Monday, December 5, 2011

A funeral in the village.

I have a sense that my reaction to death in Senegal has always been childish. It is not fair, it is never fair, someone should have stopped it -- I may as well be stamping my foot, throwing a tantrum. This is a story about growing up: not all the way, but a little.

Even after almost three years in country, I am still gratified and amazed at how many opportunities there are in daily life for remembering that here in Senegal, you are always a part of a community; that the people around you are connected to you; that no one here could live in isolation.

For example, the greeting ritual in every language in Senegal is a long and complicated series of questions and answers about personal health, family, and work. It's an opportunity to ask after certain people by name, which is a way of affirming your knowledge of them and your connection to them. The answers aren't important. In fact, they're just as formulaic as the questions: How are the family? They are in peace, thank God. And the whole ritual almost always starts with the repetition of the last name of whomever you're speaking to: an affirmation of their place in their family and community.

Everywhere in Senegal, there's closeness and conversation. Public transportation. Vegetable markets. Hospital waiting rooms, as I wrote about a long time ago. Curiosity, questions, answers, togetherness, a delight in even the smallest shared bit of personal history. Time and time again, my Wolof -- which is quickly identifiable as having been learned in a particular part of the country -- has won for a me a cheaper price, a friendly exchange; even a grin from a taxi driver, for example, who was maybe more interested in swindling me before I opened my mouth and started speaking in the accent of the people of his village.

Family events are another beautiful affirmation of the way an individual supports and is supported by community here. Weddings and baptisms are universally attended, not only by close family and friends, but by everyone within walking distance. Everyone brings a small amount of money or a gift. The married women come early to help prepare the massive amounts of food needed at even a small celebration, and the unmarried girls stay late to help take care of children and be sure that the compound is kept clean.

Funerals, too.

Preparations for the day of my Senegalese host father's funeral began long before daybreak. The compound had been full of family and friends for the last two days, ever since his death, and many of us were sleeping in the sand or on concrete "beds" outside. From where I lay on my back in a thatched outdoor sleeping area, shivering in the pre-dawn cold and watching the stars disappear, I could hear the women begin to pull water for the daily chores. Babies began to stir and cry. Young girls with brooms began sweeping the sand of the compound, clearing it of leaves and small pieces of trash. Another day. On any other day, I would have registered all this and drifted back to sleep, preferring to wait until the sun came up before I rose. Not today.

I rose slowly, my back stiff and sore from the two previous nights passed on cement, thinking of how I had gotten here. The phone call had come from Ndiago two mornings ago, as I was getting ready to head to work. He had been sick for a long time. With the help of my boss here at Peace Corps, I was able to leave Dakar immediately. Driving in to Ndiago that afternoon, the village seemed deserted. I saw no children playing in the dirt paths between family compounds, no women in the lanes sorting the peanut crop and gossiping, no men sitting beneath trees and drinking tea. They had all gone to my family's compound.

As I walked in, I was amazed. There were hundreds of people in an outdoor space meant for perhaps two dozen. I greeted the men and women I walked by, received their condolences and gave my own, and was led to the room where my father's two wives sat. They were on the floor in the back corner of the hut, surrounded by their sisters and their husband's sisters, by their daughters and aunts and nieces. Their heads were covered and their eyes cast down, and as I approached them through a haze of soft sad words in Wolof, I hardly recognized them. More greetings, prayers, words for the dead. Their eyes on my face did not seem alert enough to recognize me.

Later in the day, the crowd in the compound receded. They left gifts of food and money. Neighbors sent bowls of their own dinner to the two widows, which were appreciated but returned untouched. Even as night fell, the compound was still more crowded than usual, since many of the extended family members from out of the village were staying with us. The women took over the chores, making sure that everyone was properly fed, bathing the children, finding places for us all to sleep. The men sat with the sons of the family, caught in low earnest conversations. A cold night was followed by a cold dawn; and when I awoke the next day I watched as the compound filled up again.

On this second day, mourners began to arrive from further away. Horse carts filled with people came from villages I had never heard of. They came to greet and give condolences, to drop what money they could spare on a piece of fabric laid out at the feet of the widows, or on another laid out by my aunt, my father's sister. There were even some who came from towns and cities in cars, like the marabout from a few villages away. Many were mourning the death of Osseynou Gningue, and none of them would be doing it alone.

And then finally, the day of the funeral. The mourners who had left the compound the night before came back, and their numbers somehow swelled to over 700. Seven hundred men and women in the compound, seated on plastic mats and chairs provided by the village, praying or sitting silently. Here and there a woman would begin to wail and moan softly, concealing her grief beneath her head wrap. Everywhere, heavy eyes and stillness. The imam prayed and spoke of Osseynou, followed by all of the important men of the community: they praised his devotion to his family and his work, and spoke of the struggles his illness had brought him in its final stage. It was better now for him, they said. He could rest.

I moved around during the funeral, uncomfortable, listening sometimes to the men eulogize Osseynou, passing sometimes to my host mother's room to sit with her, and settling sometimes with the elderly women, who could not help prepare the funeral lunch and therefore were in charge of the children. I felt grief, yes. But it wasn't a daughter's grief. I respected Osseynou for the way he took care of his family, and I was terrified of what would happen to them now that he was gone. But I wasn't sure there was a place for that at this event.

Later in the day, my oldest host sister Tenning passed by with a bin of water on her head, on her way to the temporary outdoor cooking area where the women were preparing the meal. She had her role, just like everyone else, in spite of and because of her grief. But as she walked by me, she began to stumble and cough and cry again. Another woman and I eased the heavy basin from her head and took it over to the huge pots full of donated rice, meat, and vegetables.

I made my way with Tenning, who was still sobbing, back to our mother's room. Tenning went to her mother and curled up against her, picking up her youngest child and cradling him in her arms. As I turned to leave, feeling not for the first time out of place in this room, this family, this village, and this country, my host mother Aissatou called out to me. "Come sit with me, Aissa. Stay and talk."

It was a village commonplace, that phrase. Come sit with us, stay with us, talk. I hear it every day, even in Dakar. But today it meant that I was to take a place with Aissatou and Tenning and the other women. We might not talk much, and I might not feel what they felt or say the right things, but that's where I belonged then. As even more mourners came in, they would come to greet me too. They would say the words affirming my place in this family and my loss, and I would say the words of gratitude and peace in response.

And this is what Senegal has done to me so many times over the past three years.

Holding back tears and covering my head with a borrowed shawl, I moved into the room again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy Senegal.

I originally wrote this for an online op/ed website that asked for a submission. It was difficult. I feel like I'm maybe conflating the idea of Occupy Wall Street and the reality of life here in Senegal, and I'm not sure how valid that is. Anyway, I would love to here your thoughts. Please comment.


I called my Senegalese host family from the capital city of Dakar the other day to wish them a happy Eid al-Adha, but I didn’t bother to ask them if they’d heard about Occupy Wall Street. The village of Ndiago, where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, is home to about 300 people, almost all of whom eke out a living as subsistence farmers. Many of the villagers listen to radio broadcasts in Wolof and a few of them can follow the broadcasts in French, but there’s not often much news from the United States.

