Category Archives: Senegalese culture


The neighborhood kids have a funny new habit.  When Paul runs stairs for his evening workout at the regional house, the kids next door can see him at the top of the flight of stairs.  They push out their hands to make two stop-signs with their palms and yell “Yooni, yooni!”  (“Enough, enough!”).  Its hilarious.  They must be thinking to themselves how ridiculous Americans are for putting their bodies through such high exertion when the air is that hot.

They alternate yelling at Paul to stop running and at me to start dancing.  “Am Youza!” When we first came, the big dance was one called Gowana. Now all the kids dance Youza. You can see a bit of the dance at the end of this music video (last minute or so).


Eat Nebeday and you will Neverdie

Just a small work/life update about what Paul and I have been up to.

Moringa Tourney:


For the first week of November, Paul and I helped with a Moringa tourney in the departments of Matam and Kanel.  We stayed in Ourosogui and worked with Counterpart International based there.  There were 6 volunteers in all divided into three teams.  Each team visited 2-4 villages a day for five days talking about moringa.  Three months earlier, another team of agriculture volunteers went to these same villages to teach how to plant a moringa leaf-intensive bed.  On this second tourney, we returned to the same sites to explain how to harvest the leaves, make moringa powder,  incorporate the powder into foods, and why it is so important.


Moringa oleifera is oftentimes called the “miracle tree” by development workers for its properties.  Locally the plant is called nebeday (a butchered version of the english phrase “never die”).  It is a fast-growing plant that grows well here in Senegal with extremely nutritious leaves–high levels of Vitamin A, C, iron, protein, and calcium.  It is rumored to treat maladies ranging from diabetes to eye/ear infections to intestinal parasites.  Leaf powder can be easily added to food as a nutritional supplement.  Moringa  is good for use in a garden for live fencing or shade because its long tap root does not compete with other plants.  Additionally its roots are rumored to fix nitrogen.  Not only that, but the seeds can be ground to a powder and used as a flocculant for purifying water and honey.

We got to visit villages way out in the bush.  So far out in the bush, the Pulaar word means the bush of the bush.  We drove to villages as far west as the Podor department boundary and to villages so far east that we almost made it to Bakel and the region of Tamba.  Villages were typically motivated to grow the moringa and use it.  Most beds were planted in schools to encourage the use of moringa within student lunches.  We met amazing women’s groups, amazing teachers, and spoke huge amounts of Pulaar.  As you go east into the Matam region, the Pulaar gets crisper and clearer.  Paul and I had an easier time talking to people there than we do in the Ndioum Podor region.


The moringa tourney was an amazing experience and we hope to be able to replicate it in the Podor department with the Counterpart International located in Ndioum.  Additionally, I would like to teach health workers how to plant and process the plant as a nutritional supplement for malnourished children who come to baby weighings.  Currently, kids that are malnourished are given sacks of potatoes and lentils from Counterpart Int. or the “Plumpy nut” generic made in Dakar from Terre des Hommes.  It would be great if we could add hospital-grown moringa as a supplement.

Women’s field

My project with the women’s group and their field has fallen apart.  Turns out that the women are squatters on the land they farm.  The land is owned by Eaux et Forets and the women had permission to farm the land last year, but not this year.  They farm it because no one else is and no one will kick them off the land.  There is no way I can help them purchase a pump until they have their own land.

Truly, I would like to spend most of my service doing work that does not involve money; money just complicates everything.  As Renee once put it, “once the money comes out, the bad people come crawling out of the woodwork.”  I want my work here to be sustainable–for what I teach to be practiced and taught to others for years to come.   This it the strength in Peace Corps volunteers: we stay and live for two years in a site so that we can teach people how to solve health and environmental issues for themselves.  NGOs are those who throw around money and PC is not like any other NGO here.  With that in mind, I have taught the women about the goodness of Moringa.  I will teach them better farming techniques that will increase profits until they may one day be able to purchase land or a pump for themselves.


