Saturday, November 9, 2013

Senegal’s Child Beggars

I believe in facing your fears.  As it turns out, my biggest challenge and personal fear in Senegal comes in a very small package: talibé, the child beggars of West Africa.

Thrusting their skinny hands in your face through the windows of cars, surrounding you in a mob of shrill voices shouting “toubab” and demanding money, or just tiredly muttering Quranic verses as they hold out their yellow bowls, these (often barefoot) children in tattered clothes flood the streets of nearly every major city in Senegal.

As soon as they notice me and my white skin, which they equate with money, the kids rush over and glue themselves to my side like barnacles.  Ever since my first week in Senegal, they have by turns made me sad (who could do this to little kids?), driven me crazy with irritation (stop following me, just leave me alone), sparked me to anger (they need to get out of my face), made me nervous (am I going to look stupid if I don’t have a good Pulaar response?), and – a rising tide under it all – stirred deep feelings of guilt.

Why guilt?  Because my first exposures to them, during my first few months in Senegal, elicited an instinctively adverse reaction.  I didn’t know how to handle these kids, so they became my nightmare.  If I saw a pack of them, I tried to avoid the group.  They were caked in dirt and poverty, staring at me out of infected eyes, heads sometimes covered in sores.  Overwhelming, because I didn’t know what I could possibly do.  There are so many. 

So I unconsciously started doing what many Senegalese do: tossing them a few smiles (or coins) and going about my day, forgetting.  Eventually, talibé become a predictable daily occurrence, almost like potholes in a road well traveled: you know they’re going to be there, you know you have to avoid them or navigate the bump, so you get it over with quickly and move on. 

Many people here don’t give talibé a second thought, except to dismiss them as irritations, scum of the street – or obligations (for the giving of alms).  One documentary film has labeled them “the least favored children of Senegal.”

There are an estimated half a million talibé in Senegal. Approximately 50,000 of those children are sent out begging or "subjected to conditions akin to slavery," according to Human Rights Watch.

Student Beggars 

The strange reality is: these kids are actually students.  In Senegal, children as young as five years old can be sent off by their families to become talibé, living and studying for as many as 11 years under a Quranic teacher (Marabout) at his school (daara), often in conditions of extreme poverty. 

Talibé spend their days memorizing the Quran and begging for alms in the streets.  In many cases, they receive no meals from the Marabout, so they must go out begging up to three times a day if they want to eat.

Talibé studying the Quran

A talibé entering his room

The ascetic nature of this type of education has traditionally been considered a way of teaching humility, as well as a rite of passage for boys into adulthood.  However, the system has become twisted in so many ways that it’s almost impossible to imagine how to begin untangling it.  Kids suffer and often their families never know. 

Unfortunately, poor families often see daaras as an escape – a way to lift the burden of financial support by sending their child away for a good cause.  (“If we can’t pay for his public school fees anyway, why not send him to get a free education? Anyway, it’s good to learn the Quran.”)  Many talibé end up living in cities far from their original villages or towns, and sometimes families lose touch with their child for years.  A number of talibé in Senegal actually come from neighboring countries such as Mali, Guinea or Guinea-Bissau.

Human Rights Violations

Over the past few years in Senegal, reports have emerged of some Marabouts exploiting talibé to grow rich off their earnings, while the boys lived in slavery-like conditions.  Many are forced to beg and punished if they fail to bring in their daily quota of food or money to their Marabout.  Several have reported being chained or beaten as punishment. 

In 2010, Human Rights Watch reported on the physical and sexual abuse some talibé experience, and seven Marabouts were arrested that year.  Anti-Slavery International wrote another report in 2011 highlighting the hardships these boys face and urging the Senegalese government to protect these children’s rights. 

Legislation banning “forced child begging” was actually passed in 2005.  But the tradition of Quranic education runs deep in Senegal, and the influence of Marabouts and Islamic leaders stretches far.  In the end, they found a loophole for the talibé system: “soliciting alms” is not “begging,” they said.  And so it continues.

(Please note that not all Marabouts are bad; many do care about their students and treat them well, but are simply stuck in poverty.)

