Fish, chips, Ramadan, and Jamie: A Quarter-Service Crisis

As previously promised, I present to my dedicated readers a post of the most exciting events from this last month: a UK trip, the (ongoing) Holiday of Ramadan, and my nephew’s arrival into the world.

Olivia Murphey-Sweet and I have been buddies from the get-go.  We were room-mates during staging in D.C., still room-mates during training in Theis and (despite learning different languages and being in different AG sectors and distant by geographical standards) fast friends throughout service so far.  So when she suggested a vacation to the U.K. around Ramadan, I couldn’t think of a single reason to say no.  We ended up planning the trip early- back in February- nearly enough time for me to forget entirely about it and be pleasantly surprised when it suddenly rolled around in May.  May marked my 8th consecutive month in Senegal, and my experience was starting to blend together.  The days went slowly and the months went quickly and the experience was fulfilling and I loved it, but the monotony was starting to effect me.  Imagine how exciting it was to travel to Dakar with Olivia, to struggle through the airport experience again, to get back in an airplane after months on the ground, to receive complementary beverages with ice we could unconcernedly consume- it was an absolute thrill!  We touched down in Ireland in the afternoon, and I had fallen in love before I even set foot on the country.  We spent a few days in Dublin and a night in Galway- we only had 4 days in Ireland, which was a criminal amount: not nearly enough to give the country as much attention or appreciation as it deserves.  We flew from Dublin to London, which was as picturesque as I imagined it would be, but lacked the heart that I had loved so much about Ireland.  Granted, we did only see London, and a country is much more than just it’s capital city (I have vowed to explore both England and Ireland in greater detail at a later date).  The Harry Potter studio was, as advertised, absolutely magical.  By the day of our flight to Senegal, Olivia and I were exhausted.  We had fit so much into our days but we wanted to stay longer, see more, continue our ravenous tea consumption (really just my ravenous tea consumption.)  Simultaneously, we wanted to go home.  However easy it had been to fall into the way of life in the U.K. (reminiscent of America as it was), we did miss a lot of things about Senegal.
Olivia and I got back to our sites a few days before the beginning of Ramadan.  What exactly is Ramadan, you ask?  My eloquent friend Wikipedia explains more articulately than I could: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islamic belief.  I was excited to experience a brand new holiday with a family that I had come to care for so dearly.  The first day of Ramadan arrived and I emerged early from my hut, mug of water in hand, ready to start the fast with my family.  One of my mothers looked at me, smiled, and asked,

“Today you are not fasting?”

I looked at her with some puzzlement.

“Yes I am,” I replied.

My mother’s eyes shot to my mug of water and I realized the mistake that even my youngest siblings would have known not to make.

“I’ll fast but drink water?” I suggested lamely.

My mother laughed and said,

“Today, you will not fast.  You will fast tomorrow.”

The next day, however, I didn’t fast.  My younger sibling ate breakfast and lunch at the regular times and my family insisted I join them.  I didn’t require a whole lot of persuasion, to be perfectly honest.  Ramadan since has continued much the same.  People ask me daily if I’m fasting and if I’m with one of my moms or aunts they always reply for me, “Yes, she is fasting,” and later inform me that it’s easiest to lie.  If I’m by myself I’ll say, “I am fasting only a little bit.”  And people usually laugh, knowing that means that I’m fasting not at all, but seem content enough with the answer. 


Finally, my nephew.  May 28th, Jamie Wirth Daanen was born in CDA Idaho and it broke my heart not to be there to see it.  The first few days after his birth, I was devastated.  I spent more and more time in my room (I was already in there a lot because of Ramadan) and thought about how nice it would be to be home, how nice it would be to see my sister, to meet my nephew.  My mom and my sister updated me with videos and pictures everyday, which made my sorrow both better and worse. 

It must have been just a few days after he was born, I was feeling so low and vulnerable and desperate for company, that I invited about a dozen preteen girls from my compound into my room to color.  I sat on my bed and watched them and felt my heart mend just the smallest bit.  

I made myself leave my hut and spend time with my favorite mom, who is in her third trimester and should be having her own baby very soon.  

I invited my oldest sister (she’s about 11 or 12) to visit the garden with me, where she imparted such wisdoms as rubbing snake skin on your head to prevent snake bites, and being wary around toads because the little ones will crawl up your nose and live there.

I went to my counterpart’s compound and spent time with his second wife’s youngest child, a boy about 4 or 5 months old, who inexplicably loves me despite my strange ghost-like appearance and obvious limited knowledge of how to actually hold babies.  

