Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon

Yesterday late afternoon, 3 French guys, 3 Senegalese guys, and I hiked far into the bush on a hunt for meat.  At first it started off as a hike in the woods, and I didn’t have high hopes that we would actually kill any animals.  The Senegalese guy who took the lead had a rusted shotgun that didn’t look promising, and rest of the guys carried knives.

We hiked for about an hour through thick bushes and trees and then arrived at a beautiful clearing of newly grown grass and scattered red rocks.  Towering trees bordered the field, and I had a strong desire to frolic in the meadow.  But then one of the men noticed some warthog tracks, and I snapped back into hunting mode.  All of a sudden, everyone was very serious about the hunt, and we followed the tracks back into the thick bush.  The man with the gun hiked up ahead of us so we didn’t scare any animals away, and we moved as briskly and quietly as we could through prickly bushes, trees, and tall grass.

A shot was fired up ahead, and the leader signaled for us to come, so we all darted through the bush.  We ran down into a ravine and up a hill and finally caught up with the lead hunter.  He had wounded a warthog, but it had run away.  We all started scanning for tracks or blood and found our way back on the warthog’s tracks.  The leader got a headstart once again, caught up with the warthog, and fired another shot.  We all sprinted towards the action, and at that point, the warthog was still walking around but clearly injured.  It went down into a ravine area, and we followed.  The Senegalese guys finished it off by throwing heavy rocks, which made me feel really sad for the poor warthog.

Our next obstacle was transporting our kill back to the village, because at this point we had been hiking for at least an hour and a half into the bush.  The guys cut the hog in half (I’ll spare you the graphic details) and left the guts and head in the woods.  One guy carried the bottom half with the legs around his head like a piggy back ride.  The other half took two men to carry, and it was a struggle to get it up the hill.  We called another villager to meet us with a bike on a road that was halfway from us to the village.  He unfortunately did not bring any straps to attach the hog to the bike, so it was a comedic journey back to the village as it kept falling off. 

Throughout this whole adventure, I went back and forth on how I really felt about the idea of hunting.  In the States, I would never go hunting for sport, but here we really were hunting out of necessity.  We can’t eat meat in our village unless someone kills an animal.  There’s no grocery store to buy it.  I finally came to the conclusion that as sad as it was to see this warthog killed and gutted, it fed a lot of people and enabled them to get some protein into their diets.  So I have no intention of going hunting when I go back to Seattle, but for now, I’ll go on more hunts if I’m invited.

After an exhausting hunting trip, we were rewarded with a delicious warthog dinner.  I don’t think I’ve ever valued eating meat as much as I do living in this village.  When you are living on a diet of plain white rice and then go on a journey into the bush to hunt down a warthog, you really appreciate that bowl of meat!

Friday, June 24, 2011

No Longer a Toubab

Last week, 8 French engineering students from Nantes arrived in Nafadji for a 3 week vacation.  Random?  Yes.  Apparently their University program has been organizing for a small group of students to come to Nafadji every year for the past 10 years.  I’m not sure how it started, but some people in my village have children who have moved to Europe, so maybe there’s a connection there?  The French students brought along donated items and are getting to experience village life for a few weeks.  They’re all very nice, and it’s been great to be able to speak French and hang out with some other non-Senegalese people.

Now that the new “toubabs” have arrived, my village no longer considers me one!  The French students are living at the health post, and the village assembled a group of women to cook their meals for them.  My sister Fily is on the cooking team, and she approached me the evening they arrived and asked if I wanted to help “cook for the toubabs”.  I felt so integrated!  All of a sudden, the villagers were complimenting my Malinke since the newbies didn’t speak a word of it. One villager told me I was 80% African already.  Who would have guessed that this random event could change my entire status in the village!

