Senegal 9 - December 1, 2003
Friends, Romans, Countrymen,
Voila the lastest installment of the epic story of a normal American boy caught in quite, well, normal (for here) experiences in a foreign land. Yes, I've finally made it back to civilization, the capital city of Dakar, that mecca for villagers from all over West Africa following their dreams of making it big in the big city, or better yet, leaving the big city to go abroad. Also known has the home for the majority of toubabs in Senegal, either the Lebanese shopkeepers who've been here for generations, or the French ex-pats, some also here for generations, or the vaste cadres of diplomats and NGO workers from all over the U.S. and Europe. Really a shock to see so many white people - they're (oh yeah, we're) pretty rare anywhere else in country.
Before I tell you about how i came to be in Dakar on this Thanksgiving weekend (there's your first clue), let me give a long summary of my last two months in and out of my village.
But first, I'd like to pick up where I left off last time, about two months ago, in Tambacounda in the south of Senegal. After I finished writing Senegal 8, I left the internet cafe' and stepped back out into Senegal. It just felt weird - writing these long stories of my life gives me a sense of distance, that I'm outside of the world that I'm writing about. Hence the shock when I leave and realize that I'm still in the middle of the adventure. And sure enough, the adventure didn't delay. About a half-hour later, my friend Kat and I were walking back to the Tamba regional house. She had just gotten a new digital camera, and so on a back streeet we paused to take some pictures of a starving horse that looked like the skeletal one from headless horsemen movies, and of its friend a particularly wise-looking goat (very long beard). Thankfully we paused, because that bought us some time. As we continued down the street, a kid rode by on a bike, then stopped and shouted to us, "messieur! messieur! toubab!" I turned around, annoyed, to see the kid pointing in front of me. I turned back around and my heart dropped to the floor as I saw at the end of the street a bizarre scene - someone dressed in what looked like a chubacca costume, made of stringy coconut bark. As if this furry guy (the other PCVs later referred to him as an "ewok on crack") walking down the street wasn't disconcerting enough, he was followed by 6 young un-costumed men carrying long machetes. We just froze and watched, and the procession passed by on the main road, about 100 feet away, sending kids running in all directions, chased by the machete-men. Apparantly, this is all part of the circumcision ritual for young boys (the actual ceremony is not performed with machetes, but the symbolism was not lost on the poor kids).
As I said in the last email, I thought it might take me two days to get back north. It did, in very slow Alhams (the bigger minibusses - we toubabs call them "Alhams" because "Alhamdullillah", "By the Grace of God" is written across the front of every bus). But the trip was nice - different scenery, got to see Mali across the border, and finally returning to my northern Pulaar. In the south, Tambacounda and Kedougou, most people speak PulaFouta, a dialect of Pulaar spoken in Guinea, to the south. I could understand most things, but with difficulty. As good as it is to travel, it's always good to come back home, to familiar sights and sounds.
About a week after I came back, I moved into the living room of the village chief. My apartment was terrible the last week - the family who cooked for me had apparantly run short on money, so all we ate was plain rice and a couple small bony fish. Meanwhile the fat mother (the father lived with his other wife in Kaolack) ate a separate bowl with a larger fish all for herself. Also, the village crazy woman who lived in the room next to mine (of course no one had explained this beforehand) started becoming symptomatic. Suffice it to say that the day I moved out culminated with her chasing me with a heavy meter-long millet pounding stick, as I rode away on my bike. I was happy to leave. The move was classic, too - in the cover of darkness, a village friend of mine, Mamadou Sy (a teacher) brought his charette over, and we loaded all my worldly senegalese possessions on and tied them down. I had him take a picture of the scene, me with my stuff piled on a horse drawn carraige, walking through the village in the middle of the night. And i do promise that someday, somehow I will get these pictures developed and put up on the internet for all to see!
As I said before, the chief had invited me to move into his compound, and that I could stay in the living room until my hut was built, in the course of a few weeks. Of course, two months later, my stuff's still piled in the corner of his living room, and my future hut has tall concrete block walls, but no roof, and my toilet has a pit, but no walls. Things take a bit longer in the village.
