Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, July 28

Charles' View

I’ve made a new friend. His name is Charles. He’s Senegalese born, grew up in Paris, studied and worked in the US, and now lives in Canada. Or should I say lived? He’s currently working for the Canadian government on a project I don’t fully understand, but somehow equates to the Canadian version of USAID. He’s been assigned to Mboro for the next 5 months.

I met Charles by chance. I had originally tried to work with the women’s groups of Mboro… but was blown off because of my initially oh-so-poor language skills. The top women in the cooperative of groups don’t speak French and I can barely pass introductory Wolof. As it happens, a few weeks back I saw one of the women sitting in the street and was invited to pass by their offices to say hello. A week or two later, I did so on my way to something else. They told me about their operations, their biggest problem being sales, and an open house they were thinking about hosting. I mentioned that I was organizing Marketing classes and we agreed I should find a way to teach the women as well. In the mean time, with the pending open house, I would show them some examples of basic marketing they could use during the event. I made a draft promotional flyer and went back the next week to show them. They introduced me to Charles.

He too was trying to demonstrate all the potential the pending event could bring to the women’s sales. We spend the rest of the day talking, exchanging marketing ideas, etc. I told him I would gladly join in on this quest to revamp the women’s products in order to capture sales both in Mboro and new markets. In his 5 months, we wants to teach to teach the women about quality control, redo packaging and labeling, and install a marketing and sales plan. This is not his only project in town. Maybe I’ve been here too long, but it seems like he’s got a lot on his plate and a short amount of time to accomplish it. On the other hand, maybe I’ve become too complacent with the Senegalese pace of life and have therefore resigned myself to a lack luster dance card of possibilities. Hmm.

In the later part of our initial, yet day long, encounter, Charles started to voice his opinions about the way the Senegalese handle their affairs. This made me smile. Here I was with a Senegalese man who had more complaints than I about his own country. He’d only been in Mboro a short time, but was already frustrated with meetings that didn’t start on time and weren’t even productive when they did start. He’s annoyed by the politics and the lack of initiative to get things done.

Another day I explained to Charles that Mboro was a pretty lucky place to be assigned. I described the typical village-life Peace Corps service and he absolutely could not believe it. He couldn’t do it. He’d worked so hard to get where he has, he can’t imagine going back. As he spent the whole of his Senegalese life in Dakar, I suppose he’s saying he has no idea how he would adjust to village life. It is quite different from the world of Dakar. As it stands, however, Charles is like any other Westerner. He takes anti-malarial prophylaxis and can’t drink the tap water without getting sick. I told him I expected this life, had asked for it.

In the short time I’ve known him, Charles has amused me. He is contradictory to all I know about Senegal… perhaps I need to think of him as child of the world instead of just one place. He has gotten me to rethink that with which I’ve become complacent, and I find a bit of my American self coming back around. Today, I made a ‘to do’ list and assigned everything a deadline. These are things I can do by a specific day. I’ve forgotten I have that capability; to commit to myself. Or maybe I needed someone else alongside me, maybe I made a ‘to do’ list of things I’m doing for “our” project. I suppose the best thing about Charles is that he is my new colleague; my coworker.

And so in honor of Charles, I leave you to join him at the boutique for an after work beer. Look, happy hour is back too!

Sunday, July 25

Upscale Flood

I don’t think I’ve ever stated this for the record, but I have a pretty patron African life. Of all the volunteers in Senegal, I’m fairly certain my humble abode of Mboro ranks top 5 for best site in terms of amenities and scenery. If you’ll permit me to explain a bit, without trying to brag, you'll find that even in African paradise things go wrong...

Most PCVs either don’t have electricity in their village or do but sporadically thanks to the lack of capacity to serve everyone. Mboro on the other hand, has an mining factory that generates its own power and distributes the leftovers to the town. I happen to live in a neighborhood build specifically for the families of factory management, which means that we get first dibs on that leftover energy. And as the factory operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it can’t afford to ever lose power so it has a number of backup options. In my world, the power goes out and comes back 5 minutes later. At most it’s gone an hour; I’ve yet to see longer.

