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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Day in the Life

I was invited to enter a "blogging challenge" a while ago.  The challenge involved being emailed a prompt twice a week, then answering it and using the #bloggingabroad hashtag to keep everything nicely compiled on the blogging abroad website.

Since entering, I have submitted exactly zero blogs.  I meant to, really, but...it didn't happen.  I can't say that I've been busy, but I can say I've been distracted by other things.  I'm tempted to use "no electricity" as an excuse, but people have written with no electricity for literally thousands of years.

The third bloggingabroad prompt, neglected and abandoned in my gmail like an orphaned bunny, asked me to describe a typical day here in my Senegalese village.  I already did this, but a lot's changed since then.  Now that I'm actually doing "work" there are more variations within each day, but still, it's all the same.  Every day, I do nothing.  Every day, I am busy.

Here's one random day last week.  I've made no attempts at brevity and included lots of little stories, so it's a long one.  Sorry or You're Welcome, depending on what a long post means to you.

7:15:  Woke up confused and full of adrenaline from a particularly intense mefloquine dream.  I'd thought I'd get up around 6:30 and I'd wanted to leave by seven, because I had a long way to bike and it's easier to do that before the sun gets hot.  However, there are no real time obligations here, and it's still cold season so it wasn't all that hot anyway. I changed into some jeans that I'd brought with me to Senegal.  Last year at this time, they fell off unless I had a rope tied through the belt loops.  This year, I can't even zip them up. I decided to wear a forgiving muumuu and leggings instead.

7:45:  Biked out of my family's compound heading for Kounkane, 15 km away.  I'd had the mechanic pump up my tires yesterday, so I didn't expect any problems.  My bike has some issues, but I love it anyway, like the faithful jalopy in the Grapes of Wrath.  There are no brakes, but who needs them when Chaco soles are so thick?  There are no gears, but who needs them when the terrain is so flat?  The back tire only stays inflated for about 2 weeks at a time due to a slowly leaking valve, but I always have time to take it to a mechanic.  My bike is a cobbled Frankenstein of junkyard parts like most bikes here, and the valve and rim are not a match.  When the tube is fully inflated the valve retreats into the rim.  The first time I brought my bike with its flat tire in, the mechanic started inflating the tube and watched the valve disappear into the rim, dislodging his pump.  Confused, he let all the air out again.  The valve came back out. He inflated it again, and again it disappeared.  Eventually, he had a friend hold the valve in place with a needle-nose pliers as he pumped.  I went home impressed with his ingenuity.  Two weeks later, I returned with another flat tire, and he proceeded to do the whole process all over again.  The third time I brought the bike in, I helpfully suggested he use the pliers to hold the valve out, but he ignored me until he made the discovery on his own.  Women don't know mechanics.  Every time thereafter I just brought a book to occupy me as I waited it out.  It still always takes about a half-hour for him to finally give up on normal pumping and get a friend to hold the valve with the pliers.

8:00 - Stopped for a minute on my ride to Kounkane to watch beautiful thick flocks of tiny redbeaked birds, undulating in gorgeous ebbs and flows like an aerial school of fish all around me.  I intensely loved Senegal for a minute.  My bird book later told me the birds were Red-billed quelea, which is the most populous bird in the world after the domestic chicken and wrecks havoc on grain fields throughout Africa.  Whateva, they're pretty.

8:30: Wheeled my bike into Corin's host family's compound and hung out for a few minutes before walking to the breakfast stand together.  Like an 80-year-old Minnesotan farmer, my mornings usually start with carbs and gossip.  My breakfast sandwich wrapper informed me that they made a movie about Amy Winehouse last year.  You know you've been in Peace Corps too long when the old British newspapers that sandwiches come wrapped in are a legitimate source of information.  The Evening Standard also informed me about the birth of Princess Charlotte and the death of Mickey Rooney.

