Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Europeans and Donkeys!"

I arrived in Kounkane, the closest road town to Pakour, on Wednesday March 9 and quickly became aquainted with the ass I would call J. Lo. Being the largest and strongest, J. Lo was the most expensive of the four donkeys purchased for the ride at a whopping $110 (55,000 CFA). Joining J. Lo was Princess Sparkles, ridden by Michael Goldman, Shackleton, ridden by Cara Steger and eventually Charlene Hopkins, and finally Scarface named for his gruffy appearance, ridden by Geoff Burmeister.
Geoff had organized the ride and therefore purchased all of the donkeys. As we approached them for the first time he started profiling each of them. Scarface was getting on in years, well past his galloping years, but would be loyal as well as docile. Shackleton was a young male not looking to put up much of a fight and content to simple go where you wanted him to. Next there was Princess Sparkles, a young female named before Mike had even seen her, but we would all quickly learn of how fitting the Princess name was. From the moment we approached her, she quickly turned away and raised her hind leg ready to strike – this was going to be interesting. Last but not least I approached J. Lo with slow steady hand determined to whisper and charm her into my confidence without having to use the firmer methods of reinforcement and punishment I had so often seen with each passing charet. I steadily creeped up to her with an outstretched arm reaching for her neck in an effort to immediately calm her as she slowly wavered away from me. My hand met her coarse fur gently and she seemed unafraid compared to the other three donkeys. Her immense size made her easy to tell apart from the others, and Geoff assured me she would be the fastest.
The hour was closing on our first scheduled presentation. We mounted our steeds and headed down the road to the predetermined location at the Kounkane garage (more like a large cul de sac in the middle of town). As we made our way through the streets of Kounkane we were accompanied by Moustapha Dialo, the Kounkane health relay, on megaphone. He explained in better Pulaar than any of us could hope for that there would be a presentation on malnutrition given by Peace Corps volunteers in the garage that evening and that we would then be leaving the following morning on donkey back toward our eventual destination approx. 100km and 6 days away in Kolda.
Arriving at the garage we tied our donkeys up to some nearby trees and got to setting the numerous plastic chairs we had reserved for the event. After not too long the stereo system was also readied and pumping music. We needed to pull people out of their evening routine and get them to this causerie because even though many had said they were coming it is only culturally customary in Senegal to say you will attend event even though you might have no intention of going.
To get things going a dance party broke out between the volunteers and the children assembled in front of the speakers, but eventually the hour to start came and went, and the only audience we had mustered were the group of children ranging from 6-14 years – the same age group we were all accustomed to yelling “Toubab!” at us. They were clearly there to see what the foreigners were doing. The heat of African sunset proved to be too much for the volunteers’ dance party, and we retired to the seats assembled behind the stereo equipment to wait.
Kounkane was supposed to be the “Ace.” Geoff lived there and people had been told about the causerie well prior to the day of, so where were they? If we couldn’t assemble a decent crowd on our home turf, what were our chances on the road when there would only be a matter of hours between summoning the people and the start of the presentation? Not to mention we would have a schedule to keep with trying to get in two, sometimes three, 1.5-2hr presentation in in a single day with as much as 15K separating towns.
Eventually a ray of hope was offered: the trickling in of the mothers of Kounkane. It started very slow with four or five, but all of a sudden I turn around and, as night fell on this small town of around ten thousand, it was “Standing Room Only.” The place was packed!
We finally started in with introductions, but what is an introduction without a solo dance number for the crowd. Dancing is a big part of Senegalese culture; before each bare-knuckle wrestling match (the Senegalese national sport) each wrestler does an elaborate 20-25 min dance that sometimes overshadows his ability to wrestle.
After each of us introduce ourselves in Pulaar we started the skit that we had spent only 5 minutes discussing before our departure for the garage. Geoff donned his skirt and tika (head scarf) to signify his role as Mike’s mother. I was the other, healthier child with Cara Steger as my mother. Geoff was to be the mother unfamiliar with child nutrition while Cara had a better idea of what was nutritional for a child.
I played in the dirt, as Senegalese children do, as Geoff entered the scene carrying Mike on his back held on by a long piece of cloth tied in front at the chest, but given the physical disparities between Geoff and the mothers of Senegal, the common means of carrying a child in Senegal didn’t work as snugly as it normally would.
Cara, as my mother, insisted that Geoff and Mike stay for lunch, and after much denial and insistance Geoff gave in. The four of us sat on a mat around an imaginary food bowl supposed to be filled with many types of vegetables. As Mike, Geoff’s child, reached for the middle of the bowl where the vegetables are often placed, Geoff slapped his hand scolding, “those are only for adults, not children!” Cara however contested that children need vegetables just like adults; “don’t you see Amadou (me) and how big he’s gotten eating vegetables?” Geoff reluctantly agreed and exclaimed, “Ndatu (Mike) you can eat a little.” The skit ended with Geoff yelling at Mike to stop eating and he carried him off stage.
