The Most Overwhelming Day Of My Life

In Peace Corps Senegal, your first week consists of cultural and work training while your supervisors get to know you. They decide what site to send you to based on your personality, interests, and background. Once they know where you are going, they assign you one of eight languages that Peace Corps works with in the country. I do not know what criteria they used to assign me to the village they did (though thank god, because it was objectively the best village. Seriously, even other Peace Corps workers commented on how special my village was. My bragging has substance!). But whatever the criteria was, I was sent to a Mandinka village and thus had to learn Mandinka.

Before going to your permanent site, you spend two months moving back and forth between Thies (where the Peace Corps training center is, one of the nicest PC centers in Sub-Saharan Africa) and your training city. My training city was Mbour, a tourist (well, "tourist", this is Senegal after all) city on the coast. In these training cities, you live with a host family who speaks the language you are to learn. Through the 6ish weeks you live with them, you learn both language and culture. It's a wonderful system that I wish more PC countries offered. Often in PC, you have a host family during training but you only have dinner with them, or you only stay over twice a week, for example. In Senegal, you are with them more than half of the time during training. This was essential for getting used to the idea of moving to a small village.

The day after the 60ish of us in my training group were told our languages, we were packed into various cars and buses and driven to our training sites. I was on a bus that fit about 18 of us. We drove through two sites, slowly dropping people off at host family compounds. It was nerve-wracking to watch through the window as my peers walked through the front doors and into their new lives. But I kept watching and watching, because Peace Corps waited until near the end to arrive at my host family's neighborhood. This was a good thing from a nerves perspective, because after watching 15 people get dropped off, I'd become a bit bored. But finally, #16, there I was, standing in the deep Mbour sand.

You know who wasn't standing there? Anyone from my host family. The family lived too far down the sandy path for the bus to drive, and Peace Corps had arranged for the family to meet me on the road. The person dropping everyone off walked me over to a different host family's compound (just to the left of this photo) and asked them to watch me until my family showed up. Or I assume that's what they said anyways, they were speaking Wolof which I did not nor still do not.

"This is off to an excellent start," I thought grumpily, sitting in a corner while the family fussed over their actual American. Finally, an older, giggly man arrived. No words were exchanged, but using body language it was clear that he was there to claim me. I smiled at the family who had housed me for the half an hour, then followed the man with my bag and mosquito net in tow. He tried to speak with me, but considering I had only about one hour's worth of Mandinka lessons at that point, we didn't get much past, "hello."

Upon arrival at the compound, I was shown to my bedroom (the one with the pink curtain). The old man helped me hang my mosquito net over the posts, and then he disappeared. I wandered back into the courtyard to find a woman beckoning me towards the main room of the house. I followed, and tried to greet her, but she just smiled, pointed inside, and then walked away.

I walked in to find a room full of children watching television. As soon as I realized what they were watching, I let out an audible giggle that caused me to be on the receiving end of annoyed glances from said children. They were watching Tom and Jerry! As I perched on a plastic chair in the corner, I watched and smiled. I was highly amused by the fact that here I was, in my first hour of Peace Corps in Sub-Saharan Africa, watching Tom and freaking Jerry.

Soon came lunch. Mats were laid onto the sand and bowls laid down. The men sat around a bowl near the main room, while the women ate around a bowl near my room. I was handed a spoon, and the other women also ate with spoons while the girls (and boys, boys eat with the women until they are about 8) ate with their right hands. The meal itself was thiéboudienne, which is the national dish of the country (though most rural villages don't eat this often, because it is hard to acquire the main ingredient of fish). it is a rice-based dish, with vegetables and fish. If you ever visit Senegal, you have to eat this on principle. It would be like going to Italy and not having pasta.

After lunch, the old man indicated that I should follow him outside the compound. We made the rounds through the neighborhood as he introduced me to many people, all of whom were excited and then disappointed that I could not yet speak Mandinka like he was claiming I could.

