Life in Peace Corps: Senegal is not always easy for the volunteers. Living in a hut, trying to dance around unfamiliar customs of locals, while also dealing with Western bureaucracy of the Peace Corps, while simultaneously learning to use a hole for a bathroom, a bucket for a shower, and function while undernourished because of the lack of nutrition in the village meals is as far away from the night I spent in the Radisson Blu as the moon is! (phew end of run on sentence, but I think you get the point) However, I was exceptionally fond of Leah’s optimism and the way she stayed more positive then most. She has adopted a sort of personal mantra in which she reflects upon, even the smallest positive things, and refers to them as ‘the best day ever!’ My arrival in Dakar - ‘best day ever!’ Running water - ‘best day ever!’ A lunch served with egg plant so heavily cooked all the nutrients had dissolved into the boiling water (but still a lunch with veggies!) - ‘best day ever!’ You get the idea. But honestly, every day I spent in Saraya (Leah’s village that is about 160 km east of Kedougou and a rocks throw from Mali) really was the best day ever.
We left the Peace Corps house, aka campground (there are no actual enclosed building structures on the compound) at about 8 a.m. and headed to the Kedougou garage. The garage is where you hope to find a driver and a car going to the city you want, and you wait...and wait....and wait....and wait until the driver has enough people in the car to go. The cars are called Sept places (french for seven places i.e. seven seats in the car) but they usually turn into nine or ten places and the driver! The cars themselves appear as though they’ve been shipped over from a European junkyard where they were stripped of all their parts; dashboard, radio, door panels, floor boards, had a shoddy engine installed and are now ready for the Senegalese road i.e. asphalt with so many potholes it is often better to drive on the side of the road than on it!
Fortunately the car was nearly filled when we got there and we took off an hour after arriving. The drive from Kedougou to Saraya is the best drive ever! The road is actually new and the one exception to the pothole filled roads of Senegal. It winds through greener scenery than I have ever seen, and clouds that look like cotton candy, so low to the ground you feel you could easily lasso them and pull them out of the sky. All of this is courtesy to the rainy season, and not an image that appears year round, but I was thankful to have witnessed it. It was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.
Just at the point where my newfound claustrophobia, induced by nine unfamiliar people crammed into the car along with me, took over, we reached Saraya. Slowly, so slowly, we made our way to Leah’s compound stopping to greet everyone along the way. In Malinke you greet by asking repeatedly if there is evil around and by acknowledging that, no, there is not. There is no evil with my brother, nor my mother, nor my father, nor my sister. It is a long greeting, and complicated. By the end of the week I only could manage to ask or respond to the very first part!
Finally, after about 150 meters later, wee arrived at Leah’s compound. I met the family: mom, dad, sister, sister in-law, brother, deaf brother, 15 year-old brother. They are all some of the most amazing people I have ever had the opportunity to meet! Mom even gave me a name -
Diounkounda Sakilabah! I was named after the sister that lived on the compound, as recycling names often is apparently a common practice.
I ended up staying at Saraya a whole wonderful week, despite the fact that it was sweltering there considering they had no rain in ten days (it usually rains at least every other day in the rainy season). The first night I was literally floored as I watched Leah do her weekly radio show entirely in Malinke! To say I was impressed is an understatement. Leah is a Health Volunteer so in between songs by Amy Winehouse, Regina Spektor and whatever else she chose for the night, she’d offer her Malinke audience a few health tips. It was Ramadan, so a lot of them revolved around that: don’t fast if you're breast feeding or pregnant, if you are working in the fields and feel dizzy sit down and if it doesn’t get better break fast and drink some water, try to stay in cool places if possible.
Around the compound, I learned to shell peanuts with Leah’s ‘Mom.’ We even went to the fields with her, but the lack of rain had dried up the soil so much that there wasn’t much work to be done. One evening Leah and I made beignets but Leah added moringa (an outrageously nutritious, vitamin filled leaf) to them to show her family how they could cook and be healthy. I also learned the art of the douche. Having a hole for the bathroom was definitely new terrain for me, as well as no toilet paper. Mentally I was unfazed by it, but the logistics are not always easy! While there was no running water in the village, thanks to the sweltering and humid days in Saraya, I also really learned to appreciate my nightly bucket bath!
I was incredibly fortunate and honored because Leah’s family deemed me a guest worth cooking for! We had thick
with meat (it is usually only a runny sauce served with leftover carne) and bisap and
that was delicious. The food is all a grain (rice, millet or cous cous) based meal with the sauces poured over top. It’s eaten out of a communal bowl with the right hand. Leah and I eat with spoons - the family knows we have them and apparently think it’s weird when we try to eat without silverware.
I did catch a glimpse of what Leah’s regular meals were like though, and they certainly left something to be desired. For lunch we’d occasionally eat with the kids (the parents were fasting) and it usually was an oily rice dish with crushed peanuts that were almost unnoticeable in flavor. Not to mention eating with kids is not like eating with adults. The whole cleanliness idea really just goes out the window! Leah and I usually ended up going to the sandwich lady in the market and getting a bean, or omelette, or just a mayonnaise (yes, and it was delicious) sandwich.
One of the most memorable moments of my time in village was when Leah, Kate (the agricultural volunteer) and I biked to Pondala (Kate’s former village) a 20 km ride from Saraya. There, on the boutique (the local shop) we painted a mural. Usually the Peace Corps promotes educational murals to be painted around villages, such as world maps. But a world map had already been painted on one of the walls of the boutique, so we decided to spice it up a bit. I designed a vintage postcard style mural that said ‘Aloha Pondala’ at the top. We spent the entire afternoon painting it and the village loved it!
After a week in Saraya, I was really sad to say goodbye. I even hugged my namesake, the first Diounkounda, goodbye! This is something that is not really done in Senegalese culture. While I cannot imagine living there for 2 years (Leah I give you so much credit), the week was a wonderfully memorable experience!
Be sure to check out Leah's blog of her experience in Peace Corps: Senegal