Friday, June 29, 2012

No Reseau

I've been having cell phone network connection problems (or no reseau, as they say here) off and on for a few weeks. It's been better the last few days, and now that I'm back in the city of Kédougou my cell phone's working just fine. 

The internet, however, is another story. I'm using a little USB key to connect. I buy credit and log on; today I opted to spend 1000 CFA (about $2 USD) on three hours of internet access, which I can use all at once or in bits over the next three days.  It's really not a bad deal, it's not too slow and I get to use my own computer, which is great. 

Yesterday I biked in from Salémata yesterday -- the rains starting meant that everything was starting to turn green and lovely, but also that the road was muddy, so it was slow and messy going for a few big stretches. It was a good ride, though, my neighbor Jackie took my backpack in on a car and gave me a mocha-flavored Clif Shot packet, which was fantastic. After I got in, washed up, and got over the disappointment of no wifi at the Regional House Tatiana and I made home fries and a big pan of sautéed eggplant for dinner, which was amazing and delicious after all the rice I've been eating in village lately. 

Tomorrow we have a big Malaria Fair and then a big 4th of July celebration, so we're very busy with all the preparations today. I have a bunch of photos I'm really excited about uploading and posting, but that won't happen until things settle down and the real internet comes back, hopefully early next week. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

American Gosi

Most evenings one of my host sisters or host moms will make gosi, a kind of rice porridge, to feed all the little kids (and me, sometimes) before dinner, since they often fall asleep early. I've had really bland, unappealing gosi at other people's houses, usually for breakfast, but the stuff that my host family makes is really good, almost like African rice pudding. 

The bland kind is thin and saline, made with just rice, water, and salt, and people usually eat it when they don't have enough money to add anything else. My host family is well-off enough to be able to make good, nutritious gosi, which is nice for me and great for the kids. My host sisters like to make gosi tiga, which is sweetened rice porridge with ground peanuts. The peanuts they use aren't roasted, so the flavor is mild, very unlike the roasted peanut buttery taste we're used to with American peanuts. The peanut meal thickens the porridge, giving it a rich, slightly nutty taste, as well as a big protein boost. My host family also likes to add kosam, a yogurt-ish sour milk, or a big scoop of powdered milk if they have some on hand to make it heartier and to add vitamins and protein; my host sister Mariama Kesso (whose daughter Fatou is the adorable chubby baby is so many of my photos) is fond of telling me that milk is a complete food, and that it's good for kids and mothers. 

So, my host sisters kept giving me these wonderful warm mugs of gost tiga in the evenings and I decided that I should try to make an Americanized version, something akin to rice pudding. I bought some rice, sugar, powdered milk, and brought raisins, vanilla sugar, and cinnamon in from the toubab store in Kédougou and told Kesso that I wanted help making American gosi . She thought that this was funny (watching me cook is endlessly entertaining) and everyone was curious - there are so many people on my compound (around 30 at last count) that I've never really tried to cook anything for everyone before. We boiled the water and added all the ingredients, let it simmer, and it thickened up nicely. Even though they made fun of the raisins a little (someone said they looked like "little goat poops") they liked it and ate it all. Raisins aren't available in my village and there doesn't seem to be a Pular word for them, so people kept calling them "little dates," which is pretty close. The Senegalese are known for having a big sweet-tooth and tend to really love dates, especially during Ramadan, since they're said to have been one of the Prophet's favorite foods. It went over really well, and made me want to cook more often. 

I also tried out adding a couple packets of Maple & Spice instant oatmeal to another batch of American gosi , but people were not into that. They were really polite about it, but apparently the maple flavor tasted weird and savory to them, like I'd added bullion or something. I was more than happy to keep that bowl for my breakfast, but it made me think about acquired tastes, and how strange it must be to try a new taste when you've only ever eaten from a very limited range of flavors.

Host sisters Kesso and Diabou
It was fun to cook with Kesso, and nice to share something American with my Senegalese family -- I told them that sometimes in America my mom and my grandma make rice pudding/American gosi, and they really liked that they were eating something that my family in America also eats. I think that I might get more ambitious and try making American-style spaghetti one of these days. It would be a mess to try to eat with a spoon, but since spaghetti noodle and onion sauce sandwiches are an accepted breakfast food I'm pretty sure that everyone would like it well enough. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


One of the very first things that happened when I arrived in Senegal was that I started taking anti-malarial medication. People who grow up in areas where malaria is endemic can acquire some degree of resistance to malaria infections, but PCVs definitely don't have any sort of immunity. While there are a places in northern Senegal where malaria is practically non-existent (mosquitoes can't live without water and it's the desert up there) it exists on an epic scale down here in Kedougou, particularly during the rapidly approaching rainy season. 

