Tag Archives: Senegal

And to All a Happy Thanksgiving

It would seem churlish to write about anything other than Thanksgiving today.  (The other thing on my mind is the election and, believe me, that would be even more churlish.)

Problem is, everything’s already been said about Thanksgiving (including by me: see  Happy Any-Holiday, Wherever You Are).  As deeply as  I feel all those things, I don’t want to write in cliches.  So instead, I’ll post the Thanksgiving scene from DEADLY ADAGIO.  As with much fiction, this particular scene is based on a real-life experience.   It’s a different kind of Thanksgiving, but the basics are there: family, food, fellowship, gratitude.

Set-up: someone in the official American community in Dakar, Senegal, has been murdered.  In this scene, a couple of guys from Washington are in Senegal, investigating.  I’m leaving one name blank for those unfortunate souls who haven’t yet read the book and don’t know who’s been murdered.

  •              *               *              *

The two bland men with skinny ties who were seated on either side of Bruce were introduced as being “from Washington, to help with the investigation.”  Unsmiling,  but without the puffed-out chest Emily had expected, those guys somehow managed to look stern and submissive at the same time.  Maybe that was their intention.  And they didn’t realize it was 1998, or maybe they just hadn’t bought new ties since the ’80s.  These must be the guys from the FBI.

When they were seated, Bruce started off by asking her the routine questions she couldn’t believe he needed to bother with: name, age, marital status, address, profession.  She wanted to scream at him, “Come on, Bruce, this is me.  Emily!  We’re in the orchestra together.  You know Pete, too.  You know my name and my marital status and does my age really matter?”  She controlled herself, though, because she didn’t want to demean him in front of his Washington-guys.  Demeaning wasn’t nice and, besides, it wouldn’t be a good way to gain his trust so he’d divulge.

Bruce finally tiptoed into reality with questions about how long she and ______ had known each other, how well they knew each other, where they met, whether they knew each others’ families.  The Washington guys took notes on those skinny pads that she’d seen TV cops use.  Emily wondered if their note-taking was redundant, and they compared notes later, or specialized, with each one wring about one kind of thing.  She wanted to try to notice when their note-taking sped up and slowed down — maybe that would shed some light on the things they were particularly interested in.

When Bruce asked how they’d first met, she lost track of her status as interviewee and sank into the sweet nostalgia of remembering her friend.

It had been just before Thanksgiving.  Emily had gone to the Peace Corps office to offer to invite a couple of volunteers to her family’s celebration, knowing it was a particularly tough time for the young ones, especially, to be away from home.  It turned out there was a new Peace Corps Director, and when she made her offer to him, he said they’d be hosting all the volunteers.

“All the volunteers?  Do you have any idea what you’re in for?  Do you know how hungry those kids can be?”  She’d entertained volunteers in the past and knew first hand.  The brownie consumption alone was impressive.

Knowing the family would be in for a shock, Emily volunteered to help with the preparations, though not the meal itself, which she’d share with her own family.  She got in touch with ________ and the two women spent the next few days together, concerning themselves with how to approximate turkey with all the trimmings in West Africa.

“Fifty volunteers, so about 50 pounds of turkey.  How many turkeys is that, do you think?” asked _______.  “Anyway, I’m sure we can get them through the Commissary.”

“No, no, no, you’re thinking of people back home.  These kids are really hungry.  Fifty kids means at least 100 pounds of turkey, I’d say.”

“A hundred pounds of turkey?  How will we ever be able to cook all that?”

They found a bakery that would cook six big turkeys, leaving _______’s oven available for 100 or so baked potatoes — 50 sweet and 50 white.

Another logistical challenge was salad for fifty.  Here in West Africa, any locally-grown produce to be consumed raw and unpeeled had to be soaked in an iodine solution, then rinsed in (previously-boiled) water to combat the iodine taste.  The Peace Corps doctor and Embassy doctor were unanimous and adamant about this.  Many of the volunteers, young enough to consider themselves immortal, cut corners — and some paid the amoebic price — but ________ and Emily had shed their senses of immortality long before.  They gathered large buckets for lettuce-soaking and peeled the cucumbers and tomatoes so they wouldn’t require soaking.

________’s maid, Yacine, enlisted four family members to help.  When Emily and _______ tried to explain the origins of the Thanksgiving meal to Yacine and her helpers, they realized how difficult it was to explain something so culturally specific to someone from another culture.  They also realized how incomplete their knowledge was.  Between pictures, words, and pantomime, though, everyone wound up understanding a little and laughing a lot.

