Peace Corps year 1

post-wedding and mid-stockyard

Aminata’s task following the wedding itself (when, as you might remember, her main role was to sit in various huts with a blanket over her head) was… to sit in a hut with a blanket over her head. For a week. Then on Friday, when the week was up, she went to the well to officially wash her first batch of laundry for her new household.

And you thought you had it tough deciding what shade of pastel to make your bridesmaids wear.

So while Ami has gone from oldest child in my galle to youngest wife in Abdul’s galle, she seems to be happy enough. Since Saturday, when she could leave her hut, she’s been making the village rounds with the other teenage girls. She’s still bedecked with jewelry—anklets and earrings and necklaces, the bell that was around her wrist now on a string around her neck. She’s also constantly fussing with her head wrap (worn once a woman is married, it’s used for everything from taking hot lids off of pots to holding change), arranging and rearranging it like a teenage girl with a new haircut.

Village life chugs on. Or, if it’s a goat, it sneezes and hacks before taking a crap outside your front door.

I live in a barnyard.

Except there’s no barn, so really it’s more just a yard overrun with livestock where people attempt to reside. Cohabiting with animals—bleating, snorting, snotting, shitting animals—has not increased my love for them. They’re everywhere, all the time: on beds, underfoot, snouts buried in my supper. Sheep, goats, cows, chickens, donkeys, horses, lambs, kids, calves, chicks… if you saw it in Babe, I have to chase it out of my hut. (With the perhaps noteworthy exception of the title character: it’s a Muslim village. And the mice I live with don’t sing “Blue Moon.” They eat holes in my clothes.)

I had no idea about the range of noises that your standard livestock is capable of since I’d only ever been told that the cow goes “moo,” the sheep goes “baa,” and so on. Not so, my city-dwelling friends. Sheep wander in circles through the compound, hollering for their lambs, who answer with plaintive cries that sound eerily like human children. The old rams rumble, gravelly and lecherous, testes flexing upwards with the effort of every prolonged “MEHHHHHHH.” Goats have a piercing yell that changes to a strangled “bleeaaah!” when they’re tied up at night. Roosters flap to the tops of thatched roofs and broadcast their masculinity at top volume to the world at large. And none of this crowing at sunrise nonsense—they’re up there an hour before dawn straight through to midnight. That’s if they’re not chasing down hens to copulate with, which is a whole other series of sounds.

The only ones I don’t automatically envision steaming on a plate between buttered asparagus and hot garlic bread are the donkeys. The donkeys are terrific. Identical Eeyores in their sorrowful eyes, the droop of their oversized ears, their air of resignation. Donkeys do more work and receive more abuse than any other animal, yet they never strike back. A boy can stand behind a donkey and viciously beat it with a stick all day (and they do), but the donkey will never give the obvious response: a swift kick to the gut. Hell, it could aim a bit lower and take out multiple generations of donkey beaters. But, no, donkeys seem to accept constant thrashings as an inevitable part of being attached to a cart or a rope with a little boy at the other end.

However, the best thing about a donkey is the noise a donkey makes. One minute he’s standing there, looking half asleep, and the next he’s letting loose with a wheezing, snorting, trumpeting racket, neck stretched out, lips curled back, sometimes accompanied by a charge at no one to nowhere, that echoes across the village and sets off all the other donkeys within range. A few visitors and long-distance callers have been lucky enough to hear for themselves, but the rest of you need fear not, for I’ve made it one of my personal goals to capture the song of the donkey on video before I leave Senegal.

See? My film degree is totally relevant here.

On the subject of animals, my afternoon walk a few days ago was cut short when a full-grown warthog came charging out of the bushes and across the path about twenty yards ahead of me. He (she?) was built like a bulldog, all chest and shoulders, but the huge white tusks on either side of its mouth were what I fixated on as I froze in my tracks, my mind doing a frantic search for any facts I may have ever heard about warthogs: Aren’t they especially aggressive? Or is that only when they’re protecting their young? If he comes this way, should I make myself look big and threatening or small and harmless? I forget—which is it for bears and which for mountain lions?

