Heather in Senegal

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Go to the following link to see an assortment of images from Thies and Kolda. I think one of the following links should work. Please let me know if neither do. The photos are in alphabetical order.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I am sure I mispronounce many words, but my family has taken delight in correcting me on two in particular. At the end of every meal, completely regardless of how much I have eaten, as soon as I put down my spoon or otherwise indicate that I am done everyone at the bowl yells "eat!" It is as if I am a conductor giving a cue to a well trained choir. I have been responding, "mi haddi." That is what it sounded like everyone else was saying when they are full. No, they have been saying "mi harri," and I have been concluding each meal by announcing that I am circumcised. My second colorful error has been saying, "I soiled my pants," when I intended to say, "I need."
My family and neighborhood does indeed speak Pulafuta. They can understand Fulakunda, but I can barely understand Pulafuta, so it is problematic. I hear the occasional familiar word, but by and large it sounds like they have mouthfuls of marbles. I am really frustrated to be so much more bewildered all the time than I feel I should be, but I am growing resigned to it. I'll probably leave here with my own personal blend of the two dialects, and, inchallah, the ability to understand both.
Last night was the first proper rain. At the pitter patter and the smell of it I ran outside and danced, leapt, spun in it until I was cold. I don't know why it was so intoxicating, but I felt like a gleeful toddler. As usual, my family looked on, bewildered by their toubob. Later, after the rain stopped, a group of girls gathered and, as has become a favored past-time, urged me to dance. I am terrible at their graceful moves, I do not understand the beats of their music, and I have such lousy control of my hip and tush-shaking that their three year old boys look like Micheal Jackson in comparison. We stood in a circle making vocal and clapping beats, and I did my best to mimic their moves. Oh do we laugh. And sweat runs down my body in full sheets.

Because of the rain, Sek called me this morning to say he would not go into the garden until the afternoon. So I read in bed, did yoga while listening to the bbc, studied, and talked to my family. In the afternoon I biked to the garden to join him for the afternoon watering. I found his daughter and two of her friends, sent in his stead because he is sick. Yesterday he told me very seriously that he is afraid of Jenny. He says she is dangerous. I tried to discern more, but all I could gather was that she is taking advantage of the fact that he is an old sick man. No doubt she is being held responsible for today's absence. I wonder if he will fear me too. Watering with the girls was fun. I got to practice my Pulaar, and we took turns climbing the garden's big tree. The heights they reached, and barefoot no less, put me to shame. I am worried about my role in the garden, my relationship with Sek, and the success of the garden as a demo-site. Sek has actively discouraged people from visiting, he holds no classes, and he is looking forward to moving to Dakar. As an urban aggie I am supposed to be helping folks who will in turn pass the info on to other gardeners. We shall see.

Monday, May 22, 2006

May 18
My family’s well is a long round hole topped with four walls of hip-height cement starting at the ground level. A rope is tied to a low branch of the mango tree above the well. At the other end of the rope is a thick rubber bag. When I want water I drop the bag into the well and watch the long rope follow. Then I pull the rope a few times, and on each fall the bag goes deeper into the water. When I think the bag has no floating left to it, I tug it back up. The first time I did this I was pretty surprised by how heavy the bag becomes. After just a few tries it’s become if not easy, than at least a fun chore. Every time I’ve gone to draw water I have walked smack into a branch. I hope I learn to duck.
I’ve filled my bucket with water about four times. Most of this has been for drinking, but some for showering and washing my toilet. My toilet is the standard squatter, described earlier. It is my hut’s only connection to plumbing, so it shall be my sink, shower, and toilet. If my first priority is to keep hydrated, my second it to keep this douche clean. My first shower was fun. My prior bucket baths have been in a shower room where all the floor tilted towards the drain. Today I tried standing on my toilet, but I kept slipping, so I got my laundry bucket and stood in that as I scooped water onto me. I created a puddle and splashed the walls a good deal.
My hut: It is a palace. It has a big bedroom and living room, a small front storage space, and a back-room / bathroom. The round ceiling is made of bambo and straw and has concentric circles that I often stare into. My hut stays cool for most of the day. The walls are slightly lumpy cement, and they go about seven feet high before giving way to open space. I climbed up onto and shimmied across the tops of my walls today to tie strings for hanging my mosquito net.
Mangos. Delicious luscious juicy beautiful plentiful mangos. I lost count of how many I have eaten today. Most trees here have mangos, and everyone is generous with their mangos. Sitting with a bunch of Pulaar speakers on a mat in the sand with kids playing nearbyand tall trees heavy with mangos as far as the eye can see, hearing the crazy beats of Senegalese music is glorious.