In the end, _______ and Emily became so close from preparing for the meal that their families had Thanksgiving together, with the 50 volunteers, of course. There were no leftovers except bones.

*          *          *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery with a musical undertone.

 

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Meet My Old Friend, Senegal, by Carole Howard

Have you ever been to Africa? West Africa, in particular? Senegal, in very-particular? Probably not.

I’ve been there four times over 30 years. The first time was for a year in 1974, with my husband and newborn daughter. Next was a six-month stay in 1981, when that daughter was seven and we had to choose between a crowded French-speaking school and a missionary-run English-speaking school which included mandatory instruction in a religion that wasn’t ours.   I wasn’t there again until 1998, when my daughter came down from Morocco, where she was living, and we came over from the U.S. We had a great Christmas vacation together. Our most recent visit was in 2003, as the first of our two-month volunteer gigs. By that time, of course, our daughter was grown up and completely launched.

You could say my trips to Senegal are like a timeline for me. Or you could say Senegal and I are old friends. And since I think of the West African setting for DEADLY ADAGIO as being like one of the characters, one that influences the action so that the book couldn’t possibly take place anywhere else, that last characterization feels right. Yes, definitely old friends.

DeadlyAdagioTo introduce you to my old friend, Senegal, I’ve posted an excerpt from the book. I’ve been to villages like the one where this scene takes place.  The sounds of the kids and chickens, the smell of the wood fires, the image of the hut’s roof have set up permanent residence in my memory, where they were only too ready to be called upon and recorded. But since this excerpt begins on page 82 of the book, I’ve edited it so it makes sense to those who haven’t read pages 1-81, and also in the interests of space.

Emily, the protagonist, is the wife of a Foreign Service Officer.

Walter is the in-country Peace Corps Director.

Nora is a Peace Corps Volunteer running a clinic in a village.

 

CHAPTER 12

When Emily and Walter got to the village, they went right to the cinderblock clinic. Nora was holding a stethoscope to a woman’s enormous belly with one hand and, with the other, holding up her thumb and index finger. “Nyar,” she said with a grin. Emily knew from the market that nyar meant “two.” The woman was having twins, a harbinger of good luck. Emily remembered what a shock it had been when her doctor told her she was pregnant with twins. Now, of course, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

She shook the pregnant woman’s hand and gave her to understand that she was the mother of twins, too. They smiled energetically enough to make up for the lack of language.

Nora was much older than most volunteers. She embodied a certain solidity, echoed by her short stocky body. Her nose was prominent, her skin wrinkled, and her eyes far enough apart to sometimes give her listeners pause as to exactly where she was looking; but her self-possessed demeanor made no apology for her face, and that, in itself, made her attractive.

She took Emily and Walter to pay a courtesy call on the chief. He was old and withered but with a stature befitting his authority. The scarification on his face – which had undoubtedly been done at his initiation rite, some 50 or 60 or even 70 years ago – was elaborate and, in its own way, beautiful. The colorful embroidered cloths that were casually draped around him were similarly ornate.

Nora’s introduction was mostly in Wolof, with a little French thrown in. Emily only knew a few words in Wolof, but she heard ciif, Wolof for “chief” twice, once in connection with the village chief and once for Walter. There was jere jef, of course, Wolof for “thank you. She wasn’t sure how Nora introduced her, though she thought she picked up the word “ambassade.”

Nobody paid much attention to her, so she let her eyes drift and her mind wander. She hadn’t been to many villages or huts, since her husband’s job mostly dealt with the housing arrangements of the American diplomats.

At first, she was diverted by the chickens and the children in the hut. They wandered from the sleeping quarters – marked by their mosquito nets, thanks to Nora – to the cooking area with its fire pit and oddly shaped cooking implements, to the general open area with the kids and birds chasing each other. She tried to concentrate on what few words she could understand. After a while, like the cooking smoke, her attention drifted upwards.

The roof was built with thin poles like bicycle spokes, but only some of them went all the way to the center, so there was an almost-spokeless area of about one foot in diameter. Then the straw was laid on top of the spokes, all the way to the center, and loosely tied in bunches. The light peeked through the thatch, a bit stronger through the center hole, and so did the breeze, but not the bugs, and the smoke from the cooking fire drifted up and out, leaving only its smell.

