Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Magic, or medicine, comes in many forms in Senegal, from powders to paper to animal pieces. People wear bands or shells, burn objects, eat things, and bathe in others. At worst this business can be lethal. A woman recently died because the powders she was given to force a miscarriage poisoned her. Magic can be found in common items like padlocks if handled with the right intent. I have commisioned a few arm bands to be made to protect people from sickness or evil, but for the right price they can be made to give people the power to become invisible, make people invulnerable to bullets, and all sorts of other positive affects. The less common an animal skins the greater its strength.

Before a recent trip up to Dakar my host mother asked if I would bring carry something to her daughters living there. I despise the woman, so I tried to refuse, insisting that I would not have time to travel around Dakar and find her daughters (cab drivers don't know where to find streets, let alone addresses, so it's impossible to get to a house if you don't know where it is.) but she told me they would come to meet me. I argued that I didn't have much space in my bag, but she promised it would be a small package. I gave in, and on the day I was to leave she handed me a plastic bag full of "medicine" for her daughters. I asked if they were sick. "No," she said, "It's just that sometimes children need medicine made by their mother."

In the bag was one very leaky bottle. She said if I just held it upright in my lap for the twelve hour ride it would not be a problem. I told her I couldn't do that and tried to return the bag to her, but she started calling neighbors over to see how little I was willing to do for her, so finally I just biked away, carefully holding the bag in one hand.

I went to the Peace Corps house where I met another volunteer who was going to Dakar with me. We tore into the bag to get a closer look at the medicine and fix the bottle. Through the bag I had been able to feel soft roundish items, and I was concerned we would find bird bodies. Instead, we found three bags filled with dark powders, a page of Arabic writing, and a bottle sealed only by a black plastic bag tied to the top. We poured the contents into a water bottle with a screw-on lid, hopefully not breaking any magical connections. We sniffed and closely examined the liquid. As far as we could figure it was water with bits of black plastic bag inside. Hurrah for a new use for old bags? I wonder if the magical power of that part of the package was supposed to be its ability to force a toubob to hold and worry about it for the duration of a long and uncomfortable car ride.

The next time I was going to Dakar my mom asked me to bring more medicine to my sisters. While she asked this, relatives visiting from Dakar were sitting in the compound. Even my Senegalese boss agrees that a primary purpose of this "medicine" was to demonstrate her control over her toubob.

Seck, the gardener with whom I work, has frequently spoken of magic. When his children and wife have been sick, in addition to buying western medicines, he has traveled far and paid hefty sums for special locally made medicines and talismans. He believes that the garden has failed to give him profit because of magic done by his enemies, and his spiritual leader agrees. He found a U-lock buried in the garden and thinks this item responsible for his poor harvest.

A few days ago he suddenly turned to me and, with great remorse, told me he knew why he and Jenny, the last volunteer, did not get along. He told me that Pisco's mother was doing magic against Seck. Seck told me that Pisco's mother has killed all of their relatives who dared visit because she does not want to share the land with them. He said she was jealous of his relationship with Jenny, so she waited until the wind was blowing towards him and then burned some powders. The smoke came to him and caused all his troubles. He said Pisco's mother then bewitched Jenny and forced her to wear a magical arm band that would set her against Seck. Seck was pained by the fact that it took him so long to figure this out, and that it was too late to tell Jenny that he understood what happened and held nothing against her. I promised to tell Jenny, and assured him she would see their falling out was the work of that evil woman. Pisco is a painter, a good gardener, and a friendly and generous man, all of which makes Seck jealous. His mother is an ancient woman who is always extremely sweet and gentle when I visit. Jenny had her arm band made and had nothing at all put inside it. But I've come to care for Seck, and if this version of things purifies his memory of Jenny, smoothing over the year of animosity, he's welcome to it.

A good friend of mine lives in a village rife with magic, and she says she has seen people healed through it. She is not completely sold on it, but between what she has observed and the fact that people are sent to her village's medicine men by western-trained doctors and nurses, she believes there's something to it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My dear friend Ellia has pointed out that I haven't said a thing about what I'm doing after Peace Corps. I've thought of this blog as a forum for my Senegal life, so I haven't been talking about life afterwards, but in truth, post-Senegal life has been a huge preoccupation lately.
So, the plan: I will fly out of Senegal on April 25th and go to London. After three days of museums and parks, I am going to Ireland, where I plan to attend a few music camps, hike and lounge in gorgeous settings, and study fiddling in small town pubs. Then comes the even more exciting part. After a month in Ireland I will meet Ellia, otherwise known as Sweet Soubrette (www.sweetsoubrette.com), the famed ukuleleist, in Brussels, and we will begin a two week tour, performing in venues and on the streets of Brussels, Paris, Marseille, and anywhere the wind takes us. I've been listening to her album constantly, playing along with it, and upping my violin practice schedule in hopes that when we meet in Europe I'll be able to sound good next to her.
Ellia and I have been close friends for twenty years now. Seeing her after Senegal would be great. Seeing her in Europe would be a thrill. Seeing her in Europe, working on music with her, and playing for audiences... I don't see how my close-of-service trip could get any better.

While I was at a party last week I spotted a woman with elaborately henna'd feet. I've been wanting to have this done to me for almost two years. I pointed her out to my sister, Assu, and told her I wanted her to paint me up. She offered to take me to a salon, but I was picturing something more intimate, so she agreed to do it. We set a date and I gave her money to buy the supplies.

When I got home last night Assu was cooking tea (a seemingly endless process of pouring it from one shot glass to another and back into the little kettle). On seeing me she passed off the job to another kid, and she and Nene, my older sister, sequestered themselves in Nene's room. After about fifteen minutes they sent out a little kid to summon me.
I took off my shoes outside the house, entered the front area, pushed aside the curtain, and found my sisters sitting on the floor slicing medical tape into thin strips on a metal platter. They beckoned me in, took one look at my feet, and sent me back out to wash them. Everyone picks on my foot-washing. When I came back they started taping me up.
Nene took my feet and ran full strips of tape along the sides like racing stripes. Then, thinking better of it, she went back and sliced the tape horizontally and pulled the pieces apart, giving me parallel stripes. While she did this, Assu took the thin strips off the metal platter and wrapped them around my fingertips. Nene used my free fingers to hold the roll of tape, and she cut off thin pieces and connected the stripes on my feet, making a series of squares.

