Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, June 30

My First Catholic Party

When I first landed in this sandbox, I was told that every Catholic is of Sereer ethnic group, but not every Sereer is Catholic… apparently this isn’t always true. I went to my first organized Catholic party last Sunday, and before you start groaning hear me out because it was a hell of a good time. To celebrate the end of a successful school year, the various ethnicities of the Mboro Catholic population put on a cultural soiree of food, dance, and dress.

We kicked off the party with a solid 2.5 hours of Catholic mass. For me this is a time to sit quietly, not be bothered, catch up on French Bible lingo, and think about other things during the Wolof bits. Hands down, the best part is the music. Think: fun loud southern Baptist choir with African drum beats and an undecipherable language. These people would probably beat them out in a Glee competition, though, because I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s impossible to remember your troubles or feel anything other than calm resolve for the week ahead after hearing them sing. Even the obviously sad songs are somehow inspiring. I can’t help but stare, but everyone else seems to take it for granted as I’m continually the only person parched from a mouth hanging wide open.

The second best part is the fashion show. The women dress in their best outfits with shawls and head wraps, heels, and purses all perfectly pressed and coordinating. During the communion procession, one can’t help but be mesmerized by the beautiful cloths parading by in styles never before seen, rendering the whole experience akin to Project Runway- Mboro Edition. Same goes for the men, sans accessories of course. One is considered luckier even still to behold a vision of the Virgin Mary; who makes frequent fabric appearances, with and without her son, and in various settings.

But this day was a lucky occasion, as many of the women dressed in the same fabric, albeit different dress styles, in honor of their designated ethnic group. This is normal party protocol. A few women from the group will head to Dakar to be the first to buy a newly printed style of cloth. And they buy as much of it as possible, if not the whole minting, in order to fabricate their coordinated ensembles. By my count, there were at least 4 different groups represented at this party.

After mass, the congregation gathered in the neighboring court yard for what can best be described as the African version of a Sunday picnic. The pews were brought out from the chapel to rest under the trees joined by plastic chairs, a few speakers, and a make shift wooden bar. Yes, a bar. You could walk up to it and order a beer, a bottle of wine, or a bottle of palm wine (which is rapidly fermenting sweet wine). All this can be found at the same price quoted at the local hole in the wall corner boutique, which goes to say it’s cheaper than any other restaurant/ bar in Mboro. The director of the accompanying Catholic elementary school, at which I frequently teach English, bought me my first ice cold Gazelle.

Interestingly enough, the whole party sat in separated sections; the young kids under one tree, the teenagers another. The women sat in fabric coordinated circles on one side of the bar, while the men sat on the other. Although I initially sat with a group of women, I was eventually called to the men’s circle because, as I was told, it was quite obvious that none of the women knew me and all my friends were the male teachers of the school anyway. Oh well, it tends to go that way in most of my experiences because 1) the men’s circle is an unofficial place of elevated status, 2) I’m white and therefore inherently prone to do bizarre things, and 3) I drink more than ½ a beer in a sitting. It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t wearing a coordinated outfit. Maybe next time…

We waited for lunch, served in traditional Senegalese style of large round plates of heaping food where everyone gets a spoon. In honor of the cultural celebration each ethnic group made a few plates of their traditional meals. My group was served a Sereer dish of tiny flakes of fish mixed into mashed beans porridge-style with hot sauce and limes on the side. Not knowing it was fish filled, I took a huge bite. And then promptly threw it up. A very kind gentlemen sitting next to me immediately got up and went in search of another plate. When he returned with a small plate of rice covered in sweet milk sauce, I couldn’t help but smile… it’s my favorite dish in Senegal. And this version was sprinkled with colorful fruit syrups adding to the splendor. Diolla and Manike were the only other ethnic groups I caught the names of… but the other ethnic dishes served were manioc leaf sauce over rice, fish and dumplings with tomato sauce, and a new twist on baked beans with ground beef.

After lunch, we continued drinking in our segregated circles, until it was time to dance! Each group of women was given the opportunity to play a grouping of their songs and show off their traditional dances. Either all the dances were basically the same, with the appearance of knee shaking, arm flinging gyration in conga line formation, or I wasn’t sober. I promised my friends that the minute an American song came on I would teach everyone how I dance… but the opportunity never presented itself. A shame.

As the heat dissipated, the afternoon turned to twilight, and the beers ran out… people started to stumble home. A hefty amount of pictures were taken, and I hope to post them soon. I had a great time, and mentioned so to my new friends when they all called to make sure I’d gotten home ok- a jester so Dad-esque it reminded me of my own. At which point, it had occurred to me that the company I kept represented men who were all within a few years of my own Dad’s age. And while I look forward to grilling and boating with Dad back home, I’m also anticipating the next excuse to gather here in Mboro.

