Tabaski, Thanksgiving, Tamkharit and Beyond: Exercises in Gratitude, Slaughter and Cross-Dressing, and then some

Transplanting Cabbage on New Year’s Day: Nothing beats wearing pajama pants out to the fields on a chilly Sunday morning while your bare feet get stabbed by thorns because you can’t wear boots thanks to a healing foot infection. Also, I am sure my sartorial sensibilities in Senegal would make everyone cry.

First off, Happy 2012 to everyone who still bothers to read this even after my 3-month radio silence! Your continuing interest in my life is appreciated, and one of my New Year resolutions is to combat the bouts of crippling sloth and procrastination that sabotage my blog-posting abilities. In attrition, I spent the first day of the New Year transplanting cabbage in my host dad Masseck’s field. Standing ankle-deep in icy-cold water for 6 hours was a far cry from my New Year’s Day 2011, which I spent eating a late brunch with other PCVs, after a night of major groping at an Akon concert in St. Louis the night before. (No, I was the gropee, not the groper, and yes, I saw Akon live. For free. Boo yeah.) My Christmas, like the year before last’s, was spent in village, though for the primary reason that my never distant friend, the staph infection, came to visit again twice during this busy holiday season.

But to begin where I left off in my last entry.

Tabaski 2011: 6 dead sheep lined up in a row. I can’t make this stuff up, guys

My return from America in October was quickly followed by the grand-daddy of festivals here in Senegal, Tabaski (better known as Eid al-Adha in other parts of the world). Literally the “Festival of Sacrifice”, I thought the slaughter of one sheep last year at my counterpart Diatta’s home was a fairly gruesome event, requiring the teamwork of 3 people to hold down the rather hefty haunches of the poor animal as a distressingly blunt knife was used to saw through its neck. Imagine my personal horror when the exact same practice was repeated this year in Temeye-Thiago on 6 sheep and 1 goat, and I didn’t even bat an eyelid, even helping to hold down the goat as it went through its series of death throes. I didn’t even flinch at the sight of the third sheep’s wind pipe flapping open and shut like the mouth of a fish gasping for air. Honestly all I could think of at that instant was that film “Un Chien Andalu”. Behold, the rivers of blood coagulating into puddles across households in Senegal! No big deal. Man, how things have changed.

Thanksgiving in Ndioum: Beer Pong Victory Dance!

However, my desire to kill a turkey on Thanksgiving was foiled by inexperience and performance anxiety, so with that goal not achieved, I instead played one too many games of flip-cup and beer pong, resulting in my passing out between the hours of 1 and 8 pm on Thanksgiving Day. I would like to thank the person who fixed me a huge plate of food and left it in my tent next to my comatose body, and the 5 people who valiantly tried to wake me up. I will try not to repeat said performance at the West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST) in Dakar in the upcoming week. Such are the perils of my Peace Corps life; coupled with my inability to metabolize alcohol, the few instances I am afforded to throw sobriety out the window are quickly followed by premature slumber.

Awa Traore gives a talk on career opportunities, the perils of drug-use, and dressing appropriately at school. I quickly regret my see-through chiffon top and red bra.

The past 3 months have not all been exercises in revelry and over-eating. Awa Traore, the Peace Corps Senegal Gender and Development program coordinator, came to the CEM2 in Richard Toll to give a talk to one of the Michele Sylvester Scholarship winner’s classes. I managed to secure funding to deepen the well at the women’s group garden (mentioned here), and replace the India pump with a pulley system instead. So far, so good. With any luck, that will be the last of any major construction to be done in the garden space. Work at the hospital garden continues. The pre-existing gardener was fired before I left for America in October, and a replacement has yet to be found. Still, the garden managed to yield over 1437 kilograms of fresh produce for consumption by the hospital patients in 2011, not too shabby I think. Moringa powder demand has begun to outstrip existing supplies, so my goal this year is to introduce more intensive leaf beds at the women’s group garden.

