Peace Corps year 1

ramadan, and other reasons to live in africa

We’re currently smack in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer and excuses to turn up the volume on the mosque speakers. Muslims (90-95% of the population in Senegal) fast from sunrise to sunset; people are maybe a bit crankier than usual, and there are lots more street vendors selling bread, fruit (lots and lots of watermelons, especially), bags of dates, bissap juice, etc., to people headed home to break the fast.

I usually rush home from the center to eat the break-fast meal with my family—dates, French bread with butter, and a tea made from leaves of some sort, no fewer than six cubes of sugar, and sometimes powdered milk or a scoop of Nescafe. Peace Corps doesn’t want us out from 6:30 to 8pm or so, since everyone’s at home breaking the fast and the streets are empty except for the “rascal boys.”

I haven’t fasted, though my youngest sister keeps asking me when I’m going to—some trainees have, and it sounds like an interesting experience in theory, but not eating or drinking for an entire day (especially at the center, where everyone else will be munching bread and chocolate spread) just sounds like it would be awful in practice. I’m not sure I can muster the cultural solidarity at the moment.

Dakar, not Constantinople

Friday we all piled onto the ShortBus to go take care of “ID formalities” (i.e. signing one form) and see Peace Corps headquarters. Dakar is all sorts of crazy—crowded, noisy, dirty, traffic jams, street vendors, more traffic, lots of toubabs… not a place I think I could handle spending extended periods of time—if Thiès feels like NYC to me, Dakar is NYC on crack and two hours of sleep.

A few of us went to the Dakar Citibank, which agrees to change traveler’s checks for PCVs. We went at 1:30pm or so, which was during the lunch/prayer/midday break. We got numbers from the guard at the door and returned at 2:30pm, when they reopened. After hearing horror stories about banking in Africa, we were all impressed by the orderly way people filed in, handed the guard their numbers, and then waited in lines. And waited. And waited. Ohhh, did we wait. A few people got through just fine, but then one teller decided he couldn’t change traveler’s checks, but another one was, so they told us we needed more forms from PC, so they took our checks and IDs and called PC about the forms, and we waited, and we waited some more, then we started calling PC numbers to get them to hold the bus, which was supposed to leave at 4pm sharp, but didn’t because we didn’t get out of the bank until 4:45, then slowly made our way through gridlock traffic and street brawls back to headquarters. So the bus left Dakar at 5pm and we got to see more traffic jams. Oh well, somebody had to be Those Trainees.

On the way back to headquarters we saw a guy walking down the street, shading himself from the sun with a frying pan. PCVL Jesse’s comment: “Now you don’t see that every day.”

In Dakar we also said goodbye to John, our stage’s second ET. He was sent off with best wishes for his architecture career, as well as my iPod, which is getting mailed back home as it is a bad bad child and won’t behave.

Things I See Everyday and No Longer Regard as Strange:

Foosball tables on the sidewalks. No grass anywhere. Alhams. Walls lining neighborhood streets. Little boys begging for money. Booboos and head dresses. People wearing the same fabric from head to toe. Mosque loudspeakers at any and all times of day and night (I actually don’t “hear” them now). Only one TV channel. Always being sweaty. It’s almost November and still as hot as September. Half of every street is covered in dust. French bread is a meal. That 100 cfa (about 20 cents) is worth haggling over. Eating with my hand out of a communal bowl. Prayer times. Sweeping dirt. Sheep, goats, and chickens loose in the streets. Not understanding 90% of what is said and done around me. Chewing sticks as a substitute for brushing. Bare thighs are scandalous, but breasts are no big deal. Peanut soap. Flies everywhere.

Things I am not yet used to? Seeing other white people.

“Three hundred francs? That’s so expensive!”

Another change that has quickly set in is frugality. Stick American kids in a foreign country and give them a modest weekly stipend and suddenly we’re all penny-pinchers. Three hundred cfa is about 60 cents, but, yes, it suddenly seems like a lot of money. Five bucks for a meal? You’ve got to be nuts!

Also, we save everything. Plastic bags, paper (TP is in a class by itself), Q-tips, food… you name it, there’s a trainee/PCV rationing it out carefully. I have never made a bag of candy last this long. I still have tic-tacs from the airport in New York.