The only warthog I could remember anything about was Pumba from The Lion King, and his distinguishing trait was a flatulence problem, so it was fortunate that the warthog kept going, disappearing into the scrub as I grabbed hold of Bandi and decided to turn back for the village. After all, for all I know warthogs run in vicious man-eating packs instead of doing song and dance numbers with meerkats.

Peace Corps year 1

village wedding

My arrival back in the village started a bit inauspiciously when I had to get help breaking into my hut because I couldn’t find my keys—which naturally turned up a few minutes later in the one pocket of my backpack that I hadn’t frantically checked five times over in Tamba. Then the key got stuck in the lock, which was malfunctioning after being forced open. The final truce was that I have my keys but can only lock the door from the outside.

I greeted, I unpacked, I attempted to sweep out the truly epic layer of dust that had accumulated over the past month. The next morning I presented the family with the gifts I’d brought back from Thiès (or kept in reserve)—American candy, cocoa butter lotion, crayons—and the long-demanded soccer ball, which prompted an immediate soccer game out in a bare field behind the village.

I didn’t have high expectations for the lifespan of the ball—I’d been told that the last volunteer had brought three, two of which were popped and one of which ended up down a well—so, having mentally given it a week, tops, even I was surprised when it was brought back to the compound no more than three hours later, completely flat.

How the hell did they do it? I marveled. I mean, I’ve grown accustomed to the speedy destruction of any and all material goods—bring out a magazine, the first kid who touches it will tear a page; give them a new set of crayons, the few that make it back into the box after a coloring session will be broken and covered in dirt—but a lifespan of under three hours? For an American-bought soccer ball?

It eventually occurred to me that it was much more likely done-in by the stress of being deflated and crammed into my baggage than by some preternatural powers of destruction on the kids’ part, and then I felt bad, but this being Senegal the ball has since disappeared to Tamba for repairs. Anything and everything breaks, so anything and everything is patched back together in a kind of Third World consumer goods circle of life. The ball was brought forth into this world and quickly met its end, but it will live again, resurrected by rubber cement and scrap rubber, most likely.

The rest of my return to village life went a bit smoother than the forced entry to my hut and the untimely demise of the soccer ball: I went around and greeted the entire village, presented the chief with a kilo of kola nuts to distribute, and had the obligatory jam tan, jam tam de, jam tan, jam tan de (peace only, peace only yeah) exchanges about Dakar, Thiès, the people in Dakar, the people in Thiès, my APCD, etc. Everyone informed me that I’d been away for a very long time (yes, but now I’m back!) and asked me where Bandi Bah was (visiting his doggie family in Josh & Cory’s village—which always got a laugh).

The next few days were busy with preparation for Aminata’s wedding. Oh, and remember how I assumed that since my family had said that her wedding would happen after the new batiment was finished, the new batiment would be finished since her wedding was happening?

Yeah, no. It was exactly the same as when I’d left a month before. The roofing materials had arrived, but it wasn’t until the day after my return that guys showed up to put them to use—which, while providing shade, didn’t actually complete the building since the floor is still dirt and chunks of cement, and the walls are still bare concrete blocks.

But the wedding was happening anyway; this is apparently wedding season in Senegal, when money from last year’s harvest has come in but field work for the next rainy season hasn’t started yet.

Women came to our galle to help pound benoir after benoir of millet. Endless kilos of rice were cleaned and set aside. Hair was re-braided and the girls brought out anklets and necklaces and all the women henna-ed their feet. I helped to sew strips of white canvas into the wutere (a.k.a. pagne, or sarong) Ami would wear on the first day of the wedding.

Guests started arriving Wednesday afternoon—family from Tamba and beyond, neighbors from nearby villages, musicians and cooks—along with two village-sized cooking pots, a five-foot spoon, and piles of wuteres (the standard wedding gift). Both our galle and the groom’s galle across the road slaughtered a sheep for dinner.