I did, however, ask around in my office here in Dakar. Although the other Americans and I have been following events back home closely, even the Senegalese men and women who watch television news every day and pay attention to what’s going on abroad haven’t heard of Occupy Wall Street. I had been curious because I received an email from an old friend a few days ago asking me what I thought about the movement. “It all must seem sort of silly from your perspective, right? The whole 99% message? Everything we perceive here as an injustice or as unacceptable must look like just another luxurious privilege from where you stand.”

Not quite.

Senegal is a developing country, and I guess you could say that life here is generally more difficult than it is in the United States. The life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is around 80 years. Here in Senegal, it's 56. One in five Senegalese children had a low birth weight and 17% of children under five are moderately to severely underweight. The national adult literacy rate is 42%, and honestly, in villages like Ndiago it's closer to the single digits. Much, much closer. Every day, people in Senegal die of preventable and treatable diseases. Is dehydration even technically a disease? Who cares? It kills children.

Before moving to the capital city to take on a job in malaria prevention and eradication, I worked for two years in Ndiago as a health education volunteer. A big part of my job was to teach the men, women and children of the village about ways they could keep themselves from falling ill from diarrheal diseases, malaria, infected wounds and the like. Access to health care in rural Senegal is inconsistent and expensive; unreliable health workers who don’t explain what they’re doing or why they’re prescribing a particular medication make many people unwilling to fork out the cash for it. I felt there was an urgent need for someone to talk to mothers about exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their babies’ lives, to teach school children to use latrines and wash their hands with soap and water, and to convince families to use mosquito nets at night to protect themselves from malaria.

Even within the village family in Ndiago who took me in as their own daughter, it was difficult work. My host mother, a wiry and energetic woman named Aissatou who had seen six of her 11 children die before they reached the age of five, injured her arm one day in the fields. It wasn’t a serious cut and it probably would have healed fairly quickly, if only it hadn’t been the rainy season, when the heat and humidity are high and even the smallest lacerations can become infected; if only she had access to more nutritious foods to help her body fight infection; if only she believed that washing the cut regularly with soap and water would make a difference. Once the infection got serious, I begged her to go to the health post in the village. But I had begged her to keep it clean, and that hadn’t worked. She honestly had not believed that anything she could do would effect whether her wound healed well. And I found it hard to blame her, when I thought about how many of her children had been killed by inexplicable diseases. If you spend a lifetime noticing that nothing you do seems to make a difference, that poverty and poor health and circumstance seem to be making your decisions for you, fatalism and acceptance become ground into you.

Preventative measures are so much easier and cheaper than curative ones, in almost every situation I see here. Soap to wash my mom’s wound is cheaper than the antibiotics she ended up having to purchase; mosquito nets are cheaper than the medications to treat malaria. Everyone in my village understood these concepts by the time I had been there for six months. So why was it so hard to get people to take the next step and change their behavior?

I’m starting to think it’s because no one in Senegal has heard of Occupy Wall Street.

It takes a lot of patience to live in a place like Senegal. Things just happen more slowly here than they do in the States, and I can’t even count the number of times my frustrated attempts to try to pick up the pace on a project have resulted in a Senegalese man or woman smiling at me indulgently and saying, “Ah yes, in America time is money. Not here.”

Ndiago is about 20 miles from a large city, Kaolack, which is where I used to go for Internet access and the occasional cold beer. That trip routinely took three or four hours: the horse pulling the cart from Ndiago to the road was sometimes tired and slow; and on the stretch of potholes that could not quite be called a road, the rickety, ancient van stuffed with 40 people and an unknown number of goats and chickens, piled high with baggage, sometimes blew a tire. I have seen and been involved in more car accidents in less than three years in Senegal than in my 22 years in the States. But the Senegalese sit patiently and wait to arrive, the women drawing the fabric of their head wraps across their mouths to keep out the dust, the men staring listlessly ahead, all of us ignoring the flipped, burned-out cars that litter the roadside.

In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anyone lose patience and demand better service, safer roads, or a refund of their fare.

Americans, I imagine, would be up in arms. We’d be making phone calls to our congressmen, writing blistering letters to the editor of our hometown newspaper, demanding that the roads be fixed. We’d be canvassing our neighborhoods, trying to register new voters, trying to inform and involve as many people as possible.

This is how I see Occupy Wall Street. Someone, or maybe a group of people, saw the equivalent of one of those burned out cars on the side of the road and said No. This is not how it ought to be. This is not the relationship an individual should have to the state, not the relationship a bank or a corporation should have to the state: not in a democratic, egalitarian society. That person started doing a little research and started having conversations and realized he or she wasn’t the only one with the gut feeling that something was deeply, desperately wrong. The conviction grew and became a movement, a conversation, an action and a demand that spread from New York to Los Angeles, from the U.S. to the world, and my deepest hope for Senegal is that some day soon, it will come here.

My host mother Aissatou raised five children. The oldest ones are starting their own families now, and the youngest is only ten. I want all of her children and all of her grandchildren to grow up knowing that they can make decisions that will change the course of their lives, believing that this world is theirs for the taking, acting up and acting out and making their country a better place to live. I want them to demand better access to healthcare, more teachers and school supplies, and a chance to eat enough nutritious foods to grow up strong. I want them to occupy their lives, their future, their country. Because that’s what it means, to occupy: to take hold of something, to take control. It’s their turn in Senegal, and it’s our turn in the United States.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bean sandwiches and mosquito nets.

This is going to be a picture post, so I may as well start out with a photo of the best breakfast there is in all of Senegal. Ladies and gentlemen, the bean sandwich!

Seriously the best thing ever. SERIOUSLY.

For you folks at home who want to make your own, make sure you spice the beans heavily and slather the whole business with mayo. More adventurous eaters will want to follow my lead and add spicy pasta, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and onion sauce to their sandwich as well. Oh, and it's not a proper bean sandwich if it's not wrapped in discarded newspaper or something, so save your trash!


Several weeks ago, I posted something extremely brief about how excited I was for the upcoming month and promised a full report on it when I came back from the travel. That post was never written, and probably never will be. At least not in the way I had intended to write it. I'm afraid to say too much about it, because that month produced the type of happiness you suspect could be easily crushed by too many words and too much reflection. Good thing I took some pictures to share.

It ended up being an intense month. I started out in Thies, where Peace Corps/Senegal has our training center, for the Stomping Out Malaria Initiative's second boot camp. Staff members and volunteers from across Africa came together to learn more about what we can all be doing to eliminate malaria in our communities. Putting together this training was a little exhausting, but it was worth it to meet the incredible people who attended. I feel privileged to be working side by side with men and women from so many countries, who all believe so firmly in our goal.

I had to leave boot camp a few days early, though, to help supervise a big mosquito net distribution in the southeast corner of Senegal. Peace Corps volunteers and some of our national and international partners were headed to the community of Saraya, outside of Kedougou, bringing a few thousand nets with us.

