site where I never stopped meeting people, where I would never run out of new experiences, discoveries, where my relationships may not be as deep but they would be much more varied.
Perhaps this is only the type of retrospection that can occur after two years living in a foreign country, but I am hesitant. There are many aspects to life in Africa to which we cannot predict our reactions, but there are others that mirror our lives in America. Are you the type of person who prefers six close friends to forty friends you may not know at the same depth? Do you prefer to work collaboratively? Is access to “luxury,” or resources, something important to you? My belief is that all of you in America could answer those questions and more in a meaningful fashion.
I have roughly two months left in Senegal. My replacement will come to visit in just over a month, and soon after that I will pack up my life and began the journey home. The past two years have felt at times motionless, but at other moments frenetic. My experience here, while similar to that of other Peace Corps Senegal volunteers, is entirely unique. I hate that word, unique. It is overused to mean great, or even better than that, but not “existing as the only one or as the sole example.”
I can say with a fair degree of certitude, however, that my experience in Dabo has been a unique one. How many Americans spend two years living in a town of ~6000 people in Senegal? Moreover, Dabo, where I live, is abnormal even within Senegal. We have taekwondo classes, basketball courts, a school for the deaf, a once-a-week dance club, vocational classes that teach young girls to bake, a library and too many other strange happenings that to discuss my experience with other volunteers is often a puzzling one. That is, of course, until my replacement moves into Dabo in mid-May, and renders my experience no longer unique.
Hi everyone, unfortunately bandwidth sucks so it’s tough to post a lot of photos, BUT here are some links to photos I’ve posted on facebook.
Do they have Elementary, Middle and High School? How is their educational system organized? If they take different types of classes than we do? What is the percentage and level of education?
There is elementary, middle and high school. In many ways, it is similar to the United States. Elementary school is six years, although typically students start at a slightly later age than in America. Middle school is four years, followed by three years of high school. Classes are fairly similar to those in the U.S., although teaching styles are very different. Teaching is conducted mostly through lectures and rote memorization, with little emphasis on critical thinking and creativity.
How poor is the country?
The per capita GDP of Senegal is roughly $1900, which makes it the 189th richest country in the world. By American standards, Senegal is certainly poor, especially at the village level. My family, who is fairly well off by the standards of our village, eats white rice with a glob of sauce for lunch (plus any vegetables I buy them). While most adult males, especially heads of households, have their own rooms, women and children may find themselves sharing a room with seven or eight other people. In cities, money is often more available, but space is at a premium, leading to overcrowding as well. I don’t want to confuse poverty with unhappiness however. People in my community are happy and content with their lives, and while they’d appreciate having a little extra money, they feel comfortable with what they have. Granted, any type of drought would wipe out what little savings people have here, as most people are reliant on subsistence agriculture.
What is the unemployment rate? What is the percentage of people who are working? Are the jobs similar to the U.S.?
The unemployment rate, at last estimate, was close to 50 percent. Most people at the village level are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Other possible professions include teaching, health workers, mechanics, drivers (for buses) or storeowners. We call the stores “boutiques,” and they are essentially one-stop shopping for most village needs. Essentially though, unemployment is difficult to measure, because employment isn’t the either/or proposition it is in the United States.
What type of work do you do in Senegal?
My work is in the fields of environmental education and preventative health. I work with schools to teach gardening techniques and provide food for malnourished youth, as well as integrating health and environmental lessons into the classroom. I am currently planning a HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health Awareness day to be held March 10 with the students at my secondary school. I have worked on malaria education, girls’ empowerment, and a variety of other projects. I recently organized a Gender and Development Conference for over 100 volunteers from five different Peace Corps programs in West Africa at the Peace Corps Training Center in Thies, Senegal.
Have you ever been to any other French speaking country?
I did an exchange program in France for two and a half weeks when I was a freshman in high school, back in 2001. I have been to France since then traveling on my own, but otherwise, had not been to any other French-speaking countries until arriving in Senegal in 2010.
What types of jobs do the people in Senegal do that might be different than our culture?
Subsistence agriculture is the most common profession in Senegal, and livestock trading is also quite prominent. One of the more unusual jobs is referred to as an “apprenti,” someone who helps with the buses. When I say “help,” what I mean is that they hang off the back of the bus, collect fares, and put all the baggage that people are trying to transport on the roof. There is also much more small-scale entrepreneurship than in the United States, as people sell everything from homemade juice to sandwiches of beans and bread to t-shirts on the street (in small towns, not villages).
What types of pets do they have (domesticated animals)?
Just like in the U.S., people here in Senegal have domesticated both cats and dogs as pets. Unlike the U.S., the dogs and cats essentially roam the village and the surrounding area. Dogs will go out to the fields with farmers, or follow Peace Corps volunteers as they go on runs. Families expect that eventually the dogs will return home. Animals are fed mostly whatever is leftover from meals. Unfortunately, there is also a fair amount of violence toward animals.
In addition to dogs and cats, they have also domesticated horses and donkeys to serve as transportation. They are hooked up to carts (called “charets”) and are used to transport heavy or large goods. Cows, goats, sheep and chickens are kept for meat and milk production.
Following up on the post from earlier today, here’s the second part of my responses as part of the World Wide Schools program:
What are some of their holidays/traditions/ideals?
This is a broad question so I’ll answer it in parts. Holidays are typically based off of the Islamic calendar, as over 90% of the population is Muslim. In some areas, Christian holidays are celebrated, but that is unusual. The two largest holidays are Korite (known in the rest of the world as Eid al-Fitr), and Tabaski (Eid al-Adha). Korite celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan, when you can end your daily fasting (from sunup to sundown). People have big parties and get dressed up, spending a substantial portion of their annual income on the festivities. Tabaski celebrates when, in the Islamic tradition, Abraham was to sacrifice his son Ishmael, only to be stopped by God at the last minute. In honor of the ram sacrificed in Ishmael’s place, families will kill and eat an entire sheep (over the course of a few days) if they can afford it. If not, they will kill and eat a goat instead. One of the minor holidays is Tamxarit (pronounced Tam-harit), the Islamic New Year, where kids celebrate by dressing up as the opposite sex and going door-to-door (like Halloween).
For ideals, Senegal is a very different country than America. While Americans value individuality, Senegal is a communal country. Money is shared within families, even when people are living abroad or on the other side of the country. Homes can contain over 100 family members, and meals are always eaten together. The idea of eating out at restaurants is abnormal unless you’re traveling. Moreover, there is a broader sense of community and togetherness as well. Oftentimes when I’m biking around, people I’ve never met will invite me into their homes for lunch or tea, and try to convince me to spend the night to rest. These are people I had never seen before and would never see again, but it’s important for them to welcome me into their home. It is also a polygamist society (among Muslims), and men are allowed to have up to four wives.
What is the percentage of people who speak the various languages in Senegal, and what are the languages spoken? Is there a unifying language? Can they understand each other?
It is impossible to know what percentage speak each language, since there is no record available. French is the only official language of Senegal, however, is limited to those who have attended school. While the number of French-speakers is growing, particularly in cities, in villages people lag behind.
