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The Journey Home

So I left my family with tears and sadness, knowing that I will be homesick forever; a part of my always there in Mbolo Aly Sidy.

Then onto Dakar where we met as a group of stage-mates to finish our 27 months of Peace Corps Service together.  (Well, the Sustainable Agriculture and Urban Agriculture volunteers together.. the Agroforestry and Community Economic Development volunteers had finished that previous week)

 

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It was a happy time and so fun to see one another!  Some of them I had only seen at the quarterly Sustainable Agriculture Summits, and the Urban Ag volunteers… there were a few who I really didn’t cross paths with at all during the two years.

During the COS (Close of Service) process, I was a bit conflicted.  On one hand, I was happy to have completed my ‘service’ of 27 months for the Peace Corps because it is an accomplishment that will help me when applying for jobs, and it signifies something ‘accomplished’; and end goal reached.  However, on the other hand, I was not at all mentally ‘home’ in America yet, like many of the other volunteers were.  There were some who had been counting down the days, minutes, meals until they would be back onto US soil.  Many had Thanksgiving plans back home to rush back to or Grad School deadlines to attend to.  I, however, planned to stay in Dakar until after Thanksgiving where I would then travel to South Africa.  I had originally planned to stay longer in order to make a trip to The Gambia, where I had not yet seen – and really felt that I should because it was almost technically part of the country.  I also have a distant relative there, whom I would have loved to have met for the first time.  Unfortunately (or fortunately maybe) I got so busy with people to see and things that I wanted and needed to do in Dakar that I was never actually able to make it to The Gambia.  I ended up staying with my best friend Ghuede and our friend Mista from Sierra Leone in Ghuede’s apartment instead of the American homestay that I was previously staying with.  Ghuede has been my best friend since the very beginning, and even though we are not always nearby each other and I didn’t always have time to spend with her, she was the most loyal and supportive friend I have ever met.  I was happy to spend my last few days with her.

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We had fun at Goree Island; me, Ghuede, and Mista!  They had never been, so we all went together.  It was such an amazing experience.  We felt like we ‘escaped’ Senegal for a day and I took them on a European (they would say American) vacation!

Such a memorable day for us all.

Then, Ghedde and Mista had to go back to the Fouta and I spent some time doing American things for a minute, like Thanksgiving at the U.S. Ambassador’s house.

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Then, all packed up and just BARELY under the weight limit, I flew away to South Africa!!!

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I arrived in South Africa and met my roommate from UCSD: Annie!!  Here’s how that worked: I had planned to travel to South Africa because

1. I wanted to go there,

2. I have distant relatives there,

3. I needed an intermediate stop between Senegal and home, and

4. I got a REALLY cheap flight there.

I had Facebook’d Annie and kind of off-handedly said, “I’m going to South Africa, you should travel with me!” Not thinking she would actually accept.  She said, “Ok,” and I said, “cool!” still not actually believing her.  Then, a few weeks later she wrote to me that she had booked her flight!  Wow! It was real then.  I felt really badly then when she wanted me to help her plan all these fun details of excursions and travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town and I was so mentally focused on Senegal and leaving my family and planning the going-away party that I was absolutely no help at all in assisting her.  I finally told her, “I like everything, I’ll do anything… Just book things and I’ll pay you back, I can’t focus on anything outside of Senegal yet.” And she took care of everything, Alhamdullilah.

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It was because of her that we walked with elephants! We saw ostriches! We pet cheetahs! Played with lemurs, explored the town of Oudtshoorn, and ventured into caves (well, that last one might have been my influence).  We traveled on the Baz Bus, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling in South Africa.  It is a bus that basically goes all over the country and stops off at any and every hostel in the country – and there are some amazing ones, all very cheap!

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After Annie left, I spent the rest of the few weeks there with my distant relatives.  Ok, so when I say distant relatives, here’s how it works:

Henry and Laura had Amy, Henry, Fred, and Burt.  Amy had Ray who had Derry (my grandmother) who had Karrie (my mom) who had me.  Henry had John who had Murray, David and Alison.  My great grandfather Ray Bridgman Cowles came to America when he was teaching zoology at UCLA back around 1930.  Therefore, MurrayDavidAlison and my grandmother are second cousins.  MurrayDavidAlison and my mom are second cousins once removed, and MurrayDavidAlison and I are second cousins twice removed.  (Correct me if that’s wrong).  So, basically family.  If we were in Senegal, Murray would be just my uncle and would treat me as his child, which is exactly how it was.  The three weeks that I stayed in South Africa, I lived with Murray and his wife Martha as if I were their daughter.  They included me as a part of their family, even taking me along on their family vacation out to a piece of beautiful property studded with waterfalls and wildlife.