These distributions are insanely complicated. They begin with a community census, when trained community health workers go from house to house, hut to hut, and count the number of beds and other sleeping spaces (mats rolled out on the floor, stuff like that) that don't have nets.

Health workers enter every hut to get an accurate count of the number of sleeping spaces.

After all this data is validated by a committee of village dignitaries and health workers, the nets are all counted out and divided up. Each one is opened and the name of the new owner and the date and location of the distribution are written on them. When the big day dawns, people are already lined up at their distribution points to collect their nets.

Community health workers in Saraya getting the nets ready for distribution day.

Waiting for new mosquito nets in Saraya.

Every distribution is accompanied by a talk about how to properly use and maintain these mosquito nets. The community health workers will follow up in the weeks ahead by going from compound to compound again, making sure that people have hung their nets correctly and teaching them about the symptoms of malaria. Finally, after some internal evaluation, the distribution effort is done. Using this method, Senegal will have covered 10 of its 14 regions by the end of this year. And that, my friends, is what universal coverage of mosquito nets and malaria education looks like.

A family sitting beneath their new mosquito net.

If nets are being widely used in a village, it benefits every individual within the community: mosquitos have less of a chance to pick up the parasite that causes malaria and pass it to another human host. So if you have about 80% of a community sleeping under their mosquito nets, you'll cut the incidence of malaria roughly in half, and mortality will is reduced by about 17%. Not a bad deal, since a distribution costs about $.50 per net after the cost of the nets themselves. Yep. Fifty cents. And those nets aren't exactly costly either.

It wouldn't be business as usual in Senegal if the car bringing us in to Kedougou hadn't broken down one late afternoon, after the whole distribution was finished and I was getting ready to come back to Dakar.

The guy in the hat and sunglasses said I wasn't allowed to help push-start the car, so I stayed inside and took pictures.

In my current job, I help other people makes things happen. Distributions, trainings, other malaria projects. I don't get out much these days, and I don't get to use my own hands for much beyond typing and drinking too much coffee. In fact, although I had been arranging the budget and putting mosquito nets in cars down to Saraya for weeks in advance of this distribution, I hadn't been sure I'd get to travel to be a part of it.

But I'm glad I ended up in Saraya for this distribution. The volunteers and the Senegalese health workers who were involved astonished me on a daily basis with their eagerness, compassion and energy. Besides, check out this river!


I think a lot these days about how a few small things in my life could have been just different enough to have kept me from ever joining the Peace Corps. It would have been so easy to stay, to take a teaching job, to keep going in that old direction. There wasn't anything in my life to make me particularly unhappy. Nothing was missing. Things were good. Joining the Peace Corps and coming to Senegal was maybe kind of an act of madness.

But now I have this whole other element in my life, like a color I had never been able to see before I came to Senegal, or like an entirely new way of putting the same old words and thoughts together, an entirely new way of living. This color, this feeling is with me all day, as I do my office work, as I shop for vegetables in the market, as I live this life. And it's with me every night, loud and clear as the call to prayer.

The work in Saraya was some of the finest work we can do, and it brought me some of my happiest days and nights in country. The best days are the days that are full. The best nights are the nights when I go to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I have done a good thing well. This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour.

Love and guts,

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Not a real post.

I haven't been tending this blog in the way I like for a couple of months. That will change soon, for sure. And for now, how about a version of the essay I'm submitting with my grad school applications? I promise it's more like a blog entry than an app essay is. Oh academia, I want to come back to you. Kinda-sorta-sometimes. Anyway, I'm not sure that this is less interesting to you than what I usually post. So here it goes.

My time with the Peace Corps in Senegal has completely changed the way I envision spending the rest of my life. I had studied philosophy and been focused on an introverted, academic future before I became a volunteer. Joining the Peace Corps was supposed to give me a temporary break from that life, a chance to learn to use my hands a little and to see a new part of the world. But I spent two years in a village of 300 people as a health volunteer, and now I work in Dakar, Senegal’s capital and largest city, on malaria prevention and education initiatives. I have come to believe that a life of service is more important than the life of the mind.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw the people the village as my constituents. I listened to them, learned what they considered to be their greatest health-related problems, and worked with their abilities and resources to try to find solutions. Sometimes I could bring additional resources of my own, whether through grant writing or the technical training I received when I became a volunteer. But no matter what the project, I always wished that I could do more, pass along deeper knowledge, and serve the people of the village better. As I thought over what it would mean to serve better, I began to focus on the practice of medicine as my means.
There was also, always at the back of my mind, a thought that there was some sort of obligation I had to meet. It wasn’t my obligation as an individual but rather my obligation as a representation of a type: privileged enough to have been well educated from early in my life, free enough to join the Peace Corps after college, and inclined to think that I am not entitled to live a life of suspended, isolated ease simply because I was born in a First World country.
My sense of this obligation grew as I saw the residents of what I came to think of as “my” village in Senegal fall ill from preventable diseases or die from treatable ones. It seemed wrong, especially when the victims were children. And what compounded this wrongness was that the children of my host family, whom I love, were not particularly special. Special to me, yes, of course. But my host sister Thian, now almost four, who has survived malaria and diarrheal and respiratory diseases, is not one in a million. She’s one of millions. I could – and did – help Thian by teaching her mother about insecticide-treated mosquito nets and oral rehydration solution therapy. That’s something, and I’m glad I could be there to do it. But there are lots of children like Thian, and their needs are greater, more systematic, than I feel qualified to meet now.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I remember thinking that the task ahead would be like cleaning a very messy house, maybe one that had been flooded or damaged in an earthquake. If you stepped back and looked at the whole of it at once, you would feel as if you were doomed to be cleaning up the mess forever. But if you stopped in the first room you reached, picked up one book and put it back on the shelf, you would have made a start. One tiny job would have been completed. And so I told myself, “Do the job in front of you – for now.” I kept my focus on particular projects and people and events, and I tried to ignore the bigger picture as much as possible.
I think I’m ready for that bigger picture. I want to understand disease and be able to fight it on an individual level – on the level of one person, one patient. I think perhaps that I want this so deeply because of Thian and the other members of my host family in Senegal. Living with them, seeing them struggle with malnutrition and disease, has left me believing that disease will never be an abstraction for me, will never be something whose story could be told entirely by the tabulation of morbidity and mortality statistics.
But I also want to be able to see why some diseases attack the poorest countries in the world, why they thrive there, and what we can do about it. In my mind, great opportunity comes with great obligation. And maybe our obligations are greatest toward those with the least opportunity.
It’s hard to escape my background in philosophy, so I’ve been inclined to think of these statements about obligations and opportunities as universal maxims. But I am realizing now that they serve perfectly well as guiding lights. At this moment, these beacons have led me to desire to pursue a career in medicine, with a concentration in global public health.
It will be very hard for me to leave Senegal. I have a life here, and a family, and a job that allows me to do good work. But if by leaving I can take a first step toward a career as a doctor, I will be grateful and come eagerly to the new studies and pursuits. Thank you for your consideration.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Stomping Out Malaria in Africa! A Peace Corps Initiative!

