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Megan Hansen
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June 2007
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The road to Timbuktu

Ah, Mali. Gate to the mighty Sahara, keeper of Tuareg culture, home to the largest mud structure in the world. I'm not exactly sure why I wanted to go to a country whose greatest claim to fame was that it held the largest mud structure in the world, but heck, that's got to be a lot of mud, right? Everything I'd heard of Mali made it sound so empty and desolate, I had to investigate and see what was really there--which mostly turned out to be a lot of emptiness and desolation. But also all that other fun desert stuff, like camels and Tuaregs and magical nights under desert stars and even a few cactii. So even though my friend Lisa and I had just finished two satisfying but gruelling years in Senegal being deprived of modern conveniences, only to go to a country even more (WAY MORE) lacking in everything, we had a really fantastic time. Well, until she almost died. But that's another story.

Both of us were a little hesitant about going to Mali, since the embassy had sent us warnings not to go near Timbuktu due to rebel activity and highway banditry, and of course the only reason we were going to Mali was to say we'd been to Timbuktu. The thought of spending 10 days in this unknown, dusty, poor desert country without even going to Timbuktu wasn't so appealing, so we thought, well what the hell. We'll go anyway. Our trip began in the Dakar (capital of Senegal) airport, where we met 3 other Western travelers, and after a brief chat we were all quite relieved to know we weren't the only idiots out there going to Mali in the hottest of the hot season when all guidebooks say DON'T GO. Did I mention we were in an airport? This is because, given our options, Lisa and I decided to splurge and fly to Bamako (capital of Mali). Option 1 was taking a bus: a 5 day nightmare that usually ended in disaster somewhere near the border. Option 2 was the train: some German friends we met went to the train station to ask at what time the train was arriving, and the woman said, "oh I have no idea," and they said "but it's a train," and she said, "well it depends on if the train derails or not today." So, we flew.

Interestingly enough, this was a Muslim airline flying from one Muslim country to an even more Muslim country, and they served pork on the plane. And NO ONE KNEW! Lisa and I watched with slack jaws as the very devout but unsuspecting Muslim passengers shoveled the pork quiche in their previously untainted mouths.

Anyway, two of the Westerners we met in Dakar were Canadian, and we all wanted to see the same things in Mali, so we kept traveling together, and that way we could sort of pretend we were Canadian, too. Bamako was about the size of my high school football stadium, so we left town the next day. For the horrific bus trip that ensued, see entry "Mali and the Bus of Doom." It ended with us stranded in a bus station at 4am, exhausted, miserable, hungry, cramped, a day late, frightened, and quite, quite sure that if all transportation in Mali was like that, there wasn't a chance in hell we were going all the way to Timbuktu. But as chance had it, there just happened to be a guy in the bus station who had a car and driver for rent, and after two hours of negotiating, the car was ours! And even better, it was a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser, possibly even the Eddie Bauer edition. The four of us piled in and took the smoothest ride of our lives to the fabled city of Timbuktu.


Salt caravan coming from the Sahara

I don't think I've emphasized just how difficult it is to get there if you don't have our luck. Once you get to Africa, and get to Mali, and get to Bamako, and get to the base town Mopti, taking hell-buses or train wrecks the whole way, then the true difficulty begins. Since Timbuktu is so remote (and frankly uninteresting), hardly any public cars go there. So you have to wait days just to get a seat in a packed, ancient Land Rover (the terrain is too rough for anything but a Land Rover). We met a couple girls who had waited two days on the side of the road, and another group of Peace Corps volunteers whose trip had taken 17 hours from Mopti (ours took 6). And of course, they drive like hellions, so your chances of surviving the trip are slim at best. Not to mention the reputed bandits and rebels the whole way. But, you do have options...you can take a camel (at least six days of excruciating pain and boredom) or a boat (three days of having to poop over the edge and sleep on a rice sack).

What was Timbuktu like? Hundreds of years ago it was famed as a city of gold, a center of great learning and knowledge, an oasis of greatness in the middle of the desert. Today it is...not quite so impressive. But we still had a wonderful time. Lisa and I had carried a bottle of champagne from Senegal to toast our arrival if we ever made it. After our champagne toast we tried to walk around town, but the heat was so intense, we made it about 10 feet outside of the hotel before having to turn around and sleep three hours under a fan. Timbuktu is small, the streets are all thick sand, the buildings are old and crumbling, but there are several ancient mosques and sites, and there's certainly a feel of being in the last place on Earth. It's also about the least touristy place on Earth. We thought there'd be tons of restaurants and hotels and travelers, but nope. Just a lot of sand. We only spent one night there, but that night we sat out under the stars at the Tuareg encampment near our hotel, drinking tea with the nomads and listening to their tales of crossing the Sahara on camel. The one and only employee at the hotel cooked us a delicious bread and meat-sauce dish, and we fell asleep very, very contented.


Djenne mud mosque

We made it back to Mopti in one piece, and continued with the Canadians to Djenne, home of the UNESCO World Heritage site, the giant mud mosque. It's what is sounds like: a huge mosque made entirely of mud and re-mudded every year. In fact, the whole town was made of mud, and it was so old and un-modern that I think Jesus would have looked out of place there. It was incredible. You know how you always wonder what it would be like to go back in time and see how people really lived? Well, go to Djenne.