Ok, frugal except for the cellphone thing. Slowly, we’ve been getting them—Bryan’s actually went off during a session in Dakar (good payback for all the times trainers/speakers answer their phones while giving a presentation to us—etiquette is totally different here).

Yes, yesterday I bought a cellphone. I am in the Peace Corps, in Africa, and I have a cellphone. I think it really just adds a whole new layer of absurdity, which I will revel in as I text other volunteers from my village hut.

So, call me: I think there’s a code to get out of the US, then Senegal’s country code is 221, then my number is 504-87-01. I can receive calls for free, and I’m posting the number since I’m not too worried about prank international calls (though I hear you can find reasonable calling cards online).

I also had my hair cut yesterday—Cory and I cajoled Whitney into chopping it all off. Cory said she was going for the prison camp look, and I was aiming for pixie-ish. I think we both succeeded admirably, though I might get Whitney to take a bit more off this week. If you’re lucky, I’ll have managed to upload those pictures by the time my internet time runs out today.

Yes, photos. I rearranged, sticking most of the miscellaneous stuff into one folder, and then I added some there, as well as photos of my homestay and site announcements.

Also, Mike has posted photos online: go see (you shouldn’t have to sign in with Ofoto, just click “view photos”).

And Then, Onward

We’ll officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers on November 17th, most likely at the ambassador’s residence in Dakar. We then head out to our regional houses for a few days of opening bank accounts, buying things for our huts, meeting important officials, and getting to know the area before “Installments.” Installments are when a Peace Corps official (APCDs, in our case) takes one or two people (and all their stuff) per day out to their sites and formally hands them over. (This is where I try to imagine what it’ll be like watching that white Land Cruiser drive off. It… makes me nervous.)

So while I don’t know when exactly I’ll be in my village, I do know that I’ll get to spend my birthday with the other Tamba volunteers at the regional house, which is comforting.

I don’t know what my P.O. box will be, and I’m not clear on what happens to mail that arrives at the training center after we’ve left, so if anyone’s planning on sending letters (or perhaps even packages ; ) anytime soon, it might be best to hold off until I get to Tamba and get my new address. Letters might be ok, since they seem to take 8-10 days on average, but just a heads-up.

My internet access in Tambacounda is probably going to be much more infrequent (and certainly much more expensive), so I’ll be doing my best to get some quality posts and as many photos as possible up before I leave Thies.

Oh, and apparently I’ve been spelling the name of the language I’m learning wrong. Well, kinda. The generic name for the group of languages Pula-Fuuta is in is Pular, not Pulaar. Pulaar is Pular du Nord (or Tucolour), spoken in northern Senegal, and there’s also Fulakunda, spoken in southern Senegal.

Not that it really matters how I spell it, because I’m convinced there’s no “right” way to spell anything in any language here. This, as many of you would know, drives me abso-freakin-lutely nuts. No, no, I have a good reason—there are all these fine distinctions in pronunciation that we’re supposed to make based on the spellings, which can completely change a word’s meaning. For example: lubugol means “to lend” but luubugol means “to smell bad.” And those are with the “funky b” pronunciation, which is distinct from “regular b.”

And, let me remind you, my village does not actually speak Pula-Fuuta.


My best to everyone who actually read this far—enjoy your fall/winter weather on my behalf. Our supposed two weeks of cool weather has yet to arrive.

Peace Corps year 1

training, the anti-service

Pre-Service Training is most useful, I have decided, in that it gives us an idea of the exact opposite of what Peace Corps service itself will be like.

PST? Over-structured, hectic… Peace Corps service? A far-off, gleaming beacon of relaxation, free time, and not having to go to class every time we hear a tam-tam. Granted, some things will most likely remain the same: bucket baths, gossip, “Toubab! Toubab!”, and inordinate excitement over stuff like cold water, ice cream, and toilets with seats.

But, in general, Training is just the hell you suffer through in order to make it to the nirvana of your village. Or, at the very least, your own hut. Language training is miles beyond Frustrating, “cross-cultural training” is generally blah, and Tech class would be great, except that all the language and x-cultural work takes up all of our time.