After giving me stripes on my fingertips, toes, and the sides of my feet, they moved on to my palms. I had gathered by now that Nene and Assu were not terrribly experienced at this stuff. The tape was painstakingly but sloppily cut, and the placements were a bit haphazard. I caught the pair of them exchanging nervous looks when it came time to do my palms. They had no clear idea on what to do, and offered to write my boyfriend's name or mine. I passed on that, so they gave me squiggles and Xes.
The taping process to a long long time, and we were all yawning by the time they finished. Happily, the smearing process went quickly and involved a bit of a foot massage, as Assu rubbed the henna paste into my skin. I thought we were nearly done when they started applying the henna, but there was still the wrapping. They cut strips from plastic bags and individually tied off each of my fingers and toes, and then put my hands and feet into bags. They told me to put on socks, but I couldn't manage with my coated and mittened hands, so Nene had to put the socks on me. Before I could get into bed I had to call Assu and ask her to take the band out of my hair. I slept poorly, dreaming the henna didn't take or that I ripped off the bags in my sleep and my sisters were disappointed in me.
In the morning the process surprised me by not being over. Assu helped me scrape the henna off my skin, reminding me to be careful not to remove the tape. People had been telling me the henna would color my skin black, and they were excited about how good that would look on white skin, so I was pretty surprised to find myself bright orange. When we finally had all the henna off, Assu smeared a mixture that looked like water and large salt crystals all over my hands and feet. I have heard that sometimes this process involves rat poison. Already committed, I chose not to ask what was in the mix. I kept this on until it dried, and then Nene gave me permission to take off the tape and wash my skin.
I am still pretty orange, but the tops of my fingers and toes are black. All day long people have been complimenting me. Family friends, strangers on the street, they all seem surprised and delighted to see me henna'd. I get the impression it is taken as a sign of my fondness for the culture. I'll wave at people, and I know they can't see the design, only the color, but they'll enthusiastically tell me how pretty it looks.

I've hit the "sweet spot." After nearly two years in Kolda I am comfortable with my Pulaar, I have friends, I know where to go, who to avoid, how to joke with people, how to take care of myself, and I'm involved with successful gardening projects. I can greet a woman who is lounging on a mat under a mango tree, sit with her, eat with her and her kids when someone brings over a lunch bowl, and join her in teasing the people who walk past. I'm comfortable. Also, knowing I'll be leaving soon, and that I am doing things here for the last times, has a way of making things sweeter.

Yesterday afternoon Seck didn't come to the garden. A friend of his is visiting from Spain, so it was just me, his daughters, and two younger kids. All we had to do was water, and with a hose it's really a one person job. If we had a well we'd all be working and would probably finish faster, and we would never have to worry about the water getting shut off. Of course, then our hands would be far more callused and we'd be fantasizing about the ease of hoses. We tried to divide the work by using the watering can, but since the water has to come from the hose it doesn't save anything, so eventually Nafi took over watering and the rest of us just messed around.

Awa, the kids, and I chased one another around the garden trying to grab other peoples's hands and force them to hit themselves. We danced, pretended to threaten one another with rocks, and threw water. Eventually we mellowed. Awa took over the watering, Nafi sat on a rock, and I sat on the old tire beside her, eventually lowering in it so I could lean back on the inner rim. It was a golden, picturesque scene. The sun was setting, giving us pink and purple clouds and coolish air, Nafi and I were chatting about nothing, and Awa was singing. My coming departure makes me savor and focus more thought on times like these. I was fully at ease in the garden with these kids. It felt like a triumph, a comfort won by almost two years of time and work.

It's so odd that these two years are almost over, and that so much of my life here now reminds me of older parts of my life. Awa's voice took me back to times I've dozed with my head in her lap as she sang to me. The garden itself holds countless memories of interactions with Seck and the range of emotions I've felt while trying gardening techniques, laboring, and lounging here. Finding myself so comfortable sitting in a tire got me thinking about how much tires are part of my life here. I've pulled them out of dumps, had kids retrieve them, bought them off mechanics, transported them, cut them, planted in them, taught people to plant in them, planned days around them, swung from them, bounced on them, sat in them, smelled them burning, and seen them lying everywhere. Chatting in Pulaar makes me remember struggling with Pulaar and feeling so exhausted by it. I'm by no means brilliant at it now, but I can have conversations, hear stories, and not feel the once constant stress from the language.

After the final rains last fall, the Casamance River, which cuts across Kolda, rapidly went down. In the first rainless week it looked as though a dam somewhere downstream had been unblocked. Trees that had spent the summer standing in two feet of water were suddenly on land. The poles that supported the ramshackle walking bridge, the body of which washed away over the summer, became visible again. A month after the rains stopped the river no longer flowed visibly. On a windless day trees and clouds were reflected flawlessly.

The rains here, especially the first few, are much celebrated. Kids and Peace Corps volunteers dance in the street. Everything smells better. The sandy roads become bikeable again. The rains bring mangos, relief from the heat, thrilling thunder, stunning lightening shows, a glowing verdant landscape, mangos, gardening and farming opportunities, and the frequent occasion of being stuck indoors and forced to cozy up with a good book. And something about the rains just feels good. Once the season gets underway the rains come with dramatic, apocolyptic force. My first summer here the winds and pounding rain made me fear for my hut. It's exhilerating to bike through blankets of pouring rain or to wade calf deep down a muddy market road. Last summer I had a nice, "holy cow how did this get to be my life," moment one night while biking home in a thunder storm. After one especially loud crash the electricity went out. From then on I could only see the path during bursts of lightening. In the absence of lightening I was left in pitch black darkness. I sped as fast as I could during the moments of visibility, trying to sight any rocks, parked cars, or deep muddy sand traps on the path ahead, and then I pedaled slowly and hopefully during the brief dark spells. I made it home feeling triumphant.

I have delighted in the rains, and both years here I eagerly watched the river as a measure. Because it rains to the east before it hits Kolda, the river swells slightly before our rains begin. I remember stopping my bike on the bridge in town to gaze down at the dry river bed, then the muddy river bed, then the gorgeous sight of water forming a continuous line crossing under the bridge, and finally the day when it first actively flowed west. I watched the river rise, covering the garbage, the riverside gardens, my reading spot under my chosen tree, and eventually the footbridge. It was reminiscent of the thrill of watching snow accumulate.

Signs of our distance now from the last rains abound. The ground is littered with dead leaves, the cows, who thrive on rainfed growth, are showing their rib bones, the sandy roads are getting impassible on bike, kids playing soccer create field-wide auras of kicked-up dust visible and smellable from far off, we had to lengthen the well's rope to make the bucket reach the sinking water, and every day is hotter than the last. (I got a kick out of a new volunteer asking, "Is this as hot as it gets?" We're just getting started.) And, most of all, the river is very low now. At its lowest point it's a muddy garbage dump. There's a thin coating of green grass, the only grass in town, on either side of the river showing how much it has recently sunk. I have barely a month left in Kolda, and every day now I can see the water line changing and the river growing more narrow.

I have such mixed feelings about leaving Senegal. Simply, it's really really strange to know I'm going soon. Often I can forget about it, or at least quiet the idea, but the sight of the dried up river, which I won't be here to see refill, is like a kitchen timer that has nearly ticked down to zero, and it always brings me back to the fact of my imminent departure, which I'm at a loss of how to deal with.

My host family's cat, Aqua, trotted into my hut last night after I turned off the light. She's taken to visiting me as I'm going to bed. I love this habit of hers. I began petting her and felt something stuck to her hind quarters. I turned on the light and discovered it wasn't to so much as in. There was a plastic bag protruding from her anus.

Everything here comes in plastic bags. Juice, vegetables, coffee, peanut butter, and anything else you want, is available in a plastic bag. Take it out of the bag, and it leaves a bag with some tasty residue left in it. The poor cat must not have been able to resist the temptation.

I tried to pull it out, but she emphatically refused. I snipped it off, close to her body, so that no one else could tug, and so it wouldn't get caught on anything. Never has a bag smelled so foul.

I had a nightmare about the plastic getting tangled in her intestines, but when she hopped onto my windowsil in the morning, she was as merry as ever and had no plastic sticking out of her. She's not too bright. In a few minutes I caught her chewing on one of my old bags of peanut butter.

