Assalaamalaykum (peace be with you),
I’m in Dakar at the moment, here for a few days to work on a Senegal PCV newsletter. I had tried to send out Senegal 10 a few weeks ago, but was unable to transfer the file to disk, in order to send it from an internet café. In the end, I had to print it out, and retype it into the Dakar PC computers. This is quite a long edition, so just take your time with it, and maybe pretend that it came in installments.
After re-typing the email, I realized that I haven’t really talked about work. That’s been one of the greatest frustrations – not really doing anything, but being busy all the time. As you can all see, a great deal of my time has been taken up by holidays and trainings, and my time in the village with getting my new hut built (I finally moved in!) and working on a few small projects with the teachers.
In the two weeks since writing this email, I’ve been back in my village for five days (it’s the Harmattan season now, lots of hot wind and dust from the Sahara, not pleasant), then back in Thies (still coolish) for TOT, the Training of Trainers – a week-long seminar to prepare a few of us to help teach the next training group. They’re showing up next week, the 18th of March. This is all a bit strange for me, since the 19th of March, 2003 is when I came to country, meaning I’ve been here almost a year! Only 15 months left to go… Time really does feel like it’s flying by, especially since there aren’t any “normal” seasons, just “rainy season” and “hot season”. I’m beginning to feel a little bit of panic, that time’s slipping away, and I’ll have to hurry to get some projects going, so that they can be completed before my COS (Close of Service) in June 2005.
In all, things are going really well. I’m feeling very much at peace here in Senegal in general (jam rekk – “peace only” – the standard response in greetings), and much more settled, especially with my latest hut. After the IST (In-Service Training), I feel more inspired and motivated – now I just need to find time to get some things going. I’ll have to wait a bit longer, though. I’ll be back for another week in the village, then I’ll host a new EE trainee for his “demystification” (see Senegal 1), the initial four-day crash course in village 101. After that I’ll follow him back to Thies, and help to train the new EE PCT’s for two weeks.
So, life is good, busy, and flying by all too quickly. I apologize that in the last few months my communication’s been lagging, and I can’t promise too much of an improvement on that, but keep the letters coming all the same – they’re always appreciated!
By the way, some people have asked me for care package ideas, so I’ll take this time to send out a general request for seeds – vegetables, flowers, herbs, perhaps some desert varieties that don’t need much water and do well in sandy soils… And also some sports toys – Frisbees, footballs, ? – for the school. Just some suggestions. Maybe a seed store would like to donate seeds to an African village? I could take pictures and send them back, so they can show off happy African children next to their flowers.
Well, good luck getting through this long email. I’ve got a website set up (thanks Mom) with some pictures, so I’ll invite you all to that, and Kodak will send you an invitation. You just have to follow the invitation instructions to view the photos.
Back again. Miss me? I’m here in Thies again, back at the Peace Corps training center for a two-week in-service training. I’m learning Wolof (the majority language of Senegal) for the first week and the second week we have technical training, discussing the progress of our work so far and perhaps gaining some new knowledge. It’s good to see everyone again, good to hear about other village experiences (there’s more difference in Senegal than I had really imagined), and good to just speak English. At the same time, it’s a bit strange and uncomfortable, and I don’t think I’ll mind too much when it’s time to get back to the peace and serenity of my village.
A lot has happened in the last two and a half months, so first I’ll try to recall the major events. Basically, that’s Christmas, New Year’s, Tabaski, and WAIST. Now the details…
Christmas was very enjoyable, albeit quite non-traditional. The 23rd of December I got a car heading to St. Louis, where I was planning on meeting a number of other PCV’s and their families and friends. First adventure of the trip came 15 km outside of St. Louis, where for seven hours I was held up by a strike at the university. The students had not yet been given their first semester scholarship money (three months late) and so many could not get home for the holidays. So, they set up a roadblock, and kept up the protest until the evening when the university cashier came and gave them their money. The whole affair was rather uneventful, and I found myself spending much of the day laughing at the absurdity of the whole situation. It was frightening at times, and I did get a sense of the power of mobs, but I was surprised not to have seen any actual violence. There were a lot of fiery arguments; between students and drivers, when the students went around demanding everyone’s keys; between students, when deciding whether or not to break the strike after the death of a 5-month old girl, on her way to the hospital; or when deciding whether or not to let the limousine of a famous marabout (Senegalese Muslim holy man) past (it made it). It was interesting to see that the crowd of students was usually just hanging out, smiling and laughing, as if on a picnic. But, if a driver (some of them had their keys returned after the baby died) decided to try to make a run for it, the crowd immediately turned angry and surrounded the car, pounding on the hood. Eventually the driver of the car I was in was able to recover his keys, and I got my bag out and walked 5 km down the road to the next village, where I caught a taxi in to St. Louis. In all, a much more interesting day than I otherwise would’ve had.
