Saturday, January 19, 2008

Guest blog from Mom

It was wonderful to be with Christine after a year and a half. I was smacked in the face by her ability to thrive in the harsh and isolated desert of Senegal. I will never worry about her again. I also appreciate her fellow volunteers, many of whom we met. They support each other immensely. Finally, I am happy that we could express our gratitude in person to Christine's most generous host families in Sintiou Garba and Thies.

It is hard to make sense of Senegal if you haven't traveled to a poor country. Cooking fires and sheep line the streets. In the city, sidewalks are narrow and uneven; walking is a balancing act between people selling things and cars coming up over the broken curbs. Concrete and mortar get hard wear, but construction continues and Western-style hotels provide A/C and croissants for breakfast. I was on red alert due to constant hustlers, but managed on our final day in Dakar to navigate the few blocks to the post office and back alone. Colleen and Christine impressed us with their French skills and Christine's "Pulaar street cred." My French got worse.

Weather was warm. A steady breeze kicked up enough dust and sand to obscure the sun on occasion, and we got in a couple of refreshing swims. The call to prayer was broadcast day and night. Mosques are the biggest and newest buildings in even the smallest of hamlets. We became accustomed to hearing little kids shout "toubab!" ("white person") as we walked by, announcing us to all their friends and giving the bravest a chance to reach out a hand in greeting.

We traveled to nature centers, museums and beachy resorts. Mike got in almost enough birding in several hot spots. We ferried to the island of Goree', where thousands of West Africans were once packed onto ships and sent into slavery. Sobering. Today, artists and their families live there.

At St. Louis, still holding historic French influences, we spent a festive Christmas Eve with several Peace Corps families, went to a drum-and-music-filled French Mass, and peered across the river to Mauritania.

Peugots, Renaults and Mercedes carried us from place to place. Both our longest trips featured fierce haggling and car breakdowns, but another car or spare part always turned up eventually. Cars are able to roll with barely enough bolts to hold them together. The Senegalese can calculate the exact number of threads in a frayed piece of rope it takes to keep a bleating sheep tied to the top of the bus. There appears to be no term in Pulaar for "overcrowded bus."

The purpose of our trip, of course, was to visit Christine's home in the Fouta, the northeast. Her family lives in a series of attached concrete rooms around an earth courtyard that contains the cooking fire, chicken coop, pens for sheep and horses, and a shady neem tree. Christine has a room next to the sheep pen, along with a small patio and open air bathroom. C's father, farmer and village chief, is a man with many responsibilities. He has three wives (one is the widow of his brother), many children, and countless other relatives to house, feed and clothe. We learned about the importance of greetings and picked up several useful Pulaar phrases for this ritual. We visited the dispensaire, schools, and a couple of impressive garden projects as well as the local market and the homes of several of C's family and friends.

We stayed mostly healthy with just a couple of tummyache delays, fortunately in places with good plumbing. Food varied from French crepes to Vietnamese stir-fry to rice and fish in the homes of the families we visited. Our hosts inevitably brought us Fanta orange soda. We are adopting this tradition. You can even have your own glass, but it is traditional to share the glassware.

Christine's city family in Thiess was a contrast with the country "cousins." She spent two months there learning Pulaar before going to her site. The girls watch music videos and go to university. I loved the mother instantly when she threw her arms around me in welcome. The father is a retired French teacher. I heard Christine's praises many times on the trip, but he said the thing that pleased me most: that Christine is the best of several PC volunteers that the family has hosted. How could I disagree? Despite their fancy living room, Western clothing, and makeup, we ate lunch on the floor picnic style out of one huge bowl, spoon optional. Even in town, you can have three sheep in the garage instead of two cars.

On Tabaski, a thanksgiving-type celebration involving the slaughter of sheep, we were staying at an eco-resort and shared a luncheon of mutton and lentils with the staff followed by drumming, singing and dancing-Mike and the girls did well on the dance floor.

This voyage was not your typical rush to see sights and wonders, novel activities, or R n R with a long, cool drink, although we enjoyed elements of all those things. Instead, it was a family visit, and now we have two new families, with the privilege of getting just a taste of the inside of real Senegalese life.

A typical day

7am- 9am.

  • Get up. Take down mosquito net and move bed inside. (Those of you who know me will know it’s not my normal style to be an early riser, but I can only say it’s not easy to sleep in past sunrise when people start greeting you through your mosquito net when you’re still in bed).

  • Greet family. At this time of day, this means grunting unintelligibly in Pulaar.

  • Wait for my family to give me bread and then eat breakfast (bread and Nescafe. I know that might not sound that appealing, but I don’t really drink coffee, so my coffee is mostly milk, a little sugar, and barely enough coffee to deserve the name, and I like it).

  • Sweep room (I’m also not the kind of person who would normally sweep their room every day, but, well, there’s a lot of sand).

  • Get ready to greet the world.


  • Run around village trying to create work for myself (some days I am more successful than others, but keeping myself occupied from 9 to 1 is always my goal). This can include going to the pre-school, the two elementary schools, and the junior high trying to get health lessons and club meetings organized, going to the health post to get help on writing/translating a health lesson into Pulaar, and meeting with leaders from the women’s group garden to talk about various ways we can appeal to local authorities to help supply tools, information, etc. Some days I actually manage to teach health lessons at the schools, or substitute as an English teacher at the junior high.


