Wednesday October 20th I took a Peace Corps car from Kounkane, Senegal south to be officially installed into my site as a Peace Corps volunteer.
As we pulled into my city (which I can't disclose for security reasons) I assumed we had planned to just go straight to my new house, but as we passed the community center we realized something greater was planned. I stepped out of the vehicle to the reception of a few hundred people. Most everyone was sitting in a semi-circle facing the entrance while a small group of residents danced and drummed right near the front. My first thought was that there was no way that this was all for me...but it was. As I crossed the semi-circle I was met with stares of wonder and curiosity. Some of the admins of the city instructed me to enter the community center where official record of my arrival was taken. Afterword I was led outside for the festivities.
I stepped outside still bewildered and took a seat toward the middle of the semi-circle. From there the speeches began. My host counterpart, Suleyman Barry, my supervisor, Bajey, and Mossley, the head of the agriculture sector of Peace Corps Senegal, each gave speeches to the community. I could understand all of the speeches in French and a good portion of the speeches in Pulaar (Peace Corps Senegal has very good teachers). It was expected that Mossley would be sure to tell the people I was a volunteer for the whole town, but when my host counterpart stood up to speak, I was stunned at the gravity of my arrival. "He isn't my volunteer. He isn't Bajey's volunteer. He is the son of the city (biddo saare in Pulaar). We had Peace Corps in the area down here in [the early 90s] (he knew the year), but we messed it up (I'm not sure exactly what happened), and to get another volunteer we had to have the mayor, Bajey, myelf, etc. request one. If we work well with this one, Peace Corps will give us more volunteers in the future, but if we mess it up, they won't." I could feel the pressure, and I had only been there 10 minutes. I knew the town felt neglected after not getting a volunteer for quite some time despite its relative significant size of around 3000 people, but I hadn't realized the degree to which these people had worked to get me there.
The speeches finished - all with the same notion that the people were responsible for getting the most out of my time there, and if they did Peace Corps Senegal would rain more volunteers down from the heavens.
I stood up to leave and felt that I should shake a few of the admins' hands before I left. Little did I know that this would trigger the entire town to crowd around to greet me - the Kolda region really has the friendliest people in Senegal.
I walked from the community center down the main street to my new home surrounded by hundreds of my new "countrymen." It was so surreal. I seriously could not help but smile and eventually laugh out loud. Where was I? What was going on? Was all this really for me? The drummers came up close behind me in the sea of my new people, and I started dancing - dancing in the middle of the street while I made my way to my new home. Everyone started laughing and clapping in time with me.
We finally made it to my compound (I had visited in September, so I knew which one it was). Everyone poured in, and I started to unload my stuff and put it into my new hut. I then joined the crowd for what was sure to be a quite the party. Right off the bat I was called to the center of the circle to dance to the drums. I was still riding the high of the march to my compound, so I danced my heart out as the people screamed and laughed. Things eventually settled down, the Peace Corps car left, and I enjoyed a couple of cold drinks with the people.
The following couple of days I spent the afternoons walking the streets of my new city greeting the people and the admins. On my first day I was hailed over by a group of adolescent girls hailed me over to greet them in Pulaar. Shortly after realizing I could speak Pulaar one of them offered herself to me to be my wife. My response was quick to diffuse the situation by calling her crazy since I had just arrived the day before. You wouldn't believe how many times I've been offered daughters and wives to take back to America, and everytime I have to come up with something whitty to come back with to deny but also not to insult them. Once I was even offered to buy a middle-aged man's wife. My response was (in Pulaar): "She doesn't speak English. I'll come back in 20 years, and if she speaks English by then, I'll take her with me." They weren't too keen on waiting so long.
Well the first three weeks (yeah that's right I'm up to three weeks now) have been relatively low-key. My normal day consists of me waking up around 7/7:30 to go and greet the family and have breakfast. I'll then spend some time chatting with them to work on my Pulaar and discuss family matters. Afterword, I'll retire to my room to do some relaxing and reading (I've already read Robinson Crusoe, and I'm starting A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). I then come out for lunch around 12:30/1pm and spend a good chunk of the afternoon hanging out and talking with family members or people from the town. In the evenings I usually visit someone's land to discuss a project they have in mind for me to help them with.
It sounds like I don't really do much, but for the first few months my job is to integrate into the community, work on my Pulaar, and discuss what the people want from me. I really haven't done much training in Agroforestry because most of Pre-Service Training was spent on Pulaar and Senegalese culture. I will be completing an In-Service Training Module over the course of about 2-3 weeks in December at the Training Center in Thies. Afterword I will have the knowledge to put into action the projects I have spent the last few weeks planning.
Most everyone either wants a fence (I would help with live fencing) or to start a plantation of Mango/Cashew trees. I then go to their land and take notes on the state of the soil fertility, the area of the land, what has grown there in the past, and what is growing there now.
I am currently completing a language seminar in a larger city north of my site, but I will be returning tomorrow morning. I then plan to go to the Kolda regional house for Thanksgiving before heading north to Thies for IST.
I truly am happy in my site. I have been going on evening bike rides where I just pick a direction and ride for an hour or so before turning back to town. You would not believe the absolute beauty of being surrounded by trees for miles and miles, especially at sunset. It is truly a bikers' paradise. I have not brought out my camera yet, but rest assured I will have plenty of pictures at Thanksgiving.
Miss all you guys back in the States, and I hope everyone is doing well.
Congratulations to the Grinnell Pioneers on securing a successful season!
Also, good luck to Tommy Rees as he takes on his true freshman starting role for the Irish when they take on Utah this Saturday. GO IRISH!