Monday, December 31, 2007

New photos

New photos are up at

Friday, December 28, 2007

Tabaski pictures

Pictures are now posted from the Tabaski holiday at

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Written Wednesday, December 26, 2007



Last Friday my village celebrated Tabaski, commemorating the story in the Bible (and I guess in the Koran) when Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but then at the last minute he was allowed to sacrifice a sheep instead.   It's the most important holiday of the year here, but the celebration is almost exactly the same as Korite (the feast at the end of Ramadan) except that more money is spent on the feast and new clothes for everyone.  


So shortly after breakfast all the men and the older women went to a field to say Tabaski prayers.   I got to go too and take some pictures, which hopefully I'll upload soon.  After the prayers we started eating whatever food was already cooked, so in my family we ate couscous with oily macaroni (I hate the oily macaroni, but what can you do).   Soon afterwards I ate lunch with my family – a sheep they had sacrificed – and then my counterpart invited me to come eat with him, which I couldn't refuse, so I had a second meal of grilled sheep.


Throughout the day I was the official photographer – everyone wants a picture of themselves in their new pretty outfits – so I went around taking pictures of everyone, and they would tell me to come eat with them.   I was stuffed already, but it would have been insulting to refuse, so I would have about two bites each time.  I have definitely not had anywhere near this much meat since coming to Senegal.   It took my digestive system three days to recover from the shock.


Around noon we spotted smoke out in the bush.  It is not unusual at this time of year because it is common practice to set fires in the bush to clear away the undergrowth, but it was unusual on Tabaski because nobody was working that day.   So some men went out to investigate, and they came back and said that there was a wildfire threatening the banana plantation.  So some people went out to try to put it out, but I guess it wasn't a big threat because most people just carried on with Tabaski celebrations.   We found out a few days later, though, that in the neighboring village some people's cotton fields got burned up, which is really unfortunate.


At the end of the day, just as for Korite, the women dressed up in their new outfits (they had been wearing old clothes all day for cooking) and went around the village to greet people and apologize for sins of the past year (but mainly to show off their new clothes, I think).   This time I wore my blue boubou that I had made for swearing in, which none of my villagers had seen before.  They got a real kick out of seeing me dressed up like that, and everyone agreed that I was a "real African" now.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wanted: labor-saving devices

written Sunday, 16 December 2007
My latest great idea for developing Senegal: hand-powered labor-saving devices.  Women here spend so many hours each day pounding corn (and other grains, but in my village, mainly corn) mortar and pestle style, sifting flour with little sieves (same style as people panning for gold in the 1800s), and cracking peanuts out of their shells, one by one, by hand.  Surely there's got to be a way to do these chores more quickly, without electricity or a giant machine (my village has an electric corn-grinding machine, but the villagers here can't afford to pay to use it all the time, and it seems to be broken half the time anyway).
If the women didn't have to spend so much time on these simple chores, who knows what else they might be doing?  Growing more food to feed their families better, maybe, or engaging in small business to earn money (like selling bean sandwiches and other tasty street foods to me!), or just getting to rest a little more - women here commonly work from 6 am to 8 pm or even later.  Even during their "down time" after lunch they are usually cracking peanuts or something.  And if the women weren't so overburdened that they need help from their kids just to get the daily done, then maybe parents would send more of their kids to school instead of keeping them home to work.  If it were physically possible to have outside employment and still get all the daily chores like cooking and washing done, maybe attitudes would change about women working outside the home, and about women's role in society in general.
I may be getting a little carried away here, but I don't think I'm entirely crazy.  So what I want is to find (or build, but I'm not much of an engineer/inventor, and anyway this isn't new technology I'm talking about, it's got to be out there somewhere) some sort of hand-operated grinder that would work for grinding corn and other grains.  Something that would be more efficient than mortar and pestle style pounding.  What did the pioneers use back in the day to grind grain, if they weren't close enough to a big mill?  Somehow I don't think it was the mortar and pestle things they have here.
If I could find something that might be the right thing, I'd get the women in my host family to test it out.  And if, miraculously, it was perfect and they loved it, maybe then I could get a bunch to sell to people here (more sustainable than just giving them away).  Or even better, maybe the village blacksmith could start manufacturing them and sell them.  And then, who knows, maybe it would help Senegal (and the rest of Africa, why not) develop.
I have a lot of crazy ideas.  But maybe, someday, one of my crazy ideas will be a crazy GREAT idea.  Who knows, maybe this is the one.  Anyway, anyone have any ideas for a corn grinder, or peanut cracker or flour sifter?

More integrating

written Sunday, 16 December 2007
I think a big part of the "cultural integration" here is learning to sit around a lot, with nothing much to do and nothing much to talk about (besides the standard, "You are sitting?" "Yes, I am sitting." and "The sun is hot today.") without going out of your mind.
Yesterday I was in Dialacoto with my volunteer neighbor Dado (her Senegalese name).  We had gone to talk to the principal of the middle school about organizing a ceremony/party for the girls who competed for a Peace Corps SeneGAD scholarship, to promote girls' education in the region.  After meeting with the principal, we had lunch at a "cheb shack" that we had been meaning to try out for a while (they had pretty good cheb u jen - rice and fish plate - at the standard price of $1), and then we found ourselves with nothing much to do and nowhere to go for a couple of hours, until it cooled off enough to bike back to our villages.  So we found ourselves a shady spot to sit and played MASH, which I don't think I've played since about third grade, for a good two hours.  (In case you don't know, MASH is a silly game to predict who you will marry, how many kids you will have, what job you will have, etc.).  We took our game seriously (as seriously as you can take MASH, anyway), and I wan't bored at all.
I feel like we earned some cultural integration points for entertaining ourselves so well for two hours.
Oh, and according to MASH, when I am grown up (whenever that is), I will work as a journalist earning $500 a year, have one kid, drive a Prius, and live in a mansion.  Not bad. (Guess my husband will be paying all the bills).

