Peace Corps year 1

post-Christmas post

Christmas in Tamba was very satisfying, if lacking in the traditional surrounded-by-wrapping-paper-carnage, snoozing-on-the-couch-watching-football, post-fourth-helping-of-dinner American holiday afterglow.

Josh and Cory and I hit the market in the morning to get dinner ingredients, snoozed and read during the day, and then cooked in the afternoon with a small group—we had a potluck dinner, with chili, stuffing, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, deviled eggs, and two kinds of cookies for dessert.

I’ll be lazing around Tamba today, hoping my stomach decides to calm back down to normal so I can appreciate the cake Josh is rumored to be baking this afternoon.

Village life is still good, though, despite my discovery on Christmas Eve that 18,000 or 20,000 cfa (about $40) had been stolen from my wallet while it was in my hut—most likely when I forgot to close and lock my door when I went to visit another family for about half an hour Wednesday. Granted, it’s partly my own damn fault for being naive enough to think that, in the village at least, an open door wouldn’t be taken as an open invitation to rob me, but it’s still kinda depressing.

My family was completely horrified when I told them, but I doubt that I’ll see the money again. It wasn’t necessarily someone in my family who took it—there are random villagers and some construction workers from Tamba passing through—but, yeah, all the same. I’ll be religiously locking cabinents and doors from here on out.

Anyway, tomorrow the village chief and the religious leader, the heads of my village’s well project, are supposed to be meeting me here in town to go see the government contractor about last year’s well-digging estimate. If we manage to get that done tomorrow, I’ll be able to resubmit their grant proposal, and ideally the well could be dug before the rainy season arrives in June. That would not only be great for the village (a backup supply of water and the ability to do a dry-season garden this time next year), but it would also make me feel a bit less useless than I often do these days.

I hope all of you are having enjoyable (over-fed, cold-weather, family-filled) holidays. Happy New Year, I’ll be celebrating it in my village 🙂

Peace Corps year 1

merry, happy, etc.

Christmas haiku:

my stomach gurgles
but i sat here for two hours
happy gifts for you!

Christmas card photo

Peace Corps year 1

Index, Month 1

Mornings spent picking cotton in the past week and a half: 3

Hours that massive brown clouds of locusts were visible in the skies over my village a few days ago: 2

Snakes I’ve seen: 2

Snakes that were subsequently beaten to death and then decapitated by villagers: 1

Toddlers who burst into tears when I so much as looked at them in my first week who I can now make laugh and take peanuts from my hand: 2

Average times per night last week that I got out of bed to take the puppy outside to pee: 2

Visits made to a neighboring village to greet people, drink lots of tea, and feel awkward: 2

Incidents of vomiting: 6

Incidents of said vomiting which occured yesterday: 5

Visits to the well-digging contractor in Tamba cancelled due to my village chief’s toothache: 2

Times I’ve wanted to run from my village to the nearest airport, screaming profanities at every kid who yells “Toubab! Toubab! L’argent! Donne-moi un cadeau!” along the way: 0

Times I’ve wanted to scream profanities at kids who shout “Toubab!”: too many to count

Times I’ve fantasized about hot cinnamon rolls, smoothies, cable television, and wandering the aisles of Whole Foods and then immediately felt guiltily and incorrigibly American for doing so: again, too many to count

Volunteers from my stage still in Senegal, out of the original thirty: 26

Shopping days until Christmas: 3

Miles away that I feel from the American Christmas experience: 1,000,000

Ah, the glamorous life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The locusts were surreal—millions upon millions, passing overhead in incredible swarms, brown-red monsters the size of hummingbirds coming down to denude entire trees.

The puppy’s name is Bandi Bah. “Bandi” is my village’s equivilant of Wolof’s “sai-sai,” which the dictionary translates as “thug” but also means joker, show-off, rascal, etc. This name amuses the villagers to no end.

Our fourth ET was Mike, who sent out a very well-written email about why he was leaving Peace Corps that I hope to eventually incorporate into a post on my own thoughts about Peace Corps itself and what the hell a bunch of liberal arts majors are doing teaching agriculture to Senegalese farmers. We’re all gonna miss you Mike, thanks for your time here 🙂

And, yes, I’m feeling much better today and am drinking lots of liquids. No, I don’t know what caused yesterday’s puking; it could have been any number of things. My family was kind enough to bring me to the Tamba regional house for the night, but I’ll be headed back this evening before coming back on Friday for a few days of simulated American Christmas.