Hello there. I haven't had much time to write recently, but I wanted to share the website of the thing/people I'm working on/with. Check this out! We have a facebook page and a twitter, for those of you who are bold enough for such things. I am not.

Also, September is maybe going to be the busiest, most exciting month I've had since... don't even know, actually. So busy and exciting that I might even take some photos to share.

I hope you all are being treated right by your situations and surroundings. Also, eat a box of Cheezits for me. I can't stop thinking about Cheezits these days.

Love and guts,

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


There are a lot of good things about life in Dakar, and some thing that are not so good. And then there are quite a few aspects of the life here that are not better or worse than life in the village, just different.

No one farms here in Dakar, and there's not much animal herding either. Even newer neighborhoods like mine, where there are still many empty plots and unfinished buildings, there's not much open space here. My neighborhood does have a small herd of cattle floating around, but that's about it. I always hated the cows out in the bush; whenever I walked to my site mate's village just a few kilometers away from mine, I would be a little nervous about surprising some one-ton cud muncher into forking me with those insane curved horns they all have. So it's strange to run across them here, too, where they occasionally pass by me peaceably as I walk to work.

But no farming, none at all. So I guess I have no right to be upset that there's not much of a rainy season up here. Dakar has its own microclimate, so we get a lot of humid days when we can see clouds on the horizon in every direction and unrelentingly uncomfortable nights when everyone stumbles into the office the next mornings looking like they've spent the last eight hours stewing in a puddle of their own sweat instead of sleeping. Here, I miss out on the pleasure of feeling the cold wind blow a storm right up to my doorstep, the satisfaction of watching the rain fall on my host family's fields of millet and peanuts, the adrenaline and fear and reckless joy of riding out a violent storm in a hut I knew was made mostly of mud and sticks.

There are other things that come with the rain here. Our apartment floods a little bit. I don't mind mopping the floor for half an hour after each sparse rain, especially because there aren't going to be many of them. But it does feel like a petty move on the weather’s part. Really, storm clouds? My hut made it through all those rainy seasons without collapsing, but these bullshit raindrops are going to form a stinking greasy puddle around my trash bag?

Overall, though, this is good. I like our neighborhood. It’s a three-minute walk from the Peace Corps office, which is handy. There’s a vegetable market right outside our doorstep, where Senegalese women sell carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage, grains, bissap flowers and even meat. For our higher-maintenance moods, there’s a well-stocked grocery just behind the office, and a variety of restaurants within walking distance too. There are even a couple reasonably seedy, non-touristy bars.

As I sat with a friend on the front patio of one of these bars, sweating out the final hour of the late afternoon and wishing desperately that the miserable portion of the Atlantic ocean we were staring at would offer up a breeze to lift away the blanket of humidity, a skinny, sad-looking Senegalese man walked up to the bar with a cage full of birds. Tiny birds, making lots of screechy panic noises, apparently for sale. A Senegalese man at the table next to us, who had been nursing the same beer and talking quietly with his friends for as long as we had been in the bar, stood and demanded how much money they cost.

The skinny man with the cage looked three parts dead. I didn’t think he had it in him to rise above his exhaustion and answer, but they negotiated and exchanged money, and then the skinny man handed over the cage to the bar patron. Without hesitation or a single glance at any of the rest of us, this man stood up, opened the tiny door to the cage, and started shaking it up and down, side to side. Birds spilled everywhere, shooting off into the sun. I stared and stared. Everyone in the bar must have been staring. When only a few birds remained, too shocked to find the way out of their bouncing, shaking cage, the man stuck his hand in to flush them out.

“Leave them, don’t shake the cage, and they’ll fly out on their own,” I shouted in Wolof. As if I had all the experience in the world with this type of thing. Jesus.

“No, it’s fine,” the man replied, not even glancing my way. The last bird flew away, and the man handed the cage back to the bird seller, who didn’t even seem to have noticed what had happened.

I was still gaping at the man openly. I wanted him to make eye contact so I could ask him why he had done what he had done. I wanted to know what the birds were to him, what raw, jangling nerve their captivity had touched in him. His action must have meant something, but I never found out what. He went back to his table of friends and his beer. From as much as I could hear of their conversation, they never brought up the subject of the birds. I didn’t understand at all. This is our local bar.

The electricity at our apartment is mostly on, the water mostly comes out of the taps when you want it to. The roof doesn’t leak, but then, we’re on the second floor. One neighbor on the fourth floor is a fellow American, and next to him lives a Senegalese family. Below them, there’s a family from Cote d’Ivoire. And then there’s us, and then the guard below us. There’s a sort of inverse balcony that cuts through the building, a big open space that allows the sound to travel freely from apartment to apartment. I hear the guard waking up before dawn prayers to take his first meal of the day, which is his last for 14 hours, this being Ramadan. I hear a girl or young woman on the floor above me singing during weekend afternoons. She sings like she’s alone in her apartment, her large family all gone for a few hours while she has stayed behind, perhaps to sweep and clean, perhaps to sing.

The work is good, too. I’m proud of what I’m a part of. It is refreshing to be able to embrace a task without cynicism, with hope and passion, with comrades. I come home exhausted and emptied out every early evening, and it feels honest.

Even just that three-minute walk home is something satisfying. Even as a white girl, my relationship with my neighborhood is different because I speak Wolof. The construction workers and guards around here know my name and greet me as I pass, as does the elderly lady who presides over a small boutique. She is losing her eyesight, but she writes down every purchase and sale she makes and she knows where all her grandchildren and relations are at every second. Her name is painted above the boutique counter in big, bold print. She has a domain, and passing by her in it makes me feel a little like I do, too.

This is not the village; it is not home. But the village was not always home, either, and I had a few miserable days in the beginning when I didn’t understand that fact. I remember with perfect clarity the day early on in my service when I realized that it was a place I would come to love, full of people I would come to love. I’m not saying that’s going to happen here. But I like knowing that it might. And until I have that feeling again, either here or somewhere else, I can live here, and greet the people I know in the street and be a part of this world and feel like I understand it and fit in it and belong to it. If I ever get too comfortable, I can go back to that bar where I saw the man let one hundred tiny birds go free, and remember that there are also always mysteries and experiences left in the world, and that there’s always something to do and somewhere to go tomorrow.

Love and guts,


Friday, July 1, 2011

Mass protests and beautiful music.

I went to see this group at a venue here in Dakar last night, recent violent demonstrations in that part of town notwithstanding.

Although I didn't stroll through the epicenter of the protests, there were plenty of signs downtown that something had happened. Broken windows and signs were everywhere, as were swept-up piles of glass shards. Not every business seemed to be open, even though it was only the early evening. I couldn't be sure it wasn't my imagination, but it seemed like there were fewer people out on the streets. No white tourists, anyway.

Something's happening in Senegal. There's a presidential election coming up in February of 2012, and the current President, Abdoulaye Wade, has lost the esteem of the voters. He knows it, or at least someone close to him does: he's 85, and the term of office here is seven years. Rumors of senility and weakness are already circling. In advance of the election, Wade has introduced several new laws designed to keep him in office for the beginning of another term for at least a little while. His true objective, people say, is to step down and boost his deeply unpopular son Karim into office. The bill that was up in the Senegalese legislature on Thursday the 23rd would have virtually guaranteed his ability to do this.

