Thursday, September 17, 2009

“What a Demyst.”

That’s what my APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director) said when he heard about my last few days. And it was quite a demyst. Here’s my attempt at giving it justice – though first I guess I should explain what I mean by “demyst.” Demyst is short for demystification, which is what the PCVs have fondly called the time when PCTs visit current PCVs at their sites to see a real PCV in action. It is formally called a “Volunteer Visit.” While both are accurate, demyst is perhaps more appropriate since we’re not just visiting volunteers, we’re trying to get a real feel for what it’s like to be a volunteer. While I already thought I had a pretty good idea of what being a sustainable ag volunteer would be like in Senegal, some of the mystery definitely did disappear – and not necessarily in a bad way at all. Let me explain how and why.

Day 1:
Our ride to my site took all day. We left the training center in Thiès at 10am and drove around all day, dropping off other volunteers and sort of getting lost in the bush. But then, at about 7pm, we made it to my road – the only somewhat decent road to my village (Kaymore). And when we were about 4km away from Kaymore we hit the river. Literally. There has been quite a bit more rain lately than normal in all of West Africa and the river has flooded the road (as it normally does for the vast majority of the rainy season). But the water was so high that the driver of the Peace Corps car refused to go any farther, so Kate (the PCV I was staying with) and I got our bikes and backpacks down and took off through the water as the car turned around and left. The water was up to our waists, but luckily none of my stuff got very wet at all (held my smaller bag in my teeth so it wouldn’t get in the water). It was actually very beautiful – with the sun setting behind us over the water and a rainbow like a big waterfall pouring out of the clouds in front of us, welcoming me to my new home. On the other side of the river, we hopped on our bikes, hiked up our soaking wet skirts, and headed for Kaymore.

Sorry the pic is blurry - must have been on the wrong setting.

Yes, my bag is in my mouth, and yes, the water is up to my waist. :)

My first beautiful sunset in Kaymore!
Most of that night is a blur – arriving in Kaymore at dusk as people are just finishing breaking the fast and starting to think about dinner, with everyone calling out to Kate (in her Senegalese name) and asking about me; meeting my family and a million other people since my father’s second wife just had her first child and his baptism had been that morning so we were having a big party in my house; having kids grabbing at my hands and not letting go (especially one beautiful girl named Awa whom I am already in love with); eating from a bowl with my hands (not anything unusual anymore, though I wasn’t very good at it at the time) with a thousand other women and children around it; and finally getting the sheets put on my/Kate’s bed and climbing under my bednet to collapse, only to be woken up periodically throughout the night by strange noises and at 5am by the prayers pouring from the big (for a village) mosque right behind my hut.

Day 2:
The next morning, Kate and I weeded my backyard a bit since it was essentially all weeds (plus a little basil and okra). Then we greeted my new family (standard morning activity – and anytime you return from anything as well) and went in search of breakfast. Since it’s Ramadan and everyone is fasting, we were lucky to find a loaf of village bread (sooooo much better than the normal while baguettes I’ve been eating in Thiès and at my homestay family) and some butter for breakfast. After that, Kate took me on a tour of the village. I was introduced to people in all three of the compounds that make up my family, plus tons of farmers and other people I will be working with, such as one of the teachers in Kaymore who lives right across the street and speaks English and French (besides Wolof of course). He was Kate’s Wolof tutor and will be mine most likely, and he is a super friendly guy – he’s already said that since Kate was his sister, I am his sister, too, so his kids are my kids and I am always welcome in his home. I saw some of the gardens and fields of people Kate worked with besides meeting with the farmers themselves. We made it through about 2/3 of the village before we headed home for lunch and a rest – which involved laying on the bed with a bunch of kids in the room playing (pretty quietly actually) and making funny faces at me.
Then we went over to the maribu’s compound to see him. (The maribu is a type of Islamic leader; they lead prayers, offer advice, and teach Arabic and other Islamic traditions/practices to young boys and men. The specific maribu in my village apparently specializes in getting demons out of people.) He is a very important man in my village and people often have to wait months to see him, and then only see him in his common meeting room rather than his personal room. Kate and I (and one of her friends who is a student of the maribu’s) waited maybe 10 minutes to see him and then we met him in his personal room. I covered my hair with a handkerchief out of respect for him (Kate always had her hair covered in the village, but I didn’t – more on that later I’m sure). We greeted each other and then Kate introduced me to him as her replacement (as she was doing with everyone we met). He welcomed me to Kaymore and then said a short prayer, blessing the end of Kate’s service and blessing the beginning of mine. What a unique experience, for a Muslim man to be blessing 2 young Christian women who are in a very different culture trying their best to help out and learn and grown all at the same time. After that, we had a quick goodbye since his cell phone started ringing (yes – bizarre… but then again not bizarre at all) and Kate finished giving me her tour of Kaymore. I met more farmers and saw another garden and also met the ex-wife of my father (yes there is divorce here, and it is becoming more common, especially in the cities, but it is still really tough for women if they get a divorce) and learned that she makes amazing bean sandwiches in the morning and makes great coffee and tea, so I’ll probably be going to get breakfast from her very often during my service, because that way I can get great food and be social with the villagers at the same time.
We made it home just in time to break the fast (with village bread and nutella, coffee with powdered milk and sugar, watery yogurt and millet [called “lakk” in Wolof – really good], and bisaap juice to top it all off). Then we were off for more food – for dinner with Tamsir (pronounced almost like Tom Sawyer), who brought us to see the maribu. We had a whole chicken for the three of us – granted it was a village chicken, so it was small compared to normal US supermarket standards, but it was still a whole chicken! It was another way for the maribu to welcome me into the village. I feel like I have a lot I need to do in the next 2 years to live up to all this excitement and hope and pressure! After dinner, we hung out in the maribu’s secretary’s house with a whole bunch of other people and watched TV and chatted and drank ice cold bisaap juice, which was amazing since it was really hot in the room (which was a bedroom, living room, and kitchen all in one, like most homes here). Kate and I left around 9:30pm and went to bed soon after. Our mom woke us up around 11pm for dinner; we told her we were full and went back to sleep.

