Thursday, November 24, 2011

My second Tabaski

On November 7, Senegalese Muslims (that is to say, most of Senegal) celebrated Tabaski, or Eid al-Adha as it is called in Arabic. Tabaski celebrates Abraham’s willingness to carry out God’s order to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and God’s merciful intervention at the last minute and provision of a ram to be sacrificed in his stead. It is the most important holiday in Senegal. Families reunite for it, and there is an exodus from cities as people return to their home villages to see loved ones, catch up on gossip, and feast on the ram (or two or more) that each family kills as a reenaction of the Biblical event. Though Catholics do not celebrate Tabaski as part of their religion (although technically I don’t see why they shouldn’t, since it’s based on the Old Testament), some join Muslim family members for the sake of reunion.

In my village, Sama Ndiayen, preparation for Tabaski began weeks ahead of time. For many people here, Tabaski is the one time in the year when they get a new outfit tailored, myself included. This year I bought white “wax” (waxy fabric that is stiff the first time it’s worn) in the market in Thies, and had it tailored and embroidered by a tailor in my village. (The tailor did a beautiful job in my opinion, except that the pants pockets are about two ft deep and the shirt pockets are under my armpits.) The purchase of the food is also important. My family bought many kilos of onions and potatoes, and a ram for 35,000 CFA (approx. $70) from a herder at the weekly market. Many rams are brought in from eastern Senegal and even from Mali and Mauritania. A ram is the sine qua non of Tabaski, and as demand peaks, prices can reach 500,000 CFA ($1,000) for a big one in cities. I’ve asked a few people in my village which is tastier, ram or goat, and everyone I asked said goat, which is much cheaper. But without a ram, there is no Tabaski.

In the days leading up to Tabaski, the women busied themselves with their hair. A few women in my village paid to go into town to have their hair done at a salon, but most bought weave and braided eachother’s hair at home. Young girls got their hair braided first, while young women braided their hair the day before, so that the braids would still be fresh on-the-day-of. Most older women just covered their hair in a head-wrap.

One of my host sisters, Diara Gaye (who is actually adopted into my family and is about 8 years old), had a unique hairstyle. While she had the same cheap yarn-like weave that most of the other girls her age had, there was a large bald patch from where she fell and cut her head, and had to have it shaved, a month or so ago. The wound healed fine, but she has since been the butt of jokes about her hair. People have taken to calling her Bala Gaye III, successor to the famous wrestler Bala Gaye II, who has a similar weird haircut, although his is intentional. Diara seems to like the attention, and has taken to saying Bala Gaye’s signature line “I don’t care” (in English) and dancing around like she’s getting ready to wrestle.

On the day of Tabaski, I slept in and then got up and greeted all my family members around the compound, a daily routine. We had breakfast and then around nine o’clock all the men and boys and the elder women put on their new outfits and marched to the mosque in a colorful parade for a special Tabaski prayer. I put on my own new outfit, and people began complementing me on it at once – it’s a lot fancier than my old one, and is a big contrast from the shorts and dirty tshirt I wear around on most days. I helped my host sister in law peel potatoes until the men came back, changed back into their daily clothes, and slaughtered the ram. Last year I helped skin the ram and clean the organs for eating, but this year I decided to just watch. I kept my fancy clothes on, partly so no one would ask me to help, since it’s not very pleasant work.

My brother Xalifa butchered our family’s ram skillfully, but my host uncle’s teenage sons, Babacar and Aladji Omar, were doing theirs for the first time and made some mistakes. After slitting the animal’s throat while looking into its eyes and draining the blood into a hole in the ground (as is the protocol), they hung up the ram by a rope tied to its rear legs and attached to a tree. But once they had tied it, they let the body swing and hit the tree trunk, causing the stomach’s contents to come gushing out of its bloodied throat. It was not very appetizing to watch, so I went back to peeling potatoes with the women.

Once the ram was butchered, the women went to work cooking it in a vinegary potato and onion sauce, with lots of oil, which is standard Tabaski fare. We had a second breakfast of organs before the rest of the meat was cooked, but the full lunch was served at around four in the afternoon. It was a communal, progressive lunch, moving from compound to compound around our neighborhood of the village. First we ate at my neighbor Aladji Konte’s, then moved on to Papa Dia my counterpart’s, then to my own compound where my family and our neighbors served everybody more meat and potatoes than many of us could handle. The man kneeling next to me at the bowl kept egging me on and I ate until I felt sick. Then we sat around and shot the breeze while recovering.

It was not until the evening that the males and older women re-donned their fancy outfits and the young women and girls put theirs on for the first time (they had been cooking and eating all day, and didn’t want to stain the new clothes). And then the photo-shoot began. It took a while to get my family rounded up for a photo, which was taken by Papa, who worked as a photographer in Kaolack when he was young. I also took a family photo for Papa, and another family in my compound. Lots of kids asked for photos, and women with their babies, and I was taking photos until it was dark and I was using the flash.

