An Expat Halloween

I didn’t celebrate Halloween last year. Tragic, I know. Sadly, it was a week after I moved to Sokone. This year, I knew I wasn’t going to miss another Halloween.

Peace Corps Senegal celebrates Halloween in Tambacounda, which is a city 250 kilometers east of Kaolack. See map below:

After weeks of indecision regarding my costume, I finally landed on PETER PAN. I’m not gonna lie, I totally stole the idea from my sister Lindsey, although I don’t feel too bad because I have yet to see a photo of her in costume as Pan this year. Thus, I don’t think she actually dressed up as Mr. Barrie’s beloved child hero.

You’re probably wondering where I found a Peter Pan costume in West Africa. Excellent question. I didn’t find one. Bitch, I made one. Much like my infamous 2009 Where the Wild Things Are costume, I made my own. I’ll admit, without a Michael’s and/or Jo-Ann Fabrics around the corner, it was a bit harder. I managed though.

I found half the costume in Sokone and half in Kaolack. I went to the Sokone market and wandered around looking for brightly colored green things. I struck gold almost immediately. I found a shiny green L.A. Lakers uniform sketchily hanging in a, and I use this term loosely, “clothing store”. I bought it.

Next I found shoes. Shockingly, elf shoes were not difficult to acquire in Senegal. The men in this country (especially the religious leaders, aka “marabouts”) wear pointy/pleathery shoes in various hues anyway, so the only searching involved there was to find the proper shade of green.

The next step was turning NBA and marabout into Disney. Luckily I could easily peel off the “L.A. Lakers” logo on the front of the jersey. It was disposed of. I then cut the bottoms of the shirt and shorts, making them jagged. The shoes remained the same.

I then went to Kaolack to find the rest of the costume. I got in pretty late, so most of the market was closed already. I still went in and wandered around. I found gold leggings and asked the man if he had them in green. He sent one of his minions to fetch them. While I waited for the minion to do his master’s bidding, I chatted with the master. I was looking for a red feather. Not surprisingly, I don’t know “feather” or the verb “to fly” in Wolof or French, so I said what I could to convey what I wanted.

Me: Ya know birds?
Master: Yeah.
Me: Ya know how birds are up in the air?
Master: Yeah…
Me: Well, birds don’t have arms. They have those things that are like arms that make them go up in the air.
Master: Right. Your point?
Me: I want to buy those things that make birds go up in the air.

He told me he knew what I was talking about. He said feathers were available in the market, but not red ones. They had white, brown, and black. I told him I wanted one white feather, figuring I could color it with a marker or dye it with fruit punch mix. At this point, the minion had returned with the leggings.

While we waited for the feather, the master sat confused.

Master: So…why do you need this stuff?
Me: You’re asking me why I’m buying red feathers and women’s clothing?
Master: Exactly.
Me: Well, there’s this American holiday called Halloween. You wear crazy clothes and celebrate. It’s on the 31st of October.
Master: I see.

So the third man (second minion) comes back with the feather. Except this feather was attached to something: A BIRD. The man had brought me a live animal. A fairly pissed off dove, to be exact. Minion #2 must have been some sort of magician because he supplied a dove in the Kaolack market at nine at night. I’m lucky he didn’t try to saw me in half.

So I point to the bird’s feathers and tell them I want ONE of these. They happily obliged, although I felt bad for the dove when they plucked it.

I colored the feather red when I got back to the Peace Corps regional house (hopefully the bird didn’t give me some weird disease). I also borrowed my friend’s green cap, which completed the look. I think I did a pretty good job considering my geographical limitations and time constraints. Below is the finished product:

The shorts also double as shiny green lounge pants. Very stylish with the jagged edges. I’m wearing them now, actually.

Halloween was really fun. I ate candy and danced a lot. Leggings are good for dancing, for you can move fairly easily in them. In the future, I may only choose costumes that allow me to wear leggings. My options are limitless.

Me and My Murse

When I lived in America, I looked a lot different. I dressed better, and my clothes were washed by machine rather than hand. My feet were clean, and my face was less greasy and blemished. I was rarely sweaty. In a nutshell, I was more attractive.

