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Here and there

Salaa maleikum,

I know that it’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, partly because work has kept me very busy, and partly because some of what used to seem new and exotic- men praying at the side of the road, women breast feeding in public, constant sheep noises- now feels pretty normal.  My cold shower at 7 AM is no longer such a shock, and when I form a human sandwich with perfect strangers on the bus, I hardly notice.  I now have two weeks before I come home and I feel like I have come a long way from that first morning of stepping off the plane at 6AM and being ambushed by Senegalese men wanting to help me with my luggage.

Here is some of what I have been up to in the last two months:

Traveling-

April: Personal vacation to the colonial town of St. Louis in the north

Highlights:

Going on a photo scavenger hunt of paintings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba- a very important Senegalese Muslim leader from the past.  Only one photograph of him exists, so this same image is displayed everywhere in Senegal, from auto repair shop signs, to people’s houses, to trees

Experiencing the mode of transportation called sept places (seven seats) for the first time: a very old, beat-up station wagon that somehow seats seven people plus the driver, and is the main form of cheap transportation for going long distances in Senegal

Student peer educators from the region of Matam

May: Work trip to Matam for a 2 day conference of peer educators from numerous schools in the region

Highlights:

Surviving 105-110⁰F heat and getting in touch with my sweat glands

Learning a few words in Pulaar (the dominant language and ethnic group in the region)

May: Two trips to the rural community of Ndiaganiao to visit a center that serves children with disabilities

A wrestling match between students- this is Senegal's national sport

Highlights:

Enjoying a calm, rural retreat from the always-hectic Dakar

Lowpoint:

My taxi hit a goat. Poor goat.  Plus, no possibility for the family to recoup its losses because it is strictly forbidden by Islam to eat road kill.

June: Work trip to Tambacounda for a workshop with teachers on HIV/AIDS and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

My host and I at a religious ceremony in Tambacounda

Highlights:

Having a lively discussion with a local marabout (Muslim religious leader) about Islam.  However, when I started asking why there are no female prophets, I decided we should probably call it quits for the conversation.

While I am looking forward to both coming back to amenities such as street signs and traffic lights, and taking a short break from eating rice and fish, I am definitely going to miss a lot about this beautiful country and the friends I have made here.

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Snapshots

I am including a selection of my Facebook statuses since I have been here.  They give some insight into my daily life here, and show some of the joys and difficulties of living in a different country.

Eating lunch with my host family & co.

April:

  • Today, I had a great conversation in Wolof with my ‘taximan.’ He explained that he wants a toubab wife because toubabs are good/delicious and have money, making kissing noises and vulgar hand gestures to demonstrate. I repeatedly mentionned my ‘husband’ and told him that no, he is not getting a kiss along with his $3.
  • Today, a random guy on the bus was wearing a North Seattle Boys and Girls Club shirt…most likely, he bought it from one of the many used-clothes markets that sell donated clothes from the U.S. and Europe. Small world…
  • Today, it appears that the giant makeshift dump at one of my bus stops was relocated to my other bus stop. Senegal seems to play a constant game of shifting around its rampant trash problem.

March:

  • Today, after taking the bus daily for over 2 months, I saw for the first time another toubab on the bus.
  • All day, I told people I was going to an ‘exhibition d’art’…it turns out that in French, ‘exhibition’ means something along the lines of striptease…whoops..
  • Last night I ate my dinner of rice and fish in the kitchen between several giant piles of raw fish. If you ever want to feel more connected to what exactly you are eating, coming to the developing world.
My bus stop
  • Today, a guy on my bus got yelled at by the ticket-taker for bringing a live chicken in a plastic bag on the bus…reminds me of Borat..”careful, he bites!”

February:

  • Today I asked for an explanation of how this whole using water instead of toilet paper thing works. What I received was a host-mom-sitting-on-the-toilet demonstration of the process.
  • I became Madame Khady Michelle this morning and gave a presentation on HIV/AIDS to a class of 70 Senegalese eleven-year-olds. Their vocabulary in English now includes condom, syringe, breast feeding, and human immunodeficiency virus.
  • I had yassa poisson (rice, onions, fish) for lunch today. While my coworkers chatted in Wolof, I admired the eyeballs, teeth, and scales on the fish I was eating.
The downstairs bathroom. The 2 upstairs bathrooms have actual toilets that flush and everything, but now I prefer this one.
  • My Senegalese host mom proudly announced today that I have gained weight since the start of my stay here…I didn’t have the heart to tell her that that’s an insult in American culture.
  • Yesterday I visited the President’s palace in downtown Dakar–big fancy white house, serious looking guards, and 10 minutes later, a group of random sheep strolling across the street.
  • I have already told two over-friendly guys today that I am married, and it’s not even 10am yet.

