Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Visit From Loved Ones: Observations

I was lucky enough to have my parents visit me in Senegal and it was a life-changing experience for everyone involved: me, my parents, and my village.  They made an impression on everyone they came in contact with even though they could only speak three words.

Here are the insights from my mother, Karrie Roth


The “dot” of a departure date, to Senegal, and a “dot” for a date to return to the U.S.

These dots are the way I thought about our trip to visit Dana in Senegal. The dots were the known points while everything in between the dots was unknown.

The “dot”, to depart to Senegal, arrived. With four suitcases stuffed with clothing, gifts, and supplies we lifted off to cross our American continent and the Atlantic Ocean. Our minds were open to the unknown that awaited us.

Dana meets us at the airport in Dakar. This airport signals a clue about what’s ahead on our travels. The arriving luggage conveyer belts twists through a crowded maze of people. Assorted bags and luggage tilt, sway, lean and stack up in thick piles. Only the luggage in front of us can be seen amongst the crowds of carts, packages, suitcases, and hurried bodies speaking languages unfamiliar. The travels ahead are somewhat the same as the luggage: in front of us awaits an experience, foreign languages of which we know not (Pulaar, Wolof, and French) and a sense of tilting and swaying while attempting to process a different culture in this new geographical location. Dana is our pillar of familiarity, interpreting and explaining the sights and sounds; helping us to remain upright and balanced during our travels through this country she has come to love.

Envisioning this developing country, that I believed I knew something about, was far different when actually seeing it and being a part of it. The travel experiences were almost surreal as there was so little to “build on” for familiarity. I found myself in awe of this country, the people, the clothing, the contrasts, the landscape, and the weather. I also found myself feeling more comfortable with the contrasts as the days ticked by. My love for this country, the people, and my daughter, grew daily, with each new experience.

Observations in Senegal:

  • Trash everywhere. Literally. No waste management services so trash is piled. Goats are everywhere. Goats eat trash. Trash smells. As the days passed, I noticed the trash less and the surrounding landscape more.
  • Dakar, the capitol, has hundreds of partially completed buildings as buildings are built, to lay claim to the land. When the money runs out, the building is halted. When money is available, months or years later, the building resumes until that money is depleted. This city has hundreds, if not thousands, of half built buildings.
  • Thatched huts are scattered throughout the land in the villages and provide homes for thousands. The huts seen in history textbooks are still present providing a constant shelter through seasons and time.
  • Vibrant colors worn by women radiate an energy and beautiful contrast to the stark reality of so many lives of those in Senegal. The predominant long dresses and matching head wraps lend an elegance and sense of time standing still. The dresses and head wraps are generational. The beauty and strength of women in this country is amazing.
  • Villages have a sense of order and predictability as well as a generational sense. Women caring for children, sweeping trash and dust, cooking, shopping daily for items needed for meal preparation, carrying babies on their backs. Men wear long shirts, pants, respond to the call to prayer, work in the fields with horses pulling the plow, tailor work, boutique owners, etc. There is a sense of history with previous generations completing the same tasks and the generations to follow will do the same.
  • Children are universal. Developmental milestones are universal. Fun to see this in action. For example: gross motor skills, such as pulling up on the raised bamboo sleeping mats, to a standing position and then traversing these mats. Stick figures drawn by children. The joy of colorful markers and paper.
  • Children were well behaved and seemed to know their place in the community. In Senegal, children spend much time on their mother’s back, viewing the world and blending into and learning the daily routines. When children’s bellies are satisfied, they leave the communal plate. Because of this, almost every child we saw was lean and muscular. Without plates, there is no “finish what’s on your plate” approach to eating.  Childhood obesity seems unknown in this country.
  • Charrettes are still a leading form of transportation in villages as well as the major roads. These donkey or horse-drawn carts are important in the transport of supplies, tools, food, and people. Young children commonly guide the reins. Buses and taxis pass the charrettes anywhere and any time creating a woven cooperation and acceptance.
  • Live goats can travel on top of cars and buses. They appear stoic and relaxed with this form of transportation as they calmly view the scenery passing by. Looking at multiple goats gazing at their surroundings from the top of a bus provided some humor while on monotonous sections of road. 
  • Boutiques are managed by mostly men and are a hub of social activity as well as a functional location to purchase the daily basic needs in a village. Boutiques are often packed, from ceiling to floor, utilizing every inch of space to provide a display of products available. People coming and going with their purchases. Freshly baked bread, for breakfast, is purchased at boutiques. Bread can be ‘sauced’ or spread with chocolate, spiced mayonaise, or other homemade sauces. (One funny memory, while at a boutique in Dana’s village, my stark white skin, made a baby cry and howl with sheer terror while he looked at me. I felt badly for this baby so I left the boutique quickly to reduce his angst.)
  • Modern technology has trickled into the historic daily routines. Cell phones are prevalent as are the “phone card” vendors selling minutes and phone plans. Interestingly, the contrast of technology waiting for use was evident at a school. Unopened boxes of computers, modems, and equipment sealed tightly with tape. Classrooms do not have air conditioners, rendering the computer equipment unusable as classroom temperatures climb over the century mark routinely. Awaiting air conditioners and glass to cover the open slats of windows will then provide access to computer use (and possible exposure to the internet which will, inevitably, provide information about the world beyond villages). I felt a strong concern, for villages, with exposure via the internet, to the world. The concern for change within the villages of West Africa. The current cultural rhythms and predictable seasons provide the historical norm of time. Will exposure, via the internet, to the world beyond villages change expectations and create a dissatisfaction with the current culture?