9:00: Called Demba, my counterpart for the big latrine project I decided to do, to let him know that I'd be checking out the latrine recipients in Saare Nianthio and Saare Keita today.  I'm utilizing a voucher system for this latrine project - recipients cannot receive their cement and rebar until they A) dig the hole B) pay 2,500 CFA C) construct a tippy-tap next to their latrine site D) attend a handwashing training in their village led by their village sanitation committee (who I trained on disease prevention and latrine maintenance last week) and E) have a cover for their latrine hole ready.  Demba had told me that everyone had already done all the tasks on their vouchers, but I wanted to check it with my own eyes.  Demba said bismillah and invited me to lunch after I finished.

11:45: Finished checking out latrine sites.  All of the sites really did have all of the items on the checklist checked off, which was incredible.  Concerningly, no one had any money to give me; they said they'd given it directly to Demba.  Since I was only about 3k from Demba's village and the sun was pretty hot, I decided to take him up on his lunch offer.

12:15: Demba said he didn't have the latrine money, either; he gave it to the guy at the hardware store in Kounkane.  This was actually a really good sign.  If any extra money is laying around here, it's immediately spent or lent out to friends.  Everyone is expected to share what they have, so no one has anything.  Windfalls, when they arrive, are immediately sequestered into livestock or building materials.  You can split an extra 50,000 CFA between needy neighbors, but you can't split a goat.  Keeping money at the hardware store is better than keeping it at home, but I don't trust the hardware shop guy, either: he's got friends and family, too, and every mouth needs feeding.  I hope the money will still be there when we need it to buy materials.

12:45: Lunch was corn and baobab leaf sauce.  Demba insisted that everyone wash their hands before eating, and I could taste that he chemically treats his drinking water.  This guy is one in a million.  After lunch, there was tea, but I ducked out after the first two rounds because I wanted to get back to Kounkane. During lulls in the conversation, I read Devil in the White City, a fascinating true story about a serial killer at the World's Fair expedition in Chicago.  It gets five stars for this line alone: "Minneapolis at the time was small, somnolent, and full of Swedish and Norwegian farmers as charming as cornstalks."  Still true, friend.  Still true.

3:30: Drank another glass of tea at Corin's house and talked a lot.  Corin gave me some fabric a returned volunteer mailed her to give to his host family on the way back to my own site, since I'd be biking past his old village.  I fully intended to leave with enough sunlight to do this, but then it didn't happen.

6:00: Finally left Corin's house, racing against the sun the whole way, a strong wind in my face trying to blow me back to Kounkane.

7:15: Slowly biked into my family's compound, exhausted, as the kids shouted "Kadiatou Sabaly jaaaaay!" My host brother Tidiane walked up and shook my sweaty hand, then said, "Mbo tampi buy hannde."  I knew all the words, and knew that he was trying to say something was very tired today, but "mbo" can mean he, she, or it, so I wasn't sure what he was talking about.  He motioned at my bike and repeated it.  I looked at my back tire: a tennis-ball sized bubble of tube was sticking out through the broken treads.  The road between Kounkane and Teyel is so bad I hadn't felt anything amiss.  I solemnly responded that Allah loves me, so he made sure that I arrived in peace.  I said if I would have known my tire was like that, I would have been scared, so Allah did not inform me.  Tidiane agreed, equally solemnly.  My wonderful host nephew Alpha told me that it was windy enough to fly the kite today, and I was sorry I'd missed it - the last time I'd gone out kite flying with them they'd screamed the words to "Let it Go" from Frozen, a Sabaly family movie night classic.

7:30:  I wheeled my bike inside my hut, grabbed a bucket, and pulled some water from the well for a bucket bath, then read more Devil in the White City by my cell phone's flashlight until dinner.  As I was reading, I heard loud speaker music from across town - there was a soiree that night.  On soiree nights, they play music for a half-hour or so just after dark, then take a break until around 10:30.  I never go to soirees, but the music is loud enough that I can "enjoy" it from the comforts of my own hut.  This soiree music sounded better than most: more Rihanna, fewer whistles.

