Monday, April 23, 2012

But I don't want to sit down...

It’s funny how so often, the situation that you know would scare you the most is usually the one in which you eventually find yourself. Through my study abroad program, students are given the opportunity to spend one week in a rural village to experience daily life, tasks, and interactions and to just be a part of a community that is different from the ones we left. Going into the week, I had no idea what to expect. We were told to prepare for two things specifically: extreme heat and a whole lot of sitting around doing nothing.
Because we were not given much of a choice as to where we were placed, I chose to work with an organization named APROFES, which is an organization for the promotion of women’s rights in Senegal. I thought that maybe, in working with an organization like this, I would spend my week surrounded by other students and stay active with a clear goal for the week.

Evidently, I still had yet to realize that this is Senegal, which means things rarely go as planned.
After spending the night in individual host families in Kaolack, we were sent off individually to separate villages in the area. As we were driving away from the city to be dropped off in our villages for the week, a few of us students were beginning to freak out. Not only were we going to be completely alone in our villages, but we also had no idea of what kind of tasks we would be given to be productive for the organization. As we sat there in the back of the truck, we contemplated ways to get the driver to just turn around and head back to the city. There was no way that I was going to be able to spend a whole week alone in a village.

Eventually it was my turn to get out and greet my new host family, who promptly renamed me “Oumy Saho” because I was officially a part of the village family. While everyone in the village was extremely welcoming and generous, I immediately realized that I was in a very frightening situation. I was alone in a village where the people spoke Wolof exclusively. No French at all- and definitely no English. Thankfully I have learned enough in my Wolof classes to be able to express basic phrases and just decided to play charades for the rest of the time. Even so, it became frustrating at times when the girls of the village would try to ask a question that I didn’t understand and, after responding “dëguma” (I don’t understand), they would just repeat it louder and then laugh when that wasn’t enough to make me immediately know what they were saying.

After the initial shock wore off, I began to understand that if I wanted to get anything out of this experience, I was going to need to be extremely proactive about being a part of the community. I lost count the first day of how many times I heard in Wolof, “Oumy, come sit.” Yes, I needed to realize that it is very much a part of the culture to sit in the shade, braid hair, drink Ataaya, and chat, but I knew that I could not spend my whole week being treated like a tourist, sitting on my own special chair watching everyone else do work.

Eventually, when I was told to “come sit”, I found the energy to say “deedeet, bëgg naa liggeey” (No, I want to work). Once I had repeated that a few times, I was finally able to actually help with washing clothes and ironing (which shocked them to find out that yes, I do both of those things myself back in the United States). These moments when I was working alongside the other girls of the village made me feel productive and included and I was finally able to feel like I could overcome this challenge of being by myself. I found it so fascinating to watch the girls in their work and in their interactions with others. I loved going to the well with them in the evenings and seeing the beautiful rhythm of bringing up the water and their grace as they carried the buckets back to the village on their heads (which was a task that I didn’t bother try because I knew I would just spill all the water on the ground and have to start again...)

Spending that week alone in the village really changed the way I see my comfort zone. For the first time, I was aching to just be able to relax and speak French and I began to really miss my second home and family in Dakar. With less than a month left here in Senegal (what?!), I'm trying to keep up this attitude and be as much a part of my family, neighborhood, and community as possible- even if it means being teased for saying "dëguma" a few more times!

Monday, April 16, 2012

How do you eat a mango??

I’ve never eaten so many mangoes in my life…Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Spring Break in Senegal right in the middle of mango season means buying them in bulk for next to nothing and eating them to survive the 12 hour drive from Dakar to Tambacounda in a 14 passenger mini-bus holding 18 people in 100 degree weather. It was kind of a crazy week.

Day one: Drive from Dakar to “campement” in Dar Salaam. 
 Like I said, our transportation may not have been the most comfortable or the most conducive to sleep, but it certainly was the beginning of our week of adventures. Cramped in the back of a mini-bus, bumping along the rough, dirt roads, my friends and I realized pretty quickly that personal space no longer existed- at least not for the next week.

