Saturday, January 26, 2008

i think this means something

today JC and i went to the market to get groceries for tonight's feast (steak night!) and fabric for new clothes (senegalese steezy). the market can be a really exhausting experience, in the past i have always come back from being downtown tired and cranky and hot and fed up. the place can get very crowded, very hot, and very aggressive with everybody trying to make you buy things or wanting to talk to you or kids asking/begging (begging, really) for money and just...the place can be very overstimulating.

however, today was the best market day i've had in country. first, it is really hard for me to orient myself to new places and get lost all the time so all the past times i've been in kaolack i have always been a little unsure about where i'm going which can be kind of annoying and unsettling. today when i got there i knew exactly where i was and where to turn and just had a lot of certainty about where to go for vegetables and meat and fabric.

when we got to the vegetable alley, i got down to buying lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots. being that i've been working in the garden at my village and asking lots of questions about how much things can be sold for, i knew most of the prices for everything. buying vegetables can be hard because for the longest time i didn't know how much things were but i knew that people were overcharging me but this time nobody could mess with me. it was great. i got vegetable shopping done in like, 5 minutes when it used to take a long and harrowed 10-15 minutes as well as time taken for wandering to different parts of the market in search of vegetables. moreover, i was really happy to be buying produce from women who i knew lived in villages and worked really hard in their gardens and then made the long and expensive trip out to the city in order to try to make money to bring home. i know because i live with people who do the same thing and i see how much labor and care and investment goes into one head of lettuce and in actuality, it ought to cost more than just 100 CFA (500 CFA = $1 USD).

after vegetables we went to get fabric and made a bunch of friends and i was even able to give a girl a little lesson in feminism in wolof when she first asked me where my husband was and then when i said i didn't have one asked me why. i told her that i don't have time for a husband and that i can take care of myself and that i would like to spend my time working and learning. she listened. then she said i must have a boyfriend and i said no and just as i did, a man came up and told me that he would be my husband and she proceeded to then give him the lecture i just gave her. so i don't know, maybe that'll be something she'll think about later.

JC and i both managed to get beautiful fabric for pretty decent prices, although i think when i get to thies i will ask my sister to go to the market with me and find out the right prices for all the different kinds of fabrics because like i was saying earlier, it really sucks going to buy something and not knowing how much it ought to cost. i am getting fabric because i need a new "complet" (senegalese outfit) as i have been attending a lot of ceremonies in and out of the village that call for something more appropriate than my ratty skirt and shirt...that "something more appropriate" being a complet. moreover, i would like to be culturally appropriate when fatou pops out that baby and we will have a big baptism ceremony in my compound. i have one complet -- the one i wore for swear-in -- but i hadn't gotten to choose the fabric and was never entirely very comfortable in it so this complet should be a bit more to my liking.

after the fabric was the meat section. at this point i was feeling pretty good about the market experience but the meat section is always hard because it's a very male dominated place. women do not work in the meat section. women shop there but they do not work there and being young fresh toubabs, we typically feel like a piece of meat ourselves in that section. we get there and go to the guy who sold us our beef last time and he remembered us and the kind of cut we wanted. last time it took us 20 minutes to explain to him that we wanted slabs of meat and not chunks. because we're "friends" now, he gave us a few extra pieces for free. the operation was quick and harmless.

we jumped into a cab to get back home and the cab driver in slight astonishment asks us (in wolof" "why do you speak wolof?!" we laughed and JC was all (in her LA 'tude), "because we work here!" that was nice.

last stop: epicerie. the guy for sure knows us now and for some weird reason wanted me to talk to some lady on the phone so he called her and had me talk to her and even though it was weird that i was talking to this random lady on the phone, we had a conversation and she understood me and i understood her.

overall a very successful market experience. we think that it went so well because this was the first time we were so confident about where we were going, how much things were, what to say to people, and just...maybe it means we're adjusting. woah.

thies tomorrow!

