July 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Senegal: Tecumseh Herald: Peace Corps Volunteer serves in Senegal

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Senegal: Peace Corps Senegal : The Peace Corps in Senegal: July 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Senegal: Tecumseh Herald: Peace Corps Volunteer serves in Senegal

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Peace Corps Volunteer serves in Senegal

Peace Corps Volunteer serves in Senegal

Since arriving in Dakar, my apartment has become an unofficial but well-known hostel, welcoming Peace Corps volunteers and other wayward and weary travelers. It is a quiet haven to recover from bustling Dakar, a city especially overwhelming to volunteers accustomed to the rural pace of Senegal.

Peace Corps Volunteer serves in Senegal

Local graduate writes from Africa

July 01, 2005

Since arriving in Dakar, my apartment has become an unofficial but well-known hostel, welcoming Peace Corps volunteers and other wayward and weary travelers. It is a quiet haven to recover from bustling Dakar, a city especially overwhelming to volunteers accustomed to the rural pace of Senegal.

In return, I've had myriad invitations to spend time in villages throughout the country and earlier this month, I finally took some vacation days to make my first journey into "the bush" to visit friends and take a taste of the true Senegal.

I awoke before the sun on a sleepy Tuesday morning, eyes still bleary, but spirit ready and courage in my pocket; a well-drawn map leading me down many unnamed dirt roads to the remote village of Matakosi and a personalized Pulaar language survival sheet to help me navigate when I arrive, and not a single villager speaks French. Phrases I would find particularly useful in the days to come include: "The sun is very hot," "Where is water?" and "Yes, I have a husband in Dakar."

When traveling to regions outside of Dakar, all public transport leaves from one hellacious hub called the gare routire, which was already bustling when I arrived at 5:30 in the morning. I moved with confidence through the endless lines of rusting station wagons and precarious mini-buses, squeezing my bag and body between persistent beggars, insistent drivers, coffee vendors, and haunting shadows. I prayed that my feet would successfully navigate through the darkness over spare car parts, endless trash heaps, stray cats and cement barricades.

After a few ungraceful steps, pretending to know exactly where I was heading, I stopped to ask an older man where I would find vehicles heading to Tambacounda, the first stop on a two-leg journey to my final destination: Kedougou, a region boarding Guinea in far southeastern Senegal.

Once I reached the assembly of vehicles, I then had to choose my sept-place, the name given to these dilapidated and abused ancient station wagons, each with room for seven passengers (not including small children or animals although the latter usually gets tossed on the roof along with large luggage). Since this would be the first and longest leg of my trip, I searched for a sept-place that gave off some glimmer of reliability; checking for doors that close completely, fully-pumped tires, seemingly even axles, or just a karmic feeling or assuring smile from the driver.

In the end, I became the chosen rather than the chooser as a man swoops up my pack, tells me I'm the last passenger, and orders me to have a seat in the back (later I would learn NEVER to accept the back seats unless you want permanent bum and back aches). In fact, I was not the last passenger but had already paid at this point, thus I watched with envy as several cars proceeded to fill up and drive away while we continued waiting for another hour.

In fact, it was I who eventually spotted a couple of overwhelmed American girls, also searching for Tambacounda cars, thus filling our last two places so we were ready for departure. Finally!

The heat of the day had already begun, my anticipation was bubbling, and we were ready to hit the open road. Our sept-place maneuvered out of the masses, I exchanged greetings with fellow passengers, and as we turned on to the main road, the engine slowed, sputtered and stopped. I only hoped this would not be an omen for the rest of the journey.

So, the seven of us hustle out and the driver reassures us that it is only a minor problem and disappears under the hood, while we take a seat at the breakfast bar next door. Some of the strongest social circles, biggest decisions, and certainly best discussions in Senegal are those made around these tables. You find them in every neighborhood, on every corner, and they are always owned by a glowing woman whose hands move from task to task with the familiarity of years, as she carries on discussions and teasing debates with every customer.

