Friday, May 18, 2012

Radio Party

Until just a few years ago the Kédougou was just a somewhat forgotten Department within the larger Region of Tambacounda. Now Kédougou has full regional status and over the last year we've been seeing all sorts of changes. For instance, as of last month the National Highway is now completely paved (but it wasn't last year) all the way to the city of Kédougou, our regional capitol, and they've started putting in sidewalks and streetlights along part of the main road through town. There are even (still non-functional) stoplights being installed at the main intersection by the market. It's all very impressive. 

Within Kédougou, the Salémata Health District (where I live) is still pretty much the least developed and most isolated. The road out to the Salémata Health Center is rough, unpaved, and often impassable in the rainy season, electricity is scarce, cell phone service is often patchy and weak, and until very recently just about the only radio stations that we could pick up were coming from Guinean stations, missionaries, or the BBC World Service. And then U.S.A.I.D. showed up built this lovely little community radio station and set up a broadcasting tower, which is really fantastic for a variety of reasons.

I didn't even know that the radio station was done (the U.S.A.I.D. agent in our area isn't exactly known for being thrilled about Peace Corps Volunteers) but my host family invited to the inauguration and it turned out to be quite the party; people really wanted to put on a show because the new American Ambassador, Lewis Lukens, actually came out for the inauguration ceremony. Because Americans are stereotypically extremely punctual, people here thought it was funny that he and his entourage showed up a little late (frequently people used to Dakar don't take into account how much slower one has to drive on a washed-out laterite road when calculating driving times) and couldn't stay long, but people were still really glad he'd come. It made them feel like Salémata was important, and that the American government cared about their community specifically. 

Middle school students dressed up like traditional Pulaar villagers, drawing on pretend face-tattoos (which you still see on older women sometimes), chewing on teeth-sticks, wearing blue leppi fabric outfits, and carrying traditional decorative woven discs. I gave my camera to Mamadou, my little host brother, and he took some great photos, including these ones of me sitting in the crowd (I'm still shocked sometimes by how much I really just don't blend in at all) and of my host mother Mariama (below left, you can see a snippet of her bright orange headwrap) dragging me up in front while she slipped the griot singers some change and had them sing my name in a song, which is a really nice thing to do for someone.

The Bassaris were the main attraction, though, and they lined up to pose for photos before starting to dance and march around to the music and singing of the griots.

A lot of Mamdou's photos were of his friends posing with the Bassaris or posing with the kids dressed up in traditional Pulaar garb. This his Mamadou and one of our neighbors, posing with my host sister Mariama Gaulo (one the left) and her friend, both dressed up in leppi and make-up.

Having a community radio has already started to make a big difference in how things work in Salémata and all the surrounding villages. Everyone listens to the radio, which makes it a great way to make community announcements, remind people to come to baby weighings, get the word out about vaccination campaigns or upcoming trainings. People also really love to hear their names on the radio, so people will swing by and give the D.J. a few coins to have him greet their friends and family live on the air. I haven't done that yet, but I'll definitely be sending a greeting to my family in the near future. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

2012 Bassari Initiations

Last weekend I (along with half my village, a dozen other PCVs, a few European tourists, a handful of Canadians) went to the Bassari village of Ethiolo ("Etch-il-o") to see the annual coming-of-age initiation ceremonies for young Bassari men in the area. 
PCV Tatiana, AKA Taki Bendia, our gracious hostess
We started by hanging out with Tatiana's host family, greeting people, eating fried dough beignets and watching things get started. I don't have a super comprehensive understanding of all the aspects of the ceremonies, but one of the first things that happens is that people from each initiant's family bring out live roosters, slaughter them, and then hang them all from a tree. (The men in the photo below left are taking the roosters down, to pluck and butcher them.) The people running everything fire off blank shots to signal that the initiants have started coming down from the trees, dancing in lines that wind slowly though the crowd before heading off to a hill for the battle portion of the initiations. 

The battles take place a little ways off form the village, out of the sight of women; we heard that this is because it's embarrassing when a man loses a fight (and every fight, even the highly ritualized initiation fights, has to have a loser) and they'd rather not have the women knowing who all the losers are. In any case, while the guys all went off to the battles we passed the time looking at the jewelry vendors' wares until Marie Christine (our wonderful housekeeper at the Regional House) invited the ladies over for snack time. The snack turned out to be chunks of fresh bread with a sautéed onion and green pepper dipping sauce, and it was pretty fantastic. 

When the battles were over and then masked Bassari men and the younger initiants, lead by a man wearing a heavy-looking wooden mask, came streaming back up the hill. Many of the younger kids fled in terror (they are pretty intimidating up close) and everyone clambered up onto rocks and logs to get a better look. 

 After the frenzy of the arrival of the masks we retired back to Tatiana's family's corner to drink water and sample the Bassari palm wine, honey wine, and millet beer. (The Bassari are mostly somewhat Catholicized traditional animists, so there's no religious prohibition of alcohol in Bassari areas.) The honey wine is pretty good, as is the millet beer, but I'm not really a fan of palm wine and none of it is particularly easy on the stomach (especially if you're getting over some sort of stomach bug, which I was) so I didn't drink much.

 We ate a big chunk of peanut butter candy (above left) made from cornmeal, peanut butter, and sugar, and Tatiana's family cooked us a wonderful lunch of chicken and cabbage sauce over rice. Over the course of the day I ran into pretty much everyone I know in Salémata, including my friend's little brother (above right)who really wanted a photo of himself with the masked men. He's a good kid and his family hadn't come to watch the initiations, so we invited him to have lunch with us and he showed us the random things that the tourists had given him -- specifically, a pair of nice ladies' dress slacks and a navy blue skort.

