Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Missed You More

When I returned to my village home stay family last week after several days at the Thies training center, my host mother greeted me with "Nammoon nala" -- i.e., "I missed you." Better yet, I knew to respond with "Malaa Raw" -- meaning, "I missed you more." This delightful little exchange is fairly common, and it's a nice indication of a certain tenderness that is present in the culture and language that I am becoming immersed in.

Another encouraging auspice is the frequency with which the word for peace, "jamm," appears in Wolof phrases:
* Goodnight. Sleep in peace!
* How is your family? In Peace only.
*The morning is peaceful.

And if that isn't good enough for you, how about these little gems from the Wolof language: the word for yes is "Waaw," pronounced like the English exclamation, "Wow!" -- Meaning that every time I answer a question in the affirmative, I get to sound like I'm giving a really enthusiastic endorsement. It's great. Oh! And their version of "Thank Goodness" is ALHUMDILILAAY (All-HOOM-dah-lee-laay). People here seem to say it every other sentence, and I've picked up the habit. Try it some time, with gusto; it's really fun! Finally, my favorite idiomatic phrase, uttered in response to a variety of questions, is "Mungiy Doh" -- "It walks." Wolof is great.

And I'm sure you're wondering . . . How IS the Wolof coming along, anyway, Numbe? Well, it's coming. It walks. :-)

The language learning curve has been steep due to the confluence of several fortuitous factors, including my stellar language trainer, my personal desperation to understand what the heck people are saying, and - most of all - my immersion in a Wolof-speaking environment. With each and every exhausting day in the village, I come leaps and bounds in my ability to speak and understand the language. I also feel that I'm making progress in other, less-tangible areas, like a higher tolerance for being the constant focus of attention and a broader understanding of the emotional patterns of my host family.

As practice for the kinds of things that we will do after we install, the Peace Corps trainers have been giving us a lot of technical work to complete. During our last village stay, we planted our garden and our tree nursery, and now have a whole adorable patch of black-eyed pea plants sprouting up; we built two mud stoves; we created a map of the village; we sat in on a primary school class; and we traveled to a local health post to observe a morning of infant vaccinations. The vaccination day was a bit intense -- in the midday heat, hundreds of women were lined up with their babies, with at least half of them nursing at any given moment. Upon reaching the front of the line, they would hold their squirmy little ones as a bleary-eyed nurse jams a large needle into each plump, smooth little thigh. Maybe it has something to do with the administering of shots - I'm really not sure - but many of these women seemed weary, or even sullen.

On another note: I've been struck of late by the true, honest affection that I've come to feel for my host family in the village. It's an intriguing and beautiful testament to our ability, as sentient beings, to love and understand across cultural rifts. This was one of my primary motivations for seeking Peace Corps service in West Africa, so I'm overjoyed at how much I've come to like this family. I love my mother, Manay Njay, who calls me her "Diskette" and proudly, with a beaming smile, hands me a frozen bissap juice treat after lunch every day; I love the young kids, like Binta and Manay Thiaw, who are interested in everything I do and offer me shy smiles when I come home from school; I love my preteen sister, Nday Njay, wise and strong beyond her years, who helps me do EVERYTHING and doesn't even laugh at me; I love my teenage sister, Nogay, who sits with me at dinner and never fails to remind me that I must strive for my "Jay Fonday" butt; I love my "Tante" Hady Keri (actually the second wife of my father's brother), who seems to have a sixth sense about when I need help with something and will send one of her beautiful children running across the courtyard when she sees that I'm in need; I even love my brother, Mamour, who is my age and likes to ask me to marry him. Oh! And the babies... I love the babies. The best part is that none of the mommies have any problems ceding their darling baby to my care for however long I want! :D

I think these people really are good people, and sometimes they make me so happy. Yet this is just my family for the duration of training. Imagine how attached I will get after I am installed in my final village and live with the same family for two years!

For all my gushing, I still find myself feeling a significant amount of frustration on a regular basis. The nature of my life produces weak spots in my optimism, and every now and then it becomes just a bit too much. In bad moments, I scowl at an agressive kid, or stomp past a group of old women without greeting them, or retreat to my room until I feel I can once again face the heat and the swarms of people. Suffice it to say that I am constantly working on making these moments fewer and farther between.

