“Benn loxo du taccu”
-One hand does not clap.
I’ve learned some hard truths about myself, Peace Corps and Senegal as a whole; but none, quite so difficult as the fact that imbibing West African hose water doesn’t actually cure motion sickness. I’m not going to pretend it was a logical presupposition. But countless incident-free hours crammed in poorly aired hearses (sept-places) and buoyed above pickup beds by two-by-fours and livestock (bush taxis) demanded an explanation. Ever-true to Americanisms and Wolofals alike I concluded there was something in the water. Given its already miraculous lack of cholera, amoebas, and various other parasites it’s been suggested that I ought not to be quite so disappointed about an absence of curative properties. Yet, when I almost lost my mostly digested spaghetti sandwich during a recent jaunt into the bush via Peace Corps Land Cruiser I was admittedly crushed. Witnesses to the shark cage diving incident of 2009 understand why. There was little hope of laughing this one off as an attempt at “chumming” for local wild life. Happily, my desperate attempts to think about anything other than ruining that new car smell led to memorable conversation with a Peace Corps staff member and, subsequently, this post. Even nausea has a silver lining.
Random Aside: Though I’d like to claim their invention, spaghetti sandwiches are indigenous breakfast fare; equally delicious are the bean, pea, spicy tuna and omelette sandwiches. French baguettes; Senegalese pizazz. Franchise potential? I think yes.
Though we didn’t debate the morality of exploiting his culture’s culinary tradition for commercial gain my tête-à-tête with VSA Sakhir Dia was an edifying experience. A former Pulaar LCF, Sakhir was part of Peace Corps well before the organization started pinning acronyms to his name. In fact, his first title was that of brother to six plus generations of volunteers that passed through the Dia household. (PCVs in Senegal are adopted by local families like the Dias for the duration of their service.) It was through the encouragement of these foreign family members and the example of his older sister (also an LCF) that Sakhir found his way into the driver’s seat of a vehicle bound for Richard Toll; five desktops and yours truly in tow.
Now, for months I’d been mulling over this idea that my perception of the “Peace Corps experience” was limited by my own vantage point. Until this particular day I hadn’t tested the theory. Given his background and that he was now trapped in a car with me for six hours Sakhir became my unlucky victim. What was it like to grow up with rotating house guests for ten years of one’s life? Did he feel disappointed that volunteers, such as myself, were sent to his country with little real world skills to offer? At the end of the day wasn’t it true that Senegalese families, like the Dias, were giving volunteers more than we were giving them? I held nothing back save the churning contents of my stomach. When I finally came up for air long enough to listen Sakhir told me a story.
It was true that his experiences with Peace Corps volunteers were not always positive. Even the best had their ups and downs. Sakhir recalled one volunteer for whom the Dias had been a CBT homestay. The fond curve of a smile that spanned his face upon first pronouncing the individual’s name lingered in the upper left hand corner of his mouth as he spoke. This volunteer was special. His alacrity for the local languages set him apart from day one. Along with this came a knack for integrating and a visible passion for learning about Senegalese culture which, sadly, was not always so common a quality in the volunteers they hosted. If one of the kids had a soccer game he was there. If a cousin’s baby was having a naming ceremony he eagerly accompanied the household retinue. In just two short months he had become a devoted member of the clan. Yet there was one thing that troubled them about this adopted brother. Despite embracing his new family with zeal he was not on good terms with relatives back home; particularly his father with whom he refused to speak. Given the near-sacred status of family relationships in Senegal this was a fact that saddened Sakhir.
As it turned out the volunteer did not end up having a positive experience with his permanent placement. Difficulties starting and maintaining successful projects got him down. His seemed a tale as old as Peace Corps service. Yet, making the best of the situation, he focused his energies upon maintaining ties with the Dias. Practically every major Senegalese holiday for two years was punctuated by his return to the compound. Gradually, despite the difficult circumstances, Sakhir seemed to think that his adopted brother developed a sense of peace about his service. When the day finally came for him to return home it was a sad parting marked by the natural uncertainties about continued contact. However, not long after this, the household received an unexpected phone call. The voice on the other end of the line spoke in a reverent tone. “What did you do to my son?” it asked. After a brief pause the man continued, “He is not the same person who left home two years ago… I don’t know how you managed it but thank you. Thank you for bringing him back to us.”
One hand doesn’t clap. Development, whether it is of the international or personal variety, is the result of collaborative effort. Volunteers are one, admittedly important side of Peace Corps’ version of the process. But, as Newton reminds us, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The members of host countries with whom volunteers come into contact are this equally important part of the Peace Corps puzzle. And, much like two hands met in applause, neither party leaves without feeling the impact. So here’s to you Peace Corps host country counterparts: for devoting your lives to the development of random Americans. Somewhere in Senegal a volunteer is throwing back lukewarm hose water in salute.
