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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Le correspondance

At 9:55 am Monday morning, I was starting to get antsy that Mr. B was not going to be on time for our 10:00 meeting.  I had been waiting at the school since 9:30; this was a precaution, in case he got done teaching early and wanted to go home instead of waiting for me.  Alicia, a fellow PCV who was visiting my site, asked me if I was sure he had come to school at all that day.  "Of course he did," I started to answer before I remembered where I was.
 "Hey Cherif!" I yelled at a passing neighbor boy.  "Ho Mr. B arno ekkol hannde?"  
"Aa'aa, mbo araani." Cherif answered chirpily.  He hadn't come. I cursed and got out my phone.  Called Mr. B. twice.  No answer.

Two days before, I'd gone to Mr. B's house to remind him -- again --that I was interested in doing a pen pal project with his 5eme students, and that I wanted to start it immediately. This was the most recent of a half dozen meetings.  Though Mr. B had exulted the program as "good" and "important", he had dissuaded me from starting the previous week, as some students still hadn't returned to school from rainy season vacation.  Now that enough students had returned, we had a new hurdle to jump:
"The students will need at least two weeks to write their letters."
Mr. B explained why, shaking his head solemnly.  "They are very lazy here.  In the village, students refuse to do their lessons. This is not Dakar."  

Frustrated,  I'd tried to explain that I couldn't wait two more weeks.  The American cohort had written their letters over a month previously, and since they were only studying French first semester, the opportunity for Senegalese kids to respond before Thanksgiving and winter break was closing rapidly.  I asked whether he wanted me to cancel the program, and he said no.  The program was good, it was important, he wanted to do it, but starting in December would be better.

I kept wheedling him down.  Finally, Mr. B. conceded that if I chose only the top 30 students to participate in the project, and I made it very clear that the project was important, and I went to the school every morning to nag the students to write, I might -- might! -- be able to get some letters written by the time I went to Tamba on Thursday (though he personally doubted it.)

Back at the school on Monday, Alicia and I took turns calling Mr. B, trying to determine whether he was dodging all calls or just mine.  At that moment, the principal of the school walked by.

"Kadiatou!  You woke up!  Evil did not wake up!" the principal said.  (Believe it or not, this is the normal Pulaar morning greeting.)  "Peace only," I answered.  The principal was a decent guy.  I decided to see if he could help me out.  "I came here today to meet with Mr. B.  We were going to do a project with 5eme students.  But he did not come."

"Oh!  That is bad.  I will gather the 5eme.  Just go in that room.  Sit.  Wait."  The principal turned and strutted across the school grounds, yelling at the teens that were milling around. 

Ten minutes later, Alicia and I found ourselves at the front of a classroom staring back into the confused eyes of 75 Pulaar teenagers. True to his word, the principal had gathered the students, but then he'd retreated back to his office.  No doubt there were documents there that needed to be stamped.  It was clear that Alicia and I were on our own from this point out.

I started out in baby Pulaar.

"Hello.  I am Kadiatou Sabaly.  I am a Peace Corps volunteer.  I live here in Teyel.  I came today because people in America wrote letters.  I brought the letters.  You will read the letters.  Then you will write.  You have time now?"

A few students nodded.  My host sister Medo whispered something to her neighbor.

Alicia jumped in.  In effortlessly fluent French, she asked the students if they were done with class for the day or whether it was just a break.  When no one responded, she switched to equally effortless fluent Pulaar.  A few jaws dropped as kids looked from her to me.  Why isn't this our volunteer?  A tall kid named Amadou told her that they had a break from 10 to noon, and most days they used this time to go home and eat breakfast.

Alicia explained the correspondance program, then asked the million dollar question: "We have 30 letters.  Who wants to do the program?" 

I hoped we'd be able to get thirty students to agree.  I knew if I was in their shoes I'd be more concerned with breakfast than with some silly project.

Every hand went up.

Alicia and I made eye contact.  "They're probably just curious what the letters say," she reasoned.  "Right.  They're just curious," I agreed as we started to hand the letters out.  "They'll leave as soon as they finish reading."

Two or three students gathered around every letter.  They held the cheap inkjet printer sheets as though they were relics written on ancient parchment.  They read patiently and calmly, brows furrowed in concentration.  Eventually, the kids finished reading and looked up at us.  No one left.

