Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Day in the Life of April's Africa

Today is April 19th, just an ordinary day, but one that, historically, has held some significance in my life and probably yours. First and foremost, it was my Granddaddy Penington's birthday (admittedly, this one is more "my life"), he would have been 103 years old today. Dr. Bob was a fun-loving gentleman and I always pause to think about him at this time of year. This is also the day that the Branch Davidians had their catostrophic showdown in Waco, TX in 1993 and the day that the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995.  Within this same week in recent history, we also had the Columbine shootings in 1999 and, a little closer to home for me, the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. I'm always grateful when we get through this week without incident. And because non-news is rarely reported, I thought I'd write a bit about my rather mundane day here in Senegal, this April 19th.  Besides, what has become quotidien for me, is likely still new and different for you.

I awoke this morning in my Bug Hut on the porch just outside my room. It's been so hot lately, that by the evening hours, my room heats up to oven-like temperatures and my fan, instead of improving the situation, just makes it feel like a convection oven. So I've taken to sleeping outdoors. Even before I opened my eyes, I heard the familiar call of the Beautiful Sunbird who visits the bushes next to my patio every morning, and therefore I woke up smiling, knowing that the first thing I would see would be breathtaking. I was surprised to discover, however, when I did open my eyes, that this regal bird was joined by two other spectular birds who make their home in Senegal, both equally stunning and much larger. There they all were, just two feet from me, and there I lay--without my camera. I knew that as soon as I moved and unzipped my tent they would fly off, so I just lay there quietly for 10 minutes or so and enjoyed their beauty as they cooed and preened themselves in the morning light. Soon, nature called and I was forced to get up and sure enough, they flew off, one right after the other. Here are pictures I've captured of these same birds over the past month from a much greater distance. Tonight, you can be bet I'll be sleeping with my camera at the ready.
The Beautiful Sunbird

Senegal Coucal

 Abyssinian Roller

After dismantling my tent, I made coffee and instant grits (you can take the girl outta the South, but you can't take the South outta the girl ;-)) and sat on my porch enjoying a relatively cool morning, while reading a chapter of my current book, John Steinbeck's The Winter of My Discontent.  This is the 26th book I've read since I've been in Senegal (for a full listing, see the My Spare Time page of this blog.)  It's amazing what lack of developed-world stimulation can do for the mind.

After breakfast, Ibou and I met with an agency that's writing a paper on our Paper Briquette Project, in hopes of providing us with some funding. They came by to discuss the project and collect some of the pictures I've taken. The agency supports sustainable development projects in Diourbel and after interviewing many groups and their projects, they've decided to put our project forward and present it in their proposal for grant money. I couldn't be more pleased. This is how our project came to life. Back in December, I attended an Appropriate Technology Seminar at the Peace Corps Training Center. Peace Corps Volunteers from thoughout West Africa came together to present technologies that they'd discovered and used successfully in their communities. The Paper Briquette Press was presented by my friend Stephanie, who lives just 25km south of me. It's basically a small three-piece metal contraction that presses wet paper pulp into a brick-like form. The brick is then dried and used in place of wood, gas, or charcoal for cooking. Recyclable paper is used to make the pulp, thus providing a means of reducing trash while decreasing the cost of fuel and minimizing the unhealthy smoke normally created during the cooking process. A "win-win-win" situation, you might say. The project never really took off at Steph's site, because she lives in a small village where there's a scarcity of paper. We both agreed that Diourbel was a perfect location to try it as there are many government offices and schools with bins full of waste paper to use and recycle. So, Steph visited us in early January and brought the press for a demonstration. Ibou loved the idea, we got buy-in from our association, and we quickly found a metal worker to replicate the press. Since then, Ibou, our friend Lamine, and I have done lots of testing and have now incorporated it into our Eco-Ecole project, using it to teach 4th graders about their environment. It's been so much fun and I'm glad the project is getting some attention.

