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Sunday, April 27, 2014

No Title

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the long absence.  I just got back from staying with my language immersion host family in Sambalaobe.  There is no electricity there, so I didn’t bring my computer with me.  I did bring my smartphone so I could check emails and facebook if I happened to find wifi (which I did, a few times, at a restaurant near the beach, so thanks to those who emailed me, because it was a nice surprise to be able to read those) but typing out a whole blog on a smartphone screen seemed hard, and I figured the battery probably wouldn’t last long enough anyway, so I didn’t try it. 

This Sambalaobe homestay was a long one – 17 days – and while I did learn a lot of Fulakunda during that time, I think the main lesson I learned is that I don’t really know anything yet.  Every time I thought I learned something new about my family or about Senegalese culture in general, it just raised several other questions I don’t yet have the answers to.

I have been with the same family for about a month altogether, if you add up all the stays and subtract the time I spent at the training center and the trip I took to my permanent site.  The longer I stayed in Sambalaobe, the more I started to see things as they really were.  I just re-read my blog description of the family from my first homestay, and I’m embarrassed by how many errors there are.  Four of the children that lived here a month ago are gone now, and we’ve gained a new one. Baby Yaya, who I thought was 10 months, is actually 16 months and still not walking or talking. Jennebou, who I thought was in her mid 30s, is actually 25, and she had her first kid when she was 14 or 15.  They don’t wash their hands before every meal.  They don’t wash their hands at all.  They dropped that charade as soon as they got comfortable around me. My namesake’s husband is also her first cousin, and they grew up in the same house, so they refer to each other as brother and sister.  Their oldest kid, the one who I thought was still in Guinea Bissau, actually lives about a 10-minute walk away, with Hadja’s sister.  Are there stories behind all these revelations?  You bet.  Do I know them?  No, not a chance.

I am crippled by my lack of language.  So far, I think I have the lingual ability of a two year old.  That sounds pessimistic, but it isn’t.  If you speak slowly and clearly to a two year old, they can comprehend a lot.  However, like most two year olds, I am difficult to understand when I try to talk.  I have poor grammar and a thick accent, and I am never able to say exactly what I mean, since I am working with a limited vocabulary.  Trying to put a sentence together is like having a puzzle with only a fraction of the pieces: sometimes, people can figure out what the picture is supposed to be, but a lot of the time, they can’t.  To make it easier on myself, I lie a lot.  When talking about my family back in America, I said my mom works at a hospital.  They said, “Oh! So she’s a doctor!”  I racked my brain for the translations for “medical technologist,” “blood samples” “laboratory” or “microscope”….then just said “Yes, she is a doctor,” because I wanted to end the conversation.  I’m sure my host family is lying to me, too, for the same reasons.  Like a two-year-old, normal conversation is too advanced for me.  I can’t comprehend anything unless people make an effort to speak slowly and enunciate using only the words I know.  Frequently it’s only my family who can surmise what I’m trying to say, and even then it’s a crapshoot.

Last week, I had this conversation with my host mom:

“You are sitting.”
“Yes. Did you know tomorrow is a party in America?”
“A party.”
“Yes.  It is called ‘Easter.’  People spend time with family.  Children receive candy.  It is very good.”
“Ah.”  Pause. Very slowly and carefully, she said again: “You are sitting.”
“Yes, I am sitting.”
She smiled broadly and clapped her hands.  “You are sitting.”


My family is patient with me, and I know that I have plenty of time to learn the language in the next two years.  I am happy with my progress thus far.  I think I’m at the same level as the other Peace Corps trainees, and I know that I’m not expected to be fluent at this point.  Peace Corps administration has been nothing but supportive, and I’m really happy I’m in Senegal.  It’s a fantastic country.  When I was growing up, there was a 3-day town festival called Barbeque Days that I looked forward to every summer.  Everyone in my extended family took it off work, so we would just hang out at my aunt’s house on lawn chairs, gossiping, eating, joking, and playing with the kids. It’s like that literally every day here.  Every Senegalese person I’ve met so far has been so accommodating I feel like I’m a part of their family.  I have a laughing baby in my arms more often than not. I am having a lot of fun here; I’m just a little pessimistic about whether I’ll be able to work. After all, you can’t have an adult conversation with a two year old, and many other problems plaguing Senegal, such as malnutrition, malaria, and sanitation, are very adult topics.  Who would trust the health advice of a child?

I’m sure there are good reasons behind every perplexing behavior that I see, and two short years might not be enough time to see things the way they are, particularly when there are language barriers blocking my view.  There’s a Pulaar proverb that says “A log can be in the water for a long time without becoming a crocodile.”  I am that log, and Senegal is my water.

Though I am hopeful I’ll be able to do good work here, I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic.  Senegalese are very polite, and I’m sure if I do have an awful idea, they will allow me to proceed with it anyway just to spare my feelings.

