Heather in Senegal

Saturday, September 30, 2006

September 23
Last Sunday my host mom, Neenee, won the lottery at the women's gamboling group. This is a group of 40 women who meet weekly to put money in a pot and eat together. Each week a woman's name is drawn, and on the following Sunday she must host the group. She has to prepare tea, a meal, and a sweet drink, and then she will receive the money collected that week. It is a savings group. Once a woman's name is drawn, her name is removed from the pot until all the women have won. No one makes money on this, but they enjoy gathering and getting the big sum of cash. It is a pleasure to see the women relaxing together. Two weeks ago a rainstorm began during the meeting and we had to run inside. I was surprised to see how the women, dressed in fancy clothing for the occasion, laughed about getting drenched. At the end of the meal, after the juice was served, the women picked up their shoes, lifted their skirts, and went skipping into the rain. I skewered my foot at the beach in Mboor, so I was scared to go barefoot. Still, I admired how these women walked straight ahead, swerving only to avoid the deepest puddles, laughing as they went.
Neenee won the lottery, but she insisted that the honor be given to me first. Later, when my name is drawn, she will host a meeting and collect the money. Because there was the chance that Ramadan would start on Sunday, it was decided that I would host the meeting today, Saturday, so that we could assemble during daylight as we usually do and still eat.
I was overwhelmed by what I had to do.
Thankfully, Binta, the youngest woman in the group, was assigned to help me. Before Neenee and I had walked all the way home, word of my winning had reached the girls who sit near our compound. When we came into sight, Nene, a girl who has recently made it her prerogative to teach me Pulaar vocabulary, told me she would make the tea, and that she and Calle would prepare the juice with me. Such a relief.
This morning Binta came to the compound to pick me up, and we went to market with one of Neenee's buckets and a shopping list. Although my first choice was for a simple vegetarian dish, Neenee and Binta were such good advocates of doing a dish that the women would love, namely, a meat dish, that I succumbed. I have seen how the animals are treated here. They are mostly free, and they walk through town with as much confidence and safety as anyone. It eases my conscience a little.
Market. Some time I will describe it and will include pictures. It is crowded like a middle school hallway between classes, on mud, with women beckoning you to their tables of piles of vegetables, some bright and attractive, some molding. Binta took care of getting us the right prices while I hurried after her, trying to not let people squeeze between us. Chunks of bodies hang all around the meat section. I looked at my feet a lot while Binta found the vender she likes and haggled over cuts.
I helped with the cooking, but not very much. Senegalese women can chop, pound, peal, and do everything else so much faster than I. Still, I tried. Jenny came over, and she sat with me, Binta, and Nene while I pounded onions and spices. The scene was picturesque. The four of us chatted in Pulaar about our boyfriends and the names of our future children, teasing one another a lot.
To make the juice I selected for the gathering, we had to squeeze the fruit a lot, sticking arms up to elbows into the bucket. Fingers are licked, kids cough, utensils from here and there are dunked into the juice. Before I came to Kolda I was advised to never watch the cooking process, for I will be eating it whether or not I can picture how it was made. Yes, I see now. The juice was thick and delicious.
Each woman in the group is required to provide seating for the others. Much to my relief, as the hour approached chairs started to appear. Some little girls had been sent door to door to request plastic chairs.
When the women began to arrive, Neenee pulled out the nice TV and put on a DVD of music videos. Many of the women insisted on having a turn dancing with me, and I forced others to dance by tossing my head scarf into their laps. Binta served the meal, giving me a special portion that lacked meat. Most women took the time to thank me for hosting before they left. I do not think they usually do that.
Through the weekly gatherings I am able to see my Pulaar improving. Little by little I can grasp more words in their conversations, and occasionally now I can contribute, even if they were not speaking slowly for me. These matriarchs greet me on the road and in town. Being part of this group and having these women care for me is making Kolda feel like a smaller, warmer place.

