Ninth Report


December 12, 1999

Back at the training center in Theis after the trainees' week in their villages, there were lots of jokes about Matam as the least desirable assignment in all of Senegal.  It is ugly, dry, hot, and there’s nothing to do, but the best people live there.   (John thought it sounded like Minnesota.)  There is so little there and so little to do it is called the fecal art capital. Remember that piece of art that Shannon sent me for my birthday? [LINK] And I had thought it to be so pretty! Oh, nevermind. I remember now that the artist is from Theis, not Matam. Phew.

The new volunteers were making bets on each other as to who would ET first. Another acronym. That means Early Termination …go home early because they can’t take it anymore. The odds makers determined that none of the four new volunteers to Shannon's area would ET, particularly Shannon.  In fact they voted her the most likely to extend her service for a third year because she is so happy there. That was good news for her parents to hear!
     Shannon has no thoughts of doing an ET.   Her thoughts of the future are about what she will do with her visitors from home when they come. 

It sounds like Shannon is going to have a good holiday season at the Regional Center before she heads out to her assignment in Matam.  John asked if she was ready to do something, meaning get to work at her actual volunteer assignment.  She answered that she is ready to NOT do anything for a while because these past three months she has been constantly stimulated by everything around her, always learning and studying, and she is exhausted and drained by the sensory overload.  She is ready for a break and looking forward to not having to concentrate 11 hours a day.  She compared it to Army boot camp.

She is at the end of the training period, on the verge of swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer -- a huge step in her life.  Getting there was big, making it through training is an accomplishment, but soon the real thing ...

December 19

32 trainees got sworn in on Friday, December 17th.  
     Shannon will spend the first six months she is in Matam learning Pular, and familiarizing herself with current Senegalese health practices, and just drinking tea.   After those first six months she will go around to the villages and evaluate what most needs to be done.  Her main job is to teach them how to teach others about health practices, things such as washing their hands before eating which is especially important because they eat with their hands.  The usual practice now is to dip their hands in water before they eat, but they all use the same bowl and they don't use soap.  

Shannon asked us what blood type she was.  PC records say she is positive, but her Red Cross card says she is negative.  Wondering which one it really is, I emphatically said that she is negative and she'd better get the records straight, because a transfusion of positive blood would be bad.  I don't even want to think about her having a need for a blood transfusion over there!

December 22

Shannon called from the Regional Center in Ndjioum.  She likes it there a lot.  The last time she said it was a happy place; this time she called it such a homey place.  If only it weren't so far from her village.   She'll be there for 4-5 days, at least until after Christmas, and probably for New Year's. 

The weather at the Regional Center is lovely, around 75 degrees, 85 at the peak heat of the day, and cool at night. They sleep on the roof of the center under mosquito netting in sleeping bags.

There are two groups of people there, her group of Rural Health Care volunteers and the SEDs.    What are SEDs, you ask?  So did I.  Shannon tosses acronyms around like crazy, seemingly forgetting that there is a world other than where she is.   SEDs are Small Enterprise Development volunteers.  They have such cushy assignments that all of them will have electricity and most of them will have running water in their compounds.  Those capitalists have it the best everywhere, it seems.
     One of the health care workers, on the other hand, who is assigned in a village down south has a 3 1/2 hour bike ride to the nearest paved road, and she has to carry her bike through a river along the way.  Not only that, she has "language issues."  What happens if she needs an appendectomy, I asked.  Actually, one PCV just recently needed to be medivac'd out, and horse carts work quite well -- except during rainy season.  Oh, good.  I had thought there might be cause for concern. 

John asked Shannon to say something in Pulaar, and she replied with something that sounded like "nom ba da." It sounded very African. That was "how are you?" She only knows greetings so far. Some of the volunteers are already as fluent in Pulaar as she is in French because they arrived fluent in French and started right in on Pulaar at the beginning of training.

