It was a saying in college that whenever you had several important events occurring within seven days or so, it was a “hell week.” This included finals week, and often in my case, any week leading up to a major dance performance. These were periods of stress, body aches, adrenaline, and were often followed by illness and an overwhelming desire to do nothing. Following tradition, on hell week eve, we let out “primal screams,” and on some occasions, streaked naked through the campus.
While my recent hell week wasn’t marked by any screaming or public nudity, I did benefit from a familiar sense of shared frenzy. My colleagues and I scrambled until the last minute, constantly on our feet, scarcely eating meals at home. True to Senegalese fashion, many things came together at the last minute, but at least we had each other. In the end, we pulled off a successful event.
The First Annual Kolda Regional Fair occurred on April 6 & 7. It was held on the grounds of the Conseil Regional, a government office along one of the main roads in Kolda. The organizing committee–Nathalie, Marcie, Mamadou, Mamadou, Mountaga, Thierno Yaya, and me–wore matching outfits, custom-made by a tailor on our team. While I normally recoil at the prospect of resembling a bridesmaid, I appreciated in this case the Senegalese impulse toward creating matching outfits for a new occasion. There is something nice about using dress to commemorate the culmination of a project and identifying yourself as part of the team that had worked so hard on it.
Echoing the ensemble wear of the organizing committee, a group of ten young women served as hostesses, each donning jaw-dropping matching outfits, a new one for each day of the fair. Their job was to welcome the public, help serve lunch, and generally contribute to the warm atmosphere of the event.
The fair started with an opening ceremony. Various leaders gave speeches, including our Peace Corps Country Director, Chris Hedrick ,as well as Kolda’s newly seated governor who made his first public appearance at the fair. Members of the press held small black tape recorders up to the microphone. The MC performed some sort of rousing song, which was followed by live drumming by a women’s band.
Around 50 different organizations and individuals represented themselves at the expo, each decorating their stands with pictures, fabric, and products. The diversity of presenters at the fair–honey makers, baobab coffee producers, batik artisans–yielded some interesting discoveries. Namely, we now know that there is a veritable cheese maker in Kolda whose product hints at a tasty Gruyère. How this cheese artisan went undetected for all these years in the midst of pizza-hungry Americans is an utter mystery.
Yet even for locals, the fair exposed many craftsmen and organizations that people had not heard of. Many people were fascinated by the sesame stand: sesame massage lotion, sesame-honey cookies, and hard-to-find bottles of sesame oil. Peace Corps volunteers showed off a fruit drying contraption, the process of making insect repellant lotion from neem leaves, and how to make burnable logs out of discarded paper. One woman I spoke to, Adama Diack, who creates confiture out of various fruits and vegetables, said that even though she did not sell all of her products over the two days, she was so impressed by all the new contacts she made.
The expo carried on much like a farmer’s market or a country fair, with the public welcome and people freely walking around. On the final day, we asked all participants and the public to fill out questionnaires about how well the fair was run. Everyone who submitted a questionnaire was also entered into a raffle, which served as a platform for people to further promote their local products before each product was raffled off. Many people pleaded with us to repeat the fair more than once a year, and to add days to it. A day after the event, one man said that he couldn’t sleep at night because he was envisioning all the things he could do to make his stand better for next year.
We all felt contentedly exhausted after the fair, and satisfied with how it was received. A major accomplishment was that it was funded entirely through NGOs working in the region, Wula Nafaa (a body of USAID), and Catholic Relief Services. Contrary to what we initially expected we would have to do, we did not need to tap into funds from friends and family at home, or go through the convoluted Peace Corps Small Project Assistance grant process. The funding came together in a productive way, with Nathalie, Marcie, and me overseeing the budget and the handling of money.
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Perhaps the most serendipitous piece of news to emerge from the Kolda Regional Fair is that two people who met at the event are now getting married! Arfang Sadio, who works for Peace Corps as an agroforestry trainer, is originally from the Ziguinchor region of Senegal and is one of the most exuberant people I have met. He traveled from Dakar to Kolda for work purposes and attended the fair where he spotted one of the hostesses, Seyni Balde, a woman of radiance and sass. How foretelling that the pseudo-bridesmaid gang of hostesses would set the scene for the beginnings of an actual marriage.
A day after the fair, Arfang visited Seyni’s home to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. The plans were finalized recently and they are getting married on Monday! I asked Seyni if she agreed that since the 2011 fair resulted in a marriage, the 2012 fair would have to be marked by the birth of their baby. She laughed, and said that sounded like a plan. I normally wouldn’t endorse this high-speed type of marriage in which the bride seems to have no agency, but after talking with her and her family and having known Arfang, I can’t help but share in their feelings of happiness.
Now it all makes sense why Arfang, who by no means was required to sit all day at the fair for both days near the hostess area, was content to do so, and why on our subsequent 4-day roadtrip through the north of Senegal he kept asking Nathalie and me for Pulaar phrases (he speaks Diola, Wolof, French, English, and possibly others, but no Pulaar). Now, thanks to our guidance, he can wake up next to Seyni and ask in her native tongue, “did you sleep well?”
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I so want for the fair to continue successfully next year. In many ways, I’m sad I won’t be around to see it. There were many things that I would have liked to have gone differently at this year’s fair, namely that I wish more of the public would have attended and that banks would have had a bigger presence there. The team has since de-briefed and identified the ways we can correct these problems for next year. Even though everything wasn’t perfect this year, it was still a big success, and more importantly, we got the ball rolling. The community will expect and welcome a fair next year, making it easier to accomplish even larger objectives. And who knows, maybe next year, there will be even more Kolda love connections to come of it.