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Senegal 8 - September 26, 2003

Hello my friends,

Once again, still alive.  This time I'm writing from Kaolack, one of the larger Senegalese cities, just to the north of the Gambia, in the south of Senegal.  I'm in the middle of a little tour of Senegal - one last wandering adventure before the school starts in the beginning of October. 

Before I get to the trip itself, I'll fill you all in on the last few weeks in Dave's village.  The biggest event in my hut existance is that I no longer live in a hut.  The Peace Corps EE program director came to visit, on a country-wide tour to see how his new volunteers were doing.  When he showed up in my hut, his first comment was, "Wow, you haven't lost weight!" (See, nothing to worry about)  His second was, "Where's the family?"
I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but most of my family left for the summer in the end of June, and has yet to return, leaving me and my brother alone in the compound, which itself is on the edge of town.  So, the director saw this, and said that it wasn't right.  To make a long story short, in the afternoon when he passed back through the village, he moved me and all my stuff to a new apartment in the middle of town.  This apartment was occupied originally by two former French "Progress Volunteers", neither of whom were even French (one another crazy Spaniard, the other American with French mother).  So, currently my stuff is located in a two-room apartment that the Peace Corps is renting.  I won't go into much detail about this apartment, because I probably won't be staying for long.  I've been talking to the village chief, and have decided to take up his offer to move into his compound.  So when I return at the end of the month, I'll be living in a room in his house, while a new hut is constructed (PC will pay half, the village the other, and they'll construct it, Inshallah (God willing).  Basically, this last month, and the coming month, have been and will be a time of transition and re-re-adjustment.  By the end of this I'll be an expert at integrating into African host families (going on four!).
One interesting side to living in the village now is that I find myself finally starting to integrate into village life.  I hadn't realized before how little I had really gotten to know the village or the villagers.  Living far away from the village proper, and travelling to the neighboring town of Thille to get my food meant that I got to know my family relations in Thille better than anyone in Dimat.  This wasn't really that bad, since the family in Thille is very well educated, and has about 7 sons in their 20's or 30's, all of whom are teachers, and interesting to talk to.  Being proud Pulaars, they've also insisted on most occasions on speaking Pulaar, which has been great for my language acquisition.
So, now I find myself living in the center of Dimat, frequenting my fellow villagers to a much greater extent, and meeting many more new people, with all the same original stresses of introductions and getting past the "rich toubab" image that most people assume of me.  Difference is, this time I actually speak decent Pulaar, which makes it more fun and quite a bit easier.
In other news, I've taken a couple more trips to that little border town on the river, Dara Salaam.  These times I've gone with a neighboring Japanese volunteer (JICA - basically the Japanese Peace Corps), whose friends back in Japan donated money to buy a motorized irrigation pump for the women's group in the village.  Now the Japanese volunteer is working with the women's group to pool together enough money to invest in seeds and fertilizer.  I went along for the free ride, and also to see how such group dynamics work in action.
In Senegal 7, I talked about the wide, barren plains that flood in the rainy season.  Well, now it's the rainy season.  Three times, we had to get off the charette and push it through the waist-deep muddy water.  After that, my pants would slowly dry in the sun and wind, just in time to be soaked through by the next river crossing.  The weyndu, as these temporary lakes are known in Pulaar, are really quite beautiful, and much larger this season than in many years, so people are very happy.  Once the floods recede, the farmers plant millet seed.  Apparantly, there's enough moisture trapped in the ground to feed the plants through their whole life cycle, even after the rains have gone.  So, lots of millet for Dave!  The millet is usually ground up into a fine couscous that looks and tastes like sand.  But you get used to it.
The rainy season has been very good this year, and so the people and animals are all very happy.  Happy goats are respectful goats, so I figured that now was the best time to go ahead with my tree planting at the college (middle school).  After talking with just about everyone I thought I had to, listening to their opinions and taking their advice, I finally got everything organized.  Of course, nothing ever turns out like you plan, especially on your first project, and this was certainly no exception.  Again, to make a long story short, only 10 people showed up to plant about 200 trees, the trees weren't all the right ones, people couldn't decide where to plant them, the main figures (head of village Environmental committee, college principal, head of school PTA, my counterpart) didn't show, the woman who had promised the 20 dollars gas money (for the truck to get the plants from the government agency in Podor) would only give 10 dollars.  Somehow, we actually got about 100 trees planted and watered.  Unfortunately, in the week since the planting, I've had to personally draft people to water the plants, and do most of it myself, despite the promises and assurances of many others.  I'm giving the trees a 40% chance of being alive by the time I get back.  Still, I did learn many valuable lessons from this experience, and can see better how to do things, who is all talk, and who actually comes through.  Hopefully this will translate into better future projects.  Inshallah.

