Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sounds like “sorrow”

In Mandinka “saroo” is the announcement of an imminent departure; “Nnata saroo” is what you say when you are preparing to say goodbye, when you want someone to know that you are going away and won’t be back for a long time. I have said my saroo’s in Saré Pathé.

As I sit in the office in Dakar, in between appointments and errands, it is hard for me to imagine myself where I was a week ago, and I suppose the reality of it won’t fully hit me until I am done here and on my way back to America. In the end I decided not to make a big scene – no parties, no major public announcements. I went around village and said my farewells to each compound individually and spent the rest of my time at home with my family. For days on end I heard the same few phrases over and over again: “Nafi you are going to make us lonely,” “When will you come back?” “You are going to make Filijee cry.” In response I told them that I would miss everyone very much, that I would love to come back someday, but don’t know when I’ll be able to, and that I also was going to cry a lot. In fact every day of that last week was tearful and I kept going back and forth between thinking that it should be like any other week and thinking that it should be somehow special and significant. The evening before my departure I divided up the large items I was leaving behind and paid for a nice dinner for my family. Afterwards we all sat together and each person took turns saying nice things about me and recounting what they will remember most fondly of my time with them. Some of the things they mentioned were obvious (times when I helped when no one else could), but some of them were surprisingly small good deeds like helping pick tomatoes, and others were just funny anecdotes about jokes Nafi made. Mostly it was just nice to cry with everyone and be reminded of why I came here in the first place… to know that I did good.

I didn’t sleep much that night, but when I did I dreamed of a Saré Pathé Bouya in America. I had planned to wake up before dawn and walk out of village, but things never seem to go according to plan here. It happened that a NGO car was in the area and able to pick me up and drive me to Kolda. So I got some time in the morning to take a few more pictures, to record some goodbye videos and to hug the people I love. It was one of the hardest goodbyes of my life, knowing I may never seen them again and that just keeping in touch at all will be difficult. I have to just trust that Nafi won’t soon be forgotten and that even if I can’t see them or talk to them, there will always be people in Senegal who think of me often and love me like a member of the family. They will certainly always be in my heart.

Allah maa kana ntala lebang
and may I return to them again someday. Amen. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Friend David

I probably met David very early in my service, but I can’t say I remember anything about that first interaction. At that point my energy was focused on getting to know the community, and as a teacher he wasn’t a permanent member of it, and thus outside my principle interest. Not long after this first meeting I left for language seminar and my second round of training. By the time I came back he was on his summer vacation. Then another school year started and a couple months later I was off to America and wouldn’t be back to SPB for four months, by which time I was busy building latrines and another school year was wrapping up. So it really wasn’t until my last year in Saré Pathé that I got to know David. By the time I did our friendship unfolded so easily and naturally that it seemed as if I’d known him for years.

It was easy to be friends with David because, like me, he is an outsider in Saré Pathé. He speaks Mandinka, but he is not Mandinka. He is Diola and Catholic, from a more prosperous part of Senegal, and perhaps most importantly for me, he is far more educated than any of the permanent residents of SPB. All of the teachers have been to University and have seen something of the world outside of these tiny villages. Even if it is just through books or TV, even if it is just Dakar, the fact of having been somewhere other than Saré Pathé means that they can better understand the journey that I made in coming here. On top of this, David is especially generous, outgoing and kind, one of the warmest people I've ever known. And of course it helps that he speaks excellent English. We made a pact last year that we would never speak to each other in French, only Mandinka or English so that one of us could always practice. We usually ended up speaking English though, which was more than fair considering how much practice I get without his help. I taught him idioms and proverbs. And I spent many a pleasant afternoon this past year sitting with him and the other teachers under a mango tree, talking about our different cultures, about languages, history, politics and about our friends and families.

