Friday, December 11, 2009

Stateside this Sunday!

So I'm officially headed home in 36 hours. As the end is in sight, there are many things I'm going to miss about Senegal. I'm going to miss my host family in Dakar and their constant enthusiasm and always welcoming smiles. I'm going to miss being able to take a car rapide to the market and purchase beautiful, colorful fabric to be brought to the tailor. I'm going to miss making tea with my host brother Diama.

Yesterday, I went to the market to buy tea, bissap, and cafe touba to bring back to the states to share a bit of the culture of Senegal. It will be hard to say goodbye, but I'm very excited to come home, and to see how my perspective of life in the US will change.

This is a short entry, as I've been busy this week. But I'll be seeing everyone soon!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Senegalese Celebrations: Part II

Yesterday was Tabaski, a holiday that celebrates sheep. Or at least that is what I am told every time I ask anyone what exactly the day marks. I guess it falls exactly 2 months and ten days after the end of Ramadan, and consists of a similar chain of events as Korité (that is, eating a lot), except as you may have guessed a sheep is involved. Unfortunately, the way the holiday of the sheep ends up is with each head of the family killing one for his wife (or wives- one for each, which can get excessive if you have more than three) and children. I thought that living with a Christian family, I might escape witnessing a slaughter, but to no avail- I spent the day with a Muslim co-worker named Fatou Kindé, whose company I enjoy but who pretty much force-feeds me every chance she gets! In preparation for the celebration, I witnessed the transport of many sheep in ways that nearly brought my animal-loving heart to tears, including shoving them into trunks of cars or strapping them to the roofs of station wagons. I tried to see the humor in the whole situation, as I have had to do often here. Anyways, the holiday itself consisted of a lot of sitting around and eating, as I have found many Senegalese holidays to entail. I was allowed to help prepare a bit, was given a knife and told to cut potatoes and later fry them to make french fries. For the sake of the vegetarians out there, I won’t go into details of the sheep, but lets just say I saw (and to my dismay, ate) things I could live without seeing or eating again, including leftover meat for breakfast, served over soggy french fries.

In other news, one week left in Joal! And, with the holiday on Saturday, the bank is closed on Monday, so I officially have a day off. This past week has been fairly typical accounting work, but the week before I had the chance to get out of the office and talk to some people in the town who have recently taken out small loans from the bank- a phenomenon often referred to as micro-credit. In some cases, those who have taken out the loans have been really successful, augmenting their businesses and even starting new ones. However, for some people, I soon became aware that having access to capital is not the answer, and that there are bigger issues that exist that need to be addressed.

As I think I’ve mentioned, Joal is a fishing town, so many of its inhabitants are fishers, “maryeurs”- people that buy the fish from the fishers and then resell them to factories or to be transported elsewhere- or those that transform fish products, whether by drying or grilling. I talked with both a maryeur and a “transformatrice” at their respective places of work, and as to be expected both locations were extremely smelly. After talking to a successful businessman the previous day, I expected similar success stories as I began my interviews (in broken French and Wolof). However, both expressed the sentiment that forces out of their control, such as the general market for fish affected by industrial fishing and global warming, have severely limited their incomes and forced them to take out credit merely to produce enough to feed themselves everyday. Given the causes of the deficits, I was not extremely surprised to hear that things used to be better; there was enough fish to go around and enough clients willing to buy. Now, there is heavy reliance on foreign buyers, including other West African countries such as Burkina Faso and Guinea, but also Asian countries such as Japan and China, to make a living. It was really eye opening, the sheer poverty, and once again showed me that things are so much more complicated than they seem. While my program is centered on learning about development, I have essentially learned that the path towards “development” is sadly much more difficult and convoluted than I could have ever anticipated, especially when global trends exist that are out of the control of small businessmen and women living day by day.