Like I said in the last letter, I know what my audience expects of Dave in Africa, and I'm not intending to let you down.  And so without further ado, the latest adventure.

Ever since getting to my village, I have caught myself staring longingly across the desert terrain of the jeeri, the sparsely-vegetated area to the south of the Senegal river floodplain.  Now, in the rainy season, there is foot-high grass coating every spot of dirt.  I've had many plans in the past to cross the 130 km (75 miles) of desert, by bike or by foot, to visit some fellow PCV's around the city of Linguere.  Luckily for my mother, I discovered a slightly safer method of traverse.  Every Thursday, there is a weekly market in the town of Thille.  Every Friday, there is a weekly market in Linguere, much bigger than the small-town local markets in my region.  The only way to get to Linguere by road is very circuitous, by circling around through St. Louis on the coast and then cutting back into the desert, probably around 400 km.  So, every week there are a few covered pickup trucks that leave Thille on Thursday afternoon, and then return from Linguere Friday afternoon.  There are no roads at all, not even proper dirt roads - just charette paths, two thin sandy tracks cutting through the green grass.

And so, last Thursday, yours truly went to the market in Thille armed with a small backpack and a village brother, in search of these mythical mobile merchants.  About 10:30 am we show up, and talk to the "apprentice" - the driver's teenage brother.  Is there room? -Yeah, but not in the cab.  When does the truck leave?  -10 am.  But it's 10:30.  -ok, 11am.  After stocking up on "seritie", the gifts that visitors bring to their hosts - in this case, cheap tea and sugar "imported" (smuggled) from Mauritania, and sweet potatoes, eggplants, and bananas (not too many of those in the desert), we came back to the truck about 11:30.  Where's the truck?  Gone to Taredji (25 km away) to get gas.  1pm, the truck pulls up, and is instantly full.  I was only 30 feet away, but ended up with the worst seat on the truck.  Now mind you, this is a normal sized double-cab toyota pickup truck, with a sort of metal cage covering the bed.  there were about 50 people on or inside of this thing.  And I had the worst seat.  My place was on the back right corner, meaning that with every accelleration, bump, or upwards slope, all the 12 people on the top right side would slide towards the back.  I had to grip the bar under me with my right hand and exert enough pressure to keep this mass of humanity from sending me into ignoble flight into the desert sands.  For the whole 6 hour trip.  It actually got better - after one lucky bump on a downhill slope, I was able to gain enough space so that my hand was not under me but instead a little to my side - much easier.  Plus my legs helped.  Still, it was not exactly pleasant having to constantly fight for space and put up with my neighbors' complaining - Yeah, 50 people stuffed into a pickup, but it's that darned toubab that's taking up all the space.  After the first hour people became more friendly and talkative, and I think some are actually smiling in my pictures.

The trip was by no means easy, but it was as much of an adventure as I expected, and it was truly beautiful to see this remote desert landscape, the tiny villagers of Pulaar herders scattered along the way, the changing of the landscape as we worked our way south, as the sparse thorn trees and scrub brush gave way to giant baobab trees and other species, and finally rolling green hills covered with fields of millet and peanuts.  I hope my pictures turn out well, showing this pre-modern landscape and villages illuminated by the sharp rays of the afternoon sun cutting through the high clouds.  Still, probably not a trip I'll take again in the near future.