The go-to malaria prevention drugs in West Africa are doxycycline (doxy, as we call it)and mefloquine (AKA Mephaquin, Lariam). Doxy is an antibiotic, sometimes prescribed to people in America for acne. You have to take it every day and it has mostly mild side effects, like upsetting your stomach and making you more sensitive to the sun, but most PCVs here tolerate it well and for a few it's even helped keep their complexions clear. However, due to an allergic reaction I once had to a medication in the same -cycline family of drugs the Med Office (quite rightly) decided that it was off-limits for me and I was put on mefloquine. 

Mefloquine (one of the generic versions of the much-maligned Lariam) is made of a chemical that disrupts the development of malaria parasites. It doesn't tend to upset your stomach, you only have to take it once a week, and, like doxy, it's pretty cheap. However, in some people it can cause things like extremely vivid dreams, insomnia, anxiety and/or depression. More rarely it can cause hallucinations, odd behavior, and self-destructive thoughts. My first few months on Mefloquine I had bizarre, incredibly vivid dreams (all of Peace Corps in a strange pageant at an Under-the-Sea-themed middle school formal; being menaced by lazy, helmeted urban dinosaurs, etc etc) but that was pretty much it and I didn't mind. 

Then, as the weeks went by, I started getting weirder. Slowly, like the proverbial frog, I went on with my life as a tight, angsty knot began lacing itself around my sternum. Back in America I wasn't exactly an carefree ray of twenty-four-hour sunshine, but I also didn't get all squirrely about making eye contact with my neighbors. It took awhile for me to decide that the anxiety I was feeling wasn't justified (from scary transport to aggravating cat-callers,  there are so many anxiety-making things here) but eventually I listened to other PCVs and gave Med call. It didn't take long for them to decide that I shouldn't be taking mefloquine anymore and (because my -cycline allergy ruled out taking doxy) they set about getting authorization from the Washington, D.C. Medical Office to switch me to Malarone. 
The most valuable thing in my hut. 

They needed official permission from D.C. because Malarone costs a lot of money. The Cadillac of Chloroquine-resistant malaria prohylaxsis medications, it's known for having almost no side-effects, and also for being crazy expensive. Because it's a generic drug Mefloquine is pretty cheap (I think brand-name Lariam can be more expensive) and an entire month's worth of doxy only costs about $10 USD, but Malarone costs about $5 USD per pill, or about $185 USD per month. That's considerable, particularly at a time when budgets are getting slashed left and right. In any case, they sent me a bottle of Malarone, I stopped taking Mefloquine, and after a couple weeks the big ball of anxiety in my chest started to loosen. It took a couple more months for me to really feel like I was getting back to normal, but it happened eventually and life is much better now. There are still plenty of stressful things (student loans, rainy season transport, project funding, garage weirdos, government paperwork...) but they no longer feel like they're consuming me, and I have a new appreciation for what people who struggle with serious anxiety issues have to deal with. 

Also, I was sitting in my hut the other day and realized that the bottle of Malarone I was holding probably cost about five hundred dollars, making it the most expensive thing currently in my possession, worth more than my netbook and my iPod put together.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

South by Southeast by Southwest

From St Louis I headed down to the Peer Support Network (PSN) meeting in Thiès, at the Training Center. Peace Corps/Senegal’s PSN is still relatively new, so we went over by-laws, brushed up on listening skills with  mock phone calls, and discussed issues that have come up over the last few months. We also spent sessions discussing how to best handle PCVs who are dealing with domestic violence problems in their communities and host families and how to talking with Volunteers considering early termination (ET). It was a good meeting (even though my stomach was completely off the whole time) and I liked learning more about Peace Corps resources and hearing ideas from other PCVs on how to talk about and cope with stressors and difficult situations that crop up throughout a Volunteer’s service.
Senegal's PSN 2012
After the PSN meeting it was back to Dakar to catch transport back to Kédougou. I stopped by the office, where Hadiel helped me set up Twitter via SMS (it’s more complicated in Senegal than in America), and I visited Rachel, Emily and their adorable new son Xavier.

I ate my fill of buttery pastries from the decadent Grain d’Or bakery, packed up my backpack, and headed back down to Kédougou, where I am now. I’m just sitting around, typing and waiting for the rain to let up so that I can go run errands, get packed up, and turn the internet back on so that I can post this. When it starts raining we run around the house unplugging everything important because when lightning strikes on or near our Regional House compound everything plugged in just gets completely fried. We lost several routers that way last rainy season (I hear that’s down from six the year before) when no one was around to unplug things in time.

