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Senegal 6 - July 20, 2003
Hello once again,
Well, as you can see, I'm still alive and well here in Senegal.  As you can also see, I have a new email address - Hotmail decided to cancel my account and erase all my messages because I hadn't checked in in 30 days.  So let that be a lesson to all you Hotmail users!  I reactivated the Hotmail account, but will not be using it any more - so please remember to change my address to this Yahoo one the second you get done reading this message!
So, how's Senegal?  I hardly know where to start.  I've been in my village for a little over a month now.  I am enjoying it, but I must admit that it is a lot more challenging than I thought, and for very different reasons.  I am really well-off, by Peace Corps standards. I've got a large hut (about 4m x 6m square), built of mud brick with a thin layer of cement on the outside for the rainy season (which they claim is coming sometime soon), and a tin roof, that has not only leaked with the few rains that we've had, but also means that I never fail to be woken up by even the smallest pitter-patter of rain on my roof.  But it is very rythmic, so it's not hard to fall asleep after I move my bed and set up the buckets.
My hut even has electricity, and so i recently bought a stereo/CD player from a volunteer who just ET'ed (early termination - left early).  Like I said before, I got a cell phone.  Two weeks ago, the phone company miraculously extended their service area, so everywhere in my village I get good reception.  Not quite the lost in the middle of nowhere that I'd expected!
Inside my hut, I've got a large bed (8cm thick foam pad) with mosquito net hanging from the rafters.  along the north wall I keep my stuff - backpacks and wash bins holding my clothes and other things.  The first week in site I built myself a simple branch bookshelf, which is on the east wall, under the light bulb high on the wall.  Next to that is the stereo - on the other side is my small gas burner that I use to heat water for my coffee (nescafé) in the morning.  Next to that is my water-filter.  The walls of my hut were painted by some local women in a cool jagged-wave design with red and white mud - very African looking.  There are many animals that have chosen to co-inhabit my hut, including many ants in the walls (the big red ones don't bite, but the little black ones do), flies (the wicker mini-broom is very effective at killing them), a lizard, a few scorpions (not deadly), and many other random insects that I've never seen before.  The mosquito net is luckily very effective, and not just against mosquitoes.  There haven't been too many mosquitoes around yet - I guess they're a rainy-season phenomena around here.  Apparently around 30% of the population gets malaria during the rainy season (July - October), but that's hard to say, because the Pulaar word for it, famdude, means to have the flu, fever, or malaria - so I'll have to wait and see for myself.  I've got my super-strength Mefloquin pills, apparantly close to 100% effective, and my mosquito net, so I should be fine.
Outside my hut I have a fenced in garden, part covered by a large leefy neem tree (two others shade my house in the afternoon).  I've planted a row of eucalyptus trees along the east and south fence, a mango tree in the south corner, next to my "douche" - a walled in (open-roofed) area with a cement floor with a hole in the middle, for all my sanitary needs.  I'm quite getting used to my bucket-baths under the stars every night.  My garden also has a mint patch outside the door, an aloe plant in the corner, and a plot in the middle that I'm preparing for some vegetable seeds that I just bought yesterday.  So that's my living situation.  My house is on the outskirts of town, along the road leading to Thillé Boubacar, the nearest town, where the post office and the weekly market are.  To the west of my family's compound are some other compounds, and then the town - to the east, north, and south, there's practically nothing.  It's very quite and peaceful, especially at night.
I find myself beginning to adjust to the climate - it's still very hot in the middle of the day, from about 9 till 6 it's over 100°F.  The evening is nice, usually a cool wind blows in from the west (ocean), but unfortunately it often picks up plenty of sand along the way.  That's why I like to take my bucket bath before bed.  It's actually cooler now than when I first came to visit in May - the rainy season has arrived in the south more than a month ago, and as a result we have some clouds and occasional rains in the evenings.  The strangest weather phenomenon I've seen so far is the fake-thunderstorm.  It pretends to be a real thunderstorm, a thick, high black cloud rolling ominously across the plain, usually from the Sahara to the east, full of lighting and thunder.  The sky turns black, and the wind picks up strength, this time a hot dry wind off the desert.  Then the cloud hits, not with a wall of rain, like in the East or Midwest of the States, but with a wall of very fine dust that clouds the air.  After a few hours this all passes over, without a drop of rain having fallen.  Luckily I've only experienced two of these so far - I'm hoping the next ones will bring some rain.
What are my meals like?  Breakfast is nescafé and village bread, a small white baguette baked in a mud-brick stove, that is very, very tasty, soft inside, with just a little bit of salt, almost as little as Tuscan bread.  Yesterday here in the city (St. Louis) I bought some oats, to add a little fiber to my diet (which doesn't really contain any).  Lunch is always the omnipresent ceb u jen (wolof) / maaro e liddi (pulaar) = fish and rice.  This is a big bowl, with a bed of slightly fried rice covered with a few vegetables and fishes.  The fish is usually yaaboy, a small very bony fish that is often more trouble to eat than it's worth.  Sometimes we're lucky to have fresh river fish; they have fewer bones.  If no fresh fish is available, it's dried fish or (my favorite) smoked fish.  The vegetables are small eggplants, hot peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, carrots, bitter tomato (a small nasty squash that no one eats), and/or cabbage.  Dinner is much more variable - usually African couscous, made from rice or millet or a combination of the two, with a couple of fish, some pieces of meat (beef, goat, or sheep), or a yummy leaf/smoked fish sauce (my favorite dinner).  About half the time dinner is a simple porridge made of rice, flour, millet, or corn, mixed with sugar and powdered milk.  They drink a lot of powdered milk - I guess that's to hold over the cattle-herding people until the cows start producing milk after the rainy season.  One of the hardest things to get used to is the time in between meals; breakfast around 7/8 am, lunch around 1, and dinner closer to 9/10 at night.  I find I have to eat a lot to hold myself over, but when it's so hot you don't want to eat much.  Still, this is all much better than not eating at all, or not having any meat or vegetables at all, like in some other PCV villages.
