Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Nightmare After Christmas and How I Rang in the New Year

After a busy first few weeks of December spent training in and around Thiès & Dakar, I was prepared to spend Christmas back at site watching holiday movies on my computer and nibbling away at the stash of dark chocolate my friends and family have sent.  With very little arm twisting, however, some of my Peace Corps peeps convinced me that joining them at the beach was a much better idea.  We rented a house in Popenguine, a small beach town on the Petit Côte south of Dakar and spent three days playing in the sand, frolicking in the surf, eating great home-cooked meals, and enjoying a relaxing weekend engulfed in holiday spirit.

Garrison, April, Kelsey, Amy, Clint, and Daisy

Daisy grew up in a traditional Mexican household in Los Angeles and offered to whip us up a Mexican holiday feast on Christmas Eve.  We had carne asada with homemade tortillas, empanitas stuffed with cumin gouda and bacon, homemade salsa, candied yams, arroz con leche, and bissap/mint juice.  I drew upon my own brown roots and contributed a big pot of frijoles.  After dinner, we crowded around a laptop to watch “Love Actually”, a modern Christmas classic, and then changed into nice clothes and headed to the village for midnight mass.  Halfway to town, the electricity went off, which was no big surprise until we arrived at the church to discover that it was not only dark, but locked.  Apparently, midnight mass was held at 10pm and we'd missed it.  We all had a good laugh about it and headed back to the house, stopping along the way to listen to a traditional Senegalese band at the restaurant next door.

Daisy pounding salt

Our glorified camp stove
A failed attempt at Christmas Eve Mass

We awoke the next morning pleased to find that Santa had managed to find us in our little corner of the world.  He’d filled our stockings and snacked on the treats we left him.  An American ex-pat  friend joined us for coffee and Kelsey’s yummy breakfast strata and then we headed back into town a second try at mass.  The service was in French, baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary were black, and the choir, which sung in French, Wolof, and Latin, rocked-out with the aid of drums, hand-clapping, and many African percussion instruments.  It was so much fun to watch.  The tourists from neighboring resort towns joined in to experience Christmas in Africa.

After church we sat by our 6-ft tall wooden giraffe “Christmas tree“ and opened our stockings and presents while eating Kelsey’s cinnamon rolls.  We were all like little kids again.  For most of the people with me, this was their first Christmas away from home or away from their parents.  Their nostalgia was contagious and reminded me of happy childhood Christmases back home.  I have to admit it’s been awhile.

Stockings come in all shapes and sizes

Our Christmas "tree"

Garrison took charge of Christmas dinner and impressed us all with his culinary delights.  He made roasted chicken with a lemon cream sauce, steamed julienne carrots, and bowtie pasta tossed with pesto.  Daisy made homemade eggnog and for dessert I made a trifle.  We so enjoyed these tasty Toubab meals mostly because the ingredients are hard to come by and purchasing them requires a commitment to splurge beyond what our monthly stipends will allow, but also because they were not made under the easiest of circumstances.  Both the electricity and the water were off  more than 50% of the time we were there.  We made due using the gas stove, collecting water in buckets when we could, washing dishes in the surf, and cooking and eating by headlamp and candlelight.  We’re all learning to go with the flow.

Later that evening we had a bonfire on the beach, complete with s’mores, fireworks, and laughter.  It really was a delightful weekend and rejuvenated my belief in holiday happiness.

Christmas Dinner
Garrison & Clint by the bonfire

Garrison & Kelsey ashing dishes in the surf

Stained glass at Christmas Mass

Amy, April, Kelsey, & Daisy
We couldn't have asked for more beautiful sunsets

 If you want to see the whole array of Christmas photos that I posted to my Facebook page, click here : Christmas in Popenguine 

After Christmas, I went back to site for a couple of days and then embarked on my first real project work.  At our All-Volunteer Conference at the beginning of the month, I'd gone on a beekeeping field trip to an apiary near Thiès.  On the bus ride over, I mentioned that I kept bees back in the States and the next thing I know, the trip leaders asked me to help translate and lead the session.  I was so enthralled, that I went back two weeks later, during our In-Service Training to do it again with the Agro-Forestry group.  I asked the beekeeper, Abdou Seck, if he’d be interested in partnering on some training projects and not only did he agree but he wanted to begin immediately.  So, on the 30th of December, I packed up my bags again and joined him on a 3-day beekeeping tour in the Kaolack region, south of Diourbel.

