Monday, December 13, 2010

Four Paragraphs.

It seems like a Peace Corps cliché to say that death is everywhere in Senegal: the smell of it, the sound and even sight of it. If they cannot be eaten, the carcasses of donkeys, horses, cows, goats, and sheep are dragged out to the empty fields just beyond the village, to the same place where it’s considered polite to dump your trash. For days afterward, people passing on foot and horse cart hold scraps of fabric to their mouths and noses, breathing shallowly or not at all as they go by. The sound of death is also a little mundane. It’s the sound of my cat pouncing on whatever he finds scurrying around my hut at night. Besides, this is not a place like the United States, where we are far from our food. On the holidays and rare occasions when we have meat, it’s slaughtered right there in the compound.

In villages further south, the death of a member of the community member is announced by the wailing of women, which begins among the bereaved and travels from compound to compound. In my village, it’s announced over the same loudspeaker that is used to sing out the call to prayer. When we hear the system switch on at a time we know is not set aside for a pause for devotion, everyone stops what they’re doing to listen. All conversation stops. Children are shushed and shoved aside. The man making the announcement greets the village and lists the names of the deceased’s closest relatives before saying his or her name. Though he begins to repeat the message, his voice is drowned out by the beginnings of shocked or grieved commentary. Deaths here are not always surprises, but it seems like they’re always shocking.

As the car I was in pulled out of the garage in Kaolack the other day, we passed the usual street vendors and travelers common in that corner of the city. This is my least-favorite place to walk in Senegal, this short stretch at the mouth of the garage: too many people, too many cars, and not enough space for everything that’s happening. I had a window seat, which almost never happens, and though I’ve seen it all a hundred times I still sat staring out at the passing foot traffic moving quickly between a lane of cars and a row of street vendors. Perhaps I stuck out to the man on the opposite side of the road because my skin, like his, is not black. For whatever reason, I caught the eye of this Lebanese or Moroccan man as the car passed him by, headed in the opposite direction. I have three freeze-frame memories of what happened here. The first is his face as we made eye contact, expressing a little surprise, perhaps, to see a young white woman traveling in the normal Senegalese way. The second is just a moment later, when the car I was in had almost reached him and the larger car behind him began, inexorably, somehow not stopping, to crush his body beneath it as it passed, moving in the direction opposite my car. In this moment his legs are bending, but backwards and not at the knee. His hands are briefly thrown up before they come rushing back down. The third is the aftermath, the last scene, the final frame this man will ever appear in to anybody. I tried to get my car to stop, less out of a thought that the first-aid training I received at the beginning of my service could be of any possible use, more out of a feeling that the man should not be left behind, that by witnessing and being present at his death, we were responsible in some way for what immediately followed. Or rather, that I was. It was panic, desperate and simple, and the others in the car could not share it because they had seen nothing. “He’s dead, probably,” they told me, when I had said what I saw. The car drove on.

I have this feeling, every time I hear of a death in my village or a death back home in the States, that to die is to be left behind by everyone and everything else. Even grieving is a way of continuing, by sorting through the pain and horror of the death of a loved one until you come out the other side of it. Of course, it would be impossible to stand still with those we love who have died, unthinkable to halt our progress forward in time, horrific to allow ourselves to live only in the past with our ghosts. I know, I know. But I can’t shake this feeling that we do the dead an injustice by leaving them back there, driving away with people who did not see, to meet people who will not know, to confront a life that we perhaps think continues, always and always.

Monday, December 6, 2010


The library program we're starting up is getting to its feet! I'm working on a grant to rehabilitate the oldest classroom at the primary school and we're working on locating donors for books in French and English. For background and explanation of this project, please take a look at the previous blog post.

Anyway, one of the potential sources of books is this organization, International Book Project. They have worked with Peace Corps Volunteers in the past and I'm very excited to be making a connection with them. One of the best parts is that they'll be able to maintain a relationship with the primary school in Ndiago after the last Peace Corps volunteer here has gone home. From my contact with them so far, it seems like a really great group of people.

I'm writing about this project again (and probably not for the last time) because I would like to ask you to help me fund raise for books. When I first got to Ndiago and asked my family and friends to help me raise money for mosquito nets with Against Malaria, I was blown away by the response. The generosity I saw made me feel like I was a part of a team, being supported here by friends and family far away. This is a much smaller project, at least at this stage, but I still need your help.

Here is the form email that International Book Project sends out to people, helpfully edited to have the relevant information already inserted:

Greetings from the International Book Project! Jessie Seiler gave our organization your contact information as someone who might be willing to sponsor a shipment of English language books for her school library organization in Ndiago, Senegal.

The International Book Project is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit which collects new and used books and sends them to schools, libraries, and other nonprofit organizations in developing countries. You can learn more about our organization at our website The cost for shipping an m-bag (approximately 32 lbs) of books is $200.

You may donate by sending a check to:

International Book Project

1440 Delaware Avenue

Lexington, KY 40505.

You may also donate online via credit card by going to and clicking on the “Donate” banner at the top of the page. Please indicate in the memo of the check or the notes section of the online giving screen that the donation is for Jessie Seiler, Peace Corps Volunteer. All donations are tax deductible.

Thank you for your support. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

They say it about as well as I could. Thank you for your support. I look forward to hearing from you, and even seeing you, very soon.

Love and guts,


Friday, November 12, 2010

A Post About Work!

I never write about work. I suppose that writing is a kind of thoughtful vacation for me, and I spend too much time already stressing and obsessing about the details of the work I do in Ndiago to want to carry that over into the relaxing pensiveness of writing for this blog. But today is a little different.

This entry almost didn't happen. I was trying to get to the village this morning, but since Tabaski, a big old Muslim holiday, is just a couple of days away, about a bazillion people are traveling now and I missed my morning car to Guinguineo. I've been here too long to be frustrated by the workings and non-working of public transit, so I returned to the regional house and got back to work. I'll give it another shot in the afternoon.

Anyway, some variant of what I've written below might find its way into a grant request, so there's more background information here than you'll want if you read this blog a lot (weirdo) or if you talk to me regularly on the phone.

Here we go. The Ndiago Library Project.

Ndiago is a small village in the Kaolack region, 7 kilometers from Guinguineo. It is home to about 300 men, women, and children. Like most people living in rural areas in Kaolack, the villagers are primarily farmers living just above the subsistence level. Everyone farms, but some families have enough money to run small businesses as well. One woman sells soaps, another peddles lightly-used clothing and fabrics, and a couple of the wealthiest families have even established small boutiques, stores that sell very basic supplies such as powdered milk, cooking oil, eggs, and small sweet candies.

Another sign of the slight prosperity of Ndiago is the presence of the schools. The village is the Communite Rurale, the Senegalese version of the county seat, so we have the area's main schools. Together, these three small schools serve children roughly between the ages of 5 and eighteen. Kids attend from Ndiago and many of the surrounding vilages, including Sakhagne, where my neighbor PCV Andrew Oberstadt lives and works. Formal education is very highly valued in Ndiago and the surrounding area, and families will save and sacrifice to pay the enrollment fees and to purchase chalk, pencils, and notebooks for their young students. When a child receives a certificate of promotion to the next grade level, the mothers will proudly display the prized sheet of paper on the otherwise barren walls of their huts.