Like I said, Peace Corps is harder than I thought, but for very different reasons than I had expected.  I'm actually quite spoiled - electricity, music, cell phone with reception, far from the village (quiet), with a large hut and room for a garden, and with easy access - the main road 100 ft from my house.  My village is fairly wealthy - more than half of the men from the village don't actually live in the village, but instead work in Dakar, Italy, France, New York, or Ohio (don't ask me why), and send money back to their families and build very large extravagent houses, monuments to their success.
I'm finding the hardest part is figuring out what I'm doing here.  The EE program is very vague and general - basically help teach the children to respect the environment, and work with the villagers on whatever projects we think are needed and possible.  The first few months are meant to be for learing the language and community integration, so that afterwards when I start working, the village will consider me as one of its own.  Still, language learning and community integration are very general ideas, and I was finding it difficult to feel like I was accomplishing anything. So, two weeks ago I wrote up a weekly calender, with  M,W,F starting with jogging and exercise, then I go into town and meet people - I try to eat lunch at a new household every day.  The afternoon is for language studying, and the evening for relaxing.  Tuesday and Saturday are for general "work" - either studying language at home or going into town and meeting people.  Thursday and Sunday are my free days.  Of course, this schedule is very open, but I find it gives me a good reference point to keep me focused, and more importantly, to convince myself that I'm actually doing something.  If not, all the days quickly melt into one another (and I might forget my weekly dose of larium (meflaquine)).
Peace and quiet is pretty easy to find - I just have to walk out into the bush ( "the bush" - french, "la brousse" - is the generic name for any undeveloped area outside of the village or town).  For me, the bush to the south is sandy desert with short thorny bushes and sparse thorny trees.  I love this area - there are sand dunes, and about 5km to the south I came across a higher dune which gives a beautiful view out over a vast valley stretching out to the south.  Someday I intend to hitch a ride with some merchants to explore the nomadic Pulaars' villages out there in the wilderness.  To the north of my house are some forested areas (big thorn trees) and fields, before the little river, the Ngalanka, about 1 km north of my house.  Crossing that river by raft, there's a space about 5 km wide with fields and desert before you reach the Senegal River, the border with Mauritania, known appropriately enough in Pulaar as "maayo mawdo" - the big river.  The Pulaars distinguish direction primarily in terms of waalo (close to the river) and jeeri (far from the river).  A lot of problems have been caused by the post-Colonial division in 1960 of the French colony of Senegal into Senegal and Mauritania.  Traditionally, the Pulaar occupied both sides of the river.  The division along the river separated families and cut traditional trade routes; but only formally - informally everyone crosses all the time to trade or just visit.  In 1989 the Mauritanian government drove out thousands of Pulaars and stole their land - all over the north of Senegal there are new refugee communities on the borders of towns - my town has two such villages, one on each side of town.  Basically these refugees are settled as Senegalese now, but still not very happy about having their land stolen from them.
That was a little bit more historical information than you probably needed; as you can imagine, I've got plenty more that I'll try to include in the future.
Before I finish I should say why it's hard.  Basically the hardest part for me is being on stage all the time.  As the only toubab (white person, from the Arabic "toubib" meaning "doctor") in town, everyone knows me.  Senegalese culture puts heavy emphasis on greetings, and so a simple walk through town means that I have to take an extra half hour to stop and greet everyone.  Plus, now everyone wants me to come and eat with them, or sit and drink tea, or just sit and say absolutely nothing (as Senegalese do for hours at a time - no such thing as a "heavy silence" here).  It is hard for me to remember everyone's names, especially when everyone looks the same (I'm slowly getting more used to telling Africans apart), especially at night, when they expect me to recognize them and remember their names in pitch black darkness, when I can't even tell that I'm not alone in the night.  All of this community spirit is very welcoming and genuine, and their easy humor and smiles are quite contagious.  But it's also quite overwhelming, especially since I consider myself to be a pretty shy person.  This and the heat means that after a day of sitting around talking and eating, I feel completely wiped out.  This all is getting easier as time goes on, which I can begin to see already - as my Pulaar gets better, and I start to get to know more people in the village.  But it is a slow and painful process at times, especially having to do it all alone.  Which is why I'm so very grateful for all of your letters and care packages!
Well, almost out of time.  I'm sure there are a hundred more things that I've forgotten to say, but those will just have to wait till the next time I make it to St.Louis.  One point that I wanted to make is that Peace Corps is full of ups and downs - one moment I can feel at one with the world and overjoyed with being alive, the next as frustrated and feeling helpless as I ever have before.  But I'm still alive, and not regretting a thing about this decision!  Don't forget to use this new Yahoo email address when you write me back, or just write snail mail, or just call!
I hope all of you are doing very well and enjoying your summers.  Thank you all for your support, and know that you are all in my thoughts constantly.
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