In the early hours of last Monday morning, I was cold for the first time since August. Over the past nearly three months, particularly lately as the hot and rainy season fades, I’ve been only slightly too warm, sure. Even possibly “cool”: yes, once or twice, outside at night or in the haven of air conditioning in the campus computer lab. But, curled on a foam mattress under the clear stars on the roof of the Peace Corps regional house in Ndioum, I was actually, definitively, cold.
This is very exciting for me.
There were, in fact, a lot of exciting happenings during my rural visit to Aram Sulbalbe, a village near the northern border of Senegal with Mauritania. I drank a lot of ataya. I successfully evaded being bitten by a green mamba and having 48 hours to track down an antidote in the low-hospital-density Sahel. I am getting married in 2015.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – in more ways than one, actually, seeing as how I haven’t yet met my soon-to-be husband Charles. Details, I suppose. And that’s still five years from now: back to some semblance of chronology.
Last Sunday was spent in a sept-place, watching baobabs fade to something more prickly. The Fouta isn’t quite desert, but it is, for lack of a better term, desert-y: the ground is pervasive sand or hard reddish mud webbed with wide cracks. The plants are starkly beautiful but none too friendly: it took me quite a while to gouge the thorns out of the bottoms of my shoes as I prepared to pack them for the trip back. The first night we were welcomed by a few of the Peace Corps volunteers stationed in northern Senegal, who was staying at the regional house, a place where they can escape periodically to enjoy the benefits of internet, running water, outlets to charge phones and iPods, and English. It was funny in the eye of such a foreign landscape to find myself in the middle of an environment I recognized immediately. Sure, we paid for the sandwiches and pop (I grew up in the Midwest – deal with it) from one of those uniquely Senegalese boutiques and a woman at an outdoor stand who spoke mainly Pulaar using francs cfa. Sure, we had to trace our way along charette paths and avoid errant sheep with only the aid of our cell phone lights in order to find our way back in the dark. Sure, the house, so comparatively luxurious, would not be a place in which I would have said I was interested in living in the U.S. But, jarringly, the scene in that cluttered kitchen was something I know very well: top American hits pulsing through the speakers over the sound of early to mid twenty-somethings laughing in a language we all speak well enough to twist into puns or destroy with slang, pajama pants, spilled fanta, ridiculous video clips online. Sure, some of those video clips were demonstrations of how to kill a chicken in the most humane way possible – the North by tradition coordinates Thanksgiving celebrations for all of Peace Corps Senegal, and turkeys are not readily available, nor are animals that are already dead. Sure, some of those conversations were about someone’s awkward attempt to discuss female genital cutting without knowing the Pulaar word for “genital” or the probability that so-and-so had contracted schistosomiasis from the river water. But, by the format and the feeling, it could have been a casual college party. That could be me, in a village in Senegal for two years, a me not so terribly different from the me I am now. That was striking.
The next morning, I traveled with Hadiel, the volunteer who had offered to host me, and who proved to be incredibly nice, funny, and tolerant of my constant barrage of questions about Peace Corps, the Fouta, and what on earth was going on, to her site of Aram Sulbalbe, via minibus and two charettes (two-wheeled carts pulled by a horse or several donkeys, accommodating up to eight passengers and often driven by boys who look at least five years too young to operate a motor vehicle and seem to enjoy going rather faster than the dirt trails were made to accommodate).
Aram is a village of about 3,000 people, and Hadiel’s joke that 2,000 of them are children proved to be more accurate than humorous. Almost everywhere we went, from the gates of her host family’s compound to the edge of the village, we attracted a horde of ten to fifteen, following, giggling. I noted that the word for “tubaab” in Pulaar is similar enough to recognize.
I could understand almost nothing – nine hours northeast of Dakar, no one speaks more than a few words of Wolof, and in the villages very few have much French. Hadiel, however, translated for me as we went, and I now know quite well how to say, in Pulaar, “she doesn’t speak Pulaar; she’s a student from the university in Dakar –” for all the good that may or may not do me if it ever comes to introducing myself in the first person. Everyone was incredibly welcoming: people with whom we exchanged even a few words often invited us to eat and spend the day at their house. The cultural norm there, to an even greater extent than it is in Dakar, is to shake hands with every person you pass as you ask about their health and family. I tried not to think too hard about schistosomiasis.
Hadiel lives with the chief of the village, his wife (who she believes to be one of two, but isn’t entirely sure), his children, their spouses, and their children. Low concrete buildings are clustered around a main courtyard where people sit to eat, pray, talk, listen to the scratchy radio, watch the sheep, chickens, and drying fish, and sometimes even sleep. Her brother owns one of the two boutiques in Aram, which is also on the premises.
