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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Pressing rewind

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In picture: The house we vacationed in this weekend. Stunning.

Bringing you an update in backwards order.

Z. Currently sitting in Yama’s bed on my laptop. He is next to me on his. He is writing an essay about himself in English for his English class which started last week. I am starting a 20 page essay in French about my internship which is due in two weeks. We occasionally ask each other for advice, and every thirty minutes or so we proof-read each other’s work. It’s a good system. And cute.

Y. I ate dinner (lentils, my favorite meal) and spent time with my family, “family” being an elastic word that includes my neighbor Laye (who has truly became a father to me here), and the close friends of my siblings.

X. I returned home from my internship. I had a long discussion with one of my coworkers. We talked about a lot of things, I don’t really remember exactly what, but one thing was that Senegalese people always love U.S. presidents, obsess over them even. Especially Obama because he’s black, but even Clinton. Every single one, except G.W. Bush, he said.

W. I had lunch with my boss’s family as usual. My boss had a young male guest over today. It was fun for me, not being the guest. I usually get royal treatment, but today I was just a family member and the royal service was given to the guy. I laughed internally at the whole thing, watching someone have to deal with walking the fine line called “polite”, balancing both denying things (like a nice chair when he really prefers sitting on the floor with everyone else) and being thankful and accepting things graciously.

V. Before that, at my internship, I spent most of the morning translating a document from French to English. It’s my major ongoing project there. The document is dense and wordy. But it’s good practice.

U. I woke up and walked to the bus stop. As I was walking past the women grain vendors across the street, I hear the familiar cry of a little baby. Saliou. One of the hardest things I’ll have to leave behind in a few weeks. He always cries when I leave. I rush over to him and pick him up, which instantly stops his crying, and take him down the road with me where I always buy café au lait. I return him to his grandmother after.

T. I woke up. I slept well. I heard and searched around for Alice, my pet mouse who lives in my closet. Didn’t find her.

S. I visited with my friends who I hadn’t seen in a few days – Jibi, Mouhammed, Sadikh. Sadikh and I talked on my porch for a half hour or so which was nice. I updated them on my vacation I had taken.

R. I ate dinner and spent time with the family, who all asked me how my vacation to Toubab Dialaw was. I was hoping they wouldn’t ask who I went with. They never did. I think they’re smart enough not to; they have so much sutura. I went with a boy, which is very taboo in this culture, (and agrees with Christian values). I have no idea what I would have said if they asked. I can’t imagine lying, but I can’t imagine telling them the truth, and I don’t know which I would feel worse about later. Theoretically if it was possible for them to choose, I know for a fact they would prefer to hear a lie – that’s a cultural thing too.

Q. Yama and I took a private taxi to Mermoz.

P. Yama and I took a shared taxi to Dakar.

O. Yama and I took a Dakar Dem Dikk (public bus) from Yene Guedje to bigger village close by.

N. Yama and I spent our last day on vacation, which included mainly breakfast, napping, lunch, and packing.

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M. Saturday – Our only full day of vacation in Yene Guedje. It was really good. Yama cooked dinner (and cleaned up) with little help from me. So delicious. We spent awhile on the beach, walking and having miniature adventures as they came up.

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L. Yama and I spent a lot of time walking and collecting seashells and sea glass and pretty rocks. This is one of my favorite activities and I’ve never been with a boy so into it too! I sacrificed my makeup bag (which now smells) so he could bring them home safely. (Yama has the best and biggest shell on display on top of his TV now. He just told me that he told his six year old niece that the snail is still alive, but just sleeping. Lalla is terrified and definitely won’t be touching (breaking) it.)

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K. Yama played a few rounds of beach soccer.

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J. A little girl brought me a puffer fish! It was so interesting. I had never seen one like it – it was like a huge white goose-bumped balloon full of water.

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I. Yama helped pull in a huge fishing net.

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H. I built a sandcastle with some girls and decorated it with shells.

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G. All the children on the beach came up to me to talk, testing my Wolof, and mostly just look at me. I didn’t mind but sometimes I feel a little bashful or something. When we were walking it the village it was even more crazy, every child announcing there was a Toubab, and often rushing over to me, “Bonjour Toubab!” I don’t mind it. And it kind of broke the ice making it easier to take a picture of me and this boy dressed up as a lion.

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F. Yama had peanut butter and jelly for the first time in his life. Of all the American foods I’ve introduced him to, this is the one he actually wants to eat again.

