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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CBT Stay #1

Honoo heen!  This morning we returned to the training center after having spent the last 5 days in full language immersion with our Senegalese host families. Seven other Peace Corps Trainees and I were placed in the neighborhood of Samba Laube, in the town of Mbour, about a half-hour from Thies.  On Thursday (tomorrow!), I’m going back to Samba Laube, and this time I’m staying for 11 days, so I’ll have to skip my normal Wednesday blog next week, but when I write the week after that, I will have pictures.  Please feel free to call my Senegalese cell phone any time during the next 11 days - I'm sure speaking English will feel really nice.

When I stepped out of the van in front of my compound last Thursday, I was immediately surrounded by 13 jumping Senegalese excitedly shouting at me in a language I didn’t understand.  They grabbed my backpack, purse, and water bottle from me, then the father grabbed my hand and pulled me into their compound.  Everyone was talking to me at once and I had no idea what anyone was saying.  Finally, after about 5 minutes of craziness, a young woman around my age said “seu nome na américa?”  I (thankfully) had had one semester of high school Spanish, which is similar to Portuguese, so I was able to answer that!  I gave her my English name, and she clapped and pantomimed for me to write it in the sand.  After I did so, everyone clapped and hollered, and one of the older women yelled something at the smallest boy.  He gleefully stomped out my name in the sand with his bare feet, then, on cue, everyone pointed to me and yelled “HADJA BALDE!” (it sounds like hahd-jah bald-ay).  And that’s how I got my Senegalese name.

The compound consists of three cement buildings, an outhouse, and a deep well.  There’s no electricity, and I bathe with water from the well, a cup, and a bucket.  I have my own room in the compound, which is about 10 x 15 feet and has nothing but a bed with a Peace Corps supplied mosquito net in it and three giant but harmless spiders.  I am curious about who was using the room before me and how many people are crammed into other rooms now just so I can have my own space, but I don’t have the language skills to ask that yet.  The stars at night are amazing.  

The first day was pretty confusing.  I have a million stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings I could share.  You might remember from an earlier post that I said French is the national language of Senegal, so everyone who’s educated knows some French.  My family is not educated and did not know French...or English…or German…so I had to learn to speak Fulakunda pretty quickly.  I looked up how to say “what’s this?” in Fulakunda (hoko woni?, in case you’re wondering) and wrote the answers to everything they said in my notebook, so I know a ton of nouns but not so many verbs.  A woman named Fatou was teaching me parts of the body that first day, touching her eye and saying “gire” for example, and she calmly whipped out a boob to teach me the words for breast and nipple.  Every morning, I spent a few hours at Fulakunda class with my teacher and two other PCTs learning the language.  The classes were casual – we’d sit on mats and write useful phrases and vocabulary in our notebooks, and every 10 minutes or so someone from the neighborhood would stop by to say hello, or someone would come by to give us cups of delicious, potent, super-sugary tea (attaya).  The other PCTs are having an easier time with acquisition than I am because their compounds have people that speak English or French, so they can clarify when they don’t understand something.  I’m hoping that I’ll get over this initial hump of confusion and start to understand more soon.   It’s frustrating that it takes me 10 minutes of pantomiming and looking up words to say something like “I am going back to Thies tomorrow morning.”

My tokara (AKA namesake – AKA her name is also Hadja Balde) was the young woman who spoke Portuguese to me when I got there.  She grew up in Guinea Bissau, so Fulakunda is her first language, but she learned Portuguese in school.  She’s 27 and has 3 kids, but only two live in the compound, Kadi (3) and Yaya (1).  The oldest kid is still in Guinea Bissau, but I don’t have the language yet to ask why.  Her husband leaves for work very early and comes back late, so I don’t know much about him other than that he’s an Arabic scribe.  There are 4 other women and one other man that live in the compound with me.  I thought the older man’s name was “babba maa” because he kept pointing to his chest and saying that, but I learned on day 3 that “babba maa” actually means “your father” and his name is Mamadou Salif.  He is a fortune teller and has two wives, Adama and Assamau, who are my mothers.   A different woman also named Assamau has a daughter named Mari (5) but I don’t know who or where her husband is.  Fatu has a daughter named Assamau (8).  Jennebou has four kids: Zahara (8), Hulay (6), Mustafa (3) and Samba (infant.)  There’s another kid named Fatamata who’s 9 and I have no idea who she belongs to. I’m pretty sure there are indeed three Assamaus, confusing as that is.  

