Monday, July 23, 2007

Why Goats Can Climb Trees, But Not Very Well

written Friday, 20 July 2007



Recently one of the goats in my village died by hanging itself - it was tied up so that it wouldn't wander off, but the rope came loose.   The goat jumped up into the low branches of a small tree to eat the leaves, and when it tried to jump down again, the rope, which was still tied around its neck, got caught on a branch, and so the goat strangled to death.


(I asked if the goat would be eaten, since it was a healthy goat, but I was told no, because to eat it, it would have had to have been killed according to the rules of Islam - with its throat cut while it was facing east and a prayer was being said).


Anyway, so while the goat's hanging itself was being discussed, my host father decided to tell me a traditional fable: Why Goats Can Climb Trees, But Not Very Well.


Goat and Money were friends, and one day Goat asked Monkey to teeach him how to climb trees, so that he could eat the tasty leaves in the higher branches.   Monkey agreed and the next day began to give Goat lessons.


After a few lessons, Monkey told Goat that once he had learned to climb trees well it would be Goat's turn to teach someone how to climb trees.   Monkey asked Goat who he would teach.  Goat replied that he would teach his friend Dog.


"Oh no!" Monkey said.  "I do not like Dog!  He chases me, and the only way I can escape is to climb up into a tree.  If you teach Dog how to climb trees, then I will no longer be able to escape from him."


Goat said all right, he would not teach Dog how to climb trees.  But Monkey was not satisfied.   He was afraid Dog would talk Goat into teaching him, even though Goat promised Monkey he would not.  So Monkey decided not to give Goat any more lessons in tree climbing.


And that is why goats can climb trees, but not very well.


Waiting for rain

written Wednesday, 18 July 2007



In the last few weeks we've had a lot of clouds and even lightning, but very little rain.  I don't know if people are really worried yet, but they are saying that if the rains don't come soon, the peanuts, the main cash crop for this village, won't grow.   So we are waiting, hoping for rain.

Almost internet

written Monday, 16 July 2007



A few days ago one of my villagers told me that there is now an internet cafe in Missira, which is about halfway between my village and Tamba.   I was skeptical about his claim because Missira is just a small town with little infrastructure, but I couldn't help getting my hopes up a little - Missira is close enough that I can bike there and back to my village in a day, so if there were internet there I could be online as often as once a week.   In the words of one of my volunteer neighbors who I spread the rumor to, internet in Missira would change EVERYTHING!


I had already been planning to go up to Missira yesterday (Sunday), just to get out of the village for a day and get some exercise, but the possibility of internet made the plan much more exciting.   In Missira I met up with some other volunteers and then went with one of them to hunt down the alleged cybercafe.  It didn't take us long to find the building, with a big "Cybercafe/Telecenter" sign painted on it.   Unfortunately, it was all closed up.  But the question remained: was it closed for good, or just closed for the day?


So we asked some men who were sitting in the shade of nearby trees.  They said yes, the place is in business, and one of them said he knows the owner and he insisted on calling him and seeing if the guy could come and open up for us.   Unfortunately, the owner turned out to be out of town.  But then the man we were talking to said he knows the president of the local middle school, and he would get him to open the school for us and let us use the computers there.


Of course we protested that we didn't want him to go to so much trouble (plus I was 95% sure that while they have computers at the school, they don't have an internet connection).   But the man insisted, so we went up to the school, where, sure enough, there were computers but no internet.  But after the man had gone to so much trouble for us, we didn't want to tell him that it actually wasn't helpful at all, so we stayed for a while and preteended to do work on the computers.


The way even complete strangers will go so much out of their way to help people out is one of my favorite things about Senegalese culture (along with being the most religiously and ethnically tolerant place I've ever been).


Anyway, so I'm still not sure if the cybercafe in Missira is functioning, since the man we were talking to clearly doesn't know the difference between computers and internet.   But I'm still hoping thhe rumor will turn out to be true.

New lunch food

written Saturday, 14 July 2007



Yesterday we had something new for lunch - "tuwoo".  It is made of corn ground up into a fine flour, then cooked with water until it is the consistency of reheated instant mashed potatoes, with the inevitable peanut sauce poured on top.   Not my favorite meal, but still a welcome change from maffe.


written Friday, 13 July 2007



Today some of my villagers told me that our village is full of bad genies, and that there are dragons (yes, the fire-breathing kind) living in the bush.   I'm not sure if they were trying to warn me against them, or if they just thought I'd be interested to know about it.  They told me that genies live in trees and water, and you can find out if there are bad genies around by going out late at night and looking for signs such as sparks or strange noises.