The experience of earning an education in Senegal is completely different from what my school life was like in the States. My parents never reluctantly pulled me out of class for a week because they needed my help bringing in the last of the peanut crop. I went to a series of good schools and was lucky to meet so many gifted and passionate teachers. Year after year, my teachers were thoughtful, excited about their work, and endlessly devoted to instilling a love of learning in me and my classmates. And when we graduated from college, some of the best and most intelligent people I know chose to become teachers. No surprise there, with the role models we had. We also never suffered from a crippling lack of school supplies. Back-to-school shopping was a yearly ritual, and maybe the only type of shopping I ever enjoyed. We had computers and educational software and endless supplies of pencils, binders, erasers, a million other things. Many of the administrator’s offices at my high school had bowls of M&Ms ready for casual visits by students.

And then, of course, we had books. We had school libraries and city libraries full of books on every subject imaginable, and since I grew up in Los Angeles, those books came in many different languages. I am a child of parents who love the written word, and so my love of reading came upon me early. I might be one of the only American 24 year-olds left who would prefer an hour with a book to an hour with the Internet.

When I got to Senegal, I quickly noticed that people here do not read for fun. Cramped into a ball on Senegalese public transit, barreling down horrific roads full of pot-holes and squished between smelly, coughing adults and screaming, puking infants, dodging the streams of goat urine trickling down from the roof of the decrepit vehicle (those goats up there must be terrified, they way they bleat and carry on), I pull out a book. In the 22 months I have lived here, I’ve never seen any Senegalese person even carrying a book around like that.

That’s one problem. But it’s not really what I’m concerned with. What makes me sad is that the students of Ndiago don’t have access to books. The only authority they have on any subject is their teachers. Sure, they can ask their parents questions, but their parents probably received even less of a basic education than they’re getting. There’s no Internet here, no textbooks that the kids have easy access to, no Encyclopedias, no dictionaries, nothing. Teachers write out a passage in French on the board, students copy it down and memorize it. No children in the village hear French spoken at home, very few adults understand it, and so it’s tough to imagine how the students could comprehend much of what they “learn.”

School opened back up recently, after the long rainy season break. The kids, even ones as young as 5 and 6, have been working in the fields with their parents and older siblings for months. Now, they return to the classrooms. They return to overcrowded rooms, to a lack of basic supplies, to teachers who are angry and frustrated and who sometimes go on strike because they haven’t been paid by the Senegalese government.

It’s tough to be very excited about these prospects, but this year, I am. The teachers at the primary school approached me with a plan. We are rehabilitating a large empty building on campus and turning it into a library, for the use of all the children in Ndiago and the surrounding communities. We are also going to incorporate time for reading and a basic literacy program into the curriculum. I can’t imagine a project that could be as rewarding to the community and as gratifying to myself, given the importance of education in Senegal and the deep love I have of reading.

Right now, we’re taking the preliminary steps. The village leadership has invited a mason to come evaluate the old classroom this weekend, so that we will know if we can fix up the space or if we should consider building a new one. I will soon be looking for some funding to build bookshelves and bring in seating and tables and perhaps electric lighting for the library building. And then, of course, we’re looking for books. Many organizations who specialize in sending lightly-used books to the developing world exist, so I’m not too worried. We’re looking primarily for books in French, since students don’t begin to learn English until a very late time in their schooling when many have already stopped attending. I’m talking with all the teachers about how they can incorporate more literacy and reading comprehension in their students’ days. All in all, there’s a lot of work to be done, and everyone involved is excited to get to it.

I’m also excited because this is a project that I can invite my friends and family back home to help me with. I might be doing some fundraising myself for the project instead of writing a grant, and of course at some point I might ask for donations of books. In another way, I’ve already received a lot of help from home. My parents and every teacher who ever put a book in my hands are all a little responsible for the fact that I’m undertaking this project so happily. Thank you to all of you.

Anyway, time for lunch and a second shot at getting out of here, back to Ndiago. Happy Thanksgiving.

Love and guts,


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Writing about falling asleep instead of falling asleep

The sudden and strong wind that usually brings rain starts before dawn this morning, and since I live in fear of my hut collapsing with every breeze, I wake up. With no real anxiety, I sleepily make a mental list of what to collect from the ruin, the rocks and mud: my wallet and cell phone, my Senegalese work permit, my two passports (Peace Corps kids are just that cool), a sweater. I curl my feet up away from the part of my bed that inevitably gets soaked in every downpour and poke my cat until he wakes up, not for any reason, just because he shouldn't get to be comfy if I'm not. My arm brushes against my mosquito net, which keeps out the bugs, the bad dreams, and the zombies. The cat does not agree with my assessment that he should be awake just now and falls back to sleep, after attempting to stretch out on my face.

Really, it is not as physically miserable as it sounds. If Senegal has given me anything, it's a comfort in waiting, something more than patience or acceptance; an ability to be suspended with good humor over unpredictable prospects, or even predictable disappointments.

The wind subsides and no rain comes, so I stay dry -- but awake. By this time, my cat Pierre is fully awake and demanding breakfast. Dawn is getting around to breaking through the remaining wisps of clouds from whatever storm has passed us by, and my host mom is up and about, pulling water and clucking back at the chickens. I give in, get up, and make slow oatmeal on my tiny gas stove. Slow oatmeal is just like normal oatmeal, but for one thing: you let it sit there after it's cooked and cool off, because the day is already too hot for a steaming breakfast. By seven o'clock, the two year old girl in our compound is banging on my door, demanding that I pick her up. I'm more than happy to oblige, and the days begins.

I greet my family and pull a couple buckets of water for bathing and drinking. After some other light chores and a mug of tea, I head out on today's errand: bothering people. As a health volunteer, bugging people about stuff is my most common activity. Wash your hands, eat your veggies, take your kid to the village health post at the first sign of high fever, etc. My bosses call it "education" or, even better, "sensitization." Today's subject is mosquito nets. I was curious how many people still had them from last year's distribution, how many people were sleeping under them every night, and what other measures people were taking to prevent malaria.

I ramble around the village until the early afternoon, going from compound to compound and asking people about their nets. The survey goes well, though more people have managed to lose, tear, or give away their nets than I would have imagined. But that's life. I dispense advice about neem lotion and malaria prevention, gossip a bit, and head home.

By the time I get back to my compound, it's time for lunch. My family and I sit down to a big, bland bowl together. The dish is called "mbaxal," and it's really just rice cooked with a handful of crushed peanuts, some spices, and a hint of dried fish. I feel hungrier with a stomach full of mbaxal than I do before I sit down to eat it, and I know it's worse for my family. My youngest host brother is six, and even he goes out to the fields every morning. Today, like most days, I have nothing to complain about.

After lunch, the afternoon routine: sitting. During some of the seasons, no matter how hot it is or how crappy lunch was, people have to go back to the fields. Today, though, everyone stays in. We all sit outside in the shade of a neem tree, roasting some of the early corn to snack on and trying not to move more than necessary. Our neighbors come to visit. Teenagers with fake-fancy cell phones play music and show off their ring-tones while the adults doze and gossip and the youngest kids are sent to bring them glasses of water from inside. The sun glares, since the early morning clouds are completely gone, but going inside means relinquishing the slight breeze. It's just too hot for that. So much for a cool, comfortable rainy season.

I settle down with a book until late afternoon, when I go see my counterpart to discuss the mosquito net information and some plans for next week. As the sun sets and the temperature and humidity finally drop, I take a bucket bath. The day is not far from an ending. We eat dinner and sit in the moonlight, in the silence, speaking softly: the electricity is out again, and for the thousandth time since I've come here I think how strange and beautiful it is that the stars actually twinkle.

