Peace Corps year 1

toubab tonite

We’re just about to hit the two-weeks-in-Africa point, and already it might as well be two months going by how much I’ve experienced and how distant America feels…

Being in Africa is what I imagine being part of a huge family must be like—at it’s worst, loud and smelly with never a moment of privacy. At it’s best, always hospitable and dynamic, infusing you with energy and motion.

I successfully posted some pictures from staging and training, with more to come as I can find the internet time…

Peace Corps is really, really big on acronyms—PCT, PST, PCV, PCMO, APCCD—but the winner so far came today during a training session, written at the top of a list of objectives:

BTEOTSTWBAT: By The End Of This Session Trainees Will Be Able To

Yeah, well, by the end of tonight, I’ll have been able to have some pizza and beer in town… gotta get our toubab fix every once in a while.



Oh, and thank you thank you thank you to Suzanne for the letter, my mom for the card, and Maryann for the very first of what will one day be a gi-normous postcard collection adorning the walls of my hut.

And thanks to George for an awesome, unexpected sendoff from Burning Man (fair warning: it’s Burning Man, so there’s a bit of nudity involved).

Peace Corps year 1

Clare, trainee

Dear Shiny Happy (Clean) People –

I’ve found a cybercafe with USB ports and will do my best to upload photos, if Gallery and the connection speed decide to cooperate.

Yesterday we met our host families, who we’ll be staying with for the next seven weeks. I now have a mother (Amy), father, aunt (?), sister (Bébé, 22), younger sister (Ramatali, 12?), and younger brother (Cowboy, 7?). I was named Ramatali Konaté (guessing on the spelling at the moment) upon arrival, shown to my room (small, with a door, window, and a bed), shown photos of family and friends, spoken to in Pulaar, introduced to all the neighbors, and otherwise completely and totally overwhelmed.

I’ve been stumbling all over my French and failing to pick up much Pulaar (pula-fuuta, Pulaar spoken in the southern part of Senegal), but it’s ok because mostly people just laugh at me and keep repeating things until I finally understand what’s going on (or at least understand enough to pretend like I actually understand).

This is when the reality of being a Peace Corps Trainee sets in—lots of work, lots of frustration, but supposedly occasional moments of success. I’ve already had to remind myself that, yes, I chose to do this because, yes, it is going to be fun and worth the effort—hell, I chose to do this because I wanted the challenge.

I’m going to have to start making notes about what to write about (or y’all can give me some suggestions)… my family has a goat and some chickens; Thiès is big and crazy, dirty and loud; everyone at the training center is kind and patient…

I was up at 6am this morning, the stars still bright and the Muslim call to prayer blaring over loudspeakers. I took my bucket bath, gathered my class notebooks, and then waited with Bébé for the Peace Corps bus to take me to the training center—sitting by the road wondering if and when this will feel like home.

Peace Corps year 1

demystified and more

I’m currently writing from a cybercafe in Kaolack, Senegal, a stopping point on the way back from five days of a “demystification” site visit—we’re sent out in ones or twos to spend five days and four nights (really three days since a day is spent in each direction navigating public transport—sept-places, which are station wagons that spend most of their time driving half-on or on the shoulder to avoid the massive potholes in the paved road, a term I use very loosely; “Ahmans,” mini-buses that cram people, bags, and livestock into every possible corner, with extra passengers hanging out the back; and charettes, wooden carts pulled by sad, bony horses or donkeys—we spent four hours on one Wednesday, going to and from the weekly market in Foundiougne, and I still can’t quite sit right) with a current PCV in our assignment area.

I stayed with Dell, a Sustainable Ag Volunteer, and her host family in the family’s compound—about a dozen cement huts with thatched roofs in the middle of corn, millet, sorghum, and peanut fields. I can barely begin to list my “firsts” from the past few days—first: Pulaar name (Ramata Jallo); attempt at carrying water on my head (fairly successful); night spent outside under a mosquito net (very pleasant); meal of millet eaten by hand out of a communal bowl (with three fish on top—I like rice better)… There are so many more, but with the heat and the “Time Remaining” clock ticking down, not to mention this French keyboard layout, I don’t think I can remember them all right now.

