Heather in Senegal

Saturday, October 27, 2007

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When I go to weddings parties I try to get in with the women who are cooking. It's fun to peel vegetables and make juice with them. I especially enjoy the juice making. It usually falls to the younger women to do it, and when it's a wedding in my neighborhood, this means it's my friends. Someone once advised me to not watch when people cook, because whether or not I see how it's made, I am going to have to eat. The juice methods are a bit disconcerting. The juice is made in giant buckets. The fruit or the leaf that is the base is dropped in the water, and then while talking and coughing, the women use their hands to squeeze out the juice. Then sugar and other flavorings are added, and the mixture is stirred with a big ladle. We take turns tasting from the ladle. When the juice is prepared, the plastic bags come out. The first phase of making the juice doesn't involve many women. We might all be there, but only a few people are actually working. The bagging, however, is an efficient assembly line. Two women per bucket ladle a certain amount of juice into each bag before passing the bags to the rest of us who are waiting to tie the bags, using a very particular type of wrap-and-knot. A third team takes the bags, wipes them off if need be, and piles them in an empty bucket. By the end of the process we are all sticky and giddy from sugar intake.

When the neighbor's chicken started hanging out in my hut I thought it was adorable. My family told me she had made the trek just to visit me, and I liked the novelty of having a chicken pay me a social call. A few minutes later she unceremoniously dropped a wet little gift on my freshly swept floor, and I chased her out. But when my will is tested against that of a chicken I come up short. She kept returning to my hut, and given the choice of chasing her out again and again, being unsocial and shutting my door, or sweeping up the occasional chicken scat, I chose the third. She has become a daily presence, and I quickly saw what a fool I had been, and what a blessing she was. To all my friends in NYC suffering the bed-bug infestation, I say, find a chicken! I can not kill my ants or termites myself. I would feel too guilty. But I relish the sight of my chicken friend pecking in the holes in my cement floor and under my mattress, devouring the little fiends who are responsible for my thin cement floor crumbling under my feet (I have fallen through twice, though only dropping an inch or two), the holes in my matress, the termite lines on my wall (see pic), the destruction of three evidently tasty books that I left too long on the floor, and so much extra dust in my hut. Murder, my fair chicken. May my hut be your buffet.
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I also have a lot of spiders in my hut. They perch too high to be threatened by the chicken. I like spiders, and I figure these spiders are another line in my defense against malaria. But the problem with spiders is that they lay eggs, and when these eggs hatch tiny itchy baby spiders go running up my legs by the hundreds. I don't particularly mind this. They tickle, and then they go on to find their corners and suck the life out of mosquitos. But my boyfriend visited and said he could not sit on my couch so long as the dozen or so unhatched eggsacks remained woven to the bamboo-work. He threatened to be ruthless with the eggs, so I did my best to gently sweep them up and carry them outside. Despite my best intentions, I suspect many little spiders never came to be because of me. During my bucket bath the next morning I noticed something wedged deep in my bellybutton. I thought it might be a small piece of dry grass fallen from my roof, and I sent a fingernail down after it. It was a spider. Perhaps it was the mother of one of the eggsacks, furious about what I had done to her eggs, determined to reach and destroy mine? I have never before found a spider in there. I am through sweeping up eggsacks.
While I was in Dakar a pregnant pussycat moved into my hut. By the time I got home she and her kittens were living in a corner under my crumpled plastic sheets. We lived together in peace for a few days, and I was delighted by my new roomate. If I was in a room when she wanted to enter she would poke her head in the window and meow, I would leave, and she would jump in. Despite the great temptation when she was out, I never touched her young. I offered her water, and I gave her my most cherubic grin each time I passed her nest. But one day she left, and the sound of kittens tumbling under plastic was replaced by the quieter tumbling sounds of cockroaches. That corner is a storage place for me, so I had no reason to go there until I recently dropped some ginger on the tarp and it fell into the folds. I hestitantly lifted the plastic, and a colony of cockroaches glared at me. They stood their ground until I started to shake the plastic. I discovered a plastic bag under the tarp with a disturbingly kitten-ish weight to it. The image of a cold, abandonned kitten snuggling into a bag for warmth and for a coffin made me sick to my stomach. I have dealt with a mouse flattened under my bed, ostensibly killed by my sitting too suddenly, a lizard that I mortally wounded when sliding my suitcase across the floor, a mouse that died after nibbling a hole in a bag of pesticide I had irresponsibly left on the floor, a frog that went belly up and rigid in my front doorway, and countless dead cockroaches, but a dead kitten was too much. I called in a friend. He found it was my long missing bag of nails.

