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.

Monday, October 5, 2009

One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong

This morning, I woke up to go to school as any other day. I went downstairs, boiled the water for my tea, and sat down to my baguette with apricot jam. I was already sweating, as usual, when I heard a long, deep baa, louder and clearer than normal. My family does have two sheep, but they live in shacks behind the house, and their bleating always creates a muffled reminder that they have not yet been consumed for dinner. However, this particular morning, the noise was closer than normal. My initial reaction was whether there was a goat in the house, but the voice of reason in my head refuted this thought, no, the goats live outside. But sure enough, as I finished my baguette, I looked behind me and there stood one of the family goats- looking directly at me, bleating, not five feet away. My host mother, trying to hold back laughter (I was legitimately laughing hysterically at this point), attempted to escort the goat out of the house, but he refused to leave, apparently finding the house to be extremely comfortable compared to his smelly shack. After a bit of a struggle, he was back outside in his natural habitat, but I was still chuckling at the fact that I just witnessed a goat break-in.
While this was a positive experience of animals being in places where they do not belong, one night last week, I was pleasantly eating dinner with my family when I came across a small, round, black bug crawling around in my food. Unfortunately, this was an especially awkward experience because we all eat out of the large bowl together but the bug was conveniently located in my section of the bowl. So, I could see it, but no one else in my family noticed and continued eating as normal. It is considered rude to not eat what you are served, so I felt obligated to eat what was in front of me, trying to deftly avoid my bug friend and all that it had touched.

Not related to animals or food, yesterday I went to Lac Rose with some other students on the program. This is a lake that at times is pink (rose means pink in French), due to the reaction of microorganisms that live in the lake with the sun. The salt content is also 10 times higher than that of the ocean, so people float. Unfortunately, because it is just the end of the rainy season, the lake was very much blue as it is now mostly filled with rainwater. However, later on in the dry season, the lake turns pink, which is quite a spectacle. It was still nice to get out of Dakar for a day to breathe some fresh, if salty, air.