Friday, October 28, 2005

Excerpts from a journal entry

16 Oct. 2005 dimanche (Sunday)

And it was one of those days that, well, I've never had before. Tromping through the north central region of Senegal, bumping along backroads, no roads, and roads that end, looking for a village that used to be called one thing and is now called something else. A Wolof village. A small village which we circled upon circled before finally finding. They remembered the toubabs (foreigners) who were here 10 years ago, "yes yes that was us" (not me of course). Amadou and Gray had been there before to do interviews about the land and had taken photos. This was a return mission to show them the photos. The village chief smiled wildly recognizing himself in the first photo. The women grabbed the rest, some were small in the photos, some weren't born yet. And many had died or departed.

The conversation in Wolof with Gray as my little English bird translating some words and Amadou stopping to take notes and translate to us in French. Conversations about the four young people from the village who've left for Italy, others who've left for Touba (a larger, religious city in Senegal) and of course for Dakar. And conversation on how they are only using about 10 percent of their cultivatable land for crops, planting sorghum, millet, bissap, peanuts.

Driving... loved the endless and always remarkable and always unique croppings of baobabs. Loved learning the vegetation which, if I'll remember, is somehow satisfying -- satisfying to look out into a land and know its trees. Hmmm what do I know so far? Desert fig, umbrella tree, winter thorn, neem the fast growing shade tree (sp?).

Sweated more than I ever have before even the hot wind through the windows was infernal. The Dakarois who said it would be hot were right "il fait chaud." Ate a Senegalese watermelon and mandarin. The mandarin tangy and only a little sweet tasted as fresh as it can be. Watermelon ate so much of since there was no way to keep it for later.

And now I'm lying in a cot beneath the stars, the temperature has cooled to a perfect degree, and I'm in Senegal, in it for good.

See some more photos here

Village life (in Senegal)

I'm not sure what perception I had of village life before I left. I figured people wouldn't be so traditional as to be dressed in loin cloths and holding spears (that's even funny to think about). Senegal isn't that remote. Even though surrounded by the harshness of this environment, villages are little havens of peace, coolness, shelter, cooking, women dressed in bright fabrics, men tending to the animals (goats, sheep which look like goats, cows, horses, donkeys). Places of reprieve.

There are many different ethinc groups in Senegal. The dominant is Wolof, which is also the language that most people speak in their homes and on the streets while French is reserved for more formal settings (school, business, government). However, once we got into the northern regions, we encountered many Pulaar (also Peul) who are generally the nomadic animal herders. They live in the north during the rainy season when watering holes fill with water and the grasses turn greener, then when it dries, they move their families and homes on the back of donkey-drawn carts to the more south central areas which get more rain.

The pictures below are all of a Peul village.

What is a baobab?

One of the most distinctive features of the West African landscape is the baobab tree. The serene elegance of a baobab often stands in stark contrast to the surrounding sahel landscape of oceans of sand, grasses and difficult-to-cultivate land, and even in a city, when you walk around a large baobab, you have a hard time believing its magnificence in the dirty, busy traffic.

It's not surprising the baobab is often considered by African tribes a sacred tree. Simply putting out your hand to touch its smooth slippery bark, feeling its coolness on the hottest of days, seeing it from a distance and never ever not being amazed by its many shapes, its grandeur and the way it exists peacefully in a landscape that often feels like its erroding with desertification, crop difficulties, and loss of vegetation. Nearly every part of the baobab is used for either a praticial, medicinal or food purpose, and its resilence is proven by its ability to survive harsh temperatures and little rain year and year in the sub-Sahara.

On my first trip to Africa, I saw a lot of baobabs in passing as we zipped by them in our trek to visit four countries in three weeks. But this trip, I finally got closer to what a baobab means here as we started using them for our shade trees, seeking baobabs to sleep under, pulling apart its fruit, seeing them as landmarks to the next turn.

We traveled in the north central region near the Senegal River and the border of Mauretania, and the areas just slightly south of that.

Two baobabs near the city of Thies on the way out of Dakar.

Baobab trunk.