The first day of Tabaski is the most important, but the eating and merry-making continue for two more days. Figuring I wouldn’t get work done anyway, I got up early on the second day and rode my bike to visit my friend Joey, who lives near Sokone, about 50km away in the area of the mangrove delta. I left around 7:00. The first part of the ride was through back roads and quiet villages where people were just waking up and women were going to pull water in the early morning chill. After an hour and a half I hit Passy, a road town along the highway, where I stopped for breakfast. I pulled my bike up to a boutique painted with murals of Baba Maal, the famous Pulaar singer (check out an album called In Search of the Lost Riddim, by him and Ernest Ranglin – I recommend it), where I bought and ate bread and butter. While I was sitting there a bunch of well-dressed young boys came in and bought fire crackers and began setting them off outside. I got back on my bike and continued on the dusty highway towards Sokone.

Nearing Sokone, the scenery became greener as I grew closer to the water and wells became shallower. The highway entered groves of cashew trees, and passed by an old abandoned cashew processing plant on the outskirts of Sokone. (Cashews have a hard shell from which the nut must be delicately extracted. I’ve heard that today, many of Senegal’s cashews are shipped to India for processing. The cashew tree is native to a small area in South America, but today the majority of production is in India, Central Asia, and Africa.)

An hour and a half after Passy I reached Sokone. Sokone is one of the biggest towns in the delta area, but it has a sleepy feel, especially on the morning after Tabaski. It is bordered by water on two sides, an although many of the mangroves in the area have been cut down for their rot-resistant wood and alternative land use, some mangrove reforestation efforts are underway and some of the mudflats outside of town are dotted with rows of mangrove seedlings. The town of Sokone itself has some nice big mahoganies and a lot of mangos and other trees, as well as a few campements, although not nearly as many as the tourist town Toubacouta, 20km further down the highway towards Banjul. Pigs – always a sign of Catholic presence – wander the unpaved avenues that lead into quiet neighborhoods set back from the highway.

I met up with Joey and a Sokone volunteer, Jamie, and that afternoon we set out for a nearby campement that was purported to have the coldest beer in Senegal. The campement is across the water from town and although we heard there was a bridge, we found it wasn’t finished. We rode as far as we could and locked our bikes together and waded across to the campement, where we found the refreshments to indeed be brain-numbingly cold. The hotel is located on a rise, and we could see Sokone across the water. On the edge of town was visible a large air-conditioned house with solar panel on the roof, which is rumored to belong to either an American or a Brazilian woman. There are a few French people who live in Sokone, including some volunteers associated with the church, an old man who roams the streets on an ATV, and a philanthropist couple who were the only other guests at the hotel that day. They spend several months of each year in Sokone, and built a school in a nearby village. They went to Joey’s village once, took pictures, and when they came back they had printed them out, decorated and laminated them as gifts. I would have liked to talk to them, but none of us three speak French.

We went down to the water, in a reforested section, for a swim. As we walked across the beach crabs skittered back into their holes. Mangroves are really beautiful. There is something special about the combination of forest and ocean. You can easily get lost in the maze of waterways.

When we were ready to leave we realized that we had lost the keys swimming, and since the bikes’ back tires were locked together we half-carried, half pushed them back to Sokone. We left them at another campement on the edge of town, whose owner has a family connection to Peace Corps in Dakar and knows a lot of volunteers. It was getting dark, and we decided to crash at Jamie’s in Sokone rather than walk the 5km to Joey’s village by moonlight. We bought some onions and potatoes at a shop as sarice.

Jamie has a very large host family that lives in tight quarters, although they have money. We sat on plastic chairs outside and ate dinner, mutton left over from the day before. I avoided the meat in favor of the cous-cous, and when Jamie’s father saw and was concerned I awkwardly tried to explain in language appropriate for people who are eating that the Tabaski ram gave me diarrhea.

“Eh! Xaar bek na la!” He said (the ram butted you in the stomach!) I later found this explanation garnered a lot of laughs in Joey’s village.

After dinner we watched the news on TV outdoors, and there was a story on the latest Peace Corps group to swear in. It was funny watching ourselves on TV, we looked so professional. RTS sends a TV crew to every swear-in; showing toubabs dressed up in boubous and complets and speaking local languages with funny accents must up the viewership.

The next morning we left early to find a metal worker who could cut our lock for us, but only one was open, it being Tabaski, and he wouldn’t do it for a reasonable price. Instead we bought our own hacksaw at a hardware store, cut the bikes free ourselves, and rode to Joey’s village.

In the afternoon we went to Joey’s master farm and grafted a couple Zizyphus there and for another farmer in a nearby field. Neither of us had grafted Zizyphus before but we’d had some success grafting mangos last time so we gave it a shot.

At night we ate more ram and cous-cous for dinner, and sat out under the moon with Joey’s family and talked. Joey’s dad, who is a lean old man with no teeth, filled his tobacco pipe and smoked and ground up kola nut using a home-made grater to suck on, since he can’t chew. He speaks fast and it’s hard to understand him, but Joey’s gotten good at it. His name is Poot Diop, and as a Diop he is entitled to tease me, an Njay. He does so with more relish than any other Diop I have met. When am I going to change my name to Diop, he always asks me, since it is so much better? Njay’s eat a lot, he says. When I tell him the ram hit me and I can’t eat any more meat, he says Njays are not strong, that’s why.

