Peace Corps year 1

Week 1

My new home is a smattering of thatched-roof huts surrounded by yellow fields, boys herding cows, and scattered trees, the only green during the dry season. The women start the day pounding millet, then they cook, then they draw water from the one village well, which they then carry back to their family compound in giant buckets balanced on their heads, sometimes they go to the fields to pick cotton in the heat of the day, then they come back to pound more millet and cook more millet, they go back to the well to bathe and do laundry and pull and carry more water, and most of them do all of this with children tied to their backs or nursing as they shell peanuts and grind peanuts and talk and yell and laugh laugh laugh.

I think I’m in love.

It’s a hesistant love—I don’t understand most of the village Pular I hear, but I’m slowly able to pick out more and more words. I do a lot of sitting and listening. My hut is small and round, and throughout the day I retreat behind my closed door for maybe half an hour at a time, to sneak a cookie or read another chapter in a novel or simply sit and not worry about communicating for a few minutes.

Then I go back out and find that I’m able to correctly greet people, at least for the first three greetings (every meeting between two people involves a seemingly endless cycle of greetings, which is repeated at least twice as each person takes his turn asking about the other’s village, family, work, children, wife, house, livestock, etc.), or that I can understand a phrase I didn’t learn in Thi├Ęs, or that I can feel peaceful simply sitting in the moonlight with my mothers and aunts and sisters and whoever else they may be, listening to them gossip and joke and enjoy the one time of day when this is all that’s required of them.

What can I tell you?

They feed me five times a day, two of those being milk and millet couscous (I boil the milk and save it for my morning cereal, I’ve started just giving the millet back to them with copious thanks).

I’ve learned most of the names in my family, but I’m still not clear on how everyone’s related, or even who actually lives in my compound.

Today I rode my bike the seven kilometers or so through fields and countryside between my village and Tamba, a long but pleasant ride. I greeted everyone I passed and didn’t get “Toubab” yelled at me once, until I got to Tamba.

I’m nervous to actually begin my Peace Corps work, but keep reminding myself that cultural adjustment and exchange is two-thirds of that work, so so far I’m doing OK.

I’m overwhelmed with village and village life and Africa Africa Africa, but will write more when I can.

Peace Corps year 1

tambaCOUNda! (like the song? get it?)

Thursday I arrived safe and sound in Tambacounda, my exciting urban center for the next two years, after an eight-hour sept-place ride across central Senegal, which if I squinted often looked a heck of a lot like Texas or somewhere off in the American West.

We had heard that the road between Kaolack and Tamba is notoriously bad, and certainly it deserves every bit of its reputation, seeing as it’s more like decade-old Swiss cheese than a road. Cars, Alhams, super-sized 18-wheelers, charettes—all the traffic weaves back and forth and sometimes off, dodging potholes, craters, and each other.

The regional office in Tamba is great—very relaxed, with a great PCV library (more than just checkout-line trash fiction), a big roof for sleeping on, and an outdoor shower. Most of us have spent both nights so far sleeping under mosquito nets up on the roof, the most exciting part being that we were actually cold this morning. Granted, that probably means it was about 80 degrees, but it felt great.

Tamba itself is nice, too—a dusty crossroads town that’s much less aggressive than Thies (except for the kids, who are very enthusiastic about yelling “Toubab! Toubab!” at us). Yesterday we opened bank accounts and were taken on a guided tour by Ashley, the Tamba PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader), had a regional meeting (there are about 20 or so PCVs in our area), and then ate fantastic veggie burgers and salad prepared by the current PCVs.

Today we began the shopping excursions, buying buckets and spoons and rope and such to outfit our huts. It’s a tiring process that would be outright impossible if we didn’t have the more experienced PCVs to help us bargain, which is what you have to do for just about everything but pre-packaged food. The seller starts out at two or three times the “real” price, and you argue back and forth, usually all in good fun, until you either agree on a price or give up and walk away (which is sometimes the best way to get them to go lower).

I’ll probably attempt some more purchases this afternoon then finish up tomorrow, when we plan to cook a nice big extravagant meal as a combo last-night-together/Clare’s-birthday/pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Then Monday, off into the unknown.

I know I should/could do the past weeks (and my feelings about the upcoming weeks, ack) better justice than this short lame post, but, well, it’s hot and I need a nap. The good news is that I’m currently at a cyber cafe that only charges 350 cfa/hour (though I don’t know that I’ll be able to upload photos from this one), my cell phone gets reception (we’ll see if it actually gets calls from the US any better than it did in Thies), and I know my new PO Box number:

PCV Clare Major
BP 320
Tambacounda, Senegal
West Africa

(dunno if you need to use the “PCV” part, but it looks cool…)

That’s all for now, but I’ll probably treat myself to some birthday internet time tomorrow, perhaps looking for a place to upload photos from swearing-in in Dakar, which was quite an affair (and yes, the finger food was superb).