A Dogon cliff village

Our next adventure was a three-day trek in Dogon country. Mali is pretty much the flattest, most desert-like country you could imagine, but there is one giant, thousand foot cliff that runs about two hundred miles across the country. The Dogon people have made their homes in the cliff, and live today much as Fred Flintstone. We visited many of these villages on our trek (trekking up cliffs in 140 degree weather is not advised in the guidebook), and it was a shock how primitively the people lived, even to us seasoned Peace Corps volunteers (and Canadians). I mean, I thought MY village was primitive! If you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the past, and are magically transported to Djenne, then wish to go even further into the past, and you might end up in something like modern-day Dogon country. It was absolutely fascinating. The people were warm and friendly, shared their millet beer with us, and always offered us smiles. Each night we camped out on the roof of a basic hostel, because it was too hot to sleep indoors. My favorite memory was touring a village and finding some children having a blast using a slick rock face as their playground slide. Here's one of the Canadians trying it out:




Thus ended our Mali adventure. Oh wait...the near death part. How could I forget. (rest of story to come...)

So, I haven't written in quite a while, but a lot's been happening. Never a dull moment when you're done with Peace Corps and bumming around Africa til your money runs out! Lots of good stories to tell, of Mali, and Timbuktu, and Morocco; you'll laugh, you'll cry, but at a later date cause I'm too tired to write it all tonight...

In today's news, it's my birthday! Yay. 25 years old. My grand plan was to triumphantly return home as the sun sets over the Asheville airport, poignantly arriving on both my birthday AND Mother's Day, and eat a delicious home cooked meal and entertain all with my tales of Africa. Instead, I am at the Marriott Inn next to the airport in Cincinnati. Surprise! Flight delays! It turns out I won't get home til tomorrow, just plain May 14th, not even ONE holiday, let alone TWO. However, I would like to take this opportunity to fully express how much I love America (in particular, its excellent customer service). Let me expand on this point by citing examples of the last two times my travel plans went wrong:

Exhibit One: MALI and the BUS OF DOOM

Now, I realize that there are always delays and cancellations and that's just a part of life, be you in West Africa or California...what's REALLY telling about how well a country is run is how it deals with its delays and cancellations. So, let me describe a horrific tale of pain and desperation that is the normal Malian bus experience. My friends and I reserved tickets in advance, but when we showed up, our bus was delayed twice, and then just canceled. No apologies. They even got angry at US. So we found another bus that was supposed to leave at 9am, and actually left at 2pm. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours, and it took 14. No apologies. In fact, around midnight the bus just 'decided' to switch destinations entirely, and instead of going to the town of Mopti we'd all bought tickets for, went to Burkina Faso! I mean, it's a completely different country!! So they kicked off everyone going to Mopti (which was, of course, everyone) on the side of the road in the pitch black darkness somewhere in the Sub-saharan wastelands. There were lots of men with guns just standing around. And it smelled strongly of bodily functions. The four of us Western travelers contemplated seting up camp for the night, but managed to flag down another bus and hitch a ride on to Mopti...got there at 4am, stranded in the sketchiest bus depot I've ever seen, down by the river.


Exhibit Two: America and the Complementary Overnight Bag

So compare above story with what happened to me tonight. I don't mean to sound whiny about Mali, I mean, I didn't really expect to find stellar customer service in Africa. I only mention it to illustrate how borderline-absurdly wonderous American business can be and how often we take it for granted. So, my flight was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight to North Carolina. The airline pilot came on the intercom about every 10 minutes to fully explain the situation, apologize profusely for the delay, and see if the flight staff could be of service in any way. Once I got to Cincinnati, not only did Delta get me a free night in a hotel suite complete with kitchen and whirlpool, a free shuttle there and back, and vouchers to buy as much Ben and Jerrys and Bacardi as I could handle, they gave me a complementary overnight bag, complete with (I've listed everything for all my friends still in Senegal who will never believe it): T shirt, toiletries bag, shaving cream, razors, french-milled soaps and the like, hairbrush, Qtips, laundry detergent, and the icing on the cake, an APOLOGY NOTE! And a CANDY WELCOME BAG! And free microwave popcorn for my microwave! WTF??! This is amazing to me. This is almost more than I think I deserve for just getting bumped on a flight. I really would have been happy with a comfy airport couch to spend the night on. But who'd turn down all that? I mean, if you can't spend your birthday with those you love, second best is to spend it lounging in your king-sized bed watching movies and getting toasted on Bacardi, courtesy of Delta!

Just a few more pictures of my last day and my Chiquita banana outfit...








Ah, the end of an era. I am now officially moved out of my village. The last donkey cart has been loaded and set off into the sunset. On my final day, my friends Anne and Shannon (thank her for the photos) came with me. It was charmed from the start; our bus from Kaolack, usually crammed full of snotty children, vomiting babies, chickens pecking your feet, goats bleating in your ear, and two fat cheb mamas on either side of you, was shockingly and orderly filled with German tourists. The luggage had been stacked with precision care. Each tourist maintained their personal space and spoke in polite, indoor voices. I knew immediately this was one trip I wouldn't end up getting peed on.