Poot and his wife don’t have any children of their own, but he has two adopted children (or three, if you include Joey). He can be hard on his adopted son, who is a goofy, chubby teenager, but can also be very kind. Joey told me that after his brother worked hard harvesting cashews for months, Poot went to Kaolack with 40,000 CFA in his picket to buy him a bike as a present. It is not every day that a Senegalese kid gets a 40,000 CFA present. He came back and the bike was super cool-looking, with a headlight powered by energy from the wheel. But it started to break right away, and turned out to be a piece of crap. Poot yelled at his son that he was breaking it because he didn’t know how to ride it right, but Joey says that really he blamed himself for being suckered on the deal.

We sat out under the stars and Poot got to telling us riddles, and we shared a few. After a while it was chilly and I was tired and I went to bed.

Later I was talking with Joey about life in Peace Corps, and we both agreed that we’d like to do more adventuring, break out of routines we’ve fallen into. There are supposed to be some beautiful areas in the south, and I still hope to go there. But traveling in Senegal is difficult because roads are bad and it takes a long time to get anywhere. And after being here for over a year, you’re suddenly back to square one in terms of community integration. No one knows you, you’re offered toubab prices and spoken to in French. But it’s not necessary to travel to have adventures – there is a lot to explore locally, characters to meet and beautiful spots to find. I hope to do more of this in the year I have left.

My family. Behind is the new house, which my family moved into a few months ago. I still live in my hut.

Some of the girls from my family and friends.

Papa's family.

Papa and me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trees as Historians

Recently I’ve been talking with people in my village about deforestation and the history of the village, and I’m starting to see our village’s trees in a new light. In training, we emphasize the utilitarian aspects of trees –live fencing, fruit, windbreaks, fodder, etc. – but trees are also markers of local history. (I also got thinking about this while reading A Sand County Almanac, in which Aldo Leopold gives a beautiful elegy for an oak as a marker of Wisconsin history.)

According to those I’ve spoken with, my village is about 100 years old. It was founded by my host father’s grandfather, a Wolof man named Biran Gone, who came from Sama Toucaleur, a nearby village that is today mostly Pulaar. Biran Gone decided on the location of the new village, Sama Ndiayen, when he saw a suitable pénc tree, a soto (Ficus) that is still a regular meeting place and hang-out during hot afternoons. It’s probably 50m tall and is the tallest tree in the village today.

When I heard that the village was founded 100 years ago by Wolofs, I wondered if there was more to the story. I’d heard that Toucaleurs and Sereers dominated the area until about 100 years ago, when more Wolofs came in to farm peanuts with French encouragement. I asked my friend Papa if Sama Ndiayen didn’t replace an old Sereer or Toucaleur village that preceded it in this spot, as I’ve heard happened elsewhere. He said no, and look at the baobabs if I didn’t believe him. He explained that planting baobabs was one of the first things people used to do after founding a new settlement, because they were useful for so many things – bark for rope-making, leaves for cere (cous-cous), fruit for the dish laax. Papa pointed out a large baobab, and said that it, like most of the others, were the age of the village.

I was skeptical about this - the tree was one of the biggest, nearly 2m diameter, which I thought was too large for only 100 years. I wanted to see for myself, so I counted the rings on a similar-sized baobab that had recently been cut down. (Papa says that decades ago, it was a big deal to cut down a baobab, but now that there are synthetic ropes and people use milk to make laax, they have less use for the tree and cut it more often. I’ve seen three baobabs cut to make space for new concrete houses, and felt the earth shake as they hit the ground, in the year I’ve been here.) Anyway, dating the tree was a challenge since the core was rotten, but I counted 33 rings in the unrotten outer 37 cm, and found that the total diameter was 185cm, i.e. the radius was 92.5 cm. If the ring width stayed the same throughout the cross section, that would make for 83 total rings, but since rings in the center are usually fatter, 83 might be an overestimate. But by how much? And people harvesting bark from the tree presents another complication. How many years did bark removal erase from the tree’s record? It’s hard to be sure of the trees’ age, and thus of the village’s age. If only trees could talk. In the meantime, it seems like 100 years is not a bad estimate.

Some recent photos from the rainy season:

My host sister-in-law, Nday, pointing out the camera to her 7 month-old daughter, Fatou. I'm no baby connoisseur, but I have got to say that this is one of the cutest babies I've ever seen.

My friend Papa's granddaughter, Anta. She's not as cute as Fatou. In Senegal, it's culturally appropriate to tell someone their baby isn't as cute as someone else's, in fact it's a popular joke to tell someone that their newborn is ugly. I still feel foreign enough that this sounds offensive to me, so I won't go that far...and I must say Anta is getting cuter - she's already improved remarkably in the month or so since this photo was taken. And you know what they say about the ugly duckling...

My friend Mandow, the master farmer's son, in the rice field at the master farm. The master farm has clay soil that is difficult to farm other crops on, but it worked well for rice.

A mango tree we grafted at the master farm.

Goats are conniving pests. This one is not only tied up but also has its mouth seeled shut, yet I wouldn't be totally surprised if it still finds a way to invade and eat someone's garden.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Anger in Senegal

Is it our loves and our passions that determine who we are? Or is it our dislikes? Or both? I am not sure. But one thing I am learning, slowly, is to deal with my minor dislikes so they don’t frustrate more fulfilling pursuits, to put things in perspective so to speak.

