Peace Corps year 1


View from the back seat of a sept-place.

Last Wednesday I made the trip from Dakar to Tamba by myself for the first time. About 450 kilometers, it takes seven to eight hours by sept-place, the decrepit Peugeot 505 station wagons that are the primary form of long-distance transportation in Senegal.

Here’s how to get from Dakar to Tamba:

Go to the gare in Dakar at 6am: early enough to hopefully get to Tamba before the heat of the afternoon, but late enough to not be starting before sunrise (headlights? what headlights?). Make your way through all the guys who want to find you a car, carry your luggage, and/or sell you socks to the sept-places parked near the “Tambacounda” sign. Cars leave as soon as they are full, which requires seven passengers: one in the front seat, three in the middle row, and three in the back row, which is positioned over the rear axle.

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just after a full car has left, thereby getting first pick of seats in the next car. The first passenger generally chooses the front seat, the next three get the middle seat, and the seventh person is usually stuck in the middle of the back row, which is not only narrower than the middle row—forcing you into the kind of full body contact that would get you kicked out of a middle school dance—but also higher, putting your knees against your chin and your head against the roof.

The fare from Dakar to Tamba is set at 7300 CFA (a recent increase from 6800 CFA, due to rising fuel prices), but you’ll have to argue over your baggage fee—a small bag is maybe 200 CFA, a large backpack could be up to 1000 CFA.

The car fills, the driver gets various slips of paper from various official people (which he will later toss out the window at checkpoints), maybe fills the tank with gas (while the engine’s running, naturally), and you’re on your way. If the speedometer on any of these cars ever worked, you might be tempted to watch it in white-knuckled terror, but you’ll probably be too preoccupied with the driver’s tendency to pass on blind curves or stay in the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler until the last possible moment.

Or perhaps you decide to put on headphones and find a happy place, telling yourself that hundreds of people must do this every day and since you’ve only seen maybe half a dozen rusty, twisted car frames along the roadside, you’re probably going to be just fine.

The road from Dakar to Kaolack is decent; the road from Kaolack to Tamba is not. Sometimes you’ll pass actual road crews doing actual road repairs, sometimes you’ll pass groups of kids who fill potholes with dirt and then yell at passing cars to throw them money. Either way, you can always count on a few hours of being tossed from side to side as the driver brakes and swerves across what used to be a paved road but now is more suitable for moon rovers than cars.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have an uneventful trip—at most a flat tire or maybe a stop at a mechanic’s so someone can crawl under the car with a blowtorch (after which you spend the rest of the ride convinced you smell exhaust fumes, wishing that your happy place came equipped with a canary). If you’re less than lucky, the car breaks down or the driver stops for lunch a second time, and an eight hour trip takes eleven hours.

Of course, if you were actually lucky you’d be traveling in a Peace Corps vehicle. On Thursday I got a ride to Kolda in the Country Director’s brand new Toyota Land Cruiser—spotless upholstery, seat belts, AC, and the ability to go 80 km/h over ruts that a sept-place would have had to ease through in first gear. It also has the ability to go quite, quite fast, which is how we made it back from Kolda to Tamba yesterday in three hours. Say what you like about aid agencies’ budgetary choices, efficacy, sustainability, etc…. they have sweet rides.

Peace Corps year 1

home again

Goat roast #2 last Saturday, Dakar on Sunday, Ile de Goree on Monday, Steven on a plane Tuesday night, me back to Tamba Wednesday, me sick Wednesday night to the present (though much better now)… It’s been a long week.

Which is my excuse for a lame post and no picture uploads. I’m tired. Everyone at the Tamba house is kinda pathetic, actually—all three of us sick in our own unique ways, doing nothing but sleeping and watching movies and taking various pills (at the recommendation of PC Med, of course. The pills, that is—the movies were self-prescribed).

I’m hoping to be feeling all better in time for some travel—a meeting in Kolda and trips to other Ag PCV sites—and some field work before Massaly (my APCD, head of the Ag program) comes to the village for his first rainy season visit and my demo plot farmers’ “Open Field Day.” Ideally, the Open Fields Day will be a chance to show off the success of the demo fields to the other farmers in the village. Hence the need for field work before then.

