Heather in Senegal

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

April 14, 2006
Today after lunch we were brought to the basketball court on which is painted a map of Senegal. Regina, one of the Serer teachers was sitting in a hammock. In Senegal there are many ethnic groups. Some are considered relatives, and some are considered rivals. The Serer and the Pulaar like to make fun of each other. Regina often calls me her slave, and whenever she sees me doing manual work like building a garden table, she comments on it being appropriate work for me. She also occasionally meows at me, as if to insult me by calling me a cat. Little does she know. So, seeing her comfy and relaxed, I sat on top of her. Shortly thereafter we were told to close our eyes, and from the hammock Regina and I could hear volunteers making ooh and ahh sounds as teachers spun them around and guided them onto the map, and soon we joined in with mmms and oyyys of our own, which eventually became ar-ar-arooos, howls to an unseen moon. Eventually Awa, the manager of the homestays, came and got me. She is going through menopause, and her husband is older than she, but we joke that I am after her husband and that she wants to beat me for enticing him towards infidelity. When she took me onto the map she told me she was sending me far far away from her husband, and she deposited me, as I expected, on top of Kolda, where Nick was already standing.
No other volunteers from our stage are near us, I’m sorry to say. I have some friends who I’ll be able to reach for weekend visits if I’m willing to spend a while on a bus, but all the people in biking distance I will have to meet after I get to Kolda. Well, I have a phone and will at least be able to talk to my friends. So far it seems Jessica is going to the smallest town. It has less than 200 people, and most of them will be related to her.
Massali, the manager of the urban ag program, told me a bit about my place in Kolda. It sounds dreamy. I will live in a family compound, but I will have my own hut. It is a huge round hut with straw on the roof. It has a bedroom, living-room, and bathroom. And electricity! My living-room is bigger than many volunteers’ only room. It has a backyard area where I can garden, and where I hope I can string a hammock. Will, a volunteer who is now on his third year, said it’s among the best volunteer houses he has ever seen. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood, lush and dense with trees, many of which are mango and banana trees. My family is wealthy and educated. I’ll have a bunch of sisters who are in high school and college. I will not have running water, but the well is in the family compound, and I frankly (easy from a distance, of course) like the idea of drawing water from a well every morning. In the midst of my electricity, cell-phone, and cyber cafes, it’ll be nice to have that reminder of where I am. I do not know how an indoor toilet works where there is no running water, but I guess I shall learn.
This week we received our bikes! They are brand new trek mountain bikes. Such a pleasure. Most of my riding thus far has been in a single file line with at least three other toubobs, all who were also on new bikes and wearing sparkly helmuts. It feels like a parade, or like the spectacle of a mama duck crossing the street followed by ducklings. When I fell behind after slipping in sand, pedestrians began called, “Faster, faster!” as I tried to catch up.
Toubob: this is a word that basically means “different,” but can be taken as “honky” or as something more offensive. Kids call out “toubob!” every time they see me. Sometimes I reply in French or Pular that I’m not white. I say I’m black and ask where the white person is. Today I responded by saying “Asalam allekum,” which is the basic greeting. They toubobbed me again, so I repeated myself in a tone of voice that said, “Come now, I know your manners are better than that.” I like that some tones of voices seem universal. They laughed and returned the greeting in a tone that sounded a tad apologetic. If the kids are close to my home I usually introduce myself. I have also tried singing toubobtoubobtoubobtoubob back to the kids and doing a jig. Today a volunteer in her second year told us that regardless of how affective our work is, for the next two years we will be like a cartoon show on TV for our villagers.

