Monday, August 24, 2009

Homestay the first

I'm going to try having subsections so that I don't wander all over the place, since this is probably going to be a long post. If there are things I promise that I'm going to talk about but then don't, you should get on my case about it on the comments, okay? Good. Here goes.

My Family:
Is, to put it flatly, amazing. Absolutely lovely people, all of them. They're hospitable to an embarassing degree, and take absolutely amazing care of me in every way. I am still not sure who everyone is, or who the toddlers belong to, but here is what I've gotten so far. Jeneba is married to Issakha, and they have a small boy toddler whose name I don't know. Issakha's brother is Ady Assiz and also lives in the compound with his wife, Rama. Their house/room is separate from the main house, and is next to Issakha's workroom. They have a very precocious nine-month-old girl, Fatou, who is very chubby and very, very beloved by everyone. "Faaatou" is a pretty common cooing. Assiz in particular is absolutely in love with his daughter, and it is beautiful to watch him interact with her--she prays with him, which is to say, she climbs on him and he gently moves her so that he can do obeisances (is that what they're called?). There are two women who also live in the compound and each have at least one child (each have a boy toddler, one is named Abdou) and one has a five-ish-year-old girl whose name I used to know.

Jeneba cooks for me (and everyone), and is hugely pregnant. Both she and Rama are incredibly thin and probably really badly underweight, although there is plenty of food in the compound. I think it is probably because they are either pregnant or nursing children. Issakha and Assiz are incredibly kind men, and although the women do all the work, they seem pretty progressive. Assiz occasionally cuddles a little bit with Rama when we're all sitting outside at night, and Issakha sometimes does work for Jeneba if she's feeling extremely out of it. This is really inadequate as a description of them all, but with luck, I'll have pictures of them all.

Interestingly, Rama's sister's compound is just over the wall, and Hadi is Frank's host sister. Family trees get pretty confusing, but I think that Ashley has a sibling married to someone else somewhere in my extended family. Up until the last day, I wasn't allowed to help cook, but finally they started to let me help! I have stripped leaves from stems, sifted rice (thus learning the verb 'to pour' because Jeneba had to tell me several times, "Yupe (yoo-peh), Hali, yupe!"), and helped prepare bwuiri, which is a couscous (millet) porridge flavored with lemon-type-things and sugar and eaten to break fast during Ramadan. Maybe I will even get to help prepare dinner some day.

Your Mission: bathing
Kevin, Chrisses, Helen, Emilys, Erica, Lindsey, Jen, Jess, Maddy, and anyone who is contemplating visiting me ever, this is your assignment. For everyone else, you really should do this at least once, because it's fun and informative, and if nothing else will make you really love your shower.

I bathe once or twice a day here in about a gallon and a half of water, on my extremely luxurious days. If you want to try the way I bathe (and you really ought to), here's what to do. Get a bucket. A clean bucket. Get water in it--I use unheated outside tap water, but you can get whatever temperature you prefer, since technically I could heat water and have warmer baths if I wanted. Use about a gallon. Get a quart yogurt container, or some other plastic scooper--a mug will be frustratingly heavy and small--you want it to float in the bucket so you don't have to get your water dirty with your soapy hands. Okay, now take the bucket to the shower, and put it in the bathtub (if you wanted to be really authentic, you'd do this outside, but some people may not be able to do that, public nudity laws being what they are). Get your soap. Squat down and pour water over your shoulders and commence to bathe. If you are washing your hair, I recommend dunking your head in the bucket first, turning to each side and trying to touch your shoulder with your chin--that will probably get your entire scalp wet. It works for me. Then shampoo, etc, use the lather for body wash to whatever extent you like, and slosh water all over yourself to wash. Last, rinse your hair by pouring water over your head, and work your way down to your feet until you're all washed. If you've been good, you still have about four scoops or more of water left in the bucket. This is the best part: lift the bucket up and pour is over your head or down your back. It feels amazing.

