Senegalese Culture


Volunteers should not disclose their sexual orientation to their host family members, particularly early in service. Such a confession may be a source of danger or discomfort. There is no tolerance for public displays of gay or lesbian affection in Senegal and homosexual acts remain illegal here. Homosexuality is not accepted in Senegal, neither in the culture nor in law, even between consenting adults. Volunteers who may be accused of homosexuality risk physical threats or harassment that may reach a point that the volunteer may have to leave the country because of safety concerns.

If you have accepted your invitation to serve in Peace Corps Senegal, typically you will have two to three months to prepare before flying to DC or Philly for your staging. In those two to three months, the paperwork you have to fill out, packets you should read, and conference calls with PC Senegal administration can keep you so busy that it’s easy to forget you’re actually going and in fact not just reading pdfs.

Amongst the mounds of literature you’ll receive, the first paragraph in this post is the only statement you will receive from Peace Corps or Peace Corps Senegal concerning your sexuality and how it may affect your life while serving for two years in Senegal. Read it again and think for a moment – that is all you get. Packing lists? Here’s twenty. Information on Senegal and language cheat sheets? Have this 2GB folder of pdfs. That one paragraph though, sums up everything PC has to say to you about being gay. Kind of scary, isn’t it? Terrifying, actually, especially if the only other thing you’ve ever heard concerning homosexuals in Africa is what often circulates in the western media: the president of Gambia saying gays should be beheaded (he later rescinded this comment); that you can receive the death penalty for homosexual acts in Uganda; that a marabou (religious leader) in Senegal proclaimed that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and thus should be thrown off of the top of a tall building. Would you reconsider getting on the plane to Senegal if you were gay? I would.

Three years ago, when I was a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) living in Thies and Mbour Senegal, not one session during our nine weeks of training discussed sexuality and how to approach the topic in Senegal. It didn’t seem weird at the time – our staff assumed that as young, mostly liberal, western-thinking adults, we were all open and comfortable with not only our own sexuality but also the diversity of those around us. Luckily for my training group, the staff assumed right and my stage (refresher: stagaire in French means intern or trainee, so training groups are “stages”) adjusted smoothly to life in village. Training groups after us did not bode as well.

Flash forward to November 2010: it’s the annual Gender and Development (GAD) conference that takes place the day before our annual All Volunteer Conference. Volunteers from across West Africa come to Senegal for the conferences, and Alhumdulilliah that they do because that year was the year PC Gambia introduced us to the Safezone training curriculum. As my half-awake blog post on Quest for a Safezone, Part 1 explained, this curriculum was originally created for PC host-country national staff. What I did not mention in that post was what the Safezone staff training helped us realize: we were dedicating an entire day to our PC staff to talk about about gender diversity in the Peace Corps, yet our PCTs were getting nothing. Moment of inspiration – we should create a shortened version for PSTs! (Such an obvious move looking back now, but before it actually began to happen, the absence of such a training wasn’t noticed, until it was noticeably necessary.) April and I discussed this idea after the staff training was completed and had soon put together an hour-long training for the current group of agriculture PCTs.

Flash forward again to the beginning of March 2012: this training for PCTs was one of the reasons I was in Thies the beginning of the month. Reviewing the outline of the session, it looked simple and thorough enough: we’d start by reviewing the statement from the PC Senegal handbook, then discuss possible adjustment issues for PCTs to life in Senegal – especially those who identify along the LGBT continuum, and then review laws and social conceptions of homosexuals in Gambia and Senegal. (Forgot to mention- this PST group has trainees heading to Senegal and The Gambia training in Thies, for more see here.) We assumed one of the last parts of our presentation would be the most hard-hitting for a lot of the trainees. This part was about keeping volunteers safe while serving in Senegal or the Gambia – and how to do so, they  must remain “in the closet” during their service. We assumed right.

It’s easy to understand why coming to grasp with the idea that you have to remain in the closet for two years would be difficult. Maybe you’re coming from a city like San Francisco where the LGBT community is not only accepted but also celebrated, and now you’re being told to go back to the time you were struggling with accepting who you are by hiding the fact that you’re gay. Or perhaps you’ve lived in rural Ohio where the only pubic options was to be straight but found the courage to tell your family and close friends that you’re gay before coming to Senegal. A huge weight was lifted off your chest; it’s like seven years of frustration, hate, and fear just melted away. Now you’re in Senegal, adjusting to the heat, the food, the language – and they tell you to not talk about the “gay thing” you just came to terms with. Put yourself in these people’s shoes: “While serving in Senegal or the Gambia, you must remain ‘in the closet’ for your own personal safety” – that statement is like a punch in the gut. But it’s unfortunately a true one, volunteers do have to stay in the closed because the current social climate in Senegal and the Gambia does not support homosexuals, and we don’t want anyone getting hurt. (That isn’t to say that volunteers are still free to do what they deem best: there have been a number of volunteers who’ve gotten close enough to their families that they’ve felt comfortable coming out to them.)

