Dear Estranged Reader,
I write from the lush south, the green part of Senegal where mangoes abound, where the Pulaar language bounces in graceful lilts, and where people forgo the Arabic “Asalaam a leykum” in favor of an informal “Jaraama” in greeting. Kolda, population 77,000, a city straddling the anemic Casamance River, is home principally to the Pulaar ethnic group that speaks the regional Fulakunda dialect (in which I was trained). Also in Kolda one will find pockets of Mandinkas, Djolas, Jaxankes, Serers, and of course, Wolofs, each peppering their respective languages with bits of Pulaar and French. From Dakar, traveling to Kolda requires any one of the following: a 12-hour bumpy car ride through Tambacounda, an 8-hour international bumpy car ride through the Gambia, or a boat ride southbound followed by another multi-hour bumpy car ride through Ziguinchor. After any such journey, one feels transported as if to another world. Upon arrival in the region, a Kolda-bound traveler will begin to spy forests, colorful birds, and clusters of round huts on green hills out of the car window—a far cry from dusty Kaolack or parched-earth Thies. But then, just as in the U.S. one finds a guilty comfort in the familiar chimes of a new NPR station after a multi-state road trip, Kolda seems just like the rest of Senegal. There are the same bolts of vibrant fabric for sale, the same Orange boutiques with their accordions of phone cards, and there is, ahhh, the pop of a Gazelle bottle, with its bartender meticulously and futilely balancing its cap on top.
Thus, Kolda: a perfect nexus of bustling town and off-the-beaten-path Senegal. Not too big, nor too small. Hotels with wireless internet. Trash piles. Impressive cars. Goats in the street. Bikeable, walkable, driveable. Jovial, palpable Kolda.
I arrived here on October 18. Current Kolda Peace Corps volunteers, most of whom are in their second year, helped us haggle our way through the marketplace, buying household items that we each needed for our installations at site. We bought large buckets in swirling dual-tone colors; small buckets with snap-on lids; several meters of waxy twine; sword-like machetes; candles wrapped in brown paper; hulking storage trunks; golden master-locks; stripey plastic floor mats; gas tanks; large bottles of bleach, apple-scented dish soap; thick foam mattresses; and metal watering cans spray-painted a metallic silver, perfect props for the Tin Man if he only were a gardener.
I was formally installed on October 20, after a tournee to meet local police, governmental, and agricultural officials led by Youssoupha Boye, my Peace Corps agricultural trainer. He, along with my language trainer Samba Kande, with whom I’ve worked for the past few months, drove with me and all of my stuff to my site, 2 kilometers outside of the city of Kolda. We had a brief but heartfelt pow-wow with my new family, who welcomed and blessed me. After about 30 minutes, gasi. Installation complete! I unpacked some of my things and started to hang out with my new family.
My living situation (in Craigslist parlance, just for fun) is as follows: Charming 1BR. Solo building within larger family compound. Concrete walls with tin roof and some leakage. 1 window with screen. Painted-on chalkboard inside room. Adjacent private al fresco bathroom/shower area. Small private dirt yard with mango tree—can be turned into small garden. Plenty room for personal clotheslines. Bedroom door open to outside world—chickens, lizards, cockroaches, frogs, crickets, spiders, mosquitoes, and other small animals reserve the right to enter at any time without notice, even if you have a curtain in place. One light and wall outlet with intermittent electricity. Relatively quiet neighborhood (no nearby mosques). Water from well. Warm family with studious children. Mother one of best cooks in Senegal. Family very understanding and has had Peace Corps volunteers in past. You will love. Rent due 1st of every month.
And truly, I love it! I’m so lucky! This is the most aesthetically pleasing, well thought-out, relaxing, chill home that I’ve ever visited in Senegal. I have 13 family members (one is currently at university in Dakar) who are all kind, smart, and interesting. Most notably, they are not overly interested in me. They are engaging and helpful (and I try to be the same), but at the same time, they have their lives and I have mine. I feel very much a part of this family, but I also feel like an adult who has a job. My personal compound-within-a-compound is an ideal situation. I have my own space that is only penetrated by the occasional above-mentioned small animal. Taking bucket baths under the open sky is not only odor-free, but is viscerally refreshing. Sure, I would change the fact that parts of the roof leak when it rains and that I found chicken excrement on my bed today (that was rare), but really, who cares? African Living Magazine says indoor mold is the new mock-chandelier! Mosquito nets are the best thing since weighted bookends! And apparently my walls have almost achieved that coveted peeled-paint look!
More soon, reader.