On top of that, what little power comes to the people of Senegal is very expensive and many a PCV has noted that host families are always asking for more money to help pay the bills. It can be so stressful volunteers will get their own meters so as to end the usage appropriations arguments. And again, I got lucky in that my neighborhood of managers does not have to pay for the power that comes from the factory. Can you say fringe benefits?

Here’s another one. Along with power, my neighborhood is supplied with water free of charge too. The real kicker is that it’s pretreated and preheated. I use my water filter for kicks, but I don’t really have to. In all honesty, it’s a means to let the water cool down before I drink it. With all this free water, my family has the ability to continuously water plants and we therefore have a back yard of fruit trees and flowers. My host mom has a passion for gardening, so we have an aesthetically beautiful landscape.

Outside of my neighborhood is the rest of my awesome town. Mboro is loaded with easily accessible fruits and veggies, and oh-so-close to the ocean with its lovely cool breezes. We are lucky to skip the average tourist’s radar… and are thus left to enjoy it all for ourselves. We have a mix of 3 different ethnic groups (meaning different languages, characters of people, styles of cooking, religions, etc) that add to just how great the people are. We are modern like Dakar but small enough to just barely be a formal town. We have stores with Western products because there's enough foreign traffic is brought in for the plant to warrant them. We have a night club and even a formal dining restaurant with white linens. And yet, for most of the year, there are only about 6 white people roaming around town… all of us speaking Wolof and blending in with the locals. I’m afraid to ask what Mboro means in Wolof, because I like to think it’s “oasis” and don’t want to be disappointed.

Now, before you starting thinking I’m living the highlife (and my fellow PCVs decide to hate me), know that it’s not all peachy keen. I still have mice and lizards as roommates. Ridiculous heat is hard to escape no matter how many breezes there are. And I still have daily clashes with African culture. The hot water is only really beneficial for about 2 months of the year when it’s cold in the mornings… the rest of the time it’s a bit odd to step into a hot shower in 100 degree weather. But the point of today’s blog is the problems specifically associated with my ‘upscale’ living.

I have a private western toilet and sink in my room, as well as the bidet-esque water gun on a hose used in the place of toilet paper. These are more signs of high end Africa. However, last week the handle on my water gun broke and I had to call in my handyman uncle to change out the contraption for a new one. He did this just as I was about to take off for a weekend in Dakar. Upon my return Monday morning, I learned that he had not correctly installed the new device and consequently flooded my entire bedroom. According to my host mom, she found the problem when water started leaking out from underneath my door, the edge of which is roughly a two inch step up from the floor of my room.

Mom says it took two days to clean up all the water off the floor (making me glad she has the spare key), and she’d made my brothers carry my Peace Corps books (stored under my bed) out into the sun and back each day to dry out. My hard drive was locked in my cupboard in my night stand, along with one of the kid computers that belongs to the school across the street, and I’m still afraid to turn either of them on as I swear they’re still wet inside. I’ve thrown out half the paper products that were in there due to mold that grew over the weekend.

A few days later, when I went to pull my Senegalese dress out from the bottom drawer of my dresser for a big event in town, I discovered that although the water didn’t reach up that high, it had spread through the wood dampening half my wardrobe. These items also decided to start a garden of mold. I spend the rest of the week and all of my free time rewashing my laundry by hand with extra soap and bleach.

But you know, I've no reason to complain. The flood sucked, was an experience, but only a minor set back. Lessons learned include: it’s a good thing to trust my host family with my spare key, asking for cleaning gloves was a genius move (go me!), double check all future work of my ‘handyman’ uncle, I’m not really all that phased about losing half my possessions in a flood (only thing I really care about is the hard drive), and if something’s really important I need to take it with me when I leave. There are clich├ęs that apply too. More money, more problems. Upscale living has upscale problems- because a hut in the village doesn’t have enclosed flooring. You get what you pay for (free plumbing). And something about how spring cleaning is therapeutic.

Thursday, July 22

Another Random List

Sometimes things occur to me as odd or peculiar, so I write them down and share. Get over it.

