Rain Biking

Boy on bike, Kolda, Senegal. Click to see larger image.

I got caught in a rainstorm yesterday and hung out with the others taking refuge under the awning of the Credit Agricole Bank. We commiserated about the lack of cell phone service. The internet and electricity had been out most of the day too. I was sort of lost, just stuck in this African rainstorm, cut off from the world. I decided to take pictures.  For once, I wasn’t the one getting drenched while biking in the rain.

The Things She Carried

Two years ago, I stashed my belongings wherever I could—the basement of an ex-boyfriend’s mom, my dad’s garage, my mom’s storage unit—and moved to Senegal with little more than a hiking backpack and a tube of Chapstick. I have almost no recollection of the things I own in America.

I am now repeating the process of sifting through all my belongings in preparation for the long trek home. I’m still in that stage of life where every few years brings a major transition, marked by a liberating shedding of possessions.

While I don’t sentimentalize most of my material items, I do think the things we own are acquired for a reason and tell a lot about our lives at a particular time.

Incoming volunteers often ask me what they should bring to Senegal beyond the obvious headlamp and camping towel. As I did, they search for the definitive Peace Corps packing list. This is no such list, but rather a few essentials that someone might consider bringing, and that define this moment in my life.

Noise-canceling headphones

This is by far the smartest, least obvious thing to have in Senegal. I believe in taking in the world around me as it is; I spend a lot of time sitting with people, talking, and observing. But when I am in a car for 12 hours straight (as is common), at some point I need to distract my brain from the intense physical discomfort I’m in. I love becoming engrossed in podcasts about things like psychopaths or the invention of cocktails while totally unrelated Senegalese scenery whips past outside. When the going is rough and the road is all potholes and rocks, listening to heart-thumping hip hop makes the experience of being thrashed around in a car exhilarating. This physicality of a car ride—and a soundtrack to go with it—is something you almost never experience on a road trip in the United States. Regular iPod headphones don’t work because you would have to physically press the earbuds further into your ears or turn the volume way up just to hear (both damage hearing), and neither would achieve the clarity of sound—especially of spoken word—that noise-canceling headphones do. Mine are by Etymotic Research.

Moleskine notebooks

They don’t need to be Moleskine, but having small and durable notebooks to take with me everywhere has improved my writing, my desire to observe things, and my ability to have a lot of information with me everywhere I go. Owning quality notebooks, as opposed to cheap booklets I could buy in the market here, makes it so that I’ll actually value them and write in them. Here in Senegal, if I remember an email I have to send, or information I want to research, I can’t just do it impulsively on an iPhone—I write it in my notebook so that I remember it next time I use the internet. Having dates written next to my notes helps me look back on my two years and remember what happened when, which is useful when I’m writing work reports or just making sense of the mass of recipes, phone numbers, and thoughts I’ve collected. I’ll take the practice of carrying a notebook everywhere back to the States.

Earplugs

When I go to sleep, there are noises in my room (crickets, lizards, mice), and outside my room (children, parties, donkeys, calls to prayer). Earplugs lock me into a cocoon of sleep. They are especially useful when staying at a regional house or other place where there will be unpredictable levels of noise. My mosquito net creates an air chamber, boxing me in physically so that I can sleep. Earplugs do the rest of the job.

Good Reading Material

This may seem like another escape mechanism, but that’s a narrow way of looking at it. I’ve found that my mind, and heart, have been more open to the things I read here than they were in the States (when I was busy, distracted). This in turn has enhanced my service and my interactions with people. A college professor of mine agreed that his time working in Africa was one of his life’s great literary opportunities. My brain felt especially sponge-like in the beginning of my service. Those first several nights in my village homestay, when it was 97 degrees in my room and I didn’t know how to ask to borrow a hand fan yet—those moments of isolation made me so thankful I still had the New Yorker I bought at the airport (which I read voraciously, stopping at regular intervals to fan myself with it). I read Monique and the Mango Rains, a memoir written by a Peace Corps volunteer who helped deliver babies in Mali. It was so intimate, and felt like a cheat sheet in interpreting West African cultural cues. I now have a trunk full of magazines and books. I’d suggest bringing just a few choice reads—a couple paperbacks not likely to already be in the volunteer libraries here and some magazines. Or you could also bring one of those gadgets people are using these days… what are they called? Kindles? iPads? Just bring a protective case and accept the fact you may not always be able to keep it charged if you live in a village.

Ramadan: A Visitor’s Perspective

I came home to Kolda the other day to find everyone in the thick of Ramadan. I had been gone for a work meeting in another part of Senegal. Breakfast stands had vanished, candied dates were being sold everywhere, and young men had stamped out the last of their cigarettes. My co-passengers remained silent for our entire 5-hour journey, the seven of us intimately squished in a Peugeot station wagon.

When Ramadan arrives, there is a seriousness to everything.

I decided this year I wouldn’t do the dance of seeing whether I could fast like everyone else. This is the fourth Ramadan I’ve experienced while living in Muslim countries (once in Morocco, three times in Senegal). I usually fast for at least a few days.

I fasted for the entire month when I lived in Morocco (meaning I refrained from food and drink during daylight hours and consumed only at night). It invigorated me. But those were also the days when I played integration like a game, dating a Moroccan guy and doodling Arabic in my notebooks. I loved haggling endlessly in the markets, drinking ultra-sweet tea, and doing things that made me feel like I fit in.

But in the end, no one is asking me to be more Senegalese. I’m not Muslim, and no one is hoping I’ll become a religious convert. The experience of fasting made me more compassionate toward Ramadan’s meaning and toward the dedication it requires. But of the things I’ve learned, one of the most important is knowing when to stop proving yourself to others, and most of all, to yourself.

Someone in the New Yorker recently quoted the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss as saying, “[I]n an encounter between two cultures, you have to find the right distance in order to really get to know each other.”

Many Peace Corps volunteers dread Ramadan and plan vacations to escape it. For those who live in villages, Ramadan can be especially rough: even less food than normal, thus more pangs of starvation. Our work projects slow down. People in our communities are tired and thirsty, so it’s difficult to convince them to help double-dig soil, start up community gardens, or give young women self-esteem building workshops. It is frustrating sometimes to feel like everything is on hold

For any type of traveler in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it can be hard to experience things as they would be normally. Businesses are closed or have unpredictable hours, making breakfast and lunch hard to find. People expect modesty, so engaging in vacation behavior, such as tanning on the beach in a bikini, is tricky.

Sometimes during this month, sunlight seems like a punishment, an examination lamp upon everyone’s movements and desires. But experiencing Ramadan, whether you’re fasting or not, can be a worthy, eye-opening cultural undertaking.

The main way to participate in Ramadan as a non-Muslim is to restrict yourself from eating or drinking publicly during the day. You feel how challenging it is to ride a bike uphill or take an all-day dusty car ride with locals when you can’t sneak even a sip of water. You may feel, even if artificially, the sense of community during Ramadan, of everyone around you sharing the same physical torment. Later, in the safety of your hotel room, you can scarf down a few Clif bars and realize what a fortunate experience it is to eat.

Ramadan is also interesting because rather than being a private religious ritual, it is evident in the very rhythms of the day. In Senegal, it is a rare month to choose to travel (both culturally and seasonally), so you’re not likely to encounter many other tourists. You’ll experience the emptiness of sundown, when the streets are vacant because everyone is breaking the fast; the chatter around midnight, when people are eating dinner; and the unusual calm of morning, when people are still dozing after their 5 a.m. snack and prayer. If you’re staying with locals, they’ll usually invite you to break the fast with them.

An outsider is bound to notice the distinctness of Ramadan—its odd schedule, the special foods eaten, the way it’s the subject on everyone’s lips—and walk away with this memory from their travels.

I’ll spend the rest of the month hiding my eating habits. I’ll be crouched on the floor of my hut cracking open cans with my Swiss Army knife for my one-woman lunch. I’ll be at the 9 p.m. dinner bowl for the odd ones out: the kids who are too young to fast, the menstruating, the ill, and me. And maybe, like Lévi-Strauss said in the quote above, that puts me at the right distance.

 

 

A version of this post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

 

Senegal’s Accidental Hipsters

Photo by Marcie Todd

My daily romp around the city where I live in Senegal affords me a view of urban fashion trends. I’ve lived here for two years and speak the local Pulaar in addition to French, but no matter how “integrated” I’ve become with “the locals,” I’m aware that I’ll always be a foreigner. Being a constant outsider, while imprisoning at times, allows me some freedoms.

Senegalese people already think I’m wacky, so I waste less time caring about others’ opinions of me. I can’t always communicate, so I spend more hours just thinking. People stare at me, so I stare at them.

In my de-facto role as an observer, I have become fascinated with the style choices I see on the street. On one end of the spectrum, there are older women, who by loyalty to convention or lack of economic freedom wear head-to-toe complets and matching head scarves. This satisfies a stereotypical vision of traditional West African attire: sculptural head wraps, quirky patterns (Obama’s face, a severed finger), and unapologetically loud colors.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are more experimental with their fashion. Men tend to do this more, often because they are granted more social freedom and have more disposable income. They wear bold hats or provocative t-shirts, at times looking silly; at other times, avant-garde. I live for the sight of elderly men ready for Friday mosque, in long robes and Moroccan fez hats, clutching prayer beads and looking utterly conservative, yet who with one touch–classic round sunglasses–are chic. Whether wearing $2 plastic jellies or a woman’s velour sweater, it’s one’s confidence that lends to one’s swagger.

