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

Peace Corps year 1

gallery update

Today I uploaded photos of Molly’s village, Cory and Josh’s village, random stuff around my hut, and the Tamba women’s retreat.

dogs on road

Plus, I offer you your first hints of the glory of donkeys (hint 1, hint 2). Go. Listen. Believe.

Peace Corps year 1

ramadan fizzles out

Since the timing of Ramadan goes by the lunar calendar, the dates change, moving something like ten or eleven days ahead every year. The imams watch for the moon, and then announce holidays based on when it shows up or disappears. Yet here at least there always seems to be some debate over when exactly that happens.

Last Wednesday was potentially the end of Ramadan, so at dusk my entire compound stood with their break-fast bread and tea, craning their necks to look for a sliver of the moon in the pink clouds at the horizon. No such luck; tomorrow would be another day of fasting.

However, the next morning the word was going around that people in Saare Madi, one village over, had seen the moon last night. Ceerno Jallo from Saare Kali was sent to verify; as Deya explained it, if Ceerno decided they really had seen the moon, it would in fact be Korite today. I asked Deya, had anyone checked the radio to see if Mecca had celebrated already? (Apparently holidays here often occur the day after they take place there.) No, he replied, they’d just wait and see what Ceerno said.

This is the rough equivilant, for you Baton Rouge people, of a priest in Denham Springs driving his pickup truck over to Plaquemine on what might possibly be Easter morning to ask a priest there if it is in fact Easter morning instead of, say, turning on WAFB to see what the bishop says.

So anyway, we flagged down Ceerno Jallo as he rode back home on his bike, and he confirmed that the moon had been seen and today was Korite, and so then everyone was happy and sat down to breakfast.

As on Tabaski back in January, the surrounding villages gather in Saare Kali for prayers on the morning of Korite. Last time this involved a mad dash to the service, followed by a day of sheep slaughter and fancy outfits. Not so much for Korite.

Around 10am we take a charette to Saare Kali. When we arrive a crowd of men is gathered around various pieces of cow, so I follow the women into a hut to sit and wait for them to finish and the prayers to start. Other than people passing through to greet, hunt for clothes, or deliver water, it’s just us guests in there.

We sit on the beds and wait. My moms gossip in soft tones about people passing outside; every once in a while someone goes to the hut door to peer out at new arrivals or to check on the progress of the cow slaughter. A woman and her little girl, hair unbraided and sticking straight out from her head, come in to greet our group. I open my eyes wide, cock my head to the right, and smile broadly, and her hesitant curiousity turns to terror; she starts screaming and has to be shooed outside by her mother. I think, Yep, still got it.

And we wait. One by one the women lie down instead of sitting on the beds. Bidji and Aljuma get restless and start talking about heading back. I sit with my back against the curved wall of the hut, trying to ignore the flies, and watch a woman outside cutting indecipherable chunks of cow into smaller indecipherable chunks of cow. Watching her, I imagine how when I’m back in the U.S. I will set aside a week of celebration for every possible type of food: a week for meat (bacon and sausage for breakfast, lamb kebobs for lunch, chicken fried steak for dinner), a week for fruit (berries in the morning, peaches midday, blueberry pie at night), a week for cheese, a week for boxed breakfast cereals. Today I’ll probably have to settle for some cow intestine.

Bidji and Aljuma leave. Two-year-old Aadama is running out of ways to entertain herself. I don’t have a watch, but I know we’ve been sitting there for hours now. I casually wonder if Bandi, who I locked in my hut so he wouldn’t follow the charette, has destroyed anything yet.

At what turns out to be about 1pm, I give up. I walk the kilometer or so back to the village, enjoying how my outfit, which is a huge forest and lime green tie-dye boubou—about three meters of fabric folded in half, with a hole cut for my head—billows in the wind. I feel like a tent, or maybe Jesus, but look more like a psychedelic flying squirrel.

People eventually return and change out of their nice clothes. Things are pretty calm until lunchtime, when they continue to be calm as first the men and then the women go as a group from one household to the next, eating a bowl of food at each compound. Nice (but not new for Korite) clothes are re-donned, I go around and take some pictures… and that’s about it. A few boom boxes going until midnight or so, but no goat carnage, no brand-new outfits. I figured that after a month of fasting they’d be ready for a huge feast, partying til all hours… but it was all very sedate. Photos are here.