Pirogue to Europe

written Sunday, 16 December 2007
One of my good friends in my village, a guy who is about 20 years old, told me a few days ago that he will be leaving the village soon.  He is going to go spend some time with his family in his home village (he came here to work in the banana plantation), and then he is going to try to make it to Spain on one of the small pirogue boats that regularly carry illegal immigrants to Europe (and just as regularly sink or get lost at sea).  His family is going to give him the approximately $100 it costs to make the trip, and if all goes well, he will join relatives in Barcelona.
It's a very risky trip, plus of course illegal, so I felt obligated to try to talk him out of it.  I pointed out to him that there is a good chance he could drown, which of course he already knew.  He told me that his fate will be in the hands of God, and that he prefers to risk his life for a chance at a better future than to have a long life in the village with few opportunities and nothing much to look forward to.  I realized that I agree with him (at least on a theoretical level - life here isn't so bad, I think.  No one's starving), so what else could I say?
I just hope he makes it safely.

Living on less than $2 a day

written Sunday, 9 December 2007
Like everyone else, when I was in America I saw commercials requesting charitable contributions or sponsorships of children for various peoples around the world living on less than $2 a day.  I read articles with statistics about what percentage of the world's population is living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day.  And I would compare that to what I was spending on a just out of grad school, working at an NGO, with lots of student loans to pay back lifestyle in a big, expensive city: $2 a day just for internet in my apartment.  And it seemed clear to me: $2 a day to live on means you are POOR.
I still think $2 a day is not much to live on, but it is not at all clear to me how poor it means.  How are they calculating the $2?  Does it only include cash on hand for buying food or whatever, or are they also calculating in the per-night value of people's homes, or of food they haven't had to pay for (like if they grew it themselves)?  And when they say people are living on less than $2 a day, do they mean everyone, including children, has the equivalent of $2 a day for their needs, or do they mean wage-earners are earning (or farmers are producing the value of) $2 a day to support their whole families?
I have been wondering exactly what these statistics mean pretty much since arriving in Senegal, but I bring it up today because I was having a conversation with some of my village men this morning in which they told me that the going rate for unskilled labor around here (like helping farm someone's land, herd animals, or working as a driver or security guard in town) is 600 CFA a day - about $1.20.  Not much money at all.  And even less if you divide it among the many family members that a Senegalese wage-earner is usually supporting.  Sounds awfully poor.  But the situation is not quite so dire as that.  Except for in towns, land doesn't have to be bought or rented; permission to use it is granted by the village chief.  So in the villages the cost of housing is only the cost of the initial construction of the hut.  And then the food: most of it is grown by the family (ie the women), so that's essentially extra income.
So here is what I want to know: how does my village family measure up on the poverty scale?  We've got two adult men as wage earners (working in the banana plantation) to support a family of about 20 people.  The women in the family all farm (peanuts, corn, okra) in addition to doing all the household work, so that's a lot of food that they don't have to buy, and then of course you could calculate in the value of all the domestic work like cooking and washing clothes.  And then there's the value of their compound, which they don't have to pay rent for but also don't own so they can't sell it or use it as collateral for a loan.  So what would the statistics people say? Is my family living on $2.40 a day divided by 20 people?  Or would they calculate in the value of non-paid labor and other assets?  I guess what I really mean is, when they talk about people living on less than $2 a day, are they talking about people who have the standard of living of people here, or people who are a lot poorer?
What about a homeless person in, say, Washington DC, where I lived before coming here.  Suppose he receives "charitable contributions" from passersby of $2 a day.  Suppose he is also given a hot meal at a soup kitchen with a value of, say, $3, and spends the night in a shelter - we'll say the value is $5 - I have no idea what a shelter bed should be valued at.  Would the statistics people say he's living on $2 a day or $12?  And who would the stats people say has the higher standard of living? The homeless man may be consuming the equivalent of more money a day than my villagers, but I'd much rather be a Senegalese villager than a homeless person in DC.
Who are these "less than $2 a day" people?

Monday, December 17, 2007

new pics

New photos are up at  New blog entries coming soon (hopefully tomorrow).

Friday, December 07, 2007

New pictures!

New pictures up on  Afraid I haven't had time to organize and caption them all yet, but they're up there anyway.

Harvest time

written Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Right now everyone in my village is busy harvesting their crops.  The women in my family aren't even coming home for lunch anymore - instead, whoever is in charge of cooking that day brings their food out to the fields so they can eat quickly and then get back to work.
I asked why everyone is in such a rush to get their crops in - it's not as if they have to worry about them being buried under piles of snow if they wait too long.  I was told that they have to get them in before teh cows and other animals are let loose to graze in the fields.  But why can't they just wait to let the animals loose until everyone is done harvesting?  Well, they said, that is the way it is supposed to work, but in practice... the farmers had better just get their crops in as quickly as they can.
A few days ago I saw what they meant when a bunch of men gathered under the mango tree near my hut where the village chief likes to sit.  They were all yelling at each other, and I found out it was because a cow had gotten into someone's cotton field and destroyed part of the crop.  It reminded me of reading about conflicts between farmers and ranchers in the "Wild West".  Except here, I know both the cow owner and the farmer, and they know each other and have to live together in the same village.  Probably it was that way in the "Wild West" too, but it never seems that way in movies.  Anyway, there was no shoot-out this time, just a lot of yelling until finally the farmer said he would forgive the damage this time, but if it happens again he is going to make a formal complaint to the gendarmes.  Which was quite generous of him, I thought, considering how much people depend on their crops here.  Maybe the cow's owner will make it up to him by giving him milk or meat later.

