A Day in the Life of Mariama Camara

Sometimes, the things that are most common to you are the most astounding to someone else. This is what I am trying to remember as I sit here typing to you with 60% battery left on my laptop and a couple of days left in village before I go to the land of electricity again and only then just to recharge my phone and laptop and head back to village. Right now, I want you to see where I am, because it is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. I am sitting at my wooden table on my wooden chair. Both were made for me by the local carpenter for the equivalent of $7. The tea kettle is starting to rattle on the kerosene stove I have next to me and as I write the candlelight is flickering on the faces of my friends and family where I have hung their pictures on the wall. It is a cool evening in the aftermath of the storm and funnily enough, damp and rural Senegal smells much the same as damp and rural Nebraska. There is nothing better than going out after a storm and seeing the grass actually growing in front of your very eyes. My feet are still caked in mud because I have not stoked up enough bravery within my heart to go out and take a bucket bath in the chilly night air.

My feet are caked in mud in the first place because my family spent the afternoon after the storm outplanting bitter tomatoes in their field. There’s something about being in Africa that makes me not want to wear my shoes. No, I suppose that’s not quite right. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to wear my shoes, but if I went traipsing around the ranch with no shoes, Dad would either lose it or people would think I’m crazy. Here, I just fit in with everyone else who work the land barefoot. I have been warned with the threat of hookworm, but for some reason the dark African soil is too tantalizing not to wiggle my toes in, and so like many things I shouldn’t do here, I take the risk because life is too short not to, hookworms or no.

I don’t wear gloves when I work for the same reason I don’t wear shoes. No one else here does. And because I will admit that pride has always been one of my less admirable traits, I am not about to go around as the soft-handed white boss lady with my work gloves on. I grit my teeth and keep on pick axing the hard clay ground even when the rough wooden handle has worn through the first layer of my skin. Even though my palms look like a couple of skinned cats and all the worse because they are the only white hands in village, I am not afraid to let the people grab them and flip them over to show that Americans actually can work.

Oh, that reminds me. I’m not sure if I have mentioned this before, but one of the MOST frustrating things for me here is that people believe that Americans and Europeans do not do any kind of work. It seems to not register to them that I wouldn’t be able to come to their village for two years as an agriculture volunteer if I had never worked in a field ever in my life. They believe that we do not farm, do not have cattle, and don’t work in general. I often refrain from rude suggestions as to where they think our money comes from if we do nothing but sit around. Anyway, this is a small, yet consistent annoyance when really I am so peaceful and happy in my village. End of rant.

I think I am at a turning point. I am conversational in Pulaar and things don’t seem nearly as hard as they did before. I know people and they know me. I feel comfortable in a way I can’t explain, except for the fact that the days I want to go home are fewer and far between. No offense Mom, you know I will always miss you of course, but Sinchurio Samba Foula is truly becoming a place I call home. It happens in any place we humans go, because we are adaptable creatures. Sometimes it’s harder or takes a longer time, but in the end we always feel that moment, that click, that says, “okay, so this is what I call home… at least for now.”

There are so many little things that I can’t even capture in writing that I want to tell you about, but I know I never will be able to portray it in the beautiful way that I saw it. The way my baby sister Kumba howls when I call her my little hyena. The way the women move so gracefully with bundles and bundles of gourd bowls, firewood, and buckets of vegetables on their head and never drop a single thing! The way the Senegal sun is so orange you can look straight at it over the silhouettes of the palm trees on the horizon. The whooping noises of Kootunde and Caba, my favorite kids, when they see me coming back from a long trip.

A day in the life of Mariama Camara is quite different than a day in the life of Aminata Mballo, just in the sense that Mariama is not Aminata anymore. In the same way, Mariama and Aminata cannot exactly be Whitney Jenkins anymore. Now don’t start worrying that I’ve gone off the deep end… I still know who I am, and I still intend to go by Whitney when I return to the United States, but I would still like to give you a little glimpse into the life of Mariama Camara, resident of Sinchurio Samba Foula.   

On Friday morning, I left Kumba Diallo’s hut in Timindala. Kumba Diallo used to go by the name of Ruth Nervig back in America, but now everyone in the surrounding area calls her Kumba, me included. I guess now is the time to do a little blurb on Ruth if I am meaning to tell you about the person that I am here in Senegal. Ruth has become a very big part of my life since she is my closest sitemate and friend. Ruth originates from Wisconsin and so we share the same roots, but she moved to New York which beat all the Midwestern girl out of her. At least that’s what I tell her, mostly I am kidding though. What would I do without Ruth? She is tough as nails and teaches me a thing or two about adaptation and life in general. I never had a big sister, but Ruth is as close as it gets these days. I see her at least once a week when I bike in to the big local market, where we share a road town. When other volunteers are with us they sometimes think we are talking a secret language because we’ve spend a bit too much time together! She calls me Mariama and I call her Kumba… c’est Senegal quoi! It’s impossible to count how many discussions under the stars in her backyard, cups of nescafe, bean and mayonnaise sandwich, and laughs we’ve shared, but I know it has been a lot. Ruth, if you ever read this like you tell me you are going to, you are my heart! J