1) My mom’s ring tone is “Happy Birthday” all year round.
2) My dad’s on his 3rd car since I started my service. He offers me the keys every time I say I’m walking somewhere close. It makes me feel like using mass transit when I get back and skipping my next car purchase.
3) I wash 3-4 pieces of similarly colored laundry every morning. They soak during breakfast, and then I scrub and hang them on the line until after lunch.
4) Mangoes help me battle myself to floss my teeth regularly.
5) I might buy a mosquito net when I get back, as well as a fan, because I’ll think they help me sleep better. More comforted.
6) I make ice cream once a week, in search of the perfect recipe. I use Fosters Clark drink mix packets as flavoring.
7) The beach makes me sad, so I don’t go there. When I do, I just stare and think about Elk Lake.
8) I would give away half of my cloths and most of my shoes if I knew anyone my size. I just don’t want or use them.
9) Every day I feel more confused about what I want to do after Senegal. Is it possible to live in a bubble on the moon?
10) When it rains there’s still a hot gust of air that blows around my ankles. It actually feels nice as I hate cold feet.
11) Juicer, fryer, ice cream maker, microwave …we have them all. I think the only appliance my mom doesn’t have is a George Foreman. I often day dream about bringing one back to her for Christmas.
12) It makes me laugh hysterically to watch my youngest brothers eat spaghetti with a fork. They end up wearing much more than they eat every time.
13) If I had to leave Senegal today the only thing I’d really need to take with me, besides my passport, is the hard drive back up of all my pictures. Who needs suitcases?
14) I’m considering changing my favorite fruit proclamation from a lifelong obsession with raspberries to the magical and wonderful corossol, or soursop in English, (which is similar to guava, but oh so much better)!
15) Sometimes I forget how to spell my real last name. I never use it so when someone asks, and I have to spell it with French letters, I get thoroughly confused. I frequently miss-type it on French keyboards as well.

Monday, July 19

Development Work

My experience with development work is extremely lacking, and probably a bit narrow in focus. I preface this piece by saying that everything I talk about has been observed only here in Senegal. But somehow, I get the feeling we (me and the inhabitants of Mboro) aren’t alone. I’ve mentioned the women’s group before, and I use them as my best example to describe the chaos:
The women, like most villages or groups, were initially partnered with this or that organization from some North American or European country. Things were kicked off with construction of a lovely building, installation of all the latest equipment, and the purchase of raw materials. At this point, the 1st world partners deem the project a success. They take pictures, hold ceremonies, report to people back home, and move on to the next project… but the work has only just begun.

I see time and time again, things get set up and left for the masses to prosper… except that everything given to them is new and foreign. Perhaps they never wanted it in the first place, so they ignore what was given. Westerners import our way of life and give it to the people to “make their lives better.” What we fail to see is that these are people who have their own way about things. One tiny example is the potato peeler I gave my mom. It’s faster for me to use because I’ve been doing it all my life. But she uses a paring knife, and is thus faster with that. Not to mention the fact that she thinks my peeler is a bit ridiculous because it has only one function. At least with her knife she can then cut the potatoes afterwards…

Another pit fall to the ‘set up and go’ style of development is that perhaps the people have no idea how to operate or maintain the project results, so at the first sign of problem nearly all is lost. I’ve heard stories of water towers rendered entirely useless (if not a hindering) to the whole town because no one knew the problem was a simple change in lever. This is more ludicrous in my mind than the potato peeler because if the developers had stuck around long enough to give the proper training, the women wouldn’t have to walk so much farther just to pull water from the well outside town… the closest point of water not connected to the useless tower.

Please, don’t be discouraged yet because the list of problems does continue. As an American I grew up with the idea that to grow requires investment. A business can’t get bigger unless you buy more machines to make more products to sell and earn more profit. I therefore figure that a developing country is somehow similar. You need to invest in the ability to produce what is needed. (Probably more important is the need to invest in education, but I’ll get to that). Unfortunately, the agencies that come in and do the investing do just that and nothing more. They don’t take the time to explain our mentality of ‘invest to grow,’ thus our third problem is the reinforced mentality that in order to rise above poverty the people need to be first given something. The people stand around with their hands out waiting for their chance because from their point of view it’s only the people that receive that make it in life. They fail to see what I do: that ‘invest to grow’ mentality where by which the bigger the initial investment the faster the elimination of poverty. It makes sense in our minds, I realize that, but it’s not translating properly.