Ellia Bisker, aka Sweet Soubrette, the ukuleleist of great renoun, recently put out her first album, titled Siren Song. I have not put any other ads on this site, but I was so impressed by this lady's fine sounds that I had to spread the word. The songs are sweet, clever, seductive, enchanting, and all-round wonderful. She has been compared to Dar Williams, Magnetic Fields, and Bob Dylan, and usually deemed a heap better than any of those oldies. You can listen to songs from her album at www.myspace.com/elliabisker, and there is a link on her page for buying the cd. If you are in the NYC area please go to one of her performances and throw flowers at her for me. Thanks.

On Wednesday Alexis and I began our bike trip to Velingara, the next major town to the west, about 150km from Kolda. We had an ominous start, delayed for an hour by a sudden thunder storm, but when we got on the road it was under a beautiful cool grey cloud cover.

On our first day biked to Adam's village, about 50k away. Upon arrival, dripping sweat, we stook turns bathing in his backyard. At night, when I have to get out of bed to use the toilet, I am delighted to have an indoor bathroom. The rest of the time I am deeply envious of the volunteers who have outoor restrooms. These are deep holes in the ground covered with a cement lid that has a wide hole it. Outdoor bucket baths under the wide Senegalese sky, with maybe a mango tree giving shade, are heavenly. You can hear village sounds such as women pounding grains in their large wooden pestles, and depending on the specific location, you can see sheeps grazing, fields of corn, or the folks in the next compound. It feels healthy and holistic to wash outside. After our baths we spent a long time lazing around. It wasn't the longest ride I've ever taken, but it was certain the one I was least prepared for, and I was beat. Eventually Adam took us on a walk to the nearest boutique, where we bought food and tea to give his family. The people out here love him. He jokes with them and gives out small monetary gifts like a beneficent mafioso. He his village's first volunteer, and locals are still stunned to meet other white people who speak Pulaar. After I did a few short greetings with one man, he told me that in fact I couldn't speak Pulaar. I agreed with him, in Pulaar, and went on to say how perceptive he was to know just by looking at me that I couldn't speak Pulaar, in Pulaar. He and his friends were soon laughing with me.

The next morning Adam took us to his villages rice fields. Beauty. The field is a long wide strip of knee deep water with a thick coat of bright green rice stalks on top, and it is surrounded by a landscape of grass, mango trees, and palm trees. I appologize for forgetting my camera. We tried to spot crocodiles, and eventually we leaned against a palm tree and enjoyed the birds's songs and the landscape of solid green, save the guy climbing trees to harvest palm wine. He uses an oval made of bamboo. He gets into the oval with the tree, each at an opposite end, and he uses the bamboo to support him as he leans back and shimmies up the tree.

Our second day of biking felt easier than the first. Our bodies were kind to us, learning that biking for hours was simply something we did, and not something to ache about. We talked about everything under the sun, played twenty questions, and told each stories and ideas we've had. Our road food became sandwiches. Every reasonably sized town on the road has a lady sitting under a shade structure selling bread, and if she didn't have the other ingredients that we wanted, we could buy them from a boutique or send a kid to do that for us. Alexis ate egg sandwiches and I had bread and margerine, and I added slices of cucumbers that I bought from passing kids. We drank kinkiliba, a local sweet tea. It is Ramadan, and many people are fasting, so instead of sitting with the vendor under the shade structure, we volunteered to hide, and would get ushered into a small tin-roofed room or a tent.

The road between Kolda and Velingara has a stunning collection of potholes, and most of them are gathered together between Adam's village and Koun Kane. Often they are so close together that only thin strips of pavement are left, like balance beams. The holes are routinely a foot deep, so biking straight and taking the bumps would be nearly impossible. Beside of the road the dirt has been pounded into a series of steep and tightly packed hills or waves, so that twisting and turning through the balance beams is the best option. A motorcyclist passed us, and I was comforted by how long it took him to get out of our sight. There is no getting good at handling these roads.