For nearly two years, I found myself dying to take portraits of all the stylish people I saw around town. The problem was, taking pictures of strangers in Senegal is a sensitive act; I’ve been berated in the market for snapping a shot of fish lying on the ground. With time, I gained a better feel for people and learned that photo opportunities come of informal conversations and asking for consent, not of claiming other people’s images at the slightest touristic urge.

After I started shooting, a friend pointed me in the direction of the guerilla-style fashion site Accidental Chinese Hipsters. On it, contributors post photos (often taken furtively) of Chinese people wearing outfits that at first glance seem awkward, yet upon further reflection could be construed as hipster. It dawned on me that maybe what transfixed me about Senegalese men’s style was a certain fuck-you attitude toward clothing, a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it otherness that conveys humor and that people might aptly describe with the overused term, “hipster.”

Thus, my fixation on the accidental hipsters of Senegal, the people who wear the detachable hoods of ski jackets as hats and who zero-in on t-shirts with wolf illustrations in the thrift markets. Their look is refreshing because it’s not over-calculated–they just like what they like. One of my favorite outfits was a woman’s complet with a retro floral design and gold zippers. I couldn’t get her picture; she was on the back of a moto, speeding fast ahead.

The fashion I’m witnessing is the result of a shift taking place in Senegalese style. Much of it is due to the global used clothing industry. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, used clothing was the 5th largest import to Senegal from the U.S., clocking in at $7 million as of 2009, the date of the most recent data.

Used clothing is shipped to Senegal and many other African countries by middlemen who specialize in sorting and exporting clothing bought by the ton from places like the Salvation Army. It winds up in the fookijaay in every market in Senegal. Fookijaay, the Wolof word for “thift market,” literally means “shake out” and “sell.”

Snippets of Americana, stamped on t-shirts and paraded as everyday fashion, are part of the landscape. As I bike around, I see “Bacon Eating Championship 2005,” and “I’m a Jesus Freak” advertised unwittingly by Kolda’s Muslim, non-English speaking crowds. I see men wearing “Real Women Have Curves” or “Glenview High Ladies Ice Skating Team” t-shirts. They exhibit cultural dissonance, and they own it.

Many point out, however, that the global used clothing industry is destroying local textile production all across Africa. Some mourn the trend away from people taking pride in beautiful local fabrics and toward an approximation of Western style. I admit I’d be dismayed to see my tailor go out of business if traditional fabric disappeared and American hand-me-downs took over entirely.

But for now, witnessing the negotiation of Western thrift and old-school African style is what is fascinating. It’s clear that Senegalese people love the thrill of injecting artifacts of foreign clothing into their wardrobes. They love being the only one out of their friends to have a certain bag or a specific shape of dress. They do this without apology, and thus, panache. I think they’re onto something.

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

Barthelona

After nearly two years in West Africa, I finally left for a vacation. I hadn’t wandered from the Senegal/Gambia/Sierra Leone/Guinea-Bissau zone because I clung to a silly idea that doing so would mess up some sort of living-in-Africa equilibrium I had achieved. Besides, with practically $30 to my name, clicking around on travel websites felt irresponsible. I was content to stay where I was, relegating things from my Western life to a fantasy realm I experienced only through the internet.

Thankfully, and with no foretelling on my part, I was yanked out of that state.

Barcelona would seem an apt destination for someone seeking romance. However, what lured Jeremy and me toward the Spanish city was the ever-glamorous matrix of low airfares on Kayak.com. Thus our trip was never inherently about Barcelona. It didn’t carry the weight of having “always wanted to” study the Sagrada Familia or speak with a lisp. Barcelona was just the result of us bending time and space in such an arrangement that we could be together. It turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.

I scraped up some funds from my below-the-poverty-line salary in preparation for the trip. Since I didn’t trust my Senegalese ATM card to work in Spain, I changed my West African CFA into Euro. I did this by walking past the Africa Star nightclub in Dakar, approaching a shady man who rubbed his fingers together at me, and engaging in illegal currency exchange at the low, low rate of 3%. And I didn’t even have to bargain.

I had become skinny, I assumed, due to my low-protein Senegalese diet and the intense heat. It turns out that I also have a worm infection—sexy, though not as serious, as it sounds. Even my malnourished Senegalese colleagues commented on my thinning frame. Once in Barcelona, my mission was to eat. I’m lucky to have in a partner someone whose ravenous hunger is as constant as my own. Jeremy and I embarked upon what was essentially a 9-day all-you-can-eat-a-thon around the city. My body came back, as Pulaars say.

Razor clams

Frequently, we would lay our guidebook on the bed to collaborate on the day’s itinerary. We gave the art and architecture sections the obligatory glance, but what we really studied were restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. We had no loyalty to a set schedule of “must-sees.” It stays light in Barcelona until 10 p.m., and dinner isn’t until at least 9 p.m. (my ideal schedule), making one feel like there is time to do everything, nap included. As two over-eaters in the making, we let our momentary food cravings be what guided us around the city.

Iberian ham

In the market La Boqueria, we ate chorizo-and-cheese sticks, aged Iberian ham, razor clams, mixed mushrooms, and dragonfruit. In Raval, we had baby grilled octopus, pan con tomate, and fried calamari. On Montjuïc, we ordered paella and sangria, neither of which I found spectacular—they seemed mass-produced for tourists. At a random octagonal intersection (most crossroads in Barcelona are octagonal), I got a slice of spinach tortilla (savory potato tart) I’ll never forget. I ate it on a narrow street outside an old-fashioned salon where I got my hair cut.

Our most mind-blowing meal was at 41°, the tapas bar run by the famous Adrià brothers of El Bulli. It’s a place where the guest list is strict, the cocktails are serious, and the waiters wear curiously unattractive sneakers bearing the name of the bar. We ate false olives (reconstituted olives which look like olives but instead burst and then melt instantly in your mouth), false pistachios (same idea), beef carpaccio on toast with purple flowers, caramelized foie gras on a cloud (like a luxury marshmallow), parmesan ice cream sandwiches (my personal favorite), and oysters with various sauces of kimchi, miso, and chicken consommé. Neither of us had experienced molecular gastronomy before. It was divine, but it left us hungry.

Beef carpaccio... now with edible flowers!

We wandered around Poble Sec, deferring as we often did to Jeremy’s BlackBerry, held up in front of him like a compass. I noticed what it’s like to stroll with someone again, slowing in unison every several meters and automatically leaning in to see new maps and restaurant options appear on a phone. We finally settled on a place that served burgers, beer, and had a vacant corner window where we could watch passersby. We ordered a Whopper Doble, a steakhouse burger with bacon and fried onions, french fries and a cerveza. It was called Burger King, and to me, it was heaven.

Burgers and beer

One great thing about living in the developing world for a long time is that you’re like a kid again when it comes to American fast food. McDonald’s, Domino’s—these places become fun cultural landmarks worth discovering, not places to turn up your nose at. The shame I may have associated with those fast food joints in the past has been replaced by nostalgia and wonder. And frankly, I love that what might be seen as pretentious science food at 41° was mirrored by the faux-chicken of (“reconstituted”) chicken nuggets at Burger King.

In the middle of the trip, we rented a car and drove two hours to Cadaques, a town on the Mediterranean near the border with France. We explored the town’s cobblestone streets and conspired to rent a boat. One night we tucked into a menu-less restaurant, the kind where the owner charmingly bullies you into ordering dishes you’re not sure you want, in a language you don’t entirely understand. We sat at a table with other couples who were similarly perplexed. It was delicious! Dorado fish, grilled shrimp, salad, and wine from a nearby vineyard we visited by motorscooter the next day.

Cadaques

The place we stayed in Cadaques was an apartment owned by an Italian family who rented it out when they weren’t vacationing there. It was themed vigorously in nautical blue-white-yellow; it was as if they were inspired by fabric with fish swimming in coral and decided that it wouldn’t really be a vacation home if every goddamn accessory didn’t remind you of ocean and summer. I loved the slightly lived-in feel, the pictures of the family on a wall, the neurotic reverence for their cat (welcome mat: “This House is Purrr-tected by a House Cat!”, decorative pillow: a print-on-fabric picture of their cat). It had a kitchen and a terrace, both of which we put to good use. Waking up to grapefruit juice and home-cooked omelets with chorizo and manchego cheese overlooking the Mediterranean ain’t a bad way to start the day.

In Barcelona, I had wanted to meet Senegalese Pulaars who had migrated there and interview them. I didn’t end up having time for that. We didn’t see many people of color in Barcelona, and certainly not in Cadaques. We also missed some of the protests about joblessness that have swept across Spain. Like Paris, Barcelona has an ultra-clean, civilized feel. It didn’t have the mixed-in grittiness that I love about New York, which is louder, busier, and more diverse. But Barcelona still had layers I’ve yet to discover, and I enjoyed navigating its alleyways while doing things you don’t really do in Senegal—eating while walking, holding hands, and wearing shorts.

