Monday, August 23, 2010

The Real Senegal - What's behind the Peace Corps Gates

Back seat of the Sept-Place
On the way to Tivouane
Last Monday, after just 5 days at our Training Center in Thiès, we were released into the wild and sent to our first home-stay villages.  Thanks to a renewed
interest in the Peace Corps and a grant from USAID, we are the largest Peace Corps Training group that has been to Senegal, since it's work began here in 1963.  We total 64, of which 21 of us are in the Small Enterprise Development (SED) Group.  During our first few days at the training center, we were assessed and divided into small groups based on our language and technical abilities and then were sent to host-villages within an hours drive of Thiès for language and cultural immersion.  My group is small, just 3 other trainees and a Language/Cultural Facilitator.  We live in a medium size town, called Tivouane, just 24K north of Thiès.  To get there we took a Sept-Place, a beat-up old Peugeot taxi that holds 7 passenger + the driver.  I was dropped off at the door of the Touré home.  It’s taken me a full-week to figure out the structure of my host-family, which I will explain below, however, it became clear from the first moments I was there that my main family contact would be Cheikh Mbacké, my twelve year old “brother”, as he’s the only one in the family who speaks French with any confidence (and confidence he is not lacking!).   The rest of the family, all nine of them, speak only Wolof.  As the Sept-Place drove off with my colleagues and trainer, I felt as if I had been left on another planet.  Back at the Training Center, we were pretty isolated from our surroundings and, although in the company of folks we’d just met, we at least had a lot in common.  The Training Center was kind of like summer camp: shared rooms, group meals; scheduled classes; communal bathrooms, etc.  The home-stay experience was completely different.  We were suddenly plunged into an existing family structure, very clearly as outsiders who had no idea how to do even the simplest things.  We are like children once again.  I had to be shown how to use the toilet, how to bathe, how to eat, and how and where to sit down, and when we can leave the house.  The Peace Corps had done a pretty good job of preparing us for this culture change and our L/C Facilitator is in the same village to help and support us, but there’s nothing like just being plopped amidst a new family in a foreign land, where everything around you is different from the norm.

My family consists of 4 adult siblings, one wife, and 5 children.  Only one of the adults is male and he owns a “boutique” (a small metal shed on the side of the road that sells basic necessities, like small packets of margarine, sugar, and laundry detergent).  He’s at work most of his waking hours, but his wife is home with us and very much apart of our daily life.  The other adults are all sisters and unmarried.  The oldest of the sisters is a “little person” (I think that’s the PC word for munchkin, right?), so that’s different.  The next oldest is my “mother”, Bousou, who is just 3 years older than me.  She seems to take in all sorts of stray children, like Cheikh the orphaned son of her friend, and Arram, a neighborhood girl who works and also lives in the house.  The youngest of the siblings, who’s just 25 is in charge of caring for another sister’s two children while they are on break from school.

Bébé Maty

Seynabou and Arram sportin' their new bou-bous

My room in Tivouane

Since we're in the middle of Ramadan, home life for my family is a bit lazy.  Not eating or drinking all day in the African summer heat leads to a lot of napping.  This napping takes place on mats in the courtyard or on the vinyl-covered floor in the “napping room”.  This room is the only room, aside from my family's bedrooms  that contains furniture (like a real couch and chairs) but it is never used.  People just seem to go in there and lie on the floor, sometimes all of them at once.

Ramadan brings with it many other interesting daily activities including, loud chanting from a loudspeaker at the mosque outside my bedroom window from 4-5am, followed by the family getting up to eat breakfast before dawn.  People walk around at a snail’s pace because they’re refraining from eating or drinking from sunup to sundown and don’t want to exert too much energy.  The loudspeaker chanting also carries on at other specific times throughout the day, from cars with speakers strapped to their roofs.  There’s also a lot of spitting that goes on because apparently swallowing your own saliva counts as eating.  If for some reason you forget that it’s Ramadan and accidentally eat something, swallow large amounts of spit, and/or, Allah-forgive, vomit during the day (also strangely considered eating??--go figure) then you must pay this day back by fasting for an additional day after Ramadan has ended.