Garbage is everywhere. I recently saw the classic example of the danger of having no trash management. A cheefuly little girl was playing on the rubbish heap beside her mother's boutique and came back holding an old water bottle, a D battery, and a syringe with a very long needle on it. The more official doctors have disposal methods: they drop syringes down their toilet holes. This one probably came off the black market.

The garbage system here has it advantages. Everything gets reused many many times. One person's broken bucket might be the perfect plastic for another person to melt onto an old oil drum and patch its holes. Old powdered milk bags can be new gardening containers. In the US, garbage goes where most of us will never see it, so there's no chance of some discarded object inspiring a passerby to adopt it for a new use. Here, the average trash heap has extremely little that is still in good enough shape to be identified, excluding plastic bags.

I came to the garden once with an art magazine. A featured photographer had a spread of photos of garbage. In one picture it was tires as far as the eye could see. Another had couches. My gardener's daughter was most struck by the landfill overflowing with cell phones. She asked what was going on in the picture, and when I explained that they were all broken, she scoffed. "Send them to Africa," she said. "They may be broken to you, but we'd fix them." A few months later I found my cell phone in a bed sheet that I had soaked and was washing. The phone wouldn't turn on anymore. I gave it up for broken and bought a new one. It doesn't work as well as it once did, but the guy I gave it to found a way to fix it enough for basic use.

I spent December on vacation in Italy. It was wonderful as European vacations are meant to be, so I'll just give it a quick description. Mom and Jim met me in Rome. I had my biggest taste of culture shock at the airport when I found myself wanting to talk with strangers and realized they were shying away from me. I was acting like a Pulaar, expecting everyone to be willing to chat and reveal personal information. I nearly teased a taciturn fellow about my being his wife, just to get the conversation going, before I caught myself. After this, everything felt familiar and natural.

It was great spending time with Mom and Jim. We visited the Pope and got his blessings, toured the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Coloseum, the Capuchin monks, and many other fine sights. The food was stunning, and the Christmas decorations and markets were charming. My mother kept a daily journal which I hope she will post.

After two weeks in Rome I was left on my own, and I traveled up to Florence. The train was ridiculously nice. After the potholes, heat, tight quarters, smells, hours and hours, and hours of travel in Senegal, which happens on no schedule and only takes place when the car fills, it was a pleasure to have a spacious, cool, smooth, swift, and timely mode of transit that had a bathroom on board. Not to mention the scenery. I gasped at the sight of snow.

I passed a few days in Florence's museums, my favorite of which was a small one filled with mosaics, and I took a day trip to Pisa (which is so much more than just a leaning tower). I found that at least half of the street vendors in Florence were Senegalese. It gave me a kick to be able to practice my Pulaar, but none of them seemed especially surprised by it. I can go down the path from my hut and find people amazed at a white girl speaking Pulaar in a region where the majority is Pulaar, but in Italy it didn't much phase anyone.

From Florence I traveled to Venice with a few people I met at the hostel. We arrived at night, and I think this is the best way to meet this city. It felt like we were entering a majestic and lyrical world. After the intense touring of Rome and Florence, I meandered around Venice and spent a long time lost. The highlights here were the pigeons, the church with a wall to wall mosaic floor, the Guggenheim museum, the island of Murano, a visual candy store, where nearly every store is a stained glass shop or factory, and the other travelers at the hostel.

Next was Cinque Terra, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I arrived on Christmas eve. On Christmas day the Brazilians who were staying with me at the hostel and I hiked the trail along the coast, past the narrow shelves of vineyards, and up and down the hills. Christmas day was the perfect day to do the trip. There was nearly no one on the trail besides us and the fat felines who sat preening at every picnic spot. I spent the next week at Cinque Terra and saw the five towns and the trail steadily grow more crowded. I hiked on side trails, sat by the ocean, cooked broccoli and mushrooms with every meal, and attended a klezmer and a gospel concert. LOvely!

The day before I was to leave Italy I took a train to Milan where the Brazilians met me, gave me a three hour tour of the city, and took me to their apartment. They live with a couple and their new baby. I was received with open arms and great warmth. We had no one common language, but using English, French, Portugese, and hands and grins, we were able to joke and compare life in Brazil, Senegal, and Italy. It surprised me how sweet it felt to be at home again with a western family.

Getting home was a small fiasco. Senegal has an agreement with Europe and the US about not letting people enter Senegal without proof of residency or proof of intent to leave within three months. I learned this from the woman at the airport who refused to issue me a boarding pass. My Peace Corps passport and ID would not suffice, and no airline nearby sold easily refundable tickets. My request to see a manager brought me a man who yelled at me about the US treatment of Mexican immigrants. When the plane was due to leave in thirty minutes, the woman finally printedme a ticket to Lisbon, where I was scheduled to have long layover. When I tried to get my ticket for Senegal in Lisbon this woman told me Milan had called about me. International sensation, dying to sneak into Senegal and wreck the place, am I. She told me to wait a while. I couldn't get through to Senegal, so I called my mom for advice. She phoned Peace Corps and got someone in DC who said, "Yes, this happens. Sometimes volunteers have to wait a few days before they can return to their countries." And yet it is never mentioned in training, and we are not given any papers to satisfy the airlines. Cute. The head of security in Senegal was more willing to help, but he had no luck speaking to airline personnel. Eventually I found a merry man who decided to give me a New Year's present, and he overroad the computer program to issue me my boarding pass. When I got to the airport in Milan I wasn't thrilled about returning to Senegal, but the ordeal got me so wound up that I leapt with joy when I finally got the pass. I returned home to Senegal in a far more gleeful and grateful state than I would have otherwise.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Earlier this week my sister, Nene, came to my window while I was eating dinner and tossed me a mint sucking candy, inviting me to a baby-naming ceremony. In place of invitations families buy bags of candy and hand them out with verbal notice of the upcoming party.
I was running around this morning, going to a garden and visiting a friend at her hut, so I didn't get to the party until after lunch. By the time I arrived there were about two hundred sitting together in an outline of a square in the sandy road outside the newborn's compound, fully blocking the road. The women were all dressed in fancy outfits, most in bright oranges, reds, and blues, and many had their faces done up with an extreme amount of make-up. The beauty standard here involves a lot of heavy face paint. Everyone had their hair done up in new mesh. I sat with some friends of mine who were selling bags of frozen juice to the other guests and helped distribute the bags to people who were passing their money down the line of chairs.
The newborn's family is wealthy, so instead of a simple gathering garnished with some cookies, or a bigger one with a drummer, this party had a stereo going inside the compound and a live band setting up outside on the edge of the square where we all sat. While the band tuned women brought out buckets of water which they sprinkled on the sand; if they didn't dampen the ground the deep loose sand would make for awkward dancing and a cloud of dust.
My friends teased me, telling me my boyfriend was here so I better plan on dancing well or else they'd lure him away. They said something about putting my name on a list, but I thought they were just joking. However, when the band finally got started a singer performed one verse of a song and then said that before anything else could happen Dienabou Ba had to get up and dance. I'm used to being the center of attention, but this surprised me. I demured for a bit, but with two hundred people staring at me, the music drawing more by the second, and all waiting for me to dance, I had little choice. After I did a satisfactory amount of wiggling in front of everyone, I took the microphone and sang my friends's names and taunting them, daring them to come dance. They laughed appreciatively, but only much later, after many dancing old women had filled the square, did they rise from their seats.
The band had two electric guitar players, an electric bassist, a drummer, and three singers. The two women singers wore head scarves, as most women here do, and when there were lulls in the dancing they would swing their scarves around and lay them on the ground in front of their friends or atop their heads. This forced their friends to start dancing, either to return the scarf, or to dance with it briefly and then lay it in front of another woman. Aside from the musicians, men were absent. Young boys stood close outside the square, watching. Teenaged boys sat further off, but within eyeshot. Only one male rose to dance, and he did so in a clownish manner.
I left long before the party ended. The music was too loud for me. The band had four gigantic speakers that appeared to be playing at full volume, and the stereo inside the compound sounded like it had a similar set-up. Straw huts and wells all around, but music amplification to put rock stars to shame.