8:00: I was not hungry at all, but then dinner was lecciri jammbo, or millet couscous with peanut-and-leaf sauce, and somehow my bowl was empty before I knew it.  Maybe this is why last year's pants don't fit anymore.

8:30: Finished the movie we started yesterday, "Film Kevin e Banditji," Kevin and the Bandits, Home Alone.  Just like the Michels, the Sabalys like the second one more than the first.

9:15: Read more.

10??? - Fell asleep at some point.

So...was this a busy day?  Or a day where I did nothing?  What's the difference?  All I know is I'm going to miss it.

81 days left.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Benegal - part one.

As I mentioned previously, my grad school bud Ben Downer was visiting Senegal for the entire month of December.  I asked Ben to write a blog post about his month.  Here's what I got, Ben's thoughts about travel in Senegal.  Enjoy!

The way travel makes people feel.
Following two days of flights and layovers just to get to Senegal, Barb informed me about the "joys" of travel throughout the country.  There are a few main types of transportation, but the two I had the pleasure of experiencing were the mini-car and sept-places.  A mini car is basically a large sprinter van, with the interior a combination of plywood and rust, with bus seats allowing 20 to 25 people to cram inside.  This does not account for people hanging off the back or extra passengers acting as cargo and sitting on the roof rack.  Think clown car in bus form.  The sept-place is more a station wagon with two rear rows of seats allowing seven passengers to sardine into the vehicle along with baggage.  On some occasions, the sept-place transforms into a neuf-place.  However, no additional seating or room is added.  Instead, nine people squeeze into seats where seven fit.  The main focus of any form of travel is that you will have your space bubble shrink within your body until it is occupied by someone's elbow, rupturing your spleen.  

Garages are the main transportation hub of any major area in Senegal.  They function in a similar capacity to bus terminals without all of the frills associated with such a place.  My introduction to the garage was in Dakar.  Barb waded fearlessly into the proverbial tide of noise, filth, and frustration the garage manages to encircle and compress into a maze of cars and concrete.  Everywhere I turned, someone was trying to sell me knock-off Gucci sunglasses, flashlights, cocoa butter, in addition to anything else you could pull out of a claw game at Chuck E Cheeze.  I was overwhelmed.  Barb, however, sliced through the din and I walked briskly behind in the open wake of people before it congealed back together.  You have to walk through such places with purpose and an unwavering eye.  Barb certainly had the eye of the tiger, in addition to shooting lasers out of her eyes at anyone who was trying to swindle us.

Finding your car is only step one.  Everything is bartered for.  Ticket price and baggage, nothing has a standard.  If you don't know what the fare typically costs, good luck getting a fair price.  Things were made more difficult for Barb's negotiation practices as she had a tall, white Toubab (wikipedia has an excellent explanation for this) with her to go along with her perceived Toubab-ness.  I stood by staring blankly as Pulaar began to fly and insults came shortly after.  It is culturally appropriate, depending on someone's last name, to say they are your slave, or they eat so many beans an ocean full is not enough, or someone is fat or ugly.  The joking last name phenomenon was a strange concept to me, but in haggling with garage drivers it is an essential concept to grasp.  Being able to give, and receive, the appropriate amount of shit is imperative.  Barb has a firm grasp on the appropriate amount of shit to give.

Congratulations, you now paid for the ticket and only lost your arm on the price of baggage.  The privilege of riding with seven other humans in a sept-place for the next few hours is your reward.  Your body will start in a semi-comfortable state.  Then, with every bump and twist of  the road, minute adjustment of body position, or breath, you will slowly be wedged into increasingly uncomfortable positions until you are stuck, contorted like a pretzel around other bodies and luggage undergoing the same phenomenon.  I never knew I could be so uncomfortable and have it happen in a way that would seem preventable; a slow motion seepage of unease and muscle cramping.  