  • Go back to the house and practice the fine art of waiting for lunch. Stay out in the village too late and you might get sucked into eating lunch at somebody else’s house. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, and sometimes I bestow my presence at other people’s bowls, but I like eating at my house because we have good cooks, and my family is relatively well off so the food is usually better. Also if you stay for lunch, people like you to stay for tea, and if you stay for tea, people like you to stay for dinner… and if you stay for dinner people invite you to spend the night. But there is especially no concept of leaving after lunch, largely because people think you’re crazy if you try to go anywhere in the afternoon because it’s so hot. So sometimes I decline lunch invitations just because I don’t want to be committed to spending the entire afternoon at someone’s house.


  • No times are exact, but this is a basic average of when I usually eat lunch. My lunch partners have changed somewhat in the time I’ve been here, but currently I share my mid-day meal with two of my host sisters, one seven years old, the other four. I like this arrangement because our food preferences complement each other well (I like the vegetables, they like the bony fish), so everyone’s happy (although Mainouma and I are both greedy when it comes to folere, this leafy sauce with lime juice and hot pepper. This description does not even remotely capture it’s essence, but trust me, it’s delicious). On the downside, seven and four year olds squabbling over coveted bowl items tends to result in a lot of rice getting spilled in your room.

  • Sweep again. See aforementioned note about rice spilling at lunch time.


  • This is my ‘me’ time. It’s generally absurdly hot, so pretty much everyone’s taking a siesta or just hanging out chatting, and I take this time to read, write, and just kind of hang out in my room without anyone bothering me. Basically, I consider this a sacrosanct time in which I do not have to speak Pulaar.


  • These are prime greeting hours, so if I’m feeling ambitious, I will go hang out at a friend’s house. Or if I’m feeling really ambitious, I might go running during this time. But only if I can face running in 100 degree heat with children shouting and following me, which doesn’t happen that often.

  • After I’ve finished greeting or running, or in the event of not feeling ambitious, I proceed directly to take a shower. Well, I take a bucket bath. In the hot season, this is the high point of the day. In the cold season, this is the low point of the day.

  • This period of time is also a good time to schedule things like club meetings or other meetings. If you schedule a meeting before four o clock, good luck getting anyone to show up at all, and even then, people usually show up an average of an hour late.


  • Somewhere during this time frame, I take a few of my favorite buckets, basins, or jugs out to the water tap and collect my water for the next day. The taps are only open during the evenings and sometimes the early morning due to a conviction that the machinery associated with the water tower will break if they are turned on during the day because it’s too hot. Getting water can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to over an hour because often all the women of the household are getting water at the same time and we have to take turns during the limited time the taps are open. I like it though, because it’s a nice time when a bunch of women can chat and be silly without any men around.

  • Another important evening event is watching Barbarita, a Venezuelan soap opera that plays every day during the week. I am ashamed to admit that I am addicted to the ridiculous plot lines as much as the kids, neighbors, and grandmothers who all appear at 7:30 to watch it. In my defense, the only other thing to watch on TV is Senegalese ‘theatres,’ low budget productions in which mainly consist of people sitting around on mats talking to each other in Wolof or Pulaar, and frankly, I get enough of that during the normal course of my day to want to watch it for entertainment at night.


  • Dinner. Usually millet and milk (kind of like cold cream of wheat), or sometimes deep fried eggs or some other treat that involves a lot of oil. Occasionally I cook for myself, which almost always means pasta with tomato paste, onions, and eggplant. It’s better than it sounds.


  • Hang out with the family some more, especially six year old Molido and her mother, who are usually not around during the day because her mom cooks for the teachers at the elementary school. There is a lot of silliness during this time, usually involving Molida sitting on my legs and pretending I’m a boat, or making faces at each other.


  • Bedtime for me. I set up my bed and mosquito net and get made fun of for going to bed early by my family, but between the heat and the effort of speaking Pulaar all day, I usually can barely keep my eyes open at this point. I fall asleep quickly, and while I used to wake up because of donkeys wandering around the yard in the dead of night, a sheep standing two feet from my head, roosters crowing at any and all hours of the night, and last but certainly not least, the calls to prayer from the mosque next to my house at four in the morning, now I pretty much sleep like the dead until the sun comes to wake me up. Or, you know, if someone starts greeting me through my mosquito net again.

