Monday, November 14, 2011

The Harmattan

November 12, 2011

There was a day two weeks ago when the wind in Saint-Louis switched directions mid-step. In a matter of hours, the Atlantic breeze was overcome by a barrage of red dust and purple clouds rushing from the east. When winter comes to the northern hemisphere, this easterly wind barrels across the north of the African continent, whipping the dunes skyward until large swaths of the Sahara are airborne and the desert covers the sun as it covers the earth. Swells of this great shadow are carried hundreds of miles out to sea and can be seen from space. This is the Harmattan.

When the Harmattan arrived in Saint-Louis two weeks ago, the clammy, oppressive heat that follows the rainy season evaporated and the weather turned cool with speed normally only afforded by climate control. This abrupt shift in the weather signaled the arrival of cold season in Senegal and, for me, carried with it a quiet but firm reminder my time in the Peace Corps is rapidly coming to a close.

When I sat down to count the weeks I have left, I was genuinely surprised by the little time I had left. It’s not that I had been so consumed with surviving the heat, I hadn’t bothered to examine a calendar—I knew what day it was—but I hadn’t really been looking ahead. So long as the days were muggy and slow, I was able to skate through the haze of an Indian summer pretending it was still July.

To be totally honest, even before this first cold day in November, the reality of leaving had crept into my mind from time to time, always sending me cartwheeling in gusts of panic. Should I leave as planned in February or should I extend my stay six more months? I thought so seriously about staying I started writing the email to change the official date of my close of service. I thought so seriously about leaving I started applying for jobs and emailed a couple people in Seattle about renting a room. In trying to force a decision, every other day I would reach a new altitude of certainty in my choice between these two alternating futures: to go or not to go.

In the end, I’ve decided to leave in February as planned. There are lots of reasons why this is the logical choice, but more important than logic I can feel it’s time to go.

Paradoxically, all this mental turbulence carried me backwards too, to my first weeks of training in Niger. I was so overwhelmed by the journey ahead that a single day seemed to last years; I thought the close of my service would never come and remember feeling absolutely overcome with envy upon meeting volunteers who were only weeks away from finishing their service. I ached to be them. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit (though I did think seriously about going home several times over the past thirty months), but I was sure finishing two years as a Peace Corps volunteer would be a moment so saturated with a deep sense of joy and accomplishment, I couldn’t help but salivate over it.

But as my departure approaches I find I don’t feel that way at all now. Once again, (as with departing for the Peace Corps and during the evacuation from Niger) I feel like I’m losing all the relationships and landscape that underpin my life. And my triumphant finish? Any triumph I feel is too heavily diluted with anxiety and nostalgia[1] to notice. Though I was warned many times returning to the States can be the most challenging part of a volunteer’s service, I was still surprised at my feelings, especially when lain along side my expectations from training.

So I thought about it, and here’s what I think happened: The moment I got off that plane in Niamey, I was swept all across the Sahel like a grain of sand at the mercy of the Harmattan. While I was consumed with the agony and ecstasy of this adventure, a subtle truth took root in my life: At some point, I stopped climbing the metaphorical mountain of my Peace Corps service and started living on it. West Africa stopped being the thing I was doing and became what I am. I live here. West Africa feels like my home, yet I still feel the pull of my family and life in Seattle. So it is from this seed of truth that my confusion now blooms. I belong in two places, and a thousand places; or (perhaps) we, the voyagers, belong no place and are left suspended like bridges between the islands of human existence that we once called our homes.

[1] I learned recently the Greek roots of the word nostalgia can be translated as “pain from an old wound. I think that’s lovely.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Time I Got Caught in a Riot

October 14, 2011

The past few times I’ve sat down to write a post, I’ve struggled to find topics I feel are interesting. I’ve often reflected how, during my first year of service, everything that happened to me was an epic tale—everything was worth reporting. Lately, however, I am short on anecdotes or cultural observations (which I think always make the best blog entries.) So, I’ve often wondered if interesting things have actually just stopped happening to me or if I am now so accustomed to life here I don’t see the things I used to.

I was ruminating over this exact question on a car ride from Dakar back to Saint-Louis a couple weeks ago. One thought in particular kept resurfacing: I don’t even see transport in West Africa as the adventure I used to; it was now just routine. Just last month, my sister and father had visited me in Senegal, and on the same trip I was now making (from Dakar to Saint-Louis) we’d gotten in a minor car accident. Maybe I was just too busy or distracted at the time, but I didn’t take any of the mental notes needed to transform the collision into a story. I just got back in the car and didn’t give the situation a second thought.

