Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mine and Yours

The other day, I was walking home from a day out with Drew, my Canadian friend who is working for the UN's Youth Employment Strategy, when I passed a Boulangerie and thougt I'd treat myself to a cream-filled donut! (they're delicious). I bought it, walked out of the store, and was about to bite into it, when I saw a begging Talibe boy on the street. Embarassed, I put it back in the bag, and kept walking.

The fact that I didn't feel comfortable eating the donut in front of him made me think long and hard about why I was eating the donut in the first place. How can I refuse to give him 50 cents while I eat a completely unnecessary donut?

(the pic is unrelated, well sort of - it's a bunch of kids who swarmed me the night of Korite asking for money: it's tradition to give children money at Eid)

My friend Kalz, who lives at the house, joked with me once that I should buy him a boubou for Korité (Eid) because he had nothing nice to wear and had no money to buy anything. I laughed and didn’t take him seriously. But then went ahead and bought myself a new boubou, on top of the two I already had. Why should I buy myself new clothes when I’m surrounded by people who can’t have that for themselves?

I guess what I’m saying is that being here really makes you re-evaluate possessions. If you feel bad for having/eating certain things, they why have them/eat them? And if you have extra, why not spend it on others so that they can enjoy the same happiness you do. Enjoying the happiness by yourself (when you have to hide to eat the donut or you're the only one in a nice boubou) isn’t all that fun.

I mean, look at this picture. This is one of my best friends' house.

I don’t want you guys to think I’ve gone all communist (although I've never really been against communism), but we should be asking ourselves serious questions about the way we live.

We’ve gotten so used to completely satisfying ourselves in all aspects of our lives, but that’s not necessarily healthy. In Canada my mentality has always been – I’m in the mood for a chocolate bar, and I can afford it, so why not? But here, instead of thinking why not, I ask, why should I?

Which brings me to another point. Ramadan. I think Ramadan was so much harder than usual for me this year, because I actually noticed a change in my consumption. (Hence the weight loss you've all commented on. My arms are not actually that skinny - it's the camera playing tricks). Normally in Canada, we consume so much at night during Ramadan, that it really doesn’t feel like you're learning anything. You fast during the day only to gorge yourself at night. Here, our meals were so limited at nighttime, that I really felt the difference. I was tired, felt weak sometimes. But I got through it just fine. And that’s the point. We don’t need all that we consume in Canada. And I don’t want to be the preaching girl who went to Africa, but this time around, Ramadan actually made me question my habits. Normally, as soon as the month is over, you go back to everything you did before. So what’s the point? The goal of Ramadan is to make us think about what we have and appreciate it. I also think it should teach us to limit ourselves to what we need. Now, every time I eat till I’m full, I ask myself why? And when I eat chocolate or pop… why? If you can survive on so much less, and everyone around you has so much less, why are you gorging yourself? And what's so bad about feeling hungry anyway? Life here teaches you how much less you need. I rarely eat candy or chocolate. If I get cucumbers at dinner, I’m lucky. But does it make any difference to my life? No. I'm perfectly happy. Ok, my rant is over!

Sunday, October 21, 2007


So, Eid in Senegal… Well, for about 10 days beforehand, people started talking about the big party, la Korité - that’s what they call it here. “Are you getting ready?” people kept asking me. I said “What do I have to do to get ready?” The answer included a new hairdo and a new outfit. At first, I thought I wouldn’t bother, but the hype was too strong to resist. The fabric markets and hairdressers were jammed packed for a week beforehand as people tried to do their last minute preparations. The picture here is of Marché HLM, the biggest fabric market. You pick out fabric that you like and take it to a tailor to have it made. I did that the day before of course, and somehow still managed to get it on time. I think no tailor slept the day before Korité, except beside their sewing machine.

My dad arrived in Senegal for a visit the night before the party. I picked him up at the airport at about midnight Friday night. He came bearing gifts! A whole bunch of things I had requested from Canada – from Clean & Clear face wash to Extra gum – plus some gifts from my mom and from Egypt, where he stopped before here. My grandma sent me kahk! (Egyptian dessert).

In the morning, my dad wore the boubou and slippers I bought him and I wore a boubou as well and we headed to the mosque to pray with some of the folks from the family. They were surprised that as a woman I was going to the mosque, and when I got there and found only men, I thought I might have to cause a fuss in order to be able to pray with them! But eventually I found a section with some women and all was well. It was nice just to be outside, because everyone we passed on the street was dressed in a nice boubou, with a prayer mat in hand. After the prayer, strangers shook each others’ hands, the way we do in Canada.

Then we headed back home, where an extravagant breakfast was ready. On the roof, where I normally do my laundry, two professionals were killing a sheep. I went up there afterwards to find everything – the intestines, the poo that was inside the body, the horns – all over the bloody ground. We ate the lamb that afternoon. It tasted great. But when they brought out a soup made of the intestines, I just couldn’t touch it.

Most of the day, we spent eating and chatting with everyone. A lot of family friends had come by the house, and it was just a nice feeling of getting together. There were nice drinks too, like bissap and takh, made from the boiled leaves of fruit trees.

At night, most Senegalese visit their family members to ask forgiveness if they have wronged them in any way. In fact, the whole day, people you see shake your hand and say “Bal ma akh” – forgive me for my sins.

Late at night, I took my old man out dancing, Senegalese style. I bought these bright blue shoes to match my new outfit – I’d never be caught dead wearing these shoes in Canada, but here, it just seemed to work! – and we went to a ‘mbalakh’ concert (Senegalese pop). You should have seen Atouman trying to teach Dad to dance!