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They helped me in ways they can’t even imagine.  They made the transition from Senegal to home manageable. They let me talk through a lot of things that I had seen and about how I had lived in order to actually come to meaningful conclusions to help me understand a lot of things by putting them into perspective.  I had been so ‘in’ Senegal that I had stopped looking at things in the American context or comparing things critically.  Their questions were educated and thought-provoking, it was so good for me to really meditate on these concepts.

Grace Bridgman (photo on right), daughter of Murray and my third cousin once removed, became my new sister.  She and I were very similar and had ridiculous amounts of fun together.

Did I mention South Africa is awesome?  Unbelievably beautiful country!IMG_3563

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Leaving South Africa was hard!  I could have stayed there… applied for jobs… hung out on Long Street forever!  The weather was beautiful the whole time and I was just starting to get to know my way around… just in time to leave.  It was just what I had needed.  Just the right amount of time to really process my two years in Senegal and it was just different enough from both places that it made a very good in-between.  It decreased the ‘culture shock’ aspect of leaving Senegal because it was a new culture in and of itself, but was still similar to Western culture.

Some of my thoughts and mental wanderings throughout this process…

  • Senegal’s culture of peace and solidarity, very little alcohol/drugs, living together as large families possibly decreases angst and depression.
  • Devout Muslim culture made me look deep into my own religious beliefs and question what it was that I was looking for in a religion.
  • Having less makes you much happier and more appreciative of what you have… but also more generous.  Senegalese motto: “The more you give, the more you receive in return” be it wealth, kindness, or friendship.
  • Hospitality is a shared core value across multiple African cultures
  • It’s entirely unfair that I can fly back to America and to almost any country that I please with my American passport while people in Senegal can hardly leave the borders of their own country.
  • Also, while watching the homeless in my neighboring towns in California, I think about how employment is such a contentious issue.  There are many unemployed here in the US, and I don’t want to make assumptions about why that is or about their opportunities for employment.  All I will say is that there are some extremely qualified people in Senegal and other countries across the world who would make very qualified working professionals if they had the chance to even attempt at employment.  Most of them are unemployed, due to conditions in their own countries, but if they were able to apply to work in the US, they would absolutely crush it.
  • My whole mindset has changed towards issues of international development, and the possible and the dysfunctional ways of approaching them
  • Ownership – what does it mean?
  • Money management and fluidity – thinking about today vs. planning for tomorrow
  • Corruption – possibly just an extension of the solidarity and family/friends mindset, well-intentioned, but not applicable to government structure
  • Child-rearing – We are really overprotective and coddling to our children.  Kids are resilient and can handle a lot more responsibility than we trust with them.  They also learn from their mistakes and (sometimes) dangerous decisions very quickly, and are wiser for it.

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I want to continue this blog as a continuation of my thoughts and observations throughout the process of reentering the United States and with my reactions from others about my experience.  The learning process never stops, and it is after the fact that most of the understandings have been made clear to me.  Now, being submerged in the Western culture (and during the holidays, especially) it has been interesting now to approach things with a different mindset.  It is as if, while in Senegal and South Africa, I got new eyes.  My body and everything else may be the same, but these new eyes have lenses that capture things in a different light.. a different hue of understanding.  These new eyes can adjust back to the way they were before, or, if taken care of properly by mentally focusing on the changes in values and concepts formed, they can continue to forever filter vision of the world in the new hue, the newer, brighter (or darker, for some people) vision of the world and those around us.

 

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Fété Coumba

Upon joining Peace Corps, I set a goal for myself.  If I change one person’s life in my two years in Senegal, my time here has been worth it.  What a surprise I got at my going-away party, when hundreds of people showed up to speak about what I have meant to them.  It’s not every day our expectations are exceeded hundreds of times over.  Machallah I am blessed.

