Sunday, August 19, 2007

pictures and update on my host family

I have been able to post some pictures from the flood on picasaweb:
My host family is slowly getting their house cleaned up and getting back to normal.  They spent about four or five days this week just washing clothes and other items (by hand, because that's how it's done here, so it's really hard work).  They called a mason to their house to look at the collapsed outer wall and the giant crack in the living room wall.  The mason will rebuild the outer wall, and he said that the crack indicates some structural damage, so he will have to knock out that whole section of wall, insert some steel beams for support, and then rebuild the wall.  Luckily (at least for my host family) the house is rented, so my host family doesn't have to pay for those repairs.  But it sounds like it will be quite a while before the house is in pre-flood conditions.  They are continuing to search for a new house to move into, since my host mother feels that the current house is just not safe enough anymore, but since many families have been flooded and are now looking to move, they haven't been able to find a new house to move to yet.
Many, many thanks to all of you who have so generously contributed to help my family.  So far your contributions have enabled them to re-supply themselves with food and to buy new mats to cover the concrete floors, replacing those that were ruined.  I still have another installment of your contributions to give them (as soon as I can get to the bank - hopefully tomorrow), which will help them to replace their bed mattresses. (I hate that all week they have had to choose between sleeping on the hard concrete floor and sleeping on damp, stinky mattresses).
My host family has asked me to tell everyone how grateful they are, and to say that they wish everyone long lives and lots of money (and for me, they told me they are also praying for me to get a good husband!).

Monday, August 13, 2007


written Monday, 13 August 2007



I am currently in Thies for a few weeks of training.  Since it is farther north in the country than my site in Tamba, the rainy season hasn't really started here (the rains start earliest in the south and move north).   So it has been really hot here, hotter even than my village is right now, which I was surprised by.


But yesterday evening it finally rained a bit here, just for about an hour in the late afternoon.   Everyone was so happy to have some rain to cool things off a bit, even though it does make the mosquitoes worse.


I went to bed last night just a little after 9 pm, happy that for once it was cool enough to get a good night's sleep - the two nights before that I hardly slept because it was just so hot.


But the lovely cooling rain soon turned into a downpour.  Around 1 or 2 am (I looked at my watch, but with all the excitement later I've forgotten what it said) my host family came banging on my door to wake me up.   When I stood up to answer the door, my feet stepped into two or three inches of water.  I opened my bedroom door and saw that the rest of the house was flooded too.


My host family immediately rushed into my room and started trying to move my things to higher places to save them.   I grabbed my purse and various electronic items (camera, cell phone, a laptop I had borrowed from another volunteer for the weekend and was horrified at the possibility that it might be destroyed by the water), and then I urged my family to leave my stuff and go take care of their own stuff.   But they insisted on trying to rescue the rest of my stuff (just clothes, toiletry items, and some books) which by now were floating around in the rising water in my room.  


When my family was finally satisfied that my stuff was protected as much as possible, we went into the living room and stacked tables on top of chairs (the chairs were actually sturdier than the tables, so it made sense to do it in that order) to try to have a dry place to sit.


Within an hour the water had risen almost to my hips, and looking out the window at the street, it looked like it was even deeper there.   The water was moving fast, carrying lots of random objects, like a refrigerator.  My host mother wanted to send one of her boys out to try to get a taxi to take me to the Peace Corps center, but I insisted that it was too dangerous to go out and that I would stay with them.  


I worried that soon the water would be so deep that we would have to swim out of the house and climb up onto the roof.   And I worried that we could be electrocuted sitting in all that water (I was sitting on a metal table with my feet in the water), since I could see streetlights not too far away, meaning that the city hadn't cut off electricity to our neighborhood, even though the power was out in our house.


And I felt terrible for my family, sitting there and watching everything they owned floating (or sinking) in the dirty brown water.   But my host family continued to amaze me with their kindness and selflessness - all night long, they just kept telling me how sorry they were that my stuff had gotten wet and that I wasn't getting any sleep.   As if their only concern in the world was their duties as hosts. 


After a few hours the water finally began to recede, so that at about 5 am we could go out onto the porch and look at the yard. My host brothers went over to the door to the compound and started bailing water into the street.   We discovered that one of the walls separating my family's compound from the neighbors had collapsed, blocking the door to the latrine (rather an urgent priority of mine at the time, having been up all night - where do you go to the bathroom when you are standing in standing water? I figured out the answer, but I will spare you the details).


