Heather in Senegal

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.


At 1:29 PM, Blogger Bex07 said...

I just love the image of you doing pushups, singing and dancing at the bus stop while people are watching you, and you don't know. That made me giggle pretty hard!!

At 9:31 AM, Blogger alau said...

I LOVE markets in the 3rd world. They're such fun places with so much character.

And if you're having problems getting through a crowded market place, just pretend you're in a crowded subway train and you'll be fine :)


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