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.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

TWTW: American Crap

Where do all the clothes that Americans make but don't use go? Well, I not sure exactly, but they're not all burned. Lots of them end up in second-hand markets in Africa. So next time you go shopping, please don't buy things you won't use. Our junk is stifling a potential cotton economy in Africa. And some of it is just plain ugly. Shoes, t-shirts, air-fresheners for cars, I've seen it all. Even the air fresheners that really should have stayed in America.

And, since the shirts are mostly in English, people have no idea what they're saying. This leads to some great moments for us English-speakers. In the last few days I have seen a man wearing a Durham Bulls baseball hat and men wearing shirts that say:
  • No Money, No Honey
  • Member: Mile High Club
  • I'm Rick James...
But how does it get here? Who knows? Check out this description of a dissertation on the second-hand trade. Fascinating.

The other phenomenon I've noticed is that company names and acronyms are used here that would never fly in the United States. Below is a great example, and is coincidently, an air-freshener.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Here's a pic I took this weekend in Joal that demonstrates the Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms method rather explicitly. HIV education is always interesting!

I will write about our first weekend out of town soon.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Feast Your Eyes (And Ears)

Must sees of this week (All of them! I promise!):

1. Photos of Senegalese wrestlers that were awarded by World Press Photo. I will have to write another post on wrestling here, it is hard core and dripping in cultural differences.

2. Akon (Senegalese rapper who made it big in the US) was chosen to compose a song for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The video below has a traditional Senegalese beat, paired with the Soweto Gospel Choir. It also features my favorite African footballer, Drogba!

3. Salagne Salagne by Youssou Ndour- the most famous Senegalese singer. This song is played everywhere here and it's rhythm feels almost ingrained in my life here. It's beautiful.

Merci, Larousse

In my spare time, I've been browsing my "All French Verbs" book. Here's some gems.

klaxonner- to sound one's horn (literally or figuratively?)
apponter- to land on deck
inféoder- to indenture (what?)
larder- to lard (in what sense?)
rempoissonner- to restock with fish (rrrright)
yodler- to yodel (I will use this verb. My host brother confused yodeling with bagpipes- cornemuse en français. Our task for tomorrow is finding Sound of Music online.)
vulcaniser- to vulcanize (as in star trek?)
zyeuter- to stare at (fun to say if nothing else.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Drama: Food

All of the drama in my life for the past few weeks has been centered around food. (And you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been writing on my blog.) I’ll give you a little recap.

After the all-important discovery of the beignets, my host-sister, smart girl that she is realized how much I like desserts, or any food that is bad for you, really. I knew that she was coming to understand me when she said, “Emily et son ventre, une grande histoire d’amour.” Which means, Emily and her stomach, a great love story. True words.

But this love story is in the midst of a battle. This battle takes place every time we eat fish for dinner. My sister, again, noted that I am constantly engaged in combat again fish bones. It amazing how many there are, and usually I resort to using my hands. Every once in a while my family has pity on me and removes them for me.

Yesterday was the newest chapter in this epic of love and war. I was going to be the only woman in the house at dinner time, so my host father said, “You are the woman. You make the dinner.” (So that’s how it works, I guess.) So I embarked on a mission to make French toast- in French it’s called “pain perdu” or lost bread (I was holding out for American toast, but no luck there). Road block one: no cinnamon. Okay, we’ll use sugar. My sister ended up being at home when I started and she said that we couldn’t mix sweet bread with salty eggs. She then proceeded to put tons of salt and seasoning in the dip for the toast, pour oil in the frying pan, and fry the pour suckers. This, she explains, is Senegalese pain perdu. Well, shucks. It was a far cry from any French toast I’ve ever had, but it was fried, so I ate it.

Again, it comes down to having the right materials. We have no spatula. There is no sliced bread, only baguettes. Stores close on Sundays. I am intent on making an “American” meal for my family at some point, which will require boxing out my sister and mother from the spices and stove top. I’ll have to do some conditioning before that, and search the city for cinnamon, sliced bread, and spatulas. Like I said, drama.

