Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It is a Tuesday afternoon, my first and only day of class this week and the third day of a new moon, an occasion that usually passes without acknowledgement, but that carries special importance this particular time. Sunday was the Muslim holiday Korité, which marked the end of Ramadan. Korité always follows the sighting of a new moon, which was Saturday night. There was a lot of controversy over whether the moon was sighted or not, but most families went ahead and celebrated on Sunday, more than ready for fasting to be through. We students were just as eager, having heard about what an occasion la fete de Korité is and eager to see how city life changes when people aren’t fasting.

Sunday morning, the day of the party, started with a breakfast of Laax (sp?). It is hard to explain exactly what this is and it has been known to make many a Toubab sick, but is pretty much a grain porridge with a curdled milk sauce and sugar mixed in. Yummy! It was also the first time here I got to eat with my host family before sunset. After a big breakfast, I helped cook our lunchtime feast. I spent the morning peeling potatoes and onions, after undergoing a long tutorial from my host aunt about the correct way to peel a potato. I also learned why all the women here are so buff—they prepare all of their spice and garlic mixtures by mashing them by hand in these giant pots, pounding and pounding with all of their upper-body strength. Throughout the morning, men also stopped by to visit the family after having gone to the mosque, because it is a very family-oriented holiday. They would stop in, shake hands and say “Baal ma aq” (forgive me my sins), to which we replied “Baal naa la” (I forgive them). I then changed into my Korité outfit, which was met with a lot of oohing and ahing—everyone here loves, loves, loves when you wear a local outfit. It’s became a great way to boost your self-confidence for all of the students here. We ate lunch—pommes frites, chicken and a cucumber tomato salad—a pretty typical Korité dish and then drank the traditional sweet dark tea served in rounds and went around the neighborhood, because the afternoon was the time for the women to visit family and friends. My host sister and I visited the other exchange student and his family and also the closest siblings of my host mom. When we got to our family’s house, my host mom’s older sister showed me a picture of her mother, my Senegalese namesake, and gave me these beautiful silver bracelets as a sign of her respect for me. It was such a nice moment.

The holiday was relaxing and so much like holidays I celebrate with my own family because of that. I certainly learned a lot this weekend about the importance of family, tradition and hospitality central to Senegalese culture. It was a weekend that involved me having no idea of what the right thing to do at any given moment was, but feeling comforted by how welcoming everyone was, nonetheless. A few days ago, the host father of one of the exchange students passed away. On Saturday, a large group of us gathered to go visit the family and pay our respects. Culturally, it was interesting to observe how people respond to death here: communally (women and men gathered in separate rooms, sitting close together and spending hours on end talking), conservatively (the amount of clothing seemed to matter more than the colour) and, once again, in a very hospitable way, which was what surprised me most. Those that were grieving the most were also the ones playing host, inviting us to return to a dinner they were preparing and passing out sugar and millet balls as a sign of thank you for coming. Personally, visiting the family was an emotional experience and left me reminded of so many of the cultural gaps that exist between me and my own family, how I would not know how to behave or what to expect if I was in Eritrea. Here, however, I always have the excuse of being an exchange student, whereas I am Eritrean and not knowing the many facets of this identity is starting to feel more and more like a betrayal to the cultural I carry.
Monday, I woke up early and went on a walk/run to a neighborhood I hadn’t been to yet, the HLM. Coincidentally, I was there at the time the men (Mourides, who believed the rightful day for Korite was the day after my family and most families celebrated) were beginning to gather at mosques to welcome in their new year. I turned a corner to find nearly a hundred men sitting on their rugs, outside of a mosque. When I looked up, I was greeted with a stream of men and boys dressed in their long robes and neatly pressed pants walking to the mosque, boys carrying mats twice their size across their shoulders and men turning prayer beads in their palms. It was one of the most incredible images I have seen here yet and it completely caught me off-guard—how something so serene and spiritual could be happening on the trash-lined streets made dusty by cars and buses whishing by. For the rest of the walk home, I was thinking about how traveling always leaves me feeling very conscious of how large the world is and how so many things are happening completely separate of each other, but simultaneously. I imagined myself in this place I never dreamed of ever visiting—a back road in a random neighborhood in Dakar, a microcosm on a giant map of a continent whose many intricacies will probably always remain a mystery to me. Somehow, I ended up here, painfully aware of everything I gave up to come and everything I’m gaining by staying, on the Western most tip of a continent accidently drawn in the center of the world: in Africa.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rambling and Wondering

Bon jour!

