Guest Blog


Feast your eyes on my second guest blog, brought to you by my recent demyster.  “Demysting” is what we call the five days trainees spend in or near their future villages, “demystifying” themselves on the realities of PCV life in Senegal.  My demyster, Cibyl, is fantastic (click on her name to check out her blog – it’s great!).  We had an enjoyable, eventful, and definitely memorable few days together… but I’ll let her tell you about it.


I became a “Being Ñamoo” reader sometime last fall, amid my own Peace Corps preparations. I was living with my parents, only sporadically employed and recently invited to serve as a health volunteer in Senegal. In an attempt to feel productive and visualize what this would mean I had taken to trolling YouTube for volunteers’ videos, which is precisely how I ended up here. Finding Amanda’s video of her village and this blog was like seeing into my future; I read a few entries and thought, “Okay, I could see my Peace Corps experience looking something like this.”

Staying with Amanda in Fodé Bayo was like stepping into a storybook. How often do you stumble upon a random blog about someone’s tiny Peace Corps village in the African bush and then a few months later get to stay there with the very person whose face you first saw peeking through a YouTube channel on the other side of the world? I mean, come on. It made my whole demyst experience that much more surreal – as if it wasn’t enough to be walking through a postcard image of an African village, listening to Amanda and her fellow villagers chirp away in this wonderfully silly song of a language they call Mandinka.

I arrived at Dave’s compound in Dabo after a good 10-hour bus ride from the training center in Thiès, tired, hungry and dehydrated. Amanda showed up a few minutes later, shouting Pulaar greetings to Dave’s host mom, and got me and my stuff on a bike and on the road in a matter of minutes. Now, I will admit it has been a while since I did any serious biking, but I’m not in such bad shape either. That being said, keeping up with Amanda in the Senegalese sun (even late afternoon sun) along sandy bush paths with a backpack, purse and pillow tied precariously to the back of my bike was no easy feat. She was a great host and made sure to check in and take water breaks (especially after I heaved into the bushes on that first afternoon – oops), but as she herself put it to another volunteer a few days later, she tends to bike the bush paths rather “ferociously.” Add that to my list of goals for my service: learn to bike ferociously.

When we got to Fodé Bayo we were greeted by a hoard of smiling Mandinkas (as far as I can tell there is no other kind) and everyone wanted to know who this new white girl was and why her Mandinka was so terrible (ironic that I understood when they remarked that I didn’t understand Mandinka). The rest of my visit I did a lot of listening and watching, trying to master the cadence of village greetings while Amanda defended my limited language skills (I think she was just excited to have another Mandinka around even if I only speak baby-Mandinka). I would sit and watch her jabber away with the locals, wondering how and when I’ll ever be able to communicate well enough to do this job.  It’s such an enormous part of being a Peace Corps volunteer and there’s so much pressure and expectation placed on language acquisition, when I think about it too much I get dizzy. But somehow people make it through. Somehow Amanda has made it through. She’s got the gestures, the affirming tongue click, the ability to explain herself and make jokes. It’s amazing to watch. I have to just keep reminding myself that the Mandinka will come and meanwhile I’m just glad that these people are so friendly and warm and patient.

We spent our days hanging out village style, lounging under mango trees, drinking tea, meeting my people and then would bike back to Fodé Bayo in the evenings. I enjoyed being a wallflower (which is good because I’m sure there is much more of that to come), and in between we had our moments of excitement: dehydrated puking in the bushes, tasting my first cashew apple, collecting honey in the moonlight, Amanda’s tire exploding on the road to Mampatim, our chicken dinner trying to escape before we got it back to Fodé Bayo, joining all of the Mandinkas in the area for an all day all night religious celebration known as a Gamou and parading around in matching outfits.

But I think some of my favorite demyst moments happened in the quiet moments when Amanda and I were able to escape in English and get to know each other a bit. There was an element of passing the torch as her service is coming to a close just as mine begins and it was nice to pick her brain, to get to know Amanda instead of just hearing about Ñamoo (because she is a popular figure in our Mandinka community and I have a feeling they’ll be talking about her for a long time).

I install May 17th, not long after Amanda leaves Fodé Bayo, and will take over as the lone Mandinka volunteer in Kolda until her replacement comes in October. Amanda, I want you to know how much I appreciate all the work you’ve done to prepare my beautiful site and get another Mandinka in Kolda and to thank you for showing me the ropes. A baraka!

[For those interested in reading more about my demyst with Amanda, I wrote about other aspects of my experience for my own blog, which you can get to by clicking here.]

