Monday, September 24, 2007

I love Ramadan

Written Thursday, 20 September 2007



Before Ramadan started, I thought it would be a tough month to get through, with everyone fasting.   I thought I would have to do a lot of secret eating of snacks in my hut to survive – I've heard that in some primarily Muslim countries, even though non-Muslims don't have to fast, that it's rude to eat or drink in front of people who are fasting.


But as it turns out, since I gave up fasting I've been eating really well.   I've been making oatmeal in my hut for breakfast in the mornings, just because I want to.  My family still cooks lunch for me, since they are already making lunch for other people who aren't fasting – kids, sick people, people who aren't fasting because they have to work in the fields and don't want to be tired.   So I'm far from being the only non-faster.


So the only big difference Ramadan makes for me is dinner – and it's gotten better.   Instead of starving until 8:30 and then barely getting enough to eat, we have tea and porridge at 7:00, then roasted corn or watermelon for a snack, then regular dinner food around 7:30.  So except for my bean sandwich ladies at the market not having beans, I'm really going to miss Ramadan when it's over.

A walk in the fields

Written Thursday, 20 September 2007



Today I went for a walk in the fields with my counterpart.   I wanted him to show me the kinkeliba plant they make the delicious tea from – I had only ever seen the dried leaves, not the live plant.  It grows wild out in the bush, and I wanted to know how to look for it so I can make the tea myself.   Plus I'd love to take some back to the US when I go back, maybe even try to plant one, but that's probably illegal.  I wonder if kinkeliba is already sold in the US, with another name (like rooibos or honeybush, which are both grown in South Africa, I think)…


Anyway, after showing me the kinkeliba bush, my counterpart took me out to the fields to see all the crops.   I had no idea they were growing so many different kinds of grains here, since all we eat is rice (imported), corn, and a little millet.  But some people are also growing sorghum, which my counterpart said has more vitamins and a higher market value than corn.   Sounds like a win-win situation, I thought – so why isn't everyone growing it?  Apparently it's a lot more work for the women to pound and makes an itchy dust which gets on their skin, so they don't like it.   They could get a machine to grind it, but that's only cost effective if lots of sorghum is being grown.  So we're sticking with corn as the main crop.


Besides the sorghum there are a couple of other grains being cultivated, which I don't know what they are called in English, if they are known in the West.   One is called "ñoo musoo" or "women's millet" because it is very easy for the women to pound and turn into food, so they like it.   They are also growing okra, squash, and watermelon (which tastes about a million times better than the watermelon in the US).


written Thursday, 20 September 2007



Yesterday I went to the weekly market, where I always buy some food supplies for my family (onions, garlic, spices), but where the exciting part for me is the chance to eat street food from the vendors there, just because it provides a change from the routine of the village diet.   I look forward to the market food all week - kinkeliba tea with condensed milk, bean sandwiches, fried doughballs with onioon sauce inside, yogurt with millet balls, frozen kool aid...


So it was very disappointing yesterday to discover that none of the bean sandwich ladies had beans, only bread and butter.   I guess they figured that since it's Ramadan almost everyone would be fasting and it's not worth it to cook the beans.


Which brought me and my volunteer friends back to our common topic of all the businesses we would open here if we had the money.   First on my list, of course, is an internet cafe closer to my village; and then I'd like to have a chain of boutiques (that's what the little village stores that just sell a few basic items are called) in every village, so that I could sell at lower wholesale prices like Wal-Mart, and of course they would have an expanded inventory compared to waht the boutiques usually sell.   But my idea this time was to compete with the bean sandwich ladies at the market by offering menu options, instead of just bean (or only butter) sandwiches and tea, to also offer coffee and omelette sandwiches (also popular in Senegal but not available at my market), and maybe some toubab-y food - juice, croissants, grilled cheese sandwiches... Oh, I can dream.   I decided that I would call my little restaurant LolooBucks (loloo is the Mandinka word for star.  I thought it was pretty clever, but it took my friends forever to figure it out, so I guess it's just dumb).


Anyway, so I've decided that this is what I will do if I ever win a millioon dollars (after I pay off my student loans, of course) - I will start lots of small businesses in villages in Senegal.  They will almost definitely lose money, but it would be a lot of fun.  And then if any of them did actually make money, I would turn the business over to a Senegalese person, and then slowly Senegal would become developed (that is, if you consider "development" to mean having a LolooBucks and a Toubab-Mart in every village). 


I am in a bit of a silly mood, if you can't tell....

