When volunteers in my March '11 cohort arrived, we were placed in our community-based training sites within four days. It was a complete shock to the system, dropped off in the courtyard of someone else's family compound with a very limited amount of formal language training. The first 10 minutes were the scariest and most surreal 10 minutes of my life; imagine being seated in a plastic chair with a circle of kids around trying to hold your hand, a man who is now your new father trying to communicate with you and an entire family telling you their names and laughing at you. Your father is also trying to hold your hand by the way, men holding hands in this culture being one of the differences that added up to too much for that first moment.
I soon managed to get over it by trying to take hold of the situation. I took out a pen and paper and started asking for everyone's name, writing little descriptions next to the name. I then asked my host father to show me around the village. This got me out of the plastic throne they had put me in and made me feel better. I soon started to feel more like a master of the universe, a whole new town in a whole new part of the world. I applied a trivial trick to calm me down and make me feel more in control: remember that everyone in this world is crazy, myself included. It's like the trick "imagine everyone is wearing underwear", but for real life not just the stage.
I gradually became more comfortable. Language which first presented itself as a hurdle became a fun and challenging puzzle. I'd never been fully immersed in a language and let me say it is a most exciting experience. Using intuition, skills of observation and body language one can solve pieces of the puzzle. And just like solving a piece of any puzzle, you get a jolt of confidence and thrill! I ended up literally jumping up and down sometimes I finally understood something, while everyone would just nod their heads and say to me the local equivalent of, DUH!
I began to excel at Pulaar Fulakunda, my language, but there were times when I didn't have enough skill to explain myself as well as I would've liked. Us volunteers would be shipped between Thies Training Center and our host family's compound just about every week. One day I came back to my family after doing some formal training in Thies and one of my three mothers was having health problems. She said she wasn't sleeping well for four days, and she was wearing some ridiculously huge cloth head wrap. She told me her ear hurt too much to sleep, and I asked her to take off the head wrap. She had cotton stuffed in one of her ear canals, and the cotton looked like it was soaked with iodine or some chemical, or more likely a traditional medication derived from an herb or flower. I became really scared, I love this woman Fatou, the funniest of my three mothers. We once went marching around town selling bread and singing "I have strength, I have muscles, I'm carrying a sack!". Her humor came out best though through great presentations of what a word or phrase meant:
we are walking down a road and it's getting really dark
Fatou: Reno, laawol ngol motyani ga, Ablai.
Me: Mi Faamaani. (I dont understand)
Fatou: Awa. Lar.
Fatou starts walking ahead of me and pretends to trip. She cries out and kicks the road for it's insolence. Then she gets in front of me and says RENO! RENO! I quickly move to the side.
Me: Ohhhhhh! I get it! Wooooo! The road is bad!
Me: Reno Fatou! Reno!
Fatou leaps to one side with a smile, looking back at the road to see if a snake is on it or something.
So Fatou is sick, and she needs to go to the doctor. I'm guessing she has an ear infection. If she didn't have one before, she sure does now that there is a black cotton ball stuffed in her ear. She tells me she can't go to the doctor because she doesn't have the money. Can't her husband give her the money? It doesn't matter to me really, she means so much to me and I'd never given money to any Senegalese person before, perhaps I should start with my favorite. So I gave her four dollars.
It may have been my imagination, but for the rest of the day my family looked and treated me differently. Mostly the women. My family numbered around 30 people: 4 men, 9 or 10 women and a bunch of kids. The women had switched from beginner Pulaar to phrases I wouldn't have been able to understand. I would ask what they meant and they would laugh. They were mocking me. I went to my room to take a nap but I couldn't get to sleep, everyone was screaming and fighting outside. I knew it was about me. Notorious BIG was right! Money equals problems! Why did I give her anything? What should I do?
I had to get out of my room, out of my house. I excused myself, barely saying anything, and I walked to my friend's compound. On the way, as I usually did, I stopped at a neighbor's house to greet. A man I'd never met before was there with the kids of the house and the matron. I greeted them and he asked where I was from:
Him: I am so happy to have met you! An American learning Pulaar, this is very important! You make me so happy!
Me: Really? I'm happy too! I'm happy you're happy!
I tell him I'm happy but I have to go, I'm visiting a friend. The stranger, Amadu, asks me to stop by on the way back from my friends house. There is something he wants to give me. I leave and come back. He has written me a poem. The poem is in English on one side of the paper, Pulaar on the flip side. It's called Money isn't Everything or Kallis wonaa Fof, and goes something like this:
You can buy a clock, but you can't buy time.
You can buy blood, but you can't buy life.
You can buy a girl, but you can't buy love.
You can buy a book, but you can't buy knowledge.
And on and on it went. I'm floored. This man, whom I just met, proved to me that it's no big deal, money isn't everything. If someone think's it is then they are wrong and should chill out. It was such apt timing, and this coming from a Pulaar, so poetic in itself. I went home with a smile and hung out with my family. We ate and ignored the elephant. The next morning I read the poem to my family. I couldn't gauge their reaction but it didn't really matter, we are all crazy and our reactions to problems and complex situations can bring out such insanity.
In the end, giving money to my family was the wrong choice. It was my first and last handout, something that local NGOs here love to do. But my reaction to the wrong choice was doubly wrong. If I care about someone and let them have some money, why do I have to be sad and scared? By happy! They need the money, I would have just bought Coca Cola and cookies but maybe she will actually go to the doctor now. The next morning she did, and I was happy.
There is another story of someone speaking English to me at just the right time, but I'll save that for another time. Bye for now!