I hope to have Tamba and village pictures up soon as my last-minute substitute for the Christmas letters I never wrote. Everybody eat lots of good holiday food on my behalf.

Peace Corps year 1

gallery update (finally)

Swear-in pics are up!

Pre-Merry Christmas 🙂

Peace Corps year 1

In the past week, I:

[BING] Picked cotton for about two and a half hours.

[BING] Continued to jog every morning as the sun came up.

[BING] Greeted all the village families on my own.

[BING] Tried to milk cows. Failed.

[BING] Paid a social visit to the family next to mine, ate really good food with them, and even discussed previous and future ag volunteer work.

[BING] Helped another woman pull her water rather than be shooed away as soon as my bucket was full.

[BING] Made Aadama, one of the toddlers in my galle (family compound) laugh rather than cry by tickling her.

[BING] Made some other kid burst out in tears just by looking at him.

[BING] Ate goat meat. How do I know it was goat meat? Because I was sent home from the chief’s galle with the still-warm hunk of it, freshly chopped off the goat, in my hand. It was very tasty.

[BING] Gently fussed at the one little kid in my village who yells “Toubako!” at me; asked him his name and told him mine.

[BING] Chased kids out of my hut when they walked in without asking (part of my faltering campaign to establish boundaries of some sort).

[BING] Spent time with my father’s sister in her galle; wrote down two pages’ worth of new Pular words, which she attempted to “teach” me by pointing across the compound, saying a word, and then simply repeating that word again and again when I asked her to explain what it meant.

[BING] Had my first tearful breakdown in my hut immediately thereafter, but was laughing while I cried—it was just time to purge some of the stress that had inevitably built up.

[BING] Biked a four-hour round-trip to see other PCVs and go to Missira’s luma, a weekly open-air market. Well, it should have been a four hour trip, except that I got spectacularly lost somewhere in the four kilometers and one village between me and the main road and ended up following the Tamba airport’s fence in a cross-country expedition that John Ashcroft would have found highly suspicious. Saw a coyote. Bought two kilos of oranges for a dollar at the market.

[BING] Returned home with a puppy.

(Um, yes. A puppy. This should confirm the suspicions of everyone who was pretty sure Africa’s doing weird things to me, what with the getting up at 6am and jogging and whatnot. Apparently some strange things float to the surface when you shake yourself loose from just about everything that’s familiar to you… For the record, it’s Cory and Josh’s fault for bringing him to Missira, he’s about eight weeks old, of course ridiculously cute, and his favorite activity so far is falling asleep in my lap. His tentative name is “Patate,” or sweet potato in French, but I kinda want him to have a Pular name. We’ll see what presents itself. I think my village thinks I’m nuts. They’re probably right.)

Right. So, photo upload software is now installed; I hope by Christmas to be able to spend enough time in here to get swear-in and installation and the first of my village pictures posted.

Also, a million thanks to my parents, George, and Leslie for their fantastic care packages. I’m now well-stocked with reading materials and candy. And little packs of kleenex. Rock.

Peace Corps year 1

misc follow-up post

After spending a great night in Tamba (hamburgers and Trivial Pursuit!) with a smattering of other PCVs, I decided to explore another cybercafe, closer to the regional house. This one has the same low price of 350 cfa/hour, is closer, and what’s more important has a Windows interface, which means next time I come through Tamba I’ll attempt photo uploads. Don’t hold your collective breath, of course, but there seems to be a glimmer of hope that I’ll only be a month and a half or so tardy on gallery updates.