Come back, Colonialism!?

written Sunday, 2 December 2007
Yesterday I was sitting and talking with some of the men from my village.  I asked how the harvest is coming and whether there has been a good yield this year (answer: my village has done pretty well, but some of the neighboring villages have done less well because they got less rain or planted too early or too late).  This led to a discussion of the economy and politics.  The men said that the problem is that here people don't vote based on issues and candidates' platforms.  Instead everyone votes the way they're paid to vote.  For example, during the recent presidential election campaign, they said Abdoulaye Wade gave the money to the presidents of each rural community (like counties in the US) to deliver votes for him.  Each rural community president keeps some of the money for himself and then gives some of the money to the chiefs of the villages in their district to deliver votes for Wade.  The chiefs distribute money in a similar (but smaller-scale) way. So everyone votes the way they are paid to vote, and that is how an election is won in Senegal.  But, they said, you can't blame Abdoulaye Wade.  If they were running for office they'd do the same thing.  That's just how it works here.
Then one of the men said if he could vote today on whether Senegal should be an independent country or whether it should go back to being a colony of France or some other Western nation, he would choose to be a colony again, because toubabs manage government and the economy better than Africans and with less corruption.
I asked him waht about all the problems of racism and human rights violations under colonialism?  He said, Oh, sure, that was bad.  But things have changed, and that wouldn't be a problem now.  Anyway, he'd be willing to risk it if it meant he could have a decent-paying job.
So I've got at least three votes for re-colonization.  So much for all the supposed anti-Americanism and anti-neo-colonialism around the world.  At least here it doesn't exist.
Anyone want a colony?

Progress report

written Saturday, 1 December 2007
Today in have been in Senegal 8 1/2 mnths, and in my village 6 1/2 months.  My first quarterly report to Peace Corps on the work I've been doing is due in a few days.  And a few days ago, my "ancienne" - the volunteer who lived in my village before me - came to visit, so we were able to talk about the work she did and what I'm doing, and the challenges we've faced.
All of which has gotten me thinking about what progress I've made here and where I am now.  First of all, language: after months of struggle and despairing that I would never be able to learn Mandinka/Jaxanke well enough to actually have conversations with people (because I learn best from books, and those are hard to come by in Mandinka), I have finally gotten to the point where I feel confident that I will be able to understand people and they will be able to understand me (although this may still require me asking people to repeat themselves several times, and a lot of bad grammar and ridiculous exaggerated charades on my part).  I still have a long way to go, but at least now I feel pretty confident that eventually I will get there.  And soon I want to start focusing more on learning Pulaar.
Second, cultural integration: my ancienne asked me what my biggest challenge has been since coming to the village, and it's definitely related to getting used to the village here (not living without electricity or running water, like I might have thoughts, or getting used to incredible poverty, because people mostly have enough of the basics here).  I'm still getting used to the Senegalese version of hospitality, where apparently it's not rude to put your guest on the spot and make them feel uncomfortable ("Your Jaxanke is really terrible." or "Do you know everyone's names? What's her name? How can you not know her name?") - not like Southern hospitality that I'm used to.  And I'm still getting used to being asked for money and presents all the time, from my host family, friends, and people I barely know.  It still makes me uncomfortable when I have to refuse, but I've been telling myself that if they're not embarrassed to ask, then I shouldn't be embarrassed to say no.  In general it's been a big surprise to me that people here don't seem to have much desire to be independent and to stand on their own two feet, unlike Americans.  Instead they want to find someone to take care of them, to take them to America or to send them a monthly remittance check.  (Of course I am just speaking in generalities here, and this doesn't apply to everyone).  The roughness with kids also took a lot of getting used to - how hard parents will hit kids who misbehave, how much kids fight between themselves, sometimes egged on by their parents, and how even small babies are sometimes smacked.  I've gotten used to most of it now though, since no one ever seems to really get hurt, and I mostly just ignore it.  I've still got a long way to go on this whole cultural integration thing, but I am getting more comfortable here, slowly.
Finally, work: I've done 15 health classes/plays/porridge demonstrations since I got here, plus gone to lots of meetings about health stuff in Dialacoto.  I don't know if any of it is making a difference, but we were told in training to expect that, so I'm going to just keep plugging along.  I'm still teaching my English class, which is fun and helps me to feel like I'm being productive when nothing else is going well here.  I'm down to two students right now, but some of my dropouts said they're coming back when harvest time is over, and the two village schoolteachers have said they want to join.  (Have I mentioned we finally got a second schoolteacher? And she's a woman, too!  I'm really happy about it.)  I am still working on getting a midwife trained for the village, but that involves dealing with Tamba bureaucracy and I can't get anything done while I"m in the village, so it's a slow process.  And I just got a scale for weighing babies from Africare (an American NGO), so in January we're going to start weighing all the children under five every month, to help mothers keep track of their kids' nutritional/health status, and to spot and deal with any malnutrition problems.
So everything here is going pretty well and seems to be on track, except for one thing: my own health.  I expected to be sicker than usual when I first got here because of the different food, climate, and general environment.  It didn't really happen, though.  The first couple of months I was hardly sick at all, and I felt great.  I even started to think maybe my body is better suited to an African climate than to America (especially because I hate cold weather).  But the last three months or so my good luck has run out, and I have been sick with various minor illnesses about every two weeks, for two or three days at a time.  Hopefully this has just been some sort of belated adjustment period for me, and I will go back to being healthy almost all the time.  If not, I'm not sure if I'll be able to stay here.  I don't think I can take two years of getting sick every two weeks.  But right now I am healthy, so I am feeling optimistic that it will all work out.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Strikes? Riots? Not here.