This last photo is of an initiant with his family, standing on a mat with the gifts that have been offered to him to commemorate his achievement. He's standing in a tub of rice and onions, and there's a sack of rice, some corn, millet, and other foods on the mat as well. He's looking over at his family members who are in the process of slaughtering a goat in his honor. I lost count of the number of roasting goat (and sheep, even a cow) heads I saw over the course of the day. Most people don't eat meat or fish on a daily basis, but they really pull out all the stops for holidays and special celebrations.

Demystification & Installation

During Pre-Service Training (PST) the Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) get to go on a Volunteer Visit (VV) to see the villages where they'll be living and serving for two years. Every region (and even every site) is very different, and it's really good to get a basic idea of what it's like there. Is there a water spigot or will you be hauling water from a well across town? Are there mango trees or just thorn bushes? Does the village have a baker and boutiques or nothing at all in the way of places to buy snacks? The PCT gets to sort of shadow a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) for a few days, and hopefully that helps demystify the whole life-in-village thing a little bit.

I took PCT Katie O. out to her village, and it went really, really well. She'll be the first volunteer ever to serve in her village, and people seemed genuinely excited and really, really, really nice. They fed us wonderful food, (fonio! chicken and sauce!) showed us around town, and were just generally really hospitable. There's a baker, some boutiques, a bean sandwich lady, lovely community gardens, a couple good hand-pump forages for water, and her hut and latrine were mostly finished.

Katie (the PCT) and myself
Getting ready to bike the rest of the way in 
Yesterday, accompanied by Mamadou Diaw (basically the boss for Health PCVs in Senegal), we went back to install Katie in her village. The traditional village chief gave a welcome speech; the head nurse from the Health Post gave a welcome speech; Mamadou gave a speech about Peace Corps, likening a PCV to a knife, which cannot cut by itself, urging the community to be patient with language, and thanking them for their overwhelming hospitality. Her hut and latrine were all ready to go, her family had built her a little fenced in garden, and the entire community had prepared a huge arrival party in her honor. Dioula ("joo-la"), her sister and village namesake, had had matching complet outfits made, they gave her earrings and a necklace, the school children had prepared a song-and-dance in her honor, and the griot musicians and the older women all sang and danced -- it was an amazing party, above and beyond what most villages put together, and it was completely heartwarming. 
Katie (the PCV!) and her tokora
I tried to stay in the background, taking photos and greeting as many people as possible, playing the photographer and mostly taking pictures with her camera. After the first round of singing and dancing there was a parade through the village, which was funny because there was next to no one to to see the parade, since everyone was in the parade, but it was fun. 

Parade through the village of Dakateli
After all that the party continued, but they pulled us aside to feed us lunch. We were presented with the biggest bowl of rice I've ever seen, and a small vat of rich, wonderful sauce with two entire chickens chopped up in it. It was all very reassuring -- when a community invests this much time, effort, energy in making the PCV feel welcome, included, and well cared for it bodes well for everyone. Not that it isn't exhausting and overwhelming or that village life won't be incredibly challenging in many ways, but it's a very good start.

Dancing and singing for the new arrival


Transport is usually the worst and most unpleasant part of living in Senegal. Unless you're well-to-do and have your own car and driver the "public" transportation system is made up of a chaotic, ramshackle network of privately owned beat-up buses, rusty jumbo-vans, smaller-but-equally-rusty vans and mini-vans, pick-up trucks, horse/donkey-drawn charette carts, and safari cars. It's expensive and unpredictable (cars leave the garage as they fill up, so you wait three minutes or nine hours), the guys in charge of cutting tickets are usually loud, aggressive, and will often stretch the truth to pressure foreigners into buying tickets, and the baggage guys frequently try to extravagantly overcharge people (last time I went from Tamba the guy tried to charge 2 000 FCFA for a bag that should cost 500 FCFA) but they also tend to relent pretty quickly when you tell that that you've been here before and you know the price.

A typical transport receipt 
Each city has a "garage," which is just a big parking lot where cars and buses park and wait for passengers. The garages in Dakar and the other big cities are sprawling and hectic, filled with vendors and ladies selling ceeb u jen, but the mayhem is somewhat organized. There are garage managers, and the guys in charge of selling tickets who make sure that cars get passengers and leave in the proper order. In the smaller cities, like Kédougou the garages are smaller, slower-paced, and more manageable. In a mid-sized village like Salémata the "garage" is just a bench in front of a sandwich shack, with a guy who sits around, making tea and writing out little ticket stubs. (I happen to glue all my travel tickets, baggage stubs and other paper miscellany into my journal, so at this point I have a comprehensive catalog of the kinds of hand-written receipts that there are in Senegal.

We don't get many nice transport cars out in Salémata on account of our road being rough, dusty, unpaved, somewhat washed out in a few places, and 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) long. It gets worse once the rainy season starts; the road gets muddy, occasionally floods completely by the bigger bridges, and we don't get very many cars at all.

A sept-place and a green van in the Salémata Garage
The nicest vehicle in the Salemata Garage that morning

I got lucky with this car because it had decent-looking tires, the engine sounded ok, the uplostery was still pretty much intact, and it had been painted pretty recently. The interior (below on the left) looked pretty nice. The photo below in the right is of the Salémata garage and main street, where the weekly lumo market happens on Tuesdays. There weren't many people around this morning (which is partly why I felt comfortable taking photos), just people stopping on to buy bread and boutique owners sweeping garbage into little piles and lighting little trash fires. 

I only had to wait for about an hour and a half, which really isn't too bad. The car also didn't stop that many times to pick people up along the way, so it never filled up to the point of being ridiculously over-capacity. They also let me hop out right in front of the Peace Corps house (conveniently right on the road in from Salémata) and that made things easier, too.