Friday, March 26, 2010

Community Mindset

In the United States we say "Time is money" and we talk about "losing time" as if it has some sort of power over us. In Senegal they say "time is us" signifying a synergistic fusion between what the West often views as competing forces. This also points to a subtle but overwhelming difference between my world view and that of my Senegalese friends: individualism vs communalism. To illustrate here are some examples:
  • In the English class I am teaching we asked students to make acrostics with their names to describe themselves. Instead of explaining how each adjective related to who they were, every student related the adjective to how their community works. "In Senegal we like to show people Hospitality" "Senegalese people like Soccer" "I choose the word Patriotic because we like to show patriotism to our country"...
  • When talking about Senegal's Independence day, of which the 50 year mark will be celebrated on April 4th, my friends never gave personal answers about what this day means to them. Instead they talked about how their country really isn't Independent because it relies on France and other countries still for aid in this Neocolonial age. And when we talked about at what age a Senegalese individual gains their independence, the concept seemed non-applicable.
  • My French African Lit professor likes to tell us about how Senegalese people are always considered children when they are around their mother. He has recounted to us more than once a story about how he laid his head in his mother's lap as a grown, newlywed man because the family ties are that important
  • In a recent paper that I wrote for class on development, I said that students need to be taught critical thinking skills at school and University in order to own the legislation and initiatives that seek to improve the country's development. A day after turning the paper in, it dawned on me that kids here develop critical thinking skills at home in the debates they have over ataya (black mint tea with lots of sugar) with their family and friends. Voilà individaul world view slapped in the face with community world view workings.
  • Yesterday at a friend's house I noticed how often the conversation turned to comparing the people in the room to each other. "This one is the fattest" "This one speaks French/Wolof the best" "This one has the most energy" "This one is lively" "This one is reserved and timid" "This one dances the best"... Such talk would be rude and is taboo in the U.S. but I guess because its understood that we are already in community, its ok to point out what the strengths and weaknesses are of each person so that the community supports each other most effectively. I think a Senegalese acquantance (not to mention an aspiring professional basketball player) made a better, truthful evaluation of my personality after knowing me for three hours than any Myer's-Brigg's test ever could.
So what does this difference mean? For me, it means that there will always be an underlying difference in world view that guides our actions, words, and reactions between me and those who grew up in Senegal. For development initiatives and foreign aid groups it means that solutions and initiatives need to be formed with a community mindset as their foundation. For the modernization of the country it means technology and laws are going to be applied differently here than they are in an Individual based society. For anyone experiencing a collision between the two, it means refraining from placing value on one way of life more than the other.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Decolonizing African Research

Today in my Gender and Development class we took a field trip to AAWORD (Association of African Women for Research and Development) which is an organization that was formed by African women in order to "decolonize" the research that is often conducted by Western researchers, funded by Western sources, and reflects Western values in its analysis, thus perpetuating the coloniser influence on African development. We met with a women who works for the organization and were able to ask her many questions about their work and where it has lead them. What stuck out the most to me though was the recurrent problem I have noticed here about the dissemination of information. The research that AAWORD and other African based organizations are conducting is really quality literature. But as I have experienced at Colgate University, it is really difficult to find research articles that are written by people who originate from the communities they study and therefore understand the hidden dynamics, values, and desires of the people they are researching. This is the kind of research that when applied will benefit the recipients the most, but it is hard to find these resources outside of the area in which they were written. We recieved many publications and anthologies of the research conducted by AAWORD today and I felt like I was in heaven in their library full of local knowledge.

I want to share that wealth with the rest of you by directing you to AAWORD's website where you can find PDFs of a lot of their work. Another great website I learned about since being here is CODESRIA's website (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa). Both of them provide lots of valuable information. I encourage you to check them out and to pass the word on to others who you think might be interested.

Click the links below to be directed to the document centers:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

La Lutte Traditionnelle

Today was like Super Bowl Sunday in Dakar, minus the commercials and halftime show. The traditional wrestling match that people have been waiting for months for finally took place between Modou Lô and Balla Gaye 2.