I particularly appreciate her respected role in this patriarchal society, as swarms of men are visibly at the mercy of a woman and her own pace and preference. With her hand on the ladle to the caf touba, she holds the same power as a diner waitress over truck drivers in America with a coffee pot in hand at any hour of the day. Kindness and flattery flows endlessly from a customer who wants his coffee. We each ordered a half baguette with butter and caf au lait, more precisely, Nescafe with full-fat powdered milk and too much sugar. It's crazy how taste's can change so quickly from my order one year ago, in a Portland caf; double cappuccino with skim milk and sugar-free vanilla syrup served in a reusable mug has transformed to the warm, creamy, coagulated Nescafe in a thin plastic cup that I drank (and relished!) this morning.

When I turned to discover that the sept-place had disappeared, I was only slightly concerned, since I was sitting with the six other passengers, so I assumed he wouldn't get too far without us, probably just went to buy a part or ask his friend for advice. Moments later, he pulled up, beaming, proud and ready to roll. Gare routiere departure, take two. His friend sent us off with a hearty shove and we were on our way . . .

Fitting seven full grown adults in a relatively small station wagon is quite a feat and inevitably leaves you with a very small amount of wiggle room. Fortunately, it's a great way to meet your fellow passengers. Limbs, legs and belongings gradually spill and slump further onto each other as the hours pass and heat swells. The sept-place stops only when the driver needs a smoke, a passenger needs to pee, or a child needs to empty his sick bag.

Since our driver didn't smoke, passengers were mostly dehydrated from the heat, and we had no children in our car, we drove on for excruciating stretches without breaks for the body to unfurl or for passengers to take a fresh breath of hot, dry air. This moment demonstrates, yet again, the incredible resiliency of an average Senegalese. I consider myself a fairly limber, yoga-trained young person but after the first three hours, I was already feeling fairly uncomfortable. Only seven more to go (for this leg of the journey at least).

Once you start conversing with other passengers, stop for lunch, fall in and out of sleep, and get distracted by the evolving countryside, the discomfort dissipates and you find that the atmosphere in such close quarters can be downright convivial. Nonethless, I was quite relieved as we pulled into Tambacounda's gare routiere at around five in the afternoon.

As a side note, at this point, the temperature was about 110 degrees in the shade. In order to reach my final destination-Kedougou-we had to leave relatively quickly so I grabbed a bean sandwich and water and hunted down a sept-place heading there. A young man explained that one was on its way, so I could just pay him now and wait under the shade structure until it arrives.

Wisely, I waited to pay until I was certain that this sept-place even existed, much less had a working engine. I waited in the shade with some other passengers, and started trying out my first shaky phrases in Pulaar, prompting only laughter from the women around me. A few hours passed until, finally, I pressed the young man for an estimated time of departure, and he revealed that in fact, the brakes weren't working so well so we would leave either late tonight or early tomorrow morning.

I had a friend waiting for me to arrive that night in Kedougou, so I would have to arrange a new mode of transport. I asked for the next mini-bus and the driver said it would leave when it was full, "tomorrow at noon, "inshallah."

The journey was far too long, dusty, and dark for a horse-drawn cart, which left us with a taxi as the only option. Arriving in Kedougou late that night, I walked dozily into the Peace Corps guesthouse, took a bucket shower, and tumbled into bed. I was awoken by my friend in what seemed like moments later, announcing that the only way we would manage the 45 kilometer bike ride out to her village without heat exhaustion would be to leave leegileegi (right now). And so it began, day two, riding into adventure again before the sunrise . . .

Wow, since describing the journey has taken such great length (and amazing patience for those who are still reading!), I think I'll close here, except to say the village days were beautiful and full; tumbling waterfalls, scorching temperatures, sweet silence, new moons, massive families, simple meals, unsuccessful attempts at carrying water on my head and pounding millet with a pestle, studious women taking their first lessons in literacy, and welcoming elders extending the hospitality for which Senegal is renowned.

As the villagers would say, I returned exhausted but awoken by another world.

©Tecumseh Herald 2005

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Story Source: Tecumseh Herald

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