La Boqueria

On the beach one night, in the area called Barceloneta, people celebrated the summer solstice. The boardwalk was packed with people carrying open containers of alcohol and shooting off fireworks in every direction (apparently neither are illegal). It was kind of like walking through a war zone, except with drum circles and toddlers on bikes

Our hunter-gatherer tourism finally caught up to me. On one of the last nights, we double-mealed it for dinner, then explored nightlife. We found that aside from some upscale bars, Barcelona doesn’t do cocktails. Many bartenders refused to make drinks consisting of three or more components. I asked for a gin and tonic—it came deconstructed (a bottle of tonic water and a separate glass of gin). But I suppose this doesn’t matter much in a country where delicious wine is so affordable.

I managed to get tequila, brandy, vodka, gin, beer, and Red Bull in me (on top of the two dinners) before the night was through. After a few bars and a Euro-trashy club, we finally found a dance floor with hip hop. We danced for hours. Later that morning as the sun came up, we got back to the hotel, and I was forced to surrender. Jeremy gave me some motivational speaking in the bathroom as I coughed up the goods, like a shoplifter forced to hand back all the things she stole. Not since my early days in Senegal had I felt such painful sickness.

Maybe I overdid it, but that’s sort of what I set out to do. As I continue in my last few months in Senegal, eating for two,* and bracing myself for the rocks that might be in my food, I won’t regret how gluttonous I was in Spain.

*The worm(s) and me, that is. The worms will be gone with medication that is en route, (crossing fingers).

 

The Hangover of Adventure

Pangs of homesickness, those dangerous and nettling feelings, have started to emerge. They poison daydreams and warp one’s relationship to what could normally be an open-ended calendar. In my stubborn and moneyless situtation, I have not yet left West Africa in almost two years. The sensation of burning, literally from the intense heat, and figuratively in terms of mental burnout, has overwhelmed me at times. When the adventure of going far away wears off, the hangover of staying far away ensues. The hangover of adventure is what you choose in doing Peace Corps Africa as opposed to backpacking through Africa. Choosing to stay despite the novelty having vanished allows for a new type of adventure.

The United States, through a foreign lens, has become intensely curious to me. I want the microwave dinners, the strip malls, the company of overeating sports fans. I want to visit Texas, summon a pizza through the phone, and be in a crowded New York subway. I also want all the things I’ve realized are rare in developing countries: encouragement of creativity, critical thinking in schools, male-female parity, entrepreneurial spirit, appreciation of diversity. The survival aspect of life in Senegal precludes most people from indulging in these privileges.

Americans, or anyone for that matter, ought to experience life abroad and all that it entails: the packing up of one’s life, the goodbyes, the suspension of loans/apartments/jobs/cellphones/relationships, the giving of oneself fully to an unknown place. The overwhelming (and exhilarating) uncertainty. The willingness to get sick. The willingness to become homesick.

It is freeing to choose to live in a culture where you will be constantly surrounded by different people who have no concept of alone time. In so doing, you choose in fact to be alone, even if it is not in the physical sense. That aloneness frees you to think; to negotiate your boundaries of self; to adopt, even, a new persona. And yet the bonds you forge in this period of solitude and homesickness, with people whose language (such as Pulaar) you’ve learned not to boost your résumé or your eligibility in international business but instead for the sole purpose of speaking with them, become some of the most heartfelt connections you will make with other human beings.

And in this period of homesickness and longing, one’s heart is more open. The complexities and intensities of emotions are more readily felt. What you gain from savoring the hangover of adventure is a braveness and an empathy and a vulnerability we are not often afforded in the midst of cluttered American life.

Vanity Flair

This picture in my Vanity Fair, of the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert ("A Journey to the Heart of FABULOUS") inspired the kids.

So they wiped chalk off of the chalkboard and put their own spin on it.

Mango Season

Right now is the hot, dry season. My garden is anemic. It hasn’t rained in at least 6 months. Heat rash is common. So is taking repeated bucket baths and staring mindlessly into the distance. It’s also the season of mangoes, of the fruit thudding on my roof, of people marching around with 20-ft bamboo poles to tease ripe ones from the tallest parts of trees. I have a mango tree in my own yard. I sleep under it every night due to the intolerable heat indoors. In this season, the impossibility of napping in the daytime means I sleep more drunkenly at night, impervious to the possibility that mangoes might pummel my face and to the dinosaur noises of nearby donkeys.

There is this mystique of otherness around mangoes: tropical, exotic, imported. The thought that I could reach my hand up 3 feet, eyes unwavering from my book, and produce a mango inspires jealousy in some of my States-side friends. Mangoes connote places of green abundance and brown people. But Senegal right now is lethargic and arid. Mango trees, which take years to produce fruit, have deep taproots which siphon moisture from the water table several meters below ground. This is how, long after the rains have ended, and right about the time the landscape is colorless, mangoes sprout copiously. The arrival of mangoes marks a welcome injection of life to cut the barren mood of dry season.

The distinctness of the seasons here is at once comforting and monotonous: from March through May I’m certain I can sleep outside and not get rained on, yet I know every day will be the same sweaty, mind-sapping slog. I believe that the human brain liquifies with heat. I often find myself motionless in my room, knowing that there’s somewhere I have to be or something I should do, but my mind is paralyzed by heat. Then I look at my L.L.Bean digital clock/thermometer, and see that 40 minutes have passed and it’s 106 degrees in my zinc-roofed room. Granted, 106 degrees can be bearable in the land of air-conditioning, 7-11s, Slurpees, electricity, fans, ice-cold lemonade, showers, and put more simply, moments of escape. Here, the heat imprisons you everywhere you go.

Aside from a general concern over my African sun exposure pre-qualifying me for skin cancer, few things give me more pause than the prospect that my brain has atrophied due to malaria medication and extreme heat. The sun has bleached my hair, endowed me with freckles, and guaranteed me a year-round tan. I no longer get sunburned. My newfound blonde highlights are moderately attractive; will early onset senility be also?

I suppose the physical investment of living far away—far culturally, physically, emotionally, infrastructurally—is just part of the experience. It’s woven into the adventure of exploring one’s human capability. Am I less healthy now that I eat less protein, drink well water, expose myself to parasites, get baked by the sun, battle staph infections, play with grubby kids, and regularly ingest chemoprophylactic medications? Or, am I more healthy now that I get full nights of sleep, bike daily, eat fresh local ingredients, take spontaneous vacations, laugh more easily, and have a job that allows me to set my own schedule entirely?

In this far away place, where mangoes mean heat, seasons are predictable, and health is relative, I’m happy to leave most questions unanswered and simply pass out under the stars. But I can’t wait until rainy season.

 

 

 

 

April in Kolda: The Fabulous Fair and an Unexpected Twist

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 front area of the fair

Matching. We had to. We just HAD to!

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.

The hostesses.

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.

Jeff Povolny, of Wula Nafaa, giving a speech. Photo by Austin Peterson.

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.

Mouhamadou Seck asking questions about fonio, a small grain, packaged here by a women's group.

Cheese. Unbelievable.

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.

Adama Diack, queen of confiture.

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.

Musicians keeping things lively. Photo by Austin Peterson.

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.

It's not a party unless people are dancing. Here, the hostesses in their stunning 2nd-day outfits. Photo by Austin Peterson.

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.

Pisco, a local artist. Photo by Austin Peterson.

•  •  •

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.

Arfang! Photo by Austin Peterson.

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.

Nathalie with Seyni, holding a kora, a West African musical instrument. Photo by Austin Peterson.

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?”

•  •  •

Rachael Honick transforming scrap paper into burnable logs. Photo by Austin Peterson.

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.

Marcie and her host mother Sona dancing.

The Fair Must Go On

In the midst of a whirlwind effort to put on a large agricultural fair, my colleagues and I have been holding meetings with many government officials, heads of organizations, bank representatives, and community leaders. Our focus is giving voice to the numerous individuals and women’s groups who create products out of raw agricultural products in the Kolda region (e.g., vinegar from mangoes, butter from okra), but in order to do so, we must also speak to the gatekeepers of these initiatives, often people who have offices. We have initiated these meetings to ask for funding, to encourage participation in the fair, and, per Senegalese customs, to respectfully gain support for the event through the appropriate channels.

It feels strange to have worked so closely with ordinary people, spending most of my time outdoors and in an agrarian setting, only to be transported into the world of business-like pleasantries as a means of getting work done. Tucked away in the moldy buildings of Kolda are countless offices with secretaries’ antechambers, rickety air conditioners, and faux-ceremonious padded doors. Here, people have nameplates, land lines, and yellowing computer monitors. I feel oddly comforted by the cool air and the familiar sight of a trash bin or a printer, yet after a few minutes sitting in these offices I’m ready to re-emerge into the dusty chaos outside.

The self-importance of padded doors.

I have knocked on many doors, unsolicited, awkwardly sitting in front of officious government agents. They display their importance by making you wait a long time for a meeting, only to repeatedly interrupt you to answer their cell phones once they do grant you access to their time. I have learned to endure the Senegalese practice of performing monologues, time-consuming recaps of everything that was just said, as a way of showing agreement and supposed public-speaking skills. I have grown accustomed to scribbling furiously in my notebook during these meetings, trying to parse the business French I’m listening to, writing down new phrases I absorb, like “on fait avec,” and “mise en relation.”