Excitement has arrived, however, in the form of giant dump trucks: preparations have begun for the construction of the second village well! Only a month and a half after they were supposed to!

So far they’ve delievered coils of wire, great loops of rebar, a load of dirt, a load of rocks, and six metric tons of cement. Standing in a cleared field to watch the truck dumping out dirt, surrounded by a crowd of children, I had a clear vision of my entertainment for the next month and a half. They’re supposed to finish the digging by Christmas; keep those fingers crossed.

Peace Corps year 1

index, month 11

Times the village TV has been turned on since Alahji returned to Spain: 1

Minimum number of clandestine card playing sessions held while the heads of household were out of the village: 4

Motorcycles (not mopeds… motorcycles) bought by my village father: 1

Lowest temperature observed in my hut, in degrees Fahrenheit: 74

Approximate hours during the day that people go without eating or drinking, in observance of Ramadan: 13

Trainees from the new group who have ET’d, out of 44: 5

Heinekens I was forced to drink with dinner at Massa Massa because they no longer carry the fantastic Belgian beer: 3

Times I ate ice cream while in Thies: 5

Sessions in which fellow PCV Hannah and I brought the trainees ice cream to bribe them into a) being awake b) liking us: 1

Trainers who told me they thought I’d be the Aggie from my stage to ET, because I was “quiet”: 1

The TV. It’s awfully purty just sitting there being shiny and ridiculous, but it requires gas to power the generator to power it. And gas costs money, so without Alahji to hand someone the cash to buy fuel in Tamba, it has only been run once. I was, naturally, summoned for tech support, which called for hooking the generator, converter, and tv cords up in the correct sequence; figuring out that the remote batteries were dead; and preventing Tali from poking a knife into an extension cord socket. Then soccer was watched, and there was much rejoicing.

I spent the week before last in Thies, playing the role of the wise and wizened (or maybe just rumpled and slightly dirty) Volunteer for the new group of trainees. It was their third week of PST, the time when wide-eyed optimism is, for some, fading to the dazed squint of a person subjected to three and a half hours of language class five days a week. And there are still five weeks of training before they swear in and go to their sites.

Poor bastards. I tried to be encouraging, but it was difficult when all I could think was “Damn I’m glad I never have to do this again.” PST runs on an exhausting schedule, convinces you you’ll never learn your language, and chips away at rosy preconceptions about Peace Corps life and work. Add to that the pressure of pleasing your host family, waiting for site announcements, and scuffles with admin, and it’s a miracle anyone makes it to swear-in. But they do, and this seemed like a pretty savvy group. Lots of guitar players.

Thies was an odd place for me that week—a year through service, I was halfway between the newly-arrived trainees and the COSing volunteers who were also there as trainers. It seemed equally possible that I had never left PST (trying not to cry in language class or fall asleep in cross-cultural sessions) and that I was already on my way out (overearly nostalgia for the village, last-minute panic about leaving). Neither was true, of course—instead I’m this strange in-between, giving reassurance to one group while seeking reassurance from the other.

I was proud in an indignant sort of way when Youssoupha told me that I had surprised him by not ETing. Apparently, for the Senegalese, quiet = unhappy = going to leave. Bah.

Peace Corps year 1

hold that thought

So I had just finished typing my Month 11 post and was looking through photos to upload… when the iBook screen flickered and died. I think it’s the video card. I think getting tech support from Africa is going to be a pain. I think I’m very, very sad.

So until I get the thing fixed or find the energy to retype that post… just know that I had ice cream like five times last week. It was great.

Peace Corps year 1

gallery recommendations

This week was really only good for being sick and being the week before I go to Thies to help out with Pre-Service Training, so in lieu of any new content of my own devising…

Go check out Josh and Cory’s photos: they’ve got a great collection, which they have organized very handily into exciting albums such as “Fixing Up the Place,” “Work,” “Around Tamba,” and “Hell is Other Volunteers.”

Also, if you wanted to see what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer in a tropical paradise, may I suggest fellow UT-Austin alum Logan‘s gallery. He’s in Jamaica and lives in what used to be “the minister’s house.” It has a “veranda.”


Peace Corps year 1

gallery update

corn cobs

I posted a few Month 11 photos today. Card games, a donkey, and corn. What more could a girl want?

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.)