Friday, January 25, 2008

here already

i was able to stay away from kaolack since christmas (quite a feat!) and am now here in town to get some work and other things done before i head out to thies for in-service training. it has been very refreshing to be away from site but at the same time i can't believe it. it feels weird to know that i will be away for so long and as i was leaving i felt a small hint of affection for my family. they really are good people, it is just sometimes the culture and my being completely out of my comfort zone that bothers me at times. they were all really sad i was going and my "little sister" mamasou gave me a temporary tattoo of a soccer player to wear and remember her by. the thing is pretty ugly and she just kind of slapped it onto my arm but it is a nice little memento and it was sweet of her to do that as wolofs are not very sentimental people. i gave them all a good laugh as i was leaving i said "hey! while i am away you guys better not eat pedro!" they all loved that and said they will eat him for lunch.

my first night here (i got here the 23rd) a bunch of my favorite people were at the house and we headed out for beers and watching the africa cup. senegal was playing tunisia and we were all pumped for senegal to whoop some tunisian ass. i hadn't had a beer in forever so it was quite amazing, despite the lousy quality of the beer. in the end senegal and tunisia tied 2-2. oh well. we went out for dinner and it was beyond fantastic to have something other than mafe or ceeb u jen. my stomach didn't agree so much so i suffered the consequences of such a drastic change in diet the next morning but it was totally worth it.

yesterday i spent most of the day writing one of two reports for IST (i thought my days of report writing were over!) and managed to write 8 pages about the natural resources and other aspects of my village. if you are interested in reading it, and thus learning about my village, let me know and i will be happy to email it to you. i also got two packages from my family (which made me happy) and got to cook dinner with JC which was french onion soup, biscuits, and salad. yumm.

today was...uneventful. but sometimes the uneventful days are much needed. i spent most of it designing the t-shirt for team kaolack for upcoming WAIST. have i mentioned WAIST? it's the west african international softball tournament and ex-pats from america (embassy workers, other PCVs in west african countries) and other countries form softball teams and it is a huge deal and there is american beer and real american hot dogs and it is supposed to be a big deal. i am very excited. as i don't play softball, my function in the kaolack team is to creating the most bad ass t-shirt (based on a voted and agreed on theme) and eating as many hot dogs as possible.

tomorrow night the boys from kedegou are stopping by kaolack for the evening and we're all having steak night and a party and it will be loads of fun as we have not seen these cats since we all left for site installations.

i head to thies on sunday. i'll be going back to my host family from PST and i am very excited to see them. i can't believe it is already IST. nuts.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


ever since i started researching GM (genetically modified) foods and the benefits -- economical, political, physical/medical, and environmental -- of local and organic foods and produce, it has increasingly bugged me that most americans don't know, or care to know, where their food comes from. that's why we're willing to eat foods that come out of boxes and microwaves or are composed of more man-made chemicals than natural components or are fluorescent colored without thinking twice about the repercussions.

i am by far an entirely organic and local eater but in the past few years have really attempted to make my diet a bit more earth and society friendly. i am far from there -- particularly now that i am living on a very simple diet and often (and by often i mean everyday) crave american processed foods like instant oatmeal or jellybeans or every now and then macaroni and cheese (feel free to send). i realize more and more everyday the great accessibility americans have to food. in the states, we can get apples and lettuce and pineapple year round and considering the fruit and veggie worm i am, i have always wondered if i could be so disciplined to eat by the seasons (like in barbara kingsolver's "animal, vegetable, miracle"). i've never really thought i could.

now that i'm in senegal living with farmers, i've pretty much been forced to do so. i mourned the passing of watermelon season and was relieved when less and less jaxatu (bitter tomato) showed up in the bowl. i eagerly await the fruits of our lettuce planting and am ready for bissap to be over. it is a very interesting gastronomical experience and i enjoy seeing (and helping) the women pick the vegetables for lunch and dinner in the morning from the gardens. my only complaint is that there fails to be much creativity in senegalese cooking and we wind up eating the same thing almost every day (after two years of life here i don't think i will ever ever ever crave mafe again).

these days i know and see where my food (or most of it at least) comes from which is overall a good thing, even if some of the conditions sometimes make me squirm (ex: chickens eat poop and i eat chickens). i live with peanut farmers and peanuts subsequently play a huge role in my diet -- a person with peanut allergies would not stand a day in my village. the base for most sauces is TIGADEGE, known to americans/english speakers as peanut butter (except with no sugar or additives) and senegalese peanut butter is far better than any i've had in the states and us PCV's have amazed countless senegalese by smothering our bread, bananas, apples, etc. in tigadege which to them is a base product, like chicken broth or flour.

anyway, my point is that not a day goes by where i don't consume some kind of peanut product and tonight as i was munching on freshly roasted peanuts, i realized that i have unknowingly become part of the process and not only do i know where my food comes from, i have played a part in process!