For all my exposure to self-important officials in their shabby offices, though, much of the rest of the work in planning the fair involves impromptu meetings in informal settings. In inviting local artisans to participate in the fair, my site-mate Marcie, and our colleague Mamadou, biked up to a batik craftsman, striking up a conversation over fabrics and dyes. Many meetings happen this way, fresh off a bike, on the side of a road, in the heat of the day.

The project has taught me a lot about networking, about identifying key players in an area, and about pitching ideas to people I don’t know. Despite its obnoxious connotations involving cocktails and business cards, networking can be an interesting and necessary way to understand how a community works. If not for my ability to be outgoing on command–a behavior I have internalized from my Senegalese life–I would be nowhere in creating networks. Luckily, this West African culture of socializing has instilled in me a certain audacity in meeting people and asking them to be involved in my work, a skill sometimes best learned outside of the overachieving corridors of New York.

• • •

The planning team having a meeting

The fair for which we are preparing will occur this week, April 6-7, 2011. The planning team consists of me, my sitemates Nathalie and Marcie, and our Senegalese counterparts Mamadou, Mamadou, Mountaga, and Thierno Yaya. The idea of having a fair came from our Senegalese partners, who are intimately aware of Kolda’s weak economic backbone, despite its strength in the agricultural sector. Over the course of a year, we have worked on planning the event, transforming it from an nebulous hope into a tangible, well-publicized affair.

Workers building stands for the fair

The exposition will feature over 50 different organizations/small businesses representing themselves at 70 stands. These representatives will include those who apply value-adding techniques to agricultural products (e.g. packaging honey in a marketable, aesthetic way), NGOs both local and international, and financial institutions. It will run similar to a country fair or a farmer’s market would in the United States, with the public invited to mill about, buying things if they are for sale, and learning about different entrepreneurial activities in the Kolda region.

Stands made of crinting (bamboo) panels

The fair will itself be a major networking opportunity for the organizations and individuals involved, many of whom do not have the chance to branch out of their small communities. We will also feature small financial institutions at the fair, which we hope will encourage formal banking. Since many small businesses in Kolda still use informal, less advantageous banking methods, the introduction of banks and credit unions is likely to boost economic activity.

I will post again with reflections on how the fair went. Wish me luck!

The workers holding our banner, hand-painted by a local artist

Approximations of Age

After dinners like this one, Boubacar swings by for the leftovers.

Boubacar is about ten years old. He has scraped legs and wears oversized shirts that hang like dresses. He visits my house almost every evening, a nightly trick-or-treater, calling at the door, “sakur almudo,” (which I gather to be Arabic for—essentially—“trick or treat”). The homeowners he visits either tell him to bug off, or invite him inside to fill his jack-o-lantern—in this case, his emptied tomato can—with leftover food. He then recites a thank-you prayer in Arabic, to which the hosts reply “Amin, amin,” (like “Amen”).

I say that Boubacar is “about” ten years old because even he doesn’t know his real age. He is a Peter Pan, stuck in glassy-eyed childhood, malnourished and physically stunted. He has been denied access to school, knows little French, and speaks only his maternal tongue Pulaar. Boubacar is a talibé, meaning his parents willingly loaned him to a religious leader so he could lead the life of a street beggar, nominally learning the Koran, sleeping on the floor of a religious school, and combing the city for coins and food scraps.

Boubacar will someday outgrow talibé-hood, and enter adult life without having had any schooling, rendering him unqualified for most occupations except hustling and stealing. The talibé system has played a cruel maturation trick on him, as he visibly grows yet remains mentally young.

•  •  •

Like Boubacar, most Senegalese children blush when I ask them their birthdays. Of those that remember, they retrieve the cold numbers from the recesses of their minds, as if they had warily memorized the digits of Pi. Many of them do not have birth certificates, or else had the documents fabricated by village authorities years after they were born so that they could attend school.

At a ceremony, these children are like age transvestites.

To them, age is an approximation, a birthday an arbitrary series of numbers conjured to correspond to one’s physical size. Age isn’t an all-encompassing identity to most Senegalese people, it seems, as it is in the States.

I remember turning seventeen, and feeling like it was such a landmark, perhaps because at that point I could read Seventeen Magazine and finally get all the references. At seventeen, I felt I had achieved the perfect balance of being on the cusp of adulthood without having to give up any of my youthful proclivities. I considered myself wholly different from my friends who were sixteen, and from those who were eighteen.

In the United States, age is cultural numbers game, compelling some to lie and still others to self-punish. Consider the societal trauma created around turning thirty. While it has no inherent meaning beyond being a number, “30” somehow inspires in Americans a referendum on career progress, the specter of marriage, and the destructive preoccupation on what it means to be “old.” We repeat this ridiculous mindfuck for ages forty, fifty, and so forth.

There is a certain freedom in Senegal around not having to lie about one’s age; after all, if you are truly uncertain of your age, you cannot lie about it. Birthdays often pass uncelebrated, partly because this is a less affluent, less “me-centered” society, and also because life is not seen as a series of ticks on the age-o-meter.

Even adults have a loose relationship to their ages, citing the age they think they are, yet conceding that it has been manipulated in official documents. Many kids have a real age and a “school age.” My host brother Mamadou, 19, was adopted and started school a few years late. In order to remain on the right educational track, his “school age”—the age on his official school documents—is 14, putting him in the same class as my 14-year-old brother Lamine. This manipulation of age is not exactly seen as dishonest; it is simply an adjustment made to allow life to go on.

Same school age, different real age. Lamine, left, and Mamadou are in the same class at school.

Certainly, Senegalese people still feel age-related pressures, such as a need to get married and have kids. Yet these are less numerically based and more inspired by a general comparison against one’s peers and relatives.

The fact of becoming old is understandably celebrated here. Senegal’s age structure is, like most developing countries where healthcare is lacking, severely bottom-heavy: 43% of the population is under 14 while only 3% of the population is over the age of 65 (contrasted with 20%/13% for the U.S.) Elders are revered and rare. When my parents recently visited, my community acknowledged it as a great honor.

•  •  •

Boubacar, in all likelihood, will not be one of the few who makes it past 65. His physical health and educational immaturity pigeonhole him into the massive youth bracket. The international community has condemned the child slavery-like situation to which boys like Boubacar are subjected. The Senegalese government has formally banned the practice, though it remains unabated in far-flung regions like Kolda.

I think back to when I first met Boubacar many months ago, on the dirt pathway outside of my house as I helped my host mother sell bean sandwiches at night. He, his friends, and I dared each other to dance, laughing and childlike, showing off moves in the pitch-blackness. I hope he will always retain his youthfulness, in the best sense of the word.

Thread Trade: How the Global Used Clothing Industry Influences African Fashion

Random t-shirts that read: “Once Upon a Time, I Met a Boy, and I Kicked His Butt!,” “Miss Evan’s Class 2003-2004,” and “I Didn’t Ask to be Princess”

You’re an American. Naturally, you have piles of t-shirts you want to give away. They are basically junk to you, bearing insignia from your company’s annual picnic, a walk-a-thon, a phone-a-thon, or any number of other mildly important events where people passed out new t-shirts like napkins. You only saved them with a vague idea of a time when you’d need to paint your house or overhaul your garden. But a few years have gone by and the shirts are taking over the space in your closet for the new clothes you got for Christmas. So, it’s time for them to go to the Salvation Army.

The t-shirt you just re-gifted, the one that says,”Garcia Family Reunion Bear Valley Ranch 2008,” will probably not end up on the back of a homeless person in a New York subway. Rather, you’ll be more likely to find it across the Atlantic, on the model-thin frame of an African woman, who in fact does have a home, and who is happy for your shirt’s relative newness.

Her skirt will be African technicolor. Her shirt will be grey jersey knit. Her wardrobe will be hybrid, reflecting a shift that the controversial injection of American t-shirts brings to African fashion.

Only a small fraction of all clothing donated to thrift stores such as Good Will ever stays in the United States. Pietra Rivoli, in The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, reveals, “The Salvation Army at one time tried to sell all of the clothing in its stores or to give it away, but the supply now so far outstrips demand…There are nowhere near enough poor people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away.” According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, used clothing was the 5th largest import to Senegal from the U.S. in 2009, clocking in at $7 million.

A vendor inside the fookijaay in Kolda

In my daily life in Kolda, second-hand clothing is everywhere. The “fookijaay,” the Wolof word for “thrift market,” is a hub of economic activity in the city center. In Wolof, “fookijaay” literally means “shake out” and “sell.” There is a fookijaay in every town in Senegal. They are all over Africa as well.

Snippets of Americana, stamped on t-shirts and paraded as everyday fashion, are part of the landscape. As I bike around, I see “Bacon Eating Championship 2005,” and “I’m a Jesus Freak” advertised unwittingly by Kolda’s Muslim, sometimes illiterate, non-English speaking crowds. I see men in “Real Women Have Curves” or “Glenview High Ladies Ice Skating Team” shirts. For all the humorous out-of-context t-shirts, however, there are even more of the mundane: “Lakeside Honors Society” tops, Hawaiian shirts, and nondescript pants, shoes, and plaid button-downs.