April 9
Joy! I am typing in my bedroom where my computer is plugged into the adapter from the US which is plugged into the extension chord I bought last night, which is plugged into the hole in the wall into which my adapter does not fit. Last night I also bought a cell phone, so you can call me at 221-415-5731. 221 is the country code. I think that simply dialing those ten numbers should get you through to my phone. Nick, aka Usmaan, helped me navigate down-town Thies to buy the electronics. Nick is the other Fulakunnda student. We spend half of every school day asking each other where we are from, how many friends our mothers have, how old our brothers are, what we ate for dinner last night, etcetera. Fulakunnda is only spoken in a relatively small section of the country, so I think Nick and I will see a lot of each other over the next two years. So you will probably hear a lot of him. An interesting fact I learned about him last night is that he always carries toilet paper; Nick will try to complete Peace Corps without ever using the wet hand method.
Last week Samba, my language teacher, taught me how to count in Fulakunnda. I practiced around the house by pointing to objects and gleefully announcing how many there were. Sometimes I would stop a family member in the hallway and triumphantly count to ten or even higher. The family is patient with me. They understand that every word, let alone clump of words spoken together, is a landmark occasion for me, but by the time I was able to make my numerical speeches counting by five, even the young kids’ faces had faded from indulgent smiles to looks of concern. Maybe they feared their American would be permanently stuck in this numeric reverie. Sesame Street in Fulakunnda would be heaven.
Today I had my first language exam. It was an oral test broken into three sections. I had to describe myself, then my family, and then speak in the past tense. Nick and I took turns doing each section, and when he was being tested I curled up in a hammock. For most of the exam I felt like a crummy student, and was irked by my slow slow slow speech. (Last week the head of the agriculture department predicted that based on my speed when I speak English, my speed in Fulakunda will be a sore point for me for the next two years.) During the last section, however, I had an epiphany. Instead of scouring my head for vocabulary to would describe what I did yesterday, I realized I should instead issue a cattle call for all vocabulary words. Then, from the verbs and nouns that presented themselves, I constructed a picture of things I did not in fact do yesterday, but could have done. When this new technique of conversing occurred to me it was like someone had dropped a neutralizing (water cleansing) tablet into water darkened by an iodine (water cleansing) tablet, obliterating the murkiness. This evening I tried the vocab technique again and this resulted in the longest conversation I’ve yet had with the grandmother. We spoke of dancing, I joked about her being 27, maybe 35 (once again showing-off my numeric prowess), and we did a whole lot of greeting each other.
Recently I almost made my first friend outside the auspices of Peace Corps. I met Haddi one day when, after I got off the bus by my house, she waved to me from her roof top. She wanted to know who I was and why I was there. She came to the ground to meet me, and after I told her I am an agriculture volunteer, she brought me inside her family’s house to show me pictures of the farm where she has worked. We spoke for more than a half hour about gardening, Peace Corps, religion, and music. She told me she plays drums, and she then performed a bit. We made tentative plans to play together. After I told her that PC gives us a few classes in Islam, she invited me to a ceremony that took place last night. I left really delighted by how much I had been able to say and understand, and eager to see her again. When I got home and told my mother why I was a bit later than usual, she looked concerned. She said that girls can be used as booby traps, and that I should never enter a stranger’s house. The next night she went with me to meet Haddi, and I stood beside my mother, who is a couple inches shorter than me, and couldn’t stop grinning as she sized up Haddi while they talked about Haddi, me, Peace Corps, and my poor Fulakunnda. They spoke Wolof, but I got the gist. After we left, the mother told me that Haddi is a very nice girl, but because she does not speak Fulakunnda I should not spend much time with her; she couldn’t approve of more than the occasional ten minutes after school. And she also told me that I should put the violinning on hold, saying I’ll have plenty of time for it in the village. I’ve only played in the house twice. Peace Corps warned that one challenge in the home-stay experience would be the loss of independence. Well, Haddi was only visiting Thies, anyway. And even if I can’t keep her as a friend, I remain delighted at this test of my French.

Monday, April 03, 2006

March 29
At the house where I am living during my home-stay in Thies, there is one small room for the toilet and another for the shower. The toilet is a slab of porcelain on the ground. There are two ridged sections where I put my feet. Between these sections the porcelain slants downward until it reaches the hole. The house has no toilet paper, though there is a toilet paper holder on the windowsill. Instead of toilet paper, there is a bucket of water in which floats a plastic cup. You are supposed to pour the water into your hand and then wash and wipe your bottom. Afterwards, soap up well, or in the absence of soap, scrub hands under water. Until I first used this paperless method I could not grasp the strength of the insult of offering a person something with your left hand or using your left hand at the food bowl.
The shower is much like a shower in the US except that half the time the water does not work. Lately the electricity has been out in the evenings and mornings, and the water goes with it. So, I have been taking bucket baths. After getting over the initial strangeness, I must agree that this is a great way to clean. I think that this method of covering myself in soap and being able to see the white film everywhere before I wash it off ensures a more careful cleaning.
And that ends the tour of the bathroom.

