Campements, Awa, Mangroves, and Peace Corps: The March Monthly Meeting

Alec Yeh - Senegal


April 14, 2010

It was our last monthly meeting, and this one took place down south. The theme of this month’s meeting was environmental conservation, so the big activity was the tour of the mangrove system. I’ll explain more about that later. But we had already been to the area before, when we had to make that Gambia border run.

The Campement We stayed in Toubakouta overnight during our little trip and it worked out really well, so we did it again this meeting. Not to mention Tons just has tons of connections. Apparently his cousin runs the campement (like a hostel), except Tons never met this cousin. I doubt it’s even his real cousin. It’s probably just one of those Senegalese fake family relations. But nonetheless, Tons just called up his cousin, who was also named Babacar like Tons, called him a moron, then asked him for a favor. The Senegalese just really enjoy insulting each other. It seems like it strengthens their family relationships (that joking kinship thing). With Tons’ connection, we got a discount. The campement itself was okay. It’s weird because by American standards you’d think, “Uh…this isn’t really where we’re staying is it?” The walls of the room had water damage, along with the slow chipping of the paint. The beds were nice, but the sheets were ugly and tacky; clearly made in China. The pillows seemed like they were stuffed with rock. The toilets didn’t flush (though the girls’ toilet did). And the worst was the water. Besides being kind of salty (the region all has salty water since its right next to the water), the water just didn’t wash all the soap off of you. Ananda described it as being “soft,” whatever that means. It’s the worst feeling ever. You feel like you have a film of soap all over your body. But I’m really not complaining. I’m just trying to paint you guys a picture. Clearly not as nice as St. Louis though. Apparently the campement is actually considered a nicer campement too. It makes me wonder what bad campements are like. We had most of our meals at the campement except two dinners, which we had at Awa’s house.

Awa Approaching the house, we saw beautiful pink and purple flowers growing over the cement walls. The green cast-iron gate opened to a walkway filled with white seashells. The yard was large with newly planted trees, and the back had much more mature mango trees and what I thought were guava trees. The house looked rather small in comparison to the amount of open space. But once we entered, it was actually pretty big. All we could hear Awa voice booming out of the back room. This woman is the quintessential Senegalese woman. She’s big and motherly, with a loud and commanding voice. She’s extremely welcoming and never lets an awkward moment go by. She’s by far one of my favorite people. Awa is Modou’s second wife, Modou being the brother of Tons. They’re an amazing couple. Their home is definitely a classic example of a Senegalese household, besides the house being extraordinarily beautiful. In the household, there was Modou and Awa, their children, Modou’s first wife and their son, and their son’s family. The most adorable was Modou’s first wife’s son’s daughter. Her name was Amina and she was just too cute. She had these big cheeks, and the cutest, shyest smile a girl could have. She was extremely obedient and subdued for a child, quite unusual for a Senegalese girl. The other the people in the house were all nice. What strikes me as interesting is how incredibly obedient everybody was. All the kids were extremely proper, and had the best manners. It was definitely the most managed household I’ve encountered. The one thing I found funny was how Awa’s son was permanently shirtless. This kid was probably around our age, but he was clearly proud of his body. He was very fit, very muscular. He definitely had a very nice body, but he just wouldn’t wear a shirt. He also wore these red running shorts. The most clothes I saw him wear the entire time was when he was about to go exercise. The Senegalese wear so much when they do any working out. It doesn’t seem healthy. I would die of heat exhaustion.

But the point of going to Awa’s, besides seeing one of my favorite families, was to eat. Awa, being a close friend of Rachel’s, makes the food exactly how we like it. She doesn’t use any MSG, which is the most amazing part (she still uses it with her own family). And it tastes just as good. It makes me wonder why the Senegalese even use MSG. But nevertheless, the first meal we had was Yassa Ginaar, which is chicken with an onion sauce over a bed of white rice. The next day was cere (millet couscous) with a tomato and beef sauce. After the sauce runs out for the cere, the Senegalese like to pour milk into the bowl. Everybody freaked out when I did that because they apparently never had it like that before. They yelled, “That is the most disgusting thing. You have oil in your milk!” But it’s exactly what the Senegalese do. All the Senegalese people yelled back, “That’s right! That’s how the Senegalese do it!” While all the other kids, with their American perspective, thought it was gross. Good to know I’m one of the more Senegalese when it comes to eating.