A Step-By-Step Guide for Using the Paper Briquette Press

Step 1 - Make paper pulp.

Step 2 - Place pulp in press.
Step 3 - Place top plate on press.

Step 4 - Apply pressure to press.

Step 5 - Voila!  A paper briquette.
 From that meeting, we walked to a neighborhood elementary school, where we were scheduled to meet with the Directors of the five schools participating in our Eco-Ecole program. Unfortunately, four of the five Directors failed to show up--ironic because one of the meeting agenda items was to discuss absenteeism amongst our students. Go figure! We proceded with the meeting anyway, as there was one Director, two teachers, and a parent representative who had come. We summarized our program and detailed what went on in the five classes we held over Spring Break. The Director served us cafe Touba and beignets (think elongated donut-hole), so I've now had my sugar fix for the entire week. At the end of the meeting, a teacher poked her head in to speak with the Director, then they asked me if I would mind stepping into one of the classrooms to "demonstrate the color of my skin." Apparently, the teacher had taught a lesson yesterday about the differences in people's skin color throughout the world and was thrilled to have a Toubab in her presence to show the kids. When I entered the class there were 40 adorable little kids all sitting at their desks. When the teacher asked them if they remembered what they learned yesterday, they all responded in unison, "Oui, Madame." She introduced me and asked the class what color my skin was and they all responded, "Blanche, Madame." I tried to protest and explain to them that "aux Etats-Unis", most people would differ with that response, referring to me more as olive or brown, but that seemed a bit over their heads--they were only 6 or 7 years old, so I let it go. She then asked them "And what color is your skin?", to which they responded "Noir, Madame." Then, as proof that the concept of political correctness has not yet reached these shores, she asked "and who has Yellow skin?" and they shouted "les Chinois", and "who has Red skin?" and they shouted "les Indians." She looked so pleased. And, that, my friends, is what is being taught about the world today "en Afrique."

"Oui, Madame!"

One teacher on the cutting edge of social advancement, or not.

On our way out of the school, I stopped to take a picture of some girls playing "Elastique." They tie pieces of elastic fabric together into a large loop (one group was actually playing with one made entirely of torn-up old leopard print underwear), two girls hold the loop open, and one or two girls hop in the middle and kicks her leg up and over the band, interlacing herself in and out of the band, kind of like "Cat's Cradle", but with legs instead of fingers. It looked fun. As soon as the camera came out, however, I got rushed by half the school who all wanted to be in the picture. After that, Ibou and I stopped to gaze upon and pass judgment at the big pile of trash and plastic that was burning in the middle of the school yard. Tsk tsk! Hopefully, our Eco-Ecole program will put an end to unhealthy practices like that. We also plan to plant a plethera of much-needed shade trees. While the kids were out in the bright midday sun playing during recess, all of the teachers were lined up under the awning of one of the classrooms where there was a single strip of shade. Trees will make a world of difference in this school yard and in all of the others that we're working with, as well. Hopefully, we can get that message across. Just last week while I was in Dakar, I picked up 1,000 tree seedling sacks so we can get our tree nursery project started with the kids.

Fun with Elastique!

Everyone wants to be in the picture.

Kids are breathing the fumes of burning plastic at school.