One of the men told me about a genie he had seen: he was traveling along the road one day when he passed a man dressed in a white boubou and carrying a sack.   The man's feet were turned around so that the heels were in front and toes in back.  He greeted the man, but the man did not respond (incredibly rude here).   Then the man reached up and grabbed the branch of a tree, pulled himself up, and disappeared!


My villager knew then that it was a genie he had seen, and he was afraid that it meant he was going to die.   But so far, nothing has happened to him.

Sleeping in

written Friday, 13 July 2007



It occurred to me recently that I haven't slept past 6:30 am in the almost two months I've been living in the village (including when I go to Tamba - I just can't sleep there).   And I haven't slept past 8 am or had a day to lie around and do nothing since I came to Senegal.  I miss having weekends.

Money issues

written Thursday, 12 July 2007



I am starting to feel very worn down and stressed by people demanding money from me.  It has gone from being just people I know well in the village asking for money for important things like to buy medicine, to people I don't know well at all demanding money for trivial things like snacks at the weekly market.


I know that people expecting me to buy things for them stems from the communal culture here, where everything is shared and people are expected to help out those less fortunate. (For example, if someone comes along while you are eating, you must invite them to share the meal with you, even if you already don't have enough for yourself).   But it is still very jarring to me to have people come and demand money from me as if they have a right to it. - For example, when I was at the well getting water yesterday, a woman I know only slightly asked if I was planning to go to the weekly market the next day.   When I said yes, she said that I must buy clothes for her children.  When I said I don't have the money for that, she started berating me, saying yes, you do have the money!


And then, how to ever make people understand that even though I am a "rich toubab" I am living on a small Peace Corps allowance, which is calculated to be enough to provide for my basic needs but not those of the whole village?


Maybe I am just being a stingy American.  But it is hard trying to make friends and integrate into a community when it feels as if everyone is primarily interested in what money and gifts they can get out of you.   And I am wondering if this "Donne moi un cadeau" (Give me a present) culture exists in all poor countries, as a logical effort to take advantage of every opportunity (i.e . toubabs) that presents itself, or if this is only an African, West African, or Senegalese phenomenon.

A beautiful day

written Tuesday, 10 July 2007



Last night it rained, and this morning when I woke up it was still drizzly and gray - what in the US I would have described as gloomy.   But after months of nothing but bright, sunny days, this morning's weather seems just beautiful to me. (And it doesn't hurt that with the cooler air I slept better last night than I have in weeks, in spite of having to get up in the middle of the night when the rain started to relocate from my outside bed to my inside bed).

Girls' education and marriage

written Monday, 9 July 2007



I talked with my counterpart recently about the very low level of girls' education in the village and throughout Senegal.   He said of course part of the problem is money - if a family can't afford to educate all the children, then preference is almost always given to the boys.  But he said it is also because families worry that if a girl is educated, she is more likely to refuse to marry the person her parents choose for her, particularly if the chosen husband is less educated than she is.   Educated women are also less attractive as wives to many men because they are less likely to let the man be the uncontested boss of the house, as he is traditionally supposed to be.   Not surprising informatiion, but it still depressed me.


But I was cheered up when my sister who just had the baby and who never went to school, told me taht she wants all her kids (including the girl) to go to university.   I hope they do.

Toubab sighting

written Monday, 9 July 2007



A few weeks ago I was in a neighboring small town at the market and saw another toubab - a girl around my age wearing a pagne like the local women wear, so probably not a tourist.   I wondered what she was doing there and if she might be living in the area, and she clearly noticed me too.


I couldn't make up my mind whether to go talk to her or not - it seems tantamount to saying, "Hey, you're white like me!   Let's be friends!"  As if that meant we would automatically have more in common with each other than with the Senegalese.  But then it also seems weird to ignore each other.


In the end, we said hi, but that was it.  What is the correct protocol for these situations?


written Monday, 9 July 2007



I'm getting very restless, tired of having nothing to do every day but sit around and talk with people.   I'm still learning a lot from my conversations, but I wish I had a project to work on so that at the end of the day I could feel that I had accomplished something more than just having talked to X number of people.

A funny thing to be happy about

written Sunday, 8 July 2007



The last time I went up to Tamba I got miserably sick with stomach troubles after I'd been there just a day.   At first I thought it was because I'd overeaten on all the lovely food available in Tamba - spaghetti, peas, hamburgers, beans... And I was so sad, thinking that my stomach just couldn't handle non-village food anymore.