The largest ethnic group in Senegal, Wolof, comprises about 43 percent of the population. As the largest group, Wolof is essentially the language of commerce. If you are of a minority group, you will likely use Wolof to communicate with people of other ethnicities. I speak a dialect of a language called Pulaar, an ethnic group that makes up 24 percent of Senegal’s population. In my region, Pulaar is the primary language, and the unifying language of the region. However, there are many other ethnic groups/languages in Senegal, including Jolas, Mandinkas, Soninkes, and many even smaller ethnicities. Some ethnic group will speak languages spoken by less than 5,000 people.
Schoolchildren will usually communicate in the dominant local language of their village/region, but are more likely to communicate in French as they get older. Professionals of different ethnicities will likely speak a mix of French and Wolof to each other.
What sports do they play in Senegal?
Contrary to popular belief, the most popular sport in Senegal is not soccer. Soccer is the runner-up to a local form of wrestling known as “cipporo.” Wrestlers are some of the most popular celebrities in the country, and big matches have months of hype leading up to them. I’ve been told that top wrestlers can make up to half a million dollars for a match.
Soccer is the second most important sport, and people with access to television often watch matches most days of the week from teams all over Europe and Senegal.
What type of government do they have?
Senegal is a republic, featuring a democratically elected President. The current President, Abdoulaye Wade, is the third President in Senegal’s 51 years of independence. He is currently running for a third term, with the election to be held at the end of this month. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off election for the top two candidates in March.
Is there a high crime rate? Is the country safe?
As far as I know, the crime rate is fairly low in Senegal. I feel very safe here, although I try not to spend too much time out at night alone in big cities. In my village though, it is very safe. People have a lot of trust in each other, and for the most part, that trust is not violated.
What do people do for fun in their free time?
In their free time, people spend a lot of time sitting around with friends talking. They also listen to the radio, or if they have power, watch television. Young boys will spend much of their free time playing soccer.
What types of religion do they have?
The vast majority of people (roughly 94 percent) are Muslim, although there is a small Christian minority of roughly five percent. Most of the Christians are Roman Catholic.
How well educated are the people? Is education trade-specific?
Education is very dependent on where you live. In cities, it is much easier to get through high school and on to university. At the village level, students have to start traveling to school from a young age, so whether they can continue their studies becomes a question of if their family can afford it, and if they travel to or live in another village to attend school. Primary education is more or less universal, although rates of secondary schooling vary. A 2002 estimate pegged literacy at 39.3 percent, although I imagine that number is much higher at the present time. There is some vocational education, but not a lot.
When I joined Peace Corps, I signed up to do a partnership through an organization named World Wide Schools. I was paired up with a high school in America, who nicely sent me a bunch of questions in the fall. I took my sweet time getting back to them, but I thought my answers might be of interest to all of you. If you have any additional questions, I’ll be happy to respond. The whole thing ran to about six pages, so I’ll post it in parts:
Senegal was colonized by France. Do you see any evidence of French culture mixing with the African culture. Can we have some examples.
The largest remaining evidence of colonialism is in the schools. Although very few people in Senegal are raised speaking French at home (they speak local languages), French is the language of instruction beginning the first year of primary school. Students need to learn French in order to learn the various other topics. Furthermore, like in France, the school week is Monday-Saturday, unlike its neighbor Gambia, a former British colony. Interestingly, you also hear people pepper French words and phrases into their local language, either because those words do not exist in the local language, or because the French words are easier.
In large cities, you see more of a French influence. You can find “upscale” French restaurants and old colonial buildings. At the village level, there was very little contact with colonial authorities, so you see almost no remnants of that.
What’s the food like? Do they eat any type of exotic foods (foods that Americans do not normally eat).
Food in Senegal varies according to class. At the village level, people will typically eat millet or rice porridge for breakfast. Depending on availability, it will consist of rice/millet, peanuts, sugar and either water or milk (fresh or sour). In cities, people will often eat bread with either a chocolate spread or beans. If one can afford it, lunch will be rice. If not, more millet.
There are three staple dishes for lunch. First is ceebu jen, often called the national dish of Senegal. It is whitefish stuffed w/herbs served on top of rice cooked in oil. On top of the rice you can find onions, potatoes, carrots, cassava and eggplant (although not very much). You can substitute meat for the fish (when we eat this, it’s usually with goat meat). The second dish is mafe, which is a peanut butter and tomato sauce, again served over rice. If you can afford it, you can add meat or vegetables to this as well. The third dish is yassa, my personal favorite. The sauce is based around onions and mustard, and usually it is served with a lot of carrots too. This can be eaten with meat or fish as well. Additionally, in my region, our normal lunch is a sauce named “foleere,” which Is made from okra and hibiscus leaves. This is the staple dish of my region.
Dinner will typically be leftover rice or porridge made of millet couscous. The coucous is very dry, so you will either pour milk over it, or a broth that can include beans, peanut butter, tomato paste, and many other assorted ingredients.
In terms of exotic foods, the biggest difference is probably the amount of goat consumption. In poor villages, goats are the most commonly consumed animals. Moreover, when families kill their animals to eat, they eat all parts of the animal, not just the choice cuts. I try to avoid eating the grosser organs. The more rural you get, the more likely they also are to eat bush weasels or any other animal they can find/kill, due to a lack of protein.
What type of music do they create, listen to and like?
Up until recently, the biggest music was a genre named mbalax. It’s a type of dance music, whose most famous proponent is Youssou N’Dour. However, recently rap music has become the most popular music for youth, particularly Akon, who is of Senegalese descent. They listen to a lot of American pop music as well, and you’ll hear people talk about Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, etc. In my region, the people are ethnically Pulaar, a large West African ethnic group, so they often listen to Pulaar music. This is my favorite Pulaar song.
What type of clothing do they wear?
Men typically wear a traditional two-part African robe called a boubou. The top can go down all the way to the ankle (or higher if one chooses), with either full of half sleeves. It features a great deal of embroidery around the collar. The pants have a drawstring and are usually fairly loose. Women can either wear a similar outfit (with the pants replaced by an ankle-length skirt), or a two-part shirt/skirt combination where the shirt has either short or no sleeves (like a fancy tank top).
Do they have Breakfast, lunch and dinner? What are their meals like?
They eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, much like Americans. However, unlike Americans, meals are eaten communally at a small number of bowls. My family usually has six people eating out of one bowl. People will either eat with their hands or with spoons. At the more rural level, spoons are less often seen (thus leading to problems with hygiene). Lunch is usually served around 2-3 in the afternoon, and dinner is typically between 8:30 and 10 PM.
As many of you may know, I have spent the last year and a half trying to start a garden at the elementary school in Dabo. So far my efforts have resulted primarily in frustration. It was with great trepidation then that I undertook my latest effort at establishing a sustainable garden project.
The school approached me at the beginning of the school year, saying there were ready to plant as soon as possible. They absolutely did not want to wait. I went to Kolda and bought seeds (that the school would pay for), brought them back, and discussed planting. Their response: we’re not ready yet.