Ok, so that and we just like to bitch. And even the degree of bitching is totally dependent on how many Good Days or Bad Days a person has had recently. Bad Days are easy to describe—you feel crappy (this has any number of causes, ranging from the unremarkable to the truly gross), you’re sick of picking fish bones out of your dinner, it’s too hot sit in the garden and do that field notebook entry you should’ve done days ago, and the thought of trying to force one more broken, grammatically incorrect sentence in Pulaar / French / Wolof / Mandinke makes you want to kick puppies. Or maybe sheep. There are more of those around.

Good Days? There’s a nice breeze, you broke down laughing instead of crying during language class, not all of your garden has withered and died yet, and you have a vague (fleeting, perhaps unfounded) sense of Purpose. Yes, you will somehow communicate once you get to your village. Yes, you will manage to be useful to someone at some point in the next two years. Yes, this will be worth it. And French bread and chocolate spread for breakfast every morning? You’ll miss it once you’ve been eating nothing but millet for a month. Hell, you’ll even miss those fish bones.

This week, for some reason, I’ve been having Good Days, despite being kinda sick (allergies or a cold, I think, nothing too serious). I even, almost, kinda, maybe feel like one day I might be able to speak Pulaar.


Not that I’ll be speaking the Pulaar that I’m learning, of course: my village actually speaks a version of Pulaar closer to Fulabe or Pulaar Jeere.

Oh yes, my village—site announcements were last Friday, a big ol’ hooplah that takes place on the basketball court, which has a map of Senegal painted on it. The trainers blindfolded us, stuck us in wheelbarrows, and plopped us down where our sites are, making us stand there and stay blindfolded, shouting to find out who was next to us, until everyone had been placed.

I’m going to a tiny village of 150 people that’s about 10-12 km outside of Tambacounda, a major city in the south-eastern section of the country. I think I’m going to be the fourth PCV they’ve had—one health volunteer and two ag volunteers have preceded me, the last one just finishing up her two years this past June. It sounds great—the village is excited about growing beans (which I’m excited about because beans are better than millet any day), and they’re in the process of getting funding for a second village well. Plus there are mango trees.

(Argh, here’s where I start losing patience and abridging… it’s Sunday afternoon and already it feels like it’s time to be back in language class.)

So last Friday was good, then last Saturday I went with a small group to Toubab Diallo, a fishing village on the coast. It was about a 45 minute ride by sept-place to Sobo Bade, a ridiculously quaint hotel / “performance space” on a cliff overlooking the beach. Ohhhh it was nice. Sure, there was trash in the water and donkeys on the beach, and sure we were all asleep by 10:30 Saturday night, but it was oh so beautiful and oh so relaxing. Pictures will eventually make their way to the gallery.

And then, as I said, this past week had a surprising number of Good Days. But I think almost without exception all the PCTs are ready to freakin’ be PCVs already and be at our sites, fumbling through the language but at least fumbling through the language in real situations rather than for four-hour blocks, sitting at a desk.

I also think we’re starting to feel a bit less like scared white kids and a bit more like Volunteers. We’re definitely starting to act like them in some respects:

We’re overjoyed to receive mail and jealous of people who seem to constantly get letters. (Though a surprising number have received junk mail, which is pretty entertaining.)

Also, I’m positive that no other group of people could be as thrilled to open a care package containing photos from the US, pens, baby wipes, and extra ziploc bags (eeeee!). I mean, really—baby wipes AND extra baggies? Hell yes! (though I’ll put in a vote for gel hand sanitizer over wipes).

Plus, magazines we’d normally scorn in the US are suddenly enthralling—I don’t know that I’ve ever been as appreciative of People, and, frankly, the thought of a Rolling Stone makes me a bit giddy.

So yes, it’s still fun. Or at least fun enough of the time to make it worth sticking around 😉 Mornings are the best, usually—the light’s clear, the air’s cool, and there’s often a fantastic breeze rustling through the trees at the training center—you can almost forget how awfully hot it’ll be by noon. I’ll be sitting on a bench during a break from language class and think to myself, “Wow, I’m in Africa. And not only am I in Africa, but I’m having fun in Africa. And not only am I having fun in Africa, but I plan on having fun in Africa for the next two years.

