Heather in Senegal

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The peaceful woodsy song of crickets is rather like a chainsaw in an echo chamber when it is being belted out by the choir that moved into my hut. Crickets are everywhere. I do not want to step on them, but I cannot fly. I wear shoes at all times so that I will not feel them when they shatter. They nap in my toilet hole and spring to life when I appear. I can not roll over in bed without being stabbed by a severed leg. I never find the rest of their corpses, only their sharp pointy legs. Do they grow wings? Last night one hopped into my pajamas to wake me. After I finally pushed it out, I underestimated how close it was; when I let my hand fall back down on my matress I heard the poor thing crunch. As I was playing a Bach Partita today, with one sitting on my shoulder and another creeping up my calf, I went cross-eyed watching a cricket amble across my violin.

Monday, June 19, 2006

I let Salimatou braid my hair a second time. The first time she simply did two french braids. This time, without warning me, she did about ten braids. Compared to some heads this is very few, but it is far more than mine has ever known, and it hurt. The braiding itself was not too bad, but having my hair continually pulled by the braids for the next few days, having the braids, which were thin ropes studded with the thorns of the ends of my hair, hit my neck, and sleeping on the lumps of braids, hurt. Everyone here tells me I am wrong; braids do not hurt. So I can do nothing but agree with them and explain it's not me but my scalp, and because my scalp does not speak Pulaar, it cannot be convinced otherwise. Salimatou was offended when I took out the braids after only two days.

Today I took Jenny to the house of Jenabu Balde. I met Jenabu weeks ago while I was biking hope and greeting people. Because we have the same name she took me to her house to meet her family and give me mangos. She told me she has a women's group that wants help with their garden, so I promised her I would bring Jenny by once Jenny returned from Dakar. (She had her annual dental appointment. After a year of mangos she had no cavities. But then, she only has 3 cavities to begin with, a far cry from my mouth; I lost count at 16. Still, it is a good sign.) I felt lousy about saying I was in Kolda do do ag work but could not help her, and while Iknew someone who could, this person would not appear for a couple weeks. At this point I lack the language to give garden advice, and I am supposed to spend my first year primarily in the garden with Sek. Jenny is going to spend this year doing extension work, so it seemed like a good match. Jenabu's son led us out to the garden, which is a large plot of land speckled with fruit trees and with a pump well. The women Jenny spoke with at the house said that their primary problem is their age. The group is old. Their legs hurt. I don't think Jenny will get much work done with this group, but knowing of their existence will help her other project: data gathering. Jenny is planning to assemble a list of all the women's groups in Kolda, complete with information about their resources, skills, experience, and needs, so that future urban ag volunteers, most immediately, me, will be able to know who to approach, who has a history of working hard, who needs advice, who knows how to do what, and so on. Eventually it would be ideal if we could give the list back to the groups and say, "If you contact the groups on this list you will find all the information and support you could ever want concerning gardening in Kolda."

Senegal seems to want me to have a pet. Yesterday Jenny killed one of her rabbits to make room for the four new babies. She will kill another two very soon, but has let me know I can buy their freedom if I like, or I can adopt one of the babies when it is old enough. Yesterday I saw a cat walking in the sand. Full of hope, I hopped off my bike and tried to lure the cat to me. No dice. The cat ran away. As I began to pedal home, a cluster of women who had watched me be rejected called to me. They said the cat is named Moose, and is usually nice to people. So I hollered "Moose! Aru!" telling him to come. I guess the women don't much talk to their cats, for they burst into laughter every time I called him. He consistantly ignored me, so I tried stalking him with a dramatic tip-toe hopping step, which earned me a whithering look from Moose but cheers from the women. Then, they told me they have a very pregnant cat and want to give me a kitten. I can not give an animal the kind of long term care and safety I would like to give a pet, and I do not want any more responsibility than taking care of myself and my toilet hole, but it would be so nice to have a furry companion.

