Fifth Report


Friday, October 22, 1999

The big news of today's phone call was that Shannon got her assignment. 

She will be spending the next two years in the northeastern part of Senegal, very near the Mauritanian border, in the district of Matam.  You can see Matam on the detailed map; it appears to be around 300 miles from Dakar, Senegal's capital.  According to the Senegalese trainers Matam is a great area, a very laid back place where the people love to laugh and joke. 

The announcement of her assignment to her Senegalese family and friends has usually elicited the response of "it sure is hot up there."  They have told her that she will have to wear a head wrap for protection from the hot dusty wind that blows out of Mauritania.  In Podor, the next region over that uses PCVs, it is 100 degrees in the cool season and 130 in the the hot season.  However, they do say that it is beautiful.  One of her trainers regularly takes his vacations there. 
     Matam is on the edge of the dessert but there is still some greenery, and the dry heat is more bearable than the hot humid weather in southern Senegal.  It seems I've heard that said about Los Angeles, her home for these last five years prior to this Peace Corps experience.  Will she ever adjust to a Minnesota winter again? 

The population of Seno Palel, the village where Shannon will live, is 3000.  That's larger than Annandale!  She will be living on the compound of the village chief, a fine man with only one wife.  That's a very unusual distinction for a man who can afford more.  He has many children and grandchildren running around the compound, and his 24-year-old daughter does most of the cooking and washing.  Shannon will be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the market every day, and even though she will be in a mud hut without water or electricity, this sounds far more developed than Shannon had envisioned.  The village even has two schools, one Koranic (Muslim) and one French.
     There is a very active president of the women's group in Seno Palel who is almost as strong and important as the village chief.  She and the chief together specifically requested a female volunteer to work with the village women. 
     Shannon will be only 6 km. (4 miles) away from a nearby village of 7000 that has a pharmacy, fax, and telephone, so she'll be able to bike there and telephone us once a week.  That was the best news I could have heard!

More good news to Shannon was that most of the people in the area under age 31 speak French, and she is already able to communicate adequately in French.  She had just had a nice conversation with the owner of the telecenter prior to calling us.    
     Soon she'll also have to start learning Pular, the language spoken in her village. 

The health hut in the village where Shannon will be working is a virgin site.   She will be setting it up herself, and in a year, when the next group of PC volunteers arrive, she will get an apprentice.  There was an agricultural PC worker there in the 1980s, but they have never had a health care worker.   

One level up from the the village health hut where Shannon will be working is the health care post which serves 14 villages.  Seno Palel is one of the 14.  This post is located in a nearby village of 7000 and has a pharmacy, fax, and, best of all, a telephone.  It has three maternity attendants and is visited once a week by a nurse midwife. 

Shannon's role as a health care volunteer is to train people to teach others.   Her three primary goals are malaria prevention, diarrhea prevention, and the importance of vaccinations.  She was able to choose her own secondary goals from a list of many, and she chose pre- and post-natal care, family planning, and AIDS prevention.


Last Monday three letters came all at once.  Two were posted from Dallas, Virginia, with American stamps on them, so they were obviously hand-carried by someone that was in Senegal.  The third one was sent from Senegal, and it seemed to have taken 8 days.   That's not too bad. 
     In one letter she said that when she is in the neighborhood where she lives and greets the kids in her host family in front of their friends, she can tell that they feel cool.  Can't you just visualize that!  I can.

A second phone call from Shannon on the day following the big news of her assignment was more relaxed once she had had some time to process the news.  She talked about the wildlife, an upcoming visit to Matam, and her current level of adjustment. 

The wildlife report was rather disappointing.  I was hoping for something exotic, but all that was different was the abundance of insects -- huge insects.   (They must be something for a Minnesotan to be impressed by insects.)   The worst one is something called a blister beetle.  If you yell and make a fuss when it is on your body it excretes a substance that produces a huge blister on the skin.  In addition to all the insects there are lots of goats, sheep, and chickens. 

In a few weeks Shannon will be spending a full week in Matam.  She will be taken there by the PC staff and introduced to the area and to her future co-workers, but then she is left there to find her way back to the training center herself -- 300 miles on public transportation or whatever she can manage.  They call it "trial by fire." 
     Her host family says that many of the trainees leave after this period.  They have hosted 8 PC trainees before Shannon, so they have observed this pattern before. 

Shannon is said to be in the "first adjustment phase," a period that follows the initial adrenaline rush of being there and then the culture shock.  In this phase numerous things that previously seemed strange now seem normal.  Like what?  Like a diet of rice and couscous, and showering by candlelight by pouring water from a bucket over her body.  She says that that kind of shower is actually very efficient except for her hair.  It is still long, but some of the others have already shaved their heads for efficiency.  Oh-oh.
     I wonder what the "second adjustment phase" will be?

Sixth Report