Still, it is much better living in the village, in a proper family. My new father, Oumar Abdoul Kane (same last name - so I didn't have to change mine, Atoumane Kane) is a sweet little old man (67, I think), nurse by profession, Mauritanian by birth, who still runs a private clinic in a neighboring town. He's usually around, when he's not at one of his other wives' houses - he's got two in Dimat, one in his clinic town, and one over the border in Mauritania. He's not at all wealthy, and his house is quite modest compared to the other emigrant-built palaces all over the village. His compound is shared with that of his sister and her husband, and all of the combined kids. There were three girls there between the ages of 19 and 24, who did all the cooking and cleaning, but now they've moved to other villages or to Nouakchott, the capital of neighboring Mauritania, to work. So now there's one older daughter/cousin who is still there to cook. Completing the family are my new mother (late 30's?) and a whole mess of screaming, crying, fighting little kids. They do have their cute moments, too, though not all of them. Especially not the smallest, Ibrahima, the most spoiled little 3-year-old brat I've ever seen. I hope I don't kill him before my time is up. For the record, I have yet to hit a kid here, although I've come close on many an occasion. Still, I'm afraid of what i could do if I'm waken up by him screaming some night while I'm deep in some Meflaquin dream (crazy dreams and hallucinations caused by the anti-malarial prophylaxis).
My living situation is not the best it could be, and nothing compared to my large, cool, tree- and garden-surrounded first hut. For most of the last two months, I've been sleeping outside in the yard with the rest of the family - every evening I set up my mosquito net and foam mat outside my room. It was nice to be sleeping under the stars everynight, with my sheets smelling like camping from the wood fires that would be boiling water for breakfast every morning, and to wake up with the roosters and the sun every morning. Notice I say it "was" nice - until the cold season arrived. Then I got sick - but I'll get to that later.
As for my work life in the village, it's all been going frustratingly slow. School did start eventually, although two weeks after the official opening date. Still, I haven't really figured out what my job here is. By the way, all those trees that I planted in the junior high? All dead - either not watered or eaten by goats. Which has led me away from community-based projects, and towards the schools. I figure the kids will be easier to brainwash and make work than the adults. I've done one major project at the school, a maps project, which has been a great success.
The elementary school teachers and I all met at the school one Saturday morning, and began a process of map-painting that is still in progress a month later. Using materials that I purchased (I thought Peace Corps would reimburse me, but alas, no) we used a grid-method to project maps of Senegal, Africa, and the world onto the classroom walls. We drew a grid over the map on the page, then drew a larger-scale grid on the wall in chalk, then used coordinates to draw the country boundaries on the wall in pencil. Finally, we painted in the coutries in different colors. The maps really are beautiful, and really helpful, I would say, judging by how little African geography even many of the teachers knew - they just don't have contact with maps on a normal basis. I took a lot of time making sure the borders, lakes and rivers were correct (I love geography). The best part about it was how the teachers picked up the technique. Mind you, it's really not that difficult, but it was great to see some teachers, especially two female teachers, who came in the morning saying they couldn't paint at all, could I do a map for them. By the end of the day, both had produced maps in their classrooms, quite different from the originals I had made - all sorts of bright pastels, pinks, purples, oranges. The map project took a number of weekends, and is still not finished, mainly due to my huge outside map of the world, 4m x 2.64m, and due to Ramadan.
In other work-related news, I've been working with other PCVs to try to write up a lesson plan for Environmental Education in the elementary school, a way to work in education with activities and games in a logical progression. The biggest question is how much the PCV should be involved. If I am very active with the kids, leading group activities and lessons, then after I leave I know that nothing will be done. The other option is to make it a plan for the teachers to do themselves. Problem is, what's their motivation for spending extra time to teach about the environment, when they already feel overworked? Also, I can write a proposal to get funding for EE activities, but again, what good does it do if there will not be any money there when I leave? The trick is to make people see these things as important enough to allocate their own resources to - to make them see that it's in their own vested interest. That's of course never an easy task, and I wonder often if it's even possible.