In America, I did what every other guy did: I carried my wallet in my back pocket. Here, that is not an option. Theft is not something that happens every day in Senegal, but it does happen, and of course foreigners are targets because they have money. I learned during training to carry my wallet in my front pocket because it’s less accessible. I did this for a little bit, but I started getting frustrated when I would forget this and that. In addition, coins are really important in CFA (the Senegalese currency). You end up carrying a lot of change around, which jangle and leave bulges in your pockets.

So after a few months, I did what all grandmothers do and bought a change purse. Mine was purchased at an artisan fair in Dakar. It’s green and small, and I love it. It’s very convenient.

I thought the change purse would solve my problems. I thought it would organize and streamline my pockets. I still wasn’t satisfied though. I had my wallet in one pocket, my change purse in another, and my cell phone in a third. My pants were getting out of hand.

So finally, I caved. I decided to man up and buy a MURSE. For those old folks who don’t know what a murse is (aka my Dad), it is a portmanteau for MAN PURSE. For those slow people who don’t know what a portmanteau is (aka a lot of people), look it up.

I was hesitant at first because I didn’t know what people would think of my murse (both volunteers and Senegalese nationals alike), but it has been almost a year since I rocked my first one, and I have never looked back.

My murse has changed my life. I carry all sorts of wonderful things in it. There is a list of things that are always in my murse, and today I would like to share that list with you. Let’s stop chatting and dive right in, shall we?

1. My wallet: of course my wallet is in there. I carry my wallet with me everywhere. It holds my money and my Peace Corps ID, which are both very important. There is a law in Senegal where you can’t walk around without proper identification. Basically, they can arrest you if you’re found without an ID. Foreigners should carry their passports, but Peace Corps volunteers can get by with carrying their ID card.

2. My change purse: as previously mentioned, I own a change purse. It holds all my coins, which are crucial in this country.

3. A book: the pace of this country is SLOW. I always have a book with my in case I have to wait around, which happens often. I have read my book in all sorts of places: the post office, Senelac (where I pay my electricity bill), every mode of transportation I’ve ever taken, every restaurant in Sokone, etc.

4. Sunscreen: the sun is brutal. The bottle currently in my murse is the one I brought to this country from America. I ran out of the stuff Peace Corps gave me. Thanks Publix for protecting my toubab skin.

5. Chapstick: the chapstick I carry in my murse is always SPF during the day. At night, I used medicated from the States.

6. Cell phone: my link to the outside world. Text messages are 20 CFA, which is around three cents. International texts are 100 CFA, which is around 20 cents. I can call volunteers for free, but it costs money to call Senegalese people.

7. Keys: to my room in Sokone.

8. Hand sanitizer: I was always paranoid about germs, but since I got pink eye, I am overly cautious. Annoyingly, Peace Corps does not provide hand sanitizer, so it’s always good to include a few bottles in packages (hint hint).

So there you have it. Above is the list of things I carry with me on my person at pretty much all times. When I’m done with Peace Corps and this mess is all over, I probably won’t attempt to rock the murse stateside. I don’t think the American people are ready.

Simon Says Learn English!

Hey folks, before I start this next post, I just wanted to say THANKS for visiting my blog. To be honest, how many views my blog gets is directly connected to my level of happiness on any given day. My last post was so popular, so I’ve been walking around town like a king lately. Proper blog promotion + talking about tattoos = record number of views!

I have been busy the last few weeks. On September 17th, we finally got to do the big mangrove reforestation project I’ve been planning the last few months. There were over 50 people involved, and we ended up planting over 20,000 mangroves in the Sine-Saloume Delta near Sokone. It was such a blast. A group of women came out, as well as a lot of Senegalese children. I also recruited 25 fellow PCVS to help me out.

We all took a boat out into the delta, which was a blast in and of itself. We then spent four hours wandering around barefoot planting trees. It was low tide, so we ended up ankle-deep in mud and/or water most of the time. The day ended in a massive water fight with the children. They won. I felt like it was the perfect Peace Corps project. A lot of PCVs came out to help, as well as plenty of Senegalese people of varying ages. We taught them about mangroves and why it’s important to plant them, then we went out and planted. We had a lot of fun, and Senegal and its people benefited from it. A win win.