A pattern of adjustment has been observed over time with the PCVs. The first six months will be the most difficult when she isn’t yet acclimated to the lifestyle and can’t communicate well. There will be ups and downs, and then after a big dip of discouragement at around month six when many of the PCVs quit, everything falls in to place. They are forbidden to take any vacation days during the first 3 months and highly recommended not to take any the first six months. I certainly want Shannon to adjust as well and as soon as possible. That’s what she went there to do. But that rules out a visit from her brother and sister in March.
    It would be too stressful to have visitors during the adjustment phase because she is working so hard to learn the new culture herself without having to take care of visitors. She has had to learn the Senegalese way to talk, to eat, to pee, to shop, to walk – everything, just to fit in there. There’s more to translating than just words.
    How do they walk differently? Slower and dragging the feet. If you’ve ever walked with Shannon you know that that is quite an adjustment!
    She is like the "unfrozen caveman lawyer" in the Saturday Night Live skit experiencing "strange ways that frighten and confuse him," except Shannon sounds neither frightened nor confused.

Shannon is adjusting, though. She is getting used to a minimum of 5 children following her all the time, just for the novelty of her being white. In November when she visited Seno Palel, the village where she will live, she was the first toubab (white person) that most of the people had ever seen. At one point when she was walking down the road a little girl of around 4 saw her and realized that they were walking in the same direction and she ran away screaming and crying in fear as though Satan was chasing her. Another girl of around 8 shook her hand and kept repeating "toubab – toubab – toubab" in total amazement. Later Shannon thought about it and wondered if she was perhaps a bit retarded because there is a lot of inbreeding. A common Pulaar phrase is "cousins are made for cousins." Marrying cousins is considered a very good thing because it keeps the family together.

I requested that Shannon send me a map of her area, even one she makes herself. She said that she would have lots of time to do that in the next six months, and lots of time to read and write letters. I just hope it doesn’t get to fecal art.

December 24

When Shannon called I asked what she was doing on Christmas Eve there. Someone’s parents had sent lots of Christmas decorations, and they were decorating the place. All of the volunteers in the region were there for Christmas except the Buddhists and those that had gone home for Christmas. There will be 13 sleeping on the roof of the PC Regional Center on Christmas Eve.

Unlike the last conversation when Shannon was almost giddy, she was quite introspective on Christmas Eve.  The two conversations on December 24th and 25th were the most normal conversations we’ve had since she left.   We just chatted casually and shared Annandale gossip in a leisurely manner.
     She was missing the volunteers assigned to other regions with whom she had just spent the 3 arduous months of training. They developed Franglais (French/English) together. They shared a language.
     We asked if she was glad to be there, and she said yes. It’s very hard, but it feels right.

I finally remembered to ask what she wears. It is like the pictures we’ve seen: a tank top and a piece of colorful fabric wrapped around her waist like a sarong. It sounds quite comfortable. Although some of the women go topless, it is very immodest for knees to show. Sara asked if she goes barefoot, and she said, "Never! There are too many parasites!" At one time 8 of the 32 volunteers had "larval migrants" that burrow into the feet, a parasite that you can even see under the skin. They eventually die, and although there is a cream that helps accelerate the life cycle so they go away faster, it causes even more pain. So Shannon always wears sandals. Jefferson said he would wear boots. Oh, no – then you get fungus, and that’s not good either. Foot care is very important. Just that day she had bought a pumice stone. The recommended procedure is to soak the feet and use pumice and lotion daily. Lotion is provided by Peace Corps because it is so important. I’m just glad that PC has been in Senegal for 37 years to figure these things out before Shannon got there.

Cira, the second year PCV in Shannon's area, told Shannon that she is very lucky that she will be part of the women’s group in her village.  When Shannon spent the week in Seno Palel in November Cira observed that she was eating with the women. Cira eats with the men in her village, but they obviously don’t accept her as a man, so they don’t know what to do with her socially, and she really has no group to associate with. I was so happy to hear that Shannon will have Senegalese women friends soon.