Leading a discussion on beekeeping
Abdou and I with the honey extractor

Inside a hive box

We met up at the garage (car depot) in Diourbel and headed to Kaolack together in a Sept-Place.  Aside from the bumpy road, that leg of the trip was rather uneventful.  We stopped in at Abou’s sister-in-law’s house for lunch and Attaya (afternoon tea) and awaited the car that was supposed to take us out to our destination village.  The driver was delayed and then finally showed up telling us that his car wouldn't make the trip.  Our only other option this late in the day was to take a series of Ndiaga Ndiayes, the ridiculously over-crowded public buses that transport people, livestock, and cargo all at the same time, and stop every couple kilometers to let people on and off.  We boarded the first bus just before dusk and spent the next couple of hours winding our way through small road towns until we finally reached Wack Ngouna.  Each time we stopped to let people on or off was a production.  Women dressed in flowing boubous, carrying sacks of bread, baskets of produce, and/or live chickens had to crawl over the people already seated to reach their empty seats.  Their pathways were blocked by sacks of rice, cases of eggs, and cases of sodas.  As each new person got on the bus, we all scrunched in closer until we were shoulder-to-shoulder and thigh-to-thigh.  The farther out we went, the darker it got, the closer Abdou got pressed against me, and the more tired I grew and irritable.  I started to doubt my choice to join a man I barely knew on a trip out to the hinterlands, especially with his arm now draped around my shoulders.  When we finally arrived in the village it was pitch black because the electricity had gone out.    We were dropped off at the door of small office building where we planned to spend the night.  The guard showed us in and shined his flashlight on the dingy mattress on the floor in the corner of an office where we were both supposed to sleep.  Ok, now I was really doubting my intelligence.  What had I just gotten myself into?  

Without trying to appear panicked, I told Abdou that I would prefer to sleep in the hallway.  I’d brought my Therma-Rest mat and a small Bug-Hut tent with me and would be much happier out there.  He looked at me like I was insane and asked why I would choose to sleep on the floor in the hallway when there was a perfectly “good” mattress for us right there in a room that locked.  I said that I preferred to sleep alone and showed him my mat and tent.  He then pointed to the small space between the mattress and the desk where I could set these up.  “No”, I reiterated.  “I’d really rather sleep alone.  It’s an American thing.  We like our privacy” (all of the above being communicated in my broken French, of course.)  He gave me that “crazy Toubab” look and helped me carry my things into the classroom next door, shaking his head and stating that someone might step on me if I stayed in the hallway.   I quickly set up my sleeping area and was about to settle in when Abdou came into the room, laid his prayer mat at the foot of my tent and started his evening prayer ritual.  So much for privacy.  I guess he was afraid someone would step on him in the hallway.  Who is this someone, I wondered; there was no one there but us and the guard.  Anyway, when he was done praying he got up as if ready to go somewhere (in the pitch dark) and said, incredulously,  “you’re going to go to sleep now?”.    “Yes”, I muttered, and then didn’t add what I was really thinking, “I’m out in the middle of the boonies, in a developing country, with a man I barely know who intended to share a dingy old mattress on the ground with me, it‘s pitch black outside, I haven‘t had dinner, and my headlamp isn’t working,  Yes, I’m going to bed now!”  Again, he just shook his head and went to his room.

With this exhausting day now behind me, I crawled in my tent and hoped that tomorrow would bring better things, as I drifted off to sleep.  Not long after that, however, I felt a hand gently rest on my calf.  “Aack!  Go away!“,…no, I’m just dreaming, I thought.  Then I felt the side of the tent press against my other leg.  “OMG, there’s someone trying to get in my tent!  GO AWAY, LEAVE ME ALONE”, I screamed.  Then, I heard the rattling of the metal door and someone trying to break in.  A flashlight shined at me and someone was yelling in Wolof.  I awoke to find the security guard in his underwear, half asleep, shining his light at me and around the room.  He wanted to know what was wrong, why I was shouting, and who else was in the room with me.  I was quickly awake and overcome with embarrassment, as I realized that I was just having a nightmare.  All I could think to say was “Je dors, je dors” (“I’m sleeping, I’m sleeping”), which the guard thought was ridiculous because, clearly, I wasn’t sleeping.  His flashlight shined on several toads that were hopping around the room and had likely jumped on my legs, serving as a catalyst for the crazy nightmare I just had.  He called Abdou out of his room to come deal with this crazy Toubab and I explained to him that I had just had a nightmare.  When Abdou translated for the guard, they both started laughing at me, and finally left me at alone, both now shaking their heads.

[The next day, I took pictures of the scene to amuse myself.]

The creepy bed on the floor.

My tent set up in the other room.

The toads came back for another visit.