St. Louis was great. There were about ten other PCV’s there, and many of them had parents/friends/siblings who were visiting for the vacation. Christmas in Senegal, both in town and in the villages (even the Muslim ones) is celebrated like any other holiday – everyone gets together, kills a sheep, hangs out talking and drinking tea, and eats greasy rice with meat. In St. Louis there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary to remind me that this was the holiest day in Christianity. Undeterred, we PCV’s had an excellent Christmas Eve dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant, and then danced the night away at the Cuban bar. Christmas day we slept in late and then spent the day sleeping, reading, and swimming in the hotel pool and in the ocean. Christmas evening was a little sad – more nostalgic really. Dinner was late in coming at the hotel restaurant (in chairs on the sand) so we sat around in silence, everyone thinking about their families and loved ones back home, and staring at the cell phones lined up on the table, waiting for those people to call. One by one, the phones would ring, and immediately be snatched up by a suddenly-smiling PCV who would disappear into the darkness to have at least a little time alone with the family on Christmas. All in all, this first Christmas in Senegal was an enjoyable experience, but I certainly would’ve preferred to be with family in a more Christmassy setting.
After Christmas came New Year’s Day, in Africa as in most other parts of the world. While I had been invited to spend a traditional New Year’s with friends in the village (drinking tea and eating sheep or goat with greasy rice) I was instead brought down by some bizarre stomach problem three days before, while visiting the regional house in N’dioum. In the end, it took eight days before I felt well enough to travel, which meant that I spent an inglorious New Year’s alone, listening to Big Ben chime on midnight (we’re on GMT) on the BBC radio. Not the best New Year’s I’ve had, but certainly one to remember.
After New Year’s came my 26th birthday, the 24th of January. From what I knew of birthdays in the village, they are non-existent. Basically, on New year’s Day, everyone turns a year older. Most people have to look at their ID card to find what day (it says) they were born. Besides, I knew that, if I threw a party in the village, I’d have to give all my guests presents. So instead, I opted for inviting all the local PCV’s to N’dioum for my birthday party. We had a good time, hung out, listened to music, cooked a lot of food, and watched Pirates of the Caribbean on DVD on the office computer. After I came back, a lot of people asked where I had been. When I told them, most of them said, “why didn’t you do it here? Where’s my present?” To me, the latter basically answers the former.
Soon after that came Tabaski, the 1st of February. This is the holiest day of the Muslim calendar; the 10th day of the 10th month of the Muslim lunar year (or something like that). On this day, Muslims everywhere kill a sheep in memory of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Basically, it’s another one of those “kill and eat a sheep with greasy rice” holidays. The main difference is that Tabaski lasts for at least three days, not just one meal. Also, every married male in the household should kill a sheep, so in our compound that meant a sheep dying every morning for three days. During this time, every single meal is meat. On the morning after the second day, I admit to being a little less than fully culturally sensitive. The guest should always eat a proffered meal, even if only one or two handfuls. But waking up at dawn and having to sit down to a plate with cold and greasy sheep’s head was a little much for me. I was a less queasy than I had expected about watching them kill the sheep, which was actually sort of interesting, particularly how they love to pose behind the animal just after its throat is slit. Just as interesting was how they didn’t really seem to care where they killed the sheep – i.e., right in front of the sheep pen. Another volunteer said that in her village, the sheep was killed in front of the other sheep, and the next day two of the sheep miscarried. The villagers didn’t even consider the possible connection.
Being the holiest of Islamic holidays, Tabaski is the time when the population of the village swells with all the men and students returning from Dakar, the U.S., or Europe. Everyone buys nice clothes, and people think about marriage. In the case of Dimat, there were 7 kidnap-marriages on the first day of Tabaski, and most of the weddings were held the next day. I believe that I’ve already talked about the custom of guffo, the kidnap-marriage. Basically, this is where the friends of the man steal the woman (girl, in most of the cases) from her parents’ compound in the middle of the night and take her to a safe house, often another friend’s room. The next morning, the man’s parents talk to the woman’s parents to negotiate a marriage price.
I had many discussions with various villagers regarding this custom. The responses varied enormously. In general, the men defended the custom as an important part of their tradition, and as a way of streamlining the marriage process. Apparently, in some cases, guffo is a sort of eloping, a way for two young lovers to get married without the usual long, drawn-out process of negotiations with the girl’s parents that is usually necessary. Once the girl has been kidnapped, if the girl’s parents refuse the union, the girl must be returned. However, this leaves a stigma on the girl, meaning that she is not as desirable a bride in the future. In general, although some women defended the custom to me, most girls said that they definitely did not want to be kidnapped. At the same time, none of the men had any real problems with it, even if they said they wouldn’t do that themselves. They also said that the girls cried so much because they had to, to show their mothers that they were sad that they would be leaving their family compound, but that inside they were actually happy. Why else would they stop crying after a few days? Sometimes, I must admit that Senegalese logic does escape me.