As you may expect, the session got pretty quiet during this conversation. To help people open up and discuss what they or their peers could be facing over the next two years, we passed out testimonials written by PCVs from across West Africa. The testimonials spoke on things like being gay in the PC, coming out at home, and being afraid to come out at site. To get the trainees more involved, we passed the testimonials out randomly amongst them, then had everyone reading one stood up and read it aloud to their stage-mates. When they finished, they sat down and rejoined the group until the last one was read. Here’s a few examples of testimonials:

 I’ve come out to my friends at home, but only to a few of my family members. My mom is totally supportive though I’m scared to tell my dad for fear that he will no longer talk to me and it will ruin our relationship. I know I have tell him eventually and can’t keep hiding the fact that I’m gay, but at the same time I love him and am afraid of losing him.

I haven’t come out to my family because I’ve heard them talk about gay people in the media, acquaintances, things like that. Knowing what they say about these people, I would never feel comfortable telling them about my sexuality. They just wouldn’t understand, and they could never accept it. Why come out to them when it would just invite cruelty I don’t think I could handle.

In Senegal it is much different to be sexually attracted to girls than in the States. First of all homosexuality is illegal. Secondly I feel that the women here would not be receptive due to the culture. I’m barely comfortable with any label in the states and will definitely go without one here. Culturally women walk around topless and it is not considered sexual. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get my attention. All I can do is turn my head though, it’s not like I can say, “Wow you have really nice tits and I’m attracted to you. Could you please put your shirt on?”

I got really lucky in the parent department because both of them were hugely supportive when I came out. In fact, they may have been too supportive; in middle school my dad confronted me about my sexuality, and then in high school my mom couldn’t understand why I waiting so long to tell my friends. That might have formed my perception of being gay in Senegal; the hardest part for me is hiding something about myself from people. How can I be close to someone if I’m hiding an integral part of myself from him or her? It’s incredibly depressing to think that someone I think is my friend may hate me if he or she found out the truth about me.

It’s hard to feel fully integrated when you can’t share a vital part of who you are.

 

As intended, hearing these personal stories stirred up a lot of emotions. I’ll be honest, there are a few testimonies that I avoid reading because I have a hard time reading them aloud without tearing up; it’s a sentiment that was shared among the PCTs as many eyes were red by the end of the reading. Still, no one wanted to talk, so April and I discussed why we work in Safezone perspective. Revealing a bit of ourselves to the group did the trick: one trainee got up to simply applaud all of his peers who had gone through the process of coming out: “I know I don’t have the guts to stick up for the gay community all the time, so I can’t even imagine the kind of courage you guys have.” “Obviously this isn’t the place or time to try and come out,” another trainee said, “but if you’re struggling with the self-hate and doubt and pain of not knowing who you are, don’t suffer any longer – talk to us, talk to me, we’re here for you. You can’t make it through these two years without us.”

This conversation went on for 15 minutes. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to witness. These people had met each other five days before and were sharing facets of themselves that were so intimate, some of their closest family and friends back home wouldn’t know what they were talking about. April and I were so proud of them. Not only were they opening up to each other, but they were beginning the process of becoming allies for each other – something they will undoubtedly need throughout their service. These PCTs are truly a phenomenal group of people.

For me, one of the most poignant comments during the session came towards the end. Looking slightly uncomfortable and visibly upset, a girl from the corner said, “I’m really glad we’re having this training so early because I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to have to go from being a bisexual atheist to a straight Christian in order to integrate here. That’s fine – but it’ll be a huge change, so I’m glad we’re talking about it now while we still have 8 weeks to go.”

Again, why the hell we never did this session for trainees before I’ll never know, but at least now we’ll never miss another group. Seeing how much the Safezone training and other diversity initiatives PC Senegal has taken up over the past year have affected the volunteer community has made me really proud to be a part of the team who’ve put these trainings together and hassled PC Admin to make sure they’re included in every training plan. After this year of hard work and success, I really think that our diversity initiates can only get better, but that’s not really up to me. It’s up to those 67 people we just trained who will be running the show sooner than they think.

