90 Minutes From Electricity

Updated: Oct 25, 2018

One of the closer Peace Corps sites to my village was Koumpentoum, the "capital" of the department I lived in. Kathleen lived there, with the former mayor of the town and his family. Their family was unique among the Peace Corps families in the Koumpentoum Department, as they were the only one to have electricity. Notice, her hut had a FRIDGE. Also, tiled floors. Girl lived in the lap of luxury.

Her host father (who also had a pet sheep, which was adorable), in addition to having been the mayor, had also gone to university in Belgium and had provided his family a comfortable living. The family was also unique in its smallness - he was an older man, so most of his 11 children were older and had had the education that allowed them the opportunity to have left the house. Thus, it was only time, his one wife, their three youngest sons, Kathleen, and sometimes a couple of renters. Compare that to my compound of 60ish people! I visited Koumpentoum more than I visited almost any other Peace Corps site, mostly because I liked Kathleen a whole lot, but also because the calmness and electricity provided by her household was a nice respite from my village. I loved the chaos of Velingara Koto, don't get me wrong, but I wouldn't have a travel blog if I didn't like breaks from real life.

To get to Koumpentoum, I would bike the 5.6 miles (9 km) from Velingara Koto to Touba Sum Sum, a small village on the road. I hated going there, it was a much more difficult bike ride than the 9 miles (15 km) towards the larger road town of Maleme Niani, where I did a lot of work/caught public transport to the regional capital of Tambacounda. While the ride to Maleme Niani was flat and relatively hard, the ride to Touba Sum Sum was hilly, deeply sandy, and also had a village in the middle of it that I did not like going through. It usually took about 45 minutes to get from Velingara Koto to the road, and then another 45 minutes to bike the highway to Koumpentoum 11 miles (18km) away. Yes, it took the same amount of time to travel twice the distance because, again, the bush path was sandy af.

Upon arrival at Kathleen's compound, I would shove my bike into a corner of her hut, greet her family, and then we would almost always immediately head off to the internet cafe. During the 26 months I lived in Senegal, I only got online every couple of weeks. While I didn't miss the lack of internet in my daily life, I won't pretend that I wasn't greedily soaking it in when I did get online. I usually spent at least $1 at the cafe (one hour's worth).

The owner of the cafe was a wonderful couple, the Camara's, who also ran a nearby high school that Kathleen acquired scholarship funds for some of the girls. It's not often that you'll find a woman principal in Senegal, so I was happy to spend my money at the internet cafe. However, as is the Senegalese way, once they got to know me they stopped making me pay past the initial half an hour, even under my protests.

Sometimes, I would come to Koumpentoum because I had to drop off a radio show recording. Once a month, I created a 30-minute radio show on GarageBand with two other Peace Corps workers. I would start and end each program in French, and then the three of us would discuss whatever health topic was that month's theme in Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka (I covered the Mandinka). I would then input some American music in between segments, in order to share our culture with our hosts. Which probably meant nobody listened. Whoever came up with the claim that music is the universal language had clearly never been to Africa. I didn't like their music and they didn't like mine. But anyways, if you're interested, here are some of them. I got lazy after awhile though, and stopped uploading after a few months.

The electricity wasn't just used to access Facebook and infiltrate local households with "All Star". What follows are two of my favorite events that occurred because the city had electricity.

1. At one point in her service, Kathleen, ever the fit woman, joined a new gym that opened in town. Well, gym is perhaps a strong word for it, but there was a pilates class that she was enthusiastic about. One day when I did an overnight trip, Kathleen invited me to the Open House the pilates class was holding for the community. We got there at the time the invitation said, which meant we were the earliest by at least an hour (Ah, Africa Time). While we waited, we helped the instructor, Cheikh, unstack the plastic chairs he had for the meeting, and then we took the front-center two. He had on a random Australian workout video, playing from a projector onto the wall. It was weirdly enthralling watching these absurdly jacked Aussies yelling motivation statements towards us (especially as we lounged in the chairs).

Once people showed up, Cheikh gave a short introduction in Wolof (of which I spaced out for, as I don't speak the language) and then he marched us all outside to the large courtyard. There was a stage at the end, and he told everyone who had already been to a pilates class to join him on it. Kathleen looked a bit panic-stricken but she did as she was told. I just smirked. Once everyone was on stage, he announced that they were going to perform a pilates demonstration. I watched Kathleen visibly shrink towards the back corner, but Cheikh dragged her front and center. I was openly laughing at this point. Then the dance music turned on and off they all went. It was...well, imagine if you watched a song from your local Zumba class. Kathleen did well, at least, and was really into it by the end. When the song ended, Cheikh bounded over to the class to cheer them and high five everyone. Well, everyone except Kathleen, who was definitely left hanging. But she played it smooth, it was fine.

Once they had rejoined us off stage, Cheikh gave everybody class information (schedule, cost, the usual). While he did, the local karate class filed in. I just kind of blinked at this - even though Kathleen and I were only 15.6 miles (25 km) apart, our Peace Corps services were quite different. I had no idea that there were karate classes nearby! They had the white uniform and everything!

2. Another visit, we were invited to the local high school's English Club. While we had been looking forward to an evening of doing nothing, we figured we should actually, you know, do some work, so we agreed. The theme of the evening was "the internet", and the kids were separated into two groups for a debate. The upsides vs downsides of the internet. The upsides: connect with people, access to information, etc. The downsides: easy access to porn. By the way, this photo is the only one I took. Kathleen kindly provided the rest for me.

Finally, one final upside to the electricity of Koumpentoum was evening in Kathleen's hut. So, so much tv was watched on her laptop (via her hard drive, not internet. She had a cushy life for Peace Corps, but not cushy enough to have internet in her hut). Throughout the 18 months that we overlapped in Senegal, we got through all of "Justified" (sooo good) and much of "Flight of the Concords" (not as good). As well as movies, or other episodes of random shows. I was also able to charge my phone's multiple batteries - I had three because it was hard to charge them in village, so that way I was guaranteed about a week's worth of phone life between them.