Sunday, June 27

Losing Control

One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with is losing control of everything around me. And some days it really feels like I’ve lost every battle. I can’t always say what I want to in French. I have to think of the words I know that will basically get the point across, but I have little room for personal speaking style. I can’t stop myself from getting sick all the time. I can’t control the climate of any of my surroundings because there’s no thermostat to change or sweater to put on or take off. I can’t change my shoes because anything other than flip flops gets filled with sand so quickly I can barely walk. I can’t choose which tailor I prefer to utilize for my clothing needs, because it’d be a big faux pas not to use my Mom’s. I can’t control what I’m eating, because I don’t cook any of my meals… even when I don’t eat fish I’m given an alternative meal prepared by the maid. I also have no control of when I eat. Lunch is anywhere from noon (weekends only) to 3p; Dinner is between 10 and 11p. I can’t control when the power goes out and comes back, and the same with the internet… apparently the Senegalese government can’t do that either.

I can’t seem to control my work schedule. I set appointments with people for specific times, though they never show up on time. Granted, they will generally appear within an hour- if they’re coming. I’ll schedule small computer classes, but none of the students show. Then they’ll pester me for months after about when the next class is. And they conveniently don’t understand my language when I tell them I have too many things to do and can’t always be waiting for them. “Ok then, just give me private lessons.” …As though I could trust them to a) show up on time then either and b) stick to the subject. No, I don’t want to show you how to use Skype and then talk to your friends. I can’t control the tendency of people with my phone number to call at all hours demanding I come over immediately to show them how to print something.

I can’t control how people treat me either. The little kids call me whitey or red ears, but I can’t seem to make them understand that it’s offensive. I’m constantly told to get over it; they just don’t know better. Well, TEACH THEM BETTER! I can’t control all the stupid things my host Mom gets mad at me for. No, I don’t want to listen to your friends talk about me in Wolof… so yeah, I’m leaving. I don’t want to teach English to kids because I have a degree in business… so yeah, I’m definitely not teaching your 4 year olds for 30 minutes each week. This will only make you feel better; they won’t learn a damn thing. And please don’t bother me with complaints about how other people are benefitting from my speaking English with them… when you will most likely get pissed the next time I speak English in a conversation you’re a part of. I can’t seem to entice people to learn why I do things differently.

I figured the lack of control would dissipate after PST. Back in those days I had a rigid schedule of language classes with a few bouts of health, culture, or security. My time wasn't my own, but that would come to an end... and I would have control again. Apparently not, because here I am every day, waking up when the kids decide to start screaming, eating what’s put in front of me, just dealing with the name calling on my way to meetings that probably won’t happen, sweating uncontrollably until after dinner when I then get to pass out at the moment I choose to give in. Hmm.

Actually, I have more choices than that. I can choose how many times I take a shower each day to rinse of the sand and sweat. I can choose which drink flavor I put in my water. I choose the music in my MP3 player, and what movie to watch at night while I wait for dinner. I can choose how much or how little to eat. I can choose to eat from my secret stash of protein at any time. I can choose how to react to the little kids that call me names, same with the grown adults. Do I laugh and say hello back? Do I say something offensive in return? Do I stop and explain that they shouldn’t call me that? Or do I just ignore them entirely? I can choose whom I agree to meet with, what day I’m available, and at what time. I can choose to be out of the sun in the heat of the day. I can choose to fill my evening hours with yoga or running instead of more classes. I can choose which direction my fan is pointed. I can choose to take a million vitamins every day, and to not spend time with my brothers when they are sick. I can choose…

In case you’re wondering the point of this ramble, let me put you at ease: there isn’t one. This is an exercise in talking out my frustrations and reminding myself that I’m in control of the little things. And that I’ll be able to live- or at least get by- without controlling the rest. Inshallah (here’s hoping). And truthfully, if the worst things I have to complain about are people calling me names, not working too hard, and a restricted diet... what the hell is wrong with me?