So when we made it to my village, we were unusually refreshed and in good spirits. Children who usually taunted us from a safe distance were polite for the first time. We began the rounds, visiting every compound to say goodbye. The village had pooled money and bought me a "charming" (ahem) bubu and plastic flip flops and dressed me up to look like the Chiquita banana lady. I went around handing out kola nuts and candy. It was overall a big hit. Everyone pretended to be shocked I was leaving. They said nice things like I was destined to marry rich and have many children. My two best friends in the village who had moved away several months happened to be back visiting. My cat showed up after a long absence and I got to say goodbye. Ah, I begin to choke up thinking back on it. It was a touching goodbye. (I mean the whole village, not just the cat).

I'll just wrap things up by saying that in all the emotional hubub, we forgot to drink water in the 110 degree scorching sun, and after 5 straight hours in direct sunlight we returned to Kaolack, probably 90 percent dead. I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to make it. It took me 3 days to be able to fully move again. But I guess the good thing about a heat wave here is, I'M GOING HOME TO NORTH CAROLINA WEATHER!


Some pictures of my latest projects, the veggie garden mural and chalkboard, and the school garden well:

ar


Let me start with the good news. I'm in Dakar for my Close of Service conference, which means basically I am finished!! Just a few babies to kiss, kola nuts to hand around, and I am outta here. My village has been talking for months about the going away party (dancing, check. drumming, check.) they are going to throw for me. Don't confuse this with generosity; they'll make me pay for everything. But the thought is there I suppose. I had been envisioning sneaking out at the crack of dawn before the chickens wake up and alert everyone to my presence, but I agree now it's best to have a real ceremony, and it will be nice to hear lots of speeches about how great I am. Not that I really am, but Senegalese are known for their over-the-top flattery. The volunteer before me was an older, retired woman who had lots of personal money and no grandchildren, so when she left she handed out bicycles. BICYCLES. This is what my villagers are assuming they'll get when I leave. However, I will be giving out nuts instead. I intend to get away with this by laughing it off, as everyone keeps talking about what a great sense of humor the Senegalese have. I don't know if they'll give me a going-away present. A volunteer who finished and left when I came to country was telling me that her family tried to give her a goat to take back to America and share with her family. She explained goats aren't allowed on a plane. Her villagers patiently explained that that's why you tie the goat on TOP of the airplane. I don't know what eventually happened to the goat.

So, the bad news. A friend and I were mugged a few weeks ago and my purse was stolen with money, camera, phone, etc. It wasn't the end of the world. But it does mean no more photos on the blog. I need a camera rather badly to take final picture of my village and pictures of my travels to Mali and Morocco, but I intend on being with other Americans most of this time and they've agreed to take photos and give me copies. I know I could have gotten mugged anywhere, but being so close to the end of my service, it sort of pushed me over the edge a little. Silver lining: my host family freaked out when I told them, cried their eyes out (Senegalese are like Chuck Norris. They never cry), and have been cooking me good food and giving me my space ever since. This mugging was actually the only down point to an otherwise fantastic softball EXTRAVAGANZA. Every year for a long weekend 25 softball teams from all over West Africa (mostly Americans, like embassy workers) gather at the American Club in Dakar for a social tournament. Social means beer on the field is ok and you can dress like pirates. There were Peace Corps teams from Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Gambia. There is also imported snack food like Doritos and Nerds. I ate about 200 hotdogs. My team, Kaolack Region, did the best of all PC Senegal teams and actually came in 4th overall. No thanks to me, of course, though I did get put in a few times when we were clearly loosing anyway. There was an awards banquet the last night, with raffled prizes. Now, for the whole weekend I practically hadn't seen a single Senegalese person, was eating FunDip, and speaking English. So I was a little shaken out of my false sense of home when at the raffle another PCV won "His Weight in Water." And everyone clapped like mad. Ummm...WHAT? This country is so dry and so poor that even diplomats get excited about the chance to get 150 lbs of free WATER? You had to drive to a warehouse in the suburbs just to pick it up!! What on earth would you DO with all that water?? It's only worth about 12 dollars anyway! In the end though the free Sushi Dinner prize was won by the man who owned the Sushi Dinner restaurant, so he traded for the water.

Well I believe I have my travel plans set, and it looks good. Really good. I'll finish in Senegal April 16th, fly to Bamako, Mali (more exotic to go overland, but that means 3 days in a schoolbus from 1930, sleeping on the side of the road, and getting peed on by goats strapped on top) and spend 10 days exploring the ancient cliff-dwelling Dogon country and Timbuktu. Of course, Mali is huge and basically roadless so once we get there, there'll still be plenty of horrific bus travel/traveling with livestock. Then, fly back to Dakar, and on to Morocco! This is the creme de la creme of the developing world. There's Pizza Hut. As well as beautiful mountains, desert, and beaches, delicious food, camel treks, Arabian spas, exotic music, and lots of things to buy. And it's cheap. I feel like it will be a nice transition to still be in Africa, but enjoy it.