24°C = 72.2°F and 40°C = 104°F
In any case, soon I’ll bike over to the market to pick up a seriche gift for my family (a couple kilos of carrots and dry beans), buy my transport ticket to get back to Salémata tomorrow, gaze wistfully at the closed post office (I have a package waiting but the Poste has very limited hours and I won’t be able to get it before I go back to village) and stop by the office supply boutique to buy a notebook.

I’ll be back in Kédougou in a couple weeks, but now that I’ve figured out the whole SMS-tweeting thing you can look forward to those, for as long as my phone credit lasts, anyway. 

St Louis

After my Mid-Service stuff I had a couple free days so I headed up to St Louis for JazzFest, an annual music festival of jazz musicians from around the world. Some of the other Kédougou Volunteers and I got a room at a hostel on the island, right next to the Mairie on this map. (The mainland is on the right and that strip of land on the left is actually a peninsula that goes up and connects to Mauritania.) As an added bonus, Youssou N'Dour (the incredibly, unbelievable popular Senegalese musician-turned-Minister-of-Culture) paid for everyone’s entry into all of the shows, so it wound up being a bit like an African version of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
(Map courtesy of
As the name suggests, St Louis was a major hub of activity during French colonial times. It’s much more developed than Kédougou, and for those of us coming up from the South, everything felt very fancy and tourist-y. The city has a bustling, run-down but somehow distinctly European air about it, maybe kind of like a seldom-used guesthouse in a forgotten corner of Sicily.

In any case, we spent a couple days listening to a lot of really good (and some mediocre/really not very good at all) music, eating real cheese and other delicious foods, and relishing the fact that our hostel was right on the island, so we never had to walk more than a few blocks to get anywhere except the beach (which was littered with dead fish, a dead porpoise, two dolphin carcasses, and the bodies of several enormous rams, so no big loss there). There was a big Peace Corps turnout, so everywhere we went we ran into friends from other regions and stages (training groups), and it was really nice to see people and catch up.In the evenings there were band playing on a large boat parked (docked? moored?) just down the way, so we got to go listen to music and sip cool drinks on the upper decks while the sun went down. It was not a bad deal. 

So, there was all these lovely sunsets and scenery and music and whatnot and the only pictures I took were of us eating big wedges of brie, the wall of a broken-down building, and a few of my stage-mates and I in front of said wall, inexplicably and unintentionally dressed like two very match-y middle-aged couples on vacation. Good times! 


I was just up in Dakar for my mid-service medical appointments. About a year into service PCVs are supposed to come up to Med to have a check up with a doctor, a cleaning and x-rays at the dentist, and a tuberculosis test. Depending on what the PCV needs they'll also do a Pap smear, HIV and STI tests, MIF (stool sample) kit analysis, and tests for various parasite problems, such as schistosomiasis, a sort of snail-worm infection. Schisto, as we like to call it, is a neglected tropical disease (NTDs; they're horrible but fascinating) and is very common in my region. 

My check-up was pretty brief and boring; other than strep throat, switching off Mephaquin, a few relatively minor bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, I haven't really had any significant medical problems so far. (Knock on wood.) My schisto results haven't come back yet, but I don't have any cavities or tooth-problems (yay!) and my TB-exposure test was as negative as they come. The dental cleaning is a little odd, mostly because the dentist (a cheerful older Moroccan man) doesn't do things like give you a free travel-sized tube of toothpaste or provide a lead apron during x-rays. In fact, he takes the x-rays while standing next to you, sometimes whole holding the little square of film in place against your teeth with his own hand. He also develops the x-ray films right there, rinsing the chemicals off right into his little lab sink. It's how I imagine American dentists did in the olden days when it was totally okay to use fluoroscopes for fun and have women hand-number clock faces with radium paint.

In any case, it was interesting and good to get all checked out. And totally bizarre that I'm already more than halfway through my service. How is it June 2012 already?

Friday, June 1, 2012


My American name is LaRocha ("la-rock-a"), but my Senegalese name is Adama. I have a number of tokorabe (people with my same name) around Salémata. I've gotten used to it, more or less, but for several months it was profoundly weird. 

It took me awhile to really identify as "Adama," and once I actually started to feel like it was my name I couldn't really get my head around how a bunch of other people also had my name. That has never happened to me before. Ever. In my entire life. It's funny, I spent a significant part of my childhood wishing that I had a name that other people had (specifically so that I could have a personalized toothbrush and name stickers) and then when I finally did it was oddly disconcerting. 

Adama and Friends
I've gotten used to it, though, and have come to appreciate some of the perks of having a normal, phonetic, immediately understood name. Greetings and mundane daily interactions are smoother and less complicated, and when people read my name off a list they don't hesitate and look around, blinking and uncomfortable, for a few seconds before attempting to say it aloud. They laugh, sometimes, amused that such an obvious foreigner would go by such a Senegalese name, but it's always friendly and often leads to questions about my family same (Souaré, "soo-are-ay") and where I live and if my family is in peace. 