As we walked, I took in the surroundings. There were goats and chickens everywhere, tires everywhere (this especially stuck out to me), and the deep sand made even the slow shuffling we were doing quite the cardio workout. As time went on, I came to not even notice all of the livestock and garbage everywhere, but this was my first day outside of the Peace Corps bubble in Thies. My senses were in overdrive and everything was still new.

We got back to the compound to find my Mandinka teacher, Pape, waiting for us. He greeted the old man, and then sat with me. "How is it going?" he asked in English. "Oh, fine, though I still don't know my name." He looked shocked, and barked over to the family in Wolof to ask my name. They said something, and then they and he laughed as he turned back to me, rolling his eyes. "They told you your name, you just didn't understand them. We learned this phrase yesterday, you need to be a better student. Your name is Khadiata." (This was pronounced hi-jet-uh.) He then told me that Mandinka class would be the next morning, 9am, at the house that I had waited at earlier.

After Pape left, the women indicated that I should sit with them while they did random little chores under the shade of their large tree. Normally, I would offer to help but I was verging on the point of overwhelmed and I didn't want to add any more experiences to my day. While I sat there, the front gate of the compound burst open with a fight. Yes, an actual fight. Several brawling men fell into the yard as the women sprang to their feet and rushed forward. I sat, wide-eyed, as fists were thrown and women grabbed men, until finally the mob left and the man at the center of the fight stormed off into the house. The women came back over to me, visibly angry, and resumed their work. And I just sat there wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into.

The rest of the day was spent with me mostly just sitting and staring at various walls, trees, and spots in the sand. I couldn't join in the conversation obviously (though once I learned a little bit of the language and culture, I realized that I wouldn't have been able to anyways. See, the Mandinka are a very small ethnic group in Senegal, for reasons I will explain in a later blog. Finding host families in Mbour that speak the language is very difficult for Peace Corps, and often they have to settle. Thus, of my compound of 25 people, only about 6 spoke Mandinka. The family spoke Wolof with one another. But that first day, I couldn't tell the two languages apart and just assumed I simply didn't know how to say anything yet).

When dinner time rolled around, I watched from afar as one of the women brought something to my room. I furrowed my brow as she called, "Khadiata!" over the yard. Perplexed, I walked over. She then grabbed my wrist, dragged me into my room, handed me a fork, and then left. I was spluttering the whole time, but she ignored me. She then shut the door and I stood there, fork in hand, staring after her. I sank into the chair, picked up the plate, and miserably ate. See, in Thies, we had been told that meal times were extremely important and that it is very rude to eat alone. "Do they hate me already, if they don't want to eat with me?" I was very sad and lonely and confused in that moment. The whole day had been exhausting, and as soon as I finished eating I motioned that I was going to go to bed. We all waved to one another, and I shut my door.

I fell asleep rather quickly. But then, around 3am, I awoke to a terrifying scream. I bolted upright as light flooded the yard. The scream happened again. But just as I began to panic, I realized that the people who had come outside to investigate the noise were rushing to the herd of goats tied in the yard. I realized that the scream was a goat giving birth. She must be in distress, and the men had come outside to help. I lay back down, heart still pounding, and listened as they pulled twin kids from her.

The next day, mama goat and the twins were doing fine. And I found out that much of the family spoke French, which was an immediate relief. Finally, I was able to communicate with them! Through French, I was able to learn everyone's names. The old man from the day before was named Ibrahima, and he was my host brother (though because of the age difference, I called him my uncle). I also found out that the reason I had dinner alone was because they know that in America, things are different, and that I was new to Senegal and should be eased in. They thought I would be most comfortable eating alone once a day. They also made relatively western meals for dinners, so that I would have something else familiar. And to think, the night before I was convinced they didn't like me.

It was amazing the difference a day and a language made. I am not normally an "overwhelmed by culture" person, but this experience was different than anything else I had experienced. This wasn't a vacation. This was the first day of the next 26 months of my life. This was the first day of learning a language I knew I would someday be able to speak. The first day of living in a culture entirely different from my own. The first true day of Peace Corps, the dream I had finally achieved after a decade of desire. It was a lot to take in. But, save for the few seconds in the middle of the night where I thought somebody was being murdered, it was the best kind of overwhelming.