Thursday, July 17
Kaolack, Senegal

I hitched a ride yesterday from Sokone to Kaolack with a group I didn’t expect to meet in central Senegal: a dozen American Army ROTC guys.

It was the picture of luxury travel: air conditioning, room to move my legs and travel companions who spoke my language. Oh, and the van’s windows actually opened. I was pretty thankful for that when the guy in front of my hurled out his window because the ride was so bumpy.

I met the Army group in a random set of circumstances. Rewind three days. I arrived in Kaolack (a city I’ve dubbed Land of Flies because there are so many here that it’s not enjoyable to sit outside) on Monday via sept-place and made my way to the home of Viola Vaughan. She’s a Detroit transplant to Senegal who moved here seven years ago with her five grandchildren so they could learn the Koran.

Viola started an educational organization that has become known as 10,000 girls. The program helps hundreds of Senegalese girls stay in school through tutoring and providing school supplies. It’s funded partly through donations, but also by the program’s entrepreneurial component whereby girls in their 20s make crafts to export to the states and baked goods to sell locally.

Viola, who the girls call “Mom,” invited me to stay with her to check out the school. But the day after I arrived, it turned out, she was taking about 30 girls to a town called Sokone, 1.5 hours south of Kaolack, for a week of summer camp, where a handful of university students from the States and peace corps volunteers would teach them about democracy and English. So I went with them.

The girls were eager to befriend me. They turned a bit shy, though, on our second day at camp, when the U.S. Army guys showed up to learn about Viola’s organization as part of a cultural-immersion program. That afternoon, we all ate together in traditional Senegalese fashion, sitting barefoot on mats on the floor. Four or five people sat around each large plate that contained flavored rice and beef, some eating with their right hand, others with a spoon.

(I’m more of a spoon-eater; it’s much easier to get food into my mouth that way. I haven’t yet mastered the technique of rolling rice into a ball in the palm of my hand, so the food just falls to the floor in bits when I try to bring it to my mouth.)

When the Army group got up to leave, I hastily asked if I could go with them — and they were nice enough to have me! I didn’t know when I’d have another ride back to Kaolack, and Viola’s group wouldn’t return until Saturday. Plus, to be honest, I had seen the vehicle the ROTC group arrived in, and it looked much more comfortable than a sept-place. It was!

After staying at a Catholic Mission last night (CFA 2,000 for a bed in a dorm room — $5), I’m heading south to Nioro, near the Gambian border.