Tabaski, start of the holiday season

I wrote this initially at the end of November, and never got around to sharing it. I’m realizing that I have lots of posts already drafted like that, so I’ll share all of those in the coming few weeks.

A popular news story (picked up by NPR, The Guardian, etc.) last month focused on a television program here in Senegal that followed a sheep competition in Dakar. The show aired around the time of Tabaski, or Eid al-Adha (as it’s known in the rest of the Muslim world), the biggest holiday here in Senegal. As the holiday of sacrifice, those families with the means buy and kill sheep (our family of twenty-something people had five). Considering that here in Senegal animals represent wealth and that traditionally, people sell sheep instead of withdrawing money from the bank, the pride in a sheep’s appearance depicted in the television program might make more sense. 

At my family’s house, festivities started at around 9am with the killing of our sheep. I conveniently didn’t show up until 10 or so, when many family members (mostly males) were already skinning and butchering the sheep. Watching that process take place is something I still haven’t gotten used to. Predictably, in some ways I like it a lot more than the ways we handle meat in the US (more sustainable/natural/respectful), but it continues to sort of grosses me out, having been a vegetarian for so long. (Side-note: I’ve learned to cook meat in this country–I’d never done it at home).

The majority of the day is spent with family, sitting around waiting for the first batches of meat to finish grilling (which happens at around noon), for lunch to be ready (approximately 4pm), or for the kids to put on their fancy new outfits and go around to the houses of relatives/neighbors to greet (7pm). Despite being the biggest holiday, most adults (at least in my family) didn’t even bother getting dressed up in their new clothes on the night of Tabaski (the custom of greeting neighbors/welcoming visitors extended on to the following day). Instead, everyone spent the day lounging around with family, comfortable and relaxed, intermittently eating really good food. Happily, this is what Christmas day looks like with my parents at home too, and the holiday felt quite comforting for that reason.

On a related note, I’ve started this as a way to share the photos I’m taking (and as a way to motivate myself to bring my camera around with me more often). I’ve posted more Tabaski pictures there.


Letter from Camp

Like a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers, I’m not always sure about the impact of the work I’m doing. Maintaining a garden that demonstrates different agricultural techniques and offering trainings to those interested in learning more is work, for sure. But sometimes it’s difficult to have measurable results, even though I do literally see the fruits of my labor. (My bosses would probably respond with something regarding follow up with people I work with and measuring yields in the garden, but I digress.)

Last week I had the opportunity to switch gears completely and work on something I could definitely feel the immediate impact of. For the second year in a row, volunteers got together for Camp Gëm Sa Bopp (translation: believe in yourself), a five-day camp for middle school girls held at Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis. This camp was completely conceived of, created, and organized by a handful of Peace Corps Volunteers in northern Senegal (Saint-Louis, Richard Toll, Louga, and Linguère if you’re looking at a map).

This year’s camp was made up of 40 middle school-aged, high achieving campers; five Senegalese counselors; as well as some eighteen odd Peace Corps Volunteers (doing everything from balancing the camp’s budget to bringing out string for friendship bracelets).

Organizing an overnight camp of this scale might seem like a logistical nightmare, but everything fell into place amazingly well and the girls seemed to love the activities we came up with. Sessions included: morning zumba workouts, a field trip to the beach/trash cleanup, talks from guest speakers (current university students, a human rights activist, a midwife), tie dying, and (fun) nutrition lessons, among many others.

Many people here in Senegal still believe that a girl’s education is not as valuable or important as a boy’s, and that a woman’s sole role is to care for her family. For this reason, in many communities, girls are not encouraged to continue schooling past collège (middle school). Because we feel that this is such a key issue, we incorporated into many of our discussions the idea that it is possible to go far in school and have a career, while still being a good mother and helping to run a household.

We aimed to expose our campers to inspiring women who are balancing a family and a career, as well as to start a dialogue on different and changing gender roles (“What were things like for your grandmother when she was young? Could she go to school? How are things different now?”) and what that might mean for these girls and the resources they can take advantage of.

During one discussion on gender roles in Senegal, the girls had the opportunity to examine the ways that women’s roles might be expanding, as young women have greater access to schooling and more career opportunities present themselves. Some volunteers offered anecdotes about their fathers playing a larger role in their upbringing than their mothers—this was shocking (and hopefully thought-provoking?) for many of the girls.