i got here during the harvesting period and spent a few days going out to the fields to gather and separate tilled peanuts. many afternoons were spent pulling peanuts from their stalks (roots?). i've helped sift and collect loose peanuts. most recently -- even up to today -- i have been shelling peanuts to the point where my fingers are raw. tonight i learned and helped with the roasting and pounding and sifting process and tomorrow will assist in bringing the peanuts to birkelane where they will be processed into tigadege which will be subsequently put into the mafe that i will most certainly eat the next day. i suppose this is also me realzing how deeply engrained this gigantically long process to EAT and SURVIVE is in their lives as i did not even realize until now that in my attempt to integrate into the community have been helping to make the food i eat.

not including the entire process of preparing fields, planting seeds, and growing the plants, harvest to eating has taken 2 months (and is a continual process anyhow, as i know for a fact that my peanut shelling days are not over). compare that to the literal 10 minutes it took me to get out my door, in the elevator, and down the street to duane reade (open 24 hours) to pick up a jar of peanut butter...and if there was a line at check out, i would tap my foot impatiently and huff and puff about how i wanted to eat now because i had things to do or places to be or tv to watch. now peanut butter IS MY LIFE and in 10 minutes i can't even get a kilo of peanuts shelled.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

losing my finger lickin' mind


what i would do right now for a huge platter of sashimi (NO RICE). or a bowl of niu rou mien (chinese beef stew). or a salad with sprouts, egg, cucumbers, grilled chicken, croutons, raspberry vinaigrette, and salt and pepper. or vietnamese spring rolls. or dumplings! or a pomegranate margarita with chips and guacamole at blockheads -- especially in this blazing heat (i know it's winter in new york but it is still hot here). or ice cream! cold, creamy ice cream: vanilla heath from halo pub or green tea ice cream or cherry garcia or how about all three at the same time. or even just a slice of ray-bari pizza. or a donut. or even a chocolate chip cookie. senegalese food depresses me.

i am fed but i am still hungry.

(the title is quite literal as we eat with our hands here.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


after the supposed "day trip" to kaffrine, shelley and JC convinced me to go back to shelley's site as JC had plans to spend the night there. the catch: they were biking the 37K required to get there. shelley had done the ride before and they managed to convince me that the laterite road would be a straight shot (implying flat) and that i could do it too.

i had left my bike at joel's place since the deflated-tire-ride-through-the-bush incident so i picked up my bike, pumped up the tire and we headed out. immediately i knew that my jeans and messenger bag (with my laptop in it) were going to be a pain in the ass. (little did i know that the seat itself would become a pain in the ass.) within the first stretch of biking, i was already exhausted and frustrated and totally despondent that shelley was racing up and ahead and while JC was not keeping up with shell (who is a bike beast, i have determined), she was way ahead of me and my out of shape fat ass was lagging behind. when i finally caught up with them, they were waiting for me at the trees for the future building where i took some of shelley's elastic rope and strapped down my bag to the back of my bike. this made a considerable difference in my exhaustion but i was still tired as hell and being that we weren't even 1/4 of the way there yet, totally not sure if i could make it and cursing myself for succumbing to peer pressure and the bike ride.

some time into the trip (the point of no return, i suppose) i just accepted my fate and plugged along, ignoring the fact that i was behind and just focusing on the idea that at some point, i would get to shelley's village and the end of this bike ride from hell. the laterite road was red sand and cruel in the sense that much of it was a slight incline with never a rewarding downhill respite. moreover, anytime a car drove by (which was depressing in and of itself), we were pounded with a plume of red sandy dust so thick that shell and JC would disappear from view. also throughout the trip was the constant haggling from villagers ("where are you going?" "give me your bike!" "toubab!" "you look tired!"), screaming kids (and the occasional chasing posse), and honking cars and motos. it was somewhere along this bike ride that i accepted the fact that God had not created me a natural athlete and that i should be content with the other abilities that i was given in lieu of that missing factor.

after 3-ish hours and sundown, we FINALLY made it to nganda and by then it was dark and i was totally tired and my legs were like jello and i was shivering from the cold evening air on my streaming sweat. we stopped by a butig to pick up chocomousse (chocolate spread), juice, and the 2 cans of fanta i had started to crave maybe 15 minutes into the ride.

we then bike the 1K left to shell's site in almost complete darkness. it felt like the longest kilometer of my life. but we amazingly made it to shell's compound -- the house of the great cisse, where i had spent some time when i demysted. (prior to shelley's presence, the PCV here was good friends/dating the girl i demysted with who's village was about a 15 minute bike ride away.) getting off a bike never felt so good. we took quick showers, which left us all bitterly cold (the nights here are getting frigid) and i chugged my fantas which tasted better than ever even though they were cold and stung my teeth and made me shiver even more.

