Heather in Senegal

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sept-places are station wagons with seats for seven passengers. One sits beside the driver, and then there are two rows of three seats. The last row is really uncomfortable. The middle row is better than the last row. Whenever I want to travel long distances here, I take a sept-place. I go to the garage and buy a ticket. Either the salesman writes the seat number on it, 1-7, depending on how many people got there before me, or I have to ask him to do so. If the latter, it means that I got the first seat and he was hoping to place me in back and sell the front seat to someone else. If I have any luggage that can not fit on my lap, I have to bargain with the driver about how much I must pay to put it in back. I once saw a driver get away with making a white girl pay for luggage that she was holding in her lap. I tried to argue for her, but she felt the price was too low to fight about. The car does not leave until all seats are bought. This can take minutes or hours. Occasionally, if the car is missing only one more person, the passengers will chip in to buy the final seat so that the car can get going.
I have had two especially colorful sept-place experiences.
I traveled to Dakar a few days before Tabaski, a major holiday on which many sheep are killed. Many of these sheep are transported from one part of the country to another, in what looks to me like a huge sheep-exchange. Sheep are placed in rice sacks (picture a potato sack), their legs are folded under for them, and they are tied up with just their heads poking out. Sacked sheep are placed on tops of automobiles and driven north and south. For most of my ride from Tamba to Dakar, the sheep on our roof was pointed so that he was urinating on the right side of the car. I, thankfully, had the window seat on the left. I felt terrible for him. His "bahs" started as vigorous complaints, but as the hours passed he grew tired and hoarse, until he sounded more like a scraggly little kitten. I had fantasies of cutting him loose, but I could not imagine how to do so without us both getting a beating for it. Close to Dakar, someone got out and took his luggage off the roof. The sheep was re-aimed, and the next time he urinated it came into my window and gave me a faceful of sheep piss.
When my mother and I rode from Kolda to Tamba she got the shotgun seat and I sat behind her. Next to me sat a young woman with a tiny baby. Suddenly, about an hour into the trip, vomit burst out of the woman. A bit of it hit my foot, but the bulk of it got my mom's head, neck, and back. The driver pulled over so I could wipe the chunks out of my mother's hair and try to sop up the liquid. The woman never stepped out of the car. She puked a few more times during the trip, but she had some fabric to catch it. With each vomiting, only the first bit of spray would fly out of her control and on to me.
But these stories are nothing beside other volunteers' experiences. Jenny once had a whole car ride with a sheep pointed to urinate on her side of the car, and the window was stuck in the down position. Another volunteer once sat beside a woman who, after a few hours of twisting and moaning in her seat, delivered a baby while the car kept driving.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