Taking a bike on a subway will never again feel like a hassle, for I have now taken a dog in a sept-place. Alexis left Kolda, and her dog, Guinness, was far too accustomed to Toubob life to be left on her own, so Kristal volunteered to adopt her, and I volunteered to handle transport.
I tried feeding her a tasty bowl of milk and Nyquil before the trip, but she expressed her distaste with a colorful puddle of puke. She was one very awake and frisky puppy when we went to catch a car, and while we were at the garage she slipped out of her leash. Many men and I set off running after her, though after she trotted right past a few men I realized I was the only one actually trying to make contact. Eventually she stopped to relieve herself and I pounced.
I expected the worst in trying to buy a seat for Guinness, and accepting this ahead of time led me to being taken for four times the correct price. Clearly, resignation doesn't help matters. I should've just demanded what was fair for two seats.
Guinness and I sat in the back with one other person. She was beside me, on top of me, bouncing on me, trying to nuzzle people, vocally expressing her views on the road's swiss cheese condition, and occasionally making ominous moves towards the window. Luckily, she's an extremely good natured dog, so pinning her to me and grabbing her by the face to hold her mouth shut brought me no bites.
We spilled out of the car in Kristal's road-town six hours after we'd left the house. We looked at each other with the tired but proud expressions of victorious athletes too beat to do more than acknowledge the win. Then she stretched, yawned, and lay down in the sand. I wanted to do that. Kristal and I sat in the shade, waiting for the heat of the day to pass before we started walking to her village. We attracted a crowd of little girls. We greeted them and chatted briefly with them, but mostly continued our conversaton in English. The girls watched us, and when there were so many that it was hard to get good views of us, they sat between us so we had to lean and twist just to see each other's face.
The day cooled, and the three of us walked out to the village. Guinness, off a leash and in the bush for the first time, was a picture of delight. She ran in the fields, frolicking like her life depended on it. She kept tabs on us, never getting too far away, but for the most part we only saw her when she was an orange and white arc leaping over the weeds.

I just got back from visiting my friend Laura in her village. It's such a pleasure to be in a place where I can speak Pulaar, bask in the beauty of Senegal, and have no work or social stress. I'm never so relaxed as I am in other people's villages. I love lounging in another volunteer's backyard (village volunteers have fenced in land around their toilet holes), out of sight but within earshot of Pulaars and the animals, reading in the shade or having a long rambling conversation. I might do virtually the same thing in Kolda, but never without some level of guilt about excluding the Pulaars. In most villages that I've visited, the locals understand that I have traveled far to talk with my friend, and they might joke about how we ramble on for hours in our fast English, but they appreciate that we need this and might go so far as to instruct my friend on how to be a good host.
We went to the nearby cashew-apple orchard every day. I regret that I did not bring my camera. When Laura gives me her photos I'll load them to this site. The orchard was planted one generation ago on a spot where a few fields meet, making it a sudden burst of trees on an otherwise flat landscape. We would go after lunch, in the heat of the day, so the orchard looked like a heaven-sent oasis. As soon as we got under the leafy awning the temperature dropped significantly. I've only ever bought cashew-apples in town, so I had to be taught to pick them. The first step was obvious: we told the kids who followed us to get us some apples. Then we started hunting along with them, and Laura taught me to scour the ground for small bursts of the red and yellow skins. No one plucks these apples from trees; they are only believed to be ripe if they have fallen. Some of the boys hurried this along by climbing up the trees (vertical, limbless trunks, and the boys looked as if they were walking up stairs) and shaking the high branches until apples rained down. At first I would pick up an apple, see it was half-eaten, and drop it, but Laura and the boys quickly corrected me. The birds only go for the best, so a half-eaten apple is considered a great find.
The orchard's caretaker is a middle-aged deaf man whose father planted the orchard. He sweeps the ground daily, making apples easier to find, and giving snakes, who are attracted to cashew trees, fewer places to hide. He keeps a bucket of water on hand so people can dip in the apples and rinse them off. Of course, before eating an apple one must twist off the cashew. He asks that diners toss these in a pile, and he sells them in town. One time when we came he was collecting honey from the woven structures he had attached to the trees, and another time he and the boys were cutting stalks into thin strips that will be woven into rope. He owns one of the gardens in the village. In all, he and his wife have one of the wealthiest compounds in the village. He was never taught an official sign language, but Laura and I were able to converse with him via the boys, who seemed to be able to communicate perfectly with him.
An NGO helped a womens group in Laura's village start a garden shortly before she came. When they divided plots for this spring's crop Laura asked for a section. She was away when they divided the plots, and saved nothing for her. When they saw she was hurt to be excluded they explained that they thought she would just help with everyone's. The group's leader gave Laura a small corner of her own plot. So, every morning and afternoon she had to go water. I slept through the morning shifts but helped in the afternoon. I loved how the women got such a kick out of me. It wasn't enough that they got one toubob who speaks Pulaar, but now another appears? We exchanged the usual teasings and jokes, and additionally they taunted me about not being able to pull water from the well. So, of course, in I stepped, and in no time was pulling in rhythm with one of the women. Faster than the eye could see, our hands were flying over each other's to pull the rope. The others cheered me on, and delighted at their approval, I insisted on pulling until all the buckets were full. Tom Sawyer and these Pulaar women.
Every morning and every afternoon the women line up by the well, have arguments about the line, pull innumerable buckets of water, and lug the pails to their garden plots. It won't end this ordeal, but I talked to a few of the women about mulching, and this should help. The women got it, and were quick to tell pass it on to the women who were still hauling water. "It'll block the sun and keep the ground wet longer," "the material will decompose and help the soil," "it'll reduce the number of weeds," - it feels so good when they really get it and are excited about it. Once they saw I knew something about gardening they asked if I had any advice on their pest problem. The next day Laura and I brought garlic and soap to the garden, one of her friends brought a pounder, and we made and applied an organic pesticide. I answered a few other questions about gardenting. It was glorious to be the visiting specialist.
Mostly, Laura and I walked. Her family chastised her for taking her guest out in the heat of the day, but we both loved strolling deep in the bush. We found a cemetery in which each grave was surrounded by waist-high walls of wooden stakes sunk into the ground. We sat under a mango tree until a bull pacing near us started giving us dirty looks and facing us with a disconcerting stance. Locals here will shoo bulls away as they would cats, and I have never heard of a bull goring anyone, but I figured I'd feel silly later explaining a gash in my side with, "I didn't think big horned bulls did that kind of thing," so we moved on. He promptly sat in our spot. We traversed fields, followed cow paths, speculated on the changes to come with the rains, and sweat rediculous amounts. It was lovely.
Laura's family gave us lunches, and we had dinner with one of her coworkers. The meals were delicious affairs, but by the second day I was craving vegetables. I do like village life. People are kinder there. Everyone knows you. The landscape is far prettier than in the city. The air is cooler. I could live there. But it may be a better place to visit.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Weavers have the best work places of anyone around here. They set their looms in a brush of mango trees, moving up hill through the year as the field beside them floods. It is quiet in the weavers's grove, save the sounds of passing animals and the clacking of thin wood hitting wood, coming from the pedals and, I think, the yarn-wrapped sticks the men toss through the weave (I appologize for my lack of terminology). To me their looms look like brilliant contraptions of economy. With stunningly little wood and metal they construct foot-powered weaving machines. They stretch their yarn maybe 200 feet ahead of them in the sand. As a man creates fabric he rolls it onto a spool in his lap.
In Dakar I have seen weavers working on busy sidewalks. While the men in Kolda only make a plain white cloth, weavers in Dakar employ young boys to help with patterns. As the men work the pedals and toss the yarn back and forth through the weave, the boys, one per machine, insert and remove cards at lightening speed, changing the colors that are encorporated in each row, creating beautifuly geometric paterns.
Ordinarily people are delighted when I want to take their pictures. The most common complaint I get when I take out my camera concerns not giving people fair warning and time to change into their fancy clothing. The weavers, however, were a stickier bunch. The first man I chatted up demanded cash. He scoffed at my offered sum and wouldn't suggest an amount, so with a dozen men in the mango grove, I walked away. The second, after the usual greetings and teasings about my becoming his third wife, asked about my religion. He was not hostile to Judaism, but he said I really should be Muslim. When I asked about taking photos he said he would only allow it if I first prayed like a Muslim. Ibrahima, the boy in the photograph was by far the youngest of the weavers. I expected him to follow his elders's model, but instead found him shy but agreeable about being photographed.

