Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, August 29

Ramadan

You’ve probably heard me mention Ramadan a few times. And if not, then you live in a hole apart from the happenings of the rest of the world. But don’t fret too much… I used to live in that hole before I came to Africa, so I’m just as useless. However, since you’re reading this post now, we’ve both taken a step in the right direction.

OK, Ramadan is a month long tribute to the Islamic god called Allah which takes place in the 9th lunar month of the year. From the day after the 9th new moon of the Islamic year (starting somewhere in December and also following the moon) until the day after the 10th new moon, every devoted Muslim deprives themselves of all food and water (and other unmentionable sins or gratuitous pleasures) from sun up to sun down. The moment the sun disappears behind the trees we “break the fast” by eating and drinking breakfast foods. This should sound a bit familiar as in English we call morning foods “breakfast” in honor of having not eaten all night (because we are asleep… unless you’re a midnight binger that is).

So last Sunday I spent my first day fasting for Ramadan. The month actually started back on Aug 12th, but my family was pretty cool about me not participating. Then one day my oldest brother (and friend) asked if I would try it one day for him. I figured a Sunday that I wasn't planning on doing much anyway would be the best day to try. And so that was last Sunday. The point is its not easy... especially in Africa. I have no ground to complain because I only did it for one day, but I did make it and I'm just a little too proud of myself for it.

It wasn't so bad until about lunch time. Then I started to get hungry. So I distracted myself by watching a movie. In the afternoon I played with my littlest brothers a bit until that ended when they wanted water and ice cream and I had to walk away. The thing is young children are exempt from fasting. Elders, pregnant women, and the sick are as well… but they are expected to make up those days during the rest of the year. I actually saw my mom fasting a few days this past July because she’d been sick last year. Anyway, with my brothers bugging me for food and water (because I’d previously been making lunch for them to make life easier on my hungry family), I thought I’d go crazy. I was getting hungrier. And thirsty. And hot. So I went to lie down again and watched another movie.

After that the little boys were really starting to drive me crazy. They were being loud and obnoxious, asking me to give them food and water every half hour (talk about a tease), and they started calling me toubab (derogatory word for white person) because they'd just learned it and wanted to see me get mad. They were right, but I assume it was mostly because I was so hungry- it was all I could think about. And I was already grumpy by then.

So I watched another movie. And by the time that was over it was 7:15 and I only had to wait 15 more minutes. Those have to have been the longest 15 min of my life. My oldest brother (the one who'd asked me to do this) tried to distract me with hugs and talking... but it was hard. And then it was finally time to break the fast when we heard the mosques singing in the distance. We break with a date fruit that is imported from who knows where, but is sooooo good.

In honor of my first attempt to fast (actually I succeeded so I shouldn't say attempt anymore) my family bought cheese and sausage to put on our buttered bread. We eat breakfast foods when we break the fast. I don't know if that's common outside of Africa, but I also didn’t stop shoveling food in my mouth long enough to ask. So we have bread and butter usually, but added these extra ingredients because of me. We also had traditional African tea called Quenquilliba which is brewed with mint and lemon grass leaves. It's really very good, especially with milk and sugar added.

I was so hungry my mom made me another bread sandwich, but after I was done my stomach just hurt more. Like it was too full and didn't know how to digest this sudden intake of food, so it was cramping. But not like the kind after you eat a huge steak that was delicious, more like the kind of hurt after you've been sick a long time and haven't eaten... and when you finally do your stomach is confused and feels like an ulcer. Yeah. Fun. I also drank a lot of water with propel packets in them. My mom gave the kids Gatorade mix that I'd gotten around Christmas and given to the family. We ate our actual dinner (which we sometimes call 2nd dinner) a few hours later. And I ate about the same I usually do, which isn't all that much, but I'm still proud of having room for it.

I’d been breaking the fast with the family every day, but that day’s breaking had a little bit more meaning and a whole lot more satisfaction. Since then I've tried to make breaking the fast just a little bit better than normal breakfast foods. One day I made egg salad sandwiches (a huge hit!) and another I brought fresh pastries from a bakery in Thies. I don't know if I'll try fasting again, (I started to this morning until we forgot to tell the maid and she made a big lunch just for me), but I do understand why almost nothing gets done during Ramadan. It’s hard to have energy to do anything, especially in this heat. So I guess it will be a good time for me to catch up on reading and movie watching.