I think Wolof culture has something to teach the world about dealing with conflict. To be sure, there is social conflict here in Senegal. Arguments happen, people scold each other, feelings are hurt, and fights occur. But it seems to me that there is an important element of the culture that helps guard against these types of social conflict: in general, it’s not socially acceptable for an adult person to be angry. It is seen as childish.

When I have been angry around my fellow villagers, they’ve tried to calm me or poked fun at me in a way to say, “that’s not ok.” Some months ago I scolded the women’s group president’s husband, Tam, and told him he was “ruining the garden” when he removed some mulching I had put down. Everyone who was within earshot laughed and started repeating what I had said, as if it were the punch-line to a joke, and in the months since, I continue to hear it being repeated once in a while. At the moment it didn’t do much to lessen my frustration, but later I recalled the situation and realized that this was a way of socially pressuring me not to be upset.

It seems like humor is used as a rampart against conflict in Senegalese society. Senegalese humor is usually directed at someone; someone is always the brunt of the joke. I’ve only watched a little bit of TV here (having no electricity in my village), but my impression of the comedy shows is that they follow foolish people doing foolish things, and there is a lot of slapstick involved. “Yo mama” jokes would translate pretty well into Senegalese culture; Seinfeld-type stand-up with its social commentary, not so much.

Angry people are teased. And from a young age, kids are the brunt of jokes, and they learn not to take it as an affront to their self esteem. There are “joking relationships” between families; as an Njay, I am often teased by people with the last name Diop that I am greedy and stupid, that I can’t work, that I am a bad Muslim and don’t fast during Ramadan (true- although I did fast for one day). I think that all of this joking leads people to be less easily affronted and irritable.

But aversion to anger might have its drawbacks. Is anger not necessary, in struggle for justice and in standing up to powers that be?

A couple months ago I was in the back seat of a sept-place from Dakar to Kaolack, and struck up a conversation with one of my fellow passengers. He was Senegalese, but told me he lives in Barcelona, where he runs a bar. He was home on vacation, and was going to Kaolack to visit a friend from Spain’s family and deliver gifts. We got to talking about politics. Like the majority of Senegalese I’ve had political discussions with, he opposed the current president, Abdoulaye Wade, who he felt is using the spoils of office for personal benefit and to ensure his victory in the upcoming 2012 elections. I remember he was very critical of what he saw as Senegalese people’s passivity. It was just after the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but he said that nothing like that could happen here, because most Senegalese people are unwilling to take to the streets and become involved in conflict- it is too taboo. He worried that Wade would be able to slowly consolidate power in his own family’s hands, dismantling the democracy that he was once a symbol of (Wade won the first free elections in 2000, ending the Socialist Party’s rule, and again in 2007).

However, several months later, the sept-place acquaintance was proven wrong. Defying cultural tendencies, thousands of Senegalese people took to the streets in Dakar and other cities in late June to oppose a proposed constitutional change regarding the election process. The proposal would have decreased the threshold to avoid a run-off vote to 25% (which probably would have guaranteed Wade victory, since the opposition hasn’t united around a single candidate), and would have created an office of vice-President, which people say is a vehicle for hoisting Wade’s son into the presidency (Wade is already at least 85, and might not be able to continue as president much longer). The protesters were successful, and the changes were not passed, even though Wade’s party controls enough seats in Parliament to do so.

In this case, it seems like a willingness to struggle and engage in conflict had positive results. Protestors were angry, and some were violent (although it is hard to say how much of the violence was provoked by police forces). But I suspect the protestors held something else in their minds besides anger – hope, a vision of what a more free society would look like? Maybe anger is usually self-destructive, preventing us from engaging with who or what we love. But is it always that way?

Some recent photos:

My two bros, Alhadji and Babakar, and myself. They were dressed up one day and I had just come back from work.
The landscape has turned green since the rains.
Women at the women's garden planting a line of Moringa for erosion control. The ladies dress up for work in outfits like this almost every day.
My friend Papa at a small pond near my village, a cool place to hang out.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Brush With Celebrity

A few days ago, two friends and I shook hands with Yekini, the one who “knows not falling, only felling,” according to notebooks sold here featuring him on the cover, reaching out with a menacing hand towards the reader. Yekini is the most famous wrestler in Senegal, with 17 victories and one draw to his name since he began his career in 1997.

We happened to meet Yekini through a connection made back in December, on Christmas day. A bunch of PCVs had come to visit to celebrate Christmas, and we were walking from my village to have a three-course lunch at a hotel run by a French family in the road town, Ker Socce. (The hotel usually serves a clientele of Senegalese escorts and middle-age French men, who come to shoot pigeons at an artificial watering hole the hotel staff made nearby. I don’t often go because the atmosphere is a bit odd with the French guys, but on Christmas we fortunately had the place to ourselves.)

Anyway, on the way to the hotel we passed by the water tower in Ker Socce, and a man called out to us from a garden next to the tower. We greeted the man, who turned out to be the water tower operator, a very friendly guy named Tamsir Diop. We made small talk a bit and went on.

One day a few weeks later I went back. My friend Joey was visiting, and we asked Tam if we could climb the water tower. He said no problem, so we did. The ladder was unlocked, and I bet Ker Socce kids often climb the tower when Tam isn’t looking. There was a great view from the top. I saw my village and Tam said that at night, one could see the lights of Kaolack. The landscape was very brown, etched by thousands of crisscrossing cattle trails stretching on and on into the distance - the traces of Pulaar herders.

