Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pictures from Joal-Fadiouth

To accompany my previous post, here are some of my favorite pictures from Joal and Fadiouth.

In the sept places on the way to Joal

The Women's Cultural Center in Joal

Senghor's childhood home

The Baobab in Senghor's backyard that the women sacrificed to daily. Now Jesus' portrait graces the tree.

Horse cart shadows on our ride from Fadiouth into the Baobab forest

Horse carts are a lot easier to drive than cars in this kind of terrain

Approaching the biggest Baobab tree in Senegal

Inside the Baobab with my travel mates

Sunset over the Baobab forest

Full bars of service!

Back in Fadiouth

Sunset over Joal

Fadiouth from the cemetery

The cemetery with the millet storage huts in the background

Baobabs everywhere, even in the cemetery made of seashells

A view of the mosque on the island

Fadiouth at dusk

Me on the bridge to Fadiouth

On the road back to Dakar

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Random Reflections from the Road

This past weekend I went on my first Senegalese adventure outside of Dakar. I woke up early Saturday morning to join two other girls in my study abroad program, Emily and Claire, for a weekend of cultural confrontations, geographic wonders, and fits of laughter in Joal and Fadiouth. To spare you a play by play description of my weekend, below you will find some random thoughts about what we experienced.

The sister towns of Joal and Fadiouth are located about 140 km outside of Dakar on the coast. Joal is on the main land and Fadiouth is an island made entirely of shells. To get there we took a Taxi to the Gare Routier [Bus Station] in Dakar which consisted of a dirt parking lot packed full of station wagons called sept places because they seat seven travelers plus the driver. We found the metal sign for Joal and climbed into the back seat, which we found to be higher up than the other two rows of seats. This meant that our entire 2 hour ride was spent with our necks bent because the ceiling was too low to sit up straight. While waiting for the rest of the seats to fill up with Senegalese men, we were serenaded by the calls of vendors wishing to sell us fruit, tooth picks, and cookies and by the chorus of Talibé boys asking for alms.

History, Culture, Geography
Joal is the hometown of Senegal's first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor and we visited his childhood home while we were there. Senghor was a very intellectual president who spoke many languages including German, allowing him to survive his 20 month imprisonment in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. As president, he used many childhood memories to build the Senegalese identity. The green color and the star on the Senegalese flag come from the color of his house and the star that was engraved on his dining room ceiling, respectively. The Boabab is the national tree because the Boabab in his back yard was a symbol of his connection to his ancestors; his father's many wives made sacrifices at the base of the tree every day. Before becoming the first African student accepted at one of the Grand Ecoles in Paris, Senghor was set to become a Catholic Monk. The fact that a Catholic President was able to successfully lead a 90% Muslim country for twenty years is a perfect example of the level of religious tolerance found in Senegal still today.

Near Joal is located the biggest Boabab in the region, or so they say. It is so big that you can climb inside of it through a hole on the side. We found ourself a horse cart, driver, and guide (more specifically they found us) and left the beautiful island of Fadiouth behind. Bumping along into the brush on a dirt trail, we held on for life while conversing with our newly made friend Bartholomew. The tree was pretty big, but frankly I didn't really get to revel its beauty because I was being haggled by vendors who surrounded the tree hoping to sell "Africa-ware" to money-laden tourists. We did get to go inside, though, and we learned that the tree is about 850 years old and was used to cremate griots (the history keepers) in elaborate ceremonies that are now banned. Before coming to Senegal, I told myself I would never buy an African art piece that did not reflect my own experiences in the country. However, I cracked under the pressure to buy something and ended up bargaining my way down to a really good price for two wooden elephants. I guess that means that I now need to head to South-Eastern Senegal in order to say that I have actually seen elephants here, making my purchase legitimate.

