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.


  1. Peter, I am so enjoying your blog! So is your Babcia - I print it out in a large font for her and refer to it as a "letter" from you as she can't abide the word "blog."


  2. Hey Peter!

    I really enjoy reading your posts. They are very thoughtful with wonderful descriptions. We miss you here in Seattle! If I could send you a pint of IPA, you know I would! Talk to you soon I hope.


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