Also, I got to go up north and participate in an U.S.A.I.D.-funded English camp in the city of Louga, which is near St. Louis. My friend Rachel and I spent a week teaching English and playing games with middle school kids. All of them were proficient in English.

Since being in Peace Corps, I have done a lot of things I’d never done before. One of them is teaching. Considering my mother has been an elementary school teacher for 15 years, it’s funny that I have never taught anyone anything before. Now I have worked and taught at two camps. I taught gardening at a girls camp in June, and I just spent the week teaching English. Let me tell you, teaching is HARD. It’s also unbelievably rewarding though.

The first day was rough. The kids were shy and quiet, and Rachel and I had a hard time getting through to them. They also acted like elementary schools in the 1950s. We walked into the classroom, and the boys were sitting on the left side of the room, while the girls were on the right. It took three days, but they finally learned how to talk to the opposite sex. Each day was better than the last. They finally came out of their shell a little bit, and I know for a fact that they had fun.

Things we did with them: Simon Says, baseball (which turned into a shit-show), hot potato (with water balloons…the girls were PISSED), Never Have I Ever (not just a drinking game!), relay races (three-legged, potato sack, egg-on-spoon-in-mouth), Pictionary, Word Find.

Songs we taught them: Take Me Out to the Ball Game, If You’re Happy and You Know It, and Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. (Clearly I don’t know the real names of those last two.)

Quote of the week: “How do you say ‘antelope’ in English?” – one of the students

We weren’t allowed to speak any Wolof. We could speak ONLY English, which was bizarre. I haven’t spoken that much English in over a year.

All in all, I had an amazing time. I was exhausted at the end of each day, but it was totally worth it. Hopefully I can do it next year.

When Senegal Met My Tattoos

People have been curious to hear what Senegalese people think of my tattoos.

When I first arrived in Senegal, I was very conscientious about hiding my tattoos. When I accepted my invitation to come here, all the paperwork told me to bring conservative clothing that hides any tattoos. I also couldn’t have any bizarre piercings. As a result, in my first few weeks, I wore long pants every single day, even though it’s insanely hot here (in WEST AFRICA…I know, crazy right?).

Slowly, as I got familiar with this country and its people, I realized how much more relaxed everything is. Yes, in the north of Senegal (on the Mauritanian border), it’s a lot more strict. Women must wear long skirts that cover their ankles. Luckily, in my neck of the woods (just north of the Gambia), people are less conservative. An added bonus is that my area is heavily populated with Sereers. Sereer, like Wolof, is both a language and a group of people. In general, Sereers are Catholic, so normally they’re more chill because their religion is less strict and they can drink alcohol.

Sokone, my town, is 60% Sereer. When I first moved there, I was a good little volunteer and tried to remain respectful, but as I walked around town, I would see women showing their knees and men wearing shorts. I decided to test the boundaries of my clothing options. I started by wearing shorts around the house. The first few times my family eyed my tattoos and said nothing. The more I wore shorts though, the more they stared. Finally, my host sister Sophie pointed at my camera tattoo and said, “That’s pretty. Do you like to take pictures?” It was something that a lot of Americans ask me. She didn’t yell at me for being disrespectful or make me put pants on. She oohed and aahed and asked if I had any others.

After that, I started walking around town in shorts. People stare, yes, but I figure they are going to stare at the white kid anyways, so I might as well give them something to look at. Adults don’t stare as much, and a lot of them ask me about my tattoos. Kids are crazy though. They stare and point and summon their friends to come and have a look at the toubab with the tats. A lot of the time I find myself being circled by children. They walk around me completely, checking for more body art. I often feel like I’m prey being circled by a shiver of sharks. I guess, in a way, I am. If you’re wondering how I feel about the local children, read any of my previous posts. Senegalese children and I have an, um, interesting relationship.

A few weeks ago, I had a long conversation with my host brother about tattoos. He is about 45, and he was really interested in the subject. He asked me how long each tattoo took to get done, how much it cost, and whether or not it hurt. He was shocked at how expensive it was (I told him the prices in West African CFA). I was expecting him to freak out that I spent so much money on frivolous body art. The amount of money I spent on a small tattoo could have fed his family for a week. Instead, he told me how much he liked them. Oh, and during this whole conversation, my host brothers were outlining my camera tattoo with their fingers. Perhaps they were trying to see if it would come off.

