“Slowly, slowly, one catches the monkey in the forest.” So goes one of the proverbs I’ve learned here. Along with many others, the primary lesson is patience; things in Senegal happen when they happen, and the urgency of the American work environment doesn’t exist. Taking your time is valued over rushing about. People will lounge in the streets with neighbors, chatting under the shade of a tree while sharing ataaya—the ubiquitous tea brewed in small pots over charcoal and generously amended with sugar.
Such an environment is great for learning a new language, as I have found an abundance of patient teachers to sit and talk with. Nobody is in a hurry to get anywhere, and people are generally very open and friendly.
Senegalese also take lots of time for meals, at least lunch. Breakfast is French baguette bread with margarine. Dinner is often rice with a sprinkling of beans. Both are eaten fairly quickly and with little lounging before and after. Lunch, however, is a social affair. Generally I eat with my family and whatever guests or neighbors might be over for the day, usually between 5-10 people. There are two large bowls, which we all crouch around and eat from with a spoon or hand. Lunch is almost always ceeb u jën—rice and fish with some veggies thrown in. It is quite delicious although a bit heavy on the oil and salt. My strategy (developed and perfected over the my several weeks with my host family) is to ignore the rice and go straight for the fish and vegetables. Inevitably I will end up consuming ample rice since one can only be so deft with a large spoon, but if I wait to long the fish will be gone, leaving me essentially protein-less for the day.
Having only one big meal per day has been tough to adjust too, especially when I’m trying to focus on language class and my stomach is eating itself. So I’ve recently been buying second breakfast in the late morning, after my garden chores are done. A sandwich of beans and hardboiled eggs makes all the difference. I also have a stash of oranges in my room for snacks. Despite my father owning a fruit orchard we ironically eat very little fruit.
Another exciting part of my life is the dramatic but sporadic dreams I’ve had since being here. Partly I think this is a product of the malaria medication I take, Mefloquin.
**Reader alert—the following recounting of my dream is somewhat graphic (violence and scary monsters) so please skip ahead if such content may be unsettling to you**
The other night I dreamt I was trudging through a snow covered forest, with heavy flakes obscuring much of the blanketed undergrowth. I happened upon a man covered in heavy furs, crouched by a fire under the canopy of a sprawling conifer tree. As I approached the edge of his camp a massive six-limbed monster thundered out of the blizzard and burst into the clearing under the ancient tree.
The creature resembled a demonic blend of horse, man, wolf, and ram. In place of fur was flayed skin, revealing ligament and muscles covered in a sheen of bright red blood. The beast had four powerful legs and two bulging arms terminating in wickedly sharp spikes of weathered bone.
Neither man nor demon had seen me yet as I crouched behind the snow laden branches of a bush. Before the man could do more than turn to face the fearsome creature one of its bony bladed arms was rammed clear through the man’s torso and out his back. I didn’t stay to watch the gruesome scene, but backed into the swirling snow and fled.
Uncertain of whether I was being pursued, I struggled through the deepening snow searching desperately for some means of escape. My random flight led me to a cave that appeared suddenly as gaping hole in the earth, with a jagged slope leading into darkness. I could see remains of broken metal struts, wood planks, and barbed wire haphazardly forming makeshift barricades as if in a forsaken attempt to deter intruders. I began my decent into the earth, more slowly now to avoid snagging the jutting metal scraps littering the floor and walls. The cave gave me a foreboding feeling of uneasiness, but I feared the demons above more. Thinking only of my immediate survival I pushed onwards through the cave, deeper underground.
**The dream goes on—a post-apocalyptic underground society, a desperate struggle for survival against demonic monsters bent on murder, and other strange things—but I’ll stop narrating here for the sake of brevity**
**OK you can start reading again if you skipped my bizarre dream**
Below are some photos of my host family in Mboro. I will be spending one last week with them before heading out to my permanent site. They have been such a friendly and caring family, I can’t imagine a better space to have spent my first two months in Senegal learning the language and culture and making friends. I will miss them when I have to leave, and will do my best to come back and visit.
My host mom with the youngsters
My younger sister Amicune, holding Mama Diaw (Hadi's son), in front of my sis's garden inside the compound. I've brought home several small trees that I grew from seed and a bunch of Aloe vera plants to plant here with my sister. The women love them! I made the mistake of bringing only one with me first time and all my sisters were arguing over who's it was. So next time I brought back enough for everyone to have their own--crisis averted.
One of the hobbies I’ve picked up here is seed collection. I suppose it qualifies as work, but it is so fun I count it as a pastime. I’ve been raiding every useful seeding tree I can find, building up stocks for my permanent site. Already I have a collection of eight or ten species, some with hundreds of seeds. My favorites are my guava seeds (scored them in Dakar where I found a lady selling the fruit) Parkinsonia aculeata (an ornamental but also potentially useful as a live fence) and Leucaena leucocephala (one of the super-hero trees here in Senegal with a plethora of uses such as animal fodder, nitrogen fixation, fuel wood, and live fencing)
Studying the language has been my priority for these last two months. I’ve been trying my best to seek out teachers (at the Thies training center) and neighbors/friends/family (at my host town) to speak Wolof with. Its been helping significantly, and my language is coming along fast. Still not up to par with my French but I think I’m learning fast. Most volunteers chat with friends and catch up while back at the center, but I’ve made friends with the language teachers here instead. They are an awesome group, love joking around and teasing, and are excellent teachers. I guess I might appear antisocial to the other volunteers because I don’t mingle with them much—instead preferring the company of our Senegalese teachers—but that doesn’t bother me. I’m having a great time making friends and learning the language.
Wolof is difficult, simple, frustrating, tricky, daunting, and comical all at once, depending on the context and my mood. The dictionary we were given was made in the 90’s by a UCLA linguistics student. It is frequently inadequate or erroneous (mostly because Wolof varies so much between regions and the student worked only in the north of Senegal) and therefore many volunteers here are not fond of it. It does, however, have some hilarious vocabulary, anecdotes, and proverbs. For instance I’ve learned (and used, much to my Senegalese friends’ amusement) how to tell someone to hold their horses and how to swear an oath by the drawstrings of my father's pants. One of my favorite words so far is the verb “bul,” which means: “to feed livestock (esp. camel) finely cut grass, at night.” Maybe one of these days I will get the opportunity to bul.