By nightfall my compound was packed with people, most of whom I’d never met before. They were sitting on every available surface—beds, wooden platforms, bags of cement—waiting for dinner to be served. I dutifully greeted whoever I passed and even smiled when correcting the occasional stranger who addressed me as tuubaako (“whitey” in Pular), but mostly I did my best to disappear without actually hiding, sitting between family members or away from the main flow of traffic.

Big extended-family events aren’t really my strong point even in the U.S., when it’s my family and everything’s in English. I’m not a huge fan of small talk, I don’t quite know how to interact with small children, and I usually just end up finding a corner where I can people-watch. Here, it would be utterly impossible for me to blend into the wallpaper, assuming there was wallpaper to blend into.

I’ve been spoiled by my village: Peace Corps Volunteers have been in the area for almost a decade now, so the people I interact with on a daily basis aren’t all that surprised that there’s a white girl saying good morning in Pular or walking by with a bucket of water on her head.

Not so with the wedding guests: Who’s the tuubaako? Are you French? You live here? You speak Pular? Wait, you didn’t understand whatever I just rattled off really fast? So you don’t really speak Pular.

And those were just the ones who spoke to me. Most of the kids just stood or sat a few feet from me and stared. Some risked a tentative touch on my arm or my hair. Most found it hysterical when I opened my mouth and Pular came out, giggling and repeating whatever I’d just said.

This may sound cute and endearing, and it is—for the first ten minutes. Then it gets a bit tiring, no matter how many times I remind myself that while Senegal is now less of a novelty to me, I’m still a novelty to most of Senegal. That I should enjoy my instant celebrity and the humor in their slack-jawed amazement.

It was like a condensed version of the whole Peace Corps foreign culture experience, really: stand out in a crowd, stumble over language, repeat a few basic explanations… smile hopefully and appreciate that most of the interest directed at me is innocent curiosity. But that last part is easier to sustain when the first parts are spaced out a bit—at least for an introvert like myself.

Anyway, I continued my attempts at being friendly but inconspicuous Thursday morning. The family made liters of coffee-flavored sugar water, huge vats of mooni (millet-ball porridge), and I think bought the bread boy’s entire box of bread. People were wandering between compounds all morning, talking, eating, greeting. There were even vendors—two guys selling cookies, powdered milk, Maggi, soap, and, inexplicably, Halloween candy.

Madame called me into Grandma Da Windi’s hut, where the village’s heads of household were gathered around a pile of kola nuts and cash. I didn’t get a clear explanation on who exactly gave what and why, or why what was received by whom, but best I can figure the out-of-village guests brought goro and money as gifts, which were then divided among the host village families and the hired cooks and musicians.

One man seemed to be the master of ceremonies, strutting around yelling and blowing a whistle. The musicians (a group of twenty-something guys, one with a guitar-type instrument, who clapped and sang/chanted) would lead songs or groups would circle and drum on an overturned benoir while people danced with a horse’s strap of bells around their waists.

How do you know a village event is a huge deal? When a cow gets it. As soon as I saw a cow being led to where a group of men was gathered under a tree, I knew it was bad news for the cow and great news for dinner; they slung ropes around it, flipped it on its side, hog-tied it and then slit its throat.

And the bride? Aminata spent the entire day in Bomil’s hut, sitting on the bed listening to tapes, surrounded by cousins and friends. When she had to walk through the compound to eat dinner in Aissatu’s hut, her head and face were entirely covered by a white shawl—part of “the bride can’t be seen before the wedding,” I think, which seems to span cultures.

At dusk I was sitting in front of my hut, doing pretty well in a Pular conversation with a few guys, while some random girl sat at my feet and went from leaning on my knees and stroking my arms to being practically in my lap and all but feeling me up (some version of “touch the white person”—she followed me around for a while after that, attached to my arm, until I eventually managed to shake her). Seemingly unprompted, all the young girls who had been sitting with Ami started wailing—a “wooo” noise that would sound like a cheer in America but here indicates sorrow. Madame came over to assure me that nothing was actually wrong, and Deya went to “check” what was going on: the idea is that Aminata has “died” in her family’s household, symbolized by covering her head with a wutere, and the family is mourning her departure.