Wednesday, August 25

Fruit

I finished the secret stash of dried cherries I’d been sent in a birthday package today. I'm surprised they made it this long, about a month. I so miss American fruits. We have strawberry flavoring here, but not the real thing. I have Mefloquine induced dreams about a refrigerator full of fruit waiting for me back home over the Christmas holiday. Raspberries, or really anything ending in ‘berry,’ top the list. We've got melons (water, cantelope-ish- football shaped version, etc) and citrus (lemon/lime, orange, grapefruits) and I've seen bananas... but that's about it.

Oh, wait... how could I forget the MANGOES?? I could probably kill myself with the amount of mangoes we have here. Seriously, a kilo (2.2lbs) costs only about $1. I don't eat them all that often because I don't want to get sick and never eat them again (overdose!) but they are helpful for reminding me to floss. Not to mention, there is no graceful way of eating a mango... as I only have a Swiss Army knife to cut them.

And then there are all the new fruits. We have this one called Ditahk which is like a ball of roots with some green bits mixed in, and a shell on the outside. To eat it you peel the shell and suck on the roots to extract the green stuff. It's super healthy for you, a lot like those health food drinks they sell in the organic section of Toms or FJ's; lots of antioxidants, vitamins, and other good stuff.

There's also Tamarind which is a root based item (that I assume is somewhere in the ginger family- but sweeter) that it typically extracted and made into a juice that's a deceptive diarrhea-colored brown but more like a pear in taste.

Ginger is here too... considered a fruit in Africa. Go figure.

There's also Baobab from the like-named giant trees that Africa is so famous for. These are the trees with enormous trunks you see in pictures. Anyway, the fruit is bland, grainy, and dries out your mouth... but good in juices.

And there's something I forgot the name of that resembles a cranberry in size, shape, color... and almost taste. But it’s somehow not a cranberry. Or it’s all been lost in translation. But as this fruit is rare, and in season for about a month only (in winter) I'll have to figure it out later.

Last but not least is my new favorite: Corossol. This stuff is unbelievably good. Like a guava in flavor it resembles an over-grown green strawberry on the outside. You don't eat the skin, you wait until its squishy like a bad avocado and then cut it into chunks and eat the white parts (without seeds obviously). It’s stringy like a mango but tasted better than guava. So good.

There are other tropical fun fruits there like guava itself, papaya, coconut... but they aren't very common. There's a season thing I haven't quite figured out and I'm guessing their imported from somewhere with better climates as they are typically more expensive than the everyday budget. Grapes, pears, dried or semi-dried dates and apples fall into the imported and therefore rare and expensive category, too. But hey you have to indulge from time to time, right?

Sunday, August 22

Outtalking Prince

I once had a conversation with a family member, who liked a song by Prince. Now I don’t personally like said song, but my thoughts on musical preference are neither here nor there as long as it makes you happy. Anyway, this person and I were sitting in the living room one day watching French/African MTV when a music video came on with the song in question. My family member was seriously rocking out to it… until he stopped and asked if Prince was gay. Yes, I suppose he is. This was enough cause to immediately stop dancing, sit down, and start doing something completely different whilst ignoring the television.

What’s wrong? He’s gay. Yeah, and? His life is awful. Really? He is a very bad person. How’s that? It’s wrong to be gay.

At this point I’ll stop and let you imagine the 20 minutes conversation contesting that point; or rather my family member in particular saying so. I’m no gay rights activist or anything, but I do believe that your preferences are between you and whomever you’re accountable to… and therefore other people should have no claim on telling you what you can or can’t do about that (assuming you’re not harmfully affecting others because of these preferences).

Anyway, gay is not the point. Eventually we got onto 2 other interesting concepts:
1. The world is going to keep changing. It’s adapt or no- but you have to choose a side.
2. You don’t have to like someone to appreciate their work.