Check out this video for more info on the daara system:


Talibé In My Town

For me, after moving to my permanent site (Kolda, a regional capital in south Senegal), the talibé issue suddenly became personal and immediate.  My service here in Senegal has been all about helping wherever I can, finding those small cracks I can fill, facing my fears and trying to overcome my flaws.  I realized that I might be uncomfortable with talibé (and the whole daara system itself), but that was no reason to push the issue aside.  There are enough people doing that.

So I chose to confront my discomfort. 

Since I was placed in a small city and not in a village, I interact with talibé every single day.  They seem to appear around every street corner!  After my first month living in Kolda, I started forcing myself to stop and talk to the talibé, even with my limited Pulaar.  Giving out money is a tricky issue, since you’re also perpetuating the system in a way (this article - "Keep the Change" - argues against giving).  But once in a while, just to make a kid happy, I’ll give some extra food or a piece of candy.  They have so few bright spots in their days.  And they really do walk around barefoot, on dirty streets sprinkled with animal manure and broken glass (to name a few things).

Eventually, I started visiting daaras in Kolda with a Senegalese counterpart, introducing myself to the Marabouts (which is still pretty intimidating) and researching how many talibé studied or lived there, the health conditions, their sleeping situations, etc.  So far, I have visited 18 daaras – and there are many left to visit.  Even the official local Inspector in charge of daaras and Arabic schools didn’t know how many existed in Kolda, and he’d never heard of several that I’d visited. 

The conditions I’ve witnessed are pretty dismal: bare rooms where boys sleep on the concrete floor, maybe on a mat if they’re lucky.  Usually there are not enough mosquito nets for all the children, making them highly susceptible to malaria.  The boys wear the same clothes every day.  With a few exceptions, most daaras here in Kolda teach the boys only the Quran and nothing else – so they never learn how to read and write and never learn French (unlike their peers in public schools).  This severely limits their opportunities for the future. 

Marabout showing me where the talibés sleep

Talibé asleep in the room he shares with many other boys

Marabout laughing with his kids

Older talibés in their room

Group of talibés showing me their room

My Projects

Since no Peace Corps volunteer has yet targeted talibé in Kolda, I’ve decided to tackle what was originally a fear of mine and make talibé my primary focus for projects over the next two years.  After all, who cares if it makes me uncomfortable?  Here is a need, and I can address it, at least in some small ways.  So I’m going to try.

Recently I was elected to the board of SeneGAD, our Gender and Development group in PC Senegal, as Talibé Coordinator – so there’s my start.  In addition to my personal projects, I will also be acting as a resource for other PCVs interested in working with talibé. 

Here are some of the projects I plan to do in Kolda:
  • Verify that they get enough mosquito nets during the upcoming national distribution 
  • Health talks (causeries) on nutrition, malaria, hygiene and hand washing, diseases, etc.
  • “Men As Partners” event, which sends a male Senegalese representative from Peace Corps to talk to the boys about their future, sex ed and reproductive health, violence, etc.
  • Conference / event to advocate daara modernization (reforming the system; teaching talibé a trade or sending them to French school, in addition to their Quranic studies) 
  • French / alphabetization / literacy lessons with the kids
With the daara system so deeply entrenched in Senegalese society, I don’t know how long it will take for things to change in Senegal.  But I do know that I can try to help these boys that live in Kolda, even if it’s just to expand their horizons a little or improve their health on a basic level.  I can try to help Habibu, that smart little talibé that hangs out downtown and knows me by name. 

After all, these are human beings we’re talking about.  Senegal’s future.  What’s more important than that?  So stay tuned for future stories!  In the mean time…

PLEASE DONATE:

If you’re interested in helping me reach out to the talibé, please support the work I’m doing by clicking on the “DONATE” PayPal button at the top of this website.  I am collecting donations to purchase these simple items for my health causeries:
  • Bars of soap (25-50¢ per bar, depending on size) – Just $10 can buy 20-40 bars, enough for 1 daara! 
  • Hand washing stations – bucket and pouring kettle ($4-6)
  • Powder laundry soap (“Omo” – 10-50¢ per packet, depending on size)
  • Bleach (“Eau de Javel” – $1 per bottle)
At this time, I only plan to distribute a few simple hygienic items to each daara, to go along with my health lessons.  This way I can help talibs practice what I teach, but will avoid creating dependency through large gifts.