Tabaski (festival of the sheep) was mid-November–a huge Muslim holiday where most families kill a sheep (our family killed 6–but it was split between two houses and much given to families who cannot afford a sheep).  Paul and I helped clean one out and ate meat for the entire week after.


Then we had a Regional Strategy meeting and Thanksgiving!  2 turkeys and 5 chickens.  My first time to ever kill a chicken.

Paul and I just attended the All-Volunteer Conference of West Africa in Thies and heard about the work of other volunteers.  We talked to volunteers from Togo, Cape Verde, Benin, Mali, Ghana.  I learned that gum arabic (Acacia senegal)  is the number one agricultural export of Senegal, bringing in about $280 million every year!  This tree grows extremely well where we live.

And now we are back in the North beginning new projects.  Paul is organizing a depistage tourney for HIV/AIDS testing  throughout the Podor department.  He wants to visit at least 6 different sites and end the entire tourney with the annual AIDS concert in Podor (something Lauren Canton, our ancienne, started that has been a highly visible way to raise awareness about AIDS/HIV/STDs).

I have been working to organize a CCBI training in Ndioum for the environmental education volunteers and their primary school teachers.  CCBI (Community Content-based Instruction) allows environmental and nutritional lessons to be incorporated into the strict French curriculum of schools.  Basically, we will train teachers how to use environmental health examples to teach concepts of Math, French, History, or other subjects.  For example, a class can plant a pepinere and learn about percentages or fractions concerning germination rate.

At my primary school, I am hoping to make the school what we call an “eco-school”.  We will repair the latrines, start CCBI lessons, establish a school garden and moringa leaf-intensive bed, plant shade trees, and put trash cans in all the classrooms.  I would like to start an environmental club to take care of the garden, however I need to find a parent or teacher who is motivated enough to help organize this.  If this all works well at this elementary school, I will extend this program to all the other primary schools in Podor (there are 5 total).

Laawol e jam, inchallah

I think we set some kind of record.  23 people riding in a little truck the size of a small Nissan.  3 on top of the cab, 7 inside the cab (counting the driver) and the rest in the back.  3 men standing, triangularing the tail.  Each one holding the other up.  Just a normal ride from Podor to Taredji.

Transportation here is never boring–the people, the baggage, the possibility for disaster.  I am amazed by how absolutely mold-able skin and bone can be.  You think you can’t fit between those two women.  WRONG.  You can.

The garage in big cities is sometimes insane.  As soon as you get out of a taxi, people are surrounding you and asking you in every language where you want to go.  Foy dem?  To pad-daa?  Vous voulez aller ou? After you announce where you are heading, each person tries to lead you to a car.  They gather around, 10 wolof men, as you discuss prices and baggage, each one hoping for a cut of the money since they helped you find your way.  Then you get in the sept-place,  Ndiaga Ndiaye,  mini-van, or bus.  Typically its fastest and easiest to get a sept-place.  People fight to stay out of the last row since its raised seats over the back tires forces most passengers to choose between slouching or sitting straight with a crooked neck.  And then you are off, hoping against all the odds that your driver is not a maniac and depending on Allah and a marabout’s prayers to keep the  car from head-on colliding with the approaching car.  Sometimes you get a nice driver who speaks Pulaar and drives like his life is precious.  Sometimes.

Sometimes you get a driver who insists on driving you to St. Louis from Thies (a four hour trip..but possibly 5 in his car) even when he has no working brakes.  Like yesterday afternoon.  Luckily the woman in front of us kept yelling at him about the absolute ludicracy of the situation.  He refused to stop, but as we drove past the police station, we got him to stop and the woman marched in to demand help.  The police insisted that the driver take us back to the garage and reimburse us or find a new car.  Paul and I got a reimbursement, it was getting late and driving at night is a huge no-no.  The other 5 wanted to carry on; so they loaded into a new sept-place with two new passengers to replace Paul and I.   As we were leaving, I looked back to see the front passenger laughing wildly.  The new car would not start.  Pop open the hood.

