Tag Archives: village

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.



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.



Filed under writing

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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under Travel, writing

Romantic Transylvania by Coco Ihle

I’ve traveled to many countries, but my favorite is Romania, in particular, the republic of Transylvania. Many people who go to Transylvania want, especially, to see Bran Castle, associated with the stories of Vlad the Impaler and the novel Dracula, created by the Irish writer, Bram Stoker, over a century ago.

Bran Castle, Transylvania

Although Bran was fascinating, I felt my imagination soar in Sinaia (pronounced “Sin-EYE-ah); a village nestled deep in the Carpathian pine forests. It seemed to me a timeless place right out of a fairytale with its unique cross-timbered buildings tucked against lush steep mountain slopes.

I remember, one clear night as darkness settled, I unlatched my window and leaned out. It was so quiet I could hear the sighing of the trees in the forest. I don’t know how long I lingered there listening, but after a
while, I became aware of the howling of wolves echoing in the mountains. Before long, dogs in the village joined in the eerie chorus. I’ll never forget that stillness and those haunting sounds. They were both beautiful and frightening; conjuring up images and memories of the tales I’d heard or read of this exotic land of vampires and nocturnal creatures.

The next day, I visited Peles Castle at the edge of the village. It is truly the most exquisite building I’ve ever seen. Both inside and out. While not a new castle as castles go, its building was begun in 1883 by Romania’s longest serving monarch, King Carol I, as a summer residence. I was amazed to learn this magnificent royal palace, with its fairytale turrets and pointed towers rising above acres of green meadows, was the first castle in Europe to have central heating and electricity.

Peles Castle, Sinaia, Transylvania

The characteristic features of the external architecture are specific to the German neo-Renaissance style. The interior is dominated by the same elements, but have combined various styles: Italian and Gothic Renaissance, German Baroque, the rococo, Hispanic, Moorish and Turkish styles. The architects used an abundance of wooden decoration both inside and out, which gives the building that fairytale quality.

Quite outstanding are the big Armory Room, the small Armory Room, the Florentine Room, the Reception Room, the Moresque Room, the French Room, the Turkish Room, the Council Room, the Concert Room and the Imperial Suite, 160 rooms in all.

Interior of Peles Castle, Sinaia, Transylvania

The library conceals a secret passage leading to the second floor of the castle. There is a gallery of mirrors and the dining room has a leather clad ceiling. Scenes from age old Romanian fairytales adorn the stained glass windows in the Poetry Room. Paintings, sculptures, silver, gold and marble are everywhere.

During Ceausescu’s era, the castle was used as a private retreat for leading communists and statesmen from around the globe. U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Libyan leader Moamar Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat were all entertained by the Romanian dictator in Pele’s fanciful rooms, each furnished to reflect a different European country.

Peles Castle truly took my breath away. If you ever travel to Romania, I cannot recommend highly enough, a visit to Peles Castle and Sinaia.

Have you visited a place whose very essence made your imagination soar?


Filed under fiction, musings, photographs