written Sunday, 25 November 2007
When I came to Tamba from the village a few days ago, I heard from other volunteers, and then read in an email from Peace Corps staff, that there have been lots of strikes in Dakar over the last few days, and even instances of people throwing rocks at police.
Strikes aren't anything new here - the teachers always seem to be on strike, seriously impeding children's ability to get an education here.  But this time it sounded like things might be serious - rocks thrown at police, the police responding with tear gas, Peace Corps advising volunteers not to travel to Dakar right now.
I've heard that the strikes and riots are about recent rises in the price of wheat flour and gas (gasoline or cooking gas, I'm not sure - could be both).  Also that President Wade is trying to cut the salaries of civil servents, that journalists have been tossed in jail, and even a rumor that he had had some shantytown market area of Dakar bulldozed, destroying people's businesses, supposedly because the corrugated metal and scrapwood buildings didn't fit with his idea of what Dakar is supposed to look like.
All rumors.  I have no idea what's true, except that I know that the price of flour, and thus bread, has gone up recently.  And it seems pretty safe to assume that gas prices are going up, because that's the world trend these days. (Neither are a big part of the economy in the villages here).  Beyond that, I don't know.  It's strange to think that I probably know less about what is going on in this country than someone in America with access to CNN and other news sources.
It is also strange to come from my very quiet village where nothing has changed to hear reports of chaos in Dakar.  It also makes me wonder about the nature of democracy in a place like this.  I've heard people say that the government could be forced to resign, or even that there could be a coup (I don't believe it).  But supposing that something like a government collapse is a possibility, what does it mean for democracy if the government's ability to survive depends only on keeping the people of Dakar happy?
I hope all this gets sorted out.  But in the meantime, I'd appreciate being sent any news clippings about what's going on.


written Sunday, 25 November 2007
I came up to Tamba on Wednesday to celebrate real Thanksgiving with other volunteers.  Thursday afternoon we all started working on making Thanksgiving food with locally-available ingredients (and with a little help from food packages from our families).  I was making my Thanksgiving potluck usual, pea casserole, with canned peas from the toubab store and those crunch onion things for the topping from a package from my parents.  But the cream of mushroom soup part was a challenge - I've always just used the canned stuff before, but of course that isn't available here.  And I hadn't wanted to ask my parents to mail some because the weight would make it really expensive.  So I'd decided to make that part from scratch, with canned mushrooms (from the toubab store), milk, and flour.
Mixing it up to the consistency of cream of mushroom soup turned out not to be very hard at all.  But to get it to taste right... hmm.  What spices to use?  We have a limited, somewhat random selection at the Tamba house.  I gave people tastes of my soup mixture and asked them what spices I should add.  My taste-testers inevitably said, "Well, what do you want it to taste like?"
"Like home," I said.
Which inspired me with my newest great business idea:  a spice mix called "America" that would be marketed to expats with the slogan, "Just a few sprinkles, and your food will taste just like home."
I told the other volunteers about my brilliant idea, and they said, "Great.  But what spices will be in it?"
I have no idea.  But if I ever figure that out, I'll be a millionaire.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Village Thanksgiving

Written Monday, 19 November 2007



Thanksgiving in the village turned out to be a success!  I spent the whole morning helping the women cook (okay, mostly watching – they still won't let me do much) and running to the boutique for more spices or tea or whatever.   And one of my volunteer neighbors came to celebrate with me, so that was really nice for me, although the other women kept complaining about us speaking English to each other.


Finally lunch was ready, and there was a ton of food for everyone, and it was delicious.   My sisters had told me to buy potatoes and sweet potatoes for the meal, and I'd wondered what they were going to do with them, since yassa doesn't usually have potatoes in it.  Turns out that they cut them up and fried them like French fries, and then sprinkled them on top of the yassa dish.  I think they were my favorite part of the meal (although the rest was really good too).


So I was happy, and all my village family and friends told me they were happy too, especially because there was enough to eat leftovers for dinner too.   It is traditional to give blessings for thanks here, so I was given lots of blessings for a long life, lots of money, and to find a good husband. 


I just might have to do this again next year.

Thanksgiving in the village

Written Wednesday, 14 November 2007



I was in Thies for Easter this year, so I got to learn about a wonderful Senegalese tradition of people of different religions sharing their holiday celebrations with each other.   My host family was Muslim and so they don't celebrate Easter, but Christian friends invited them over for their party and later sent over some of their special Easter food.   And apparently this is a really common thing to do in Senegal.  I think it's a really great way to promote religious tolerance – if everyone gets to enjoy the celebrations of each religion, then the more religions the merrier!


Anyway, so I think that is where I got my idea for celebrating Thanksgiving in the village.   I've been thinking about it for several months now, thinking that it would be a much more memorable holiday than just hanging out with other volunteers at the Peace Corps house (although in the end I've decided to do that too, so Thanksgiving in the village is going to be a week before real Thanksgiving).


The only thing that was ever really holding me back from committing to the village Thanksgiving plan was cost.   How much would it cost to hold a feast for all my village family and friends?  Answer: about a third of my monthly allowance from Peace Corps, which seems like a huge amount, but in "real life", less than $100.   Not bad.