For the next few months, I’m going to continue to be a language and culture sponge.  I want to understand what’s going on around me the best I can so I can see what I might be able to help with.  I’m hoping that even if my community thinks I’m an idiot because I can’t talk well, they’ll think I’m a kindhearted idiot, and they’ll decide I deserve a fair shake.  In a culture without written language, my holding a university degree and being a master’s student means nothing.  I mean, if I can’t even pound millet properly, what kind of woman am I?  All I really have to offer my community is time, open-mindedness, a fresh prospective, and a glimpse of another culture.  I hope I’ll be able to find a way to put those things to use here.  I’ll keep y’all posted if and when I do.

On deck for the next couple weeks:
  • 3-day counterpart workshop (where all our future work partners come to the training center to learn what Peace Corps is and how they can utilize us volunteers in our permanent sites)
  • Trip to Dakar
  • One last stay with my Sambalaobe language immersion family
  • Final language proficiency test
  • Beach day
  • Swear in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer
  • Move to Teyel Faring!
Hope everyone’s doing well. Email me if you have some time.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Permanent site visit

I just got back from a 5-day visit to my permanent site.  I knew a few weeks ago (when I got my Fulakunda language placement) that I’d be headed to the Kolda region, but I didn't know my city/town/village placement until last Wednesday evening.  The training staff blindfolded us and led us to a spot on a giant map of Senegal.  It was really fun and dramatic.  My site placement was Teyel Faring, which meant nothing to me at the time, but now that I’ve seen it, all I can say is: for the next two years, I’m going to be living in paradise. 

Adrienne, with hut.  In a little less than a month, it will be my hut. 
 I’m planning some pretty epic interior decorating. 

The family congregates under this mango tree to nap out the part of the day when
 “the sun is much.”  I have probably eaten a dozen mangoes already.  So good.

There are six baby goats and a dog named Obama.

Adrienne (top picture) was my host for the visit.  She’s leaving me some big shoes to fill.  Her community loves her and her language skills are intimidating.  Unfortunately, I think Adrienne’s counterparts may have forgotten that although she’s fluent now, she wasn’t always, and it’s going to be hard for them to deal with the fact that her replacement can only communicate with the vocabulary and grammar of a toddler.  Adrienne has had an awesome service filled with successful projects, and I’m looking forward to continuing her work, but I’ve got a lot of language to learn before I can do that.

I was assigned a new name by my new family: I’m now Kadjatu Sabaly.  My namesake has 6 kids, including the cutest 5-month-old infant named Mariama. Kadjatu says her kids are now my kids too.  My host dad is the village chief, and my host mom is the midwife at the local health hut.  There are three schools in the village, all of which I might be able to do some programs with.  There are a half-dozen other Peace Corps volunteers within easy biking distance of me.  The nearest town with electricity is Velingara, which is only 15 kilometers away on a flat paved road, so I can probably go there at least once a week.  In Velingara there’s a hotel with good wifi I can use as long as I buy a drink or two.  There’s post office there, too, and I can get mail if you feel like sending me a letter:  B.P. 157 Velingara, Senegal, West Africa.

My favorite part (of course) is that the village is surrounded by baobab and palm trees full of chirping tropical birds.  I was told that if I choose to go running on the forest trails in the mornings, I need to keep an eye out for baboons (“Awesome!” “No.  Seriously.  Baboons.  You need to be careful.”) My 12-year old brother, Alpha, apparently goes into the woods a lot and returns with buckets of fruit, so hopefully he’ll take me on as a foraging apprentice.  I didn’t get the chance to wander during this visit, but I love that the forest is there and I’m so excited to explore over the next two years.

I don’t have too much else to say this week.  Tomorrow, I’m heading back to Sambalaube for my final language immersion homestay. I feel strangely guilty to go back to my language family when I’ve just met my permanent family, like I cheated on all the Baldes and they all know about it. I’m excited to get sworn in as a true Peace Corps Volunteer and to start my service in Teyel Faring, but I’ll definitely miss my Sambalaube family.  They’ve been so good to me and taught me so much.  Anyway, I probably won’t have access to electricity until I get back to the training center on the 27th, and at that point it’s only a few days before I swear in.  Training is going by so fast, and I can’t believe it’s almost over!  Talk to you later!


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

CBT updates/pictures!

Well, I am definitely not fluent in Fulakunda (yet?  How optimistic can I be about that while remaining realistic?) but I am a lot better with it than I was 11 days ago.  It took minimal pantomiming to tell Babba this morning that I was heading back to Thies, that I’d be back in about two weeks, that I’d miss the family, and that he should keep my room key for safekeeping while I was away. 

As promised, here are some pictures:
I almost don’t even want to put this one up because it’s such an obnoxious 
“white girl goes to Africa” picture, but I look really happy and 
my hair is fantastic, so let’s just get over it.