When we got down we sat with Tam in his office for a while – he has a cozy room next to the garden, with a stove and bed. He also has a house in town, but it looked like the office was livable. My friend later pointed out that being the water tower operator is kind of like being a lighthouse keeper – it’s a pretty easy job yet it carries prestige. Tam showed us some of his photos. Many had a young white man and woman. He explained these were his friends, Peace Corps volunteers from about ten years ago. They were a married couple, and it seems like they had been close with Tam because they continued to keep in touch. They sent him photos from their home in Seattle, of their dog, the woman holding a bowl of home-made ceebu jen, photos of their young kids. They looked like nice people, but it felt odd looking at their pictures, like watching a stranger’s life in fast-forward.

We also noticed a poster on Tam’s wall, of him sitting in the lap of a massive black man, photo-shopped onto a background of a fancy car. (In Senegal, people often take special photos to photoshops to have them rearranged like this and printed on a poster. My father’s hut has a poster of himself as a young man next to his own father, against a background of clouds; I think both men’s images were taken from their government IDs. Photos from village weddings are also often pasted into fancy hotel room settings, or marabouts (religious leaders) are placed in odd nature scenes. I saw one poster of a marabout sitting next to an African lion in a serene conifer forest.) Anyway I asked Tam about his poster and he explained that it was himself and Yekini, the wrestler. Yekini used to wrestle in Ker Socce before he was famous, and Tam said they were friends. Sometime he’d come back, he said, and we could meet him.

Since that first visit, Tam has become a friend and I’ve stopped by the water tower a number of times. We talk about gardening and once I gave him lettuce seeds, although at the moment his garden is in a state of disrepair since some cattle broke in. One time we talked about wrestling, and it seemed like Tam knew everything there was to know about Yekini – his winning record, dates he’d wrestled, his weight and other specs. Tam is a pretty small guy, but I think he wishes he were a wrestler.

Sometime in late February I saw Tam at the weekly luma in Ker Socce, and he handed me an envelope with an invitation to a wrestling tournament he was organizing. He said the wrestlers were up-and-comers, but Yekini was the patron of the tournament and would attend. I got a few extra invitations, and invited a couple friends to visit for the tournament.

The tournament was held just recently in May. I saw Tam a few days before, and he looked tired. He said he’d been preparing the dirt field where the matches would be held (I imagine there was a lot of trash to clear) and buying the prizes – one cow for the first night’s champion, two for the second night’s. Yekini was still coming, but only for the second night, to see the better wrestlers. I told Tam a couple of my friends were coming, and he kindly offered that we stay at his friend’s house, so we wouldn’t have to walk back to my village late at night.

My friends Toby and Joey arrived on the day of the tournament, and after dinner of cere ak buum with my family in my village, we walked to Ker Socce with a flashlight. I like walking at night, moving without seeing the places you’ve left behind or what is yet to come. Once I spent a week walking through fog in Ilam in eastern Nepal. It was the off-season for tourists there because you couldn’t see the mountains (which are beautiful), but I liked walking through the fog too, like walking at night, never seeing very far in front or behind.

When my friends and I arrived in Ker Socce we called Tam, who met us and took us to his friend Demba’s house, our host for the night. Tam was dressed up for the occasion and must have had a lot of other things to do, but he made sure we were comfortable and were re-fed dinner before he went off for a while to prepare for the wrestling. We sat outside with Demba’s family watching TV and looking at the stars until heading over to watch the wrestling at about midnight. The wrestlers were still in the midst of their elaborate warm up routines when we arrived, strutting around, jogging, hopping, dancing, and burying their gris-gris in the center of the ring. A group of drummers played, and four Sereer women sang an ostinato into microphones (although wrestling is now a national pastime, it was a traditionally a sport of the Sereer ethnic group, so there is always Sereer singing at wrestling tournaments).

Tam gave us chairs in a spot with a good view. At one point a wild looking wrestler wearing an American flag cloak and leopardskin strode up to where we were sitting. I thought maybe he had come to see his compatriots but then he ignored us and began burying some gris-gris in the sand until someone told him he couldn’t do it there, because it was the audience section. He looked kind of offended but he had gris-gris in his mouth so he couldn’t speak and walked away. Tam came over and pointed out one of the smaller wrestlers who was wearing orange. This man, he knew how to wrestle, he said.

By the time the wrestling actually started it was very late. At one point a fight broke out in the audience behind us, we were not sure why, maybe about a call, but Tam came and broke it up. My friend and I were tired so we left before the wrestling ended, figuring the next night would be more exciting anyhow.

The next morning Demba’s wife brought us bread and butter and sweet Nescafe for breakfast. It felt a bit like we were imposing on Demba’s family, although they were very hospitable and nice to us. To say thanks we bought them some mangoes in the market and some cookies from a store run by a couple friendly Mauritanians. (Many Mauritanians live in Senegal and run small shops like the one in Ker Socce. In my experience, they have the best-stocked shops. Although the guys who run the shop in Ker Socce speak Wolof, they seem a bit out of place here, kind of like me. I like going to their shop. They greet me by my adopted Senegalese name, and I call them by their last name, Gaye, which I think is adopted also. Senegalese people call Mauritanians naars, but once when I was in their shop, someone called us both toubabs, which is the term for French people but often used for white people in general.)