I’m sorry that I’m not good at this whole constant updating thing. It’s not that internet is that scarce, but rather that there is a long process of coming to terms with everything here—needing to figure it out for myself before I write it for the world. This process, however, is nowhere near through, but I decided it was about time I sat down to share a little of what I’ve been through these past two weeks.

I’m now in my second week of school, enjoying a light load relative to Macalester. I have four classes—International Development Theory, Country Analysis (including a French language component), Public Health and Social Services, and Wolof. The classes are good, but are scheduled for large chunks of time, which leaves random mornings/afternoons/evenings free. So far, I am enjoying my Wolof class immensely. I didn’t think I would be so interested in learning this language, but it is a fascinating language and contradicts so many facets of language we take to be self-evident coming from a Latin based language background. For example, in Wolof, you don’t conjugate the verb; you conjugate the pronoun for different tenses. They also don’t have adjectives, but rather verbs to describe states of being. Also, it’s really interesting to learn about the influences Senegal has undergone. Like how with technology-terms, most languages share the same word: radio, computer, internet…But in Wolof, even the word “table” was borrowed from French: taabal. Being here has also made improving my French seem like a smaller priority while here: it really isn’t the language of the country, the people or the cultures. So for now, Wolof is where the heart is.

I found out where my internship for the second portion of the semester will be. I will be living in Touba, which is the holiest city in the country and the home to the largest Senegalese Muslim brotherhood, the Mourides. You should google it; because it is a beautiful city from what I can see. I’ll be working with an organization called ASCODE. I don’t know much about what they do yet, but do know that they help refugees abroad in addition to helping to build infrastructure in communities here. I’m really excited to see what it’s like and among all of the students here, there is definitely excitement building about what it will be like to be really immersed in Senegalese culture, away from the other American students, our air-conditioned classrooms and internet access.

Aside from school, I had a very exciting past weekend. On Saturday, I went to the centre-ville with a few friends to visit the largest market in the city. We spent the day wondering around the city feeling totally overwhelmed by all of the vendors shoving things in our faces and trying to guilt us into buying their products. We also visited the oldest market left over from colonial times, where they sold fish, vegetables and Asian foods. It’s strange, but there is actually a large Chinese population here and their foods seem to be integrated into household meals here. After hours of walking, we went to the most beautiful cove on the edge of downtown. Aside from the really dirty water, it was picturesque: canoes lining the shore, kids jumping off of a boulder in the water, women preparing food in front of their houses overlooking the water. It was a good end to the day and then my host family had Indian food for dinner and watched the Indian soap operas that are popular here, which was an even better end to the day.

On Sunday, I visited my host sister’s sister with her. She lives in Grand Dakar, which is the neighborhood bordering my own, but is a neighborhood that has a completely different feel. The streets are unpaved, every woman is carrying baskets on her head and the streets are filled with music streaming in from doorways covered by only a sheet. I felt a little like a kid sitting in on an adult conversation about taxes; only understanding a Wolof word here and there. Then, later that afternoon, I went back with my friend on a three hour walk that uncovered 5 or 6 neighborhoods of the city. We sat in on a church service and passed others as it was a Sunday afternoon, passed what looked like a Chinese mansion, watched basketball and football games…It was a day of discovery and seeing the city from another perspective, one that has existed under my nose for two weeks now.

This morning, Melinda and I went to a market by my house and to a tailor to pick up a dress I had made and drop off fabric she got to have an outfit made. It was a fun experience and the first time I really maneuvered the city on my own, trying to get from one exact location to the next without a local person with me. We managed to meet up in a location we hadn’t been to before, go to a market (any only get called Toubab (white person) by a few kids), find the tailor and the way back to my home with no problems. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about how just two weeks ago I didn’t imagine ever being able to remember the route to and from school, not to mention how to get around multiple neighborhoods in my vicinity. I still have a long way to go before understanding this city and country, but petit a petit—little by little.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Becoming Maymuna