Balla Gaye 2

Modou Lô

Au centre
As I walked home from church this morning, I passed by many Transport en Commun and Ndiang Ndiaye buses filled with die hard fans, singing, shouting, and waving flags en route to the stadium six to seven hours before the match was to begin. I spared my life and decided to watch the fight from the family room with my brothers, sisters, cousins, mom, and uncle. The ceremonies leading up to the fight took hours while the fight lasted only a few seconds. Balla Gaye 2 won the match, much to my friend Emily's chagrin, who has taken to calling Modou Lô her Sénégalese husband to combat the constant inquiries we receive about whether we have a husband. Some weekend soon I plan on going to a lutte and then I will share in detail about the complexities of the spectacle. Until then, enjoy the music video by Viviane Ndour called "Sama Champion" that talks about her life as the wife of a grand lutteur (famous wrestler). It should give you a hint into what this Sénégalese past time is all about, even if the music was taken from Whitney Houston's song "I have nothing". And apparently my Uncle knows Viviane Ndour: he says the first time she held I microphone to sing was at his family's house in Mbour when she was six years old!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What I do all week

Yeah, I know, I've kept you all in the dark so far about my schedule here. That is because it has taken a very long time to actually finalize it. I had to be very patient, but I finally got an internship and no longer twiddle my thumbs four days out of the week! So here you go:

  • Three hours of church in the morning at an Assemblies of God church that I walk to with my friend Emily
  • Lunch with my host family around 4pm, yeah it's really late
  • Hang out, maybe do some homework, if I have any
  • The best dinner in the entire week, Thiakry (yogurt and millet)
  • Morning internship at Centre Talibou Dabo, a school for kids with physical disabilities. I am working with the physical and occupational therapists there to see how rehabilatative medicine works in this country.
  • Lunch at home with my cousin, Momo
  • Hang out the rest of the day
  • 9-12 Islam in Senegal class taught in French by a Senegalese professor at WARC with other American students (like all of my classes)
  • 3-5 Wolof class
  • 9-12 Gender and Development class
  • 3-6 French African Literature class
  • 7-9 Play soccer with a group of Senegalese guys at the American Club, if I have enough energy left
  • 10-12 Teach an English conversation class with Emily at the English Resource Center for University students majoring in English
  • 1-3 Wolof class
  • Morning internship at Centre Talibou Dabo
  • Lunch at home
  • 6-8 Play soccer
  • Explore Senegal!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Questions I'm Ruminating On

The trip I took to Toubacouta (a 6 to 7 hour bus ride from Dakar depending on the traffic) two weekends ago was quite a contrast from my life here in Dakar. Due the hyper concentrated cultural submersion I experienced while watching traditional wrestling, learning how to dance local steps such as the ceeb u gen and the ginaar, and passing 24 hours in a village with a host family, I've started to think a lot about what my time in Sénégal means to me. This has lead to many questions that I am only beginning to explore the answers to:

The American stereotype of Africa consists of villages of people living as large families in huts with no running water, no electricity, children dressed in rags with stomachs distended, animistic rituals, and women breastfeeding their infants in public with no shame. These stereotypes are used to pity Africans, to make ourselves superior, or to incite people to help a continent in need. The Sénégalese I know in Dakar do not conform to this picture. My time in the village, however, was very similar to the tropes Americans have, with some important differences; cell phone coverage was wonderful, my family's compound of five huts was equiped with a solar pannel to provide electricity, and everyone in my family was Muslim.
  • But how do I reconcile the fact that so many stereotypes appeared on the surface to be true?
  • Maybe the motivation for perpetuating these stereotypes among Americans is what differs from my discovery of the "reality"?
  • Did my beginner's knowledge of Wolof reveal a more accurate picture of what my family in the village's life is like?
  • Was I more keen at observing the reality of certain stereotypes because of my conditioned mindset and expectations to see these things? Did this blind me to other cultural aspects that a villager might value more than the American's obsession with naked African women and a "more simple lifestyle"?
  • How do I portray what I experienced without adding to the stereotypes that objectify the people that opened their house and hearts to me?
  • What does it look like to improve a villager's quality of life by providing nutrients, schools, and medical supplies without opperating on stereotypes or exercising power over a community?
  • What is the difference between modernization and Westernization?
Other questions surfaced about my own identity as a white woman. Everywhere our bus went, we drew stares and people waved to us on the street. One of my friends called the bus a cultural bubble; a very accurate depiction of the twenty some white people in an air conditioned bus, speaking English, listening to ipods, and recounting stories about our cultural misencounters driving through the Senegal countryside dodging potholes, passing through villages during Friday prayer hour, and following the West African coastline in search of the green mangrove forrests that welcomed us to Toubacouta (sorry if I'm adding to your stereotypes). I was reluctant to take iconic, national geographic pictures of my host family in the village, but at the same time, my host brother snapped photos of his white guest with a 35 mm camera and his newly bought touch screen cell phone, in which my photograph became his wallpaper. He also proposed to me after finding out that I have no husband nor boyfriend and I left with a ring that he took off of his finger and gave to me.
  • Why does the color of my skin mean I merit special attention?
  • I will always be an outsider, always be visibly different here, so how do I reconcile my physical differences with my desire to truly understand and fit into the culture here?
  • How do I respect a culture without denouncing the culture I grew up in?
I could go on and list a lot more questions for you, my head is full of them. But instead I leave you with one overarching question that I had to respond to in a four page paper written in French for my Gender and Development class. What is the best link between women, power, and knowledge to promote development in Sénégal? After writing my paper, I still have no clue.

