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You learn something new every day…

July 10, 2012

I am ashamed to say that several days ago I learned how to clean a fish. I am ashamed not because I learned this, but that it took me almost an entire two years–two years spent watching the women of my household clean several fish every morning as they prepared the day’s ceeb u jen–to actually pick up a whole fish and gut it.

Why now, of all times? Because I have chosen this opportune moment–less than a month left in Senegal–to adopt a kitten. Her name is Fatou Ndiaye, after everyone’s favorite aunt, and I found her on my friend’s doorstep. After several failed attempts to reunite her with her missing mother, then to abandon her and forget about her, I gave in against my better judgment and took her in, a seemingly inexplicable move in the eyes of the people of Ronkh.


Fatou Ndiaye Muus

In Senegal, and particularly in the villages, people don’t keep dogs and cats as pets, they keep sheep instead. Islam views dogs as particularly dirty, and Senegal faces the same stray cat and dog overpopulation problem as any other developing country. But it runs deeper than that: many people in Ronkh are genuinely afraid of cats. When I first introduced Fatou Ndiaye Muus to the town doctor, he glared at her as though she were a rat I had found crawling around inside my douche, who I had then scooped up and plunked on my shoulder. Yikes.

But, I am happy to say, after several baths and meals that cost more than my own dinner (she eats meat, chicken, and fish; I, beans), Fatou Ndiaye Muus has managed to sway everyone in her favor, even her notoriously-afraid-of-cats namesake, Bajjen Fatou Ndiaye.

What’s next for the kitten? She’s too young to travel, so after my departure she will live with the town doctor, the one who once viewed her as no better than a sewer rat. 


It’s Official.

April 1, 2012

I have given up on blogging. I can blame this on several factors: laziness, absence of inspiration, and lack of time to sit down and write anything worth reading. It has been an eventful 3 months for my family, with several births, several deaths, and several Toubab visits (one from the Andando Foundation, which has funded several of my projects, and one from my mother and her graduate student, who braved a full 2 weeks in Ronkh, only turning to drink twice). I have unfortunately learned that, as hard as it is to sit down and write about death, it is even harder to do so when confronted with death so often that you become desensitized.

This aside, the end of my time in Senegal is suddenly looming: in just a few short months, I’ll be back in Chicago, in a climate-controlled apartment, where sinks and counters and furniture are plenty. I alternate between dreaming of when I’ll be home (I’ve already decided my first meal will either be a huge burrito with guacamole or a huge wrap filled with fresh vegetables, grilled chicken, and hummus) and stressing about how little time I have left to complete everything.

I now have 4 major things to accomplish in the short time I have left. Whether I manage to do so depends on Yallah.

1.  Rehabilitate the robinet and teacher’s bathrooms at Ronkh’s first primary school, Ecole 1. I am working again with the organization Appropriate Projects on this, which was founded by a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and funds small, necessary water and sanitation projects. While Appropriate Projects funds projects, it requires on donor support to continue its work, so please consider donating to this project, which can be found here.

2. Getting my women’s groups in working shape, or at least ensuring the comite de suivi is prepared to follow up on everyone’s activities once I’m gone. This is mind-numbing work that I’m trying very hard not to think about.

3. Plant citrus trees from scratch, something I’ve never actually done. However, I have a big jar of seeds, 100 tree sacks, and several interested farmers. I won’t actually be around once it’s time to plant the seedlings, but a work partner in Rosso will be able to follow up and has more experience than I anyway.

4. Other construction project. I’m not going to talk about this until I know whether it will pan out.

Character Growth

March 9, 2012

Ronkh is in a state of minor crisis. Thanks to a leaky pipe, the water in half the town has been turned off for 72 hours and counting. Everyone keeps large oil containers of extra water on hand, but these reserves were all used up within the first 24 hours. It has now become common occurrence to see donkey carts, driven haphazardly by teams of 10-year-old boys and laden with empty oil containers reeling around town in search of water. Every morning, women with large bundles of laundry on their heads trek to the nearest canal to bathe and wash their clothes, the trail of young children behind them carrying soap and laundry detergent bringing to mind a very bizarre, African sort of Make Way for Ducklings.

I have dealt with this crisis by loading up on water at the dispensaire whenever possible and showering at my office, both of which are located on the side of town with water. This has proved barely sufficient for 3 reasons:

1) I drink upwards of 6 liters of water per day

2) My bathroom is in my room. As in, no door or full-length wall separating the two

3) I think I have giardia

I think this is what they call one of those character-building experiences.

Jerejef, Serigne Touba

February 11, 2012

One morning in early January, I was walking around town and noticed that every household had big wet patches at its doorstep. This was odd–the town hadn’t seen rain since September and wouldn’t again until July. Sometimes, in the early morning, dew and mist dampen the ground slightly, but this was mid-morning, and the air was so dry that I was considering requesting nose drops from the Peace Corps Medical Office.

