When I came to Senegal almost two years ago, I had no idea what was in store for me. I knew I would be working with trees in a volunteer position called agroforestry. I also knew that I had accepted this position despite not having any previous experience in this line of work. Peace Corps had assured me that my being a country girl was enough experience to take on the daily life of an agroforestry volunteer in Senegal.
Did I know anything about planting trees before I got to Senegal? Absolutely not. Did I ever imagine, I would be leading trainings about how to diversify a mango orchard in order to produce the biggest and juiciest fruit with a method called “tongue and groove grafting” in a language two years ago I had no idea even existed? Nope. The appreciation I have for being placed in this sector that taught me so much about a passion I never knew existed in myself is great, and yet even with my newfound love of trees and planting, I couldn’t help but discover my biggest joy in my secondary project which was to create a small children’s library in my village of Sinchurio Samba Foula.
Many of my previous posts have been about the library project I began in my village, but it was only in my last week of village that I was able to see it most of the way through. It still has a long way to go, but I hope that between the care of my village and new volunteer, the library will be able to thrive and the books remain a source of inspiration and encouragement for the children in Sinchurio Samba Foula to pursue reading, education, and the beauty of creativity.
After many frustrating obstacles about when and how to get the bookshelf made, I finally found a reliable carpenter through my friend Mamajean who turned out the most beautiful bookcase. It is strong and well-made and I trust that it will serve the library of Sinchurio for as long as they wish to keep reading and storing books.
The real obstacle was figuring out how to get the large 2X1.5m bookcase from the road town of Manda the 15 km to our village in Sinchurio Samba Foula. After a family discussion, we decided that Malicke and I would take the donkey charet and our strongest donkey and make the journey one sunny Wednesday afternoon. Malicke was exuberant about getting out of field work and I was also excited since Malicke and I usually have great discussions when the two of us get to hang out. We set out early in the morning with the trusty old donkey strapped in front of the flatbed cart. With a rope coiled around the bottom of his mouth like a bit and a flick from a stick Malicke ripped off of an low hanging branch, the donkey trotted briskly along the sandy path with his two passengers bumping on the loosely bolted boards behind.
We made it to Manda in about 2 hours and sat down to wait as the carpenter finished up the backside of the bookcase. Malicke made attaya like any respectable Senegalese teenage boy at a guest’s house, and I was proud that he could pour the tea so high that it made a thick white froth on each of the small shot glasses that the Senegalese drink their attaya from. Best attaya in town! We chatted and opened one of the smaller book packages we had picked up from the post office. Malicke immediately picked up one of the brightly colored Dr. Seuss books and began to read to me in English. I helped him pick his way slowly through the English phrases, correcting his pronunciation, and then translating in Pulaar so that he could understand what he was reading so diligently in English. The carpenter, continued to glue the back and final piece to the bookcase.
We finally strapped the bookcase onto the donkey cart with an effort of heaving, tugging, and pushing on the part of me, the carpenter, and Malicke and when we finally had it secured I loaded the multiple boxes of books into the shelving inside the bookshelf.
But where to sit? The entire cart was covered with the bookcase. I arranged the box so that it was like a seat in a boat and climbed aboard. Malicke perched on the edge of the bookcase at the front of the cart so that he could reach the reigns. And this is how we made our way down the streets, looking like some odd float that lost its own parade. I made Malicke laugh by waving majestically with a cupped hand at the children who screamed “toubab” at me, as I tried to sit proudly aboard my bookcase dream ride.
When we arrived at the village, everyone flooded towards the cart to help unload it. Even the chief came to lend a hand! When we had finally heaved the gigantic piece of furniture into my hut and situated it against the wall, I sliced open the boxes and let the kids go crazy.
“Ndaru doo! Ndaree! Ndaree!” “Look here! Look! Look!” they squealed as they pulled out bright book after bright book, and turned the glossy pages.
Even Mari was enchanted by all the books lying in piles around her. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was treating the books. They reverently turned the pages and Caba began carrying in boxes and putting them in the bookshelf even before I asked him to. Then Sidou and Malicke came in to appraise Caba’s work at stacking the books.
“Let’s organize them by size!” Malicke cried.
“Good idea,” said Sidou. And they set to work organizing all the books by size.
We spent the whole day reading and telling stories and many of the children from village came over to listen and look at the new stories.
There are some moments, whether it’s in Peace Corps, or in whatever adventure you happen to be on in life, that you know you will never forget. The night before I left my village is one of those times and it is also the day I think of as the true opening to the library.
That evening, Aminata, one of the women in my compound told me, “Mari, you know you aren’t going to bed early tonight right? Tonight you are going to hiri.”
Hiri is what the Pulaars say when they stay up really late, chat, and in general have a fun time together after the sun goes down.
“Of course,” I told Ami. “You don’t think I’d go to bed early on my last night in village do you?”
“Let’s have a tali tali night,” one of the other women proclaimed.
When the dinner bowls were wiped clean and stars were all out, it was finally time for tali tali. My host siblings helped to pick out about six different books they wanted me to read and stacked them on my bed. Then the people started to come. First it was just my brothers. Then it was Mari and Jenabu, sitting on either side of me on the bed. Then the other women from the compound came in and we had to move the cot so that people could sit at the edge of the bed and still see the book. Then my brother’s friends came to listen to the stories being told, even they weren’t too cool. And when the whole hut was packed tighter with women and children than it’s ever been in the last two years, lit by the light of candles and the flashlight my brother Boye shown at the book, I began to read.
Six books later, my head full of Pulaar, and Kumba asleep on my lap, I finally told everyone that I couldn’t possibly read another one. My eyes were drooping and my brain was screaming, but I looked around at the eyes riveted to the books.
“Fine!” I exclaimed, “One more!”
“Yes, one more. Just one more,” everyone agreed. I finished with the classic story that started the whole project off, The Tortoise and the Hare. As all the kids who had learned the phrase “The End” murmured Ta End as I flipped the last page of the book, I tried to blink away the tears.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Sleep well.” And then the younger children sleeping were hauled up and tied onto mother’s backs and younger brothers were slapped in the head by older brothers as they herded them from my hut. The cot was scraped back into place and the books were neatly stacked back onto the bookshelf. I told them goodnight one by one until the last person had slipped out into the compound to leave me alone, the candles flickering on my packed bags with only the sound of their murmured conversations fading away into the night.