Category Archives: Pre-Service Training

Goodbye to the mango house

It has been so long since I’ve written.  We’ve been very busy with language classes, tests, and a counterpart workshop.  The workshop was for all the counterparts (local community members who help volunteers with projects and integration into the community).  I have three counterparts: Monsieur Sarr (principle of a primary school), Monsieur Sall (a school inspector), and another counterpart from the mayor’s office.  Paul has two counterparts: Madame Ly (a matrone) and Monsieur Dem (ICP-chef du medicin of the health center of Podor).  They are all people whose work and role in the community will help us with development projects.

After the workshop, we got a beautiful weekend in Popenguine (north of Sally and Ngekhokh along the coastline).  Our trainee stage rented out a beautiful home on the beach.  We swam in the ocean, read books in the sand, ate at some nice restaurants, and just relaxed for a couple days.  It felt other-worldly and there were times when I forgot that I was in Senegal.  The coast is so beautiful.

We spent a final week with our homestay family.  Paul and I had a rough few days dealing with a mango fly larvae (possibly)…but that is a story that Paul should tell.  We spent a lovely day making beignets for our families and then went around together to all our homes to say thank you.  I adopted a very sick kitten.  We named her Hunter.  Paul insisted it was too early to name her and perhaps he was right.  Evan’s host sister found her on the streets, dying of thirst.  We cleaned her up and started feeding her milk from a dropper bottle.  She was doing really well—walking, eating, peeing, pooping, purring, suckling—but blood in the stool is typically a bad omen.  The morning of the day that we were leaving Ngekhokh, I went to feed her but she was cold and rigid.  Paul came back from his bucket shower to find me sobbing on the floor of our room.  You think that I would know better.  She was as lifeless as any animal I have ever killed for the museum.  And petting her wouldn’t bring her back.  And after an already awful start to the day, we had to say goodbye to our family.  We walked to the boulangerie where the bus would find us.  All the Ngekhokh families were there with their trainees.  Women and children everywhere, greeting each other for one final time.  Evan’s many sisters.  My aunt, two brothers, and cousins.  It is so hard, stepping away from a place that has been home to a vast unknown.  Pop left for home early; he hates goodbyes.  I kept picking up Ami tokosel and pretending to board the bus with her in my arms.  Our neene was still not back from Mauritania.  But we’ll see her for a good-bye party in Thies on Thursday.  Goodbye Ngekhokh.  Hello Podor.


These are a few of my favorite things…

Some of my favorite things:

-Sitting down at the food bowl and finding out that you have placed yourself directly in front of the cabbage!  In Senegalese bowls, there are typically several veggies—cabbage, carrot, dikon, eggplant, bitter tomato, sweet potato, potato, bisap.  The veggies are arranged in their whole form around central pieces of fish.  Typically what you sit in front of is what you eat the most of.  When they lift the lid and I am in front of the cabbage, I am one of the happiest people ever.

-lacciri and kossam—a northern Senegalese dish of cous cous and milk (sometimes sweetened or yogurt like).  My favorite food in all of Senegal.

-Pulling water from the well.  I love that sound of the bucket kerpluncking into the water down below.  Since the plastic buckets float, you have to pull them up above the water and let the rope loose so that momentum and gravity shoot the bucket deeper into the water so that it is full when you pull it back up.

-The sound of women pounding millet, onions, or anything in the woyndu.

-The sounds of a woman yelling in Pulaar at her child.

Seep seep!

The Pulaars live so closely with their animals that there are more than 30 sounds used to call animals in and to shoo them away.  Two sounds for each animal: one to say “go away” (Yah!) and one to say “come here” (Argay!).  My uncle went through a few of them, some common ones that I hear almost every day in Senegalese households.  To shoo a cat (ulundu), its seep seep.  To call in a cat, mus.  For a goat (mbeewa): adja and mba.  Chickens (gertogal): keess and cuss.  Donkey (mbaaba): ani and karl.  Dogs (rawandu): yah and ey.  For a cow (nage): clich and touyoy.