Around 6 am I called Peace Corps and was told that they would send a driver to pick me up at 7:00, and since I obviously could not continue to stay at my host family's flooded house, I will stay at the Peace Corps training center, until other arrangements can be made.  


So at 7:00 I left my host family, who continued to be amazingly selfless, refusing to give me my filthy, soaked clothes, insisting that they would wash them - even though I insisted that I could do it myself, knowing that they certainly have enough other work to do.


So I am fine, having suffered little more than the inconvenience of a night of no sleep, lots of mosquito bites, and no clean clothes of my own to change into (a friend brought me clothes to wear).   But my poor host family's house is ruined - aside from the collapsed outer wall, there are now some ominous cracks in the walls of the house.  And of course all their stuff is soaked and filthy.


I know they will salvage everything they possibly can - they were talking optimistically about putting the bed mattresses in the sun to dry, but given how filthy the water was, I doubt they will ever be usable again.   My host family rents their house, and my host mother is hoping to find a new house to move to, since this one doesn't seem safe anymore.  But moving will be expensive, and they don't have any insurance to help with the cost of replacing their belongings (when I asked if they had insurance, they laughed and said 'This is Africa').   And all their neighbors are in the same boat, so the African tradition of solidarity and helping each other out won't help much here.


So please, if you feel inclined to help, get in touch with my mom (if you know me) or email me at .  I know that my host family would really appreciate the help.  And being the kind of people they are, I know they will share any assistance they receive with their neighbors.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

new pictures!

New pictures up at - in the album called July 2007.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Beach and more training

written Wednesday, 8 August 2007



This month I am back in Thies for more training, but before coming here I went to the beach for a few days for a little relaxing time with the other volunteers.   Unfortunately, during the rainy season apparently the ocean gets really rough, so it was too dangerous to do much more than get my feet wet.  And I felt really anxious and antsy the whole weekend for no reason, which I am blaming on my malaria medicine.  So it didn't turn out to be a very relaxing weekend, but it was still fun.


Now back in Thies I am really happy to see my old host family again.  It was a bit of a shock seeing the 2 year old girl again - she is so much bigger than the 2 year olds in my village.   I hadn't realized I was getting used to children being underweight and malnourished.


I have started learning Pulafuuta this week, which is a dialect of Pulaar and is spoken by the majority of people in my village.   The Pulaar people are nomadic herders and can be found in just about every country in Africa, so if I continue to work in Africa after Peace Corps it might come in handy.  But aside from practicality, it is a very pretty and funny language (the way some of the words are pronounced sounds like they have a hiccup in the middle of them), and I am having fun learning it.   And I can't wait to go back to my village at the end of the month and impress my villagers with my new skills.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A scary moment and some hard questions

written Thursday, 2 August 2007



One of the children in my village, whose parents I am good friends with, had a fever and other malaria symptoms for several days.   I knew he was sick, but I didn't push his family to take him to the health post because I figured they know better than I do how seriously to take malaria. 


But then Tuesday night the dad asked me to come over and look at his child.  He was covered with a sheet to keep flies from bothering him while he slept, and when I pulled the sheet down I saw that he was covered in blood.   I couldn't tell at first where the blood was coming from, but it turned out it was from a bloody nose. 


I hadn't heard of nosebleeds as a symptom of malaria before, but it really scared me.  (Plus I embarrassed myself from becoming very close to fainting from seeing all that blood - I had to sit down and put my head down for a minute).   I wondered if it meant that his fever had gotten so high it was popping his blood vessels somehow, or if it meant he had something worse than malaria, and might have internal bleeding.   (I have a tendency to imagine the worse-case scenario).   I told his dad the boy should be taken to the health post immediately, but his dad said they would have to wait til the morning - it was already getting dark, and there was no way to get him there except by donkey cart, which would be a really difficult trip to make at night.


Besides being terrified that the boy wouldn't make it til morning (it seemed like he had lost an awful lot of blood, and he was very weak), I couldn't help but think what if I were the person who was so sick - would I be stranded like this?   But no, I wouldn't - because the gendarmes would come in their truck to get me, or Peace Corps would find another way to get me help.  And because I have money.


