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.)

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.

Peace Corps year 1

index, month 8

Small animals that got stuck in the corner between my hut wall and bed: 2

Fields planted with seed I distributed: 10

Fields planted with seed I distributed that were planted with the recommended seeding disc, which determines plant spacing within rows: 8

Lowest observed temperature in my hut, in degrees Fahrenheit: 75

Total sprouts so far out of dozens of basil, carrot, green pepper, squash, and pumpkin seeds planted: 2

Approximate number of newly-hatched tadpoles in large pond by my village, in zillions: 2

Small animals: the hedgehog featured in last week’s post and a frog that made noises like a roosting chicken.

Temperature: it’s very, very humid, which makes even the mid-80s unbearable. And nothing dries, so everything smells. I’m told even my clothes will mildew before the rainy season’s over. It’s a glamorous life I lead.

Sprouts: two brave little pumpkins. I reseeded yesterday, this time with seeds that hopefully aren’t three years old.

Village moments from the past week:

Seven little girls, ranging from just-walking to 3 or 4 years old, gathered in a circle: each had a piece of cloth that she scrubbed back and forth and dunked into an invisible bucket of water.

Two teenage guys bent over, weeding millet with short-handled hoes, and a girl who had come out to the field to pour tea for them.

Two-year-old Djenaba, after clunking herself in the head with a stick three times her height, reacting by hitting the stick back and calling it a bad name.

Peace Corps year 1

hut improvement

In the past few weeks I finally got around to all that “make your hut your home” stuff they told us to do in our first three months at site. I had delayed mostly because I wasn’t sure that I would be in my hut this long; when I first arrived, in November, and construction on the batiment had just begun, my family assured me that as soon as this first one was done, and Ami had her wedding, then they’d knock down the second row of huts and build a second batiment—all before the rainy season came in June.

Riiiight. If I’d understood village time then like I understand village time now, I’d have tiled the douche.

Here’s what I’ve done:

Gotten my mattress out of the way, since it’s too hot to sleep on right now (that’s it at the top, resting on ropes), and gone from beach motif to apocalyptic flames:

flames over bed

Painted the cabinent doors and tac-board with chalkboard paint:

chalkboard cabinents

Dug, placed borders, and seeded two beds in the backyard; filled broken pounders with dirt to make flower pots; and placed cinder blocks as stepping stones from the hut to the douche (though they’re already breaking apart since they’re more dirt than cement):

backyard beds and stones

Painted the plastic lining the shade structure roof: (Those are Happy Clouds, not spots on a blue cow.)

shade structure with clouds

Adventures in farming continue, despite minor hiccups for the demo plots like not planting the millet until last week, using 1/10th the correct amount of fertilizer for the corn, and children pulling up the stakes marking the bean field.

On the other hand, I found a hedgehog in my hut last week:

hedgehog in cup!

Peace Corps year 1


The rainy season has transformed my village’s surroundings from tall, golden brown (i.e. dead) grass to a carpet of neon green sprouts. Farmers are in full swing—most of the millet and corn already planted, they’re now seeding peanuts and cotton. This is all accomplished despite cranky or sometimes nonexistent equipment. Children lead horses, donkeys, or cattle as the men or older boys guide ancient, rusty plows and seeders covered in flaking yellow paint. They bang plow blades into place with axe heads and rarely have the correct seeding disc for whatever crop they want to plant that day.

Coming into Peace Corps with the extensive agricultural background of a film degree, all I have to compare this to are tall, lush sugarcane fields seen from Louisiana highways. I admit to arriving with my fair share of new agey, organic shopping, yuppified ideas about the romance of working the soil—living closely with the land, fully engaged in the production of one’s own sustenance. The circle of life and whatnot.