In Senegal there is strong and universal belief in magic. During a conversation in Theis with 5 young men, Shannon’s host brother and 4 of his friends, all university educated, explained to her that much of what happens is due to magic. For instance, there are people who stop the rain. One day Shannon heard the name announced on the radio of the person who had stopped the rain that day.  Shannon allows for the possibility that they might be right.   

There are two causes of illness, physical and supernatural, and a Senegalese person always goes to a traditional healer first to determine which kind of illness it is before seeking the appropriate treatment. And even some physical illnesses are only treatable by traditional medicine. They deal with AIDS in a way that has fewer side effects than western medicine, and there’s a special leaf that diabetics put in their tea.
     Their reality is just totally different than what she has experienced in her first 23 years. Their culture has existed since the beginning of humanity, and perhaps in Senegal, though not in the USA, things do happen because of spells. Senegal is just different than the US in every way. Shannon is looking forward to not being so aware of the differences all the time, just accepting them and living the Senegalese way.

Shannon mentioned a Pulaar-English Dictionary that we could get for her from, and while we were on the phone we ordered it. We didn’t think to have them send it right to her. We should have!

December 25th -- Christmas Day

Shannon’s big announcement was that Cira's reported that Fati Mata, her pregnant sister-in-law, had delivered a baby girl -- and named it after Shannon!   Her name is Hawa, Shannon's Pulaar name.  Baby Hawa seems to be a healthy baby, quite likely to live, and Cira gave Shannon permission to get attached to her.

While we were on the telephone our houseguest, Sara’s friend Madeleine, a French instructor at the U, walked in and spoke to Shannon in French, and Shannon replied in French. When we asked if her French sounded Senegalese, Shannon broke in with the declaration that she knows that her grammar is appalling in any continent. Madeleine said that her accent is a combination of American and Senegalese.

It was afternoon in Senegal when we talked, and they had spent their Christmas day shopping, making cookies, and exchanging gifts. There were 17 people in the gift exchange.
     Shannon opened her gifts from us while she was on the telephone, thanking us with enthusiasm. She appreciated the book, the audio cassettes (including Titanic), and the hair ties. Her family had wanted to braid her hair, but she didn’t have enough ties at the time, and now she does. (So apparently she hasn’t shaved her head – yet). She was excited about the pocket calendar (a freebie from Hallmark that I always put in their stockings), the dried fruit, Corn Nuts, and the pencils. Oh, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese – always good! She was excited about the Xmas pen because there isn’t much Xmas cheer in Muslim Senegal, even though the pen will dry out in two days there. Not much transfers from the States, she said.
     Sara was a little surprised about the things she was excited about. Shannon replied that there isn’t much holiday cheer there, just Muslims who are cranky from fasting for Ramadan. In London there is a support group for Muslims who need help dealing with Christmas cheer.
     She liked the thermometer with the compass on it. The compass will be good (if you’ve ever gone anywhere with Shannon you know that it will be a good thing!), but the thermometer only goes to 120 degrees – not high enough. Sara suggested that we send her a food thermometer.
     She loved the cassettes that John had made from some of Sara’s CDs, and he asked for specific requests for others. Just NO Bob Marley, please. She hears enough of him because he is worshiped over there. Sometimes things are just so surreal she gets weirded out.  Back home while the four stateside Bishops were gathered around the speakerphone talking to Shannon in Senegal, John stepped back and photographed us with our new digital camera from Santa.

All the new volunteers are preparing to get their huts ready.  One day several of them went out looking for a metal pot to boil water, and they got to watch it being made from beginning to end from a dirt mold.
     Shannon’s hut will have mud walls, grass roof, and a cement floor.  The people at the training center are starting a periodical called "Better Huts and Gardens" to assist future volunteers.  Seriously. 