I guess West Africa just doesn’t shock or awe me anymore, I thought while drifting to sleep in the back of the car, squeezed between a large Senegalese woman, the car window, some suitcases, and a live chicken. (Imagine a series foreshadowing minor chords.) I awoke as the car slowed. The drivers will pull over a lot or run errands, but never stop in the middle of the road like we were. It was then I saw a plume of thick black smoke billowing from the middle of the road.

There was a large garbage truck in front of us, so I couldn’t see the source of the smoke, but I was immediately certain there had been some terrible accident. The people of this small, roadside town were going crazy. Everyone was running in all different directions and yelling. Only…they didn’t seem upset. They were fired-up to be sure, but no one was crying or looking shocked. Also, the driver of the truck in front of us seemed more angry than concerned.

It was then that the large truck pulled off to the side of the road, making room for us to see what was happening. There was no car accident or mangled bodies on the road, but rather an enormous pile of flaming tires, bordered by strategically place bricks, which combined with a mob of townspeople, effectively blocked any forward progress. Oh, I thought, I get it. This is a protest.

For those of you haven’t been following Senegalese politics, here’s what you need to know: Throughout the past year there have been increasingly violent protest in Senegal over the long-incumbent, 80-plus president’s decision to run for another term. It’s all vaguely legal, though apparently less-than-palatable to many Senegalese citizens. In addition, Senegal is suffering through an energy crisis. As the government connects more and more villages to the power grid, they have failed to create any new sources of power. Thus, the six (coal-fired?) power plants in Senegal are failing to fulfill power demands. As a result, the major cities suffer almost daily blackouts and/or water cuts that can last days. The Senegalese, perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring, have started protesting.

As far as I know, there haven’t been any deaths or violent retaliations, like in Syria, but there have been numerous causalities and many Dakar-based mobs were so bold as to burn government buildings. (Imagine my friend Phil’s surprise and disappointment when, after trekking to his daily lunch spot, he discovered it had been burned down the night before. That’s what you get for having a government bureaucracy as your neighbor.)

This is what is running through my mind as I looked at the scene unfolding in front of me. My driver called someone over to the car to ask what was happening, and though I don’t speak a lot of Wolof, I understood the village hadn’t had water in more than a week. Yeah, I thought, I’d be pissed too. The driver yells at the villager pointing out he had no control over the water and was just trying to get to Saint-Louis. Out of the corner of my eye, I see another car trying to circumvent the blockade, only to be swarmed by the mob. Whether or not we could bring the village water, we were stuck here.

At this point, my car was the closest to the flaming roadblock, only about ten yards away. My driver, clearly angry, got out of the car and started pacing. He opened the trunk and pulled out a large water jug, like he was going to put out the fire. I, meanwhile, am cowering (cowering) in the back of the car, trying to seem inconspicuous and silently begging my driver not to get involved as it might somehow draw more attention to me.

Blending it is a key survival skill in many circumstances, like, for example, when a clown asks for a volunteer from the audience or if you are a zebra. Unfortunately, being a tall white girl in West Africa, I never blend in. I am constantly the recipient of all kinds of unwanted attention. Besides frequently being seen as a kind of living ATM, potential second-wife, and/or omniscient, I have in different moments been blamed for calamities that were laughably beyond my control, like the socio-economic fallout from imperialism, gun-deaths in Africa, and Sarah Palin. So, sitting in the back of that car, I was thinking, please don’t let this be on of those moments. Let me be one with the upholstery.

Meanwhile, the scene was escalating. A police car arrived, but as the two rather slight officers stepped out of their car, they were immediately overwhelmed by the mob.

I had my phone in my hand wondering if I should call the Peace Corps security officer, but I stopped myself, knowing there wasn’t anything he’d be able to do besides tell me to stay in the car, which I was already doing an exemplary job of. Self-doubting to the end, I did call my friend Hailey to ask if she thought I should call the security officer. It was then I discovered I didn’t have adequate cell coverage, so the call she received must have sounded something like this: “Heeeeey Hailey, I think I’m in trouble. (Static)…flaming tires and a mob… (static) …can’t move and there’s… (static)…call for help? (Static)…zebras.”