Joal and Fadiouth are almost entirely populated by the Serer people. (This is the same ethnicity as my host family.) On Sunday morning, Emily and I went to the Catholic church in Fadiouth for Mass given in the Serer language. The service was jam packed with colorfully dressed Believers and what I considered to be a large church building was not sufficient to hold everyone. A majority of the population is Catholic in Joal and Fadiouth, but an equally sized Mosque is also located on the island (again religious tolerance to the max). While on the subject of religion, across one of the two bridges that connects Fadiouth to the mainland is the only cemetery shared by Christians and Muslims in Senegal. According to Serer tradition there, when the head of the family died, the pyramid shaped thatch roof was taken down, placed over his body and belongings, and covered with seashells during the burial ceremony. After doing this for a long time, the cemetery has now become a huge, beautiful mountain of seashells and headstones. The shape of the Serer graves in addition to linguistic studies suggest that these people migrated originally from Egypt thousands of years ago.

Random Reflections
This weekend taught me a very important difference between American and Senegalese culture. I grew up believing that time is money. Not only does this mean that I can spend my time making money, but that if somebody gives their time to help me, they will want money in return. While walking around Joal the first day, we were greeted by Bartholomew, a 20 some Senegalese guy who deliberately got out of his Taxi early to talk to us. It was easy to think that he was out to find himself a job by proposing to be our guide since we have experienced "vendor-attack" every time we go somewhere touristy. While we did pay him to take us on the cart ride to the Baobab, the rest of the weekend showed me the faults of my mindset. We spent all of our meals with Barty and also hung out at the beach with him. He introduced us to his friends, protected us from vendors, and shared his town with us. His aunt even made us lunch one day, from which we all ate off of a big metal platter until everything was gone! I kept worrying that all of this pleasantry would result in him demanding us for a monetary compensation at the end. But I as the weekend passed I started to realize that for him, our friendship, crazy ways, and conversations were our way of paying him back. Money is one way to compensate people, but this weekend taught me that caring about and developing a relationship with somebody is just as valuable if not even more so.

Back in Dakar, we were greeted by traffic, taxi horns, pollution, and classes. I just took my first Wolof exam and am now trying to avoid being melted by the stifling sun and 100 degree heat.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Food LadenThoughts!

I have been in Dakar now for 5 weeks! The time seems to have gone by so fast already and life here is starting to feel normal. However, the more time I spend here, the more my thoughts have turned to food. I am convinced that when everything around you is different, the first thing you seek comfort in is food. Even the first coherent sentence I uttered in Wolof to my family had to do with food: Dese na tuuti ceeb bu dama mën lekk, ndaxte dama xiif, ndaxte suur umawoon ci añ? [Is there any left over rice that I can eat because I'm hungry since I didn't eat enough at lunch?]. What a joyful moment that was; they understood, we all laughed at my amazing feat of speaking an entire sentence in Wolof, AND I got a heaping bowl of rice and vegetables smothered in spice-enriched red sauce! In light of the "grand histoire d'amour" [huge love story] between food and my stomach (as one of my travel-mate's host sister poignantly contested about our obsession with food), I will spend this post detailing the good, the bad, the ugly (and the cravings) of food that I have encountered since my first petit-déjeuner of baguette, butter, and hot milk on this peninsula called Dakar.

Speaking of breakfast, this has become my favorite meal of the day here. For those of you who know me as a grumpy, sleepy-seed-eyed, bed-head in the morning, you would not recognize me here! I actually look forward to waking up every morning in order to butter a freshly baked baguette and mix together a packet of powdered milk and sugar in a cup of hot tea! For some reason it just tastes so good. After I arrive covered in sweat to school, a nice cup of Café Touba beats a Starbucks any day (both in price and taste). Although I was watching a show today and somebody was drinking a frapaccino which made me quite jealous.

Lunch is always an adventure. If I'm feeling lazy, I can get a traditional Sénégalese dish for about $2 at the school restaurant. Most of the time though I head with a group of friends to a nearby restaurant and eat anything from fataya (fried dough with ground beef, onions, fries, mayo, and ketchup all stuffed inside) to falafels. A nice red orange from a street vendor or a local fruit juice adds to a delicious meal. Yesterday, I discovered the "McDonalds of Dakar". Nope, not a single MacDo exists in Sénégal, but as the jovial owner assured me and my friend, his little shack on the side of the road was the Sénégalese version. I'll take the Sénégalese version any day after enjoying my egg, tomato, and onion sandwich for about $1.50.

