McDews in Senegal

Location: Joal, Theis Region, Senegal

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Month at the Training

FROM NICOLE (Yacine N’diaye in Senegal)

Bumps, Bugs & Brooms: To Shave or Not

Every Tuesday, Olive our Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) comes to visit and impart unbelievably useful health information. Olive is from Dublin, Ireland, a fiery spirit coupled with her Irish brogue she commands our attention. We get to learn about all the terrible diseases and poisonous insect maladies that will befall us. Recently one of the volunteers obtained a small friend in her right foot. A worm a centimeter long has burrowed under her skin and slowly moves around. You can see it and the paths it creates as it crawls right underneath her skin. The Larva Migrans penetrates the skin upon contact yet since humans are not the host for these creatures it lives under the skin in total confusion. Unable to escape the LV stays in the skin unless treatment is applied (a special paste which takes about a week to kill the offender). Besides this skin rider that recently joined our PC group. We also recently learned about the LV’s cousin, the Tumba Fly, a large brownish yellow insect that lives in many areas of Senegal and lays eggs in wet clothing, etc. The eggs hatch producing larvae that upon contact with skin penetrate and mature just under the skin. The simple trick to rid your body of this thing is to cover the central opening with Vaseline and the creature will come out for air. You quickly grab the thing with a pair of tweezers and pull it out. I was fortunate enough to witness this phenomenon with a bunch of kids hovering around a howling scrawny dog as a young boy pulled out the grubby larvae from the its skin. Oh yah and there is the large black blister beetle that lives in millet and sorghum fields. This creature contains a burning agent called Cantharadin. When it stings you it releases this fluid onto your skin and large yellow blisters appear. If these blisters pop they cause even more blisters and the cycle begins. I could go on and on with the other creatures found in Senegal but due to time and space will spare you’all the details. If interested in a good read of insect horror I’d highly recommend the Peace Corps manual “Staying healthy in Senegal.”

On Tuesday when the medical staff arrives for their weekly visit we also are injected with more shots. Thus far the list includes immunizations for yellow fever, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, rabies, meningitis, hepatitis A & B, typhoid and influenza vaccine. Oh least I forget we are soon to receive the avian bird flu shot. This deadly disease may mutate and therefore could spread easily from human to human. It now has arrived in Europe and soon these birds will migrate to Africa. The science community is quite concerned about the mutation of this virus and is predicating a health epidemic worse than the world has ever seen if this happens. Africa is the focal point now as the bird migration begins. Walking around as a human laboratory you begin to regard your body at a whole new level.

Olive reminds us weekly that we are living in an “incubator” and her suggestions include avoiding any and all cuts. A simple cut (even from paper or shaving) can easily turn into a raging infection. The issue of shaving has become a preoccupation of mine. To have hairy legs or not that is the question of the hour. I haven’t yet been able to give up my American ways.

I have modified Einstein’s theory of relativity. Thus far my entire Senegalese experience has been one of relativity. The first day we arrived at the Training Center in Thies I was rather alarmed at our living conditions at the Center. A small, albeit clean, room with two small beds and little furniture was provided and the bathroom was a series of squat toilets with shower stalls that make American dorm bathrooms appear luxurious. A wide, long (rather smelly) sink was shared by all. Needless to say, I was expecting somewhat more luxurious living conditions for a Peace Corps (PC) center. Now after living with our host family, the bathroom at the PC Center has become a 5 star resort experience. I now shower at the Center daily to avoid the bucket bath with the spiders and other unnamable creatures.

When we first arrived at the Center our lunch experience was rather uncomfortable for me. 5-6 of us sit around a large metal bowl usually filled with rice, fish, starch, nightshades & root vegetables and some hot peppers. (Note: the first day Curt bite into an entire hot pepper thinking it was a small tomato – he has since learned his lesson well) We are each given a spoon and I have learned how to carve out “my area” within the bowl and equally share the veggies and fish. At our host family the mother and sometimes the children prefer eating without the spoon. While that is fine with me, I do become concerned when the mother or oldest daughter picks the fish or eggplant apart with her hand to evenly disperse the food. I just haven’t seen a lot of hand washing going on before dinner. We do really like the Senegalese food, the peanut sauce and other (rather spicy) sauces they add are quite tasty. Losing weight in Senegal is not going well for me.

