Heather in Senegal

Monday, November 13, 2006

A little while back I had a worm in my left foot. It created a sguiggly raised line as it meandered toward my toes, getting closer every day. I first noticed the line when I found myself scratching an itch on my foot.

I called a Peace Corps doctor,and after I described my symptoms, the first thing she asked was whether there were any cats or dogs in my life. Oh Gidget, the Kolda Peace Corps kitten, dear little playful furball. I remember her playing with my foot one day not long before the itch began. Her claws were out, but the pin pricks were not too bothersome. Perhaps she failed to clean her claws after her last walk through her litterbox, and thus gave me a fresh worm out of her. Does that sound right? But I know some volunteers get their worms from working in dirt, so there is really no telling the source of mine.

The doctor told me to buy two tablets and a special cream that fights worm-induced itches. One tablet I swallowed, and the other I crushed. I mixed the dust with the cream and rubbed it on the worm-trail three times a day for a week. (The tablet is also good at fighting giardia, and I am happy to say I have not had any very sulphuric burps since taking the pill.) After a few days of treatment I saw the line fade slightly, while a bubble like a blister rose at one end. The worm never exited there, at least not that I saw.

I have since taken Gidget to the vet for an anti worm shot and for a vaccination, and the worm line on my foot has disappeared.

November 4, Saturday

My first fall off my bike happened because my right pant leg got caught in my gears. This trapped my leg, so when the bike began to tip over I was unable to extend a foot. I landed on my knee on soft sand. I lay still for a moment, and the gang of kids who I had just biked past let out a loud cheer for the falling of the toubob.

The second and third falls were because of minor obstacles in the road. No one saw me topple.

Two days ago I took a spectacular spill. The beginning of my ride home from the garden takes me on a very busy paved road. Traffic includes tractors and trucks that the Chinese are using for road repair, cars, motorcycles, Senegalese busses, carts drawn by mules, bicyclists, and pedestrians. All of these have different capacities for speed, so passing and being passed is a constant sport on busy streets. There are no marked lanes, so you can never guess how much a person might swerve to the left or right while proceeding straight ahead.

My work at the garden on Thursday consisted of clearing weeds and pulling up old plants. Most of our tomato plants have expired, and we are replacing the adults with younger plants that are currently in pepinaires. I spent the morning thinking of the future of the garden, the lush produce, and the experiments I will perform. I was biking home slowly, liesurely, when some shmuck sped past me on the left. His handle bars smacked mine, and this made my front wheel snap to the right. I flew off the bike. So many sandy roads in Kolda, and I had the luck to skid to a stop on cement.

Unlike the first time I fell, this time I was instantly surrounded by a concerned crowd. Again and again I see that if a situation is less than quite serious, everyone here will laugh and make fun, but that if there is a real problem, people will do all they can to help. A police officer pulled me to my feet, and about a dozen different people offered to take me to the hospital. My knee was bloody and already swelling, and I had scratches all along my left side from the bit of skidding, but I knew I had nothing worse than scratches and bruises. The crowd guided me to a raised piece of cement designed to keep people from falling into the sewer, insisting I sit and rest. Someone picked up my bike and set it against a wall for me, and an old man came to me with some cotton balls so I could clean up. The shmuck who hit me came back and appologized with a sheepish laugh. He said he had been looking at the oncoming cars and had not seen me. It is a good wake up call. I have been taken by surprise by bikers and pedestrians who were immediately ahead of me, and on one or two occasions I might have passed other bikers with extremely little room to spare.

I biked home with a whole new sense of skittishness, and after lunch I took a long walk. I went into an area I have but little explored. Every second household had a child who, regardless of my greetings and attempts at converstation, squeeled, "toubob!" until I was out of sight. I came across a woman using a long forked stick to bend Nebedie branches into reach so that she could harvest the leaves. With my Nebedie trees at the garden slowly showing signs of life, I have a great and newfound interest in the tree. We spoke at length about how she prepares the leaves. By the end of the walk my knee was stiffer than when I had begun. At dusk, when my little brother and I walked to a trash pile to get good, composted, dirt that we put in small plastic sacks with some flower seeds, everyone could see my limp.