Another picture Barb took of me unawares

Bumps in the road is being generous.  Road infrastructure in Senegal doesn't exist.  In some instances, more driving gets done off the road than on it as the condition has deteriorated so severely.  Potholes a foot deep, far less than comfortable space for semis and cars to coexist, people traversing whichever way they please, and motos sneaking through every gap.  One hilarious side note about potholes.  It is common, as I witnessed, for people to stand next to potholes with a shovel, pretending to work when a car drives by , expecting money to be thrown out the window in thanks.  As soon as the watchers pass, the person stops working and waits until the next set of eyes can witness the effort.

I make travel sound like a horrendous undertaking, and in many ways it is.  A few examples:
1)  Wedging myself into a back seat, where the only option for my long torso fitting required my head to be at a sharp 90 degree angle for the duration of the ride.  I didn't know my body could do such origami.  
2)  Traveling from the town of Pout, every mile or so a smashed car or truck shell was littered along the roadside.  An elephant graveyard for drivers who didn't make it back into their lane following a daring pass.  I  believe passing is a sport in Senegal, with points being tallied for length and boldness of pass.
3)  Spotting an open seat at the mini-car's rear, I plopped myself down.  A few insisted that goat pee would leak through the roof onto the seat.  Upon closer inspection, I couldn't find any holes and waved off the advice.  Obviously, I ended up with a wet shirt and pants.  The pee found a way to leak from a far off hole, down a roof strut, funneled directly above my seat, and poured as through a straw.  Fortunately, the goat was well hydrated so I didn't smell of goat urine for the rest of the day while wearing my clothing.
4)  Many roads in Senegal turn abruptly from paved to dirt or sand with no warning.  The skillful driver either didn't notice this impending change or decided to ignore the upcoming turbulence. We left pavement and careened into a sand pothole at high speed, throwing sand over the windshield and making visibility zero.  A lesser driver, or one with more common sense, would have hit the breaks, perhaps slowed down, or driven more appropriately for road conditions.  Not this deity of the road.  There was no lifting of his foot off the accelerator.  We simply plowed ahead, the car jostling and bouncing our heads off the ceiling as we propelled forward.  Finally, after much passenger yelling, the speed slowed and visibility slightly improved.  All passengers were happy when pavement returned.

I could continue, but bright spots did emerge:
1)  My first mini-car experience was not inside of one, rather outside of it.  Catching the car as it left the garage, they forced Barb to go inside. Not me.  Foot on the back bumper, arm locked onto the ladder,  what a way to travel!  Not in the stuffy tin can but outside with a cool breeze.  The two who collected money and hauled bags had a strange ritual of clamoring over the back of the car and smacking each other on the butt repeatedly.  I found this funny which only goaded them on.  I have never seen so much spanking between two men.  
2)  Fellow passengers can be a delight.  One memorable man, who most certainly paid our bribe to the cops for "suspicious baggage," had Barb laughing a good chunk of the ride.  This is an accomplishment as, to quote the woman herself, "The two things I hate most in Senegal are men and travel."  His little baby was adorable, though it did vomit when Barb gave the lil tyke some fruit.  Not it's favorite unfortunately.  
3) Picking up THE BEST RIDE EVER! waiting on the side of the road.  An airconditioned truck, who drove approximately 110 km/h (which is the speed of light in Senegal travel), and blasted Lionel Richies's greatest hits.  He even dropped us directly off at our desired location.  I cannot overstate how much all the previous perks to the ride were enjoyed.  

Barb and I also relied on human power to get from point A to B.  Borrowing Tidiane's bike and making the 15 km trek to a nearby village for Christmas was one of my personal favorite travel days.  The road was mostly through a gentle forest, opening onto a farming plain where cotton was stacked in fluffy blocks 8 feet high.

Note the men in the middle standing next to the piles.

