Monday, September 28, 2009

Mud, Mangroves, and Islands made of Shells

Last Wednesday, our group piled into two vans and made our way over the pot-holed filled roads to Toubacouta, a village near the Senegalese border with The Gambia. The drive was long - we left Dakar at 7am and didn't arrive at our hotel until nearly 12 hours later - but filled with striking landscape and no lack of chocolate croissants and delicious Senegalese food on the way. Once arriving at our hotel, I was a little shaky from the ride (only those who have driven the road from Kaolack to Sokone can understand), but the air conditioning and pool that awaited us promised a luxurious stay.

Over the course of the extended weekend trip, we visited several different rural communities in the area. We spoke with two different women's groups who have led successful microfinance projects within their village networks. With one of these groups, we trekked through knee deep mud, planting mangroves to reforest the degraded ecosystem- an adventure that resulted in several mud fights. Later on, we took a pirogue ride through the mangroves, past their roots protruding from the water and covered in oysters, a source of revenue for the women's group. We rode through the delta and the mazes of mangroves, before arriving at an island made entirely of shells. The island, while once inhabited by humans, is now only home to birds and baobab trees, with human remains buried under piles of shells along with their most prized possessions. To me, the whole mangrove experience was surreal, a mix of the fire swamp from the Princess Bride and the floating island in Life of Pi.

We also had the chance to visit both a health post in a larger community, and a health hut in a smaller village. In both places we were sources of pure fascination to the children that lived there, a large group of American students who descended upon them, unable to speak their language. I came away with some souvenirs, two bracelets from young girls that seemed to enjoy my blond hair. Being outside of Dakar in the smaller villages was refreshing, away from all the pollution and hagglers and vendors. Although difficult, life in these rural communities seemed so peaceful, and I try not to generalize, but satisfying. Needless to say, I am very excited to move out of Dakar for our internship phase, to slow down and see another side of Senegalese life, marked by entire village movements to support the local football team and freshly baked baguettes at the market.

One night, we went to a traditional "lutte" in a neighboring village, a wrestling match which along with football is the national sport (followed as religiously as Islam). No one knew what to expect, and when we arrived we were greeted by masses of people dancing, cheering, and playing the drums, all surrounding what appeared to be the wrestling "ring", a sandy circle filled with well toned Senegalese men showing off their best moves. It soon became apparent that we were the guests of honor- there were seats saved for our arrival. Luckily, we were not in the front row, as fighting men were inevitably flung into the crowd. The fight is all about honor and community pride, and the men who lose can not stand up and walk away but instead must be dragged away by their supporters. Unfortunately, this was only explained to me after the fight, so throughout the fighting I thought the men were severely injured and physically unable to leave the ring.

Overall, the trip was great. Driving back into Dakar, in bumper-to-bumper Sunday night traffic, brought us all back to the reality of city life. However, in a month's time, I will be here doing this!

Pictures to be uploaded when I have replaced the batteries in my camera.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Yesterday was Korité, the party to celebrate the end of Ramadan. For many people, Korite was on Sunday- it has to do with seeing the moon the night before. However, here there are many religious confreries, which are kind of like different Islamic sects, and the leader, or marabout, of each confrerie must see the moon personally to then declare the end of Ramadan for his followers. My family is of the Mourite confrerie- one of the most "powerful" in Senegal (religion and politics are very linked, the president Abdoulaye Wade is a Mourite)- and the marabout of the Mourites claimed to not see the moon Saturday night, although many others did. So, my family fasted for one more day, on Sunday, and celebrated yesterday instead. It was interesting to see my different family members' reaction to this- my host father was sufficiently pissed off, claiming that Islam is Islam and that we should all celebrate together, that the confreries divide the religion and it is ridiculous to see the moon in some regions but not others. My host mother took the opposite view, that you need to trust your friends and neighbors and marabout, not members of other sects to decide what you should or should not do.