Peace Corps year 1

this is what four hours of internet'll get you

Success! My camera is now empty and my gallery fuller than ever. That’ll change before the night’s out, but I uploaded over 100 today, so I’m going to allow myself a bit of satisfaction.

There are new photos in the misc album, the homestay album, and I added two brand-spankin-new albums, one for Halloween and one for Poponguine. Leave some comments, they make me happy.

Also, I made a new page over in the Peace Corps section with care package ideas, compiled very informally from other trainees and my own selfish desires. The only really important thing? Don’t send peanuts. Please don’t send peanuts.

Peace Corps year 1

gallery update (woot)

There’s new stuff in the PST misc album and the homestay album, plus I finally got the haircut pictures up.

Peace Corps year 1

the beginning approaches

I think “fall” has finally arrived in Thies. It’s now only unbearably hot while walking in the sun at midday, and the mornings, evenings, and afternoons are actually pleasant, especially when there’s a good strong breeze. Mornings are actually, dare I say it, a bit brisk—that good ol’ bucket bath is cold rather than refreshing.

It’s great. Apparenty this’ll last until about February, when it will once again be ridiculously hot until, oh, November or so.

Thursday and Friday of last week was “Counterpart Workshop,” when we meet the Senegalese we’ll be officially working with at our sites for the next two years. Ag volunteers’ villages pick one man and one woman from the village to work with us—they come to Thies to get a sense of us, Peace Corps, and what all of our roles and responsibilities will be. They’re supposed to go back and explain all of that to the village, and then act as co-workers and intermediaries once we arrive in the village. My counterparts, Yaro and Awa, were both very nice—I think we were all equally nervous and anxious to impress each other. Oh, and Awa told me what my name is going to be for the next two years: Jeenaba Ba (sounds like “Jen-a-buh Bah,” more or less—also, there’s probably a dozen ways to spell it “correctly”).

Then that weekend a group of us escaped once again to the coast, this time to Poponguine, a fishing village slightly north of Toubab Diallo, where there’s a house right on the beach that rents for 20,000 cfa (about $40) a night. It’s two stories, with upstairs and downstairs balconies, two bedrooms, a common room, and—most wonderfully—a kitchen. It sleeps as many people as you can fit on the big upstairs balcony, which is quite a few. I think we had nine.

So we played in the water and cooked dinner (pasta sauce with two quarts of what you thought were crushed tomatoes but turns out to be tomato paste? less than stellar. the peas and powdered milk were good, though.) and drank some wine and sat out on the deck with the sound of the ocean next to us. In the morning we made French toast, scrambled eggs, and bananas with sugar syrup. It was pretty great—we even got language and tech-related work done on Sunday before heading back to Thies.

Our eight weeks of training are over, more or less—swearing in has been pushed back to Wednesday so that we can stay in Thies and celebrate Korite, the end of Ramadan, with our host families. In Senegal the actual date of Korite isn’t decided until the night before, and then different brotherhoods declare it to be on different days—so some of our families celebrate today, some tomorrow. It would be like not knowing when Christmas is until the 24th or 25th of December, and then the Catholics celebrating it on the 25th and the Protestants on the 26th. I can’t imagine American marketers tolerating that much uncertainty about a major holiday.

We have Monday off, Tuesday’s some “swear in prep” stuff, and then Wednesday we and assorted host family members pile onto buses headed to the ambassador’s residence in Dakar, where the swearing in ceremony takes place in front of a bunch of important Senegalese, Americans, and apparently the state TV cameras, as well (oh boy). We’re all gonna be dressed up in Senegalese outfits, and there’s some skit involving volunteers and volunteers playing tourists and volunteers playing Senegalese, all in French or local languages (double oh boy ;)… it’s going to be quite a production. I’m just hoping for quality finger food.

Do I feel prepared to be a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a village of subsistence farmers? Hells no, but when would I ever, right? I didn’t feel ready to go to Philadelphia, I couldn’t imagine what stepping off the plane in Dakar would be like, and now I’m about to get plunked down in the middle of some millet fields, but so far it’s all worked out pretty well. I think training has prepared me to actually learn things in my village, which is about what you can ask for from eight weeks. I’m ready to be in my hut.

Peace Corps year 1

short hair is the Best Thing Ever

A teaser, until I find time to upload more photos, like I did this afternoon as therapy to recover from the election results:

Clare with short hair!


(anything but)

I will hold the candle till it burns up my arm
Oh, I’ll keep takin’ punches until their will grows tired
Oh, I will stare the sun down until my eyes go blind
Hey, I won’t change direction, and I won’t change my mind
How much difference does it make… how much difference…

I’ll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room
How much difference
How much difference does it make

I wish I could think of something to say that didn’t involve rage or despair. A few of us stayed up all night, watching satellite CNN and listening to BBC when the TV went out every few hours. I’m not entirely surprised that you can’t get someone elected based solely on the fact that he isn’t the other guy, but I’m shocked by the margin of victory.

Who’s out of touch with whom? Where can we go from here?