As the last school year came to a close and David and his colleagues prepared to go back to their respective regions I found myself wondering how it was that I missed out on this kind of friendship during the first half of my service. Mainly it was for the reasons enumerated above, but I think it also has something to do with my own level of comfort within this culture and within the Nafi persona. I noticed it a few weeks ago also when I had a very long and illuminating conversation with my favorite guard here at the Peace Corps house. I came away from that interaction feeling so much love for this man who I see every time I’m in Kolda and who is infinitely wiser than I ever realized before that night. How could I have thought I knew this man before? How could I have gone this long without knowing these details of a life that interests me, that has intersected with mine so often? Part of it is that by now I’m really good at communicating with Senegalese people, which was not always the case. But beyond this ease of cross-cultural communication - that could only come with experience - I find that as my service draws to a close I am trying to soak it all up and get the absolute most out of these experiences and relationships. It is a bittersweet moment in the life of Nafi. 

I may not see David again before I go back to America. He was the first of many difficult goodbyes so I wanted to dedicate a post to him, to those good times under the mango tree and to the other wonderful friends I've made in this country. I’m just thankful, as always, to have had the chance to learn this culture and to know these people. They are some of the best I’ve had the privilege to know.
Diatta, Babene, Sonko & Sagna

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Gross-Out (In honor of my third and final rainy season in Senegal)

I can’t help it. Something in my nature compels me to write a blog post of this ilk. Honestly, part of me just gets a kick out of it, but aside from my own fascination with the “gross” I feel like I wouldn’t be giving you all an accurate picture of my life in Africa if I didn’t share some of the ew, the yuck, the oh-dear-lord, to which I have become so accustomed. I don’t want to feed too much into the stereotype of the Dark Continent, crawling with huge bugs, infested with parasites waiting to eat you alive! Most of the time my life isn’t gross at all, but the truth is that Africa does have some big bugs and some nasty parasites and I am here to tell you about them. So if the title of this post was not enough of a warning and this preamble hasn’t clued you in, prepare yourself now for the gross out
I think I have a higher than average tolerance for most things gross, but there were times during Pre-Service training (PST) that I got a case of the heebie-jeebies. Who could blame me when the possible afflictions covered in our “staying healthy in Senegal” sessions had names like creeping eruption and blister beetle (so named because it secretes a chemical that blisters the skin; if not popped under water the blisters release more of this chemical and create still more blisters)? What I feared most by the end of PST though was the mango fly, so of course it was the first really gross parasite I encountered.
In between rattling our PST cages with their gross-out stories (“blister beetle on her neck!” “staph in my armpit!”) older volunteers reassured us that none of these things are really as bad as they sound during training. It was hard to believe at first – I kept thinking, “if I get a mango fly I’m going home,” knowing I probably wouldn’t – but it has proved true, and nothing I’ve seen has been gross enough to send me home. When I learned after a few weeks in village that puppies are particularly susceptible to mango fly infestations I had a moment of extreme disgust and then actually got a sort of sick satisfaction from popping them out of Tanko’s body, like fat squirming pimples, the biggest white-head you’ve ever seen, come to life! I did feel really bad for the little guy obviously; they were all over him and in proportion to his body size each one would be, at best, like popping a grub the size of a pill bottle out of your thigh. In fact, one of the grossest things I have ever seen in my life was a kid with a mango fly larva in his thigh. He had been limping around the compound for a couple days, because although they don’t get to be the size of a pill bottle, they can get in there pretty deep and cause a lot of pain and swelling. He came and sat down on the bamboo bench and then suddenly his mom, who was sitting next to him, reached over, grabbed his thigh with both hands and squeezed as hard as she could, with the predictable gory results. I still breath a big Alhamdulilah that I never had one myself.
First rainy season staph infection (near my Achilles)
I have had my share of gross infections though. My first rainy season I had a staph infection that looked like a gunshot wound and a case of zombie rash. I’m not sure who coined this term, but half my training class had a mysterious scaly rash that first year (maybe caused by an insect secretion?) that came to be known as “zombie rash” among volunteers. Last year I had another mild case of zombie rash in almost exactly the same place and almost exactly the same time of year, plus two more staph infections, one in an unmentionable and very painful spot. That’s to say nothing of the various invisible, but nonetheless gross internal infections I’ve had, for which I am thankful for the wonder drug that is Cipro, or what my friend Ben once referred to as “an atomic bomb for your gut.”
Sarah's zombie rash
 So far this rainy season has been smooth sailing, and I hope I don’t jinx myself by saying so. I am generally healthier, better nourished and stronger than I was last year and I would hope that by this point my body is more accustomed to the local germ populations and able to resist more of that gross stuff. But even if it’s not, I’m pretty confident that between my own thick skin and the miracles of modern medicine I can stand up to just about any parasite out there.
This started as an ordinary burn and an ordinary blister, then it popped, got infected and became this!

