Thursday, March 29, 2007

Two Week Anniversary

written Thursday, March 29, 2007

Today I have been in Senegal two weeks. It feels like three months. I am getting used to speaking in a combination of French, Mandinka, Wolof, and English all the time, to sleeping under a mosquito net (which I like but some other volunteers find claustrophobic), to using squat toilets, and to the food. Although I have to admit I am pretty sick of eating fish and rice, and would be willing to pay about a million dollars for a nice bowl of cereal with normal milk. But once I get to my village hopefully I will have a little more control over what I eat.

I think our lack of control and decision-making power is one of the hardest things all of us volunteers are dealing with right now. We don't get to decide for ourselves what to eat, when to eat, when to go out, what to wear (for girls, no tank tops and no showing the knees), or pretty much anything else. Peace Corps and our families make all the decisions for us.

So it's been an adjustment, and I'm still working on it. I find the idea of beng committed to being here for two years completely overwhelming. But to be fair, I find the idea of being committed to being anywhere for two years freaky. (I never intended to stay in D.C. so long, although now of course I miss it a lot). So I'm trying not to think about the next two years, and to focus instead on this: do I want to be in Senegal today? Yes. Do I expect to still want to be here tomorrow? Yes. I think that has to be enough for now.

Tough Morning

written March 25, 2007

This morning was a little tough. I went to the market with my host sister to buy vegetables, and a lot of people were staring at me and calling me Toubab in a less-than-friendly way. I am getting so sick of being called that. Then some beggar boys came over asking for money. When my host sister told them to go away, they pinched me on the arm before running away. That really upset me. I just don't understand why some people are so unfriendly or why it seems to be more or less acceptable to treat foreigners like that. I would never dream of treating someone like that in the US.

I'm planning to meet up with some other volunteers this afternoon. Hopefully that will put me in a better mood.

Saturday Dinner

written Sunday, March 25, 2007

We had fried fish for dinner last night (with the heads still on!), sitting on a bed of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Peace Corps has told us not to eat fresh vegetables here, or fruits unless they are peeled, because they are often washed with non-clean water and we could get sick. So I was a little worried about the salad with dinner, but since it was all mixed in with the fish - and french fries! did I mention that there were french fries?! - I figured I had to either risk it or skip dinner completely. So I risked it. (I didn't eat any fish heads, though, and neither did the rest of the family).

I'm not sick at all this morning, so hopefully that means I'm safe. Until the next meal anyway.


written March 24, 2007

We returned from our village visits on Thursday, and on Friday Peace Corps sent us all to live with families around Thies for the next seven or eight weeks, until it is time to go to our villages. This way we have a chance to practice the languages we are learning and to get to know Senegalese culture a little better.

Yesterday was also when we first learned what language each of us will be studying, as they assigned us each to a family that speaks the language we will learn. I am going to learn Mandinka, which means most likely the village I will be assigned to will be somewhere in the south. I am pretty excited about it, as I had been sort of hoping to be assigned to the south - which is green and humid, unlike the north, which is dry and desert-y. Although I'm sure the north would be a great place to go too, and I want to travel to wherever I don't get sent so that I can experience everything.

So far homestay is great. The family speaks French as well as Wolof and Mandinka, so we are able to communicate that way. It is traditional for the families to give each volunteer a Senegalese name, because it is easier for Senegalese to pronounce and remember, plus it is just fun. So my name now is Fatou Kebe. It's taking a while to get used to it. My host mother is always calling for Fatou, and I never answer right away because my first reaction is that Fatou is not me. But I'm getting faster. When I go to the village, though, they will give me a new name, and I will have to get used to that one. It's a little weird being called by a name that isn't yours. I feel like I'm lying when I introduce myself to people as Fatou.

Last night for dinner we ate meat and potatoes on a big communal plate, Senegalese style, with our hands. It tasted just like American pot roast to me. So good. They also gave me my first frozen juice, which are very popular here. The one I had was mango flavored, I think, but they sell lots of other flavors. You buy them from street venders in little plastic baggies, and then to eat them you just bite a hole in the corner and suck the juice out. It was delicious. And having something cold to eat or drink, after several days of drinking hot water in the village, was just heaven.

Today for lunch, though, we had rice with what I fear was a sheep's head. I asked what kind of meat it was, cause it was definitely not beef, and my host mother said something like "mourron". Which I looked up in the dictionary and it doesn't exist. But it sounds very similar to "moutton", which is sheep. So maybe that's what she said. Either way, it was a head of something, because I saw a jawbone and ate something that looked like tongue. Luckily I had just had lunch at the Peace Corps center, so I was able to tell them that I had already eaten and get away with only eating three bites of the head.

We should be having dinner soon. Wonder what it will be.

Visiting a Mandinka Village

written Saturday, March 27, 2007

I just came back on Thursday from spending several days in a Mandinka village near the town of Tambacounda. A Peace Corps driver took us to Tambacounda, where I spent the night with some other volunteers, and the next morning I went with a Peace Corps volunteer who has already been here a year, along with another trainee, to the volunteer's village.

