Pants and Onion Sandwiches

‘Foune alaa pantalons!’ ‘Foune has no pants!’ Screamed my delighted young host brother, Kaw Ousmane.

I was not, as you might worry, walking around half naked but had instead opted to wear a Senegalese complet this particular morning. Even in the States, anyone who knows me will tell you I pick jeans over skirts every time. I like the mobility and functionality of pants. I like that they can take me anywhere at any time. This is especially true in Senegal where I’m out doing field visits and troubleshooting with farmers at least five days a week. Senegalese complets, a shirt and wrap skirt ensemble made from colorful, printed fabric, are not conducive to biking, wading through streams, or getting on your hands and knees to look at a pest problem in a field of corn. There’s also a certain grace  (that I do not possess) necessary in wearing a wrap skirt correctly without letting it ride up and expose your ankles or, god forbid, blow open and expose your scandalous knees.

Occasionally however, as it was the morning of Foune having no pants on, I have an ‘off’ day where I decide to rock the village and dress like a woman for once (THEIR idea of one anyway). My off days are designated to sweeping the insidious Senegalese dust out of my room, doing the laundry I’ve let pile up after a few days, beating more insidious Senegalese dust out of my rug and mosquito net, and catching up on project notes. On these mornings I drink my coffee in peace, then struggle into the stiff, structured top of the complet, and stare down the piece of fabric meant to turn my useful two legs into a restricted uni-leg that can only move five inches forward at a time. I’ve learned I can stretch the utility of the skirt a little by widening my legs to shoulder width as I wrap and tie the skirt in place, but I never quite get it to look as smooth and elegant as the women in my village. In true Senegalese fashion the ensemble is finished off with a ‘kala’ or head wrap, which I grudgingly wear and usually ditch by lunchtime. Men’s clothes in Senegal are a little bit more open to interpretation. Young men lean toward western style cloths while older men wear grand boubous, pant and shirt outfits made from plain fabric in whites or rich blues and purples. Grand boubous are made with yards and yards of material, with wide sleeves and the danger of always getting hung up on the horns of a passing sheep. Needless to say, although I respect the craftsmanship and beauty of Senegalese clothes, I still pick pants over skirts, hands down.

For those of you wondering from my last post, yes, Ramadan is still underway and, no, I haven’t eaten any small children. Eid al Fitr, the holiday Muslims use to celebrate the end of fasting, is quickly approaching and my village tells me it will last three days (I’m not sure if that’s regulation or us just trying to squeeze the life out of available party time). Fasting has been an incredibly humbling experience. Not eating for twenty hours gives you a very healthy appreciation of food and recognition of how hard simple things can be on an empty stomach. I also spent almost every day of my twenty-two days fasting thus far working for four hours a day in the fields with my farmers. You push your body past limits you thought couldn’t be broken and keep doing it again and again. I have even greater respect for the grit of the men and women in my village I work side by side with who are also going without water. I spent two days foregoing water and the first of that I spent sleeping or hiding out because I was so irritable and tired.

Unsurprisingly, 7:30 pm, when the first night prayers are projected out to the village on the mosque loudspeaker, is my new favorite time of day. It’s Christmas morning as a kid reborn. The bissap juice flows and the onion sandwiches are brought out. Probably due to prolonged food depravation (but no longer caring for what reason), I’m newly of the opinion that there is nothing finer on this green earth than an onion sandwich. Think fried onions slathered in bouillon cube juices and slapped on a warm piece of bread. After twenty hours of no food you too, my friends, would be worshipping at the metaphorical feet of an onion sandwich.

The end of the holy month of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid al Fitr will come with the sighting of the new moon. According to my desk calendar that should be tomorrow night. In Pulaar land, however, these things are give or take a day depending on the whims of the local religious leader and whether or not he is in need of glasses. With any luck, in two days time I’ll be eating in daytime hours again and helping my family butcher a cow. Praise pants and onion sandwiches.

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3 thoughts on “Pants and Onion Sandwiches

  1. Erika,
    Uncle Scott will be so happy to have a fellow worshiper of onions – they are the favorite part of his lunch! 🙂 Love from all of us to you.
    Aunt Caroline

  2. Erika,
    I’ve now read a lot of your posts and looked at youjr fabulous pictures! I’m so proud of you and the work you are doing — and the lively and interesting way you write about it! Fantastic! I will forward the blog to my peace corps friends and family.

  3. Hey Erika!
    I just came across your blog after Anna from Cameroon linked to it – I’m a volunteer here with her. Just read this post and laughed aloud at how similar it is to my experiences in my village – it’s so spot-on. I live in the Adamaoua region of Cameroon, land of the Fulbe people, boubous, and complets. I too am someone who will choose pants over a skirt any day, and constantly get comments about it (it also creates such a scene in village when I actually do decide to go for the complet, and I can’t pull off the wrap skirt like the women here can either…). Anyway, this post is amazing, and congrats on the blog contest win!
    -Rachel

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