Heather in Senegal

Monday, November 13, 2006

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?


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