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Sunday, April 27, 2014

No Title

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the long absence.  I just got back from staying with my language immersion host family in Sambalaobe.  There is no electricity there, so I didn’t bring my computer with me.  I did bring my smartphone so I could check emails and facebook if I happened to find wifi (which I did, a few times, at a restaurant near the beach, so thanks to those who emailed me, because it was a nice surprise to be able to read those) but typing out a whole blog on a smartphone screen seemed hard, and I figured the battery probably wouldn’t last long enough anyway, so I didn’t try it. 

This Sambalaobe homestay was a long one – 17 days – and while I did learn a lot of Fulakunda during that time, I think the main lesson I learned is that I don’t really know anything yet.  Every time I thought I learned something new about my family or about Senegalese culture in general, it just raised several other questions I don’t yet have the answers to.

I have been with the same family for about a month altogether, if you add up all the stays and subtract the time I spent at the training center and the trip I took to my permanent site.  The longer I stayed in Sambalaobe, the more I started to see things as they really were.  I just re-read my blog description of the family from my first homestay, and I’m embarrassed by how many errors there are.  Four of the children that lived here a month ago are gone now, and we’ve gained a new one. Baby Yaya, who I thought was 10 months, is actually 16 months and still not walking or talking. Jennebou, who I thought was in her mid 30s, is actually 25, and she had her first kid when she was 14 or 15.  They don’t wash their hands before every meal.  They don’t wash their hands at all.  They dropped that charade as soon as they got comfortable around me. My namesake’s husband is also her first cousin, and they grew up in the same house, so they refer to each other as brother and sister.  Their oldest kid, the one who I thought was still in Guinea Bissau, actually lives about a 10-minute walk away, with Hadja’s sister.  Are there stories behind all these revelations?  You bet.  Do I know them?  No, not a chance.

I am crippled by my lack of language.  So far, I think I have the lingual ability of a two year old.  That sounds pessimistic, but it isn’t.  If you speak slowly and clearly to a two year old, they can comprehend a lot.  However, like most two year olds, I am difficult to understand when I try to talk.  I have poor grammar and a thick accent, and I am never able to say exactly what I mean, since I am working with a limited vocabulary.  Trying to put a sentence together is like having a puzzle with only a fraction of the pieces: sometimes, people can figure out what the picture is supposed to be, but a lot of the time, they can’t.  To make it easier on myself, I lie a lot.  When talking about my family back in America, I said my mom works at a hospital.  They said, “Oh! So she’s a doctor!”  I racked my brain for the translations for “medical technologist,” “blood samples” “laboratory” or “microscope”….then just said “Yes, she is a doctor,” because I wanted to end the conversation.  I’m sure my host family is lying to me, too, for the same reasons.  Like a two-year-old, normal conversation is too advanced for me.  I can’t comprehend anything unless people make an effort to speak slowly and enunciate using only the words I know.  Frequently it’s only my family who can surmise what I’m trying to say, and even then it’s a crapshoot.

Last week, I had this conversation with my host mom:

“You are sitting.”
“Yes. Did you know tomorrow is a party in America?”
“A party.”
“Yes.  It is called ‘Easter.’  People spend time with family.  Children receive candy.  It is very good.”
“Ah.”  Pause. Very slowly and carefully, she said again: “You are sitting.”
“Yes, I am sitting.”
She smiled broadly and clapped her hands.  “You are sitting.”

Sigh.

My family is patient with me, and I know that I have plenty of time to learn the language in the next two years.  I am happy with my progress thus far.  I think I’m at the same level as the other Peace Corps trainees, and I know that I’m not expected to be fluent at this point.  Peace Corps administration has been nothing but supportive, and I’m really happy I’m in Senegal.  It’s a fantastic country.  When I was growing up, there was a 3-day town festival called Barbeque Days that I looked forward to every summer.  Everyone in my extended family took it off work, so we would just hang out at my aunt’s house on lawn chairs, gossiping, eating, joking, and playing with the kids. It’s like that literally every day here.  Every Senegalese person I’ve met so far has been so accommodating I feel like I’m a part of their family.  I have a laughing baby in my arms more often than not. I am having a lot of fun here; I’m just a little pessimistic about whether I’ll be able to work. After all, you can’t have an adult conversation with a two year old, and many other problems plaguing Senegal, such as malnutrition, malaria, and sanitation, are very adult topics.  Who would trust the health advice of a child?

I’m sure there are good reasons behind every perplexing behavior that I see, and two short years might not be enough time to see things the way they are, particularly when there are language barriers blocking my view.  There’s a Pulaar proverb that says “A log can be in the water for a long time without becoming a crocodile.”  I am that log, and Senegal is my water.

Though I am hopeful I’ll be able to do good work here, I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic.  Senegalese are very polite, and I’m sure if I do have an awful idea, they will allow me to proceed with it anyway just to spare my feelings.

For the next few months, I’m going to continue to be a language and culture sponge.  I want to understand what’s going on around me the best I can so I can see what I might be able to help with.  I’m hoping that even if my community thinks I’m an idiot because I can’t talk well, they’ll think I’m a kindhearted idiot, and they’ll decide I deserve a fair shake.  In a culture without written language, my holding a university degree and being a master’s student means nothing.  I mean, if I can’t even pound millet properly, what kind of woman am I?  All I really have to offer my community is time, open-mindedness, a fresh prospective, and a glimpse of another culture.  I hope I’ll be able to find a way to put those things to use here.  I’ll keep y’all posted if and when I do.

On deck for the next couple weeks:
  • 3-day counterpart workshop (where all our future work partners come to the training center to learn what Peace Corps is and how they can utilize us volunteers in our permanent sites)
  • Trip to Dakar
  • One last stay with my Sambalaobe language immersion family
  • Final language proficiency test
  • Beach day
  • Swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer
  • Move to Teyel Faring!
Hope everyone’s doing well. Email me if you have some time.

~Barbara/Hadja/Kadjatu