Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Settling In

 

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In photo: The health workers love bringing me fresh babies because they know they’re my favorite thing in the world. This one is a few days old and remains un-named.

Written: September 10, 2016, afternoon
From: a moto repair shop in Koudougou
Feeling: fatigued but relaxed
Hungry for: something cold
Missing: my car

As I begin better learning Mooré, the city becomes louder. When you don’t speak the language, even the most bustling, busy places can be deafeningly silent. When you can’t understand their words, all smiling people are friendly and polite, a potential friend. Most interactions are one sided as voices enter your ears but hardly actualize as words in your brain. And you have so much to say but you can’t so you smile and nod. Even the sounds of a place are at first in another language. I was once getting anxious waiting to catch a bus that comes less than every 24 hours. The person with me who knew that the bus would look like seemed to not be watching for it, not paying attention at all. “We’ll hear it”, he said. And he did, although I was still deaf to it’s sound. In the village, I’m learning to distinguish different animal and insect sounds. I can hear footsteps outside my courtyard and know if it’s a neighbor or stranger.

I’m currently sitting in a moto sale and repair shop, with an emphasis, I suspect, on repair. Being in a moto shop is a foreign place for me all on it’s own. But it’s a nice place to sit and zone out, and there’s always something going on to watch, mindlessly. Only two of ten men are ever working at a time, so you can talk if you want to but it’s loud enough that talking doesn’t feel like an obligation either. I’m in the city for the day, not by choice. I came here to Koudougou two days ago with the intention of doing some major shopping to furnish my basically empty home. I’m almost forced to spend the night with the way the bus schedules work, so I arranged to sleep at the house of a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) here in the city. So yesterday I was supposed to catch the 2pm bush taxi back to my village, but it never came. Having no other options for getting home (especially after having bought a few big peices of furniture), the moto repair guy let me keep my furniture in his shop and I went to get a hotel room.

It was a relaxing night. I went with the mechanic to get chicken and beer last night before crashing, exhausted and sunburnt, in my luxurious hotel room — luxe because there was a ceiling fan and a screen on the window. I slept soundly and woke up, for the first time in a long time, without sweat on my skin.

Another foreign noise just took over my world. A guy’s voice over a speaker, sounding like an auctioneer too close to his microphone, was so loud the whole street of people could hear. Although it drew everyone’s attention for a second, they turned back to their work unphased for the remainder of his message. They were used to this. My first thought was that it was something religious, the sounds coming from a mosque or a church or a guy walking around with a loudspeaker calling people to prayer or repentance.

Just now, it arrived. The booming voice was a passing Airtel truck with massive speakers, advertising and promoting the day of 200% bonus. Airtel is a phone company here, and the one I use. So today if you spend 1000 francs on phone credits, (roughly $2), you’ll actually get 2000 credits. Good deal. With a discount code I can send a text to most people in country for 1 credit. Unfortunately it costs 20 credits to send a text to the person I text most here, because there is bad service in much of the north and east of the country.

Today — with moto repair shops, busy streets, and voices over loudspeakers — is not representative at all of my life in Burkina. Assuming the bus comes today as it’s supposed to, I’ll soon return to my little village, which is actually not that little but still very much village. In land area and population the village is huge. But the village doesn’t have running water, electricity, or stores. We don’t have bars or formal restaurants. Of course we have village equivalents of all these things: water pumps, solar panel energy, the man who sells rice and phone credit, the tree where the dolo-seller sells, and freshly prepared beans and corn for sale on market day. Dolo is a locally made alcohol, reddish and bitter, and its alcohol content? One can never be sure, and it’s changes day to day, seller to seller. Market day is every 3 days.

I live on the grounds of the CSPS, the CSPS being the village equivalent to a community health center, doctor’s office, and hospital. On site we have 4 health workers, semi-equivalent in American terms to a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacist, and a woman in charge of the maternity ward. These four serve 10 to 12,000 people, covering an area a few dozen kilometers wide. So I’m the fifth health worker on site, the volunteer who so far doesn’t really do much for community health but will be active soon, after she is about three months settled in and speaks Mooré a bit more.

Overall I like my house, although I felt more comfortable in my Sanga room. But that will change soon, as I work to make my house a home. Right now my biggest stressor in Burkina is the rodent problem in my house, specifically: bats and mice. I have reptiles (lizards) and bugs (cockroaches, beattles, spiders, flies) too, but those hardly phase me by now. Actually they bother me a lot sometimes but it’s just life here. Apparantly so are the bats and mice, but my tolerance won’t stretch that far.

