Heather in Senegal

Monday, August 07, 2006

July 29

I just cleaned my water filter. The “candles,” the white chalk-like fingers through which the water must pass, were coated in a brownish slime. This is hardly a great monumental event, but it was my first time scrubbing well-water goo off filter candles.

On Tuesday morning Jenny and I biked out of town to meet Whitney on the road to her village. She lives about 45 minutes out of Kolda and gave me an open invitation when I first got here. I have been putting off the visit, wanting to get a bit more competent in Pulaar before trying to chat with a village of strangers who would be speaking pure Fulakunda, and not the Pulafuta-Fulakunda-French-Wolof melange of Kolda. Last week I finally felt ready, so we made the date. Riding to her village took us from urban Kolda to outskirts, off the paved road and onto soft sand, through narrow paths where grasses scraped our legs, and into a beautiful backcountry far from electric wires and crowds of buildings.
When we arrived at Whitney’s village women danced and clapped to welcome us. I was able to manage basic greetings and some simple exchanges, but Jenny, with her year of experience, did most of the talking. Where I have a huge hut and no private land, Whitney has a tiny hut with a big private backyard. A quarter of it is taken up with her bathroom, which is a big cement tank sunk in the ground with a shoe box sized opening on top. The majority of her yard is a corn field. She has two long rows of okra, and a thriving watermelon plant.
After we cooled down in the hut, we went out to the village’s fields. From a selfish point of view, the fields are beautiful. Long stretches of green and brown, patches of trees, a pair of women breaking ground, wide sky above spotted with fluffy clouds. I am finding a new passion for sky gazing. From a practical point of view, the sight was frightening. Tuesday marked thirteen consecutive days without rain in these fields during what should be the peak of the rainy season. The field should be covered in tall green stalks, and we should be home-bound by the pouring rain. More and more I am hearing people discuss the lack of rain and the impact it will have on the winter’s food supply.
When we returned to Whitney’s hut two women appeared with a gift for Jenny. A third woman had taken an instant liking to Jenny, and she had gone biking to the next town to buy her a few pieces of candy. As is custom, she gave them to her friends to act as go-betweens. Whitney said this is common. Friendship-at-first-sight. She has seen many friendships sprout from this kind of gift giving. It seems people simply agree they are going to be friends, skipping all preliminaries, and proceed as if they are already close to each other.
Lunch was served to us in Whitney’s hut. By this time Justin, another volunteer, and Hamidy, Whitney’s boyfriend, had joined us. Lunch was white rice with a sauce of follere leaves (I found out that follere is hibiscus) and okra. The sauce is a bit bitter, but it has good texture and feels very nutritious, which at this stage is more appealing than a good taste. Hamidy cooked up some bissap juice. This is made from dried flower of the hibiscus boiled in water. He served it hot with a lot of sugar. It is very similar to the juice from a fresh batch of cranberry sauce. After lunch we took a blanket out to a nearby field and lay under a tree, surrounded by kids. I tried to teach Hamidy some partner balancing, and the kids mimicked us. They were too shy to try it with me, but Whitney thinks they will practice on their own. Clouds rolled in, and we could hear thunder from all sides, but the direction of the wind correctly told us that the rain would not hit us. However, the wind and the shield from the sun made the lounging outside simply perfect. Jenny and Justin left around four o’clock. Justin escorted Jenny most of the way to town, and then he turned around and went home. Two weeks ago this would not have been thought necessary, but recently a girl was found raped and murdered on the road between Whitney’s village and Kolda, and some men dressed like cow herders have been hanging around the road not greeting people and generally looking suspicious, so now we do not ride the road alone. Hamidy, Whitney, and I cooked maffe gerte for dinner: peanuts ground into butter boiled with water, salt, red pepper, and mashed up okra, over white rice. Delicious. I have heard that village food is awful, but I enjoyed everything I ate. One of my main reasons for wanting to spend the night was a desire to see the sky in a land far from electric lights. It was cloudy, so I will have to go back. The lightening striking off in the distance, however, was stunning. On Wednesday we went back into the fields to do some weeding. One lucky side affect of the lack of rain is that weeds can’t grow much. The few that are present are rather short. Still, spending a little while bent over weeding a field is enough to instill a new respect for the women for whom this is the way of life. When we came back from the field I went with Whitney to a meeting with two villagers. Whitney has arranged for a doctor a few towns over to sell medication to these women, who in turn sell to the villagers. Last year Whitney helped set up a small store in her village, but because everyone in the village is related in some fashion, and everyone badgered the cashier saying, “we’re family, so you should give me lots of stuff and let me pay later,” the store was never able to afford a second shipment of goods. However, the women in charge of the medicine are collecting money, so they will soon be ordering more supplies. Once they got deep into vocabulary I do not yet know, I started making faces at the kids and soon had a pack trying to make fish lips and cross their eyes.
Whitney learned of a tree that has very nutritious leaves, and she recently did a class on how to cook using these leaves. Other leaves have been less beneficial. About a year ago, a young man invited her over for tea several times. He was a friend, so she came and drank with him each time, and then vomited all night. When she finally connected her puking-boughts to the tea, she and some others questioned the young man. He confessed that he had been putting herbs in her tea to make her like him. The nausea was an unfortunate side affect. The fact that she is still friends with him makes me wonder if the herbs were powerful in the intended sense; although she does not date him, she somehow likes him enough to forgive him for poisoning her.
I spoke, at least briefly, to most of the people in the compound, and they were kind to me with my limited Pulaar. I danced and clowned for them, and when Hamidy put on a tape of Dvorak’s New World Symphony I sang along with it. A woman told us that Whitney speaks better than I do, and I play better than she does. I was pleased, but I know this is in part because while I can freely dance and play the fool, if Whitney did the same she would hear about it for months. During her first week here she did dance a lot, and the discussion of it, joking about it, and requests for more dancing during the months afterwards taught her to be more mild mannered.
The visit was rejuvenating, making me feel new excitement and affection for my surroundings. When it was time to go home, Hamidy sharpened his machete and biked with me back to Kolda.

4 Comments:

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At 11:34 AM, Blogger Askinstoo said...

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At 3:10 PM, Blogger Bex07 said...

Wow. It's really interesting to hear how Westerner's behavior is shaped by the cultures there (your friend Whitney becoming more mild-mannered, for example). i am glad that you feel no compunction at playing there!! :0)

 
At 9:16 AM, Blogger alau said...

The story of the store is very interesting. In the class I'm taking on cultural geography right now, we were learning about various Polynesians of the South Pacific. That kind of attitude, where things are owned communally, rather than individually are why the Chinese and other Westerners have managed become so wealthy in the South Pacific. If one person opens a store, then theoretically, anyone in his family should be able to stop in and pick something up because literally, "what's mine is yours." Of course the success of the Chinese, this means that whenever there's unrest, the Chinese businesses are the first to be attacked (Think of them as the Jews of Asia; nobody like them because they're seen as tight-fisted money-grubbers who have a conspiracy to keep everyone else down and take over the world).

sorry for the random aside!

 

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