In my full party outfit, with my host mother and father:

Korité is a big deal here, one of the biggest holidays of the year. However, I soon learned that the "grand fete" essentially consists of sitting around, having lots of visitors, talking, and eating. Given all the talk leading up to it, I was expecting more of a party- celebrating, dancing, etc., but in reality the celebration was much more relaxing and simple. I really enjoyed this take on a party, where the point is enjoying the company of close friends and family, while eating a lot of food. It was a bit difficult in the beginning, as I clearly did not know any of those visiting and can not understand rapid fire discussions in a mix of french and wolof (only a word or phrase here or there, but nothing coherent). However, later on several other American students stopped by to eat with us, and ended up staying for 4 or 5 hours. We just sat around with my host brothers and some family and neighbors, eating and talking, and it was a relief for me to feel as if I could understand language again! It changed my idea of what a party is- sometimes it is so much more enjoyable to take it easy and discuss than put unnecessary effort into having a good time! And I think I certainly gained "cool" points among my host brothers; they seemed to be very pleased with the American girls that I invited over.

With Marie and Daba:

We ate a very large meal, rice with vegetables, eggs, and chicken, which was absolutely delicious. Then we sat around and drank ataya.

Well, I'm off to Wolof, so more later!

My full outfit, hair shawl and shoes included:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tea Time

Over the last two weeks, I have had more tea to drink than ever before in my life.

Every morning with breakfast, I have a cup of tea. The hot liquid in the already humid air is just enough to initiate the first layer of sweat on my forehead, a constant phenomenon in the Senegalese heat.

Every night for break the fast, I have a cup of tea (what is it called?). This tea is brewed from scratch, using natural ingredients (which ones…), and it is absolutely delicious.

And, if I am lucky, my oldest host brother, Diama, makes ataya at night, the traditional Senegalese tea that is also brewed from scratch. Although made every night in some houses, in my house it is only made for special guests and celebrations. Ataya is a very strong tea, which one drinks in small amounts at a time, in three stages: the first cup is the strongest, with little sugar, and the second and third cups have more and more sugar respectively. It is made from adding Chinese tea leaves to boiling water, and then adding the appropriate amounts of sugar. However, it is a much longer process than that, involving proper amounts of foam, in addition to mint and other spices. I can honestly say it is the most delicious tea I have ever tasted.

Diama asked me if I had ever made tea before, to which I responded, “No, in America we only use tea bags” to which he replied, “yes, that is because in America, time is money.” So, he promised to teach me the art of tea brewing, a phenomenon that I hope to bring back to the States.

The internet is being surprisingly quick right now, so I am taking advantage of it to upload some photos! Here is my house in Dakar:

Marché HLM

This past week marked the last of Ramadan. To celebrate the end of a month of fasting, each family has a big “fête” (party) called Korité, which falls on Sunday this year (or probably on Sunday, as long as the moon appears on Saturday night). In preparation, I went to a market last weekend with my host brother to buy fabric to bring to a tailor to have a dress made for Korité. What an experience! The market, Marché HLM, is the biggest one in the city for fabrics and shoes, and it was bustling with activity given the upcoming celebration. I honestly have never seen so many people or such a wide variety of fabrics in my life! There was barely enough room to walk along the small market streets, each side lined by tents filled with sequins, tie-dye, and colorful designs. My host brother led me through a maze of small shops and wandering vendors, and after nearly an hour of wandering and nearly getting lost, I picked out a fabric I liked and bargained for the lowest price possible.

Later that evening, I brought my newly purchased fabric to a tailor that lives in my neighborhood. She took my measurements for a traditional Senegalese outfit (in this case, a skirt/shirt combination) to be ready on Saturday, just in time for Korité. This party has been all the talk this week. I have been warned that I will be pretty much eating nonstop for the entire day, I guess to make up for a month of fasting!

A Photo of Me...Finally

So after many requests of a photo of me, here I am with some friends from the program at the beach this past weekend:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My host family!

Eating dinner one night out of the communal bowl (from left to right: Marie (the maid, who speaks no French, so our communication is limited to gestures and a few broken sentences); Mariene, a cousin who lives with us but who I rarely see, Diama, Khadim, Bachirou, and Mama Rokhaya):

CLICK on the photo for a larger view!

Recently, I've starting to feel the flow of the comings and goings of my host family. I live with my host mother and father, Mama Rokhaya and Papa Moustapha, and my three host brothers: Khadim, who is 26, Bachirou, 27, and Diama, 30. It has taken some getting used to, living with three older men, sharing a bathroom, the whole nine yards. However, every day it gets better, I feel more comfortable around them and they become more open with me. They are a very traditional Muslim family, on my first night here the men and the women ate in separate rooms, over separate bowls of food. They are all fasting now for Ramadan, and pray 5 times a day. Despite this, I can not help but define them as "chill"- they are all very quiet, and very accepting of me and my habits. We have become more comfortable with each other, due in large part to the openness of Senegalese society. Khadim has told me multiple times that I need to act as if his house is my house, and to really integrate myself into the family. Spending time together is very important, and Bachirou often finds me wherever I am to "come, and discuss!"