June 17, Friday
Yesterday Jenny and I biked to Guinea-Bissau. The above pictures are from the trip. She thinks the ride is about 35 km each way, but it is hard to be sure; every person we asked had a different estimate for the distance between Kolda and the border, ranging from 15 km to 45 km. The road, in its good moments, resembled the back of a Nestle’s Crunch bar. The road is made of red packed dirt, big puddles we had to bike around, and far too many rocks of all sizes. Most of the ride was painless, but by the time I collapsed into bed yesterday afternoon everything that can ache from a bike ride was aching. However, it was a glorious ride. As we progressed south the scenery grew more green and lush. We passed many tiny villages, each of which looked like a cluster of maybe thirty huts. We greeted people in every village. Jenny says it is a safety measure. If anything was to happen to us, from an offensive person to a sudden cloudburst, we could return to one of those villages, and because we had greeted them the people would most likely welcome us like family. (There used to be a volunteer in Senegal who would simply bike until she was tired and then go to the nearest village for food and a place to sleep. I hear she always found warm welcomes.) Also, it is really fun to speak Pulaar to people who are stunned to find white people speaking their language. We met a traveling salesman who was going to the villages with a huge cage of clothing, shoes, and cds tied to his bike. We came across a grove of giant palm trees and calf high black toadstools that were made by termites. This field looked prehistoric. I missed paved roads, where I can balance without using the handlebars, and sit up straight in a position that leaves my lower back and arms free from any discomfort, but much of Senegal has roads like the one we took, so I hope in time to grow used to the bumpiness.

Today I did not so much as touch my bicycle. I walked to work, and everyone who knew me asked what was wrong with my bike. After lunch I was craving a mango, and no one in my house had any, so I grabbed Khadjitou, who I think in fact is not my sister or niece, but I’m still not sure, and said we should walk to market to buy mangos. She agreed, but insisted we wait and rest first. When she was rested she roused me from my reading, and we began the walk. We were instantly joined by two other girls. Leaving the immediate neighborhood took a long time because we had to greet everyone and tell them where we were going. Once we got outside the neighborhood things did not speed up. The girls drag their feet as if that could possibly prevent them from getting drenched in sweat. They kept complaining about my pace, and they started holding my hand or the back of my shirt to keep me in check. Any time someone spoke to us in Pulaar, even if I understood the person my girls would try to translate for me - into Pulaar. They seemed to view me as a rambunctious pet dog. So, I played the part. Every time I saw a pretty field, a path leading into a woods, or a climbable tree, I would aim for it, and the three girls would have to pull on me, leaning and throwing their full weights into the effort of keeping their wandering toubob on track. They humored me to a degree, letting me choose to cross the Casamance River using an informal bridge that is a string of old car and truck tires lying in the muck. At the market the girls bargained and haggled like pros, getting many more mangos for the cfa than I ever could. Walking home, faces dripping mango juice, the girls tried to teach me a song in Pulaar.