Bu kaw neexoon, golo du wacc
-If being up high was so great, the monkey would never come down.
Lately I’ve been contemplating the idea of fulfillment as it relates to the pursuit of one’s ambitions. In American culture we place a lot of emphasis upon, “life goals”, “dreams”, “hopes” and the like. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” our elders ask us. It seems an elegantly simple blueprint for life. Discover what you’re passionate about, turn it into something productive for society and your life is all but taken care of right? The finality of such an idea is undoubtedly intended to calm us in those uncertain hours before sleep each night.
However, what I’ve come to find in this process of “growing up” (and maybe would have learned early on from those same elders had I cared to listen) is that more often than not life takes us on radically different paths than those we originally intend for ourselves. For many years I mistakenly chose to interpret this reality as the result of some sort of failure on my part. Either I was unable to understand what my grand destination in life was or, if I did truly understand this purpose as I was sometimes convinced, my inability to hold onto it after it had been achieved was even more disappointing. So maybe I wasn’t the poster child for mental health. At least I never stopped working towards whatever dream happened to seize me in the moment or so I chose to rationalize things. Then, one day, I moved to Senegal.
I hadn’t really noticed a shift in my outlook until I boarded a rather drab looking horse cart coming home from town a few nights ago. My new site mate Michael and I had just been discussing the going price of a charette ride for locals versus the one drivers often quote for us toubabs. This was going to be the day that we didn’t get overcharged.
With that thought in mind I swung myself atop our briskly passing hackney, briefly assessed our equine escort (whose angular profile called to mind a Tim Burton animation) and set to work. Having already exchanged the basic greetings with our driver I began to delve into more detailed inquiries. How is your family here? How is your family there? Are you in peace? How is the heat? How was the hibiscus leaf paste you ate in your ceeb bowl yesterday? And so on and so forth. Rapid-fire, exhaustive greetings are an essential part of Senegalese culture and I wanted us to appear particularly acculturated at this juncture.
Finally, as my still limited Wolof vocabulary began to run short I threw out a, “Naka sa ligeey bi?”. Asking about someone’s work is pretty standard here but can be tricky when engaged in an ongoing business transaction with the person you greet. I mentally chastised myself as soon as the words escaped my lips. The expectant pause that followed gave me a chance to look at the man against whom my left side had been sardined for the past couple of minutes. Ahmet’s high cheek bones and long oval face suggested Pulaar heritage. But, the open eyed, half-grinning, half-smirking expression pasted over that anatomy spoke to a brand of charisma more often found in Wolof social groups. He was wearing a plain red T-shirt and jeans faded by the exhaust and sun-baked sand cars kicked across them on a daily basis. Both appeared over-sized on his lean, fit, Senegalese frame. Given that they were designed with his car-driving, fast-food-addicted Western foils in mind this came as little surprise. But before I could finish that train of thought the silence was broken.
Over the course of the next few minutes I learned exactly how Ahmet’s work over the past few years had gone. He told me about how he left his parents here in Richard Toll a couple of years prior to work a “cushy” construction job in the neighboring region of the Fouta. The work was perfect for a young man willing to do physical labor. He went on about the massive barracks building project which seemed to provide endless work and income for his family. Then he told me about the trials of driving a charrette along Senegal’s Route Nationale-2; how there was no way of knowing the number of passengers he might get or how much money he would bring home to feed his horse and his family at the end of the day. Yet as he spoke about driving, his present occupation, I heard no bitterness or complaint in his voice. My curiosity was piqued, “Then why did you leave your job in the Fouta if it seemed to be so much better?”, I asked. His reply was matter of fact, “I made a lot more money, but my body was breaking from the strain of the work, I wasn’t with the people I loved and I had no peace.”
If being up high was so great the monkey would never come down. It’s not an inherently a bad thing to strive for great heights. Without goals and ambitions that very charrette I so disparagingly referred to as drab may never have come into being and I may never have made it home to write this post (kind of). But goals and ambitions are not what make life worth living; the people and ideals which inspire us to strive towards them are. And while the inherent value of these ideals and people may not change our circumstances certainly do. This often means that the ways in which we can best serve those underlying principles must change with them. As another wise and rather successful elder of mine likes to say, “I’m forty-nine years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” He’s tacking on another year to that number in the next few days and at long last I think I’m finally starting to understand what he means.
Happy birthday dad, you’ve had it right all along.
NB: I’m still pretty sure I overpaid for that ride in spite of all the sweet-talking I imagined I was doing. But hey, the guy inspired a blog post so let’s pretend I threw in the extra as a finder’s fee.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you tasked a Luddite with starting a blog, dropped her in West Africa and let the chips fall where they may then the last couple months worth of inactivity on this site should provide you with a solid idea of the outcome. I’m sorry? But seriously, I promise to get an actual post up here by Christmas, so as not to be a Grinch and all.