After dinner, we always talk. The Fellows talk amongst themselves, while the adults talk amongst themselves. Each time though, we (the kids) always laugh really hard. We all make each other laugh, but apparently I make them laugh more so than anybody else. And apparently I dominate the conversation. Since Awa was watching us talk, by the second night, Awa had declared I was the “waxkat”, which in Wolof means the talker/speaker, or the entertainer of words. It’s weird because I would never think of myself of a “waxkat” in the US. But maybe I’ve changed. I hope in a good way though. Also, the fellows think I’m REALLY funny. Like incredibly funny. Mat says I should do stand-up (what???), and Ananda said that if I write a memoir, she would love to listen to the book-on-tape version so long as I narrate it. She thinks I’d be really funny narrating my memoir (like David Sedaris). I was shocked. I’m definitely not considered the “funny kid” back home, but here, I’m the clown. It’s a weird feeling to be the “clown” of a group. I hope I maintain it though, since I like making people laugh, and I like laughing as well. I think a lot of my humor comes from my facial expressions, my sarcasm and the way I say certain things, and my stupid comments. I tend to misunderstand and mishear things a lot, so I always say something really out of context. I guess we’ll see if I’m still funny in a month!

Peace Corps The second day of our monthly meeting was mostly academic. I mean, we got to swim in the pool, but the whole morning we went over 200 pages of reading that Rachel gave us. They were really dense articles about development, environmental conservation, and culture. They were all from JSTOR. I love JSTOR! But I guess Rachel just wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget what school was. Don’t want that brain to atrophy. We pretty much did a few hours of a college seminar (Rachel taught a few courses at Stanford anyways, so it practically was a mini-seminar).

But the best part of the “academic day” was the Peace Corps volunteers. Between our morning session and our afternoon session, Rachel invited two volunteers to talk to us so we could compare our experience, and also ask them questions about the Peace Corps. Many of us are interested in Peace Corps, so it was fitting. The two volunteers were named Kaylen and Jack. Kaylen had orangey-red hair (a ginger! as Victoria called him; reference to a youtube video), a skinny build, with freckled, tan skin. He wore a slightly old-looking shirt with beige cargo pants. His feet, sitting in those flip-flops, were caked with black dirt. He was from Montana, and got a bachelor’s degree in International Business from University of Montana. Jack, the other volunteer, had brown hair and a buzz cut. He had a normal build, just slightly on the stockier side. He was dressed in a striped button-up, with kakhi’s and Teva-like sandals. He looked like he stepped out of J-Crew if J-Crew had a sale for Peace Corps volunteers. He looked way cleaner than Kaylen. Kaylen was just grimey-looking (like me!). Jack had a degree in Philosophy from Saint John’s College in Annapolis. Both were extremely nice, but you could tell Kaylen was so nervous. He was shaking in his chair when he talked to us, and he tended to rant because he was so nervous. I was like, “Dude…we’re six high school graduates. I don’t think you have anything to fear, but okay…” Jack was much more chill. And his humor was similar to mine. But nonetheless, both of them had interesting things to talk about.

I learned a lot about Peace Corps as a whole though. I realized I really didn’t know how much about the system. Peace Corps takes applicants who have a bachelor’s degree. Once the applicants are accepted, the Peace Corps chooses a location for them. They don’t take requests, but they take into consideration of certain skills you have. Obviously Peace Corps doesn’t operate in every developing country, so there are a lot fewer options than you think. The volunteer is sent in cycles rather than on an individual basis. So Jack’s and Kaylen’s group (they arrived in Senegal back in August) had a total of 50-something volunteers. But once they arrive in the country, they have three months of training at a designated site. They learn about their selected sector, like agro-forestry or health services, or eco-tourism (there are more). They also learn their assigned languages. Once that’s done, they go into their locations and they have another few weeks of training. In the village, they usually have a “guide” to help them around. They each have their own “Yankhoba” essentially. Except less weird and silly. That’s the process of Peace Corps.

While in their location, they have a lot of freedom to travel. They usually have regional houses that volunteers can go to and hang out. Jack thinks the most incredible thing is cell phones and how they allow anybody to talk to anybody in Senegal, and how he is able to text his family at home all the time. It is pretty incredible. Each month, Peace Corps workers get a stipend to cover living expenses. They get two vacation days for every month (they stack so you can collect them later on). Volunteers can do whatever they want with their vacation time, include going back to the States. After their entire experience is over, they get paid 275 dollars a month for every month of service in the Peace Corps. So if I were a volunteer for 24 months, I would be paid 275 dollars for 24 months back in the States. I didn’t know Peace Corps paid you. So perhaps that’s a bonus incentive.