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E. Yama and I left for our vacation to Toubab Dialaw, but it actually ended up being in Yene Guedje. We rented a part of a gorgeous house on the ocean. I will never be able to explain how perfect the whole thing was. My favorite feature of the house was the mermaid [of no return] next to our door.

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D. I left my internship to go meet up with Yama for our vacation. I waited outside his English class and we left from there.

C. Friday – last work day of a long work week. I had my backpack packed full for vacation, including a bunch of food I had bought at the American Food Store near the U.S. Embassy.

B. The least best week of my stay in Senegal so far, but still not terrible. Certainly there were high points.

A. Had that amazing experience at church.
What’s facing me now? About three weeks left here. A twenty page paper and another smaller essay in French. My research project, which was finally just approved and I can now start interviews, (will post a blog update about that.) Buying gifts for people at home. Figuring out what I’m doing for the people who have done so much for me here. You know, things like that.

Learning Wolof: Lo ragala niak, boulko téyé. Don’t have what you are afraid to lose. (Yama taught me several days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it.)


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I believe He’s watching out as I travel around Senegal

I’m truly overwhelmed.

I keep saying “best meal so far in Senegal”, “nicest person so far in Senegal”, “coolest thing so far in Senegal”, “best day so far in Senegal”, “best week so far in Senegal”. I’m not sure if things truly keep getting better or if it’s just the case that everything is so awesome all the time that everything feels like “the best”, “ever”.

This past week was Spring Break for me, and the week between the two halves of my time abroad, the first half being the classroom phase and the second half being my internship/research phase. It’ll be hard to write a blog post summarizing the week, but I’ll do my best. Sometimes when I have a lot to write about, my tactic is starting at the present and writing about the events in reverse chronological order. This post will be something like that, as I am writing about the trip home from Spring Break, and a rundown of my six days of vacation will come later.

clando: an informal taxi, an unmarked car with a random driver; part of the Senegalese informal sector; not exactly illegal; less expensive, just as safe. My theory is that “clando” comes from the word “clandestine”. (For readers who aren’t great with vocabulary, clandestine is an English word meaning secretive.) However, my other English speaking friends here did not make that assumption and perhaps that’s not the case. (I strongly believe it is).

A week ago my friends and I left Dakar to head to Saly for Spring Break. Saly is a small city south of Dakar on the coast known for its beauty and tourist opportunities. Our plan to get there was this: take a taxi from the mosque in Mermoz to the lot with the sept-places, pronounced “set-PLAAS”, which translates as “seven seats”; take a sept-places from Dakar to Mbour; take a clando from Mbour to the house we were renting in Saly.

It was, as always, easy to hail a taxi in Mermoz where we live. “Hailing a taxi” is an overstatement anyway because when you’re a Toubab (white) walking along the street here, the taxis all hail you (honk, slow down, honk again, stop, honk) and you acknowledge them if there’s mutual desire. We bargained with the driver for the price to the lot with the sept-places, a ten to thirty minute drive. While in the taxi, the driver tried to convince us to let him drive us all the way to Saly, a roughly two hour drive. We insisted that we weren’t interested because the sept-places were so much cheaper. So the bargaining began.

Because locals had told us to expect a price just around 25,000 FCFA, we were happy when we successfully bargained with the taxi driver for a price of 15,000 CFCA ($25). This split between four people wasn’t going to be that much more expensive than paying for the taxi, the sept-places, and the clando. Futhermore, staying in the taxi and not getting out until we were at our vacation home was going to be so much less stressful, albeit not as exciting. So we did it. Although we had some difficulties in Saly finding the exact house, where street names and addresses exist only in theory, all went very well.

Now fast forward a week to this afternoon. Our amazing vacation has ended and our bags are packed. We say good bye to the two people who had become our Salian parents, and the pool boy. We walk towards the busy road where a clando will hail us and we will accept. (Taxis don’t exist in small cities and villages.) We plan to take a clando, then a sept-places, and then a taxi – the reverse of our first plan out of Dakar. However, it was as if God was telling us that we weren’t meant to ride in a sept-places, that we weren’t ready; our plan failed again.

After getting in the clando, it turns out that our driver was on his way to meet a friend. He called him to let him know he was going to be late because he had “clients” he had to take to Mbour, a little bit of a drive. When he has the opportunity to make a couple thousand francs he will. Again, we never made it to the sept-places lot. After only a couple kilometers he flashed his lights and pulled his car off the road. It’s not abnormal for a driver to pull off and buy water or fruit or sandals or anything really. But this time there wasn’t anything to buy. It turns out that he signaled for a taxi to stop. Generally taxis don’t exist in small cities like Saly, but this taxi had just come from Dakar and was dropping a man off.