At lunch, I joined the Gueye family across the street, as I always do. It was a typical day at the lunch bowl, although instead of Thieboudienne, we had Yassa (a yummy sauteed onion sauce served over white rice with a couple of pieces of fish and potatoes thrown in the middle.) I love Yassa and Yassa Poulet (the version with chicken) is even better. Today we had 12 people around the womens' bowl, although we were a good mix of women and children (both male and female). I have to admit that twelve is a bit crowded for the bowl and overcrowding has a negative effect on the entire culinary experience. Let me describe the scene for you. We're all siting around the bowl, with sweaty legs touching and overlapping so we can all fit. Only me and the small boys have spoons, all the women and young girls eat with their hands. We should all be focused on the portion of food directly in front of us, but with three toddlers at the bowl, that's hard to manage, so there were hands, arms and spoons every which way today. Cheikh, a 2 year-old, was sitting on his mom's lap to my right and his great Aunt Marame, was sitting to my left. At one point Cheikh had run out of onion sauce on his portion of rice so he reached over with both hands (a double no-no) and took some of mine. His Aunt saw this and slapped his hands (they teach bowl manners early here), and to my surprise, he slapped her back. She was astonished and slapped his hand again.  He was none too pleased, and returned the blow. This continued (right over my portion of the bowl, mind you) until everyone broke out in laughter. Then, as if that weren't exciting enough, a visiting 3 year old started choking on a piece of potato. His mom made him cough if up into her hand, dumped it on the ground, wiped her hand on her skirt, and then kept on eating. Then, the midday heat must have gotten to Fallou (a 9 year old boy), so he got up, puked in the courtyard, covered it with a handful of sand and then came back to the bowl to finish eating.  After that, Cheikh sneezed, spraying his mouthful of half-chewed rice into the bowl.   I seem to always sit next to Cheikh these days, which means that I leave every meal with a lap full of greasy rice and other items he's taken from the bowl and dropped on me. He's also developed a bad habit of resting his greasy hand on my thigh, so all of my clothes now have a grease splotch just above the knee on that side. I've given some thought lately about "firing" my lunch family. I pay them about $30/month to eat lunch with them, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it takes a chunk out of my monthly stipend (and I seem to be the only person paying it, but that's beside the point.) Also, I've just about reached my rice threshold and am not sure how much longer it will be before I can no longer put one more bite of it in my mouth. But, it's days like today, when a new dish appears out of the blue and everyone around the table laughs all at once at the slapstick antics around the bowl, that make me want to stick it out, even if I come home and make myself something else to eat an hour later.

As I was headed out the door to lunch, Ibou headed into Dakar to file some paperwork for our association. Lamine, who comes twice a day to water the garden, hang out, and help with classes, also left to go eat. On his way out the door he said, "Ok, I go now. You will be alone now," and quitely, under my breath, I said, "finally!" Alone time is hard to come by in Senegal. Although Ibou and I are technically the only two people that live in my compound this time of year, there are almost always other people here. Business associates arrive unannounced throughout the day to discuss projects, shoot the breeze, or use the internet. Neighbors come regularly to borrow things, offer to run errands, clean the compound, or share news. Lamine is here every morning and evening to water the garden and then Tafa come 6 nights a week to water some more and guard the property overnight. Within our compound, I have two rooms that measure 3m x 3m each, but even these are not entirely private. One is my bedroom and has a small bathroom attached and the other I use as an office. Without much warning, someone may appear at the entrance to either of these rooms and whip back the curtain door to greet me. Most people try to show a little restrain, however, and instead of whipping back the curtain, will just stand on the other side of it chanting "Assalum malekum." Literally translated this means, "peace be upon you", but in these circumstances it means, "I've arrived at your door for no particular reason so you must come out and acknowledge me so we can exchange meaningless greetings while I interupt whatever it is that you were doing before I arrived."  This happens countless times each day.  Needless to say, greetings are the well-respected backbone of this society and you don't mess with them, even if you're a Toubab trying to get some work done.

So, the little alone time I got this afternoon was a pleasant change. I finished a pair of socks I've been knitting (you can see a picture of them on the My Spare Time page) and was able to sit down and type up these thoughts. The power has been out most of the day, so noone has came to use the internet and I had about 3 hours of uninterrupted alone time while everyone else I know took an afternoon nap. It was lovely.  Then, the power came back on, Mom and Dad skyped, Lamine returned with a couple of friends to water the garden, and people started lining up at my door for evening greetings. I was back in the real world again.  I'm sure tomorrow will bring much of the same.

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