I now actually enjoy the intimate experience of sharing food seated cross legged around a bowl. Be forewarned when we return to the States we plan to serve our dinners in the same style to which we are becoming accustomed.

Back to the theory of relativity. The other day, I was at the “Super Marche” while not well stocked as compared to American standards the store does have scotch, dry & sweet vermouth and bitters. I am all set to go for hosting our first “manhattan” porch party! After perusing the liquor section I bought a regular American style broom for 1,774 CFA (aprox. $3.50). At our house the mother and girls use a stick like contraption to sweep: it’s made up of many two foot thin sticks wrapped together at the end with duct like tape. You have to bend down quite a bit while sweeping the floor. As sweeping our bedroom is my responsibility (Curt claims a bad back), I was getting tired of always bending down and quite honestly I wasn't to sweep up the dust very well. Alors, I bring home the broom and showed it to Aminta and the girls. Aminta was ecstatic and spent the next half-hour sweeping. She kept saying how this broom was so much better for her back. Based on what our host family has been spending money on we do believe that they could have afforded this broom. Curt kept asking me why she hadn’t bought one before. Interesting question – my theory stems from relativity. Having never grown up with an American style broom, and not likely to go to the “twobaub” (white man’s) store Aminta may have simply never experienced this type of broom. The Senegalese broom is only 80 cents cheaper and certainly doesn’t last as long. Who would have ever thought that our greatest gift thus far would be this broom.

FROM CURT (Amidou N’diaye in Senegal)

Well I think the bucket bathes are great! I have always liked them. I haven’t noticed any spiders in there. I wish I was as lucky as Nicole, she had a 9” lizard come in while she was bathing once.

What I don’t care for is the wake up call we get EVERY morning about an hour avant the dawn – Sing song prayers amplified for the purpose of waking the Muslims up so that they can eat before the sun rises. We are in the month long Ramadan holiday season when Muslims fast (including no water) from dawn until dusk every day for a lunar month. I remember thinking that it was neat when Blythe and I heard this for the first time in Morocco. Now, regarding the morning wake-up prayer call, that “wow, this place is really different from home” thrill has completely worn off.

We have been told where our site is. It’s the place we thought it would be - about 80 km. south of Dakar on the coast – Joal Fadiout - a fishing town of 32,000. We have been through it. We are hoping that there will be interest in our “First Town in Senegal with Solid Waste Management” campaign.

Here’s one for the aging curmudgeons in the (cyber) room (or maybe just brother Dick): Today, our security person, who had asked us all to draw a map to illustrate how to find our houses here in Theis, expressed his surprise that only one of the 39 of us had indicated any compass direction. He had trouble understanding this and drew a compass and asked if we all knew what it was and sort of sarcastically explained why it was important.

Otherwise, our fellow volunteers (most of whom are in their early twenties are actually quite impressive - the Senegalese we are in contact with as well). And they probably put compasses on their maps. It continues to amaze me when I meet so many intelligent, knowledgeable, talented, beautiful people living in conditions that are disturbing by Western standards. I think my mind associates living in squalor with poor education, poor speech, limited vocabulary and knowledge and maybe other detractions like drunkenness, idleness or laziness. We passed a family eating on the sidewalk (tables and chairs) in front of their very humble, dark abode. When we greeted them they were so happy when we recited the first couple of standard Arabic greetings that they pulled us into a short conversation. The (apparent) matriarch’s French was beautiful. Maybe it’s my prejudices that make these scenes surprising to me.

