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. "

Friday, April 23, 2010

Random Observations from Today

All of the newspapers in Senegal always have a different headline. It's like no one agrees on what is important. Youssou Ndour, Senegalese superstar, is also the owner of Senegal's most popular paper- L'Observateur.

I don't know where the handicapped man that I see each day hides his wheelchair. I know he has a wheelchair and that he leaves to go somewhere else but I don't know where he goes. Today he asked me to teach him English, because all he knows is "Give me some money." I taught him "please".

There are a bunch of great Senegalese movies that are "made for foreigners" as my friend told me. There is one functioning cinema in Dakar at the moment, which is expensive. I'm going to try to buy some DVDs of Senegalese movies before I go back but I have a feeling they might be hard to find.

I talked with someone yesterday about time being more fluid in Senegal. It's true. And what's also true is that people make promises to do things that they don't keep because deadlines aren't serious. But, I have a flight out in three weeks. That's a real deadline and I'm starting to understand that some things might not happen before then. And that's okay.

But hey, I also promised to write on my blog more than I have and that's not a big deal, right? Maybe I'll continue after I get home with stuff I didn't have time to post now. We'll see. I'm not going to promise anything.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Schwa Does Desert

Welcome to Lompoul. Land of big dunes, smelly 5 minute camel rides, and awkward French tourists.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Giant Fight

If you're up for it- check out the fight from Sunday. Large men. But the fight is still very skillful. I found myself arguing with my mother, sister, and the maid yesterday about how exactly Yekini beat Tyson II. Everyone is into lutte, or lamb in Wolof. This is the superbowl.

Do yourself a favor and start at 6:00 minutes into the video. Notice screaming in Wolof. This language no longer sounds strange at all to me.

I hate holidays.

This post will certainly be unfiltered. I’m just going to tell you how it really is to do Easter in Senegal. The title is a direct quote from my host mother, on the eve of Good Friday. She said this when I arrived home from my travels for spring break and found her outside the house directing our maid and a girl hired for 4 days (for $1 a day) in the making of Ngalax.

Ngalax is a dish that all the Christians make on Good Friday and share with their Muslim friends in the neighborhood, in exchange for the sheep meat that they share with us on the Muslim holiday, Tabaski. It is a tool for neighborly and interreligious love at the same time. And it is good. It is a great example of a category of food whose texture would never fly in American dishes- the heavy sauce and rice/millet/couscous combo. Many Senegalese eat Thiakry every Sunday, which is ground millet or couscous eaten with “lait caillé” which is a soupy flavorless yogurt. Ngalax is more special, probably because it is a hundred times harder to prepare.

The ngalax sauce is made with a truly Senegalese mixture- peanut paste (Senegal’s largest product and export is peanuts) and buuy/pain de singe (literally translated monkey bread, this is the fruit of the Baobab tree). Now I want you to try to imagine a tart peanut buttery sauce (good luck, it’s bizarre). After pounding the buuy in the gigantic mortar/pestil combo that is essential to Senegalese cooking, you add the peanut butter (note giganto bucket which my host mother said would last the whole year).

I slept through the part where they cook it, but just know that they cook it. Then you serve it with Senegalese couscous, which is smaller and browner than your traditional Moroccan couscous, along with raisins. What results is a tangy, thick sensation with sweet tones from the raisins. Like I said, a weird texture that I can’t really handle too much of, but a good taste. Apparently one of our neighbors puts coffee in her ngalax, which is a travesty. Food drama.

I did get up in time to help my family share the ngalax with our neighbors. This was a process of finding all the medium sized containers in the house, filling them, then practically running around from house to house delivering the goods and bringing said containers back home and washing them. Receiving families seem to hide a huge pot where they mix all the ngalax they get and eat it for days. Other people have the option to come to your house and eat ngalax for the next few days and you’re expected to have it for them. Apparently everyone gets so sick of it that they don’t make it again for a year.