Here’s my homestay neighborhood:

There are “farm” animals all over the city.  Notice the giant hog near the playing children in the street.  There are goats, chickens, cows, donkeys, sheep, pigs, and cattle roaming all over.  I don’t know how they keep track of which animals belong to whom, as nothing is collared or tagged.  None of the animals are scared of people, but I’m a little scared of the pigs.  They’re very big.

In our compound, we’ve got a sweet mango tree right in the middle of the yard.

This is the bathroom building

Notice the blue bowl outside.  That’s Kadi and Yaya’s training potty because 
they’re not big enough to use the hole yet.  If you mistakenly use the bowl 
as a shower cup, your family will laugh at you.  FYI.

All the food is great

My Bill Clinton breakfast platter

French fry salad!  Genius!

which is impressive considering that this is how they cook

and that all water has to be hauled up by hand from a very deep well.

They’re ridiculously kind as well.  I had a weird reaction to a medication I was on this week, so every time I went outside during daylight hours I got a weird red blistery rash on my arms.
I only had the language to sadly tell my sisters "The sun comes. Then I am a lizard."

My family reacted by finding some spare fabric and tying makeshift sleeves on me.

This is babba am, my father, Mamadou.

Immediately before this picture was taken, I asked all the kids to gather around him for a photo, then he yelled and swatted at them and they got out of the frame. I wasn’t sure if he did that because he didn’t want a picture or because he wanted one alone, so I just awkwardly took one, curtseyed at him, whispered “yafo” (sorry) and backed away. 

I have never understood anything my father has said to me.  His voice is quiet and raspy, and he mumbles.  He has a good, strong handshake and sometimes laughs, though, so I assume he’s a good guy. Here’s a story about him:

A few days ago, I woke up at around 5am to a loud squawking coming from just outside my door.  As I slowly opened my door and my eyes adjusted to the moonlight, I saw babba holding down a rooster with one hand while ripping out the poor bird’s tail feathers with the other.  He looked up and we made eye contact.  I shrugged and closed the door, thinking that even if I had the language skills to ask what the hell he was doing, I wouldn’t understand the answer in English, let along Fulakunda.  Later that morning, I asked my little sisters what had happened.  They understood the question, because they had been woken up by the rooster too, but they didn’t know the answer, so I asked my language coach.

“You know, your father, he is a Maribou, so maybe it was for some mystical thing. I don’t know. But in the future, please feel free to stay in your room during the night, because maybe there could be a problem for your safety and security.  Maybe someone could come into your compound with perhaps a machete and maybe they would defend themselves.” 
“Does that happen?” 
“Oh yes, that can happen.”


I did eventually figure out that it’s a common practice to pull out a rooster’s tail feathers so it will have bare skin on its butt, which makes sunlight uncomfortable, so it will want to stay in the shade and is therefore less likely to run away. In any case, that rooster was annoying as hell and squawked almost constantly.  I was trying to be sympathetic to him because he was so pathetic, skinny, and bare-butted, and he obviously had a tough life, but I was not in any way remorseful when he showed up in the dinner bowl two days later.

Babba has either 3 or 4 wives, depending on who I ask, but only two of them live in the compound.  One is Adama and one is Assamau but I can’t keep track of which is which.  Much like Babba, they talk quickly and mumble, and I can’t understand them, so I don’t interact with them as much as I probably should.

Hadja, my namesake, is awesome.  She’s 26 (like me!) and has three kids (not like me!).  She’s originally from Guinea Bissau and knows what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land, so she’s really patient, kind, and understanding when I’m oblivious to everything going on around me.  She also has the cutest baby in the world. 

Yaya’s birthday is Cinco de Mayo, so he’s almost a year old.  He only knows about 5 words, and one of them is "Hadja", which he says when he wants me (or his mother...) to pick him up.  He’s adorable.

Yaya is also way more self-reliant than any baby I’ve met in the states.  I’ve never heard him cry.  He’s entirely free to crawl around wherever he wants, so he spends most of his time like this.

Happy as can be, with no purchased toys around to occupy him.

Kadi is Hadja’s kid too.  She’s easily my favorite in the compound. She’s sweet, energetic, and outgoing, and usually has plastic in her mouth.

The kids seemed to warm up to me immediately, possibly because I brought UNO and crayons.

One day last week there was a birthday party at another PCT’s compound. 

Lexi’s breasts attended and were well-received by all.

Jennebou and baby Samba dressed their best for the party

Flashy scarf/hat combo, considering we live on the equator.

and we had a work day assembling a compost pile in a corner of my family’s compound

Other than that, my last 11 days were nothing but a lot of sitting and trying to be a language sponge, with limited success.  I’m at level "intermediate low" right now, and I'm only required to be at "novice high," so that's pretty cool.  I'm loving Senegal and I’m so happy I’m here.  Thanks for reading!  Please send me emails with what you have been up to lately.  I miss y’all.