Nov 1
Everything is finally drying after the rains, so people are now burning the trash that collected all summer, and then setting extra fires to get rid of termites and other bugs. The air around town stinks. I can't bike anywhere without going through a few clouds of foul smoke. It was gratifying to have a conversation about this with an old man whom I'm friends with. He agreed it's absurd how many fires are going these days, as well as the things people are burning. Tires, batteries, plastic, anything. "Don't they know about cancer?" he asked. Many of the streams of smoke make my nose burn.
Along with the start of the dry season and its smoke comes the cold weather. Never mind the actual temperature, it feels cold to me. I've had the sniffles for weeks. Locals have been laughing at how badly I'm handling the cold. My sister and I had a wonderful exchange about this yesterday. My sniffles grown into a fever, and I've been bumbling around in a fuzzy blanket and a ski hat. I went outside to sit in the sun and warm up, and found she was heating tea for herself. The changing weather made her sick too. She completely understood when I said the cold was making my body feel like it's closing, and that I missed the way my body opens in the hotter months. She bemoaned the lousy weather situation of Senegal, how we get months and months of heat followed by a sudden cold spell, too brief to allow acclimatization, just long enough to mess with us and make us unhappy when the heat returns. I'm suspect that back in my NY life this temperature would've been cause for shorts, but now I am bonding with my Senegalese sister about how we wish the sun would hurry up and return us to the warm sweaty weather in which our bodies thrive. Hurrah for acclimatization.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Last night, holding a copy of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, freshly flown in from the USA, I got a craving for an idyll reading spot. Two hammock support poles are in the ground immediately outside our compound, but the man who dug the holes takes his hammock into his hut when it's not in use, and I've been lazy about commisioning one for myself.

So I had to walk three households away to Hawa's compound, where I have noticed that not only does she have a hammock in front for her husband, but also a smaller one towards the back of her yard. I chatted with her family for a few minutes and then explained my need. They smiled sympathetically at my seemingly quixotic plan, and reminded me that they don't have electricity. I whipped a candle out of my bag and they invited me to go swing.

The hammock is tied to two poles stuck in the ground directly under a mango tree. It is close to the toilet hut, a straw roofed round hut with a six foot diameter and a hole in the center of the floor. The shape of the hole is held by a sawed off ceramic canister. When not in use it is covered by a thick pot lid, so there is no smell. As bathrooms go, and especially in comparison to the usual small rectangular tin-roofed stinky oven, this one is pretty aesthetic.

I lit my candle, lay back, and began to read about the whores and gamblers, or saints and martyrs, of Monterey. The already dark night was exagerated by my candle's flame, so that all I could see was my hand, the book, a vague feet-like shadow, and the stars above. After a few minutes Hawa sent her daugher over with a wooden bench, which she placed next to me and, using hot wax as glue, turned into a giant candle holder.

The scene was so perfect that it felt decadent. Hammock, mango tree, stars, grasshopper and frog serenade, distant conversation in Pulaar, darkness, and Steinbeck.

Monday, November 05, 2007

For the past few weeks there have been daily soccer games at the stadium, with cheering that can be heard kilometers away. Teenaged boys representing their neighborhoods play to full houses. They are in the finals of their tournament now. When Nene told me that a friend of ours coaches a team that has been on a winning streak, I said we should go watch.
The stadium has one giant cement bleacher that can probably fit about 500 people. The game started at 16:00, and people started filling the bleacher at 14:00. By the time we arrived police with giant guns on their backs were guarding the entrances to the bleachers, blocking the path. A knee-high cement fence surrounds the sandy field, and except where weeds have grown to high, people were huddled five deep around the fence. Nene, Assu, who lives next door, and I found a spot by the fence where we could see one goalpost and a quarter of the field.
Vendors set up shop selling small piles of peanuts, bags of juice, and water. A couple men were hawking bags of dried mango slices. "Mangos! Hey, getchur mangos!"
I never feel so white as I do when traveling or at big events. I feel then as if I glow, more neon glow in the dark white than the tanning peach that I am. But being with friends made a world of difference. When I am by myself or with other Toubobs kids steal strokes of my arms and people call out saying what they think of me. Today I got virtually none of that. Aha, this is that integration and safety in community business they've been talking about.
There was no scoreboard, and definately no screen showing instant replays, but someone in the stands was narrating the game over a loudspeaker, and during half time and after key plays dance music would overtake the stadium. Everyone would bounce along.
Throughout the game one of the omnipresent goats of Kolda grazed behind the southern goalpost, completely unfazed by the noise and the occasional stray ball.
Our team won, 2-1. We left a bit before the end of the game because Nene was scared to be in the stadium when everyone was pouring towards and trying to squeeze through the front gate. We could hear the announcing as we walked away, as well as the final cheering marking the finish. Almost immediately afterwards the parade of motorcycles and bicycles (no one owns cars) came pouring out. Those going in our direction were from the winning neighborhood, and they raced home, often two to a bike, hands in the air waiving their shirts in victory, as if guaranteed immortality.