The fastest feel good way to help a cause is to give money. Money goes a long way in developing countries… but there is a limit. If you only give money, the people only get a water tower. They don’t get the training to use and properly maintain the water tower. Education is the perhaps my biggest complaint with development as an industry. Educate the people in our philosophies; explain why investment leads to prosperity. Educate the people with the skills they don’t have. If you do something for someone once, whatever was needed will get done. The problem is technically solved. But you haven’t done anything to help that person long term. What happens when the same problem arises again after you’ve gone?

Does anyone remember that old ABC Warehouse commercial? The one where they used the quote “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime” and then went on to sell him an oven and he’ll eat better. Or something like that. The point is: my opinion of Peace Corps is just that. I’m happy to teach you how to do something. Here’s how to use a computer and create an email account… now you can keep in contact with business partners. Here’s how you make a promotional flyer… now you can market your products better. Here’s how to create a business (with a model or plan)… now you can open that boutique.

Unfortunately, I’m constantly battling the people with their hands out. I need to sift through the people with an arbitrary hand out to those who are truly motivated. I need to find people willing to put in the time and effort to learn a new skill, as opposed to those who just want something done for them. However, it needs to be said that sometimes, I do need to just bite the bullet and do it myself. Back to the women’s groups: they don’t understand what I mean when I say we should create a promotional flyer for their open house this week. They don’t know what one is. It would take way too long to explain marketing and promotional materials (and their benefits), more time than we have before the event. Therefore, I need to just do it myself. And then hopefully, they will see what I’m speaking of, get excited, and ask me to teach them more. “Hopefully” is quite a dangerous word here. Or maybe I’m confusing dangerous with open ended. I hope a lot of things happen… but if I can get just one good idea or project cranked out then perhaps my stint in Mboro will be that much more successful when compared to the above relayed stories of development. Hopefully.

Tuesday, July 13


The theme of July seems to be marketing. In continuing with a series of train-the-trainer classes I’ve begun teaching, July’s topic is- you guessed it- marketing. So I’ve read the French 101 version, learning all the new vocabulary for concepts I’d long ago committed to memory. After that I ran around town trying to think of ways to make the class interesting. Start with the 4 Ps, right? To spice it up we’ll talk about all the different ways to buy a coke (with examples) …and then two hours later I’m facing just under 2 days of remaining class time to nail the concept home.

Realizing that promotion is the most important of the Ps as far as Mboro is concerned, I plan to dedicate the rest of our time to just that… with a few tips on selling. In the afternoon of the first day, we’ll split into teams and do a “treasure hunt” or tour of Mboro to pick out the best, worst, most effective, most attractive, useless, and other types of promotion or marketing that exist. Most collective group wins? What they win is TBD… so if you have any ideas speak up. My hope is to spark a conversation about what’s going on in Mboro and Senegal in general. What works and what doesn’t? What is over done? What are the under played gems? What catches your eye?

Day 2 will kick off with a real world example. A local women’s group is having problems selling their product. Perhaps no one knows about it, perhaps the price isn’t right… whatever it is I figure this 3rd party group of students will be perfect test subjects. I’ve invited a few women from the organization talk about their product (and let’s face it: learn something too). Then we’ll dive in- create a marketing plan uniquely tailored for this exact product in our town. I figure practice makes perfect and if we all do a marketing plan together the group will remember that and be able to recreate the model in their respective villages or their friend’s boutiques.

The last afternoon should be dedicated to being a good salesperson. How do you treat the customer? We have this handy game, that for whatever reason is titled “The Best Game,” that is useful for demonstrating hypothetical market places. We’ve played this game with the group before, demonstrating the need to produce a quality product or to properly account for your money, but I suppose this time I’ll need to find a way to demonstrate being a good seller.

