525600 Minutes

I would like to preface this blog with the statement that I do not really care for the musical Rent (there are so many better musicals out there!) but damn if that song isn’t catchy and an accurate measurment of time.

Sometimes I find my life here so monotonous that my mind has trouble justifying writing another blog post like all the ones before.  Because of this and some other reasons (mostly involving laziness and some insecurity about how rusty my writing skills have gotten) I find Senegal Sophie a year into her service with barely half a dozen posts to show for it.  I’m going to stop saying that I’ll try to be better about consistency, because that hopefulness has become unrealistic. What passes for apologies aside, here’s a review of the previous year:

September 2016:

I left Montana with a mother straight out of surgery to remove a malignant tumor and a childhood dog with rapidly worsening lung function.  Once at the airport, I forgot my ukulele in my dad’s car and he had to come up to the security line to deliver it to me.  The last thing I remember seeing in my beloved home state was my dad’s tear-stained face through my own tear-blurred vision as he handed me the tiny 4-string instrument.  A year later- my mom is totally recovered, my dog is on regular medication and his breathing is fine, and I have learned 0 new songs on my uke.

So after a month of shopping and completely repacking my bags at least 5 times, I arrived in D.C. to go through a (truthfully) unnecessary orientation to Peace Corps.  We boarded the plane with instructions to smuggle the airline blankets into our luggage because we’d be glad to have them once in country (sage advice, cold season here seems very cold after the very hot hot season).

October 2016:

Training in Thies began in earnest.  My mom sent her first care package that included a festive Halloween mask and didn’t arrive until November.  Trainees started community based training and I began my stay with a host family in Ker Sadaro slightly outside of the city of Thies.  Later in the month, I learned that I would be placed in the Kaffrine region, and was able to visit Medina Koli, my future home, for the first time.  My then-2 year old future host sister and best friend, Yita, fell asleep mistrustfully in my lap during my village’s welcome-party, and I was smitten.

November 2016:

Training continued and the Wolof language didn’t get any easier.  The Agroforestry aspect of the curriculum increased in intensity, and I discovered that I liked working with trees and gardens (who would have guessed?).  I started taking extra lessons with my language and cultural instructor to try to improve my Wolof.  Progress was dishearteningly slow and difficult and I began to question if I was the right fit for PC Senegal.  Volunteers pulled together in a stupendous effort to recreate the classic American Thanksgiving meal, and proved wildly successful!

December 2016:

Against all odds, I passed my language test with an adequate score.  My fellow volunteers and I traveled to Dakar and swore in as official Peace Corps volunteers!  A few days after that, Peace Corps vans dropped us off at our regional houses and we went on a shopping spree, spending our move in allowance to buy hut essentials: mattresses, bed frames, buckets, laundry tubs, trunks, floor mats, and kitchen supplies.

I moved in with the family that would be mine for the next few years and started to get settled.  Peanut harvest was nearing an end, and I spent most days sitting with women in my compound cracking the nuts.  The volunteers of Kaffrine spent a quiet and somber Christmas at the regional house, trying and failing to make the holiday as jolly as each of us remembered it being back home.

January 2017:

Cultural integration continued, slowly slowly.  I got to know the layout of my village, got to know the members of my family and of the community.  I cracked enough peanuts to build calluses on my fingers and started acquiring a taste for the too-sweet green tea called attaya that they cook here.

February 2017:

The AG volunteers of 2016 returned to Thies to continue technical training.  We spent 2 weeks at the training center learning how to graft trees, construct live fences, amend soil, create compost piles, build earthworks, and a variety of other techniques.

March 2017:

Kaffrine held a mural tourney, and a very excited Medina Koli got to host a handful of volunteers.  At my site, we painted a bayobob tree and a map of Senegal (with the names of the regions written in French and Arabic).

I began gathering work partners in my village to create tree nurseries and start seeding them.  I had my first training with 10 community members who seemed particularly passionate about tree work.

April 2017:

A new group of Health and CED (Comunity Economic Development) volunteers joined the Kaffrine family.

I started working on tree nurseries in earnest- my efforts would eventually result in 16 nurseries and over 1,300 trees in the ground come rainy season.

Hot season began and I started to realize that, while work on the Montana prairie had increased my heat tolerance by some, nothing could have prepared me for true West African heat.

May 2017:

My good friend, and fellow PCV, Olivia Murphey-Sweet and I took our first out-of-Senegal vacation to Ireland and England.  I fell in love with every aspect of Ireland and made myself a promise to return soon and spend more time there.  Harry Potter Studios in England was a truly magical experience.

May 28, 2017- My nephew Jamie Wirth Daanen was born in CDA, Idaho to my only sister and best friend.  The week after Jamie’s birth was the closest I’ve come to quitting the Peace Corps.

June 2017:

Ramadan began in June and, charmed as I was by the Muslim holiday, I quickly became very bored with the substantial increase of down-time.  To be honest, I never really intended on fasting, and many days were spent quietly in my hut, munching goldfish my mom had mailed me or cooking Senegalese instant noodles.  Despite the heat, my tea consumption practically doubled.

Breaking the fast was always fun.  My family members were so tired and hungry by the end of the day, and bread with tea was welcomed gladly by all of us as dusk grew around our village.  Most nights, I fell asleep on a mattress outside beside one of my host moms, only retreating to my hut after the night had cooled it enough to comfortable sleep there.

July 2017:

Volunteers gathered in the south of Senegal to celebrate July 4th, and did our forefathers and foremothers proud by the scope of the party.

Rainy Season began on the last day of Ramadan.  I had never seen so much liquid water fall from the sky at once (I had seen great quantities of precipitating frozen water, courtesy of my home state).  The rains, while torrential, were inconsistent, and the out-planting of trees did not really get started until near the end of the month.

August 2017

August was all about the trees!  After months of caring for trees in nurseries, my work partners and I finally started getting them comfortable settled in the ground.  As I previously mentioned, we got somewhere around 1,300 trees in the ground (which is simultaneously a lot and not that many).  300 of those trees were planted in a single day by my host father and I, a feat that I will never try to accomplish again because it was soul-crushingly exhausting.

September 2017:

And so, finally, here we are- 1 year later.  It doesn’t quite do it justice, condensing it down into a single thousand-something word blog post.  This September has been spent planting the last of the nursery trees in Medina Koli and waiting for the new AG/AGFO stage to arrive.  They’re scheduled to come in just about the time that I did- a few days before the end of the month.  Rains are dying down and soon rainy season will be over and long-awaited cold season will begin.

Coming up:

Corn harvest will begin shortly, followed by peanut harvest.  My host brother and host cousin will be having a double wedding after harvest season is completely finished, and after that I’ll be headed home to Montana to spend Christmas with my family and meet my nephew, Baby Jamie!  After that, I’ll have less than a year left in my service, and I’ve heard the closer volunteers get to completion of service and faster time seems to go.  Chances are I’ll write at least one more blog post in that time.  Cheers!


Next time on Senegal Sophie: Chai Talkin’ (or, a blog post about India and how much I miss it)


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!)