When my host brother Aliou needed new clothes for school, my host mom took him to the fookijaay, much in the way I would have been taken to K-mart as a kid. He came back home with several almost-new items, including a ski-worthy down jacket (for those cold African 60-degree nights), and a shirt that said “People Who Think They Know Everything Annoy Those Of Us Who Do.” When I clumsily translated this phrase into Pulaar for him, he seemed nonplussed by its snarky tenor.

It is amazing to see how all these throw-away shirts that we so easily forget about are having second, maybe third, lives in Africa. We’ve all heard the Blue Sweater Story, or a version of it, wherein an American woman donated her childhood sweater, only to find the very same sweater on a boy in Rwanda, 11 years later, when she was working there.

This supposedly uplifting discovery, of realizing how interconnected we all are, is undercut by the fact that as many argue, the used clothing industry is destroying local textile production all across Africa.

Clothing comes in packages with bar codes like this

The trade mechanism by which used clothing travels to developing countries is fascinating. At first glance, it appears that the garments arrived as an extended form of donation, as if a church group dumped massive amounts of used clothing upon Africa. Some hold the misconception that the clothing is smuggled in. But once you see the vastness of the fookijaay supply and its organized packaging, it is clear that used clothing is a complex global industry in itself.

Rivoli writes of the Trans-Americas Trading Company, a large factory in New Jersey, as an example of the type of middleman that facilitates the used clothing trade. TATC purchases clothing from charities in the New York metro area, and processes tens of thousands of pounds of clothing per day. The method is straightforward: truckloads of garments arrive at the factory, which then travel on conveyor belts and are hand-sorted by employees. Some clothing is deemed vintage and is destined for European or Japanese markets. Less fortunate threads are literally turned into rags.

An active fookijaay merchant, this woman chooses to wear a Senegalese complet instead of second-hand clothing

The majority of clothing at TATC, however, is bound for Africa. African customers usually demand new-looking clothing, free of smudges and wear, in lightweight cotton. Companies like TATC ship large bales of pre-sorted clothing, stamped with bar codes and labeled descriptively (“Women’s dresses,” “Children’s shoes,” etc.) to garment buyers in Africa.

I have seen the storage room at the fookijaay in Kolda where these bales are opened for the first time and subsequently sorted through. Merchants there say everything comes from Dakar. Though I protested that it seems like the clothing has been sitting there for ages, vendors insisted that shipments arrive a few times per month, and most of the clothing is turned over in that time. The clothing winds up on massive tables in each vendor’s territory, some collections more orderly than others. Much of the market consists of chaotic mountains of clothing. The fookijaay is like one giant bargain bin—as long as you’re willing to dig, you will eventually find something you might want.

Since each item in the fookijaay is unique, it can be a thrilling, if laborious, shopping experience. It is clear that my co-shoppers in the fookijaay love the treasure hunt appeal as much as I do. The other day, I browsed alongside several young women, who were happy to fish ballet flats out of the heaps of shoes on a table. Their skinny jeans and tight, bright tank tops were probably Chinese-made and new, whereas their shoes and purses were distinctly American, guaranteeing that these particular accessories couldn’t be copied by their friends.

Color. For the low, low price of $2.

There is amazing retro 80′s and 90′s attire available for purchase. Somehow countless colorful track jackets, neon floral shorts, and snappy purses slipped through the cracks at the donation stations in the U.S. and ended up here. The 80′s vintage-like clothing I find here is in abundance, since Senegalese people tend to prefer cleaner colors and newer-looking items. Thus, I am afforded an extravagant thrift store experience, where retro-fabulous clothing for $2 or less is everywhere, a far cry from the picked-over bins in hipster meccas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

This little girl’s Snow White costume was described disturbingly to me by a vendor as a “possible wedding dress” for a girl.

Plenty of Senegalese people, especially women over the age of 40, and men over the age of 50 or 60, still wear traditional head-to-toe garments in colorful African fabric. But the apparent age divide highlights a new reality in clothing choice: the polychromatic traditional costumes are being reserved for special occasions, religious days, and old age. Young people, in step with European and American fashion, prefer jeans and tees, jumpsuits and power suits.

Conventional Senegalese attire, with its billowing fabrics, sculptural head wraps, and unapologetically bright colors, is maybe being re-imagined as too old-school, costume-like, and perhaps too psychedelic. Further, a fashion split can be seen along gender lines. Men more commonly wear Western clothing, perhaps because they have more disposable income than women and can afford attire deemed to be “modern.” Men are allowed more freedom in what they can wear, an added perk of their higher social standing. Women, who are less financially able to update their closets and are also expected to retain their collective mother/wife image, tend to wear snazzy Senegalese traditional wear, year after year.

This approximation of Western style comes as a blow to local garment industries. It also means dingier hues across the Senegalese color palette. But perhaps Senegalese consumers like the mishmash options in their markets, allowing them inexpensive access to comfy Western thrift. The infusion of American t-shirts into the fashion algorithm has no doubt brought a certain casualness and experimentalism to the über-vibrance of Senegalese couture.

(On the flipside, the American store Anthropologie is selling a $68 shirt that is described as “African-inspired” and looks unmistakably like Senegalese wax fabric that I could buy in the market here. Picture below.)

Can you believe it??

Urbn Ag

Hanging containers: out of reach of nibbling animals

Urban agriculture has achieved buzzword status, from the rooftops of Sydney to the tire gardens of Senegal. Every so often I am e-mailed an article on green roof technology or urban community gardens and the ever-expanding innovations people in developed countries are using to grow vegetables in tight spaces. Whether it’s ultralight synthetic soils or aquaponics, people are refining urban gardening to the point of expensive trendiness. I can only respond to these e-mails with detached fascination.

Unlike the newsworthy gardening taking place in America’s major cities, my work in Senegal entails brass tacks practices targeted at a poor population. No complex water harvesting here, just double-digging and re-purposing old rice bags. On the sophistication spectrum, my urban agriculture is so simple it seems to consist of a series of no-brainers. Use what you already own. Practice composting. Plant mutually beneficial vegetables alongside each other. Things like drip irrigation are far too costly for my farmers. We stick to the basics.

It might seems strange that that the urban growers I work with in Senegal—many of whose families come from agricultural backgrounds and know from a rainy season rice paddy—are interested in learning such lo-fi methods from the trainings I run. What we are doing doesn’t seem to fit with the cosmopolitan image we might have of urban gardening nowadays. Yet at the same time, it makes perfect sense: in the pursuit of food security among poor populations, the cheap, easy, and semi-familiar techniques are the ones that will work. Even Senegalese people have heard of microgardening tables, yet because they are expensive I instead prefer promoting the re-use of old tomato cans or oil bottles.

Seedlings growing on the soil of a trash pile of a pre-school in Kolda.

Why do we conceptualize urban agriculture these days as something only done on rooftops, spaces that are already gated communities? After all, access to roofs and the power to manipulate them are often questions of wealth. If urban/community gardening is really about improving nutrition amongst a needy population, why not look to the über-cheap methods being practiced in Africa? Marginal spaces are everywhere, and not just for growing the archetypal basil-and-tomato duo. A surprising amount of vegetables can be grown on balconies, fire escapes, porches, window sills, mini-yards, as well as community lots at ground level.

As a follow-up to my last post, wherein I sloshed around in my procrastination hang-ups, I write now about my gardening training that did in fact take place. It was, in a word, a success. Although, to be fair, there were some bumps along the way. “Lessons learned,” in Peace Corps parlance. Here’s what happened:

A local women’s group approached me with the idea of doing a gardening training. We decided on doing a 3-day event (three evenings in a row), and agreed upon a small fee that each participant would pay to cover the costs of the training, as well as guarantee their interest in the occasion. Holding an event across three evenings, as opposed to having a big one-day event, is more successful since women have free time in the evenings (not in the mornings, when they have housework). In addition, evenings are better because the temperature is cooler, people are well-rested, available, and are not expecting lunch to be served.

Applying organic pesticides

The fact of each woman paying a small fee (in this case, about $5 each), was crucial. I did a training in the past where I offered it for free to the participants, yet they showed up to the training thinking that they would be paid! Needless to say, this angered me, for not only was I offering a free service, I felt my participants misunderstood the situation and were seemingly ungrateful. As it turned out, World Vision and some other NGOs in the region have set up a practice (and in my opinion, bad example), wherein they pay participants who attend their seminars to reimburse the costs of traveling there. This practice has led to a phenomenon throughout West Africa of professional seminar-goers who make a habit of attending various seminars while donning business attire, making small talk, and collecting the cash.

cheap easy cheap easy cheap easy homemade pesticides

My counterpart Mohamadou Seck and I decided on a curriculum of permagardening principles and organic pesticide use. The first day, I encountered my first obstacle: many of the women were wearing fancy attire. I explained that this was a working training, not a chance to see and be seen. After all, garden beds don’t dig themselves. Most women complied and rolled up their skirts.

The first day, we created a compost pile. By the third day, the compost was hot and the women could feel the heat on the compost stick, reinforcing the idea that a compost pile is like a living oven that creates fertilizer—for free. We also dug beds and amended the soil with charcoal, ash, manure, and neem leaves, all of which are local ingredients that can be obtained cheaply or without cost. We taught double-digging, which in reality amounted to something more like 1.5x digging. A true double-dig requires spades, pickaxes, and a great deal of physical strength. My priority was to emphasize that these practices can be done with the tools that women already own, like simple hand-hoes, even if it means still digging twice but perhaps not as deeply. Since this was a lot of work, we continued this into the second day.