This was not a work event.  This was not a training.  This was just my way of saying goodbye to my friends and family.

This day, from beginning, to end, and the days surrounding the event… this was the best experience in my whole Peace Corps career. This was a culmination of all the ‘work’ I had done throughout my life in Senegal.  It was my final program, my last ‘hurrah’ and the amount of people who attended proved to me that my two years in this village had been more than worth it!  It reaffirmed everything I had done and showed me exactly how many people cared and appreciated me and my work – hundreds.  It also made it easier to break the truth to people about my inevitable depart because, instead of telling people, ‘I am leaving soon, my contract is over,’ I would then add onto that the fact that I was to have a party in order to say goodbye to everyone. The reactions were classic: “I am going home soon”…”No!” (disappointment)…”But I’m having a goodbye party”…”Oh! Wonderful, we will be there, inshallah!” (No longer disappointed). It also kept me quite busy in the days leading up to the party because, it turns out, there’s a lot that goes into these events. I wanted to have dancing, theater, and thiossane (culture exposition). my impression, in attending previous celebrations was that these were activities that the kids already had together and they could just pull out of their pockets, but it turned out to be something we had to start from scratch.


“If you want to do theater or dance at all, Coumba, you need my help,” said Moussa Coumba. “And you should know that there’s a lot of preparation that needs to go into this, so I hope you’re prepared. You also should have really thought about this ahead of time, there may not be enough time to put it all together,” he warned.  I had myself a right-hand man. We began practices every afternoon with the kids for the dance performance and for the theater skit, with intermittent interruptions due to weddings and people traveling to farm in the wallo (see previous post).


This whole idea started off humble and small. I thought maybe I would have a nice party with my family and friends in our house. I purchased a sheep from my mother months ago and she had helped me raise it and take care of it.  It was now going to be our lunch.  When I began thinking of who I wanted at the party and which of them would be upset if I did not include them, and all of that, I realized that I actually had a lot of friends. And I actually wanted all of them to be there in order to see them before I left. Most of these friends had become more than just acquaintances… they were true friends. Many of them, I had spent the night at their house, or had gone to their wedding, or had been there for the birth of their child or death of their mother. These are many things I cannot say about most of my American friends.

 

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Thillo, my sister-in-law and I

The scale of the event changed dramatically with some news from abroad: Maxi Krezy was returning to Senegal (or so he said, casually via Facebook Messenger) I had been in touch with my friend Maxi Krezy on and off since he had left for the U.S. to work on his new album and memoire. He was supposed to have come to the Pete English Day back in April (or was it May?), but was unable to when the date coincided with the date he was slated to leave for the states. He had been there ever since, but said he would be home before I left for the U.S. I didn’t buy it though. As time got closer to my Close of Service date, I really began to doubt the validity of this claim. I didn’t doubt his intentions though. He asked me about the details of my party; at that point still in the small in-my-house stages, but when he said he would be taking part in it, that would change everything. If Maxi Krezy, world-renouned Senegalese rapper, one of the spearheads of African rap in the world today, says he is coming to a party, you can bet he’s going to step things up. I was now preparing for a concert with a discussion panel prior to the show discussing my chosen topic: female education, as we had discussed back in April.


Now time to step it up…

  • Rent speakers
  • Find DJ – luckily a friend of Maxi Krezy is a nearby DJ and immediately showed up to help, bringing all his equipment with him.
  • Procure shade structure
  • Procure chairs – from both the mayor’s office and the Qur’anic students
  • Approval by Mayor of both Galoya and Mbolo Birane
  • Clearance by Police
  • Invite everyone who’s phone numbers I had
  • Hold a Radio show

Sure enough, as promised, the day before the fété, Maxi Krezy showed up. Having had electrical difficulties that prior Monday at the radio station, we decided to go back to the radio that day. Better late than never. We (me, Maxi, DJ Fada, and Mr. Niang- an amazing counterpart in Thilambol) went to the radio station to announce the event. We announced to the world that Coumba Demba will be leaving. I was able to inform everyone about the event and express my gratitude towards everyone who has taken me into their family, as their friend, under their wing; taught me everything from, how to eat, how to milk a cow, to how to predict sand storms.