Cashews and Medical stuff:
I had a popsicle the other day. Frozen pulped fruit from a little tied-off baggie. Bite off the corner and go to heaven. I didn't recognize the flavor, and thought it might be mango, but I was in one of my "It's too awkward to talk or inquire about anything, I don't want to be rude, I really want to eat something cold, and I would rather be sick than say anything other than 'Jaaraama,'" which is hello and thank you and goodbye and how are you all rolled into one. Two days ago I broke out in a horrible, horrible rash. Woke up from sleeping--badly--in my room on my bare matela (didn't have the energy to make it, since I ran inside with all my stuff rolled up in my tent at about 4am). There had been semiraw cashews and their skins spilled on the mat, and I thought nothing of it. Assiz had, sweetly, given me a bunch, saying "Garde les dans ta chambre pour manger pendant la Ramadan," the night before, after the announcement that Ramadan was starting the next day. I noticed a bit of a funny feeling on my face from the mat, but it went away. Then, I ate the cashews. And the next day or so I woke up with the beginnings of a super terrible bout of mangoface.

For those of you who don't already know (can't be many out there), I dearly love and am deeply allergic to mangoes. When I eat them I get angry, yellow-puss-oozing, skin-cracking rash all over my face, neck, and sometimes other parts of my body, if it systematizes. My first thought was the juice, and when my family decided to offer me a bottle of the juice, I lied and said I was too sick (yesterday) to drink anything but ndiyan, which is water. I asked what it was and they said baobab fruit, but I was skeptical. Maybe they added mango. So anyway, that is why I asked everyone to go look up plant families. The short version of the answer is that it is basically impossible for a mango allergy to translate to baobab. They're related, but only because they are both rosids, which constitutes about 60,000 species of plants. I was really confused until I realized this evening that, duh, I had been eating cashews. Semiraw cashews. And slept with my face pressed into a cashew-hull-inundated semi-rough foam mat, sweating, for several hours. And wondered briefly when I woke up if I was allergic to the mat.

I called the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer), Doctor Ararat (who, incidentally, learned English in Ethiopia--I think--from PCVs there as a child) initially prescribed washing my face. Then, the next day, when the rash had started to spread rapidly across face and neck and was coming out on arms and hands, she prescribed me some steriods (Prednizone, I think, but check the spelling on that). I have no pride when it comes to this--normally, I would not take steroids for something like that, but in a hot humid climate with no clean water to soak off the puss crust (any water I would use here is bleached--OW--or could carry infections), I'm not a hero. Steroids for me, and the rash is much less bad, although it has made it all the way up to my eyes and down to the vertical part of my neck.

In other news, I got my med kit today, which may not seem exciting, but it means I have my own supply of all kinds of general first-aid type stuff. Before, they did not have enough, so three of us were sharing one in Sangalkam. Which was kind of sad, since we all got sick in one way or another. But most of us are better now, and those who aren't are getting there. Sickness here is inevitable, you just have to hope that it happens at a relatively convenient time.

The Tayer's Wife:
Issakha is a tailor (in Pulla Futa, that's "tayer"), and he makes all kinds of absolutely gorgeous clothes. Tailors here, by the way, are incredible. You can show them a picture of a garment, and give them fabric, and magically they make the picture into that cloth and you can wear it. Super amazing. He seems to be a pretty highbrow tailor, too, because he has his own coutier (younger guy who cuts the fabric), and spends most of his time lately doing incredibly intricate, repeating, symmetrical and completely perfect patterns of gold embroidery freehand on an electric sewing machine. I don't know how to explain how perfect his work is, but it is exquisite.