We spent most of the day in Ker Socce, and were just heading back to my village for the afternoon when we came upon a gathering in a compound on the edge of Ker Socce. Some women told us that Yekini had arrived, we should go greet him, so we wandered into the courtyard, where maybe 50 people were sitting on mats under shade trees, chatting. Yekini was sitting on one of the mats, talking with some people. The gate to the compound was open, and anyone could wander in, but there were surprisingly few people, and there was a very low-key atmosphere. We sat down and after a while someone came and asked us if we wanted a photo with Yekini. We said no, we’d just like to greet because we didn’t have a camera, so he took us over to where Yekini was sitting and we shook his massive hand. “Diop, Diop,” my friends said, which is Yekini’s last name, and he asked their names and was happy to hear it was also Diop. When he heard my last name was Njay though, he shook his head and said “Njays like to eat a lot,” because Njays and Diops have a joking relationship. (There are some standard jokes in the joking relationship, and “you like to eat a lot” is one of them, but I thought the joke became funnier coming from Yekini, who weighs 135 kgs.)

Yekini seemed very down to earth, and my friends and I were surprised how little fanfare there was. People definitely were excited to see Yekini, but they weren’t obsessed like some of us Americans are with celebrities, as if an autograph or a photo with a famous person somehow increases the importance of our own lives to ourselves.

We headed back to my village, and returned to Ker Socce only late at night. When we arrived at the wrestling venue there were hundreds of people outside, many more than the night before, some trying to get a glimpse of the action through holes in the straw fence. We couldn’t find Tam and we’d lost our invitations so we decided to wait in line and buy tickets for 500 FCFA apiece (about a dollar). It was a long line and there were gendarmes for crowd control. One of the gendarmes had a rifle with an attachment on the end that looked like either a grenade launcher or a flame thrower, my friends and I couldn’t decide. Thankfully the crowd controlled itself and whatever the weapon was, it was not put to use.

Once inside, one of Tam’s friends found us and ushered us into a VIP section behind Yekini. The place was packed, with brighter lights than the night before and a TV crew. The wrestlers were bigger than the night before and had travelled from further away, but the small wrestler Tam had pointed out before was there again. Apparently he had come the night before just to dance and warm up, but would compete tonight.

There was a new drum group, who were amazingly tight, and people from the audience were going up and giving them money and dancing a bit before sitting down again. In Senegal, usually one person dances at a time while others watch. I’m not a great dancer to put it kindly, and I find it daunting to dance in front of a crowd. But my friends Toby and Joey can really get their groove on, and Toby went up to the drum leader and gave him a handful of coins (it’s important to do it ostentatiously) and showed the crowd some wild moves perhaps never before seen in Senegal, or maybe anywhere else.

Tam got on the mic in front of the TV cameras and gave a passionate speech. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but he thanked Yekini, the patron of the tournament, and really had the crowd captivated.

The warmup period was long and the wrestling did not start until very late. As with the night before, several matches took place simultaneously in the center. You’d be watching one match, and hear the crowd “ohh”ing and realize it was about the other match. At one point the power went out, and the whole crowd sighed in disappointment. Some people shined their flashlights into the ring, but the wrestlers waited for the power to come back on. Eventually it did, but then it went out again.

We were feeling tired so we decided to call it a night. Tam was working on the electricity situation, and we said goodbye as we exited. The power was out in the rest of town and we walked to Demba’s through the dark. Few days later I saw Tam. He told me that the wrestler he pointed out the first night, the small guy, won.

My friend Tamsir and I.

The women's garden I'm working with. A few months back, this whole area was brown.

Fatou Awa and some other women transplanting lettuce.

Baay Tam, the husband of the women's group president, weeding some turnips.

Some veggies at the luma in Ker Socce.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A day in the life of a PCV

My life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal continues to bring new experiences every day. A lot of volunteers find it hard to keep up a blog, I think partly because there’s so much to write about that it’s hard to know where to start. So, I’ll try describing just one day in my life here.

I wake up to the sound of my cell phone alarm buzzing and saying in an electronic voice “it’s time to get up, the time is seven o’clock.” I roll out of bed and go to use my douche, an open-air latrine in my backyard. The douche was just finished – until recently I was using my family’s latrine, a 2 meter pit in the ground with some large branches and soil covering it, with a small opening in the center that you squat over. My new douche is similar, only the walls of the pit are lined with cinderblocks and it has a cover made from rebar-reinforced concrete. It was built by the mason in the neighboring village over the course of the past month or so – my travels for a softball tournament in Dakar, plus the mason’s getting sick and some other factors protracted the construction. Anyway, this is all to say that now I can roll out of bed and piss in privacy and peace.

After making a cup of powdered milk on my gas stove, I venture out of my hut to greet my family, a daily routine. I greet my father in his hut first, who is usually just finishing prayer as I walk in.

“Assalamalekum, nanga def?” I say, peace be upon you, how are you?

“Mangi fi. Ana waa ker gi? Nanga fanaane? Nelaw nga bu bax?” I am here only. How is the family? How did you spend the night? Did you sleep well? He rattles off, not really waiting for my catch-all response of “jamm rekk”, peace only, to all his inquiries. Greetings are a sort of formulaic ritual in Senegal, and it’s not rude if you don’t really listen to what the other person is saying. Most family members and neighbors come to greet my father in the morning, as he’s the “borom dek,” chief of the village (literally translated it means “owner of the village”).