Back to the volunteers. Kaylen lives in the area that we were visiting. He is working in eco-tourism for the Peace Corps. Kaylen is the only one in the area because he’s basically here to see if the area can work as a Peace Corps site. The site was used about 20 years ago, but in 20 years, a lot can change. So he was basically pioneering the area for the future generation of volunteers. He worked with certain campements to help them improve their accounting skills and their publicity. But in reality, he actually worked a lot more with local schools. He started a rugby club and he volunteers at a local English club. He also holds typing classes for kids at a local cyber café. So you can see that though he was assigned to eco-tourism (the campements), he actually focuses on local schools. It seems like that happens a lot in the Peace Corps. You may be assigned to something, but they don’t seem to enforce it very strictly. His home life is interesting because he lives with a mother whose kids have their own lives now. His mother is dating this French dude, and so it seems really weird and un-Senegalese. But he says he doesn’t mind it. When he got to his site, he thought he would be living in a village with a hut, but his house apparently is crazy modern in comparison to the other volunteers’ houses. He learned French in college, but as for the Peace Corps training, he was trained exclusively in Wolof. His French pronunciation was so…American. I was like, “Hey…you sound like me! But worse!”

Jack lives in an area a little farther away. His assigned sector was agriculture and forestry (or agro-forestry for short, or ag-fo for even shorter). Jack is also the only one in his village working, and he’s also testing out the waters for future volunteers. He seems to be doing things more aligned with his assigned work. So far he’s working with local farmers to help them create nurseries. He does a lot with live fencing (plants that act as fencing for purposes of keeping animals out and keeping the soil healthy). He works with about 12 farmers and is going to help them plant whatever plants they want. He’s planting a lot of fruit trees even though that’s not really part of his sector. His Senegalese friend also wants to do this beautification of the village, so he might start that as well. He seems relatively busy though, and happy. His home life seems good as well. He lives in this very small village, and he even has his own hut in the complex of the village chief. He said the household is predominantly women, though he really enjoys it because mothers tend to take people under their wings (I can definitely relate). His house is definitely more traditional than Kaylen’s. Jack had no prior language experience, so Peace Corps trained him in Seereer, which is interesting because Wolof is spoken by more people in Senegal. But Seereer is the language of his region, so that’s why he learned Seereer.

It’s incredible to hear about their experienced because I can’t help but relate to them all. I never really thought about our experience in comparison with anything else. I know Rachel explains to potential project partners that GCY is like a mini-Peace Corps. Rachel is SO right. We really are a mini-Peace Corps. The cultural immersion, the volunteer work, the language skills; the entire experience just seems to have a lot in common. Hearing Kaylen talk about volunteering in the English Club and how he diversified his volunteer work rather than working exclusively with eco-tourism, hearing Jack talk about how he likes spending time with the women of the house; I could just relate so well. The obvious differences are the time length (GCY being seven months and Peace Corps being two years), the age and qualifications, and the resources available. Obviously Peace Corps has much more potential to effectuate change than we do. But nevertheless, GCY and Peace Corps have similar experience, though perhaps their goals are different (GCY being cultural exchange and learning, and Peace Corps being more about development work).

I asked if they had any criticisms of the Peace Corps. I hear from other people that Peace Corps doesn’t have very good support, meaning they don’t have somebody really checking up on you or guiding you. There’s also that whole issue of whether Peace Corps really helps or is just pointless. For example, Kaylen worries about whether the things he creates, like a garden or something, if it would be kept after he leaves. The answer is probably no. Most of the time, people don’t keep your projects because they see them as your projects, and not there’s. But Kaylen and Jack think the biggest issues with Peace Corps are that Peace Corps wants to grow so fast, but they don’t have the employees to grow with it, and that Peace Corps branches don’t seem to communicate very much and make stupid mistakes. With the renewed interest of the Peace Corps by Americans, they’re getting and accepting more volunteers, but it doesn’t seem like the organization is growing at the same pace. Their example was that when they arrived, them being a cycle of more than 50 volunteers (the biggest ever), they never thought to hire more buses to pick them up at the airport. As for the lack of communication, Jack said he knew a Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in Mexico, near the border of the US. And this volunteer lived on the border of Texas and Mexico. He ended up living a few miles away from his house, so he would go home every weekend. How stupid is that? I mean, I guess the guy didn’t mind, but that’s just not the cultural immersion you should be looking for.

But after this entire conversation, I’m still not quite sure I want to do the Peace Corps. I think it’s a great thing and Kaylen and Jack said it was the best experience of their lives and would do it again if they had to choose, but I’ve always wanted to do Doctors Without Borders, assuming I become a doctor. And if I do both, then I’ll be like 40 before I start my career. As for you guys reading this, perhaps you guys should think about Peace Corps. It seems fun!