I’m happy. I’m dirty, most likely smelly, and am looking forward to a cold Fanta at lunch, but I’m happy. So far all 30 members of my staging group are still here—most of us 22 to 26 or so, fairly recently out of college, and excited to start learning and working. Only a few people have gotten sick in this first week, and I’m happy to report that I’ve been free so far of exciting intestinal troubles, worms boring into my flesh, or Larium freak-outs (though I think the part about especially vivid dreams as a side effect is true).

Today we’re headed back to the training center in Thiès for seven weeks of intensive language and technical training—I’m eager to find out what language I’ll be learning, because nothing was more frustrating than not being able to understand or talk with all the people I met.

Hopefully soon I’ll be able to post some pictures and find an internet cafe in Thiès that I can go to on a regular basis—I’ve wanted so often to be able to share everything I’m seeing, hearing, feeling and, yes, smelling with all you beautiful people back in the U.S. or elsewhere.

I can’t process everything right now—dirty streets and children in ragged American T-shirts, not to mention the faded Madonna stickers on all the autobus windows… a thousand blessings upon anyone who has sent me a letter or an email (letters are more likely to get a response since my internet time is so rushed) and I hope you are all doing well at work or play or school (yes, even in heavenly Berkeley). I’ll most likely be getting a cellphone in the next few weeks and receiving calls will be free, so I’ll let y’all know as soon as I have that set up.

I refuse to be one of those people who ends posts and letters/emails with the local form of “goodbye” just cause I’ve known how to say it for a week, so instead:

Happy, sweaty, and only craving a veggie burger the tiniest bit,

Peace Corps year 1

(here) it goes, cont'd

I fly out of Baton Rouge in about two and a half hours, headed to Africa by way of a few days in Philadelphia.

I’m finally packed, completely sleep-deprived, and I most definitely feel sick to my stomach with anxiety and excitement.


"I was goin' more for a batsh*t crazy thing."

The second—and last—installment of the washer/dryer saga:

After informing Julie and Ethan via note-taped-to-door and yet another voicemail that Maryann and I were going to sell the w/d if we didn’t hear from them within 24 hours, this is the response we received in our inboxes the next day:

Hi Clare,

I understand that you and Maryann want to recoup some of the money you two spent on the washer and dryer, so you’re offering them to us for a total of $120.

Unfortunately, due to the terrible condition in which you left the house (as detailed below), and due to your repeated breaking of promises regarding your move-out date (which severely disrupted our ability to pack, move, and unpack, Ethan’s summer classes, and my job in Houston), we were under the impression that you left the washer and dryer for us as some sort of compensation.

First of all, by “your repeated breaking of promises regarding your move-out date,” I’ll assume you meant to say “your incredibly generous offer to allow us to move in three days before our lease started, while you were still paying rent.”

Now, it is easy to confuse “We’re going to see if the landlord wants to buy the w/d, and if not we’ll sell them to you” with “Damn, dude, I’m sorry I’m such an awful, messy bitch; please accept our washer and dryer as compensation.” I mean, I know I’ve made that mistake before—and our intent must have only gotten more confusing to you when we started emailing and calling two weeks ago, offering them to you for sale.

However, we do understand that Maryann is not at fault because she moved out weeks before you (and when she promised us), and we wish to be reasonable, so we’re making the following offer:

Oh, how could I have forgotten Maryann’s promise to you to get out of your way weeks in advance? At least you’re willing to be reasonable, even if I’m incapable of it.

We will pay you and Maryann $120-(standard charges for the mess you forced us to deal with). To be as fair as possible, I will use the list of Standard Cleaning and Repair Charges from my previous apartment complex for the charges, using the minimums of the price ranges to err in your favor.

When we moved in,

(1) The refrigerator and freezer were dirty, inside and out, especially the freezer, which had hardened ice cream and bugs inside: $20

Well, where else do you expect us to keep our bugs?

