Senegal 7 - August 13, 2003
Hello once again my friends,
As you can see, I'm still very much alive and well here in Senegal. I'm back in St. Louis, much sooner than i had expected. I was convinced by some other PCV's to meet up here for the 15th of August, Assumption Day, apparantly a Christian holiday. Now, I've lived in a few Christian countries in the past, and don't recall ever hearing about this holiday. But, in the name of religious equality, the other 97 percent of the Senegalese population bravely joins in the celebrations to help the 3 percent Christian population properly appreciate and celebrate this unknown holiday, just as they do for Christmas, Christmas Eve, Ascension Day, and other non-religious holidays such as Bob Marley's birthday on May 11. Privately, I suspect they just love their parties :)
As before, there is so much to talk about that i really don't know where to start. I guess the most important thing to mention is that I'm doing very well here, and feeling much more settled and at home in my hut. It's hard to say where this feeling has come from - it certainly has a lot to do with time passing, reality settling in and my definitions of normality gradually being modified. What also helped a lot was my last trip to St. Louis.
In my last trip here, a month ago, i had expected a lot from the city, and ended up being disappointed in almost every respect. I had grown to idealize many aspects of Western life, some of which can be found in St. Louis. I had really been looking forward to eating western food, talking to white people, reading and writing emails, and the beach and cool weather at the coast. Instead, the weather was rather cloudy, hot and humid, my Hotmail account was cancelled, leaving me with no emails to read and the headache of finding the addresses again and starting a new account, the white people weren't as interesting to talk to as I had remembered them being, and the "Western" food that I indulged in (Vientnamese restaurant, middle-eastern chawarmas, Spanish cookies) couldn't live up to it's idealised memory and also ended up making me sick. Just a note on that - so far I have yet to be sick in my village - just when i leave the village is when I have issues. In any case, I was relieved to return home to my hut.
That experience really helped to give me a sense of perspective on my village and my life there. i really don't mind a lot of the harder parts of my life, not as much as I thought I would, and I really do love a lot of the good parts. Still, I know that this is only temporary - there are a number of things that I couldn't accept on a more long-term basis.
After that vague blanket statement, I'll try to elaborate a little bit. Many of the hard parts; being far away from friends and family, not having freedom of movement (i.e., car), being on stage all the time, lack of variety in the diet - these are all things that I get more used to the longer I'm exposed to them, or rather, the longer I'm away from them. The good parts keep getting better, as I learn to appreciate them better. Senegalese society really is incredible. People are genuinely hospitable and welcoming, to all strangers. To illustrate this, a short story. About a week ago, a truck broke down in front of my house. After a few hours of milling about, the merchandise (goats, sheep, bags of rice) was moved into another truck, the people (about 15) who were riding along in the backs of both trucks piled into the one, along with the animals, to continue the 8 hour journey to Dakar (at 7pm). Meanwhile one of the young drivers stayed with the truck to guard it, while the others went off to another city to find a new hub. Naturally, the driver, a complete stranger, was invited into our house, and ended up staying three days. This was completely normal and expected. Another thing that I find interesting is how appearence is judged very differently here than in the West. here, it doesn't really matter if I've showered, shaven, have clean clothes on, or even expensive clothes or jewelry. For better or worse, I am always going to be attractive and desireable as a friend, or spouse (you can imagine how many sisters I've been offered as wives), just because I'm white. For the Senegalese, of course, money is something to be worn and displayed, in fancy clothes (sometimes Western), jewelry, or heavy make-up for the women (and i definitely mean HEAVY). For me, I can't help but feel flattered by this positive attention, even though I don't want to be given a wife (or have one stolen for me by my friends - one of those "things I'll never get used to"), and definitely don't agree with the white=beautiful concept. In any case, I don't mind the lack of pressure and the freedom to not have to shave daily (actually it's been a few weeks now) or remove every spot of dirt from my clothes (what's the point anyway?).
In terms of work (or lack thereof) I'm also feeling much more settled. In talking with people (now that my Pulaar is getting decent, I can do that better), I'm realizing how important it is for me to really know my fellow village people before I start doing much of any work. Also, I've been reading a book I found in the PC regional house library entitled "All you need is love - Peace Corps and the spirit of the 1960's". In finally learning a bit more about Peace Corps I've come to realize that we're really not expected to do much of anything except get to know people on a personal level and vice-versa. Really, without any real funding for projects, we're supposed to focus on teaching and organizing on an ad hoc basis - basically give a different perspective on various problems and possible solutions that we encounter. I'm already seeing many possible projects, and am already realizing that I'll need to limit and focus my work in the village - everyone (in neighboring villages as well) seems to have some idea of how to use me.