First Week in Senegal

Written October 5, 2005

FROM CURT (Amidou Ndiaye in Senegal)
I sit on our bed with a fan about 12 “from my face. It is actually a beautiful day, clear and sunny, 96 degrees F. We have been so busy that this is the first time we have fired up the l’ordinateur.

Senegal is naturally beautiful when you get out of town. There are fantastic birds here. While at our “demyst” (as in demystification – a 4 day visit to a site where a Peace Corps Volunteer is already working), we were lucky. We were in this great village of 540 inhabitants and on the beach. We saw flamingos, pelicans and other smaller, but just as beautiful, birds. On the way down, driving through a reserve, we saw monkeys.

The cabs and buses are the funkiest I have ever seen, especially out in the rural regions where enforcement of inspections (or any other driving laws for that matter) are completely non-existent. Heading back to the training camp at the end of our demyst, our cab driver pulled over, got out and had another passenger take his seat – the seat intended for the driver – usually referred to as the driver’s seat. The driver got into the same seat, held the door about 12” open with his left hand and drove with his right. It was very energy efficient however, since we then had 8 adults in the 4 passenger cab – 4 in the front and 4 in back. He stopped twice to throw water on the engine and into the, leaking, radiator.

No kidding – the delivery truck/mini van convert we had taken in the same stretch earlier was more crowded. I stood and was unable to place both of my feet on the floor at the same time. It got so bad that Nicole and I rode up on the roof and watched the big African sky. With that move we turned a low point into a high point of our stay here so far.

The people are great – poor for the most part and extremely friendly. They, especially the youth, are linguistical geniuses. As we walk by small groups of people sitting in the shade, we must go through a verbal exchange of 6 to 8 Arabic, Wolof and sometimes French, salutations. It is quite nice. And the people really seem to appreciate the Western visitors starting it off in Arabic or Wolof. They don’t seem to like Georges Bush much here and as with all other countries except the US, they are familiar and current with US politics.

Living conditions are very basic. 90% plus of the housing is pretty rough. Even in Theis, the second biggest city in the country and where our training takes place, I would estimate that far more than half of the homes do not have indoor plumbing. Pigs and goats roam the unpaved streets. Electricity goes out often and when it does, so does the water. They must pump the water. There appears to be pretty good food availability and health in Theis – not as much in the rural areas.

We are going to try to find a small city, such as the one we believe we will be sent to (Joal Fadiouth) that is interested in becoming the first town in Senegal with a solid waste program. Trash all over the place is a problem in all the poor countries I have been to. But Senegal may be the worst.
Our training is pretty good. It is quite comprehensive (language, culture, religion, our security and health, history, politics, environment and our program – eco-tourism and small business development) and intense. Combined with the heat, it is hard to do much more than rest after we finish our homework. We are in a group of 40 volunteers. We aren’t quite the oldest. There is another married couple in their 60s but most are in their 20s, some in their thirties. The trainers are almost all Senegalese and they are incredible. If I can’t learn French from them, I am giving up.

Nicole and I are both in good health. Our intestines are operating about the same as they do in the US of A – which happens to be opposite of each other. This is about the longest I have ever lasted in a poor country without problems, so I am quite pleased. Nicole took my blood pressure this morning and got a good, low reading – 110/80. All in all, we are very pleased to be here and learning a tremendous amount.

FROM NICOLE (Yassin Ndiaye in Senegal)
Okay, now the real story (wait; let me brush off the huge hairy nine legged “foaming at the mouth” insect off my right leg). It’s hot, hot and hot! Just wait a minute and it will still be hot. Lucky us, we arrived during the hottest time in Senegal. Besides hot it is humid. So humid you can’t tell if it is sweat running off your back or just the moisture in the air. Of course, A/C is not a luxury to which we are exposed. We did buy a fan but then again the electricity is off as much as it is on. Besides the intense heat we get to deal -- on a minute by minute basis -- with huge, ugly and un-namable insects that seem to like eating white flesh over the people of Senegal. Sometimes you think that the sweat running down your back is lots of little insects crawling all over you. The giant bats that swerve right in front of your face are a healthy aspect for raising your daily blood pressure. Besides all the trash that we must dance over when we walk anywhere, le á pied experience est plus mieux que the taxis that drive at unprecedented speeds over streets that make Class 4 Vermont roads seem like recently paved highways. If your are not gasping from the fumes from the exhaust (the cars here make my 1989 rusted Honda Accord appear like a brand new BMW) then you may be passing out from the sauna like environment inside the cab.

