“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Over a year ago, on a plane between Nebraska and D.C., this is the quote I read, photocopied and folded into the middle of my Dad’s last letter of advice before I left on my journey as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. My father, a great admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, couldn’t have known how perfectly those words spoke to me, as I sat there gazing over the clouds out the small porthole window, and for the first time since I set my heart on Peace Corps as a junior in college, feeling afraid. The quote calmed me, and even in my doubt that finally my adventurous soul had overstepped itself, I lifted my chin and folded the quote into my pocket. Over this past year, I have unfolded and re-read that quote often, as a sustaining verse to the life I lead here, but also a reminder of the people who love me and are back at home rooting for me every day.
Over a year after that first plane ride, my #1 fans, the people who raised me to be the person who decided Peace Corps was the life for me, arrived. My parents, Jim and Julianna Jenkins, stepped off the plane in Dakar to sounds, smells, and sights very different from those they left behind in the airport at Denver. They managed get out the door before I arrived, even as I urged my taxi driver faster as he zipped along the main parallel to the ocean. The crash of waves in the darkness of the 5 o’clock am morning seemed to match my heart, as I raced towards my parents who I hadn’t seen for over a year. Before I got there, Dad decided to use one of the airport guys’ phones to call me because I was late.
“Whitney!” said my Dad’s voice from the unknown number. “Where are you? We’ve landed and one of these nice men gave me his phone to call you.”
I groaned. “Great,” I thought. “I’ll now be getting marriage proposals from this guy until I block his phone number.” Either way, I assured them I was on my way and told Dad not to talk to any more seemingly friendly airport hawkers.
Before the cab even stopped, I was opening the door and running towards ARRIVALS. There they were, Mom with arms thrown open and Dad surrounded by a bunch of Senegalese guys, who he now seemed quite buddy, buddy with.
“MOM!” I shrieked and took off running. As soon as I hugged her it was if we had never been apart. It surely hadn’t been a year. I untangled my father from the hawkers and gave them a good scolding in Pulaar for trying to harang my father into their schemes and as soon as we finagled a taxi for a third of the asking price, we took off for the hotel.
It will be hard to fit everything that we experienced together into one small blog, especially since I’m sure my parents have an even different perspective on our trip. I will say though, that even after horrible transportation, an unending string of confusing and disorganized events which is Senegal, both of my parents remained (for the most part) patient and with their humor intact. Not only did they sit through all day transport without complaint, but they managed a rigorous hike in Kedougou that most volunteers wouldn’t dream of having their parents attempt. I felt lucky. Even after two weeks, I wasn’t sick of them. Now how many kids can say that?? J
Dakar, the bustling metropolis capitol city of Senegal, greeted my parents with the frantic un-muffled rush of too many taxis and the sharp smell of fish that always seems prevalent in the city. Mom had reserved a room at The Farid, a hotel that made you feel like you were back in Europe until you looked out the window into the sparsely furnished apartment rooms across the street with children’s clothing like rags blowing on twine lines above the chipped balcony walls.
There was really no time for them to rest, I whisked them off right away to my favorite breakfast place in Dakar. Over the three days we were there, I took them to all my favorite breakfast places, as well as my favorite ocean side restaurant for dinner one night. I think they might not be feeling so sorry for me anymore. Living in Africa isn’t as hard as it seems sometimes!
After breakfast, we headed to Goree Island, the most historical and touristy site in Dakar, which I had waited to go to until my parents came. The nature of the island lends to a dark feeling, one that needs to be felt, but not more than once, which is why now that I’ve done Goree, I probably won’t go back again. Goree Island shipped out the most slaves in all of West Africa.
We stood in the doorway where millions of Africans stepped through, never to return home again. It was chilling, with its dark concrete holding cells and plush balcony above the slave door, where the overseer must have stood with drink in hand as he watched his business transaction completed. The rest of the island was charming and reminiscent of Europe. It was home to many artists and I helped my parents bargain for two paintings. My Dad quickly learned about the exhausting art of resisting and repelling hawkers as we sat along the beach to enjoy lunch. Unfortunately, the seats closest to the beach were also the easiest access to hawkers. Dad, in an effort of goodwill and humor, finally succumbed to the request of one persistent man to feel the unique and superior texture of his teak giraffe.