Riding on the top of a pickup in the desert leads one to ponder about travelling, adventure, and exploration.  Being likely one of the only white people to ever take this trip on top of a pickup made me feel like a bit of an explorer.  But then, I quickly came to the realization that I was surrounded by 50 other people, most of whom do this same trip twice a week, sometimes under greater heat or perhaps rain, including old women and babies (most of whom were quite vocally not happy).  Hard to feel brave and daring under these circumstances.  It made me reflect as well about explorers in general - aside from Nansen, Amundsen, Perry, Scott, or other arctic travellers, most "explorers" went mainly to "forbidden landscapes" that were actually inhabited for hundreds or even thousands of years.  For myself, it helps to put things in perspective to realize that, even if things are hard for me, I am still one of the richest people in the village, even on my teacher's salary.  Plus I always have that deuce up my sleeve, that I can always leave if it gets to hard.  At times I thought about what would happen if the truck broke down in the desert.  Seeing a five-year-old boy walking alone through the desert many kilometers away from any human settlements made me realize that I'd probably be fine, should any breakdown occur.

I finally got to my friend's house around 9pm, and was gone at 10am the next day, on the way to Thies to visit my old host family.  10am-10:45 was spent in a falling apart car on the way to Dara, a crossroads town.  10:45-4:15 was spent waiting in Dara for the van to fill up.  The van was apparantly having brake problems, and so was one of the slowest that I have ever been on, and stopped a few times to get the brakes checked out.  After dark, at about 8:30, something on the wheel finally broke off, and after another half hour waiting by the side of the road I jumped on another van heading into Thies, by this point only 15 km away.

One thing I keep telling myself is that with all these transportation experiences, I'll probably never have anything to complain about in the future - I know it could be worse, like holding on for dear life for 6 hours in the sun on top of a covered pickup, or waiting in a station for five hours for a car to fill up with passengers.

All of these adventures have a silver lining; this one is no exception.  When I finally walked into my Thies family's compound at around 9pm, I got a very warm welcome, everyone on their feet dancing around, grandmas crying and hugging me and everyone screaming "Ismaila arii, Ismaila arii!" (Ismaila's back!)  Ismaila was my Thies name, as you might recall.  I really haven't found the same welcoming family feeling in my village, probably due to the fact that it's so large.  But it's good to know that I'll always have a place in Thies.

****This part's now bieng written from Tambacounda, about five days later in the trip.***

In Kaolack I had a bit of luck in running into some of my friends at the Kaolack regional house.  We went out for dinner and a movie - $2 for chawarma and beer, and then a 50 cent Chinese martial arts film dubbed into French, in a packed outdoor theater full of guys - the 2 PC girls in our group did feel a little out of place.  This was the first time that I've seen a movie here, and it's quite an experience.  Every good fight scene or move, everyone would cheer, and for the final battle everyone stood up, just like in a football game, I guess to see the action better.

The trip to Kaolack from Tamba was yet another one of those "should be 3 hours but it took 7" ones, with broken tires and electrical problems and stopping for gas three times (why not just fill up?) and lunch once.  In Tamba I stayed with a married couple, PCV's, and then borrowed a bike and rode off 10 km into the bush to visit another PCV.  That afternoon I got a lucky travelling break and caught a ride on a grand Car Mouride, one of the large European-style busses (actually, this one was Spanish, labels and all) that are owned by the marabouts (religious leaders) of the Mouride Islamic sect based in Touba in the middle of Senegal.  It was nice.  My trip down to Kedougou passed through the National Park of Niokolo Koba, and even from the road I could see many species of tropical birds, a few types of monkeys and baboons, and quite a few warthogs.

In Kedougou I ran into another PCV that I knew, and went with her the next morning on a luma car, one of the packed cars that goes out to the once-a-week markets in the remote villages.  the 2 hour trip was mainly along gravel roads, but since it's been raining constantly for the last three months, there's not much to say about their quality.  But somehow the sturdy old minibus miraculously pulled through.