(2) The kitchen cabinets had streaks of yellow goo all over the doors: $10

(3) The blinds were dirty and broken: $15

(4) The bathtub was filthy and needed scrubbing: $10

(5) The walls, doors, doorframes, mantle, telephone stand, windowsills, fan blades, etc. had an assortment of bugs, gunk, smudges, and dirt on them: $? (not defined on my list)

Well, see, we had this yellow goo fight the same night that I wanted to find out what miniblinds taste like, and then Maryann had to wash me off in the tub, so I didn’t have a chance to go forage for the bugs that we would normally have stored in the freezer. It was one wild night—is that so unforgivable?

(6) You had left behind junk such as Jesus candles, rubber ducks, a picture of a toilet taped to the toilet, a box of spinach, etc. (trash removal): $25

This, too, has several simple explanations: the Jesus candles were to ward off evil spirits, the rubber ducks were to keep me company when Maryann bathed me, the box of spinach was to feed to freezer bugs, and, well, you don’t want to know what happens if I can’t remember which household fixture is the toilet. I was hoping you’d see those items as the gifts they were intended to be. Apologies for my misunderstanding.

(7) Worst of all, the floors were filthy. There were wads of cat hair everywhere. Our poor cat Owen, who had not had fleas since his initial infestation as a stray, suddenly got fleas again when we moved in because you didn’t clean the floors. We immediately bought flea medicine for him, but we are still struggling to eliminate the infestation after two doses.

Flea medicine: $58.97; floors: $50

The floors… the floors… how could I possibly have left the floors in such a horrible state? Oh! I know! Remember when I let you move in three days early and your stuff was all over the house? I wonder if some cat hair got trapped back behind your furniture, or if mud got tracked in when your friends were helping you move? I mean, ok, so maybe I did shave my cat the night before I left, but I could have sworn I cleaned all that up…

As for the $58.97 flea bill, you’re going to have to talk to Squeak about that one, and she’s notorious for not returning phone calls when she owes someone money.

All this cleaning you left for us to do totals up to $120, remarkably, not even counting the flea medicine you necessitated, and even using the minimum prices on the apartment complex’s Charges list. Counting the flea medicine, the total rises to $178.97.

Now then, $120 is clearly less than $179, which makes our above offer somewhat pointless, since we actually owe you less than you’ve cost us. However, just so we can all get on with our lives, we will call it even if you and Maryann will. Maryann, I really am sorry that you’re having to deal with the consequences of a bad situation that you weren’t responsible for. You were nothing but friendly and reliable with us. Unfortunately, Ethan and I have had to spend so much time and money dealing with the mess left behind that the washer and dryer actually amount to an adequate exchange.

I hope this seems reasonable to the two of you. For now, goodnight, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Once again, I’m so glad you’re willing to be reasonable. Some people might say that the condition of the house was something to bring up with the landlord when you moved in—perhaps when she specifically asked you if you had any complaints—but you and I both know that it’s much more appropriate to bring your list of charges directly to us, the former tenants.

It especially makes sense to consider your complaints about the condition of the house relevant to the sale of the washer and dryer that Maryann and I owned (and let you use for a month and a half free of charge). I’m sure the past two weeks since we heard that the landlord wasn’t interested in buying them and offered them to you were spent laboriously counting bugs, and I sincerely apologize for each and every dry, shriveled corpse you came across.

Clare (and Maryann)


Sadly, the above response was never delivered, since Maryann and I figured it would be better to simply get the bothersome appliances out of their way, just so we can all get on with our lives.

So, I imposed upon the landlord to meet Steven at the house 11am Friday morning, and I imposed upon Steven to impose upon his friend Joel and Joel’s truck so they could haul the w/d to Jono’s house, where we planned to impose upon his carport until we could sell them.

