Monday, April 28, 2008

Bean battles....

Gauntlettes were thrown,
enemies were made,
beans were eaten.

There are a few jokes that never seem to lose their humor amoung the Senegalse. One of these entails the consumption of beans. Apparently in Senegal it is an insult to be accused of being a "bean eater" because traditionally beans were cheap and only eaten in the absence of money to buy anything else. (This isnt really true though because beans are sort of expensive and as a health volunteer I must say that beans rock the house as far as nutrition is concerned).

I was recently in Bernard's village for a few days helping out with some health activities with a few of the new Peace Corps trainees and, let me tell you, there was no end to the bean harrassment. Bernards village name is "Modi Sow." My village name is "Atoru Dia." Historically, Dia's and Sow's are cousins and therefore we are required, by BIRTH, to give eachother copious amounts of redicule. Bernard's village is riddled with pesky Sows just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting, visiting Dia, much to my chugrin. I couldn't go anywhere without being called a "Naamo Niebe" (bean eater) or being offered beans.

"You look hungry. You want me to cook you some beans?"
"Im sorry, I dont have any beans, you should go somewhere else."
"Where are you going? To buy beans?"

To add insult to injury, Bernards family actually cooked beans for dinner one night and they all sat around watching me eat and laughing. When will the maddness end?? OK! I admit it. I EAT BEANS! I LOVE THEM, CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF THEM! GIMMEE GIMME GIMMEE!
My name is Atoru Dia and I am a beanaholic!

And as if I'm not laughed at enough, this morning I was attempting to disembark from a horse cart (jumping off gracefully as the horse is still moving) and my bag fell off my shoulder and around my ankles and when I jumped off I got tangled in bag and fell over. I'm an idiot.

Besides that, Ashley, how are you doing with the heat, the wind, and the tiredness?

I am here only.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Corki and Eric’s African Adventure

Toubabs ambling willy-nilly in search of fromage

Corki (aka Mom) ...

I’m sorry that I’ve taken so long to add my thoughts, but I’ve had a really difficult time paring down the experience to a few paragraphs. My original attempt turned out more like a diary and when I stopped, I had six pages in Word -- and I was only halfway done. I’m not going to pretend that anyone is THAT interested. So here is the condensed version -- I hope!

Senegal is a foreign country in the truest sense of the word. I know what you're thinking -- “DUH, Corki, it's freakin’ Africa!” But it's hard to get a sense of just how foreign it is. Foreign sounds, smells, heat, tastes, and of course, sights and language. At times it's sensory overload and it's easy to lose all sense of reference. Very little is real as we know it.

Sounds... In the villages and road towns, the first thing you notice are the active family sounds that extend late into the night. Since the villagers nap in the heat of the afternoon and eat dinner late, they stay awake late, even the children. And most of their living is done outside. There are constant animal sounds, bleeting sheep and goats meander around everywhere along with the occasional cow and burro. Feral cats fight at night. Perhaps the most foreign of all is the Muslim call to prayer which begins around 4:00 am and continues at intervals throughout the day, ending at sundown. The speaker is right next to Ashley’s hut. But this followed us throughout the country. Everywhere we stayed, a mosque was never far away.

In the bigger cities, it’s more about the traffic and people. We were routinely followed by people trying to sell as merchandise as well as services. Everywhere, talibĂ© boys beg for money and food (see: article on CNN.com). At the airport men offer to help you get through, carry your bags, and find you a car. Of course they then want money. This is also common in the cities. They will offer to give you tours, show you the best shops, restaurants, etc. -- of course, they always have some relationship to the places they’re leading you to, or get a kickback. Because of our expert personal guide daughter, we were taught early on how to deal with these people -- ignore them. I got really good at the dismissive hand wave.

Heat... I’m thinking 100 degrees kind of speaks for itself. Especially when you are in the very back seat of a sept-place (think a Ford Taurus station wagon with an extra, smaller back seat in the rear area) packed in like sardines. Air conditioning in cars is pretty well non-existent. And Ashley's village is in the desert -- 10K off the road into the bush. Let me tell you, in the afternoon we were virtually unable to do anything except sweat and breathe.

Smells... Imagine a mixture of exotic spices and oils, and mingle that with garbage and animal manure. That's pretty much how it smells. Near the coast add in fish and people smoking fish in the sand. Away from the cities, the air was pretty fresh most of the time. But even at the coast, there was an occasional waft of garbage.

Tastes... I didn't find the food bad at all. We ate well at the coast and in the cities. It was easy to find French food, crepes, and the occasional pizza. We even ate at a restaurant in St. Louis that served pina coladas and margaritas! Ok, they wouldn't have won an American bartender any awards, but they had alcohol and were tasty in their own right. We also discovered a new delicacy that’s available all over Senegal -- omelet sandwiches -- eggs scrambled with various vegetables and served on a baguette. Yum! In the village we ate oily rice and fish out of the communal bowl. I think it was almost more strange to eat sitting on the ground than it was for everyone to eat out of the same bowl. It’s rather uncomfortable, too, when there are a lot of people and you have to contort your body to allow someone to sit very close in front of you. And since we are not as used to squatting on a daily basis as the natives are, our knees weren't so much up to the task, either. But again, we had been taught beforehand so we were up to the challenge. Many of the villagers we visited also offered us sweetened milk and sweetened hot tea, much to Eric's dismay. He would try to discreetly pass it off to me so he didn't look ungrateful, but I think we were caught. I guess I really will eat or drink pretty much anything.