But it doesn’t just end with this 2 day class. Because in case you didn’t catch it, I’ve made contact with the local women’s groups (operating like small scale minority businesses in the States) that are having problems selling their product. I’m afraid if I explain the their predicament now I’ll get bogged down in a rant on the problems with development work in general- a topic best saved for another day. In any case, I’m working on a general marketing strategy with the group which includes a tasting/ open house event a week from Friday. Miraculously, this wasn’t my idea. But I am generating ideas for the event such as creating a guest book for visitors that can be contacted later with promotional ideas we haven’t yet thought of, conducting a product survey so we can consider what updates should be made to the product, and working up promotional materials on each product to provide visual aids to the event. After said event, we’ll have to dive into more marketing strategies like finding unique product names, creating logos, revamping packaging, generating a slogan …and the list goes on.

One final bit of work is the marketing- or rather advertising- we’ll be doing for the girls summer camp my fellow volunteers and I are hosting this coming September. We’re very close to raising all the money… but can’t officially kick anything off until we have every last cent. So if any of you know someone looking for a feel-good donation project please point them in my direction. If you thought I was joking when I said this month was all about marketing, I’m not. To pour salt directly in the wound, I started watching Mad Med from season 1.

Marketing is coming at me from all sides. What is it they say, "when it rains, it pours?" It's probably my fault for getting excited about something and doing everything I can to help that project take off. I guess we already knew I was the kind of person that always has work on the mind, and that doesn’t seem to change just because my location does. Even in Senegal, I work up until dinner and through the weekends. I think about things in the shower, and talk about them when I'm with friends, like I don't have an 'off' button. But that's ok, I'm hoping it continues.

Sunday, July 11

Kedougou 4th of July

The morning of the 4th I woke up tired and exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the night before and needed a change to remedy the situation. Everyone else seemed ready for fun… so I showered and ducked out quickly. I avoided the 4k race my fellow Americans organized through the streets of town… complete with American music and announcers. Instead, A friend had rented a hotel room a little ways down the road and was kind enough to let me borrow the bed for a few hours. I joined my friends for breakfast at the hotel before taking my nap. What a treat, as the room had a private bath and air conditioning!

A couple hours into the afternoon, I was woken up by a phone call from my Dad! The first time my family was able to get a hold of me for my birthday (not counting the lost calls in the middle of nowhere). Unlike the sadness I felt on Christmas, this conversation was filled with the telling of my birthday adventure. I don’t know if that’s a sign that Christmas means more to me, or if I’m just plain adjusting my current life. Either way, I conclude it was a great talk.

Straightening out my new dress (made from fabric bought in Thies and by my tailor in Mboro), I headed back to the Kedougou regional house and 4th of July party. Entrance to the party was about $10 and went towards all you can handle food and booze. Large tents, tables, chairs and speakers had been set up. I walked in minutes before the beer pong tournament started… kicked off of course by a rendition of the National Anthem. My friends sported red, white, and blue colors along with American flag apparel to add to the festivities.

Over 600 beers were commissioned for the event… and enough ice to match. One’s drink alternative consisted of what we fondly call gissap… which is a mixture of gin and bissap (or hibiscus flower) juice- the African equivalent to cranberry. Peanuts, popcorn, and bread and dips were littered about the party. More American music and games kept us entertained for hours. The manliest of men in our bunch had gotten up at dawn to procure the 3 pigs we were to consume; cleaned, trimmed, grilled, and roasted in pits dug in the backyard. They did a truly amazing job, especially considering they coupled the pork with homemade barbeque sauce and baked beans. In addition, potato salad and other American-esque dishes were served for dinner.

The rest of the evening, not that I fully recall it all, consisted of fireworks, a dance party, glow sticks, ice water and beer baths, and so much more fun. Perhaps the best part about my 4th was the general ambiance. Singing American songs, speaking English, wearing our colors, eating familiar foods, playing favorite games… was wonderful. It was like being at home with friends and family.

I suppose I’ve also gotten to a point in my service where the people here are like friends and family all rolled into one- without offense to those of you reading this at home. They are the ones I can call (cheaply and quickly) when crazy or stupid things happen. They are the ones who understand. They hold my hand or give me a hug. They are the ones with which I make treasured American substitute meals. We sweat and laugh off insults together. We exchange movies we wouldn’t normally watch in the real world and new words in languages we don’t always enjoy speaking.