I can understand why my host mom does not like holidays. The division of labor felt heightened this weekend, as the men of the family sat around and talked and drank palm wine and the women became grumpy running around making food and serving it. I felt like I was integrating well because I got grumpy too, and my host sister got angry at me for not getting up early to help make the Easter dish. The other thing that may indicate that my family likes me is that a few of my uncles, at different points in time urged my 16-year old host brother to marry me. He somehow refused without making the situation more awkward and my host father said they’d just have to find me a husband in the village (unspecified location) and keep me here. Now that they know I can clean dishes, the next step appears to be marrying me off.

Other than ngalax, grumpiness, and arranged marriages, the big news of the weekend was church. We went on Good Friday to see the “living stations of the cross”, which was a dramatic retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion. Then on Saturday night we went to church from 9 pm to 2 am Easter morning, for the “Midnight Mass”. This mass is treated like prom. I should qualify that by saying that everyday is like prom for lots of Senegalese woman who can wear a boubou, a couple pagnes, a head wrap, heels, walk around the sand in Dakar, sweating in the 100 degree heat, and still look fabulous. So, it was quite fancy and included lots of shiny and sparkly fabric, which is really in here. I didn’t understand much of the Catholic liturgy that went into the mass, but it included lots of beautiful singing in Latin, lots of quick baptisms, two marriages, and a homily.

If you thought that the holiday was over, just wait. There was the biggest Senegalese wrestling match of the year between two gigantic men on Easter Sunday, which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence and the inauguration of the infamous African Renaissance Statue. In fact, Senegal also has Easter Monday as a official holiday without work or school so that everyone can recover. But all of that will have to wait for next time. For now, I am thankful that we have made it through the holiday, we’ve eaten well, I’m still single, and Jesus is risen.


I just finished reading a book about “story”. It talked all about how stories are important and humans love stories more than anything else and we must place ourselves in a good story to have a good life. This was rather depressing for me since I’ve realized that I cannot tell good stories in French. My host family likes me well enough, but 90% of what they know about me comes from what I do, not what I say.

On top of that, all of my stories are rooted in my own culture. We all know that in stories, setting the context is the most important thing. Well, it’s practically impossible to do. And without knowing the context, and what my culture values, and how my cultures sees people, my family can’t grasp the real meaning of my stories. And I don’t get most of their stories either, to be honest.

The best form of stories is comedy. However, my sense of humor has been reduced almost exclusively to making fun of myself, which gets old after about a day. I only get to belly-laugh when I’m talking with my real family or my American friends here.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve given up, and my family here won’t really know me, and I will live as a semi-human here because I can’t communicate and participate in life fully. It feels like after 3 months that my family should know me and everything should be peachy-keen. But adjusting to living in another cultures takes a lifetime and is really never complete. So I have to stay humble, because my French is still bad, I still don’t wash my laundry very well, and I still am lost when it comes to Senegalese culture sometimes. And even if I did understand, parts of my stories and myself that are American could never be fulfilled here because they require the American context.

Stories are the way we connect to one another. Heck, all forms of communication and language were created because we live in this world with other people who we want to know and love and hug. So I am missing out, in a way, by not being able to story with my family here. But having a shared life together and shared experiences does make up for my muteness in some cases. My family knows that I like to eat, which is a good start. My personality comes out through my actions, as does theirs.

So we are building our own new story together. It’s a strange story that is usually awkward and sometimes has to be repeated many times to be understood, but it is still meaningful. It just doesn’t flow as naturally and the plot turns aren’t as obvious as they would be in a quality American film. But I’m trying to believe that my Senegalese story is still worth living in and participating in, even if I’m tongue-tied half the time and don’t feel like my American self.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I am woman, hear me... pontificate.

I've been stewing about writing this post since I arrived here. Now that I look back, I should have written many posts instead of waiting for a "conclusion" or "synthesis".

Gender, I think, is more basic to human beings than almost any other characteristic. I'm convinced that there are things about gender that are true the world round. But each culture has some special ways of showcasing the differences between men and women.