I could go into detail about our toilet and bathing experiences but I will spare all TMI. However it is suffice to say that our upper legs muscles are getting quite strong thanks to the “hole in the ground” latrines we daily use and moving around while squatting to avoid being bitten by spiders/mosquitoes. I have even perfected the art of bucket bathing. But bathing really isn’t that important because as soon as you are finished the sweat pours out of your pores.

Sleep – well the Muslims in our neighborhood pray (it’s Ramadan) until 2:00 am and commence again at 5:30 am over loud speakers that reverberate throughout the houses. I am beginning to pray in Arabic in my sleep. I am not sure when the Senegalese actually sleep.

Training is six days a week from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and they work us hard. I am learning Wolof in French. Half the time I am making nonsensical sentences that has our host family on the floor in stitches. Curt is in a special ed. French Class and his French causes even more laughter.

All in all, I have to say that I am having a great time, learning a tremendous amount and feel more alive than I have in awhile -- as everything is so new and different and we are constantly “expanding our horizons and paradigms.”

Our Host Family is wonderful – especially since they think that I am too thin. In Senegal the heavier a woman is the better. I fit right in with the Senegalese beauties.
Family is really important in Senegal. They think Americans are so cruel -- "for kicking their kids out of the house at 18 years of age." They are Muslim and it has been so interesting living with them during Ramadan which started 10 days ago and lasts for another 20 days. They fast from sunrise to sundown -- no water or food from basically 6:30 am until 7:00 pm. And it is incredibly hot in Senegal and they don't have air conditioning. The mother, called Aminta, is 48 years old and quite a character. We get along really well. She calls me her little sister and has given me the name Yassin Ndiaye. Curt is called Amidou Ndiaye. She has six children. The oldest son lives in Italy, the oldest daughter lives in Morroco with her husband. She has a daughter Colle who is 28 years old and owns a coiffure, the next is Mame Daro, she is 20 years old and is a senior in high school and is really, really bright. She speaks French, English, Wolof and Spanish. Her next oldest is a boy Vieux who is 16 years old and is very funny and then there is Farma she is 14 years old. Aminta's first husband died 10 years ago. She is remarried but the second wife. We don't see her husband that often as he is often at the home of the first wife. Many of the men in Senegal have 2, 3 or 4 wives. The man is, at least at the surface, the one with the power. The women work incredibly hard and the men "barely at all." They are amazed when Curt (Amidou) trys to help with the housework. The son sometimes lifts a finger but basically his sisters do everything --- cook, clean, all the housework. There is tremendous respect for the parents in Senegalese culture. The kids (mostly the girls) do most of the work around the house while the parents seem to order them around.

Besides the giant bats, hairy spiders and other incredibly large insects and the incredible poverty and very tough living conditions, the intense heat and the constant stares because of our whiteness and being called "twobob" where ever we go, we are really glad to be here experiencing and living in such a completely different culture and learning so much about ourselves and our own culture. I really love our host family and almost every night have long conversations (in French) with them about so many interesting topics. Recently we taught them how to play "Guess the Leader" and when it was my turn to start they all began laughing and figured out right away it was me because as they said " a black person would never do what I did." We are having much fun with our family. They have an incredible sense of humor and are always laughing at everything. We are learning a lot from them.

Well that's all for now. Our second edition will be out soon.

Amidou and Yassin