September 22
Yesterday afternoon my host mom, Neenee, asked or told me that today she would be having a group of boys over to pray in my hut. She was vague. Hoping that if I just followed the Senegalese way of politely agreeing to a date even when there is no intention to show up, I nodded and changed the subject. We have had issues with my hut and precisely who should be using the space. She thought that she would be able to continue napping in the livingroom as she had been doing before I came. She walked in and napped a few times, much to my silent chagrin. When she one day told me to open the hut so she could lay down I refused to do so, and a small fight ensued. She insisted that if I want to be Senegalese I must embrace the Senegalese way of sharing things and space, while I explained that as an American, or more specifically, as someone who is constantly called to, watched, and approached in public, I need a safe space of my own to keep me from losing my mind. She was angry, but for a long time she accepted this.
Although it had been my intention to be elsewhere, away from home, with my hut locked, at the prayer hour, I forgot, and five o'clock found me practicing violin in my bedroom. Neenee knocked on my window's door, and she told me the boys had arrived. While I packed up my violin, she moved my desk and chair into the corner of my livingroom. She set a bowl of food and a bowl of water where my desk had stood, and after the boys came in, she told me to exit. There were nine boys, ranging from 11 to 24 years old. Two of them live in my compound, and I recognized most of the others from the neighborhood.
The boys ate in silence while Neenee and I sat outside. She explained to me that she was doing "seduka" by hosting them. She never said why they had to be in my hut rather than in her batiment or on the cement under the shade structure where people often congregate, and I did not ask. Soon the boys beckoned us back into my hut. Neenee placed my hands in my lap, palms up, and instructed me to say, "amen," whenever the boys finished a phrase. There was chanted, alternating between one soloist, the group in unison, and the occasionally the group mouthed silently in unison. When they finished the prayers they brushed their hands over their faces and left. Neenee and I put my room back to how it had been, and then she poured the bucket of water on the floor in my doorways.

September 10
A noteworthy first:
Before going to bed last night I shut my hut's door. Since getting home, this was my first time doing so while inside. As I pushed the door shut, forcing it so the lock's mechanisms would line up, I briefly thought of the way I had to slam into the door yesterday each time I wanted to open it. While I was in Thies the rainy season finally picked up speed, and Kolda got a lot of rain. My wooden door frame, which was already curvy, swole in the humidity. But I had water in my hut, and I knew that in a pinch I could ask somone to punch the door for me in the morning.
Come morning, I couldn't open it. The little handle nailed onto my door did not give enough leverage. With the ease of one who has always had to carve her way out of her hut after a strong rain, I reached above the door and slipped my potato-tire knife out of its sheaf. I have been keeping the knife there because while trying to decide where to store it I noticed a curved piece of metal nailed above my door. The knife fits perfectly. I wonder if I stumbled upon a prior tenant's weapon holster, or if this once held a fetish to protect the hut. I placed the knife in a spot where the door did not meet the frame, and I sliced into the swollen wood until I was able to force the door open. After this I continued shaving off thin strips of wood until the door had regained freedom of motion. I then put bike oil on my skeleton doorkey to grease the lock which had been grinding unwillingly, and went to draw water for my bath, wondering on the career assessment test that once advised I become a locksmith.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I am now back in Kolda after three weeks of training in Thies. The best thing about the training was seeing my friends again. We traded stories of our successes, stresses, our homes, families, hopes, concerns, and so much more. It was overwhelming to finally be surrounded by English speakers who understand what I am going through and have insights and advice to make it easier, and tales of their own beside which I realize I am doing just fine. The three weeks were far too packed for me to describe, so I will just give some highlights.
The rainy season started proper during training. The urban aggies and the environmental ed volunteers did a lot of training together outside, practicing how to make improved beds and how to garden in various containers, including buckets, rice sacks, sliced plastic boxes, and whatever else we could find. On one rainy daye day Clare knocked me into a wrestling match, and once thoroughly covered in mud, we chased down our friends until about fifteen of us were slinging mud at one another. Living in Africa is indeed dangerous. The mud and sand pressed into my ear resulted in a week long painful ear infection that made everything sound like it was coming to me through water. All better now.
