|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 theres 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 cant 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
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 1932 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 22Shannon 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.
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 isnt yet acclimated
to the lifestyle and cant 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. Thats what she went there to
do. But that rules out a visit from her brother and sister in March.
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 doesnt get to fecal art.
December 24When Shannon called I asked what she was doing on Christmas Eve there. Someones 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 weve had since she left.
We just chatted casually and shared Annandale gossip in a leisurely manner.
I finally remembered to ask what she wears. It is like the pictures weve 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 thats 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. Im 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 womens 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 dont accept her as a man, so they dont 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, Shannons 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 theres a special leaf that diabetics put in their tea.
Shannon mentioned a Pulaar-English Dictionary that we could get for her from Amazon.com, and while we were on the phone we ordered it. We didnt think to have them send it right to her. We should have!
December 25th -- Christmas Day Shannons 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, Saras 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
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.
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.
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 ...in 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.
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.
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.