Sunday, October 17, 2010

A 13ft Snake and a Cow Party!

I returned to village one morning to find a 13ft snake skin being dried out inches from my hut door.  It took me a few seconds to comprehend what exactly it was and upon realizing this thing was once alive, a shriek of panic crossed my face.  My family, intently waiting my reaction burst to laughter. I came to find out that my brother had killed it the night before in the cow fields.  Following the slaughter there was a big feast in which the, once extremely, large snake was consumed. He was then drying the skin to sell  in the market.  I didn't have a camera to capture this event so I will leave your imagination to do the work. It reminded me of that childhood book I used to read "The day Jimmy Ate the Wash".
The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash

Following this whole episode, I was then invited to a cow party (direct translation) in the cow fields where the snake had been found. At first I thought it was a joke because my family gets a thrill out of teasing me; however when the women spent the whole afternoon pounding salt with leaves and Guava, I discovered something was definitely going on.  Despite my fear of going out into the land of snakes, I had to see what this cow party was all about. My family told me they were leaving at 6am the following morning, so at 5:45am I was drinking my instant Starbucks coffee (Thanks cay and mom) ready to party with the cows.  Of course, silly me, 6am really means 8am so at about 9am after a 3 mile hike, I was there. It was the first time I had taken this new road and I found it absolutely beautiful.  At times it became a river because of its proximity to the rice fields, but as we traveled further and further the scenery changed into a sparse forest where honey bees were busy working and the aroma of a sweet something was dancing in the wind.  Just as I was enjoying the peace fullness of the moment, I started to hear the moos.

It was harmonious and the closer we got, the louder it became.  My brothers explained that the cows  could smell the salt and therefore they were singing to celebrate. Once we arrived, we dug ditches that were filled with water and mixed with mashed leaves, guava, salt and a type of tree bark. It became a gooey substance intended to give the cows good health. After this was prepared and the cows were milked, they untied them. With in seconds there was a stampede into the forest   One of my brothers did a little dance while shouting at the cows. It was hysterical to watch and I wish I had a camera to video. After the cows drank, my brothers threw some other leaf salt mix water on them because, quote "it's good for their bodies".  One of the ditches happened to be next to a swamp and I think i actually witnessed quick sand. The cows started sinking and my brothers had to rush in to help them.  I was curious to find out more about quick sand so I have included a link to an article written about it.

After it was over they sat in a circle with their hands facing the heavens.  They shouted thanks to Allah and asked for the cows to be happy and healthy. I still don't know if this whole event was the result of the snake being found or just a coincidence, but it was all quite a bizarre and interesting day.  Seeing as I did not run into a relative of the dead snake next to my hut it didn't end too badly.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Part 3 of 3 Circumcision Time

Part of my job is learning about this new culture and its exciting traditions. .  Lets talk about circumcision!  Right now, during the rainy season, it is the time when the young boys  get the small fore skin of their penisis removed.  Ouch!  I share with you what I have  learned based on information that was provided by fellow volunteers and then confirmed by my host brothers as well a BBC article which I have included.

This practice is a  Rite of Passage where a boy becomes a man. It is a tradition that has changed throughout the last couple of decades, but is still an important part to many of the Senegelese communities. The cutting takes place after Korite. Traditionally the soon to be teenagers would leave their villages and unite together to be circumcized. (An act that is much more painful the older you are)  As the boys healed, they would go through a series of trainings that initiated them into manhood.  I do not have information of what exactly took place but BBC does ellaborate a little more.  Previously, During this time the boys were forbidden to see any women including their mother.  IThis was explained to me as having two reasons. The first is to break the connection with their mothers and the second is that any other women may cause they boys to be aroused which would hinder their healing process. 

Today it has changed a little because boys do not wait until they are teenagers instead they can be anywhere from 5-11 years old. To represent this rite of passage, a person dresses up as a Konkoran. (photo above taken by Cara Steger) His costume is made of bark or yarn and when he enters the village all the women must hide and throw money under the door. (money is later used to buy lunch for the boys). The boys who have been circumcized can interact with him and do not fear him while the ones who have not hide away with the women.  The boy's spirits are thought to be vulnerable so part of the Konkoran's job is to patrol the village and protect them from any evil spirits that may be trying to hurt them.  There was no KonKoran in my actual village, nor did the boys leave. Instead they stayed in their houses. I did however see a KonKoran in Kun Kane along with many boys who had travelled in from their villages to stay for their healing period.     They wear white robes (as shown above) and eat lunch together out of a special bowl decorated by their mothers.   For their mothers, this also symbolizes a significant moment in their lives.  From this moment on they are no longer allowed to discipline their sons. This means when the boys get in trouble it will be a male who takes care of them; ie: no longer can a mother hit her son.  To represent this they get their hair braided and put these beeded type of ornaments in their hair. They leave it in for the first week or so. I was unable to get a picture of the mothers. But here is one of my sister Mouna and her son Boubalye.  After the healing period ends there is a big celebration where you give money to "new" men of the village and celebrate their manhood.