Monday, June 3, 2013


This week another day at the Kolda house means another blog post, and since the last one was all about me on a personal level, this one is all about work.

I am pleased to report that my second (and last) construction project in SPB was finished on schedule and our middle school now has a well! Once again, I want to thank everyone who donated. In Muslim cultures building a well gets you major points in the heavenly rewards department; it's the ultimate good deed to give someone access to the sacred element of life. I guess this makes sense in a religion that initially spread over some very hot and dry parts of our earth. So, aside from the regular good karma of helping out my neighbors, I feel like I've incurred an extra big blessing by helping to make this happen (and so have you by extension). I didn't really intend to do any big projects of this kind when I first installed, but it was hard to say no when there was really so little I had to do. The teachers and principal organized everything and provided the motivation as well as some of the funds themselves. All I had to do was write a proposal, take some pictures, ask for a little help from back home and then sit back and watch everyone else carry out the work. This is the ideal grant project as far as a Peace Corps volunteer is concerned and I feel very fortunate that it all went so smoothly. You can check out the final report with pictures by clicking here.

The other blessing that came out of this project was a much closer relationship between me and the SPB middle school. I had gotten to know a couple of the teachers before, but since this spring I've had the pleasure of spending time with all of them and am glad to have that many more people who I consider friends. On the whole they are generous and funny and hard-working, and the more time I spend with them the more I want to join in their efforts to make that school the best darn CEM (that's a middle school) in the region! It was this sentiment that encouraged me to join the ranks of PCVs who are participating in the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship Program this year. The program aims to address the issue of girls' education in Senegal. While enrollment at the elementary school level is fairly equal between boys and girls, by middle school girls' enrollment drops incrementally with each year. Early marriage accounts for some of this, but many families simply pull their daughters out of school to help with the housekeeping. When a family's resources are limited they tend to favor boys' education, assuming that inscription fees are wasted on a daughter who will only grow up to be someone's wife. Consequently, many girls have trouble imagining futures for themselves outside of the traditional roles of wives and mothers, and the cycle continues. The Michelle Sylvester Scholarship is awarded to nine girls, three from each of the three middle school grade levels. They are chosen by the faculty based on their academic standing as well as their need. The funds are used to pay for their tuition fees and school supplies for the coming school year. As a woman who was raised to believe she could be anything she wanted (instead of or in addition to becoming a wife and mother), as a Barnard woman, as someone who has been blessed in so many ways, I feel compelled to do what I can to encourage educational equality in this country. I am able to be in the Peace Corps without stressing about student loans waiting for me when I get back home thanks to the generosity of someone who saw value in women's education for its own sake, for its potential to improve our world. I am here, doing for others, proud to be making good on his investment, and an opportunity to pay it forward presents itself. But I am but a poor Peace Corps volunteer, so (get ready, here it comes) I am asking one last time for support from home. Unlike other charities, organizations, initiatives you could give your money to, you know exactly where this is going and who it benefits. I'll even show you a picture of their happy smiling faces if you want! But in order to do that we need to give these girls something to smile about and that's where you come in. If you feel inclined to help out with the MSS program click here. When you donate please write in the comments section “This donation is to support MSS scholarships in Cibyl Delaire’s village of Sare Pathe Bouya.” To give you an idea of how far the dollar goes in the Senegalese school system, a $20 donation would pay for a year's tuition and all the school supplies a girl needs. Let's show these girls that they are worth it!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Home of the Brave