January:

  • During a recent road trip with my coworkers, we pulled up to a gas station, me thinking it was as likely a place as any to find a public restroom. Instead, I ended up following a fruit vendor to her house to use her bathroom, passing by her perplexed children on the way.

Since my arrival in Senegal, I have been learning a dance called the yuza that is a national sensation and found everywhere in pop culture.  Yuza has some elements found other African dances, plus a lot of joking in the form of pretend armpit/crotch/ass-sniffing.  I have seen everyone from 3 year olds to grandmothers getting their yuza on, in the street, at wedding celebrations, on TV, and at school.

Last weekend, I found myself dancing the yuza on stage in front of several hundred students and teachers.  I had been invited to a big event at a school that I work with, and during the talent show/yuza competition, I, as a guest and as the lone toubab, was dragged onto stage.  Needless to say, the students found my attempted dancing hilarious.  All across Senegal, whenever I meet young people, within several minutes of conversation they ask me to dance the yuza for them.  My advice for anyone visiting Africa: if you want to gain people’s respect, learn their language and learn their dance, and you’re good to go.

Graffiti at the school: "In God we thrust" .... Religious enthusiasm + spelling error = unintended sexual connotations

My second cultural adventure of the day was watching the national football (aka soccer) game against Cameroon.  After waiting in a long line that wound around the wall outside of the stadium, I thought the entrance process was over.  Instead, upon entering the main gate, I gained valuable mosh-pit / battering ram experience in the large mass of men trying to force their way past the police to enter into the stadium.  After half an hour of shoving, yelling, and police brandishing their batons and rifles, we got in the stadium, made our way through the crowd, forded a river of pee cascading down part of the stadium (the impromptu men’s restroom), and settled in for the game.

For over an hour, the game was tied, and people around me were complaining that the game was no good.  Then, less than five minutes before the end of the game, Senegal scored.  I took a video of this moment, although I stopped filming when I felt rain for the first time in Senegal, from all of the fans spraying their water bottles in celebration.  We walked home to the soundtrack of people honking their car horns and screaming SENEGAAAAL!!

Stadium of 55,000 people

A professor once told me that people in Senegal usually identify with their ethnic groups: Wolof, Serer, Pulaar, etc., but when there is a national football game, everyone becomes Senegalese.  Probably one of the proudest moments in Senegal’s history was in 2002, when Senegal qualified for the World Cup for the first time, and then beat France, the reigning world champion and Senegal’s former colonial power.  My host mom tells me that after the game, people didn’t even go to the mosque to pray because they were celebrating, and flags and the national colors were everywhere.

I think that if all ex-colonies got to beat their colonial power in a football game, the world would be a happier place.

 

* “Don’t touch me, stay away from me” –lyrics from the song for dancing the yuza

This weekend, three of my coworkers and I went on a business trip to the region of Kaolack.  We drove for several hours, the driver honking at children and livestock to clear the road and veering back and forth to avoid enormous potholes.  When we arrived, I quickly learned that Dakar is arctic compared to the rest of the country.  Whereas the temperature in Dakar is now in the 70s, dropping to 65 at night, the region of Kaolack was 105 degrees during the day, and even at night it was still in the 90s.

My fan club in the village of Nioro

We supervised a competition between students of knowledge about HIV/AIDS (my internship organization promotes reproductive health education in schools), and afterwards, a swarm of young children came to shake my hand, take pictures with me, tell me to dance yusa (a dance that is a national sensation), and invite me to their house.

A stray baby goat trapped inside the crowd during one of our activities

The next two days were devoted to a conference of student leaders in the region who educate their peers about reproductive health.  On the first day, we started almost two hours late (very Senegalese).  Various health care professionals gave presentations to the students, often lecturing the girls in the room not to have sex before marriage, while saying nothing to the boys.  I still have a hard time with the cultural double standard here that girls are expected to not have sex until marriage, whereas boys are allowed and even encouraged to do so.  Placing all of the responsibility on girls to remain virgins until marriage is especially problematic in the context of Senegal, where girls are often under financial or social pressures, and thus might not even actively choose to engage in sex before marriage.  I appreciate, however, that in addition to its abstinence-promotion, my organization also provides information about condoms and contraception, realizing that abstinence-only programs do not always work.

Me and one of my host sisters relaxing at the beach after I got back from my trip

After two very hot days of workshops, we prepared to leave.  The driver, as usual, invited me to come pray with him (people often jokingly say things hinting at converting to Islam, but I have not encountered anyone actually trying to convert me).  During the traffic jam coming back to Dakar, our car windows became a shopping mall, and my coworkers bought newspapers, oranges, peanuts, phone credit, fish, and a sweat suit from the many young men and always-well-dressed-Senegalese-ladies cramming their merchandise against the glass.