Composting is FUN!

The third day, we planted some seedlings and seeds and spoke about the importance of intercropping. Companion planting, the placement of mutually beneficial plants alongside each other, is not widely practiced here, yet is essential if you want a diverse array of vegetables grown in a small space. On the third day we also created organic pesticides using mashed-up onion, pepper, and garlic, which had been left to soak in water for over 24 hours. We then mixed this solution with soap and sprinkled it on plants using a home-made “spray bottle” (a water bottle with holes cut into the top where water can sprinkle out, like a small watering can).

By the end, we had many garden beds dug, and the space was well on its way to being a functional garden to be used by the women’s group. We all drank cold sodas and passed out certificates. While some women had worked harder than others, all felt a collective sense of accomplishment and pride in the new garden space.

It wouldn't be a party without some dancing, sodas, and certificates.

Leading a training is a bit like being a teacher: you see who the naturally hard working people are, who the gossips are, who is your ally, and who will make the day more of a headache. Some of these women had not attended school, so were not accustomed to the type of concentration and quiet demanded of an in-depth training. We were able to find a method of balancing instruction and fun. Let’s just say, there was some dance involved.

As a cultural lesson, the ways that the women’s group prepared for the training were very different from the way I did. Months ago, we had a meeting and picked specific dates that worked for all of us. I wrote this down in my calendar and thus considered it permanent. In Senegalese culture, however, which is primarily oral, the way of making something permanent is not by writing it down, but by verbally repeating it. Despite all the preparation I was doing in the weeks leading up to the event, some of the women had forgotten when it would be and even expressed doubts that it was a good time. In the end, almost everyone came, but I could have avoided some of this confusion if I had started reminding people about it earlier and more continuously.

Having a fellow volunteer present, in this case my new site-mate Marcie Todd, was fun and a relief. It’s essential to have a partner in crime to weather through the minor mishaps and stressful moments. Also, they might be the only other person present who knows how to use a digital camera.

The women’s group now has a green space that they collectively implemented, and thus will collectively take care of. The principles we taught could be translated into even smaller spaces if the women want to create garden beds in their homes. Simply creating one deeply dug bio-intensive bed allows for more vegetables to be intercropped more closely together—a perfect home kitchen solution. Another technique that is economically sensitive to women’s lives is the use of home-made organic pesticides. By promoting a cheap prophylactic approach to controlling pests, we can stem the common predicament of gardeners waiting until pests take over their plants, at which point they resort to expensive and toxic chemicals. Since most women cannot actually afford chemical pesticides, yet assume there is no other solution, they often find themselves discouraged and with failed crops.

The most useful point I have learned in urban gardening is to start from a standpoint of having zero dollars at one’s disposal: how can we create rich soil, propagate more plants, etc. without putting a cent into the project? A last-ditch run to Home Depot to buy good soil would never be an option here. Everything has to be done from scratch, and it has to be affordable for the people with whom I work. Composting, seed storage, and anything that can be gotten for free become much more viable in this light.

I think when urban agriculture is achieved at extremely low cost, it aligns more closely with aiding the urban populations that might benefit from it the most.

Procrastination and the Concept of “Work”

There is no sexier allure, when you are in the midst of procrastination, than reading an article on procrastination itself. Even I, the relaxed volunteer leading a freewheeling life in Africa, have tasks that need to be accomplished, and therefore, procrastinated upon. So there I was a few days ago, reading a magazine and escaping work that still to this moment has only been half-heartedly completed.

 

At a recent gardening training of mine. Preparing for an upcoming one is an impetus for procrastination.

James Surowiecki writes in the October 11 New Yorker about the psychology behind procrastination, and even admits to indulging in fastidious apartment cleaning—a procrastination favorite of mine—while writing the article. He points out that procrastination is an irrational act: by putting off a task, you knowingly set yourself up to suffer. It is costly (think late income taxes) and time-consuming (think late nights at the office due not to legitimate work, but to all those web-browsing minutes adding up).

Even in the moment, procrastination does not make people happy. Yet we all do it! Guilty as charged. Surowiecki writes of the growing market for anti-procrastination services: “In 2008, a Ph.D. candidate at Chapel Hill wrote software that enables people to shut off their access to the Internet for up to eight hours; the program, called Freedom, now has an estimated seventy-five thousand users.”

Imagine that: you can buy “Freedom.” I understand the impulse entirely. I have the option to pay for the proverbial 21st century Peace Corps luxury: wireless in the hut. After all, I live in a city, have near-constant electricity, and get paid more than village volunteers. I often find myself with a semi-urgent e-mail to send, or a burning question to which only Wikipedia would know the answer. Other volunteers, especially the villagers, think I’m crazy for abstaining from a home Internet connection. Yet every time I consider installing it, I think about how much time I would waste online. I think about how the Internet, at the end of the day, makes me anxious.

I have the tendency to click links to only mildly entertaining videos. As I wait for them to load, I flip through all my open browser tabs like they are cards in a deck. Logically, it would make no sense that in the 2.5 seconds since I last checked Gmail that I would have any new emails, yet I click over anyway out of reflex. I re-read the headlines of the New York Times, or worse, Gawker or the Huffington Post. This then leads me to even more initially promising but ultimately disappointing blog posts and video clips. Five hours later, with little accomplished and a few bits of Hollywood gossip gleaned, I feel exasperated and empty.

These days, I read more and am probably more clear-headed than I was in the States. I am enjoying this rare period in my life where I do not know—and do not need to know—every detail of world news. The mere thought of signing into Gmail after it’s been a few days is exciting. I tend to hear about major world events from my host dad, who keeps up with such matters.

According to the article, I chose to “self-bind,” which is not surprising to me. I respond better to outside authority than to that vapid phenomenon called “self-motivation.”  I am a go-getter, not because I naturally wake up every morning with a spring in my step, but because out of some perverse masochism I love performing what others have told me to do. Unlike subscribers to the software Freedom, my choice to abstain from the Internet actually saves me money. It is therefore, from a philosophical (yet not pop cultural) standpoint, rational. Still, it reminds me of what Surowiecki writes of as “the extended will.” In discussing a study that found that most students would choose staggered deadlines for papers rather than handing them all in at the end of the semester, he says, “instead of trusting themselves, the students relied on an outside tool to make themselves do what they actually wanted to do.”

The work I was supposed to do, and am still supposed to do, is planning for an upcoming gardening training. I like trainings themselves, but the preparation is immense: gathering materials, visiting the site, coordinating drinks, printing certificates, transporting supplies, etc… While trainings are a joint effort between my Senegalese work partners and me, I often feel that I’m on my own when it comes to the behind-the-scenes preparation.

 

Abou and Mamadou, teaching, like they do.

The concept of “work” here is so different, not only because of the culture in which I live but also because of the organization for which I work. My job is so prone to procrastination because it is self-directed and comes with minimal punishment if I do not “accomplish” a certain set of objectives. If I need a day to myself and decide to reschedule a meeting last-minute, it is generally O.K. My Senegalese work partners do the same thing to me. If my lack of preparation at a training event is evident, my job will not be at risk. My Peace Corps boss may not even find out. We will all just move on.

“Work” is considered fulfilled when I meet the needs of my community in a timeframe that is mutually acceptable to us. As long as I keep in constant communication with my work partners, the job will eventually get done. If not, there is usually a reason for it. Since time is not as fixed an idea here as it is in the States, I exploit my procrastination capabilities almost without thinking. I can take a nap, chat on the phone, or listen to music, all simply because I desire to. It is scary to think of how much more productive I could have been this past year if I had had American-style deadlines and penalties. But then, that whole line of thought taps into a different concept of work.

I try to remind myself the rewarding aspects of gardening trainings: seeing people work together, ending with a pretty garden space, hearing that people felt they learned skills and were a “part of something.” The most recent training I conducted was successful for the most part. I am putting up pictures here and will write more reflections once this weekend’s training is over.

 

The participants at my last training. So much fun, in the end.

Now that I have so much leisure time to exploit, I feel balanced. I feel happier in general. Sometimes I think maybe this is the amount of down time humans actually need.

I wonder if procrastination in the American setting is our way of forcing leisure activities upon ourselves in order to find the balance we truly need to be mentally sane. Since we are told that we are not supposed to take vacations, not supposed to take naps, and not supposed to be idle, we squeeze in furtive moments of entertainment and frame them as byproducts of the stress of work. We are not allowed to willfully zone out, so zoning out must be something that happens to us. After all, leisure time in the U.S. only seems O.K. if you later get punished, or punish yourself.

In a day I will be forced to confront all the duties related to my training. I hope I don’t hate myself too much for what I haven’t done.

So, after all this talk, what is your favorite mediocre online video or time-waster? I’d love to know.

Escape to Sierra Leone, Part II

“Palm wine flows like the nectar of the gods,” read the ridiculous text that appeared on our cell phone. Clearly the authors of this SMS, our friends who had already been traveling in Sierra Leone, must have become hooked, wherever they were. Our ghost-like travel companions, Grant and Lindsay, were connected to us through text alone. We were never able to meet up with them, but we followed in their footsteps, reading each message like a potential clue in a scavenger pub crawl. It is no surprise that at the time they sent that starry-eyed signal, Grant and Lindsay had been at Tokeh beach.