Our clando driver said “Get out” and we said no, take us to the lot with the sept-places because that’s what we’re paying you to do and who is this random taxi driver eyeing us and we don’t want to take a taxi because they’re expensive and even though we are white we are ready for the adventure of the sept-places. The taxi driver came over to our window and said “Dakar? 20,000.” We told him that we were planning to take the sept-places which was much cheaper. Then he said, “Okay, 1,500.” Time stood still. I looked back at Katherine and Tori and Haley in the back seat with the most confused expression. Katherine told him that we didn’t understand what he said, and he repeated himself. “1,500.” I told the girls, no way. Even if he actually means he wants to do it for 1,500, that’s just too good to be true. We aren’t looking to get trafficked.

Then I understood. The taxi was a Dakar taxi, and the driver lived in Dakar. He had taken a man to Saly. Now he was headed back to Dakar. Taxis don’t belong in Saly and he probably wouldn’t be able to get good business because clandos can drive people around Saly for cheap. Not to mention he probably wanted to get back to Dakar to pray and eat. Our clando driver saw an easy way out of driving us all the way to Mbour (because he wanted to go hang out with his friends), and he thought he could help a Dakar taxi driver make 20,000, or at least something, off Toubabs headed home. The taxi driver knew he probably wouldn’t be able to find Senegalese people to drive to Dakar, because they would most certainly take a sept-places, or even a Tata or another big, cheap bus. But today we Toubabs were Senegalese too, and after insisting that a sept-places was just fine for us, the taxi driver decided to give us a sept-places rate if we would just get in his car and go. It wasn’t too good to be true – the taxi driver was happy with the situation too. Because there were four of us, his car would be at max capacity for his trip back to Dakar, and he would charge a rate slightly higher than he would normally be able to charge – 1,500 per head.

It worked out perfectly for all parties involved. He was charging us each 1,500 FCFA ($2.50) to drive us right to the door of our homes in Mermoz. Considering the length of the drive this was an insanely good deal. He even convinced us to pay to take the toll road which got us, and him too, home in record time. We trusted him more than the average man because he was quite old and wearing a traditional Muslim gown, (regardless if this increased trust is merited or not). He stopped just once to buy raw meat but he put it in the trunk. He was mostly silent, and spoke to me only when he wanted to tell me something interesting about what we were driving past. We tipped him well (in a country where tipping doesn’t really exist), and he gave us his phone number if we wanted to call him in the future. “What’s your name?”, Haley asked. “Saliou”, he said. “How do you spell that?”, Haley replied, fingers ready to type it into her phone. “T-A-X-I”, he said with a smile.

Where travel was likely going to be the most stressful part of my day I actually loved it. Also, I officially love clandos, even though the idea was mysterious and questionable before. In a country where unemployment, idleness, and money insecurity abounds, things like clandos put men to work and money in pockets. I’ve decided that although things seem unorganized and crazy in Senegal, systems exist here just as much as systems exist in the United States. Where formal systems are lacking, informal systems take root. Sometimes the systems in Senegal are less efficient than the ones in the U.S. Other times the systems in Senegal are notably more efficient, and more exciting too.

Learning Wolof, but Arabic first: InchAllah, God willing. (It’s appropriate to use this phrase after any sort of plan, and people use it several times a day. For example, “See you tomorrow, inchallah.” “I’m taking a sept-places, inchallah, (and it turns out God wasn’t willing).” “I’ll post tomorrow about my Spring Break, inchallah.”)


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Internship placement!

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In picture: Me and Yama’s hut on the beach! Perfectly peaceful day. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated my blog, mostly because this week was our last week of classes and really busy! I have my final exam in Wolof yesterday, a 15 minute oral exam with Sidy. It wasn’t easy but I think I did okay. Wolof will be the one class I miss dearly. Yama just registered to start English classes and I’ve agreed to help him – maybe we can do some lesson trading, Wolof for English.

I have an essay due tomorrow on consumption patterns in Senegal. After that I’m officially done with the first half of the program, the classroom stage. Then I will have a week of Spring Break and then my internship begins.