December 31, 1999 - New Year's Eve

Shannon called on New Year's Eve from the Regional Center in Ndjioum after three days in her village.  All the new volunteers were excited and full of stories about their village experiences. 

The trip from Seno Palel to the Regional Center took over 9 hours on public transportation, the same trip that three days earlier took three hours when Craig drove her to the village in his car.  Craig is the PCVL, the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, who lives at the Regional Center.  Shannon has pride in being "the end of the line,"  that is, the person farthest from the Regional Center, because "all roads lead to Shannon."  That's actually true, but there's only one road in northern Senegal, period. 
     I was pleased to hear the proximity of the other volunteers to Shannon.  Tanisha is just a 20-minute bike-ride away, Cira is a 1 hour bike ride, Tammy a 1 hour bike ride, and Derek is a bit farther.  Tanisha and Cira will share a health post while Shannon is alone at hers, but in a year she will have an apprentice PCV who will carry on the work when Shannon leaves. 
     Several weeks ago she was issued a very nice mountain bike, plus a lock, helmet, tool kit, and water bottle.  So far she has visited one of the other PCVs each day she has been in the village. 
     To get to the Regional Center in Ndjioum on public transportation Shannon biked to Tanisha's village where they took a bus to Ouro Sogui, the village that has the Gar (transportation hub).  There they waited for two hours for the bus to fill before it headed for Ndjioum, and there were numerous stops along the way.  They stopped for 5:00 p.m. prayer and again at sunset to break the fast.  And they stopped when the driver wanted to make a call at the telecenter along the way.  Each stop was 20-40 minutes, and the the bus is hot, dusty, uncomfortable, and crowded with cranky Muslims who are fasting for Ramadan. 

Shannon's hut isn't ready so she is living in a room in the compound.   She said her whole family is GREAT and she especially loves her sister-in-law, Fati Mata, the mother of her namesake, Hawa.  Fati Mata also has another child, an 18-month-old girl named Isita, and Isita too is an exceptional child, very cute and ticklish.  Unlike most of the other toddlers, Isita giggled when she first saw Shannon's white face.  Baby Hawa is so alert and large and healthy she looks like a 2-month-old child at only 4 weeks.  I told Shannon she sounded like a grandmother.

The Daff compound (Shannon's family's name is Daff) now has three Hawa Daffs:  the baby, Shannon, and the sister who has been assigned to help Shannon with her Pulaar.  That Hawa doesn't speak French, but her 12-year-old daughter, Cira, does.  Yes, Cira is also the name of the PCV that Shannon has connected with.  Too few names in Senegal, it seems!  Cira Daff does much of the translating for Shannon, and when she gets stuck they go over to the third French-speaking person in the village, a 20-year-old woman ...named Cira.  That's three people in the whole village of 3000 that Shannon can communicate with right now the language she has learned in the last three months.   But another PCV, Stephanie, has not even one French-speaking person in her village, and her Pulaar is no better than Shannon's.  This first six months is still going to be difficult for Shannon while she learns Pulaar, but with three French-speaking people nearby it will be far better than I had feared. 