One reason why I think people are relaxed about tattoos is because henna is so popular here. Senegalese women love getting henna done on their hands and feet. They do it for baptisms, weddings, and holidays, and a lot of the time they do it just because it’s beautiful. It’s the same thought process in America: people get tattoos for legitimate reasons (like commemorating something or honoring a loved one), but they also do it just to decorate their bodies. Henna is done for the same reasons, only it’s not permanent.

I don’t know why I was so worried in the beginning. I guess I was trying to integrate and be respectful, but most people here don’t care. Perhaps in other African countries it’s a big deal, but Senegal, I have found, is a really amazing country with a lot of laid back people.

Vacance

I’m back! In a lot of ways. I’m back from a long blog-writing hiatus, but I’ve also returned from my vacation in France. I wish I could say the reason it has been so long since I updated is because I wanted my words to marinate a little, but I’m actually just lazy and haven’t gotten around to writing.

I spent two weeks in Paris at the beginning of August, and I had an amazing time. It was a much-needed break from the longest, toughest, craziest, most stressful, amazing year of my life. I have officially passed the year mark in my Peace Corps service, and in a few weeks I will be halfway done. It’s really quite unbelievable that I’m halfway done, but then I remember that I still have 13 months left and it becomes believable again.

If you’re interested in knowing what I did in France, shoot me an email. If you don’t have the time, just know that I did and saw all the touristy things. I also did things that aren’t touristy at all. These things, such as going to the movies and shopping, were also highlights because I am incapable of such things in Senegal.

I also really enjoyed getting my anonymity back. Being an American in Senegal is like being a celebrity. Everybody stares at you all the time. You get harassed on a daily basis because you’re different and you stand out. Walking off the plane and blending in was such a bizarre, indescribable feeling.

I spent two weeks in the city of Paris, which I recommend to anyone who has the time to do so. Normally when traveling, I want to cram as much as possible into the shortest amount of time. A few days in one city, and then on to the next one. It was refreshing to be in absolutely no rush. This was what I wanted out of my trip. I wanted to relax and not stress about seeing everything in a limited amount of time. I ended up seeing everything I wanted to see and then some. I ate some delicious food (CHEESE!) and drank delicious coffee, wine, and beer.

Because I had such a great time, I was really worried about coming back. I thought I was going to arrive in Dakar in hysterics. I envisioned the lovely stewardesses of Royal Air Maroc dragging my wriggling body off the plane and throwing me on the tarmac.

Surprisingly, the transition back to Senegal went pretty well. I landed in Dakar, stepped of the plane and was immediately hot and sticky from the humidity. The airline lost my luggage, and I got back at six in the morning because my flight had been delayed five hours. As I walked out of the airport, several taxi drivers started yelling and grabbing me. You’d think, after all of this, I would freak out and break down. Instead, I smiled and thought to myself, “I’m home.”

I’ve been back almost two weeks now. I’m just as surprised as you guys probably are by how easy it was for me to come back here. I take it as a very good sign that I feel this comfortable in such an uncomfortable country. As much as Senegal angers me and stresses me out every single day, I really love it. I missed my host family, who were excited for my return.

The trip did exactly what it needed to. It refreshed me and gave me a burst of energy. The month leading up to my leaving, I was impatient and fed up with Senegal. I got to rest in France, and I loved every minute of it.

An Update

It has recently come to my attention that I have failed to properly update you guys about what I’ve been up to. Because I live in West Africa, it is not always easy to find electricity, let alone have access to the Internet. I try my hardest to update my blog, and I am proud of myself for keeping it up for almost a year now. I also post on my Twitter quite frequently, and I am happy I can update it using my cell phone.

When I do update my Twitter, apparently what I say is unsatisfactory. I had a Twitter in America, and the reason I like this particular social networking site is because my friends and family can see what I’m doing, even if that includes events that are less than exciting. Like I have stated in previous blog entries, my life is not as thrilling as it may seem. Most days I am bored out of my mind because I have nothing to do. I have electricity about a third of the time, and usually it’s on when I am asleep. Thus, I sit around and read, sit around and talk to my host family, or wander aimlessly around town. I also like to nap during the day.