I have been officially placed for my internship! I will be working for L’Observateur National des Lieux de Privation de Liberté, which translated is The National Observer of Places of Deprivation of Liberty. My boss is a judge and seems really cool. I’ve met him only once during my interview, but he seems like someone I will be able to easily talk to and learn a lot from. This was the internship I was fortunate enough to get after Waly sought out something for me in the Criminal Justice field. Specifically I told him I was interested in prisons. Of course it’s not easy to get an internship in a prison, nor would it necessarily be a safe and comfortable place to work (although I think I would feel fine), but through this internship I believe I will be at least visiting prisons. I can’t wait.

I don’t have a super clear idea of what the organization does, (or if the word organization is even appropriate), but I’ll tell you what I understand about it so far.

The mission statement, roughly translated, says that the National Observer aims to monitor the conditions and care of people who are deprived of freedom in order to ensure respect for human rights and the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Sites that the National Observer may guide include prisons, health institutions where treatment is given without patient consent, local police custody, customs retention, court cellars, juvenile delinquency centers and disciplinary centers for military personnel. All of these sites sound interesting to me and I would be excited to visit and/or analyze any of them. After observation, the organization, among other things, makes recommendations to the government for change. The organization has a website, although it is in French, if you want to check it out. The website is onlpl.sn and even if you don’t speak French, the graphics on the first page are interesting.

Because the office building I will work at is in Dakar I will not be moving to a village. I will also be staying with my same host family. Although I was really excited to experience village life it’s also exciting to stay in Dakar. The internship experience may turn out to be important for my future career or career ideas.

Other than my internship, not much else is new. Yesterday we visited a hard candy factory. It was really interesting! It’s the number one hard candy brand in Senegal and everyone is familiar with it. We were able to talk to the manager and also the owner, both of whom were very willing to answer our many questions about having a business in Senegal, and the Senegalese economy and market at large. We also all brought home two or three big bags of candy. I got a bag of mint flavored and a bag of anise flavored, neither of which I love but I’ve been having fun giving handfuls out to my family and friends and random children on the street (kids accepting candy from strangers, oops?).

One of my favorite days so far in Senegal was this past Sunday. I spent the day with Yama at the beach, his favorite one. I already forgot the name of it but will ask him. We took a taxi there around noon. The beach wasn’t busy at all because it’s not beach season here for Senegalese – still too cold, (mid to high 70s and sunny sounds like perfect beach weather to me). We got our own private hut and paid a guy to watch it for us so we could walk around without our stuff. We had an amazing meal with a whole half of a chicken, French fries, and grilled seasoned vegetables. Yama had fruit salad for desert, and I drank a caprihna which was so yummy. Yama also brought his gas cooker and ataaya ingredients so we slowly drank tea on the beach – there’s nothing better. I bought some bracelets from a beach vendor woman, the most peaceful shopping experience I’ve had here. The whole day was just perfect honestly.

I’m leaving for Spring Break on Saturday! We are visiting one of Waly’s favorite vacation destinations, Saly Portudal. I’m sure you will hear all about it soon.

Learning Wolof: Am na jafe jafe, I have problems. (Interestingly, in Wolof, if you double a verb it becomes a noun. For example, jafe means “to be difficult”. Therefore, jafe jafe means “difficulty”.)


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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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It’s-almost-March updates!

As an update, things are going really well. Yesterday I did pretty well with talking to my mom after school and even said some complete Wolof sentences at dinner. I took a bucket shower by filling a pail with cold water from the shower head. It was refreshing and reminiscent of Ghana. My mom was confused why I would use a bucket when we have a shower head, if both were going to be the same cold water anyway. I explained to her that with the shower head, it’s much more uncomfortable because the freezing water is hitting you everywhere and you have no control over it or a way to escape it. The bucket method is honestly much more peaceful, gently splashing water where you need it. My mom was cracking up and went to tell the rest of the family how silly I was, but I think she understood.

I have a new brother! I guess he was visiting other family in a village for a month or so, but he’s back now. He lives in the bedroom that has always confused me a little – perfectly nice and set up, but used only to store our clean laundry. My first conversation with him was funny. He walked into the living room and asked me how I was. This is normal. Every day someone I don’t recognize comes into the house and talks with me, usually several people a day. Then he said, “So what’s your name?” and I told him and asked him his. Lam, pronounced like Laahm, not like the animal. I ask if he was Papa’s friend. Papa is one of my brothers and a lot of people come into the house looking for him. No, Lam said, I’m your brother. He’s the nephew of my Mom, so it’s actually not really the exact relationship, but honestly I’m not sure if any of my brothers are actually my mother’s children. It doesn’t have to be that way here. Lam is super nice so far, and speaks some English which is fun. Still I speak to him in French/Wolof.