British Invasion by the River: Beth, William and Hadiru

I had the pleasure of hosting 3 British backpackers in Temeye-Thiago for a couple of days that I will probably regret for the rest of my service since one of them agreed to host my Senegalese dad, Masseck, for a month in Britain. I’m pretty sure public sentiment in my village towards the British quickly skyrocketed past Americans with that one little gesture. Whether the British Embassy agrees to grant that tourist visa remains to be seen, not to mention the money that Masseck would have to come up with to buy the air ticket. I still don’t think he grasps the gravity of staying past the terms of his tourist visa, should he even be able to procure one, and the odds of him getting a job in the area of England he will be visiting. Still, if the trip works out sometime this year, I wish him the best of luck. You too, Will!

Tamkharite 2011: Mamadou still gives me nightmares, while Pape gives the girls in the village a run for their money. I let you decide which one is which.

Their visit was quickly followed by Tamkharite, the Islamic New Year, which occurred on December 5th. Another gorge-fest of millet and meat, supplemented by fresh milk drizzled generously over the dish (my mouth waters at the thought of this meal I’ve only had the pleasure of experiencing once in the 17 months I have been here), dinner is quickly followed by festivities that parallel Halloween. Boys dress up as girls and vice-versa, then wander around from household to household singing and chanting, receiving rice, sugar or candy in return.

In other news, with the impending departure of the current Waalo region coordinator in February, I got nominated to take over, along with another PCV located in St. Louis, Julia. My lack of regular internet access makes the paperwork involved a nigh impossibility to deal with, so Alhamdoulilah for Julia! I pretty much act as technical support than anything else. A couple of weeks ago, I supplied Moringa seeds and helped conduct a Talibe workshop on Moringa intensive beds in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, before heading to the village Kassack Nord to plant some banana trees and talk about the logistics of starting a Moringa garden at the local health post there. The Waalo region is generally a little too wide-spread to have as many collaborative projects as other regions in Senegal, but I’m going to try to see if it makes sense to organize a Moringa tournee with the other PCVs here sometime later in the year.

So there you have it, the abridged version of my past 3 months back in Senegal. I leave you with a photo of the turnips currently growing at the hospital garden, and promise to attempt to update this blog once again before the month is out.

Before and After: Chinese Turnips, ready to harvest in 50 days

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Up and Down and Around We Go—Overtures in Mental States

Dread the days when you feel like doing nothing at all, and end up basting in a pool of your own sweat, admiring the tenacity of that film of moisture that perpetually clings to your skin no matter how many times you try to wipe or fan it away. (Ahh, if only all your work efforts possessed such tenacity.) Those days tend to multiply during the month of Ramadan, and you find yourself watching trees shiver in the distance as the heat warps the air, and sometimes your brain as well.

Coupled with personal family pandemonium, August did not leave Thiaba Diallo (that’s me, for the uninitiated) a happy camper. On the plus side, fasting proves to be a much simpler enterprise when you find yourself supine on a mat most of the day, preoccupied with answering long-distance phone calls (a frustrating enterprise when you are located in a village with phone reception that would make your average teenager cry) and lack the general chutzpah to utter inane phrases like “Allah is my boyfriend/husband” or assume my role as village comedienne to the inhabitants of Temeye-Thiago.

When the going gets tough, take solace in the little-big things, like harvesting sweet potato roots the size of babies' heads from your garden

As such, I spent the majority of the month of August in a delirious haze of hunger, frustration, apathy and humidity, which only got compounded by increasing disappointment with the hospital gardener, the well at the women’s group garden not being deeper, an impending site visit from my program boss Massaly and USAID, plus girls’ camp preparations. Ultimately, I was compelled to buy an air ticket back to America to sort out aforementioned family matters. I had originally planned to head home to Singapore (the place where I was born and raised for the most part) in January, but this trip took unanticipated precedence. Expect me back on American soil come October 1st to 16th, where my time will be divided between New York City, Washington D.C.  and Charlottesville, VA. Friends and family, I hope you will have the time and energy to meet up with me on such short notice! To my fellow Senegal PCVs, send me requests before October 10th and I will try my very best to fulfill your manifest desires. To my friends and family in Singapore, I am sad that the January trip will not be happening, but I hope to see you all again in 2013, inshallah, provided that the world does not end in 2012 with the impending Senegalese elections in February.

