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 Thi├Ęs 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.

1 reply on “ramadan, and other reasons to live in africa”

What a post! Thanks for the update.

I’ll try to bottle some 63 degree weather for you and send it in the next letter…

You must let us know as soon as you find out your next address.

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