Anyways, it was a great ending to what had been quite a long and difficult month of Ramadan (harder than usual this year I think). It felt nice to be surrounded by people, to have a feeling of community and togetherness.

After the party, the city sort of shut down for a few days as people recovered from the strenuous preparation and extensive fete. Markets weren't up and running as usual, and the streets seemed a bit empty. But unusually, in a 95% Muslim country, they only get one day off for Eid and 10 for Christmas (the French made their constitution), so things were back to normal before long!

My first visitor

So, I had my first visitors!!! Celine and her boyfriend Danilo came from Spain, where they live, for a 3-day visit. (Celine and I went to highschool together and travelled to Spain together a few years ago). It was great having them here ... we went to the markets (that pic of me sitting on the ground is when I was resting while Danilo - the ultimate bargainer - was going at it), they spent time with the sheep on my roof, the Independence Monument near my house, Atouman's twin sisters in their matching boubous

As was necessary, of course, Celine dressed up in a boubou at night and we went to a religious ceremony (they were here during Ramadan) where people danced and chanted "La Illaha illa Allah" to the beats of drums.

We visited l'ile (island) de N'Gor, after almost a day-long ride (what would otherwise be 20 minutes) in a Ndiaga Ndiaye, the white mini-buses that stop for anyone that flags them down.

Celine picked up the "salamu alaikum" easily, and Danilo being a natural bargainer, they fit right in. The tricky part was the languages. Danilo is Brazilian, and thus speaks Portugese. But he and Celine speak together in Spanish (that's their common language). He speaks some English and no French. Celine speaks French, because her mother is Swiss, but I normally speak with her in English. I speak rudimentary Spanish, and no Portugese. And the languages in Senegal are French and Wolof. So, there were so many langugages mixed in my head - I would open my mouth to speak Spanish to Danilo and french would come out. I'd try to talk to the merchants in French, I'd get English instead. It got to the point where before talking, I would have to stop for two minutes and think - ok, who am I talking to, and what language are they expecting!

Anyways, it was a great few days... reminded me of our adventures in Spain. Thank you my love!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Toubab Diallio

I decided that I had become too reliant on other people to keep myself busy and interested, and that I was sick of the city, so a couple weekends ago, I took off - on my own for the first time - to a village about an hour and a half south of Dakar on "la petite cote." Toubab Diallio aka. Heaven in Senegal. To get there, I walked to the Colobane station (not really a station but a bunch of taxis on the side of the highway) and took a sept-place (station-wagon like car with 7 spots) most of the way. It dropped me off in the middle of the highway, at the intersection of the road that leads to the village. After close to three months in Dakar, being in the middle of nowhere was quite refreshing. I flagged down the first car that drove by and gave the driver the equivalent of 60 cents to take me the rest of the way.

Toubab Diallio is this beautiful quiet town along the water, mostly made up of fishermen and vendors who sell to the tourists. It's got narrow streets, lots of greenery and wonderful people! My plan was a get-away weekend where I would read, reflect, keep to myself.... but within 5 minutes of being there, I had plans for dinner and a handful of new friends.

That's what's so beautiful about Senegal. The people are just so social and ready to befriend you. I made friends with the women selling earrings and necklaces and did a little selling myself! I met a group of young girls on the beach who taught me to dance Senegalese style. And the first person I met on the island invited me to dinner with his friends!

Let me tell you about the dinner. I was at the beach playing soccer when some fishermen came in from their day's work. Villagers swarmed the boat, trying to get first crack at the fish. They scoop out the fish and bring them to the women on shore who buy them from the fisherman. The women clean them up a tiny bit, and then sell at the marketplace to the villagers. That night, I was one of those villagers. Moussa (a guy I met on the island) and I and some of his friends bought some fish and prepared a traditional meal from the Casamance, where Moussa is from (south of Senegal). The fish was cleaned and cut by hand, the rice was sorted by hand, the pepper ground by hand, everything fresh! It was amazing to see the fish come in and eat them the same night.

Friday, October 5, 2007

A different reality

At the house where I live, you know someone is sick when they don’t show up to eat for a few days. (I’ve explained before that the house is home to many people – extended members of the family, friends, etc – who don’t actually live here, but just come to eat). One week, Alioune Sow had not shown up for a few days, and le vieux (the father of the house) said he must be sick. Sure enough, when we finally saw him days later, it turned out he had had malaria.

For a disease that kills more children in Africa than AIDS, people treat it so casually! “Yah, I had malaria….” If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny. But it is so sad – because this same disease which is easily treated in a few days is one of the top killers in Africa because so many people don’t have access to the treatment, or aren’t even educated enough to know they need it (they think malaria can be healed through traditional means).

I've been sick the last couple days with a cold... let's hope it's not malaria! (joking Mom, joking)

I think also of the flooding in West Africa. This rainy season has been the most damaging in years, and flooding has affected close to 700,000 in the region (destroyed their homes, washed away their livestock, submerged their farms, etc). Close to 200 people have died in West Africa alone… imagine, DIED… from the walls of their home crumbling on them, or from drowning. In Canada we would never see rain as anything more than an inconvenience. Even here in Dakar, there has been heavy rain, but nothing like in other countries – but it easily could have been. Two years ago, Dakar saw horrible flooding. This year, it’s elsewhere, but it still hits pretty close to home. And people here just see it as a regular part of life. ‘Yup, there’s gonna be flooding. We might have to move to higher ground for a while, and then we’ll come back to our homes.’ (This touches on a whole other issue, which is that people in the region have not yet realized the seriousness of these floods, and have not begun taking preventative measures to deal with them). I have written so many flood stories for IRIN, it’s kinda become my beat. So I have a lot to say on the subject!

Anyways, all this to say that this continent lives a completely different reality.