Everyone whom we passed called out cheerful greetings and asked where we were going. They looked at us like we were crazy when we told them how far we intended to go. Occasionally we caught up with another bicyclist, and he or she would chat with us about the quality of the road, the weather, and where we were all coming from.

Late in the afternoon two boys came barreling down the road so fast that they could not keep their feet on their bicycle pedals. One passed us, and the other swerved to our side of the street. Alexis dodged him, but he smashed into my front wheel, and once again I went flying onto the cement. This time I took the momentum of the fall and rolled once on the ground with it. When I stood up my left arm and knee hurt, but not nearly as bad as after my other accidents. A result of rolling? We were immediately surrounded by twenty little kids and a few adults who seemed to materialize out of thin air. The boy who hit me chuckled an appology, and his mother kept telling me, "it was a small, very small, silly little accident, yes?" as she grinned hopefully. When I told them I was fine they seemed deeply relieved. I wonder if they were afraid of me. After we had biked out of sight we stopped to examine my scrapes. Alexis gave me chocolate. We resumed our pedaling.

Our destination was Koun Kane, and where there is no sign on the east side of town. The sun had nearly set when we entered a town that had no name. Alexis called Kate, our host for the night, and reckoned we had another fifteen minutes at least. We got onto our bikes and took off as fast as we could, and about ten feet after our start we heard Kate and Evelina calling our names. They bought us sodas and were soon resting, deeply relieved. An old lady saw us exhausted, asked about our trip, and then merrily fanned us with her head scarf. After a short rest, the four of us rode out to Evelina's village. She lives about thirty minutes out of town on a dirt road. It's ordinarily a pleasant bike ride, with fields and forests everywhere you look. But we were biking after dark, a thunder storm was rolling in, and we only had two flashlights, so after a spell of slow biking we got off and walked, comically slipping and sliding on the mud, and arriving thoroughly drenched.

Evelina and Kate live in villages a kilometer apart. Volunteers debate the wisdom of such close assignments. It can be glorious when the volunteers are compatable and the villagers understanding, but it can be dreadful if the volunteers are not friends and the villagers do too much comparing of the two. Luckily, Kate and Evelina get along well, and talking about work and social situations has made things easier for both.

We spent the night in Kate's hut, and her village gave us one of the most delicious meals I have had in Senegal. Kate and the villagers are fasting, so the evening meal is a cause for rejoicing, and they did so this night by making a dish of beans to be eaten with bread and a peaunt sauce to be eaten with rice. It was too dark and we were too tired to do much besides eating dinner and falling into bed.

The next morning we biked to Kristal's village. Kristal has a unique location, almost 20km off a paved road. I think there was a time when many volunteers had settings like this, but nowadays most village volunteers are far closer to markets and easy transportation. I love her village. It is tiny, with maybe 200 people. She is the second or third volunteer to live here, so her villagers are fairly used to white people. I think because of the small population and the fact that everyone knows one another, there is a higher standard for behavior. The name calling and teasing that white people receive daily in cities does not happen in small villages.The villagers were so friendly and easy going. At one point Kristal's father called her outside specifically to tell her not to do any work today, just to sit with us, and not to let us do anything either, for we must rest after our long ride. After a long time catching up in her hut, walked to the field to see where she had planted trees, and then sat outside with her family. In training last year an older volunteer told us she felt like a pioneer woman from a century ago, traveling for a full day to visit friends, and then doing nothing but talking throughout the visit, and maybe a little knitting. Indeed. It was idyllic. This is what I pictured when I imagined Peace Corps.

We left Kristal's village at sunrise and biked out to the paved road. On the way we passed some men from Guinea-Bisau who were making coal and shoveling it into rice bags to take to market. Charcoal is probably the most common cooking implement, with wood and gas stoves coming in distant seconds. Shortly after Alexis and I began the final leg of our journey towards Velingara we decided to scrap it. Velingara held no alure for us besides it being the place to get a car back to Kolda. So we decided to forego bragging rights in favor of giving our bodies a break, and we started sticking out our thumbs. We were hoping for an air-conditioned NGO SUV, but the first car to stop for us was a beat up sept-place, or a station wagon, a common mode of travel. Ordinarily these cars are full, but this one happened to have two vacancies. The driver told us he was only going part way to Kolda, and initially I told him we did not want the ride, because getting dropped in a small town would force us into a small bus for the remainder of the journey. The small busses have the advantage of letting your hips and knees sit at right angles, but they look more rickety, and they lay tipped beside roads far more often than dosept-places. The chauffeur promised that if there were no other cars going to Kolda, he would make the trip, so we strapped our bikes to the roof and got in. There was no car in the small town bound for Kolda, but our chauffeur was as good as his word. It took four hours for the car to fill up. While we waited Alexis had an egg sandwich, and I had a potato spaghetti stirfry at a roadside table where a man was cooking over a gas stove. Then we lay on a bench and read. It was a slow and sweet end to our trip.