The next morning, the sun was shining and my insecurities were laid to rest. It was a new day.  Abdou, as it turns out wasn’t the creepy old man I’d made him out to be in my state of exhaustion.  His offer for me to sleep with him, was just good old-fashioned Senegalese “teranga” (hospitality to the nth degree) plus a disparity of cultures--women don’t sleep alone, nor do they live alone, and Senegalese people in general prefer to be in the company of others.  I guess I showed him how brave and independent we American women can be!  Ha. 

We started our day with an egg salad sandwich (well, as close as you can get around here) and a cup of coffee.  Sometime thereafter we were met by a guy from the forestry department, several members of the local Environmental Club, and a driver with a truck.   As I’ve learned through many experiences here, nothing ever starts on time.  We were scheduled to begin our tour of surrounding villages at 8am, but didn’t actually leave until after 10am.  I carry a book with me at all times, just for these occasions.  Once we got going though, we had quite an adventure.  Back in June or July, Abdou had been down in this area to give a beekeeping workshop in partnership with a Senegalese NGO (non-government organization).  After the training, men from 36 different villages were given the equipment to start their own apiary (most of them received 8 hives and 4 nukes (smaller starter hives used for capturing wild swarms.)  This tour that we were on was a follow-up to that training.  We visited each village and inspected the installation of the hives:  where they were placed, how many swarms they’d captured, the health of the hive, etc.  We also answered any questions that the new beekeepers had.  This was a really good experience for me for many reasons.  I saw many small rural villages far off the beaten path, visited 225 hives (138 of which were occupied), met some really interesting people who love beekeeping, witnessed an active swarm, and managed not to get stung, even once.  
Inspecting a hive installation

One of the numerous villages we visited
We traveled for three days like this (luckily I got a set in the truck)

Bee-“keeping” is a fairly new concept in this part of Africa, whereas bee-”killing” and bee-”having” have been around much longer.  Bee-killing involves raiding wild hives found in trees by setting fires next to them, smoking out the bees, and destroying the brood in order to obtain the honey.  This practice goes back centuries both in Africa and Asia, results in a smoky-flavored, prematurely harvested honey, and is clearly not a sustainable enterprise.  Bee-having is a step in the right direction and is also widely practiced.  Bees are housed in man-made containers (logs, gourds, or clay pots), but the comb is fixed to the container, not allowing for inspection nor manipulation/maintenance of the hive.  Generally, only the honey comb is removed, which allows the brood comb to stay intact.  The hive is protected and the farmer reaps his reward in periodic honey harvesting.  Bee-keeping, is by far, the most advanced practice but is not yet widely recognized in Senegal.  It implies the management and sustainability of the hive based on an understanding of the bee and can span multiple levels of technological involvement.  It promotes honey production and the health and proliferation of the hive.

On our tour, we were surprised to see many of the new beekeepers combining aspects of their former bee-killing or bee-having practices.  We found hives stacked up in trees, hives suspended upside down or turned on their sides, and hives positioned without protection.  Old habits are hard to break.  We gave each beekeeper advice on how to correct or improve their hive placement and spoke to them about the problems that they faced.  It really was a great learning experience for me, although I have to admit, after the 200th hive, I was starting to get a little bleary-eyed.  It didn’t help that every village we drove into had a crowd of young children who rushed our truck yelling “Toubab! Toubab!” and crowded around me “oohing and ahhing” at the color of my skin.  What first felt a little rock-star-esque, quickly became exhausting and downright unhealthy, as everyone of those kids, although quite cute, had runny noses, visible skin conditions, and probably lice, and by culture, each and every one of them felt obliged to shake my hand.  I emptied my bottle of anti-bacterial gel by the third day.

A group of kids gathering to see the Toubab

Misplaced hives (they're supposed to be on the ground)

And upright!

Rushing the car to catch a glimpse and touch my skin

We headed back to Kaolack late Sunday afternoon, but this time lucked into a Ndiaga Ndiaye that went straight through.  I opted to stay over at our Peace Corps Regional House that night and the next to do a little kitchenware and food shopping since I’m now cooking some meals for myself.  There were quite a few other volunteers there who were staying at the house on their way back from various and sundry New Years celebrations, so I was in good company.  Abdou and I have lined up some more work in the coming months and I have a few other projects that are starting to take root, so those many months of training are beginning to feel purposeful now.

Please take note of the new Photo-A-Day - 2011 link I added to the left side-bar of my blog page or you can click here.  I’m planning to capture a moment from every day in 2011 since it will be the only complete calendar year I’ll spend in service.

Happy New Year to all of you!  Jamm rekk (Peace only!)

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