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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ode to my Cell Phone

If you’re an American reading this, you probably have a smartphone.  Smartphones are perfectly suited to the American way of life.  You can look up the closest Thai restaurant that offers a student discount, read reviews to choose what to order, place an order, and have your phone analyze satellite traffic to provide the most efficient route before giving you GPS voice guidance to drive there, all within 2 minutes.  In America, cell phones make life easier.
My cell phone makes my life easier in Senegal, too.  Though it could not be called “smart,” it is perfectly suited for my environment.

My phone is tough.  There are no carpeted floors here in my Pulaar village.  If you’re lucky, your hut floor is poured concrete – if not, it’s packed laterite.  Dropping an iPhone here could be fatal to it, but not to my brick!  There’s no touchscreen to crack, no sensitive camera lens to dirty.  I’ve dropped it dozens of times.  Babies have played with it like a hammer.  I’ve tossed it across the compound to my tokara when she’s asked to use it.  Though primitive, it’s been a tireless champ, the Nile crocodile of cell phones.

The battery lasts forever.  My brick never leaves my side.  I’m a texting fiend, and I talk on the phone far more than the typical villager.  Even so, I only have to charge it every few days.  Most people in my village get by with charging their phones once a week or so.  When the battery does need to be charged, it’s easy to do so.  Find someone with a solar panel, drop it off, and pay 100 CFA (about 20 cents) when you pick it up later.
My host brother Oussaman got a solar panel a couple months ago and he's been rolling in business.
It has a built-in flashlight.  Those of you that don’t understand how useful this is have probably never lived without electricity.  It’s really goddamn useful.
It has a built-in radio.  This is less useful than the flashlight, but still nice.  I can't get any channels on it in my village, but it would probably work in a larger city.  I've seen people with wire attached to their phones (like antennae) and headphone jacks in their ears, so presumably that works too.

The games are on point.  It came equipped with Snake, Rapid Roll, Cricket Cup, Sudoku, and Forbidden Treasures.  I still have no idea how to play Forbidden Treasures (ironic...) but the other games are great.  I favor Snake, but play the other games regularly too.  I probably never would have learned to play cricket if it wasn’t for my phone and my ample free time.  Hidden Peace Corps perk!
Looks like nostalgia...
It's well adapted for a chronically broke person to use.  Cell phones here are recharged with purchased cards, each worth 1000 CFA ($2, but a lot of money in village).  The cards can be purchased from any boutique.  You scratch off the foil, type the numbers into the phone, and - voila! - you have about 30 minutes talk time. 

If you're broke, no worries - there are no monthly fees, no contracts, no mandatory scheduled payments.  If you can't afford credit and need to talk to someone, you can send them a text that says "Merci de me rappeler" (please call me) for free.  The text recipient will see the message and call if they have credit.  If your phone does have a fatal accident, it's easy to get by while waiting for money for a new one.  The SIM cards are removable and transferrable to any other phone.  One of my neighbors hasn't had a working phone for months, but she puts her SIM card in mine sometimes to greet her family in Mauritania.

It keeps me updated with other volunteers and admin. Text message alerts, called CPAs, come in frequently.  These messages are great for keeping all volunteers in the loop about grant deadlines, safety and security issues, or administrative updates.  They were especially useful during last year's Ebola epidemic.  It was good to know that if something happened involving Peace Corps' position in Senegal, we would all be notified at the same time instead of relying on diluted gossip through the rumor mill.  Volunteers also get free volunteer-volunteer calling, which is the best thing admin could have done for our mental health, in my opinion.  Not a day goes by that I don't talk to someone in my Peace Corps family.
You can send money with it.  I haven't utilized this feature, but it's been a lifesaver for my host family.  A Western Union style system called Wari is really popular here.  If you send someone a Wari, they just have to take their phone (with confirmation text) to a Wari station (they're everywhere, there's one 4k away from me), show the person working your ID, and collect your money.  It's so easy.
The computer, iPod, and tablet I brought to Senegal from the states have all fallen prey to the harsh environment here.  This is where electronics go to die.  I have a friend who's gone through two kindles, a camera, an mp3 player, and two laptops.  However, the brick cell phone is still as functional as the day I got it, and I'm thankful.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rat Trap Blues

I woke up to fat, slow raindrops dripping through my shade structure and on to my face.  I scowled, half asleep, and groped for my cell phone (which, due to its built-in flashlight, is never more than an arm’s length away after dark).  12:42, it said.  I pondered whether I should move inside to sleep or whether the drizzle would stop soon.  In response, a thunderclap sounded and it started raining buckets.  Blah.