Dana has grown in her knowledge and understanding in her new country. She has stamina unlike most. Her acceptance of and enthusiasm about Senegal made a truly grand impression. To be present, to “see” her embrace her Peace Corps experience with such commitment and love was worth the trip alone. The contrast in living conditions, learning the cultural norms and expectations, communicating fluently in Pulaar, and seeing her radiant happiness was a joy to behold. I was unable to understand any of her conversations but “words” were not necessary. To see her joy, laughing and smiling, within her village and beyond, watching people seek her out, her talking, joking, and teasing and laughter was priceless. (Sounds like a Mastercard ad.)

One basic thought resurfaced in my thoughts throughout the trip. People. People are the same no matter which continent. Communication between people is essential. Lack of verbal communication, due to language barriers, was challenging but messages were usually conveyed somehow. We felt welcome in our attempts to communicate through gestures and hand signals. Smiles and kind eyes reflected understanding of some of our messages. Meeting Dana’s family, we could not “talk” with them but there was an immediate understanding and sense of family from the start. Dana was the beacon of translation between both families, West African and American. Through her, we exchanged ideas and conversation that linked us and bonded us together. This emotional tie, bonding our families, was due to Dana’s Peace Corps commitment and her love of both families on separate continents. This love was reflected and radiated from everyone and it’s what I hold onto now that the trip is complete.

Twelve days of travel included many experiences that caught us swaying in our processing of these experiences. Dana was our pillar and guide, translating and explaining our whirlwind of experiences, leading us to a strong, solid bond of love and appreciation for a country and it’s people. The “dots” of our departure and arrival dates were known. These “dots” were connected by a thread woven of bold and colorful new experiences while in Senegal with Dana. The fabric of this memory will linger and remain with us forever.


Peace Corps Service By Numbers

Months in country: 22

Books read: 9

Movies watched: ~21

TV series completed: 4

Packages received: 21

Fish bones swallowed: 1000+

Rolls of toilet paper used: 4

Mosquito bites: ~40

Ant bites: 15+

Scorpions in my room: 2

Courses of Cipro taken: 2

Courses of Giardia meds taken: 2

Days spent in Dakar sick bay: 8

Days spent in hospital (both Dakar and US):12

Pairs of flip-flops lost and/or broken bought: 7

Meters of fabric purchased: ~50

Rams killed in my presence: 6

Heads eaten: 2

Chickens I have killed: 4

Stage mates gone home early: 11?

