Peace Corps year 2

and on your left…

My parents’ action-packed two weeks in Senegal:

They arrive in Dakar at 6:30am. After a brief stop at my homestay’s house for breakfast, we head to Ile de Goree for what is definitely the best way to experience Dakar:

Paul on Goree

The next day we went up to St-Louis, where we stayed/ate at a fantastic hotel/restaurant on the island and took a day trip to the Djoudj bird park. There we took a boat ride to see a massive pelican colony. It was kinda like being in the middle of a personal screening of Winged Migration:

pelicans in flight

We also wandered around St-Louis itself, a very chill, beautiful in a crumbling colonial kind of way city. The main attractions involved boats and, as always, livestock:

goat on beach

After fully appreciating the amazing food and beautiful scenery, we rented out a sept-place and practically flew down to Tamba, which features, um… food and scenery. We went to the market and bought fabric:

buying fabric

We then took a taxi out to my village, where my parents were happy to see the village and the village was happy to see my parents. On our second day there we had a big village meal (a goat, kilos upon kilos of rice, a metric ton of beignets) for a small village party:

Kumba dancing

The celebratory slaughter continued back in Tamba, where Josh and Glen slaughtered and butchered Brutus the pig for Christmas dinner:

Josh, bloody knife

Brutus ended up being very tasty, as was all the food that day:

eating meatballs

We also got the visiting family members to dress up in their Senegalese finery and take pictures:

families dressed up

The next day the families and some volunteers went to Niokolo Koba to see the sights (lots of monkeys, one lone warthog, and distant lumps that the guide insisted were hippos):

Renee with binoculars

All in all it was a great visit. It was exhausting to be chaperone/tour guide for two people for two weeks straight, but much easier than I had worried it might be. No major mishaps (Well, except for when the sept-place back to Dakar hit a woman who was crossing the road—she went flying into an Alham but then miraculously got up and started walking around looking for a lost earring. We took her to a nearby hospital, where the driver paid for her visit with the doctor, who declared it “pas de probleme” and gave her a prescription for ibuprofen.), lots of exciting sights and exciting food… good times. I would ask who’s up next, but I already know—Leslie comes to Dakar next Tuesday : )

Happy New Year, everybody.

family portraits

Peace Corps year 2

index, month 13

Price paid by SODEFITEX to farmers per kilo of cotton, in CFA: 250 [revised, Jan 06: 195]

Approximate equivalent in US dollars: 0.50 [ditto: 0.40]

Fee Musa Bah paid a guy from Tamba to pick a quarter hectare of cotton, in CFA: 15,000

Approximate equivalent in US dollars: 30

Days before Musa was in the field helping him: 1

Babies born in my family compound: 1

Toddlers weaned in my family compound: 1

Cotton and peanuts are the only crops left in the fields—both are collected into giant piles, the cotton to wait to be picked up by SODEFITEX, the peanuts to dry so that they can be threshed and the nuts collected.

I don’t think any of the village farmers really make all that much money off of growing cotton since they get all the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that they dump on their fields on credit from SODEFITEX, who then takes that cost out of the price they pay for the harvest.

Bomel gave birth to a son at the hospital in Tamba. He was still nameless when I left for Christmas since they were postponing the naming ceremony (usually a week after the birth) until Deya returned from a trip to Burkina Faso (a conference on livestock) and Mali sent money from Spain.

Mahamadou was weaned cold turkey style, which made him very, very pissed off. He spent an entire day howling furiously, but then the next day seemed to have kinda forgotten about it.

Peace Corps year 2

let's hope santa can drive a charette

My parents’ visit is going well so far—they loved Goree, St. Louis was beautiful, we made the trip from St. Louis to Tamba in seven hours (apparently a stunning record), the village party went well, and now we’re about to go into cookie production in preparation for Christmas in Tamba.

I’ll have lots of pictures and stories to post once I’m in Dakar for my brief break between visitors.

Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever Holiday You May Be Celebrating 🙂

Peace Corps year 2


The prayer calls this morning in Tamba were beautiful, despite coming at 5am and all at once. I’m nostalgic-in-advance for waking up before dawn on the roof of the Tamba house, warm under a blanket, listening to five competing versions of “ALLAAAAAHU AK-BAR!” echo across town. It’s one of those Senegal Moments, like biking back to the village at sunset, that encapsulates the romance of Peace Corps for me.

My sept-place ride today, on the other hand, was something other than romantic. I was stuck in the middle of the way-back seat while the car raced over the newly “repaired” road to Dakar. And while we made good time to Kaolack because we didn’t have to swerve constantly to avoid massive craters in the road, my nose itched the entire way because of the vibrations from going over a grid of asphalt patches with a distinctly lacking suspension.

Then, the good time was squandered in Kaolack when we stopped for an hour so mechanics could take one of the wheels off then put it back on—using three out of four bolts, even. All was not lost since I bought a giant slice of watermelon for the equivilant of 5 cents and ate it while waiting on the side of the road. Watermelon is one of the foods that I would have turned down or picked out of my meal back home that I voraciously devour here, what with fruit being a rare treat and onions being the primary vegetable in village food.

After eight hours on the road we made it to Dakar, which is still big and stressful, but much less so now that I have an American home away from home to stay at. A thousand blessings upon the head of every ex-pat who takes in dirty, smelly Peace Corps volunteers and gives them a clean bed to sleep in, good food to eat, and a precious reminder of home.

I’m in Dakar to meet my parents, who are currently en route for their first visit to Africa. We’ll do some tourist stuff—Goree, the bird park in Djoudj, St. Louis—then head to my village for a few days before celebrating Christmas in Tamba.