This continued for the better part of a month, and then suddenly, right before Christmas vacation, they were ready. Or so they said. I arrived at the school on a Thursday afternoon, prepared to begin digging our garden beds, only to be told, “No we’re actually not ready yet. Maybe Tuesday.” Tuesday came around, and they had to put it off again, due to an all-school discussion about an incident that had happened. Please come back tomorrow they said.
Tomorrow came, and I rushed back from visiting my neighbor Mary (about 8 miles away), silently cursing to myself that no one would be there when I arrived to dig the beds. I entered the school, and saw no one. I sat under a tree waiting for about five minutes, when I decided it was worth checking the garden. I walked over toward the garden, to find the students already digging beds.
One of our greatest fears as Peace Corps volunteers is that our projects are unsustainable, that our work is only possible because of our dogged persistence, and the moment we leave, those projects will collapse into dust. I had resigned myself to this being one of those projects. Instead, I found the students were knee-deep in shoveled dirt and manure. That afternoon we dug 13 garden beds.
The planting was even easier. We planted a nursery of lettuce, tomatoes, hot pepper, cabbage, onions and eggplant, and when I left for a series of meetings/trainings in Thies and Dakar, they transplanted the already-growing vegetables to other beds. On their own, they planted carrots and cucumbers in the additional beds. Now we need to dig more beds in order to plant even more vegetables.
My primary motivation for posting this story though, came yesterday, when I visited the school to check on the progress. The teacher responsible for the garden proudly informed me that the first few vegetables were now ready to be harvested, and inserted into the school canteen to provide a valuable nutrition boost to students who live too far from the school to go home for lunch. Our whole purpose in establishing the garden was to provide food for this canteen program, and we had finally begun to accomplish that goal.
For about the last year, I have been fascinated with the idea of biking The Gambia. With those of you not familiar with the country Senegal envelops, Wikipedia has a nice concise description: The Republic of The Gambia, commonly referred to as The Gambia, or Gambia, is a country in West Africa. Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal except for a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean in the west.
After meeting Gambia Peace Corps volunteers at the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST) in Dakar last year, I was further determined to make this dream a reality. Given that most of the year in Senegal is either unbelievably hot or unbelievably rainy, I realized it was in my best interest to wait for cold season. This would ensure the best (and easiest) possible ride.
On November 28, I set off, taking a care from Tambacounda to Manda Douane (douane=customs in French), a large border town with a road to Guinea. What it doesn’t have, however, is a road to Gambia. Or at least a real road. Only a bush path. After getting directions in Manda, I turned off onto the bush path and waved goodbye to the customs people at the gendarme post.
Then I stopped. And threw up. A lot. Oops.
Maybe it was the fact that the day before I ate a Senegalese lunch of rice and fish, a delicious curry that my friend had made, then for dinner washed it all down with a dinner of biscuits, gravy, spam and eggs (in Senegal we think this is amazing). I’m pretty sure that was the cause of my illness. I had been feeling sick all morning so I wasn’t all that surprised. I felt better immediately afterward, and took off on the bush path.
About an hour later I was in Fatoto, home of two Gambian volunteers, Julia and Sonia. I met Julia last year at WAIST, and she was a great help in planning this trip. Upon arriving in Fatoto, I asked for “Adama” (her Senegalese name), but was brought to Binta’s (Sonia) house. I think the people in Fatoto were confused by the white guy from Senegal showing up on the bush path.
After hanging out at Julia’s and eating lunch, we went down to the river to enjoy the view. Fatoto has a “ferry” to the other bank, and by that I mean a tiny little boat that will take you across the river. I didn’t take it. Instead I hopped on my bike and biked almost two and a half hours west to Basse Santa Su. I had to stop again to throw up about halfway through this ride. Basse has a Peace Corps regional house and is a thriving metropolis (by Gambian standards). There were a couple volunteers there and some Gambian staff, and we went out for a delicious dinner of chicken and spaghetti with onion sauce. Then I went out for a beer, which was really smart given my digestive status. Oh well. I needed it.
Day One’s biking was a lot hillier than I thought, given that in Kolda our hills are all little baby ones. But it was pretty and green and a lot like Kolda, except with a lot more Mandinkas (Kolda is predominantly Pulaar, the language I speak).
Total distance: roughly 65 km (bush paths don’t have kilometer markers)
The second day was less eventful than the first, mostly because I didn’t get sick. Leaving Basse before 8 AM, the first few hours of the ride were on terrible road and hilly. I stopped for breakfast in a small town called Bakadadji, where I confused the people with my knowledge of French but my lack of knowledge about integrating English in Pulaar.
In Senegal, we insert random French words when Pulaar ones just won’t fit. “Mi yahat ecole” means “I go to school,” because there was no word for school pre-colonization. Other examples of this include the words for soccer ball, trainings, vacation, etc. When I tried to order breakfast and asked for half a piece of bread, they looked at me like I was a crazy person. You mean you want “Mburu half,” she said. Of course. When you talk about bread you give the portion size in English.
About an hour after Bakadadji, the road, which had been hilly, choppy dirt until then, turned into a beautiful, hilly paved road. A couple hours later, there was a turnoff to “Georgetown,” otherwise known as Janjanbureh, Day Two’s destination. At the turnoff, I had a lovely conversation with a customs person about if I was a Christian, where I pray in Senegal and whether I brought a bible with me. My madeup answers to these questions were yes, sometimes the church near where I live, and yes. Sometimes it’s easier not to explain the whole Jewish thing.
To arrive in Janjanbureh, you cross a small little bridge. In town, I met up with Joanna, a wonderful volunteer who offered me her extra bed without ever having met me (we spoke on the phone the day before for the first time). Janjanbureh is a beautiful town on an island with a well-developed tourist infrastructure. We had drinks at the hotel at the bird sanctuary, and because of all the biking, I was exhausted and asleep before 9.
Total distance: roughly 75 km
Overall distance: ~140 km
Leaving Janjanbureh to go north is harder than getting to the island, because there no bridge. Thankfully, there is a ferry that takes only about ten minutes going north to a village named Lamin Koto, and the people on the ferry love Peace Corps. As such, my ferry ride was free.
Once you get to Lamin Koto you get kilometer markers. To put this into perspective, imagine driving in America, but without the helpful signs that tell you where any towns or cities are, or how far you are from then. Obviously a bike has no odometer, so you have no sense of how far you’ve gone or how much is left other than your own intuition. I have a pretty good sense of how fast I go at relatively flat, paved roads, but hilly dirt roads, no idea.
As soon as I saw the kilometer marker, I knew exactly how far I had to go that day (78 kilometers). After an hour, I got a hard-boiled egg sandwich in Wassu, a town most notable for the “Stone Circles of Senegambia” nearby. I didn’t stop there, but sometimes I wish I had. It’s not like there are many tourist attractions along the road in Gambia. About halfway through this day, I felt a sharp pain in my knee that continued pretty much the entire ride. I had to stop with about a kilometer left just to catch my breath and get a break from the pain.