Being part of the cooking team has been an amazing way for me to get nutrients.  This time of year is referred to as “the starving season” by many, since the rains are just starting and crops aren’t producing yet.  I’ve been very frustrated with the meals my host family has been preparing.  I sat down to a communal bowl of plain white rice every night last week, and this diet is especially terrible for the 3 pregnant women in my compound.  Sarr has generously offered to let me eat dinner with him since he usually has better food.  While on the cooking team, I’ve been getting 3 dinners a night!  I eat early with my host family, then head over to the health post to eat with Sarr, and then get to eat the leftover food prepared for the French students with the cooking team.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of the women in my village better by cooking with them.  I feel much less like an outsider now.

Sarr and I went to 3 different villages to do vaccinations, weigh babies and distribute vitamin A and deworming medicine.  Sarr did the vaccinations and let me do everything else!  The vitamin A is in little plastic capsules, and I would cut the top off of them and squeeze the liquid into each child’s mouth.  Every child between the ages of 1 and 5 received a deworming tablet that each had to chew and take with water.  Weighing the babies was entertaining since we hung our weighing harness and scale from a tree.  I had to place screaming babies into the harness as they were swinging around under a tree, while also trying to get an accurate weight.  I charted each age and weight and noted the babies who fell into the red zone.  One of the villages Sarr and I visited was so far into the bush that the children had never seen a white person before.  Each kid would come up to the table I was sitting at and start shrieking out of fear.  I imagine I probably look like a terrifying white alien to them.  The screaming actually worked in my favor since they already had their mouths open for me to squirt vitamin A into!  While sitting at a table under a tree, surrounded by children waiting for their vitamins and medicine, I felt extremely happy to be right where I was. 

The Peace Corps National Director sets out a “5 week challenge” for each new group of volunteers, and the challenge is to not spend the night at the regional house for the first 5 weeks at site.  Those that complete the challenge get invited to an American dinner at the Director’s house in Dakar.  I succeeded in completing the challenge!  I finally was able to go back to the city of Kedougou this week to spend a few days at the regional house.  It was such a nice break to see the other volunteers in my region and be able to cook my own meals in a kitchen.  I was also finally able to pick up packages at the post office, and I had some nice surprises!

On the creepy crawler front, I’ve found a great spray for annihilating large brown ants, and killing and sweeping up the casualties has become a part of my nightly ritual.  The lizards don’t bother me, but their poop does!  They tend to hang out in the straw in my ceiling, and their poop drops all over the floor of my hut.  Last week, one of them pooped in my hair, and the next day I accidently sat in some.  It doesn’t smell good.  I also have already seen 2 scorpions, so when I walk through the village at night, I’m always on edge as I scan the road in front of me with a flashlight.  Although, I heard that the majority of scorpions here are not deadly which was mildly comforting.

This afternoon I will be going hunting in the bush with the male French students and some men in my village.  I hope we bring back some meat so I can have some protein in my bowl tonight!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Everyone's Invited

Greeting people is central to the Senegalese culture where everyone is included.  If I’m walking through the village, I need to stop and greet everyone I see along the way, whether or not I’ve ever met that person before.  Here’s a sample greeting translated into English:

A: Good Morning!
B: Unsi or Umba (female and male acknowledgment of greeting)
A: [Say last name of other person]
B: Unsi or Umba. [Say last name of other person]
A: Unsi or Umba
B: You’re with tired (directly translated but it is used as a greeting and thank you)
A. Unsi or Umba
A. Did you spend the night in peace?
B: Peace only
A: How are you?
B: I’m in peace
A: How is the house?
B: The house is in peace
A: How is your father?
B:  In peace. My father greets you.
A: How is your mother?
B:  In peace.  My mother greets you.
[insert other family members here]
A:  How is your work?
B:  In peace.
A: See you in the afternoon
B: Unsi or Umba
A: [Last name of other person]
B: Unsi or Umba. [Last name of other person]
A: Unsi or Umba

In Malinke culture, people greet each other by saying each other’s last name.  This is difficult for me since that requires me to memorize the last names of 800 villagers.  Luckily there are only about 10 names to memorize, but it’s tough to know who’s who.  Most people approach me yelling “Dumbha!” and if I don’t know their last name I always have to ask, and then they look sad that I didn’t remember.  They’ll sometimes tell me I should remember them next time, and then I feel like a horrible person when I forget again!  I’m getting there though.  I know a good portion of the last names and am learning more each day.  I’ve found that a good way to recognize people is by their teeth.  People here have very unique dental patterns.  Missing teeth.  Protruding teeth.  Rotting teeth.