"Some people see the cup as half full, some see it half empty, and the Peace Corps Volunteer sees the cup and thinks, 'hey, I could take a bath with that.'"
I heard the joke a few days ago, and today, with only about a cup of water left in my bucket and humidity making the well looking oh so much further away than normal, I decided to test the veracity of the quip.
I dunked a semi-dirty shirt into my bucket and then wrapped it around my bar of soap. Vigorously scrubbing with this gave me a good lather. I wrung out the shirt, put a bit more water on it and rewrung to get rid of the soap suds, and then dipped it a few more times to wipe the soap off my body. I wound up satisfactorily clean and with a shirt that should be good for another day or two. I'd take a running water shower in a second, but it's nice to know how much I can do with just a puddle's worth of water.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

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When I go to weddings parties I try to get in with the women who are cooking. It's fun to peel vegetables and make juice with them. I especially enjoy the juice making. It usually falls to the younger women to do it, and when it's a wedding in my neighborhood, this means it's my friends. Someone once advised me to not watch when people cook, because whether or not I see how it's made, I am going to have to eat. The juice methods are a bit disconcerting. The juice is made in giant buckets. The fruit or the leaf that is the base is dropped in the water, and then while talking and coughing, the women use their hands to squeeze out the juice. Then sugar and other flavorings are added, and the mixture is stirred with a big ladle. We take turns tasting from the ladle. When the juice is prepared, the plastic bags come out. The first phase of making the juice doesn't involve many women. We might all be there, but only a few people are actually working. The bagging, however, is an efficient assembly line. Two women per bucket ladle a certain amount of juice into each bag before passing the bags to the rest of us who are waiting to tie the bags, using a very particular type of wrap-and-knot. A third team takes the bags, wipes them off if need be, and piles them in an empty bucket. By the end of the process we are all sticky and giddy from sugar intake.

When the neighbor's chicken started hanging out in my hut I thought it was adorable. My family told me she had made the trek just to visit me, and I liked the novelty of having a chicken pay me a social call. A few minutes later she unceremoniously dropped a wet little gift on my freshly swept floor, and I chased her out. But when my will is tested against that of a chicken I come up short. She kept returning to my hut, and given the choice of chasing her out again and again, being unsocial and shutting my door, or sweeping up the occasional chicken scat, I chose the third. She has become a daily presence, and I quickly saw what a fool I had been, and what a blessing she was. To all my friends in NYC suffering the bed-bug infestation, I say, find a chicken! I can not kill my ants or termites myself. I would feel too guilty. But I relish the sight of my chicken friend pecking in the holes in my cement floor and under my mattress, devouring the little fiends who are responsible for my thin cement floor crumbling under my feet (I have fallen through twice, though only dropping an inch or two), the holes in my matress, the termite lines on my wall (see pic), the destruction of three evidently tasty books that I left too long on the floor, and so much extra dust in my hut. Murder, my fair chicken. May my hut be your buffet.
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I also have a lot of spiders in my hut. They perch too high to be threatened by the chicken. I like spiders, and I figure these spiders are another line in my defense against malaria. But the problem with spiders is that they lay eggs, and when these eggs hatch tiny itchy baby spiders go running up my legs by the hundreds. I don't particularly mind this. They tickle, and then they go on to find their corners and suck the life out of mosquitos. But my boyfriend visited and said he could not sit on my couch so long as the dozen or so unhatched eggsacks remained woven to the bamboo-work. He threatened to be ruthless with the eggs, so I did my best to gently sweep them up and carry them outside. Despite my best intentions, I suspect many little spiders never came to be because of me. During my bucket bath the next morning I noticed something wedged deep in my bellybutton. I thought it might be a small piece of dry grass fallen from my roof, and I sent a fingernail down after it. It was a spider. Perhaps it was the mother of one of the eggsacks, furious about what I had done to her eggs, determined to reach and destroy mine? I have never before found a spider in there. I am through sweeping up eggsacks.
While I was in Dakar a pregnant pussycat moved into my hut. By the time I got home she and her kittens were living in a corner under my crumpled plastic sheets. We lived together in peace for a few days, and I was delighted by my new roomate. If I was in a room when she wanted to enter she would poke her head in the window and meow, I would leave, and she would jump in. Despite the great temptation when she was out, I never touched her young. I offered her water, and I gave her my most cherubic grin each time I passed her nest. But one day she left, and the sound of kittens tumbling under plastic was replaced by the quieter tumbling sounds of cockroaches. That corner is a storage place for me, so I had no reason to go there until I recently dropped some ginger on the tarp and it fell into the folds. I hestitantly lifted the plastic, and a colony of cockroaches glared at me. They stood their ground until I started to shake the plastic. I discovered a plastic bag under the tarp with a disturbingly kitten-ish weight to it. The image of a cold, abandonned kitten snuggling into a bag for warmth and for a coffin made me sick to my stomach. I have dealt with a mouse flattened under my bed, ostensibly killed by my sitting too suddenly, a lizard that I mortally wounded when sliding my suitcase across the floor, a mouse that died after nibbling a hole in a bag of pesticide I had irresponsibly left on the floor, a frog that went belly up and rigid in my front doorway, and countless dead cockroaches, but a dead kitten was too much. I called in a friend. He found it was my long missing bag of nails.

Ellia Bisker, aka Sweet Soubrette, the ukuleleist of great renoun, recently put out her first album, titled Siren Song. I have not put any other ads on this site, but I was so impressed by this lady's fine sounds that I had to spread the word. The songs are sweet, clever, seductive, enchanting, and all-round wonderful. She has been compared to Dar Williams, Magnetic Fields, and Bob Dylan, and usually deemed a heap better than any of those oldies. You can listen to songs from her album at www.myspace.com/elliabisker, and there is a link on her page for buying the cd. If you are in the NYC area please go to one of her performances and throw flowers at her for me. Thanks.

On Wednesday Alexis and I began our bike trip to Velingara, the next major town to the west, about 150km from Kolda. We had an ominous start, delayed for an hour by a sudden thunder storm, but when we got on the road it was under a beautiful cool grey cloud cover.

On our first day biked to Adam's village, about 50k away. Upon arrival, dripping sweat, we stook turns bathing in his backyard. At night, when I have to get out of bed to use the toilet, I am delighted to have an indoor bathroom. The rest of the time I am deeply envious of the volunteers who have outoor restrooms. These are deep holes in the ground covered with a cement lid that has a wide hole it. Outdoor bucket baths under the wide Senegalese sky, with maybe a mango tree giving shade, are heavenly. You can hear village sounds such as women pounding grains in their large wooden pestles, and depending on the specific location, you can see sheeps grazing, fields of corn, or the folks in the next compound. It feels healthy and holistic to wash outside. After our baths we spent a long time lazing around. It wasn't the longest ride I've ever taken, but it was certain the one I was least prepared for, and I was beat. Eventually Adam took us on a walk to the nearest boutique, where we bought food and tea to give his family. The people out here love him. He jokes with them and gives out small monetary gifts like a beneficent mafioso. He his village's first volunteer, and locals are still stunned to meet other white people who speak Pulaar. After I did a few short greetings with one man, he told me that in fact I couldn't speak Pulaar. I agreed with him, in Pulaar, and went on to say how perceptive he was to know just by looking at me that I couldn't speak Pulaar, in Pulaar. He and his friends were soon laughing with me.