Something tugged at her pants. She got down t the tuggers’ level and started to talk to the kids, even though she knew they wouldn’t understand anything other than the universals: eye contact, smile, soft voice.

Nora finished her conversation with the chief. She pulled Emily aside. Gesturing toward Walter and the chief, she said, “These two are going to be going at it for a while. Chief-talk, I guess. Want to come to my hut for a glass of iced tea?”

Emily hesitated for a split-second. “I wonder if….”

“If you’re worried about the water, dear, yes, I boiled it for 20 minutes. I’m the nurse here, you know. I’m careful and, besides, I’m not one of those kids who think they can do anything because they’re immortal. I am definitely mortal.”

*   *   *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Press.  Senegal is one of the 12+ countries in Africa she’s been lucky enough to visit; maybe she’ll introduce another friend in another post.

 

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Quiet Gratitude, by Carole Howard

I’ve never been a fan of expressing emotion on demand, as in, “Before we eat our turkey, let’s go around the table and everyone say three things he or she is grateful for.” If people choose  to speak of their gratitude, I’m all for it. It’s the “on demand” part at which I bridle.

Don’t get me wrong:  I do experience abundant gratitude and I do love Thanksgiving’s focus on it. I just don’t want to be told when and where to go public.  For me, spontaneous gratitude is more powerful, more meaningful, more uplifting.

One spontaneous-gratitude moment happened when my husband and I were living in the north of Senegal for two months, in one bedroom of a house we shared with four (sometimes six) others.  We gathered for breakfast every morning with Déyfatou, her husband Mamadou, and their two daughters, Ayisha (3) and Fatou (18 months).

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Our housemates and breakfast buddies

Déyfatou, about 25, tall and thin, soft-voiced and shy-smiled, brought in the same breakfast fixings every day:  French bread, butter and jam; a tea kettle of boiled water made over a charcoal fire behind the house; plates, cups, utensils; plastic bags holding instant coffee, tea bags, sugar cubes, coffee-creamer.

The bags were the plain-vanilla kind of  bag, tied in a knot at the top.  Every morning, Déyfatou opened them and we took out what we needed.  (I was amazed that the instant Nescafe with dried milk, which I’d have scorned in my previous life, tasted so delicious.)  Then she closed them with a knot tight enough to protect against moisture and bugs.

A knot opened, a knot tied, every day for what must have been years, judging from the appearance and feel of the bags.  They were like ancient skin:  very wrinkled, thin and so soft you might mistake them for suede if your eyes were closed.  And likely to disintegrate.

One day, I was getting some aspirins from the personal pharmacy I’d schlepped from home.  I had Ziploc bags of aspirins, ibuprofen, and Tylenol.  (Yes, I had all three because I couldn’t know in advance what I’d need or want.)  There was Pepto Bismol, of course, and Immodium (ditto about never knowing), daytime cold medicine, night-time cold medicine, cough syrup, malaria preventive, canker sore medicine, nose spray, and many, many, more.   I was pharmaceutically prepared.  Perhaps overprepared but, as I said, you never know.

And as I looked at those bags upon bags, it occurred to me that Déyfatou might like to have a few to save her from the tying and untying.  And, perhaps, from one of those ancient bags dissolving in front of her very eyes.  So I combined the white aspirin, brownish ibuprofen, and multi-colored Tylenol in one bag and gave Déyfatou the two newly-emptied and cleaned ones.

My bags were not the kind where you push the strips from the two sides of the opening together to join them. Oh no, these were the ultra-spiffy and ultra-convenient ones with an actual zipper at the top.

They were a huge hit.  Déyfatou loved them in a way that lit her up from inside.  Loved them out of all proportion to their value.  Transformed her into a giggling girl as she unzipped and zipped them over and over.  It was the kind of reaction every gift-giver loves.

I went through everything I’d brought with me – meds, spare batteries for the radio and flashlights, wet laundry-storage bags – to produce some 15 bags in different sizes.  Enough for coffee, tea, sugar, and creamer for years to come.  Each one a series of knots not tied, not untied.  I was Santa Claus! I was the bag lady!

The thing is, Déyfatou wasn’t poor. Mamadou had a good job and she was his only wife.  The girls had toys and bookbags and hair ribbons, all bought in Dakar.  It’s even possible that if Déyfatou were in a supermarket in Dakar, she’d see the French equivalent of Ziplocs and could have bought them.  They just weren’t part of her life, and, besides, why spend money on something that’s not necessary?

