Dear Senegal, Just Call me Aminata Mballo

Family and Friends. I am alive and have happily survived the first week of homestay. There is so much to explain that Im not sure where to start. Maybe Ill start by explaining to you the importance of homestay. We get split into small groups so that we can learn the language as fast as we can. Each of the groups goes to a different village or city and lives within a couple minutes of each other along with their language coordinator. In my group, I am the only girl. It is Tucker, Adrian, and I and then our language coordinator i Falye. I love my group and they have made learning the difficult language of Fulakunda much more enjoyable. While each of us lives with a different family, I meet with them for 4 hours every morning for intensive language classes. In the afternoon we meet with one of the other groups to work on the school garden. So far we have made two compost piles, six beds of double digging and adding amendments of nitrogen and carbon, and 2 pepenyares which are small meter by meter seed gardens used to start crops.


I willl now attempt to tell you about my homestay. This is the homestay I will be at for the remainder of training with a couple of days interspersed between where we return to the training center for debriefing, story comparisons, and usually more shots.


On Tuesday, 54 wary, skeptical, but curious volunteers loaded the Peace Corps buses and said farewell to our dear training center which we had got to know and love. It had become home in a sense and now we were headed off to places that we had been warned could be the hardest of times, but also the best place for us to learn and integrate ourselves into the language and culture. We wound our way out of Thies and into the country passing mudhuts and girls selling mangos on the highway. Donkeys under baobab trees roamed free and people stopped to watch as the van of toubabs hurtled by.


At the sign of more civilization the driver began winding down sand roads between tin and thatch walls and sometimes if the family was wealthy we would pass adobe like buildings as well. As usual in Africa, we dodged goats and children as we made our way closer to our homestay families. We stopped outside of each homestay place and one by one we got out. Finally it was my turn. We pulled up outside of what looked to be a long line of tin walls and thatch fences right next to each other. When I got off the bus I was greeted by a swarm of excited children and one of the oldest African women I have ever seen. She looked as if she had walked straight off a page in National Geographic with a beautiful gold and brown pagne tied around her waist and breasts that hung midway down her belly. It turns out she is my mama (or grandma). She grabbed my hand in both of her dark hands wrinkled and folded with age and hard work and muttered a greeting in Fulakunda. Mbad.da? she asked. Jam tan I answered. The man driving our bus threw my backpack down to me off the roof and I waved goodbye to the rest of my friends. What the hell were we in for? I wondered. I turned back about 15 small smiling faces.


So this is a small glimpse of my first day, but throughout the week I pieced together my complex and dynamic family. Lets start with the head of any Senegalese family–the father. Baba-am (my father) is genial in every way. He is always smiling and is kind to his family.Every day he sits with me after to lunch to work patiently on my abismal Fulakunda. When I dont understand again and again what he is saying, he just tries another way to explain it and then laughs the deepest belly laugh when I finally do understand what he is saying. I can literally hear the delight and pride in his laugh that I am learning his beloved language.


Baba-am has two wives. In Senegal, men are allowed to have up to 4 wives and it is really up to the husband on how they are going to deal with this unique situation. In some families all the wives and all of their children live together. In my case, the second wife lives in another compound so I actually dont know her at all. The first wife is neyney-am (my mother). She is the sweetest woman and talks to me even though she knows I cant understand a word. She mimes everything as if this will somehow knock the fulakunda into my head.


As for the kids, as far as I can tell I think I have 4 older brothers, a sister in law who is about to have a baby, one little brother and three younger sisters. Aminata is my sister who is 11 and she is my tokara. This means I am matched with her and it is her job to guide me around Senegalese culture and the family. Because she is my Tokara I also take her name as my own and it becomes my Senegalese name. Say goodbye to Whitney everyone because I will now be known as Aminata Mballo for the remainder of my service. I say as far as I can tell I have this many siblings because it is hard to know which children belong to which family because they are always running in and out of neighbors houses and I know the neighbor children just as well as my own family members. In fact, the first few days I was very confused as to who was in my family and who wasnt. I think I have just now sorted it all out.