Now this first point came about at the tail end of the God conversation. I simply said, “Once upon a time we thought slavery was a good idea, now we don’t. I think it’s time again we reconsidered whether a traditional pastime of ousting whole sectors of the population is a great idea.” My family member, typical Wolof self-righteous male that he is, had a whole slew of meaningless words to say in contrary to that. No real substance I promise you, and therefore wouldn’t shut up about it. This is a common tactic around the world of “if you can’t win the argument by being correct, just out talk the other person.” Thanks, debate club.

Moving on, I made my next point. I don’t have to like my plumber’s preference to not wear a belt with his pants… but this doesn’t stop me from appreciating his ability to fix my flooding toilet. I don’t like the sept-place driver’s choice of continuous screeching prier music, but I appreciate his ability to get me safely from A to B. I don’t like that the guy in the mayor’s office talks about my butt every time I see him, but he’s doing a great job of reorganizing the city of Mboro by assigning numbers and neighborhoods to every house. Come to think of it, this list might continue for a while… but I suspect you catch my drift.

My family member didn’t, however, and he made another tiresome attempt to discredit this idea. He could not accept that although he may not appreciate Prince’s extracurricular activities, that shouldn’t be a reason to ignore a song that obviously appeased his ears. Somehow, apparently, this one fact has tainted Prince’s entire existence. A shame, really as I feel passionately about good music and a world without it. In rebuttal I told my family member that I didn’t’ like the way he didn’t live in our house but yet appeared every day demanding the best drink and food be served to him. This in light of the fact that he contributed nothing to the household as he refuses to interrupt his busy schedule of roaming from house to house with silly notions of income generating work. I said that this tainted his entire existence in my eyes, and I therefore could not enjoy him. Then I left the room.

I’m sorry to say that I was quite tired at this juncture in our conversation. Admittedly, I my blood was also boiling. I think of this as the point where I realize I was never engaged a rational conversation. I was being told. Maybe I was even out talked. Insert clich├ęs about not teaching old dogs new tricks or whatever… but I accept that some people just don’t listen to other points of view. They only talk. I however, don’t enjoy spending time with those people… regardless of how they feel about Prince.

Thursday, August 19

English Camp

I recently spent a week living out of the Peace Corps house in Dakar in the name of teaching English. Organized through the Embassy, a local University, and an organization promoting the English language (or so I assume), Peace Corps Volunteers were matched with 14-16 year olds who’ve formed groups outside of their normal classes to learn English in their free time on weeknights and weekends.

I was assigned to a middle school in an area technically just outside of Dakar, though only the snobbiest of locals would say such a thing, with 3 other PCVs: a 3rd year and 2 girls from the latest batch of installs who’ve be here since March. We were given cab fare (from the organizers of the camp?) to get out there and back each day, an excursion that took 15 to 30 minutes depending on: the traffic, general area knowledge held by the driver, and our ability to describe our destination in French/ Wolof.

I missed the prep day held before the camp due to “cough” illness so I had to rely on the 3rd year for direction as to our official roles in the camp. My impression was that we were facilitators. There were Senegalese teachers attending the camp… and I assumed they were in charge. Ha. As my Dad would say, “To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” So the first day of camp was a shit show. We stood there in front of the kids asking each other what we should be doing for the next 4 hours. We made up some camp rules and started teaching them songs. Anyone caught speaking a language other than English was made to sing “I’m a little tea pot” in front of the whole group.

Later we broke out the girls and boys into different groups to try talking about gender specific issues… but in my opinion this proved too be difficult as we had not yet gained their confidence on the first day. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up we got one of 4 answers (as if we’d given a multiple choice test): doctor/ nurse, teacher, policeman, or pilot. None of them could really answer the question of what they had to do after high school to become these professions. I’m hoping they just didn’t understand our English.

After a break, we discovered that we’d really been assigned two different schools of English kids and this was the first time the groups had met. So we decided to pair them off, each with someone they didn’t know, and ask them to interview and then present their new friend to the group. The last question they asked of their new friends was “what do you want to ask the Americans?” This seemed to be a hit (finally!) and we all had a good time answering the questions for the kids. Admittedly they weren’t all easy: What do you think about Obama’s health care plan? What is racism like in the States?