Ingrid on our fishing trip

Tokeh beach is beautiful. I say this, knowing that I’ve made every previous location, through word and image, seem similarly tantalizing. It is the same frustration I have with the Lonely Planet: since every sight worth publishing is wonderful, it becomes impossible to distinguish one fabulous beach, wildlife sanctuary, or authentic food stand, from another. Eventually, you have to commit to an itinerary for the day, and hope it turns out to be as good as the tourist industry wants you to believe.

In any case, Tokeh was great, not only because of its picturesque quality and warm water, but because of the company that came with it. And since my travel motivations are dominated primarily by a constant quest for food and booze, I am easily swayed by any beach where I am handed an ice-cold European beer and am encouraged to get in the water with it. Our hosts, Issa and Ingrid, met at Tokeh four years ago and fell in love. Issa, whose family is part of the Lebanese diaspora that settled in West Africa a few generations ago, inherited the beach front property from his father. He is now restoring the hotel space to its former glory, many of its buildings having been ruined during the civil war (visit http://www.tokehbeach.com). Since Issa is still in the process of re-establishing Tokeh Palms and Tokeh Sands, if you open the most recent version of the Lonely Planet, you will find incorrect information listed for the accommodations at Tokeh beach, making it for the moment an under-the-radar find.

A view of Tokeh beach

We met a man named Omar at Tokeh, who, to my delight, was Pulaar. In Sierra Leone, Pulaars call themselves, “Fula.” The language is essentially the same as the way I have learned it in Senegal, though there were obvious regional differences. Since Pulaar is one of the most common African languages, its speakers spread all over West Africa and into Sudan, it is a real honor to travel far from the Senegalese corner I know and still be able to communicate with people in their native tongue. Omar was shy, but joked with us that we were “bean eaters,” a tell-tale sign we were in fact in the midst of a Pulaar.

Tokeh village kiddos

Ingrid took Jen, Emilie, and me on a tour of Tokeh village, a short walk down the beach from the hotel. There, we encountered our first gaggles of village kids calling out “white man, white man,” a curious alternative to the hissing Senegalese “toubab.” We walked past the computer lab that Ingrid is helping to build through a charity she runs. Though it is primarily a fishing village, Tokeh seemed well-connected, with intermittent electricity, sturdy housing, and many types of food available on the street.

Palm wine

At dinner, the palm wine did indeed flow. We poured it out of a large, industrial-looking plastic jug brought from the village. It was a murky white, and despite its sparkling quality, sat heavy in our stomachs. It was quite good. The five of us talked about Stockholm, Beirut, and the other places we have lived. Jen dazzled us with stories of the hundreds of countries she visited in a six-year span while working like a pirate’s captive on Holland America cruise lines. Cameroon, Falkland Islands, Egypt, you name it. Jen speaks of passing through the Panama Canal the way the rest of us casually mention trips to the dentist we might have taken over the years.

There is something to be said for replacing all need of showers with the prospect of ocean swimming. The next morning, I awoke at 7 a.m., alone and therefore content, the sky already bright and the waves beckoning me to come bathe. To my surprise, the water was warm, and I floated for a long while. Without prompting, Emilie and Jen awoke soon after and joined me. We finished the morning off with a fishing trip, during which I flirted with plenty of seaweed yet was the only one to catch nothing.

And then it was time to go. Our car’s engine had not even started, though, when we sensed the anxiety of people in Tokeh village: news had just arrived that some people had been killed in a car crash minutes beforehand. Sadly, it included a local man, a staff member of the Tokeh beach hotel. Our car drove away carefully, past the clinic where injured people were being carried, past the accident site, and along the road past villages where the locals in our car leaned out the windows to spread the sobering news. I wondered, as my car companions continued to invite eight people into a five-person vehicle, whether they chalked what had happened up to God’s will, or if they would admit that seatbelts save lives.

Bo-town

We spent the night in Bo in a hotel room fit for a disco-themed horror film. Full of dark corners and outfitted with a bed practically still damp from sex work, the room was situated next to a nightclub that thumped dance beats all night long. In the morning, we scooped up our musty belongings off of the dank clotheslines in the room, resigned to the fact that it was pointless to wash our clothes if there would never be any place to dry them.

Several hours and SUV-worthy roads later, we arrived at the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Tiwai is a small island in the turbulent Moa River. It is a protected reserve home to 11 primate species, 135 avian species, as well as pygmy hippos, river otters, and other rare wildlife. The animals here live freely, so spotting them is a special occurrence. Our guide, donning flip flops, binoculars, and a machete, hacked away foliage as we zig-zagged across the island. High in the trees, we spotted several different kinds of monkeys leaping across branches. We crouched breathlessly, hoping they would not see us from hundreds of feet away, but they always did. Unaccustomed to humans, the monkeys often disappeared quickly. There were trees with gigantic ribbon-like roots and intimidating birds. Not surprisingly, the ever-mysterious hippos were nowhere to be seen.

Massive tree with massive roots. Photo by Emilie McClintic.

We set up our tents, talked over candlelight, and listened to the Savage Love podcast on our speakers. Unexpectedly, Tiwai Island had no shortage of cold Star beer, which helped wash down our tasty groundnut stew dinner.

Leaving Bo, we connected with an Italian contractor who gave us a free ride and some bottles of Italian wine. My heart sank when he told us that we had missed his frozen shipping container of sausage and cheese from Europe by only days. We arrived back in Freetown at the home of Tunde, the mother of a Peace Corps volunteer in Kolda named Pamela. Originally from Sierra Leone, Pamela spent her high school and college days in the D.C. area, and coincidentally serves in Senegal in a site not to far from mine. Her mother still lives in Freetown, and welcomed us with delicious food and a room to sleep in. I loved waking up to pork with fresh chopped spring onions, bread, butter, and coffee.

View of Freetown from Tunde’s apartment

With one full day left to soak up Freetown culture, we embarked on an epic shopping trip where I scored some sparkly Nigerian fabric. Exhausted from the markets and, as Jen might say, “in search of bevy,” we settled into a bar/cafe, and met with Joseph, a former research assistant of Ismail Rashid, a professor I had at Vassar who is from Sierra Leone. Joseph, who was on a paper-writing break, explained the topic of his essay as an inquiry into the ways young Sierra Leoneans use home-made pornography as an act of rebellion against the state. We ordered a round of cassava bread from a passing street vendor and chatted the afternoon away.

In Dakar, it is nearly impossible to stroll around in a market without being shamelessly harassed and stalked. People hiss at you, and think nothing of repeatedly interrupting your conversations. It seemed far more relaxed in Freetown. Not only did I love speaking English, I enjoyed the people of Freetown and their–forgive my generational lingo–chill vibe.

Sierra Leone is a major buzzword within the international aid community, and judging from the astounding amount of white SUVs on the road in the capital city, it is still getting a lot of NGO action. The NGO presence was astounding. Every other car was a tell-tale white Land Cruiser or other white sports utility vehicle. Is there some secret universal pact among all NGOs for a blanket lack of creativity? Is it physically impossible to stamp a UNICEF, or Peace Corps, or Medecins Sans Frontiers logo on an SUV that isn’t white? Monotony aside, is it not problematic to further symbolize one’s “white knight” status with, let’s see, a big white car?

Our final night, Jen had a premonition that if she decided to stay in and go to sleep (as she was inclined to do), Emilie and I would end up having a fabulous night out; if she went out with us, however, the night would end up a disappointment. Kind of like how washing your car guarantees it will rain later that day, thereby once again muddying your car. Jen stayed in, and she was right. Emilie and I met up again with Ingrid and Issa, then more friends, danced, switched clubs, danced more, and downed some horrific vodka/green olive/tabasco sauce shots along the way. Sometime just before daybreak, we ended up at the home of a British diplomat. I, of course, planted myself on the floor at his coffee table, the self-appointed barista of chorizo, gourmet cheese, and wine for the next couple of hours. We mooched off his hot showers and air conditioning, crashed, thanked him, then reluctantly hobbled to the airport later that morning.

I had put Sierra Leone on my to-do list as if once checked-off it did not need re-visiting. I feel that now I have been, I would be foolish not to go back…

Emilie, Jen, and a fisherman… catching fish

Escape to Sierra Leone, Part I

Lakka Beach, outside Freetown, Sierra Leone

It took me months to admit to myself that I needed a vacation. I observed the travels of fellow volunteers–to Europe, South Africa, the United States–with detached amusement. Paris sounds nice, I had thought, but I’m just barely starting to understand Senegal. Besides, taking a vacation implies a deserved break from work, and the workaholic in me could not justify going on holiday from a lifestyle that is, from an American point of view, akin to a holiday itself. A few months ago however, around the 12-month mark, the detached amusement I had turned to jealousy. All those trips my friends were taking started to seem not frivolous, but necessary. If only I, too, could stroll the aisles of Walmart or drink good wine at a friend’s wedding. If only I, too, could eat at a sidewalk café, laugh with my parents, or drive a car. After over a year of doing any one thing, a person needs a break.