Wednesday, June 23

50 Things I Never Expected to Happen:

1. Using a French keyboard often enough that my fingers start to forget where the letters are.
2. Wolof words entering the English language, ex. Poop.
3. Having dreams so vivid I wake up crying and call someone to make sure they aren’t real.
4. Wishing my 2 year old host brother was around when he’s gone.
5. Not falling in love with mangoes.
6. Being unable to think of something I’d like to have sent or brought from the States.
7. Day dreaming about having a Peace Corps issued horse.
8. Learning to create tourism websites in (and for) a 3rd world country.
9. Wishing I had enough money to buy a really nice camera.
10. Using an iPhone. Here, in Africa.
11. Not wanting to see the ocean.
12. Incorporating clicks and clucks in my vocabulary.
13. Scooping a fly out of my cold drink, and continuing to drink it.
14. Worrying constantly about how much trash I’m creating.
15. Having access to enough sugar for a self-induced diabetic coma.
16. Being called racist.
17. Having weekly, if not more, conversations with my predecessor.
18. Writing a semi-weekly blog.
19. Being jealous of my brother; who gets rocked to sleep every night.
20. Concluding that my real mother is somehow Wolof due to similar mannerisms.
21. Enjoying onion sauce.
22. Missing the rain, thunder and lightning, so much.
23. Viewing a traffic jam as an opportunity to shop.
24. Abandoning forever more my favorite cookie, Oreo, after a bad night of food poisoning.
25. Accepting cockroaches as part of my world.
26. Naming the lizard in my cubby bathroom: Steve.
27. Talking out loud to people who aren’t here, in a language they wouldn’t understand anyway.
28. Living with all the side effects of Mefloquine.
29. That there’s a tennis court in Mboro.
30. And a pool.
31. Listening to my host parents’ debate of getting a microwave.
32. Or air conditioning.
33. Being able to avoid eating fish at every meal.
34. My host Dad having a car.
35. Changing my mind about not wanting to go home.
36. Not writing in my journal daily like I did the last time I went abroad.
37. Having Wi-Fi internet in my room.
38. Feeling scandalous for dressing how I normally would in the States.
39. Liking Senegalese beer (Gazelle) more than any back home.
40. Wishing I’d packed fewer clothes.
41. And only 2 pairs of shoes.
42. My freckles falling off and the skin healing as if they were never there.
43. My hair curling the way I wanted it to in the states… but without the rollers.
44. Finding the ability to lose my temper quickly, but get over it just as quickly.
45. Making juice from dried hibiscus flowers.
46. Having an air conditioned office, but not going there every day.
47. Acquiring the ability to sit in a room with people for hours at a time and not talk.
48. Learning to operate on less than 6 hours of sleep.
49. Losing so much weight, so quickly.
50. Taking the Foreign Service Officer Test.

Sunday, June 20

Feeling Alone

I’m never really physically alone; there is always someone in the room. My bedroom door is never shut, because that would mean something is horribly wrong with me. I’ve started to feel weird about even shutting the door to pee in my cubby bathroom. But I feel alone almost all the time. Emotionally it is so hard to connect. Whether it is with my host family, friends I’ve made in town, or other Volunteers… it all seems so transient. Have we all accepted that this will be a temporary thing?

I taught my oldest host brother the word “hug,” and how to give one. He’s not too bad, and for a while he’d give me one every day when he got home from school. It made my day. Then, he became grumpy and told me he didn’t understand the significance. It’s hard to explain. Americans just crave contact more than the Senegalese. I don’t know how to explain why touching someone makes me feel better. The song “Lean on Me” sums it up right? We depend of friends to help us when we are weak? We lean on them, both figuratively and sometimes literally. In the end, he told me it was all mental and that I could change it if I tried. What if I don’t want to try? Who says there’s anything wrong with PDA?

And then there’s me trying to explain happy hour. It’s more than just an hour of discounted drink; it’s a time when coworkers go out to relieve stress. We complain about the job, we talk about life and we get to know each other. A guy I work with and I go for a drink occasionally, and I’ve spend a large amount of time explaining the relevance in American culture of ‘end of the week beer after work.’ I think he finally got it because he asked if we should be continuing to get beers every week- but this is after knowing him for eight months. Given this, you should understand why I would find my paltry version of happy hour a huge success.

Now, about those other PCVs. There seems to be this constant battle between needing a good friend and being paranoid that the other person could be taking it the wrong way. Or maybe it’s all my paranoid, Mefloquine popping, head. Back in my old life, there were coworkers I was cordial with and others that knew my whole life inside and out. Here in Africa, it feels like when I see another American/ coworker/ friend/ PCV that it’s such a rare opportunity that I regurgitate everything I would say to my closest friends without filter. Because hey, I can do it in English to someone who’ll get it! People here are amazingly supportive of each other, and by no means am I saying I am ungrateful. What I am saying is that there’s a part of me that, once done spitting out every last detail, wonders am I really closer to this person now, or was that just too much information?

With the sheer volume of different, and sometimes very frustrating, stimuli here, I need to get something off my chest quickly before it continues to bother me. So, I call or meet up with someone and we talk openly and candidly about the things we go through or see. It honestly feels almost like a secret knowing that no one else around can understand what’s being said. At first it’s mostly rant, but then it turns into a bigger picture conversation about the things we’ve learned, how and how quickly we’re changing, and the people we’ll become by having gone through this. And about this time, I realize I’ve just told someone enough detail about my life to put them squarely into my inner circle back at home… but what does that even mean here?