The mangoes are ripening.  Slowly turning yellow.  Little Moussa and Sidi are climbing the trees to pull them down.  We are so impatient, Sidi slashed them all down from one tree, green or yellow.  I came home from class to find the ground littered with mangoes.  Never in my life could I imagine mangoes littering the ground.  Our neene’s father planted these mango trees and built the well: the mango trees so that his family would always have food and shade, and the well so that his family would always have water even when the electricity cuts off and water stops flowing from the water tower to the robines.

I’m thinking right now about a tragic scene we saw on the way to Podor.  We passed what appeared to be a head-on collision on the highway, glass broken everywhere and a body covered by a tarp on the ground in the sun.  All we could see were the feet, sticking out uncovered from the tarp.  While in Podor, we passed a funeral, the women wailing as they walked down the dirt roads.  He lived in Podor.  Its moments like these that remind me how fragile life is and how quickly it can be shattered.  People in Senegal live their lives day by day—in the present—for the future seems so unpredictable.  Inshallah. God willing.  See you tomorrow, haa jango, inshallah.  God willing.  So Allah jabi.  If God agrees.

An interesting behavior that Senegalese have is refusing to wash out wounds and self-medication.  Ami tokosel refused to wash out a cut on her leg saying that it would hurt—I made her wash it.  Another incident: Sidi hurt his leg wrestling with little Moussa the other day, his cut deep and revealing the surface of his shin bone.  Paul washed it out with some antiseptic solution, but only after chasing and calling Sidi back.  Checking up on it two days later, Sidi told Paul that he was taking some medication to help him with another problem.  Pulling it out of his pants pocket, Sidi presented the yellow package to Paul.  Paul was a bit appalled.  The medication claimed to treat intestinal worms—something Sidi bought no doubt on the streets of Ngekhokh.  This happens frequently.  People self-medicate themselves, buying whatever they can find.  In Podor, a common problem associated with malaria is the lack of initiative to go to the health post when malarial symptoms first appear.  To save themselves the money of a health consultation, many Senegalese will buy painkillers from a street vendor when they start getting sick.  The symptoms go away for a couple of days before the patient gets gravely ill with a more severe and developed case of malaria.  The simple malaria is easily treatable, but this more grave stage takes a much longer time to treat.  The chief of medicine at our health center informed us that starting this May 1st, malarial treatment medication will be free to all patients in need of it.  I am hoping that with this new program, we can encourage people to come to the health post as soon as they start to develop malarial symptoms.

The biggest issue in Podor is actually schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms found in freshwater sources.  The eggs hatch and develop inside a snail in the water.  Then the parasitic worms penetrate the skin of humans, growing in blood vessels.  The worms produce eggs which travel to the bladder or intestines and are passed back into the water through urine or feces.  In Podor, many people are affected by this disease because the river is used for everything.  Women wash their laundry, dishes, and selves in the water.  Kids play and bathe in the river.  All the gardens in Podor are along the river; water is pumped up to them straight from the river.  Schisto can be extremely easy to treat (de-worming medication) but can have long-term damage on the liver, intestines, lungs, and bladder if left untreated for several years.  The chief of medicine claims that about 90% of the talibe have schisto in Podor.  Paul and I are planning on doing much work to decrease the incidence of schisto.

Paul has promised to write about our volunteer visit to Podor (our new site!!), so stay tuned for more about our new site.

Kumal e Senegal (Wedding in Senegal)

This past weekend has been full of excitement.  Our brother Ibou married a woman from Mbour.  A half-week before the wedding, my youngest brother Ali brought two cows home, one female and one male.  Then a goat appeared.  The women one by one combed out their braids and went next door to have them re-braided (sometimes with hair extensions braided in).  There were relatives everywhere, women and children and men sleeping on every surface possible.  Samba and I bought a bag of onions as a gift to the family for the wedding.

