Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Returning and Losing

Reflecting lately I've been struck by how many things I've brought back with me from Dakar that are useless to me here. So many experiences and skills are so specific to Senegal that I'm having trouble finding a way to enjoy their expression or use in my new context. What's more is I'm finding some of the habits I developed while in Senegal fit strangely back where I'm "from". That's the problem with traveling so much, you begin to feel homeless and misunderstood wherever you go.

Even if you can't appreciate them fully, there are hundreds of things, so many that I can't count or even name them, that I learned either proactively or naturally through living in Senegal that are slipping away now. It's as simple as knowing how to cross the street or knowing the different coins in my pocket. It's the fun of bargaining for a taxi, growing relationships with local shop owners, and knowing how to cut a mango. It's the new vocabulary each day and reveling privately at my first use of a word or phrase. It's feeling comfortable in the sand, with the 5 am call to prayer, and no longer having to be reminded to find and greet every family member when I get home. It's knowing your host family enough to serve drinks to guests, and joke, sing, and dance together. It's the deepening of an appreciation and comfort in a culture rooted in the history and reality of a place.

I tried and never succeeded to get a good picture of the cityscape of Dakar. The city, which struck me as sandy and full of unfinished, whitewashed structures when I arrived, became so beautiful to me throughout my stay. I was surprised by how comfortable I felt by the time I left.

This picture is from the Dakar Paris blog.

And if you're interested the things that struck me as strange upon my return to America: the greenness, brand name clothing, lack of formalities, and conversation topics and flow (Someone debate something insignificant with me, please, for fun? Is Nutella hazelnut-based with chocolate or chocolate-based with hazelnut? This was the subject of a long, surprisingly enjoyable debate with my family in Dakar).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Want another World Cup song?

Here's a great remix of K'naan's Waving Flag by Banky W and MI, two Nigerian artists. The original is here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things...

  • The neckline of women's boubous: Traditional Senegal wear for women has a neckline with a soft curve that slips off the shoulder frequently and perfectly frames their elegant faces and hear wrapped in pulars of the same fabric.
  • Bissap, juice and sauce: Bissap juice is made out of hibiscus flowers, is a fantastic deep fuschia color and tastes amazing with the right amount of vanilla sugar. My father is from the ethnic group Balante, which also uses the leaves of the bissap plant to make a sauce that we eat with caldo, the traditional Balante rice and fish dish. Yum. Below is me on my birthday with a bissap juice cake- awesome!
  • Winter wear: Although it doesn't feel cold often to me, a popular item for men here is a knit hat that goes down to just above the ears complete with poof ball. There's also a surprising number of scarves.
  • Music and community: Music seems to run through the veins of Senegalese people. Community gatherings are often organized around the drums. In the arid north, the stringed insturments like the kora are used and their notes travel across the sand. In the Casamance at the south the forest requires strong djembe drums to call everyone. We learned djembe in Toubacouta, where the lead drummer had played so hard his hands were bleeding, second picture below. The last picture below is women in Sokone, the native village of the program director playing drums on calabase gourds, also used for preparing food and carrying water. They used a discarded shell casing on their fingers.

  • Waxataan and ataaya: Every afternoon, for some Senegalese, is an affair with friends and family, centered around a gas stove with a tiny teapot full of sugar, strongly Chinese green powder tea and other local tea leaves. Ataaya, or tea, is a respected tradition because making the tea is a repetitive process, usually there are three rounds from the same pot. They get progressively less strong, which I noted after my heart was beating quickly after drinking the first round. The tea isn't even the point of the get-together. Instead, it's to facilitate the discussion of anything and everything in raised voices or calm tones. In Wolof, ataaya is the noun and the verb- "To do tea" includes all of the above. Below is my host mother in the village outside Toubacouta where we stayed for a night.

  • Respect for elders: The most important status here comes from your age. Elders are respected and family roles are determined according to your age and place in line. My grandmother stayed with my family in Dakar and I appreciate that you are exposed and submit to those with more experience in the world more often than in the States. But seeing that the demographic makeup of much of Africa is so young now, this may be in flux.
  • Teranga: Senegalese are proud to be good hosts and they are indeed hosts to many foreigners, both from Africa and other continents. 50% of the migration in West Africa is to Senegal. My history teacher called it a "trampoline" for people to head to France, the US, or other places in Europe. I've found Senegalese people to be overwhelmingly welcoming, happy to have visitors, and willing to put up with annoying questions. Below is host family in Dakar.
  • Salutations-Repetitions: I wish that each of you could hear and understand the way in which the Senegalese traditionally greet one another. Greetings are of utmost importance and it is rude when you encounter anyone you know to not take the time to properly acknowledge them and anyone they're with. There is a sing-songy way that greetings are done that makes me smile whenever I hear it. It uses the repetition of the same phrases while the tone of the voices gets lower and lower. By the end of time in Senegal I had got the hang of the repetitions but couldn't match the song.
  • Baobabs and pain de singe: Who doesn't like baobabs? And their fruit makes such a unique tangy juice. They're all over Senegal! They really do feel ancient. Below is a picture I took looking out of a 500 year old baobab on the road to Saint Louis.

