Jen's Peace Corps Experience







le 3 juillet 1999

My dear M & D & everyone!

Outside my screen door my fellow PCTs are chatting fand
singing and yelling back and forth, and the chips and songs of the birds
are constant as always, accented on occasion by rooster calls and cat
fights. I have slipped away for a moment to the bed in my temporary
room here at the Peace Corps Training Center. We’ve stayed here the first
two nights to prepare us before homestay, which begins in just a few
hours when our families come to pick us up. Up until now it has felt
almost like camp--but then you pinch yourself and say, with wonder, “I
am in Africa.”

le 5 juillet 1999

Two days later but might as well be two weeks. The thought of
writing has been entirely daunting since there is so much to say--so many
anecdotes, so many impressions, so many things I have already learned.
But il faut commencer--so I will do so with descriptions of my

Le Centre du Corps de la Paix Americain a Thies is an ex-camp/
compound of the French Army. It is surrounded by walls covered in
beautiful magenta flowers which also serve as security since their thorns
are strong enough to puncture an errant volleyball. (Have not yet learned
this from experience, but the former stagieres (trainees) have supplied us
w/ a multitude of such warnings.) The walls of *all* the buildings are
covered w/ a sort of yellow-beige stucco, so it was easy to get a bit turned
around in the beginning before we learned the way. Peppering the
grounds are small huts used mostly for classrooms. The other buildings
serve as dormitories, classrooms, the administrative offices, and tiny
health center, foyer where I sit now w/ sleeping colleagues all around (la
siestel), and kitchen and cafeteria. There are approximately 11 such
buildings, each fairly long w/ several rooms inside. In addition to these,
there is the lunch hut where we all sit “par terre” to feast from communal
bowls for the midday meal, and the famous “Disco Hut”--a sort of small
open-air pavilion where we all meet as a full group w/ trainers, etc. for
announcements, groups sessions, etc.

None of this was apparent when we first arrived at 2 am local
time after having taken the bus from Senghor Aeroport in Dakar. As our
three buses pulled up (one just for our luggage), there were cheers and
applause from our weary trainers who had waited so many hours for our
arrival. We, on the other hand, were mostly all completely keyed up w/
the adrenaline high created by our first contact on African soil. After all
the delays, we were that much more grateful to have arrived.

Many of us found it impossible to go directly to bed, and so, after
having eaten the beigrets (fried dough balls) and milk that had been
provided, my friend and fellow trainee Micah and I took a tour of the
grounds. Saw our first African rat--not so different from its cousins down
on the Boston Wharf. Later, after saying goodnight to those few of us who
were also just heading to bed (it was already near 4h30 local time), I saw
my first African toad. I smiled widely and thought of you all, and then let
myself into my dorm that I was sharing w/ another trainee (PCT) and two
Senegalaise trainers. I tucked my mosquito netting in all around the
corners of my bed, and laid down w/ my feather pillow behind my head
By the time I thought I was just falling asleep, I awoke. C’est-a-dire--I
don’t think I really ever slept at all.

What thoughts kept me awake? It was simply that I could not
believe I was actually there. In Africa. With African birds keeping me
awake outside my window and African mosquitoes buzzing around my
head. In the morning I realized that what I had felt was joy--a sentiment
beyond happiness, beyond excitement. The next day we had more shots
and the intro to our health training, and then later we met in program
groups w/our technical trainers. Of the 8 Environmental Education (EE)
people, only myself and two others have no enviro background. We feel
that much more intimidated since for the moment we are always grouped
with the Agro-forestry people--but we have been assured that our skills
are also very much needed for the monitoring, management and
implementation of our yet-to-be developed program. That is as I had
figured. Our trainer is currently the trainer for the same program that
already exists in Senegal, so she is here now to help us. Our technical
training does not start for a few days, so I will have to tell you more about
that once I myself know.

