Posts Tagged ‘ toubab ’

The Last Leg

I’ve reached the point in my Peace Corps service where I’ve stopped counting the number of months I’ve been in country and started counting down the number of months I have left. I have been here for over 21 months, and I have less than four months left. It’s pretty surreal.

A few updates on my life:

-For a number of reasons, the girls camp I am helping run has been moved from mid-June to early September. As a result, I am leaving a week later than expected. Yes, I know a week isn’t a very long time, but my mind has been staring at September 15th on the calendar for months, and now the date is pushed back. It’s tough. Luckily the camp and mangrove reforestation will be the last things I do, so I’ll end on a high note. My summer has cleared up though, and I don’t really have anything to do until August. I don’t want to start any new projects now because A) I probably won’t be done by September, and B) I’m partly checked out.

-My host family has grown. We now have a rambunctious baby goat that runs around. For a while I hated it because it was annoying and didn’t follow the Animal Code (i.e. wait until AFTER lunch to go foraging for scraps). Plus, it was always dirty and rubbing up against me. Regrettably, I judged it too early and rather harshly. I recently discovered that the goat’s mother (and two siblings) died in childbirth, meaning the goat is an orphan. Now when I see my host brother feed it milk from a baby bottle, it’s less “Why does that goat get such special treatment? Stupid animal” and more “So awful that its mother is gone. Look how cute it is!”

-I finished book #68 this week (What is the What by Dave Eggers, really sad book about a Sudanese refugee). Sadly, I probably won’t complete the 100 Book Challenge. I am shooting for the 80 Book Challenge now. Kids, this is what failure looks like.

-I’m really into podcasts now. Favorites include This American Life and Savage Love.

-Mango season is upon us, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s good because mangoes are delicious, and I love them. Also, and Mama Whitehead will like this, they get me flossing every day. Mangoes are bitches in that they get stuck in your teeth.

Mango season is bad because the war starts.

For those of you haven’t visited, my house is situated in the corner of my host family’s compound. There is a two-foot space between my house and the wall that separates my compound from the neighbor’s. The neighbors have a huge mango tree in their yard, and some of the branches extend over my house. When the wind blows, the branches sway against my zinc roof and make noise. This is fine. Unfortunately, during mango season, the neighbor kids climb onto my roof to grab mangoes. They also stand on the wall right outside my window with a long stick trying to get the delicious fruit. This is fine for them, but to me it’s the most annoying thing in the entire world. They start really early, and they do it on and off pretty much all day. It’s insanely loud when the branches hit the roof, and it’s even louder when the mangoes fall.

They also love to look into my window. It’s definitely a new thing. Clearly these kids aren’t the smartest because I’ve lived in Sokone for over a year and a half and they’re just now realizing they can peek in my window. It’s like an exhibit or something. Step right up, folks, and see the toubab in his natural habitat. They watch me reading. They watch me sleeping. They watch me watching Glee. They watch me changing clothes. It’s creepy as shit. I tried closing the window, but then my room got unbearably hot (it’s usually, ya know, FREEZING in there), so I opened it again.

-The alley between my house and the outer wall has seen a lot of action recently. A cat just had kittens there. The kittens are pretty cute. They eat the scraps I throw out the window. Which, come to think of it, I should stop doing if I want the cat births to stop.

-I recently had a discussion with my host sister Sophie about my leaving. I told her I had about three months left with them. She was sad. When I told her I would definitely cry when I left, her face changed. She said that men don’t cry. I told her too bad. I’m a man (ha!), and when I leave I will cry. I don’t think she accepted it. We’ll see what happens.

To sum up, don’t think I hate it here. I actually LOVE it here, but I’m done. I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life (Chapter 5: Where He Lives With His Parents).

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Things…

…I don’t use: toilet paper, knives and forks, my French, pillows, shoes and socks.

…I miss about America: burritos, sushi, Diet Coke (Coke Light isn’t the same), cleanliness, Starbucks, fast Internet, anonymity, washing machines, my family, bagels with cream cheese.

…I thought I’d miss but don’t: constant Internet access.

…I love here: shade, water so cold it hurts to drink, the babies in my family, bean sandwiches, free rides, mangoes, oscillating fans, hard boiled eggs for breakfast, free stuff from the vegetable guy in the market, bread made in wood burning ovens, starting a book, finishing a book, understanding everything someone says to me, free calling, sleeping on the roof, sleeping in, inventive cocktails made with shitty alcohol, my headlamp, cashews, mangroves.

…I hate here: the sun, mosquitoes in your net, mosquitoes in general, constant diarrhea, rude children, clothes that never get truly clean, public transportation, dehydration, people who tell me I can’t speak Wolof, garages, people who refuse to provide change, unpaved roads, extra loud mosques, cracked heels, “Toubab! Toubab!”

…I’m shamelessly addicted to: MSG, chicken spam, hand sanitizer, Laughing Cow cheese.

I’m leaving in four months.