I’ve been cooking meals in my home on a gas burner. So far my favorite meal was spaghetti noodles with lentil sauce. I used whole green lentils I had leftover from the day before and added some tomato sauce. Cooking for one is hard, but luckily sharing food with neighbors and strangers is normal here, if not required.

Most of my days are spent relaxing, talking under a tree with various villagers, mostly men (unfortunately). Of course I don’t mind being in the prescence of men, usually, but I’d love to integrate as a Burkinabè woman here; that will be really hard. I guess it’s largely that my demographic — a woman old enough to be married and have children but isn’t and doesn’t — doesn’t exist here. After 7 or 8pm women stay home. But I cook dinner earlier than they do, have no children to wash, and have to husband to tend to. I’m also a night owl, and love drinking tea with people. So of course at 8pm I’d want to be in front of my house drinking tea and talking. I’ll either have to turn down this opportunity or accept that I’ll almost always be the only woman.

Other interesting things… I ate goat testicles for the first time the other day. I guess it didn’t taste bad, but it’s not something I’ll ever seek out/pay for. Even here I love painting my nails, but for the first time I left my right hand unpainted. That’s the norm here (even beyond Muslim circles) because your right hand should be clean for eating. I want to be able to reach my hand into any bowl of tô that comes my way, without feeling like people might see my painted hand not approve. They probably wouldn’t care, but still I guess it’s a small part of integration for me.

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Written: September 21, 2016, late morning
From: the Marie Stopes International waiting room in Koudougou
Feeling: energized and excited
Hungry for: salad, fruit, or beer
Missing: my host family near Léo

I’m in the city again, this time by choice. I came with another PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who lives in a village near mine. She has been here for a year and half, and is leaving soon, but I’m trying to spend as much time with her as possible and inherit some of her special connections and learn her tricks of the trade in this country before she leaves. We biked here. From my village it’s somewhere around 36km, a long but basically pleasant bike ride.

I’m at Marie Stopes, but no I am not here to get contraceptives or learn about family planning. I’m here to use their electricity (to charge my phone) and internet (to blog). As an American in Burkina, or in most western African countries, there are special permissions you obtain just from showing your face and greeting the staff in the local language.

Village life is crazy but it’ll work itself out eventually. I trust I’ll feel at home and comfortable soon.

The health facility in my village is undergoing massive changes right now. The major (head of CSPS in the village), the main nurse, and the midwife are not native to the village but are assigned and posted there. In French we call them functionnaires. So in my village there are three of them. One of them, the nurse, left the village (permanently) yesterday. The midwife is leaving this week. And the major is leaving in a couple months, as soon as he helps settle-in a replacement nurse and midwife.

So basically, in a couple months, I will be the most senior of the health workers at the CSPS. I’m excited about the change overall, but it’s also sad that many of the people I know best in Nassoulou are leaving. Recently the midwife and I have become good friends. I’ve slept at her house with her the past several nights because of the pest problems chez moi. Last night I told her I’m ready to go back to my house and sleep. She explained: no, Alima. I really don’t mind you sleeping at my place. Come again, one more night. Okay, I said. I didn’t need convincing. It’s so nice not sleeping alone in a dark home, in a village you’re not totally familiar with, with bats and beetles…..

Anyway, last night she and I had what is likely to be the last sleepover. We ate spaghetti with dried fish and talked for several hours before falling asleep. She likes to sleep with bright lights (powered by the solar panel battery) and the radio on — men speaking in French about who knows what, and sometimes it’s mostly static. But I like it now too. The light informs you that there’s no bats in your room. And the radio masks the creepy sounds of who-knows-what going on during the village nighttime.

There is a long story behind this, but quite simply I’ll say: I’m likely moving into the midwife’s house when she leaves. So although I’ll be sad for her departure, it comes with a big, bright silver lining.

I had a fancy city breakfast today: café au lait, with powdered milk instead of sweet and condensed milk that they serve in village; a veggie-filled omelette on bread; cold, clean water to wash it down.

Soon I’ll be eating a fancy lunch too. I’ll probably order salad and green beans and a Guiness with an ice cube. This is the meal I dream of, and what makes the 36km bike ride to Koudougou worth it.