Powering through, I reached Kaur about 1 PM, my destination and home of a volunteer, Deb. Deb was kind enough to host me, since I really had no other options. Kaur isn’t exactly a big town. A volunteer I met last year at WAIST, Kyle, lives near Deb, and contacted me to let me know I should stay there. Kyle was there when we showed up, and hung out with us during the day. Again exhausted, I was asleep by 9 for the second straight day.
Total distance: 78 km
Overall distance: ~218 km
With only 152 kilometers left, I had a decision to make on the second-to-last day of my biking. Optimally, I would have done about 80 kilometers, leaving myself 72 to do on the last day. Only, there wasn’t really a place to stop. There was a volunteer on the road in Kerewan, about 98 km from Kaur, which was only 18 km further than I was planning.
The difference between 80 km and 98 km is the difference between biking about five hours versus six. That sixth hour, especially with a bad knee, is pretty much all mental. After making the decision to make it all the way to Kerewan, I knew I needed something escapist to listen to while I biked. Day Four was the day of Savage Love podcasts. For those of you who’ve never listened to Savage Love, the host, Dan Savage, gives advice to people with all sorts of sexual problems, from cheating partners to strange fetishes. It was the perfect antidote to thinking about my knee. I listened to people and their foreign problems and I didn’t think about my very local one.
The only big town along this road was Farafenni, a large market/transit town I had passed through briefly on my way down the first two times I went to Kolda (we are no longer allowed to take the road that re-enters Senegal south of Farafenni because of security concerns west of Kolda). Farafenni had plenty of culinary options, but I stuck with what brought me here, the hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise sandwich. The real breakfast of champions. Suck it, Wheaties.
Deb recommended a hotel in Farafenni that she said had great food and a pool, but I had 61 more kilometers to go and no time to dally. With only a couple short snack breaks, I biked until 2 PM (I had left Kaur at 7:30 that morning), and called Vicky, the VSO (British equivalent of Peace Corps) volunteer who was to let me into Nathan’s apartment. Nathan, the Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) in Kerewan, offered to let me stay in his spacious apartment (two big bedrooms, a huge common room, a bathroom) even though he wasn’t there.
I was having difficulty walking at first due to the pain in my knee and the fact I had been biking for six hours, but it went away for the most part and I made it to Nathan’s place, dropped off my bike and went back to the road for “chicken and chips.” As a British colony, Gambia has adopted the custom of calling french fries chips and calling the little meat pastries we eat in Senegal (and call fatayas) meat pies.
They sold popcorn in the boutiques in “downtown” Kerewan, so I bought some, cooked it on Nathan’s stove, and brought it down to the pier and watched the sunset over the river. Bedtime again was pre-9 PM.
Total distance: 98 km
Overall distance: ~316 km
Knowing there was only 54 kilometers until freedom, I decided to leave Kerewan early, snack a little on the road, but wait until arriving at the ferry to actually eat a meal. By 11 AM, I had made it through the beautiful coastal mangroves and on to the ferry terminal at Barra. It strangely costs as much to transport a bike as it does a person on the ferry, and the ferry was slow and boring. I met a man who said he worked for Peace Corps as a driver from 2006-7, and I have no reason to dispute his claims.
After arriving in Banjul at 1 PM, I decided to splurge on a taxi to Kanifing (a district of the largest city in Gambia, Serrekunda), where I was staying the weekend at a Gambian volunteer’s apartment. All the volunteers from Gambia were coming in for the 50th anniversary celebration of Peace Corps and having interlopers at their regional house seemed like a bad idea. After lounging around in the afternoon, I had enough energy to make it out at night for a delicious dinner of pizza and beer with two volunteers also staying at the apartment, Devin and Mallory. We then went out to karaoke, and around 1 AM, when some people decided to go out dancing, I needed to go home. I was already running on fumes.
Total distance: 54 km
Overall AND FINAL distance: ~370 km
After all the biking was done, I enjoyed a lovely second Thanksgiving with Gambian volunteers (the national elections were on Thanksgiving Day, so they couldn’t celebrate), took a nice walk at sunset along some coastal cliffs that ended on the beach, then went back and passed out early.
Sunday I got up early to travel back to Senegal, since we had a regional meeting beginning in Kolda the next day. I’ll spare you the details of that travel, since I’ve already broken 2000 words speaking about this bike trip. Next time I’m in Kolda, I’ll post pictures from the trip, so you can see that Gambia really does look like Senegal, only with a river.
Since I last wrote, I took a trip down the Senegalese coast to some beautiful mangroves in a series of villages named Palmarin, went kayaking through them for my birthday, and followed that up by going to a liquor tasting for the birthday of two other friends. I attended a summit for the volunteers in our sector, then went back to village leading up one of the two biggest religious holidays of the year, Tabaski (known worldwide as Eid Al-Adha).
Tabaski commemorates the day where Abraham was about to slaughter his son, before God stopped him and instead, Abe slaughtered a ram. The next part is where Judeo-Christianity and Islam differ. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is Isaac that is about to fall under the knife. However, Tabaski deals with the near-death of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.
This story is not about religious lore. This story is about a feast. After the praying was complete, we returned to my house to eat. My house is far from busy at its most packed, and Tabaski featured a whopping four people at my house. My host mother, somewhere around 60 years of age, my 20-year old very pregnant sister-in-law, my six-year old nephew, and yours truly.
For the four of us, plus whoever came over to say hi, we killed an entire sheep. Plus a chicken, because I bought one. I also bought my family four pounds of onions (approximate cost: $1.60) and four pounds of potatoes ($2.40). We began by mixing the onions in a mustard-vinegar sauce, and then grilling various parts of the sheep and eating it with the onions.
After that, we fried up pounds of potatoes and snacked on some of them. For lunch, we fried the chicken I bought, and put it on a bed of onion sauce, and made sandwiches with the bread. Note: Senegalese fried chicken is NOT the same as American fried chicken. Though it is still quite good. There just doesn’t happen to be any breading. On the side, we ate the rest of the potatoes.
For dinner, we had delicious pounded millet with sauce, although that was slightly diminished by the bad meat in the bowl with it. I had to try to pick around the meat, which oftentimes was difficult in the dark. After dinner, I went to bed, exhausted by the pounds of food I had just consumed.
I awoke the next morning, went outside and greeted my mother. After we finished greeting, she told me to go into my sister-in-law’s room, where I saw a baby approximately seven hours old. A Tabaski miracle! After I told my sister-in-law how pretty her new baby girl was, I asked her if her husband (my host brother) was coming down for the baptism. She said she didn’t know, they hadn’t talked yet. When I asked her why not, she shrugged and said, “I don’t have any phone credit.” Horrified I quickly gave her my phone, she called my brother, greeted him, said “The baby came,” and hung up.
Horrified yet again, she informed me he would call back soon. Afterward, we posed for pictures with the baby, but not in the same way people in America pose for pictures with babies. In none of the pictures was anyone actually holding the baby, but in each one they were sitting next to the baby, who was lying prostrate on the bed.
The baby was and still is very light-skinned, leading everyone to say that she resembled me. I made jokes that I must be the father, which they all thought was hilarious. I’m not sure that joke would have gone over as well in America.