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It’s 00:56 here, which supposedly means that I should be snoozing but I’m a bit too wound up to sleep. Not wound up in the too-stressed-to-stop-my-mind-from-reeling way I was from this past November through February, but in a I’m-so-excited-about-things-that-are-awesome-that-may-or-may-not-happen wound up way. Don’t get me wrong, I 100% prefer to be kept up by thoughts of a good nature rather than the taxing ones, but the late night tossing does make me worry for tomorrow’s workday. Either way, since I’m committed to being awake (or more importantly to a late night snack) I may as well use the time to catch up with you.

I’ve decided that instead of giving all of you out there in interweb land a play-by-play of the past seven or so months as originally planned, I’m just going to highlight interesting events and projects that have busied my time since we last spoke. You’re really not that interested in what I did over home leave anyway, are you? Me neither. (Ok if you are, here it goes in bits: seafood, lots of rootbeer, lots of draft beer, my brother’s grilling, cheese, [noticing a pattern?] Boston, cigars, north end, bars, pizza, family reunion, Maine, driving, NYC, soft pretzels, DC, PC HQ office, dancing, more NYC, more cigars, comedy show, live band, Mexican food, more draft beer, 3am Chinese food, mom’s condo, awesomely bad daytime TV, shopping, rootbeer, wedding on the Cape, dancing, good whiskey, cigars, sleeping, ice cream, massive amazon.com order, back to Dakar in the gut of rainy season. Got to see all of my favorite people save about five, and the whole trip reminded me how much I missed you all and what exactly I missed about being en Amerik [which was apparently surprisingly easy to forget after 2.5 years].)

Anyway, back to interesting events and projects. In PC Senegal land there exists an organization called SeneGAD. SeneGAD (GAD for short) stands for Senegal Gender and Development, which is a group made up of volunteers who lead the country’s gender-based initiatives (girls’ camps, girls’ scholarships, men as allies/partners in female rights advocacy, talibe work, etc.). Though I wholeheartedly support GAD work, I’d never got involved in SeneGAD during my two years as a wee health volunteer down in Kolda. Then one day in Dakar, I was wondering around the PC office in my new 3rd year PCVL shoes and came across a sign for Safezone allies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Safezone is the name for LGBT awareness and sensitivity trainings as well as support groups that exist in many universities, organizations, and PC countries. Since LGBT rights are something that are important to me and since I’d worked pretty extensively with gender rights in Boston (FYSOP Gender Focus, focus on your gender!), I decided to heed the call at the bottom of the list asking for additional volunteers who would be interested in being listed as allies. And that is where things took an intriguing turn.

Through conversations with the volunteer who was leading the Safezone initiative, April, I learned that Safezone allies were running a training for the Host-Country National (HCN) staff of PC Senegal. This was interesting indeed: a Safezone training for our Senegalese staff? In Senegal, where Imams proclaim in major newspapers that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and so should be thrown off of a tall building? Where gay men are so taboo that two men can walk down the street holding hands and no one would dare to think they’re anything but friends because the idea of homosexuality is so far removed from the general consciousness? Well, all of that considered, the first staff training apparently went really well, “but that’s because it was the staff all-star group – all of the medical staff and language instructors who’ve been working with PC for years. This next group may be more difficult,” April explained. This next group was the other half of our training center’s language instructors and staff, and they were getting trained that Thursday. I agreed to help out.

A few mornings later I was prepping a training room with five of my good PCV buddies. They had all led the first Safezone training, so they divvied out the easier parts of the training agenda to me (vocabulary game and testimonial introductions) reserving the more touchy areas for the vets (what “causes” homosexuality? How do you feel about homosexuality? What do we expect from you in terms of support as a PC Senegal staff member?). Before the HCN staff arrived, we also planned out how we’d deal with the awkward moments that were sure to come: what if everyone is too embarrassed to talk? What if everyone is too afraid to talk? What if someone is aggressively homophobic? How are we going to respond to the religious views on homosexuality in Senegal? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these potential sticky training scenarios didn’t make me a bit nervous – they were significantly different in nature to the conflicts I’d dealt with when working Boston when working in gender rights and I didn’t feel very prepared. Plus, I didn’t know the majority of the new language instructors who were attending the training, so I didn’t have much clout to diffuse any sticky situations with. That and it was a bit obvious from everyone’s expressions when they filed in that they either a) weren’t sure why they had to be at this training, or b) were not interested in talking about the gays, never mind the Bs and the Ts.