Monday, September 17, 2007


  • Donkeys braying. Braying sounds like a nice word, but I don't feel it properly conveys the complete pained hysteria the sound actually communicates.
  • The alarmingly loud (really, deafening) five times daily call to prayer from the mosque across from my house. And when I say five times, I mean seven: sunrise, noon, late afternoon, two evening prayers, and two pre-call-to-prayer calls to prayer at four and five in the morning respectively. Feeling fairly confident that the praying doesn't actually start til sunrise, I've asked a couple people why the mosque blares at four or five in the morning more days than most, and been informed that it's to warn people that sunrise is coming soon. So basically it's like an obscenely loud alarm clock with no snooze button.
  • Roosters crowing, chickens squawking, goats bleating, sheep baa-ing, packs of dogs barking in the middle of the night (I never hear them in the middle of the day, only at night), lizards skittering across tin roofs, horses and donkeys clip clopping through the courtyard in the dead of night. I really don't think there is any sound more sinister than a donkey clip clopping through the courtyard at three in the morning- especially when you sleep outside on the ground and you wake up thinking the creature is going to step on you. This is only slightly more creepy than waking up in eerie silence to see a sheep staring at you at two in the morning from three feet away from your head.
  • Music playing. This can be anything from 50 Cent, Youssou Ndour, Celine Dion, to Viviane or Baaba Maal, (in other words rap music to traditional kora cds) at any volume from merely loud (playing it on the radio until the father of the house yells at the boys to turn it down) to blasting (someone renting huge speakers and playing dance music loud enough for the whole village to hear)- there's no level which a normal person would really consider quiet or sedate.
  • Hot oil sizzling in a pan with onions and garlic.
  • Children playing; children crying because someone bigger than them is beating them; children insulting each other (I can't translate the things they call each other on a public website for fear of being banned from the site for extreme profanity); children singing the Senegalese national anthem ( and other French songs they've learned in school with various levels of recognizability when it comes to pronunciation); children laughing. Also, if you're white, children shouting 'toubab!'
  • Wind and accompanying sound of sand blowing over a vast expanse of desert. Multiply that by a factor of a hundred during a sandstorm.
  • The swish swish of a handheld broom on a cement floor.
  • The squish squish of washing laundry by hand.
  • Water from the tap filling a bucket; water poured from the bucket to a large clay pot for cool storage.
  • Frantic car horn beeping. In Senegal, this does not mean 'Hey, you're driving like a maniac, watch where you're going,' it means, 'Get out of the way right this instant you lowly pedestrians, I'm bigger and faster than you and I have no intention of slowing down for you or that old grandmother carrying a baby on her back and fifty pounds of firewood on her head.'
  • Snatches of conversation. With me, certain themes tend to repeat themselves- 'Take me to America!,' 'Do you have a husband?,' 'Give me four cents!,' or the ever popular 'Toubab! Toubab!' Otherwise, it can be anything- 'It's very hot today,' 'Aminata had her baby, the baptism is next week,' 'Where's that music coming from? Oh, there's a presentation at the school today.' Above all, greeting, greeting, greeting.
  • Television playing. If it's a Venezuelan soap opera playing, the children sing along to the theme song. If it's the news, the father tells the children to stop making noise so he can hear. If it's a soccer game or a wrestling match, the entire crowd of thirty people who have gathered to watch it simultaneously jump up and down, shout and scream their heads off when a goal is scored or a winner declared. If it's the American tv show 24 dubbed into French, there are frequent efforts to translate the dialogue into Pulaar. I really don't think I can express how funny it is hearing terrorist plots to destroy nuclear weapons using computer-controlled satellite technology being discussed in Pulaar. Also many comments communicating the Pulaar equivalent to 'Jack Bauer is a badass.' If it's a commercial for condensed milk, the children sing and dance along to the theme song (commericals for powdered milk tend to be quite catchy, and usually feature families dancing while singing about the produce in question).
  • Cat on a hot tin roof. This isn't a reference to the play; I mean this in the most literal sense. Somehow I don't think Tenessee Williams had as intimate relationship as I do with the incredibly alarming sound of a cat landing on an uninsulated tin roof. The first time this happened, I thought my hut was about to cave in on my head. Does the play talk about the incredibly magnified sound of an animal landing on a tin roof unexpectedly? I could also talk about lizards on a hot tin roof, or pigeons on a hot tin roof.
  • Jingle bells. Yes, you read that one right. Horses hitched to carts often have bells attached to their bridles to warn people to get out of the way when they hear the cart coming. This has resulted in me turning my head in the middle of the desert and suddenly expecting to see a horse-drawn sleigh pulling up in snow instead of a two-wheeled cart barreling through the sand more times than I can count. Never mind that I've never actually seen a horse-drawn sleigh in real life, so I'm not sure why I continue to have that reaction no matter how many times I hear it.
  • A group of Koranic students reciting the Koran in the afternoons, huddled around wooden tablets with Arabic script.
  • Radio playing. News in French, DJ greeting in Pulaar. Among other things.
  • Women pounding millet and singing along to the rhythm of their pounding.
  • Mosquitos and flies buzzing, crickets hopping, frogs croaking.
  • Silence. I think I did hear that once, maybe, in the middle of the night, between the late night chatter, moonlight donkey wanderings, and the competition between the roosters and the mosque for who can make the loudest noise the earliest. But I could be wrong.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Open house

On Saturday the junior high in my town held an ‘ouverture du foyer,’ which as near as I can figure translates to what we would call an open house. They had tentatively scheduled it for the end of April a month or two ago, but in the end it was somewhat hastily thrown together, left to the last minute because they weren’t sure until the last whether the school would be able to afford to pay for the event. Major expenditures included rental of two tents for shade, a large mat for a stage, beignets and bissap juice or snacks for guests, lunch for about forty invitees, and some of the students, and above all the rental of a major stereo system to beckon the entire village at large to come to see what all the noise was about.

Having been invited by the director of the school and told events would be starting at nine, I foolishly showed up at nine thirty. I had originally planned to show up even later than that, but around nine fifteen, I suddenly started worrying that this was going to be the one time Senegalese people were going to actually show up on time and if I went too late I would miss something important. Turns out I should have followed my instincts and dawdled a bit more, because even after showing up a half hour late I ended up sitting around for two hours having my ears blasted out by Senegalese pop music used playing on giant speakers to herald the townspeople.

Things finally got started a little before eleven thirty. The event commenced with a welcome song by a group of students, followed by a series of short speeches by various guests and officials. There were so many speeches, in fact, that I began to grow worried that all the guests were expected to give one, including me. I hastily began composing a speech in French in my head, hoping I wouldn’t forget to thank the director of the school for inviting me or commit another gaffe like omitting to greet any of the various officials in attendance, but fortunately it didn’t come to that and they proceeded to the student presentations without testing my extemporaneous speech-making skills.