Part 2 of 3 Koritie and Soccer (Ballon in Pular)

Koritie signifies the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of prayer where no one eats or drinks from sunrise to sunset.  It was an interesting experience to partake in this tradition and I learned  a lot about the mind and how powerful it can be.  Needless to say everyone was very excited for the moon to re-appear, indicating that they could finally stop fasting.  The day my village saw the moon, there was shouting and hugging and lots of congratulating. The next morning I woke to find everyone dressing up in their fanciest outfits, heading to the mosque, and preparing an amazing feast.  I joined in on the fun and helped my sisters prepare lunch.  They don't really trust me to cook so i got to chop the vegetables  (whoo hoo)  Before lunch was served I joined my sisters in getting dressed up.  It was fun, we painted our nails, did our makeup, and yes they even convinced me to wear a wig.  (see pic)

After lunch, I spent the rest of the day greeting the village.  I went from household to household both blessing and getting blessed by every person.  The blessings are "May god grant you a long life" May god give you many children" "May god give you good health" etc. The reply to all of these is Aa Min...AaMin...which means "and you also"  It was a very happy day with lots of love and smiles.  Another interesting thing to  note is that all the children also go household to household but along with the blessings, you also give them change. "Coodie" It kind of reminded me of Halloween, but instead of costumes, its beautiful African material, and instead of candy, it's money. 

The week or so before Koritie, all the villages throughout  Senegal prepare for a national wide soccer tournament.  The boys spend the late afternoons training and working out in order to prepare for their upcoming matches. There are 4 teams in my village and they all play against each other. The best team then competes with other villages. I am not exactly sure of the details from then on out, but it is quite amusing. (especially because I got some soccer skill and that has become known to everyone).  In fact, one of the teams named themselves  Fatuamata Tobaka  "Fatu the White person" after me.  Kind of crazy but a little flattering!  The goals are made out of two wooden tree trunks that have a rope attaching the tops of them. Before the matches start the boys clear the fields with machetes, so the boundary of the field is marked by where the grass is not cut.  Some have cleats and shin guards, but most do not.  Some have shoes or jellies, and some play barefoot.  They have jerseys and the lines men use tree branches, but other than that it's a pretty normal game of soccer.
wood goal posts

lines man :)

PART 1 of 3! Frustrations...Staying Balanced!

As my adventure continues to unfold, I find myself constantly amazed at all there is to learn.  Everyday I am faced with a new challenge or obstacle that forces me to step outside myself and approach matters with a different perspective.  Because I am the first volunteer in my village, it has been difficult to communicate what exactly my role is. I am constantly faced with people asking or rather demanding money and it becomes tiresome.  The last 50 or so years since Senegal has embraced their independence, they have also received millions of dollars in aid. I am no expert, but living here I have somewhat of good idea of how NGO's  work and most of the projects initiated have failed to meet the needs of the people targeted.   Instead we have created a system, much like welfare in the United States.  People want free handouts and they often lack the drive or motivation to work.  I am generalizing of course, because there are many people who do work hard and serve to make their country better.  My point is to rather shed light on the fact that free handouts (in excess)  hinder a communities capability to advance rather than to stimulate it.   When people invest their own money or land, they are investing a part of themselves and are more likely to commit to making whatever it is successful.  They are also more concerned with taking care of it and making sure other people respect it.   Long story short...  Peace Corps attempts to use this strategy throughout the communities it serves, but as I am learning, people don't get it.   In my case, for example, they came to me asking for $600,000 to buy a new millet machine because the first one was given to them they felt no need to put money aside in case it breaks. Another frustration is that they don't want to pay the equivalent of a penny for mosquito repellent or learn to make it, they want it for free.  And we have no one to blame but ourselves for creating this type of dependency.

 Lately my biggest inner challenge is my rational vs. compassionate thinking.  Take for example the mosquito repellent.  It is rainy season right now and malaria is a huge problem. Despite the fact that  every person has a mosquito net and claims to sleep under it (thanks to a recent Malaria Prevention Campaign, see for more info),   mosquito's come out at dusk so nets give little protection when eating dinner or chatting with your neighbors.

  The last few weeks I have been working to promote a natural repellent made from leaves, soap, water and a little oil. It is a lotion that works well in deterring mosquito's.  My compassionate thinking (or maybe its guilt) prompted me to give out  the first few batches for free. I gave one to every household and then taught whoever wanted to learn how to make it.  One of the girls really liked it and decided to sell it for the equivalence of a penny.  I was really excited until I was bombarded with requests for more.  However no one wanted to pay for it because they claim to have no money. And I sympathize with them because right now is the most difficult financial time of the year. However rationally, if not getting malaria is really important to them, they will find the 25 cfa to purchase it.  This is the sort of thing I find myself tangled up in.  These people are my friends and I don't want them to get sick, but at the same time I do not have the funding or resources to take care of everyone nor is it my job.  In short, it is a constant battle to remain balanced, think clearly, and remind myself what it is I am doing here.