Overwhelm (verb): to bury beneath a huge mass of something

Around 5:15 am I hear it. Chanting in Arabic comes muffled but loud and insistent from a loudspeaker attached to the top of our village mosque. It’s always monotone and filled with long ‘ahhs’ and I wonder if the guy chanting forgets some of the lines or that’s supposed to be a peaceful sound and he just has an unfortunate chanting voice. Either way, it’s not the call to prayer that woke me up; I’ve been laying in bed staring up at my mosquito net through the darkness since about five. I’ve always been a morning person but I used to be able to sleep in until at least seven, call this change another side effect of Senegal (of which there are many). Once I hear the first call to prayer I decide it’s time to crawl out of my mini bug-defense fortress and into the old flannel I brought from home. Sunrise is approximately 7:14 am for us right now, so I have about two hours before anyone else stirs. It’s very quiet outside, except for the sound of the horse munching on hay, and amazingly peaceful. I can still see the stars if I walk out my front door. I heat water and make coffee on the little propane cooker I keep in my room and sit down at my desk to journal or go over my field notes from the previous day. Around 6:30, I get up from my coffee and work and slip out the front gate of our family compound for a walk. It’s still the hours of prayer so I see no one as I make my way over the cool sand on one of the many bush paths surrounding our village. I love my village and the people in it but this is the only time of day I can explore uninhibited: not stared at, talked to, shouted at, or followed. It’s a wonderful release. I’m always home just a little after seven; the Talibe kids have started to come around begging for rice, my father comes home from the mosque, and the first of the sleepy children is wandering around playing in the dirt.

In village, my day starts like this every morning. And it promptly descends into a mass of chaos shortly after. As the first volunteer and white person in my village I am a huge anomaly – an okapi in a zoo, the animal that people can’t figure out is a zebra or a giraffe. So they spend most of their time marveling at my minimal Pulaar, like they thought a white person was incapable of learning it (I’m still not convinced this isn’t true), and discussing my stubborn refusal to wear dresses and skirts every day (what kind of a woman must I be?! They ask). Even being buried under the huge mass that is Senegalese culture and language, the past five weeks have been a wonderful introduction to my new life. I have an extremely helpful, friendly, and over-protective host family who guide me in everything I do. My namesake, Foune, is a surprisingly resilient and independent young woman with two children and she has taken me in as her third. I’m very lucky to be so well cared for, it makes the daily struggle and slog, through language and greetings, much easier. There are two main houses, my little one room house, and a few small livestock sheds and grain storage rooms in our fenced in family compound. We have electricity, and a robinet in the yard to get water from (so no hand pulling from deep wells). We also have a large Neem tree in our yard that provides invaluable shade during the day from the intense sun. The Senegalese spend their lives outside and only use their homes and rooms for sleeping so a good shady space is a luxury.

In these initial few months, of trying to understand the area I am living in and what the people want in terms of development, my job is simply to meet farmers, see fields, and learn Pulaar. So most of my days I go out to the fields with my brothers and dad and help them with whatever work is going on at the time (the past three weeks it was slash and burn agriculture on a hectare plot near the river… I wanted to cry but instead I started a list of ‘Discouraged Activities’. Letting the two-year-old run around with a butcher knife is also on that list).

The farmers’ fields start a mile east of Yacine Lacke, over hard, open, windswept ground and then through a stream, and we hitch up our three donkeys to the cart to get there. On the other side of the stream, a fence of dead, thorny branches serves to mark the beginning of the field and keep livestock out. We leave the cart there and tie the donkeys up in the shade before walking another quarter of a mile back to my father’s section of fields. It’s out here in this very remote flood plains area I saw monkeys for the first time a week and a half ago. Sixteen reddish-orange patas monkeys had been in our corn all night and took off running in a pack when we arrived. It was a really cool site in this usually stark area.

Lunch is at 2:30 pm every day so we usually leave the fields around 1 pm and get home with time to wash up before eating. The wives in my compound share responsibilities for cooking for the thirty people who have to eat in our household. They make four pounds of rice a day and serve it in huge, family style bowls that we all sit around and eat out of with our hands. It’s usually topped with either fish and a few vegetables or a thick, gravy like sauce; both options are very greasy. After lunch, between 3 and 5 pm, no one, in the entire country of Senegal, does anything. These are the hottest hours of the day and it is (no joke!) culturally inappropriate to do anything but nap, drink tea, and hang out with family. Around 5:30 the soccer games start up all over town and people will go to watch. At this time I try to watch a game or two or go help my brother put the cows back out in their pen for the night. It’s dark around 7 pm and I spend the night sitting outside looking at the stars from our open view. Light pollution hasn’t yet reached our small piece of the world and you can really see everything on a clear night. I shut myself up in my room around 8:30 and spend some time reading, working out, or having a solo dance party… most often option number three wins out.

My Christmas and New Years both passed quietly in Yacine Lacke but I had a lot of updates from friends and family back home to keep me thoroughly entertained. My father owns a very nice, six year old stallion that I convinced him to let me ride; a four-mile ride on him was my present to myself on Christmas Day. I also had the chance to do some site development with another volunteer in our small work-zone of four people (work-zones are made up of the concentration of volunteers in an area and they help to facilitate collaboration between volunteers. As a new region being developed by Peace Corps, our work-zone is abnormally small). Jonathan, the other volunteer and our work-zone coordinator, and I were visiting villages with government health posts to try to find a new site for a health volunteer. The new health volunteers arrive in the beginning of March and install at their sites in May so we have a small time frame to work in. After walking into a few different villages over the course of two days and introducing ourselves to everyone we met, we finally found a Pulaar speaking village that will be a very good fit. It is located two and a half miles off the paved road and ten miles south of my site in Yacine Lacke. The village chief was a funny old man who fed us well and threw shoes at the kids who tried to touch us and grab our hair. I think a volunteer will be just fine there.

Looking ahead to the next few months, I have five trainings and conferences to go to for Peace Corps and a lot more Pulaar to learn. Things will be very busy and I will be traveling a lot until the beginning of March. After that, I buckle down in village and have a few months of hot season and preparation for the rains that come around the end of July. The past five weeks went by incredibly fast and I have a feeling the planting and harvests of the summer will be here before I know it. So, if you’re bored this summer and looking for work, come find me in Senegal and I’ll help you get your hands dirty.

And as always, keep me on my toes! If there are questions you have or things you want to hear more about, let me know in the comments. I want to share all of Senegal with you but what I write is still only a haphazard guide created from my Pulaar weary brain.

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3 thoughts on “Overwhelm (verb): to bury beneath a huge mass of something

  1. Hi Erika, This is Jack. We VERY much enjoyed your words describing life in the village. Keep up the impressive work and reporting.

  2. Agree with Jack, a very nice surprise at lunch to open email and to read your post. Looking forward to speaking to agin soon too! Love, Dad

  3. Hi Erika, this is William McCaffrey – Veronica showed me your post and I think it’s lovely. I hope your highs are high and your lows are not too low, and if they are that you don’t feel alone for too long. I like your writing, let me know what you think of mine, should be able to find my old blog posts through here somehow. It is a ways off, but when you’re back in the states we’ll try to track you down – the transition back to the U.S. I think is harder than the transition away, and it’s nice to have people around that can relate. Would love to hear in your future posts about the landscape and farming setting, and personal revelations, light or dark. Take good care.

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