It was w/ Elise, the Agro-EE trainer that I first went out into
town. As we walked for the first time through the gates, it seemed to me
that we looked like a group of white people spending their first afternoon
free from the asylum. We hesitantly followed our leader across the sandy
red roads, past abandoned warehouse-type buildings w/ “Bob Marley est
mort” spray-painted on them, and reached a road where the cars tore
along, honking every five seconds to warn the goats, dogs, children
wandering along the streets. Elise’s plan was to put us all into taxis, four
in each, explain to the driver in Wolof where we were supposed to go, and
send us on our way. We were all nervous, but she assured us that we
would arrive with no problems and so myself and 3 others volunteered for
the first cab.

We were now the ones tearing down the dirt streets, and more
than once I thought we really were going to “ecraser” a small child.
Heading into “centre ville” I felt as though I were in one of the anthro or
francophone politics films I had seen in class: a city, but one not known
by any western standard. Of course not. But to read, to see in
documentaries, on t.v. . . . quite another thing to have the tan sand of the
streets in your sandals and between your toes, to have the flies stick to
your sweat, to have the smells fill your sensory system and for the first
time not to recall anything at all familiar. No building seemed more than
two stories, and most have only one, many have only three walls. As we
passed in the taxi. myself and my three fellow PCTs, we were the main
attraction: a whole car full of white people! A whole caravan! the tension
in the car was palpable. I myself felt anxiety, but I cannot say from what
exactly. It seemed to me that it was obvious we were P.C. neophytes--and
since the PC has quite a favorable reputation in Thies and a couple of
decades of history, I knew we were being seen differently than if we were
simply tourists. But I did not feel very good about the fact that our driver
did not seem to speak much but Wolof--suddenly all my power in Dakar
and w/ people at the Centre was eliminated. We passed the place Elise
had said was our destination, and the tension in the car mounted. We had
turned down a street that for Thies seemed quite beautiful (towering trees
that arched over the boutiques (i.e. stands) and bars below, creating an
effect that earned the name my brother told me for this street: la rue sans
soleil), and kept going to an alarming distance from the bar name we had
recognized. I thought maybe he needed to go further in order to turn
around, so I didn’t even try to say anything at first. But when he stopped
to ask for directions and the other guy didn’t know, I started to panic. I
was the only one in the car who speaks French, and I could feel them
looking at me--so I managed to express that he should turn around,
without a word of Wolof. When we finally got back and got out of the
taxi, we were practically holding each other. A minor event in any other
context, but none of us felt at ease until the others showed up. One girl
was nearly traumatized. The beers inside and the spectacle of our trainer
bartering with a woman for mangoes (100 cfa for one? Deedeet! No way!
(100 cfa is 15cents)) more than made up for the preceding drama. Oh!
And the mangoes themselves! This is what it must be like in India.

So what next? Ah -- the weather. The rainy season is well
underway in Senegal, but it has yet to reach our region. Apparently it
rained once before our arrival, but not yet since. Generally it has been,
well, hot. It is not however that oppressive stuff we had in N.H. before I
left; while it is humid, it somehow does not feel as heavy. Except at night,
which is the worst. Now that I’m at homestay (I’ll get to that tout a
l’heure) I sleep with the door to the living room closed and the window
too--otherwise the mosquitoes would be able to organize a posse and
burrow through my netting. This means the only thing that gets in and
stays there is the heat. It takes a bit of time to fall asleep, since the
sweating keeps me pretty occupied. In the end I just resign myself to it,
but only after the struggle that involves trying to get as far from myself as
possible. Have not yet learned that I will never win.

The first night I actually slept was my first night at homestay--the
Saturday after we arrived. (Side note: time here is a whole other species
of dimension. As I write it seems we have been here already at least three
weeks--I certainly have enough to write for that. In reality, I have only
been “en famille” for three nights. The word on the street is that stage can
feel like the longest three months of your life.) The past two nights have
also been fairly successful and I am barely recalling my dreams at all let
alone enjoying mefloquine hallucinations.