July 29
I left the garden, started biking home, and saw a crowd in the distance walking my way. As I neared the group I realized it was made of three to four hundred boys and young men, and I guessed they were coming from a soccer match. When I reached the group the guys at the head parted to let me through, and one teenager squatted low, stretched out his arms towards me, and to the amusement of his friends, shouted, “toubahaako!” “Toubahaako,” literally means, “grass pants,” and it is used to taunt white people. I regularly hear other, less blatantly hostile names for white people, but "toubahaako," is infrequent, usually coming no more than once a day. After I passed this guy and his friends, I found myself deep in the crowd. I biked forward slowly, weaving around people.
A group of a dozen men my age was singing and dancing down the road. When they saw me they all migrated to my side of the road and formed a wall so that I had to stop my bike. All were shirtless, all had big shining muscles, and half of them waving machetes in the air. They made a tight circle around me and began chanting, “toubahaako.” The men behind me held onto my bicycle and my backpack, locking me in place. The men in front of me leered, shook their machetes at me, and ordered me to dance. I considered abandoning my bike and trying to escape, but I couldn’t see a way out of the circle, and beyond the circle were only more boys and men, none of whom seemed likely to take my side. Also, I was afraid that an undemanded sacrifice might be taken as encouragement. After receiving a few gentle machete taps on my bike helmet I did a quick ugly dance that was little more than a series of stomps. The circle opened and I was pushed on my way. I had to pedal slowly to make my way around the rest of the guys coming down the street. One boy stepped up to me and punched the air close to my face. I flinched hard, and those who saw burst into laughter. I had started trembling after the circle of men let me leave, and this near-punch set me to full shaking. It took a lot of concentration to keep steady on my bike.
When I got into market I went to a pair of women who I’ve been friendly with for months. I told them what had happened, expecting sympathy. Instead, they laughed. They told me that Konkoran season had begun and that henceforth if I see a group of males on the street I should run and hide. They assured me that I had not been in any real danger and that these boys only tease and threaten.
The Konkoran is a warrior monster who comes out during the rainy season, which is the male circumcision season. He patrols the town and protects young boys from witches. A man playing the Konkoran dresses in a well-crafted full body costume that looks like a giant long-haired brown Muppet. He lumbers around with a pack of at least twenty boys or young men, most of whom carry long branches, ostensibly for flogging purposes. The boys often chant as they go through town, and occasionally they travel with drummers. The Konkoran carries two machetes, and the clank of them being slapped together is enough to make females cringe and start looking for a place to hide. He was not with the crowd that I met on the road, so I guess the person wearing the costume had recently left.
The Konkoran and his minions are taken half seriously. Females of all ages squeal and run, but they then look on eagerly and might follow the Konkoran so that they will have to flee a second and third time. But genuine fear flashes on girls’ faces when they suddenly spot a Konkoran, and people have urged and even pulled me into compounds or shops to get me off the street when a Konkoran was coming. Women who have set up vegetable stands in the street often ignore the Konkoran. I’ve seen some Konkorans accept this. Others have gotten angry and brandished their machetes frighteningly close to women who refuse to play along.Little boys make Konkoran outfits by wrapping bags around themselves and cutting fringes. They are adorable and I’m more than happy to feign terror when I see a five year old toddling about in a plastic shag outfit.
Last year I largely enjoyed the Konkorans. They add an absurd Pacman element to the city; the paved roads and sandy paths are like a maze, and now we have the occasional monster forcing you to change your route. Sometimes multiple packs of boys roam Kolda at once, each with their own Konkoran. When each group has their own drum section it becomes possible to bike through town and never be out of earshot of at least one band of phenomenal drummers, one group growing closer and louder as the prior one fades to a quiet distant pounding. Toward the end of last year, tired of playing along whenever the Konkoran happened to appear, an okra vendor and I agreed not to run and hide. The Konkoran kicked and broke her chair, and one of his boys slapped me mildly on the back.
In retrospect, I think the women were right, and that I was not in any real danger. The Konkoran business is a game that the community agrees to play. It’s sexist and frustrating, and it goes on far too long in my opinion, and the fact that the city has only one bridge crossing its river often makes it difficult to find an alternative route. I wish it was a one-day affair. That said, I wish too that I could be a male for a week. I’d love to go out parading with the Konkoran.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4795629.stm - Has a picture of a konkoran. It's an odd shot of a resting konkoran, but it'll give you the idea. Picture him standing upright and waving the machettes.