In the meantime I offer you photographs…
“Nit, nit ay garab am”
-The human being is mankind’s medicine.
If you are a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal chances are you’ve found yourself sitting in a transit house, mayhaps sipping the second-rate local alcohol equivalent, having one of many maddeningly circular conversations with fellow volunteers. Disclaimer for Volunteers: This post isn’t going to be about that amazing steak you were eating in an air conditioned room this time last year. I refuse to rehash the subject. For those less familiar with discussions of this ilk I would like to introduce one other such topic of conversation for your consideration. It begins one of two ways. The veteran volunteer leads with, “I can’t believe my two years are almost up where did the time go?” Newer volunteers usually say something more like, “I can’t believe I signed up for two years of this how am I ever going to fill the time?” Both likely come back to the same oft quoted Peace Corps platitude: “The days of your service go by slowly but the months pass quickly”. What does any of this have to do with this week’s Wolofal? Honestly, nothing at all. I bring it up only as a weak justification for how I could possibly have allowed a whole month go by without another blog update. I had no control over it, time plays by different rules here.
Twilight Zone syndrome aside the accelerated pace of my past month might have had something to do with, well, having had things to do. These activities included: dusting off my high school theatre skills at girls’ camp, translating for the Assistant Deputy Secretary of State at an impromptu USAID site visit, laying plans with the hospital director for the medicinal garden and malnutrition voucher system, crashing half the health posts in the city to talk about insecticide treated bed nets and accidentally invading the governor’s private residence in search of demographic statistics. Some moments were less embarrassing than others. Any one of them could have provided ample fodder for its own post. Even so, the most memorable aspects of each had less to do with the events themselves and more to do with the people that made them significant. So, who are these mysterious characters that have so moved the plot of my life here? Were they all to be listed and their parts summed up in bullet points this might begin to read a bit like the script of some homespun soap opera. Not only would it be painful to read but it would also fall woefully short of doing anyone’s character justice. Instead, I intend to briefly introduce you to just one person who has managed to show me the truth of the proverb quoted above:
For the first three weeks of my time in Richard Toll I didn’t know that Xar existed. I couldn’t even tell you when she appeared in my family’s compound. At the time I was too busy sweating the logistics of eating Ceeb u Jenn from the communal bowl without a) choking on stray fish bones like a four-year-old or b) obnoxiously crunching into that stray grain of sand that everyone else seemed to swallow without incident. Regardless of whether I noticed her before or after she was physically present Xar had already made an impact upon me without either of us realizing it. Of the many headaches (both real and figurative) that I had in those first days, by some miracle, communicating with my younger siblings and my host mother was not among them. It was almost uncanny. They were so willing to improvise with my lack of language and uncharacteristically compassionate about my frequent lapses into silence. The training family I had previously lived with had hosted volunteers before and still hadn’t been able to overlook my lack of communication skills. At the time I didn’t question the relative ease of my new situation. I was gratefully relieved for it all the same.
It wasn’t until a little while after I first matched Xar’s gap toothed grin that things began to make sense. My impression of this newly discovered cousin was that she might have been just as shy as I was. We sat next to each other silently watching the latest installment of India Love Story dubbed in French. Just as someone’s father was about to force an arranged match upon his daughter against her wishes my ten year old host brother Cheikh decided to flip channels on us. I was surprisingly annoyed by this considering I only understood around 50% of the program but Xar was visibly enraged. She stood up all bones and fury; gesturing wildly and making the oddest noise. Initially I took it to be some form of Wolof chastisement I had not yet heard. But as my host mother began silently signing at her and slowly mouthing words from across the room I understood. Xar couldn’t speak.
I felt and still feel a secret solidarity with my deaf cousin and deep gratitude for her friendship. She is the first person from Senegal I ever shared a joke with that translated (even if it was just the two of us mocking faces of disgust at the smell of her younger brother behind his back). Oddly enough, months later, in the hours after I witnessed her succumb to a violent seizure brought on by a case of complex malaria this was the thing that I kept thinking about. This and the image of my host mom mouthing prayers in Arabic over Xar as one of my uncles carried her to a car bound for the local sugar factory’s hospital. It was the only health facility at which they could find a doctor on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t think I can ever complain about the company’s ties to old French colonial rule again knowing that had it not been for their presence my cousin could very well have died without treatment. Today, she and I are back to clandestinely miming various family members and laughing about it.