Also, sometimes people are extra nice to their tokora, which is arbitrary but pleasant, and I'm not one to argue if the peanut butter lady or the bean sandwich lady wants to give me an extra spoonful just because I'm her tokora.

Baby Party

At the end of every month there is a Growth Monitoring (AKA Baby-Weighing) and Vaccination Day at the Salémata Health Center, and it is pretty much my favorite thing in village. It wasn't that way at first, though. The first few times I helped out the whole thing was so hectic (between 30 and 60 women usually show up with their children) and confusing that it really wasn't very enjoyable. I didn't understand the register system or how to fill out the Health Booklets, the babies' names all sounded like gibberish, the mix of Pulaar and French was disorienting, and there didn't seem to be an established order for who got to go first.  Over time I learned how the registers work, got to know people's names, and became comfortable enough to make start making little changes to help things run more smoothly, like carring over tables so that we weren't filling out the registers and booklets on our knees.

Overall, though, it was really heartening to see how much people in Salémata care about vaccinating their babies and making sure that their kids aren't underweight. The chaotic as they can be, Baby-Weighing Days are very well established and the Health Center staff are committed making sure they happen every month. When moderately malnourished (Yellow Zone) children do turn up (which they inevitably do) a midwife or relais consults with them, and helps provided largely by WorldVision, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the local Health Committee. If a child is severely malnourished (Red Zone) then they're admitted into the Health Center for therapeutic feeding. 

Here are the relais community health workers in charge of baby-weighing, as well as my host sister Mariama having her daughter weighed. (She was totally in the Green Zone.) 

Basically my role is to enter everything into the Health Center's registers, fill out new Health Booklets,  try to make sure things are moving along, and to smile and greet everyone. The staff has (somewhat) jokingly referred to me as the secretary on more than one occasion, which is fine by me. The Health Center already has local health workers who give shots and put toddlers on the scale and so I'm most useful when I make myself busy making things more organized and less hectic.

Here a visiting German gap-year student who stayed at the Catholic Mission for a couple months came to help out, and my friend (and same-name tokora) Adama took a photo of me holding a stack of Health Booklets.

Vaccinations Winding Down for the Day

Les Parfums de Sénégal

Not long after I came to Senegal I was in a car with a few other PCVs, and we got to talking about what scents a Senegal-themed scented candle set would include. (I think it was April's idea.) In any case, I still think about that when I catch whiffs of  Senegal-specific odors. As best I can recall, here are some of the odors we identified as being the iconic smells of PCV life in Senegal: 
  • Café Touba: at pretty much every bean sandwich lady's stand in the whole country you can buy hot, sugary little cups of Café Touba to go with your breakfast. (Many PCVs love it; I am not so much a fan.) It smells over-boiled and slightly peppery, like cloves and leaves and instant coffee.
  • Fish Market: in most markets there's a section devoted to selling all kinds of fish - big, small, fresh, dried, semi-spoiled - and it always reeks of fish guts turning rancid under the most powerful heat lamp in the world. 
  • Trash Fire: one of the least-lovely smells to wake up to. 
  • Tea Time: the singed-sugar smell that comes from cooking up the scalding, hyper-sweet ataaya tea that many Senegalese like to drink int eh afternoons (and mornings... and evenings...) 
  • Dust: it's subtle, just a light, hot, dry smell, but it's also everywhere, especially on transport. It cakes up on clothes and in sinuses and gets way down into the seams and cracks of everything, from books to keyboards to skin and hair. 
  • Mango: fresh, sweet, sun-warmed and lovely, mangoes right from the tree are one of the few silver linings to hot season. 
Other suggestions were Overpowering Body Odor (particularly while crammed in a crowded bus or a station wagon with nine other people), Sewage Puddles (a rainy season fixture in all cities), and Adji (the bullion packets that are the base flavoring for nearly all Senegalese dishes we eat on a regular basis).

Maybe the candle set would look like this. 
Sadly, for me (and the other people in the room with me right now) Trash Fire would have to be the smell that I most strongly associate with living here. While away on vacation I stepped out of the car after being picked up from the airport and the first things I thought was "Oh wow, it smells so nice here." I've heard that repeated - unprompted and almost verbatim - from several other volunteers.

There are many other smells that spring to mind when I think of my life here in Senegal, many of them quite pleasant - babies all freshly washed and lathered in warm, nutty-smelling shea butter; sweet, floral "chourie" incense paste; the fresh-baked bread smell of tapalpa village baguettes. But really, Trash Fire tends to overwhelm them all.