My language learning is going well. Most people are impressed with my Mooré skills having been in country for only a few months. And everyone in village considers me perfectly fluent and French, and tend to blame themselves (and not my bad accent) when they can’t understand me. However, I desperately need to devote more time, on my own, to start memorizing vocabulary I have written down. I could write a book in Mooré if I was allowed to reference my extensive language notes. But I can’t take my language notes to the market or to the bar when I want to speak Mooré. Just kidding, I’ve done it before. People don’t ask why I look at notebook before asking them a question. But, no. I need to devote more time to memorizing.

Meal-wise I’m doing fine! I eat 2 or 3 meals a day. I often cook at home, making mainly oatmeal, spaghetti, and lentils. These are my staple meals for now only because these are the groceries I bought, and I want to use up all my current food before getting more. Basically I’ll eat the same few things for a month, and then change it up based on my new groceries and the new foods available at the market based on season. I can say that I’ll probably get really sick of spaghetti throughout my service here, (but I did splurge in Ouagadougou and bought whole-wheat noodles, so that makes me feel a little better). There’s also a small village restaurant a few minute walk from my house. She usually serves food at lunchtime; it’s always rice. I’ve really made this place my own, and even her children are warming up to me. I’ve gone there several times, sometimes eating but often just sipping a beer while I read a book or study Mooré.

I just finished a book last night: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s been on my to-read list for years, and Peace Corps gives you the opportunity to do a lot of the little things you never made time for in the U.S. Like reading for fun. I’m really hungry for books here, and I look forward to my next trip to the capitol so I can take more books from the Peace Corps library.

It’s hard to blog. I have to travel to a city to find Internet, and even then sometimes it’s a challenge. Also, to blog, one has to feel inspired. I can’t force inspiration for writing just because I’m in front of a computer with some sort of Internet connection. Anyway, I’m working on creating a system or schedule that is condusive to blogging, (e.g. write from my village on my phone, email it to myself, and post it when I find wifi). But most days blogging is my last concern, as I work to get settled into my new life.

So I guess that’s all I have to say for now! (Actually I could type forever, but from my phone it’s not that fun.) Thanks for being patient with me and my limited blogging.

Learning Mooré: Mam nooaga bee ye? (Where is my chicken? I bought a cock a week and a half ago. He sleeps at my neighbor’s house but wanders around the village during the day. Now that my neighbor moved out yesterday, I’m not sure where my chicken is. I’ll have to ask around…)


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Destination: Burkina Faso!

In just a little over a week I’ll be on my way back to west Africa, the place I miss most…

I will serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, slighter bigger in size than the state of Michigan, with an estimated population of 17 million people and a life expectancy of 55 years.

I will do pre-service training for the first three months in a village called Léo in southern Burkina Faso. Following training I will serve for 2 years in another village, TBD.

My job title is “Community Health Educator”, and my work may be centered around things like maternal and child health, nutrition, malaria prevention and treatment, hygiene and diarrhea prevention, HIV/AIDS awareness, and teen pregnancy reduction.

Language wise, my French skills will be a huge asset. However, I will also learn at least one other local language. The one I’ll start with is called Moore. Where I’m placed for my 2 years of service will determine if I have to learn another language (on top of French and Moore), and if so, which.

I don’t know many details about how life will look, but I’m excited to share my adventures with my family and friends at home (and in various places around the world).

This last week consists mostly of family time, time with some friends for sure too, and a little bit of organizing/packing.

Next weekend I will first fly to Philadelphia, spending a few days there with other Burkina-bound Volunteers. After that it’s from Philly to Brussels, and Brussels to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso…

Learning Moore: Laafi bala, I’m feeling good. (Used as the response for many greetings.)


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So many are coming

You can take the girl out of Africa, but you can never take the Africa out of the girl.

Just after I got back from Senegal, one of my girlfriends texted me, “Hey are you done with Africa?!”

I answered politely, “If you mean am I home from Senegal, yes I am.” But even though I knew what she meant, the question bothered me a little. I am never “done” with “Africa”.

In fact, every single day since I’ve been back (not even missing one!), I’ve been fortunate enough to still interact with Senegal on some level. There are countless and unbelievable examples of this.

Some of you know that one of my summer jobs is related to African immigration to Detroit. I’m hired by the University of Michigan Department of History and am involved in a large research project about recent African immigration in Detroit. We are specifically interested in learning about African spaces in Detroit economically and socially. Our method is to conduct interviews with African entrepreneurs and business owners. My main focus is on women African hair braiding salon owners, but I interview other people too.