She was then led (since she couldn’t see anything with the fabric over her head) to Aissatu’s hut, where she was bathed and dressed with the white wutere around her waist and a striped wutere over her head. She was sniffling; I’m not sure if it was real emotion (understandable—the whole thing must be overwhelming, especially with a blanket over your head the entire time) or part of her role—I read somewhere that the bride isn’t supposed to appear happy out of respect for the family that she’s leaving.

She was led back to Bomil’s hut, where she sat on a mat in the backyard with the kids listening to tapes. There was some clapping and chanting and then nothing happened for a while. Eventually a mat was placed in front of the hut and a crowd gathered to see the wedding gifts. The women took wuteres out of a trunk one by one and the head of ceremonies guy called out the count to the crowd. They counted all 154 of them, there was a lot of shouting (real or theatrical, I couldn’t tell), and then they counted kitchen implements.

Ami was brought out, head still covered, and she sat while the men led what I assume were prayers. They went on forever, whatever they were, until finally the whistle guy showed up again, the women gathered up all the pagnes and bowls and benoirs, and everyone moved to the front of the compound. (Remember that this is all in complete darkness—no moon, even, only flashlights.)

The musicians started up again and the crowd stood there for a while, then suddenly Ami was hoisted up on shoulders and everyone rushed to the compound next door. Which was confusing to me since I was pretty sure the groom’s compound was the one across the road, but then again I had the groom wrong until a few days ago.

Ami sat on a mat again for a while, people milled about, then the focus was on her, then she moved and everyone shifted their attention to some loud men, one of whom kept calling me tuubaako. I had no clue why we were there, what was going on, or how long it last, and most of what was said to me was “Djenaba Bah! You’ve come to the wedding!” (Well, yes, that seems to be fairly apparent.)

‘Bout that time, Bomil asked to go to my hut to get the bowl of meat she’d left there for safekeeping; on the walk over there some boys said tuubaako in my direction and that was just one time too many, so I called it a night.

The next morning, the girls and young mothers were sitting with Ami in what is now her hut in Abdul Barry’s compound (the one across the road from me—the crowd must have eventually moved there the night before). They were in there the entire day, Ami sitting with the boom box, the moms playing with their kids, and the girls occasionally dancing.

I did my time sitting in various huts listening to Pular conversations, and even held my own across from a bevy of old ladies and large women (like the group of grannies at your second cousin’s wedding, except instead of only interrogating you about your lack of a husband they also demand your money, jewelry, and the clothes off your back), but I also spent a good bit of the day reading and napping in my hut.

There was the occasional singing and clapping, but nothing much more than milling around and eating happened until the evening, when Madame took me to the next-door compound, where Ami was again sitting in a hut surrounded by teenage girls. This time she was dressed in a black and white plaid wutere with a black and white checkered cloth over her head. Her hair had been braided in a special married woman style, and she had a bell tied around her left wrist.

I ate rice and meat (I think a second cow had been killed) with Ami and the girls, then there was more sitting and waiting. Finally we all walked to the groom’s galle; Ami’s face was covered and she carried a bowl with various small things in it (shoes, tapes, perfume) balanced on her head. A group of women then walked her (still with the bowl on her head) through the empty fields, stumbling over corn stalks and cow pies, until we reached a small pen where eight very confused calves were tied. Ami went and touched one of them, was dressed in different clothes, had her head re-covered, and then was led back to her husband’s compound.

I sat with her and some of the kids behind her new hut while they listened to music. Eventually a bowl of meat was brought and then quickly devoured. The crowd had moved back to other compounds, so after a half hour or so of sitting with no events seemingly imminent, I walked back to my galle. It was 10:30PM by then, and everyone was sitting around in the dark talking, so I figured it was safe to retreat to bed.