More news to come in the next few days...

I dread writing this entry. But I know I’m going to get asked a million times what I’m doing after Peace Corps, so here’s my best shot. With two months left, I feel as though I should have some sort of “plan.” And yet, not really.

My original goals for after my service were:
Be hired into a well-paying, rewarding job with a respected international conservation organization.
Get a Master’s in Environmental Management.

Now, my goals are:
get healthy.
get a car.

Actually, I do still have pretty substantial goals. I’ve just realized that applying for grad schools and/or respected jobs is not possible from a mud hut. Also, the more I think about it, the more I want to take advantage of this unhindered time in my life to visit family and friends, such as those who got married and to who’s wedding I did not go (Rachel. Allison.), get a whole new everything (my entire wardrobe is full of holes and mice pee stains, my computer broke before I even left, I never even had a car), and maybe eat a few truckloads of vegetables. So when I completely my service April 16th, I hopefully plan on traveling around West Africa for a few weeks, visiting my friend Jerome in France for a little while, coming home to WNC for the summer and getting a part-time job or taking pre-requisite grad school classes and visiting people on the weekends. After the two years I’ve had here, just sitting in a comfortable chair and eating a taco would make me ecstatic, let alone beginning my professional career. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned here is not to be in any rush. Focus on enjoying life, no matter what you are doing. Oh, don’t worry, I still have my exotic schemes…my latest plan is to sail around the world for 8 months getting paid to visit far-off lands and write about it. Don’t go thinking I can’t do it, didn’t I just spend 2 years the only white person in a remote African village! But actually, I am looking forward to settling down sometime in the next year, I’d like to start a master’s program in 2008. My work here has exposed me to a lot of different career fields, and what I’ve learned has drastically influenced what I want to do in life. Instead of sustainable development (unbelievable riddled with corruption, moral dilemmas, insecurity), I’ve found that the only interest of mine that’s held up under all the tests is nature conservation.
So, I’ve been doing as much research as I can when I get a chance to go to the internet cafe, but I’d also like you as you all for your input. Have you come across any relevant grad programs I should check out? Or heard of an interesting organization I should apply to? Or a nice part-time job for the summer? I appreciate your suggestions, you people in the “real” world, and I will see all of you before you know it!

So, around sunset every evening I take a nice half hour to hour jog through the bush. It’s my most serene, contemplative time of day. Yesterday however, I got a few miles out on my usual bush path and ran into a raging bushfire of true Bambi magnitude. To be honest this came as no surprise, as I could see the smoke from miles away. I figured it was safe enough to run anyway and turned back only, to my chagrin, when I saw actual flames across the path. It may strike you as odd I’m casually running about while fires rage nearby…nah. It’s pretty much the norm by now. And the more I got to thinking, the longer the list grew of horrific dangers I came across pretty much daily on my ‘peaceful’ jog. Here’s a couple:

Bushfires
Monkey Poachers
120+ Heat
Vomiting Fits (thanks to giardia)
Green Mambas
Flash Floods
Thorn Thickets
Getting Lost in the Middle of Nowhere After Dark Where There’s Not One Damn Light
Sandstorms
Jackals
Explosive Diarrhea (again, giardia)


Just to give you the idea that NOTHING in Africa is simple. Nor easy. On a more cheerful note, here I am cooking rice and fish.



Now, I do not profess to know the origins of Halloween. I seem to remember some early church tale of settlers and witch burnings and All Hallow’s Eve…I may be completely off the mark, but I do know this: it did not originate in my Senegalese village. So tell me this, why the hell are all the village children dressing up in costumes and face paint, leaving their homes after dark, and going from hut to hut asking for candy and other small treats from village adults?? This is the hundreds’ year-old tradition of Tam Xarit, the Muslim New Year as practiced in Senegal. Bears a suspicious resemblance if you ask me. I think some struggling anthropology grad student would have a field day with this one. There are a few ways it differs from Halloween as we know it however. First of all, every kid basically dresses up the same, wearing clothes of the opposite gender (suppressed transsexual tendencies?), and painting their faces white with ash (I’m not even going to venture a guess there). Second, instead of a trick, they reward you with a disturbingly chaotic sort of dance if you give them a treat. Third, instead of Snickers bars and Reeses, they are usually given such thrilling treats as millet, rice, sugar cubes, or one cheap cracker per child. And yes they are grateful for it unlike our spoiled children of America.