The day of the fete was perfect. I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, of course, but so was everyone else. They all really stepped it up, running to the neighbors to enlist more help with the cooking. My sisters made begniets and popcorn outside my room while my brothers took the sheep out back and slaughtered him, butchering him and bringing the meat to the group of mothers/neighbors/and friends who were working on the job of cooking the lunch. Alicia, my sitemate/sister/twin/best friend (pictured above) was my saving grace of the day as well, as she helped me keep my head on straight and even helped serve lunch! She was also the photographer.

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The kids took the charett (horse-drawn cart) to Mbolo Birane to get the chairs and another group arrived at the house to get the shade structure and set it up. Ropes were procured to make crowd barriers. The village bustled with excitement. (And this was all happening on a Thursday, not even a weekend). Guests arrived from Ndioum, Aire Lao, and neighboring villages and spent the day.


After the DELICIOUS meat-filled lunch, we began our procession to the school.  Guests began to arrive from as far as Boke Diawe, Thilogne.  Important people arrived from the mayor’s office.


The Eaux et foret (forestry officer) Abou Ly, pictured above, right, showed up, (among countless other important people). He was one of the people I have worked with in all of my agroforestry-related projects and is integral in much of our work here. I was honored that he came, as well as Madame l’mayor, Nafi Kane, who was even so kind as to bring me a gift of beautiful fabric!


Slowly, in ‘African time’, the music began to play and the village trickled in. After multiple suggestions and coaxing, I finally had to get decisive and say: “njehen! Puddorden joni joni!” Let’s go! We are starting right now! And it began!

I started it off with a speech to explain why I had brought everyone together on this day: “Today is for you. In these last two years, you have given me everything. I have gained a mother, a father, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, even children and grandparents. Today, I give to you in appreciation for all you have done for me and given to me and taught me. I arrived here as Dana: shy, unaware, unable to speak or tie my own head wrap. But today, I leave as Coumba Demba Thiam: strong, confident, and able to accomplish even the most difficult busumbura stitch in Senegalese needlepoint. Now I must leave so that I can return, successfully employed, so that I can make you all proud…”

When finished, I ducked inside the classroom to change into my next outfit, having promised myself that I wouldn’t get emotional in front of people. Speeches followed while I was in the classroom working to organize the people dressed in traditional wear and the theater performers. The speeches were an opportunity for everyone to talk about how they know me, our relationships, how we have worked together, reflecting on things I’ve done, things I’ve said, things I stand for, etc. Then we began the conference where Maxi Krezy spoke about women’s education and the importance of keeping girls in school, an issue of which I have dedicated much of my service towards, as many of you know after donating to my Michelle Sylvester Scholarships (THANK YOU). This is an issue that I had previously discussed with him, an issue of which I feel quite passionately. I knew, coming from him, it would hold that much more weight.

After many others had voiced their aggreance on the subject, it was time for the cultural display, or, thiossane (pronounced ‘cho san’) where all of us dressed in traditional wear paraded onto the stage.  I had not informed anyone of the fact that I would be participating in this core event. I insisted on coming out last. The reaction was unparalleled. The crowd lost it. Even Alicia and my guests had had no idea of my plan.

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‘Thiossane’


As we, the thiossane participants, danced to one Baaba Mal song after the other, my host mother Kadja broke through the crowd and danced towards me! I was beaming, and my joy was reflected on her face.

We danced for what seemed like hours, many people coming up and joining in to show their excitement and shared happiness.  Then came the theater performance.  I played the mother with two children who she hopes to enroll in elementary school that year.  Another family is in the same situation but decides, only after persistent begging, to enroll one child in school.  That child, due to pressures at home, drops out before taking her exams, and the family struggles to make ends meet.  Our children, however, succeed in their exams and get scholarships to study in America, showing how hard work and studying pays off.  Of course there are a lot of jokes (I play an illiterate woman with no idea what the words ‘surprise’ or ‘double-lined’ mean) and an obscene amount of scene changes.  It was all very funny.