DAARA DRIVE:

If you would like to support my work with talibé by donating items yourself, feel free to mail things like secondhand clothing, shoes (flip flops are great), light blankets or sheets, balls, marbles, simple games like checkers, etc.!  I am starting this drive now, but will not be distributing items until later in my service.  The idea is to establish a good relationship with the daaras first, conducting educational activities and events, so that handouts aren’t expected.  Ultimately, I will distribute the items to the daaras that I have formed the best relationships with. 

Mail items to:
PCV Lauren Seibert
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 26
Kolda, Senegal



Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Quote of the Day - Senegal Love

_______________________________________
Me: "Would you ever want to live anywhere else besides Senegal? Another country?"
Madou: "To visit, yes, but not to live forever."
Me: "Why?"
Madou: "Anywhere else I go, I would be a stranger. Here I'm home. I love Senegal. It is very poor, yes, but there is a strong sense of community. We care about each other, we just want to help everyone... that's why sometimes we stretch ourselves too far! But it's a good country." 
_______________________________________






Sunday, October 6, 2013

Surprise, You're In Charge

Add three Peace Corps Volunteers to a mix of 52 Senegalese teenagers, three local English teachers, a dusty school building, heaps of sand and sun, and unrestricted creative potential, and what do you get?

A pretty unorthodox but successful (and fun) English camp in Dakar.

I’m still wondering how we pulled it off, considering I had never done an English camp before and the entire week was full of last-minute discoveries - such as: you’re in charge of planning and leading the entire camp! (We thought we would be assistants.) You’re on your own for printing any documents you need... and probably no one will help you! (You’d be amazed at the difficulty of cheaply and easily printing things in Senegal.) Naturally, you wait until just before camp starts each morning to buy any supplies needed – just send off one of the English teachers!

My closest PCV friend Faith and I fell into the leadership roles for this camp, so we both stepped up and alternated taking charge. Each night before the next day of camp, we brainstormed activity ideas and planned out the schedule, trying to make it as fun as possible for the teens.

The kids ranged from age 14 to 17, with English levels all over the spectrum. Some could barely form a sentence, while others could express their ideas and hold discussions. Some were shy, some were eager, some were cheeky. We had to come up with activities and games that would engage all of these levels.

In the end, it wasn’t too hard to think of ideas: we had already gone through the reverse cultural immersion ourselves, as new American volunteers getting used to Senegal and learning a new language. So we could put ourselves in their shoes. We figured they would want more talking and interaction games rather than writing. We guessed they’d want to get in the know on American pop culture, colloquial lingo, and how young people live in the States. We also figured they’d want to dance (Senegalese love to dance). Plenty music, check.

On the first day, we did a bunch of icebreakers and gave them each an American name, which was pretty funny. We supplied the last names (ranging from Martinez to Li to Jones), and they chose the first names (hence a boy naming himself Beyoncé).

First was Cross Culture day, where we talked about our own experiences with cultural transition, then did a True/False contest (we were intrigued to discover they didn’t know that American men propose marriage with a diamond ring... so naturally we acted out the scene for them). Next we had them make funny skits about some of the differences between our cultures. One of my groups made a skit about an American girl fending off marriage proposals from her taxi driver, which was hilarious and really does happen all the time. Another group acted out a Senegalese guy trying to bargain for items in America. One kid, playing an American, even shouted out “Are you kidding me?!”




On Pop Culture day, we played all kinds of American music and taught them our crazy dances (everything from the Cupid Shuffle to the Wobble and the Dougie). It was hilarious watching them attempt these dances – some kids inevitably held back, but a bunch of them got really into it. They didn’t like the Cha Cha Slide, but they rocked the Dougie.




Unlike American teens of the same age, these kids weren’t sarcastic or too cool for camp. They were young, so occasionally they got rowdy… but they were interested in learning and willing to try most things. If an element of competition was involved, even better. We did a bunch of outdoor games too, from egg races to musical chairs with Michael Jackson songs.



Geography Day involved stressing the massive diversity and regional differences of the United States. I drew a big map of the States on the chalkboard, and we passed out pictures of things representing each major region of the U.S., and we had the different groups present. Obviously this was very subjective… so there now exists a group of kids in Senegal who know about random things like chicken and waffles, Philly cheesesteaks, and bubble tea. But hey… America is pretty random.