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Me holding one of Jon's iguanas I met while visiting his site in Panama

Among frantic trips to camping stores and wild nights of goodbyes with my friends, I took ten days during my last month in the states to visit my good friend Jonathan, who was at the time a PCV in Panama.   We visited his site (they call them communities there, not villages), attended a traditional Panamanian dance, hung out with some iguanas (he did work with the endangered population there), and hit some awesome beaches.  Ten days flew by, and gave me a good taste of PCV life.  Three weeks before this past Thanksgiving, it was his turn. We had a whirlwind two week trip: being tourists in Dakar, hitting a beach, and most importantly, going to my village for the Tabaski celebration (the biggest holiday of the year by far). He was a big hit in my village; between being able to drum for my ladies while they danced, playing soccer with the local guys, cooking for my moms, bringing soccer shirts for the little (and big) kids, and having a freaky memory for picking up Mandinka wicked fast – I’ll tell ya if he didn’t leave when he did, my village may have sent me home instead of him.

But enough from me.  I’ve invited him to write a few words about his time here to offer you all a change from me and some new perspective on life here. Enjoy!

Riding with Ñamoo by Jonathan Payne

Amanda and I biking the path to her village

I finally got my chance to visit Amanda in November this year, returning the trip she took to see me in Panama, almost 2 years prior.  I had just finished my Peace Corps service (Panama 2008-2010), was happily unemployed and still full of the need to travel.  Coming to Senegal a month after finishing my own Peace Corps service in Panama meant that I still felt mentally and physically prepared for the challenge of traveling in a developing country.  That said, I still knew that I’d be lost without Amanda.  I’m a firm believer now that Peace Corps volunteers make the best tour guides because of all the local knowledge they acquire from their day to day living – so if you were ever on the fence about going to visit Amanda, hopefully this blog will make up your mind.  (Though if you do go, make sure its Amanda that meets you at the airport and not Ñaamo – Amanda’s “evil” twin.)

Amanda met me in Dakar, mercifully at the airport, despite her threats to cut me loose and see how I would fare solo.  We spent a couple days in the capital, shopping in some of the markets, taking in the city, and enjoying the restaurants.  One thing you must know about PC volunteers is that you do not get between them and a decent meal.  Apparently though, not even I could hide my reaction to Amanda killing a tub of ice cream.  Don’t judge though, she gets defensive!  Plenty of other volunteers were in the city, and it was great to swap stories from Panama with them.  Peace Corps volunteers are a special breed of people that are like cheap scotch or Andrew Dice Clay – rough around the edges, and an acquired taste.  Conversations usually involve food, drink, sex, gossip, or “constructive criticism” of the country we are serving in.  Peace Corps volunteers as a general rule, mix a junior high social mentality with diverse backgrounds, developed world views, and passionate opinions.  It’s an interesting combination of hormones, outrageous statements, intense discussions, and a wide range of alcohol usage.  Fortunately for me, the only real differences in talking points were the names and places so I felt right at home with the many new volunteers I met in Senegal.

From my short time in country and from speaking with some fellow volunteers, I came to the conclusion that Senegal, and Dakar in particular, is a tough country to live in.  Culture wise, I heard it described as everything from abrasive to proud – what it was to me was a mix of everything in between.  Given the sheer number of ethnic groups, languages, and sub-cultures, it’s no surprise that each party is quite protective of their individuality.  The mix of languages and dialects across the country made me wonder how clear communication ever really was, and my respect grew daily for volunteers like Amanda, who have to know and speak 4 or more local languages (of course she will say she doesn’t speak any of them well, its extremely impressive to hear her cuss out a taxi driver in 3 dialects he doesn’t know).  Being a predominantly Muslim country means that there are additional cultural integration challenges, especially for women.  I found Senegal similar to Panama in the way people treat you as you travel throughout the country.  Dakar, like Panama City, is much more developed and metropolitan than anywhere else in the country, meaning that you can travel as a “Western tourist” in relative anonymity.  The trade-off however is that you are constantly seen as a walking cash machine, and will be treated as such.  Because Senegalese culture is so in-your-face, this can lead to a never ending battle to get reasonable prices, proper services, and correct information.  Bottom line – spending any time in Dakar is exhausting – even for the volunteers.  Sure it’s nice to enjoy a fancy restaurant and nice life, but after a couple nights the noise, dust, and constant bickering make getting lost in the bush pretty appealing.