The legendary Senegalese hospitality has exceeded my expectations.  I feel like royalty.  Everywhere I go, people jump out of their chairs to offer them to me.  Hadja and I share our own bowl at lunch, and when we’re finished the rest of the family gets our leftovers.  I try to help cook, sweep, do laundry, or draw water from the well, and they tell me to stop and sit down, then they bring me tea or juice.  Every day, Hadja’s husband comes home from work with a bag of cheese balls for me that he bought on the way.  For breakfast each day, I am served on a US Presidents plate with a big picture of Bill Clinton on the middle.

None of the kids go to school or have ever gone to school (I asked that several times in several ways, just to be sure, because I desperately wanted to have misunderstood), but they are the happiest bunch of kids I’ve ever seen and they’re delighted with everything I do.  It was shocking to see the way the kids live at first. I want to stress again that these kids are happy, and they seem strong, well-fed, and energetic, but they literally play in the dirt in the compound all day, their clothes are tattered and dirty, they cough a lot, and their noses are always covered in snot.  Kadi and Mustafa frequently pick plastic bags off the ground and suck on them.  A few of them have open sores.  They do always wash their hands before eating, though (thanks former Peace Corps volunteers!).  I brought a deck of uno cards because I thought that playing with the kids would help me learn colors and numbers, but I had to teach THEM numbers before we could play.  They knew how to count objects, but I don’t think they knew that the symbol “8” represented eight objects.  I had a map of the world with me, and when I asked them where Senegal was, where they were, where Africa was, where America was, no one knew.  This might just be a communication problem - after all, I have only been speaking their language for a couple days - but it might be indicative of a larger problem.  In my compound, and I think in most others, the kids are left to their own devices while the men do their own thing and the women do their own thing, so there’s no supervision, formal education, or scheduled activities for the kids.  In my compound there are no books, no magazines, no TVs, and no radios, and I wonder how much the kids learn without those inputs.  They’re great language teachers because they never get bored of talking to me.  When I learn a new word, I say it in Fulakunda 3 times and in English 3 times, then we see who can remember better.   They usually win.

Unrelated, but awesome: I’m on methloquine as an anti-malarial medication, and side effects of that are vivid dreams and hallucinations.  I haven’t had any hallucinations (yet?) but the vivid dreams are sooooooo much fun! Three nights in the last week I’ve been able to recognize that I was dreaming, and then control the dream.  Usually in lucid dreams, sensations are dulled, but with the methloquine, everything looks and feels like it should, and it’s fantastic.  Like, I can fly, and I can feel the air rushing past…and I can eat anything…and I can feel anything…it’s terrific.

Until next time!



  1. Barb, I laughed out loud reading this! To serve you breakfast on Obama's face is hilarious! Being an educator, it is disturbing to think there are kids who aren't being educated. World health/education is something few think about. I'm so proud of you. I'm making copies of your posts to give to Grandma. Know you will be the focus of conversations at our Wednesday night suppers!!

  2. These posts are great. Thanks Brah-brah. Keep up the good work!

  3. Barb,
    Joyce told me about you weekly post and I was so glad you friended me right away so I didn't miss anything. I could relate (being in Roatan for three months) to the education and the living conditions, still the people are always happy. I often wondered who was better off and who worried more. Love reading about your adventure and looking forward to the next.
    Stay healthy & safe, Sandy


    I love this post ... please don't fret about not picking things up quickly. You've learned and retained peoples names who don't even speak the same language as you. Meanwhile, I can't even remember a server's name at a Happy Hour four seconds after they leave the table.

    So exciting! Can't wait for your next update :)

    - Brian