And now a little bit of a cultural note. People here don't really brag at all. They don't talk about how great they are, and even if they say they are doing well, it is usually followed by, "Thanks be to God," even for those who are not particularly religious. Yet, often if you compliment someone, they'll just say, "Merci," which would be rude in French culture (you say "thank you," when someone compliments you, which is seen to imply that you think you deserve the compliment or something, that isn't really the point, but it's an interesting aside), but is normal in America. But the real point here is that nobody seems to brag. The other thing you need to know is that people wear (a) the same clothes for a week or more and (b) not particularly super-fancy clothes, either. Jeneba, though. Jeneba's normal around-the-house clothes are fit for a mid-to-upscale social gathering. Her hair is coming out of its braids, and she always looks tired, thought not particularly grubby. But her clothes--they are covered in intricate gold embroidery, they have decorative wrap-around shapes also accentuated in gold embroidery, and yet there is enough yellow in the fabric's pattern that you don't see it initially. At first I wondered why she wore such nice clothes around the compound, and then I realized that it's Issakha's way of bragging, both about his wife (whom he clearly really loves and cares for) and his skill in his trade.

Such a different thing than bragging in America--we talk bigger than we are, exaggerate our claims to emphasize their importance. Issakha's wife wears incredibly beautiful clothes as a matter of course, and Issakha, thin and with one crossed eye, smiles happily and goes quietly about his tailoring. It makes me happy in the same way that seeing Assiz pray with Fatou makes me happy--expressions of love are always beautiful. Seeing something that is genuine by definition, though, is even better. Issakha wouldn't make Jeneba such beautiful things merely to advertise his trade; he would make her clothing, of course, and it would be well-done. But it touches me deeply, somehow, that things are the way they are.

It isn't really Kool-Aid, but there's something here called Foster Clark's that comes in many different flavors and is about twenty cents to get a packet that makes a liter of drink. Yes, I know I normally would not drink Kool-Aid if you held a cup to my lips, but this is different. In addition to flavors like 'Cola,' 'Mango,' and 'Tropical Punch,' (none of which I bought today), there are: Berries, Lemon, Passionfruit, Orange, Mandarin, Pineapple, Guava, one I can't remember, and Pineapple-Ginger. This last, I was so curious that I had to try, and it actually carries a hefty ginger kick. I may be in love with Foster Clark, whoever he is. Seriously, though, don't bother sending drink mixes--this stuff is in better flavors and is cheaper here.

I've already described our Thies breakfast food, but in village, my breakfast is amazing. At first it took me a bit to warm up to it, but now, I love it. And I love Jeneba, because she makes it. I get about a third of a loaf of french bread, fried eggs (very bland), and salty fried onions-and-oil as a thing to eat with eggs and bread. It doesn't look so hot, described like that, but I promise you it is one of the tastiest things you'll ever eat.

Lunch and dinner are communal, eaten out of a large bowl with your right hand if you're adept, and with a spoon if you are not. I am firmly in the "spoon" school. One night I tried eating with my right hand (nyame njoowo), but all I really did was provide entertainment. There are a lot of food types, but mostly it is rice with some vegetables and some sort of sauce with fish. The sauce is usually red, or else the rice is red, which means there's tomato or palm oil, or both--I feel lucky that there are vegetables. Everything is pretty oily, but so far, so good. It's all either tasty or neutral, too, which is also nice.

Other foods I've come to love are bissap (very sweet dark red hibiscus tea, sometimes with mint, drank cold or frozen), stale Biskrem cookies (I fell in love with those in Turkey), and, now that I know I am not allergic to it, baobab fruit. Oh, and the bread-with-chocolate for breakfast, well, it grows on you, that's all I'm saying.

I know I already mentioned it, but I was thinking about it more today, and with respect to French, I am really so surprised that I don't even know where to look. I don't want to seem like I'm bragging at all, but it's incredibly impressive to me that I've been able to just start using French. Like I had it there all along, just waiting to walk on out of the woodwork and be used. Sometimes I don't understand what people say, sometimes I have to ask for clarification or vocabulary help, but by and large I can speak at a Real Person pace and communicate effectively enough that people--even outside the training center--don't seem to have to slow down for me. Another huge milestone is that I have started remembering conversations I have in French as concept, rather than vividly and specifically in English. The crossover isn't 100% yet, but it's so much closer than when I was in Burkina Faso. One of the teachers here (who will be my boss when I swear in to become a real-live PCV, insha'Allah) asked me today if I had ever lived in a Francophone country, and whether I had learned French from a young age. I haven't got a swollen head about it (other than the rash, anyway), but it really boosted my confidence.