Kilometers biked: 100+

Hours by car to my regional house: 4-8

Number of trips to the capitol: 11

Number of villages visited: 42

Number of people in my village: 700-1000

Number of boutiques: 5

Number of tailor shops: 2

Number of elementary school classrooms: 4 for 6 classes

Buckets currently owned: 8

Weight able to be carried on head: full benior of water, ¾ rice/seed/grain sack

Blankets embroidered to completion: 0.74

Batches of soap made: 9

Tree nurseries created: 6

Trees outplanted: 221

Trees still living: maybe 30

Pulaar proverbs memorized: 11

Number of conversational languages: 4

Number of namesakes: 3+1cat

Funerals attended: 9

Weddings attended: 13

Baby baptisms attended: 20

Babies born in the family: 3

Vacations taken: 1

Number of lifetime friends: Too many to count

Months left in country: 3.5

Sharif and Sacko, my two best friends in Mbolo Aly Sidy

Sharif and Sacko, my two best friends in Mbolo Aly Sidy

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Yaay – meaning ‘mother’ in multiple Senegalese languages

What does it mean to be a mother?

Faty Allisan and her firstborn boy at the naming ceremony/baptism

Faty Allisan and her firstborn boy at the naming ceremony/baptism

Joy.  It means pride.  It means dedication.  Each child, 7 days after their birth, are given a name and baptized by the elders of the mosque.  The ‘Innde’ or naming ceremony is not only a celebration for the child, but a celebration for the mother

Mettu and her baby at the naming ceremony one week after his birth.  This is their third boy

Mettu and her baby at the naming ceremony one week after his birth. This is their third boy

The mother is gifted with a new outfit, sometimes brought all the way from Dakar to be presented to her on this special occasion.  She receives gifts from all attendees, including money, clothes, baby items such as baby-sized mosquito net tents, donations of rice, millet, sorghum, beans, and most commonly – soap.  This is one of the happiest days of a woman’s life, other than her wedding itself.  Each baby born is a chance to celebrate the mother, celebrating the joy and pride that the child will hopefully bring to the woman.

My sister Maymouna and her son Hamath (named after her father, the village chief)

My sister Maymouna and her son Hamath (named after her father, the village chief)

The best naming ceremonies bring dancing and singing!  The entire village attends for lunch, afterwards shuffling and dancing (even in the heat of the day).  Another child is born in Mbolo Aly Sidy.  ‘Machallah’ – it is through God that this is possible.

Kadja, the baker's wife, and Aissata, one of the most recent twins

Kadja, the baker’s wife, and Aissata, one of the most recent twins

Being a mother is not easy, however, as my neighbor Kadja knows.  She has now had two sets of twins as well as two older children and one adopted.  “I am no longer a human,” she confided in me the other day. “I am just so tired.” Having a child means so much work – bathing them multiple times a day, feeding them while also cooking lunches for the whole family, changing diapers, toilet training others, keeping them away from sharp objects – razor blades, knives (common household items), watching out for the ones that are crawling so they don’t crawl out the door, keeping them from eating goat/cow/sheep poop, and keeping the cows from charging/stepping on the children.  I walk past Kadja’s house (she is the wife of the village bread maker) multiple times a day and rarely, if ever, do I see her sitting.

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Diapers – pieces of clean cloth wrapped up and tied in a rubber sheet

Aissata and Ibra Sy

Aissata and Ibra Sy

Even though exhausted, Kadja says she loves each and every one because they are each so different.  Each one of the twins has a different ‘jikku’ or personality.  They thrive from having her around all day every day.  Women in Senegalese villages rarely work, staying home and dedicating every second of their time to their children.  The ties between mother and child grow strong.

The pride of motherhood only increases with age and the birth of your first grandchildren.

Proud Grandmother - Djeyneba Djallo

Proud Grandmother – Djeyneba Djallo

And then there are the ones who have never given birth.