Wonderfully, everything is shared in Senegal, even babies. My mother still insists on calling the baby “Samba’s baby” to all of my guests, even though I had nothing to do with her birth, and she is in no way related to me. It makes me happy to be included, even if I’m only going to be there for the first five months of her life.
Happy Birthday to me. If that sounds too self-congratulatory, too bad. I deserve it. You only turn 52+1 once, right? For my second (and last) birthday here in Senegal, you all likely want to know, “what can we do for you Dave? You’ve been working so hard over the past year and a half, and we want to do something to help you.”
WRONG. Do not do anything to help me. I am fine. I am happy. I like being here. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate getting care packages, and those of you who want to send them, please keep sending them (PCV Dave Glovsky, BP 26, Kolda, Senegal, West Africa). But I really want for my birthday, more than anything else (other than a moto, and Peace Corps won’t let us have those), is a donation (please designate Senegal as your recipient).
I have written about my computer project before, here and here. Fundraising has been more difficult than I ever thought it would be, but I’m pushing ahead because I think it is worth it. No children in my town know how to use computers. Very few adults even do (it’s really only the university-educated teachers).
So if you can help in any small way, we’re trying to reach $15,000 to send 200 computers to 12 schools and community centers across Senegal. These computers will go to teaching youth the skills they need to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Thank you all, and I’ll see you in America for 52+2.
In an effort to increase cultural understanding, this year I celebrated both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in my village. For Rosh Hashanah, I bought apples in my regional capital, Kolda, since apples are occasionally but not always available in Dabo. Honey was a lot easier. You can buy honey anywhere in Dabo. In fact, I’d say it’s easier to get honey in Dabo than it is just about anywhere in America.
When the New Year began, I told my family that we were going to celebrate “my New Year.” I explained to them that one of the things we do to accomplish that was dipping apples in honey, and eating them. This confused them. They like apples. They like honey. But combining them? My host sister-in-law took an apple and ate it, then when I asked her to dip it in the honey, she refused. “That’s what you do,” she said, “not what I do.”
After a good deal of cajoling, she caved. She immersed her slice of apple in the honey, and emerged with a giant grin in her face. “Samba, this is really good. You spoke the truth.” I explained to her, “I know. That’s why we do it.” When it comes to food, Senegalese people do not like thinking outside the box (neither do many Americans, I know). When principal dishes are made, slight alterations are few and far between. If I ask my mom to put something different in our lunch bowl, to add to the flavor of rice and sauce, I usually get a quizzical look, indicating, “Really? You think you know how to make maafe follere better than I do?” So I consider my apples and honey triumph even sweeter.
For Yom Kippur, I told my family in advance that I was going to be fasting from sundown to sundown. Since we always eat dinner after sundown, they brought me leftover lunch for my pre-fast meal. While it was nice, it did make fasting more difficult than it typically is in America. The morning after, I woke up needing to bike to a town nearby to measure the doorframes for a hut in a village receiving a new volunteer. I biked the 26 kilometers (~16 miles) out there, and then the 7 kilometers (a little over 4 miles) back to the main road, before deciding anymore biking on an empty stomach was a terrible idea. At this point I took a car home (cost: roughly 40 American cents).
Upon returning home near lunchtime, I retreated into my room to avoid watching my family eat. I passed the afternoon napping and hanging out with my family, until finally the sun went down. Soon thereafter, my host mother came out to ask, “Is your fast finished?” When I answered in the affirmative, she immediately returned with a giant bowl full of chopped up cucumber. After finishing all of that, she brought me a plate full of french fries. Then of course came dinner. All I have to say is, I think she understands how to properly break a fast.
I think that this probably is one of the greatest Jewish-West African Muslim cultural exchanges of all time.
After my post yesterday, I received a couple of concerned e-mails. Despite my being thought of as Arab sometimes, and despite some people’s fears here, I am in no danger whatsoever. People here are wonderful and non-violent and I feel safer here in my village than I do most of the time in America.
Rest assured I would shave my beard if I thought it was a safety issue. Thank you for all of your concerns.
Since late January, I have been sporting a classy beard, causing much consternation here in Dabo. I may be the only person in the community with a large quantity of facial hair. This is because people here are 1) remarkably poor at growing facial/body hair, and 2) according to the good people of Dabo, the Koran requires them to keep their hair short and clean. Whether or not this is a different interpretation than that used by people in the Arab Muslim world, I do not know. All I know is what people here tell me.
Oftentimes villagers will tell me things about Americans I did not know. A few weeks back I was told that non-black foreigners (locally known as tubakos) do not eat rice, EVER. Apparently, in America people just give you money just for being there. Probably the largest (and strangest) conception of America is of who is a “vrai Américain” (true American). To those in Dabo (and throughout much of Senegal), my neighbor Wilma is not American because her parents are Chinese. For a country where people are Pulaar (or Wolof, Mandinka, Sereer, etc.) before they are Senegalese, this is not exactly surprising. You would think that after the election of Barack Obama, that attitude would have changed. Nope. Black Americans are not black, they are African, or incorrectly assumed to be Pulaar.
Back to the beard. Since its introduction here in the region of Kolda, I have been told quite a few times that I am not American. It turns out that a few Senegalese people have gleaned something about my genealogy that I never knew: I am Arab. Lately, this has whipped up into a frenzy. People I’ve never met tell me that no, despite what I say, I am not American. Before my facial hair experiment, I was always asked if I spoke French, English, Spanish or Italian since clearly I’m not a native Pulaar speaker. Now, I’m often asked if I “speak Arab.” Most people have enough common sense to realize that a beard does not equal Muslim, but many do not.
Given my religious background, this is more amusing than anything else. I know not all Arabs are Muslims, but people here don’t. If you taught them how to make Venn Diagrams, and then you asked them to make one of Arabs and Muslims, the Arab circle would be contained entirely within the Muslim one. Most people don’t know what Judaism is, but my guess if that if they did, and I then explained to them that I had a Bar Mitzvah, their heads might explode
I cannot speak for the rest of Senegal, but at least here in Kolda, Arabs have a bad reputation. No matter how many times I try to protest otherwise, I have been told on countless occasions that I should fear Arabs. One of the men who works at my middle school told me that when I go back to America, I need to stay away from Arabs because they will blow themselves up next to me. All Arabs. Upon telling one person I have a Arab friend, he replied, “And you’re still alive???”
About a week and a half ago, while at a bar in Kolda, I was told (despite my explanations of the countries of my ancestry), that not only am I Arab, but I am Osama Bin Laden. Those of you in America may not be scratching your heads, because as you know, Osama Bin Laden is dead. While people here in Kolda have also heard this news, they don’t believe it. I was told by a group of teenagers in Kolda that “he has two faces. America just killed one of them.” In Dabo, I have heard, “Bin Laden said that America would say they killed him, but not to worry, because when they make that announcement he will go into hiding and we will not hear from him.” Yet another person claims Obama faked it to win the presidential election.
