Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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.


  1. Glad to hear you're still single, Emily. You make me belly laugh, girl. Counting the days until you come home. Love you.

  2. you are so funny Emily, I love trying to visualize your adventures.