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,



  1. Ah, Guinguineo market :)Hope ramadan is going well. Tell my family hi when/if you see them.
    -Ibrahima Diop

  2. Does the Peace Corp build roads?

  3. Good stuff. White or brown rice?