[Paragraph omitted, due to possible PC policy overstepping… I’d like to stay in country until I’m ready to leave, so I’ll tell you all about this and more similar adventures after I officially complete my service =) – Amanda]

Maama and I posing with one of the Tabaski lunch bowls

A side-note about food – Rice, or cheb, is a staple wherever you go, which thankfully I never got sick of in Panama.  Millet is something we didn’t have in Panama, and is pretty good for a bowl of sandy-like grains, especially when it hides the actual sand that makes it way into most every dish.  Peanuts and beans make up a lot of the flavors in the sauces, and the stewed meats are nice too.  I’m a big fan of the Senegalese giant-bowl-free-for-all that is their eating style, though apparently even “free for alls” have rules.  The food is simple, but filling, and after eating rice and beans for 2 years, I felt pretty good in my ability to put it away (always a quick way to make friends with the cooks).  Amanda will undoubtedly be happy to hear however, that I did NOT like the leaf sauce I vowed I would.  Pungent mucus is more like it.  And once you have to eat it for days at a time, I can see why she goes crazy for ice cream and cheeseburgers (just a little).  Big time thumbs up to Bissap juice, of which Amanda has already sung the virtues.  This beautiful nectar from hibiscus flowers was the lifeblood of my travels throughout Senegal – cold, sweet, delicious – it really can become the one bright spot in the hours of driving down dusty potholed roads, dealing with stubborn border guards, police checkpoints, and hot, cramped cars.

And speaking about travel – Panama did prepare me for the hours spent on buses and poorly paved (if at all) road systems.  Senegal however, manages to take it to the next level (or down a few levels, depending on how you think about it) in terms of discomfort.  Panama is about the size of South Carolina, Senegal = South Dakota.  You can go border to border in Panama in under 24 hours (not that you would ever need to do that).  To start with, in Senegal, Dakar is far from everything.  The roads are worse, there are more police checkpoints, the cars (old 1970’s Peugeot 504s) breakdown more, and the cheb mommas are large.  Your only hope is to have good travel companions, and a fully charged iPod.  Good luck sleeping.

Back to the trip – soon we headed to Kolda, Amanda’s regional capital.  We hung out for a couple days there, cooked some buffalo wings with the sauce I brought to win over her PCV friends, and made sure I remembered how to ride a bike again.  A short two to three hour bus ride from Kolda is Dabo, and the beginning of the road to Fode Bayo.  Despite Amanda’s concerns about my skills on a bike, we made it with no spills.

Amanda and a bunch of the ladies from her compound all dressed in their Tabaski best

Compared to the rest of the country, Fode Bayo is a special place of friendly caring people and good vibes.  I can see why Amanda has developed such an attachment to her community, and gets annoyed with the rest of the country.  After all the traveling it was amazing to get to the part of the trip that I had most looked forward to.  I still have fond memories of my Panamanian village and after reading Amanda’s blogs, wanted to see her interact with her people first hand.  It wasn’t a disappointment.  Everyone was thrilled to see Ñamoo ride in on her bike, and welcomed me just as warmly.  Despite what Amanda says about my Mandinka, I really never understood a word, and just got lucky repeating the 5 or 6 phrases she had me memorize.  We had planned my visit to coincide with Tabaski, the biggest celebration of the year.  Lucky for me because it meant the food was good and plentiful.  And since it was a holiday, there wasn’t much work, meaning I had plenty of time to hang out with Maama, Amanda’s counterpart, mooch around the cooking fires with the women, and teach the little kids how to call Amanda names in English (“Funny looking!”).  Amanda did make me pull water from the well so I didn’t get too lazy though.  Other activities included soccer, trips to nearby villages, and walks in the bush.  Eating was a major part of our days too, leading up to Tabaski when I had to tap out early from the mountain of food they kept putting in front of us.

Amanda and her ladies during an impromptu dance party

Everyone was so accommodating and eager to help me out, my thanks really go out to them.  From the chief to the little kids, it was a pleasure to spend this holiday with them.  I wore my new traditional outfit proudly, and managed to pull it off probably about as well as a toubab can.  The highlight of it all was definitely the night of Tabaski when the women broke the drums out for a frenzied dance off.  Words really can’t describe it, so I hope Amanda can post the videos for you.  The little drumming I learned in Panama paid off in spades, as I became a guest drummer, and even managed to keep the rhythm while the chief danced.  My own efforts at dancing were met with much laughter, but nothing I didn’t deserve.
We spent 5 days in Fode Bayo before biking back to Kolda, and then took another car the following day back to Dakar.  For all the photos, check out http://picasaweb.google.com/jnthnpayne/Senegal#

I hope you all want to go visit Amanda now, or at least send her packages full of food, music, books, and peanut butter M&Ms – she definitely deserves it.

All in all, it was a very memorable trip with a great and patient guide.  Thank you for not ditching me on the side of the road for making bad jokes.  Thank you for translating what was actually said and not purposely misquoting me.  Seriously, thanks for not letting me feel like such a toubab.  Thank you, Amanda for everything, for sharing the hospitality of your village and letting me be a part of your Peace Corps experience.