On the afternoon of the third day of Tabaski, I headed out with most of my family across the border, to the town of Tekane, a Pulaar village about 5 km north of the Senegal River, in Mauritania. The event was a wedding of some cousin of mine. According to some people in my village, Tekane is the ancestral home of my villagers – where they lived before some split off and moved south to the other side of the river. Although no one could tell me what the name means exactly, it’s related to my family name, Kane – something like, “the village of the Kanes”. Many villages are named after a person, such as my post office town, Thille Boubacar – Boubacar’s thille (a kind of tree). I had been hesitant about spending three days over the border, but my father reassured me that it would be ok. As it turned out, the groom, my cousin, is a lieutenant of the Mauritanian gendarmes, the national police force. He had just spent a month in New Mexico for a counter-terrorism training, and absolutely loved the U.S. So, no problems with police for me.
The strangest thing about Tekane was that it was not only exactly like the Pulaar villages on my side of the river, but that half of the people were from my village itself! Many weren’t even there for the wedding – they just spend a lot of their time in Tekane normally. I had always wondered about the citizenship issues facing my villagers – how they could be Senegalese and live in Senegal, but at the same time have children living or studying in Mauritania. What I discovered is actually quite simple. Apparently, a number of people in my village are actually dual citizens – they are registered both as Senegalese and as Mauritanians. Neither government knows about this illegal dual nationality, but that doesn’t seem to have ever posed any problems for them.
For me, it was great to visit a large Pulaar village that was much more authentic than my own – very few cement buildings, just mud brick, with narrow alleyways, and a beautiful river lined with palm and mango trees, the last water source before the Sahara begins. The people were great, too, and I met a couple of my relatives, university students home on holiday from the capital, Nouakchott, who showed me around and introduced me to all the young people in the village. One day, when bathing in the river, I decided to swim to the other side, perhaps 50 meters away. My friends said I probably shouldn’t – it was too cold, too far. But it was warmer than the ocean in San Diego, and not really that far, so I went across. The thorn trees lining the opposite shore painfully prevented me from climbing the embankment for my desired glimpse of the Saharan sands, so I swam back across the river. When I got back, my friends berated me for my stupidity, saying that it was too risky. I said that I could swim well, and could handle the cold, but they said, no, for the fishnets! What they had failed to mention before was that the fishermen hang out nets, some of which are ringed with hooks, to catch the larger fish. Although I am larger than even the larger fish, I imagine that getting caught in the net would not have been a pleasant experience. Just another reminder that sometimes it’s best to trust the locals, even if you think you know better.
Coming back from Tekane, I swung through another Senegal PCV’s town, Dagana, about 50 km up the road towards St. Louis. It was good to visit the town, good to speak English after a Pulaar-intensive week, and good to hang out in the relative luxury of a larger town – western toilets, satellite TV at her work counterpart’s house (Friends, MTV and Jerry Springer), beer at the French volunteer’s palace, I mean house (their Peace Corps is not quite as “roughing it” as ours), and even a new internet café that opened in January.
About a week after that, I went to the N’dioum PC regional house for a regional meeting, and then the next day we all set off for Dakar for WAIST, the West African International Softball Tournament, a three-day American party organized by the local ex-pat community. Hundreds of Peace Corps Volunteers came from all around – Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, and even Benin. The ex-pat community was great about opening up their houses for us – every PCV got a home-stay. I decided to take up my old friend the Ambassador on his offer of “if you need a place to stay next time you’re in town…” and so spent four glorious nights in splendid comfort, watching TV while snacking on the latest culinary inventions from Olivier, the Ambassador’s personal chef from Paris. The Ambassador and his wife were as welcoming and down-to-earth as at Thanksgiving, and didn’t seem to mind the home invasion too much (there were five other PCV’s from my region staying there as well). The tournament was great – I didn’t compete, but that wasn’t really the point anyway. The point was to hang out with other Americans (and Senegalese, Japanese, Korean, French, and others), watch the games, eat hot dogs, Doritos (events sponsored by Frito-Lay), drink cokes and beers, and go to the parties at night – Friday night spaghetti dinner at the American club, Saturday night party and bar-be-que at the Marine house (the U.S. embassy guards), Sunday night bonfire with DJ and free beer, Monday night expensive dinner (for non-PC) and cheaper dancing (for PC) at a fancy beach-front hotel. Definitely, the best holiday for PCV’s here in country. At the same time, very tiring, especially for spoiled PCV’s who are used to naps in the afternoons and going to sleep by 10 pm.
Now, as I said before, I’m back in Thies for in-service training. It is great to see the other volunteers again, and it does get more normal, as the days pass, to be around other Americans. But a part of me does look forward to my return to the village next week. I’m excited to get back to work, to get some projects started at last, and to be in a more comfortable environment, as strange as that may sound.