St. Louis’ inaugural girls’ camp 2011: Camp Gëm Sa Bopp!

It has been 2 months since my last update, and while I doubt anybody has been mourning the information blackout, I apologize nonetheless (plus there’s always Facebook). Thankfully, September has proven to be much more fruitful and positive—the hospital is going through administrative changes, and talks are in the works about hiring a new gardener; a grant to fund deepening the women’s group garden well has been given verbal approval; Massaly and USAID’s site visit went smoothly; plus the girls’ camp was an unexpected success, and one of the highlights of my Peace Corps service to date. There is no doubt in my mind that the camp will be held again next year—some PCVs are even considering extending their service just to participate in next year’s camp. More details and photos of the past week will be put up on the camp website, http://campgemsabopp.wordpress.com in the near future, though I have no doubt that I will soon be waxing quixotic about the halcyon days of September when everything seemed to be going my way and where the grass for once, was actually greener on my side.

September: 1 of 3 months out of the entire year when grass actually grows on my side of the world

After 2 years of service, Peace Corps Volunteers from Latin America come back with a great love of dance and latin cuisine. Volunteers from Asia inherit a deep sense of spirituality and thought. Volunteers from Europe come back with a knowledge of alcohol and hospitality. Volunteers from Africa, head home laughing.

-Peace Corps anecdote

Summer Showers Bring… Staph Infections in Surprising Places

July, July. My birth month has been rife with personal milestone events, both work and social-related. Highlights include handing in my first Project Completion Report after the women’s group formation on the 27th of June, and quite an epic 4th of July celebration in Kedougou. An excess of donations for another Peace Corps project, the Kolda Donkey Rally (watch their hilarious promotional video here), provided an advantageous opportunity for me to secure funding for moringa related training and tools for the 2 gardens I work with in Richard Toll.

June 27th Formation: Double-digging the soil before adding natural (and free!) amendments—cow manure, charcoal dust and fragments, neem leaves and ash

11 months into service and I have spent the night in every regional house, another arbitrary tick off my personal bucket list. July 17th brought the first (and so far only) torrential downpour of the rainy season here in the North of Senegal, which was also unfortunately the harbinger of a glorious staph infection located in the most convenient of places–it would be just my kind of luck to get one on my lovely rear end. Thankfully as I write this, recovery has been speedy though not painless—inch’allah there will be nary a scar on my delicate oyof (a word the Wolof use in this situation that actually translates to light (as opposed to heavy)) skin.

Group photo of the participants of the formation, along with Youssoupha Boye (way in the back right), who conducted the formation, and El Hadji Ngary Ba (located far right), the coordonnateur general at the Center where the garden is located

At the garden formation, I had the help of a SED PCV, Julia, who came in from her site, St. Louis for the day (you can read her blog here). She took all the lovely photographs and helped run last minute errands, which afforded me some well-needed breathers throughout the day. Youssoupha Boye, one of the Peace Corps agriculture program coordinators, came in from Dakar to conduct the workshop, and taught the essentials of double-digging and amending the soil, along with companion planting, neem solution treatments and the wonders of moringa. Lasting the entire day, I was pleased to see the women using their newfound knowledge days later without any instruction or direction from me or my counterpart, Diatta. After the rainy season ends, I hope to replicate the formation in Temeye-Thiago, with another women’s group new to collective gardening.

4th of July in Kedougou: Pigging out on pulled-pork and beer

My journey to Kedougou took an epic 30 hours and required 7 transportation changes thanks to 2 flat tires and my very first sand-storm (truly a “life affirming experience” as another PCV put it), but was well worth the effort. Verdant green mountains, a float down a beautiful river with beer in hand and good company in tow, an Independence Day Party replete with fireworks, forbidden pig meat, alcohol, and late-night dancing, plus the opportunity to introduce the wonders of Stump to the completely clueless masses, were all priceless moments in my all-too-short 2-day trip in what essentially equated to Peace Corps Club Med.