The wedding here is two days long.  Saturday, they spent the day at the wife’s home feasting and celebrating.  All the men of my household went to help serve food.  Our house was bustling with activity, cleaning and cooking, preparing the place for the bride’s arrival. It was amazing to see the women come together.  They sat in huge groups, cutting onions, carrots, beans, bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes into large two-feet diameter metal bowls.  Then there were huge cauldrons of simmering fish or goat or steamed rice over open fires.  At one point we had seven fires going at once.  It was a grand communal making of all meals.  Beautiful.  The women sat in their colored cloths, chatting with each other.  At one point, I was cutting onions, just listening to the women tell jokes in what sounded like Wolof.  They were taking turns, adding and elaborating, laughing so hard that all of them were wiping tears away with their dresses.

They killed the goat Saturday morning for our lunch.  And then the male cow later that night.  We ate dinner and then napped before the arrival of the bride.  We woke at 1:30 am to the sounds of girls chanting, singing, and drumming.  The friends of the bride were welcoming her to her new home.  The car pulled up into the house, and she got out wearing a pink head-scarf.  My neene was sitting on a mat in front of the building waiting to receive her.  The bride sat down in front of my neene and they were both sprinkled with gawri (millet).  Afterwards, the bride was shown to her room where she and Ibou sat under a blanket/sheet on their bed and shared a meal of niiri (balls of millet) and kossam (sweet yogurt milk).

Sunday was full of cooking and dancing.  Samba and I both helped cut onions, carrots, bell peppers, and tomatoes.  Usually men do not help with the cooking at all, but the women did not seem to mind.  They just laughed and asked questions in Pulaar.  A nani Pulaar? Mi nani Pulaar seeda. I know how to speak Pulaar a little.  Alaa, a nanani Pulaar. But, I’m doing pretty well for only having been here for three weeks?  Right?

The guests started showing up around late morning.  The men sat in the front of the house in plastic chairs.  They chatted and made tea.  The tent was set up outside our house, blocking the entire dirt intersection that my compound sits on.  The women were cooking, cooking, cooking.  After lunch, the dancing started out under the tent.  Tam-tams set-up and beating out complicated rhythms.  The younger women were sitting on the border of the tent, surrounding the drummers and a dance floor.  And one by one, three by three, the girls danced.  They were beautiful.  When Senegalese dance, they dance without inhibition and so naturally.  In America, there is this awkwardness and self-awareness that make us uneasy.  I lose the beat and find myself staring at my toes, wondering how those legs can possibly be attached to the rest of me.  The women here dance the way we would dance when no one is watching—the door locked to our rooms.  Raising their skirts with their hands, they beat their feet against the sand perfectly in unison with the drummers.  They follow the beats, shaking and gyrating their hips in chaotic harmony.  After the women danced, the men danced a little.

The bride arrived later in a taxi.  She went to get her hair redone and touched-up.  She got out, shimmering in her blue and gold dress.  The make-up was dramatic with blues and golds.  Her hair was pulled away, curls draped around a bun with gold ribbons interwoven.  Ibou was in a beautiful bright white wax fabric bubu trimmed in gold embroidery.  He was beaming with joy.  The bride was led into the house, through the throngs of older women who are all sitting in chairs outside the buildings.  They have finished cooking, changed into their new wedding clothes, and are sitting to welcome the bride.  The women of Senegal usually change into their nice clothes during the late afternoon.  And then they wear the same dress the following morning before changing again the next afternoon.  After this welcoming, the bride returned to watch her girlfriends dance under the tent.

The evening continued until around 10 pm when guests started to go home.  Juices and salads were served.  Slowly, the guests wished us a peaceful evening and returned home.  We ate a very late dinner and stepped over guests laying down to sleep on mats outside our room.  The cleaning was left for the next day.  My neene was so extremely exhausted and she had no voice as she wished us goodnight.