I stumbled inside, half-asleep, carrying my partially sodden foam mattress, my path dimly lit by my cell phone’s flashlight.  Something was wrong.  Several books were strewn across the floor, not on my table where I'd left them.  My shampoo bottle was laying on the ground, too, a small puddle of liquid pooled around its nozzle.  And – what was that? – oh yeah, the glue rat trap I’d bought in Thies was upside down on the floor, too.  As I looked, the trap suddenly clicked and scuttled towards me.

I shrieked and jumped.  “Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god!”  After three kinds of rat poison hadn’t done the trick, I’d bought the trap hoping to catch the rat, but this possibility had honestly never occurred to me.  I thought if the trap did work, the rat would die instantly and peacefully, allowing me to sanctimoniously drop it in my latrine hole with a shrug and a silent apology (“Well, I’m sorry, but you did it to yourself, you know.”)  Unfortunately, the rat didn’t agree to that plan, and he wasn’t going down without a fight.

My heart was racing.  I cowered in my rain-drenched sleep shorts as I considered my options.
1.       Ignore it until morning and make my host brother deal with it.  Although this was the most attractive option, it was not possible.  It was raining too hard for me to go back outside, and I doubted the rat would sit still until daylight.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep with it running all over.

2.       Toss the whole mess outside, rat, trap, and all.  That would mean touching it, which there was no way I was going to do.  Rat scratch fever, Hantavirus, the plague…no.

3.       Kill the rat.  I didn’t want to do this, but I couldn’t think of any other possibility. 

I reluctantly strapped a chaco sandal on my right foot and breathed deeply, trying to get up the nerve to stomp the trap.  I wished I’d brought a nice thick baseball bat to Senegal for this occasion.  The trap was still now, which I interpreted as the rat silently and serenely accepting his fate.  I muttered encouragements to myself. “Come on, Barb.  You’ve got this.  Just do it.  You can do it.”

Five minutes passed, silent except for the wind and rain and my racing thoughts, completely dark except for my flashlight beam.  
I realized there was no way I’d survive a zombie apocalypse.  I knew I was being a baby, but I still couldn’t move.  It was just a rat! I reconsidered option 1, leaving the trap until morning.  As if it were reading my thoughts, the trap moved, scraping noisily against my concrete floor.  “Oh god oh god oh god oh god!”  I shuddered, closed my eyes, and stomped the chaco as hard as I could in the center of the trap.

But the rat was not in the center of the trap.  It was far off to one side of it.  The trap was also not very well made – its surface was slick, wet, and barely sticky at all, the masking tape of glues.  My stomp only served to slide the gluey cardboard off the rat’s back and onto his hairless tail.  He yelped, scared and angry, then limped away from the trap unencumbered, his fur shiny with wet glue.  I knew I should chase him.  I knew I wasn’t going to chase him.  I watched as he walked, fearlessly and purposefully, out my open back door into the rain.  Lightning flashed and – I swear – he looked back at me over his shoulder before disappearing into the tall grass, where (I imagined) he’d clean himself off, gather his friends, and prepare a counter-attack.

I tucked my mosquito net in very carefully, telling myself the thin gauzy fabric was ample defense against a revengeful rodent.  I eventually fell into a fitful sleep, had a mefloquine nightmare about Zombeavers, and woke up in a puddle of my own sweat. 

Africa: 1, Kadiatou: 0.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Family Bonding.