June 8, Thursday
I have a hard time remembering to take my larium on Wednesdays. I really really do not want to get malaria, but ever since I got to Kolda I have been thinking of larium on Tuesdays, forgetting on Wednesdays, and dosing on Thursdays or Fridays. So, a small favor, please. If you find yourself calling or e-mailing me on a Wednesday, please remind me to take my pill. It is often an unpleasant little pill. I do not get the vivid dreams some people experience, but the pill sits in my chest dissolving very slowly, inspiring burps and the occasional shadow of nausea. But I’ve no doubt it’s worth it.
Today my host mom orchestrated the water-proofing of my hut. She began while I was at the garden. I came home to the sight of her dressed in an outfit usually reserved for trips into town, hollering like a construction-site-foreman at the troop of neighborhood teenagers tying sheets of plastic to my roof (see photo). They bounced around on my straw and bamboo for a few hours, during which the falling straw, bamboo, and cement (from where the ceiling rests on my walls), kept me outside, watching the boys and calling up my thanks. They would not let me help.
When the job was done, I had the task of cleaning my hut. Brooms here are so many pieces of long hard straw tied together in a pack. There is no broom handle. You are to bend over so that your hand is nearly on the floor, and sweep with the side of the broom, using the length of the straw rather than just the tips. This is hard on the back, and when I realized the family had an american broom I grabbed it. But what do I know. The american broom moved the cement chunks and most of the straw, but it did nothing but trace lines in the dust that had fallen. My family laughed when I returned the handled broom and bent over to sweep like a Senegalese woman.
In moving my suitcases and trunks I think I killed a lizard. I regret that I did not think to photograph my victim. Immediately after I slid my trunk from my bedroom to my backroom I saw the lizard on the floor in the doorway. Maybe it crawled into my room dying. I’ll never know. It wagged its tail slowly, then more slowly, and then it stopped, and I gave off a most foul eulogy. Why couldn’t it have used those last bits of energy for running outside rather than waving its tail in the wind? Later, when my Pulaar is up to snuff, I will inquire after the black magic meanings behind dead and dying lizards in doorways. I know eggs in that spot are unlucky. I wanted to walk away from it and let one of my mice, or maybe a team of ants, carry it away, but I was too worried that my guests would fail me, I would forget about the lizard, and while trotting off to floss I’d squish the lizard, making it so much more unpleasant to deal with than it already was. I wanted someone else to deal with the corpse, but after the way my family has been mimicking my diarrhea and my dancing, I thought it best to not let them know I have a weak spot for dead lizards.
The first few times I tried pushing it onto my slab of cardboard I had to stop as soon as I felt its body’s weight, because I am much more squeemish than I ever realized. I think there was red goo coming out of its right eye and maybe its chin, but as soon as I got a glimpse of that I resolved to look only at the torso. Eventually I got the lizard outside and into the garbage can. Yesterday I had a red stain on my finger from a fruit drink mix I was using in my water to hide the taste of the rehydration salts. My sister spotted it as soon as I stepped out of my hut, and she took me to task for not inviting her to have a drink. Yet no one said a peep about their toubob carting around a dead lizard. I sang a little as I dropped it in the garbage can, so as not to hear its body make a thump. I really like the lizards here. They are to Senegal like squirrels are to the USA. Often they are yellow and blue. If I had to kill something, I wish it had been a cockroach.

June 5, Monday
The computers at the internet cafe all have French keyboards. The main differences for me lie in the placement of the A, M, W, and punctuation marks. I type most of these entries from home, and it is in typing on my american laptop that I realize how well I have adapted to the new keyboard layout. Thankfully, both the French and the English put their delete buttons in the same place.
Yesterday I had my first good bout of sickness in Senegal. I had been dreading it. It began in the morning with a stomach ache and an unusually keen desire to stay in bed. By the time I reached the garden it had matured into a pain that kept me from wanting to stand up straight. After stumbling around the garden for about thirty minutes, I reasoned that Sek would respect me more if he knew I had come to work when sick than if he just thought I was being remarkably lazy, so I told him I felt horrible and was going home. I then biked to the regional house, acutely aware of each pothole and each minor lump in the sand. I spent the day curled up on one bed or another, reading, wishing I could sleep, and crawling to and from the sit down toilet. Other than breakfast, I could not eat anything yesterday. This turned out to be a blessing; when the puking began I was very glad to have only liquid in my belly.
There were three other volunteers coming in and out of the house, and they were kind to me, bringing me cold drinks and oral rehydration salts, and distracting me with conversation and Scrabble.
After the sun set and I still felt too sick to bike home, I called my host mom to say I would be spending the night at the regional house. Successfully conducting that conversation without my usual crutch of charades was the highlight of my day. She wished me well and told me to come home in the morning. About an hour later, as I was walking outside to go to the kitchen where I thought I would find the key for the house medicine cabinet, she appeared in the yard. She had had a neighbor accompany her to the regional house so that she could see me. Sweet woman. I am liking her more all the time.
In the night I got sulfuric tasting burps, spent much of the time I could not spend sleeping praying, and now feel better. May all my sicknesses be so easy. I still have not eaten anything, and I am feeling clean and healthy. In the strange world of Senegal, which feels even more odd than usual, having spent the past day in the company of toubobs and deep in two novels, it almost seems possible that I should be able to pass two years without eating. What a pleasure it would be to avoid eating traces of animals, amoebas, parasites, and grease, and just maintain this clear present feeling. But my host mom has some bread and butter for me, and as soon as I finish typing I suspect I will wolf it down.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