This is a four night five day visit to a volunteer who has been serving in Senegal for one year. Peace Corps has all new volunteers do a demystification visit during their first week in the country. It is a wonderful idea. I went to Kaffrin with another girl from my stage (group of volunteers who started at the same time), and we stayed with Anne, an urban agriculture volunteer. I expect my work will be similar to hers. On the first day she took us to the market for bean sandwiches and grocery shopping. This was a shocking experience. The market is a hot, crowded, loud, fish-smelling series of stands where people sell vegetables, fish, fabric, sandals, and other things. The stands are generally just tables on which the salable items are displayed in piles. Because I would not push people or force my way forward, I kept getting separated from the others. We went to the market every morning, and gradually I got used to the sites. An elderly man who sells vegetables likes to joke with Anne about her being his wife. When he saw Anne with two new females he broke into praises to Allah for giving him three wives, and he hollered threats at all nearby men lest they look at his wives.
Anne took us to some gardens where she has been working and giving advice. One garden was thriving, another contained nothing living save the mule who was looking for food therein, and a third was a new garden with short green sprouts of bissap plants. This last garden is a cooperative belonging to some local women. They have been having problems with their top soil drying, and they asked Anne for advice. She gave an impromptu lecture on ground covering techniques. I could not understand a word of it, but the fact that she, a girl like me, having just a bachelors, a few years of work experience, and the Peace Corps training, is able to give valuable advice to Senegalese gardeners, has made me very optimistic about the likelihood that I will have something to offer the folks of my village.
Demyst also exposed me to the heat. Anne says the seasons are hot, hot and humid, hot hot, and so hot you wish you were dead. As I lay on the floor wilting in front of her fan, which was useless due to the lack of electricity, she said this weather was only hot. I would have opted for a small village if given the choice, but I think I will be going to a city. It will probably have electricity. I have plans to buy the first fan I can find, and to have a refrigerator that is always stocked with oranges.

A day after demyst the homestay began. Each volunteer was given a cue-card on which was a Senegalese name. Likewise, each Senegalese family had a cue-card with a volunteer’s name. At the sound of the drum we came running from opposite directions trying to find matches and then embracing. I now live with a family of seven. There is a husband, one wife (some families here do have more), and five children, ranging from six months to seventeen years of age. The four year old likes to climb on me and cover my papers with her hands while I’m studying. I am told she is testing me. I firmly objected when she began sticking fingers in my ear, but otherwise I am having a hard time disciplining her. My Senegalese mother told me that because I will be here for another two months, and because the girl is my sister, I really must learn to control her. She suggested I pinch her ears. When she shrieks at me while I’m trying to learn Fulakunnda, I imagine things much more satisfying than merely tweaking her ears, but I would no more be welcome in the house if I indulged myself. I get along well with the other kids, and the mother is very affectionate and patient with me. She checks on my homework, noodges me to move quickly in the morning, and has had to remind me to comb my hair. Being in the house makes me home sick, but otherwise it is fine.
Especially nice moments with the family include practicing vocab with the eleven year old girl in the backyard in a cool windy spot, dancing and singing with the eldest daughter, and walking arm-in-arm with the mother.
The neighbors are very friendly. As I walked home from the bus stop today I greeted everyone I saw, and often this led to more people coming outside to say hello and laugh with me about my limited Fulakunnda. A few of them admitted to having watched me this week. I have been singing, dancing, and doing push-ups at the bus stop, thinking I was alone.

I’m in a phase of Peace Corps now called PST (pre-service training). This is a two month intense and constant schooling process. By the end of this period I should have good language, cross-cultural, and agricultural skills. Today I spent 5.5 hours in language class. There is one other student. The class is taught in French. This was the third day of language classes. One girl got up and walked out of her Pulaar class in tears today, returning only after a five-minute walk and a self-pep-talk. Somewhere around the fourth hour I told my teacher, in my broken French, that my brain had exploded. He let us take a five minute break. Around the fifth hour the stress of trying to place random syllables that are newly floating in my head into an order that makes sense according to some grammar rules that have yet to be spoken of made me to burst into a laughing fit bordering on hysteria. It turns out similar things were happening in all the classes. Tomorrow we have only 2 hours of language. I do wonder at the reasoning behind the schedule.