TWTW: Getting There

I'm home, but I'm not going to stop posting. My lack of posts for the last month will be redeemed. And I still have interesting things to share! And there is fruitful reflection to be had on the blogosphere after returning from a trip.

So today, I thought I'd grace you with one of my favorite things about Senegal- the transportation. This is less of a how-to guide and more of a effort at interpreting car paraphernalia. Because in Senegal, your car speaks for you. It might even have a face.

To start, you've got to get your stickers. Most taxi drivers will display the leader (current or past) of their Muslim brotherhood (Confrérie). Others go for their favorite wrestler.

My favorite taxi feature is the gri-gris, or amulets, that taxis drivers attach to their back bumper. They're supposed to protect you from accidents, which may be necessary considering the state of the taxis which are largely late 80s Toyotas. The most common gri-gri you'll see is a cow's tail. I asked in my first month if no cows in Senegal had tails, but evidently they cut them off the butchered cows.

You also may see some sort of painted rubber tail (lots of times with some reference to the American flag) or childrens' shoes.

The most colorful public transportation is the car-rapide, which are brightly painted and adorned and date back several decades. Below is an old-school car rapide from Saint Louis and a modern day Dakar style descendent. Car rapides are reconstructed from used oil barrels. Makes you feel safe, I guess.

The car rapides cost about 20 cents, depending on where you're going, and are managed by young "apprentis" who yell cryptic repetitive messages about where they're heading and gather the coins from passengers. The network of car-rapides is impressive and I've seen drivers or apprentis changing cars seemingly randomly. I've also seen random old men in the street who somehow have control over where the car rapides go. Some connect the car-rapide system to the largest brotherhood in Senegal, the Mourides. This may be true in part.

The other thing that unites the car rapides is the ubiquitous Madonna stickers. We're not sure whether the drivers understand the irony of pairing the biggest sex symbol in the world with "Talibe Cheikh" (Follower of a religious order) or "Sante Yalla" (God's will) is grasped by the Senegalese.

The next step up is the Ndiaga Ndiaye (pronounced ~jangen jaye), which boasts 8 rows of 5 and necessitates a complex exit strategy. Below is the window of a Ndiaga Ndiaye in Dakar with both religious leaders and lutteurs (wrestlers). These are on par with the real public transport- Dakar Dem Dikk (Dakar Go and Return) blue buses and mini-buses that have more established and reliable routes.

Out in the country you see more camions- or big trucks. Senegal is famous for trucks that pile their goods a few layers too high.

The trucks are also decorated in the same style, if not with as many colors, as the car-rapides. Alhamdoulilahi means "Thanks be to God".

Also, they sometimes sport random English commands.

My favorite form of transportation that I never tried remains the motorbike. Next time I plan to get one like that below, that you start by pedaling like a bicycle. Sporty. There's also plenty of big bikes that make lots of noise. And small, broken bikes that make even more.

All in all, driving is Senegal is slower and I've been rather scared by American speeds since I got back. Everyone drives slow enough that if someone makes a bad decision they won't die. And there are plenty of "dos d'âns" (donkey backs or speed bumps) to slow you down on even the nicest roads. Everyone also must be brave and butt their head into traffic to get a space in the many roundabouts in the city. (Did I mention there are no traffic lights? Well there are, but they're all broken.) Pedestrians are responsible for their own lives. It's a fun place to ride around, especially with mbalax on the radio and a talkative taxi driver who will eventually ask you if you're married.

This is us in the biggest market in Dakar, Sandaga, leaving after a day of good bargaining.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fruit and Finals

Welcome to mango and madh season.

Sadly, I've been holed up writing papers in French on topics that I've only studied in French, which makes for some interesting conclusions.

Here's the titles of my papers:

The Crisis in Casamance: Historice Causes
Cheikh Amadou Bamba and the Economic System of the Mourides

Hopefully I'll be able to fill you all in later on the details.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Michelin man is alive and well in Senegal..

...and so am I. Just busy. Baal ma, or excuse me, as we would say in Wolof.

Friday, April 30, 2010


A good thing to dwell on by Ron Rolheiser.

"We spend too much time and energy angry and frustrated with each other over something that basically we cannot control or change. Our differences, however much they may frustrate us and tax our patience at times, are not a crime, a sin, or indeed (most times) even anyone's fault. We don't need to blame someone, be angry at someone, or resent someone because he or she is different than we are, no matter how much those differences separate us, frustrate us, and try our patience and understanding. "