Then for the rap!  Every aspiring rapper had a chance to take the stage.  Each was allowed one song.  The thing about rap in this country is that it didn’t really start to take hold until after American rap had been big for years.  American rap kind of tends to focus on topics such as sex, drugs, partying, drinking… you know what I mean.  The movement here, however, has had a chance to watch, from an outsider’s perspective, the effect that kind of music has on the youth of America and the kind of image it portrays for African Americans.  The rap and hip hop movement in Senegal (and I can see the trends expanding to many other African countries through popular music videos and songs passed around via bluetooth’ing) has taken a stand by using rap and hip hop for positive, developmental purposes.  This has been mobilized by those like Maxi Krezy and many of the other major musical artists and development agents.  Lyrics are now generally focused on topics of social mobilization towards development and aiming the energy of the youth towards building a better nation.  I never used to like rap and hip hop music, but since I have met Maxi Krezy and begun to listen to (and be able to understand) the lyrics of many of the local artists, I have found a new respect for the genre and for the musicians of this country as well.  Music has such a powerful influence over the youth of today.  It’s so inspiring to have musicians who really care about the culture of today and are working to improve the society of tomorrow, through youth and music.

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About 7 local rappers performed their songs.  Then Maxi took the stage and did what he does best.  It was fantastic.  By the end of the night, the entire schoolyard was packed with people all the way to the walls.  People were arriving by charrett even after we had ended the show (we ended relatively early so as not to disturb those in the village) and many of the out-of-town guests spent the night at friends’ houses in the village.  It was an amazing day/night.  One of those moments that make you feel alive and remind you that all the difficulties getting to this point were all worth it.  No event is perfect, but from my view, this one was.  It was everything I could have asked for.  That goes for the entire two years I spent here.  My time spent in Mbolo Aly Sidy was perfect.  The ups and downs made it real.  This place and the people have changed my life forever and will forever be a part of it.

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Min Jehii Wallo Jubboyde

Walking to the ‘wallo’ or, recessional river fields, at a brisk pace… so fast it’s hard to catch my breath. The boys are miles ahead of us, it seems, yet we keep them within eyesight because I, at least, do not know the way. It makes no sense, the way we are walking. We walk diagonally away from the village towards Mauritania and the Senegal River that divides our countries, but we are also walking in the direction of the neighboring village, Diaba. The land we are crossing seems inhospitable, and yet there are people scattered on the edges of our village and fields off in the distance.

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The ground looks and feels like cement… how is anything living here? Goats meander here and there, picking on whatever is clinging onto the ground to eat. Off in the distance I see camels foraging on the upper parts of the Acacia trees. But at our speed, I hardly have the breath to wonder out loud about the hilarity of these animals. Gogol Djeyneba and I are falling behind. The boys in front of us are carrying the tools for farming and our sleeping materials (blankets, mosquito nets, warmer clothes, plastic mats, etc) on their heads while the women are carrying the cooking supplies and food (on their heads too, of course). Even my little brother Adama (9 yrs old), the youngest of our group, had bags on his back and a bucket of yogurt in his hand.

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We reach the channel crossing to find it swimmable.  Later in the season, this will be dry and walkable, but today we need a boat.  And our feet turn into brown socks of mud that clings to you so tightly like suction, it feels at times like you may never be able to extract yourself.

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Walking barefoot now as our feet, clumped with mud, dry out a little, we continue… boys charging ahead.  We reach many muddy ravines similar to this one by the river and are forced to keep our shoes off because they are impractical by this point.  The only danger now are the hidden thorns inside of the mud…There’s no avoiding them.  You can only hope that the mud has dried hard enough to create a barrier on your foot.  If not, that thorn could be in your foot for weeks.  We pass through many fields that have already been cultuvated after the water had succeeded from this area to where it is today.

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We continue to where the river has recently receded and we set up camp.  We are lucky to have our fields on this side of the river and not the other side… We watch people as they wait for the boat to come back so they can cross over to their side of the river to start their day/week in the fields.

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The earth is cracked open with a huge crooked stick with a hoe end.  Then the ‘lougal’ is used to poke a hole in the hard ground for the seeds to be dropped in.  One man uses the huge stick to open the ground, the ‘lougal’ follows him, followed by the person with the bowl of seeds (beans, sorghum, wild watermelon) and then follows the person who fills up the holes with dirt.  Then nature does the rest.  The clay soil holds in water for long enough for the plants to come to maturity, and the nutrients from the flood waters feeds the plants.

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Lunch is prepared by Thillo, my sister-in-law, who uses what she has and makes the best dried fish and rice meal I have never tasted.