Peace Corps year 2

home sweet hut

hut from outside

hut from outside

(More hut and month 13 photos are up.)

Peace Corps year 2

she's crafty

I’ve been involved in a few projects lately—painting the tourist center in Molly’s village and windows + other fun in my hut.

Here’s Molly white-washing. She did two sides of the building and a whole lotta wall. Two coats.

Molly painting

My masterpiece, still in-process:

my wall

Then Josh, Tom, and Rachel came out to help me knock holes in my hut for windows.

Here’s Josh and Tom starting on the hole for the big window:

first swings

We were pretty sure the whole thing was going to come down with the first hit, but luckily it didn’t. There’s a pretty great sequence of videos of the process of cutting and pushing out chunks of wall.

Best tool of the day: a bike chain, used like a saw to cut lines through the walls. Brilliant!

Best find of the day: two earrings, encased in one of the mud bricks of the wall. I only wish I knew why.

Most disgusting sight of the day: earwigs, streaming out of a hollow roof pole I’d cut the end off of. Hundreds of them, like in a horror movie about an insect invasion. It was truly gross. And even grosser to know that there are more up there, living in other poles.

Josh finished up the window frame the next day, then made me a nice little front step.

So I decided to repaint as well—thing is, the only paint I could buy by the gallon was school bus yellow and a gloss finish. My walls are now… bright. Veeeery bright. And shiny.

yellow walls

I’m now making a screen door to keep out large unwanteds. (The bugs will just go through the cracks around the door, the gap between the walls and roof, or the wide-open back door… but the sheep? The sheep will be foiled!) More pictures to come as work progresses.

I didn’t do all of this stuff last year because of the supposed second batiment that was going to be built where my hut currently is. Since it’s clear that’s not going to happen this coming dry season, either, I figured now was the time. It’s kinda nice to make improvements now—makes my hut seem new and exciting for my second year. Plus it’ll look good for my parents’ visit ; )

Peace Corps year 1

index, year 1

Minimum number of buckets floating at the bottom of my village well, as of November: 6

Maximum number of pounds lost by a male volunteer from my stage: 60

Total ETs from my group, out of 30 people: 5

Days that admin closed the Tamba regional house to prevent a Halloween party from occurring there during Ramadan: 9

Rat families evicted from my hut cabinents: 2

Minimum number of packages that arrived in Tamba in November for volunteers who COS’d in May: 3

Characters required in addition to my name for a letter mailed in Senegal to reach me: 10

Books read during my 14 months in Senegal: 62

Months at site before I could really “hear” Pular: 6

Months at site before I started to feel semi-competent speaking Pular: 11

Mailing address: BP 320 / Tamba will get it here for domestic mail. I’m convinced that all you’d really have to write is my name and “Tamba”—kinda the same theory that says you can find any volunteer by going to their general area and asking around for the white kid.

Reading recommendations: George Packer’s The Village of Waiting is by far the best RPCV book I’ve read. Instead of cloying sentimentality and romanticization, Packer gives a more realistic story: internal conflict from the start and an ambiguous ending (he ET’d with six months left).

Also, I reread Heart of Darkness, which I’d developed an irrational hatred for in my freshman year lit class. This time around it… resonated differently. I still disliked the pervasive racism and sexism, but now I could relate the story to some of my own physical and mental conditions. Which, while it might concern anyone who’s read the book recently, I found pretty intriguing:

I remembered the old doctor—”It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.” I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.”

I feel a pressure when talking to or writing for people who have no direct experience with Peace Corps to maintain whatever mythos they’ve absorbed—wowthatssuchagreatthingyouredoing being the most common. Peace Corps builds this up with brochures about the “great adventure” and “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and “life is calling” and whatnot—and while the challenges they describe (living and working in a foreign culture, creating your job as you go, sticking around once the romance has worn off) are certainly accurate, they don’t reach the depths and extremes that I’ve found here.

There’s a phrase from the PCV-written essay that won Vanity Fair‘s essay contest last year that stuck with me: “I have never known such rage.” It seemed like somehow breaking the unspoken rules of the Peace Corps mythos machine (there is one, I swear—I can hear it whirring as I write) to write that word: rage. But it’s exactly the right word for what I’ve experienced here—certainly not the only emotion I’ve felt, but one of the more surprising ones I’ve found in myself over the past year.

They go something like this:


The work that I’m trying to create as I go along accounts for some of those—frustration and anxiety at slow progress, joy in small successes. While it’s entirely possible to go through two years of Peace Corps without actually accomplishing anything related to development (people do, intentionally or not), most volunteers maintain a self-imposed pressure to do meaningful work.

But that gets tiring. Everything here can feel tiring: huge issues to stew over but only small tasks to occupy me… this perverse form of loneliness that leaves me isolated in a crowd but never allows for anonymity… I desperately miss anonymity, but here everyone has a name for me—toubab—and a demand to attach to it—money, marriage, maybe just attention.

Forgive the geek factor of a Matrix reference, but I feel like coming here was the red pill that revealed workings of a world that I only had abstract ideas about before. I now have faces and names, relationships and experiences—complications and context—that I can’t un-know or, if I have any integrity whatsoever, simply walk away from. But all the same there are definitely times when I wish I could rewind, choose the blue pill, and go back to my very safe, very comfortable American existence.

The bottom line, however, is that I’m still here. I still want to be here. There are lots of good reasons for that—admiration and loyalty for village family and PCV friends, moments of exhilaration and beauty, the conviction that I still have more to learn and more to give, general hard-headedness—and I’m looking forward to my second year.

Bandi in pond