It was then another truck, carrying a squad of riot police, showed up. They lined themselves up along the right side of the road, the mob on the left side. As the police loaded their guns, the villagers starting throwing rocks. Shit’s getting real here. I didn’t see if the police were shooting into the air and I don’t know if they were using rubber bullets or something, but I definitely heard gunfire.

A lot of shit has gone down during my Peace Corps service, but this was the first time I was genuinely concerned for my safety. I had the same thought I always do when in legitimately dangerous situations such as the one unfolding before me: When is this going to escalate to a point that I won’t be able to control or escape from.

But in a flash my driver dove back into his seat, slammed the car in drive and sped through the hole created by the advancing police and the retreating mob. Then we were on our way. Within minutes we’d arrived in Saint-Louis and I was standing the sun and chaos of any other ordinary afternoon. The whole thing hadn’t lasted more than ten minutes.

I called Hailey back to tell her I was ok, and called the security guy to report the event. Then promptly forgot about the whole thing…but not before making a mental note not to tempt the wrath of West Africa with further delusions of my immunity to its capriciousness.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Some Recent Photos

From Cape Verde:

Magical bar on a beach.

Shipwreck on Boa Vista.

The most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

Me, with some new PCV friends/gracious hosts.

I went scuba a pool...


Me at work, drawing with the talibe.

The kids with their drawings.

Me with my fruit seller.

My sister and me kayaking on the Senegal River.

The kids at the center.

Peace Corps Ego

September 18, 2011

It’s been too long since I have written. SORRY MOM! But you know how it goes…first I was on vacation in Cape Verde, then I had a busy couple of weeks at work, and most recently, my sister and father were visiting.

I’ve also had a rather difficult time deciding what to write about. Normally my entries just roll out in front of me. Several equally pleasing topics will wrestle each other back and forth until one, fortified by spontaneous narrations that spring up in my mind, will evolve into entire passages floating around my head. Then, all I have to do is run home and transmute the thing into paper. The past few months, however, I keep doubting the appeal of my ideas and so haven’t gotten anywhere[1].

I’ve realized, though, I need to stop waiting for things to be just right and just write. So, I took an idea and went with it. I’m sorry to say the following contains no amusing anecdotes, but rather a commentary on Peace Corps life. Specifically I want to talk about an alarming illness that befalls many volunteers during their service. Something I call, PCE.

You may already be aware how, in the bacterium/virus/fungi-rich setting of developing West Africa, volunteers frequently fall ill, develop strange medical conditions, contract exotic skin disorders…and/or sometimes…mutate. However, the wider world may not realize how frequently volunteers actually grow an additional appendage, most often sprouting from the torso.

This affliction takes form differently in every volunteer—some are less affected than others—but more often these excrescences grow to be large, cumbersome, and disruptive. The ballooning limb is extremely sensitive, leaving a volunteer in a state of constant agitation. These “arms” obstruct volunteers’ vision. Worse still, they frequently injure unsuspecting bystanders. It’s the PCE of the PCV. I’m speaking of course, of Peace Corps Ego.

Enough of the clever metaphor! Let’s be real here. Peace Corps volunteers have huge I-am-super-hardcore-and-know-way-more-about-development-slash-what-is-acutually-happening-in-the-world egos. Of course, there are exceptions, but I am not one of them. I burn with irritation when someone talks about how his two-week trip to Ghana changed his whole life or when someone makes a broad, sweeping commentary regarding Islam. Oh lord, and if a volunteer who left a couple months after installation claims to be a RPCV…my fingers sweat; my face turns red; and an onslaught of angry protests lodge in my throat in their eagerness to make themselves known. I think to myself, these idiots have no idea. It’s obnoxious. I know it, but I can hardly help myself.

In my experience the PCE manifests in two ways:

1. PCV v. non-PCV. These attacks could be spurred by anything remotely related to the PCV’s work, site, region, host country, host continent, or anything regarding the world. THE WORLD!

2. PCV v. PCV. In this case the discussion is almost certainly limited to whose site was more hardcore/who suffered more during his or her service.

I’m going to address the second item first: PCV v. PCV.

I don’t know if a non-PCV would pick up on all the subtle way volunteers size each other up in their first few minutes of acquaintance, but no matter how friendly the conversation, it happens. Where did you serve? What was your site like? What was your sector? All of these questions just to ascertain whom you’re dealing with. Did she have running water? Electricity? What was his house made out of? How isolated was this person? And of course, the kicker, how hot was it?

Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa are obsessed with proving they suffered through hotter weather than anyone else, as if our value as a volunteer could be measured out in drops of sweat. If not hotter, volunteers are constantly insisting their host country was poorer, more corrupt, less developed, but the people were friendlier and it’s still the best place you could hope to serve—everywhere else dubbed the Beach Corps or Posh Corps.

As I am writing this I worry I have been too sensitive to the idle comments of others, but I swear this war is real. Even in Niger there was a palpable tension between the bush (volunteers in the countryside) and the city volunteers. Bush volunteers were always commenting on how easy the city folk had it (with their fancy cement houses and electricity), and in return the urban volunteers would constantly extol the merits of a bush post (friendlier people, more willing to help.) And, when volunteers from different countries try to out-hardcore each other, the entire conversations pivots around subtle, but constant one-uping.

I find the PCV v. PCV thing frustrating because there is no one thing that makes one Peace Corps service harder than another. It depends on you, how you mesh with the culture, how easily you can learn a language, etc, and (most importantly) how well you can fence with your personal demons. Having electricity is definitely nice, but it won’t make you less frustrated with your neighbors.

Comparing Cape Verde to Niger makes this point nicely. By the PCV PCE standards, Niger is clearly the harder post—it’s hotter and less developed. In fact, we are comparing (according to the UN development index) the most developed country in West Africa with the least developed country in the world. Niger is clearly the harder post, right? I certainly would have agreed with that earlier in my service, but now I see it’s not that simple.

Capeverdians are surprisingly apathetic to the presences of PCVs whereas Nigeriens would literally trip all over themselves to make you feel welcome. Nigeriens were ever eager to collaborate, while Capeverdians (I’m told) don’t want your help, so much as a check. Also, most sites in Niger had countless projects waiting to happen, all within the volunteer’s ability to complete. Cape Verde, in contrast is developed enough that volunteers are often left scratching the back of their necks wondering if they can help at all. And if you want to talk about physical discomfort, fresh water shortages in Cape Verde forced the volunteers I stayed with to recycle their water in ways so creative it made me cringe. (Imagine four adults sharing one toilet, which they were only able to flush once a week.)

Now that I live in Saint Louis, I often get comments from other volunteers about how “easy” I have it or how “lucky” I am. Sometimes I just nod, not mentioning how urban posts have their own unique challenges. Other times, I am less patient and show off my “Niger credentials[2].” This always changes the way volunteers interact with me. They visibly retreat, then say something like, “Oh, so you know what West Africa is really like.” First of all, I don’t like the suggestion urban centers are less a part of West Africa than the bush; and secondly, just like Cape Verde, living in a place like Saint Louis presents its own set of challenges for PCVs. (Just one example: The harassment I get from men in Saint Louis is by far the most grating and sapping thing I’ve had to deal with in any site.)

My point: it is impossible to say which post is harder, but when a volunteer tries to assert that her post was harder and therefore somehow her experience more valuable, it demeans the experiences of fellow volunteers. Peace Corps is hard. Everyone struggles. After having seen and lived in so many different Peace Corps sites, I have concluded the only thing that really makes a volunteer’s site easier is the quality of her work partner—how motivated the partner is/if there is work to do. A good work situation is the best a volunteer can hope for, and that is almost completely independent of UN development index.

With non-PCVs, the PCE outbursts more often take the form of telling the ignorant masses about what the world is really like. I wasn’t surprised to learn recently RPCVs have a reputation in the development world for being irritating know-it-alls. I don’t excuse myself from this at all. When I was visiting the States last October, I had to consciously stop myself from starting every sentence with, “Did you know in Niger…”

I also spend a great deal of time hinting to others how difficult my Peace Corps service was, without ever saying the words. Just last week I spent a good five minutes reveling in the way the Italian intern at my office’s jaw dropped when I told him I lived without electricity or running water for 18 months. I shrugged casually at his disbelief, then reassured him it was the most amazing time in my life. This is the basic message we PCVs always want to convey: it was unbelievably difficult, but I still loved it.

The veracity of that last sentence makes this whole critique more complicated. After all, “it was unbelievably hard, but I still loved it” is probably the most accurate way one could describe Peace Corps—the hardest job you’ll ever love. Living for two years in a developing country, speaking their language, eating their food is really hard. Honestly, it is something to pat yourself on the back for completing, but I find it very interesting how often our self-congratulations slide into elitist bragging. I especially notice this sense of superiority when volunteers compare themselves to missionaries, tourists, and volunteers who left early. (And once again, I am just as guilty as any for adopting this attitude.) I see volunteers make painstaking effort to distinguish us from them, and I think this condescension is all too apparent in our interactions with these groups.

