Peace Corps year 1

index, month 10

Foreign countries seen from a distance: 2

New babies in the village: 2

Months it took me to figure out what the two-year-old girls say when they curse at each other: 9.5

Screaming matches between co-wives: 1

Minimum number of times the generator was run for the sole purpose of charging the family cellphone: 1

Minimum number of village animals killed and stolen: 2

Maggots squeezed out of Bandi’s snout: 1

Baths I was forced to give Bandi because he smelled like mildewed dead thing: 1

Ratio of days I’ve been in Senegal to days until my COS date: 370:421

Foreign countries: Mali and Mauritania, seen from the road to Bakel.

Two-year-olds’ profanity: Roughly translates as “Your mom’s private parts!!”

Screaming match: was, predictably, between Aissatu, Alahji’s first wife with whom he has three daughters, and Fanta, his second wife as of last August. During his visit from Spain, he was making a clear effort to give presents in equal quantities—two new mats, identical sets of new buckets, matching fuzzy cow print blankets—but I think it was inevitable that they’d find something to fight about.

One evening, seemingly out of nowhere, Aissatu and Fanta started yelling at each other from across the compound—I caught fragments about a radio, Alahji, Fanta’s room in the batiment, Alahji again—Fanta was brandishing a stick, and the rest of the family was trying to calm them. Alahji showed up, argued some, and then suddenly started hitting Aissatu, which sent all the men running to stop him. (For all the talk of hitting—threatening kids with twigs, “Who hit you?… Hit him!” and the ever-popular “I’ll hit you till you poop.”—actual physical aggression in my galle is rarely the kind that’s intended to cause real harm, and if it is other people quickly intervene.)

The screaming continued, Aissatu threw a walkman (the catalyst for the fight) on the ground, and a crowd had gathered by the time Alahji started hitting Aissatu again. Ami and Maymuna, their older daughters, started wailing, Hawa was trying to calm Fanta, Aissatu kept yelling, Alahji stormed off, Fanta was eventually coaxed away to her room… and finally it died down. Other than some silent tension the next morning, there didn’t seem to be any lasting effects; Alahji has returned to Spain, and life continues.

Bomel came up to me afterwards, asked me if I saw what happened when a man has two wives, and laughingly said that she didn’t think Mali (her husband) was going to get a second wife. I thought, Well, he hasn’t yet; a second wife is definitely a status symbol here, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time and money until Mali catches up with his brothers.

Abducted animals: It’s been a relatively common occurrence for goats and sheep to disappear during the night. Thefts increase at this time of year because while many people have exhausted last year’s grain and profits, this year’s crops are just now being harvested.

The dog: now smells like shampooed, mildewed dead thing.

Goat: I'm the king of the world!!

New photos and videos are up. Best of luck with last-minute packing to the new group headed to Senegal next week. And everybody in Texas/Louisiana, let me know you’ve survived Rita. Quit hogging the news already—you’re taking valuable BBC airtime away from cricket.

Peace Corps year 1

one year, take one

One year ago today, my stage arrived in Senegal. I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about this—it’s the first big milestone, but in two months we’ll hit the one year at site mark, and after that it’s all really just a countdown to COS. (I hear time keeps speeding up, especially in that second year, but somebody should really tell that to 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm, cause they’re still pretty damn slow.)

So instead, here’s a picture of cute hedgehogs, just in case you didn’t believe me in my last post:

cute hedgehogs

Peace Corps year 1

progress? you betcha.

In my village, keeping up with the Joneses means keeping up with the Bahs: a few years ago the chief’s son sent money from Spain for a concrete block, tin roof batiment, so last year my family knocked down a row of huts and built their own batiment. Batiments aren’t particularly superior to huts—water seeps through the walls, rain on the corrugated tin roof is deafening—but boy are they BIG next to those (i.e., everyone else’s) huts (even if the individual rooms have about the same area as a largish hut).

Now my family has upped the ante: three weeks ago a charette brought the village’s first TV and VCR. And a generator, since there’s no electricity. And a ginormous antenna to strap onto the front of our batiment, just in case anyone passing by didn’t already know about the TV (and to pick up the one broadcast station in Senegal, RTS 1).

So now, every other night or so (when they have fuel for the generator and can get all the electronics to work correctly), a good chunk of the village gathers in our compound to watch RTS (Senegalese music, news, or foreign soap operas dubbed into French) or one of their two VHS tapes: video from Alahji and Fanta’s wedding last year, or a copy of Kickboxer, some awful 80s Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, dubbed in Spanish.

Maybe three people speak anything other than Pulaar, so the vast majority don’t understand a word of what’s going on, but they sit enraptured anyway. They notice things American viewers wouldn’t think twice about—a quick shot of a kid doing a backflip into water made everyone gasp and laugh.

My first reaction was to find the whole thing pretty ridiculous: why not put that money towards something that would actually be useful—a millet machine, a gas-powered freezer, new farming equipment? Conspicuous consumption seems all the more conspicuous—and absurd—when it’s in the midst of obvious poverty. I asked Massaly (Ag APCD, Senegalese) about this, and he explained it as the desire of the men who go abroad to come back “successful.” When they visit they walk around the village in button down shirts and pressed slacks, cellphones in hand; shiny new electronics are simply a more lasting way to show that they’ve made it.

