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Kaitlyn Johnke - Senegal


October 2, 2013

When I hear “Mariama(my name), ar nyameng(come eat),” from my host mother, Djalamba, I am immediately tremendously grateful for the opportunity to actively engage with my family members and community, even if I’m not really very hungry. Last week I was in my host site of the rural city of Kedougou and I was told it would be a “short” visit to see where I would be living for the next seven months in order to come back to the main city of Dakar with a new passion to learn the language. It was just another part of in-country training to me and I did not expect how much of a baby a new culture, language, and lifestyle would make out of me. Suddenly, people wash my feet off for me when I step in the mud, they teach me how to take a bucket shower, and they smile when I can count to ten. Meals were an activity I always looked forward to and relied upon to take place at around 8:30am, 2:30pm, and 8:30pm. Unexpected snacks included lollipops, juice frozen into bags that you bite open and suck on, and fruit from bowls carried on girls’ heads through our compound. Mealtime with my family in Kedougou means that the men eat at one bowl and the women and children eat at another. My family feeds more of the community than just us and there are normally around fifteen or more people eating at once. We sit on short stools around a huge bowl of food-couscous, rice, or millet, covered in a sauce, with vegetables and sometimes some meat in the middle, placed on the ground. There is always someone who takes a spoon instead of the more normal way of just eating with their hand, but it is never me because I have developed a fondness for not burning my mouth (you always feel the temperature with your hand first) and making a mess (unavoidable). Luckily, I can look up to and learn how to behave (or not to) from my five little brothers.

I couldn’t have predicted that my main activity would be spending hours pretending to watch television in French while secretly pouring over my Pulaar notebook. The area in front of the television was a place I could sit silently and watch other people in a socially acceptable manner that didn’t require me to interact. Sometimes, we sit in front of the television and Yaya pours attaya (sweet Senegalese tea). Once a girl came in and sat in front of the TV all day only because she was waiting for her cellphone to be charged from the TV outlet (I wondered all the while who she was and if she was maybe having a bad day but I didn’t know how to ask her so I just appreciated her silent company). When Yaya is sitting in front of the TV, we point at things and name them in English and Pulaar. His need to learn English is not as necessary and desperate as my need to learn Pulaar, so I am grateful for his curiosity and the times he tries to help translate what others are saying to me.

Most of all during my week, I formed the beginnings of long lasting relationships with my family and community members. I developed friendships through juggling, coloring with markers, and making paper airplanes with the many children that run through my compound and live all over the neighborhood. The exciting moments were when I would follow the action of my two closest companions, Bebe and Hawa, who would rush me off to pick up an ingredient at a boutique (which everyone’s house, including mine, seems to double as), drop by a neighbor’s house to go through Pulaar greetings, cracking peanuts in my grandmother’s bedroom, helping to cook by crushing the spices and peeling the vegetables, and sitting around a little fire, roasting corn to chew on. It frustrated me to not yet be able to communicate with these people that were obviously so nice and probably very interesting. I didn’t know enough words to figure out what I could do for them that would be helpful with my extensive amount of free time, though they seemed fine with doing very little. It has made me think back to the United States, where I would have been in college if not here, probably wishing that doing very little could even be a possibility. However, in the US I enjoyed when the time passed quickly. Here, the value is quite the opposite and I got the feeling that they enjoy the slowing down- and therefore lengthen and beautify each nonworking second with purposeful emptiness. Looking ahead to the next six months, each day might be slow but they will be unforgettable and full.

Thank you to everyone who is reading this blog and for your patience- I currently have limited access to internet and my access will become even more limited once I am fully living in Kedougou. Like an airplane without passengers, without you this adventure wouldn’t have taken off.  I hope you enjoy this journey and it’s views.

Kaitlyn Johnke