Currently I’m sitting at a Barnes & Noble. I conducted an interview in Redford (just outside of Detroit), and couldn’t even wait to get home to start putting my thoughts into words. It will probably take me days to mentally process what happened this morning.

For his confidentiality, I won’t give too many details. However, I interviewed a man who inspired me, encouraged me, and ultimately reaffirmed that this passion I have for Africa is real and God-given. At the beginning of the interview I told him I had been to Ghana, his country of origin. His eyes lit up in excitement, because he could stop saying “Africa” when he referred to where he came from — I had heard of Ghana? I knew of Ghana? I had been there?! I had loved his home country.

He wanted to know all about me then. I told him that after the interview we could talk about me, but first, him. After the hour or so interview went past, he said “Okay, so what are you? Who? Tell me.” So I turned off the recorder and told him about myself.

I told him I was an International Studies and African Studies major. I told him that I spent time in Ghana last summer and then recently four months in Senegal. Then I started telling him why and when I knew my heart was for Africa. I told him about Foday. I told him that as a young, naive, innocent little girl, it was half interest and half frustration that started me on this Africa thing, and I haven’t once looked back.

I’ve left Africa and I’m still making grown men cry.

He just cried. They were silent but quick dripping tears. He didn’t wipe his eyes for awhile, just kept listening. After a few minutes he said “Oh you’ve made me cry”. He said that my story and my passion were beautiful. He said I was beautiful.

My favorite part of the whole thing came next. In all my life, I will never forget it. He was asking me about Senegalese love interests. He asked if there was any romance. I said:

“You know, yes. There is some romance. However, I am waiting. I fully trust that God will bring me a Christian man.”

“So many are coming,” he assured me.

At this, we were both beaming. Laughing, but mostly just looking at each other in the eyes with wide, sure grins. The moment was so full of sincerity and peace. Sometimes it’s so hard for me to believe that yes, God is bringing me a perfect Christian man. Not perfect in your definition of “the perfect Christian man”, but a Christian man who understands me and likes me and understands or wants to understand my passions and life goals.

But when this joyful, wise, Christian, loving, encouraging Ghanaian man looks at you with tear filled eyes and tells you that “so many are coming”, guys… you have no choice but to believe him.

We were blessings to each other. He encouraged me and influenced me in ways I would have never imagined as we sat down to the interview, him still being so skeptical of why I wanted to talk to him.

This is my life and my passion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Learning Wolof: Jabar: dekel, dundal, dekoo. It is a husband’s responsibility to shelter, feed, and satisfy sexually his wife. (While reading a research report about Senegalese hair braiders in the U.S., I came across many interesting Wolof phrases relating to gender and equality both in society and in the household.)


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Spring Break in Saly, Senegal

I spent Spring Break with 3 other American girls – Katherine from Virginia, Tori from Chicago, and Haley from Wisconsin. It was the perfect group to spend a week with…

Saturday, March 14

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Pool at the house we stayed in

Left Dakar and arrived in Saly, Senegal. I was in awe about how gorgeous of a house we were staying at for not too expensive. We had two large bedrooms and bathrooms. (Most importantly, running hot water! Easily one of the best parts of the trip.) We also had a beautiful pool, access to a kitchen for cooking, and an open roof which could have facilitated stargazing but the night we hung out up there wasn’t clear. We met our parents de Saly, a middle aged couple from France who were just old enough to be retired if they wanted to but they were seeking employment. They owned the house and while we were there they mostly left us alone, engaging with us only when they were serving us breakfast, offering us wine, or trying to drive us somewhere they thought we should see. They were amazing. We ate lunch with parents de Saly at a small local joint. For dinner Haley and I split a pizza, my first pizza in Senegal. It did not disappoint. At night, in my journal, I wrote a letter to my Mom (my U.S. mother – yes, complicated now that I have at least three) about how I knew she would love Saly. I gave some compelling reasons why her and Dad should live here.

