Tuesday, February 17, 2015

20 Funny Experiences in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer

After two years living in Senegal, I’ve grown very affectionate of this land of paradoxes.

Here, hot tea is considered a must on the hottest days, Muslims dress up as Santa on Christmas, thatched huts stand next to concrete buildings, donkeys plod behind cars in the streets, and you find yourself the recipient of long phone calls in which absolutely nothing is said. Time is relative, greetings are important, and people love a toubab (foreigner) who can take a joke. Here are some of my funniest memories!

Hot tea on a hot day.... always!

1) Waking up one morning to see my host family across the street, tossing sheep over a wall. I watched as my host mother grabbed the sheep by the horns and passed them up to my host brother on top of the wall, who chucked them over. (Sheep are the most beloved of Senegalese animals, and apparently the grass was better on the other side... literally...) The sheep also get baths in the morning sometimes.

My uncle takes good care of our sheep.

2) When I noticed myself telling people that meetings start an hour before they actually do – so that everyone will be there on time. This is common practice among Senegalese development workers, who know their own people well... It took me a bit longer to adopt this strategy, but trust me, it works!

3) Emerging from a nap in my hut one day to hear my host mother proclaiming she had found a husband for me. Surprise! His name was Abdourahmane, she said. He came by and promised her money, fabric, sheep and goats for my hand in marriage, she said. How could she say no? (She made all this up, of course. This is why I love her.)

Mariama, my host mother

4) Running from the Kankurang. This raggedy carpet-like creature comes out during the rainy season in Senegal’s Casamance region, marking the time of the initiatory rite of circumcision for young boys. His costume is made from bark, leaves, red tree fibre, and vegetable dye. The Kankurang runs around town clanging machetes together, shrieking eerily, and chasing people. Sometimes he smacks unlucky individuals with the flat of the machete.

The Kankurang!

My host sister is scared of the Kankurang, so she and I always hide when we see him coming.

5) The many quotes and words of wisdom from Samba Kandé, my Pulaar language teacher. Regarding weekend fever: “Friday I have many water in my head. I am thinking about the weekend.” Regarding the important things in life: “I love this place. We have many shade and many mangos.”

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Samba Kandé, my Pulaar teacher, being a boss. (Eating kossam - sour milk - and couscous, a local dessert.)

6) Receiving this invitation via text message at night from a Senegalese friend: “Hey, I’m going to go buy a goat. If you’re free would you like to accompany me?” (...There is so much to do in Kolda.)

7) Watching chickens escape one by one from a cardboard box at the Gambia River crossing, to the chagrin of their owner. I sat back and enjoyed the show as the entire mass of people in the near vicinity attempted to catch them. Why not help, you ask? Have you ever tried to catch a chicken?

8) The secondhand American t-shirts people wear here in Senegal without any idea of what the words mean. Here is one I encountered in a Kolda village:

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9) When a kid in our Youth Empowerment Camp declared he was going to be President of Senegal some day, and of course he would make all the Diallos ministers. In Senegal nearly everyone is descended from one of 20 or so family groups, which means heated and humorous debates over which family group is better. For instance, my host family members are Baldés, so we know that all Diallos and Kandés are troublemakers and thieves!

The future President of Senegal at Kolda Youth Camp

10) Becoming fluent in the rapid volley of joking insults Senegalese people love to dish out in local languages when they find you’re from a competing family group. “You’re a frog / bean-eater / donkey! You steal everything! You probably stole those clothes you’re wearing, didn’t you?” (All said with huge, beaming smiles.)


11) Drinking undiluted ginger juice for the first time. Never tried it? Imagine drinking liquid wasabi. This is a favorite drink in Senegal along with bissap (hibiscus) and bouye (baobab fruit) juice.

12) The romantic overtures of Senegalese men have to make it to this list. The first time my ladies and I were called “les belles gazelles,” we were very confused. (Better to be a beautiful gazelle than a beautiful hippo, I suppose.) There are offers of marriage the instant we hop into a taxi or conduct any kind of shopping transaction. And let’s not get into those novel-length love poems sent as text messages.

13) When I reached out to greet a friend and promptly fell off my bike into a sand pit. It kind of happened in slow motion - I could not be saved.

14) The moment I realized I no longer expect the Director of any organization to ever actually be in his office, or available, when I come by. Here’s a conversation I overheard in the Kolda Inspection d’Académie to illustrate this (translated from French):

Visitor: “Good afternoon, is the Director here?”
Secretary: “No, he’s out.”
Visitor: “But he will return, right?”
Secretary: “Yes… in theory.”

15) Taking attendance for my English class and asking a guy three times if his last name really was Maaro, which means “rice” in Pulaar. It was.

16) Mice eating my Nutella—lid, label, chocolate and all— when I naively left the jar on a shelf in my hut while I was on vacation. It was a sad day for chocolate. Even sadder when none of my American friends back home believed me! (Living in a thatched hut guarantees you will have rodent roommates.)

17) Watching a Senegalese man frolic with his pet sheep on the beach in Dakar, exactly as if it were a dog. They jumped around, played catch with a ball, and went for a swim.

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This is the very sheep - on Mamelles Beach in Dakar

18) Lying on top of the well stargazing one night at my first host family’s house in Mbour. Everybody laughed long and hard at the weird thing this toubab was doing now. Twenty minutes later, all my host sisters had joined me on the well!

19) The constant sight of live goats, sheep, and chickens tied to the top of buses and the backs of motorcycles, eyes bugging out of their heads, hollering like there’s no tomorrow. I mean, how else would you transport your animals? (Don’t answer that.) I’m so used to the cacophony of animal sounds that I often don’t notice until I’m about to board the bus. Then I look up and see a row of sheep heads staring down at me.

20) Collecting an entourage of children chanting my local name (“Aissatou!”) during my visit to a big daara (Koranic school) in Kolda. Peace Corps may be a tough life at times, but at least we get local celebrity status! Here’s the proof:

Senegalese kids are awesome.