But then, everything started to go smoothly. I opened the training with a vocabulary game that had participants match words with their definitions and then present to the group their matched definitions in their own words (interesting first activity when the words were ones like “transsexual,” “outing,” and “civil union”). My friend Steve continued the training, talking about the history of gay rights in America, around the world, and in Senegal. The staff told us about stereotypes they’d heard regarding homosexuals from their friends growing up, explained the Senegalese mindset on gays, and delved deeper into the religious community’s views of gay men and lesbians. And no one freaked out, no one was visibly uncomfortable, – people were engaged and even curious. BOOP light bulb: in a culture where homosexuality is as taboo as it is here in Senegal, this training was the first time that most of the staff in attendance were able to discuss homosexuality in a safe and honest environment.

Opinions and questions started pouring out: “I don’t think you can choose if you’re gay or not,” and “but aren’t lesbian women just women who were abused by men and so decided to be with women instead?” The discussion turned into a fascinating critique of cultural norms, gender stereotypes, and sexuality, and as they day progressed I was more and more thankful that I’d agreed to help. It’s easy after 2+ years as a PCV to get lazy about the culture you’ve integrated into. Not necessarily because you “know it all,” but more that the frequency of surprising cultural moments diminish to the point that what was at first foreign is now your new normal. This training though, brought me back to my wide-eyed days; this training was letting me into a facet of Senegalese culture that I’d never ventured to face before.

One of the most poignant moments of the training was when me and the five other PCVs leading the training got up in the front of the room and read a series of PCV testimonials (some testimonials are included in this blog post). Background: PC’s Safezone training was originally developed in Panama, then made its way around the globe, throughout West Africa, into the Gambia and onto us. Along the way, it collected PCV testimonials. They covered topics about what it was like being a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps, how volunteers got kicked out when they came out to their parents in America, how it’s awkward to be a lesbian volunteer in a culture where women typically don’t wear shirts, and how painful it was to live with a family you grew to love to the bone during your service yet that you were still petrified to tell you were gay because of how their culture dictated their likely reaction. The testimonials were candid, written with clear voice, some funny, some honest to the point that they were difficult to read without tearing up, and as we read everyone in the room was entranced. It was one of those moments where when we stopped reading, the silence in the room seemed to vibrate in the air around until someone sniffed or scuffed a chair, breaking the trance.

The training ended about an hour later with the staff having the option to list themselves as Safezone “allies,” or people who are advocates for LGBT volunteers in Senegal. This is a big move for a Senegalese person to make – openly listing that they support gay volunteers (well not openly openly – the list isn’t published anywhere, we just disperse it among the PC Senegal community. It’s still a big deal though). To our delight, we had a few of the staff sign up. Awesome!

Believe it or not I have more to tell you about Safezone and diversity and such, but sleep has caught up with me now (almost 2, woops) so I’ll save those words for another day. As a parting gift, I leave you all with a cheer from my days as a Gender Focus FYSOP coordinator:

Gender 1, focus all, let’s all do the GF call.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 2, focus 3, let’s fight for equality.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 4, focus 5, let’s all do the GF jive.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 6, focus 7, boys and girls make out with Kevin!

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 8, focus 9 STOP: it’s GF time.

GO GF GO GF GO! GO GF GO GF GO!

Le sigh, I miss college sometimes.

5 May, 2011

6:59am, sitting in Dabo.  Definitely the earliest I’ve ever seen this town.

My last ride out was not ferocious, more a slow rotation that began before dawn.  Maneuvering down the bush path, my mind drifted between fuzzy scenes dense with the feelings of leaving my family of two years that morning and my favorite memories from the FB.  Hollywood tells us that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. Well, I most certainly am not dying, and even though it was just a week over two years of my life, my time in Fodé Bayo was in ways a life of its own. A life that as of this morning I will never be able to return to in the same way.  (Sorry for the clichés and the drama, communicating how this all went down is a bit beyond my english skills at the time.)