Sunday, March 15

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Free boat ride on the Rasta Rocket after drinks at Chez Rasta

Our first full day started off with the breakfast of a king, prepared by Mom Saly. It included baguettes of course (but homemade and delicious), jellies, fruit salad with pineapple, apple and grapefruit, some millet yogurt stuff that only I loved, tea, coffee, and juice. Each day she added something new to the breakfast, things like sweet apple bake, milk, whole fruits, Nutella, pancakes. Then we headed to the beach. Mostly we sat just north of Obama Beach, so that we had a more private experience. When we came home parents wanted to take us to the lagoon so we went. Mom used, and taught us, a wonderful line: “Gratuit ou rien”, free or nothing. It was a good line to use with pesky sellers, and it finally got us a free boat ride to Chez Rasta. Chez Rasta was a big but not busy restaurant on the beach decorated (intensely) with all things Rastafarian. Everything was red, green, or yellow, except the blue part of the Brazilian flag painted on our table. Parents ended up paying for our beer (and Tori’s soda), and the bartender gave us free rum. I bought bracelets, parents provided great entertainment, and we made friends with the staff. For dinner after we were home us 4 girls got Asian takeout – a few dollars and very worth it.

Monday, March 16

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A male chief giraffe and several females

Today we went to the Bandia Reserve! I experienced my first ever African safari, and it was as good as or better than you’re imagining. The only thing that could have made it better is if I could have seen lions, but if I were to see lions I might not have seen some of the other animals, which would have been in the pit of Lion’s tummy. We saw all sorts of animals, most of them I can’t even name because there were so many and the tour was in French. Gazelles, hyenas, rhinos, monkeys, birds, crocodiles, zebras, giraffes. There were several different kinds of mammals sort of like gazelles but much bigger and with horns and different patterns on them. The bird life really fascinated me! They were gorgeous. After, we went grocery shopping, ate spaghetti, and had wine and cheese with parents (my first wine and cheese experience with French people). Haley and I shared chickpeas for dinner, surprisingly delicious, and then we all played cards – Rummy – before going to bed. Tori won by a lot.

Tuesday, March 17

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Enjoying a Senegalese beer, Flag, at Chez Rasta

Today the 4 of us took a clando (refer to previous post) to the lagoon and spent more time at Chez Rasta. We got a boat tour of the lagoon and the guide let us off and let us explore by foot. I saw a lot of small aquatic wildlife which was cool. We also spent time on the beach and gathered shells. For dinner we had macaroni and cheese, except Haley who has to be careful with dairy. She had more Asian food. Katherine and Haley and I spent time on the roof. I still can’t get over that house. Beautiful without being excessive.

Wednesday, March 18

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Just a small selection of the hundreds of fish we watched get caught on the beach

Beach day! On the beach we spent awhile talking to four women vendors. At first they were trying to sell us stuff, but their selling mentality broke down just about when I told one of them “Begg naa sa dome”, I want your baby. She untied her son from her back and willingly handed him over, joking about how he was definitely for sale. The women gave us several bracelets as gifts, put some cute braids in our hair, and shared a little bit about their lives. In Senegal I meet and talk with men all the time, but rarely women. It was refreshing. We also got to witness a bunch of men pulling in a huge net with hundreds of fish. For lunch I split an amazing salad with fresh fruit, shrimp, and calamari. Once home, in the evening, Haley and I gathered the courage to go talk to the pool boy at his room. We called him Pool Boy but he also cleans and does landscaping. The garage is divided in half with a wall – on the left is the car, on the right is Pool Boy’s bedroom. He sleeps there every night, and cooks for himself in his room on a little gas cooker. His name is Etienne. All week I had been curious to talk to him but because he was working, it wasn’t necessarily okay for him to engage with us guests. All week I would make eye contact with him and he would smile. He was very easy to talk to, a gentle speaker and patient with our bad French/Wolof. Best part: he is a Christian! I haven’t met very many Christians here, and only just older women. After that, we girls ended up staying up until 5am talking about very controversial subjects. We were already physically drained, but then we had drained ourselves mentally too.

Thursday, March 19

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Disclaimer: photo taken the day before; a large fish market in Mbour, Senegal. We paid a guy to give us a tour/be our body guards as the area can be a little crazy at times.

As always we started with Mom’s breakfast. Then we spent the day at the pool at home. I read more of my book I had been reading all week, Flowers for Algernon. We packed our bags and straightened up our rooms. We said goodbye to them, and then parents, and then Etienne. We took a clando, and then a super cheap taxi (read below), back to Dakar. By the time I was back in Dakar I was ready to be. Spring Break had lasted long enough to be long enough, and short enough to have only fond memories and intact friendships.

Learning Wolof: Liggey you nday, English translation does not exist. This is one of the many main Senegalese cultural values. It basically means that the success of a man is thanks to the work of his mother. I can’t disagree! Thanks Mom, (and Dad), for all you’ve done for me.