I also greet my mother Diara in her hut, my brother Xalifa, who is standing in our courtyard doing recitations with a rosary, and his wife, Nday, who just this week gave birth to a baby girl. When she went into labor, my father’s brother Tam hitched his cart to his horse and rode 5k to the health post with Nday, my mother, and Tam’s wife. I was worried about Nday because she’s a very small person, but she and the baby seem to be doing fine. They returned home the day afterwards, and Nday’s been resting in my mother’s hut since. The baby will receive a name at the baptism on Monday, but in the meantime they are calling her “Khumba” the generic name used for as yet unnamed baby girls in Wolof culture.

For breakfast we eat cere ak bum, millet cous cous with a sauce made from moringa tree leaf and dried fish. Dried fish is not my favorite, but I’ve gotten used to it and its presence in the sauce now doesn’t stop me from eating a hefty portion of cere ak bum in the mornings. Like all meals, breakfast is served in a big communal bowl in my father’s hut. Depending on how many family members/neighbors happen to be around, five to ten of us sit around the bowl on wooden stools and eat.

After breakfast I ride my bike to the master farm in neighboring Fass Toucaleur, about 1k away, where I find the master farmer Abdul Salam, his son’s friend Goorgi (he’s a Pulaar, but in Wolof his name his name means “The Man,” which I think suits him) and Segan, a Sereer Catholic from Fass who helps out at the farm. They are pulling water from the well and watering the garden, which now has over 30 garden beds and presents a formidable task to water each morning and evening. After watering, I take a look at a eucalyptus seed bed that we planted last week and is now germinating, and plant some Acacia mellifera seeds in a bed to test their germination rate. Mellifera is a good live fencing shrub because it’s thorny and doesn’t require much pruning, but it’s hard to find seeds. I collected the seeds last month with a friend in a field owned by the regional prison in Koutal, a town between my village and Kaolack. The mellifera is planted around a field just outside the prison walls. I’m not sure, but maybe the original idea was to create a live fence for an outdoor exercise area for prisoners, but the fence isn’t in good shape now and the field isn’t used for anything. I didn’t see much of the prison but we did have to go inside the gate to ask the gendarme for permission to collect seeds. The buildings where the prisoners live are windowless with tin roofs and must be extremely hot. I imagine prison life is very tough.

After planting the mellifera seeds at the master farm I head back to my village and pack my bag to head to Kaolack. I am going for a farewell gathering/ birthday of a fellow PCV, and to buy some supplies for the new women’s garden in my village, which I have been pretty busy with lately. The women’s group has existed for some years, and they manage a successful cooperative vegetable market in the village. However their vegetable supply comes from the wholesale market in Kaolack, and so they were motivated to begin a garden of their own. Last month I helped them get a Peace Corps grant for a chain link fence, cistern, seeds, and tools to get the garden started. According to the stipulations of the grant, the group also had to make a cash contribution to the project, and over 90 women paid 700 FCFA each (about a dollar fifty) into the pot in order to have membership in the garden. Over the past few weeks I have been travelling back and forth between Sama Ndiayen and Kaolack transporting supplies, and getting posts for the fence cut by a blacksmith in my road town, Ker Socce. We installed the fence last week, with women’s group members and men from the village coming out in the mornings and afternoons (when the sun isn’t so hot) to help. My counterpart and friend Papa played the director’s role, organizing people to mix and pour cement for the posts and tie the tension wire. He has been a great help in this project (he also traveled with me to Kaolack to bargain for supplies, which as a white guy I have a hard time doing) and I’m very thankful to have him as a counterpart.

We also just finished installing the cistern for the garden. Originally I had planned to ask the mason who built my douche, but the master farmer Abdul Salam convinced me to get his brother in law the welldigger of Ker Socce, Babakar Njay, to do the job. Babakar Njay turned out to be quite a character. He is probably the most well-armed Senegalese person I’ve met; upon our first meeting he pulled out a 12 inch bowie knife from his pants (sheathed, thankfully) and sharpened it while we talked business – I’m not sure if this was a ploy to help him bargain, but in the end I think we settled on a fair price. He also informed me that he has a pistol with a silencer (I have no idea if this is true), and shotgun. In any case he did a good job on the cistern, which he built out of cement and laterite rocks, poured into the type of mold used for well linings, with a rebar frame inside the cement. The cistern is sunk about 50 cm into the ground, and is fed by a flexible PVC pipe that is hooked up to an elevated reception tank, which he also built, next to the well about 50 m away. The idea is that women can pull water at the well and dump it into the reception tank, whence it travels to the cistern, where other women can fill watering cans and water the garden.