Saturday is when our happy little shelter centre existence ended
and the in-your-face cross-cultural adventure began. Out of a week full of
sureality the meeting of families and PCTs was still one of the most
bizarre things I’ve ever been involved in. Families started arriving about 3
pm and when they were all here, around 4:30 pm (again: west African
time), we all gathered in the Disco Hut. PCTs all smooshed together on
the mat in the middle, families--mothers, fathers, children, cousins,
neighbors, the children of the neighbor’s cousins--all surrounding us on
the concrete benches. The effect was a bit like an oreo w/the top missing,
I have to admit. More mutual scoping out than on a skin-tight dance floor.
And then the names were called and the matches made It did feel a bit like
a market--pick your toubabs (foreigner freak, basically) and go. Fishbait
effect 101--sink or swim.

Salou was the only one to come get me that first day. I think after
“hi, how are you,” he wanted to know if I like Bob Marley and, if not,
what music I listened to. “Tu aimes La Police?” he said, and I knew we
would get along just fine.

A taxi took us and all my stuff (sticking out of the back--the
driver didn’t even attempt to close the trunk) to a neighborhood in the
south end of Thies. We spent most of the ride talking about how he
doesn’t like rap because he only likes music that “professes the truth,”
and how he doesn’t follow the NBA anymore now that Jordan is no
longer playing. And what? I hadn’t heard that something had gone down
between Rodman and Tommy Lee? Where had I been--in a hut

We arrive at the compound that houses Sofrako Numero 4, and
Salou asks me if I like flowers. We enter through the gate leading into the
courtyard, and suddenly I’m surrounded by white and pink blossoms--I
put my arms out and can touch them on either side of me. We manage to
wheel my suitcase around a mango tree and suddenly I’m standing on the
patio, surrounded by children smiling and laughing and shouting their
names that entered one ear, rattled around and then promptly left. But no
worries--my smiles were all they needed. Ah--and then Mame
(pronounced “Mom”) appeared, and then charged--and suddenly I’m
being smothered in the bosom of a woman chattering at me in Wolof, in
French--welcoming me as the newest member of their family. Salou, who
is 15, brought in my bags and I was ushered into my room. There a small
bed awaited me, and a small table on the concrete floor. Someone opened
the window, and through the bars I could see the second mango tree, more
flowers, and the laundry line that stretches across the patio/courtyard. It is
about 5 meters long, maybe 2 meters across. In the farthest corner is my
joy--a pomegranate tree. Can you imagine! I have not yet tasted them but
Salou assures me that they are ripe nearly year round.

I had about five minutes to myself alone in my room before Salou
returned w/the intention of taking me on a tour of our surroundings. Since
there really was no where to put my things, there was no real need to
unpack, and so we went on our way.

My house is in a neighborhood due south of the center--about a
35-40 minute walk down sandy streets, past abandoned warehouses and
construction sites where they are installing telecommunication lines,
across muddy fields that seem to serve as nothing but trash depositories,
across one main road that is actually paved (near the Shell station), and
near the huge gare that serves anyone wanting to go anywhere that’s not
Thies. The gare is always a very busy place, and kinda scary, especially
for the women toubabs. I’ve only passed there once, and will probably not
go back until I need to. There are three other PCTs who live in my
neighborhood, so no one ever has to go to/forth alone.

My compound is across from a soccer field--made of dirt or trash,
mostly--where the neighborhood kids play. Nearly all the roads in Thies,
in fact, consist of dirt/sand and trash. The worst is at the market, where
after the rains you cannot walk for the mud, slime, trash, and other
various unidentifiable objects and creatures. Once inside a house,
compound, or biergarten (nearly all the bars are outside in court yards) all
that changes.

So Salou took me around to see the surroundings and to meet
everyone. (So now, of course, people in my neighborhood recognize
*me* but I would venture to say the odds are in their favor. And they
always try to act hurt when I don’t immediately recognize *them* (or
know their names. But I do have 2 months). My experiences thus far seem
to correspond w/the reputation the Senegalese have for their warmth and
openness. Before I never really understood how generalizations like that
could be made about a single people--I didn’t understand what that even
meant, being warm and open. But if I can extrapolate from my
experiences being welcomed into a Senegalese family and meeting people
in town, I begin to see why such things are said.