…And He Was Never Heard From Again

The time has come, Abdoulaye said, to vote in the election.
I’m stuck at site and in a plight, but it’s for my own protection.
Who will win? The citizens ask, for it truly is a tossup.
Is it rigged? Is it not? I’ve heard a lot of gossip.

Welcome, my dear readers, to the beginning of the end. I’m losing my goddamned mind.

As of last Sunday, all Senegal volunteers are on standfast, meaning we can’t travel. Anywhere. This is due to the fact that Senegal’s presidential election is tomorrow. Consequently, this once restful country has decided to stop resting. The Senegalese youth have woken up, and they are CRANKY. I know I wrote about the election a few posts ago, but in case this is your first visit to my lovely blog, I’ll give you a recap.

Current president: Abdoulaye Wade
Age: 85
Face: scary looking

This is the end of Wade’s (pronounced “wad”, like a wad of gum) second term. The Senegalese constitution states that a president can only hold the position for two terms. Wade is running for a third. He found a loophole. The constitution was changed AFTER Wade became president, so he believes that he can run for a third term.

As I mentioned, Wade is old. Like MAD old. He uses old slang and his grand bubus are SO last century. To quote Amy MacDonald, he doesn’t know a thing about the youth of today.

Senegal is changing. It’s becoming more western. Skinny jeans and sequins are traditional garb now for ladies. For the fellas, Yankee caps and baggy jeans.

Wade is outdated. If you’re over the age of 40, you’re going to vote for him. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but you get my point.

So like I said, the youth have woken up, and they’re not happy. I get texts from my SSC (Safety and Security Coordinator, for those of you who need their hand held just to get through this post) saying there are riots in all the regional capitals. Tear gas canisters are getting thrown around like Mardi Gras beads. Tires are on fire. People getting killed. It’s a madhouse over here.

Thus, I am trapped at site. I have been here for nine days, and I’m going a little stir crazy. I have spent longer amounts of time in Sokone before, but I hate not knowing when I’ll be able to leave. I also hate that I don’t even HAVE the option to leave if I wanted to. It displeases me.

Things I’ve done since being here: rearranged my room, organized my med kit, changed all the names in my cell phone to characters from Harry Potter books, emptied out my garbage can (something I rarely do….go ahead, JUDGE ME), defragmented my computer, watched an entire season of Mad Men, bug bombed my house, cleaned my bathroom, got drunk at a bar and had to climb the wall of my family’s compound at midnight, made an Excel spreadsheet detailing the entire schedule for the girls camp I’m running in June, and wrote this blog post.

This stretch at site by the numbers:

Cups of tea drank: 5
Hangovers: 1 (Right. Effing. Now.)
Number of fellow volunteers I’ve called out of boredom: 14
Hard-boiled eggs consumed: 14
Text messages received from other bored PCVs: 72
Books read: 4
Height, in feet, of the wall I drunkenly fell off last night: 6
Movies watched: 1
Naps taken: 6
Number of freak-outs at children calling me toubab: 3
Songs listened to: hundreds, I’m sure
Number of times I’ve considered exercising to prevent boredom: 0
Number of times my host family, noticing my crazy eyes, has asked me if anything is wrong: 3

If you don’t hear from me in the next week, start wandering around baggage claim at Orlando International Airport. You might spot me.

THE TROPHY

What was supposed to be a lazy day at the regional house became an unexpected adventure once the trophy was spotted. Katie, Emilie, and I went to the toubab store to load up on snacks. We’d seen the yard sale on the way and commented on it, but we hadn’t decided to stop in until we were heading back, our arms filled with cans of knock-off Pringles.

Katie: What the hell. I can’t believe they’re having a yard sale. I didn’t think Senegalese people even knew what yard sales were.
Me: We should really go check it out. There might be some good stuff.

So we wandered over and started perusing the wares they were selling. Highlights include, but are not limited to: broken roller blades, exercise equipment, a dining room table set, shoes, etc. Typical Saturday morning junk.

We were about to leave when I saw it, shining in the African sunlight. The lighthouse that would guide us through the remainder of the day.

The trophy.

It was an old backgammon trophy from some forgotten time. The label on the bottom implied Eastern European origins. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Me: Guys, look at this trophy. Wouldn’t it be funny if we gave it to Gregg for his birthday? Or better yet, we could give it to people after they did stupid stuff. Like, ‘I can’t believe you did that. You’re an idiot. Here’s your prize, dumbass’.
Katie: YES. How much should we pay for it? 200 cfa?
Emilie: Yeah, I’d pay 200 cfa for that.

We asked how much the trophy cost.

Yard Sale Guy: You can have it for 5,000 cfa.

Cut to us laughing, calling the trophy garbage, and walking back to the regional house.

As we were eating our tubular chips, we got to talking about the trophy. After 15 minutes had passed and we were STILL discussing its beauty and wonder, we all came to the same conclusion: that trophy needed to be ours.

Me: I’m not paying ten dollars for that trophy, even though it’s totally awesome. How about we offer him a trade?