As I lay on my back, drifting on a plastic mat on the sand, watching the moon and the stars and their shapes in the sky, thinking inevitably about geometry, Fama plops down next to me. Fama is almost five, and she is pretty sure that Allah put me on Earth to give her candy and piggie-back rides. As she wriggles beside me, still dancing while falling asleep, I can't think of anything wrong with her way of seeing things.

"Aissa," she says. "Aissa," she insists, calling my name and speaking half from her dreams. "When I'm sleeping, scratch my tummy a little bit. Scratch it a little bit right here, and then when I wake up and ask, say it's Pierre, say it's your cat. OK? Say Pierre is rubbing my tummy. Aissa, Aissa, today Pierre went up into the tree, he ate a bird." She mumbles something a little more about the cat and the tree, curls up and grabs at my hand, finally is still and deeply asleep.

The wind is coming up again. I'm thinking that it'll rain tonight, and I'll pull my feet up again and hope they don't get wet. I'm lying on my back, swatting at a few mosquitoes, listening to muted voices in the darkness, not thinking of anything in particular, watching triangles of stars and a passing satellite. Pierre deposits himself on my stomach comfortably. Fama is sleeping beside me and any minute now I'll carry her to her grandmother's bed. It's cooling off enough to sleep. I never used to fall asleep easily in the States, but here it just comes naturally.

Today was good. I've never been happier in my life, and I'm thinking maybe tomorrow will be a good day too.

Love and guts, and please excuse the typos. It's past my bed-time.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grocery shopping.

A trip to the grocery store is a pretty simple matter, especially for someone who's as passive about food as I am. Growing up, the food selection was pretty much the domain of my parents. In college, the massive monthly shopping trip was a pilgrimage to Costco, where we bought orange juice concentrate and frozen pot-stickers (gross) in bulk, ate six of every free sample we could find, and eyed the children's bed shaped like a pirate ship with concern (and, for some of us, cupidity). Of course, we had to be careful to time our trips so that we all had money in the bank. When we weren't so flush, we hit up the deluxe dumpsters at Trader Joe's and the Odwalla Juice distribution center. Even on the few occasions when we were caught, we still managed to stock the refrigerator.

Here where there aren't a whole lot of refrigerators in my life, the affair is more complicated. What I thought of as fridge staples in the States, even things like milk and butter, are unusual luxuries here. When they do appear, they're different. Butter is margarine, needing no refrigeration, and milk is either powdered or comes fresh and unpasteurized in little plastic jars from the Pulaars who live out in the hinterlands around my village. But these items are for purchase and consumption only on special occasions.

The staples here are rice and millet. Like most families in this area, we farm our own millet and purchase large, 50k sacks of rice from the road town. Both grains are store by my host father and carefully measured out to whichever woman is cooking that day. Tiny MSG packed bullion cubes, available here and in every village in Senegal, appear prominently in all of our meals. On good days, the rice bowl will have a sprinkling of beans, locally grown, or dried fish, the cheapest and most foul way of ingesting protein known to man. And on really good days, the market days, we get vegetables.

If nothing else comes of my service, I used a portion of my Peace Corps living allowance (Thanks, American taxpayers!) to buy vegetables once a week for a family that otherwise would be unlikely to have them. That's two lunches of rice topped with vegetables, with is kind of a big deal. All volunteers are required to make some sort of monetary contribution to their families, since we sit around awkwardly and drink the water and eat the food and so on. Mine involves these vegetables, which I purchase at the big weekly market in Guinguineo, the road town. These carrots, onions, eggplants, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and random root vegetables with no counterpart in the States are shockingly cheap but prohibitively expensive. The price for a kilo of onions is up to about $1, and you should hear people complain about it. How much would you pay for a kilo of onions in the States? And potatoes, which run about $1.50 a kilo, are too expensive even for my budget.

Anyway, I love louma days in Guinguineo. I'm unequivocally good at it, which is a pleasant change of pace. I know how much I should be paying for stuff, and I have established relationships with vendors that look, on the surface, not entirely unlike friendship. It's a day full of Wolof banter, one of my favorite activities. It's the day I pick up any packages, letters, or post cards that have come for me, and the day I get to eat a bean and pasta and mayo sandwich with a mug of hot coffee, the greatest way of consuming 500 calories known to man. And when I get home at noon, I get to take a bucket bath and a nap. Lunch and dinner are going to be delicious, filling meals. Instead of the normal millet dish, we eat a big bowl and spicy macaroni with bread on louma days. "Wednesday nights are always good," said my host mother to me recently. "We eat until we're full!" Yeah, that's right. One meal in the week, we eat until we're full. No wonder it always feels like a holiday.

Last Wednesday, though, was a little tricky. It had rained the night before, one of the long, windy storms that make it seem like there's no roof over my head. I've found the square foot of my hut that almost never gets leaked on, though, so I slept all right. Usually after a storm that big, you don't expect another one the next morning. I went off the the louma, an hour's charette ride away, totally unprepared for what happened next.

I had done a fair bit of my socializing and veggie-buying when the rain started. My neighbor and I stood giggling as I finished weighing out my carrots, watching as the people around us scampered for cover. We finally hefted our own buckets and joined a group of people standing below a small terrace. It turned out to be a brief shower and once it let up, everyone returned to their business. But it wasn't quite over.

I waded through rain and waste water up to my ankles while finishing up my market business, trying to forget that the contents of the water came not only from the sky, but also from the dirty streets, the fish market, and the flooded sewers of Guinguineo. By the time I was ready to head home, the sky had roared open again. There was no point in trying to make my way to where the charettes for my village normally stand, since even the most homocidal of horse cart owners would be staying indoors for the duration of the storm. Rain here is not just rain. It's heavy, gusting wind that knocks down saturated mud and cement walls. It's lightning and thunder, of a scarier variety than the tame stuff we get in the States. I'm closer to every aspect of my life here in Senegal than I was in the States: my food, my health, life and death, the weather. There's no cozy, warm way to ride out a storm here. You have to experience it fully.

And experience it is what I did, trapped in a huge semi-enclosed area of the market with a hundred or so women and children. This courtyard seems like originally it was just an open space between buildings. At some point, a cement floor and a plastic peaked roof were added, to provide shade and cover from the rain. But the roof is lifted several feet off the roofs of the buildings around it, perhaps to provide ventilation. In a storm as massive as the one we were caught by, the rain brought almost as much water into the space as it slammed around outside. Within ten minutes of noticing the first drop, even though I had a nominal roof over my head, I was completely soaked. Long skirt dripping, tank top providing no comfort whatsoever, I stood shivering with the others. The wind and rain were too loud for any conversation you felt like having below a shout, so we mostly just stood around looking at each other. Everyone there was as wet as I was, their clothes clinging sloppily to limbs and bellies, scraps of plastic on their heads to cover their hair extensions and braids. I squatted, not entirely miserably, not entirely without amusement, next to a sort of cement table that offered a little protection. The woman selling some vegetables and spices from it, a relative of mine, hunched below a small piece of plastic sheeting and shivered.

It lasted forever. I don't know how long, perhaps an hour and a half. I was afraid to take my phone out to check the time, since it would be immediately wrecked by water damage. The time passed, and everyone just stood or squatted or sat right down on the dirty, soaked floor. With the same patience that makes the fasting month of Ramadan seem to go by with ease, the same resolve that is required when the roads (if there are roads) are so mangled that a trip of 20 miles can take four hours, the women sat. They nursed their babies, stared off into space, and, as the storm died down and conversation became possible, traded gossip and compared prices with their neighbors. The wind dropped and the rain stopped falling, more or less. After some final brief downpours and a little more waiting, I made it home, laden with my full burden of bread and vegetables, macaroni and spices, a gift of bananas for the children and some soap for us all.