You step from the dirt streets--around children playing and goats
grazing and chickens clucking, and you enter a courtyard or patio of
someone’s home. You greet them in Wolof and they are all smiles--they
usher you to sit down and eat with them. They offer bags of mangoes and
freshly made beignets. This is the normal, quotidian procedure.

My first day in homestay, I arrived, met everyone, took that tour
w/ Salou and them returned home. Before I knew it, I’m discussing
African politics and history w/ Pap, my host father. “*That’s* what you
learned in class!?” he says. “Well *this* is how it really was.” Then Salou
and brother Tala pipe in, eager to share all they’ve recently learned about
the States--and then its my turn. “*That’s* what they taught you? Ah no,
it wasn’t like that at all.” An hour into my homestay and I’m discussing
Senghor’s commitment to Africa, and relations between pilgrims and
Native Americans.

Pap is a respected math teach in the community, and is a bit of an
intellectual. Mame is more jolly and clever, with interrogating eyes.
There are seven kids, but since there are often more in the house, it took
me a while to figure out which ones are actually my brothers and sisters.
Ami is the oldest--she is 19 and takes TaiKwando. We get along quite
well, and she has already come out w/ me and other PCTs. We have plans
to go the marche together in order to find a wedding present for Monica
and Matt [friends of Jen’s, in the States]. The others are all extremely
smart, and study hard. All except for Sekou, who is about 9 and a
complete rascal. But he has plenty of other talents (which include getting
dressed up and lip-synching to Bob Marley). He and I have a secret
handshake that we do every time I come home. This is our main form of
communication, as he is not doing very well in French class and speaks
nothing but Wolof.

After the political discussion it had gotten pretty late, and was
time for dinner. Suddenly the electricity goes out--as it does nearly daily
w/no warning--and I’m trying to figure out if I really want to wash my
hands in the communal bowl that’s being passed around. (In health
training I had just learned the litany of nasties found within a thousand
and one places in the home.) I am then guided to sit on the floor at the
communal bowl set aside for the father and youngest son. At the training
center I had already gotten accustomed to the 1/2 dozen-eating-all-from-
the-same-bowl thing, but I wasn’t ready for the segregation and place of
honor. But I sit myself down and wait further instruction, which comes:
simply to eat. The lack of electricity proved to be advantageous for all
parties involved. I couldn’t see all the meat they put in front of me, and
they couldn’t see that I was eating nothing but the beans and onions
around the side of the bowl. I have mastered the trick of picking up very
little every time I reach inside the bowl (we use utensils only when soup
or porridge is served)--w/o being discovered. This last bit is very
important, for I always have to answer to the whole family when they
think I haven’t eaten enough, which is always. Mange, mange! The best
defense is the Wolof word for “thank you, but I’m full and can’t eat a bite
more.” (I never knew a single word would be so useful) “Souma, Souma”
comes my response, and only then can I get up from the bowl.

So after dinner that first night, Salou & Tala are asking to see my
music, and we hook up my little cd player speakers. At this time the
electricity is still out, and so without the TV, I am the main attraction.
Suddenly there are eight little people in my hot little room w/ the concrete
floor and concrete wall and barred window looking over the patio. Eight
people and all dancing--first to my entire Police album (their request),
secondly to Bob Marley. A dance party--and even Mame joins in--at this
point w/o her shirt because you know, it’s just too goddam hot in Africa.

le 19 juillet 1999

(Pulaar: “sappo e jeenay balde”)

Okay, so I just need to accept that I’m not going to be able to tell
you everything, and that this letter could very easily go on forever w/
every passing day and I’d better send it before we reach the next
millennium. But I do want to catch you up on a few things as I enter my
third week here in Thies.