"So, did you understand?" I asked in Pulaar.
"Yes." The students chanted in unison.

My Pulaar depleted, I turned to Alicia, who thankfully saved the day again.  "Oh really?" she teased.  She approached Musa, an outspoken 11 year old with a toothy smile, and grabbed his letter.  "Ma maman travaille dans une salle de sport. What's a 'salle de sport'?"

"A salle de sport," he answered confidently. Everyone laughed.  Alicia continued reading.

"C'est maintenent l'hiver ici. What's l'hiver?"  No one spoke for several long seconds.

Finally, the silence broke.  "Une saison," said a quiet girl's voice from the back.  "Yeah, it's a season!" Alicia said encouragingly.  "You, here, in Senegal, you have ceceele, ceedu, ndundu, and jownde.  In France and in America, they have printemps, été, automne, and hiver."

Trusting Alicia's lingual authority now, more hands tentatively rose.

"Musseed...What is 'Marina and the Diamonds'?"
"Musseed...Are all these letters from Kadiatou's children in America?"
"Musseed...What is synchronized swimming?"

Alicia and I did our best to explain everything, even resorting to slow motion parallel ballet dances in an attempt to pantomime "synchronized swimming."

I looked at my phone's clock.  We had already been at the school for over an hour, and I wanted to get the students started drafting their response letters as soon as possible.  I still doubted anyone would actually finish, but I wanted them to do as much as possible at school before they returned to the distractions of home.

"Who has time, right now, to sit and write until their letter is done?" I asked in Pulaar.  "We have 30 letters, so we need 30 responses.  If you do not have time, you can go home.  This is not forcé."

No one got up.

Instead, they carefully tore paper out of their notebooks and got down to business.  Pages slowly filled up around me.  I walked around and read over kids' shoulders.

"Ma mama vends le pain.  Je manges le pain. J'aime le pain."  My mother sells the bread.  I eat the bread.  I like the bread.
 "Mon père est mécanicien vélo"  My father is a bicycle mechanic.
"J'aime AKON. J'aime la musique de AKON. AKON est africain." I like Akon. I like the music of Akon. Akon is African. 

Many of the letters included bold lies, seemingly just because the student couldn't think of anything else to write. 
"It is also very cold and snowy here." 
"I also like to play lacrosse." 
"I also live in Minnesota. I like to watch netflix too." 

When Alicia or I called them on these lies, they would laugh and admit they were lying, but refuse to change it. It was baffling.  

One student took his perceived deep connection with Madeline* a little too seriously, though I didn't know it until I was proofreading them later: 
"My number is 77xxxxxxx. I want you to be my woman for going out. I will come to Forest Lake for my 2016 vacation. I like you like fish likes water. I play football well."

As students finished their letters (and over half did actually finish them), they dropped them off and went outside.  Everyone said thank you - a rarity in this culture.  I left the school at 12:15, my envelope bursting with letters. I was thinking about how easy the whole thing had been. Just outside the school, I passed Mr. B.  
"Forgive me, Kadiatou," he said in Pulaar after I greeted him. "I saw you called. I was not at school today. You will come next week."  
"No, it isn't nothing," I said. Double negatives are correct grammatically in Pulaar but I always feel vaguely naughty when I use them, like a lady Huckleberry Finn.  "I have the letters. Thanks for all your help."  
"You have the letters?" he asked incredulously. I pulled one out for him to look at. He read it slowly.
"I have the letters," I repeated. "The students wrote very well. They really studied today. They have good brains. Do you want to read them?" "No, c'est bon. I have to go teach now. Have a good afternoon." I did have a good afternoon. I grilled corn, drank tea, and read a chapter in a Tom Robbins book. Only time will tell whether my perseverance in getting these letters has a happy ending or not. Maybe Mr. B was trying to stop something bad from happening; maybe he was simply sort of lazy; maybe he thought it was clear he didn't want to do the program but I was just too dense to get it. C'est Senegal quoi. *name changed because I've seen too many SVU episodes.


  1. Quelle belle histoire! I am sorting the letters this morning and will distribute this afternoon! Can't wait to share this awesome blog post with my class. Merci mille fois - thanks to those hard-working students!