Mangroves and Oysters On the last day of our monthly meeting, we took a tour of the mangroves. So mangroves are these trees that grow above the water. It’s actually really, really cool. It looks like these trees are just floating in the mid-air, but when you get closer, you can see all the roots. Google “Senegalese mangroves.” Not that Senegal is the only country that has mangroves. Mangroves are so incredibly important because they are the homes of incredibly sensitive ecosystems. They also provide wood, and maintain the balance of salt in the water. They also prevent soil-erosion in certain areas. What I’m trying to say is that mangroves are awesome. Beautiful too.

So we hopped into the little boat, and headed towards the mangroves. For some strange reason, Gaya started breaking out these camp songs, and so we ended singing camp songs on the boat. It was so weird. Anyways, we were all expecting to go straight into the depths of the mangroves, but instead, we just stopped on this island. This island was really cool though. Instead of having sand, the entire beach was covered in seashells. We got to walk around this island. We explored and found this path that leads you to the other side where there’s a little alcove. The entire island was beautiful. Such gorgeous views. Once we got back to the beach, we were told we could swim. It was awesome. The water was nice and cool, and incredibly salty so you barely had to do anything to float. And I just love floating in open water. There were sea anemones all over the ground, except we thought they were sea urchin so we freaked out. I also couldn’t pronounce “anemone” and everybody was yelling at me. It was like “Finding Nemo.” There were also a ton of hermit crabs, and every time you approached, they’d just run away and burrow into their homes. There were fish that came right up to your feet. I could feel their fins tickling me. It felt like they were nibbling me. Victoria called them “pedicure fish”, whatever that is.

After we got out of the water, we had lunch. It was delicious. We had the freshest fish. They must’ve been fished that day. We also had an entire plate of oysters, both grilled and raw. Except we didn’t eat the raw ones. We made a salad, and the tour guides also made an egg and potato salad. I LOVE EGGS. So I was basically in heaven. The way I imagine heaven, if there is one, is a constant feast. That’s it. After eating, we just continued to chill on the beach. We talked and just reflected on how crazy it was that we were here, in Senegal, on a beach made completely of seashells.

After a while, we hopped back in the boat and got the tour going. We first went into these little inlets so we could harvest oysters. Every time we got near the roots of the mangroves, we could hear the clicking and clacking of the oysters. Apparently oysters constantly open and close, so it’s just like a forest of sounds, of oyster communication. Eventually we got to this shallow part, and we hopped out of the boat. The moment my foot touched the bottom of the river floor, it sank. It was the weirdest thing. The mud was so soft and slushy. It didn’t feel like mud. It felt like I was stepping in foam; wet, squishy, sticky foam. Some parts of the river bottom were softer than others, so it was really weird to walk. But we got to actually go up to the roots of the mangroves, and harvest our own oysters. I got to take a knife and cut them off the branch, into a bucket. Then, after we collected enough, we decided to have a little snack right then and there. We took our oysters and shucked them, standing in the middle of the river. We squeezed some limejuice and just slurped them down. It was amazing. The freshest, most delicious oysters I’ve ever had. Can you imagine going out, harvesting your own oysters, shucking them, and eating them right off the branch? AHH it was like a dream.

The next stop was this mangrove island that birds like to perch on. We got there and just watched the birds settle. The most interesting was the blue-herring. But Rachel later pointed out that the white birds always settle on top, and the black ones settle on the bottom. Tons apparently interprets that as subtle racism. I laughed. But after a while, we just got bored. There were other pirogues with old, old white people. They were like legit bird-watchers and we were just whispering about how strange this was. Mat then started to make bird noises. Our guide could tell we were pretty much done with this place, so we left.

On our way back, we asked if we could go into the mangrove canopies. Hilary had already gone on one of these tours, and she said she got to go into these canopies where the roots of the mangroves would grow beneath you and the stems would grow above you. So we convinced the drive to take a little detour. It was so cool. But even better, the guide told us we could climb into the mangroves! That was the second best part. We immediately climbed into the trees. We were all saying, “We’re like monkeys! This is awesome!” So we just traversed through the mazes of branches. I told Gaya, who wants to become a children’s book writer that she has to write a book and title it “Monkeys in the Mangroves.” But while climbing, we had to be careful because the branches were not very sturdy, and if we fell, we’d go crashing into the water. Though that wouldn’t be so bad. The funniest part was when Ananda sat on this branch, and I saw this stick poking into her butt, and I kept screaming “Oh my god Ananda! It looks like that branch is piercing your butt! It looks like your butt is about to pop!” Unbeknownst to me, Mat was recording the entire thing!

Eventually, we had to get going, but it was a great experience. The mangroves were definitely one of the best tourist attractions we’ve been too. So much fun. Climbing those mangroves was like seeing Yellowbear (my nickname back home) in action.

Alec Yeh