On a more positive note (sorry if that was a downer), I’ve done quite a bit of bonding with my siblings here. The other night, we were playing a game of keep away, barefoot in the sand on a 75 degree night (despite being nearly December the days are still HOT), a game that unfortunately ended with my grandmother getting angry at the kids for playing soccer to close to the house- before she realized that I was a part of the crazy crew, and at which point both of us felt a bit embarrassed. Robert desperately wants to go to the beach with me some day so I can help him swim, and Clothilde has been practicing her typing on my computer. Therese is Therese, a little ball of energy whose newest thing is to greet me with, “Emma, yaangi noss?” which kind of translates to are you having fun/in good form. Despite our good times, Agnes still proves to be a hard shell to crack, but I think I am growing on her a bit. She even gives me a smile every once in a while. Even the dog, Bleck (great name, right?) has taken a liking to me, Clotilde told me he watches after me as I go to work every day and sleeps outside my door at night. It’s probably because I’m the only person around who gives him even the slightest bit of attention.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Birthday Parties and Car Parts

It’s hard to believe that my time in Joal is already over halfway done! I’ve had a great time here, but as my Senegal adventure approaches the final weeks I can’t help but anticipate coming home- back to real toilets and showers and a bit of diversity in my diet, not to mention the return to my comfort zone. Over the past week, I’ve settled into a bit more of a rhythm at work and at home. Today marked the site visit of my program director, who stopped by to see how things were going at my internship and with my family. No complaints, besides the little tiff here and there, and it was good to have that support but hard to be left alone again!

Last Saturday, I took a trip to Mbour, a city of about 200,000 people located 30ish kilometers up the coast from Joal, to meet up with a couple friends. To get there, I took a “minibus”, which was an adventure in itself. Let’s just say that in general, the state of the various forms of public transportation here has given a whole new meaning to the word “safety.” Seatbelts do not exist, and the goal seems to be to pack as many people as possible into the smallest possible space. I found myself wondering, “how many Senegalese people can you fit on a minibus? And just when you thought it was full, how many more can squeeze on (babies included)?” Well, I counted…and there ended up being nearly 30, plus at least six small children that I could see, in a large van that would legally fit maybe half that many in the U.S. And that’s not even the beginning! We stopped fairly often for what I assume were mechanical issues, as the driver kept getting out to look under the body of the van. One time, he got down on hands and knees, reached under the van, and pulled out a fairly large, important-looking but apparently superfluous pipe, and placed it on the roof. I laughed quietly to myself as he got back in the van and continued the drive, sans unimportant, unidentifiable car part, and believe it or not we made it safely to Mbour. On the way back, I opted for a more reliable form of transport called a sept place, a station wagon that holds seven people, and needless to say the ride home was much less eventful!

Back in Joal, my brother Robert celebrated his 7th birthday with a little party. He had been talking about it for days before, and it ended up being surprisingly similar to kids birthday parties in the U.S., most notably in the clear segregation of boys and girls. I guess cooties exist everywhere around the world! The party pretty much consisted of approximately 20 Senegalese children being told to dance, eating a bunch of donuts, and then going home. In the beginning, I was the subject of many curious stares, as I was certainly a bit out of place at a 7 year olds’ birthday party (in more ways than just my age!). But, by the end I was teaching the kids how to disco, and they were teaching me some Senegalese dance moves and chants of their own. It was a great way to bond with the kids of the neighborhood and I think I proved to be entertainment for more than just the younger generation.

Later that night, I watched the France-Ireland World Cup qualifying match on television. My host dad and brother are huge football fans, and when not watching soap operas from Venezuela or Mexico (an odd habit of many Senegalese people, or all that own a television), there is inevitably some match on the tube. I am sitting, simply enjoying the game, when two “toubabs” walk in (for those of you that don’t know, toubab is the word used here to describe white people. Every day I get multiple calls of “toubab!” in the street, which gets pretty old pretty fast), and I soon find out that they are from Ireland and stopped by to watch the game! As I tried to talk to them in English, it quickly became clear that the English-speaking part of my brain seemed to have turned itself off after months of only French and Wolof. To them, I probably seemed like a stuttering idiot, and I was shocked as to how difficult it was for me to speak in my native tongue. I still think and write in English, but maybe the conversational side of things has become a bit shaky.

And there goes the power. I guess I won’t be posting this tonight! Oh, and to all those reading that signed my birthday card, thanks so much! It arrived here on Monday and absolutely made my week.

Ba beneen yoon! (Until next time, in Wolof)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I’m drafting this blog post in a word document in hopes of getting on the internet this week to finally update everyone on my life in Joal! I arrived here two weeks ago after being dropped off by my program director to start the internship phase of the program. Joal is a fishing town located about two hours down the coast from Dakar, with a population of around 20,000 people (I think, though the town is growing and no one I’ve asked is exactly sure how many people live here).