The 23rd will be remembered here in Senegal for a long time, I suspect. Thousands of young Senegalese, pushed over the brink by their disappointment and anger, took to the streets outside of the legislature and presidential palace. Soon, people started calling it a riot. The demonstrations spread throughout the city and even, after a couple of days, into the suburbs of Dakar and to other large cities in the country. Protesters burned cars and tires and sacked and burned government buildings. The demonstrations turned violent when the national security forces attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. No one needs this story finished for them: these days, we all know what police brutality in struggling countries looks like. One Senegalese man, attempting to describe his despair to me, held out his hands in front of his chest and slowly drew them inward, clenching them into fists. "This is our country, and it is being held hostage."

If this is an awakening, it is a welcome one. Often I have sat in an overcrowded truck or car lurching slowly down a pot-holed road (though its hardly fair to describe these "roads" like that: they're more pot-hole than flat surface), inching forward, taking hours to travel just some twenty-odd miles. Often I have looked around at the faces of the Senegalese men and women traveling with me, glazed over with indifference, scarves and wraps held to their noses and mouths to filter some of the choking dust out of the air, babies and small children draped over their laps or across their backs. Often I have wondered where their breaking point could be found: when is a road so pot-holed that it is no longer a road? When is a government so corrupt that it is no longer a government? When will these people rise against their corrupt leaders and their poverty?

Wade backed down, and the demonstrations are over for now. We're expecting more trouble in the months to come, however, if Wade does not surrender this country to its people.

Peace having been restored to the city of Dakar, our security guy gave us his blessing to attend this concert. I was excited. Daara J Family has some beautiful songs (seriously, check out that link up at the top), and they're also a very political group.

The show was amazing. We were seated in the highest of the semi-circular rows. In front of us stretched a view of Senegalese families and white couples. Behind us was a standing, swaying crowd of young Senegalese people, who knew every word to every song and who danced in ecstasy for the entire two hours, screaming out requests and cheering as loud as they could. The men sang about putting aside sadness and despair, about being proud of Senegalese and African heritage, of being responsible for their lives and futures. In a city no longer in thrall to violence, one hundred of us were transported by the music of hope andjoy.

Being at the show, getting caught up in the music, listening to the lyrics in Wolof (and some French) and watching the crowd respond made me feel so much a part of Senegal. I know it's an illusion, I know this place is not mine. But even outsiders must feel something stirring in response to the claim that man made to me: this is a country held hostage. It is a country holding a village where I spent two years growing up. It is a country where I have chosen to work for three years, where my future has been shaped and my heart warmed and softened. It is a country where children I love will grow up, where they wil make families, where they will raise children. Is it somehow vulgar to feel, really feel, the injustice holding this country and these people in a vice grip? Why has this place, which is no particular place, become so particular for me?

Thian and Fama, my host sisters in the village of Ndiago, are two of millions of children born into poverty, destined for a lifetime of back-breaking work in the fields, insufficient schooling, early marriage, and repeated childbirth. They shine for me because I spent two years with them. Maybe it's the same thing with Senegal: this country where I was not raised has lifted me up, become particular and special and worth caring about with everything I have. This is another lesson for me about doing the job in front of you, however you define that job: this child, this village, this country.

Love and guts and music,


Friday, June 10, 2011

A post that is sort of about work.

On our way back from Sokone, the big Peace Corps bus that had been so true to us for hundreds of kilometers started making a horrible intermittent noise that brought my heart to my throat every few minutes. I started examining the villages we passed, noting their size and their distance from the road. I drank my water slowly, in sips now, saving it just in case, and mentally counting the money I had left on me. The sun was setting, after all, and the bus sounded bad enough that I stopped feeling confident we'd make it back to Thies that night.

The group I found myself traveling with understood what it would be mean, to be benighted on the side of the road. They were all Peace Corps folks, one way or another. Peace Corps/Senegal has invited all the other posts in Africa to send experienced volunteers and staff members to our training center here in Thies for a malaria boot camp. This is the beginning of the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, the program I have extended for a third year to work with. We are pooling knowledge and resources from across the continent and bringing together all of our partner organizations to step up malaria education and prevention and treatment programs. We're working toward a 50% reduction in deaths caused by malaria by the year 2015, and the substantial elimination of malaria deaths by 2020. We're working to completely eradicate malaria.

We had been in Sokone and a couple of other places that day to watch as Peace Corps/Senegal volunteers and Senegalese community health workers did their crazy thing. We watched men and women receive new bed nets and learn how to use and maintain them properly. We saw volunteers teach market women how to make and sell neem lotion, a cheaply-made natural insect repellent that is gaining in popularity here in Senegal. Every time we got off the bus to visit another location, grinning women and joyful men gathered around us to shake our hands, tell us their stories, and thank us for our work.

It had been a good day, and maybe in the States we would assume that such a day could not end on a sour note, leaving us stranded short of the training center and our dinners and beds in Thies. Senegal, however, has taught me to be gentle with the future. Speaking aloud to a friend in the next seat or even thinking to myself, I began phrasing every sentence in the future tense conditionally: "If we make it back to Thies tonight...." Mostly, I just sat and stared out the window, less out of grumpiness or apprehension than habit.

It's a difficult time of year here. The hot season is two or three months old, but no more thoughtful of what might please us, or make it less uncomfortable for us to sleep at night without the benefit of fan or breeze, let alone air conditioning. And it wants to rain so desperately. Every day, the heat rises and the humidity thickens as the morning passes. All through the afternoon and evening, we seek shelter from the broiling heat, and in the evening we sneak away to quiet seats beneath cool mango trees, to let the heat drop before trying to sleep. And still, day after day, no rain yet.

Driving now, trying to make it back to Thies, I watch what manifests itself from all this heat and humidity. There are clouds in the distance; or rather, the clouds are all you can see of the distance, with thick baobab trees perching on the horizon, reaching up for a single penetrating ray of sun here and there. Closer to the road is the occasional small village, usually just a handful of clustered compounds. Sometimes a man and his sons will still be working the fields, preparing them again to receive seed and rain, even though this hour of approaching darkness is for bathing, eating and resting. They bring the debris of the last harvest together, circular piles of millet stalks and other organic material, and light them on fire to clear the field quickly. When the last of the fires is ablaze, they leave it to God and turn home. Here and there are girls, brightly clothed and conspicuous against a grey sky quickly turning black and inscrutable, who were sent from their homes for a last pail of water from the well. Not lingering as they might during the day, they quickly hoist their buckets to their heads and start for home. The sun sets.

Our driver is a king among men, and he has managed to silence the horrible grating noise coming from the engine of the bus. We are thirty minutes away from Thies, from dinner and showers and rest. I am suddenly confident that we will make it; it seems obvious, as if it's already happened. We open the windows and let the night air in, and though it is not yet cool, it is rushing and refreshing. The sun has set, but our hearts have not; the night comes in through the windows, but despair does not.