Malaria skit

Written Thursday, 20 September 2007



Tuesday I went to a neighboring volunteer's village to put on a skit about malaria prevention.   I was supposed to play the malaria-carrying mosquito, buzzing around and trying to bite people and being unable to bite people who had mosquito nets – definitely the most fun part, I think.   We ended up not having enough volunteers show up to play all the parts (because of a miscommunication about what day we were doing the skit – such is life in the pre-Instant Communication age), so I also ended up playing the parts of doctor and narrator.   It was a lot of fun, at least for us volunteers.  I think the audience liked it too.  Their favorite part was when the doctor gives the malaria patient a shot in the butt – bathroom humor is very popular in Senegal.


We're going to try to do the skit in my village next week.   Wish us luck!

Monster in my latrine

Written Sunday, 16 September 2007



Yesterday while I was showering I heard a squawking sound that sounded like it was coming from inside my latrine (down the hole, I mean).   I thought at first I must have heard wrong – the sound was probably coming from the other side of the fence or from up in a tree.  But then I heard the sound again several times, and it was definitely coming from the latrine hole.   It sounded like a bird.  Or maybe it could be a frog?  But I've never heard of a frog sounding like that.   Whatever it is, if it's living in my latrine it's probably not fuzzy and cute.  So I have a monster in my latrine.


I feel like there is such a fine line here between things making me want to cry and run home to the US, and things making me laugh hysterically and feel so glad to be here having such crazy adventures.   Cockroach in my bed: cry.  Monster in my latrine: hilarious.

No more fasting

Written Sunday, 16 September 2007



My little Ramadan fasting experiment ended yesterday around lunchtime.   When I got really hungry I started asking myself, Why am I doing this again?  And I decided that if my only motivation was to have a cultural experience and to prove to myself that I could do it, then I'd already done that the day before.   And fasting was making me feel so tired that I didn't feel like doing anything besides reading and napping in my hut, and I felt like I should be being more productive.   So I gave up my fast, and hopefully today I will have the energy to get some stuff done.

One day of Ramadan down

Written Saturday, 15 September 2007



So I've survived one whole day of Ramadan fasting.   It wasn't that hard, actually, as long as I stayed busy so I wasn't just thinking about food and how hungry I was.  And it helped that it was a really cool day yesterday (73 degrees in the morning – I was freezing!), so I didn't really get thirsty.


After the 7 pm prayers we finally got to eat.   First we had hot tea, which they said is important so your stomach doesn't cramp when you start stuffing yourself after not eating all day.  Then everyone had a sip of holy water – they write Koranic verses on a board with ink made out of a special plant, and then pour water over the board to wash the ink off.   Then the wash water with ink in it is considered to be holy and to have medicinal properties, and they drink it.  To me it was just dirty water, and I would have preferred to skip participating in that particular cultural practice, but everyone was looking at me and I didn't want to be rude, so I took a tiny sip.


After tea and holy water we had moono, our standard breakfast porridge.   I was surprised to be full after eating just a little bit, after being so hungry all day, but I guess my stomach had shrunk.  A little while later we had rice with peanut sauce, with palm oil in the sauce as a special holiday treat.   Then everyone went off to the mosque to pray, and I went back to my hut.  And that was my first day of Ramadan.


I'm fasting again today, but I'm not really planning to stick it out the whole month.   I guess I just want to see how long I can last.  And I get tired of being treated like a wussy Westerner all the time (although in most cases it's true – I definitely can't work as hard as the women here work, carrying buckets of water on their heads, cooking over hot fires, hand-washing laundry, and farming). We'll see how it goes.

Ramadan and a cow’s head

Written Friday, 14 September 2007



An update on the cow's head: it didn't appear in my dinner last night, so I am hoping that means someone else ate it.   But I guess it could still appear today.  We'll see.


Today is the first day of Ramadan, as observed by my village anyway.   Ramadan is supposed to start the day after the new moon appears; some people wait until they have actually seen the new moon, and some go by when the calendar says it should appear.   So according to the calendar, we should have started Ramadan yesterday, but most of my villagers are going by when they actually saw the moon, which was last night because the night before was too cloudy.


So starting today, for 30 days Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset.   Which means getting up at 5 am for some breakfast, then going back to bed for a while if you want, and then nothing for the rest of the day until about 7 pm, when the fast is broken with some porridge and then real dinner (or at least that's the way it is in my village – I'm sure they eat other things in other places).   And then when Ramadan ends there is a big party, with a feast and dancing and everyone wearing new clothes (except in the north of Senegal, and I'm sure in other countries, where the religion is practiced more conservatively and dancing is forbidden).


I told my villagers I would fast with them, or at least try.   I'm not making any promises to stick with it, though, because I don't want to make myself sick from not drinking enough water if it's hot out.  It's just a cultural experience for me since I'm not Muslim, but I think it will be fun to try.   Or torture.  We'll see.

Something I am definitely not okay with:

Written Friday, 14 September 2007



waking up to see a giant cockroach on my bed, staring back at me.