It got better because I made it get better.  I could look at new photos of my nephew without that sharp pang in my chest that I’d felt before.  I convinced myself that I could be strong and wait to see him until my Christmas visit.  I knew that I would never forgive myself if I left Senegal then.  I couldn’t leave- not after so many months, after so many struggles and triumphs, and not right before rainy season with all the AGFO work that accompanied it. Senegal Sophie perseveres.

The genie in my bike and other stories 

There have been about half a dozen blog posts that I’ve started and almost finished before abandoning.  A friend in  Kaffrine is the diligent blogger that I always told myself I’d be, while knowing full well that such consistency was fundementally uncharacteristic of  Sophie writing.  I write when inspiration hits, and I sit and stare at blank pages during the between times.  This between time has been long and feels like it could last even longer but, for the sake of my extraordinarily patient followers, I will try to piece together bits of inspired writing with the goal of a semi-complete entry.  

About the genie: I live in a village about 10 kilometers from the main road.  Once to the main road, it’s easy to flag down a car and make the 1 hour trip to the sleepy little town of Kaffrine.  A few months ago, the trip to Kaffrine didn’t seem like much trouble, and I actually really enjoyed biking out in the morning before the sun or wind had a chance to get started.  I pass through a couple baobab groves and somewhere in one of them must have been a freshly fallen tree (that’s where genies escape from, you know.)  And it must have seen my bike and decided it would be fun to live there and pop every single rear tire inner tube that I installed.  It is now traditional, about 2 k into a bike ride, that my rear tire pops and I am forced to flag down a friendly charet (donkey or horse drawn cart) of which there thankfully seem to be no end to.  I don’t know exactly how many tubes I’ve popped, but I know it’s more than 8, which seems like too many to me.  Hopefully Joe, our bike repairman, is also a genie exorcist, and my bike can be restored to its previous adequacy before too long.

There was one blog post I half-wrote and considered titling “I haven’t got the Thyme,” sharing perhaps my most consistent failure: herb gardening.  At my request, my mom sent me a comprehensive collection of herb seeds- mint, basil, thyme, sage- the works.  This was before tree work had really started, and I was so excited to be able to start some sort of gardening related project.  So I made up a pot with fresh compost from my very own pile and planted my seeds and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After a month I decided that those particular seeds were a bust, but I was undeterred.  I made a pot with sand and manure and planted new seeds.  I made a little garden bed in my host father’s garden and planted seeds there.  I made a tiny jar with the seeds directly on the surface of the soil, covered the jar with plastic and misted it four times daily to retain a high moisture level.  Nothing worked.  The seeds absolutely refused to sprout at my hand.  Eventually, I gave up and asked a friend in my village for a sprig of mint from her garden, which I planted in a pot and cared for diligently until I left site for a few days and forgot to ask someone to water it.  Alas, my mint joined its seed brethren in their little seed/plant realm of non-existence.  It occurs to me, after five or so months, that my gardening talents might not be in herbs.

Memories and nostalgia hit as suddenly and violently as the dust storms here. Don’t you always remember so much more when home is oceans away?  

I was eating rice with my host family at the communal lunch bowl when I remembered my grandparents house in Virginia- the long dirt road and the cobbled house at the end, simultaneously grandiose and cozy in architectural nature.  Grandma, in that little kitchen, all smiles over her morning cup of coffee.  My feet, padding the old, cold wooden boards, reminding the house of my mothers feet, padding those very same boards a lifetime ago.

I was seeding a work-partner’s tree nursery when I remembered one of so many nights in Helena, piling into that old theater at my sisters high school with my parents, who never failed to bring flowers and a plate of home made sugar cookies.  I would always get sleepy by the end of the play, and grumpy about wearing uncomfortable formal(ish) attire, but I would always perk up at curtain call, just enough to cheer for my sister.  After the play she would come to greet us, glamorous, features exaggerated by stage makeup, our small-Montana-town star.  The car ride home, which used to feel so much longer, always put me to sleep.

Ramadan, my U.K. Trip, an exciting new leg rash, and my newly appointed position as “aunt” will very probably dominate the next blog post, which I will sincerely try to make timely.  Until then!

Mangi Fine

Peace Corps Senegal so far

I think it’s a tendency of languages to borrow from each other.  I don’t know a bit of Japanese, but “sayonara” is used so much in American English that it’s almost an honorary member.  A few American English words that I’ve heard in the Wolof language so far are “fine” and “cool.”