My fellow PCVs, I enjoy your company more than you realize. I look forward to every opportunity we have to get together, no matter how grandiose or insignificant. I enjoy our stupid text conversations and our inside jokes. I hereby profess my 4th of July love to you. It may just be my current surroundings, but you mean the world to me. Thank you not only for an excellent holiday but, more importantly, thanks for every other not so special day.

Wednesday, July 7

27th Birthday

As this past weekend was a plethora of fun stories… I will be forced to submit the following in 2 parts. First, let’s tackle my 27th birthday. I figure the official start was the 1st when myself and 5 friends piled into a car headed for Kedougou, a destination on the far east side of the country where everything is lush and mountainous... a complete change of scenery. While it was nice to catch up with them, the 14 hours of travelling sucked. A few bright spots included: amazing bread in Tamba, warthog and monkey sightings whilst driving through Niokolo National Park, lush greenery and grass (this is a first in almost a year!), and the smell of fresh nature that seriously reminded me of Northern Michigan. That last one in itself was enough of a birthday present for me. We hung out with the people at the Kedougou regional house for the rest of the night and I even received some birthday calls after midnight.

The next day I woke up early to head out on a bike trip with Alex, Christine, and Mary. We packed up water and a few things to nibble on, jumped on our bikes and headed further south towards the Guinean border in the direction of the waterfalls. The trip was scheduled to be a 30K ride and about 2.5 hours. We wouldn’t figure it out until much later, but about 40 minutes in… we got ourselves seriously lost. Around the time we found the field of termite mounds we called a local PCV asking for help. Go back to the main road or find someone to lead you there. We thought we’d done that; a few times.

On one of the detours, my bike decided to take on a large rock- leaving me as a victim. The bike seat was mangled, the rock broken into 3 pieces, and I received cuts and bruises on my knees and a gash on my elbow. The battle seemed to end in a three way tie, though I deem the whole thing unnecessary. Anyway, back to the story…

After following a few different paths until reaching dead ends we came across a small gathering of huts. Only one teenage boy spoke a little French; the rest of people spoke Pulaar and unfortunately everyone I was with had learned Wolof. We asked where two villages (consecutively lined up off the “main road”) and the waterfalls were… and received charade gestures pointing in three different directions. Where’s the main road? A 4th direction was pointed out and seemed to be a compromise of everything else, so we took it. It was as though we had an aversion to turning around and going back.

After another episode of following multiple dead-ending paths, we came upon farming field. A Pulaar man was standing in the middle of it… so we hoped the hedge to ask for directions. His French was a bit better, and when another man upon the field, they guided us into their village. We sat in the shade, greeted the people, drank cool water they’d drawn from the far away well, and headed off in yet another direction… towards the main road. This path became progressively larger and more promising. We did eventually make it back to the infamous main road, and I estimate the whole detour consuming 4 hours of our day.

By then, we found ourselves squarely in the heat of the day, lacking water, and hungry. The terrain turned to stretches of almost flat rock mixed with sand. We eventually made it to Segou, the home of a fellow volunteer, and got our second wind by the well. We were only 5K away (and we assume at this point we’d at least doubled the originally estimated distance).

However, the second wind died just as quickly as it came and at some point I lost control of the bike and went face first into the sand. I was no longer having fun… but stopping at every large tree to catch my breath in the shade. At some point I felt like I’d hit a breaking point and could not move any more. Christine and I sat there together, under a tree, discussing our levels of dehydration. I could swear I heard the waterfalls. She saw things that weren’t there. I had diarrhea. Neither of us had eaten much that day. And miraculously a car came alone. Even more amazing is that inside was a fellow volunteer who happened to be escorting a group of aid workers. They stopped and gave us some fruit to nibble on, as well as some words of encouragement.

Just a few minutes after we made it to our final destination, Dindefello, a thunderstorm came crashing in. We took refuge in a sandwich shop and pondered the 8 hour bike ride that should have taken under 3. I finally got something decent to eat. After the rain subsided, we took to the path by foot into the forest in search of the waterfall. We opted to go without the tour guide under the guise of “Well, we’ve come this far without one… why cheat now?”