It happened this morning.  I was lying in bed, half asleep, half awake, planning to try to sleep another hour, when I heard something thump on my bed.  I'm used to weird noises around my hut, from birds and lizards on the roof, and donkeys and sheep outside, but since my bed is covered by a mosquito net it's pretty safe from intruders.   Or was.  So after the thump I sat up and grabbed my flashlight, which was conveniently lying right next to my pillow because almost every night there are weird sounds I need to investigate, but up until today they always turned out to be nothing, either my imagination or something outside.   But today I turned on my flashlight and there was a giant cockroach, six inches from where I had been lying, staring back at me.  It didn't even run away when I turned the light on, so I had to shoo at it with my cell phone (also conveniently lying right next to my pillow).   So I got rid of the cockroach and tried to go back to sleep.  But I kept thinking I was hearing it coming back onto my bed, and having to turn on my flashlight and investigate.   So no more sleep for me.  And I don't know how I'm going to sleep tonight.  I thought my bed was already bug-proof with the mosquito net, but it seems I'm going to have to take more drastic measures.   Maybe I can get some nice strong insecticide that's banned in the US because it's so terrible for the environment.  That sounds pretty good.

Roasted corn and a cow head

Written Thursday, 13 September 2007



Since I have come back from Thies, the corn has started becoming ripe, so we have been eating ears of corn roasted in the fire for a snack.   The corn here is denser, starchier, and less sweet than American corn – and not so good for American-style corn on the cob.  We tried making it at the Peace Corps house in Tamba recently, and despite boiling it for over an hour, the corn was still hard.   Of course we ate it anyway.  The village roasted corn isn't buttered or salted because they don't have the money for that, so we just eat it plain.   But it's still pretty delicious.


And now on to the part of the story you're really waiting for: the cow's head.   I walked over to my host family's compound today for lunch, and I saw what looked like a cow's head sitting in the fire.  But I thought it must be a piece of wood that was shaped like a cow's head.   I looked more closely, and saw that sure enough, it's a cow's head.  To double check, I asked one of the little kids running around: "Is that a cow's head?"   "Yep," he says, as if we have cow heads in the fire every day.  So I asked my sister, "What's the cow head for?", hoping that the answer wasn't what I was thinking.   But it is.  "To eat," she says.  Duh.


So I might be having cow head with dinner tonight.   I just hope it's cut up into small enough pieces that I can tell myself it's the usual mystery meat and no big deal.  I don't think I'm up for reaching into the skull and scooping out a spoonful of brains.

Baby porridge demonstration

Written Thursday, 13 September 2007



Tuesday I did my first official health activity in the village as a Peace Corps volunteer (the 2 ½ months I was in the village before I went back to Thies I was supposed to be working on learning the language and "integrating", not doing health activities) – I taught some women how to make a simple baby porridge out of corn meal, peanut butter, and bananas.


Malnutrition is a big problem here for babies, mainly because they aren't fed the right foods during weaning, rather than because of not getting fed enough food.   (They tend to get a lot of carbohydrates like corn meal and rice, and not enough proteins or fruits and vegetables).


The meeting for my porridge demonstration was, as meetings always seem to be here, a little chaotic.   We had planned to start the meeting at 3:00, but at 2:30 my counterpart showed up and said it looked like it was going to rain and we should start the meeting now (we were going to have the meeting under a tree in front of my hut).   So I grabbed my gas stove and other cooking supplies and rushed out.  Amazingly, the women were already there – usually we have to wait around for people to show up, and meetings start about an hour after they're scheduled.  


I was a little nervous about how the porridge would turn out, since I hadn't actually made it before – I was going off a recipe from Peace Corps.   It was too watery at first, but after cooking it a while longer it thickened up and actually turned out pretty well, except that the women inevitably said that it wasn't sugary enough.   But the women seemed to understand the recipe, and the babies seemed to like it, so I'm counting my first activity as a success, as far as successes go in Peace Corps anyway – I don't know yet if any of the women will actually make it for their kids.   But I'm hoping they will.

Back to the village

Written Friday, 7 September 2007



Wednesday it was finally time for me to go back to the village, after being gone for over a month.   Around 5 pm I went to the garage in Tamba to catch an Alham (it's not safe to bike the road toward my village in the afternoons – apparently there are bandits – and anyway I had a lot of stuff).   Even though the car was almost full when I got there, we didn't leave til almost 6:00.  Then there were the usual stops at the gas station and at the police checkpoint for the driver to have his papers checked.   Then it seemed we were finally on our way.


But no.  After driving for only about ten minutes, one of the tires blew out.   (I for some reason immediately thought we had been shot at and jumped.  All the Senegalese in the car had a good time laughing at me for that one).   So we pulled over and everyone piled out, and they put on the spare tire.  Finally we got going again, but by the time we made it to Missira – about halfway to my village – it was after 7:00 and already getting dark.  I didn't want to make the thirty minute bike ride from the main road to my village in pitch blackness, so I decided to stay in Missira and spend the night at another volunteer's hut.