Zach demonstrating the very finest in hammer-spinning skills during a lively round of Stump. Ask your local red-neck/wilderness enthusiast/avid mountain biker on how to play this classic American game

Which explains why I ended up not celebrating my birthday in any shape or form this year. Coupled with Gamou (a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday) Thiago and several rounds of village wrestling that followed right after my return from Kedougou, I felt I had enough excitement to last me for a while, not-to-mention planning and executing gardening activities with the onset of the rainy season—generally the busiest time of the year for agriculture PCVs.

Restless wrestlers awaiting the start of their respective matches

In addition to all of this, July spelt the end of a tedious but extremely rewarding experience meeting and interacting with Michele Sylvester Scholarship candidates. The following, culled from the SENEGAD website (click here for more information) provides some background:

The Michele Sylvester Memorial Scholarship Fund was established in 1993 in memory of Michele Sylvester, a Peace Corps Volunteer dedicated to girls’ education in Senegal. Its purpose is to help close the gender gap in education. The scholarship provides money for the school fees for nine girls at each middle school working with a volunteer, and for school supplies for three of those girls. School faculty members determine the original nine girls, the volunteer chooses six finalists, and a Selection Committee picks the three winners. The Selection Committee uses a personal essay written by the candidate; an interview of the candidate by the volunteer; the candidate’s grades; and recommendations written by a teacher and the volunteer to make its decisions, based on the following four criteria:

Motivation. A student cannot succeed if she does not want to. Scholarship recipients must demonstrate a desire to remain in school.

Ability. Since advancement to the next grade depends on passage of final exams, recipients must demonstrate past academic achievement.

Financial Support. Success at school is impossible if a student cannot afford notebooks and pens, or if she cannot even afford to register. The scholarship can provide funds for these items, but only to applicants who demonstrate financial need.

Recognition. Education is a long-term commitment, and requires the support of both the family and the community. If this support is lacking, the volunteer can provide it by recognizing the candidate’s achievements.”

Meet Aissata Samba Diallo, poster girl for the Michele Sylvester Scholarship

Take Aissata Samba Diallo. The youngest of 5 children in a family of Pulaar cow herders, she also happens to be the first and only one in her family to have ever had any formal school education. In addition to having the most exceptional grades out of all the candidates at the school I worked with, she also had the most unusual ambition: to be an air pilot. In a sea of air stewardesses, teachers and nurses, she displayed a surprisingly different view of her future potential. She was the only one who immediately understood the questions I asked in French (I had to translate into Wolof for the rest of the girls, though this is most probably due to my sub-par French-speaking skills than anything else), and was 1 of only 3 of the other candidates who had nobody to turn to at home for homework help. Aissata was the only candidate to really hate having her photo taken—a rarity in Senegal, especially since so much of a women’s worth here is based purely on their looks… and sometimes their ability to cook a good plate of ceebujen (Senegal’s national dish, literally translates to rice and fish). Nevertheless, I managed to grab a shot of her smiling.

So you can see why my work with girls’ education hits home hard; as I stated in my previous blog entry, I have been afforded the opportunities I have had throughout my life thanks largely to funding from financial need-based scholarships (and the support of my wonderful family). Click here  to donate specifically to the Michele Sylvester Scholarship program! In addition to money for school tuition fees and school supplies, scholarship candidates also get the chance to participate in a girls’ camp this September, Camp Gëm Sa Bopp, to be held in St. Louis. More details can be found on the website here. While $5,500 seems like a daunting amount, each of the 12 Volunteers involved is responsible for raising about $460 each. So if I can just get 23 of you guys to donate $20, or 46 people to donate $10 each, I will hit my target! WordPress.com tells me my regular readership hovers above that (thank you for your interest in my Senegal escapades, by the way), so think about heading over to this page here to donate—the process is very simple and will take about 5 minutes of your time.

All this is yet another activity to add to what has amounted to a very busy July. Another Urban Agriculture Summit awaits come August 1st to 3rd, after which things should settle down till my Mid-Service Medical Checkup in mid-September, and Camp Gëm Sa Bopp soon after that. Project after project continue to line up as the days go by, and while I enjoy being busy, my relationship with my family and friends back home has certainly suffered. I question my ability to be a good daughter, sister, and friend given the career path I have chosen to take. Where do you call home if global nomadism appears to be your destiny, but financial ability prevents country-hopping several times a year? I have spent the past 11 months in Senegal, and am still trying to grapple with the benefits and costs of leaving the country for a couple of weeks.