When people find out I am in the Peace Corps, they have these grandiose visions of me saving the world. I am not doing that at all. Yes, I occasionally teach gardening if people are willing to listen to my broken Wolof. Unfortunately, Senegalese people are not that patient. There is a large NGO presence in Senegal (especially where I live), so when the locals see a white person, they automatically assume I am here to give money. Thus, it is really difficult to successfully do the work I came here to do. In addition, the Wolof culture is very abrasive. There is no beating around the bush, so when a Senegalese person is mad and/or no longer wants to speak with you, they tell you.

Of course, I am generalizing here. I have met a lot of amazing Senegalese people in this country. A lot of them are great at assisting me in my work. Without them, I am sure I would get absolutely nothing done. Most of the time, if I am trying to explain something in Wolof, people either are not listening or they do not understand. This is when those aforementioned Senegalese people step in and say the exact same thing I said. Of course, because they are Senegalese, people listen to them. Because of this, work is really discouraging.

Apart from these difficulties, I am trying my hardest to do what I can. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, most of the projects I am working on will not be sustainable. I quickly learned that grassroots development in West Africa is really hard if you are not willing to dish out wads of cash in order to appease the locals. Thus, in order to keep myself sane, I have focused on the second and third goals of the Peace Corps, which are listed below.

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

On a day-to-day basis, the second and third goals are so much more gratifying. I studied Anthropology in college, so I joined the Peace Corps to travel and meet new, interesting people from a different culture. I have no background in development, and I am not particularly good at it. I am here to teach gardening, but I am not too good at that either. I found that my time is better spent sitting and chatting with people. I tell them about America and about the things that I know. In exchange, I learn more about Senegal and its’ people every day. I am here as an ambassador to the United States, so I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I get really frustrated and upset when people assume I am sitting around doing nothing just because I don’t have a beautiful garden or because you have not seen photos of successful projects.

I’m sorry I did not do a blog post about the hour-long conversation I had with my host brother about tattoos the other day (he had a lot of questions). I’m sorry I do not update my Twitter every time I sit under a tree and drink tea with a stranger (I do this a lot). I’m sorry if I did not discuss, the last time we talked, the frequent social obligations I must uphold every week so that people in my town don’t think I am a rude American. All of these things are part of my job, and they are really important to me. They make me feel like a good volunteer. Unfortunately, few seem to agree.

My Peace Corps service is mine and no one else’s. I can do with it what I wish. If I want to garden less and chitchat more, that’s my prerogative. To me, making friends and developing relationships is more rewarding than hosting permagarden trainings.

Of course, that does not mean I do not intend to try my hardest to make a difference in other ways. I am really proud of myself and the other volunteers who worked at the girls’ leadership camp last month. I think we made an impact on the lives of 39 young Senegalese girls, and for that, I am happy.

Next on the agenda: mangrove reforestation in September, school nutrition trainings in October, and lots and lots of tea.

Le 4 juillet 2011

Yesterday I returned from a mini vacation to the region of Kedougou for the 4th of July. It was probably one of the most fun times I have ever had in my life. Kedougou, if you didn’t know, is down in the southeast corner of the country. It’s so far away that you can see the country of Guinea from the city of Kedougou (“I can see Guinea from my house!”).

Sorry for the back-to-back Sarah Palin jokes. I’m done now.

Anyways, so Kedougou is like a different world. Below you will find a map of Senegal. I am being wildly high tech and fancy doing this, but I feel like this post requires visual aids in order for it to be understood properly.

Okay, so Kedougou is that city really far away in the bottom right corner. I drove from Kaolack to Tambacounda, which took over four hours. We stopped in Tamba to stretch our legs, and then we moved on and drove the four hours to Kedougou. After we left Tamba, the world suddenly changed. We entered the Niokolo-Koba National Park, which is a World Heritage Site that is so insanely beautiful that I forgot where I was for a second. It’s so incredibly green, and there was MOUNTAINS. I saw warthogs frolicking and baboons (TONS of baboons) running across the road. They’d be chillin’ in the middle of the road, and our driver would get so mad because they wouldn’t move as he honked furiously.