June 3
Last night was the first big rain. Today at the beginning of the brutally hot part of the day the air became alive with tiny flying insects. This will sound like an exaggeration, but a modest estimate would be to say no bug was ever more than four inches from its nearest neighbor on each side. Thankfully, they were a sun-loving bunch, so the air under the shade structure was free. I sat there cheering for the lizards who had come out in force to enjoy the easy hunting. About two hours after the bugs appeared they lost their wings, or, more accurately, dropped them in a pile outside my door, and became ugly crawling creatures who apparently wished to drown in my toilet and in my water bucket. I refilled my bucket many times today because I could not bare to wipe myself with a handful of wet carcasses. I could not go so far as to intentionally step on any of the not-yet-drowned bugs, but I took delight in choosing to look anywhere but the floor as I walked. Usually if I see a bug floundering in water I lift it out and try to blow-dry it with my breath. Today I found myself looking at a bug waist-deep in a puddle and actually hoping I would have the privilege of watching it die. I heard Peace Corps would change me, but I did not expect this. They were not a biting bunch, and they showed no predilection for crawling on me, as did the city of ants I found one morning in my bathroom. Their abundance during their flying phase encouraged me to breath through my nose rather than mouth, and my dentist says that is better for my teeth. Yet still, I hope any eggs they laid are being discovered and destroyed. I see seven lifeless bugs on my bed, and two on my knee.
The rain was incredible. First came the lightening. Huge portions of the sky burst into light for split seconds, illuminating the variety of clouds. Occasionally I saw a lightening bolt, but mostly it was sudden flickerings of a broad bright light. It was beautiful, and I stood gazing at the sky for a long time. I was surprised that no one seemed to understand why I was so infatuated by the light show. People kept urging me to go inside. When the rain became more than a drizzle I reluctantly joined my family in their living room. Their house has a corrugated metal roof. A sprinkling of rain on a roof like that sounds like a storm. Last night we could not hear each other’s yells beyond a distance of three feet. The rain did not fall so much as pummel.
After it had been pouring for a little while, my mother suddenly thought of my straw covered hut. We ran the ten feet from her door to mine, arriving soaked, to find one side of my bed was in a puddle, my books were wet, and my living room had a small pond. The family came to help mop up the water and move all my things into a dry corner. Earlier yesterday I had refused to tell my mother the cost of my furniture, and this had made her quite angry. Our very next interaction found her choosing to be on her knees scrubbing a rag on my floor to absorb the water. I was so grateful to her and my family for how they took care of me and my things. Today another relative and I walked to the market to buy plastic, and tomorrow someone will help me waterproof my hut. This evening, as a token of my gratitude, I finally let the girls braid my hair. Ever since I moved here I have been telling them they could have a go at my head tomorrow. They were stunned when I finally said today might be nice. It hurt, as I expected, and I was disappointed to find that when I turned my gasps of pain into cries of, “mangooooo,” no one brought me a mango. But the folks gathered to watch the evening’s soap opera, “Passions,” cheered for me and Salimatou, my stylist, when she finished, and I rather like how the braids look.