I was excited to leave Dakar and head to Joal, which I had heard was one of the prettiest villages in Senegal. So far, I have not been let down, though I have found myself to be missing my Dakar family more than I had expected. It almost felt as if as soon as I had integrated myself there and began to feel comfortable among my family, I was once again uprooted to experience the process all over again, in a new place, with a new family and internship, with all my fellow students spread in villages across Senegal. I am adjusting, but it takes time and it’s certainly a good thing that I look forward to seeing my Dakar family again!

So for a little bit about my family here in Joal. I live with my host father, Paul, my host mother, Agnes, and three younger siblings: Clauthilde (10), Robert (6), and Therese, who is nearly 3. Unlike my family in Dakar, who was Muslim, my family here is Christian, which makes for a bit of a different experience. First of all, the family names are all very westernized which is kind of odd, and a picture of Pope Jean-Paul II hangs over my bed. The kids are great and my host dad is incredibly nice and welcoming. In the beginning, Therese was afraid of me and even cried when I got too close to her (the whole white skin color thing), but now we are best of friends and it makes my day to see her smile and yell “Emma!” when she sees me coming home from my internship. Clauthilde and Robert are a bit more shy and inhibited, but they are certainly warming up to me. I’ve been helping Clauthilde learn how to ride a bike and Robert loves to do karate with me in slo-motion! My host mother, Agnes, is a bit of a different story however. I’ll just say she’s a little rough around the edges and hardly ever cracks a smile. It’s been hard, especially in comparison with my incredible host mom in Dakar, but it’s clear that it’s her and not me!

For a few updates on lifestyle: I am taking bucket showers, which are surprisingly nice but have also reduced my ability to wash my hair often, and using a squat toilet. I’m woken every morning before sunrise by one of the five daily Muslim prayer times, and then again at sunrise by crowing roosters. Twice a day, for lunch and dinner, I eat some form of rice and fish and am lucky if I get a bite of carrot or potato, and for breakfast it’s always a piece of bread. Vitamins and hand sanitizer were the two best investments I made before coming here!

For my internship, I’m working at a place called MECDPJ, which stands for Mutuel d’Epargne et Credit pour le Developpement de la Peche a Joal. Quite a mouthful! Essentially, it’s a credit union for fishermen. Ironically enough, I’m doing accounting, and I hate to say it but I’m learning a lot! I work alongside these two great Senegalese women, giving out small loans to fishermen and keeping track of their deposits and withdrawals. It’s like working at a small bank and doing microfinance- serving the poor that are often overlooked by larger banks and bank chains. At the end of the day, it’s all about making sure the numbers add up! And turning down various marriage proposals and visa requests from the fishermen clients. For the most part, they are really funny and make work about faces and not just numbers and money.

It’s been hard to be separated from all the familiar faces on the program that I saw and talked to everyday in Dakar. There, I built a kind of comfort, an American bubble if you will that reduced the culture shock and deflected a lot of the initial difficulty. However, I was lucky enough to have four friends visit me this past weekend for my birthday, and I had an awesome time. It was so great to feel comfortable again, speaking my own language, sharing funny stories, venting about our troubles, and watching lots of Scrubs! It was exactly what I needed after two weeks of being on edge. Also, thanks so so much to everyone who called to wish me a happy birthday, it really made my day! It’s hard to believe but so exciting to think about being back home in a little over a month.

Well, it’s nearly 7:30 here, which means it’s almost time for Marina to start, a Mexican soap opera that everyone stops their lives to watch. I must say it was so peaceful one day last week when we had a several-hour long power outage and no one could watch TV in the evening. The quiet was therapeutic and so much more preferable to the blasting television series!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saint Louis!

On Friday night, I piled in a sept-place with 6 of my fellow students to make the trek up to Saint Louis. Saint Louis was the colonial capital of Senegal, located on two islands about a 4-hour drive north of Dakar, and still remains both a tourist center and a hub of activity defined by beautiful, European style architecture and a 100 year old bridge that connects island to mainland. My host family is originally from a small village just outside of Saint Louis, where they still own a family house, and they really wanted me to pay a visit to see the birthplace of both my parents. Luckily, several of my fellow classmates were willing to make the trip with me, just enough to fill a sept-place which is a Senegalese form of transportation- essentially a station wagon that squeezes in seven people.

