Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Counterparts, the capital, power cuts, and the end of training

Pre-service training is almost over, and about a week remains before I move into my permanent site, Sama Ndiayen.

The other week I participated in a "counterpart workshop" at the training center in Thies. Each Peace Corps volunteer is assigned two Senegalese counterparts who are either residents of the volunteer's village, or are professionals working in the volunteer's field, such as NGO workers or government officials. The (unpaid) role of the counterpart is to facilitate the volunteer's work mainly by introducing him/her to people in the community who are interested in working together, and by providing advice when needed. Peace Corps chooses counterparts for volunteers, after consulting members of the community. The counterpart workshop was held so that volunteers and counterparts could get to know each other, and discuss future work we will do upon moving to our villages.

I enjoyed the chance to spend time with my two counterparts. One counterpart, Mass Gaye-Diey, is a forester at Eaux et Foret, the government agency for forestry and water management. He works in the arondissment (administrative unit) that includes my village, Sama Ndiayen, but is living in the regional capital, Kaolack. He is a large man with a large smile and deep laugh who rolls his own cigarettes. Although I don't anticipate seeing him on a regular basis, he seemed open to meeting at his office to answer questions I might have, and also said that he would come to visit me in my village.

My other counterpart, Papa Dia, will be a neighbor of mine in Sama Ndiayen. He is a small-time farmer, but also a baker. He owns an oven and bakes tapalapa, a delicious and hearty type of baguette that is generally found only in villages. (In cities, an airier, less delicious "machine bread" is available, which ironically is more expensive and has a certain prestige attached to it so that many people who can afford it, buy it instead. Tapalapa is often used to make sandwiches with a bean sauce called ndambe, eaten for breakfast.) Papa Dia, my counterpart, was one of the quieter participants in the workshop sessions, but when he did speak he seemed to have precision and purpose. He also seems to have a clever sense of humor, and I look forward to working with him. As part of the workshop, Peace Corps had me teach a short Nepali language class to counterparts to demonstrate the difficulty of learning a new language (although many already speak French, Arabic, or a second Senegalese language), and since then Papa has been greeting me with a "Namaste!"

The workshop took place amid ongoing protests in Thies and elsewhere in the country over power outages. The power company Senelec claims that the government has been failing to pay subsidies owed, and has responded by cutting electricity for large parts of the day, and so "Coupelec" has become its common name. In some cases, protesters are also expressing discontent with the government of Abdoulaye Wade, the neoliberal-leaning president of the country since 2000, who many speculate is grooming his son, Karim, to replace him in 2012.

After the counterpart workshop, we had our first free weekend since arriving in Senegal, which most of us spent at the beach. We went to Popenguine, a beach town with many houses and bungalows owned by foreigners and wealthy Senegalese. The beach was beautiful; there were bluffs overlooking the sea and decent-size surf, and I had a good time try to body surf. I spent most of the time at the beach but also ventured into the town, which had a number of shops catering to vacationers and a prominent cathedral. After Islam, Catholicism is Senegal's most populous religion (about 5%).

After the weekend at the beach, we spent one day in Dakar as part of training, in order to get acquainted with the city (for most of us, it was our in the capital), and attend a security presentation by an embassy regional security officer. We visited the downtown area first, which has many high rises, fancy shops (we stopped for some pricy but good ice cream), shady tree-lined sidewalks, an underground tunnel, and a cosmopolitan feel. Compared to the contrast between Kathmandu and rural Nepal, the contrast between downtown Dakar and rural Senegal seemed even more stark. In Nepal, disparity in wealth is extreme, but Kathmandu is only just beginning to be partitioned into neighborhoods of the wealthy and their commercial centers as separate from poorer neighborhoods. Downtown Dakar, however, had few signs of the serious poverty that exists elsewhere in the country. The government recently banned talibes, or Quranic students, from begging in parts of the city, and I didn't see any beggars during our short walk in downtown.

After seeing downtown, we drove up the beachside promenade known as "The Corniche" to the American club/American school compound, where we attended the security presentation. Some of us accidentally walked into the school during lunchtime, where a mix of white and African kids were playing soccer on a manicured field. The American club had a pool and restaurant. Following our security presentation, we drove further north, past the giant bronze African Renaissance Monument (recently commissioned by the government and built by a North Korean firm), to the Dakar Peace Corps office. We had a brief tour of the office and met with staff there, who seemed very friendly and helpful, before driving back to Thies.

The Dakar trip was followed by one last week in Ker Madaro with my host family. I worked on my Wolof skills by carrying around a pen and paper wherever I went, writing down words in conversation that I did not understand. Although I have a lot left to learn, I think that my language skills will be adequate for moving into Sama Ndiaye and beginning work.

School registration also began while I was in Ker Madaro - a several week-long process where students come in to register, before classes actually begin. In Senegal, government primary school is free for all, but after 6th grade, students must pass a test in order to continue to attending government college (equivalent to middle school). Another test must be passed in order to attend government lycee (high school). Students who fail the tests may attend private school, but tuition can be expensive and there are problems with the quality of education.