Everyone seemed to get a kick out of the skit, and it served well to break the ice on the subject of malnutrition. Geoff and Mustapha then grabbed the megaphones and reiterated the point that children also need to eat vegetables and fruits. We wanted to cover a number of important facts with the presentation, but we quickly decided that the best way to underscore them was to first ask the audience for their opinion before either correcting what was said or, more often, underscoring and summarizing the correct answers given by various individuals.
As Peace Corps volunteers our job is to teach. The problem is who are we as Americans, some of us who have never been abroad at all let alone to rural Senegal (me), to come in and tell people how to live and what to eat. Every community with a Peace Corps volunteer did in fact submit a request before receiving their vulunteer, but with such an imperialistic image abroad we, as Americans, need to approach every situation with a great deal of humility. We’re not here to teach the most basic knowledge; we’re here to make marginal improvements over many years by multiple successive volunteers.
The presentation began with going through the specifics of the prevalence of malnutrition in Senegal and expecially in the rural areas which include my region of Kolda. The numbers are staggering with 1 in 5 children suffering from malnutrition. We continued on to breaking down the food groups. Each group had a banner with labeled paintings of common examples available in Senegal, but before revealing each successive banner the group was polled for what foods are good for energy (njahgol) (carbohydrates), vitamins (fruits, vegetables) (bibbe ledde, mafeeji), and growth (beydugol bandu ndu) (protein), respectively. Again the audience generally had a few correct answers with a few common mistakes (e.g. bananas always seemed to be an answer for increasing body size and growth). After each polling we revealed the appropriate banner and read off each example. Vegetables (mafeeji) was always the last group to be covered because included on that banner was the unlikely character, Moringa leaves (nebedaye).
The final banner outlined the numerous benefits and healthful properties offered by the “Miracle Tree” Moringa oleifera. Gram for gram Moringa powder (dried and pounded leaves) have the equivalent of: 7 x Vitamin C of an orange, 4 x Vitamin A of carrots, 4 x calcium of milk, 3 x potassium of bananas, and 2 x protein of yogurt. The tree is endemic to Senegal and grows quickly with extremely high germination rates. You also cannot kill the tree…I planted a couple behind my hut, but some goats broke in and ate every leaf off of the trees. Within a week you could see new leaves budding. Short of ripping it out of the ground, it will not die.
The following the day, the first day of travel, we were slated to travel around 10 K with one presentation in the morning and another in the afternoon. The morning presentation was again a tough start with a number of women on the road saying they were going to come but not actually coming. This of course would be a common thread throughout the trip as it is in Senegal.
Culturally, it is considered rude to say no, so more often an agreement will be reached with no intention of following through on it or you’re deferred to a later time or day “wait until tonight/tomorrow.” Very often people will give you the affirmative with no intention of following through. This becomes very difficult when trying to schedule an appointment because you could be in complete agreement on the time of an important meeting, but it would be completely acceptable for someone not to show up at all, let alone on time and it would not be acceptable to show frustration for him not showing up.
Additionally, especially in bigger cities, there are always people on the streets shoving things in your face trying to get you to buy everything from caged birds to cologne to mirrors and phone credit. It would be rude to say no, and sometimes that does not get them to leave you alone. However, if you say “next time” especially in Wolof or Pulaar, other than the novelty of speaking to the foreigner that speaks a local Senegalese language, they will most often let you alone.
By the late afternoon we arrived at Diaobe, a massive market town known for its Wednesday “Lumo” (weekly market) day where people pack the streets selling everything you can think of. One volunteer remarked that his host family warned him “you’d be lucky to make it out of there (Diaobe) with your underwear [on Lumo day]” because of the prevalence of pickpockets in an area so packed with people. As we rested from the day’s journey one of the health officials for the area gave us a welcoming speech. During the speech he mentioned how impressed and grateful he was for us to be there braving the 40 degree heat. 40 degrees? Of course he meant in Celsius…quickly we each got our cell phones out to use the converter application to find out what that was in Fahrenheit: 113 degrees…”Oh, that’s why we were feeling so dehydrated…”
Diaobe also gave me a chance to exercise the “cousinage” joking relationship my family “the Barrys” has with “the Diaos.” In Senegal so many people have the same last name it’s not even funny. And from just your last name people will immediately know what ethnicity you are, what language you speak, and what foods you commonly eat. Each family last name has a number of other family names that they commonly joke with, tease, and make fun of. Common insults include being called a hyena, a monkey, a thief, someone that eats too much, someone that drink too much, just simply bad, being told you don’t actually have a last night, that you are not on the straight and narrow, being told you now have a changed last name to the “cousinage’s” last name, being told you eat beans or squash, as well as being told your father is any number of these things. It is all meant to be in joking, but it can go on and on sometimes. As you can imagine Diaobe had a lot of Diaos given that the addition of “be” (pronounced bay) to any place or last name means the plural of people related to that. I don’t know if I’ve ever been told I’m bad as many times in a single day. My family name also has a joking relationship with the “So” family.