Peace Corps life is not without its trials either. I question my efficacy every day. I wish I could fully assimilate and be surrounded by my surrogate family and friends 24/7 as the culture pertains, but solitude is oh so sweet at times. I certainly try my best, but as they say here in Senegal, “Gattax lu mu yagg-yagg ci geej du soppëliku mukk jasig” which roughly translates to “No matter how long a log stays in the water, it will never become a crocodile.” Still, I seem to be riding out the frustrations of Peace Corps work in my stride, but be well aware that they are ever present as I navigate the quagmires of development work from the rather precarious position of non-African outsider. It will be a year next month since I have seen any of my family and friends back home. While still far from burnout, I cried for the second time since I arrived in Senegal just a couple of days ago—there are times when despair takes hold and I feel so distressingly powerless to help those that I love in their time of need. I am forever thankful to be surrounded by gorgeous women with generous hearts and beautiful souls though, but I will save that story for another time.

Khady Ndiaye (my host mom) and I at Gamou Thiago—July 9th, 2011

Exciting Life Updates on Hold for this Newsflash: Camp Gëm Sa Bopp!

A bunch of us PCVs in the Northern and Central regions of Senegal are planning on holding a girls’ camp for Michele Sylvester Scholarship winners in St. Louis come September 18th-24th 2011. However, US$5,500 needs to be collected before we can make that vision a reality. If you can find it in your heart to help bright, motivated young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to have the experience of a lifetime, empowering them to pursue their dreams no matter the odds, click here and donate today:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=685-180

More information on the camp can be found here: http://campgemsabopp.wordpress.com

Thanks to generous financial aid scholarships, I managed to get a stellar education and be debt-free at the age of 25. Most people aren’t as lucky, particularly the majority of women in Senegal. Your donation would provide an unprecedented degree of support and motivation for these girls to continue their studies. So please, just rethink that dessert for lunch or Sunday brunch mimosa, and chip in $5 or $10 (or more!) to the St. Louis girls’ camp. I thank you in advance, and besides, I just turned 25 this past July 12th—donate to this cause instead of sending me a care package!

When Your Ancien is the Chuck Norris of Senegal

I wrote the following article for the Sabaar, Peace Corps Senegal’s quarterly newsletter written by (and for) PCVs. Enjoy as I ponder how to relate 4th of July celebrations to all of you at some point in the future.

 When Your Ancien is the Chuck Norris of Senegal:
A Tribute to the Talibe Whisperer

Pape Diop. Few names manage to elicit as potent a mix of fear and adoration in the hearts of street Talibe, ceeb mamas, and your local Imam alike. The mere mention of these two syllables in Richard Toll can assemble an army of children to do your every bidding, have the ladies break out that special ngente outfit early, or have men start making attaya before lunch is even served. This effect is not just limited to the city of Richard Toll, however—fans have been found as far out as Matam, Dakar, and some say even Kedougou.

Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Casey McConnell joined the Peace Corps with an eclectic resume already behind him. A graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in sociology, his previous job descriptions range from working with rehabilitating the homeless in Washington D.C. to coaching Frenchmen on the intricacies of American Football in Paris. His decision to serve a 3rd year as PCVL of the St. Louis and Matam regions can thus be seen as a natural progression and an apt union of his collective prior experience in social work and teaching.

Casey began service as the first urban agriculture volunteer in Richard Toll. Faced with a tabula rasa, he quickly made the most of this challenge and turned it into an opportunity, finding and establishing the site for a hospital garden that now supplies overnight patients with fresh produce for their cooked meals 5 days a week. His seemingly boundless energy, coupled with a gift for moringa proselytization, has resulted in the successful implementation of the production and sale of moringa powder at the hospital pharmacy. Between April 2010 and April 2011, the garden produced an impressive 208 kilograms of fresh moringa leaves for this endeavor.