The first presentation was by the English Club, and as I had helped them rehearse for the event, I felt a vested interest in their success. There were two poems and two songs planned and I have to say a group of about fifteen boys spontaneously rushing the stage to dance along with one of their classmates singing that Senegalese favorite, ‘My African Queen,’ narrowly beat out as the highlight a grinning seventeen year old decked out in navy dress pants blazer over a pink and white plaid shirt with a blue and yellow striped tie, topped off with a pair of brown and tan dress shoes, reciting a poem about the weight of the world resting on his shoulders.
The Literature Club followed this act with a theater sketch on the more sober topic of forced marriage. The story centered around a girl whose father wanted her to marry a rich friend of his. She tells him she doesn’t want to marry an old man. She is at the top of her class and doesn’t want to quit school. He threatens to kick her out of the house if she doesn’t do as he says. The girl tells the teachers at her school of her plight and they assure her they will intervene on her behalf, ultimately convincing her father that allowing her to continue her studies will be a good investment for the future- when she finishes school she will be able to get a good job and help support the whole family.

This hopeful ending was undercut by a sad parallel in reality. Two teachers were discussing the theater sketch over lunch and deploring the existence of forced marriages in general when a composed young woman politely interrupted and asked if she might comment. Her situation eerily mirrored the drama played out by the students. She, too, was a top student- in fact, she was one of two students sent to the Sinthiou Garba exposition as representatives of their school in another town. She told us her father wanted her to marry a friend of his in Dakar, and when she refused, he kicked her out of the house; she is now living with her grandmother so she can continue going to school. Her voice was steady throughout this narration, but partway through, tears started spilling down her cheeks, belying her apparent calm.

This was not the first time I have encountered a story like this, but fortunately the other instance I am thinking of had a happier ending. My neighbor, Louga, went crying to her teacher because her family had suddenly sent her to live with her husband, to whom she had been promised since she was a little girl. She told her teacher she did not want to be married yet, she wanted to continue her studies. Her teacher talked to her family, and Louga ultimately came home and went back to school. Even in this case, all hope is not lost- the teachers told her to talk to her school director and ask the teachers at her school to intervene on her behalf. They told her there was a law prohibiting forced marriages enacted specifically to prevent this kind of situation from occurring, so her father is technically legally bound to support her if she chooses to continue her schooling.

Later in the afternoon, as I watched an inter-class academic competition, another skit, and a presentation by the ‘Sinthiou Garba Dance Troupe,’ my mind kept straying to the girl with the poised air and sad story. I find the occurrence of forced marriages and girls being pulled out of school to start having kids at fifteen alarming and upsetting, but the teachers told me it is a dying practice that would soon disappear. I can only hope they are right.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Four toubabs walked into a radio station...

My friend Kris has been talking about doing a radio show practically since we arrived in Senegal. He had done some work with a radio station in Mali, organizing health-themed soap operas in between commentaries on soccer matches, and was interested in doing something similar. At first I dismissed this as a preposterous scheme (who in their right minds would let random Americans commandeer a Senegalese radio station for two hours every month?), but after a while, word trickled down the Peace Corps pipeline that some of our fellow volunteers started a radio program in the region of Kedougou, down in the southern part of the country. At this point I conceded the idea wasn't quite as absurd as I originally thought, but I remained skeptical. Then my friend Jenni checked around and found out one of her host brothers worked at a local radio station and all of a sudden the whole plan started to sound a lot more feasible.

Kris and Jenni had a preliminary meeting at the radio station and came back discouraged. They hadn't been able to meet with the director of the station, and the man they did meet with wasn't very enthusiastic. I tagged along to the next meeting, though, and we were able to meet with the director at that time. We proposed our idea- an hour long radio program with health lessons, interviews, and short skits, all interspersed with American music to keep it lively. He nodded, and took some notes, but said very little. We blathered on nervously for awhile, and then as we sort of drifted into silence he looked up and said, 'Well, when do you want to start?'

We were a bit taken aback, and completely unprepared for the question. After a hurried consultation, we tentatively proposed a date. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘What time?’ We settled on eleven am (any earlier and it would be difficult for us to get there on time from our respective villages), and asked him if we should come by before the program to run through the details and maybe learn how to work some of the equipment. He seemed unconcerned by the fact that he would be ceding his station to complete novices without a teaspoon of technical savvy or radio know-how between them, and brushed aside our anxious questions as unnecessary. The only thing he wanted to know before we went on the air was what the name of our program was going to be. We all looked at each other in dismay- we hadn’t even thought of that. We drew a collective blank, and told him we’d have to get back to him. (Ultimately, we decided on the uncreative ‘Health Hour.’ I have no defense for this; I can only say it’s marginally better than the other frontrunner, which was ‘Toubab Hour,’ and that it sounds slightly more interesting in Pulaar.).

Ten minutes later we walked out of the station, partly elated, partly dumbfounded. We’d gone in thinking we’d be lucky to lay the groundwork for a preliminary proposal, and then we were essentially handed our own show practically gift-wrapped. We decided to do the first show with just the four of us (here I include our other friend Jane as well as myself and the original two schemers), so we could introduce ourselves and the program, and test out our Pulaar radio skills. Our first show was on that ever-popular health topic, diarrhea, and included a short lesson about oral rehydration solution, and two short skits.