Anyway, part of my purpose in traveling to Kaolack is to find an additional 5 m of chain link fencing for the garden (we ran out just before completing the 180 m of fence) and to find a metal screen for the reception tank, so that rocks and other debris don’t clog the pipe. I hitch a ride on a horse cart leaving my village for Ker Socce (about a twenty minute ride on a dirt road), whence I catch a communal taxi heading into the city. In Kaolack, I get off at the garage, or bus stop that services destinations to the south of Kaolack. It is basically a big chaotic parking lot, filled with travelers, food vendors, workers loading and unloading trucks, buses, sept-places (station wagons) and cars idling and fuming exhaust from the Shell, Total and Oil Libya gas that powers their engines. I make my way through the garage, past a number of begging talibes (young kids who are sent to Quranic schools in the cities, and beg to survive) and scooter-drivers trying to get me to buy a ride. I walk west, into an industrial neighborhood between downtown and the garage where there are a plethora of hardware and construction supply stores. I am easily able to find the screen for the reception tank, but can’t find anyone who will sell me chain link fencing by the meter for a decent price. Most shop owners politely tell me that they only sell fencing by the meter, but are interested in why I'm buying the "grillage" and I explain the women's group project to them. I come upon one shop owner getting ready to eat lunch who says he'll sell by the meter for 4,000 FCFA. I tell him that this is an outrageous price and start to walk away, but he calls out for me to join him for lunch anyway. Something I really appreciate about Senegalese culture is the generosity with food - no matter if you are a complete stranger, and no matter if they have just offered you an outrageous price for grillage because you are a "toubab" (white person), an eating person will ask you to join them to eat.

I respectfully decline his invitation and give up the grillage search to find lunch on my own (thankfully, I later find out that my neighbor Jenny will have some leftover fencing from a project she is doing at her village’s school that she can give me). I decide to try a new (to me) hamburger restaurant for lunch, run by a very friendly husband and wife near Kaolack’s St. Theophile cathedral, which turns out to be a good find. In Senegal, hamburgers are typically served with a fried egg and french fries inside the buns. After lunch I catch a route taxi to the Peace Corps regional house on the north side of town. Although there is a bus system, the more common form of public transportation in Kaolack is the communal route taxi, with a fixed route around the city and a fixed price of 150 FCFA per passenger between any two destinations on the route.

The regional house is a place to work on reports and grant writing and use the internet (as I’m doing right now) as well as socialize. I find the house pretty crowded when I arrive as many PCVs made the trek in for the gathering. I deposit my belongings and claim a bunk bed, then pick up the house guitar to strum a bit (I don’t have a guitar at site, and I enjoy playing when I come in to the house) only to find that the E string is broken. This necessitates a trip back to the southside, into the Kaolack market to find a new string. The Kaolack market is the size of a city block. It is a maze of narrow alleys, and it is filled with people and small shops of all kinds. You can find almost anything you could possibly want there- although it may take some searching. After asking around a bit, I soon learn that “cord de guitar” is the term for what I need, and I proceed to walk around asking where I might find one of these for almost an hour, when I finally come upon a shop that sells it. This store seems to carry all string- and rope-like products in existence. They have sewing thread and rope for pulling water, and everything in between. I buy four meters of nylon guitar string for 25 FCFA per meter (about five cents), and return home to restring the guitar.

Back at the house I play some guitar with my friend Toby on the ukulele and catch up with another friend, Joey, who I have not seen for some time. People hang out and watch the sunset over the city from our roof. For dinner, we go to a chicken “dibiterie,” or fast food restaurant that is widely known in Kaolack, not just for the extraordinary quality of their fried chicken, but also for the extraordinary size of the woman who sits in the corner of the room over a charcoal stove frying it. We take a route taxi, and as we are getting out my friend Toby, as is his friendly wont, strikes up a conversation with a guy on the street who speaks some English. When he tells him where we are headed he says, “oh, the place, with that enormous, gigantic woman?”

After getting our fill of good but greasy food and conversation with good friends, we walk home. I like walking around Kaolack in the evening, especially through the more quiet residential areas. People sit out front and chat, and kids play in the street. We pass by an arcade run out of someone’s house, where teenage boys sit around playing soccer videogames on TVs. I buy some fresh milk at a store we pass, a luxury I don’t get in my village.

Back at the house, I join a group of people heading to the Alliance Franco-Senegalaise, the cultural center run by the French government, to hear a concert and celebrate my friend Cora’s birthday. The band is from the southern Casamance region of Senegal, and plays a mix of traditional and western instruments, including a kora, another guitar-like instrument also made from a calabash, djembe, high-hat and cymbals, electric bass, and vocals. They are excellent, and seem to really enjoy doing their thing, and dance even harder than anyone in the crowd while they play. The crowd is a mix of wealthy Senegalese and Europeans (there was a pretty steep cover charge). The concert ends after midnight, but we have no trouble finding a route taxi home. The people of Kaolack stay up late; many shops are still open as we head back north on the Route Nacional that leads to the regional house.

This is a snapshot from my life here. Every day is unique, bringing new experiences. But I am also missing out on much that is happening in the rest of the world. I am aware of the crises in Libya and Japan, but have not been following them closely because I have sporadic access to the news. I feel a bit silly writing about my daily routine in times like these, but I wanted to record some of my experiences, both for my own sake and for whoever reads this. Anyway, I will try to add some photos on my next trip to Kaolack.

Women's group members digging the trench for pipe between the reception tank and the cistern.
Babakar Njay, the welldigger of Ker Socce, standing inside the cistern, under construction. He always had a hand-rolled cigarette glued to his lip.

My counterpart Papa ties tension wire to a post at the women's garden.

The women's garden site. Hopefully this area will be green with vegetables within a few weeks.