Ile de la Madeleine

My friends and I went on a mini-adventure this weekend to the third and last island we’ve visited off the Cape-Vert Peninsula, Ile de la Madeleine. The island is uninhabited, and is a national park. It is mostly a bird sanctuary, especially for the feuilleton, a dramatic white bird only found on this island and the Cape Verde islands. Apparently its name in English is the red-billed tropical bird—boring. That species and many others give the cliffs and coves of the island a dramatic contrast, thanks to their… droppings. When I showed the pictures below to host family, my brother didn’t believe that this was true, but my father confirmed it, saying, “That’s not snow!”

The island is also home to unique baobab trees with branches that grow along the ground because of the strong wind and shallow soil. The fruit of the Baobab tree, called monkey bread in French is used for many things in Senegal, including a juice, a sauce eaten with fish and traditional medicines. Our guide picked one for us and we got to taste it in it’s raw form. I’d describe it as a pasty tart, sort of like dense rhubarb powder.

The island was formed by volcanoes and has eerie rock formations. The sand is a unique mixture of black volcanic rock and white and pink from shells and coral. It was definitely great to get away from the city buzz for a day and take in the calm nature of the island. Enjoy the pictures!

Seventh in Seven

Traveling to Senegal is the seventh time that I’ve been abroad my life, and I went abroad for the first time seven years ago. I’ve had a pretty good average, I’d say, of going abroad once a year. This is also my third time in Africa.

It’s strange to travel with people who are going abroad for the first time or even to Africa for the first time. I developing, secretly, (not anymore) a theory about cross-cultural experiences and what people experience as they go abroad more or stay abroad longer. I’ve decided to make a list of changes I’ve seen in myself and in others who have more experience abroad.

Every time I go abroad I stay for a little bit longer- I was in Kenya 1 month, then Argentina 2, then Kenya again 3, and now Senegal for 4 or so. None of these trips are long-term, so this list would probably look very different if written by a seasoned ex-pat. In any case, I’ve just found the differences in myself interesting, so I thought I’d share.

  1. Logistics- From frustration to expected challenge: Entering a new place and culture presents logistical challenges as much and perhaps more than it presents social challenges. A person has to relearn simple things that they never remember having to learn at home like finding a bathroom, using the phone, or buying groceries. At first, I’ve found that people react with anger or disbelief when they encounter these new realities. People find themselves saying that the way the new culture works is stupid or slow or inefficient. They blame the other rather than realizing that it’s just different. The more I travel the more I expect these challenges and take them as part of the experience as much as the cultural aspects. It’s even fun to wake up every day and look forward to the next logistical puzzle and experiential learning experience.
  2. Unexpected- What?!? to leaving space for it: Making a schedule in another country is a funny thing. You can do it, but you never know what will pop up. Again, I’ve found reacting with anger or frustration doesn’t help the situation, while leaving room for delays or sidetracks and taking them as they come makes every day more enjoyable. Eventually you come to understand better what you can accomplish in one day with the resources available.
  3. Planning- Every detail to on the fly: Speaking of unexpected, getting to know a culture makes you more able to figure out things as you go. I’ve often started off with grand plans gathered from the pages of my travel book. But the more I get my nose out of the book and watch the world around me, the more I learn from the people I get to know and get to experience things off the beaten track.
  4. DIY to making friends: Every time I try to do things by myself at first in another country, I end up getting ripped off or taking all afternoon for a task that should take half an hour. The more I can learn from other people or follow them and learn from them as they do things, the better. I recommend ditching your “I can figure it out on my own” attitude as soon as possible and humbling yourself enough to ask for help. This hopefully, will lead to meaningful friendships and working relationships that will facilitate getting tasks done and learning about cultural differences.
  5. Relationships- Excited and Shallow to Real and Slow: I was hesitant to put this on the list. But the truth is, I’ve experienced it first hand. There can be a lot of false-intimacy when you travel abroad. I’m talking about the “We are the World”, “You’re my brother/sister” stuff that is used a lot to evoke emotional responses but actually is only true once you’ve been through the fire of cross-cultural living. I’ve found that quickly made friendships don’t usually last, although sometimes they continue with a veneer of agreement at the cost of not learning anything from one another. The sooner you realize how different you are from one another, the better. This includes the difficulty of the economic disparities as well. Facing this reality is not fun, and can sometimes be isolating, but jumping over this hill allows one to engage in the hard work of building lasting relationships across cultures. This, I believe, requires a lot of self-awareness, humility, and patience, which can yield a great reward in the end.
  6. Being proudly Non-American/Wherever-you-are-ian to Being Yourself, including American: My sophomore year of college I would say that I was half-Guatemalan, half-Kenyan, and half-Argentinean. When I abroad I would join people in bashing America. Eventually I realized that I will always be American, no matter what I do, and I actually like many things about America, despite its faults. I now try to walk the fine line of being myself, including my nationality and all of the history, good and bad, that comes with that. I believe that I’ve learned more in cross-cultural experiences when I know where I stand and then I can place the traditions, beliefs, and experiences of the people I meet in relation to that. Surely being abroad changes people and opens their eyes to new things. But if a person doesn’t know before leaving which beliefs they hold that will not change, they can become a punching bag in another culture. This gets at the point that when you travel, cross-cultural learning is a two way street. I am a representative of myself, my family, my university, my city, and my nation wherever I am in the world, and the people I interact with want to learn about me and America as much as I want to learn about them and their nation and culture. As the traveler, you are required to bow to the realities of your host culture more often and to put your interests to the side frequently in order to learn, and I recognize that this is essential. Yet, doing this does not have to equal demeaning yourself or your own culture. The more I travel, I find that I learn more and do better if I keep a good hold of who I am and where I come from, have my own pillow, and keep a few Clif-Bars with me. People have their own non-negotiables that should be examined and reflected upon when you travel, but not abandoned.
  7. Theory-making to Question-making: My favorite pastime is listening to people who have been in a country for two weeks talk about how they would fix the healthcare system, the corruption problem, or the ubiquitous lack of coins (a real issue in Dakar, and Buenos Aires for that matter). In short, I’ve found that the solutions posed oversimplify the problems and rarely use local resources, including local expertise and labor. The best thing that I’ve found one can do with these issues is ask questions of people who are from the country in question, or who have been engaged with the problem for a significant amount of time. This may reveal some of the complexity that a visitor’s initial frustration hides.
  8. Only in Insert-Country-or-Continent-Here to Bubble Bursting: I’ll finish with this. I’m tired of travelers making stereotypes from their experience of a place. Recently, I said I was tired and wanted to sleep all day and another student said “Oh, you’re becoming Senegalese!” Uh, no, and that’s offensive. The conversations I hear between some students here who have created their own Dakar-merica bubble are circular, whiny, and unproductive. Those conversations are similar in pattern to the international development blogs that I’m tired of reading. Talking about the same thing with the same people from your same culture over and over again every day leads nowhere. I try to ditch that for new adventures, or sometimes naps.