 It appeared that clouds had descended from the sky to take a siesta.  Though littered with potholes and motos that had a personal vendetta against bikers, the trip was a calm travel day as it was on our schedule.  No waiting for a car that might not show up then gouge you for money. 

Not to be left out, travel by foot was abundant.  Attending a dennibo in a nearby village, trekking through woods with Alpha and Meadow (awesome village kids) in tow, or to health huts to paint murals, the feet were active.  When traveling by foot however, a 30% time increase for greeting must be factored in.I actually enjoyed the idea of saying hello to everyone and stopping by their compound, but getting anywhere on time is impossible.  This friendliness did have benefits when  meeting Barb at villages a few km away.    Situation one had me walking awkwardly into compounds attempting to find the village health hut.  You could equate this action to walking into a stranger's backyard and proceeding to say hello, then gesture incoherently.  One man showed me his field, another walked me in the complete opposite direction to his compound, but all attempted to patiently help me.  Barb only found me by following my Chaco sandal prints.  So, there's that plug for Chacos.  The second instance I was walking to a soap informational session.  I arrived early and proceeded to awkwardly share their family space for two hours.  They did set up a nice shaded location for me to nap.  After arriving back in Tayel from the soap session, a few in Barb's compound were relieved to see me back.  It seems that my ability to jam-tan (agree) and greet had reached it's limit.  People had been asking me if I was going into the woods, and with my baby Pulaar, I jam tan'ed them thinking it was a greeting.  When I didn't return, a few kids had been sent to look for me.  A clear sign that I don't have any idea what people say to me.  Also, people placed far too much confidence in my ability to learn Pulaar in three weeks.  

Obviously, my Pulaar would not have allowed me to endure the uncomfortable, infuriating, expensive, and often terrible experience of traveling around Senegal.  If you can brave the discomfort however, an incredible and diverse country opens up to you.  Thank you so much to Barb for being my travel guide and putting up with a traveling man. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Alpha Sabaly

My grad school bro, Mr. Ben Downer, visited Senegal for the entire month of December.  Ben plans to write a blog post about his Senevacation, so I won't get into too much detail here; suffice it to say, it was a blast. Here are pictures!  Because Ben had a camera!


My favorite day of the month was Ben's naming ceremony.  A naming ceremony is called a Dennabo, so we called this party his Bennabo.  Puns are fun in any language.


Babies here are typically given a name when they're a week old.  At 26, Ben was probably too old to have a naming ceremony,  but I love parties, and my village loves free food, so we did it anyway.  To have a naming ceremony, it is necessary for the new baby to have a name, which means it is necessary to obtain a namesake.  Traditionally, the elders of the village choose what the new baby's name will be, but I insisted on choosing Ben's.  I said I was the only one who understood his personality and the personalities of my family here in Teyel.  Ben's tokara was a no-brainer: it had to be my nephew Alpha.  

When Ben asked why Alpha was his namesake, why this kid was so great, I struggled to find the words to sum him up.  I instead told Ben a few stories about Alpha.  Here the stories are. Enjoy.

Les dauphins

Pulaar Movie Nights are still going strong in village.  If my computer battery is charged, we'll usually watch something for at least a half-hour. My village is full of movie talkers who constantly narrate the onscreen events, which I love - through movies, I learned my more obscure Pulaar vocabulary, like enyenji (cannibals) and wurtude (to come back to life after dying.)   

On Pulaar Movie Nights, I always sit next to Alpha.  When I attempt to explain the movie, he listens patiently and if necessary relays my explanations back to the family, translating my heavily accented baby Pulaar into something understandable to everyone. 

During Pirates of the Caribbean, there were a few seconds of footage of dolphins frolicking in front of the Black Pearl.  Malli, a old toothless neighbor man, stated, "They are fish."

Alpha dissented.  "No.  They are dolphins."  He said the English word in a French accent, just as I'd unintentionally taught him while watching another movie a few weeks before. 