Life’s good.

Peace Corps year 1

gallery update

I finally made it to a computer and have been furiously uploading photos and movies (!) for the past few hours. I’m also working on an uber-update, scheduled for completion tomorrow. Until then—I dunno, read some captions, leave some comments… enjoy!

language classroom
(My life at the moment: Pulaar verbs.)

Peace Corps year 1

pulaar is fubared

I’m not learning Pulaar like I know I should—my French has blossomed, but in doing so it has sucked away moisture that should be nurturing my little shriveled pula-fuuta sprout.

In my defense, Pulaar is nuts—there’s a different verb for every single possible activity a person could engage in at any distinct time of the day: eating breakfast, eating lunch, eating dinner, eating lunch leftovers at 5pm. There’s a verb for extending your legs and a verb for retracting your legs, and there’s a different verb for extending or retracting your arms. For being in good health, for being ashamed, for washing bowls. There are two separate verbs for “to have happened in the past.” There’s apparently a verb for “to find rocks in one’s millet,” but the one that’s more applicable to my life at the moment is “to pee repeatedly on one’s feet no matter how one attempts to use the Turkish toilet.” (I don’t know that this one actually exists, but it damn well should.)

Once you get past the verbs (not that you really can), there’s no indefinite article but there are twenty-four definite articles, each for a different class of nouns, my favorite being “ngon: This class deals with water, body parts, objects that enclose other objects, and noises.”

You get some sense of why were were all dreading our language interviews today, and why language class has a tendency to put trainees in very, very foul moods.

I have to run home now so that I can attend a baptism, or the baptism party, I’m not really sure which. Apparently the whole affair started at 8am this morning and will continue on late into the night, but my sister and I are just going for the afternoon segment, I believe.

Thanks to everyone who’s sent letters and postcards my way—I have the beginnings of a very fine wall mosiac thanks to Maryann and Kathryn.

Peace Corps year 1

arrival and departure

Two things from yesterday:

Our first ET (Early Termination): Andrea, who’s leaving us for an NGO job in Romania. Best of luck to her.

Our first locust swarms: Around 5pm yesterday, the first waves of locusts passed over Thiès. It was an apocalyptic sight just begging for mixed metaphors: flotillas, clouds, sky-darkening mobs of doom washing, flowing, storming the skies. It was surreal—millions upon millions of insects, filling the air for dozens of feet above the treetops, all moving west to east across the city in golden sunset light.

Peace Corps year 1

a day in the life: training

4:40am – The first morning call-to-prayer starts over the mosque loudspeakers, which sound very much like they’re three feet from my bedroom window: lots of chanting and yelling, which repeats every half hour or so until sunrise.

6:00am – My alarm goes off, usually coinciding with another round of chanting from the mosque. I stumble out from under my mosquito net and go to the kitchen to get water for my bucket bath, from where it’s stored in an oil drum. The stars are still out while I pour water over myself in the concrete shower stall next to the Turkish toilet stall, back near where the goat and chickens live.

7:00am – I walk to Glen’s house, where he, Travis, and I wait for the Peace Corps bus to take us to the training center. On my way I greet a woman who is out sweeping the ground in front of her bread-selling stall. Glen’s mother sets three white plastic chairs out for us, and I usually get the good one that doesn’t have a giant hole where the seat should be.

The bus driver has two music tapes: the first has two West African songs that alternate in about a ten-minute loop. We heard this one for about two hours straight on the ride back from Kaolack, after demyst. The other is a mixture of Limp Bizkit, Korn, Rob Zombie and the like, which is hilarious to have as the soundtrack to a busride through Senegalese towns and countryside.

7:30am – Everyone’s at the training center for breakfast: Nescafe, hot chocolate, tea, and French bread with either Nutella-esque chocolate spread or peanut butter. This time of day is absolutely gorgeous: morning sunlight and a cool breeze that almost feels like fall weather in Austin.

