Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Unexpected Face of Poverty

Poverty-stricken Africa.

We’ve all seen the images of malnourished children, overcrowded refugee camps, nomads foraging for food in the desert.

The thing is – poverty in Africa hits at a much deeper, less obvious and widespread level. Everyone here is concerned about money. There are no jobs… and I’m not talking about McDonald’s not hiring the 15-year-old who wants an after-school part-time job. I’m talking about 35-year-olds who can’t find work. Men who remain single well into their thirties because they know they couldn’t support a family.

Most of my friends have no regular income…they spend all day doing god knows what – nothing really… because there’s nothing to do. They manage to scrape together a few francs here and there when they need to – people help each other out – but doing things that require money – going out for dinner, to the movies, etc – just isn’t on their radar. Those who do find work don’t make that much.

Take my friend Ndiéme, who works at the hairdresser’s. She takes the bus for two hours a day to get to work (because she can’t find work in her neighbourhood) and works at least 9 hours a day, six days a week. She makes 30,000 CFA francs a month, the equivalent of just over $60 dollars. Of that, she sends $40 to her mother in a town a few hours away, to help raise her siblings. She lives off of the $20 that remain. And these aren’t poor people… this is the average. These are average people, who look normal on the street. They’re not beggars or dirty or badly dressed. But every day, they struggle to make due with what they have. Ndiéme told me she cries at night because she can never give her mother enough.

Then there’s Cheikh. He’s a cameraman for ATN, an agency that sends reports to international media outlets for broadcast. I met him on an assignment, and we became friends. A group of us had gone out a few times together. He dressed nicely, paid for cabs, dinner, etc – seemed in a reasonably comfortable financial situation. And so the first time I saw his living arrangements, I was a bit shocked. (I don’t think I hid it too well either). He and his friend share a room that they rent for the equivalent of $50 a month. They sleep on the same bed, share a mini fridge in the corner of the room and a dresser. They sit on their bed to eat and the door to their room leads directly to the outdoors (homes in Senegal are often built in courtyard format. There’s an open space in the middle, with rooms along the perimeter). When it rains, it feels like you’re in the middle of the storm. When the family makes noise in the adjoining house, you can hear it all. This is how a young professional lives, and it’s totally normal!

It becomes depressing after a while because everyone you talk to talks about money problems and you feel you want to help everyone, but you know you can’t, and besides that wouldn’t be sustainable. Many say it’s up to the government to invest money into the economy and create jobs instead of filling its own corrupt pockets. Others talk about the need for the rich Africans – and there certainly are many – to reinvest into their continent instead of spending their money in Europe, etc. (I don’t want to give the impression that everyone here is poor… there are people who are well-off, as there are everywhere. There are Senegalese driving SUVs and wearing $200 shoes. All I’m saying is that the average person has difficult choices to make – puts things in a bit of perspective.)

Friday, September 21, 2007


Many of you have asked about Ramadan in Senegal. The truth is, it's not that different. I was expecting lanterns and decor... but in all honesty, Mom's decorations in Kanata are more than anything I've seen here!

There is a difference though of being in a country where you're surrounded by other Muslims. First of all, the Adhan (call to prayer) sounds five times a day, not just during Ramadan, but always. Secondly everyone around you is fasting, waking up early in the morning, praying, etc. The scene outside isn't anything spectacular, but you will see people preparing food around eating time. The traffic is either really bad, cuz everyone is rushing home to eat, or the streets are empty, cuz everyone is already home. The other day, I saw a police officer patrolling with a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of bread in the other, so that he would be ready to eat when the time came. No one looks at their watch to know when to eat, they just wait for the Adhan. And they do things a bit differently here. In Canada, we break our fast on a date or something, pray, and then eat a big meal right away. Here, they break their fast on dates, coffee (they love their coffee), and bread and butter. Then they pray. Then they wait about half an hour, 45 minutes before eating. It's actually a great system, because your body digests the snack and you feel more full, so you don't over-eat and shock your empty stomach. (Apparently the reason we don't do this in north america, one of the guys at the house told me, is that we have no time. we are always rushed. But in Africa, "we have all the time in the world!"