Before riding into Diaobe the bikers accompanying us had gone ahead to sound our impending arrival to the women’s group that was planning to attend the training. This group was a might smaller than the previous, but we were able to effectively elicit discussion given these circumstances, and it made for a very effective causerie. That night we had dinner provided for us, and we curled up onto the floor of the health post tile…not the most comfortable, but welcomed nonetheless after a long day of travel.
The next morning we were up bright and early to start our journey about 6:30 am. It was at this point we determined the heat was too much to be riding the donkeys and our backsides could only handle so much of the riding at a time. We reluctantly decided to walk the remainder of the trip – approximately 90 kilometers to Kolda. Since we had succeded in leaving earlier, the morning travel that day was much less tedious. As we pulled into our first destination of the day we learned that we would be giving the presentation at a school approximately 2 kilometers off the road. Despite being in the target city, we had to keep walking…no big deal, the destination is the destination…until we arrived at that school nearly a mile off the road to find that we were actually supposed to present at the health post we passed earlier up the main road. We turned around, swallowed our frustration, and made our way back the 2 K to the road and .5 K to the health post. The health relais (health post worker) we saw as we came in could have stopped us before turning off toward the school, but he didn’t...
With each causerie the people's responses gave us a sense of how often NGOs and the like come through each town to do trainings. For example though the audience was small in Diaobe the womens' group's knowledge of nutrition made it clear that with all the transients coming through for the massive weekly market there was also a steady stream of NGOs giving trainings at the health post. At this next causerie the opposite was found to be the case for when the banner for vegetables was unfolded a woman from the crowd asked, puzzled a bit, "Don't cucumbers give you river blindness?" This question is all to indicative of the problems with development work. With a brand new massive health post in which to give our causerie, paid for by untold thousands of NGO dollars there was a clear disconnect with the people. Throwing money at a problem doesn't fix it.
Originally dubbed the "Death March" but renamed the "Vision Quest" that afternoon was especially trying. We had 12 Km to cover by foot right at the peak of the heat of the day, and there was no way around it. With temperatures easily reaching into the upper one teens, I stopped thinking and my march turned to more of a wander. As long as road was in front of me, I was going to continue. Three hours later we reached our destination. We finally did get a reading of the temperature in the late afternoon (well after peak heat) from a thermometer attached to Mike Goldman's bag that had been sitting in the shade: 110. The health relais awaiting our arrival was understanding when we decided not to do our skit. Another successful causerie completed as the sun set behind us. Going back into the health post where we had set up camp I found Cara had been stung by a bee on her forehead after Mike had tried to swat it away. Her face swelled up more than I had ever seen before. She would continue the journey, but, in her condition, biking would be a better option.
As we finished up the last causeries the journey actually started to get easier. The exhaustion set in so heavily that we started to get what is known technically in the medical community as "slap happy." At one point we actually explained in Pulaar to the Moustaph, the health relais joining us, and Fodde, who had helped us with donkey logistics what what this term meant. They quickly agreed with our assessment. Yes, it was hot, but it was always going to be hot. Yes, it was far, but it was always going to be far. And the causeries were effective. Thanks so much to all that donated. We raised about $1700 for the "Gardens of Moringa Fund" to support volunteer projects with the stipulation that it include a Moringa training. We covered about 100 Km (62 mi) in six days, about 90 Km of it on foot, and completed 12 causeries. You can still donate at (scroll down on page to see how)
A special thanks to the Knauer family - Jane, Mark, and Hannah - of my hometown of Lake Forest, IL for generously funding the purchase of our four donkeys. Funds left after the resale of the donkeys was donated to the "Gardens of Moringa Fund."
It's hard to imagine what people really thought as they saw these foreigners pass their villages on foot tugging donkeys. In Senegal, foreigners are immediately associated with lots of money, so "what were these people doing?" At one point a Frenchman was driving by us and actually stopped to ask us if everything was okay. I did notice that almost everyone greeting us did so in Pulaar. In every other instance outside of this journey greetings are 99% in French unless the person already knows we speak Pulaar. I guess they figured, if these foreigners were walking donkeys on the side of the road across Kolda, most of them in 500CFA ($1) shower sandals, they must have been here long enough to speak the local language. No French Patron (boss) would be crazy enough to do something like that...

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