So a couple of weeks ago I packed a backpack, met with two girlfriends, and flew to Sierra Leone. It seemed at first like a consolation prize to go on a much-needed vacation and only stay within West Africa, but oh, how wrong I was.

Julbrew, Gambia's signature beer

Flights and visa logistics were better conducted through Banjul, the capital of neighboring Gambia. Jen, Emilie, and I spent a few days there as our warm-up vacation, and in it discovered the ideal nearby getaway for a Peace Corps volunteer. Where Dakar is expensive, Banjul is affordable. Where Dakar is spread out, Banjul is walkable. Where the Dakar regional house is small, messy, and crowded, the Banjul regional house is like a free hotel: clean towels and sheets, roomy air-conditioned bedrooms, a huge garden, a balcony, a spacious kitchen, and within walking distance of the beach, bars, restaurants, and the Peace Corps office. We visited the brewery of Gambia’s signature beer, Julbrew, and got several cold free bottles out of it. We visited a Mongolian wok-style restaurant, ate authentic pizza, and relaxed in a café where we were greeted by complimentary aromatherapy hand towels. We even stayed for free at Footsteps, a beautiful little eco-hotel outside Banjul run by two hilarious Brits that normally runs for $200/night, but had a promotion for Peace Corps volunteers. In short, we were blown away by the Gambia. And we didn’t even see the beach.

Welcome to Freetown

The Freetown landscape makes this public ferry look glamorous

A few days later, we took a short flight to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Within minutes of changing our Gambian dalasi bills into Sierra Leonean leones, we were whisked through the Sierra Leonean landscape and soon noticed how much more tropically green it is than Senegal or the Gambia. After dodging yet another tourist trap, this time an attempt to get us on the expensive water taxi, we bumbled onto the large $0.50 public ferry amid hundreds of Sierra Leoneans on a morning commute into the city. We squeezed past women carrying on their heads bowls of fried plantains, boiled groundnuts, coconut cakes, and other street nibbles so thrilling and foreign to the Senegalese palate. We wedged ourselves amid the crowd onto a lower deck, clutching our small backpacks to our chests like babies, thankful that we had packed so little. As the boat approached Freetown, its rippling green mountains became crisp, along with the squished layers of houses–all of which must have perfect ocean views–perched on them. The Portuguese had called it Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountain), before the name morphed into Sierra Leone.

Freetown

It turned out that having lived in Senegal for 14 months prior had its perks: we were ruthless in bargaining for a taxi from the get-go, and got the price we wanted, even if clumsily thumbing through our custom-made Leone-CFA-Dalasi-Dollar converter on our cell phones. Once in the taxi, it wasn’t long before we became intimate with a main character in the capital city: the traffic problem. For what felt like hours, our taxi inched along a two-way street and served as an unintentional slow-motion tour bus of Freetown life. There were the things we were used to in Senegal: the girls with cold bags of tap water for sale in baskets on their heads, the bread stands shaded by beach umbrellas. Then there were things that were new to us: loads of almond-shaped white bread for sale, HIV awareness billboards in English, grilled chicken being sold on the street, Pulaar last names printed on storefronts spelled in English instead of French (“Jalloh” instead of “Diallo”).

Halloween in Freetown

One of the things about choosing to live abroad for an extended period of time is knowingly forfeiting celebration of the beloved carnival of Halloween. Little did we know that Freetown would have its own Halloween celebration at an open-air beachfront bar our first night in country. At 10 p.m., we had arrived embarrassingly early and passed the time prancing about in the waves on the adjacent beach. As a charming side note, we later learned that that very beach is riddled with discarded syringes from medical waste. The bar, Atlantic, turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment, as it slowly morphed into a Halloween-themed dance party for mostly Lebanese middle-schoolers. We finally settled into a spot on the sand with our South African Savannas (a refreshing hard cider I dearly missed from my days in Cape Town) and our new friends from Peace Corps Sierra Leone who I tracked down through a calculated use of the internet. We compared notes on the Peace Corps programs in our respective countries (they are the first group in 16 years since Peace Corps withdrew from Sierra Leone during the civil war) and we learned a little Krio.

Freetown market

Krio is the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, spoken by almost everyone in Freetown, akin to the role Wolof plays in Dakar. A type of creole, it is mostly English, but relies on the intonation and syntax of several West African languages. Therefore, even as an English speaker, I could not parse Krio as I heard it spoken by people on the street. Yet certain sayings, like “‘ow de body, ‘ow de work?” (meaning “how are you?”); “we go see back” (meaning “goodbye”); and “no bad” (meaning “I’m fine”) came easily and amusingly to me. To this moment, uttering the phrase “fine fine chop,” which means “really good food,” has not ceased to make me laugh. “Salone” is the Krio pronunciation of “Sierra Leone.”

Grilled fish and chicken by the beach

A major goal of mine in Salone was to eat some cheap fine fine chop, and that we did. Advantage number two of having already lived in Senegal was that we could eat street food to our heart’s content and not worry about getting sick. We each ate a big plate of couscous, noodles, grilled chicken, boiled eggs, onion sauce, fried plantains, ketchup, and mustard, all for only $1. We stopped by a beachside road stand where a woman who called herself “Obama” served up fresh grilled fish, chicken, salad, and cold beers. As I write this in my home in Senegal, the night is being pierced by the brash chanting of a loud mosque–a reminder that nowhere in this more devoutly Muslim country could a vendor sell cold beers out of a cooler on the street.

On our second day, we hitched a ride with a white Zimbabwean to Lakka Beach, about 30 minutes outside Freetown. Leon explained that he was from “Rhodesia” and that he was a diamond miner, upon which my travel companions and I exchanged alarmed, furtive glances within his SUV. It was all I could do to stop myself from blurting out, “Have you by chance seen the movie ‘Blood Diamond’?”

Funny kids on break from their stand-up comedy routines

Lakka Beach welcomed us with ideal weather, comedian-like boys, cold beers, and a perfect little hotel with bungalows resting on a peninsula. With our powers of manipulation, we bargained down to a price of $10 per person/night. Though November is said to be the best month to visit Sierra Leone, we seemed to hit a sweet spot where we were still early enough in November to avoid the crowds, thus our luck with hotel pricing. Our private porch had a hammock and was just meters away from the water. We dined on the sand with our portable speakers and iPods. We ate grilled barracuda and watched as our lobsters were plucked from the water, still snapping as they passed our table on the way to the grill. They were cooked and seasoned beautifully with garlic and lemon. It reminded me of a line I read from the Lonely Planet West Africa edition about Sierra Leone: “Whether you pitch a tent or let locals string a mozzie net under a thatch roof on a local beach, a night that begins with a bonfire and a barracuda dinner often becomes a magical moment.”

A pleasant change in Sierra Leone was how much more easily we could speak with locals since they spoke English. We conversed with the restaurant owner who recounted stories of his training and the places in the world he’s visited. A gaggle of young boys we befriended told us about their favorite subjects in school and taught us more Krio. We learned that when bargaining with a stubborn taxi driver who won’t lower the price, the Krio expression is, “You love money too much, you bad bad man!” That night, we fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves, awaking to the same constant sound the next day.

Breakfast with Jen and Emilie at Lakka beach

Talk of the civil war came up frequently in our conversations with locals, yet there seemed to be a distinct optimism in their tone. The country has been peaceful for several years now. One indicator of its stability is the return of the Peace Corps, an organization known for being hyper liability-conscious. As I imagine is similar in many countries that have bounced back from war, people in Sierra Leone seem to refer to three distinct phases of their life: what they did before, during, and after the war. “The war” figures as an understandable interruption in their personal chronologies. Many we met were able to escape during the war. Some were not. Because of the short period of time we were there, I didn’t feel comfortable asking my new friends to delve deep into what the war was like.

The next day, we skipped down the coast to another beach, called River No. 2. This is the most classically beautiful of all the beaches near Freetown. The lush mountains seem to cradle it, and a shallow river weaves itself into the beach, making for a beautiful sand-and-water landscape. There are plenty of rustic cabanas and windswept wooden beach furniture, evidence that the beach gets quite popular in prime season. Unfortunately, the sole hotel there has eerie and unfriendly management. After spending a moonless night in the dank and overpriced accommodation, we were ready to trek to new spots highlighted in our Lonely Planet.

River No. 2 beach at dusk

In order to simply move further down the beach, we had to wade through the river in what at times felt like quick sand. We piled our backpacks on our heads African-style and allowed all the clothes we were wearing to get wet. Eventually we passed by crumbling hotel structures that had been abandoned and attacked during the war. Ahead, new wooden chaise lounges looked promising. It was there that we met Issa Basma, a young Sierra Leonean-born man of Lebanese descent with a British accent. He was in the middle of directing a team of construction workers on new beach bungalows made of fresh bamboo. Issa explained that we were technically his first customers in his renovation of the not-yet-finished hotel, so he offered us a good rate. He gestured to an upstairs veranda, where his Swedish girlfriend, Ingrid, greeted us. Thus began an amazing day and night at Tokeh beach.

Tokeh beach

You know it’s a special day when you can wake up at 7 a.m. on the beach and immediately jump into warm ocean water. More tales from my Sierra Leonean adventure in Part II. Click on the Flickr link on my sidebar to see more pictures.