One of the comments I got most from people when I decided to join the Peace Corps was, “You’re so brave!” I think most volunteers get this from people back home at some point and I think most volunteers think, as I do, that it’s a funny choice of adjective. None of us feel particularly brave… a thick-skinned variety of crazy perhaps, but really that’s all it takes to deal with the big bugs, the lack of amenities, the weird food and the challenges of learning a new language and culture. Many of these, once you get used to them, also offer their fair share of joys… even the bugs. So “brave” doesn’t feel quite right. No one considers himself brave unless he’s trying to be a hero, which I think very few people are. But, humility aside, I’ve come to realize that “brave” isn’t so far off the mark; it’s just that the bravery that Peace Corps service requires is so much more mundane than most people realize. It’s nothing more that the courage to endure a bad day and find the love.
I’ve had plenty of bad days over the last two years and most of the time they come and go so quickly that I hardly ever make note of them. But sometimes I have several in a row and then I end up feeling so wretched and angry and desperate that I start to wonder what I’m even doing here. I think it’s pretty common for volunteers to do this, to turn our knocks into nostalgia for America. Homesickness is a predatory emotion and it preys primarily on sadness and frustration. We forget that bad days happen in America too; it’s just that there we have a wealth of coping mechanisms, while here we have so few. In the states you can always go home and relax with a cold beer or a nice glass of wine or a good strong margarita, depending on the kind of bad day you just had. Indeed you can, within reason, drink, eat, watch or do whatever you want, go wherever you want, see whoever you want. And these are just the tangible differences one can put a finger on. I bet you don’t even realize how nice it is that your bad day at least unfolds in your own language. I don’t mean to imply that I am without my comforts (a nice long walk in the woods is just as curative here as back home), its’ just that they are few and they are small and so I don’t depend on them for much relief. My method now is of the “buck up and deal” variety, and this is where you could say the bravery comes into play. There’s no real escape from a bad day in Saré Pathé – I live and work, eat, sleep and relax all in one tiny village and the population expects a certain level of cheerfulness and gregariousness on my part. Sometimes it’s this expectation in and of itself that is the cause of my bad mood, but how could I possibly explain this? Two years ago Nafi was a baby, barely able to express herself. She developed into an out-going, curious and loveable child. Unfortunately she is lately going through an angst-y teenaged phase. She is grumpy and wants to be left alone sometimes, not asked if she is sick or if she misses her mom in America or if she is mad that we are having leaf sauce for dinner again. It can be hard to buck up when you don’t know what you are bucking against.
After some reflection I’ve come to think that this moodiness I’ve been feeling in village is the poorest of the poor man’s coping mechanisms. It is starting to sink in that in a few months I’m going to have to say goodbye to these people who I love so dearly and that there is a good chance I may never see them again. This is heartbreaking, to say the least, and I’m not able to think about it without welling up. So a happy Nafi, watching Wiyé make himself dizzy and fall down giggling quickly turns into a misty-eyed, broken-hearted Nafi. If I am a pill, if I withdraw from my host family into reveries of burritos and close-toed shoes, I don’t feel the heartbreak. But I also don’t feel the joy and love that makes this experience worthwhile. I didn’t come here to be a hero or get badass points for braving the big bugs and the hole in the ground that is my toilet. I came here for the love. So I am resolved to go back to village with the courage to face those bittersweet feelings that are going to dominate the next four months of my life. It will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I just hope it’s enough to push teenaged Nafi into adulthood before we have to leave SPB for good. Besides, who can help but be in love when this is the kind of thing that happens right outside your hut?
Peanuts stretching in the sand - Baby Cibyl and Tiyo

P.S. Click here for the latest photo album...