You may have noticed from my sample greeting that the word Peace is in there quite a bit.  Each greeting has a standard response and if I deviate from that, people will usually laugh and correct me.  “Peace Only” is a safe bet as a response to most questions though. 

The positive part to this is that there is a very strong sense of community in my village, and everyone greets everyone else multiple times a day.  It is easy to feel welcome in this type of environment.  The frustrating part is that conversations here tend to be very circular, because one person asks about different things and the other responds that everyone and everything is in peace and then vice versa.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with more depth to it than that while greeting someone. 

With this strong sense of community comes the concept of sharing everything.  You cannot eat something in Senegal without offering some to everyone around you.  If you peel an orange, you better hope there are enough slices to go around!  The nice thing about this is that I get offered pieces of food all the time, but I can never eat a snack in public if I don’t intend to share.  Eating is a communal activity, and families eat from the same bowl.  My family is divided into different eating groups.  Usually the children eat together with one adult there to monitor them.  Some families divide the men and women.  I eat with my host sisters, and each of us claims our own section of the bowl.  You never veer into someone else’s food section, and only the right hand goes into the bowl since the left is used for bathroom.

As with the orange, if you are eating a meal and someone walks by, you always invite that person to join the bowl as well.  If I’m ever out around lunchtime, I’ll get invited to lots of lunch bowls.  One day, I had 3 different lunches! 

Sitting around and drinking tea is a frequent pastime in the village.  The tea they drink here is not the kind you picture in the US.  They fill up a teapot with green tea leaves, and usually half the kettle is filled with sugar (now you understand a potential source of the dental problems mentioned above!).  They then pour this sugary green tea mixture into what looks like a shot glass.  Each tea set has at least 2 of them, and they pass the tea back and forth between the shot glasses to create white foam on top of the tea.  They continue doing this until the foam is thick enough, and then they offer a shot glass to one of the people sitting.  People don’t linger with their tea.  When you are handed the shot glass, you usually slurp the tea up fast and hand it back to the tea maker to fill up for the next person.  Everyone drinks out of the same shot glasses, and they are passed around until the tea is gone.  If anyone is walking by, they are offered this tea as well.  If I’m walking around the village, I am usually asked to sit and drink tea on various compounds.

This aspect of community, sharing, and acknowledging everyone has been an adjustment for me.  In the US, people pass each other in the street all the time without saying anything.  I really enjoyed taking walks in the US to think or reflect on things, but here you can’t daydream while you’re walking, because you may miss greeting someone.  I’ve spaced out quite a few times and not seen someone I should have greeted, and then that person will give me a hard time for not greeting them.  If you forget to greet someone, they usually get offended and wonder if you’re mad at them.  Reading under a tree in a heavily trafficked area means that I will be looking up from my book every few minutes to greet people.

The culture of not leaving anyone out extends to housing people as well.  I’ve never seen a homeless person in Nafadji or in my homestay in MBour.  If a child doesn’t have parents, another family takes them in.  In my current compound, there are at least 4 unrelated boys who live here who have families in other villages.  They are college (middle school) students, and since their villages don’t have a college, they live on my compound during the school year so that they can attend school.  Compounds are large, and the idea of the nuclear family does not exist here.

Anywhere I go, I’m offered a chair to sit in, tea to drink, food to eat, etc.  I went to watch the college soccer game a few weeks ago and most people were standing, but there was one bench.  The bench was already full, but the men on it squished even closer together and insisted that I sit down.  Even when people hardly have anything, they offer to share.  As weird as this culture seems sometimes, it feels nice to be included.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Comedy of Village Life

My days here tend to be very bizarre and hilarious.