I typically don’t like to give out money to my villagers, as it gives them the wrong idea about why I’m here, and also leads to battalions of people beating my door down to ask for cash. I try to please them in other, non-monetary ways. I found the ultimate village appeaser: tribal dancing. If I put on a bu-bu and wiggle around and kick up sand and do weird things with my hands, it’s like I’ve just bestowed on them all brand new TV sets. It literally makes them that happy. African dancing is by no means “normal.” You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like if a fat scarecrow was walking on hot coals while being attacked by killer bees, while wearing lingerie and covered in a blanket. Clearly I look like a complete idiot trying to mimic this. I don’t even feel any shame over this; there’s no way ANY white person is going to come close to mastering the moves (I’ve seen some brave souls try, but sadly, fail). But I figure, hey, if I can make a whole village THAT ridiculously happy by making a fool out of myself every once in a while, why the hell not. Last week was a traditional wedding ceremony. For weeks, my family asked me if I’d attend. The day of, giddy with anticipation, they prodded me as to whether I’d dance, to which I replied a cool “wait and see.” I made my appearance at the party, fashionable late as the sun sunk low on the horizon, dressed in an ice-blue lace bu-bu (a few tomato sauce stains discretely hidden), making my way among the crowd as non-chalantly as a single white person in a sea of black skin can. Immediately, a ripple of excited whispers cascaded through the crowd…WOULD she? WOULD the toubab dance? I bided my time, casually photographing the other dancers and making chitchat. My every move was followed by hundred of eager eyes. I made as if to leave—heard an audible gasp of angst—and turned back, kicked off my flip-flops, and made my way to the dance arena. Excited cries rung out. She WOULD! She WOULD dance! The drummers started up, I jumped around a little, hit random stuff, picked up sand and threw it—the usual—and the crowd went wild. Usually only about 2 minutes of this is enough to make them happy. Then they clap like mad and laugh and laugh and laugh but assure me I can dance like a pro (oddly, I sense no sarcasm in this), It’s only women allowed, but my male counterpart said he snuck around the back of the fence with the village chief to see if I had what it took. He’s in awe now, leading me to believe that there’s really no elaborate African style or rhythm at all, it’s just rolling your eyes back and acting like you’re possessed. And I know what you’re all thinking. And the answer is NO. I will NOT perform an African tribal dance for you when I come home. So don’t even bother asking.

I should explain the title. Few people in Senegal speak English, but those that do seem to have truly bizarre beliefs about colloquial terms we use. Nearly everyone insists, vehemently, that all bosses and important people are by and large refered to by Americans as “Big Cheeses.” I went to a fortune teller once with my language teacher, who translated the soothsayer’s interpretation of scrambled chicken bones into “You will have 2 children, a girl and a boy, own your own car, return to Senegal to visit, and marry a Big Cheese.” Anyway, that is what I had visit last week in the village. A Big Cheese and an even Bigger Cheese, meaning the Peace Corps Director of Senegal, and a Peace Corps Financial Director from Headquarters in DC. Sleeply little Ngekhokh doesn’t get many international diplomats nor people of distinction, so they were quite pleased with the news. The PC staff were coming to celebrate/inspect our grant project, building gardening sites. I am happy to report that work has actually, miraculously, occurred. The well digger has completely finished both wells, the village men gathered an unprecedented three weekends in a row to repair the barbed wire fence, and women have already been fertilizing and measuring their gardening plots. All this progress makes me heady with success. The water in one well is of a very high quality. The water at the school well, however, is a little salty, but we did a watering test and our seeds sprouted, so we’re going to give it a shot. Both wells were “named” after me, Megane, which is actually a renault car, but I’ll go with it. Senegalese have a bizarre custom of naming inanimate objects after a person. People constantly ask you to give them things, like the shirt or earrings you’re wearing, or your house. To which the normal reply is “Tudd naa la ko.” Which roughly translates to “Hell no, but how about if I name them after you?” So I have pants named Lira, a shovel named Roger, you get the idea. Anyway, since we get few important visitors, my village wanted to make a real big deal out of their visit. Also, they were genuinely pleased with the project, and sincerely wanted to thank me and let my administrators know how happy they were with me. I’ll admit, I was really touched. They set up a loud-speaker system, drummers and dancers, and rented plastic tables and chairs, and held a little ceremony under a big neem tree. My American Big Cheese bosses came, and a half dozen people (including myself) gave a little speech about what my time in the village had meant. My counterpart and best friend said they’d never dreamed an American with everything going for her would give that up to live in the desert among them and try to improve their lives, and that through my work with the school and the grant project, I had made a huge, long-term impact on the village, though it may seem like only a small achievement to me. It was very heartfelt and kind. Between the grant and all the tribal dancing, I’m sitting in a pretty good position in the village, and with only 2 months left I’m hoping I don’t do anything to accidentally mess that up. I’d like to leave on a good note.

It’s not a delicious hot sauce. It’s the biggest Muslim holiday of the year! And this year it weirdly fell on New Year’s Eve, making a doubly big holiday! To Senegalese Muslims, Tabaski means reliving the ancient story of God’s sparing Abraham from sacrificing his only son and benevolently replacing him with a ram, by buying and slaughtering a ram of their own. To me, Tabaski means getting sick from rancid ram meat. It’s a festive time though and a lot of fun, as well as a great photo op. I visited every family in my village to distribute kola nuts and wish them happy holidays, and witnessed about 50 ram slaughterings in exchange. I had to take a photo of each one. Thank God for digital cameras. As the tradition goes, each family must purchase a ram or be ostracized forever. However, rams run anywhere from $60 to $100! Your average peanut farmer does not have that kind of money. But the pressure for a ram is so great families sacrifice basic essentials such as medicine and abundant food to throw a huge Tabaski bash complete with new hair weaves and bubus. According to global Muslim traditions, one third of the meat is for the family, a third for friends, and a third for the poor. But wait a minute…they ARE the poor! Save maybe Sudanese refugees they’re about as poor as it gets. Who do they give the meat to? Each other? The same thing happened at Ramadan, when my villagers told me they were fasting in order to know what life is like for the poor of the world. I didn’t know how to break it to them that THEY were the poor of the world. They were who every other Muslim in the world fasts for. I really feel like Islam needs to lighten up a little on the charity rules; if you ARE the poor I really think it’s ok to just enjoy the few meager pleasures you can get.