Can you feel it too?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Back from the Bush

We started last Saturday by renting a truck in Dakar and then slowly winding our way north through now non-existent kingdoms except in name, up to the north central part, up to the river, being able to see Maurtania, see the pirogue that could take us there, but staying contentedly on the Senegal side. It was a journey full of ups and downs with five (was that the last count?) flat tires, many battles with the prickly cocklburred vegetation including pinned trees and grass species of "cram cram" as little burs are called in French, and the heat... heat that plagues you and no way for a reprieve with only hot winds and shade trees hard to come by. Heat that beats down absolutely and relentlessly, where your body even forgets to sweat at times and even the flies are slow, where even our water nears boiling temperature, but we have no choice but to dump it down our throats. But the heat would fastly turn into a beautiful serene cool evening where we'd just find a blank patch of sand in the sea of grasses, lay out our cots, and then I'd rest feeling the heat leaving my body, staring at the endless peaceful sky and just really, ever so acutely enjoying the temperature bracing myself for the next day's 9:30-morning sun when the heat begins its descent.

And it was a week of having english in one ear and french in another. Gray speaking up about the vegetation, the soils, the people, the farming, and anything else I asked. And because he's my special visitor from Brookings, we talked about this weekend's hobo days, the Lowe's store vote, the Brookings Register, and everything else that goes with being nostaligic for home. On the other half, I had Amadou. Amadou who's traveled with Gray out in the bush for 20 years, who is so versed on the history, culture, landscape, agriculture, people of Senegal that he's always pointing something out, always coming out with a tidbit about this and that, always finding a way to make the hottest and most difficult days relevent, insightful, and an intellectual quest.

And we saw village life, which for a city girl (not really, but with Dakar at that point my only only reference) was amazingly good and relieving and incredible, and especially good to realize how great people treat each other once you get out of the city. We were invited to share shade, went down the long line of greetings "how's your family? are you passing the day in peace? how's the heat? how's Dakar? how's America?" to which most everything you answer peacefully and by thanking god. And then Amadou would begin the explanation for why were there, why were visiting, why were sharing their land for this moment. Then leading to our questions on water, crops, trees, the herds. I just tried to take it all in.

I'm still reflecting, still settling in, still editing photos, but I'll post more as the week goes on.

Pulaar village in the north.

View near Thies.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A fresh of air from Dakota

And it was the comment, "it's humid here" that made me breathe in just a little of home through my first visitor to Dakar. And it was leading him through the streets to my neighborhood bar that made it real. The release of two-months worth of stories and built-up tensions to someone that needs no explaining, to someone that knew me before, before Senegal, and before when living came so easy (sigh). A conversation that didn't need a recap in a history book and I could just be changed and unchanged and soak up the response to "How is South Dakota?" The cold, fall, the leaves, the student traffic in Brookings, the package from my mother, the lovely Time magazine that we spent French class smuggling from lap to lap laughing at the advertisements and Tom and Katie are having a baby!

We took a poll today. You want to know what an American in Senegal craves from home?
-Pop Tarts
-The New York Times
-Good coffee

So, if you're near any of these, say a little cheers and enjoy. ;-)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My first African grasshopper

Yesterday, I wished upon a baobab tree

No day is predictable here and yesterday, detoured from scuba because of high waves, I ended up weaving through the small paths of a local Lebou fishing village on the shores of Plage (beach) Ngor. The Lebou are their own ethnic group but I think somehow they are related to the dominant Senegalese ethnic group, the Wolof, because they supposedly speak their own dialect of Wolof (the national language in Senegal with French as the official language). But I'm curious as to how it manages to survive linguistically with the dominance of Wolof. But that's for another day.

Now, as little ants crawl across my keyboard, I'll try to retell the story of the Lebou as it was told to me. Our guides began by drawing a map of Africa in the wet sand telling us that this first Lebou village on the farthest tip of West Africa was formed 600 years ago, "the only thing next is America." They're all fishermen and each family has its own specific fishing technique with the one example given to us where the spiritual leader who talks to the pelicans, "they talk like this 'sshshhbshssh' just like someone would talk French or Wolof and then we all rev our motors and follow the pelicans out to sea where we lay down our nets." When they come back to shore with the fish, they let the pelicans feast until taking the catch (tuna, eel, octupus are a few that I saw) to a collaborative where it's weighed, refridgerated, and sold to people from all over who come to buy the "good and cheap fish of the Lebou."

"You can go off on your own and sell your fish the hotels, any hotels, the Europeans, or you can go someplace else and sell, but then you are on your own if anything happens to your boat or to you, you have to only help yourself. Where here if my motor is not working I can take it in and they will help fix it. Or if my family is sick, they will take care of them," our guide explains the collaborative system of the village.