January 20
My mother, uncle, aunt, and cousin recently left from their visit here. It was wonderful having them here. I loved seeing them again, talking face to face for hours, and having them get a taste of where I live.
We started the vacation in Dakar. We spent a long time on Goree Island, where we hired a tour guide to lead us through the slave house and tell us about the island's history. We saw the small rooms where Africans were packed in tight for months until boats were ready to carry them away. This part of the island was devastating, but the rest was of another tenor. The island has beautiful old architecture, flowers everywhere, and a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Necklaces, paintings, carvings, clothing, and more are being sold everywhere. An old, half fallen-down stonebuilding holds a big collection of sculptures made offound items. There are a lot of restaurants thatspecialize in seafood, and there are many chubby catsliving off diners' droppings.
We left Dakar early in the morning January 4th.We drove for about eleven hours, longer than the flightfrom NY to Senegal, until we reached Tamba. The nextmorning we went to Park Niokolo Koba and went onsafari. We saw antelopes, partridges, a large lizard,wild boars, crocodiles, either a rock or ahippopotamus, deer, and beautiful woodlands. Our guidetold us he grew up in the park but that everyone wholived in villages within the proposed park boundarieswas kicked out when the land was declared a nationalpark. My cousin stunned me on the safari by, usingonly gestures and facial expressions, learning aboutthe guide's family, his life in the park, and hisplans for the future. It made me feel like with myPulaar, no matter how limited it is, I have no excusefor not having great conversations with folks here.
On January 6 we drove to Kolda. We stopped on the roadat a school for the disabled. No one was there, butthe gate was unlocked, so we explored the compound. Itwas the nicest looking school I've seen yet. Theschool gets money from an international non-profitorganization, and the interesting architecture,landscaping, cleanliness, black lined with whitestoned walkways for those with limited sight, all spoke to the care and attention put into this school.
When we arrived in Kolda we stopped briefly at myhouse. My Senegalese family gave us a huge and affectionate welcome, and I gave my American family a tour of my hut and the compound. Seeing my huge hut and meeting the kind people I live with made them feelmuch more comfortable about me being in Senegal.
On January 7th we had the most busy day of the trip.We began with breakfast at my favorite bean lady'stent, and then we took cabs to the garden Jenny and I are starting. This garden is on her father's land, onthe main road, and very close to Jenny's house. It is fenced, and the last thing planted there was beans.This makes it idyllic for a demo garden; the land is good and the location makes it easy for people in Jenny's neighborhood to visit. Jenny's parents have told her siblings that watering it will be their responsibility and that they must help with garden construction. We have set up beds demonstrating avariety of garden techniques, and for most of these,we did only a bit of the work ourselves before the kids volunteered to take over. The most satisfying moment came when Jenny and I were setting up a garden hammock, ran into some trouble, and while we werestill pondering how to fix it, saw some kids step inand solve the problem. In Peace Corps you are doingthe best work when a local is doing the work. Such a pleasure.After touring the garden, we went to Jenny's house somy family could see another example of volunteer housing and to meet her family and her bunnies. Ever since her rabbit hutch broke her rabbits have been free range. I'm not keen on the slaughter and eat part of the process, but I love hanging out at Jenny'splace with a rabbit in my lap.
From Jenny's we went to the market. Like ducks with ducklings, Jenny led the pack and I brought up the rear. We showed them a fabric store, the vegetable tables, the spices area,fish tables, the maze of boutiques, and the meat and fetish section. Sometimes I feel strong and capable as I make my way through the market, enjoying the bright colors and vitality of the place, and I imagine it is a bit like surfing. Other times it is crowded, aggressive, hot, overwhelming, and I hate it. I wanted my family to spend enough time in the market to taste both views.
From the market we went to my house, where my host mom was putting the finishing touches on our giant bowl ofyassa poulet (an onion and chicken dish served overrice). She served us in one giant bowl and had another for herself and the rest of the family. I was pleased to see that, for the most part, my family adapted well to eating with their hands. After lunch we hung out in the compound for a few hours. It was lovely. Card games, coin tricks, a kid brought a ball for playing catch, lounging with the family and neighbors. After a few hours we all got dressed in Senegalese outfits andwent to the weekly meeting of my women's group where we danced. After the women's meeting, we went to the regional house. We met Jenny and Nick, and my family got tochat with them while eating fresh watermelon and the okra and onion dish that I make about four times aweek. We stayed until exhausted, and then went home to sleep.
We went to Seck's garden the next morning. This is the demo site that Peace Corps set up. I gave my family the tour, showing them the various techniques being demonstrated. I was upset to see how many of my plots were looking terrible, and how the nebedie trees thatI brought to the garden were lying in a a pile like junk, looking unwatered and dead. Seck's plots looked very nice. I had asked him to take care of my beds before I went on vacation, but I guess he decided not to. Seck was extremely flattering and kind when hespoke to my family about me. Soon after this my uncle, aunt, and cousin left to drive back to Dakar.