But anyway, nice as Tabaski was, I did get quite sick. I only had to glance at the blobs of undercooked meat floating in oil to know I was in for trouble. But it’s their Thanksgiving, it’s the one day of the year when everyone eats as much as they possibly can and generously offers food to everyone. To refuse to eat is just unheard of. So I tried to discretely nibble; that didn’t work. I finally gave up and forced food down. But it got worse! Turns out all 3 of my host moms had each cooked a meal; we had so far only eaten one. So I had to stay and equally stuff myself with the other two’s cooking. EVERY single time my family has cooked meat (blessedly few times) I’ve gotten violently ill. So has everyone else in the family. Oh for a nice grill.

The thing about Africa is, it’s hot. From 11am to 5pm you’re pretty much stuck sprawled on the bed soaking your sheets in sweat too weak to even fan yourself. The upside of this, though, is that I have caught up on some excellent reading. Since literature has been a pretty substantial part of my life here I thought I’d share some of my favorites.
*=extra good

Empire Falls
Atonement **
Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Shadow of the Wind*
Catch 22**
Villa Incognito
Jitterbug Perfume
Nickel and Dimed (NF)
Kafka on the Shore*
Trouble with Africa (NF)*
Poisonwood Bible
Prep
Into This Air (NF)
Middlesex*
The Kite Runner*
Shogun
Birds without Wings*
The Darling*
The Fountainhead
The World is Flat (NF)
Satanic Verses

The Trouble with Africa, Darling, and Poisonwood Bible are especially recommended for those of you interested in knowing what my experience has been like and understanding some of the problems this continent faces. Add Catch 22 to that list.



And, here are some books that are ridiculously overrated. I actually got mad reading some of them they were so bad. I’m sure many of you might not agree with me, but I have my reasons.
*=extra bad

Dune
Running with Scissors
One Thousand White Women**
White Teeth
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Zen and the Art of Moto Maintenance************************************************************************************************************************

Perhaps you are eagerly awaiting the results of my procedure to see if I will be horribly disfigured, or maybe even have some super cool lightening-bolt scar. Well…neither. Currently I (still) have a big mole on the side of my face, and here is why. Before surgery I raised several questions to the dermatologist, expressing my hesitation due to lack of information, and he then agreed yes, there was really no need to get the mole removed at all, and Dakar certainly wasn’t the place to have it done, and he certainly wasn’t the doctor to do it, since he admittedly wasn’t very talented at making subtle scars. WHAT??? Where was that answer a YEAR ago when I first raised questions about it?? Or a MONTH ago when he himself told me to let him remove it asap? If I hadn’t raised questions would he have just cut the thing out unnecessarily and left a huge scar? Clearly, after two years I still am at a total loss for how things work here. I am just baffled. But, I guess, hurray! Am really, really, really, relieved and glad there’s no health risk and everything’s fine. As long as I keep getting it monitored there may never be a need for removal.

And I forgot to mention the weirdest part of this whole ordeal. The ethnic Pulaars (desert herders) of which there are many in my village, have a scarification ritual performed to proposedly alleviate tension and negative spirits in the mind; everyone has it done. It consists of cutting small scars on either side of the eyes, exactly where my mole was! Coincidence…? When I tried to explain to the villagers why I was going to Dakar (the intricacies of melanoma are not exactly known or understood by rural Africans) they grew very confused, and then took it to mean I was undergoing the ritual, and were overjoyed! Yet, still slightly confused and troubled that I only intended to do it on one side of my face. They kept insisting that for the evil spirits to be cast out I had to get scars on both sides, and were quite exasperated that such a stupid American didn’t understand such a basic concept. YOU try explaining precautionary mole removal to a woman with a goiter the size of a melon on her neck.