Finally, at about 7pm, the family breaks fast together and eats dates and bread with a thin layer of margarine and spicy tuna, and drinks café touba, which is a finely ground coffee containing cloves, cinnamon and about a pound of sugar.  This activity takes place as a group on a mat outside in the courtyard while watching TV:  first a Muslim prayer session, followed by a half hour Wolof comedy show, and then a really bad Indian soap opera dubbed in French.  Dinner is served at about 9pm on a big communal platter that usually consists of a layer of rice topped with a whole stewed fish and several vegetables in a yummy sauce.  Dinner varies slightly depending on how the rice is prepared and what type of sauce is used, but the vegetables stay the same from night to night:  eggplant, cabbage, carrot, okra, potato, manioc root, and radish.  We kneel on the ground around the platter and eat together.  There is grand protocol regarding eating here which was quite stressful for all the trainees until we’d done it enough to begin to feel comfortable.  We actually had Peace Corps training for this.  My "mother" tells me where at the platter to sit.  I’m not sure if I’m being place with regard to proximity to some specific food or to some person, so I usually wait for her to tell me.  Most of us eat with a large spoon,  but my “mother” and my “uncle’s” wife eat with their hand (just the right hand--never the left, but I’ll leave that to another blog entry devoted to toilet protocol.).  The women who eat with their hand ball up a small amount of rice with a piece of veggie or fish.  They, squeeze out the oil, and pop lick it off their hand.  Then they pick off bits of fish or veggies for others sitting at the platter and toss pieces into their eating area.  This is generally done for the young children and to me and is the equivalent of cutting up a child’s piece of meat for them.  Everyone has a designated eating area on the platter, basically the hand-sized space directly in front of them and it is impolite to reach into someone else’s area for a piece of food.  Instead, the big food pieces are tossed back to the center when people have taken off a small piece for themselves.  It’s important that the small piece is first placed on the platter in your eating area before you can pick it up and eat it.  Taking it straight from the center of the platter to your mouth is rude.  Burping loudly while eating, however, is not, and is it is common to hear a belch or two while we eat.  I try not to laugh at this, because no one else does.  Not to say that dinner isn’t fun.  There’s a lot of laughter that goes on, the joking is mostly in Wolof, and I think mostly directly at me, but I’ve learned to just laugh along with them.  Whatever the crazy-haired Toubac (common slang for white person) at the platter did probably was funny and I’ll learn why later.

My language and culture classes have been great.  It’s amazing how much we’re learned in just one week.  The Peace Corps really has an impressive adult-learning program and they have many Senegalese staff-members who’ve been working with them for 10+ years.  We have language class every morning from 9am - 1pm (or so), then break for lunch, napping, and homework until 4pm, then return for 2 ½ hours of cultural training.  Our classes are usually held at one of two of our host-family homes (the ones who have covered courtyards (aka shade), furniture, and space for us to gather.)   Our small class size is nice yet because we're usually in someone's home, we often are interrupted by someone’s little brother or sister who comes over to greet us (greeting is also worthy of it’s own blog entry, so more to come on that later).

We arrived back at the Training Center yesterday afternoon, after having been away a week, and it suddenly seemed so luxurious.  Chairs to sit on, cold water that has already been filtered, real showers, wi-fi, and fruit.  Many of the Agriculture trainees who are living in smaller villages had less protein then we SEDers did, so we were served a dinner of beef and beans to pump up our protein intake.  We also had fresh salad greens and veggies, which we’ve all begun to miss.  Before dinner, many of us ventured into town for a cold beer which was a great way to catch up with one another.

List of My Most Prized Possessions Thus Far:
  • Eventail (woven hand-held fan sold at the markets), used for swatting away flies and creating a small breeze during class
  • Oscillating fan, purchased with great fanfare (pun intended) over a 4-day period
  • French press and ground coffee brought from home, and enjoyed every morning “sans sucre”
  • Shower-to-Shower body powder (applied several times a day)
  • PC-supplied 3 gallon ceramic water filtration system
  • Mosquito repellent,  mosquito incense coils, mosquito net
  • French-English dictionary
  • Bar of anti-bacterial soap
  • Quick-dry camping towel
So happy about my new fan (and my water filter behind me on the left)

My "brother" Cheikh, who tirelessly helped procure my fan


    1. This is really great, April. I hope you continue to find the time to continue updating us on your adventures. You are a fine writer and you have really captured the experience. Will you be returning to this host family?

    2. chapeau! on a great blog and a great job!

    3. Oh my gosh, April, wow. Fascinating--you are a brave one. So glad you have the coffee and coffee press. Can't imagine life without that! Thanks for writing, I will keep reading.