My host father is a professor of Law and Anthropology, and he has taken to teaching me courses several times a week. I have already learned about the ethnicities of Senegal, and last night he taught me about the caste system here. In this process, I have learned some interesting things about my family, which reminds me of just how traditional they are. For example, my host father and mother are actually cousins, products of an arranged, within caste marriage. In addition, their oldest daughter, who is studying in Brussels right now, wanted to marry a "non-caste", and her father refused. It is really difficult for me to come to terms with this lack of freedom of choice and ability to escape the role into which you are born, but also to reconcile the importance of tradition and heritage within family with a freedom to choose, and as a result become more "mixed" due to modernization.

All of my host brothers have completed university, and are all currently working and living from home. Khadim is a civil engineer (or, as he explained, a technician- he is completing two more years of school to become an engineer, at which point he hopes to leave Senegal to find work), and Diama and Bachirou both work at banks in Dakar. Both my host mother and father are officially retired, although my host father is working on writing a book and still teaches classes occasionally at the university.

It is typical and expected for children to live with their parents until a much older age, often until they have family of their own. Even so, several generations of family do live together in the same house in many situations. The idea of independence at 18 years that exists in the US does not exist here, as maintenance and unity of family is most important.

Also, the roles of women in Senegalese society are very different. Not only do we eat separately on some nights, but when we do eat together (always in front of the television, where there is inevitably a dubbed over version of either an Indian or Brazilian soap opera), the women sit on the floor while the men sit on the couches.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Damsels in Distress

On Saturday, I went with some friends to the Plage de N’Gor, a beautiful beach near the northwest tip of Dakar. We were planning on hailing a taxi, but instead found ourselves ushered onto a car rapide (a colorful form of public transport) by a very eager driver who promised us the car would get us to our destination. After being on the car for a few minutes, he came around to collect the money of all the passengers: as there were 3 of us, we paid 1350 CFA ($1 = 450 CFA) total, thinking he said the price was 450 CFA each. However, we soon became aware that the price was in fact 450 CFA total, or 150 each. When the other passengers realized that the driver had swindled us silly toubabs, they were outraged! In broken English, we were told, “he will give you your money back!” When the young man hesitated, he was met by yelling and anger: the entire car was defending us, making enough of a scene that the driver reluctantly returned the money we had given him.

But the story doesn’t end there! Twenty minutes after traveling in what we thought was the right direction (the peninsula of Dakar is large), a woman on the car asked us where we were going. When we responded Plage de N’Gor, the car was shocked and in outrage once again! It turned out that although the car was headed north, it was also headed due east: opposite the direction we wanted to go. I responded that the driver had told us this car would take us where we wanted to go, but in reality he had swindled us once again. As after the last incident, our newfound protectors were again up in arms, and quick to give out advice: “get off here, and take a taxi to N’Gor!” This time, we were quick to follow; we descended from the car and hailed the next taxi.

Taxi rides in Dakar are not fixed. They are yet another thing you must bargain for. Seeing white people, the taxi drivers always propose a price that is exceedingly too high, a common trend among all vendors. After trying to bargain with one taxi driver, one of our guardian angels from the car descended upon us and offered to help us hail a taxi, getting us a reasonable price. Soon enough, we were on our way to the beach.

Once in the taxi, we all talked about what we had just experienced. We soon came to the conclusion that while there are people that will inevitably try to rip us off, there are many more people that will help and support us when we need it. That is the ultimate of hospitality, strangers on public transport coming to the defense of helpless American students.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Some photos of Dakar

A mosque in Les Almadies (northern Dakar):

The Presidential Palace (home and office of Abdoulaye Wade):

Glimpse from a bus of Marche Sandaga, one of the biggest street markets in Dakar:

Traffic laws and Rain storms

Recently, I have started walking around my neighborhood at night with my host brothers, which has been a nice change of pace. Normally, I just hang out at the house, but visiting neighbors and just dropping in to say hi is pretty much commonplace here, and my family told me I need to go out more! Last night I went to the pharmacy with one host brother, a walk that involved crossing one of the main highways of the city at night, including the median in the middle. Crosswalks don’t exist here, neither do streetlights, or any sort of law indicating right of way. Or, if there is a law, no one seems to take note or follow it. This makes for some crazy drivers; or rather, all Senegalese are crazy drivers. Between the taxi drivers, who all honk at me because I am white so they assume I need a ride, the “cars rapides”, a colorful form of public transportation, and the lack of speed limits, walking the streets of Dakar always keeps you on your toes.