Many of the ethnic groups in Senegal have a tradition of bidding farewell via a left-handed shake. Seasoned readers of this blog will remember from my cultural integration training way back when, that to give something, receive something, or gesture with your left hand is considered very rude in Senegal. The idea of the left-handed shake then, is that when you leave someone who you are not sure if or when you will see again, you bid them farewell by shaking with the wrong hand. Shaking hands with the left is awkward and uncomfortable. It goes against years of social training. As hands clasp and move in up and down in their familiar gesture, the urge to squirm away and correct it is overwhelming. This, is exactly what the left hand shake is intended to do – it’s a manifestation of the feelings people are experiencing as they give someone the love of an uncertain farewell.

 

18 July, 2011

Above is my attempt to sort through my emotions while I sat in my road town the morning I left Fodé Bayo.  In line with village tradition, I woke to leave before the first call to prayer at 5am. Whenever people leave village, they leave before anyone in the village wakes up so that a new day can began without having to say goodbye. Instead, everyone wakes up and you are gone and life is supposed to continue as if it was always this way, without the dramas of in-person farewells.

In Mandinka, when you know you are going to be sad, you say that you will be sick. There is a word for sadness, and there is a word for missing someone or something, but when the sadness is the type that will be overwhelming, it becomes not just saddness but a bed-ridden sickness as well.

My last night in village, we cooked a whole sack of rice and had a drum circle until two in the morning. While everyone knew this was for my goodbye, no one mentioned it. We all just ate and danced and said goodnight as normal. It was my counterpart who stopped me before I went into my hut and said that he would be sick all day the next day, because I would not be there. I didn’t know how to respond.

That morning when I wheeled my bike out of my hut at 4:45, I was supposed to just leave. I sat on the floor of my hut with Nacho, giving him a last few scratches behind his ears (Nacho was thrilled at this 4am wake up – more hours in the day to pay right? That definitely could be the only explanation for waking up this early). As he zoomed off into the bush and I started to leave the compound, I couldn’t keep up the tradition of leaving the village before dawn on my own. So, I woke up my counterpart, who woke up my brother Malan, who woke up my two favorite moms, Diara and Aminta. Together, they wheeled my bike and walked me to the edge of the village. It was clear when we got to this point that no one was sure what to do, considering I was as usual breaking all normal protocol for the situation. My counterpart started to cry, then my brother, and as I turned to my moms, Aminta just walked away.

We exchanged blessings, and promises of seeing each other soon. I awkwardly climbed on my bike and slowly wobbled down the path (no moon, very difficult at 5am with 50lbs of junk on your bike). The ride and car into Kolda was uneventful, which is good since my head was in a cloud.

And just like that, my two years in the village were over.

27/12/2010

Dear Mrs Goodrich’s Kindergarten Class,

Hey everyone! Did you have a nice holiday season?  What did you do for new years?  For Christmas,  a bunch of volunteers and I gatherered in the city of Kolda and celebrated together.   Lots of food, fun and good times.  NO snow though.

I was thinking about the letters I’ve written you this year and realized that I’ve never really explained the Peace Corps to you.

The peace corps is the organization I work for.  It was started in 1961 by US President Kennedy.  Today, Peace Corps volunteers work in over 130 countries all over the world.  When volunteers (like me!) get assigned to a country, they live there for at least two years.  As a peace corps volunteer, you live with, eat the same foods, speak the same language, alive in the same environment, and follow the same cultural norms as your host country family and friends.  As you know, I’ve been living and working in Senegal since March of 2009 and will leave here sometime in May of 2011.

As you may have figured out by now, life in Senegal is pretty different than life in Boston, MA, where I lived before coming here.  For example, in Boston, one of the leaders of the city is the mayor, but in my village the leader is the chief and the Imam (the religious leader of the community). 

Something else that’s different – food!  Not just how it tastes, but also where it comes from.  Where do you buy food in Maine? The food store? The farmers market? The cafeteria?  In my village, we grow all of our food, and when that runs out, we go to a weekly market called luumo.  The luumo consists of a bunch of traveling vendors who sell everything from vegetables to clothes to spoons and pots.

What are the daily sounds you hear living in Mine?  Horns form cars driving by?  People talking to each other? Cell phones ringing and music playing? In my village, I hear animals all the time.  Donkeys, sheep, and goats are the loudest animals – they like to make noise all day and night.  Sometimes it drives me crazy!  But usually I don’t notice day-to-day because I’ve lived here for so long.  When I hear people talking in my village, no one speaks English like the y do in Maine. Here, I hear people speaking Mandinka, Pulaar, French, or Wolof.  I speak Mandinka in my village, but  have learned a little Pulaar, French and Wolof for when I travel.

