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.



  1. "bugging people about stuff is my most common activity" So you are the nanny in the nanny state? Great Post!

  2. touchingly well written, my dear

    jack sends his love