Naturally, this means we came upon a fork in the road and had to make yet another decision about which direction to take. Simple reasoning took over. We shut up and followed the sound of water. This time I wasn’t imagining things. Eventually the path became less apparent as the recent storm had destroyed basic evidence, but subtle signs of previous visitors kept us encouraged. We crossed a stream a few times, holding hands for security as the recent rains were overflowing the beds. Eventually we came to another critical moment of despair. The stream seemed too dangerous to cross, and we couldn’t make out a path on the other side… but we’d come too far to go home without success. And low and behold, not more than a minute after making the treacherous cross did we catch our first glimpse of the falls.

When we finally got to the base, the sights were amazing. The waterfall appeared to be at the corner of two enormous walls coming together… and was so tall you couldn’t possibly see the whole thing from top to bottom in one look. We took a few quick pictures as the rain was still in the air and magnifying the gush of the falls, a recipe for the destruction of any camera. And, as mine is all but officially broken anyway, they were taken with someone else’s camera. This means you’ll all have to wait for the proof.

The next day, I considered a do-over. Back in Kedougou, I hung out by a hotel pool with my friends. We ate warthog sandwiches, drank beers, and listened to American music. After a nap, a few of us went to one of the nicest restaurants in town for a birthday dinner. While the 2nd attempt felt more normal, the official birthday is probably what I’ll remember as the most adventurous birthday of my life.

Sunday, July 4

Will You Be My 2nd Wife?

Yeah, I’ve been asked, but I declined. It is time to describe what I’ve learned about polygamy Senegal style. First off, the legal stuff. A man may legally have up to 4 wives. When he marries the first one, and fills out the marriage license, he must at that time declare the number of wives we plans to have. He cannot change his mind later, legally. There is no penalty for an unfulfilled wife tally. However, should a man exceed his claim or limit, all subsequent wives have no claim on anything relevant, ever. It would seem the safe bet is to assume 4 wives from the beginning. Better to underachieve than underestimate?

Any of the wives may be the man’s niece (daughter of a brother) or a first cousin. This is to preserve the family ties, which are held with the utmost regard in West African culture; family is life. Although side effects of incest are prevalent (crossed eyes, limb deformities, etc), they are dismissed as God’s will.

A man usually takes his first wife in his late twenties. Traditions mandate that he is financially stable, and has a house (or at least space in the family compound) for him and the new bride to live in. Depending on the village, dowries must be paid- generally in cash or live stock form. First wife is forevermore the most important women of the household (that is unless Mom’s still around). She will make all decisions relating to spending of finances for food and clothing and be the guardian of her husband’s salary. She will give her husband as many children as possible (as birth control is completely unheard of both in African culture and the practice of Islam) until she becomes too tired.

Though I’ve generally heard the coming of the second wife described as a relief for the first one, who is no longer under continuous pressure to satisfy her husband, there have been occasions when she is not welcome. I talked to a woman once who was hurt that her husband said he loved another, younger women… but that there is nothing she can do about it. Second wife is a worker bee to the queen. She is tasked with all household chores of which first wife is tired. She will also produce as many children as possible.

Third and fourth wives are pretty much like the second; only hold less standing in the house hold. They also produce children and not only seem young in comparison to the husband, but truly are. I may have neglected to mention earlier that wives can be as young as early teens… and it doesn’t seem to matter how old the husband is. It’s as though every ten years the husband will find a new wife in her teens or early twenties and “start” a family all over again. Sometimes the wives all live together in one big compound- each wife getting a bedroom while their husband rotates around. Sometimes the families live in different towns… though the kids will take holidays to visit the other households.

As of recent, there’s been significant pushes for young girls to stay in school through high school before marrying. There have also been campaigns for the idea of family planning, or spacing between child births, so as not to stress the mothers and pocketbooks. I’ve spoken to males of my generation who claim they want nothing to do with more than one wife, then chuckle and say one women is crazy enough… who would ask for more of that? But quite frequently men are persuaded because multiple families are a sign of wealth (like having multiple cars in the US???) so it remains to be seen what will happen with this take on marriage.