The boats are made out of two different kinds of wood (a fromagerie tree and another that I didn't catch the name) found in the Casamance (the southern region of Senegal). First they take the tree trunk and chip away the middle and then each day during a month or so they take a bucket of water and splash it in the inside so eventually it will hollow out, "you see we don't have machines like you, so this is the way we do it." Then they nail the top piece to the bottom and anchor it just off shore so the wood can expand. Three times a year they have races with other Lebou villages.

The Lebou are both muslim and animist. It is pretty common in Senegal and in West Africa for people to combine both their traditional religious beliefs with the "colonizer's" religion. One of the aspects of this for the Lebou is their sacred baobab tree where spirits and perhaps even the ancestors live. This is the baobab I said a prayer under wishing for the good health of my family closing my eyes and dropping my flower stem over the locked gate.

We paid our dues to our guide and to the village (because that's how things work in Africa) by buying a half-sac of grain to be put in the community grainery. Then we hitched our ride in a car rapide back to Dakar.

Hardly noticable until once your inside it, I did appreciate the feel of this little village with everyone greeting each other as they traversed the small paths, the lack of visible trash, the good smells of breaking-the-fast food wafting out of houses and from little outside cooking pots. And that it was calm and people seemed happy with children running about, the elders sitting calmly in the center chatting and saying their prayers, women resting in the shade. Our guide liked to keep repeating the authenticy of the village and though I doubt his words more so because I struggle to imagine that anything is really authentic anymore, it was worth the price of grain for a tour.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A few photos from the weekend

I didn't have my photos uploaded yesterday when I posted, so here's a few from the weekend. I didn't take very many. I think I forgot where I was for awhile and it didn't even strike me to pull out my camera. Unfortunately, all the photos are of the "Lac" and not of the village. I guess I'll just have to go back to Chez Ibrahim...

Stephanie and Ibrahim

The un-Rose Lac Rose

Some "African" villas for the tourists.

The pool in all its uninhabitated cleanly glory

Monday, October 10, 2005

Nothing to it

When things make sense and they don't, when no explanation is adequate, when I have no choice but to wait, when no question is answered/understood/ interpretted, when I have sand in my teeth and my feet will never be clean, when every world feels so far away, when I drift between being me and being what?, when I feel there's no before or after, when my heart hurts and it doesn't, when I feel the ground is solid and unsteady all at once, when I could go on with all the ways I feel scared, uncomfortable, awkward, uncertain, suddenly and remotely familiar, when I vaguely comprehend and lose it soon after, that's when I know I'm in really "living a moment" (see first blog entry) in Senegal.

I spent the weekend drifting between Africa and Europe's version of Africa. Between holes covered with yellow plastic freesbies for toilets, fly-infested fish filets and the other version with blue pools, caged monkeys, toilet paper, and three dollar beers. One was a village not far from Dakar (50 km, a world away, and a two-hour, 40-cent car rapide ride) and the other the touristy Lac Rose not far from the village.

The village: huts made out of concrete, sand everywhere, yes to electricity, no to running water, no to speaking French, yes to speaking Wolof and Pulaar (two ethnic groups), yes to listening to the xalam, a traditional musical instrument with three strings and made out of goat skin and wood. Our host: Ibrahim, as he paraded his toubabs around, alternated between knowing the world and not, being Muslim and not, drinking alcohol and not, eating bread and not, smoking and not, fasting and not,
between accomodating and over-accomodating, interesting and sketchy and yes, money, always a question. His favorite expressions: "Take it easy" and the one we taught him somewhat mockingly (during a particularly exasperating moment) "Chill out, man."

Lac Rose: a lake of salt and minerals and hot water that seeps through the sands and seashells at the bottom of the lake. Home to a salt-mining industry, home to the final destination of the Paris to Dakar Rally (where people drive motos/cars/buses/anything all the way from Paris to Dakar through the desert and all). The water is like an epsom salt bath and in the dry season (November to February), the lake has a pinkish hue.

Things to remember: Laughing hysterically about taking a "shower" with a blue plastic cup as the professor Ib. sits outside the door, wondering why "Tuesday" was written in the concrete and coming up with our own satirical explanation, speaking the words "Michelle, I got bit by a monkey today" (who says that?), and this, "what would I be doing if I was here alone?" The first time sitting in Chez Ibrahim's compound and letting my ears adjust to the nature quiet, the no-Dakar feeling, the roosters crowing, the donkeys willy wail. Writing in Steph's journal and reading it moments later to laugh some more "I'm driving in a car rapide squished in with 39 other people (Michelle counted), and my professor turns to me..." Falling alseep with the sounds of the xalam under the stars in a mosquito net... for awhile anyway until it got cold and Stephanie got jostled and the morning came and we realized we hadn't really slept at all. Speaking wolof knowing nothing and knowing something.