July 29
When I entered the demo garden where Alexis and I are working I was greeted by a sheep. I was horrified to see him in the garden, and assumed that all the vegetables had been eaten. Alexis’ host dad saw me open the gate for the garden and he followed me in after a moment. He laughed at the fear on my face, and told me it was his sheep. As he saw rage replace worry he quickly pointed out that the sheep was tied to a stake and was the new weeding staff. He works more slowly than kids, but he’s much happier to do it.
Walking further into the garden I was pleased to see that Musa, Alexis’s brother, had created two new small beds for the flower seeds I gave him. I really hope these seeds work. They are mixture of American seeds and a variety of flower seeds designed to work in tropical climates. So far I have had no success with doing flowers from seed. The packages all have heartbreakingly beautiful flowers that are beginning to look like unattainable magic. Maybe this batch will be different.
I spent the morning weeding beds, transplanting young tomatoes, breaking new ground, and planting flower cuttings taken from my garden. Yesterday afternoon I made a pesticide using red hot peppers, water, and laundry soap. I learned it is pretty foolish to submerge your hands in a bucket of water and tear up hot red peppers, and it's not to smart to use your hands to apply this concoction. Twelve hours after I started trying to rinse off my hand they are still burning. However, at least there are no visible bugs on the plants right now.

Local kids like to discribe what toubobs are doing. When I am biking people will come up beside me and say, "The Toubob is biking!" Today I had a mango in my hand and heard, "Toubob is holding a mango." People have looked in on me working at the garden and told me, "The Toubob can dig," and occasionally, "The Toubob can't dig." My favorite of these commentaries came recently when Alexis's boyfriend, Al, was biking through town holding their half-grown puppy under one arm. Al was speeding to get out of the pouring rain, and the dog was bouncing up and down on his knees. As Alexis and Al hurried past, a kid called out, "The Toubob stole a dog!"

Fatou was circumcised when she was twelve years old. She did not want to be cut. After she was forced into the hut where the old woman was waiting with her knife, Fatou held her knees together with all her strength. The other women could not pry her legs open, so a man was brought in, and he pulled her legs apart. The old woman nicked Fatou's cliteris, and Fatou bled a lot. Walking, sitting, and urinating, hurt for weeks afterwards.

A few years later, a man and woman came from Dakar to talk to school children about circumcision. Fatou was initially embarassed to speak about her experience, but the couple from Dakar were so open about their own genital cuttings, that Fatou was soon willing to share her story. The couple talked about the dangers of circumcisions, from the risks of a dirty knife to the potential of an especially invasive circumcisions causing a split to erupt between the anus and the vagina during childbirth. They spoke about Islam not requiring circumcision, and about it being an old cultural tradition designed to keep women from enjoying sex, and thus from being unfaithful to their husbands. They offered to speak to anyone's parents.

Fatou brought the couple home to her parents. By this time circumcision had been made illegal in Senegal. Fatou's mother talked with the pair for a few hours. She was interested, but not entirely convinced that she should break ties with the old practice. Fatou, however, was very emphatically against circumcision, and told her mother in no uncertain terms that if she had Fatou's younger sister circumcised, Fatou would call the police. After saving her sister from being circumcised, Fatou has gone on to talk to other people in the neighborhood. She is extremely open and blunt about her experience and her arguments against circumcision. She says all people her age who attend school are against circumcision because they have been educated about its dangers. Making circumcision illegal in itself has not made big enough strides towards ending the practice, but open dialogue about the risks involved is, I think, going to save much of the coming generation from being cut.