It doesn’t bother me at all to be confused for a person of Arabic descent. It bothers me somewhat to be told (upon showing American governmental ID) that I am not actually American. However, it does bother me to be called Bin Laden, or to be told (granted, by a slightly intoxicated person) that he wouldn’t dare go near me because I would slaughter him. It confuses me the animosity many people here have towards Arabs, given that they associate so strongly with their Muslim faith. They have affinity for Arab countries, because they hear or see of the wealth in some of them, but they would never want to be around Arabs. Usually this dissipates as education/interaction with foreigners rises, but that is not always the case.
Being in Senegal: a cultural experience for the ages.
The Summer Exodus
Dabo is not a summer destination. Maybe it should be, but upon the close of school, students flee home for vacation. Unlike the United States, many students live too far from higher education to travel from home. Instead, they find relatives/family friends/strangers to live with, even though it may just be eight miles from home.
Eight miles may not seem much in America, but here it is a vast chasm. If you don’t live on or near the road, you would have to walk, bike or hire a donkey cart to take you that distance. As you may imagine, eight miles quickly becomes too far to travel on a daily basis.
At the busiest of times, seven people live in my compound, which consists of five huts. For America, this might seem crowded, but in Senegal, it is absolutely expansive. Most compounds of our size feature at least twenty people. My family during language training featured somewhere between 40 and 45 people living in one building, dispersed among seven or eight bedrooms. One volunteer lives in a massive compound of over 100 people.
While many volunteers lack for peace and quiet, I am rarely bothered. I am left to my devices, engaging with my family and the community on my own terms. I spend a lot of time with the people in my compound, but I never am forced to. Needless to say, this is wonderful. I am often told by others that they cannot have a minute to themselves. This is not my problem.
The problem becomes when summer arrives. Of the seven people who live at times in my compound, two are students. They are gone until October at the earliest. The remaining five includes my host uncle, who is blind and does not leave his room, in addition to only living here part-time. That leaves four, but that number contains my host sister/work counterpart, who bolts for the big city of Thiès each year in early July to see her husband and children. Though I don’t blame her, she will not return until November.
Who remains? Well besides me, there is my host mother, who is a lovely woman probably about 60 years of age, but not the world’s greatest conversationalist. The other person, my 6-year old nephew, who while entertaining, doesn’t really supply any adult companionship. Essentially, the tumbleweed rolls through my house right about now.
This isn’t the worst of things. I plan on taking the GRE when I vacation in America in August, and this gives me plenty of time to study. I can take practice tests to my heart’s content without worrying about neglecting the people I live with, or them arriving and interrupting me. It also gives me time to watch television on my laptop secretly in my hut without feeling guilty (I know, tough life).
In the past week, I finished up home visits for the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship Program. A home visit is exactly what it sounds like: you visit the family to see their level of support for their daughter’s education as well as to accurately understand their economic state. Doing my last visit in Dabo, the father offered me his daughter, which unfortunately is exactly the attitude we are trying to combat with this program. There’s still time for him to learn.
Before I go, I’ll leave you with a strange story from a little while back. I was speaking with one of the students at the high school in Dabo, and he informed me that the United States never landed on the moon. “They fabricated it,” he said. Wondering where he managed to track down this conspiracy theory, I asked him where he had heard this. “My teacher,” he replied.
After a year-plus in a village, you start to have an existential crisis. How you choose to deal with this is the difference between going crazy and staying sane. I’d like to think I’m more on the sane side, but life has taught me that we are the worst judges of our own sanity.
Why does this crisis occur? There are I imagine, many reasons, a few of which I’ll spell out here:
1) You lose all sense of time. Your first year at site, you live by landmarks. Soon you’ll be at the 4th of July, or In-Service Training, or your sector’s summit. This is followed by Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and the granddaddy of them all, WAIST (the West African Invitational Soccer Tournament). After this, there is nothing. I’m currently at 4 months without landmarks, and that’s where the grind sets in. It’s a similar feeling to that which happens when you’ve been at a job and all the novelty wears off, except the job is living in a village and not speaking English.
2) You haven’t left the country in far too long. Perspective disappears at this point. I’m phenomenally impressed with volunteers who never leave Senegal in their Peace Corps service, because I took a week off in November, and I’m still feeling the itch to get out of here. Even when work is great, you need to know the outside world still exists. And you don’t. This is reason #1 I’m going to America at the end of the summer.
3) Work isn’t taking off like you’d hoped. I was having this particular crisis about three weeks ago, wondering what to do with myself when school let out for the summer. Faced with months of searching and lethargy, a feeling I went through last year when trying to determine my long-term village goals, l thankfully had an idea fall into my lap (I’ll explain later). We all came here to be productive and help our communities. In the first part of your service, you know you have plenty of time left, and that you are focused on integrating. In the second half, you need to get work done, or why else are you here?
For those of you less interested in existential crises, and more interested in my professional duties, a brief rundown of my current work. I am finishing up in the next couple of days interviews and home visits for the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship program in Dabo, a long-standing Peace Corps Senegal program which helps keep high-performing, low-income Senegalese female students in school by paying for school fees and buying school supplies. I participated in this program last year, helping my neighbor Meg, who had already started in on this when I arrived.
After three interviews the past two days, I am halfway through a four-interview day, the first of which was about 8 miles away this morning. This was a student who lives during the school year in Dabo, before returning to her village upon the close of school. If any of you remember my neighbor Kelly, this village, Bassoum, is adjacent to her. Because there is no cell phone reception in Bassoum, I biked out this morning, unsure if Aissatou would be there for me to interview, or whether I would need to bike back out tomorrow and try it all again. Fortuitously, she was there, and her family fed me a nice breakfast. All was well.
As a male volunteer interviewing female students of an age acceptable for marriage in Senegal, this can be a little awkward. During just about every interview, either when walking to the student’s house, or sitting there conducting the interview, I’m asked “Is this your wife?” I’m sure if there was an American who married a local girl they would have all heard, but yet they still ask the question. It is at this moment that I need to bring up that I am not interested in marrying a child, and that this girl needs to stay in school.
On another work-related note, we are spending much of the month of July doing neighborhood-by-neighborhood malaria causeries (a word which I’m not sure translates into English, but is essentially a public teaching session). We’re still working on the logistics, but hopefully we can ensure people are sleeping under mosquito nets, making homemade mosquito repellent, understand the causes/symptoms and are minimizing their and their families’ risk of acquiring malaria. We are hoping to do the same thing with HIV/AIDS afterward, but in all likelihood that will have to wait until September (also known as after Ramadan).
This project came about after attending a women’s group meeting just over three weeks ago. For those of you not living in Senegal, a women’s group is exactly what it sounds like: a group of women who get together regularly and work on projects. It could be a large-scale soap making project, fabric-producing, really anything they want to do. I had been asked repeatedly to come to this group’s meetings, but hadn’t been able to due to scheduling conflicts.
Upon arriving, I was asked if I could help them get money for chairs, tables, notebooks, and other materials. I declined, since I cannot in fact do such things. Then they asked, “What can you do for us?” This is a question that originally infuriated me. After all, Peace Corp volunteers are supposed to be working on community-driven projects, using our resources and knowledge to work on projects the community wants. But I’ve learned that this is just how things work in Senegal. It’s not meant to be rude, it’s just something we have to get used to (#1 on the list of things to get used to: No one asks nicely for anything, or exercises, they just say “Give me your bike,” or, “Bring me the chair”).