7:55am – They beat the tam-tam (drum) to announce the start of classes: we have language class from 8am until lunch at 12:30pm. There are a few French classes for the Small Enterprise Development (SED) trainees, a Wolof class, three varieties of Pulaar, and one lone Mandinke student.

I’m in the pula-fuuta class with four other people—we’ll most likely be headed to the south-eastern corner of Senegal for service, somewhere east of Tambacounda, where it’s supposedly beautiful—hills and bamboo and waterfalls and the biggest national park in the country. It feels like we learn a week’s worth of Pulaar every single day, which means we usually break down into hysterics at least once every class—which is ok since so far it’s been laughter rather than tears.

Yesterday we came up with “O wi’i, ko Oahu e Hawaii o iwi” (“He said he’s from Oahu, Hawaii”), which sounds indescribably funny when you’ve been repeating the same phrases for the past four hours. No, really. Try it five times fast.

12:30pm – Lunch! We eat in the “lunch hut,” sitting on mats on the floor, five people to a bowl of rice with vegetables and chicken or beef. They save us from making complete fools of ourselves by providing us with spoons (not the case at home…)

Break lasts until 2:30—some people play basketball, some study, and lots of us pass out on couches in the foyer (communal area) or in the hammocks that are scattered throughout the training center compound.

2:30pm – The tam-tam sounds again, like it does at the start and end of each class period or break, and we go to afternoon sessions—sometimes cross-cultural group discussion in the “disco hut,” one of the outdoor meeting areas, or sometimes assignment-specific technical training.

Friday, members from our host families came to the center at 4:30 for a tam-tam dance to celebrate our first two weeks in Senegal. About a third of the volunteers were decked out in borrowed or freshly-tailored Senegalese clothes, and we were all dragged into the center of the dancing circle at some point to make fools of ourselves.

all dressed up

Senegalese dance is crazy—this mixture of spastic abandon and undulating sensuality, involving either lots of jumping and kicking or not-so-subtle pelvic gyrations. The grandmothers danced, the moms danced, the sisters danced, the little girls danced, the toubabs danced—it was great.

6:00pm – We’re released for the day, and either walk home or take the Peace Corps bus. When I get home my family is usually sitting out in the corridor watching TV, which they do every night until 11pm or so.

TV here is one channel (RTS 1), which is a mix of: Brazilian soap operas dubbed in French (my personal favorite is “Muneca Brava”); Senegalese newscasts that consist mainly of footage of President Abdoulaye Wade riding around in cars waving or walking through crowds waving, and sometimes even standing on stage, surrounded by Senegalese musicians, waving; short Senegalese skits with abysmal production values, in Wolof; and the same five commercials, which my sisters know every word to and sing along with.

We eat around 8pm, me doing my best to form rice into a ball that I can eat off my hand. Whenever I show signs of slowing down or stopping they exhort me to eat more! eat more!, which I’ve learned to fend off with “Mi haari! Mi haari!” (“I’m full! I’m full!” in Pulaar). Then we sit on a mat in the corridor in front of the TV, and they help me with my Pulaar homework or talk to me in French (my mom tries to force me to use Pulaar, but I usually get away with defaulting to French since not all the kids speak Pulaar).

10:00pm – I manage to escape to my room, where I lie sweating on my bed and read a book (or the medical handbook—good nightmare material) or write in my journal (or listened to my iPod, until it died : ) until I fall asleep. Usually the TV (which is right outside my door) and the mosque speakers (which sound like they’re right outside my door) are quiet by 11pm or midnight.

Last night was an adventure, though—I don’t know if it was a special prelude to Ramadan or just Friday night in Thies, but the mosque was going at full volume. And going. And going.

At midnight I thought, surely, it has to end soon. It switched from chanting to what sounded like lecturing or preaching, with occasional crowd noise, and I thought, surely, it has to end soon. Even at 1am I still managed to find it funny, as I lay in bed contemplating the stark contrast between the underappreciated beauty of American noise ordinances and the base ugliness of what I’d like to have done with that microphone to the guy shouting into it. At 1:45am the speakers finally switched off and I managed to fall asleep, dreaming of a village out in the middle of cornfields, far far from mosques equipped with electrical sound systems.