May 16
Sunday morning at the crack of dawn all the volunteers who were staying at the center in Thies woke and started running around saying goodbyes and loading our things into the sept-places (taxis with seven seats). My favorite goodbye was with Justin, who, when I thought he was going to give me a high-five, swooped me up and ran around carrying me, hollering like a nut-case.
Nick took the front seat of the sept-place, leaving me the three seats in the second row, so it was a quite comfortable ride. I read, studied Pulaar, slept, talked with Nick, and stared out the window watching the lanscape grow lush. The ride was uneventful until Habib, our driver, pulled over at the Gambian border control. Peace Corps has made a big deal about Administrative Seperation swiftly following any unapproved entrance into another country, but it appeared Habib had not heard. Nick, not expecting to leave Senegal before we return to Thies in August, left his passport locked in Abu’s office. At first I pretended I did not have mine either, thinking that if it was urgent we not leave Senegal, better the news that we couldn’t enter the Gambia come to Habib from the soldiers than from me and Nick. While Habib tried to reason with (bribe) the border guards, and a ten year old boy tried to convince Nick to give him his bicycle or at least pay him for directions to a backroads way into the Gambia, I called Awa, the wonderfully supportive motherly lady whom I fell in love with at the PC center in Thies. Although I learned later that she had been worried, she spoke to me as if it was the expected route. She chatted with the driver and then advised that we give whatever money was asked for. So I found my passport, Habib folded a couple thousand CFA into it, and soon we were in Gambia waiting for the ferry. Over the course of five hours the sept-place moved to three different parking spots, each a bit closer to the ferry. Every boy with a cooler of soda cans, and every woman with a head loaded with colorful fabric, stopped by our windows and tried to reason or stare us into making a purchase. I read, wrote in my journal, listened to music, and ate fruit. In all, a fine roadstop.
We arrived at the regional house in Kolda about thirteen hours after we left Thies. Regional houses are houses that Peace Corps rents to host volunteers when away from their sites. There is one in each region. It’s a library, kitchen, medical supplies storage facility, meeting place, shower, and generally a place to go to be with other English speakers. Three of the local volunteers were there to welcome us. They gave us cold bissap juice and they cooked us pancakes. In a stark contrast to the morning, I felt very shy and quiet, as I had initially with my stage-mates. I slept outside, under a mosquito net under the house’s shade structure, feeling very happy.
Yesterday the volunteers took us to the market. We bought matresses, sheets, pillows, buckets, laundry soap, trunks, bleach, and other odds and ends. I bought a fan, which I’m already falling in love with. She is a bright green, and she looks lovely with the softer green of my walls.Kolda seems really nice. It’s cleaner, calmer, and greener than Thies and Kaffrine. The local volunteers say they love the area and the people. I’m so relieved. After the shopping trip Matt climbed a tree in the regional house’s yard. He held a long wooden spear and poked at mangos until many had fallen. Then we feasted.
Jenny, the urban ag volunteer who has been here for one year, and whose place I will be taking in the garden, told me about Sek. She says he is hard working, kind, a good language teacher, patient, understanding of cultural differences, and fun. Sometimes. Then there are the times like when he found a lock in the garden and blamed it, and the person who placed it there, for causing the garden’s meager yield. Or when he pulled up the whole lettuce crop because it was growing too slowly for him. Or when he moved Jenny’s okra from a garden plot to a table plot for absolutely no reason, unless his goal was to kill them, in which case he was successful. Or when he told Jenny that he had used magic to make the prior volunteer leave Senegal early. Or when he went to the garden in the middle of the night to do a ceremony to ward off evil. Or when he stopped speaking to Jenny for three weeks. She said that for a long time she thought she was crazy, but this passed when she realized he was. I hope I can get along with him, enjoy him, and do good work in the garden.Today finally was installation. Demba, a teacher from Thies, introduced me to city officials, the gendarms, and the police. Then he took me home. I am typing from my huge, beautiful, round, straw and bamboo roofed hut. My new name is Jenabo Ba. I pulled some water up from the well, ate lunch with my mom and some kids, maybe my sibblings, and am now supposed to be resting. I talked a bit with the family. Sometimes they gave me blank stares when I used basic words that I had spoken often in Thies. I hear I’m in the Pulafuta part of town, not the Fulakunda. I don’t know what my family speaks, and I am worried. The family seems kind. They expected me to be a wierd bewildered toubob, and it is comforting to be able to fit someone’s expectations.