The next morning Adam took us to his villages rice fields. Beauty. The field is a long wide strip of knee deep water with a thick coat of bright green rice stalks on top, and it is surrounded by a landscape of grass, mango trees, and palm trees. I appologize for forgetting my camera. We tried to spot crocodiles, and eventually we leaned against a palm tree and enjoyed the birds's songs and the landscape of solid green, save the guy climbing trees to harvest palm wine. He uses an oval made of bamboo. He gets into the oval with the tree, each at an opposite end, and he uses the bamboo to support him as he leans back and shimmies up the tree.

Our second day of biking felt easier than the first. Our bodies were kind to us, learning that biking for hours was simply something we did, and not something to ache about. We talked about everything under the sun, played twenty questions, and told each stories and ideas we've had. Our road food became sandwiches. Every reasonably sized town on the road has a lady sitting under a shade structure selling bread, and if she didn't have the other ingredients that we wanted, we could buy them from a boutique or send a kid to do that for us. Alexis ate egg sandwiches and I had bread and margerine, and I added slices of cucumbers that I bought from passing kids. We drank kinkiliba, a local sweet tea. It is Ramadan, and many people are fasting, so instead of sitting with the vendor under the shade structure, we volunteered to hide, and would get ushered into a small tin-roofed room or a tent.

The road between Kolda and Velingara has a stunning collection of potholes, and most of them are gathered together between Adam's village and Koun Kane. Often they are so close together that only thin strips of pavement are left, like balance beams. The holes are routinely a foot deep, so biking straight and taking the bumps would be nearly impossible. Beside of the road the dirt has been pounded into a series of steep and tightly packed hills or waves, so that twisting and turning through the balance beams is the best option. A motorcyclist passed us, and I was comforted by how long it took him to get out of our sight. There is no getting good at handling these roads.

Everyone whom we passed called out cheerful greetings and asked where we were going. They looked at us like we were crazy when we told them how far we intended to go. Occasionally we caught up with another bicyclist, and he or she would chat with us about the quality of the road, the weather, and where we were all coming from.

Late in the afternoon two boys came barreling down the road so fast that they could not keep their feet on their bicycle pedals. One passed us, and the other swerved to our side of the street. Alexis dodged him, but he smashed into my front wheel, and once again I went flying onto the cement. This time I took the momentum of the fall and rolled once on the ground with it. When I stood up my left arm and knee hurt, but not nearly as bad as after my other accidents. A result of rolling? We were immediately surrounded by twenty little kids and a few adults who seemed to materialize out of thin air. The boy who hit me chuckled an appology, and his mother kept telling me, "it was a small, very small, silly little accident, yes?" as she grinned hopefully. When I told them I was fine they seemed deeply relieved. I wonder if they were afraid of me. After we had biked out of sight we stopped to examine my scrapes. Alexis gave me chocolate. We resumed our pedaling.

Our destination was Koun Kane, and where there is no sign on the east side of town. The sun had nearly set when we entered a town that had no name. Alexis called Kate, our host for the night, and reckoned we had another fifteen minutes at least. We got onto our bikes and took off as fast as we could, and about ten feet after our start we heard Kate and Evelina calling our names. They bought us sodas and were soon resting, deeply relieved. An old lady saw us exhausted, asked about our trip, and then merrily fanned us with her head scarf. After a short rest, the four of us rode out to Evelina's village. She lives about thirty minutes out of town on a dirt road. It's ordinarily a pleasant bike ride, with fields and forests everywhere you look. But we were biking after dark, a thunder storm was rolling in, and we only had two flashlights, so after a spell of slow biking we got off and walked, comically slipping and sliding on the mud, and arriving thoroughly drenched.

Evelina and Kate live in villages a kilometer apart. Volunteers debate the wisdom of such close assignments. It can be glorious when the volunteers are compatable and the villagers understanding, but it can be dreadful if the volunteers are not friends and the villagers do too much comparing of the two. Luckily, Kate and Evelina get along well, and talking about work and social situations has made things easier for both.

We spent the night in Kate's hut, and her village gave us one of the most delicious meals I have had in Senegal. Kate and the villagers are fasting, so the evening meal is a cause for rejoicing, and they did so this night by making a dish of beans to be eaten with bread and a peaunt sauce to be eaten with rice. It was too dark and we were too tired to do much besides eating dinner and falling into bed.

The next morning we biked to Kristal's village. Kristal has a unique location, almost 20km off a paved road. I think there was a time when many volunteers had settings like this, but nowadays most village volunteers are far closer to markets and easy transportation. I love her village. It is tiny, with maybe 200 people. She is the second or third volunteer to live here, so her villagers are fairly used to white people. I think because of the small population and the fact that everyone knows one another, there is a higher standard for behavior. The name calling and teasing that white people receive daily in cities does not happen in small villages.The villagers were so friendly and easy going. At one point Kristal's father called her outside specifically to tell her not to do any work today, just to sit with us, and not to let us do anything either, for we must rest after our long ride. After a long time catching up in her hut, walked to the field to see where she had planted trees, and then sat outside with her family. In training last year an older volunteer told us she felt like a pioneer woman from a century ago, traveling for a full day to visit friends, and then doing nothing but talking throughout the visit, and maybe a little knitting. Indeed. It was idyllic. This is what I pictured when I imagined Peace Corps.

We left Kristal's village at sunrise and biked out to the paved road. On the way we passed some men from Guinea-Bisau who were making coal and shoveling it into rice bags to take to market. Charcoal is probably the most common cooking implement, with wood and gas stoves coming in distant seconds. Shortly after Alexis and I began the final leg of our journey towards Velingara we decided to scrap it. Velingara held no alure for us besides it being the place to get a car back to Kolda. So we decided to forego bragging rights in favor of giving our bodies a break, and we started sticking out our thumbs. We were hoping for an air-conditioned NGO SUV, but the first car to stop for us was a beat up sept-place, or a station wagon, a common mode of travel. Ordinarily these cars are full, but this one happened to have two vacancies. The driver told us he was only going part way to Kolda, and initially I told him we did not want the ride, because getting dropped in a small town would force us into a small bus for the remainder of the journey. The small busses have the advantage of letting your hips and knees sit at right angles, but they look more rickety, and they lay tipped beside roads far more often than dosept-places. The chauffeur promised that if there were no other cars going to Kolda, he would make the trip, so we strapped our bikes to the roof and got in. There was no car in the small town bound for Kolda, but our chauffeur was as good as his word. It took four hours for the car to fill up. While we waited Alexis had an egg sandwich, and I had a potato spaghetti stirfry at a roadside table where a man was cooking over a gas stove. Then we lay on a bench and read. It was a slow and sweet end to our trip.