My host mom, who often presents what I find irritatingly inflated, dramatized versions of her feelings, completely dropped her flamboyant personality when it came to my knee and my accident. I was touched. She seemed hurt that I had not mentioned the accident until now, and lightly berated me. She was angry at the shmuck who hit me and at the police officer who did not catch him. When she saw the scrapes on my bike and the dents in my helmet she suggested I ditch the bike and take to walking instead, like the other women in the neighborhood. She insisted I take off my shoes to help circulation, and she commissioned my sister to massage my leg and arm with Bengay cream. Later she brought me dinner in my room, and she drew water from the well for me. When I was getting ready for bed I could hear her telling other people about my accident.

Yesterday I could not bend my knee, so I had a delicious day of relaxation. I spoke and sat with my family for a long time, played violin, read, and helped my mom prepare lunch. I went with my brother to sell juice at the nearby elementary school. My mom makes delicious sweet drinks. She ladles them into sandwich bags, ties them shut, and freezes them. Buyers bite holes in bottom corners and suck out the juice. The school scene was chaotic. Three women and two little girls were selling food and drinks, and about fifty little kids were running, shouting, dancing to complicated clapped beats, climbing trees, and having little fights, all around us. The girl selling limes grabbed a skinny branch and jokingly whacked at younger kids when they stood too close to her limes. One girl kept buying bags and putting them up to other people's mouths until all the juice was gone. A very tall and a very short girl wrapped themselves together to become a three legged giggling creature that chased other kids. My brother and some of his friends hopped onto a big cement rectangle and raced around it until they got dizzy and fell off. The teachers have not yet come to school, so the kids had the whole day to just run around the school's grounds.

In the afternoon I sat under a mango tree with some girls in their late teens. When the sun lit the land where we were sitting we carried the bench across the sandy and sat on the other side of the street in the usual early-evening spot. I had a vocabulary list with me, and we had an impromptu reading lesson when Nene started trying to sound out the Pulaar and English. The schools here conducted in French, so no one gets accustomed to reading and writing in Pulaar. Nene speaks it fluently, but she still had to sound out the verb list. She was especially delighted when she sounded out the English words. I do not know precisely how the English classes are run, but despite the fact that all students take English classes, I know of only two teenagers, Boubacar and Dura, who can actually speak English.

Boubacar lives in my neighborhood. He heard the English and came to join us. He was like an eager puppy. He kept interupting when Nene was trying to sound out words, and when I finally got him to leave the word list to her, he began interupting to show off other words that he knew. For example, he was very pleased to know the difference between, "I am used to X," and, "I used to X." When Nene left to do the evening prayer, Boubacar and I began talking in English. I had him speak about himself. He has been with his girlfriend, Binta, for three years, and he says he is very American about the relationship; he believes in being faithful to her and does not want a second or third girlfriend at the same time. So many men here try to have multiple girlfriends. Likewise, I have spoken to a woman who was proud to say that she has a husband and three boyfriends. That is a lot, but by most standards here, one boyfriend is very little. Boubacar first saw Binta at a dance club. He said he loved her immediately, and he went to her and told her that he is intelligent, hard working, loyal, kind, etcetera, and that if she did not believe him she could ask his friends. She agreed to be his girlfriend that night. Boubacar told me he wants to go to school in Holland so that he can find work there and give money to his family. His dream, he told me with a bright innocent glow, is to have many many cows. I do not see it much in the city, but in villages the collection of cows is a key venture. The cows are not to be eaten or sold. Simply, because we are Pulaars, we want to have a lot of cows. While everyone else I have asked here dislikes George Bush, Boubacar greatly admires Bush because he thinks Bush is bravely fighting terrorism and working very hard to lead the fifty states.

Today my knee is still swollen, but it does not hurt so much. Negotiating my squat-toilet is slapstick, and I could not ride my bicycle today, but otherwise I'm fine.

October 24, Tuesday

Today was Korite in my neighborhood. The holiday was celebrated yesterday on the other side of town, where they began the Ramadan fast a day before we did. Korite is a very happy occasion; it marks the return to eating and drinking during the day. Besides the general happy air and huge, huge meals, people celebrate a little like Halloween. Everyone, self included, donned their best outfit and set to the street. Instead of, "trick or treat," children and some joking adults ask everyone to give them something that sounds like, "salad bowl." People carry extra small change for this purpose.