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Empty Wallets, Full Hearts

Once a week I write and turn in an essay about my experiences here. Sometimes the essay topics are chosen for us, sometimes they just must relate to Senegal geography/history/culture, and sometimes they must be a personal reflection. I turn them in in French, but first I write in English in order to organize my thoughts and lay out a map. When I go to translate it into French, some of the sentences’ meanings change a little because of my limited French vocabulary or the non-existence of certain words. Also, when I write the first draft in English, I often choose my words based on what I know I can easily translate into French. Here is the most recent essay I wrote. It needed to be a personal reflection essay, but it’s always good when the essay relates to development which is the focus of the MSID program. The essay is the expansion of a journal entry I wrote near the beginning of my life in Dakar, but since that day I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot and forming an opinion. Here it is.


Empty wallets, full hearts

Since being in Senegal, my ideas and perceptions of many things have changed. My ideas about religion are being challenged, my ideas about myself are being challenged, and my ideas about poverty are being challenged greatly. “Poverty” is one of the first words the typical westerner thinks of when they think about Africa, and “development” is the most commonly proposed solution. Indeed, almost all development scholars include “reduction of poverty” in their definition of development. Since being here I find myself asking questions like, “What is poverty? Why is it an important topic?”

Some friends in the United States, upon hearing that I have a maid at my house here in Senegal, assume my family is rich. I’m not here to talk about my family’s income because truly I don’t know, but consider this scenario: if family A lives on $10 a day and woman B’s family lives on $1 a day, woman B might be willing to work for a wage well within the budget of a $10 a day family. Having a maid doesn’t mean you’re rich, but it means you’re wealthy when compared to someone else in your city. Maybe a family can’t afford a computer but they can afford a maid. Perhaps culturally maids are a higher priority when a family considers what they want to spend their money on.

Now yes, I know that I am in fact living in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Dakar. But that’s just the thing: this neighborhood is relatively wealthy. Mermoz is wealthy when compared to other neighborhoods in Dakar, and Dakar is wealthy relative to other cities in Senegal. I would argue that relative wealth, and relative poverty, are the only values that are even relevant in a society. Absolute poverty, often expressed in American dollars as people living on less than $1.25 a day, seems almost entirely irrelevant to me. Although it might shed light on how Senegal as a nation compares to other nations in the world economically, it does nothing to talk about an individual’s daily life.

But even if relative poverty values are more relevant than absolute poverty values, I still find myself asking “What is poverty?” I think the more important questions to ask other than “Are these people poor?” are questions like: can they see a doctor if they want to? Can they go to school if they want to? Are they happy? If the answers to questions like these are “yes”, what does it matter how much money is in their bank account?

I’m not suggesting that the discussion of reducing poverty be taken off the table altogether. Surely reducing poverty will probably lend itself to giving people more access to medical treatment, schools, and happiness. However, what if putting more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t lend itself to better access or health? Maybe the infrastructure or the trained doctors aren’t there. What if more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t mean more access to education, if there isn’t a school within walking distance or the teachers are always on strike because of government corruption? What if money is in fact the root of all evil, and that simply more money won’t lead to more happiness? Have we ever seen that casual line between money and happiness proved?

I’m suggesting instead that we stop worrying so much about economic development, particularly on the individual level. Instead, we should ask questions about how many doctors there are, and how accessible clinics are. Are there adequate schools and supplies and are teachers treated well? Are people happy, do they feel empowered, are they free?

I think we are living in an interesting time in history, a time where there are the greatest wealth disparities in the world but the greatest awareness of what exists for the other half. With today’s media, Americans are aware, or at least think they are aware, of the poverty in Africa. Africans are aware of the wealth in the United States, even if the view gets skewed as it travels through the technology waves. But I think that it’s important to critically think about what poverty is so that when we as a world try to fight it, we build up healthier, smarter, and happier people, not bank accounts. Yes, I am living here comfortably. I think anyone could. But my family’s income and whether or not we have a maid does not define poverty. My family in Dakar is wealthy because we can see a doctor when we need to, go to school when we want to, and smile because we’re happy.


Learning French: passer la nuit à la belle étoile, to spend the night under the stars. (I wish.)


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Aventures à Toubacouta

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In picture: Crashing a birthday party in Toubacouta. We danced in the center: wonderful entertainment. Photo Credit: Alia Jeraj

I spent a long weekend in Toubacouta, a village several hours south of Dakar, and it was definitely the most interesting weekend of my entire life, in a good way. I have 14 journal pages which describe my experiences in decent detail, but most of the things were truly unexplainable. This post won’t go into as much detail as my journal notes did, but if you want to hear more about anything mentioned in this post contact me. I would love to talk more about it all.