There's good patience and there's bad patience. The good type allows the Senegalese to sit out a storm like this in the miserable condition I witnessed. Keep in mind, it's Ramadan: we were well into the day when the storm came, and none of the adults had eaten a bite since the sun came up, or sipped any water. It's a sort of waiting with composure. A minimum of fretting. A trust in the future, maybe a certain amount of resignation as well. But can I call it resignation, with all the negative connotations that word carries, when we all knew that the rain would eventually stop?

And then there's the bad patience. I see it every day. It is the patience that counsels silence, even when a voice ought to be raised. The roads are horrible, they're an affront to the people who live anywhere outside of the capital city, they're a hindrance to commerce and a danger to everyone who travels. I've seen more of car accidents and their aftermath, and been involved in more, during my 19 months in Senegal than I ever did in 18 years of living in Los Angeles. It is the patience that breeds apathy, even for those who suffer. Men with infected, oozing sores. Children with diarrhea and fever. Women who know that they should go see the village health worker for their pre-natal visits, who know that giving birth at home is dangerous, who know others who have lost their own babies to preventable, treatable diseases. Knowing is not enough.

As a health volunteer, my work centers around behavior change: convincing people to take up healthier, cleaner, safer practices and pass them on to their children. I thought maybe I'd be good at it, having some experience in the method of crafting a convincing argument. I have yet to find the argument that always works here.

My hope for Senegal is still alive, but more and more I have a hope for myself: that I can take some of this good patience with me when I leave, without bringing any of the bad patience along with it.

Love and guts,


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Making decisions

It's August, which means I've been in country for 18 months and at site for 16 months. The group of Peace Corps volunteers who arrived in Senegal immediately before we came is about to leave the country, which means we're going to be saying a lot of goodbyes around here. For the last couple months, I've been hearing them talk about their futures -- grad school, boyfriends and girlfriends, jobs, houses. It's like being back in high school or college, watching the seniors prepare to graduate. Knowing my friends and I are next is prompting some serious thought.

For some time now, I've been thinking about extending my service for a third year. I wouldn't stay in the village, though. Instead, I could take a position in Kaolack, the regional capitol, working with all the volunteers around here, or in Dakar. It's an exciting thought in a lot of ways. Another year in Senegal with the Peace Corps would mean another year of work experience in development, the field I'm probably going to choose for a career. That's especially enticing, since my background has nothing to do with the field. By reputation, furthermore, Peace Corps/Senegal seems to be doing pretty well for itself. The program is highly regarded in the Peace Corps community. So I suppose this is an opportunity to continue learning from people who know what they're doing.

On the other hand, I know what I want. I know which graduate schools I'll be applying to and which degree programs are most compelling to me. Maybe I should just go for it.

More importantly, I know what it is that I don't like about the Peace Corps. I know why I'm frustrated in my work here. My thoughts on how development ought to be done, on what I would need to be doing to feel comfortable and happy and fulfilled in my work, are pretty fully formed. In that sense, I might be ready to move on to an academic setting, where I can do some really valuable study and continue to refine my thoughts.

So now I'm soliciting advice. Send me an email or write a comment, whatever you're comfortable with. I could really use some new perspectives on this, even if you and I aren't close friends or whatever. If you read this blog, which it seems you are, then I'm guessing you have an opinion.

If I had to state a preference right now, I'd say that I would like to be convinced to stay on for a third year. But that's the thing. I need to be convinced. What does the Peace Corps do well? I feel like I'm having a hard time seeing it these days, not necessarily because it's not there. It's just been a frustrating few months.

Anyway, I'm headed back to the village, in spite of the fact that my latrine is collapsing. It's Ramadan, too! More on that later, I guess.

Love and guts, and I wanna hear from you.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A dentist appointment and a crisis of empathy.

Against my deepest inclinations, I’m going up to Dakar tomorrow to do my mid-service physical. I tried to get it done a couple weeks ago, when I had to be in the capital for other reasons as well. I made it as far as the initial conversation with the Peace Corps doctor.

“Well, Jessica, you’re awfully late for this appointment. You were due back in February or March.”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.”

Ok, you’re here now, no matter. So today we’ll do your physical and send you to the dentist, we’ve got you scheduled for your OB/GYN appointment tomorrow morning, and then in the morning on the day after that, you’ll need to come back to have your TB test read.”

That’s about when I got antsy. My plans, as usual, were to get out of Dakar as fast as possible and get back to the village before the fat city made me go crazy with its conspicuous consumption, its healthy ex-pat and Senegalese children waddling around, its night life and easily accessible beer. So I hemmed and hawed a bit and managed to talk my way out off everything but the dentist appointment.

The dentist’s office was one of the strangest places I’ve seen in a while. The Peace Corps driver responsible for carting me off to my appointment in a super swanky air-conditioned Peace Corps car resisted my half-joking pleas in Wolof that he take my place. “You can say you’re Jessica Seiler, who’s gonna notice? I’ll tell everyone back in the Peace Corps medical office that it went fine. Come on, you could just let me out here and be on your way.” No dice. He laughed heartily and told me not to be afraid, but never even gave my offer fair consideration. When we arrived at our downtown destination, the driver wished me good luck and left.

There were no other patients, just the kind Senegalese lady at the front desk who chatted with me in Wolof as she did my paperwork, then sat me down in an air-conditioned waiting room. There and in the examination room, everything was done in shades of pink, from the pleather upholstering on the chairs to the highlights on the big old hanging lamp thing they stick in your face. There was even a fish tank with a few inhabitants swimming around inside. The whole experience had a little of the feeling of a Twin Peaks-esque mefloquine nightmare, but I kept my cool for the entire appointment. No cavities. When he noticed a little crack at the top of one of my front teeth, the dentist (jokingly?) asked, in his far from excellent English, if anyone was hitting me a little, maybe “with hees feests?” I’m pretty sure it’s an old soccer wound. Wonder of wonders, in this country with one doctor for every 10,000 or so people, I’ve been told to go back to the dentist in his air-conditioned office in six months so that he can monitor the situation, so that we can be sure it doesn’t, God help me, turn into a cavity.

Anyway, I’ve come to accept that I can’t avoid the rest of those appointments and the need to spend a couple days in Dakar. And besides, I have another commitment up there this week. So I’ll be heading up tomorrow. Wish me luck.

The timing is not great. It’s getting harder to believe in the Peace Corps with almost every passing day, and I’m not sure that a dose of Dakar (both inside and outside the fortress of the Peace Corps office) and the Dakar attitude toward the rest of the country is going to help me out much.

This trip to Dakar began last night, with an evening ride out of my village on my host dad’s horse cart. He makes the trip to Guinguineo, our road town, every evening, and then comes home to Ndiago every morning at dawn with a cart full of bread. I thought I’d take advantage of the free trip, spend the night in Guinguineo at a Peace Corps volunteer’s house there, and then be on my merry way the next morning. As the hour approached for us to leave, however, I started to doubt how simple this trip would be. I watched my dad ready the horse and packed my own bag, but with every passing minute the wind was picking up. Out to the west especially, just above the horizon, there floated the long grey low bar of an approaching thunderstorm. Someone was getting pounded by rain out there, and it didn’t seem impossible, given the direction of the wind, that it would head our way next. The last place I wanted to be at the beginning of a violent storm was on a charette in the middle of the bush, below a vast expanse of thunder and lightning, tossed about by the gales of wind and completely exposed to the rain. But my dad seemed sanguine about our chances, so we left.