When we arrived at our hotel in Dar Salaam, we were thrilled to see a few mango trees and immediately began our plotting of sneaking out in the middle of the night to stock up for the week…

Day two: National Park Niokolo-Koba!
6 people, but only enough seats for 4. What does that mean? It means trading off who has to sit in the back of the truck being bombarded by dust and dirt as we bounce along the park’s trails looking for any kind of animal sighting. It means mouthfuls of dirt and skin that magically turns 5 shades darker, that is, until you shower. We did get to see quite a few monkeys, a warthog, and (YAY) 4 hippos! 

Day three and four: Hiking, mountain climbing, and visiting villages.
Each of us stocked with our three water bottles, layers and layers of sunscreen, sturdy shoes, and gifts for village chiefs, we set out with our guide to do some hiking. In those two days, we hiked two mountains to the villages at the top and visited two more villages at the base of the mountains. While it was amazing to be able to see the green landscapes of Guinea from the top of the mountain, I was probably the most moved by the trek up the mountain. Each time we were climbing, we passed several children on their way down the mountain with empty 10 liter bottles of water on their heads. We knew right away that this was one of probably 4 or 5 trips up and down this mountain to refill the water jugs to deliver to their villages at the top. As I thought about how tired I was in the heat of the day and how I was going to tackle the steep incline of the trail, I immediately thought of those children- many of them making the trips barefoot or sharing one shoe each, just doing what is necessary for their families. 

Day five: Waterfall in Dindefelo
Our guide’s reward to us for surviving the two days of hiking was to spend the day at the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen. A 45 minute walk from our guide's native village, it was like we had traveled straight to Hawaii. After a day of swimming and relaxing in the cool (clean) air, we traveled back to Kedougou in the evening just in time to visit the market and head to the Peace Corps house for the night. 

Day six: Kedougou back to Dakar: 12 hour drive.
After a week of sight-seeing, hiking, and playing with the kids of each village, it was time to head back to reality. It may not have been a relaxing spring break on a beach, but I absolutely loved our week of adventures, however dusty and dirty we may have been.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Two months ago today, I got on a plane in the United States and got off in Dakar, Senegal ready for an adventure. Little did I know that every day in between would be its own little adventure. Today marks the official half-way point of the semester. And, while it has taken a little while for me to really adjust to this life, I can confidently say now that I am addicted to Senegal!

I am addicted to being a Toubab but not a tourist... (As strange as that may sound.)
I know that just by the color of my skin I am going to pay more for taxis and fabric, and that I am going to be stopped by random people who want to practice their English. I can't help that. But when that does happen, I am ready to show them that I am not just here to sight-see. This is my home, however temporary. Being a Toubab but not a tourist means responding in French when people try to "take it easy on you" by starting a conversation in English. It means counting the 180 steps of the African Renaissance Statue in Wolof just because we can. It means putting in the effort to make the next two months meaningful not only for me, but for the people around me.

I am addicted to life as Oumy Paye.
When I was riding in a taxi with my host sister last night, and I figured out that she didn't actually know my American name, I realized that Oumy has become like an alter-ego! No, Aby, you will not find me on Facebook by searching Oumy Paye... :p In her defense, I never knew how difficult it really is for people here to say (and spell, evidently) the name Becca. I have heard and seen everything from Bacca to Beckham, yes, the soccer player.

I am addicted to living with a host family.
As much as I love the friends I have made here, nothing can replace the personal growth that comes from living with a host family. Being a member of my large family means crowded mealtimes, waiting for the one bathroom to be free, hearing entire conversations being yelled from across the house, and not much privacy. But I wouldn't trade any of that because being a member of this family also means learning about the Muslim religion from two different generations, and experiencing first-hand the Senegalese tradition of Teranga (generosity).  It means two-hour long tri-lingual conversations with my brother while making Ataaya and teasing my sister about her English grammar. It also means being able to see my host mom's face light up when I tell her we are going to make S'mores again tonight.

