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Peace Corps year 2

i put a spell on you…

In Senegal there are merchants who specialize in gris-gris supplies—goat horns, porcupine quills, cowrie shells, and the like for making fetishes. These little leather pouches are practically the first thing that a village newborn wears, and from that moment on people keep them tied around arms, necks, waists, and car steering columns. Though their place in official religion is perhaps dubious, they are ubiquitous.

This is one seller’s table in Tamba:

gris gris table

And down there on the left… Could that be…?

monkey paw

Yes, yes it is. Who wouldn’t want that around their neck?

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Peace Corps year 2

home stretch, stretching for home

street scene from above

Riding a bus in Dakar, trying to absorb the brilliant blue post-storm sky, passing groups of men sitting the day away and rams tied to trees along the median, I felt how the city is still a whole, pulsating organism to me. It remains foreign and exotic—sensory overload in every glance. I worry that when I am finally, finally back in the U.S., I’ll wake up after the first night of sleep at my parents’ house and these past two years will only seem like a mefloquine dream—over-vivid and unsettling, but ultimately fading.

The ease with which I slipped back into the warm, sweet-scented bath of First World comforts does nothing to allay these fears. My group’s Close of Service conference last week was held at a hotel in downtown Dakar that had air-conditioning, CNN in English, wireless internet, and power outages that could be described as infrequent.

Sometime around when we called in an order for poolside ice cream delivery, I wondered: when I go back, shouldn’t I be one of those volunteers who has a breakdown in Wal-Mart or stands paralyzed in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed by the sheer acreage of consumer choices? If I accept that world as normal, aren’t I denying the lives I’ve been a part of for the past two years? It seems disloyal.

At the same time, I am done with being here. Just as every bad interaction can be redeemed by a good one (wowing pushy Dakar vendors with Pulaar), every good moment can be squashed, obliterated, and otherwise cancelled out by an awful one. My taxi driver Tuesday morning asked what office I was going to; when I explained what Peace Corps was and that I’d been living in Tamba (inconceivably remote and hot to Dakarois) for the past two years, he seemed genuinely amazed and pleased. He told me I was doing good work and wished me luck as I got out of the cab.

A few hours later, I and four other volunteers went to the gare (hectic and aggravating on the best of days) to get transport to Tamba. We found a sept-place to rent out, refused to pay baggage because we were paying for the entire car already, got in, and sat as the driver started navigating through rows of parked station wagons. Then he stopped. And got out. And he and his boss demanded that we pay an outrageous amount for our six small bags.

So we got out. And argued. They refused to relent. We refused to budge. They started pulling our bags out of the car and we demanded our money back. The backpacks were on the ground, the cash was in my hand, and a crowd had gathered to watch the white kids get screwed. It wasn’t the kind of cultural exchange Peace Corps promotes in the brochures.

In the end, we paid. We paid because we could, because we wanted to get the hell out of there, and because they knew we could and would pay to do so. We consoled ourselves with the fact that it was our last time to go through that ordeal, and as we drove away we indulged in a round of rather unkind sentiments.

Now I’m back in Tamba for less than a month before making one last trip to Dakar to COS. Peace Corps has bought my plane ticket; I have a touchdown time in Baton Rouge. Before then I have work to finish and reports to write and still that goodbye to say to the village, but I’m going home home home. I’ve been working on grad school essays and looking at Bay Area apartments. I can see a giant crack rushing along the ground towards me, and I know which way I’m jumping.

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Peace Corps year 2

shopping in Dakar

On Saturday afternoon Molly and I went shopping in downtown Dakar near the Marché Sandaga, a sprawling mess of fabric stores and sidewalk vendors. We pushed our way past stalls selling fake gold and imitation brand name shirts, running a gauntlet of jewelry peddlers and men pushing carved figurines and patchwork bags in our foreign, white faces.

That walk epitomized what is so exhausting, so aggravating, about being here. Our white skin was a glowing beacon drawing in a steady stream of people who had no interest in us beyond our toubab money. The man insistently tapping me on the arm with a wooden giraffe clearly believed that I had come to the market that day with no other intention than to give my money to him, if only he were persistent enough.

However, like so many of my Senegal experiences, there was also a moment of triumph—a counterbalance to the frustration, redeeming the day. I stopped to try on sunglasses and greeted the seller in Pulaar. All the guys within earshot turned to me in surprise, and pretty soon I had attracted a crowd of five or six men marveling at the white girl speaking Pulaar. One of them took over translation duties since the actual vendor didn’t speak Pulaar and I was having fun by refusing to speak French. I went from target to novelty with just a few sentences, and that was victory enough.

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Peace Corps year 2

a green hill's chance in bak-hell

I visited Glen’s village last week, and we climbed a hill to see where a monster supposedly ate a white person years ago. We didn’t find the monster, but the view was spectacular:

glen village panorama

I uploaded more photos of Glen’s site and the Bakel area, which is reportedly a scorched wasteland for most of the year. That’s why I only visit in the rainy season, when it’s all rolling green hills.

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Peace Corps year 2

index, month 21

Freshly detached wheels my sept-place had to swerve around on the road to Dakar while following a small bus: 1

Fingers our Dakar-to-Tamba sept-place driver had on each hand: 6

Rumored cost of boat passage from Senegal to the Canary Islands, in CFA: 600,000

Approximate equivalent in dollars: 1,200

Holes I dug for transplanting trees: 97

Meters of rope bought for pulling water at the new well: 160

Fine set by the village chief for placing a bucket on the edge of the well (where it might fall in), in American cents: 40

Square meters of my bean field I weeded by hand during four hours spread over three days: 270

Square meters left to weed: 585

Times Kumba Bah has given birth: 11

Auto travel in Senegal… The good news is, so far everyone I know has had a 100% success rate in not being squished in any number of potential head-on, side, rear, or livestock-related collisions. The bad news: there’s always next time.

