I was shaking scraps of paper off the straw mat in our compound when my host-cousin Mathio pulled me aside, looked me in the eye, and said, “Tout le monde est content. Tout le monde est content.” We were wrapping up what I had deemed a success of a “Halloween” party for the kids in the village where I was staying – my friend Chineme and I had bought paper, markers, scissors, glue, and lots of candy in the nearest town and had organized mask-making and “trick-or-treating” on giant mats in my host family’s compound. I was feeling relieved after the uncertainties that had come with planning a mini-fête with a huge language barrier, so the earnest comment from Mathio, one of the few French speakers in my extended host family, meant a lot. Content! I thought. That’s exactly the word for how I’ve felt here!
I don’t know at what point I started a list of Hopeythings in Keur Demba Ngoy Diakhate, but by Halloween (the last of my eleven days in the village) my little notebook was pretty full. The rural stay is an integral part of CIEE’s Senegal program, and for my Development Studies track, we spend two school weeks on these field visits. After a bit of indecision and confusion in figuring out where exactly I’d be placed, I ended up in Keur Demba, a rural village nine kilometers from Thiès, Senegal’s third-largest city. Five other Americans from my program would be staying with different host families for the first week, but because of differing programs, by the second week it would be just Chineme and me. We were told that Keur Demba had only recently gotten electricity (which turned out to mean that there were exactly two unreliable bulbs in my entire compound and no outlets, so “electricity” was essentially negligible), and we’d be using squat holes and bucket baths.
I was excited to get out of the city and to experience these new challenges. When I arrived in the village with my cheesy explorer hat and canteen, I was greeted by a swarm of snotty-nosed children – which, if you know me, you know made my day immediately. Little did I know how much children were to be a running theme throughout my stay. Like most traditional Senegalese families, my host family lived on a compound with about forty people (though the constant coming-and-going of neighbors made this number impossible to estimate accurately). The several concrete buildings of bedrooms opened onto a porch, and the rest of the space was entirely communal and outdoor: the kitchen with its fire pits and stacks of spices, the shared latrines with one squat hole and one stall with a drain for baths, the little thatched pen for the countless sheep and chickens and other livestock that roamed about freely during the day, and of course, the mats.
Living the mat life was something I did an awful lot, and at first the idea of literally doing nothing for hours was uncomfortable to me. Living the mat life is what people do in Keur Demba, though. The aunties sit and embroider beautiful sheets with flowers while the toddlers play in the dirt. Young men brew ataaya, a traditional tea, and older children recite their Arabic lessons from well-worn books. The most impressive thing about me, I came to find out, was by far my knowledge of the Arabic alphabet. Most people in Keur Demba go to Koranic school starting at a very young age, but they couldn’t fathom that a Toubab had voluntarily decided to study Arabic at a university in the United States. Consequently, I was made to write out words in Arabic for hours, and my recitation of the alphabet was shown off to every visitor who came by our compound. (Unfortunately, all of this Arabic made me feel pathetic for how little of my year’s worth of intensive study I actually remember!)
Speaking of language, actually speaking was an issue at first. That first day I was made painfully aware of how little I had absorbed of my Wolof classes. Barely able to say more than “How are you?”, I realized how much speaking French with my Dakar family has become natural and easy, because speaking Wolof was anything but. I was reduced to hand gestures and pointing, which is how I figured out I’d be sharing a queen-sized bed with my host mother. This wouldn’t have been so awkward if she hadn’t awakened every time I moved to fan me, creating a moral dilemma as I lay awake weighing how badly I needed to shift positions (and how good the fan felt in the sticky air) and how badly I would feel if my yaay felt obligated to stay awake to keep me cool. Thankfully, after a few nights I accumulated enough Wolof to ask to open the window instead.
I was given the name of my host sister, Mame Khady Wade. Though this created a bit of confusion due to the two Khadims in addition to the other Khady in our compound, eventually I realized that this turandoo (“synonym,” or the Wolof practice of sharing a name) allowed everyone in the village to know exactly where I was living. Every interaction ran through the same list of questions, which seemed like a quiz: “Noo tudd?/What’s your name?” “Sa yaay?/Your mother?” “Sa papa?/Your father?” “Say rakk?/Your younger siblings?” “Sa mag?/Your older sibling?” “Sa papa, foo dëkk?/Where does your father live?” The answer to this last question, “ci Italie,” elicited much laughter always, the reason for which I never really discovered. My host dad is not the only man from Keur Demba to work elsewhere; many work as mechanics or bakers or janitors in Senegalese cities or abroad. I had a very awkward phone conversation in Wolof with my host dad in Italy, which basically resulted in me saying, “Waaw, jëréjëf/Yes, thank you,” over and over.
I said jëréjëf all the time in real conversations, though. My village host family was overflowing with generosity – I was constantly being brought cold bissap juice and freshly harvested peanuts, and every evening I accompanied my sister Aita to the boutique to purchase an apple and a Sprite, which at first I resisted but then accepted as a good excuse to walk around under the stars. The lack of widespread electricity meant that the night sky was spectacularly dark, and I got good at navigating the dirt paths of the village in my flip-flops.
I navigated the village during the day, too. With the other Americans, I ended up shadowing a midwife for a few days. We visited the health clinic for women and children, and we even accompanied the midwife and another health worker to give polio vaccinations to children under five in our village and a few neighboring ones, even tinier than Keur Demba. My task was to write V23 in chalk on the gate of each compound where we administered the vaccines, meaning the second round of 2013. I felt a bit like an angel of death, marking the houses, but I was reminded that this was the exact opposite – here was concrete work that the Senegalese government was funding to protect the lives of children. At a training session for the Community Council that Chineme and I attended on one of the last days, we learned of some other awesome initiatives, including a successful campaign against early marriage and a program teaching mothers (and fathers!) how to talk to their babies and encouraging reading to children. It was fascinating to talk to the community leaders, volunteers elected by the village, and to observe their process of budget-making and decisions.
