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.