Heather in Senegal

Saturday, August 04, 2007

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Rain poured into my hut during the first storm last spring, soaking my bed and my books. To fix the leaky roof, my host mother had me buy plastic sheets and hire boys to fastened it to my straw roof as a hat. This greatly reduced the extent of the leaks, but by the end of the rainy season the plastic was torn to ribbons by the sun, wind, and rain. This often gave me a cool and wet bed, which was a nice antidote to the hot weather, but it was agreed that I needed my roof fixed before this year's rainy season.

My host mother first spoke of roof repairs last fall when I told her she had to stop coming into my hut to nap. She was very angry that I would not share my space, and she asked what would happen when my roof work was done. Would people not be allowed in my hut then too? At that time she told me the repairs would last between two and eight weeks, depending on how much I wished to pay the workmen.

When my Senegalese boss visited this March to check on my work and my home life, he discussed the roof with my mother and explained that because she owns and we are only renting, fixing the roof was her responsibility. He said Peace Corps would contribute a small sum to help with the bill. She was furious, but my boss was cheerful and completely unwilling to compromise. My mother said she did not have the cash to pay for the roof, so I paid a few months rent in advance.

Aliu, a roofer, was brought to the house, and my boss helped negotiate fees. Displeased with the final sum offered for labor, Aliu tried to make my boss feel small for not speaking Pulaar, the language my host family and I speak; Aliu bragged that if he said in Pulaar, "Come here so I can kill you," my boss would not know any better than to come. I have heard variations on this many times, usually as an explanation for why I should learn Wolof.

Aliu estimated the work would take four days, and my boss suggested I expect it to take a week. We should have realized it would take much longer. My current roof, though built only last year, was no good. It had sagged in around the edges, leaving plenty of places for water to collect and seep into my room. The roofers could not simply tie on more straw. They had to replace the entire roof.

Work began two days after the negotiations. I had no idea they were starting so soon. When I got home that day my roof was stripped of its straw and the wire that had held the straw in place, and so much had fallen into my hut that I could not see the floor. My clothing and bed were coated in straw, wire, and cement that had chipped off my walls. I cleared most of the debris off my bed, but tiny shards of straw stabbed me for many nights.
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After taking down my old roof, Aliu and his assistant rebuilt, took down, rebuilt, took down, and rebuilt the frame of my roof. The first rebuilt frame was held in place by metal wire loosely tied into holes chipped in my walls. It looked as though it would slide off with the first wind. The second rebuilt frame was deemed to be too flat, a small hill where I needed a steep mountain, so water would have fallen into my hut rather than running off. I miss the world of blueprints. Constructing a frame took the workers a full day, as did deconstructing a frame, so it quickly became apparent that the four to seven day estimate was shot.

In addition to the problem of figuring out just what a roof should look like, there was trouble with getting Aliu out of bed. The first time Aliu did not show up when scheduled to work, my mother and I waited two hours before going to his house. (She was not surprised by his absence. She had given him money the day before, and she expected him to try to avoid work until he spent that money. My boss and my neighbors agreed that this is standard policy for laborers around here.) We woke him. He grinned and told us the sun was hot. He told us he was an old man. He told us he worked yesterday. He finally agreed to come to work at 3 o'clock. At 3:30 I went to his house and woke him. Fetching Aliu, and being teased by his family about being his wife and coming to take him to my bed, became my daily chore.

The workers discovered they were short on wooden beams while building the second of the three frames, and they told my mother that she had to buy two more long beams of wood. These are expensive. Although earlier in the day my mom spoke of Peace Corps's contribution covering Aliu's labor costs, she now swore it was to cover lumber, and that because it was not enough, Peace Corps or I must pay for the new beams if work was to contiue. I argued a bit, but she has tried to coerce money out of me many times before, and I am learning her style. When she started yelling I acted amused that she'd lost her temper and told her to calm herself. The crowd around us laughed. Finally, at her suggestion, I called my boss to have him settle matters. It is the first time I called her bluff. I should have done this ages ago. She said little on the phone, and when my boss was through talking to her she wordlessly shoved my phone at me. An hour later she came into my hut and snarled that I had misunderstood, and that she only wanted me to advance her another month's rent.
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When Aliu came to work I tried talking to him about himself, his family, local matters, food, my life, the weather, and other topics, but teasing was his favorite mode of communication with me. When he wanted my attention he would call me, "My Wife," and he told strangers I loved him. He told me daily that as soon as the roof was finished he would sleep with me in my bed. This is such a common example of local humor that I was surprised when my American mother was alarmed by this promise of sex.

Aliu's boss, Sisico, occasionally came by to supervise and help with the work. Shortly after my third and final roof frame was constructed, one of Sisico's children in Dakar died. Naturally, Sisisco did not come to work for the next week. Aliu decided to take this time off too. My mom sent me to his house to inform him that if he did not resume work immediately she would find a new laborer. He finally promised to get out of bed and come to my house. I went home and reported to my mother. We waited, but he never came. My mom yelled at everyone about Aliu being a lazy and lousy worker. The refrain to her diatribe was,"I talked to him until I was tired." Despite her threats, the next morning Aliu and his assistant were tying chunks of straw together for my roof. They were sitting in the shade of a mango tree, drinking tea with the men who usually sit there, and occasionally tending to the straw. I walked over to see what they were up to, and Aliu jokingly invited me to help. I surprised him by accepting his offer. Soon a crowd assembled to watch the toubob tie straw. Once I got the rhythm of it I was able to go fast, and the men sitting by the tree all agreed that I did it better than Aliu. He was nonplussed by this, and he began to work faster than I had ever seen him move before.

To tie straw you must put two stakes in the ground and string wire or rope between them close to the ground. Next, lay the straw flat on the wire. To tie the straw to the wire, use wire, rope, or long wet strips of leaf to knot small bunch after small bunch of straw on the base wire. Be sure to pull the bunches close together.

In all, the work stretched over a full month. No work was ever done on Thursdays, because a roof constructed on a Thursday will surely burn. Seck, my Senegalese counterpart who runs the garden where I work, was very supportive about my not coming to work during this period. He is extremely suspicious of Senegalese people, and he encouraged me to be at home any time workers needed to be in my hut.
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The first rainstorm came two months after my roof was completed. It poured outside, and so much rain fell into my bedroom that I had to pull my bed into my livingroom. The next day I bought plastic, like the plastic that used to cover my roof, and now I throw it over my things whenever I leave my hut.

Aliu is sitting on top of my hut's wall.
The mason added two layers of bricks to my hut so that after I move out my mom can put in a ceiling. This will trap the heat between the ceiling and the roof and make the hut cooler. With the mason's help and my mom's approval I chipped out a rectangle of wall by the entrance of my hut and cemented in a mezuzah.
The second frame was very labor intensive. You can see they got very far along on it before it was deemed unfit. After putting in a few more rings they could have attached the straw and been done. I was so sad to see this frame come down.
The third frame, the one I now have above my hut, is pretty unique. I think it's the choice for larger huts because it is unlikely to sag.


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

lovely blog. I'll be heading there in less than a month for training.


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