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!