Hearing time and waiting for mangoes to ripen

I can tell exactly what time it is in the morning by the sounds that permeate through our walls and single grated window.  Around 6:15, the call to prayer is broadcasted through music and voices on a stereo speaker from the mosque.  With this awakening comes the fresh cockadoodle-doos of the many roosters in our yard and the few hee-haws of donkeys down the street.  I swear that I can hear Zenaib’s friend the donkey from our home two blocks away. The animals announce their survival in this dusty world before setting out to forage freely on the streets—goats, donkeys, and chickens alike.  Fifteen minutes later, the chanting and prayer begins.  Around seven, I hear the weavers, laughing doves, starlings, and house sparrows start their dawn chorus just as the women in my home begin to rise to their many house chores.  Fati sweeps the entire galle grounds—sweeping dirt away from dirt.  Binta tokosel scrubs the latrines and shower with palm tree brooms and powdered laundry detergent.  I wake at seven also to sweep and get our water for the day.  After prayer, the whole town comes to life and I can hear the cars passing, people chatting, cooking, and cleaning.

The cat of the house has a litter of kittens—ulundu tokosel (little cat).  Nayi.  Four of them.  She keeps them on the roof of the kitchen under the shade of the mango tree.  One night she somehow got stuck on the roof of the other building where everyone sleeps.  And she ran back and forth over the corrugated metal roof, meowing to her kittens and making a huge racket.  It sounded like a chimpanzee charging across the roof in an absolute fury.

When Senegalese drink tea or coffee, it is imperative to add a large quantity of sugar.  At breakfast, my family fills their cups of tea or instant coffee one-quarter full of sugar.  My aunt always leans over to taste my tea, makes a distasteful grimace, and says moyyani.  Moyyi means it is good.  Moyyani means the opposite.

The green mangoes taunt us.  They hang heavy–huge green full luscious mangoes, not yet ripe but promising to soon turn sweet yellow.  Kids eat them green even when it makes them sick.  Some kids tap into them with sticks to see just how close they are to being ripe.  The sweet syrups congeal into thick honey-like drips on the sides.  One morning, my younger brother Pop confronted Sidi about the mangoes.  A couple large ones were missing from the front of the tree.  Sidi says it was not him.  Pop ran to get the Koran, chasing after Sidi with the holy book, yelling in Wolof that he wanted Sidi to swear on the Koran that he did not eat the mangoes.  We found our culprit.  Sidi won’t do it, he’s backing away uneasily into the yard.

There are two tasks in Senegal that are quite easy in America but quite difficult in Senegal: washing clothes and cutting onions.  Washing clothes is a huge process.  There are usually about two soap buckets—one with a bar soap, and the second with the powder detergent.  Then after that a bucket with some blue dye in it to make the whites “pop.”  And after that possibly another rinse cycle.  I do not understand it.  When the women wash, they rub their two fists together with fabric between and get theses mini water jets that squeak with each motion up and down.  Each pump and squeeze of water makes this “clean” sound.  I can’t get it.  Mi waawa wuppude (I cannot do laundry).  I fake it and use my mouth to make the squeaking sounds.  My girl cousins laugh.

And cutting onions.  Impossible.  There are no cutting boards.  They cut, holding the onion in their palms, cutting first parallel slices one way (the way one would slice an orange) and then dice it cutting parallel lines the other direction perpendicular to the first cuts.  Maama has cuts all over her thumbs from this.

Pulaar is incredibly hard.  I feel like my learning curve has decreased to absolute zero.  As proof, I have the following example of three similar words: there is the word laabi (with a funky b) which means “clear or clean;” then there is laabi (without the funky b), meaning “number of times;” and finally there is labi (with a funky b), meaning “knife.”  The only differences are how long the a is stressed, and if there is a short b.  The funky b has a bit of a pop to it, whereas the regular b drags a little.  I can barely hear the difference.  If it weren’t for context, this language would be absolutely impossible.  Another challenge is how the first consonant of verbs changes.  When the subject pronoun comes after the verb or is plural, the first letter of the verb changes.  For instance mi soodii (I bought) will morph into min coodii (we bought).  Or o wiyete ko Samba (he is called Samba) becomes mbiyete mi ko Kumba (I am called Kumba) because the subject pronoun mi comes after the verb instead of before.