They wake up at 5:30am here for suhur, just like in Canada, only the food consists of rice and meat (the leftovers from the day before). A little too heavy for me first thing in the morning!

I've gotten into the rhythm of praying five times a day. The other day, Atouman's sister and I went to the mosque after eating to pray 'isha (the evening prayer). It's so hot (and i imagine crowded) inside the mosque that most people line up outside the mosque. We just brought our prayer carpets and prayed on the street. Even with the wind, it is sooo hot under the tarha (head scarf). The one I wear was made in Saudi Arabia, where I thought they would know to make heat-sensitive garments. But obviously not. I was sweating like crazy! And the imam was going so fast that it was really like exercise, which only increased the sweating!

They call Ramadan the Karem, and everyone always asks "et comment va le Karem?" so you feel you are participating in something with everyone else, which is nice... The American girl staying here now, Chandy, did it for the first few days. Very impressive i have to say, given the heat. It's not the hunger that's difficult here. It's the thirst, because it is so hot, that if you're out and about under the sun, all you want is a glass of water. The first few days, I drank so much when it was time to eat that my stomach hurt!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Go Senegal Go!

Saturday September 8th. The big match. Senegal vs. Burkina Faso in the final qualifying game for the Afican Soccer Cup. If Senegal wins, they're in!
Guess how much tickets were? less than $3. Amazing. The Leopold Sedar Senghor Stadium (named after Senegal's first president) was almost full. The atmosphere was amazing. But first, let me tell you about the entry.

The game started at 5pm. We got there at 4:20pm and the lineup was maybe 2km long, for people who already had their tickets. Police officers on horseback and with unloaded guns and some tube-like thing to whip with run up and down the line making sure no one sneaks in. Everyone who is not already in line stands around the line, hoping to sneak in when the officers aren't looking. If they get caught, they get dragged out, only to try again two minutes later. It's quite entertaining actually. We snuck in with some friends before the police got really vigilant, so we made it in before the start of the game.

The stadium was not much smaller than the Corel Centre, although with less levels, and people were hyped! There were people in the crowd with drums and whistles. There was dancing, of course. And there were people selling things in the stands - just like at the Corel Centre- except instead of popcorn and nachos and beer it was water and cigarettes and peanuts - oh, and this wonderful slush type thing, basically a banana/coconut smoothie, frozen. Except they sell everything in plastic bags. You cut a whole in the bag with your teeth and suck out the wonderful snack!

Senegal ended up winning 5-1. Great game, everytime they scored, the whole crowded roared. They've got the wave down here too! And I find there's serious serious pride for the player. El Hadj Diouf is the star. They call him the Senegalese Ronaldhino. He has amazing ball control and sets up almost every goal. Then there's Henri Camara, the star forward. He didn't play the first half because of an injury and when the second half started, everyone started chanting "Henri! Henri!" to get him on the field. The moment he and another player were subbed in, the tide totally turned. From 1-1 to 5-1 !!!

Anyways, the African Cup starts in January. I should be in Egypt at that time. May I remind everyone that EGYPT eliminated Senegal from the last African Cup in the semi-finals and went on to win the whole thing. Sure, I'll cheer for Senegal, but as soon as Egypt and Senegal go head to head, my allegiance changes!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

White girl can't dance

So first of all, here is the long awaited booboo.... I have a little trouble walking in it because my adoptive mother Betty made it a bit too tight in the skirt, but that's a minor detail.