But almost a week later I was still sick, so the Peace Corps Medical Officer put me on antibiotics, which fixed me right up.   Which means that I really did eat something bad, and not just too much food that my stomach isn't used to anymore.  Which means I don't have to give up eating hamburgers and chawarmas when I go to Tamba!


I think this is the first time I have ever been happy to have had food poisoning.



You know you're living in an African village when...

written Friday, 6 July 2007



  • You give up your alarm clock in favor of the more reliable and effective braying donkeys.
  • At least once a day you must chase a sheep out of your hut.
  • Your idea of a special holiday treat is chicken livers and sheep intestines.
  • When you are sick, complete strangers will walk up to you and ask "How's the diarrhea?"
  • You eat food the consistency of thick soup with your hands out of a bowl shared with at least eight other people.
  • You have more family members than you can count, and your cousins are also your in-laws.
  • When traveling, it sems perfectly natural to stop at a stranger's house and ask to use the bathroom, and then to stay for lunch or even spend the night.
  • When you are peed on by a baby, you just pour some water over the wet spot and go on with your day, thinking that, hey, pee is sterile, and not much else in your environment can have that said of it.
  • You haven't properly greeted someone until you have asked them how their spouse, parents, kids, siblings, and sheep are doing, and noted that it's been a long time since you saw them last, even though you just saw them yesterday.
  • "You are sitting?" "Yes, I am sitting." is considered perfectly good conversatiion.
  • When you say you are full, you are told to keep eating until your ears pop out of your head.
  • When the temperature drops to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, you start looking for your sweater.
  • When you see chicken feet or sheep's ears on the ground, you think, "Who's having a feast and how come I haven't been invited?"

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A little more local history

written Tuesday, 26 June 2007



I found out today how my village got its (two) names.  Originally a woodcarver settled here with his family, because there are a lot of trees here (for Senegal, anyway) and it is close to the river, so it was an ideal location for carving pirogues (like canoes) and other things and then sending them down the river.   So the area here came to be known as what translates to "the woodcarver's place".


But eventually the woodcarver moved away, and the place was uninhabited for a while, until my host family moved here from a nearby village in search of more land to farm.   They renamed the area "New Medina" (after Medina in Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was born - there are gazillions of Medina Somethings in Senegal).   But everyone still knows the village as "the woodcarver's place".



written Tuesday, 26 June 2007



Yesterday was the baptism of my host sister's new baby.  The celebration lasted all day.   The highlights: the women spend most of the day cooking, talking, and singing traditional songs, while the men are more involved in the ritual, religious aspects: prayers, sacrificing sheep, and naming the baby.  


They named her Tigidanke, which is the first time I've heard that name.  Apparently it was the name of some important woman in the history of Islam.   Anyway, it sounds to me a lot like the Jaxanke word for peanut butter, tigo dekko.  So I've started calling her Peanut Butter as a nickname.


Since they sacrificed a sheep, we had meat for lunch, approximately one bite per person (plus lots of rice, of course).   I was allotted something shaped like a tube which I suspect was a piece of intestine.  I didn't want to be rude and refuse it, so I ate it.   In case you are wondering: it wasn't as gross as you might think, but I would definitely prefer not to repeat the experience.


In the afternoon the baby's head was shaved, which I think is like the Catholic sprinkling of the baby with waterr - it is supposed to symbolize the baby becoming a Muslim.


After dinner there was dancing (to cassette tapes on a boom box powered by a car battery), but I didn't stay long because all the "party food" had left me feeling a little sick.

Meeting observations

written Monday, 25 June 2007



I was at another meeting yesterday of the village health volunteers, who have decided to create a formal association - mainly in hopes of being able to get money from NGOs.   Anyway, a couple of funny things I noticed:


No matter how many times a group has met and in spite of everyone knowing everyone else, meetings must always start with a ten minute discussion of what language to conduct the meeting in.


Although all the meeting attendees were local villagers (except for me) with probably only middle-school level educations, if even that, they really like giving long, formal speeches - i.e. thanks to everyone for coming, I'm so glad to be here, I think this is a really important meeting, here is my position on the issues....  I felt like I was back at the UN meetings I used to go to when I was interning with the State Department.

Hoping for a good harvest

written Monday, 25 June 2007



Yesterday my village held a ceremony at the mosque to pray for rains and a good harvest.  Unfortunately, like all the religious ceremonies (at least all that I've experienced so far), it was men only, so I didn't get to see anything.   They did tell me, though, that they sacrificed a sheep.