It is hard to believe that just two months ago, I arrived (quite awkwardly) at my home-stay, greeted them by saying the Wolof phrase backwards, and was genuinely terrified that I would never find my place in the family. Today, looking towards the second half of my semester, I am hoping only that time would just slow down because there is way too much to learn and experience before I leave.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jamm Rekk

60 Toubabs + 2 rather large white buses
Air conditioning
Pulling up along side a run-down Kuranic school housing (who-knows how many) children. 

It’s a weird picture. 

Yesterday during our class on Senegalese Society and Culture, we took field trip to a local Daara, a school where children are sent to learn the Koran in exchange for spending hours in the streets begging for money as "Talibé". One of the first days of our orientation here in Senegal, we were taught what to say to politely refuse to give money : Baalma, ba beneen yoon, which means : Sorry, next time. After all, each of us has encountered people begging in the United States. Much of the time, we have been able to justify walking past these people by thinking, "they wouldn’t use the money responsibly anyways." But can we really use that kind of logic with these children?

As we were listening to the Marabout (leader of the Kuranic school) describe the goals of the school and the spritual growth that comes from this kind of life, he used an analogy that made most of us in the room cringe. When confronted with the harsh reality of children being sent to beg in the street, he compared the children to pieces of gold- they must be put through the fire to be molded into what you want them to be. 

Who is responsible to put out the fire for these children?? 

A couple weeks ago, as I was walking to school, I found four kittens on the side of the road struggling to keep warm with no mother to be found. As my friends and I sat there contemplating all the ways we could keep these kittens alive, even considering buying milk from a nearby boutique, my friend Annie immediately brought us back to reality. She pointed out the 4 talibé children watching us from a few feet away, the children who we had completely ignored just a few minutes earlier. 

Why were we so willing to spend money and time on these kittens, who would most likely not survive the night, yet were so quick to refuse the open hands of these children ? 

Towards the end of our discussion with the Mirabout, he said something else that was just as thought-provoking, yet in a very different way. He said, « Do you know why you are not outside begging ? It is because someone has already begged for you. » 

I think its going to take a lot of time for me to fully understand what that means for me personally, but from now on, I will look at those children in a very different light. And while I cannot possibly give money to every child who asks, I have a new perspective on who they are and where they are coming from. 

When we were leaving the school and were passing the children who were waiting patiently outside to be able to return to their studies of the Koran, I found even more incentive to change the way I see these children. Many of the children we passed said good-bye the only way we could both understand: by wishing us "Peace Only" in Wolof. 

Jamm rekk.

Friday, March 9, 2012

S'mores with the Paye Family!

While sugar overloads are definitely nothing new to this Senegalese society, the idea of roasting marshmallows over a small fire pit and making some sort of sandwich concoction is pretty foreign. Thanks to my wonderful "waa ker ci Amerik" (American family) who mailed me all the ingredients, I spent the past week preparing my Senegalese family for the exciting and delicious experience of making S'mores for the first time. I'm pretty sure, though, that my host father was still unconvinced that it was possible to make s'mores without adding some sort of meat. Hopefully he believes me now...

After dinner last night, my host brother and I began the preparation. I found him on the roof, hovering over a tiny coal incense burner and I couldn't help but laugh. I guess it would be a little difficult to find a forest within walking distance of Dakar...But despite the tiny flame, we were able to make it work!