We left from the central train station in Dakar (note: trains no longer run in Senegal, the tracks are all in bad shape, but other forms of transport leave from the station) around 8pm, at which point it was quite a hub of activity. Luckily, my brother Diama escorted us to the station and helped us find a car, or else we certainly would have been lost or at the very least ripped off. Besides some traffic leaving Dakar, the ride was smooth, and we arrived in Rao (the village where my family is from) before 1am where my cousin Doudou and brother Basse awaited us. We were all exhausted from the ride, but were invited to stay up for ataya: which I am incapable of turning down. So, needles to say, after the three cups (only 2 of us made it all the way through), I was sufficiently tired and fell right asleep in the mattresses set up for us in the salon.

The next morning, we woke up and ate some breakfast that consisted of bread as usual, alongside kin-kili-ba and cafe touba, two equally delicious hot drinks. We also made eggs which was a nice change of pace, but my cousin directed the cooking in Senegalese style: which means using excessive amounts of oil (let me just say it was disgusting and I tried not to think about it as I enjoyed an egg and cheese sandwich). After a typical example of "Senegalese time", we finally left the house and made our way to a national park called Langue de Barbaries, which literally means Tongue of the Savages (I'm not sure why).

Birds at the national park, the meeting of ocean and river in the background

We took a pirogue out into the river, and saw many beautiful birds and houses (smaller cottages) along the way. We stopped on an island that divides the river and the ocean and is the home to birds and crabs that live together. The most incredible part was seeing where the ocean and the river met- resulting in a spontaneous beach with crashing waves accompanied by strange, bubbly sand that suctioned itself to my feet. The beach was beautiful, and we relaxed there for a bit, catching crabs, wading through the water, and generally enjoying the quiet, serenity, and beauty.

By this time, we were all very hungry, so we drove into Saint Louis and went to a restaurant where I ate the most delicious ceeb-u jen I have ever tasted. The fish was extremely fresh and cooked to perfection. After satisfying the need for traditional Senegalese food, we walked around the colonial part of the city (the northern of the two islands), where the French originally inhabited. The architecture was beautiful and colorful, and the streets were lined with small boutiques and cafes.

In front of the 100+ year old bridge connecting mainland and northern island

After our walk, we took a horse buggy ride around the southern island: where the Senegalese lived during colonialism and still live today. The difference between the two sides was like night and day, and seemed to me to be a constant reminder of the effects of colonialism. As well constructed and aesthetically pleasing as the northern island was, the southern island was clearly still suffering from lack of infrastructure and poverty. The French side was clearly very westernized and felt more like a European city, while the Senegalese side once again reminded us that we were in a third world, developing country. It was very eye opening to me, that although colonization ended 50 years ago, it still has quite an effect on life today.

Saint Louis: the northern side

Saturday night, we ended up going to a concert in the soccer (rather, football) stadium in Saint Louis. Once again, in true Senegalese fashion, the concert was supposed to start at 7pm. Anticipating a delay, we stopped for some ice cream (still stuffed from a late lunch) and arrived at the stadium at 9pm. However, as we should have expected, the concert did not start until midnight. Although we were all extremely tired from a long day, we stayed strong until after 3am. Our determination paid off: the concert, especially the last three acts, were really good but also apparently some of the most famous musicians in Senegal. One song, performed by a group called Fallou Dieng, was called Maana- a song that we have heard many times on the radio and all over Dakar which is one of the most popular songs in all of Senegal. We danced with the best of them, but did get some very strange and confused looks. I guess it is not often that you see a group of toubabs trying to dance like the Senegalese.

Concert set up in the stadium

That night, we crashed hard and woke up the next morning to rain (a surprise considering the rainy season ended a month ago). We ended up relaxing to pastries and coffee in a cafe downtown, took a quick stroll through the market, and then were on our way back to Dakar, arriving back home before dark. I was pleased by my return, as I was greeted by smiles and excitement that I had discovered Saint Louis and even slept in the house where my host mother and father were born.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Culture? My most serious post.

Last night, I learned how to make kin-kili-ba from my host brother Diama. This is a delicious, natural tea made from tea leaves that come from Senegalese plants. After watching how it is made and drinking the delicious tea, I came to the realization that Senegal is just so full of character and culture, a part of which I hope to embody and somehow bring back to the United States when I return. I can wear clothes that are distinctly Senegalese. I can eat food that is distinctly Senegalese. I can drink tea that is distinctly Senegalese. I feel that this solidarity, unity, and pride in a shared culture and shared tradition has not only defined my experience here, but has also shaped my perspective about the power of culture that I could not have gained anywhere else. Back home, I feel as if collectivity is defined more by family, if you are lucky enough to have such a great family as I do. But it is difficult to feel something much greater than this that unites all Americans in a truly personal, real way. There is no "national dish", unless you consider fast food to play that role (and it is just not the same). There is no "national tree", or the baobab here, which dots the landscape and has significant cultural and traditional value. We do not share out of one large bowl, but instead eat from our individual plates. We do not greet strangers in the street, or consider gift giving and sharing to be of the highest honor.