My host mother and her co-wife's son

My host mother and her co-wife’s son

As a woman, it is understood that a main role in marriage is to provide your husband with a child, so as to further his lineage and name.  Providing him children to outlive him after he passes away, continuing his legacy.  A woman unable to have children sometimes feels like a failure.  She has been unable to fill her role to her husband.  At times this is means for the husband to search for a second wife, someone who will hopefully be able to provide him with children.  My mother Kadja Kaya Kane (pictured above), however, is the third wife of my host father.  She has never had children, but has adopted two (I count myself as her third adopted).  She was given Kadja (her namesake, now 20 years old) from her older brother, who she raised since she was a baby.  She was then given Adama (the son of Maymouna, another woman in my house) who is now 9 years old.  Not only did she raise these children like they were her own, but she also has been the ‘mother’ figure to most of the children in the compound.  Most recently, she has taken the role of ‘mother’ to Mamoudou, the only son of her husband, and only child of his fourth wife.  He is the baby of the family, and when he is hurt or crying, he cries ‘Kadjaaaaaa’.  I have learned that, anyone can be a mother, whether or not they have given birth to a child.  Being a mother is an idea.  It is a mindset.  It is a lifestyle.

First Rain

July 7th The first rain. Well, not officially… It has rained twice recently but just tiny sprinkles that didn’t last more than a few minutes. Today it was so strong it woke us all up. The family had woken up at 4:32am to eat before the sun rose before the 19th day of fasting for Ramadan and then proceeded to lay down again and go back to sleep until sunrise. Sunrise, however, was preceeded by the onset of a downpour complete with thunder and lightning! Someone grabbed my foot, waking me up to tell me to come inside. We sleep under a large shade structure roofed with zinc sheets. Our beds are made out of a woven board of bamboo perched atop yellow oil bidons. I sat up, thinking it was time to wake up, but was immediately struck by the full sensory impact of the rain. The smell, the sound, the feel. I was dry where I was, but the mist being carried by the gusts washed over my body. The rain sounded like hail as it hit the zinc roof, rushing down, splashing on the sandy puddles below. I didn’t want to move. This was the most amazing place in the whole world at that exact moment. It was cool, calm, and yet chaotic and urgent at the same time. I was enthralled, and laid back down to try and make this moment last forever. But, my mother called out to me, “you need to take your mattress inside. There is too much water. Bring it into my bedroom, yours is too far away and you will get really wet. Come inside and lay down.” I got up reluctantly, muttering that the rain probably wouldn’t really last that long, it wouldn’t really matter if I stayed there.. But I went anyways. Inside the room, she and my sister were arranging the blankets and mattresses that had been taken inside from the rain. We set mine aside and I collapsed on the large mattress on the floor with my sister, my mom taking the one by the wall. (Something I really still don’t understand is why we never use the bed, instead choosing to sleep on mats on the floor.) I got up a little while later to use the bathroom. My mother quickly instructed me to take a benoir with me and carry it over my head so as not to get wet. It was about 6:15am by this point and still dark as night as I turned on my cell phone flashlight and perched the big plastic bucket over my head, holding it steady with my other hand. I trudged slowly across the yard, my $1 flip flops squishing in the wet mud and unseen puddles. I added some layers to what I was wearing and hurried back to my mom’s room, my cell phone in my mouth, flashlight on again. I fell back asleep, awakened another hour later to the squeals of the kids outside frolicking in the puddles, a sight so rarely seen and experienced. The puddles are short-lived, as the sand quickly sucks away all the moisture back into itself. I had plans to travel to Ourossogui (our regional capital) early this morning to get some work done and to pick up millet seeds to bring back before the first rain (HAH! Irony). I obviously had not left at 6am like I had planned. I now drank my coffee, thinking maybe I could still make it there and back today, sending the emails I needed and picking up the seeds in hopes that people wouldn’t have seeded their fields at the first rain (silly hope). I got all the way to the garage to leave when I realized: my whole family is out in our field sowing the seeds for the year, why am I not there? I immediately turned around, refusing the available car, and changed into my work pants and a t-shirt to head to the field where we spent the rest of the morning seeding, singing, dancing, and praising God for the wonderful gift of such a healthy, generous rain.  What a day.