Peace Corps year 2


My trip to Kedougou a few weeks ago was that perfect combination of something beautiful, something unfamiliar, and something absurd that constitutes an ADVENTURE. The area around the town of Kedougou, in the far south-eastern corner of Senegal, is hilly, green even in the dry season, and peopled with friendly Pulars. I went with Molly and some other PCVs to see a Bassari initiation ceremony; Molly’s great idea was that we bike the 83 kilometers from Kedougou to Salemata, the biggest town near the Bassari villages.

I had intentionally postponed going down to Kedougou—I’d been hearing since PST about how gorgeous it is, with forests and waterfalls and the closest thing to mountains that you’ll find in Senegal; I didn’t want to know what I was missing. Now that I’ve been, all I can say is that Kedougou volunteers are lucky bastards. I can’t begin to imagine how my service might have been different if every morning I could have hiked up to the top of a hill to watch the sunrise or every week biked a few kilometers to swim at the base of a waterfall.

They do, however, have to bike a lot—and not the short, flat ride that I have between Tamba and my village. As we found out, biking in Kedougou means going uphill, through gravel, against a headwind (in the rainy season, add to that plowing through mud and wading across rivers). Fifty kilometers took us five hours. Who knows how long that would have been if serendipity hadn’t been with us the entire way. All the villagers we met were happy to show us the road we wanted; every time we came to an unknown fork in the road, someone happened along to point us in the right direction. It was quintessential Peace Corps—setting off on some crazy whim, getting in way over our heads, and succeeding thanks to luck and the help of people who were entertained by a bunch of white kids who magically spoke their language.

the road to Salemata

The fête was well worth the grueling bike ride. The Bassari are a small ethnic group who are nominally Christian but maintain strong animist traditions. We attended an initiation ceremony for the village boys. We had been told it was a circumcision ceremony as well—which added a certain level of drama, especially once we saw how old the initiates were—but ultimately we decided the initiation only involved being beaten with sticks. Everyone was incredibly friendly (maybe in part because they started on the millet beer and honey wine at 8AM) and happy to answer questions about what was happening. It was fun to see something that fit my preconceived ideas of “authentic” African festivities. Go to the gallery for photos and captions.

masks running

We all managed to secure rides back towards Kedougou (biking that road once was enough) that evening with Senegalese friends of PCVs; when everyone else left in one truck, Molly and I waited for the second truck, which was taking our bikes. When the truck, an old blue Land Cruiser, pulled up and the five guys who spilled out were the ones who’d been hitting on us that morning, Molly and I rolled our eyes. When the guys then pulled a freshly dead sheep out of the back of the truck and started gathering wood, we exchanged desperate looks. The sun was already going down, we had a three hour trip ahead of us, and they were going to cook dinner first? It was one of those times when you have to deliberately choose to find your predicament funny because otherwise you’ll start crying—”Hey, remember when those guys slaughtered and roasted a sheep when all we wanted was to get the hell out of there? That was awesome.”

So they roasted the sheep on a jerry-built contraption of sticks (it only fell into the fire once), we ate it, and then we were finally ready to leave. I got the front passenger seat while the other six people were crammed into the middle and back rows because the driver was the guy who had been declaring his love for me earlier. He insisted I sit next to him, but then, luckily for me, the car was too noisy and the steep, rocky road required too much attention for him to be able to continue persuading me that I should accept his advances because my (fictional) boyfriend back home wouldn’t be faithful to me.

sheep roast

Three hours and one stop to take off a wheel and pound pieces of metal back into place later, we reached the campement where we were staying that night. The guys unloaded our bikes, gave us their numbers, and then continued on to Kedougou. We got up early the next morning and biked to the waterfalls at Dindefelo. It was painfully beautiful—lush undergrowth, fern-covered rock faces, clear cold water. I felt like I was back in Austin, on a day trip to Hamilton Pool—hiking through the woods, swimming, and then maybe going out to eat Tex-Mex afterwards. And it was pretty close, except that we had Gazelle and yassa poulet that night instead of Shiner and enchiladas.