Please excuse my wordiness. But we are all young, and we have a beautiful goal ahead of us, after a filling meal and a good night's sleep. Excuse the wordiness, and also the confidence that was justified to me when we did in fact arrive in Thies that night. It is that confidence, a touch of humility, and a bounty of joy in our work that will bring us to the true end of our journey.

I'll post the link to the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative's website as soon as we have it up.

Until then, love and guts,


Thursday, May 19, 2011


I have been watching scenery since New York, where I landed on the 27th of April. Except for a quick trip home in February to take care of some family business, this is the only time I have been home since the beginning of 2009. If you choose to extend your service for a third year, as I have, Peace Corps takes good care of you. They gave me a month off, tickets home and back to Senegal, and some pocket money. I decided to fly only as far as the east coast, which defaults to New York City because of flight restrictions from Africa, and then make my way west by other means. Because of this choice, I’ve been living out of my big orange backpack, on my feet, in cars, and on trains for over 20 days.

While most of the people I meet on this trip look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I’m going all the way to Los Angeles without letting my feet leave the ground, I have enjoyed every second of this trip. Not only have I been able to visit with friends in Philadelphia, DC, Annapolis, Chicago, St. Paul, and Portland, which is all too much excitement for me to deal with anyway: I also have been staring out the window the whole time.

On the way from DC to Chicago, we passed through the Cumberland Gap heading west (and yes, though that was a Kaolack shout-out, it also happens to be entirely true). I had forgotten the particular beauty of that part of the east coast, maybe because I went to college in Maryland and got so used to it at some point. North Dakota and Montana were too flat to be real places, even, but at some point the wind came up and I watched the green and amber waves of grass as we rushed by. Finally we got into the mountains again. We climbed and climbed, and suddenly there was snow everywhere, rushing rivers and sudden waterfalls coming out of every crevasse, fog creeping up and down the tall pine trees, taller than buildings, taller than I could believe. Portland seemed like a city offered to us in a basin of rolling hills that led away darker mountains.

And the trip south from Portland, which I find myself in the middle of as I write this, has been perhaps the most beautiful stretch of land so far. There is a lake somewhere up here. The train tracks skirted around it for ages. The clouds covered the sky completely, so even though it was still light out, there was not a fragment of blue to be seen above the train, the lake, the mountains. The trees covered every square meter of the rolling hills around the lake, and though you could not see the terrain directly because of how thickly they grew, you knew where it rose and fell again because the tops of the trees echoed the shape of the earth below. So little blue, but so much green. The lake shone with it, rippling, closer to green than blue, sometimes even a bright living green, changed by the strange foggy light and the green of the trees into something more reflective, more in its right place, than other bodies of water. As we were gliding by in the train, there was nothing to suggest to us that any human had ever been able to come here, had ever been able to do more than we were doing, passing by in silence, staring, not touching it or being allowed to share it.

I think I prefer this passiveness, this watching the scenery go by outside. Sure, it could be frustrating if I wanted to get out and listen to the crunch of snow under my feet, or shake some of it from the lowest bows of the trees. There is sometimes a path going off into a forest that could be for me.

But there is a privilege in simply sitting and watching, in not engaging. This is my vacation, after all, my first one in over two years of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, and to not engage with the world around me, for once, is a feast. I suppose that is what this vacation has been: an opportunity to be passive and unengaged, to relax and rest. If I were in Senegal, there would be something calling me back to the world: Thian or Fama pulling on the hem of my skirt, asking for a piggy-back ride; a simple task or a more complicated project to be planned or carried out; even the need to bathe, to drink enough clean water, to eat enough food to stay healthy. But here in the States, on this train, hovering somewhere at the border of Oregon and California, I only have to sit and watch as everything passes by outside the window.

Don’t get me wrong; I look forward to waking into the real world again. But I know that won’t happen until my plane touches down in Dakar in another ten days.

Until then, love and guts,


Friday, May 13, 2011

Bad blogging....

I consider it a bit of a crime to declare your intention of writing something to the world (or the portion of it that knows you exist) before you actually, you know, write it. But it's been a while since I posted on this blog, and I wanted whoever actually reads this to know that I'm working on a couple of things for it. Currently I'm on vacation and transitioning to a new role with Peace Corps/Senegal, one which will move me to Dakar and get me working in an office. Crazy.

Also, I wanted to let whoever you are know that the Los Angeles Times is running something I wrote as an op-ed in the Opinion section on this Sunday, the 15th of May. Hooray! I'll link to it, when there is something to link to.

Love and guts,


Monday, March 7, 2011

So McCarthyism is cool now, huh?

I read the other day that hearings are beginning in the House of Representatives to investigate the threat of the radicalization of Muslim Americans. All right, America. I'll put this in the same column as the bill that passed the House cutting funding for Planned Parenthood: signs that you just need to be allowed to throw your little temper tantrum until you get rid of all that excess anger and cry yourself to sleep. I will also let other, better informed people get angry and write about this. Instead, I'm going to take a deep breath and try to let my frustration go, so that I can tell you about something I see every day and only recently realized I had kind of weirdly missed during my ten-day semi-vacation in the States. Muslims in prayer.

Those of you who have been educated enough to realize that Islam is not an inherently violent and hateful religion also probably know that Muslims pray five times a day while facing the holy city of Mecca.

Ok. There was still too much anger in that sentence for me to continue writing what I intended as a post about peace and prayer.

Give me a minute, and a fresh start.

In the two years that I've been here, no Senegalese has ever tried to evangelize me. No fighting words about the state of my soul, no passionate diatribe about Allah and His will, no assurances that I'd be happier as a Muslim. The people in my village haven't even shown much interest in what I do believe. I remember one conversation, though, with a woman in my compound, Maguette. She's a sort of distant cousin of the family. Since her husband lives and works in Dakar, she stays here with us, his mother, and her three small children.

One afternoon, Maguette walked out of her room and sat next to me. I was playing with her youngest daughter, Thian.

"Aissa," she asked. "Why don't you pray with us?"

I mumbled a response about how my parents didn't pray -- a phrase which, in Wolof, is exactly synonymous with the phrase "my parents are not Muslims." In Wolof, there's no distinction between praying and being a Muslim; the same Wolof verb translates to English in both ways. Prayer is the defining act of faith for the people here. Parents teach their children to pray. So really, my response makes a lot of sense in Senegal, as much as we would find it strange in the States.

Maguette seemed perfectly satisfied with my answer. But she wanted to tell me more.

"When I pray, everything becomes peaceful again. I know that Allah will protect me and my family, and I feel that when I pray, but mostly I like that it brings me peace."

Maguette mostly prays indoors, away from others' eyes, which seems to be pretty normal for married women. I can easily imagine why it would bring her peace. Five times a day she puts whatever she is doing aside, shoos her three children away, and is entirely by herself for a few minutes. She's been praying this way since she was a child, and the repeated words and motions of standing, bowing, standing again, full prostration, and sitting up must be a comfort to her in the same way that all familiar things are always a comfort to us. And then to know that all around her, across Senegal, across Muslim Africa, across the world, other Muslims are also bending and rising in prayer -- perhaps that brings her peace. I know it would do something for me.

