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.

4 replies on “'routine' never sounded so good”

just beautiful, clare. i am envious of, and i use this word cautiously, simplicity of the day to day. i.e. i’d much rather be walking for my water than driving through traffic to work these days 😉 excited to hear you’re jogging, perhaps i’ve found a new running partner for 2007?

Jogging, indeed! Why is it that your morning run is the hardest part for me to imagine? 😉

I’m delighted you’re making it to the internet so often. What sort of ordeal is it to get online?

Clare, my dear girl. You seem to be doing so well with this radical change of lifestyle! You write so well. I can see a book about your experiences in your future. I am really enjoying your experiences vicariously. Love, Ma. Ma. Barbara.

Glad the jogging amused everyone as appropriate.

The internet ordeal isn’t too bad (as you can tell by my two-day-in-a-row binge), and there may even be hope for picture posting.

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