The unfairness and wrongness of my life, as an American, being valued more highly than this little Senegalese boy's, is not something that hasn't occurred to me before, and you could even say that that has something to do with why I am in Peace Corps.   But that day the wrongness of it was staring me in the face, as I sat with the little boy and wondered if he was going to make it til morning. 


I feel like I should do something about it, but I don't know what.  How does one protest such a situation? Refuse to get medical care when I need it? That won't help any.   I can't trade my health care coverage or situation in life with anyone else.  So for now, I am just sitting here, feeling powerless and guilty.


Luckily this story has a happy ending: the family finally got the boy to the health post, where he was given medicine and is on his way to a full recovery.

An NGO comes to the village

written Thursday, 2 August 2007



On Monday a woman from a Belgian NGO came to my village and held a meeting.  The NGO wants to give the women's group in my village two machines, one that will produce a bio-diesel fuel out of a plant that the NGO wants my village to start growing, and a second machine that is basically a generator that will run on the bio-fuel that the first machine produces and which can then be used to power a grinder or water pump.


After explaining what the NGO was offering to do, the woman asked my villagers if they were interested in the project.   Of course they said yes - to them, this is like presents falling from the sky, and they risk nothing if the project doesn't work out.


I thought it was a rather strange way to operate - coming to the village and telling them what present they could have, and asking them if they wanted it, rather than having a real discussion with the village about what they need.   But the machines sound like they could be useful - my village could certainly use a water pump.


Unfortunately, though, the plant which the NGO wants my village to grow for bio-fuel is believed by the villagers to house evil spirits.   It is said that anyone who grows such a plant will soon find themselves forced to leave their home and village.  But no one told the toubab NGO woman this, because she just wouldn't understand.   (I got told about it, because I am "integrated" in the village.  This sort of insider information is exactly why I was interested in doing Peace Corps).


So there is a good chance the project will fail, because of the NGO's failure to understand local beliefs.   This seems typical to me of aid to Africa - good intentions, but not quite on the mark.  But there is hope - the villagers are discussing whether it will be okay to grow the plant, as long as they plant it far enough away from the village so that the evil spirits will not reach the village.   So we'll see.

Working in the fields

written Sunday, 29 July 2007



Yesterday for the first time I went and worked in the fields with one of my sisters, weeding around the peanut plants.   It was really hard work - I only lasted about two hours and my entire body hurts today - but it was fun.  I'm going back again today.


It made me think of my grandpa who just died - he used to grow peanuts (and other things) before he switched to raising cattle.   I wonder if he would have been happy to know that I'm learning how to farm.


written Sunday, 29 July 2007



We have had a lot of rain in the past week, which is really making things grow.  Which means that the cows are now able to get enough to eat so they can be milked.   So we have started having sour milk in our porridge some mornings.  Can't say I like it very much - the sour flavor makes me worry it will make me sick - I don't know what they do to make it sour, unless it's just from leaving it sitting around in the heat for a day or two, but it's definitely not pasteurized or refrigerated.   But I guess it's a good addition to the corn and peanuts diet.

Traveling adventures

written Thursday, 26 July 2007



I decided to go up to Tamba on Monday so I could check my mail and email and just have a break from the village.   But since I will be leaving next week to go up to Thies for another month of training, I didn't want to stay in Tamba for very long.  So I decided to take an "Alham" car instead of doing my usual four hour bike ride each way so that I could go up to Tamba and come back to the village all in one day.


So Monday morning I woke up early and biked the 8 km from my village to the main road.  I had been told that the first car should come by around 7 am, and it was only a little after 6:00 (I'd woken up earlier than I meant to - just couldn't sleep), so I decided to bike another 30 minutes down the road and wait for the car in front of the hospital.


When I got to the hospital I pulled over, leaned my bike against a tree, and waited for a car to come by.   Sure enough, right around 7:00, an Alham came by.  I waved it down, and the ticket/loading man asked me where I was going.


"Tamba," I said.