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Kolda House

I’ve been putting off writing about Kolda’s Peace Corps house for a long time, not for lack of things to say about it but because I knew it would be hard to put into words the many conflicting feelings I’ve had about it over the last couple of years.
The house is in a residential part of Kolda, uphill from downtown and about a block off the paved road. When you step inside the front gate you are first greeted by one of our three guards. They have a little gatehouse built against the front wall where they listen to the radio, make tea or work on puzzles. We have a small front yard with a few trees and bike racks and a narrow front porch. The house is a tall one-story with rooms around a central hallway and a roof. Our little American haven has everything you need in a house: kitchen, multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, a library, an office, a patio. We are lucky to have a big space but it rarely seems big enough. There are over forty volunteers in Kolda now and with so many people coming and going it can be difficult to keep our house clean and orderly. Its got all the grime of a frat house without the testosterone; the inconsistent amenities of a run-down budget youth hostel without the excitement of meeting strangers from all over; the good intentions of a hippy co-op without the consistent community.
For us volunteers the regional house is many things – it is a gathering place, a work space, a home away from home, a refuge when you need a break from village. But it really struggles to be all of these things at once, especially in a region as big as Kolda. I always think that I’m going to get more work done than I do (I have some very ambitious Kolda-house-to-do lists to prove it), but conditions are often less than ideal. How much work could you get done when it’s over 100 degrees out and there’s no AC, just junky fans? Or when there are half a dozen or more other volunteers around, most of them not doing work, when you’ve got someone else’s movie, TV show, music playing? Or when you’ve got a slow (read “third world”) internet connection made slower by volunteer x trying to skype, volunteer y downloading the latest episode of The New Girl, and volunteer z watching something on YouTube? All of this compounded with the fact that I am generally out of practice when it comes to sitting down at a computer and being productive and you can see why my to-do’s never get to-done.
But I’m making it sound like a bad place to be or that it’s impossible to get things done here. Like anything else it just takes practice, and after two years I’ve finally become well versed in the art of being at the Kolda house. And now that I have begun my extension (yes, I’m here until October, in part to continue working on a medicinal plant manual for my fellow volunteers) I am spending more time at the house and getting more practice in. Part of it is just the simple fact of duration and its accompanying sense of ownership or familiarity; that is, being a super-senior as opposed to a freshman. When I first got to Kolda I hardly knew how to fend for myself. Even just to make a simple meal required a new set of skills: I had to learn how to navigate the market, become familiar with what kinds of ingredients were available and where to find them, how to buy them in Mandinka and Pulaar. Now these things are second nature and I am the upper classman making a quiche from scratch while the newbie bowls ramen. Being able to cook delicious meals is a joy and comfort and one of the main reasons I come to the Kolda house, so the how and when and where of grocery shopping is an essential part of my Kolda routine. The house for me is about these meals, about my cache of American food (thanks Mom!), about a separate house wardrobe that shows a little more skin, and about the computer.
The order of operations is as follows:
1.     Weed through the 50 or so new emails
2.     Weed through the dozens of facebook notifications
3.     Catch up on news and friends and family
4.     Work. Maybe.
5.     Blog or post pictures
Steps 1 and 2 can take a while and if I try to sate my appetite for number 3 it may take up the rest of that first day at the house. I have a much better, more realistic sense now of how much work I can get done in one go. So I use downtime in village to write out blog posts so that it’s just a matter of typing them up. And if I come in more often I’m less likely to have 70 emails in my inbox.  
More importantly, I’ve learned how to avoid the crowds. It’s hard for me to feel completely at ease in a place where all I can truly claim as mine is a trunk and a suitcase and where most of the people around me are little more than acquaintances. Sometimes I would come in to escape from village and the house would get so crowded and I’d get the most panicky, claustrophobic feeling and start to wonder how I could escape the escape. So now I generally stay away when I know there’s a party or a meeting and I time my visits to Kolda when I can reasonably expect the house to be quiet. I hit the jackpot this time. Three days of near solitude, some solid progress on my reports, new pictures posted (click here) and a blog post! Check, check, check.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Of all the members of my host family it has taken me the longest to feel I really know Mamadou. In previous posts I have mentioned him only in relation to others – my host brother; Bouley’s nephew; husband of Taani, Filijee and Seyni; father of fifteen! For better or worse, he is the center of this household in which I live, and while there have been times over the last two years that I’ve felt it was for the worse, I’ve come to realize his many admirable qualities and to truly care for him as I never thought I would.