As I travel south through the country, it's been incredible to see the changes in landscape.  My North is basically desert, without the Saharan sand dunes.  South of that, around Linguere, there is a little more foliage, and the giant baobabs.  Around Thies I was amazed by the amount of greenery and large trees.  Kaolack was even greener (even though the city's a dump), and coming towards Tamba the trees get even larger, the underbrush thicker, and the corn, millet, and sorghum higher.  Now, going down to Kedougou, in the very Southeast corner of Senegal, next to Mali and Guinea, you enter a whole new world.  Kedougou is surrounded by high mountain (ok, hills really, but they sure seem like mountains to me) ridges, and is the northern edge of the West African tropical rainforest zone.  Aside from set paths and roads, the forest is basically impassable.

The minibus ride down to my friend's village was an adventure worthy of Disneyland, only so much more genuine.  My friend was the perfect guide, too.  "See that ridge up on the right?  That's where the Bassari live.  They're the animists."  The Bassari are one of the few tribes in Senegal that still live almost completely apart from the modern world, in remote hill-top villages, practicing their ancient pagan religions.  Someday I'll have to make it up there.  Further on down the road we took a dip, "Here's the river!", my friend said.  And sure enough, the minibus went bouncing along the rocks across a 10 foot wide river, right through quick-flowing water a good foot or two deep.  I'm still amazed that bus made it through that road, and that it does that every week even through the rainy season.

The village was great, much more what i had expected from Peace Corps - scattered grass-roofed huts hidden in the forest, and buried in this season within fields of 10 foot tall corn plants and papaya trees.  No electricity or phones outside of Kedougou. I spent the day walking around the village with my friend Kat (a different one), and then we both caught the afternoon bus back to Kedougou.  The next day we tried to find a car out to Dindefello, a small village next to some spectacular waterfalls, but with no luck.  So, we just bummed around Kedougou.

The next morning we caught a minibus back to Tamba, after deciding against the Mouride Bus, which even at 5am was packed with people fighting for standing room.  At 6:30 we were finally pulling out of town.  A couple hours down the road our little minibus passed a lone man who waved us down.  I spotted a motorcycle down the hill.  I piled out with the rest of the men, I thought just to help pull the bike out.  When we got closer, I saw that the first of the guys were already attempting to pop this man's right arm into place!  I don't know if it worked - he was still in incredible pain after the operation.  We through his moto on top of the bus and he climbed in, which is when we noticed that he was bleeding from his hand, knee and ankle, and at the ankle the bone was even visible.  Kat and I pulled some stuff out of our bags, tore up a random sheet that we had been carrying vegetables in, and washed off the wounds, dressed them and wrapped them up, and made a sling for his arm, and gave him some strong motrin pills.  The bus rolled on down the road until we got to a larger town with a clinic, where we all waited for half an hour while the nurse fixed up the bandages (he kept our sling), and then we continued on to Tamba.  Before Tamba we decided to get off at the married couple's house - we figured we had had enough adventure for one day.  The rest of the day we just relaxed, ate, helped with the weeding, and played some games with some other PCV's who showed up in the afternoon.

Today, everyone from the region is in Tamba for a regional meeting - I'm just going to stick around here to see some more people and stay for the party tonight, and then head off tomorrow on my way home.  I'm planning on taking the other way around, circling around the Eastern side of the country, along the border to Mali and then Mauritania, along the Senegal River till I reach my village.  Hopefully I'll make it in a day - probably it'll take two.  Such is travel in Africa - always a pain, but never boring.

After this trip I feel ready to settle down in my village, and focus on the school, which opens on October 6th.  For the next 9 months I should have plenty to do, whatever I want really.  Now I have a better sense for what other PCV's are up to, and what else is possible with my work.  Hopefully I'll be able to make a few of these ideas translate successfully in my village.

Until next time, with love,


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