Perhaps not all of you know this about me, but I am afflicted with a particularly bad case of stage fright, which apparently applies even when there is technically no stage involved, as in radio, and is somewhat exacerbated by the thought of performing in Pulaar. I tell you all this by means of saying I was extremely nervous in the time leading up to the broadcast, a feeling which was not improved when all of a sudden eleven o clock snuck up on us and the director checked his watch and announced it was time to go. We all looked at each other slightly panicked. What happened to a few minutes preparation with the equipment? Fortunately, as we were ushered into a small room that serves as the basis of all broadcasts out of Radio Dunyaa, we realized not much technical expertise would be required of us. The four of us were expected to arrange ourselves around two microphones, and everything else would be handled by our technician, Mr. Diop. You’d think that just talking into two microphones wouldn’t be too much to ask from four sophisticated Americans who grew up with the advent of blackberries, palm pilots, and mp3 players, but some of us still managed to have technical difficulties by way of continuously forgetting to speak close enough to the microphone (me).

Before we even got started my nerves were ratcheted up another notch when the clock struck eleven and the director himself sat down in front of the controls and started announcing our show in a positively booming voice. ‘Ringing tones’ doesn’t even begin to cover it- I mean, this guy would put a carnival barker to shame. It wasn’t just his decibel level- he was talking up our show like it was the main event in a three ring circus. I don’t know what I expected (maybe to sneak on the air quietly and hope no one would notice?), but this did nothing to ease my anxiety. Fortunately, Jane relieved me of the responsibility of speaking first at the last minute or we might never have gotten started, but once we got going there was nothing for it but to stop thinking and let the Pulaar roll. The rest of the show went fairly smoothly, and if I flubbed my lines in the skits, at least everyone was kind enough not to mention it.

We did our second show on prenatal consultations, and I took primary responsibility for arranging our first guest stars. I started talking up the idea at my health post right after the first show, trying to get a feel for who might want to be involved, and enthusiastic about having a native speaker or two to relieve the burden of public Pulaar speaking on the air. With that in mind, this time around my nervousness revolved around being a good hostess to my guests. Having been on the receiving end of it quite a bit, I know that hospitality is important to Senegalese people, but I wasn’t quite sure what was expected of me in this particular situation, except I was reasonably certain it would involve orange soda.

Orange soda is the Senegalese equivalent of champagne- crucial at weddings and in honor of esteemed guests. I’m not too sure how this tradition evolved, though it does seem more appropriate for the predominantly Islamic Senegalese- non-alcoholic and much cheaper. And I have to say that on a 115 degree day, given the choice between champagne and a cold orange soda, I would go for orange soda every time. So with my bottle of orange soda in tow, I set out the morning of the broadcast to collect my guests. I was especially eager to make a good impression because it turned out to be much harder to convince people to be on our show than I thought it would be.

The nurse who heads the health post seemed willing enough, but he’s from a different part of the country and only speaks French and Wolof, so we would need another person to translate into Pulaar for him. At first I thought our pharmacist would do it- he’s outgoing and personable, and I thought he would get a kick out of being a guest on a radio show. But the night before night before the show I stopped by to confirm that everything was set, and the pharmacist blythely informed me that he had a meeting scheduled in Matam the next day, which of course he hadn’t mentioned any of the six times previously I’d asked him. I was a bit flummoxed, but the nurse told me he wanted Marie Sow, our head mid-wife, to do it anyway. Naturally, he hadn’t mentioned this plan to Marie.

I had mentioned it to her when I’d first started pitching the idea, but she’d seemed rather lukewarm about the whole thing, so I hadn’t pushed it. Now I had to go to her and essentially beg her to come at the last minute. She wasn’t wild about the idea (apparently Pulaars aren’t immune to the malady of stage fright, either). Eventually she agreed, but only, as she said with a sigh, because I am her daughter-in-law.

Before any of you start making hasty assumptions about what exactly I’ve been up to since coming to Senegal, I should probably explain that this comment was the result of a long-standing joke between the two of us, stemming from her trying to convince me to marry her twenty-five year old son and take him to America and me attempting to deflect the proposition by saying I’d rather marry her other son, a gap-toothed charmer by the name of Ablaye, but that I’d probably better wait a few years as he's only fifteen. She found this hilarious, and started greeting me by saying ‘My daughter-in-law!’ every time she saw me from that point on. I respond by saying, ‘My mother-in-law!’ every time I see her (both are the same word in Pulaar). Anyway, seeing as it ended up security a crucial part of our show, I’ve never been more grateful that I’d promised myself to a fifteen year old. Thank goodness for family connections.

The second show consisted of an interview with our two guest stars designed to inform people of the importance of prenatal consultations and two skits with the same aim. Having local language speakers relieve the burden of producing our own imperfect Pulaar really made the time fly, and everyone seemed happy with how the show went, especially after I treated our guest stars to a nice lunch as a thank you.

The funniest about all of this was the reaction we’ve been getting to the show. After the first show, we were a bit giddy and relieved that we’d gotten through the first performance generally unscathed, but we were completely unprepared for random people to stop us on the street and tell us they liked our program. I guess it wasn’t too much of a stretch for people seeing four white people together coming from the general direction of the radio show, but the following week I was with Marie on the way back, and a woman in the car with us turned around and asked if we were the ones she’d heard on the radio a couple of hours before. I don’t know how Marie felt about it, but I for one found it somewhat disconcerting to be a recognizable radio personality all of a sudden. Then when I got back to my village one of my neighbors told me a friend of his in Diandiolly (a small town 3 kilometers from my town) told him she heard me on the radio station. I was surprised how many people tuned in- of course it probably helps that there are only three stations to choose from, but still.

