Peace Corps year 1

index, month 8

Small animals that got stuck in the corner between my hut wall and bed: 2

Fields planted with seed I distributed: 10

Fields planted with seed I distributed that were planted with the recommended seeding disc, which determines plant spacing within rows: 8

Lowest observed temperature in my hut, in degrees Fahrenheit: 75

Total sprouts so far out of dozens of basil, carrot, green pepper, squash, and pumpkin seeds planted: 2

Approximate number of newly-hatched tadpoles in large pond by my village, in zillions: 2

Small animals: the hedgehog featured in last week’s post and a frog that made noises like a roosting chicken.

Temperature: it’s very, very humid, which makes even the mid-80s unbearable. And nothing dries, so everything smells. I’m told even my clothes will mildew before the rainy season’s over. It’s a glamorous life I lead.

Sprouts: two brave little pumpkins. I reseeded yesterday, this time with seeds that hopefully aren’t three years old.

Village moments from the past week:

Seven little girls, ranging from just-walking to 3 or 4 years old, gathered in a circle: each had a piece of cloth that she scrubbed back and forth and dunked into an invisible bucket of water.

Two teenage guys bent over, weeding millet with short-handled hoes, and a girl who had come out to the field to pour tea for them.

Two-year-old Djenaba, after clunking herself in the head with a stick three times her height, reacting by hitting the stick back and calling it a bad name.

Peace Corps year 1

hut improvement

In the past few weeks I finally got around to all that “make your hut your home” stuff they told us to do in our first three months at site. I had delayed mostly because I wasn’t sure that I would be in my hut this long; when I first arrived, in November, and construction on the batiment had just begun, my family assured me that as soon as this first one was done, and Ami had her wedding, then they’d knock down the second row of huts and build a second batiment—all before the rainy season came in June.

Riiiight. If I’d understood village time then like I understand village time now, I’d have tiled the douche.

Here’s what I’ve done:

Gotten my mattress out of the way, since it’s too hot to sleep on right now (that’s it at the top, resting on ropes), and gone from beach motif to apocalyptic flames:

flames over bed

Painted the cabinent doors and tac-board with chalkboard paint:

chalkboard cabinents

Dug, placed borders, and seeded two beds in the backyard; filled broken pounders with dirt to make flower pots; and placed cinder blocks as stepping stones from the hut to the douche (though they’re already breaking apart since they’re more dirt than cement):

backyard beds and stones

Painted the plastic lining the shade structure roof: (Those are Happy Clouds, not spots on a blue cow.)

shade structure with clouds

Adventures in farming continue, despite minor hiccups for the demo plots like not planting the millet until last week, using 1/10th the correct amount of fertilizer for the corn, and children pulling up the stakes marking the bean field.

On the other hand, I found a hedgehog in my hut last week:

hedgehog in cup!


friendster is so two years ago

I’m a bit late on this one, but mad props to Seth for his site and its press!

Peace Corps year 1


The rainy season has transformed my village’s surroundings from tall, golden brown (i.e. dead) grass to a carpet of neon green sprouts. Farmers are in full swing—most of the millet and corn already planted, they’re now seeding peanuts and cotton. This is all accomplished despite cranky or sometimes nonexistent equipment. Children lead horses, donkeys, or cattle as the men or older boys guide ancient, rusty plows and seeders covered in flaking yellow paint. They bang plow blades into place with axe heads and rarely have the correct seeding disc for whatever crop they want to plant that day.

Coming into Peace Corps with the extensive agricultural background of a film degree, all I have to compare this to are tall, lush sugarcane fields seen from Louisiana highways. I admit to arriving with my fair share of new agey, organic shopping, yuppified ideas about the romance of working the soil—living closely with the land, fully engaged in the production of one’s own sustenance. The circle of life and whatnot.

I am sorry to report that there is nothing sexy about subsistence farming. There is nothing romantic about working with your hands in the earth—that dirt is hot and dry and your hands will crack and bleed. The rain comes early, it comes late, it comes too often or not often enough. Bugs eat the seed, bugs eat the sprouts, bugs eat the ripened grains. The only crop they have sufficient pesticides and fertilizers for is cotton, since SODEFITEX sells equipment and supplies to farmers on credit, taking the cost out of payment for their final harvest.

Not only are the Senegalese farmers producers, they’re producers working without the benefits of easy consumption. All the products that seem to materialize on store shelves in the U.S.—flour, rope, planks of wood—must be produced in the village. Flour pounded from grain, rope woven from strips of rice sack, wooden planks chopped by hand from trees cut down by hand—”Third World” may no longer be the preferred terminology, but looking out from the boundaries of life in rural Africa, America might as well be a separate planet.