Luckily, we only had one car problem, which arose as we were entering the city itself. We were crawling at a snail’s pace.

Us: Um, chauffeur. What the hell? Why are we going so slowly? It’s hot.
Driver: We ran out of gas.
Us: Oh…is that why we’re COASTING down this hill?
Driver: Yes.

Finally, we puttered to a stop right on the outskirts of town. The driver took a can and walked to the nearest gas station. As we waited, I decided to walk to the nearest boutique to buy water. I quickly encountered a problem when no one in the building spoke Wolof. I had stepped into Pulaar country and completely forgot. I did everything in French, which was bizarre. Good practice for France though, I guess. Luckily, I did find a lot of people who spoke a little Wolof, so I could easily get around.

Kedougou is an interesting town. It’s not very big, but it’s really spread out. There are no taxis, so you either have to walk or ride your bike. I was told this beforehand, so I brought my bike with me.

The 4th of July was really fun. We all hung out at the Kedougou regional house. Two pigs were roasted, and there was lots of delicious food. We set off fireworks, which was scary. It was probably the funnest (yes, FUNNEST) party I have ever been to.

The next day, we all walked down to the Gambia River to go swimming. We forded the river, which was scary as hell because the current was REALLY strong. Like, my friend got whisked away and had to grab a tree branch in order to stop herself. Several people lost shoes and other items.

So we swam in the river. There was a massive tree that had branches hanging over the river, so we climbed it and jumped in. Apparently there are hippos further down the river. I saw none. I did see two snakes though, which was awful and horrible and scary. I held my cool, and everything was fine. Maybe I am growing up. Hopefully.

Overall, Kedougou was a lot of fun. As a rode around the red dirt roads, staring at the greenery around me and mountains above me, I realized that this sort of scenario is what I thought Peace Corps in West Africa was going to be like. Biking around and greeting people in a beautifully lush environment. My Peace Corps service is drastically different from what I expected. Luckily, I think it’s better. As quintessential as Kedougou is, I’m glad I don’t live there. It’s so far away from the rest of the country, and there are scary animals (i.e. scorpions, huge spiders, snakes). It’s a wonderful place to visit, but it’s definitely not a place I would want to live for two years. I was glad when I pulled into Kaolack and the smell of garbage met my nostrils. I was home.

Where I’m the Pied Piper and Santa Claus

So this past week was the Kaolack Girls’ Leadership Camp. It was held in a campement in Sokone, and it brought 40 girls from the regions of Fatick, Kaolack, and Kaffrine together for a week of fun and learning. We focused on a different theme each day. On Environment Day we discussed gardening and the earth. On Career Day we had women from the area come in and discuss jobs. The goal was to open these girls’ eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

I helped out with a lot of sessions, but I ran one of them: Container Gardening. On Wednesday, I did three identical sessions on how to plant mint in found objects (i.e. water bottles, old tomato cans, etc.). I discussed how, if you don’t have space to start a big garden, there are a lot of possibilities to grow things. All of this was in Wolof, by the way. It went rather well, and the girls responded positively. They all took the containers home with them.

How did I acquire 40 containers for the sessions, you ask? Ah, let me tell you.

PICTURE THIS: me wandering around the Sokone market with a gaggle of Senegalese children trailing close behind carrying garbage. Yep, this happened.

I spent several days wandering around town looking for possible containers for my sessions. One day, I ended up in the market in the late afternoon. Few people were around. I had a big rice sac filled with random objects, which I carried with me. I stumbled upon two boys playing with an empty water bottle.

Me: Hey kids! Can I have that bottle?
Kids: No.
Me: It’s just a bottle. Give it to me!
Kids: NO!
Me: Ugh. I’ll give you 25 CFA for it.
Kids: Okay.

I gave them the money (around five cents), took the bottle, and continued on my way. Five minutes later, two other boys come up to me with an old plastic bucket.

Boys: Do you want this bucket?
Me: Yeah! Thanks!
Boys: Where’s our money?
Me: What?
Boys: We heard you were giving away money for garbage.
Me: Um, no. Do you want to give me that bucket anyway?
Boys: Um, no.