Interactions, as I’ve said, are few and far between. I go months without seeing friends from the northern or eastern parts of the country. So with a lack of time, I talk about things that matter… sometimes skipping the formalities and going straight to the meaty stuff. Which leads to my second concern of was that too much? Did I just force someone to listen to something they didn’t want to hear? Were they kindly listening, and nodding, and responding politely… but all the while thinking, “Geez, what did I get into? Remind me not to ask next time…”

So, I ask you, where do I draw the line between cordial and inner circle? Time is slipping past my African sand clock and I’m not entirely sure who’ll be left standing at the finish line. My host brothers, friends from town, PCVs that I’ve really only spend a few days in actual company with? Or are these relationships temporary and built on an immediate need that will fall away like the sand once I’m gone?

I’ll deal with the fallout when I get back as I’m quite certain that no matter how many questions I ask, nothing will be solved today. By and large, I’m surrounded by good people… and a few of them quite obviously do care for me. I suppose for now I’ll relax, stop worrying about it, be grateful, and maybe even consider getting off Mefloquine.

Wednesday, June 16

Foreign Service

I knew nothing about the Foreign Service before coming to Senegal. I try to keep my eyes and ears out for career opportunities that will enable me to fulfill much desired dream of living the expat life… but apparently I don’t know the right kinds of people or I’m not paying enough attention. This is evident in the fact that I didn’t investigate the Peace Corps until my 20s and no one really knew about it even while I applied. But the point isn’t Peace Corps, it’s the Foreign Service.

To be in the Foreign Service means to be an officer of the US State Department. This is the type of job you get in order to work the US embassies around the world. As I understand it, the job rotates countries of assignment every two years and comes with fun list of benefits including: ample vacation time and allowances, housing and health care completely covered, free shipping of my possessions around the world, and access to language and culture instruction. But anyone who really knows me understands that the ability to change countries every so often without having to go through the hell finding a job- well that’s the attraction.

There are 5 different departments within the ranks of Foreign Service: the consular, public diplomacy, economic, political, and management. I can attempt to provide a basic description as I get them, but I probably won’t do them justice. A consular officer works with the Americans abroad as well as VISA applications and fraud. Public diplomacy officers work like the PR department promoting the US and its culture, whilst learning the culture of the host country. Economics officers study the host economy happenings and provide linkages between entrepreneurs foreign and domestic. Political officers do just as one would imagine, schmooze with important people and spread the word of America. And management officers, the path I’ve personally chosen, operate as though the embassy was its own corporation with functions of human resources, finance and accounting, purchasing and contracts, etc.

From the get-go one has to choose their department, or cone as the lingo goes. I picked management because it’s what comes naturally, what I enjoy doing, and generally (I’m told) what I’m good at. A little background never hurt anyone either. It is worth mentioning that I did have strong interests in both the economics and public diplomacy cones. Economics because of my degree and general love of business opportunities (hello, small enterprise development volunteer…) and public diplomacy because I do so much enjoy planning events and explaining why Americans are the way they are. But alas, I have to follow my niche. It helps to hear that one can apparently take a sabbatical on occasion to work outside their chosen cone for a rotation.

Now that I’ve chosen a hypothetical career path, it’s on to the actual application. The process, like most government jobs, is a doozey. First up is a 3 hour long test. Depending on the results (a simple pass/ fail is all you’ll hear) they’ll ask you to write some personal essays. If you happen to speak a language deemed critical (Chinese, Arabic, etc) then someone will call you for an over the phone language test. The results of your test, essays, and language are sent to a panel for judgment; probably something like an HR review meeting after a first round of interviews. If you advance from this stage, it’s on to an oral exam done in a group setting with other contestants and a judgment panel in DC. They say this is the hardest part as many have not survived this round. Though if you do, you’re almost done, for all your scores are combined and you’re plopped onto a hiring list. Then one waits to be called up to service. And once you are, or maybe before, there are a few weeks of orientation and training in DC before heading out to your lucky embassy. I’m told your first few rotations are probationary… but soon enough one can earn tenure and enjoy the jet setting ex-pat life for a long time. Ah… to be so lucky.

Ok, before I get too ahead of myself in day dreams, I’m still back at the beginning. Preparation for the test was only mildly hindered by my current location. Realizing my 6 brothers are a constant distraction, I excused myself to Dakar for 4 days of study either pool side- catching some rays- or in the air conditioned office. Things could’ve been worse.

I did quite a few practice exams with multiple subjects as the exam is a scattering of knowledge: world history and geography, US culture, mathematics, communications, US history, US government, computers and IT, and English grammar. All these categories are conveniently lobbed into one (except English grammar which has its own reading and response section) which makes it only mildly less daunting. Two other phases are incorporated into the tests which are a 30 min opinion essay and a psychology questionnaire. The essay is similar to those found in graduate program entry exams such as the GMAT or GRE, and are more a demonstration of your ability to compose an intelligent response in a short period of time versus your actual opinion on something. The psychology questions ask your friends’ opinions of yourself (which I personally find odd because I rarely ask my friends how they feel I handle various situations). They also ask for short responses to basic interview questions like: “list your previous jobs where answering the phone was an important task and how you handled this,” only the kicker was one had to do so in 200 characters or less; basically in two sentences.