I certainly observed a positive attitude toward education in my host family. The school system is really confusing and not very efficient because French school and Arabic school are not synchronized with one another and so much is up to the choice of the parents; frequent teacher strikes and the fact that kids beyond primary school must walk at least three kilometers each way to school also impact attendance and effectiveness. But there seems to be a generational shift toward seeing the benefits of education, including for girls. My yaay’s generation doesn’t seem to have gone to school much at all, but all of the younger kids do. Hanging out with Mathio (pronounced Mbacho), who is my age exactly, really made me think about the educational path that I often take for granted. She’s obviously bright, good at French (relative to most other relatives), but can’t write very well, and she told me she would have liked to continue school, but “Je suis marié.” She’s married, and at twenty has a one-year-old son, the freaking adorable baby Khadim, whose birthday celebration involved almost the whole village, special treats, and an hour-long speech by the imam (in which we think he intimated that children should go to school to be more like “the Toubabs on television”). I kept being struck by how different my life was from Mathio’s. I don’t really have any tangible thing to show for my years of university education yet (though of course they have been valuable intangibly), whereas Mathio has the laughing-hiccuping-clapping physical being of Khadim. She eagerly brought out a bag of Wolof-language children’s books, which she had gotten from the organization doing the Council training, and assured me that her children would speak not only Wolof and French, but English and Spanish too.
Baby Khadim was terrified of me at the beginning, as were many of the very smallest kids. Nothing makes me sadder than being rejected by a toddler, so I worked hard throughout my stay to get them to warm up to me. I can happily report that after a few days I couldn’t walk from one end of the compound to the other without being escorted by a gaggle of three-year-olds. With the older kids, we passed the time playing clapping games, Cat’s Cradle, the Macarena, and my harmonica. This would be in between sessions of vegetable chopping, in which I learned how to make ceebujën and other traditional meals from Nabou and Aita, and laundry, in which I made an absolute fool of myself trying to create the squirty sound that Khady did when scrubbing the clothes. Interestingly, the gender roles were not at all as distinct in the village as they are in Dakar – guys helped with mortar-pestle action occasionally, and Demba and Mohamed helped us do laundry. At the same time, many women worked in the fields, which is often seen as a male role (this may be because of the shortage of grown men for reasons I stated earlier). I accompanied my yaay a couple times to plant hibiscus seeds, harvest some sort of leafy thing, and hack off the dead limbs of a mango tree. I also went with my sisters to fetch water, which involved walking to a well, using the pulley to hoist up buckets, and carrying the full bucket on one’s head all the way back to the compound. In all of these activities, my Toubab-ness clearly showed, but my host family was forever patient and kind when I sloshed water or spilled seeds. In particular, Aita, who’s about fourteen, had the most adorable sense of humor and taught me some apparently witty Wolof phrases for when I made mistakes.
Much spillage also occurred during another daily activity: the making of ataaya. Saer, a twentysomething cousin, took it as his personal mission for me to be able to brew the entire three rounds by myself by the last day. The process is more complicated than you might think, involving mixing, waiting, and pouring from just the right angle. I diligently took notes, and after practicing with the help of Saer and all the teenage boys, I successfully made ataaya on the second-to-last day. It’s a strong tea served in little shot glasses with painstakingly-formed foam, and I’ve come to absolutely love not only the taste but also the ritual, which takes a couple of hours altogether. Taking that much time out of an afternoon every day is unfathomable to Americans, and while I’m sure some productivity is sacrificed, there’s something to be said for slowing down a bit and talking with friends.
That’s what I miss most now that I’m back in Dakar. Already the city pace of life is noticeably different from that in the village. I’m well aware that the next six weeks are going to fly by. I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends in America (especially after being surrounded by so much family in Keur Demba), but I want to squeeze as much experience out of my remaining month-and-a-half here in Senegal as possible. Reading back over this post, I realize how stereotypically “I-stayed-in-and-African-village-and-here’s-what-I-learned-about-life” it all sounds. Believe me when I say that’s not how I feel. It’s silly to talk about how much I loved my time in Keur Demba without taking a critical look at my privilege and what exactly I was doing there as an American, just lounging around for eleven days and “learning about the culture.” The thing is, I did learn about the culture. I’m not done learning about the culture – that is, I’m not going to take my experience in Keur Demba and use it to frame every discussion I have about development, poverty, education, and tradition for the rest of my life. But spending time in rural Senegal, where the vast majority of the population lives, was an invaluable part of this study-abroad experience. I can’t imagine leaving for America having only lived in the modernizing, Westernizing Dakar. The “modern world” is coming to Keur Demba, too, in the form of cell phones and pop music, but the village is in general far less connected to these outside forces than the city. It’s more deep-rooted than a technological difference, too – there’s a difference in mentality, even down to the way those in Keur Demba keep their public spaces clean (a huge contrast to the trash-ridden streets of Dakar). Seeing the type of village from where many recent city transplants come makes the sort of limbo lifestyles I’ve observed here make so much more sense.
At the risk of sounding naïve and colonial, I just liked the village. I really liked it. So I’ll end with the list of Hopeythings I jotted down throughout the week:
Goats and other baby animals Names
People doing hair Jokes
Praying Bed by ten
Arts & crafts Compliments
Big sky Baobabs