Missionaries honestly still make me uncomfortable, but I can’t deny they do some valuable work. As for the tourists/PCVs who leave early, here is what I tell myself now: These people could have gone on vacation to the south of France, an all-inclusive resort in Hawaii, or just stayed home, but instead they chose to explore West Africa—even if it is just for a short time, that is better than a great many others who never make it off their couches.

The most ironic thing about all of this PCE business is volunteers begin their service from a place of absolute humility. When trainees first arrive in country, they repeat again and again how little they know and how eager they are to learn. As a new volunteer, you are constantly butting up against your own ignorance, inflexibility and shortcomings. In this new, strange land you must learn to talk, eat, poop, and interact in a whole new way. You are lost in this unfamiliar landscape. You become completely dependent on your host family and village. You get sick in ways you didn’t know you could. Basically, you become an infant again—naïve and vulnerable.

If we begin our service in such humility, how is it we end up hauling around elephant-sized egos? Why can’t we cultivate the same thoughtfulness we demonstrate in our work, in our interactions with others? When did our service become about bolstering our own self-image?

[1] I’ve discovered a cultural quirk that I LOVE but can’t quite turn into a whole story: at nightclubs, Senegalese people dance almost exclusively with their reflections on the mirror-lined walls, rather than with each other. As a result, when you enter a club, almost everyone on the dance floor is lined-up behind each other, facing the same direction, checking themselves out.

[2] Credit to Nick Potter for this phrasing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ryzard Kapuscinski Excerpt

Blog post to come, but in the meantime I am going to entertain you with this really wonderful quote about humans and travel. I wanted to edit it to make it more gender-inclusive, but it got too complicated. Just keep in mind women do all these things too. The author Ryzard Kapuscinski, is talking about why Herodotus (a Greek born in 485 B.C.) was motivated to travel as he did throughout the Asia, Africa, and Europe (the entire known world), and report on it endlessly until finally writing his work, "Histories."

"What set man into motion? Made him act? Compelled him to undertake the hardships of travel, to subject himself to the hazards of one expedition after another? I think it was simply a curiosity about the world. The desire to be there, to see it at any cost, to experience it no matter what.

It is actually a seldom encountered passion. Man is by nature a sedentary creature from the moment he began cultivating the land and left behind the perilous and uncertain existence of a hunter or gatherer, he settled down happily, naturally, on his particular patch of earth and fenced himself off from others with a wall or a ditch, prepared to shed blood, even give his life to defend what was his. If he moved, it was only under duress, or war, or by the search for better work, or for professional reasons--because he was a sailor, an itinerant, merchant, leader of a caravan. But to traverse the world for years on end of his own free will, in order to know it, to plumb it, to understand it? And then, later, to put all his findings into words? Such people have always been uncommon.

Where did this passion of Herodotus's come from? perhaps from the question that arose in a child's mind, the one about where ships come from. Children playing in the sand at the edge of a bay can see a ship suddenly appear far way on the horizon line and grow larger and large as it sails toward them Where did it originate? Most children do not ask themselves this question. But one, making castles out of sand, suddenly might. Where did this ship come from? The line between the sky and sea, very, very far away, had always seemed the end of the world; could it be that there is another world beyond that line? and then another one beyond that? what kind of world might it be? the child starts to seek answers. Later, when she grows up, she may have the freedom to seek even more persistently.

The road itself offers some relief. Motion. Travel. Herodotus's book arose from travel; it is world literature's first great work of reportage. Its author has reportorial instincts , a journalistic eye and ear. He is indefatigable; he sails over the sea, traverses the steppe, ventures deep into the desert--we have his accounts of all this. He astonishes us with his relentlessness, never complains of exhaustion. Nothing discourages him, and not once does he say that he is afraid.