I am starting a list of items here that have Obama on them (they love him out here!):

-a lighter with his face

-a school notebook with his face + name

-a textile company named after him

-a rice company also

Ina wuli jaw…tiggi tiggi?

No mbad-daa? Jam tam.  Ada selli?  Mowdum.  No mbadu-daa e tampere?  Mowdum.  No mbadu-daa e nguleeki?  Ina wuli.  Ina wuli jaw.  Tiggi tiggi.

We’ve been hearing that the Fuuta is so hot that during two months of the hot season, you do not leave your home due to the heat.  It can get so hot in Northern Senegal that the Pulaar  adjective jaw, meaning “really,” is only used to describe the heat (my Mama or grandmother here in Senegal also used wuli jaw to describe how hot the fire under the cooking pot was one evening).  Paul and I have pieced together that we are going to placed along the Senegal River in northern Senegal in a town called Podor.  Being the only couple in our stage, the Peace Corps staff wants to place us in a location where we have a larger number of resources, projects, and space.  Most volunteers in our stage are going to placed out in the Senegal bush, whereas we are going to be in a more urban setting.

This past week we have been staying in a town southeast of Thies called Ngekhokh.  We’ve been living with an amazing host family.  Galle Binta, as we call it.  Our neene (mother) is lovely Binta Ba.  She sells beautiful printed fabrics at the local market in a small stand plated in corrugated metal sheets.  Upon our arrival, Binta and kaaw (uncle) Omar told us that our Senegalese names are Samba Jallo and Kumba Ba.  Paul has taken the last name (Jallo) of the men in the family, and I the women.  In our compound lives several people.  There are Binta’s three sons: Ibu, Amadou, and Ali.  Ibu and Ali are both car mechanics.  Amadou is a student studying all night long for the bac.  Aunt Aminata (Ami) is the sister of Binta and works as a commercial assistant for a real estate agency.  Mama is Binta and Ami’s mother.  Uncle Omar lives next door and is a Muslim scientist.  Fati and Aleson are a married couple living with us.  Aleson’s mother is Mama’s sister.  There is also Ami tokosel (petite Ami), the daughter of a cousin of Aunt Ami and Binta.  Binta tokosel (petite Binta) is also a daughter of another cousin.  There is also Seedi and Moussa, both of whom I still do not understand how they are related to the rest of the family.  Uncle Ali, Aunt Ami’s favorite cousin is here for a couple days of the week.  Aunt Ami always jokes that Uncle Ali is the cousin of Barrack Obama because he is tall, thin, and handsome.

Our days in Ngekhokh have been filled with studying Pulaar du Nord with our language instructors.  My instructor is Zenaib and Paul’s is Sakhir.  We study from about 8 until 1 under a mango tree in the backyard of Zenaib’s host family.  There is a mamma goat and a baby goat (with piss all up their legs) who spend their mornings getting into the cooking hut and stealing sugar.  The neighbor’s mbaaba (word for donkey but easily confused with baaba for father) hee-haws every hour on the dot.  Two scrawny cats lounge in the shade of the brick wall.  An amazing classroom.

Our family has been so patient.  Everyday is a struggle to understand.  I’ve been saying mi faamani ( I do not understand) over and over again.  Holno wiyette “Pulaar is difficult” e Pulaar? Verbs change in spelling depending on where the noun is and if its plural.  The language is nice in that every single letter is pronounced…but its length is determined by either the letter used or by how many there are in a row.  For instance, there are special d‘s and b‘s who have a shorter sound than the normal d and b.  And a word like duubi is pronounced with an emphasis on the u, drawing it out longer.