Classes are well under way, and I’m beginning to feel well settled
“en famille” and better situated as I get to know the town itself better. At
this point in training, we are focusing strongly on language. Placement
was determined by interviews held on our second day. Since for my
program (Environment) they know already for sure that I will be in the
Fouta region of Guinea, I was able to start right away Pulaar. (Yikes--
that’s a French construction, isn’t it? “Start Pulaar right away,” I mean.)
There are two others in the class: Dana (with whom I had roomed in
Philly, and who has studied in Strasbourg) & Brian (whose French is also
good enough to start the national language of our region). Cerno, our
teacher, is originally from Guinea, though his family has lived in Senegal
for a while now. We get at minimum four hours of language a day, 6 days
a week, so our class has long taken on a definite sort of ambience and
character. Cerno is what people call a typical Peul (person from the
Fouta): reserved, rather Zen, and quite literal. Never sarcastic. He is a
fantastic guy--smart, earnest, kind, and rather earnest in his own way, and
I can’t seem to stop myself from interminably pushing his buttons. Part of
it that same old issue with my being too comfortable with people his age
(He’s 31), and part of it is the sheer AMOUNT of class. We have to keep
it lively somehow. Dana is just like me, while Brian is just like Cerno.
The result is often hysterical, and sometimes it feels like Dan & I are
running the show while the guys have no idea what’s really going on. I
have earned the name, as Cerno now calls me, “la provocatrice.” (e.g.
there are only so many times you can practice saying where you come
from and where you live before you get bored w/ the answers. Beginning
Pulaar would get insufferably monotonous w/out trying to claim that
while you come from Mars, you are in fact Brazilian. I figure that as long
as I’m saying these things in Pulaar, I’m still doing my work. Cerno
cracks up, but then he tries to regain control: “Jenny-fair, parfois il faut
travaller dans la realite” Jenny-fair, (sometimes it is necessary to work w/
in reality).

At home, only my mother speaks Pulaar. I practice w/ her and
sometimes teach what I’m learning to the kids. It’s been only two weeks,
however, so I’m still pretty much limited to such things as “Kohonno kele
maa wadi? Min, mi Jombaama taho, kono, mido mari kotiraa be tato”
(How’s your girlfriend? Me, I’m not married yet, but I have two older
brothers”) So Mame normally just laughs at me and waits for me to learn

Aside from the Pulaar, I continue to learn about the seemingly
infinite ways to get diarrhea, various skin diseases, and at least three types
of nasties that would just love to raise their young in your epidermis.
Even after all the worrying we PCTs have done about what could go
wrong w/us, it seems we didn’t even scratch the surface of possibilities.
But what’s a toubab (freaky non-African) to do but grit one’s teeth and try
not the fall into the latrine?

There are actually a lot of preventive measures to take in order
not to get sick, and for many of us, these efforts form the great part of any
stress incurred in the homestays. You always have to worry about where
the food’s been, where it came from, if it was cooked sufficiently, etc.
And then there’s the issue of water--for washing hands, taking bucket
baths (about 10 cm from the latrine), cleaning the latrine (the action
formerly known as flushing), etc. It’s tiring to always have to worry about
these things, especially when the family around you don’t give them a
second thought. Either they’ve built up certain immunities and tolerances
that we toubabs just don’t have (this is so in some cases), or they do in
fact get sick. They get malaria like Americans get colds--but of course the
effects are cumulative. I’m actually fairly worried abut the father of
house--he’s been sick for a while now, and I think it may indeed be
malaria. The mosquitoes are insufferable here during the rainy season,
and I can’t think of a single Senegalaise who sleeps w/a mosquito netting
let alone who takes any prophylactics. There was one weekend when my
family was sick with high fevers, and much hacking and bad headaches. I
tried to keep away as much as possible . . . the others are all pretty much

As for my own health, I have been extremely lucky thus far. But
is it luck, really? It may have something to do w/my daily Optiflora, with
all the potable water I’m drinking to stay hydrated, w/all the well-wishing
you sent off w/me. So--I’m doing quite well, and my biggest problem is
that when I run every day or every other day, I can’t seem to go as far or
as fast as back in the States. And that might be because I no longer have
Scout [our German Shepherd] pulling me at my side.