All work in the village has been affected by two significant event of the past two months. One is the flooding, that I mentioned in the last letter. The rainy season was much wetter and lasted much longer than in recent history, and the flooding only began to recede about three weeks ago. This means that for the last three weeks most of the villagers have been out of the village, living in the walo, the area closer to the river, in order to plant millet seeds in the soft, moist ground the floods have left behind. All the standing water has also meant an increase in cases of malaria this season, and a lot of people have been sick. It's usually not as serious as I'd thought - most people have malaria all their lives, and some seasons they'll get a high fever and be really sick for a week, then take their medicines and be fine. There were a number of deaths, though, even younger people, so it's been a sad time for the village, and the procession of men to the graveyard has been a common sight on many a morning.
The other great occasion has been the fasting month of Ramadan. Up until the month started (the 9th lunar month in the Islamic calender) around the 27th of October, I didn't think I was going to fast, but at last, I decided I would give it a try. I didn't want to kill myself, though, so I decided to keep drinking water all day - I referred to this as my "half-fast", "feccere-kork" in Pulaar. Every single day during the fast, every single person in the village asked me if I was fasting. Every single time I would give the same response, "Yes, but only half-fast". I always got a great reaction out of this, people rolling on the ground laughing, telling their friends and anyone who was around. Humor comes quickly to the Senegalese.
Since I doubt that very many of you have experienced the Muslim fasting month in an African village, I'll just give a little summary of a normal daily routine in the month of Ramadan:
4am - women wake up to start cooking porridge. It's still dark.
5am - women wake everyone else up to eat porridge.
5:30 - people pray, then go back to sleep. Dave usually can't sleep on a bellyfull of porridge, so he lies in his mosquito net, stares up and the stars, listens to random shortwave broadcasts (Moroccan station, Media, that plays a very eclectic mix of French/Arab music; DW in English, BBC), and waits for the sky to lighten.
6:45 - sun makes it's appearance through giant thorn tree in neighbor's yard. Very African.
7 - mom gets everyone up. I crawl out of mosquito net, roll it up, and bring my bed inside. I wish I could sleep more, wash up, then hop on my bike and ride to school.
8 - school starts. Most of the days I've been working on the world map.
10 - I start feeling hungry
11 - I start feeling really hungry
1pm - tired, not too hungry anymore. Teachers leave to go home and sleep. Me too, but usually I can't nap in the daytime.
1pm-5pm - the town is dead. Not a soul is moving, except those darned kids who aren't old enough to fast. Heathen bastards.
5pm - things start to wake up. People go to stores, buy food, make their ways home.
6:30 - sun sets. Why can't we break the fast yet? Mosque guy hasn't sung yet.
6:30-6:45 - most painful part of day. Almost there!
6:45 - Fast is broken! first a couple of dates, then coffee and bread (sometimes butter). People pray. Dave watches, faces in opposite direction to enjoy the fading colors of day.
7:15 - We dine on a plate of fried fish - just fish fried directly in a sauce of onions and tomato paste. It's dark, so you just feel around with your right hand (the clean hand) until you find something meat-feeling to eat. A couple of evenings there was even meat. Usually, when meat is served, there are many parts (stomachs, intestines, etc.) that I try to avoid. One evening, about three bites into the meal, I realized that we were picking away at a sheep's head in the dark. I only had three bites that meal. Guess I'm not "Peace Corps" enough yet. Don't think I'll ever be, inchallah.
7:30 - I take a bucket bath under the stars, quickly to not get bitten by too many mosquitoes.
8pm - usually at this time i ride across town to the teacher's house. this is a house where four of my favorite teachers live. They've got TV too. kind of a hang-out place for a number of people. Sometimes I stay and read, write letters, listen to music, and wait until
10:30 - when we finally eat lunch, rice and fish.
11pm - people go to bed.
Now, this schedule is not my favorite. One thing that I cannot do is go to sleep right after I've eaten a big meal. I need a few hours to digest. Unfortunately, this schedule doesn't allow much time for that. So, for the first two weeks of Ramadan, my stomach was not happy, usually expressing itself with some form of constipation or indigestion. My medkit Tums supply dwindled at an alarming rate.