Here's the breakdown for my village Thanksgiving feast of yassa:


n     1 medium-sized sheep (alive right now, but it won't be in the morning): $35

n     10 kilos of onions: $8

n     1 bottle of vinegar: $1

n     1 jar of mustard: $1.20

n     2 kilos of sweet potatoes: $1.60

n     2 kilos of Irish potatoes: $2.40

n     lots of pepper: $0.50

n     3 bulbs/heads/whatever they're called of garlic: $0.60

n     2 kilos of carrots: $1

n     20 bouillon cubes (in 2 flavors): $1

n     15 kilos of rice: $8.25

n     5 liters of vegetable oil: $9

n     1 kilo of kola nuts: $4


One of my host brothers went to the market to buy the sheep for me, since he is a better judge of sheep than I am, and also could get a better price than I, the "rich toubab" could.   When he brought the sheep home he came over and asked me if I wanted to see my sheep.  I said sure, but as soon as I saw it I realized that was a bad idea because I immediately felt an impulse to name it.   So I told my host brother it was going to make me sad, and I left.  I think he was very confused about my crazy toubab behavior.


This is what I have come to

Written Wednesday, 14 November 2007



Before I joined Peace Corps, I met quite a few returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and several of them assured me that after I had been in Peace Corps for a while, bugs would no longer bother me.   Supposedly, when they get in my food I will eat them happily, glad for the extra protein.


Well, I haven't gotten there yet.   But today I got a little closer to that level of "integration" as I was digging through my stash of toubab food and discovered that a mouse had nibbled into a bag of Riesens (chewy chocolatey deliciousness) that my mom sent me.   If this were pre-Peace Corps, I would have thrown the whole bag away immediately (and possibly screamed, if I thought the mouse might still be around).   But this is Africa, and I am in Peace Corps, and I have gotten used to seeing mice running around all over the Peace Corps house in Tamba (which I am pretty sure is where my candy got nibbled – I must just not have noticed it before).   Plus, if I throw away my bag of Riesens, I can't exactly walk to the village boutique to buy another one.


So I didn't throw it away.  Instead, I opened the bag and inspected each piece of candy, and discovered that only one piece had actually been nibbled into.  So all the non-nibbled pieces I saved.   Now what to do with the nibbled piece?  Chewy chocolatey deliciousness that has been nibbled by a mouse: is it more delicious, or more gross?


Finally I decided to pinch off and throw away the end that the mouse nibbled on, and then I ate the rest.   Delicious.  So this is what I have come to: I am willing to eat mouse leftovers.

Written Wednesday, 14 November 2007

This is what I have come to


Before I joined Peace Corps, I met quite a few returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and several of them assured me that after I had been in Peace Corps for a while, bugs would no longer bother me.   Supposedly, when they get in my food I will eat them happily, glad for the extra protein.


Well, I haven't gotten there yet.   But today I got a little closer to that level of "integration" as I was digging through my stash of toubab food and discovered that a mouse had nibbled into a bag of Riesens (chewy chocolatey deliciousness) that my mom sent me.   If this were pre-Peace Corps, I would have thrown the whole bag away immediately (and possibly screamed, if I thought the mouse might still be around).   But this is Africa, and I am in Peace Corps, and I have gotten used to seeing mice running around all over the Peace Corps house in Tamba (which I am pretty sure is where my candy got nibbled – I must just not have noticed it before).   Plus, if I throw away my bag of Riesens, I can't exactly walk to the village boutique to buy another one.


So I didn't throw it away.  Instead, I opened the bag and inspected each piece of candy, and discovered that only one piece had actually been nibbled into.  So all the non-nibbled pieces I saved.   Now what to do with the nibbled piece?  Chewy chocolatey deliciousness that has been nibbled by a mouse: is it more delicious, or more gross?


Finally I decided to pinch off and throw away the end that the mouse nibbled on, and then I ate the rest.   Delicious.  So this is what I have come to: I am willing to eat mouse leftovers.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


There are two kinds of bread in Senegal (not counting Dakar, where they have French bakeries and pastry shops) - French baguettes, and village bread.  Village bread is a lot better, in my opinion, because it is chewy instead of having the hard crumbly crust of French bread, and also it is more dense and filling.  And just generally tastes better.
Anyway, I just recently learned from other volunteers that the village bread is also called "tapa-lappa", to distinguish it from baguettes.  (In my village, the village bread is just called "bread", because there is no French bread to compare it to, but in Tamba, you have to choose between "baguettes" and "pain du village", or "tapa-lappa").  I had never heard a Senegalese person refer to the bread as tapa-lappa, so I asked about it, and learned that tapa-lappa is a Pulaar word that means "hit it and beat it".  So for breakfast this morning, I bought two small "hit-it-and-beat-its" from the bread man who stops by the Peace Corps house on his bike every morning.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A busy week

Written Thursday, November 8, 2007



It's been a really busy week and a half or so.   Monday last week, just after I came back from a trip to Tamba, there was a big ceremony in a neighboring village to celebrate the reconstruction of their primary school by the French army.   So I spent the day at the party, where they had lots of speeches (by government people, French army people, and a local school teacher), traditional dancing (some of the French soldiers danced, and the villagers thought their dance moves were hilarious), and tons of food, including more meat per person than I have ever seen in Senegal.


Just after that, a couple of American college students who are studying abroad in Dakar came to stay with me for a few days so they could experience village life.   I had a lot of fun showing them around.  I have to say they were much less overwhelmed by the whole experience than I was when I went on my "demyst" trip when I first arrived in Senegal; but then, they have already been in country for two months, whereas I had been here only about two days.   We spent a lot of time at the river trying to spot hippos (which I still haven't seen this whole time I've been here), but the hippos didn't cooperate.   Some monkeys did come out on the other side of the river and chase each other around for a while, keeping us entertained while we waited for the hippos that never showed up.