And here is the booboo in action at my friend's wedding - yes, my friend (Ndeye Cisse - middle) got married, can you believe it? It was basically arranged two days before, in a haste to get the couple married because they had had a fight and weren't speaking. Betty (the groom's adoptive mother - Betty has "adopted" a lot of children) thought if she married them quickly, there would be no chance of the relationship ending. It wasn't the big Senegalese party (that is yet to come) but it was the more formal thing when the men go to the mosque (the women stay home and prepare the donuts) and then everyone comes by the home to congratulate the couple. Only the groom wasn't there because he was studying for an exam! Weird.

Now, for the point of this blog. I was going to a concert with Atouman and his friend at a nightclub here. I didnt really feel like doing my hair, so I figured it would be "cool" to wear the scarf of the booboo - I tied it differently, and I thought cooly, but as it turns out, no one wears those scarfs in that kind of context. The scarves are to be worn with the rest of the ensemble when you're going to the market or whatever. They are appropriate for casual outings, but they are not considered chic.

So you remember the scene in "Save the Last Dance" when the girl walks into the club and she's the only white girl and she's totally out of place. They had to take her to the bathroom and turn her shirt into a scarf... Well, I needed someone to do the opposite...That scarf needed to come off ! But in any case, the club had a stage and a huge open space which was full - from the beginning - of people dancing. There may have been chairs and tables somewhere, but I don't even know because I couldn't move there were so many people. They don't grind like in North America. Everyone stands in circles and they dance as a group. Although, the girls certainly have an amazing ability to shake their booties! But actually, there were more men dancing than women! I need to learn how to dance to mbalach (Senegalese pop) NOW because really, it's becoming a huge embarassment to be anywhere where dancing takes place and stand around like a white girl with no rhythm!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

House of Slaves

Two Saturdays ago, me and my journalist friend Cheikh and his roommate Alioune took the ferry to the island of Goree, just about 20 minutes from Dakar's port, considered a borough of the capital. It's a beautiful island where about 1,000 people now live. It has its own schools, police station, medical centre, etc. And many of the people there are artists - who paint and make statues to sell to foreigners who come to visit, or to take to other parts of Senegal to sell.

But the main attraction to Goree for many foreigners is the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - why? Because it was a main point of shipment for the slave trade, and still has a "House of Slaves" which now serves to document what took place on this island. It's a small home, where slaves used to live on the bottom dingy floor and the Europeans on the top floor. There were separate rooms for men, women and children - certain jobs in the fields and mines children could do well. Plus if your parents were strong, they assumed the children would be too, so they would take them early. Finally, young girls were often used for sex. And if a young girl got pregnant by a European, she would be set free, so often girls would have sex with them, in the hopes of getting pregnant to get out. There was also a room for the temporarily weak slaves - where they would be fed and fattened before being sent back with the others. If slaves got sick, they were thrown into the ocean. If they tried to escape, they were shot and thrown into the ocean, so sharks started getting attracted to the blood and the area became full of shark. I divert. Anywyas, the rooms are as you would imagine them - well you dont' have to imagine, look at the pic. Dark, dingy, 2.6 x. 2.6 metres, (with a narrow slit in the wall of about 2 inches by 2 feet) where about 15 grown men would live while waiting to be sent to America - chained to the wall, allowed out once a day to take care of their needs. When they ae allowed out, they are chained to a heavy ball so that they can't get away. Obviously, slaves were chosen for their strength, and the guide joked that that's why all the best basketball and sports figures in the States are black. They were traded for as little as a gun or tabacco... A child could be traded for a mirror.

This is the door through which they were loaded into the boats. Up to 15 million slaves left to America through this port alone. Six million of them are estimated to have died in the journey. If felt so real being here, on the exact soil that there were on, in the same rooms. All you can do is feel pity and disgust for humanity that we are capable of such things. Lots of the visitors are foreigners, but I would say the majoriy were Senegalese people who never want to forget what happened here. (FYI - Slavery continues to this day in West Africa. Here's an article I wrote recently about the situation in Mauritania: So that was pretty heavy and hard-hitting, but the rest of the island is beautiful. Here are some pics.