“Dad! Don’t touch it, he doesn’t think it’s a joke!” I tried to warn Dad, but in good humor he reached out and held the ugly mass-manufactured looking giraffe.
“I give special price to you, my friend. 20,000 cfa. Only 20,000 cfa.”
After many no’s by me, Mom, and Dad, I finally had to bust out mean-Pulaar Whitney and tell him to leave in a much harsher way. He cursed me and told Dad that he had an ill-raised child, but at least he left.
That was the biggest thing we did in Dakar, although I also took Mom into the depths of the Dakar market, where we inspected everything from feather earrings to dried fish to kola nuts. Mom was a good sport and we weaved and ducked through alleys and people trying to drag us to their specific shops, each promising that we would find something wonderful and only offered in HIS particular shop. On the last day, we went to Ngor Island which is a different kind island to Goree and is mostly just a place to hang out on the beach and swim.
Mom got a little nervous as she hopped into the slender canoe-like fishing boat characteristic to the coasts of Senegal. They had rigged up an engine on the back to transport people quickly between the mainland and the island. Mom didn’t really hesitate and jumped aboard like a champ.
After Dakar, we headed south down the coast towards the town where I lived for two months during training. I wanted to introduce my parents to my first host family and the people who helped most with my language and cultural training and made me feel most comfortable in my new country. Not only that, but because of the location of Mbour, we were able to stay in a hotel right on the beach. It was the perfect mix, because after four hours of small talking in Pulaar with my family and drinking attaya (the staple tea and afternoon drink of every Senegalese household), we were able to retire to the white sandy beaches not five feet from the door to our tiki hut hotel room. Mbour was nice because it got Dad out of the crazy restlessness of the city and I got to introduce my parents to my family.
The first plan was to stay for lunch, where Fatu served her delicious cebojen, the most Senegalese meal you can have. We ended up having such a fun time with my family that we promised them we would come back for dinner. That gave us time to take an ocean dip and a nap before heading back for dinner. For dinner, I couldn’t believe my family’s generosity, as they had prepared a Tobaski scale dinner with meat and noodles and bread, something very rare. Both parents were good sports as they dug in with their hands in true Senegalese fashion. Mom watched me closely as I squished up my food and licked it off my hand. She managed something similar, although I did witness her clandestinely toss a suspicious looking piece of meat into my Dad’s side of the bowl. My host family was so delighted with my parents, that Jenaba, my host mother, gave Mom a true Senegalese complet as a present. It was also fun for me because my host family is my only gauge to how well my language is coming along. Although it was tiring, it was fun to translate between English and Pulaar so that my two families could talk to one another.
After one more day relaxing on the beach, we did the longest journey of the trip between Mbour and Kedougou.
After approximately 13 hours in the car, a two hour breakdown in the nastiest city in Senegal, and an annoying taxi driver who only spoke Wolof and French making it impossible to communicate, we arrived in the dark and somewhat scary garage in Kedougou. I hopped out of the car and began immediately talking to a couple of guys on a motorcycle, trying to figure out a taxi who could take us to the hotel. Mom and Dad, who had never been in sketchy dark garages before with loads of young swaggy looking Senegalese dudes, were more than a little uncomfortable with the situation, but I managed to get them to the hotel, with un-orphaned younger siblings and all of our baggage intact.
In the morning we woke refreshed and went to eat breakfast in the lodge-like dining hall. My parents could finally see why I had decided to drag them 8 hours out of our way to my village to see this beautiful region of Senegal. We looked out over the river and the mountains rising behind them. I finally felt comfortable again, because much to my relief, we were back in the land of the Pulaars, where I could comfortably communicate with everyone there.
We went back to the garage and got aboard an alhum, a brightly painted and rickety van most common for navigated large groups of people down the back roads of Senegal. The three of us packed in with a bunch of women who were holding their husbands places. After about an hour of waiting, Dad finally asked how much it would cost to pay the driver to leave. I hopped out and found out it would only cost us the equivalent of $8 to get the show on the road. Dad gladly handed over the cash and after 10 boys pushed in the back and the driver jammed the car into gear, it rumbled to life and we were chugging towards to Dindifello, a mountain town about 20 km into the bush. As we bumped along at a snail like pace, and the monstrous van rocked precariously into potholes, I worried if I should have taken my parents in a personal jeep instead of straight-up public transport. They didn’t seem to mind though and after more than hour dodging bamboo branches and making Pulaar small talk with the other villages we arrived in Dindifello.