Anyway, after getting our regular bean sandwiches at are favorite sandwich ladies in Manda, I biked madly home. I was trying to get home quickly because I had a work meeting in the Sinchurio field where I would be preparing the soil and space for the mango pepinaires while the women outplanted the cabbage. I wanted to make sure and remind them that we were filling tree sacks and transplanting the mango trees in a couple of days. Usually I enjoy the 15 km bike ride home, but that I day I was late. An old Toyota pickup drove by me and I flagged it down. I didn’t have time to bike all the way home. As I went around to the driver’s side I was surprised to see a woman driving. Eureika! And not only that, an American woman! There’s nothing better than hearing the slight drawl of an American English accent in a place where you are not expecting English, especially not American English.

She turned out to be a missionary who had been living in Senegal near the Guinean border for 10 years. I threw my bike in the back and she drove me the 10 km to the bush path that leads to my village. I jumped on my bike again and started along the bushpath, that at this point I know like the back of my hand. I waved to famers and children out in the field plowing their fields with donkeys and old fashioned plows.

“Mariama, Mariama!” they yelled in greeting.

When I got back to Sinchurio, everyone was already in the field, so I rushed into my hut through on my work clothes, grabbed my shovel and pickaxe, and ran to the outskirts of the village and in through the bamboo woven gate at the entrance of my field. After greeting all the women, I reminded them about transplanting in two days. Then I went to dig a place for my mango pepinaire. I finished a few hours before lunch and so went to sit under the big tabba tree inside the Sinchurio field. I love these trees because they are huge and their trunks twist in such intricate ways that there is always a natural seat available. The tabba trees also bear tabba fruit which is a delicious bush fruit that I’ve never seen in America. You have to crack open the soft shell that looks kind of lime a green lemon. Inside there are soft juicy seeds, about six to a fruit. After sucking off the meat you spit the rest of the seed out. My baby sister Kumba the two year old absolutely loves these fruit and during the rainy season she is always sticky with their juices.  I pulled out my notebook and wrote for a little bit before heading back for lunch.

I helped my mother Mariama make lunch that day because I find that it is fun to learn how to cook Senegalese style. When I get back to America, I’m going to throw a big Senegalese dinner party. The fish man came by with his basket of fish on the back of his bike and so I helped her to prepare fish balls. First, Mari skinned all the fish and then through the fish into a mortar and pedestal. I pounded up the fish with pepper, beef boillon, onion, garlic, salt, and peanut butter. Slowly, slowly, I also added peanut powder and corn powder that Mari had pounded up earlier that morning. When it all became a thick paste, I rolled out tiny balls. This is the way to make not very much meat go a long way. After the balls were all rolled out, Mari fried them in oil over at open fire. When all the rice was done, she makes another kind of special red sauce that I haven’t learned to make yet and pours it all over the rice with the fish bowls in our family bowl. Bottari time!

After lunch, I took my mat out and laid it under the other large tabba tree outside our compound. Usually I take a nap or read out there, but that day my little brother Boye and Caba came out with me and told me about all the different snakes that live in Senegal. There are apparently four kinds around Sinchurio and they will all kill you. They also come out during the rainy season. One is the spitting cobra, which aims for your eye. They told me to go to the medicine man and get a gree-gree made that I can wear around my arm. If I have one, the snake will absolutely not bite me. But if it does, the medicine man will have to suck all the poison out of it. As they were telling me all these wonderful things, we watched a huge thunderstorm roll in. Before they could finish telling me about the exact way the snake would kill me, it was upon us. All three of us grabbed up our stuff and ran shrieking for shelter. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and writing with a cup of tea in my hut.

When the rain stopped I went over to my friend Sarajo’s hut. I taught them all how to play UNO. They love this game and there are many afternoons that we wile away the hours playing game after game. After we were done playing, I went to check on Ibrahima Diallo’s calf that I castrated two weeks before. He was all good to go and I also dropped off some rubber bands so that Diallo could continue elastic band castration on his own.

By that time it was dark so I headed home to pull water for my bucket bath. I usually spend the evening hanging out with my family or reading before my mom brings out the dinner. Dinner is usually left over lunch. Dinner is served in the dark, so we eat by the light of a cellphone flashlight or candle if they are available. Once dinner is over I usually lay out with my family a little bit and talk and then go to bed around 8:30.

It’s not a bad life, and even now I haven’t been able to capture it exactly how it is. I hope that everyone is having a great summer. I know that it is beautiful in Nebraska right now. Even though I love it here, there is nothing like an American summer.

Until next time I hope everyone remains jam tun (in peace),


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2 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of Mariama Camara

  1. ruth

    I feel so lucky to have you in my life too!

    • Good– now I know you have read my blog. I guess I’ll have to stop gushing about you like you are my seventh grade crush… too bad. 🙂 Oh and I miss you.

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