If called upon to say something I’m grateful for at Thanksgiving, I would never think of Ziploc bags.  Yet, in that moment, I appreciated not just the bags, but also the other things in my life that I usually don’t even notice.  Too many to name here.

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I was grateful for the mosquito net under which we slept. And I’m grateful we don’t need one here in the U.S.

The big things I’m supremely grateful for – my family, my health, my friends, my life in a stable democracy, my material comfort – are easy to think of and, for that reason, the gratitude sometimes is a bit knee-jerk, a bit glib.  But the little things that go unnoticed in the interstices bring it all home.  And that gratitude is nourishing.

Would anyone out there choose to mention one of the little things in life for which he/she is grateful? Of course, you don’t have to. No pressure.

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio,  published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which parts of this post are excerpted.

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Tikkun Olam, by Carole Howard

If you ever want to feel every one of your years (I was feeling 57 of them on the night in question), try to sleep in one of those smelly, orange, molded plastic chairs in an airport.  Not for a nap, but for the whole night.

My husband and I were among the hundreds trying to contort our bodies into the elusive “comfortable position,” occasionally giving up in favor of the gritty floor, on Christmas night 2002.  This was not at all the way we’d envisioned starting the two-month volunteer assignment that was the kickoff to our retirement.

It had been a crispy-cold blue-sky morning, snowing lightly, when we left for the airport.

“We’re doing it, really doing it, Ca!”

(“Ca” meant Geoffrey was very excited.)

“Do you think I packed enough Pepto-Bismol?”

“Stop worrying, it’ll be fine.”

Yes, I thought, it would probably be fine. But that didn’t mean there weren’t gazillions of details to worry about. And, besides, it wouldn’t be fine if we didn’t have enough Pepto-Bismol, which I knew from experience you can’t get in other countries.  Certainly not in a village in the north of Senegal.

I knew I wouldn’t get any co-worrying from Geoffrey – “It’ll be fine” was his mantra – so I kept it to myself.  Well, mostly.

As we drove, the falling snow accelerated until we felt as if we were inside a snow globe.   Still, we had no idea of the night to come.  We waited at the gate, then boarded the plane – Hooray! At last!  Then we sat.  And sat.  We were de-iced, we pushed back. Hooray!  At last!

Eventually, we had to return to the terminal – airport closed, no cars or planes in or out –  to spend the night.  Uh, why was I doing this again?  Because it would be fine.  And fun.  Right.

*          *          *

In a way, kicking off our retirement with a travel adventure made perfect sense, since we loved to travel and had done plenty of it in our 30 years together. Looking at our extra passport pages was almost like looking at our photo album.

It’s just that we hadn’t planned to retire quite so soon.

We’d had satisfying but somewhat untraditional careers as consultants. For the last twenty years, we’d worked together, out of our home.  Ten steps from the bedroom to the office, hoping the dog didn’t bark while we were on the phone with a client, leftovers for lunch in the living room.  As far as I was concerned, the work – teaching various communication and management skills in a corporate setting – earned me a living, kept me mentally challenged, and allowed for great scheduling flexibility.  It didn’t, however, ignite my passions.

When my parents died within two years of each other, I got the message:  Mortality is real, life is short.  Putting things off can be a mistake.  We’d always intended to join the Peace Corps when we retired; maybe now was the time.  On reflection, though, we realized two years was too long to be away from Geoffrey’s elderly parents.

Then something amazing happened.

I was leafing through “World Vision,” the magazine for returned Peace Corps volunteers (of which Geoffrey was one).  I almost never looked at this magazine but that day I flipped the pages and spotted an ad for “Volunteer Assignments from One Month to One Year.”

We checked out the sponsoring organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS).  It was primarily a funding organization, providing grants to non-profits around the world, but they had a small Volunteer Corps through which they paired mid- or post-career professionals with non-profits who’d requested people with specific skills.

All we had to be was skilled (check, got that) and Jewish (check, got that – sorta).  We applied.

Our interviewer asked us about our motivation and our experience with culture shock.  He wanted to know about our transferrable skills.  Most importantly, to us, he assured us that secular Jews like us met the requirement as well as our more religious counterparts.  The idea behind the organization was not to spread Judaiism, but to encourage American Jews to  follow the ancient Hebrew imperative, “Tikkun olam” (“Heal the world”).