On the last day, we had a party – music, talent show, prizes, food and all. “Talents” performed ranged from a group of girls singing “My Heart Will Go On” (they picked this on their own, I kid you not) to guys rapping in English and two comedy skits.




In the end, though it took a lot of work, the camp was deemed a success. In evaluation surveys we collected, every participant said they enjoyed the camp and would do it again, and everyone felt like their English had improved. Some of their responses were really sweet: “This English camp helped me to know more things that I didn’t know. It made me to be very happy and to feel better too.” And: “I would like to do [camp] again, and not just for the next year, but for every year.”

The funniest response to the question “Would you do English Camp again next year?” was scribbled in all capitals: “YES YES YES YES.” This was my first time ever planning an English camp, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat – hopefully with more prep time! But most likely, we’ll still end up running around last minute trying buy bottles of bissap juice while calling the school principal to unlock the gate, and by the way, where are all the chairs? T.I.S. (This Is Senegal).

Me with my team

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tricky Conversations

Today I return home and sweep into my family compound in a bicycle whirlwind of sand, just as the sun is setting.  I hop down, greeting each family member (the more dignified ones grasping my hand briefly, the younger ones cheekily dapping me up).  I run through the itinerary of where I’d been that day, what I’d done and who I’d seen (this is necessary whenever returning home), and scrabble through my mind for questions I can ask them in Pulaar. 

The animals do something ridiculous that makes me giggle, like the baby goats hopping all over each other or the chickens stupidly perching on the satellite dish again, and my family giggles at me for the same reason.


After washing off a little of the day’s dust, I sink into a plastic chair and listen to my host dad’s radio show for a while.  I write down a few of the Pulaar phrases I catch into my notebook.  After eating dinner (maafe gerte - rice and peanut sauce, my favorite) around 9 PM, I sit staring at the glowing embers as my uncle makes ataaya, trying to calm my mind.  Senegalese people do a lot of sitting, and that’s one of the things I’ve found the hardest about this culture, since I have eternal ants in my pants.

I chat for a bit with my host mom, Mariama.  She catches me up on the latest developments: she’s started a boutique (small shop) in a section of our house, a very common thing here – practically every other house has a boutique.  They sell things like coffee, eggs, cooking oil, soap, butter, mayonnaise, phone credit, candies, baguettes – and if they happen to have a refrigerator (luxury!), maybe some sodas or kossam (sour milk).  I am excited because now I don’t have to run next door at some ungodly time in the morning to buy eggs for breakfast.

She goes on to relate the latest misadventures of our resident grandmother, who is old and confused.  She has been known to wander out of the house and into neighbor’s houses, forgetting where she is.  Sometimes she imagines things, like the time she thought soldiers came into the house, and we have to sift out the truth from the tall tales.

During the conversation lulls, I skim through a National Geographic article on the Aboriginal people of Australia.  I am mentally comparing their way of living to the things I see here, and some things are pretty similar: very basic housing, living day-to-day and consuming all food the day you make it, holding on to cultural traditions amidst the rising tide of modernity, multiple wives.  I exclaim aloud when I read that one woman’s father had eight wives.

“That’s a lot of wives!” I say to Mariama.  “In Senegal people have up to four, right? Isn’t that the limit in the Koran?”

Mariama laughs.  “My father had eleven wives.”  She grins as my jaw drops.  “He first had eight wives, and then his brother died, who had three wives.  So then they came to live with us, and he had eleven.”

I close my mouth and process this for a moment.  I guess since she lives in the city now, I hadn’t associated my host mom with the extremes of village life.

She continues, “You know, in the village, men don’t work like the women.  They just rely on their wives to bring in the money – to keep gardens, sell things.  They don’t do anything; they just sit.  That’s why they have so many wives.”

Hmmm.

As I write this blog post, I am seated cross-legged on my bed surrounded by moringa seeds.  (I’m counting them for tomorrow, when I plant them in our family garden – my first agriculture venture!)  Over my head, mice scurry busily on the tarp that protects my sleeping head from the showers of the rainy season, which tend to leak through the thatched roof.  Don’t worry, I’m not pulling a Cinderella… the only talking I do with these stupid mice is to yell at them in various languages.