I am sorry to report that there is nothing sexy about subsistence farming. There is nothing romantic about working with your hands in the earth—that dirt is hot and dry and your hands will crack and bleed. The rain comes early, it comes late, it comes too often or not often enough. Bugs eat the seed, bugs eat the sprouts, bugs eat the ripened grains. The only crop they have sufficient pesticides and fertilizers for is cotton, since SODEFITEX sells equipment and supplies to farmers on credit, taking the cost out of payment for their final harvest.

Not only are the Senegalese farmers producers, they’re producers working without the benefits of easy consumption. All the products that seem to materialize on store shelves in the U.S.—flour, rope, planks of wood—must be produced in the village. Flour pounded from grain, rope woven from strips of rice sack, wooden planks chopped by hand from trees cut down by hand—”Third World” may no longer be the preferred terminology, but looking out from the boundaries of life in rural Africa, America might as well be a separate planet.

So the question would be: Where should development agencies work within this context, to bridge that divide in what ways?

On a completely unrelated note, I was walking back to the Peace Corps house, past a group of men standing around a construction site, when one called out a greeting and then told me that one of the other men wanted to talk to me. Knowing full well what was coming, I walked back to where they were. A slightly older guy asked me where my “man” was and, despite my answer that he was “over there” (pointing towards the house), then naturally suggested that I consider him as a potential husband.

My response to this (frequent) conversation varies. If I’m in a bad mood, I just walk away. If I’m in a mood to view marriage proposals as entertaining instead of just obnoxious, I’ll joke with the guy: Can you cook?… Ok, but you’ll have to give my father sixty cows., etc. This time, however, I was prepared—one of the PCV-assembled Pulaar verb lists includes an example phrase for each verb, and one had stuck in my mind as potentially useful.

So, after a bit of “What about me?” / “I’ve got a man.” / “Yeah, but what about me?” I told him—in Pulaar, in front of the dozen or so other men, while giving him a dismissive wave of the hand and turning to walk away—

“You? You’re older than my grandfather!”

They all howled with laughter, and me, I left victorious.

Peace Corps year 1

index, month 7

Garden plots dug in backyard: 2

Small animals killed by Steven: 2

Village toddlers with squeaking cartoon character shoes: 2

Sixteen-year-olds married off to other villages: 1

Brides offered to Steven: 1

Minimum number of farmers who planted their Peace-Corps-distributed seed two weeks before I found out they’d planted: 2

Depth in meters of my village’s well: 35

Depth in meters of a Kolda region PCV’s village well, where fish sometimes come up in the water bucket: 3

Garden plots: not seeded yet, as I didn’t want to plant before the rains really started, when I’d have to haul water from the well, and because I do not yet have a shovel handle for my new shovel head.

Small animals: a very unlucky mouse whose tail got stuck under the gas stove and a runty baby chick whose mother abandoned and then viciously pecked on the neck whenever we tried to give it back to her.

Squeaking shoes: no longer squeak.

Farmers who planted early: one of whom was my millet demo plot farmer, unfortunately. Very patchy germination since the seeds were sitting in dry dirt and/or being eaten by birds for two weeks before it rained again.

Fish in the well: how awesome is that? The only stuff down in my well is fruit that the kids throw down there that makes the water green.

There was a death in the village at the end of May, while I was in Dakar. The chief’s youngest daughter from his first marriage, Bounkone, came to our village because she had been sick. She apparently died the night after she arrived, leaving a three-month-old son in the care of her sister, Salimata. The baby seemed ok for a while, but on Saturday was sick and died Saturday night.

I’m glad that I wasn’t in the village for Bounkone’s death. I didn’t know her since she was married and lived elsewhere, but I do of course know her family, and I wouldn’t have wanted to hear the women wailing. I know I can’t avoid it forever—the rainy season is the sick season, and more than a few volunteers from my group have already lost village friends or family—but I’m so scared that someone from my galle will die a seemingly sudden, entirely preventable death.