The live fence is planted, protected by the garden’s dead fence, which encloses 225 square meters of prime vegetable growing space, which can be watered using the water basin, which is connected to the new well, where water is pulled with four brand new sets of pulleys, ropes, and buckets. It’s nice to see it completed after all this time, ready for the next volunteer to assist with gardening.

group with well stuff

Out in the fields hacking away at grass, I feel like Derek Zoolander in his miner’s outfit: a farce. Village farming requires a level of sweat that I can barely even begin to comprehend—the nine-year-olds do more fieldwork in a week than I’ll have done in my entire two years.

It’s a difference in magnitude kinda like how Kumba has had more kids than… well, than I ever plan to.

My group’s Close of Service conference is week after next—once I get back, I’ll have just a little over a month in the village before I pack up and head to Dakar on my way back to the States. Good news: soon I’ll be an RPCV. Bad news: I’ve reached the care package cut-off point, where packages (and letters, too, soon enough) sent now might not reach me before I leave Tamba 😉

Right now, I’m excited to finish up projects and then go home.

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Peace Corps year 2

donkey of the month, august

Mr. August:

donkey splendor in the grass

But there’s more! I uploaded a veritable assload of donkey pictures today.

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Peace Corps year 2

can you visualize whirled peas?

One of the many little-known perks of Peace Corps Volunteerhood is the sporadic receipt of Newsweek International. Random issues of this weekly publication, clearly designed for the world business traveler trying to decide which Wimbledon-endorsed Rolex is right for his lifestyle, arrive every month or two in our mailboxes, fresh from the overstock pile courtesy what I can only assume is a small but friendly tax write-off.

While these magazines make impressive stacks at regional houses, they’re also good for vaguely educational village entertainment. In my compound a shiny Newsweek, with its full color photos and tasteful amounts of text, always draws a crowd of all ages. The other day I brought out one that had the usual series of war report/disaster update/European political drama/luxury goods feature. A few of my moms gathered to look at the pictures and sound out the occasional headline.

As we flipped through (back to front), the women asked me questions about the photos: where is this? what are they doing? This is our standard routine, but their questions can still take me aback. One image showed several soldiers lying on their stomachs on a dusty hill, facing away from the camera to watch a helicopter land. Madame asked me if they were dead—it was clear to me from their posture and the context of the photograph that they weren’t, but she couldn’t tell. Another story had a picture of oil derricks in a snowfield; they wanted to know if the scene was land or water.

For me those questions were a vivid reminder of one of the many basic abilities I take for granted: visual literacy. The sheer volume of images Americans are exposed to, from childhood onwards, is staggering. Media saturation is criticized for promoting materialism and consumerism above critical thinking, but I think it’s pretty amazing to consider the amount of people, places, animals, and objects that I can recognize without ever having seen them in person.

We discussed this in Peace Corps training in the context of presentations and trainings—symbols and representations we as Americans wouldn’t think twice about are completely indecipherable to many villagers. Recognizing that a line drawing of a cow indicates the living thing you milk every morning is not as obvious as it might seem. And if that’s not obvious, how much more complicated must it be to understand a balance sheet or a flow chart? They’re cut off from a whole world of ideas and information, and that figurative divide ensures the continuation of a very real physical and economic divide.

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Peace Corps year 2

toot toot!

Apparently, I should learn how to use TrackBack… Thanks, Matty, for the heads-up on a mention of my blog by the Austinist.

An interesting time of it, indeed!

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Peace Corps year 2

and then there are the good days

I normally hate having to be in Dakar. It’s hectic, aggressive, and expensive as all get-out. However, at this particular moment I’m in an air conditioned cafe, sitting next to a tank full of massive orange goldfish and surfing the internet over a wireless connection. I just finished a club sandwich and my photos are uploading at a blazing 26 kb/s, over twice the speed I get in Tamba. In a little while I’m going to order a pastry. Or perhaps some chocolate cake.

Dakar ain’t so bad today.

It wasn’t so bad yesterday, either—despite the fact that I was at the Peace Corps office for almost ten hours. Eleven of us traveled from our sites during prime work season for a special Volunteer Advisory Council meeting regarding relations between volunteers and the PC/Senegal Country Director and administration.

They’ve been bad for a lot of people. Really bad. Kinda abysmal, really.

Yesterday’s meeting came about through a complex series of events that don’t need to be detailed here; suffice it to say that the mood in parts of the Peace Corps community had degenerated to the point where paranoia and rumor had taken over. The meeting was an attempt to remedy the situation by giving the volunteers an opportunity to voice their concerns, the staff theirs, and then proposing ways to repair the lines of communication.

Everyone kept a calm, positive tone throughout, and we ended up with a long list of possible solutions to the various problems we identified. It was a very satisfying, reassuring example of progress being made—and effort and worry paying off.

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Peace Corps year 2

donkey of the month, july

Here’s Mr./Mrs. (I didn’t check) July:

july donkey

Yeah, so I’ve been in Tamba for a while on med hold (sinus infection and fever, on drugs and feeling better now), so there are a bunch of new photos up in Month 20.