Seriously, kids kept approaching me with random garbage and holding it out to me. Of course, they all rudely wanted compensation. One little boy, bless his heart, just gave me a bottle and ran off. Not the brightest, obviously.

I ended up getting enough containers for all the girls, and I only paid for the one. I got a lot of interesting looks though as I rooted through garbage for two days. They didn’t think the toubab was weird enough, I guess.

PICTURE THIS: me wandering around a small Senegalese village with a big sac full of gifts to hand out. Also happened.

It’s seed extension time here in Senegal. Part of my job description includes extending improved seed varieties to local farmers and/or citizens. Peace Corps paired up with ISRA (L’Institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles), who supplies the seeds to all the agriculture volunteers. I decided to extend my seed (sounds dirty, but it isn’t) in my friend Joey’s village. I also gave my host dad some seeds, too. He was pleased.

So last week I biked out to Joey’s village, which is five kilometers away, with around 12 kilos of corn, beans, and millet. I mostly extended the seed to women, which I thought was a really good idea because women farmers get shafted a lot in this country. When I got to Joey’s village, we organized everything and headed out to the compounds. I carried a huge sac of seeds, and we went door to door.

At each house, we explained the program. Basically, if we give a farmer one kilo of corn, when harvest time comes, he has to give us two kilos of corn. It’s not that difficult. It’s a decent program, and all the villagers were really excited. After two weeks, and then again after four weeks, I have to check up on them to make sure everything is going swimmingly.

Yep, so that’s pretty much what’s been going on with me recently. Tomorrow I am heading down to the southeast corner of the country for 4th of July. I am going to be crammed in a car from Kaolack to Kedougou for eight hours. Wish me luck.

Where I Fly, Explode, & Get Jazzy

Where have I been? What have I been up to? I wish I knew the answers to these questions.

Wait, I do know. I am STILL IN SENEGAL. I have been here for over ten months now, and I am beginning to get itchy. Hence my impromptu purchase of a plane ticket to Paris. That’s right, Jamie is gettin’ outta dodge. I am heading to France for two weeks in order to escape Senegal in August. The way my service lines up, I get to experience three Ramadans in this lovely country. Unfortunately, Ramadan is not fun. Thus, I am taking a slight respite and I am going to wander around Paris for a little bit. As of right now, I plan on going it alone. If anyone would like to come, feel free.

Things I did in the last few weeks:

  • Got thrown off a horse cart.
  • Got a glandular infection of the eye.
  • Went to an international jazz festival.
  • Went on a booze cruise.
  • Drank ginger ale AND 7 Up.

To start, let me explain how I almost broke a bone when a horse decided to contract suicidal tendencies. A few of my friends and I decided to visit another volunteer in his village. Regrettably, in order to get to his village, you have to take a 45-minute horse cart ride through the bush.

We climbed aboard this horse cart with a friendly Senegalese driver and were on our way. Suddenly, the horse decided he didn’t want to walk anymore. The driver, beating the animal senseless (which was both terrifying and horribly sad), finally succeeded and jumped back on the cart just in time for the horse to start sprinting like a bat out of hell. It was scary, yes, but we were fine and still on the cart, so we said nothing. Plus, the horse was moving, which was an improvement from his earlier immobility.

After several stop-and-go type scenarios that almost resulted in us flying off the cart, the horse finally succeeded when it took a corner too sharply and plowed into a stump sitting next to the road. Because the horse was sprinting, the left wheel stopped abruptly, while the right half of the cart continued on the path. I remember thinking, as I flew through the air, that I really did not feel like getting evacuated to Dakar. Luckily, my childhood gymnastics training/years of watching the Olympics kicked in, and I landed on my feet. I seriously have no idea how it happened, but I found myself standing several feet away from the cart, looking down at my friends, who were lying in a dog pile directly next to the cart.

My friends: How’d you get way over there?
Me: I have no idea.
My friends: Did you land like that?
Me: I believe so.
My friends: Seriously?
Me: ……

We finally clamored back onto the cart (we were bruised but not harmed), and for the duration of the journey, my knuckles were white from clutching the sides so tightly. I guess the horse was satisfied with the level of fear it instilled in us because it trotted softly the rest of the way. RUDE. We made it though, and the ride back the next day was, of course, a nice stroll through the countryside.

