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.