During training, I am living in a small village outside of Mbour. My family’s home is an enclosed concrete compound with tin roofs. The outside walls are painted with Harry Potter-like maroon and yellow stripes. There is a sandy courtyard with two trees. The compound has one tap for water outside. In addition, the family also stores water in large clay jugs or plastic buckets, especially useful for when the tap runs dry. There is an assortment of chairs and low-sitting wooden stools scattered around the yard; their constant rearrangement throughout the day depends entirely on where the shade has migrated.
Evening-time usually finds people outside lounging on large patterned plastic mats, much like poor-man’s versions of the mats you can find in the Gaiam catalog under “indoor-outdoor living.” There are four bedrooms (I luxuriously have my own) and one living room. The kitchen is a semi-outdoor space and houses a gas tank as well as a smattering of bowls and large mortars-and-pestle. There is no refrigeration in my village, and electricity comes on and off depending on the whims of the powers that be. People are very comfortable in the dark and almost have cat-eye vision. They use flashlights, but not as crutches like we would do. It is amazing to me that babies and small children wander around in the dark, outside, even on the dirt road with seemingly no supervision. The truth is that some adult is always watching, even though it may not seem that way. Children in general here are much more coordinated than American kids, since there are no “baby spoons” or “baby foods.” My younger brother at one-and-a-half can walk around drinking warm kinkeliba (African tea) out of an adult-sized mug with impressive ease. The parents of the children at my compound, though incredibly affectionate and cuddly with their children, don’t baby their children in the sense of keeping them away from every danger imaginable, whether it be hot food, something sharp on the ground, or a five-year-old child swinging a toddler around. Parents seem to give their kids the benefit of the doubt here, and the kids seem to be much more self-reliant because of it.
The bathroom is a partially outdoor Turkish toilet, meaning it’s a hole in the ground with the bonus aesthetic of having a ceramic frame. In lieu of toilet paper, we use striped plastic tea-kettles (ubiquitous in the marketplaces) filled with water in order to wash ourselves. The shower is adjacent to the toilet area and is a private square with jagged mosaic tiles—this is where the bucket baths happen.
My room is small but has enough room to house a twin-sized bed with mosquito net, my water filter, a cardboard box that doubles as a nightstand/bookshelf, and my bike. I also bought a small one of those multicolored plastic mats, just to tie the room together. When I actually get installed at my real site in Kolda, I will probably be able to have drawers or some other means of storing belongings.
Ah, I am so happy. I am happy in a sense of struggling every day, yet as I go to sleep every night I am really satisfied that I’m here. I’m here! I eat the same rice and fish every day yet some days there are luscious mangoes, or spicy bean sandwiches! (Oh, and by the way, for those of you who have been to La Grand Dakar or A Bistro in Brooklyn, N.Y. – okay, that’s cute and all, I almost fell for it too, but Senegalese food is really just huge communal bowls of carbohydrates (rice and bread), some fish, and no vegetables. Not for the gluten-averse. And to top it all off, beans are looked down upon in this society, so even with all the rice heaped in front of you, there’s precious little opportunity for a Latin-American style rice and beans fest). These sound like criticisms, but they are just my little frustrations amid a flood of newness that I’m invigorated by. I am loving the Pulaar language. I am loving the bucket baths. Most of all— and I’ll try to be as cliché as possible—but I love the people and how amazingly warm they are. I know I am going to learn a lot from them.