Random assortment of things that didn’t make it into yesterday’s (redonkulously long) post:

Our third ET (that I know of so far) was Bryan, who made the decision to leave before we swore in. He came to the ceremony in Dakar and then went home shortly afterwards, headed for his fiancee and a place where there’s air-conditioning and cutlery. We all wish him the best, and feel certain (all in good humor) that he’ll be much happier now that he doesn’t have to employ his “go in your room, shut the door, turn on the fan” cultural adaptation technique 😉

Yes, I had a very nice birthday, my last day before installation. Cory gave me a lovely purple benoir (big bucket) with horses on it, and then we all (Cory and Josh, primarily) cooked a big ol’ Thanksgiving / birthday / last night together dinner, which included chicken, carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, beans I think, and the most spectacular stuffing that has ever been made in any kitchen anywhere. And then we had two divine pumpkin pies (ok, squash, actually) made by master chef Josh. Everyone sang “happy birthday” to me and I blew out a match. It was great.

I held my first “official” village meeting last week. People showed up at my family’s compound after dinner and we discussed (or at least went back and forth, me trying to understand their Pular and them trying to understand what the hell I was trying to say in Pular) the village well project that the last volunteer worked with them on. It went well enough, though, to communicate the necessary information, make them assure me that the entire village was very happy, and even garner a small round of applause at the end.

Thanks to their hard work, the project is essentially ready to go as soon as the grant proposal is updated (not a problem)and the grant funds come through (definitely a potential problem, hinging on Congress approving the federal budget, from what I understand), so there’s a tiny tiny small chance that my village will have a second well by May (the start of the rainy season), which means they could start a rainy season garden and then a dry season garden by this time next year. Which would be fantastic, as they’re all very excited at the prospect of growing vegetables, which don’t make their way into the dinner bowl very often right now.

This morning was great—I went to the Tamba market with Cory, Josh, and Gretchen and bought fabric to have tailored. I got a fish pattern in bright green and blue, a bee/flower pattern on black, and a yellow chicken pattern on red. The chickens especially are great, but what was equally great was bargaining for the fabric, in a mix of French and Pular, and actually paying what I knew was the right price. I even made some jokes about having ten husbands who all cooked for me, which I’ve found is the best way to respond to the inevitable “Where’s your man?” questions.

Now back to the village, with renewed reserves of energy and purpose. Life is good.

Peace Corps year 1

'routine' never sounded so good

Here’s what life is like at Two Weeks In-Village:

My alarm goes off at 6am. Sometimes I’ve already been awaken a few times by roosters crowing or sheep yelling or, occasionally, mice squealing in the thatched roof above my head. I get up early because morning is a valuable time—the village is (relatively) quiet, the air is still cool (cold, the Senegalese claim: it gets down to maybe 70°F), and I can escape for a precious bit of exercise and solitude by jogging through fields on the path that heads to Tamba.

Yes, jogging. Anyone who knows me from home probably could tell you that this is a bit out of character. Historically, formal exercise routines have stuck to me about as well as a cat on the hood of a newly-waxed Buick (or was it a Cadillac? either way.)—yet somehow I have been getting myself up and out for a pre-dawn run for going on over a week now.

I think my main impetus is a craving for Structure: my life in the village is currently so completely empty of American-style appointments or obligations, not to mention television programming, that I have compensated for sanity’s sake by forming a daily routine for myself.

As I said, I get up by 6 or 6:20. I jog to the first fork in the path to Tamba and back, or sometimes head out on a path leading to nearby villages. I’m back by 7:30, when I rinse off a bit but don’t take an actual bucket bath since the water and morning air are both too chillly. I make breakfast for myself, either cereal or oatmeal with milk leftover from the night before, and listen to the BBC morning news.

I’m out of my hut by 8:30. I greet everyone, assure them that the night passed in jam tan, jam tan (“Peace only, peace only!”), and then usually commence my daily sitting around.

This is the unstructured part.

I generally feel pretty useless, but I’ve been assured that I’m doing just fine as a Peace Corps Volunteer when shelling peanuts and shucking corn are my main activities (and contributions) for the day. Which is good, because I am now a pro at shelling peanuts and shucking corn.

I sit with my pen and notebook and write down new Pular words. I listen a lot, and am surprised at how quickly I’ve become able to understand words and phrases. I’ve also quickly improved my speaking skills, or at least my willingness to attempt speaking—as I’ve said, my village’s Pular is a hybrid Pular, with a lot that’s similar to Pula-fuuta, some that’s the same as Pular-du-Nord, and then some other words thrown in just for fun.

