Sunday, May 22, 2011

Training Wheels Are Off!

Last Tuesday afternoon, the Peace Corps car drove away and left me standing with the family I’ll be living with for the next 2 years.  Part of me wanted to chase it down and jump back in.  Luckily, Mansa, my host sister, immediately invited me over to her compound for tea, and I felt welcome right away.

Nafadji is the way you’d dream Africa up, and it really does feel like another world sometimes.  It’s a village of around 800 people with about 80 compounds.  Red dirt roads weave around the compounds of straw roofed huts.  Women carry water on their heads from the various forages in the town.  Men congregate under giant trees during the heat of the day.  Every morning I awake to the sounds of the women in my compound pounding millet and the cows and roosters next to my hut.  My hut is situated right next to the cow pen.

I’ve decorated my hut, and it’s starting to feel like a home.  I have a colorful mat that I sit on in the center of my hut, a clothing trunk, a food trunk, and lots of buckets around my room.  I hammered nails in the wall to hang bags, my towel, necklaces, etc.  I have pictures hanging on a string with clothing pins.  Before I arrived, the children of the compound painted on the wall, so there are some random drawings there.  I taped pictures from home on another wall (ironically of my family playing in the snow this past winter).  I turned the box my family sent me into a table and put some pretty fabric over it.  Overall, I’m happy with the way my hut is turning out.  It’s clean for the most part, but since I pretty much always have a door open so I don’t suffocate, creepy things tend to come in from time to time.  On my first night here, a bat flew in at night and freaked me out.  Mostly just ants and lizards though.  I’m not excited for when the scorpions come out.

I love my new family!  My host dad, the village chief, is an elderly man who looks very intimidating, but he is very sweet.  My host mom is also kind and is usually lying on a mat on the compound or sitting around.  I have 3 sisters who are all in their 20’s or 30’s, and 2 of them have children.  On my first day, my host nephew helped me figure out which kids belonged to who.  Bamoussa lives on the chief’s compound and has 7 children ranging in age from 3 to 14.   Mansa lives on a different compound and has 5 children ranging in age from 2 months to 15.  Fily is probably in her early 20’s and doesn’t have any children and lives on the chief’s compound.  Sungaru is the wife of a host brother who lives in Spain, and she lives on the compound with her 1 year old, Cira.  All of these women are extremely kind and funny, and it’s been fun to sit with them and try to communicate.  A couple days ago, Mansa invited me over to help shell peanuts and listen to all the women gossip. 

The kids are my favorite!  I’m completely falling in love with some of my host nieces and nephews.  Adama (8) and Asu (6) love coming into my hut and hanging out with me.  I gave them a coloring book that they went nuts over, and they also went crazy over some princess stickers I gave them.  They shower me with bracelets, and both my wrists are covered in multicolored beads.  They have become my shadows and tend to follow me around everywhere.  They are also freakishly strong and pull water for me, fill up my buckets, and carry them back to my hut.  Fanta Funee (4) is hilarious.  She is full of energy and sass and loves playing hand slapping games.  Seybo (12), my nephew, is an incredible helper.  He’s the one I’ve been going to with questions, and he’s great.  All of the kids are my new Malinke teachers, and they are constantly trying to give me new vocab words.  One evening, I was sitting in the courtyard and the kids surrounded me with the animal coloring book I gave Adama and started having me repeat the animals in Malinke.  Then we switched roles and I taught them all the animals in English.  So much fun.   On my second day, I gave the kids a soccer ball and started a game near the forage, and everyone had a blast.  The boys tend to exclude girls from soccer though, and one boy even came up to me and told me Adama shouldn’t be playing because she’s a girl.  I plan to change this during my service.  I would love to start a girls soccer team.  Adama and Asu had such a good time playing, but they usually aren’t allowed to.

Sembou, a man in my village, has been taking me around to the compounds at night to introduce me to the village.  We’ve almost made it through the whole village and should finish tonight.  When I thought I’ve got greetings down, I learn a new one.  Greetings are crucial here.  Everyone greets everyone they see, even from afar.  Conversations here tend to be very circular and centered around greeting and asking about the family.  Sarr, the nurse in my village and my counterpart, has been great to hang out with, because he’s from M’Bour and started off as an outsider to the village a couple years ago.  A couple days ago, I weighed babies and he did vaccinations at the health post.  After I weighed the babies, I charted their weight and age to see if they were in the healthy, moderately underweight, or severely underweight zones.  When a baby was in the red, Sarr gave nutrition advice to the mother so that she could get her baby up to a normal weight.  We do these baby weighing/vaccination sessions each month, so next month I’ll compare weights to see if the underweight babies have made progress.  Later on that night, we did a causerie on an HIV testing that we were helping with the next day.  The causerie was supposed to start at 8pm in a classroom at the school.  I learned that meetings never start anywhere near the correct time.  I sat in that hot classroom for an hour and a half before we finally had enough people in there. 