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Not sitting for long, we return to work after lunch and I cross the river to go check out some other farms.  We worked until sundown and then bathed in the river, scrubbing our feet and clothes after a long day of work.  Then we set up our sleeping arrangements – plastic mats with mosquito nets around them.

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The night was so cold I was unable to sleep.  We were up before the sun, the men picking open the ground before coffee was even heated up.  Then the rest of us meandered out, shivering and groggy.

Another day of work ahead.  I head back to my side of the river to find that we have finished our section.  We will come back in a week or so to see if the water has receded enough to continue.

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The thrill of the wallo makes us dance and sing with joy!  Hayooo wallo!  Hayoo wallo!

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New Understandings and Misunderstandings

“When you go to Dakar, we will go together. We will take Abou’s bus and will get off in Tivaouane to visit Baaba Anne. We will spend the night there, going to Mbour (city by the beach) in the morning to visit more relatives. Then, after spending the day there, we will head to Kaolack to visit Penda Anne. Then, the next morning, we will go to Dakar in time for your doctor’s appointment. When you go to the airport, I will go with you until I cannot go any further.”

Coumba Demba Anne, my namesake, godmother, bossy big sister-type, and best friend.

Coumba Demba Anne, my namesake, godmother, bossy big sister-type, and best friend.

Such a wonderful idea! What an endearing plan. The thought of it warmed my heart, but behind the warmth my heart was sinking with the feeling of doom. There was no way this could work out perfectly, there were just too many variables there… Too many opportunities for disaster. Keeping my hopes up, I packed my bags and said my goodbyes. “Yes, I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow, inshallah (God willing),” I told people. Nothing is ever certain in Senegal, and my plans were no exception.

Sure enough, disaster struck early on. Was it my fault I had planned the day of my departure to coincide with the pilgrimage the city of Touba, a religious Mecca for the major Islamic group, the Mourides. ? This happens to also be the major Islamic group of the governing body of public transportation. Not only are most people in the country going to Touba, but also so are all of the drivers of busses, sept place vehicles, and mini cars (that is all the transportation available, with exception to private cars, which also are either traveling there or being rented out to groups). My travel plans placed me traveling towards Dakar on the day in which everybody else had already arrived in Touba and were not leaving for days/weeks, depending. My tokara (namesake/godmother) assured me that, surely, there would be at least a few busses that had not gone to Touba or were planning on bringing stragglers that day. I have faith in this woman, she knows the country much more than I do. She also knows many bus drivers. She called Abou, our friend the bus driver (‘Beese Abou’ – Abou’s Bus).

Abou and I at the naming ceremony of his newborn son. His village only speaks Wolof so it sucks going there... Good thing he's worth visiting

Abou and I at the naming ceremony of his newborn son. His village only speaks Wolof so it sucks going there… Good thing he’s worth visiting

Abou, unfortunately, was planning on leaving much earlier in order to get to Touba, and would not be returning until the event was over. His bus would make a lot of money by increasing the prices and transporting people home from the event. We called his brother Bas, who also owns a bus (‘Beese Bas’- Bas’s bus). He said he could take us on that day, but called back the next day saying he decided to go immediately and was on his way without us. It’s possible a group rented his bus out at the last minute. No driver would pass up that opportunity. We decide to risk it and wait for a bus. “A bus will come,” says Coumba Demba Anne (my namesake), assuredly. “Inshallah (God willing),” I whisper under my breath. 4:30am I wake up… we wait, sitting on the gnarled log in the dark, for a bus, my multitude of baggage piled on itself across the street from us, looking as forlorn and ragged as I felt. The longer I sat, the colder it felt. I have never been so cold in my entire 15 months in Senegal. I wrapped my large scarf around my sweater, pulling on my hood, but still I shivered, my flip-flop toes losing feeling. Checking the weather app on my phone, I scoffed at the mere number 62F staring me in the face yelling ‘Wus!’. A bus passes going the opposite direction and Coumba Demba recognizes it! She explains, that is Asfall (Beese Ass) who is returning from Dakar. He will sleep through the day and then leave again this evening to Dakar.

