As Assistant Coordinator of AVN Senegal I am in charge of research and development on training and technical issues and co-manage deployment in the field while assisting with strategy and networking.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Arriving in Africa

I have now been in Senegal two weeks, which seems unreal. It also feels unreal how warm it is ALL THE TIME. I have not slept with a sheet since arriving here. I probably sweat my own weight out at least twice daily. I struggle to come to terms with the realization that I may not experience coldness for the next two years of my life. 

The activities here has been so jam-packed that it feels as if months have passed. Then I just have to look at how little Wolof I have learned to remind myself that I really couldn't have been here that long, right? Wolof is the local language I am learning. It is the de facto national language, despite French being the official language of Senegal. It is spoken in most parts of the country, although the north, south, and southeast speak primarily other local languages. 

I still do not know where my final site will be, and having been assigned Wolof as my language I can't narrow it down much based on regional languages. Over the next month and a half I will be swinging between the Peace Corps training center in Thies (near the capital, Dakar) and my host family town, Mboro (a 40 minute car ride to the northwest of Thies).

My training group consists of 57 trainees. About 24 of us are agroforestry volunteers (myself included), then there are about 16 apiece for sustainable ag and urban ag. Most of our training sessions are shared (i.e. safety and security, medical) while our technical training can sometimes be group specific (tree dendrology for agfo volunteers). The training center is a comfortably American bubble within Senegal, and since we hardly go outside the compound when here it is hard to feel fully submerged in Senegal. Of course the sweltering heat, strange plants and bugs, and exposure to new (delicious!) food is constant reminder that I am not in the States. Also almost all the staff here are Senegalese--our LCF's (language and cultural facilitators; one is assigned to each group of volunteers in our homestay communities to help us adapt and learn the language) technical training staff, safety and security supervisor, cooks, and groundkeepers. 

I just got back form my first seven days with my homestay family, and it was a great experience. Our primary goal is to integrate with the culture and learn the language, but we also have "homework" assignments to practice our technical agfo tasks. Each CBT (community based training) community takes on between two and five volunteers. We live in separate compounds--each with our on families--but we meet up every day to work together in our communities setting up a small garden which the community will take over once we leave our CBT sites and get our final assignments. Our tasks during our first visit included gathering components and making a comport pile, digging and adding soil amendment to garden beds, and setting up a seed nursery bed where we will propagate plants to transplant into our beds. These chores are a great way to engage with the community (talking to people to find out where to find organic material for our compost, or manure for our planting beds, for example) and having some clearly defined work was often a nice anchor in an experience that can otherwise seem rudderless at times. Really focusing in on the language is another strategy I have been using to keep myself focused. Despite being unlike any of the romance languages I know or have studied (and not like english either) I think I'm doing a decent job of learning Wolof.

A brief description of my host family life:
* Forgive the lack of photos, I will try to get them in my next update. So far I haven't even unpacked my camera.

I'm in a small town along with three other volunteers, each of us in seperate compounds. In my host family I have two sisters in their late twenties who are married and each have a young boy (about 4 and 5) and a baby (one is a 3 month-year-old boy, the other a 1 year-old girl). One of my sisters' husbands lives with us, the other lives up north in Saint Louis. I have an 18 year-old sister, a 20 year-old brother, a 26 year-old brother, and a 9 year-old sister. There are also frequent visit from friends

My host mother runs a small shop in the market downtown, selling an assortment of household items including ice, which I help my sister make each evening by filling several dozen plastic sacks with a few cups of water, tying them off, and freezing them overnight in our freezer. 

My host father is retired and spends most of the day out on his farm. He let me come with him one day and I loved it out there! He speak french and so I am able to communicate pretty well with him. This helped me immensely when I spent all day at the farm with him and was able to talk about everything from his worries about who will inherit his farm (none of his children are interested in farming) to a discussion of the farming techniques he employs. He has put an incredible amount of work into his one hectare plot, doing essentially all of it himself. It is mostly an orchard, with a combination of oranges, mangos, bananas, papaya, lemon, and some local fruits I have not yet learned the names of. He also cultivates tomatoes, eggplants, and some other crops. He grafts all his own fruit trees, harvests all his own seeds, and has a great watering system set up to irrigate all his trees from retention ponds than hold water all year thanks to the extremely high water table on his land, which borders a seasonal swamp. 

Hanging out with my host dad is great, but since he is often gone at the farm all day I usually see him only briefly in the evenings. While at home I spend most of my time with my sisters, since one brother is usually out chilling in the streets or playing football with his buddies and the other works. One of my sisters speaks french quite well, which has been a huge help since I can clarify any question I have and get help learning Wolof. I worried for I bit that I wouldn't learn Wolof because I was just speaking french all the time but I'm getting to the point where I can usually get my point across in Wolof, it just takes a loooong time to say it. And my comprehension is still pretty pitiful. 

Of course much of my interaction doesn't necessarily require language. On my fourth day at site I demanded that my sisters let me try washing my own clothes--they vehemently refused but I was stubborn enough that they eventually relented and let me try. They teased me mercilessly about how awful a job I did, even when I asked them show me exactly how one is supposed to hand-wash clothes. They use big plastic tubs and soapy water, and do this quick motion of scooping water between the fabric and rubbing it with one hand against the other wrist in a sudden squishing motion to force the sudsy water through the fabric pores. When done properly it makes a signature "squeek" noise. There is even a special verb for this, "fetey" meaning "to squeek one's clothes while washing." I aspire to one day fetey as my sisters do.


  1. Love this: "Having some clearly defined work was often a nice anchor in an experience that can otherwise seem rudderless at times."

    Your aspirations to fetey is classic PWauts too.

    Glad you're diving into the new environment and surviving the heat! It's finally cooling down in Shanghai but I was drowning in the humidity during September.

    Pumped for your next update!

  2. hey bro! stephanie and I just read your update and we're both grinning post-read, you created an engaging, funny and informative entry - keep 'em coming! i can imagine you insisting on washing your own clothes:) made for a great story too, i am sure you will get that squeak down soon.

    lots of love and know we are proud of you!

    michael and stephanie

  3. People in the jungle make fun of my lack of squeak-washing, too! Although they're slightly more inclined to let me practice since I'm female.

    Lemme know if you encounter anyone speaking Sereer, and yay for Wolof, that's great that you're picking things up! Keeping posting and having adventures!

  4. Salut Patrick! Je suis contente de voir que tu as l'occasion de mettre en pratique ton français avec ta famille d'accueil. Je te souhaite un excellent séjour avec eux. Bon courage pour tout!

  5. Chatão, I love the sentence "Of course much of my interaction doesn't necessarily require language." it's so true...
    Take some food pictures like you did here!!
    Ps: How can I say, "chatão" in Wolof? lol Take care. Lo