Malli persisted. "They are in the water.  They are fish." 

"They are not fish," insisted Alpha.  "Dolphins give birth and breastfeed.  Fish lay eggs.  Fish have no breasts."  

Everyone was quiet. After a few seconds, Alpha added, confidently: "Also, a bat is not a bird.  It gives birth and breastfeeds, too." 


Alpha doesn't go to school, but it's not because he's not smart enough: it’s just that he doesn't want to. Imagine you were in his place, an inquisitive curious preteen with endless free time to wander through the forest, in an area where the sun is always shining and winter never comes.  You probably wouldn't want to deal with shoddy supplies and frequently unmotivated teachers, either.

Instead of school, Alpha runs his own program.  He frequently walks to the woods and comes back with pockets full of wild bush fruit.  He'll offer no explanation of where he's been the last six hours, and is rarely asked.  

The more we talk, the more I love this kid.  He could carry on a conversation with a rock.  A "would you rather" conundrum gives us fodder for up to twenty minutes of thoughtful discussion.  For the record, Alpha would rather face a crocodile than a python, would never ever want to go to Jurassic Park for any amount of money, and would rather fall in his latrine hole once than do the family's cooking for a month.  You can imagine how language barriers prevented me from fully appreciating his beautifully creative brain until now.
Kitty Birth Control
Despite all odds and expectations, my garbage kitten Mallory is thriving in village...perhaps a little too well. Recently, my host brother Tidiane sat me down to tell me some solemn news.  
"Mallory had a kiirjo last night," he said.  He was quiet for a time, recognizing that “looking up, pursed lips” means “I will get this, give me a second,” whereas “blank stare, gaping fish mouth” means “Please try again with different words, I am hopelessly lost.”  I puzzled out the word.  H’s are pronounced like K’s sometimes, and –jo at the end of the word means a person – so kiirjo would be a person performing the verb hiirde, to visit someone at night.  A night visitor!  Mallory had a night visitor!  I looked back at Tidiane, bewildered.  “WHAT?!”

“It’s true.  I heard them.  Mallory will get pregnant soon.  You will have baby cats.”  

Later in the day, I discussed the problem with Alpha as Mallory dozed on the mat between us.  We agreed that grossesse precoce, early marriage, was a big problem for all girls, human and feline.  Alpha suggested we make Mallory ugly so boys wouldn’t like her.  I agreed, since I’d used a similar pregnancy prevention strategy for most of my life and could vouch for its efficacy. 

Alpha went into his dad’s hut and came back with a small razor blade.  He shaved off a half-inch-long swath of hair at the top of her head, leaving bare pink cat skin, then smiled and solemnly nodded.  Job done.
I’m not sure whether Alpha’s hilarious or completely humorless.  He thinks everything through before he speaks and chooses his words carefully.  He stresses important words to make sure he’s understood, even when what he’s saying is bizarre.  He rarely laughs, even while I’m cracking up. Is he the perfect comedic straight man?  Does he just know how to run with an idea?  Might he be a little bit crazy?  I have no idea.  All I know is that he’s one of my favorite people in Senegal, possibly one of my favorite people in the world, and in three short months I’m going to have to move away and will probably never see him again.  
Good old Anne Shirley put it perfectly:
"I've put out a lot of little roots these two years," Anne told the moon, "and when I'm pulled up they're going to hurt a great deal. But it's best to go, I think, and, as Marilla says, there's no good reason why I shouldn't. I must get out all my ambitions and dust them." 
~Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

I was transplanted here two years ago lush and green, a sapling.  Since then, the soil's been good to me.  I've grown and matured.  I have new branches filled with new leaves.  I miss my old soil and I really want to go back, but taking a machete to these village roots sounds painful and terrifying.  I will miss Alpha like I'll miss dozens of other people in Senegal, but if I stay, I'll continue to miss the family and friends I left behind in America. It's a problem with no solution.

100 days left in Senegal.