What I found even more surprising was how enthusiastic people were about the show. I mean, there is the novelty of four white people presenting in Pulaar, but you can only make prenatal consultations so exciting. Part of me still can’t believe this whole radio scheme has actually come together. But overall, people said they really enjoyed the show, and more importantly, understood our Pulaar. I for one was extremely grateful for this assurance (I don’t care if people are lying to my face, as long as they are saying nice things).

I’ve had a lot of unexpected experiences in Peace Corps, but I have to say, becoming a radio celebrity pretty much takes the cake.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Democracy on the ground... and in the sand.

So, the president of Senegal came to my village recently. Well, technically he stopped in the middle of the road through my village on the way to a bigger town. Still, he did stop, and stuck his head out of the top of his car and spoke to the crowd that turned up for ten minutes or so. I saw him from about twenty feet away, along with a child on each hip and the hundreds of other people lined up alongside the road after waiting for him for two hours in the heat of the afternoon, with no shade, no less. I was seriously doubting my sanity for undertaking such a foolish enterprise, and for forgetting a hat, but on come on, how often does the president of Senegal come to your village? I couldn't miss it.

This appearance came in the midst of a series of two months of political campaigning leading up to the presidential elections, which in Senegal occur every seven years, although beginning with this election, the term limit will be reduced to five years. Abdoulaye Wade, the current president, has been in office since 2000. Before that, Abdou Diouf was president for nineteen years, and he was preceded by Leopold Senghor, who became Senegal's first president when Senegal gained independence from French colonial rule in 1960. For all that history indicates Senegalese voters don't place a high value on variety, this election boasted at least fifteen candidates, including Wade's former prime minister Idrissa Seck and Louis Jacques Senghor, the first President Senghor's grandson. Admittedly, most Senegalese people were only familiar with a handful of the many candidates who put their names forward, but this didn't seem to deter the hopefuls, who arranged rallies and spoke of their leadership ambitions on Senegal's public television station.

A democratic system wherein the primary means for candidates to communicate with the electorate is via state-run television is rather dubious, but the time allotted for election coverage was divided scrupulously evenly among the candidates, although each candidate had to pay an obscene amount of money for the privilege of a few minutes on the air. On the other hand, practicality demands American politicians be rich as well, so criticism on that point is perhaps hypocritical until we can solve the problem of equal political access in our own country, and our free press can't make any great claims to equal election coverage as long as coverage is biased in favor of sensationalism rather than an inclination to provide all candidates with an equal say.

The most interesting thing about all this political campaigning has been the conversations I've had with prospective voters. One day I was traveling to a northern town some distance away and the trip was taking even longer than normal due to the road being torn up for a construction project and I was surprised to hear an elderly man sigh in French, 'Ah, Afrique-- on sait construire, mais on ne sait pas maintenir. (Oh, Africa-- we know how to build, but we don't know how to maintain.)' This comment set off a political discussion in which the entire car participated. I expressed my pleasure that this construction was taking place at all- despite the fact that it was making my journey that day longer, if it got finished, it would undoubtedly make future travels smoother. However, the others did not share my optimistic outlook. 'Political promises!' another man said dismissively. 'The government has been saying they will fix this road for seven years- they are only fixing it now because the elections are coming.' The connection had not occured to me, but this was not the only time I heard allusions to spectacular political promises.

On the television I was hearing promises so outlandish even I, a stranger to the political realities of Senegalese governance, recognized them as unpracticable. Promises to build fancy schools and hospitals, to bring peace and prosperity to the troubled Casamance region. Though these promises were greeted by cheers by people attending the political rallies at which they were made (incidentally a major form of entertainment for the otherwise sleepy social lives of Senegalese people in rural areas), others remained unsurprised and unconvinced by these claims. When I mentioned the elections to two friends of mine, young mothers at their hut, trying to guage whether they intended to vote or not, I was greeted by a tirade about corruption and false promises that took me somewhat aback coming from two seemingly unworldly, uneducated women. They, at least, did not seem to be under any illusions about the nature of these promises, and their complaints were not the only ones I heard.

Knowing the current president was the favorite to win by a long shot, I was also interested to learn how many varying opinions existed even within one family over who would be the best person to lead their country in the years to come. I admit I'm guilty of assuming that in such a patriarchal society the women would likely follow their husband's lead when it came to political affairs, but that was proven to be a fiction formed by my own prejudice rather than basis in fact. Perhaps in other families I might have been closer to the mark, but in my family, at least one of the wives expressed her intention to vote for the president's leading opponent, who was primarily responsible for developing the town of Thies, where the family had lived twenty years, into one of the largest cities in Senegal. The assertion of this candidate's superiority was contradicted by my aunt, saying the only reason Thies had gotten so nice was because this guy had stolen money from the government meant for all into one town. The third wife, who never lived in Thies with the rest of the family, preferred the president, saying simply, 'He fixed Senegal. He brought the roads, and schools. Life is easier now.' This seemed to be the prevailing opinion among most of the people I talked to, and I suppose it makes sense for people who have so little not to care for comlex political rhetoric, and instead reserve judgment for evidence of a measurable impact on their lives.

Another aspect that intrigued me about the whole election process was the problem of voting when such a large portion of the population is illiterate. This especially concerned me in regards to women- in a country where women have little power, it seemed of the utmost importance that they should vote for whoever they thought served their best interests. I was also worried about whether women would be inclined to vote at all, especially the older ones who'd had little access to education. However, on the day of the election, I was pleasantly surprised to see women lined up outside classrooms at the elementary school waiting in the sun for their turn to vote, many of whom I knew could not read or write. The solution was revealed to me when the women of my household returned from voting and children squabbled over who would get the left over palm-sized sheets of paper printed with the names and pictures of the candidates the voter did not choose- these sheets, also printed with each candidate's signature color as another cue for those voters who couldn't read, served as easily distinguishable ballots for every one involved.