(As an important sidenote, these conversations were largely facilitated by our Senegalese counselors.)

In true summer camp style, we tie dyed our camp t-shirts…

Obviously, Équipe Verte was the best.

Environment Day took us to a nearby Peace Corps Volunteer’s garden, where the girls learned about compost, fruit trees, moringa, and mulching. Emilie and I demonstrated the benefits of mulching with this okra bed: mulch protects those living organisms in the soil (which plants use as nutrients) from being killed by the sun; it keeps competing weeds from growing by preventing them from accessing air and sunlight; it reintroduces nutrients into the soil as the mulching materials decompose; and it is a water saving technique (not as much evaporates in the hot sun), meaning your plants need to be watered less frequently. (There’s your gardening lesson for the day!)

After our trip to the garden, we drove through Saint-Louis…

In case I haven’t mentioned it, Saint-Louis is super close to me (hour and fifteen minute drive) and is an awesome city.

We stopped at the beach, allowing many of these girls to put their feet in the ocean for the first time. (!!!)

In a departure from American-style summer camp, we had a campfire with lots of fast drumming, singing, and running around the fire. Semi-dangerous and pretty exhausting, but still fun. No sitting back, roasting marshmallows, and telling ghost stories here.

Thursday morning’s Olympics were super competitive and pretty inventive—the second event involved carrying a bowl of water on one’s head and emptying it into a bucket; the first team to fill the bucket won. It felt to me like one of those old Nickelodeon game shows, except that none of the girls spilled, and they were carrying water instead of green slime. We also had rice sack races, three-legged races, and a water balloon toss.

Most of the campers were pretty honest with their tossing…

On the final day of camp, Awa Traoré, Peace Corps Senegal’s language and cross cultural facilitator, came to talk with our girls about education, her own experiences, the importance of remaining strong and confident, and just generally being amazingly inspiring.

Awa works closely with Peace Corps Senegal’s SeneGAD organization, working to promote girls’ education, focusing on girls’ empowerment, and acting as a catalyst for conversations on current gender roles in Senegal and how they might be changing.

The girls loved her.

We’ve already started talking about next year’s camp and how we can make it even better (carnival night?, making our screening of The Lorax on Environment Day a bit clearer, etc). Seeing these girls go from being hesitant to raise their hands and offer opinions on day #1 to volunteering what they see themselves doing in the future (journalist! doctor! agricultural engineer! business owner!) on day #5 was amazing, encouraging, and convinced me that this is one of the best ways I’ve spent my time here so far.

(You can read more about Camp Gëm Sa Bopp here! And feel free to pose any questions you might have via comments.)

(Literal) Market Observations

While my dad is emailing me frequent pictures of the flora blooming in our neighborhood in Arlington (magnolia! dogwood! cherry blossoms! tulips! among others), I’m avoiding the Harmattan wind (it’s been killing my motivation to wake up early and run most mornings), bracing myself for the hot season (save the mangos, I can’t wait for the mangos), and sleeping with my fan on once again.

Since acquiring a refrigerator (a preparation for the hot season), I’ve been more willing to make interesting (and large) dinners, and walking to the market to buy vegetables has become a near-daily activity.

In considering this article on the growing role of entrepreneurship and, necessarily, competition within “informal economies” across the globe, I realized that these trends fail to apply to my vegetable market.

The concept of supply and demand, so clearly hammered into my brain in those few (okay, two) econ courses I took in college, often seems turned on its head here. Most market gardeners grow the same things at the same time—the lettuce beds of two months ago have given way to the onion beds of right now. The (literal) markets flood with the crop du jour, making it difficult for smaller-scale gardeners (like my work partner) to sell what they’ve grown. Though conventional wisdom might lead us to assume otherwise, oversupply of one crop here does not cause vegetable sellers to undercut prices (supply is up, prices should go down, right…?). Vegetable prices in the market are universal and no one wants to undercut the “competition.” With fixed prices and not enough buyers, lots of these vegetables go unsold.