Busses run from Dakar to Ourossogui along the Fuuta route all day every day.  Most leave their starting points at 4am

Busses run from Dakar to Ourossogui along the Fuuta route all day every day. Most leave their starting points at 4am

No bus came in our direction. We watched the open road until the women of the village began shopping for the day’s lunch. We resign to take Beese Ass later that evening, delaying our plans a day. We would rather not take the night bus (and it is against the rules to do so), but it seems we may have no other choice. The next morning could heed the same results. I dragged my bags home, dejected. Upon entering my compound, I exclaimed, “I’m back from America!! Turns out America is not good, so I’m back now,” to uproarious laughter and curious looks. I put my bags in my room and laid down for a few more winks.

That evening, we return to the side of the road and, sure enough, Beese Ass charges towards us, stops barely long enough for us to get both feet on board, my baggage still being flung on top, the second apprantee catching it and strapping it down as the bus charges on towards Galoya.

We anticipated arriving at Tivaouane around 6am, but we underestimated the fearless speed of Asfall, and we arrive around 3am, again waiting on the side of the road in the dark. Baaba Anne, bleary eyed, trudges towards us, grabbing my bags with hardly a word and we are ushered to his house.

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

We stay in Tivaouane 3 days. We do not go to Mbour, we do not go to Kaolack. That is just the way things go. We stay in a room in the middle of Baaba Anne’s house. We barely see him the whole time, but his wife tends to our every need and beyond!

Diallo, the woman on the right, was a fabulous hostess.  I am a terrible person for not being able to remember her first name... Coumba kept referring to her only as Diallo

Diallo, the woman on the right, was a fabulous hostess. I am a terrible person for not being able to remember her first name… Coumba kept referring to her only as Diallo

My tokara and I have all the time in the world to chat and bond, lounging in this room in someone else’s house, far away from where we live, free to speak our minds. We talk about everything… mostly boys/men. We have girl talk. This is when I realize; I am having girl talk in a foreign language. Not only in a foreign language, but an African dialect that I have only relatively recently learned. I feel like this moment is so fragile. I embrace it carefully, not wanting to shatter the thin shell of trust I have somehow created. At this moment, everything is perfect. Life, at the moment, is comfortable. Stressless. All that exists is this room, the two of us, and the secrets that pass between us, hang for seconds in the air before disappearing. All that lingers is that understanding smile, the glint of agreement in her eye, my concurring giggle. At this moment, I feel like I understand everything. So many secrets of Senegalese culture have been unveiled for me. So much about this beautifully strong, confident woman has been shown to me, and I love her all the more for it. ‘Enen dendii,’ we (inclusive) are together.

Then, suddenly, all that I thought I understood rushes away. I am caught in a sandstorm of confusion. My tokara asked me where I stay in Dakar. I had been under the impression that we would go to her relatives’ house. “I don’t have any relatives in Dakar,” she said. ‘Shoot,’ I thought, I could stay at the Peace Corps regional house but she wouldn’t be allowed to. Having not spent much time in Dakar, I don’t know many people with whom to stay. Coumba Demba and I parted ways; I went to Thies to visit my friend Ian and she headed to Dakar a day early to meet up with her friend Demba Samba. We agreed to meet up the next day in Dakar. My friend and Senegalese hip-hop star Maxi Krezy had rented us an apartment because his place was not big enough to accommodate three visitors (we had told him it would be me, Coumba Demba, and Demba Samba visiting). She had wanted me to come to where she was to pick her up before going to the apartment, but she was on the complete opposite side of Dakar from where I was, so I figured it would be easier, logistically, for her to meet me there instead of me travelling twice the distance just to meet her and bring her back. This turned out to be the wrong thing to do. She refused to get in a taxi, saying that she didn’t know the area where I was. She demanded I come to her. Unable to do so, she said she would rather stay where she was. When asked where she was, she replied, “at my relative’s house, of course.” Did I misunderstand her pulaar when she said she had no relatives in Dakar? Not wanting to stay at this random apartment alone, I opted to call up a friend last-minute and stay with them. They agreed, thankfully.

I went about my business in Dakar, making it to my dentist appointments and meeting up with friends, but all the while feeling guilty that our meeting up in Dakar hadn’t worked out. I had told her, however, that if she still wanted to see me off at the airport, I would be heading there around 10pm. At 5pm she called saying she was waiting for me at the airport. I was downtown, trying to figure out the bus system to make it back towards the regional house to meet up for dinner with friends, with only 2,000CFA in my pocket. In the end, not able to make it to her, she said she was going home and left, back to her relatives’ house. I left later that evening for America.