Tikkun olam:  We’d never heard of it before but knew instantly we’d always believed in it.  We signed on to work with an organization in Senegal, a predominantly Moslem country, that was introducing irrigated agriculture so villagers no longer had to depend on the sparse rainfall.  We’d help them write a Strategic Plan.  Cool.

*          *          *

The morning after our torture-chamber night in the British Airways terminal, the snow stopped and the airport opened.  We were glad we’d kept toothbrush and toothpaste in our carry-on luggage.  We flew out.

As it turns out, I’d taken enough Pepto-Bismol with us. And aspirins, Tylenol, toothache medicine, canker sore medicine, cold and flu medicine, cough drops, bandaids and lots more, all in hermetically sealed Ziploc bags.  And it went fine, as we’d both known it would.  Much more than fine.

During our stay, we learned a lot about irrigated agriculture.

During our stay, we learned a lot about irrigated agriculture.

Have you ever done volunteer work?  How did it turn out?  And, if not, do you think you ever will?

 

 

 

 

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.

 

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Old Friends, by Carole Howard

It happened over and over: Two people introduced themselves to each other. There was a brief moment in which each reconciled the other’s older face with his or her memory of that same face 50 years ago. And then there was an intake of breath and an outburst of unfettered affection. The joy was palpable.

My husband and I hosted a 50-year reunion of his group of Peace Corps Volunteers. They were known as “Senegal 2,” since they were the second group to have been sent to the young country. Twenty-one were able to make it to the event, some with spouses. I’d met only a few of them before – one of them introduced my husband and me to each other.

They came from all over the country. Mostly retired, they’d spent the last half-century being meat producers, film-makers, educators, health care professionals, social workers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, techies.   But a half century ago, they were well-diggers, construction specialists, health workers, sports coaches, and teachers.

Notice the shirts/ties, dresses/pumps, and the Pan Am propeller plane, which took off from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport

Notice the shirts/ties, dresses/pumps, and the Pan Am propeller plane, which took off from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport

 

They recalled and celebrated the last time they were all together, when they were in their 20’s. One of the themes that emerged was the enduring power of the Peace Corps experience.

“Yes, I helped the people in my village,” said a trim man with neatly-combed gray hair.  “After we dug a well in their village, they no longer had to walk miles to the nearest water source and then carry a heavy bucket back, balanced on their heads. But, truly, I think it helped me even more than them. I met myself during those years.”

Don't they look great?

There were funny stories, too: One man cracked up as he told of his fury when a new room-mate ate the can of mom-sent apple pie filling he’d been saving for Thanksgiving. A woman with exuberant gray hair and an expressive 70-year old face acted out the scene when she’d tried to explain to an African counterpart that she boiled her water before drinking it because of “little animals that live in the water that you can’t see but that go away if the water gets hot.”  And then there was my husband, who’d started a garden in a village where they ate rice and fish, hoping to provide the vitamins found only in vegetables; too bad the first and most prolific crop was detested radishes.

I admired the courage and initiative of their twenty-something selves. They heeded JFK’s call to “ask what you can do for your country” and went to Senegal, a country most had never heard of, in Africa, a continent much less known to Americans then than now. Many traveled out to the bush and, with the Peace Corps’ help, established a life for two years. No email, no cell phone, no Skype, no blog, no Facebook. Inspiring, really.

For the ancestors

For the ancestors

They told their stories and reminisced, remembering their youth with pride, and they reflected on aging. They reconnected with each other. As the group toasted their experiences and their friendship, they first poured some wine into the ground, “for the ancestors,” as they did with their Senegalese counterparts, with palm wine, many years ago.

I don’t think I’ve ever met such a remarkable group of people: smart, funny, reflective, friendly, warm.

As I mentioned in my last piece, “Ask Not….,” there are now about 215,000 returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Do you know any of them? Did you ever ask them about their experiences? What did they say?

 

 

*     *     *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing, in which the setting is Senegal and the Peace Corps plays a role.

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“Ask Not…..,” by Carole Howard

If you were around when John Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, you can easily finish the famous statement from which the title of this piece is excerpted.  For the rest of you, it’s: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Still good advice, in my opinion.