So, I practiced all of that for 4 days. And by the end of the last day I felt burnt out, and admittedly stressed. Not that there was any need to be. The test is free to take (you’re only charged if you don’t show up) and since I still have a year and a half of Peace Corps service left, there is no rush. So why then am I doing this now? …Because if I don’t pass the test I can retake it- but not for another full year. And since the entire application process can take around a year (assuming I pass everything first time around- because if I don’t I’ll have to start all over again from scratch the next year) I figured I might as well get started now to maximize my time.

Anyway, test time came and apparently I and two other Peace Corps Volunteers were the only interested parties. So we sat at computer terminals in a training facility located next to the US embassy in downtown Dakar for 3 hours of fun. I’d heard a lot about how hard the exam is… but I didn’t necessarily agree. Perhaps I did a good job of studying. Perhaps I’m more intelligent than I give myself credit for. Either way, I walked out with a good feeling. Sure, I got a few questions wrong (was there really an upside to Pearl Harbor? Debatable) and I could’ve used 3 more minutes on my essay, but overall a good performance on my part.

Next up… waiting. I won’t know the results of my test for about 3 weeks. So let’s all cross our fingers that Uncle Sam gives me a stellar birthday present (3 weeks lands us very near July 2nd). My friends in town have all said they’ve prayed for me… though I’m sure they assumed I would be automatically assigned the US embassy in Senegal (I’ll have to explain it later, I’m sure, but why ruin a good thing now?). In any case, I’ll take what I can get as this story seems far from over.

Sunday, June 13

Accessories

I can’t help but notice how important dress is in African culture. There are similarities and difference between Senegal and the States. For instance: accessories must match, if you go to a meeting you dress to impress, and ironing is important enough to pay someone to do it for you. But unlike the US: one’s Sunday best and casual Friday attires have traded places- as Friday is the big prier day, wearing a bra is never mandatory, and anything less than full length can be a scandal.

Another interesting contrast is that I may wear an article three times before washing it over the course of a few weeks or maybe a month. But here, in Senegal, the people wear the same outfit three days in a row, then wash it and move on to the next one. The concept is the same (conserve water and usage of the clothing, right?) but the effect is wildly different. Or at least it was, until I got the hang of it. Seriously reduces need for thought in the morning, as well as for sorting through all my laundry trying to figure out what I can still wear.

As much as I try to “blend,” and just as I did in the states, I think about my style when I shop. My purchases seem to reflect me: the colors I prefer, the patterns I like, the style of cut. Part of keeping my identity is to blend African fabrics with western style cloths. This isn’t new to the Peace Corps world. We all do it. And this isn’t even the point of this story… because for the most part my family and friends in town don’t seem to mind much what I wear. And hey, not every day can be a fashion show. The people here will compliment me when I wear a nice dress (actually, they ask me to give the dress to them- but that’s just their way). And they pay way too much attention to me on the rare occasions when I do wear traditional clothing, but other than that they leave me alone. That is until my mom couldn’t take it anymore…

I brought two purses over from the States. The smaller being officially in the “going out” classification to be used only on those occasions when hair can be done and make up worn. The latter is a large bag I use every day, to carry everything from money to sun block to my computer, around town or on trips to other cities. It is made of fake red leather.

I’ve developed a relationship with the guy in town that works with leather. I’ve seen him make shoes, belts, smaller bags… and I’ve even commissioned a copy of my J Crew magic wallet (and instant success among PCVs). So, I’ve been talking to him for a while about copying my fake bag into a new and fabulous real leather one. He was all for the challenge. My plan was to give him the actual bag to use as a copy (can’t go wrong with that, right?) but I couldn’t do that until the next quarterly stipend came in (at the end of May) so I told him I’d have find something else to carry all my possessions before giving him the bag.

By June my red bag had weathered almost 10 months in the sand (not to mention the year or so I’d been using it in normal weather) and was basically a fashion embarrassment- though people were kind enough not to mention it. And on the very day that I was finally ready to take the original to my friend, I packed a small reusable shopping bag to carry my things back home, and headed for the door before my host mom stopped me. “Soda,” she says, “That bag…” She just lets the phrase hang out there. I knew what she was getting at. The look of sadness and disappointment said it was way past time to retire the thing and I got the impression I would embarrass her by continuing on with it. “I know, Anna. It has died.” She laughs, and I explain that I’m actually on the way to the market to get a new one made. I show her my shopping sack and she laughs again. “I will loan you my bag.”