In the evening my sister and I sat outside our compound facing the sandy road as if we were a pair of princesses. We sipped cold Orange Fanta as an endless procession of girls and women in their finest clothing and with their hair done up for the occasion paraded past. A couple men came by, but they were all wearing jeans or other casual clothing. Everyone stopped to greet us and ask for our salad bowls. My sister and I discussed the fashions and hairdos that came before us. To me it was a holiday of food, trick or treating, and girliness.

October 20

Women here wear outfits called compolays. This consists of a big shirt and a wrap around skirt. The shirt can be fitted, but for older women it usually more like a tent. (You can see these in my market pictures.) Because of this design, Jenny did not know her host mother in Thies was pregnant until she was told her mom had gone to a hostpital to give birth.

A few days ago I came home and found my older sister, Nene, reclining in a hammock-like chair. She was wearing only a wrap around skirt tied just above her breasts. The single layer and her position combined to give me a good view of her stomach. It is a basketball. Later, when she was lying on the straw mat, I joined her and congradulated her on the pregnancy. I told her I had only just realized she is pregnant. She laughed, but was not surprised, and she said she is due in December. I commented that she must have conceived in March when I was coming to Senegal, and she told me that indeed it was March, for that was when she got married. I nearly fell over. I have been living with her ever since I got to Kolda. I asked her once if she had a boyfriend and she told me she did not. She had assumed I knew she was married, and in Senegal it is so common for a married woman to have a boyfriend or two that my question was not offensive.

Nene told me she met her husband in the marketplace and immediately fell in love. She lived with him and his first wife for two months before returning to her mother's house to deal with the pregnancy. I think that after the child is born she will move back into his compound. She asked me about my having children, and this led to the topics of birth control, condoms, and AIDS. Again I was shocked to find out that after her first child was born she went onto the pill for two years. I had no idea it was accessible here. She is not a personal fan of condoms but agreed they are necessary if you are sleeping with many people. She has had herself tested for AIDS and other diseases a handful of times. I hope that her husband and his other wife are equally aware of the risks of unprotected sex. This conversation felt like a breakthrough for me. I was thrilled to be talking about disease and precaution, and to find her knowledgeable and open.

I expected to find a very modest and restrained sexual culture in Senegal, but that is not at all the case. I know another volunteer who is working with the owner of a camping ground on the Casamance River. It is a beautiful spot, idyllic for family getaways. It has huts that can be rented for a few days, a single night, or an hour at a time. The vast, vast majority of the man's income comes from hourly clients. A happy sidenote is that my friend once came upon the owner drafting a sign asking clients to please not leave used condoms in the huts.

Yesterday, bolstered by Nene's response, I took my friend Zaorna aside to talk a bit about sex. She is about eighteen, and I know she is crazy about her boyfriend. I told her she could come to me for socks (the popular euphemism for condoms) if she needed any, and that it would be confidential. She burst into shy giggles. She was touched, but she is a virgin and knows how to get condoms at the pharmacy. I am getting the impression that it is generally easier and considered less embarassing to get them here than in the US. We spoke a bit about diseases and pregnancy. Not knowing just what she has already heard, I wanted to impress upon her how easy it is to get sick or pregnant. I got the impression I was saying nothing new. She asked about some specifics of sex and slowly confided that she wants to "give her virginity" to her boyfriend. She is scared of it hurting and scared that her mother would be mad, but she likes the guy a lot and has been dating him for over a year. I asked if she wanted to marry him, and she very frankly said she is too young to know. How would you respond to a smart and beautiful young woman who is considering having sex with someone she really cares for?

September 24
After some research and consideration, I assembled a list of rotations of pesticides that I want to test. The sprays are almost all made easily from common items. Soap, baking soda, salt, hot pepper, tobacco, garlic, neem (a local leaf), and mint are my ingredients. Dimathoate is the one chemical spray on my list. I want everything I test to be easy and affordable so that local women will be able to copy any techniques that I find especially successful. The rotations involve spraying one of the pesticides in a group once a week. For example, I will spray a certain table of tomato plant with tobacco one week, soap the next, tobacco after, and so on. At most I have four pesticides in one rotation.