After the college students left, it was time for me to get back to real work.   So my village counterpart and I have restarted holding health classes for women, and we are also going to start going around to each compound to talk with women individually about their health concerns.   And now I am in Tamba for a few days seeing if we can finally make some progress on getting a matron (like a midwife, but with less training than a real midwife) trained for our village.  


And after what a nice new school the neighboring village has, my village chief (who is also my host dad) has asked me to check into getting the French army, or an NGO or someone, to fix up our school as well.   Our school is not in terrible shape, but currently not all the children in the village are able to go to school because there is not enough classroom space (or so they tell me – my first step is going to be to verify this), and there is only one teacher to teach all the primary grades.   So next week I'm going to try to check into what our school really needs, whether it's more classroom space, or just a second teacher (which we are supposed to have, but the last teacher got sick and left and never got replaced, leaving us with just one).


Before moving to the village, I heard from so many volunteers that I needed to be prepared to have lots of free time on my hands – that I would be reading a lot, and sleeping a lot, and would need to make a lot of effort to come up with activities to keep myself busy.   Well, I've been living in the village almost six months now, and that hasn't happened yet.  I am feeling a little cheated.   I could really use a nap.

A baboon! ...or a sorcerer?

Written Thursday, November 08, 2007



A few days ago I woke up at about 3 am to the sound of men running around and yelling.   Usually the village is pretty quiet around then (except for the usual racket of dogs fighting, and donkeys braying, and sheep baa'ing…), so I was pretty curious about what was going on.   But not curious enough to get out of bed.  The village can be kind of scary at night time. 


So I stayed in bed and got back to sleep eventually, and in the morning I asked about what all the racket had been about.   My sister told me that a baboon had come into the village, and was climbing around on the roofs of my host family's huts.  So the men had come out to try to kill it, but it had escaped.


Baboons are pretty big – about three feet tall when they're squatting, and probably weigh around 50 lbs.   So I was glad I had stayed in bed, and not gotten in the way of a scared baboon being attacked by men with slingshots.


Later in the day I asked again about the baboon, because I was wondering if it's really safe for me to be sleeping outside in my backyard.   Am I in danger of getting attacked by wild animals?  But this time I was told that it wasn't really a baboon that came into the village, it just looked like a baboon.   It was really a sorcerer who had turned himself (or herself) into a baboon to attack people in the village.  Much more dangerous than a baboon.  


The people I was talking to made sure to explain to me that most Muslim religious leaders in the area say that this sort of belief is false (clearly it is something left over from the traditional animist religion), but most people still believe in it anyway.


Whether it's a baboon or a sorcerer, I'm glad it's cool enough right now for me to sleep inside my hut with the door locked.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New pictures!

I've uploaded new pictures to


Written Tuesday, 23 October 2007



While I was visiting the Pulaar village with my volunteer friend, we got to talking about cows and money.   My friend doesn't like all the cows around – he says they eat all the vegetation and ruin the land.  I am such a fan of nono, though, that I am not about to advocate people getting rid of their cows (it's hard enough for me to get my hands on nono as it is – I can't buy it in my village).   Anyway, I think the damage to the land is just bad herd management – if the herders would move the cows more often, before they've eaten absolutely all the vegetation in one area, the land would recover a lot faster.


The reason people here keep cows, besides herding being a traditional lifestyle for some ethnic groups, and besides for milk and the delicious nono, is that they function as a savings account.   People say that if they kept the money at home or even in a bank, they would "eat" the money – that is, they would constantly be dipping into it – twenty cents here for tea, three cents there for a cigarette – and it would quickly be gone.   But if they buy a cow with their money, then they can't dip into it.  They either keep the cow, or they sell it.   And selling a cow is a big deal, reserved for important occasions like paying for a doctor when you might die otherwise, or for a wedding.  So it makes sense to invest in cows, but only up to a point – after all, you have to spend time herding and taking care of a cow or else pay someone else to do it for you, and then there is a possibility that it could die, leaving you with nothing.


So my friend and I were discussing ways that people could save their money more efficiently and safely, and with less damage to the environment, than with cows.   I thought that if savings accounts are no good because it is too easy to dip into them, then maybe savings bonds or CDs, where you can't dip into them but have to cash it in all at once (like selling a cow) and maybe even have to pay a penalty if you cash it in too soon, would work better.   But then we came up with a simpler idea: piggybanks.  The old-fashioned ceramic kind where you put your money in a slot and then can't get it back out unless you smash it.   Maybe that could be a good way for people to save their money without being too tempted to dip into it, especially if the banks were pretty.  Of course, this being primarily a Muslim country, a pig shape is no good.  And since people are used to investing their money in cows, a cow shape makes sense.   So this is our idea: NaggeBanks (nagge is the Pulaar word for cow).  I don't know if the idea will ever go anywhere, but I'm going to keep thinking about it.

Visit to another village

Written Tuesday, 23 October 2007



The local health volunteers association (whose members are villagers, but I participate too) was supposed to have a "health day" on Sunday in a village about 45 km away.   For the health days, which is an activity they've just started recently, all the association members go to the chosen village and hold health education classes and demonstrations.   Since the village is far away, it was decided that the members would all meet on Saturday in Dialacoto, take a hired car to the village, and spend the night there.  There is a Peace Corps volunteer in a neighboring village, so instead of taking the car with everyone else, I decided to bike down and stay with my friend.


I arrived in the village about noon on Saturday.   The village is much farther off the road than mine is, and right on the edge of the Niokolo-Koba national park.  It felt very isolated and quiet and was very pretty.   I spent the day Saturday just talking with my friend and his villagers.  His village speaks Tandonke, which is a dialect or language related to Mandinka, and which I find easier to understand than Jaxanke.   So it was nice to feel as if my language skills had magically improved overnight.