He didn’t waste any time in giving us a new way to do something for our country: he started the Peace Corps two months later.  The agency’s mission, then and now: to promote world peace and friendship. We sure could use some of that, then and now.

To date, there are more than 215,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (or RPCVs, as they’re called), including prominent names in government, industry, the arts and media. For example: Christopher Dodd, Paul Tsongas, Donna Shalala, Reed Hastings (founder/CEO of Netflix), Michael McCaskey (chairman of the board, Chicago Bears), Taylor Hackford (movie producer), Lillian Carter (mother of former President Carter), Paul Theroux, Chris Matthews, Bob Vila. Actually, they’re all over the place – you probably know some yourself.

And, yes, the Peace Corps is still going strong today with more than 7,000 volunteers serving in 65 countries.

Geoffrey (the bearded one), building a well in Djembering in 1964

Geoffrey (the bearded one on the left), building a well in Senegal in 1964

Less famous than the people named above is my husband, Geoffrey, who was one of the early PCVs, spending 1963-1965 in Senegal, West Africa. As he tells it, “The Peace Corps was two years old, Senegal was two years old, and I was all of 21 years old.”

It was a formative experience in his life. When he tells the story of how he found out from a village kid that JFK had been assassinated, I still get chills. (If you want to read all about it, you can do it here.)

 

Next week, we’re hosting the first-ever reunion of Geoffrey’s 1963-65 fellow RPCVs, fifty years (yikes, how can that be?!) later. There will be many stories and reminiscences, much catching up on each others’ lives. There will undoubtedly be laughter and probably tears; there will be music and dancing. And there will be African food prepared by a New York City Senegalese restaurant.

An old grainy shot of us in Senegal in 1974

There we were in Senegal in 1974

I spent two and a half years in West Africa with Geoffrey, ten years after his original African experience, when he was a Peace Corps Deputy In-Country Director. So the stories, music, and food will resonate with me, too. In fact, many of my African experiences (transformative for me) inform Deadly Adagio, which is set in Senegal.

In my next post, I’ll report on the goings-on at the reunion and include a few up-to-date photos of some of the RPCVs.  Stay tuned.

Any RPCV’s reading this?  If you’re not an RPCV, have you ever thought of joining the Peace Corps?

*     *     *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing, in which the setting is Senegal and the Peace Corps plays a role.

 

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The Toilet and the Classroom, by Carole Howard

Our first volunteer assignment was in a village in northern Senegal, at the edge of the Sahara.  The only housing available was one bedroom in a four-bedroom house.  Right away, I knew I had a problem.

It wasn’t the lack of hot water.  In the hot climate, cool showers  – even the kind where you scoop water from a big barrel into a little basin and pour it over your head – weren’t so bad.  And giving up pork and wine in this Muslim village wasn’t hard.  Not for six weeks, anyway.  The lack of privacy was manageable by escaping to the one room we could call our own.

But a squat toilet in the bathroom we shared with our four housemates – 6 if you count the kids?  That was just too much.  It wasn’t dirty or smelly.  In fact, it was the opposite – a meticulously squeaky-clean porcelain platform.  As squat toilets go, I’m sure it was 4-star.  But still.

I’m really not a princess-type, but I did my fair share of whining to my husband Geoffrey, who was very patient.  Eventually, we worked it out.  At least, we worked out 2/7 of it:  Every weekend we went to St. Louis (San Luh-WEE), the former capital of French West Africa.  We decided not to stay in town at the Hotel St. Louis, the oh-so-atmospheric hotel where Antoine de St. Exupery and other aviators had stayed after they’d flown from France over the Sahara.

Instead, we opted for the sweet little Hotel Cap St. Louis, about two miles out of town and right on the ocean.  We always stayed in the charming Room 29: a self-standing thatch-roofed round structure, sort of “African hut meets Club Med” – with the most important amenity of all: a lovely bathroom with a hot shower and the most beautiful toilet in the world.   As for other 5/7 of the week, well, I just learned to adapt.  Enough said.

I could then shift my focus from toilet-hysteria to the reason we were there:  learning first-hand about “our” organization’s work, helping them focus their efforts on the projects with the most impact, and helping them describe to others (particularly funders) how they introduced irrigated agriculture and livestock-raising to farmers who’d always depended on unreliable rainfall.

After we read lots of documents and talked to the staff, we went on field trips.  As always, while you can understand something when someone explains it to you, seeing it in action is another story.  Like the time we went to visit the women’s literacy class in Koundoung, a village in the middle of nowhere.