May 12,
Today was swearing in. It was a big ceremony at Ebbits Field in Dakar, overlooking the ocean. We all wore Senegalese outfits, and when we walked as a group it looked to me like a rainbow of marbles rolling along. The clothing is very loose and brightly colored. I wore purple with pink and blue embroidery. Each person in my stage was called to the podium to receive a paper, like a diploma. For once I was the flamboyant one. I ran up to the stage pumping my fists in the air in triumph, and on my way back to my seat I blew kisses to the everyone. I've never had the nerve to do more than quietly walk and shake hands at prior ceremonies, so I was pleased with my nerve. Surprisingly, wuite a few admin folks later said sincerely that they had appreciated my enthusiasm. After the ceremony we went to a pool. On the bus ride home we danced in the aisles.

May 11,
On Monday I went to an art gallery near my house to buy a painting as a wedding gift for Osei, my friend in NY. I’ve visited the gallery before, and I really like the artist’s style. He uses bright bursts of colors, oil paints I think, and it looks like the paint is laid on very quickly. He makes swirling bubbling backrounds, and above that he has women with bowls on their heads, boys playing, or musicians. I had hoped to buy and mail one of his paintings on glass, but he was certain it would arrive in shards. The women are lovely, and the musicians are fitting for Osei, a guitarist, but I liked the playing boys best. The artist, Issa, had none on paper in the size I wanted, so he agreed to make one for me. He told me to come pick it up the next day. On Tuesday I sped to his gallery after school. The painting was not ready but it was a great visit. I had my violin on my back, and the artist asked what it was. This led to me asking if he played anything, and soon I was harmonizing with his guitar strumming. We played together for about thirty minutes, during which another man stood by listening, (inspiring in me a brief fantasy about him being connected to someone like Baba Mal and inviting me to quit Peace Corps and go on tour with the band.) Mostly we improvised, but also Issa taught me the melody to a Senegalese lullaby. When I started accompanying him I was in tune with myself but not with him. This forced me to find a position on my violin where my hand would play notes to match his, but where I could not comfortably name the notes. My improv teacher in Atlanta suggested doing this, or retuning the violin to something other than a series of fifths, to force myself to lose some degree of familiarity with the violin and thus approach it instrument slightly differently. It worked. The playing ended with us both enthusiastic about doing it again. Wednesday the Urban Aggies went Youssepha’s house for dinner. Youssepha is our trainer, and he’s a sweet, softspoken, huge, very enthusiastic man. To hear him speak, his life is full of nearly exclusively extremely wonderful people and opportunites. He has been talking of having us over for a while now, so last week when he asked what we wanted to do in our last week of training, I said I wanted to eat at his house. I liked taking a tour of his house, meeting his family, seeing him play with his three year old daughter, and eating the veg plate specially prepared for me, but the best parts of the evening were getting to talk with him and getting to play violin. He had asked that I bring my violin, and after dinner he invited his family into the room where we were eating so they could listen. I played a few very short tunes solo, and then played sing-a-long tunes for the rest of the night, ranging from “the chicken dance,” to songs from “the sound of music,” to 1980’s pop music. Very strange to find myself in Senegal playing accompaniment to a gang of folks singing Madonna. I had so much fun. Today the compliments Youssepha gave me from his wife felt merrily like a love song. It’s a pleasure to hear I’m liked.Today I went back to Issa’s to pick up the painting. I unintentionally arrived just before he, another artist, and a young boy were about to eat lunch. For them it was a foregone conclusion that I would eat with them and then play violin. When I told them I had just eaten, they laughed and told me that in Africa if you are at someone’s house at lunch, you must sit and eat. So I sat and ate. We talked of things like African authors, the cultural mix of French, Islamic, and Senegalese culture in Senegal, the value of creating art, and NYC. At least, I think these were the topics. I did my best to nod and smile at the appropriate times. Occasionally I would confess that I did not understand and ask for a repetition, but I’ve realized I find such interactions more pleasant and enjoyable if I stop fighting my confusion and just accept it as my natural state in Senegal. After my second lunch of the day, Issa and I played music for a while, stopping only when another artist offered us a plate of sliced mangos. When I left with Osei’s painting, Issa gave me two handpainted greeting cards for free. I’m loving playing violin here.