Every day Shannon sees progress being made on her hut.  The cement floor is now in place, and the walls have the mud layer on them.  The walls are made with mud bricks and then "painted" with more mud.  It sounds sort of like mud stucco.  The roof is made with bundles of long grass, and she'll be able to hang things from the ceiling and put things on the mud walls with nails.  Many of the other PCVs put maps on the wall. 
     There are two wooden doors.  One leads to the outside and is covered by structure for shade, and the other door leads to the enclosed latrine area.   The "toilet" is a hole in the ground that connects to a pipe deeper in the ground, and it is covered with a bag of sand to keep the flies out.  It doesn't smell at all.  And the shower is a high bucket with holes in it.   There are no windows in the hut, but she hopes to get screen doors so she can leave the wood doors open.
     The bed will be a raised platform with a foam pad.  Some people just sleep on a pad on the floor, but it is important to be raised up in case the roof leaks during the rainy season.
     Cira's hut (that's the PCV Cira) is like Club Med, Shannon said.  She even has electricity!  Seno Palel doesn't have electricity in the whole village, but it does have a faucet, not just wells like some of the villages.  (Actually the faucet isn't working right now, but it should be fixed soon.)  Shannon was reminiscing one day about the four months she spend in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, when she thought she was living in primitive conditions because her apartment had no telephone.
     The compound has three cement buildings and 4 huts, plus Shannon's hut which is special because of the latrine area.  The 3000 inhabitants of Seno Palel live in about a mile square, often sleeping 8 to a room.  Shannon has decided that she will not allow the Senegalese people in her hut because she will need some privacy.  Privacy and being alone are foreign to Senegalese, especially wanting to sleep alone, but she has decided to hang on to that American habit. 
     Shannon doesn't know exactly how large her hut is, but it is considerably smaller than Tanisha's which is 4m-x-4m (12'x12').  It is situated about 20-30' from the other huts in the compound. 

The Senegalese women have extremely strong necks and arms.  Their necks are strong from carrying a baignoire full of water on their heads.  A baignoire is a tub shaped like a WOK with a flat bottom, and some of them are huge.  Shannon wants to learn the skill of pulling water from the well so that she can do it herself.  The Muslim villagers don't even drink water during Ramadan, but when Shannon wants to bike to a fellow PCV's village she needs water for the trip, and she doesn't want to have to ask the fasting villagers.  The women's arms are strong from pounding the millet, a skill that the PCVs are not allowed to do, though Shannon doesn't know why, whether it is deemed too physically difficult, or beneath them, or what.

Shannon is getting used to being such a center of attention.  One day she walked to Fati Mata's house, a 5-10 minute walk, and by the time she got there there were 30-40 children following her.  She is the only white person in Seno Palel, and although there was another PCV there 12 years ago, she is definitely the first white face that the younger children have seen.  Shannon has found that when she is away from the Peace Corps centers that her own head jerks in surprise too when she sees a toubab.  

The Senegalese people are very touchy people, though not huggy.   When they sit next to you it is not uncommon to drape an arm or leg over yours.   They talk very close to your face, and do lots of side hugging but no frontal hugging.  One of the Senegalese instructors told of visiting America and wondering what was the matter with him that no one wanted to touch him.  When Shannon was in Theis one tiny little girl always tried to lick Shannon -- once she got over being frightened of her white skin.  The little kids always want to touch her skin and especially her hair. 
     Shannon has commented several times about what beautiful teeth the Senegalese people have, very white and perfectly straight.  They have a special kind of stick that they rub on their teeth in place of a toothbrush, and some people just walk around with one in their mouth like a toothpick. 

I asked Shannon directly if she'd had any health problems that she just hadn't told us about, and she said no.  She hasn't had any parasites in either her feet or her gut.  One volunteer in the room with Shannon when we asked that said that she has been there a year and hasn't been sick at all -- yet.

One of the PCVs had just returned from the States because she had been medivac'd out for health reasons, and she shared with them the big news about the new singing star named Ricky Martin.  I was happy to hear Shannon will be getting a subscription to Newsweek.  That will help her keep up with significant happenings in the developed world.  Like new singing stars, I guess.

January 1, 2000 - New Year's Day

Shannon brought in the new year/decade/century/millennium on the roof of the Peace Corps Regional Center with a number of other volunteers. They had fireworks (on the ground, not the roof), but other than that there was no huge celebration.  They didn't know exactly when midnight was, because when they turned on the radio all they could get was a Wolof comedian, so they just counted down themselves.  The sky was perfectly clear, no moon, and the stars looked like the scene in the movie Titanic.  

Shannon was heading back to Seno Palel the next day, so the next time we hear from her it will be from the telecenter in Sinthiou-Bamambe.  Now she is beginning the real Peace Corps experience, living in the remote rural village with Senegalese people. 

Tenth Report