we were called to dinner so we entered bocce's hut and had an amazing dinner of fish (loads of it, too) on a huge bed of lettuce with a mustardy dressing and village bread. JC and i were so happy (as we do not get food like this at our sites) and we scarfed down the food as if we hadn't eaten in days. it was delicious and food never tasted so good.

what was really interesting for me was how much my perspective on things have changed. shelley's village is the first experience i got of a peace corps site in senegal as i had visited this very compound during my demyst 4 days into my being in country. then, i was shocked and uncomfortable with the number of wives (4) and women and children and grandchildren living in the compound. i was terribly intimidated by bocce and felt that i could never relate to him. i was bewildered by the presence of talibe there. i thought the place to be noisy, dirty, and cluttered. i felt that it represented senegalese poverty. i was grossed out by having to eat on the dirt covered floor and lost my appetite at the idea of eating out of one bowl. i remember not knowing how i could adjust to this kind of living and knowing for sure that i could not be placed at a site like this.

what a difference in experience this time around. i'm so glad that i got to go back to my demyst experience and see how i have grown and adjusted. this time i found bocce endearing and we talked about fields and seeds and agfo plans. i was readily willing to eat in his hut and hunkered down on the floor to feast on the food that i ate with my hand. i savored the food and appreciated the wealth that i now see bocce has (it turns out he is actually quite well off and owns a lot of land). i found the women to be lovely and kind and the number of people did not even unsettle of me. the presence of talibe was still a bit strange for me, but i appreciated so much how they are taken care of and treated in comparison to the other talibe in senegal. this time around, the compound seemed lovely and clean and grandiose, as opposed to the dirt and squalor i saw the first time i was there.

after dinner we headed back to shelley's hut (which is huge!) and warmed ourselves with cups of earl gray tea (what a luxury!) and for some reason were overcome with an intense chocolate craving and ate loads of cookies with chocolate sauce all over them. when the cookies were gone we made chocolate covered oranges. we talked and talked and talked about peace corps, stupid things, serious things, memories of our past lives in america, anecoanecdotesdotes from our times at site, observations about life in senegal, debated, postulated, theorized, questioned, and laughed. it was precious conversation and as if making up for all the time we don't speak english, chatted until 2AM. we all felt like it was a sleepover and relished in the girlishness of it and the happy fact that although we were miles away from home and our families, we had each other to talk to, laugh with, and trust.

at 2 we climbed into bed and sleepy-talked a bit more until we all passed out. i was warm during the night for the first time in a long time because of the shared body heat.

around 6AM i woke to the sound of the talibe...chanting? praying? reciting? i drifted in and out of sleep until 7:30 when shell woke us up to go and have cafe touba with bocce and get our bread. we chatted with him for a while and then he sent us back to she'll shut with coffee and village bread. god i love village is so good. i savored every bit of it as we do not have bread at my site.

mamadou, the agfo director, had been doing site visits and that day was stopping by shelley's village. he showed up around 9 and JC and i went outside to let shelley chat with him while we shelled peanuts and talked to the women. one of the women remembered me from my first time there and was pleased that this time around i could actually talk to her. eventually we were invited back into the hut and bocce gifted mamadou the hugest papaya i've ever seen. i took on the job of cutting it up and it took quite some time but was delicious and i couldn't stop eating it.

in the meantime, shelley caught one of the mice that have been plaguing her hut. instead of my recommended execution of throwing it against a wall -- quick and instantaneous -- she and JC proceeded to drown him. it eventually died (shelley had made the mistake of naming it and thus giving him a soul) and left us all feeling slightly guilty at the murder of gusgus the mouse.

bocce insisted that mamadou stay for lunch and killed a chicken and we feasted on another amazing meal. chicken is so rarely eaten -- despite them being everywhere -- that we couldn't believe our luck and overate and groaned and suffered the consequences of our gluttony later. lunch was followed up with intensely sweet bissap juice that i also regretted consuming later. bocce is a very good host.

mamadou departed and after taking a quick walk around the village in an attempt to walk off lunch, JC and i prepared to leave. at this point, i was hit with intense food coma topped with the exhaustion of the bike ride and so little sleep. moreover, i was facing a trip back to site that involved taking a car to kaffrine and then switching to a car to birkelane and then a 7K walk back home. i wasn't quite ready for such a trek, but knowing that mamadou would be at my site at 8:30AM the next day, knew i had to go.