In Senegal, men are more forward than they are in the States. I've been told by a 5, 10, and several 20-something year olds on the streets here "Tu es belle, je t'aime." or "You're pretty, I love you". The other day I talked with 20 minutes with a university student who told me that he liked America, then later American women, and finally he said that he loved me from the bottom of his heart, "I'm almost sure." I told him to tell me when he was sure. Two minutes later he said, "Okay, I'm sure, I love you with all my heart." I told him that I might take a bit longer to decide.

For me, the problem of race and culture are mixed into my experience as a woman in Senegal. I'm not sure what a post like this written by a Senegalese woman would sound like. In fact, it's harder to get to know women here because they've got so much work to do. I can sit around and have tea or watch TV with my brother and father, or some young men at the university, but that kind of freedom and time isn't as readily available to girls and women here. My host mother is retired but she's still in charge of the maid, looking after the kids, tries to make money on the side, and looks after her elderly mother. Every night when I go to bed she's still up working on the computer.

The other day, the professor for my music and dance class said "Men in Senegal don't do a damn thing." It felt a little good to hear that coming from a Senegalese man. They go to work, come home, and are served. The social hierarchy also emphasizes age, so my little brother, for instance, still has to open the door when people come to the house, or change the volume on the TV if my father thinks it's too high. But my brother does not have to go into the kitchen, rarely has to clean, and sits in front of the TV just like my father.

You can sense the gender disparity in conversations. At home my little brother somehow gets to voice his 16-year-old opinion more than my sister or me. He's encouraged to be more verbal. In the English classes that I teach at a center near the university, the girls are almost all shy and quiet. Another cultural tidbit I picked up on recently is eye contact. It's rude to look your parents in the eyes when they're talking to you, and it's also rude for women to look men in the eyes when they're being talked to. Women are trained to be quiet.

Well, here I come Senegal! A loud, opinionated, look-you-dead-in-the-eyes American woman who is single and proud of it (usually), a feminist, and not afraid of...

...being beat or killed! Since apparently, that is an option if a woman refuses you! My Senegalese, male friend who overheard my conversation with lovey-dovey university student mentioned earlier told me that I should say no and that he wouldn't beat or kill me.

...being mean or impolite if I don't know you! I've been told plenty of times that I'm mean or impolite by men who want me to stop and talk to them or give them my number. I'm over that now.

...being wrong! I'd rather have a voice and be wrong sometimes than just not talk at all. We saw that it was more devastating for a girl to be wrong or make a mistake in class in Kenya than a boy. I try to stick my neck out and just try to have a conversation. Likelihood is that men are wrong sometimes too.

...telling you I'm single. A lot of Americans who come here wear a wedding ring and make up big grand stories about their strong, big, mean American fiance who would eat you for breakfast. I've never been a good lier and as far as I know being single is not a disease, so I'll own up to it. I get the chance frequently as the second question after "Noo tuddu?- What's your name?" is always "Am nga jekker?- Do you have a husband?" When I say no, they ask if I would prefer an American or an African. I claim no preference and then we're off to the races. Either someone present is willing to marry me on the spot or everyone has someone in mind. This goes both ways- I've had several requests for my little American brother from Senegalese girls.

...tell you I don't know why I'm single. My favorite question is "Why don't you have a boyfriend? You're smart and pretty and have money." The "I haven't found the right man yet" response usually doesn't help the direction of the conversation. (See above.) Trying to explain gender relations in America in French or Wolof usually doesn't help either. I've taken to saying I don't know why.

The best strategies I've found for dealing with the attention and the tension of girl-guy interactions here are joking and asking good questions.

In reality, Senegalese people joke a lot about dating, marriage, etc. It's a principal topic of conversation and an important part of the society and thus fertile ground for jokes. Understanding humor in another culture is difficult, so sometimes I feel like all Senegalese jokes are based off of making people (read: me) uncomfortable. But, in general, it's more fun and lighthearted if you assume everyone is joking when it comes to this subject. The best responses I've thought up are "Sorry, I don't know how to cook." and carrying around a keychain with a picture of a famous Senegalese wrestler and saying "Sama jekker- my husband". Those responses usually illicit the most laughter, which I'll count as success. Sometimes they also just give me enough time to change the subject or walk away.