Sounds a little bit different from daily life in Maine, huh? One of the things I miss the most about living in the east coast are the seasons – warm summers, pretty fall leaves, lots of flowers in spring and snowy winters!  In Senegal, the season mostly change between hot and less hot, (though right now the nights get very chilly), then from rainy to dry.  No fall leaves or snow here!

Anyway, I must run – lots of errands to do today!

Your friend in Senegal,

Amanda

24/12/2010

Dear Mr Simon and Class,

Hey Everyone, Merry Christmas! I’m currently in my village wrapping up some work , but will be heading into Kolda meme to celebrate the holiday with other volunteers soon.  There is a small population of Catholics in Senegal, but most volunteers live in Muslim villages (as I do!), so we like to plan holiday parties for volunteers to come to so we can celebrate together.  This year, volunteers from two regions near where I live will be coming in for the Christmas party… come to think of it, this may be a short letter because I want to get to the good food!

Anyway, things have been really busy lately, except this time I’ve been busy in my village, not traveling around for work.  We’ve been collecting information for this big food security project, and though asking for prices may seem simple, because Senegal is a bargaining culture, it is in fact not.

I have to admit, sometimes living in a place where people bargain for everything is fun, but other times it’s such a headache.  For example, for this project, I need to get prices for a fence we want to put up around our school garden and our health hut.  We called the mason over from a nearby village, showed him the land, and asked how much chain-link fencing is, how much cement and fence supports would be, etc.  The mason looked at me, looked at my villagers that were helping them, then gave us a price that was FOUR TIMES what we knew to be the actual price.  But there is the problem you’re in with bargaining – you know the correct price, the mason knows the correct price, but unless he says out loud that he agrees to that specific price, there’s no deal.  Even if you know, and he knows, and everyone around you knows he’s lying, the mason (or whoever is selling you something) will stick to his bloated price because he thinks eventually he can get you to pay. 

In these situations, people yell and scream and call each other names, but I’ve found that often your biggest bargaining chip is walking away.  Then, usually, the salesmen calls you back, saying something like, “ok ok, for you, my friend, I can give you this price.” This, you both know, is still the wrong price.  Commence again yelling and flailing and so on and so forth.  This can honestly go on for an hour, especially if you really need what the guy’s trying to sell.  The whole thing makes me miss being able to hop in the car and go to the hardware store; even if the hardware store is expensive, at least you know that what you see is what you get, and that prices are not changing because you look like you can pay more. 

Anyway. We did in fact, finally get our prices, so my next step is to type it all up in the form of a grant for the Peace Corps office to review.  If they give me the green light, they’ll fund the project and fence construction will begin.  This grant process usually takes between two to three months.

Why are we doing a  fencing g project anyway? Fencing in my village is commonly made out of bamboo.  While bamboo is indeed strong, it falls apart every year during the intense rains of the rainy season.  If the winds and water don’t knock the fencing down, our cows are very apt at doing so when the starving season is in full swing. (We go through  a starving season from April until harvest from late October through December.)  So, I’m writing a grant to fund chain/metal fencing four our big community garden oat our elementary school and for our nutritionelle demonstration garden at our health hut.  The volunteer who lived in my village two years before me put up fencing in both of these places, but the fencing was bamboo, and had fallen apart by my first rainy season.  Hopefully, with durable, metal fencing, the gardens will be able to run year-round.

I know, it’s not the most thrilling work , but it’s what my village has designated as important and is in fact necessary to continue good health/nutrition information and practices in my village.

With all this talk about money, I’ve included some Senegalese currency in this letter.  The prettiest bill is the 10,000 franc CFA bill, but that’s about $20.00 here, which is more than I can spare!  So, I put in instead: 1,000 (called 1mil), 2,000 (2mil), and some coins.  One 500franc CFA equals about $1.00, so you can figure out what all the money is worth. 

Currency here is called the West African Franc, and all the writing on the bills and coins are in French.  A lot of countries in West Africa use the Franc, but a few do not (like the Gambia). 

Time for me to bike into Kolda.  I hope you all have a wonderful new year and are enjoying the snow.

Amanda

Back in July (eek!) I began a blog post about the first Mandinka wedding I was able to attend in my site.  Well, I think the idea for the post has flown at this point, but here’s the link to the wedding photos.  Excuse my forgetfulness and enjoy!

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.

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