I am a pushover

written Friday, 22 June 2007



...because I just can't say no.  So much for all my hard thinnking about whether helping out financially is a good idea.   One of my good friends in the village asked me yesterday if I would like him 50,000 CFA (about $100 - a  lot of money here, and lot of money for me on my Peace Corps allowance) so that he could afford to cultivate more land this year.   Apparently the field is all ready to be planted, but he doesn't have the money for the seeds, fertilizer, etc.


I gave him the money.  I let him know that it's a lot of money for me too - and actually I haven't given it all to him yet - I will have to go to the bank in Tamba, as I don't keep that kind of money lying around in the village.   I don't really expect him to pay it back.  I am hoping that this money will at the very least allow his family to eat a little better for the coming year, and at best he will be able to sell enough of what he grows to be able to cultivate more land next year without a loan, and gradually be able to improve his whole economic situation.


I know that's being very optimistic, and there's a good chance that the money won't have any long-term effect at all.   And also that the loan could cause me problems, if other people find out about it and want loans too, which I just can't afford.


All the other volunteers I've talked to about this say they basically never give people money or buy them things, other than their contribution to their host families' groceres, because it will cause problems.   Maybe my approach has been tried in the past, and it was a disaster, and that's why no one does it anymore.  But just maybe everyone has assumed it will be a disaster and not even tried it; and maybe it will turn out well.


Either way, I think Peace Corps is the time for me to try things out and make mistakes and learn.  I want to try to learn more about microfinance.

A little farming lore

written Thursday, 21 June 2007



I was complaining today about ants in my hut (because one bit me on the foot, and I wanted to find out how to get rid of them), and I was told that when the ants are all out, scurrying around to get food to take back to the ant hills, it means it's going to rain.


I was also told that if you look at what kind of grain the ants are carrying - rice, corn, or millet - that is the crop you should grow that year because if the ants are storing it that means it will grow really well.

New food for lunch

written Thursday, 21 June 2007



Today for lunch we had something new: "satoo", which is basically grits with a peanut sauce.  Sounds weird, but it was pretty good.  I liked it better than the maffe (rice with fishy tasting peanut sauce) that we usually have for lunch.


And just to clarify a bit, in spite of the fact that there are only about five ingredients in village food (rice, corn, peanuts, onions, and "Jumbo" - a bouillon cube used in everything for flavor - plus fish or sheep/goat once in a while), all the dishes taste completely different.   The peanut sauces for lunch and dinner are different (dinner is better) and the corn in the breakfast "moono" porridge, lunch "satoo", and dinner "futoo" all have different textures and taste different.


Anyway, I was wondering if the change in the lunch menu means that my family can't afford rice anymore.   It is the beginning of the planting season now, which means it is also the beginning of the hungry season, as people begin to run out of what they harvested last year.  I've been told that it's getting harder to find peanuts and corn to buy, because no one is willing to sell what little they have.


I am not sure how this fits with my family running out of rice while they still have corn to eat, since they raise the corn themselves but have to buy the rice (rice is grown in some parts of Senegal, but what I have seen here is all imported from Thailand), but I am going to try to find out what's going on.

A little bit of history

written Thursday, 21 June 2007



I have been told that all the fields around the nearby town where the weekly market is held used to be a plantation belonging to a white man which grew some sort of fiber for making sacks (cotton?), and the local people were forced to work there without pay (aka slavery).   When Senegal became independent in 1960 (or 1961? I can't remember) the plantation owner was going to have to start paying his workers, so he couldn't make a profit anymore and went out of business.

New baby!

written Thursday, 21 June 2007



My host sister had her baby on Monday (while I was in Tamba, so I didn't see any childbirth stuff).  The baby is a girl, and she will be given a name at her baptism on Monday, seven days after the birth.


So far at least, she has very light skin, so some of the women were joking that she must be my baby.  Her mom was quick to point out, though, that her hair is much darker than mine - so I can't have her!

Big Love

written Thursday, 21 June 2007



While I was in Tamba for a few days staying at the Peace Corps regional house, I watched a few episodes of the HBO series Big Love, a show about a fictional polygamous Mormon family, on DVD with some other volunteers.   I'd seen one or two episodes in the US before coming here, and as I was watching it I was struck by how much the show is based on the assumption that the audience will find polygamy to be bizarre and possibly wrong or repugnant.   The show made me realize how much I have gotten used to polygamy here, so it just doesn't seem like a big deal to me at all (although still not for me).