Peace Corps year 1


One of the benefits of my slowly improving Pulaar is understanding stories that I couldn’t have followed six months ago. The seemingly simple task of asking questions has always been complicated by my limited vocabulary and my inability to correctly phrase abstract questions. Now that I can ask those questions, though, one answer can often lead to a whole series of illuminating explanations.

Mamadou Jallo is a 30-something guy who lives in our household but who doesn’t seem to be directly connected to anyone. I could never figure out why he was here or where his wife and children were. The other day I asked Deya if he and Mamadou were from the same family. He answered they aren’t literally family, but that Mamadou is part of his family now: he came from Guinea to find work, and last October was hired to help with Deya’s harvest. Deya explained that he has to bring in nephews like Hassana and hired help like Mamadou because there aren’t enough men in his household to do the field work: his two brothers are working in Spain, and the family’s sons aren’t old enough yet. Mamadou stayed on this year to continue working for Deya and to farm his own cotton field; after this coming harvest he’ll decide whether he wants to stay longer or go back to Guinea.

There are also stories that I just happen to be in the right place at the right time to hear. I was riding a charette into town with Aissatu, taking the dirt path that cuts through fields and grazing land—about seven or eight kilometers total from the village to the outskirts of Tamba. We’re bumping along when Aissatu points to a spot under some trees and casually remarks that, oh, that’s where Hawa gave birth to her youngest son.

I look around. Um, here? Yes, yes. Apparently Hawa, nine months pregnant, was having “stomach pains,” so Deya (her husband), Aissatu, and several other villagers piled onto a charette to take her to the hospital in Tamba. But they only made it a short distance before the baby decided it was time to be born.

So what do you do when your wife has just given birth on a dirt road, a third of the way to the hospital? Wash the baby off and head back to the village, of course.

Then there are the things along the lines of Gretchen’s cat-on-a-stick experience that you’d just rather not have to know.

After the rains started, flocks of village weavers appeared in the neem trees in our compound—they’re smallish, bright yellow, chattering birds that weave hanging, globe-shaped nests in trees and shrubs. My family doesn’t like them. At first they just threw rocks, but then, when it was clear the birds would keep coming back, they chopped off the top halves of the two large neem trees in our compound. When I asked what exactly that accomplished, my dad explained that the birds pick leaves off the trees, the leaves drop into the rain puddles, and the puddle water turns nasty. So if you remove the trees’ branches… the birds can’t perch in them anymore.

Strangely enough, the birds simply sit lower in the trees. So the current solution is to make bird traps. Last week, Aissatu made tiny nooses out of horsehair and fixed them in a bowl of mud. Then she scattered rice and millet between the loops and put the whole thing on top of a fence post, the idea being that the birds come to eat and get their legs caught. When I asked why catch birds, Aissatu answered that the birds eat millet that’s either left on the ground (pre-pounding) or in uncovered bowls (post-pounding), so they trap the birds, break their wings, and give them to the kids so that the birds can’t eat millet anymore and the kids have something to play with.

Sure enough, within a few minutes a bird snagged its foot in one of the loops. The bird was retrieved, one wing broken, a string tied around one leg, and the string handed to a child.

I went off to a field and sat in a tree for while.

When I returned to the compound, five kids happily ran through, each dragging a bird by a strip of bright fabric. I… hid in my hut. I’m not sure what kind of reaction to have: disgust? sadness? tolerant cultural empathy? Disgust is definitely tempting. But what do I say? I don’t know the Pulaar for “inhumane” or “unnecessarily cruel,” and suggesting that maybe covering the millet could be a better solution than torturing birds (or disfiguring trees) probably wouldn’t have much effect.

I suppose in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t much matter that a few birds are swung around in the air, dunked into buckets of water, and eventually plucked, roasted, and eaten. They’re just birds. Beautiful little yellow birds.

Besides, the next day at the Tamba house PCVs were shooting at lizards with a crossbow.