Outside, crickets chirp away, the cow moos itself to sleep, and the sheep bleet away their sorrows to the oblivious goats.  The chickens are blissfully quiet, but that only lasts until 5:00 AM.

It’s time for bed, but my head is swirling.  I’m still thinking about what Mariama said, and also a conversation I had earlier today with another Senegalese friend.

In that conversation, my friend told me he doesn’t believe Senegal (or Africa) “needs” gay rights.  He said that if the West can’t accept polygamy, then Africa shouldn’t have to accept the gay lifestyle.  (This was spurred from a discussion about President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal, and his clash with Senegalese President Macky Sall over gay rights.)

My friend’s perspective was one I hadn’t heard before, though I already knew about Senegal’s strict stance against homosexuality (it’s treated as a crime here).  Since my friend cares deeply about his people and is probably one of the least judgmental Senegalese I know, his comment took me by surprise.

Senegal is a country with a strong democratic track record, and good on them for that.  They’ve made many positive strides for health (such as the battle against HIV/AIDS) and human rights (such as the campaign against female genital cutting).  But every now and then, some cultural reality comes jarringly into focus and I realize what a long road it is to human equality and tolerance.

Well, step by step we go.  Or as they say in Pulaar: “seeda seeda” (little by little).

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Choosing Chance


Living with poverty every day here in southern Senegal makes me wonder about chances. The chance of being assigned to Senegal of all the countries in the world for Peace Corps service. The chance of me, one person, having an impact. The chances so many kids here don’t have to pursue their dream in life. The chance of being born in the US, one of the few countries in the world with so many resources.

It’s strange to think about – like thinking about how tiny we are, one tiny planet with life (that we know of) amidst all the fathoms of stars in space. (Yes, I did some stargazing and pondering in Mbour, my training site, while lying on top of the family well. At first my host sisters thought it was hilarious – what odd thing is our toubab doing now? – but eventually they joined me.)

As I pass my days here, where simple tasks like bathing take twice as long because we have to draw water from the well, my mind is constantly flitting between continents. I try to wrap my mind around the differences, like the fact that Americans have so many systems and services already in place that we don't even think about some of the fundamentals of living on this earth.

Childhood vaccinations and regular boosters make it unnecessary for us to worry about most life-threatening diseases. Doctors and health insurance take care of pregnant mothers and babies, but would we know how to keep them healthy without access to those services? Every kind of food or meal we could want is readily available from stores or restaurants, limiting our knowledge of how to actually cultivate the earth and scrape together natural resources into nutritious meals. Machines do everything for us: wash our clothes, wash our dishes, make our food, make our coffee. English is everywhere, spreading across the globe. But what if, as is the case for many Senegalese ethnic groups here, your native language was only a spoken one, and you had to learn another language to read and write? You might be smart in school, but a barrier now impedes your ability to succeed.


A toss of the dice and I could have been born in a village without electricity, where the nearest health post is miles away, speaking a language no one beyond West Africa knows, where the highlight of the day is drinking tea. But now I'm here regardless of where I was born, and I’d like to insert a small piece of wisdom from one of my best friends, Dave Spencer:

“Maybe you don't have all your modern conveniences, but it's all relative. Sometimes I think about that. If the highlight of their day is drinking tea, how ‘high’ is that highlight relative to our highlights? When we drink tea, it's nothing. So that means that they’re getting more enjoyment out of the simple things. Does the fact that we have more things make our society better? I'd say probably not. Does it make us happier? Definitely not.”

He’s right about the tea. After a few months in Senegal, I’ve started to appreciate the small things in life much more. The tinge of mint added to the tea. Wind, lifting the heavy heat. A cold drink. Silence – so rare here. Human touch (Senegalese aren’t big on hugs). The very few, blissful times I get to be fully immersed in water. The value placed on human relationships, on visits and greetings and knowing names.

Here in the Kolda region, it takes extra work to not only live but thrive – convincing mothers to take their babies in for vaccinations, making suggestions on nutrition, encouraging people to sleep under mosquito nets to reduce malaria. Without all the Western conveniences, life is harder, but it feels good when you know you can get by.