"Konk Konk," said my favorite host sister, Meadow, from my open hut door.  I looked up from The Poisonwood Bible, smiled, and welcomed her inside.  We went through the normal round of greetings, ending when I asked what was new and she sighed and said nothing.  The visit wasn't unusual - it's Ramadan, and afternoons are boring.  There's no lunch preparation or afternoon tea to break up the day, and most people spend the afternoon napping. The village is a total dead zone from around 2pm until break fast around 7:30.  I'm not fasting this year, so many kids (who also don't fast) use "visit Kadiatou" as an afternoon activity.  I have some picture books brought back from America that kids are welcome to read as long as they don't remove them from my hut. Meadow picked up a book she'd already "read" many times and started turning the pages. Ten minutes elapsed - I forgot she was there.  The Poisonwood Bible is a very good book.  Finally, she spoke.

"Tomorrow, I might go to a dennabo (naming ceremony)," she said. 
"Yes, me too!" I replied happily.  Several people had told me about the dennabo already.  It was supposed to be a huge affair, with speakers and cold boissons biked in from Velingara in coolers. Usually, parties don't happen during Ramadan, but they made an exception for this one.  It was going to start right at break fast and continue well into the night. I was really looking forward to it.

Five more minutes elapsed in silence.  The Poisonwood Bible is a very good book.

"Aliou's washing tonight," she said nonchalantly.
I was fairly certain I'd heard correctly but had no idea who Aliou was or why she was telling me this.  "Oh yeah?  What we will he wash? Clothes?" 
"No, I said Aliou," she slowly clarified. "Aliou Balde."
"Awa," I said with a shrug.  OK.

Meadow didn't give up.  "Aliou Balde," she said again.  She pantomimed washing her hair.  I remembered that was the name of the man in town that washes womens' hair.  They just go to his compound and pay 200 CFA (roughly 40 cents) and he lathers them up.

"Awa," I said again.  The town hair washer, who washes hair every night, was washing hair that night.  That was a weird thing to tell me.  Must have been a slow news day in Teyel.

More time elapsed.  The Poisonwood Bible is a very good book.  Finally, I felt Meadow's stare piercing me through the pages.  I looked up and recognized the pleading look in her eyes.  Realization hit me like a beam of lightning.

"OH!  I UNDERSTAND!" I exclaimed. I was proud of myself for figuring it out but embarrassed that it took so long.  Meadow looked relieved.  I stood up and got a 200 CFA coin from my wallet to pay for Meadow to get her hair washed for the party. 

Then I decided to mess with her a little bit.  Like all big sisters, I'm kind of a bully.

"You will wash the hair until you're clean?" I asked.  I accidentally used lootde, to wash, instead of looteede, to get washed.  Reflexive endings are hard and I forget a lot.  Meadow didn't correct me like most 13 year olds would ("no, I'll get washed, dummy!").  She just politely said yes. 

"You have a friend there?" I enquired.  She just smiled shyly.  I kept digging.  "A boy friend?" I prodded.  Just like in English, "boy" and "friend," innocent when separated by a space, combine into a far more loaded word.  Sahel gorko could be nothing, a friend who's a boy, or a real boyfriend.  I said the words close together, in a way that was teasing yet kind (I hoped.)

Meadow put her head in her hands and laughed, embarrassed.  If her skin were paler, her face would be blushing beet red. 

"Now I understand!", I squealed, throwing my pillow at her.  "What's his name?"

We both laughed.  I waited for inspiring Full House theme music to bubble up, incited by this lovely heartwarming family moment.  Instead I heard only roosters and goats.

"Meadow," I said slowly.  "You will go to school next year."
She solemnly nodded.
"And the year after next, and three years from now." (This is easier to say in Pulaar - e ñatigaro, e ñatagaro)
I tried to make meaningful eye contact, but Meadow was looking at the door.  She had gotten her money and I was acting a little too much the nosy big sister.  She glanced back and recognized the pleading look in my eyes.
"Oh! Yes! School!  I will go to school," she assured me.
I kept looking at her.
"I will have girl friends only."

We laughed and said "let us spend the afternoon in peace" - a mouthful in English, but three simple syllables in Pulaar, ñallen jam.