Today, we tried again.  This time to take a car all the way to Ndioum.  Engine cut out about an hour and a half outside of Thies.  Mechanics replaced a part, but still nothing.  Something wrong with the engine.  We wait for three hours by the side of the road for the new car.  We were almost to Ndioum when the driver went into a pothole too fast and blew the front right tire.

So far, Paul has been in three sept-places that have broken down.  I have been in two cars with flat tires.  Once I sat in a Ndiaga Ndiaye whose seat moved independently of the adjacent wall.  On the way to Thies, I got peed on by the sheep strapped to the roof, liquid seeping through the roof onto my head, which was, of course, pressed tightly up against the roof of the dreaded back row.   Animal rights in Senegal: nonexistent.  Sheep ride up top often, sometimes for several hours and many of those in the blazing sun.  Paul and I transported five chickens to Ndioum for Thanksgiving.  Four in a box, one rooster in hand.  The four rode up top, and the rooster got a lucky seat inside the van.

In the car, I have met both terrible and amazing people.  One trip, I yelled at a man in angry Pulaar that if he touched that woman’s leg one more time I would hit him.  I raised my hand to prove it.  I should have told him I would hit him until he pooped–a popular one here–mi fiiyat maa haa huwa. But then, sometimes you meet amazing people who just want to talk and joke.  Evan once had a man yell at the boy who takes bus fares that Evan should not have to pay the pass since he was a volunteer and working to improve the country.   Senegal’s “universal baby-sitter rule” has left me sitting happily with someone else’s child in my lap for trips.  I have convinced people that in America women can have two husbands if they want.  I have met school directors who tell me about Schistosomiasis issues at the schools. Sometimes transportation is a bit dangerous, but for the most part, I enjoy it very much.

Rabbit or Hyena?

They say that when the sky is full of stars, the rabbit is grazing (hojjere aynoyi).  And when the sky has few stars, the hyena is grazing (fowru aynoyi).  Samba is a good herder who lets his rabbits graze only as much as they need.  Demba is the hyena herder who lets his hyenas graze greedily.

Peanut Harvesting and Gender Development

(this is a blog that started out only about peanut harvest…but has morphed into a blog about women and gender roles here in Senegal.  Its long.  Sorry.  I’ll save talking about FGC for another day)


This has been an exhaustingly good week.  My fingers hurt from picking mud off of peanuts.  Our Neene Ba is part of a Tostan women’s group in our quartier.  And there are 50 women from the quartiers of Sinthiane and Lowa Demba in this group.  On the 2nd of October they, along with the other two Tostan groups from other Podor quartiers, are going to present plays to the town about some traditional but harmful practices: female genital circumcism (FGC), forced marriages, and ear piercing (improperly done without correct sanitation precautions).  And on the 3rd, the women along with the entire Podor department will take a declaration to end forced marriages, discourage FGC, and encourage proper ear piercing at the local hospitals.

As of today, this group of women has defined my service as a PCV in Podor.  They are all such amazing women, insisting on doing work not usually defined as women’s work as a way out of poverty.  A woman described it to me, as we are standing in their field:  So min liggotiima ɗoo e ngesa, min mbaawi yeeyde e jogaade kaalis. So min liggotiima, sukaɓe amen mbaawi ñaamde moƴƴo, mbaawi janngude haa lycee.  Ina waawi wonde haa universite. If we work here in this field, we can sell the food and have money.  If we work, our children can eat well and study in school until high school.  Maybe even through university.


And so the women have a field where they harvest peanuts, bissap, cassava, watermelon, and corn.  I have spent the last week helping them harvest all the peanuts.  By the end of the day, there are at least twenty women sitting around buckets of water, pulling peanuts off of the roots.  They stay in the fields from mid-morning through lunch until the sun goes down.  Last Friday, after prayers, I ate lunch with them.  Fish and rice with the best tamarin sauce I have eaten yet, and then ataaya as we worked through the afternoon.  They yell at the cars that pass the field on the Route Nationale.  Ar soɗde gerte! It is my intention to help the women buy a motor pump.  Currently they rent one from the Catholic Mission, but at great cost.  So much is the rent that they can only afford to buy gas for the machine once a week.  Imagine that—a large field that is only watered once a week in this Senegalese desert.  The Sahel.  They fill the irrigation ditches with river water and let it slowly spread across the whole field.  I hope that if they can water more frequently, they can plant a wider and less destructive variety of vegetables.