May 5,
Today and yesterday were the counterpart workshop. Counterparts are Senegalese people who live in the villages and towns to which we shall be moving, and who should guide us, look out for us, and support us over the next two years. Sometimes this relationship works well, and the counterpart’s home becomes a second home for the volunteer, and the professional relationship is one of great synergy. Other times the counterparts spends every day sitting under a tree chatting, or trying to pursuade the volunteer to marry him. In any case, at the moment our counterparts are people who traveled far to spend two days speaking to us in langauges we barely understand. Luckily, much of the time was taken up with seminars designed to help counterparts understand us, our needs, our dis/abilities, and our desires. In order to engender sympathy for us and our poor language skills, I gave a twenty minute class on Hebrew. The head of the language program, Simone, coached me on how best to teach some basic greetings. When it came time for me to perform, four of the counterparts, mine included, were chosen to sit close to my chalkboard. We studied how to say good morning, how are you, fine thanks, what is your name, and my name is___. More was planned for the lesson, but after they stumbled and bumbled over this much, Simone decided I should stop; they had gotten the point. My counterpart, when deprived of his notebook, was no better than my other students, but I was pleased to see he was the only one who took notes. His name is Mamadou Sek, and he is an adorable skinny little man with an infectious smile and blue eyes. I hear he is a famously hard worker, honest, reliable, and generous. And he has banana trees. He told me he will introduce me to his family, and with their help I’ll be speaking Fulakunnda in no time. I was very anxious before meeting him, concerned about making a good first impression and worried lest I dislike him. I am incredibly relieved.

May 1,
Last weekend I biked with friends about 75 kilometers round trip to a beach. The wonderful Tom, my mate in the talent show, coordinated directions, the renting of a house on the water, and food. The location was perfect. Nothing seperated our porch from the beach. I spent a lot of time just watching the waves, and later at night, lying on my back stargazing with friends. We named a few new constellations in our honor. A chef among us orchestrated a beautiful meal which, because it’s easiest to buy and use simple ingredients, was entirely vegan. The house provided a small stereo, so we spent most of the night on the porch with music, cards, and the sound of waves. Meanwhile, someone removed our bathroom window and snuck into our house. Nothing was taken or noticeably disturbed, but one girl did see him run out of our compound, and hours later, while I was flossing in the bathroom, I saw him looking in the gaping hole of a window. We were all careful to lock our doors that night.