Today, walking back from town, I was thinking more consciously about it and noticing that I really am just comfortable in that language in a way I didn't think I was going to be able to access. Clearly, I am not fluent, but I am functional, and I don't sound like a brain-dead two-year-old, so that's a start.

Islam: Ramadan and praying:
Senegal is proudly secular, I want to say that from the get-go. Still, though, a good 96% or so of the population is Muslim, and with the start of Ramadan, that has become really apparent. The calls to prayer here are very different from the ones in Turkey, but I find them similarly comforting, and one thing I really love doing is watching people pray. I feel a little awkward about it, somehow voyeuristic, but it's like watching dancing or listening to music: pure, genuine, and real. Something about the ritual of it all, so much more apparent to me than the ones to which I've really been exposed, is just supernaturally lovely. It's like watching flowers--they're beautiful because they are what they are, and nothing else.

Less peacefully, I bought [stale] Biskrem and [cold! with real sugar! in a glass bottle!] Fanta to celebrate going through a week of language class and getting my first evaluation. Ramadan started a few days ago, so most people are fasting, and by a few weeks from now, apparently everyone gets really crabby. Anyway, I was eating and drinking in the public square, which is sort of rude, but I'm such a spectacle anyway that really, it doesn't seem to matter a whole bunch. Peace Corps, I know you are reading this, so I want to be clear--I don't go around flaunting the eating thing, especially to my family. However, there was a sort of secluded space right in front of the store with some shade, so three of us were partaking there, as I said, fairly furtively. And a woman walks up and starts absolutely berating me in French. When I could get a word in edgewise, I protested, "Mais, je suis cretienne!" (But, I'm a Christian!) and she let me go, left in a huff. What was she berating me for? I was being a bad person for not following the fast, since I am clearly old enough to be doing so.

My apologies to Christians--both in my circle of friends and outside it. I know that professing false belief is really not good; in this case, I hope that you can understand why I am doing it. Basically, unless you want to be ostracized, you need to be (to my understanding) Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Clearly, I am not Jewish, and it doesn't really seem that anyone in Senegal is, not noticeably, anyway. Therefore, the other option (and, coincidentally, the one about which I know most) is to be Christian.

The Garden:
We have a garden in Sangalkam, me and the five other trainees. It is mostly sand, and we have carried baignoires (big plastic basins) of manure to it. Plans for the future include lots of tree seeding, and renting a horse cart to haul enough manure to make manure tea for our so-far-a-little-sad garden. I will post pictures next time.

My Name:
Halimatu Ba is my Senegalese name, for those of you who were confused by my somewhat surrealist last entry. Everyone has one, it makes things easier and clearly says to the entire community that I Am Here To Be Part Of Things. It doesn't stop the Toubabbing, but I respond "Nam!" (what you say when someone says your name) more often than I hear Toubab. Which, incidentally, means "white ghost" in Wolof.

Language continues at breakneck pace, but I am so far holding on by the skin of my teeth. Thanks to Cornell and the craziness that was the Chemistry major, actually, because by treating it as an intensive college course and putting in the same amount of outside time (rewriting and rereading notes, etc) I seem to be staying nearly abreast. Of course, I am not functional, and so use mostly French with my family, but I am using more and more Pulla Futa, and hope that will continue.