Senegalese people, and men, love to debate (with tea if possible). So the next best thing is to start asking questions, feigning ignorance. Questions about Senegalese society, polygamy, laws about marriage, and gender roles will all carry a conversation to more interesting territory. But the question which I love to ask and think about and debate, is "What is love?" I don't think that any one country has a lock on this topic, but each country has it's own interpretation, which usually illuminates cultural differences.

A Senegalese man (apparently) thinks he loves me from the bottom of his heart 20 minutes after meeting me. And many others think that when his first wife gets boring and he sees another woman that he "loves", he should marry her. In fact, for my birthday my friend gave me a shirt that says, "Si tu m'enerves, je prends une deuxieme femme." Which translates, if you annoy me, I'm getting a second wife. That's the topic of the famous Senegalese novel, Une Si Longue Lettre that I finished recently. And for many Senegalese women, that is reality. So, the answer to "What is love?" is paramount in determining the conditions for the majority of women here.

And when you throw a young American woman in the mix, this is what you get- something in between an ego boost and training to be a defense lawyer.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Getting Ready for the Big Fight Tomorrow

My Senegalese "husband" is fighting tomorrow in what might be the biggest fight of his life. Unfortunately, I can't go see the fight because it's too dangerous. Enjoy the mbalax and images of Senegalese wrestling.

Update: Video changed to the real deal.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I had my first paper due this week, my birthday and the beginning of my internship. So give me a break. I'll try to write something of substance this weekend. But at least I'm having fun, right?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cell Phones and Illiteracy

Here's a pic from this weekend- my family in the village we visited wrote cell phone numbers on their walls to remember them because they can't read and therefore can't store numbers in the phone itself.

I really want to do research on how illiterate people use technology like cell phones.

Also, I will define heterocontemporality later. Just wait.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Can I Get A Little Wolof?

My Wolof class, with our teacher Sidy (Monsieur in Wolof), who also goes by Q-Tip.

The Wolof language is very, very different from any other language I've learned. While the cadence and sounds of the language itself are unique, the grammar is the part that is most surprising for me.

Actually, Wolof grammar was developed in the last half-century. It was only a spoken language for centuries and most people in Senegal never get the chance to learn Wolof in a classroom. Or even see how it is written. Throughout Senegal, words have their Wolof spelling and their French spelling. In Gambia, they also speak Wolof but they have an English spelling there since Gambia was a British colony formerly. Confusing.

But I've developed a little list just to give you an idea of how different it is. Wolof has:
- 13 kinds of pronouns which place emphasis on all different sorts of things
- Verbs aren't conjugated, but there are lots of prefixes and endings you can add to change the meaning
- Each verb has its own article and its own adverb
- No adjectives
- Numbers only go up to 5

So given all that, you can imagine it's pretty fun to learn. Wolof class is pretty much all questions.

I'll write another post later to give more examples of phrases, etc. For not I'm off to pack for a full weekend in Toubacouta!

TWTW: Electricity

Everywhere I've been in Africa, there is one company that has a monopoly over the electricity. They charge exorbitant prices and can choose to cut off power at any time.

Here in Dakar, my house has been having plenty "coupure de courants" or blackouts recently. I call it our fast from the television, which feels like an unwanted backdrop to my life here.

My family has a simple set up for electricity- a energy-efficient long-lasting lightbulb in each room (but not the bathrooms) and a plug here and there. With that and the TV and fridge they pay about $50 a month, which they find expensive. Below is my room, with a window to the hallway (oh, privacy, how I miss thee) and my lightbulb and plug.

My father built our house and he also did the electricity. Our house is equipped to provide much more light and sound than it does. But for now it's too expensive. In any case, I hope they work out the fuse box before that happens.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Banana Bread and My Identity

This weekend my friend Colleen and I started out on our first solo-cooking adventure in Dakar. Goal: banana bread via Great Grandma’s recipe. We paid too much for ingredients at the fancy grocery store before making a few friends at the small “boutiques” closer to home. My family watched with raised eyebrows as we made the dough. (So you eat bananas and bread together? You make bread and put bananas in it? The bananas are in the bread? You paid how much for that?)