Day 3:
We got up at 6:30, had a quick breakfast of bread and nutella that we had bought the night before, and took off for a village about 4km away. It was a good ride – took about a half hour since the road was mostly sand with packed-down ruts from charettes. I enjoyed the challenge of biking on the sand at first but by later in the day when it was hotter and I was more tired, I was getting slightly discouraged by it all. When we got to the village (which is a Pulaar village, a different ethnic and language group than Wolof, though all the adults can speak Wolof too) we sent a kid to go out and find the farmer we were looking for. When he got back to the village, he took us out to his millet field. We looked around and suggested a couple things he could do better (like thinning so there is only one main stalk per plant). Then I had Kate interview him for a class I’m helping my advisor with this semester. He was one of three farmers I interviewed that day and it was really interesting to hear their responses to her questions about if they liked the variety of millet (or cowpea or vegetables) Kate extended to them, why, what was good about the seed extension program, and what could be better. A common theme was that a community seed storage facility would be really beneficial so the farmers could save the seed themselves rather than having to give it to Kate to store. This was incredibly encouraging to hear since Kate has been working on a big project to raise money to build a seed storage facility in Kaymore and she’s passing on the project to me. She has already raised over $7,000 and I’ll need to raise just under $4,000. I’m sure I will be blogging more about this in the next couple months when I understand the details of everything better, but let me know if anyone has a suggestion on ways to raise that amount of money by next February or March (we want to start and maybe almost finish construction on the building before the rains really kick in in June).
After the interview, we went and met with another farmer in the village. This farmer really wanted to attend a baptism that was going on right then, so he sent us out to his field with a kid (another common thing to do). He had a great field of cowpeas – really a wonderful crop in terms of beneficial for the soil, fast growing so beneficial for the farmer’s wallet, and beneficial for the family’s nutrition. By the time we got back to the village, the baptism was over, so the farmer brought us out to another farmer’s rice field, where we also looked at his live fence (which means growing, in general, fast-growing, thorny trees/bushes to create a living, growing fence to keep out the incessant and ever-hungry goats and cows). Then we hopped back on our bikes and headed over to another village. There we saw a field for a girls group that Kate helped a little. Lots of the girls in this area are really motivated; it’s awesome. Then we biked home for a quick snack of peanut butter and raisins and went over to another village. The farmer we met there is the chief of the village. He spent 5-10 minutes talking about how Americans are so great because they don’t come and give us (speaking as a Senegalese) money or stuff, they give us knowledge, which is so much more helpful and sustainable (he didn’t use that actual word, but that was the general gist of his idea). Then we headed for home because we wanted to get back in time for lunch, and a couple minutes out from the village we realized how threatening the sky looked. Another couple minutes later, it started blowing a lot. Then it started sprinkling. Within 5 more minutes it was completely down-pouring and the rain actually hurt my face and arms as we biked with all our might to get back. I wasn’t upset or anything about the rain, until we saw lightening and heard thunder really close – then we got a little concerned and biked faster. We made it back all in one piece – Kate got back a minute ahead of me and all the kids in our family saw her ride into the compound and then immediately started asking/yelling about me, which I thought was really cute.
After drying off, lunch, and a short rest, we took our legs instead of our bikes and walked to another couple villages to meet with the leaders of a couple women’s groups. The vice president of the girls group Kate worked with a lot came with us. Her nick-name is Yassa Poulet and she is so great. I can’t wait to get to know her better. Then it was home for dinner, a shower, and play time with the kids. That’s a bit out of order, because we broke the fast, played with kids, showered, played with kids more, and then waited and waited and waited for dinner. The electricity went out at some point (10:30pm maybe [did I mention I have electricity in my hut? I do. I honestly didn’t really want it at first, but now I’ve realized it will be really nice]) so we decided to just lie down and then we both fell asleep. Our mom came and got us for dinner – at midnight. Neither of us were very hungry – nor motivated to eat at that hour – but we did and then went back to sleep. Apparently one of the women in the family (I think my aunt…not sure how we’re actually related) was cooking dinner that night and dinner or lunch is notoriously late when she is cooking. Oh the quirks of living in a big family. :)