That competition element seems key to me: in a society in which everyone seems to know everyone and community is of prime importance, perhaps no one wants to sell so much more than their neighbor unfairly (by charging less). The same principle seems to hold true for the women who sell bean sandwiches each morning. Regardless of whether one woman’s beans or mayonnaise are superior to another woman’s, there are fixed prices for all sandwich toppings. It really does throw the American concept of market competition (which so many professors have tried to convince me is an infallibly great thing) into question. When you’re buying things for less, are you really just allowing one seller to screw another over? Or are there questions of quality that are seemingly absent here in Senegal and that take precedence in the US?

My daily routine

has been about the same since the beginning of December. On rare mornings, like this one, I resolve to stay home and get things done in my room–planning my next garden bed, researching soil amendments, that kind of stuff. But for the most part, my days go something like this:

I wake up sometime between 6:30 and 8, depending on whether or not I have the drive to go running before the sun comes up and little kids walking to school hassel me. I shower (no interesting and foreign bucket baths here), put on music, and get ready in a lot less time than I needed in the US. I alternate between making breakfast at home and eating downtown. Home breakfast usually consists of a shredded potato + a chopped onion (makeshift hash browns) and a couple of eggs, cooked over hard. The boutique (little convenience store next to my house) has all requisite ingredients, so I pop in there every most mornings. Downtown breakfast, a ten minute walk away, consists of a bean sandwich on tapalapa, the delicious and hearty bread that I’ve so far only found at one place in town. My ideal sandwich contains mayonnaise (mixed with pepper and probably some other things–it’s delicious), cooked beans, and a cut up hard boiled egg. Bean sandwiches are a staple here–each neighborhood has stalls with women selling bread, eggs, cooked beans or peas, onion sauce, and cooked spaghetti. The coffee of choice here is café touba, which I take with milk. I like it well enough usually, but am sad that my nice little french press is getting such little use (I ran out of the coffee grounds I brought to Senegal months ago).

The agriculture office I’m based out of is a ten minute walk from my house and is where I spend most of my time. I’m there most mornings by 9 or 9:30 and stay for a few hours, watering garden beds, planting seeds, transplanting (usually lettuce) from little nurseries, or playing with my work partner’s two puppies, who hang out at the ag office with us. When there’s not a lot of work to do (this happened more frequently during my first couple months in Louga), I sit around, observe, and take notes on the gardening space.

Lunch is at about 2pm, and I head over to my family’s house at around 1:30 every day. After greeting everyone in the compound (or, everyone who’s outside, at least), I chat with my host parents, play with the kids, or watch (sort of help) my host mom get lunch ready, when it’s her day to cook (three women in the house have a rotating schedule–cook for four days, eight days off). There are usually 10-12 of us around one big lunch bowl (the kids have their own bowl, as well) and I sit on a stool and eat with a spoon, unlike most of the women. Lunch is always rice, usually with fish, usually with tons of vegetables. More extensive food post to come later. I hang out at the family’s house until 3:30 or 4, wait for my host dad or brother to make attaya (check out the pouring skills at 1:50 and beyond), and head back home to rest for an hour or so before heading back to the garden.

If I go to the garden in the evening, it’s usually from 5-7 or so. Lately, I’ve been going to the market in the evening (there’s only one area of it that’s open at this time) to buy vegetables to make dinner, usually salads (rice for every meal can get a little tiring). Dinner at the family’s is at 8, and it’s normally a lot smaller than lunch–like in Europe, lunch is the biggest meal of the day here, and it seems that dinner is just something to tide you over until breakfast. I went to dinner at the family’s frequently when I first arrived, but recently I’ve been spending more time with my sitemate (and sometimes, the other volunteers in the Louga region) during the evening, either making dinner, hanging out at one of our houses, or downtown at the Catholic church’s community center/basically the only bar in town. My experience in this way is definitely not common as far as Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal go–few have sitemates so close by and the opportunity to cook for themselves so frequently.

Weekends are usually garden free, and because of Louga’s position along the route nationale/my easy access to transportation, I’ve spent quite a few weekends away, either in St. Louis or Dakar, exploring more of what Senegalese cities have to offer.

More to come soon! With internet in my room, I really have no excuse for a lack of updates anymore.

Chrismas away from home

is pretty difficult, as I probably told you in the Christmas card I sent (I had to get in the holiday spirit somehow, right?). Despite my mom mailing me Christmas lights (which I fried after two days of use because I didn’t use a voltage adapter), ornaments, and nine meters of green and red shiny garland, Christmas doesn’t feel the same without a) cold weather, b) lots of cooking, and c) family.