Peace Corps year 2

index, month 18

Longest continuous Uno play in village, in hours: 5.5

Kilometers biked in Kedougou: 150

New volunteers in the Tamba region: 7

New male to female ratio in Tamba region: 5:16

New PCVs’ heads I shaved: 1

Rain clouds that passed directly over my backyard: 1

Tree sacks filled and seeded: 275

The Uno games have gone from post-lunch to pre-lunch to post-breakfast. The cards are bent and filthy and impossible to shuffle—little kids are always running off with a handful—but that’s because they’re so well loved. Kinda like the velveteen rabbit… except that these don’t have much hope of turning back into real cards.

I made my first trip down to Kedougou, in the far south-eastern corner of Senegal, to bike out to a Bassari initiation fête with a few other volunteers. The biking was insane—uphill, through gravel, and into the wind the entire way, I swear—but definitely added to the adventure. The fête itself was really cool (I’ll write a full description in an upcoming post), the landscape was gorgeous, and on our way back we stopped off to swim at a waterfall. It was hard to believe I was still in Senegal.

We gave the Tamba house its bi-annual cleaning a few weeks ago in preparation for the new group of volunteers who swore-in mid-May and were just installed at their sites. It’s weird to realize that my group is now at the point that those old, wise PCVs with six months left were when we were new. I finally believe that these remaining months will “fly by” like everyone’s been saying they do.

The new Clare in Tamba, Clare S., decided that—since you only do Peace Corps once and hair grows back—she wanted to liberate her head from its mass of long, curly, beautiful red hair. Gazelle and I were glad to help. She’s still speaking to me, so I think it was all for the best.

The rainy season is on its way—right before I left Tamba to come to Dakar, we got our first all-night deluge after a few nights of wind and scattered sprinkles. I could tell the weather was changing—some people have achy knees that predict storms, I get a rash in my cleavage when the humidity kicks in.

The pepiniere is doing well so far, though there have been some issues among the women’s groupement as to who’s going to be doing the watering when… What I’m more worried about right now is the men making a deadwood fence for the so far nonexistent village garden (where some of the trees will theoretically be planted to form an interior live fence) before the rainy season field work takes over.

Peace Corps year 2

well done… almost

Remember how a year and a half ago I wrote about resubmitting the previous volunteer’s proposal to get Peace Corps funding for a second well in the village? And how it was months before my schedule and the village’s schedule and the Ministrie de Hydraulique’s schedule—and, by that point, the weather’s schedule—aligned to produce three guys and a shovel?

Well, after six months of (every few days, for a few hours each day) digging through rock and sand to a depth of somewhere around 35 meters, water has arrived.

Pouring water at the new well

Water! The village gathered to pull some out so that the workers could continue doing whatever it is they’re doing down there at this point… it was a slow process of the workers showing up to sit around, then the village guys playing games, then everyone attempting to catch donkeys, then pulling water as the women gathered, then sending the chief down to inspect whatever there is to inspect at the bottom of a newly-dug well.

While I was watching the women standing in line with their buckets, I realized that this was one of those “Peace Corps moments” that lots of PCVs never get—seeing your effort (and PC money) have an actual impact. It’s something that I know my village appreciates and that I appreciate both for the instrinsic warm-fuzzies and the possibilities for future projects that it creates. We’ve started a tree nursery and supposedly work has also begun on a fence for a village garden.

Madame washing Mahamadou

However, while there’s the prospect of lots of productive work for my last six months of service, I also anticipate many more hours of the village’s current obsession: Uno. Every day after lunch, during that stupidly hot part of the day when nobody leaves the shade, a group of women, men, and kids has been joining in multi-hour sessions of Uno. The previous volunteer at my site introduced them to the game, and since there’s not much work going on at this time of year, they’ve been asking me to bring out the cards.

Uno game

Games are hilarious—some people get the rules right away, some don’t, and those who do will reach over and play for those who don’t. There’s a lot of fussing and a lot of laughing, especially since I explained the rule about how if you don’t call out “I have one!” (Mi hebii gooto!), someone else can catch you and force you to draw more cards. It’s good to know you’re making a difference, right?