I heard references of political corruption from several different people, but from what I can tell, Senegal suffers much less from that particular affliction than most other African nations- not that that's saying much. But whatever the complaints, I was impressed by the turnout in my little town, and it's hard to feel too discouraged about the state of democracy when a student travels over twelve hours in a hot, cramped car to go to his hometown to exercise his right to vote, or a group of people pile onto a cart hitched to a skinny horse to drive miles through the desert to cast their ballots.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Strange things that now seem normal

  • Running water only being available for a few selected hours in the evenings. Also, having to carry said water on my head fifty yards from the outdoor tap to store in my room for the next day.
  • Sweeping my bedroom multiple times a day. Yes, there's that much sand.
  • Four year olds playing with sheep poop and knives and no one telling them to stop.
  • Traveling by horse and cart.
  • My WASPy self being a one in ten thousand minority.
  • Getting a flat tire pretty much every single time I go out on my bike due to thorns.
  • The back of my neck being sweaty for six months and counting.
  • Gorgeous men telling me that I'm beautiful and that they love me. Also not so gorgeous men. Both within five minutes of meeting me.
  • Me finding men more and more attractive the longer they go without asking me to marry them. Basically, a twisted kind of truth to the adage about playing hard to get.
  • Being woken up at four in the morning every day for the call to prayer, and again at six. Still no idea why they do this twice. Four am is by no means sunrise.
  • The village chief asking me if I have diarrhea.
  • My sisters cooking for me and helping me wash my clothes (and by helping, I mean doing 95 percent of the work.
  • Washing clothes by hand.
  • Eating rice and fish for lunch every single day of the week.
  • Being followed down the street by as many as thirty children any given time I step out of my house.
  • Finding the theme music to the soap opera 'Passions' oddly comforting because it reminds me of America. ( i.e., it's in English).
  • The fact that young men's primary social activity revolves around drinking tea in the afternoon. Also, that people drink tea out of shot glasses. It's pretty strong stuff.
  • Women of various ages whom I may or may not know patting my ass and commenting on my jayfonde (see previous post re: ghetto booty).
  • Knowing that when I hear people speak some unintelligible dialect that doesn't resemble any language I've ever heard, they are probably trying to speak English.
  • My feet always, always being dirty.
  • Being woken up in the middle of the night and told I have to move my bed and mosquito net inside because a sandstorm is coming.
  • Women sweeping the yard every single day. Note the yard is entirely composed of sand.
  • My bedroom being frequented by sheep, chickens, frogs, and locusts, though generally not all at the same time.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night hearing ominous footsteps only to find that is an escaped donkey wandering around the yard. Also waking up in the middle of the night to see a sheep two feet from my head. I should probably mention that I sleep outside three quarters of the year.
  • People being more scandalized by knees than breasts. To the extent that if I see a girl in a knee length skirt, I catch myself thinking, 'I can't believe her mother lets her out of the house like that.'
  • Me thinking a plant whose primary gesture to foliage is two inch long thorns is a nice shade tree.
  • People using rocks for hammers and a rusty nails for can openers.
  • The omnipresence of sand.
  • Sleeping six inches away from ten of my ten of my closest family members. Specifically, my bed being placed between my sister and one of my moms, both of whom often sleep without a shirt, so it is not unusual for me to wake up with an eyeful of breast first thing in the morning.
  • Living in a place where the language has four different words for thorn.
  • Polygamy in general, and specifically me beginning a sentence with, 'Well, one of my three moms said...,' not referring to my real mom. Also people asking me if I want to be their co-spouse.
  • Tye dyed fabric being fashionable among distinguished citizens.
  • Sitting on mats more often than chairs.
  • Sweeping frog poop out of my bathroom.
  • Being able to identify frog poop in the first place.
  • The epitome of hospitality being being given a plastic chair to sit in and served orange soda.
  • Falling asleep surrounded by as many as 60 people who have come to watch TV in the front yard.
  • Being asked if I'm afraid of odd things. For example, am I afraid to have my hair braided? Except the way people ask if you're afraid of something is to ask if you have courage to do something. Yes, I have courage to have my hair braided. I just don't think white girl dreds would be a good look for me.
  • Being heckled by passers-by every time I wash my clothes. Just because I don't make that special squishing noise doesn't mean the clothes are any less clean, people.
  • Normally placid babies screaming in terror at the sight of me. Also, the parents of said babies telling them if they don't stop crying, the toubab is going to beat them.
  • Knowing that if I ask a question, I'll have to figure out when I hear the response whether the person is a) laying to me to get something from me, b) lying to me to mess with me, c) lying to me in a joking way that just goes over my head, d) lying to test me, e) lying to me for some inscrutable reason of their own, f) lying to me to be polite (no, I'm not hungry. Never mind that I've been working in the fields all day, you just go ahead and eat that whole bowl of food by yourself), g) lying to me because they are embarrassed to tell the truth, or h) telling the truth.
  • Me telling my friend Jenni when we were lost in the desert with no water, 'Don't worry, we'll just go greet the people in the first house we see; if we wait five minutes they'll order some little kid to go get us water.' Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. They even asked us to stay for lunch.
  • Knowing I can walk into the home of complete strangers and hang out there the entire day if I'm so inclined.
  • Everyone I see from the moment I step out the door demanding to know where I'm going.
  • People I could swear I've never seen before calling me by name when we pass in the street like we're old friends.
  • Being so accustomed to being called Aissata Lo that if a Senegalese person calls me by my real name it honestly freaks me out a little bit.
  • People loudly protesting any time I try to leave to go anywhere. 'Don't go, stay for lunch.' This at 9 in the morning. If I stayed for lunch, it would be 'Stay for tea.' If I stayed for tea, it would be, 'Stay for dinner.' If I stayed for dinner it would be, 'You can't go now, it's dark. Spend the night.'
  • The high proportion of sheperds in the composition of the work force.
  • Being asked within the first two minutes of meeting someone if I know how to till fields.
  • The most universal joke in Senegal revolving around someone saying, 'You know this guy? He eats beans!' and then laughing hysterically. I've figured out by this point that saying someone eats beans means they're poor, but I still don't understand why that's so funny.
  • Machetes being a common household item. Also scythes.
  • People chopping wood in flip flops with a dull axe. And when I say people I mean six year olds and grandmothers.
  • Everyday use of a mortar and pestle.
  • People reacting as though I'm withering on the vine when they learn I'm not married at the old age of twenty four. When I told one lady I was too young to get married she looked at me, puzzled, and said, 'You have breasts, don't you?'
  • The complete non-existence of garbage cans and consequent littering of trash, well, pretty much everywhere.
  • Children not knowing their birthdays or knowing how old they are.
  • People offering to give me their babies. Also, sometimes their husbands.
*Normal things that now seem strange- carpet, grass, bathroom sinks, and socks.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Peace Corps Community