I recently started a garden in my backyard and will soon be planting vegetables and an intensive moringa bed.  Before I can begin planting, I needed to dig the garden beds in my yard and amend the soil.  Ian and I had both been putting off doing our gardens and decided to help each other out with the digging and soil amendments.  So one day last week I biked to Missira Dantila (Ian’s village) to help him start his garden, and he biked to Nafadji another day to return the favor.  Before he came to Nafadji, I needed to prepare manure and gather ash to amend the soil, and of course my helpful nieces and nephews wanted in on the activity!

I walked around the village carrying a shovel as 4 little kids trailed behind me with a massive rice bag to collect cow poop.  When my villagers all saw me shoveling poop into a bag, they started laughing and trying to figure out what the crazy toubab was doing.  After I had a full bag, I emptied it out into my yard and found some good sticks to pound it with.  Saibo, my wonderful 12-year-old nephew, helped me pound the manure so that it was ready to go into my garden beds.  Once the manure was done, the next step was finding ash to add some carbon into the soil.  I once again walked around the village, as little kids followed with a big sack, asking various villagers if I could take some of the ash from their cooking areas.  Some people couldn’t understand why I’d need ash for a garden and were confused as to what I was doing, but others were very helpful and gave me their cooking ash.  Ian helped me pick neem leaves for my final soil amendment, and then we dug the beds.  I’m very excited to have my own vegetable garden!

While Ian was here to help with my garden, we got to talking with a man in my village who plays the Djembe (type of African drum).  Ian got excited and asked if he could see it.  Soon, he was drumming away as women and children flocked to the sounds of the drum and began a dance circle.  We danced, sang, and drummed until dinnertime, and the kids loved it.  The next day, we saw little kids drumming on drums they had created out of cans, attached to their bodies with string.  Some of the little drums were impressive!

Fily, my 16-year-old host sister, is a constant source of entertainment.  There’s not a whole lot to do in the village during the day, but she always finds ways to amuse herself.  Her most common pastime is to style the hair of friends and family.  People are constantly tressing and retressing their hair here into different braided hairdos.  When I moved to a bush village in rural Africa, I never would have imagined that vanity could exist here.  I actually caught Fily dying my 1-year-old niece’s hair black the other day since it was a lighter brown color.   Since I got here, she’s been trying to get me to let her tress my hair, and I finally caved a couple days ago!  I’ll post pictures once I can get a faster internet connection somewhere (probably at the regional house when I go in a week).  My village got a kick out of my new hairdo.

Bamoussa, my 35-year-old host sister, has a husband who lives in a mining village and visits occasionally.  When he visits, he usually brings us meat from an animal he’s hunted.  A few weeks ago, he killed a gazelle and I got to help prepare gazelle meatballs!  Last week, he brought gazelle meat again, and Fily decided that since we had so many leftover meatballs, she wanted to sell them around the village.  This apparently was her first entrepreneurial venture, and it was a success!  She made me walk around the village with her, selling meatballs door to door.  It was hilarious!

I discovered that girls all over the world like to play the same games.  My little host nieces, Adama (8), Asu (6), and Fanta Funee (4) are adorable and created little dolls out of sticks and fake hair.  They made little outfits for their dolls out of fabric that was lying around and made little beds for them out of rocks and sticks.  It’s been really cute to watch them play with their dolls.  Women here carry their babies on their backs, using fabric to hold the baby in place.  I found Adama, Asu, and Fanta Funee with large round fruit attached to their backs with fabric, pretending they had babies.  I could not stop laughing!