At the end of the first day, I attempted to push for organization but was asked if I was “having a bad week” cause why else was I so uptight? Right. So day two was another shit show. We decided to make morning warm-up a daily thing consisting of ‘Head Shoulders Knees and Toes’ and Simon Says. We then stumbled through some more songs and an awkward hour or so of explaining baseball before sending them off to play soccer. Later I taught a small group to do the hustle and fox trot, while other groups learned more songs and different games. Not all that bad for some impromptu work, honestly.

By day three we’d collectively come to the realization that preparation and organization would make the camp that much more fun. After morning warm-up, we organized alternating groups of singing- which I swear they loved and that’s why we kept on teaching them- and making a personal flag art project. We brought in a bunch of old magazines, markers, colored pencils, and glue for them to decorate a one page paper with pictures that represent themselves. Then they wrote a few sentences on the back explaining their pages. We took pictures of all of them (which were later printed out in black and white and glued into the corners). The activity was well received. Day four consisted of morning warm-up, a session on Rock Paper Scissors, and trading between outdoor games like Steal the Bacon, Red Rover, and Freeze Tag, and indoor session on American slang.

The final day was meant to be a party. We were given a significant sum of cash to purchase supplies and with it we made cold pasta and fruit salads and bought juice and sprite, cookies, chips and dip, and candies. We played music and hung out eating. The kids also stood up and explained their personal flag art projects to their fellow campers. Later we took pictures and exchanged contact information. At the end we stood in a circle and each gave our favorite and most challenging aspects of camp, plus what we were looking forward to in the future. It was at the point we realized the epic failure of the first day's "future career" session, as we discovered actual desires to be come translators, presidents, engineers, lawyers and teachers. The campers then started to cry; it was time to say goodbye.

As frustrated as I was in the beginning with general lack of organization (but really, why am I surprised?), in the end the experience was a good one. I’ve already received a number of texts from the campers practicing their English. I have mixed feelings about participating next year- mainly about the time commitment- but I suppose I would do it in a heartbeat if I knew I could have the same group of kids again.

Sunday, August 15

State of the Union Address

As the ‘One Year on African Soil’ mark has been celebrated, I figure it’s about time to give my own personal State of the Union Address:
1. Estimated remaining duration of service: 12 months
2. Collected number of aliases: 2
3. Current savings of PC allowance: around $400
4. Number of times I’ve wanted to go home: too many, though seriously tapering off.
5. Actual attempts to quit Peace Corps: 0
6. Total number of people in my stage that have left early: 4
7. Crushes on fellow PCVs: 3
8. Crushes on Senegalese men: 1
9. Weddings I’ve missed: 3
10. Engagements: 5
11. Planned visits to US: 1
12. Number of formal vacation days utilized thus far: 0
13. Sick days: average 1 per 1.5 weeks
14. Estimated frequency of diarrhea: 1 day of every 2 weeks
15. Estimated number of days of unsuccessful attempts to join in religious fasting: 40
16. Proportional size of med kit compared to toiletries bag: 2.5 times bigger
17. Incidents of creeping eruption: 1
18. Total number of colds/illnesses: way too many to count!
19. Number of vitamins taken each morning: 5
20. Estimated liters of water consumed: 1,145
21. Number of water bottles destroyed: 3
22. Floods in bedroom: 1.5
23. Number of roommates evicted before accepting Steve in life: 4
24. Number of times I believe Steve has actually been replaced: 5
25. Number of items I honestly need sent from US: 0
26. Number of items I honestly need to take back to the US: 2
27. Original pieces of clothing brought that I still wear: 1 dress, 4 t-shirts, 0 pants
28. Senegalese outfits accumulated: 2
29. Total weight lost: 55lbs
30. Peace Corps service in Senegal: Priceless…

Monday, August 9

A Note to the New Stage

It occurs to me that a new class of recruits will land in Senegal this week. And in honor of that I figured I’d leave give them a note of encouragement before they embark on their own version of my adventure. As they run the last of their errands, say the last of their goodbyes, I hope they find a few minutes to read the following:

Dear Stagaire,

A year ago, I sat at home with my family for my last Sunday dinner. I had most of my things crammed into my suitcases and spent the evening debating the remaining few inches of space. I had said all my goodbyes and was trying not to fall asleep dreaming of what my new life would be like.