On Friday morning we visited a small health post. My favorite part was the maternity ward; we got two see two fresh babies. We also visited two schools, one which was a public French-style school, and one that was a Coranic school, where instruction is in Arabic and the children work towards memorizing the Quran. This experience made me really want to live in a village and work in a school for my internship. The children are beyond disciplined and don’t exhaust me in the same way American children do. After lunch we visited a women’s group which takes out microfinance loans (with saddening 20% interest rates). They use the loan money to invest in products to resell. The day was so interesting, but it would only get more interesting from here.

After diner our group had a private show from a professional dance team outdoors at our hotel. (You can’t imagine a typical hotel. Instead, imagine several small huts scattered around between some trees. We ate under a pavilion next to a pool that seemed absolutely never used.) The dancers danced next to the pool and the dozen of us students sat in a line of chairs to watch. I was, by far, the most entertained that I’ve ever been by watching a performance. It was amazing! The dancers were so energetic and talented and beautiful. There was a guy on stilts and in a costume, a man covered in leaves, several men and a woman who ate fire and rubbed fire on themselves. After the dance, the dancers taught us some moves and danced with us. It was a blast. I was so amped up, my blood throbbing inside me. This intense emotion though suddenly fed anxiety instead of excitement.

After the performance, Alia and Hannah and I walked back to Hut 14. When we walked in the door, Alia calmly asked, “What are these bugs doing on my bed?” Just a moment later, I screamed. Then we all did. In our room there were hundreds of bugs. Earwigs. Google image search earwigs and you will see the exact bug that was there, pinchers and all. They were covering the ceiling, all over our mosquito nets, our beds, our pillows. There was probably twenty in my backpack, ten on just a single skirt I had sitting out. Computer, toothbrush, they were everywhere. I ran out calling for Waly. Soon after, Waly, the hotel manager, and a couple other hotel workers were over. They were pretty surprised too, but started getting to work cleaning out the hut. There was no other room for us to take.

After spending close to two hours cleaning, the room looked pretty nice. However, after just five or so minutes, the bugs were back. They were crawling in as quickly as ever, and by the time I was ready to crawl in bed, (it was quite late now), there were several more on the side of my mattress. Honestly, I probably would have been fine going to sleep, even with a few around my bed, but I just kept imagining the worst likely: waking up in the middle of the night and having them everywhere again. All over my mosquito net, falling from the ceiling crack where they were entering still, a parade. Even in the morning, how would be leave our beds? It wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, after seeing that there wasn’t going to be a way to rid Hut 14 of the infestation, Waly (bless his heart) offered us his room. His hut was smaller, but after another thirty or so minutes, we finally had it set up to sleep us three. I’m not sure where Waly slept, but I know it wasn’t in our hut. Not even he was going to put up with those bugs. After all this, Alia and I went to buy some beer for us three. Even though the kitchen was closed, the manager agreed to unlock it and get some. We tipped him well.

We drank our beer slowly and journaled about our crazy day. We let our heart rates settle and our mind formulate coherent thoughts and reflections on the day. Finally we were exhausted, and I’ve never slept better.

That was Friday. Saturday was probably just as exciting, though thankfully ended a little differently. We started the morning by taking a little wooden boat through the mangroves. Let me tell you, I was in utter bliss. For a couple hours I had not a single care in the world. I could have stayed there for days, if not forever. Some of the other students on the boat requested that I stop dragging my feet in the water, but the water was warm and beautiful and I just had to. We were going slowly enough, and there were several strong men on the boat, so it was safe Mom, (and I know if you had been there we would be doing that exact thing together). Later we visited a community radio and a community garden. The community garden was almost as beautiful as the mangroves. The garden itself was organized, healthy, and serene. In fact, I haven’t felt I was in a more perfectly peaceful place since being in Senegal. They were growing all sorts of things there, and it was extremely expansive with a couple large wells. We ate mini tomatoes off the plant, and there were also onions and cabbage and several things I didn’t ask to have identified. Even more beautiful than the physical garden was the community behind it. I’m decently knowledgeable about how the community garden works there, who is in charge of what and how it works, so if you’re interested in hearing more I can tell you.