The dough stayed overnight in my fridge and we took it Friday to the English Resource Center, where we’ve been volunteering. We christened the oven’s maiden voyage there and discovered there was no temperature guide on the knob. This led to a crispier than desired (read: black), but still-good-in-the-middle loaf, which we carted back a few kilometers home to share with our respective families. While my family was appreciative, I don’t think that they got the same joy out of the experience that I did.

Finally, I created something here! I’m no longer just a blob that observes and absorbs my surroundings and sometimes mumbles intelligibly. I make banana bread therefore I am!

Okay, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but let me explain. Today, I was given the chance to cook again, this time a meal for my family. I made two of my favorite things, a balsamic vinaigrette salad and pesto bow-tie pasta. However, I kind of got my feelings hurt in the midst of making it because it seemed every time I turned around they were correcting me. (Put more salt in. Leave it in longer. You did what?)

I was a little distraught. I know I’m not a great cook, but pasta is easy right? And I know how good salad dressing should taste. Then why don’t they like it? Well, welcome to cross-cultural living Emily- it’s just different. And that’s okay.

Let me repeat that. It’s just different. I’m just different. You’re just different. Here I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me (or with them) when really, I’m just hitting my head against the wall of culture.

I’ve been angsty the last few days, in the midst of my cooking adventures, and I kept on trying to figure out why. I think I forgot for a minute that I’m in Senegal. These people do not understand me or my banana bread. We’re all trying, and I really have a great family, but I’m the minority here and that means that I have to bow to Senegalese tastes, tools, and ingredients when I cook. And I have to adjust to Senegal in the rest of my life, most of the time whether I want to or not.

Cross-cultural living is not easy (although I think these thoughts apply to moving in country as well). Sometimes it seems impossible to express myself here, to engage and give of myself. I think it’s natural as human beings to want to have meaningful work. But for now, my role as a student minimizes opportunities for “production”. Cooking may seem like small stuff, but I guess I’d rather experience some of these things cooking than in a huge project where I tried to bulldoze through cultural ignorance. Perhaps getting your cooking criticized is needed for while before you can understand how to really relate to people and work alongside them towards a common goal.


I’ve been wanting to return to my list habit, so here we go, this time with pictures, describing last weekend.

Things accomplished in Joal-Fadiout:

  1. Took a sept-place- a shared taxi that goes most places in Senegal, our ride was $4 a person for a 3 hour ride. One suggestion- don’t sit in the back.
  2. Averted being majorly ripped off, twice.
  3. Saw childhood home of Senegal’s first President Leopold Sedar Senghor. His father (nickname: The Lion) had five wives, he had 40 brothers and sisters and they don’t even know how many grandchildren there are.

  4. Made friends with a Serer traditional lutteur (wrestler) who told us he had “chocolate abs.” (Think like a chocolate bar.)
  5. Saw one of the regions (Senegal’s?) biggest baobabs. Went inside said baobab. Was ripped off by artisans there but also got free coffee.

  6. Survived horse-cart ride to and from baobab with complementary bruised butt and doggy friends.

  7. Saw a mixed Christian muslim cemetery built on an island of shells collected for hundreds of years by the in habitants of Fadiout.

  8. Discovered the island of Fadiout, also completely shells, on our own with no guide, a true feat given the touristy nature of the place and the omnipresent tourist syndicate.
  9. Spent a lot of time on bridges.

  10. Entered the veritable sea of colorful mou-mou’s (traditional Senegalese dress and head wrap for women) to enjoy the Serer hymns at Fadiout’s Sunday mass. (Wish I had a picture for this one.)
  11. Backgammon fail, sand checkers success.

  12. Rocked French, threw in some Wolof and picked up some Serer.
  13. Pulled off the shoe-string, student, backpacker’s weekend outside Dakar with less than a column of Lonely Planet to guide us.
  14. Saw some great sunsets.