Despite some student protests in response to the upcoming elections, we headed to Dakar on December 23rd with plans of cooking and spending time with friends. We faced no demonstrations on the trip into town, and actually made it to Dakar in less time than usual (if you’re not familiar with it, Dakar is this little triangle-shaped peninsula with only one road leading to and from the rest of Senegal–traffic bottlenecks like mad on the way in and out of the city, and usually tacks on an hour or so of extra travel time). We hung out at the Marine house (they have a pretty fantastic kitchen, compared to what we’re used to here) and cooked all day Christmas Eve, and I naturally called my mom mid-afternoon for last-minute cooking tips. If you’re at all familiar with my parents’ Christmas Eve parties, I made those salmon puff pastry things, dates filled with goat cheese, and some zucchini-ricotta fritter/pancake things. Pretty delicious, overall! We also had turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, lasagna, grape leaves, quiche, cornbread, biscuits, and a salad with three different kids of lettuce (definitely rare around here–in Louga we have one type only). We did a gift exchange on Christmas day and set off lots of fireworks (?).

The week between Christmas and New Years was spent in Louga, being rather lazy (I think I finished two books) and hanging out with a friend from another region who came up to visit. We headed up to St. Louis for New Year’s Eve, ate some pretty great seafood, and went out dancing. New Year’s Day was overcast and chilly (my favorite weather, seriously) and I spent the day walking around the city, not buying things, and sitting on patios and treating myself to real coffee with real milk. It was completely pleasant and a great start to 2012.

Since my little vacations, I’ve been in Louga, spending time at the garden and with the family. It’s getting colder here (my fan is no longer on at night) and I’ve randomly taken to going on runs early most mornings, which is thrilling because it’s the only time I can be outside without people trying to greet and talk to me. Sometimes it’s nice to just do things for/by yourself, yeah? This past week was full of travel and the next few will be as well (and I’m bringing along the new camera!), so expect more updates soon!

Dispelling Myths, or Goal 3

I’m the fourth American to be living with my host family (the third Peace Corps volunteer), so they all know the ropes pretty well. They have a pretty good idea about how Americans act, and have presumably had numerous conversations comparing and contrasting American culture and Senegalese culture. For example, my host dad already knows that here Tamkharit (Ashura) is celebrated similarly to Halloween in the States, with kids dressing in costumes and running around the neighborhood collecting candy. I know that in time I’ll have those conversations too, but because I’m not the first volunteer living with my family, my presence isn’t as new and fresh and exciting as it might be for volunteers who are living in communities that have never had an American around before.

I was at the site of another volunteer this past week for a language seminar and got to have one of those American culture versus Senegalese culture conversations, though. They’re pretty interesting, if a bit frustrating, as it’s kind of difficult to say all that I want to say while speaking in Wolof. At one point, while discussing differing ideas of the importance of family and ideal family size, another volunteer’s host dad, Pape, turns to me and says, “before you came to Africa, you thought about it negatively, right?” And I didn’t know how to respond because, no, I never thought about Senegal like that, nor about Cameroon before I went there, but I understood what he was getting at.

We told Pape that yeah, he was right, to some degree. What concerning Africa do we hear about on the news in the States? War and famine and corruption and AIDS and poverty? Even my closest friends back home who are completely supportive of what I’m doing here joke that those are the only images I face. And we explained that such a large part of the reason we’re here is to tell those who are important to us back in the US that in fact, these negative images are quite a small part of what we volunteers experience on a daily basis, if at all.

So, I guess I kind of want to reorient this blog, or reaffirm its purpose. One third of the reason I’m here, according to Peace Corps, is to tell you what it’s like in Senegal.

Goal 3: Helping promote a better understanding of others peoples on the part of Americans.