Luckily (I guess) this schedule didn't continue very long. One day, my constipation decided on a sudden, drastic change of coarse. A couple days later, when I finally could, I braved the hour-long drive to the regional house in Ndioum. Once I got there, I took the giardia (Montezuma's revenge) medicine, and was fine immediately. Luckily I was feeling better, because the next day, after I got back to my village, the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal, Richard Roth, came to visit my house, along with his wife, the USAID director and his wife, and a small entorage. They hadn't let me tell anyone - they just wanted to see a real village-based PCV in his real village. They spent a pleasant hour in the afternoon sitting on mats outside my soon-to-be-built hut, chatting with me and my family, before continuing on their journey. Before he left, Ambassador Roth invited me and all the other PCVs in the region to his house for Thanksgiving dinner.
The day after the Ambassador's visit, I started getting sick again, this time with a cold. Like I had briefly mentioned before, the cold season arrived somewhere in the middle of November. It was funny, really - one day, on the evening news, the reporter declared that the rainy season was over, and the cold season had begun. I thought this was ridiculous, since it had just rained the day before, after not raining for three weeks before that. But sure enough, a month after the fact, it has not rained again. Now before you run out and send me a care package full of mittens and scarves, let me inform you that the cold season is still quite hot in the daytime (but not too bad), but it does get pretty cold in the night - into the low 60's at times! Apparantly, this was somehow harder on my starving body than a year in arctic Norway, because after sleeping outside on just a couple of cold nights, I came down with a cold.
It all started as a simple cold, then got progressively worse. I went back to the regional house to take more medicines and to rest (it's much easier there - no screaming, annoying kids, or sisters waking you up at night with, "Hey! Hey! Atoumane! Are you sleeping! Are you sleeping! Are you sick! Come sit outside and talk with us! What's that? Good night? Hey, guys, he said good night!" Followed by laughter all around. Much quieter around Americans). After a couple of days, I thought I was feeling better, and headed back to my village on Monday, the supposed day before Korite', the festival marking the end of Ramadan.
I did say "supposed". A lunar month can be either 29 or 30 days. Korite' has to fall on the first day of the new lunar month, meaning that the night before, a tiny sliver of moon has to be visible in the early evening. This meant that Korite' could have fallen on either Tuesday or Wednesday. This had grave significance for us northern volunteers. Thanksgiving fell on Thursday, as always, which meant that we had to drive down to Dakar on Wednesday, which meant that Korite' had to be on Tuesday, so that we could celebrate with our villagers, and also so that we could find a driver who would take us.
The method used for determining the date of Korite', at least here in Senegal, bears a striking resemblance to that most American of non-holidays, Groundhog's Day. Basically, there's a committee of wise old men in big flowing sheets of cloth in Dakar whose job it is to determine if the moon appeared or not. Defying all sense and modern technology, they sit in their office and look at the sky, and wait for people to call in from all over Senegal to confirm sightings of the crescent moon. Cruel fate brought a little twist on Monday night, in the form of a thick haze on the Western horizon. I spent the whole early evening scanning the sky in vain for that moon. Then I retreated to the teachers' house in confusion, not understanding why by 9pm no one yet knew if the fast would be over the next day. The teachers explained to me that the committee was open for phone calls until 10pm, just in case someone way out in the countryside saw the moon and had to bike 10 km to the nearest phone booth to call in the sighting.
And so, after all hope was lost, at around 10:30 the committee came on TV, and the wise elders declared that the moon had been sighted by people in the following villages..... and therefore the month of Ramadan was officially over! The feeling was exactly that of me as a 7-year-old watching the news on a snowy morning and learning that school had been cancelled. Men in boubous have never made me so happy before.
And so it came to pass that I passed my Korite' in my village, and still made it to Dakar for Thanksgiving dinner. All perfect, except...