One aspect of my work that I certainly never expected is my latest addition to my room - a pentium pc with laser printer. It's one of 40 computers that were donated to my village by a school in Paris - I'm helping to get them set up in the College (the middle school). During the summer I've got one in my room to help the principal (and the whole village, I'm suspecting) with various projects. I do wish I knew more about networking, but I'm finding that so far my limited experience is much more than anyone else's, and once we get the computers operational, I can do a lot in just teaching basic computer skills to the students, and probably to other villagers as well.
Other work-related things on the horizon are a project to help a women's group start a fruit orchard (again, I have no experience in this whatsoever, but maybe I can figure something out), planting trees around the college (middle school), setting up a garden in the elementary school, teaching the villagers how to make mud stoves (a much more fuel-efficient alternative to the three-stone method) and drying racks for fruit, millet, seeds, and vegetables, for personal use or possibly export. These last two projects are ones that I'll have to teach myself how to do first, but that's just a minor detail.
I really can't say that I've been bored since I've gotten to my village. All my time is taken up in talking, hanging out, watching the one station on TV (I've gotten hooked on two Brazilian soap operas, dubbed into French - Terra Nostra, about Italian immigrants in Sao Paolo 100 years ago, and Family Secrets, about less-than-faithful people in very complicated family relationships in Rio, but with beautiful shots of scenery - plus Sunday night movies!). Aside from that, I've got plenty to read (Economist every week, plus a huge library of English-langauge books left by other PCV's in the regional house), and plenty to study (Pulaar, Wolof, and occasionally even Arabic), and plenty to listen to, with my cassettes, CD's, and short-wave radio. Also, plenty to water - I probably spend at least 45 minutes every day pulling water from the well to water my plants or myself. I love pulling water (so far) - it's very relaxing, especially in the afternoon, watching the sunset. I'm pretty good about my exercising routine too, jogging three times a week, either across the rice fields to the river and back or south into the bush. I also ride my bike a lot, leading to endless frustrations in fixing tires - both of my air tubes have 5-7 patches on them so far - due to the fact that there doesn't exist a tree out here without thorns.
I should also mention the latest joy of my life. Finally I have found an outlet for all these pent-up affections. Her name is Barba (Barbabietola - thanks Stef), she's Egyptian, I think - she's got the pointy ears, short fur, and pointed face of the breed, about 4 months old, and appreciates having a human that doesn't kick her. Yes, that's right, I've got myself a kitten! I guess my father (who's never around - what can you do with 3 wives (and 19 children) in three cities?) got her from a neighbor, and the last time he left for a few weeks, left her in his house. After I asked about the cat-noises coming from the house, my brother explained the story to me. Pretty soon she was released. Naturally, after being mistreated (but only on occasion) by most of the rest of my family, she's come to her senses and realized that the toubab doesn't kick. So, she's basically adopted me. I'm still allergic to cats, but I let her into my hut, just not at night, and not on my bed. She loves powdered (reconstituted) milk, and leftover fish from lunch, and whatever else that humans get. The sheep, Jom ("chief"), the new heifer (as of yet un-named), and the chickens seem pretty jealous of her preferential treatment, but they've always complained a lot anyway, so nothing's really changed.
As this is already Senegal 7, I've come to know my audience's expectations a little better by now. And so, without further ado, I present the latest Senegal adventure story. Before I begin, I should warn you that this story is perhaps not for the faint-hearted law-abiders, or rather for those who might leak out this information to my superiors.
Two days ago, I set off in the in the stuffy, overcast morning heat to bike to a neighboring village. There I met up with two other volunteers (to remain unnamed), and together, with a Senegalese friend of theirs, set off on foot for the river. Having acquired a carraige (charette) in town, we pulled ourselves across on the raft, the horse swimming off to the side. Mounting the charette (a flat, rectangular plank of wood 4'x6' on two wheels pulled behind the horse (or sometimes a donkey), we set off on the bumpy, 7 km ride across the hard ground to the Senegal River. The point of the trip was to visit a quaint little village on this side of the river, and to meet a legendary crazy Spaniard who worked on the other side of the river.
The landscape in between the two rivers is, for the most part, a dry, hard, barren plain. The soil found in the walo (the area close to the river) is called argille in French, and, mixed with water and dried in the sun, is what they build their houses with. Therefore, having been mixed with water in the rainy season and subsequently dried in the sun, the whole plain hardens into a very solid, cracked terrain, marked only by the occasional brave and thorny tree or shrub. Approaching the river, one is presented by a veritable wall of greenery - so tight and thorny that only goats can enter. Our charette skirted the edge of this wall before following the path into the thick forest, trotting along the winding path and leaving us to pull in our feet, duck, or just brace ourselves for the thorny branches. I was just enjoying the ride, the shade, the cool air, and especially our greeting at the village. Upon entering the village (200 souls) we were surrounded by a throng of smiling children and women, all dancing to the griot's talking drum (a small drum held under the left arm and played with a small stick). Finally, I heard live music in a village! My village has so far disappointed me in the musicians/dancing respect. After shaking everyone's hand we were shuffled into an old mud (not even mud-brick) house. The house was of the kind who's walls are basically reinforced after melting away every rainy season. The roof was of a style I'd never seen before - an angled, thatched roof above, with a flat, termite-infested wooden ceiling on the inside. The whole house reeked of incense, reminding me of a small Eastern European orthodox chapel, of the kind I saw in Russia or Macedonia. I loved the whole atmosphere of the village.
