16 October, 2011

Lord Henry in the Bush

My time last week was spent at the compound of a current volunteer in a village nearby where I will be living for my two years of service (starting next month). A Peace Corps car drove us as far as Kaolack (from Thies) but from there an adventure that I could have expected (but for some reason had not) ensued. My host and I walked to the Kaolack garage, a packed, filthy parking lot filled with vans and station wagons waiting for fares (25 people in a van and up to as many clinging to the roof). After locating the correct van in rapid Wolof and accidentally cutting my toe on a rusty can, me, my bloody toe, and my host crammed into our seats. With our baggage piled in our laps we started the three hour ride to my host volunteer’s village.

The next day we decided to walk to my village (15K away) so we had an early start. After a few hours of walking through the bush it became clear that we weren’t completely sure where we were going, and that we should have gotten breakfast. At one point, for lack of another option, we waded through a road flooded waist deep. My host asked for directions in each village we came upon. Through my mediocre grasp on Wolof, I ascertained that most women had never heard of my village but some older men were able to provide us with, at least, which road to take out of their village towards mine.

We eventually reached our destination and I was able to spend some time with my host family and become aquatinted with my hut and my new village. When we did finally get there, upon entering the village on the donkey drawn cart (charrette) which picked us up on the bush road, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the gentle slope of the land, punctuated by the flatness of most of Senegal, as well as by the grove of massive baobabs surrounding the village. The trees were lavishly decorated with fruit; oblong orbs attached to the thick branches by succulent cords. The cluster of trees looked like something out of a world Tolkien dreamed up. Somewhere so far from New York it must exist only in another world (think Zelda).

After spending the afternoon with my host dad and seeing the village we set off back to my host volunteer’s village. During the bumpy charrette ride back our driver stopped and dropped us off on a bush road so that he could turn back and make it home before dark. This left us to walk the rest of the way as the sun sunk quickly into the horizon. By the time we reached the next village it was too dark and unsafe to trudge on. My host had thought this circumstance was a possibility so she had contacted the Peace Corps affiliated farmer (Master Farmer Program) in this village earlier in our trek. We made it to the farmer’s house just as it became too dark to see. She welcomed us and insisted we eat there and stay the night. We rinsed off our filth and ate millet cous-cous with bean sauce then crashed under the mosquito net for the night. We woke up early enough to see the sun rise and examine some of the work the Master Farmer had been doing. I saw her field crop demonstrations and personal gardens. She is someone I will likely be working with once I live in the area.

After checking out the fields we caught a van back to my host’s village and washed (with soap) and drank some water (filtered!). We ate hard boiled eggs on heavy local break during a two hour chartette ride to visit the other Master Farmer I will be working with. The journey was artificially long because the cart was being dragged by a horse who had never driven before. My vegetarian-self cringed each time the driver used the stick to whip the horse, but the side of me who wanted to be out of the hot sun and get to the farm made it easier to bite my tongue. After the short visit we did some work around my host’s village and then watched a movie with the remaining battery on her lap-top.

The effect of watching a movie on my mood was strange; knowing I was still in a very rural village in Senegal but being completely transported back to the U.S. where Russell Crowe was breaking his wife out of prison. The amazing ability of books and movies to move my mindset to a completely new place is amplified infinitely here because of the intensity and strangeness of everything going on around me. The next day was the last day of the visit which consisted of visiting the Peace Corps office in nearby Kaffrine and a whiskey fueled party at the Peace Corps Kaolack transit house.

Back in my training village, far from the bush village I’ll be living in for two years, I am realizing that there are different life styles and cultures in Senegal, even between small Wolof speaking villages. The way of life in my training village appeared to me to be no-frills but it is, in fact, much more comfortable ‘economically’ then my permanent village placement. It seems like each day I’m here my perspective on poverty, development, and my personal goals change. Most of my ideas end up back where they started, perspectivally, but some of the ways I understand and experience are in drastic transition. My latest literary escape here has been Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Grey which has reminded me of a philosophy I have always been a proponent of. That is, that there are no good or bad experiences or sensations, all of them contribute to one’s identity and each is as valuable as another. The combination of horror, nausea, morbid curiosity, and strange excitement that I felt when a sheep had its throat cut just a few feet from me (and subsequently when it was served for lunch and dinner for the next two days), are all important and I revel in the intensity of such experiences, despite how uncomfortable they might be.

Without a combination of pleasurable and disconcerting sensations, none would have any effect. The Daoist concept that something (in this case a sensation) cannot exist without it’s opposite is more obvious to me here in Senegal then it ever was before. The delight of sipping a cold drink isn’t as good unless you’ve really worked up a sweat and the pride of learning something new (like Wolof) isn’t as warm if you haven’t been frustrated over it for weeks (or months!). I suggest Dorian Grey should have joined the Peace Corps in search of new and extraordinary sensations (instead of doing evil), because like myself he feels that “no theory on life seems to be of any importance compared to life itself…”