Fred's Peace Corps Village, Senegal, West Africa

May 27 - 31, 2002

Dave Svilar (Papis Toure), Fred Sheffield (Alfou Sane)

When Fred (Alfou Sane) and I (Papis Toure) hit the last rut of the road on the 12th hour of our drive from the capital city Dakar to Kolda I thought we had reached the middle of nowhere.  Then we hopped on mountain bikes and pedaled down a dirt track in the dusty heat for 14 miles until we reached the village where Fred had been living for two years.  Passing other villages along the way it was obvious that Alfou had become a celebrity in his short stint in this area.  Men working in the fields, women pulling water from the well, and kids playing games would halt their activities to salute the great Alfou Sane.

Alfou's "compound" which consisted of five huts.  The village had four such compounds.

Alfou’s village consisted of around 15 huts housing almost one hundred people and numerous other goats, chickens, and cows.  Fred's hut wasn't impressive – a circular mud structure eight feet in diameter with a thatched roof.  Inside it was furnished with a cot and water filter.  That’s it.  The mud interior was decorated by a lone calendar in which Alfou used to count down the days until the end of his service, and a pile of dead ants on the floor swept into a neat pile.  Out back a four-foot high bamboo fence provided privacy for Alfou’s bathroom, which was simply a concrete slab poured over a hole.  As unimpressive as Alfou’s hut appeared I was impressed that he had managed to live in a place like this for over two years!

Papis with several of the village kids in front of Alfou's hut.  Everyone in the village, especially the kids loved having their pictures taken.  Just the site of my camera would attract a crowd.

Day in the Life of Alfou Sane

The four days I spent in the village made me realize that all of Alfou’s days were much the same.  It started with an early wake up, not by Aflou’s alarm clock, but by the roosters wandering through the village.  Alfou and Papis hopped out of bed and hit the trail running in the crisp, upper 90 degree morning.  As we jogged down the road people from villages we passed would yell, “Alfou Sane, Alfou Sane” at Fred, and “too-bob, too-bob” (white guy) at me. 

When we arrived back at Alfou’s hut it was time for a shower and my morning bowel movement.  For a shower I drew water from the well and stood out behind his hut and doused myself with a bucket.  Using the toilet was easier – just squat down and position yourself over a small hole in the concrete slab that emptied into a large pit.  Privacy in Alfou’s village was non-existent and after squatting I enjoyed waving with one hand to villagers as they passed Fred's toilet while I wiped with the other.

The next event in Alfou’s day was listening to the BBC on his radio, and then reading until his breakfast was delivered.  All three meals were delivered to Alfou’s hut, and his dish was picked up and cleaned.  Alfou was an honored guest because he was the only white guy they had ever experienced, therefore he shouldn’t be expected to hassle himself with the preparation of the meals (neither did any other man in the village). Breakfast was never a surprise – a bowl of tasteless millet soup.   

After breakfast Alfou opened his hut for visitation hours.  With the new too-bob (white guy) in town there was more excitement than normal.  I would count as many as 16 people – mostly kids – at once jammed in his hut.  Nobody in the village knew a single English word, so they communicated to me through Alfou who had picked up Mandinkan during his first few months of service.  Their first impression of me was flattering: “Look at that one.  That one is really white.”  I say flattering, because they won’t hesitate to tell you whether you are fat, ugly, or stupid. 

The men in the village woke early to begin tending to their fields and other activities.  Even in the midday sun that was near 120 degrees they toiled.  Not Alfou and Papis.  We layed on Alfou’s bed and entertained children who had jammed Alfou’s hut.  The heat melted me, even in the shade of the hut, so very little time passed in between naps.  The children were always staring at me and found everything I did to be highly fascinating including sleeping.  I'd fake falling asleep and when I'd peek they would still be staring.   

Alfou's hairy, white chest is enough to entertain the kids.  In the back villagers play with Alfou's trinkets.  The girl closest to Alfou was my date for the dance.

Pretty soon Alfou got sick of all the people in his hut, so he would close his door to visitors for his afternoon nap.  After nap-time Alfou would again open his door, usually in time for the ritual (Muslim) three shots of tea.  At this time Alfou and Papis would run out of water.  Neither of us wanted to go out in the heat, so we took turns drawing water from the well.  The well contained the only water in the area, so naturally it attracted every insect in the area.  Each pull from the well generated about one gallon of water and a one inch layer of insects.  This had to be used for drinking water, so we scraped the insects off the top, filtered, bleached and called it purified.

Alfou was supposed to be an agricultural specialist, but on walks I took through the fields all plant life was either withered or dead.  All attempts to grow new varieties of seeds in the ground that was slowly becoming part of the Sahara Desert failed.  A main source of income for the village was the illegal practice of cutting down trees and sawing them into boards.  There aren't many trees to begin with, so Alfou tried to think of other possible sources of cash.  One was tye-dying, but the village ladies were slow to catch on.  Alfou didn't think there was much that could be done, so suggested not having another volunteer take his place.  Alfou would be the only too-bob these people would know.

A woman draws water from the village well.  Women work all day with their children strapped to their backs by a long piece of cloth - a common site all over Africa.