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The class was housed in a hut that looked…well, frankly, it looked like the model for the three little pigs’ house.  The one the wolf could huff and puff and blow down without even breathing hard.  The walls were loosely attached dried grasses and looked as if, wolf or no, those straw walls would soon be floor mats.

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I stooped to enter the hut, all 5’3” of me. Six women were seated at crude wooden desks, with beautifully colored fabrics on their bodies and heads, some with babies at their breasts.  They smiled warmly, then went back to work.

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Through the softly-filtered light from the roof and walls, I saw the math problem in Poular, the local language, on the blackboard.  The director of the program translated for us.  The problem involved buying sheep for a certain price per kilo, buying feed to fatten them up, then selling them.  They calculated gross profit for the women’s association, as well as individual net profits after association expenses were paid.  These women could neither read nor add two years ago.

Wow.  What difference if the school building is a flimsy falling-down structure?  Hut, shmut, all that matters is what goes on inside.  I’d been a teacher, I knew that.

“During the dry season,” the director explained, “there are competing demands for these scarce grasses.  Many villagers wanted to use them to feed the animals, which would have meant, in the end, feeding the people.  When they decided to devote all this grass to the hut, they were showing how much they value the school and what they were willing to sacrifice for it.”

While everything I’d thought about “hut, shmut” was true, what I hadn’t realized was that this hut was, in fact, a palace.

And becoming aware of the things I’d learned to take for granted, my preconceptions and cultural baggage, helped me stop complaining about the toilet. Mostly.  Have you ever experienced that kind of instant change of perspective?

* * *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.

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Trekking, Traipsing, and Writing by Carole Howard

I caught the travel bug from my husband, the intrepid former Peace Corps volunteer.  Since I met him, this girl from the Bronx – who’d previously been as far as Niagara Falls –  has done her fair share of packing and unpacking, schlepping, trekking, and traipsing. Forty-odd years, fifty countries and counting.

Many of our trips were the “normal” kind – a week here, two weeks there.  But there was a two and a half year period in the 1970’s when we lived in West Africa while my husband had a Peace Corps staff job.  During those years, we lived in three different countries, but traveled to many more.  And then in 2000, when we retired, we took a series of 2-month volunteer assignments in Africa and Asia.

As it turns out, of the 50 countries I’ve visited, a disproportionate share – about 15 – are in Africa.  The others are spread out among Europe, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, and an itty-bitty bit of South America.

Along the way, I realized something I couldn’t believe I didn’t know before:  I’d always thought I was just “me.”  It turns out, though, that I’m an American me, having been shaped by the culture I grew up in.  If I’d been born somewhere else, I’d be someone else.  And if I didn’t spend time outside of the U.S., I wouldn’t realize things about my own culture that had been invisible to me before, because they just seemed normal, as in the saying “Fish never discovered water.”

And that’s one of the reasons I like to use exotic settings in my books.  It’s almost as if the setting is one of the characters:  what’s seems ordinary for the Africans is not ordinary for the Americans, and vice versa of course.

In my mystery, Deadly Adagio, the protagonist is the feisty wife of a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, living in Senegal, in West Africa.  (Yes, I lived there.  No, she’s not me.)  If the book were set somewhere else, it would have to be a different book.  Victim, murderer, investigation: all different.

Bargaining for baskets and fabrics at the market, squeezing into a crowded pirogue with women whose babies are on their backs while their bundles are on their heads, visiting the chief of a village and meeting his entourage, ruminating about the dramatic difference between American brooms and African brooms – those things are part of the fabric of the story.  Going to Macy’s, taking the Staten Island Ferry, meeting the CEO and her staff?  Nah, just not the same.

I love using my experiences in Africa when I write. They may not have molded me as American culture did, but they’ve become part of who I am and the way I see things now.  I try not to say things like, “Oh, that reminds me of the time I was in…..” too much, so it’s not tiresome for my friends.  But writing is a different story. Using those experiences in my writing is like looking at my photo album, but with the smell of the wood-fire, the sounds of the traditional Wolof greeting, the taste of the street vendors’ brochettes thrown in.

It’s better, much better, than a photo album.  Maybe I’ll “visit” Thailand next time.

When you’re choosing what to read next, does the setting influence your decision?

***

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.

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Filed under fiction, Travel, writing