As the crazy Spaniard had not materialized, we decided to go to the other side of town (read, the other side of the river) to look for him. So, we crossed the river (swollen and brown from the heavy rains upstream) in a dugout tree-trunk canoe, and set foot in a foreign land. "Informally", of course - no visa or passport being present. Of course, for the Senegalese there is no distinction whatsoever - basically, every village along that river has a sister village on the opposite shore, and people cross daily to go to work, visit neighbors, or nightly to smuggle sugar, oil, flour, and electronics into Senegal. We also had been informed that there were very rarely any police around on the other side, and that the Spaniard was "powerful".
Carlos, the crazy Spaniard, lives in a relative palace on the edge of the enormous rice fields (400 hectares) that he runs for his employer, "sort-of" the government. 31 years old, he's been here for 8 years, having outlived the other 3 Spaniards (they went home) who initailly began the project. What we were all surprised about was that he was seemingly very normal, and very friendly, which makes us wonder why on earth he's still there. We spent the day there, enjoying the air-conditioning, Spanish music and conversation, bottled water, and food. He served us what is apparently a traditional meal of Mauritania, a very large section of a goat, roasted and served on a plate. Everyone sits around it and, armed with very sharp knives, attacks. Now, to remind you all, meat is served in the village on perhaps a weekly basis, and when it is, you're lucky (or, based on the quality, unlucky) to get a few bites. So, faced with an entire goat all for us, we dove in. Luckily, the more experienced locals, Carlos and his Moor and Pulaar associates, soon realized that we were a bit timid about throwing our hands and knives into the fray, and began cutting off bits for us. After eating more goat than I should have (but how much is that really?) I was horrified to see another plate arrive, this one filled with mini-vermicella pasta, carrots, and peas, one of my favorite plates here. And so, we again bravely dove in, stuffing ourselves beyond the limits. After this we politely refused the accompanying plate of boiled goat bits (heart, lungs, intestines, etc.) and settled down on the leather couches to eat apples and drink more tea. As the hours passed in blissful digestion, we finally realized that it would be dark in a couple of hours.
About an hour after this revelation, we finally said our goodbyes to the staff (and the wonderful little 70-year-old Pulaar chef, who spent many of his years working in France) and were whisked away in Carlos' pick-up truck, back to the river. This was the first of three revelations of beauty that I was to have that evening - sitting up on the edge of the pickup, holding on in the driver's window as Carlos the crazy Spaniard sped down the dirt road, marvelling at the sunset turning the grand, lofty clouds purple and red above the vast, machine-tilled fields, a stunning contrast to the tiny, labor-intensive fields near my village. My second revelation came soon after, sitting in the front of the canoe, facing backwards and watching that same sunset, this time above the muddy, wind-swept river and the fading green shore of my newly-discovered neighboring country. I was facing the other two volunteers, and realized how incredibly lucky we are to be able to experience all of this, to be watching the sunset on a dugout canoe on the swollen Senegal River. I think that all I said was, "Peace Corps, the Toughest Job You'll Ever Love". I'm not really sure if I would call it a "job" necessarily, but it is certainly tough at times, and I do love it.
The final revelation came while holding on for dear life as the charette rattled back across the barren plain in the warm evening, watching the distant specks of light from the villages slowly approaching, and the full moon shining through the high, broken clouds. It certainly added to the aura of the moment that our friend and guide told us all about the various spirits, the "jinns", which haunt the night. Despite being a young, well-educated teacher, he was visibly anxious to get back to the village. I got home at about 10:30, having ridden the 5 km back alone in the moonlight, scanning the bushes for jinns. Sitting outside, eating my porridge, petting my kitten, watching random religious figures playing music and talking in dead-pan Wolof voices on tv, with a sheep breathing down my neck (literally), I reflected back over the day's experiences, and was glad that I had chosen to do the Peace Corps.
For those of you who are still reading this, thanks for staying with me. I am, as always, very happy and appreciative of your emails, letters, and care packages. I'll be here in St. Louis for a few days, and I hope to be able to respond to all of your emails individually, but if I don't get a chance, please don't be offended, and please keep writing!
As I've mentioned before, all of you are very welcome to come visit. I think a lot about what sort of things I would show to a visitor, or how I would explain certain things. Above all I would love to have a chance to share this world more directly with those of you who can make it, and to get some outside insight on this world which for me is becoming normal.