“Love Thy Bucket” and Other Notes

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


December 28, 2010

After living over a month and a half in Sangalkam I am still grasping at thin air when it comes to understanding what I see around me. This is not yet my home, but one day it might be. Nonetheless, my daily pace has settled into a routine punctuated by extremes of unforeseeable surprise.

In order to avoid rash judgments I have been waiting, watching, and trying to process my domestic and professional experiences before I post thoughts in the public forum of the Internet, and I will wait a little longer. However, I thought I might share ten (hopefully entertaining) bits of advice and “wisdom” with any readers who may find themselves someday in a similar living situation.

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Note: Move your mouse over each photo to see the captions!

1. Love thy bucket.

Buckets are great for holding water for a variety of purposes, including dishes, latrines, goat food, laundry, and “showers.” Yes, I take bucket showers, and yes, I hand-wash my clothes. I was surprised to discover that these things give me comfort rather than frustration. I find bucket showers to be a process of deliberate motions that gives me time alone in the evening to think, and the task of doing laundry boosts my psyche by allowing me a simple job that I am certain I can complete.

2. Trust your gut.

Your gut will keep you safe. Your gut will make life interesting and possibly more fulfilling. Beware that sometimes your instinct may be confused by cultural misunderstandings. However, if not for my gut I would not be in Senegal this year. Thank you, gut.

3. Listen to your mother.

In this case I am talking about your American mother, though listening to your Senegalese mother is also imperative. I was not planning on bringing my iPod with me this year, but my mother strongly urged me to reconsider. What a bullet to have dodged. Mothers might not appear right every single time, but in the end, mothers really are always right. (There: it is in writing. I hope you are happy.)

4. Train your legs.

Senegalese life involves a lot of squatting. It is the only option for using latrines, and the acceptable position for eating around the bowl (with anywhere from one to twelve other people). A good squatting position also provides a strong base of support while lighting the small charcoal àttaaya stove in the sandy street. Fan the flames correctly and you will look like a pro. All this squatting can be rough on the knees, so prepare appropriately (I did not).

5. Bear your torch.

This simple mantra can be easily overlooked. Power-outages are common in Sangalkam and many parts of Senegal. I often wake up with no power, work the day with no power, and go to sleep with no power. Keep flashlights in accessible places so you can find them in the dark. Carry light in your backpack, because you never know when you might need to provide illumination at the Poste de Santé for someone removing an insect from an ear or stitching up a mother after a difficult birth. Most important of all, bring it to the shower room and put it somewhere dry, because you never know when you may find yourself washing in the dark.

6. Neither constipation nor diarrhea can last forever.

In fact, their patterns of occurrence often resemble the oscillations of springs that we studied in high school physics. Though my stomach has been fairly even-keeled (sant Yàlla!) the past week or so, my life could often be measured by which gastronomic extreme I am experiencing, and which I will soon approach.

7. People should not be afraid of cockroaches, cockroaches should be afraid of people.

I live with two sheep (though I returned to the house today to find one had given birth), a turkey, a chicken or two, four or more cats (depending on the day), a frog, and a lot of insects, including endless cockroaches. The classic standoff with a platoon of cockroaches is, of course, while in the shower room or latrine. Do not panic. Simply place your sandal on top of the critter and press down hard with your foot. Enjoy the feeling that your quick wit and evolutionary status have afforded you, and know that this solution was in no way sustainable. Repeat.

8. Bring hand sanitizer.

Especially if you work in the health sector, no matter how many times you wash your hands at work, you will want to sanitize as soon as you get home before doing anything. If you wear contact lenses, you will want to sanitize in the morning before touching your eyes, as a sink with soap may not be available. In a culture where you may shake hundreds of hands every day, you will want to sanitize before eating. Kids are always entirely filthy. They may have been playing in sand saturated with animal (or human) feces, or may have wiped with the incorrect hand. They will bury their snot-covered faces in your chest and sit on your lap with no underwear right after going to the bathroom on top of buried goat guts. Nothing will ever be clean, but it is nice to imagine that your hands are just a little more sterile when you pick up the baguette to scoop your fish and “sauce.”

9. Do not be surprised… if a sheep eats your Dickens!

An anecdote: I was reading Great Expectations one day and the sheep were tied up in a different spot from their usual hangout. While we ate lunch I carelessly left the book sitting on a cement block with my back turned only a few feet away. When I returned, the bottom corner of the first twenty-five pages (luckily merely a longwinded and pedantic introduction) was gone! The sheep had eaten some traditional literature, decided it would move on to lighter fare, and had started munching on a phonebook instead. I found this somewhat amusing, but my younger host brother still recalls the incident with hilarity and glee.

10. Look up!

Power outages have a benefit that most people around here seem to take for granted. When the village and all those around it are lost in the black, the stars are overwhelming. Especially on nights with little or no moonlight, the sky is remarkable and shooting stars are not uncommon. Every now and then I hope for the power to cut (and these prayers are soon answered) if only for a little while so that I can crane my neck while I sit on the street letting time dribble away. Life for me in Senegal is, as my American father so often likes to say, “a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous.”

Gus Ruchman