What propelled him, fearless and tireless as he was, to throw himself into this great adventure? I think that it was an optimistic faith, one that we people lost long ago; faith in the possibility and value of truly describing the world."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nibbling Habits

A friend of mine, Hailey, was editing a translation of a study conducted on consumption habits. In the section about snacking, she found the following gem:

"The Senegalese people are nibbling followers specially in the end of
the afternoon (37%). Men nibble such like women. Nibbling is
significantly more important in urban zone (47%) compared to semi
urban zone (38%) or rural zone (34%)."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Weekly Broken Heart

July 9, 2011

There was a week in April when the majority of the staff at my organization left town for a two-day training. The evening before they departed, one of my co-workers, Adjia, asked me to take on some new duties in their absence. Specifically, she asked me to “écrire,” to write. The center logs every child who comes in the door of the center and what activities they do—both for themselves and for funders. So, someone has to sit at the door with a notebook and pen and “write.” The job also requires supervising the tiled courtyard where the kids play, shower, and do laundry. I had done it before, though never by myself. Nevertheless, I am ever eager to do anything that makes my job seem more like a job, so I cheerfully accepted.

I arrived at the center extra early the next morning to get set up. I found the notebook, a pen, a chair to sit in, positioned the table so I was right by the door, and waited… The best way I can describe what happened next is this: it was like watching a bomb explode—for four hours.

I’m sure you can easily imagine me flustered, hair askew, several children tucked under each arm while I tried to gain control of the situation; but, as a means of survival, my brain flooded itself with a hefty dosage of endorphins[1], leading me to sit demurely on my little blue chair, staring blankly into the chaos. I think the best thing I can say about that morning is no one was mortally injured, though few kids definitely cried. I almost cried, but I survived AND I learned something: there are essentially infinite ways 100+ young, parent-less boys can make trouble when sharing a small space.

Against my better judgment I’ve allowed myself to get roped into "writing" again and again. (It’s kind of everyone’s least favorite job.) I’m sure I am only able to cognize a fraction of what goes on in the courtyard; also I’m trying to make my blog entries shorter, so I’m only going to share my favorite memories from “writing.”

That fateful morning in April began like any other morning I am on writing duty: me sitting by the doorway with a notebook and pen. The center is calm, quiet—even tranquil. As the first children arrive, I begin writing down the name, age, Koranic school of each talibe, as well as what they want to do at the center: take a bath, do laundry, see the nurse, or play. It sounds easy enough, but, given that this notebook is clearly a spiny appendage of the evil Organization Monster, little boys want nothing to do with it. Thus, I often have to resort to (gently) grabbing the shoulders or shirts of talibes who try to breeze by me, unnoticed. I can do the whole, “come here” routine, but the boys usually meet to this sort of beckoning by doing the chicken dance from across the courtyard—literally sticking their thumbs in their armpits and resolutely flapping their elbows against their sides. (The gesture means, “I refuse” in Senegalese.)

Other times, swarms of talibes will come at once, encircling me and yelling their names/ages/schools over one another making it impossible to decipher anything. The come up on all sides, including mounting and hiding underneath the large table I am writing on, to make sure I have no escape. I should also mention these kids only shower once a week (every eight-year-old’s dream), so are absolutely filthy. Besides the dirt, they are usually covered in puss-filled cuts, boils, chicken pox, scabies, whitlow, and/or dried blood and are dripping mucus from their noses or eyes (due to conjunctivitis.) Given the proximity they feel is necessary, the talibes frequently do things like cough directly into my open mouth or sneeze into my hair.

Meanwhile, as I flail wildly trying to write down all information of the new arrivals before they disappear into the courtyard, the talibes inevitably get bored and start entertaining themselves by: reciting the Koran loudly; trying to ask me my name/age/etc.; trying to use the pen I am writing with to draw on any available surface (including, once, my cellphone); hitting each other; climbing under the table to pull on my skirt and/or leg hair; pinching me; grabbing me; slapping me (gently); or yelling loudly and indiscriminately. Perhaps the most frustrating thing in these swarm situations is, after I do write down the information of a talibe, he often refuses to go play in the courtyard but lingers at the table. When one does it, they all do it, creating an impenetrable talibe-wall between me and the doorway, making it that much harder to see kids as they come in or keep track of who I’ve already written down.

Once I manage to get (what I feel) is a reasonable percentage of the children logged in, I will stand up and shoo them into other activities. The courtyard is small, but somehow manages to contain a foosball table, a TV (usually blaring Senegalese music videos), a perpetually deflated soccer ball, puzzles and other games for the kids. If kids don’t have a game, they resort to wrestling with each other or yelling loudly into the open air. They can do their laundry, but this never takes long, given they have only one or two sets of clothes (though they still manage to spill enough water to turn the whole courtyard into a marsh.) When they only have one set of clothes, they wear their birthday suits while their clothes drip dry. Yes, there is a lot of nudity. There is also a shower, a toilet and an infirmary for the kids.