When I come back from the market she sends one of my brothers in with the purse she’d been using all week. I accept it, graciously, and load up all my possessions… It’s a nice white bag that matches almost everything in my African closet (where as the red disaster probably didn’t match anything, but was the most functional thing I could’ve brought). Later in the week, it’s clear that my new bag will take a few weeks to produce and that I have to head out to Dakar for a long weekend. I approach my mom to tell her I’m going and offer to give the bag back… in case she wants to use it during the weekend. She laughs yet again. “Soda, I have many bags. You’re not going to be interrupting my wardrobe.”

How did this happen? When did I become the type of girl who only has one bag? And I let it get to a point of utter uncoordinated embarrassment. Fashionable friends who read this, I’m sorry. I suppose my excuses include a lack of space to house a collection of accessories, or the desire to spend my meager stipend on other things like cold beer and non-Senegalese food. But we can all rest easy in the knowledge that a new bag is on the way. It will be an inexpensive (a mere $40) brown leather work of art that will probably match nearly everything in my drawer of cloths. I imagine I’ll end up as the type of girl who only really needs ONE hell of a universal accessory. But just in case I’m not, there is an entire box of ‘em back in Michigan awaiting my reentry into the 1st world.

Wednesday, June 9

Technology Wave

Growing up in the States, one could say we lived on the forefront of technology. New technologies were invented, tested, and eventually mass produced over decades. I remember my father talking about computers being invented, about how one used to fill an entire room and have less computing power and memory than the one pound tiny gizmo I’m typing on now.

But yet, when I was a kid I remember getting our first computer at home. And I remember in 6th grade class when typing (or keyboarding as we called it) became a mandatory class in school. Computer software classes were electives in 7th and 8th grade. By high school we used computers to write essays and finish other homework assignments. And somewhere in there the internet became a part of my world. I remember when my family first signed up for AOL and we all used one email account, because we didn’t know free ones existed. Back then it would take 5 minutes to load a web page, and we assumed that to be normal. By college, computer classes were mandatory, class notifications were dispersed by email, and I even took classes completely online- never once stepping into a classroom.

In the retrospective, the above describes about 10 years of my life. That’s pretty quick in the world of innovation. Think about how long it took the telephone to go from the days of Alexander Graham Bell to Apple’s iPhone; much more than 10 years. And from the first model T to the hybrid car.

What’s the point, and how does that relate to life in Africa? Well, from where I’m sitting there were some advantages to taking our time getting to know technology. For one, we got to work out all the kinks, learn from mistakes. And for another, over time we developed a set of standards or etiquette for our technologies. And I feel as though both of those key elements are lacking here in Senegal.

Let’s continue with the telephone example. The kinks I speak of include: live operators transferring to automatic dialing; no one home to answer the phone gets solved with answering machines and then voicemail; land lines to car phones, and then portables; miles of telephone cables changing to cellular towers; and then again to satellite; and quick conversations transmitted by beeper and then text message. The list goes on.

As for etiquette, there once was a time when there wasn’t a phone in every room and making a call was a big deal. People were excited to receive calls, were cordial and dropped everything. But as time went on and technology increased, novelty wore off and practicality took over. Now there is etiquette to follow: no calls during dinner or work place meetings. There are a few more etiquette rules to live by as well (as discussed in my previous posting), but the point is that we as Americans lived through all the changes in etiquette and can therefore appreciate why they exist and from where our social rules come.

By no means am I trying to say there isn’t an upside to being behind the technology curve. Where American soil is littered with telephone cables that I believe will be completely useless by the time my kids are my age, West Africa will have only cell towers- and a few of them at that as we transition to satellite communications. Thus their skyline will not be riddled with hideous metal poles and wires for devices no longer utilized.

Still though, I prefer to have lived my American life. With phone etiquette intact, you won’t hear my phone go off during a meeting and I promise to uphold other rules of etiquette.

Sunday, June 6

Phone Etiquette

It’s time to discuss the use of cell phones in Senegal. The device is basically the same. There are different versions of Nokia and Samsung products, with exceptions including the use of French language settings and the ability to utilize two different sim cards, from two different providers, simultaneously attached to the same device. Yes, this means there are two different send buttons when you wish to make a call. Which phone number/ sim card/ stock of credit do you wish to use for this call?

What’s lacking from this picture is the sense of phone etiquette. When someone calls, they barely greet you (in comparison to in person African culture where you will greet someone with no less than 2 minutes of formalities). There is no idle chit chat… conversations are directly to the point- almost insultingly- and then there is an abrupt disconnect and the call is over. Part of this could be the structure of the language, where there is no room for politeness or niceties. Senegalese rarely say please (I actually have no idea how to say that in Wolof) or thank you, and it took me months to learn how to say “you’re welcome” (and again I’m the only person I’ve ever heard use it). But the other reason for the abrupt nature is the cost of credit.