So, for the sake of sharing everything I’m supposed to share, I’m actually going to keep up with this. Future blog topics might include the following, so stay tuned:

  • Talking about health care–prostitution, HIV testing that’s free, private hospitals, the cold medicine I bought at the pharmacy the other day
  • Snack foods! Thiakry, those biscuits that are like animal crackers, hard boiled eggs at the bar, bean sandwiches, omelette sandwiches
  • Attaya (tea) every afternoon after lunch
  • The boutique (little store that sells mostly food items) next to my house, all the things I can buy there
  • The electricity cuts and the reasoning behind them, what I do when the power’s out (or, how the village volunteers in Senegal live?)
  • Public transportation, garages (bus stations), sept places (station wagons with extra seats in the back) and buses
  • Senegalese cooking lesson!

First Post as Astou

As I’m writing this, it’s Sunday morning at 7:41. I moved here to Louga on Friday and I’m happy to announce that I’m unpacked and that my room now feels pretty much like my own. It was weird unpacking knowing that this is going to be my home for the next two years–that’s longer than anywhere I’ve lived since before college. While the vast majority of Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal live with host families, I’m one of the anomalies–I have my own room (apartment?) in a building that’s owned by my host family. It’s fantastic in that I feel super independent and get to cook for myself a lot of the time, but bizarre in that I’ve always had someone to come home to, be it my parents at home or my hallmates/housemates in college. To be sure, I’ll be going to my host family’s house (which is only two blocks away) daily for lunch and to talk and talk with everyone in my new family.

I had grand plans to write a post entitled “A Day in the Life: Mboro” complete with tons of pictures of my day to day activities during training. While it was a good idea at the time, it feels a little silly now that I’m here in Louga and am trying to think about moving forward in this new place–I don’t really want to rehash how intense and tiring the past nine weeks of training were. Peace Corps staff say that those nine weeks of training, and our homestays during that time period, are like a practice run for integration into our communities. It’s the place where you make all those culturally taboo mistakes (handing someone something with your left hand, trying to shake the hand of a man who is part of a certain Muslim brotherhood in which men don’t shake the hands of women, etc.) so that when you get to your permanent site, you’ll (hopefully) have an easier time feeling like a part of your host family and meeting people in the community.

Looking back, my time in Mboro does feel like a test run. And, as I’ve been realizing over the past day and a half, that kind of makes me like my experiences there a bit less. My days were so structured: class in the morning, a small amount of free time in which I and the other trainees would take the same route to the market and greet the same people, lunch at home with the family, nap time (this was always good, actually), some kind of less structured class time, another walk around town, and then home for evening to hang out with the family and eat dinner (in bed by 10pm, always). I loved my time in Mboro because my host family was great and I liked the other two trainees I was with. I felt more like a student than a volunteer, which was fine because I’m pretty good at being a student and learning makes me happy. But the past day and a half have been completely different, as I can wake up at whatever time I wish (yesterday? 8:00 without an alarm. This morning? 7:13. So much for sleeping in.) and come and go as I please. I’m establishing a life here in Louga. Or, I guess I’m supposed to be trying to do that. Instead of just explaining that I’m in town for two months to learn, I’m now here in Louga for two years to live and work.

During my first few weeks here, I’m encouraged just to get to know my community and to get settled. Happily, the volunteer I’m replacing left tons of things for me in the room, so I don’t have to get a bed or an armoire or a table made, I don’t have to go buy spices and silverware and a propane tank. My room here already feels more my own than my rooms in college ever did, and the fact that the walls here are already painted bright blue makes it feel a lot like my room at home (ten-year-old me thought that three shades of blue, one of them being navy, was a fantastic interior design idea). Yesterday I commissioned a screen door to be built (allowing for an amazing cross-breeze in my room, making it so that flies and other little creatures can’t enter) and made a new carpenter friend. I have clothes in my armoire, maps and postcards on my walls, and stacks of books on my tables. Emilie, my ancienne (the volunteer I’m replacing), and Katie, the Small Enterprise Development volunteer in Louga and my sitemate, made a fantastic welcome sign that is now hanging on my wall. It reads: Bienvenue/Welcome/Bismilla/Bienvenidos/Namaste Sarah/Astou (my Senegalese name). On Friday, in visiting the various government offices (a part of the installation process), I was consistently wished an enjoyable and successful next two years in Louga. It’s feeling more and more like home every day, which is thrilling. More updates to come.

And! I have a new address here. Feel free to send me things; receiving mail is fantastic.

PCV Sarah Kozyn
B.P. 71
Louga, Senegal
West Africa