Happily enough, no one had to haul anything anywhere because when the landlord called Julie and Ethan at 10:30am to let them know we were coming by, they suddenly decided that they did want to buy the w/d after all. The landlord informed us of this, and Ethan left a two-minute message on Maryann’s cellphone to the same effect.

So we made the generous, entirely reasonable offer of selling them for $120 in cash, which Steven and Maryann would pick up at noon. And, in the grand tradition of many a shady drug deal, Maryann showed up at noon, Julie handed her an envelope full of cash (which Maryann and Steven counted and checked for traces of anthrax), and everyone narrowly escaped getting shot.

So. In summary:

Cleaning bill, assessed a month and a half late: $178.97

Washer and dryer, in good condition: $120

Being in the right and getting $120 cash: priceless

Peace Corps year 1

packing list up

I posted my packing list as of… 55 hours to go. Man, it looks like a lot of stuff when it’s all laid out like that.

Any suggestions? Mockery? Doubts about my ability to carry it all? My backpack was 51 1/2 pounds last time I tried stuffing everything in… Totally reasonable for two years, right?


anyone want a washer/dryer?

Ok, so Maryann and I bought a used washer/dryer set from a realtor when we moved into the Duval house last August. They work perfectly fine, washing and drying clothing of all sorts with ease—the washer occasionally leaks a bit, but run it a cycle and it’s fine. Besides, they were $60 each. They paid for themselves after four months since renting a w/d is $30 a month.

We offered to sell them to our landlords, who declined (near the end of August, long after we’d moved out, but whatever) since they didn’t want to be responsible for maintenance. So naturally we offered them to Julie and Ethan, who are now living in the house and would probably appreciate a cheap w/d.

Or, at least, we’ve tried to offer them to Julie and Ethan. They haven’t so much responded to my email, or my multiple phonecalls. Or to Maryann’s phonecall. Or to her knocking on their door this evening when their cars were in the driveway and their lights were on.


It’s really unbelievable. I mean, asking to move in before their lease started, fine. Deciding at the last minute not to buy my coffee table after saying they would, ok whatever.

But completely ignoring our attempts to finish up this one last financial tie to that house? Give me a fucking break.

Anyone in Austin or thereabouts want a washer and dryer for $120? All you have to do is go pick ’em up. Otherwise we’ll Craigslist the damn things.

Peace Corps year 1

senegal contact info

I added a page to the Peace Corps section of my site with my contact info for the first two months.

I think it would be kinda cool if y’all would send me (family-friendly) postcards from wherever you are in the U.S.—I think my host family would enjoy seeing, uh, well, ugly American landmarks? At the very least, they’d make good wall decorations, right?

(Oh, apparently it’s a good idea to send postcards in envelopes, or else they have a tendency to end up on African post office walls.)

(seven days!)

Peace Corps year 1

eight days to go: fishfry and more locusts

My parents’ friends—mostly members of their Mardi Gras Krewe—had a fishfry at our house tonight, partly as a going-away party and partly just as an excuse to get together, drink beer, and eat good food. It was lots of fun, though exhausting to keep smiling and pretending that I know how I’m feeling, beyond “nervous” and “excited.”

I do, however, expect locusts. I hope that I don’t show up ready to, I dunno, plant fruit trees, and instead immediately get put on locust-killing duty:

In a sandy field of half-grown cassava plants, a group of 30 farmers were fighting a plague of locusts with long-handled weeding hoes and improvised brushes.

Some had dug a shallow trench five metres long. The rest were sweeping hundreds of thousands of newly hatched locust larvae into it with bunches of leafy twigs.

The black insects, known as hoppers, were the size of large ants. They had hatched a day or two before and covered the ground for 300 square metres like a rippling black carpet.

But being young, they had no wings to fly away with. And being small, they could not jump out of the 40 cm deep trench, where the farmers of Mekhembar in central Senegal gleefully buried them alive.

“If only we had insecticide we could do a fantastic job,” said Massamba Gueye, the chairman of the local farmers’ association […]

“The [insecticide] powder is really effective, but they won’t give us any,” he added sadly. “There is none left.”