I went through the description of every possible Peace Corps sector/project, after which they decided they wanted me to buy fencing for a dilapidated garden, so that they could use it once more. Unsure of my feelings for this project, I agreed to at least look at their space, not committing to anything. Upon arriving the next day to look at the garden, I was told the garden was on hold, and the new idea was to do malaria and HIV/AIDS causeries. The new idea being more up my alley, I gladly accepted.
When I have reliable (re: not hut) internet, I will post about the 2nd Inaugural Dabo Girl’s Health and Leadership Day, since I want to share the photos with all of you.
Thanks for reading!
On Monday morning, I arrived at my elementary school to discuss with them our plans for expanding our tree nursery. While about to leave, one of the people in the office mentioned to me, “This afternoon we have a magician coming. It’s 100 cfa,” to which I responded, “Absolutely.”
First off, 100 cfa (or West African francs), is less than 20 cents. Secondly, what better things do I have to do than see a magician performing in Dabo? I make all my major and minor life decisions based on one simple question: What would I regret more, doing something, or not doing it? In this case, the alternative was a long bike ride, or talking with my family. I had to see the magician.
The magician was supposed to start at 4 PM, and had this been a year ago, I probably would have shown up at 4. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve been burned by this before. I show up at 5, and the magician didn’t start until 5:20. He started off by leading the children in a song for virtually 10 minutes. I’ve never seen a magician do this before, but I’ve also never seen a magician in Senegal until this week.
His entire act consisted of three illusions. The first two were common tricks in America. More or less. After calling a student up on stage, the magician had him swallow a razor blade. Or at least that’s what we were supposed to think. After proving to us that it was in the student’s mouth, then proving that he had swallowed it, the magician started to wave a giant brush of imitation hair. To be fair, it could have been real hair. I simply have no idea.
What followed was five minutes of singing, also involving numerous pat-downs of the students, the kind of which would never be allowed in America. The trick ended with the magician pulling a razor blade out of the student’s bellybutton. I don’t believe he actually did this, but that’s what we’re supposed to believe.
The second trick was something I’ve seen many times in the good ole U.S. of A, but again, with singing and a great deal of call-and-response. The magician put 100 cfa in the palms of three students whose hands were clasped together, and after some magic words and more flaunting of the hairy brush, it appeared across the room in another student’s closed fist.
It is the last and final trick that I’d like to make mention of now. I’ve seen many magicians in the United States, but nothing I’ve seen could possibly measure up to the bizarre nature of this trick.
The magician began by bringing out a frog. This is important for many reasons, most prominent of which is that Senegalese people (or at least Pulaars), are terrified of frogs. I don’t mean just that they don’t like them, but that they scream like little schoolchildren and run away. The magician put the frog in a bag being held by one of the students, who was doing his best not to look or show visible fear.
Next the magician asked for a cigarette. He lit the cigarette, took on small puff, and then placed it in the bag with the frog. Almost immediately afterward, we saw smoke coming from the bag. It did not look like the smoke caused by a burning bag, but like the smoke one sees when casually smoking a cigarette. We were all wondering what was happening, and it was at that instant that the illusionist revealed his trick: the frog was smoking the cigarette.
It would be easy for you to think at this point that the frog simply had the cigarette in his mouth. In fact, that’s what I thought. Until I watched it smoke the entire thing right in front of us.
Subsequently, the cigarette-smoking frog was brought dangerously close to the boy’s rear end, before I saw something I never hope to see again. In Senegal, things happen that would never be tolerated in America. This is one of those things.
The magician stuck his hand in one of the student’s back pockets and dug around. Then he did the same thing to the other pocket. He started frisking the student, around the crotch, around his ass, his upper thighs. He lifted up the student’s shirt and looked down his pants. He grabbed his ass. All in a very aggressive manner. My only thought was “Dear God this would be a lawsuit in America.”
The trick ended with the magician pulling many sticks of gum from the student’s behind, an outlandish end to a peculiar hour. On my way out, they were giving out those sticks of gum, but I just couldn’t bring myself to say yes.
Just over a year ago, I arrived in the community of Dabo, a newly minted volunteer. Because, at the time, there were two incoming groups of trainees each year, and Peace Corps is a two-year commitment, there were four groups (or “stages”) serving at any given time. Thus, I was a freshman.
Because each sector comes in at the same time each year, the stage one year ahead of mine, the only other Health/Environmental Education group, were juniors. They seemed impossibly wise despite only being here a year. There were three of them in Kolda: Amanda, Martin and Olivia.
Ten months after that, Olivia finished her service and left the country. About a month and a half after that, Amanda and Martin left their villages and moved to Dakar, where they will be for at least a year serving as third-year volunteers working out of the Peace Corps office.
I cannot express to you how exceptionally strange this feels. When I first came to Dabo, I had three more-or-less equidistant neighbors: Kelly, who was in my Pre-Service Training language group, Meg, who left her village in October and moved to our regional capital of Kolda, and Amanda.
For both Kelly and Amanda, Dabo is their “road town.” To those of you who’ve never had the privilege of living in a town where the only form of motorized transportation is buses/cars that only travel along the national road, a “road town” is just what it sounds like. It’s the last semblance of civilization on the path to the bush. And by civilization, I mean a place with a boutique that sells tea and sugar and a few women who sell bean sandwiches (which are EXACTLY what they sound like). My community has more than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s where you often eat breakfast, wait for buses into your regional capital, and do any shopping that you can.
So naturally Amanda (and to a lesser extent Meg) were my sources of all vital information about Dabo. “Amanda, can you buy paint in Dabo?” “Meg, where should I buy a bean sandwich?” “Amanda, tell me who to leave my bike with at lumo?” (Lumo is a term for a weekly market held in decrepit wooden structures that offers such thrills as frozen hibiscus juice, beignets and hats that say “Obama for President of Space”).
I have no doubt that this was annoying for them. In fact, I imagine it was like how upperclassmen feel towards freshman arriving on campus. “Where’s the dining hall?” “Where do I buy my textbooks?” “What classes should I take?” And perhaps most importantly, “Where’s the party tonight?”
Of course, Peace Corps is not college. Your “neighbors,” who typically live anywhere from 3 to 15 miles away, you see intermittently. I see my closest neighbors about once a week, and have little idea what they are up to on a daily basis. There are 200 volunteers in Senegal, a country of 13 million people, and though we may be overrepresented proportionally in Kolda (where there are slightly over 30 volunteers), that is still over a stretch of road about 145 miles long. Moreover, you interact with people from older stages a heck of a lot more than you befriend upperclassmen in college (especially as a freshman male).
In the fall, I had my first experience with a group of volunteers leaving. But they were the seniors when I was a freshman, and while it was sad to see them go, it always seemed as if their departure was an inevitability. After all, I knew when I arrived I had just five months with them. We had good times, but it was always understood that the clock would run out soon. They went back to America, or moved to Dakar/Kolda, and I became a sophomore, despite still feeling too green to make that leap.
