Most PCVs in Senegal generally spend 2-week blocks at site before hitting a regional house or big city for a couple of days to unwind, catch up with friends, have a couple of beers and be answered in gloriously American-accented and grammatically correct English. And then there are the rest of us who go several weeks to months at a time without seeing any other fellow Volunteers.
Suffice to say, you know you have reached a certain level of integration when:
1. People start calling you “toubab bu noor” (white person who’s black)
2. You start to prefer eating with your right hand rather than with a spoon
3. Your ability to curse in Wolof either sincerely impresses and/or profoundly offends the general public
4. You have picked up not one, not two, but several Senegalese affectations that you may very likely carry with you for the rest of your life
5. You come *this* close to wandering around with your top off because hey, it’s 113 degrees Farenheit (45 degrees Celsius) out, everyone does it, plus your host sisters really want to see what your breasts (or lack thereof) look like. Finally flashed them some boob in the privacy of a bedroom, much to their delight. Naturally, they were appalled by my paleness.
And then there are days when you question your sanity, your purpose in Africa, and your diminishing fluency in English. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself lost in the rice fields, carrying some eggplant in one hand, and a horse made out of mud in the other.
Granted, I was attracted to the horses because I found out that my host sister Bo had made them while chasing away birds from the rice fields (an extraordinarily tedious process involving copious amounts of screaming and shouting, coupled by the catapulting of rocks). I am pretty sure I startled several farmers when I wandered around that day trying to find my way back home, and perplexed my mom on the phone when I began to mix Wolof with Chinese and English while jumping across irrigation canals. Of course, it would make more sense to associate the following with my eccentric predilections rather than as an indicator of me losing my mind, because I ended up meeting a lot of new farmers that I had yet to be introduced to in my village.
It also seems that someone out there is intent on ensuring that I never lead an ordinary life. 5 days before leaving site, I had the luck of getting rammed by a ram at an ngente (baptism) while stooped over in an animal pen eating lahk (a dish made of millet balls, milk and sugar), which happened to be sprinkled with manure courtesy of the glorious breeze blowing through my advantageous position within the pen. The absurdity of the situation is only compounded by the sweet, sweet revenge I felt while eating that very same ram for lunch later that day.
Other critter encounters include dealing with the rabbits in my compound, who escape their enclosure periodically to feast on the lettuce and flowers in my tire pepinieres. I fall asleep every night to the euphonic love-making of the neighborhood donkeys, and don’t even blink twice nowadays when an errant pig or goat wanders across my path seconds away from death under the wheels of a pick-up truck.
My reasons for staying put are manifold—being a constant presence in my new village helps me get integrated into the community with much greater ease, plus my host families in both my old and new sites have been a wonderful support system. Besides, it is gorgeous out here in Temeye-Thiago. My new site definitely aligns more with what my initial vision of my Peace Corps day-to-day life would be like—pulling water from a well, (mostly) pleasant neighborhood kids, close encounters with animals on a daily basis and all. That being said, my specialization in urban agriculture means that most of my work is still based in my former site Richard Toll, and so I commute several times a week, which provides enough of a change of scenery that I have little need to head to a regional house (3 hours east in Ndioum) or St. Louis (2.5 hours West) every couple of weeks.
The well and fence for the women’s group garden I help at have been built, and I am currently preparing to hold a permaculture gardening formation (workshop) on the 27th. Of course, given my luck, I am waiting for 6 meters of fencing to complete the 106-meter perimeter of the garden (hopefully arriving on the 27th), plus the women complain that the hand pump for the well requires too much effort for the amount of water that is produced. My counterpart Diatta says he would have saved the money on the pump and made them pull water with buckets if it were up to him, but then his work ethic surpasses that of most people I have met on the continents of Africa, Asia, and both Americas. If anyone out there has any solutions to making the current pump more effective (perhaps a pedal pump that utilizes leg power versus arm power?), point me the way and I am sure the 20 women I work with would be much happier. In the meantime, I take the opportunity to exercise my arms, since the women despise the contraption so much.
In addition to that, I have been visiting the local CEM2 (middle school) regularly, in order to disburse a Michele Sylvester Scholarship (more on that in another post) to bright girls in need of financial assistance, and to discuss plans to plant shade trees within the school compound come the rainy season.
At this point, I took a break that put an end to my 6-week record at site, where I:
1. Witnessed an epic wrestling match at the St. Louis stadium between my ancien Casey and a Senegalese participant
2. Visited Linguere, a region of Senegal generally hailed as Senegal’s equivalent to the Wild, Wild West (leaving one regional house in all of Senegal I have yet to spend a night in—something that will hopefully change come 4th of July celebrations in Kedougou)
3. Listened to some amazing live music during St. Louis’ annual Festival of Jazz while catching up with PCVs in a manner that would have done Bacchus proud.
My return back to site was bittersweet as I saw my ancien complete his last project in Richard Toll and bid farewell to his home for the past 3 years. A remarkable mentor and super-volunteer, I wish him all the best when he returns stateside on the 28th. As for me, I thank my lucky stars for the amazing sites, fantastic friends and extraordinary role-models that have been part of my Peace Corps experience since I started. Stay tuned for more inane ruminations in the meantime!