I may have been born in the U.S., one in 300 million, but somehow my path led me here to Senegal. Now I’m one of about 40-60,000 in the city of Kolda. Who knows what impact my tiny self can have? But there’s one thing I know for sure: I’m going to make myself more than a number.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sewin' in Sambalaobe


With the rainy season in Senegal approaching, the threat of malaria looms like the storm clouds that will soon crowd the horizon.  Malaria is ever-present, a disease falling in bursts here and there upon the unlucky ones (often children under age five) snacked upon by a parasite-laden Anopheles mosquito.  But as the rains and floods come, leaving endless pools of stagnant water where mosquitos can breed – even in spaces as small as animal footprints on the road or leaves on the trees – the number of malaria cases will shoot up even higher.

According to a 2010 UNICEF report, 60% of Senegalese households owned at least one insecticide-treated net, but only 29% of children under age five were sleeping under these nets.  Fortunately, those stats have likely improved in recent years as Senegal has kicked off a “universal coverage” strategy to get every family sleeping under bed nets at night.  Partnering with the U.S. (through USAID, the CDC, Peace Corps) and nonprofits such as Malaria No More and World Vision, the Senegalese government has distributed millions of nets, to even the most remote villages.

As a result, cases of severe malaria have decreased, with some villages actually eliminating malaria deaths.  Combined with the greater availability of rapid malaria diagnostic tests and treatment, malaria is no longer the biggest child killer in Senegal.  But the country is still endemic, and the momentum needs be continued to keep the disease in check.

For us Peace Corps volunteers, the “Stomping Out Malaria” initiative is an important part of our work here in Senegal.  According to the ICPs (head nurses) I spoke with at health posts in Mbour and Kolda, malaria remains one of their biggest problems.  Families might own bed nets, but that doesn’t mean they sleep under them every night.  (I can attest from experience that enclosing yourself in a breeze-blocking net on 100°F nights takes a good bit of willpower.)

Kids with symptoms and fever are not always brought in for malaria tests, especially if the nearest health hut or health post is quite a distance away.  Expectant mothers do not always take IPTp (Intermittent Preventative Treatment for Pregnant ladies).  Health huts and health posts often run out of malaria treatment medication during the rainy season, when demand is highest.  There is still much research and advocacy to be done in Senegal.

For now, in honor of World Malaria Day on April 25, we worked with our Community-Based Training (CBT) host families to practice malaria net repair and care.  Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as sewing holes in nets: I have to master the vocabulary in French and Pulaar to talk about malaria as well.  Getting there, slowly slowly!









Thursday, April 25, 2013

And the mzungu transforms into a toubab… for now


After just over half a year, I have returned to Africa yet again – this time to the opposite coast! For the next two years, I will be living in Senegal, West Africa, as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the health program. A primarily Muslim country once colonized by the French, Senegal is a strange and exotic blend of Islamic influence, African culture, and European structure.

School is taught in French, even though most Senegalese speak Wolof and other local languages better than French. While families typically serve traditional rice-based dishes like ceebu gen for lunch and dinner, breakfast is often baguettes and coffee – though in rural areas, poorer families may eat porridge instead.

The coasts are beautiful, the cities tumultuous and lively and dirty, trash lining the streets. Agriculture (especially peanut farming) dominates the Senegalese economy, and more than half of Senegal’s population of 13 million lives below the poverty line. Senegal ranked 154 out of 186 countries in the 2012 UNDP Human Development Index. Life expectancy here is about 60 years. Though the country has demonstrated great success in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Senegal is still endemic for malaria. The U.S. Peace Corps health program in Senegal addresses four main areas: malaria, child/maternal health, water and sanitation, and nutrition.

Here, I stand out even more than I did in Kenya, if you can judge this by the number of (either shrieked, giggled, or shouted) “toubab!” comments that follow me everywhere. In Kenya, the word for foreigner was “mzungu,” and it was called out often enough – but mostly by giggling kids, who threw big smiles my way as soon as I turned to look. Here, as our Peace Corps trainers have informed us, Senegalese of all ages (not just kids) like to point out differences. The word “toubab” here means pretty much what “mzungu” meant in Kenya, but it seems to be hurled around with slightly more intensity in Senegal. And it’s not always accompanied by a smile. It’s practically a mandatory identifier – I heard a mother whispering it to her toddler as she rattled by on a horse drawn cart, and I’ve even been hailed as “mademoiselle toubab” by a vendor on the streets.