“Pape Diop should run for mayor” was a phrase I vividly remember during my installation in Richard Toll in October 2010. His exceptional work ethic was not lost on the community. “Pape Diop works hard. He’s also really strong—he can water with 2 watering cans at the same time!” said Assane Ndiaye, one of the medical technicians at the hospital. Nothing illustrates this unwavering dedication better than his undertaking of the installation of a drip-irrigation system at the hospital garden just 2 weeks before his slated return to the United States.

While the oft-quoted phrase “you’ll figure it out” was the trademark answer he sometimes gave when in one of his taciturn moods, more often than not Casey’s impressive verbosity was outstripped only by his ability to provide sage advice. To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens,” something I was privileged enough to take advantage of on a regular basis during my salad days in Richard Toll. An outstanding teacher, mentor and friend, Casey was always ready and willing to lend a helping hand, which at one point entailed cleaning out a staph infection of mine that even the local head nurse was horrified to set eyes upon. He always prioritized his fellow volunteers and community over his own personal well-being, sacrificing sleep, health and money if it meant making someone else’s life an iota better than before.

But what made Casey such a memorable human being in addition to his outstanding work contributions was his down-to-earth personality and unique brand of humor that transcended cultural boundaries. If you understand my reference to the “Left Hand of Allah” and have heard his lengthy rationalization of the use of dip as an important marker of cultural identity, you know what I am talking about. Add this to an assortment of eccentricities, such as his predilection for smothering most food items in mayonnaise whenever possible and his lengthy lamentations on finding a wife, and you have an endearing individual whose humor is outweighed only by the measure of his heart. “Pape Diop’s a bandit, but he’s a bandit with a heart of gold,” remarked Richard Toll’s police commandant, Malik Sarr. “I am going to miss that sai-sai.”

His recent foray into the sport of Senegalese wrestling will only add to his growing infamy—on June 4th, Casey participated in a traditional wrestling match at the St. Louis Stadium. The media vultures that encircled Pape American immediately after the match for an exclusive interview ensured its showing on RTS later that same evening, recording this momentous occasion for all of posterity (footage which I am certain will be making the rounds in Peace Corps circles at some point in the near future).

The match calls to mind an incident earlier this year in Richard Toll. It is mid-day, and we are making our way to lunch. Cursory greetings with a construction worker along the street are made. A careless “yangiy lekk sa xaalis” is uttered by the man, specific words that happen to be one of Casey’s pet peeves. (Woe unto the poor child who utters such a phrase in his presence, for the wrath of Pape Diop can be quite terrifying; I can tell you as a first-hand witness.) A callous “give me your money” quickly follows, but is met with a challenge to wrestle right then and there if he wants the money. The match is had; the man is deftly pinned to the ground. Casey leaves the arena victorious, money intact. The event is promptly forgotten and never mentioned again, until now.

It is the deft and atypical handling of poignant episodes like this that has come to make me appreciate, respect, and already miss the man that is Casey McConnell. I can think of few other volunteers who so perfectly embody the ideals of the Peace Corps and bleed red, white and blue, while seamlessly integrating with their local community to such positive and productive effect. That he achieved all this with a high measure of humility, a self-deprecatory sense of humor, a desire to help his fellow man, and a deep love for humanity all still firmly intact, make him an exceptional individual whose absence will be felt for years to come.

In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum, Senegalese Poet

Casey, I hate to admit it, but yes, you were right… 95% of the time, according to my infallible calculations.

I salute you, and I’m sure the rest of Senegal does too.

Ba baneen yoon, Pape Diop!

Going (Going, Gone?) Native: 6 Uninterrupted Weeks at Site

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.

Meet Evil Incarnate: also known as Ndey Birane Dieng, my 4-year-old cherubic host sister who swears like a sailor

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.

Seeing Madness in the Mud: R.I.P. my little ponies, quickly destroyed by the neighborhood riff-raff as soon as I left site

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.

One of the two nefarious rabbits in my compound, settled on top of a mound of manure by my Moringa pepiniere

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.

The well pump, drawing water 10 meters below the surface, which is then funneled through PVC piping into 2 cement reservoirs

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!