I just got to Dakar today, for quite a chunk of time, maybe 10 days. The reason? I have a mole on my face that has been "acting funny" and needs to be removed. I think. As I'm no doctor I really have no idea what needs to happen. For many months now this mole has been growing and now looks like a very red and angry old man. It also periodically crusts over and falls off. Literally, the whole thing falls off my face and then regrows, often accomanied by profuse amounts of blood and weird sensations. Naturally, I began to grow worried. I contacted our medical staff several times, and received such straight-forward answers as "oh god no, NEVER get it removed here," followed by "why don't you just get it removed here?" followed by "well what do YOU want to do?" I don't know! I'm not a doctor, it's not like choosing vanilla or rocky road, this is my health at stake! I can't just make a decision based on no information whatsoever. So I consulted with several knowledgable friends and people with mole experience, who urged me to get it removed as soon as possible. This seemed wise to me. However, that means getting it removed in Africa, where you are probably more likely to die from going to the hospital than from whatever ails you. When I queried the medical staff, I got a suspiciously familar jumble of responses; "oh it's fine to get it done here! No problem!" to "We strongly recommend you not have this procedure done in Dakar," to "well what do YOU think you should do?" So here's what I was left with, and mind you, no credentials whatsoever to help me decide; which is the greater risk, to wait 4 or 5 months and have it removed in the US, though it could be melanoma and in that case very serious, or to have it removed immediately under less than ideal circumstances? Potential skin cancer vs potential gangrenous infection/disfiguring scar? Vanilla or rocky road? Rocky road please, just hold the gangrene.

It would probably be wise of me to discontinue this blog since I’m sure in the preceding months you’ve all given me up for dead or running around crazy in the bush with a stick through my nose. But for those of you still loyal enough to check for updates, I am happy to say I am alive and healthy and my posting silence has not been due to any exotic diseases, just our computer being broken. So here I shall attempt to recreate a little picture of what has been going on lately. I’ll hurry before the computer breaks again.


PLAYING HOST

Not a lot of my friends have come to visit, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to me since I complained to them all at length about the heat, giardia, diahrea, intestinal worms, sandstorms, poisonous snakes, famine, unreliable transportation, flatness, extreme poverty, scorpions, spiders, rats, garbage fields, harassment, and general lack of good things to see here. However, either the other volunteers sugar-coated it, or conned their friends and family into coming, usually by euphemistically selling it as an “African adventure” instead of a “nice vacation.” A lot of these guests end up visiting my area and my village, since it is basically exactly what you always imagined an African village to look like. I’ve gotten many comments of the sort, “They ACTUALLY carry stuff on their heads? The women ACTUALLY wash their clothes by the river topless? That cow was ACTUALLY killed by a hyena? They REALLY don’t have cars/phones/TVs/shoes/McDonalds? Is that man REALLY…?” Yes, it’s all true. We hear all the time about how the world is getting smaller and cultures are homogenizing into one consumerism blob, but I will tell you this: not Africa. Life goes on in Ngekhokh much as it did thousands of years ago. I like to say they are at the “First Little Pig” stage of development, meaning their primary building material is straw, not yet sticks or ah, glorious brick. It is refreshing in a way to see a place that’s holding strong to its own culture and traditions and hasn’t become Westernized. Unfortunately that’s not out of cultural pride but just that they haven’t been given the opportunity.



Suffice to say for all these reasons it DOES make for a fascinating visit. Above is an example of visitors experiencing the great “African Adventure”: public transportation. They weren’t smiling so much by the end of the ride but they certainly had a great story to tell! We also took a much more comfortable ride through the mangrove delta on a birdwatching trip.

And a few other updates from the Ngekhokh Daily Times…

Nafisatu, pictured earlier as kitten, now fully grown. Useless. Dozens of mice have taken over my room and crawl over me while I sleep. She just watches them like an idiot. But I love her.



Bush fires. Now that we are deep in the dry season, wild plants and grasses are extremely brittle and dry. The preferred method of field prep here is slash and burn. The two do not go hand in hand. About once a week the next village over sets a huge fire accidentally and everyone has to rush out to dig trenches. They always burn trash and crops at night…seems like a bad idea but I guess when the fire does get out of control it’s easier to see to put out. This is one bush fire raging toward my hut.

As many of you may have noticed, I was not home for Christmas. I certainly noticed. However, it gave me a chance to see more of the country, save some money, visit some friends, and hell I’ll be home in just a few months anyway. It actually wasn’t a big deal, since here it is hot, sunny, and Muslim, all of which are not particularly evokative of Christmastime. And when you’re away from Christmas music, cookies, eggnog, holiday sales, decorations, and mall Santas, you just don’t think about it too much.

Of course being Muslim in Senegal doesn’t mean you don’t still get 2 weeks’ Christmas vacation from work. So like the rest of my school teachers, I traveled around. A lot. With two friends and 5 Senegalese I squeezed in a public car that drove us 12 hours over pockmarked roads to Kedougou, the SE corner of Senegal bordering Guinea. This is a region famed among volunteers for its “mountains” and “stunning natural beauty.” Again, it was kind of dry, flat, and dusty; just less so. But man, in comparison to the rest of the country, it is a dazzling array of jungle, tropical rain forest, and craigy mountain peaks! I had forgotten how excited I get by nice outdoor environments!



We borrowed bikes and biked 40k through hills, forests, plains and creeks into the foothill village of Dindefelo, where we somehow missed the beautiful and clean hostel and stayed in some guy’s backyard instead. From Dindefelo there’s a beautiful short hike through the jungle to a stunning 300ft waterfall.



The next day we biked another 40k to the plains, and the village of Bandafassi. From there you can hike an extremely steep trail into the cliffs overlooking the whole region and a large chunk of West Africa.