le 20 juillet, 1999

Have just come from a one-on-one interview w/the big honcho
head guy who directs my program in Guinea He is here for the week to
meet up w/our trainers, to tell us more about how TERRE is actually
working in the Fouta, and to talk w/us about our file (CV) and where we
might potentially be placed. He asked me for certain preferences (house
or hut, cooking for yourself or eating w/a family, etc.), and informed me
that while nearly all EE PCVs would at the sous-prefecture level (small
town as seat of a region w/a few villages), sites can vary greatly. He said
that placement is somewhat affected by language ability, and that they
might want to place me where I would have access to a larger number of
districts and schools. It was hard to tell my preferences since I am not so
very sure of them myself. I ended up saying that regardless of whether I
get placed in a hut or house, I did wish to be cooking for myself, and I
wished to have enough autonomy to be able to entertain and have people
over, etc. w/o having to worry about being a nuisance because I was
living in someone else’s complex or compound. (Remember
Thanksgiving ‘97?). So we’ll see. It’s in their hands now--I won’t find out
until Mamou where I’ll actually be. (Oh--among a few other things, I also
mentioned an interest in collaborating w/NGO’s [non-governmental
organizations] in the area on secondary projects, as well as possibly
working on women’s development issues, i.e., a few newsletters/
magazines that have already been developed for women and girls. All this
as well will become more apparent once I get to site.)

As far as tech training goes, we have begun to work with a group
of school kids in a neighboring sous prefecture in order to practice
working with the EE curriculum that has already been developed, and to
practice engaging them as agents of environmental awareness in the
community, schools, and home. As Kate Anderson-Levitt told me,
environment indeed does mean something else in a developing country. It
was striking to observe a Senegalese teacher talking w/his students about
the environment--how the importance was understood fundamentally w/
in the framework of the human condition. Both in how actions and
behavior in quotidian life affects the environment (“everything around
us,” and how the degradation of this environment then circles back to
cause maladies, poverty. He laid out quite lucidly and directly the chain
reaction that would never have any immediacy for an American eco
awareness: fail to maintain a proper latrine, or dispose of household waste
in the river, this means adding to the degradation of all that depends on
that soil and H20 supply. Not enough or toxic rain, spoiled harvest.
Spoiled harvest, no food, and therefore hunger, famine. And how can a
country develop if its people are dying and diseased? All this, discussed
w/preteenagers who nodded w/ agreement when their teacher then said
that their most important role was as ambassadors of this message in their
own communities. Tomorrow is our first trip w/them to explore a
degraded site not far from their village. I can’t wait to really get started
both discussing the issues w/them and creating a plan of action.
Tomorrow, as well, I will bring my camera. (Have already started on a
few portraits of the family.)

Okay--this letter is really getting out of control so, in order to kill
it off, in order to send it, I’ll just summarize a few other things here or else
you never will receive it.

1. I’m taking Senegalese dance 2x week w/many other toubabs--
and I’m not even half bad. (Proven by the fact that my host sister even
admits that. Even taught *her* a few moves the other night.)

2. The PC held a “Tam Tam” here at the center this weekend--
basically a great big dance party w/drums only. A good couple hundred
people w/family included. After the tam tam the fate continued w/a disco
(after a two-hour wait for the electricity to come back on) . . . ended up
being among the last to still be dancing; got home at 6 am, slept til 2.

3. Received a letter from Shirley W [Woodward] from the PCV
who’ll be training us in bike repair--a friend of hers. Says she’s doing
well, that “Guinea is infinitely better than Senegal.” Will be missing her,
quite unfortunately--she’s done and leaving just 2 weeks before I get to
Conakry and Mamou. But for the moment, Durham N.H. indeed has 2
PCVs in West Africa!

4. This weekend is our first “open”--will probably be heading to
Dakar w/a fellow PT to visit a friend of his and possibly the family of my
A2 [Ann Arbor] Senegalese friend.

So! So much more, so I will probably just continue--after I send
this out. I received your letters M & D--never knew I could get so much
joy from something as simple as an envelope. I do hope all is well--that
things have settled in your favor w/the house, that you are enjoying the

I miss you all more than I can properly express. Know as well
that I am grateful to be here, that I have you always in my thoughts. My
love to everyone, and please pass news onto those who might be

. . .


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