An aunt in a neighboring compound asks whenever I see her, “Yangiy fine?” which translates approximately to ” You are fine?”  And I always reply “Mangiy fine!” (I am fine), which is an accurate and succinct summary of how I’m doing in Peace Corps Senegal.  I am fine!  No day here is perfect, but no day anywhere is.  There are highs and lows: some days have so many high points that I hardly notice the low ones, and other days it’s the other way around.

Language learning is slow but steady.  In the same day I’ve had a 20 minute conversation with a community member about the importance of trees, and later forgotten the most basic response to a greeting from my father.  My family and friends in village continue to be extraordinarily patient with my snail-paced learning speed, and I truly can’t find the words to thank them (really, I can’t find the words- my Wolof dictionary can only get me so far.)

My counterpart is one of the kindest and most patient people I’ve ever met.  His job, as a counterpart, is to be an extra helping hand in my village- someone I can go to with the multitude of questions that arise from living in a brand new culture and speaking a brand new language.  He’s perceptive and attentive and can always tell my hard days from my easy ones.  On one difficult morning he took the time to sit with me and make me tea and say to me (in the dumbed-down version of Wolof he’s developed specially for me) “You left America, where it is comfortable and cold (he knows I love the cold) and there is delicious food and lots of money.  You left your mother and father and older sister to come to Senegal for me and for everyone in Medina Koli.  We are very happy.”  Senegalese culture frowns upon crying in public, but my counterpart tactfully looked the other way while I hastily wiped tears from my eyes.

Still, somedays Senegal is too much.  It’s too hot and the language is too different and too many people want too much of my attention.  When that happens, I allow myself a temporary retreat, just for a few hours.  I read Harry Potter or Calvin and Hobbes, I play my ukulele quietly enough that my family won’t try to come into my room to listen, I call another volunteer and we find comfort in sharing how foreign this country can be.  However, I’ve found it impossible to feel isolated or lonely for too long in this culture- usually sooner rather than later, there’s a knock on my door and a younger brother wanting me to play soccer with him, or my grandmother trying to convince me that I need a pre-lunch snack, or my counterpart asking me over to his compound for attaya (Senegalese tea.)

With this, I reaffirm my initial statement: I am fine.  It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be- and I sincerely can’t think of a place I’d rather be right now.

The things I’ll miss

A thank you to my Ker Sedaro family

A long overdue post that only touches the surface of the gratitude and love I hold for my training host family- I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think them enough.

I think that it’s the little details that you end up missing more than anything.

In Ker Sedaro: waking up the same time every day to the sound of the nearby mosque; scrambling to have a quick breakfast so that I would have time to relax for half a second in the garden before class started; the walk to class that was truly a short distance, but lasted an eternity for all the sun and sand; our teacher who drew from a seemingly bottomless well of smiles, patience, and language learning activities.

My American friends and fellow students: people I hardly knew when training began; the individuals that crouched around the same garden bed as I did and willed seeds to sprout and, later, for seedlings to grow; the people who shared the same laughs and tears that was the world-shattering experience of transitioning from one culture to another; who made the very mistakes that I made and struggled through the differences as much as I did.

At my house: the long hallway that led down to my room, where my brothers and sisters would briefly pretend to study in the evenings; the spiral staircase that led to the rooftop that I never really took full advantage of; the general air of chaos in my compound- a constant flow of animals, children, and visitors and the consequential perpetual absence of silence.

And of course the family that took in such a strange person as myself- who I knew I would miss from the moment I met them: my first mother, who would lay beside me in the evenings on the basan outside; my second mother, who held my hand every time we crossed the street together- the woman who once insisted that I eat an entire chicken for dinner because she was afraid I was too small; my father, who always greeted me with a smile and called me by the last name we shared.

And my siblings!  A hoard of children that I was sure I would never be able to get to know for the sheer quantity of them: my little sisters, who put heaps of fish in my section of the bowl before ever helping themselves to any; my little brothers, who played soccer with a baseball in the hallway, who draped themselves raptly over my shoulders every time I sat down with my sketchbook; my older brothers, who shook my hand every time I saw them, who insisted I listen to every Senegalese song on their phones, and who always managed to find me a chair to sit in when I was in their presence for more than 5 seconds straight.

I know a whole plethora of new little moments await me at my permanent site, but I’ll never forget where they started.


My first (way overdue) update!