At the end of the day, as the sun is setting, the women busy themselves with rinsing the peanuts in the river.  Then Fatimata or Penda spreads them out, counting them in volumetric units of tomato pots—Lingere tomato paste.  No foti pots hande? They are averaging about 30 pots a day, which is about 60 kilos.  Fatimata fills up the can past the lip until no peanuts fall off the mound.  One pot.  800 cfa for one pot of peanuts.  For a day’s work, 24 mille.  Not bad at all.

My favorite part of it all is the women talking and dancing.  They break into chanting, drumming, and dancing intermittently.  If I go to the field only in the afternoon, I am met with them chanting: Kuumba arii, kuumba arii. Coumba has come.  And then the rest of the day is filled with them chatting about Tostan, people, money, work, children.  Malick, this adorable baby comes in on the back of his sister to be nursed by mom.  His two and only lower middle teeth smile at me as he runs over to greet me, little dirty hand extended.  The most beautiful smile I have seen.  There is a lot of yelling and fighting too—the women shouting at each other in rapid Pulaar and Wolof, their voices overlapping as they try to make their points.  Typically about money and how to split things equally.  But in the end.  Aɗa yarlo mi.  You should forgive me.  Peace only.  Every single woman must have her say.


I have been realizing as I spend time here that I want my work here to empower women and girls.  Like our ancienne, the greatest issues I see here have to do with gender development.  Here in Senegal, serving as a married couple, I experience a contrast in how I fit into society.  Certain rights as a women, that I took for granted in the US, are few and overlooked here.  These differences stem from the Muslim religion and from traditional Senegalese gender roles.  A woman here has little say in how many wives her husband will have, as four is the maximum; but most woman have an opinion on this matter.  (People are convinced here that there are more women than men in Senegal, which is hard for me to stomach as a biologist.  More logically, that men are more likely to be educated and can leave Senegal.).  A woman typically may not divorce her husband, but her husband can divorce her.  The Pulaar language itself reveals interesting differences between women and men.  A woman is married (reseede) whereas a man marries (resde) but cannot be married.  A wife is called the jom suude (head of the room) whereas the husband is the jom galle (head of the house).  Rewbe liggotaako. Women do not work (work meaning in the fields or outside of housework) except for the few who sell food, goods, or produce.  Women pull water from the well, do the laundry, sweep the house every morning, and cook every meal.  PC men volunteers who try to do these tasks have often been met with criticism.  You are doing the work of a woman. I was told in training by a language instructor that a good wife is one who is last at the lunch bowl because she spends the entire meal throwing her husband pieces of fish and vegetables.  Only after he is full does she really start to eat.

Women, especially in rural villages, seldom finish their schooling.  They typically finish college and then get married, have kids, and keep house.  Most women cook for a majority of the day, especially as a Senegalese meal is a huge affair and takes several hours to cook.  Women wake earlier than the men to start sweeping and cleaning the house, then they go to market from 10-12 and then start preparing for the meal at 12 pm.  At 5 pm they start preparing for the dinner at 8 pm.  Most young girls have little time to study because they spend all their spare time at home waiting over the fire.  Empowering women as I see it gives each girl a chance to have a say in how her life plays out.  She can choose whom to marry, when, and who she wants to be.  These Senegalese gender roles prevent women from having the opportunity to be more than a house wife.  In my host family in Ngekhokh, one of the young girls (probably around 15 years of age) Binta is the one who always cooks for the family.  She does not go to school anymore unlike the rest of the kids in the house and it made me sad to see that she already knows this is her life.  Over the mud stove under the stars she would ask me how I got to Senegal.  Avion? Pointing to the sky.  Have you ever flown on a plane before?  It is something unfathomable to her, but within reach of any student who takes the bac for entrance into a university.  And it is something I did at least four times a year during college.  The most she can hope for is a lovely husband, nice kids, and a house.  Perhaps her kids will finish school and get the chance to choose their path in life.