Phone credit is a staple, but not necessarily a cheap one. Where in the states a majority of the population uses calling plans in which we have a specified amount of contracted minutes (rounded up each time we burn them), Africa uses as prepaid method. You purchase the phone and the sim card, then you purchase small cards with which you reload your sim card with credit. CFA is purchased, loaded onto the sim card, and deducted based on seconds used for each phone call or 20 CFA for a text (100 CFA for international texts). Occasionally there is bonus day, where you receive 50% additional value of credit if you refill on that day. But I digress. Back to the issue of etiquette...

There is another whole topic of missed calls. At home, if that person was stored in my contact list, it means our relationship is such that I’d call them back. But if not, I’d just leave it. I’d operate under the guise that if it is important enough to the other party, they will call back. Here, it’s never a matter of importance… it’s about using phone credit. People will call, letting the phone ring once and then immediately hang up. They assume the person receiving the call has more phone credit (and money) and will happily call them back on their own dime (or CFA, if you will). Me, with my pretty white skin that says I’m made of money, I get a lot of these "beeps" as their called.

At first I didn’t want to let anyone down, so I'd call back the people whose numbers were stored in my phone. But generally, I found they were merely demonstrating to a friend or relative that they knew an American who couldn’t speak French or Wolof and was gullible enough to call back. Thus, I adopted the “they’ll call back” mantra. And it seems to work, the beeping has subsided. As time progresses I still get them from time to time, but people I communicate with regularly have had discussions with me about my version of phone etiquette.

First, I chose not to fight the lack long greetings because it’s generally uncomfortable to me anyway. But I did explain that it is rude to make someone else pay when you want to talk, so beeping is out of the question and I will not be responding to them. Ever. And that to call without a purpose is a waste of my time. I explain that if I’m in a meeting my phone is on vibrate so as not to disturb the flow of the meeting… and therefore I will not answer calls during said meeting either. Should my friends need me, but I haven’t answered the phone, they can text me the purpose of their call. I have no problems texting back, provided it does not interrupt the meeting. Or, if needed, I will return their call when I am free again. And lastly, I took the route of saying that it is impolite to abruptly hang up the call without warning. Perhaps the other party had more they wished to communicate… and thus more credit is wasted in calling back than waiting a few seconds to say goodbye. I also may have exaggerated in saying there is bad luck in not saying goodbye to someone. To not wish them a good day is to assure that something bad will happen to them on that day. And while this may not be entirely true, it does seem to have worked.

And now my friends and work partners call when they need something; we discuss it quickly and then say our goodbyes. They text when I am unreachable. And some of them have even caught on to the ease of texting the entire conversation. Say all you need to say in one quick note. Done. The Senegalese seem to respond well to the logic that texting uses less credit than a phone call. And since texting has caught on so well with my family, as a quick means of communicating where I'm going and when I'll be home, it was a huge relief when I was able to take it one step further and notify them of my whereabouts via Skype (Bamm! No credit necessary).

In conclusion, little by little I am leaving my mark on Senegal. Even if it's only one phone call at a time, the majority of my phone interactions have significantly improved in quality. And dare I say cost as well?

Wednesday, June 2

Pilgrimage

The annual catholic pilgrimage to Popenguine is quite the experience. I began my own pilgrimage on Saturday afternoon. I took the normal sept place to Thies and in doing so discovered a Pulaar man, who spoke no French and Wolof that seemed only slightly better than mine, also headed to Popenguine. At the garage in Thies, I would have normally gotten in another car to Mbour, which is a destination farther along the same route, and paid full price only to get out early and take a small taxi car to the beach. Instead, with help from the Pulaar man, I was escorted to another smaller garage, a ten minute walk through town, which hosted car rapides- like a large conversion van outfitted with too many bench seats to be comfortable- directly to the small town I would’ve gotten out at anyway. Doing this saved me 25% of the travel cost I was willing to pay. Score! It paid to be friendly with the elderly man, even though we couldn’t communicate. This would also serve as a sign to the light hearted atmosphere I was about to encounter during the event.

At the small road town of Sindia, I utilized a gendarme escort to cross the main road. Traffic was beginning to back up and people were crowding the streets looking for transportation to the beach. Even after crossing, a fight broke out and I found myself attempting to duck out of the way by jumping further into the street. It was nothing major, just a simple fight over open seats on another car rapide, and it was over in under a minute. At this point another kind person took notice and escorted me to a taxi with an open seat… and off to Popenguine we went.

In town, I utilized my knowledge of my previous visits to navigate through the hundreds of booths, tents and promotional stands that were half constructed to the far side of town where my friend was waiting for me at the bar with a cold beer. Relaxing and making future plans with his friend the tailor, we enjoyed our beers until it was time for dinner back at my friend’s house. We ate some truly amazing meal of chicken with veggies and just as we finished some mango slices for dessert another friend arrived in town. Back on the street we found grilled pork sandwiches and tried a new beer in Senegal called “33,” with a taste in between the current two- Gazelle (my favorite- like a light beer) and Flag (like a wheat beer). We continued to walk around town to checkout restaurant tents, watering holes, and promotional booths that we’d have to come back to the next day. The vendors of said booths were already fast asleep on the streets in blankets or tents made of rice sack bags.