Once I decided what my tests should be, I had to figure out how to apply them to the plants. Seck has a big spray pump that he straps onto his back. It holds many gallons of water. Besides being overkill for a little household garden, the hardware stores ask a price that makes such pumps entirely unpractical and unaccessible for individual gardeners. I trolled the market looking for a hand held spray bottle. I could picture a colorful little thing that I have seen in many drug stores in the US, but no one sells those here. I walked up and down a street where merchants set up stands to sell jewelry, toiletries, vegetables, knives, clothing, and the like, looking for a bottle of perfume. I found quite a few, but they were all of the type that have you squeeze out a drop rather than spray. Finally, in a shop that specializes in paper supplies, I found a bottle of strawberry perfume that had a spraying nozzle. And happily, this perfume's label said the product was not tested on and did not contain animals. Funny what makes it to Senegal.

I had the plan and I had the bottle. Now I just had to wait for the weather. The rainy season is near its end, but we are still getting small late evening showers. For about a week after I was ready, every night had showers or just ominous clouds, so I kept postponing the commencement of my experiments. When finally the weather was perfect, I took out my perfume bottle which had been strapped to my bike for a week, and Seck told me he had forgotten that I wanted certain tables and had sprayed everything earlier that day.

A few days later the conditions were finally all right, and I dumped the perfume into another container for my gardener's daughters, Awa and Nafi. I filled up with soapy water and began to spray. For all of four seconds it was gloriously easy, and then the thing broke, and that was the end of that. I tried, Awa tried, and Nafi tried, but we could not fix it. I was resolute on doing the pesticide application that day, so I put the liquid for that table and then for two others onto my hand and petted it onto the leaves.

Two days later, when I was to start pesticide rotations on another few tables, I found that despite my hopes, a good drying had not healed the perfume bottle. I have seen a bottle of Windex in a shop on the way to the garden, so I planned to buy it for this second spraying. The price was more than I expect gardeners will agree to, but I figured it would serve me well enough until I found something better. On the afternoon scheduled for my spraying the shop was closed. I raced around town trying to find another spray bottle before dusk. Hardware stores had nothing except the big expensive pumps. The toubob stores (stores that carry foods toubobs like, from corn chips to candy bars to apples to ketchup), other paper stores, and the gas station all lacked what I wanted. People were intreagued by my mission and by the bucket of foul smelling liquid I was carrying (a mix of garlic, ash, mint, and tobacco), and every store owner I asked had somewhere to send me where they were sure I would find the right bottle. One man promised he could get some in his store for me, but it would take three weeks. Just when I was resigned to another hand application, I biked past the man who had sent me to the gas station, and he gestured for me to try the boutique to his right. I pedaled to it to be polite. I walked in expecting nothing but, low and behold, there on the top shelf was precisely what I wanted, and at a good price, no less.

With the bottle in hand and the sun setting, I gleefully rushed to the garden, where I rinsed some gasoline-like liquid out of the bottle and replaced it with my fragrent mix. I began to spray, and in less than a minute I had thoroughly covered the tomato plants. I let out a whoop to the sky and danced, jubilant that my pesticide testing was finally getting underway. I had to share this with someone, so I called my mom in New York. She called back on her phone card, and as darkness descended I talked to her and slowly made my way through the other sprayings. I had to use the light on my cell phone when I mixed the baking soda solution.

The next morning Seck told me that the guard at the garden had called him the prior night because he saw someone in the garden after dark. Seck said he ran from his house to the garden, and when he whispered that he was, "well armed," he gestured as if he had a gun in his pocket. Grand guard system, and crazy old gardener. But I sprayed! And, after all the preperations, it was easy.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Amy Lau is amazing, and I wanted you all to know this. Besides being an fine writer and a wonderful friend, she is able to beat blogger into submission. She was able to post the pictures that are in the posts below. I spent a long time trying to do this myself, and I could not.

Amy Lau, you are incredible. Thank you!