Yesterday morning on my way to school I was running a little late. I hate making myself rush because then my fast walking causes me to sweat and then I feel gross for a few hours. Also, I don’t like being that one rushed Toubab in a sea of Senegalese who are walking with peace, at one with themselves and the situation, regardless of what time it is. So, despite being late, I tried to stay cool and calm, knowing I’d only be five minutes late and no one would mind. Previously lost in my thoughts, I saw ahead of me a man on a moto who was stopped on the side of the road and looking back at me. Yama! I walked up to him, so happy to see a familiar face, and one that I love at that. We talked a little bit before he said, “Well get on.” Oh my goodness. Of course I wasn’t going to refuse but I was nervous! Yama is definitely not more cautious than the average Senegalese driver. Most of them are a little bit crazy. And as I was getting on I had told him I don’t really do this ever, so I was worried he would try to make it extra exciting for me. Instantly, I felt amazing riding it. It wasn’t really scary at all, and I didn’t even have to hold on to him in order to feel safe even though of course I held on to him anyway. I could have stayed on that bike all day, the warm air in my hair and cuddling up with Yams. And I wasn’t late! I could slowly eat my baguette and cheese breakfast before class. My arm smelled like Yama for the rest of the day which was distracting.

I have a couple random things I keep wanting to talk about but never have. The first thing is peanuts. Just under half of cultivated land is used for peanut production. While driving to Toubacouta, we drove past a literal mountain. Of peanuts. We were far away from it and sadly I don’t have a picture for you right now, but it was crazy. At first we didn’t even believe Waly because there’s no way you could have a mound that big of peanuts. But no, it was true. I don’t exactly know the facts about the history of peanuts in the area, but the assumed history that I treat as fact that I believe I heard from a reliable source is that during colonialism, the French created the Senegalese economy to be focused around peanuts for export. Although Senegal is independent now, the infrastructure and skill set was here to continue growing them. The peanuts here are absolutely amazing! And very cheap. You can get a bag of them for 50 FCFA, ten cents. They sell them in several different varieties, including fresh unsalted, cooked and salted without shell, cooked and salted with the papery brown shell (think Spanish peanuts), or totally in the shell. You can also buy what we call sugar nuts! They’re peanuts cooked in sugar, coated heavily. I prefer the salty peanuts because as it is my diet is full of sugar, but they’re good. I’ll surely bring peanuts back as gifts. There’s also a good number of cashew trees, and I tried an unripe one off the tree which wasn’t delicious. After they’re done and salted though, Senegal has cashews that are to die for.

The other random thing I’ve wanted to talk about but haven’t is airplanes! My house in Mermoz, Dakar is very close to the airport. And actually, on the ground I don’t feel that close to the airport but I must be because the airplanes that fly over are freakily low. I remember the first one I saw after getting here and it scared me, that’s how low it was. They’re extremely loud, so much so that during school if a plane flies over the professor has to stop talking, (although it seems that people that live here usually raise their voice and power through the conversation without pausing). I’m having a hard time estimating how many planes fly over a day because it seems to vary a lot, some days having only a couple and other days seeming to have a dozen. It probably is like that. When the sun is in the perfect spot and the plane flies over, the whole city goes dark for a second. Once I was in my bedroom and I thought the power went out.  It’s pretty bizarre. I guess in the United States people that live close to airports might experience this same thing. The last thing about airplanes is that I think there is some sort of U.S. military base or something in Dakar too. The most obnoxious planes that fly over are U.S. fighter jets (don’t quote me, I don’t know what they’re called). It makes me sort of annoyed that we, Americans, are flying these obnoxious planes over Dakar. One more reason why Senegalese people have a reason to dislike the U.S. even though they don’t.