Her stepmother, Maam Bode, is by now too old to stand, walk, and bow easily. Maam Bode has her own way of praying. She remains seated on the ground, stretching her weakened legs out in front of her, away toward Mecca. Saying over the words carefully and more slowly than anyone else in the family, she brings a handful of sand up to her forehead instead of bending down to prostrate herself.

My host dad prays out loud. You can hear him from several feet away. When he hears the calls to prayer, he doesn't even stop to complete the ritual cleansing of his hands, feet, head, and face. He simply rises up, arranges a mat to be facing Mecca, calls his young son Abib to his side, and begins to pray. Occasionally, mostly during the holidays, his two wives and the young girls of the compound will line up behind him to pray in accompaniment.

Mostly, though, the two wives pray out of site, in their rooms. Only rarely do I see them pray outside, as the girls do. Khady, my host-sister, is about 14. The compound is also temporarily a home to two girls who are studying in Ndiago this year, Adam and Vige. They're both a little older than my sister and further along in school, and both are stricter about praying at the proper times. I noticed that when they came to live with us, Khady became more vigilant about prayer as well. The three of them wash together, wrap their legs in long skirts if they're wearing pants or skirts that fall above their ankles, and cover their heads. They stand in a line on a plastic mat facing Mecca and pray together, chanting the words under their breath, standing and bowing in unison.

Thian, Maguette's youngest daughter, is two and a half years old. She's beginning to speak quite a bit of Wolof, but it'll still be some time before she learns how to say the Arabic prayers. Nevertheless, when the teenage girls or my host dad pray, sometimes Thian will rush to stand beside them. She will watch carefully and imitate their movements, rising to her feet or dipping to the ground just a second after everyone else. I've never noticed anyone getting mad at her for this, even though I can see how her behavior would seem inappropriate.

But she's not mocking her elders or mimicking them for the sake of cruelty. She wants to be a part of the world, and that means praying five times a day. It's another way people here have of affirming their relationship to a greater world -- the world of Islam -- and to each other.

The thing I love the most about watching my family pray is how they seem to create this temporary place of peace and absolute purpose, a small area that exists just for them and what they're doing, just for the length of time it takes to complete their prayers. The moment they kick off their sandals and stand at the foot of a mat, facing Mecca, ready to pray, their posture changes. The place, a small stretch of sand, becomes a holy place. They go through an experience that they share with millions of people around the world, one that connects them all together, in prayer, in peace.

I don't have a good sense of what people are feeling in the States, or what it could be that would lead to the nonsense I'm reading about in the news. But I remember sitting with my family on the anniversary of September 11th, watching the news on TV. There was footage of the two towers burning, followed by a story about that crazy preacher in Florida who had wanted to mark the anniversary by burning a bunch of Korans. My family turned to me for an explanation, since they don't understand French, the language of the broadcast. I explained. They remembered September 11th, but they were confused about the preacher.

"Well," said my host mom. "There are crazy people everywhere: America and here, and everywhere else."

"It's true," I replied. I guess this was enough of an explanation for her. The day's final call to prayer was sung out over the quiet village evening, and my family stirred to rise, wash, and pray. And I guess that was enough of an explanation for me, too. There are crazy people everywhere, and in most places, for most people, there is also peace. Here, I see it. Over there, in the States, I don't know. I hope for it, and let others pray for it.

Love and guts,

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Well, here I am, back in Senegal. It's been a wild few days. I spent about a week and a half in Los Angeles helping my mom move, eating Mexican food, and listening to Car Talk every morning. Not bad, I'd say. I'm a little zonked from unpacking and moving, but my mom had it much worse than I did.

I came back here just in time for the annual West African Invitational Softball Tournament, appropriately abbreviated to WAIST. If you missed my description of the tournament last year, you can find it here. Just be warned, I was going through this phase of not feeling happy with American comfort culture, and if you're an ex-pat living in Dakar, there's a good chance I will have accidentally insulted you in that post. I'm sorry.

Once WAIST was over, it was time for our Close of Service Conference. That's right, sports fans. The Spring Stage of 2009 has been here for two years, and it's time for some of us to go home. This conference was about making the transition back to American life, going to job interviews, stuff like that. Since I had already made the decision to stay in Senegal for a third year, I zoned out for parts of it. But being reunited with the group of people I came to country with two years ago was fun, and talking to them about their plans made me realize that the Peace Corps Volunteers I've met here are some of the most amazing individuals I know. If I don't get my act together, I'll probably be working for one of them some day. But you know what? That wouldn't be so bad.

Anyway, as usual, I started out by talking about something other than what I actually want to talk about.

I went home to LA to help out my mom. It wasn't an easy decision. There's a lot on my plate just now. On top of the work stuff, I'm also transitioning into my third-year role and saying goodbye to my village and host family, which is turning out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. But for some reason, it seemed like a decision I had to make. I was exactly where I had to be, doing exactly what I had to be doing.

What confused me, though, was that when another family situation came up at the very beginning of my time here in Senegal, I elected not to go home. Peace Corps would have put me on the first plane out, but I decided to stay. Just in case you're not already uncomfortable with how personal this blog post is getting, here's a post about that day. I felt at that time like I had to wake up every morning and make the commitment to Senegal and Peace Corps work again, and that every night I would go to bed not knowing whether I'd be ready to recommit the next morning. Now, I can commit to not just another day, but a whole year. In fact, I feel like these past two years and this next one have shaped the path I'll be taking for the rest of my life.

Something in me has changed these last two years. I guess I knew this much would happen when I signed up for this ridiculous adventure, but now I'm beginning to figure it out much more precisely. Two years ago, I stayed in Senegal when I should have gone home to my family. Two weeks ago, I went home to my family. I think I know why.

If you've read my blog before, you know I love the way family works here in Senegal. Everyone in my village is related to everyone else, usually literally, but at the very least through some sort of economic or social arrangement. There's no such thing as isolation, because to isolate yourself would be to die. We have so little here that everything must be shared. There is so much work to be done simply to keep us all alive that everyone must lend a hand. Every time, as is the custom here, you greet an acquaintance with their first and last names, every time you ask after their family members, every time you ask how their fields are doing, you are in fact affirming a vital connection with that person, and through them with an entire community that extends far beyond the borders of the village. I guess this is sort of a greatest hits type of post, because I want to point you to this post if you're interested in reading more about family and interconnectedness in Senegal. Ugh, when did I get so self-referential? But seriously, I don't know if I could say it better than I already did in that post.

After living here for two years, my concept of family has been redefined. I'm not even really talking about my family in particular here. It's not just about my mom and my dad. It's about who you need. It's about who you always have to say yes to, even if you don't feel ready or are scared about what saying yes means. It's about my fellow Volunteers -- the work, the parties, the shared experiences. It's about my friends back home, and how I used to wish I could carry pocket-sized versions of them around with me. It's about a network of people who, in spite of what I feared when I came here, I can never really lose.