In my first weeks here he made me very nervous; nobody was quite as impatient with my inablility to speak Mandinka as was Mamadou. He would come to my room to ask me something that I couldn’t understand, repeat it in exactly the same way and then get so frustrated when I still didn’t understand. Finally, tired of feeling stupid I would just reply in English. He’d give me a puzzled look and say, “Nafi, you know I don’t speak English. I can’t understand you.” Oh, I know. It didn't take long for him to get the picture.
When I decided I wanted a dog it was Mamadou who made it happen. Early one morning he biked to Sinthian Kaba, a Pulaar village up the road. I don’t think I even knew he had gone until I heard him calling my name and peeked through my door just as he was biking up, pup in hand. “Bonzoor!” he called, grinning and holding this tiny squirming thing up for me. That was Tanko.
Every month I give my family a monetary contribution to offset the cost of feeding me and to show my gratitude at having been welcomed into this family. All volunteers do this in one form or another, although many contribute food or a combination of food and cash. I decided early on that it was easier to just give cash and so at the beginning of every month I would call Mamadou aside and give him the equivalent of $40 and ask him to put it towards food or whatever else the family might need. Senegalese people are funny about money practically obligated to give it if a family member asks, they tend to hide it when they do get their hands on some. So, I obliged his desire to keep this transaction secret, not wanting to create problems for him and trusting that he would know best how to spend it. I did feel strange about the women not being involved because I know that often they are more likely to spend money on the family than themselves, but the fact that Mamadou has three wives made the decision much more complicated and the last thing I wanted to do was get in the middle of this four person marriage. I was naïve to think it could be avoided for very long.
One morning, sometime around my fifth month at site, Filijee came to me asking for money. I can’t remember now exactly what I was for, but I told her to ask Mamadou for the money. “He doesn’t have any money,” she said. “Sure he does, I just gave him the monthly contribution yesterday.” Then in front of his other two wives I explained how every month I give Mamadou money to help with the household expenses. They wanted to know how much, so I told them. They were floored. They went on to tell me that he just hoards it, that they never see a penny of that money and that he can’t be trusted. I felt terrible – angry and betrayed and not at all looking forward to confronting him about it. I tried to think of some way to remedy the situation – maybe giving $10 to him and each of his wives, but the women were uncomfortable with this plan. Then I thought, so what if he is hoarding it? Is that such a bad thing? People here are generally horrible about saving money which makes everything that much more stressful when they get in a tight spot. Maybe he has a plan for it. Sure enough, he came home the next day with new school supplies for all the kids, a possibility the women hadn’t considered since they never have the responsibility of buying such things. The rest of the money for that month (and some he had saved) went towards paying the school fees for the ten or so kids of school going age. 
It was incidents like this that made me realize there was a lot more to the man than what I saw at first. He can be grumpy and short-tempered much of the time, but I would be too if I had to work as hard as he does and provide for as many people. You could argue that he brought it on himself, that he deserves the stress, that no one forced him to marry three women and have fifteen kids, but that’s not entirely fair. He grew up in this little village without much education, without seeing much of the outside world. My being here is probably the most exposure he’s ever had to ideas other than what the conservative, traditional village elders have taught him. And to his credit (and mine for that matter) I have seen a change in him.
After kid number fifteen he came to me asking about how to get his youngest wife on birth control, virtually unheard of in this culture where many wives and children are considered a measure of your manhood and where husbands are generally very jealous and suspicious when their wives want to practice family planning. But he finally realized he was stretched way too thin and that he couldn’t possibly afford more; he can barely afford to take care of them as it is. I can tell he wants to be the best father he can be. All of his children are fed, clothed and sent to school, which is more than can be said for many in this country. He knows the birthdays of all of his fifteen kids, again, unheard of around here. And what gets me the most is watching him with the babies – bouncing them, talking to them, making funny noises and faces. One of his younger boys has been sick lately and he lets him eat with us at our bowl instead of the crowded little kid bowl where he’s likely to get jostled and bullied by the others. It's watching these quiet interactions, Mamadou one-on-one with Kampou or Fili or Wiye that are the most touching and make me sad that it took me so long to notice his gentler side; it's so much more of who he is than the impatient and stressed-out version. He can be strict and demanding, but also funny and candid. He’s by no means perfect, but he does his best to take care of his family and look out for us. I feel lucky to have him around and to have finally come to know him so well.
Mamadou and Baby Mom, Korite 2012