Seeda (“say-dah”) has been, by far, the most useful word I’ve learned. How much Pular do I know? Seeda. Do I understand what you just said to me? Seeda. How will I learn Pular? Seeda, seeda—little by little. It’s been the most useful but certainly not the most essential. That honor goes to the aforementioned phrase jam tan, which is the response to almost all of the volley of greetings launched at me by every new person I meet, every person I already know who I see again, and every member of my family who I haven’t greeted in the past half-hour or so. It’s probably been my main contribution to 90% of the “conversations” I find myself in.

I also use eyyo a lot, which is second only to Wolof’s wa-ow for cool ways to say “yes.” An, no, I’m usually not exactly sure what I’m agreeing to.

So, I sit, I shell peanuts, recently I offered the kids crayons and paper (generally successful, only caused a few fights, they drew cows.), occasionally I wander back into my hut and read for half an hour or so. A few days ago I helped to pound corn, which provided plenty of amusement and frequent suggestions that I “rest a bit.” (It also deepened my already profound respect for the village women. Pounding grain is hard work.)

Anywhere between 10am and noon I’m given a bowl of milk and a scoop of lacciri (coucous), which they eat mixed together as a kind of porridge. I boil the milk and either have some porridge with sugar or set the milk aside for my current adventures in yogurt production (varying success so far. yesterday I peered into my cup and reached a newfound understanding of the term “cottage cheese”).

Lunch, usually a big bowl of rice with a little lake of peanut sauce in the middle, is served around 2pm. Afterwards, I sit some more, I read some more, I continue to smile hopefully while listening to conversations that I don’t understand.

Around 4 or 4:30 I make my daily trip to the village well, where there’s usually a crowd of women pulling water, washing clothes, or bathing howling kids. I think there’s a lot of gossip and joking going on, but I only catch tiny parts of it. Sometimes one person sings a song that makes the other women laugh hysterically—I think they make up the lyrics about other villagers or each other as they go. Someone eventually calls me over and helps me pull my water using the well’s bucket-rope-pulley set-up (no faucets here). Then I balance my (small) bucket (with lid) on my head and hope that I won’t drop it or spill too much on myself before I make it back to my hut. So far I’ve been pretty successful.

I close my hut door and take my afternoon bucket bath in my douche, the cement pit-toilet/shower area at the back of my small dirt backyard. There are tiny red birds and the yellow-gold light of the evening sun in the trees overhead. It’s beautiful, in it’s own way; even peaceful, if you can work screaming kids and cacophonous livestock into your definition of “peaceful.” I think I slowly am.

I listen to a bit of BBC or whatever else I can find in English on the shortwave, then go back outside to sit around as the sun goes down, sometimes chatting as best I can, sometimes helping in a few small ways with dinner preparations. The sun is gone by 7pm, and dinner is served around 7:30 or 8. Dinner is usually millet or corn couscous and the ubiquitous puddle of sauce, either leaf or peanut or sometimes bean.

It should be noted that couscous here, lacciri, is not the friendly, fluffy stuff you can cook in 15 minutes after opening a box. All the pounding that the women do starting at dawn goes towards producing a fine millet or corn flour that is then steamed, mixed around in a big bowl to form tiny balls, and then steamed again, with the final product having the consistency (and, I’d imagine, taste) of sand. I prefer the corn lacciri, as it’s fluffier and reminds me of how good cornbread can be. I’ve started eating it dry, mixed with a spoonful of sugar.

I’m given my second serving of milk and lacciri for the day, which I take into my hut. I close the door and listen to a half-hour or so of the BBC news while boiling the milk and sneaking a cookie or a few M&Ms.

Afterwards, I go back outside and sit under the stars, listening to my family talk and laugh, joining the conversations when I can, usually just assuring them as they huddle around a tiny fire or sit wrapped in blankets that 70° is most certainly not cold. I say my goodnights by about 10pm and climb under my mosquito net to read by headlamp or listen to Christian radio programs from the US (shortwave radio is a great, great thing).

And that’s life at the moment. I’m ready to get moving on the village well project, but until that starts I will continue happily shelling peanuts.