Friday, July 10, 2009

Senegal, part deux plus one

(Again, copied from the email I sent out. I know you're feeling disappointed and betrayed that this is not an original composition, but the important thing is that you're being ridiculous.)
Hi All,

Well, here I am again, writing in the midst of the desert. Progress has been made on many fronts, the first of which being I can now clearly delineate between the words ‘dessert’ and ‘desert,’ among others. Here goes…

Last Sunday, Peace Corps Nick invited Andrea and I over for lunch in Mauritania, which we gladly accepted (ooh, big trip!). Being the genius I am, I failed to pack a single skirt, so after bugging Nick and another Peace Corps volunteer with 15+ text messages, I finally got the answer I was looking for: you’ll be fine in pants. After putting on my MC Hammer parachute linen pants (I got them on sale for $30 at Uniqlo, which in retrospect, was $25 too much), Andrea, Ngoné (my Senegalese student counterpart), and I made our way over to the boats we see crossing the river everyday. Fallou, our trusty driver told us to meet him by the “dock” so he could talk to the police on our behalf. So we waited for 15 minutes only to determine…we were at the wrong place! Fantastic start. Fallou came and fetched us and walked us over to a dirt path, which apparently doubles as the “dock.”

Neither Fallou nor Ngoné had any particular desire to come with us to Mauritania, but despite being able to clearly see over to the Mauritanian side, were slightly perturbed by the thought of the two of us going at it alone, so as we waited for the boat to come back to pick us up, they made a slightly dramatic charade of looking for Nick on the other side. A very dark African in a red shirt came up to the river, and out of paranoia and denial, Ngoné and Fallou determined that guy had to be Nick because “of the light pants he’s wearing, no one in Mauritania would dare wear pants like that,” despite the fact that Nick is very white, a point stressed to both Ngoné and Fallou. Alas, I couldn’t pick out an actual foreigner from where we were standing, so I went along with their charade and agreed Western pants guy was indeed Nick.

After 15 minutes of sweating in the shade (yes, it was that hot, and yes, I am overusing parenthesis in this email), the boat finally came back to pick us up, and in a very mom and dad fashion, Ngoné and Fallou wished us well and told us to call as soon as we got there. The passengers from the Mauritanian side included four tired looking women, a few kids, and a goat. After the slowpoke goat debarked, Andrea and I settled into the boat, which was covered in a fine layer of brackish water and used thin wood planks as benches. The motor had obviously been ripped off another boat half the size, so instead of making a straight line across the river, we crossed in a perfect diagonal fashion, as the motor wasn’t strong enough to counter the invisible current. Fortunately, the one-meter tall person steering the boat was not a child as Ngoné thought, but indeed a very small adult, so we made to the other side…well, almost. Since the Mauritanian side is a beach, we stopped in the water and trekked the last 15 feet by foot. At first I thought I was paranoid in thinking about the millions of different parasites that probably live in the nearly stagnant pool of water, but I was later informed by Nick that the only real dangerous parasite are tiny snails that lodge themselves in your skin and inject some sort of poison. Good thing he told me that after we waded through the river to come back, or I might have asked childman to take me straight back to the Senegalese side.

Anyway, after shaking the parasitic water off, we were elated to fact that we finally made it to Mauritania! Of course, it being our luck, a police officer was standing with Nick (who was wearing black pants, in case you were curious), and promptly informed us that we weren’t allowed in the country. Damn. But after a few words of exchange, the police officer went to the local station and got permission for us to stay in the area for the afternoon, but “only because we know Nick.” I have a sinking suspicion that our obvious inability to properly handle the weather for more than a few hours lent us credibility that we would not run off past the village to take contraband pictures of the country, and that we were in fact, just having lunch. Regardless, the officer finally allowed us in to the village.

In my first email, I stressed that I am living in the middle of nothing, but will perchance have the opportunity to see nothing nothing (nothing squared). The Mauritanian village is perhaps, somewhere between nothing and nothing squared. Granted, Nick’s host father was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and spoke perfect French, so our lunch went very well. We spent the time in between lunch and tea reading statistic guides from 9 years ago, so in case you were wondering what the population of Mali was in 2000, I know just who call.

On the way back, we stopped at a Moorish owned shop to buy something authentic, but instead settled on Chinese tea. At least it was packaged in Mauritania. The grand total cost of our purchase of 10 small tea boxes was about $2, so we splurged after getting back to Senegal, and bought ourselves each a Fanta Orange. As we were walking with our drinks, Nick took us by the one church in Matam, not uniquely called “Notre Dame de Matam.” Apparently “Christian” is code for “We Drink,” and upon spotting us three foreigners, a young guy of about 28 invited us in for a beer.