This relationship illustrates one of the lessons that my interactions with people, here and elsewhere, have taught me. Sometimes the type of medicine we provide each other with goes down easy; a bit like those Flintstones multivitamins we took as kids. Other times the pills we offer one another are significantly harder to swallow. Human relationships, like so many medications, have the unfortunate tendency to come with unexpected and/or undesired side effects. The fear of losing those we love ranking high on the list. Some might argue that this is grounds enough to avoid entanglements entirely. I personally tend to side with whatever long dead Wolof griot authored the clever turn of phrase above. For as much anxiety and pain that comes of the associations we form in life the good ones inevitably leave us better, stronger and overall healthier people for having partaken of them. At least this is how I find myself feeling in light of recent events on this side of the Atlantic.
“Ndank ndank mooy japp golo ci naay.”
–Slow is he who captures the monkey in the bush.
It was recently pointed out to me that my translation of this particular Wolofal (which is a fancy way of saying Wolof proverb) could easily be taken to mean that only a dim witted person would embark upon the venture of hunting a monkey in the bush. I would just like to clarify that the intended meaning is something more akin to our native “Slow and steady wins the race.” Local sources that corroborate the veracity of this statement could be cited but it’s debatable whether one would be able to get in touch with them even if you cared to do so. Moral of this introductory rant: Read on at your own risk… you could be hunting monkeys if you know what I mean.
Despite what the above paragraph may suggest the decision to begin my inaugural post with this particular proverb was not made lightly. In fact there was a good deal of rationalization behind it. First, it’s the title of the blog. Second, if you were a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal this would probably be the first and most often quoted Wolof proverb in your toolbox. Thus, leading with it protects the authenticity of your vicarious experience (you were worried about that weren’t you?). Ultimately, however, this proverb was chosen because it embodies the realities of my first six months as a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s true, day to day life has been very much like the prolonged pursuit of an elusive Senegalese monkey. Incidentally, these creatures are particularly hard to come by here in the North due to sustained drought. Bear with me; it will all make sense in a few paragraphs.
In case you are wondering, you will not be subjected to a journalesque recounting of my past half year. This blog may be a semi-narcissistic endeavor but the line must be drawn somewhere. However, I will attempt to bring the class up to speed in a more general sense. As of today I have officially been in Senegal for six months. In that time I have gone through staging, PST, CBT and VV. I passed my LPIs, swore-in and installed. I conquered the five week challenge, fled to The ‘Gou for the 4th and, most recently, completed IST. Among other things I have mastered many acronyms, abbreviations and otherwise absurd terms in this timeframe. For those of you who lost patience with the hyperlinks all this amounts to is that you are reading the words of a fully trained, community integrated, semi-technically and linguistically competent volunteer (as defined by Peace Corps Headquarters’ standards). The snarky pessimist in me would like to knock these accomplishments but to be honest it does give me some small sense of satisfaction seeing it all written out like that.
Given this alphabet soup of activity one might wonder why I have likened the beginning of my service to an excruciatingly slow exercise in simian stalking. Fair enough. In order to illustrate the point it is probably high time I defined the elephant… a.k.a. monkey… in the room. For the past months I have been on a mental, emotional and, dare I say it, spiritual quest for my purpose here in Senegal. Sure I attended trainings, I struggled through learning basic phrases in the local language, I made friends with other volunteers and started forming relationships with people in my new community but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the person I was helping above all else was myself.
To be fair we were warned. Most returned volunteers will tell nominees that they grappled with this for part if not all of their service. However, what I have come to realize is that this is not a condition unique to Peace Corps volunteers. For my own part, I know that I have been going through some manner of this conflict all my life. The difference is that at home amongst familiar people, comfort foods and evening sitcoms I could drown out these feelings on demand. Truly devoting myself to the service of others, that purpose that I have always sought, could be deferred in the form of a dream embodied by Peace Corps service or attending medical school or whatever else seized me in the moment.
Six months ago one of these dreams became a reality and the reality was a rude awakening. Never in my life have I had more time to reflect upon just how poorly equipped I actually am to help other people. Not just because I lack professional certifications and possess the equivalent vocabulary of a four year old Wolof speaker, but mostly because I never really practiced putting others needs before my own. Slight personal discomforts made me miserable, language woes made me sulky, lack of structure and direction became a reason to blame others for my problems. I did what I have been practicing all my life; I focused on my personal level of comfort/discomfort at the exclusion of others. I lost sight of the monkey because I was tracking my own footprints.
So I guess what this Wolofal teaches me is that the patient hunter must be aware both of his quarry and of himself but most of all he must be willing to painstakingly re-commit to this dual awareness with every step he takes. My Peace Corps service is going to be hard. I will likely continue to screw things up more often than I do them correctly and the truth of the matter is that I deserve to be laughed at 95% of the time. However, this does not mean that I don’t have anything to contribute or that I have an excuse to stop trying. In fact, I now have more reason than ever to wake up each morning and recommit myself to the pursuit. After all if I don’t start now how much more idiotic will I look when the drought officially ends and I’m pivoting in a circle surrounded by monkeys?