I continued to enjoy spending time with my host family, and they continued to take excellent care of me. I often spent afternoons sitting under the neem (Azadirachta indica) tree in our yard, chatting with my host sisters or visiting neighbors. For my last night in the village, I bought a couple chickens and we had a lovely meal of chicken, potatoes, onion, and "boisson." I was sad to leave my family, and a few other friends I made in Ker Madaro, but I also look forward to being in Sama Ndiaye and beginning work. I plan to go back to visit Ker Madaro when I return to Thies in December for "in-service training," two weeks of tech-intensive agroforestry training.

I took a few photos of my host family and Ker Madaro, which I attached below.

A family shot.

Aram, my host sister, with Nday, her neice.

Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in the fields outside Ker Madaro.

The ladies of the house: Nogay, Fatou, and Aram (carrying Nday).

The road outside my host family house, with a small mosque on the left and and a Ficus spp. tree on the right.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Football (soccer) and superstitions

Approximately two weeks of pre service training remain. Since my last post, I have been spending most of my time in Ker Madaro, living with my homestay family and focusing on learning Wolof.

As my Wolof skills have been improved, I have learned more about my homestay family. The father, Malick Seck, is a farmer who grows mangoes, watermelons, peanuts, cowpeas, and some millet. His focus, like many Senegalese farmers, seems to be on cash crops. Almost 60% of grain consumed in Senegal is imported from abroad. Although millet can grow quite well in the sandy, nutrient-poor soils of Senegal, many people who can afford it prefer to eat rice. Much of the rice comes from Thailand and elsewhere in Asia. Unfortunately, rice lacks the nutritional value that millet has.

I have also learned that my father is an imam at one of Ker Madaro’s several mosques. My father often comes home late at night from the mosque, but I hadn’t realized his prominent role until about a week ago. I found out in a round-about way, at a village soccer game, when I asked a Senegalese friend why my host sister, Aram, wasn’t at the match. He explained that Malick was an imam, and like many imams, was rather protective of his daughters and generally does not allow them to attend sports events.

Although I have not spoken with Malick as much as I have with other members of the family, I enjoy his presence. He has a lovely smile and laughs at jokes that I try to make in Wolof. Like most Senegalese Muslims, he seems very tolerant of other faiths and non-doctrinaire; I was actually quite surprised to hear that he doesn’t allow Aram to attend football matches.

My mother, Nogay Njay (wives don’t change their names in Senegal), spends most of her days selling mangoes to travelers along the highway. She has several close friends around her age who frequent our house in the evenings to chat with her and catch up on news.

My three siblings who live at home, Aram, Nogay, and Mamu, range in age from 20 to 33. Aram, the youngest, is unmarried and spends most days doing household work. She was living in Dakar until several months ago, where she cooked and sold snacks near the airport. Since returning to our village, she continues to sell ndambe (a cow pea sauce) to friends and neighbors, who come by in the mornings and evenings with baguettes on which she spreads the ndambe. Mamu, the brother, is a bus driver in Dakar but returns to Ker Madaro on the weekends to spend time with his wife, Issa, and their two young children, who also live in our compound. Nogay, the middle sister, lives next door with her husband and three children.

I also learned that Malick has two sons living and working in Italy, doing some sort of sales work. Because of high rates of unemployment at home (around 50% - not sure who is considered unemployed), many Senegalese migrate to Europe and elsewhere in Africa to find work. In Africa, the oil industries in Libya and Mauritania attract Senegalese migrants, but Ivory Coast and Gabon have also been historically important destinations. In Europe, France was traditionally a major destination for Senegalese workers, but once mandatory visas for Senegalese were imposed in the 1980s, people began to go increasingly to Spain and Italy. There are several hundred thousand foreign workers in Senegal also, from countries like Guinea, Lebanon, and Mali. Lebanese people began immigrating in the late 1800s, under French rule, and there are many ethnically Lebanese business people in Senegal today involved in the peanut trade and other sales. Many of them were born here and speak Senegalese languages, and I have heard that many have obtained Senegalese citizenship. The Malians I have met in Senegal were also involved in trade - selling Nescafe and baguettes.

During my time off in Ker Madaro, I’ve been playing a bit of football and also spectated at two matches between the team of Ker Madaro and the teams nearby villages. They were fairly big events, with several hundred people in attendance, taking buses or walking several miles to see the match. The crowd was mostly young men and boys, but there was also a small contingent of young women who were very dressed up and cheered on the teams by drumming on buckets and singing. Before the matches, I tried to ask people for the predictions as to who would win, but it seemed that people very reluctant to speculate – “Yalla rekka xam”, or God only knows, was the most common response. (In Senegal, many people seem to be superstitious about jinxing chances of success by being overly confident. Also, there is an aversion to counting people, for fear that if people are counted, they may die.)