I finally asked someone, what are all these patches of wet ground? As it turned out, the serigne in Tivaouane, the sort of pope to all Tidianes in Senegal, had told everyone to throw 7 buckets of water on the ground in front of their house, as a way of thanking the soil for all it gives them. So they did. (Except for my family. We managed 3 before losing focus.)

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Even after a year and a half in this country (to the day!), I still can’t quite fathom the power of the marabout. A grand marabout is somewhat of a king: he is a direct descendant of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride brotherhood in Senegal. His disciples bring him money and gifts, almost always at the expense of their own family. They name their children after him.

The marabout is present in all aspects of life, both visible and less so. The owner of a vehicle will paint his marabout’s name on the car, as a sort of protection. A couple will choose their method (or lack thereof) of family planning based on the recommendations of their marabout: does he support a child every 5 years? every 2? whenever? An entire country’s public transportation workers will postpone their strike because the marabouts asked them to, fearing it would interfere with the mass exodus to Tivaouane for gamou. It will be even more interesting to see the role of the marabout in the elections at the end of the month.

This way of thinking is utterly foreign to me. In America, we are taught to constantly question, to never accept something just because someone said so. This type of communal thinking is frustrating, and I can’t help but wonder the impact it has on Senegal’s development.

Gamou 2012

February 10, 2012

Last Saturday, Muslims all over the world celebrated Mawlid, or the birth of the prophet Mohammed. Here in Senegal, we call it gamou and celebrate it periodically throughout the year*: earlier this year, Ronkh hosted its own gamou, which involved alhams busing in dozens of boubou-ed elderly men and wax-clad women. Tomorrow, the nearby town of Kheune will hold its gamou, though its importance pales in comparison to that of the main event held last weekend.

The mass exodus began several days in advance, and by Thursday the town was all but empty, as the majority of people had taken off for Tivaouane. For those who chose to remain behind, the town meat seller moved his wares out to the market, where they sat in the midday sun.

Brilliant ideas such as this one may account for some of the diarrheal disease in Ronkh

In Ronkh, the day proceeded as normal, with the festivities commencing at night with a dinner of cere (Senegalese cous cous) and meat that I suspected was the very meat I had seen earlier. Around 10 or 11 pm, readings of the Koran began at the big mosque in town. Those who chose not to go sat up talking late into the night, and yours truly went to bed, praying I had dodged a bullet with that meat.


*Something I still fail to understand is the frequency of holidays here; just about anything serves as a suitable excuse to take three days–for no holiday lasts just a single day–off from work, school, or even just sitting around the house. This baffles me for two reasons. First of all, people don’t work particularly hard here. Whether you are in the fields or the office, the typical workday in Ronkh begins around 8 or 9, lasts until 11 or so, at which point you take a long coffee break, then resumes until 1 pm, when you break for lunch. The lunch break lasts until at least 4 pm, but most people don’t make it out of their houses until 4:30 or 5, then work until timis, or the sunset prayer. Granted, women who moomae–that is, on-duty–don’t get these breaks, but holidays are even more work for them, as they have to prepare lavish meals, as opposed to the normal ceeb u jen.

Also, doesn’t the frequency of these holidays diminish their appeal? Just as I can’t comprehend how the twice-weekly compagnie ritual of dressing up and walking three minutes to a friend’s house to sit and chat for ten minutes can possibly still be interesting after more than a month of doing so, I can’t believe that a holiday is all that exciting if it occurs twice a month. Perhaps I am not the one to ask; I am known around town for my laziness where matters of dressing up are concerned.

SED Work (for once) and a Centre de Couture

February 8, 2012

Women’s group activities have taken off! Well, as much as they could, given the sum they have to work with. Of the 25 groups, about 10 are doing petit commerce, which involves buying and reselling various goods or cooking fatayas or tuna sandwiches to sell at schools, in the market, etc. Profits from this seem to range to about 200-500 cfa, or $0.40-$1, per day. Yes, purchasing powers are different, but this is a tiny amount even in Senegal.

More dynamic groups are farming rice. The 100.000 cfa, or about $200, each group received is insufficient to cover the costs of a .50 hectare plot, so the groups are completing the money either through cotisation, in which each member chips in 5.000 cfa or so, or through a loan from the local credit mutuelle.

The remaining groups are doing artisanal-type work: tie-dying, embroidery, and so on. In working with one of these groups this week, I came across a very contradictory and illuminating set of circumstances. The group has split itself into 4 equipes, with one member heading each equipe. One equipe is doing petit commerce, another embroidery, and the remaining two tie-dying. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was working with one of these women and discovered that she was operating at a loss; she would have to raise her prices in order to make any sort of profit. When we met again earlier this week, she informed me that she had decided not to raise her prices for fear of scaring her customers off. I tried to explain that, at her prices, she would be better off not producing and selling at all, to which she countered that it wasn’t a big deal, as there would be tie-dying product left over, and she would make her profits through tie-dying others’ fabric. So why not just take her fabric, her biggest cost, out of the equation? She insisted that her own fabric was needed to attract customers, which might make sense in a larger, less secluded town, but less so here, where everyone in Ronkh and its nearby towns know of her; those who don’t are either passing through the road towns of Rosso or Ross-Bethio or live far enough away that there is bound to be a tie-dyer closer than she. While her work is good, tie-dying here is about as unique as in America; we aren’t talking about someone who spent years studying abroad under a master and whose work can’t be replicated.

