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.


  1. Hi Jessie
    Sounds lovely to meet everyone in the village in one morning. What does it mean when someone's morning or work is "walking"? I imagine slow and easy, but...
    Anyway, happy birthday eve. As typical for me, your card will be late! :-) Do you have special plans for tomorrow?
    Happy birthday Senegal!
    Aunt Mary & Uncle Frank

  2. Hey Jessie!
    Andrew here. LA Andrew. I don't think my identity needs to be denoted further, so I'll go on... Senegal! Freakin awesome. I understand exactly what you mean about not feeling very far from home. There is something oddly comforting about those sorts of excessive conversational formalities... India has them too, particularly in the Muslim communities, so I guess what you're seeing is not too dissimilar from what I saw.

    Oh, and India was freakin insane by the way, but way way too short and not hands-on enough. I'm really excited to see how this experience works out for you, because if you give it a good word then I might consider doing it myself!

    Have you heard any good music yet?!?!

    And also, just out of curiosity, what's Ndiago like? What kinda livestock/crops/whatever else do they have going on? Are there any prominent figures in the community ("big men", ethnomedical specialists, etc.) that you'll need to cooperate with in order to get the work done? I guess I'm just interested in the community dynamics even though that's a bit of a vague inquiry. I think you more or less get what I mean.

    Anyway, happy birthday and I hope you're having a freakin awesome time, which you no doubt are!


  3. I have three questions:

    1) Can we still send you mail to the address in Thies after you've moved to Ndiago, or is there a new address?

    2) Do kola nuts get you all hopped up?

    3) Do they taste like Coca-Cola?

  4. Jessie!!! I'm so happy to hear that you are happy!!!
    I remember seeing carts like the one you described in Cape Town, but I never got to ride one!
    That greeting thing blows my mind. Do you know why they say "only" when saying where they are?
    I think what you were saying about people and place being intimately tied together makes complete sense. It seems like a much richer experience than what we have here in the States, where people sort of confine themselves to the insides of their McMansions (not everyone, of course, but a lot of people).

  5. I like how the only choices are either an exhausted horse or an irate donkey.

    BTW, while I may be commenting on this post more than 2 months later, I'm not THAT behind. It's just that I forget where I left off so I backtrack.