Still, while the Senegalese seem a bit more blunt or aggressive than Kenyans in some ways, there is plenty to love about this culture. The more I learn, the more I love.

A few snapshots of my first few weeks in Senegal:

  • Occasional brain short-circuiting due to massive overload of health and tech training / safety and security sessions / language and culture classes / learning, learning, and more learning for Peace Corps
The Peace Corps training center in Senegal
  • Brilliant, hot, blazing sun – every single day during the dry season (now). While the heat can get intense, I’ll take this over snowy U.S. winters any day!
  • A constant film of dust or dirt or sand coating my skin…
  • …which gets washed away by chilly bucket baths when I’m in my village, and much appreciated showers when I’m at the Peace Corps training center in Thiès.
  • Cobbling together sentences in French/Pulaar/Wolof – basically, whatever gets me understood – and attempting to squash the random Swahili phrases (Kenya remnants) that keep popping in my head
  • Shuffling through sand in Mbour, a region near the beach, where houses seem plopped directly onto desert and little patches of dirt are imported to create mini gardens
      My host family's compound in Mbour, Senegal
    • Massive excitement on my part to be served salad and fresh vegetables, a rarity in village life, by my Mbour host family on my 25th birthday
    • Consuming endless rice and fish out of shared bowls – sitting on the floor, the traditional Senegalese way
    • Learning to eat and do almost everything with only the right hand to avoid offending anyone
    • Earning about $16 a week from Peace Corps and feeling rich when I get it – 8,000 CFA goes pretty far here if you’re living a simple life!
    • Continuously living out of a suitcase – this gets rough after a month and a half!
    • The constant, quavery, megaphone-enhanced singing that ripples through the air from mosques here, there, and everywhere. This chanting marks the calls to prayer throughout the day.
    • Floating in the turquoise ocean, so salty the buoyancy was like laying on a waterbed

    The beach at Mbour


    • Devouring chilled bouye (baobab fruit) or bissap juice whenever I can get it – or, on a less culturally explorative scale, orange Fanta – basically anything at all chilled! The best discovery so far: crème, an ice-cream like frozen juice concoction sold in little plastic baggies (sachets). You eat it by biting the corner of the sachet and sucking out the juice. Pure heaven in the heat of the day!
    • Learning not to go to the beach in Mbour on Sundays, when we’ll be surrounded by the a chaotic mass of Senegalese youth on their day off – who, if they happen to be young boys, will follow us to demand everything from a sip of water to a “cadeau” (gift), money, attention, love, or marriage
    • Getting excited when I actually squash a mosquito because it means my reflexes are improving and I just dodged possible malaria exposure yet again
    • Dancing under the piercing African stars to reggae music with my host family sisters, who wear the radios slung across their body like purses
    • Periodically walking long distances just to buy fruit (apples, clementines, bananas) – my favorite dietary supplement!
    • Shivering with cold when the temperature drops to the low 70s or 60s Fahrenheit in the mornings and evenings (days can get up to the high 90s in the Dakar/Thiès area)
    • Laying in bed at night, sweating under a mosquito net, wishing hard for sleep through the cacophony of above mentioned singing, roosters who enjoy periodically reminding us of the hour, cat fights (or wild dog v. pig fights), and distant drum circles.

    Me tucked in my mosquito net at night
    • Learning the importance of greetings as a sign of respect. There are a million varieties of greetings among Senegalese, depending on the language, time of day, and how well you know the person. A simple American “hey” doesn’t cut it here!
    • Drinking hot, sweet, minty ‘ataaya’ (Senegalese tea) from little glass cups even in the blazing heat of the day – it’s a mark of hospitality to be offered ataaya, so you shouldn’t refuse. The Senegalese have made tea into an art form: pouring it from one tiny cup to another, back and forth until the tea froths and foams. 

    My host brother in Mbour making ataaya (tea)

    And there you have it… first glimpses of Senegal, which you can hopefully collage together into a mental picture of my new home.

    Yes, sometimes I lay in bed at night under my mosquito net and wonder what the heck I’ve done committing to two years away from home. Two years of heat, bugs, long skirts, and pulling water from wells. But then I think of my wonderful Senegalese host family, this chance to soak up a new culture, all the huge strides in the domain of health that have been made here over the past few years, the momentum that must be kept going… and I find my motivation again.