On Sunday my volunteer friend, the health association member from his village, and I biked over to the neighboring village where the health day was supposed to happen.   Only to find out that the health day had been cancelled and none of the other association members were coming.  Such is life in the land of no cell phone reception.


The village was Pulaar, and keeping with their traditions, these Pulaars had a lot of cows.   So they gave us a bowl of "nono" ("keedam" in Pulaar, which I am trying to learn), which is curdled milk (basically yoghurt).  It was the best I've had, and I decided the whole trip was worth it just for that.   I wish I could get it in the US.  Right now I am fantasizing about getting them to teach me how to make it, and then buying a milk cow when I go back to the US.  (And where would I keep the cow?  On my apartment balcony?  That's why this is just a fantasy.)


After our nono snack, we went around the village to greet the chief and other villagers.   We couldn't talk to them much since we don't speak Pulaar, but everyone was really nice and friendly.  One nice old woman took a liking to me for some reason and asked my volunteer friend if the village could keep me.   I wanted to say sure, if they would teach me Pulaar and feed me nono every day, but my volunteer friend told her that my own villagers won't agree to give me up.   Poo.  The villagers did end up asking to make a formal request to get their own Peace Corps volunteer, though, so my friend is going to do the paperwork and see if they can get one.


They fed us lunch – rice with squash.   It was the first time I've had squash here – it was delicious.  And then when it got a little cooler we biked back to my friend's village, with a live chicken they gave us as a present hanging upside-down from the handlebars.


Yesterday (Monday) morning I biked back to my village, and along the way got to see a troop of monkeys crossing the road, and then just a little farther on a family of warthogs.   Unfortunately they all ran away too fast when they heard me coming for me to get a picture of them.


So it turned out to be a great trip, even though the health day, which was the reason I'd gone down there in the first place, didn't happen.


Written Friday, 19 October 2007

Today my family sacrificed a sheep, so that my brother will do well when he goes back to school next week (he is studying to be an electrician).

I don't really understand why it counts as a sacrifice when the family still gets to eat the animal – it isn't burned like sacrifices in the Bible, or given away to the poor, which would also make sense to me – but they still call it a sacrifice.

Now little kids are running around waving pieces of intestines like streamers, and they are roasting the sheep's head on the fire.


Written Monday, 15 October 2007
Yesterday was Korite, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. (I think it is also called Eid Al-Fitr, from Arabic. Korite I think is the French name.) It was originally supposed to be celebrated the day before, on the 13 th, but the night of the 12th was cloudy so the moon couldn't be seen, so everyone had to fast an extra day.
People in the village had been talking for weeks about Korite coming up – telling me that I should get a new outfit, and that we would eat so well, and that there would be dancing and so much fun. So I was really looking forward to it, thinking it would be quite the event. So maybe it was only inevitable that I was a little disappointed.
Korite preparations started about two days before, with the women all braiding each other's hair extra fancy for the occasion. Then yesterday morning Korite finally arrived. We had breakfast (just the usual porridge), and then about 9:30 all the men and boys and older women (pre-menopausal women aren't allowed, but I was specially invited) went to a field to do Korite prayers. It was really hot and there wasn't any shade, so I was glad it didn't take long.

Then after the prayers everyone just sat around (with the women still braiding each other's hair) until lunchtime. For lunch we went over to a neighboring compound and ate with them, so we could have a little of what they made and a little of what we made. They made couscous with a meat and potato sauce, and we brought yassa – rice with an onion and meat sauce. Both delicious, and we only get to eat them for holidays and special occasions. That was the best part of the day for me, except that my sisters said I wasn't eating fast enough, so they gave me a separate bowl to eat from. I know they were just trying to make sure I got enough to eat, but I couldn't help but feel a little excluded.

After lunch was more relaxing time (and more getting ready time for the women). I kept wondering when the big event was going to happen that the women were getting all fancy for. I had thought it was for the religious ceremony and the lunch, but the women didn't go to the prayers and they were just in their regular clothes for lunch. Finally I found out: about 4:00 was "greet the neighbors" time. The women, finally dressed and ready, walked around to everyone else's compounds to greet and show off their fancy new outfits. (I found out later that this was when everyone was supposed to be asking forgiveness from everyone else for anything bad they might have done over the last year, but I didn't notice my family doing anything besides the normal greetings).

After a couple of hours of greeting, it was time for dinner – just regular porridge, and then some pasta that was so oily I couldn't eat it. After dinner there was dancing at the other end of the village, but my sisters weren't going, so I didn't either.

So that was Korite, and the end of Ramadan, and now we are back to our regular schedule. I'm going to miss my 7 pm bowl of porridge before dinner.

Monday, October 08, 2007

We have lost a friend

Written Monday, 8 October 2007



Yesterday Lamine Ndongo, the safety and security officer for Peace Corps Senegal, was killed in a car accident.


I didn't know Lamine very well, but he was a wonderfully nice guy who cared about us volunteers and did his best to keep us safe and get us out of sticky situations when they happened.   He was a friend to all of us.  Peace Corps Senegal will not be the same without him.


Our hearts go out to his family.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A few things about being sick

Written Sunday, 7 October 2007



Last week I had a stomachache and my host mom made me a traditional medicine tea out of tree bark.   It tasted just like chicken broth – delicious.  My stomach was already feeling mostly better by then though, so I can't say whether it had much effect.