My friend and I climbed up to some rock formations at the edge of the cliff, and discovered a tiny village situtated on top! We were bewildered as to how (and why) people got water, supplies, etc, especially when there was no shortage of land at the base of the cliffs. Here’s a hut in that mountaintop village. Quaint, no?



The drive back from Kedougou was even longer due to car trouble. A brief word about transportation. There is a traditional belief here that if a woman rides in the front seat of a car the front right wheel will blow. Suspiciously convenient (and blatant) way to keep women in the ‘back of the bus’… But this day we rented the car so they couldn’t tell us where we had to sit, and we were all females anyway. Of course, our car broke down. This happens pretty much every day so it came as no big shock. It was a slow death, though, and took about an hour of us listening to the back left tire squeeling before finally dying out. We made it to a mechanic (term used loosely) who proceeded to fix the unbroken front right tire, in keeping with the tradition, despite the fact that it was the back tire that was hanging on by half a bolt. It took about an hour of taking the front tire apart before realizing it was fine. So, we start driving again and SURPRISE! The back tire is still broken and causes us to break down numerous more times. The driver refused to belief it, however, since there was a woman in the front seat so the fault HAD to be with the front tire. Of course, he claimed the whole incident was our fault, for being female, and demanded we pay to have the car fixed (we didn’t). This is the sort of thing we have to put up with around here every single day. Actually, many times a day.



Anyway, from Kaolack I went another 6 hours (and another breakdown) to St.Louis, a beautiful island town of French colonial architecture. My friends Erica and Luci and I wanted to do something special for Christmas so we stayed at a top-end B and B with spa. Luci’s family had sent her a mini Christmas tree with lights, mini decorations, tinsel, and wrapping paper for our presents to each other, as well as a CD of Christmas carols and Christmas scented candles. It was so festive! We spent a few days there eating good food, getting massages, and made it to midnight Mass. But the highlight of the trip was our visit to Djoudi Bird Park, one of the top three bird parks in the world. It’s a swamp. But I guess birds are attracted to swamps. I just got a copy of the new Birds of Gambia and Senegal fieldguide (see earlier post complaining no such thing existed) and am now a huge bird watching nerd. The trip was amazing, basically it’s a boat trip around the swamp but you see thousands of pelicans and their nesting site, cormorants, storks, cranes, herons, egrets, plovers, terns, etc etc. It felt like a Disney world ride, birds just kept popping out from all directions. We also saw monkeys, warthogs, and monitor lizards in the park.

So with all this traveling around you may be asking yourself, what the hell is she doing down there, isn’t she engaging in some sort of important resume-building skills? Well, I am. Between the holidays, I’ve gotten this year’s EE program rolling along quite nicely. The teachers and I did several curriculum planning sessions and EE trainings, and have finished a couple lessons.



The first one pictured is paper recycling. I know, I know, there’s a few inherent problems recycling paper here. First of all, paper’s dirt cheap and they hardly use any anyway, so why on Earth would they save used paper (when they could feed it to sheep), take the valuable time to pound it, getting everything wet and dirty, and wait for it to dry when it just turns out bumpy and ugly anyway? And yes, round (no square screens). The answer is yes, paper recycling is completely impractical here. The reason we did the lesson was to introduce children to the concept of recycling and show them an example of how things can be reused, not just thrown away. This seemingly simple notion is not common sense in Africa. All in all it was a very fun and successful lesson and got kids thinking out-of-the-box. The second one pictured was a lesson in water pollution. The children gathered a water sample from all the different village water sources (well, tap, rain, salt-water river, cannery) and we compared them in terms of color, visibility, taste, etc, then described the pollution each might be exposed to and illnesses they could cause. The teacher then demonstrated how to properly bleach and filter water before drinking.



The status of our gardening grant project? Here’s our well-digger Djibi Njaye, still going at it. One well was completed, the other’s coming along slowly. It’s a long, painful, arduous process and yet completely normal and on-schedule for Senegal. An American doing this project would be in tears from all the delays and problems. Senegalese are ecstatic and amazed any progress at all is being made. It’s development in Africa.




Also, starting a new mural to accompany school garden…and so very close to finishing book of traditional folk tales if my illustrator would ever get off his ass and finish the drawings…but more on these projects to come.

As I near the end of my service I’m trying to see as much of the country as possible. To the untrained eye it may seem dry, flat, and dusty everywhere. But after being here 2 years the subtle differences between regions really stand out and amaze. For Thanksgiving, I traveled to the very north of the country, on the border with Mauritania to visit my friend Erica’s site. Bordering the Sahara, the main difference was it was drier, flatter, and dustier than my area. Regardless, the desert environment really does hold a quiet beauty. Life moves so much slower, herders on camels drift through the sands and sit by campfires in the cool evenings. In Kaolack I could probably walk the streets naked banging a pot with a spoon and I’d just blend in with the general chaos and lawlessness. But up north, long, conservative, traditional dress is all you see, people are much more serious and reserved with their talk and joking. Here I am with Erica and her host family. Notice the head scarves and lack of exposed breasts.


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