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.