When it came time for the new seniors to leave in April/early May, it was the first time I was fully conscious of the departures. These were people I had spent the entirety of my Peace Corps service with, who had seen me at both my best and my worst, who I had met when they had helped out at my training a year before. I had celebrated holidays with them, spent quiet evenings at regional houses, and spent significant amounts of time with them in my (and their) villages.
Undeniably, part of the separation anxiety is the fear of the unknown. Can the new stage, their replacements, possibly ever live up to their legacy? I soon realized that those leaving had certainly felt the same way about us a year before, and I think we more than held our own. I met some of the new people, particularly my new neighbors in Kolda, and my fears were alleviated.
The primary difference though between leaving college and leaving Peace Corps is that in Peace Corps, you can’t go home again. People eventually come back and visit, or become Peace Corps Response Volunteers doing projects in Senegal for a few months, but it’s not like when I went back to Dartmouth for Homecoming, Winter Carnival or Green Key (and yes, I made it to every one of those my first year away).
This past Saturday, I welcomed five other volunteers to my home for a “Lumo Party,” which consists of going to the weekly market, buying some vegetables, maybe a chicken if you’re feeling flush with cash. Then you eat lunch, hang out and chat until it gets cool enough for everyone to bike home.
A year ago, we were doing the same thing, but back then Kelly and I were the new volunteers being welcomed by our older (only in Peace Corps terms, since I was older than all of them) and presumably wiser brethren. This year, I had seniority over all, and I was the one regaling everyone with stories of my first year in Senegal.
Our new volunteers are great, and there are three of them close enough to regularly come to lumo. I imagine we will have plenty of fun here in Dabo and the surrounding area in the next year, and then they will be the wise old souls welcoming my replacement next May. In many ways, it feels like being in a fraternity all over again. When you are pledging, everything is new. You go to your first weekly meeting and can barely believe what is happening around you (especially because in my case I was fasting for Yom Kippur). In Senegal, you get to your village and you turn to those around you, because you don’t know what is normal and how to react. Everything’s a novelty, and while that feeling never goes away, it certainly dissipates over time. You learn how life works. You learn how not to be shocked by what goes on around you. You know how to bargain for the baggage fee on a vehicle.
Time progresses and you eventually reach a place you never thought you would. People turn to you for advice, and you realize that your relationship with them will eventually develop into the relationship you had with their predecessors when you came here just 365 short days before.
Wednesday marked the one-year mark since I moved to Dabo. In that time, I’ve read somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 books, visited 13 of my stagemate’s sites, took almost every possible mode of Senegalese transport, gone on vacation to Germany, had a visitor from America, rode a camel, and saw Akon in concert. It’s been a busy 365 days.
The year-mark unfortunately brings back the worst time of year: hot season. I left Kolda less than two weeks ago with life at a manageable temperature (somewhere in the 110 degree range). I’m defining manageable as “you don’t sweat every hour of the day, even if you’re simply sitting in the shade.” When I returned to Kolda on Sunday, manageable season was over.
The sweating is far from the worst part of hot season. The worst part is the scheduling. I live my life here on my bike. If I can’t bike, I can’t do work. At least not as much as I’d like. In hot season, all work must be accomplished by 10 AM (11 if you’re a masochist), at which point you press pause until after 4 PM.
Thursday, in an effort to be more active, I decided to hop on my bike bright and for a ride of somewhere between 30 and 40 kilometers (19-25 miles). My back tire wasn’t as firm as I would have liked, but I figured I’d just make sure to inflate it when I got back.
About 2-3 kilometers out of Dabo, I knew something was wrong. However, I figured I’d just bike a few more kilometers, turn around, and go home with a partial bike ride. After 6 kilometers, I was about to turn around, when I realized I had no air whatsoever in my tire. Time to walk home. This had happened to me once before, but that time I was barely a mile outside of Dabo, so little harm done.
Ten minutes later, a charet pulled up next to me and stopped (a charet is essentially an animal-drawn cart, either horse or donkey) and asked me if I’d like a ride. Thank God for Senegalese hospitality. We strapped my bike down to the charet and galloped off. Half an hour, I was home. My cousin and I set out to examine the tube in my back tire, at which point he found about six holes, an inch or two separating each one, and essentially said to me, “There’s no way we’re fixing this. Just buy a new one.” Then he found a spiky piece of metal in the tire itself. We found the source of the problem.
Moments like these are when I’m glad my town has over 5000 inhabitants and is on the national road. I just went down to my neighborhood hardware store, which stocks plenty of spare bike parts. It’s almost like being in America, except that buying anything is a complete crapshoot.
A few days ago, someone asked me what spending a year here has done to me. I had to pause, because truth be told, I barely remember what I was like in the United States. That’s not to say I’m all that different, but it’s a part of my life that seems foreign when I’m living in a hut and barely speaking English. But as I thought about it, I realized that things I find commonplace these days would have terrified me a year ago. Walking to a hardware store and communicating in Pulaar that I needed a new tube for my bike (and you better not rip me off on the price!), hopping on a horse charet in middle of nowhere, biking hundreds of kilometers because someone asked you to.
I remember having a conversation sometime last summer with a friend from home who said to me, “When you get back you should meet this girl, she’s adventurous like you.” I’ve never found myself to be all that adventurous, and said so, to which my friend replied, “Dude, you live in a hut.” Point taken.
Fast forward to this past week.
One of the many wonderful things about Peace Corps is that everything happens at roughly the same point year after year, so now after one year at site, it was time to install (bring to site) the newest group of volunteers. I was sitting in the car with our Training Director, talking about his career working with Peace Corps, and he said to me, “This is the best job you could ever have. No two days are ever the same. It’s challenging and not always enjoyable, but it pushes you to grow and after doing this, everything else will be easier.”
He said this to me just after we had just dropped off a newly-minted volunteer in her village, where they had given her a formal baptism/naming ceremony, holding a cloth over her and announcing her name to the village (there’s usually a head shaving involved, but our Safety and Security Coordinator put the kibosh to that quickly). I could see she was overwhelmed, but if you can get through 500 strangers fussing over you in a language you’re only beginning to understand, at a party thrown in your honor that lasts eight hours, then job interviews or major life changes won’t knock the wind out of you.
If I’ve learned anything from this job, it’s to get over your own hang-ups and fears. It’s terrifying to give your first public speech in Pulaar, to explain a complicated nutrition talk in your third language when you haven’t even mastered your second, to buy supplies and construct a garden when you’ve never done so and are struggling against established cultural norms.
But these things aren’t all that difficult. The only thing that holds me back here is my own feelings of inadequacy. You won’t communicate perfectly, but that’s not what’s important. If I can get over my feeling embarrassed, the rest of the job is still tough, but manageable.
Probably because of the language barrier, and the slower pace of life here, I feel much more patient than I ever did in the United States. Life in the U.S. is characterized by order, while in Senegal, it is chaos. Though I miss the order of America, I don’t doubt I’ll miss the disorder when I return home.
When I left America over 14 months ago, I felt stuck in the mud, broken down by the aimlessness of my life since graduation. The future terrified me. I still don’t know what the future holds, but after being here, it’s more exciting than distressing.