What the weekend taught me...

I can always expect: Bug bites, sun burn, dirt so far under my nails it'll never come out.

What I can't expect: Everything else.

Something from the journal from Night 2:

"Sand. I can't seem to get it off me. My toes, fingernails, scalp. I roll over on my pillow, sand grates my face. It rains and the winds blow and I hug myself against the sand storms in my dreams. The roof begins to leak. Drops. Here on my cheek. I turn. It's here too. I cover myself with the pagne and smell musty wetness. I think (dream?) about the mosquito net outside that we didn't sleep in. Why does the rain seem such a jolt in the middle of the night? I worry the roads will be impassable in the morning back to Dakar (fear?). The rains stop. I sleep. It rains again. It drips more. It's morning."

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Bon Ramadan

Ramadan started Wednesday based on the appearance of the new moon which means most Muslims are not eating or drinking (including water) between sun rise and sun set for the next 29 or so days. It's interesting to see the change in society: No one frequenting the restaurants, the streets are slightly more subdued (especially mid0day), people are fatigued and show it, during lunch break at the university people converge around a bench in the courtyard absentmindedly kicking things on the ground. A student offered one of the Quranic school beggars a banana and he covered his mouth in horror. Today as I was the lone person waiting for a sandwhich from the sandwhich stand a guy comes up and blazeningly orders two sandwhichs and two orange sodas and then arrogantly precedes to ask everyone to "gouter" (to taste). They all refused, I took a big gulp of his soda, and asked him why he wasn't fasting. He says he works too hard to fast during Ramadan and showed me photos of some metal bird statues he welds and sells by the road. He still kept tempting the rest of the workers with bites of his sandwhich and drinks from his soda and I told him he wasn't very nice but he just laughed.

A few of the American students are fasting and I considered it mostly just to discover the impact it would have on my body. But I decided it's tedious enough trying to maintain my health here that I worried by not eating well during the day and specifically not being able to drink water all day might push me back again. I have gotten the range of reactions from Senegalese about my decision from "It's not necessary; it's not your religion; don't worry about it." to "Why aren't you fasting?! You should at least try it! You can't celebrate Koride (the end of Ramadan party) if you don't!"

Apart of me wishes I could join in. It's very much a social event where everyone wakes up and breakfasts and then spends the day without eating to assemble at sunset to break the fast with dates and a rice dish and bisap juice (juice made from a local berry). It's grueling and stressful and tiring but you're sharing the experience with a lot of others and you have the euphoric moment at the end of each day when you get to eat.

And without the religious aspect for me I would have trouble justifying it and staying dedicated to it (how about that mid-morning coffee?). But I did feel guilty this morning when I heard my family getting up at 5:45 to eat their breakfast and rolled over to dream about my later-breakfast at 7:30.

Monday, October 03, 2005

You can shower with a half liter of water.

It was a weekend without water in most of Dakar. Scenes of village life played out all over the city with people going to the few places with water to fill multi-colored buckets and then to balance them slowly on their heads to be carried through the streets back to their homes. But, (big sigh here) it seems all things are made more complicated because we live in a city and not in a village--conveniences make life easier but more complex and life without those conveniences means annoyance but maybe simplicity on some levels. It feels like a lot of the cultural values that I read about or have learned about since being here are (potentially?) slowly eroding or are below a surface of mistrust or dishonesty (whichever be the case). Dakar is an ever-shifting city filled with much diversity, but it doesn't seem to represent the traditional Senegal that I hear so much about, instead people develop city-survival-skills and in the process lose some of their traditions and, really, some of their culture. Not that there isn't "culture" in Dakar, it's just one that has been tainted/influenced by a city, good or bad, it forces people to change the way they live, changes their priorities, and changes their needs too. In two weeks, I'm taking a trip into the interior of Senegal, and I'm looking forward to the doors of understanding it's going to open both in having a better perspective of what this country looks like, but also, maybe I'll finally get a peak at the more traditional culture that I feel I've heard so much about, but have difficulty uncovering here. On the other hand, the trip might just cause my hypothesis to change or to be disproven, and I want to leave room for that.

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