This should have happened earlier…

The longer I’ve waited to update this blog the more overwhelming a task it’s become.  I should have written something when I first got to Senegal, should have written something else after the first week of training, and should have written again after I got back from my first stay with my Wolof-speaking Senegalese host family.  But past Sophie is a little lazy, and future Sophie is a bit over critical of her, so I’ll leave it to present Sophie to summarize to the very best of her ability:

After a break-neck-paced introduction to Peace Corps in Washington D.C., 70-some anxious Americans were loaded onto a plane and flown (on a surprisingly short flight) to West Africa.  We landed and departed (by car) from Dakar before the city had a chance to wake up, and arrived at the training center in Thies in full daylight.  We were met by an exuberant party of Peace Corps staff, given a short time to nap and eat, and then thrown unceremoniously into training.  We spent the next week learning about Senegalese agriculture and getting to know our brand new country!

After an interview about what sort of permanent site we’d be interested in, we were assigned languages and CBT (community based learning) sites.  I’m learning Wolof in the delightful and vibrant village of Ker Sadaro not too far from the training center in Thies.  Altogether, I’ve spent about two weeks in my training site, learning the language and the culture and getting to know my host family, trainee site mates, and wonderful Senegalese teachers.  In hopes of finishing and getting this posted today, I will save family life and village adventures for a separate entry, as they are generally lengthy and deserve full descriptions.

Now, I’m back in Thies with the rest of my stage (all 70- some of us!) taking midterm technical exams and waiting impatiently for Wednesday (when our permanent site locations will be revealed) and Thursday (when we travel there.)  Next posts will update everyone on where I’m heading, and give Ker Sadaro the time it deserves.  I hope everyone at home is doing well and enjoying the weather (don’t take that snow for granted, Montanans- I would kill for some right now!)

Miles and Memories

An ode to my backpack

A good travel companion can be hard to find.  You need to be compatible enough to coexist with one another in potentially difficult and lengthy adventures, while being different enough to bring complementary skills to the table.  I was lucky enough to find those traits in my first and best travel companion, my rust-colored backpack, which accompanied me on my first grand adventure and every adventure since.

In 2011, I got involved with an international education NGO based out of my very own home town (Helena Montana), and later that year was able to go on one of their yearly trips to India to visit some of the schools they funded.  I couldn’t believe my luck!  I had barely been out of my state before this, let alone my country.  I hadn’t even visited Canada, which was a measly 3-hour drive away.

The packing list was lengthy and specific.  Naturally, I decided that my first and most well researched purchase would be for something not on the list at all: a new backpack.  I’d had my share of ordinary big box store school packs, none of which managed to survive more than about a year in my not-so-gentle care.  Shoulder straps broke, pockets ripped out, zippers gave up- I was a backpack menace, and I was apprehensive about spending any real amount of money on something that I had such a natural talent to destroy.  I eventually settled on an Osprey React pack, based on excellent reviews, an aesthetically pleasing color, and Osprey’s sweet bird logo.

And so my brand new backpack and I embarked on our first adventure.  It was stuffed roughly under seats on international flights, strapped haphazardly on jeep-tops in India’s high northern mountains, cradled as a (decidedly hard) makeshift pillow on long overnight trains, nearly forgotten in more than one hotel, and still managed to make it back to the U.S. relatively unscathed.

My backpack finished out my last year of high school to continue onto four years of college, it accompanied me on my first field job and all those to follow, went on every weekend trip I took to hot springs and wildlife migration sites and every stop in between.  It assisted me on every domestic flight I took, as well as two more trips to India and brief stays in the international airports and occasional hotels en route.

Years of adventures, however, have finally taken their toll through finicky zippers, rapidly thinning fabric walls, and mesh pockets that now consist of a single large hole instead of many small ones.  For the first adventure in nearly 6 years, my rusty backpack is not coming with me.  Instead, it will rest comfortably in my room, filled with memories and miles, enjoying a well-earned retirement.

The job of travel companion has been passed on to a new generation of back pack.  An Oprey Escapist: a spotless royal blue, with every bell and whistle a girl on an adventure could ask for.  And while I have only faith in my new companion’s dedication to the job, it will have some rather large zipper pockets to fill.P1050903

Oh, the places we’ll go

Starting somewhere!

Hi everyone!  I’m so excited to invite you to follow me on my Peace Corps Senegal adventures through this blog.  September 22nd I fly to D.C. and a few days later I fly to Senegal to start my language and agroforestry training.

That leaves me about one more month to get everything together, which seems like an unbelievably short amount of time to me.  I don’t need to tell you how excited I am, and I don’t want to tell you how nervous.

I’m not sure where this blog is going to go in the next several years, but I can guarantee that it will be exciting!  So join me, and we’ll see where we can go.