If anything else happened that night, it wasn’t loud enough to wake me up. In the morning everyone packed up, and a crowd of women set off to walk back to Tamba. Aminata was still sitting in a hut when I left, but I think all the official wedding happenings had finished.


Overall the wedding was interesting to observe, even though I usually didn’t understand what was happening and there seemed to be a whole heck of a lot of time when nothing was happening.

However, I’m very relieved that it’s over: those were two days of more being stared at, asked for everything ranging from money to clothes to my headlamp, and called “Whitey” in my own home than I’ve had to deal with in the past two months. And while I can appreciate the cross-cultural absurdity, shall we say, of having a circle of two dozen girls staring at me as though they expected purple monsters to sprout out of my head, or of making babies burst into tears of abject terror by simply looking at them… it’s still. gets. tiring.

But despite the wedding ordeal, I’m happy and hopeful about being back in my village. I’ve got a new routine to settle into as the season changes and work eventually starts up, Bandi (who’s now huge and still growing) will be back home, visitors will be coming, and the weeks will continue to absolutely fly by, no matter how slowly the individual days may seem to move.

Happy birthday to Josh, who made some sublime hamburgers yesterday, and good luck to the new group of PCTs, who I think are headed to staging today and will arrive in Senegal Thursday.

Peace Corps year 1

index, IST

Liters of “lotion” made from soap, oil, and water as an IST training exercise: 2

People who blame said lotion for their arms breaking out in hives: 1

Hours of language training during IST: 0

Fun T-shirts purchased at the Thiès fuuki jaay (Wolof for “shake & sell”: the used clothes market) for a dollar each: 3

Rats seen at Massa Massa, a (relatively) ritzy ex-pat restaurant in Thies: 1

Minimum number of movies watched at the Peace Corps house in Dakar during the 36 hours I was there: 9

Flat tires on the sept-place ride from Dakar to Tamba: 1

The fuuki jaay: where Salvation Army donations go to be born again. Lots of shirts from Old Navy, family reunions, and lame tourist destinations. Lots of junk, the occasional priceless find. (Well, not so much priceless as requiring lots of arguing to get down to 500cfa.)

The rat at Massa Massa: was ginormous. Seriously. Huge. And scurrying about like he owned the place… One of the diners screamed, so the doorman tried to corner it and stomp on it. That didn’t work too well, so he tried to kick it out the front door but missed and kicked it into the door instead. There was a round of applause when he finally got the poor (dead) thing outside.

The ride back to Tamba: was long but not too painful. Our driver didn’t seem to really get the concept of “Hey, maybe I wouldn’t have to slam on the brakes so much if I anticipated the four-inch-deep potholes that are all over the road.”

The past few days in Tamba: gosh, it’s nice to be back. Tamba is sooo calm compared to Thiès or Dakar. Plus, the taxis are cheaper.

I think everyone’s kinda nervous about going back to our sites. Partly because we’ve been away for so long (and around Americans, eating good food, etc.), partly because we’re now supposed to hit the ground running on our official PCV work, partly because, as I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice, it’s about to get hella hot. Like, 120°F hella hot (145°F if you’re out in Bakel). First dry and hot, then come June or so wet and hot. Right now it’s just muggy—much warmer than Thiès, with some weird out-of-season rain today.

Some of my village family stopped by the Tamba house yesterday to say hi and let me know that Aminata’s wedding is next Tuesday; she’s my 17-year-old sister/cousin/whatever, who’ll be marrying her cousin, who lives one compound over in the village. I’m excited to see the ceremony—apparently it’s a multi-day affair. It also means that the new batiment is finished (or at least habitable), since that’s where the wedding guests will be staying.

I’ll be happy to be back—see if my hut’s still standing, sit around with the family at night under the stars—and since Cory and I made a planning calendar that covers every day until Close-of-Service in November 2006, I feel like I’m ready to tackle the job of staying busy.