I remember sitting and reading the blog of a new Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. She expressed something along the lines of, “I know I’ve only been here a few months, but it already feels like home.” At the time, this didn’t comfort me. It made me more anxious. I was so nervous to go that I didn’t believe this could happen to me. However, after having left home a little over two months ago, the Peace Corps volunteer couldn’t be any more right.
After five weeks of in-country orientation, October has been the month of finally settling into our new homes. Although it certainly hasn’t been easy breezy, I slowly feel as though I am becoming a member of the community and getting into a routine. I am living in the Kedougou region in a village named Bandafassi. Although my immediate family consists of a mother, father, and two young boys, what I love is that everyone considers each other family – whether or not they are actually related. Most children I refer to as my little brother or sister, and older friends as Aunt or Uncle.
Immediately upon arriving in Bandafassi, I was given a new name: Dienaba Keita. I am named after my Aunt who lives right next to me. She has quickly become my best friend and rock. She likes to practice English with me and make sure I’m taken care of. Having such support has made the transition much smoother and welcoming.
For my apprenticeship, I have been working at the Bandafassi Health Post. I was so excited to have the opportunity to work in the health sector, seeing that I’ve never done anything with health before – I really wanted to try something new. Although it has taken some time, I have become what you could call an assistant to the volunteer doctor on duty. I take patients’ temperatures, give malaria tests, gather supplies, complete basic paperwork, and assist the doctor with simple procedures. The Health Post has been a great way for me to get out of the house and meet new people and practice Pulaar.
I’m having a hard time remembering that in the United States, the leaves are starting to change color/fall, it’s becoming cold, and everyone is hard at work at University. Here is truly an endless summer: it’s still quite hot, (although it should start to cool down a bit), and elementary and high school have started just within the past couple of weeks. It has been extremely interesting to watch this transition happen. At the beginning of October, a high school teacher, coming all the way from Dakar, was explaining to me over tea that school would start on Monday. When Monday came and went and none of my siblings went to school, I asked the teacher what happened. “None of the students showed up. So, we’re going to start in November,” he said. Obviously, this shocked me greatly. With the government more involved in children attending school in the United States, this would never happen. When a student skips school in the United States, there are serious consequences that the school enforces. However, here, it’s a different story.
When school finally did start towards the end of October, my 14 year old sister, Astou, and 14 year old brother, Jewlday, did not attend. I kept pestering them. “Jewlday, janngo a yahay ekhol?” He would nod his head while looking at his feet. Neither Astou nor Jewlday attended until a week after school had started. As an outsider, it is very easy to overlook why students are not attending. Jewlday was struggling to afford the cost of tuition and was needed in the rice fields. Astou, the eldest girl of at least five (not exactly sure who’s in her immediate family), was needed at home to look after her siblings and cook while her mother went to Kedougou. It’s not that Jewlday didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after attending class the first day, he shyly brought me his notebook showing me his class schedule. Although he has English class, he has asked me to teach him. Now in the afternoons we study together over attaya.
Astou, on the other hand, didn’t have as much motivation to attend school. In general, girls are married very young here, and upon marriage their duty becomes taking care of the household. A family friend of ours named Ussmane, who is 20, has already explained to me that once he finishes University and Astou is a bit older, he wants to marry her. So Astou already knows who she is going to marry, and there is plenty of work to be done around the house with all the children. Why would she want to go to school? It costs money and she won’t be needing to search for a job that requires an educational background since she wants to marry Ussmane. It’s logical for her not to want to do extra work.
Fortunately, this is where my tokara, Dienaba, stepped in. Dienaba lives in Dakar, although she grew up in Bandafassi. She’s been here for the past couple of months taking care of her mother, who cannot walk. She was married off when she was 14 and had her first child at 15. When her husband married a second wife, she divorced him because she beleives in one man and one woman only. However, she still is very close with her eight children. We were having breakfast as we usually have: in Dienaba’s hut, sitting on her bed, drinking instant coffee with too much sugar, and munching on some bread from the bakery down the road. I was sipping the hot coffee when she called Astou in. She questioned Astou for her absence in school. When she shrugged nonchalantly, Dienaba went into a loud lecture that caused Astou to stare at her feet and nod. She explained the troubles of being married so young and not knowing what to do. After her first child, she gave her daughter to her mother so she could fortunately continue her studies. Dienaba emphasized to Astou, the importance of staying in school – not only for an education, but to avoid being married so young. Astou went to school on Monday.
Overall, I am very happy here and feel extraordinarly safe. It didn’t take long for me to realize how hard it’s going to be to leave this place, so I’m trying to embrace and make use of everyday! I also apologize for the lack of blog posts! Dakar was very busy with limited Internet, and Bandafassi has no Internet so I can only post when I visit Kedougou. Wishing everyone a happy Halloween!