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.