So Thursday morning I loaded up my bike and rode to my village, finally arriving about 18 hours after I'd originally planned to.   I feel like that's pretty typical of life here.  I was really happy to see my host family and other villagers, which was a relief because I wasn't entirely sure if I'd be happy to come back or if I'd feel like I was going back to prison.   Probably some of the feelings of being in prison will come back in time (hopefully not until it's about time to go to Tamba again), but for now I'm really happy to be back.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I really hope it doesn't happen to me...

One of the annoying things about the rainy season, besides all the mosquitoes and flies, is how difficult it is to do laundry.  You do your laundry on a sunny morning, thinking maybe it won't rain today, or at least maybe your clothes will be dry before it rains.  But inevitably, it will begin pouring with no warning while your clothes are still hanging on the line.
Leaving you with a choice: leave them hanging on the line, waiting for the sun to come out and give them a second chance at drying again, or bring them inside and hang them up, where they won't dry very well, but at least they won't get any wetter.
Sounds like just one of the many challenges of simple daily living here.  But there is an evil twist: mango flies!  They will lay eggs in your clothes while they are hanging up to dry.  If the sun is out, it kills the eggs, which are too small to see, so you will never know and it will never matter.  But during the rainy season, lacking that bright hot sun to dry your clothes, the eggs don't die.  They lie in wait for you to put on your clothes, and then they hatch and the little maggots burrow into your skin to continue growing, creating giant painful bumps that they will eventually pop out of.  Or that you will pop yourself, thinking it is a boil or something, only to discover a little maggot wriggling around inside you that you must pull out with tweezers.
Such has been the sad, sad (disgusting!) fate of a fellow volunteer, who shall remain anonymous to protect his privacy (although I think he has written about it on his own blog). 
Just when we were all starting to calm down about our fears about parasites and malaria.  Now I am freaking out about mango fly larvae popping out of me.  EW!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A short update

written 1 September 2007


The training in Thies ended last Saturday, so Sunday morning I took a "sept-place" (a station wagon that holds seven passengers) back to Tamba.   That meant waking up at 5:00, getting to the Thies garage by 5:30, haggling with the sept-place driver about how much I had to pay for my luggage (the ticket for the seat is a fixed price, but you always have to haggle over the luggage charge).   Then we had to sit there until the car filled up, which in this case wasn't until 7 am.


Finally at 7:00 we left, but only made it about an hour and a half until the tire went flat.   Then we had to wait for about 45 minutes for the driver to change the tire.  Finally we were on our way again, but a few hours later, something went wrong with the engine.   The driver pulled us over, got out and looked under the hood, and then discovered that the engine wouldn't start.


We were in the middle of nowhere, and I wondered what would happen if he couldn't get the car going again.   It's not like there are lots of tow trucks and emergency services available here.  But no one else was panicking, so I just sat and waited too.  


Finally the driver decided that maybe the car would start if it was moving, so he got the men passengers to push the car back onto the road and then get it rolling a bit.   Sure enough, the engine caught, and then the men had to chase after the car and jump in it while it was moving.  It felt like a scene out of Little Miss Sunshine.


When we got to the next town, the driver decided he wanted to stop and tinker with the engine again.   So we stopped again.  For over an hour.  I don't think he really managed to fix anything, but finally we were on our way again (starting normally this time, instead of Little Miss Sunshine style), and this time we made it all the way to the outskirts of Tamba, where we had to stop so the driver could show his papers to the police at a checkpoint. (I don't understand this checkpoint system inside the country – sometimes the drivers have to stop, and sometimes they don't.   And it's not at all clear to me what the point is.  But anyway…) The checkpoints only take a minute, but when our driver came back to the car he discovered that the car wouldn't start.   I was so tired and frustrated (and feeling sick with the beginnings of a sinus infection) at this point that I could have just cried – we were so close to finally getting there! 


But after only a few minutes, we finally got a rolling start again, and then soon arrived at the Tamba garage, only eleven hours after leaving Tamba (the trip should have taken five or six hours).   I took a taxi to the Peace Corps house in Tamba, where I pretty much just collapsed, and where I have been holed up ever since with a sinus infection.   Hopefully I'll be heading back to my village in a few days.


Oh, and PS: my host family in Thies is doing well, but they haven't had any luck in finding a new house to move to.   So now they are planning go ahead and move to Mbour, where they had planned to move in a few years when my host father retires.  (My host father will have to find a place for himself in Thies for his job, and then he will go to Mbour on the weekends to see his family).   The kids aren't very happy about the move, because they like Thies and all their friends are there, but hopefully they will adjust quickly.  (I will admit that I am a little bit excited about the plan, because Mbour is on the beach, and I have a standing invitation to go stay with my host family anytime).