The cold that I had had not gotten better, instead it only got worse the day of Korite'. By the way, Korite' is celebrated by eating all day long. For the main meal, lunch, groups of friends get together at one friend's house, and give instructions to their wives to bring them lunch once it's ready. I spent the day on mats with my dad the village chief and a few other old important village people. The first plate came, Moroccan couscous (bigger grains, and tastier than the Senegalese sand-couscous) with meat. Halfway through this plate, another plate showed up and sat down behind us. As we worked on the second plate, greasy macaroni with meat, third and fourth plates arrived (more greasy pasta or rice with meat - sheep or goat or chicken or beef), dutifully waiting their turns on the sidelines. This process continued until, on the fifth bowl, with about four other bowls waiting in line, deus ex machina stepped in in the form of an even bigger regional notable, who showed up in a fancy pick-up. Eating stopped, meeting commenced, and eating never resumed after the 10-minute meeting ended and the pick-up left. After spending about five minutes trying in vain to wash the grease off my hand, I headed over to the teachers' house to party with them. They hadn't eaten their bowl yet, so I got some more food, then went over to a village friend's house, where the bowls and the men lay defeated on or beside the mats under the neem tree. I laid down and hung out until the sun set.
Anyway, so back to the cold. As the day of Korite' progressed, I felt myself getting worse. I had a fever, a headache, and every muscle in my body ached. Around 8:30pm I headed home, took a shower, packed my bags, took my temperature (101F) and went to sleep. The next morning I woke up early to wait for the car, which I had ordered to pick up all of us volunteers in our villages and take us to Dakar. I was feeling much better. The whole car ride (only six hours) I was feeling a little sick, but not too bad. Finally, in the early afternoon, we arrived in Dakar. Sitting in the PC hostel, watching movies, I was in pain. I couldn't concentrate, my head pounded, and my head was burning while my body was freezing. I called the PCMO, the Peace Corps Medical Officer. She was out running erronds, so she came by to check me out. Meanwhile, I took my temperature. 104.3F (over 40C). The doctor sent me to the main office of PC, took some blood (no malaria) and told me if I didn't get my fever down I'd have to go to the hospital. That night, visions of African public hospitals floating through my head, I used cold baths and ice packs to successfully drop my temperature below 103.
Thanksgiving day started with a temperature of only 101, a very painful anitbiotic shot in the rear, and a bag full of new medicines to take for my newly diagnosed brochial pneumonia. Funny how I've been so good all my life, and now working for the US government I'm taking halucinagenic anti-malarial drugs, shots with lidocaine (apparently similar to cocaine) and codine cough syrup (label on the package: "may be habit forming"). Best of all, I was cleared for Thanksgiving dinner.
I'm getting tired of writing, and I doubt many of you have made it this far, but this dinner still merits a few sentences.
Thanksgiving dinner at Ambassador Roth's house in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa, was one of the best single meals I have ever eaten. This has as much to do with the circumstances as the food itself, but suffice it to say everything was perfect excepting my raspy voice and hacking cough. The dinner was small - about 24 people, mainly Peace Corps and other American ex-pats working for NGOs here in the city. The Ambassador is really casual and easy to talk to - a former PCV and career diplomat who's served most of his career in Africa. He said that when he was a PCV in Upper Volta in the 70's, he had been invited to the Ambassador's house for Thanksgiving dinner - now he wanted to return the favor. Best of all, I suppose, I was apparently a hit - a number of his friends were telling me that ever since visiting my village he and his wife have been talking about me, about how well settled in I am, how well I spoke Pulaar, and how brave I was to be living out there alone without even a hut. The Ambassador made the apple and pumpkin pies - he overheard me tell the other volunteers that I could make a good apple pie too - and said that next year I should make the pies for their Thanksgiving dinner. Who knows? Maybe I've been adopted?
The PC director apparently thinks I'm doing something good too - he recommended to my boss, the EE program director, that I go to a meeting here in Dakar on Thursday. Plus, today, Monday, I spent the day in a tie at a fancy hotel on the beach at a meeting with the Senegalese ministers of the Environment and of Education, surprising the Dutch Ambassador with my two sentences of Nederlands, taking the place of, and notes for, my boss, who was at another meeting. So all I have to do is play the politics of Dakar for a few more days, then run back out beyond the radar to the village, where no one really knows what's going on.
At long last, I have come to the end of this latest chapter. Overall, I should say that everything's feeling a lot better here, I'm really feeling settled in to this country, and the year and a half left is not really seeming like a prison sentence anymore. I think I might be getting to like it here...
Don't worry, though. I know I'll leave in time. There's just too much else out there to see.
Hope all is well with all of you!