This culture thing is just so confusing and complicated...but interesting and intellectually stimulating nonetheless.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Toubacouta Kodak Moments

I spent the last four days in Toubacouta and the surrounding area with 16 other students. Our days were packed with travel, dancing, eating, and meeting locals. I have a lot to reflect on from my experience and will write more in the coming days. Until then, here are some pictures to enjoy from my time.

Professor Sène (the director of WARC) had us over to his compound in Sokone for lunch and dancing while we were en route to Toubacouta.

We spent a day and slept over with families in Keur Moussa Sény.
My host sister Awa saw my hair and was determined to braid it.

Delicious diner in Keur Moussa Sény
Freshly killed chicken (including the heart I ate) over a bed of lettuce, with a savory mustard vinagrette. I helped the preparation by chopping the onions, crying like a baby, and finally was promoted to the ever important job of holding the radio just right to get a good station signal.

Boubacar's bread baby

Keur Bah: My host compound
Complete with Mango tree, super friendly host siblings, and many hours of staring back and forth at each other because I don't understand Wolof very well

Visit of the mangroves in "little Cassamance"

Djembe and Dance lessons

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Transportation and Bargaining

This week in my Wolof class we learned some vital vocabulary related to bargaining. Yesterday, I put that vocabulary to the test. After my Gender and Development class a group of friends and I took a taxi to a Nigerian "restaurant" to celebrate my Nigerian friend's birthday. (Restaurant has been placed in quotes because if you didn't know that it was supposed to be a restaurant, you would have never guessed that such delicious food would be served as you sat at a wooden table covered in a plastic table cloth decorated with sheep.) After the meal, Claire and I had to return to WARC for our African Literature course. Before reaching the road, a taxi found us, honking in order to signal that he desired to take us somewhere. Instead of giving him the lowered finger wag (an important gesture to learn here that means: no-I-don't-want-a-taxi-right-now-I-want-to-walk-thank-you-very-much) we walked up to the rolled down window and offered him our greetings.

Us: Asalaam Maalekuum
Taxi man: Maalekum Salaam
Us: Nanga def? [How are you]
Taxi man: Maangi fi. [I am here]
Us: Naata dem fii ba Fann Residence? [How much to go to Fann Residence?]
Taxi man: 1500 CFA [3 dollars]
Us: 1500! Jafe na, etudiant lanu. Wanni ko. [3 dollars! That's expensive, we are students. Lower it.]
Taxi man: Naata men ngeen fay? [How much can you pay?]
Us: 600 rekk [1.25 only]

And thus began the task of bargaining down the price. With this first guy, we got it down to 900 CFA, but we wanted better. We were set to pay 800 rekk and not one cent more than that. Well, apparently if you add the word rekk to the end of the price, the taxi man takes you really seriously. Too seriously, because the first guy pulled away in disgust, probably thinking "these toubabs here think they can speak Wolof and get away with a local price, but I'm not buying it".

A bit surprised at the fact that the taxi man pulled away, we continued down the street waiting for the next taxi to wave down. "No problem, we still have an hour to get to WARC, and taxis are certainly not an endangered species in Dakar." The next taxi man wouldn't go below 1000 CFA and pulled away in disgust like the first. The third one informed us that he didn't have time to bargain a price, he was in a hurry!

"What?! A Senegalese man who didn't want to bargain, and who had somewhere to get to quickly? Now that is an endangered species," I thought to myself. Apparently, however, I was mistaken because as I looked around, I saw men rolling out their prayer mats and washing their feet, hands, and face with their colorful washing kettles; they were preparing for the 2 pm prayer. Then it made sense, earning an additional 1000 CFA by wasting time bargaining over a price was not as important to that chauffeur as was spending time in prayer. It was a good reminder of one's priorities in life.

After conducting the above conversation with about eight taxi men we finally gave in to our ideal price and settled for 1000 CFA. We were kindly greeted by a "Hello, how are you" from our chauffeur who was eager to share the English he knew with some Toubabs trying to speak Wolof. We settled in for a ride along the corniche (the road that follows the ocean) and were ready to give directions to WARC if the taxi man needed them. (There aren't really street names or building numbers here and the taxi men do not know how to get anywhere in the city, like in New York. Instead, they rely on their customers to actually know where they are going.)

Even though the first taxi man offered us the best price, the practice of talking to eight different taxis definitely helped our competence in bargaining. As we head to Toubacouta for four days this weekend on a class field trip, I will be sure to keep some helpful phrases in mind if I want to bargain for anything, or if I am required to turn down buying more wooden elephants.