If lunch is an opportunity for me to explore my surrounding neighborhood, dinner is my opportunity to explore Sénégalese cuisine. We eat dinner around 9:30 or 10 every night, which was hard to get used to at first. I never know what we are eating until my host Mom lifts the lid from the large platter that all of the women share. Even if it looks scary and different at first, most of the time the food is delicious. Dinner usually consists of rice or couscous with meat or fish, vegetables, and some sort of sauce. Although, other dishes including Spaghetti, and the French "Biftek" (beef, lettuce, and fries) grace the table occasionally.

There have been some strange meals, however. Probably the most memorable was when I was eating at an event with other extended family members. We were all gathered around a platter of rice, meet, and vegetables under a dimly lit party tent outside. It was hard to see what I was eating, but as my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that our platter was garnished with the poor animal's skull. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've ever eaten "face meat" before, and hopefully the last. At another meal, this time at home, I was feeling quite shy around the plethora of sea creatures doused in red sauce. When my host sister asked me why I wasn't eating the meat, I meekly blurted out, "je ne connais pas ces animaux" (I don't know these animals) and everyone burst into laughter, preventing me from having to get to know such "animals" on a more personal level. Other oddities have included fish balls (someone must have thought they could make meatballs out of fish one day, I would call it an utter failure), fish egg sausage (once again, somebody's creative juices were flowing), and observing my host mom consume fish eyes. It's been hard for me to get used to the amount of fish that we eat here, but I have learned that eating with a fork and knife is counter productive and it is better to just use your hands.

Before you start thinking that Sénégalese people will eat just about anything, let me set you straight. One evening I was talking to my host brother about how in some cultures people eat dogs. His response was utter disgust (much like my response to eating fish egg sausage) and I assured him that I was not one of those dog-eating types. I take comfort in the fact that we both considered dog meat disgusting...

That leaves desert for last, which consists of grapefruit, oranges, and pomegranates. I have gained a sweet tooth here, probably to set off the spicy and salty meals that predominate. As I mentioned in my last blog, my discovery of a nearby beignet [donut] shack was one of complete bliss. I have also become addicted to ataya (a very sweet, frothy, minty black tea served in three rounds over the course of the afternoon) and lait caillé [yogurt] with millet. The latter is our Sunday evening meal, and my favorite dinner of the week. I had an epiphany after dinner last night. I was conversing with my host uncle outside as he made a final round of ataya with a little tea kettle heated over a bed of coals and I thought, I should teach my family how to make s'mores!

So yet again my mind is consumed with food laden thoughts and I will keep my eyes peeled for chamallow [marshmellow] and graham crackers to go along with some good French chocolate. The thought of s'mores with my host family certainly makes up for a close encounter with a cow skull any day!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Life Without Pronouns

I write to you this week in the dark. It is 8:30 pm here in Dakar and about two minutes ago the power went out. This actually doesn’t happen as often as it does in other areas around the world, but when it does you remember how much we really do rely on electricity. One advantage is that the television, which never ceases to stop making noise (in French or Wolof), has finally received a much needed vacation. Now people can actually talk to each other! Unfortunately, I am still in the dark during these enlightening conversations by candle light because everyone is conversing in Wolof.

Now that I have had four weeks of Wolof courses, I am able to converse minimally in Wolof with my family or the sellers that scatter the street. For example, I went to a fabric market with some friends last weekend and we were able to speak minimally in Wolof with the people there. The best part was that we could inform them Tudd uma Toubab (My name is not White person) when some eager vendor wanted to get our attention by yelling tssssss Toubab! That lightened the conversation immediately and caused a chorus of laughter to echo off the cement walls of the vendor’s tiny shop that was squeezed amongst hundreds of other shops in a maze of cement alleyways.