April 28
Thursday was the stage’s talent show. I heard that the great success of the prior stage’s show was a magic act. The teachers were floored by the card tricks. On learning this, I grew hopes of putting on a fire show. I figured swinging balls of fire, usually in my control but occasionally hitting me, and maybe a moment of eating fire, would make playing cards pale in comparison. The first matter was to rig myself a pair of practice poi. My friend Amy Lau insisted I bring shoe laces with me. She said they were useful for all sorts of surprising things, and as an example, she told me that if tied correctly to a dripping faucet that is keeping you awake, a shoe lace can silence the drip. I safety pinned shoe laces to balled up socks to make an extremely lightweight but functional pair of practice poi. For about a week after attaching the foot accessories, I was obsessed. Many times each evening I would sneak into my bedroom for five or ten minute practice sessions, and before bed and again in the morning I would swing my socks around until I could consistently perform a new trick. I went so far as to buy petrol, the only fire-friendly option around here, and look into ropes before I got word that this combination would most likely burn me. So, instead, I played violin at the talent show. Tom and I performed three blue-grass pieces that we’ve been working on for the past few weeks. This was my first time performing anything blue-grassy, including chords and fast improvisations, and as just before each song I had a moment of certainty that I had bluffed my way onto the stage and was about to squeak out only hideous noise. After the first, “Two Dollar Bill,” the audience of our stage-mates and teachers gave us a standing ovation. It was heaven. Through the comedians and fashion show, and through the dance party and bonfire, I floated high above the ground.

April 27
There can be no blog entry tonight because I am studying “the.” Fulakunnda has more than twenty ways to say “the.”

April 25
I once dated a boy who insisted on washing my feet. He said it was not an act of affection but one of self-preservation. My feet can smell a bit bad at times. After school today my Senegalese mother looked at my feet, shook her head, and sent me outside to wash them. She may have said something about thinking I should know better, but I’m just going on tone of voice with that, not actual vocabulary. A second after I got outside I was joined by my eleven year old sister who was under instruction to teach me to wash my feet. She showed me where the soap is kept, and she had me fill a kettle with water from the outdoor tap. Next she directed me to the young mango tree and bade me hold my foot over the tree so that the water she poured on my foot would not go to waste. I gently soaped my foot and looked at her expectantly, thinking she would rinse me. Again with the headshaking. Three or four times we went through this for each foot. I would scrub, she would say it wasn’t enough, and I would have to scrub more. When my feet were finally deemed satisfactory she took my hand and paraded me before our mother.

April 18
Today I woke feeling a little sick in the throat. I didn’t really think I had a fever, but the medical suitcase we were given contains a thermometer, so I decided to postpone my bucket bath by learning my temperature. After a few tries that yielded numbers like 95, 98, and 101, I gave the thermometer a vigorous shake, thinking to reset it and get a fresh start. It flew out of my hand and smashed on the floor. The mercury spread out into many little balls. If you roll one towards another, the two unite when they touch. I sat on the floor in my pajamas playing with my eventually big ball of mercury, experimenting with how it feels to touch mercury and how the substance reacts to being poked and prodded by other objects, until when shifting my position to retrieve the ball after one particularly forceful push, and I placed myself on top of a tiny sharp shard of the thermometer that has been stinging my thigh ever since.
However, language class went well today. When Nick, the source of my throat and glass problems, left class at my urging after spending the first thirty minutes looking worriedly into his hands after each loud cough to see what had emerged, I discovered that my language class has been one person too big. After Nick went to the sick-bay, I excelled. I am usually the slow student, still taking notes on one concept when Nick and Samba are beginning the next, which frequently leads to Samba waiting for me to answer questions that I never actually heard. But today, partially because he went at my pace, and partially because as the only person there to answer Samba’s questions I had to be on the ball for the whole class, I excelled. I think the demoralizing feeling of giving blank stares has been making me slower. Feeling today like I was doing well made me act smarter. Also, I used a little trick to gain some respect. Yesterday Samba began teaching the future tense. He covered the first class of verbs but didn’t have time reach the second and third. Last night I consulted the grammar book, and today I very nonchalantly spoke in the future tense using a second class verb with the correct suffix. Samba nearly fell over. He asked how I knew the verb structure. I replied in Fulakunnda it was because I am Senegalese.