Yesterday, SWAA (Society for Women and AIDS in Africa) did HIV testing in my village, and I helped out with the event.  I mainly greeted people and helped write people’s information on their blood tubes.  SWAA tested couples only, where men had to bring their wife or wives, and vice versa.  This is a new strategy they are trying out to stop the spread of HIV to children by 2015.  The event ran smoothly, and it was great for me to see that the people in Nafadji will participate in causeries and HIV testing.  It gives me hope for my future projects in the village.

I lucked out and had some health activities that were already planned this week, but for the most part, living in Nafadji is a lot of sitting around, drinking tea, and shelling peanuts.  The pace of life is very slow and I don’t think anyone here owns a watch.  Food is scarce, and I’ve eaten rice with peanut sauce for lunch and dinner every day, and millet porridge for breakfast.  My host sisters told me that they don’t have access to vegetables here since there is no market.  There are 2 boutiques at the entrance to the village, but they barely sell anything.  I’ve been trying to stay healthy by taking vitamin supplements and eating protein bars in my hut.  I’ve started a ritual of boiling water in my hut (using my gas burner) in the mornings and having a cup of Starbucks Via instant coffee.  It has been so incredible to have this Via coffee after months of Nescafe during training.  I’d been saving my Via for site. 

Change can be so constant that you don’t even feel the difference until there is one.  I can feel myself slowly changing.  No electricity, no running water, scarce food, no market or grocery store, new language.  I no longer use toilet paper.  I bathe using a bucket.  It’s a completely new world.  Luckily I feel like training eased me into this.  If they had dropped me off in Nafadji on day 1 of being in Senegal, I probably would have cried.  Now the training wheels are off, and I’m adjusting all over again.  I’m creating my new routine, getting used to my new family, and trying to get comfortable here. 

You’re probably wondering how I’m able to post this blog since I haven’t left Nafadji.  In Thies, I bought a USB internet key and am able to have some access to internet from my hut if there is cell reception.  I put money on a sim card to use internet a little while I’m here.  I’m going to try to limit myself since I think it’s harder to adjust to living here if I’m on the internet though.  Also, the connection is extremely slow. 

Ok, I’ve written a novel and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!  It feels impossible to accurately describe this place.  It’s beautiful, and the people are generous and so patient with me.  When I walk anywhere, everyone yells “Aissata, Aissata!!!” at me.  I’ve felt lots of highs and lows in this first week, which is normal for adjusting to a new place.  As homesick as I feel looking at the pictures on my walls sometimes, I feel very fortunate to be in Nafadji.  It’s a special place, and I’m looking forward to getting to know my new friends and family here.


  1. Hi Marielle, What a fabulous experience! I will keep reading, but I understand you will be limited to writing and responding. My husband plays soccer with your dad.

    Sleep well and keep the scorpions out!

    Kevi Sutter

  2. I WAS wondering how you were able to post a new entry! =) You're doing a great job at describing Nafadji, although I'm sure it is much more incredible in person. The children sound inquisitive and cute; fun to be around.

    How do you know where you are supposed to be each day? For example, is your work at the health clinic like a job - you show up at the same time/place each day? And does your 'job' get you out of pounding millet in the mornings? =) (I had to google 'millet')

    Can you garden in Nafadji - to grow some vegetables? Or is the soil to poor/dry?

  3. Are any of the other PC volunteers in your area posting blogs? I am enjoying this one so much I wish there was more to read.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Natalie, my most recent post describes this more, but this job really doesn't have any structure. Right now, I'm supposed to be integrating into the community, and later on I'll be creating development projects and collaborating with people in the community. I have been helping to pound millet and to do other daily chores to integrate more into the family. In order to accomplish things during my service, I need to really understand how this place works. And I can garden here, but I haven't started my garden yet! Hope you're doing well!