However, these simple phrases don’t get me very far if I want to have a deep conversation with the family maid (who speaks Wolof and Seerer but not French). And when I watch television with my family from the time I get home from school through dinner until the time I go to bed, there are many nights when everything we watch is only in Wolof.

My Wolof life is a life without pronouns – no I, you, he, she, one, it, we, y’all, or they – I am in the dark when it comes to the subject of every sentence. This is because each English pronoun has more than 10 equivalents in Wolof. Instead of truly conjugating the verb, we conjugate the pronoun here – present, past, future, negative, positive, imperfect, plus perfect… So even if I know the verb in Wolof I have absolutely no idea who the verb applies to and if it is in the positive or negative form. But my life without pronouns applies to more than just my attempts to converse in Wolof. There are quite a few verbs in my daily life here that are missing some essential pronouns.

Who buys the fresh French bread every morning before I wake up? Who are all of the people who ring the doorbell every day as if we are constantly having a party when the number of people inside never seems to change? Who are the parents of all the boys with tin cans who ask me for money in the streets? Who takes out the trash, and who do they give it to? Who is Seerer, Poular, Wolof, Lebou, Jola (ethnicities in Sengal)? Who speaks French or Wolof? Who is Christian or Muslim? What is your name? Who is expected to clear the table after dinner? And on and on.

Some of these pronoun-less observations will soon make sense to me as I integrate into the Senegalese way of life. Others will always baffle me. As I try to sort things out in my head, I have decided that my next Wolof goal is to try with all my might to identify the pronouns in the dialogues I listen to on the TV each night.

Already I have attached pronouns to many important and random observations:

-People of the Murid Sufi order of Islam make a pilgrimage each year to the second largest city in Senegal, namely Touba. Fortunately for me, this year the Murids trekked their way to Touba by car, bus, taxis, horse, and foot this past week meaning that Dakar was deserted. I drank some Café Touba ak Meew (Touba Coffe with Milk) on the day of the Grand Magral (which was this past Wednesday) in true Senegalese fashion and in solidarity with all those pilgramaging Murids out there. It is also the Murids who run most of the car rapides in Dakar, which is why they all say Touba on the front.

-Beignets (like donut holes) are the best way to remedy a hard day’s work. You can buy them on the street. Or you can go to the best beignet shop ever (which is really close to my house), stand in the only line that exists in Dakar (besides the traffic jam lines), get banana beignets for about 15 cents apiece, and eat them while sitting on the curbside and observing passersby!

-The men in my house watch TV and eat dinner downstairs and the women do the same upstairs. I have to force myself to remember this because since my room is downstairs, I gravitate towards the men’s domain without meaning to.

-Diouma (pronounced Djouma) is my Senegalese name. My host family gave me this name and I use it when vendors or random people in the street ask me my name. It makes them do a double take and also informs them that I am a Seerer with very light skin.

-Water, not bones. In a recent conversation with my family my Uncle was making reference to the story in the Bible where Jesus walks on water. Unfortunately I heard him say that Jesus walked on bones (l’eau versus les os) and was quite flabbergasted to hear such a story existed in the Bible. I quickly realized my misunderstanding and had quite a refreshing laugh at the picture of Jesus walking on people’s arms and legs rendering them crippled instead of healing their paralysis!

-Vaidehi is unofficially Miss Senegal 2010. She is an Indian actress in a Soap that is dubbed in French and on TV every night here in Senegal. Everyone loves her! This was very apparent when she spent the last week in Dakar and thousands of people flooded the airport and surrounding streets to welcome her. The city was pulsing with Vaidehi fans all week and after her Soap aired every night on TV we got to watch a documentary of the day she spent in Dakar. The show is wayyyyyy too melodramatic with shots that give you a headache and cymbals and drums to accompany them. But for some reason it strikes a chord with people here.

Well the power is back on now (actually it came back on a while ago) and with it is the TV. We are no longer in the dark, but for some reason I am still sitting in my bedroom with the lights turned off. One day soon I hope to walk into a world with pronouns once again. Until then blank will walk toward the light.