Casey’s last legacy—a drip irrigation system at the hospital garden in Richard Toll

Ask Thiaba Diallo

Just the other day, I found out just that my name here, Mamethiaba, also means Grandma in Wolof, which would probably explain why people generally call me Thiaba instead, alhamdoulilah. This revelation, coupled by the jarring image of me as a cantankerous octogenarian (tending to a herd of children in the mountainous recesses of some orphanage in China), brought me back to the days before I was a PCV, learning Wolof 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week for 2 months, before finally swearing-in in Dakar on October 15, 2010.

Meet 'Ma': Mamethiaba Samb, my Senegalese namesake

Back in the beach-side town of Mboro, resides the matriarch of my salad days, Mamethiaba Samb. The first wife of my host father, Babagalle Diallo, my namesake was not the most nurturing of mothers a PCT could ask for, but I thank her wiliness for quickly acquainting me with the realization that most Senegalese will assume that being a toubab automatically means you have copious amounts of money. Thankfully, most of them are not quite as eager to try to rob you blind when you have your back turned.

That being said, the idea of an “Ask Grandma Diallo” column formed, and I thought I’d dedicate some of my future posts to answering questions about my Peace Corps experience in Senegal, be they related to service, culture, or otherwise. If time permits (or rather, if procrastination ceases to exist in my dimension), I will attempt to craft some hypothetical questions that I think might be interesting to you readers.

For now though, be content with my response to a real enquiry made about my current Peace Corps service a couple of weeks ago (to the enquirer in question, I hope you don’t mind me posting this!).

Dear Thiaba,

I was hoping I might be able to ask you some more questions about your service in Senegal. For my placement, it looks like PC is adamant about putting me in West Africa but I’m getting cold feet recently. All the annoying bits of studying in Senegal (stomach problems, pushy men, and such) are standing out in my memories, and two years is beginning to seem like a very very long time. Which is why I was wondering — from your experiences — what to expect lifestyle-wise and what sort of things you feel like you’re getting out of your service. How are your fellow volunteers, and what have been the hardest things to adjust to?

I know these questions can be a bit tricky, but anything you can tell me is much appreciated!

Peace,
Sleepless in Seattle

Dear Sleepless,

Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you. If you’ve studied here, I take it you know what to expect when it comes to culture—my move to the village has been a little jarring due to the fact that I now interact with a household where the man of the house has 2 wives, and is about to get another one. The hardest thing in this country for me has been that, and the general treatment of women here. Yes, the marriage proposals get old, but at some point you just learn to come up with witty comebacks (You’re ugly and I don’t like sharing my husband with other women are general crowd-pleasers). It’s the entrenched sexism that I just can’t wrap my head around, but I’m sure the men in my village are puzzled by my ideas of sexual equality as well. But I think it is precisely that dialogue that might be one of the larger cultural contributions I can make during my time here.

I think what you get out of service depends largely on the individual, though your sector can help make you feel more/less productive. I know my sector, urban agriculture, does really well in-country, and that those in small enterprise development have the hardest time feeling like they are making a difference. My move to the village has thrown me a slight loop in that I am trying to get a grasp on new projects while maintaining my old ones since relocation, but other than that, I generally always feel like I don’t have enough hours in a day to accomplish everything on my agenda.

Health-wise, I’ve only ever had trouble with staph infections, but none with eating issues (unless putting on 10 pounds in Africa of all places constitutes a major concern for you). However, this definitely changes drastically with each individual volunteer. Lifestyle-wise—say goodbye to surfing the internet, drinking every weekend and hello to a lot of time spent sitting around drinking tea. Given that, there are still plenty of instances to party with other volunteers—there’s always an excuse to hit a big city at least once a month if you want to. With about 200 volunteers in-country, you find yourself interacting with a wide-range of individuals from all walks of life. Not making friends should be the last thing to worry about, as is finding someone with similar interests and views as yourself.

Thus far, I have not found my service in Senegal to be lacking. Frustrating at times, yes, but I think most of us expected as much when we signed up for this. Compared to other West African nations though, I have found that Peace Corps Senegal provides an exceptionally cohesive support network and facilitates volunteer activities to great effect. Granted, nothing’s perfect, but hey, that’s life, plus this is Peace Corps Africa.

I hope I answered your questions somewhat. Good luck with placement!

Jamm ak Jamm,
Thiaba Diallo