Monday, April 27, 2009

Training is over...!

Alxamdulilaah. At least, it's over for now. In three months I'll be headed back to Thies for three weeks of In-Service Training, during which I may even learn a thing or two about being a health volunteer. Inshallah.

Why am I thanking God that training is over? Why am I tossing around little phrases that aren't in English? All that and more.... Maybe.

About two months ago, with three or four days in Senegal behind us, my stage-mates and I were dropped unceremoniously into a handful of villages in the Thies region. Mine was Thieneba-Gare. The idea behind Peace Corps/Senegal training is that stagiares spend most of their days in communities, speaking the local language they've been assigned to learn, being completely immersed in Senegalese culture. Every now and then we have to return to the Training Center at Thies for a medical session (read: a million shots and conversations and diarhhea and STDs and rape and other pleasant, light-hearted topics) or a security session (a million conversations about getting robbed and travelling in Senegal and, well, rape again). You'd think we'd all be dying to spend more time in Thies, with our whole stage united, within walking distance of several bars and pizzerias. But going back to the training center was always hard. I came to feel so comfortable in my host-family that the interruption and inevitable craziness of being in Thies was a little bit of a downer.

I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult to write here in Senegal; I didn’t realize how numbed I had become to the process of sharing my life until a couple of friends asked me questions that were basically about my every-day life. So many very small things are different in very big ways that it’s hard to even know how to start, but I want to take a shot at describing a typical day in Thieneba. This is partially for you guys, but partially also for me. I will be installed in my new village on Wednesday, and I want to spend the next couple days thinking about what it was like to be part of a family in Senegal, what went well and what didn't, etc. Plus, I miss my family in Thieneba, and so I'm going to impose several stories about them on you.

First, though, a vocab lesson.
Toubab: white person. Derisive, depending on the context. We all hear this a million times a day, and once I get back to the states, Inshallah (weird how reflexive that becomes), I will probably be calling you a toubab.
Stage: pronounced like you're French. The group of people with whom I left the States and came to Senegal. My stage is half health, half environmental education, and all quality.
Stagiares/trainees: actually, I'm not going to explain this one to you.

Life in Thieneba-Gare

You’re all familiar with Eeyore, right? The cranky mopey donkey in the Winnie the Pooh books? If you’ve never spent time with a real donkey, you may be aware that they’re capable of making the most miserable noises. Think of the emotions evoked by the ripping noise made as the fabric of your pants split while you’re walking down the street, or the desperate hesitation of a car engine that just won’t start when you’re alone in a strange city in the middle of the night. It really is that bad. In the last few weeks, I've come to think that donkeys are pretty damn adorable. But they just sound so miserable all the time.

Anyway, when the donkeys start braying at around 6 AM, that’s how I wake up. As depressing as they sound, they don’t manage to get me down. After all, they’re just saying good morning. There are other sounds, too: the call to prayer over the loudspeaker; the squawk of chickens; the shuffling and mumbling of my family as they pray and begin their morning routine.

I sleep pretty well in Thieneba (pronounced Chen-uh-buh, by the way) and usually I’m pretty ready to get out of bed at this point. But part of learning how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer is figuring out how to make time for yourself. I’m spending my whole day in class or with my family, speaking a new language while immersed in a new culture. We all need a chunk of the day to spend by ourselves, and I like mine in the morning. I read a book or study while lounging in bed, partially because my bed is a nice, comfy place to be and partially because there’s not really any other furniture in the room.

Once I’m ready to get up and go out, it’s time to greet my family. My mom and dad had a handful of kids, but only two are living in the house now -- Pape, my 16 year-old brother, and Ndeye, my 12 year-old sister. Also along for the ride is Mben, 13, who is the daughter of my father's brother. In Senegalese culture, that makes her my father's daughter too. Sort of. My family is a little unusual by Senegalese standards. My dad, though a Muslim, is all about monogomy. And he has fewer children and extended family members living in the house than most. I heard stories from my fellow stagiares about their training villages, where some lived in compounds of 50 or 60 people. My little house in Thieneba, comparitively, is about as American as it gets here.