That night we attended a Senegalese traditional wrestling event. I honestly won’t even try to explain this one. Even pictures couldn’t come close to capturing the experience which was unlike anything that exists in the United States. Combine a steady drum beat and loud singers and hundreds of spectators in a circle among some trees and tall strong Senegalese wrestlers fighting wearing next to nothing and everyone dancing and drama breaking out and prize money and… it was a lot.

The day ended as peacefully as it began. The whole time in Toubacouta we had four Senegalese male students attend the events with us. Some of us students requested that these guys help us find a perfect place to stargaze. They walked us to a cement dock in the middle of nowhere. I’m one hundred percent positive that it was the most beautiful starry sky I’ve ever seen. In a small African village, without much light, without much pollution, without much noise at all, and during the season without many mosquitos… it was perfect. If I spend my first forever in the mangroves I’ll spend my second forever under that sky.

Those were the highlights of the trip. Of course I could mention more monkey interaction and eating ice cream and having deep conversations and playing with babies. But this weekend was only a day ago, and already today I’ve already experienced more things worthy of a blog update. Life for me here never stops and it never slows down, (the biggest irony with the Senegalese slow pace of life). On the contrary, each day it gets more interesting. The learning never ends.

Learning Wolof: kepp coye, earwig (literally translates as ‘penis pincher’… yes.)


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Le temps est les gens

“Time is not money. Time is people.”

This was one of the first Senegalese phrases I heard upon arrival, from Waly, during orientation. Instantly I loved it. Over the past two weeks I’ve really been able to see the motto materialize. Every day I see a new instance of someone living out their belief that time is people.

One way that you can see this emphasis on people is through the cultural norm of greeting – every one, always. When you enter a house, yours or other, you greet everyone there. On the street, if you see someone you know, or “know”, you greet them. The exchange, once you’re fluent enough in Wolof, isn’t a simple, “Oh hi”. It’s an extended, long exchange of asking about another’s life and family. Even very young children will come and greet you, sometimes with words and always with a handshake.

My favorite part of all this greeting stuff is that if you see someone you know while walking somewhere, you stop and chat with them briefly, even if it means you’ll be a few minutes late. It’s not a big deal if you’re late to class if it was because you stopped and talked with someone. When I go places, I try to leave early so that I’m available to give people the time of day they deserve. However, even if I’m running late, c’est pas grave, I’ll stop and talk. People are the most important. Time is people.

This motto is lived out in several other ways. People are never in too much of a hurry to stop and help you, even with the smallest of things. When you leave someone’s house they’ll walk you to the door, sometimes a couple blocks, sometimes home. It’s not a safety thing, it’s cultural. If they don’t walk you out, you should think that something happened and they did not enjoy your visit. Waly also explained to us the acronym “W.A.I.T”, West African Internal Time. Have patience; just wait. People here wait very well.

You’re a person? They have time. I have time.

Learning Wolof: Question: Lu bees? Answer: Yaa bees. What’s new? You’re new. (Commonly the third or fourth line exchanged in a greeting.)


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My first weekend au Sénégal

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In picture: Me and Yama at the zoo, visiting with our favorite animal: le lion.

This weekend in twelve sentences:

Jeudi, le 22

Today we took a boat to Gorée Island and it was breathtakingly beautiful. Since I have now seen the House of Slaves on Gorée island and have already seen the Elmina Castle in Ghana, I’ve stood in the exact place so many did who came to the Americas as slaves. The emotions are hard to describe.

Vendredi, le 23

We watched a compelling, interesting movie in class, largely about factors outside Africa that are responsible for the failures within. My favorite part of the day was throwing my lunch up; I felt instant relief and was back to feeling 100% by morning. I think it was the beef.

Samedi, le 24

Yama and I took the bus to the zoo today, and although I usually dislike zoos, I had the time of my life. Yama’s the kind of person you would have the time of your life with even if you were picking up trash on the highway. At night, after Yama, Sadikh, and Mohamed bought me some amazing gelato, we and several Toubabs (what the Senegalese call white foreigners, endearingly) in my program went to a bar/club and we drank expensive drinks and danced our hearts out.

Dimanche, le 25

Today I spent time with the children in my extended family, coloring and playing cards, and helping take Khadija’s braids out. We had 10 people around our lunch bowl instead of our usual three or four, even though the bowl remains the same size regardless of how many hands are sharing it. You feed whoever happens to be at the house when meal time arrives.

Learning French: C’est pas grave, Don’t worry about it.