I surveyed the group of people sitting, and nearly had a heart attack. Among the sea of Senegalese were two French girls, one of whom looked eerily like one of my roommates in France. Mind you, this is the roommate who threw me out of the apartment with two days notice, but being entirely positive it couldn’t possibly be the same person, I held back my urge to punch her in the face and instead found out that she was a volunteer in the area for a year and was leaving next month. Since the girl was from Paris (so was my former roommate), I emailed Anne, my German friend who also lived in the apartment, to ask if this roommate has a sister or cousin or someone who might be that girl. The French girls we lived with are quite possibly two of the most socially inept people you could meet, and at one point, the other roommate told Anne she has “a German head,” so Anne suggested that maybe our former roommate and this French girl in Matam have “French heads,” because it’s entirely unlikely our former roommate has any relatives in the middle of nowhere Senegal. I emailed Anne back and said she’s probably right, because come to think of it, the other French girl at the church looked like the roommate who told Anne she has a German head. In conclusion, there is some serious inbreeding going on in France.

Anyway, needless to say, it was an interesting day. On to the girl’s sports team. Fallou, the driver, knows everyone in Matam, so when I told him I wanted to start some kind of team, he had the Minister of Sports for Matam come by the office the same day to talk to me. The Minister and I agreed to meet the following Wednesday, so after work, I trekked over to his office to see what we could do. I had in mind leading a few exercises for young girls once or twice a week, but before I knew it, I had committed to designing a pedagogical (a word the French absolutely adore, but I’m not entirely sure of its meaning) lesson plan for practices, setting up a full out team, leading practices in the stadium, and buying soccer balls. To add to comedic irony, the Sports Minister had a cigarette in his mouth nearly the entire duration of the meeting, but at least he was excited and supportive, perhaps overly so.

The next night was a highlight, because Andrea had gotten Ngoné to bring coconut milk back from Dakar so Andrea could make sticky rice (but due to not having the right kind of grain, was more like sticky-ish rice). I walked into the house in great anticipation for sticky-ish rice, and was informed that 5 girls had stopped by asking for Isatou (my unofficial Sengalese name) to discuss the soccer team. How they knew about the team, my unofficial name, and where I eat my meals is beyond me, but without fail, the girls came back later that night and to find out details of our first practice, which I told them would be the next day around 5:30 PM in the stadium.

The next day I showed up to the stadium (a giant, abandoned dirt pit) promptly at 5:25 PM and was greeted by a guy I had never met, but who apparently was put in charge of welcoming me and leaving shortly thereafter. After 35 minutes of waiting, no one showed, so I dragged myself back to my room, and was greeted with a knock on the door a few minutes later. One of the girls who mysteriously knew where I eat my meals also figured out exactly where I live, and informed me that 7 girls were waiting for me at the stadium. Great. So I picked up my stuff and lumbered back to the stadium, where we held our first “practice.”

All of the girls save one do not speak French fluently, and in my masterful language skills, I haven’t picked up any of local language except “What’s up?” Despite this rather large communication gap, I held another practice for the same set of girls plus another set the next day, and we agreed to continue every Wednesday and Saturday before I leave at the end of the month; all in all, a success, if I don’t say so myself. So long as I can avoid being completely fried from the sun, and so long as I manage to keep the soccer balls I buy away from overly aggressive 10-year boys, I think the whole endeavor will prove quite fruitful. And if not, there’s always sticky-ish rice.

Oh! A quick paragraph about work: There are 84 financed development organizations in Matam, 40% of which are in the actual city (not the district). Apparently, Ngoné decided to hit every single one of them up, as we did 12 or so interviews with various presidents, assistants, experts, etc. in one week. Thankfully the interviews were all in French, so I understood nearly everything that went on in theory, but how to put everything together in a coherent fashion is beyond me, especially since we’ve gotten so much conflicting information: the transhumants are here, no, they’re there. No, they’ll be back in October. Yes, they’re easy to find, no, they’re impossible to locate. Each group has striking similarities, except for the ones that have nothing in common with every other group. Oy. I trust Ngoné knows what to take seriously and what to discard, otherwise, I’m expecting a few weeks in the car chasing transhumants that may or may not exist.

That’s about it. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this email. As reward for your reading persistence, I’ll bring you back a souvenir – do you like Fanta?



1 comment:

mlle ashley said...

mala - i'm enjoying your entries - in fact, laughing out loud as i read them on a break at work. keep writing, fearless one.