Sights... If I really get into this, it will be another six-page diatribe so I will do kind of a stream of consciousness string without a lot of elaboration. As you can see, I have included a few photos. Many, many half-built and abandoned buildings crumbling -- big ones in the cities as well as smaller dwellings and businesses in the road towns; sheep and goats everywhere; people staring at us wherever we went; really cool individually decorated long wooden fishing boats; eight-lane freeways with no lane markers painted; no stop lights or even stop signs anywhere and we never saw an accident; primitive donkey and horse carts sharing the road, even highways, with vehicles; piles of garbage, blowing garbage, garbage washed up on the beach; modern buildings next to ramshackle tin boxes and mud huts; lovely women in brightly colored traditional dress and head wraps, often carrying things on their heads and many with babies tied on their backs; lots of lots of kids (who always seemed to be fascinated by white people); many tiny local restaurants with "Fast Food," in English, painted on the front (not so much, as it turns out); totally awesome baobab trees; MONKEYS!, gazelles, large sand crabs, odd birds, a couple of camels, burros, longhorn cattle, one scorpion, and did I mention sheep and goats?; Lots and lots of sand with lots of dried animal dung on top of it; white mosques with turquoise accents; sleeping under mosquito nets; small villages with dwellings laid out in a way that makes no sense; sand paths; kids and men in western clothing (we saw lots of American cast-off clothing, in fact the moment we arrived in Ashley's (her village name is Atoru) village we were greeted by a woman with a “White Bear Lake High School” t-shirt on over her traditional skirt -- this is where my mother-in-law grew up and went to school); men in robes and turbans as well; mud bricks drying in the sun; fences made out of mud bricks, sticks, and combinations of sticks and rolled up thorn bushes; roadside markets with small, tin-covered stalls; beautiful azaleas in surprising places; and stars that go on forever, breathtaking, defying description. To sum it up, Michael Palin said it best when talking about Senegal -- “...it's a place where beauty co-exists with squalor.”

The country and the people are genuinely beautiful. They have very little, but the villagers share what they do have with complete strangers without hesitation. They are warm, they are funny, they are proud. I am honored to have been welcomed by them and I will always treasure them in my heart.

I can't close without mentioning how proud we are of
our awesome daughter! She was the parent wrangler, the translator, the negotiator, the guide. the teacher, and the leader. It was amazing to watch her converse easily switching between French, Pulaar, and English in all types of situations, from negotiating a price for a taxi, to schmoozing a gendarme (policeman) as he was checking our passports, to formally greeting the elders of the village. She showed an amazing amount of poise, skill, and maturity and we are just so proud of the woman she has become -- again words just can't convey the depth of our pride and gratitude. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it. Aturo, my love, you truly rock!

_______________________________

Eric (aka Dad)...

I just wanted to ad a few foot notes to Corki’s entry. Travel in Senegal is very hard, everything is public transportation of different degrees of difficulty. Once you got outside the airport virtually no one speaks English with the exception of ”Igiveyougoodprice“ and ”howareyouiamfine“ both spoken as one word. You could get by along the coastal areas if you speak French. Also the random traffic stops by the military police are somewhat bothersome as you sit on the side of the road for 30 minutes in 100 degree heat as they argue with the driver.

Something else that really surprised me was the large piles of trash you would see as you got close to the populated areas. If you look close at them you will see they are almost entirely made up of plastic water bottles and black plastic bags (every time you buy anything in a store no matter how small it is carefully wrapped in a black plastic bag) introduced by our modern civilization without any way to recycle or dispose of them.

The talibe boys that would gather around your car every time you stop would really tug at your heart strings. They would recite alms which are the Islamic version of bible verses and in return you were supposed to give them money. We would try to give them food if we had any and what really surprised me was that instead of the person you gave the food to wolfing it down on the spot, they would walk a few steps away and split it up to share with the others. Please read the link in Corki's blog about the talibe if you have not done so, it is a very eye opening story, parts of which we witnessed first hand.

It was really great to get home and I am not really sure if I would want to go back to Senegal, but it was an experience of a lifetime, some good some bad. Ashley was an awesome tour guide and parent wrangler and we never would have been able to do this without her. Her ability to handle all of the different situations and watching her converse in multiple languages was just amazing and we were so proud. When you see the mud hut that she lives in on a daily basis I do not see how she does it. The prisoners in the La Porte County Jail have better accommodations. Also it was great to meet some of the other peace corps volunteers. As future leaders of our country I can't help but feel they will do better than the ones we have now.