He turned out to be right. Halfway to Guinguineo, the clouds were visibly breaking up above us. The wind was still coming right at us, bothering the horse to no end, but it probably wasn’t going to rain. My dad turned to me and said, “Allah is good, we’re not going to have to worry about that storm anymore.”

“Allah is good,” I replied.

It’s so easy for me to see two worlds here, though I know that it's an illusion: in one, we have the fat guzzling children of Dakar, and in the other, the children of my village, who every day eat a handful of bread brought back to Ndiago by my father for their meager breakfasts. In one world, I sat in an air-conditioned room and had my teeth X-rayed and pored over by a very nice man with soft gloved hands while I listened to the gurgle of his fish tank. In another, my host dad thanks Allah when he can make the forty-five minute trip to Guinguineo without misfortune. In one world, ex-pats and wealthy Senegalese leave their houses, greet their always-awake armed guards, and drive their SUVs out of their gated, barb-wired compounds to meetings in other buildings with guards and gates and barbed wire. In that world, they make decisions about development philosophy and the programs that will be put in place in the other world, my world, the world of my village. Many are so thoroughly insulated against the very world they seem to consider themselves to be working for that they may as well have never left Washington. I noticed and wrote about this before, during the big annual softball tournament in Dakar. It seems like a lot of people come here and then spend a great deal of money and effort to maintain the illusion that they are not, in fact, here.

That’s one thing in the ex-pat community. I guess they’ve got their young children to think of, or whatever, and if they want to feed their kids American food specially shipped over and let them attend schools that are guarded like prisons, that’s their prerogative. It doesn’t seem like any way to live, but then again I’m no great authority on child rearing, or even on how to live your life, generally speaking. So I try not to judge, I try not to even think about it.

What I’m starting to wonder is if we Peace Corps folk are guilty of some version of the same crime. Even though we are living a total immersion experience, with host families, out in the bush, the solitary white kids for miles and miles, we still find plenty of ways to distance ourselves from Senegal. Often it’s just for our sanity or our health, and I think all in all it’s a healthy thing to do. If my mom didn’t send me jars of crunchy peanut butter, and if I didn’t escape to Kaolack occasionally for cheeseburgers and a beer, I’d be one skinny miserable young lady, thank you. As it is, I already find myself craving monstrosities like Poptarts smeared with peanut butter and jelly, topped with marshmallows, or burritos stuffed with fried chicken, Velveeta chunks, pineapple, and hash browns. I bring a little America back to my hut, to get me through the slower days, in the form of my iPod and books and magazines. If I were Senegalese, or perhaps if I were truly integrated into the culture, I would mitigate my boredom by sitting and gossiping with the women instead of by devouring novels and non-fiction.

I don’t think I can disapprove of these practices in themselves, but I think they’re dangerous. Every step I take toward building an America for my body and mind is a step that removes me from Senegal a little bit, and from the Senegalese people I live with. I’ve noticed this tendency to remove ourselves a bit, to suspend our empathy, in myself and in other volunteers. Not all of us all of the time. But sometimes. It’s subtle. It’s in our grammar and our choice of words. It’s not something we’re necessarily conscious of doing. It’s something I do myself.

When discussing how to write grants, older volunteers and Peace Corps staff will encourage newer volunteers to include an “in-kind” stipulation, a percentage of the total cost of the project that will be paid by the community. This might be a good idea for some reasons, but when we talk about it, we say it’s an encouragement to see the project through to the end for the Senegalese people involved. As if it were the four dollars each adult is required to give toward the construction of a new protected well that makes the project valuable to these men and women, rather than the opportunity to drink clean water, to give their children clean water.

When we talk about mosquito net distributions, invariably someone bemoans the perceived tendency poor people have of selling the nets that are given to them, or of passing them on to relatives or friends. When they next speak to the Peace Corps volunteer or community health worker who gave them the nets, they ask for another one. Where is the sin in this? We can only condemn this action when we stop empathizing with the people and begin judging them. Imagine knowing that you can’t afford to buy a net, but also knowing that you can’t afford to pay for the medication to treat malaria. Imagine knowing that every single member of your family is in the same situation. Imagine feeling responsible for them. I’d lie to a Peace Corps volunteer for an extra mosquito net or two, without a second’s hesitation.

When we put ourselves in one world, a world of privilege and easy access to the goods and services that satisfy our needs and security, we are living in a dream and condemning others to live in a nightmare.

I don’t want to cast stones at any one, and I want to say again that I’m no expert in development. My background could not be less helpful when it comes to considering these questions. I’m not making accusations or trying to belittle the good work that so many people are doing in Senegal and Africa and across the world. But I need to understand why we do things the way we do, and where our principles come from, and I want to know that we’re doing the best we can. I need moral guidance on this one.

It’s almost 3 A.M. I barely slept last night and haven’t slept yet tonight. I’m sorry if this blog entry showed signs of that, but I’m hoping that after finishing it and posting it, I’ll give myself permission to get some rest.

Love and guts,


Thursday, June 17, 2010


"One learns, I would hope, to discover what is right, what needs to be righted — through work, through action."

-Daniel Berrigan

Amen, brother.

Coming to terms with a certain amount of uncertainty

One of the repeated lessons of my time in Senegal has been that the future is less certain here than it is in the United States. So many things fluctuate. The prices of basic foods rise and fall with the season, and with how lucky or unlucky we were during the last planting and harvesting cycle. We do our best to build strong foundations and walls, and when the termites come to rip the heart out of our mud-brick buildings, we rebuild them before the heavy rains begin and wait, and watch, and hope. My family members go to the local wise men and come back with blessed scraps of string to tie under our knees, to ward off snakes and protect us from their bite. We set up mosquito nets against the threat of malaria, and every pregnant woman in the country is offered a free and anonymous HIV/AIDS test during one of her first pre-natal visits. This sense of a hesitant belief in a future that may not be full of blessings reveals itself even in the way we speak. The future tense in Wolof is habitually indicated by a murmured "Inshallah," meaning, God willing. God willing, I will see you at the meeting this afternoon. God willing, I will call you from Dakar when I get there. God willing, the rains will come, the food will be plentiful, we will gather together at the end of the fasting month to pray, to slaughter a goat, to feast and be thankful and ask each other pardon for our sins. It's not the same as Western style superstition. We're not knocking on wood for fear of jinxing the future. We simply are not sure that there is one, or that we would welcome what it holds.

For a long time, this mentality was a source of anxiety to me. How could I bear to hear my family admit at the beginning of every journey I made into Kaolack that my return depended on the will of an utterly impersonal, absent God? How could every work plan I made with people in the village hinge not on my desire to see the work through to its end, or on the drive and energy and wisdom that the Senegalese men and women I work with bring to each new project, but on something utterly beyond my control? No Muslim, I. No atheist, quite, either, but I lack the deep-seated devotion or whatever other faculty it may require to accept so much uncertainty.

During my first couple months at site, as everyone around me calmly made their preparations for the rainy season, I dithered around in a whirl of anxiety over what was to come. My family, who had seen the rains come and go, sometimes leaving plenty and sometimes leaving much, much less than what would be needed to feed them for the eight long months of the dry season, went to the fields. They gathered the dried millet stalks and clumps of roots into piles and set them aflame, tending the fires, sending the vaguely intimidating scent of readiness my way as I watched from the edge of the field. They spread manure and seeded the millet, corn, bissap, beans, and peanuts. And then they came home and waited. I raised money from my friends and family back home for a mosquito net distribution, taught women how to make a lotion that would ward away mosquitoes, and waited with mounting terror for the first rain.