Breakfast time. Most Senegalese I've seen tend to eat the same thing for breakfast every day: a loaf of bread, sometimes with beans or butter or chocolate spread on it, and a cup of coffee, called cafe touba, which is really more about the sugar content than the coffee. Alas. But I've come to like the routine. On my first morning, I happened to be sitting in the public area of the house when my breakfast was ready for me. Carrying my bread and coffee, my mom shooed me from the living room into my bedroom, where she placed my food and a chair for my temporary use. (In the first few days, I was basically followed around by a small child carrying a chair. No sitting on the floor for the toubab! She might melt.) In the next few days, sometimes I docilely waited for me breakfast in the room. Other times, I tried rebelling – I would plant myself in a chair somewhere outside and open my notebook to study. But my mom’s will never broke.

Lunch and dinner are different. The Senegalese eat these two meals seated on the floor around a big communal bowl. The women and children eat most dishes with their hands, but men and toubabs get spoons. Sometimes, if there were a lot of people visiting, my dad and I would share a bowl and the rest of the family would eat out of a smaller bowl, in another room. It’s funny – in Senegal, I’m a toubab first and a woman second. Frankly, I could go on for a good long time about eating in Senegal – what we eat, how we eat, even when we eat. I’ll save that for another time. But again, it’s another aspect of Senegalese life that being the community together.

Our days were far from idle. In the mornings, three of my fellow stagiares would emerge from their own homes and walk to mine for Wolof classes and culture sessions with our teacher, who lived in the same family as me. Immersion courses are bloody, guys, and that’s all that needs to be said about that. Except that every language is easier than Ancient Greek. Some afternoons, we stayed in the house for another language class. Sometimes, one of the other students and I would go out in the community to mingle and practice our Wolof while the other two girls stayed for tutoring sessions. Most days, in the two or three hours before sunset, we would walk to the primary school to work on our practice garden. We’re told that every volunteer in Senegal, a land of malnutrition and deforestation, is incidentally an agriculture volunteer, and so each of us will be responsible for planting a million trees and maintaining a demonstration garden in our villages. I’m a little nervous, because our garden in Thieneba was a miserable failure. Planting stuff in sand is hard, and hard to justify sometimes. But I guess you shovel enough manure around and everything turns out all right.

The best part of the day came next. Bucket bath time! Seriously, America. I know you have plenty of toilet paper, different types of soap for different parts of your bodies, conditioner, and running water. I remember all of these things pretty well. But the fact is that you don’t know what you’re missing. Few joys in this world parallel getting super sweaty in the 115 degree heat, then washing it all of with a bucket of coolish water and a bar of soap. I’m anticipating trouble with my hair, which occasionally wants to be brushed. But we’ll see. What would you think if I shaved my head? I don’t think it’s likely, I’m just curious.

After bucket bathing, I would hang out with the kids for most of the evening. Ndeye, my sister, is amazing. One evening, we were messing around on the chalkboard we used for Wolof lessons. Ndeye was showing off a little bit, demonstrating her arithmetic abilities and testing out mine. I don’t know what prompted me to do this, but I drew the multiplication table up and we started going over the patterns and trying to talk about how addition and multiplication are related. It was pretty difficult, because at the time I had been studying Wolof for all of ten minutes or something. Still, she loved it. She just lit up. Ndeye is the quieter of the two girls; Mben is a crazy mess. She’s fun, loud, loves dancing, and if the house weren’t made of brick and almost completely empty she would burn it down whenever she made dinner. Oh no, I have to tell you about cooking in Senegal too. Oh yikes. OK. Later.

Anyway, after a few hours of quality time with my family, I usually went to bed pretty early. Sleeping is great, guys. I am a big, big fan.

I'm still amazed by the generosity and openness of my family. These five people went out of their way to make me feel comfortable in the strangest moments of my life so far, they let me become a part of their family, and they gave without asking.

I'm going to wrap it up. There's much more to say, but I wanted to give you a quick glimpse into what life has looked like for me during the past few weeks. I again feel as if my words are sloppy and haphazard, that I have been struggling and will continue to struggle to find a way to share my life here with you. But ndank, ndank, as the Senegalese say. Slowly, slowly.

Love and guts.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New address!

PCV Jessie Seiler
B.P. 33
Guinguineo, Senegal, West Africa

For those of you paying close attention, don't be confused: I'll be living the village of Ndiago and picking up my mail every now and then in Guinguineo, my road town. I'll explain all that stuff about road towns later, and why it is that I'll only be going there once a week or so.

BUT AT THIS VERY MOMENT I'm sitting in the Kaolack regional house. Tomorrow is a big shopping day, followed by two days of greeting regional authorities and seeing my friends installed in their villages. I have some free time today, so expect long emails, long blog posts, etc. Or maybe I'll just take a long nap, because it's 110 degrees outsides and the hot season isn't even here yet....