i caught a car -- a truck with a make shift roof in the truck bed (where i sat) -- and we headed out to kaffrine. i always amaze myself at my ability to sleep anywhere because despite being jostled around int eh car, the wind in my face, and the red dust in my lungs (once again), and the uncomfortable seat i was perched on, i was able to doze off a bit and refresh myself with this power nap. the trip took quite some time and at one point we got a flat tire and also lost some sugar from the load on top of the truck. i was a little nervous because i was cutting close to having to walk in the dark -- something i never want to do -- through the bush in order to get home. but i am adjusting because while i was worried, i was not stressed.

finally got to kaffrine and walked across town to the other garage and caught an al-hum on its way to kaolack. the guy tried to charge me the kaolack price of 1000 CFA even though i was just going to birkelane and i surprised him by knowing that he was trying to cheat me and calling him out on it. he lowered it to 800 and i laughed at him. i told him i knew the price was 350 to birkelane and he relented and led me to the guy who was taking the money and writing receipts. he said the price was 400 which kind of annoyed me but at this point it was 5:30PM and i really should have already been in birkelane and walking at this point so i agreed. i was pleased when i heard him later charge several senegalese the same price for the trip to birkelane meaning that i hadn't been cheated.

a gigantic woman practically sat on me and they crammed as many people as possible into the damn car so it was quite a squishy ride. by the time i was in birkelane i had decied that i would try hiring a charette (horse cart) instead of walk. i stopped by moussa's butig to buy phone credt and ask about the price of charettes. (i'm so glad i actually have senegalese friends now.) lucky me -- thiam, who lives in my village, was there and he had a charette ride and offered me a ride as well! hooray!

i was very pleased and felt quite proud of myslef for having managed this trip and my stress level. i finally felt a bit like a PCV: able to know and bargain prices in Wolof and use my friends as connections and getting home on my own.

in the end i wound up back at site around 8:30 exhausted and dirty and tired and finally finished with my epic adventure that was really supposed to be just a day trip to kaffrine.

good night!

Monday, January 7, 2008

day trip to kaffrine

kaffrine has a cyber!

i am in kaffrine for a day trip to see friends and to visit my eaux-et-foret counterpart. it is a nice respite away from site and i am thrilled that kaffrine has finally gotten an internet cafe.

unfortunately my trip to kaffrine was tainted with some disgust that i can't get out of my head. i was standing on the side of the main road shivering (it's cold!) and waiting to flag down a car to bring me to kaffrine. there was also a group of boys waiting to hail a car in the other direction (to birkelane) and at first i was a bit wary of them, as all groups of boys are usually 90% of the time annoying and/or trouble. however, they were good kids, giddy and excited for whatever trip they were going on and horsing around with each other on the roadside.

a car comes barreling down the road and it is visible that it is full of toubabs (foreigners). so far i haven't been too irked by toubabs or anything, it's been more comical than anything else to see them here, i guess because even though i'm a toubab, i'm not really? anyway, the car full of grinning toubabs whizzes by and something comes flying out of the window and skitters onto the road. what is it but a little jolly rancher. who do these people think they are? throwing candy at the roadside attraction? it was insulting and degrading and i was disgusted at such behavior. thankfully the boys were equally baffled by such a gesture and there was no mad dash for the piece of candy and it sat in the road alone and unwanted for a while until talla told the kids to take it. i don't understand why anybody would think that such an action would be generous or gracious or kind. if one wants to give them candy, they ought to stop the car and acquaint themselves and talk rather than throw a singular piece of candy out of a window as if these were not children but animals to be thrown scraps of food at.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

burning trash

the other night i burned my trash. i usually bring my garbage with me if i am going to birkelane or kaolack so that i can dispose of it "properly," but the last time i was in birkelane, i forgot to bring it with me. so it was either leave it in my hut for the mice to get to when they run rampant at night (i know this because i wake up in the middle of the night to their squeaking and do nothing about it but hide in the shelter of my mosquito net) or ask talla to help me burn it. i figured the latter was the lesser of two lousy options and figured it i just do it once in a while, i should be okay.

of course all the kids came running to watch the burning heap of the remains of my last two weeks of life and just as they drew really near, something in the heap mini-exploded making a huge "POOF" and the fire billowed. the kids scattered like thrown seeds. i nearly ran off too.

for the rest of the night the kids retold the story about my burning trash to each other over and over again, tittering and giggling in excitement. i know this not because i can understand what they're saying but because throughout the evening i would hear "babble babble babble POOF!" followed by a peal of laughter.

i illustrated the scene but the photo quality is not so great but it gives you an idea of how it looked to me...