We took a "mini-car" (a van with lots of benches) from Tambacounda. Most of the Peace Corps volunteers call the mini-cars "Alhams" because so many of them have "Alhamdulillahi" written on them, which means praise be to God - or in the case of the Alhams, according to the joke, praise be to God this thing is still running. At our fullest moment, I counted 26 people crammed into our mini-car, which could probably have held about twelve comfortably. This count doesn't include the babies on their mothers' laps or the people who were on top of the bus, but it does include the people who were hanging off the back of the bus.

I found it pretty amusing the way they manage to cram people in. A man who spoke some English noticed our incredulous faces as they kept cramming people in, and he said, "hey, this is Africa". Indeed. I love it. And despite the lack of American style standards for safety for the minicar, such as having seatbelts or even actual seats for everyone (some people were sitting on portable benches which they shoved in between the benches that were permanently installed), I felt safe in the mini-car because we were going pretty slow and there wasn't much traffic. Other than the occasional goat or donkey in the road, that is.

Anyway, after about two hours we got off the mini-car and hiked two kilometers down a dirt path to the Volunteer's village. Along the way we had to greet everyone we passed - which, if you read my earlier post about greetings, takes forever. In 104 degree heat and with a twenty pound pack on my back (next time I am definitely packing lighter!). We also collected a little group of children who followed us for a while, grabbing our hands as if they were our kids. I felt like the Pied Piper. A very hot Pied Piper.

But eventually we made it to the Volunteer's hut, which was very cozy - round with a low-hanging thatch roof which several times I walked into and cut my head on - and we collapsed and took a nap, cause it is just too hot to do anything in the middle of the day. At least for us toubabs. But most of the locals seemed to be hiding out in the shade too.

After our naps a pack of kids wandered into the hut, and we spent several hours playing with them. Then we had dinner - millet with maffe, which is a peanut sauce. Millet tastes pretty much like eating sand, but the maffe is good. Which is a good thing, because almost every meal we had in the village had maffe - either with millet, rice, or corn. We did once get fed some sort of sauce made with green onions, which tasted sort of like chicken noodle soup. I forget now if it was with millet or rice, but it was good. But other than that meal, vegetables seem to be pretty non-existent in the village diet. The volunteer we were staying with said it's because vegetables are expensive, and they don't go very far in large families. It's more economical to eat millet or rice. So I'm thinking maybe I'll try to have a little garden when I get to my village, both to supplement my diet and as a health project to share ideas about good nutrition.

The rest of the time at the village passed quickly. We pulled water from the well for drinking and bathing, carrying it back to the hut on our heads (I wasn't very good at it, but I made it), we tried to pound millet (it's hard, and the villagers laughed at our wussiness), we played with the kids, and we spent what seemed like a ridiculous amount of time just greeting people as we walked by.

The volunteer we were staying with had the kids at the village school put on a skit about how diarrhea is passed around and how to avoid it, which was fun to watch.

The best part of the visit was hanging out with the volunteer's family, who were hilarious. Just imagine tiny, half toothless old women singing, with bad pronunciation and without understanding what it means, "That's the way...uh huh uh huh...I like it". I tried to convince the volunteer who lives with them that she needs to teach them the Vanilla Ice song "Ice Ice Baby" or whatever it's called - I think they would love the rhythm. Plus it would be hilarious. But she said she doesn't know the song well enough to teach it to them.

The women taught us a traditional song which is sung while pounding millet, which was very pretty. I'm sure we butchered the pronunciation. They also tried to teach us some Mandinka words, including bento, which is bench, and bosso, which means mat. Every few minutes they would say Bento! Bosso! and make us point to the right thing and repeat it, to make sure we remembered. After a while it became a huge joke, to the point where they were saying hello and goodbye to us by saying "Bench mat!" in Mandinka.

So the village was a blast, and I can't wait to get my own village. And for those who are wondering, the volunteer had a concrete circle with a hole in the ground to use for a shower and toilet, but it actually seemed much cleaner than the other toilets I've used in Senegal, and I preferred it. Plus it feels really nice to take a shower outside in the fresh air. Toilet paper, however... let's just say, remember to bring your own.


written March 21, 2007

We have been learning how to greet people in Senegal, both the cultural tradition and the words in Wolof. It is very formal, and goes something like this:

Asalaa Maalekum (Do you have peace).

response: Maalekum salaam (Peace is here).

Nanga def? (How are you?)

response: Mangi fi rekk (I am here).

Naka wa ker ga? (How is your family?)

response: Nunga fa (They are there).

There may be more questions about your health, your wife, children or parents, sheep or goats, etc. etc. You must go through this whole routine with every single person you speak to. And if you are out walking, you must greet pretty much everyone you pass this way. After spending the last few days in a village (which I will write more about later), I have learned that this means that a simple errand outside of your hut can take an hour, with 90% of the time being spent on greetings and telling your neighbors what you're up to.

