Saturday, March 31, 2012

Senegal from my Parents' Perspectives

My mom and dad came to visit me!!! Rather than boring you all with my descriptions of ferrying them around for 10 days, here's a change- Senegal from their points of view! First my dad:

This was a trip that opened my eyes to how more than half the world lives in third world. It was both fascinating and surreal. Everything works differently in Senegal. It is dirty, people throw their trash everywhere and occasionally burn things on the side of the road. The roads are mostly paved in Dakar and very dangerous since the taxi drivers leave no room between themselves and the cars in front of them. Outside of Dakar, the only streets that are paved are a few city to city connector roads, which are the width of a side street in America and the main streets in other cities. Major roads often change from potholed paved to laterite clay between cities. Trips to villages are either on the clay laterite roads or even worse, sand. We took public transportation during our trip in either a 40 passenger mini bus with baggage and people hanging from the roof and fare collectors hanging from the rear. The other major public transit is a Sept-place, which is an eight person Peugeot station wagon that they often cram extra people into. Catching rides on Sept-places is an experience that is right out of a movie. You go to an open air garage with hundreds of people peddling merchandise and make arrangements with route drivers for transit and haggle for a good price for your bags and transit. The best transit was riding bicycles from Toubacouta to Emily's village, a two hour bike ride on laterite and sand roads. We passed by 7-8 villages along the way with little kids running alongside yelling “Toubab” (Foreigner or White Person) and asking for candy or money in Wolof. It is a stark dry and sandy landscape with domesticated goats, sheep, cows, chickens roaming about. Over the course of our stay in village we saw how difficult life is with lack of water in this very arid climate. A dead horse lying on the side of the road was being nibbled on by vultures, a donkey with a broken leg bent at a sideways angle was pulling a cart with five people aboard, and dried up water holes were collecting trash, trash, trash everywhere. All the rain comes during the June - September rainy season, and the rest of the time the water has to be managed frugally. Just getting water up the well and carrying it back to the hut for use for bucket baths, drinking and cooking makes you use less since it is such a big effort. I estimate that Emily uses 5-10 gallons a day. In America we calculate 275 gallons a day per person when estimating needs for new houses.
Life in Keur Andella. We were honored guests that were introduced to about half of the Wolof-speaking people of the village of 600. The village chief was wonderful, the Imam was gracious, and Emily's host family went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and shared meals with us. Americans would be appalled by the food, cleanliness and customs of life in the village. Meals are served on a big platter with a rice base, onion sauce and a small boney helping of fish or chicken in the middle. The host picks at the fish/chicken pulls off a small piece and tosses it into your section of the bowl. Locals eat with their hands (we could use spoons) and mash the rice together into a clump before putting it into their mouths spitting out bones.
The people are so friendly and appreciative of Emily and in extension us. Emily has been doing a world of good for the people of the village who are educated through third or fourth grade if they are lucky. A few go on to Middle and High School. Among the projects she is working on is a latrine project, adding 24 squat toilets scattered around the village. Many people go in the open and during the rainy season the feces can pollute the wells. We met the builder of the latrines and saw the caste cement caps being placed. Another project she is working on is the Women's Garden. The nutrition in villages revolves around mostly rice and minimal protein. There are efforts to educate women about better nutrition, and Emily is assisting in this effort by acquiring barbed wire fencing to protect the plants and assist the women to plant vegetables. We also saw school gardens, which educate children in nutrition and planting vegetables.
There is so much more that Emily is doing with planting live fencing, interacting with teachers and presenting America in a good light. It is the best goodwill for America to have Peace Corp doing work in third world countries. The people in village are genuinely warm, thankful and peace-loving. I have to laugh at how much celebrity Emily (Fatou) has in her village and several nearby villages. People all yell “Fatou, Fatou!” in greeting. They know what she is doing for them and it makes me very proud.
We met many of her fellow Peace Corp volunteers and I am very impressed at their motivation and knowledge in a very difficult environment. Mary and I had some good laughs with them during a regional get together, where we helped paint a new sub-regional office. These volunteers deserve our thanks and help when needed. Other diversions - The three of us went to Keur Bamboung where we spent two days in bliss on an ecotourism retreat on an island in the delta region. We also went to Toubab Diallaw and enjoyed a beachside hotel with a luxury tower room that I'll post pictures of. The touristy visits were fun and made it easier for our American bodies to get through 10 days in Senegal. After seeing and experiencing village life, I have much more respect for the Peace Corp Volunteers and especially Fatou.

