Thursday, July 5, 2012

Slowly Slowly to Catch a Monkey

Almost everything I have accomplished during my Peace Corps service has been just a baby step in development: asking village children to draw their dreams and desires in crayon, funding middle school girls through another year of school, explaining contraceptives to the adult third of my village, demonstrating simple organic solutions to people’s pest problems in their fields and gardens, planting some fruit trees, and crossing all sorts of gender barriers by being my (independent, very American, touch feminist) self.
My work is in the realm of micro-development. I’m not out to change the world single-handedly, but I am here to make a difference. However small-scale and localized my work may be, the hope is that something larger will grow from it all.

The Senegalese proverb says “Slowly slowly to catch a monkey.” The message rings true for many Peace Corps volunteers; we aren’t here for very long and hardly have a handle on the language and culture when we arrive, but our work builds on each other. After hundreds of baby steps, things are just starting to come together and really change Senegal. One place I’ve seen the baby steps add up is in our village’s school library.

The US Embassy and several other individuals have donated books to Goundaga’s primary school, from which the school director and I have formed a small library. While initially getting the kids to read was a painful process, our reading club is starting off. In fact, the reading club is no longer official anymore since so many kids want to read every day and not just at cub sessions. While the following no longer includes all the students in the top three grades, the following that has developed naturally is eager to read anything they can get their hands on and our picking out more challenging books, chapter books, all by themselves. As tedious as listening to ten renditions of Snow White in French ten times over can be, it’s truly heartwarming to have children knocking on my door to see if I don’t have something else for them to read, or picking out the long science books with big words because they want to learn and ask questions, about photosynthesis or meteor showers perhaps.

As if to symbolize the proverb, yesterday walking back from a morning at the school library, I heard shouting and sawing half the village running towards my host family’s compound. I caught up with some women gathered outside the fence of the compound, peering in. Apparently, a big monkey had come dashing out of the forest into the village, where it was chased across village (only 150m wide, maybe), it climbed into my backyard, then scurried across the compound and took refuge in my host father’s hut., where it was hiding from the mob of children (armed with sticks). My host uncle was trying to keep them at bay (with a stick of his own)and had shut the monkey into the hut so the children couldn’t get at it. They mob children were all screaming, dancing, clapping; some would try to sneak around the back of the hut only to be driven away by Ba Samba. Some other kids went to inform Demba of the unexpected visitor in his hut.

When Demba arrived at the compound, he also refused to open up the hut and tried to chase the children out of the compound. The compound was overflowing with the crazed kids looking to kill (which the adults didn’t mind so much) and eat the monkey (which, according to the elders, was un-Islamic and a little too close species was, according to me). The village only has a population of around 400 and a good two thirds are children; at least half of those children were waiting for the monkey. This was a standoff.

After an hour or so of waiting, most kids had gotten bored and given up, or at least wandered over to the neighbors to hang out there. Demba finally decided to let the monkey go free. Sadly, the monkey wasn’t very bright and instead of running left, hopping over the fence, and scurrying across the cotton field into the forest, it chose to go right. It landed on the other side of the fence in our neighbor’s compound. A shout rang out and soon all the kids had remobilized from seemly nowhere, stampeded across the compound and after the monkey.

Speaking of school books, the image of the stick wielding, barefoot children giving chase instantly brought to mind the last scene of The Lord of the Flies: the shouting, the hunt, the group frenzy electrifying the air. Different ending, though: no savior for this ape. The kids cornered it, beat it to death with their sticks, and then started the cooking fire. O, and this all went down in amount two minute; so who knows where that proverb came from.

Concrete Jungle

First days back from the “land of the free, home of the brave” felt amorphous, surreal even, like leaving one world and stepping into another one somewhere in between, Dakar. The first day back I ate nothing and slept most of the day; the next day back, I slept less but still couldn’t eat much. Nothing seemed appetizing after spoiling myself for two weeks… And this is Dakar, normally the land of plenty where eating is half the joy of being there!

Another topic of interest for every Peace Corps volunteer traveling to Dakar is transportation. Relative to a PCV’s living allowance, taxi are very expensive. Yet, Dakar is too sprawling to walk across and not particularly bike friendly (assuming you have your bike with you). Therefore, it behooves the volunteer to learn the bus system and minibus routes. Still these are time consuming, over-crowded, and often lead to a (mis)adventure, more so than public transport in the US. Taxis can be a great solution for group travel, but that’s no guarantee it will be a simple trip from point A to point B.

 Take for instance the extraordinary taxi experience I had with my Dakar visitors Nas and Dan. The ride was initially sketchy because the taximan had some trouble getting started, but enough taxi rides in this city and that is no longer so much an omen as a norm. Once we were off, the keys kept slipping out of the ignition. The first couple times this happened, no problem, we kept rolling. But then the car approached an incline and started to stall every time the keys fell out. We were enduring, but the situation soon became ridiculous: the keys wouldn’t stay and the car would jerk forward two feet and stop again, jerk, stop, jerk, stop, etc. Finally, patience (and the humor in the situation) left us and we let ourselves out of the jerking car. The taximan was very upset and insisted that we get back in the car.

Unfortunately, we were on a stretch of road not frequented by empty taxis, and even if they were empty it was dangerous for them to stop because of the curve in the road. So we walked forward to the next block. But the pace of walking was the same as the pace of the jerking taxi, so we had this irate taximan leaning across the passenger’s seat and screaming at as to get back in the taxi. Awkward, until we arrived at the top of a hill and gravity began to work in taxi’s favor, leaving us behind and alleviating us for the taximan’s muddled Wolof-French rant.

Luck, however, was still not on our side. It was another couple blocks until we found a minibus and decided to give it a go. Although the fare collector claimed the bus was going our way, he had stretched the truth a lot (no one lies in Senegal).  We got off just two blocks later to hustle another taxi. By the time we finally got to where we were going the whole ordeal was making us giggle again. Always an adventure in the concrete jungle.