The hands on gardening experience during training was priceless. Container planting, grafting, dealing with seeds for trees, testing seeds, making pesticides, etc. It replaced knowledge of theory with actual understanding, and now I feel much better equipped to work in the garden here and teach others.
Language class was tough. Nick opted to switch into the French class, leaving me alone with Samba. We covered a lot of material, and I have a full notebook now to study. He introduced some fascinating new grammar structures. The way syllables can be added to verbs to change their intent is like a mathematical equation. I can't do the logic fast enough to hear it in conversation now, but I am beginning to be able to use the in-fixes.
Weekends were heaven. After the first week of training about twenty of us rented a house on the beach and spent two days swimming and lounging. I loved being in the ocean in a rain storm.
The second weekend I stayed in Thies for my little sister's birthday party. My host mom bought a fancy cake for the party, and lots of popcorn and sweet bread. We set the coffee table outside with a table cloth, fake flowers, and Fanta bottles, with a padded chair behind it like a throne. Many kids from the neighborhood came, and we danced and danced. Most presents were candies. I gave her a game of memory, which we played a lot later in the week. Getting back with my Thies family felt like coming home. These people were very kind to me, and it was a pleasure to be able to speak with them in so much more depth than when I had last seen them. Also, they have hosted many volunteers, and they were understanding about my spending most nights out with friends.
At the end of training some volunteers threw a big party on the beach. I love how much the ocean has been part of my life here. Most people dressed as if going to a fancy party in the Hamptons. The tailors here make it possible for people to draw clothing and have it materialize the next day.
It is hard to know what to say about the past few weeks. It was a thrill to be around friends, and so many, and with so little time before we all had to pack up and go back to our corners of Senegal, it felt like a frenetic rush to get as much color and life as we could out of the limited time. I had long rambling talks with a lot of the folks, lots of playing together, generally feel closer to the lot of them now, and suspect it will be a full year before I see some of them again. Peace Corps is about isolating you from the folks you love, thus forcing you to love the folks you're with.
Traveling back home was an adventure. I rode with other volunteers most of the way, but eventually I was alone, and there I found complications. The driver of the sept-place (a station wagon with seven seats for passengers, common transit vehicle) told me he could take me to one town, and from there I could catch a car to Kolda. He neglected to say that I would have to wait over night for said car. Luckily, two women and a man in the car with me saw my dilemma and invited me to come home with them. I had been talking with one of the women, and had rather hoped for and slightly expected the invitation. I love the hospitality in this country. The family lives on the outskirts of town. Their land borders on fields, and the area has no electricity, making it a beautiful and peaceful place to spend the night. The moon was full. I sat out with their family as we ate dinner, which was, much to my relief, vegetarian. The family was surprised to see the random toubob in their midst, and it was fun to see the confusion on everyone's face when neighbors visited in the morning. The family spoke Pulaar, so we were able to chat. Mostly I fell back on miming, and I was able to make them laugh a lot. They gave me the bed to sleep on, and I expected to share it. Instead, the family slept on a mat on the floor. In the morning I helped the daughter light the fire to boil water for coffee, bathed in the open roofed out house (such a pleasure!), helped clean the bedroom a bit, and after breakfast was walked back to the garage, where the man of the family secured the front seat of a bus for me.
Back in Kolda now, I am excited and nervous about starting work proper. The first thing I want to do is attack the spider mite problem in the garden. The little bugs have launched a full attack on the garden's tomatoes and eggplants. There are chemicals that can fix this, but I want to focus on solutions that will be easily accessible to the average gardener, so I will be using garlic, red pepper, tobacco, and the likes to, inshallah, banish the mites. I read in one garden manual that basil can be used to combat spider mites. This would be a blessing, for basil grows here like a weed, but every where else I have looked, sources say basil attracks spider mites. If you have any advice on spider mites, please send.
Back in Kolda
Today I got an email from Peace Corps saying that if I do not send in the medical part of my application soon, the rest will expire, and I will have to start applying from scratch.