One of my favorite recurring scenes happens whenever an older boy (maybe 15) brings in a flock of five- to eight-year-olds for their weekly shower. I once worked at a summer camp where I observed little boys are happy to go four weeks or more without bathing (if it had been permitted.) The little boys in Senegal are no different, thus the older ones are forced wrangle them into the shower six or seven at a time (it’s a big shower). Much like how I used to stuff all my filthiest clothes into a washing machine, close the door and hope for the best, the older talibe will fill the shower with children, throw in some soap, turn the water on, hold the door closed. Moments later the bathroom door will explode open and the newly showered kids will scatter, still dripping, as if they were escaping from a burning house.

Now add up everything I just described (the swarming, grabbing, coughing, wrestling, playing, loud music, yelling, impromptu soccer games, wet clothes on low-hanging lines, flocks of dripping-wet kids) and then multiply it by 100. This is what that first morning in April was like. There is also the whole issue of rationing soap to the kids, which I won’t get into except to say it leaves pretty much everyone (including me) dissatisfied.

In spite of how it sounds, I wouldn’t necessarily call the mornings I spend in the courtyard with the talibes bad—though I wouldn’t say they’re good either. It’s usually overwhelming and always exhausting, but it also feels like the most sincere/needed aid I’ve given in my Peace Corps service. I never experience the all-too-familiar, what’s-the-point despair too many PCVs have to battle on a monthly if not weekly basis; because the point of my work is right there, coughing in my mouth, exploding from the shower, dripping snot as he waits to see the nurse.

As my language has improved, I’ve gotten to know the talibes as individuals (and as they’ve gotten to know me). They now know I won’t let them get away with the pinches, slaps, or the pulling of leg hair and for the most part have stopped trying. I’ve identified a couple of the older, more helpful talibes who I can always call on to aid me ration soap or make sure I’ve recorded every name. The kids have started to recognize me outside the center too, which I love. Now, instead of rushing up to me to demand money, they rush up to me to shake my hand and ask where I’m going.

The talibe may seem tough as nails on the street, sticking their chin up as they demand “100 francs,” but in this tiled courtyard it is painfully clear they are just children. They squeal with delight over a game. They cry when they are left out. They climb into my lap or put their arm around me before offering me some of the bread they are chewing on.

Sometimes I take it upon myself to organize a drawing activity for them, which is basically as chaotic as the courtyard scene, just add colored pencils into the mix and replace “rationing soap” with “rationing paper.” Some kids just scribble wildly, in what seems like an attempt to use as much paper as quickly as possible. Others will work quietly and thoughtfully all morning to complete self-portraits, pictures unidentifiable animals, or boats. But no matter what they draw, they double over in smiling embarrassment when I “ooh” or “ahh” at their work. One little boy just sits at the table, watching and insisting in a mouse-sized voice he can’t draw. Another will wait for other kids to abandon their work before presenting the drawing to me as his own. I suspect he is just hungry for any kind of praise.

Other favorite memories:

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving the center, I felt one of the kids tugging on the back of my bag. I whipped around in annoyance, thinking he was trying to open the pocket. “Hamsatou!” he said, “You can’t go out on the street with your bag like this.” He was closing it for me. My heart melted.

Another time, as I was sitting by the door, recording names, and old woman came to the door begging for money. I tried to dismiss her with the usual may-Allah-pay-you handclasp, thinking to myself, “Lady, you came to the wrong place.” But before she could leave, one of the talibes gave me an I-would-expect-more-from-you, parental nod as he handed her 25 francs from a small pouch tied around his stomach. These kids are teaching me so much.

Like I said, this is the most rewarding work I’ve done in the Peace Corps, possibly in my life. I rarely feel a day at work is wasted, and if I ever do, the feeling vanishes when I think of those boys. I can’t say with any conviction I’m making their lives better, and certainly not in the way you could film or put on a resume, but if I’m changing their worlds at all—it’s worth it to me; because these boys certainly changing mine.

Also (knock on wood) I haven’t gotten conjunctivitis, yet.

[1] According to Wikipedia: endorphins are released to prevent nerve cells from releasing more pain signals, allowing animals to feel a sense of power and control over themselves and to persist with activity for an extended time, like writing down the names of talibes—I was that animal.