There’s no electricity or running water, though enough solar power to maintain a small light and a robinet on the compound from which the family can fill basins of water for use in bathing, drinking, and flushing the latrine. At the risk of ruining any delusion my readers have managed to maintain about my status as an impressive human being, I’ll admit that I was nervous for the rural visit, primarily because of the physical amenities. As you may have gathered from some of my earlier posts, it was unexpectedly and embarrassingly psychologically difficult for me to adjust to the situation in Dakar, and in Dakar I usually have lights, a fan, a computer with internet, a shower, and toilets. That didn’t bode well for how I would fare with much, much less. To my pleasant surprise, however, I was fine with it. Granted, that might have something to do with a lot of mental preparation and the knowledge that I would be back to my luxuries within six days. Granted, I did occasionally wish my living situation was a bit more convenient. But I can honestly say that there was something pleasant in tuning my sleep schedule to the sun because it’s hard to do much of anything in the near total darkness than descends at night. Even if shampooing was a bit of a challenge, there was a certain feeling of cleanliness to undressing behind the low wall under the sunset or stars and splashing water over my body with a plastic cup with the feel of the outdoor air on my skin. And the stars: away from the exhaust and the lights of Dakar, they were stitched so brightly onto the sky that I barely needed my phone light to find the soap or walk between dinner at the chief’s bowl to Hadiel’s little concrete room. Indeed, I’m a bit proud to say that the most difficult aspect of the whole thing, physically, was not something that I think the people who live there actually face, namely that my stomach, relatively staunch thus far, objected strenuously to some ingredient or other, which unfortunately seemed to be in most of the food. I’ll spare my sweet readership any further details on that – suffice to say that within a day or two I had phased myself back into eating more than a few bites of the eternal millet and fish, and by then had apparently grown resistant enough to whatever it was that no further serious problems occurred.
As the village is located adjacent to the Senegal River, fish is a dietary staple there as in Dakar, and nets are strung out along the shore to be picked through daily. The other source of food is the nearby fields, which Hadiel and I visited one day to help pick bean leaves. Our companions were very impressed by our minimally strenuous hour of labor, constantly insisting that we go back to the compound to eat. This may be another part of the tubaab treatment, but, then again, our companions spent most of the time that we were in the fields sitting under a tree breaking unripe melons against the ground and scooping out the pulp with their hands, or braiding each other’s hair in rows that would have been unbelievably tiny had I not witnessed them myself. That, in fact, was one of the most striking parts of my experience in the village: to put it bluntly, people just don’t seem to do very much. I’m used to scheduling my life so as to eke the maximum possible efficiency out of every minute. I line up projects and strategically place caffeinated beverages so as to make sure my reserves of mental and physical energy are channeled when and where I need them most. I call my parents or friends while walking between meetings; I go over readings while brushing my teeth. It makes me uncomfortable to go too long without accomplishing something, and preferably something tangible and durable. I think that this is my personality – but it’s also my culture. Not so in the rural Fouta. Only once did I ever see my host, the village chief, leave the vicinity of the raised wooden bed frame where he ate, slept, prayed… and sat. The young children went to the primary school, the only educational institution in the village – when their teachers were actually around, which seemed to be an only moderately frequent occurrence. Indeed, many of the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I talked said that they were having a lot of trouble getting projects off the ground because of their local coworkers’ seemingly random disappearances, lack of motivation and follow-up in the villages, and the general expectation that westerners could simply dispense money and give people things without any local participation. During the day in Aram, the men sat around or went to visit their friends or occasionally to the fields. The women cooked lunch and dinner (always fish with rice at lunch and millet at dinner) almost continuously. If Hadiel and I sat around for long enough after lunch, we would be given glasses of ataya – something we did fairly regularly due to my obsession with ataya. There were only about three glasses total, and these rotated through the compound, a child being sent to bring the tea to each individual in what seemed to be hierarchal order (we two were after the adult men but before everyone else), wait while the person drained the glass, then return it to be filled again, a strategy that was also employed with the morning mugs of coffee. Schisto doesn’t exist. Really, it doesn’t.