The hardest part, for me, might be the cession of all control over the food that I eat. It is certainly a bizarre thing, at the age of 25, to all of sudden find yourself void of agency over what you will eat next -- not only not to have a choice, but not to know when your next meal will come, or what it will be. I'm getting better about it every day, and slowly coming to a place where I can relinquish control without forfeiting my sanity.

That all said, it's nice to be back at the center for a few days -- choosing my food, catching up with friends, taking alone time, and checking in with all of you folks!

The big buzz around the center these days revolves around our Site Placements, which we will know on Wednesday! The rumor mill is churning with talk of the relative merits of various potential sites, such as a Pulaar-language village where you get to swim with manatees, or the Serere-speaking site that sits among abundant mangroves, or the Fulakunda village populated by dwarfs! For my part, I'm confidant that wherever I end up, I will make the best of it and come to love it as one loves the place they call home.

Congratulations on reaching the end of this ramble-fest of a blog post. I've added several pictures below, but for those of you feeling exceptionally photo-gluttonous, you can click on the Picasa photo album to the right, where I've posted many, many more.

With my host mother and another family member; the posed me with the enormous metal bowls and the over-sized serving spoon, which got cut out of the photo.

A typical lunch spread

In the background, the older men's lunch bowl; In the foreground, the young men's lunch bowl

The other Numbe Thiaw - Called "Little Numbe" by our family so we know who's being addressed. (Yes, that makes me "Big Numbe.")

This is Fatima, one of my favorite babies --
she lives in my compound so we get to hang out a bunch.

"Tante" Hady Keri, with three from her beautiful brood.

Pounding goat food -- notice that they gave me the small stick and my seven-year-old sister the big stick, which is just about an accurate representation of our relative abilities.

Little kids in the wheelbarrow -- always a hit.

Pounding and sifting clay for our mud stoves. I love these kids -- they're all so happy here, even though they are in the midst of getting covered in sand and clay because they are so diligently helping us.

These kids followed us around as we gathered clay and manure for our mud stoves. They insisted on carrying all our stuff, like Jessica's big black bag, which is hanging from the shoulder of the little one on the left.

The Ker Sadaro crew with our mud stove. That's our language trainer, Ayssatou, on the left.

One very exciting day, another group of Wolof speakers visited us in Ker Sadaro.

Kids eager to answer a question in the 5th grade class we visited.

Lunch time!

Chebujenn - fish and rice - which we eat for lunch about 4 out of every 5 days.


Jessica, me, Steve - the Ker Sadaro Crew - finished with our mural!

The Thiaw Clan Cows.
(to get the most out of this phrase, you must know that "Thiaw" is pronouced "Chow;" Thiaw is the French spelling.)

Steve and Jessica with their respective favorite kids.

Binta, another favorite baby.
This one lives at our language trainer's house, where we have class.

Some of my siblings: Manay, Nday Njay, Binta, Little Numbe, and Pap

Binta and Mohammed

My brother Mamour, on the right, with another family member whose name I can never remember.

I was excited that they finally let me help cook!

Some of my teenage siblings, studying in the courtyard.

My host mother!

Mothers and infants waiting for vaccinations.

This baby is only ONE DAY OLD! They let me hold him; it was beautiful.

Ker Sadaro boys, dressed in their best for Friday prayer (the most important prayer of the week), in line for candy.

Another favorite baby.

Our black-eyed pea patch!

On the way back to the training center after 12 days in our villages.

Sarah, Andrew, Albert, and Kourtney cooking dinner at the training center.

Jay Fonday contest.


  1. Oh Em! What a fantastic have captured the colors of a wonderful place. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Na ma na la! Sounds like you're getting along nicely. Have you heard the phrase, "ndanke ndanke ay japp golo ci naay." (It's by going slowly, that one catches the monkey in the bush.) Tell your host mom that the next time you mess up on something trivial by her standards. She'll say, "Yo degg wolof tey!" And you'll clap a weak low five. (A great compliment.) Na ma naa wolof! I can't wait to waxtaan ak yo!

    Ba cikanaam inchallah :) Nuyul ma Senegal ak waa thies!