Day 4:
We got up early again and biked out to the field of the girls group in Kaymore Kate works with. Yassa Poulet came with us – she sat on the back on my bike. Good bonding time. :) After checking out their amazing bisaap field (and sad sesame field), we took off for the bigger town nearby – well 28km away. There we met up with 2 other PCTs that were demisting with another PCV nearby, that PCV, and another PCV close by too. The 6 of us checked out the weekly lluma (market) and then went over to “the Catholic compound” (i.e. a family that is Catholic) and had a beer and lunch. Later in the afternoon we biked back. By this point my biked was rather sad – the gears weren’t shifting well and it creaked, especially on the little hills we had to climb at times. All the dust and water (we had to re-forge the river again) and heat was taking its toll on my bike, which didn’t make pedaling any easier, and I was already exhausted since that bike ride meant I had just biked 80km in 2 days. Now I know I’ll be biking a lot the next 2 years – gotta get my biking legs and butt back. :)

Kate and I forging the river again. :)

That evening we had a girls group meeting so I met many of the other girls in the group (more than half of them are home since it’s summer break right now, but they’ll be back to Kaymore in the next month or so when school starts). That was fun and I think the girls enjoyed meeting their new mentor/facilitator/liaison. Then Kate introduced me to the village chief (we should have done that sooner but both of us forgot) – he wasn’t overly congenial or anything, but that could have been because it was right before we broke the fast so he was probably incredibly hungry and thirsty and tired. After breaking the fast, Kate and played with the kids again, and then Tamsir came over and I helped him with his English and he helped me with my Wolof. Then it was dinner and bedtime.

Day 5:
We got up at 6am and left Kaymore after some quick goodbyes since we wanted to see if we could grab a charette across the river rather than forging it with all our stuff and bikes again. The charette was full on the dry part of the road, so we biked, but when we got to the river, a bunch of the men got off and stripped down to shorts so we were able to give them our bikes and hop on the charette. They were super nice. Once we were across the river, we hopped on an Alham (what PCVs call these big white vans/buses that all have “Alxamdulililaaj” [or some version of that] painted on the front bumper – hence the name “Alham”) and about an hour later (once others had crossed the river) we took off for Kaolack (the regional capital). The ride was incredibly noisy (those vans creak so loudly), bumpy, and long, but at least it wasn’t hot. By the time we got to Kaolack, the van was packed (it is not uncommon to have men on top of the Alham and hanging off the back by standing on the back pumper). When we got to Kaolack, we got our stuff and headed off to find breakfast. About half-way through our amazing scrambled egg sandwiches it started to really blow and then sprinkle, so we started to actively look for a taxi to take us to the PC Senegal regional house where I was going to be picked up by a PC car to be taken by to Thiès. After it had been down-pouring for a couple of minutes, we got a taxi and made it back. The rest of the day was relatively relaxing compared to everything else – the PC car came about an hour later and it was a pretty smooth ride back to Thiès.
Since then it’s been a lot of technical training, swapping stories (one group of PCTs got stuck in the mud for almost 36 hours! My river-forging experience doesn’t sound nearly as bad after hearing that!!), and catching up on sleep.


  1. sounds like you're doing great! glad to hear you're doing hearing all the stories :)

  2. Watch out for all the potential microbes (and snakes!) in the water! (also watch out for their vectors---mosquitoes, flies, ticks, etc.)

  3. Of all the comments I'd like to make, I'll just say how happy I am you discovered village bread!! I could never find it in Dakar, and a few times I actually took a bus to Rufisque just to find it. And the lakk is to die for!