We grabbed some fresh bottles of palm wine. It comes from the local palm trees (of which there are apparently many versions and I can’t tell you which gives wine and which gives dates, but I’ll get there someday). At first it takes like a sweet juice… but the longer it sits the more it ferments and before you know it a bitter tasting liquid is getting you very drunk very quickly. We took it to the beach, which I’m told is closed off for the weekend because people get drunk and end up trying to swim (when they apparently can’t) and drown. Somehow, we got down there for a moonlight gaze at the ocean. We continued to walk around the quiet, sleeping town and bought 3 more bottles of palm wine for the next day before calling it quits.

After a hot night’s sleep in my friends packed house (apparently every family member brought a handful of their friends for the event), it was back to the town to experience the pilgrimage. We started by hitting up the local cell phone company booth to look for free t-shirts (that would come “later”) and then quit pretending we weren't in it for the booze and found some beers. We pulled up plastic chairs and hung out with a view of the ocean and some cold drinks. People all around were still setting up for the fete. As afternoon came another friend arrived by car and we decided to grab some lunch; yassa pork and grilled pork. It felt great to eat pig again! We walked around some more, drank some more, and ate more sandwiches. In all honesty, it felt like tailgating. So naturally, we took a ‘post game’ nap. Upon waking up, we found that the walkers had started to arrive.

People walk from all over the area to Popenguine each year; arriving in packs from Dakar, the Delta region, and even from the north. The event is apparently well organized, as you pay an entry fee at your respective take off point which gets you a badge, free meals, transportation of your baggage, and tent space in Popenguine (Hello, Breast Cancer 3-day walk, are you hearing this? Senegal has organization skills. Think about it). The people walk because apparently a while back someone did this from Dakar to Popenguine and upon arriving saw the “Black Mary.” Yeah, I don’t know what that could possibly implicate, but as they found it an enjoyable experience so be it. The event has grown over the years so as to make necessary the following: organized walking (as described above), permanent infrastructure (in which to conduct mass for the masses), and even the printing of event t-shirts and other souvenirs. Port-o-potties (which I have never seen in country before this), massive amounts of pork and beer, and all the largest companies in country played a role in our entertainment.

We went to my friend’s favorite watering hole in the afternoon, sat on the roof (with more beer, is it possible?) and waited for our friends who were walking. Curiously, they were both female. Girls can walk farther than guys in Africa too? (Dearest 3-day organizers, seriously, are you listening to this?) We waited for the sun to set and started in on the sandwiches once again. We headed to the church and the market to view the merchandise… it is possible to purchase a glowing (even blinking- Vegas style) statue of the Virgin Mary. Score! One also found t-shirts proclaiming that “without Jesus there is no life,” and that Jesus wants you to “come to me.” They ran out of pink, so I choose to pass on purchasing one.

Later, we stopped by midnight mass. Thousands of people crowded under and around the cement pavilion built on top of a hill for this occasion. Multiple sets of sound systems were set up to broadcast someone I couldn’t actually locate. Mass was in French.

We went looking for a party, so headed to the beach once more, which was littered with couples doing things I didn’t care to investigate. Back during training we rented a house on the water and that night we wandered back to it. Apparently some people had rented it out, turned it into a club, and were open to a small group of white people crashing the party. Good times, with good music, until someone started throwing bottles and we got out quickly. And on the way home we got more sandwiches. Are you surprised?

The next day, it became clear there were too many people in the house as everyone went to shower in one bathroom. It was the first time I saw a squat toilet overflow. I have no idea how one fixes that (and I’m told it’s still a problem over a week later). People dressed to impress as they went to morning mass at 10a. More people than the night before attended the event. We couldn’t even get near the pavilion there were so many thousands of people. Someone had even organized the local boys/girls scouts to act as first aid… which we witnessed in action as they carried a passed out (probably dehydrated) pilgrim into a tent with a red cross on it. (3-day people, this is not your last chance, but come on!)

We walked around town some more checking out the souvenir merchandise and tasted a new promotional milk (it’s a big breakfast drink of choice). Mass went from 10 to lunch, then was to recommence until mid-afternoon. Intense, no? In an effort to beat the traffic, we left town around noon. Our final round of sandwiches was consumed as we hiked to the garage outside of town. There we negotiated a small taxi to drive us to Dakar (we were going for PC training the following day), and though he said he had to be back at a certain time, the driver was happy to oblige. Half way there, he decided he needed to turn around so he pulled over, bargained another taxi, paid the man, and helped us transfer to the new car… which drove us straight to the Peace Corps house. Best ride to Dakar by public transport I’ve ever had. And we even missed all the traffic! It was another awesome experience.