After scanning the house, we decided a fair trade would be the crappy Christmas tree Mary bought two Christmases ago from a guy on the street. It was covered in dust, but it would suffice.

We wandered back outside. I was carrying the tree. The Yard Sale Guy eyed us from afar and turned to his friends, who squinted in our direction. Crazy toubabs.

Emilie: We’re BAAAAACK. We came to trade you this beautiful tree for that trophy.
YSG: That tree? Why would we want that tree? It’s dead and dirty.
Emilie: It’s a FAKE tree. It was never alive. Plus, it’s not that dirty. It’s a fair trade.

The guy refused, saying they’d already sold three trophies that morning. Either he was lying or backgammon trophies are serious commodities in West Africa. We offered to pay him 1,000 cfa for the trophy, and to be nice we told him we’d throw in the tree as a gift. He still refused, but he lowered the price to 4,000 cfa. He was bound to crack.

We stomped away in a huff with our metaphorical tails between our legs and the dirty tree in hand.

Katie: Well, I guess that’s over. Now what do you want to do?
Me: I want that trophy. Here’s an idea: how about we hire some kid to wander over to the yard sale and ask them if they have any Christmas trees? The kid could be like, ‘La la la. Oh look! A yard sale! Hello, sir. I’m in the market for a Christmas tree this fine February day. Do you happen to have one?’ It would totally work.

The girls thought the idea was brilliant.

We leave again. The guard at the regional house officially thinks we’re crazy.

So we wander the streets and stumble upon a group of Senegalese children playing football. We greet them in Wolof and ask them if they could do us a favor.

Kid: Je ne parle pas Wolof. Je parle le français.

We somehow managed to find the ONLY children in Dakar who don’t speak Wolof. We were on a mission though, so we told them in bad French that we wanted one of the kids to wander over to that yard sale and ask for a Christmas tree. We’ll pay you 100 cfa, we said.

So the bravest kid wanders over. We hid behind a wall and watched the scenario play out. We watched as the kid talked to YSG and pointed over to us. YSG looks over at us and starts walking over.

Emilie: He’s coming over here! Act natural.

So YSG appears and says a kid came over and told him that three Americans were inquiring about Christmas trees.

Katie: That wasn’t us. Uh…bye!

We ran away and hid in the house. At this point, we’d been focused on this for hours, but we hadn’t given up yet.

Emilie: What else can we trade? Let’s search harder.

So we wander around the house, upturning furniture and looking under beds. We come across a dusty old boom box at the bottom of a bookshelf. Assuming, given the state it’s in, it hasn’t been used for years and is broken. We clean it up a little and wander back outside. Katie is holding the boom box on her shoulder, much like rappers did in the 90s.

At this point, YSG and his buddies are highly amused by us, yet not amused enough to trade an old trophy for an old Christmas tree.

YSG: So you came back, eh? Are you gonna try to trade that boom box now?

We told him we were.

YSG: Does it even work?

We told him we had no idea.

YSG: Okay, if the boom box works, I’ll give you the trophy.

So he found batteries for the boom box and turned it in. Of course, it’s a fully functioning boom box. He gives us the trophy, saying it’s a pleasure doing business with us. At this point, we were so elated to have the trophy in our possession that we didn’t care how wildly uneven the trade was. We also didn’t care that we potentially stole someone’s dusty boom box from the Dakar regional house.

So the remainder of the day was spent passing the trophy around lovingly. We also had a photo shoot with the trophy, which included freeze-frame-esque shots of us holding the trophy in the air happily, much like they do at the end of bad sports movies.

As of right now, the trophy is in Emilie’s apartment in Dakar. No one has done something stupid enough to earn it yet (if you don’t count all the stupid things we did to win the trophy in the first place). Perhaps one day I’ll do something so stupid that the trophy will be mine. Here’s hoping.

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, change is really important in CFA (the Senegalese currency). You end up carrying a lot of coins 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 as frustrating as an episode of Lost. 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 African 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 (and to other English speakers). 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: this country is dirty. 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 for me and my murse.

When Senegal Met My Tattoos

My cousin Brittany was curious to hear what Senegalese people think of my tattoos. I was going to wait and tell her in December when I come home for Christmas (I’ll try to pencil you, but I’m booked solid), but yesterday in the Kaolack market I saw two children staring and pointing at my legs. If you don’t already know, I have two tattoos. I have a small owl on my right ankle (shout out to Allyson!) and a line drawing of a camera on my left leg.

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 (not a problem because I took out my lip ring years ago). As a result, in my first few weeks, I wore long pants every single day, even though it’s insanely hot here (in 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 super chill. 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 of the local people, 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. It was a normal conversation with absolutely no judgement.

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 (a SHIVER? Google it). 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 owl 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 chill 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 actually a really amazing country with a lot of laid back people. It suits me.

Oh, and one more thing, the lip ring comment was a joke.

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 (only in Senegal!).

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 5 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.