Sickness here is something I don’t understand—caused by injuries that would be minor inconveniences in the States, or by nutritional deficiencies that could be solved by a few boiled eggs a week. Sometimes people go the hospital, eight kilometers away in Tamba, sometimes they sit and endure ear infections or oozing wounds or mysterious aches and pains. If they go to a doctor they come back with tabs of folic acid or painkillers. The baby that died this weekend looked awful—staring listlessly as the women took turns holding him—but as far as I know he was never taken to a doctor. These are all things that I’ve wanted to ask about, but I’m just now feeling confident enough in my Pulaar and comfortable enough socially to try starting those kinds of conversations.

seeding fields

The rainy season has finally, actually, for real this time started. As in, it’s raining every few days instead of pouring one night and then not raining again for a month. This is a very good thing both for the farmers, who can now seed their fields in earnest, and also for me, since I can now walk from field to field pretending like I know what I’m looking at and talking about.

It’s still hot and still humid and there are still too many hours in the day to fill, but the storms are amazing and the air cool afterwards. No staph infections or weird fungi yet, so I figure I’m doing pretty well. Plus, the funding for the new village well was finally approved, so with any luck digging can start after this rainy season.

To celebrate Independence Day Senegalese style, we slaughtered and roasted Freedom the Goat on a homemade spit, a four-hour process. Photos of the process from loud, furry goat to skinned, roasting goat will go up sometime soon.

And, yes, Freedom sure tasted great.

Peace Corps year 1

rain rain come and stay

The rainy season still hasn’t begun in earnest in my village. Rain here is so scattered that it can pour in Tamba and barely sprinkle on us, about seven kilometers away. Thursday night we had big puffy clouds overhead, lit on one side by the half-full moon and on the other by lightning from storms passing us on the north and east.

In Cory and Josh’s village, we watched a massive wall of clouds charge straight over us, bringing a cool wind but only a moderate amount of rain. But it sure looked impressive:

storm over village

The first rains set off a flurry of construction in the village—the new batiment in my compound is almost completed, and my family both repaired my hut roof and built a shade structure in my backyard.

And while there aren’t clouds of mosquitoes yet, the flies are out in force and, even more exciting, nasty things like gargantuan scorpions are appearing:

hand and huge scorpion

This guy was knocking around one night in Aissatu’s hut, next door to me. Aissatu pinned him down with a stick and Mamadou cut his stinger off before tying a string around his tail and hanging him, still alive, from a tree. He dangled there, trying to take swipes at passing livestock, until the kids finally knocked him down and killed him later that day.

I’m in Tamba for Cory’s birthday and a regional meeting, where things were exciting for the Peace Corps regional med officer, who happened to stop by and, while he missed Glen’s kidney stones, had to deal with both a case of breakthrough malaria and Bandi’s infected shoulder. As best we can tell, his giant oozing wound was caused by his rabies shot—a dirty needle or maybe just general incompetence. Yet another use for duct tape:

Bandi on operating table

Peace Corps year 1

spring has sprung wet sheep

Spent a few days in Dakar to pick Steven up at the airport, attend my first VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meeting (I’m the new Tamba rep), get the last of my vaccination shots, and take a mini-vacation at the beach. A good time was had by all. Now it’s back to the village and the start of the rainy season in earnest.

The day before I left the village last week, everyone was out in the fields plowing and even seeding the first of the millet fields. The rainy season is apparently really early this year; I’ve already seen one huge storm—two hours of gale-force wind, rave-worthy lightning and huge raindrops.

The morning after a rain the world smells like wet sheep. It’s blessedly cool until 10AM or so, when post-rain freshness turns to post-rain humidity. The guys are happy because they don’t have to get up at 5AM to pull water for the animals. Everyone else is happy because rain means greenery means the cows will start producing lots of milk again.

Seeing green is strange after months of dead grass and bare dirt. The slowly spreading carpet of sprouting grass is evocative of either the joy of spring or the onset of mold, depending on one’s mood.

As moldly as it/I may get, I’m excited about my first rainy season: I’ve got 34 kilos of seed, a 7,000 CFA spray bottle, and (hopefully) a newly repaired hut roof.