I wish I had learned this years ago, but I'm thankful I get it now. And I'm pretty sure that coming all the way out here to this tiny village in Senegal was the only way I could figure it out. I left my family and came here to find a new one. I was looking for comrades, for people who cared about the same type of work that I did, people who wanted adventure and challenges and who never felt comfortable with Good Enough. Our reach may always exceed our grasp, but we will never, ever stop reaching. What I found was what my real family -- those related to me in the States, the people here in this village in Senegal whom I have come to love, and even my friends on both sides of the ocean -- means to me. It's everything.

The sentiment is the opposite of something Eve says to Adam in Book XII of Paradise Lost as they prepare to leave the Garden of Eden:

"...but now lead on;
In me
is no delay; without thee here to stay,
Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me

Art all things under Heaven
, all places thou...."

It's lines 614 to 617, just in case you're one of those people.

She's saying to Adam, you, to me, are all places. Eve doesn't need Paradise, she needs Adam. For me, I guess it's the opposite. In all places, I find you, a family. My family. I just didn't know it until I came here. Which I guess means I'm home, and always will be, no matter where I find myself.

Love, and more love, and guts,


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Surprise trip home.

So I’m going to back in the States for a quick trip to help my mom out. She’s moving across the city. I don’t know for sure that I’m ready for a trip home, but this seems like one of those things you do for the people you love.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what is so terrifying about the prospect of being back over there. It is not the piles of guacamole and potato tacos I’m going to devour. It’s not the daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s not the constant access to hot showers and flush toilets and air conditioners and space heaters. It’s not the long flights, though I do hate flying and dread and begrudge every hour spent in the air. It isn’t the prospect of putting on socks for the first time in two years, and seeing my friends and family again.

America should be an appealing place to go, by any standard. Even though I can no longer tolerate dairy products or temperatures under 70 degrees with anything like comfort, this jaunt across an ocean and a continent should be something I look forward to.

Maybe I should take a step back. When I talk about America with my host family or other Senegalese people, lots of things surprise them or leave them thinking a little differently about the world. Yes, I explain, in response to the constant commentary on how wealthy all white people are. America does have a lot of money, it’s a very rich place. But there are affluent places and poor places in the States, just like we have here in Senegal: places like Dakar, places like the village. Places with plenty, places with nothing. People are often very curious (and sometimes rather abrasive) about the fact that at 24, I’m not married. Senegalese women of my age have three children and a fifth-grade education. Since I am invariably uninterested in the Senegalese men who approach me, and sometimes extremely rude in response to their advances, I’m something of an anomaly.

Another thing that surprises people here is my description of how people relate to each other in the States. No one makes eye contact or greets with strangers in the street? Families live hours and hours away from their “close” relations? Children leave the houses of their parents when they turn 18? The physical and emotional distances are unthinkable for Senegalese people.

Relate is one of those words that’s changed in meaning since I came here. The Wolof word bocc is both a noun and a verb, not unusually in this language. It is how you would describe your blood relations, your family, but it also means to share.

Both concepts, family and sharing, are more expansive here than they are in the States. Any man of my father’s generation in my village is also someone I could call my father or my uncle, and anyone as old as my Grandmother Bodey is my grandparent as well. There aren’t that many last names in Senegal, maybe fifty or so, but everyone with my last name is also my bocc. Crowing wealthy fat women in cars to Dakar are delighted to find out that their little sister and I have the same first name. It establishes something between us, even though it’s obvious that my name isn’t actually Aissa, even if the time in which we actually share a physical space is limited to five hours or so, and we never meet again after that.

Sharing in Senegal is different too. Every day before lunch, my compound and the family closely related to us next door switch plates of food. It doesn’t matter if the two dishes are different and one family is worse off for having swapped a plate of fish and vegetables for a bowl of plain, dry rice. The households always share and never begrudge anything. Anyone passing through or by the compound at lunch or dinnertime is called in to share the meal, even if it’s just a bite, even if they’re a stranger here. Children who come upon a piece of hard candy will split it with their back teeth and hand out tiny fragments to each of their friends, anyone who’s present. Can you imagine asking an American four-year old to split a Jolly Rancher with her friend? Wouldn’t happen.

I know I’ve commented on this before, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Life in Senegal, especially in rural areas, is a constant stream of reminders of how connected we are to the people around us, how vital others are to our own existence and happiness, and what our role and position is within the group. When two people meet and go through the greeting ritual, they will repeat each other’s last name over and over again. Even if they’re just saying good morning, it can go on for a while. Recognizing someone and saying their last name is a way of affirming for that person that she has a place here, that she has relationships in the village, that she’s connected to everyone. It’s how you say that you’re home, and that the person you’re speaking with belongs here too.

The same type of thing happens at events, too. Everyone in the village, and many people from nearby places, shows up for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. No matter how affluent the couple getting married or the family of the new mother, all the people coming to celebrate the occasion will bring some money, a length of fabric, or a new cooking pot as a gift. They know that on the occasion of a birth, death, or wedding in their house, all the same people will reciprocate. When I imagine all the property that changes hands, and especially when I think of how the money gets passed back and forth, I imagine a vast net that stretches all over Senegal, holding people close, leaving no one out.

It’s all something we miss out on in the States. There’s less need for a constant reminder that we are not alone, perhaps. We have cell phones and the Internet and a reliable postal service, after all. But there’s also less need for closeness and trust. Here, you buy vegetables from your aunt and bread from your dad and you go the carpenter that your family always goes to and you get your clothing made at the same tailor as all of your most stylish friends. In the States, we can trust that products and services are going to be of a certain quality, that doctors are trained well, that cars won’t just give out, that we’ll never be stuck on the side of the road, miles and miles from home. Here in Senegal, none of that is guaranteed. So if the car you’re in breaks down, it’s midnight, and you’re hours from a major city, it helps to know that you can walk into the nearest village, pick any compound, and find a family there. The family will offer you food and water, and probably you’ll be welcome to spend the night, and odds are they’ll know someone who’s going to be headed in your direction tomorrow: would you like a ride?

When I left the States, I left behind a lot of important relationships. I know they’re still there, at least for the most part. They’re more real, in many ways, than what I have here in Senegal. After all, sometimes people are nice to me because my skin is white. But there’s something so easy to trust here, something I know I can rely upon. I don’t have to work at relationships or try to build stronger ties. I can disappear and come back the next day, the next month, the next year, and the reaction from my family would be the same when I walked back into the compound: quiet happiness, fuss-free greetings, and a quick reintegration back into the fold, the daily life, the closeness and community. They can’t imagine that I could change in any significant way.

I can’t be sure that it’ll be so easy when I come home to the States. The family across the country, the friends I left two years ago with sadness; I’ll see some of them again soon, but then I’m leaving again for Senegal. Senegal is not a place I’m ready to leave, and the States is not a place I’m ready to live again. This trip will be a little bit of an experiment in coming home, and while I’m happy to do it, I’m more sure of what I’ll feel landing again in Dakar than touching down in Los Angeles.

Love and guts,

- Jessie

P.S. See you soon. Which is good news, really.