Now I am back in Dakar, 15 mosquito bites, 1 meal of attempting to eat rice with my hands, and many conversations in Wolof later.

Jamm ak jamm, ba beneen yoon (peace and peace, until next time)

On government

Last weekend, I visited the president’s palace in downtown Dakar.  Well, I took a photo from across the street (due to security concerns, you can no longer take photos from up close, and as my host sister explained, access to visit the inside of the palace requires the same thing as finding a job in Senegal; you have to know someone).

Senegal's White House

Both before my arrival and here in Senegal, I learned that African leaders are often reluctant to leave office.  In the United States, there is a large economic sector, and the richest people in the country are often CEO’s and celebrities, not politicians.  In Senegal (and often all of sub-saharan African as well), this is not the case.  A lot of the richest people in the country are politicians; when someone is in power, they and their family live the high life.  After being told that I couldn’t take a picture with the president’s guard, I joked with my host sister that my stay in Senegal would be very easy if only my host dad was a Ministre (high government official) of something.  Unlike in the United States, where politicians leaving office can benefit from their investments, corporations, etc. in the large economic sector, African leaders leaving office don’t have much to turn to.  Thus, there are many cases of politicians clinging to power for decade after decade.

"Unité africain" written on a baobab tree, the national tree of Senegal

Senegal, fortunately, has had peaceful transfers of power between presidents since its independence in 1960.  Their third president is currently in office, but his popularity is not doing so well due to the daily power outages.  The president, Abdoulaye Wade, is a champion of African unity, and he built a giant statue for La Renaissance Africaine and hosted the World Festival of Black Art.  However, both of these actions were met with a lot of protests, because the president spent millions of dollars, and there is still a lot of poverty (and not enough electricity) in the country.

Giant statue symbolizing the African Renaissance

I came home from work the other night  to find all five of the women of my host family sleeping together in my host sister’s room with a single candle burning, like Charlie’s grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  They explained that due to the power outage, there was nothing to do (aka there is no TV), so sleeping was the next best option.

It was Daba's (she is the maid and lives with the family) birthday this weekend, so I gave her a Eugene chocolate bar that I brought. My host family then made this her birthday cake and put a candle on top.

My host family consists of my host father, who is 40, his wife, who I call my host mom even though she is only 29 (age gaps are quite common in relationships here), her younger sister and brother, and her three-year-old daughter, their cousin, and a maid who lives with the family.  That makes six girls in the house and two men, and everyone except my host dad and the little girl is between the ages of 17 and 29.

My host dad eats his dinner and spends the evenings in his room, and my host brother disappears for large stretches of time to hang out with his friends (there is a lot more freedom for boys to leave the house than for girls), so I mostly live in the world of women.

My family is typical in that it took me several days to figure out how everyone was related.  It is quite common to have a mix of relatives and generations living together.  Adoption is not common here but children are sometimes ‘given’ by their parents to other relatives.  My host sister/cousin was given to her aunt at the age of 3, and has lived with her cousins ever since.  I am frequently introduced to other younger sisters of my host mom, who might actually be what I would call her cousins.

My host family takes good care of me, telling me “mange, tu es maigre” (eat, you are skinny) at every meal, and giving me endless tips for living in a new country (how to discourage over-friendly boys, how to use water instead of toilet paper).

*sama = my

wa = the people of, keur = house (although, like all Wolof words, the spelling varies)

wakeur = the people of the house (meaning family)

I live in Africa and I recently held a lion.

Many people might see this as a perfectly natural occurrence, because unfortunately,when most people think of Africa, they think of (1) wild animals, (2) diseases, and (3) poverty/violence.  I hope that by reading this blog, my readers will gain an insight into the enormous diversity and the nuances of this beautiful continent.

 

In fact, I would have just as likely found a lion in Portland, Oregon.

I found him at the zoo, during an excursion with my host sister/cousin.  For $1.40 apiece, my host sister and I saw tigers and lions from three feet away (or closer), tossed peanuts to a dancing chimpanzee, and saw the cow and sheep exhibit (I didn’t understand the logic of displaying sheep at the zoo–they are hardly exotic, and I see them everyday at my bus stop.)

My host sister/cousin

 

When my host sister told me that the zookeepers had brought the lion cub out of his cage, I didn’t understand at first that she meant he was being passed around to the adults and children in the crowd.  He was just a cub, but I was still quite scared that he would decide to give me a high five and I would lose an eye or two.