It came, of course. God willed it? Only two people in my village got malaria over the course of the rainy season. The fields produced enough food for us, and when the end of Ramadan came we slaughtered a goat and feasted. God willed it.

This year, I am waiting again. We’re on the brink of it now. Other volunteers to the south and east have reported the type of storm I know to be coming our way, where the force of the wind wakes you at three in the morning and the torrent of water pours from the sky, whipped in all directions through the thin thatching of my roof, into my bed, and onto the fields, where the seeds already wait for it. We haven’t had a storm like that yet, but we have had a few late afternoons where the wind picks up out of the southeast, storms clouds roll in, and we watch the lightning from 100 miles away as a few spare drops fall on our upturned faces.

On one such early evening, I sat in the doorway of my hut watching as the women of my compound brought in the plastic chairs and mats we sit on outside, just to be safe. My host mom put out the cooking fire and everyone retired to their huts to look out at the light drizzle. Everyone except for Fama, the four year old girl-demon of our family. Not yet bathed for the evening and free from the disapproving gaze of her mother, who had gone to another village for a wedding, she ran skipping and screaming through the heavy drops, sliding and diving in the sand that would some day soon be welcoming mud, counting in broken Wolof the number of water splotches she found on her arms, on my face. As the rain picked up a little, still not the real thing, her joy increased. She sang and danced, and when she began to hear the low murmur of the thunder that crashed heart-stoppingly over other villages and other families far away, she clapped her hands over her ears and whooped.

I watched her from my doorway until she was too tired to continue. She came to me and sat in my lap, eagerly telling me that the thunder would kill you if you listened too closely, and that her mother would be bringing back a wonderful gift for us from the wedding, and where did my pet cat, Pierre, go when it rained? We sat there chatting until the drops, never strong enough to force even one of their number through my thatched roof, stopped entirely. Life resumed, the chairs and mats and wooden benches came back out, and my mom rekindled the cooking fire.

I have never in my life felt the type of peace in my heart I experienced that evening, as the sun set behind me and Fama and the rainclouds danced before me. I suppose it’s still up to God’s will to bring the rain, to keep my partially strengthened hut from collapsing when the heaviest of the winds come, to look to our fields, and to give Fama the life and the joy I think she’s ripe for and deserves. That’s not something I understand. But it’s something for which I am willing to wait, and watch, and hope. In the meantime, we’ll prepare. I am expanding universal net coverage in my area, through the generous help of my friends and family back home who donated to my Against Malaria campaign, and my family here is out in the fields. Fama dances, and she fears and loves the thunder and the rain, and I fear and love our futures.

Love and guts,


Thursday, May 6, 2010

"How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home."

First of all, Mom. I'm going to take advantage of this moment to wish you a very happy Mother's Day right now, since I'll be in the village on the day itself and the network coverage is too unreliable for me to be able to promise to call. Thank you for everything, and thank you especially for everything you've done from afar in the past 14 months. I know it's hard to be a mother to someone who's so far from home, but you've been with me every day.

Secondly, don't worry Dad, your shout out will be coming up soon.

All right. I've been in Kaolack for a few days working with some friends of mine, trying to get the regional house all set for the installation of 6 new volunteers in our region. We built all sorts of shiny new toys, like a spice rack! And a kitchen table! And a shade structure! Well, mostly the others built the stuff. I pretty much just wandered around looking for food and getting in the way. But I share in the sense of accomplishment. And for those of you who laugh Kaolack off as the dirty region, the stinking Saloum cesspool, all I have to say is that our shade structure is a thing of beauty and dignity and there's not an open sewer within several yards of it. So there.

Anyway, I was poking through one of the nineteen notebooks I keep strewn about my hut when I found the beginning of something I wrote last year, maybe around the month of June or so. Reading my descriptions of the heat and life in the village, I got the same feeling I used to experience when I would run into my own marginalia in some of the books I've read the most carefully. I'm not really inclined to show many people the drivel that eighteen year-old Jessie scribbled in the pages of Plato's Phaedrus, truth be told. But I was in the mood to take what I found and re-work it a little bit and then finally to finish out the thought, which is one that's been bonking around in my brain for a while without ever fully taking shape. So just to be clear, the events in the first part of what follows happened last year. This year's water cuts are still to come. Ha.

My village's water supply comes from a deep-bore forage that sucks up water from hundreds of meters below the earth. Most of the compounds in Ndiago have rubinets (taps connected to the forage system) and there are a handful in public places as well. The whole system was built by the Belgians (?!) a couple of decades ago, and since then the wells in my vicinity have been covered and out of use. For the most part. I've seen water pulled from the well in Ndiago on one occasion, and it was hilarious. The men involved were very officious and proud of themselves for taking up this new task, but once they got started it was obvious they had no idea what they were doing. Luckily for all of us, the problem with the forage was fixed soon after.

But nothing is wholly reliable in the bush. A little while later, the water was out again. I was pulling water from the rubinet in our compound and chatting with my mother when the comfortable healthy rush of liquid started to slow. My mom made disapproving, clucking noises, and the other women of the compound gathered to watch as the water flow turned into a trickle, and then stopped entirely. This has happened a few times before, and I have a routine all set up. My priority is drinking water, so I filled up my filter with what I had managed to get and then accompanied my mom to the rubinet in the center of the village, where I hoped to get enough for a bucket bath in the evening.

When we got to the rubinet, it became obvious that the problem wasn't just in our compound. From every direction, women and children were coming with containers of all sorts. There was already a bit of a pile-up at the rubinet, so my mom and I took our place in it and joined the conversation. Some of the banter was pointed toward us, since my uncle is the manager of the forage. It got a little sharper in tone when the water dried up at the public rubinet, too, sending all of us in search for another one further from our compound. All in vain. We waited in line at every public rubinet in the village. One by one, as we waited and gossiped and watched the sun move across the sky, all the taps turned up short. The rubinets were dry in Ndiago for a couple days, and a handful of men made a killing by drawing water in the road town and carting it in to sell in the village. I did eventually get my evening bucket bath, but it wasn't as pleasant as usual.

As I watched the women of my village carry away massive basins of water, I remembered something I'd been meaning to mention since training. In Senegal, pulling water is almost always a team sport. Whether you've got a well or a rubinet, if you're using one of the very common humongous plastic basins to retrieve your water, you're going to need someone's help to get that thing up on your head. By now I've pretty much mastered the art of hoisting one of these basins up onto another woman's head, but the first couple of times were sploshy adventures. Not even women who have been pulling water and carrying it on their heads for decades can get those monstrosities up on their own.

I feel like we're used to a lot of independence in the States. We don't count on the presence of others for many things. But being alone in Senegal would mean being stranded. A task as simple as getting the day's water supply becomes infinitely more difficult. No one seeks isolation here. Being a part of a community is not just a convenience, it's a necessity. Extended families live in large compounds of fifteen, twenty, forty people. Traditional Senegalese food is served in large bowls, which seven or eight people can share. People pass the time by sitting together and talking, in the family compound or in the center of the village or wherever they happen to find themselves. People even nap outside, surrounded by others. The only Senegalese people I've seen seek “alone time” are the very elderly, who sometimes withdraw inside their rooms to concentrate on prayer and reflection. Even sick people sometimes prefer being outside, surrounded by visitors and family members.