"That'll be keme fula," - two hundred - which, of course, according to the completely logical rule that all numbers must be multiplied by 5 when referring to money, meant that it cost 1000 CFA, about $2.   It's a fixed price (unless they try to charge you the higher toubab price, but this guy didn't), so I didn't have to haggle.  I said okay, and he tossed my bike on top of the van and told me where to sit - a middle row (the safest place to be in case of a wreck) with only women (which I assumed was to preevent any potential shenanigans by the men passengers and which I appreciated).


I tried to pay him as soon as we got going, but he wouldn't accept it.  Then about 20 minutes later he tapped me on the shoulder, which meant I was supposed to pay.   I'm not sure why they don't want to be paid right away, but my theory for now is that it is in case the car breaks down, that you don't pay until they've taken you far enough that they wouldn't have to deal with giving you a refund.   Or maybe he just needed to find change.


The rest of the trip to Tamba was quiet and uneventful, except for when a passenger got on carrying a live chicken (held upside down by its feet), so for a few seconds there was a chicken squawking and flapping around my head.


In the afternoon, around 3 pm, I went to the "garage" where all the cars leaving Tamba depart from, to try to get a ride back to my village.   As soon as I got into the garage parking lot area, several men ran up and tried to take my bike and bags for me, asking me where I wanted to go.  I think they get paid some kind of commission by the car owners for finding them passengers, but I made sure to keep a careful eye on my stuff so it wouldn't disappear.  I told the men where I was going, and they took me over to a car going that way.   I bought a ticket (a scrap of paper with "1000 CFA" and the date scribbled on it by the ticket boy), and they tossed my bike up on top of the car.   Now I just had to wait - we'd be leaving just as soon as there were enough passengers to fill the car.


- Which took a really long time.  I sat on a bench and talked to a nice old man who told me he drives an Alham to Kedougou (he was waiting for his car to fill up too).   He also told me he is a former soldier, having fought for the French army in Algeria during its war for independence.  I wanted to ask him what it felt like to be from a colonized country, fighting to prevent the independence of another colonized country, but I didn't get the chance.   Maybe next time I am at the garage I will ask him.


I did ask him about his pension, though, since I had read before coming to Senegal that there is discussion of increasing the pension paid to former French army soldiers from Senegal and other former colonies so that it is equal to the pension paid to French soldiers. (The argument, of course, is that soldiers from the colonies did the same jobs and took the same risks, and therefore should be paid the same.   The counterargument from the French government is that the cost of living is lower in countries such as Senegal, so an equal pension isn't necessary).   The man told me that his pension from the French government is very good, but that they haven't raised it yet to match French soldiers' pensions.


While I was talking to the former soldier, another old man came over and pretended to be interested in talking to me, but pretty soon he was just asking for things:


"Give me your sunglasses."




"Then give me your flip-flops."




"Then give me your change purse."




"Then give me your tote bag."




"Then buy me some kola nuts."




These conversations still make me feel awkward and uncomfortable, even though I keep telling myself to get over it since the other person never seems to be embarrassed or uncomfortable at all.   Anyway, eventually he gave up and went away, and soon after that my car finally had enough passengers so we could leave.


It was already 5:30, and I needed to be home by 8:00 at the very latest in order to be home before dark and in time for dinner.   Luckily there weren't any major delays along the way, so I got dropped off at the turnoff to my village just before 7:00.  I still had a 30 minute bike ride up the dirt road to my village, though, and it was starting to look like rain.


I told myself not to worry, though, since it has been looking like rain for a week and not raining, and anyway if it did start to rain there was nothing I could do, I still had to make it home that night.   As fate would have it, the long-awaited rain finally came after I had been biking for only a few minutes.  I was soaked almost immediately, which was actually pretty nice - I haven't been that completely weet for months, including when I take bucket baths (the heat just evaporates the water right off me, so I never manage to have more than one arm or leg wet at a time).   The dirt road quickly turned into a creek which I couldn't see the bottom of.  So the rest of the ride back was a lot more exciting than usual, although I worried about the books I was carrying getting wet.


But the books stayed dry, and I made it home in time for a nice hot meal of futoo nin sosoo (cornmeal with bean sauce - one of my favorite dishes).   I missed taking a nice warm shower though, since my "shower" is an open air latrine and any attempts to wash out there would have just meant getting rained on some more.   So I just wiped off the mud with a dirty t-shirt and changed into dry clothes.


And then I went to bed, feeling happy that I had had a "real Peace Corps experience" adventure that day.