It didn’t matter because all I could do was think about, ponder, and speculate about what would come. I hate to say goodbye, so I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, and thought only of the future. How would I learn French and Wolof quick enough? What were my new friends going to be like? What kind of food would I eat? Where would I sleep? What would my African name be? What does Africa look like? Smell like? I had a million questions- all with numerous hypothetical answers. But in truth I had no possible way of correctly picturing any of it before hand.

Everything is new, different, confusing, awful and wonderful all at the same time. There is no possible way to imagine what will come. By reading PC materials, blogs, and generally bombarding internet search engines with “Senegal,” you’ve done all the preparation you can. But it won’t be enough. Today, you need to accept that you have no idea what lies ahead.

The upside is that I can give you a few certainties:
1. You will speak to your family within the first week or so. Either by sending an email, Skype date, or expensive (but worth it?) cell phone call- depending on how quickly PC gets your phones organized.
2. You won’t understand the accents of the people around you on day one. Don’t expect to, just relax. Nor will you understand all the new words they throw at you. Don’t be afraid to ask.
3. The city of Thies is pronounced like the game of “chess.”
4. The bus ride from Dakar to Thies is about 2.5 hours long. Feel free to sleep because you will see those sights again soon. Not to mention, the sights out of Dakar along the road you’ll take aren’t the best the city has to offer; they’ll only get you down. So take that nap!
5. PC will give you breakfast when you get to Thies. It is Senegalese style meaning a chunk of baguette bread with butter, jam, or chocolate spread along with instant coffee or tea mixed with hot water or milk.
6. Current volunteers will always be around you the first few days, possibly including myself. We are there to help you. No one will laugh at your “dumb” questions, but by the same token your questions won’t occur to us so you need to ask.
7. At some point it will occur to you that you are wildly uncomfortable and would like to go home. Don’t. Don’t think about it. Don’t compare home to Africa. Don’t think about what you could be doing if you were back in the States. Don’t think about what your family and friends are doing. Uncomfortable is just an adjective, and one that passes at that. Things will get better, so stick with it!

Best of luck and see you soon,
Alys

Sunday, August 8

Unrest

Let me start by saying: I’m happy. I have adequately adjusted to my surroundings. I wake up and look forward to my work projects for the week. I enjoy spending time with the family. My mom knows what my favorite dishes are and lets me know ahead of time. I enjoy quiet evenings at home with a movie or book. I enjoy getting the occasional beer with friends around town. I tolerate the sun and the heat. I tolerate the pestering cultural differences and I manage my language limitations. I’m happy to be here, enjoying my Senegalese life.

Yet, just as it happens at home, my mind will occasionally wonder to what could be. For many an instance, the best way to describe how I feel is: “I don’t know what I want, but I know that it’s none of the options I see in front of me.” I find there is something missing, or something that I miss, but have not yet realized what it is. I feel this void, and I’m made uncomfortable by it. One trick I’ve used is to stop everything I’m doing and try to in vision myself happy. What am I doing that makes me happy? Where am I and who is there?

Some of my favorite State-side activities come to mind, and I have to realize that they are what I miss. I lack the ability to do what I truly love and from time to time, without realizing that it gets me down. At the top of my list of items missed is a long dinner with friends where it takes hours to eat courses, drink wine, and laugh ourselves into stomach cramps. Dinners are eaten fast here, on the way to something else and hardly enjoyed in a relaxing atmosphere. Also, almost no where in country do we have large over sized comfy couches (or any place truly comfortable to sit)… so I also miss the ability to feel like I’m falling into one, wrapped up in a blanket, watching movies for hours at a time. Shopping is a constant price battle and it’s enough to make even the shopaholic want to get in, get out, and get on with the day. So from time to time, I miss the ability to wonder aimlessly around the mall and window browse. I want to try something on, see how I feel about it and not be expected to spend the next 30 minutes negotiation a price. I want to show interest without the intent to purchase.