The Senegalese family is more of a unit in many ways that anything I'm used to. Parents are economically dependent on their children, who go out to the fields to help with the work. Wives are dependent on their husbands. Husbands rely on brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. So in a small village like mine, where all the families seem to be connected, it's easy to get the impression that every single person in the village is contributing to and benefiting from a social structure that's centered in a very small plot of land, but that extends through family links to villages all over our region, to Kaolack and Dakar and beyond.

For example, many people in the village eat bread every morning for breakfast. It's my father who makes the nightly run to the roadtown, where he buys bread early each morning and is home before dawn. He brings the bread to his sister, who sells it in the village. There aren't delivery trucks here, there aren't licensed and registered service providers. There's your uncle Abdu, who has a horse cart and is usually good for a ride from Guinguineo back into the village in the late afternoons. There's your neighbor, who knows a guy who knows a guy who sets people up with cheap used cell phones. The first time I needed some new clothes made, I went to the tailor my host sister goes to. When I started buying vegetables every week at the market, my aunt was the one who told me how much to pay for a kilo of onions. When the women in my compound have finished making dinner, they put together a small bowl and send it over to our neighbors, my uncle's family. In return, my uncle's wives send my grandma a bowl of whatever they're eating that night.

I have occasionally been a part of communities like this before. St. John's College felt a little like this, because it was so small and because we all read and cared about the same things. Common Ground, some people I worked with in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, felt like that too (at least, in its early days); but I think that was just because we all figured we were pretty much screwed if we didn't stick together.

But what I'm experiencing now is different. I'm surrounded by a community, but I'm not a part of it. I mean, I am to a certain degree: if I had a problem or an emergency in my village, the people I live with would take care of me. But I just don't fit in. The ties I have to my host family and my friends in the village are utterly different than the ties they have to their actual family members, to their real friends. No one relies on me, and I don't rely on anyone. I honestly think that if I got on a plane to the States tonight and never went back to Ndiago, as long as the Peace Corps replaced me with another volunteer there would be no appreciable change for any of the men, women, or children of the village. After a year in the village, I still get called Maguette, which was the Senegalese name of the volunteer I replaced. Ndiago is a place where the people are so closely connected, so intimately known, that each of them has deep and functional ties all over the village, ties that are constantly celebrated and reaffirmed day after day. They are, obviously, irreplaceable. But I am interchangeable with any other white man or woman who happens to walk in.

Maybe that's why I sometimes feel as if I am not treated like a human being here: I'm not an individual, not the way we think about it in the States. That type of strong self-identification, that push to make yourself stand out from the crowd, just does not exist here. People define themselves based on how they relate to others, to their community. And it's a community I cannot authentically be a part of. It's obvious the minute they set their eyes on me, the minute they see my white skin and blond hair and hazel eyes: I am not the way people are, for them. I am not a person.

It's upsetting. I do feel like some of the connections I have with Senegalese people are deep and honest and meaningful, and I know volunteers who have romantic, loving relationships with Senegalese partners. But I can never be a part of the group, which means I can never be a part of the family. When someone asks me who my parents are and where I live, I say my dad is Osseynou Gningue and my mom is Aissatou Diop, in Ndiago. And nine out of ten times, those people laugh at me -- the white girl has Senegalese parents? Ha! But if I say my parents are Kathy Gosnell and Michael Seiler, and that my hometown in Los Angeles, and that for God's sake my name is Jessie, not Aissa, I cut myself off entirely from the world around me. Even if this is a big charade we're all taking part in, it's still one with a certain amount of very superficial meaning and relevance.

And this, if you're wondering, is why I miss you. I'm happy here and I love my work, and I'm seriously considering staying for an extra year or six months to continue it. But this is why Senegal is not and will not be my home, not ever. This is why I'm coming back some day.

Love and guts,


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The forecast calls for 110 degree heat and blowing sand.

This brief post is pretty much exclusively about food. Look, I'm hungry a lot of the time in the village. I spend a lot of my private time thinking about food, like what combinations of foods might go well in burritos. Chocolate cake and buttery mashed potatoes, for example, with some cheddar cheese and strawberry jelly in there too. I have long, long mental lists of such combinations. But I won't subject you well-fed friends and family members to them. Instead, fruit!

The hot season has hit us early this year, or at least earlier than I was prepared for. By the middle of March, daily highs were spiking up around 110, a temperature you haven't properly experienced if you've never been without the stupefying relief of fans and air conditioning, or even the refreshment of refridgerated water. Everything here in Senegal is hot: the stifling dry air, the wind that brings no chill relief. The traditional heavily-sugared tea called attaya is served in tiny cups at a mouth-scorching boil. All the food is cooked and served immediately, also too hot for comfort. Even the water coming out of the rubinets or my filter never gets below the ambient temperature.

This season has its consolations, though. As I approached the center of Guinguineo's big weekly market a month or so ago, I was hit by a weak, unplaceable memory of delight. I looked around at the now-familiar offerings, the million stimuli of the crowded market: the gleaming polished cooking pots, the stacks of vegetables and bags of spices, the beautiful varieties of fabric available for sale, the man hawking radios, sunglasses, and black market medicines for everything from malaria to impotence. Something here was jumping up and down, demanding my full attention, smacking my senses around and registering as a weirdly emotional triumph. I had lost something and, I was being warned, I was about to find it again. The warning turned out to be a smell, and it was coming from a humongous moist pile of red and yellow cashew fruits just a few feet away. It was a smell I associate with my first days in Senegal, when my stage-mates and I first began to wander the streets and markets of Thies by ourselves, buying sacks of strange new fruits and fried street delicacies, tasting for the first time the sad stuff that passes for beer in this country, and beginning to realize that this place, Senegal, was turning into a new home.

Some would take this as a sign that being in Senegal has addled my brain, but I truly believe that the United States is a more backward and less happy place because it lacks cashew fruits. I guess we don't grow cashews over there, and the temperamental fruit wouldn't survive the trans-Atlantic voyage. It's a shame. To be perfectly honest, I can't be very specific about what cashew fruits taste like. When you bite into one, the juices completely overwhelm your taste buds and change the pH balance of your entire mouth for several minutes. You're not left with much sense of how the fruit actually tastes, except for a general impression of yumminess. You might be swallowing a quarter-cup of liquid when you eat one, but the cashew fruit experience will leave you deliciously thirsty, under the strange impression that it's sucked all the liquid from your mouth. Why I find these so addictive, I can't really know. But I can buy enough to make myself a little queasy with about 30 cents, and I often do.

If that doesn't sound tantalizing, then you can always opt for mangoes. The first ones came in around the middle of March this year. Even if I hadn't noticed their arrival, I would have suspected something was up: the ambient happy level just felt a little higher than it normally does around here. A dollar will buy you a little over 4 pounds of mangoes, enough to make your entire Senegalese host family happy, or to make yourself gut-wrenchingly ill. It's worth the pain, though. When I came home from the market in Guinguineo with the first sack of mangoes, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch my host mom dole out the goods. With her face half-covered in pulpy smeared fruit, Fama, my favorite four year old in the world, cried, "Aissa! The mangoes are delicious! God will help you for bringing us these mangoes -- He'll give you a good husband very soon!" I don't know about that, but in a place where no one ever seems to be getting enough of the right things to eat, where nothing we eat on a daily basis is even remotely delicious, the mango season is an annual miracle.