It would cool down in the evening to the point of being bearable.  I tried to go out and play soccer with the kids - they enjoyed trying to score goals on the big too-bob and I just enjoyed getting out of the hut.  The poverty-stricken kids of Alfou's village were happier and cuter than the average spoiled brat American kid.  Their parents didn't have the luxury of offering video games or television, so the kids would manufacture their own fun.  This included rag-tag soccer games, pushing spoke-less bicycle wheels along with a stick, and chasing chickens. 

Alfou opened the door to a whole new world of excitement.  Not only was he a big white entity to himself, but he had gadgets and possessions they had never seen.  Camera, walkman, magazines, etc.  After Alfou had devoured Cup-O-Soups sent from his mom he would toss the empty container out the back of his hut.  For the kids who had no possessions of their own it turned into a treasure hunt.  The kids would scour Alfou's backyard hoping to score the occasional empty Cup O' Soup container or any other trash Alfou had discarded. 

A village boy tries on a pair of Oakley's.  They liked seeing their reflections in my sunglasses.  The boy probably didn't realize that the sunglasses were worth more $$ than he'd ever have.

 

Village kids manufacturing their own fun.  The little guy in the middle was scared of white guys, but let me get close enough to take this picture.

Lunch and dinner were always rice with a tiny blob of dark green sauce that looked more like seagull crap.  For Alfou's last night they killed a chicken as a treat.  At least I knew the chicken was fresh after watching the kids corner a chicken, grab it, and slit its throat with Alfou's Swiss knife.  Unfortunately the chicken was as scrawny as the village people and a leg provided less than two bites of meat.  Even though Alfou was always in a state of hunger he could never finish all the rice delivered to his hut.  One can only eat so much plain rice.  A man with bread came through the village, so Alfou bought a few loaves.  This stale, plain bread without even a dab of butter was still the equivalent of a great dessert back at home.

Nightlife in Alfou's village amounted to laying on bamboo mats and staring at the stars.  So much staring at the night sky put these people in touch with the cycles of the moon.  Being from Seattle Alfou had barely seen the moon, but he had much to teach the villagers about the moon and stars.  He had the privilege of informing them that white man had landed on the moon.  They were impressed, but not surprised, "white man has solved everything."  Any group of people that could make a hunk of metal fly (airplanes) could surely get to the moon.  Not only was he able to enlighten them on facts we normally take for granted, but he was able to provide a few new experiences.  When Alfou had come to meet me in Dakar he had brought his village brother (~18 years old)  who had never seen a city or the ocean.

Alfou's Last Day

For his final night in the village Alfou threw a dance party.  A stereo, speakers, generator and lights were hauled 14 miles by donkey cart in order to liven the party.  Alfou and Papis were the two most eligible bachelors in town, so naturally had two fine dates for the party.  The only drawback was that they were about 15 years old (birthdates are not recorded).  Fortunately we were in Africa and this was acceptable.  The girls put on their best dresses, which were actually very pretty.  I wore the same soiled shorts I had been sweating in for the past six days.  Dinner was provided in the hut as usual by Alfou's village, so I didn't spend any money.  Alfou and Papis ate with utensils while our dates just ate their rice with their hands.  For the only time in recent memory I felt like the civilized one.  I let out a big belch to see the reaction of the girls - they didn't even notice.  This was the perfect date.

Alfou and his date for the dance.

Loud West African music and dust from dancing feet emerged from an area enclosed by bamboo fencing.  This was unlike any of Alfou's previous nights in the village staring at stars, and certainly must have been the most excitement the villagers had ever experienced.  Alcohol was too expensive to be an option, but the villagers still partied the night away.  Small children all the way up to the elder of the village danced together.  Dancing isn't my specialty, but I tried to be a good sport.  At least my poor dancing skills provided a source of amusement.  I snuck out early and fell asleep listening to the commotion only a hundred yards away.

Alfou watches ladies of the village boogie.  The lady on the right demonstrates how to dance without a bra.

We waited until early evening when the temperatures had reached the low 100's to make the bike ride back to town.  Even though I couldn't speak their language I could tell there was a different feel in the air being Alfou's final day.  The hut was even more crowded than normal and Alfou left his door open for visitation all day.  I was curious to see how the goodbye ceremonies would unfold.  Alfou had appeared in their lives as a complete foreigner with whom they couldn't even communicate with.  After two years he had become part of the village and was about to disappear just as quickly as he had come.  To them America was what heaven is to us.  They knew it was there, but had no idea what it was like - they just knew it was good. 

Alfou leads his farewell procession.

When the hour was nigh a large crowd had gathered outside Alfou's hut.  There wasn't much to say.  Alfou couldn't say, "see you soon" or, "don't be a stranger."  Alfou's village may as well have been on the moon, because there was no internet or mailing address, and even if there was nobody in the village knew how to read.  Alfou was saying goodbye for the last time.  Village kids pushed Alfou's bike down the dirt path while the villagers followed in a silent, but tearful procession.  After a few hundred yards Alfou and I got on our bikes, waved and literally road off into the sunset.  It was obvious by the outpouring of emotion on both sides that although Alfou had mostly failed to help the village in an economic sense, he had accomplished much more in other ways.

-written September 2002

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