Sometimes I have more elaborate mental pictures. I’m back in Northern Michigan with my family, dog, and perhaps a best friend or two. We spend our days roaming the lakes with boats, passing hours on sand bars with our favorite play lists and local snacks like dried cherries. We spend our evenings grilling out, drinking wine from local vineyards or cocktails invented by my Dad, and sitting around bonfires under the stars.

Occasionally I’m exiting airport security after a flight to someplace new. I’ve just stepped off a plane, I’m headed to my rental car, and I’ve got an address in mind. I’m headed on an adventure in a new place. Perhaps I’ll try a restaurant and meal I’ve never had before. Perhaps I’ll see a famous site or work of art. I’ll stay in a new city and I’ll see something beautiful I’ve never seen before.

So considering what I’ve described, I think to myself that I’ve made a happy little grove in my new African life, so much so that I’m too used to it and need to get out. I need to do something different, and this includes my usual stress relieving activities. Even when I get out of Mboro, and change my surroundings, it seems that I’ve been doing the same-old-same-old and now that has become habit too.

I need to once again think about how to change up my life: another method of relaxation; another path to seek new experiences. This isn’t the first time I’ve come to this conclusion, and I doubt it will be the last. Though it should be noted that the last time this itch came about I ended up in Africa. Granted it was an itch that was allowed to fester (wasn’t adequately treated if you will) and therefore extreme measures had to be taken. For now though, I’m in only a minor state of unrest.

Sunday, August 1

Going Somewhere?

It feels like every day I’m here I get farther away from a clear picture of what I want to do when I grow up. Like I’m in a tunnel, but instead of moving forward, I’m being pulled backward and the light at the end is getting smaller and smaller. In my mind, this light is a clear representation of exactly who I will be, what I will do, and where I will live. Truthfully, I’ve never really known with absolute certainty what I want. I envy my friends with conviction; director, lawyer, pilot. I dread the job interview question asking where I see myself in 5 or 10 years. If you asked me today what I want to do at the end of my PC service, the only sure thing I could tell you is “be happy.”

I know I talked a while back about joining the Foreign Service, hell I took the test, but then I started to reconsider. For starters, it would derail the next few months of my service. Writing entrance essays, preparing for upcoming testing phases, finding the means to get to DC for said phases… I see this being very distracting. I truly want to be an excellent volunteer; to make a difference. And deep down, I know that won’t be possible if I’m distracted by the next phase of my life approaching so quickly and demanding such focus and attentiveness. So I started to think I should’ve waited until next year to take the test. I don’t know if I’m unlucky or lucky, if it’s fate or just chance… but I didn’t score high enough to pass the Foreign Service test.

And then this spiraled out of control. I got to thinking; yes, I do want to spend a good portion of my life as an expat. But I’ve been lazy about it. I find the prepackaged ways of going about it: study abroad where they arrange school and housing; Peace Corps that assigns you a job and a country. I find the options where I already have a reason to get a visa, already have a place to stay worked out, as well as something to do. Isn’t the whole point of being a world traveler the adventure in roaming about doing your own thing and experiencing the unknown? Why then am I being so careful, so lazy, so cookie cutter about it? I shouldn’t get a job with the State Department where they organize jobs, countries, and housing. I should pick a place and go. Figure things out for myself.

So then what? Where? I’ve considered moving to France to work on my language. Should I learn another language? I might be getting the hang of it. I’ve considered various locations throughout the US. I could stay in Africa. Then again there are 2 continents I’ve yet to touch down on. I could live in a big city and use public transportation. I could find a quiet little town and make a difference. I’ve thought about jobs in writing, marketing or purchasing. Can I get job as a professional planner? I think I’m good at that (current topic excluded). Charles thinks I’d make a great VP in his future company. Is it possible to do it all? For the first time in a while, possibly ever, I feel like I can honestly do anything. There are so many paths opening up in front of me. Can I move to a bubble on the moon?

So one thing is clear, I can’t answer this question today. There’s a chance that “when I grow up” may never come to pass. I could very well be one of those people who never knows what the future brings, but I’ll be damned if I don’t have a really great story about something that’s happened in my past. I will be a child of the world. I will be happy.