Of course I'm thrilled on a very simple level that mangoes and cashews are back in season. But their presence reminds me of something else, something that I actually never really forgot in the first place: I've been here for a year now. When we first got off that plane, the mangoes and cashews were filling the markets. Every time I see a stack of mangoes or a basin of cashews in Guinguineo, I think back to those first days in Senegal more than a year ago, at the end of February of 2009.

One of the perks (or dull responsibilities?) of being a year-in volunteer is that you might be asked to come to Thies to train the new stage of health volunteers, who arrived in country three weeks ago or so. In a couple of days, that's exactly where I'm headed. I hope I'll have time to update this blog -- I want to write about the amazing progress of the Hygiene Committee's latrine project and the two days I spent tramping around the bush looking for children under 5 to vaccinate against polio, helping out in a nation-wide program, enjoying myself, collecting stories, and getting way way way too dehydrated. But besides that, I'm excited to meet the new stage. I bet they're excited to be here, and I bet that their excitement is contagious. So times are good now.

Hope all is well back in the States.

Love and guts,

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Not at Home

I want to preface this entry by saying that the drugs the med office put me on for stomach stuff make me feel like I'm dying of old age or something. So I'm a little fuzzy-headed at the moment. If there are bits of this post that maybe don't make a lot of sense, do the charitable thing and write it off to the medicine.


I played softball for one year in middle school, though I can’t remember exactly why. The soccer season was over, and I guess I just didn’t have enough to do during my afternoons and evenings. In any case, I hated it. None of the other girls on my team seemed to be having any fun: during games, they were too busy heckling the other teams to even enjoy some of the field’s delicious spicy nachos. I wasn’t rabidly interested in winning or in making the girls on the other teams cry, so it looked to the others like I lacked team spirit, or maybe even some more fundamental quality like patriotism, seeing as how softball is pretty much as Americana as it gets. I finished out the season and didn’t sign up for the next year, and I returned happily to soccer and pick-up football games to fill the hours after school.

The annual West African Invitational Softball Tournament (yeah, we call it WAIST, and you better believe that it’s an appropriate acronym), held this weekend in Dakar, was therefore not initially very compelling to me. Teams of Peace Corps volunteers came from every region in Senegal, as well as from a few other West African countries. We were joined by a handful of teams of ex-pats from Dakar, mostly Americans who are living and working at the Embassy or with an NGO here in the city. Some of the teams are pretty competitive, but for the most part the volunteers think of WAIST as one long party. Each volunteer team even picks a theme for their clothing, and for many of us more energy goes into finding costume accoutrements than into batting practice. There’s a lot of delicious food, pools full of beer (not literally), and all the comforts of Dakar. The ex-pats bring their kids, and everyone sits around a big swimming pool (seriously, it’s just chlorinated water, I swear) eating cheeseburgers and swilling beer until it’s time to troop out to the field for another game.

Knowing already that I didn’t like softball, I wasn’t too thrilled about the competitive aspect of the weekend. I would, of course, be rooting for my regional team and showing up to cheer on my friends who had made the cut for the more competitive Senegalese national team, but I didn’t imagine I’d be getting too into it.

The problem started when we played our first ex-pat team. We couldn’t have made a more ridiculous contrast with our opponents. They were dressed in sports shorts and t-shirts. We were decked out in denim, plaid, and suspenders, since we had decided to all dress up as lumberjacks for WAIST. Our team manager had produced a sack of mitts and bats from the nether regions of the Kaolack house, and now that the games are over, they’ve been hidden until next year. Our opponents, on the other hands, probably play together once a week. Most of our team members drank while playing, and a few even brought their beers with them while fielding. In spite of all that, Kaolack’s got a pretty competitive team. We came to win, but damned if we didn’t feel entitled to a beer or two in the outfield.

The contempt began building up in my heart even before we were even losing the game to this ex-pat team. It was a combination of things: the bulky idiotic dog whose careless American owners let it scamper around the field, tripping up the players and generally being a nuisance; the balding man in his fifties wearing those absurd Nikes that you can pump air into for a good fit; the clean, healthy kids cheering on their dads from the sidelines. Suddenly, for no rational reason, I couldn’t stand it. All I could feel for these perfectly normal Americans abroad was hatred and disgust. As they put the elements of their lifestyle on display during that game, everything I saw – the hours spent in leisure, the easy access to food and other consumer goods, the cheerful good health and clean, new clothing – filled me with irrational anger. I wanted our team to win, not only because it would mean good things for Kaolack, but also so that those men and women would feel the sting of defeat and be shamed in front of their children.

Some of my reaction was in reference to what I had come to know in my village: these fat American kids were growing up, eating imported American food in bulk and attending private schools in Dakar, within hours of Ndiago and countless other villages just like it. The children and adults in my compound wear sandals that cost one dollar (when they wear shoes at all): I thought of them while watching the man with the fancy Nikes run around in his absurd gear.

I’m cutting the list short, though these things were just the beginning. The comparisons are cheap, obvious, and facile, the first of thousands that could be drawn, and the fact that I let them flame the fire of my anger embarrasses me. And of course I chose not to console myself with the thought that many of these ex-pats were working for organizations like USAID: even though they had dedicated a part of their lives to working for good here in Senegal, I couldn’t help but think of them as mired in the bad faith of their willfully ignorant Dakar-bound lifestyle. Aid workers they may be, but all I could see was the high wall they had put up between themselves and all of Senegal. It was as if they felt insecure in being so far from home, and so decided that the only path to security and assurance was in painting on the Americana so thickly that nothing of Senegal could get past it. The fields where our games were held were surrounded by such literal walls and topped with barbed wire. A metal detector was placed at the front entrance of the games’ main venue, and everyone submitted to a bag check upon entering. What were they looking for in my bag? What part of Senegal was I not allowed to carry with me when I entered this temporary America?

As I’m writing this today, about a week after the games ended, I’m still attempting to deal with my anger. It’s not fair to the people I met in Dakar to say these things about them. My disgust is misplaced. I don’t really know anything about these families, about what they gave up to come here and why. I have no right to pass judgment on any of them. But when I began to write all these things out and come to terms with what I was feeling, I realized that this is culture shock. Those few days in Dakar were as close as I’ve come to being at home in America in a year, and it completely spun me. If this was a preview of what I have waiting for me at home, I’m a little terrified. I don’t like the person I became in the face of it, I don’t like the things I thought and said in those days.

All this came at a strange time. After about a year into my service, I had recently started realizing how fundamentally comfortable I was with parts of American culture. In the States, once I became an adult, I knew the cultural mindset and vocabulary so well that I was able to navigate every situation myself. If someone was picking on me, flirting with me, ignoring me, or standing in my way, I had at the very least a vague sense of what combination of words and actions would change the situation. I don’t think I ever had a conception of how important a shared culture could be for communication: we don’t think of our daily context as vital until it’s gone, and we’re stuck looking for another way of functioning.

Before going to WAIST, I had been longing for the straightforwardness and ease of American daily life. I had, with some initial reluctance, begun to discover that some parts of me are really American in nature. But after seeing the exaggerated emphasis put on a shared culture during the softball games, after seeing so many people trying to hard to pretend that we were no longer in Senegal, I’m not sure anymore. Why should my own culture make me so deeply uncomfortable, even though I recognize the elements of it in myself that make me an outsider in Senegal?

Anyway, Sunday is the anniversary of our arrival in Senegal. I'm grateful for the experiences I've had, the friends I've made, and the lessons learned in that time. So far, so good.

Love and guts,