When I signed up for Peace Corps, I thought I would be alone in a hut for two years in the middle of nowhere. I imagined it to be similar to life on a desert island- a limited diet and no one to talk to, but unlike stranded boat wreck survivors, at least I had the opportunity to plan ahead and bring a lot of books. In case any of you are imagining me in a similar state, I thought I'd better tell you how different the reality turned out to be.
In addition to the Senegalese people whom I've started to get to know on a level beyond, 'Did you wake up? Yes, I woke up,' I've also gotten to spend a lot of time with my fellow volunteers, whom I've grown to rely on as a major source of emotional support. There are about thirty-five of us that all came to Senegal on the same plane, and spent about ten hours a day together for two months of training. Friendships spring up quickly in that kind of environment, especially considering the tendency to cling to anyone you can speak to on a level beyond, 'Where is your bucket? My what? Bucket. Huh? Bucket. BUCKET!' At the end of the first two months of training, I found myself upset that I'd started to care about these people only to be thrown out into the wilderness for two years, never to see them again.
But once I got to my site, my neighbors, who seemed so far away on paper, turned out to be much closer than I imagined. My closest neighbors and I manage to get together once a week or so for lunch at a hotel in a central town, eat spaghetti (it's not American spaghetti, but it gets the job done) or hamburgers (same goes), speak English, and also use the internet, while we're at it.
In addition, those of us in the northern region try to meet at the Peace Corps regional house once a month or so for a few days, a real haven that offers such amenities as a refrigerator, an oven, running water, an impressive library of books in English collected by volunteers over the years, a DVD player and American movies, and even an airconditioning unit in one room. This is a place where we can rest from the strain of constantly performing in a language and culture not native to us, and vent about some of the less pleasant aspects of life in Senegal, such as public transportation, and being constantly asked for anything from the t-shirt you're wearing to your hand in marriage from anyone you happen to pass in the street. Here too, we can share things that Senegalese people might not relate to- such as a fight with a significant other, or a three week craving for nachos that never gets satisfied, to name a couple of examples.
Another great thing about the regional house is the chance to vary our diets from the usual fish and rice every day, and even indulge in true comfort food- in other words, things that one might actually eat in America. We have to be a little creative with ingredients, but spaghetti, deviled eggs, pumpkin soup, chili, and banana bread are among the dishes we have managed to create based on what the market has to offer. If someone has gotten food sent from America recently, we can expand our options significantly- I'm remembering a batch of cinnamon rolls with walnuts with particular nostalgia.
The regional house has turned into a kind of home away from home- my closest friends are there, and I look forward to going every month to catch up. We just organized an impressively complete American-style Thanksgiving (which incidentally involved me carrying around a live turkey around by its feet for an afternoon on public transportation... but that's a story for another time), and now we're planning a Christmas celebration, which might possibly include going to the beach afterwards in another town and gorging ourselves on cheese (at least, that's my priority for the excursion).
I probably shouldn't mention the large, not-strictly-sanctioned parties the Peace Corps community manages to put on every so often, but they are undoubtedly part of the Peace Corps social scene, and remarkable for the sheer craziness of it all. Just imagine fifty recent college graduates, after several months of solitary confinement, have all gotten out of prison at the same time, and have all been put in the same room... with alcohol. If you can picture that, you'll probably be able to have some sense of what I'm talking about.
Peace Corps socialization isn't without its oddities (going days and sometimes weeks on end without talking to anyone and then spending twenty-four hours a day with ten people for four days is the number one thing that comes to mind), but overall, making friends with so many new people from all different states of the union has been an unexpected benefit of the experience. With whom else am I going to be able to share Pulaar in jokes, or turn to and say, 'Hey, remember that time that goat strapped to the roof of the car peed on the guy sitting next to you?' That reason alone is enough to make me think that I'll keep in touch with these wayward Americans long after our adventures in Senegal are over.