I will say I have never felt so white or so foreign in all my life. I think that everyone should have the experience of being a drastic minority once in their lives because it is the most odd feeling in the world. People know who I am all over my neighborhood. If they arent yelling toubab they are yelling Aminata Aminata! Come to our house, come play with us, come talk with us! I do the best I can with my limited Fulakunda, but it is overwhelming in the most flattering of ways. Americans sense of privacy is obsolete here in Senegal and I am never for a second alone except for when I lock the door to my room at night right before I go to sleep. The kids on the street want to touch me and talk to me and it really is like I am some sort of bizarre celebrity. Odd. very odd.


I should definitely describe my familys compound to you, because it is unlike anything we have ever seen in the states and it makes any house I have ever been into in the US look like a mansion! My front door is tin and so are all the walls seperating the compound from the street and the neighbors. When you walk into the compound it is basically like the living room because this is where all the activity happens. There is no ceiling just an open yard with sand everywhere and a huge mango tree which provides the family with shade to sit under. I can say THANK GOD for that mango tree because otherwise it would be unbearably hot. To the side are the bedrooms. There are 4 mud and cement rooms all in a row with tin doors, windows and roofs. The oldest brother and his wife get the first one, mine is the second, all the kids and the parents sleep in the third, and the grandmother sleeps in the fourth. Our kitchen is just a thatch hut where the women makes a wood or coal fire to put the pot on for meal preparation. Stoves are unheard of and every meal is a huge ordeal. I can understand why women gain weight here because literally all I have is bread and rice. For breakfast every morning my sister in law prepares caffe which means she boils water with these leaves that make it like coffee. Then she adds about 5 cups of sugar and some powdered milk to the brew. Waalaa! Senegal caffe. With this I have a baguette smeared in butter. In Senegal eating a cultural experience all its own, which I explained to you in the last blog. I have learned to eat what is in the bowl whether that is tongue or a whole fish with its eyeballs still in. I need all the protein I can get. Also, Senegalese host families try and make you eat as much as they can because if they make you fat then they were good hosts. For me this means that my mother, sister in law, and little sister all throw the choicest pieces of meat veggies and other assortment of edibles into my section within the bowl. And I forgot to say that in my family, the women eat in one bowl, the men eat in one bowl, the children eat in another, and mama gets her own bowl.


The two family sheep are tied at the back of the compound and they are let out in the day to graze along the road with all the other familys animals. When it rains the sheep go into the kitchen!


Finally, their is a stone walled place that functions half as a shower and half as a toilet. The toilet is nothing more than a hole in the ground and the shower is a drain. It is open to the night air so that when I take my bucket full of water in to take a bucket bath I face towards the moon. I plan on building a bucket bath shower on the ranch as soon as I get home because it is that enjoyable!


There are so many others things I wish that I could tell you vividly enough so that you can see them for yourself, but this is just a small glimpse of the life I am living right now. My Fulakunda is coming along slowly but surely and I head back to homestay tomorrow. We do a two week stint before going back to the training center for another debriefing. I honestly cant wait to see my family again. 

Categories: Uncategorized | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Dear Senegal, Just Call me Aminata Mballo

  1. Roxi Meyer

    WOW WOW WOW Unbelievable!!!!! Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to the next. I am praying for you daily! Take care and God Bless you!!!


  2. Audrey Bradshaw

    Whitney, your writing is amazing 🙂 I basically feel like I am there! Truly your blog needs to be turned into a book when you get back because I seriously like to read it more than other books I have here at home. What an incredible experience you are having! I’m so happy for you! Lots of hugs! Can’t wait til the next one! 🙂

  3. Aubrey

    1. Please change your facebook name to Animata Mballo (it’s weird saying this to you because i’m sure facebook seems like something on another planet now)
    2. Your badass level went up by 10%– the first language you’ll learn to be fluent in is Fulakundu.
    3. You are amazing, even what you’ve done so far. keep up the writing– it’s inspiring to say the least!

  4. Adam Banark


    Glad to read that everything is going well for you. We just got done training our new callers this week. Keep us updated and be safe!

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