Mefloquine Dreams

written March 21, 2007

Malaria is endemic in Senegal, so Peace Corps started us all on mefloquine (except for those who can't take mefloquine for one reason or another, and then they got a different drug), which is supposed to prevent us from getting malaria. A common side effect of mefloquine is supposed to be very vivid dreams. So the first night after taking it, I was a little nervous about going to sleep, afraid i would have some crazy nightmare. But nothing happened. And nothing happened the night after that. So I figured I was pretty much in the clear. But about four days after starting the mefloquine, I had a very weird dream about green zombies. Which wouldn't be particularly out of the usual for me, except that I woke up, and the green zombies seemed to be just as real in my mind as actual reality. And then I went back to sleep, and the green zombies were still there. No idea what happened with them in the dream, but they were there. So maybe that was my first mefloquine dream. At least it wasn't very scary.

Toilets and Pooping

written March 21, 2007

In case you can't tell from the title, this is going to be about toilets and pooping. If you don't want to read about toilets and pooping, please don't.

My first experience with toilets in Senegal was at the airport. Given that I have been thinking about doing Peace Corps and coming to Senegal for quite a while now, you might think that I would have considered the bathroom situation. But I didn't. At least not really. I knew we would likely not have flush toilets, but when I pictured the sort of toilet I would have in my village, I imagined something like the outhouses we used to have in summer camp: a board with a hole in it, and hopefully a toilet seat on it, inside some sort of little dark scary shed.

So I went to the bathroom at the airport completely unprepared. I walked in and found stalls... with porcelain holes in the floor. Apparently they use squat toilets in Senegal, which I had heard about before but had no idea they used here. There is a place to put your feet, and then you just squat down and go. Not as easy as it sounds. I think all of us who went at the airport peed on our feet a little bit. Gross.

But after about a day of using the squatters, I pretty much got the peeing thing down. However, pooping is a lot harder. It's hard (at least for me, at the beginning of this whole experience) to keep balanced for very long, plus your leg muscles get tired of the squat position pretty quickly when you're not used to it. So I really dreaded having to go to the bathroom the first few days.

Which may or may not have contributed to the fact that after being in Senegal about two days I quit pooping. I wasn't constipated, I just didn't have to go. For five days. In spite of the fact that I was eating a normal amount every meal. So that got a little scary. But I think it was probably because of the change in diet - tons of carbs, but very little in the vegetable and fruit department. Anyway, as of today I am back to normal. Which I am sure all of my friends here will appreciate, so they can finally stop having to listen to me talk about toilets and pooping.

Arriving in Senegal

written Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I am sitting in the Peace Corps regional house in Tambacounda. Today marks one week since I left the U.S., and tomorrow I will have been in Senegal for a week. It feels like a million years. Or at least a month.

Monday last week I left my family and went to D.C. for Peace Corps staging (orientation). We had a lot of sessions that were supposed to help us prepare for coming over here, but those two days are all a blur now, and I don't really remember much they told us. It was nice to have a chance to meet the other volunteers who would be going to Senegal before we left, though.

After two days in D.C., we woke up at the crack of dawn and went to the airport to fly to Atlanta and then to Dakar. One of my bags was 13 pounds over the weight limit; I was afraid they would charge me extra, or worse, make me just get rid of some of it, but the guy at the check-in counter didn't bat an eye when I put my bag on the scale.

So the first (very small) hurdle on my Peace Corps adventure was surmounted.

The flight from Atlanta to Dakar was long but uneventful. I was surprised at how few Africans were on the plane.

We landed at Dakar airport around 4:30 am. I had been warned that the airport is really chaotic and stressful, so I was prepared for something really crazy. But the airport looked like every other airport I've seen, except maybe a little more run down. At the baggage claim there were men standing around offering to carry people's bags for them (for money). I wasn't sure if they worked at the airport or were just random people. Either way, I wasn't letting anyone take my bags. But no one approached me, so it wasn't a problem.

The Peace Corps staff met us at the airport and helped us get our bags on the bus that would take us to Thies, where the Peace Corps training center is.

From the bus, I had my first real look at Senegal. We saw some horse-drawn carts, and some commuter buses chock full of people. But despite my excitement at finally arriving in Senegal, I fell asleep on the bus pretty quickly and didn't wake up until we arrived at the training center in Thies.

The training center is beautiful - lots of green plants and pretty flowers, some huts with thatch roofs and no walls, or walls only halfway up, so that the air can go through. And of course lots of big rectangular "normal" looking buildings.

After a quick breakfast of baguettes and coffee or tea (with hot milk - yay!), they let us go to sleep until lunchtime. I'm sharing a room in a dormitory building with another girl. We have single beds with mosquito nets over them (which I love sleeping under), a table, and an armoire. The bathroom is shared for the whole side of the building (which means only about eight or ten people use it, I think). I'll write more about bathrooms and related issues in another post, as I have been a little obsessed with them.

After our naps we had a really good lunch - rice served in giant communal bowls (about five people to a bowl) with beef and lots of different vegetables mixed in. It was amazing, and I thought that if this is what Senegalese food is like, then I will have no problem adjusting at all.

After lunch some of the male Peace Corps staff played drums, and we all danced. I'm sure we all looked ridiculous, but it was a lot of fun.