I am about one paragraph into my first paper of the semester and what better time to write a blog post than when you’re looking for a way to procrastinate, n’est-ce pas? It is Sunday night which means that my journey to Senegal began exactly one week ago. Every day this week (and every hour of each of those days) I would have written a completely different post had I had the time to sit down or the necessary internet. It is true that life in a new culture is a rollercoaster—emotions change at least every hour and what you thought you just figured out is challenged even more often. But one thing remains constant, which is that I am kind of, sort of head over heels for Senegal. As many of you know, I was apprehensive about coming here, wondering why I chose to go to Senegal when I had never once showed any interest in West Africa. But now that I am here, there is something very internal to the Senegalese culture that makes me feel at home. I think a lot it has to do with how being here seems to contradict the fear that people have about moving to the “Third World.” We talk about it as if it is a sacrifice, when in fact the reality of it has taught me that it is a give and take, both in terms of material processions and cultural ways of life. Yes, I don’t have internet at home (gasp), the electricity goes out multiple times a day, my shower faucet is a trickle of cold water, the roads would make a worthy ride at any amusement park and I’m pretty sure there is a colony of beetles living in every corner of my room, but something about the context of being here puts all of these things in perspective: they are small and quite simply, c’est la vie.

I have certainly gained much more out of my week here than the relative comfort I gave up. I will start from the beginning: After arriving in Dakar on Monday morning (at 6 am!), we spent the day (my birthday!) kicking off orientation. The students that had just arrived met up with those that had been here for the month long pre-session. We ate Senegalese food for the first time, danced, talked and got a quick introduction to what to expect in the coming week. The day felt like a few days in one, what with jetlag and sensory overload.

The next day, we moved in with our host families. I was kind of shocked that it was happening so fast, but now I am very thankful to have jumped right in. My host family is composed of a 75-year-old woman who doesn’t look a day over forty (I hope I can age like the Senegalese!). She is a very calm woman, asks you “ca va?” every other sentence and always matches her sunglasses to her scarves, which also match her dresses perfectly. We don’t have the easiest time understanding each other, but we are slowly getting to know one another. I also have a “Tata” (aunt) who works a lot, but whom I see most evenings. Her grandchild is staying with us for a few weeks and he is seriously the most adorable kid I’ve ever seen. He’s four ¼ and considering his age and the fact that neither of us speaks the other’s language, we talk in funny faces and lots of stuck out tongues. My host mom’s brother also lives with us, but he is very sick and stays in his room all the time, so I haven’t really talked with him yet. I would really like to make more of an effort to get to know him, but I don’t know how to go about it. Also, in Senegalese culture, most families have a girl living with them whose job it is to take care of the house and cook, but who also becomes integrated into the family. The girl that lives with my family has been working here for 18 years (she came when she was 11). It’s insane, but taking girls out of villages to support their families at a young age seems to be one of the solutions to rural poverty people have found here.

My family lives in the Liberte 2 neighborhood, which is about a 45 minute walk from school and about the median distance from school as far as where the other students live. Our house is very nice and I have my own room and bathroom (which is quite the luxury I am learning). So far, my daily routine includes being woken up by my host mother who yells my Senegalese name, Maymuna, throughout the house until I yell back loudly enough, eating a breakfast of baguette and tea, then walking to school with another exchange student who lives less than a block from me. Together, we navigate the busy streets, cracked sidewalks and piles of sand, dodge cars (honestly, I will probably get hit before I leave this country), pass the dozens of children begging on the streets and usually run into a few other Americans doing the same thing on their way to school. Last week we had orientation, which was conducted in a very Senegalese way—slowly, very confusing and with a lot of time to relax in between sessions. We took a trip out of the city to Goree Island, which was the largest port for the slave trade. It was a very emotional experience to see the reality of what we had only read about in history textbooks. On this trip, we also visited the women’s history museum and the beach! Our other excursion was a tour of the city, stopping at the most significant sites, like the Presidential Palace, the largest bronze sculpture in the world that is currently being constructed, the most Western point of Africa, the Mosquee de la Divinite and the downtown market, among other sites. Other than these two trips, we spent a lot of time at WARC, which is our host institution.

In the evening I will walk back home in time to break the fast with my family. They are observing Ramadan and the tradition is to drink a sweet beverage and eat a little bread at exactly sunset. After this, they pray and we eat dinner. Dinner is always delicious and always eaten with our hands. There is a real technique to it that involves balling the rice in your palm and scooting into your mouth. I have quite mastered it yet, so they make me eat with a huge napkin over my lap. One day though, I will be good enough at it to teach you all, inshallah!

Well, there are endless things to write, but also a long time to do so. I’m starting to feel guilty for the procrastination, so until next time…