Senegal 5 - June 8, 2003
Well, my friends,
So here I am, a full-fledged US government employee Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV in the wonderful world of government acronyms)! We had a nice swearing-in ceremony on the softball field of the American Club in Dakar, on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. There were a number of speeches in English, French, and Wolof, including the US ambassador, himself a former PCV in West Africa. At the end four of us gave speeches in four of the national languages that we've been studying, Wolof, Pulaar, Mandinke, and Serer. Then back on the Alham busses to Thies. They drove us out of Thies the morning after, so that night I had to bid a hasty farewell to my Thies family and friends. Africans aren't generally much for goodbyes (when entering a shop you have to go through half a minute of greetings, but lots of people don't say anything when they leave. Also, one PCV told of how his family brother just got on a car with a bag one morning without saying much at all. When the PCV asked, the family said the brother had gone to the Gambia to work, and would be back in five years). So i didn't really know what to expect, and tried to make it as short as possible. Still it was really hard. I was the first PCT (trainee) the family had had, so they had always been very sincere and genuine in taking me in as one of their own. When I asked my brother if he was going to have another American in the next training session, he said, no, it was too hard making a friend, only to have him leave after 10 weeks. They're such a great family! My brothers and their friends say they'll come up to visit me in the village, but I'll wait and see. The city people seem afraid of villages.
And so, the day after I was stuffed in a Peace Corps 4x4 with five other people and lots of stuff. After the 7 hour drive we arrived at the regional house in Ndioum, about an hour from my village. Peace Corps Senegal is probably one of the best organized Peace Corps anywhere, and here we have regional houses, compounds wherethe PCVL's (leaders) live with their 4x4's and computers, ready to Medivac us to Dakar at a moments notice. We can go to the regional houses whenever we want to, to work on the computer (no internet), cook food, or listen to BBC, CNN, or NPR on WorldSpace satellite radio. This really is a lot cusher than I thought. That night we went over to a neighbor's house and watched ourselves on the evening news, from the swearing-in ceremony the night before, sitting outside in the moonlight in the desert, in a finally-bearable heat (at 9pm). I had borrowed a boubou (traditional Senegalese robe) from my brother, and so I fit in well with all the other toubabs (whiteys) in our African clothes. We looked good! I was on the TV twice. The next day we went shopping in the village for our new hut supplies, and opened up bank accounts. the clerk recognized us from the news the night before. we're celebrities! The last few weeks leading up to swearing-in were really stressful. Finishing up classes, some projects and tests, but mainly due to the fact that, after our site-discovery (when we went out to visit our villages four weeks ago) we all had one foot already out the door. It was hard continuing to develop friendships with the other volunteers, knowing that we would hardly ever see some of them again. Same for our host families. Training is really a strange entity. On the one hand, it's really excellent in many ways. The language training is top-rate, the technical training also moderately useful, the host family experience is a perfect way to get a sense for Senegalese city life (to contrast with our two years of village life). But in many ways it seems counter-productive. In training, we are constantly busy, and we live in a very structured environment with little free time and more Americans in close proximity than I've seen since college. Then we're suddenly off in our villages, completely (blessedly) on our own, with absolutely no structure, Americans, or lack of free time. In any case, I'm glad to be out of training and actually up in my distant North. It is a shame that the few Americans that I became closest to are all in the most distant reaches of the country, in the jungles of the south-east, instead of my Northwest desert. but after all, I didn't come here to hang out with Americans, but to do this job and learn about Senegal. So I'll deal just fine.
In the four weeks since my last letter I have been very active, spent a weekend in Dakar, (beautiful city, good to know it's there, but happy I'll be in a village), a weekend sick with some strange viral infection (it got better), and the third weekend drinking Spanish wine and eating Danish cookies and pringles on the beach one last time, then hiking along the sea cliffs and through a fishing village about 10k before finding another town with cabs back to the main road. It's strange, but the ocean here is very similar to the one back home in San Diego. The landscape is similar, desert scrub-brush (here there are also Baobab trees), some sea-cliffs, rocky outcroppings interspersed with sandy beaches.
This weekend I'm in St. Louis, a quaint former French colonial capital of West Africa. The downtown is built on an island on the Senegal River, right before the river hits the ocean. Our hotel is on the second island, a thin barrier island of sand maybe 200 m wide. The waves up north here are a lot larger than down South, and break further out, but the current is very strong and so I had to be very careful. Last night we ate in a Vietnamese restaurant with the most authentic Vietnamese eggrolls and Thai coconut curry chicken I've eaten outside of California! It's good to know that such a restaurant exists, just in case I get a chance to come back here and crave Asian cuisine. St. Louis is only 2 1/2 hours away from my village, and it's the closest internet, but I probably won't have the funds to come here very often. So, this might be the last email for awhile! On Tuesday the director for my Environmental Education program will come up and take us to meet the district Governer here in St. Louis, and then the regional Prefect in Podor. On Wednesday afternoon, I'll finally be installed in my village! It sure will be nice to be settled in and actually beginning this job that I've been planning for for more than a year now. My two years of service officially started at swearing-in, so that means that I'm here until June 4th, 2005! Inshallah (if God wills it)!
My village is called Dimat Diery ("dimat jerry"), but the post office is 2k away in Thille Boubacar ("chilly bubacar"). I've got a cell phone now. I don't get reception in my village, but supposedly Thille Boubacar will have a new tower completed later this month, so hopefully I'll get reception in my hut by July. Senegal's on GMT, but doesn't do daylight savings time, so if it's noon here, it's 2pm in Italy, 8am in New York, or 5am in San Diego (7 hour difference in summer, 8 in winter). Other PCV's say that the Costco AT+T international cards give the best rates. Thank you all for your letters and packages (during my ride up North I shared my ill-gotten goods with the others - sugar coated peanuts from Thies grandma, SD mom's chocolate chip cookies, Jill's snickers - Thanks! At the regional house we listened to The Boss all day -thanks Pete!). I'm just now getting around to writing letters back, now that I have some time, so I'll get those out as soon as I can.
Here in Africa, time has a completely different feel to it. Without reflection, I have no idea (already) what day it is, or even what month. I'm sure season and year will soon be included in that list. Time flies by here, I can't believe I've been here nearly three months, but in those three months I've had 90 days packed with new sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts and experiences. I can't imagine what's in store for the next two years. Sometimes I think that two years here will drag on forever, that I won't be able to fill my days, that I won't figure out how to work with my villagers and get projects done. But then I remember how much three months has given me, and know that very soon two years will be over and I'll be gone and missing Senegal, the heat, beaches, sand dunes, camels, baobabs, harsh Wolof, melodic Pulaar, clearly demarcated African French, the easy smiles and openness of the people, the annoying talibes, dirty, sandy streets, the hot dust-filled Harmattan wind blowing off the Sahara, and the warm, soft quiet safe nights, in Thies and in the village, filled with the sound of distant conversation, shouting, or Brazilian soap operas from every TV around. My life here in Africa is here and now, this is my time to experience Senegal and to live it to the fullest, and that's what I'm going to do. And every once in a while, I might just mix in some Vietnamese food or pringles, just for a treat :)
ciao a tutti, haa gongol (à la prochaine), dave