We checked into the lodge, which would be Mom’s first time staying without running water and electricity. Because of its location to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Senegal, the tiny village actually attracts many tourists and the small hostel/lodge was used to traffic from all over Europe, as well as the odd American as well.
After hiking to the waterfall we went back and had another delicious Senegalese meal by the light of the candle. I chatted in Pulaar with the friendly staff and Mom and Dad and I stayed at our table long past dinner talking about everything that was limited to the hour phone conversations we’d been having once a week for the past year.
The next day the plan was to go to Segou, a town about 8 km away from Dindifello, where my friend Kyle is stationed and where there was another beautiful waterfall to be seen. Instead of waiting for the untrustworthy public transport, we decided to get an early start and hike to Segou instead. With packs on our backs, we said goodbye to Dindifello and started towards Segou. Kyle met us at the local boutique in the center of his village and after we dumped our packs we set out immediately for the Segou waterfall. This was a much longer, much more treacherous, and much more exhilarating hike!
While the Dindifello waterfall took us about 20 minutes to reach on a well-kept trail, the Segou waterfall was two hours out along slippery rocks and narrow granites ledges we had to slide along to move forward along the path. Chimpanzees had been spotted in this part of the forest and Kyle shushed us and had us listen to some baboons shrieking in some nearby trees. Thank God we had Kyle along because I would have had us completely lost in the jungle and three years later you would have heard about a family of Americans found living among the chimpanzees in the mountains of Southeast Senegal. We climbed vines and crossed streams. We stood against trees so big, they seemed to disappear into the sky. As Kyle and I turned towards the bank of the winding stream, I let out a shriek of disbelief.
“Anaconda!” I screamed. The snake must have been 5 to 6 ft long and I bet I couldn’t have encircled its body with my hands. It was black and it was moving.
“It must have heard us. Or at least it heard Whitney,” said Kyle. “It’s actually called an African rock python. They are very afraid of humans and they are now endangered because the locals are scared of them and keep killing them.”
“I’m more worried about the fact that its headed towards that lovely little swimming pool we were just in,” said Dad. And it was true, not minutes before we had been swimming in a beautiful natural pool, formed by the stream from the waterfall. The same stream the python was swimming in.
We continued on our way and finally made it to the waterfall. It was breathtaking and we all sat there for some time looking at where the granite wall of rock seemed to open and break and the water seemed to fall straight from the sky. At last we stood up and made the two hour trek back to Segou. We wanted to make it back to Kedougou that evening as we wanted to leave for my village early the next morning, so I tried to figure out the transport situation.
The guys at the bitik told me they thought that last car had left Dindifello, and just as I was about to put my parents on the back of a couple of motorcyles, a truck with a bunch of French tourists drove by. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mom move so fast. She was flagging them down and explaining to them in English her predicament before they had time to think of resisting her plee. They were actually very nice and went slowly so that we didn’t bounce completely out of the back of the pickup. Good thing we are used to riding in the back of pickups on the ranch. As we sat there the three of us in the back of the pickup, hair whipping in the wind, watching the mountains disappear into the distance, I felt completely content. On to my village the next day.
Sinchurio Samba Foula
Finally, the day everyone had been waiting for, where my village would get to meet nay-nay e baba Mariama, arrived. Thankfully, I had refused to hire a driver in Kedougou if he didn’t speak Pulaar based on the last driver catastrophe. This time, Suliman Baa, our sweet Pulaar driver took us all the way to my village without complaint.
As the car pulled into the village, I could hear the shrieks of “Oto! Oto!” change to “Mariama jai! Mariama jai!” as the children realized who was inside the car. I could barely open my door as people surrounded the car as they tried to hug me and grab my hands. It was if the entire village had turned out to help unload my bags and greet my parents. It was a bit overwhelming, but everyone was so excited to meet Mom and Dad that it didn’t really matter. We also got in later that night which made it less stressful because it got dark soon after arriving and so after making the proper greetings, we went into my hut to sleep.
The next morning the party began. We started by the chief presenting Dad with the goat we had bought for the party. They asked him if he wanted to slit its throat, but he declined and stood a few paces back as the chief did him the honor. The whole morning was filled with cooking preparations. Mom and I small talked with the women and helped to cut up the vegetables and Dad held his own with the men, somehow managing to communicate a bit with the chief. Finally the meal was prepared and everyone from the village came to greet my parents and also eat some of the delicious lunch the women had prepared.
