21 December, 2011

Ya Have to See tha Baaybee!

After our refreshing stay in the regional house in the city of Kaolack for Thanksgiving, my closest neighbor (the great Sarah Ferguson) and I headed out to find the one bus that goes to the particular part of the middle of no-where that we currently live. Sarah was clipped by a white SUV in the second bus station we’d been in that morning. We learned the hard way that Kaolack has two. She didn’t sustain any damage and no one else around seemed to think anything of it so, after our disbelief and disconcerted squealing started to subside, we continued our search for the bus. We found it, and about nine hours later (the same length as the flight here from D.C.) I arrived in my village. The drive would directly take about two hours, but with waiting time, stopping time, and tending to mechanical issues, things generally move a bit slower here.

I took this boring lull to begin a new book, an exciting ritual which happens frequently for Peace Corps volunteers. I subsequently read the bulk of that book while I was trapped within running distance of my bathroom by an evil thing my body, luckily, ejected (one way or the other) after only three days. After this bout, Sarah and I decided to take a 20K bike ride to visit a volunteer whose village has electricity. This began the type of misadventure where literally nothing goes as (loosely) planned and we just had to laugh. We laughed when we found ourselves in the position that we had to walk 17K in the hottest part of the day. We laughed when one of our regiment cut their foot open trying to tackle the walk and became queasy at the sight of their blood. We laughed when the sun was setting and we were, once again, unexpectedly stranded. At least this time it was at a beer serving establishment inappropriately named Guantanamo Café.

That night we stayed at the house of another volunteer whose host-uncle is the principle of a school in a fairly big city. It was from him I received my first real compliment on my new language skills. Past volunteers have told me repeatedly, “the language will come to you, don’t worry about it”. But they forgot to tell me I could share their flippant attitude on this much more readily after a few cheap beers. My liquid courage paired with an open minded conversation partner, who is legitimately interested in the development of villages like mine, was an effective exorcism of my minute knowledge of Wolof and my enormous passion for working here. Her host family is Catholic and they were in no way offended that we had gone out for much deserved drinks and partook in plastic cups of whisky themselves.

Returning to my village from this trip was the first time I felt like I was going to a place that was my home. It was also comforting to know that within my village, transportation mishaps are impossible, since its perimeter can be walked in ten minutes. As I was biking into the village from the trip there was a party going on at one of the compounds. It was an Ngente which is a combination of a baptism and naming ceremony for babies that are one week old. This was my first opportunity to show my face at a community event and present a gift to the new mother. I felt more integrated because of this and I think the people of the village appreciated my being there.

I spent the next couple of weeks tending to the beginnings of my garden, getting to know the people in my village, and assessing their interest in projects I have in mind. I spent most of my time with my host family as I continue to find my niche in the household. One day there was a perceptible shift in the flow of activity in my fifteen person compound when my host mother left for yet another Ngente ceremony. This time it was for her sister’s new baby in a neighboring village. The frequency of these ceremonies demonstrates the rapid population growth and overpopulation typical to developing countries. Most family planning measures or unknown or unwanted by couples here here.

At Ngentes like this a baby is prayed over, given a name, and has it’s hair ritually cut. There is the sacrifice of a lamb in the morning which is feasted on for lunch by most of the village. In the afternoon woman put on their traditional clothes and present gifts to the new mother (in between cooking huge bowls of rice with sheep meat) and often enjoying some time to dance and celebrate. The day my mother left the village for twelve or so hours for one of these events the children, untended, ran amok around the compound. The other two women who live with us had to pick up the slack of pounding millet for that night’s dinner starting at 5AM, cooking three meals over an open fire, hand washing clothes, working in the peanut fields (and all subsequent processing of the peanuts), tending to a home garden, maintaining their medicinal plant garden they keep for extra income, etc., etc.

The disorder that day made me wonder what would happen if my host-mother ever actually woke up as the giant worker bug society has forced her to be, and could not do all the work she generally does in a day. In Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ this is exactly what happens to Gregor Samsa and, in the end, his family gains greater strength of character from it but only after struggle and sadness from the loss of their worker beetle. If the women here at my compound really took a day off, the men would certainly be floundering and the children would go generally uncared for. I am not insinuating that all men in Senegal are uninvolved, because the family I stayed with previous to this had very hardworking men who partook in traditionally ‘female roles’ like pulling water every day and child rearing. Societal change is slow to trickle through to more rural areas (and it doesn’t get much more rural here then my new digs) but I try to inject some feminist attitude into every day conversation, if possible. I think so far I’ve mostly made my host-mother jealous and my host-father annoyed with all the talk of how my real mother doesn’t cook and my father does laundry, but I have to start somewhere. My host mother’s day away from the compound gave me new perspective on the dynamic of the people here in my compound, something which will continue to grow and change.

In order to expend some excess energy, explore the area and ecology around my village, and remain sane, I have been going for runs most afternoons. It’s a good way to escape being the center of good, negative, pleasant, annoying, and every other kind of attention. It also gives me the opportunity to blast American and Swedish Progressive Metal into my brain without hiding in my hut to do so. Although part of my role here is to expose some of American culture to my host community, I’m sticking with the girl-wearing-pants and washing with anti-bacterial soap aspects for now. They may not be ready for my music, just yet.

I am now in the city of Kaffrine for a three day intensive Wolof seminar with three other newbies who live in the area and a Peace Corps language instructor. I will be heading back to Kaolack and then to the beach for Christmas for a few days of light bulbs, shower heads, cheese, and Wifi.

Bonus points to any one, besides my father, who knows which hilarious TV show the title of this blog post alludes to. Actually. Rather. Bonus points to anyone, besides my father, whose reading this.

Ba bennen yoon! (Until next time!)

Mefloquin's Requiem

You generously gave me, the best sleep
Into my brain you crept so damn deep.
An explorer of dreams could not ask for more,
But you quickly began to lose your allure.
I enjoyed time spent in the realm of dreams
With a love left behind, but when the same fiends
Who play tricks on the mind gave me a start
It became time for you and me to part.
Friends said a free trip was a sweet deal
But things that weren’t there were suddenly real.
In moments a mango tree doubled in size,
And in my hut I saw my dead cats glowing eyes.
Your job was only to protect me from malaria
Now I’m saying goodbye to avoid total hysteria.

Don’t worry all, I’m now taking a different medication that helps prevent me from contracting malaria. There is no vaccination, just prophylaxis medications which are too expensive for rural farmers here to give their whole families and cannot be take indefinitely so therefore are unable to help the huge populations of people living in malaria ridden areas of world. Malaria sucks and is still extremely dangerous!
The first drug I was on, Mefloquin gave me super vivid dreams, which were fun but it made it harder for me to experience them lucidly a la Carlos Castaneda and ‘The Art of Dreaming’. The real negative side of mefloquin was the ADD and memory loss type symptoms I was experiencing, which made it a bit harder to learn a new language. No worries to those on their way into the Peace Corps or who will be taking malaria meds at some point, not everyone experiences these symptoms and if you do you can always take a different type of pill.