As an outsider in a “development” role, it’s easy for me to pass judgment on village priorities and choices. But who am I to tell them they shouldn’t be allowed to indulge in some mindless entertainment? (Especially when I’d happily spend an entire day watching a marathon of “The Real World” or, say, “The Ashlee Simpson Show.”) I suppose a TV in the village is no more foolhardy than cable in a trailer park… but it still seems irresponsible.

However, I’m certainly not complaining about catching the occasional episode of “Muneca Brava.” Kickboxer is gonna get real old, though.

Kids gather to see the new TV.

Crowding around the TV.

At this point I’d be tempted to call the score Consumerism: 1 / Development: 0, but I’m happy to announce that it looks like it might actually be a draw: Last week we signed a contract to have the new well dug! Hydraulique is supposed to show up in the village on September 25th and start work. They’ll finish the construction within 90 days, then wait until March (when the water table would be lowest) to let the water in and make sure it’s deep enough.

So while I won’t be able to help the village start the dry season garden they want, they’ll have what will hopefully be a more secure water supply, and the next volunteer would be able to jump straight into gardening. If it all happens like it’s supposed to, Inshallah and whatnot.

(Lots o’ new photos up in Month 10, including irresponsibly cute hedgehogs.)


Mississippi photos

One of my dad’s cousins, Jodie, recently made a trip to Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi, with his wife Suzanne and her sister; they were bringing supplies to Suzanne’s brother, who lives there. He emailed photos to friends and family afterwards. The images are heart-breaking—bricks and foundations are all that’s left of some buildings. Waveland in particular was almost annihilated.

I asked his permission to post some of the pictures—I suppose it makes me feel involved in some small way, even though I can’t directly participate in the clean-up and recovery efforts. It’s so strange to listen to coverage on the BBC and think, “That’s home,” but not be able to be there.

(The rest of Jodie’s photos are here, in the Baton Rouge album for lack of a better place. ‘Adventures’ didn’t seem quite right.)

I think the fact that I’m getting my news in half-hour increments from the BBC and not 24-hour-a-day CNN/FOX/MSNBC is the only reason I’m not at the mental and physical breaking point Leslie describes in her September 9th post—though I completely agree with her comments. It’s that “Doesn’t anybody notice this?! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” sense of disbelief that I know many of us have felt for the past five years or so.



Today is the first chance I’ve had to check the news on Hurricane Katrina. I’m stunned and heartsick. It seems that what the storm left of New Orleans will soon be destroyed by the survivors.

As far as I know, all my Louisiana friends and family are OK—Baton Rouge wasn’t affected nearly as badly as the coast. My thoughts will be with all of you there.

Peace Corps year 1

index, month 9

Village men who work abroad (in Spain) currently visiting the village: 1

Goats killed in his honor: 5

Typical meals per day during the rainy season: 4

Number of those meals that consist solely of milk and couscous: 2

Kilos of rice for one meal for the household and for the household + guests, respectively: 4, 6

Calls made to my cellphone by relatives in Spain because the family cellphone was broken: 5

Orphaned chicks successfully fending for themselves in our compound: 6

Pages read in War and Peace, out of a total 1,452: 726

Alahji, the visiting brother, arrived in a taxi and since then has been showering the family—and his two wives in particular—with gifts. At first I thought he was the one buying a goat a day to eat, but those were actually bought in his honor by his mom, his two wives, a sister, and a nephew.

I hear raw milk is currently a big yuppie fad. If I get over a quart of the stuff a day, straight from the cow, does that make me more cutting edge than the urbanites who have to covertly buy their raw milk in a back alley behind the farmers’ market? Does it at least make me cooler than thou?

War and Peace: highly recommended.

I think almost all PCVs end up with a Caught In The Rain While Biking story—I remember at least one from the book of essays handed out by Peace Corps recruiters, and occasionally volunteers come stumbling into the regional houses looking like umbrella-less undergraduates after a midday thunderstorm. It’s kind of inevitable during the rainy season when you’re traveling down a dirt road and there are no convenience stores to dash into or awnings to huddle under.

Wednesday I was riding from my village to Tamba in the afternoon as a wall of dark blue-black clouds approached from the east. Everyone I passed cheerfully warned me that rain was coming, and I cheerfully replied that that’s why I was hurrying. I was hauling ass past the airport fence (about 3/4 of the way there), throwing glances back at the looming clouds of doom, when the first gusts of wind caught me. They were strong and cold and thankfully at my back, but soon enough the rain started, which was a problem since I was carrying my journal, phone, camera, iPod, and only one plastic bag, buried somewhere in my backpack.

I made it to the edge of Tamba and ducked into the first hut I came to, one of the empty, unfinished buildings along the outskirts of town. It had mudbrick walls, a dirt floor, and—most importantly—a door and window that faced away from the wind and a brand new roof. I sat in the doorway listening to my iPod and watching the rain blow past, then had a brief one-person dance party, and then watched two earthworms squiggle purposefully past the door while I waited for the rain to slow.

After an hour it finally did, and I braved the roads-turned-rivers to make it back to the house and Josh’s BBQ beef.

(Photos from Ile de Goree are up, as are various videos from Month 9. You’ll need Quicktime 7 to view them—sorry, but the new H.264 compression is just too good not to use.)