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.

1 comment:

  1. I love donkeys. We used to have two of them growing up and they would wake me up around that time, too. They just wanted to say "hi, I'm hungry."