But she held firm to her current prices, compromising only on the next round of fabric. Not a complete win, but at least the leaders of the other equipes, members of her women’s group, were present and took my side in this discussion, increasing the chances that she’ll actually adhere to the new prices the next time around.

Next, I worked with the woman leading the embroidery equipe. Having calculated a profit margin of almost 40%, we slammed our notebooks shut and sat smiling at each other. Noting the looks of glee on our faces, the other women came over, and we explained that we had done a costing analysis of the embroidery and that it was “a very good enterprise.” Why all this secrecy? When pressed for exact numbers, we explained our calculations, after which they began wondering aloud if the profits were “too high?”

Yes, that’s right. Islam disapproves of profiteering. Is this profiteering? Of course not. It’s a simple case of supply and demand, and value-added. Few women are willing to sit down and put in the work required for such intricate designs, hence a small supply and elevated prices. The stitching itself, being unique and complex, adds significant value to the fabric. Econ 101. But Allah didn’t take Econ 101 before passing His words on down to Mohammed, so we’re stuck with the rather vague condemnation of high profit margins.

So, despite these rather frustrating reactions of the president–which, I should add, are typical of the culture, though somewhat surprising in a woman whose dream is to open a Centre de Couture–I was encouraged by those of the other members, and especially excited about the prospect of an interesting and worthwhile activity coming out of this financing. We’ll see what happens in the next few months!

Election Season

February 1, 2012

A few weeks ago, I had a meltdown somewhat more serious than my almost-daily mini-meltdowns. What am I doing here? I wondered. My women’s groups’ money hadn’t come in, and I was running out of latrines to rehabilitate and things to plant. So I went for a long run. As I ran along  the shore of the Senegal River, with Mauritania on my left and a bread truck headed for Rosso filled with people inside and six or so others hanging off the back, I pondered this question and came upon my answer.

My initial reason to do Peace Corps, voiced to just about everyone except my recruiter, was “to do cool stuff.” Somewhat more productively, I thought I wanted to do something in development but didn’t know what, and thought it irresponsible to go into development without actually living in the developing world. More selfishly, I wanted to not be in America. And do cool stuff.

Sometimes, particularly in the heat of the day, in the midst of an argument over why I, as a woman, could even entertain the notion that I have rights equal to those of a man, I forget these reasons. Or when my working day, carefully structured around several meetings, is ruined because the other parties have taken off for a gamou or ngeente (of which there are often multiple each day) without bothering to inform me.

So I make an effort to remember these reasons. Doing cool stuff? I think crossing though herds of cattle while running along the border of Mauritania counts. And experiencing problems in the developing world from a perspective I would be hard-pressed to find through another organization? Well, if my daily arguments over women’s rights, or encouragement to send kids to a public school, where they learn to read and write in French, or work in educating on nutrition and saving money weren’t enough, this election season has added a whole new dimension.

For those of you who don’t know what’s going on in Senegal right now, here’s the deal: the current president, Abdoulaye Wade, has served two 7-year terms. In 2001, after his 2000 election, an amendment to the Constitution was made, limiting a president to only 2 terms. Wade argued that, as he was first elected before the amendment was made, his first term should not be counted. A constitutional committee, made up of Wade’s appointees, recently ruled for Wade and allowed him to run for a third term, resulting in violent riots throughout Dakar and several major cities, such as Kaolack and Thies.

Ronkh, of course, has been quiet. The reactions of those who pay attention have uniformly been “Wade bëgguma jamm” (Wade doesn’t like peace). This goes beyond the obvious, overly simplistic “Wade likes these riots,” though whether the deeper implications are fully understood is an issue I have not yet probed, for fear of getting into a discussion of politics in which I have to express my views, which we as Peace Corps volunteers are to refrain from doing for obvious reasons. Furthermore, the ever-irritating “if it’s meant to be, it will happen” attitude prevails here, with people saying that if Wade wins, it’s because the people want him to. I’m not convinced: I had lunch today with a man who is both the chef du village and imam of a town in Ziguinchor and who told me of Wade’s men paying him, with the expectation that he will convince his population to vote for Wade. A fellow PCV, who lives with the chef du village of her town, has reported a similar story.

Despite this “what will be will be” attitude, no one in Ronkh seems particularly apt to vote for Wade. The candidate of choice seems to be Idrissa Seck:

In any case, this next month should prove very interesting. As I mentioned above, large-scale, violent riots followed the announcement of Wade’s eligibility for candidacy; the elections themselves aren’t until the end of February. In the meantime, we as PCVs are stuck speculating Peace Corps’s next move: keep us in our villages, where we’re safe from the riots of the cities, or consolidate us in one spot so they can evacuate us quickly if need be. We’ll see.