I’ve been debating talking about this on my blog, mostly because I don’t want people to worry about me when worry isn’t necessary. But two of my friends and I almost got robbed! It was one of the scariest things to ever happen to me. We were walking in an area that is known for this sort of activity, generally at night. I don’t usually walk down this stretch of road along the beach, but I was going with my friend Cat to buy something she wanted. Coming from school, we had our backpacks, and this made us more of a target. I can perfectly recall the whole thing like a video, but it’s not as easy to explain in written words. Basically us three were walking on the sidewalk, on the side of the road across from the beach which is the safer side. A scrawny, wild-eyed guy came running across the street towards us and motioned with his arms that we three girls clump together. At this time, another white guy was walking towards us girls. The aggressor tried to rally him up too but the white guy knew what was going on and quickly walked away from the scene. I knew instantly what was going on too. The whole thing was playing out exactly how I was warned: the aggressor will put you and your friends together, take out a knife, and demand your things/money. You must give it to him. Luckily I never actually saw the knife that I’m sure the guy had because Cat screamed when he touched her, and two guards that were on security for one of the buildings down the street came to see what was up. A truck in the street had also stopped, knowing what was going on. The combination of Cat’s scream, the guards yelling something at the guy, and the truck stopping in the road scared the aggressor away. He ran across the street and over the beach mound where they’re known to hide. In the situation, my first response was to stay calm; I wasn’t even close to screaming. But I fully believe Cat’s scream saved me, (and by me I mean my laptop, phone, camera, school stuff, agenda, and journal, which is basically my life). I learned several things from this scenario and have changed my frame of mind slightly because of it. All is well. We haven’t reported the event to the Embassy yet but we intend to.

As a last little update, my search for an internship is underway! Right now I have two roads I could go down. The one road is that I will stay in Dakar with my current host family and work for an organization dealing with prisoners, in some capacity. Exactly what I would be doing is unknown at this time, but I have a meeting on Tuesday to talk about what the internship would look like. The other road is that I could live in a village, and either work for an NGO or in a school. Ideally I would take the prison internship but still get the experience of living in a village, but I can’t get everything I want. It’s also not for sure that the prison organization has a job for me, but if they did it would be a really hard decision for me. As of now, I’m thinking that if the prison organization offers me what seems like a great internship, I’ll take it. If God wants me in the village, he can close the door of opportunity to work with the prison, because honestly it’d be a miracle anyway if I actually got the job. I had a “mini-interview” this past Tuesday with a really professional guy who works with the prison system, but he wanted me to talk to someone else. I’ll keep you all posted. It’s all in God’s hands, but you can pray that I would have peace with how the whole decision making process goes!

The weather today and yesterday is “dust”. Literally. I asked Yama what was wrong with the sky and the air, and he said no, it’s just the weather – dust. I insisted that dust wasn’t a weather type, but I guess it sort of is. I’ve been sitting at a bar blogging and my notebook is covered in dust already, and so are my laptop keys. It’s very interesting. In general, school work bogs me down and I couldn’t find anyone to go to the beach with me today on my day off, but life is still so good. Half the days I’m smiling, and the other half I’m on Cloud Nine.

Learning French: Il n’y a pas d’autre Dieu qu’Allah et Muhammad est son prophète. There is no other God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. (It’s been interesting learning about Islam and sharing my thoughts about the similarities and differences between it and Christianity. I’m thankful for being totally free to express my beliefs and for the openness of people here to discuss religion with me. I didn’t know before I came, but you can even read on Wikipedia that Senegal is known for its religious tolerance.)


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Open air rooms & English schools

IMG_1401

In picture: Cat and I, standing at the western-most point of the African continent. Our professor Waly says if we want to swim home, this is where we jump in.

I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since I’ve been in Senegal. So much has happened already that it’s hard to know where to begin!

After a tour of Dakar today, and one class about African economics, I met my host family! I also am fully moved into my new room. My house is beautiful. I had no idea what to expect but this house certainly exceeded any expectations I could have had. Like seemed common in Ghana, the central room of the house is open air. The sky is the ceiling. My family is even better than the house! Although my host mother speaks mostly only Wolof, her son, who is probably in his late twenties or early thirties, speaks French and is learning English. His name is pronounced “Baas”, although I’m unsure of the real spelling. My favorite part of living here so far is that Baas runs a school on the roof of my house! I met the children he teaches today, who were so polite and wonderful. I would say there are about 15 students, with various ages and academic levels. Baas teaches them English, and he is excited to be able to ask me questions when he is unsure about something. I adore small children. I’ve dreamt of teaching English abroad for as long as I can remember. I love open air rooms and beautiful homes. I love living a few houses down from the Atlantic, with sprawling, beautiful beaches. I love Senegal. All of my favorite things are merging and I can’t stop smiling.

Learning Wolof: Suur na, I’m full (when your host mother insists you eat more)