And now it's mom's turn:

Well, here we are back from Senegal. This will be a trip I'll never forget. The 2 days spent in village was the high point for me. The people clearly love Emily and really value her efforts to improve the circumstances in village. It was heart-warming to witness, and really made Joel and me much more comfortable with her life there.
The most important skill you need there is the ability to speak Wolof. When you master that, you're in the club. You can then negotiate every purchase, whether it be food or transportation, because unlike the US, everything is a negotiation. It was amusing to not only Joel and me, but to Senagalese bystanders to watch this slight, white girl fiercely negotiate a fair price for a cab. The other cab drivers observing this always smiled or laughed. You have to steel yourself to do this, though, and it can clearly become exhausting to the one doing it- unlike us bystanders. The "cabs" and sept-places are a real trip. When I first got into one, I only did so because Emily seemed perfectly comfortable with it. You go to a "garage" which is just an open location in the town or city where 25-50 beat up cars and passenger vans are waiting to fill up, so that they can get their full fair before leaving for a destination. While waiting for the 7 passenger beat up Peugeot station wagon, or "Sept-place" to fill up, numerous adults and kids are knocking at the window or patting the back of your shirt through the back window to get your attention, trying to sell water, cashews, cellphone refill cards, clothes, you name it. The 3 of us always sat in the 3rd row because it was much more spacious than the 2nd, where often 4 people can squeeze in together. You always want a window open when the engine is on, so as not to become asphyxiated by the fumes. The price for transportation is a bargain, however. It never costs more than a few dollars to go approx 20 miles. But, hands down, transportation is the most dangerous thing in this country, since there are virtually no traffic lights, speed limits, seat belts, door handles that work, unbroken windshields, I could go on and on.
The best way to travel if you can physically do it is by bike. Em secured 2 extra bikes for us to use biking down to her village- approx 15 miles from Toubacouta, a town we stopped in for a day . Thanks for the bikes, Rob and Garrison! We met a bunch of the PC sub-region volunteers and did a little painting in the new office. It was fun hanging out for the afternoon with all the "young folk" and having a big platter of “yassa jen” for lunch, then a beer later at the "patron" hotel overlooking the delta. The next day we biked to her site- Ker Andallah- over laterite and dirt roads. Looking at the scenery took your mind off the heat. It is really beautiful biking through the open countryside. The land is much like Arizona without the cactus. When you get away from the towns, you leave the garbage on the side of the road behind. Since there is no garbage pick-up, there is garbage everywhere, and often you smell burning garbage.
I was struck by the physical beauty of the people. Almost everyone is thin and strong, with good posture from pulling water and carrying it on their heads. The women dress nicely with bright fabric and matching head wraps. In Senegal you don't need to go to the gym to stay in shape- especially in a farming community.
The food was good- but not everything. Like cooks, everywhere, some can do a great job and some not so good. We had a similar dish in a much poorer house that was much better that at the richer house, only due to the skill of the cook- always a woman, by the way. We liked the yassa and ceeb so much, we brought back some “magi” spice to replicate the dishes at home. We actually helped Em out by buying this because she needed some change for an internet cafe next door and even though she had bought a few items, the boutique (mini-mart) owner wouldn't accept her purchase unless it was a decent amount, since small bills are so rare. There is no such thing as using a credit or debit card in this country, and if you don't have small bills, like 1- 5 dollars, you are screwed, since almost no one has change.
All in all this was a trip of a life time. I thank you Emily for giving us the eye opening experience to visit your host country and changing our world view. We here in the US are blessed in many ways and need to remember that. I didn't know if the Peace Corps was making a difference before this trip, but I now believe it is making some headway into helping this poor country. It has many years ahead of it, yet, to become self-sustaining. We were there over the run-off election and thank goodness it was a peaceful one. The few beautiful tourist sites we visited were empty due to the fear of rioting during the election. We did enjoy the peace and quiet- especially in Keur Bamboung, a lovely eco-tourist campemont on the Delta. Thanks again, Fatou, and see you in the US!

Thanks to them for making the trip out here and the contribution to the blog. Love you both!

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