Love and guts. Oh, and I have a good guts story for later....

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Training finally ends next week! We swear in as volunteers, hang out in Dakar for a day, and then head out.

The last two months have been insanely busy. I committed to doing a lot of writing while I'm here; I have every intention of following through with those commitments. In about three weeks, expect a million new content.

I've got some stuff about the link between the Wolof language and Senegalese culture, daily life as a Peace Corps Trainee, blah blah blah. So much to share! So please hang in there. If you're still reading this blog after my two months of being bad at life, thank you. Hang in there just a little longer.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

A letter home

Greetings from Kaolack PC Regional House! I'm here briefly after a few days in my new home of Ndiago -- did anyone manage to find it on the map yet? We have Internet access here, and a flushy toilet, and a refridgerator, and all sorts of exciting things. The house is kind of a cross between a youth hostel and a vacation home for PCVs in the region.

Anyway, I'm going to start today's offering by transcribing a portion of a letter I wrote a couple of days ago from Ndiago. Gil, this letter was originally for you. I'll probably send it anyway, in part because it has an important and educational drawing. I hope you can forgive me for putting it online first. Here we go:

Dear Gil,
The other day, I found myself in a car that reminded me of you. It was a Peugeot 504 station wagon packed with 10 adults, a couple of kids in laps, and a ton of luggage. Every indicator on the dashboard was broken so I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I suspect that the thing couldn't go faster than about 35 M.P.H. The road (between a big city and a medium-sized road town -- Kaolack and Guinguineo) was so marred by treacherous potholes that we covered most of the distance on the packed-down shoulders just beyond the asphault.
But the fun really started in Guinguineo. Between that town and my new home, a village of 271 called Ndiago, I take a charette.
This is where my amazing drawing skills come into play. Basically, what you should be imagining is a donkey or a horse hitched to a big wooden platform supported by one axle and two wheels, balancing rather precariously on hope alone. There is nothing to hold on to, unless you count the goats or your fellow passengers and their belongings.

Anyway, I'm going to stop with the letter now. But you should know that when you guys all come visit me, you're going to be spending 45 minutes on a charette behind an exhausted horse or an irate donkey.

As for Ndiago itself, I'll save those stories for later. Except for one.

Greeting is very important in Senegalese culture. The first language bits we learn as trainees are all for greeting, and we use them constantly. A typical conversation would start like this (and maybe go no further):

"May peace be with you."
"And also with you."
"What are you doing?"
"I am here only."
"How is your morning."
"It is walking. Peace only, thanks to God."
"Where is your father?"
"He is here only."
"Thank God. Where is your mother?"
"She is here only."
"Thank God. How is your work?"
"It is walking slowly."

Seriously. This could go on for a few minutes, depending on how formal you get. Whole conversations could be just an exchange of greetings.

It came as no surprise, then, when my ancienne (the volunteer I'm replacing) announced that we would be spending my very first morning in Ndiago going around to every family compound and greeting them all, one by one. We had met with the village chief the evening before, and I gave him a gift of kola nuts. He went around that night and gave a kola nut to every family in the village, so everyone knew we would be coming in the morning.

Most of the time in Senegal, I don't feel very far from home. I am comfortable and happy here and just not a bit homesick. But you get a whole different perspective on what it means to have a home, to be at home, and to be a part of a community when in a single morning you can shake the hand of every man, woman, and child in your village, greet them all, ask them all their names. All of these people I will soon live among are steeped in an idea of home and community that is completely different from mine. People and place are tied together much more intimately here than in the States. I can more easily put myself in the position of a Senegalese and understand what it is like for her to be homesick than I can imagine myself being homesick.

Does that make sense?

I might write more later. I'll be in Kaolack with Internet access until tomorrow, then Thies, then Dakar for a day, then Thies, then Thieneba.... Then, I forget. OH! And today is Senegal's birthday, tomorrow is my birthday, and the day after that is Anna Sutheim's birthday! Hooray for everything.

Love and guts,

PS, for people who asked questions on the blog--

Doug, I would love to give you some insight on energy use once I know a little bit more. Let me know through email if you have any specific questions.

Aaron! My cousin Aaron, right? And not other Aaron!? I'm glad to hear from you.

Kate, I got your COMPLETELY AMAZING letter a bit ago, but no package yet. But I only get mail in Thies, and I haven't been there in days and days. So we'll see?

AND! From my dad:

You should all get skype and call me all the time.