Yesterday I was lounging in a chair next to my Senegalese grandparents, Caaxi and Caaxi Jogie, both of whom were spread out on a mat, trying to come up with an intelligent question in Sereer to break the silence between the three of us. Silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing; god knows it’s better than being laughed at, and I have had more than my fair share of that these past few months…but it was in this moment I felt the time was right to string together something (ANYTHING!) that would prove I’m no longer the miming, pidgeon Sereer speaking, village idiot.
I have tenses – distant past, sort of present and questionable future!
I can say, “It’s too hot, my body is burning!”
I can ask condescending questions about health (it’s important) and malaria (it kills people)!
As soon as I started to open my mouth, Ya’Astou (Mother Astou) plopped her baby, Fatou, in my lap before making her way to the other side of the compound. Their Fatou sat, staring just as bewildered at me as I was at her. I had yet to be given the opportunity to hold this child in the 7 weeks I’ve been living in her family’s house. I think it may have something to do with the fact that on my first day, I complimented on how beautiful she was to Ya’Astou while touching the child with my left hand…(The hand used for wiping one’s ass when going to the bathroom…The one we’ve adamantly been told to never use unless absolutely necessary and even then should reconsider borrowing someone else’s right hand). I was immediately mortified at my faux pas, made evident to me as my hand was swatted away with a look of disgust. That was day 1, this was day 49, making it a momentous occasion and an honor to have been pardoned and joined the ranks of pseudo caretaker like the rest of her children.
Their Fatou sat, doe eyes watering, lip quivering and on the verge of a very loud, very emotional breakdown. I jumped up, and jostled her around in my arms which, of course, only made it worse. The radio was my only saving grace. Caaxi Jogie had fallen asleep to the sound of a static French radio program, so I leaned over and turned the dial to what sounded like slow Senegalese music. I swayed Fatou to the beat, patting her back and shushing her softly. Still no luck – her wailing had hit a shrill pitch so I changed stations and did what I’ve seen so many of her sisters do. With Fatou in my arms, I shook my booty, stomped my feet, and danced as close to Senegalese style dancing as my body was capable of imitating. This drew an unexpected crowd. Several small children came out of the woodwork to stare at their Chinese-American foreigner sweating, shaking her jifonde (big bootie) and prancing around in the sand with a tiny African baby on her hip. Then they joined in, kicking up the sand with their feet, laughing and coaxing Fatou off the brink and into a happy stupor of coos and excited giggles. I’m not entirely sure I dispelled the village idiot identifier; however, the look of surprise on Ya’Astou’s face was enough validation.
It’s hard to describe the range of emotions that happens in this integration and language learning of the Peace Corps Training process, but in brief: the past few months have been trying, if not exhausting, my patience – with me and with others. I’ve developed an irrational hatred towards verb conjugations, unnecessary whining, mosquitos, and slow internet. Two-thirds of my day is spent trying to jimmy together basic phrases (“Me full. Me go wash hands.”) and the remaining third spent trying to decipher what people are saying to me (Do you want blank or blank? When blank goes to the market blank. Ok?) I am well fed – though I will go into greater detail about food later. I eat with my RIGHT hand and wipe with my LEFT. I have yet to pull a maggot out of my body like some people I know, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. I try to make my host family laugh (with or at me) at least once a day. The Sereer and Pularr ethnic groups of Senegal are cousin languages and have a joking relationship over who reigned over whom “back in the day,” so there are a lot of “You’re my slave!” comments being made that feel wrong and hilarious at the same time.
We have another few weeks before swearing in and installing to our permanent sites, so I am savoring the remaining time I have with my family in Ngoundiane and friends at the training center. I am headed to the village of Boli Sereer in the Fatick region. I went to visit my ancienne for a few days before she ended her service and recently completed a workshop with my village counterpart who will be helping facilitate my transition into the community. A bit nostalgic over leaving the Faye family as we are just now starting to hit our stride, but looking forward to rooting myself in my work!