Funnily enough--Andrew and Andres, this makes me think of you for some reason--the way to tell someone to eat, eat, eat! (which is what you do to guests here) in Pulla Futa is to say "Nyame! Nyame!" and the way to say "I'm eating, already!" is "Mi nyami! Mi nyami!" You can extrapolate from this what happens before and during meals. Afterwards, I argue with at least one person--genially--about how I actually did eat enough. Mi nyami bui! O'oo, a nyame sedaa! And so forth.

Incidentally,Iam a little intellectually lonely, but I don't really want to go into it here partly because I don't want to give the impression that I am judging my fellow Trainees or teachers, suffice to say that most of you know what I normally talk about (nerd things) and think about, and there isn't much of it here. Which is fine, I just miss Cornell's climate a bit.

My Five Favorite Things:
Okay, this is a hugely long entry, and I'm nearly done. Thank you, whoever you are, for reading it all. The five things I love most that I brought here are:

REI BugHut2 (saves my life every night)
My 2.0L Platypus water bladder (keeps me going every day)
My hemp Pance (a little heavy, but comfortable, tough, and don't show wear or dirt)
Large Timbuk2 Messenger Bag--I packed it in a different bag to get here, but it is so incredibly helpful to have an *additional bag* to pack for village.
Teva Flip-flops

To put this in perspective for you all who know me--I would not trade my BugHut for any number of Terry Pratchett books nor any amount of Bavarian Raspberry Fudge ice cream from the Cornell Dairy nor anything else on earth. I would not trade my Platypus for any amount of any foodstuff, but it is a close second. Pance come in a clear third, but you'd be hard-pressed to get me to part with them. Flipflops and messenger bag are kind of in a dead heat for fourth place, though.

Next time: pictures, more about technical training, a day in the life, what happens during the evenings at my compound (Ibrahim, whether I've met Tupac, and Franglofuta) and anything else you want me to talk about (post comments!).


Andres said...

Good to know you're eating enough ^_^. Shocking to hear about your having stuff more important than "any quantity of pratchett". Glad you're having fun and that the rash episode is behind you. Looking forward to seeing pictures!

Jeremy Cfd said...

I really enjoyed reading your posts. I'm glad things are getting better. I'm so amazed at the cool things you're doing/seeing and the interesting people you're interacting with. I wish I were brave enough to do those things. Please take care and enjoy yourself.

hilinda said...

Enjoying reading all this very much.

I think, after all, things have indeed turned out the way they should.

Sarah Cohn said...

Sorry to hear about the allergic reaction...but what an awesome post!! I am unashamedly living vicariously through you and getting more excited/anxious for our departure with every post. I might even track down a bucket to practice bathing...

Sarah Cohn said...

P.S. Hemp pants sound like an excellent idea...any suggestions where to get them (outside of Itaca obviously)?

Sarah Cohn said...

P.P.S. Yes I am totally that girl posting three times in a row here, but I have another question. It seems like your host family had already picked out our name before you arrived...have you figured out how they picked it yet?

Jeremy Cfd said...

Katherine, if you'll message me with anything you miss from the states and your address, I'll send you a care package!

Chris said...

More important than Pratchett, huh? Never thought I'd ever hear that from you. ;) I'm glad you're enjoying yourself! :) I love reading your posts; keep writing! Oh, and yes: post pictures! When you can. :)

C.W. said...

hey you. thanks for the preview the other day (and for listening) and I promise not to send you kool aid ;P

your family sounds absolutely wonderful...they sound like great people and I love your little observations. KEEP UPDATING!!

rmg53 said...


Sounds like you are settling in nicely! I am really enjoying following your blog, and will try to send you some mail soon (so look for it in a few months, I guess? Haha).

Hugs from PVD!

JCinthePC said...

I just fell upon your blog today, I enjoyed reading the posts. It's a bummer that you had to wait so long after all those places closed but as a recently returned Mauritania PCV, I can tell you that you lucked out on that end by getting Senegal. Good luck with you service, hope you enjoy Senegal.
P.S. Try to get to St. Louis, it was my favorite place during my two years.