July 29
I left the garden, started biking home, and saw a crowd in the distance walking my way. As I neared the group I realized it was made of three to four hundred boys and young men, and I guessed they were coming from a soccer match. When I reached the group the guys at the head parted to let me through, and one teenager squatted low, stretched out his arms towards me, and to the amusement of his friends, shouted, “toubahaako!” “Toubahaako,” literally means, “grass pants,” and it is used to taunt white people. I regularly hear other, less blatantly hostile names for white people, but "toubahaako," is infrequent, usually coming no more than once a day. After I passed this guy and his friends, I found myself deep in the crowd. I biked forward slowly, weaving around people.
A group of a dozen men my age was singing and dancing down the road. When they saw me they all migrated to my side of the road and formed a wall so that I had to stop my bike. All were shirtless, all had big shining muscles, and half of them waving machetes in the air. They made a tight circle around me and began chanting, “toubahaako.” The men behind me held onto my bicycle and my backpack, locking me in place. The men in front of me leered, shook their machetes at me, and ordered me to dance. I considered abandoning my bike and trying to escape, but I couldn’t see a way out of the circle, and beyond the circle were only more boys and men, none of whom seemed likely to take my side. Also, I was afraid that an undemanded sacrifice might be taken as encouragement. After receiving a few gentle machete taps on my bike helmet I did a quick ugly dance that was little more than a series of stomps. The circle opened and I was pushed on my way. I had to pedal slowly to make my way around the rest of the guys coming down the street. One boy stepped up to me and punched the air close to my face. I flinched hard, and those who saw burst into laughter. I had started trembling after the circle of men let me leave, and this near-punch set me to full shaking. It took a lot of concentration to keep steady on my bike.
When I got into market I went to a pair of women who I’ve been friendly with for months. I told them what had happened, expecting sympathy. Instead, they laughed. They told me that Konkoran season had begun and that henceforth if I see a group of males on the street I should run and hide. They assured me that I had not been in any real danger and that these boys only tease and threaten.
The Konkoran is a warrior monster who comes out during the rainy season, which is the male circumcision season. He patrols the town and protects young boys from witches. A man playing the Konkoran dresses in a well-crafted full body costume that looks like a giant long-haired brown Muppet. He lumbers around with a pack of at least twenty boys or young men, most of whom carry long branches, ostensibly for flogging purposes. The boys often chant as they go through town, and occasionally they travel with drummers. The Konkoran carries two machetes, and the clank of them being slapped together is enough to make females cringe and start looking for a place to hide. He was not with the crowd that I met on the road, so I guess the person wearing the costume had recently left.
The Konkoran and his minions are taken half seriously. Females of all ages squeal and run, but they then look on eagerly and might follow the Konkoran so that they will have to flee a second and third time. But genuine fear flashes on girls’ faces when they suddenly spot a Konkoran, and people have urged and even pulled me into compounds or shops to get me off the street when a Konkoran was coming. Women who have set up vegetable stands in the street often ignore the Konkoran. I’ve seen some Konkorans accept this. Others have gotten angry and brandished their machetes frighteningly close to women who refuse to play along.Little boys make Konkoran outfits by wrapping bags around themselves and cutting fringes. They are adorable and I’m more than happy to feign terror when I see a five year old toddling about in a plastic shag outfit.
Last year I largely enjoyed the Konkorans. They add an absurd Pacman element to the city; the paved roads and sandy paths are like a maze, and now we have the occasional monster forcing you to change your route. Sometimes multiple packs of boys roam Kolda at once, each with their own Konkoran. When each group has their own drum section it becomes possible to bike through town and never be out of earshot of at least one band of phenomenal drummers, one group growing closer and louder as the prior one fades to a quiet distant pounding. Toward the end of last year, tired of playing along whenever the Konkoran happened to appear, an okra vendor and I agreed not to run and hide. The Konkoran kicked and broke her chair, and one of his boys slapped me mildly on the back.
In retrospect, I think the women were right, and that I was not in any real danger. The Konkoran business is a game that the community agrees to play. It’s sexist and frustrating, and it goes on far too long in my opinion, and the fact that the city has only one bridge crossing its river often makes it difficult to find an alternative route. I wish it was a one-day affair. That said, I wish too that I could be a male for a week. I’d love to go out parading with the Konkoran.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4795629.stm - Has a picture of a konkoran. It's an odd shot of a resting konkoran, but it'll give you the idea. Picture him standing upright and waving the machettes.

July 29
When I entered the demo garden where Alexis and I are working I was greeted by a sheep. I was horrified to see him in the garden, and assumed that all the vegetables had been eaten. Alexis’ host dad saw me open the gate for the garden and he followed me in after a moment. He laughed at the fear on my face, and told me it was his sheep. As he saw rage replace worry he quickly pointed out that the sheep was tied to a stake and was the new weeding staff. He works more slowly than kids, but he’s much happier to do it.
Walking further into the garden I was pleased to see that Musa, Alexis’s brother, had created two new small beds for the flower seeds I gave him. I really hope these seeds work. They are mixture of American seeds and a variety of flower seeds designed to work in tropical climates. So far I have had no success with doing flowers from seed. The packages all have heartbreakingly beautiful flowers that are beginning to look like unattainable magic. Maybe this batch will be different.
I spent the morning weeding beds, transplanting young tomatoes, breaking new ground, and planting flower cuttings taken from my garden. Yesterday afternoon I made a pesticide using red hot peppers, water, and laundry soap. I learned it is pretty foolish to submerge your hands in a bucket of water and tear up hot red peppers, and it's not to smart to use your hands to apply this concoction. Twelve hours after I started trying to rinse off my hand they are still burning. However, at least there are no visible bugs on the plants right now.

Local kids like to discribe what toubobs are doing. When I am biking people will come up beside me and say, "The Toubob is biking!" Today I had a mango in my hand and heard, "Toubob is holding a mango." People have looked in on me working at the garden and told me, "The Toubob can dig," and occasionally, "The Toubob can't dig." My favorite of these commentaries came recently when Alexis's boyfriend, Al, was biking through town holding their half-grown puppy under one arm. Al was speeding to get out of the pouring rain, and the dog was bouncing up and down on his knees. As Alexis and Al hurried past, a kid called out, "The Toubob stole a dog!"

Fatou was circumcised when she was twelve years old. She did not want to be cut. After she was forced into the hut where the old woman was waiting with her knife, Fatou held her knees together with all her strength. The other women could not pry her legs open, so a man was brought in, and he pulled her legs apart. The old woman nicked Fatou's cliteris, and Fatou bled a lot. Walking, sitting, and urinating, hurt for weeks afterwards.

A few years later, a man and woman came from Dakar to talk to school children about circumcision. Fatou was initially embarassed to speak about her experience, but the couple from Dakar were so open about their own genital cuttings, that Fatou was soon willing to share her story. The couple talked about the dangers of circumcisions, from the risks of a dirty knife to the potential of an especially invasive circumcisions causing a split to erupt between the anus and the vagina during childbirth. They spoke about Islam not requiring circumcision, and about it being an old cultural tradition designed to keep women from enjoying sex, and thus from being unfaithful to their husbands. They offered to speak to anyone's parents.

Fatou brought the couple home to her parents. By this time circumcision had been made illegal in Senegal. Fatou's mother talked with the pair for a few hours. She was interested, but not entirely convinced that she should break ties with the old practice. Fatou, however, was very emphatically against circumcision, and told her mother in no uncertain terms that if she had Fatou's younger sister circumcised, Fatou would call the police. After saving her sister from being circumcised, Fatou has gone on to talk to other people in the neighborhood. She is extremely open and blunt about her experience and her arguments against circumcision. She says all people her age who attend school are against circumcision because they have been educated about its dangers. Making circumcision illegal in itself has not made big enough strides towards ending the practice, but open dialogue about the risks involved is, I think, going to save much of the coming generation from being cut.