In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs makes a small statement about how countries begin their path toward development when women begin to work and choose when to have kids.  True development of a country away from poverty starts with gender development.  The women in Podor are making small strides for themselves.  I have talked to several women who take part in family planning through depo injections or birth control pills.  I have met college-age girls who are planning to finish high school and teach or work after they graduate.  The other day, I entered a house and chatted with four girls who are studying at the university in Dakar.  I told them that I was happy but surprised.  C’est le nouveau generation. One step at a time, women and girls will get the tools and resources they need to live as they choose.

New moon waxing to Korite


Yesterday marked the end of Ramadan. Korite. The whole day a fete where you start the morning off going to the mosque, then eating niiri (balls of millet powder boiled in water) with kossam (yogurt) poured on top. Everyone looks so beautiful in their new clothes. Then people go from house to house greeting families and asking them Aɗa yarlo, aɗa yafo? (Do you forgive me? Do you excuse me?) I see it as a lovely way to set the new year right by asking everyone to forgive you your trespasses of the year before. Paul and I wore our new Senegalese clothes and spent the day eating lunch at Paul’s counterpart’s home (Madame Ly). We did not intend to, but once we visited we were not allowed to leave. Most families kill a goat or sheep or chicken to celebrate. The Bassoum family killed a little male goat that morning, letting him bleed out into the soil of the courtyard. We bought the family three kilos each of onions and potatoes. All the children run from house to house, from person to person asking for change. Those who have more give to those who have less.

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I realize that I have not yet explained a lot about our Ramadan experience. No mbaɗ-ɗaa e Kork? (How goes it with Ramadan?) Ramadan is a month between two new moons where Muslims abstain from eating and drinking when the sun is up (typically between 5:30 to 19:30). Muslims do this as a way to reflect on God and to understand how life is for those without food and drink. Before the sun rises, families get up to eat bread and drink tea or coffee.

Breaking fast

And my favorite part of Ramadan is the breaking of fast (taƴde). The hour before the sun sets, the family is washing cups, chilling kossam, heating kinkilebah (a type of tea here), and starting dinner. Lamine washes the dates. Hawh makes the tuna or macaroni and I help her buy bread at the neighborhood boutique. Hoore is making dinner. Neene is diluting the kossam with water and ice, then mixing the tea with lots of milk and sugar. Some nights Paul and I make bissap juice, which the Bassoum family likes with some added vanilla extract and a packet of jolly jus (coca-cola flavoured). The sound of prayers through the mosque speakers announces the setting of the sun. Bismillah, Lamine says, quickly popping a single date into his mouth. Then comes a cup of kossam, delicious and made from real cow’s milk (delicious but potentially tuberculosis-infected). The kossam is followed up with a cup of warm milky sweet tea and a sandwich usually of mayo and beans/tuna or macaroni. While we eat, we chat and watch the Senegalese channel on TV, now featuring nature clips mixed in with swirling colors and stars to the sounds of Arabic prayers. Neene, Hawh, and Hoore go to the neighborhood mosque for the late evening prayer futuro, and then we eat dinner (or lunch really) as we eat the foods that we normally would eat at lunch.

More on Talibe and Daaras

In the NYT Africa section (global edition). They speak the truth.


About a week ago a group of Talibe came into our host family’s house. One of them couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old–he could barely walk, much less communicate what he wanted. Either embarrassed or rather literally incapable of verbal communication, he teetered over to us with his outstretched, upturned palm, before our host family, recoiling in anger, demanded to know where his mother was. The kid, who could have been in diapers, shyly turned and tried to escape, but not before my host brother could chase after him and have him lead him to his parents’ house. The weird thing is, I didn’t think much of the whole experience until I read this article, prevalent as this kind of thing can be here.