So the question would be: Where should development agencies work within this context, to bridge that divide in what ways?

On a completely unrelated note, I was walking back to the Peace Corps house, past a group of men standing around a construction site, when one called out a greeting and then told me that one of the other men wanted to talk to me. Knowing full well what was coming, I walked back to where they were. A slightly older guy asked me where my “man” was and, despite my answer that he was “over there” (pointing towards the house), then naturally suggested that I consider him as a potential husband.

My response to this (frequent) conversation varies. If I’m in a bad mood, I just walk away. If I’m in a mood to view marriage proposals as entertaining instead of just obnoxious, I’ll joke with the guy: Can you cook?… Ok, but you’ll have to give my father sixty cows., etc. This time, however, I was prepared—one of the PCV-assembled Pulaar verb lists includes an example phrase for each verb, and one had stuck in my mind as potentially useful.

So, after a bit of “What about me?” / “I’ve got a man.” / “Yeah, but what about me?” I told him—in Pulaar, in front of the dozen or so other men, while giving him a dismissive wave of the hand and turning to walk away—

“You? You’re older than my grandfather!”

They all howled with laughter, and me, I left victorious.

Peace Corps year 1

index, month 7

Garden plots dug in backyard: 2

Small animals killed by Steven: 2

Village toddlers with squeaking cartoon character shoes: 2

Sixteen-year-olds married off to other villages: 1

Brides offered to Steven: 1

Minimum number of farmers who planted their Peace-Corps-distributed seed two weeks before I found out they’d planted: 2

Depth in meters of my village’s well: 35

Depth in meters of a Kolda region PCV’s village well, where fish sometimes come up in the water bucket: 3

Garden plots: not seeded yet, as I didn’t want to plant before the rains really started, when I’d have to haul water from the well, and because I do not yet have a shovel handle for my new shovel head.

Small animals: a very unlucky mouse whose tail got stuck under the gas stove and a runty baby chick whose mother abandoned and then viciously pecked on the neck whenever we tried to give it back to her.

Squeaking shoes: no longer squeak.

Farmers who planted early: one of whom was my millet demo plot farmer, unfortunately. Very patchy germination since the seeds were sitting in dry dirt and/or being eaten by birds for two weeks before it rained again.

Fish in the well: how awesome is that? The only stuff down in my well is fruit that the kids throw down there that makes the water green.

There was a death in the village at the end of May, while I was in Dakar. The chief’s youngest daughter from his first marriage, Bounkone, came to our village because she had been sick. She apparently died the night after she arrived, leaving a three-month-old son in the care of her sister, Salimata. The baby seemed ok for a while, but on Saturday was sick and died Saturday night.

I’m glad that I wasn’t in the village for Bounkone’s death. I didn’t know her since she was married and lived elsewhere, but I do of course know her family, and I wouldn’t have wanted to hear the women wailing. I know I can’t avoid it forever—the rainy season is the sick season, and more than a few volunteers from my group have already lost village friends or family—but I’m so scared that someone from my galle will die a seemingly sudden, entirely preventable death.

Sickness here is something I don’t understand—caused by injuries that would be minor inconveniences in the States, or by nutritional deficiencies that could be solved by a few boiled eggs a week. Sometimes people go the hospital, eight kilometers away in Tamba, sometimes they sit and endure ear infections or oozing wounds or mysterious aches and pains. If they go to a doctor they come back with tabs of folic acid or painkillers. The baby that died this weekend looked awful—staring listlessly as the women took turns holding him—but as far as I know he was never taken to a doctor. These are all things that I’ve wanted to ask about, but I’m just now feeling confident enough in my Pulaar and comfortable enough socially to try starting those kinds of conversations.

seeding fields

The rainy season has finally, actually, for real this time started. As in, it’s raining every few days instead of pouring one night and then not raining again for a month. This is a very good thing both for the farmers, who can now seed their fields in earnest, and also for me, since I can now walk from field to field pretending like I know what I’m looking at and talking about.

It’s still hot and still humid and there are still too many hours in the day to fill, but the storms are amazing and the air cool afterwards. No staph infections or weird fungi yet, so I figure I’m doing pretty well. Plus, the funding for the new village well was finally approved, so with any luck digging can start after this rainy season.

To celebrate Independence Day Senegalese style, we slaughtered and roasted Freedom the Goat on a homemade spit, a four-hour process. Photos of the process from loud, furry goat to skinned, roasting goat will go up sometime soon.

And, yes, Freedom sure tasted great.