As it turns out, Senegalese are excellent marshmallow roasters! While I preferred to let my marshmallow burn quickly and serve the S'mores out, my brother was extremely patient and meticulous with his, very much like the typical Senegalese attitude I have come to expect. It is hard to picture our American culture surviving the two-hour process of making Ataaya, but when you do it, you soon realize that the process itself is the experience...though the tea really is tasty! Just like that, it didn't take long to understand why my brother was such an expert at it. I quickly relinquished my marshmallow-roasting expertise to him and made trip after trip downstairs delivering the treats to each member of my family. As I handed each of them their S'more, I was met with a slight look of suspicion... a dessert...AND a sandwich? How could this possibly be good?? But, just as my apprehenshion of Senegalese food has turned into a love for it, it only took them one bite. "Neex na!" (It's delicious!) After a second round of S'mores for everyone, they were officially hooked!

Having spent two months of learning about Senegalese meal preparation and rituals, it was so nice to be able to share this small piece of home with my host family. They are already planning the next S'more night :)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When you just feel like coasting...

I'm beginning to understand that no matter where you go, studying abroad is exhausting. And anyone who knows anything about the school system here, or even the general Senegalese nonchalant view on deadlines or timelines knows that it is not necessarily the "studying" that is tiring.

It is waking up each morning and knowing right then that I have to decide, once again, how much effort I am going to put into this day. I began this journey knowing that I was choosing a path that involved much more of a culture shock and a rockier transition than many other study abroad options. Even so, after a month and a half here, I am still realizing that there are several opportunities within each day when I must make the decision whether I am going to coast or commit.

It would be easy to coast through the next two and a half months. I could spend the majority of my time with my friends, sharing only meals and quick conversations in French with my host family. I could be the American that all of my neighbors expect me to be, and pass them by as I walk to school.

But where is the fun in that?

One of the highlights of my day is my mile-long walk to and from school. As I approach people in the street, and just as they are ready to dismiss me as a "tourist", I watch their faces as I stop, shake hands, and greet them in Wolof. Although much of the time, I feel they are disappointed when they soon realize that my knowledge of the language is limited to polite salutations, I absolutely love knowing that to this person at least, I am not just another "Toubab".

I don't want to allow myself to coast through this semester. I want to learn how to make Ceeb u Jen, master the technique of pouring Ataaya, and be able to communicate with my family in Wolof. I want to commit to spending this semester not caring whether I spill half the pot of tea or sound ridiculous trying to form Wolof sentences, because at the end of the semester, I am going to take away so much more than just a few African souvenirs.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Il faut bien manger"

"You must eat well!"

These words are usually followed by my host mother patting my stomach and giving me a stern face to make it very clear that she wants me to return home with several extra pounds as a souvenir. 

It is hard to believe that it has already been a month since I arrived in Dakar! As I began to learn the rhythm and routine of living with (and as a part of) a Senegalese family, I have found that meal times have become both my favorite and also the most stressful times of the day. 

I am so thankful that I live with a family who is rather traditional with how they prepare and serve meals. This means, of course, sitting on the floor with 5 or 6 other people and eating around one large bowl, usually using either our hands or a small spoon. I have found that the interactions and mannerisms displayed during this time tell me so much more about this culture than I could ever have imagined. 

Because we are all sharing one bowl, each person is responsible for his or her own section. Usually in the middle of the bowl there is a pile of vegetables and meat that is shared between everyone. Let the eating begin! 

What makes this event stressful is not knowing where exactly the boundaries are between my section and the person on either side of me. While I am trying to be polite by being careful to not move outside of my portion, I need to continue reminding myself that it is just as impolite to not finish what is in front of you. Just when I have finished what I consider to be a reasonable portion of the bowl, and my pizza-slice section is scraped clean, my host mother (or sister) is quick to push a new pile of rice in front of me, and I must start all over again. 

During our first week of orientation, we learned, what has turned out to be one of the most important words in our Wolof vocabulary: Suurnaa (I’m full). After that first week, when I forgot it and had to keep eating until I thought I would explode, I have made sure to use it as much as I possibly can! Despite how much I love the food here and how excited I am to bring these cultural experiences back home after this semester, Oumy can only eat so much!