The rains are becoming more frequent, and we’ve had a couple huge storms recently.  Everything is coming to life with the rain, and grass is growing in areas I didn’t even know it was supposed to grow.  With all this life come lots of bugs. Some of them are beautiful, like the lime green praying mantis or the bright red beetle, but others are more common and irritating.  I’ve been forced to get very creative with my bug killing techniques, and my host family probably thinks I’m nuts.  Giant brown ants have nested outside both of the doors of my hut.   It’s gotten so bad that when I come back to my hut at night, there are so many swarming the door that they cover the keyhole.  I have to stick my hand into their clusters to open my door and then they get all over my arm and bite me, and I end up dancing around my room, screaming and flicking them off of me.  I bought an insect killing spray and bag of flour at the boutique.  I’ve been lining my door frames with flour since I don’t think ants like to cross over it.  My host family has never heard of this strategy and laughed as I floured my door.  Duct tape has also been essential to my defense against the ants.  In another battle, some weird maggot things were coming up out of my floor, but I finally solved that after 3 attempts with candle wax, water, and bleach.  Some bugs and spiders don’t bother me, but others are putting my bug killing skills to the test.  On stormy nights, I jump into my bed, tuck my mosquito net all around my foam mattress as a shield, put my earplugs in, and close my eyes.  It’s almost better not to know what comes in at night since the coast is clear in the morning!

I’m feeling more comfortable here and the days are passing faster.  I’ve had lots of activities the past week and have more this upcoming week.  Last week I helped do the labwork for an HIV testing in another mining village, and tomorrow I’ll be going with Sarr, my counterpart, to 3 villages to weigh and vaccinate babies.  We just got a new weighing contraption that looks like the kind of device you’d use to weigh meat, but the baby is in a harness.  This should make for some entertaining baby weighing tomorrow.  Usually I’m in charge of the weighing and Sarr does the vaccinations.

Yesterday I took the Niokolo into Saraya to do the radio show, and Leah, Martin, and I did a skit about malaria over the air. Since rainy season is upon us, it is crucial that people sleep under mosquito nets at night.  My legs are already covered in bites from being out at dusk.  Our skit also cleared up the misconception that malaria comes from sour milk.  I’m sure there are plenty of reasons to avoid drinking sour milk, but avoiding malaria shouldn’t be among them.  This morning I biked back to Nafadji by myself, and it was a beautiful ride.  I’m feeling really good about being here right now.  Finding the comedy in Nafadji life has kept me happy and entertained the past week.  I hope the laughs keep on coming!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Yo-Yo Effect

My emotions here are like a yo-yo.  I'll drop down to feeling low and homesick and then bounce up to incredible highs.

Last Sunday morning, I took the Niokolok (kind of looks like a huge Safari vehicle crammed full of people) into Saraya for a couple nights.  The Malinke volunteers do a radio show every Sunday night, and our villagers tune in each week.  We did a skit in Malinke, played American music, and did shout outs to specific people in our villages.  I greeted every member of my host family over the air, and as soon as I got back, I had people coming up to me asking why I didn’t greet them over the radio too.  Everyone wants to be famous!  From what I hear, our radio shows run the gamut from giving educational health tips to an evening learning about the Beatles or Lady Gaga.

It felt refreshing to be able to get out of my village for a couple nights, spend time with other Americans and speak English.  While in town, I stayed with Leah, a volunteer who’s been here for over a year and is becoming a great friend!  In reality, Saraya is a very small town with a paved road, a few food boutiques, a hardware store, and a restaurant, but to us it’s a booming metropolis.   I made fast friends with the omelet sandwich lady, and I’ve visited her food stand every time I’ve been to visit Saraya.  Her sandwiches are delicious, and getting some protein is always a plus!