June 2
Two days ago I saw someone passing the garden with a kora, a big guitar-like instrument. I stopped him, got a short concert out of him, told him I play violin, and got a date for yesterday morning. The kora player showed up at the garden with two other musicians as I was finishing the morning’s work. We sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, and they took turns on the kora while I played violin. They taught me one piece and I improvised through a few others. As planned, they returned in the afternoon as I was finishing work, and we went to the house of the guy from whom Jenny and I are buying drums. We worked on the piece they had taught me, and we started a few other Senegalese songs. I tried to teach them a Turkish melody and then an Irish jig, but I was disappointed by their inability to grasp the melodies.
Today one of the musicians came to my house. I guess I had mentioned my neighborhood's name, and once in the area he had only to ask people where the toubob lives. I tried to make my sister greet him so that I could learn his name, but she did not understand my need and only gave him a curt couple of questions. I thought it creepy that he had sought and found my home. He had little to say, and when he did speak his words were very quiet and hard to understand. I refused to make much effort for him, so we sat in silence as I ate a mango. He was mad that I had not been at the garden when he arrived this morning, and he wanted me to come to his house to play music. When he told me he was angry I could not help but laugh at how absurd it was that someone I had met only two days before should sound so severely betrayed. He must have realized he was being silly; the righteously angry expression on his face broke off into sheepish laughter. Eventually he got up to leave, and when I showed no sign of joining him he looked genuinely surprised. I tried to gently explain that his visit to the garden this morning and his anger about my absence were the result of a misunderstanding that was rooted in my poor language skills, and therefore we should avoid further trouble by postponing music-making until I speak better Pulaar. He said he did not understand. My mother, who had been sitting with us for the whole visit, said a brief something to him, and he scurried off. My mother then told me that I am welcome to say she threatened to beat me if I go to his house, but that he may come to ours. I was quite touched by her suggesting I use her as an excuse to keep myself safe, and it pleased me that her thinking was so similar to that of my real mother.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

June 1
Yesterday I got myself a beans sandwich and a glass of tea for breakfast. The tea is pink, with foam on top, and it tastes like a hot milkshake. Delicious. It was my first time going to a beanlady alone. I was so pleased to have eaten out on my own.
Beanladies are wonderful women. They are all over the place, and a delicious and cheap source of food. This is sort of like describing how going to a gas station works, but my mom found it interesting, so here is a description.
A bean sandwich costs 100 cfa. For some perspective, sending a letter to the US costs 550 or 650 cfa. Beanladies are in cities across Senegal. Each sits in a small square tent with a table in the center and wooden benches around it. On the table are her beans, bread, knife, pepper, cups, and maybe a bowel of meat. She usually has tappalappa (the local bread) and a white bread. Both are shaped like long thing baguettes. She cuts a piece about the length of my forearm and smears a generous amount of a bean and onion mix inside. She has black pepper, hot red pepper, and sometimes mayonaise that can be added. I have been advised to stay away from the mayo, at least until I think I already have ameoabas. She gives you the sandwich wrapped in newspaper. You sit on your bench and chat or don't chat with the other customers until you are finished. Then you pay, crumple your newspaper, and drop it on the ground. It is hard to get used to the fact that the land here is viewed as one endless garbage can. While morally it feels lousy to toss things by the side of the road, it is awfully convenient to be able to fling away banana peels and other trash. If I ever decide to stop having both lunch and dinner with my family, I think I will become close friends with a beanlady.
Family meals - These are usually pretty tasty. Some sauce, a few vegetables, and a bed of rice or millet. If the family is having chunks of meat they make me a seperate plate. Today I helped with the green sauce and discovered that ground up dried fish goes into even the most vegan-looking dishes. I shall try to focus on the taste. If I am sitting with them we all crowd around one bowl. Most of us use spoons. There is usually little to no discussion. Some of us sit just above the ground on low wooden stools, and the rest squat. Meals are late. Lunch is around two, which is long after my eight o'clock breakfast. Dinner is around ten. Once Peace Corps sends me a refrigerator I might opt out of the family dinners in favor of having time to digest before going to sleep.
The man who is making my furniture made his first bamboo hula-hoop last week. He thought it an odd concept, but he made it very well and gave it to me for free. I think the spectacle of me giving it a test run outside his shop paid for the circle.