The rest of the trip was a lotmore calm. My mom and I spent a few more days in Kolda. We walked around a lot, visited friends ofmine, cooked a Senegalese dish, and basically spenttime talking and laughing together. We traveled upslowly, spending a night in Tamba and another inKaolack. In those towns we simply lounged, seeing virtually nothing outside the hotels. Back up in Dakar we saw an arts market where we got heckled every timea merchant saw our eyes look in the general direction of his or her wares. My mom was great about having fun with this, and she joked and bargained with some men until we had bracelets and a batik for good prices. We spent our final day strolling about Dakar. The sun was hot, so we sat in the shade on the steps of theChamber of Commerce and stayed there for a few hours.Women with baskets of jewelry and dolls, and men witht-shirts, perfume, and shoes, tried to persuade us to buy their goods. In the evening I took my mom to the airport. Saying goodbye was devastating, and only a little less difficult than it had been when I left NY.
In all, it was a wonderful visit. I know somevolunteers discourage their families from coming toSenegal because there is not so much to see here, and because, as my family would agree, it does not offer the most relaxing of vacations, but I would highly recommend having family visit. I love that my familynow knows what my neighborhood looks like, can understand the roosters they hear on the phone, got to see me speak Pulaar, and got an appreciation of what my life is like here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Some time in December
Last week Charlie, another volununteer, took me to a village about ten kilometers out of town, to see a woman there named Tacco Balde who has a garden and wants help with it. Jenny was going to join us, but the day before the trip she sliced the sole of her foot with a shovel and was not up for a long bike ride.
I love visiting villages. Everything seems more quiet and calm out there, and the temperature is always a bit cooler outside Kolda. We stopped in a village on the road to greet the chief. He was a kind, merry, grandfatherly man, and he and the women I spoke with seemed delighted by my Pulaar.
After the village we stopped at a sesame seed field. The Senegalese government is funding many sesame fields. It buys the land, seeds, fertilizer, and other supplies, gives men wages to work there, buys the men uniforms and bicycles, and provides funds for a big metal sign, placed out in the middle of the woods, announcing that this is a government project field. It reminds me of the US's depression era work projects.
We reached Tacco's house around ten o'clock. She was modest about her garden, but it is beautiful. She has many plots of okra, tomato, pepper, hybiscus, and more. I look forward to working with her. We talked about mulching, watersaving techniques, pesticides, and fertilizer, but only briefly. I told her I would return with Jenny and we would seriously discuss the options.
Before heading home, Charlie and I stopped in a man's hut, and got into a conversation with two men about american superstitions. I recently read a list of old folk beliefs, so in addition to the normal ones about crossing fingers and not walking under ladders, I was able to provide some more obscure beliefs, like how to use apple seeds to find out who is your true love, which insect to question if your cows are lost, the good fortune that can come from salting a bird's tail, and the perils of doing things on August 1. By the time we left, the men were joking that I was a marabout.
Yesterday, Jenny and I returned to Tacco's house. When we were just beginning the trip and leaving Kolda, a policeman pulled us over. He was not able to see Jenny's helmut. He asked for her Senegalese name, she gave him a false one, wrote out a ticket for 6,000 cfa ($12), and told her to go to the police station to pay it. He did not have a copy of the ticket for himself. Considering his method and that Peace Corps volunteers are the only people in town who ever wear helmets, I assumed he was just joking about the whole thing. Thinking I would join in the play, I eyed his motorcycle, and asked where he was hiding his helmut. He snapped at me that if I said that again he would take me to the station. Luckily, Jenny can charm anyone no matter how annoyed she is, and she was soon chatting with the officer about his family. He eventually took back the ticket. This was an excellent lesson in how to treat policemen.
(I am slowly learning the safety rules. A few weeks ago I asked a teenager for directions. He pointed me to an isolated area. I biked a few minutes that way until I saw it was a dead end, and phoned a friend for directions. I was walking my bike and talking on the phone when the teen came up to me and grabbed the phone out of my hand and my walkman off of my belt. I hate feeling like I can not be alone outside.)
After we got past the policeman, Jenny and I had a scenic ride out to Tacco's house which. When wanted directions along the way, we were lucky to find a gathering of elderly women who had not seen white Pulaar speakers before. I wish I could always make people look so happy by simply saying, "good morning."
Tacco was out in a field, not to return for about six hours, so we just chatted with the kids, looked at the garden, and left. We biked back towards town a bit before turning onto a dirt path and then tromping through some high grass to a shaded space under a tree where we picniced. People have asked me if Senegal is beautiful. We were surrounded by trees and weeds growing wild and birds seranading us. By and large, Senegal might not be a classicaly pretty place, but it certainly has its moments.


Senegal's Israeli Embassy emailed all the Jewish volunteers to invite us to a Hannukah party in Dakar, but that was too far for me to travel. Hannukah is one of my favorite holidays and I did not want to miss it, so I did my own celebrating in Kolda.

I made my menorah from nine empty tomato paste or condensed milk cans that I filled with sand. I could not fit these on my window sill, so I lit my candles in front of my hut, right in the center of my family's compound. Kids gathered every night to watch.

After the lighting, a few kids would join me in the ritual Channukah dance, and then we played Dreidel. I don't have a dreidel here, so we took turns flipping three coins. If none came up heads, you did nothing, for one head you took all, two and you took half, three and you gave one. We played for peanuts, and the kids loved the gambling. The holiday could not have been nicer.