I am also always kept alert by the constant possibility of rain. Right now, it is the rainy season, which lasts until the end of September. We have had some pretty killer thunderstorms- it is almost as if they are happening right outside the house. As I was walking home from class the other day with another student that lives near me, we got caught in a storm, and by the time I got home I was soaked. My host family found it pretty amusing, and my host mother told me that I needed to shower immediately! Before the first clap of thunder, the sky was cloudy but also a shade of deep rose, possibly a sign of the oncoming storm. However, I love the storms. I also love how everything is so green and the flowers are in bloom because of all the rain. It does bring to the forefront another issue of underdevelopment: despite the predictability of rain during the rainy season (who would have guessed?), Dakar is lacking any sort of drainage system. The roads flood, and often an awful stench fills the streets- the smell of overflowing sewage.

Also, for once, I didn’t have rice with dinner last night! Instead, we had a pea-based dish. It was delicious, and the first time since arriving here that dinner has not involved rice. It was a nice change to get a little variety and a little color in my diet. It is impossible to survive here without vitamins.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ile de Goree

September 6, 2009

For part of our orientation last week, we went to Ile de Goree, a small island off the southern coast of Dakar. Goree is another paradox. It is an absolutely beautiful island, with old, colorful buildings and trees and flowers hanging over the small cobblestone paths. However, it was also a stop along the slave trade, with a "maison des esclaves", or slave house, still standing on the island. For more info, check out: .

We took a tour of the Maison des Esclaves and of the Women's Museum right next door (also kind of a weird dichotomy?), and then walked around the island. Lesson learned: do not give your real name to the women who seem friendly on the ferry over, but who turn out to be incessant vendors of jewelry and other souvenirs. Traveling as a group of white Americans, we are obvious targets, and it is nearly impossible to escape the endless hassling and calls of "hey, my sister!" I made it out alive, but was most likely ripped off after a long bargaining process, and ended up with way more jewelry than I had initially wanted.

Some photos of Goree:

Panoramic view from the island:

In the Maison des Esclaves, the room for young girls:

Friday, September 4, 2009


The people of Senegal are known for their genuine hospitality, or teranga in Wolof. I got my first taste of true teranga this week, after I moved in with my host family on Tuesday. When I first walked in the door, my host mother descended down the stairs and immediately exclaimed, "ah, ma fille!", which means "my daughter!" in French. I would soon become aware of the openness, sharing, and friendliness that is inherent to Senegalese society.

Greetings here are very important. It is a necessary sign of respect to extensively greet friends and family, and even strangers or vendors on the street before "getting down to business." I feel as if I truly identify with this sentiment, as it places value on the personal interaction between people instead of limiting the interaction to what you may want or need. Merely saying hello is not sufficient, but instead questions about the day or family members are a common occurrence. This really promotes the caring and hospitable nature of the country and the people here.

In addition to the importance placed on greeting, sharing is another societal value. For dinner, my family always eats together out of one large bowl, instead of using individual plates. Everything is shared, from clothing to food, and the idea of a "free gift" is common. This also relates to one of the tenants of Islam, of which more than 90% of the country practices, of giving alms to the poor. However, this presents a sort of a paradox for me, in the sense of the eternal gap that exists between rich and poor, especially in Dakar. There are people living in abject poverty, on less than one dollar a day, and others that live in large houses with electricity and running water. There are newly built houses next to piles of trash. Children begging in the streets outside of fancy, Western-style restaurants. It is so hard to reconcile this unfairness.

Despite the harshness of life, the people here seem to be full of energy and optimism. The streets (les rues) are always bustling with life, filled with women dressed in brightly colored clothing and men selling their wares, from phone cards to electronics to mangoes. Family and tradition play very important roles in life. I was talking to a friend of my host brother the other day, and when I told him that I barely knew my neighbors, he was shocked. Here, the household is fluid, with people always entering and exiting, stopping by to say hello. Community plays an extremely important role, where as in the United States individualism rules the day.

I'll get more pictures up soon!