How did that go so wrong? That fragile state of understanding broke so quickly. One moment, I had everything figured out, the world made sense to me. The next moment, I had ceased to understand a language, or so it felt.

Nervously, upon return to Senegal, I called her to say hello. She answered, delighted, exclaiming how much she missed me and couldn’t wait to see me! Something Americans can learn from the Senegalese: never hold grudges.

Coumba Demba Anne, the strongest woman I have yet to meet, both in physical strength and in strength of will

Coumba Demba Anne, the strongest woman I have yet to meet, both in physical strength and in strength of will

One Year in the Fuuta

I can’t believe a whole year has gone by since that crazy day that I moved into Mbolo Aly Sidy, my language abilities little to none, my Senegalese complet keeping me from walking correctly, my nerves at an all-time high, coming into my compound full of people all greeting me, me knowing I need to greet them all but instead nervously laughing, avoiding their gaze. The feeling of excitement mixed with the fear of the unknown. I remember that day, the cow tied up outside my window would not stop mooing all afternoon. That is a sound I will forever associate with that day. The sound, mixed with my nerves, irritated me more than any sound I can remember. Since that day, I have come so far, become a different person. How can you define whether or not you’ve become a ‘different person?’ I think we are all different people from day to day, it’s not actually a grand-scale things. Every day we learn something new or experience something that shakes up our understanding of that thing, we become a different person due to our shift in knowledge, in perception of even something small. We don’t often realize these things, when they happen. I’ve stopped being shocked by much since I’ve been here, which I feel is a bad thing. I don’t look at things with the same amount of amazement as I first did. Instead I see things the way they are and understand why things are they way they are. But I miss that sense of surprise when seeing the goat strapped to the motorcycle on it’s way to the market, or the baby strapped to the mother’s back being squished into the seat while the mother sits with the other child on her lap in the open-air truck (the baby never once wakes up from it’s peaceful slumber) or the car that takes a detour off the main highway to pick up a refrigerator from the village water tower. There is a sense of peace that comes with this sense of ambivalence, but I nonetheless miss being shocked, having my view of things shaken up, my perception altered.

How do I know I’ve become a different person than I was a year ago? (I think we all change from year to year, regardless) I look at the same things I looked at a yer ago, but see them differently. I do the same things I did when I first got here, but I do them with ease and competence. I am able to approach and talk to people like I always was (even in the states) but it brings me even more pleasure and happiness than ever before. Sometimes you just know when you have changed. Sometimes you need markers of change. Here are a few that I don’t think will for anywhere on a resume

Things I have learned/Can do now

How to cook:
•The National Dish- Rice and Fish
• Hakko – a dish of bean leaves, crushed wild watermelon seeds, beans, peanuts, and fish, served over Senegalese cous cous
• Beignets – street doughnuts
• Nutritional porridge
• Cake/banana bread in a pot
How to carry large plastic benoirs of water/heavy things on my head
How to do laundry in a series of 3-4 buckets and benoirs
Gardening techniques (and then what people actually do)
How to make soap
How to de-leaf bean stalks like a maniac
How to cut any vegetable without a cutting board or sharp knife
How to pull water from a well
How to iron with a cast iron apparatus filled with lot coals
How to make ataaya
How to make and tie plastic bag Popsicles
How to haggle
How to travel anywhere
How to be impervious to thorns through foam flip flops
How to eat copious amounts of rice with no after affects
Pulaar
Some Wolof
Even less Seerer
How to drink absurd amounts of water
Senegalese needlepoint
Senegalese henna
Navigating markets
Patience

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Knowledge I have gained

How I want to raise my children… And how I don’t.
Awareness and understanding of the Muslim culture and teachings

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Things I now realize I am not so good at

Moving into a room with the knowledge that I will leave that room (aka unpacking).
Ignoring children during my workouts.
Being organized.
Overcommitting – but with wholehearted intention to accomplish everything I say I will.
Remembering everything.
Doing laundry for an extended amount of time.. It’s physically exhausting.
Fasting.
Peace Corps group gatherings
Lying, saying I have a husband (that didn’t last long)

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