Kids are singing tubab over and over again.  Bonjour tubab.  40 of them are upon us, carrying their boards of koranic lessons.  The eight of us in town enjoying a Saturday coke (cold bottles of coke, sprite, and fanta have become one of the best things in the world).  And on the count of three, we run screaming like baboons and waving our arms at them.  Shrieking children and laughing parents.  A single small triumph.  It gets tiring to hear it over and over again.  Mi wonaa tubab.  Mbiyete mi ko Kumba.

We are back in Thies.  A few days of mud-oven making and training in how the program here in Senegal works.  Back in Ngekhokh Wednesday evening.  We are sitting in the disco hut gazing at a bat–she looks like a fruit bat, but I haven’t a guide here for bats.  She’s firmly established her space here, having just now turned herself right side up to take a pee downward onto us.  Good night.  Mbaalen e jam.  Spend the night in peace.

Asalaam maalekum!

“Asalaam maalekum” is a greeting in  Wolof (and other related languages).   The response is “Maalekum salaam”.  Wolof is the language spoken by a majority of Senegalese people.  Greetings in Senegal are one of the most important aspects of the culture.  They express a respect for those around you.  Most greetings start with a hearty handshake and then go on for several minutes.  How is your mother?  How is your grandson?  How are your cattle?   The greeting differs across the country and by age, sex, or religion.  More conservative Muslims do not shake hands but clasp their hands and pump them at you in greeting.  It is aggressive to look people in the eye, even during conversations–something I will need to keep reminding myself of.

We have classes between 8 to 6-7 pm.  So far we’ve had lots of culture classes about food, drink, etiquette, dress, religion, latrine use.  They have delicious foods here.  We’ve been eating amazing lunches of rice with some sort of meat and roasted veggies.  Meals are eaten around a huge communal bowl on top of a mat.  No shoes on the mat.  There is typically rice or millet with meat/veggies in the middle.  There are leaf, okra, peanut, tomato, palm oil, and onion sauces that are poured on top.  You eat with either a spoon or with your RIGHT hand, directly eating out of your portion of the bowl.  You only eat what is in front of you and should ask before taking pieces from other parts of the bowls.  In Senegal, you do most things with your right hand.  It is polite to slurp when drinking tea.  People do not talk at dinner but concentrate on the meal.  Conversation is saved for tea time.  I have tasted cola nuts, tamarin juice, baobab fruit.

They use toothsticks to clean their teeth (better than toothbrushes we hear), incense and bim-bims (necklaces) to attract their lovers, sap from gum arabics as laundry soap.  Dress is very important in Senegal.  In America it expresses individuality.  In Senegal, dressing sloppily is disrespectful and reflects your opinion of those around you.  The people here are dressed beautifully, even on their way to work in the fields.  Beautiful fabrics throughout the market that are taken to the tailor to make outfits.

Islam is practiced here by about 90% of the population.  From our training center we hear prayer early at dawn until dusk.  The only time when greetings are not welcomed is during prayer.

Our entire Peace Corps Trainee group was anxious about the use of the latrine.  But we’ve learned the basics of douching.  You squat, use a “poop” kettle of a cup of water to rinse, and use the left hand to wipe.  In reality it is much cleaner and environmentally-friendly.  I had to tell!

We have also begun training in gardening and tree-planting.  We were able to explore Thies for the first time yesterday.  There is much to tell, but I’ll save that for another time.  After this comes our homestay (beginning on Tuesday night) in a nearby village.  Paul and I will be learning Pulaar.  We were told that our actual service site will be more urban in a very beautiful area of Senegal with lots of wildlife.  Most Pulaar-speaking areas are up North, but we will see at the end of training where we truly end up.

For the most part, Paul and I are really enjoying our time here.  The teachers here are all so knowledgable.  They are patient teachers with wonderful senses of humor.  It is funny to the Senegalese to say things like “You know nothing,” “You cannot say anything,” “Your tongue and ears must be broken.”  This phrase will be repeated to me over and over again in the next 8 weeks.

Baa beneen yoon.  A bientot.  See you later.