Our exciting incident with the green mamba occurred during one such tea vigil. The children screamed, one of the men came over to hit it with broom, he set it outside the boutique… and it moved. Casual comments were made by myself and Hadiel, Hadiel’s being significantly more effective since “that deadly serpent is not as dead as you think it is,” goes well beyond the outer limits of my Pulaar vocabulary. There was more screaming, and more hitting with the broom, and thus we all escaped without being poisoned. Other adventures included a trip to the nearby road town of Medina to explore and relax with the Peace Corps volunteer stationed there, a long walk back in the sunset, a spontaneous excursion in a low wooden boat, a visit to the local marabout’s compound, an afternoon in the more distant city of Podor (from which I could see Mauritania, though I decided with great difficulty not to swim the river and add another country to my lifetime list, due to the fact that I don’t find Al-Qaida, schisto, or the possibility of getting kicked out of CIEE very appealing), and getting my fortune told by the local traditional doctor, fortunately one of the few people in the village who spoke French well. As I mentioned, I’m getting married in 2015. Get your presents ready. The groom will be one of the only two men who won’t betray me, either Charles or Mark, but I should really pick Charles because I’ll have five children with him, whereas Mark and I would only produce one. I have the gender order and everything, complete with a warning not to let my middle son drive until he’s nineteen. I should give milk to the poor every Monday. I may have vision problems at age 70. Really, it was all surprisingly specific and verifiable for a fortune, not that I have much experience. The doctor, however, seemed certain enough to tell me that, when I have the “4 B’s” in 2020, I should send him an used car – not new, mind, but used.
Bon mari – beaucoup d’argent – beaux enfants – belle vie. It says something, I think, about what Senegalese women are expected to value.
Another surprise had presented itself the previous day as we arrived back at the village from Medina. Hovering over the houses was what appeared to be a giant movie screen playing black and white silent comedy sketches. This is distinctly not normal even in places that usually have electricity. It turns out that, unbeknownst to us, a truck of people from Tostan, an organization that fights against FGC, had arrived and were employing their usual strategy of setting up a large projector, playing an hour or two of Senegalese music videos and old western comedies to attract as many people as possible, then immediately screening a short film about FGC and forced child marriage (whereby girls are married as young as elementary school in order to make sure they don’t manage to go off and sully their purity before having a husband), comprising interviews with people from the region about health consequences, emotional trauma, and what exactly female genitals are supposed to look like. They then open a microphone, ask the villagers to have a discussion, and then, the next morning, take off for the next village.
I may be missing some critical strategic element here – and I will note that I know next to nothing about Tostan – but this doesn’t exactly seem to me to be the most diplomatic plan ever, or indeed the most likely to convince anyone who wasn’t convinced already. The problem, too, is that this issue can be very divisive in the area, and associating volunteers of other sorts with campaigns against FGC can seriously undermine their work. I heard one story about a Peace Corps volunteer in a nearby village who was unable to figure out why they wouldn’t let him build latrines until someone took pity on him and pulled him aside to say that people were suspecting he secretly worked for Tostan. There is particular possibility of this mistake considering that the very small number of white people the villagers see makes them associate all white people with each other. Indeed, some people seemed to have difficulty telling Hadiel and the young tubaab woman with Tostan apart – which is particularly striking because, to my American eyes, they are clearly of different races. Fortunately, the reception in Aram seemed quite positive. Everyone who commented and to whom Hadiel talked afterwards said that they oppose FGC and child marriage, and there even seem to be organizations in place to help keep people, girls included, in school. According to the Tostan woman, however, we were lucky. They had recently stopped in Ndioum, the reasonably-sized town where I had spent the first night, with fairly disastrous results. In front of a crowd of the residents, among whom the excision rate is reported to be nearly one hundred percent, the mayor stood up to say that he fully supported the continuation of FGC – despite the fact that it’s now against the law in Senegal. He was applauded.
And I could go right back to my ramblings about culture and value. Who are we to come in with our fancy technology, lay out some medical and moral principles, and expect people to happily change their deeply rooted traditions? Who are we to decide we know what’s best for people who live in a world that seems more like a National Geographic article than something to which we can personally relate? And, yet, how can we let go of the principle that it is wrong to seriously damage the physical and mental health of girls too young to consent? And if it’s wrong, how can we not struggle for change? It’s very tempting to draw the line between culture and principle exactly where we want it to go. Ataya is culture. Sanitary eating practices are principle. The lifestyle of frequent repose and low personal accountability is culture, except for when it’s perceived as impeding economic development. Communalism is awesome – until the individual rights we’ve identified have to suffer. Where do we protect and where do we push to modify? What right to we have to do either?
Well, people are fundamentally the same, right? We share rights to freedom of mind and body, and duties to help each other when we can. But it’s hard to know. The way of life that I experience as a part of my identity would not have been a physical possibility if I had been born in Aram. Who, then, would I have been? Would I have been, fundamentally, the same, if the way I had learned to channel my natural tendencies and the cultural and moral lexicon I had learned had been so very different? Aram was beautiful, fascinating, by turns relaxing and exciting. But, always, it was foreign. Even while I was there it felt so distant from the world enveloping my life outside of those six and half days.
And here I’ve gone into my culture and value ramblings after all. Sorry about that. I wish I could sum up my rural visit with fewer crumbs, tie a smooth bow around a lesson or two that I’ve learned. For now, though, all I have are some snippets of experience. I hope those, at least, were interesting enough, even if an analysis with which I’m satisfied remains a work in progress.
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