Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, February 16

Extreme Rollercoaster

I had a perfect Sunday. I slept in late and read a book in bed under the covers. I got up midmorning and ate breakfast while doing some writing. I greeted my family, but they left me alone to work. Then I walked over to the school to connect to the internet, wrote a friend a letter and had spare time to browse some articles on the web. After some friendly banter with a few kids and a call from Kenny, I went home change and get ready for the day.
I met him and two other friends at the corner watering hole for a beer. Then we drove to our favorite pork house for more beers and a huge lunch. I ate two plates of pork, fries, and fresh veggie slices and even persuaded the waitress to seek out some fataya snacks for us. Fatayas are little meat (in this case fish) filled fried pastries… that Kenny had never tried before. Many other fellow patrons arrived and were acquaintances from either Kenny’s job or events in my service. We had a great time seeing and catching up with them.

In the evening, the four of us piled into the car and headed to the beach. We took pictures of the boats, landscape, and ourselves. We relaxed in the sand. Kenny played with some of the kids. Then I was driven back to my house and I said my goodbyes to Kenny. His work in Mboro is done and they were sending him home. He sent me off with some extra toilet paper and spam he hadn’t used, as well as a promise to visit me wherever I landed in the US after my service was completed.

For the rest of the evening I relaxed in my room. I read a book, watched a new TV show (Community) recommended by a friend, and generally relaxed. For dinner we ate individual bowls of Ngallah (chocolate and peanut butter sauce over millet balls with raisons and banana slices)… and I eventually climbed into bed after writing a bit in my journal. It couldn’t have been a better day with my Mboro friends, beers, good times, and lots of relaxation.

And then came an imperfect Monday. I woke up in the middle of the night with diarrhea and stomach aches. I spent nearly an hour in the bathroom. My dad woke the whole house up getting ready for work at 5a, only to start the car next to my window and nearly choke me with exhaust fumes. I put my ear plugs in and went back to sleep for a few hours.

No one was ready to work. I went to the tailor shop where I’d given our family’s tailor pictures, fabric and an advance on a dress I was having made for a big party weekend coming up. I was to pick up the final product on Monday. He wasn’t finished yet due to a “cut in the electricity.” Since he uses a foot pedal powered machine, I assume this means he had procrastinated and put off my dress until last minute in the evening hours, but without electricity he didn’t want to use candle light to actually work. So he just didn’t do it. This wouldn’t bother me so much if I hadn’t seen him hanging around my house yesterday watching a football game all afternoon.

Moving on through town, I got to the post office. About a million people were there to collect money from the Western Union division of our post for an upcoming holiday. I had to climb over piles of grumpy people waiting around in order to check my mailbox, but there was no reprieve. I do not have mail. No pen-pal letter for my class.

Further down the road I got to the shop of my prized accomplishment as a volunteer: the successful leather worker. In the past year, we’ve designed new products that have proven to be very popular with the expat community. We’ve gone over many marketing strategies, created business cards, and I’ve helped him present at a few sales expos. He’s become so successful that we started having financial investment conversations. His 2 man operation has taken on a 3rd and he’s made numerous improvements to the shop. But on this day, he let me down.

Four weeks earlier I placed an order for some fellow volunteers; nothing major- just a few men’s wallets that would take maybe a day and a half to make. Two weeks earlier, I’d confirmed the order and the due date. Then I’d gotten really sick and had to remove myself from my usual routine of constantly hounding him so that I could get better in Dakar. While I was gone I talked to him a few times via phone. When I got back, I tried to find him to bring money for some sales that I’d been able to make him in Dakar. He was unreachable. When I finally got a hold of him, he was sick but his other workers would be around. Thus I ended my dismal walk across town with a visit to the half staffed shop.

Only, I find out that after I’d been away (making sales and getting better at the same time) they had not done a single minute worth of work on my order. It was due in two days. They wouldn’t be able to finish because of the aforementioned upcoming holiday on Tuesday. Ok, use the rest of today and Wednesday. They couldn’t work on it on Monday because they were working on another order. When did this order come in? Last week. Why wasn’t an order placed 3 weeks ago finished first? I don’t know. Why can’t you put the other order aside and finish mine now? Because he’s coming in today to pick it up. So that client is more important than me?

What it comes down to is demographics. The other order is a pair of shoes, which costs more than a wallets, and is being made for a passing tourist. If the shoes aren’t done, the tourist leaves, the sale isn’t made and money is lost. But if my order isn’t done it’s me that has to work extra hard. My deadlines are usually for people leaving the country too. They’re leaving on X day and I have to get the product to Dakar by then. I give the shop deadlines based on when I’m leaving town. But they push them, and me. On quite a few occasions I’ve had to make extra trips to Dakar to deliver product. I’ve had to push deadlines for friends. I’ve had to run around to make things work out. And the leather shop takes this for granted.

And wouldn’t you know it, today’s message is: this person is paying for something more expensive, so he is more important. And anyway, we know you’ll figure it out. You, who has helped this business so much. You, who donated 2 years of your life to helping us. You, who also deals with roving tourists like clients. You are not as important as this guy who will be here for a week and pay us more money today than you would have. I spent an hour venting to fellow volunteers. I’ve never been so upset or disappointed with anyone in this town.

Why am I telling this tale of rollercoaster emotions? Yes, all of this took place in the span of 24 hours. Sunday was my one and a half year anniversary in Senegal and couldn’t have been a more perfect day with friends. On the contrary, Monday was Valentine’s Day and it couldn’t have been more Hollywood-esque that my favorite work partner managed to insult me completely.  All of this is very typical of Peace Corps life. Any volunteer will tell you that their service is the birth place of some of the highest highs in life, as well as some of the lowest lows they’ve ever been through. It’s a roller coaster unlike any other you’ve been on. I probably have a million stories like those I’ve described above, and I’ll have quite a few more before I leave. They don’t always happen in the same 24 hour time span, but they are inevitable and they are collectively making this experience one of the best things I’ve done with my life.

Peace Corps isn’t glorious. It isn’t a few bad days wrapped in handfuls of great ones. It isn’t courageous, valiant, or honorable. But it is a job. It is helping someone understand one thing that has the potential to change quite a lot. This could mean sharing the taste and culture of fatayas with Kenny, or the art of production management with the leather shop. It sometimes feels as mountainous as explaining the world as round. It’s a constant string of failures followed by 5 minutes of glory. And yet, I have no regrets. Well, maybe storming out of my friend’s shop. But I’m sure he’ll forgive me before the next roller coaster ride starts up. 

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