I’ll stop here for the sake of your free time and continue with these thoughts later on. Please post your thoughts and reactions to the items on this list- is your experience similar?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sorry Mom, I'm joining a roller-gang.

That's right. Today I was enlightened. I now have a goal in life.

As I was walking home, on the side of the VDN, one of the biggest highways in Dakar, where cars go pretty darn fast (I'm not good at estimating speed), there came buzzing down the road a group of 4 young men wearing roller blades and roller skates, holding onto the back of a truck. At the cross-street where I was standing they let go of the truck and did some spinny tricks and stuff (I'm not aware yet of the technical terms).

A couple of seconds later about ten more spun and rolled off. They then proceeded to catch other rides with trucks. Only one truck refused to let them roll along. All the others acted like this was normal. They either got the trucks as they were going slow turning onto the road or built up enough speed to catch a truck cruising by.

I have been searching for a cheap, yet fast way to get to school and I think I've found it. The only problem is that it's CRAZY AND DANGEROUS. Welcome to Senegalese extreme sports.

Feminism, Senegalese Style

In my Gender and Development class on Wednesday morning, we watched the film Faat Kine, created by Ousmane Sembène. Sembene used the film to address issues that people don't want to face in Senegalese society and to present an alternative to the traditional African woman, and to some stereotypical aspects of African culture.

The film shows a lot of Dakar, but it also shows something that I haven't experienced very much here- free, independent, powerful women (although the woman who owns the beignet shop previously mentioned is certainly doing well, there's a line all the time). Faat Kine had two children out of wedlock, owns her own business, drives a car, is sending her children to college, bought her own house, and is what we would call in the US, sexually liberted. Now, I don't believe that the last aspect is necessary to be a happy woman, but all in all, Faat Kine is a formidable and welcome character.