Next on the list: my glandular infection. Basically, the right side of my face exploded one morning because of this weird bump on my eye. My eye was super red and swollen and constantly leaking tears. I went to Kaolack to get medicine, which I took for two days. After little improvement, the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) told me to come to Dakar. I agreed (even though I really didn’t want to go).

I ended up staying at the med office in Dakar for four days. I went to the eye doctor, which was bizarre. He was French and very nice. I got three types of medication, which I am still taking. The swelling went down pretty fast, and the bump on my eye is tiny and barely noticeable.

I also took a slight vacation last week when I went up north to the 19th Annual St. Louis International Jazz Festival. I had visited St. Louis once before (for New Years), so I was no stranger to the ole French colony. It was really nice to see volunteers I usually don’t get to see, and I had a lot of fun listening to jazz music. All the legit shows were expensive, so my friends and I ended up bar hopping every night to listen to the shows that were playing at several smaller venues all over the island.

The second night we were bar hopping, I received a text message from a friend that read: Come to the boat. Free booze. Basically, there was this large, multi-story boat docked on the river that had been sitting there for days. My friends and I leapt up and ran across the island to the boat. We climbed several ladders and ended up on the upper deck. The party was amazing, and there was lots of delicious free wine. The boat never moved, but it was really beautiful watching the ocean and the bridge at night. You can even see the country of Mauritania from there (“I can see Mauritania from my house!”).

Overall, the weekend was really fun. I will definitely go again next year. St. Louis is a really cool and diverse city, and the jazz festival was amazing.

Last but not least: I found ginger ale in Kaolack and 7 Up in St. Louis. Livin’ the high life.

Oulay

Living with a Senegalese family is about as difficult as living with an American one. They drive you crazy, but they always have your back. In return, you always have their back. There is a mutual trust and appreciation that doesn’t go away. Yes, my Senegalese family is not my real family, but it’s the closest thing I’ve got in this country.

I have been living with them for eight months now, and they have been wonderful. They are kind and patient with my language skills. They cook delicious food (by local standards), and they put up with my strange American behavior. I love all 23 of them, and I would do anything for them. This declaration was tested the other day when my sister Oulay knocked on my door.

She asks if she can come in, and I gladly accept. I find it slightly odd because my family rarely comes in my room, but I push these feelings aside. She sits down on the floor and tells me to sit with her.

We chat about nothing for about ten minutes until finally she tells me that she is sick. She pulls out her right breast and tells me that something is wrong with it. It hurts. I ask if she wants medicine. I give her Ibuprofen from my med kit and provide water. I give her a couple more and tell her to take them after meals. She thanks me. She says she needs to go to the marabout’s house down the road but she doesn’t have any money. I ask why she needs money to go to the marabout’s house. She says she will pay him money in exchange for health and protection.

How much? She wants 30,000 CFA, which is around $60. This is a lot of money considering how much I get paid monthly. My family has never asked me for money before. I have heard horror stories from other volunteers whose families have asked for substantial amounts. It’s an awkward situation for both parties.

I stall by steering the conversation elsewhere. Several minutes later, she stands up and tells me she’s going back outside. I stand. She asks if I understand the situation. I do. I go to my wallet and look. I only have 20,000 CFA, part of which is earmarked for travel. There is no bank in Sokone. I give her 10,000 CFA and tell her that’s all I have. She accepts it and says she will ask other people for the rest. She leaves.

I have so many mixed feelings about the situation. I feel so guilty that I didn’t give her all of it (though I had a legitimate excuse). I am also suspicious about this whole scenario. I believe she is sick, but I don’t know why she needs so much money just to see the marabout. I would be more willing to give her money for hospital bills, but I don’t want to tell her that. I don’t want to preach to her when she genuinely believes that the marabout can help.

These types of situations make me sad. In a country with such a strong NGO presence, the local people see a white person and immediately assume they are there to dish out the dough. Children, as well as adults, on the street ask me for money on a daily basis. I was always thankful that my family never did, and I appreciated the safety their compound provided.

I’ll keep you posted on further developments.