After recovering from my minor stomachache, a few days ago I woke up with a terrible headache and a fever.   After lying in my hut miserable for two days, and upon the advice of the Peace Corps nurse (who I called on my cell phone), I decided I needed to get up to Tamba, so it would be easier for me to get to a doctor if I needed to.   Plus my cell phone battery was almost dead, and I didn't want to be stuck in my village with no way to get in touch with Peace Corps in case I got even sicker.


So it was time to evacuate.  But there was a problem: I was definitely not feeling up to biking ten kilometers over the mountain to get to the main road, where I could get a car to Tamba.  I had been wondering about what would happen in this situation pretty much since I moved to the village – how was I going to get out if I couldn't bike or walk myself out?  


So I went and told my counterpart I needed to get to Tamba and that I didn't feel well enough to bike out of the village. So then he started running around for me trying to figure out my transport.   First option was to see if the Park Service guys could give me a ride out in their car, the one car in my village.  But no, their car was broken down.   So option two was to try to find someone with a motorcycle who could drive me out, with me riding on the back (this is against Peace Corps policy and grounds for being sent back to the US, but I was too sick to care at this point – I just wanted to get out).   But this time it was bad timing – it was Friday at 2:00, which meant everyone was at the mosque for the long Friday sermon and wouldn't be done for at least an hour, by which time I would have missed the last car going up to Tamba.   Riding out on a donkey cart was another theoretical option, except it would take at least two hours to go the ten kilometers, and by then again I would have missed the last car.  


Finally one of my friends offered to ride me out on the back of his bicycle.   So I sat on the luggage rack on the back of his bike, and he biked me over the mountain to the road. 


People ride people around on their luggage racks all the time here, so I guess it is not that big of a deal, but I still sort of feel like he saved my life (not that I was that sick, but I was pretty miserable).   And it is comforting to know that when it becomes really necessary my villagers will take care of me and get me out of the village and to a doctor.


Now I am feeling better and trying to think of a good thank-you present to take back to my friend.

Bowl manners

Written Tuesday, 2 October 2007



(I would have said table manners, but there are no tables here.   Meals mean just sitting around a big bowl on the ground).  These are the rules of good bowl manners in Senegal:


1. Always eat with your right hand; never touch communal food with your left.

2. Take as big a bite as possible.

3. Eat as quickly as possible.

4. When eating with your hands, stick out your tongue and lick your hand as if it were an ice cream cone.

5. When you are done eating, you must immediately get up and leave the bowl area to make room for other people.


I have pretty bad bowl manners here, just because I don't like to take big bites or eat quickly.   I am always being told that all the food will be gone before I am finished, but I always get enough.

Babies and fasting

Written Tuesday, 2 October 2007



Yesterday one of the village women came to my hut and asked me to buy milk for her baby; she said she didn't have enough breastmilk and the baby was hungry.   Her baby is one of the chubbiest in the village, and we had a conversation before about it and she said it's because she has tons of breastmilk.  So I was suspicious, and I asked her if she is fasting for Ramadan.  She said yes.


I am realizing that this is a big problem here – it seems that a lot of the nursing mothers are fasting, even though it means not having breastmilk for their babies, and even though Islam does not require pregnant or nursing women to fast (I think it may even be forbidden, but I'm not positive).   Anyway, I don't know why these women are fasting when it is putting their babies' health at risk, but it is making me really mad.


So I told the woman that I wasn't going to buy milk for her baby, that it is not as good as breastmilk and that she should stop fasting so her body can produce milk for the baby.   She went away mad, thinking I was just being stingy (or maybe that I shouldn't be telling her how to practice her religion and care for her family), and I am still mad about it too.   It's been a rough couple of days.

English class

Written Friday, 28 September 2007



I taught my first English class yesterday.   Like just about everything here, it didn't go quite as planned.  When I got back from Thies and decided I was ready to start the class, I talked to my counterpart and he picked the date and time for the first class – yesterday at 3 pm.  So after that I went around and told everyone who had told me they wanted to learn English that the first class would be on the 27th at 3 pm.


But yesterday morning my counterpart showed up and said 3 pm is no good, he'll be too tired from fasting all day and some of the men go out to work in the fields around then.   So we should do it at 10 am (it was 9:30 when we were having this conversation).  I was a little annoyed with him – after all, he had picked the original time and he had had two weeks to change his mind about it.   I suspect that he wanted to change the time so that the women wouldn't be able to come to the class – in the morning they are all busy doing chores.


But in the end I decided it wasn't worth arguing about, so I taught the class at 10:00, just to my counterpart and one other guy who lives in his compound, since it was too short notice to round everyone else up.  But I am still hoping to teach some of the women (in a separate class now), and hopefully more men will be able to come for the next men's class.


Written Wednesday, 26 September 2007



We did the malaria skit in my village yesterday.   It was a little bit crazy getting ready for it because I biked down from Tamba that same morning, so I was exhausted and only had about three hours to shower, eat lunch, tell my villagers we were doing the play, and get costumes and props ready.


But it turned out really well.   The villagers loved me buzzing around as the mosquito and saying "konkoo be nna" (I'm hungry), and all day today people have been greeting me by saying "Konkoo be nna!" in my mosquito voice.   But best of all, when the skit was over we asked my villagers some questions about malaria to make sure they had learned what they were supposed to from the skit, and they got all the answers right, and even had some more questions about malaria to ask us.   And then last night after dinner the women in my family were telling the kids, "Didn't you see the play? Go get under the mosquito nets before the mosquitoes bite you!"


So I am happy.  We can't do the skit in any more villages because one of the other volunteers/actors is going on vacation for a month, and by then the rainy/mosquito season will be over.   But we're going to try to write more skits on other topics to perform when she gets back, and we'll probably do this skit again for next year's rainy season.


Now we just need to figure out a fun name for our little acting troupe…