On Monday, Leah and I went with some Saraya hospital staff to do HIV testing in Kolia, a small mining village on the border of Mali.  Initially we set up our testing station inside a classroom and went out into the village to round up people to get tested.  Leah showed me how to test the blood for HIV by using a pipette to put drops of the blood onto an HIV test.  Don’t worry, we used gloves!  We weren’t getting a very good turnout at the school, so after lunch we packed up a couple tables and some chairs and drove our truck down to the river that divides Senegal and Mali.  All along the river, miners were sifting through dirt, panning for gold.  The scenery was beautiful, but the level of poverty and poor health was high.  We set up tables under a tree next to the river, and as soon as we arrived, we had a line of miners waiting to get tested.  The experience was chaotic and a little disheartening.  The nurse we had with us was not very talented in drawing blood, and he often could not find the vein or effectively draw blood from the person’s arm.  In that case, he would finger prick the person and rub their finger on the test, which usually didn’t produce enough blood for the test to be valid.  Senegalese people are very worried about getting their blood drawn.  They would come up to the table and ask if it was going to hurt, and we would all say it wouldn’t as they looked over at the nurse painfully sticking someone multiple times, trying to find a vein.  While we were there with the goal of testing for HIV, we found that many other health issues plagued the miners.  One man had a finger that was rotting off of his hand and didn’t seem to have plans to go to a health post anytime soon.  The health workers informed him that he needed to go to the hospital the next day.  So we were testing by a river with a crowd of miners in terrible health waiting in chaos when we saw a dark cloud looming above.  A group of little boys watching the testing had bets on how many minutes it was going to take to start pouring, and it didn’t take long.  A gust of wind blew all of our tests, needles, and paperwork everywhere, and then the heavy downpour started.  Luckily we had made it through almost the entire line of miners at that point, and we quickly packed everything up and jumped in the truck.  Driving the 50k through a heavy rainstorm back to Saraya in a vehicle with a cracked windshield and no windshield wipers topped off the “Wow, I’m in Africa” experience. 

On Tuesday, Ian and I biked the 30k from Saraya to Nafadji, and then later on in the day he biked another 20k to his village.  We biked along the red dirt roads through towering green trees with exotic, colorful birds flying above us.  It was a beautiful ride, and we made really good time!

A couple days ago, my host mom and sisters asked if I would get up early so I could go into the bush with them to help build a fence.  I had no idea what to expect.  After our millet porridge, we headed out to the bush.  There are so many moments where I wish I had my camera with me, and this was one of them.  We walked in early morning along the scenic red road with nothing but trees surrounding us.  Eventually, my host mom led me to a little tin door on the left side of the road, which led to a fenced off area.  I was entering her secret garden full of mango and banana trees.  Well, it’s not really a secret, but it is in the middle of nowhere.  They had tree branches stacked up around the borders of the garden, and we took pieces of wire to tie them together.  Bamoussa, one of my host sisters, wants to start her own garden, so after our fence building, we walked around in the bush looking for a prime location.  It felt amazing to be out in the woods with these strong women, and I felt like I could live here forever.  That feeling didn’t last all day, but it was great for a while.

Last week, I made some new friends.  I was at the health post and a group of College (middle school) teachers, who are all originally from the Dakar area but were sent to Nafadji to teach, asked me to drink tea with them.  Since they’re not from this area originally, they speak much better French than Malinke, so we were able to speak in French!  I talked to them for a couple hours and then got invited to eat lunch with them.  When they found out I play soccer they all got very excited and invited me to a pickup game that they play every night at 6pm.  I went that night and had such a great time playing soccer at sunset with the men of Nafadji.  After I played that night, I had a whole new group of friends in the village.  A lot of the village boys and men go every night, and girls are never allowed to play, but since I’m white, I guess I’m the exception.  Eventually I’ll start my girls team, so that’ll change things.  I was surprised that they let me play center mid and actually passed me the ball!  I was expecting them to be sexist, but they’re very inclusive in the game.  I’m really enjoying going to pickup games at night.  During the day, I usually sit under a tree helping women crack peanuts or pound grain, and it’s nice to be able to connect with the men of the village through soccer!

My emotions here really are like a yo-yo.  I’ll go from being frustrated that my host sister is laughing at how terribly I’m speaking Malinke to feeling exhilarated as I go for an evening run along the uninhabited roads, where the only things I can hear are the birds and the sound of my own breath.  Since rainy season is starting, the storms at night create a battle of me against giant ants, cockroaches, and other creepy crawlers.  Then the morning comes and makes the night before seem like a bad dream as I awake to the peaceful sounds of birds and farm animals.  Up and down, up and down.