After lunch, all of the women showed up to do a traditional singing and dancing ceremony for my parents. They were all in their holiday complets and they brought a metal pan and a tub of water with an overturned gourd bowl in as drums. The rest of the music was made by clapping and singing that they had known since they were babies. I always love the singing and dancing because it is their best form of appreciation.
I was pulled into the circle multiple times to dance and I even ended up singing a speech to the women telling them how much I appreciated them coming to greet my parents and welcoming me into their village. After much booty-shaking and clapping, the women went back to their homes and we decided to present the chief with his gifts.
We gave him some soccer balls for the village and a belt buckle from the ranch. Grampy sent him a knife, which he loved and Mom presented Mari with some new knives and cooking utensils. Finally it was time to show my parents the village and my project.
This is where shit hit the fan. Before I left for Dakar two weeks ago, I told the chief and Ibrahima that I had just transplanted the mangoes and they needed to be watered or they would die. I made sure they understood and they promised it would happen. When we went out to my field, all 600-700 mangoes that my village had worked on over the past year were dead or dying. I have never felt such a rage at my village and it wasn’t exactly the best timing since my parents were there. I flew back to my compound, absolutely seething, and for the first time since being in Sinchurio Samba Foula, I yelled at the chief and at Ibrahima. I couldn’t believe that they had let that happen. It was such a simple task and yet it just didn’t get done. After being so grateful about the community I had been lucky enough to get as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it seemed my village turned out to be like everyone else’s village—people incapable of sharing some of the responsibility for their own future. Why should I care about the mango trees? I’ll be gone in a year. It is not my community and my children that will benefit from this project. That’s what I told the chief anyway.
Needless to say, it was a disheartening and disappointing ending to a village stay I had been so proud to show my parents. This could be a completely separate blog post in itself because I have decided to re-focus my next year based on what happened with the mangoes. I’m sure though, if you are following along with the blog, you will see how this changes my service in the projects and people I engage with over this next year.
Anyway, we finished out the trip by loading up the donkey cart with all the baggage and taking that out of my village since there is limited transport options out of the bush. Can’t say my parents didn’t do the real Africa!
Kolda was our last city in the two week tourney of Senegal. I wanted to show my parents Kolda, because out of everywhere in Senegal, even Kedougou which I love to visit, Kolda owns my heart. It is the perfect combination of city and village, with interesting marketplaces and hole in the wall bars and restaurants perfect for the Peace Corps Volunteers small income.
It helped also, that Kolda happens to have a very beautiful hotel, a mini paradise right on the edge of the main marketplace in Kolda. I am quite assured the Africa has some of the most beautiful fabric and patterns in all the world. It is usually pretty cheap as well. So after pulling out sheaths and sheaths of different fabrics we decided on two that would make a great tablecloth and napkins for our house. Dad was an integral part in this process, but afterwards he retired poolside, while Mom and I continued to the marketplace.
Kolda was a great place to take my parents as well, because although all the people are still Pulaar in this city, the lifestyle contrasts drastically to the Pulaar lifestyle within the village. In order to show this, we went to my good friend Jordan’s house to have lunch and chat with her family. Her host father is the regional representative for Kolda under the new Macky Salle administration and so her family is much wealthier and much more educated than most people in the area. Talking to her younger host brother was a ray of hope into a culture where education ambition is often low. It was the perfect mix of perspectives for Americans coming to see a place for only a couple of weeks.
Finally, it was time to head back to Dakar. I couldn’t believe how fast the time had gone. Before I knew it, I was putting them in a taxi and hugging them goodbye, not to see them again for another year. It was hard, but as I watched the back of my parents heads disappear into the night I thought once again about the quote Dad had given me. This life is difficult mostly because of how far away we are from our closest friends and family. But if I had given that up, if I hadn’t have made that leap, I wouldn’t know this life that is exhilarating, challenging, and beautiful in a way that I could never imagine.
Thank you Mom and Dad for an absolutely amazing trip and for raising me to be a person that strives for “triumphs, even when checkered by failure” (mangoes). “A gray twilight” doesn’t seem very pleasant to me, and also not possible under the kind of sun you experienced here in Senegal. I couldn’t have been here without you.