For me, this gives an entirely different perspective to the idea of what is defined as developed/first world country such as the US in comparison to a developing/third world country such as Senegal. I think that an excerpt from a paper that I wrote here pretty accurately summarizes this sentiment:
"The mentality of development today minimizes the importance of exactly the things that are most important, and the things that keep us human. As tradition is lost in our capitalist world, humans become machines where the ends justify the means, and culture is squeezed out in the dehumanizing process of the race towards wealth and power. Brewing tea is an art, a sign of respect, and a societal ritual that is kept alive by those that realize the importance and greater significance of the smaller things in life."

One of the things that I look forward to most about coming home in December is to share everything that I have learned here, and bring a bit of Senegalese culture back to the States. I can't wait to brew kin-kili-ba or cook ceebujen, the national dish of rice and fish, to share. I can't wait to wear my Senegalese clothes and bring a bit of African color back to the US.

Of course, I don't want to generalize! There are so many great cultural things about the US that still exist and are strong. However, I do feel that this is more a minority than a majority, and the mentality focuses more on progress. And this is not to believe that any sort of cultural "superiority" can exist. It is just a basic difference between the two countries, different societies that are shaped by so many different, often uncontrollable factors.

My host brother Diama probably summed it up best: "In Senegal, we kill time. In America, it is time that kills."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yum crepes!

I apologize for being a pretty big slacker in terms of updating. Maybe I should try and update more often but with shorter posts. Well, here it goes.

My time in Dakar is quickly coming to an end! I have less than 2 weeks left here and then I head south to Joal, my internship village. This also means that my classes are nearly finished, which I am very excited for (let's just say that they have not been as intellectually stimulating as I was hoping). However, at the same time, it means I must say goodbye to my host family and to all the other American students. In short, this also means saying goodbye to speaking English...and depending on my family, possibly to speaking French. I need to put some serious time into practicing my Wolof.

This past Sunday evening, I was going to make cookies for my family. My brothers have been looking forward to my impending afternoon of baking for several weeks now. Unfortunately, I soon came to the realization that nearly everything is closed in Dakar on Sundays- that is everything except the large markets, which seem to be open all the time. After traveling to four different supermarkets to buy ingredients, hoping to find one of them open, I returned home defeated and told my family I would have to make cookies some other time. Fortunately, however, I was able to make crepes for Sunday dinner, which ended up being absolutely delicious. The only ingredients necessary are flour, eggs, and milk, which can all easily be found at the nearest corner store. So after a quick outing, this time I returned home successful and began my first African cooking experience, making something that ironically enough represents French colonialism.

The crepes ended up being delicious, and inspired in my one host brothers the desire to open up a crepe restaurant at my school here to sell crepes to the American students. I initially thought he was joking, so I went along with it, but he soon made it clear that he was totally serious. We were soon discussing logistics and management, including prices and gaining permission from the women who run the restaurant at the university to make crepes alongside them. He has told me he will get it up and running before we leave Dakar, and I told him I would believe it when I see it. It has turned into kind of a running joke in the house, so in the end the crepe experience has worked to prove my worth in the kitchen (towards becoming a "senegalese women"), but also as a bonding moment among my family.

In other, non-crepe related news, I finally feel as if I am starting to feel more comfortable in Dakar. I know my way around downtown, and can bargain fairly well for a reasonable taxi price. I have also become more comfortable taking public transportation around Dakar- although the car rapides will forever be a mystery to me. Surprisingly, the bus system is fairly well organized (nothing like the metro in DC) and tends to be consistent enough. There have been several times when I have gotten on a random bus, hoping it will bring me to my destination, and for the most part it has worked out! It is possible for a white woman (who speaks minimal Wolof and far from perfect French) to feel semi-independent here, which is very comforting.

Well I'm off but I will update more soon! We have a birthday celebration tonight with one of the students, and we're going to a Mexican restaurant which is an interesting juxtaposition in Senegal.