The questions that I was left with after watching the movie were the following:
  • How was this film received by Senegalese society? Or was it at all? While Sembene is well known, a small portion of the population has access to films in the theatre or in their homes. And if the film didn't reach very broadly, that raises the question...
  • How is or isn't this film a depiction of Senegalese society? Where did Sembene draw his idea of an indpendent woman? Is it Western, or do I just think it is because I'm American? Clearly some aspects of the film are true to my experience here, but the film looked a lot different from the scenes I usually see on the TV here.
Below is a 5 minute scene from the film wherein three unmarried, successful women talk openly about issues that sometimes aren't addressed in Senegal. Check it out.

Everything's Gonna Be Alright

On Wednesday of this week my sister introduced me to my new favorite place in Dakar. I don't even know the name, all I know is they sell beignets (fried dough balls) and fried plantains for 25 and 50 CFA respectively.

Meaning, I won't be without my daily serving of fat and sugar anymore.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I do have friends too.

In case you were wondering. Which I know some of you were.

Here we are being dorks with a Dakar native, the fat white manican. Catering to the American tourists, perhaps? I just want to know where they got him from.

What I do all day.

I thought that I might give you, my readers, something steady to stand on when it comes to understanding where all of my ranting and raving comes from. That would be, my schedule (in a vague sense).

Each week I take classes at WARC, the West African Research Center, which hosts several study abroad programs in Dakar, and from IFEE- L’Institut de Français pour Etudiants Etrangères., which is a section of L’Université Cheik Anta Diop, or UCAD. All my classes except Wolof are 3 hours once a week.

My classes consist of the following:
French Grammar Review
History of Islam in Senegal
History of the Senegambia
Gender and Development in Senegal
French-English Translation, Level 3

I had planned to take at least one course at UCAD proper, along with the other, normal, Senegalese students. Unfortunately, the system proved too difficult to navigate for an outsider. I would venture to guess it’s difficult for most insiders as well. I made a good effort to attend a African Literature course, and two weeks in a row the professor did not show up, although both time hundreds of students sat waiting for the entire length of the class. The first time that this happened, I learned when I got home that there was a strike at the University that day. But the second time is still unexplained.

Strikes in the universities here are frequent, usually in response to the inadequate number of classes for the volume of students enrolled. I feel like U.S. universities haven’t had a good strike since the 60’s, but apparently it’s still commonplace in other Western countries, like France, as well. I’m not sure if Senegal picked up the practice from France or if the system here works poorly enough to incite students’ anger time and again.

After sitting through a couple of classes with no professor, I thought that I might like a little striking too, especially if I was paying for that class specifically and needed it to advance to the next level of my degree program.

Why the university works the way it does is a mystery to me still, and I won’t venture a guess into its inner workings. Let’s just say that the final product isn’t a well-oiled machine and there appears to be more organization within departments than throughout the university as a whole.

If this entry is any evidence, my English spelling is slowly disintegrating. I hope that means my French is getting better.

Monday, February 1, 2010

TWTW: Television Shows

I am convinced that there are two types of families in Dakar. And no, I am not referring to Christian and Muslim. I'm not even referring to Southern and Northern Senegal or poor and rich.

I'm referring to the families who watch Prison Break and the families who watch Vaidehi. I happen to have landed in the Prison Break camp.

Prison Break, if you're not in the know, was first aired in 2005 and had, from what I can tell from IMDB, four seasons. Well folks, we're finally in the fourth season here. They show the new episodes about every other day from what I can tell, maybe even every day. I'm clearly not good at following it because it is dubbed over in French. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to watch something where people's mouths are moving in English and but I still can't understand what's going on. I also don't know that Prison Break was that original or amazing in the United States. But according to my brother, the writers were the most brilliant writers ever and the show is "extraordinaire".

I don't really find it that exciting but compared to the other shows on TV, which are mainly Spanish soap operas (not even the good ones, like there's not even attractive people in them) also dubbed over in French.

The one exception to this Spanish soap opera dominance, and that is Vaidehi. While my family does not normally watch this show, the star was in Senegal this last week, and she was all over the news, so we let ourselves go and watched one episode this week. All I can say is that I've ever seen so many different close-ups of the same person in quick succession. It is truly a cinematic feat. Instead of ranting more about how I can't stand the television here, I thought that I'd share some tidbits of this Bollywood feat right here. Enjoy.